Volunteering at the nursing home was the boy’s mother’s idea. She said over dinner one night that spending his afternoons in the arcade did not an impressive, productive young man make. Also, that all he ever did was take, take, take.
Then she added that he’d look cute in a pink and white striped vest.
He said no way was he wearing a pink and white striped vest, but his father, mouth full of meat, said, if you’re mother says you’re doing it, you’re doing it.
So now here he is, doing it, only it turns out the confectionary vest is not so much a vest as a tunic. And here is not a white-walled room containing beds on wheels, but a beauty parlor painted the pale, creamy orange of candied sweet potatoes. Old ladies sit in puke green chairs lined against a wall, magazines in their laps. They turn their big, wrinkled faces toward him like flowers to the sun.
He imagined plastic cups in need of ice cubes, wheelchairs in need of pushing. He pictured old people, too, their limbs as delicate as molting insects, but he did not suppose he’d lay a finger to a body. He figured there were rules against that. He’s fourteen. He has no training, no degree. His parents barely trust him with the stove.
The old ladies along the wall don’t look quite as fragile as he imagined, but there’s something shrunken about them, even the fat ones. Their skin is limp, like bath towels hanging from doorknobs. He imagines that if he were to shake them, their bones would rattle like nutmeat gone withered and dry inside its shell.
The woman with the gold name tag that reads Patricia says, “You’re going to be a real treat!” She says this like she’s mocking him maybe, like she’s talking to cake, which is something the boy’s mother does sometimes, especially when she’s had some wine. She says to the food on her plate, Oh, you look tasty! Or she says, Ugh, you look saggy as shit.
Patricia asks if he has any experience with hair. She looks tired, he thinks, like his parents most nights. Shoulders slumped, arguing over who had the harder day.
“Experience?” he says, putting his hand to his head.
She leads him to where an old lady sits before a mirror. The old lady’s eyelashes flutter, and he thinks that if he were to blow, those lashes would scatter like dandelion seeds.
On the counter in front of the mirror is a tall glass jar and inside the jar is a single fish. The fish’s feathery yellow plumage makes him think of a bug splat on a windshield.
The old lady taps the jar with a gnarled finger. The fish flutters, and Patricia frowns. She looks like she wants to say something, but she doesn’t. Instead, she shows him how to counterbalance the tug of a roller by gently pressing two fingers where thin, wispy roots emerge from scalp. Patricia’s nails are miniature paintings: gray faces of kittens with pink on their noses, pink on the insides of their ears. When she unpins a pink roller, her hands are a litter of kittens unspooling a ball of yarn big enough to crush them. She drops the rollers into a metal bowl that pings like a pinball machine when struck.
All the while, the old lady continues to tap, tap, tap at the jar. She says, “Here, fishy, fishy.”
Patricia exhales loudly. She says to him, “Your turn.”
When Patricia steps aside, the old lady sucks her arm back into her body. The motion is quick, like a slap bracelet curling. Patricia moves quickly too, sliding the jar with the fish out of the old lady’s reach.
In the mirror, he sees the old lady’s eyes close, which is weird, he thinks, but also, a relief. One less pair of eyes on him, and, to boot, the eyes of the person whose scalp he’s supposed to touch.
The rollers are lined in fuzzy hooks that cling, and he imagines what could go wrong. A single, translucent hair, invisible as a strand of web, caught in a roller and inadvertently yanked from the old lady’s head.
The fish’s feathery fins flutter, and the boy’s heart does the same, as though his heart and the fish are signing to each other.
When he finally places his fingers against her scalp, what first surprises him is the stoniness of the old lady’s skull. Then, how still she becomes. A rabbit, he thinks. No, predator.
In the mirror, her eyes cinch tight.
He looks to Patricia, but she isn’t paying him any attention. She sprinkles flakes of food onto the water in the jar.
He looks to the fish, but the fish darts this way and that, gobbling up everything in its path.
Through his fingertips he feels how the old lady focuses against his touch, like the spidery legs of a metal claw tightening around a prize plush.
Michelle Ross is the author of three story collections: There's So Much They Haven't Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award; Shapeshifting, winner of the 2020 Stillhouse Press Short Fiction Award (2021); and They Kept Running, winner of the 2021 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction (2022). Her work is included in Best Small Fictions 2021; Best Microfiction 2020, 2021, and 2023; the Wigleaf Top 50 2019 and 2022, and the Norton anthology, Flash Fiction America. It received special mention in the 2023 Pushcart Prize anthology. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review.