I asked my sister if it hurt.
Even though she was eight years older than me, she knew I would understand. I wasn't too young to not understand.
So, I asked Janet if it hurt when they cut all her hair off. Sixteen straight, black, shiny inches.
On a December Friday, she told me it never hurts to donate your hair to people who need it more than you. If you can make someone smile, then it never hurts, no matter what anyone says.
"It never hurts to help," covering one ear, whispering in the other, hiding under the bed. Only because Mom and Dad were louder than God. Sometimes.
Two weeks later, I asked Mom if it hurt.
"Did it hurt when Janet stopped breathing?" Breathing never really hurt me, but I had no idea about the rest. "I mean, Janet told me God wouldn't let it hurt, but I suspect you know more about Him than she does."
"No, baby," I always knew Mom was lying when she had to pause, pointer finger in her hair, always scratching the same spot. "It doesn't hurt."
She knew I would understand. Even if I was still her baby boy, I always understood what she wanted me to. I asked if Janet wouldn't mind if I cut off my hair to help someone else, since donating it would make everything not hurt.
She scratched sleep out of her eye, "No, baby, she wouldn't mind how you helped anyone else."
When I walked into Mom's room a few weeks later with a hand full of curly brown hair, she was sitting on a tattered stack of phone books, sewing a shemagh. I sat on the edge of the bed, on her torn up blanket. The worn out threads and burn marks special to me, knowing that it meant her and Dad spent most nights together, during the few weeks he was even home. Here in the States that is.
She just looked at me and cried, "Baby, I swear it doesn't hurt." Her tears splashed up on the brown table top. It didn't matter too much though, it seemed to match the brown, spotty walls and ceiling Mom never bothered to clean.
Mom always had white, styrofoam cups when she was sewing. She always told me her special juice tasted better that way. When she was sewing that is.
She looked at the brown thread, pretending to examine her stitches, "My little baby boy knows how to make a mother's heart warm is all."
"You promise?" I knew Mom was telling the truth when she didn't look at me. I knew she couldn't really lie when she was drinking her whiskey. When she was drinking her Tennessee special, in those words exactly.
She just looked at that weird scarf and then asked if I thought Dad would like this. Sure, I nodded. Dad would like it.
I asked Mom if she thought maybe I could donate my hair, since Janet said that made everything better. It made people not hurt too much if you help them out.
"Do you think we could give it to that same doctor, the one who helped Janet all the time?" I could feel all the little curls making my fingertips fast-food slippery. I liked seeing all the crooked-hanging pictures Mom kept on the wall. I could never tell which ones had glass in them still, most didn't.
I had seen the pictures Dad sent back to Mom. She sometimes showed me and Janet pictures Dad sent from wherever he happened to be that week, or that month. Mom would make up stories about all those little boys and girls. Kids with no hair, burnt to shit, in those words exactly.
Dad was over there, with a pistol strapped around his leg, holding a little girl about eight years younger than me, she wasn't smiling. Dad was. But she wasn't, but I think it was only because she didn't have any lips.
I told Mom that the doctor could send that little girl my hair, "Because if I donate her my hair it would make her happy."
The girl with no lips that is.
Before all that, before Janet cut her hair, before Mom sipped whiskey through a straw, before Dad came home for two weeks, I had to bury Floyd all by myself.
Out in the woods, behind the house, I had to dig Floyd a little grave and put him down there, all alone. Not even a square foot total, but Floyd deserved something.
Mom and Dad always said that I had to show them I was reliable enough to get a pup. So they said I had to start out small, learn responsibility in step. I could take care of Floyd while the Bear's were on summer vacation.
They told me there were rules to taking care of him. Mom and Dad said I had to keep fresh water in his cage and feed him every day. As long as red and green feathers didn't cover my whole room, I could take care of handsome little Floyd.
Sometimes he would sing to me at night, after the lightning bugs were out and the crickets stopped chirping. Late at night, he would tell me about God. Stories and songs about Him.
Every night I fed Floyd, changed his paper, gave him millet seed, and listened to his God-stories. "Floyd, you're my ticket, you know. Don't worry, I love you. But when you go back home, Mom and Dad said I get a puppy."
Sometimes, I would even let him peck seeds out of my mouth, like we were family. Like he needed me to love him.
Some nights he would fly around the whole house, with me chasing the sound of some old Sunday school song. I knew Floyd was only playing a game with me, giving me something to do when it was just us two home.
When Mom and Dad were home, I needed to keep Floyd in my room. But sometimes it was easy to forget to close my door a little harder than normal, to get it to click in place. All the way. Sometimes it was hard to keep the door clicked though, there were only two hinges when there should have been a third at the top.
"Son, it just gives your door more character," Dad would say when I told him I thought I should start fixing up my room, door included. Sometimes, I got enough courage to talk to him, or even ask a question. Sometimes.
He didn't know me and Floyd were hiding under my bed when Dad slammed Mom into the door. For being a goddamn, self-righteous whore, in those words exactly.
Janet always told me about helping people, different ways to do good. Janet always told me that there were no riches on this earth, but in heaven. She always told me God would reward those who helped others. That He would protect His children and keep them safe. She said God always loved people who helped other people.
"Baby brother," she would always try to comb the curls out of my hair, never pulling any knots too hard, "don't worry about too much, just try to remember that there's no reason to ever be scared, to forget everything I've ever told you. "
I always nodded in agreement. I knew she was right.
"Just the same way you keep Floyd handsome, like you're his Daddy. Don't forget Mom and Daddy might need you that way too. To be like Daddy, you know, but here at home. Not gone all the time."
Sometimes, even when I didn't know what Janet was saying, I still liked to nod in agreement. So she would know I was listening.
When Dad walked in on the Friday nights he was home, he always brought us presents. He would even bring Floyd something every once and a while. Even though Janet was eight years older than me, and Floyd was eight years younger than me, Dad didn't know I knew it was only a bribe.
He didn't know I knew about his alcohol. He would bribe us to not notice. Well, he would try, that is.
Floyd was always polite about everything. He always squawked a "Thank you!" when I brought him Dad's special seeds from whatever place he visited that week.
Dad always came home with an empty holster strapped to his leg, telling me, "There's no reason to bring work home, son. No reason at all."
I always knew Dad was lying, his bribes giving it away. Dad was just scared of mixing alcohol with a gun. Around us, that is.
Some nights, me and Floyd liked to hide in the hallway closet, behind another door with only two hinges, on nights when Mom thought we were sleeping over at a friend's house. I would try to catch little ants and cockroaches as treats for Floyd. There was usually a good supply at any given time. Floyd never made a single noise when we were hunting.
When Dad thought me and Janet were gone, he would bring home work with him. Sometimes I could hear Mom stop moving, breathing quickly and coughing. She tried to tell me it was just a choking game her and Dad played.
They didn't know I knew it was really just his pistol slammed down her throat.
When the end of May came around, a Friday night, Floyd kept talking and talking and talking, telling me more God-stories. I could hear Janet practicing her violin when Mom came home a little late from her friend's house.
She didn't know I knew what pot smelled like, what gray condom wrappers in her purse looked like. She didn't know that Dad had told me about his special surgery. A vasectomy, in those words exactly.
She knew Dad never knew what time she got home or about all the men from church that would have just Mom over for Bible studies. Didn't know since he was somewhere on the other side of the world, with a pistol strapped to his leg, taking care of someone else's family. Farmers and growers, sheep and pot, and Dad to help take care of them, helping out with one thing or another.
He always liked to tell me and Janet about who he was helping, calling from something he called a sat phone. Dad told us every time, "I feel bad for all these helpless people, all these people who need protecting. All these little kids, same as you, but with no parents. No one to take care of them like we do for you."
Dad had always told me and Janet to take care and protect those who weren't as lucky as us. To make sure we tried to keep other people safe.
He always ended the static conversations saying, "Kiss your Mom son, and keep everything together."
And then a soft click and a repetitive beeping, always ending the call first. But never with an "I love you too."
It wasn't any different than any other July Friday night, but it was the Friday night that I remember the most.
Some guy named Bill called while Janet was playing her violin. Mom yelled at Janet, telling her to shut the fuck up, in those words exactly.
Me and Floyd just kept practicing catching seeds in the air, sunflowers and millet.
"Goddamn, I wish I had never bought that stupid fucking violin!" her right hand throwing a small bottle of eye drops at Janet's door. The drops were more out of habit than anything else.
Mom always yelled after a couple days without pot. No matter how dark it got, I knew to get out of the house and look for crickets in the woods. Or dig through the kudzu that covered some old car from before Mom and Dad had even met. No matter what, it was a cue to leave.
Mom knew I didn't know who Bill was or why he had called. I knew she thought some guy was calling to invite her to a new Bible study.
Mom would either forget people's names or mix them up. Sometimes telling us white-coat doctor Bill was Bible study Bill, when one or the other called. Me and Janet would just nod in agreement, pretending to understand.
The Bill who called was the doctor we had visited a couple weeks ago. Mom had told us on the way down there, "This is just your annual check-up with the VA. It's just the same routine bullshit, so please behave so we can get in and out."
She had been chain smoking cigarettes the whole time, quietly sipping black coffee and throwing a different cotton brown butt out every five minutes. She flicked her wrist and told us, "They are useless, just a bigger pain in the ass than it's worth. They never get anything done that's worth a damn."
After Bill called, I noticed Mom had become a lot nicer towards Janet. She always apologized to her, and me, for everything. All the time. But more towards Janet than me.
Dad was somewhere else, with that pistol strapped to his leg, helping other people, and we were always going to the hospital every couple of weeks. Janet only cried once though. Even if she was the reason we were there all the time.
I didn't mind too much, the nurses always gave me candy, "You're such a handsome little boy. So strong, I don't think I've ever even heard you cry. Or complain." They always told me they liked my curly hair.
After we would get home from another doctor's visit, Janet would always sit me down in her room, covered in pink hearts and posters of people I had never heard of, she would tell me, "It's so the doctors can study my hair, you know, so other people can grow hair like mine, black and shiny."
"I think you can help people if you want," tossing her pink bouncy ball up and down in my hand. "You can grow up and be like all those doctors at the hospital." She tried to wipe away a loose tear she thought I didn't notice.
Janet knew I couldn't read the green words in front of the hospital yet. Mom and her never said Cancer Treatment Centers of America out loud.
December finally came, Mom and Janet had gone to the hospital again and left me home take care of the house. I found Floyd in his cage, no songs, and no God-stories. Floyd was lying at the bottom, beak first in his water bowl, coffin stiff. There was a little piece of plastic stuck between his beak.
One of the feed bags Dad had brought home a long time ago with pictures of mosques, he said was written in Arabic, was lying next to Floyd's cage. A dollar bill torn out of the corner.
Janet always told me about the sparrows in the Bible, told me the God-story about how He knows when even one little sparrow dies.
I sang Amazing Grace for Floyd on that December Friday night. I told him one last God-story before I covered him up.
I knew Mom didn't know.
I guess with Janet cutting off all her hair, and Mom smoking all that pot, and Dad helping all those kids, with a pistol strapped to his leg, I guess no one else knew I wasn't quite ready for that puppy yet.
After I got done burying Floyd, covering him up, and marking his grave, I went home. Janet was sitting on the couch, watching TV, some man in a coat and tie asking for God's money. Mom was eating orange puffs from a five gallon jar, spaced-out and baked, making pointer-finger swirls on Janet's dull, bald head. Where black, shinny, flat hair should have been.
Mom looked at me and said Dad would be on emergency leave soon and be home in the next couple of days. I just nodded, I didn't really know why.
Janet was happy, holding that black leather book full of God-stories in her lap, watching that man in a pin stripe jacket asking for money in exchange for a miracle, not in those words exactly. I counted, in my head, all the fives I had saved under my bed, starring at her bald, dull head.
Mom was too baked to notice that Floyd wasn't with me to make any noise. I looked at happy-Janet, eight years older than me, and asked, "Did it hurt? When they cut off all your hair?"
BIO: Joseph Lambach is married and the father of two. Besides his family, his biggest passion is reading and writing. He works a regular day job fixing avionic equipment on helicopters, and then writing at night whatever he can get out of his head and onto paper. He currently lives in Southern California and working on his first novel.