Robin drops Elle off by 5:00 in the afternoon, which leaves a couple of hours to do homework and read until Lang comes home. When she’s in her room, she turns on the television.
Sometimes she sits in a rocker on the front porch watching the bugs get electrocuted and the cars drive by. There are several kids who seem to live in the neighborhood. One girl—tall and slim, with perfect cornrows and pointed cheekbones—even looks Elle’s age but they’ve never said hello. On weekends, kids move in packs down the sidewalk toward the park. They sometimes steal sideways looks at her sitting on the porch with a book in front of her face. The book serves dual purpose—to hide her eyes while she watches them and as an invitation to conversation. One of those kids might say Hello, what is that you’re reading? Or Pardon me, but that looks like a good book you’ve got there, but they never do. No one ever says a word. On weekday mornings she used to spy them from her bedroom window as they waited for the streetcar or the schoolbus in their white collared shirts, plaid tartan skirts, pants with razor-edge pleats, with their hair brushed and styled by careful hands. Then school let out for summer vacation so now she lies in bed looking out at the oak trees festooned with glittering Mardi Gras beads, looking like Christmas in July, listening to the television.
No one has brushed Elle’s hair for awhile. She cut it short so they wouldn’t have to bother. One day Elle took herself to a salon. The hairdresser was a pretty woman with purple eyelids and violet lips who didn’t believe her when she said she wanted it all cut off.
“That is just too short, sweetie. A girl looks nice with long hair. You don’t want to look like a boy, do you? What would your boyfriend think?”
Elle said, “I’d rather spend my time on more important things than hair.”
“Oh really? Well, I’m going to have to ask your mother if it’s okay. I wouldn’t want to be held accountable for any fashion faux pas.”
“Which mother do you want to ask? One’s out for a walk and the other’s at work.” Elle pulled out her cellphone. “Should I call both or is one good enough?”
The woman’s violet smile didn’t budge. “Where are you from, sweetie? You don’t sound like you’re from around here.”
“Oh, well I guess that will be alright, then. Short hair is fine for California. Let me go get you a smock.”
But Eleanor doesn’t look like a boy unless she wants to, like if she wore loose clothes and a baseball cap which she might do if she feels like going incognito, but she might look like a boy if the opportunity demands, say if a group of boys were to walk by on their way to go swimming or shoot hoops or something she might join them if she felt like it. Well, maybe not swimming, because she’d have to wear trunks.
But with her sparkly scull-and-crossbone barrettes or the ones with green pom-poms she looks like a Japanese manga character, very cute and approachable and there’s no need to argue about who has time to brush her hair. Elle thinks she looks like Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird, which is even better than the movie. She supposes every kid in the neighborhood has probably read the book or seen the movie. At least they should. Robin loaned her his own copy. It has his name on the frontpiece: This book belongs to Robin Brown, in a boyish-looking script. She wonders what he was like when he was her age. She holds the book up over her face when the kids walk by on their way to the streetcar or the park or the basketball court. She rocks back and forth in the rocking chair, willing them to look.