We peel the couch away from the wall to reveal roaches navigating an obstacle course of crayon shards, papers, and Flamin’ Hot Cheeto bags. I make a towering pile of all of the cushions while Baw Baw picks up the various articles formerly stowed under the couch. The brush head slides easily onto the end of the hose to the new yellow vacuum provided by the caseworker, and I begin sucking whatever might be living in the slightly damp couch cushions to its demise in a gray storm of dust in the belly of the vacuum.
We turn over the plush green lounge chair and my breath ceases, the muscles in my stomach and neck clench, as cockroaches erupt from the fabric flaps at the base. My face contorts and I return to the kitchen for a gulp of wine before channeling my rage and disgust into the delightful task of sucking roaches out of every crevasse in the chair with the vacuum hose.
Wonderful and the children arrive home from school and look at the apartment in shock. The balcony is piled high with black plastic trash bags, containing everything soft thing in the house: clothes, towels, cushions, hats, any place a louse might think to hide for its twenty four hour life span without the blood of a human scalp to quench its thirst.
“Do you want to help?” I call to them.
“Yes!” they say with excitement, not knowing the purpose of this sudden rearrangement of their home.
Wonderful vacuums the cushions and Baw Baw puts them inside of the trash bags. I recruit Blay Blay and Hae Tha Blay to begin disassembling the trash mountain on the front porch. The Chin woman who lives downstairs is out in her garden and seeing all of the trash bags, calls up to Baw Baw in Burmese to ask if they are moving. The air in the apartment is thick with the insurmountable task before us, my unspoken frustrations with the unsanitary living habits in the apartment for the last three months to a head, and releasing the ugly puss of uncomfortable silence. The vacuum whines coming with its unrelenting drone, occasionally interrupted as someone trips over the cord, dislodging the plug from the wall.
I help Blay Blay and Hae Tha Blay deposit their bags in the dumpster. Before returning for another trip, we walk over in front of Lay Moo’s house, where a chair is set up in the parking lot and Holly is lathering Sher Bly Nay Soe’s hair with delousing shampoo then picking through it for nits with a fine-toothed metal comb. “Send Hae Tha Blay next,” she says.
It all started with a question. “I saw Baw Baw picking through Hae Tha Blay’s hair, do you know if she has lice?” asked Erin two days earlier.
I shrugged my shoulders, “I don’t know,” I told her. The thought had never crossed my mind.
“Because she was lying in my bed the other day and if she has lice they spread quickly. There is a way to get rid of them, but we have to do a lot of cleaning. I had them before and it took forever to get rid of them because my hair is so thick. I cannot get them again! So if you could please ask Baw Baw…”
“Yes, I will.”
This louse commotion is quite humiliating for Baw Baw and Aye Be Wah. Baw Baw, with her long flowing hair stretching down to her ankles, tells me how she had terrible lice in 2001 when she was fleeing from the Burmese army, sleeping in the grass along the Thai-Burma border. And now ten years later, some Americans will not come over for dinner at her home because her daughter has lice. Aye Be Wah and Baw Baw are quite offended by all of this, and perhaps largely because of my poor translation. The phrase “scared to be in your house” is not quite what Holly and Erin, who moved in with Lay Moo and Aye Be Wah only a couple of weeks ago, want to convey. The day before the big cleaning, Baw Baw and Aye Be Wah cried even after everything was clearly translated to them on the phone by a friend. They seemed to feel as though they are the lepers, unclean for their white housemates. While I understood the importance of this thorough cleaning to eliminate the problem, it somehow felt as though we are obliterating something more than lice. My cynicism towards the project quickly waned when Baw Baw discovered a single louse in my hair the morning of the cleaning.
As the sun begins to sink behind the trees, the shampoo project moves inside of Lay Moo’s apartment where Baw Baw and I, exhausted from cleaning all day, are the final two to be treated and picked through for nits. Holly is on hour ten of picking through hair. I return to my apartment to find Lay Moo sitting on the bottom step, squinty eyed and smoking a cigarette. He did not sleep all day and now is waiting for a van to take him to his night shift at the chicken plant. I walk up the stairs and find the kids excitedly playing in the mound of plastic bags in the living room, leaping onto them like piles of autumn leaves. They recline their wiry little bodies between the soft black blobs as Thai music videos blare on the TV screen.
Several days later Baw Baw comes into my room while I am typing a cover letter.
“The family visit us, the older daughter has many thoo!” she tells me in a hushed voice, “I want them to go. I tell Wonderful, Hae Tha Blay, Blay Blay to play in the bedroom. Stay away.” When they are barely down the stairs she pulls out one of the black trash bags again, and tells me, “This chair—we need to put in the bag.”
I proceed to bag the cushions to the chair where the poor louse infested girl was sitting, while Baw Baw retrieves the vacuum from the closet and cleans the chair and the carpet around it, eagerly sliding the vacuum under legs and shooing the children out of the way with renewed confidence.