Thomas Monty died the summer before the Bitar’s moved in on Cranberry Lane. Leviton, Ohio was still in an uproar, waves of anger still battering the town. All the white neighbors watched as the Bitar’s moving truck came, carrying beautiful, antique furniture and a family with brown skin and odd names no one in the neighborhood tried to pronounce correctly. After a few weeks it was known that the Bitar’s were a secluded kind. They stayed within their yard in the weeks following Thomas Monty’s death, knowing people attack those like them in times of stress.
Manny Thompson watched as Aaliyah Bitar, the family’s matriarch, walked each day at noon to the mailbox, retrieved its contents and walked back into her house. Her head was covered, always, with a thick scarf, usually in a wide array of colors. He made a game of it, that if he predicted which of the many colored scarfs she would wear on any given day, he would reward himself with something trivial, like a cookie or a juice pouch. Some days she wore a white cover; sometimes Aaliyah wore black, red or blue. One day, she wore the same wrap as the day previous, which annoyed Manny.
“She must not have any hair,” said his sister, Rachel.
“Maybe not…” he muttered.
He took to following her. His time, free in the summer, allowed him to do so. Aaliyah Bitar became a fascinating subject to his boyish curiosity, and with the town in shambles over the death of Monty and the trial of Officer Morning, Manny found ample space to exercise his childish will.
One day, he saw Aaliyah in a new head wrap, a cherry red. She was pushing a stroller down the street, in the twilight, when all the other neighbors had gone into their homes to watch the news or to catch an early bedtime.
Manny had watched her while standing in his own front yard, as he played with his neighbor-friends. He noticed no strands of hair peeked out from the rim of her head wrapping, just the red rim of the scarf, a scarlet halo. “She has a secret,” his friends said. “She’s gotta be bald, what do you think her head looks like?”
“I bet it’s covered in spots, like a giraffe, or something,” said his fat friend Jesse, as he tucked his shirt back into his pants and wiped his nose on his bare forearm. The boys here had no trouble dissecting Aaliyah, and Manny enjoyed their probing.
“Bet she never has to get a haircut,” says Byron, a big-headed boy, his hair shaved down to fine, prickly points.
“Maybe that thing is her hair,” said Manny.
When the Bitar’s moved to Cranberry Lane, the neighbors pitched a silent fit. Whispers turned into blatant and hurtful rumors, pandering to the lowest common denominator. “What if they bomb the school,” said one teenager to another as they passed the Bitar’s neat blue house, its green lawn kept and preened with precision, the white fence stretched all along the perimeter. Manny noticed what worried people did not align with the reality, and while he followed Aaliyah, he saw that nothing she did warranted criticism.
Manny sat up at night sometimes, thinking about Aaliyah Bitar, and about Thomas Monty. Thomas used to play basketball with Manny and his friends down at Tiger Park in the spring; he remembered how alive Thomas was. Now, he wasn’t. He was shot dead for stealing a pack of donuts. The A&P where it all happened shut down after that. Officer Morning sits in jail. Now, it seems that Aaliyah and her clan took his place as centerpiece to the town’s hysteria.
One late August afternoon, Manny rode his bicycle past the Bitar’s house, just as Aaliyah was walking towards the mailbox. Manny paused, admiring her purple wrap, fearing her strangely soft brown eyes as they connected with his; she smiled. He rode away.
A few weeks later, his father warned him; “I don’t want you near those Arab’s house anymore, Manny. No reason for you to be over there.” His father was eating a bucket of chicken as he spoke, wiping the grease of a drumstick on his pant leg with no concern. Manny nodded, halfheartedly.
The adults were exercising their will again, school was beginning soon and Manny felt suffocated by their enclosing authority. The town was beginning to relax, the remembrance of Thomas was dwindling, protesters were moving on to different cities with different problems and Manny was staying put, simply watching this mysterious woman walk to and from her front door, without ever knowing what lies beneath the surface of her tidy and beautiful facade.
School had begun, and Manny saw one of the Biatr’s older children shuffling down the hall, dodging wadded paper balls and snickering from passing students. Manny said nothing to the boy, but wanted to berate him. “Why are you here?” “Are you from Iraq?” “Don’t go thinking about bombing anything!” The thoughts sat heavy on his tongue. All of these statements and questions were simply regurgitation of adult comments he had heard this summer. Somehow, they did not seem relevant, looking at this boy as he collected his books and scurried, hunched and frightened, away from them all. Manny said nothing to him.
Another family moved to town, the Ali family. They had nothing to do with the Bitar’s, and even went as far as to home-school their children. Yet, the town was uneasy, desperately trying to cling to some form of drama to rally behind, fearing a vacuum of relative stability and peace.
More and more did the townspeople begin to stare at the Bitar’s, but Aaliyah and her husband had remained proud, still venturing out into the world, knowing well that there was nothing they should fear. Manny admired this quality, though he was taught to despise that which was unbreakable in them.
The town caught wind of their eventual move; the Bitar’s were relocating, and Manny felt a vacuum now in him, as though a piece of his life were being ripped away. Manny felt anger that they dare move away, and guilt at the belief that they owed him anything other than glances from their doorway. Suddenly the Bitar’s became to him as they were this entire time: a family of strangers. Manny grew sad, and went to bed early that night.
Manny watches as the movers come, as they did months earlier, this time taking away the Bitar family. The white men load their white truck with antique furniture, ready to take off to some new city, away from him. Manny went by the house once more, to bid a silent farewell to Aaliyah, a woman he had never officially met. She stands at the gate to their walkway, collecting the mail one final time. As he hides behind the opposite side of the moving truck, he watches the woman sift through the white envelopes and small fliers. He notices lines on her face he has never seen before, like river-cut canyons over her skin. Her lips move, silently reading the headlines, quivering up and down.
Suddenly, from behind her, a white, elongated arm reaches over the top of Aaliyah’s head, stretching its fingers and grabbing at her wine-purple wrap, pulling it from her head. Grey hair cascades from the top of her scalp, falling down over her shoulders. Her mouth cracks open, but no sound comes out of it.Manny watches as her hair, shiny and full, falls in a wavy sheet, long like he would never have imagined. For a moment, her hair is the most beautiful thing in the world. Then, fear and shame strikes him, as if he’s gazed upon something sacred, never to be seen except to those worthy enough of the honor. He is not worthy.
The Bitar family left that evening, Aailyah finally in shambles. Leviton got what it desired, and left a gaping cut in its own side, to heal with another scapegoat, another person to place its anger onto.