The word echoed in the apartment. It came from Lilly, standing at the open front door. The wide foyer acted as a megaphone, the call rolling past the kitchenette on the left, through the living room, then faded faintly into the three bedrooms at the rear. Lilly waited until her word died completely before shutting the front door behind her, glancing at the half-filled bags of groceries just inside the entrance that sat slumped against the wall. Canned carrots, cartons of milk, a melon, some pasta in packages.
Usually her mama called back when Lilly got home from school and her sixth grade class.
Lilly pushed aside some food with her shoe-tip, sliding it up against the wall. Her mother was diabetic and obese and the larger she grew the less she moved. “Lilly,” she would say to her daughter. “Be a darling. Here’s a list. The money’s in my handbag.” Lilly would go shopping at the local stores and return with bags of groceries, which she left inside the front door. “That’s right,” her mother would encourage. “Just leave them there. Don’t tire yourself out. Such a good girl.” Lilly would then join her mother, who would be spread across a wide sofa in the living room. Her mama would list pains, imagining she was being comforting, “I can’t walk so much any more. My feet hurt. My knees. And it’s not good for my heart. It just knocks about inside my chest. Hurts me. Come here, cuddle. Make it better.” And they would watch the late afternoon television shows into the evening, until: “What shall we eat? What would you like? How about…go look, see what we have.”
Foraging like a cat in an alley, Lilly would kneel before the grocery bags in the hallway and pick things out and call into the living room. “Peas?”
“No!” her mother would shout.
“Eggs, tomato sauce, bacon, some green stuff —”
“The first thing…”
“Yes, that. And the eggs.”
And so their eating and living comfortably like this continued, Lilly getting chubby in mama imitation, sitting on the living room sofa, the uneaten food eventually spoiling in the hallway, the renewed shopping, the yelling out of partial potential diets, over the days and the weeks, for four years.
Coming home today, a day that seemed like any other, Lilly once more called out for her “Mama!” but more puzzled now. She bent to pick some food items to feel some objects in her hands, moving towards the living room with her offerings. Passing the kitchen, she glanced in the doorway, and came to a halt, a can in one hand, a bag of swaying pasta in the other. She stared at her unmoving mother spread in all her immensity across the kitchen linoleum. Lilly’s voice, much diminished, came out with the same question she now knew the answer to: “Mama…?”
Six days later, when they buried her mother, all sorts of relatives, mostly female, came to comfort her. They stood beside her and held her hand. Some had wet hands, some had dry hands, others had loose hands, the rest had tight hands. Aunts and second cousins and one ancient grandfather. Lilly kept her tearless eyes locked on the coffin at the front of the church while people went one by one to a pulpit at the front to say words about her mama. Another someone holding her hand spoke softly into her ear and Lilly stared straight ahead at the coffin where her mama was, not hearing this person who was not her mama.
“Maybe she’s in shock.”
“Having found her mother.”
“So one shouldn’t be surprised. Sweetheart?”
People hefted the coffin and bore it away, and Lilly followed, watching the coffin go into the sunlight, into a long car, and later, into the dark ground.
The female relatives gathered.
“Your mama died of heart failure, do you understand that?”
“The autopsy said, dear…”
“…and she was so getting so…large…so much so that…and add the diabetes, ate junk food like a…and now look at her daughter—”
“…she can hear, you know.”
A group of faces, many eyes, all attention, bent before her.
“Lilly, want some cake, a drink?”
Some other face looked into her face, and then zoomed up out of view. “This is awful. Like a little zombie.”
“Ruthie, watch your mouth.”
“Watch her not blink.”
“Who’s going to be her guardian? Not the father in Italy, he’s too— She’s just all alone. She’s just—”
“—ah-ha, she blinked!”
A different group of cousins, a collection of regular aunts, great aunts, and a bachelor uncle along with a fading great grandmother in her nineties, some curious relatives in their thirties and forties discussed Lilly’s next whereabouts.
“I can’t take her.”
“I could take her. But depends.”
“The stipend. The funds. Are we going to rent her nine properties? Will I get some share of the revenue while she’s staying at my house?”
Lilly’s father was a Lebanese who immigrated to Italy and ran a Middle Eastern themed restaurant in Milan. He had met Lilly’s mother while she was on holiday in Italy, and after a quick romance and a quicker marriage, followed by a quick child, Lilly’s mother became quickly exhausted and bored working in the restaurant fifteen hours a day and escaped back to Belgium, her homeland, taking Lilly. As Lilly’s mother explained to her, “He was not a bad man, he was a boring man. And I tried to live the life he wanted. But he just worked and worked. Because of his experience, being impoverished. He always told me about sleeping on the floor as a child. When I met him, I thought he was exotic. He just wanted to make good.” Lilly’s father remained in Milan, never considering giving up all he had worked for, dedicated only to prospering and never again sleeping on a floor. He telephoned the Belgian relatives to confirm he could not take her on at this time, have such a young child live with him; he spent eighteen hours a day at work. “It would not be fair. I cannot give her the attention she deserves. I can help with money, if someone could…”
The relatives asked Lilly, “Who do you want to stay with?”
Lilly had been listening to everything, saying nothing, thinking and remembering and not crying.
She spoke, “I want to stay with my mama.”
“That’s not possible.”
Following much family debate, some recriminations and gossip, various maneuvering and negotiating, a second cousin, divorced with a daughter of her own but with no obvious agenda, accepted Lilly as her ward.
Lilly’s new room was on the top floor of a four-story house underneath the slanting roof. There she recognized some of her things brought from her own home. Her bed. Her own mirror. She looked around, sat down, and waited.
Her new not-mama tried to talk to Lilly about finances and legal procedures without overburdening her.
“Do you want to rent your old apartment?”
“No. That’s my mama’s place.”
“Well, shall we just lock it up for a while?”
“Lock it up.”
While the not-mama tried, Lilly did not. She was taciturn, slow moving, overweight, disregarding. She looked at this strange new world around her, without familiar routine or roots or her real mama.
The not-mama said, “You’re not settling in. Is there anything we can do? That you want to do? Do you want to talk about your mother’s death?”
Lilly always looked down, away, any place but hear words about death.
“Okay. Not yet.” The not-mama sat back. “One day, you’ll come into property and bank accounts you can’t understand right now. But you’re going to have to do better at school than before. I’ve seen your grades, and you can do much better….” Still the child would not look up, uninterested in this new universe of words and concerns and confusing finances. “Okay, we’ll go at your own pace. I’m simply attempting to… No, just…. Just relax.”
After they all went shopping together, her not-sister said, “Want to put things away together?”
Lilly looked from the bags on the floor to the large refrigerator with its doors wide open, to the many shelves inside and observed the two family people put things away. She was handed a container of milk and walked slowly forward and placed it in the fridge door. She backed away.
“Can I go to my room now?”
Lilly spent much of her time in her room where she was habitually found staring into space.
She attended a local school with strangers in it with different accents.
“How was your day at school?”
“What did you learn?”
“I don’t know.”
Her grades during the first term were failing ones.
Things were explained to her: “In this house,” the not-mama explained, “there are certain rules. You really do have to wash yourself each day. You need to brush your teeth.”
Another week Lilly was told, “You have to wash your hair more than once a month.”
Unsettled in her new place of residence, she was told that rent from different residences and interest from investments were supporting her. She had to attend family meetings, she was told, she needed to attend, where people discussed her health and her well being. She listened for a bit, looking around, then putting her mind elsewhere.
“You shouldn’t stick yourself in your room all day. Come and stay downstairs with us. Become part of the family.”
Lilly looked out the downstairs window and stared. Her not-sister and her not-mother invited her to involve her in things:
“Let’s go bike riding.”
“Let’s go swimming.”
“How about a walk?”
Lilly remained absent, dutifully attending sessions with a school psychologist, talking very little, smiling and embarrassed at the type of questions and professional sympathy, which she did not understand.
In the spring, after months in her unfamiliar life, she came home from school and pretended to do homework to be ready in ten years to be an adult with too much money and not enough acumen. More and more, she remained downstairs, positioned near the wide windows looking onto the street. Sometimes cars passed, sometimes people passed, mostly time passed.
Her not-sister saw her staring intently, unmoving, much like a cat preparing to strike.
“What? Is there something?”
“There’s a woman.”
“Where?” She came beside Lilly to look out the window with her.
“The one with plastic bags. On the corner. Over there.”
“She was there yesterday, too.”
The not-sister nodded. “Oh, her. That’s the neighborhood’s homeless person. She showed up around springtime last year, too.”
The strange women with mismatching clothes and several different types of bags was the first thing Lilly saw when returning from the school where teachers told her not-mother the girl had attention deficiencies. Lilly took up her position at the front window, intently observing the homeless woman just standing there, hardly moving, except to get out of the way of people passing. It was as though the woman was at a bus stop that had gone out of service.
“What’s going on, Lilly?”
“It’s the homeless woman,” the not-sister answered for her.
“The homeless woman. Out there. With bags.” Lilly moved the curtain aside for the not-mama to drop her face next to hers and look. She breathed in her not-mama’s smell and focused on the woman on the street. “She looks lost, hungry.”
That weekend, after a three-day absence, the woman showed up again.
“There. She’s there!” Lilly had to stretch her neck and raise up on tiptoes on the sofa next to the window to see the woman standing on the far corner, immobile, bags collected at her feet, waiting for nothing. The woman looked like what Lilly felt.
The not-mama looked at Lilly, figuring.
Lilly looked up.
“Would you like to do something about the woman?”
The girl looked from her not-mama, then to her not-sister, and expressed her first desire in months. “I want to give her something.”
“That’s a nice idea from you….”
“And something to drink.”
They went into the kitchen and took neatly placed things from different shelves and made some sandwiches, and retrieved a two-liter bottle of mineral water from the basement. Lilly then selected some fruit from the bowl on the table. All of it went into a sturdy bag. Together, the two girls left the house and carried their package to the corner, but returned with everything.
“Okay. So what do we do?”
Lilly had to think for herself. “Find her.”
Lilly and her not-sister went outside and looked left and right along their street.
“Where do we start?” she asked.
The not-sister knew the area so led and Lilly followed. They searched the neighborhood, around corners and in doorways, peeking in windows of shops they sort of knew the homeless woman wouldn’t be in but they had to check anyway just in case.
“We haven’t checked everywhere.”
“Maybe,” the not-sister said, “she’ll come back another day.”
Lilly shook her head. “No. We haven’t looked everywhere yet.”
They finally found the woman with her dirty bundles sitting quietly on a bench on a side street near a bus stop getting some sun that peeped between the leaves of the tree overhanging a small square behind her. They approached with the bag.
Up close, she was unwashed; her hair was dirty; her mouth caved in a bit, as though teeth were missing. Her eyes were closed as though she was enjoying the warmth of the sun.
They made their arms straight, offering the package of goods.
“Are you hungry?”
The woman’s head swiveled round, eyes opening dully, the whole heavy mass of this slow effort coming to rest on her shoulder.
Lilly and the not-sister stretched out their bag of goodies further while taking a small step back. The lady looked closely at one, then the other, then the bag.
“Please. We made this for you. You can have it.”
The woman reached out, took the bag carefully, peeked gravely into the opening. Her hand went inside and moved objects; her head went closer in, taking stock. Then she looked back up, at one girl, then the other. A smile with three teeth came to the face, the wrinkles like trenches where the dirt was gathered.
And said, “Bless you.”
“How did it go?” the mother asked.
Lilly, thinking a little less of her dead mama, her papa far away, looked up and smiled. “It was good. Felt good.”
She laid on the cushions of the sofa under the window, gazed up between the houses opposite, feeling the same sun that the homeless woman was enjoying, and made her own face comfortable there in her own sunlight on that one corner of the sofa, starting to settle into her new home.
Vincent Eaton is a writer, publisher, video maker and voice artist. His novel Self Portrait of Someone Else was published by Viking Penguine and re-issued by www.hidden-people.net. Born in California, he resides in Europe. His website is wwwvincenteaton.com
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