Portrait: An Odyssey Concludes
Highlands TodayGemma knocked on my door at nine the next morning. I barely recognized her. Her hair was shiny clean and curled softly around her face. She wore only a little makeup and a modest black dress with a white lace collar. Lisa stood beside her in a pretty pink dress, white socks, and black patent leather Mary-Janes that looked brand new. Her hair was combed and pinned back with pink bows, revealing two small hearing aids.
Published: May 15, 2008
Published: May 15, 2008
"We have to look our best," Gemma announced, "so the lawyer will know I'm a good mother. My ex wants to take Lisa and send her to live with his mother, the old cow, on some farm in Virginia." She squeezed Lisa's hand. "He's bloody well not gonna get her."
All the way to the base, Gemma kept up a steady stream of chatter. "My ex will be there, ya know. We ain't seen him in three months." She winked at me. "That was the last time he came sniffin' around.
O' course, like a fool, I let him in. Even slept with the bastard, and now I think I'm preggers again."
I glanced at Lisa, sitting between us in the front seat, but she was totally absorbed, pushing buttons on the car radio.
"If I'm knocked up," Gemma sneered, "the joke's on 'im, 'cause 'e'll be payin' support for two brats. And I'm still goin' back to London just as soon as the divorce is final."
I wondered how she could know it was his baby, when I'd seen a parade of men leaving her apartment in the early morning hours over the last few weeks.
At the base legal office, Gemma flirted shamelessly with the corporal who ushered her into the lawyer's office. Lisa waited with me. After half an hour, Gemma reappeared at the door and said in a voice like rustling silk, "Mona Lisa, pet. Come in here with Mama now." Lisa ignored her, as usual.
"Lisa," Gemma repeated through gritted teeth. "Come in here. Now."
I patted the child's hand. "You better go with your mama, Lisa." She stomped off in a pout toward the lawyer's office. When the two of them finally emerged, Gemma looked angry. She dragged Lisa by the arm and the child wouldn't even look at me. Before we got to the commissary, Lisa had fallen asleep, her head resting softly on my arm. So, while Gemma shopped, I stayed in the car with Lisa. As she slept, I stroked her baby-fine hair and hummed, "Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you..."
When we got home I carried their groceries while Gemma dragged a sleepy, whining Lisa up the stairs. Their apartment was messy and seemed even shabbier than I'd remembered it. I hated to leave Lisa there; I knew Gemma was still angry at her. "Don't worry, Gemma," I smiled. "It's all going to work out. You'll see."
Moments later I sat downstairs with my hands over my ears. Overhead, Gemma banged around cussing at Lisa. Tears tricked down my cheeks as I reminded myself that I'd promised Jason I'd stay out of it. But I couldn't help fearing the worst. What was that thump? Was that glass breaking?
About 10 p.m. a man arrived and went upstairs. He was wearing Army fatigues with officer's stripes. He didn't leave till early the next morning.
It was almost two whole days before I saw Gemma or Lisa again. I'd heard Lisa's voice a couple of times. She sounded all right, but still, I worried about her. I was vacuuming when I heard a loud thump overhead. I shut off the machine and listened. The thumping stopped and started again several times. Then I heard Gemma hollering my name.
I bounded up the stairs and banged on her door. "It's open!" Gemma yelled. I pushed on the door, but it jammed against something. Reaching inside, I pulled a crushed cereal box from under the door and stepped into the apartment. Every inch was littered with something: dirty clothes, crumpled newspapers, half-empty tin cans, and rotting orange peels. A cardboard carton lay on its side in a puddle of milk near the bathroom door.
I stepped over it. "Gemma, where are you?"
"In the bedroom." Her voice was weak and scratchy.
I tiptoed around the mess, expecting to head through the little bedroom and find Gemma in the larger one. But there she was in the little bedroom, lying in the big purple bed, which filled the space almost wall to wall. Clothes were everywhere and the place smelled like vomit. A half-empty bottle of whiskey stood on the dresser. Next to it was a small handgun.
"I threw my back out moving this damn furniture," Gemma whined. "I've been trying to get your attention for half an hour. Didn't you hear me?"
"No, I was vacuuming." I pointed to the gun. "Is that thing loaded?"
"Nah, it's jes' to scare the blokes. Ya know, when they get too rough."
I looked around. "Where's Lisa?"
"In there." She nodded toward the other bedroom. "I traded rooms with 'er. Too cold in there for me."
I rushed into the other bedroom. Lisa was playing on the floor, completely naked, as usual. The heat was off again and her skin was blue with cold, except where it was purple with bruises.
I was livid. I grabbed a blanket from the bed, wrapped it around Lisa and led her into the other room. "Gemma, how could you leave Lisa in there naked? It's freezing. What's the matter with you?"
"I told ya. I threw me back out."
"Yeah. How'd you do it? Beating on Lisa?" I was done staying out of it.
Gemma squinted at me. "No! Ain't none o' your business, anyway. She's my kid, not yours."
"Isn't that a shame." I rummaged through the dresser till I found some clothes for Lisa. Her glasses were on the floor but the hearing aids were nowhere to be found. When I had the child dressed, I turned to Gemma, who was still moaning in the bed.
"Gemma, if you're really hurting I'll take you to the base hospital. Get yourself dressed and come downstairs."
"I bloody can't, woman. It hurts to move."
"Well, what do you want me to do? Dress you too?"
"Just get me some pain pills. In the bathroom. The yellow ones."
The bathroom was even filthier than the rest of the place. I was shocked to find the medicine cabinet loaded with prescription bottles - valium, percodan, quaaludes, and others I'd never heard of. I grabbed the percodan, since the pills were yellow, and took them to Gemma. "Are these what you want?"
"They'll do." Gemma grabbed the bottle, shook four pills into her hand, and reached for the whiskey.
"Oh, no you don't." I snatched the bottle from her. "I don't want to find a dead body the next time I come up here." I went to the kitchen for a glass of water and found Lisa eating dry cereal off the floor.
I gave Gemma the water, and took Lisa downstairs to make some oatmeal. Gemma slept all day. Meanwhile, Lisa and I cleaned their apartment together. It was fun. I threw out most of the pills in the bathroom. I knew Gemma would be mad, but I was afraid for Lisa.
That night, I suggested Lisa sleep with her mother where it was warm. "Not on your life," Gemma protested, "she pees the bed." So Lisa slept downstairs on our sofa, with plastic trash bags under the sheets.
In the morning, I was awakened by angry voices from upstairs. I could see a strange car parked in the alley. I got up, leaving Jason asleep, and tiptoed into the living room to check on Lisa. She was not on the sofa and the apartment door stood wide open. I looked up the stairs where Gemma's door was open too. The shouting was louder now.
"You British bitch!" a man growled. "Don't think you can get another penny outta me, just 'cause you got knocked up again."
"You'll pay; the army's gonna make you pay."
"You don't know that. The lawyer ain't decided yet."
"Oh yes he has. He decided right here in this bed."
"You slut! I'll..." There was a scuffling noise and I heard Lisa yell, "Mama! Don't hurt my mama!" I bounded up the stairs. Halfway there, a gunshot pierced the air.
I raced into the room to find Gemma swaying against the dresser with one hand over her mouth. The other gripped the gun. "Bastard. Look what he made me do."
There were three of us at the graveside, counting the minister. Gemma was in jail charged with manslaughter; her husband was AWOL.
Jason and I huddled together in a drizzling rain as the casket descended into the ground. Later that day, we ordered a small headstone with two words on it: Mona Lisa.