Portrait, Part III: People's Footprints On My Life
Highlands TodayWhen four-year-old Lisa slipped into my apartment naked, for the second time, I tried not to look shocked. Gemma quickly said, "Oh, I never put clothes on that one at 'ome. She just gets 'em filthy. Once she even stuffed 'er dress down the commode."
Published: May 15, 2008
Published: May 15, 2008
I forced a smile, "Would you like some coffee?"
"Oh, bloody good idea, that."
I led the way to the kitchen where Lisa had already opened my refrigerator and grabbed a carton of yogurt. She shoved it at me. "Open this."
"Sure." I pulled off the aluminum seal and handed it back. "Let me get you a spoon." But she had already dug into it with her fingers. Gemma yawned, ignoring her daughter, while I poured the coffee.
"I gotta look for a job today," she raked her hands through her curly red hair. "That army allotment ain't enough. Spec-4pay, hah! It's a joke."
"Oh, I know; it's really tight for us too."
"Well, at least you still got an 'usband, not that I'd want mine back. All the bloke ever did was get drunk and beat on me. I musta called the MPs to come get 'im a dozen times. E'd just sleep it off in the stockade and be right back, meaner 'an ever."
I didn't know what to say, but Gemma didn't seem to need a response. She waved a hand over her head and continued with what sounded like a rehearsed speech.
"We're not used to living like this, ya know. We're going back to London, me an' Lisa, just as soon as I can raise the money for tickets." She straightened in her chair and smoothed the front of her dirty bathrobe.
"In London, me Pap owns his own taxi cab, a Mercedes. Aye, an' not a broken-down one like these nasty cabs in America. Pap washes 'is cab every day, 'e does. Even the boot is clean as a vicar's language..." Her theatrical voice trailed off and her eyes took on a faraway look. I could barely resist laughing.
"Course, Pap'd send me the money for plane tickets in a heartbeat, if I asked 'im. But I don't want to. 'E begged me not to marry Jack. When I done it anyway, Pap ordered me outta 'is sight. So, ya see, I can't just crawl back; gotta make it on me own." She bit her lip and looked out the window. I wasn't buying Gemma's performance, but I felt a little sorry for her.
Lisa was rummaging through a bottom cupboard so I turned to check on her. Black bruises jumped out at me from her bare backside. I couldn't help but stare.
"Ain't that bloody awful?" Gemma pointed at the marks. "Her baby-sitter does that. I need to find a new sitter, but I gotta find a job first."
"I'll watch her." I blurted, desperate to protect the little girl.
"Oh, that would be duckie, love." Gemma jumped up and headed for the door. "I got an interview at the Safeway store at ten." She was already halfway up the stairs when I hollered, "Could you leave me some clothes for Lisa? We might want to go outside."
"Right-o!" she yelled back and slammed her door.
Fifteen minutes later Gemma dropped off a wrinkled dress and beat-up tennis shoes, no socks, no underwear. Without a word to her daughter, she was gone.
Iput the clothes on Lisa and started to brush her hair. "No, don't," she whined. "I don't like it."
"Okay, what shall we do?"
"I wanna watch television."
"Okay, but just for a while. Then maybe we can go for a walk on the beach." Lisa didn't respond. She had turned up the volume on the TV and was busy flipping channels. She sat cross-legged on the floor, barely a foot from the screen, squinting through her thick lenses.
After two hours, I switched the television off and announced, "Time for our walk." Lisa crossed her arms and pouted. I headed for the door. "Maybe I'll even stop by the donut shop for a treat."
"Me too, me too," Lisa bounced up and grabbed my hand.
I slipped one of my own sweaters on her, rolled up the sleeves and tied a scarf over her head. It was nearly April, but the wind off the ocean could still be biting cold. We strolled along the boardwalk in silence. When we reached the beach, Lisa scampered down to the water hunting for shells. I sat on a bench to watch. She danced across the sand, stopping here and there to pick up a stone, a bit of seaweed, a stick. She tossed them out into the waves and watched them float back.
Her thin silhouette against the morning sky reminded me of a painting I'd seen somewhere. Behind her, the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center jutted above the skyline across the bay like two giants about to grab the child. She seemed small for four, frail and vulnerable. "Lisa," I cupped my hands and hollered, "don't get your feet wet." But she didn't hear me.
After a while, I walked toward her. Lisa didn't even look up. She was crouched low drawing circles in the sand with a piece of driftwood. "It's getting cold," I said. "Let's go."
Lisa hadn't heard me, so I touched her shoulder. Instantly, she jumped and cowered, wrapping both arms over her head.
"I'm sorry, Lisa. I didn't mean to startle you." I stooped beside her, but she kept her arms clamped over her head, refusing to look at me. I touched her shoulder, softly.
Slowly she lowered one arm, then the other, and looked at me. I smiled. "Lisa, sweetheart, would you like to go get some hot chocolate now?"
That enigmatic half-smile flickered across her face. The scarf had come untied and hung loose, framing her face and shoulders, for an instant. Then she darted away down the beach hollering, "I don't like hot chocolate; I want a Coke!"
It was past noon when we got back to my apartment, so I fixed peanut butter sandwiches. After lunch, we giggled over knock-knock jokes and read the funny papers till she fell asleep across my lap. It was after 3 when her mother returned.
"Bloody awful tryin' to get about in this filthy town." Gemma tossed her purse against Lisa to rouse her. "I hate America." She shook the sleepy child awake without speaking a word to her.
I'd intended to talk to Gemma about Lisa's hearing problem, but Gemma was already dragging her daughter up the stairs by one arm.
That evening, as Jason and I were eating, there was a knock on our door. We knew it was Gemma. We'd heard her come down the stairs, yelling up at Lisa, "Close your yap and wait there."
Jason let Gemma in and I introduced them. She seemed flustered by his presence. She kept smoothing her rumpled hair and smiling coquettishly at him. It irked me. She explained that she needed a ride to the base the next day for an appointment with her military divorce lawyer. I was not in the mood to spend another day putting her needs first.
"Sorry, Gemma, but we only have one car, and Jason has to be at the base at 6 a.m."
Jason smiled at Gemma, "I could get a ride with Pete tomorrow, and leave the car for you two." He was actually flirting with Gemma. I was livid.
"Oh jolly-good," Gemma chirped, skipping up the stairs, "we can go to the commissary, too." She winked at Jason, then slammed the door. Again.
"Oh jolly-good," I parroted, glaring at Jason. Then it was my turn to slam the door.
Conclusion next week.