Lila in the Window
Potato was eating again.
It was the third time she’d eaten all morning, which wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that the cracked plastic mug Lila used to dole out the food had scraped the bottom of the bag several hours earlier. She guessed she could ask for another one, but Mr. Johnny had said that money was tight. He was a plumber for a small company, and business hadn’t been too good lately.
Potato abandoned her dish and sashayed over to Lila on the bed. She chirped, jumped up, and nuzzled her head against Lila’s bowl of noodles.
“Oh, no you don’t,” she said. “You big piggy. Why are you so hungry?”
Potato meowed and burrowed harder. Lila pulled out one thin ramen noodle and put it on the napkin.
“Missy, we’re gonna have to put you on a diet soon,” Lila said, but Potato didn’t look like she’d gained weight; in fact, she looked thinner than normal. The excess skin on her belly sagged beneath her and made her waddle.
Lila turned on the TV. Cable went in and out; Mr. Johnny had borrowed some from the neighbors, but still the connection was poor at best. The TV only received one channel—a rerun channel for old sitcoms—and the channel changing button had been plastered over with tape. It was almost 2:00 p.m. Friends would be on soon. Until now, the TV hissed and spat an episode of Roseanne she’d already seen a million times before. The sound only projected from one side of the TV. She turned it down, lay back on her bed, and counted the ceiling tiles—all 171 of them—and shut her eyes. She could smell the brackish humidity that had come from making lunch, and the thin, mildewy hush that clung to the sheets on her sofa bed. She liked the way her brain would whirr, quietly and noiselessly, when she sat very still. She liked to pretend that she was a computer.
Potato hopped up onto her stomach and lapped at the salty water left in the lunch bowl on her bedside table. “Oh, that’s bad for kitties,” Lila said. She grabbed the bowl and let the water wash down the large chipped sink. Smears of inky black paint remained crusted onto the porcelain, and as much as she’d tried to clean it, she could still feel the dry streaks against her nails. Potato meowed in protest. “What? It is bad for you,” she said. She couldn’t be sure where she’d learned that fact, or if she’d just made it up. The cat rubbed against her legs and left a fine coating of soft black and white hairs.
The waiting was always the worst. She hated these afternoons to herself, cooped up in the house. She guessed she could do laundry to have something clean to wear, but he always hated it when her dresses and sweaters dangled from the line at the edge of the room. Besides, she was almost out of detergent. Sometimes she mixed it with the dish soap, but she was almost out of that, too. She looked at Potato, who was as bored as she was, as she tried to paw at the coarse towels that covered the window. The cat’s high, chirpy cry reminded her of when she’d first gotten her.
It had been maybe three weeks at that point. Items in the room were still new; the sofa bed had been fully washed and didn’t yet creak, the sink was pure white, the linoleum tiles on the floor had yet to bloat up and wrinkle at the edges. She had not yet earned the TV. She would sit and, with thin, plastic bristles snapped off the long-handled broom, try to pick the lock on the door. There were boards on the windows that daylight couldn’t bleed through. Her clothes were not yet stained. Her hair still had some of the red in it, sprayed in with an aerosol can for the football game at her school three weeks earlier. He’d approached her, behind the bleachers at the stadium, told her she’d dropped her phone. Lila hadn’t owned a phone. Then strong hands on her arms, the chloroform, darkness.
For those frantic days she would sit, breaking bristle after bristle in the huge, stainless padlock. There was a key code, too, she knew, which she heard beeping as he came and went. Other than the faint rumble of the pickup truck pulling into the garage next door, it was her only warning he was coming.
When Lila heard the beeping, she immediately sprang away from the door and sat on the bed, nursing her pounding heart. She tried to remember the feeling of her mother’s lips on her forehead that last day when she’d left for the eighth-grade pep rally. Her mother always wore a particular pinky, cool lipstick. Her lips had felt like paper on her face.
When he came in, he carried a battered cardboard box; she figured it was the food, the ration of noodles. Mr. Johnny set it onto the small card table.
“Don’t you want to know what’s in the box?” he asked her.
Lila never knew what to say when he asked these questions. The slightest comment could send him into a rage, or prompt an inexplicable tenderness. When she’d first asked for rags to bleed onto during her period, he’d hit her and cut the power for two days; when she timidly answered his question about her favorite candy, he brought it the next afternoon.
“Not very curious, are you?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Isn’t it food?”
“No, no, not at all.” He reached deep into the box with his grease-stained hands and cradled a tiny, black and white kitten, which was more fluff than anything else. “Neighbor’s tabby had a litter in the barn. They were giving ‘em away.” He cradled it in his arms.
The kitten seemed unreal as it stirred in Mr. Johnny’s grip.
“I figure you might like something to take care of—other ‘n me.” He offered her the kitten, and when she didn’t take it, put it into her lap. It squirmed and licked her palm. “See? It likes you already.”
Because Mr. Johnny’s eyes were soft and expectant, Lila petted the kitten. Its fur was as soft as her grandmother’s old long hair, and tears welled in her eyes. It had the same face too, the same gold eyes. “When are you taking her away?” she asked.
“Silly girl, she’s not going anywhere,” Mr. Johnny said. He reached into the box and took out a makeshift litter box.
In her lap, the kitten purred. It was so tiny; she felt she would hurt it if she petted it too hard.
“Come on, what do you say?”
The gold eyes stared up at her, squinty and sleepy. She wondered, if she burrowed her face into the thick fluff of fur, if she would fall back in time to those afternoons in her grandmother’s barn, hiding behind boxes and looking through ancient bridal magazines. “Your time will come,” her grandmother had said. “Hopefully not for quite some time. But it will.”
Mr. Johnny seized her hair and pulled. “I said, what do you say?”
“Thank you,” she said. The kitten scurried off her lap and under her bed, where she wouldn’t emerge for the better part of two days.
The familiar logo of Friends popped up on the TV, and though the volume was poor, she sang along with it absently: “No one told you life was gonna be this way.” Potato liked it when she clapped. Lila picked up the toy she’d fashioned out of a cooking spoon and a strand of yarn from an old sweater. Potato’s bottom swayed as she watched the spoon dangle back and forth.
“How late do you think he’ll be?” she asked the cat. “Yesterday, it was a half hour. Only a half hour, he said.”
Potato said nothing. She pounced on the string and batted at it. Lila tugged it away and looked at the light coming through the towel over the window, tinted pink. She could almost see the daylight through the bleach spots. She wished he would just fix the window already, even if it meant the boards again. With the plastic and towel it could still get pretty cold in here, though it had been better since Mr. Johnny showed her how to heat up rocks and put them in the bed.
She watched the TV as Joey tried unsuccessfully to hit on another pretty woman. She should wash her hair. She had shampoo, but she didn’t like the way it smelled like peaches. Mr. Johnny brought peaches sometimes in cans. When he ate, the thick syrup would get caught in his beard where it dried. Sometimes, it would still be there days later.
Potato rolled onto her back and then trotted over to the litter box. Lila fixated on the TV and pulled frayed threads from the bottom of her skirt. It was getting worn and tight on her. She exhaled. She’d been growing; she could feel it painfully in every joint of her body. Mr. Johnny didn’t hesitate to tell her that maybe she could eat a little less. He said this as he drank down the cans of fruit, one after the other, in quick succession.
Maybe he would finally bring her that next book from the library. She’d been reading the Little House on the Prairie series, and while it had been dull in the beginning, it was getting interesting now that Laura was getting older. Lila tried to imagine bumping around in the back of a wagon through the West, building a home, hunting to live, with nobody around for miles. The sky a big blue bowl.
Potato kicked dirty litter all over the kitchenette. “Hey, you clean that up!” Lila said to her, but as usual the cat plopped down and started grooming herself. Lila got up, shambled to find the broom, and swept the mess onto a piece of newspaper. She heard the neighbor’s dog barking—a loud BOOF, BOOF almost too low for her to hear. Lila had never seen these dogs; the neighbor was pretty far away, up toward the top of the hill she could barely see from the corner of her window. Sometimes, she thought they were bulldogs, other times huskies, or perhaps golden retrievers. She had a picture book of the different breeds of dogs, but the illustrations were all painted. She decided she wasn’t a dog person and picked up Potato. The cat kicked at her. “Come on, you’re bored, too, you big mush.”
Together they watched a few more episodes. Sometimes Lila liked when they ran in order. Other times she hated it because then she knew exactly what would happen next, and then what was the point of watching? If she were lucky, an episode from late in the show’s run would come on. She hadn’t memorized those yet.
By five it had gotten dark, and she turned on the one lamp in the room. At least in the low light, Mr. Johnny couldn’t see the mess. She tried to keep the space clean, but it was so small, and sometimes she ended up crowding everything into the corner and throwing a sheet over it, so she didn’t have to look at it. She was hungry; Mr. Johnny had said he was going to bring her dinner and groceries. She figured he must have gotten stuck in line at the store or in traffic, as he frequently complained, though she couldn’t see how traffic could be terrible around here in the middle of nowhere.
He came a little after eight, startling her from the doze she’d fallen into. A plastic grocery bag flopped onto the bed.
“What happened?” she asked, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She tried not to sound irritated.
“Boss made me stay late. I took off Christmas, so I couldn’t say no.” He sat at the table. “Coffee?”
“I didn’t make any.”
“Why not?” He rubbed at his beard, which had flecks of white paint in it. His overalls were covered in splotches, too. She tried not to pay too much attention to the muddy footprints he’d dragged in.
“Sorry, I fell asleep.”
Mr. Johnny sighed. “What else do I keep you around for?” He went over to the small pot and started fixing it. Lila looked into the bag of groceries—more ramen packets, a box of cereal, one quart of milk, and a roll of paper towels.
“Is the rest in your truck?” she asked, and blushed at his expression.
“Is that not enough?”
“It’s just… I’m almost out of cat food—”
“Well, Jesus. You could have told me.”
“I did,” she said sheepishly. “I’m sorry.”
Mr. Johnny shook his head. The coffee pot gurgled. He always made it so strong, saying he liked it “like mud,” and that was how it smelled. It also made her nauseous.
“I was…,” she continued. She bit her lip. “I was hoping that, maybe if you’d brought some chicken, or something, I could have made us a real nice dinner—”
“Shit, Lila, do you know how much meat costs?” He poured a cup and used some of the fresh milk. He sat at the table, at the one good chair.
She crossed silently into the kitchen and put up a pot of water to boil. She looked at the flavors of ramen he’d brought: chicken, pork, shrimp. He never brought beef. Beef was her favorite. “How was your day?” she asked gently.
“You remember that prick Angelo?” he said, and then continued without a response. “Well, the asshole shows up drunk as all hell, can barely walk straight, swaggers right into the bathroom where I’m working, all up to the elbows in god-knows-what…”
She half-listened, nodding, and “uh-huh”-ing in the right places, as she made her dinner. She was hungry enough to eat the whole thing, but split it in half and brought part of it to Mr. Johnny. “This the shrimp one?” he asked.
“Yes. Yes, um…” The question died on her tongue.
“Good. I like that one.” He sipped at the soup. She perched on the other broken chair and saw Potato peep her head from under the bed.
“I finished that book,” she said timidly. “The one about Laura?”
He grunted and kept eating.
“I think she’s getting married in the next one. I would really like to read it.”
“I’ll get it if I have time. But I don’t know if I’ll be able to get to the library before it closes.” He dabbed at his beard with her napkin.
“Thank you. Thank you so much.”
He shrugged. “Those damn dogs,” he said, and gestured at the window.
“I like them. I think they’re nice.”
“I wish they would shut them up. One of these days, I’m going to complain.”
“If you want to,” she said. She pushed her fork through her noodles.
“I will. Why is it that a man can’t sit in his house in the peace and quiet?”
She took a sip from her tepid glass of water. The smell of the coffee had made her lose her appetite. “…Are they huskies?” She asked.
He looked at the TV, which was now spitting reruns of Family Matters. “Hell if I know. I’ve never seen ‘em. I love this one,” he said.
“I’ve just wondered. I thought you might know.”
Mr. Johnny said nothing and watched as Urkel activated his time machine.
“Do you think that maybe some time you could put on the game channel?” she asked. Her heart pounded. “The… this one’s very nice, but sometimes I like a change. Potato and I play along, you know.”
“You don’t like this one? I changed it just for you.” His face was starting to turn red, and she faltered.
“I… I know, and it’s really nice here now with the TV. Thank you.” She sighed.
He drummed his fingers on the table.
“I was thinking,” she said. “You know, it’s going to be New Year’s soon. There’ll probably be a sale. If you can get maybe… some chicken… I can make fried cutlets like my mama taught me.”
He looked at her, and she flinched. “Like who taught you?”
“Nobody. Nobody taught me.”
“I just figure you must get tired of eating noodles every night,” Lila said. She always felt the need to keep talking when he was here, to entertain him. “It’s pretty boring. I know I can do better because you gave me that cookbook.”
“I figured it’d amuse you,” he said. He smiled. He needed to floss.
“It does,” she lied. She rarely had enough ingredients to try any of the recipes. “I can give you a list, maybe, and you can get some stuff and I’ll make us a real nice dinner.”
“I’d love to see you cook,” he said. “All right.”
The cat darted out from under the bed and dashed to the food bowl. “Again, kitty?” she asked her. Potato glared, wide eyed, at Mr. Johnny, before coming to rest at Lila’s side. “She’s hungry.”
“So, feed her.”
“I thought you’d be bringing me some food.”
He laughed a little. “Damn list’s gonna be a mile long.”
She tensed. But he seemed amused rather than angry. She could see it in the easy way he leaned back in the chair. She took his empty bowl and offered the water to Potato, who hissed.
“I don’t know how you stand that mangy thing,” he said. “Always so nasty. She used to be so cute, but then she grew up. Shame how that happens.” He looked meaningfully at her zit-stained face.
She laughed awkwardly despite a painful blush. “She fills up space.”
Mr. Johnny went over to the sofa bed and sat down. She brushed a greasy strand of hair out of her face and sat down next to him. She tried not to flinch at his filthy fingers when they touched her shoulder.
For fifteen minutes she pretended to watch the new show on TV. Mr. Johnny seemed engrossed, but his hand steadily slid down her terrycloth dress to fondle her nipple. She started shaking. She’d wondered when—she’d been lucky the past few days.
It was easier not to resist; sitting there, or lying there, and in fact to smile and even seem to enjoy herself. She got more that way; he said yes to her questions more easily.
When it was over and he had fallen asleep, she went over to the towel draped over the window. The room smelled like sweat, and her thighs ached. She lifted the edge of the towel and peeked through the window.
The moon was full in the sky, partially obscured by clouds. She tried to think of the last time she had seen it, but couldn’t. The light reflected off the snow on the ground, and she shivered in her thin dress. Above the fence there wasn’t much to see, just trees. There never had been much outside this window.
In the distance, the dogs began to howl. The sound made her heart hurt, and she wished she could join in, but instead a few thin tears snaked down her face.
“What are you doing?” Mr. Johnny snapped behind her.
“I’m sorry—I just wanted to see the moon.”
He grabbed her by the hair. “Someone could have seen you,” he said. “Someone could take you from me. Do you want that?” He shook her.
Pain radiated through her body. She couldn’t speak.
“Do you?” he said again.
“No,” she sobbed.
“I didn’t think so.” He yanked his clothing back on. “The cat has worms,” he said, grabbing Potato by the back of the neck. He slammed the door behind him, leaving her in silence.
Allison Giese is a senior at SUNY New Paltz, where she is completing a degree in creative writing. She hopes to become a novelist and video game writer.