Nisa and James ate as if they had not been fed for days. It was a simple meal of leftover stewed meat, but accompanied by rice and a thick, rich beans soup – it was more than they had had in the past few months since the other man had held on to the purse strings.
Kayna ate hesitantly, but each bite was delicious and she couldn’t help but clean her plate. Her manners kicked in, and she looked to their host and said, “Thank you, mister…” Her voice trailed off as she wondered what his name was.
“James. Andrew James,” he replied. “And you are welcome.” He didn’t ask for her name, knowing it and the rest of theirs. Lisa felt abashed but proceeded to give their names anyway, pretending that her life, and her children’s lives, had not been fodder for the neighborhood they had been in for the past few months.
“My oldest is Kayna, I am Lisa. My little girl is Nisa and of course, this is James. Just his first name is James though. Not like yours, which is your surname…” She trailed off, aware of her rambling. Kayna looked down at her plate. She still felt uncomfortable, but was unsure where the discomfort stemmed from.
“Well, Lisa. Tell me, what do you do?” He said it evenly, the deep timbre of his voice belying any previous knowledge. Perhaps he did it to protect the children (but then, Kayla wondered, why would he ask in front of them?) – or perhaps he didn’t want to come across as judgmental.
Lisa grasped for a response. She did nothing really. The ugly truth was that, she had been so dependent on others for help, she did nothing. She was still that child who never grew up, and she felt petulant at having to respond to his question.
“I haven’t been working for a while,” she replied.
That was all he said.
Kayna watched him for the next few minutes as he finished his meal at his leisurely pace. A tiny bead of sweat trickled down his chest, running down further to the swell of his paunch. It disappeared from view beyond the table where they sat.
Done with their food, the younger children grew restless. Standing up and showing some sort of responsibility, Lisa cleared her dishes and that of her younger children. Kayna also got up ready to do the dishes that she was sure her mother would make her do. At the shelf where a water-filled tub stood, Lisa started soaking the plates. Nisa and James said their thank you’s and headed for the door, where they could play outside in the sun. They could feel the change in their routine, and perhaps play would happen for at least a day. Kayna watched as her mother began doing the dishes, not bothering to look at her when she deposited hers into the tub as well.
Mr. James had finished his meal, and he pushed his plate ahead of him, to the middle of the table. He got up and headed to the other side of the open room where he began stringing out a hammock. “I have a small shop by the market,” he said as he shook out the hammock. It was made of denim, strong and sturdy enough to carry his weight and last a long time. “I could use some help a couple days a week. Market days get rough.” He kept talking as he ensconced himself in his denim cocoon, swinging slightly.
It was curious how he took the fact that four new people were invading his home – at best, inconveniencing him. Perhaps he had plans for the day. Yet here he was, swinging in his hammock, while a woman stood doing dishes, and two children played quietly in the yard where his little tidy house stood. Kayna had remained hovering by her mother, not sure what to do now that she wasn’t eating or tending to some type of housework. She slowly made her way out to the doorway, watching Nisa and James as they enjoyed the yard. Just as it had seemed the night before, it was a neat and orderly space. There may have been overgrowth in the surrounding area, but there was a clear definition of boundary. There were no bottles strewn about here; instead, the smaller children darted around the planters.
Lisa had heard his offer, and for a fleeting moment, thought of the house she was supposed to go to. The next man she had started seeing. Here was her chance to do something for herself. She could work, it didn’t sound like much. But where would they stay?
“If you want, you can stay here until you find your own place.” It was as if he had read her mind, and she was slightly disturbed.
“The children have to behave. I don’t like a lot of noise, and you can clean for me.” He rambled on about the possibilities. Lisa could see Kayna doing the housework and minding the children. She would work at the shop, and maybe she could start seeing some money.
“We need to go get the rest of our clothes and little things at the other house,” she said, dreading the thought.
“You need to go.” He looked at the children in the yard. “They can stay while you go.”
Lisa bristled. She wanted to take the children with her. They were a good buffer; maybe he wouldn’t do anything if the children were there. “I’ll take Kayna.”
They left the two playing, after many severe instructions to behave, then made their way to the old place. Neither spoke to the other, determined only to get to the house and grab what they could and go back to Mr. James. It was another crutch, but there was a chance to do something different this time.
They got to the door, trying not to make too much noise. Inside, thunderous snores shook the walls. They had a chance to sneak in. The door wasn’t locked – they knew it wouldn’t be.
Tiptoeing, they went into the old ‘room’, pulling some clothing. Lisa knew where her things were, her important things – so she went straight for them, grabbing clothes too, but focusing on her special items. Kayna found as much of her and her siblings’ things and, in a last act of defiance, wrapped them all in the bed sheet and carried them out in one large bundle.
Sadly, it took them less than ten minutes of sneaking around to remove everything of theirs. The snores were loud throughout, and from the stench surrounding him, they had never been in danger of awaking him. He probably would not even notice that they had left for a few more days.
They scampered out again, still terrified of a chance awakening, and once again, feeling the eyes of the many windows on them, made their way to their new place. Lisa wasn’t sure she wanted to stay, but at the moment, beggars could not be choosers. Kayna wasn’t sure how she felt about staying another night, but having no other option – and only a wayward mother to follow, she could only keep walking behind Lisa as she led.
The first day had been easy enough. It was the very next day after his offer, and Lisa wondered just why it was that this person had stepped in like he did. He could be married, with his own children and a wife who worked hard. Yet, for all that he was doing, he had not once indicated that he expected payment like she was used to making. In fact, it was almost disturbing how much he was not in the least interested in her.
All kinds of people passed in the shop, and he kept busy tending to people at the back while she dealt with produce, canned and dry goods, and even just listening to some of the chatter. One old lady came by, reminding her of her mother, and she had enjoyed a long conversation with her, the kind she hadn’t had in years. By the end of the day, she had felt soreness in her hands, in each finger, and all across her back and legs. It was the first time that pain came from an honest day’s labor. It was certainly…different…
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