By Maja Elverkilde
Translated from Danish by Peter Woltemade
My father has stopped eating. Karl doesn’t believe me; he says that it just seems so because Lilly eats so much and generally makes such a big impression. She talks the entire time and laughs at everything. She is fat. Karl would never use that word, but it is true. And Father has stopped eating since meeting her.
Father invited us home for supper so we could meet Lilly. Even though she was meeting Lukas for the first time, she just picked him up. He didn’t protest, even when she pinched his cheek. He stared at her but didn’t say anything. When we sat down at the table, she had him on her lap. “He’s big enough to sit at his own place,” I said, but Karl nudged me. “Look how happy he is,” he said and smiled at Lilly, who smiled back. “He is really a sweet boy,” she said, “if one were not so old, one could certainly get baby fever.” She laughed and winked at Father, who turned red.
Lilly works in a thrift store. She told us that right now they are collecting clothes for a children’s home. “Something like that really gets you thinking,” she said, pointing at the food on the table, “everything we have, and we don’t think about it at all. We take it for granted that we have enough.” She laughed and continued, “Now I’m not saying this to take away your appetites—of course we should be allowed to enjoy what we have, but it doesn’t hurt to think a bit about those who have nothing.”
I looked at the food—it was indeed plentiful, but she was taking her share, in fact she was shoveling it in. I could easily have said something, but Karl would have gotten angry. Father looked admiringly at Lilly, who was stroking Lukas’s hair. He was leaning back and resting his head between her full breasts; his eyelids were heavy; he was falling asleep. Father laid a hand on Lilly’s arm and gave it a squeeze. “You’re right,” he said, “it doesn’t hurt to think about it a little and appreciate everything we have.”
I said it already in the car on the way home, as soon as Lukas closed his eyes in the child seat in the back. “Father has gotten so thin—he’s not eating anything at all,” I said. But Karl didn’t listen. “Lilly seems really sweet,” he said.
Outside Father’s house, the cobblestones between the tiles have been pried up. They are lying all the way along the hedge. Only outside his house; on the rest of the street they are untouched. I slide aside some sand that has come up with the cobblestones and is lying on the tiles.
“What a mess,” I shout already out in the entranceway, while I am hanging my jacket on the coat rack. I go into the living room—he’s not in there—I continue, into the kitchen, into the utility room, out into the yard, back to the living room.
“Father,” I call. I hear the toilet flush and sit down on the sofa. He is still buttoning his trousers when he comes in. “I don’t like you letting yourself in,” he says and remains standing in the middle of the room. “You know I don’t like it,” he says, and I nod. “I’ve done a little shopping,” I say and lift the bag off the floor, “are you hungry?”
I go into the kitchen, and he follows me. I spread butter and liverwurst on rye bread and top this with pickles. He doesn’t touch the food but sits on the bench with his hands resting on the tabletop, folded, as if he were praying.
“I know why you’re here,” he says.
“Is it the city that’s doing something out there?” I ask. He looks out the window—from here one can only see the hedge. “I mean on the sidewalk, the cobblestones that have been pried up—are they doing something?” He shrugs his shoulders and looks at me again. “I know that it must be strange to see me with another woman,” he says. I sit down on the chair across from him. Immediately, I regret this. I should have sat down at the end of the table; then we would have sat at an angle to each other. He is looking directly at me, and I don’t know what to say. It’s not about him seeing someone else, it’s not about Mother. “It’s been such a long time since she died,” I say, “of course you should do what you like—you deserve to be happy.” Father tilts his head, wrinkles his brows, looks into my eyes so intensely that I feel queasy. I say it straight out. “Father, have you stopped eating again?” He sighs and leans back, closes his eyes. I get up and walk over to the window. “I just don’t understand it,” I say, “why now, when you’ve finally found someone? It seems like you really like her—why now?”
I look at the hedge—now I am again thinking about the sidewalk, the cobblestones. “Wouldn’t you like me to call the city and ask what they are doing out there?” I say, but he does not answer this either.
I make lasagne for the freezer. All our plans have been wrecked because Lukas is sick. Now the food simply has to be used for something before it spoils. I quickly stir the béchamel sauce, break up the clumps. I put two star anise in the tomato sauce, but when I want to remove them, I can only find one of them. No matter how much I look, the other one is gone. It will be unpleasant to chew on, but not as bad as a lemon seed.
A lemon press—that’s the only thing we have never managed to acquire for the kitchen. Every time we make something with lemon juice, we squeeze the lemon directly over the food, and a lemon seed always falls out. That happens both to me and to Karl. On good days it’s something we laugh about. We play a kind of reverse treasure hunt game, and Lukas laughs loudly when one of us grimaces at the bitter taste if we happen to crush one.
I can have a little present ready when we are going to eat the lasagne and tell the others about the star anise hiding in there. That could be fun. I put the two finished lasagne dishes on the kitchen counter to cool. Two finished evening meals—that is worth something, after all. Then I realize that we will not be able to play the present game because I do not know which of the two dishes the star anise is in. I look intensely at the two dishes as though I have suddenly acquired X-ray vision or some kind of special intuition. I wash my hands and go to check on the sleeping Lukas. He is breathing heavily, and the whole room smells sweetly of medicine. Tomorrow it is Karl’s turn to be home and my turn to go to work. Karl has suggested that I speak to Lilly.
We agree that I should come by the thrift store on my way to work. “I thought we should talk, too,” says Lilly. She shows me around in the store, which is not open yet. I walk behind her while she squeezes past the many racks of clothing. She spreads her arms when we reach the back room. There are stacks of cardboard boxes everywhere. On all of them there are large stickers with the delicately written text “To the Sunbeam Children’s Home from the Thrift Store Ladies.” In all of the os a smiling face has been drawn. Yellow chalk has been used for this, and the person who has done it has not been able to stay inside the line.
“This is just what we have collected in two weeks,” says Lilly, “we’ll drive off with this soon, and if they want more, we’ll keep on collecting.” She looks at the boxes and smiles broadly. She does not seem to notice the sweat running down into her eyes and continuing in a stream along her nose. “It sure is warm today,” I say and wipe my forehead. “Would you like something to drink? We have lemonade,” says Lilly. “No, thanks,” I say and wipe my forehead again. My hand is sticky and raw; the air in the room is full of old dust. Lilly opens a box and roots around as if she were looking for something. “Could we talk?” I say. Lilly stops and turns toward me, wipes her hands on her shorts. “Of course,” she says and claps her hands together, “I completely forget time and place—so typical of me.”