Near the door that leads into the basement floor of Isabella Towers in East Knoxville is a tall, red candle that has burned steadily through the night, a large vase of pink and yellow plastic flowers, and a picture of the recently deceased. Lilly was just 40 years old. Everyone knew her, with her bright red page-boy pulled back into a pony tail, her fashionable clothing, and her kindness. One saw her often down by the river feeding the feral cats or building homes for them for the cold winter ahead. I knew Lilly through a friend who lived in the same housing project.
Though Lilly frequently made self-deprecating remarks about herself, she appeared to be confident. She strode about in her red cowboy boots as fierce as the feral cats she fed, looking each person dead in the eye when conversing with them. She seemed ready to take on the world. But looks can be deceiving, and a mirror that gives one a false image can be deadly.
Lilly was severely anorexic and basically starved herself to death in the apartment she rented on the fifth floor overlooking the Tennessee River. While people came and went down the dingy halls, passing her door with their groceries, leading frolicking grandchildren for a weekend visit, or just sleeping peacefully in their apartments a few doors away, Lilly was becoming bone thin, so weak she couldn’t get off the bed as the light of her TV screen flickered eerily against the living room wall.
What was it in Lilly that made her see a fat person in the mirror where none existed? I have heard that people with eating disorders are trying in the only way they know how to gain some control over their lives.
Lilly rarely let anyone into her home, but on one occasion, after we had visited the feral cats together, she invited me into her tiny, one-room apartment. Against the wall was a large upright piano, dark and massive, which spoke of times past. Old photographs, mostly black and white, sat on the piano, as well as an ancient pair of high-top, laced boots.
“Can you play?” I asked Lilly.
“No, I can’t, but I just like looking at it here,” she said, flipping her red hair out of her eyes. She walked over to the window, where one could see the river winding its way toward its final destination.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Come and look,” she said, pointing down to a litter of kittens frolicking in the autumn sun. She opened a window and fresh, cool air blew the filmy white curtains back. A solitary, yellow leaf floated almost up to the window, then disappeared. Lilly put her arm around my shoulders and said, “My whole life is in this room.”
“No, it isn’t,” I replied. “I see you all the time riding on the bus.”
“That’s true,” she said. “Sometimes I ride the bus just so I can watch the people.” She lit a cigarette and handed me one. “You know, sometimes there will be a little boy or girl riding the bus for the first time and they get so excited.”
“People on buses are fascinating,” I said. “The other night I was riding the last bus of the evening home, and there was a woman in a wheelchair who told me, ‘I’ve been on and off this bus seven times today. I’m 93 years old.’ ‘Really?’ I asked. ‘You don’t look it.’ She didn’t. She looked about 103!”
Lily threw back her head and laughed.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “I’m starving!”
“Me, too,” I said, and watched as Lilly whipped up a bunch of pancakes and poured thick, brown syrup over them. “Eat up!” she said, and I ate. We shared the same plate as the purple light of dusk stole over the room. I noticed that Lilly only ate one or two bites.
“I thought you were hungry,” I commented. “You hardly ate three bites.”
“I have to watch my figure,” she said as she got up and strode around the room, her cowboy boots making a click-click sound on the bare floor. “Cowboy boots make you feel powerful, don’t they?”
“You bet,” I agreed. “You’re bone thin, Lilly. You should eat more.”
“You’re one to talk,” she said, brushing off my comment. And then, “I’m not nearly thin enough,” which caused me some concern, but I soon took my leave and forgot about it.
When I visited a couple of weeks later, I asked my friend, Graham, if he had seen Lilly.
“No, now that you mention it, I haven’t,” he said, unconcerned. “She used to ask me for rides once in a while to go to the store, but I haven’t seen her lately. And the cats act like they are starving.”
I should have gone to check on her but did not. A few people noticed her absence and asked the management to open her door and check on her, but it was many days before anyone found her. A life that could have been saved was not. An indomitable spirit that graced the planet for a short while has now vanished.
I happened to be there when her family was removing her belongings. The big old piano, the photographs, all evidence that Lilly had lived on the Earth. A photo of Lilly fell to the ground then sailed up into the bright autumn sky, and I felt that Lilly was giving me a sign that she was okay. I heard her bright voice saying, just as she used to greet me on the bus, “Hey, you. What’s up?”
Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”
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