by Caryl Sills
Aster considered where her next meal could come from, but the prospects were grim. Mouse might provide for her if she knew where he was holed up. She smiled at her pun. Mouse wasn’t his real name although he said people had called him that since he was a little kid. “If I cut my hair, you’d see a pair of giant ears,” he confessed the night he rescued her, “and since my first word was cheese, the nickname stuck.”
Aster wondered what Mouse would advise her to do to earn her keep. He’d never suggest she should turn a trick, an option she dismissed as soon as it came to mind, but he might think she was ready to play a few tunes on her recorder in front of the hardware store on Polk Street. She wanted to believe attention-grabbing music would float out of her instrument unencumbered by the strain of memory.
She stretched her legs out in front of her and leaned back against the park bench, smiling at the notion of entertaining strangers with her music. “But I guess everyone is a stranger now,” she thought, and her smile slipped quietly away.
Wrapped in the damp haze of a late August afternoon, Aster listened in her head to the melodies and words of blues songs that crowded out other thoughts and worries. When had she learned these songs? Why did she remember them and so little else? The lyrics that played over and over in her head recalled luckless ladies dreaming tomorrow’s deal of the cards and a mournful elegy to lost boys who followed a road that circled back to where they’d begun.
Three weeks before, Mouse had found Aster—which was the name he gave her because she couldn’t remember who she was—in the yard of an abandoned foundry that backed up to the Passaic River. She was half-conscious and bloodied. Someone she couldn’t remember, or never knew, had dumped her there as if she were no more than a sack of garbage. Mouse carried her to the squatters’ lodgings he shared with Ava and Philippa in the basement of an vacant warehouse. The women ministered to her wounds with more caring than expertise, but her bruises healed well.
“Philippa and I are both twenty-six,” Ava told her, “but you look a little younger.”
“Mouse has never cared to reveal his age,” Philippa added. “I’m guessing he’s anywhere between twenty-five and forty. He looks twenty-five but he acts forty.”
None of the three resembled or spoke as the rescued girl would have expected of homeless people. They and their living space were neat and clean, despite some shabbiness in dress and décor. Their accents and vocabulary were more suburban than inner-city, a curiosity she wanted to ask them about, but considered it could sound rude. She suspected that whatever they were hiding from in that basement, their lives before had been quite different and less limited than at present.
When Mouse first brought the wounded girl to the shared living space, she gawked self-consciously, through swollen eyes, at their basement refuge. A well-worn but comfortable-looking couch and several small tables sat along one wall facing an assortment of scarred chairs. Daylight entered through small windows high up on the two outside walls, and at night, several industrial-sized flashlights suspended from hooks in the ceiling provided sufficient light. A battery-operated radio, two sleeping bags, and a mattress completed the meager furnishings.
“Maybe you should go to the police,” Ava said. “Someone is probably looking for you.
“No,” Aster said
“You could go to the emergency room at the municipal hospital. A doctor might know how to cure your amnesia,” Mouse said.
“No,” she repeated.
“Are we pissing you off or something?” Philippa asked.
“Shit,” Philippa said, “I thought that’d get a yes for sure.”
The rescued girl managed a smile but shook her head from side to side, an emphatic and sad negative to any suggestion that she could or would do anything else but stay where she was for a while until she was ready for whatever came next.
“So, then, what will you do?” Philippa asked for them all.
“Try to survive,” she answered. “Like you. Like everyone’s supposed to try.”
“Okay,” Philippa said, and they all agreed. “Survive then, but can’t you give us a hint what to call you?”
“I don’t remember my name,” she told them, nervously twisting a curl of chestnut brown hair at the back of her neck, but when I do, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, pick something pretty, something nice to hear.”
It was actually Mouse who suggested Asteria, Aster for short, because the name belonged to a lovely fantasy in a Greek myth. Aster was the nymph daughter of two Titans who spurned Zeus’ advances by changing herself into a quail and then throwing herself into the sea where she became the island of Delos.
“And it’s a flower, I think,” Aster said.
'What a strange thing to remember,” Philippa said.
Aster didn’t mention the image that had flashed across her mind, a border of purple and red flowers set along a low brick wall. For an instant, she thought she heard the laughter of children splashing in water. Then the memory slipped away.
“You are as pretty as any nymph or flower,” Mouse said. “You’ll figure out who you were, I mean, are...I mean if you want to know. And if you don’t, you’ll be Asteria. Your rebirth name.”
Aster liked both the name and the idea of being reborn. She could invent whatever past accommodated her present, and although she sensed that she was rather good at pretending, she couldn’t remember why.
Aster regarded Mouse as her knight in shining armor although he dressed in dark, frayed jeans and a plain black t-shirt. Her initial impression was that he didn’t look or behave very mouselike. A mouse is small, grey and twitchy. The serious, soft-spoken man who carried her away from the foundry was tall with wiry, dark hair and a matching beard. His voice had a melodious timbre that inspired confidence, as if he did not need to speak assertively because authority belonged to him naturally. Aster was as captivated by him as she was grateful.
Ava, Philippa, and Mouse quickly and willingly made room for Aster. Three became four as if Philippa or Ava had given birth and there was now another mouth to feed, another destiny to consider. Ava shared her foam mattress with Aster, sleeping head to feet, the night they found her. The following afternoon, Mouse found a patched but usable air mattress someone had thrown in the garbage.
When their income from trash sales and street corner performances allowed, Ava visited the Laundromat. Now, she proudly produced clean sheets and a blanket that hid the grime still clinging to the mattress even though Mouse had given it a good dunking in the river.
Aster had been recuperating with her new friends for four days when they returned from a very successful scavenge and sent Ava to the market to bring back a dinner of canned salmon, sliced fresh tomatoes, crusty rye bread, and peach pie,
“It’s a celebration,” Mouse said. He lifted his fork as if it were a glass of champagne and toasted Aster. “To your returned good health and spirits.”
Aster blushed and tried to sound more cheerful than she felt. “I’m getting used to my name, you know. I feel really okay about being Aster from now on, but how will I ever be able to repay your kindness?”
They all began to murmur and gesture in response.
“No need,” Ava said, thrusting her palms outward as if to push away such an idea.
“We’re so glad you’re alright,” Philippa said, clapping her hands together on glad.
Then Mouse expounded on his favorite topic, leaning forward and stabbing the table every few words with his index finger. He called it “The Screwing of America,” and his whole face and demeanor signaled his revulsion: his eyes blazed, his cheeks reddened, and his chin tightened so that his lower lip seemed to anchor and support each word. Yet, he never raised his voice, as if anger and frustration could best be accommodated and mollified by their opposites, forbearance and restraint. “Every fucking corporation tries to squeeze people like us,” he said. “While one greedy hand tightens around our throats, the other hand distracts us by patting our empty brains and flashing soporific ads in front of our eyes to cajole us into buying product x, y or z. None of it is anything we need. Medicine men, carpetbaggers, hucksters—the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
“Mouse gets very angry and vocal about corporate malfeasance,” Philippa told Aster. “He has a law degree from Yale, and he practiced in a top firm in Boston for less than a year before he couldn’t take it any more and went underground. Since then, he --”
“For a time,” Mouse interrupted her, “I kidded myself that I was researching material for a book on street life that would launch my literary career. When I finally realized that I didn’t have the talent to be a writer, I registered for Teach America. But I couldn’t provide an address or telephone number on the form, as my lifestyle had already conformed to what you see here. So, I got up and left.”
Aster had already learned that Philippa had a B.A. degree in literature from Cornell, but according to Philippa, her education was useless. She tried to get work in publishing, in public relations, in advertising, and even in a book store. Eventually, she accepted a job selling lingerie on commission at Macy’s after the personnel manager drooled over the darkly exotic beauty of her Greek heritage. Then her divorced mother in Mamaroneck, in a big, white stucco house with pillars and a Poppenpohl kitchen, turned on the car engine with the garage door closed. Philippa told her sisters they could have her share of the inheritance. She told them there had to be more to life than the quest for money and status, so she put some clothes into an overnight bag and left.
Although Aster resembled Ave in appearance—tall, slender, green-eyed—she wondered if their early lives had any similarities. Ava never knew who her real parents were. Someone she was invited to call Auntie raised Ava with her own four kids and a husband who, according to Ava, made lazy into high art and sucked the welfare system like a sour lemon, tart to the taste but good for your well- being. “Sometimes he lived with us,” she said, “but not after government aid to dependent families required an absent spouse.”
Ava told them Auntie managed to hold things together with a part-time job waitressing in the evenings after her full-time day job as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. Ava figured one less mouth to feed would be welcome, so she left. She was fifteen. Besides the clothes on her back, she took a second-hand, second-rate acoustic guitar, a birthday gift from her four almost-siblings. To her it was more valuable than a Stradivarius.
Aster couldn’t remember her own parents, but she did remember a red car that made a lot of noise when someone took off in the early mornings. Who was it? Where was it? She didn’t know. Sometimes, the figure of a man came to her, a distinguished older man with coal black eyes whose stare made her anxious and wary. His image would flicker a moment, then dissolve into an icy mist whose cold she could actually feel.
The first few nights, Aster slept little and cried a lot, biting her lower lip and covering her face with both hands to muffle the sound. She thought about how Mouse had fortuitously come upon her at the foundry and tried to believe that being able to start over, to re-invent herself, might be a gift. Watered by her tears, her resolve grew to fill some of the empty spaces her memory could not. She determined to put the pieces back together as best she could and not wait to see the whole picture before she got on with the rest of her life. At the same time, her gut feeling told her she wasn’t yet ready to know more about before than what she’d already recovered. Now would have to be enough.
“Some people think we’re losers,” Ava said as she applied salve to Aster’s bruises. “That’s because they have no imagination. Instead, they have rules and proscriptions, a kind of group-think that limits the world to primary colors. That’s stupid and boring.
“You’ve got that right,” Philippa said, “Sometimes life isn’t black and white, only beige and grey. That frightens some people. So what if tomorrow is scary? When you’ve been thrown for a loop and landed on your feet, to coin a cliché, there’s a kind of joy in just surviving. I don’t feel like a loser at all, and I don’t pop pills like half the over-achievers out there. Besides, the three of us have learned to laugh even at ourselves. Everyone looks like a fool when they fall flat on their face, but it’s what you do next that counts.”
Aster got the message.
A week after rescuing Aster, Mouse announced a reorganization plan to divide responsibilities four ways instead of three. “Here’s what we do,” he said. “Ava makes beautiful music, so she’ll go downtown a couple of times a week and play her guitar for tips. Philippa, you keep covering the restaurants when they dump the good stuff.”
He turned to Aster and said, “We pretty much know what mornings what restaurant is going to set out leftovers along with the garbage. They put the edibles in separate bags because they know there are a whole lot of us that count on it. Philippa’s fast, too, and she’s not afraid to knee someone’s crotch so she can grab a bag and dash.”
“But what can I do?” Aster asked. “I’m not experienced at this sort of thing. I mean, I don’t think I have any experience at it.”
“You come with me,” Mouse said. “I’ll show you around the nice neighborhoods where on pick-up days there’s treasure at almost every curb. Who knows? Something along the way might be familiar.”
They hadn’t walked for more than twenty minutes when Mouse hailed a fat, balding young man who was rolling a joint in full sunlight on Elm Street. He was leaning against a battered, blue truck missing the passenger side door.
“Yo, Joe,” Mouse said as they approached him. “Where are the others?”
“Be here in a minute,” Joe said between puffs.
First came a small, dark woman with a toddler boy or girl in tow. It was hard to tell which until the woman introduced herself as Ida and the child as her son, Jerry. Jerry was dressed in long navy shorts with a plain white t-shirt and torn sneakers. His hair hung mid-cheek in a Dutch-boy cut.
Ida and Jerry were followed by an old man who looked fairly presentable in khakis and a black shirt, but who smelled like over-aged Stilton cheese and never divulged his name.
Mouse sat up front in the cab with Joe. The other four climbed into the back of the truck, Aster seating herself downwind from the old man. They drove into a neighborhood of small brick and frame houses with neat front yards patterned with abundant bushes and flowers. On the curb in front of most of the houses, they found a pile of discarded junk.
“It’s pick-up day,” Ida told Aster. “A couple times a year, the city removes anything you want to throw away. The dates and neighborhoods are printed in the local papers. Folks are supposed to pile the stuff on the curb, and after people like us take what we want, city trucks come along and get the rest. Follow my lead, honey. You’ll catch on.”
All six of them, including Jerry, began searching through the abandoned, broken or useless items. Aster found a cracked ceramic picture frame encrusted with fake sea shells and sea horses in unnatural shades of bright yellow and acid green. Ida winced and mouthed a silent no when Aster held it up to her. Then Aster showed her a two-slice aluminum toaster.
“It might work, it might not,” Aster said with a shrug of her shoulders.
“That’s the point, sweetie,” Ida said. “We’ll bag it. If it’s broke, we know someone who can fix it and sell it. If it just needs some prettifying, he can do that, too.”
By 2:00 in the afternoon, the sun had become brutal and they called it a day. On the ride back, Jerry fell asleep across his mother’s outstretched legs, and the old man dozed sitting up. Aster retreated deep into her own concerns until Ida poked her arm and asked, “What’s that?” Aster was startled but then realized she had been tapping a playing card she’d removed from the trash against her thigh.
Aster held the card at arm’s length so Ida could examine it with her. On one side was the number 10 with ten small hearts across the surface. On the reverse was a portrait of a pale young woman dressed in a wispy pink gown out of fashion for a very long time. The skirt fluttered behind the woman as if there was a light breeze. Her shoulder-length brown hair framed a sweet, oval face beneath a matching pink bonnet.
“Does the pretty little girl have a name?” Ida asked.
“She’s Pinky,” Aster said. “I had a deck of cards like this when I was young. It was part of a bridge set, Pinky and Blue Boy, copied from paintings by Gainsborough.”
“Never heard of him,” Ida said. “And what’s that about a bridge?”
“Bridge is a card game.” Aster laughed. “My mother and her friends played several afternoons a week, and I got the used cards when they began to look tacky.”
“Why? What did you do with them?”
“Oh, I guess I was pretty good at making card towers, and I played gin rummy with my brother sometimes, stuff like that.”
The two women fell silent. Well, look what I remembered, Aster thought to herself with some degree of satisfaction. She looked hard again at Pinky and wondered what else the card could tell her.
Aster closed her eyes and emptied her mind to let the memory in. She was back in her junior year in high school dressed similarly to Pinky for a school play. Although she couldn’t remember much of her performance, she did recall she had to say her lines with a British accent, which was great fun. But was that all? Had she planned to become an actress perhaps?
“Wow,” Philippa said later that night after they’d sold or bartered most of the day’s finds and bought groceries for dinner. “Only a beat-up old card and look what it made you remember.”
“Yeah,” Aster said.
“Look, I have this great idea. There’s always a flea market on Sundays on that vacant lot on the corner of Marlton and Taylor. I think we should go. We can walk along and look at stuff and see if anything helps you remember.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been to a flea market,” Aster said, “although I might have. What is it?”
“A flea market,” Philippa said, “is where people bring things they don’t want anymore and sell them cheap, real cheap. You can find great stuff like someone’s ugly purple lamp that was a gift and the lady hates, really hates purple. But someone else might just be wishing she could find a pretty little purple lamp for her daughter’s bedroom. Does that jog your memory?”
“Not really. I don’t think I ever went to something like that.”
“Flea markets started in France,” Mouse said, startling both women. They hadn’t known he’d been listening to their conversation since his nose had been buried for the last hour in a book he’d picked out of the trash that morning. “Want to know about the fleas?” he asked. They nodded.
“Well, the old-time markets were run by and for very poor people. Anything and everything was available, but the used clothes, in particular, would often be flea ridden. Folks also claim too many people crowded into the market to buy and sell, looking like a plague of fleas. Either way, we still call it a flea market after the original Marche Aux Puces.”
“He’s ever so handy to have around, isn’t he?” Ava said as she applauded Mouse’s recitation. “The stuff you know, Mousie baby.”
“Getting back to my point,” Phillipa said, “maybe a flea market is just the ticket to jog Aster’s memory. What do you think?”
Mouse and Ava thought it was worth a try, so on Sunday, the three women joined the milling crowd on Marlton and Taylor. Aster still wasn’t convinced that recovering her past life would be entirely positive. On the other hand, what if there were people who loved her and she loved them, too? What if the attack at the foundry had been random and not personal? Then there might be nothing in her forgotten life to be afraid of. But at the same time, she worried that the past would overtake her present freedom to be who and what she wanted. Neverthelesss, Aster put her doubts aside and let the women lead on.
They wandered silently among the tables and screened enclosures displaying everything from toddler toys to home-baked pies. Philippa and Ava tried to mask their attentiveness every time Aster touched an item or just leaned close to examine something, but neither spoke until Aster stopped with a gasp in front of a table displaying a few harmonicas, a set of bongo drums, and several worn, wooden recorders. As she picked up one of the recorders, she experienced a sudden rush of giddy delight like children do when they run up the down escalator.
“I used to have one of these. I think I took lessons, too—from Miss Klaxton. Sophonisba Klaxton. It was a group thing and my best friend, Debbie, was there.”
Philippa grinned. “Sophonisba Klaxton. Now we’re getting somewhere. With a whacky name like that, a search on the Internet might find her. It’s worth a try. I can go to the library tomorrow and use one of their computers. Okay, Aster?”
“Sure,” Aster said absently, still absorbed with turning the recorder over and over in her hands as if sound could be wrought from its scarred surface by touch alone.
In the morning when Aster got up, Mouse had already gone, and Philippa silently handed her a note he’d left: Moving on. It’s time. I’ll send word if I settle in nearby. I’ll be in touch, but I need my own space for a while.
Aster was devastated, but tried not to show it. Mouse represented a security that the women could not. They were like petty officers in the navy, able and dedicated, but always deferring to the admiral. Aster had to admit, as well, that she had a crush on Mouse. She’d miss him terribly, and suddenly, sadly she realized that she didn’t know his real name any more than her own.
Ava seemed nonplused by Mouse’s desertion. “No surprise. He’s gone off by himself before. Two or three weeks at a time, not much more. He’s just too anxious, too restless to stay put for long. He’ll get in touch eventually. Meanwhile, today you go solo. It’ll be fine.”
And that was why Aster was now sitting on a park bench on a muggy August afternoon contemplating her next move.
Ava had paid two dollars for the flea market recorder as an investment in future street corner duets with Ava herself on the guitar. Aster said she’d practice the recorder and let Ava know when she was ready for public exposure. She’d already piped a simple tune on the recorder without remembering the song’s title. Then Philippa asked her if she could play “Blueberry Hill,” and she did. There were some stops and tentative starts and very little color to her rendition, but they all smiled at each other when she’d finished. Aster giggled happily.
The morning after Mouse left, Ava went out alone with her guitar. Later, Aster and Philippa walked a ways together and then split at the intersection across from the library where Philippa intended to google Sophonisba Klaxton. Aster fingered the recorder sticking out of her jean pocket. Just touching it relaxed her; actually playing it filled her with contentment. She waved goodbye to Philippa, indifferent to whether she was successful at finding Sophonisba. Sitting now on the park bench as the sun got hotter and the air thickened with humidity, Aster began to feel uneasy about the slightest, most remote possibility that Philippa could locate her old teacher. Then what?
Sophonisba could be living at the opposite end of the country, she could be dead, or she could have an unlisted phone and not respond to e-mail. Then again, she could be in one of the surrounding suburbs half-an-hour away. She might remember Aster from Philippa’s description. She might still be in touch with Aster’s family. She might even send them to take Aster-whatever-her-real-name-was back to someplace called home.
Despite the heat, a shiver of anxiety brought Aster to her feet. “Is that what I want? she asked herself out loud. She sat down again and considered going to the library to talk to Philippa, weighing the pros and cons of contacting Sophonisba Klaxton if she could be found. If only Mouse was nearby; he’d know what to do. Philippa and Ava meant well, but helping Aster recover her former self seemed to be no more than a game to them. Their eagerness and sense of urgency made Aster uncomfortable, and she knew right then, without even having to articulate the warning in words, that she couldn’t go back to the two women who themselves posed no threat, but nevertheless might link her to a past she wasn’t ready to find. Not yet.
Aster hadn’t forgotten how Mouse had come upon her, bruised, bloodied, and abandoned. What had that been all about? The answer was certainly one she had to know before she could go back to before.
Shortly after she’d moved in with Mouse, Philippa, and Ava, Aster thought about going to the police. She considered making up a story about a missing sister to see if anyone was looking for someone like that, like her, but she dismissed the idea almost immediately. What if someone who still wanted to harm her was looking for her? What if now was a good sight better than before? Being found was a risk her memory loss prevented her from judging.
Mouse once told her, “Avoidance is a common reaction to trauma. You might be avoiding thoughts and feelings as a coping strategy, but that isn’t such a good idea. I had a psychology professor who convinced me that the more we avoid thoughts and feelings about stressful situations, the more the distress increases and the less likely we are to be able to move on with our lives.”
Aster put Mouse’s implied advice out of her mind. Instead she focused on how she might get by on her own so that whether or not she searched for someone from her past would be her decision alone. Of course, the prospect of living on the streets—not just homeless, but destitute—frightened her. She stood uncomfortably between a rock and a hard place, the streets versus Ava’s and Philippa’s pressure to regain her past too quickly.
Aster looked skyward and shaded her eyes against the August sunlight slanted toward midday. I have hours yet before it’s too dark to find a safe place to go, she told herself, and if it doesn’t work out, well, I’ll try to convince Ava and Phillipa that recovering my memory has to take all the time I need it to.
Having made the decision to put off deciding, Aster asked herself how she could get money for food, whether or not she stayed with the women. Without an easy answer, she walked out of the park and along streets chosen according to names that appealed to her: Blackberry, South Madison, Prince. Eventually, she turned into a street where two mimes, a man and a woman, were entertaining passers-by with a silent but energetic skit about riding horses and climbing up a steep incline. They slid back into a heap at the end to the sound of applause and the tinkle of a few coins dropped into a chipped cup.
After about ten minutes, the mimes began their routine again, attracting a few new pedestrians. Aster studied their fluid poses, arched backs, extended limbs, O-shaped mouths and wide-eyed surprise. Could she learn to mime as well as they did?
As she watched their third performance from a doorway, Aster’s body stretched and contracted as theirs did. Her heart beat faster, but her breathing became shallow and focused as she fixated on hypothetically joining their improvisation. After the fifth repetition of their ride and slide, Aster joined the brief applause and then stepped toward the bowing mimes, scooping up for them the coins that had missed the cup and skittered along the sidewalk. She handed the coins to the female mime and steeled herself to ask, in mime, if she could perform with them. If they didn’t want a third partner, maybe they’d let her accompany their routine on the recorder.
It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was a start. She could contact Ava and Philippa when she was more ready to find her lost self. Maybe Mouse would be back by then. For now, inventing Aster would have to be enough.
Aster bowed low with a courtly flourish of her right arm as she lifted an imaginary hat from her head with her opposite hand and looked up at the mimes with smiling eyes.