The Lesson of the Five Lilys
by Patricia Abbott
Candace Emory met the first of the five Lilys outside the Barton Springs pool.
“It was my grandmother’s name,” a wispy redhead in Diesel jeans and a pink tube top, told her, jiggling the pram. Careful not to touch the baby, Candace did the peek-a-boo routine. She’d recently read about the possessiveness of new mothers in Good Housekeeping Magazine. Under a crocheted coverlet, the infant was unexpectedly dressed like one of the bug-like babies found on a calendar, giving Candace quite a start.
“We flew all the way to China to get her,” the redhead added, fussily readjusting the blanket.
For a second, Candace thought she’d said, “We dug all the way to China to get her,” and the image of the redhead digging feverishly on a Gulf beach flew into her head. Then the baby started to cry, Candace noticing too late it was her own dripping head causing the disturbance.
“Guess your Lily didn’t plan to be baptized today.” She gave her hair a quick squeeze and rewrapped the ratty yellow towel around her middle.
Climbing into her ancient Cherokee a few minutes later, Candace applied a thick coat of orange flip lipstick, a thin layer of mascara, and raked her blonde hair back. The car started on the first try, and still in her damp suit, she headed up South Congress towards Escapades, wondering how you went about locating a baby in China? Was it something you could plan ahead or did you just turn up hoping for the best? Babies and their habits had begun to occupy a lot of her thoughts as she approached forty. She’d never expected to be single and childless at this age.
Lulu, a contortionist, was headliner and manager at Escapades, Candace’s former place of employment. Though it sounded like a strip club, Escapades scheduled an assortment of offbeat but legitimate acts. There was a heavy emphasis on sexual innuendo, but nobody took their clothes off now that Austin was chic.
The stage manager positioned a special gold-leafed vanity table and chair on stage for Lulu’s act. Here she sat daintily on the heart-shaped seat, her right foot rouging her cheeks, dabbing on eye shadow and applying lipstick with precision. For the grand finale, she ran a brush through her hair with her left foot and blotted her lips. Lulu was a small, wiry woman, which made it easier to put her limbs where they needed to go
The audience watched the routine through a large gilt mirror expertly posed in front of her, and there was always a huge burst of applause at the end. There was no trick or con to it either. Most acts got old over time, but watching Lulu twist her limbs was always something special. There were fellows in the State House who’d been at Escapades to watch Lulu powder her face more than fifty times. Freshmen legislators were brought there routinely as a rite of passage. More than one had hit the floor after some of her trickier gyrations.
Candace’s boyfriend, Rufus, complained that Lulu’s limberness was wasted on her female lovers, but Candace didn’t see why.
Women appreciated a supple lover as much as anyone. Maybe more since the principal attraction was missing, though Lulu refuted this notion. “When it comes to love-making, I like a slow hand,” she told Candace in one of her few confiding moments. “Women understand that.”
“Yeah, but then what?”
Lulu rolled her eyes.
Candace made it a practice to come to her friend for advice on various business, cultural, and political matters now that she’d turned the family home into a B & B.
“Have you named the place yet?” Lulu asked now, jotting a name in the reservation book with a gloved hand. A new tattoo of a buxom mermaid adorned her left calf, and she was trying not to touch it. “It’s going on a year now. You need to pick a name!”
“It’ll come to me soon,” Candace told her. She believed in taking her time with decisions, which was probably why this adoption business was dragging on.
When she got home, she called up the woman from Social Services again and told her to put her application back in the active file.
“I’m ready to get the ball rolling.”
“Your paperwork is getting dog-eared,” the woman said. “so you might want to rewrite it. Someone looking it over might think you’re not committed to the process.”
She was committed all right. That Lily at the Barton pool had been so damned cute. And she wouldn’t dress her kid like any bug either!
Lily #2 was several months older than the first and looked like a porcelain doll sitting in an H-E-B shopping cart in a kimono. A pair of tiny knitting needles held up her hair.
“I have an older daughter named Daisy,” her mother told the glum checker, who hadn’t even asked. “So we decided to stick with the flower theme. Daisy’s from Romania, Lily’s Chinese.”
Sighing, the checker loaded another bag while the mother continued to chatter about flowers and babies. Neither of them noticed when Candace helped Lily #2 slip a glitzy key chain off the display rack. The tot popped it in her mouth before Candace could even react. Sighing even more loudly, the checker stamped on her floor button, and after a few harsh words with H-E-B management, the key chain was purchased for $1.49. The irate mother tossed it in a trashcan before exiting the store much to Lily #2’s distress. Candace could’ve told the people at H-E-B that losing a regular customer was worth more than $1.49. She was learning such things now that she was an Austin businesswoman.
“Aren’t there any American babies to adopt anymore?” she asked Rufus later that night. That lady at Social Services hadn’t been too encouraging. “What if flying to China isn’t your bag?”
Rufus shrugged, his eyes fixed on the stage at the Broken Spoke where a cowboy in buckskin sang mournful songs in an easy key. She drained her glass and stood.
“Got a couple coming in from Nashville tonight. Better be there to greet them.”
Rufus nodded, his eyes half-closed as he tapped his foot gently on the wooden planks. Couldn’t get him to come near her place since she made him plunge a toilet. If she wanted sex, she had to hide her distaste at Rufus’ personal hygiene and housekeeping oddities and follow his scrawny ass home to his unmade bed, gritty with — well, who knew what. This is what it had come to, trailing after a bogus cowboy whose only interest was in drinking cheap whiskey and listening to honky-tonk music.
“Familiarity breeds contempt,” Lulu had told her more than once when Rufus’ name had come up.
Why did she stay with Rufus? He didn’t hit her, there was that. And he never made her feel stupid.
“Couldn’t if he wanted to,” Lulu said when she told her this. “He’s three steps behind you in that regard.”
Smart or not, operating a B & B in Austin was turning out to be a lot harder than Candace expected. She had put nearly $30,000 of home equity money into improvements after her daddy died and left her the place last year. She gave up all personal space except for a tiny bedroom off the kitchen that nobody would pay for. Sometimes she felt less at home than her guests, tiptoeing around so as not to disturb them, rushing home to make sure everyone was all right, checking that no one had polished off the next day’s breakfast, stolen the silverware, or backed up another john.
And speaking of breakfast, that was a constant headache too, with guests expecting a new menu every morning. No matter how much they praised her Aloha Surprise their first morning, it looked like soggy refrigerator rolls with frozen blueberries, a Dole pineapple slice, and Aunt Jemima’s waffle syrup the second time around. And as long as she was airing her gripes, here was another one: guests continued to insist there were better rooms to be had than the one they were sleeping in despite her full-color illustrations on the Internet. She often found visitors wandering around the house, opening and shutting doors, looking for that perfect room they booked on the Internet.
“Oh, I thought the Ann Richards Room had a king-sized,” they’d say, even though it was clearly twin beds in the picture. Or, “I didn’t realize Ladybird’s Nest faced east. We like to sleep in!”
Other Austin B & B owners had advised her not to promise rooms in advance, but she always ended up giving in.
“I’ll just pencil you in for ZZ Top’s ‘zzzs,’” she’d glibly promise any joker that gave her a credit card number. Naming the rooms after famous Texans had its downside too. More than one Republican had refused to spend the night in the Ann Richards room, and one fellow had turned up his nose at spending the night in Ladybird’s Nest, even when it was clear he’d no idea who she was.
Lily #3 was named Lily, “because it sounded like her old Chinese name.” Her new fathers were a gay couple who ran a B & B on the U-T campus.
“It was Lilja — or something like that. Anyway, it’s printed on her birth certificate if she ever wants to look,” Hal, the bald one, said. “Girl, you still haven’t invited us over to see what you’ve done to your place. Wouldn’t your daddy turn over in his urn if he saw it? Remember how he doted on that house, Lar. Planted all those northern shrubs and replaced them every year.”
Both men were dressed in red shirts with striped suspenders to compliment the baby’s striped dress and sunbonnet. Lily #3 looked like a candy cane. All three did.
“Didn’t even know you guys were in the market for a baby.”
Now that didn’t sound right; you didn’t look for a baby like you did a house or a mattress. But both fathers were beaming, as proud as any parents that had produced a baby the traditional way. Their Lily was nearly a year old.
“We were on pins and needles before her birth!” Larry, the bearded one, confided. “What if she had been a he?” Giving Candace a “whew” look, he bent over and adjusted the child’s hat.
Lily #3 scowled, and tossing it like a Frisbee, hollered, “No.”
Their lab trotted off to fetch it, looking resigned.
“Good girl,” the younger man cried. “Isn’t she the cutest thing, Candace!”
Candace couldn’t tell if he meant Lily #3 or the dog, but she nodded. “You didn’t want a boy then?”
“No, honey, don’t you get it? If Lily was a boy, they’d have kept him! The Chinese don’t give away their little boys!”
The two men moved on, chuckling over her naiveté, though not bothering to explain why the Chinese gave away the little girls.
“We’re coming over to see your remodeling job soon, Candace. Better be ready for the grand tour.” Hal waved Lily’s rejected hat in farewell. The setter jumped up at his gesture, ready to take off should the need arise.
Candace had planned on telling them about her own plans to adopt, but somehow the words dried up on her tongue. Hal and Larry seemed so well-prepared for their Lily, knowing all that stuff about China, designing the cute, matching costumes, training the setter to run after hats. She couldn’t seem to hone in on what things she needed to know to even get herself a baby? And Lulu, her only resource, couldn’t give her much advice with motherhood. She was pretty sure Lulu’d never even been near babies, working nights like she did.
Another problem with the B & B business was that guests expected a fabulous garden, and it wasn’t easy to maintain the lushness of the English garden through a Texas summer. Some of the local innkeepers tried to cultivate a southwestern look, but her Victorian-style house, with its wraparound porches, didn’t lend itself to that sort of landscaping. According to her sources (Lulu), there was the expectation of a water feature at your better B & Bs too. Some innkeepers had erected waterfalls in their backyards. Others had installed well-stocked fishponds or, at the very least, a creek running through the garden.
So far she had been getting by with a bubbling water pail she picked up at Target and a few flats of pink and white petunias.
“Looks like a damned bidet,” Lulu told her when she first set it up. “Someone’s gonna drop their pants.”
She gave her the name of a gardener who’d done some landscaping at Flo’s. “Mr. Yamamota’s specialty is bonsai,” Lulu said on the phone.
The Japanese gardener showed up in a Ford pickup with his infant daughter and a thick portfolio of ideas. His daughter, bouncing gently on his chest, awoke as they were introducing themselves. They watched silently as the infant tried unsuccessfully to put her hand in her mouth.
“She doesn’t even know it’s her own hand yet. Right, Lily?” He took her hand and kissed it, eliciting a look of surprise from Lily #4.
“Her name’s Lily?” Candace asked. This Lily was costumed like a flower with green tights and lavender top.
He nodded. “We picked a name that sounded American.” He looked around, seemingly surprised to find himself in Texas.
“And my wife thought the name of a flower …”
“Oh, sure. Cause you’re a gardener.”
He nodded, and then made a number of suggestions about flowers and shrubs. “As for the water feature, I think a small pond with some appropriate vegetation would work nicely.”
“Vegetation?” She pictured heads of cabbage floating by, a trail of earthy beets.
Mr. Yamamota was already busy with his sketchpad, Lily asleep on his chest, so she saved her questions. How did it feel to have twelve pounds of squirming baby flesh pressed against your clavicle all day? Could she get her chores done with a similar setup? Could a single woman of forty, weighing 110 pounds, make a place for a child at all? It was beginning to seem unlikely. If you had a baby in the usual way at the regular time with a husband to help, probably a lot of these questions never arose. But by forty, it was hard to get past the troubling questions and find your way into the reassuring answers.
“Rufus,” she asked that night at the Continental Club, “where is this thing of ours going?” They were outside by then, standing in line to buy barbecue. Lucinda Williams’ new CD was playing somewhere. A local black family showed up with barbecue most nights since the Continental kept no kitchen. Some people came as much for the barbecue as the music.
For her part, Candace came to get away from her guests. It was the hour when they were deciding where to go to dinner. She didn’t like to be too available for the inevitable request for a restaurant recommendation, though more than once, someone had chased her down the street. Even the three-ring binder in the foyer with menus from every restaurant in town hadn’t made much difference.
“Yes, but which one is the most authentic?” they’d say, trailing after her. “Which has the best barbecue?”
When she left home tonight, a teenager was sitting on the porch picking a guitar. Ten minutes earlier, the instrument had been hanging on the wall in “Elvis’s Pad.” Not that the guitar was valuable or anything but still. She’d bet anything he’d pulled down some plaster with it too.
“Elvis isn’t from Texas,” he’d told her earlier. Well, that was technically true, but nobody else had ever objected to finding Elvis relics here.
If she ever did get herself a baby, would it turn into someone like him? The teenager was massive; twice now she had caught him sampling the next day’s breakfast. His head was as rectangular as a Cheerios box, and he had little eyes, more on the side of his head than his face. And now it turned out, he was a smarty-pants too. His parents, two puny, frightened-looking folks, took off as soon as they arrived, leaving the poor kid to make his own fun. Had he been a darling infant once or were the signs of what was to come there at birth?
“Going?” Rufus asked finally in the lazy voice he used when her question wasn’t to his liking. He was wearing the black “Austin Motel – So Close Yet So Far Out” T-shirt he wore three nights out of five. The motel owners had given the T-shirts away at an Austin Days celebration last year, cagily getting half the town to advertise their place for a small outlay of cash. She found it vaguely insulting that Rufus advertised a competitor’s motel even though he offered to wear one for her when she found the right name to put on it. Rufus’ pants hung low and baggy beneath the shirt; his pointy boots were scuffed. Though basically a thin man, Rufus somehow gave the appearance of having a flabby heft. He did have a sweet mouth though, she reminded herself. And he didn’t hit her. Never called her stupid.
“Us,” she clarified finally. “You and me. Where are we going?”
They were at the front of the line now, and he quickly busied himself with his dinner selection. “I have to begin looking out for myself,” she continued. “Ripeness turns to rot after forty.” She wanted to grab that damned little sprout of hair on his chin and yank hard. “Everyone has a Lily but me.”
He didn’t bother to ask what she meant by that. Didn’t say, “Who the hell is Lily?” Didn’t bother with any of it. Instead, he had his eyes on his plate, the plastic bin of icy Peppers. He was eyeballing that food like he’d been hungry all his life. Well, so had she!
“’And I have been so fuckin’ alone,’” she sang out suddenly, repeating Lucinda’s words and glaring up at him.
Rufus looked shocked, not realizing, of course, she was quoting Lucinda rather than sitting in judgment.
She paused a minute. “Ever think about shaving that dopey thing off?”
He had the nerve to look hurt then, and she watched coldly as he shoveled shredded meat into his mouth with a plastic fork. That about tears it, she thought, but minutes later Rufus snuck an arm around her waist and she didn’t have the heart to move it. That was another good thing about him. He didn’t hold a grudge.
The Lily #5 came with her parents and stayed in “Janis Joplins’ Joint.” It was the hardest room to book since it was on the third floor and didn’t have its own bath. Actually, you had to run down two flights and share the bathroom Candace used.
“I’m hardly ever in there,” she promised prospective guests, but few people wanted to jog downstairs at two in the morning should the need arise.
“Isn’t it quaint?” she always asked to no avail. “Don’t you just love that ole lava lamp? That orange shag?”
The rest of the rooms were occupied though, and the couple, Chinese or Vietnamese, she never could tell which, showed up late in the day looking exhausted.
“Now remember, it’s the only room left,” she warned, mounting the stairs.
She kept looking back to make sure they were still behind her. They seemed like the kind of folks who would disappear between floors — like a scene from one of those Hong Kong horror movies she and Lulu watched on DVD.
“It’s got a sink of its own, of course.”
The man looked alarmed and held his fingers to his nose.
“Sink,” she repeated and pretended to turn faucets. “See that way you all can get yourself some water to brush your teeth.” She looked at them carefully. “You can’t pee in it though. No urinating,” she clarified.
They looked at her gravely, not understanding a word. Any action to demonstrate that action ran the risk of being obscene so she counted on their good judgment, a calculation proving unwise in the past.
The threesome didn’t make a sound as they continued their climb — somehow missing all the squeaky boards she hit with regularity. She hoped they were Chinese because Vietnamese tourists made her nervous what with LBJ bombing the hell out of Vietnam for all those years. So many aging South Vietnamese generals had settled in Texas now, they had an anniversary dinner at a local restaurant every spring, all of them wearing uniforms and firing their ancient guns at the poor old oaks in the courtyard.
This Lily was probably two. She was decked out in a cowgirl outfit with tiny pink vinyl boots. Did all babies dress in costumes nowadays? Candace showed them how the TV worked, how the air turned on.
“So whadya think?” she finally asked.
The mother shrugged; the father sighed. Tired of waiting for their decision, Lily #5 gave her parents a look of irritation and threw herself on the rollaway bed, carefully removing her pink boots and placing them on the floor. Within seconds, she was asleep. Candace tiptoed out of the room, thinking the carpeting was looking a little matted. She couldn’t believe that skunky old stuff was back in style.
Lily #5 had seemed clearly disappointed by her parents’ inability to find her a nice room, Candace thought. Did that sort of disappointment start early? Would she constantly be explaining her personal failures to a toddler? Her own folks had been piss-poor parents, but she hadn’t known it for years. They were real good at deflecting any blame.
“What can I do?” her mother would say wringing her hands.
“Don’t ask me,” her father would chime in, wiping hard at his eyes.
“Have you been hearing about a lot of babies named Lily lately?” she asked Lulu the next afternoon. “Especially Chinese ones?”
Lulu was sitting at the kitchen table painting her toenails. She kept her toenails meticulously manicured since they were often at eye level from the stage. “What’s that sexy looking color you’re using?”
Lulu pushed the bottle across the table. “No, I haven’t met a single Lily I can think of. People give me a wide berth when it comes to their tots.”
Middle age had recently added a mustache to Lulu’s upper lip, and her tattoos were running into each other. She’d even crossed a line by adding a small heart to her chin. She was a charter member of the “Keep Austin Weird” club all right. Stay in Austin too long and you’d find yourself sporting unusual body art or taking up a peculiar hobby. South Austin, in particular, courted strangeness.
The antique mall on the nearby corner gave testament to just how looney people could be with its collections of craft crap from the last forty years. Hobbies tried out and discarded in other places took on new life here. Candace herself had spent one whole year covering wicker furniture with shells and another spring concocting sculptures from colored duct tape. Paint by numbers canvasses were sought out, chainsaw art was a blue-ribbon event, dumpster diving trophies were sold in the local rag, and cooking contests using esoteric ingredients were a weekly event.
“I’m not thinking about Chinese babies named Lily particularly.” Candace finished her first hand and admired it. “They’re just the only ones I meet. When I was a kid someone told me the yellow man would eventually rule the world. Maybe this is it.”
“Asian,” Lulu corrected her. “And don’t quote me that racist shit.”
“I wonder if I could adopt an Asian baby. It’s getting so they look more natural than the regular ones in Austin.”
“Didn’t you ever think about having babies before now?” Lulu asked, setting down her eyeglasses. She had also gotten far-sighted of late.
“Guess I was just having fun, sowing some wild seeds. Trying to get my career going”
“Look, before you drag some baby over here from China, you’d better be sure what you’re doing?” Lulu glared at her. “Won’t be able to go running off to the Continental Club to see Rufus with an infant under your arm.”
The vegetation Mr. Yamamota had in mind was lily-pads. He installed or planted or whatever you called it, once the pond water had settled. The new pond was dug in the sunniest part of her yard, where algae wouldn’t take over. A frog moved in a few days later and a rooster and his consort from down the road came by twice a day to perch on the sunnier end and crow. That’s when the name for her B & B came into focus — The Lily Pad. She didn’t even mind when guests started calling her Lily right off.
“I thought I was getting vibes about adopting a baby, but it all turned out to be about a name for the B & B,” she told Lulu. “Funny how often I can’t read my own mind.”
It was dead summer now, and the new pond with its lily pads was the coolest thing in sight. From the right angle, you could even admire the Austin skyline. She could probably open a bar and serve fancy martinis with blueberry vodka and anchovy-stuffed olives. She was feeling real good about things, even Rufus had taken on a new luster.
“So you’ve given up on the baby idea?” Lulu asked, pouring another glass of sweet tea. They hadn’t had a chance to talk in weeks. Lulu had a bandaged ankle propped up on the opposite chair, admitting earlier she was thinking of retiring from performing. Candace couldn’t imagine Escapades without Lulu twisting her limbs around her neck. Contortionists were hard to come by.
“Not given up,” Candace said. “Just postponed. Diane Keaton adopted some babies in her fifties. I still got time.”
“Yes, but she’s a celebrity,” Lulu said, dipping her good foot in the pond and swishing it around. “People are standing in line to have Diane Keaton adopt their kids.”
“Well, I’m headed in that direction myself,” Candace advised her. “Toward being a celebrity, that is. I booked my first rock band last week.”
“Maybe this is your baby,” Lulu said, looking around. “The Lily Pad.”
Candace blinked as her eyes caught the sun. “Well, I’m not going to say anything like that just yet but …”
The sound of spitting gravel turned their heads. Candace/Lily jumped up as a van reading “Country Rogues” pulled into the drive. “But I may just be the kind of person cut out for a bigger career than motherhood.”Lulu nodded.
“Hey fellas,” she shouted, trotting over to the driveway. “I’m Lily.” She held her arms out wide. “Wait till you see the cool rooms I saved for you!”
Patricia Abbott lives in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, but spent several weeks in Austin a few years ago and has frequently vacationed in the south. More than 100 of her stories have been published in print journals, online zines and anthologies. She has two ebooks, Monkey Justice and Home Invasion and also edited an anthology of flash fiction called Discount Noir, all stories set in a Walmart.