Through the crack, you could see the smiling face of a gray-haired woman. Ana greeted her; unexpectedly, an image from a book popped into her head—Alice in Wonderland?—a grinning cat that erased itself. Not all of a sudden: it un-drew itself slowly, first tail, then body, and finally head. Until only its smile remained, rigid, colossal, suspended in the air. This was the same, but the other way around: as if the smile had been there before Ana arrived. Waiting for her.
“What can I offer you, Miss?”
The woman’s question, on the other hand, didn’t indicate that she had been waiting. Ana adopted a confident official air.
“It’s for the national census. I’m conducting the census.”
“Oh, the census!” Her tone was surprising: a mix of celebration and grievance. “I told my daughter that you were going to come around midday but she…”
She cut herself off in the middle of her sentence. This woman leaves everything up in the air, it occurred to Ana. Ana told her that she arrives whenever possible.
“Of course, my dear daughter.” The woman opened the door wide. “Come in, please. With that little body of yours you’ll get swept up by the wind.”
As if the woman had made her thinner, Ana realized she was hungry, or was it the smell of food? The hallway was impeccable: a mosaic floor, little carpets, polished furniture. An open children’s magazine was the only thing that seemed out of place. The woman also saw it: “Oh, those kids,” she mumbled softly as she closed the door.
“I know that this is an inconvenient time but it’ll just take a couple of minutes, no more.”
“Oh no, my dear, you can stay all afternoon if you’d like.” She put the magazine in a drawer. “Sorry, I didn’t introduce myself, I’m Ferrari’s wife. But everyone just calls me Amelia.”
“And I’m Ana. Can I sit down here so we can do this?”
The woman said no way; Ana should come to the dining room with her as God would want. She opened a door to the patio.
“What worries me is that my daughter left. Plus, my shameless husband told me today that he’s not coming home for lunch.” She shook her head with a sweet expression. “Poor thing, he’s taking advantage of his day off to get ahead with work and I’m calling him shameless.”
Ana said that there was no need for her husband to be here for this. The woman smiled with a bit of modesty.
“I know that you’re going to make fun of me. I say that because I have three daughters, the oldest is twenty-two and the youngest fourteen, so don’t think that I don’t know what today’s girls think and say. Come over here. But what can I say, one is used to one’s old ways; honestly, the one who takes care of things at home is my husband. He’s fifteen years older than me, imagine; to him I’m always his doll, watch out!”
Ana had just stepped on a skateboard in the doorway. The woman caught her in time.
“Oh those kids,” she grumbled, like before in the hallway, “they leave things all over the place. Sit down, dear, relax.” She pointed her to a chair at a grand oval table covered in cups and breakfast leftovers. “The thing is that he’s the youngest, you know, and the only boy. Such a beautiful blond one,” she said dreamily. “The spoiled one in the family, you can imagine I’m sure.”
Yes, yes, what was unimaginable was why the woman had insisted upon bringing her to the dining room: crumbs all over the place, there was no reasonable place to set down the forms. Ana blew away some crumbs and set down her papers as well as she could. With a certain listlessness she contemplated a half-eaten piece of toast with jam.
“I don’t know what you’re going to think about me.” The woman hastily put things away on a tray. “The thing is that since it’s a holiday the kids got up around twelve and…”
Ana filled in the first few entries trying not to listen. Wasn’t there a certain voracity about these wives who played up their husbands and children as if they were small pieces of art? She observed the woman’s hustle and bustle for a few seconds: she was about to lose her patience.
“Would you mind sitting down for a minute, so we can just finish this up? I still have a lot of things to do and I haven’t eaten lunch yet. Couldn’t we . . . ?”
“Oh, dear daughter, I’m a criminal. I have you here dying of hunger and I haven’t even offered you a bite. Look, let’s do the following, everyone left me alone for lunch today. Come, come with me to the kitchen. You ask me the questions and I’ll invite you for lunch. You’ll be doing me a favor, seriously, I’m not used to eating alone.”
Ana resisted without much effort.
“Come on, you’re not going to fool me, I could be your mother. Come, you must be dying of hunger. Come with me to the kitchen. My husband and kids love eating in the kitchen.”
So what. Hadn’t she been hoping that in some house they would offer her something? She inhaled the aroma of food and rose to her feet.
The woman opened a door that must have opened into another room; she closed it violently, as if she had seen something disgusting. She looked at Ana with a kind of distrust.
“I was going to have you go through the bedroom,” she said, “But I forgot that I didn’t make the beds today. Come through here,” and she went out the door to the patio.
Ana followed her. What did it matter in the end? She heard voices of children from the other side of the fence. The neighbors next door, she thought, this home seemed to have everything.
“Yelling all day, I’m sick of it,” said the woman in a bad mood; she looked at Ana fleetingly and sweetened her tone. “Anyways, they’re kids like mine, no? The thing is that it’s easier to see the fault in others. Come in, come on, this is the kitchen.”
A big pan was on the stove. The woman picked up the cover and stirred it with a wooden spoon. A strong aroma wafted through the kitchen.
“Come, look, tell me if this food is OK. It’s enough for an army,” she laughed good-naturedly. “I always make too much, what can I say, with those kids you never know when they’re going to invite someone.”
She’s the perfect mother, thought Ana. She sat down and arranged her papers while the woman set the table for two and put the food in a casserole.
“Ask me, dear. Then we can eat peacefully,” she sat down and began filling the plates.
Ana picked up her pen. She asked how many lived in the house, although it wasn’t necessary anymore.
“Just us,” said the woman sweetly. “Sorry, you might want to know how many we are, those things. My husband, my three daughters and the baby: Benjamin.” She shrugged her shoulders, “and me, of course. I’ll tell you our ages?”
Ana said that it wasn’t necessary. She asked who worked.
“Ah, yes. He supports all of us. I mean, my daughter, the eldest also works. She’s a decorator. But just for fun, you know. Her father didn’t want her to but I’m with the modern youth.”
“Yes, Ma’am, yes. Do any of them go to school?”
“What a question. Of course, the baby is in elementary school, in fourth grade. The youngest of the girls is in tenth grade. And the next one is in her first year of medicine. That one is very bright, and I’m not saying it just because I’m her mother.”
Ana took a look at the plate that had been served to her. It seemed worth it, right? She asked how many bedrooms the house had.
“What?” The woman seemed to be alarmed. “Oh, five.”
Five? Finally. Ana wrote it down and set down her pen. She set aside the forms.
Unexpectedly, the woman sang softly to herself. She seemed younger now: she beamed.
“So that was it,” she said for her own sake.
Ana had already begun eating. Delicious, really. Now the woman could talk all she wanted to. About her exemplary husband and her three graceful young ones and about the blond beauty of the family. Why not: everyone has her own small treasure. While eating she felt magnanimous.
“See, it wasn’t so bad,” she said in a playful tone.
The woman nodded her head. It seemed that she couldn’t believe all of the marvelous things that had just happened. She timidly pointed at the forms.
“And that, where do they go?”
“This?” Ana regarded the papers with cynicism. “I don’t know, they’ll do statistics, that type of thing.”
“Statistics,” repeated the woman. Ana realized she’d better leave right away, before the woman began talking again.
“Get off of that immediately!” she heard.
“I’m not getting off.”
The neighbors next door. Messed up people, really, the woman was right. “Get off!”
“I’m telling you I’m not getting off, no way!” Louder now. “I want my skateboard.”
Ana looked behind the door to the patio, toward the place where the voice was coming from. She saw a blond kid leaning over the fence. “Get off, I said, you’re going to fall.”
“Eat once and for all,” said the woman drily, “your food is going to get cold.”
“I want my skateboard,” repeated the child. “Amelia!”
“Miss Amelia,” the neighbor corrected him.
“Miss Amelia!” yelled the kid. “Are you there?”
Ana looked at the woman: she ate with her eyes fixed on her plate.
“Miss Amelia!” The kid made out Ana’s face in the kitchen. “Hey you, is Miss Amelia there?”
Ana continued to look at the woman, who was concentrating on her plate. Ana rolled her eyes in disgust.
“Listen,” she said furiously, “they’re asking for Miss Amelia, didn’t you hear?”
“So what?” said the woman. “Do you think I’m obliged to know everyone in the neighborhood?”
“Be nice,” yelled the kid. “I lent it to her because she said it was for a nephew, but now my mom says that she doesn’t have any nephews or anything. You’re not a nephew, are you?” He laughed, amused by his joke; the neighbor woman mumbled something incoherent. “I’m getting down now because they’re gonna kill me. Bye. If you see Miss Amelia, you know.”
And like an actor who had finished his role, the kid, with his blond head, disappeared from behind the fence.
“Is he finished yet?”
Ana turned her head around. The woman was standing in front of her. The gossipy quality that before seemed to animate her had disappeared from her face and from her body.
She took away the plates. With meticulousness, with firmness, she threw the food into the garbage. So much work just for this, Ana thought without realizing it. She felt like running out of there.
As if the woman was forcing her to finish to the very end. She put on her hard inexpressive face again.
“No, thanks. I have to go.”
Ana got up. She rapidly collected her papers.
“This . . . ?” the woman interrupted her. Her extended arm pointed toward the papers.
This. Finally Ana understood. A kind of horror invaded her. She spoke very softly.
“This will stay the way it is,” she said.
For just one second the woman’s expression recovered that quality of letting everything out that she had before. No more than a gust of wind. The possibility of a love that glistened and burned out.
Then the woman, silent and rigid, guided Ana to the exit. She didn’t respond to her good-bye, she didn’t even look at her. She waited for her to leave, and with a heavy force, turning the key twice, she locked the door.
Copyright Liliana Heker. Translation copyright 2008 by Sheena Sood. All rights reserved.