Lillian and the Shack
By: Janet Brown
When I was a young girl, there was a little, old, brown house that was situated down from where I lived. This house, which was really a shack, would actually serve as a home for many different people over a span of many years.
It was a very odd looking construction for many reasons. For one, the little brown house sat far back away from the road; it could not be seen by anyone who may be driving by. The driveway that led to the house was the same one used by the owners of the big house that sat closer to the road. This shared driveway arrangement between the two houses caused problems. Throughout the years, whenever the little brown house had occupants, and there were numerous short term transients, the owners in the big house had to move their car so that there was room for the other one to get by. Sometimes the driver would steer the car off of the driveway and this would enrage the owners when they saw the flattened grass and the tire track marks.
Fortunately, for the big house owners, most of the occupants of the little brown house didn’t even own a car. People really needed a car to get around in the country, but there were still some unfortunate people who were stuck in our rural and secluded area without any means of transportation. Lillian was such a person. She was stuck and isolated in the little brown house for several years. The lack of transportation, however, was the least of her problems.
The little brown house was originally built as a temporary place to shelter the owners while their real house, the big one situated closer to the road, was being built. The little house was never meant for permanent human occupancy. But that’s not how it ended up. After the big house was finished, the owners decided to not tear down the little one because they saw an opportunity to make some extra money by renting it to poor people.
The construction of the little brown house was in the shape of a box. It was built on top of a crude cement slab which extended about three to four feet beyond the base of the construction. One door led to the inside, where, if you moved to the right a few feet, you could easily see the other three rooms because there weren’t any hallways. Each room measured one-fourth of the box-like construction. The room which served as the kitchen was immediately to the right where an old, rusty sink and an electric stove took up most of the space. If you looked out of the only window in the kitchen, you could see the backyard, the field, and the outhouse. All of the houses in this rural area had wells on their property and although there was running water at the kitchen sink, there wasn’t any toilet or bathtub. The occupants had to heat the water on the stove and get washed up at the kitchen sink.
The other two rooms in the house were used as bedrooms. There weren’t any doors leading into either bedroom nor were there any closets. Both of these rooms had one small window which barely let in any light.
Oddly enough, although the little brown house did not have a hot water heater, it did have oil heat. The owners had a very basic heating system installed to help warm the house during the bitter, cold winter months. A silver colored oil tank sat outside in the backyard, immediately next to the kitchen area. I rarely saw an oil truck come to fill up the tank. Lillian never bought oil while she lived there. Instead, she heated the kitchen by turning the knob on the oven to the highest possible temperature. After about ten minutes, she’d open the oven door and everyone would huddle close to it for warmth.
The outside of the house was covered with brown shingles, much like the kind used on a roof. The pattern of the shingles was like bricks, but the house never looked like a real brick house. Most rustic cabins looked and functioned better than this box-like construction. Today, various zoning and permit regulations would never allow such a building to be rented out to people. Although everything about its existence was also illegal in the 1950’s, the rules were ignored.
The construction looked exactly like what it was. A shack. Lillian and her four children lived in this construction for several years.
I was ten years old when they moved in. I never saw a moving van (a big one wouldn’t be needed) or even a small pick-up truck. They must have moved in when I was at school. It seemed like they just appeared one day. That’s how it always was at that house. Tenants would appear and disappear. They would sneak out late at night and then new tenants would magically appear seemingly out of nowhere.
One early evening, when I was alone in the backyard, I noticed a very faint yellow glow emanating from one of its windows. I could barely see it through the pine trees bordering our field, but it was a definite glow. The little brown house had been completely dark for several months after the last family had moved out and I was starting to get used to the dark silence by the field. I decided to wait until the next day to meet my new neighbors.
The next morning, I knocked on their door and introduced myself.
Although Lillian was only in her early twenties, she wasn’t young looking, nor was she pretty. The burden of raising four children by herself had already taken its toll. She was rail thin and walked with a limp due to a hip and back deformity that made her look like she was leaning to one side. It may have been scoliosis. She told us what it was one time, but her actual medical condition never quite registered in my mind.
Lillian also had missing teeth on the top row of her mouth, and this caused her to speak with a lisp. You had to listen very carefully when she spoke. There was also a permanent, one-inch, jagged scar above her upper lip, perhaps from a childhood fall or a push or punch from a boyfriend or husband. After we became friends, she told me that her husband was in jail; perhaps it was for domestic abuse, I often wondered.
Aside from being excessively thin, Lillian was also short. Her dark brown hair was only about an inch in length below her earlobe and it was not really cut in any particular style. In fact, her hair was usually teased up high, and often looked like she just got caught in a wind storm. After Dianne, my girlfriend down the road, and I became regular visitors at Lillian’s, one of our favorite hobbies was shampooing and setting her hair on rollers, even though there wasn’t anyone to impress with a new hairstyle.
Lillian lived in the house alone with her four children. David, the oldest, was seven years old and was rail thin like his mother. Likewise, Robert, a year younger, was also very thin. He was also mentally disabled; no one could understand him when he spoke. Next came Brenda, Lillian’s first girl, a year younger than Robert. She had big brown eyes and short, light brown hair. The baby, Ellie, was a year old. She looked just like her sister, except a miniature version.
I rescued Ellie once when she was left alone with her siblings. Lillian was actually at my house using the phone. This wasn’t the first time she had left her children unattended. I was in my backyard when I heard Ellie screaming and crying. By the time I got to the house, she had stopped screaming, but she was still in her crib, whimpering, naked, except for a droopy, soggy diaper that reeked of urine. David, Robert and Brenda were watching TV in the living room, oblivious to their baby sister’s needs. I reached in, grabbed Ellie out of her crib and then went back into the living room to ask them about her bottle. The TV had their full attention; none of the kids looked at me or responded when I asked them again about Ellie’s bottle. In the meantime, I took off the baby’s soiled diaper, which by now had almost completely fallen off of her tiny body, and I dropped it on the floor. I was so upset when Ellie started to cry again. She had a terrible, red, diaper rash and I wasn’t sure what to do next.
“Where is Ellie’s bottle?” I demanded again, this time raising my voice loud enough to be heard over the cartoons.
Brenda looked over at me, and without saying anything, she scooted off the couch and walked into the kitchen. The other kids never took their eyes off the TV. I followed behind Brenda with Ellie, now completely naked, riding on my right hip. Brenda pushed the kitchen chair over to the sink, hopped up on it and moved plates and bowls around in the sink until she was sure there wasn’t any bottle. I looked inside the sink too, just to make sure.
“Look in the refrigerator!” I yelled, this time shifting Ellie to my other hip.
I scanned the kitchen table top, but there was no bottle in sight, nor could I find a diaper or rash ointment.
Brenda hesitated and then grabbed the handle of the refrigerator door with both hands and tugged hard. She backed away and almost lost her balance as the door flew wide open. There wasn’t any food inside. Not even a half empty jar of mustard.
Dianne and I were invited one time to eat with Lillian and her kids. We didn’t want to accept her food because we knew she was so very poor, but we could tell that she really wanted our company that day. She fried hamburgers for everyone and then she opened and heated a few cans of vegetables. Most of Lillian’s food came from the government. I didn’t know exactly what that all meant, but a lot of the cans in her kitchen were different from the cans in the supermarket and from the ones in our house. Big silver cans of peanut butter, cans of potted meat and other strange looking canned goods with black lettering on the outside were all lined up on the homemade cupboard that Lillian had constructed out of boards and cinderblocks.
After she dished up the food onto our plates, we all sat at the crowded table and proceeded to eat. There wasn’t enough room to sit together comfortably at the table, but we managed. I offered to share my seat with Lillian, but she wanted to stand. David was trying to hold Ellie steady in his lap (she didn’t have a high chair) while trying to maneuver the food into his own mouth and then into Ellie’s. Brenda and Robert shared a chair and were stuffing the food into their mouths as fast as they could, while Lillian was passing out plastic glasses half-filled with red Kool-Aid.
All of a sudden, I noticed a bunch of black moving dots all over the table! I looked closer and realized that there was a trail of ants all over everything and that they were quickly making their way toward everyone’s food! Lillian noticed the ants too but she didn’t say anything. Rather, she calmly took her index finger and proceeded to kill each ant. Dianne and I looked at each other, but we didn’t say anything either. In the meantime, Lillian continued to kill the ants with her finger and the kids continued to shovel the food into their mouths. Dianne and I looked down at our plates and ate as quickly as possible.
Dianne and I weren’t Lillian’s only visitors. From time to time, Lillian’s parents would come to the house and take her and the kids shopping. They weren’t much better off than Lillian, but at least they owned a car. One August, before school started, they took David to a big discount warehouse that sold irregular clothing and other miscellaneous items. David came home with a big plastic bag filled with an assortment of brightly colored shirts and pants. Brenda got jealous and started to cry when she saw David’s new clothes. Lillian reminded her that David was starting school in September and that she would be able to get new clothes when it was her turn.
David had already been left back twice at his previous schools before he moved to the little brown house Now, he was starting yet another new school where he had to get used to new surroundings and teachers. He had to start at the very beginning again because he couldn’t read or write. Lillian tried to help him, but she couldn’t read either.
One of Lillian’s girlfriends also visited occasionally. She also liked to do hair, so one time Dianne and I allowed her to wash and set our hair. We brought all the supplies, including the shampoo, conditioner, hairspray, brush and hairdryer. It was a fun afternoon that included smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and listening to Lillian and her girlfriend talk about various adult topics that we never heard at home. We weren’t allowed to smoke cigarettes at home, but that didn’t stop us from smoking them at Lillian’s. We learned how to take long drags and inhale without coughing. We thought it was exciting to listen to Lillian and her girlfriend talk about all the things that our own mothers wouldn’t discuss with us.
After Lillian’s girlfriend was finished with us, we walked to Dianne’s house to show off our new hairstyle. As soon as Dianne’s mother saw our heads, she told us that our hair was teased up entirely too high and that we needed to comb it down immediately. Although we didn’t think so, apparently we looked too grown up and sleazy, according to Dianne’s mother.
Lillian’s new boyfriend was another visitor. I first met him when I knocked on Lillian’s door early one Saturday morning. Lillian answered the door in her underwear and let me in. She introduced me to him and at first it seemed like he was interested in what I was saying, because he kept nodding and smiling, but soon it was clear to me that he couldn’t understand a word I said. I wondered to myself if he had spent the night. I couldn’t figure out how he had gotten to Lillian’s house since there wasn’t a car parked outside. Then I wondered who had brought him there and how had Lillian even met him in the first place since she rarely went anywhere. All of these thoughts, and more, were swirling around in my mind as he continued to nod and smile. He didn’t understand anything Lillian said either, but I was old enough to understand that Lillian’s interest in this guy didn’t involve talking anyway, so a language barrier didn’t matter.
Lillian’s new boyfriend became a permanent fixture at her house and within a few short weeks, things got really, really bad. Lillian was now constantly preoccupied with her new boyfriend; she ignored her kids and often sent them outside to play until well past bedtime. The fun afternoons of doing each other’s hair were over. Dianne and I didn’t even bother to ask Lillian for cigarettes anymore. Now, on washdays, the new boyfriend’s clothes were seen hung on the line alongside David’s not-so-new-anymore school clothes, and Robert’s, Brenda’s and Ellie’s old clothes. Lillian started yelling even more and she’d even curse at the kids if they really got on her nerves. Some of the vile things she’d say to them was often worse than her regularly administered slaps, which caused dark red marks and lots of tears.
No one called the authorities to report neglect or abuse. Back then, people usually minded their own business when it came to domestic matters. Family matters were considered private and the police didn’t like to get involved unless absolutely necessary. People would give money, food and clothing, but they wouldn’t call the police. Today this kind of family situation would warrant having the kids taken away and put into foster care.
My mother always gave Lillian my younger brother’s outgrown clothes for David and Robert. Other people also tried to help out. One time a lady from the Salvation Army brought a big box of food. Another time a farmer down the road dropped off some meat from a slaughtered cow. People in my area always helped others, but Lillian never got the kind of help she really needed while she lived in the little brown house.
Dianne and I rarely visited anymore, and when we did, we only stayed a few minutes. Lillian eventually stopped answering her door when we knocked. We could hear the TV and the kids inside. We knew she was in there.
Lillian, her new boyfriend, and her four kids, disappeared one day. I must have been at school when they left.
Over the years, many more people came and went at the little brown house, as quietly as Lillian, until one day the owners finally tore down the shack, along with that wretched outhouse in the back. The ground was seeded and fresh, new, green grass grew in the spring. The owners in the big house, the one closer to the road, now had a bigger backyard, and they no longer had to share the driveway.
Once that shack was torn down, everything looked better.