Lilly's hazel-dyed hair was neatly curled at her narrow shoulders. Her eyebrows were rounded out in darker brown; her lipstick, peach. She looked like she might be going out. A wooden suitcase was packed, but flipped open on the floor. She sat beside it, resting her weight on her hip, her arthritic limbs tucked to one side.

She adored this suitcase. It had accompanied her to Chicago, after leaving home in Pensacola for good; to California, where she tended the seals at the San Diego Zoo by day and learned about socialism by night; to Seattle, where she joined the labor movement, becoming one of the first women to operate a shipyard drill press; to Vienna, where she served as a WAAC, finding homes for victims of the Holocaust.

Later, this same suitcase accompanied her here to New York, to this room blessed with plenty of windows, and light. If on rainy days like today the room was gray, houseplants along the sill, framing a pumping city, brought hope. The suitcase, too, cracked on one side, but sturdy, a survivor, could be used again and again.

Inside were some of her most precious belongings. The marble, gray-white Mexican trinket (an Aztec god?) was too pristine, so she gave it to a new friend she made last week at a peace march. The carved bookends—a present from a bossy, unpleasant woman, a former fellow volunteer at Worker's World—were too polished, bereft of signs of human hands, so she donated them to a bazaar sponsored by a worthwhile group whose name she couldn't recall.

What remained were belongings impossible to part with. Her fingers wandered to a greeting card with robins on a clothesline, beaks wide as gospel singers. It was signed "Ruth Wyler"—someone she must have known. Beside it she found drawings of maple leaves in vivid magic marker by the shelter children she had just begun visiting. Underneath the drawings were two animal figurines that neatly fit in her palm. The whale, with his tail stuck up, looked so spry! The deer's face expressed pure contentment! Catty-corner to the figurines was a stuffed animal—the smiling, gray-whiskered walrus looking silly with a bib around his neck.

She clasped a piece of root-shaped wood retrieved from a Russian forest. It was smooth, rich brown, and she normally kept it burrowed in the potted soil of one of her plants. Next, she studied a series of postcards from a photographer friend: a husky in snowy woods, a pair of galoshes on a bridge, a thatched umbrella casting a shadow on a beach. They expressed so eloquently the right to be alone.

She spotted the folder with the beginnings of her memoir. It began with one of her greatest moments, an event in the Seattle shipyard. She had been elected chairwoman. The anti-unionists, fascists, were saying she was unfairly elected, calling for a new vote. They spread a rumor that she was one of them, just posing as pro-union. She defended herself, but it was her word against those of the fascists. She was re-elected, her name cleared. That day she gave a victory speech. Everyone came to congratulate her. Here were the six pages she had typed, unable to capture the drama, still struggling to fix it.

Underneath the folder was a snapshot of someone, probably a grandniece, at a graduation ceremony. And the same girl's wallet-sized wedding picture. For a long time, the girl bitterly complained that her parents had not sent her to a fancy enough college. When Lilly was first sent the graduation photo and saw the long face, she nearly stopped their correspondence—at this stage Lilly only had so much compassion to spare. She thought the girl naive—in need of a broader view that would make life's disappointments easier to bear. Then, the wedding picture came, and the girl's face was so different Lilly almost couldn't recognize who it was. The two photos spoke to hope and transformation.

Beneath these personal photos was one clipped from a magazine—crisp, black and white, of a beautiful Nicaraguan revolutionary giving a speech, hair cropped short like a man's, dark eyes conveying dedication, her presence exuding a self-confidence that made Lilly swoon.

Finally, she located the most precious belonging of all, a wood carving from her childhood. A water girl. Lilly wished she had made it. She read its simple beauty with her fingers. The carving was rough, like Lilly's fingers, without a proper base; but nobler than anything Lilly had ever known. This depiction of a young woman carrying a jug on her head, this was the truth. The water was more like a torch. She had walked miles and miles, barefoot, on earth scorched from the sun, to give life to her people. And the expression of quiet determination on her face! Just looking at her made Lilly feel less alone.

Lilly pressed her hands to her face, and now her whole body shook with the long sobs of adolescence. She was at such a loss over what to do. Where could she go with her suitcase now that it was packed? She was not a bad person, but she was always doing foolish things. Her whole life, she'd been willful and it caused nothing but trouble. If she had only made friends with the other tenants here, instead of setting herself apart, they wouldn't be against her now, calling her "Comrade Lilly" or "Commie" behind her back, taking things from her room while she was gone, making her frantic about what next would go missing.

But what could she have done to win their friendship? She didn't care to sit and chitchat in the lobby. She had things to do—volunteering for housing restoration projects and a lady councilman she thought was terrific, going to the library to read O'Neill or Greek classics, maybe stopping into McDonald's for a cola or sundae, taking in the varied faces, maybe meeting someone new, who loved politics and appreciated the kind of frank people who stopped in. Later on, she couldn't always remember details of an encounter, but a feeling lingered—like the warmth of sun on one's shoulders. And if she didn't meet anyone, there was always a passerby with wandering eyes whom she could ask for directions. Or security guards or construction workers or grocers to greet and share thoughts with.

If she was especially lucky there might be a civil disobedience action at City Hall, or a peace march down Broadway with hundreds of protestors, people who believed as she did, people filled with hope of revolution, who thought, 'Let it all come down, let all the suffering end, in the name of the victims of the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, the apartheid in South Africa!' She was marching toward that day and was not alone.

Or, if the day was rainy, she could occupy herself here in this room. She appreciated life's smaller beauties: daffodil-colored margarine on a charred frying pan, the burst of the blue flame, the butter dollop melting, the sizzle of a cracked egg. And her plants along the windows! One possessed an unruly nature like hers—it feathered out over an entire panel of the three-paneled window covering one wall. It had no plan, just twisted and turned toward the light. Then there was a plant whose eight independent stalks waved upward, like sea plants, who after years of little growth suddenly became ambitious and spurted inches like a teenage boy.

The physical world was brilliant, dear, a source of comfort. Each morning when she awoke, each time she felt an attack to her head or heart after the horror quietly passed, she felt as grateful as a death row prisoner granted one more day.

But now she was under such pressure she hated even leaving the room. What would be gone next time? First, one of two magenta wool hats had been stolen, then the other followed suit. Next, her check register disappeared. This morning, her reading glasses were gone. They were intentionally choosing items of no value to anyone but her.

That's what they did. They tried to break you. That's how they worked.

And she suspected who it was coming into her room while she was gone. The man down the hall, who dressed more like a dentist than a thug. He used to have a roommate and the two took turns doing their dirty work, but now he operated alone. His room was situated in prime lookout position. Whenever she returned to her quarters, she searched everywhere for anything amiss. This afternoon, after a trip to the optician to replace her glasses, she couldn't find the coffee mug she left by the sink. Maybe she'd brought it to the bedside table, she thought, but it wasn't there. Maybe she'd broken it. She rummaged through the trash but couldn't find it.

Her memory was sometimes cloudy, so it was impossible for her to be certain. And he knew this. He knew she was not as young as some, and might get confused, and that people tended not to believe those getting on in years. Had he no shame? But even if he didn't steal the mug, she was positive about her magenta hats, her check register, and her glasses. While these possessions could be replaced, she feared for her most precious ones, the contents of this suitcase beside her. She could hide it in her closet or under the bed, but what if it was discovered? It was not safe anywhere here.

Because of the strain, she was even having trouble sleeping, though she had never been an insomniac before; the usual two cups of chocolate milk—one at bedtime and one four hours later—didn't do the trick. When finally she fell asleep, she was trapped in nightmares. The door to her house was blown open in a hurricane—pages of her victory speech at the shipyard and the photographer's postcards spun, then flew out the opening, and though all her weight was thrown against the door, she couldn't shut it. Or she was adrift at sea, the carving of the water girl curling in and out of choppy waves, beyond reach, drifting farther away. Or, the FBI agent—the young, ruddy-faced man she once caught in her room stealing her Army dismissal and her WAAC pictures from WWII—was visiting again, searching her drawers. Lilly was yelling at the top of her lungs, "You've already taken everything! Nothing is left!" Though she was moving her lips, no sounds were heard. Her arms fluttered, like shirtsleeves on a clothesline. The agent's face darkened, eyes lurid, thrilling in the torture. And then she realized it was actually the thug down the hall. She looked to the windowsill for the carving of the water girl. It was still safe. But when she turned back, the thug was ogling the girl. As his thick hands wrapped around her, Lilly woke with a cry.

Earlier today, on the way home from the optician, she had met Rick at the movement's headquarters and shared her predicament. Not to get help, but to explain she couldn't march in Washington this weekend. With all the energy Rick was putting into organizing, she felt weak for letting personal difficulties stop her. But she knew what they would do if she left her room for an entire day.

As she spoke to Rick, out of the corner of her eye she could see brightly painted banners drying on easels—ready to be carried by those marching for housing, for healthcare, for an end to racism—and the words died in her mouth. She felt foolish. She had a snug home. Warm food. An enviable existence.

Rick's broad forehead was wrinkled in concern. He was a sweet man. Youthful, recently married to a brilliant, brainy Palestinian, and he pressed Lilly to confide what was wrong. She rushed through the story, saying she would take care of it herself—report the thefts, but please understand she couldn't join the rally—she was under much strain. He encouraged her to report it, saying she mustn't let herself be bullied. He didn't offer help, probably because he assumed she could resolve it. She gave that impression.

She could ask her friends, Dottie or Annette, for help, but they were so busy. Dottie was building homes; Annette, teaching proletarian literature and writing biographies. Lilly hated to burden them and interrupt such vital work. She had asked them favors before, they had helped, and there was so little she could do in return. By now they had to be tired of her. Besides, what did it really matter if her things were being taken? True, she was another example of the left being harassed by the fascists; but there were far more noteworthy stories of injustice. The CIA regularly infiltrated Central American solidarity groups. Phones were tapped, files pillaged. Every day. An eighty-six-year old being harassed by her neighbors was hardly headline news. She would have to manage this one herself. She raked her hands across her face.

She picked up the water girl that now lay in the center of the suitcase. Sometimes when she held the figure, she could hear voices from her childhood: washerwomen near her house, singing, given her sorrow a name, telling her there were others who suffered, others who spoke the same tongue. She had always felt like she fit in more with them than with her own people. She used to run as far away as she could from Mama's vicious words, lie down in the grass, bury herself in the smell of the soil and listen to the washerwomen's song.

Mama liked the boys better than the girls, and she liked Lilly least of all. Lilly had no idea why.

Photos from the past sometimes surfaced on the floor of the room, out of nowhere, then disappeared just as mysteriously. The other day she suddenly found a picture of Mama and Papa. She tried to recall what her past had been like but it seemed no longer hers. She had been on her own for so many years, all her brothers and sisters scattered, and it was hard to recall a time when she had been part of a family.

She had fled as soon as she could. She might have been happy living alone with Papa, helping him in his tailor shop, but Mama made her feel so awful; the thought of drowning herself in the bay just to end the criticism had occurred more than once. Mama's manner was similar to that of the ancient piano teacher Lilly sat with on Sundays. Even now Lilly could recall the feel of the teacher's nail on her arm while commanding, "Keep your wrists high or you won't ever play well. Lilly, that's wrong. Start over."

No, Mama did not understand Lilly's pull to meditate under the sky, or her tendency to daydream. But Lilly understood why: poor, with six children to care for, it must have been hard. Still, she wished Mama could have been kinder. What Lilly felt was a mute, fist-waving rage that longed for an object, but couldn't find it because it was long gone. Always she carried within her a scolding voice of her mother's creation, reminding her she was second-rate, she shouldn't trust herself because she would only muck things up. No victory speech or any of the accomplishments of later life had been able to mute that voice. Would there ever be a day when children were protected from their mothers?

For this reason, she had not once thought of having children. She was too scared she might instinctively act as Mama had. But she supposed none of it mattered now.

Clenching the carving of the water girl, she tried to decide what to do. As she mulled it over, she noticed the nail on the girl's right forefinger was thick, deformed, as if the nail had been crushed and pounded, only to grow back stronger. It was painted with a desert rose polish, and shone, and she thought the nail was gorgeous. Enduring. Even through this. But then, feeling halfwitted, she realized the nail was her own .

She gazed at the open suitcase. No, the question was not where she could go with it. She must not, and would not, let them force her to leave. She knew a place where everything would be safe. A way to keep all of it for herself. Before she could change her mind, she returned the water girl to the wooden suitcase, and then she lit the first match.