A visit with Esta

For years my friend Esta - Esther foreshortened - rented a little house that was both a home and a business. Here she lived, and here she operated no fewer than four looms, weaving for people beautiful clothes, curtains, tablecloths, blankets, and even pillowcases. She never wove a thread that didn't carry a gleam from the shaft of sunlight in which she worked.

One night when she was out, some vandals broke into the house and with axes chopped her looms, every one, to pieces. She came home to find their once perfectly timed parts and glossy wood scattered everywhere. It was as if her craft itself lay broken and lost.

For several days she was too grief-stricken to know what to do. Then, rallying herself, she set out to find work somewhere, so that she could buy new looms and begin again. But there was none.

Her savings began to go. She decided it was best to store her belongings and take a furnished room until things got better. And so, one day in late autumn, I came, with other friends, to help her move out.

After we'd finished loading everything into a U-Haul truck, and had scrubbed the house clean, she was suddenly nowhere to be found. We thought perhaps she didn't want to be there when the truck left. Then I saw her, standing behind it and looking at a flowering sprig that had accidentally gotten stuck in the door.

It looked, in the wind, as if it were waving goodbye to her on behalf of her belongings. But from the expression on her small, dark-eyed face, ringed with blue-black curls all soapy-sudsy from scrubbing, I saw that, in her mind at least, the sprig was entreating her to come join her belongings and be stored, too. Already she missed them that much.

I left it in the door, hoping that, broken from its roots yet still flowering , it might seem a sign of life to her for the things inside the truck. Then I got in and drove off to the warehouse. In her sadness Esta hadn't even lifted her hands from her sides to make a gesture of apology for not answering the sprig's entreaty.

One day a few weeks ago, exactly a year from that hard day, I went to see her. Her spirits were very low. She hadn't yet found work; her things were still in storage. She was living in a rooming house, doing kitchen chores at a county building in return for a welfare check.

We sat in a calico play of morning light and shadow, sharing a bagel I'd brought. Esta is very young and shy. I've known her ever since, years ago, she made me a shirt, strong yet ethereal, in which I feel both brave and wise; I was wearing it. With her, as with any deep and troubled friend, it was good just to be silent together.

I looked out the window at the leaves crisply scudding over a hilltop. Suddenly I had an adventurous idea.

''Let's go to the warehouse,'' I said.

She smiled doubtfully. ''To the warehouse, David?''

''Yes. Let's go say hello to your things. I'll bet they're pretty lonely.''

She laughed. ''All right.''

The warehouse was blocks away, but it didn't take us long to outdo the leaves and get there. The request to have her storage bin opened struck the workers as a bit unusual, but I explained that it was an anniversary, and the request was granted.

And then there they were, her belongings.

Her Goodwill sofa with the mouse-squeak springs that she loved to bounce up and down on. Her stiff blue chair where she always sat when she expected the worst. Her slouchy yellow chair where she always sat when she knew the worst was over. Her lamps, those ice cream cones of every flavor of light. Her boxes of books, records, handmade goofy clothes. The whole beloved menagerie pitting its crazy-quilt solidarity against musty exile.

It was risky, I know, asking her to come say this hello to her belongings. In a way it was like visiting a graveyard, where things are between worlds. It might only have made worse the pain of missing them.

Instead, to my joy, it helped her. There were tears in her eyes, but the tears of someone whose incentive to restore her life was being renewed. Everybody needs sometimes to feel a foundation in this shifty world, especially if he and it have been in different places for so long.

''What do you say we take a couple of things on an outing today?'' I suggested.

''An outing, David?''

''Yes. A walk in the sunshine. How about those pillows?'' I pointed.

''God must love me very much,'' she said, ''to have given me such crazy friends.''

This request, too, was granted, and out we went into the sunshine with the pillows. We walked for miles in the city park, in peace and silence. Then a great and wonderful pillow fight broke out, and the bright air rang with our cries.

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