MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- As Monica Thomas and Saprena Smith dug into the fried catfish lunch special at Cupboard Too, a downtown restaurant, their conversation turned to the 9-year-old boy whom many people here feel they know on a first-name basis, even though most have never seen him.
His name is Travis.
"I haven't had a conversation all week with my friends where his name hasn't come up," said Thomas, 30, a court reporter. "That little boy had to be awfully brave to survive for so long alone."
Smith, 32, also a court reporter, said, "It's so sad."
A family friend who stopped by Monday at the apartment in East Memphis where Travis Butler lived learned that he had stayed there alone for a month with his mother dead on the living room floor. The boy did not tell anyone about her death, he said, because he was afraid he would have to go to a foster home.
His mother is thought to have been ill, possibly because of high blood pressure. The police do not suspect foul play and are not treating the death as a homicide. Her funeral will be held Tuesday.
The boy, who family and friends say had been taught not to ask for favors, had gotten to school on time every day, done his homework and gone to the store to buy what he needed with money that was in the house. On Thanksgiving, he warmed up a frozen pizza, but he has said that he had worried he would not have a Christmas tree this year.
By Wednesday, most of Memphis had heard the boy's story.
Though Travis has left Memphis -- his maternal grandparents took him to their home in Carthage, Miss., Tuesday -- he is fast becoming the focus of the city's holiday spirit. A local bank has set up a trust fund. A local transportation company has organized a clothing, toy and gift donation center for the boy, noting that he wears size 10 slim pants and size 3 shoes. And local talk radio stations have been abuzz with talk of the boy's self-reliance.
Much of the soul-searching focused on what Travis' plight says about society.
"It's just tragic that a little boy is so scared of what's going to happen to him in the system that he won't call for help," said Alex Elder, 37, a lawyer.
His lunch companion at Cupboard Too, Wilson von Kessler, 33, also a lawyer, said it reminded him of a William Faulkner story he had read. "I think it says something about what a dysfunctional society we live in," he said.
Family members and neighbors said the boy's mother, Crystal Wells, 30, did not associate much with other people. Travis' grandmother, Shirley Wilder, said she has little money and had not seen her daughter, the boy's mother, for more than a year but had spoken to her on the phone in October.
Court officials are searching for the boy's father, who has never had contact with Travis.
As of Friday, a trust fund for the boy contained more than $13,000, and much more was expected. Bank officials said that the local response had been overwhelming and that they had received calls from around the country and from Canada and Europe.