Bertha Mason of West 84th Street
By Nadya Kronis, 7th Grade
It was around the time of day when the employees made up a majority of the people in the supermarket. Everyone was working, studying, or enjoying the sudden snowfall that had struck New York late that February. At mid-day, the supermarket was a quiet and secluded area. The cashiers fumbled with their starch aprons and chatted amongst themselves. The fluorescent lighting and bright cardboard advertisements served as unpleasant reminders of their minimum wage pay.
Soon, a pale woman sails in. Her age is difficult to determine, but she’s not young. Still, her slow, large thighs don’t resist her brisk gait. She does not use the bright red supermarket shopping basket, but uses the large straw one in her hands instead. Her lips are outlined in red pencil, so that they won’t fadgee into her face entirely, and carefully painted to appear as if real; most of her features only seem to be brushed on to the face of a China doll.
The aisle five cashier watches as the trail of billowing white garments disappear into aisle six. She returns, her with meager contents in her basket: brown sugar, milk, and English Breakfast Tea. Her ancient looking wide brimmed hat is covered in dead roses, and it almost falls as she reaches for the last item. She heads for the checkout. The cashier starts back. The woman’s hair is as white as her powdered neck. Her eyelashes seem like flakes that melted upon contact with her face. She watches the cashier as he looks away. You’re not supposed to make eye contact in elevators nor at supermarket checkout counters.
“$7.98,” the cashier says in a droll tone, his thoughts on her. How is an anachronism born again? Or is it a mammoth albino ghost? And then: Are ghosts always without pigmentation?
“Oh, yes,” Ms. Mason says.
She fumbles in her bag for money and briskly leaves the supermarket to head home. The cashier follows her several feet with his eyes, then snaps his gum and fumbles with the register. They get the strange type every so often.
Dusty light pours into the dark living room, oppressed by heavy velvet curtains. The top layer of dust resting atop swells and rises from a gust, then settles back down on the wooden furniture languorously. She lays down.
“The dust queen,” murmurs the breeze.
To which the houseplant that is held beneath the starch wind’s elongated fingers replied, “She sees no dust on the velvet folds, as if it hasn’t had time to gather. As if it didn’t gather at all.” Her eyes, with the faint and washed out quality, the unnatural pigment they possessed, seemed like glazed over moons, with their darkening rims encircling her iris.
Staring off into the sugar bowl set before her on the table, she avoided her own eyes in the tarnished silver, and a different image appeared to her in the state of dream:
The sound of horse hooves on the cobblestones permeated through the avenue. The formation of sparrows around a pile of spilled feed was broken and rearranged once more as the horse-drawn carriage neared, the way that the beads and trinkets of a kaleidoscope are rearranged with a slight start of the hand. The exterior was black and lacquered, and as the door was opened by the coachman, three silhouetted figures were visible for a moment within the carriage. Assisted by the coachman, they climbed out. With graceful stature, Ms. Mason emerged, her face shrouded by the gauzy white material of her veiled hat. The intertwining lace flowers of the veil seemed to be carefully stitched on her oblong and pallid face, and it radiated lucid warmth. She stared off into the distance. Her blood ebbing and flowing, coursing through her, rushed. The three of them walk close to one another, other people appeared from all corners of the bleak street, and into the manor before them. The Bertha that had never existed in her youth. People filed in, and sounds of merry-making and clinking wine glasses could be heard from within. Banquet tables overflowed with grapes and delicacies from far corners of the earth. The sweep of silk trains created a small breeze as they coursed through the room. They come to dance, and the musicians start up immediately. They may as well have crossed rivers by tug-boats, or forever autumnal forests of silver and gold on foot. Here was the nectar of gods they had come for. They danced and laughed and drank wine, and not a single glass had shattered, not a drop of poison was spilled.
The moon of that evening has her domain in night’s quiet sky, her scepter encrusted with the lustrous stars. Forever stumbling through the heavens, she is secured in her eternal orbit. Blinded by dawn’s thirsty rays, she sails from us, like the moon-faced woman sprawled on the bed.
Morn has descended now. Light wrests its way through the thickly forested embroidery of the curtains opposite her, and Ms. Mason is brought to her senses almost immediately. She stands up, shivering slightly and gathering her skirts, and moves towards the boudoir and begins her preparations for the day. Once the carefully applied cosmetics of the previous day have been washed off, her face is bare. It is the color of moth wings, and her eyes glow with the delicate red light as if belonging to that same night-dweller.
Picking up a brush, she begins to darken her long, invisible eyelashes. They now come into full focus against the white backdrop of her face. She begins on her lids and the corners of her eyes, meticulously filling in the blank space, painting on the slightest nuances of color that is not there. She begins a rough outline of her lips, and then smites their pale lavender with dark red. Powdering her cheeks with bright hues, she mimics those of an imported doll.
Ms. Mason does not know where she will spend today; down there, or up here. She takes one last pleading glance at the sugar bowl before she locks the door from outside.
Today, the park is near empty. The warmth has fled to make way for February’s lingering inmate. A thick layer of ice coats each separate tree limb and nips at the early buds; left dreaming their sweet, frozen thoughts as their heads nod off. Ms. Mason wraps her antique shawl tighter around her, and descends into the color-blind world that winter has fashioned for her. Treading softly, she is aware of her velvet slippers snapping the tiny spines of individual snowflakes. She sighs her apology. Ms. Mason tilts her face gently upwards, and she sees nothing but the flakes, hesitating on the chill breeze. She spots a green park bench, and gathering her skirts, she sits down.
The snowfall has weakened, and New York’s Upper West Side has come to life again. Pedestrians flit by on the sidewalk, wrapped in their bright winter garments they move quickly. Many are crowded into the 84th Street Starbucks, all hoping to retain the warmth coming from the hot saccharine beverages. The newly fallen snow is discolored by car exhaust or has been pounded into slush. Ms. Mason gazes askance at a group of university students, wincing as their boots leave deep tracks in the snow. She averts her eyes, concealing the smallest feeling of superiority as people rush by at the speed of sound on both sides of her. She scolds herself good-naturedly for it.
For a moment, everything is blanketed by this notion. Brainwashed flies on the bus, at school, in sky-greedy high-rise buildings. Ms. Mason’s own heels begin to make a clicking sound on the sidewalk. She listens to the sound of herself walking listlessly for a while. She hears only her shoes until she meanders into an unfamiliar place. Car horns and taxi walkie-talkies obscure the heartbeat rhythm; her assurance that she still exists. Someone yells in a foreign tongue, leaning from a window. Ms. Mason hails a cab.
It is a good time of the year for cab drivers. The subway is a most unpleasant place to be in winter. Trains are delayed, people are many, and the homeless retreat underground for shelter. Mr. Deflores, one of the myriad cab-drivers waiting for the light to turn on the corner of 84th street, gazes contentedly out of the grimy window. Putting out the stub that is left of his cigarette butt, he opens the window to dispose of it. He sees the motion of a hand on the opposite crosswalk, and heads the yellow car in that direction. Ms. Mason swings the door open and sails into the cab. Her face is draped over with a black veil and her white hair is arranged elaborately. Mr. Deflores chuckles to himself quietly. Just the kind of people you get around here. That’s a New Yorker for you. Before long, the cab speeds off into the distance.
Mr. Deflores was himself a born New Yorker, despite attending elementary school in New Jersey. Truth is, he thinks to himself, the city always draws her lovers back. For the past ten years that he has been driving cabs part time around the avenues and winding streets and heavy traffic and hullabaloo, he has always made a point of talking to his passengers until explicitly warned not to. This lady would be no exception.
“You a local?” he asks while casually stretching out of the window to light another cigarette. He steps on the gas pedal.
“Yes indeed,” says Ms. Mason, surprised at her own embittered tone.
“Could have known,” he says amiably, taking a long drag on the cigarette, one hand expertly supporting the wheel.
“Mmhmm”, echoes Ms. Mason, eager for quiet in the car.
“Right here. I went to school a mere block away.”
“That building down the street?” he inquires, proud of his knowledge of every nook and cranny of the city.
“Yes.” Ms. Mason stares blankly at the prim establishment as they pass, the gilt lettering and the ivy creeping up the walls.
Makes enough sense, thinks Mr. Deflores with a little smile.
The cab halts at a street corner. Paying the driver, Ms. Mason steps out. The air all around seems frozen solid, and it pervades her lungs with its own chill breath. Ms. Mason knows that she has not long to walk to her daily 6:00pm destination. She knows this place by heart, even under it’s white mantle, nothing is hidden from her here. Tonight, like all other nights of the year, she will dine alone. Stepping into the small, tucked away building at the end of the block, she descends down a small flight of stairs, and is received by waiters. They know her by appearance, and one quietly greets her as he leads her to the usual table positioned by the window where the flurry of snowflakes outside is still visible. Ms. Mason sits down to take the day’s last meal.
Gazing around the room, she sees them. They don’t look at her, for they are absorbed in themselves, or in one another’s company. The dull gleam of the candles on each separate table illuminates the faces above them in vivid detail, although the room is hardly visible. Waiting for her check, Ms. Mason’s pensive eye chances to land on a young couple sitting at the table in the corner. They are murmuring softly, too old to be the boisterous children she sees on the streets. She quickly averts her eye to another part of the room. Everything is so quiet, save for the indistinct half-whispers of the diners. If she closes her eyes, nothing will remain but the sound of these isolated worlds. The percussion of waves as they beat against the silent shore. They don’t see her, she thinks to herself. She is invisible, free to her wanderings. “I am different,” she tells herself. Free from the bondage of human ties, or maybe just too defunct to make those ties to begin with. It’s useless to tread along this ancient path all over again. “I am different,” she says to herself, and drops the train of thought to avoid further aggravation.
“Your check, miss.” It is a waiter standing over her table.
“Thank you.” She smiles.
Picking up the ball point pen, she scrawls on the piece of paper laid before her, and leaves the due pay and a generous tip.
Ms. Mason decides to walk home for the first time in years; she walked to think. The flurry continues, and the twilit sky is smothered by white clouds. They appear to be strangely suspended, resembling sea-foam lightly adrift on a quiet tide. The moon and stars are hidden behind a lofty veil. It is late, but the flow of people has barely diminished. They run through the dim streets as snowflakes crunch braggingly beneath them.
It is long past time Ms. Mason usually was home, but who is to say at what time she should come home when there is no one to receive her there. She fumbles with her keys as she unlocks the door, and walks past the useless and cluttered dining room table, brimming with unread mail. The curtains were thrown open probably by the housekeeper of forgotten decades. Ms. Mason’s eyes linger desperately on the quiet night scene. She climbs straight into the bed, ducking under the gauze of the canopy, yellow and eaten at by insects; she thinks of years submerged. An image is conjured, by means of memory and magic.
The desks in the hot, near windowless room are gradually becoming too small for the students twitching and re-crossing their legs under them. Spring and hay fever finally come around the declining bend of the school year. After several threats of detention and extra homework, the chatter subsides to a low drone coming from the back of the classroom. A boy stands up abruptly, mid-lesson to crush a humongous black fly in his hand. The chair jolts forward, then uncertainly clangs back down again. Heat seeps through the window like water. Beads of perspiration break out on the neck of the girl in front of Bertha. The girl pushes her chair forward on the linoleum, producing a sound similar to that of fingernails on chalk-board. Bertha shrinks back and contemplates whether the instant gratification brought by sleep is worth missing the lesson. Before she can decide, she is called on. Scrambling for her notebook, she glances up at the fifteen smirking faces, waiting to be humored by her stutter and small slips.
“Well?” asks the tall teacher sardonically with a flip of the marker cap. Obviously, this is some sort of reference to the unknowable question, and Bertha is baffled.
“Yes, Ms…” Bertha trails off uncertainly, and sees the futility of rummaging in her folder right then. The teacher looks amused.
“Well? The answer?” There it was again. The unknowable, indiscernible question. Bertha bites her lip and feels her feet growing hot in the black loafers.
“No. No answer…” Bertha is sheepish and trails off again.
Yes Ms… The teacher reiterates to herself silently with only the trace of a smirk, and calls on another student. Laughter crackles up across the room as easily as radio static.
“If only you felt lonely…” whistles the kettle wistfully from the kitchen.
“Little alien,” say the Edwardian cabinets in a chorus.
Ms. Mason is sprawled on the old canopy bed, thinking about forgetfulness and suddenly hoping to hear the rap of knuckles on her door. It is then that she realizes, no one knows that she’s here. Not the mailman, who stopped calling long ago, not the ancient man who walks to the bus stop every single day, his blue pants failing to cover his purple freckled ankles. Not the cashier at the supermarket. Not the woman in the business suit who walked by on 96th street yesterday. She closes her eyes, knowing that she won’t have to stay up for long expecting late night visitors. She hasn’t left her brand upon other minds, which is somewhat comforting, she thinks. Her mark, impressed somewhere under the receding hair-line. That’s all that anyone needs, she thinks and lets her laughter ring through the room. She stares at the rusting doorknob until she convinces herself that it is turning slightly to the right and that the footsteps of her neighbors upstairs are coming from the carpeted hall. Unable to restrain her mirth now, she allows another laugh to escape her dry throat and meander through the many rooms and parlors. Nobody knows she’s here, except for the old mattress which is groaning under the weight of her body. You’re growing old, Ms. Mason.
The following morning, Ms. Mason dreams with a new fervor. She is sprawled across the divan, fully dressed. A candle is lit, and the bookshelves seem to curve into the center of the room under the mesmeric lighting. The draperies are drawn the way she left them the previous night, and in the house, it’s still evening by all accounts. It’s evening too, where Ms. Mason comes to dance. She descends carefully, the light footed gait of dream seems to have a greater, more tiring mass to carry. She speeds up her walk, suddenly wanting to slow down again, and sleep underneath the looming oaks and listen to the jeweled cicadas. She’s not naïve, and knows that a dream within a dream means not ever waking. She hurries on, following the customary trail to a clearance from the forest where goblins sleep in tree hollows. A leaf falls to her feet, but it isn’t. It’s a cicada with sleepy red beads for eyes. It impersonates the motion of a leaf on the still air.
Ms. Mason lifts her dove colored skirt from the ground, and steps unto a sparse, and somewhat overgrown road. Everyone must be in the manor by now, popping the corks of champagne bottles, fervently dancing, and making merry. Do they know she’s gone? Ms. Mason pulls the white, gauzy shawl closer to her as she begins to run and breathe hard.
She starts up off the couch, gasping for air. She has become entangled in her skirts, but she feels lithe sea-weed on her legs and struggles harder. She is tangled in her skin. She pulls her feet to the ground, feeling more exhausted than ever. She hardly glances at the dining table overflowing with papers. A stamp-less envelope drifts to the ground, and she mindlessly lifts it, putting it back on top of the pile.
After her usual evening’s routine, Ms. Mason wore a stoic expression as she walked into her apartment. But as she came in, her hungry eyes turned straight to the sugar bowl, staring greedily at the tarnished surface. She did not take note of the invisible table, though she should have. The pile of papers had grown colossal, looming overhead like an origami giant, entirely obscuring its wooden surface. She began to take off her jacket, trailing it on the floor behind her until she let it drop. Kicking off her shoes as she neared the divan, the burgundy velvet slipper skidded across the floor, brushing the toes of the giant. All at once, the envelopes lurched forward, and the giant was not Vesuvius when it erupted, but an effortlessly swooping paper crane. Each piece of forgotten correspondence, each bill unpaid fluttered down in a moment, filling the apartment up to its high ceiling with a steady trickling of envelopes. Ms. Mason hardly had the time to let out a gasp as she sank.
She was found much later, of course, by a delivery man who on his way to deliver pizza, noticed envelopes pooling on the doormat and blowing across the expanse of hall. It was 11:30 pm, but news got out fast from behind the series of locked doors. Soon, a crowd had gathered in front of her door. Women in plastic hair curlers, men in bathrobes, and children rubbing their eyes partially out of exhaustion, partially to confirm the sight. The flabbergasted superintendent finally made up his mind to dial the fire department to clean out the papers. After that, it would probably become one of the rare vacancies in the old Upper West Side apartment building.