There was an outside door to the basement, but Sonia had never used it. Cinders and garbage and rotting newsprint lay under the steps that led down to that door, drifting against it in gentle, putrid layers. Onto those steps she had ventured only once, to retrieve a tennis ball. But she found no amount of washing could remove the high sweet odor from the ball’s fuzz, so she threw it away, and found another diversion. Sonia had nothing but time to study her terrain. She learned to slip into the basement when its interior door, the one in the back hall behind the lobby, was propped open.
Rolled up carpets propped in the corners cast long shadows, and forgotten trunks and suitcases littered the floor. A narrow walkway was improvised between the objects, a jumble of rusty bicycles, unsteady tables, and lamps that threatened to fall if you accidentally brushed them while going by. It took a conscious effort to breathe air that was as still and dead as most of the owners of these relics. The city had grown beyond them in its ceaseless way, and it was only through chance and inertia that they had avoided being put out at with the trash. The quiet of the basement was soothing to Sonia, and no one seemed to care to intrude on her habits. And so it might have continued, except that a leather hinge on one of the trunks rotted.
“Miss Brown, she don’t want you to touch that!” Carlos’ voice broke the stillness, startling Sonia. She had thought she was alone in her musty retreat. Apparently, the doorman had spotted her. Now he came out of the shadows into the dim circle of light created by a bare bulb that hung by its cord from a pipe overhead. Sonia had dragged a trunk underneath its light, tempted to peek inside. The trunk’s hinge, a wide leather strap, was broken, and the cover had come askew. As a rule she didn’t pry into things, but the trunk’s contents were too fascinating. Older than the other suitcases and trunks that littered the basement, the trunk still bore the peeling labels of extinct steamship lines.
“Look, Carlos” Sonia said, holding up a lace nightgown. A mirror and a hairbrush with beautiful mother of pearl handles lay beneath that, then a satin dress that could have fit a girl of fourteen or fifteen, about her age. “Aren’t they pretty?”
Drawn to the trunk in spite of himself, Carlos admired the objects over her shoulder for a moment before remembering his mission. “Miss Brown, she don’t want anyone to open this.”
“Who is Miss Brown?” Sonia had grown up in this pre-war building on the West Side. She knew the stones of its granite foundation, and she had played on the back stairs and the roof for countless hours. She thought she knew all of the building’s inhabitants.
“She lives in 8A. She don’t go out, but on Christmas day I take this to her. She says, Carlos, don’t let anyone look inside.” His voice was urgent, but he hung back. Just hearing that its owner was still alive was enough for Sonia, though. She hurriedly folded the clothes and lay them back in the trunk, carefully tucking the mother of pearl vanity set between the layers where she had found them.
“I’m sorry, here, let’s put the trunk back.” They slid it across the grimy cement floor back to the corner, Sonia energetic in her eagerness to replace the trunk where she had found it, Carlos still reluctant. They centered it back over the rectangle of the lighter area of the floor that the trunk had shielded for so many years, and hurried to the stairs.
“You go outside” Carlos said when they had ascended to the back hall of the lobby level. He waved his hand in the direction of the lobby, toward the front door with its elaborate metal work and leaded glass panes. It was propped open to catch any available breeze. The heat wasn’t yet unbearable, it was still only nine o’clock in the morning, but the shimmer on the cement sidewalk outside promised another sweltering July day in New York City.
Sonia grabbed her old blue bicycle from under the service stairs. Without another word she wheeled her bike through the lobby. Embarrassment that Carlos had caught her doing something wrong swirled in her thoughts, alongside the frustration of knowing she couldn’t return to the basement anytime soon, if ever. Once outside, she pushed off with a few jogging steps and swung her leg over to land on the moving seat. The sun’s rays bounced off the light colored sidewalks and buildings, which in turn focused them onto the thick black asphalt of the street in an effective solar oven. Only one destination made sense: Sonia pointed her bike west, towards Riverside Park and whatever breeze might be coming off the Hudson River.
A note to readers: Thank you for giving this book chapter a chance, I hope you enjoyed it. I plan to share one chapter per week of Willow. In case you are wondering, publishing this book chapter is part of my new goal to share some of my fiction. Unlike my work on historic African American schools and sharecropping (which has been published in various venues and featured at dozens of film festivals), I have not shared my fiction widely. However, I resolved to change that in 2021.