Picture by Kowit Phothisan on Unsplash
Sarah Brown called Sonia to account. It was a moment Sonia has been dreading, although her apprehension was diluted as the months of summer ran out, and then there was fall, and Christmas, still with no consequence for opening the trunk. But two days after Christmas, Carlos stopped Sonia in the lobby.
“Miss Brown, she want to see you.” Carlos had walked over to where Sonia stood by the mailboxes to deliver this message.
Sonia blinked and looked around the empty lobby. The steam radiator hissed and clanked under the grating next to the mailboxes. There was no other noise, nothing that suggested anyone else was nearby, yet Carlos had spoken in a whisper.
“Why?” was all Sonia could muster.
“She see the trunk was different, she see someone open it, and I never open it. I tell her you make a mistake and open it, and she want to talk to you.”
“Please tell her I’m really sorry, I won’t do it again.”
“You got to tell her, I call her on the intercom and tell her you come up.”
“No, no,” the blood was pounding in Sonia’s ears now, “just tell her it was an accident, I didn’t mean to do it, and I’ll never touch her trunk again.”
“You got to tell her,” Carlos repeated, “or she say she is going to talk to your father.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll talk to her.” Sonia conceded, as they both knew she would, at the mention of her father.
Carlos pushed the button on the intercom and announced her, as if she were a real visitor and not a girl who meddled, a trespasser really. She took the elevator to the eighth floor.
Once at the door of apartment 8A, Sonia rang the doorbell, which made a grinding ring that echoed through the apartment. She waited several long minutes, and was turning away in relief when the door opened.
“You are Sonia?” the elderly woman said. She had reached over a walker to open the door, but her voice was steady, and it carried a hint of amusement.
“Come in, my dear.” Miss Brown turned and made her way down a hallway, seemingly confident that Sonia would close the door and follow her to the living room, which she did.
“Sit down, sit down. Don’t worry, I am not an ogre.”
Sonia sat gingerly on the edge of a brocade wing chair. The drapes were drawn and a space heater glowed by Miss Brown’s chair, creating an atmosphere that was almost unbearably close. Still, Sonia felt less anxious and more intrigued. She had lived her entire life in the building, and this was the first time she had seen Miss Brown.
“Now,” Miss Brown said, as naturally as if they spoke all the time, “Carlos told me you saw my trunk. Don’t you know it’s bad manners to look through other people’s things? Or have manners changed so much since I was young?’ She delivered this last comment with a smile, softening her bald statement of Sonia’s wrongdoing.
“Miss Brown, I am so, so sorry. I shouldn’t have looked in your trunk. It was just that your things are so pretty, and I didn’t know until Carlos told me that the person who owned the trunk was still…” She trailed off, horrified at the rudeness into which she had stumbled.
“Alive? Yes, I am still alive, although none of us can know how many days and years we have. Now, do be a dear and get us some tea. Just go in the kitchen and boil the water. The tray is already set.”
As foreign as these instructions were to her, Sonia did not think to disobey. She found her way to the kitchen and lit the gas burner using a wooden match from the box above the stove. Her own kitchen prepared her for this much, but nothing else was familiar. The counters were all speckled Formica, and a set of pink Bakelite canisters ranged from large to small next to the stove. The refrigerator was a ponderous affair, and she wondered how such a frail woman opened its door, which bulged with 1950s styling and the maker’s name in black script across the top.
Sonia saw a tray laid out on the kitchen table, complete with teapot, matching floral teacups sitting on their saucers, and a plate of cookies. The tea kettle began to whistle, and Sonia felt a ripple, a presence. The kitchen was infused with the accumulation of Miss Brown’s repetition of these very same motions day after day, year after year.
She poured the boiling water into the teapot, picked up the tray and made her way carefully back down the hall. When they were settled with their tea, Miss Brown gazed at her thoughtfully.
“Did you know that all of this,” she made a sweeping gesture toward the window, apparently meaning to indicate the blocks of the West side around them, “all of this used to be country, with estates along the river?”
Sonia shook her head. She found it hard to imagine that country might lie beneath the pavement of her neighborhood.
“Yes, and my father had a very large house on the corner of this street and Riverside Drive. We lived in it for years.”
Sonia wanted to ask what happened to the house, but remained silent, dreadfully afraid she might make another faux pas. The milk clouds swirled in her tea, and her gaze wandered to the photographs on the wall. They were dark and grainy, hard to make out.
“Yes, there it is, look at that picture!” Miss Brown exclaimed. She pointed to a photo of a stone building and Sonia rose from her chair to look at it more closely. Vines curled around a stone wall surrounding the mansion, and the whole house looked square and imposing, more like a bank than a home, to Sonia’s eyes. Still, it was very impressive and she regarded Miss Brown in a new light. Even a long time ago it must have cost a lot to build.
“You grew up there? What happened to the house?” she finally ventured. She found it hard to comprehend that such a solid building had vanished, but she knew a tall apartment building stood on that corner now.
“Things change,” Miss Brown answered simply, “even things you thought would last forever. Now,” she continued, smoothing her skirt, “what did you see in the trunk?”
Sonia swallowed hard and looked down. “I just noticed how pretty the things, I mean, your things, are. Like the brush and mirror.” Sonia was thinking of the intricate pattern carved on the back of the vanity set. “Did you really use them?” The blood rushed to her cheeks again. She had not meant to ask another question, but Miss Brown didn’t seem to mind.
“Yes, dear, every day. I brushed my hair one hundred strokes every evening with the brush, and for a long time that nightgown was my favorite. And the gown… well, one has so many memories. Some of the things that seem important when you are young seem foolish when you reach my age, but you will know someday what it means to forgive the young girl you were.”
“But…how is it you’re here, but you don’t have your family’s house?”
“I went away for a time, and when I returned everything had changed. This building was new when I moved in — can you imagine?” Miss Brown smiled gently. “Sometimes the carriages still went by, although it was mostly cars by then. I used to enjoy driving my phaeton in the park.” This last she said in a whisper, more to herself than to Sonia.
“Forgive me, I am not used to company anymore, and sometimes I get so tired. Will you put the tray in the kitchen on your way out?”
“Okay…of course” Sonia fumbled for words, unsure of what would be a polite thing to say. “Do you need anything?” she finally managed.
“No, dear, I’ll be fine after I rest a little, and there is someone who comes to make dinner. But you must come back and have tea again.”
“Thank you, I will.” Sonia carried the tray to the kitchen and then stepped into the apartment’s dim hallway to let herself out. Her hand was on the door when the walls of the hallway came into focus, covered as they were with framed photographs. One in particular caught her eye: A girl in an elaborate hat sat perched in the driver’s seat of a buggy. A man sat next to her, but it was the girl who held the reins. The white horse appeared ready to spring forward. Sonia could imagine the next moment, when the horse would toss its mane and trot out smartly. There was something familiar about the horse, but that slipped from her mind as she examined the girl in the picture. She reflected that, after so much time, Sarah Brown still had the same elegant presence.
Sonia studied the picture for a moment more and then slipped out the ordinary light of the eighth floor hallway. Once the door was closed behind her, it looked mute, the same as the others in the quiet of the hall. Sonia stopped for a moment and thought there are so many people living alongside each other in the building, in this city, and yet we know so little of each other…
In Sarah’s living room the space heater clicked on again. Her eyes misted as Sarah gazed at them absent-mindedly until she could not see the coils, only the orange glow. The color was so like the coal that burned in the stoves of her youth. Apart from the ticking of her heater it was very still in the room, and her mind wandered to Sonia, then to the course that had been charted for her when she was about Sonia’s age. She thought of Maggie, who when they met had been thirteen. Maggie was an ethereal presence who could slip into a room carrying her coal scuttle, and finish her work before one even realized she was there.
“I never would have believed it when you arrived, poor thing. Sometimes I think you would have done better to freeze by the river, than come to our door. But you did come to the door, and it changed us all…"