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Three Skirts MAG
8:17, thedusk of rush hour, the constant blurring clutter of cars, but now they all movedown the street with more ease. The sky was dark, but the streets were never darkin New York. The street lanterns had clicked on at five because the nights werestill longer than the days, but it was the lamb week of March so the air was warmand tinted as always with the scent of bus fumes and caffeine from a coffeehouse. A few blocks down in the park it smelled of spring's annual reincarnation,but those scents were always overpowered by the breath of the streets. The lightswere on in more than half the windows. Those electric bulbs were the stars of thecity, and were almost as innumerable as those that were invisible in the sky. Thebuildings on that block were modest; there were no skyscrapers, no chain stores.The floors over the little shops were homes, their windows bright. The streetthat ran by them was busy, but not as busy as some. There was a bench at thecorner in front of the coffee house. She sat on the bench, a part of the scenery.
I don't think you would have noticed her, and if you did you would haveprobably thought she was crazy. She sat on that bench almost always holding anempty paper tea cup in her hands as if it were full. She was old and thin, withwhite hair and startling green eyes. She owned three skirts, one for each season;spring and fall felt the same to her. She had five blouses and one winter coat,but she was always very clean. The clothes were patched to the point that theywere no longer shabby, but beautiful. She always had her hair pulled back in apink headband that a little girl had given her. She loved children, even thoughshe had none of her own, not even a niece or nephew. She had never even held ababy.
She had been on that street corner as long as anyone couldremember. She lived above the florist's shop across the street in a box of a roomwith a bed, a stove, a tiny bathroom and a rug. Her two cats were her companions:Theo, her tiny tiger and Small, who was white and purred when her fur wassmoothed into place. Theo wandered but came home for meals. Small was old and hadone paw that wouldn't cooperate with the others, so she stayed on the rug andmeowed wistfully.
Small had saved her life a long time ago. She hadwanted to kill herself - maybe she was crazy that day - but she'd found Small bythe gutter in front of the bakery, so tiny and hurt, that she fell in love withthe kitten. That had given her enough of a spark to jump-start her life again.She had felt foolish allowing herself to be so miserable that she made a pointnever to be unhappy again. And she never was, or never let herself. She wouldalways smile, sometimes even sing. Her eyes were never sad.
She had been afine artist once. She drew her first picture on a napkin in the Chineserestaurant four cement squares from the bakery. She sold her first piece for $25across the street and seven big steps to the left at the pizza place. She workedfor 15 years one block down at the photography store owned by an old Irishcouple. She lost her job when the husband died seven years ago and his wife movedaway, the year she found Small. She sold portraits on that street for a fewmonths, but then an officer told her she couldn't do that without a license. Hetook her into a big office to ask her questions and told her she was crazy. Hehad not been the first to think so. Checks began to come in the mail for herevery month. She didn't want to draw much after that. She was running out ofpencils.
She rarely left her block, but every now and then she woulddisappear for days. The man who owned the coffee house worried until she cameback. She usually went away right before Christmas. One year she was gone for twowhole weeks, but never left the city. She went downtown to look at the tree andhear children sing Christmas carols. She looked at shop windows like a touristand bought hot dogs from vendors. She always came home with a gift for thecoffee-house man, bringing him a porcelain tea cup one year, and a black writingpen and a birthday card another. She always came home with exaggerated stories,turning her walk around town into an odyssey.
Strangers passed by, andonce in a while one would throw quarters into her cup, but she would only laughand give it back. She never accepted money, but loved a conversation. Once in arare while, someone stopped and said a few words. It could be just a hello or asimple question, but that was all she needed to start talking, her words anxiousand eager. People often pulled away, afraid. Once in a rare while, someoneactually stopped and listened, or even sat for a time next to her. Once a youngman stayed beside her for a full 20 minutes and returned the next day to talkagain. She was delighted, and invited him into the coffee house for somethingwarm.
She would talk about anything. She knew the history of the city andspoke of it as if it were a friend, or even a parent. She would listen toanything, too, and she could read people. But if anyone asked her name, she wouldonly laugh and talk about the names of her cats and her dead sister. Soon shewould be telling another story, and her listener wouldn't even realize she hadnever answered the question. No one knew her name.
The man who owned thestore called her Miss adoringly. She called him Sir, even though she knew hisname was Matthew. He always gave her a menu, although she'd come in almost everyday for decades and always ordered rosemary tea with two sugar cubes and a sliceof lemon. He left it on his list of specialty drinks just for her. It had beenyears since anyone else had ordered it, but he kept her a huge crate of the tea.She loved the coffee house. It was always warm in the winter and loud in thesummer, with an air conditioner that hummed like a jet engine. In the spring andfall, she would still sit at that counter every day, for it was not just thecoffee house she loved, but the coffee-house man.
She told him herdreams. She loved the city, she told him all the time, but one day she wanted toleave it. She wanted to flag down a taxi and tell the driver to take her away.She wanted to go someplace where there was a huge sky full of stars. She wantedto see a forest of pine trees and hear birds that didn't choke on car exhaust.But she loved the city. He told her he would take her away, but they both knew itwas all talk. They would talk until long after the store closed. She alwaysdreamed in bright flashing colors; her nightmares were in black and white. Shenever dreamed of stories, never of people. Her mind was tired of making upstories all day long. Night was all images, random and bright. She had never seenthe ocean. She dreamed of endless water.
She knew the coffee-house manhad been married once to a pretty girl with long brown hair and light brown eyes.He cried when he talked about her and how she had died so young. His favoritecolors were blue and green. She liked the colors gray and ballerina pink, butalso magenta and turquoise because they were fun to say. Once in a while, after along conversation, he would ask what her name was. She would laugh and say,"I'll tell you someday," and leave. He continued to call her"Miss," and it made her blush.
She didn't come out of her littleroom for a whole week. The coffee-house man asked everyone if they had seen her.No one had. He went up to her apartment. He had never been there before, but heknew it from her words. He was nervous. She answered the door looking pale. Shesmiled but didn't blush when he tipped his hat and called her Miss. The room wasdark and cold but very neat; it was beautiful in a way he had never known. Shelet him pet Theo and sit on her bed, which was neatly made. There was no couch.Small was asleep on the rug. She told him she had been very tired but would visithim tomorrow. She was a formal hostess, and boiled water on her little stove fortea. He took her hand when he said good-bye. She always had warm hands. Thatnight they were cold. He still felt nervous when he left, afraid of how her eyeshad looked. They were not sad, but lacked their usual calmness. She had neversaid she felt tired before.
The next evening she came into the store in anew dress. It was store-bought, black, simple and long. She wasn't wearing herpink headband anymore; her hair fell loose across her face. She looked beautifulin a fragile way, her face happy but pale. Her hands shook slightly. She carriedTheo in her arms. Small had died an old cat the night before. She put Theo on thecounter and told the coffee-house man that Theo would eat anything and liked hishair combed once in a while. The coffee-house man froze. He knew what she wasgoing to do. Theo jumped down onto the floor and went into the back room. Thecoffee man held his eyes on her.
"Will you write to me and tell mewhat the ocean looks like?" he asked.
She laughed and said, "Iwill someday."
Then she glanced down her street at the dusk of rushhour. She took a deep breath of the coffee-tinted smog and the raw spring air. Ayellow taxi was waiting outside. She had a bag resting on the bench. She turnedand started for the door, but before she opened it, she turned and smiled.
"My name is Kora," she said, and went out the door to the taxi.The cab pulled away and in the dimming trail of cars, disappeared from the citycorner.
Theo purred and brushed against the man who stood alone in hiscoffee house. He poured some milk for the cat, turned off the lights and sat in achair by the corner with a cup of rosemary tea. He fell asleep and dreamed ofyellow cabs, oceans and striped kittens.