The building on the corner was tall and oddly bulbous, like something inspired to prehistoric growth by heat, although the day itself was cold and windy. Small black shoes crowded the long gray stretch of the street, kicking the skeletons of leaves and food packets as they whirled among the gutters. The girl’s white legs were red at the knees and at the ankles, where socks had been accidentally omitted and black leather shells were too snug about the opening. Her coat however was too large, and admitted gusts of wind through its seams and partings which stung and pricked the vulnerable body.
As she approached the building one of her shoes came untied. Stooping on the stoop she reknotted it with fat pink fingers. As she crouched near the floor a bustling man came up the stairs and collided with her slightly, commenting in cursorily apologetic tones as the keypad buzzed and authorized him to enter the bright yellow lobby. The girl stood, smoothed her massive black hair, rubbed her left eye and slipped in after him.
On the fourth floor lived an ancient mollusk in a hot small room. It was to this room that the girl sought, and was given, entrance. The coat was shed on the couch striped with wear, and the air recoiled from the croaking young voice which said, “Hello.”
The woman in the chair shifted with a crinkly smile and a sound. From a cavernous pocket in the crumpled coat the girl – Minnie was her name – produced a genteelly folded and stapled brown paper bag, rattling with bottles. Traversing the soupy air Minnie approached the corner, containing chair and, blanket-covered, Mrs. Baines, who could not speak. “I’ve brought you your medicine, Mrs. Baines,” said the girl sweetly, looking at herself in the minuscule reflection in the old woman’s glasses.
Meticulously Minnie prepared a glass of water from the room’s dusty sink, some of which she secretly splashed on her tight, dry cheeks and forehead. The brown paper sack was peeled open and the white pills extracted, several slipped through the heavy thin lips into the odorous mouth, into which water was then introduced. Mrs. Baines swallowed. The girl stored the rest of the pills in the mouse-proof cabinet and commenced tidying the room, which primarily held vestiges of a life the child could not imagine with her white shiny mind and silt. When the week’s dust had been satisfactorily hidden the day beyond the warbled window had begun to slide away and Minnie switched on the light. All the while she hummed or murmured to herself, bits of poems and morals from school, songs that were intoned typically in church. In other days Mrs. Baines might have contributed something to this monologue, for of all the things unshared by the ancient and the new songs were not one, but today the deep eyes contented themselves by following the little shape around the darkening room.
From another pocket of the gray coat Minnie removed a speckled green apple which she impressed into an indent in the blankets of Mrs. Baines with a gesture that reminded the child of a mermaid burying the skull of an erstwhile human lover. This similarity created a mysterious little smile on the round face which, as though the elder had, by watching, gained knowledge of the inner workings of the younger, was mirrored on the face of Mrs. Baines.
Shuffling the light closer to the old nut of a head above the pool of wool, Minnie surveyed the room once more, enrobed, and departed. Slowly, slitheringly, Mrs. Baines brought the green, fresh apple to her trembling mouth.
At the family home of Minnie many lights were gleaming frenetically out onto the street. The tight black shoes made a rhythmic supplication on the asphalt as the girl approached this beacon of parental concern, the left lace lagging behind, collecting leaves. Once the door was cleared the gigantic gray coat abandoned the girl’s shoulders with a puff of trapped outdoor air to descend upon a pile of its likes.
“Minnie? Is that you?” came the customary call, followed by a stampede of multitudinous siblings, of which Minnie (for she it was) completed the set.
“Yes!” came the little shout. The father, emerging tall and stooped from the living room, picked up the smallest of his children and gave Minnie a little New England smile. “How is our Mrs. Baines?” he asked, giving Minnie the momentary odd sense that she was a grown neighborhood parent and Mrs. Baines some consumptive little daughter of hers.
“Not so well, Papa.”
“Shame. And school?” posited Papa.
“Fine. Sister Agnes was pleased with me this week.”
“Clever girl,” said the willowy father with a warmer aspect. Minnie was approximately the eldest child, and the only who had been deemed pious and developed enough for an education.
The troop of kinsfolk passed into the kitchen, where the mother and a blond daughter were stirring stew.
“Hello,” said the blond girl to Minnie.
“Hello,” said Minnie to her twinnie.
That night, in the darkness, Minnie saw a shadow hovering above her as she lay in bed. She screwed up her eyes and sang herself a little song and in the morning she woke up to a room full of sunshine.
At school Minnie learned how to be quiet, how to be friendly, and a little bit of arithmetic. She had remembered to wear socks today. The gray coat had developed a brownish stain on the lower back which she could not place (likely explanation: she had taken her sister’s by mistake). Once more she pocketed her school-provided apple for Mrs. Baines.
On the way to visit the mumsy mollusk Minnie was accosted by a stranger who lunged from an alley and threatened her with a plastic knife. She was frightened though apt enough to see that the danger was only simulated. She gave him her apple and the ribbon from her hair anyway.
Due to the adventure in the alley Minnie arrived late to see Mrs. Baines and left early. Mrs. Baines seemed much the same. In Minnie’s muddled state she turned off the light without thinking about it, though she was in the custom of leaving it on to illuminate the little room. In the dark Mrs. Baines’ crinkled hands traveled to her mouth where they were discovered empty.
At home things were also much the same. Minnie realized she had taken her mother’s coat and didn’t mention the episode in the alley. She went to bed, where she had nightmares that were not cured by singing.
Following this came the weekend, during which Minnie’s duties were assumed by Mr. Baines, an entrancingly handsome only son who fascinated Minnie so much that she tried to avoid him whenever possible. Monday came, a day on which the bulbous box of hibernating apartments appeared much the same as it always had though the weather was a little warmer. Minnie entered the weekend-dusty room and was affected by an odd smell and a stripe of black that stood bent over the chair in the corner. A sound skipped into the air from Minnie’s mouth and struck the stripe, which turned and showed its bluish teary beautiful face.
“Hello, Mr. Baines,” said Minnie with uncertainty.
“Minnie,” Mr. Baines said, gifting the girl with an endearingly grievous look that had the appearance of being stolen off some celebrated actor of the screen. “I’ve just arrived. It would appear that my mother has died over the weekend.”
Minnie immediately felt that this was true though she had not in her sixteen years seen a dead person before. The fabric of her school skirt received a distraught wringing, as did the reddening fabric of her face, which also produced tears. She was quite overwhelmed and did not ask Mr. Baines any questions, and did not know if she could leave and run screaming home as circumstances suggested that, perhaps, she should.
“I’m afraid the funeral expenses will preclude my paying you for this past week, dear, although you will of course be invited to see the burial. Your father will understand?” he volunteered, dabbing his cheek, then hers, artistically with a handkerchief.
Minnie did not know if this comment necessitated a response. She produced an apple from her pocket and offered it uncertainly to the space between mother and son. “Sweet girl,” said Mr. Baines disdainfully to the apple. “You have that. I have a favor to ask you.”
The apple returned dutifully to its pocket. Minnie noticed that the window was open and that there was a skin of frost on the piles of old magazines slumped near it. She examined this image very carefully.
“Minnie,” said Mr. Baines cajolingly. “Will you be a dear and help me move my mother downstairs?” Minnie, sick to her stomach over this request, collapsed in on herself slightly as if she had actually been stabbed. “She had no one in the world except you and me, you know,” said the son, clean white gloves caressing carefully the intersection of shoulder and neck under the collar of the gray coat.
The body was revoltingly soft and the stairs difficult and narrow. Minnie’s bare hands clutched the coating of blankets around the beloved face with the terror of a man hanging by a finger from a crumbling cliff. After it was all over and the mollusk was safely ensconced in a dirty-black wooden shell, Minnie ran home. At one point, nearly crushed by a huge grunting vehicle, she ran so fast she smashed herself against the side of a ghostly building appearing from amongst the other pedestrians. As she bounced off the wall the green apple fell from her pocket, rolled into the street, and was pulverized.
At home Minnie shared the news, first with Twinnie then mother then father. The little ones were not told and did not attend the funeral, which was held a week later on an obscenely beautiful day in the light of which it was too hot for black clothes and the body looked bloated and insubstantial.
Six months later Minnie was married. Her spot in the school was given to her blonde twin, who found she liked it much better than staying at home. After the death of Mrs. Baines Minnie had been unable to find another after-school job, but Twinnie quickly obtained a position repairing underthings at the neighborhood seamstress, so this arrangement seemed convenient on all sides. Minnie Baines moved with her busy new husband into a small hot apartment in a bulbous building where the air was thick and unmusical and every night she had nightmares of apples with thin green skin.