I was scouring the bathroom sink when I thought of Mrs. Kratlian. I was surprised to have her appear in my mind, and trailing a mystery as well.
Mrs. Kratlian had been a neighbor on the street where I grew up. I doubt I had thought of her since I was 13, which is when we got our first television set. The arrival of that machine broke our one link with the Kratlians. Fittingly, television was the avenue which led my mind to Mrs. Kratlian again after thirty some years.
As I scrubbed the sink, I hummed Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” I had first heard it from Fred Astaire in the movie Shall We Dance? Fred had sung it to Ginger Rogers while they were riding on a ferry from New Jersey to Manhattan.
I saw Shall We Dance? and many other movies about twenty times in my early teens thanks to a t-v show out of New Year called “Million Dollar Movie.” “Million Dollar Movie” played one movie a week, airing it two or three times a day. My immersion in the romantic Hollywood products of the thirties and forties may explain why I was a late bloomer. I never did learn how to lindy, fly, mashed potato, or Bristol stomp, though I did manage to approximate the twist. It took the Beatles to propel me into a respectable adolescence.
Anyway, as I hummed Fred’s song over the sink, my mind drifted to “Million Dollar Movie” and then to the years before.
The Kratlians owned the first television on the block. All the neighborhood kids would crowd in front of it to watch cartoons. Actually, it seemed to be the same cartoon over and over: a bewhiskered Farmer Brown or Farmer Gray with an upraised shovel endlessly and fruitlessly chasing mice. No dialogue. No color. Few background details. We were spellbound.
I remember the Kratlians’ living room as always dark, probably because I was usually there at 4:00 or 5:00 on winter afternoons. The t-v gave the only light. The two Kratlian boys, fat and swarthy and sullen, sat on the rug. The rest of us, still wearing our thick coats of forest green wool or brown corduroy, stood behind them. No one ever thought to sit on the plump navy blue horsehair sofa or armchairs around us.
Mrs. Kratlian was a homely woman, short and round. She wore dark dresses that seemed shapeless even though they were belted, and black lace-up shoes that I’d seen only on nuns and very old ladies.
She was a housewife, like every other woman on the block, but she seemed truly wedded to her house. The other women could be seen coming and going with strollers or shopping bags, gardening, tending young children in wading pools, walking dogs, conversing on the sidewalk. Mrs. Kratlian stayed inside. Waxy-leaved evergreen bushes obscured her front windows.
She came across the street and up on to our porch only twice that I remember. Once, she was leading my brother home. His forehead was bleeding profusely from a gash inflicted by a hoe swung by Mrs. Kratlian’s younger son. The other time, she was leading her older son, who’d been bitten by our dog. Both times she was frowning.
I rinsed the sink and smiled, amused by how the mind stores and connects things. Then, into my chiaroscuro memories of Mrs. Kratlian burst the bright pink belly-dancer’s costume trimmed in gold.
When I was in sixth grade, my class put on a tableau as part of a school assembly. At the center was someone dressed as the Statue of Liberty, and grouped around her were eight or ten children in the native costumes of as many countries. I sat at Liberty’s feet and represented Armenia in Mrs. Kratlian’s belly-dancer’s costume.
The costume consisted of sheer billowy pants gathered at the ankles, a closely fitting vest-like top cropped short, and a filmy veil long enough to drape loosely and gracefully across a woman’s head, around her body, and over the lower part of her face. My teacher had insisted on the use of the veil. For modesty’s sake, I was to conceal my childish midriff and non-existent cleavage.
I felt quite glamorous in the outfit, which was the most exotic and authentic of the lot. I’m not Armenian, but I’m dark, the only brunette in a family of blondes. I knew I looked real.
The mechanics of how I was loaned this startling costume escape me now. My mother and Mrs. Kratlian weren’t friends. I never saw them together without a wounded boy between them.
I remember Mrs. Kratlian as gloomy and retiring. Yet from her had come the bold, resplendent costume. I imagine the shimmering thing carefully wrapped up in some dark drawer in that dark house waiting, almost with a life of its own, for an opportunity to emerge and be known again.
Perhaps Mrs. Kratlian wore the costume as a girl, before she was a Mrs. It’s difficult to picture her belly-dancing, but I like the idea that she could have. Mrs. Kratlian, barefoot, is stepping rhythmically amid smiles and music. Her exertion and the firelight put a sheen on her skin. The costume, and Mrs. Kratlian herself, would have looked their best by firelight.
During one turn, the corner of her long veil slides across the knees of her future husband. The coarse weave of his trousers catches at the lightweight pink cloth, and for a moment, the veil tarries, its edge brushing his lap with gold.
Or maybe Mrs. Kratlian had never used the costume, but only kept it because of who had passed it down to her. Perhaps a stern, silent grandmother handed it to her from a deathbed, or perhaps it was left behind by a scandalous older sister when she ran away with her gypsy lover.
Mrs. Kratlian fingers the fabric of the abandoned garment and sighs. She spreads it out on a narrow bed. She has closed the bedroom door even though she’s alone in the house. The costume, limp and quiet, still gives the impression of a woman’s body. Mrs. Kratlian wonders about the memories of the women who have worn it.
Before storing it away, she sprinkles a fragrant layer of dried rose petals over it. She folds it slowly to hold them in. In ancient times, a rose hung over a council table indicated that everyone present was sworn to secrecy.
It often strikes me that the lives of women are suffused with secrecy. How little, really, I knew of the lives of the women on that long-ago suburban street, lives that looked so straightforward and conventional. Or, how little I thought I knew before I was ambushed by memory and given a glimpse of private possibilities.
Mrs. Kratlian walks to the kitchen doorway with an onion in one hand and a knife in the other. She looks across the dining room to the motionless backs of the children in front of the television set in the living room.
She stands watching them for a few minutes. They don’t notice her. She knows if she approaches them, they’ll jostle one another and lift their wide faces to greet her politely. If she were to squat down among them, she’d find their differences: the one with cherry Lifesavers on his breath; the one with a Bandaid on her knee; the one with muddy mittens; the one with chapped lips and a piece of sleep in the corner of an eye. If she were to speak to them, some of them might tell her stories.
But she stays where she is, and from her post, the children, outlined by the light from the t-v, appear to her as cardboard silhouettes, simple, static, obvious.
She returns to the cutting board and her own thoughts. Her memory lies in wait.