The widow arrived at LaGuardia on a Sunday, but the rumors about the woman who had rented a big apartment, sight unseen, had taken an earlier flight. We had already reviewed, on many occasions and in hushed tones, in the quiet that comes after long hours of visiting, what little we knew about the widow and her dead husband.

About her life in the old country, we asked the obvious questions: Were there children? Cheryl heard from a friend who still lived in the Dominican Republic that they had only been married a year when he died. Had her husband been rich? No, our sources in the old country said, poor as a church mouse, with a big family to support out in el campo. Had the husband been handsome? Yes, in a rakish sort of way. And with what we knew we created him in our minds: medium height with a mop of curly hair and an easy laugh, walking down Saona Beach in a white linen guayabera, dropping suddenly to one knee. We ourselves felt a flutter in our hearts.

On the day the widow finally arrived in New York, the rain came in fast, heavy drops that sounded like tiny birds slamming into our windows. She emerged from the taxi with a single battered suitcase and, little-girl small, stared up at our building as the rain pelted her face. Behind us our men and children called out for their dinners, but we ignored them. We would wonder later if she had seen our faces pressed up against the windows, on all six floors, peering out over flowerpots full of barren dirt.

We watched her until she made her way out of the rain and into the lobby. Those of us lucky enough to live on the fourth floor squinted through our peepholes or cracked open our doors as the super carried her suitcase to the three-bedroom apartment she was renting. How could she afford it?

The little widow walked behind the super, her gait slow and steady on the black-and-white tiles of the hallway. He was rambling about garbage pickup and the rent. She was younger than we expected her to be, thirty, maybe. The amber outfit was all wrong for the chilly autumn weather. She was from Santo Domingo, but she looked like a campesina visiting the city for the first time, everything hand-sewn and outdated by decades. She wore an old-fashioned skirt suit, tailored and nipped at her round waist, and a pair of low-heeled black leather pumps. Seeing them made us glance down at our own scuffed sneakers and leggings. On her head, she wore a pillbox hat, in matching yellow wool sculpted butter-smooth. She dressed her short, plump body as though she adored it.

Instantly, we took a dislike.

We ourselves had been raised on a diet of telenovelas and American magazines, and we knew what beauty was. We gathered after dinner to laugh at her peculiar clothes. We murmured with fake sympathy about her loneliness, and joked that she might turn our husbands’ heads. When we ran into her, though, we smiled and asked her how she was finding New York.

We began to invent stories about the little widow’s life: torrid affairs that had driven her husband to die of heartbreak, a refusal to give him children, a penchant for hoarding money—we repeated the tales until we half believed them. The drama of the little widow’s previous life became richer and denser, like a thicket of fast-growing ivy. Who did she think she was, anyway? Living alone in that big apartment?

The little widow seemed to understand what we expected of her: she muttered only quiet thank-yous when we held the door open as she struggled with her groceries, or when we helped her up after she slipped on a patch of ice in front of the building and landed flat on her back. As briskly as she could, she composed herself and disappeared, her head bowed low into the collar of her quaint amber coat.

When we heard that the little widow could sew, we started bringing her dresses and pants to hem, mostly because we wanted to know how she lived. The little widow’s three-bedroom apartment was laid out like the others, but as she worked, our eyes darted hungrily between her and the contents of her sewing room.

Her hair was curly, dyed reddish brown, and cut short around a pointed chin. When we got to see her up close, we noted that though she did have deep creases at the corners of her eyes, she did not have a widow’s peak. Her eyes were a dark hazel, and her pupils so small they looked like pinpricks.

The little widow had wallpapered her sewing room with a cheap burlap. When one of us slipped a fingernail underneath a panel and discovered that the rough cloth was glued on, we crossed ourselves and said a quick prayer for the little widow’s security deposit.

On that burlap the little widow had embroidered massive, swaying palm trees, so finely detailed that we could almost feel a salty breeze warm our faces as we stood on her tailor’s pedestal. Running our fingertips across the embroidered walls we could feel the braille of her labor; the grains of sand were individually stitched, as if the little widow knew each one. The ocean seemed to ripple and surge as the little widow worked around us in meditative silence, kneeling near our ankles with a pin between her lips. She was so gentle and fluid in her movements, her soft skin creasing like a plump baby’s around the pincushion she wore on her wrist.

We liked her in those moments, but even so, we didn’t invite her to our birthday parties or gatherings at Christmas, though we knew she was alone in that large apartment, watching the passing of the seasons, just as we did, through black-barred windows.

We imagined she would soon have to take in a subletter to make ends meet. We mentioned that a cousin was coming to work at a coffee-filter factory and needed a place to live. She didn’t have a lot of money yet, we explained, but she would be able to pay back rent on a room once she started collecting paychecks. And that could be a good source of extra income!

The little widow tilted her head to one side and appeared to think about it. She said yes, and Lucy, a single girl from Higüey, moved into the little widow’s spare bedroom.

The goodwill the little widow won among us was short-lived. On a visit to get a skirt hemmed, Sonia asked to use the restroom and snuck into the little widow’s bedroom. Like the wall of her sewing room, the wall across from her bed was covered with burlap, and on that canvas the little widow had hand-stitched tidy rows of Limé dolls.

The faceless dolls looked just like the clay figurines tourists bought as souvenirs. They varied in hair and clothing—some wore their hair in a single thick plait, draped down the side of their necks, and some wore it down around their shoulders. Their dresses were every color of the rainbow and some wore Sunday hats and carried baskets of flowers. But rendered in the little widow’s hand, these familiar dolls took on an eerie quality. Sonia studied the wall for a long time and became convinced that the dolls represented us.


Homepage art from New and Recent Paintings by Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum