Published in Chicken Soup for the Chocolate Lover’s Soul.
I live in a co-op apartment in Chelsea, NYC. It’s like a small town here, our own little community. There’s a family feeling, complete with gossip and tiffs and warm hugs and belly laughs. Skinny Dotty is a fixture here. She’s in her mid 70s, I think. One time I asked her if I could paint a portrait of her. She responded by saying, “Maybe if I were younger and didn’t have so many wrinkles. But, it’s too late now.” I asked her how old she was and she wagged her finger back and forth and said, “I’ll never tell.” I’m left to guess she’s 75.
Dotty is shaped like a pencil, her blond hair in a bob where the eraser would be. She loves to wear clothes with pictures of cats on them—baseball caps with cats, T-shirts with cats, sneakers with cats, socks with cats, purses with cats.
Dotty spends most of her time checking on other people’s cats and watering plants in the neighbors’ apartments. I see her in the lobby, on the elevator, or when I pass through our private garden. Every time I see Dotty she insists on giving me chocolate, handfuls of it. I try to refuse, worried about my dental bills and my waistline, but she ignores me and puts gobs of the little chocolates right into my pockets. Because I know that I tried to refuse, my guilt is gone. I eat each one, slowly, ecstatically, savoring every rich, creamy bite.
The superintendent’s office is a cubicle right off of the lobby entrance. It has a window that faces the lobby. A million years ago Dotty placed a glass bowl on the ledge of the window and she fills it with chocolates every single day. I’ve witnessed the mailman grab whole handfuls and push them deep into his pockets. He thinks that I don’t see him.
Violet, a cranky stout 50ish woman who kvetches loudly at every annual shareholder meeting, regularly swipes more than her share. When she stands next to skinny Dotty, they look like the number ten. Violet is as selfish as Dotty is generous. I hate when Violet corners me in the lobby and I make the innocent mistake of asking, “How are you?” Violet responds with her litany of complaints. Today she complained with fury, “Did you see that empty Pepsi can sitting by the mailboxes for the entire day? Why didn’t anyone throw it away?” I didn’t say it out loud but I thought, “What’s the matter, your arm broken? Why didn’t you throw it away?”
Violet snatches handfuls of the chocolates and tosses them into her purse. She snaps the fake snakeskin purse open, she drops the chocolates in, plink, plink, plunk, then she snaps the purse shut. She doesn’t even care that I see her. She oozes a sense of entitlement. If I were to ask her why she took so many I’m sure she’d say, “Because nobody knows how I suffer.” Vile Violet never even tips the staff at Christmas. Dotty tips them and makes them cookies even though she can’t possibly be wealthy; her husband was ill and out of work for a very long time. He would sit in the garden in his wheelchair with a book on his lap, snoring. Dotty often came downstairs and put a blanket over his legs while he snoozed. He reminded me of a beat up old lawn chair. One night Jimmy died in his sleep. That week when I ran into Dotty in the lobby she looked disoriented.
I asked her, “What’s wrong?”
“Jimmy died,” she said.
“I’m so sorry to hear,” I said. “You must miss him terribly.”
“Yes, the apartment is so quiet now.” Her voice trailed off and she looked down at her sneakers with the cats on them. Then, as if someone changed the channel, she perked up and said, “Want some chocolates?”
I wanted to say something about Jimmy, about her pain, but instead I responded to her question, “Oh no, you keep them for yourself.”
As usual, she ignored me and stuffed a handful into my jacket pocket. As soon as I got to the elevator I popped one into my mouth. The chocolate felt warm and snuggly and melted over my tongue. I felt a slight elevation in my mood. I slowly unwrapped the next one. I listened to the tin foil crinkle, as I smelled that spellbinding whiff. Pop, it went into my mouth. By the time I got to my apartment on the third floor, all five chocolates had disappeared down the hatch and my day had improved one hundred percent.
I often saw Dotty heading over to fill the glass bowl with a red and white bag from CVS drugstore. One day, while I was at CVS picking up a big blue jug of laundry detergent I walked over to the candy aisle. I scanned the shelves and was surprised by how much these bags of chocolates cost. I suddenly felt bad for skinny Dotty always worrying about everybody else’s chocolate cravings. I decided to surprise her and buy her all of her favorites. I stocked up my cart with Hershey’s Kisses, Mini Snickers, Milk Duds and Reese’s pieces.
I headed back to the building. I entered through the back gate that opens to the garden and sure enough, there was Dotty, as usual, chatting with a neighbor on a bench. I ran up to Dotty with a wide, proud grin.
“These are for you, my dear!” I exclaimed as I handed over the stuffed plastic bag.
“Oh, what’s this? Aren’t you sweet.” She said smiling. But when she opened the bag her eyebrows twisted and her smile withered.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“I don’t like chocolate,” she said.
“But, but . . . ,” I sputtered, “then why do you always buy it for everybody?”
“So people will smile at me,” she said very matter of factly.
I felt embarrassed, as if she were standing there naked. I wanted to cover her up. I wanted to drape a shawl around her bony shoulders, I wanted to fold her little pencil frame and stick her on my lap. It was all I could do to not burst out crying.
I breathed in deeply and summoned my composure. I gave her a gigantic hug and told her how lucky we all are to have her looking after us. Skinny Dotty beamed and handed me back the big bag of chocolates. I walked over to the glass bowl on the ledge and filled it up to the top.