Gertrude was watching the bees float across her lawn to the other side, to the house next door, where the tall grass was overgrown and dry. Withered blue flowers stood bent at a 90-degree angle in clay pots on the porch. One of the bees rested on one of the blue flowers. A square of shade from a eucalyptus tree covered the bees, as the flower drooped lower.
Gertrude was wearing blue overalls and a grizzly bear mask, on the day she met the kid. She tilled wet soil in her vegetable garden with a spade, picking up compost using a shovel, and dumping it in a wheelbarrow. She puffed on her e-cigarette. She dipped pretzel sticks into the honey in a mason jar and watched the bumblebees flying around the white flowers in her backyard by the dilapidated wooden gazebo. Several thick ivy vines sprawled down the facade like ropes.
A green Victorian house towered on top of a disheveled hill, looming over all the other houses in the North Jersey middle-class neighborhood. A month ago, Gertrude had moved into a blue cottage house that had stained glass windows and a straw thatch roof. When she was dragging her suitcases and plastic crates into her place, Gertrude noticed that all the houses in the neighborhood had the same blue bricks, the same glass windows, and the same straw roof. The only house that wasn’t a cottage house was the green house next door.
She saw the bees cling to the moss growing on the aluminum siding. The rain gutters looked bent and tarnished, the windows were dusty and old, and a few shingles dangled from the roof. The door was light blue and its wooden frame had perforations and dents. As she was turning her head back to the vegetable garden, Gertrude saw the kid rushing out of the green house and dropping his knees to the lawn. He wiped the tears away from his eyes and planted his bare feet on the blades of grass, and pressed his head against his knees. Gertrude propped the shovel against her garden’s brick partition, walked over to the other lawn, and asked the kid, “Are you okay, hun?”
The kid shook his head and told her that his parents had passed away in a plane crash while they’d been coming back from a vacation in Germany. Gertrude felt sad for the boy, not pity, but an acute sadness, that was not a projection of her own quiet sadness, but rather genuine empathy.
She asked the kid, “Would you like some company, or do you need space?”
The kid stood up from the ground, reached over, and hugged her. Gertrude was surprised, but instead of letting go, she held onto him tighter and rubbed his back. She breathed in the summer air and thought about death and how nobody could avoid it. She told him, “You’re going to be okay.”
“Is that your real face?” the kid asked, pointing at Gertrude’s grizzly bear mask.
Gertrude nodded. “It’s me, it’s all me.”
Gertrude was a young Vietnamese American woman in her mid-twenties. She wore a grizzly bear mask to hide the deep scar on her right cheek. She didn’t wear the mask all the time, only when she was interacting with people, which was seldom. The mask hid her scar, but it also worked as a useful device. Her grandma had given her the bear mask, after her sister had died. And somehow it worked.
When Gertrude wore the mask, she was able to dissociate with the world and space out, which let her deal with her anxiety and fear. She worked at home as a website developer for a micro-brewery in upstate New York. She lived in Jersey, and traveled to Manhattan when she wanted to see theatre or music shows. Otherwise, Gertrude stayed at home and sat at her back porch, working at her desk, staring at the trees in her backyard that swayed even when it wasn’t windy. A light snow fell on the treetops, soft as ashes, light as tears.
As it snowed in the long winter, Gertrude and the kid kept each other company. One afternoon, she made a blazing fire in a large stone pit, with lighter fluid and old newspapers. She stuck a marshmallow on top of a coarse branch and made another one, which she gave to the kid. The two of them roasted marshmallows and sword-fought, and then placed them in between graham crackers and Belgian chocolates.
While Gertrude and the kid ate their S’mores, they watched the paper burn and curl in the wind. “I don’t have a name,” the kid said. Presumably, he was never given one by his parents. His mom and dad would call him, kid. And that was a name, but it didn’t seem to fit him. Or perhaps, he had forgotten his name. At least, that was what the kid had said.
An hour later, Gertrude named the kid, Bonnie. Before she had had a miscarriage, Gertrude had been planning on naming her child, Bonnie. The miscarriage had always stayed with her, like a permanent mark. But the more time she spent with the kid, Gertrude realized he was helping her to cope with her loss. When she named him Bonnie, the kid smiled and sobbed so much that he shuddered, as though he were cold. “I can get used to that name,” Bonnie said, his face red and puffy.
One morning, Gertrude and Bonnie were sitting on a couch in her family room. She folded laundry, as she puffed on an e-cigarette, flecks of honey entrenched in her nails. A grizzly bear mask covered her face. Bonnie picked up a cardboard box wrapped with a red bow. Blue ‘Happy Birthday’ balloons hovered above, trailing the ceiling. Oreo cupcakes were on the coffee table.
He looked at Gertrude and said, “I’ve never been given a gift.”
“You’re turning six, so better late than never. I hope you like it, Bonnie” Gertrude said.
Bonnie smiled and unraveled the red bow and opened the flaps of the cardboard box. He reached inside and lifted out a small grizzly bear mask. “It’s gorgeous.”
“Try it on.”
Bonnie put on the grizzly bear mask. He raised his hands up and roared. “Can I see your face?”
“Sorry, but no.”
“I don’t like how I look.”
Gertrude and Bonnie were riding a pair of red wooden sleds down a steep hill in the neighborhood, and the day looked overcast, with a light slow falling from a bruised sky. Gertrude held onto the ropes of her sled with gloved hands sliding through a thick layer of snow. Lanes of slush formed up, as Bonnie passed down the hill with ease. They didn’t have much to do that day, so they spent it having fun outside, letting the cold weather tend to their moods. But the weather perked them up, nipping at their faces, cheeks flushed red and warm. Gertrude was content in this maternal figure role for Bonnie. She loved supporting him. It felt authentic and significant.
Bonnie smiled and waved at her as he dive-bombed down the hill in his sled. And then Gertrude scooped up a clump of snow from the ground and launched it at Bonnie. The snowball hit his head, and that was when he swerved and his sled hit a tree stump. He flipped in midair, his arms flailing against a tree’s branches. Ice fell off the frozen leaves. He landed on his back, tossing and turning over on the ground. When Bonnie screamed in pain, Gertrude felt numb and dizzy. She pulled her sled up beside him and rushed over to him. She grabbed him by his coat sleeves and picked him up, setting him on her sled. She hugged him. “Bonnie.” Gertrude touched his forehead. “Are you okay, say something.” His Grizzly bear mask was lying in the snow.
Back at the house, Gertrude was sitting beside Bonnie who laid in a bed in the master bedroom. She worried about him. As she patted down her Grizzly bear mask, snow fell off the sides of it. Bonnie pressed his head against a pillow. He was breathing slowly. He sat up against the wall, grabbed a can of Coca-Cola from the nightstand, and drank it. Then he sighed. “What’s wrong, love?” Gertrude asked him, rubbing his shoulder.
“I don’t understand why you hide, behind the mask of all things,” Bonnie said.
Gertrude nodded and put her chin in her hand. “It’s frustrating you?”
Bonnie turned over on his side and looked out the window. A gray sky and a line of trees. A bird was chirping on one of the trees.
Gertrude grabbed Bonnie’s Grizzly bear mask from the nightstand and reached over to Bonnie and placed it on his face. “Don’t think of it as hiding. Think of it as protection.”
He tore off the bear mask and threw it at her. She ducked. And she looked over her shoulder, as the mask was falling out the window. Gertrude turned back. Bonnie was lunging forward and stretching his hand over her Grizzly bear mask. She shoved him back. He fell into bed, feathers flying out of the pillow. He seized the can of Coca-Cola from the nightstand and chucked the soda at Gertrude. A splash of coke blanketed her bear mask.
Gertrude locked Bonnie in the bedroom, and when she was leaving the hallway, she heard him pounding on the door. But she was adamant; he had to learn a lesson. How else would he learn? She went downstairs to the bathroom and turned on the light. She stood in front of the mirror and took off her Grizzly bear mask. She picked up a rag and poured a few drops of Clorox on it. And then she took the rag and wiped away the soda stains off her Grizzly bear mask. She rubbed the ears. The head. The eyes. The snout. The teeth.