Staying with Aunt Grace [from A Fish in the Moonlight]
[1954: My unmarried Aunt Grace, my mother’s sister, lived in a small Pennsylvania mining town. She was a spinster in every sense of the word and delightfully peculiar. Off-limits to my brother and me were the caves in the mountains behind her house, remnants of the coalmines that one dotted the area. And just because they were off-limits, my brother and I were only encouraged to explore them, as we did one night, while the adults were asleep.]
Mother tried to hide the fact that she came from a Polish family who lived in Tamacqua, Pennsylvania, in the heart of the anthracite coal-mining district. When she moved to Philadelphia, she left behind her sister, our Aunt Grace. Aunt Grace never married, although she tried everything she could to attract a husband. She dyed her hair; one visit it would be blonde, the next red. The medicine cabinet in her bathroom was filled with bottle upon bottle of nail polish, nail-polish remover, hair coloring, face powder, rouge, cleansing creams, along with packs of eyeliners and tubes of lipstick.
“Aunt Grace could stock a store out of that cabinet,” said John.
“She’s got so much in there you can smell the stuff when you drive up,” I said, trying to top him.
Aunt Grace’s house was halfway up a steep street, where all the buildings came right up to the sidewalk, one of those up-state houses, with long, narrow rectangular windows, fake brick siding, and a high-gabled roof. Six steps led to the front door; in the back was a fenced-in garden, with a gate at the far end. Beyond the gate lay the scarred land where coal had been strip-mined, a treeless landscape dotted with steep pits, some of them 100 yards across, filled with water that had turned brackish-red or-green, even yellow. Local people, who owed their living to the mines, called the area ugly. John and I found it terrifying, like an alien planet, yet in a way compelling.
Beyond the gate rose the Allegheny Mountains, with those abandoned coal miners’ caves John and I were forbidden to enter. On the first floor of Aunt Grace’s house was a sitting room, a very small, never-used dining room, and a long, large kitchen, in the center of which was a wood-burning stove that also heated the house. On the second floor were two bedrooms, along with the bathroom and that famous cabinet bursting with cosmetics. Above, on the third floor, was the attic, where John and I slept—a wonderful place that with its high roof looked like a tent. At the top of the roof was a glass window through which you could see the sky. The rumor was that Aunt Grace’s former boyfriend—her only boyfriend probably—had installed it for her. Grace was a collector—of everything. She was the one who got John and me started with bottle caps. Hers was the master collection, over two hundred caps, each one different, some going back to the 1920s when she was in high school. Matchbooks, dolls, bottle openers, stamps, coins, movie posters, miniature books, doll houses, doll furniture, postcards, porcelain figures, candles, teacups, license plates, shoes, gloves, jack-in-the-boxes, children’s toys, fortunes from fortune cookies from every meal she had ever had in a Chinese restaurant—she collected everything!
A thin, bony woman, with skin that stretched tight on her face, she smelled of powder and perfume; her cheeks were so red you would swear she was wearing a mask. She looked unnatural, like a middle-aged doll. Totally self-absorbed, her only topics of conversation were the goings-on among her neighbors whom we did not know, the price of this or that at the grocery store at the bottom of the hill, who was working and who had been laid off in the coal mines. She was also expert in the latest fads in facial creams or toenail polishes. And food—the meal she had just cooked or the next one she planned for dinner. If you mentioned something about yourself, an event or place in the “big city”—every place outside her coal-mining town was dismissed as the “big city”—if you referred to anything existing beyond Tamacqua, she either found something in her small world that was like it or better. After a cursory nod that seemed to say, “I heard what you said—there, I’ve done my part,” she would steer the conversation back to something that interested her. In doing so, Aunt Grace was not so much annoying as comic, unconsciously and pathetically so.
Visits to Aunt Grace’s were always the same. As we drove towards her house, there would be a silent rustle of lace curtains in the neighbors’ windows; you’d see clearly the hand that had parted them and, less clearly, a dim face now framed by the opening, peering out at you. As Dad drove down the street at his usual agonizingly slow speed, those parting curtains produced something of a falling domino effect, opening and closing.
We settled quickly into Aunt Grace’s routine. Three meals anchored the day. The kitchen stove was the physical and spiritual center of her universe. Life in Tamacqua was boring.
In the sitting room you could watch the goings-on in the street outside. Around the stove, you listened to Aunt Grace go on and on in painstaking detail about Tamacqua. Daily trips to the grocery store, always in the middle of the afternoon. A visit to the Chinese restaurant the final night came none too soon. The sisters argued over who would pay the bill, and, of course, Aunt Grace saved all of the fortunes from the cookies. After dinner, we gathered around the television set—a luxury in those days— and watched shows like “Philco Playhouse,” “Climax!,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” “The Garry Moore Show,” and “I’ve Got a Secret.” Mornings we cleaned the house. Aunt Grace’s habit was to give us “assignment sheets” with very specific duties, such as “take out drawers and dust inside the bureau,” or “clean light bulbs in bathroom” or “sweep behind all second-floor doors.” Dad was “allowed out” after lunch. He would walk the streets of Tamacqua, striking up conversations with perfect strangers, attracting attention by the odd way he smoked his pipe. Dad always smoked his pipe on his after-dinner walk through our neighborhood since mother wouldn’t allow “that thing” indoors. During World War II my mother was appointed warden of the four blocks that formed our neighborhood, her job being to sound the alert if German bombers flew over the city. She saw to it that when we had a night air-raid drill, every one turned off all their house lights. The rationale was that a dark city presented the most difficult target for Hitler’s air force. Dad was a creature of habit, and one night, just as he was about to leave the house, an air-raid alarm sounded.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Mother bellowed at him. “You know, May Elaine, I always take a walk after dinner.” “Right now? Smoking that thing?” “You know I always smoke my pipe.”
“And what if a German pilot should see it lit? Everyone ‘s lights are off, and there you go, waltzing right out the door, pipe lit, burning away, giving those Nazis a perfect target.”
“Oh, come on—”
“Just our luck they’re going to attack tonight, and here you are, the perfect target.”
Dad looked helplessly at John and me. Mom stood blocking the door, hands on her hips. Then, we saw a smile gather on Dad’s face. He put out the pipe. Mother flushed a smile a triumph. Too soon, for the next instant Dad pushed the tobacco a little tighter in the bowl and re-lit the pipe. Mother was fuming.
“And just what do you think you’re doing?”
Dad looked at us with a “you’ll see.” Very calmly, clearly enjoying every second, he turned the pipe upside down. It continued burning yet there was no red glow. As he sauntered out the door we knew that tonight we would be safe; tonight the Germans would not bomb Philadelphia. Dad sailed through the crisp night air, puffing away, the smoke curling up and around the pipe, the embers in the bowl invisible to the enemy. From that day on, long after Germany had surrendered, Dad continued to smoke his pipe turned downward. Now he sailed through the streets of Tamacqua, acknowledging the residents’ stares, the puzzled expressions, and savoring his rare victory over Mother ten years ago.
If pipe smoking brought Dad freedom from Aunt Grace’s regime, John and I found relief each afternoon during the hour before dinner when we were allowed to explore the strip-mined land—we called it “the moonscape”—beyond her backyard, reminded, as always, not to go beyond the foothills, the gateway to the mountains and those forbidden abandoned miners’ caves. That sterile, treeless world, the ground rutted from the trucks that had long ago abandoned the place, showed no signs of life, no sounds, only deep pits, the last bastion of the strip mines, their depth a measure of the coal company’s determination that going any deeper would not be “cost-effective.”
Ahead of us loomed the Allegheny Mountains, thick with trees, green in summer and brilliant in fall with the hues of the mountain ash, the only defect the bare swath, from our perspective no wider than a pencil, running from the base to the top to accommodate power lines. Every dark spot among the trees signified a former miner’s cave, and on this issue John and I were in dispute—he counted six, I seven.
In our imaginations the moonscape between Aunt Grace’s garden gate and those green mountains became a paradise. Waterless pits metamorphosed to staging areas for hide-and-seek; we skimmed stones on the surfaces of pits transformed to lakes. Clumps of dirt became hand grenades in mock wars. Best of all, digging even a half-foot into the soil exposed all sorts of treasures abandoned by the miners: a still-operable cigarette lighter, a copy of The Policeman’s Gazette with pictures of almost naked women, coins, tools, a watch, a bronze belt buckle carved like the star of Texas, a pouch of chewing tobacco, hundreds of empty cigarette packages that for us quickly formed a collection rivaling our bottle caps, a photograph of a family of twelve posing beside a large black Nash, numerous pocket knives.
Against all odds, small crocuses pushed their way through the rocks, and in the late summer weeds, growing like a field of wheat, caught the strong winds blowing from the mountains. Once we stole some vegetable seeds from Aunt Grace, tools, ten buckets of dirt, and a bag of fertilizer we found unopened in a small shed, and planted a garden near the foothills in a culvert formed by a dried-up stream. Hidden from the world, certainly hidden from Aunt Grace, that garden gave us an excuse to venture into the forbidden mountains to get water from a stream that poured down from the top before it went underground near the base.
On one of those trips for water we discovered a cave halfway up the mountain. Shining a flashlight into the dark, we could see that the corridor ran two hundred feet or so straight inside and then went in three directions. We dared each other to step inside. It wasn’t Aunt Grace’s rule inhibiting us, but rather our own sense of unease. Unnatural, an intrusion dug years ago into the mountain when the mines were in full operation, the deserted shaft now seemed positively evil—an abomination. Yet it also lured us.
“My God, it’s six,” I said. We raced back to Aunt Grace’s. To be even one minute late would violate her schedule. John and I were now halfway there, at the very midpoint of the moonscape. Ahead was the freshly painted white fence, the garden with its three perfect rows, and inside Mother, Dad, and Aunt Grace around the kitchen stove waiting for us. Behind us were the mountains, the Alleghenies, the first barrier to settlers moving west, now lit in garish hues by the sun making its last stand. Somewhere in that imperceptible distance lay the cave.
“Look!” John cried. “Where?” “There,” he said pointing in the cave’s direction. A light was
flashing, no bigger than a pinprick, but clearly flashing. At us! With a message?
“Come on, John—we’ve got no time for that now.”
Aunt Grace’s clicked her teeth ominously. “I don’t know what you boys see in that godforsaken place.” Apologies made for being late, we settled into the evening dinner. Aunt Grace allowed for no after-dinner conversation. The moment the final bite was taken everyone rose and fell to their assigned tasks of clearing, sweeping, washing, drying, and stacking. In the sitting room playing canasta, we kept one eye on the cards and the other on the neighbors who, behind their own lace curtains, were probably playing canasta too, with one eye on us.
At eight, Dad was released for his upside-down pipe-smoking voyage along the streets of Tamacqua. As he posed in the door to say goodnight, he lit that pipe the same way, and with the same savor of success, he had done that night when Hitler’s Luftwaffe was threatening the city. Mother pretended not to notice.
“Can we go out?” I asked.
“And what would you do?” Aunt Grace asked, surprised, shocked that anyone, at this time of day, would want to venture into the outside world.
“We’ll stay in the backyard.”
“Yeah, getting a bit of fresh air after that fine meal of yours, Aunt Grace,” John added with a nice touch.
Once outside, we tried to spot the light we had seen from the cave, but the mountains remained dark and silent.
Suddenly John said, “Wonder what it would be like to go into that cave at night?”
Even though I had had the same thought, I gave him an expression that said, “Now, why would you think of such a stupid thing?” Inside we could see Mother and Aunt Grace sitting by the stove, drinking tea, talking just as they must have when they were young years ago.
“How can Aunt Grace live in a place like this and not want to go exploring?” John asked.
“Beats me,” I said, half pushing him as I moved towards the kitchen door. Just before entering the house, we both turned around and looked back towards the cave. No flashing light.
An hour later, before we headed to bed, Aunt Grace gave us each a hot brick that had been heated on the stove and then wrapped in a thick towel. “To keep you comfy,” she said cheerfully as we kissed her goodnight.
There was no heat in the attic but the hot brick under your sheets at the foot of the bed kept everything nice and warm until you fell asleep. John and I lay on our backs, staring at the moon shining through the window. Below, we could hear Dad come in and join the sisters in the kitchen. In a few moments, all three were laughing. John and I just lay there, without talking. When the wind outside picked up, the old house began to groan. Now the bricks had cooled so that we could rest our toes on them and feel the heat making its way through the towel. Through the skylight we could see wisps of black clouds blowing across the moon. Dad and Mother started upstairs, while Aunt Grace stayed behind in the kitchen, putting the finishing touches on her day. We heard our parents’ door shut and, later, Aunt Grace go into her bedroom. The sky had cleared and five stars circled the moon. The wind was even stronger now, and there was a tapping sound on the roof—probably a tree branch caught on the shingles. John had fallen asleep, or so I thought, and in a minute or so I followed suit.
Suddenly, he was shaking me with, “Let’s sneak outside.”
“What?” “Come on. I couldn’t get to sleep. I was just faking. So, now
you’re up too, let’s sneak outside.” Minutes later we were dressed. We could hear Aunt Grace snoring. In the kitchen a homey red glow came from the stove. There was a flashlight by the back door.
“The caves?” “Yeah, the caves.” “We’ll never get another chance.
The town was asleep; lace curtains hung limp in their windows. A crisp wind from the mountains blew across the moonscape, which now seemed more unreal than ever. The only sound came from bits of coal crunching beneath our shoes. Without speaking, we moved toward the mountains. We knew tonight we would challenge, disobey, Aunt Grace’s most sacred rule—we would go into the cave! In that foolish, suicidal way of young people, we rejoiced.
Now far away, our maiden Aunt Grace lay snoring in her bed, face still caked with rouge, eyebrows teased and blackened, lips painted a garish red, hair doused with her favorite rose water. Aunt Grace, sound in her bed, never suspecting, but dreaming of the carpenter, now long dead, who once had romanced her, giving false promise of marriage before leaving, his parting gift that wondrous window in the attic. How many nights, when she was alone in that house, after we had departed, had Aunt Grace lain in that attic bed, her body warmed by a hot brick? How often had she looked through that window and thought of the carpenter, dreaming of her cavalier as the moon passed overhead? Sleep tight, be comfy, Aunt Grace, for tonight John and I were going to the cave, toward our destiny.
“I bet there are a million passageways inside,” John observed as we pointed the flashlight into the entrance.
“What if we get lost?”
With the smugness of an older brother, I cut him off with, “I’ve thought of that,” as I produced a piece of chalk from my pocket.
“Yeah, chalk, ” I replied with mock anger as if he should have been able to figure out how a single piece of chalk would keep us from getting lost. My inspiration had come from a comic-book story in which the hero, on a mission to rescue a boy lost in a labyrinth, retraced his path by following in reverse order the numbers he had written on the walls. John agreed it was a great idea.
Once inside the cave we walked the two-hundred or so feet to where the path divided into three tunnels.
“Let’s take the one to the left,” John ventured. I dutifully wrote a large “1” five feet down the passageway. There were lots of choices as we moved deeper, and we took turns deciding whether to go right or left, all the time secure in the knowledge that the numbers entered every twenty feet or so would serve for our exit. By number “25” the cave felt colder, damper. Somewhere, hundreds of feet, maybe thousands of feet behind, reached by a random combination of right and left turns, but now in reverse order, was that number “1”. It was thrilling, dangerous, illegal. If the moonscape was our old world, here was our new one, a Newfoundland carved by miners, pioneers we knew only from their abandoned artifacts. The silence was profound. We felt nurtured by the darkness, at one with the dampness.
“Do you suppose if we keep on we’ll end up on the other side of the world?” John asked.
“Without a doubt,” I replied, laughing yet also wishing somehow it were true.
When we got to “100,” we agreed that enough was enough. Trying to protect our separate egos by letting the other be the first one to say that we should turn back, we spoke almost precisely at the same time.
This dark place offered a fraudulent, transitory pleasure. Reality was Aunt Grace’s kitchen stove, that building housing the unmarried and the married sister, and that gentle, dear man whom we loved more than anything in the world.
We started tracing the numbers backward, the system working like a charm. We passed “90” and then “80” and “70”.
“What if the flashlight fails, Sid? You ever think of that?”
“I saw Aunt Grace put new batteries in the second day we were here.” No, the flashlight did not fail.
Instead, it was the numbers that failed, for while we could find “42,” there was no “41” or “40,” or “39” for that matter. All the numbers before “42” had vanished!
There, at “42” we stopped, were stopped, and now, as our fears mounted, we speculated wildly, with little hope any answer would prove true. Did the chalk marks disintegrate because of the dampness on the walls? Was there some malignant force that had taken its revenge on us for disobeying our aunt? The flashlight couldn’t last forever. We could try alternate routes, but what if that only led to our getting further lost? As if we could be any more lost than at present?
“Let’s use a new number system when we try out the possibilities,” I suggested, “so that if one route doesn’t lead us to the old numbers, at least we can find our way back to this place.”
The moment we wrote the first number on the wall, we realized what had gone wrong. The cave wall was too moist, and instead of drawing clear lines, the chalk dissolved into the rock.
“At least we know it wasn’t some evil spirit,” I said in a pathetic effort to ease our fear. We started to panic. There was no need to put that panic into words; like twins, John and I knew what the other was thinking, feeling. We both had the same vision: two boys, buried forever hundreds of feet below the surface, starving to death in this abnormal tomb, their cries unheard, our panic changing to desperation and desperation lapsing into madness.
We sat there, stupidly, without a plan. I was barely able to restrain the urge to leap up and start racing insanely around the passageways, foolishly imagining that if we tried out enough combinations, somehow chance itself would let us hit on the right one. In fact, I was about to do just that, and John must have sensed it.
“Wait, Sid, I know what to do. Just follow me.” I demanded my brother explain; he refused. He was, in effect, ordering me, the older brother, the favored son, to agree without any explanation. Grabbing the flashlight, with me following on his heels, John began walking, taking a right turn here, two left turns there, then a right, then a left, then two rights. He moved boldly, indeed, cheerfully, like someone out for a Sunday stroll through a neighborhood he had known all of his life. When I protested, asking if he knew what he was doing, he simply smiled back at me, as if my concern were irrelevant. For all intents and purposes, he was now the older brother.
In a few minutes we saw the moonlight at the entrance of the cave. We were free! We hurried back to Aunt Grace’s house, joyful, drunk in our salvation, shushing each other as we made our way to the attic. Aunt Grace was still snoring and dreaming. Still warmed by the brick, the bed felt reassuring.
There was no need to talk about what might have happened in the cave–nothing had happened. As we were drifting off to sleep, I asked John the inevitable question. “How did you know which path to follow out of the cave?”
“I had no idea what I was doing, Sid–no idea in the world.”
Saturday was our final day—day six—with Aunt Grace. Late in the morning, John took a pellet gun he had bought at the store down the street and practiced with it, hitting targets on the moonscape, until lunch.
He had the gun with him when we visited our secret world for the last time. To our delight we saw the light blinking from the cave a half-mile away, beckoning us. We had mastered the cave, so this time we were content to remain in the moonscape without investigating. John cocked the pellet gun to his shoulder.
“Watch this.” Aiming carefully, he took a shot. A second later we heard the sound of the pellet striking something metalalic. In that same moment the mysterious light went out. We made our way towards the mountains, past the variously colored pits now catching the sun’s last rays. There, a hundred feet from the cave, we found a tin can that had been shattered by John’s shot.
“Nothing mysterious after all.”