I always thought of my great-aunt Hilda as the perfect heartland matriarch. She was white-haired, round-faced, and apple-cheeked. She wore puffy blouses and a flour-specked apron, and she seemed to live in her kitchen--perpetually kneading bread at the counter, or sudsing clothes in the sink, or galumphing up the stairs from the basement pantry bearing jar after jar of her homemade preserves.
Her kitchen was the only cheerful room in the old family house in Edwardsville. It had bright yellow walls and white counters, and in the summer there were always bowls of ripening peaches on the table and windowsill. The big appliances were prehistoric, but Hilda did eventually allow a few incursions of modernity: I remember a gleaming four-slice toaster on the counter, next to a Mixmaster that whirred like an outboard motor. She'd also started buying supermarket mainstays like Fluffo and Rice Krispies and Reddi-wip, and she'd sometimes make the strange recipes on the backs of the boxes. For the Fourth of July she'd concoct a huge quivering mold--red and blue layers of Jello alternating with white layers of milk, and marshmallow blobs for stars strewn throughout.
She loved children, though she'd never had any of her own. When the new generation of the family started coming to Edwardsville in the late 1950s and early '60s, she welcomed us with the same enthusiasm and indulgence she'd shown our parents. She gave us the run of the house, from the golden hush of the attic to the spidery dimness of the basement. She encouraged us to spread our toys all over her newly washed floors. Some of my earliest memories are of maneuvering my tanks and dinosaurs and rockets along the kitchen linoleum and down the threadbare hallway runners while Hilda watched from the doorways and smiled at me.
But Hilda was also the disciplinarian, the realist, the deflater of illusions. She robustly mocked any of us when we were feeling low; she told us that moods, good or bad, were nonsense. She would get a warning twinkle in her eye if I tried to explain what my toys were about--particularly my treasured Mercury spacecraft: she seemed to think that only a fool could believe in something as absurd as outer space. But then she was that way about the whole world beyond the picket fence. When the rest of the family talked about a trip to nearby Saint Louis, she'd grow wide-eyed with alarm, as though we were some reckless latter-day successors to Lewis and Clark.
Her main duty, it often seemed to me, was to order me to take a nap each afternoon. I never understood what for, but it was one of her unshakable convictions about children: they needed to take naps. So when the day was at its most sweltering she'd tell me to lie down on the huge old bed in the master bedroom, and there I'd have to stay for an hour, pretending to sleep and trying not to suffocate.
The room was dimly lit and hot as a furnace. Sometimes a stray ray of sun would escape from the blind and fall through a little turmoil of dust motes to the quilt. I would pass the time by counting up everything I hated about the house.
There was no air conditioning. No record player. No books. There was a TV in the parlor but it was never turned on. There was also a magnificent old radio in a carved wooden case, its rows of Bakelite switches and buttons suggesting a Buck Rogers spaceship; the dials would light up, but it wouldn't produce any sound. There was nothing to do and nothing to think about.
Then I would listen for sounds from the rest of the house: creaks from distant floorboards, the solemn tick of a clock, a fly buzzing for admittance at the window. At long intervals a crackling noise would come from the parlor: that was my great-uncle Marty taking the cellophane off a cigar. Or else there might be a bang in the kitchen: Hilda shutting a cabinet door. Hilda and Marty had the house to themselves most days, and they seemed to have no problem being around each other without speaking a word.
Sometimes I would look idly around the room--at empty perfume bottles on the dresser and pastel water stains on the wallpaper. The stains always reminded me of the islands on treasure maps; I would let my gaze wander all over them, plotting out pirate expeditions and desperate voyages of escape. Sometimes I'd wonder whether anybody had died in this room. Then I'd stare up at the looming headboard and wonder if it was about to fall and kill me. Then I'd try to convince myself I was already dead and was waiting for the funeral procession to arrive.
And then Hilda would bustle back into the room and demand to know if I intended to lie around like a lazybones all day.
Marty had retired from his job at the refinery by then, and had sunk into permanent indolence in the parlor. He sat in his easy chair from sunup to sundown, smoking cigars and scattering extra newspapers around his feet. Sometimes he made a supreme effort and shuffled into the kitchen, where with a great groan he'd bend to fetch a snack out of the icebox. He complained unrelentingly about his aching back and his weary joints, and he routinely begged off doing chores or favors. He would shrug elaborately if anybody asked him a question about anything at all. "I just work here," he'd say.
I always wondered what he worked at. Day in and day out he wore pinstripe overalls and a train engineer's cap that was greasy with age. When I was little I thought he was an engineer, and I assumed he was somehow associated with the train tracks in the back alley. To me, train engineer was the finest job in the world, and I once made the mistake of telling him so. He looked at me in amazement and began bellowing with laughter. For weeks afterwards he would point his finger at me and bubble over with laughter.
But then, he was very fond of laughing at the kids. He would sometimes snatch us if we strayed too close to his easy chair, and then he'd squeeze us by our shoulders and stare eagerly into our faces, his eyes bright with a kind of avian malice. He would tell us his jokes, ancient wheezes weaker than Bazooka Joe's, and when we wouldn't laugh he would look disapproving and poke our ribs, sometimes hard enough to leave a bruise. If we got upset and started crying, he would roar with laughter and let go; and for the rest of the day he'd announce to anybody within earshot that he'd discovered a secret crybaby.
He didn't go with the family to church; he never played cards with us after dinner; and when everybody was gathered out in the backyard in the late afternoons, he'd stay inside in the parlor. I remember one day coming into the house from the backyard, where we were all having a picnic, and glimpsing him in his easy chair. He was motionless, except for a slow swirl of smoke from his cigar; his eyes were focused in the middle distance and he never even saw that I was there.
My great-aunt Helen was Hilda's opposite: shy and prim, soft-spoken and tightly wound. She carried herself with an air of aloof propriety and wore dark, ankle-length floral dresses even in the hottest weather. I would have called her the model of a small-town librarian, except she never read a book in her life. Her passion was movie magazines. She never went to the movies themselves--they'd become too sexy and violent for her--but she kept all the latest gossip magazines stacked on the sideboard in the dining room, and was as magically current about the doings of Natalie Wood and Julie Christie as she had been about Barbara Stanwyck and Lizabeth Scott.
Helen still worked in Saint Louis's garment district, as she had for decades. When she was home she usually sat at the dining room table, dealing out game after game of solitaire. But she was always willing to break off her game to listen to us. She was fascinated by our ceaseless babble about NASA and G.I. Joe and the Beatles. She listened to us with grave attention, never making fun the way Hilda did. But when we asked her what she thought, she'd smile and say that such things were beyond her.
Sometimes she invited us to play cards. She taught us countless variations of gin rummy and hearts and go fish and spit in the ocean. But she was just as fascinated by the board games we brought with us from home, things like Monopoly and Life. She even learned to play a ridiculous James Bond board game I had, in which teams of scuba-geared assassins engaged each other in an enfeebled version of Chinese checkers. No matter what the game, she was a ferocious competitor who gave no quarter to youth or inexperience. She usually won but she never gloated; instead she'd get an odd expression, a kind of crooked, lemony half smile, as though she'd thought of the tartest put-down but thought too much of herself to say it.
The fourth inhabitant of the house, my great-uncle Eugene, was a mystery to me. I couldn't even tell when he was there: he often worked the midnight shift at the oil refinery, and during the daylight hours he hid in his room with the door locked. I'd hear him nosing around the kitchen at odd hours, like a mouse. But one time I woke up in the middle of the night as a terrific thunderstorm broke over the house. The doors were slamming, wild rainy gusts rushed from room to room, the curtains flapped frantically like a raucous convention of ghosts. In the dining room Eugene was standing by himself and staring out the window. He swayed back and forth like a lone tree. I crept back to bed before he could notice me.
Eugene's passion was still for gardening. By then his gardens covered most of the property, and they'd become so lush and elaborate that travelers would detour off Troy Road to admire them. But Eugene never acknowledged any of the shouted compliments. If he saw anybody lingering by the front fence and looking in, he'd withdraw deeper into his maze and set to work at something low to the ground, behind a rosebush or a stand of sunflowers. Even when we sat out in the backyard, beneath the green vaults of the shade trees, we could barely make him out: he was just a half-hidden shape as vague as a scarecrow, surrounded by clouds of hovering bumblebees.
He was no easier to pin down at family gatherings. He'd keep in the background, saying nothing, looking at no one. He hated having his photograph taken; the only time I ever saw him get angry, or for that matter display emotion of any kind, was when he saw a cousin of mine pointing a camera at him. I found his remoteness fascinating, and I kept hoping he'd acknowledge me somehow. But the most I got out of him was a curious, barely perceptible nod of his head, and maybe a sort of crooked smile (which I liked to think was one of secret complicity) before he vanished again behind the door of his bedroom, where I wasn't permitted to follow.
One time, though, when I was very young, he did speak to me--or maybe I just dreamed that he spoke to me. What I remember is this: I came around the corner of the house and found Eugene digging a deep ditch. There was someone with him, a man I didn't recognize, who was wearing an antique suit even though the day was punishingly hot. I asked Eugene what they were doing, and he said, "I'm digging a grave for my father." I ran away. I found Helen in the dining room, and stammered out what had just happened. She snorted in contempt. She said, "Eugene has a strange sense of humor."
Past the gardens and through the back fence was the alley. That was my favorite place to play. The train tracks were there, half swallowed up by groves of towering weeds. Nobody was ever around, and nothing ever moved: it had been years since the last train came through. A couple of hundred yards down from the house were two
derelict flatcars on a siding. They seemed to be floating on a bed of weeds as dense as the Sargasso Sea, and they were the ideal setting for pirate battles. One afternoon I drafted my cousins and some neighbor kids, and we staged an apocalyptic showdown there between Captain Nemo and Long John Silver, which was complicated by attacks from Godzilla, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and a kid who claimed to be a giant octopus. I thought it was the high point of my life.
Other times I wandered along the tracks by myself. I kept my head down; I was searching for buried treasure. My mother had told me that when she was a kid she'd find odd little fish-shaped pebbles there that Hilda and Helen had claimed were Indian arrowheads. I never saw anything like that; my quest was for bottle caps. I got to be expert at spotting their peculiar trace--a little serrated line in the dirt like the fin of a baby dinosaur. I'd pry away the clots of earth and stone to reveal an ancient cap in carnival colors, or regal bronze and purple, or mysterious silver-black, for some soft drink I could barely imagine: ginger wine, birch beer, blackberry cream.
The tracks led on past the edge of town. Out there was a whole hushed world of tumbledown fences and shabby gardens, of overgrown pathways smelling of wildflowers and mint, of broken-windowed sheds engulfed by weeds. The afternoons were sultry and still; insects clicked and moaned in the underbrush. Grape-purple thunderclouds built up in the west, somewhere beyond the Mississippi. Sometimes a wind would spring up ahead of a storm, and the meadow grasses would seethe, and a tree on a high hill would bend and quiver in a private ecstasy. I liked to imagine trains passing the way they had in the old days, and people posing in the observation cars as though in magazine ads, opening up their exotic soft drinks and flinging the caps off into the golden afternoon light.
Then one year I arrived to find that the train tracks were gone. Edwardsville's local power company had obtained an easement; they'd dug out the rails and replaced them with a line of slim white power pylons taller than the highest trees. The track bed had been bulldozed flat and a ragged strip of blacktop laid over it. It was marked on the maps as a bicycle path. Soon cyclists were whizzing past the house on weekend afternoons, beneath the white-arched corridor of the power pylons. The path went on for miles; you could ride it out past the new subdivisions to the west and up through the hills, where on the clearest days you could see the glinting dragon tail of the great river.
One September evening the household began collecting supplies for a picnic. They brought out old checked woolen blankets from the linen closet and the wicker hampers from the basement pantry; they loaded up snacks wrapped in tinfoil and they filled Tupperware tubs with soft drink bottles and ice cubes. The kids watched these preparations in bewilderment. We knew it was too late in the year for fireworks, and that nobody in the household ever went to the drive-in. But nobody would explain what we were going to do instead.
The traffic on Troy Road was always heavy, but that evening it was impossible, as if the whole town were being evacuated. Cars were bumper to bumper, tops down, radios blaring. The kids rode with Eugene and Helen; Hilda and Marty followed behind. Car after car after car crept past the big floodlit shopping center; then we sat and stared at a fast food joint lit up like a neon flying saucer (the sign out front advertised "Char-Co Burgers"). Beyond that were the first open fields, and views of distant hillsides where subdivision windows glimmered in the evening light. The ride seemed to take hours.
Several miles south of town the line of cars came to a fork in the road. The turn to the left was the original Troy Road, which ran southeast toward the town of Troy deep in farm country. The right-hand turn was a fresh stretch of main highway that cut to the southwest and connected to the new interstate. Between these alternatives was the derelict site of a railroad-tie factory. Men with flashlights at the factory gates waved the cars in. The buildings were all gone; nothing was left but a wide flat field of weeds and cinders broken by patches of asphalt. At its center a wooden platform had been set up before an enormous shrouded backdrop, with loudspeakers massed before it and floodlights on either side.
In the trampled ground before the platform we spread out our picnic blankets and unfolded our lawn chairs. Eugene and Marty sat silently, dignified, reserved, like farmers on their Sunday-best behavior. Helen was looking around disapprovingly: she didn't like how casually everybody in the crowd was dressed, the men in Bermuda shorts and the women in capri pants. Hilda was in a bad mood because she didn't recognize anybody. But the people around us acted as though it were a family reunion. They laughed and waved and shouted at each other; kids ran back and forth, some of them holding up sparklers and looking like celestial messengers. Everybody kept saying how much all this reminded them of the old days before the war. Back then the townspeople used to gather in the parks for church socials and holiday picnics and brass band concerts; now they stayed indoors in the evening and watched television. It was a shame, everybody was repeating, an awful shame to see the old ways go.
The evening was clear and chilly, the first cool weather of September. The sky overhead was a glassy blue that was gradually being speckled by the Milky Way. In the west, after the sunset faded, a huge smear of copper and orange remained on the horizon from the factories and refineries around Saint Louis. To the north were the silhouettes of low, forested hills backlit by a pale phosphorescent halo--the glow of Edwardsville's streetlights.
Then a hush fell over the crowd. The floodlights snapped on and the shroud was drawn off the backdrop. The scene was the Mississippi River valley as it had existed a thousand years ago: lush forests, rolling hills, and an immense grassy mound looming up against the horizon. A Native American city had stood on the site of present-day Edwardsville. Actors in hand-sewn buckram outfits mounted the stage to recite speeches about the kindliness of the earth and the unstained spirituality of their civilization.
The next scene jumped us forward hundreds of years to the arrival of the first white explorers. The forest had reclaimed the land; the city was gone and the current inhabitants no longer knew it had existed. The only trace left was the mysterious mound. The whites were astonished by it, and wondered if it might have been built by refugees from Atlantis or one of the lost tribes of Israel.
In the next scene a wave of settlers arrived. And then we were introduced to Ninian Edwards, the founder of Edwardsville, who presided over a treaty in which the last tribal lands were ceded to the whites. And next the town was built.
So it went on, tableau after tableau. Crowds of citizens gathered in the town square; whiskered politicians made speeches about slavery and the Spanish-American war. Battalions of soldiers marched off to Europe. A chorus line of bathing beauties preened. A silhouette of a railroad train disgorged a promenade of visiting celebrities--finger-fluttery W. C. Fields, blackfaced Al Jolson. A file of artillery pieces was paraded past. The flag was raised on Iwo Jima. And then a squad of Legionnaires with real rifles gave a 21-gun salute.
Each new scene set off a wave of recognition from the crowd, a surge of murmuring, or a shower of laughter. I kept looking up at my four old relatives to see if they were following the story. I couldn't tell. They sat silently, arms crossed, as impassive as a row of statues. The glare of the stage lights shone on their glasses and hid their eyes.
At the climax the pageant reached the present day. The backdrop was lowered to reveal a big pyrotechnic set piece. It was ignited and the crowd gasped. The brilliant white flares were carving out the unmistakable shape of a mushroom cloud. Then the flares guttered, the smoke scattered, and everyone applauded.
Next week: Things They Never Told
Previous installments are posted at leesandlin.com.