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Family Resemblances

On the hottest days, my Aunt Augusta would drive around New Franklin with the windows rolled up, so that people would think the air conditioning still worked in the Buick she had inherited along with the house. Family Resemblances. Cover by Wendell Minor.The clear plastic cornucopias on either side of the rear window, which should have poured coolness on the back of our necks, were still quite noticeably there, but the remainder of the apparatus had succumbed to a mysterious illness some time ago. Occasionally, when she got to an out-of-the-way place, she’d hit the four buttons by her left hand and all the windows would slide down at once to let in relief, but she may have done this only when I was with her, to accommodate my weakness and youth; alone, for all I know, she never let down her resolve. She almost managed not to sweat, as if a regal bearing would keep her cool. Once when we were all visiting—my parents and I—my mother, red and hot, told her to her face it was absurd. Augusta, beautiful as she was, looked stony. I could see her in profile from where I sat in the back seat, and I was glad the Buick was big and I didn’t have to be any closer to her. Whose side to be on? There was a silence for half a block, and then she finally looked at my mother and said, “What they don’t know won’t hurt me.”

When I was fifteen and a half I went, or got sent, to visit Augusta by myself because my mother couldn’t put up with me. It was summer again, and I was unbearable because of a lost boyfriend. His name was Roger Andrew, singular; I called him Rodge; he was sixteen, and touched my breasts, which made me feel as if I might die of self-consciousness. Having touched me there and elsewhere a number of times he gradually ceased to call me up, and I became—dramatic. I moped extravagantly, talking on the phone all evening to my best friend Jeanette Markey, sleeping till one o’clock, playing the same 45’s until no one could have made out the words but me. My father seemed nonplussed; this kind of bereavement left him nothing to say, even if I had been willing to listen. Parents like mine didn’t quite admit to themselves that their daughters, even at fifteen, made attempts at sex; but sex was a side issue. There was no talking to me, about that or anything else, so my mother didn’t have to say much when she suggested a thinly disguised exile in the care of Aunt Augusta. In a different mood I might have refused, but I didn’t care what she had planned this time, and I knew that part of her plan, always, was to make it hard to resist.

New Franklin, where Augusta lived, is east of St. Louis in the part of Illinois that did not get flattened out in the last ice age, where “corn” comes out “carn” and people talk about combing their hairs. I rode the train down from Chicago to St. Louis and Augusta made the hour’s drive to pick me up. On the train I wondered if I should have brought a bigger suitcase, to suggest that I wouldn’t mind leaving Evanston for good, or else one that was clearly too small, but no one except me would have noticed. The ride was fast and flat and repetitious—across or down the main streets of small towns so quickly I barely had time to read the signs, and then more cornfields. A couple of times we stopped among the plants that stretched out too far, and I thought how glad I was to be inside where it was air-conditioned. Then another train went by in a long, monotonous rush and we would slide into motion again. I thought about Rodge, about wanting to be touched; desire demanded a good deal of thought. I slouched sideways across two seats and curled into the smaller me that hadn’t yet filled out my body. The upholstery prickled. I was still unhappy, but it was already a relief to know that distance alone would answer the question of why he didn’t call me up, as long as I stayed away. How annoying: my mother had been right again.

My parents made a great point of telling me that when I came back was entirely up to me, as if I were suddenly grown up and independent, but what did I know about going away from home? Anyway Augusta’s house was only an extension of it, was family. When my grandmother died, Augusta wanted the house and my mother didn’t, so that settled that; she moved in, among all the childhood memories, where it seemed to me that no one but my grandparents could actually live. At first—when we next visited after the funeral—almost nothing was changed; different mail lay on the front hall radiator, a different coat hung from the coat-rack, but that was all. Only gradually did the old patterns lose their grip, the furniture shift and ebb, banished to the attic and basement, sold in garage sales and given away to the thrift shop, boxes of mementoes packed perhaps forever and stored—for whom? For me?

I wanted to feel independent, grown up, as I ate lunch in the dining car, but the steward made me sit with a couple my parents’ age and their sullen little boy, who looked as if he might throw up just for spite. Family life. They tried to be friendly for a few sentences and then dropped it; the waiter didn’t even try. By the time I left the diner I felt about twelve years old, and who ever heard of a twelve-year-old having a grand passion?

As soon as I got back to my seat and took out whichever Ngaio Marsh book I was rereading that week, the train stopped and a boy about sixteen got on and sat down next to me, plunk, as if he had planned it all along while he waited for the train to come. I was so excited I scared myself. “Hi,” he said, and I managed a weak Hi in response, or maybe I didn’t, because he looked at me like, Is this girl all right? I kept looking at his hands and trying not to think what I was thinking, trying not to shift in my seat or sigh or do anything that might be interpreted as the beginning of a conversation until after ten frozen minutes I managed to pretend to go back to my book. All the rest of the way to St. Louis I rode stiff as a board behind the protection of a dog-eared paperback, cursing myself in my heart. At the very last, after the train had pulled in, he offered to get my suitcase down from the overhead rack, and I thanked him and actually smiled. That was all that enabled me to feel like a human being as I descended to the platform and heard Augusta call my name, the “a” in “Karen” subtly different, countrified, to my Evanston ear.

As usual, everything about seeing Augusta was a little out of joint at first; I always forgot that she looked so much like my mother, and so different, like my mother made seven years younger and stretched a couple of inches. For a second each time we met, her face seemed comically long; after that first moment I found her beautiful. I envied her thinness, her ability to go anywhere in a pair of blue jeans, and most of all her hair, which was reddish-brown and perfectly straight, unlike mine, which was coppery and curled.

Augusta gave me a quick hug under the gray metal heavens of the St. Louis train station; it was too hot for more than momentary contact, and a cloud of steam blew across us from under the train and made it hotter still. “Phewkes,” she said, like someone out of a Wodehouse book—I had always thought the word was “Fuchs” until I read Leave It to Psmith—and once again I was back to family. “The train was nice and cool,” I said inanely.

“I’m glad something is,” Augusta said. She made a move in the direction of my suitcase and then clearly decided I was big enough to carry it myself. “Actually, the house isn’t bad. I keep the shutters closed all day and drink vast quantities of iced tea. How are you?”

“Fine.”

“I’ve heard you’re terrible.”

“I can’t imagine where,” I said, trying to sound sullen and oppressed.

“Well, you’ll survive,” she said. “I’m sure we both will.”

“How are you?” I said. She didn’t seem to have heard me; we marched along a few steps in silence. I shifted my suitcase to the other hand and looked up at her. Her eyes met mine and I was scared, but thrilled, to see her look at me like another grownup.

“Terrible.”

For a moment I would willingly have gotten on the next train back to Chicago. Most of my life, adults had kept their problems to themselves; couldn’t I just concentrate on Rodge’s clumsy fingers unbuttoning me on a hot night in a dark solarium and not have to know what came next? Still I managed the words “What’s wrong?”—knowing I could do no less. Augusta looked as if she regretted opening her mouth.

“Forget it,” she said. “Your problems are more fun.”

I kept my head down, and Augusta said nothing else all the way to the car; once I glanced up and caught her watching me. I could imagine her thinking to herself, “Don’t put it on her, she’s only a kid.” The same thought I was having with only the pronouns changed.

I wasn’t about to ask again as she piloted the Buick—windows down—to New Franklin. Augusta asked me a few questions about how my parents were, which I answered with all the vague brevity I could manage, while I watched the landmarks go by—the field of plowed but never planted black dirt with the signboard in front of it titled “Thy Wondrous Bounty, Illinois,” the falling-down barbecue shack at French Creek where I always wanted to stop but wouldn’t have dared to go in, the almost-too-pretty white houses of Lebanon.

New Franklin was the same as ever; what else could it be? A Midwestern town bisected by the B & O tracks with one main street parallel to the railroad and another one at right angles to it, where “Department Store” meant dry goods and shoes and “downtown” meant those three or four blocks along the tracks. Anyone could list the stores without even visiting the town: grocery, tavern, dry goods, drugstore, auto parts, appliance, hardware, farm implements. From a row of second-story windows tenacious silver letters proclaimed the presence of a dentist. It would have taken some toothache to get me up those steps.

The houses of the town were a different story; they were New Franklin—the stores seemed like afterthoughts. Most of them were brick—around there, even a farmer way out in the country in 1900 would build himself a brick house, if he made a lot of money. They had front and back porches, lightning rods, garages that were almost barns; tin flashed from more than a few steep roofs, and even a sagging frame house covered with peeling brick- pattern tarpaper had some kind of a soul inside it, some reason for being on this earth. I could walk down the street and feel that the houses were alive.

Augusta’s was one of the grandest houses in New Franklin, giving rise to rumors that she was rich; the truth is that my great-grandparents, who had built the place, had left their descendants not much more than the house itself. My grandfather’s “department store” had made him a living, a position for him in the town, but certainly hadn’t made him rich; my mother had told us Augusta was crazy to live in that old place, she wouldn’t even be able to keep it up, on a schoolteacher’s salary. Augusta told her that it was free and clear and the taxes were low and she was moving in.

The house was three stories of dark red brick; the ground- floor windows facing the street were twice as high as I was. In the attic there was an iron cistern, no longer used, that took up an entire room. It was built like a ship, and it terrified me as a child because I kept imagining it crashing through the beams and squashing me flat as I slept. There were white-marble fireplaces, with arched openings flanked by columns, in various rooms of the house, including one in the front bedroom; they were coal fireplaces, too shallow for wood, and the chimneys no longer worked. One, in the parlor, had had a gas heater in it when I was a child, that leaked slightly and filled the house with the faint odor of gas, the smell of winter visits. On the south side, off the back sitting room, a tiny windowed room stuck out; apparently it was a gesture in the direction of a conservatory, but for as long as I could remember it had harbored nothing but dusty boxes no one wanted to carry up to the attic—for all but two weeks of the year, that was where the Christmas ornaments were kept. I could have drawn every room in the place from memory—could nearly have placed every single object: an anvil had sat, for no reason, on the floor of the pantry all my life, and I had tried and failed, on every visit, to pick it up.

As we bumped across the tracks and onto the road that led into town, Augusta rolled up the windows. It was one of those days when my grandmother would have said it was hot enough to hatch lizards. Sweat popped out all over me, and for a moment I was furious, even though I remembered her doing it when we had all visited the summer before. But I noticed that she sped up at the same time, making a sort of dash for the house, where we could get out, and it was only a couple of blocks. If anything could make summer in southern Illinois seem cool, leaving the car after a ride with Augusta would do it.

I turned the knob of Augusta’s front door—she never locked it—and let in a long shaft of summer glare, invading the dimness of the hallway and the front stairs. She was right about her house; it wasn’t bad at all. The long louvered shutters were closed, and the windows were open, so that air but not light could filter through. The inside was high and dark and quiet; I might have been underwater.

“There’s a good deal of gardening to do,” Augusta was saying. “I’ve been meaning to pull out the cabbages, the white flies have ruined them. Somebody has to mow the lawn before it gets too high to cut. Do you want to go to a ball game or not?”

“I don’t think so.” Augusta had a passion for baseball which still hadn’t struck me as odd.

“Well, they’re no good this year, anyway. You can have the other front room, the one across from mine, okay? Do you want something to drink?”

“Yes, please.”

“I’m dying for a beer.” She moved abruptly toward the kitchen as if she didn’t know that I was there yet. All at once I felt just the way I had at home: alone. I stood in the dim hallway and contemplated a print of the St. Louis Exposition of 1904 which I had looked at a thousand times and never liked. Why had I let myself get roped into this? There was nothing, absolutely nothing, to do in New Franklin, no one I knew except Augusta, no one around but a bunch of hicks . . .

“Iced tea?” she called from the kitchen.

“Sure.” I made an effort to raise my voice and thought, I’m standing here like an idiot waiting for someone to tell me what to do. But it was still a second before I could get myself moving to join her.

The kitchen was brighter than the front of the house; the shades were not fully drawn. I noticed that the old wallpaper had finally been replaced, and wondered—my mother’s daughter—how she could afford it. Augusta handed me a glass of iced tea. For a second we didn’t know what to do with ourselves; then we sat down at the kitchen table. I kept coaching myself: Make an effort.

“What else did my mother tell you?”

“Oh—lots. I don’t think she wanted me to pass it on, she just needed to get some things off her chest.”

“Did she make you invite me down?”

Augusta looked tired. “As a matter of fact, no. I thought of it first, all by myself. I hope you don’t die of boredom—anyway, you can always go home.” I knew she didn’t mean to sound so severe, but that didn’t keep me from feeling shrivelled up inside. Suddenly I realized that she had been saying hospitable things about what she and I might do most of the way back from the station and I had hardly uttered a word.

“I’ll be fine, I really will. I’m just in a bad mood. I’ll get over it. It was really . . . “ As she leaned her chin on her hand and gave me a slow smile I ran down, helpless.

“Nice of you to come,” she said. “Don’t worry about what your mother told me. Let’s go shopping. There’s not a thing in this house to eat.”

I never failed to be amazed that Augusta could leave the keys in the Buick without a second thought when she went into a store. Once I mentioned it to her, and she said impatiently, “That’s where they belong,” but her impatience didn’t seem to be with me—rather with the world beyond New Franklin, where things did not fit to her liking. Everyone in town knew Augusta and the Buick, if only by sight and reputation, and any fool who might have tried to steal it wouldn’t have had a chance.

“So,” she said in front of the soft drinks, “you have boy problems, is that it?”

I was mortified. I couldn’t talk about something like that in the grocery store; someone had probably overheard already. “Sort of,” I muttered as furtively as I could.

“According to Cheryl,” Augusta said, meaning my mother, “—no, wait, I wasn’t going to talk about that, was I?”

“According to Cheryl what?” I said, feeling daring and bad.

“I’ll tell you later.” She looked down at me from her superior height of five foot nine. “What do you want for dinner?”

At dinner, Augusta poured me a glass of wine without any comment, and I could have kissed her on both cheeks. Perhaps it made me bolder after a while, or perhaps I was bold enough by nature. “Well?” I said.

“Well, what?” The way Augusta attacked her steak I could tell she didn’t take it for granted.

“You said you were going to tell me later—you know, about what my mother said.”

“You don’t let up, do you?”

“No.”

“Well, if you must know, she said she thought he was a very nice boy, but making out with him had given you this crazy idea you were falling in love.”

Good God. I could feel myself turning pink. My mother said to my aunt that I was, quote, making out with him? I didn’t know if I was more embarrassed at the thought of her knowing or the thought of her saying it.

“Anyway,” Augusta said, “I don’t think she minded, really, so much as she just didn’t buy it—I mean—well, I guess she just didn’t think he was falling-in-love material, that’s all.”

“Well, no one’s asking her to,” I said.

“I know, I know—see? I shouldn’t have brought it up at all, she told me not to because she knew it would make you mad.”

“You don’t have to—”

“Defend her?” That hadn’t been what I was thinking. Augusta was a little pink herself. She poured me another half-glass of wine, herself a whole one, held up her glass to clink with mine. “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid,” she said. We sipped. I thought about how I could never in a million years have this conversation with my mother.

“Besides,” Augusta said after a minute, looking over my shoulder, “making out gets to be kind of a lost art once you grow up. You might as well make the most of it.”

I couldn’t say a word. Tell me more, I thought to her, though I hoped she wouldn’t look me in the eye. Outside the crickets were hard at work, cranking up for the night.

She didn’t say anything more that first evening, at least not about boy problems or making out. We drank the rest of our second glass of wine and finished the steaks, and this time I listened while she told me what she had been doing since school let out. She seemed to have very little notion of entertaining me—apparently I had missed my chance on the ride home. I tried to feel that self-reliance would be good for my character, but the house was big, and we didn’t seem like enough to fill it up. I thought about what it must be like for Augusta living there alone.

“Well, you know where everything is,” she said, as we got up from the table. “Don’t you?”

“I think so.”

“You okay?”

What could I say? “Sure.”

She gave me a quick hug that surprised me. “Good to have you here,” she said. For a second I felt weepy. I tried to hug her back instead of saying anything, but before I could, she broke away and marched off as if embarrassed, through the dining room to the parlor beyond it. I watched from the kitchen door as she turned on a lamp and picked up a book.

“I put the TV upstairs, if you feel like watching it,” she said without looking around. “And maybe you should call your mother.” Then she sat down and began to read. It was like being a child all over again, when the adults don’t seem to know you’re really there.