I begged Aunt Ellen to let me stay up late, but she shook her head. “You remember what your father said. “In bed by eight and no exceptions. Now scoot.” She laughed and gave me a gentle spank, which was funny because at ten I was as big as she was. “I’ll wake you in time for the surprise.”
“Tell me what it is,” I pleaded, but she only smiled and closed the door.
Aunt Ellen was Grandma’s sister but calling her great-aunt Ellen sounded funny. Leslie and I simply called her Aunt. Never married, she treated Leslie and me as her own grandchildren. She was thin and short, even shorter when she took off her black ‘old lady’ shoes with laces and thick heels. She cut holes on the side of her leather shoes to relieve the pressure on her corns.
Aunt Ellen lived alone on the top floor of a two-family house she owned on Highland Avenue. The rooms were large and airy with window awnings that kept the house cool in summer. Ivy covered the stucco exterior of the building from the basement to the attic. In a breeze, the dark green leaves rippled in waves across the walls as if swallowing the house. She rented the first floor to a young couple who taught at the high school.
My parents almost canceled their trip to New York when the sitter called to say she couldn’t come. When I asked if I could stay with Aunt Ellen, my mother was doubtful. “Aunt Ellen is old, and you’re too much responsibility.” But I promised to behave, and they gave in.
Before leaving, Mom said, “Remember, Mark, you two have to look after each other.”
Then Dad took me aside. “I don’t want you giving Aunt Ellen any trouble. Understand?”
I told him I did. I never intended to be any trouble.
A band of light appeared beneath my bedroom door and I wondered if it was already ten o’clock. But I heard Aunt Ellen close her bedroom door and the light went out. Had she forgotten the surprise?
At eighty, Aunt Ellen often forgot my name and called me Walter. He was Grandma’s husband who died when I was three. All I remember of Grandpa was sharing his breakfast in his sickroom. At first, her forgetting was great fun because if I caught her calling me Walter, she gave me a penny.
Sometimes she forgot details. That afternoon, we’d gone downtown to shop, but when we got off the bus, she had to ask a policeman where the store was. After shopping, she bought me ice cream at Brigham’s and told me a story about riding with her sister on a train out West in 1918. Her sister was having a baby and needed to stay in New Mexico for her health.
“Did Indians attack you?” I asked, imagining her hiding under a seat to avoid the arrows.
“Good heavens, no. We saw Indians, but they were friendly. They sold beads and moccasins at the ranch.” She stopped speaking and stared out the window of the ice cream parlor. I thought she’d forgotten the rest of the story, but with no Indian attacks and no cavalry coming to the rescue, her story wasn’t as exciting as I’d hoped.
“The train was luxurious. We had a compartment all to ourselves. A bed folded down and I climbed up top to sleep. All the passengers treated us like princesses…”
Her voice trailed off again. Her eyes narrowed as if trying to see something more clearly. I finished my ice cream and wiped my sticky fingers on a napkin.
“Every morning when we woke up on the train, we were sick.” She whispered to prevent the waitress with the bill from hearing.
“Both of you? What made you sick?”
“The constant motion of the train made me sick. Your grandmother was sick because she was having a baby. It was a long time ago, Walter.”
She’d forgotten my name again. I watched her count out coins for the bill. After carefully totaling the coins on the table, she thought a moment and then added another dime. She acted tired. Leaving the ice cream parlor, I took her arm. I didn’t have the heart to ask for another penny.
I had fallen asleep because Aunt Ellen was shaking my shoulder. “Almost ten. Put on your jacket.”
“We’re going outside?”
I followed her into the hall. “You have a flashlight! We are going out.”
Aunt Ellen shook a finger at me. “You won’t get any more out of me.” In the living room, she rummaged through a drawer of her writing desk.
She looked as fragile as the figurines on her mantel. The skin on her arms hung down like empty pouches. “I’m shrinking in my old age,” she once told me. That night, I knew it was true.
Pulling something from the drawer, Aunt Ellen moved nearer to the lamp to examine it. I stood next to her, outside the circle of light. The purple veins on her hand looked like earthworms beneath the skin. She held an old photograph pasted on black cardboard. Someone had written in white ink under the photograph: ‘Baby ready to come home, 1918.’
“That’s me,” Aunt Ellen said, pointing to one of the women. “And that’s Grandma Bess holding your mother.”
“That baby is Mom?”
She nodded, staring at the photograph. She sank onto a chair beside the desk. “I’m looking for batteries. Do you see them?”
The drawer was filled with candle stubs, two old cigarettes with tobacco falling out, a red button, a bottle of dried glue. I found the batteries in a box of paper clips.
I put the batteries in the flashlight and directed the light over the couch. Mom as a teenager stared back at me from a watercolor. Aunt Ellen sat hunched over in her chair. I waved the light on her feet and she looked up. “It’s working now.”
She took the flashlight. “Help me up.” I followed her through the dining room and into the kitchen, past the cast-iron stove. Standing by the sink, she opened the door to the pantry. I hesitated, thinking that she’d now forgotten where the back stairs were.
The small room was cold and dark and smelled of spices. My aunt removed a box of cereal from a shelf on the back wall and, using the flashlight, found a small latch. When she pulled it, the wall and shelves swung toward me. “Look out!”
She laughed, her old self again. “It’s only the door to the attic. Your father put up shelves when I needed more room.” Then putting her hand on my shoulder, she added, “Our secret. You’re not to tell your parents. They don’t like me using these stairs.”
My great-aunt began climbing the iron spiral staircase. What an exciting secret!
Halfway up the stairs, the light from the flashlight wavered. “Wait till I turn the light on up here.” She sounded out of breath.
Looking up, I saw the hem of her robe and her fuzzy slippers. “Here I come.” The metal railing was smooth and cold. The grating on the steps was rough against the bottoms of my feet.
At the top of the stairs, a corridor stretched the length of the house. Door knobs on each side glittered in the light. “We must hurry.” She drew her coat tighter at the neck and walked down the hall toward the far end.
We passed the open door of a room filled with furniture covered with sheets. As the light swept by, their shadows reached toward me. At the last door, she inserted a heavy, old-fashioned key in the lock. With a loud creak, the door swung back on its hinges. The flashlight revealed an empty room. Here at the end of the house, the roof sloped down to the floor. Then I saw a rocking chair facing the roof. “Turn around and don’t look.”
I did as I was told. I heard scraping and then chilly air swept around my feet.
“You can look now.”
When I turned back, I saw stars. Part of the roof was gone! But not really – a window on the sloping roof was on a hinge. Aunt Ellen had pushed it out with a wooden pole. “Look. You can see all the way to Boston!”
In the distance, a low cloud reflected the lights of the city. Standing beside her, I saw the dome of the State House and long loops of white lights—a bridge. “Boston is far away.”
“See the blinking blue light?” She pointed between two chimneys on the house across the street. “There. On the tallest building. ‘Steady blue, clear view; flashing blue, clouds due.’”
“Why does it say that?”
“It tells everyone that tomorrow will be a cloudy day.”
The October wind blew through the opening, and I shivered. Aunt Ellen sat in the rocking chair, gazing up at the sky. Far below, a car accelerated up the hill.
“I saw Boston from here for the first time after the Great War.” She shook her head. “So much has changed. Your grandfather was back from Washington and he and your grandmother would come for a visit. We’d stand here at night and look out…” Her voice drifted off.
As if to fill the silence, quarreling voices rose with the breeze.
“Did they bring Mom with them?”
“Your mother wasn’t born yet, but they brought your Uncle Neal.”
“How old was he?” I was trying to keep everyone straight in my mind.
“He was thirteen and ran up those stairs so fast.”
But now, Uncle Neal was elderly and overweight. I couldn’t picture him running anywhere.
“Your grandmother stayed downstairs. She never liked climbing up here.” She sighed. “There weren’t as many lights then. It was easier to see the stars. Walter knew all their names.” She rocked back and forth. I asked her to name some stars, but she didn’t hear me. “How the sounds have changed in all the years I’ve lived here. I remember hearing a horse pulling a wagon and the man next door calling down for a block of ice…” Leaning back in the chair, she closed her eyes and continued rocking. In the night air, I smelled her lilac perfume.
Suddenly she stopped rocking, sat upright, and turned toward the door. “Who’s there?” Standing up, she walked toward the door.
Was someone outside the room?
“Walter?” she called out.
An icy hand touched the back of my neck as I imagined my grandfather standing in the doorway. I stumbled back against the rocking chair. Aunt Ellen whirled around, the flashlight making an arc of light, before falling to the floor. For an instant, her face was revealed, her eyes wide with confusion.
“It’s all right, Aunt Ellen. No one’s there.” I don’t think she believed me. “Can I go back to bed now?” I picked up the flashlight and handed it to her. “I liked your surprise.”
“We can’t leave yet.” With the light, she looked at her watch. Then she searched the sky. “Look!” she said almost to herself. “Can you believe it?”
“There.” She pointed. Then more excited, “Look up there!”
I looked as hard as I could but saw nothing except stars.
“Over that steeple.” She took my hand and used it to point. “It’s Sputnik!”
The speck of light with the strange name wove through the maze of stars. “I never thought I’d live to see it.”
“How did it get up there?”
“It went up on a rocket. Someday a man will go up in a spaceship.” She put her arms around my shoulders. “I’ve watched the sky from here all my life, but that star isn’t mine. It belongs to you.”
Her arm tightened around me, and she drew me away from the skylight. “Now, young man, it’s time you were back in bed.”
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