There was nothing to tie me to my parents’ house, which was rapidly losing any familiar aspect of home and reverting to its natural bland boxy state of neutrality. The pebbled gypsum walls of my room hid the shame of their nakedness under a gauzy web of scratches and cracks. By this time most of my furniture had been sold or donated. I couldn’t bring myself to feel any nostalgia for my now barren room. Aunt Emma’s guest room was a far more inviting prospect.
As the chaos of World War II drew to a close, men on the homefront contemplated their powerful new rockets and began to look to the stars. Although the space race took a number of years to heat up, architecture and design were not so earthbound. Conical sconces of aluminum were perforated with little stars to create the illusion of your own little piece of the Milky Way in the hall. Spacious, glassy, linear floor plans allowed the homeowner to navigate through his daily terrestrial routine with ease. Kitchens were equipped with scientific labor-saving devices, and the backplates of cabinet knobs and handles of drawers continued the astral theme in gleaming chrome. Even the bathroom became a miniature laboratory of gleaming tile and porcelain, resistant (under optimal hygienic conditions) to microscopic alien intruders.
Aunt Emma’s house was one of these low and gracious moderne ranches, with two huge panels of windows converging in a corner in the living room and a wall of glass in the den, revealing a covered patio accessible through the sliding glass door with its handle of teak. The sunny yellow of the tiled kitchen counters was echoed in the speckled linoleum floor, the Formica tabletop, and the massive enameled oven. The fireplace in the middle of the house was open on two sides in order to benefit both den and living room. Every window had its crank and its wooden valance. All three bedrooms had four electrical outlets, standard. No convenience was overlooked: the telephone was enthroned in its own niche, the microwave was state of the art for 1986, and the television had a remote control. Having lit upon a style she could approve of, Emma maintained the elegance of the late 1950s, allowing the shallow waters of fashion to swirl and rush around her stately edifice.
My last visit to Emma’s house had been several years ago, at one of the last family holiday gatherings that she had hosted. Then the house had been lively and warm and glittering, and Emma, tall in her skyscraper heels and sheath dress, had kibbitzed and teased and brayed out her inimitable laugh. She had lost none of her characteristic glamour, but as the evening drew on, what first appeared to be minute lapses, mere hairline cracks in personality, revealed themselves as more disturbing fissures, indicative of deep structural damage to a shifting foundation.
The guys had gathered around the television to armchair-quarterback some interminable game, and my mother and grandmother were starting in on the piles of dishes I was handing through the small sliding wooden portal that opened from the paneled dining room onto the kitchen counter. Emma was mixing drinks and loading them onto a cart in fine hostess style.
“Howard and football,” she laughed, rattling ice in the silver insulated bucket. “Always a game, every holiday. Sometimes I wanted to hurl the damn radio out the window.”
“That’s how I feel,” my mother declared, and various aunts and cousins called their approval. All the female family members who cared about the game were already out watching, and the kitchen clique of Marthas drew into a warm circle of commiseration over their communal sports widowry. I leaned my elbows through the opening in the wall and drank in the cozy feel of peace on earth and goodwill toward womankind.
“Pass me that corkscrew, honey,” Emma commanded me. When a quick scan of the counter revealed no such item, and the pockets of her aprons were similarly empty, she slid open a deep drawer and began to rummage, still bantering with the dishwashers and the pie slicers. Reaching among the accumulated detritus, she seemed to pause a moment, then her hand emerged holding a yellowed pack of cigarettes and an old plastic lighter. After another moment’s hesitation, she gave a hoot of laughter as she plucked a piece of string from the package and shook loose a cigarette.
“I’m only a social smoker,” she declared with the easy delivery of a well worn excuse. My grandmother turned from her station at the sink. Emma tapped the cigarette on the counter and raised it to her lips. The click and rasp of the lighter sounded like a shot in the now silent kitchen. She inhaled deeply and then sighed out a stream of smoke, brushing back her hair with a languid gesture that allowed her extended fingers to balance the cigarette easily away from her head. Then, suddenly aware of the room of oddly expressionless faces turned in her direction, she cocked an eyebrow and puffed again.
“Emma,” said my grandmother. “You’ve started smoking again?” Her elaborately casual manner was belied by the water dripping from her gloves onto her leather pumps.
“Oh, what a pig I’m being,” Emma fluttered. She offered the pack to Grandma. “Does anyone else want one? I hate to smoke alone.”
“I thought you gave up smoking,” ventured my mother, shooting a questioning look at Grandma. I took advantage of her distracted attention to snag a highball from the neglected cart and drank up both it and the scene with uneasy fascination. In my seventeen years I’d never seen Great Aunt Emma taking a drag from a cigarette.
Uncle Larry burst into the kitchen. “Geez, ladies, don’t burn down the house! We can smell the smoke all the way...” He trailed off as Emma waved her cigarette at him.
“If you boys weren’t such lovable hypocrites, I’d tell you exactly what I think of you. You go right back out there and tell Howard he has no standing to pass any remarks on me.”
“You want me to tell Howard?” said Larry. “Are you in touch with Howard these days? Isn’t he...I mean, I thought I’d heard he was...” This time he initiated the exchange of troubled looks that pulsed around the room.
“Listen,” Emma announced, poking her cigarette toward him. How odd, I thought, that I’d never before noticed the slight tremor of her hand. “You tell that worthless son of a bitch that I know he smokes on the sly, for all he’s so righteous when he’s hiding in the living room.” She strode past Larry to the doorway in the attitude of the just one going on the offensive.
“Howard, you son of a bitch!” she bellowed. “I’ve got your cigarettes right here, and I’ll smoke every last goddamned one of ‘em! Get that bitch to give you some of hers if she loves you so much!”
The game was switched off.
Emma turned back to the kitchen and stubbed her cigarette out on one of my grandmother’s china dishes. Smiling pleasantly, she announced, “You all look like you’re ready for pie.” Sliding a piece of pie onto the plate of ashes, she handed it to me. “Eat up, honey.”