Aunt Emma seemed ready for bed, and I was ready to help her there. She performed her ablutions in the bathroom with the door open just a crack -- somehow she had internalized the admonition not to shut herself in, lest there should be some emergency -- and I could hear her humming as she splashed in the sink. I let myself into her bedroom and sat in her cozy old armchair. The house had lost some of its earlier chill. The bedroom was illuminated by a Tiffany lamp by Emma’s bed, and by the warm glow of memories.
Once, when I was nine or ten, I came down with a fever while staying with Emma for a week. I was miserable and wanted nothing more than to go home, but my parents were on vacation and there was no easy way to call them back, just for a fever. Even Stacy would have been a comfort, but she was spending her week with her best friend. Emma could see how unhappy I was.
“Here, honey, you come lay in my bed,” she had urged, guiding me down the hall. I slumped wearily against the side of the bed, and she softly nudged me up onto the mattress and swung my heavy legs into place. In a moment I was enthroned amidst the pillows against the high headboard and tucked carefully into a nest of blankets. Emma bustled around, gathering books and drawing pads and my doll, and pausing by the bed for a moment to pop a thermometer under my tongue. I lay contentedly in state, gazing around the room at the clean lines of the honey-colored bedroom set, the floor-length silk drapes which hid the same metal blinds that hung at most windows in the house, the white plush rug, and the screen that stood near the dresser. The atmosphere of grown-up elegance, combined with mysterious rustlings and the sound of clinking dishes in the kitchen, piqued my weary interest and revived me.
In a moment she entered carrying a big tray, which she deposited on the bed before me. “Your dinner, Your Mellifluous Highness,” she announced, with a deep and gracious bow. Upon the tray were tidbits to tempt the youthful appetite: a cup of steaming tea, with two lumps of sugar reposing on the saucer; an alternating circle of dainty crackers overlapping squares of cheese on one of Emma’s good plates; a dish of vanilla ice cream. And, in the top right corner, sat a tiny etched shot glass in which lay one red and yellow capsule.
Emma sat in the arm chair beside the bed and regaled me with stories and jokes until I had built up such an appetite from laughing that I cleared the tray without noticing. Then, satisfied with her labors, she straightened the blankets and kissed my forehead.
“Sleep tight,” she whispered. “I’ll be down the hall if you need anything.”
Aunt Emma, entering the room in her bulky bathrobe, brightened when she saw me waiting in her chair.
“There you are, honey,” she said. “Are you tired? Did you get anything to eat?”
“Oh, I’m not hungry," I answered mechanically, studying her strangely altered and sunken face. “How about you? Are you ready for bed?”
She was rummaging in one of her drawers. “Well, I do feel a bit tired. How about you? Are you tired?”
“I could be,” I admitted. “But I’m going to help you get settled first.” Her wrinkled mouth stretched into a smile, and suddenly I realized that she had taken out her dentures.
“Well, that’s nice of you,” she said, getting settled on the edge of the bed. “Now first I have to get these feet taken care of.” Linda had mentioned something about Emma’s feet. It seemed that she wanted to keep her toes, deformed by age, from rubbing against each other, and so each morning as she dressed she tucked a wad of cotton wool carefully in place beside each toe, and each evening took it out and set it aside for tomorrow’s use. But it was harder for her to bend down and reach her feet now, so I would need to help her tonight by handling her feet and prying up the cotton for her.
“Here,” I said, sliding down to kneel beside her leg, “Let me help you.”
Slowly, I peeled off her one of her thick elastic support socks, then paused. Between each of her toes was stuffed a wad of cotton wool. Laying the sock carefully aside, I dug between her knobbly toes to dislodge the mass. She sighed happily.
“Thank you, honey,” she murmured. “That certainly does feel nice.”
I looked up into her face, all serene and content. She put out a hand to stroke my hair.
“I’m glad you’re here.” she said, patting me gently.
Taking one of her feet into my lap, I patted it in turn. “I’m glad I’m here too, Aunt Emma.”
I had expected to have to force myself through the motions of cleaning up someone else’s old, discolored, stained feet. But now, sitting on the white plush carpet cradling Emma’s dry, papery foot while I plucked cotton wool from between, I was surprised to feel – nothing. The revulsion I was braced against never materialized. There was nothing that odd or horrible about touching Aunt Emma’s feet. They were simply part of her. It was my job now, to help her, and this was what she needed. In short order the job was done. I assisted her in swinging her legs up into bed and in settling under the covers. Emma’s gratitude was genuine and profuse, and she had to pat my hand several times before she was ready to rest her head on the pillow and draw up the covers. I smoothed her blanket around her and leaned over to kiss her good night.
“Sleep tight, Aunt Emma,” I whispered. “I’ll be down the hall if you need me.”
As I dropped onto the couch, my phone vibrated in my pocket. I twisted around to scrounge it out of my back pocket and checked the screen. It was my mother calling.
“Hi, Emma, sweetie,” she chirped. “We just wanted to see how your first day went. How did you do with Aunt Emma? It wasn’t too exciting, I hope.”
I considered. “I think it went well,” I said. “I don’t know if she knows who I am most of the time, but she’s happy to see me.”
“What did you two do today?”
I mentally reviewed the odd behavior with the remote control, the fuss over the books, and the knife in the kitchen. “Not much. But I’m exhausted.”
Mom tsked. “Well, you get some sleep, then. Don’t stay up too late watching TV.”
“Mm.” I yawned. “Hey, did you ever try to sell any of Emma’s books?”
“Her books?” Mom was surprised. “No, of course not.”
“What about Grandma?”
“Grandma? No, she couldn’t have cared less about Emma’s books. They were very different that way. Emma was the one who went off to college, first one in the family to go. Francine worked for a few years and then got married. She was proud that Emma was so smart, but I think she valued the books more as tasteful appointments than as literature. They both had good taste, but they expressed it in different ways. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, she was agitated today because she thought I was here to sell off her books.”
“Poor thing,” Mom sounded slightly troubled, whether on my behalf or Aunt Emma’s, she didn’t say.
That evening I sat in bed, knees drawn up to my chest. Earlier I had felt that the room was altered and chill, but in the face of the drastic changes in Emma, it had the renewed warmth of a familiar retreat. The lamp cast a pool of light under its heavy shade, casting warm enveloping shadows. The set of solid furniture was comforting in sameness, the lines and curves repeating and echoing across the various chests and nightstands and wardrobes. The long flowered curtains wrapped the room in a cocoon of silk. Off in the distance, the hum of the central air, kept running day and night for Aunt Emma’s comfort, sent me into a drowsy reverie.
Staying here with Aunt Emma, tucked into the safe nook of the guest bedroom, was (I had thought) a convenient way of postponing the inevitable search for gainful employment. I wasn’t even sure for which gainful employment my education suited me. There is a certain class of children, who discover early on a love of reading. We study and make good grades. We have plenty of friends, who consider us witty and good for a rounding out a party. And we read, for fun, for pleasure, from sheer necessity. The enduring classics, the fading magazine at the doctor’s office: if it is put into our hands, we will read it. Some of these readers go on to develop other interests and talents: an aptitude for music, perhaps; a sudden drive to excel at video games; the ability to work with their hands, whether on old cars or with a paintbrush. And then there are those of us who are unexceptional, who do many things well but excel in nothing but the sheer concentration we bring to the printed word. And when it comes time to choose a college major, we drift naturally to the Literature Department, laboring under the foolish misapprehension that here, we shall spend four years doing what we love best.
But in this we are mistaken. We are compelled to take classes in Criticism and Theory, forced to memorize the attributes of the Novel in its various ethnic incarnations, and obliged to regurgitate the professor’s pet theories on Shakespeare in order to pass. We must confront misogyny in all its insidious forms. There are papers to be written comparing Dickens to Marquez, and Goethe to the Vicious Circle. And in all this deconstruction and revision and unmaking, the books lose their power to work upon our subconscious. They cease to enchant. The stacks of once beloved tomes become no more than a staircase to be ascended as we climb to the podium to receive our diploma. And with diploma in hand, we turn to find not only that we are fitted for no work in particular and that the very love that drove us to study books has grown dull and heavy.
My hope in agreeing to the proposal that I, as the least employable member of the family, should stay with Aunt Emma and take the opportunity to catalog her books, was that by the act of handling beautiful books without the harshness of deadlines or the necessity to parse every detail, or even the obligation to read when I was disinclined, my deadened sensibilities would begin to revive. Perhaps I would discover, in this nebulous time, a hidden talent or some unexpected intersection of reading and career. Emma herself had managed to be extremely successful in working her way through the ranks of saleswomen to become a buyer for a regional department store, now long melded into some vast conglomerate. She had been uniquely suited to the demands of the position. She loved to travel. She had an unerring sense of style and impeccable taste. Her income had allowed her to indulge her love of books with the ardor of the amateur. Her marriage had unraveled quickly, leaving her with no family obligations but those of doting aunt and, as time went on, great-aunt. She was confident and independent and bold, and I traced no path in my own life that