Authors: Abi Maxwell
Banned, she told me of the magazine. It was one we had read together for years, which regularly featured stories and pictures from around the world, and this quarter it had arrived with the cover a picture of a woman nursing. Signe punched her hand upon it. The big, naked breast was the problem. “Hell!” she shouted. “Don’t go telling me what I can read!”
The S.S. Pierce & Company catalog was in front of me, and while she circled the table in a storm, I began to look through it. From the drawer I took out a pad of paper and a pencil, and I began to make a list. Corn, tomatoes, green beans, peaches. It was the only thing I could think to do. “Wonderful,” she said cruelly, when she saw my list. She took up the telephone and made her order. “Thank you, Mr. McCaffrey,” she said, once she had finished reading. “Thank you for allowing me to order the food I want.”
I don’t know what Mr. McCaffrey said in response, but it must have been something remarkable, for suddenly an easy, pleasant-day sort of laugh burst forth from my aunt. “Thank you, Alexander,” she said at the end of the call. A loud, long breath fell out of her and into the receiver. It was a breath of relief; her fit was over. “Yes,” she said. “Good day, Alexander.”
It was on the very next day that I pieced together why my aunt had been so furious: the Sunday paper arrived containing an open letter written by the librarian, and it revealed that Mr. Perkins, who only nights before had removed my own aunt’s clothing, had been the one to insist that the naked breast was inappropriate.
Once in a while, Signe and I went a bit wild with our ordering. We bought all sorts of potted meats, and spices that seemed to us to be eccentric. Into our small house we brought pâté of pheasant, artichokes, English plum pudding, and peeled truffles. Now and again we supplied ourselves with expensive laundry soap or a collection of tapered candles. And sometimes, at the bottom of a list, in small, discreet letters, Signe would add one bottle of fine brandy.
Grocery Department, Wine Department, Cigar Department, Perfumery
, the front of the catalog read. It was the last section that interested me the most. I could choose any scent—hibiscus, or perhaps bouquet Caroline—and match it with a product. There was bath oil, bath water, bath spray, even bar soap. When we made our list, I would always add one such choice to the bottom of the page. Yet never would my aunt order it, even though I had offered to pay with my own money, which I earned by doing a bit of garden work around the neighborhood. Signe was simply too modest to order such a personal, vain thing; in fact, when she got too old to bathe herself, and the task fell to me, she refused to remove her nightgown. Rather, she let it billow there in the tub. “Heaven forbid I should see you naked!” I would tell her each time. Without even the slightest hint of sarcasm, Signe would agree.
Yet one day my aunt, by mistake I am sure, ordered that last item on the list. It was a bottle of rose bath spray. By that time, we had ordered a great many things, and her friendship with Alex had gone on for nearly a year. I had noticed that before her calls, she would walk up and down the hallway two or three times, stopping at the mirror to adjust her bun or tighten her ponytail. Also by that time, the big cupboard had been built, and into this Signe would pull the telephone cord after her. “Why is it?” I asked her once. It was meant as a hint. I wanted to speak with her about love. “That when you call S.S. Pierce, you stretch that cord into the cupboard and shut the door after you?” Signe answered simply and quickly, saying she needed to see what we had and what we had room for. It was as though she had planned the response.
On the day that she mistakenly ordered the bath spray, Signe spoke with Alex for much longer than usual. I waited in the living room and now and again heard her laughter burst into the pages I was reading. After a considerable amount of time went by,
I rose and went to the kitchen for a glass of water, and it was then that I heard her say, rather loudly, just after “potted ham,” that she would like one bottle of rose bath spray. Yet it was what she said next that shocked me more. “Yes,” my aunt said. “I would be delighted if you would come visit me in Kettleborough.”
On the weekend that he was to arrive, Signe prepared her specialty—meatballs, pickled and spiced beets, and even small cream-filled puff pastries. I had acquired a little makeup, and with hesitation Signe asked me in a quiet voice whether or not I could help her do herself up a bit. “Nothing that shows,” she told me. I sat my aunt down on the edge of the bathtub and gently brushed powder across her cheeks and down the curve of her face to her neck. I gave one soft swipe across her forehead. I had her blink in order to line her lashes with a trace of mascara, and with my finger I rubbed a bit of deep pink paint against her lips. When I finished I backed up and looked upon her. My aunt had a long, regal face. From it she stared forward with such a strange mix of determination and gentle knowing that I was struck, and teared a little. I coughed to hide it. I don’t think I had ever noticed it before, but my aunt was astonishingly beautiful.
Before setting out to the train station, she walked through the kitchen one last time with a towel in her hand. She rubbed one small spot off the sink. The entire place shone. I had told my aunt to go meet Alexander at the station on her own, but she refused, saying that it was important to the both of them that I come along. When we set out, arm in arm, I had the distinct feeling that our house would never be the same, which turned out to be true. He wasn’t at the station. We waited for over an hour. We knew the train from Boston had already come and gone. We asked the ticket agent about a man who might have been
looking for someone. When finally we walked home again, my aunt spoke plainly. Isn’t the weather nice? she said. How I love the scent of freshly fallen leaves. At home, I removed the table setting we had put out for him, and put the blankets and pillow that we had set on the couch back into the hall closet. Call him, I suggested as I made my way back to the kitchen. Find out what has happened. Yet when I entered the kitchen I found my aunt silently pushing the dinner she had made into the trashcan. When she finished, she went to her room, lay down atop her quilt, and fell asleep in her pale yellow dress.
The next morning, Alexander called. He must have apologized. I do not know the explanation he gave my aunt for missing the train; I never asked. I was a devoted niece and did not want to bring up anything but happiness. Why she trusted him with her entire heart I did not know; in fact, at that time she, too, may not have known the reason for the connection they felt to each other in this big world. Yet she did trust him, and two more times my aunt and I walked together to the Kettleborough station on an early Friday evening to meet Alexander as he got off the train, and two more times Alexander did not appear.
“Wouldn’t it be nice,” my aunt told me around this time, “to go visit that church once again?” She meant the church in Boston, and I agreed. We put our dresses on, packed a thermos of coffee, a bag of crisp bread, and two apples, and boarded the train in Kettleborough. The ride was a quiet one. When we arrived, and Signe walked south rather than north, I asked her where it was that we were headed. She gave no reply, yet it wasn’t long before I knew. S.S. Pierce & Company was set on a corner, in a building with a large clock tower and a Tudor pattern on the sides. That clock, when the building came into view, was just striking four in the afternoon. I do not think that Signe planned this journey; she was an honest woman, and I’m certain that she
truly meant our trip to lead us to the church. Yet instead of going to the service, we walked back and forth outside of the building where Alexander would surely be.
When five o’clock struck, meaning that we had been pacing silently for an hour, I finally dared to ask my aunt if we shouldn’t head over to the church. “You go if you like,” she said. “I would rather like to return to Kettleborough.” She was pale, her eyes set somehow more deeply into her face than usual. She looked terrified, and she carried a strong, pungent smell of sweat. I escorted her to the train station. Not long after we boarded, she fell asleep. It was the only time I had seen her act like that. I thought it pathetic, and I was filled with humiliation for her. That occurred in my last year of high school. The S.S. Pierce catalog was tucked into the back of the one messy drawer in the house, the place where we kept all the odds and ends that never seemed to have a logical place. I took to buying our groceries at the store. Though our meals were not as elaborate as they had once been, we were certainly nourished.
After that last year of high school, I left for the summer to head north, to the mountains, where I had a job working at a grand hotel. It wasn’t a difficult decision to make; both Signe and I knew this. I had recently been accepted to a college in Boston and would leave in the fall. Though this summer job sped up my departure by three months, it also provided me with enough spending money to last through my entire first year of college. And it would give me—though I wouldn’t know it for a few years to come—the opportunity to meet the man who would become my husband. So this time, when Signe and I went to the train station, I boarded alone, and she returned to an empty, shining house.
I was in the hotel kitchen when I received a call from the Kettleborough librarian. I was with the man I would one day marry—Otto was his name—and we were folding cloth napkins
into bird-like shapes that would stand on their own in the center of the plates. There were large windows in the kitchen, and directly outside stood Mount Washington, bald and peaked with snow. I was used to the big lake, which allowed me to look out across the world and receive some feeling of expanse. Yet this mountain, which was the biggest, roughest I had ever seen, stood there in my line of vision like a great wall and left me feeling as if the only path for us to pursue was upward. It was a kind of religious feeling, though I didn’t understand what that amounted to. Otto was a silly man, and he had tucked his hands into two white napkins to make a sort of puppet out of them, and with a surprising talent for ventriloquism he was making these napkins speak. When a voice from the intercom interrupted us, I thought we had been caught in our fooling while on the clock. I was called to the office. Otto walked with me, a gentleman ready to take the blame. Yet in the office I was given a number and told simply to phone the Kettleborough library. As I dialed, I looked out upon that big mountain and prayed for it to keep my aunt unharmed.
“How long,” the librarian wanted to know, “will it take you to get yourself home?”
Since guests usually asked such questions, the hotel kept the train schedule taped next to every phone. In less than three hours I could be in Kettleborough.
“Come quickly,” the librarian said. “Meet me at the pier.”
I remember that after I hung up the telephone, I asked that mountain directly, aloud, to please let Signe be safe. Later, Otto would tell me that it was at that strange moment, when he was a witness to my unexplainable faith, that he decided to marry me. He carried my bag to the train station and placed a small kiss upon my hand. That ride could have been days and it could have been minutes; I only stared forward.
The Kettleborough train stops right at the pier, and before I
even set foot outside, I could tell that there was some commotion in the water. Perhaps a mile from shore there was a cluster of rowboats, and on the pier a group of perhaps ten or fifteen people stood, the librarian one of them. From the train I ran to her. She promptly shuffled me into a small motorboat, and together we made our way across the water.
It was Signe who was out there. Our lake sits in the vast valley made by that northern range of mountains, so all those miles away, the big mountain I had prayed to was still in view. Behind it the sun had just dropped. Darkness would come soon. Signe was on her back, in all her clothing. Her skirt billowed and the white fabric of her shirt exposed her undergarments. Her hair was beautifully fanned about her head. The lake was not calm; in fact, it was filled with whitecaps. Her eyes were opened but they might as well have been closed, for there was no expression upon her face. Her arms were spread outward. The men in the rowboats were calling her name. They had tried to jump in and retrieve her, but each time, my aunt put up a solid, silent fight. Already she had broken the nose of one man. “You’ll drown her,” the librarian had finally said. “Or you’ll make her drown herself.” It was the librarian who had insisted they call me and wait.
“Signe,” I called from the boat. She didn’t move. “Signe,” I kept saying. Finally I had the sense to tell all those others to leave, and I dove into the water. I swam to her, and just then the sun suddenly and impossibly peaked above that high mountain in one quick burst. My aunt, in that second, shone as if she alone provided the light of the world.
“Oh, Sophie,” she said simply, once the sun had returned to its normal state. “It’s you.” She flipped onto her stomach and swam the sidestroke to shore. Dripping wet, she walked out of the water, up the pier steps, across town, and to our house. She held her head high.