The first night of my visit, before I knew what I had come there to do, I lay in bed in the dark upstairs, hearing from downstairs the mutter of the radio, the announcer’s voice rising and falling with the events of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, the words indistinguishable. I remembered all the times I had lain in bed and half-heard the faint sounds of my aunt Augusta downstairs, listening to the ball game, washing the dishes, watering the house plants, sitting on the porch swing and making it creak faintly under my window – I took that for granted, as natural as cicadas. I had long ago ceased to wonder what she thought about all that time; it was a wonderful relief to be close to Augusta again and so, somehow, closer to myself than I could be anywhere else. Everything in the room – my room, as we both called it – everything except for me was the same as it always had been. It was one of my anchors in life to think of it always the same, waiting for me, whoever I might be, to return.
Downstairs the phone rang, startling me; who would call at such an hour? Maybe there was a man in Augusta’s life she hadn’t told me about. I heard her answer it, and strained to make out the words she said, but couldn’t. She talked for a few minutes; the house was suddenly quieter – she had turned the radio off. Then her voice stopped, I heard her hang up the phone, and for a minute or two everything was still. Even the cicadas seemed to hold their breath. I was on the verge of falling asleep when I heard the screen door in the kitchen open and close, banging against the doorframe and then, as ever, bouncing off and coming to rest with a second clack. Was she going to meet someone? I waited, thinking I might hear the car start up, but beginning to drift again, and then from outside there was a crash, the unmistakable sound of shattering glass. It snatched me
awake. There had been a kind of thump with it – something had hit something else, hard, a sound that absolutely did not belong in the New Franklin night. Had something happened to her? I swung my feet out of bed and stood up, listening for anything else out of the ordinary, but there was nothing. As I opened the door of my room I heard the screen door again and Augusta’s footsteps in the kitchen, seeming to be in a hurry.
“Augusta?” I called. There was no reply.
The screen door banged again. I grabbed up the pair of shorts I had been wearing and pulled them on; I was already wearing a T-shirt. As I crossed the dark upstairs living room toward the back stairs, I heard the same thump and crash again, even louder this time. My heart began to race and as if to catch up to it I ran down the stairs, through the kitchen, out onto the back porch – I had a flash of grabbing a hoe or a spade from the garden tools on the porch and helping Augusta fend off some kind of attack, but in the back yard there was nothing, no one. At first I didn’t even see Augusta, not until I heard her, and at first I didn’t know it was Augusta I was hearing because I had never heard her cry. But that was what she was doing, crouched in the yard near the edge of the garden.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” I put my hand on her shoulder; I could feel her trying to get control of herself. She hit the ground with her fist.
“God damn it!” she said, and with my New Franklin reflexes I immediately thought, Not so loud, the neighbors will hear.
“What is it? Are you hurt? What was that noise?”
She took a breath that shuddered slightly. “That was me throwing a glass against the garage.” She didn’t look up.
“It was?” That was a relief in a way, but . . .
“They do smash well, don’t they? Actually, I threw two. The first one was so satisfying I had to do another.” Slowly Augusta stood up; she looked anything but satisfied. She wouldn’t quite meet my eyes as we stood facing each other in the dimness of the back yard.
“What is this all about?” I said, hearing myself using the teacher-voice I had acquired since the last time I had been to Augusta’s.
She heaved a sigh and looked away. “I didn’t want to tell you. I told myself I wouldn’t.”
There was a long silence between us while we looked at each other. The insect sounds skipped a beat and then instantly resumed; at the stop sign a couple of blocks away a big truck could be heard going through its gears.
“I found a lump in my breast. A real one. It wasn’t a cyst. Are you sure you want to hear about this?”
I felt as though I was being shoved onstage without knowing my lines. “Just tell me,” I said, trying to keep my voice even, though the truth was I didn’t want to know.
“I went to the hospital day before yesterday, in St. Louis, and they took it out. I’m supposed to go back next week and find out what it is, but damn it, I know what the doctor thinks already. The bastard thinks I’ve got cancer.”
I felt as though I hadn’t quite heard, as though she had said something more I didn’t catch. “How could he think that if he hasn’t even seen the tests yet?”
“He’s a doctor, it’s what he does,” she said impatiently, as if she had to teach me the alphabet. “Oh, I don’t know, Christ, maybe he wasn’t thinking anything.” She began to head back toward the house, and I followed her. “I should have gone to the doctor sooner, I suppose, but you know how I am about doctors.” She wouldn’t look at me. “I kept thinking it wasn’t real, or it had always been there, or maybe it would go away by itself, maybe I could will it to disappear.”
“Right,” I said, but I could imagine acting exactly the same. “Maybe it was a mistake to be on the pill all this time, I don’t
know. It’s just been part of life – I don’t even think about it. You know how it is.”
I did; I had been on the pill for only a few months, but already I took it for granted. A quiver of fear shot through me, a sensation of trying to catch up to something out of control.