The other day, I woke up to the sound of my landlord singing upstairs. As with so much Greek music, it sounded vaguely Middle-Eastern. She was really going at it, must have stumbled across some memory over her coffee and decided it was a good time to let loose. Sometimes in the shower, I’ll get hooked on a line or phrasing from a song and keep repeating it. An objective listener would think I was nuts. At least her singing must have had some personal meaning behind it.
That got me going on memories of my late Aunt Bess. A brassy, brick shithouse of a woman, the last of the Port Carbon widows. She out-lived all her sisters who were in that crooked rowhouse in the rain. I still can’t even recall the exact number of sisters living in that house – four or five. It was like that specter of aging sisters living together in an old house created this gray force-field that could replicate an elderly woman at the drop of a memory. Dampness. Clouds. Cigarette smoke. Songs like this playing on the hi-fi. The unidentifiable hard candies in trays next to ash. The nasty chihuahua and friendly setter. Wallpaper, drapes, furniture, lights, all faded and brownish. Minutes passing like hours, hours passing like days. The ragged, rock-faced hill in front of the house. The forlorn park between the shit creek and power plant. Instant Belfast.
If there’s one mystery about the Port Carbon memory, it’s the man who was always there with the aging Irish-Catholic sisters. I can’t even remember his name, an old man who was perpetually planted in a ragged easy chair, unfiltered Camel in one hand, a Rob Roy in the other. He rarely said anything. A family friend? A suitor? It was never made clear, or I’ve forgotten. He owned that chair, wouldn’t move an inch, would just sit there with Rudy Valee's voice and cigarette smoke floating around him. Didn’t seem happy or sad. Just there.
And there would be Bess, in her perpetual pillbox hat. She must have slept and bathed wearing it. Unfiltered Camel always planted firmly in mouth. Cat-eye glasses. Faded dress covering her boxy frame. Stockings. I recall her doing something very odd: hiking up her dress to tie some kind of strange knot in her stocking garters. This was in no way erotic – it was frightening. Her booming, raspy voice. If she didn’t like you, she’d tell you so. And didn’t give a damn if you didn’t like her.
I don’t know what happened that 4-5 aged sisters would end up living in a house together. Being the coal region, maybe their husbands were miners and passed in their 50s? This was never made clear to me what lead up to the circumstances of that house. They never married? People think that’s strange now. In a small town in the 1930s/40s/50s? Even stranger then.
Going upstairs there was like visiting a vampire's den. We had to go up there to use the bathroom as that was the only one in the house. Of course, we'd take the opportunity wander around their rooms. Old lady things. Faded pictures. Sweaters. Jewelry not worn in decades but gathering dust on a dresser. That cigarette smell saturated in every fabric. I don't believe in ghosts, but there were times up there when I was certain I'd turn around to see one gazing out the window at the falling rain.
This all seemed alien from my child’s point of view, but now that I’m older, I can see, you do whatever comes along to get by in life. You got a house to live? You live in it. You get along with these people? (And they all seemed to get along in a very deep, abiding way.) Then go on doing so. It occurs to me that the person I am now, and how I live, would seem very strange and alien to me as a seven-year-old boy. Why aren’t you married? With kids? Living in a house? With a car? Most kids have that expectation of adults because those are the adults they deal with in their immediate vicinity. But there are always those strange characters – bachelor uncles and aunts with “special friends” who never settle down. I’d be the bachelor uncle, save none of my siblings have had kids, and probably won’t from what I’ve gathered. If they’re waiting for me, they might wait awhile, too. Life goes on.
Aunt Bess in the Port Carbon homestead was one thing: a perfect blending of human being to her physical environment, as if she wafted out of that ancient browning wallpaper in a haze of Camel smoke every time we visited. Out of her environment? Man. I’ll describe a typical situation in our house circa 1970-80. Family is at home, at various places in the house, going about their routines. I’m on the living room floor, reading the sports section of the local newspaper, eating a bowl of ice cream, relaxed.
We suddenly hear the back door in the kitchen slam open. Someone’s breaking in! We can hear the door slam against one of the kitchen chairs. And then that unmistakable gravel voice:
“Muriah …. Muriah … Muriah …”
It was Aunt Bess, on one of her unannounced visits (seemingly her only kind) to see her sister/my grandmother, Marie. She’d just pile into her badass 1973 Chrysler Newport, floor it up the Broad Mountain, pop out and slam through our back door like the house was hers. Seconds after hearing her croak out her version of “Marie” … there’d she be, standing in the living room, cigarette smoke trail following her, looking at everyone in the room as if we were the ones out of place there and intruding on her.
We goofed on her use of “Muriah” as there was a 70s hard rock band called Uriah Heep, and the act of associating this tough old woman with a band like that tickled us no end. We pictured her jamming to “Easy Living.” If we wanted a good laugh, all we’d have to do was start burping the words, “Muriah, Muriah, Muriah” at each other, and we’d break out in laughter.
The visits were usually on the long side, hours, and often meant her and our grandmother camped out in the kitchen, drinking tea, Bess chain smoking, and talking about local priests, bingo and dogs. It was easy enough to avoid her. And I find now, all these years later, I was perfectly in my right to be annoyed over these sneak attacks. It wasn’t her house. Every time we went down there, the visit had been set days in advance, often associated with other relatives visiting and making the usual pilgrimage. These visits felt like some mild form of harassment, to remind us that our grandmother was her sister, and that relationship trumped whatever we had going on with her. It didn’t bother me one way or another, and I knew my grandmother loved spending time with any of her sisters. I just had problems with the mild disrespect she was showing the family, which was simply her way, she would not have seen it this way, but it surely was. And I was in no position as a small child to take a stand or even mention it. I’m sure Mom and Dad thought, correctly, “Getting into this will be far more trouble than it’s worth.”
Adding insult to injury was the time she made me eat a bar of Irish Spring. Yes, that old wives tale about kids with fresh mouths eating bars of soap is, or was, true, once upon a time. As with most adverse forms of punishment, I can’t recall the circumstances of what I did wrong, but I can surely recall the punishment. I can’t even recall exactly what I said to her. But I can tell you, she was ordering me around in a fairly bad, disrespectful, “I own you so do as I say” sort of tone, which I could handle coming from my parents in rare bad moods while feeling uncharacteristically surly. But from her? I remember barking out, “Go to hell!”
You … just … didn’t … do … that … to … an … elderly … female … relative … in … rural … Pennsylvania … in … the … 1970s.
Yes, society had gone mad in the 60s, but not there. Not in that house either. I elongated that sentence to underline the sense of shock and impending doom when I uttered that fateful phrase. I knew when I said it, this was going be some heavy shit. I remember her swatting me once or twice on the bottom, with the ensuing drama, and then my grandmother going out to the bathroom to get a bar of soap, in this case Irish Spring. I’m not sure what my Mom or Dad were doing while all this was going on. It would have been nice if one or both of them had said, “Wait a minute, that’s our son, and we’ll discipline him accordingly. You’re in our house, and you don’t do this here.”
But that fantastical morality did not exist in this scenario. That crabby old bitch made me sit in the kitchen with a bar of soap in my mouth. Couldn’t have been much fun for her and my grandmother, with me staring daggers at both of them in between mild bouts of weeping and moaning. I remember her asking me, “Well, have your learned your lesson now?” I sure did – which was don’t ever let me catch you in a situation where I hold the power over you, because I’ll return the fucking favor! Of course, that would never happen, and she would start declining within 10 years, and all the ill feeling generated in this one situation would slowly blow over. I can’t recall which was worse – having the bar of soap in my mouth for that long, or having to listen to old-lady talk and inhale her foul cigarette exhaust for upwards of two hours, which was an eternity in hell for a small child. Besides, I got the vibe she respected me more after that for actually standing up to her, which rarely happened with anyone.
I can barely recall when she passed on, a few years after my grandmother in the 80s. All her sisters had passed on before her, and for the life of me, I can only recall their passings vaguely, which troubles me now, as anyone dying in my childhood tended to leave an indelible mark on me. With them, it was like ghosts fading off in the mist, one after another, and I do feel some form of shame that their passings aren’t burned on my memory. Not even hers.
What I do remember is that 1973 Chrysler Newport, mainly because my brother inherited the car when she passed on. This was no ordinary car: it was a beast. A road beast. We could have taken that car into battle and come out victorious. It was the size of a small boat, got about six miles to the gallon and had a back seat that could easily fit four adults in it. My brother would hit the gas on that thing and be doing 75 seconds later. Had he floored it, he might have broken the sound barrier. The car growled, even when cruising under 30 MPH. Much like the house in Port Carbon, there was something gray and foreboding about that car, the same brown-ness to everything inside it. The coup de grace was the crucifix glued to the dashboard and St. Christopher medallion on the glove compartment. We felt like were riding with Christ every time we got in that car. And Christ had a pair of Wayfarer shades and a screaming eagle forearm tattoo.
That car was another physical extension of Bess, the act of things in her life taking on her character and living on after she was gone. Much like that house. When she passed on, the house was sold for some humble price, and new people moved in. When I go back there, I have very little cause to visit Port Carbon, as it’s generally not along my normal routes, and to get to their house, you have to be leaving town, headed towards Tamaqua, which is a trip I rarely take.
But every now and then, with time on my hands, I’ll head over that way and purposely drive by the house. It still looks exactly the same. The dumpy bar on the corner with the Pabst sign in the dirty window is gone, but I suspect that forlorn park may still be there on the other side of the shit creek. And that craggy, rock-faced hill will surely be there forever, with the meadow and a nicer park on top of the hill. I can’t even recall how to officially get up there, but I’d guess there must be a way back there on the other side of town, marked roads leading up the other side of the hill. I’d like to go up there, just one more time, on a clear day and take a good last look down on the town, especially that house, and remember all those old women who were my only connection to a past that feels long gone.