AGGIE’S GENES

Aggie was nine when she discovered she had a shameful history.

She learned that her mother and father were not her mother and father at all. Her Aunt Jeannette was her mother, and her father was a mystery.

Aggie was not a romantic little girl, but still she rather liked the idea of being a bastard. She only wished she had found out through some dramatic untimely event. Perhaps coming upon some papers hidden behind a loose brick, or maybe while lying in a hospital bed waiting desperately for a transfusion that the doctors could not perform. But she actually heard the news from her sister.

Helen had rushed into their bedroom, where Aggie was playing Solitaire with cards that were raggedy and creased on the edges. Aggie liked this deck. She could tell by the frayed corners which card was the Ace of Diamonds and which was the Ten of Spades. And the Joker filled in for the missing Seven of Clubs, and it was less used than the other cards, and stood out with its crispness. Just knowing three cards out of fifty-two was a surprising advantage in Solitaire.

Helen had flown in with such force that the cards on the floor jumped around in their stacks. “Hey,” said Aggie, “watch what you’re doing.”

Helen closed the door and leaned against it, her hands behind her on the doorknob. She had the superior attitude that comes naturally to an older sister, and she smiled smugly.

“You know how sometimes Ma and Daddy look at you like you’re a complete stranger to them?” she asked Aggie.

“Sure,” said Aggie, even though she truly did not know.

“Well, that’s because you ARE a stranger. You’re not their kid. Your Aunt Jeannette’s kid.”

“That can’t be true. We have baby pictures of me. Ma holding me.”

“They took you in when you were just born. Aunt Jeannette was a fallen woman, and Daddy said they’d raise you up right.”

“No sir,” said Aggie. “How would you know?”

“I was under the porch, looking for where Alaska may have had her kittens. Ma and Daddy didn’t know I was there.”

“No sir,” Aggie said again.

“And get this… Aunt Jeannette wants you back.”

Helen pivoted round to the door. She put her hands on her hips and looked back over her shoulder, exactly like the old poster of Betty Grable that Aggie’s father had in the barn.

“So, bye-bye!” she said, and strode out of the room.

Although she had said, ‘no sir’ over and over again, Aggie knew immediately that it was undoubtedly true.

So much of what was odd about Aggie was not so odd when viewed through the window of this new parentage. Most obviously, her looks. The Merciers — Daddy, Fred, Helen, even Aunt Jeannette herself — were tall, gangly even; they were spindly long-necked, loose-armed scarecrows. And Ma, who had married into the family, looked suspiciously like a distant cousin. They all resembled nothing so much as the pipe cleaner dolls that Gramma used to make. But not Aggie. Daddy called her his little fireplug, and even Aggie could see the similarities between herself and the hydrant in front of the school — squat, solid, head attached to her shoulders by a thick short neck. And her coloring set her apart as well. The family was blue-eyed and fair-haired, with skin that folks called peaches-and-cream, though Aggie could only see the cream. She was the peaches part, with skin a reddish gold. Her eyes were green, under black brows, and her dark coarse hair grew so thickly out of her head that no scalp could be seen at the part. Ma said that like most people who came down from Canada, they had some Indian blood, and with Aggie, it had popped out. Aggie now thought it had more likely popped out through this unknown father of hers — a thick redskin runt for sure.

And her name. Aggie wasn’t short for Agnes or Agatha. Her name was Augusta. Why would a woman as earthbound as Aggie’s Ma choose Fred and Helen for her first two babies, and then go for Augusta? But Aunt Jeannette would. Aunt Jeannette had named the cat Alaska, after all. “Cold and distant,” she had said last summer, as she watched the new kitten sidle away from all human touch. Aggie knew Aunt Jeannette had never been to Alaska. She probably hadn’t been to Georgia either, but Aggie hoped that it was warm there, and pretty.

Most of all, this revelation of illegitimacy gave Aggie a feeling of, if not quite happiness, then a kind of comfort. For it provided a satisfactory explanation of Aggie’s often atrocious behavior. If she had been conceived in sin, perhaps she was just naturally sinful.

Aggie’s mother called her the sassiest girl in Massachusetts, sometimes in all of New England. Her mother often said this with a certain amount of pride, so Aggie was diligent to make sure that no opportunity for sass was ever squandered. When she was only six, her father had been collecting eggs from their tiny coop when he handed Aggie the basket through the door. “Hold this a sec,” he had said, and he had gone back in. She waited in the rain quite some time, and he did not reappear, so she put her head into the doorway of the coop and hollered, “What the heck are you doing in there, Daddy? Trying to lay one yourself?” That type of cleverness brought with it a reputation that had to be maintained.

Many people, most of them teachers, thought that Aggie’s fresh mouth was evidence of very bad character, but Aggie wasn’t overly concerned. What she fretted about were her secret sins. She was hard-hearted, she knew. She cared nothing about her brother Fred. He meant no more to her than the coffee table or screen door. Useful sometimes. (Aggie actually liked her sister Helen, in the perverse way someone can like jumping into an ice-cold pond.) And when the pigs and chicken were brought away to be slaughtered, and Fred and Helen bawled with broken hearts, little Aggie would just say, “But they’re FOOD.”

And recently, Aggie had taken to stealing. It had started three weeks ago. She had only pretended to put her dime in the collection plate that Sunday. It was easy, and so she had continued. In three more weeks, she would have enough for the cap gun she had admired at the Five-And-Ten.

But now she was excused. She was born bad.

Aggie was a good secret keeper and quite a good actress. She could have easily spent the rest of her life pretending that she didn’t know, seizing secret meanings in her parent’s careful conversations, or Aunt Jeannette’s hugs. Helen knew a thing or two about drama herself, but the temptation to taunt Aggie immediately overwhelmed her.

At the dinner table the very same night that Helen had first overheard her parent’s discussion, Helen kept her eyes riveted on Aggie while she said, “Ma, I think I am old enough to have my own room.”

And Aggie, never being able to resist a sharp comeback, rose to the bait.

“I’m not going anywhere. You’re going to have to share your room ’til you’re thirty!”

To Aggie’s astonishment, her father immediately began to cry. And so whatever gentle plan her parents may have formulated to break the news to Aggie disappeared during dinner.

Helen and Fred were banished to the living room. “You can take your dishes with you,” said their mother, and as they protested and declared themselves part of the family too, their ma added, “you can eat in front of the TV,” and they were instantly happy.

With the cold pot roast and overcooked broccoli still on the table, Aggie learned that she indeed was Aunt Jeannette’s child, though her mother and father provided little detail. “She was very young,” her mother said, “and she wanted to do what was best for you.”

“And right here’s what’s best for you,” said her father, and he started to cry again. Then her mother cried too, but they were madder tears than her father’s. “I’ll fight tooth and nail,” she said. “She can’t have you back.”

Aggie felt feverish and dizzy. She had never seen her parents cry before, not because of her. Being fought over with such passion created a pleasure in Aggie that overwhelmed and seduced her. She knew that she needed this, needed more. So while her parents pledged their ferocious love for her to each other, and incidentally to her, Aggie said quietly, “But what if I want to go?”

“What?” said her mother, wiping her nose with the back of her hand.

“Not forever, or anything,” said Aggie. “But just for a little while. Just to see.” She wisely added, “Aunt Jeannette must be so sad.”

So on the second Sunday of July, Aunt Jeannette drove up from Connecticut to pick up Aggie for the rest of the summer. Her parents had red-rimmed eyes and were breathing heavily through their mouths. Fred watched with his bicycle between his legs, ready to be somewhere else as soon as the goodbyes were done. Helen clung to Aggie and wailed, and Aggie felt content.

Aggie had never actually been in the car with Aunt Jeannette before. She quickly learned that Aunt Jeannette was a horrible driver. It was mostly the fault of the radio.

Aunt Jeannette drove a huge 1958 Buick Riviera. She had to lean dramatically to the right to change the radio station, which she did constantly. As soon as a song had finished playing, she hit the button to change the station, trying to hear her favorite songs, like “Soldier Boy” and “Sealed With A Kiss”, as many times as possible. And every time she leaned, she turned the wheel and the whole car moved precipitously to the right. Aggie thought several times that they would go off the side of the road, or at minimum knock over a mailbox.

Aggie, sitting on the right, was in the danger seat. She slid over on the wide bench seat towards Aunt Jeannette.

“Oh honey,” said Aunt Jeannette. “That’s sweet; just sit right next to me.”

“Do you get in many accidents?” asked Aggie.

“No, of course not… nothing major.”

Aggie knew that this did not rule out mailbox destruction. “How about if I change the stations for you?” she asked.

“Well,” said Aunt Jeannette, “I don’t want you to be fiddling with the buttons too much.”

Aggie about stood up on the seat, which she had plenty of room to do in the enormous Buick.

“FIDDLING! Holy cow, Aunt Jeannette, nobody, and I mean NOBODY, could fiddle more than you do!”

Aunt Jeannette laughed. “Aggie, you are one little spitfire.”

Aggie pushed the button to change the radio station.

“Was my father a spitfire?”

Aunt Jeannette’s house was a small ranch on a street of tightly knit duplicates. It had a little hedge running all the way around, and a driveway barely big enough for the Buick. Aggie had only experienced the farmhouse in Deerfield, where her grandpa and great grandpa had added on rooms in the back and on the sides; anywhere they felt like building with any kind of wood or windows. This gave the old house a look of permanence and impermanence at the same time — like it had been there forever, but also like it may creep along the ground by itself when you aren’t looking. Aunt Jeannette’s house looked like a little dollhouse, cemented to a tiny patch of yard. It wouldn’t make noise in the wind.

“Home sweet home,” said Aunt Jeannette. Aggie thought she sounded nervous.

Aunt Jeannette grabbed the suitcase and Aggie took the shoebox that held the little treasures that Aggie had packed herself. Aggie followed Aunt Jeannette up the two steps that led to the front door. There was no porch, and Aggie wondered what Aunt Jeannette did on summer evenings.

The house inside was much the same as outside. Neat, tiny, cute. The living room held a pale green sofa that faced a pale gold sofa. There was a TV in the corner, fairly new looking. Aggie kept her fingers crossed for color. The kitchen was like a greeting card, with a white enamel table and two red chairs, and short red check curtains.

“Here’s your bedroom,” said Aunt Jeannette, leading Aggie to a doorway off the kitchen.

Aggie couldn’t believe her eyes. The wallpaper had little yellow chicks and ducks, some of them wearing rain hats and boots. There were lace curtains on the windows, and on the floor was a rug shaped like a bunny rabbit. There was a small dresser and nightstand, white-painted wood decorated with rosebuds. The bed was plain, but was covered with a quilt where kittens and puppies alternated with letters of the alphabet. It was a baby’s room.

Aggie normally would have said to Helen, “Where’s the choo-choo?” But instead she said, “It’s pretty,” and she hoped that she hadn’t rolled her eyes too much. “Can I call Ma and tell her we’re here?”

“Sure, said Aunt Jeannette, and led Aggie back to the living room, where a black phone sat on a gold table shaped like a camel.

Aggie told her mother that the ride was terrific and that Aunt Jeannette’s house was beautiful. She watched Aunt Jeannette with the sideways portion of her eye. Then she added, rather meanly to both her mother and Aunt Jeannette, “Don’t worry, though. I won’t call her Ma or anything.”

Late that night as she lay in her alphabet bed, it occurred to Aggie that the décor in the room may not have been the result of a woman who had no idea of what a nine-year-old would like. That in fact, her aunt may have decorated this room nine years ago, believing at that time that she would keep the baby.

In the morning, they went to a little diner for breakfast. Then they drove less than a mile to Aunt Jeannette’s store. Aunt Jeannette owned Jeannette’s Fine Fabrics, a good-sized shop right on Main Street. “Wait till you see,” said Aunt Jeannette as she unlocked the front door. “I’m the youngest retailer in the Plainville Chamber of Commerce.”

Aggie wasn’t sure what that meant, especially since she had always thought of Aunt Jeannette as quite old, but she had to admit that the shop was spectacular. There were rows of tables holding bolts of fabric, all arranged by color and weight, like picket fences painted in rainbows. Taking up the whole back wall was a matrix of white wooden squares, and in each square were stacks of yarn, from white on the top left to black on the bottom right, and the whole spectrum in between. Against the right wall were tables holding pattern books, in front of files that held the patterns. On the left wall were displays of buttons and threads and zippers — more rainbows. And to the left of the door was a large counter, with measuring tape embedded right in the wood, and a gorgeous brass cash register at the end.

“Wow,” said Aggie, “Can I work here with you this summer?”

“Well, you’re certainly going to spend the day with me. I’ll keep you busy,” said Aunt Jeannette.

“What can I do?” asked Aggie. “Can I work the cash register?”

“I’m not sure the customers would trust you…you’re a little young.”

“I can straighten the material, and the yarn and stuff.”

“Maybe,” said Aunt Jeannette. “You have to have very clean hands to touch the fabrics, and not too many kids fit the bill. You can keep the notions in order, though.”

“What’s notions?”

“You know, the threads and all the other small things that go with sewing.”

“That doesn’t sound like a lot to do,” said Aggie.

“How about if I teach you to sew?” said Aunt Jeannette. “You can make something for yourself and for your mother and Helen.”

“Aunt Jeannette, you said yourself — I’m only nine. I’ve seen my mother sew. She curses a lot. She can’t put in a zipper. She throws it across the room.”

“Mmm, right. Knitting then. You can learn to knit and crochet. Crochet is easy. And I have a nice little office in the back where you can read and play.”

“Are there any kids around here?” asked Aggie.

“I have no idea,” said Aunt Jeannette.

It didn’t take Aggie too long to discover that the answer to her question was no. Most of the kids who hung around downtown were older. The younger kids all went to the park, which was pretty far from Main Street. One day, after Aggie got her bearings, which didn’t take too long as Aggie had an extraordinary sense of direction that must have come from her father since the Merciers couldn’t find the bathroom in a restaurant, she walked from the store to the park. It was scorching hot, she could feel the sidewalk right through her sneakers. She used many of Fred’s most beloved curse words that she had neglected to pack her bicycle, especially since it would have fit in the trunk and about seventeen more besides.

But when Aggie got to the park, she found herself unable to approach any of the several groups of boys and girls running and shrieking, seemingly oblivious to the heat. She sat by herself on one of the swings, the leather-strap kind that pinches your fanny and squeezes your thighs. She dragged her toes in the sand. It occurred to Aggie that she didn’t have many friends in Deerfield, either. She mostly played alone. Improbably, Helen was her best friend.

On her way back to the store, Aggie came upon a house with a small patch of bright green lawn. A sprinkler much too large for the amount of grass was raining all over the sidewalk. She stood under the spray for a long time, watching the rainbows the mist was making out of the sunshine.

She was only part-way dry when she got back to Jeannette’s Fine Fabrics.

“Oh, Aggie,” said Aunt Jeannette, “What a mess you are. Don’t you dare drip on any of the merchandise. Whatever happened to you?”

“It was the thunderstorm,” said Aggie.

“What thunderstorm?” asked Aunt Jeannette. “The sun’s been shining all day. I’ve had to keep the blinds down so the fabrics don’t fade.”

“No way,” said Aggie, “we had a horrible storm at the park. It was scary.” She watched Aunt Jeannette’s face and saw the faintest trace of belief and sympathy. So she added, “I kept hoping you would come looking for me.”

Quite soon, Aggie and Aunt Jeannette settled into a routine. Actually, Aunt Jeannette already had a routine and Aggie settled in around it. They ate breakfast every morning at the diner, and then went to the store and straightened and cleaned and unpacked new shipments of inventory, with Jeannette bringing all the new pretty materials out to the front of the store and Aggie bringing all the empty cardboard boxes out to the dumpster. Aggie went at lunchtime to the deli two doors down, and brought back tuna sandwiches and potato chips and coca-cola. The store was often busy in the afternoons, and an old lady came to help Aunt Jeannette. She smelled nice but she was always rubbing on the top of Aggie’s head, so Aggie would go out for the rest of the day.

Aggie wandered through the other stores on Main Street. She had two favorites: Harlan’s Variety and Plainville Second-Hand Treasures. Harlan’s carried everything from motor oil to lace handkerchiefs, and it wasn’t unusual to find those things side by side. They had one full aisle just for toys. Aggie loved the tiny things — jacks that were sparkly, porcelain figurines of Scotty dogs and Siamese cats, miniature kaleidoscopes, key chains with whistles. At Plainville Second-Hand Treasures, there was something new to look at every day. They had china cups and saucers, marionettes, horsehair sofas, calendars from the 1920’s, musical instruments, baseball uniforms, even a mink coat that Mrs. Waters let Aggie try on. She spent hours at Second-Hand Treasures, and Mrs. Waters let her touch everything.

Aggie would return to her aunt’s store just before closing, and she and Aunt Jeannette would count the money in the cash register, Aggie taking care of the nickels and pennies. They’d lock the door and drop the deposit in the slot at the bank. Then they went for supper. If the weather was nice, they went to Buster’s for hot dogs, sitting at one of the picnic tables near the parking lot and commenting on the condition, mostly bad, of the other cars. They never ate in the Buick, and Aunt Jeannette had derogatory words for those people who sat in their cars dropping ketchup and pickle relish. When the weather wasn’t good, they went to George’s Pizzeria and had pepperoni pizza or spaghetti and meatballs. George gave Aunt Jeannette free sodas and their pizza always had more cheese than anyone else’s.

When they got back to the little ranch, they watched the new color TV. Aggie suggested once or twice that they watch something funny, like the Flintstones, but Aunt Jeannette liked Dr. Kildare and Perry Mason, and even Alfred Hitchcock. Aggie stayed up way past her Massachusetts bedtime.

Twice a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays at eight, they phoned Aggie’s Ma. These were the best nights of the week. Aggie’s every word held the ability to wound, elate, devastate, condemn, humiliate, reassure. Every child has this power, and Aggie wielded it now as only a true despot can.

Most of what Aggie said was the truth. The truth with intentions. “I’ve grown a whole inch.” “I scraped my elbow.” “Aunt Jeannette made me a new dress.” “I have no friends.” “I learned to crochet.” The innocuous statement ceased to exist. “We eat out” caused tears in both Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Aggie cried right along with her mother and her aunt, especially on Saturday nights when her mother would beg her to come home. “Just come on Sunday for a visit,” her Ma would say.

“I’ll be home soon,” Aggie would say. “And we’ll sit on the porch and you’ll comb the knots out of my hair and I’ll holler like crazy.”

And all three women would weep until they had no breath left, and they’d go to bed exhausted and strangely satisfied.

Sundays were the only day off from the store. Aunt Jeannette knew all kinds of wonderful places to go, and every Sunday that summer was sunny and warm. They never went to church, and although Aggie hated church, she felt vaguely guilty about this. During one phone conversation early in the summer, Aggie had replied to her mother’s question, “Of course we go to Mass, nine A.M.” Aunt Jeannette, sitting knee to knee with Aggie, gave her a wink. Aggie added, “They have a children’s choir, and I sing.”

They went to a nearby lake where the trees grew right near the water, so Aunt Jeannette, whose pale skin freckled badly, could sit in the shade. There was a stream nearby too, where the beavers had built a big dam, and worked away paying no mind to their audience. Sometimes Aunt Jeannette drove to the airport, and they watched the planes come and go. They’d go to Rocky Hill and take the ferry across the river. The ferry captain would say to the folks, “If no one’s in a big hurry, I’ll stop for a minute right in the middle, and you can enjoy the cool breeze.” Aggie knew he did this for Aunt Jeannette.

Aunt Jeannette knew the best places for ice cream, and for hamburgers, and for clam chowder too. “But I don’t like clam chowder,” Aggie protested.

“That’s ridiculous,” said Jeannette. “You’re a Mercier. You have clam chowder in your veins.”

“But what about the other side of me?” asked Aggie. “Maybe I take after the other side. Maybe I have onion soup in my veins.”

“You have no other side.”

“Aunt Jeannette,” said Aggie, exasperated. “I’m no baby. And I live on a farm. I know that there’s a definitely a daddy.”

“Not as far as I’m concerned. You have more than enough parents right now.”

“But what about it? What was he like?”

“I don’t remember, and I don’t want to. Eat your chowder.”

Aggie kept asking. Aunt Jeannette had lived in Plainville since she was eighteen years old. Aggie might have been conceived here. Maybe her father still lived here. Maybe Aggie had already met him. But this was a mystery that Aunt Jeannette had no interest in helping her solve. “We’re not discussing it. Period,” she’d say.

How could Aggie not wonder? It was obvious that men liked Jeannette. They smiled, they mowed her lawn, they gave her discounts, they carried stuff to her car. Any one of them could be her boyfriend. Be Aggie’s father. “Don’t you think I have the same nose as that guy at the gas station?” Aggie would comment. “Just stop,” said Aunt Jeannette.

At the pizza parlor, she’d say, “Look how dark and thick George’s hair is.”

Coming back from Plainville Second-Hand Treasures, she’d say, “Mrs. Waters treats me special. Does she have any grandchildren?”

But Aunt Jeannette refused to discuss it, and Aggie was certain that her father must have been a very bad person. She rather liked the idea, and she began to look for resemblances among the seemier, shadier men in town.

As she continued her regular afternoon wanderings through the downtown stores, she watched the unshaven men with frayed collars and scuffed shoes, the men that Mr. Harlan and Mrs. Waters didn’t allow in their stores. One of those sorry men was most likely her father.

Ten days before Labor Day, when Aggie returned to the fabric shop just before closing, she found it empty. No customers, no Aunt Jeannette. Aggie went to the tiny office in the back. Aunt Jeannette was not in the big swivel chair behind the desk, but was sitting in the raggedy armchair half-hidden by the open door. Her face was white.

“Aggie, Jack Harlan just called me. He said he saw you steal something from his store.”

“Does he like you?”

“What did you steal?”

Aggie reached into the back pocket of her shorts and pulled out the tiny cap gun. She handed it to Aunt Jeannette.

“This? THIS?” Aunt Jeannette looked at it in disgust. “You stole this piece of junk?”

“If it was something you thought was nice, would that have been better?” Aggie asked.

“Don’t you be fresh with me!” said Aunt Jeannette. “You know perfectly well what I mean! You know it’s wrong to steal!”

“He likes you — Mr. Harlan.”

“What in heaven’s name does that have to do with stealing?”

“Is he my father?”

“Oh God, Aggie. I am so fed up with you. Jack Harlan is not your father. George at the pizza parlor is not your father. The mailman is not your father. Bobby who packs groceries at the supermarket is not your father. There are millions of short dark men out there. They are not your father!”

“Who is?”

“Jesus, Aggie. He was a thief, just like you. Got it now? Satisfied? He’s probably in prison right now which is where you are going to end up.”

And Jeannette grabbed Aggie by the hand and marched her over to Harlan’s Variety, where Aunt Jeannette handed over the cap gun and the fifty-nine cents besides. Aggie apologized and said it would never happen again.

They ate their hot dogs in thick silence that night. When they arrived home, Aunt Jeannette ordered Aggie straight to bed.

“Are you going to send me back to Deerfield?” Aggie asked.

“Definitely not. I will not have your mother thinking that I can’t watch you properly.”

This was an interesting concept for Aggie. If she misbehaved, it was the fault of the adult in charge. The idea appealed to her.

“That’s okay, Aunt Jeannette,” she said. “I know you’re trying to do your best.”

At the shop the next day, Aunt Jeannette informed Aggie that she was not allowed to leave the store.

“You’ll sit in the office and think about the sin you committed,” said Aunt Jeannette. “And I want you to write a note to Mr. Harlan apologizing for your behavior.”

“But I already said I was sorry,” complained Aggie.

“I want it in writing,” said Jeannette.

Aggie sat most of the day in the office, not writing a letter of apology. She played with the paper clip dispenser, and put dozens of staples in the sheet of writing paper her aunt had given her. She found that she could stand up in the chair and make it swivel by doing the twist. She could spin around in the chair until it got so high her knees wouldn’t fit under the desk. She could sit under the desk and push herself up and actually lift the desk off the floor with her head, which she thought was remarkable.

Late in the afternoon, Aggie got around to her task. She would not only write a letter to Mr. Harlan, she would write one to Aunt Jeannette too, and get forgiven right away. She needed more paper, since her original sheet was heavy with her staple design. She opened the top drawer of the desk and looked through the loose papers for some blank sheets.

A receipt from Bristol Paint and Wallpaper caught her eye, because it was for Chicks N’ Ducks wallpaper — like what was in her bedroom. The date on the receipt was June 5th. So Aunt Jeannette had only bought the paper one month before Aggie arrived. She obviously thought nine years old was still a baby. Another receipt was paper-clipped behind. It was from Wayside Furniture. It was the same date. For a crib.

It took the rest of the afternoon for Aggie to figure it out. She did not write her apology letters.

When Aunt Jeannette closed up the shop, Aggie said, “I don’t want to go out to dinner. I want to go home.”

Aunt Jeannette put her hand on Aggie’s forehead, which was hot, but not from fever. “Well, okay,” she said. “We’ll go straight home.”

“I don’t want to go home to your house,” Aggie said. “I want to go home — to Deerfield.”

They drove back to Aunt Jeannette’s, and Aggie marched into her room and threw her clothes into her suitcase. She left hanging in the closet the new dress that Aunt Jeannette had made.

Her aunt stood in the doorway with her arms holding either side of the door frame. “Tell me what’s wrong,” she said. “I’m not going to tell your parents about the stealing.”

Aggie wheeled around to face her aunt.

“WHEN?” Aggie shouted. “Just when were you going to tell me that this isn’t really my room?”

“What?”

“You’re pregnant! I saw the receipt for the crib! Where is it? In the attic? Just waiting ’til I leave?”

“Oh, Aggie,” said her aunt quietly.

“What am I? Just PRACTICE?”

“No.”

“Yes sir. I’m practice. And I’ll tell you something. You’re a horrible mother! You do everything wrong. You never pay any attention to me — I could dance the cha-cha in my underpants but as long as my hands were clean you wouldn’t care. And DINNER! Did you know that dinner is something you MAKE? — not something you go get! Do you know how long it’s been since I had a VEGETABLE? And how about church? You are supposed to make kids go to church!”

“Oh Aggie,” said Aunt Jeannette.

“You’re a terrible mother. I feel sorry for any kid of yours, and I want to go home to my real mother right now.”

And Aggie grabbed her suitcase and her shoebox and stamped out to the car.

Aunt Jeannette didn’t have much choice but to follow Aggie to the car. She started driving north. Several times she started to say something.

They hit the Massachusetts border as Gene Pitney choked out his final sob. Both Jeannette and Aggie reached for the dial at the same time.

“So when are you having this baby?” asked Aggie.

“In January.” Aunt Jeannette added, “I do want you too, you know. But I couldn’t take you away from your family. They’re your real family. I see that. But I did want to get to know you better.” She paused. “And practice, too, I guess.”

“I liked the ferry rides.”

“So did I. And you were good in the store. You have a talent for retail. Like me.”

“Does it have the same father as me?”

“No, not the same. Aggie, I’m sorry for what I said about your father. I was just angry. He was a really nice boy. He never even knew about you. It was me. I didn’t want to be a mother.”

“But you do now?”

“I think so.”

“Aren’t you sure?”

Aunt Jeannette took her right hand off the steering wheel and made a little teeter-totter gesture. “I’m a little afraid.”

Aggie considered this for a while.

“Well, I don’t know,” said Aggie. “But you might be okay starting out with a baby. I mean, they sleep most of the time at the beginning, so you can get used to being a mother kind of gradual. It’s too hard starting with a nine-year-old.”

“No kidding,” said Aunt Jeannette, smiling now.

“Cook some vegetables once in a while.”

“Okay,” she said. And they drove the rest of the way to Deerfield in silence, but it was all right.

Late that night, in her own bed, Aggie took out her shoebox and looked through her little treasures by the moonlight. She fingered her special keepsakes — a couple of baby teeth, a mirror with a silver handle, a wishbone, a tiny doll in a kimono with thick black hair, a picture of Ma and Daddy with Gramma. Then one by one she picked up her new possessions — a little porcelain dog, a teacup, a card that held buttons painted like ladybugs. Stolen treasures. She knew which version of her father was true. Aggie only hoped that he was someplace special, like Alcatraz.

Nancy Roman is the author of three novels, JUST WHAT I ALWAYS WANTED, LUCINDA'S SOLUTION, and SISTERS, SECRETS, AND THE JUNIOR PROM, all available on Amazon.

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