Essay: A joy-filled day on the town

Memories of a Saturday out with a favorite aunt.

In the 1950s, in the small town in Louisiana where I grew up, I sometimes found myself in the custody of my aunt – the two of us, inveterate moviegoers both, scanning the papers on Saturday morning for a promising matinee. She was a high school teacher from Texas – in her 50s, somewhat stout, quick to laugh, appearing in my life three times a year: summer, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

She read paperback novels, worked crossword puzzles, played solitaire, and watched TV – simultaneously, of course. For me, she was dazzling, witty, a soft touch at the candy counter, the best of company. She taught my brothers and me to play Scrabble, hearts, and canasta, and taught us the stories of the Alamo, Davy Crockett, and Jim Bowie.

She served during World War II in the Women's Army Corps. She was stationed in Australia and New Guinea, and told me that she prayed that I never, ever had to go to war.

She would take me to any movie, anytime, anywhere – and this morning we've been dropped off in front of the theater. It's 11 a.m., but no need to worry about lunch; we can fill up on popcorn. Afterward, we're responsible for getting ourselves home on the bus.

The theater has a 1930s-style outdoor ticket booth as well as movie posters in glass display cases. You can browse the posters just by taking two steps off the sidewalk. Inside, an angular, slightly scary woman patrols the aisles with a flashlight. There are cushioned seats, two balconies, and curtained boxes on the left and right like in an opera house. The lights dim. We watch cartoons, a newsreel, the coming attractions, and finally the feature itself – a Tarzan movie, with Technicolor jungles and cliffs. I am 9 years old.

We're hungry after the movie – the popcorn hasn't filled us up, after all. Around the corner from the theater is a department store with a diner on the first floor and a sign above the door: Air-Conditioned Inside.

We walk down a side street past the back entrance to the diner, from which pours an inviting assemblage of aromas – hamburgers, waffles, bacon, French fries. Once inside, we throw ourselves into a booth, reaching for menus like debonair restaurantgoers everywhere – this middle-aged teacher and her nephew with the crew cut and Bermuda shorts.

A waitress appears, all starch and apron. A lifetime later, my hamburger arrives – meat and bread only. My aunt's burger drips and spills with mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion – but she makes no comment on my boring, impoverished taste.

After lunch, we decide to pay a visit to my grandmother in her insurance office on the 11th floor of the bank building, the tallest and grandest edifice in town.

In 1959, the city's downtown has not died yet. Parking spots are hard to find. Sidewalks are crowded with shoppers, business people, commuters at bus stops. There are hotels, churches, a synagogue, a hospital, clothiers, a Western Union, the post office, the courthouse, and, best of all, a gimcrack novelty shop on a side street, purveyor of my secret desires – joy buzzers, gory thumbs, and flies in ice cubes.

It is the train station, however, that my aunt loves, with its intricate timetables, stacks of luggage, and smell of diesel. Anyone in town can walk two blocks and catch a daily train to Jackson, Miss., then on to Memphis, Tenn., or St. Louis. I exist, my aunt tells me, in a universe far greater than this tiny burg, this river town in Louisiana.

In an antechamber next to the bank lobby, we pass a bulging newsstand just like the ones in the movies. It looks as if it could fall over at any minute, filled with the paraphernalia of urbanity: magazines and newspapers, cigars, cigarettes, candy, gum, toothpicks, maps, nail clippers, Louisiana State University football pennants, digestive aids.

Somehow, at age 9, I realize that all this richness – the sights and won­ders of downtown – is being given to me by my aunt.

In my grandmother's narrow office, I run straight to the window to lean out and search a mile away for the miniature version of my house (until my aunt and grandmother fly after me, close the window, and threaten me with instant death to even think of taking one step closer).

I know that somewhere in the distance, one of those Monopoly houses is my house, my backyard, my room. But how to mark off the steps, how to calibrate the distance between these two irreconcilable spheres of existence?

My grandmother's hair is gray. She's dressed in a dark-blue, pebbly-looking suit and square, dark shoes. After a few minutes chatting with us, she smiles, hugs me warmly, kisses my cheek, tells my aunt and me goodbye, and then at the last second, gives me a 50-cent piece for the candy counter downstairs. On the way down, my aunt contributes a half-dollar of her own. I feel like a sultan, imagining rows of Milky Ways, Baby Ruths, lemon drops, and candy corn.

During the ride home after visiting my grandmother, we sit near the front of the bus. My aunt is talking to an acquaintance she has just run into. Or maybe talking to the bus driver – she will talk with anyone, white, black, stranger, friend – an ease and garrulousness acquired from years of riding Greyhounds coast to coast.

The Louisiana heat, along with the rumble and sway of the bus, would ordinarily rock me to sleep against her, except that I want to revisit Tarzan in my mind. The bus ride home always does this – evokes in me a replaying of whatever movie I've just seen. Scene by scene, I roll the plot through my mind, reliving Tarzan's jungle acrobatics, his battles with lions and human villains.

I do not have the words to say so, but I know that some secret knowledge has been passed on to me by my aunt concerning pleasure – movies, hamburgers, train stations, newsstands – concerning plenitude, one of the names for joy.

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