When he was eight years old, city-kid Eldon and his seven-year-old sister Irene were sent off for two weeks in the summer of 1953, to Aunt Joanie’s house in upstate New York while, not known to them, their mother had a hysterectomy.
Aunt Joanie was not their favorite aunt; that was Aunt Nonie, who would as soon whip out a Monopoly board, or Game of Life, or checkers as look at you, and always took them off on picnics or fishing or whatever it was she thought they’d like to do. But Aunt Nonie (their Mom’s youngest sister) was off in Egypt on a cruise she’d won in a slogan contest for pitted dates, so it fell to Aunt Joanie (their Father’s oldest sister) to keep them the two weeks.
Their father’s side of the family wasn’t the fun one. If an adult unbent toward a child a little, some other family member would be around to remind them they were just children. Their cousins on that side of the family (not that Aunt Joanie or Uncle Arthridge had any kids) were like mice; they had to take off their shoes and put on house slippers when they got home from school; they could never go into the family room; they had to be in bed by 8:30 pm, even when the sun was still up in the summer.
Uncle Arthridge was off in California, so it was just them and Aunt Joanie, who, through no fault of her own, looked just like the Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which they had seen with Aunt Nonie the summer before.
They arrived by train, white tags stuck to them like turkeys in a raffle, and a porter had made sure they were comfortable. When Irene had been upset, realizing she would be away from home, and was going to be at Aunt Joanie’s for two weeks, and had begun to sniffle, Eldon held her hand. He was still at the age where he could hold his sister’s hand against the world and think nothing of it.
Aunt Joanie was waiting for them in the depot on the platform, and handed the porter a $1.00 tip, which made him smile.
And then Aunt Joanie drove them, allowing them to sit in the front seat of her Plymouth, to her house, and there they were.
At first, he thought it might be a radio.
It was up on legs, the bottom of them looking like eagle claws holding a wooden ball. It wasn’t a sewing machine cabinet, or a table. It might be a liquor cabinet, but there wasn’t a keyhole.
It was the second day at Aunt Joanie’s and he was already cranky. Irene had had a crying jag the night before and their aunt had given them some ice cream.
He was exploring. He already knew every room; there was a basement and an attic. The real radio was in the front room; this was in the sitting room at the back.
One of the reasons they hadn’t wanted to come to Aunt Joanie’s was that she had no television, like their downstairs neighbors, the Stevenses, did back in the city. They’d spent the first part of summer vacation downstairs in front of it, every chance they got. Two weeks at Aunt Nonie’s without television would have been great, because she wouldn’t have given them time to think, and would have them exhausted by bedtime anyway.
But two weeks at Aunt Joanie and Uncle Arthridge’s without television was going to be murder. She had let them listen to radio, but not the scary shows, or anything good. And Johnny Dollar and Suspense weren’t on out here, she was sure.
So he was looking at the cabinet in the sitting room. It had the eagle-claw legs. It was about three feet wide, and the part that was solid started a foot and a half off the floor. There was two feet of cabinet above that. At the back was a rounded part, with air holes in it, like a Lincoln Continental spare tire holder. He ran his hand over it — it was made out of that same stuff as the backs of radios and televisions.
There were two little knobs on the front of the cabinet though he couldn’t see a door. He pulled on them. Then he turned and pulled on them.
They opened, revealing three or four other knobs, and a metal toggle switch down at the right front corner. They didn’t look like radio controls. It didn’t look like a television either. There was no screen.
There was no big lightning-bolt moving dial like on their radio at home in the city.
Then he noticed a double-line of wood across the top front of it, like on the old ice-box at his grandfather’s. He pushed on it from the floor. Something gave, but he couldn’t make it go farther.
Eldon pulled a stool up to the front of it.
“What are you doing?” asked Irene.
“This must be another radio,” he said. “This part lifts up.”
He climbed atop the stool. He had a hard time getting his fingers under the ridge. He pushed.
The whole top of the thing lifted up a few inches. He could see glass. Then it was too heavy. He lifted at it again after it dropped down, and this time it came up halfway open.
There was glass on the under-lid. It was a mirror. He saw the reflection of part of the room. Something else moved below the mirror, inside the cabinet.
“Aunt Joanie’s coming!” said Irene.
He dropped the lid and pushed the stool away and closed the doors.
“What are you two little cautions doing?” asked Aunt Joanie from the other room.