|Apr/May 2001 spotlight|
Aunt Jody's apartment is as neat as a pin. I didn't expect that. I'm not sure what I did expect; changes, I guess. Something exotic maybe, with velvet curtains and swag lamps and clothes strewn around, something that perhaps whispered sin and a thumbing of the nose to the rules that the rest of us live by. At the very least I expected dirty dishes and overflowing ashtrays.
Instead there are flowered curtains and cheerful blue place mats and sunshine coming through the window so that the whole place looks like an advertisement in the Penneys catalog. Aunt Jody tosses her car keys onto the counter and carries my duffel bag down the hall and I follow obediently, caught in her draft like a scrap of paper, stepping suddenly into a small room with wood paneling and plaid upholstery. A guy's room, a masculine room, so surprising that it hits me in the face like a pair of gym socks.
"This opens up to a bed," she informs me, waving her hand at the couch. There are sports posters on the walls—the Charlotte Hornets, Richard Petty, the Carolina Panthers. A big screen TV monopolizes one wall. Uncle Kendall must have had it pretty good, I think. His very own room for watching sports, all that man stuff, and Aunt Jody in the kitchen, cooking him man-foods like chili or gumbo, rich and spicy, and I wonder why he ever left. And why Aunt Jody has never changed this room in three years.
I sit on the edge of the couch and I guess I must look kind of nervous because Aunt Jody sits down next to me and gives me a hug.
"It's all going to be all right, baby," she says, whispering into my ear and making it tickle, her perfume so sweet and warm that I want to just curl right up into her, curl up and be the baby, but I don't because I'm not the baby and it just wouldn't be right. Besides, I'm a good five inches taller than Aunt Jody and my elbows and knees are always poking out where they shouldn't. I'm not sure if I can even curl up into a ball any more. When you're a 14-year-old girl who's already five feet, nine inches tall and still growing, people expect you to act your age. Or even older.
"Come on," she says, pulling me to my feet and giving me a little slap where I sit down. "We're going to cook your daddy the best dinner he ever ate. I've got some pot roast and potatoes, he's going to think he died and went to heaven."
"He's not my daddy," I remind her, and she looks at me. No. He's not my daddy at all.
It's fun, sitting in Aunt Jody's bright kitchen, watching her cook. You can tell she is really enjoying having someone to cook for. She's got the radio turned on and is dancing a bit, swinging her hips, singing lyrics, ditty-bopping along. She wears an apron, one of those striped canvas jobbies with the patch pockets and bib. I sit on a high stool, peeling potatoes badly. Thick white hunks of the potatoes are going down the drain along with the peel, but she doesn’t seem to care. I cut out the bad spots and eyes with the end of the peeler, twisting the sharp metal and leaving deep pockets in the white flesh, running the whole thing under cold water and then casually setting it aside and reaching for the next one. Aunt Jody cuts up carrots, arranging them around the roast, sprinkles the meat with herbs. I try to imagine her naked. She has a pretty good figure for someone her age, but nothing that would really knock your socks off. I mean, she just looks normal. She has little freckles on her nose and sort of wide square teeth that make her smile seem even bigger than it is, and she really doesn't look any different from any other woman. I've never actually seen the pictures. I think Mumma has a copy of the magazine but she never has let me look at it. Not even when it first came out and there was all that hullabaloo and Grandma saying she could never hold her head up in town and Mumma going around with her lips pressed tight shut. They never let me in on anything anyway. I'm the village idiot.
In fact, I'm surprised I'm even here, in this den of iniquity as Grandma would say, and I suppose it's only because Grandma has her hands full with Grandpa these days that they let me stay here at all. She probably thinks Aunt Jody would do something to corrupt me, like introduce me to Hugh Hefner or something. Ha, as if.
The pot roast goes into the oven and Aunt Jody hands me some plates and tells me to set the table. Brian will be here soon, after spending some time at the hospital with Mumma, and so I set three places, shining white plates on the blue place mats, plates with little flowers in yellow and blue, silverware, glasses. I fold paper napkins into triangles and set them under the forks, just like Mumma does for Thanksgiving dinner. It almost seems like a celebration but it's not. Mumma is not going to be here, she'll have some yucky old soup or something on a tray in the hospital bed and someone will have to feed it to her.
Lying down flat on her back like that, probably half of it will run down her neck, down onto the pillowcase, making it cold and wet against her, not a celebration at all. And Aunt Jody and Brian and I will be here, in this bright kitchen, eating this meal that she has been so happy to prepare, and all of us trying to have conversation, trying to be polite and get past the strangeness. I wonder if Brian will be looking at Aunt Jody, wondering what she looks like naked. Maybe he knows. Maybe he's already seen the magazine, Miss September, nearly three years ago. Maybe at night when Mumma's asleep, he gets quietly out of bed, opens a drawer, feels around under nightgowns and slips to find it, takes it into the bathroom, opens it up and looks at Aunt Jody naked. I hate him, and all men, for wanting to look and I hate Aunt Jody for letting them.
Bile comes up in my throat and I swallow it down, force it back where it belongs. I drink some cold water. Aunt Jody looks at me and frowns. Does she know what I'm thinking?
"You okay, baby?" she asks, feeling my forehead. "You're white as a sheet."
I'm okay, I tell her. I don't want her touching me. I feel warm under my skin and I'm sure there are sweat beads where my hair grows from the top of my forehead, making it twist into those tiny, telltale curls.
There's a banging at the door and Brian comes in. He looks tired and fussed and Aunt Jody is fluttering around him like he's Billy Graham, come to give us The Word.
"She's still doing all right," he reports, "The doctor says probably in the morning. She's coming along fine and everything looks good." She, he says. As if he were talking about just anyone, just any woman who is flat on her back in the hospital, waiting to have a baby, any woman who is foolish enough to get pregnant at the age of 36, any woman who might or might not have complications and bleeding and spasms of pain. Aunt Jody fusses over him, offers him a drink, takes his jacket and hangs it up. I'm disgusted with them both.
The pillow is cool when I turn it over and I press my face into it, try to make the blank white of the pillowcase merge with my brain, blot out the dreams and images that are contorting my thoughts, twisting my guts. I lay completely flat on my stomach, pressed to the lumpy mattress of the foldaway. From toes to knees, from pubic bone to ribs, flat as can be. It's no good, I can't rest and I get up and go to the bathroom. The overhead light hurts my eyes and I lean close to the mirror, watch my pupils contract, cover my eyes with my hands until they get used to darkness and then stare some more into the mirror, watching my pupils contract again. When I have tired of this, I take the hairbrush and start brushing my hair. I bend at the waist and brush upside down so that when I stand straight, my hair falls lushly, full and wantonly. I look decades older, I'm sure. I lift my chin so that my cheekbones come into prominence, stare at my eyes to see how knowing they become. I bring my hands up under my T-shirt, cupping my breasts, giving myself a fuller shape. I imagine a man looking at me, being seduced by my beauty, wanting me. I lick my lips and smile a little. Then I blow a raspberry at myself and go back to bed.
Aunt Jody and I sit in the waiting room. It's ugly, full of tan furniture and old magazines. Aunt Jody is flipping through a Reader's Digest, reading bits of it out loud to me. I have my Walkman with me, headset plugged in, listening to Backstreet Boys. Brian, of course, is allowed in with Mumma.
"I don't want you to think badly of Aunt Jody," Mumma said once, just once after the news came out about the centerfold. "She's not really that kind of person. I think she has been a little mixed up ever since Uncle Kendall left." She said this to me after we'd been at Grandma's house, after Grandma and Aunt Jody had a screaming argument and Grandma offered Aunt Jody a knife to cut out her heart, just cut it out since she'd already done it anyway and Aunt Jody said that for once, just for once, Grandma should consider that maybe not everything had to do with her and that it was nobody else's business what Aunt Jody did but that she'd made a boodle of money out of the deal so everyone else could jolly well take a flying leap. Oh, yeah.
It was kind of exciting there for a minute, but like always whenever anything interesting happens, they scooted me out of the room. I had to go out in the garden while people were screaming at each other and throwing things right there in Grandma's kitchen with the pictures of Jesus curing the Leper on the wall. And Grandpa yelling at them all to quit squalling because he was trying to watch his fishing show and for heaven's sake, they'd all always known Jody was no good, any woman who'd work as a bartender, after all. And them good Baptists, too.
Mumma may not have wanted me to think badly of Aunt Jody but I noticed that they didn't spend so much time together after that. I haven't even seen Aunt Jody more than a couple of times since then. "Some things are hard to explain," Mumma says.
And now Mumma is in the delivery room. Mumma with her modesty and her blushes, laying splayed open to everyone's view, offering up her naked self to the doctors and nurses and anesthesiologist and especially to Brian, so that his baby could be born. I try to imagine it, imagine her laying there with her legs spread wide, self-consciousness gone with the wind, her big belly rolling and quivering as she tries to push that baby out of her body. I can picture her body, white and smooth, straining and working, but I can't picture her face. She's gone somewhere, her face is far away; her mind, her thoughts, her feelings, they're far from this scene of sweat and blood and physical sensation. I can't imagine my mother even being in the same room with her own naked body. Let alone Brian's.
Tears suddenly spurt from my eyes and nose and mouth. I know I'm losing her, know that the separation is complete. Before Brian came along, she was mine, my mother. We could argue and yell at each other but at the end of the day, I could crawl into her lap and know that that space belonged to me. I had claim to the sweet smell of her, that warm spot in the curve of her throat. We were enough for each other.
Aunt Jody is there. With Kleenex and murmurings, she takes me into the Ladies' Room and I cry hard into the sink, bawl like a spoiled toddler, rub my fists into my eyes. Snot runs from my nose like a river and Aunt Jody keeps pushing tissues into my hand. Finally I stop. My hair is sticking up like dried grass and my face is blotchy and red. I'm a mess. Aunt Jody puts her arms around me and rocks back and forth, crooning gently. I feel like I tower over her, all awkwardness and elbows. I just want to go home. She takes me back to the waiting room. A large and noisy family has come in, they are in high good humor. The father is fat and going bald, he holds a dirty-faced little boy in his arms, two girls sit on the floor and play with Barbie dolls. "Pretty soon," he keeps saying, "pretty soon we'll have the new Baaaaaaby."
Brian comes out of the delivery room. He's wearing a smock of yellow paper over his clothes, yellow paper booties on his feet, yellow paper shower-cap over his hair, yellow paper mask dangling below his idiot grin. His very eyeglasses gleam.
"It's a girl!" he crows, giving Aunt Jody a hug. He goes to hug me and I step back. He loses his smile for a minute and then hugs me, hard, anyway. "Your Mom is doing great," he whispers in my ear, holding my head in both his hands, "She says to tell you she loves you." I stand there, breathing hard. If he doesn't stop it's going to make my nose start dripping again.
He lets go just in time and tells Aunt Jody that she should take me home for a little while and we can see Mumma later. I want to see her right away but he says she needs her rest and I can come in about an hour. I don't want him to tell me this; she's my mom. I want to see her. Let him go wait an hour. But Aunt Jody is pulling my arm, and I stumble after her, weakling that I am.
All the way home in the car, Aunt Jody is just chattering away, going on and on about how wonderful it will be, having a baby in the family again. She makes me think of the sound squirrels make when you chase them away from the bird feeder and I rest my hot face against the cold car window. My skin sticks to it and I peel away from time to time to find a new cool spot. I want to peel my whole face away, a bit at a time, but it proves impossible to work around the angles of my nose so I give up. I feel tired to death.
It doesn't seem right to just sit in the kitchen and drink coke and eat potato chips after a day like this. Aunt Jody putters around, taking meat out to defrost and washing vegetables. She has a smile on her face the whole time, like she just won the publishers' clearinghouse sweepstakes, like there's something just wonderful about all these changes. She makes me sick and I want to punch her in the gut.
"Did you enjoy posing naked?" I ask her, the words like shards of glass. I should be ashamed, I guess, but it was worth it to wipe that smile off her face. She looks down at the counter for a minute and then at me.
"Would you like to see it?" she asks. She knows I never have. I don't know how she knows, but she does. I think this is what they mean when they say someone's called your bluff.
"Uh, no, don't think so," I say and make a disgusted expression.
Her face goes completely blank, click, like that, like someone just shut off a light, and she goes to the pantry closet. From the back, she pulls out the magazine. I've seen girly magazines before, behind the counter at the convenience stores, and once at someone's house where I was babysitting, but I've never seen this one, this particular one.
She sets it on the table in front of me and turns the pages. She's standing behind me, bending over me, one hand on the back of my chair, the other turning those pages. When she gets to the right one, she straightens up, her shadow falls away from the picture. I can feel the flush rising in my cheeks, the warmth of embarrassment coming over me. I know I've pissed her off.
In a way, the pictures are beautiful. Aunt Jody doesn't really look like herself, she has all this makeup on and her hair is fixed differently. I can't stop looking at her skin. It's like velvet with a shine and she smiles right into the camera, all soft and welcoming. I don't see how any man looking at her can keep from falling in love with her, plop, helplessly, hopelessly, forever.
"Aunt Jody, you're beautiful," I whisper. She really is. It could break your heart. She reaches over and takes my hand.
"It was something I had to do just then," she says, and then closes the magazine and puts it away. She shuts the closet door and turns to face me and she's regular old Aunt Jody again, with the freckles and Mumma's eyes and Grandma's hands. She reaches out and runs her fingertips along my face, over the curve of my cheekbone and jaw. "I never meant to hurt your grandma and your mom. I can't explain it."
Mumma's hospital room has blue wallpaper with little girls and boys in brown, dressed in old-fashioned clothes and running along, rolling hoops with sticks. Mumma is sitting up a little, her hair a wild mat of black against her pillow. In the crook of her arm, wrapped up in a blanket so that I can hardly see it, is the baby. Kinsey. Brian is sitting next to the bed, practically half-lying on it, his arm around Mumma's pillow, while she smiles and gestures to me to come closer. There's a strained feeling in the air as Grandma and Aunt Jody try to pretend there's no problem between them. Aunt Jody has a big basket of flowers and she's fussing around, trying to fix up the room so it looks pretty, and Grandma busies herself folding and refolding the baby's little bitty clothes. I stand there, arms and legs about ten yards long, trying to think of something to say, watching Grandma's long fingers and bright red nails flashing in and out among the miniature pajamas and undershirts. If only everyone would leave and I could climb in bed with Mumma, but they're all watching me, waiting to see if I'm going to throw a jealous fit, so I'm just not going to give them the satisfaction.
Brian moves back, out of the way and I walk over, my feet feeling as big as watermelons in their Nikes, and loom over the bed, trying not to startle anyone with my Zulu-like stature. I want to look at Mumma, drink in the sight of her, but my eyes catch on that little fluff of black hair above the baby blanket and I can't see anything else. It feels different, holding a baby, than I expected. I know to place my arm under her head, to support its weight, but I am surprised by the curve of her butt, the limpness and roundness of her. She seems so loosely put together, each part moving in its own direction, it's like trying to hold a water balloon. I shift her in my arms, trying to keep her gathered up, before she slips away. I sit down in the chair and Brian puts a pillow in my lap to set her on. Her hair is dark and plastered to her little red skull. Her skin is red, too, and wrinkled, her eyes just a pair of folds above and to either side of her nub of a nose. Her mouth seems too large for her face, crushed and folded in on itself. She yawns and stretches and I watch, fascinated by her doing something that every grown person does; she is nonchalant about this first exercise and opens her eyes to look at me. Mumma. She has Mumma's eyes. My eyes. Aunt Jody's eyes.
I press my lips to her cheek; I can't help it. There's something in that velvet softness that requires it and I breathe in her smell, warm and secret, a trace of Mumma's perfume on her, and a bit of hospital cleanliness. I want to bury my face in the folds of her little neck but I'm afraid her head will loll back and everyone will jump and say Watch It so I just touch her little fingertips. The nails are surprisingly long and uneven, tiny slivers of nail, scratching at the end of long fingers, Grandma's fingers, and she clutches at me, holding on with all her strength, yet casually, as if she has known all along how it would be.
Later that night, I stretch out on the foldaway at Aunt Jody's house. Here in this very room, Uncle Kendall used to watch football and Nascar races. At some point, he decided that all this, and Aunt Jody to boot, was not enough and he walked away. My Daddy, too, did not feel the need to stay, to hang in there with his wife and his little daughter. Brian seems happy to be married to my mom, but who knows if he will always feel this way. Someday it might not be enough for him either. Or it might be too much. Maybe someday I will be married, will have a man that I think is just right for me and maybe he will be and maybe he won't.
I roll on my side and for a minute, I imagine us all together in bed here. Grandma and Aunt Jody, Mumma and me, and now Kinsey. All lying together, curved into each other like spoons. Our skin, all mixed together, from Grandma's blue-edged wrinkles to Kinsey's little brand new, fuzzy redness. All velvet and shine and sweet smells. I tuck my face against my shoulder, pressing my lips to warm skin. Some things are hard to explain.
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