|Oct/Nov 2002 fiction|
Aunt Emily and Aunt Eleanor lived in a farmhouse ten miles out of town. Their house, with white clapboard siding and a sinking front porch, was past the third elbow of a maze of roads connecting the county seat to the surrounding expanse of green farmland. They lived in the middle of nowhere, literally, surrounded by fields and across the road from a hermit. We visited them a few times a year, obligatory visits during Christmas break and in June, when they each celebrated their birthday. The summer I was eight was different, though. Their fertile garden was producing more zucchini, tomatoes, green beans and potatoes than they could pick or eat. Once a week, Mom would pack us girls in the car after Daddy went to work and we'd be back with a bag of vegetables before he came home.
The visits, boring chores when they occurred twice a year, were agony when they were weekly. These aunts, tall German-American women with broad shoulders and wide, unused child-bearing hips, didn't tolerate kids well. Both were ex- nuns, who became public school teachers after leaving the convent. They were hardened farm girls who took their vows at fifteen and sixteen and left in unison twenty years later, as if they needed to turn their backs on God together, or not at all.
If I didn't mind them, and by that, I mean if I complained to Mom about the heat, the boredom or the kitchen work expected, Emily would eye me and say "You had better respect your mother. She has sacrificed her life for you."
I resented the accusation. In my eight-year-old eyes, Mom hadn't given up enough for me.
I didn't care what Emily said, though, because she and Eleanor weren't my real aunts. They were mom's aunts - the sisters of her father. I fixated on this technicality because my real aunts, mom's sisters, were the opposite of Emily and Eleanor. They were fun. They didn't force their kids to visit this old farm and these old ladies. They had no interest in the country. Like us, they lived in town. Unlike us, they never went to the country. They were too busy-shopping and getting divorced, playing tennis and beginning careers, returning to school and going dancing. Only my mom visited the remains of the family farm, this old house and these two aunts, whose existence was marked by whether the tomato plants made it through an unexpected late frost and how tall the corn was by early August.
"I don't want to go," I complained every time.
"Jenny, we have to visit them. Since Emily and Eleanor didn't have any kids, they don't have anyone to take care of them."
"No one else goes," I argued once. "We're the only cousins who have to go. Why can't I stay home?"
Exasperated, she said, "For one, you're too young to stay home alone. Second, my sisters have no respect and they don't teach their kids no respect."
Respect was a word Mom always used. I was to respect my belongings, by keeping my room neat. If I talked out of turn in school, I wasn't being respectful of my teacher or my classmates. Talking in church was disrespecting God. To show ultimate respect to her and Daddy, I had to follow their rules. I wasn't the only one who could learn respect either, according to her.
"Then let's respect Daddy by staying home and making him a special supper," I suggested.
She sucked her teeth. "He could learn some respect too," she said. Then she added, "We're going."
The last time I visited Emily and Eleanor as a child was the Saturday morning I woke up to hear Mom yelling and crying, her words muffled behind her closed bedroom door. I lay on the floor next to the door, looking at the line of light peeking out, trying to hear what she was saying. I gathered a phrase here and there: "that woman's house" and "you promised me" and "liar". I didn't know what this was about, but I cried in fear upon hearing the pain and violence in her voice. Then I heard her footsteps pounding across the carpet. I rolled away just in time to avoid her stepping on me. Phone in hand, she yanked it from the wall and shouted, "Carmen! Pack your sister's bags. I'm not gonna be here when he finally decides to come home. I always have a home with Aunt Emily and Aunt Eleanor. I don't need him."
I thought we were moving in with Emily and Eleanor. I wanted stay in the ranch house on the cul-de-sac instead of going to the farmhouse, where there was no air conditioning and every waking moment was spent preparing the next meal, or preparing for a meal in the distant future - - canning. Hadn't Aunt Emily or Aunt Eleanor heard of Libby's or van de Camp's or Hunt's?
To avoid going, I hid under my bed. I was still small enough to fit comfortably.
When Carmen found me, she dragged me out by my ankle. I made myself a dead weight, but Carmen was strong and I came out with my knees burned from the shag carpet. Carmen was tall and skinny. She was fifteen, but hadn't yet developed. Like her body, her brown hair was long and straight. She swung her head and her hair flew around, the way the models did on the shampoo commercials. She did it when she was mad, not to get attention from boys. Hands on her narrow hips, she stood above me, that glossy brown hair whipped behind her head. "What a little brat!" she spat. "Mom doesn't need this from you."
Reluctantly, I put an outfit for Sunday on top of my sleeping bag in its carrying case and made my way to Mom's new Oldsmobile, where the maroon velour seats were already chilled by the air conditioner. Mom was smoking, but put her cigarette out when I got in and opened her window, waving the smoke outside. She knew I hated cigarette smoke.
"Honey, thanks for coming along. I'd worry about you home all by yourself," she said, as if that were an option.
In the aunts' driveway, before we got out of the car, Mom had grabbed her lipstick, a beige tube she'd bought from her sister, Aunt Debbie, who was an Avon lady, and applied it while looking in the rearview mirror. "Don't bring your bags in. I don't want them to think we're a charity case. I'll wait a little while before I tell them we need to stay the night." She looked at Carmen as she closed the tube. "Are my eyes puffy?"
"The lipstick draws the attention to your lips," Carmen said, her voice high the way it was when she was anxious. I'd heard Aunt Debbie say that to Carmen when she was being generous with her samples.
The aunts' kitchen was nothing like our kitchen. On television there were commercials for floor cleaners. The aunts' kitchen was like the before picture, dull and faded. Our kitchen was like the after picture - bright and shiny and new. Our kitchen had yellow appliances and thick, dark, wood cabinets. The aunts' cabinets were white, but even the white seemed transparent. Their floor had square tiles like in the multi-purpose room at school. It smelled like bleach, but never seemed entirely clean.
When we walked in the kitchen from the mudroom, Emily was standing at the counter, scrubbing a pot. Eleanor, who was peeling potatoes at the table, said, "What a nice surprise!"
Mom smiled falsely and, her voice high and tight, said "Being so hot today, I thought the girls and I could help you in the kitchen."
The aunts offered iced tea and pushed the potatoes and a couple of paring knives to Mom and Carmen. Emily eyed me, as if she was sizing up my ability to use a paring knife. "Why don't you go down the lane to see if the mail's here," she said.
The lane road was long, too long for my eight-year-old legs to walk without whining. Yet, I was always sent to pick up the mail from the mailbox at the end. When it rained, the lane road was a series of water holes. It didn't get muddy since it was made of rocks and rock-dust. That day was hot and dry and I kicked a rock as I walked along, stirring the dust around my tennis shoes. There were four electricity poles between the house and the mailbox. I stopped at each one, jumping across a small ditch to lean against it. I was skinny then, skinnier than the poles and I liked to watch the shadow of my body disappear into the rigid shadow of the pole. What if I disappeared? I wondered.
I thought about disappearing a lot lately. When I woke up at night, sometimes, I would hear my parents fighting. I didn't hear the words, but the voices. Would they stop if they came into my room and I wasn't there? If I crawled out the window and hid in the bushes, I could watch them come in to check on me. They would be worried. Mom would cry and Daddy would comfort her. They would stop fighting. If I hid behind the pole, how long would it take for Mom to wonder where I was? My old tricycle had been stolen from our yard earlier in the summer. "There's a thief around," Mom told me. "Don't talk to strangers." She might think someone stole me. Then she'd call Daddy. He'd have to come home.
I decided I would pretend to disappear. I would walk to the mailbox, past the mailbox, along the country roads, until I got to the highway. I'd get a ride from someone and they could drop me off at home. I could hide there until Mom called Daddy home. I started to walk quickly, deliberately, eyeing a rock ten feet away, watching it as it grew closer, until I was upon it. Then I'd choose another rock in the distance to walk toward. I might have continued this way, if I hadn't remembered the hermit.
The hermit, whose name I'd never heard, and whose face I'd never seen, lived in a shack across the road. I couldn't get to highway without walking past the hermit's property. I looked around at the fields surrounding me, the green corn without tassles, and the blue sky sprawling above and around it. The corn was already taller than me. The highway was on the other side of the vast field. I knew farm kids who made shortcuts through the fields to get to a friend's house miles away. But I was a town kid, I would get lost. Even I knew it was one thing to pretend to be missing and another to really be lost.
The corn rustled and I froze. Just the wind, I thought, but I was still holding my breath. I slowly let my breath go, while my eyes cautiously swept the rows of corn, afraid of what was tucked in there with the wind. A barking dog pulled my attention away from the corn. A fierce German Shepherd glowered at me from the end of the hermit's dirt lane road. I'd never seen the dog before. Suddenly, anxiety churned in my stomach. The wind rustled the corn again and sent me spinning with fear from the dog to the corn and back. I thought I heard a gruff man's voice and stifled a scream. I wasn't going to wait to find out if it was the hermit. I went running back to the house, forgetting the mail and ignoring how dusty my tennis shoes were getting.
Unlike home, where walking in the door on a hot August day meant being hit with a wave of manufactured icy air, walking in the kitchen at the aunts' house offered no relief. The air felt dead and lifeless. The blue gingham kitchen curtains hung stagnant over the open window. Carmen, Eleanor and Emily were all staring at Mom when I walked through the screen door.
Instead of yelling at me for letting the screen door slam, Eleanor asked, "Where's the mail?"
I had to lie. They would send me back for it if I didn't. "Wasn't any," I said. Because they believed me, and because I was in the same room with Mom instead of on my way to the highway or being kidnapped by the hermit, I was happy momentarily to snuggle against Mom's side and take a sip of her iced tea.
"Your face is flushed," she said. She put her hand, damp and cool from the potatoes, to my cheek. She pushed my sweaty bangs back away from my eyes. "Honey, go put a cold washcloth on your face. Then let's see if we can't find you some ice cream. It's too hot for a little kid to be outside." She kissed my forehead and I crept toward the bathroom.
"You baby all of them," Emily said. My stomach gurgled and burned. She was using the voice she used with us, not the voice she used with Mom.
"Em, they're kids," Mom pleaded.
"Him, too. You baby him, too. That's the worst of all."
"You know there'd be rules if you stay," Eleanor warned, her voice more kind than Emily's. I stopped to listen. I was always in trouble for breaking the rules, such as no television and kids should play outside or not at all.
"The girls know their rules," Mom said.
I peeked around the corner and saw Carmen. She was looking at the potato in her hand like it was a National Geographic, looking for something that might be there, hidden in the details. She had just started to wear make-up, and everyone knew how the aunts felt about that. If we lived with them, she couldn't wear make-up anymore. And she wouldn't be able to talk to her friends on the phone all day. The aunts hated kids using the phone.
"Well, there would be new rules." I watched Eleanor and Emily exchange a glance. Emily nodded for Eleanor to keep talking. "There would be rules for you."
"For me!" Mom laughed nervously. "Oh come on. You won't have to tell me to wash my hands before eating or not to slam the kitchen door."
"He can't come here," Emily warned. "He can't call here either. If it's over, so be it. You can bring the girls, but he can't come here to see them. Maybe they don't ever need to see him again."
Not see Daddy again! Carmen jerked her head up, to look at Mom's face, just as I came wailing into the room, throwing myself against Mom. "I won't live here! I'm staying with Daddy!" I screamed, hitting at Mom, flailing about. "You always do this, you always come here and complain to them and say bad things about Daddy. He loves me and I'm staying with him!"
Mom was trying to hold my arms. "Oh Christ! Look what you did!" To me, she said softly, "Calm down, sweetheart. No one is going to keep your Daddy away." I gave up and fell against her, crying. "Carmen," she said and I didn't hear the rest for my sobs.
In a moment, I felt a cold washcloth on the back of my neck and my face. Mom was wiping away my tears. I looked up at her and said, "Mommy, can we go home?" I had stopped calling her Mommy when I was six, but I needed to be the baby again now.
She sighed. "My baby deserves a daddy," she said. She wasn't talking to me, even though she was looking in my eyes. "Let's go on home now, before it's too late."
As I climbed into the backseat of the car, Mom stood with her door open, facing Emily and Eleanor. She said, "You know I don't believe in divorce."
The heat in the car was suffocating, so I leaned over the hump to the front, letting the chilly air conditioner blow directly onto my face. Carmen turned and looked directly at me. "You know we'll be back when he pulls this again," she said quietly, so Mom wouldn't hear. Carmen always thought she knew everything.
We arrived home before Daddy. Mom made pork chops and corn on the cob, his favorites. Daddy was home in time for supper and complimented Mom on the corn.
"It's fresh. I bought it at a farm stand on the way home from Emily and Eleanor's," she said. She was wearing lipstick again, and a pink flowered dress. "I took the girls there today. Thought about staying for a while." She paused. I looked at Carmen, but she was spreading a thick pad of butter on her corn. "What do you think of that? What if I didn't come home tonight?"
"You'd be sick of those two old biddies before I'd start to miss you."
"Yeah, you wouldn't miss us at all," Mom said sarcastically. She lit a cigarette and pushed her plate away, food uneaten.
"You wouldn't miss me, Daddy?" I asked, hardly able to say it. I was his favorite, his baby. He had to miss me.
Carmen rolled her eyes at me and spoke for the first time since Daddy came home. "Oh grow up, Jenny," she said.
Daddy reached over and pinched my cheek loosely. "Oh, baby, I'm just teasing. Sure I'd miss you. You know I can't stand to be away from you girls. A man's family is the most important thing in his life."
I sniffled, trying not to cry. Daddy was a liar, and I knew it, because he had been away from us for more than a day; he'd been away for two or three nights before and he never said he missed me. I wasn't important to him at all.
"Here, baby, let me cut this for you." He leaned over me, ready to cut my pork chop. I could smell his beer and cigarette breath.
"I can do it myself," I said. I wasn't sniffling anymore. I dared to look up at him, to look him in the eye. "And don't call me baby."