"My Aunt, the essay", a story by Harvey Sutlive.
Mom had this big house down in Charlotte, plus some cash, that she inherited from her grandfather. While she was a kid, a real estate company looked after the house, and her parents managed her cash.
She and my dad met in law school. They fell in love and got married, and I was born. And we were a little family.
Dad got a good job with a law firm in Charlotte. That worked out well, since we already had the house down there. Mom stayed home with me til I started first grade.
But Dad was not too productive as a lawyer for some reason. It took several years for that fact to become painfully obvious. In the meantime, he burned through the cash that Mom inherited from her grandfather. By the time I was in first grade, there was nothing left. After that, Dad moved out.
Mom and I relocated to Marais, which is her hometown. Marais is in the mountains west of Charlotte. It has a small college, and a whitewater river. I finished first grade up there. By then Dad realized how unhappy he was without us, so he showed up, and Mom forgave him. She still owned the house down in Charlotte, which they sold for cash flow, to start over.
By the end of fifth grade, the Charlotte house money was gone, and Dad left again. Gross betrayal, return plus forgiveness, gross betrayal, again – key paragraph topics, if you describe what happened in essay form. For a metaphor you could mention a Buick, stuffed up your ass twice. It should work well, as an essay. But in elementary school we didn’t do essays.
Anyway Mom and I stayed together. But we had a lot of anger. Counselors love that expression. You’re fucked up in other words. You’re blown through an open airplane door, and your fingers are hanging onto the edges of the opening. Middle school in Marais was difficult for me, and for Mom.
After that, it was time to do high school. Most of my dad’s family was from Cassina, South Carolina, fifty miles above Charleston. Mom talked to my aunts down there — my dad's three sisters. His old high school in Cassina was supposed to be good. All three aunts recommended it. My grandparents down there offered to pay for tuition.
My aunt Celia said I could live with her. Celia was the oldest aunt. She was the boss of everybody. She was very active and youthful looking. She played a lot of golf, and she won quite a few tournaments on an amateur level. She looked like a sorority girl with a serious drug problem. If you saw her picture, you would think she was sexy.
Celia was really busy the whole month before school started, so Teresa, my middle aunt, drove up to Marais to pick me up. Teresa was tall and skinny. She had thick black hair, and black eyes, and a wide, crumply mouth. I was impressed. Teresa talked a lot, and she smiled a lot. When she smiled, she showed her gums — they were dark but healthy-looking.
Mom and Teresa took a walk around Marais. There are views of the mountains from some of the streets in downtown. Teresa had a camera with her, and she took some pictures. The three of us ate dinner together at home that night. After that, Mom and I packed.
Teresa and I had a great time on the ride down to Cassina. We stopped in a few small towns along the way. I was turning over school in my head pretty constantly.
"High school's great I guess," said Teresa, after I mentioned it a few times. We were well out of the mountains, and we were driving through open countryside, sprinkled with pine trees and chicken houses, and quite a few mobile homes.
"When you were born I was in high school," said Teresa. "Or I had just dropped out." She was drinking a light beer.
Teresa, though she didn’t bother to finish high school, had a pretty good job at the port in Cassina. She worked for a chandlery that sold supplies and equipment to freighters. She visited all her ships in person. She met with the chief engineer, or the first mate and maybe the captain, and she took their orders for whatever they needed. There was something about Teresa's skinny body, and the way she walked, and how black her eyes were, that influenced captains and engineers to buy extra stuff from her.
"How much younger are you than my dad," I said.
"Your dad is not in Cassina right,” she said.
"Yeah I know," I said. My dad was in Florida. He wasn't in touch with anybody really.
“You should write him off," she said. She made a little snort though her nose. “That asshole,” she said, and she drank some more beer. We passed a road sign, and Teresa pointed to our map. I was supposed to be navigating. We stopped in four towns between Marais and Cassina. We walked around, and Teresa took a few pictures.
She collected images of run-down old buildings in small towns in middle of nowhere places. She submitted them to photography magazines sometimes to be published, but I don't think any were ever accepted. She drank beers between the little towns while we were driving.
Usually that trip is five hours, but we took somewhat longer. Celia was waiting and relaxing in her back yard in Cassina when we finally arrived.
At that time, Celia was still living with her wonderful-supposedly doctor husband Scotty. Scotty and Celia bought a big lot on the marsh, on the east side of Cassina, and they built this tall house, designed by an architect. It was block-shaped, and covered with dull red stucco, like a section of a motel on a busy interstate. Scotty loved that house. He put the architect’s plans in a chrome frame on the living room wall opposite their entrance foyer.
Teresa and I walked through the house to Celia’s back yard. I hadn't seen Celia since kindergarten. Bette, my third aunt, was waiting with Celia. They were having drinks on Celia’s big patio. They were splashed into huge lounge chairs with super thick cushions. It was late in the day. Bette saw us first, and she crawled out of her chair and gave us a big welcome.
Bette was short and blonde, and barrel-chested, with too-large breast implants. She had a musical voice, but it stayed on the same note. She had a musical, deadpan voice. She gave me a big hug.
"You are so skinny, Mathew," she said. “How much do you weigh?" It was like listening to the dial tone on a telephone.
Celia sat upright in her lounge chair so I could hug her. Bette climbed back into her chair and grabbed her drink. Most of the back yard was one big concrete slab or patio. Bette wiggled her shoulder blades deep into her chair cushion. "God you've got thick hair," she told me. "I remember that. No kidding how much do you weigh."
"120 pounds," I said.
"120 I seriously doubt that," said Celia rapidly. She was slurping her drink.
"With his clothes on," smirked Bette.
"Oink," I said almost automatically. I looked around the patio for a good place to sit down. I was having a bad feeling about Cassina.
"Hey shut up talking like that," said Celia.
“Fuck you,” I mumbled dispiritedly. I visualized Mom, who was going to be upset.
Celia and Bette came out of their chairs pretty rapidly. Teresa wrapped her arm around my shoulders. “Be NICE to this guy,” she told them. “He's my little man.”
She gave me a big sideways hug, and she drank some of her beer that was in her free hand. We did have a great time on the ride down from Marais.
Celia made a couple of intense personal remarks about Teresa’s morality. Teresa did a loud kissing sound for a reply, and sloshed her beer on the cushion of Celia’s lounge chair. Bette screetched at Teresa, and lunged for Celia’s chair, and she was swatting the cushion with the palms of her hands. Teresa ignored Bette, except to give her the finger.
Beyond Celia’s patio there was a small corner of regular yard, then the marsh grass began. The sun wasn’t visible anymore. The marsh was level all the way to the horizon. Giant streaks, dark colors, marked the bottom of the sky. The tide was high, and the marsh was filled with water.
School started in two weeks. It was very humid in Cassina. Soft air from the marsh pushed by us in a solid current. The air had weight, - I could feel it on the hair on my arms. If I moved, I started sweating.
Celia was doing a big scene. I was supposed to live with her etc. and become a family member and so forth, so she wanted an apology, or I should say I was kidding — she wanted some kind of signal I guess.
The sun was gone, but there was some light on the marsh. The stalks of grass out there seemed distinct. I was used to more pressure than Celia could possibly generate, so I ignored her. She got louder and louder, and she kicked over her lawn chair, then Teresa and Bette dragged her into the house.
I guess Teresa suggested I could stay with her — that was the plan when they came out again. Then Scotty the husband called — Celia cursed and stomped inside to see what he wanted.
He was stuck in Atlanta at a conference, and now his flight number was different. He was giving Celia his new arrival time. He was letting her know.
I remember Scotty as this fit, articulate guy, without a lot of hair, then Celia married two other guys after him. He always seemed nice enough. He seemed like a thoughtful person. He liked Celia, and he liked the house they built together. In fact he still lives in that house, as far as I know, with the woman he married after Celia divorced him. They have two kids.
Celia, before I even arrived in Cassina, had already decided she was sick of Scotty, and she was having an affair with somebody else.
"OK, no, that's great," Celia was saying on the telephone to Scotty. She was throwing her voice towards the patio so Bette and Teresa would hear her. "Uh huh," she said. “OK that's perfect."
She hung up and returned to the patio and sat down in Bette’s chair. She looked at Bette and Teresa, and she made a face. Automatically, Bette and Teresa both made faces. Those three really stuck together. They always propped each other up. I always liked that. They bent whatever happened to fit their group version of reality.
Now they started hashing over Celia's problems. I set her turned over lounge chair upright carefully, and flipped the cushion so the dry side was up, and sat down. I fell asleep — later they loaded me into Teresa's car. I don't even remember the first night at her house.
So for high school, I moved in with Teresa. I lived with her four years, including summers, when Mom drove down to visit us.
Teresa introduced me to her friends and to her boyfriends as "my roommate." She showed up for parent teacher conferences at school, and she took me to basketball games til I started driving. She never bossed me around. I was very loyal to her.
I learned to do math in high school, and I learned to do essays. My freshman year I joined the Landscape Club. We did volunteer tree planting and lawn maintenance all over Cassina. Our Club among other things did trash collection at Lazaretta Ground, Cassina’s largest green space. One year Celia sponsored a tree-planting program for the edges of the Ground. My junior year in the Club in fact, I was elected president. Bette had us out that year to resod the grass at her condo complex.
When I graduated, Teresa was really happy. She called it a milestone for everybody. Mom drove down with her boyfriend for the ceremony. Afterwards we had a reception at the high school cafeteria. Teresa brought her camera, and she took a lot of pictures.
A regular debris trail of dads and older brothers, plus the assistant principal in charge of discipline, followed Teresa all over the cafeteria. They brought her food, or something to drink, and they talked to her, and they watched her while she took some pictures.
I watched Teresa and admired her too. She’s the theme of this essay in other words. I have a picture of us, in the cafeteria, after graduation — we're smiling, and we’re holding my diploma together. The assistant principal took our picture using Teresa's camera.
She says I graduated for both of us. She says the diploma in the picture is her diploma too. I agree with that, a hundred percent. Because I'm a big fan of my aunt Teresa. I consider her a poem, not some essay. That’s with or without any high school diplomas.
Harvey Sutlive's fiction has appeared in Offcourse Issues #18, #17, #16, #20, #25, #28 and #34 as well as in many other print and online publications.
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