by Melanie Lamaga
This story appeared previously in The Tusculum Review
“Doesn’t my skin have a splendid glow in refrigerator light?” Aunt Jo asked. I told her it did. “It’s because this light is yellow, incandescent, not green like those goddamn fluorescents. Never use those Frankie! They’ll kill you.”
Aunt Jo was sitting on the floor in front of Gran’s black whirlpool, with ice and water dispensers in the door. Aunt Jo said she liked to graze, and wasn’t about to waste her energy walking back and forth. Plus she got overheated, and this was the coolest spot in the house. She’d start with the tangerines and work her way into the potato salad and fried chicken, skinny arms beating against the cold air like the wings of a starving seagull. She ate whatever was there, but complained about it. Gran said fancy foods like salmon and duck cost too much, and weren’t filling, anyway. She said Aunt Jo better just take what she could get and forget about what used to be, up there in the city.
“Damn, Mama!” Aunt Jo shrieked, “Why don’t you take up a collection at that worthless church so I can get a decent meal?” Aunt Jo was hot tempered, even now. Gran went pale and started to tell Aunt Jo she was going straight to hell but stopped herself, slapped me just for being there, and slammed out to work.
Aunt Jo grinned and motioned me over, to sit next to her on the floor. When she wasn’t eating she’d brush my hair. Have you ever noticed how it only feels good when someone else does it? Her hair used to be just like mine. “Black silk,” she said, “You’re going to be some kind of woman, any minute, now. A bombshell.” I couldn’t answer, because no one ever said anything like that to me before. Aunt Jo smiled, handed me the brush and reached for the angel food cake.
In the bathroom I looked at myself in the mirror, trying to see what she saw. My breasts are real small and I don’t have any hips or butt, nothing to make the boys look twice. I just started bleeding last month, though. Gran calls it a period. I asked her why not a comma, since it’s going to come back next month. Gran looked at me like I was stupid but Aunt Jo hooted and said I had a point. She said when a woman bleeds it’s her moon time, and you know things. I asked, like what, but she just smiled and said “Secrets, hidden under the surface of things. You’ll see.” Gran told Aunt Jo to stop filling my head with notions, the only secret I need to know is how to get blood out.
That day, while I stood at the bathroom sink scrubbing my panties, I noticed the stain looked like a crescent moon. I tried to figure out if it was a secret message but then I caught myself and stopped. I knew if any such nonsense ever came out of my mouth Gran would ground me just for being too simple to walk the streets on my own. Standing there with my hands under the cold running water, I all of a sudden felt real happy, maybe for no reason, or because I was a woman who might know secrets one day, or because Aunt Jo came home. Then I remembered why she was here and felt ashamed to be so selfish.
Every morning when I got up and every afternoon when I came in from school, I’d find Aunt Jo lying on her quilt in the kitchen, sometimes asleep with the refrigerator door still open. At night, with only the refrigerator light you could see the cold air hitting the heat and turning to fog. With Aunt Jo laid out in one her catnaps, it looked like a crime scene. At first, after I finished my homework, I’d wake her up and we’d talk, but sometimes she’d get tired and fall right back asleep, so I took to just laying down next to her until I heard Gran to coming home from work. Then I’d shake Aunt Jo and she’d grin like a jack o’ lantern, waiting to see what food Gran had brought.
Once I fell asleep there on the floor, too, and woke up staring at brown bags dangling by Gran’s fat ankles, spilling over the sides of her pumps. She was screaming, “Frankie, why don’t you bring Aunt Jo her food in the bedroom like I told you?” I scrambled away out of the kitchen on all fours, just barely dodging the grocery bag flying toward my head.
It really wasn’t fair, because Gran knew there was no getting Aunt Jo out of the kitchen. Gran said she hated working all those double shifts at the Safeway, checking out food for big, healthy people who never stop to think about what’s coming. She was frustrated because the only help she had was me, and even though I cleaned house and did laundry the best I knew how, I couldn’t stop Aunt Jo from laying on the kitchen floor, dying.
One night, curled next to Aunt Jo, I dreamed about looking out the upstairs window at a plane flying over the city, and seeing it take a nose dive and crash in flames. I knew it was the end of the world because everyone went crazy, fighting, shooting, raping, all up and down our street. I wished I’d gotten around to losing my virginity before it was too late, but I also wished I had a gun because I was scared. Then some carousel horses passed down the street in a line, real slow, heading into the setting sun. As the horses passed, everyone got real calm and started walking behind them. Then I was glad I hadn’t shot anyone, because murderers were not allowed to go.
That was the end of the dream, but I had it twice more, only after the first time, when the plane wrecked, a big ball of fire headed right for me and Aunt Jo. It was bigger than the sun, like an orange mouth about to swallow us whole.
The lights above the casket were pink, and I breathed a little easier. No fluorescents. I didn’t want to see her, at first, but somehow, between talking to the windbag pastor and cousins in church clothes, I ended up next to Aunt Jo. For one crazy second, I thought it was a mistake, that wasn’t her in there, which meant she was still alive. Just for a second. Then I realized it was her, somewhere under all the paint.
I started crying right then and there. Everybody looked at me, all sympathetic, but they didn’t get it. It wasn’t her real face. I guess the funeral home people think the paint makes them look like they still have blood. I read about the Egyptians and I know what embalming means. They take out all your insides and put them in jars. I told Gran that Aunt Jo said she didn’t want that, but Gran said embalming is the law. I just don’t understand how they can make you do that to someone you love, especially when they can’t defend themselves anymore.
It was bad enough that they went ahead and embalmed her, but I never expected to see her painted up like a giant doll. I couldn’t believe grown people did this to each other. I looked around the room at all my relatives and got this scary-dream feeling that their sad, familiar faces were a mask and what they hid, I didn’t want to know. I wanted to grab them, hit them, scream until the windows broke.
The pastor carried me into the side chapel and Gran came in. She held me on her lap, though I’m nearly big as her, rocking me and saying “Hush now, grown girl like you, making such a fuss.” I guess I fell asleep, because when I woke the lights were off and I was alone, laid out on the bench with a coat over top of me.
I went into the bathroom to relieve myself, and standing at the sink, realized what I had to do. I crept out and saw Gran and Aunt May talking to the funeral home man. Everyone else was gone. I slipped into the chapel by the side door, cup of water and sponge in my hand. I had to, for Aunt Jo. Standing in the pink glow, I scrubbed the mask off her face, gentle but firm, the way a mother cat cleans her kittens, right after they’ve been born.