The Inside-Out Woman
CHAPTER 19: BEASTS
“Mommy, is time yet?” called Dominic.
Iam blinked. My God, is it his child?
“Is it, Mommy? I’m hungry,” chimed Dominica.
Another. Two for him?
Wake up, dear. These are our children, our babies by your marvelous and kind husband, Billy Brick. Rise and shine; everybody is hungry for our delicious meatloaf. They’ve been little darlings waiting and watching their film. But you know children. Wake up, dear.
Iam, distant, hearing and speaking through a tunnel of time intermittently electrified by white light and deafened by a thunderous turbine answered, “In a little while.”
“We’re hungry now, Mommy,” whined Dominic.
She blinked. “I’ll bring you a snack. Give me a moment.”
She opened her eyes wide as another flash of light transformed the kitchen into a black and white landscape of towering cabinets filled with furniture suitable for giants.
“What?” she muttered, stirring, discovering herself curled like an animal on the floor hard against the slider, asking herself: why? Answering: to escape the cat’s eyes.
She looked up into the dim afterglow, at the pointed tip of the ticking cat’s tail. She rolled up tighter.
Sometimes you can be the silliest little goosy girl. It’s a clock, nothing more than a silly clock. Remember, Billy bought it for you on your honeymoon. I love a man who’s thoughtful. I adored him the moment he found us. What a gallant fellow, rescuing us from our unpleasant predicament.
“The children,” Iam said, “the children are Billy’s?”
Of course, dear, who else? My great goodness, you don’t mean to say you? But you do, don’t you? Oh my dear, what claptrap. You were having a bad episode, nothing more. The beast is haunting you. My, yes, you would be right to flog me, dear. Yes, you should, and I would welcome it, too. It was terrible of me to have remained in the background and allowed you to be seduced by … that animal. I really do hate to speak ill of anyone, but I will make an exception in its case. Lunatic. Why, that beast is an insult to lunatics I’ve known. Most have been rather charming people, not bombastic demigods like that tin messiah.
“But the clock, it wants to—I sound stupid, I know—it wants to control me, force me to remember things, force me do things.”
It’s nothing more than a harmless blue cat clock. Cute, you called it once. Perhaps it is a smidge gauche, but Billy’s heart was in the right place; he does have a big heart, doesn’t he? Please, dear, ignore the cat. It will no more hurt you than I will.
“I’m afraid, Aunt Margie, I’m afraid.”
Dear, how insensitive of me. Naturally you are frightened, just like when you were a little girl and you cozied with me in my bed when the storms came.
“I loved your bed, Aunt Margie.”
Well, thank you, dear. I loved having you in it, and I will welcome you again. But now is not the time. We must be a mother now. We have to feed and comfort two famished birdies.
“But the clock? I can’t.”
You most assuredly can, dear. Do what I do when something troubles me.
“I will, Aunt Margie. I will fall asleep and when I wake the storm will be gone and Billy will be home and everything will be beautiful again.”
No, dear, sleep is quite inappropriate at the moment. Later you will have oodles of time to rest and dream, to watch the world, and even make up your own wonderful version, just like I did for years. But now we have to care for our kittens and guard against that abominable creature. When I suggested you do as I do, I meant you should ignore the clock. Simply turn your back on it and act as if it doesn’t exist. And before you know it, it won’t. How do you suppose I survived growing up and existing with your mother? Such an insufferable busybody, ever so jealous of me, you know, and hideously, despicably malicious. There’s a word for her kind, but it is too un-Mamie-like. No, I can’t utter it, dear. But, oh, I am steamed. Oh, I could blow my lid.
“You were the beautiful one, Aunt Margie, inside and out.”
Thank you, dear. How kind and considerate you are. You do know how to appeal to my vanity. I could hug you. But, enough dillydallying. Let’s attend to business. Stand up. Ignore the clock. Busy yourself with the well being of our babies.
Iam pushed herself onto her knees, and hoisted herself into a tottering stand. She steadied herself, reached back, patted the wall, and switched on the light. She walked to the counter, keeping the clock squarely behind her.
“What a mess. Why didn’t I clean up earlier?” she mumbled.
Snack, dear. Put everything in the sink and prepare the snack.
Iam stacked the dishes, glasses, and pitcher, sweetly rancid from the dregs of pink lemonade, in the sink as Aunt Margie directed. After, she edged to the refrigerator backwards to ignore the clock behind her. She reached back, opened the door, turned and bent low into the frig, shielding her sight with the door. She removed a bag of cubed cheddar and milk. She turned, she hipped the door shut and walked to the table. Next, she backed to the cabinet, where she kept the dinnerware. There, she turned quickly, tucking her head to her chest. She opened the cabinet and selected dessert plates by touch. She shifted to another cabinet, her head down, and removed two glasses. She turned fast, ran to the table, and set everything on it. With her head still tucked, she backed to the pantry near the slider. With her back to it, she opened it and turned quickly, guarding against the clock with the pantry door, but too fearful to raise her head. Fortunately, the crackers were at eye level. At the table, she lifted her head. Standing straight, with the clock behind her, she assembled the crackers and cheese on the plates, and poured milk into the glasses.
She studied the plates and glasses, puzzled as to how she might carry them without a tray. She stored the trays in the cabinet over the stove. She would have to reach for a tray. The clock might catch the corner of her eye.
She called, “Dominic and Dominica, snacks are ready.”
Excellent, dear. Ignore what you don’t like and it won’t harm you.
The children dashed in for their snacks. Iam cranked her face, eyes and mouth, into an exaggerated beaming smile that slowed the children to a wary creep.
“Mommy,” asked Dominica, looking from Iam to Dominic and back, “can we eat and watch TV?”
“Please?” added Dominic, verging on tremulous. “There’s less thunder and lightning in the living room.”
With eyes shot red, skin sallow and glistening, lips pulled up and stretched painfully, baring her teeth to the gum line, Iam asked, “What are you watching?”
“‘Toy Story,'” said Dominic.
“It’s okay,” said Dominica. “I like the toys.”
“Good, good, good,” Iam said. “Very good. Yes. Take napkins with you.”
“Will you watch with us, Mommy?” asked Dominic, more worried formality than invitation.
“In a few minutes, after I clean up the kitchen. We wouldn’t want Daddy coming home to a dirty kitchen, would we?”
The children treaded with deliberate care into the living room. Iam shut her mouth and exercised her jaw to relieve the lingering tension of the artificial happy face.
Roll your shoulders, dear. I’ve found rolling my shoulders relieves the tension beautifully and helps me relax. I practically purr. Hmm, feel it?
Iam rolled her shoulders. She began to twist her neck to the right to touch the tip of her shoulder with her chin. She stopped. The cat stalked her from behind, eager for her to slip up.
What we need, dear, is a cup of hot tea. A cup of hot tea is just the remedy for a stormy night teeming with demons.
“Demons?” muttered Iam.
The Tetly’s, dear. You always buy the Tetly’s because you know it is my favorite. You have always been a respectful and insightful girl. Always. Even when you were a tot, a little darling, no bigger than Dominica, you were kind and compassionate. You loved your Aunt Margie, didn’t you?
“I love you still,” Iam said, again tucking her head snug against her chest, backing to the stove to fetch the small red kettle she kept on a rear gas burner. She carried it to the sink.
You never have to say you love me, dear. I am able to feel your love. It envelops me. It nurtures me. It is a cocoon.
“Like a sack, like an embryonic sac.” Iam swiveled the faucet away from the pitcher and closed her eyes and pinched closed her nostrils as she filled it.
Embryonic sac. Yes, exactly, dear. Why, it is as if you are blessing me with a new lease on life.
Iam snapped the lid on the kettle and backpedaled to the stove. She felt behind herself for the small burner, set the kettle on it, and switched on the gas. When she heard the burner pop and felt the warmth of the flame, she shuffled to the table and sat.
My, dear, I think reincarnation is too … too Eastern, that’s it. The creature stuffed your head with that nonsense, I’m sure. We’re Catholic. We attend mass on Sundays, and the children are in religious education in the afternoon, and Dominic made his first communion last year, and what a handsome young man he was, though we should have dressed him in a white suit, not the brown you chose, but I understand tastes change. All these years, why I believe I’ve been in Limbo. The Lord placed me there because, you know, I went before I should have. My place wasn’t prepared. He put me in the family to help, and that mother of yours, from spite, would not permit me to help. When I did manage to teach poor Sammy a lesson, why she made such a terrible stink. Oh, it infuriates me even this very moment. Oh, I am desperate for a cup of hot Tetly’s, dear, in my gorgeous rose Jasperware. It was so, so precious to me, my cup and saucer, my lovely oval box. I can’t express how joyful I am you saved them for me.
Iam stood, tucked, and backed to the stove. She dropped her hand to the oven pull and grabbed one of the dishtowels she hung there for utility and decoration. With the towel in hand, she lifted the kettle gingerly. Before returning to the table, she snatched the other towel. At the table, she used the towel as a trivet, setting the kettle on it. She backed to the pantry and grumbled that she should keep important items like the Tetly’s on a lower shelve. She reached up, strappado style, and picked the Tetly’s on the third try. Her shoulders ached. With her head tucked, she rolled them as she returned to the table. She backed to another cabinet, groaned, again raised her arms in strappado fashion for a cup and saucer. At the table, she dropped the Tetly’s teabag into the cup and poured in the hot water.
She sat and watched the tea steep in the midst of open cabinet doors, an open pantry, a blue flame sputtering on the stove, and a sink accumulating dirty dishes, and it was like home had been, in disarray, when her mother carried the child—girl or boy, Iam never knew—who died, and when little Sammy caused all the hubbub.
She hated their house. The yard was overgrown. Two large evergreens, that had been there forever, were brown, half dead and shedding needles in great heaps. They flanked the front and blocked all the windows; the front rooms were perpetually dark and gloomy. The land in the back of the house dropped off sharply into a still creek cove dense with algae. The miserable house was odd inside, too, not like other girls’ houses. On the first floor was a kitchen and what her mother called the backroom. Two small bedrooms and the sole bathroom were on the second floor. The front room was her mother’s. She, Ruth, and Sammy shared the other bedroom. Up top was the attic room, where Aunt Margie stayed when she wasn’t away. She, Ruth, and Sammy usually played in the backroom, but not that summer afternoon.
Her mother reclined on the daybed. Aunt Margie was with her, sitting on a kitchen chair she’d dragged into the backroom. She sat erect and prim, with her back to Iam’s mother.
“Tetly’s, please, sister, in my rose Jasperware cup,” Aunt Margie said, her voice loud, tense, her words clipped.
Iam and Sammy played a board game, Chutes and Ladders, on the kitchen floor. Ruth watched. Iam allowed Ruth to move her piece. They heard their mother and aunt clearly.
“You can’t see the heat’s killing me?”
“Tetly’s, please, sister, in my rose Jasperware cup.”
“You’re driving me mad, you know that. You want me up there with you, because that’s where I’ll be if you don’t stop it.”
“Tetly’s, please, sister, in my rose Jasperware cup.”
“Who except a nut drinks hot tea on a hot day?”
“Tetly’s, please, sister, in my rose Jasperware cup.”
“Jesus, you’ve got two good hands. You know how to boil water. Make it yourself.”
“Tetly’s, please, sister, in my rose Jasperware cup.”
“Goddamn, Margie, can’t you see I’m pregnant here? You think I’m having fun?”
“Tetly’s, please, sister, in my rose Jasperware cup.”
“Look at me, will you? Get off your ass and get your own tea.”
“I cannot and will not look at you. Furthermore, I do not appreciate in the least your vulgarity. Tetly’s, please, sister, in my rose Jasperware cup.”
“Fuck you, Margie. What, I won’t do your bidding so you’re punishing me with your compulsive bullshit? Fuck you again, Margie.”
“You realize you are in your condition because of your liberal exercise of that disgusting word, and, of course, because you are by nature an indiscreet person. Tetly’s, please, sister, in my rose Jasperware cup.”
“Exactly what does that mean?”
“My statement requires no elaboration. You understand my meaning perfectly. Tetly’s, please, sister, in my rose Jasperware cup.”
Iam, Ruth, and Sammy had been listening to the escalating exchange since Aunt Margie had entered the room a half hour earlier to ask for a cup of hot Tetly’s and had been refused. Angry after the third request, Aunt Margie turned her back on their mother. Ten minutes later, Aunt Margie stalked into the kitchen for the chair. Ten minutes after that, Iam put the kettle on the stove and retrieved Aunt Margie’s Jasperware cup and saucer from the her attic room. When the tea had steeped to Aunt Margie’s preferred strength, Iam ventured into the backroom, to Sammy’s consternation at the interruption of the game he was winning.
“I made your Tetly’s, Aunt Margie.”
“How many times have I told you to stay away from the stove? You want to burn the place down?” her mother yelled.
Iam always thought the prospect vastly superior to having the house slowly collapse around them, and responded with her customary perfunctory smile.
“You are an angel, my dear. Come here. Come.”
Aunt Margie hugged her and kissed her forehead and pecked her red bud lips and stoked her silky hair.
“I am glad someone knows how to treat a guest, dear.”
“Margie, goddamn, you’re no guest. You’re deadweight. Nobody wants you; that’s why you’re here. I’m the dumb shit; that’s why you’re here.”
“Dear, harken on the truth your mother speaks. Now, help me return the chair to the kitchen, and sit with me while I take my tea.”
In the kitchen, Sammy complained, “But I’m winning.” Ruth wailed over not being able to move pieces anymore.
Aunt Margie busied herself at the table adding a level teaspoon of sugar and a dollop of milk to her tea. She ignored Sammy and Ruth.
“Iam,” he pleaded, fending off Ruth, who cried and tried to snatch the pieces.
“Stop fighting in there, you pests,” screamed their mother. “I’m trying to rest. Nobody gives a shit about me.”
“Children, pay no attention to that vulgar thing. Sometimes, I admit, I’m ashamed she is my sister. As for you and your game, Samuel, your sister and I will be twenty minutes. Surely you can spare twenty measly minutes for your aunt. Perhaps you and Ruth can occupy yourselves outside. Play in the backyard, perhaps.”
Iam snickered at Sammy rolling down the embankment and crashing through the skim of algae, but frowned when she saw he would drag Ruth with him.
“I’m going upstairs,” he said, pouting and angry. “Don’t touch anything. I know where we are, so don’t even try to cheat.” He tromped up the stairs to ensure they understood he wasn’t accepting his banishment with any degree of aplomb.
Ruth sat as if stunned for a moment. Iam bounded from her chair. She grabbed Ruth before she could scatter the game pieces to avoid having Sammy inflict his wrath upon them both. She sat Ruth next to her on the chair.
“Boys can be such nuisances,” Aunt Margie said, sipping her tea. “You make a very pleasant cup of tea, dear.”
“Thank you. Boys are a pain,” Iam said.
“I’ve always found your assessment to be true. And men, oh my gosh, dear, just beasts.”
“Well, there is an excellent question. No one knows why. Yes, it is a great mystery. Solve it, my dear, and the world will be yours.”
“Absolutely. All the women of the world will praise you, dear. Yes, and there will be a day—what day is your favorite?”
“How about one of my favorites. How about November fourteenth? Yes? November fourteenth officially declared Maryam Beatrice Maria Cardinale Day. Flows mellifluously, doesn’t it?”
“Me, too,” said Ruth.
“Hmm,” Aunt Margie said, “We’ll make June first Ruth Cardinale Day.”
“My day, Iam.”
“Good, and I’ve got my own day, too. We’re lucky girls.”
“I get presents on my day?” Ruth asked.
Iam nudged her. “Quiet. It’s pretend.”
Aunt Margie smiled and sipped her tea.
“But,” Iam asked, “why are they terrible?”
“Men. Why are they terrible?”
Aunt Margie knitted her brows, indicating she was plumbing the mystery.
“Well, as I said, I can’t explain why, but I can tell you how.”
“Men like to control everything, dear. They especially like to control us.”
“Well, like Samuel, for instance. He demanded you finish the game instead of enjoying a few moments with your aunt.”
“That wasn’t nice.”
“No, it wasn’t. Then he became peevish and left in a huff. Typical loutish male behavior. They either leave and you’re distraught, or they stay and you’re miserable. Better they leave, I think.”
“Precisely like your Daddy, and you know who else,” indicating the backroom with a nod of her head. “It is gospel, you know, what is said about the cow.”
“What cow?” Iam asked.
“The cow that dispenses her milk free of charge.”
Iam shook her head.
“Quite elementary, dear. If you give away the milk, why would anyone in his right mind pay for it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Neither do I. Well, I must say, dear, as always, you have been simply delightful company. You, as well, Ruth. Such a charming little girl. Now I think I will take a page from your mother’s book and have a short lie down. Shall I send the little man down to you?”
“No. Let me wash your cup and saucer. I’ll bring it upstairs. I’ll get Sammy when I’m done.”
“How considerate you are, dear. Thank you. On second thought, the tea has given me hot flashes. I believe I will retire to the toilet first to refresh with a splash of cool water.”
After Aunt Margie left, Iam said to Ruth, “Go sit with Mommy. I’ve got work to do.”
“No, Ruth, go to Mommy,” and she did.
Iam handled her aunt’s Jasperware with extreme care. She set the cup and saucer on the sideboard. On her tiptoes, she rinsed each in warm water. She was drying the cup, when her mother dragged into the kitchen with Ruth in tow.
“I told you not to wait on her. She expects it, and it’s your fault.”
Iam shrugged, as her mother got two glasses from the cabinet and thrust them at her.
“Cold as you can get it.”
“Brrr cold,” Ruth said.
Iam ran the water for a minute, filled the glasses, and passed them to her mother and Ruth. Her mother gave the water a test sip. Ruth imitated her, even her approving nod.
With a cup in one hand and a saucer in the other, Iam said, “I’m going upstairs.”
“Yeah, sure,” her mother said, trundling into the backroom, followed by Ruth.
Iam climbed the first flight of stairs, walked down the landing, past the bedroom hallway. The bathroom was just before the stairs leading into the attic. She heard Aunt Margie’s voice and paused. It was soft and low, and melodic, as if she were singing to herself. Iam pictured her aunt in front of the mirror combing and arranging her hair, doing it repeatedly, never quite satisfied with it until she’d fiddled it into several styles. Those times her aunt invited her to watch, Iam sat in fascination, commenting, “I like it, Aunt Margie,” and “I love it, Aunt Margie,” endlessly. “Do I look younger, dear?” “You are young, Aunt Margie.” “Is this too daring, dear?” “It’s lovely, Aunt Margie.” “Am I too frumpy like this, dear?” “I don’t know what frumpy is, Aunt Margie.” “Oh, never mind, I don’t care for it.” Regardless of the many styles she tried, Aunt Margie always ended where she began, with her Mamie look. “It is the best, dear. It compliments me so, don’t you agree?” “Yes, Aunt Margie.” Iam liked it best when Aunt Margie styled her hair. Her aunt combed it straight and said, “Oh, my dear, you are the exact replica of Louise Brooks.” “Who?” “The loveliest woman ever, I assure you.” She curled it and said, “Bette Davis, dear.” “Who?” “The flip sets off your eyes. Captivating big eyes.” She turned up the ends and exclaimed, “Oh, exactly as I imagine Mamie looked as a child.” “I like it the best,” Iam said, because Mamie was her aunt’s favorite and she always wanted to please her doting aunt.
The singing tempted Iam to knock, but she was on a mission, to deliver Aunt Margie’s Jasperware safely to her bedstead. She climbed the attic stairs. She placed the cup and saucer next to the oval box. She sat on the edge of her aunt’s bed and admired the trio. “They are more than useful things, dear, you know,” her aunt once explained. “They are works of art. See how delicate and precise they are. See the figures, the people. They are Greeks. Ancient Greeks. The ancient Greeks were tremendous artists, you know. Oh, probably the greatest ever. And the men, they were brave and the women exquisite. And everybody was polite and gracious. You can tell that from the relief, dear. That’s what you call the white figures and the scrolling, reliefs. Really, they are magnificent. Sometimes I gaze at these and dream about what it would be like to be an ancient Greek. I sometimes see myself as Penelope. What a true and loyal woman she was, tricking those suitors, and she had many, many, some rough and some brash and some elegant, and all masterpieces, like Greek statues. But her pure and true heart belonged to Odysseus alone. Oh, for such a man,” she said, tracing her hand along the curve of her jaw, down her neck, into the cleavage of her breasts, cupping them until her eyes blinked and she muttered, “Excuse me, dear. It simply sweeps me into another world.”
Sometimes, when Aunt Margie was away, Iam perched on the bed and stared at the Jasperware and tried imagining life in ancient Greece. She found fuel for her imagination in the library, where she read about ancient Greece and gazed at photographed sculptures of flawless men and women. As she imagined being among them and one of them, she imitated her aunt, running her hand over her body; but, since she didn’t flush and squirm like her aunt, she assumed she performed the caressing improperly, and would have to study Aunt Margie more closely.
Curious about Aunt Margie in the bathroom, she hurried down the steps and stood before the door. Aunt Margie was very efficient when attending to what she termed her bodily needs. However, when putting on her face, as she called it, or styling her hair, Aunt Margie could spend an hour or more in the bathroom. Often, in urgent need, Iam’s mother would pound the door and rant into the jamb, and receive back from Aunt Margie the promise of “Just another minute,” or the advisement that “Patience is a holy virtue,” or the piqued admonishment, “That’s no way to treat a guest,” or something similar guaranteed to stoke her mother into a blast furnace of molten rage.
Iam placed her ear to the door to detect what occupied Aunt Margie. She heard her aunt talking. She couldn’t distinguish what she was staying, but the tone told her Aunt Margie was urging and coaxing and cajoling. Finally, straining and pushing her ear to the wood, she heard, “Well, even someone such as yourself must see my method is much neater and more civilized than yours.” She assumed her aunt was playing a game of pretend; she could be anywhere in the world or in time; the wondrous aspect of her aunt’s imaginings was they were boundless, and that they were so real to her aunt Iam herself could envision her aunt moving through them.
“Please, take this and try it,” said her aunt to someone who could be a lunch friend, or a gentlemen escort, or a famous person; her aunt conjured up so many dazzling people, events, and situations, being with her was better than television or the movies.
Desire to be with her aunt possessed Iam. She ached to listen to her aunt and to imagine a role for herself in her aunt’s make-believe.
She stepped back and knocked lightly. She heard a muffled cry, silence, and her aunt: “Just another minute.”
“It’s me, Aunt Margie.”
“My dear, how lovely, and just in time to teach an oaf a lesson in proper hygiene.”
There followed a succession of sounds and movement. Iam heard “No” shouted several times. She heard scurrying and scuffling. She heard her aunt exclaim, “Why, I never. You are an ungrateful lout.” She heard Sammy explode, “Fuck you,” as he yanked open the door and almost trampled Iam fleeing the bathroom. He moved fast, but she was certain she detected tears streaking his cheeks and his hands busy zipping and buttoning his pants. Aunt Margie followed, smoothing her hair and patting her cheeks, saying, “Excuse me, dear, but I’m a tiny bit flustered.”
From below, came the her mother’s shriek and a string of obscenities, each punctuated with, “You sick bitch.” Followed by Aunt Margie saying, “On second thought, dear, perhaps I should take refuge in here until the weather calms a bit. Would you care to join me?”
Safely behind the bathroom door, Aunt Margie suggested Iam comb her hair. Iam agree gladly. Drawing aside the shower curtain, a jungle of bright but scary flowers of prehistoric dimensions, Iam climbed onto the rim of the tub.
“Here, dear, my best comb. Put a hand on my shoulder. We wouldn’t want you toppling into the tub. There’d be no end to your mother’s caterwauling if you did. I don’t think I could bear anymore of her at the moment.”
Iam hadn’t stroked her aunt’s hair more than a dozen times before the door jumped and trembled under the pummeling it received from Iam’s mother.
Aunt Margie tittered. “Dear, never let them tell you a pregnant woman cannot move quickly”—gesturing at the door—”a case in point.”
“I won’t,” Iam promised.
“Your mother has quite a mouth on her, dear. I am not the least surprised she would allow a man to put her in the condition she finds herself in. Such a lowlife. No offense to you, dear, she might be your mother, but she’s my sister, too. I share your burden.”
Suddenly, the torrent of abusive shouting stopped.
“Step down, dear. Let’s have a look at your handiwork.”
Aunt Margie viewed herself in the medicine chest mirror, which she always derided as woefully inadequate for someone who had a modicum of interest in maintaining a stylish, not to mention merely presentable, appearance.
“Excellent work, my dear. You’ve added a wonderful glow to it. I’m very pleased. Now, if I know that unpleasant mother of yours, and I do, I suggest you depart while the coast is clear. You know how the situation can get out of hand with her.”
But before Iam could make her exit, her mother returned to the door for another round of screaming. Sammy accompanied her and interjected with the refrain, “She was playing with my dick, Mommy.” Ruth was present, too, wailing.
“I called them, Margie, you sick bitch. Once you’re in this time, you’re in for good. You hear me. For good.”
“She was playing with my dick, Mommy.”
“Will you shut up, Sammy. Just shut your fucking mouth. You crossed the line, Margie. You went way over the line this time. Do you hear me? Way over.”
“Mommy’s sending you away again, Aunt Margie?”
“Shhh, dear. Let’s keep our voices low. We don’t want to give her any more to complain about.”
“Okay, shhh,” Iam said, tapping her index finger against her lips. “Shhh.”
“To answer your question, dear, apparently, yes. It is so distressing, my lovely little girl, so terribly depressing.”
“I don’t want you to go away,” Iam said, embracing her aunt’s waist. “Not forever.”
“Don’t fret, dear. Contrary to what your mother may believe, I’ll be back.”
“Of course, dear, I always come back,” Aunt Margie said, grasping Iam’s arms and holding them away from herself, as if preparing to inspect her. “Besides, haven’t I told you innumerable times how precious you are to me and how I will always, always be with you?”
“You believe me, don’t you?”
“Yes, with my whole heart.”
Aunt Margie hugged her, kissed the top of her head three times quickly, held her away again, and laughed loudly.
“Laugh all you want, Margie. Laugh your crazy fucking head off. But you’re going and you’re never coming back.”
“Remember,” Aunt Margie said, “I’ll always be with you”—touching Iam’s heart—”here, and”—touching Iam’s head—”here.”
“I feel you, Aunt Margie,” Iam said, following her aunt’s touch with her own.
“Well, all the commotion has flustered me, dear. May I ask you to draw me a cool bath?”
Iam occupied herself with running the water, adjusting the hot and cold until she thought it sufficiently tepid. As she allowed the tub to fill, she swung her head around. Her aunt stood clutching her dress to her neck, obviously naked behind it.
“I don’t mean to shock her, dear, but a lady certainly cannot bathe in her clothing, now can she?”
Iam nodded tentatively in agreement.
“Mommy,” Sammy cried.
“You are wearing on my last nerve. Do something. Go find Iam, and take her and Ruth to your room. Stay there. I’ll tell you when you can come out.”
“What are you waiting for? Get going.”
“Stand at the sink, dear, and observe the most darling little girl in the whole wide world.”
“Who else? See for yourself, while I situate myself in the bathtub and draw the curtain.”
The door vibrated. “Margie, what are you up to? Do I hear water? What, they’re coming for you and you’re taking a bath? Goddamn, Margie, don’t you have an iota of sense?”
Iam, over the shouting of her mother, heard the steel curtain rings skitter, and her aunt say, “Lovely, dear. Precisely the correct temperature. Oh, my goodness, I can’t describe how soothing this is. Thank you. Thank. Lovely, lovely …” until her voice faded to nothing.
Iam went to the curtain and whispered, “Aunt Margie, can you hear me? Aunt Margie.”
“Margie, what the fuck are you up to in there? Answer me.”
As she was about to slam the door again, Iam opened it.
“What?” her mother said.
“Mommy, I’m afraid. Aunt Margie’s asleep in the tub.”
“What? Jesus H. Christ. Margie,” Iam’s mother shouted, charging past Iam into the bathroom.
Iam turned to see her mother rip aside the curtain, drop to her knees, hook her arms under Aunt Margie’s, and lift her. Her mother held her aunt until two men and a woman arrived and placed her on a stretcher.
At night, before falling asleep, she saw her aunt at the door of the room in her favorite pink dress, more vivid than if she were actually present. “Good night, dear. And, please, don’t blame Sammy. I’m sure he didn’t mean for me to go away.”
Iam sat up in her bed and said, “Sammy, are you awake?”
“Leave me be. I was sleeping.”
“Why’d you lie about Aunt Margie?”
“I didn’t lie.”
“You were mad because I didn’t play with you?”
“You’re nuts. She played with my dick.”
“She would never play with your thing. I know it.”
“What do you mean, ‘Good as’?”
“Means she was holding it and wiping it with a tissue and saying it was the hy— hy—, the clean thing to do after pissing.”
“She was helping you, Sammy.”
“She wanted me to wipe my dick like a girl.”
“She was helping you, and you had her sent away. I’ll never forgive you, Sammy. Never. You’re … you’re a beast.”
“Grrrr. Who cares? Go fuck a duck and let me sleep.”
Delightful, dear. A good cup of hot Tetly’s always puts the world in a new and brighter perspective. Don’t you agree?
“Why did you do it?”
Dear, we both know Sammy was a simply beastly boy. Not to put too fine a point on the nastiness of his delinquent character, I’ll remind you of his demise. And on the grave of a good, virtuous sister no less. I mean, dear, Sammy epitomized bad male behavior. I believe the better question is: why did he do what he did to me?
“They took you away, and I was so afraid you wouldn’t come back.”
Fiddlesticks, dear. You are such a silly goose girl. I always come back. I’ve promised many times I will never abandon you. I never have, not even after the truck. I returned to you. I’ve never left you. True, for years I’ve maintained a low profile. Best to give young birdies room to spread their wings, I always say. Now I have returned. You could argue I should have made my appearance sooner. I could retort you didn’t summon me. Well, fond wishes and sad regrets; no time for either. I’m here now, here to help you, and isn’t that what counts?
“Yes. But, Aunt Margie, I’ve had some bad times, if you haven’t noticed, and you were quiet. Why now, when I’m happy?”
The box, dear.
“I have to clean up in here. I can’t have Billy coming home to this.”
You have to attend to a more important task.
“Meatloaf. I have to start the potatoes—”
It can wait, dear. The children are content for the time being.
“The mess on the porch. That’s it.”
Please, dear, you are avoiding the obvious.
Yes, dear, the box. You must attend to the box immediately. Otherwise, I’m afraid the situation will worsen.
Yes, dear, I fear Dominic will be in grave danger if we do not attend to the box this instant.
Iam jumped up.
COMING NEXT WEEK, MONDAY, JUNE 29, 2015: CHAPTER 20: HEGIRA