“If someone starts coughing while they speak, it means they’re telling lies.”
Auntie Jean never knocked, she’d just walk in the front door. No matter what time I came home from school, even if I had an early dismissal, there she was on Father’s lounger in front of the television, weeping, blowing her nose. The soap operas. If Baby Johnnycake diverted Mother’s attention, Auntie Jean would step up to the stove and stir the cabbage so it wouldn’t scorch, or pull biscuits from the oven as the timer chimed. Auntie’s hair was almost as cropped as Father’s and she wore, without variation, a brocaded housecoat. My sister Caroline insisted that there was a closet somewhere full of identical housecoats.
We called Jean “Auntie” but she was both a constant presence and unrelated to us. A lady who smelled of cigarettes, mouthwash, and talcum powder. I thought Mother knew her and Mother thought Father knew her and Father thought about her not at all. During the early Sixties our town had more than its share of disappeared children and pets, but in my family’s bungalow we never worried about danger.
“Kick off your shoes while the laces are still tied and your feet will stink.”
The October of my second-grade year was another month with no school friends, only Mother, Father, my sister, and my brother. And Auntie Jean. One late Saturday afternoon, Auntie slid a donut box across the kitchen table. “I brought a treat!” she said. Caroline and I gaped as Mother folded back the lid to reveal a glazed, an éclair, and lots of sticky empty space. A rose-rimmed semi-circle of missing donut marked the glazed. Auntie’s lips stretched in a rare, rose-rimmed smile.
Caroline, older than me by the gulf of two years, pointed at the box’s contents and opened her mouth to protest. “Thank you, Auntie Jean,” Mother interrupted, beaming. “How kind of you! Caroline, darling, please fetch the ice cream. We’ll cut up the donut into it.” She handed Baby Johnnycake to Auntie for a squeeze and a kiss. He began shrieking: “I scream! I scream!” Mother laughed. She loved all of her children, my rotten brother most of all. From the refrigerator door, Caroline glanced at me and back at the squealer, drawing a finger-knife across her throat. Mother said nothing about the bitten donut but made sure she and Father split the éclair.
“If you don’t clean your plate, you’ll have to put the leftover food in your pocket and the rats will find it.”
“Let’s go!” Father said to Mother. “Let’s go, let’s go, my boss’s nephew’s housewarming party is this afternoon and I told you it’s very important that we’re there!” Mother kissed Baby Johnnycake’s forehead, the only clean spot she could find. The brat grinned through a mask of chocolate ice cream. Studying himself in the hall mirror, Father donned a black trilby, tugged his four-in-hand knot, and kept his eyes high enough not to see any children at all.
That evening after dinner I stood on a chair and washed the dishes while Caroline pretended to study in the living room. I made suds castles and suds canyons. I stared at my upside-down face reflected in a serving spoon. I commanded the faucet to scuttle teacup battleships. If Mother were home I could have faked cramps or a headache to get out of my chores but Auntie was having none of it. Rings clinked on glass: Auntie tapped her cigarette hard on the kitchen table’s ashtray. Turning the page of a Life magazine, she drawled, “If you can’t put that soapy water to better use, mister, I’m going to dice some onions into it tomorrow and call it your soup.” I grew a foamy beard and pantomimed scrubbing the pots. I hoped my fingers wrinkled until the flesh fell off; I thought I could use that to escape my prison’s hard labor.
“Leaving a pan to soak in the sink means the food will burn next time.”
Our town was the third-largest in the county. To find my house you traveled around, over, or through two train crossings, a lumber yard, three concrete manufacturers, five gravel pits, and manhole covers beyond count. Auntie Jean told me and Caroline the earth below was bored out like a termite colony, but bigger, and we’d better hope that whatever ancient things lived down there stayed in the cool, dark dampness. “You’re young,” she said. “You don’t understand how years pile up; how over time, age can despise youth.”
I’d often watch from my bed as the moon crawled through the dormer window and striped the floor and walls. “Auntie, where do you sleep?” I said to myself, or so I thought, on that October night. She drew the covers to my chin and smoothed the comforter. Whenever I felt sleepy enough, the flowers on Auntie Jean’s housecoat awakened and twisted and vined themselves across the brocaded fabric. “Why, in a bed, of course,” she replied. “Same as you and your sister and brother.” In his crib across the bedroom, Baby Johnnycake gurgled and sighed. Caroline lay in slumber or watchful silence, I was never sure which. “No, your home. Where do you go?” The corners of Auntie Jean’s mouth sank and her nostrils flared, but her eyes splintered moonlight. She was the first adult I met who could look stern and happy at the same time. The lunar glow in my room flickered and went dark. “Don’t you worry about it, boy. Auntie’s always here.”
“If you snore, it’s an admission you skipped a chance to do something nice for someone.”
Michael Grant Smith wears sleeveless T-shirts, weather permitting. His writing has appeared in elimae, Ghost Parachute, The Airgonaut, formercactus, The Cabinet of Heed, Ellipsis Zine, Spelk, Hypnopomp, and other publications. Michael resides in Ohio. He has traveled to Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Cincinnati. To learn too much about Michael, please visit www.michaelgrantsmith.com and @MGSatMGScom.