by Terri Fabel
Gwendolyn turned sideways in front of the mirror and checked her stomach. Flat. Good. She slipped her feet into the open-toed sandals that stood in the middle of the room and turned around to check her rear. Tight. Firm. Checking her vitals had been her daily routine since she was sixteen years old. Skinny genes and big boobs had been gifts from her mother, the boobs showing up by the seventh grade and the silly boys that loved them soon thereafter. Attention from men was easy to come by, but it made her lazy.
She mashed her feet deeper into the sandals until her Frangipani Frost toenails made an appearance and then pranced her way down the staircase and out onto the porch where her mother-in-law and husband were waiting. “I’m ready,” she announced striding toward the car as if she were performing a talent on a beauty pageant stage. Her husband ran his hand along her waist and then over her thigh as he opened the back door of the car for his mother and the front passenger door for her. She slid in and buckled her seatbelt. “Where does Aunt Eva live?” she asked, directing the question to no one in particular.
“Somewhere near Miami,” said her husband, pulling out of the driveway.
“She knows we’re coming. She’s 94,” her mother-in-law announced, dentures clicking as she clamped her mouth shut.
Gwendolyn wondered what Aunt Eva’s age had to do with the fact that she knew they were coming, but she had long since given up trying to make sense of the non sequiturs her mother-in-law passed off as conversation.
“Her husband died of sugar diabetes,” the crackling voice continued. “She’s been a widow for a long time.” The indiscriminate humming that usually scored her mother-in-law’s thoughts tuned up and floated over from the back. “We won’t stay long. I’ll probably never be back to Florida, so I thought I should see her.”
“I’m sure she’ll appreciate it, Mom,” said Gwendolyn’s husband. “Aunt Eva was Dad’s only sister, so it seems right to go.”
Gwendolyn crossed her ankles and rummaged in her purse for the plastic-toothed hairbrush she always kept with her. She swept her hair into a ponytail and slid the rubber band she had stored on her wrist over it, twisting it three times and flipping the coffee-colored plume toward the back of her head.
“We won’t stay long,” her mother-in-law repeated during a break in the humming.
They drove through their neighborhood, Gwendolyn staring out the window at various houses along the way, craning her neck to admire a particular architectural detail she had probably seen a hundred times before. “You know, canvas awnings would make our place look totally different.”
“Duly noted,” answered her husband without taking his eyes off the road.
“Well, can we get them?” asked Gwendolyn.
“Sure, if you can find a way to pay for them,” her husband said, wheeling the car onto Greenway Drive.
Gwendolyn tossed her head and sighed.
“Awnings make a house dark,” said her mother-in-law.
“They also make it pretty,” said Gwendolyn.
“I suppose they’re expensive,” said the back seat undeterred. “You have a lot of windows.”
“Oh my God, this is going to be a pain,” said Gwendolyn as her husband merged onto the freeway joining an endless line of cars. “Sunday traffic on I-95.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t go,” said her mother-in-law.
“Don’t worry about it, Mom. This is Miami. You expect traffic in Miami. It’ll start moving soon.”
Gwendolyn turned toward her husband and pulled her legs up into the seat. “Don’t we have some money left over from the house in California? Don’t I have some control over that?”
“We have awnings, Gwen.”
“Yeah, but they’re metal. And ugly. If we can’t paint the house, at least we can change the awnings.”
“I guess you would do the painting yourself?” asked her mother-in-law in what sounded more like a statement than a question. “Painters are expensive.”
“We have to get the inside done before anything can happen on the outside,” her husband said, following up his mother’s comment in a flat, distracted tone. “You know that, Gwen.”
“Well…then I don’t care what our know-it-all neighbor says about the historic significance of that floor tile in the sunroom. That hideous mosaic eyesore will be handled right away. I’m covering it with pavers.” She purposefully avoided eye contact with her husband.
“Maybe we should live with the tile floor for a while. It might grow on you,” he said, blowing the horn at a car that had pulled out in front of them.
“I won’t do it. I won’t live with it, and it won’t grow on me. If I can’t have awnings, at least we can get tile that costs fifty cents apiece, so we don’t have a monstrosity inside and out.”
“I suppose tile installers get a lot per hour,” said the mental ice pick.
“I hope so; it’s a talent,” Gwendolyn said, an edge sharpening her voice.
“Finally,” said Gwendolyn’s husband as he pressed on the gas and zoomed into the passing lane. “Do you have the address, Mom?”
“134 North 7th Avenue.”
“Yeah, we’ve still got a ways.”
“Canvas awnings are prone to rot, I guess,” said the back seat.
“Everything’s prone to something,” said Gwendolyn.
The car was silent as her husband weaved expertly in and out of traffic, then swerved to the right to take an exit that had come up faster than expected.
“I see it, Mom.”
“You know where you are, I guess.”
“There it is,” said Gwendolyn pointing excitedly out the window. “I knew I had seen a house over here at lunch one day that has the exact kind of awnings I’m talking about. Now these people over here on the east side know design. They’re probably old Florida money. Not like us. We’re California money. I guess when it comes to taste, that doesn’t count.”
Gwendolyn’s husband pushed the power button on the radio, and Gwendolyn immediately pushed it off.
“I brought some summer sausage from home and four crackers I had left over from a snack on the plane,” said her mother-in-law. A plastic bag with a partially eaten log of sausage and three whole-grain crackers dangled over Gwendolyn’s shoulder.
“Oh, that’s nice, Alma,” said Gwendolyn, taking the bag and inspecting it with what she hoped looked like enthusiastic interest. Despite the clash of cultures—unrestrained southern belle meets alarmingly repressed midwestern nudge—Gwendolyn occasionally worked at being cordial.
She handed the bag back across the seat without turning around. “Maybe there’s a feral cat we can feed it to,” she thought she had said to herself. The withering glance from her husband said different.
“Are the house numbers going up or down?” he asked, snapping his head from left to right.
“Up, I think,” said Gwendolyn.
“Get off my tail, you goofball,” he shouted, stomping on the brakes and scowling into the rearview mirror.
“At least we’re off the freeway,” said Gwendolyn trying to be positive. They stopped behind a line of cars waiting to turn left into a strip mall on Highway 1. “Every human being in Miami is trying to get somewhere. By the way, a guy riding your bumper isn’t a goofball; he’s an asshole.”
Golden silence. The car continued to slowly advance, grinding along like a Panzer in the desert.
“I believe we have to go back under 95.”
“West!” said Gwendolyn as if west were a swear word.
“Seems like,” said her husband taking a left.
“We buy gold,” read the voice in the back. “Check cashing. Bail bondsman.”
“I think we’re getting close,” said Gwendolyn’s husband. “Does that sign to the right say Tropic Isle?”
“Tropic Isle,” said Gwendolyn, who always wondered in these moments how her husband ever made it anywhere alone.
“Here’s the letter from Aunt Eva,” said Alma, crinkling paper in the back. “I brought it from home in my suitcase. I put it between my tan slacks and my blouse with the stripes. It says she lives in the Tropic Isle Development. It’s in Miami, I guess.”
Gwendolyn’s husband slowed down, then stopped the car in front of a house the size of a Krispy Kreme store. “This is it,” he said thrusting the gear shift into park and shutting off the engine.
Gwendolyn’s mother-in-law opened her door and bounded out, bending immediately to pick up an orange from Aunt Eva’s lawn. She reopened the car door and threw it inside. “I’ll have that for breakfast tomorrow with the cookie I saved from dinner last night. I probably should have added the cookie to the crackers,” she mumbled.
Catholics, thought Gwendolyn. The road to heaven is paved with all of the things they deny themselves.
As they approached the house, Gwendolyn looked at the two jalousie windows cranked out slightly in front and wondered how much air conditioning was escaping into the cauldron outside. The slatted openings—circa 1950—lived behind bars. Protection, Gwendolyn guessed, from what the neighborhood had become.
She followed her husband and mother-in-law up the steps to the house. The main entrance was covered by a storm door with a crane balancing on one leg in the center. The other leg, which should have been folded at the knee, was missing entirely, the amputation site cauterized by rust that had been dabbed with peeling white paint.
Her husband opened the storm door and knocked on the wooden one behind it. He peered through the tiny window serving as little more than a peep hole for the dweller inside. The door opened slowly.
“We’re here,” chirped Gwendolyn’s mother-in-law.
“So you are,” said Aunt Eva moving back inside and standing before them, waiting for someone—not her—to make a move.
Gwendolyn’s husband hugged the frail body. “I’m Kent,” he said as Aunt Eva hugged him back. Gwendolyn recoiled from the stale odor that permeated the air each time Aunt Eva moved.
Gwendolyn’s mother-in-law, agile for her 80 years, walked purposefully over and invaded Aunt Eva’s space. Instead of hugging her, she held up the bag with the sausages and stale crackers. “I brought some summer sausage from Minnesota and some crackers from the plane. Maybe you’ll want some later. I’ll just put them over here.” She walked past Aunt Eva and laid the prize on the red Formica breakfast table arranged between two chairs that had obviously been part of the original set.
The ninety-four-year-old woman labored over to a swamp-green Naugahyde recliner. She faced it, placing her hands on the arms and, without turning around, said, “You’re Kent’s wife.”
“I am,” said Gwendolyn, watching her turn and drop into the well-worn seat.
“She’s from North Carolina,” said Alma, walking to the plastic sofa and sitting down. Gwen looked around for additional seating. Her husband, taking the cue, pulled one of the kitchen chairs away from the table and placed it beside her.
“I like your house,” said Gwendolyn sitting in the chair. “How long have you lived here?”
Aunt Eva bowed her head and laid it in her hand, digging her elbow into the arm of the recliner. “Maybe fifty years,” she answered, head still in her hand as if she were processing the years, one by one, and the sum total of it all had suddenly weighed her down. She raised her head and folded her hands in her lap. “Did you say you were living in the Gables?” asked Eva.
“Yes, on Asturia,” answered Gwendolyn. “I don’t know if you’ve had occasion to get over that way, but it’s in the old Spanish section.”
Eva’s house dress crackled with electricity as she slid over the Naugahyde and resettled herself into her home-away-from-bed. Gwendolyn thought she saw sparks as the polyester clung to itself and then pulled away. “You can let in some light if it’s too dark in here,” said Eva, motioning toward the yellowed shades lowered to the sills on every window.
Gwendolyn realized that her earlier concern about the cool air should not have been a worry because none existed, AC or otherwise, and the shades, undoubtedly meant to mitigate the heat, seemed only to be holding it in.
“How’s your family?” said Aunt Eva to Alma. “Are all of your sisters and brothers still alive?”
“All but two. Sister Grace is gone, and so is Alice.”
“Oh, yeah?” asked Eva raising her hands still clasped together. “Was Sister Grace the nun?”
“Yes. Margaret went in for a while but then met a priest, and they ended up married.”
“Oh,” said Aunt Eva, her voice lifting in surprise but opting to let the subtext of her tone do the work.
“How long have you been alone?” asked Gwendolyn.
Aunt Eva took in a deep breath. “I guess around thirty years.”
“Do you get lonely?” asked Gwendolyn’s husband, trying to enter the conversation.
“What’s that?” asked Aunt Eva.
“Kent was wondering if you’ve been lonely here all this time by yourself,” said Alma loudly. Gwendolyn had thought she detected a slight note of empathy in her husband’s voice.
“Oh. Well, some of the kids were around for a while, but then they all moved away for jobs. Two of them I outlived which ain’t too good.”
“Are there any church people or social workers who come by?” asked Gwendolyn. “I suppose you get your meals from the outside,” she added glancing at the Harvest Gold stove that looked like it hadn’t been used in a decade.
“Meals on Wheels,” said Aunt Eva. “Sometimes they bring a week’s worth all at once, and I put them in the Kelvinator to keep. I think they come on Saturday. I generally try and call the 411 lady to ask her what day it is. Or what time it is. So, there’s that.”
“Would you like some summer sausage?” asked Alma. “It’s by Hickory Farms. I had some cheese that came in a set that Donald’s brother’s family gave me for Christmas, but I took that to the Senior Center. Some of them seniors are bad off.”
“I think the information lady said today is Wednesday. I probably still have some dinners in the ice box. You can share them if you’re hungry.” Eva pulled the lever on the recliner and wiggled toward the front of her chair.
“No, we just had lunch,” Gwendolyn said a little too quickly. “Do you want me to cut up the sausage and make a little snack?”
Eva rested her hands on her thighs and straightened herself. “Unless you’re hungry, I’m happy to save it for another time. Maybe I could have it on Friday. The 411 girl will tell me when.”
Gwendolyn made a teepee with her hands and slid them over her forehead and back over her hair. She dried her sweaty palms on her shorts.
“I guess you miss Donald,” said Eva directing her attention to Alma.
“He’ll be gone ten years on da twenty-fourth of June,” said Gwendolyn’s mother-in-law, slipping into her native Newfoundland accent and ignoring, as was her way, the question that was asked. The room fell silent. “Yeah, you just save that summer sausage,” she said after a pause. “I had a cookie I should have included with da crackers. Maybe you would have liked it better.”
Gwendolyn stood up quickly, peeling her plastered legs off the oil cloth seat, and then sat back down.
“This house is definitely solid,” her husband said, eyebrows raised with feigned interest. His head bobbed around as if he were admiring an exhibit at the Louvre. “They don’t build entire houses out of cinderblock anymore. I suppose it keeps it cool.”
“Yeah, yeah, real cool,” said Eva. “A lotta times there’s a breeze, and it gets downright cold. I’ve got a blanket, though, so it really don’t bother me either way.”
The silence and humidity stole the oxygen from the room. “I might walk outside,” said Gwendolyn.
“Maybe we ought to go,” said Alma. “They have trouble with traffic,” she said to Eva, inclining her head in Gwendolyn’s direction. Gwendolyn thought she made traffic sound like an ailment of some sort…shingles…or maybe GERD. “It might take us a long time to get home,” Alma said then, with an inexplicable lilt to her voice.
Her mother-in-law’s penchant for sounding excited at the prospect of odious things was another habit Gwendolyn would never understand.
“Don’t rush off,” said Eva. “It might be early.”
Gwendolyn’s husband rose from the sofa, offering his hand to his mother who stood up without taking it. “It was so good to meet you,” he said, facing his host. He shifted his outstretched hand to Gwendolyn. “Mom has talked about Aunt Eva for years.”
Gwendolyn, who only a moment earlier had longed for the outside, was fixed to her chair. She couldn’t take her eyes off Eva, swaddled in a tea-length, powder pink nightgown so moist from the heat and the vagaries of old age, the satin flowers around the neck were pasted to her chest. Finally, she got to her feet and picked up her chair returning it to its rightful place. She took one last look around the small galley kitchen before her eyes came to rest on a room across the hall.
“That must be your bedroom,” Gwendolyn said to Eva.
Eva followed her gaze. “Take a look if you want,” she said, waving her hand toward the door.
Gwendolyn obediently entered the room. A set of jalousies identical to those Gwendolyn had seen on arrival sat high above the head of a single bed. Like the others, they were housed inside a rectangle of bars and cranked out just enough for a bit of air to seep in. A light sheet was tossed across the bed with an orange and green afghan folded at the bottom. A phone rested on a bedside table with the three-number combination to the world outside written in magic marker along the side.
On impulse, Gwendolyn went to the head of the bed and, standing on tiptoe, cranked the windows open. A sudden gust of air passed between the frosted plates of glass and billowed the sheet into a huge, swollen sail. Gwendolyn imagined a Viking ship on its way to Valhalla.
She quickly returned the jalousies to their original position, stifling the momentary breeze and the restorative powers that blew in with it. She stood quietly for a moment, listening to the voices still making small talk behind her, then moved into what could not quite be called a foyer and followed her husband and mother-in-law out onto the stoop.
Aunt Eva pulled the injured crane toward her and peered at them through the pock-marked screen. Gwendolyn heard a tiny lock slide into place. Her husband turned around and rapped his knuckles on the wall. “Yep, if it weren’t for the cinderblock, this house would be an oven.”
“Thank you for coming,” said Aunt Eva, her hand still resting lightly on the handle of the door. She managed a stiff, choppy wave before resealing herself inside the concrete box.
Gwendolyn and her mother-in-law took their assigned seats and watched as her husband pulled the car onto the grassy path that had once served as Aunt Eva’s driveway. He craned his head over his left shoulder peering out the back window, then turned around, clicked his seatbelt, and moved the gearshift into reverse. “Is it clear on your side?” he asked Gwendolyn.
“Yes,” she said looking behind her as he eased the car back and then gunned the engine toward home.
They rode in silence until a faint rustling behind her steeled Gwendolyn to what she guessed would be another offering from the back. Sure enough, a plastic bag slithered over and dropped down beside her. The odor of Fixodent mingled with a puff of hot air as her mother-in-law pressed her face against the headrest on Gwendolyn’s seat. “This is some more sausage,” she whispered as if the sausage police were waiting at the corner with questions about a conspiracy involving intrastate pork. “It’s the last of the kit, so I decided to keep it for us.”
“The Hickory Farms kit?” asked Gwendolyn, smiling to herself. “Those kits are nice.”
“Yeah,” said her mother-in-law, settling back. “Say, Gwen, don’t you think you could wait on those awnings? Maybe Kent could do the tiling, and that would be enough for a while.”
Gwendolyn turned and faced her mother-in-law for the first time that day. She smiled into the black Irish eyes staring back at her in earnest. “I think you are totally right about that,” she said softly. “I think if I get the tile, I’ll be a happy girl. A very, very happy girl.”
“Yeah. Them awnings are expensive, and the ones you got are plenty good.”
“It’s all plenty good,” said Gwendolyn, speaking to anyone walking near enough to her partially opened window to hear.
“How about some cool air, Mom?” Kent asked.
“Don’t turn it on,” came a stern tone from the back. “It uses up your gas, and the heat isn’t just too bad.”
Gwendolyn rolled her window all the way down and stretched her arm out, palm forward, so the wind pushed against it. “Is the air too much?” she asked, moving her head a half-turn toward the back.
“No,” said the voice, now sounding tired.
They rode along, stopping and going, cruising and creeping, stoic martyrs in the fight against too many people going too many places at once. The madness continued as one car after another crawled along, braking at random intervals for what appeared to be nothing.
Typical Sunday, Gwendolyn thought again. Sunday. Not Wednesday…Sunday. “It’s not Wednesday,” she said. “It’s Sunday. The 411 lady will tell Aunt Eva it’s Sunday.”
“What’s that?” said her husband.
“Nothing,” said Gwendolyn, surprised that she had spoken the words out loud. “I was just talking to myself.”
The backseat humming kicked in, as Gwendolyn knew it would, and for a moment the melody sounded oddly familiar. Like something she knew. She relaxed, for a moment, and let the notes wash over her: Sur le Pont d’Avignon, on y danse, on y danse. Sur le Pont d’Avignon, on y danse tous en rond. She sang the words to herself, letting the rhythm carry her forward and closed her eyes floating along until she saw herself passing under a bridge—or maybe it was over it—the current urging her on until the dancers and the overpass ceased to exist.
Terri has spent most of her professional career as an advertising copywriter. Detroit, LA, Austin, and Fort Lauderdale have been cities she has called home along the way. After retiring from the ad business, Terri moved back to her native North Carolina and began trying her hand at both fiction and non-fiction writing. To date, she has had a nonfiction piece published in Our State magazine, and a short story published in High Country Headwaters. Terri is a member of the North Carolina Writers Network and has most recently co-written a screenplay and finished a novella called “The Dreaded Kudzu.”