Teri Carter was born and raised in Southeast Missouri. In 2004, she won the top prize in nonfiction from Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. Her fiction can be found in The Wayfarer. In 2005, she received the Marcella Debourg Fellowship for creative writing from the University of Minnesota where she received her B.A. in English. She currently lives in northern California, where she is pursuing an MFA at San Jose State University.
The Aunt Mary Show
It was more than a year since I'd seen her, yet Aunt Mary greeted me like we were in the middle of a conversation.
“That was Michelle,” she said, with an exaggerated roll of the eyes. Her hand set the white phone receiver hard into its cradle. The phone's long and misshapen cord swept the floor, and Aunt Mary kicked it aside with her right foot, noticeably swollen to twice the size of her left. “Can you believe that girl?” she said, backing away, hands on hips. “My own daughter. Still not speaking to me. And all over a dead guy.”
I wanted to point to the phone and argue that she and Michelle were, in fact, speaking, but I knew better. Instead, I said that I could not believe it had been a whole year since I'd been back to my hometown of Fruitland, Missouri, to which she replied, “Well I sure the hell can!” I also wanted to explain that it was not helping matters for her to refer to her daughter's recently deceased husband of sixteen years as a dead guy, but I knew better about that too.
“A dead guy she didn't even like, if you want the whole stinkin' truth of it,” she went on. Her voice rose to compete with the television blaring in the corner. It was midday Friday. Aunt Mary's soap operas would run all day long on.
“I can't believe you're finally here,” she said. “And all the way from San Francisco. Sit down, would you. I gotta put this foot up.” Aunt Mary did not limp, but scooted her sore foot with force the few steps from kitchen to living room and dropped into a well-worn, tan velvet recliner by the window. She pulled so hard on the side crank that both of her heels bounced on their way up. “Michelle had a good guy in Eddie and she shit all over him. A woman can't ignore her husband like that and get away with it. Mark my word! Eddie loved that girl so much.”
I had first learned about Eddie's death two months before, on August fifth, when I picked up the mail on my birthday. The pink-flowered card was generic, the kind you buy in bulk. It read: Thinking of you on your birthday. On the inside flap, Aunt Mary wrote:
Happy 40th birthday! I tried calling but never can get you. Have you moved yet? I wanted to tell you about Michelle's husband, Eddie. He killed himself Tuesday night. Hung himself in the shed. I loved him like a son! Michelle was talking about leaving him again and I guess he just couldn't take it. I have been very sick from my chemo. Can't hardly stand up I'm so weak. Well take care.
I called her immediately. She explained how her thirty-five year old son-in-law had hung himself with an orange power cord in the garage. He did not leave a note. Eddie's and Michelle's troubles became serious last year, she said, when he'd had a one-night-stand with a woman at the factory where he worked third shift. He'd begged his wife not to leave him and, according to Aunt Mary, Michelle stayed and “threw it in his face every chance she got.”
“That Eddie was smart,” Aunt Mary said, shifting in her recliner. “He knew Michelle was about to leave him, so by-God he left her first.”
Her voice mounted and fell, spilling her frustration with Michelle into the room like marbles from a jar. I felt like I was watching The Aunt Mary Show — too loud and no less dramatic than the soap operas playing in the background. I focused on the movement of her mouth, her hazel-green eyes — my mother's eyes — and the way she used her face like a mime to emphasize a story. I had to look hard for evidence of illness. Aside from her inflamed foot, shrouded in a fluffy red sock the size of a Christmas stocking, she looked like the Aunt Mary I had known all my life. She was sixty-two years old, a Type II diabetic, and recently recovered from breast cancer, a mastectomy and a summer's worth of chemotherapy. Still, Aunt Mary channeled the beauty of her youth. In elastic-waisted, polyester black pants, and forty pounds heavier than she would like to be, she looked put together. Her rose-red blouse was crisply ironed. Her Clairol Jet Black hair, well-teased and expertly combed, framed a round porcelain face. Thin pink lips, without need of lipstick, formed an ever-present smile that contradicted the venom of her words. I imagined that if Disney's Snow White had been allowed to age, she would look exactly like Aunt Mary.
While I listened to Aunt Mary's complaints about her daughter, I tightened my lips. I nodded. But I did not offer any verbal agreement. She claimed that she loved Michelle's husband, Eddie, like a son, but the truth was that she did not attend his funeral or the wake the night before, even though both services were held within a mile of her apartment.
“I didn't go to Eddie's funeral because I was sick then,” Aunt Mary said. “You know, with the chemo and all. Michelle don't get how sick I am. I keep telling her, 'I'm sick. I'm not going to be around forever!' That she ought to visit her mother. You should tell her. You know I could die tomorrow, just like Judy.”
My mother, Judy, had died six years earlier, on March tenth — Aunt Mary's fifty-eighth birthday — and Aunt Mary took it as a personal affront. “Now even my birthdays will be sad,” she'd said.
“But my Michelle, she don't listen, that girl. What I get is the silent treatment, that's what. Eddie goes and kills himself and I get the silent treatment. But Michelle — she gets $29,000 in life insurance.”
This surprised me. I did not think insurance companies paid when the cause of death was suicide. “She does have three sons to raise,” I said. “Plus there was the funeral to pay for.”
“That funeral,” Aunt Mary spat. “That funeral only cost seven grand. So much money left over and has she spent one dime on her mother? No, ma'am. Not one dime. And she knows I go for weeks without a dollar in my pocketbook waiting for my disability check.”
I was ready to interrupt again, but her voice barreled by me and I could not get my words out fast enough. “People with money are selfish. If I came into a big bunch of money, I'd share it. People don't share.”
I recalled the check I'd sent Michelle in a sympathy card, a Hallmark dispatched in lieu of calling. I had wavered back and forth about sending the money, and about how much to send.
Maybe $50, I'd thought. Cheapskate!
$500? Show Off!
In the end, I took the coward's way out and settled on $200. More than the cost of flowers, but not enough to elicit a thank you call.
Aunt Mary's voice broke in. “The same thing happened when Mike died.”
I was jolted back to her. “When Mike died?” I asked, confused by the sudden change of topic.
“My little brother, Mike. When Mike died it was the same. Nobody shares nothing. Greedy, greedy, greedy.”
I had been three years old when he died, but I had vivid memories of Uncle Mike. He had been a twenty-year-old Marine on his way to Vietnam when he was hospitalized for headaches so painful he blacked out. Military doctors discovered an inoperable brain tumor and sent him home. He lived for a year, most of it spent on the velvety green sofa in Grandma's living room.
“Yep, the same thing happened with Mike,” Aunt Mary said. “Mother and Daddy got $20,000 for Mike and they blew it on a summer-long trip to California. But did they take me?!” She wagged her finger in the air as if someone had been naughty. “Oh, no. Like I said, people with money. Selfish. I got left out then like I'm left out now. Same old shit.”
Aunt Mary's apartment building housed four units and was built in the 1960's — a faded-orange brick structure that looked more like a child's drawing of a house than a real one. A tall rectangle with a squashed triangle on top. The front door was cut low in the center and there were four square windows, two up and two down. Aunt Mary lived in the lower left square. Through that window, she could not see Fruitland's quaint town square, just six blocks away. Her view consisted of an abandoned gas station with boarded up windows, surrounded by broken concrete and sprouting weeds.
Excepting trips to the doctor's office, her diabetes had made her a prisoner. Her sight was failing. Her right foot was losing circulation and on the verge of amputation. Through her disability benefits from the state, low-sugar meals were delivered for free. Most days, the Meals-On-Wheels delivery driver was the only person she saw. He knocked on her door twice a day, right on schedule, at eleven a.m. and six p.m. He usually stayed and visited for a few minutes. Or, according to Aunt Mary, he flirted. “He tells me I don't look a day over forty!”
In the evenings, she enjoyed her dinner while watching reruns of Everybody Loves Raymond. “Don't you call me during Raymond!” she often reminded me.
Perhaps sensing that I'd had enough of her ranting about Michelle, Aunt Mary threw her hands in the air. “I got a new bedspread!” she exclaimed. “Oh it's pretty. You've got to see it.” She pushed down hard on the recliner's crank. Her feet dropped. She took a few seconds to stand and find her balance, and I offered her my arm. She shooed me away.
I followed her to the bedroom. The off-white and worn linoleum on the kitchen floor wound itself into the bedroom but, unlike rest of her hand-me-down home, Aunt Mary's bedroom was her showplace. She said, “This new bedspread makes it like having a new bed, don't you think? And you know I love my red. Everything red. So pretty.”
The bedspread shimmered in raspberry red satin. Several photos of Elvis covered one wall. Elvis in his prime wearing a red-leather, sequined jumpsuit. Young Elvis in black leather pants with an acoustic guitar. Overweight and sweating Elvis, clad all in white, at his last concert — the one in Hawaii — painted on black velvet. Even the curtains were converted terrycloth towels, also Elvis. A framed portrait of him hung above the nightstand.
“I love Elvis,” Aunt Mary said, clasping her hands and swooning like a school girl with a crush. “Don't you just love him?”
“I think Elvis would like that new comforter, that's what I think.”
From the living room, we heard a loud click. “Oh hell,” Aunt Mary said. “I forgot my stories!” She shoved me out of the way and hurried back to the living room. I followed.
“Are you recording something?” I asked, noticing her frustration with the remote control. “Can I help?”
“My soaps!” She slapped the remote against her leg. “They're almost over and I forgot to set the recorder for Jack and Phyllis.” Aunt Mary talked about soap opera characters like they were real people. “I tape the good story lines and leave out the boring parts. I've got over a hundred tapes, you know.”
I began wondering where, in this tiny apartment, she could store a hundred video tapes when we heard another loud click and she told me she needed to change the tape in the VCR. Aunt Mary continued to fuss with the remote. “I'm going to the bathroom,” I said, turning back toward the kitchen.
“There's diet Coke in the ice box,” she said as I left the room.
On my way back, I opened the refrigerator door and grabbed a Coke; not because I wanted one, but because now that Aunt Mary had offered, she would insist until I had one. Familiar plastic magnets of bananas and cherries and grapes, worn and broken, covered the bright-white refrigerator door. The Coke hissed when I popped the tab, so I extended my arm and held the can over the kitchen table until I was sure it would not overflow. While I waited, I spotted a red spiral notebook and flipped it open.
“Hey, hey, hey missy! You leave that alone!” Aunt Mary yelled.
I closed the cover. “Sorry.”
“That's my diary.”
I slurped soda off the rim of the can and walked the few steps from the kitchen table back to the sofa. I sat.
“My diary is private.” Aunt Mary looked worried, her first frown of the afternoon.
I pointed to the pile of notebooks next to her recliner. “Are those more diaries?” A stack of spiral notebooks — red and blue and green, the wide-ruled kind used by school children — formed a pile between her recliner and the window. The stack was tall. There must have been twenty.
She proudly handed me the blue one on top and told me that, unlike the diary, I could look at all of these. They were not diaries, she explained. They were her birthday books.
I opened to a page. Perfect penmanship in blue and black ink divided four columns of information: Date, Name, Age, and Year of Birth. A blank row separated each entry. I recognized most of the names, all celebrities. At first, I fanned through the pages while Aunt Mary told me she got her information from the daily newspaper. Then I went back to the beginning and turned the ink-filled pages more slowly, one by one. They looked like this:
10-4-2005 Alicia Silverstone 1976
Susan Sarandon 59 1946
Anne Rice 64 1941
Charleton Heston 81 1924
In some cases, off to the side, she had written the word “DIED” in all capital letters. Those names were circled with a red magic marker. Each name also had a series of checkmarks next to it.
“What are these checkmarks for?” I asked.
“That shows how well I know them,” Aunt Mary said, matter-of-fact. “One check means I've heard of them but don't know them. Five checks mean I know them really, really, really well.”
“So why are some checkmarks scratched out?” I pointed to the page I was on. “Like this woman here. It looks like she had four checks but now three are scratched out.”
“Oh, I have to do that. You know how you think you know somebody? Really know them? But then you find out later you didn't really know them at all.”
After two days with Aunt Mary, I went back to my life in San Francisco. One night in December, just two months after seeing her, I poured myself a glass of wine and called to ask what she would like for Christmas.
“Do you ever get to a book store?” she asked.
“I'm a book addict,” I said. I put the cork back in the wine bottle. “I'm always in a book store. What do you want?”
“Anything on Elvis. One of those big picture books. Or maybe a book about Howard Keel.”
When I said I didn't know who that was, Aunt Mary explained that he had starred in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and that he'd also played the “Jock Ewing” character on Dallas after the first one died. I tried to picture him but, in those few seconds, she had moved on.
“Michelle's still not talking to me,” she said, going back to a familiar topic. “But she sent me a Christmas card with forty dollars in it.”
“That was nice of her.” I turned the lights off, plopped down on the sofa, and tucked my feet up under me, careful not to spill my wine. In the dark, I watched the colored bulbs flicker on our fake Christmas tree.
“Nice my ass,” she said, emphasizing each word. “Let me read you the card. Dear Mom, Merry Christmas. You like money. Here's forty dollars even though you don't deserve it. Love, Shell. Can you believe that girl?”
“She signed it Love,” I said, sipping my wine. As bitter as she sounded, I couldn't help but laugh.
“Well — speaking of love — you won't believe this.” She explained that Michelle had started dating Eddie's older brother, Tom, and that Eddie's parents were having a fit. On one hand, with fingers and thumb, I counted. Eddie had only been dead for four months.
“Maybe they're just spending some time together,” I said, trying to make light of it. “I'm sure they both miss Eddie.”
“Oh no, oh no,” Aunt Mary said. In my mind, she was wagging that finger. “You don't know Michelle. She always did have a thing for Tom, even before she and Eddie got married. But then Eddie got her pregnant and they had to get married and everything but she really had it bad for Tom. Always did. I even wonder if her second boy isn't Tom's baby. I always wondered about that.”
I got up from the sofa and walked past our blinking Christmas tree, back to the kitchen. I needed more wine. I had never heard this story and wondered how true it was. The more she talked, the more her accusations seemed so outlandish that I felt the need to protect Michelle. “Back in the olden days that's how it worked,” I said. “If a man's wife died, he married the sister; a woman married her dead husband's brother. That's how it worked.”
“But it ain't the olden days,” Aunt Mary argued.
It sure wasn't, I thought.
That spring, I went to the south of France to visit a friend. My husband called and woke me up in the middle of the night. He had bad news about Aunt Mary.
“Michelle called,” he said. “Your aunt is in the hospital. Apparently she passed out and, when she came to, called 911. She thought she'd gone into a diabetic coma, but when she got to the hospital her blood sugar was fine. They did an MRI and found a tumor on her heart.”
“How in the world do you get a tumor on your heart? I've never even heard of that.”
I called the hospital. Michelle was there. She told me what she knew — which wasn't much. The tumor was about the size of a tangerine, she said, and I couldn't help but shake my head. My mother's lung cancer had started as a grapefruit and quickly became a small melon. Were all doctors taught in medical school to describe tumors as fruit? Michelle said they didn't know if the tumor was malignant, but that it had to come out either way. Her mom was scheduled for surgery in the morning to cut it off her heart.
“Are you doing okay?” I asked. It was the first time I'd talked to Michelle since long before her husband died, and I felt awkward.
“I'm good,” she said. “Hanging in there. Uh, thanks for that money you sent.”
“Sure. Sure. Hey, Michelle. Keep me posted, okay?”
I worried that Aunt Mary's breast cancer had come back. That it had metastasized on her heart. That she was going to die.
The next day, Aunt Mary had open heart surgery and the tumor turned out to be benign. Michelle told me her mom was doing well. No complications. A few days later, Michelle said her mom would be leaving the hospital in less than a week. I couldn't believe it.
“The doctors are amazed at how well she's doing. They cracked open the woman's chest and she's already up and walking the halls.” Michelle sounded informed and responsible, not at all the picture I had in my mind from listening to Aunt Mary's stories about her. “Her foot's still bothering her, but that's nothing new. She's going home and she'll have a nurse drop by everyday for awhile. She said to tell you she feels great.”
After Aunt Mary left the hospital, I called to tell her I'd made arrangements to stop and see her on my way back to the states.
“Oh, don't come now,” she said. “This damned old nurse comes twice a day and pokes and prods and changes my dressings. I'm too tired.”
“I'll just drop by,” I said.
“From France?! You can't just drop by from France. Come later when I'm ready for a visit. I'm too damned tired for company.” She paused. “But get me something, will you?”
“What's that?” I asked, relieved to hear her sounding like her old self.
“A key chain. I'm collecting key chains and so far all I've got are Missouri, Kansas, and Illinois. They got key chains there in France?”
When I called my husband to say I was coming straight home, that I did not need to stop in Missouri first, he sounded both puzzled and logical. “Your aunt is a sixty year old diabetic who just had open heart surgery. She can't be doing that well. You should stop and see her.”
I told him she wasn't up to company, but that she had asked me to bring her a key chain and stick it in the mail. “She says she's collecting them now.”
“What does a woman who never leaves her apartment need with key chains?” he asked.
I followed Aunt Mary's orders and bypassed Missouri. Over the next several months, my impending visit to Aunt Mary, whose health continued to improve, went on the back burner. I told her I would get out to see her soon. I promised.
“Don't you worry about me. I feel better than I ever have. If you travel somewhere, just get me a key chain,” she reminded me. “I don't know how you get on all those airplanes. I'd be scared to half to death. Those things crash!”
One night, Aunt Mary was on a typical tirade about Michelle who — along with her three sons — had moved in with Eddie's brother, Tom. “He'll figure her out,” she said. “Michelle likes money. And Tom's got money.”
“I thought you said she always had a thing for Tom.”
“That girl doesn't know what she wants. But Tom's a good guy, just like Eddie. Michelle will probably shit all over him.”
I laughed and said, “Aunt Mary, you're awful!” Which made her laugh, too.
That August, on my birthday, amidst the usual stack of bills and magazines in my mailbox, I found a bright red envelope so large it had required additional postage. Without seeing the return address, I knew it was from Aunt Mary. I tore it open. The preprinted script on the card read: Hqppy Birthday to a Special Niece. I hope your birthday is just as special as you are!
On the inside flap, in her flowing script, Aunt Mary wrote:
Happy Birthday! Have you gone on any trips lately? I got the last key chain you sent. It was so pretty. I've got 17 of them now. My eyes are getting worse from the diabetes. Had to get new glasses. They make me look old. It's been hot here this week. Call when you can!
When I called to thank her for the card, she said she felt like she was twenty-five again. “I always thought I felt bad because of the diabetes. And the whole time, I think it was that tumor growing on my heart.” She said her right foot was still swollen, but that she'd lost thirty pounds. She ate less and had started exercising.
“What kind of exercises can you do?” I asked.
“I have a few little weights that Michelle brought over. I use them for my arms. And I do a thousand sit ups a day. I was actually up to two thousand, but my doctor told me to cut it down.”
“You do a thousand sit ups a day?” I tried to picture this in my mind. Aunt Mary — Snow White — on the living room floor, doing her sit ups.
“Not all at one time,” she said. “It takes me all day, but what else do I have to do?”
She still received Meals-On-Wheels, but had become healthy enough to take the town's disability transit to the grocery store and the local Wal-Mart. She had even cut down her time in front of the television and no longer taped her soaps. “I lay down on my bed in the afternoons and listen to the radio. It relaxes me.”
“What do you listen to?” I asked, making conversation.
“I like the eighties. 107.1 plays all eighties music and the DJ loves me. When I hear myself on the radio, I write down the time on my calendar. I'm on there all the time! Everyday!”
“What do you mean, you're on there?”
“They've got my voice on their promos. They love my voice. I say: 107.1, this station is hot! and I loved that song! Stuff like that.”
I had always wondered who called into radio stations. Now I knew.
On March tenth, I called Aunt Mary to wish her a happy birthday. She answered the phone singing Happy Birthday to herself and, when I asked how she was feeling, she almost yelled, “Great!”
I took the bait. “Okay. Why so great?”
“I'm having sex,” she announced.
“I'm having sex, and I'm in love!”
“Well you know Jim,” she said. “The Jim I always talk about.”
“Jim — the Meals-On-Wheels delivery guy — Jim?”
“Yes, Jim.” She giggled. “He's in love with me. He bought me a Remington shower head for my birthday. He's so sweet.”
“Wait a minute. You're dating Jim the delivery guy?”
“We're not dating. We can't go out,” she said. “He's married. When he drops off my lunch, he sometimes stays for the afternoon. And we have sex! I haven't had sex in twenty years!”
She told me all about Jim. I listened. Jim was seventy-five but didn't look a day over sixty, she said. And he told the best stories. She could just lay there in bed all day long and listen to him talk. I couldn't help but picture Aunt Mary and “Jim” in the Elvis bedroom, tangled under the red satin bedspread, drinking a diet coke.
“How are you feeling about the mastectomy scar?” I asked. This question flew out of my mouth without forethought, in the not-knowing-what-to-say.
“Oh, I don't take my bra off!” she said. “But Michelle, she's mad at me, don't you know. Says I shouldn't be seeing a married man and all that. But I figure he's over there lonely and I'm sitting here lonely. And what's the point of that? We may as well be lonely together.”
“I'm happy for you, Aunt Mary,” I said, happy that, with all of her ailments, she had found a way to connect with the outside world. She sounded free.
“So when are you coming to visit?” she asked.
“Why don't you come out to see me?” I said. “Come to San Francisco. I'll buy the airline ticket and fly you out.”
“Oh I don't think so,” she said with a giggle. “You'll never get me on one of those damned airplanes. They crash!”
“So you've said. But you could see the ocean.”
“I've seen the ocean.”
“TV doesn't count,” I argued. “You could see where I live, see California.”
“I hate California,” she said. “California is fantasy land.”
“You've never even been to California.”
“I still hate it!”
I told her I would talk to her in a few weeks. And I hung up.