“A Better Place” by Gene Albamonte

I believed in the necessity of white lies; my Aunt Maggie believed in constant truth. I believed in perception; my aunt, reality. I believed the present could be just as pleasant as the memory of the past if you had the right materialistic distractions. My aunt thought materialistic distractions unnecessary.

She turned sixty-three today, my Aunt Maggie, and did I want to call her? No. But if I failed to call – a mistake I had made in the past – there would be a bout of passive-aggressiveness during which she would refuse to talk to me, something that was both bitterly guilt inducing and sweetly desirable. I certainly had no desire to talk to her here, at work. I was recently promoted and busy, and I had high hopes of making my first impression as an account executive at the ad agency a good one. Those hopes, as always, were held at bay, just a little, by a fluttering fear of failure. Also by the fear of God, which was instilled in me by my aunt with her austere motto of, Aspiration is a muse derived from the devil. My aunt – by whom I was raised, having lost my mother and father early on – was not only brought up in the Bible Belt, but whipped with it by her own parents when she was younger.

In the end, guilt won. I called her from my cubicle and wished her a happy birthday.

“Thank you, hon.  I’m reading,” she told me.

I pictured my aunt – a large woman with short, wooly hair – dropping her body into the puffy leather armchair, a book clenched tightly in her hands.  I could not, however, picture her reading the actual content of the book.  Whenever I visited her, the only things I saw her read were the captions in People magazine and the bible.  Unlike my parents, who had been readers to the very end.  I would, of course, never have known that if my aunt hadn’t told me. My parents died when I was four. My aunt had been thirty-five, eleven years older than my mother. “Your grandparents thought they were done with kids after me,” my aunt had told me one day when I was a kid, “but then came your mother. Your mom always was one for surprises.” She had told me that in a light spirit, but the thought of my never knowing exactly how my mother was one for surprises had sucked the air out of the room. Aunt Maggie, however, was oblivious to how her words had affected me.  “For breakfast, I’m thinking eggs,” had been the next sentence out of her mouth.

Now, over the phone, we talked for only a few minutes before I was ready to hang up. My aunt had a number of annoying habits, one of which was a tendency to smack her lips between sentences, as if her words clung to her mouth like peanut-butter, a habit even more annoying on the phone. Every time we approached the end of a conversation, she struck up a new one. The string of conversations could add up to the length of an hour, especially since my uncle’s death three years ago. She was lonely.  She traipsed around the house in her muumuus and square eyeglasses and felt slippers. She didn’t pick up her feet to walk, but rather slid them across the linoleum and hardwood like a zombie, the television remote control always in her grasp as if her arm ended in a black, button-laden, plastic nub. At night, only dots of nightlights illuminated the rooms like fireflies on the walls, and I would watch her slide out of the kitchen, pass the nook, and glide into the living room, where she succumbed to gravity and plummeted to the couch like a meteor to earth. She had no friends, no other family (or at least none that kept in touch with her). There was only me.

“Can we talk more over dinner, Aunt Mag?” I now asked.

“Cordova, Jim.  You know I love that restaurant.”

“It’s two hours away, Aunt Mag.  Can we do it another time?”

“This weekend sounds fine,” she told me.

“Fine,” I told her, although it was not fine, as I had planned on preparing a new business pitch for a failing tire company whose current tagline was the over-promising “We’ll get you there.” Within the past two years, they’d had two recalls due to “slight imperfections” in their “unparalleled tires.”

But I would make time. I felt I had no choice. We said our good-byes and hung up.

“Looks like you’ve got your work cut out for you,” said Scott Greely, the man on the other side of my cubicle. He was a stocky, bombastic man who always dressed for the golf course and whose brows looked furrowed even when he smiled. I could not of course see him from my own desk, but could picture him staring at his papers as he white-knuckled the phone and as he furrowed and as he talked in his belligerent, bass voice.

“She’s lonely,” I said, thinking he meant my conversation with my aunt.

“What?” he said. “I’m saying we need to win this tire thing. Or else,” and here he made the throaty finger-across-the-neck sound.

“No pressure,” I said.

“What my doc says right before checking my prostate.” I heard him chuckle to himself, and then he cleared his phlegmy throat and swallowed what had loosened.

“Have you had a prostate exam?” he continued.  

I wanted to tell Scott that my uncle—my Aunt Maggie’s husband—had died of prostate cancer, just to jar him a little. It would be a lie, but a worthy one. My uncle had been a swimmer all his life, even into his sixties. He had been swimming in his pool one night and was bitten by a mosquito, which infected him with encephalitis, West Nile, an infection that ultimately took his life. My uncle’s affinity for swimming was matched only by his love for jokes. He had been a happy man, his stubbly beard always stretching out with his giant smile. He had a long, sharp nose – which he occasionally made fun of, as he was never above self-deprecation – a cleft chin, and short brown hair that had turned cotton-white after sixty. As a child, I would fall into his long swimmer’s arms, giggling at whatever silly joke he offered, and I eventually assigned him as ‘my favorite’.  According to my uncle, pepperoni was horsemeat, our hair bled when the barber cut it, and sugar ants were actually made of sugar. After having been tucked in for bedtime, I would sometimes sneak into the hallway, where I would catch him and my aunt dancing in the living room to Frank Sinatra, and I always marveled at seeing my aunt that way.  She had been loving, yes, but also sterner than my uncle, and to see her doing something as vulnerable and light as dancing was a shock. My aunt took his death hard at first, but composed herself quickly, assured that she would meet him in a better place. “He’s probably backstroking above us right now,” she had told me one cloudy day.

“You might enjoy it, a prostate exam,” Scott Greeley now said, and then boomed with laughter. Later in the day, I complained about Scott to our production manager, a delightful woman my age named Jenna Tomlin, who informed me that Scott was hung like an aglet. She assured me that the only way she knew this was because a male friend of hers went to the same gym as Scott and accidentally caught a glimpse.

We continued working to the din of copiers sliding and spitting out papers, colleagues jabbering on a conference call.  The ease with which we could go from a man’s penis size to the production status of a tri-fold brochure was astounding.

I knocked a third time and my aunt still didn’t answer the door.  I knew she was home because her purple PT Cruiser sat in the driveway, a silver ichthus attached to the rear of the car. She loved her ichthus, a symbol not only of her faith, but also of her college days at university. Specifically, a symbol of her youth. She had been the bellwether of the local Fish Mission community after learning how an evangelical group at Sydney University in Australia had taken it upon themselves to reinvigorate the Christian spirit during the Viet Nam War. “I was a real crackerjack back then,” she had told me, her face lighting up. She had been spindly back then, too, weighing a mere hundred-and-ten pounds (she always pointed this out when she told this story) and carried a pocket bible wherever she went. She was determined to spread the word of God to students, faculty, administrators, whoever would listen. While anti-war activists were posting peace signs everywhere, she and her small clique roamed the campus in the middle of the night and used flour glue to silkscreen ichthus symbols on stairs and walkways. Her group grew to twenty people before it dissolved after a member was arrested in an outdoor stairwell, flour glue by his side. That member would end up becoming my uncle. My aunt picked him up at the police station.  He told her that he converted two of the officers and that he made them promise to go to church the following Sunday. They had exchanged bible interpretations over coffee throughout their college days, became best of friends and fell deeply in love.

When she didn’t answer the door on the fourth knock, I felt something was wrong. I used my key to open the door, my hand actually trembling. With the stress of my job, my senses were on high alert.

The house had a strange, familiar smell, something I couldn’t quite place. Something medicinal. All of the lights were off. The only light admitted into the house was the sunlight that slipped past the cracked-open window blinds and the verticals that shaded the sliding-glass door measled with water spots.

“Aunt Mag?” I said.

The rooms were all tidy. The slipcover was tucked tautly into the sofa, chairs were pushed in, the Christian tchotchkes sat in quiet contemplation on their bookshelves.  In the living room, the Bible rested on the side table next to my aunt’s reading chair, the ribbon bookmark sticking out of it like – and my aunt would decidedly reprimand me here – a snake’s tongue. I looked for the book my aunt had told me she was reading, but saw of it no trace. I checked the kitchen, where countertop appliances appeared freshly cleaned and placed just so. All of the maple cabinets and drawers were securely shut – unlike my own kitchen, where at least one was open – and I imagined the things within those cupboards suffocating, aching for air. Everything in the kitchen, the very immaculateness of it, seemed suffocating; even the bowl of fake fruit, which still, to this day, lured me to squeeze its fake grapes and marvel at their plasticity.

“Aunt Mag?” I called out and again received no reply. I walked back out to the living room, where she and my uncle used to sneak dances while I was asleep, and ran my hand along the back of the couch.

A door opened and my aunt came sauntering out of her bedroom at the other end of the hallway. From the room, the strange, familiar scent came pouring out, a candle-like smell, yet different. A nightgown veiled her body like a blanket over a giant birdcage. I didn’t think her hair could ever look messy, as wooly and short as it was, and yet there it stood, like coiled springs gone haywire.

She was a deep sleeper, my aunt. We said our hellos and then she slowly walked into the kitchen to get a drink, and, when she did so, I snuck into her bedroom to find the source of that smell. Citronella. She had been burning it, thinking it was a regular candle.  To her credit, it was in quite a decorative jar for something that was meant to keep mosquitoes away. But still, it reeked of craziness, a person who had been teetering at the soft, rounded edge of senility and was ready to start slipping into its obliviousness.

 

We would not win the tire company. Nobody would end up winning it. The company, after reviewing the three agency pitches, decided to keep their advertising in-house.

But I couldn’t help feeling that we would have had a chance if I had only worked harder over the weekend. My colleagues and I had met on Sunday afternoon—the day after I had taken my aunt to her birthday dinner—to tighten the screws on our pitch. But I couldn’t keep focus. My mind was on my aunt, on what she had told me. She had talked incessantly in the car, her lips smacking, and, during the first half of the trip, I had longed for it to rain so that we had an excuse to turn around. (In her old age, she didn’t like driving or even being a passenger in the rain.) She had talked about the song playing on the radio, family members, black-and-white movies. She had talked about how St. Augustine was the oldest city in the nation, although I had already known that.  Anyone who has ever been to St. Augustine knew that.  The fact was everywhere.

But, at dinner, she had talked about how, long ago, she and my uncle used to stay at the bed-and-breakfasts in St. Augustine, how they used to walk the quiet, tree-canopied streets alongside the city proper, completely in love with each other, their entire futures ahead of them. It was along those streets that they decided not to have children. They had decided to see the world by car, plane, boat, every means of transportation available. They planned on becoming missionaries. They would visit foreign countries, breathe in the culture around them and breathe out their Christian faith. My aunt had agreed to be my godmother, of course, but what were the chances? They were still young. The future was not only unfathomable, but impossible. Even if they could see into the future, they wouldn’t believe what they saw. No way would a mosquito end the life of a man who had labored through sixty-six years of life. Who could possibly believe that my parents, so very young, would both die at the same time in a car accident, that their dreams would be permanently interrupted only to interrupt the dreams of my aunt and uncle?

Two weeks had passed since our agency’s pitch to the tire company, where I had blundered numerous times. I paused uncomfortably while trying to remember my words. I had remembered to explain the strengths, weakness and opportunities of the company, but had forgotten the threats. The PowerPoint failed to switch to the next slide when I pressed the button. Perhaps the final blow was when, at the end of the pitch, the creative director informed me that my fly was down.

Jenna, the production manager, tried to comfort me by saying that it was okay, it happened. She was still trying to comfort me now.

“Where’s Aglet?” she asked me, sitting in the guest chair of my cubicle, and I told her he was on vacation.

Later, we would eventually start dating and get serious, to the point that she was staying over my apartment more often than her own apartment. I would throw on some Frank, and we’d dance in the living room, while I sang “My Way,” and she would say, Who sings this? and I would say “Sinatra,” and she’d say, “Let’s keep it that way.”

But that was later. Now, my office phone rang and, when I answered it, the woman on the other end introduced herself as Katie Brewer. She asked me if I knew the person across the street from her; my aunt, as it turned out. Then she told me how she, her husband and twin six-year-old children had just moved in across the street from my aunt. Jenna saw that the call might be a while, so she waved and left.

“I got your number from your business card,” the woman on the phone said and, before I could ask how she got my card, she informed me that my aunt had given it to her son.

“I don’t understand,” I said.

The woman named Katie took a deep breath and then explained. She had found my aunt squatting in her yard, my aunt’s hand on her little boy’s shoulder.

“I called him in for dinner. I just wanted him inside,” Katie said. “I’m sorry, I’m sure your aunt is a nice woman and all. But I asked my son what she was saying to him and he told me that she was talking about God, and how he should ‘go covert,’ although I think he meant ‘convert.’ Then she handed him your card and told him it was her own card, that she was part of something called,” and here the neighbor paused before saying, “’the fishing mission’ or something.”

I corrected the woman and apologized. I told her I would take care of everything.

“She’s getting old,” I said.

“I understand. My husband’s father is getting there, too.” In the background, children sang and clapped. They laughed in a quick, stuttered way, as if they couldn’t catch their breath. “Listen, I can recommend a place,” Katie said. “I mean, if you think you’ll need it. I’m not trying to butt into your business, I just know how it can be.”

“Thank you,” I told her. “I’ll let you know.” I apologized again and hung up. I pictured my aunt, in her muumuu and slippers, bent down, chatting to some poor kid, who probably stared at her in wonderment. I was sure the kid thought her crazy, which filled me with an intense hatred toward the child. I wanted to shake the kid until he understood what she was going through. I didn’t want to hurt him; I just wanted to scare him, make him feel what I felt at that moment. I knew I was being irrational – he was just a kid, and I surely would have felt the same way at six years old. Still, I resented the child for thinking that way about my aunt, my mother.

I ate lunch in my cubicle.  It was quiet with Scott Greeley gone, and a part of me missed him, missed his rattle of throat-clearing, his incessant sniffling. A part of me – I hadn’t known how big of a part until now – missed his thunderous voice and how it covered up the sound of my chewing.

More fiction at Used Furniture.

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