My aunt Marla was not easy to like, but she was maybe the funnest person to watch in Wassavale County. There is something about people who have no filter that makes their every interaction a grenade with a loose pin. You know this could go south quick, but you can’t look away.
Through knowing her, I learned the difference between nice and polite. Some people always say what the social contract assigns them, but they’re filled with poison inside. Marla didn’t really hate anyone, I discovered eventually, but she couldn’t help seeing folks exactly as they were. And saying things from that same place of truth.
There was a lot that was unstable about my childhood, but the one thing I could count on was that when things got dicy at home, my aunt would swing by in her shiny blue Mustang and drive me away from everything hateful. One Memorial Day weekend when I was nine, an argument between my folks sent my Mom into a tizzy and she wound up going to stay with her folks for most of the day. She was going to leave us, she said, a threat she employed so often that my older sister, Hillary, never acted frightened of it anymore.
Aunt Marla came as soon as my father called her, though doubtless she had her own holiday plans. Dad always said moss didn’t grow on Marla. Despite the opening day throng, she took us to the town pool – a treat for county kids – and pissed off an old friend of hers within the first half hour.
My sister had abandoned us the moment we arrived, being at that stage in her teens when it was considered uncool to have relatives either older or younger than oneself. Having made an immediate beeline for the long line at the food hut, I was happily eating a wafer thin cheeseburger twenty minutes later when a smiling woman in a wide-brimmed hat approached us.
Marla was rubbing on cocoanut oil. There were signs on the fence around the pool asking people not to use too much lotion; this was her second replenishment. I thought it made her smell like a parfait from Tastee-Freez and it made me hungry all over again.
Marla glanced at the woman over her shoulder without smiling.
“Oh. Hi, Crystal.”
“I miss seeing you at church.”
“I haven’t gone in ten years.”
Crystal squinted out across the glittering pool water, then perched on the edge of Marla’s lounger. She bit her lip, her eyes cutting to me.
“Is this your nephew? You’ve grown, sugarbooger.”
I smiled nervously, aware that I had a smear of ketchup on my chin. As I dug around in Marla’s bag for a napkin, she arranged herself to bask in the sun. She turned to the woman in the big hat. My aunt’s power to unnerve was heightened by her perpetual accessory, slightly mirrored sunglasses, which hid her warm brown eyes while reflecting back at them their own growing anxiety. Staring down Marla was like looking into the thin, hardened face of a state trooper with the addition of a frazzled blond lion’s mane.
“I gotta say, Crystal, you look great.”
The other woman’s smile was short lived.
“Yeah, Crystal. When I heard what that son of a bitch did to you, I thought, ‘Well, she won’t show her face for a year.’ I mean, it was embarrassing to even hear about it.”
Crystal stood quickly.
“Me and Bobby are working things out now.”
Marla snorted. “Well, good luck.”
Crystal opened her mouth to say something, thought better of it, and walked away with studied ease. Marla nodded meditatively at the departing figure.
“Those beauty pageant types – the really good ones – never lose their poise. It’s classy. She’s real classy.”
Opening the wrapper on a Zero bar, I tilted my head to study Crystal’s posture.
“I thought you didn’t like her.”
“Why’d you think that?”
I almost said the first thing to come to my mind, but I decided on another answer. “Well, I thought maybe you didn’t like her asking about you going to church. Mom hates it when people ask her when she’s coming back.”
Marla laughed shortly. “I don’t give a shit about that stuff. Crystal’s okay.”
I found out from my mom that night that Crystal’s Bobby had cheated on her, embezzling money from the auto dealership where he worked to pay for a secret love nest with another woman. The dealership was owned by Crystal’s dad, so the betrayal ran all the way through the family.
I dried the dishes and watched Mom burn through a menthol.
“Your aunt’s gonna get killed one day,” she said. “But I’d have loved to see the look on that bitch’s face when Marla brought up the thing with Bobby.”
“That’s not nice, though, is it, Mom?”
This was from my older sister, who was standing on a step ladder, putting away a casserole dish with green daisies on the sides. Hillary blinked down at us through her thick, peach-toned eyeglasses.
Mom shrugged. “She was stuck up in high school.”
It wasn’t much of a defense, but we knew that no matter how much Mom may have disliked someone, she’d never say anything to their face that would cause them a moment’s discomfort. She wasn’t like her sister-in-law at all. Neither was our Dad, who’d suffer almost anything rather than cause someone else the smallest qualm of self-doubt.
Aunt Marla had a theory that his personality was what kept my folks together.
“If your Dad wasn’t a weakling, your Mom would have been out on her ass years ago.”
She told us this many times throughout my childhood in one way or another. The last time Marla said this was when she was driving Hillary to a fitting for her wedding dress. I was along for part of the way; they were going to drop me off at a friend’s house in town.
There had been a kerfuffle at the house that morning that left Mom refusing to go with my sister to the dress shop. The fitting appointment was a day after Mom’s birthday, but because her birthday fell on a Friday that year, she had lobbied to move the celebration to Saturday instead, which didn’t necessarily require the fitting to be cancelled, although Mom thought it should have been. She was sure that the dressmaker would take too long and they’d be rushed to get ready for dinner. Looking back on it, there was no reasonable outcome that would have required anyone to change their plans. Still, by the end of the Saturday morning argument, Mom stormed into her bedroom, shrieking, “Happy fucking birthday to me.” Slam.
As always, Marla was available at the drop of a hat when I called her to pick us up. Dad explained before we left the house that he offered to take my sister, but that Hillary refused.
“Of course she did,” Marla said. “You’d be a wreck at a fitting. Up and down, trying too hard not to act bored. But you’ve never had a poker face, Sonny. Besides, you gotta stand watch over crazy in case she tries to cut her wrists again.”
Dad glanced through the car window at us, his lips drawn thin. Hillary was staring out through the windshield, her green eyes as cool and latently ferocious as the twin jade dragons at the Chinese restaurant in town. He tilted away to look at our low slung rancher, dully lit by the overcast day. “She’ll be alright, I think.”
Marla shrugged. “When she pulls that stick out her ass, I hope it leaves a splinter she can’t reach with tweezers.”
“You’re a real peach,” Dad said.
I looked up quickly to see if he was being sarcastic – something I thought was literally impossible for him – but he was giving his sister a genuine smile.
“I mean it,” he said. “You’re more of a mother-”
“Don’t,” Marla said.
She patted his hand quickly, then hit the window toggle to shut him out. As she pulled away, she said for herself only, “It’s too stuffy outside to shoot the shit with him when I got the A/C running.”
We were halfway down the drive when she made her famous claim again, “If he had even squirrel balls, he’d have thrown her into the bin back in the beginning.”
My sister and I were silent. It seemed each time it came up that one or the other of us would finally snap and say something to defend our mom. Yet despite the hurt Marla’s words caused, I think we each felt there was enough truth that anything we said would have been hollow loyalism.
At the end of the drive, Marla said, “Chipmunk balls even.”
We didn’t know it that day, but Dad was working on an exit strategy. He was just waiting until my sister’s wedding was over. While she and her husband were in the Poconos, he served Mom with divorce papers and moved into an apartment in town. It wasn’t far from the pool and I would still have been going to the same high school in the fall, but I stayed with Mom. Marla’s jibs about my mother’s attempted suicides weren’t cut from whole cloth, and since the age of seven, I had lived with an underlying terror that I’d be the one to find her dead.
Dad understood all too well. And while I think he would have liked the company, he was probably relieved to know someone was taking up the watch in his absence. The weird thing was that the divorce went really smoothly. Mom even had moments when she was calm and insightful.
“He did the right thing,” she said one day in the fall. We were bringing in firewood together. There was a lot one could say about Mom, but she never shied from work. She was carrying in twice as much as me.
“You’re not mad?”
But as the days of winter grew shorter and colder, the all too familiar flatness settled on her. I knew the signs like the words of a song you hate, but can’t escape on the radio. She started taking less showers, forgetting to eat, and sleeping later into the morning. Each day when I left for school, my stomach was in knots, worrying about what I’d find when I got home. By New Years, I wasn’t sleeping a whole night through.
I called Aunt Marla out of desperation one Sunday morning when Mom refused to get out of bed. She didn’t fail me, as she never had, and within a half hour, I heard the wheels of the Mustang crunching through the gravel.
Marla looked a little worn to me that day as she paused out on the breezeway. Her tan was still fixed in place, thanks to a subscription she cherished deeply at a salon over in Bunkport, but her face looked leaner than ever. For the first time, I saw that, like the rest of us, she was getting older, too.
The first thing she did when she entered mom’s bedroom was to pull the bedspread off the bed and yank the pillow out from under her head. It was like a magician’s trick, seeing the cloth whip away in one clean arc, leaving in place one limpid woman – forty, fat, curled in a ball.
Mom grunted. “What are you doing, Marla.”
“Stripping the bed. These sheets are fowl.”
“Leave me alone.”
“You think Corey needs your pity party? Get the fuck up. We’re washing your sheets and we’re washing your hair. You smell like a whore with busted plumbing.”
That made my mom laugh out loud, rolling on her back and pushing out her laughter at the ceiling. I couldn’t find the humor, but I smiled at Marla.
“Get up,” she said.
Over breakfast, Marla told my mom what she was going to do with the rest of her life. Or she told her what the next few weeks of it were going to look like. “You’re going to start seeing a therapist. I know a woman. She’s good. I’ll get you in quick.”
“So I’m not allowed to be depressed after my husband leaves me and my daughter runs off.”
“Your daughter didn’t run off. She left with her husband after a wedding that was two years in the planning. You’re an asshole if you feel abandoned by her. Hillary was old enough to start her own life.”
Mom glanced moodily out the window. The wintery yard was as homely a silver yellow as a boiler onion. She was going inside of herself again.
Marla gestured to me and I covered my belly with my hands, a thing I did whenever anyone looked my way.
“This one can’t start his own life yet, so you owe it to him to pull yourself together.”
Before she left, she made Mom agree to see a therapist. I watched my aunt drive down the driveway and wished desperately she’d turn the car around, tell me to hop in. I would have loved to have gone to live with her, to sleep on her sofa, to keep my clothes in a bundle hidden behind the TV. I would never leave a dish unwashed, I’d close the fridge without a sound. I would have made myself as quiet as a mouse, as small as a beetle, if it meant I could tuck away into her life instead of that one. As I turned back to the house, I saw Mom through the kitchen window, pouring herself a glass of juice.
Maybe Marla’s advice would take hold. She could get some help, pull out of this. Winter would be over before we knew it. Marla was blunt and sharp, she held your feet to the fire. But you never felt guilty when she told you how things were. You simply knew she was illuminating the truth. Do with it what you would.
In that way, she was the sunlight when I was small.