Into the Breakers

By Jonathan H Scott

To say that Lily’s Aunt Jennie could barely stand the sight of me is no exaggeration.  She literally looked away when I shook her hand introducing myself.  It was the first time I had met her in person.  On several occasions, we swapped stammering pleasantries trying to get off the phone with each other.  Even then, her voice told the truth of her contempt.  But now, standing under the top-frame of her door, I saw with my own eyes the ill-disguised snarl and heard with my own ears a poorly-muted sheesh.  In performance of both, she delivered the coup de grace by not looking at me but at Angela Bramlett while she shook my hand.  Lily patted my back.  I supposed by way of apology for her mother’s spinster sister.

Aunt Jennie ushered the three of us into what she called the TV room.  I double checked to confirm what my first survey proved—there was no TV in the TV room.  There was a cushioned rocker and a chair from the seventies upholstered by what seemed to be woven red, green, black, and yellow twine, tweed maybe, like burlap to the touch, with a foot-worn, matching ottoman.   A corpulent Maine-coon purred from the rocker, pretending to sleep but following us with one green, sinister eye.  In the center of the room on a rug that matched nothing, except for maybe the tri-colored cat, was a coffee-table supporting a mammoth King James Bible.  But no TV.

“Sit down.  I’ll make coffee,” Aunt Jennie said.

“Shoo, Mr. Pickles,” Angela said, easing down into the rocker.  She still moved slowly, with effort that was hard to watch.  The doctor advised against making the trip to Pensacola even though it was only five hours.  She said if God can’t get her safe to family on Thanksgiving then she just didn’t know what.  She was safe—tired, gray-haired all of a sudden, a little confused but safe.  For what it was worth.

Lily and I looked at the other chair.  It was a stand-off.  But not for the chair—for the floor which looked more comfortable, less likely to produce storms of dust mites when sat upon.

I surrendered with a smile and sat on the chair.  She used my knee to lower herself to the floor.  Situated Indian-style, she let her forearm drape my thigh for several strange, thrilling seconds before dropping it to the ottoman.

“How do you feel, Angela?”  I asked Lily’s mom.

“Well enough to rock, I guess.”  She was not rocking.  At best, the chair was still settling from when she first sat down.  Her eyes had the look of a bloodhound.  Glad or not, she looked sad.  All the way from Birmingham, I watched her in the rearview.  Those eyes for five hours.  Thirty-nine years old.  Too young.  She had Lily at eighteen.  The father left two trimesters into the pregnancy never to be seen again.  Like most of us, he had three names.  That prick, to Constance Lily Bramlett.  That poor, godless man, to Angela Constance Bramlett.  And that pagan, to Aunt Jennie Bramlett.  Justin Michael Latterly, that’s me, once made the mistake of calling him “your father.”  Once.

“You could let her sit in the comfortable chair,” Aunt Jennie said, more than loud enough to carry the fifteen-foot distance between us.

“I’m fine, Jennifer,” Angela said.

“Not as fine as you could be.  Is all I’m saying.”

“How’s the coffee coming, Aunt Jennie?”  Lily asked.

“Give it ten minutes to perc.  We can’t all have one of those high-dollar automatics.  Tastes better this way.”

“Patience, you know, is . . .”  Angela trailed off.  I wasn’t sure if she had forgotten what patience is, proverbial-wise, or had stopped believing it.  Either way, it was a bad sign.

A furry warmth brushed my neck.  Mr. Pickles, I presumed, until it leaned its weight into the back of my head.  That was not the nuzzle of an ordinary animal.  The weight moved to my shoulder and at last fell on my lap as an all black—obviously and unabashedly a male—cat.  I actually feared for my safety.

“Whoah, there buddy.  How it goes?”

“Sic ‘em, Mr. Bananas,” I heard from the kitchen along with a cackle.  Lily laughed.  The cat clawed.

“Aw, look, he’s making biscuits,” Lily said.

“If you say so.”  I tried to move the beast but could not get leverage.  A rapier nail found purchase in my boxers.  I winced.  After a few laps around my crotch, Mr. Bananas cozied-in and fell instantly to sleep—deep, guttural purrs reverberated through my body.  Lily lifted her arm from the ottoman to pet the cat starting at the ears and combing down the back with her fingers.  When she reached its haunches the old boy purred even louder.  Over and over, Lily stroked the cat.  Time and again, the purr peaked.

 

I took the image and thrill with me to the dubiously dubbed Stay and Lay at which I was to stay the night.  The man at the front desk eyed me suspiciously.

“Just you, right?  No, uh, no ladies?”  He wore a lemon-yellow, button-down shirt.  According to an upside-down pin on his chest, his name was Gilbert.  “No, uh, no gentlemans—just you, right?”

“Just me,” I said, holding up my hands as if to say search me.

“You, uh, don’t smoke?”

I did not.  Nor did I party.  Nor need the internet.  Nor expect breakfast.  But yes, I did

have cash because the credit card machine, well, she don’t work all the time.

I carried my small duffel to number 7 (out of a possible thirteen), struggled with the lock, and barged in on a naked man lying in my bed.  He was covered with gray hair—beard and mane and chest and pubis.  I thought of Whitman, a poet I actually like.  Hirsute and snoring, the man rolled onto to his stomach.  The gray hair continued.

Not sure what else to do, I backed out of the room.  The door bounced loudly off the U-shaped, rusty-hinged lock when I tried to close it.  The old man stirred and sat up, rubbing sleep from his eyes.

“The hell?”

“Sorry, man.  I thought this was my room.”  I showed him my key as if, under the circumstances, that proved anything.

“Oh, probably so.  At least it’s not mine, that is.  Just let me get my things.”  By which he meant a sweat-stained T-shirt, a pair of grey pants, and two of the motel’s pillows.  “Hey, buddy, you smoke?”

“Sorry, man.  Not me.”

“That’s good . . . for you, that is, not me because I could sure go for one,” he said.

“I bet.”

“Yeah . . . wait,  what’d you say?”  He came close and got in my face.  His posse of smells accosted me in one fell rush.  “Say it again, buddy.  Say it to my face.”

When I was seven, on vacation to Gatlinburg, hiking in the Great Smokeys with my sister, disobediently unchaperoned,  I stuck my head into a dark, small cave and got myself nose to nose with a wide-eyed black bear.  Other than then, I had never been so afraid, so near to wetting myself, as I was there, trembling, completely clueless about my offending remark.

“I bet.  I said I bet you could use a smoke.  I don’t even know what I meant.  Look, sorry, man.”

He laughed.  Guffawed, actually.  “Yeah, you bet I sure could.  Thought you called me something not so nice.”  I tried to figure what it was that sounded like what I said.  Nothing came to mind.  “I scare people, I guess.”

“Hey listen,” I said, stopping him short of leaving.  “Why don’t you just stay?  Finish the night.  The room’s paid for.  Take a shower or whatever you want.”  I hoped he wouldn’t take offense at the shower suggestion.  It just came out.

“Nah, buddy, ya busted me fair and square.  Gotta move on, rules of the road.”  He handed me one of the pillows, slapped my shoulder, and stepped outside.  “Get some sleep.  You got a long day tomorrow.”

It was an hour later before his last remark struck me as odd.  What did he know about my day, its length or otherwise?  If anything, his would be the longer.  Very strange.  And very strange that that’s what I settled on as the very strange part of the whole ordeal.

My plans to lustfully revisit the image and the thrill of Lily petting the cat on my lap were forgotten in the weirdness of the day.  It would, in fact, be a long day tomorrow.  Thanksgiving with the Bramlett girls—each with her own crisis to ply.  I brushed my teeth, locked the door behind me, and went to sleep in the car.

 

Oh, resurrected Whitman, you prescient, hoar-frosted man.

The day began with a call from Lily.  The buzz of my phone on top of the dashboard startled me awake.  I banged my head against the rearview—instantly sobered and reminded of my unusual bed.  The mirror snapped from its mount, hit the dashboard, slid toward the windshield, and bumped my phone into the defrost vents.  Sandwiched by plastic and glass, the buzz became a rattle.

“You bastard,” I said.  The wet, salty chill of the morning made me shiver.  When I reached for the phone, a sharp pain radiated from my neck and down my back.  The phone stopped buzzing.  I contorted my wrist and carefully tweezed the phone between my index and middle fingers.  Safely in my hand, it buzzed again.  A voice message from Lily.  It was six-thirty-two—a November sun already above the horizon.

“Hope I didn’t wake you up.  When you do get up, well, I suppose you are if you are listening to this, so now then . . . Aunt Jennie needs you to stop by the grocery and get some bubbly grape juice, I think she means non-alcoholic sparkling wine, anyway, and some cat food and some litter . . . cat litter.  Nothing dry or with liver.  Food-wise.  She didn’t say what kind of . . . [aside] what kind of litter?  . . . Cat litter! . . . I’m on the phone with Justin . . . leaving a message . . . [to me] goddamn it, she can’t hear me . . . [aside] sorry, it slipped out . . . [to me] talk about selective hearing . . . just bring whatever kind . . . anyway, so yeah, so bye!”  Six-thirty-four.

I returned the room key to the front desk.  Gilbert came from the back, rubbing his eyes and stretching.

“Early off, eh?”  He asked.  “The, uh, party end early, huh?”

“No party.  Just sleep.”

“That’s good then.  So you, uh, you sleep good then?”

“Sure.”  Does the truth ever apply in a situation like this?  For a forty dollar motel room?  Call it ten for the tooth-brushing and thirty for the bizarre encounter with the pungent old man—all square.

“That’s, uh, forty dollars.”

“OK . . . wait, what?  I paid in cash last night, remember?”  He scrutinized my face for trickery, stroking a beard he did not have and raising his eyebrows alternately.  At last, he shrugged and went back into the other room without another word.  The big clock on the wall read six-twenty.  For one confused moment, I was sure that time had about-faced, that my car possessed some Narnian aspect.  I checked my cell-phone: six-forty-one.  Irrationally, I felt relieved.

I remembered seeing a twenty-four hour grocery store on the way from Aunt Jennie’s house.  What I did not remember was the way back to Aunt Jennie’s house.  At most, there were two turns, but which and where was the question.  I drove for thirty minutes before I recognized anything—the Stay and Lay.  There was Number 7 with the cleaning cart parked in front.  There was the proprietor looking suspiciously at me through the lobby window.

I called Lily.  I had everything right but one turn—the one that lead to the store and, a mile farther, Aunt Jennie’s.  Despite a large (and lit) sign on the store’s marquee, a handwritten placard indicated that they would be opening at eight for the foreseeable future.  I waited for thirty minutes.  At exactly eight o’clock, the lights inside came to life and a figure materialized, unlocking the door.  Within moments, three other cars parked and three old ladies jockeyed toward the store.  From the looks of things, it was probably a daily or weekly race between the women.  They seemed to know each other, offering good-mornings but never breaking stride.  The most actually blue-haired of the trio won the day, in lieu of laurels she received the pick of the carts.  The others, both good sports, waited patiently as the victor gave several carts test turns before settling on one.

I opted for a red hand basket and scanned the aisles.  The layout confused me.  The store was small compared to the one back home. The shelving lacked rhyme or reason.

On an aisle with bread and canned vegetables, I found the cat food.  Nothing dry or with, what?  I dialed my voicemail and replayed Lily’s message.  Or liver.  Easily done as said.  Cat litter was on a different aisle with paper towels and tissue paper which made as much sense as anything.  I hoisted the cheapest bag from the bottom shelf.  The sparkling grape juice was a no-go.  I wove the aisles from the deli on one side to the dairy on the other and back again.  No wine of any kind.  In my gut, I knew it was going to be an issue. The oddity of the order could only imply its desirability. There was nothing for it. At the only open register, I stood behind the victorious old lady as she hunted coins at the bottom of her purse.  A bunch of five bananas and a bright red slab of meat completed, apparently, her list for the day.  In moments, the other two carts would probably wobble into the line empty of all but greener bananas and browner meats.

 

Eight-thirty-four.  Eight-thirty-five.  Eight-thirty-six.  I listened to Johnny Cash, staring at Aunt Jennie’s house, qualifying the familiarity of where I was compared with the foreignness of where I was going.  The house itself was green neighbored closely by a yellow one and a blue one.  Aunt Jennie’s had a sloping front porch three feet off the ground with no steps.  A side entrance offered steps but had a boarded door.  In all, the house was remarkably small, barely twice the size of Lily’s apartment.  The big difference, though, was a good-sized back yard.  Inside the buckling chain-link fence grew three trees and twenty feet of haywire rose bushes.  There was a bird-bath—toppled, a gold-fish pond—drained, and a tool-shed—lopsided.

My phone buzzed.  Lily wanted to know where on earth I was.  I told her.  Within seconds, she was at the front door with hands on her hips.  Adorable and intimidating.  I twisted the ignition, got out reluctantly, and muttered curses.  The gulf air had lost most of its chill.  The day was bright, marbled with striated clouds.  I breathed deep,  held the breath for a three count, and entered bearing short supplies.

The missing juice was noticed immediately and with hyperbole.

“Should have known.  Didn’t I say, Angela, didn’t I say the boy would come back with the wrong stuff.  And look.  Look I was wrong.  He didn’t come back with the wrong stuff, he came with no stuff whatsoever, Angela.  I knew it and I told you.”

“He didn’t even look,” Aunt Jennie said.

“Of course he looked,” said Lily, “why wouldn’t he look?  He was already there.”

“Angela, look at this litter.”  Aunt Jennie showcased the bag like a sardonic Carol Merril.  I glared at Lily. She glared back.  With daggers deflected, we grinned at each other.  In the chaos of crazy Aunt Jennie, the hurt of Lily’s betrayal dulled.  Was she the slut, the whore of my outbursts?  The woman with the incomparable gall to step out on love and into the arms of a work-shirking bar-singer—was this the same Lily?  It was.  There are the loose curls of dark-blond hair, the deep-green irises, and the puffed, grinning lips seared with god-knows-what strange kisses.  If so, if this is that Lily, then where is my hatred?  My seething anger?  When was the reconciliation and what was the recompense?  Never and nothing.  But when she accidentally calls me baby or incidentally rests her arm on my legs, the hurt dulls—doesn’t disappear but grows distant like a yo-yo, like a twirled dance partner, like something destined to return, fully wound and pressed against your chest.

“Jennifer, litter’s litter isn’t it?”

“Angela, litter most certainly is not litter.”  The illogic of the statement did not faze her.  “Aunt Jennie, will it do?  Because if not we can go back to the store and exchange it,” Lily said, sounding less willing to help than eager to blow the joint.  It occurred to me that she had put up with her aunt all the night before and all morning.  I truly felt sorry for her.  We were there to keep up appearances and the circumstances were making it easy for us to appear united.  I also felt sorry, more so even, for Lily’s mom. The rocker motionless beneath her small frame, her fatigue in clear script across her sallow face, the brand new streaks of gray hair.

I turned Lily’s wrist to check her watch.  Expecting something past nine, I got the slogging dregs of eight.

“Maybe for those nasty boys it’ll do, but not Miss Niffers,” Aunt Jennie said.

“Miss Niffers?” I asked.  On cue, a three-legged, tailless tabby limped into the room from the back of the house.  She gave us each dismissive nods, her owner included.  She went to the kitchen and sat in front of an empty food dish.  After a few seconds, several too many for the cat’s liking, she loosed a demoniac wail that seemed to emanate from nowhere but rather inundate from all four walls.  My neck hairs rose.  “Holy shit,” I said before I knew it.

In the process of twisting an opener around a can of cat-food, Aunt Jennie stood to full height and cocked her head.  “Young man, I will thank you to wipe your pagan tongue on the doormat next time you enter my house.”

I apologized.  Angela, though fond of me, concurred with her sister.

“And by the way,” Aunt Jennie continued, forking out tuna-ish clumps, “seems like your profanity has infected my Little Lily.  The Lord’s name in vain this morning.  Did you hear it, Angela?  You were sitting right there, did you hear it?”

Lily was giggling into the sleeve of her flannel shirt.  My flannel shirt, actually.

 

We drove to the beach.  Lily took off her shoes and rolled her jeans, knotting the cuffs mid-calf.  She hurried in front of me and pranced side to side, gazelle-like, parting the tall grasses, and crested a dune.  Her head disappeared from view.  I heard moaning then laughter.  She popped up like a jack-in-the-box and said she was all right.  When I reached her, I saw the ruts where she had slid, heels dug in, and the small crater where she had fallen to her butt.  She brushed her jeans.  I helped brush her back.  We walked together toward the water.

On the ride over, she had already apologized for her aunt and thanked me again for coming in the first place.  I had already told her about the two old men—the one at the motel front-desk and the one sleeping like a Goldilocks but gray-haired on the bed in room 7.  Oddly, she was more appalled by the clerk than the vagrant.  All caught up on each other’s separate hours, there was nothing to talk about as we ankled through the numbing surf.

The clouds stretched like salt-water taffy across the gull-bombarded sky.  Occasionally, translucent crabs darted between our legs and we danced jigs to avoid stepping on them.  The blur of something in the distance slowly resolved into a jogger coming our way, into a male jogger coming our way, into a male jogger in a hooded sweatshirt with a school logo on it.  I marveled at how long it took—from first sight to the whoosh of him passing.  The pink and blue hotels on our left stood like buttresses against the reality of schools and jobs and rent and crazy families.

There is something to be said for leaving a footprint in the undertow.  If I was a poet, I could have said it; I could have remarked on the sensation of sinking, how the moment of vertigo yields to a moment of growth—of being taller for just a while, of being above equilibrium, beyond the need for gravity, of floating on air—and how that footprint, so deeply dug, collapses, erodes, and, for all of it momentousness, becomes the symbol of evanescence.  I wanted to say something along those lines, but I couldn’t.  I settled for:

“It feels weird, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, like you’re sinking,” Lily said.

“Exactly.”

“And then it’s like you’re flying.”

“Yeah, and then . . .”

“You do it all over again.  Sink, fly, sink, fly.”

“Exactly.”

We agreed to stop at the pier in front of us and turn around.  The pier, like the jogger, was a long time coming.  At any time, we could have stopped and turned back, but it was like we were bound to the pier, like we were being reeled into the bait-gut hands of some fisher equally bound to bring home Thanksgiving flounder.  When we reached the pier, I twisted Lily’s wrist.  Eleven-twenty-five.

“It is what it is,” I said.

A speechless moment passed.

“I guess so.  I feel strange.  I mean, I feel so bad one minute and then angry at you the next.  I don’t know why.  It’s my fault.  It’s all my fault.”  I tried to stop her but she was on a roll.  “And I don’t want what I got.  I mean Rick.  I don’t want him.  Never did.  I wanted you but the you that I wanted.  I don’t know.  And I’m sorry, a million times sorry.  But no, I’m not.”

“That’s not what I meant.”  She didn’t seem to hear me.  She was looking at her feet, dragging her toes in the wet sand.

“I’m not sorry, Justin.  Sorry that I hurt you, yes.  If you only knew how I cry.  Almost every night, lying there in bed, you on the couch.  I cry for the hurt, for the everything, but not for the thing itself.  And maybe I should but I don’t.  Because it wasn’t real.  It was a mistake.  A falseness, not a lie. I should shut up.  It is what it is.”

Once in a while Lily drifted deeper into the breakers.  The thighs of her jeans were dark with water.   A stronger wave would push her back beside me and for a while our arms brushed against each other’s.  My flannel shirt against my other flannel shirt—the notion made me unspeakably sad.  The jogger whooshed by on his way back to wherever.  We found the car and trudged through the dry sand that was beginning to whip and swirl in a gathering wind.  Bloated clouds over the gulf threatened a cold storm.

We went to a bigger store, found some sparkling juice and the right brand of litter to suit Miss Niffers’ delicate sensibilities, and drove back to Aunt Jennie’s in silence.  No music, no nothing.  I never told Lily what I meant—that the time was the same as the date.  Back at the pier, when I checked her watch.  Eleven-twenty-five—hour and minutes, month and day.  It was what it was.  I let it be.

 

Aunt Jennie scanned the new groceries with a disapproving look of approval.  She snipped the litter bag with scissors. Shaking the bag to arouse the bouquet, she sniffed the contents like a connoisseur.  The laundry room was partitioned from the kitchen by a slatted, folding door.  All three cats (I know because I watched expecting more to pour from the woodwork) followed her into the laundry room.  Pied-Piper of Pensacola.  As soon as Aunt Jennie reappeared, the scratching commenced and continued unabated for several minutes.  Since my mind had latched onto the sound, it was hard to concentrate on anything else.  The three ladies were talking about dinner—when and what and for that matter how—but I was mesmerized by the scratching.  Like a branch against a window or a slightly wobbling ceiling fan except scatological in nature and therefore disgusting.

Angela was up and about the room looking better than she had before Lily and I went to the beach.  That fact alone lifted the spirit of our party.  Breathing was noticeably easier.  It was as if the weather outside relied on Angela’s weakness to stay sunny and clear; but when she recovered some strength, it was as if she was siphoning it from the cheer of the day.  Because outside, the clouds piled high—dark and electric.  The wind blew havoc on the tattered roof.  The house itself whimpered.

“It’ll blow but it won’t rain. You watch,” Aunt Jennie said.

Mr. Pickles, the tri-colored Maine-coon, leaped to a window sill and shimmied beneath the venetian blinds.  Inspired, Mr. Bananas, the black, cougarish cat,  joined him.  Miss Niffers paced beneath them, mewling, desperate, you could tell, to see what was what.  After some consideration in which she hunkered on her back legs, muscles twitching, gathering momentum, she burst into the air, gained the sill for two flailing seconds, and fell back to the floor.  Her dignity compromised, the tabby licked her one front paw matter-of-factly as if nothing had happened.  Aunt Jennie clomped over.  She yanked the cord and the blinds shot to the top of the window.  With one swoop of her forearm, she shooed the bullying males to the floor and placed the luckless tabby in their place.

“You nasty boys,” she said.

Lily had warned me not to expect the Latterly Feast—her name for my family’s Thanksgiving dinner.  That had been our first Thanksgiving.  Spent together not for appearances but for the tether at our hips.  A tether that I had been assuming was snipped with shears from the blindside—all of a sudden and between still-near hips.  But in recent weeks, I was beginning to realize that there was no sudden snip, no shear-wielding Rick.  It was more like the inevitable snap of inelastic bands.

“Warren will be here at one.”  Me, Lily, and Angela shot Aunt Jennie questioning looks.

“Who is Warren?”  Angela asked, her spunk still on the rise.

“Brother Warren, I should say,” Aunt Jennie said, as if that answered anything.

I raised my eyebrows at Lily like this should be interesting. She nodded.  A Brother.  That meant some sort of religious relationship.  The Bible on the coffee table was open.  Yesterday it had been closed.

“Old girl’s got a boyfriend,” Lily said.  It was the first time I heard Lily call her aunt anything but Aunt.  I feared the disrespect would be met with a slap.  Or strong rebuke.  Or anything, really, except for the mischievous cackle it received.

“A boyfriend!  I don’t swear Lily but I swear you get the wildest ideas.”

“What’s wild about it?  You’ve got some years left in you and all of your teeth,” Angela said.  The old girl smiled wide and flexed her biceps to confirm both facts.  The sight of her in that ridiculous pose cracked me.  The violence of my laughter spat snot from my nose—Lily’s neck had a close call.  And then I could not stop.  I told myself to stop.  But I couldn’t.  Luckily, the others joined me and we all tried to stop ourselves—surely each of us for our own reasons regretting our inability to do so.

At twelve-fifty, ten minutes early, Brother Warren entered without knocking and caught us red-faced and teary-eyed.  He scowled.

“Typically, he don’t abide foolishness,” said the newcomer.  “But considering the circumstances . . .”  He was an enormous man.  Based on my six-even, I guessed that he was six-seven or -eight.  Probably three hundred pounds.  He was deep and wide but not fat.  Massive.  The sight of him made me think of the Styrofoam solar systems I made in elementary school.  He was our sun.  The gravity of the room shifted as he moved about it.  Subtly but surely, he had an effect.  Just by being there.  However, there was a glitch in the complete seriousness of that fact due to  a disproportionately small head.  Rough estimate—half the size it should be.

“Brother Warren,” Aunt Jennie said, smoothing her blouse, “Here’s my sister I told you about, Angela Bramlett, and my niece I told you about, Lily.”  He acknowledged their presence with a tilt of his tiny head.

“Who’s the young man?”

“That’s a friend of Lily’s,” she said.

“No name?”

“No . . . I mean, of course.  His name is Justin Hadderfee, Splatterfree, something or other.”

I stood and reached for his hand.  “Latterly, Brother Warren, Justin Latterly.  Nice to meet you.”  He tilted his tiny head.  I offered him my seat.

“For the most part, he stands,” he said.  I started to sit back down.  “But under the circumstance maybe it’s best to sit.”  That meant Lily had to move too and she barely got clear of the ottoman before the giant’s legs occupied the whole vicinity.

“Brother Warren is pastor of our church.  He’s been teaching me my Scriptures during the week.”  Aunt Jennie pointed at the Bible on the table.  “It was Brother Warren who  made . . . who helped me choose to throw out the devil-box.”  She pointed to a corner of the room that was empty.  The giant clasped his hands on his chest and steepled his two index fingers. But Brother Warren, I wanted to say, she hasn’t changed the name of the room.  It’s still the TV room.

The change in Aunt Jennie’s demeanor was obvious to all of us.  The old girl transformed from crotchety to acquiescent, from dour to downright spacey.  She excused herself to the bathroom and returned with her long, brown hair in a mound on top of her head.  She smiled two rows of yellow teeth.  A tip of tongue pushed through a gap between the top two.

“Sister Jennifer, if there was to be some coffee, I suppose we could.  For the most part, he don’t bless the partaking of caffeine, in general, but considering the circumstances . . .”

After coffee, it was decided that we would give thanks over sausage links, pancakes, and fizzy juice.  There were two eggs if anybody wanted them.  Brother Warren demurred at first but eventually could be talked into it.  Considering the circumstances.  He led us in a magnificent prayer, touching on several revelations to John on Patmos and the circumstantial righteousness of Holofernes in as much that, for the most part, he don’t condone ostentation in women; and we’re all holding hands and his tiny head is tilting to and fro, and the time, I notice, is two-fifteen, and Lily is beet red, cracking-up, and I’m suffering mightily from trying not to, stomach-cramp-wise, and the day’s only half done, and Aunt Jennie is muttering gibberish sans tongue of flame, dowdy bun sufficing, and everything is fun and games until Lily’s mother collapses.

We all scrambled to the floor.  All but the pastor which was for the best considering his bulk.  Lily gathered her mother into her lap and begged her to come back to consciousness.  She never got hysterical, just grave and willful, like seriousness and determination alone would bolster the fragile woman in her arms.  Aunt Jennie and I briefly argued over who would call the ambulance until Lily punched my thigh and told me, “Just fucking do it!”  Aunt Jennie gasped.  I called.

We took turns checking the time and desperately wondering what was taking so long.  Angela Bramlett breathed in tiny sips of air—not enough, I thought, not nearly enough. Brother Warren was back on the woven chair, fingers steepled, ostensibly unaffected.  That settled it, I hated him.

Finally, we heard the wail of the ambulance.  Distant but drawing nearer.  Like the jogger on the beach—it to us.  Or maybe like the pier—us to it.  Because emergencies alter perspective.   Maybe Lily’s will out-muscled the perfunctory trundle of the ambulance, out-pulled its push.  Either way, the paramedics were on the scene.  Either way, a band of sun projected the shadow of the tailless tabby on the mismatched carpet.  Which meant the skies had cleared.  Courtesy of Angela’s collapse, I thought, irrationally, and checked my cell phone for the time.

 

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Jonathan H. Scott was born in Virginia and resides in Alabama.  His writing has appeared in a variety of literary journals. Most recently: Existere, Poet Lore, and Unsplendid.


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