Aunt Josey’s Stuff

By John Allison

y then, at age nine, I understood. It was what she could not take that weighed heavily on her mind, more than the year before, and more then than the year before that. Now, I sometimes feel the crushing weight of them all.

That Sunday I tapped lightly on the door to her large bedroom, cracked it open, and watched. Aunt Josey, her back to me, sat on the floor wedged into the one space where she would fit. Standing, smearing her nose and then her eyes on the right sleeve of her dingy, partially buttoned chambray shirt, she surveyed the area. Barefoot, cheeks damp, shoulder-length reddish-brown hair pulled behind each ear, shirttail hanging loosely over kneeless Levis, Josey was unbothered by being squeezed among the many boxes stacked four or five high that would have caused the claustrophobic to panic for fear of no escape.

Each had two signs stuck on with tape, a master label stating either MUST TAKE or, in another section of the room, MAYBE TAKE. Illustrative of the MUST TAKE secondary labels were: MAGS/VARIETY, MAGS/NEW YORKER, MAGS/VOGUE, NEW YORK TIMES, POTTERY, ART STUFF, JEWELRY, JOURNALS/LAST5YRS, MAKEUP, CARL, MITCH, SHOES, SHOES, SHOES, SHOES, and twenty-four BOOKS. The contents of the latter, I already knew, left out few periods or places in the world’s history. And there were clothes.

Exemplifying the MAYBE TAKEs were six DOLLS, MAGS/SASSY, MAGS/YM, MAGS/COSMOGIRL, MAGS/TEEN, MAGS/TEEN PEOPLE, FIGURINES, SEA SHELLS, PENNIES, JOURNALS/OLD, ROGER, CLINT, and ten DO NOT OPENs.

There was a third tier of her things in the basement she had taken over from her father, my Granddad Paul, but this wasn’t mentioned. My grandfather had his own collections in the attic and in three metal sheds out back—tools of every kind and age, numerous old paint cans full of nuts and bolts, and what he called antiques but that Grandma Charlene called “other people’s effluvium.” My dad had been charged by both Granddad and Josey with intentional infliction of emotional distress when, a number of times over the years, he cleared the back yard and hauled off rented trucks full of their objects so that the grass and weeds could be kept in check.

Josey stood, opening a bulging container marked DOLLS. Without turning toward where I stood peeking in, she said, “Charlie, come on in, close the door. I need your help. Think you and Albert could get more boxes from Studs?” That was the liquor store a few blocks away in Hartford’s West End neighborhood where Pop and I had gotten extra boxes during the last month in anticipation of this moment.

As I was saying “Sure, I guess. I can ask,” she pulled out a thing with floppy legs and arms, sad-looking looking to me then and hideous now, one eye missing and two or three small holes in its head where some of the pretend hair braids had once been anchored. She murmured something, maybe Sally, maybe Cassie, I couldn’t be sure, and then reunited the pathetic creature with its mates. Then, emerging from wherever she had been, she turned toward me. Her lips parting slightly, their corners sneaking upward, she said, “Hi, there, big guy, what’s up?” At this, my only thoughts were of what I could do for her.

My dad strove to get her attention from one room away where he and I slept. His voice was strong and could be piercing when he was annoyed. “Josephine Wambaugh, when you going to be done packing? I’ve been ready for three hours. You’ve been getting your, cr…,” Pop catching himself before calling her many treasures crap because he knew how sensitive she could be about the subject, “your stuff together for half the day.

“We already spent most of yesterday getting ready. We’ve got to hit the road if we want to make Middlebury before dark. We’ll have to eat someplace along the way, and if you and Charlie require a few pit stops, it might take us five hours.”

A stressed “What, Albert?” made it through the wall to Pop.

“Baby sister, did you hear anything I said?”

Hearing nothing for the next minute or so, he came around to Josey’s bedroom door. “Josey, Josey, what’s the holdup?” he pleaded. I was aware that Pop knew perfectly well what was going on.

***

The day before, he and I had gone to a U-Haul outlet there in Hartford and rented a trailer for my aunt’s stuff. Pop, Josey, and I had filled the trailer with boxes, most of them too heavy for me to carry alone. I saw each one as a special thing, and proudly dragged the few I could by one end. Josey and I lugged others together, Pop naturally doing the largest share of the work. Though not tall, my dad was powerfully built and was intense when there was work to be done. Late that afternoon, trailer full, Josey appeared lost as she gazed wistfully at everything that wouldn’t fit, not even counting the stacks remaining in her room and a hallway. She looked at Pop for what seemed to be a long time.

“Okay, okay, Josey,” he sighed, and the three of us began unloading the trailer, stacking boxes and some loose things on the driveway of my grandparents’ house, where Pop and I were living, and where Josey still spent summers and school breaks.

“So, you want to swap it for a bigger one, huh?” the man rasped through cracked lips that gripped half a cigarette beneath a veined, bulbous nose, his impressive gut resting comfortably on the U-Haul counter.

As Josey shook her head in vigorous assent, Pop said, “You know, I’ll pay for a bigger one if you’ll give me half off for the day, or less than a day, I’ve had the other.”

“Bigger? How much?”

“Oh, maybe half again the first one. Got one that size?”

“Yeah, just about, maybe a little more. Just five more bucks a day.” Quickly figuring, he grunted, “Sure, man, deal.”

***

It was Sunday afternoon by the time the larger trailer was full and hooked behind the 1968 Mustang GT fastback that Pop had bought in 1972 with military savings so that he would have a “good car,” as he put it, before going back to school. I, of course, thought the Mustang, with its 302 cubic inch V8 engine, 4-barrel carburetor, four-on-the-floor stick shift, sport handling package, and still-pristine exterior was far better than anything Buck Rogers flew. Josey, though, had observed pointedly that her brother’s idea of a good car was a pure, unmitigated chick magnet, and that she, naturally, was not attracted by such gauche displays.

“But Albert, there’s more still.”

“Josey, darling, you know there are a lot more of your necessities out here and inside than we can possibly carry. I can’t get a trailer any bigger than this one. Books I understand, but all this other stuff mystifies me. We can’t take it all, for one thing. For another, what the heck you going to do with it when you get there?”

As it turned out, Josey had more than one solution to the transportation problem. First, she said, sweetly, “But Albert, I’ve been waiting tables for years. I always got great tips. From the men, you know. I’ve got savings. I saw a trailer bigger than this one. I can pay for it.”

Pop hugged her tightly and brushed a tear from her cheek, saying “Sweetheart, I don’t think my car can pull a larger trailer.” I thought it probably could, but I kept quiet, and Pop remained adamant about not risking harm to his lovely red Mustang.

From my dad’s perspective, Josey’s second solution was no more tenable than the first: renting a truck in addition to the trailer, she driving the second vehicle.

In answer to the what-to-do-with-it-when-we-get-there question, she pointed out that the previous year she had abandoned dormitory living and moved into a garage apartment adjoining an old home not far from the Middlebury campus. A middle-aged couple owned the property, the large lot having ample space for the rented storage shed Josey convinced the male half of the couple to allow her to place close to a back fence. She generally fared better with men than with women, although she could often persuade other women when an issue was important enough to her. With the men, it wasn’t all about sexual allure—although I came to understand there was plenty of that—because her suasions worked so well on Pop and Granddad and not just on guys who lusted after her.

We left the Wambaugh place after four that Sunday afternoon, Josey having finally succumbed to her brother’s entreaties, leaving behind some of the things she thought she absolutely had to have and all of the hoped-for stuff. Pop’s cause was helped by Grandma Charlene, who, as Josey had been pleading with Pop, came around a corner and said, “Josey, now just you listen, your brother will take care of everything. He’ll get you and whatever you need to school. Your dad and I can’t do it, and you know that, so just let Albert handle it like he’s done before.”

No one told Pop about the besotted but soon-to-be-forlorn young man who showed up two weeks later with Josey in a pickup truck that shortly thereafter turned around and, riding so near the pavement that its frame almost put off sparks, headed back to Vermont.

***

The trip from Hartford to Vermont was, for me, a late summer adventure in which I had played a minor role since Josey left for her first year at Middlebury College on full scholarship when I was six. Pop timed his last long leave home from Miramar, California, where he had been training Marine Corps helicopter pilots since returning to the states, so that he could take her to school that first September, and he was home for good before the autumn of her second year rolled around.

Back then I saw my dad as invincible, but he was no tough guy when it came to his little sister. When her saucer-sized green eyes misted over and the first quiet drops began to make their way from impossibly long lashes down her cheeks in diminishing rivulets, it was game-over for Pop. Despite the seven years that separated them, and the differences that marked them—he a math whiz drawn to engineering and the logic of computer code, she a rapacious reader and a writer of steadily burgeoning ability—the two of them had formed a deep bond before she was even a toddler.

It was my grandmother, along with Josey, who supplied most of the details about the family that I either couldn’t recollect or had never known. As I recall her now, from both memory and family photos, Grandma Charlene’s short, dark brown hair didn’t begin to reveal streaks of gray until she was in her sixties. Not a large woman in height or girth, her will had been forged of tungsten carbide. Pop and Josey told me of clashes between the grandparents, shouts leading to broken dishes and exhaustion but no bruises, until finally Granddad Paul just checked out, leaving all of the family decision making to his wife. Josey told me she remembered her father saying to no one in particular, “Fuck it all, it’s just not worth it.” After that, Josey said, the Wambaugh household operated more smoothly, no one apparently thinking about what emasculation may have done to Granddad, although he seemed to be at peace.

Later, though, when he developed Parkinson’s disease—he was only in his early forties—Grandma took on the job of caring for him with alacrity, lovingly holding him in her arms and singing softly to him each night until sleep plucked him from misery.

Pop said his mother “rode Josey pretty hard, like a drill sergeant,” until Josey was about fifteen when there was a showdown of some kind. Pop said, “After that, Charlie, those two women just sort of eyed each other and kept at a safe distance. On occasion there’d be another skirmish, but not like earlier, not as intense. Then they’d move to their own corners like bantam-weight boxers. Sometimes I thought they might even be rivals. Mother was still a very good-looking woman, she always was, and I wondered whether there was some sort of competition going on. Both of them, I don’t know, they were just so damned stubborn. They had these egos, these wills, whatever. Maybe your grandma saw too much of herself in Josey, I don’t know. After your grandfather got sick, though, Josey backed off. But I really hoped she’d never have a daughter.”

***

“Mama, that’s a pretty nasty job, right?” my dad had asked his mother as she was changing Josey’s diaper. Grandma told me about it when I was about eight, the age Pop had been at the time.

“Well, yes, it sure is,” she told her son, “but it’s got to be done. And there’s nobody else around to do it. Besides, I’ve done it enough that I don’t mind anymore.”

“I can do it for you sometime, Mama,” he had offered. “Just show me how.” She did, and he was good to his word.

“Charlie, Albert loved that baby so much. Before then, I couldn’t have imagined any boy his age doing a job like that. And he volunteered, if you can believe it. It was almost like she was his, I don’t know, his little doll or something. And it never stopped.”

She continued. “When Josey was about eighteen months old or so, about that, I think, Albert taught her to play football. Tackle, mind you. The ball was half as big as she was, and she’d hold that thing with both hands, hug it to her little pot belly, and run headlong down the hallway squealing until she met him coming the other way when the squeal turned to a wild banshee screech. He would pretend to tackle her, lifting her off the floor and gently planting her down on her back. Then he’d tickle her. They wouldn’t quit ‘til Albert tired out. I don’t think she ever would have. I can’t remember how long they did that, probably until she started school.

“Then, he walked her all the way to school and back every day. I went with them the first few times, until I knew they’d be okay. They held hands, she’d look up at him, just beaming. He kept that up until long after other boys his age wouldn’t have been caught dead walking with a little girl. But Albert didn’t care what anybody else thought. There was just something about those two. He did hang out with other boys, but Josey came first, and it seemed to never occur to anyone to make fun of him for having a little girl as a pal. It was just Albert and Josephine, and that’s all there was to it. Really, I never did understand it.”

When I started kindergarten at age five, Josey was seventeen. She walked me to school and back home almost every day of her senior year in high school, before she went off to college. She would talk to me. And she would listen. She spoke to me as an equal from the beginning, explaining to me how to tell whether a girl liked me, and what to do if one did. My initial disgust at hearing this later became a useful insight. She and I didn’t play football. But we danced. And danced. And danced.

She danced with me to the pounding rhythm of the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Paint It Black” long before I began kindergarten, teaching me to sing the words as we flew around some room in the house, my feet sometimes on the floor and sometimes miles above it. I learned and loved the Beatles’ “When I’m 64” and “Twist and Shout,” to do the Watusi and the Twist. And I fell in love with Josey. Around the time I turned eight, I had secretly formed the hoped of marrying her, and when I told her she folded me into her arms, softly singing the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” close to my ear as we moved to and fro, her intoxicating scent unadorned, my small body boneless as I burrowed in. I was probably about eleven or twelve when I figured out that I couldn’t marry Josey, my pillow case becoming wet with my sorrow for a few nights. Now, sometimes, it is her smell I first recall in the early morning before the bracing odor of strong coffee brings me back to the present.

One time, I finally worked up the nerve to ask the question that had pecked at me for the previous month like an old hen in insect-infested fescue and bluegrass. Taking a while to choke back her laughter, Josey finally said, “Oh, god, Charlie, yeah, girls get gas, too. But maybe not as much, I don’t know. And most of them work a lot harder than guys to keep it sort of, you know, sort of tucked in until they’re by themselves.” My eyes widened at this insight, surely unknown to my peers.

In truth, Josey gave me something to think about nearly every time we talked as I grew older. When I was in high school, a sophomore or junior, I think, she came out of the blue with “Charlie, life’s really not hard to figure out. Intent is part of it—your heart ought to be in the right place. But the rest of it, Charlie—it’s mostly just technique.” And, one summer Saturday while we were shopping to replace my threadbare canvas Keds and find additional essentials for Josey, both of us squirming impatiently on an up-escalator clogged with standing shoppers, Josey advised with her volume knob fruitlessly ratcheted up, “Charlie, there may be only two kinds of people—the ones who think escalators are an easier way to go up and down, and the others who think the goddamned things are a faster way.”

***

That Sunday in Pop’s Mustang, we headed north from Hartford on I-91 for Josey’s senior year at Middlebury College. Just before Springfield, Josey said, “Albert, I know staying on 91 most of the way north is a lot faster, but these freeways are just so damned dreary. Can’t we get off onto I-90 and then at Stockbridge go north on Highway 7 all the way to school? Some of that way is so much prettier, you know in the national forest. Please, Albert?”

Pop was quiet for a few moments, calculating the extra time it would take. “Josey, Charlie, if we do that it could be dark before we get to Middlebury.”

“We’ve got headlights, Pop,” I said, excited about the prospect of going through unknown territory at night. I didn’t know then that he was exaggerating a bit for effect—it was farther but not that much.

Josey giggled. Pop was silent.

“Please, Albert,” Josey importuned.

Pop sighed deeply. “Okay, okay. Premature death of an older relative, that’s what the indictment will say,” his voice softening as he looked first at Josey in the front passenger seat, and then quickly back at me where I sat behind Josey.

So we took Josey’s route and Pop and Josey began their storytelling, each sometimes having the floor alone and other times one interrupting the other by finishing a sentence or asking a question. I did my best to participate occasionally with an insert of my own, feeling like an equal in the threesome because Josey was there. I adored Pop, but he was a parent, not a mysterious, amazing, fun friend.

“Albert, Charlie. You know, there’s something I never told you about Highway 7. Actually, I never told anyone.”

“Is this something we want to hear, Josey?” I thought Pop’s question was weird. I always wanted to hear anything Aunt Josey said.

Josey was quiet for a couple of minutes that seemed like hours to a nine-year-old. Breaking her silence, finally, she began.

“My freshman year. The first weekend of spring break I stayed around school before coming home. There was this guy. I’d known him only a couple of weeks. He had these dimples on his chin, sandy blonde hair, a few freckles, really cute, you know, and he had transportation. His name was Dick. Can you believe it? Man, he definitely was one, but I hadn’t figured that out yet. You know, I was still a kid.”

Pop interrupted. “Josey, Charlie’s back there, you know. Maybe you could tell us another story.”

“Oh, Albert, Charlie’s been with me so much. You know, since the little squirt’s head popped out of his mom. There’s nothing he hasn’t heard. And he’s a mature young man.”

I beamed. And I was utterly in Josey’s thrall. She continued. “Anyway, we went to Battell Woods, near town, to find a hiking trail. I always loved to hike, you know, when I could. Took binoculars to maybe see some birds if we stayed ‘til morning. So, this guy, Dick,” she and I again stifling giggles, “he left his truck, a pickup, down at the trailhead. We went about a mile out a trail.”

“So, we thought we’d stay a few hours, and if we fell asleep just off the trail, no big deal. No camping there, officially, but we figured we wouldn’t get caught. Had sleeping bags, thermal long johns. If we didn’t sleep, we’d head back to campus after a while.” Josey paused.

“And?” Pop asked after the pause had lengthened.

“We’d hoped to find some weed, maybe a couple of joints, but we didn’t have any luck with that.”

I remember being confused by this, picturing Josey and this guy pulling weeds and him messing up a joint somewhere. We had studied the skeletal system at school and I knew about joints. His knee, maybe? I kept quiet.

“So we had beer, a lot of beer. Anyway, I had one can. Not a lot of body weight, you know, and no real food for a while, so I was a little tipsy, and just tasted a little of a second one. It was terrible, anyway, some cheap shit he’d gotten just outside town late the night before. So I stopped.”

“Glad to hear it, little sister,” Pop said.

“Anyway,” she resumed, “Dick . . .” and I started laughing again. Josey said, “Shut up back there, you little brat, so I can tell this.” I knew she didn’t mean it, the brat thing.

“Well, in the time it took me to drink one can plus a couple sips of that vile excrement, Dick chugged six.”

“What’s ex-cra, excra…what?” I interjected.

“Later, Charlie, I’ll tell you later. Let your aunt finish her story. Soon, I hope.” I saw Pop wink at Josey.

“Anyway, you little twerp…,” she said as I tried to look like Charlie Chaplin, the Little Tramp, from a movie I’d watched on TV with Josey.

Starting again, she implored, “Gentlemen, puu-lease. That’s when I knew for sure I had a real loser on my hands. He slurred his words, started acting stupid, and got feisty with me. You know, putting his hands all over me. I wasn’t ready for that, and besides, he was a lush.”

“Josey, Josey,” Pop said.

“No, it’ll be okay. Nothing happened. At least not that kind of thing. Anyway, I got really uncomfortable and shoved him away. He stumbled and fell on his ass—his butt, Charlie—then he starting cussing me. He was sitting on the ground, so I moved fast, shoved him on his back, and sat on him. Had a fist-sized piece of granite in my right hand above his head. He squirmed a lot. I asked if he’d prefer that his brains stay inside his skull, and he sort of froze.”

My eyes widened. “Did you hit him, Josey? I hope you hit him.”

“No, I wanted to, but I knew better than to kill the bastard.”

I knew Pop would later talk to me about words like bastard, about not using them myself. I’d gotten that lecture before, but I was old enough by then to not say things like that around the grandparents, the teachers, other grownups. Even Josey had given me the talk about that as she continued to enrich my vocabulary through the years. I knew they had to do that. I was already figuring out that adults had to be hypocritical with kids. It was their job.

My aunt continued. “I took the keys to the truck out of his pants pocket, grabbed my stuff and stuffed it in my backpack, and ran like hell for about ten minutes. It wasn’t all the way dark yet. Then I walked fast to where we’d parked. I jumped into his truck and took off back to Middlebury. He was too drunk to come after me.”

“Oh, god, Josey, you didn’t,” Pop said.

“I did, big brother. I’d figured out that Dick’s place in my life was like ear wax after not digging it out for a month. I was disappointed, you know. I had high hopes for the guy before that. But I left his truck, with the keys in it, where he usually parked at school. It wasn’t too far for him to walk back. Next morning, Monday, I caught a bus back to Hartford. Albert, you didn’t come back from California until later, in the summer, so I couldn’t call you for a ride.”

“I wish you’d hit him with the rock,” I piped up again. Pop sighed deeply. Josey giggled.

When they weren’t trading stories or jokes, their verbal fencing, one riposte after another, was better than baseball, and I wished we’d never make it to Middlebury. Then, more seriously, Pop brought up his having left college after two years to join the Marine Corps.

“Why’d you do that, anyway, Albert?” Josey interrupted. “Seemed kind of dumb to me.”

“You may remember, Josey, or you may not—that they did away with college deferments in sixty-eight, started a lottery. Damned if they didn’t draw number forty-three for my birthday. The local Selective Service boards in most places were drafting guys with numbers up to around 120, so I was a real gone goose.”

“But why the Marines, Albert?” Josey asked. I didn’t know anything about this, but was surprised that there was something Josey didn’t know.

After a prolonged silence, Pop said, “You know, after talking to some of the older guys I knew who had gone to ‘Nam and come back, and watching stuff over and over on the TV news, I was, well, I guess I was just desperate. I couldn’t stand to think about being a grunt going on patrols in the jungle where it just friggin’ rained all the time. Not just rain, but downpours that never seemed to stop. Feet, socks, boots, fatigues, wet for days at a time. Mildew on all the gear, the stench of rotting jungle. Feet covered with fungus. Crotch rot.”

“Then, the sun would come out and boil everything. Those guys, the ones I talked too, said they never knew when their unit would be machine-gunned in an ambush, never knew when one of them would lose a leg to a mine or some jury-rigged booby trap. Or when a guy’s spine would get sliced like a cucumber by a Viet Cong sniper.

“I figured I’d have a better chance of doing something else if I volunteered for another branch. And I wanted to fly something, planes, helicopters, something.”

“Why not the Air Force, Pop?” I wondered aloud.

“That’s a great question, Charlie. Would’ve made more sense, but I didn’t think of it. I was twenty. And I knew guys who’d been in the Marines, plus the former Army guys I knew. Didn’t know anybody in the Air Force. But I got to fly medevac helicopters, anyway, and I loved it. Took the college equivalency exam and they sent me to OCS. After I got a commission, they taught me to fly choppers.”

On that trip, I learned that there were two enlistments of three years each, three of those six years flying choppers. He completed the last two years of his second enlistment back in the states at the Marine’s 3rd Aircraft Wing Command in Miramar, California training pilots, returning home for good when he was twenty-six. He then worked for a couple of years before taking up his studies where he had left off, this time at the University of Hartford, which accepted all of his sixty semester hours credit from UConn. So, as we were carting Josey and her things back for her senior year at Middlebury, he was starting school again and was nervous about being a SOTA, a “student older than average,” as the university referred to those like Pop.

My mom, Jennifer, who stayed with me at the Wambaugh house while Pop was gone, left us both within a month after he returned. I asked Pop why she had gone.

“We got married way too young, Charlie. We were nineteen and we both changed so much during the next couple of years.” This puzzled me because nineteen seemed really old to me then, and besides, I thought Pop still looked the same as always.

When I was much older, probably about nineteen myself, Josey told me that Jennifer had starting seeing another guy after Albert had been in the service two years. Pop somehow got word of it just before his first three years were up, and both Josey and Grandma Charlene hinted strongly at this being the reason for the reenlistment that otherwise made no sense at all. During that second stint, a couple of different guys appeared on the front porch of my grandparents’ house, Grandma chasing them off with Granddad’s old pump-action twenty-gauge shotgun.  Then, Josey said, my mother started spending one or two nights a week elsewhere.

I guess I was well into my twenties when Pop told me to stop blaming my mom for her departure from our lives. “I was no angel, Charlie. You understand? When I was overseas. There were girls. You know, Charlie. I was lonely. That’s no excuse, I know. But there were girls. In Saigon, Manilla, on leave. I wasn’t a very good husband. She knew. I knew she knew. I’m sorry, Charlie. It’s sure as hell not easy to tell you this, but you have to stop putting all the blame on your mother.”

It took a while for me to process all of this, about both of my parents. I had to age more, see my own flaws more clearly, before I could fully accept both them and myself as we were. I couldn’t stay upset with Pop for very long, though—he was the one who was there for me at the critical times after he came back. Later on I reconnected with my mom, finding after a time that I really liked her, and we drew closer. Not like it might have been, but still better. Josey, of course, was always there, never too busy for me, if only on the phone.

Pop had calculated that he could handle private school costs even after quitting his full-time job doing electronics repairs for Radio Shack by living with my grandparents, using GI Bill money for tuition, and working part time in the cramped campus basement that housed the college’s gigantic, aging UNIVAC mainframe. My grandparents lived on the inadequate disability payments they got from Social Security and the trucking company where Granddad Paul had managed a dispatch center before his disease did its dirty work. Grandma took in sewing, laundry, and ironing, but things were always tight. Pop managed to help buy groceries and sometimes chip in on the electric and water bills, as did Josey on the uncommon occasions when she had any extra money.

***

On those journeys back and forth to Middlebury and later New Haven for the five years Josey worked on her PhD in history at Yale while supported by a graduate assistant’s position and some waitressing, the trailers became larger, Pop finding that the Mustang could indeed haul more weight. Then we switched to a rented truck, car in tow. Whatever we drove, I was enthralled by stories. Some were about Pop, especially his time in Vietnam, but my favorites were about Josey.

Although my aunt was usually good tempered and kind, I learned during one of these trips that she could occasionally reveal a “tiny little mean streak,” as Pop called it. That aspect of her personality seemed not to be vicious but had occasionally led her to spit out things such as “Damn that Carol Rosenblatt, the only reason she’s valedictorian is she’s so damned homely she’s never got anything to do but study.” But, Pop said, Josey got over being second in her high school graduating class and later recanted the comment about her then-eighteen-year-old academic rival, admitting that she just hated to lose and that Carol had “truly been more diligent about biology.”

Pop told me that, despite her normal industriousness, the fact of the matter was that she and biology just did not mix well. Josey then explained that she could not tolerate the dissection of worms, frogs, and grasshoppers, or the slow boiling of the same. She became ill and had to miss most of a class while on her knees, head over the toilet in the girl’s restroom when her biology teacher and several of the boys mounted the skeleton they had constructed after boiling and scraping off the carcass of the scraggly old yellow tom cat, Winston, that had patrolled the school grounds for years and finally succumbed beneath the right rear wheel of the biology teacher’s 1966 Studebaker where the ancient creature had been napping one afternoon. Mr. Werner, the teacher, was not one to let things go to waste. But seeing the glued-together skeleton being mounted like some sick version of a basketball trophy in the far corner of the lab amidst the lingering smell of boiled cat hair and entrails destroyed any motivation Josey might have had to do well in biology. She had so dreaded biology that, instead of taking it with her class as a freshman, she put it off until after chemistry and physics and it more than met her expectations of loathsomeness.

***

Not wanting to stray far from home, both Pop and Josey began careers in the Hartford area, she on the history faculty at Trinity College, he as a consultant after earning his computer science degree and then later as a web entrepreneur. After college and an MBA, my job as a financial analyst allowed me to work from my home just outside Hartford in Avon most of the time, except for long train commutes to Manhattan a couple of times each week. Pop, Josey, and I continued making time to see each other regularly in twos or threes.

Josey’s dramatic weaving of stories from twentieth-century European history for her students, along with many research papers and well-reviewed books, brought her a full professor’s position at Trinity by the time she was only in her mid-thirties. At one of our breakfasts at a place near campus, this one to celebrate a prestigious book award Josey received in her early forties, she told me, “Oh, Charlie, why did you and Albert have to be my relatives?” I kept this close to me, retrieving it for warmth when one of life’s internal cold spells struck.

Aunt Josey married twice, the first time not long after she began her teaching career, ejecting both men from her life in relatively short order. About the first one, an English professor at the university, she said, “Donald was just, you know, well, for an academic he was dumb as a bowl of chowder. I cannot fathom what I ever saw in that guy.” About the second, a stock broker named James, I learned from others that he had once hit her after they had been married a year. Josey sent him to the ER with blood flowing from his left ear after she defended herself with a twelve-hundred-page hardbound copy of London: A History. The police in the well-to-do suburb of West Hartford where Josey lived picked up James from the emergency room. After several days in jail and a fine, he left town. There had been other men, too, but none ever seemed to measure up. There had also been a couple of promising guys, Pop told me, who dropped out of contention after seeing that they played second-chair violin to Josey’s vast collections of chattels.

Like Josey, Pop and I seemed to be condemned to failed romantic relationships. I married once, to a good woman, but it didn’t stick. Pop, too, remarried but it didn’t last more than a couple of years. Later in his life, however, when he was in his mid-fifties, he fell for a smart, strong, interesting woman named Savannah and somehow managed to hang on to her. Savannah even gained Josey’s approval, which was in itself a remarkable achievement. Josey did wonder aloud, though, whether Savannah’s parents might have been geographically impaired, given that their daughter had been born and reared in Saginaw, Michigan. “But what the hell,” Josey said.

In addition to the single attempt at marriage, my other connections with women likewise lacked durability, mostly lasting no more than a year or two. Despite wondering whether there was something in the DNA of my grandparents’ descendants that mimicked the weak adhesive properties of Post-It Notes, I’ve felt good about remaining friends with all of my exes. A successful romantic denouement as Pop apparently has experienced would be nice, I think, but I no longer know whether I have it in me.

***

Well into middle age, Josey’s silhouette remained the same, she and I having spent countless hours together in the gym and on hiking trails. Small wrinkles at each eye served merely to enhance the delicate facial features and nearly translucent skin that at times seemed an optical illusion, with scant, nearly indiscernible gray filaments strewn through her lustrous auburn hair. Still stunning, she remained unchanged except to one who for most of his life had been privileged to see so deeply into her soul as to form one of the two strands in her DNA’s double helix. For her fiftieth birthday, Josey declined the offer Pop and I made to throw what we hoped would be a raucous party filled with friends and colleagues. Instead, she insisted on just dinner, an intimate gathering with new food and old stories.

That evening, what Josey had years before come to call the Daring Wambaugh Triplets sat in a corner booth in an excellent Cuban eatery. As our fried plantain chips arrived prior to the main course, I asked her how remodeling was going at the lovely old home she had bought in West Hartford fifteen years earlier, a few years after she began teaching. She was having it done one room at a time, paying a price in patience for staggered disruption rather than massive chaos.

“Oh, Charlie, some rooms, they just can’t do it  . . . ,” her voice trailing off before going silent, her eyes vacant as she went off to a place my dad and I did not know. Perhaps others would not have noticed, but in unison neither Pop nor I could exhale for two or three heartbeats as some foreign intruder occupied the small space around us. After a long minute or so, Josey came back, but her sentence remained unfinished. Josey pushed aside the appetizer and finished her margarita as she waved for the waiter to bring another. I had never seen her order more than a single drink, she often not finishing even the one.

“’Anything wrong, Josey?” Pop asked softly as he and I looked first at the other, then at Josey.

In a few moments, she said “What, Albert?” Then she returned to us as quickly as she had left. Our little party of three continued as planned, and we finished out an evening filled with warmth, pulled pork, and laughter. For a while after, I thought nothing more about Josey’s blank spell or two extra margaritas.

A few weeks later I visited her at the university. Although I had been there to see her many times before, on this occasion several months had passed since I had last stopped by. I always checked with her in advance to learn when she would be free, and I had been welcomed every time with a long hug and a cup of fresh coffee, followed by an hour or so of conversation that was, more often than not, about work—hers and mine. But this time was different. After knocking, I had to wait several minutes before she met me at her office door. Furtively, she opened it no more than was necessary for her to quickly slide out and close it behind her. I managed a curious glance inside as she emerged, seeing nothing but newsprint stacked from floor to ceiling, her lovely old oaken desk no longer visible. When I started to speak as she led me to the faculty lounge with its burnished wood and frayed faux Victorian chairs, she interrupted with “Research, Charlie. It’s research.”

Even I knew that historians did not use loose newspapers as sources. Everything old enough to matter was either digitized or on microfiche. I said nothing of it, but in the mostly pleasant two hours that followed, I mused over this Josey. While she fed my kindred but amateur fascination with history, her eyes occasionally darted about as would those of a wild thing in the forest upon hearing dry leaves beneath unknown feet. This continued, irregularly, even as she kept me on the edge of my unofficial pupil’s seat, often laughing, while she gave a blow-by-blow account of French leader Charles De Gaulle’s manipulation of President Truman in 1945 and beyond that helped lead America disastrously into southeast Asia.

After this, I did not see her again for nearly two months. I see now that she had already developed a shell of some kind, and my gut twists from doubt about whether I tried hard enough to break through. For more than twenty years, most of my visits with Josey, at least weekly and with or without Pop, had been at little haunts with coffee and eggs, or cheese and amber ale. But every month to six weeks I would call at her home, always giving the advance notice she required—nobody just dropped in on Josey if they wanted the knock answered. Whether at her place or elsewhere, I was without fail greeted with unvarnished, even gleeful affection. Nothing in my life had ever been better than seeing Josey. I tell myself now that the change, whether at a Cuban diner or at her office that last time, was subtle, and that only I, or maybe Pop, would have noticed anything at all. Still, I did not see what I should have seen.

Listless eyes greeted me at her front door as Josey, voice bereft of its former effulgence, said “Hi, uh, Charlie? Please, uh, sure? Come . . . in?” She brewed coffee by rote and we sat down.

“What is it, Josey? Have you caught a bug of some kind?” Once, when with anyone, Josey’s eyes had made the other believe he was the only person who existed. Now, her eyes were strangely unsettled, those of prey in peril or of a hummingbird unable to find nectar among honeysuckle blooms. Instead of answering, she spoke of two students in a course she taught on Europe between the world wars, how talented they were. Our conversation was that of the once keen edge of a butcher’s blade now blunted from countless bone strikes. Then there was quiet. After several minutes that seemed infinitely longer, I left, nonplussed, having no idea what to do.

Pop and I continued to phone her regularly over the following months, neither of us able to gain her consent to meet. He and I both fretted, from concern but also from missing Josey. Rapping at her door brought no response, and when I could not find her at the college, I called Dr. Chastain, Josey’s dean, from whom I learned that Josey had been asked to resign to avoid a tenure-termination proceeding. She had not met her classes the previous semester or the first few weeks of the current one, a dereliction intolerable even for one of such distinction in her field. I decided to call her one last time before summoning the police, delighted to hear that she would see me again for coffee at a hole-in-the-wall spot not far from her home.

There, it was Josey, but it was not Josey. Her hair was oily, unkempt, not cut for much too long a time, eyes even more lifeless than the last time. The voice lacked all animation and her skin’s former luminescence had drained away as though a gaping hole had opened in her spirit. I drank and ate, but she touched nothing, my questions drawing single words and vacant stares. At the end, I insisted on seeing her at her home. Over her scowl, I demanded, “I’ll be there Monday at eleven, Josey.”

The following Monday I knocked, waited, knocked again, waited some more. I rang the doorbell that she hated. When no response came, I used the key I had gotten several months before by telling her that a Trinity College faculty senate resolution required her to give me one. Josey was sitting on her parlor floor, immobilized in the only spot not piled high with the possessions that now fully possessed her. Several minutes passed before I was able to coax her up and lead her to a chair I had cleared off.

***

I bought a larger townhouse so that Josey would have two rooms, one with a nice view of parkland. She comes out occasionally just to look around, but takes most meals on a plastic tray in the sunnier of her two spaces. After I moved her in, Josey was disturbed by her surroundings until the obvious came to me. She is now mostly surrounded by stacks of old books and magazines, and even a few boxes of knick-knacks, but I gently declined to bring in the dolls.

A dear woman named Alberta with red hair, big hips, and a bigger smile comes to stay on those days when work takes me away. Josey did not like her at first, but in time Alberta won her over. Josey is calm now, maybe even happy, particularly on those irregular occasions in the evening when she launches into long, detailed discourses for a rapt audience of one on how it was utter folly for America to enter the First World War or how it waited too long to join the Second and take on Adolph Hitler.

My days are tinged with melancholy, although keeping busy helps. I am grateful that a bit of Josey remains. Not much, you see, but a little of Aunt Josey is better than all of anyone else.

 

——————–

John Allison is a long-time faculty member in the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. He has published widely in intellectual property law, especially empirical studies of the patent system, and argues assiduously that he is not as boring as that sounds. This is his third published short story, the previous two having appeared in Mount Hope in 2016 and The Wagon.in 2017.


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