Judy Clement Wall|
Aunt Sheryl says I’m going nowhere, only she says it like this: "That girl," she says, like she can’t remember my name, "that girl better figure out what she wants out of life or else she’s going to wind up nowhere. That’s where she’s headed and, by God, at the rate she’s going, that’s just where she’ll wind up. Nowhere."
Aunt Sheryl says "by God" all the time, as if all her thoughts are divinely inspired.
She comes to our house every Thursday night. I don’t know why, because, to tell you the truth, I’m not sure she really likes either one of us, Mom or me. But we’re family. That’s what she says all the time. "You’re family, and that’s important, by God. If you can’t rely on your family in times of crisis, who can you rely on?"
Which is another thing Aunt Sheryl likes to talk about – crisis. Crisis and tragedy. Her husband, Uncle Don, died of cancer a long time ago, so I guess she knows about both. She talks about the crisis of my life like this:
"High school’s almost over," she sighs, "and you’re working at a Dairy Queen. What do you want out of life, Andrea? You’re seventeen years old. What’s your plan?"
That’s when my mother jumps into the conversation, like a politician or a movie star, not sticking up for me, exactly, just changing the subject, saying something asinine like, "Sheryl, that’s just the prettiest shade of lipstick you’re wearing. Where did you get it?"
And that’s all it takes, because the thing Aunt Sheryl likes talking about most is herself.
It’s true though. I don’t have a plan, not really. The community college is nearby and I’m good in English. I like to write.... My mom says, at my age I don’t have to have it all figured out yet. "The thing about plans," she says, "is that life rarely cooperates." Then she looks around at our little apartment, tugs on her short brown hair, and laughs, not embarrassed really, but like she can’t quite figure out how she got here.
When my mother was about my age, she met my father. I don’t know everything, but what I know goes like this: My mother and her two best friends had just graduated from high school, and before heading off to their respective colleges, they decided to spend one last summer together riding cross country on Greyhound. Their parents objected, of course, but they were eighteen and invincible, and they had it all planned out.
They made it from California to Texas before they met Tom, my father. He was a singer in a band called The Unemployed Cowboys. He wasn’t a very good singer, but he was handsome and charming and my mother fell in love at first sight. They spent one week together, every minute of every day, until my mother’s girlfriends and the members of the Unemployed Cowboys threatened to abandon them both. They had commitments, after all, separate lives already in progress.
My mother gave Tom her address and her phone number, and he promised to call, and when they said goodbye, she believed he would. Even two months later when she learned she was pregnant, and her parents couldn’t believe it, and her mother kept crying and her father, in a rage, called her a whore, she still thought he’d call. Still believed he’d come for her.
I don’t know when she stopped believing.
When I was about ten or eleven, I cut a picture out of a magazine of a man modeling underwear. I didn’t cut out the underwear, just his face and shoulders. I liked his smile, his brown hair, the same color as mine. I held his picture next to my face and looked at us both in the mirror and thought we looked related. It’s not that I actually believed he was my father or anything. I knew he wasn’t, but he looked like he could have been. I taped the picture to the mirror in my bedroom.
"Who’s this?" my mom asked, bringing laundry in a few days later. "Prince Charming?" She was smiling and I wished that I could freeze her there, just like that, all soft around the edges, not tired, or sad, or worried about anything.
I nodded and she tapped the picture with her finger, winked at me in the mirror. "You have good taste," she said, then she scooped up the laundry basket and disappeared down the hallway.
I do the laundry now. On Thursday evenings, so it gets me out of the apartment. If I time the loads right, I can avoid Aunt Sheryl’s "You Need a Plan" speech altogether. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes. And sometimes, when her own life is in crisis, Aunt Sheryl brings a bottle of wine and drinks while she talks, and hardly notices me at all.
Still, the apartment feels smaller when she’s here, cramped. So I head to the laundry room, at the end of our complex, in the last building, the one next to the freeway onramp, across from the bus station and the Dairy Queen where I work. I put the clothes in the washer and wait there, staring out the window, watching cars on the freeway. Everyone headed somewhere.
When the clothes are done, I fold them, carry the basket in front of me as I walk the path that leads back through the complex to our apartment.
I see my mother standing with my aunt on the sidewalk by her car. They are saying goodbye. When I reach them, Aunt Sheryl holds out her arms and I set down the basket to give her a hug. I can smell the wine on her breath.
"Andi, Andi, Andi," she says, as if, without ever having spoken, I’ve managed to say something monumentally stupid. She holds me too tightly. "Be a good girl," she says, "whatever you do."
I pull away, embarrassed, though I’m not sure why. "Sure," I say, and though she opens her mouth to say more, my mother rushes forward, into her still outstretched arms.
"Goodbye, Sheryl. We’ll see you next Thursday."
"Yes, of course," my aunt says, and then she gets into her car and pulls away, heading for the freeway.
My mom and I stand there, watching her go, watching her pull onto the freeway and disappear. The night is getting chilly, but neither of us turns back to the apartment. I put my arm around her waist, watch a cat dart across the street, a bus pull out of the station. The driver nods as he passes us by, his bus empty.