Aunt Steph got ugly after Gammy died, although people were often ugly to her first. When we got back from the hospital, I told her I needed alone time, and shut the door. She walked the driveway from her dead mom’s house to her trailer while I sat on the kitchen floor. We called her Gammy because of me, as a baby, not being able to pronounce the rs. But the place lived on when I wasn’t there and that’s when I remembered Aunt Steph’s stories about being shut in the closet, fingers caught between door and frame by her mean alcoholic mother I never knew; remembered Aunt Steph letting strangers believe I was her daughter; crying, sitting in a room where Gammy said she’d pay for an abortion but not a baby. So, I texted her and said sorry but didn’t go over there to talk to her.
Aunt Steph left home for a couple years, and then came back her whole life until Gammy was old and dying as I also didn’t know her, being off at school. Aunt Steph picked her up when she fell, found her on the floor one morning, having been unable to make it to the bathroom the night before. She screamed at Gammy and took orders and kissed her good night and never left again, stuck between devotion and bitterness. Gammy never could put into words what she’d done to Aunt Steph. She cried and asked for forgiveness but never said, I locked you up so many times and kept your little brother coddled.
Papa, dead two years before Gammy, was the one who wanted a big family, those were her words from a year after he died. He’d wanted a big family she’d said without anger, but she kept miscarrying, seven times, and then her lesbian pothead bipolar daughter came home from Atlanta asking for money to raise the child already in her belly.
Gammy said my hair was a rat’s nest and that she’d never have imagined that I’d be a teacher, but she was mostly quiet. She watched Fox News because she was smart and bigoted. She liked the drama, the yelling and cutting one another off, but thought the men “a little slow” and didn’t say anything about the women. I made her meals and kept the kitchen clean and we kept out of one another’s way, except once when I asked her if she missed Papa, and what it was like being married to the same person her whole life, and even if she was scared to die. She was sad, she couldn’t have imagined anything else, her back hurt all the time despite the surgeries, and she was so heavy.
I never thought Aunt Steph would lose trust in me, but when I called after months of not, she yelled at me that she didn’t have anyone left and in a calm low angry voice I said, “You say that with me on the phone, you can’t say you’re alone to someone who’s listening to you.” I was thinking, voice of reason, tough love, but you know when you’re alone. Someone repeating, “I’m here. I’m here,” sounds too much like, “Say I’m not guilty,” and all you can think about is how you’re not getting what you need from them.
Aunt Steph wanted things to stay like they were when I was ten, before puberty and self-consciousness and divorce hit all at once and I turned to sex instead of her. I caught the tiny frogs that hopped in the dirt behind her trailer and my older sister Hayley told me I was going to get warts, which she said because she got them, and I didn’t.
There was a creek down the edge of the property, and we would go as far as the fence, then back, and be gone a few hours. Aunt Steph packed strawberry Yoo-hoos and let us jump in the part of the creek that widens into a pool. Sometimes Aunt Steph would put her feet in, but it was usually too cold. She hung up our clothes and spread a towel on a nearby rock. She was incredibly tan, golden in the sun and dark brown in the shade. The hairs on her arm were an almost transparent white. She lobbed us peanut M&M’s, which she kept around because they reminded her of her pot-bellied pig Honey, to catch with our mouths. Honey was her favorite thing to talk about, second only to our parents’ breakup.
By the time we were born, Honey was dead, and Aunt Steph had started a dog grooming and boarding business, No Bones About It. There are pictures of us barking in empty dog crates, lifting above our heads pelts of shih tzu fur so matted they had to be shaved off. We loved it there, and Aunt Steph loved the work and working with Gammy, who did the books. When the shop was at its best, she had four employees. When you look at the pictures from that time, it’s clear that everyone was involved, the owner of their own specific place, and that Aunt Steph’s place was central to everyone else’s.
Whenever Aunt Steph was dating, she’d ask us what we thought. We didn’t understand why she wanted to be with anyone, but said nice things to please her and largely ignored him and his gifts. She had two brief and catastrophic marriages, and one long-term girlfriend, Miriam. We loved Miriam’s pool, and the attention from Aunt Steph, who taught us how to float on our backs. She bought us bikinis, our first, printed with American flags, and we slipped like frogs across the length of the pool.
I was twelve and Hayley was fifteen. This was our last visit before things started to go bad between me and Aunt Steph; it was as though each of the individual relationships in the family depended on my parents remaining married. Aunt Steph was single, which is how we loved her most. She’d spent the week on a tractor, mowing the forty-two acres of pasture her parents bought for nothing the year she turned seventeen. She did all the yard work in a bikini, her dog in her lap. At the end of the day, she’d ride the tractor up to the mailbox and take the bills down back to Gammy and Papa’s house, where she finally dismounted. Her butt was red and slick from the leather seat, and she had red paw prints on the fronts of her thighs, which faded gradually, and her arms gleamed with sun-tan oil and sweat. Sometimes she greeted me and Hayley with uncontrolled joy, which we met with our own, and others she was intent on some job, and we had to wait, feeling snubbed.
1975 our grandparents leveled the land to build the house and start the garden where Aunt Steph and our father spent summer mornings weeding crabgrass and snapping suckers off tomatoes. Leveled it for the grazing animals and the pond they would dig, which was the lowest point for miles around, a drain for all the surrounding pastures, and the creek’s source. Aunt Steph and Dad weeded the garden at first angrily, and then became resigned to the job, then, finally, focused. Carefully, feeling for the roots breaking off, they pulled, creating movements in the ground so small it was impossible to tell if they were sensible by sound or touch, until the plant like a carrot emerged, whole. Their parents left some woods standing along the creek. Besides the small graveyard about halfway down the driveway, and the dog kennels, the woods were my and Hayley’s favorite place to be. We dropped our clothes and jumped into the creek with the confidence we’d learned at Miriam’s, a place we were already forgetting.
Aunt Steph tossed an M&M and I caught it right as it hit the surface of the little pond, then squirted the extra water in Hayley’s face. She ignored me. She was treading water; she wanted to be a lifeguard, as Aunt Steph had been when she was fifteen. Her arms were outstretched, waving in and out of her swirling, dark-brown hair. At the start of high school, Hayley had done whatever she could to distance herself from me, which confused me until I went to college, when I was surprised to find that I had done the same to her, without trying. When I moved, little waves of water lapped in and out of her tiny serious nose.
“When Honey died, I wailed and wailed. I lived for a week on Cheerios. I don’t know what happened to her. Your Daddy calls me a hillbilly for living in the sticks with Mama and Daddy, but that day he and a friend came and trucked her away and that was it.”
Hayley gave a deep nod, as though our being two and a half years apart meant that, while I listened, she understood.
“That must have been hard for you,” she said.
I got out and began digging in Aunt Steph’s pocketbook for the Yoo-hoos. Kleenex and empty mint wrappers stuck to my fingers. I grabbed one, sweaty and dirty from the bottom of the purse, and sat back on my heels. I held it with both hands and slurped. Hayley glared, even though she knew we could hear this story any time.
I visited alone once, when Hayley was sick. Aunt Steph had a boyfriend, and we went to the fair together. He was nice and bought us things, I don’t remember what, or much else about him except that when we got home from the fair that night they started arguing and he stormed out. We were quiet for a minute, then Aunt Steph went out to the porch to smoke.
I went out after her and said, “I don’t think he’s the man for you.” She laughed and flicked her cigarette into the red-and-black ashtray that lived on the porch rail. I would go through my life without knowing how to do that. After a while we went back inside, and when a tampon commercial came on, she asked if I knew what a tampon was and then she told me. When Dad told us about sex it was way too early and we forgot until we heard about it in school. But she knew when the right time was to talk to us about things like that.
That year I was in seventh grade and my best friend Lexie Newman was the first girl in school to get her period. She bled through her dress and didn’t notice until a change of classes, when people started pointing, and then I went with her to the bathroom. We sat in the stall with the changing table and waited for everyone to get to their next class, then she took off her dress and I washed it, pumping the pink soap onto the fabric. Lexie put it on, backwards, and stood under the dryer. She took off her underwear and handed it to me, and the brownish-red blood ran in the water, which was warm.
When Aunt Steph first started school, her parents switched off weeks driving her and her best friend. It was in the fourth grade, though, when her parents left off with driving, with leaving the house at all. Her best friend’s parents became responsible for seeing her home and would often on the way pack her dinner and give her an old sweater or pair of sneakers. It was in that way she came home from school one day with the things that her parents should have bought her under her arms and found her mom alone in the house with one of her parents’ friends, a woman.
As a teenager, whenever Aunt Steph and her mom would get in a fight, Aunt Steph would bide her time before bringing it out into the open again; for years at the very last moment she would yell at her mother, she’s seventeen now and about to move out, “I wouldn’t be like this if it hadn’t been for you, what can you expect from a kid after that?” She moved to the city, Atlanta, for a few years, had a drummer girlfriend. Then she moved in with her grandmother, and, after her grandmother died, lived in that house a few years before moving back home.
Hayley got out of the water energetically, watching her arms as they lifted her, thinking probably about how good a lifeguard she’d be. I knew that she’d be great, and that I’d never go swimming while she was working. Then Aunt Steph said Hayley had nice titties, which made us both jump a bit, because of our unfamiliarity with the word. But that was just the way she talked.
We dried off and packed our clothes. Hayley cleaned up the candy wrappers, sighing, and then threw a towel at me. I let it hit me and pretended to fall over dead, but they didn’t pay attention, just started walking back to the trailer. I lagged behind, watching the pool calm, and then picked up the corner of a candy wrapper, smiling that she had missed something, and that I knew about it and she didn’t.
When I caught up, Aunt Steph was saying, “No man will ever love you like a pet will. After the beginning, it’s all about patience. It’s a matter of how long you can be the only one who’s giving.” She talked like that, as though she had to make sure to tell us the important stuff all at once, over and over again, but it made us impatient. We had plenty of time, trees and sun and time were all that place had. Hayley was making little nods and hums to show she was paying attention, and it was clear Aunt Steph had been going on about it. She said, “There’s a season for everything, and all you have to do is figure out which one you’re in.” Hayley was dodging cow patties and didn’t respond.
I said, “Dad says never get married, unless a chorus of angels breaks through the clouds when he asks.”
“When he said that he was still married to Mom, and she was basically in the next room,” Hayley said, “then he started complaining about how she loaded the forks and spoons into the dishwasher.”
This pleased Aunt Steph. Once a year she and Dad got into one of their “knock-down, drag-out” fights, and then spent the rest of the year getting friendly enough with one another to act surprised when the next fight came around.
“Did I tell you about the time your Daddy found out about me and Miriam?” She had. “He was so mad about it, and about me letting you two swim in her pool, that Papa had to come down from the house with a beer and tell him to come inside.”
This is when Aunt Steph asks if I’m gay and says it’s okay if I am. I had proof that I wasn’t—I’d made out with the boy across the street from Lexie’s house last summer, and she said I was in love with him—but the trailer had come into sight, so I started running toward the porch. Hayley passed me easily, but I kept running to an old tree stump in the front yard and said I’d won.
Aunt Steph’s second husband had been a construction worker and the best thing he ever did was build a structure around the trailer that formed a front porch in the front, and a back porch in the back. It looked like the outside of a nice house and had a low ramp, so Aunt Steph didn’t have to worry with steps. But they’d been divorced a long time now, and a tractor trailer as big as Aunt Steph’s home, full of his junk, still sat in a field on the south side of the property.
We undressed and checked one another for ticks. Hayley and I were clear, but Aunt Steph had one below her left shoulder-blade, on that part of the back that curves around the ribcage and becomes as soft as the belly, and another on her butt. Hayley went to grab the tweezers.
Aunt Steph lit a cigarette and sat down on the hanging bench. She’d been smoking since she was my age and had this horrifying cough that started up whenever she laughed. One night, we were walking back from Gammy’s house and I started imitating her. It was my favorite joke because it always made her laugh. I pushed my voice up through my nose, drew out all my vowels as long as I could, and used the words “reckon” and “y’all.” Dad’s accent disappeared early on, when they still went to school together, but Aunt Steph was country. That night walking down the gravel drive I couldn’t see her when her laughing turned into coughing, coughing that went on so long I got nauseous and yelled at her to stop.
Swinging the bench with her feet, letting her cigarette droop, she began to sing, “You are my sunshine…,” looking at me as though she were asking me something. She used to sing it to us when we were kids, but I felt awkward singing along with her now.
“I love that song,” Hayley said. She had her clothes back on and nudged the dogs back with the toes of her boot to yank the door shut. “I couldn’t find the tweezers, but brought the hydrogen peroxide. I’ll get the guys with my fingernails, they’re long.”
“What do you think that’s gonna do?” I said. “You’re gonna leave the head in and get all that dirt from under your nails in her skin.”
But Aunt Steph stood up and lifted her arm, and Hayley poured the hydrogen peroxide so it dripped all down her side. She hummed as she tried to close her fingernails around the glossy disc of the insect’s body.
“When Honey was a baby, she used to get ticks all the time, and when I couldn’t get the head, her skin would swell a little, and after a couple weeks I could pop the thing out. She didn’t fuss, didn’t seem to notice.”
Hayley kept overshooting it. Sitting on the swinging bench, swinging a little still, still naked, I watched Aunt Steph’s skin redden under Hayley’s nails.
“The same thing happens when you can’t get a splinter out, the skin swells up over a week or two, and then you barely pinch it and it comes right out,” Hayley said. She got the tick and flicked it out over the potted plants.
Aunt Steph got down on the porch. She crossed her arms under her head and tucked her feet under her butt. The position stretched the skin across her back smooth and hid her face. If her hair wasn’t gray, a stranger might have thought she was twenty.
“Our bodies want to work. As long as the pain’s constant enough, we learn to live with it, and it doesn’t distract us too much.” Her voice was muffled a bit by the floorboards. “Other kinds of pain, though, like your Mom and Dad’s, you remember that, you get nervous, sweaty, thinking about them. Years later, your body is still more theirs than your own.” As she talked, her hair was one stiff mass, seeming to nod as she spoke.
Last year, Lexie said during lunch hour that while I called her my best friend, she didn’t call me hers. It was funny, that that was the way things were, and that until then I’d felt it and hadn’t known how to express it, but that she had. Our friends at the table were surprised, but I agreed with her, said it was the way things were, and smiled.
“Got it!” Hayley held the second tick up. I walked over to get a closer look. She spun around and waved it close to my mouth, and I stuck out my tongue as if to lick it. She screamed and ran, letting me chase her for a minute. Then Aunt Steph started to stand up: she kneeled first, then held on to a beam to pull her legs straight. She shook her underwear out of her jeans and pulled it on before leaning back to drop into the swinging bench. She looked at once formidable and diminished; it was as though one condition reinforced the other. Hayley walked back up to the porch swing and I followed.
The chains creaked. Aunt Steph pushed us back and forth with her heels. She looked out into her yard—old feed cans with million bells inside, squirrels scrambling up and down the bird-feeders—and stroked Hayley’s arm. Hayley’s cheeks were pink from the sun because we never use sunscreen at Aunt Steph’s. I felt my cheeks’ pink when I saw hers. I peeled pine needles apart and threw the strands back on the ground.
I imagined what it’d be like to have Lexie to Aunt Steph’s. I’d be a little ashamed at first, of the smoke-smell inside the trailer, and the food wrappers and puppy’s messes on the puppy pads, but Lexie would be nice about it, and act like she didn’t mind. I’d show her the goats and hens and we’d watch them for a bit and then gossip about how Hayley had a crush on Lexie’s older brother, even though he had a girlfriend. Then I’d mention that day in the cafeteria and ask Lexie why she’d said what she’d said.
We had fish sticks and canned corn for supper. Aunt Steph made us rum and Coke, our first drink. We went out back for a night swim in her above-ground pool and listened again to how, when Aunt Steph was in high school, Papa had gotten a call from the sheriff to come pick her up from Jackson Lake Bridge. When Papa got there, and told her to come on home, she’d said to him, “My daddy told me not to get in the car with strangers.”
“I was high,” Aunt Steph said, “I didn’t know who he was.” She took a sip from her drink and paddled around on a floatie, using a net to swoop leaves from the surface as she went. I kicked my legs, hanging on the edge of the pool wall by my elbows. The floatie cast a pinkish shadow on her arms and on the bottom of the pool.
“Rachel, Hayley, listen. You need me, in the middle of the night down there in Florida, you call me, and I’ll be there. I won’t ask questions, I’ll get in the car and I’ll be there. You know I’ll give you everything I have. I’d give you the shirt off my back.” We never asked her for anything. Years earlier, she took us to the Atlanta Aquarium, it had just opened and had whales. After we’d made our way through, and ended up at the gift shop, Aunt Steph told us to pick something out. Aware of the admission price, I told her I didn’t want anything. She’d told me on the car ride home how rude I’d been, but it wasn’t until I was older and she was almost gone that I began to trust her, to believe that she had anything to do with what I wanted or was afraid of.
We found out that night that at my age Aunt Steph had already hotwired a car and had a boyfriend and then a few girlfriends. She said men are out for themselves, and you can’t trust women. Hayley nodded.
“I can’t imagine what I’m going to do,” Aunt Steph said, weakened by some change I couldn’t perceive. Hayley took her inside. Alone, I was suddenly aware of how thick the night was, black and dense with crickets and bullfrogs.
Hayley’s voice from the bedroom was quiet, and I knew Aunt Steph was crying. I looked at my chest, flat and shining in the blue-white light of the pool, and thought about Lexie, about who I might be friends with once I was in Florida. I would never tell her how much I’d miss her. Hayley didn’t come back out, and when I relented and went in, I found the two of them, asleep, facing one another in bed, their hands open between them.
At church the next morning, we moved through the groups of people we’d met every summer of our lives, people whose names we never remembered. We waited for the service to start while members of the congregation traded stories of wrongdoings to their family and their illnesses and their friends’ illnesses. Randy from the Masons took a fruit basket to Widow Darrell. Somebody stole thousands of dollars’ worth of tools and guns from the Pruett’s woodshed. Jackson Lake was low, and there was no expectation of rain.
Aunt Steph was generous with information: she had an insulin pump now and didn’t have to bother with the needles. Her knee was trash because the surgeons had replaced her bad knee with one a size too big. She kept her parents’ house going, even with the COPD, mowing the fields and grooming their dog. She talked in the way that country people do, telling everyone everything and then saying, “Ain’t got nothing to complain about.”
The sermon was about end times, the pastor shouted red splotches into his face and sweat down his shirt. A woman in a black skirt and a ruffled purple button-up fell over, muttering.
After church, we drove up to meet Mom halfway between Aunt Steph’s place and where we were moving to in Florida. Hayley and I were a little queasy from the night before, so we were mostly quiet until we got in a fight about whether she’d gotten the entire ticks out. Hayley said I didn’t know what I was talking about, which was true, but I liked how I held her attention while we argued.
After Gammy died, Aunt Steph was intent on me sleeping with her in Gammy’s bed. She kept on asking me to, and I kept avoiding it until, after a few months, I couldn’t anymore. Aunt Steph was on Gammy’s side, and I was on Papa’s, and although she’d bought a new headboard, the mattress was the same mattress as the one where, as a kid, after a bad dream, she slept at the foot. Sometimes her mother would wake when Aunt Steph came in and, suddenly sober in the middle of the night, touch Aunt Steph’s kid-back with her toes, surprised as much by the force of her affection as by her daughter’s presence. The same surprise again, years later, when Aunt Steph put her to bed in that room. There are people that we can’t explain ourselves to, and it’s then that we most resemble God. Our explanations aren’t sufficient even to ourselves, so we know that it’s better not to attempt them. Aunt Steph curled around me, put her arm over my side. She always said, I’d lay my body over the tracks for you. I love you more, she’d say, and look at me, and I’d feel, as she intended me to feel, how I’d failed her.