A Memoir by Mike Wilson
“Aunt Lynn wants to see you.” That’s what my father says to me, but the way he says it implies there’s something else being said that I don’t understand. I am knee-high to the adults crowded inside Aunt Lynn’s house. I’ve never been to Aunt Lynn’s house before, or even to Tennessee. All the aunts and uncles are here, but everyone is serious and no one sits down. The adults seem taller today, their heads huddled in a cloud I can’t reach. I don’t see Aunt Lynn anywhere.
I slip out the back door. I am reassured by the sight of our brand new 1959 Ford, but everything else is strange. Aunt Lynn’s backyard is pine trees, no grass. I’ve never seen a backyard with no grass. I wonder if all the houses in Cleveland, Tennessee are like this. The ground is carpeted with brown pine needles. I slip under the shade of the pine trees and kick pine cones on the ground. I pick them up and compare them, choose the best ones, drop them on the ground.
I look for sticks. There are hardly any good ones. Most of them are old and brittle. I break them unless they are too thick to break. I find one that’s still green. I whip it against a tree. Then I drop the stick on the ground because it’s not fun. I wonder what to do. It almost feels wrong to be doing anything, but I don’ know why.
An older cousin joins me in the pines. Then another. They walk around without any real purpose. But their faces are different, as if they are looking at something far away. If my cousins know what’s going on, they’re not telling me. The back door opens, and I see my Dad’s face. He looks serious.
“Aunt Lynn wants to see you.”
I run to the back door and follow him inside. But he rejoins the adults who are still talking. Even though he is ignoring me, I understand I’m not free to go back outside. I stand around beneath the adults like a random toy someone forgot to put away. Then my dad looks down at me. “Let’s go see Aunt Lynn.”
Dad puts his hand on my back and guides me out of the room to a dark, narrow hallway. We stop in front of a closed door and stand there. After a moment, the door opens, and my cousin Bette comes out. Bette is almost the same age as me, just a little older. She’s wearing a red dress. I’ve never seen her in a dress before. She passes by without speaking. Dad pushes me into the room. I see a wide bed with a shiny white bedspread.
“Come on in, Mike.”
It’s Aunt Lynn’s voice. I look at my dad. He nods. I walk into Aunt Lynn’s bedroom and hear the door click shut behind me.
“Mike, come over here.”
I walk to the bed and stand beside her. Her hair seems especially black against the white pillow and sheets. She reaches for my hand and takes hold of it. Her hand is soft and her grip is strong.
“Mike you are such a good boy. I’m so glad you came to visit me!”
I feel her pushing her words into my body through her hand that is holding mine, like water pushing through a garden hose. Her face is yellowish and there is dried stuff around the edges of her lips, like boogers, crusty.
“I want you to visit again. Did you know we can go the swimming pool? And they have ice cream at the pool. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“We’ll go the pool and have ice cream, the next time you come, okay?”
She talks more about how much fun we will have when I visit. She describes the swimming pool. It’s hard for me to hear everything she says because I keep looking at her face, at the crusty white things around her lips, at her eyes that are lively and her skin that is sallow.
Finally, she thanks me again for coming. I can tell it’s time to go. She gives my hand a squeeze and then pulls hers away. The light goes out of her eyes. Her head sinks into the pillow like a thimble dropped into a jar of cotton balls.
“Goodbye,” I hear her say, not much louder than a whisper. I say goodbye back. My goodbye sounds different than hers.
I quickly walk to the door, open it, close it behind me. I feel safer now that I’m out of Aunt Lynn’s bedroom. No one is in the hall, but I find my way back to the living room. Adults are still talking, but not as many. My dad sees me, pats me on the back, says something I understand means that I did something good. Then he turns back to the adults.
I slip out the back door and return to the pines. I don’t do anything, just walk around and feel the space between the trees. I don’t know what I was supposed to have done with Aunt Lynn. I think not knowing means I probably didn’t do it right.
* * *
Mike Wilson’s work has appeared in magazines including The Pettigru Review, Fiction Southeast, Mud Season Review, The Saturday Evening Post, Deep South Magazine, Still: The Journal, Barely South Review, and Anthology of Appalachian Writers Vol. X. He’s author of Arranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic (Rabbit House Press, 2020), political poetry for a post-truth world, and resides in Lexington, Kentucky.