By Karen Brode
“Here ya go, Betty.” Aunt Mavis had just vacuumed the shag carpet in the living room and handed me what looked like a small rake. “Take this and make all the little shaggy pieces go in the same direction. Do you think you can do that?”
It didn’t matter that I was 10. My mother’s oldest sister always spoke to me like I was a toddler.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said pretending enthusiasm. Aunt Mavis had a rule in her house that we couldn’t watch television during the day. I thought if I helped out, though, she might bend the rules a little.
“Do you think after I’m done here I could watch The Mickey Mouse Club? Please?” I asked with as much politeness as I could.
“Oh, honey, no,” said Aunt Mavis. “We can’t turn the television on during the day.” And with no further explanation, she turned and walked back into the kitchen.
I sighed and set about the work of raking the threads of carpet until they looked like brushed hair. Since arriving at Aunt Mavis’s house in Beaumont, I had been bored to the extreme. I knew going into it she was strict about pretty much everything, but the rule about not watching TV during the day just about killed me. At home, I never missed an episode of Mickey Mouse, and for the last couple of days, I hadn’t even gotten to sing along with the opening song.
The thought crossed my mind that this no-television-during-the-day might be a religious rule I had missed out on. Aunt Mavis was the most religious person I knew. I wondered with fear if I had somehow sinned by watching it everyday. And then I worried that I might have to give up TV in order to go to heaven.
“It was raining, dear when I met you,” sang my aunt from the kitchen. “You smiled, the sun shone through.”
For all her rules and restrictions, she had a beautiful voice. But she stopped mid-verse and came barreling back into the living room.
“Oh, Betty,” she said. “I just remembered I’ve invited Althea Morgan to dinner, along with our other guests from church.”
I stopped raking and stared at her. It was probably the first time she had spoken to me like I was halfway grown up.
“I don’t know if I’m going to have enough food,” she continued. She counted on her fingers. “Let’s see. There’s your mother and you. That’s two. Plus Brother and Sister DeMent. They’ve never been here before.” She held up four fingers. “Then Sister Morgan and myself. That’s six!” Without another look at me, she turned back to the kitchen and said, “I know I’m not going to have enough food.”
I listened for a moment while Aunt Mavis’s thick-soled shoes squeaked on the linoleum floor. She mumbled to herself about salt for the ice cream maker and more green beans. She probably didn’t realize I was listening because I heard her say, “That Althea can eat as much as two people.”
I bit my tongue to keep from laughing. Aunt Mavis was no skinny minnie herself. In fact, as I meandered through the dining room to join her in the kitchen, I noticed the treadmill that sat in the corner. I couldn’t imagine that she had ever used it. She certainly didn’t look it, at least not from the waist down.
“Aunt Mavis,” I said. “Could I go to the park?” I looked out the kitchen window to the kids playing and chasing each other just beyond. If I couldn’t watch TV, maybe I could at least go have some fun with kids my age.
She stopped her muttering and looked at me with what came across as a warning. “No, you may not, young lady. Your mother is asleep and I don’t want to have to explain to her that you went to the park and got yourself kidnapped. You have no idea what kind of people hang out there, just waiting for little girls like you to go there by themselves.”
Outside the window, a couple of little girls giggled on a swing set. They seemed to be having a race to see who could go the highest. They squealed every time they flew a little higher. I didn’t see any of the bad people Aunt Mavis warned me about. It took everything in me not to make a run for it.
“When was the last time you brushed your hair?” she asked.
Just then, Mother wandered into the kitchen yawning. “I slept too hard” she said. “That bus trip yesterday just wore me out!”
“If you and Betty would just get in your car and come here rather than taking the bus, it would be a lot easier on you,” Aunt Mavis scolded.
Mother had many reasons for not driving on long trips. Usually it had something to do with drunk drivers running us off the road, but she didn’t say anything in response to my aunt. She knew better than to argue with her older sister.
“We’re going to have to make another run to the grocery store,” said Aunt Mavis. “I forgot that I invited Althea Morgan. She eats as much as two. Besides I forgot the rock salt for the ice cream maker.”
“Betty, go get your shoes on,” Mother said.
Before I could move, Aunt Mavis stopped me with a touch on my shoulder.
“I’ve got a cake in the oven,” she said. “I need Betty to stay here and watch it.”
“But Mavis,” said Mother. “Leave her here alone? After what happened to you?”
The tone in my mother’s voice sent shivers down my spine, but that was nothing compared to what it did to my aunt. She swayed and leaned heavily on my shoulder. The blood ran out of her face and her eyes glistened.
“I’m sorry,” my mother said. “I shouldn’t have….”
Aunt Mavis moved to a chair and plopped into it with a thud.
I looked at my mom and whispered, “What happened.” She shook her head and put a finger to her lips.
“She’ll hear about it one day, Mildred,” said my aunt, her voice sounding milky and sad. “She might as well hear about it now.”
“She’s too young,” said my mother, but Aunt Mavis held up her hand and my mother bit her lip. When it came to my aunt, her rule was law.
“Betty, you need to know,” said Aunt Mavis. “Come sit.” She pointed to a chair next to her. When I sat down, she grabbed my hand and closed her eyes.
“There are bad people out there,” she said. “One of those bad people crawled through a window one night and robbed me.”
My hand tightened in hers. I looked around at the windows that I could see in her house and wondered which one he came through.
“But that’s not all, honey,” she continued. “I came home before he got out of the house.” She exhaled a rattled breath. “And he…he forced me onto the floor in the dining room and…raped me.”
The word rang in my ears. I had heard it before, but I didn’t know yet what it meant. Even without the meaning, I knew it was more horrifying than anything I could imagine. I felt sweat drip down my back and I shuddered.
Aunt Mavis squeezed my hand while my mother picked up a napkin and blew her nose.
I shut my eyes and tried to block it all out, to forget about it. But it was no use. Now everything in the house was tainted with this horror.
“Where was….” I could hardly breathe, much less speak. “Where was Uncle Lloyd?” I finally squeaked.
“Oh, honey,” Aunt Mavis sobbed. “He and your cousin Bruce were already gone.” She pulled a napkin from the table and wept into it.
“I’m sorry,” she said pulling herself upright. “I just never get past losing my son.”
Her son? I thought. What about that man and being…. I couldn’t even think the word.
“If only Lloyd would’ve handed me the phone that night,” Aunt Mavis continued. “I would have gotten to talk to Bruce one more time, but by the time I got there.”
No family ever admits that one child is more loved than the others, but everyone can see in all families that there’s the favorite one and there’s the not so favorite one. No parent would ever admit to loving one child over another, but it is a fact. And in Aunt Mavis’s family everyone knew that she worshipped Bruce while she only tolerated her other children. Even I knew that and I had never met him.
“What happened to him?” I asked. I had heard the story before and it didn’t scare me as much as the other one, so I asked, hoping it might take away some of my fear.
“He was a traveling salesman,” Aunt Mavis said with a sniff. “He died taking a corner too fast. His car slid off the road and he hit a utility pole.” She trembled while she dabbed at her eyes. “I never got to say goodbye.”
Mother took Aunt Mavis’s hand and gave me a look that told me to keep quiet.
“Come, now, Mavis. You’ve got guests coming. Let’s get to the store before it’s too late.”
“But somebody’s got to stay with the cake,” Aunt Mavis said, her voice still shaky.
“I’ll do that,” Mother said. “You take Betty with you. She’ll be good company and won’t ask you any questions about bad things. Will you, Betty?”
“No, Mother,” I said, relieved to hear I wouldn’t have to stay in the house by myself.
Aunt Mavis stood and lumbered to the oven with the napkin still crumpled in her hand. When she got there, she pulled open the door and jiggled the pans inside. Not satisfied with how done they were, she closed the door and turned back to face Mother and me. Her face was stony, like she was trying to lock all those memories back in the shadows of her mind.
Her voice was far away when she said. “I learned long ago that life isn’t fair and there’s nothing I can do about it.” She looked at Mother and then at me. Her eyes didn’t really focus, though. I felt like she was talking to ghosts instead of real people. “I can’t let these things bother me. I’ve got to pick up and move on.”
“Betty, go get your shoes on,” she said. I jumped to hear her say my name. She just seemed so distant. I halfway didn’t expect her to know I was standing in front of her, let alone to know I needed to put my shoes on. “Maybe change your dress while you’re at it,” she continued. “You look like you’ve been living in that one.”
Somehow I took comfort in hearing my aunt tell me what to do. I was more used to that than to the woman who stood in front of me, vulnerable and sad.
It didn’t occur to me until after we got on the road that Mother was left behind in the house by herself. My worry for her increased until Aunt Mavis had checked out with all her groceries and we started back.
But my worries began again as my aunt wove her way through streets I didn’t recognize. I had taken the route to and from the grocery store enough to be familiar with certain landmarks. As we went along, though, residential streets gave way to strip malls, fast food joints, and seedy motels.
My heart hammered. I knew we were getting lost. We were getting further and further from Mother and that tainted house. I didn’t dare say a word, though. I was too young to tell my aunt what to do.
Finally, she looked at the local businesses we were passing and must have realized we weren’t where we were supposed to be.
“Oh, now, Betty,” she said looking over at me and smiling. “We’ll make our way back in time. Don’t you worry.”
But I was worried. I knew that look. As much as she tried to hide it, she was confused. I was afraid we’d never get home and that some horrible man was in Aunt Mavis’s house hurting Mother. Still, I had been brought up respect my elders, so I nodded and attempted a smile.
It wasn’t long before Aunt Mavis pulled the car over to the side of the road. She looked out of her window toward a river we had followed for several miles. The sun was starting to set in the distance. The sky was orange and purple. After a few minutes in complete silence, she turned and looked at me as if seeing me for the first time.
“Do you know where my house is?” she asked.
Karen Brode is a senior contributor for Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, TX and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married 39 years and they have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.