By Karen Brode
The window air conditioner unit was turned up to “high” and if there had been a “very high” setting, Minnie would have turned it to that. It was only 10 AM, but in north Texas in June, window units ran continuously.
Minnie had put a chicken and a ham in her oven early that morning. She would serve this along with seasoned greens, potatoes, garden vegetables, cornbread and rolls, and several choices of desserts. And then there was always Neapolitan ice cream in her freezer. Minnie reassured herself that she had made a scrumptious and appetizing lunch for her special guest, her niece, Julia.
Minnie had several nieces from both brothers. Julia was one of them. She was 19 years old, the picture of youth and beauty. Minnie was so excited to have her niece visit for a week. Her visit was the closest Minnie could get to her beloved baby brother, Leon who had died suddenly a few years back when he had suffered his second and last heart attack at the age of 45. Minnie had no idea why both her brothers – who had children – were taken so young when she was left childless and alive. She resented the injustice of that.
It wasn’t that she had a death wish, exactly. It’s just that she had bothersome thoughts that she had let all her nieces down by allowing their fathers to die so young. She felt she was somehow responsible because she had outlived them. She would have gladly died instead of either one of them. But they were both gone and here she was was left to try and make their daughters as happy as possible.
With everything just about ready for Julia’s visit, Minnie felt content enough to take a few minutes to sit down and relax. That is, relax as much as Minnie ever felt safe enough to relax. She sat in her recliner in the corner of her living room and chugged back a Tab soft drink until the can was almost empty. She was like her father that way. She could almost drink an entire soft drink without stopping for breath. This was especially easy for her to do when she was nervous, and that was most of the time.
Julia arrived at the expected time and, after settling in, she planted herself in the cushioned chair by the front door. Minnie couldn’t help wonder if she chose that particular seat in case she couldn’t stand any more and had to rush out the door quickly.
Minnie watched her beautiful niece from the kitchen.
Gosh she was thin, Minnie thought.
Minnie looked at all the food she had prepared and looked back at her skinny niece. She wondered if she had prepared the kinds of things that Julia would eat. She didn’t want Julia to get skinnier!
Or maybe Julia was still grieving her father’s death. There were still many days when Minnie could not bear to think that Leon was gone from this earth, never to sit at her dining table again, never to keep everyone entertained by his stories, never to talk to her again in that special way that only he and Minnie had. He had been her touchstone, someone who would always understand.
Minnie dabbed at her eyes thinking back on these things. Leon had kept alive all of the family times they both remembered. He remembered her when she was young. He saw all of her and loved her anyway. He knew her secrets and her fears. He also remembered how impossible their mother had been.
Sometimes, Leon would hold Minnie’s hand while she poured her heart out to him about all of her sadness and he would listen attentively. She knew he was really listening; not pretending to listen like other people. She got relief and consolation from those visits. It was as if she could breathe again.
The night Minnie got the call about Leon’s death she had run up and down the road in front of her house screaming. She felt so alone, so frightened. She was not only scared. She was angry. She didn’t want to go on living in a world without Leon.
Minnie wiped her eyes and looked again at her niece. She was reading a book. Minnie squinted to make out the title – “Narcissus and Goldmund.” Minnie had never been much of a reader outside of the Bible and book in which someone overcame great adversity to win in the end. She had to read books like that. She had this hope about her own life – that maybe, if she was good enough, wise enough, and nice enough, her life would at least end well.
Minnie wanted people to love her. It was all she had ever really wanted. She had worked her fingers to the bone, said her prayers every night, went to church every Sunday, baked hams for bereaved families, lived a life that had no dark spots, and yet, she wasn’t a happy person.
When she lay down to sleep at night, her worry never stopped. She laid on her back with her head on the pillow and her hands on her belly. Her worry was visible in her thumbs as they went round and round each other. Sometimes, if the night was worse than most, she got up and went in the living room to read. She had had some kind of heart problem since she was 18. The doctor had told her to think twice about having children. She hadn’t said anything at the time, but in her mind, she was thinking – not much chance of that.
The first day of Julia’s visit had passed awkwardly, Minnie thought. She had done everything she could think of to feed and entertain her niece, but all Julia seemed interested in was sitting on the chair reading that book.
When she couldn’t take it anymore, Minnie put her Tab drink down and asked, “Would you like a piece of strawberry icebox pie, Julia? I made it especially for you.”
Julia looked up at Minnie in a blank way.
“No, I’m not hungry,” she said. “But thank you.”
Then she turned back to staring at the page in her book and Minnie’s worry-go-round ratcheted up to a new level.
She was relieved, then, when a knock came at the door. She was even more relieved to see her Kelly standing there. Kelly was another niece from her other brother. She was 16 years old and reminded Minnie of herself. She was so eager to please and didn’t want to let anyone down. Minnie thought for sure that everything would go well with Julia now that she had someone more her age to talk to.
It was clear after a few minutes, however, that Kelly felt just as self-conscious as Minnie did in front of Julia. Before long, they were all three silent in the little living room. The window air conditioner whirred on, its fan ticking away the excruciating minutes.
Minnie looked from Kelly to Julia and back to Kelly again. She tried to get Kelly to say something, anything, to entertain her guest. But Kelly shrugged and her eyes were wide with uncertainty.
How could this go on for a whole week, Minnie wondered.
Finally, Kelly spoke up.
“Uh, Julia, do you like crossword puzzles?” Kelly held out a book she had carried with her.
Julia looked up from her book. Her shiny black hair was flipped up at her shoulders in Marlo Thomas fashion and it bounced as she shook her head.
“Not really,” she said. She sounded bored.
Kelly nodded and seemed to take this as a cue to work on her crosswords by herself. She pulled out a pencil and sat staring down at a page she had turned to, her tongue sticking out on one side in concentration.
Even so, Minnie detected Kelly’s own discomfort. Or maybe she was just uncomfortable enough for the both of them. She watched Kelly shift in her seat, look up at Julia, and then look back down at her book.
Then Minnie looked over at Julia and wondered for the first time how long she had been reading that same page. She worried they had disturbed her too much. Maybe she couldn’t concentrate because of them.
Finally, though, it was too much. Minnie couldn’t take the silence anymore. Julia could read her book any time, but she was in Minnie’s care now and Minnie wanted her to enjoy herself.
“Kelly, why don’t you and Julia go for a walk?” Minnie said. The words tumbled out of her mouth in a burst of impatience with the whole situation. Sweat ran down her face at having spent the last few minutes racking her brain trying to come up with something. By the time an idea finally occurred, she had crossed the line from worry into complete misery. She felt no choice but to blurt it out.
Kelly looked up from her book. Minnie knew that look. She was restraining herself from rolling her eyes. Kelly knew better than to roll her eyes.
Instead, her dear niece stood up and asked, “Julia, would you like to go on a walk?”
Minnie knew Kelly would be just as miserable out in the Texas heat with a silent cousin as they all were inside the little room that was cool for more reasons than just the air conditioner.
Julia nodded and Minnie nearly squealed in delight! She was doing something! Julia would not be miserable after all!
Minnie watched her two nieces walk out of her yard and down the gravel road. It was a road Minnie walked almost every day. Despite her weight problem and inability to follow a diet more than a day, she did try to offset the damage to her heart by walking a little each day. There was a tree about half a mile down the road that she would walk to and then she’d turn and walk back.
She knew—or hoped—the girls would walk farther than that. She worried for them, though. What if a pack of dogs or a car full of boys or a hunter with a gun came along and threatened them somehow?
Minnie took a few tentative steps off her front porch. She thought about following the girls on their walk, but she knew she would never be able to keep up. Instead, she stood on the porch and waited for them to come home.
Kelly couldn’t believe Aunt Minnie had stuck her alone with her cousin. Besides being intimidatingly beautiful, Julia was practically silent all the time.
The two cousins walked down the gravel road to the tree Minnie walked to each day. The only sound between them was the crunch of the gravel beneath their feet. Kelly’s earlier attempts to engage her cousin had been met with shrugs and more silence, so she decided it would be on Julia to break the silence.
With each step it became more difficult for Kelly to keep to her resolution. She had noticed they were wearing similar sandals and would normally have mentioned it as a way of bonding, but she bit her lip and walked on.
Kelly took the time, then, to think about their Aunt Minnie. She looked back toward the house and saw their old aunt standing on the front porch. She looked so earnest and kind of pitiful, even from a distance.
Kelly looked back at her cousin and wondered why she was always so quiet. She was pretty sure that her mother had told Julia how to feel about their aunt – maybe she had told her how to feel about the whole family, even Kelly. She wondered if Julia realized how much Julia’s mother had sabotaged her relationship with everyone. She wondered if she knew how much their aunt loved her and how much she wanted to please her.
In the past, before Julia became so silent about everything, she had told Kelly how brainwashed people could be. Kelly had wondered if this was a way to break her out of her own Minnie-imposed prison, to save Kelly from the same worries and pressures that Minnie put on herself. At the time, she admired Julia for saying these things and trying to help her not be like Minnie, but now she wondered if Julia knew how much she, too, had been brainwashed by people like her own mother.
It’s not that Julia’s mother was mean, especially not to Kelly, but she had always kept an arm’s distance, just like Julia was doing. Minnie loved all of them, especially Julia’s mother, Kate, if for no other reason than because Kate was Leon’s wife. Kelly didn’t think the love was reciprocated on the part of Kate, but she would never say that to her Aunt Minnie.
During one of the visits Kate and Julia made to Minnie’s house after Leon had died, Aunt Kate had sat in Minnie’s living room knitting. Kate was beautiful, just like her daughter, and very accomplished. She was so different from anyone Kelly had been around, including Minnie and her own mother. Kate was a principal at a grade school. Her evenings were taken up with all kinds of activities and classes that would further her education.
If that weren’t enough, Kate was elegant in appearance. She wore her hair in a style that would’ve been impossible for Minnie. There were combs and pins involved in her hair-do, whereas Minnie had curly, unforgiving hair. She had given up on such a style long ago.
During their visit to Aunt Minnie’s house, other relatives had been called by Minnie to celebrate their visit. The living room was filled with family. Minnie had invited all the nearby relatives and even some from further away. She was never happier than when she could get a bunch of relatives together.
During this visit, Kate put her knitting down and looked at Kelly in a way that made her nervous.
“You will be graduating high school in a couple of years,” Kate said. “You should come to Knoxville and stay with me and go to the university there.”
Kelly looked from her Aunt Kate to her Aunt Minnie. Minnie was beaming, but Kelly knew she would never take her aunt up on such an offer. She suspected her aunt knew this as well—that the offer was merely to win points with Minnie and not genuine. And of course, Minnie would never suspect such manipulation. She was completely innocent of guile or duplicity.
Uncle Leon had taught at the university in Knoxville. Kelly tried to imagine how it would be to be able to say her last name in a place where that last name was a good name, a respected name, an important name. She wouldn’t have to stammer and be bashful about her last name because of what her brother had done to their name. Kelly thought about all the times people looked at her when they realized who her brother was. There was always a look of judgment, always a sense that they had put her in the same box with him. It was a hard row to hoe, as Minnie would have said.
Kelly never went to Knoxville for university. Until she was married and took another man’s name, she never knew what it was like to be proud of her last name.
In the meantime, there she was walking in silence with her cousin Julia, not really sure what the future held, only knowing that she didn’t want to be the one to break the great silence.
As Julia and she came to the first turn, Kelly looked ahead and saw the sunlight dappling through the shade of the trees on either side of the road.
She had just about decided to break the silence to point out such beauty when a snake fell from a tree about six feet in front of them.
Kelly jumped and screamed. Even in her panic she felt embarrassed doing all this in front of her cousin who, predictably, remained calm.
Without thinking, Kelly picked up a large piece of gravel and threw it at the snake. Amazingly, it hit the snake right in the head and killed it.
“I…I don’t know how I did that,” Kelly said, completely forgetting her pact with herself about the silence.
“It’s impressive,” Julia said, nodding.
Kelly looked over at her cousin and felt something like pride and bashfulness wash over her.
“I don’t think I could do that again in a million years,” she said, stammering a little.
She looked back at the dead snake and rubbed her arms at the shudder of adrenaline and fear pumping through her.
“Mind if we head back?” Kelly said, turning before Julia agreed.
Julia nodded and they started back to the house.
Kelly thought of Minnie then. Maybe they weren’t so alike after all. Whenever Minnie had come across a snake, she went into some kind of trance. Her husband had always had to rescue her whenever it happened – and, living in the country, it happened at least a couple of times a year. She would stand in the yard and scream, but she couldn’t move.
Kelly felt distantly responsible for Minnie’s fear of snakes. After all, it had been her father who had terrorized Minnie with them. If Minnie could be at fault for not having died in the place of Kelly’s father, it stood to reason that Kelly was at fault for Minnie’s phobia.
Kelly shook her head and sighed as she and her cousin walked toward the house. But for the fear of snakes, she and her aunt were exactly alike!
Karen Brode is a senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas 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.