By Karen Brode
It seemed like we had been waiting hours for my Aunt Opal to get ready to go. For a while, I had paced around the living room and kitchen like my mother. She spent the time cleaning up here and tidying there. Every now and then, she’d look down at her watch and frown. There were two little lines in between her eyebrows that were only visible when Aunt Opal visited. On this day, they etched more deeply with every minute that passed.
Finally, I got tired of standing around, so I flopped into an upholstered chair in the living room and closed my eyes. My stomach growled.
Mother gave me an apologetic look and hollered from the hallway, “Cleo is waiting for us, Opal! She’s probably got lunch on the table by now.”
Opal swung open the door and swished out of the bathroom. “Keep your skirt on, Hazel,” she said. “It’s not like Cleo’s gonna go hungry.”
Opal ambled down the hall. Her large hips curved out from her thin upper half, giving the impression that she had been sewn together from the parts of two different body types. If anyone was going to pull it off, though, it was my Aunt Opal.
All my life I had heard about how she had been the beautiful one in the family. It seemed that, even now, even though age had settled into her features and her hair had started to thin, she wasn’t going to give up on that title. That explained the expensive night cream and why she brushed her hair 100 strokes everyday, but as a ten-year-old girl with a growling stomach, I had a hard time understanding why somebody would need so long to get ready for lunch.
After what seemed like another eternity, we finally got in the car. Mother drove, I sat in back, and Opal settled into the passenger seat. The first thing she did was pull the windshield visor down to look at herself in the mirror. I had to keep from rolling my eyes at this. Hadn’t she just been doing that in the bathroom?
She grinned up into the mirror and examined her front-most teeth. “Lately, this lipstick’s been rubbing off on my teeth,” she said. “I don’t know what it is. I try to look my best and then things like this happen.”
She took her index finger and rubbed at the flakes of rose pink lipstick that swam along her teeth.
As Mother moved the car out of the driveway, Opal snapped the mirror closed and leaned back in her seat.
“I’m sure glad Neal won’t be there,” she said with an air of relief. “It was lucky for Cleo that he went quickly and didn’t linger.”
I felt the car jerk a little and looked over at Mother. Even from where I sat, I could tell she was angry. Her ears turned a little pink and her grip on the steering wheel tightented.
“How could you say that?” she asked. “Cleo is our sister. She loved Neal so much.”
“Well, it’s the truth,” Opal said. “That Neal was an odd duck. He just glared and glared. Never said a word.” She looked over at mother and made her eyes wide in a crazy stare.
Mother had always taught me to respect the dead, even if we didn’t like them when they were alive. I looked around the car, feeling uneasy about what it might mean for my aunt to talk this way about my dead uncle. It seemed to me like she was asking for trouble.
“Whether he was odd or not doesn’t matter,” Mother said after a moment. “Cleo loved him. She misses him and here you are going to lunch at her house happy about his death.”
“Oh good grief. Give me a little credit. I’m not going to say anything. Mother taught me manners, too!”
I could tell from my mother’s silence she was thinking the same thing I was—if Opal had manners, why didn’t she use them all the time?
“I never had one conversation with Neal,” Opal continued. “Lord knows, I tried! What kind of conversation can you have with someone who doesn’t talk back?”
The lines between my mother’s eyebrows deepened even more and her mouth tightened to a puckered line.
“So you’re mad at me now,” Opal said. “Just because I said how I felt about Neal? It’s not like you adored him. We both know how controlling he was. She couldn’t say a word without his permission and you know how much she loves to talk.”
Mother stayed quiet. She had always told me, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all and I could tell she was doing her best to say something nice.
Opal seemed to get the hint. She stared out her passenger window and was blessedly quiet for a little while.
When she turned from the window, though, she started back up. “You remember that he lived with his mother, don’t you? What kind of grown man lives with his mother?”
“Opal, you need to stop thinking about anyone but yourself,” my mother finally said. “You are the only person in this world that you can control.”
Opal’s head turned so fast to face Mother, I thought it might snap off. Her face was disbelief and surprise.
“Hazel, I have never in my life tried to control anyone!” She shifted in her seat a little and wiped off some imaginary dust particles from her dress. “Sure, I’ve tried to make helpful suggestions, but that’s not the same as controlling people.”
She pulled the mirror open again and then shut it as if she had had an epiphany.
“Let’s just face it, Cleo was not pretty, not terribly smart, and she towered over most of the boys. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not putting her down. I’m simply saying what happened. By the time Neal came around, she was 18 and had never had a real boyfriend. If a few more months had gone by, she would have been declared a spinster. I mean, let’s just call a spade a spade. She was desperate.”
“Opal, Cleo has had a relatively happy life,” Mother said. “Just keep your opinions to yourself.”
“I’m a solid citizen of the United States,” Opal said. “I would like to know when my freedom of speech was taken away.”
Mother sighed. I knew that sigh. It was the one that meant she felt helpless to do or say more. Her next words were quiet, tired. “Just try to be nice, please.”
“I am the nicest person in the world,” my aunt said. But for just a moment, when she turned and looked out the window, I thought I saw doubt creep across her face.
We had gone several more blocks before Opal turned to face my mother. “Do you know that Cleo didn’t even know how to spell her second child’s name when she gave birth? Anybody in their right mind would have wondered or asked someone how the name Juanelle was spelled, but she obviously didn’t know or care because I saw the birth certificate. She had written it with a W, like the way it’s pronounced. But that’s not how you spell that name! I wanted to say something to her, but I decided to be nice. I didn’t want to cause trouble.”
My mother’s face was weary. I knew she had hoped this would be a happy occasion for Cleo to see her sister. She had been so lonely after Uncle Neal had died. She seemed to be rethinking the value in having Opal there as a way to boost Cleo’s morale.
“Opal,” she said. “Let’s think happy thoughts. Cleo needs us to brighten her day, not bring her down more.”
Opal blinked at Mother a few times and then she sat up straight, as if a jolt of electricity had come through the bottom of her seat.
“Oh, Hazel,” she said. “I just remembered what it was I have been wanting to tell you.”
Mother blinked at my aunt and then turned her eyes back to the road. The shift in tone seemed to surprise both of us. There was something in Opal’s urgency that made me lean forward and listen harder.
“You’re never going to guess,” she continued. “What is the strangest information you could hear about our sister Jewel?”
Opal and Jewel both lived in Fort Smith, Arkansas. They usually traveled together to visit the family, but on this occasion, Opal came alone because Jewel had to work. I can remember Mother’s disappointment in learning that her other sister couldn’t come. The truth was, Mother and Jewel were the best of friends and Opal was much more difficult to deal with when Jewel wasn’t there as a buffer.
Mother smiled. “I know she isn’t pregnant!”
“No, but it’s almost as bad,” Opal said. “She’s met someone at church.”
“That’s not a bad thing, I don’t think,” Mother said.
“His name is Tommy,” Opal continued. “What grown man calls himself Tommy?” Her smile spread across her face, but it wasn’t the kind of smile somebody gets when they’re happy for someone. It’s the kind of smile my aunt got when she had gossip to share. It was always mean gossip, too, and wasn’t something I liked that much. I turned to look out the window and forget about the conversation, but my aunt had a way of talking that was hard to ignore.
“Well, you know Jewel isn’t classically beautiful like I am, but she has a certain sweetness of spirit. He tried to sit by me at first, but I didn’t want some old guy hanging around, so I moved as far away as I could just as soon as he sat down. But our Jewel is so gullible. He just had to smile at her once and she smiled back. Needless to say, they’ve been sitting together in church for almost a month and he takes her out for dinner all the time.”
I didn’t know why it would be bad for my aunt to sit with a man from church, so I looked over at Mother. She seemed genuinely interested, if not outright concerned for Aunt Jewel.
“Where did he come from?” she asked. “Has she met any of the rest of his family?”
“No,” Aunt Opal said. Her eyes were wide with conspiracy. “Conveniently, they all seem to be dead. Our sister is acting like a teenager. She keeps asking me which dress she should wear to go out with him for supper or picnics on Saturdays.” Opal shifted in her seat and dabbed a finger at the curls along her temple. “It’s almost more than I can stand, to tell the truth.”
She was quiet for a breath or two, but Mother didn’t say anything, so she continued.
“The other church people are just horrified. Althea Morgan took an instant dislike to him, but I think it’s only because he didn’t try to take her out. I guess my standards are just too high. I’ll never find another Lloyd.”
She smiled over at Mother and then said, “You’ll get to see for yourself. He’s coming with Jewel next month when she comes to visit you.”
Mother gasped. “I hope you told Jewel that a man will not be sleeping under my roof under any circumstances. I have a little girl to think about.” Her eyes flashed up to the rearview mirror and we made eye contact. I suddenly had a feeling of dread at meeting this Tommy person. What if bad people did go to church?
Opal must have gotten the reaction she was looking for. She grinned from ear to ear. Her tone was more serious, though, when she said, “I’m just trying to give you some advanced warning. I don’t like to see people blind-sided.”
Good old Opal. Always there to help.
Finally, we arrived at Aunt Cleo’s house. I couldn’t have been more ready to eat and be rid of some of these conversations about terrible men. I loved Aunt Cleo. She had the most interesting collection of things on her front porch that were constantly for sale. If I hadn’t been starving, I would have stopped to look at all the toys and books she had out there. It was always changing. I never knew where she got the stuff she sold, but for a kid, it was fascinating to look through.
I could see that Aunt Opal didn’t agree, though. She canned the porch and then raised her eyebrows at my mother. Mother glared back at her with her warning eyes and anything my aunt might have said disappeared behind haughty eyes.
When we went into the living room, though, Opal couldn’t hide her disgust of all the piles of clothes and stacks of books and boxes filled with knickknacks.
After Cleo gave us all hugs, my aunt seemed apologetic when she said, “This is my inventory that I haven’t priced yet.” She reached to the couch and moved a large Raggedy Ann doll from the couch. “I’m going to try to get it priced and out on the front porch for tomorrow. If you see anything you want, Opal, I might could give you a special price.” She smiled warmly.
Opal pursed her lips, but my aunt didn’t seem to notice. She laid the doll down on a box filled with other toys and then picked up a pair of blue clip-on earrings.
“These would look so pretty on you, Opal. I know for a fact that a teacher here in town has a pair just like these.”
Opal shuddered and her face went pale. The earrings were cut glass and garish, even to me.
“No…” Opal started. Her voice sounded harsh. Then, more softly, “No, thank you. I don’t need any earrings.” Beneath the tightness of her voice, I heard the real meaning of her words. She didn’t want to wear earrings she thought that had been dug out of someone’s trash.
Aunt Cleo seemed undeterred, though. She went to another cardboard box and dug into it.
“I was saving this back for you, Opal, if you want it.” She pulled out what at first looked like a colorful caftan. “I know you are always looking for something comfortable to wear.”
We all leaned closer in to look at it. The caftan was a huge piece of fabric that had been folded over and had a neck hole cut in it.
“I have nice clothes, Cleo” Opal said sounding offended. “I wouldn’t ever wear something like that. In fact, I don’t know any kind of woman who would wear something like that.”
Cleo took a step back from her sister and looked at the cloth as if seeing it for the first time. The sides of her mouth dipped down. She seemed embarrassed and sad at the same time.
Before she could say anything, though, Mother stepped forward and offered her the bowl of beans she had brought for lunch. Aunt Cleo’s sadness brightened for a moment, but not to the level of excitement she had had when we first arrived.
She took the beans, then, and led us through the house, making some kind of small talk about the weather.
In the dining room, Opal noticed Cleo’s paint-by-number painting sitting on an easel.
Cleo had spent much of the summer working on the painting. It was called Pinkie and Blue Boy. If anyone asked her about them she was glad to tell people that they weren’t meant to be a pair, and were originally painted by two different artists. But like the rest of the artistic community, Cleo thought they were meant to be together.
When Cleo was painting she rarely looked up even to talk to people. There were such tiny spaces that needed to be filled in with a color, and then she had to wait for the oil paint to dry. She worked arduously for hours at a time on her new project.
Neal had only died a few months before, and Cleo’s grief was still fresh. My mother’s grief over the loss of my father had been plowed under more urgent matters years ago, but she knew what Cleo was going through. She was used to walking into a room and seeing only furniture, lamps, and a television where people used to laugh and talk. She knew the darkness of a day by herself in a house when no one called or came by.
So, Cleo had her painting of Pinkie and Blueboy. She had Pinkie over half done, but had not yet started on Blueboy. When Opal picked up the box the painting had come in, she looked at my mother and pointed to the writing on the box. “Appropriate for ages 8-12.”
My mother ignored her and kept following Cleo into the kitchen. Mother instructed me to set the table while she put the water on to boil for the macaroni and cheese. Meanwhile, Aunt Opal walked around with flared nostrils, as if everything had a stench to it that was hard to place.
Sitting on the counter was a package of ground meat. Opal traced a finger over the sticker that read “Reduced for Quick Sale” and made a face. She tried to get my mother’s attention, but she was too busy helping get lunch prepared. I dared not make eye contact with Aunt Opal. I did not want to be seen in league with her opinions.
Finally, it was time to eat and Cleo asked Opal to say the blessing. For the first time ever, I heard my aunt falter. And then I realized she didn’t say a word about the food. Usually, when adults said grace, they were thankful for the food we were about to eat, but Aunt Opal left that part out.
It wasn’t until she kicked my mother under the table that things became clearer.
“Why on earth did you just kick me?” my mother asked.
Opal glared, as if Mother had revealed a secret she wasn’t supposed to tell.
“I was only trying to save your life,” she hissed. “Did you see that package of ground beef? It was warm and it was reduced for quick sale! You’d think you’d be grateful to me for trying to warn you about it!”
Cleo stood up and said, “I bought that meat at Kroger this morning! There is not a thing wrong with it!”
Opal stood up then too and threw her napkin on the table. Her face had the look of someone who had bitten into a lemon. “Think what you want, but I wouldn’t eat anything from this kitchen if you paid me to.”
Cleo drew herself up, shoulders back. When she stood like that, she was right at six feet tall. Any timidity she had had before completely dissolved. She was angry. “Nothing would be good enough for you, Opal.” She held out a hand which pointed to the front of the house. “So you can just leave.”
I looked over at Mother. She had her head in her hands and I could tell a migraine was coming on. I silently counted on my fingers how many more days until Aunt Opal left. No matter how long it was, it seemed like an eternity.
Opal stomped back through the house and Cleo followed behind. Opal picked up the caftan and held it before her sister. “Look at this. You think I want some prostitute’s cast off clothing? Even if I did, I wouldn’t buy it from your porch sale!”
Mother slid out from the table and motioned for me to join her. I had only gotten a couple of bites of macaroni and cheese, so I was still hungry. But I did as I was told, turning back only briefly to take in the table of food. I couldn’t see what Aunt Opal did. The food looked delicious.
By the time we got to the living room, Opal was in the car.
Mother sighed. “I had hoped we could have a nice visit,” she said, her voice sad and frail.
Cleo patted her on the arm and I remember thinking it odd that Cleo was comforting my mother after all the things Opal had said. “Don’t worry, Hazel. I’ve been dealing with Opal all my life. I can take care of myself.”
Before we got to the door, she continued, “You’re the one I feel sorry for. You’ve got to deal with her for several more days.”
Mother smiled sadly and nodded. “Sure wish Jewel had come. She always seems to know what to do.”
We were silent as we walked to the car, but as soon as we had the car doors open, Aunt Cleo yelled from her front porch, “Next time you come over Hazel, don’t bring that buffoon with you!”
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.