by Leslie Burton-López
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Aunt Peggy glanced at her watch. It said 7:53pm “Okay, girly, I have to be heading out.” Her voice sounded funny, like she was choking. I tried to twist around to look at her face, but she held me in an iron-grip hug. She held me for a long time, smoothing my hair and whispering something under her breath. “Better every time... You can do this...”
“What, Aunt Peggy? I can’t hear what you’re saying.” The kitchen clock was ticking so loudly that it echoed in the small room.
She finally released me and turned away, eyes shining.
“Nothing. I just love you, okay?” Despite the bright sun outside, she shrugged her way into a pillowy black jacket, put up its fur-lined hood, and closed the door behind her without another word.
I stood there for a long moment, dazed. The second hand on the clock lurched to hit the twelve. I turned my head toward the sharp sound and saw Aunt Peggy’s black bag sitting on the bench seat at the table.
I lunged to pick up the heavy bag and ran to open the door. “Aunt Peggy? You forgot your...”
But there was no one there to hear the end of my sentence. I stuck my head out farther to see if maybe she had walked around the corner of the house.
Huh, that’s weird. Bummer.
I shrugged, pulled my head back in, and stared at the bag. I could hear the red plastic second hand on the kitchen clock tick noisily.
“I’m not supposed to open this,” I said aloud, hoping that my ears would give the words more weight. I walked to the bathroom instead to brush my teeth.
Another glance at the bag when my teeth were clean. “I am never supposed to look in Aunt Peggy’s bag.” I moved to my room to change into jammies.
“Aunt Peggy will be very disappointed if I even peek,” I told myself again as I walked past it to get a glass of water.
So... I didn’t look. Instead, I put the heavy black bag gently next to the $kittles bank on the floor in the living room.
After waiting until 5:00 pm for Aunt Peggy to arrive on the next fourth Friday, I pulled the bag out and stared at it, willing it to open.
After waiting until 6:00 pm on the fourth Friday after that, I dared touch the clasp with trembling fingers, but pulled back before it could fall open.
After waiting until 7:00 pm on the fourth Friday after that, I was brave enough to yank on the clasp, ending up frustrated by 7:05 because I couldn’t get it to open.
After waiting until 8:00 pm on the fourth Friday after that, I had had enough of the temptation and climbed the ladder to the attic with black bag in tow, teetering on each rung as I grappled with the bulky mystery, and placed it between the old lawn sundial and Mom’s dusty books.
Aunt Peggy never came back, though strangely, at seemingly random moments, I would think of her.
“What the hell?” screamed my neighbor. She was standing in the doorway to her apartment. I ran down the hallway, clumsy with my awkward grocery bag, to see what made her scream. I stopped dead at the sight of her wrecked home. Couch innards were strewn about like oversized dust bunnies, the kitchen table was on its side next to the splintered matching chairs, the fridge stood wide open. The intruders had even ripped down sheets of wallpaper behind her bed, presumably seeking some hidden stash of money.
I took in the aftermath. The beautiful silver candlesticks were gone. The paintings, the microwave, the TV, the speakers, missing. Everything.
My poor neighbor slid down the door frame and put her head in her hands choking on sobs. “They took everything!” she wailed at me.
I moved to comfort her, shifting my heavy grocery bag to the floor. I had no idea what to say, so I pulled a soda free from its ringed plastic and handed it to her. She took the purple can as tears slipped down her face like hourglass sand. I silently thanked the universe that I had changed the locks on my door when I moved in last month, and took a swig of my own soda.
I curled my hand around the keys in my jacket pocket. Weird things happened on subways all the time, but this guy was getting loud. Clearly drunk, he stumbled down the aisle, tripping on nothing, singing a slurred version of “Downtown.” He supplied his own words when he couldn’t remember the lyrics.
“Grab yer jimmies and yer johnnies and meet me at the... hotel!”
I was sitting quietly, trying to distract myself by looking out through the dingy glass. An adult held a child carefully by her plastic claw on the platform as she karate-chopped invisible villains with her free hand. A little superhero.
My hand rearranged the keys in my jacket pocket, evenly spacing three of them between my fingers.
“Have a gran’ ol’ tiiiiiiime in the motelll!” drunk-guy screeched, as he approached my seat with a lecherous up-down-up look.
Concealed behind the seat back in front of me, I eased my hand out from my pocket. I clenched my fist, and felt the ridged keys dig into my flesh as I looked up into his face.
I skipped down the street toward my brand-spanking-new car. I probably looked silly doing the skipping, but it felt right. I owned the shiny little darling parked a block away.
“With your credit, you’ll qualify for a great price; don’t worry about anything,” the sales-dude had smarmed. “Hell, you could have any car on the lot if you wanted.”
I had smirked at that one. I knew I couldn’t afford the fully loaded version of this one, though my good credit had tempted me to go for it. Not this time, sales-dude.
What a rush! I own a car. I am a car owner. This car is mine. My car is this one.
Damn. I looked down at the crimson smear in my underwear as I sat on the toilet. Why does this always happen to me at work? Luckily, I had just arrived and decided to pee before I got to my desk. My purse dangled from the metal hook overhead. I fished around and found what I was looking for.
Fourteen years of monthly visits. You’d think I’d have a handle on it by now.
The back of my throat was raw and sore as I pushed my finger in deeper. Nothing was working this time. I couldn’t throw up. My gag reflex was just gone.
The tears came, hot and salty. I sat next to the toilet letting all the awful things of the last year wash over me. I thought about my father’s last breath as he lay in that hospital bed in March. I thought about all the food that made its way in, and quickly out, of me since April. I thought about my DUI in May.
My sobs echoed in the small bathroom, as I ugly-cried to the hideous beige-and-turquoise tiles. And lucky me: the air conditioner had chosen to break on the hottest day of the year right when I had to clean Dad’s stuff out of the house. “I hate you, heat!” I yelled stupidly to no one.
After a few minutes, I finished crying. This place isn’t going to clear itself. I sighed and pulled myself up, using the back of the toilet for leverage, and stumbled over to the attic ladder. The old sundial gleamed dull gold in the shaft of half-light from the single, yellowed attic window. I shifted it to reach for something more manageable to take downstairs. The dust puffed in patterns as I strained. The sunlight, freed from the dial, now lit on something else.
There it was. Not a speck of dust on it.
Aunt Peggy’s bag.
My mouth hung open a bit, but then I grinned.
“Aunt Peggy will be very disappointed if I even peek,” I said aloud. I grabbed at the bag and pulled it out of its resting place. My tattered life lay on my shoulders like the moth-eaten stole, but this memory was whole.
“I’m not supposed to open Aunt Peggy’s bag.” From two rooms, and a ladder away, I could hear the clock tick noisily. I sat down on the dirty floor, the dust sticking to my sweaty legs. I cradled the bag in my lap and hugged. The smell of gardenias and cigarette smoke stung me, or at least that is what I blamed for my again-wet eyes.
This time, the clasp opened easily, as if it had been recently oiled. The handwritten note nestled above the bulk in the bag said simply: “Make us better.” It was signed “M.E. Yu.”
I took a deep breath and knocked on the familiar door when it appeared, a little disoriented from seeing sunny skies after drenching rain. I turned the heavy clasp on the black bag to close it, then folded up the dripping umbrella. It had been a year since I had been here for the estate sale. The paint on the door then had been faded and the spiders had created clutches of cottony brown wisps on the siding. A quick glance at my watch showed exactly 4:00 pm.
Jesus, what am I doing? I could hear scrambling, as the deadbolt turned in the bright door. Suddenly, my gag reflex returned, along with a hopeful feeling that maybe I could keep it this time. Oh, please, please let this work.
The door was answered by a small, bright-eyed girl whose dimples showed as she smiled at me. I reached out my hand.
“Hello, Maggie. I’m your Aunt Peggy.”
Copyright © 2018 by Leslie Burton-López