10/22/17 Aunt Florence

Eustace had an Aunt Florence. She was his Uncle Ray’s wife. Aunt Flo, as we young ones called her, yearned to be of a class to which she was not born but famously imagined herself, as if she was Fran, the balefully corrective wife of Sam, the main character in Sinclair Lewis’s novel Dodsworth. No one did anything quite to Aunt Flo’s satisfaction and she never failed to say so.

Her reproaches were seldom direct, offered more in that classic southern ladylike way of commenting in such a fashion that the words themselves would be innocent enough if printed on a piece of paper, but were unmistakable when coming from her lips. When her mouth moved, there was only the twisted truth as she proclaimed it, which placed her in a superior position to the rest of mankind. Eustace had watched this since he was a child, had watched his own mother’s reaction to Aunt Flo’s barbs, watched his gentle and beautiful grandmother reduced to hidden tears by Aunt Flo’s meanness. His distaste for Aunt Flo ran pretty deep, not much deeper than the rest of his aunts, uncles, and cousins, or his grandmother, but pretty deep. He bit his tongue when Aunt Flo failed to restrain hers. He reckoned that every family had an Aunt Flo, and if not an Aunt Flo, then an alcoholic, bipolar version of Aunt Flo, which could be even worse. Eustace decided it would be awful if it was much worse, as Aunt Flo, as she was, was about as pleasant as a root canal.

Eustace never knew exactly the things that his Aunt FLORENCE, as she ineffectively demanded she be called, said to others in the family, but he was acutely aware of the way she tried to make him feel small. Sometimes she was successful in her efforts, but he’d be danged if he was going to call her Aunt Florence. Calling her Aunt Flo was his only way of getting back at her, since no one of his generation or young age would be so bold as to say anything untoward to one of his parent’s generation. He had decided on several occasions that Aunt Flo could not possibly be as mean as he thought she was, thinking, perhaps, that the fault was in him, but decided that that was part of Aunt Flo’s power: her ability to manipulate. She was good at it, too.

So he quietly endured Aunt Flo at every turn when they came face to face. She was confident in the fact that everyone was too polite to challenge her sugar coated poison. She was clever, though. She never missed a gig, and threw the occasional harpoon.

His clothes never fit right. “I think those pants need to be hemmed a bit different”

His hair cut was in need of attention. “When was the last time your mother carried you to the barber shop?”

His fingernails were dirty. “Don’t you have a nail brush at home? Clippers?”

His face needed washing. “My, my, we have a dirty face, don’t we?”

He often wondered what nine-year-old didn’t have a dirty face. What was dirt to a nine-year-old? It was different to Eustace when Granny Starnes said, “You boys go wash your faces and hands.” It was not a comment about the state of their personal hygiene, it was merely a command coming from their grandmother. He never thought twice about it, just went and did as he was told, knowing that he was going to have to pass inspection when he returned so that he’d better do a good job. With Aunt Flo, it seemed a personal insult.

Eustace could play with his cousins, her children, at Granny Starne’s house or some other family gathering but was warned that he would most likely be “uncomfortable” as a visitor in the elite life they enjoyed in town, he and his bumpkin ways, mixed in among the country club set in the town of Froward, as if Froward were Paris, or London, or New York: amid the small town arbitragers and day traders, the investment bankers, the doctors, the lawyers, the businessmen, the Rotary clubbers, the idle wealthy. Eustace knew about none of that. He knew about cows, hay, fences, horses, tractors, chainsaws, pickup trucks, shotguns, and greasy hands. He knew about seed forks and scovil hoes. He knew about foot adzes and post-hole diggers. He often thought that Aunt Flo might be right; he knew nothing about day trading. Later on, it became apparent to many that none of her clan knew much about it either, but that is a story left for another time.

If she is a part of that,” he often thought to himself after some slight, “then I reckon I won’t fit in.”

He thought of the private schools his cousins went to. He thought of their new sports cars and the swanky fraternity and sorority houses they bragged about living in at the State University. He thought about the charge accounts they bragged about and the fine clothes from the local shops that were far beyond his means. Eustace had no charge account anywhere. He only had what little cash in his pocket that he had worked for, and a home that was warm, cozy, and a meal his mother seemed to miraculously prepare from nothing, placed on the table every evening after her long work day as he was growing up. Eustace never thought he lacked anything until he came face to face with Aunt Flo. She had the knack of making him acutely aware of what he didn’t have, of what could never be his, but what seemed to be hers by birthright, as though she was born to the manor, sprung forth from the loins of royalty, though in actuality she was born and raised in the same country life just a few miles from where generations of all their families had grown up, raised children of their own, and were since buried in the same earth as their fathers.

After Eustace was grown up, or at least in his late teens and early twenties, he found fewer and fewer occasions to be around Aunt Flo. He had his own means and could choose to ignore her, or simply choose not to be in her presence, which he suspected nearly everyone would choose if they also had that opportunity. He did not envy his Uncle Ray or the adults who were trapped in her presence on those Sunday afternoons when the whole family gathered. He usually chose his rod and reel and the pond.

Eustace’s mother and father had divorced years earlier and his mother had remarried some several months before Eustace’s own wedding. She had moved with her new husband to a distant locale. Now, he was a young man of twenty-two years, excited about his wedding the next day, looking forward to a life with a wife he was certain would be nothing like Aunt Flo, for Aunt Flo had done him the great service to show him by example just the sort of woman he would not choose for a mate. In a strange way, he was thankful for that. He sure did love the girl he was set to marry. If, for a single instant, she had reminded him of Aunt Flo, he would have called the wedding off. She never did.

He had been fishing down at his grandparent’s pond the Friday afternoon before his Saturday wedding, catching several catfish which everyone who had gathered was looking forward to eating as soon as Grandpa Starnes could get the fish cooker prepared and get the peanut oil hot enough to get them fried up. Granny Starnes was in the kitchen preparing the Cole Slaw and hush puppies. Aunt Flo was there, and Eustace was sure she was sitting at the kitchen table giving advice to Granny Starnes on how to make hush puppies without lifting a finger to help her do anything. Granny Starnes had been making hush puppies before Aunt Flo was born, but that would never have occurred to Aunt Flo, as if hush puppies were her sole culinary gift to the world. Eustace could just imagine the look on Granny Starne’s face. He had seen it before, not nearly as much as Granny Starnes had heard what triggered the look, but it was all familiar to everyone in the family.

Hanging the last and largest catfish on the stainless steel hook fastened to the oak tree out by the chicken house, Eustace began skinning it. He made his first cut down the catfish’s belly, and emptied its innards into the wash tub at his feet, already stacked up with the innards of the other fish. He grabbed the pliers and began to strip the skin off the fish, for in those days, no one wasted any fish by filleting them; one fried up the whole fish. Grandpa Starnes would have thrown a fit about such waste, besides, he liked the crunchy tails and fins, and nibbling the meat off the bones, which is the way true catfish lovers prefer their fish. The first strip of skin came tearing off the catfish’s back. He heard the screen door on the back porch slam shut. It was Aunt Flo coming out in his direction. From the better part of a hundred yards away, a single glance told him that she was coming with a purpose and he suspected some sort of mischief. He kept on skinning the catfish.

Here she comes,” said the catfish.

I know it…dammit,” Eustace replied, not the least bit surprised that the catfish seemed to have spoken to him, or that he had answered it.

She arrived at the oak tree, her lip in a slight sneer as if there was some stink lodged in her nose. Eustace couldn’t be sure if it was the fish guts in the wash tub or some stink other than fish on his person. He suspected the latter, though the former was stinky enough.

Aunt Flo cleared her throat. Eustace looked up at Aunt Flo, already invading his personal space. “Hello, A’nt Flo,” he said.

Florence. Ahhnnt Florence,” she said, her standard reply when confronted with ‘Flo’.

Excuse me, Ahhnnt FLAR-rinse,” he said, exaggerating the words, continuing his skinning of the catfish.

Were you talking to yourself?” she asked.

No’am, I was talking to this catfish.”

She studied him. He thought that she seemed unusually awkward. Perhaps she had thought it odd that he had admitted speaking to the catfish. It never occurred to her that they both might have found the conversation he was having with the fish more interesting than the one that would soon follow.

I wanted to talk to you,” she said.

Here it comes, he thought to himself. “Talk away,” he sighed. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Well, if you’d stop fooling with that catfish, it would be better.” He had seen her wince at his sigh. For once, she seemed a bit unsure of herself.

A frown followed the sigh. He looked up at his Aunt Flo. “What’s on your mind A’nt Flo?”

She reached out and straightened his collar. He could barely abide her touch. With a single gesture she was able to make a comment about his clothes without uttering a word. It was a typical Aunt Flo maneuver. When she was satisfied with with her collar readjustment, she began to speak.

I understand you are getting married, tomorrow,” she said.

Yes, ma’am”

Uncle Ray and I are hurt because we didn’t get an invitation,” she said, not meaning a bit of it, but hoping to make him feel guilty. He did not. He was cautious, though. Things were never simple with Aunt Flo.

Eustace measured his words carefully. “It’s a small wedding…at the church. We didn’t send out any invitations.”

Well, we would have been unable to attend, anyway, due to prior engagements,” she said. He expected that. He didn’t care whether she came to his wedding or not.

You mother has gone off and abandoned you and left you all alone,” which caused his hackles to raise a bit, and was not true, since his mother was coming in later that evening so she could be at the wedding, and she had bought the new black suit and red tie that he would wear. It was his mother that had a place there, not Aunt Flo.

I just wanted you to know,” she continued, brushing at the lapel of his jacket, “that since she’s not here, if you need anything prior to your wedding, you can call on your Aunt Flo.”

She stepped back and seemed proud of herself for her magnanimous gesture. It was the moment Eustace had waited for all of his life as an aware person, and he supposed he was grown enough to speak his mind at this invitation.

Aunt Flo,” he said, straightening his spine so that he was at his fullest height, towering above her, she barely reaching his shoulder, “I’ve never needed you for anything in my life. What on Earth could possibly make you think I would need you between now and tomorrow afternoon? I don’t reckon I’ll ever need you for anything at all.”

He turned back to the fish, ripping off a piece of catfish skin just hard enough that a little bit of fish slime slung onto Aunt Flo’s boutique store dress. She fairly shrieked as she turned around and fled from the horror of her wayward nephew, fish guts, and airborne fish slime. He noted that she looked smaller and smaller as she retreated into the distance, which did not seem to him a mere matter of physical perspective, but rather reinforced as a metaphysical phenomenon. She never really regained her stature afterward, being captured by a permanent smallness she had never seen approaching, or if she had, had not recognized as dangerous. It is in the nature of the self-absorbed. They never see danger coming and are surprised when it overtakes them. She was destined to further pettiness, but none of it would ever be able to reach Eustace. He was free from Aunt Flo from that day forward.

Well, I never….huff…puff…pfft!!,” he could hear her muttering, imagining her red face, as she fairly flew back up to the house to no doubt render more hush-puppy instructions, or perhaps wax eloquent with her critique of the more esoteric culinary mysteries of proper cabbage slicing. Shortly after that, he heard the screen door slam again and Aunt Flo and Uncle Ray got in their Town Car and sped away, apparently unable to stay for the freshly fried catfish, which, Eustace later decided upon reflection, was just about the best he’d ever eaten.

Later, as Eustace and Granny Starnes were sitting on the front porch, watching the last glow of the sunlight fade into the West, she asked him, softly, “Young man, just what did you say to Florence this afternoon?”

Granny, it was a private conversation. Just between me and Aunt Flo.”

Granny Starnes said nothing, but she leaned over and grabbed him by his hand, squeezing it then patting it a time or two. She then simply sat there in silence in the twilight, rocking back and forth in the flat-railed rocking chair that had been dragged across the porch too many times, a bright smile spreading across her face. He’d never seen her smile quite like that. It made him smile, too.

Ka-whomph-tic…ka-whomph-tic…ka-whomph-tic,” said the chair as it went back and forth.

And then, the evening was solely filled with the promise of tomorrow.

©2017 Mississippi Chris Sharp

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