by Pamela Bradley
I remember driving to the beach with Aunt May once when I was almost seven and just out of first grade for the summer. I had me a ponytail and was wearing a brand new two piece swimming suit, kinda like Aunt May’s. From the back seat of her car I watched her driving. Her red nails clicked on the steering wheel to the song on the radio, “You can do anything but stay offa my blue suede shoes.” Aunt May smelled like Coppertone Sun Tan Lotion and Lucky Strikes mixed together. She was a copper tone color, like a penny, with creamy red lips and lots of long dark hair blowing in the wind except for her two bobbie pin curls, one on either side of her forehead. She said she’d take the bobbie pins out when we got to the beach.
I rode in the back seat with her baby, Mark Adam. He was probably three months old; round, bald and sleeping in his bassinet. I liked babies. And Mark Adam was cute in his own way, except his nose was a little too turned up, like a snout. My Uncle Roy was his daddy and he had a big ol’ snout on his face too. Aunt May dressed Mark Adam like he was her favorite doll. That’s the way she done with all her babies. Mark Adam was wearing a little blue summer shirt with race cars running across his chest and real elastic band shorts and matching blue shoes. He smelled good too, like baby lotion.
I rode next to Mark Adam because his mother knew if he woke up I’d think of something to do for him. Aunt May was like that, she made people feel good trusting them with jobs like minding her babies. My mommy rode in the front seat next to Aunt May. Even though May was the older sister by a few years, my mommy looked older. She had chewed down fingernails and had just give herself a home permanent. She was wearing her favorite Bermuda shorts and a sleeveless shirt. When Aunt May spoke I noticed that my mommy’s mouth did that twisting up thing it done when a conversation was getting outside of what a good Baptist woman wanted to hear. It was a bunched up sort of mouth that made her nose move up and down at the same time, sort of like the words she was hearing was so bad that they smelled like dog poo.
Between Elvis on the radio and the wind blowing into the back seat I couldn’t hear too many of their words, just a few puzzle pieces of conversation; “gone fishing again” and “poisoned his self last time” and “almost got caught.” When she saw that I was leaning forward in my seat to hear more, my mommy said, “Joyce Ann, take one a them baby blankets, spread it open over the window and then roll the window up on it. That way It’ll shade Mark Adam from the sun. And there’ll be less wind coming in on him too. Babies don’t like all that wind in their faces.”
I set to work right away fixing up the baby like she said. Mommy always tried to look after Aunt May's babies when we was with one of them. Aunt May used to have more babies like Mark Adam but they were all dead now. There’s a row of her babies up in the cemetery. Most of their little graves say, “Baby Boy Logan” or “Baby Girl Logan”. I got to know one of them babies that lived a little while. She was named Brenda Marie. She was three months old the last time I saw her, just smiling all over herself and dressed in a pink little doll dress. They said she caught pneumonia right after I saw her and she died too. I remember hoping in the car that day going to the beach that Mark Adam would live. I sure hated thinking about babies winding up in the cemetery.
There was lots of things about Aunt May that I didn't understand and her having a row of dead babies was just one of them. I liked Aunt May a lot. She was pretty and funny and always giving us something we wouldn't otherwise have, like that other time when she took just me to the beach. She give me a blow up plastic boat for the water. When you filled it with air you could hang on to the horseshoe shape of the boat and take off kicking through the water. It even had a pretend steering wheel and dials painted on it to show how fast you was going.
I loved my boat but not the sunburn I got that day after hanging on to it so long in the water. I was so blistered that by night time I couldn't stand the sheets touching me in my own bed. Even my eyes was burned up and the part in my hair hurt. I didn't hold it against Aunt May that I got so burned using her present. But I think my mommy did. I was busy wondering why it was that Aunt May could get so brown at the same beach that turned me bright red and feverish. My mommy rubbed me down a few times that night with baby oil, shaking her head at my blistered skin, saying, “Your Aunt May means well. She always means well.”
Aunt May¹s husband, Uncle Roy, wasn¹t home much but he sure could make the money. They lived in a house like nobody else in Coaltown. It was a big ol’ brick house that set far back from the road - like Doris Day would have, with fancy carpeting inside, a fireplace that worked, velvety drapes and a big ol' white porch with a swing and lots of flowers in pots growing all around. Most of us that lived in Coaltown didn¹t even have hot water or a bathroom inside the house. The men in Coaltown was mostly laid off prison guards and laid off coal miners drawing welfare checks to feed their families. If anybody in Coaltown had a new house it sat for years wrapped in that ol' black tar paper on the outside waiting 'til a job come along to pay for the outside walls.
My daddy was laid off too from the Union Carbide plant. He was setting on the porch all the time keeping track of things and worrying about getting another job. He would try to stop us from seeing Aunt May and Uncle Roy.
Whenever he heard that my mommy was planning a trip over to their house he'd take to pouting and preaching about how Roy was no count. I heard him say that Uncle Roy was doing things that was against the law and that them fishing trips of his didn¹t involve a single fish in the dry state of Tennessee. Back then I didn¹t know what he meant about Tennessee being dry because we had lots of fishing holes and rivers. Even the big ol' Norris Dam was close by. Tennessee didn¹t seem a bit dry to me.
I did see Uncle Roy coming home from his fishing trips a few times. He’d pull into the driveway after being gone a couple of days, hauling a trailer behind his big ol' car. He'd be all smelly and whiskery, with his big belly sticking out between the button holes of his flannel shirt. He'd be holding on to one a them lit Camel's between his teeth, squinting and bumping his way into the house with a big Coleman cooler. It looked to me like he could have been fishing.
For lots a years Aunt May didn't seem to like it too much when he left and she didn't like it any better when he come back. She'd never go out and welcome him home. He'd have to come in and hunt for her just to give her a kiss. She'd fan him away saying, "Shoo wee, Roy! Don't touch me till you've washed up!"
When Mark Adam turned three Aunt May had a Sears Roebuck store picture took of him, posed in a way that she thought Uncle Roy would like. She stopped on the way to Sears and bought Mark Adam a bullwhip he'd been wanting, a real leather one with a good handle like he'd seen on Zorro. In the picture Mark was standing in front of a blue cloth swirling that whip through the air.
From that time on I was afraid of him and things were never the same between me and my Aunt May. Mark Adam ruined everything the way he'd whip the heads off Aunt May's flowers in their big pots and bloody the backs of his cousins’ legs with his bullwhip. He never put it down. I think he even slept with it.
Aunt May give her boy everything he wanted. By the time he was five he had his own fireworks stash in the garage and he had a baby sister too, Lisa Kaye. When we first come over to see the new baby, Mark Adam did a display for us in the backyard. He set off bottle rockets, Chinese clustering bees and even lit some ol' loud firecrackers. His bottle rockets fell over a few times, spinning around and shooting off after us, sending ever body running for the bushes.
My mommy was looking all pop-eyed over them matches in Mark’s hands.
“These here fireworks takes Mark’s mind off having a new baby in the house,” said Aunt May.
“Mark Adam is going to take some of his fingers off as well!” my mommy said.
But Aunt May just laughed.
Lisa Kaye lived. I don’t know how she did. Once I saw Mark Adam put her inside a big ole deep freeze they had in the kitchen when she was about two. He told her to lay real still in there and she’d get cooled off. That was right before he closed that heavy lid on her and walked away. Lucky for Lisa Kaye I was around and got her out before she stiffened up like the popsicles Mark Adam kept in the deep freeze.
Mark Adam always had something new that he had asked his mommy for and I did feel mighty jealous of him at the time. After he got that stash of fireworks he probably figured he could ask for about anything and get it. He was riding a real motorcycle by his eighth birthday and by the time he was nine he was driving the family car. He was supposed to wait till Uncle Roy could go driving with him but Mark sneaked off one time by his self and started up their Lincoln. He drove it across the road and down a hill running it into the river. By his tenth birthday most of his body parts had been broken, burned or bloodied up good by something Mark had asked for.
I hated Mark and I didn’t really want to go to Aunt May’s house anymore. She might as well have been raising a pit bull or a cobra snake. But she didn’t seem to notice how nobody wanted to be around her rotten ol' boy.
Once we dropped in on her when she was refinishing a desk for Mark’s room, in a stylish kind of paint called "antique green." I mumbled to myself that she was wasting her time on a desk for him. He was never going to sit down at something all quiet like a desk that didn't need matches or gasoline or electricity to make it work.
Ever time either Mark or Lisa would slap at her or say any mean words to her, which was lots of the time, Aunt May would sit down on her couch and bawl her eyes out. She'd cry real tears and pull out her handkerchief asking us all, “Where did I go wrong? I’ve given these children everything and look how they treat their mother!”
As Aunt May got older we didn't drop in on her. She wanted us to call first but we didn¹t have a telephone. We didn't talk about it at home but I know it made me and my mommy sad to not be running around with Aunt May in her big cars. Her best friends was now the wives of other men who went fishing with Uncle Roy. They all looked like movie stars setting around Aunt May’s table in her sunny kitchen wearing dark glasses and wide brimmed hats and pedal pushers with tropical birds flying all over the fabric and gold hoop earrings. I wanted to look at them women as long as I could without seeming rude.
And they talked about "business" right there at the table, something none of the woman from Coaltown ever done. By then Aunt May was the secretary for the fishing business. She wrote all the checks and kept their records as well as lots of secrets. If we were ever over at her house at night she would go around as soon as it got dark and pull all the drapes closed. My daddy said it was because she was afraid some dissatisfied customer might take a shot at them from the road. By the time Mark Adam was sixteen he was big and fat with a head full of curls and a full size snout just like his daddy's. He had already dropped out of high school. Lots of different girlfriends of his would let their selves in through the back door, stop at the kitchen deep freeze to take out a popsicle and head up the stairs to his room. He had a collection of moving violations and court dates on the mail table in the front hallway that made Aunt May cry whenever she walked past and saw them. Lisa Kaye was a bleached blonde by the seventh grade with a cheerleading outfit and a serious boyfriend. She had long nails and one of them dark tans that I could never have, just like Aunt May.
It was about then that my daddy found a job up north and moved us far away from Tennessee. We lost touch with Aunt May except for a Christmas card or to see her in the summer time on a visit south. Once, in the August heat, we pulled our family car into the parking lot of Gunner’s, the small grocery store by the train tracks of Coaltown. I was grown and working by the time we took that trip. There, in a baby blue convertible, I thought I saw Lisa Kaye and Aunt May. They was buckling a baby into the car seat and pulling out of the parking lot. Aunt May looked about the same, just older, and Lisa Kaye looked like the teenager she was, wearing a midriff top and short shorts. They was gone before we was able to holler at them so I went on in to Gunner’s to buy me a cold Pepsi and to ask the clerk if that was for sure my Aunt May Logan who had just left the store.
She said, "Yes, honey, that was her. Poor thing. She's just buried Roy last week. Fell over with a heart attack on a fishing trip. May's in town on her way up to the prison to visit Mark Adam," she said shaking her head.
"We're all just dying to know what they got on him. If you find out, stop back by and let us know. May give that boy ever thing he ever wanted and now she can't do a thing for him except to keep his convertible running smooth while he's up at the prison doing time. But she¹s lucky to still have Lisa Kaye around with her new baby. Lisa's little feller's not but three months old and looks just like Mark Adam did back then. This new baby's daddy has done took off and it's probably a good thing. It'll keep May's mind off her own troubles helping to raise the new little’un.”
I paid for my Pepsi, thanked her for the news, and left the store. As I looked down the dusty road her car had taken, I was hoping Aunt May had a blanket to hold over that little baby’s face. After all, they were riding in an open convertible and my mommy always said babies don’t like all that wind in their faces.
Aunt May is one of many creative nonfiction stories written by Pamela Bradley, an East Tennessee native, who is working to complete the coming of age tales of her 1962-63 school year spent in the hills at the home of her great grandmother. Pam writes about life in a small coal mining town.
E-mail Pamela Bradley at: email@example.com© 2002, Pamela Bradley, All Rights Reserved