Aunt Fran makes a feast every time my sister Carla and I visit and always says the same thing to try and enlist our help in the kitchen.
“You want to know the best way to keep a man: cook him a good meal.”
Tonight she tends to a roast that Carla won’t even eat. She became a vegetarian two years ago but Aunt Fran never gives up. Carla rolls her eyes at me from the doorway before she sneaks out to break up with her latest boyfriend, this time a loser named Larry.
I find Aunt Fran’s failed efforts to teach us to cook both sweet and pathetic since she never lived with a man, never even had a boyfriend as far as I know. I’m not interested in how to keep a man anyway, not that Aunt Fran seems to notice. She calls the girls I bring over for dinner when ma’s not here my “little friends.” The sound of her off-key singing while she does the dishes filters through the open window above our heads while I clench their hair in my fists and kiss them on the back porch.
Some nights when Aunt Fran watches her game shows I tell her we need to study and take my little friend to the guest room to make out right here on this couch that turns into ma’s bed at night in between sips of some foul substance Carla keeps in her flask.
I moved in with Carla after Ma moved into Aunt Fran’s guest room after she lost her job as a nurse’s aide when the city sold their last low income housing facility for older adults to a developer who transformed them into trendy lofts for college students. I like to picture the ghosts of all the old people who ever lived and died there haunting those college kids. I would be pissed if I got kicked out of my house for no good reason. Ghosts have a lot of misdirected emotions, I’m sure.
Carla left home the same time she left high school, her junior year, when she got knocked up by Richie the Rat Face. Left home: ma’s description. Kicked out, Carla insists. Either way, she and Rat Face moved in together but Carla lost the baby one night when he punched her in the stomach. I thought she’d come back then, so did ma, but she didn’t. Told Rat Face to get lost and kept her own place. Carla knows how to hold a grudge.
But she still makes the bus trip across town to visit ma with me sometimes. Says she can’t pass up free food but I know she hopes ma will say she’s sorry one of these times. I read her diary when I don’t want to think about how I’m alone in the apartment at night. Ma and her still talk or, if you want to be more accurate, they fight. One day it’ll be about one thing and the next time they see each other it’ll be the exact opposite, as if they each considered the other’s stance and decided to agree but didn’t let the other one know.
Thing is, Ma knows how to hold a grudge, too.
Carla learned that from her.
Ma lands a temporary gig as a home health aide with a hospice organization, the overnight shift, which pays the most money. I sleep at Aunt Fran’s those nights, in Ma’s bed. Get up for school when Ma comes home. Sometimes we talk before I have to catch the bus but mostly Ma’s too tired.
I think about how Carla used to take me with her to all her parties and gallery openings and concerts until the novelty of showing off her little sister wore out. I wonder if Aunt Fran will get sick of Ma like that one day too.
It rains the night I decide to invite one of my little friends to sleep over. One of those rains that sends cold down into your bones so deep only a hot shower can shake it. We arrive soaked and I let the girl take hers first while I sit at one of the tall kitchen stools and watch Aunt Fran make hot chocolate.
By the time I’m done Aunt Fran has the girl settled under an afghan on Ma’s couch bed and a movie in the DVD player. “I thought this would be more comfortable to watch a movie. I’ll be right back with some popcorn.” She claps the lights off on her way out.
The girl laughs. “No way, a clapper? For real?”
At first I’m good, so good. I even put a sweatshirt on and mind my lips and hands at first, keep them buried in my bowl of popcorn. We each have our own to limit the chances of my fingers straying, but once Aunt Fran starts to snore out in the living room we get distracted and don’t even hear Ma when she walks in and claps the lights on.
“Lori? What are you doing?”
I snatch my hands out from under the girl’s shirt. “Ma, what are you doing here?”
Ma stands in the doorways, hands on her hips. “Lori, what are you doing here?”
“Ma, I–” I smack my knee onto the exposed metal bar in the middle of the bed when I try to shift off the girl. “OW.”
“This is my bed, what is wrong with you?”
By now the girl has slithered off the bed, grabbed her backpack up off the floor, and slinks out of the room. Ma glares after her and I manage to straighten my clothes and smooth my still damp hair before she turns it back onto me.
“How many times have you done this?”
“We weren’t doing anything, Ma, and this is the first time, I mean none.” I feel my face redden.
Ma closes her eyes, presses her hands to her forehead like when she has a migraine. “Give me strength.”
“She’s telling the truth, Joan.” Aunt Fran appears in the hallway behind Ma.
Ma opens her eyes. “This is all Carla’s fault.”
Maybe if she were here to defend herself I would have kept my mouth shut. “Right, Ma. Carla’s fault.”
“What is that supposed to mean young lady?” Ma’s lip curls.
I know I shouldn’t but I can’t stop. “Maybe if your daughters still lived with you when they were growing up you would know what was going on in their lives.”
Ma turns around to walk into her room and I can tell by how her back quivers how angry I’ve made her. Ma slams the door behind her and no matter how much she pleads, Aunt Fran can’t get her to open it again. I have to borrow a sweatshirt from the girl until we get back to Carla’s apartment in order not to freeze on the bus ride back.
Aunt Fran comes alone to Carla’s to cook dinner for me a few nights later. “I never got a chance to ask if she enjoyed my cooking, Lori. Your little friend.” She asks me this at the sink with her back turned.
“What? Yeah, I guess so. Why?”
“It’s what I’ve been telling you.” Aunt Fran looks over her shoulder and smiles. “A good meal is the best way to keep a man. Or a woman.”
Aunt Fran turns back around and hums as she swirls the dishcloth around a dessert plate, homemade chocolate cake tonight.
“You mean you don’t care?”
Aunt Fran shoots another quick glance over her shoulder. “Why should I care, dear?”
Like I had sunglasses on this whole time and Aunt Fran with one casual swipe bats them off so I can see.
A few weeks later Aunt Fran calls and invites us to Sunday dinner. We make it through without issue, even though Ma and I don’t speak. Carla spends most of her time absorbed in her phone.
Aunt Fran remains the stable eye. “Will someone help with dessert?”
I try but Carla stands as if on cue and pushes me down by the shoulder. “Sit.”
Ma takes a gulp of her wine before she looks at me. I would swear she looks nervous if she weren’t Ma. “The hospice offered me a permanent position. I’m taking it.”
I take a sip of water before I answer her, wishing it were a sip of Ma’s wine. “That’s great.”
“But I’m staying here, I decided.” Ma looks away. “You’ll be in college soon, and – don’t interrupt me, Lori.”
We had just started to fight about this when Ma lost her job: I didn’t see the point with all the talk on the news about how hard it was for even people with advanced degrees to get jobs right now. Ma insists.
“You’ll be in college soon and it doesn’t make sense for two old ladies to take care of two different houses all by ourselves.” Ma takes another sip of wine.
“Ma you’re not old.” I reach out to take her hand and feel surprised at how small and bony it feels underneath my fingers. When did she get old?
Ma squeezes my hand and smiles. For the first time I see tiny nests of wrinkles around her eyes. Have they always been there? Aunt Fran comes back through the kitchen door with a tray heaped with plates of strawberry shortcake followed by Carla with a tray of tea.
“I’m not young, either.” Ma lets go of my hand. “But until you go you can have my room and I’ll sleep in the living room.”
“But Ma, I–”
“That’s ice cream not whipped.” Aunt Fran sets a plate in front of me. “Eat up before it melts.”
I like ice cream better than anything. I spoon a mouthful of real vanilla bean heaven as Ma tells Carla to get off her damn phone. There could be worse places than here, I guess.
“Do you have a new boyfriend, dear?” Aunt Fran makes sure to get a little ice cream, a little strawberry, and a little shortcake on each forkful.
“Not really.” Carla’s hand automatically reaches for her pocket.
I roll my eyes and spoon some more ice cream in my mouth.
“Carla, leave it.” Ma glares.
After dessert I tell Aunt Fran I’ll do the dishes. As the sink fills, I lean over on tiptoe to try and tell exactly how far down I can see out the window.
V. Hughes’ published stories include A Murder of Crows on T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog and Proof in WhiskeyPaper. More of her writing can be found on Twitter @_Veee_ and at her blog V. Hughes.