As She Leaves the Kitchen

By Jennifer Hurley

Gravel cracks and pops beneath my tires, softened by road wear and mid-summer Indiana heat. Grey rock ricochets, sputters into the yard, waiting for someone to walk barefoot in the grass.

Aunt Linda’s blue Crown Victoria hogs the driveway and the shade, leaving me to park under the sun’s spotlight in front of the garage.

Dishes clatter. Aunt Linda waves from the window above the kitchen sink before making her way through the enclosed porch and out the screen door to greet me.

“What took you so long?” she asks.

I step out of my car, hold up my cell phone. “No battery or charger. Bad accident on 65.”

“Do you need me to fix you something to eat?”

“No. I had a big breakfast.”

A big breakfast of seltzer and Excedrin. Last night’s scotch still sloshes in my stomach from too many flights of tasters with friends, an evening that started so clear but blurred fast. Glimpses of a kitchen remodel, belly button rings, and softball scars keep sneaking into my brain before disappearing again. (Clearly moments from a deeply intellectual conversation.)

“A big breakfast isn’t the answer. You need three healthy meals a day. I’ll use the leftover chicken to make you a sandwich.”

I shrug.

“Are you going to bring your stuff in now? I cleared space in your old room.”I glance in the back seat, survey my laundry basket overflowing with unfolded clean clothes, my portfolio case and drawing supplies. “Yeah, let me use the bathroom first.”

*          *          *

“What’s the plan?” I ask, walking into the kitchen, straight to the faucet, an hour later after a much-needed nap. I pull my shoulder-length auburn hair into a stumpy bun, readjust my too-tight bra strap, and open my mouth to the flow of tepid well water.

Aunt Linda grabs a pinch of fat hanging over the waistband of my stained canvas shorts. “I can tell you put some weight on.”

Somewhat awkward, unpleasant, but expected. I stand, wipe my mouth with the bottom of my shirt, expose a single doughy roll.

“I can afford to shed the starving artist look. I’ve actually sold a number of my paintings this year.” I pull on the thin material of my tank top to accentuate the wavy bulges on my back.

While I do miss the familiar feel and look of sharp hip bones, I figure I have another five pounds before I need to worry about weight gain. Regardless, I should buy bigger-sized clothes.

“I’m glad to hear you’re doing so well,” she says.

Somewhat awkward, expected, but genuine.

After my mother died in a car accident (the papers called it a drunken tragedy), Aunt Linda had stepped right in to help my father manage the farm, the house, and me—a one year-old at the time. Still without a husband and children of her own, she had lived with my grandparents until they died, moving in with us when I was nine. My resentment didn’t start until after she and my dad got married, during my first year of grad school.

When I could articulate the precise feeling, I looked up the word in my dictionary just to make sure it fit. A noun: the feeling of displeasure or indignation at some act, remark, person, etc., regarded as causing injury or insult.

Yes. A skin tight and literal fit.

*          *          *

I soak in my resentment, like someone soaking in a hot bath. I use my toes to control the faucet, the rubber stopper. Though, I sometimes lose my grip and the water burns, overflows, floods. I might let myself sometimes go under—but always surface in time to breathe.

*          *          *

My father died about a year ago. Not an accident, his body’s purposeful strike. She’s decided to sell the house and the land, wasting no time once she made the decision.

Aunt Linda has already started packing, using 20-year-old newspaper pages to wrap a row of ceramic bird figurines. “Are you sure you don’t want to pick a few out? Your mother started collecting these when she was maybe eight or nine. I’m sure I bought her several.”

“Then, why don’t you keep them? Or at least some of them?”

“Your father and I kept them long enough. They’re yours now.”

“Right,” I say.

Silence. Space. No words for what I really want to say. Maybe colors mixed in my palette later.

“I loved your father and took care of him as much as she did. But her things are your responsibility now.”

“They’re just things, Aunt Linda.”

“For some that’s debatable.”

A sudden but expected heart attack is how I describe my father’s death to friends, some of my family. After the funeral I threw myself into painting—even turned down a few graphic artist assignments I would normally use to sustain me.

I needed absolute focus and an outlet to process my emotions in a way that I never was able to with my mother.

I don’t want to process those emotions.

Even now, I can’t help but think that the objects Aunt Linda packs away are my last connections to her.

I let a few more beats pass. “Was it hard being his second wife?”

I think of seconds, of extra helpings at the dinner table, especially in the winter when harsh cold and swelling snow drifts require meat on your bones. I think of my father. So often he wanted a second helping, but didn’t need it; he had had enough the first time around.

“Your father needed someone to love him. I was his wife, regardless of the number.”

Aunt Linda goes into the kitchen to remove the whistling kettle from the burner. I can’t help but grab and unwrap the first bird I can get my hands on. I use the waistband of my shorts to secure it against my back and bunch my tank top to conceal the knobby decoration. The hard, spiked edges of one wing poke my spine.

Returning, Aunt Linda says, “Remember I found him. Slumped over at the kitchen table, his face planted in a plate of eggs.” Left unsaid: not you or your mother.

“I wish he could see me now, really doing well with my work. I’m sure he would finally be proud.” So cliche. I tug at my shirt, and the glass bird jabs me, again.

“Worry about being proud of yourself.”

*          *          *

My charcoal pencil and sketch pad rest in my lap as sunlight struggles to rise from behind the tree line, a life line of sorts signaling existence beyond the current property boundaries. Slush-grey clouds overpower, and the sky begins to resemble the dull side of aluminum foil. I imagine the shiny side reflecting light only back to God.

The now-wild fields flourished during my childhood. Alongside my father, I had worked these fields. Somehow, though—even when together—we were always alone. Maybe not alone—just searching for the someone to join us who never would.

What I know about my mother fits me like hand-me-downs, clothes never quite the right size: ill-fitting, loose, baggy, slack, a bust line I will never fill out.

She grew up down the road from my dad. My grandmother often sent my mother to the neighbors with pastries and pies, fudge and bread, just as the sun churned its last bit of butter light. My mom had padded barefoot across the dirt road, arms always filled with something. She and my dad spent summer evenings cross-legged on his parents’ porch, or sitting in the swing, sipping tea or lemonade, or sneaking swigs of his mother’s dandelion wine.

I made up other details to fill in the gaps—like how I decided my mother must have been shy about her first kiss because I was shy about my first kiss. Or that she, too, ate as many green beans as she picked during the first harvest.

*          *          *

Sipping a glass of Cabernet at the kitchen table in dim light cast by the stove, I ask, “Do you regret not having children of your own?”

“I raised you, didn’t I?”

“That’s not the same.”

Aunt Linda drinks tea. “No, it isn’t.”

Silence. Space. Thinking.

“Would we be closer if you didn’t have to help parent me?”

“What does it mean to be close, anyway? Your mother and I were close.”

I consider this for a moment and realize my aunt also has to deal with my mother’s absence. “I loved when you used to tell me stories about Mom, about what she was like growing up.”

“Sometimes it’s like seeing a ghost—or a mirage, you look so much like her.”

Even though they are sisters, Aunt Linda looks drastically different. Different hair color, different body shape, different dispositions.

My father described my mother as elegant—willowy—said she barely calloused while working the fields. (I see her hips test the fabric of her dress so that tips of the material catch the sun, glints in the distance.) My eyes glow the same pale blue of moonstone alive in photographs, like billowy clouds; our smiles form an unexpected, mischievous mouth.

“But she never made it to grey,” I say while holding a clump of my own hair, capturing those few strands turning to the color of floor dust. “She was so young. How could she really know who she was?”

“You’d be surprised,” Aunt Linda says, touching a hand to my shoulder as she leaves the kitchen.

*          *          *

The telephone rings as I pull the ties of a frayed beige terrycloth robe around my waist. I walk from the bathroom toward the telephone on the hall desk, brimming coffee cup in hand. I lift the cradle on the fifth ring.

“Hello,” I say, my voice, not the phone line, relaying static.

“Did I wake you?” Aunt Linda. She drove a load of boxes to her friend’s house last night and planned to stay up late unpacking. I slept at the house and followed the moon’s rise and fall to the horizon from my father’s recliner.

“No. Not enough coffee yet,” I reply, pursing lips to slurp at the marbling liquid.

“I’ll be over by lunch. I can help you get your car packed.”

“I’m not taking much.”

“Your apartment won’t hold much more anyway.”

Once again, I appreciate Aunt Linda’s words bouncing along the surface like a rock skipping across water, instead of sinking into the uncertain depth.

I hang up the telephone and catch sight of my favorite oil painting, a portrait of my mom, which I gave to my father as a Christmas present years ago. I put my mug down and walk to the wall. Up close, I touch fingers to the dried paint, relive how I had imagined it would feel to caress my mother’s skin for the first time. When I painted the picture based off of her black and white senior photo, my brush grazed my mother’s face, smoothed away time until she lived again—still without me, though, and now trapped behind a facade I have created.

He and Aunt Linda had argued about where to hang it. He wanted it next to his dresser; the portrait ended up in the hallway instead.

Removing it from the wall, a dead house spider flutters to the rug.

*          *          *

After dressing in cutoffs and a thinning Billy Idol concert t-shirt, clothes a little more roomy than yesterday’s, I refill my coffee mug and return to the slider on the porch, nudging myself backward and forward with bare feet, unpolished toes. I again gaze out at the almost unrecognizable fields, searching for vestiges that my father did live here, that my mother did live here, that their blood continues to live somewhere in me and in this soil, here at this home that isn’t my home and hasn’t been for a long time.

On the drive home, I’ll put on some music, smoke a Camel from my stash in the glove compartment.

I close my eyes and imagine a young version of my father emerging from the corn rows, covered to his knees in thick, sticky mud, his spiky black hair poking this way and that. He jerks his legs, trying to shake the earth free. His strong body bends as he guffaws at the futility of his effort. A woman’s voice diverts my eyes. My mother, shimmering in a flowing, cotton dress stretched against her body by the wind, holds out a glass to her husband. My mother’s look tells me that the mud will be my father’s shoes for the next month or so.

I don’t know why I missed out on that, but I did.

As Aunt Linda’s car pulls into the driveway, I stand to ease into a stretch, jumping slightly when she honks four times, the horn mimicking the rhythm of a train whistle.

Her signal for oncoming traffic—and my chance to either join her or retreat.

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Jennifer Hurley

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