Image Source: Andrew Bush
Aunt Ina loved that painting, even if it was a fake. A fake: like her flowers and her books and everything in her house and life.
I spent a lot of time at Aunt Ina’s house, partly because my middle school was across the street and partly because my own mother was such a louse. I never knew my father, because he split before I was born. No wonder my mother was such a loser. I guess I don’t blame her, but I still resent her.
I used to sit next to that book case, across the room from my Aunt, while she watched her soap operas every afternoon. She would serve me stale Danish cookies and warm Shur Fine soda on a rusted gold TV tray with a painting of a fruit bowl. Then she’d sit down on her plastic-covered recliner, pull on her afghan, drink her tall-boys of Schlitz and chain-smoke Kools. The taste of those cookies and soda and the smell of stale beer, body odor, smoke and gas from the stove is frozen in my memory forever as afternoons at Aunt Ina’s house.
Aunt Ina always said proudly that she had two tall-boys of Schlitz every afternoon at 2:00, and not a drop more. Like she was trying to vindicate herself. But the house reeked like Schlitz by the time I got there at 2:20, and every afternoon at 3:00, after she retired for her “nap”, I could hear her crack open more cans. It was all a fake, just like her soap operas.
A lot of days when she was “napping” she’d start muttering to herself in French. I don’t know much French, but I picked up on it. Always everything was c’est très mauvais and je suis vraiment désespéré. I learned later that those meant “it is very bad” and “I’m really hopeless.” When she really got going, she’d scream je vis dans le mensonge! over and over. That meant “I am living a lie!” And then she would start sobbing.
It sure did a number on me hearing all that from the next room. I was supposed to be doing homework, but instead I was watching re-runs on TV and turning up the volume to try and drown out Aunt Ina’s yelling. I tried to go into her bedroom once, to try to make her feel better. I knocked on the door softly, and as soon as I did she stopped sobbing and got real quiet. So I opened the door, and she yelled at me to get out and threw a shoe at me. It scared the hell out of me, and all I could do is go back to the TV and hope it would all be better when she woke up.
Uncle Emil was long dead, and by the time I got to my sophomore year in high school, so was Aunt Ina. My mother was always really vague when I asked what she died from, and her story changed once or twice. I guess she was continuing the lie that Ina started. They sold the house, and I graduated and got the hell away. But any time I pass by a display of Danish cookies or smell cigarette smoke, it all comes back and leaves me feeling just as helpless all over again.
I don’t mean to say Aunt Ina was all crazy. She always told me how much she loved me, and she was always bragging about her painting and her flowers and books and how beautiful they all were. I guess she convinced herself. I guess she had to.