Aunt and Uncle C are staying with us over the Independence Day holiday. They’re the parents I never had, raising my sister and me off and on while our actual parents consumed varying amounts of narcotics, divorced, met new life partners, rehabbed, took cubicle jobs, produced new families, etc. Aunt and Uncle C never had kids—Uncle C will tell you he shoots blanks, although I believe he’s covering for Aunt C—so you could say I’m like the child they never had. I say I because my sister ran away on her sixteenth birthday and went the way of our parents, a twenty-first century hippie, Goth style, meanwhile I dutifully moved ninety minutes west to take a position editing news copy, support the tax base, play coed softball, etc. Aunt and Uncle C come to visit several times a year, which my wife accepted graciously for the first year or so.
I use the bathroom and pad into the hallway. The door to the guest bedroom is closed. I listen for Uncle C’s chainsaw snoring, but there are only the soft sounds of the women chatting from the kitchen, the refrigerator door opening and closing, the running of water. Uncle C is an early riser; I’ve never beaten him to the breakfast table. I force myself to think positive thoughts: of his smiling green eyes that crinkle in the corners like crow’s prints and his glossy bare head, which he’ll rub with vigor. The man is in his early seventies, although to look at him you’d guess mid- to late fifties, tops. When I describe Uncle C to strangers I say Don Rickles, only heartier, and without the mean streak.
I love the eclectic smell of omelets, although after today I may never eat another. I walk into the dining room, which is really just a modest open space along with the living room and kitchen, and take a seat staring at the undisturbed newspaper waiting for Uncle C’s scrutiny. He tends to read the stories aloud and offer his Libertarian-tinged feedback. “Legalize that crap and you’ll get rid of the problem,” he’ll conclude around a mouthful of egg. And: “What are we now, the world’s policeman?”
I steal a look at Aunt C. She meets my gaze and looks away. Her arm quivers as she folds an omelet. Aunt C is tall and absurdly skinny, but she’s the boss, no doubt, with her polite intensity and her nineteen-fifties sensibilities. She dries my wife crazy, taking over the homestead the way she does, but that’s her whole life and I plead with Jenny to understand. Yes, Aunt C is a domestic know-it-all, but I think that’s just to cover up her insecurities. She made it only to tenth grade, a poor farm girl from Wyoming.
I watch Jenny pull silverware from the drawer. She hasn’t caught the vibe. She comes from a prosperous, proper family. I know her parents were upset she married a copy editor who bites his nails and shrugs habitually, who moved their only child into a ranch house that looks an awful lot like a double-wide. Her family is CNN and crepes; mine is Cops and Cheez-Its.
Jenny looks at me and says, “Breakfast is ready. Can you wake him up?”
And I nod, steel myself the best I can and stand up, knowing that this will be one of the hardest things I’ll ever do, harder than asking Angie Stallis out on that first date, harder even than overcoming a severe fear of heights long enough to bungee-jump from a hundred-foot tower.
It’s not that I have those dreams all the time or anything, and I couldn’t tell you what that naked Lennon thing was all about. But goddamn if it wasn’t real.
“No,” says Aunt C, removing the pan from the burner. “I’ll get him.”
She turns on stocking feet and heads toward the bedroom. My wife shoots me a puzzled look and I return one of those everything’s-all-right nods. Following Aunt C down the hall, I can tell by her posture that she’s holding her breath. She has forty-four years of history with this man. He’s her Big Lug; she’s his Olive Oil. They still do the yardwork in tandem, use a single hymnal at church, laugh together through reruns of Golden Girls. Without hesitating, Aunt C reaches out and opens the bedroom door and I realize that, for her, this is taking more courage than a hundred freefalls.
“Darling?” she says.
Aunt C walks into the room. She crawls up on the bed in slow, measured movements and drapes an arm and a leg over Uncle C, staring at the side of his face. Her housecoat rides up and I resist the urge to pull it down for her. Instead I climb up and place an arm over Aunt C, nuzzling my face against the back of her head and spreading my fingers over hers, over Uncle C’s heart. I feel her sigh, and sigh again. Eventually my wife appears at the door and looks us over. I motion for her to join us but she can only shake her head before turning to go and make the call, and I know suddenly that this is the end.
Andy's fiction has appeared online in The Legendary, Word Riot, Diddledog, Thieves Jargon and Pindeldyboz. He lives in a cold place with some other people and an animal.