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Raiders of the Lost Aunt; Part 1 - February 6, 2007

(Reconditioning Batteries)

My great aunt Laura lived with my grandparents in Vermont since well before I was born. I was never close with her growing up, but she was there for every holiday, every vacation, and every unfortunate traveling birthday that I would spend with my father while my mother was going to grad school during the summer. She was there for everything, but she wasn't there. I never got one birthday present, one Christmas card or even held an actual conversation with Aunt Laura the entire time I knew her. My dad always said that she had been notoriously shrewd her whole life, but other family members said that she was so nuts that she just forgot about that kind of shit.

Aunt Laura came over to the states from Canada after retiring from her lifelong career as an elevator attendant. As one would suspect of a lifelong elevator attendant without ever seeing one, Aunt Laura had a hunchback. She didn't just have bad posture. She was literally shaped like a candy cane; her head positioned very close to her belly button. Her condition wasn't so bad when I was younger, but it progressed considerably over the years to the point that her stride was reduced to a shuffle and she lived in constant pain. It was this combination of old age, chronic suffering, and 45 years of going up and down in a metal box that made Aunt Laura lose her grip on reality.

If she wasn't sitting at the dinner table clumsily feeding herself the turkey that my dad had cut into bite size pieces while she spat half-garbled Québécois, she was either losing herself in an episode of Murder, She Wrote in the living room or snatching my Nintendo game instructional manuals out of their boxes. No one in my family ever believed me when I tried to tell them that my delusional aunt was robbing me of the 8-bit equivalent to James Bond's microfiche. I was always "careless" and "unappreciative of expensive gifts". Fucking Aunt Laura.

Out of all the delusions a senile elderly woman could have, though, I always wondered why she consistently saw Baby Michelle Tanner from Full House wandering around the house. Maybe it was because Aunt Laura never got married or had kids, and some subconscious lack of fulfillment placed a familiar child in front of her eyes as a way to pacify her before she passed. Or maybe she saw all sorts of crazy shit but she only publicly acknowledged seeing that one thing.

When I was 14, Aunt Laura fell down the stairs and broke her hip during one of her attempts to find Baby Michelle, who she thought was hiding in one of the rooms on the second floor. The doctors at the hospital said she was too feeble to recover on her own and since nobody in my family could take the time to be with her consistently, we made the call to relocate her from the hospital to a nice full-time hospice facility a few miles from my grandfather's house where she would be looked after.

A few months into her stay, my older brother Marty and I went to visit Aunt Laura. Walking through the hallways of the hospice freaked me the fuck out. Old, forgotten grandmothers and grandfathers shuffling around in warm bathrobes and slippers to destinations unknown, crowds slumped over in front of a single television lulling them into sedated submission or stuck in wheelchairs, shoved to the side of a busy corridor, moaning and grunting for something that nobody would or could get them, even if their lamentable attempts at communication could be deciphered. And there was the smell; the musty, sterile smell of the hospice that can never truly be described but can only be equated with slow, comfortable death. This was the first hospice I'd ever been to, but I knew even then that when it came time for me to make the same decision that my family had to make with my aunt, I would never have it in me to put someone there. I kept very close to Marty as we winded through the facility.

Aunt Laura lucked out and had a room all to herself. Normally rooms were situated for two people, but Aunt Laura's bunkmate passed a few days into her stay, and the hospice administrators never found someone to take her place. Even though this was the case, Aunt Laura stayed in the bed closest to the door and furthest from the sunny window that looked out onto a big grassy field just underneath the picturesque Green Mountains. Aunt Laura never removed the thick curtains from her bedroom the entire time I had known her, only living by the light of one dim lamp next to a bed smothered in chiropractic pillows to soothe her hunchback just enough for her to fall asleep. Even there, bedridden in that facility, counting down the days before she expired, she wanted nothing to do with the outdoors or natural light in general. She was so comfortable in the dark that any attempt to make her understand why light was nice, especially so close to the end, was futile.

Marty and I walked over to Aunt Laura, kissed her on the forehead and pulled up chairs next to her bed so we could relax. She was sitting with her back propped up by a half dozen uncomfortable foam hospital pillows. They had given her a haircut; a cute little bob a little below her ears. It made her look much younger than usual. She was wearing her favorite grey pullover sweater, the one that I rarely saw her out of my entire life. Her mouth was open, exposing the few bottom teeth she had left and her bottom lip was glistening with fresh drool. She never answered our hellos. She just stared at us with her big blue eyes, cloudy behind her giant, rose tinted glasses. I hadn't seen Aunt Laura since before her tumble down the stairs, but it was obvious that the recent trauma coupled with heavy medication had finally pushed her all the way through the rabbit hole to a place from which she was never going to coming back.

Aunt Laura continued to stare through us while we did out best to fill her in about life outside of her room; how I was doing in school, how interesting Marty's life was now that he had moved to the west coast, anything we could think of. She never responded. It was almost like we were talking for no other reason than to make the situation less unbearable for ourselves. Marty looked over at me and saw that I was visibly shaken by what I was seeing. He blotted her chin with a napkin left over from her lunch and left for a minute to talk to her regular nurse about how she was doing and if there was anything that we could help out with before we took off.

I sat next to Aunt Laura for a few minutes silently, just watching her, listening to intermittent screaming and groaning echoing from further down the corridor. I sat there and fidgeted with my sweaty palms, alternating glances between my aunt and the open doorway, screaming inside for my brother to come back. I couldn't keep the one sided conversation going by myself. Please Marty, get back here. Aunt Laura turned to me out of nowhere, looking at me with her big, confused eyes.

"Daddy, I'm scared. I don't like it here, daddy. Can we leave soon?"

My heart dropped into my ratty skateboard sneakers. Aunt Laura's mind had regressed back into that of a child, and thought that I was her father who had been dead for at least thirty years. I remembered hearing somewhere that it was dangerous to correct someone who was that delusional, and I didn't want to confuse her further, so I just went with it, hoping that I wouldn't have to do it for long.

"Yes, Laura. We're going to get you out of here soon. We need you to get healthy first, though. Can you do that for me? Can you be strong?" Fucking surreal. I stammered a little as I said it. I almost felt like she was going to laugh and make me feel stupid for falling for some insane prank. My eyes welled up. I refused to blink; I didn't want her to see me crying.

"I can, daddy. I really don't like it here, but I'll stay until I'm better."

Marty, almost on cue, came back into the room just as Aunt Laura stopped talking. We stayed for a few minutes longer, kissed her on the forehead and took off. I held back tears all the way to the front doors of the hospice, finally breaking down as soon as I sat down in the front seat of Marty's car. I never felt close to Aunt Laura before, but seeing her in that bed, in that innocent, naked state of existence; pangs of guilt turned my stomach in knots. I felt guilty for never really knowing her, never having a relationship with her and knowing that I would never have the chance to rectify my mistakes was tearing me apart. We stayed parked in the lot for a few minutes. Marty rubbed my back and reassured me that everything was ok while I hunched over in the front seat crying hysterically.

Growing old never bothered me before, but the thought of Alzheimer's taking over my brain and putting everyone I ever cared about through uncomfortable bouts of psychosis made me want to jump out of a plane without a parachute on my 60th birthday.

That was the last time I saw Aunt Laura. She died a few weeks later.

***

A few months passed, and Marty and I found ourselves in Vermont again to hang out with my Grandfather (Pop Pop) for a few days. As far removed from reality as Aunt Laura was, she was his only steady companion since my Grandmother died, and our family knew that we needed to increase the frequency of our visits.

When we stayed in Vermont, we would help out around the house. Mowing the lawn, tending to Pop Pop's garden, waxing the kitchen floor - anything that we could do to help out, we would. This particular visit, Marty and I decided that it would be a good idea to start cleaning out Aunt Laura's room so that we could use it as a guest bedroom when family would stay over in the future. Pop Pop was taking a nap and we didn't have anything better to do that day, so I decided to head into Aunt Laura's room to get it over with.

Save for a few jackets lying on the bed, Aunt Laura's room hadn't changed one bit. Her bed was still unmade from when we rushed her to the hospital months earlier. Knick knacks, pill bottles, picture frames all sat in their usual places - it was like she never left. The hairs on my neck stood up as I made my way to her closet. I knew that she was a pack rat, so I figured that I should start where she probably stashed most of her stuff.

The closet was packed to capacity. Jackets, boxes, Catholic iconic candles, more boxes and trash bags filled with God knows what were jammed into the closet in such a chaotic yet orderly way that it reminded me of exposed organs in a human body during an autopsy. I thought about how weird it was for me to make that kind of correlation. Then I realized that I was in Aunt Laura's room; the dark, dismal museum of all things macabre. I mean, she had a wall filled with nothing but black and white framed photos of loved ones in caskets at wakes for Christ's sake. It must have been rubbing off on me.

I started pulling things out, examining them and tossing them on the bed. An hour later I had all but emptied the closet, finding nothing of any significance. I yanked the last trash bag full of clothes out, revealing an old, green metal lock box on the floor.

Intrigued, I picked it up. It was pretty heavy. I placed it on Aunt Laura's dresser to examine it further. It was about as big as a computer tower with two keyholes to the left and right of the front face. I searched her room for the keys for another hour. I was dying to find out what she would have hidden away under significant security. Knowing Aunt Laura, it was probably a urine sample from the 70's, or better yet, more photos of dead people. I finally gave up on the search and brought the box out to my brother, who was sitting on the couch in the living room with a beer watching the Red Sox game.

I put the box on the living room table and sat down in a chair opposite Marty. We both stared at it, trying to figure out the best thing to do. Because it was old, Marty thought that it might be worth some money, so he wanted to hold off on taking a hacksaw to the hinges until we spent more time searching for the keys. He was gone for about an hour before he walked back into the living room, exasperated and sweating from shifting around heavy antique furniture in her room trying to find them.

"Fuck this. Mikey, bring the box into the work shop. We're cracking this thing open."

Posted by KungFu Mike at 10:38 PM

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Comments

For christ sake, baby, have you ever published in Harper's or New Yorker, or anything like that? You are a brilliant writer. Jesus wept, that was a great short story. Damn, you are good.

Posted by: Snowblood at February 6, 2007 09:52 PM

You are always so randomly emo.

Posted by: at February 6, 2007 09:53 PM

what's in the boooooooooooooooooooooooooox??

gah! i can't wait! it's as bad as between "deadwoods"! now! NOW!

ack!

Posted by: erratiKate at February 7, 2007 12:53 AM

This was a good one. I want to know what was in the box. It better be fucking good. I can't believe I am excited to find out what is in your dead Aunt's box. (Did I really type that?)These types of posts are why I come back to read your stuff. You have mega talent when you are not trying too hard to be an asshole.

Posted by: at February 7, 2007 01:34 AM

Shit man you're an excellent writer. You've got hilarious mocking comedy writing and nice dramatic short stories at the same time. I like the variety.

Posted by: at February 7, 2007 03:06 AM

It probably all those damn Nintendo booklets in there! That crazy broad would definately do something like that.

Posted by: B-Real at February 7, 2007 06:56 PM

This is your best story yet. I would love to see more like this in your future. Its honest and has heart....like the real you.

Posted by: genevieve at February 8, 2007 09:41 AM

Shit me, very well written. I've not met many people who, like myself, call their grandfather "Pop Pop". Pretty cool.

Posted by: at February 8, 2007 10:07 AM

Damn you for writing a cliff-hanger. I'm on the edge of my seat...

Posted by: Griffin at February 9, 2007 09:28 PM

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