What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


 

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

 

My family usually celebrated Christmas dinner at the Concord Inn, but this year Uncle Neal, my mother’s brother, invites us to his house. I’m not happy when Mom tells me. Uncle Neal, a heavy, boisterous man, always lunges at me whenever I walk by. He laughs, thinking it fun, but he’s done this since I was young, and it still makes me nervous. I keep my distance.

On Christmas morning, after opening family presents at home, we pick up Great Aunt Ellen and Grandmother Bess, before driving to Weston. Neither of them has ever learned to drive.

My grandmother, whose large bosom fascinates my fourteen-year-old libido, always dresses in black with a multi-strand of pearls around her neck. ‘They’re fake,’ she once said when I asked if they were valuable. In the car, she snaps open her purse and takes out a cigarette. She taps it on the back of her hand, then lights it. After her first puff, she pops open the ashtray in the door handle.

“The Baptists came caroling last night,” she says.

Aunt Ellen looks up from poking around in her pocketbook. “Who came?”

“THE BAPTISTS!” my grandmother repeats, raising her voice.

“What did they want?” her sister asks.

“THEY WERE CAROLING.” Grandma Bess becomes impatient when her sister interrupts.

Mom turns slightly in the front seat to show she’s listening.

Grandma continues her story: “When I heard singing, I thought I’d left the radio on. I went into the living room to shut it off when I saw people on the front porch looking in my windows. I opened the door and there was Frank Darby, the pastor from the Baptist Church. And there I was with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other.”

We all laugh, although I didn’t think it was that funny.

“Why stare through my windows on Christmas Eve?” my grandmother complains. “They might see something they shouldn’t.”Christmas spirit.”

“They came by because you live alone,” Mom says. “They wanted to share the 

“I don’t go to their church.” Grandma is indignant. “It seems a bit high-handed to me. They probably wanted a donation.”

“I live alone,” my Aunt Ellen speaks up, “and they didn’t come by my house. I would have enjoyed hearing them.”

You live on the second floor,” my grandmother says. “They can’t look through your windows!”

*****

At my uncle’s house, I go to the kitchen to wish Aunt Alice a Merry Christmas. Born in Virginia, she sometimes argues with Mom about civil rights. She calls it the Black Question.

“My goodness, Mark. I believe you’ve grown a foot since I saw you last.” She leans toward me for a kiss, but always pulls back so that my lips don’t touch her cheek. “How old are you now?”

“Fourteen last month.”

“You’ll be off to college before we know it.”

“I only started high school in September.”

She waves her hand dismissively. “High school will go by in a flash! I’ve made ham, cheese potatoes, and peas. All your favorites.”

I return to the living room to look at the gifts under the tree. “Are all the presents ready, Santa?” my uncle roars, trying to grab me as I pass him. Startled, I jump back, almost knocking into my grandmother and stepping on her corns.

“Neal! Stop pestering him!” she says. “Your voice is enough to wake the dead.”

“You don’t mind, do you, Bub?”

Pretending I don’t hear him, I kneel by the tree. “Time for presents,” I announce. I read the tag on the first package.

“The first one’s for Aunt Ellen.”

“I’m first?” she says, smiling with pleasure. “You’re a good Santa Claus.”

“That present is from me, not Santa,” Grandma says to her sister.

I examine the tag on another gift. “The next one’s for Aunt Alice—”

“Hey, Alice, get in here,” Neal roars. “You’ve got a present.”

“And this present’s for—”

“Don’t pass them out so fast,” my mother says. “I want to see what everyone gets.”

“—this one’s for Grandma Bess.”

“Finally.” My grandmother smooths her dress as I pass the gift to her.

*****

At the dining room table, my grandmother turns to Dad. “George, take some pictures while Neal carves the ham.”

My father excuses himself and brings the camera from the living room. I sit between my aunt and grandmother, grinning, while Dad adjusts the focus. “Mark, stop grinning. You look like a half-wit. Okay. Ready now.” The flashcube illuminates the room like a flash of lightening.

“My goodness.” Aunt Ellen jerks beside me. “What happened?”

“One more, please. Stop talking and look at me. Smile.” Another bright flash. Aunt Ellen grips my arm. Purple spots float in front of my eyes.

Alice holds up her hand. “Mark, will you say grace?”

She asks me to say grace because none of the adults want to. Only Dad and I can speak extemporaneously and make sense. I take a deep breath. “Thank you, God, for this food...” Out of the corner of my eye I look around the table. Grandma Bess is rubbing her lips together to even out her lipstick. Aunt Alice scans the table for anything missing. “...we thank the Lord for all our presents...” My mother’s eyes are closed, her hands folded in front of her plate. My father stares at the centerpiece of dried flowers. “...we thank Thee for bringing us all together...” Beside me and still gripping my arm, Aunt Ellen looks around the room in an agitated manner. “...to celebrate Christmas—”

“We can’t start without Walter,” Aunt Ellen says, interrupting me. “He should be here by now!”

My mouth falls open and I swallow the “Amen.” Walter, my grandmother’s husband, has been dead for eleven years.

Silence around the table. Neal stands with the knife halfway through the ham.

“He said he’d be here,” Aunt Ellen says. “He promised.” A tear runs down her cheek.

“I’m sure he’ll be here soon,” Alice says quietly, getting up. She doesn’t seem surprised and I wonder if this has happened before.

Aunt Ellen reaches down for her napkin to wipe her eyes, but she takes hold of the tablecloth. Her glass of water tips over, silverware falls off the table, and a candle plops into the dried flowers.

Everyone begins talking at once. My father pulls the candle out of the centerpiece where a small flame flickers through the dried leaves. “Oh, look,” Mom says, and empties her glass of water into the flowers.

My grandmother pushes back her chair. “Ellen, stop this foolishness and eat your dinner!”

But Aunt Alice is already helping my aunt from her chair. “I’ll take her upstairs,” she says. “The spare room is made up.”

My mother joins her at Aunt Ellen’s side. I follow behind with a mixture of confusion and fascinated horror. She seems so frail and light that even I could support her.

On the second floor, Aunt Alice runs ahead to pull back the spread. I hear the whir as she lowers the shades on the front windows.

At the bedroom door, Aunt Ellen becomes more agitated. “Don’t take me in there. It’s too dark.”

“I’ll turn a light on, dear,” says Aunt Alice. The bed lamp casts a pink glow through its frilly shade. The two women help her into bed. Mom removes her shoes and Aunt Alice covers her with the spread.

My mother sees me standing in the doorway. “You can go downstairs. There’s nothing more to do here.”

“Walter?” My aunt raises her head and looks straight at me. She struggles to free her hand from the bedspread. “Come here.”

“She’s always calling me Walter,” I say, feeling that somehow this is my fault. Did she think I was Walter or had she forgotten my name again? I sit on the bed and hold her hand. She looks at me for a long moment, then abruptly closes her eyes. Her breathing is shallow but regular.

“Should we call a doctor?” Aunt Alice whispers to my mother.

“She’s over excited. A little rest will do her good.”

“But she needs something to eat. I’ll bring up tea and toast.” Aunt Alice goes downstairs.

“Mom, it’s all right. I’ll stay with her.”

She hesitates. “Promise you’ll stay right here. Call me if she wakes up. I’ll have a bite to eat and be right back.”

In the large bed, Aunt Ellen looks like a child who’s been tucked in for the night. Her rings press against the bones in my hand. I look out the side window facing the woods. When the trees sway in the wind, snow drifts down like a veil. Dusk is already filling the woods. I remember Mom once telling me that Grandfather Walter was going to marry Aunt Ellen, but, at the last moment, he decided to marry Grandma Bess instead.

I slowly get up from the bed. My aunt’s body rises higher with my weight off the mattress. In the hallway, I lean over the stair railing. I heard the rattle of silverware on china, the low murmur of voices. Then directly below me, I hear Mom:

“...should go right after dinner, George. Mother will stay with her tonight.”

I step back from the railing. I don’t want her to see me and think I’ve broken my promise. The hall floor creaks under my feet.

“...to a home. We can’t put it off any longer.” At first, I don’t recognize my uncle’s voice. It isn’t the loud, joking voice I know.

“...hate the thought of it, but you’re right.” Mom again. “We’ll talk tomorrow. I’m going upstairs to send Mark down for his dinner.”

I tiptoe back to the bedroom. When Mom enters the room, I’m standing by the bed.

“Is she still asleep?”

I nod.

“Go down and have dinner.”

“Is she going to be okay?”

“She’ll be better when she wakes up. She hasn’t slept well lately so she gets confused.”

“What home are you taking her to?”

“We’re bringing her back to her own house. Grandma will stay with her for a few of days.”

“Grandma is angry with her.”

“She’s not really angry. When people are worried, they seem angry but they’re not.”

Downstairs, Aunt Alice fills my plate with ham, potato, peas and squash. Over the ham, she pours a sweet sauce with raisins. The squash has brown sugar mixed in it. Uncle Neal and Grandma Bess are the only people still sitting at the table. Uncle Neal watches me eat. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“I just started high school.”

“Study science. That’s the thing these days. Can’t let the Commies beat us in space.”

I look down at my plate, hoping my expression doesn’t reveal how little I care for science.

“They’ll beat us to the moon, mark my words. We should have bombed them when we had the chance.”

“Really Neal!” Grandma and her son argue over dessert while I eat in silence. I think of my aunt lying asleep upstairs like a toy someone had forgotten to wind up.

*****

Soon after dinner, we leave for home. Standing in the light snowfall outside my uncle’s house, I smell the pine trees. Dad and Uncle Neal help Aunt Ellen into the car. She has recovered and insists she is capable of walking by herself. Even I know that won’t last long. Tears fill my eyes. More than Christmas has ended.

The good-byes are hurried: “Call me tomorrow and let me know how she is...Thanks for having us...Hope this snow doesn’t keep up much longer” I hope the snow will fall all night.

In the distance, a church clock strikes the hour. My mother looks at her watch. “George, it’s already eight!” The church bells begin to play Silent Night, the notes drifting down lighter than snow. I look up into the sky and wonder how many miles the snow falls.

In the car, I listen to the rhythm of the windshield wipers scraping away the snow. When another car passes, its headlights flash across the interior of our car. Aunt Ellen has fallen asleep. On my other side, Grandma twists her wedding ring around her finger. She looks through the car windows as if anything outside would be more interesting than what is happening inside. The tires skim the road. Each vibration of the car shivers through me. I wish the ride would go on forever.


Submitted: February 02, 2018

© Copyright 2021 Daveriese. All rights reserved.

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