I was eleven years old when I went to live with my Granny and Great Aunt Eva. Betty June and Daddy, my parents, were killed in a freak pontoon boat accident at Lake Murray on Memorial Day, 29 days before my eleventh birthday. I was left on the shore with some other kids while Betty June sat on the front deck of the overcrowded boat, drunk and dragging her legs in the water when Daddy gunned the engine about 50 yards out. The entire front end dipped down making 16 people, including my father, fall forward and pile on top of my mother. Naturally no one was wearing a life preserver, and Betty June, who could not swim, sank 56 feet to the muddy bottom along with Daddy who was too full of PBR and Wild Turkey to put up much of a fight with the water. Three other people died in the accident, but they were of no consequence to me, so I couldn’t tell you their names even if you offered me a prize. Anyway, after divers found their bodies, and the coroner did the autopsies, and the preacher did his burying, it was June 30th, my birthday. Seeing as there was no one else to take care of me, Granny and Great Aunt Eva told the social worker assigned to my case that they would come by the foster home where I was staying and fetch me. They were next of kin, they said. They packed my suitcase, threw it in the trunk of Granny’s Pontiac, and we headed off for the wilds of Kershaw County, South Carolina.
Now you might think that I was pretty torn up about the preceding events, but I wasn’t. I mean, yes I was sort of sad about losing my parents. They did provide for me, sort of. I did go to school every now and then when we were living in one place for long enough. We moved all over South Carolina and Georgia, from Greenville to Columbia to Charleston to Rock Hill to Athens to Charlotte to Savannah to Macon then back to Columbia over a period of six years. We’d get a run down apartment, or a worn out trailer, or a shotgun shack in each place. My parents would register me for school and everything would be sort of okay until Daddy lost whatever mechanics job he had, or Betty June got arrested for public intoxication, or the utility company came by and cut off our electricity. Sometimes the sheriff came out and evicted us for non-payment of rent, throwing all our stuff out in a pile on the side of the road. Daddy would scoop up what would fit into the trunk of whatever beater car we had at the time, and we’d be off to the next town or county, and pick up our lives again. By the time Betty June and Daddy took the Big Gulp, we were living back in Columbia, and our luck had changed for the better. We were actually doing pretty well I guess. We lived in the Dentsville Trailer Court, and I had gotten through all of the second grade, enough to go to third grade the next term, just three years behind. Betty June had a second-shift waitress job at the iHop, and Daddy was working at the AutoZone on Two Notch Road. In fact we had enough money to be able to afford a used pontoon boat and a 75 horsepower Mercury outboard motor.
Come to think of it, maybe it wasn’t so lucky for my parents, but since I wasn’t on that boat, I guess maybe I was the only lucky one in my little family.
Anyway, my birthday was on a Saturday that year. Granny and Great Aunt Eva pulled up outside of the group home where I was staying, then took me all the way out to the little two bedroom house they shared about five miles outside of Camden. They put up a curtain in the tiny dining nook so it was like I had my own room. There were chickens in the yard, and plenty of sweet tea and Kool Aid to drink. All in all, it was a pretty good deal, I mean besides my parents being dead.
Three months later I settled into a pretty nice routine I never had with Betty June and Daddy. First of all, I started fifth grade, thanks to Granny and her filling out the forms at North Camden Elementary School. She told them she couldn’t remember the name of my previous school, and the school secretary just put me in the grade she thought I looked like I should be in. Nobody really asked me. Given the same situation, some kids would have complained about the harder subjects, but I didn’t. To tell the truth, I was sort of tired of being in a classroom full of babies. Going from three years behind to only one year behind made me feel more confident. There were even kids in my class my age. I studied in school, and did the homework. It’s not like Granny and Great Aunt Eva lots to do like a good television, or a record player, or anything much besides those chickens. So I was quickly caught up with the fifth grade.
The second thing also related to school. Granny didn’t take me there in her huge Pontiac. A big yellow bus stopped about a quarter mile from the house every morning and picked up several kids from the area. The only clothes I really had were a few jeans and a bunch of gas station, car, and mechanics T-shirts: Pennzoil, Exxon, Gulf, Craft Master, Thrush Mufflers, Hurst, Chevrolet, Ford. Daddy got them free wherever he worked and he usually took a couple for me. I always wore worn out Chuck Taylor Hi-top sneakers. The boys all seemed to want to dress like me, and the girls liked my hair which was longer and blonde. I was a quiet kid and that ended up being a plus. The kids on the bus took me as a strong, silent type, and lots of people wanted to be my friend, especially when I told them how my parents drowned. It gave me an air of mystery.
The third thing made me really popular for some reason. One summer day right before school started, my Great Aunt Eva sat on the front porch with me and taught me how to smoke Salem shorts. They were strong menthol cigarettes without filters, and the first few times I inhaled, I nearly coughed up my lungs. I got sick. I threw up near the side of the house, and the chickens scratched through it looking for feed. That made me a little sicker. It was that sort of cycle for a few minutes, then I got used to the cigarettes. Great Aunt Eva was very old, much older than my Granny. She didn’t believe in the warnings on the side of cigarette packs. “I’ve been smoking since I was nine years old,” She growled in her deep voice. “It ain’t never stopped me or hurt my health. I ain’t see no reason to keep this pleasure from you.” And she’d pass me another butt.
When I went out to wait on the bus every morning, I always had two cigarettes in my shirt pocket, and one behind my ear. Granny told me I looked like a hoodlum, but Great Aunt Eva hushed her, told me to give her some sugar which meant for me to kiss her, She smiled and waved as I left smoke clouds behind me on the way to the bus stop. The kids there were impressed, even more so when they learned I was actually allowed to smoke. One girl, Patsy Mae, was thirteen and going to the junior high next to the elementary school. She told me that by the time I got to junior high, I would be the coolest guy there. I just gave her a smile and spit on the ground. “I guess I already am, Peggy Mae.” I said, and she flushed up. I think she liked me, and I secretly thanked my aunt.
Everything was going pretty good. Granny, unlike Betty June and Daddy, expected me to actually do well in school, even beyond my efforts to get into a class with kids my own age. Even Great Aunt Eva told me that if I studied, and eventually graduated from high school, something none of my kin had ever done, she would buy me a car. Not a new car, but at least one I could drive and work on myself she said. So I set myself up every night with my books and cigarettes, studying way after the old girls went to bed. By the way, they would have tanned my hide if they knew I called them “the old girls.”
By the time I got into high school, I felt like I was on top. Most of the time when I was with Betty June and Daddy I felt like a useless withered arm. You know, I was always there but really didn’t serve a purpose other than to fill up a sleeve. So to speak, you know. They didn’t really put me in a sleeve, but there was the time Betty June accidentally glued my fingers together while I held her fake nails in place. She ran out of regular glue and was using super glue. That stuff only comes off with acetone, and we were waiting for a social worker to come by. During that visit Betty June made me keep my hand up my sleeve while the worker quizzed me on whether I was eating regularly and going to school, both of which I said yes to, but it was a lie. After the woman left, Betty June forgot all about my stuck together fingers for two more days until I got loud enough about it while she was drunk. She took me to the gas station and ran my hand under gasoline. It seemed to work, but my fingers were sticky for a couple of weeks, and I smelled like 89 octane so bad she made me sleep on the porch for three days.
Anyway, there had been none of that while I was at Granny and Great Aunt Eva’s place. I even felt a little welcome because I did things for them. I fed those chickens, robbed the nests for eggs, and swept the dirt yard of their leavings. We had breakfast, lunch, and supper every day. My Granny and Great Aunt Eva put on makeup each morning, with tons of powder foundation spackled into the cracks and crannies of their faces, not actually hiding the flaws, but putting a fine layer of dust over them to make the spots and lines look less bold. The waxy tube of red they applied across their wrinkly lips was the same rouge they used on their cheekbones, the flush of youth they no longer had. Granny said that once. Great Aunt Eva said that the bloom was so far off their rose that the only thing left was to approximate where the petals used to be, but she still thought she looked good. She was pretty enough, as was my grandmother, but neither of them could be mistaken for younger women. My mother once told me before she took that final drink in Lake Murray that Granny and Great Aunt Eva weren’t fooling nobody, that they did the makeup out of habit. Betty June said it with a mean edge to her voice, like saying that somehow made her better than them, that she held on to some of her own beauty. But if you asked me, she was only a few years from going from dewy to dusty herself.
Great Aunt Eva always smelled like rose dusting powder. She always wanted me to kiss her on the cheek before I went to meet the school bus from fifth grade to seventh grade to eighth grade on up. The makeup brushed off on my lips with a smokey and candy taste. It was something that I always took with me to school, like a reminder of her and her expectations.
Smells and tastes like that always reminded me of things, like when I started high school and kids were sneaking beers in the back of the bus. The smell of them alone took me back to when Betty June and Daddy had me. I was just a drag on their lives, a surprise that happened because they were careful, just not careful enough. Daddy told me once that the condom broke and that was why I was born, ha ha. When I lost those two, that I held no particular grief wasn’t really a surprise to me. They had been around me, but not the world’s best family. The only reminder I ever got of them other than smell of the beers, which I never drank, was when Granny used real vanilla extract in her baking. There was just enough of a whiff of alcohol to send me back to the days when Betty June and Daddy drank the rent money.
So life with the “old girls” was kind of good. I was actually pretty grateful to them. I got through high school and even got to go to technical school afterwards where I got my mechanics certification. Great Aunt Eva came through with her promise to buy me a used car. I stayed with them in the little house until I finished getting certified, then I got a job in Columbia about 45 minutes away. It was with a Honda dealership working on used, non-Honda cars. I had benefits like insurance and days off. They even offered to send me back to school to earn a master mechanic license. I got a small apartment by myself close to work, but I spent every weekend with Granny and Great Aunt Eva, you know, to help around the house. They weren’t getting any younger. Granny called it the slow march to the grave, but Great Aunt Eva would just laugh at her. She told Granny that she herself planned to outlive everyone. By the way, neither of them would tell me how old they were. I don’t know what they were so vain about, but that was fine with me.
I thought they both were going to live forever. I was wrong.
Great Aunt Eva went first, just by going to bed one night and never waking up. I guess that’s a pretty good way to go. And when I went with Granny to Grayson’s Funeral Parlor and Chapel to make arrangements, I looked at the death certificate. I saw that she was 93 years old. The coroner said she passed of “natural causes.” Granny huffed about it a little. She said that there was nothing natural about Salem cigarettes.
The funeral was held at the parlor. I sat next to Granny in a suit I bought just for the occasion. She insisted that it be an open casket event. “Eva always prided herself on her looks, you know. She’d want everyone to see her to say goodbye.”
We watched as a few older cousins, some old ladies that I guessed knew her when she was younger, and a few strange ancient men that I couldn’t place tottered up, and held on to the coffin to whisper words to Great Aunt Eva. The room was warm, and there was a strange odor. It was like regular Listerine, mint, and bad breath, like dirty dentures. I turned around and looked at the people attending. Everyone was old, very old. Their thin skeletons held dried up flesh or melted mounds of candle wax. I don’t know why that came to me. It just did.
When everyone else had walked up and had their say with Great Aunt Eva, I turned to Granny. “Come on. Let’s go say goodbye. It’s time now.”
“Yes, it is.”
“I’ll help you up there. I know this is hard.” I took Granny’s arm. As we walked, I was looking down. The carpet had a pattern to it, repeating gold diamonds on a burgundy background. The windows in the room were covered by sheer white curtains, the panes outlined by the bright daylight which reflected off of the bronze of the casket. I don’t know who had pushed the heavy blue outer drapes open, but I was glad they did. The room was pretty in a quiet sort of way, and I was thinking how much Great Aunt Eva would have liked it.
We stopped at the coffin. I held Granny by the shoulder and squeezed her slightly. She cocked her head towards me, her eyes wrinkly with folds and wet with tears. I looked at my hands and noticed I still had some black grease underneath my nails. I never could clean my hands enough any more. Granny’s hands were now holding onto one of the brass handles. She reached up and stroked the white satin surrounding my aunt. Her hands were turned up, and the backs of her hands made a swishing sound on the cloth. The palms were very pale, deep with lines, and spotty with red, like they were chapped in places.
“Eva, you didn’t outlive me.” I could barely hear her voice over the noise her hands were making. “I can’t believe I’m saying goodbye now. It just seems like yesterday we was out in the yard waiting on Papa to come home from the mill.”
I hadn’t known that my great grandfather had worked at a mill. I was so glad to have a home with my grandmother and great aunt that it never occurred to me to ask about the rest of their family other than the odd cousins who sometimes came by. All I really knew was my mother and father were gone, and that wasn’t such a bad thing. I really wasn’t too curious, I guess, and the two old girls were pretty closed-lip about most everything except the day to day things. Now I realized that they had lives before I came. When my mother told me that time that Granny and Great Aunt Eva wore makeup that didn’t fool anyone, she didn’t look any further than their skin. Neither had I, really, but at least I was nice.
I looked down at my grandmother. She was so small. “Come on, Granny. Let’s go sit down.”
“Not yet. You got to kiss her.”
“I said you got to kiss her. She’s so pretty there. She looks so natural. Kiss her.”
“Granny, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I already said goodbye in my heart.”
“Kiss her.” All of the sudden her hand was one the back of my head, pushing me forward and down. I couldn’t stop her. It was like she had some sort of strength, something inside of her that was stronger than me. My head went closer and closer to Great Aunt Eva until my lips were pressed against her cheek. She was cold, but a powdery taste came into my mouth, something familiar. Granny let go of my head and I came back up. I wiped my hand across my lips and pancake makeup came off. I looked down into the casket at my aunt, and she looked like she was smiling. I smiled back.