By Copper Rose
She landed in the middle of November. Swooped into her old bedroom with a suitcase, complaints about her health and how the bank had treated her badly when they foreclosed on her home. Her church had turned its back on her. Uncle Jack said she came home because she got kicked out of Louisiana.
“You can’t get kicked out of a whole state,” I said.
“You don’t know my sister,” Uncle Jack said.
We made bets as to why Aunt Betty really came home. Mama won the bet.
Aunt Betty came home to get Maynard’s money as soon as Grandma was gone.
When I visited Grandma, I noticed Uncle Maynard, the other brother, often stared at Aunt Betty’s closed bedroom door. Maynard was the oldest. Aunt Betty said at Thanksgiving dinner—she whispered the word: schizophrenia—rolling her eyes in the direction of Uncle Maynard.
Even though I was much younger than Aunt Betty, I remember she had spent her high school days winning crowns. Homecoming Queen. Miss Congeniality at Snowflake Fest. Prom Queen. Crazy Daze Princess. Then she left for the big city, making frequent, unexpected visits home. I saw what she handed off to my cousins when she thought no one was looking. A little fix here, a secret stash there. She handed it over with her secret smile. Then she didn’t come home for a really long time.
By the time Aunt Betty did come home, Grandma was old. Eighty-eight with white hands, blue veins, drooping eyelids. By then, Grandma was dyeing her hair a luminous shade of maroon. When Grandma smiled just right, her teeth would fall out of her mouth, but she was pretty quick about sucking them back in again. Sometimes she would clack her teeth at me like you’d see on a Halloween movie clip of a skeleton dancing through a forest of creepy trees. Grandma could still walk pretty good with her walker, but Aunt Betty wanted her in a wheelchair. “To speed things up,” Aunt Betty would say with that secret smile.
Maynard was on some heavy duty medication to help keep him stable. Grandma was on some heavy duty medication to keep her alive. After Aunt Betty came home, Grandma and Maynard started getting sicker. The day nurse said Maynard had been mixing up their medication.
Then, one day, Grandma fell. Aunt Betty said Maynard had gotten out of control and pushed Grandma. We all knew that sometimes Maynard could lose control. One day, he beat the hell out of the TV because the kids on The Brady Bunch wouldn’t listen to him. But Grandma was always the one to calm Maynard down when he’d get like that. In fact, Grandma was the only one who could calm Maynard down when he’d get like that.
It was about this time that Grandma told Uncle Jack to make sure Aunt Betty never found out how much money Maynard had.
Mama won that bet, too.
Then Grandma got pneumonia.
After the funeral, we gathered for ham sandwiches, gelatin salads, and cake because food like that makes things all better. Maynard cried until his shoulders shook and the front of his shirt was all wet.
Aunt Betty drove back to Grandma’s house in a new Mercedes Benz.
I gathered up Maynard and took him to the cemetery. He wanted to pour Grandma’s ashes in the hole without having a bunch of other people around. The ashes blew every which way, but he managed to get most of them in the hole. He bent down and pulled up a piece of wire.
“What’s that?” I asked.
He grunted. “Looks like the wire that held Ma’s chest together after her heart attack. I saw it once on an x-ray.” He cradled the wire in his hand, blew at the ashes stuck to it and then glanced up at me. “Betty held Ma’s head under the shower. That’s why Ma got pneumonia.” He glanced at me, and then looked at his feet.
After that, we drove home. Maynard walked in the house with his clenched fist.
“What’cha got there in your fist, Maynard?” Aunt Betty asked. She topped off her question with that secret smile.
“Ma’s heart wire.”
“Give it to me.”
Maynard stood there as Aunt Betty pried open his fist and then stuffed the wire into her new, leather purse.