I always thought Aunt Agnes should have used a cigarette holder. Of all the smokers I ever knew, only she and FDR had the panache to pull it off. As it was, she held her cigarettes in a tripod grip between thumb and first two fingers just like we later held our joints. She never used filters, so the mouth end of her smokes wore bright red lipstick rings over their impossibly white paper wrappings. Holding them, she looked like a post-depression black and white photograph in which only her lips and cigarette end had been colored. She always leaned forward on an elbow so the smoke drifted past her squinting eyes framed by sleek waved hair she might have marcelled had it still been in fashion. She dared you to look back.
If Mother was sugar, Agnes was spice. She married a sweet, doe-eyed Catholic guy and went to church with him, but snoozed through the sermons. She said she wanted kids, but had none and asked instead for one of the twins my mother produced. Denied that, she came every day to help while they were babies. She rode the bus all over town, read mysteries, and watched soap operas. She worked crossword puzzles with angular capital letters in ink. She could jitterbug. She showed off red pedicured feet in open toed pumps at the end of sharply creased slacks. She never once wore an apron.
Agnes did not get old, though when she neared eighty, she had begun to show signs of rubbing thin at wear points, like the elbows of a favorite shirt.
--What do you want for your birthday, Auntie?
--Red silk pajamas.
--You’re kidding, right?
--I am not.
Smoke in her eyes again. I think she used it as an excuse to challenge, to lower her eyelids like a wary hawk.
--What’s wrong with that?
She denied age like a presumptive suitor.
--Nothing. Nothing at all.
I gave her the box of pajamas a few weeks later after everyone else had left. When she opened it, she laid a suddenly purple veined hand on them with satisfaction. Her nail polish matched. Her hand slid across the liquid folds. No rough spots on her baby smooth skin pulled a snag.
I never did figure out whether she wore them. I snooped a few times after that and they always sat on top of a pile of other nightclothes in her second drawer, perfectly folded. Their creases eventually disappeared, but touching does that, too. Anyway, Agnes went to the hospital a few months later and for the three weeks she was there, neither of us mentioned the pajamas.
After it was all over, when I had to choose her last outfit, I flipped through her polyester suits and dark, secretly elastic slacks. Nothing in the closet looked like hers. Pink, lilac, baby blue. No, not the Agnes I knew. Only one thing to do. I reached for the lipstick and nail polish on her cosmetic tray and then opened her second drawer. They had to be red. Like bright blood. Like broken hearts.
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