Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: FUSSY (11/17/16)
TITLE: Just So, Aunt Jessie
By Ann Grover
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“Robert, dear, it’s time for your bath.”
“Aw, Aunt Jessie, can’t I play?”
She gave me a look that meant I should already be upstairs soaping my feet. I scrambled.
When I was nine, I became an orphan. Widowed and childless, my dad’s eldest sister spoke for me, so I went to live with her. With her silver hair and starched aprons, Aunt Jessie was the quintessential maiden aunt. I lived surrounded by doilies, teacups, and aspidistras in brass pots. Everything in precise order, in its way, in its place.
Just so, Aunt Jessie said.
After my bath, Aunt Jessie combed my hair, making the part arrow-straight. She warmed some milk, and while I sipped it, she rinsed and dried the saucepan.
“It’s three minutes before seven, Robert.”
Four minutes later, I was tucked in bed, teeth cleaned, prayers said, with the scent of lavender lingering on my cheek.
Dear Aunt Jessie.
Aunt Jessie had definite ideas about how one should comport oneself. No breathing night air or reading comic books or whistling at the table. Chewing gum wasn’t allowed, either, for it was vulgar, and eating with one’s hands was slovenly. Drinking root beer would lead to dissipation. You must acquit yourself with dignity, Robert. Just so. I often thought her inordinately particular and demanding, though perhaps my life wasn’t much different from that of other children. Yet it is in the nature of children to wish to break loose of protective fetters.
Unlike other little boys, I didn’t wish to join the circus or ride the range with Roy Rogers. Instead, I passionately desired to explore the butcher’s shed, to discover its mysteries. Why, I don’t know. The peculiarities of youth, perhaps, or maybe it was the butcher himself, Mr. Atkins, who inspired me, garbed in his stained apron by weekday, yet immaculately attired on Sunday, singing “Bread of Heaven” in his resonant baritone.
I devised a plan for Saturday when Aunt Jessie always got her meat. As she gathered up her pocketbook and string bags, she reminded me to get a fresh handkerchief. I decided, this once, not to.
Mr. Atkins was behind the counter, slicing through a crimson mass on the wooden block when we entered his shop. “Good morning, Miss Jessie, Robert. The usual?”
“Yes, please,” said Aunt Jessie. “Two pounds roast, two chops, one pound mince, one chicken.”
While Mr. Atkins assembled our order, they chatted about how profusely the daffodils were blooming, and I saw my chance. I pretended interest in the sheepskins piled on a crate by the door, then slipped out, careful not to ring the bell.
The butchering shed was a stout building behind the store. I lifted the latch and stepped into the dank gloom. Great chunks of meat hung from hooks, ribs gleaming. I touched one, curious at its firmness, then poked it, sending it swinging. I dodged away, turning as I did so, to find myself face to face with a grinning skull, barely recognizable as the placid cow from which it’d come. Shocked, I tripped backwards, tumbling into a tub of offal.
I clambered out, horrified by the bits of matter clinging to my blood-soaked clothing and skin. I rummaged for my handkerchief, which wasn’t in my pocket where it ought to have been. Then Mr. Atkins and Aunt Jessie were there, Aunt Jessie already pulling her own lace-edged handkerchief out and mopping my face. Mr. Atkins was smiling as widely as the gruesome face behind me, and then Aunt Jessie’s look of appalled distress transformed. I saw her lips quiver, eyes sparkle.
As we walked home, the secrets of the butcher’s shed proclaimed my naughtiness to all. And not even Aunt Jessie’s domestic diligence could save my clothing; they were burned.
Aunt Jessie remained faithful to her particular, often quaint, ways, whether it was ironing tea-towels or honesty or writing thank-you notes. The years passed, and when she lay dying, quietly and gently, as was her manner, I sat by her side, overcome with love for her and her thorough perseverance as she’d shaped my boyishness into manhood. As I smoothed her blanket, taking special care to align the edges, a tear slid down my cheek.
“Do you have a handkerchief, Robert?”
I did, of course.
Just so, Aunt Jessie, just so.
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