This story is by Alexandra Reid and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Death, the final frontier. It is a solitary discovery we will each make at the end of our lives. No one comes back and tells us what to expect. This is what I pondered as I stood gazing down at my deceased aunt, Marie.
There is supposed to be a peace in death. That is why I found the scowl on Aunt Marie’s face perplexing. It was as if even death had proved disappointing. I also wondered if she somehow knew of her newly widowed husband’s pending nuptials. They had been separated for more than two decades with no divorce papers ever filed. I suppose just as there is common law marriage there is common law divorce.
Her death was not a surprise though two years had passed since I had seen her. I still was dating Charlie at the time, and he had been with me during my visit. Aunt Marie had lived in a trailer park about 20 miles or so from any known civilization. The park was an encampment of rectangular tin houses on wheels. They were stacked on a patch of dirt in the middle of a grassy field. Inside, paneling lined the walls, ashen with age and neglect. There was a noticeable dip in floor as we sat on a battered sofa. Sheets covered the windows to keep out the bright afternoon sun. The room was cool and dark save a tiny table lamp struggling to light the room.
“That yer husband,” asked Aunt Marie.
“Uh, this is my friend, Charlie. My boyfriend.” I blushed at the need to correct myself. Charlie and I had known each other for years and had only recently begun dating. After years of disappointing relationships and fizzled flings, Charlie had perked up the courage to confess his feelings for me. He had been hoping I would realize his infatuation on my own. It was a slow process, and my romantic feelings for him were slow to bloom. Now here we were, trying to make the transition from friend to something more, and my aunt had just referred to him as my husband.
She scoffed at the correction. “Don’t seem too sure of yourself.”
Charlie cleared his throat and gave me a sidelong glance. This I returned with a smile as if to say, “Ignore her.” “It’s a new relationship Aunt Marie. How have you been feeling?”
At this she shifted in her chair and grabbed a cigarette from the packet on the table. She took a long drag. “Don’t go fooling yourself about men and love. It’s a waste of time.”
I shook my head. “Yes ma’am, I was just passing through and wanted to come see you.”
She leaned over and looked at me. “You think I’m crazy,” she said. “I’m just as sane as the day is long.”
“I just wanted to see you Aunt Marie. It has been a long while since I could make my way down here.”
“Well, what did you bring him for if you ain’t fixin’ for to marry him?”
I remember being completely flummoxed by this line of questioning. Odd that it would come to me as I stood peering over her lifeless body. In the end, there was no reasoning with Aunt Marie. She had refused to leave the deteriorating, old trailer in her last days. It was if it were her last treasure. At the close of her life, Aunt Marie had been a mirthless person. The only things she was ever happy to see were a pack of Newport cigarettes and a 24-ounce can of Budweiser beer.
She had been the youngest of my grandparents’ four children, the only girl. She was pretty and petite, all slender lines and angles. Much more than the angry, scrunched up face that looked up at me. The overprotective nature of her older brothers made her rebellious. Her wild spirit lead her straight into the arms of Cooper Motley, my uncle. Tall, athletic, and dark-skinned with mischievous honey-gold eyes, he represented adventure. Cooper Motley could give her the freedom she craved. As the only girl, she had always been confined to the house doing chores. After losing two brothers to the war in Vietnam, she had to forego her dream of leaving home to care for her aging parents.
Cooper Motley offered her the chance to break away from her unremarkable life. With his ambition to become a long distance truck driver, he had promised a life constantly in motion, exploring the country and the world. She knew she would find a new purpose for her life with the man of her dreams, so she married him. She would soon learn that dreams are the fuel of a hopeful heart.
In reality, Cooper only represented another cage. His idea of married life had been to keep her locked up in motel rooms as they traveled on the road. She was his cook and housekeeper. Any non-compliance resulted in the slap across the face or unending shouts of abuse. Having children was also an obstacle. Her small frame barely handled the jostling of the long journeys. The result had been three premature births, all stillborn. Her failure as mother only incurred Cooper’s wrath more. Finally, she mustered the courage to leave him and return home.
Things had changed since her marriage to Cooper. Her last remaining brother, the youngest of the three, had done very well for himself. Two years older than his sister, Clint Owens had finished his time in the military and obtained a business degree and now ran a successful lumber business. He was also a husband and father of two.
I am sure Aunt Marie had been happy for my father albeit more than angry her life had not gone the way she had planned. She always lamented things were easier for men. My father hired her as his assistant, happy to have her back home. No questions were asked concerning my uncle. It was a closed subject.
This was her second wind. Aunt Marie reinvented herself. She wore nice blouses and skirts to the office every day. I remember always thinking she looked like a life-size Barbie doll. She glowed with happiness those first few years and was a joy to be around. My brother, Michael, and I adored her.
I especially enjoyed our time together. Aunt Marie exposed me to a whole new world via her books. She had quite a collection from her time with Uncle Cooper. The books had helped her during the long hours on the road. Mystery novels had been her favorite. She said she would always pretend she was on her way to meet up with the main character give him or her vital information.
Things changed when grandpa died. Grandmother fell ill, and, once again, Aunt Marie became her full-time caretaker. My father paid all the expenses, but she found herself locked into another life of servitude. To add to her troubles, she also served as babysitter for Michael and me. We enjoyed the extra time with her at first. Sometimes, we even helped take care of grandmother. It was around this time that Aunt Marie began to smoke cigarettes. Michael and I would sneak the cigarette butts out of the trash can and pretend to smoke. She caught us once, and Michael cried for twenty minutes. But, she just blew a plume of smoke and told us we would get sick.
Grandma died, and, a few months later, Uncle Cooper showed up asking my dad for a job. The company he had been driving had gone under, and he was out of a job. Aunt Marie and my dad did not speak for weeks after he took on Uncle Cooper. One day, Uncle Cooper brought Aunt Marie a beautiful bouquet of roses and knelt down on both knees asking her forgiveness. It was the first time I had seen her cry.
Not long after that, Aunt Marie and Uncle Cooper moved into a small house down the road from our big two-story. Everything seemed to be okay. Then, late one night, Aunt Marie showed up at our house bleeding and crying. She had cut Uncle Cooper with the kitchen knife during a terrible fight. Dad called the sheriff, and Uncle Cooper was gone the next day. From that time on, he and Aunt Marie would make up and break up for months and years at a time.
Now, we were all gathered to say goodbye to my beloved aunt while Uncle Cooper prepared to marry another woman. In her happier times, Aunt Marie had encouraged me to be strong, brave, and inquisitive like the heroes and heroines in her books. She wanted me to have the wild, rebellious spirit she had buried under the woes of life. As I remembered this, I leaned down and kissed my aunt’s cold, lifeless forehead. It may have been a trick of the light, but I swear the scowl softened, just a little.