Thursday, September 3, 2015

Aunt Mama, by Joseph Priddy

We hope you will enjoy this sweet and poignant story as much as we do. It was previously published in Mobius in 1997. Our thanks to Joseph Priddy, the author, for permission to publish it here.

Aunt Mama
by Joseph Priddy

Though I am Susie Hanson's invisible friend, I not longer sit across from her and drink imaginary tea from make-believe cups while she corrects my table manners.  To share a spot of tea is of course the first duty of an invisible friend, and I take that duty seriously; in fact the circumstance of our introduction was a group tea. But as I intimated, our association is no longer playful.
         Susie was five years old when she lost her childhood. No longer trusting adults, too agitated to seek comfort even in me, she withdrew. Nevertheless throughout this last year, and in keeping with the second and higher duty of an invisible friend, I stayed by Susie’s side. Audience to her abuse, helpless to intervene, I hoped against hope the right person would come into her life and help Susie to see through the pain.
         For the information of those who have never had the need of an invisible friend you should understand that unlike a guardian angel an invisible friend is never assigned to one person exclusively and is therefore free to mingle. To be privy to the thoughts and emotions of an entire gathering of minds helps an invisible friend to maintain polite order at a large tea party, for sure, but the privilege of overhearing minds also carries with it the third and highest duty of an invisible friend.
         I was there when Kay came into Susie’s life. Theirs was a union of souls, a freshened soul lighter for the bond, and under a circumstance which makes the following story not Kay’s or Susie’s, one separate from the other, but a story of theirself.
         I have here taken the initiative to present theirself from my single and privileged overview. That, to honor and bless as one these two souls who exist in sight and touch of each other—two souls who go on existing because of each other—that is the third and highest duty of an invisible friend.

         With a fresh plaster cast on her left forearm Susie sat in the passenger seat of the car with her head bowed. When the caseworker slowed then turned the car right and into a gravel driveway Susie did not look up. To remain apart from this development she stared at a vacant place in space, a place previously occupied by me.
         The left side of Susie’s face was a smear of yellow and green and purple skin, the eye a puffed slit. Above her eye, what appeared to be a long eyebrow was in truth an extension in black stitches, the snipped ends of each stitch pointing like errant hairs. Other injuries, not evident to any eye, hung in a fragile balance of repair, unstitched.
         The caseworker turned off the ignition.
         “She’s a nice lady, Susannah. A widow in her sixties. And she’s helped us out before with cases like yours. Having had a childhood similar to yours she understands your . . . difficulty. You’ll be here a few days and until your permanent foster parents can come down-state to pick you up. And don’t worry; you won’t be sent home again. Not this time. Susannah? Susannah, we’re here. Hello?”
         Though especially sore in a familiar place Susie did not grunt as she stood out of the car; she had learned not to call attention to herself, not to advertise her presence, not to seem to exist.
         Inside the farmhouse Susie stood alongside the caseworker, head down, staring at Kay’s white slippers.  
         “We appreciate your charity, Mrs. Winslow. She’s a quiet girl, and, well, frankly she doesn’t talk much at all. At least I never heard her talk. Shake hands with Mrs. Winslow, Susannah.”
         Having been spotted Susie felt obligated to raise her hand but not her face.
         Ignoring Susie’s hand, and in a gesture of absent familiarity, Kay swept her palm over Susie’s head and drew Susie to her, resting Susie’s discolored face against her housedress.
         “Thank you, we’ll be just fine now.”
         Susie recognized the tone of dismissal in Kay’s voice, but the caseworker kept talking, on and on, and the voices over her head soon drifted from her awareness. Replacing the focus of Susie’s attention was the warmth of Kay’s stomach at her face, a warmth as pleasant as the liquid commotion of a hot bath. Tired, careless, drawn to the sensation, Susie sagged against the bath of human warmth, immersing her injured face. And in that unguarded moment of wild faith Susie inhaled through her pressed nose, sighing inwards, breathing through Kay’s dress the thermal narcotic of close human skin.
         “Thanks again, Mrs. Winslow. I’m sorry we didn’t get any of her clothes—oh I almost forgot—here’s her medication, both prescriptions self-explanatory. This’s the ointment. I’ll call. By-by, Susannah.”
         Susie heard the entrance door close. She heard the car start. She heard the crunch of gravel under tires. Susie understood that succession of events, but she did not understand why Kay still held her close, with both hands now. Warily, Susie looked up to Kay’s face for the first time, a face which was forming a wide grin, pleased, and including Susie as the first ingredient of its growth.
         “Are you hungry, Susie? May I call you Susie?”
         Susie’s shoulders moved up in a hesitant shrug.
         Kay read volumes in Susie’s response. She spoke firmly, saving Susie the terror of making a commitment or choice, no matter how small.
         “I’m going to run a bath for you, Susie. You sit here in this chair and look around while I start your tub. I’ll come back for you.”
         Struck with the neat order of the room’s furnishings Susie looked around herself as she was told. Every object had a distinct outline, an unusual clarity, and she saw each object in the room as separate and interesting. And she could detect no odor of smoke or beer, the only familiar odor being of herself. Suddenly she needed to pee, but she didn’t know what to do about it because she was told to sit and look around. As minutes passed her need became urgent, and she sat huddled with her wrist between her legs, squirming with discomfort.
         “Take my hand, Susie. Your bath is ready. Come with me now, dear.”
         Susie was afraid to stand, but Kay was offering her hand, and Susie thought she would have to take it. As Kay pulled Susie to her feet the contraction of Susie’s helping muscles bore too heavily on her full bladder, and urine spread through her jeans. Susie looked down at the dark wet blot; then she looked up, her face stricken, her eyelash fluttering as if to hide from the blow and see it coming at the same time.
         Kay squatted to pick Susie up in her arms and carry her to the bathroom. Before setting her down on her feet Kay whispered in Susie’s ear.
         “That exact same thing happens to me, dear. You undress for your bath now while I find something clean for you to wear.”
         When Kay returned to the bathroom she looked, then blinked, then looked again before diverting her stare from Susie and turning to face a wall. Kay clutched at the pain in her throat, an angry pain, and her struggle against outburst caused her eyes to shut and her mouth to contort.
         Trembling with uncertainty Susie stood naked except for the stained woman’s underpants tied around her waist with the elastic strap of a sanitary belt. Streaked with grime her chest was littered with scabs and scars of cigarette burns in various stages of healing. Inside Susie’s thighs a green marker pen had been used to draw a filthy graffiti.
         Back in control Kay turned from the wall and finished undressing Susie, then held her waist as Susie climbed over the rim of the tub to stand in the water. Kneeling on the bathmat and trying to breathe only through her mouth Kay rested Susie’s cast arm over her shoulder as she worked. Abandoning the washcloth as being too rough for Susie’s skin, Kay wet Susie down and soaped her with bare hands; with honest bare hands that needed no excuse for where they touched; with gentle bare hands that knew where and how hard and how long to rub before moving on; with benevolent bare hands that trailed their own salve.
         Though Susie stood merely ankle deep in water she felt her entire body to be floating and, at the same time, firmly tethered to the ever-present occupation of Kay’s hands.
         “Okay now put both arms on my shoulders and stand on one foot while I do the other.”
          As Kay bent to her task Susie noticed a jagged scar on Kay’s scalp where the hair did not grow. Susie wondered if the scar hurt Kay. It better not. It just better not.
         After having her body rinsed with a plastic drinking cup Susie stood on the bathmat while Kay toweled her dry. Drowsy with physical pleasure Susie hadn’t known her skin could tingle with pleasure.
         Kay buttoned one of her husbands flannel shirts down Susie’s front as a long nightgown, then rolled the sleeves above Susie’s wrists. Beneath the outside expression of her face Kay smiled at the ponderous donuts of material hanging about Susie’s tiny wrists. Suddenly struck by that cartoon image Kay felt spontaneous laughter rising and, afraid of losing it, perhaps belittling Susie, she tried to suppress the laughter by hiding her face in her hands—but she lost it anyway, sputtering through her fingers. When Kay raised her face from her hands she was looking down at an upturned eye with a big hollow pupil in the grip of a painful and unfamiliar emotion.
         Susie had thought Kay was sobbing.
         Susie could not name her emotion, only experience it. She stretched her arms, reaching for Kay.
         Standing down on her knees Kay held Susie into her body and whispered.
         “Sweet pain; the other kind; the good kind.”
         Susie did not understand Kay’s words, only the tone of her voice, and she gave herself up to the unbearable wonder of Kay’s warmth.
         They embraced, Kay, a sixty year old woman with love to spare, and Susie, a six year old child who had, before this day, seldom been held closer than the distance required to lead her or beat her or examine her. They leaned, one soul against the other, in love, each with the same warmth but from different seasons.
         Kay allowed Susie to apply a dab of Susie’s own ointment to the jagged scar on her scalp.
         Susie allowed Kay to hold her hand while they walked.
         They sat side by side on a bench at the kitchen table and with Susie close inside Kay’s arm as they assembled a jigsaw puzzle. Happy just to watch, Susie gave up each of her turns to Kay with a giggle and a shrug.
         Kay and Susie were then free to each other, accessible. Kay wet her fingers with saliva to paste down a lick of hair on the crown of Susie’s head. The hair sprung back up, but the grooming was not wasted. Kay’s happiness was basic, nourishing; Susie’s happiness was that delicious self-awareness that follows the discovery of new knowledge, knowledge that causes one to want to burst with joy—knowledge that one is capable of caring for another.
         Placing another piece of the puzzle Kay pulled Susie under her arm for a tight hug. Susie turned her face in to breathe the warm cooking odor of Kay’s underarm. Kay bent to press her lips to the crown of Susie’s head. Susie felt Kay’s lips moving on her scalp, whispering mumbled sounds with intonation far more endearing than any words Susie could have imagined hearing. Kay’s lips felt like a wand touching Susie, promising her, transporting her, and Susie became suddenly limp in the circle of Kay’s arm, jumping awake when her head fell.
         “I’m putting you in for a nap. You can sleep in my bed. Would you like that? us being such friends?”
         Susie shrugged but nodded her head.
         Upstairs Kay held the covers back and slapped her pillow as Susie crawled in.
         “Pleasant dreams, dear. While you sleep I’m going to bake us some nice fresh bread. You dream of that.”
         Kay kissed Susie’s forehead and raised her cast arm to kiss her fingers, each one in turn. Then, in a signal for Susie to go to sleep, Kay pressed her palm lightly over Susie’s eyes and left the room.
         Lying on her back Susie wished her body to spread and fill the shallow depression Kay’s body had cast in the mattress. She had never felt so exhausted, and she had never felt so unable to sleep. Smelling Kay’s hair from the pillowcase, wishing to greet and enter and become that scent, Susie buried her face in the pillow, wallowing. She lay there believing—yet not believing. Then it hit her suddenly, sitting her up in bed, her blood Freon screaming through her veins. Not here! I don’t stay here! Overwhelmed with a sense of irrevocable loss, Susie yelled out,
         “Hi?. . . Hi?. . . Hi?. . .”
         And the meaning of her distress was: Are you there? Are you there? Are you there?
         Dropping and spilling flour everywhere, Kay spun and dashed from the kitchen and through the hall and up the stairs, the motionless air a breeze on her face. Kay was an eleven year old girl again, her chest heaving, running as if to rescue herself from the past. She had heard Susie’s yell as: Help! Help! Help!
         As if approaching the scene of a brutal crime Kay hesitated in the bedroom doorway and squinted her eyes to screen the sight before entering. Then, seeing not her own face but Susie’s face staring back, Kay moved to the bed. Three softly spoken words mended the immediate region of Susie’s unstable universe.
         “Move over, dear.”
         After kicking off her slippers and untying her apron Kay dug under the covers with her feet, and she turned Susie, wiggling against Susie’s back.
         “Like two spoons, we are.”
         Susie conformed, molding her backside into the cradle of Kay’s posture. She felt Kay’s body as a massive poultice radiating human warmth, penetrating her to the core. And Susie had a sense of Kay being behind her always, as she was now, her very presence a device to repel hurt.
         Kay held her palm over the small and rapidly beating heart, and she felt its rhythm slow as she spoke.
         “Because I love you, dear, I’m going to tell you something you will always always remember.
         “There’s a tribe of people who live deep in the African jungle, and these people love their children very much. Every child without exception is loved, just as you are loved by me. And the reason this tribe continues to survive as a race is because they love their children, who in turn love their children, and so on.
         “The tribesmen believe love is so important to their children that each child has two mothers. That’s right, two mothers. The second mother is there for the child if her other mother is busy or away. The second mother is usually an old widow with no children of her own, someone like me, and she tends after any child who needs her. And the children of the tribe call this old woman Aunt Mama.
         “Now the job of Aunt Mama is to love without condition any child who comes to her. It is a job Aunt Mama cherishes, for it is a privilege and an honor to be an Aunt Mama. And it is every child’s right to have an Aunt Mama; even the elder tribesmen or the child’s parents cannot rule against it.”
         Susie understood the progression of Kay’s words as she would have understood the changing expression of a face in a picture-story flip-book. Susie fixed on the words, one after the other, each word informing on the next in a gradual story production that involved her in its magic.
         “So when a child is hurt or frightened or alone—or just tired to sleep—the child visits Aunt Mama’s arms. And this is what happens: In order to be small enough to fit closely in Aunt Mama’s arms the child must first become a lit-tle it-ty bit-ty baby again, and so she can be held against Aunt Mama’s breast and hear Aunt Mama’s heart and be rocked to sleep in Aunt Mama’s arms.
         “It’s all very wonderful, and once a baby has been held in Aunt Mama’s arms that baby is given to own, for as long as she sleeps and for the rest of her life, the memory of Aunt Mama’s arms about her. And so even when the baby awakes as the child she was, and even when the child goes away from Aunt Mama—even when the child goes away from Aunt Mamathe sensation of Aunt Mama’s arms never leaves the child’s skin for as long as the child lives. Never.
         “Now all a child need do to become a lit-tle it-ty bit-ty baby and fit in Aunt Mama’s arms is to think to herself, and as fast as she can, these words: Aunt Mama loves me.”
         Annmama loves me, thought Susie.
         “Come, baby. Turn in my arms.”
         Kay undid the top buttons of her housedress.
         “Come to where it’s safe. Come to Aunt Mama.”
         A real baby now, Susie was permitted to be lying with her face in the healing wedge of Aunt Mama’s breasts. And the skin there was as warm, and as powder smooth, and as fragrant as risen dough. And Susie felt Aunt Mama’s heart beating over and over, slowly, on and on, a dependable sound, a sure sound, a perfected sound. And Susie felt herself being rocked. And the mass of Aunt Mama’s breast in her injured eye fell away then refilled her eye, healing it. And that swaying rhythm was in harmony with Aunt Mama’s heartbeat, a constant, sweet monotony of sound in which Susie gradually disappeared from herself, leaving behind the complete and new-found wealth of Susie Hanson: her sleeping trust of an adult’s arms.