“Here, darlin’, hold my chardonnay.”
I took her still slightly-frosted glass without question. She reached into the drawer of the marble-topped side table, pulled out a silver barreled revolver, and shot her husband twice in the chest.
“There we are. Now darlin’, give me that back, thank ya. You were trying to tell me about this fancy new hotel job. When are you moving up there? And I know your momma’s gonna miss you, sweet pea, but you got to do your own life, so dontchu worry. I’ll check in on her when ya go!”
I stared blatantly at the warm corpse lying casually across the floor, blood seeping into the bright rug. I was unable to respond.
Aunt Anise had taught me what I saw as some of the most important lessons of my life: When I was five, she showed me how to pinch a person’s arm-fat just right so they let go of my ponytail. At twelve, she ushered me into her backyard so she could coach me on lowering my shoulders and pivoting so the big kids in the neighborhood would flip right over me between kickball bases. My seventeenth birthday saw her and I seated at her kitchen table with several filled shot glasses between us because, as she said, I was going to know what I could handle before I even dared thinking of walking out the door to college.
Eight years later she held class from her pink antique sofa, instructing me how a little bit of baking soda mixed with vodka would take a bastard’s blood right out of her new carpet before it stained.
“There baby, it’s all in the dab,” she toasted me with her glass. “The Russians got very little right- but when they took potatoes and put them in a jar, mhhhmmm they made something that would cleanse the mind and the furniture.”
“I, um. I’ve always been more of a gin girl, I think.” And apparently an accomplice to murder.
“Too flowery for me,” she took a sip of chardonnay, “but I respect that. Every woman should know one hard liquor they like for when it’s needed.”
I sat back against the wall, pretty uncomfortable with the fact I wasn’t uncomfortable or really all that surprised Aunt Anise just killed her husband in front of me. It must be shock. I’d heard shock can do crazy things, maybe one of them was calm you while you hid a crime scene? I threw the dirty rag into the old bucket I’d found in the closet, took a swig of the vodka. Gin was definitely better.
“Yes ma’am. So… what are we gonna do about Uncle Carl?”
Her gray eyes landed on the body as if she’d already forgotten about him. She pursed her lips at it, her sign of disapproval. “I suppose he can’t exactly go out with the garbage.”
“Hm.” She glared at him, as if it was his own fault for being such a hassle even after death.
“Maybe the recycling?”
“HA!” She bent over with her loud cackle, her silver curls bouncing along with the rest of her. “Maybe they can make something better out of him!” She hooted a minute longer, each of her large jewels clinking and clanging in the little symphony of laughter. I would have been concerned she was heading into a break down, but that just wasn’t like Aunt Anise.
“Oh baby, I needed that. Alright, get me the phone. We’re gonna have to call it in.”
“Auntie, you’re going to get arrested.”
“Nah, arresting an old lady like me is too much work. We’ll just tell ’em what happened. He came in screaming and hollering like a mad man. I was scared for my sweet grand niece’s safety, so I defended us.”
I was not entirely sure Uncle Carl’s shuffling approach and mumbled “I’m leaving you.” counted as hollering, but who was I to make that judgement call?
“Yes, ma’am.” I stood on surprisingly steady legs to pull the receiver and cord across to her side table.
Then, grabbing the bucket, I went to the kitchen. Squirting way too much soap into the bucket, I filled it with water until the suds covered the red hand towel. Lady MacBeth came to mind as I washed the combined smell of vodka and blood off my hands. Damned spot, indeed.
“Hiya! Yes this is Mrs. Tillum down on East Bolton. Oh Marcus! I thought it sounded like you!” Auntie’s voice, warm and rolling like marbles in molasses, floated in from the living room. “How are ya, hun? Mmhmm, and how’s the new grand-baby? Well, of course she is! With such a strong poppa how could she not be!”
I peered around the corner, gave her a head tilt to remind her this was not gossip hour. She shooed my worry away with one wrinkled, yet finely manicured, hand.
“Now hun we’ve had some trouble tonight. Mmhmm, you might need to send somebody out here. Yes yes, real trouble. Well it’s Carl, hun. He’s dead. Oh yeah I’m sure. Well hun I shot him. Mmhmm. Defense, of course. Came in yelling curses, and my baby niece is here, poor thing. Oh yeah she’s fine! Just got a fancy new hotel job up in New York! We’re so proud. Well thank ya, I’ll tell her! Mhmm yeah she’s okay. But ya know I couldn’t have him even think about hurting her. He was lookin’ crazy as a bobcat, Marcus, just crazy.”
Crazier than he did lying in the middle of the floor?
Dead bodies, it turns out, do not look the same in real life as they do on TV. There was no calm facial expression or gently closed eyes. In fact, Carl still had his eyes open in shock and his mouth stuck wide around an unspoken exclamation. His dusty comb-over had come unpinned, flapping to the side. While all the detective shows try to make bodies look realistic, Carl was starting to look very fake. He wasn’t stiff or blue yet, but his skin had this odd dullness that made him resemble unbaked clay. His weight was very real though, and as I dragged him onto a couple of trash bags, I cursed him for all the pork rinds I’d seen him eat over the years.
Now this may have been more tampering with a crime scene, but well, the carpet.
Marcus and his partner arrived about half an hour later. They did not seem bothered that I had dragged my dead great uncle out of the living room and into the foyer, destroying any and all logistical evidence along the way. The partner, who introduced himself as Dan Elmer, just stepped right on over poor Carl to get to Auntie and ask her a few questions.
I shut my agape mouth when Marcus put his strong hand on my shoulder.
“Hey, you doing alright with all this? Must have been a scary confrontation.”
His hazel eyes were so kind, so concerned as he searched mine for any pain or fear. I couldn’t lie to those eyes that had watched me grow up from next to my father at the grill. But I knew if I looked away, he’d suspect I was either upset or guilty, and I didn’t know which would be worse for him to see.
So instead I responded to his big brown mustache that I was fine, just a bit stunned. I focused on those silver streaks in his chestnut hair as I retold our story: I described Uncle Carl walking in, how his “raising hell” had frightened me, and how just as I had stood up to shield Auntie, he’d started at us and I heard the pop of a gun.
“Well, that’s a shame. A damn shame.” He squeezed my shoulder again.
“Yeah, who knew?” That Auntie could make such a clean shot. That I could handle this. That our lie was so easily accepted.
“Well ya know I heard that when he was younger, ol’ Carl here could cause quite a dirty commotion after a drink or two. And you can smell the vodka in here, gosh he must have been hammered.”
I nodded slowly, doing my best to not glance to where the blood stain was supposed to be.
Marcus continued, “And of course the gossip about him sneaking around on your poor aunt. Don’t know how she managed.”
“What?” This was news. “Where did you hear that?”
“She didn’t tell you?” He shook his head, “Good sweet Anise trying not to bother anybody.”
This made me snort, but I managed to turn it into a sniffle. “That’s Auntie for you.”
“Yeah it is. So you can imagine how mad we all were for her when the town gossips began to cluck. Some little young gal from the city was trying to get all of Carl’s money, telling him everything a man wants to hear, especially at his age.”
“Ha ha,” he patted my back, “we old farts are still red-blooded, hun! And some dogs stay dogs, ya know?”
“Yeah, I do.” No, I did not.
“Well, it was sweet of you to move him out here so your auntie doesn’t have to think of a dead unfaithful man in her fancy living room.”
“Yep,” Sure that was it. Moved him out so the death-aura wouldn’t bother Auntie. Nothing to do with her worrying he’d stink up the place with his “dirty ol’ man dust,” no sir.
I dared to cross my arms, wondering if having them down by my sides this whole time made me look stiff and suspicious. Then I decided that crossing them was worse, let them swing down to my side again. But then that made me feel as if I looked just like Carl there on the foyer floor. I could not give away how terribly fine with this we were, and thankfully Marcus read my attempts at looking innocent as being mildly stricken. Really all I was thinking about was if we got sent to jail, Auntie was going to throw a fit about how clashing the jumpsuit looked on her.
However, at that moment she was cool as a cucumber. I could hear her laughing with Mr. Dan Elmer, having already charmed him to believe anything and everything the beautiful old woman said. Marcus told me that a young lady such as myself did not need to be around death like this, and encouraged me to head on home to my daddy. He even offered to drive me, but I knew I would be fine. Not only had the shakes stopped, they’d never really started.
I walked back to Aunt Anise, asked if she preferred I stay here with her.
“Nah hun, this handsome man has already called your momma and your nanna and they’re gonna come take care of little ol’ me.” She winked at the officer before turning back to me. “You go’an home, get some rest. I’m just glad you’re safe.” She reached up for me from her seat on the couch, and I fell into her hug like I’d done since I could walk.
“Don’t worry, baby,” she whispered in my ear, “all’s gonna be alright. One less dirty man in the world never hurt a thing.” She gave me a light squeeze, and I returned it. I kissed her cheek and let Marcus walk me to my car.
He leaned into my open passenger window, “You sure you’re alright, now?”
“Yes sir, thank you.”
“Alright then, you be good and safe, ya hear?” He patted the top of my car as if it confirmed I would.
“Yes, sir.” I started to put the car in reverse, but he leaned back down to my eye level.
“Oh, and Pepper?”
I stopped, ready to finally be handcuffed. What had given me away? Did I look too eager to leave? Too calm to be driving? Poor auntie was gonna be in that dreaded jumpsuit just because I couldn’t fake a few tears.
“Good luck at the big New York job, don’tchu forget us little people when you’re big!” Marcus laughed.
I smiled and nodded, but he’d already turned back to the house. God I needed a drink. Not vodka, as I didn’t feel particularly dirty. But some gin would be good. Maybe something with bubbles, too. Just a glass, then I needed to get back to packing up my closet for the move.
After all, Auntie Anise always said “The keys to life are peach pie and moving forward!” Her lessons hadn’t been wrong yet, and I wasn’t about to start doubting them now.
Fidelity (noun): 1. Faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support. 2. Sexual faithfulness to a spouse or partner. 3. The degree of exactness with which something is copied or reproduced.
Fidelity is an awesome word. Not only is a synonym for loyalty, which is one of my favorite characteristics in a creature, but also it has done a great job of entering the modern world while still have a medieval feeling to it. With all of the language updates and combinations happening these days, that’s pretty impressive!
As you can see, loyalty plays several parts in the story today. Carl’s failed fidelity, Pepper’s successful fidelity to her auntie, and a third way we’ll look further into later this year. That’s the great thing about words- not only can they have multiple definitions, but also several different weights to them. I love it.
And yes, we’re getting to see a little bit of sassy Pepper’s beginnings. I’m very excited to explore her lifeline, as I think she’s a fascinating gal and I hope you all agree.
I cannot think of a clever sign off tonight, so I’ll leave you with a lovely Hellen Keller quote with today’s word: “True happiness is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”