AT THE LAKE WITH AUNT FRANCIS

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Photo by Otis Gibbs

Aunt Francis parked the station wagon in the drive and ran back inside. She didn’t say what she’d forgotten this time. The front seat was loaded already–beach towels, a thermos of sweet tea, magazines she planned to read on the beach and a bottle of her homemade tanning lotion (iodine and Baby Oil)–that stuff makes her smell like old Doc Richard’s white coat. When he leans over to stuff the tongue depressor down your throat, you get a whiff of medicine, rubbing alcohol and all things awkward. She had already run in for the peanut butter sandwiches she left in the kitchen. Henry, her beagle/basset mix, had somehow managed to wrangle the bag off the counter and wolf down two sandwiches before she could scoop up the others off the floor. The second time she had to double-check the pot roast she’d put in the Crock-Pot for Uncle Fred’s supper. He refuses to face another work week without his “Sunday Meat.”

OK, she’s back. Finally, we can get a breeze rolling through this beast of a car. My legs are melting into the vinyl seat, which still stinks of Henry the dog, even though she just cleaned out the car this morning. That dog is the worst dog in the world. He once tried to bite me, stole my candy bar and took half my hotdog right out of my hand, destroyed my baseball cleats and chewed holes in my tube socks (my favorite ones with the school color stripes). He wakes me up way too early every time I sleep over. He took a pee on my sleeping bag and chased the cutest girl I ever saw down the block—I haven’t seen her since. The worst part is, I’m his favorite, damn it! Henry follows me everywhere and he tries to sleep with his stinky old head ON my pillow.

Uncle Fred says “Damn it, Henry” at least a million times a day. I thought “Damn It Henry” was the dog’s full name, till mom explained it to me. At least Henry knows where to poop. I stepped in it three times before I remembered. He also tries to do his part to help clean up the yard—sometimes I see him out there snacking on old piles. That dog ain’t right!

“What’d you have to get this time, Aunt Francis?“
“Oh Honey, I forgot my tampons, but you’ll have to ask your
mother what they’re for.”
“Why?”
“Well, um, it’s grown up lady stuff, OK?”

Tampons? I’ve seen that word in the bathroom cabinet. T-a-m-p-o-n. Hmm. I opened the end of a wrapper one time, but that just made me more confused. “Just forget about it hon. You can talk to your mom when you get home.”

Aunt Francis was backing down the drive and absent-mindedly rear ended the poor defenseless mailbox, for what must be the 100th time. That thing’s so smashed in, the mailman has to hand deliver anything bigger than a stamped envelope. He gets so shitty every time and starts harping at Francis to make Uncle Fred get a new one. “He’ll get around to it one of these days. I’m sorry, Ernie.” And with a smile all is forgiven. Aunt Francis can still catch a fella’s eye. She always says, “I might be pushing 40, but with the help of a good bra and Clairol’s Day at the Beach Blonde, I’m still getting the job done.” She is pretty. My friend Billy loves to sit next to her. His nose wiggles and works just like his pet rabbit’s, trying to hold onto my Aunt’s perfume.

Good Lord. I thought we’d never make it to the highway. She even had to stop to get gas AND run in for cigarettes. Uncle Fred gets so pissed at her for smoking. Not so much cause it’s bad for her health, he’s just so worried she’ll burn the house down. “Hell Frannie, you never take more than a few puffs and then you’re side-tracked again—curling your hair, scratchin’ the dog—there are more burn marks in that kitchen countertop than the Silver Dollar Bar has drunks.” Once again, a smile and a smoke ring and Fred caves just like he did when they first met. The whole damned town knows that story. I’ll save it for another day.

We make it over to Billy’s house without further incident, though we’re nearly forty-five minutes late. Billy has been pacing a rut in the carpet in front of the picture window, watching for us. I’m sure he was happy to see me. I hadn’t seen him since Easter, but I could tell he was more excited about the chance to press himself up against Aunt Francis
once again–hoping her signature scent (Shalimar) would stick to his Florida sunset tank top. I was kind and got in the backseat, even though his lusting after my Aunt gives me the creeps. My own obsession with the check out woman at the IGA (Renee) makes us just about even, I guess.

IGA Renee works weekday afternoons as a checkout clerk. Her wavy red hair and that little bit of cleavage peeking out from under her burgundy smock gets me every time. I stop by after school. Depending on whether or not I got my allowance that week, l buy a YooHoo and/or Snicker’s Bar. Sometimes, I’ll skip lunch so I have money to buy something. Heck, I even go in there when I don’t have a nickel, just to mosey around the store. I just can’t help myself. Uncle Fred says, “It don’t hurt a fella my age to dream big.” He caught me gawking at her one time when he was in town for my birthday. We drove down to get ice cream and beer for my party. She bent to pick up the quarter Fred purposely dropped and my eyes nearly leaped from their sockets. My 12 year molars clanked together when Fred finally grabbed my chin and shut my gaping mouth for me. Despite all of Uncle Fred’s teasing, I can’t quit my fantasy land crush from kicking in every time I near that corner. The IGA is at 3rd and Elm–about two blocks away, my pace quickens, my blood pressure too. I get to thinking something must be wrong with me. Why do I dream about her, but don’t give a second thought to Abbie, the freckled blonde in my sister’s class? Abbie keeps putting notes in my—everywhere—locker, bicycle spokes, mailbox—even my catcher’s mitt at practice (I was humiliated). She is one year ahead of me, but she looks really young for her age. Maybe she skipped a grade, or two—something. I guess she is kind of cute, but in that kid sister way that seems more like how you might feel about looking at a puppy, or a baby chick.

When Billy got in the car, Francis leaned over and gave him a big hug. I even saw his eyes close—that weirdo. He kept smelling his arm hoping for Shalimar traces as Francis hit the gas again. There’s the sign for 47, thank God. It’s a short drive—fifteen minutes, or so and we’ll be out on the dock diving into the murky water. It’s a little fishy at times there. “It is a lake after all, Billy!” I always have to remind him why swimming at the lake is superior to Turkey Run swimming pool. “Come on Billy, don’t be a baby! Pools are for sissies.” You can’t run, wrestle or horse around. You’ve gotta be all civilized—it’s like swimming at school, or worse—CHURCH!

Lucky for me, my family rarely attends church. With all of my impure thoughts about Renee and my love of profanity, I would be racked with guilt daily. We only go there for a wedding, funeral, or some kind of holiday event—my cousins in the Christmas Pageant, singing in some choir thing, that kinda stuff.

After 20-some cannon balls, as many dives, attempted back flips and belly flops, we stopped for a rest and ice cream cones. On our way back to the water, we spotted what might have been the cure-all for both Billy’s and my obsession with the over thirty set. This red-haired college girl and her younger sister were taking turns diving off the platform. We walked over to join them and Billy made some comment about red heads. In less than 5 minutes, they were back on their beach towels—pissed off and pointing at us so their mother could give us both the stink eye too. Those girls were the only ones all afternoon who had even looked at us, let alone conversed. Billy ain’t much to look at and I’m no kind of prize. I’ve got a bird beak and my ears are so over-sized I could probably fly if I gave it half a try. On the bright side—at least my nose and ears are an impossibly matched set. I actually thought the younger sister was pretty—the funny thing is—it’s only the second time any girl near my age even caught my eye. I’m always so busy day dreaming about Renee, I don’t usually notice other girls. Maybe there is hope for my lost soul after all. If nothing else, she provided a much-needed distraction from my usual daydreams….

After hours in the IGA office—I’m suddenly a high school senior working afternoons as a bag boy, in swift route to checker. I have to stay late so Renee can teach me how to use the cash register. Soon after, the burgundy smock comes off. Rattling that wrist full of bangles, she offers me a ride home and instead she heads straight to her little trailer….

Aunt Francis is calling us—something about Uncle Fred’s supper and wilting from the heat. One more dive and we head in, though not before Francis makes her grand finale dive of the day. She does it every time. I’m always surprised Billy’s eyes don’t quit on him as he watches her come up the ladder and do one more dive off the platform, just to tease the onlookers. The two beer-gutted fathers lurking on oversized lawn chairs are guilty of gawking as well—all greasy and covered in what looks to be pork rind crumbs (I recognize the wrapper from all of my IGA stalking). She probably enjoys getting them all worked up before she leaves—barely waving as she walks by.

To be continued….

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