“They don’t keep forever,” Aunt Doll warns. “You’d best learn to keep a proper icebox like a good wife should.”
“I’m not a proper wife, ma’am. Not no wife at all.”
Aunt Doll grunts and shakes the graying yellow Shirley Temple curls that cover her big fat head.
“Sure and there’s more than one reason for that, girl.”
Hell. That old bag always moaning over something. I got plans. No hurry to marry, leastwise to any of these half-wit boys what live within fifty miles of the ridge. Living with Uncle Toad is just a layover, like when one of them jet planes in the movies stops at an airport for a few hours then takes back to the air again. Free room, free food – and wine, too. Uncle T doesn’t have a lick of the Prohibitionist in him. And all I have to do is make sure he don’t fall or choke or forget his meds or anything else that might be killing him. God, he’s got to be near a hundred at least. Past time, anyhow. His living is good for me, though. As long as he’s breathing, I’ve got a home.
Aunt Doll comes to sit with him three times a week so as I can go into town for necessaries. I have to give her receipts so she can see I’m not buying anything she don’t approve of. Wine is alright, but I found out the hard way that Aunt Doll is no friend to Jack Daniels or Johnny Walker. Haven’t had a switch taken to my legs in years before that mistake. Had no idea that old woman had such a strong arm.
Uncle T is swallowed up in the old recliner what he spends most of his time in. He’s got a tube and a bag what lets all his pee come out without him having to get up and do his business. He don’t eat a lot so the other doesn’t take so much of his time neither. He has a walker with ratty tennis balls shoved up on the ends and when he’s got to go I help him get up and grab hold of it and follow him to the bathroom. I don’t go in, ain’t hardly room for one person in that closet never mind two.
“You get after that food, girl.” Aunt Doll fusses. “That icebox is full of the good Lord only knows what. Can’t all be good for eating.”
I blow my stringy uneven bangs out of my eyes.
“Yes, Aunt Doll.”
She mumbles as she turns away from me, shuffling ‘cause she’s no spring chicken herself. She stops suddenly after getting to the back door and nearly putting her hand on the knob.
Her bright orange fingernail, painted just this morning at Miss Candace’s parlor, juts toward the kitchen table. I glance at the junk cluttering the scratched wooden circle. She moves closer, her eyes slitted like a cat, and snatches a small dull frame with a black and white picture fading inside. She holds it up close to her face like she’s hard of seeing. Her eyes slide almost closed as her lips bunch together like she’s about to suck on a bottle of Fanta.
“Charlie,” she hisses in a voice I don’t rightly know.
There are two girls in the picture. I’ve looked at it long and hard to figure out the why of Uncle T’s obsession with it. He must’ve had it hid somewheres cause one day it was just there, right by the sticky fingerprinted sugar bowl and the open box of stale Cheerios. Sometimes he pats at it with the sagging skin of his fingertips, other times, just stares like the girls might do a trick for him.
“Charlie?” I ask.
Charlie is, was, my grandma. Charlotte and Darlene, Charlie and Dolly, sisters. My grandma died before I was born and no one dares talk about her. Something shameful, I suppose, and none of my business.
I’m worried she’s about to have a stroke or something like.
“Dirty. Old. Man.”
She turns to stare back into the living room at Uncle T. His mouth is hanging open, his chipped false teeth near to falling out and onto his caved in chest. She yanks the door open and as fast as I’ve ever seen the old hag move, is out, slamming it behind her so as to make the tarnished old cowbell hanging from it rattle to wake the dead.
Uncle T doesn’t move. I want to look at the picture again, but Aunt Doll took it with her. I remember the girls looked near the same, so if one was my grandmother the other most likely was her sister Darlene. Aunt Doll.
I pull a dusty bottle of cheap red wine from the top of the icebox, twist off the cap and take a long pull what catches my breath. Well, since I’m here anyhow, I guess I might as well clean up the icebox some.
Dirty. Old. Man.
I set the wine bottle on the table and prop the door to the icebox open with one of the two chairs that fit under the table. Up front is some pink Jello layered with runny whipped cream in a thick glass dish half-covered with a paper towel. I push a pile of newspapers from the corner of the table and put the bowl in the space where the papers was. Just behind the dark red circle on the icebox shelf that marks where the Jello bowl was, the frame of a small chicken sags in a scuffed casserole dish. Guess that ought to go, too.
Dirty. Old. Man.
I notice a box of baking soda with the top torn off, tipped against a damp glass of what? Beer? Apple juice? Aunt Doll must’ve put the soda there to keep the icebox from stinking, but from what I can smell, it’s not doing a damn bit of good.
Dirty. Old. Man.
I pull the chair from the icebox door and sit down on it as the door shuts, shutting the mess inside. In the middle of the cramped kitchen, I look up at the window and through the star-shaped faded blue suncatcher one of the kids must’ve made for Aunt Doll. She won’t live here with Uncle T, who is really her uncle, her and my grandma’s, even though the sisters grew up here with him. Seems like he never found no one bothered to marry him or put him up, so he just lived with his sister and her family, his two nieces he now watched from a long time ago in a picture hardly big enough to make sense of.
Dirty. Old. Man.
“Girl,” he calls, and it sounds for sure like a croak. Between his crooked back and barky voice, he wasn’t called Toad for nothing.
I stand up and look out at him. One of his arms is twisted crooked against his chest.
“Get us something to eat, there’s a good girl.”
“Yessir,” I nod, and turn back to the icebox. Caught my finger in the latch once, when I was just little, like a big silver claw it was. Is. I rub my hand along the back of my neck, squeezing at something tight that’s working its way up into my head.
I know what I’m after even before I swing the icebox door wide open. A can of green beans, half-full, uncovered. Same ones just got me hollered at. I grab the can and turn around to the drainer at the sink to find a sauce-stained Tupperware bowl. After dumping the beans in it, I scoop a spoonful of warm butter from the dish on the stove with a plastic spoon that someone must’ve left on the counter.
The microwave’s big enough to fit a dog but still runs and hasn’t given none of us cancer yet. I set the bowl in the middle of the glass plate attached to the inside of it and push the big START button once the crusty door is latched closed. Uncle T is moaning. I think. I close my eyes and count to twenty before pulling the over door back open and taking the chilled bowl out. The cold from the beans has taken to the bowl, and the oven hasn’t done a thing to make them seem like something anyone ought to be eating. I shove the plastic spoon into the slimy green mush and carry it to the dirty old man.
He takes it in his two shaking claws, smiling up at me with watery eyes and absolute trust.