I am not in the photo. Uncle Jimmy, the blonde guy, gave me the camera for my 16th birthday. My father sits beside him, the gentle butcher, holding my sister, Sarah. She is four years old, and evidence that while my parents married because of me, microscopic and floating within my mother, Ruth’s womb, it was a wise match. Their deep, shared contentment was of the silent type. In the kitchen, radio playing, they moved around each other, my mother’s hand on my father’s hip, urging him two inches over. My father, lifting my mother’s hair and blowing on her neck.
My Auntie Sylvie and her parrot, Mercy, are vamping. Together, they ran the neighborhood Red Fox store. Sylvie had married Jimmy for love, but it turned out it was only lust. She didn’t want children and the only way to insure that, back then, was not having sex. And Sylvie was all skin waiting to be touched, and all words that reached out and stroked men’s hair, curled it around their ears. God, how she talked to customers. The women too, like a cat licking up one side of their cheek and down the other. She wanted the world, she used to say, but she got a corner store. Unhappy Uncle Jimmy bought her Mercy because he crowed, “Pretty Lady.”
How Sylvie laughed. Sylvie’s laughter was something people clowned and clamored for, but she was frugal with it. Mercy though, he bathed in it. She’d place a sunflower seed in the sweet bow of her upper lip and he’d kiss it off. She’d toss her head back like a movie star, silken laughter unspooling, and the customers would gape.
I was my parents’ daughter, but somehow I had a body I could not account for; entirely sensuous. Sylvie told me to glory in my skin. It was the way of knowing the world. She said I had a face like a prayer, something people felt compelled to memorize, so I kept my face down. Then she started tripping, and dropping pens, and before you knew it she couldn’t work the store or feed herself. I cared for her. My parents and Uncle Jimmy managed the store. Perhaps you can imagine, but I hope not. Mercy witnessed it all.
One afternoon, cleaning the kitchen, I heard her, slurred and loud like a crazy drunk tell Jimmy she wanted to die free of him. When I came out, he was throwing open the window, Mercy held recklessly. I screamed. Jimmy ran at me, flinging the bird up, kissing me ferociously as Mercy took flight. He held me until I gave in, my knees turning liquid, forgetting my dying aunt.
Her death was the laboring sort. A hard death, we say in the medical field. It drove Jimmy mad—the grief, and her stalwart refusal to acknowledge him, even with her eyes once her speech was gone. I was too young to comfort her and she clearly considered me her betrayer too. I learned to let my skin spill out for the world. For Jimmy.
She loved her bird in a wild way. After her death that bird stopped eating. He plucked himself terribly naked, except for his full mane, which rose up terrifically as he mourned my aunt, cooing, “Pretty Lady.”
Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University. Her most recent work is forthcoming or appearing in Circus Book, Empty Sink, Per Contra Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Watershed Review, and Spelk. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack. When she isn’t writing, reading, or teaching, she can be found walking her beloved dog, Banjo, or engaging in literacy activism and radical optimism.