Palo Alto Weekly 16th Annual Short Story Contest
by Harriotte Aaron
Bertha stood up uncertainly. "Wait, I wanted to ask you something." She tried to hide her tiny wobble as she said this; Nancy reckoned she'd found the sherry in the dining room credenza. Bertha wasn't a drunk, she just needed help getting through family occasions such as this one, a barbecue dinner at the big house in September 1950.
Nancy's grandfather built the house in 1872, the year he married and moved to Shelbiana, Kentucky. And in 1915, when Nancy was nineteen, she moved out of her parents' house and into her grandfather's to take care of him and her bachelor uncle John. Now, the men in her life had died and Nancy lived alone.
"Stephen's going to the doctor tomorrow," Bertha said. "Could you take him? I promised Mama I'd help her out at church."
"Hope it's nothing serious," Nancy said.
"He's complaining about some new aches is all. I knew I could count on you. I said so to Stephen this morning. I said, 'You can always count on Aunt Nancy."
"You oughta get out more," Bertha said. "You're looking too peaked for my tastes."
"I'm fine, excepting this heat."
"So that's what's got your panties in a twist." Bertha chortled at her own coarseness. "You've been loaded for bear all afternoon."
"Oh my word, yes," Bertha said.
As she was finishing serving ice cream to the children, Nancy looked around the backyard. Her mother Emily was leaning on the arm of a cousin as they strolled slowly along the fence. Bertha's father Danny stood with three other men, all of them cooling their necks with their lemonade glasses, and the teenagers were clustered conspiratorially under the trees. The party was winding down; Nancy had hosted enough of these to recognize the signs. Soon the young mothers would be coming up to her to apologize for their children's irritable fatigue. "Time they were in bed," they'd say. "Lovely party." And after she'd stacked the dirty dishes in the sink and put the pots to soak, Nancy would turn the downstairs lamps off and go to her bedroom in the back of the house, where the latest Agatha Christie was waiting for her.
Bertha approached again. "Have you got something to take this out?" She showed off a circular stain at the hem of her skirt. "That infernal Johnson Crickett crashed into me with his ice cream."
In the kitchen, Nancy wet a cloth with warm water and blotted at the stain while Bertha held the hem up.
"Those children could do with some manners learning. He didn't even say he was sorry."
"I remember Hubert once did just the same thing to me," Nancy said. "But he apologized, as I recall."
"That was me that did that," Bertha said. "It was a white dress you were wearing, and I ran into it with a chocolate cupcake."
Nancy rinsed out the cloth and resumed blotting. "Maybe you're right. My memory's not what it used to be."
Bertha looked around the kitchen Nancy knew she was inspecting it, and surely finding flaws. Except for the stove and the fridge and the electric clock above the pantry door, the room hadn't changed in half a century. The wooden countertops were scarred from countless knife chops and the cracks in the tiled floor, laid in 1901 when Nancy's grandmother's legs were too old to squat on for scrubbing, resembled a road map.
"Why you ever wanted to move in here with two crotchety old men, I'll never understand," Bertha said. When Nancy didn't respond, she went on: "I loved playing here, I'll give you that, what with the gazebo and Uncle John and his horses. Remember the time that old nag Silkie stepped on Hubert's toes? Lord, he cried like there was no tomorrow. 'Course he wasn't but three or so. Remember?"
Yes, she remembered. Hubert had whimpered as Nancy knelt down to check for broken bones or skin. While she did her examining, Hubert unconsciously rested his hand on her shoulder. "This might be a little swollen or sore for a couple of days, but it'll soon right itself," Nancy had reassured him. "Silkie's a mean horse," he said. "She didn't mean to do it, child. She's just too big for her own good and is likely very sorry for what she did." Suddenly, Hubert was on his feet, all insult to his body forgotten, and running back to the stable. "I'm going to let her say she's sorry," he called back over his shoulder.
"You surely made a fuss," Bertha now said. She flapped out her skirt, then inspected Nancy's cleaning job. "I reckon the rest will come out in the wash. Much obliged."
"You're welcome," Nancy murmured, and looked out the window, still remembering Hubert's tiny, grimy hand on her shoulder.
"Sun's nearly gone," she said.
Bertha started out. "Excuse me, needing a visit to the powder room."
Nancy continued looking out the window. Though a few low, drifting clouds were brilliantly orange-bottomed, the sky above them had taken on the deep blue hue of dusk. Beautiful as it was, she was always saddened by the minutes before the night had settled in safely. The guests in her backyard moved through the shadows now like ghosts, hardly there, becoming memory.
She had watched, like this, in a summer's evening light, as Hubert kissed his fiancee Melissa the night before he went off to the war eight years ago. Nancy'd given him a going-away party, and was then sorry she had. Hubert stood on the patio receiving the embraces and good wishes of his neighbors and friends, while Melissa stood beside him, occasionally resting her head on his shoulder. They were good children, they would stay until the last guest had left. When Hubert excused himself to go to the kitchen, Nancy followed him. He was drinking a glass of water at the sink when she came in.
"Some crowd," he had said.
"Have you been able to greet all of them?" she asked.
"I must've. That's all I've been doing the past two hours." He looked at her. "Then I reckon you've done your duty." Hubert tried not to smile. "They won't mind?"
"Take my car, it's in the garage. The key's in it."
He took her in a sudden hug. "Thank you, Nancy."
It was the first time he'd called her that, without "aunt" before it. She held on a moment longer than maybe she should have. The last time she'd embraced him he was half her size; now he towered over her. Like the polite child he'd always been, he waited for her to break away.
And then he was kissing Melissa under the trees on their way to the garage. That was the last time she saw him. The next morning she found her car back in the garage, and Hubert was killed nine months later when the Japanese bombed his destroyer off the southern Marianas.
Bertha returned, a glass of sherry in her hand. "I took the liberty."
"Help yourself," Nancy murmured, and knew she was in for it.
"I'll tell you something." Bertha took a long drink. "I don't think I ever loved Hubert."
"Course you did. He was your brother."
"Yes, he was. He was that." She looked at her aunt, waiting for a reaction.
Nancy rinsed a glass at the sink, filled it with water, and drank it down.
"I must've been thirsty," she said.
"You wanna to know why I didn't love him? Because you did."
"I've loved all the children in my family."
Bertha left the kitchen, then returned carrying the decanter of sherry along with a second glass. She refilled her own and filled the second glass for Nancy. They touched glasses, mumbling "cheers." Nancy took a sip.
"This is good sherry. If I do say so myself." She smiled at Bertha.
"Honest, the way you carried on sometimes," Bertha said.
She knew right enough what Bertha was talking about, how Nancy lit up when little Hubert came into the room, her hand finding the top of his satiny dark head if he happened to be standing near her.
When Bertha filled her glass again, Nancy asked, "Aren't you getting a mite tipsy?"
Bertha laughed. "Don't you put it ever so delicately! I think what I am is drunk." She finished off the last sip and put the glass down. "You shoulda married and had kids of your own."
"Nobody asked me."
"But Mama told me all about that Mr. Fitch asking you."
"Well then, nobody I wanted."
"So you latched onto somebody else's children."
Nancy couldn't resist. "No, just one child."
"He wasn't even your nephew."
Many times in the night hours after Hubert's death, Nancy had cursed the term for their familial connection. It was too puny, too unauthorized, to house the love she had for him.
"He wasn't but your first cousin once removed."
"Niece or nephew's easier," Nancy said. "You've called me Aunt Nancy all your life."
As Bertha picked up her glass, her look lingered on Nancy's counter, below the window that faced the backyard now emptying of people. "Anybody seen Nancy?" Nancy heard someone outside saying. "You see her, tell her our goodbyes for us..."
Bertha spoke softly, "You were wrong that day."
For a merciful second, Nancy didn't know what Bertha was talking about. But her counter brought it all back.
"That was such a long time ago."
"You know the grief I got for that? They wouldn't let me out of the house fo' a month."
"I never accused you."
"You didn't have to, you knew who'd get blamed."
"I tried to close the conversation."
For all the sherry she'd drunk, Bertha was unnervingly sober. "You said ten dollars was gone from the kitchen counter."
"When I spoke up, I didn't want anybody to get into trouble. I had no notion your mother would punish you anyway. I tried to explain, likely I was mistaken. . .' She was yammering and she could see Bertha knew it.
Bertha filled her glass, emptying the decanter. "Why can't you say the truth, for once?"
The truth. Stepping into the kitchen with Julia, Nancy's look caught by the odds-and-ends bowl she kept on the counter because the ten-dollar bill she'd put there that morning was now gone, and her blurting out "The money's gone." And then Julia asking questions and Nancy realizing what Julia was thinking at the same moment that she was remembering, her kneeling by the credenza, putting away the candlesticks used the night before and observing Hubert emerging from the kitchen, his hand coming out of his pocket. So Nancy blurting, again, to Julia: "Wait, I had the money here yesterday, not today." But seeing Julia would have none of it while calling, "Bertha, Hubert, come in here!" And their coming in as she was demanding, "which one of you stole ten dollars from Aunt Nancy?" And their automatic and equally guilty looks, until Julia was saying softly, "Bertha." And Bertha's abrupt crying and screaming, "I didn't do it, I swear!" But Julia apparently not believing her, as she was telling her daughter now, because Bertha had stolen before, hadn't she? And Hubert keeping his head down, and Nancy not saying a word because if somebody had to be blamed, better it be Bertha and not Hubert. Never Hubert.
Nancy said to Bertha now, "You're right. I lied. I didn't tell what I saw."
"And what was that?"
"Hubert leaving the kitchen putting something in his pocket."
Bertha barked a solitary laugh.
"See? I knew it. I knew it." She looked out the window. "Oh, God, I guess it doesn't matter anymore. Who cares, right? He's dead. I'd mention it to Mother but she'd first not remember, then likely chastise me for dwelling on the past."
Nancy nodded. That is exactly what Julia would do.
"So, I'm going to get any satisfaction about this, I'm going to get it here with you.
She was straightening up and facing Nancy when Stephen called from outside. "Bert? You in there?"
Bertha shut her eyes as Stephen said, "Time to say your bye byes.~
Bertha put her glass on the counter. "So. Stephen's appointment is at ten. That be all right?"
Nancy put her hand on Bertha's arm. "I'm sorry, Bertha. I've always been sorry."
"I reckon I believe you." Bertha put her hand over Nancy's. "That stuff I was saying about Hubert and not loving him? Just a crock. You know that, right?"
"I know," Nancy answered. "But do you want to -- ?"
Bertha waved her hand. "No, Mother'd be right. Water under the bridge."
She turned to leave, then turned back from the kitchen door. "Though you never know. We might share a glass a sherry again sometime."
She always did have a flair for drama, Nancy thought.
Nancy closed her book and waited for sleep.
She was twenty-seven years old when Hubert was born in 1923, and taking care of her grandfather and Uncle John. It was a contentful existence, no storms she couldn't handle, few upheavals.
Then Hubert was born and it all changed. She didn't concern herself with why, why him and not someone else, why him and not Bertha, his big sister. Something about the way his green eyes looked steadily into hers when she held him on her lap, a regard she lived for as he grew up, finding reasons to be part of his life -- his cheerleading section when he played basketball, his tutor when his grades dropped, his go-between when he lacked the nerve to ask Melissa out on their first date.
Nancy watched the shadows shift from one side of the ceiling to the other and back again whenever the occasional car drove by the house.
After he died, sometimes she thought, Thank goodness I never had children, I couldn't survive the death of them. Other times she thought, Now I've lost Hubert, who is there to love? She wondered if what had kept her from making a family had, finally, been the fear of their dying, and she wept at the irony: a middleaged spinster, no children or husband to die on her, just a first cousin once removed, and her heart was broken nonetheless.
She turned onto her side and pulled the covers up to her neck. It was her favorite time of year, when the nights got cooler before the days did.
Let Bertha come back to drink up all her sherry again and berate her for all her other slights and wrongdoings. Hell, let accusations fly freely even. Let the name 'Hubert' be thrown about, recklessly if need be, but often.
From the judges
Tom Parker: I was moved by the characters in "Cousins"
and compelled by their shared and newly revised history. Bertha's
festering grudge and Nancy's life of unfulfilled love anchored by
the weight of all the years gone by makes for a rich, multi-layered
story, subtly and artfully evoked.