Next of Kin
a story by Emily S. High
Behind the radio’s
The hurried talk to God goes on:
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done,
Produce our lives beyond this night,
Open our eyes again to sun.
Unhindered in the dingy wards
Lives flicker out, one here, one there,
To send some weeping down the stair
With love unused, in unsaid words:
For this I would have quenched the prayer,
But for the thought that nature spawns
A million eggs to make one fish.
Better that endless notes beseech
As many nights, as many dawns,
If finally God grants the wish.
-Philip Larkin, “Compline”
Almost forgot the coffee. My hip was already pushing aside the screen
door when I remembered, and I darted back inside, letting the door
slam back on its hinges in my retreat. It was the last summer that I ever
lived with just Aunt Valerie, the summer before she married John
I watched my hands as they performed an old habit of my mother’s.
Instead of adding cream and sugar to her coffee last, adjusting it to
taste, she always measured it out first and then poured in the coffee,
on top of the cream, and I couldn’t stop my hands from doing the
same thing as I poured milk into an empty mug. Just milk for me and Valerie
and black for John Reed. I set the trio of ceramic mugs on the serving
tray and made for the front porch again. I never wanted to miss more
of the conversation than I had to; Val and John Reed never slowed down
long enough for me to catch on to what they’d already covered.
Although, of course, what they talked about never really changed
from one day to the next.
When I set down the tray in
front of them and resumed my place on one of the white rockers that Valerie
had placed there when she first opened
the bed and breakfast, the conversation had turned to my topic of
sister, my mother, whom John Reed had only seen in album scrapbook pictures.
From all our stories, he’d already constructed a pretty lively rendition
of the non-framed version of her. In Avensdale, Valerie was suspected of
thinking more on the “spiritual” side of things than most.
My mother was never suspected, she was always outright. She had practically
been on display in Avensdale, because of her prayers, Valerie said.
She was known for something they could never actually see; they simply
these spiritual commodities to her. Valerie liked saying that her
sister was like the old widow in the Bible who got her way because she
her complaint to the judge everyday.
“That woman could even wear God down,” Valerie smiled. John
Reed leaned back even further against the frame of the old B&B. I had
never seen much of anything religious come out of John Reed, but I could
tell he loved hearing Valerie talk about it. When they got going I never
interrupted. I liked to hear John Reed’s stories too. He announced
a few moments later that his favorite character in the Bible was
Moses. How he went to Egypt and went up against the pharaoh.
“‘He persevered because he saw him who is invisible,’” Valerie
recited from memory, squinting her eyes shut as she rocked.
It was well said that night that invisible things always keep us going.
my mother and her sister Valerie had gone to the same all-girls
college when they were younger.
My mother never finished, but Valerie had, and
had gotten her degree in psychology – the same as me, what I was
studying now. Valerie had done everything, according to my mother – all
odd jobs it seemed to me. While she was still married to Allen, she lived
in Atlanta. For all of my youth she and her husband owned a little bed & breakfast
there, and I began to associate her with the big peach tree groves we passed
on the way to visit her, rows of stunted trees flowing down her back like
a cape. A year or so later she did some minor medical research in Richmond,
helping conduct a new study, and then by the time I was in high school
she was on the board at Ridge Mountain Christian Camp in the Appalachians.
Most recently, Valerie had opened up a new B&B, on her own this time,
and was studying to take the national licensing exam for psychologists.
She had failed the test three times already in the course of her lifetime
and now she was trying for the fourth. You were only allowed to take the
test four times, so she hadn’t let anyone but my mother know that
she was studying for it again. She didn’t want all that pressure
on her from the rest of the family. Hush-studying, she had called
it, grinning over the phone.
So my mother knew one of Valerie’s secrets, and Valerie knew one
of my mother’s. The day after I got into my top choice college, they
found out that my mother had cancer. It was in her pancreas, but
then it started spreading. I went to school in the fall as planned, but
home every weekend, spending all my time sleeping on the couch or
in a hospital chair, when she made one of her frequent check-up visits.
I couldn’t decipher much of my mother’s progress from all
the charts and changes in medication. They tried so many different kinds,
it was hard to know what meant what – or if it was good or bad to
be changing her doses, which they tampered with once a week. But
as my mother got worse, Valerie smoked more. She would ride the elevator
floors down to the small private lobby reserved for smokers or she
would wander outside under the canopy, where people were driving up, picking
up their relatives or letting them out of the car. She watched the
in mute reverence, strewing the ashes like palm fronds. Right as
my second year in college was ending, Valerie was a wreck, smoking packs
through, more than I had ever seen, and that was all the warning
Since I was about two years
old, it had always just been me and my mother, so that made Aunt Valerie
my next of kin. Valerie and Allen had split up
before they had any children of their own, so she had always fawned
over me when I was little. Although at twenty-one I was old enough to
my own, and Valerie herself was ten years older than my mother, it
had all been decided a long time ago, when my mother was first diagnosed.
I went to live with Valerie, in her new B&B on Pearson Street.
The house looked like it could
be called an Old Victorian when she bought it, but by the time she got
through with it, it didn’t quite fit
the title. She added light yellow paint to the siding, with a little
help from our neighbor Danny, who worked for the Avensdale fire department.
Valerie also had an oversized screened-in porch built, just like
breezeways that blockaded every other house on Pearson Street. The
floors of the kitchen and the bedrooms were made up of dirty oakwood
and no matter how much Valerie and I swept, a thin layer of grit
remained. The enamel had worn off years ago, but I liked how it looked
the rawness of it. Barefoot, you could feel your heels padding on
the leveled wood.
The first night after I moved
in my things, we sat outside long into the night. I was fanning all the
bugs that had slipped through the screen away
from my glass of sweet tea and Valerie was smoking and fanning too.
The first cigarette that I ever tasted of course came from Valerie. She
talking about my mother and I sat stiffer on my chair. In all of
stories, Valerie was talked about as a woman to be revered. She adored
her older sister – and in the last days, all her prayers were for
her. Now, I saw Valerie through the kaleidoscope of my mother’s eyes.
She was talking about the charity barbecue held down at the Avensdale
fire station. I remembered that night well too. I had spent most of the
with my friend Sherry, flirting with one of the boys that went to
“You know she must have had it then. But we didn’t even know
it.” Val laid her head against the back of the chair and rocked slightly.
When she offered me a cigarette, I put it between my lips and puffed lightly.
I couldn’t bear to break the spell.
I had been raised to view smoking
as an accursed sin. My mother had a very sensitive nose; my grandfather
had smoked smelly Pall Malls all through
her younger years, and she couldn’t stand it. We always sat in the
non-smoking side of restaurants, under threat of death or three hour
waits, and I was under the impression that I would be kicked out of the
if I was ever suspected. It tasted thin and nutty in the back of
my throat. Better than I thought it would.
“Take another, quick,” Valerie instructed me as the butt burned
down between her fingers, and I did. She kept going with her story, and
a few minutes later, lit another. Her story was like one of my mother’s
prayers, winding into every cranny and even the nonsense full of
meaning. I liked having an excuse to brush up against her hands; I liked
bored intimacy between us. I had never really seen the purpose of
smoking, but if it could do this, I understood.
visitors we had were not your typical B&B’ers, Valerie said
(I wouldn’t know the difference), but she said she thought they would
make things more interesting. Instead of the young newly married twenty-somethings
that always stayed at the one back in Atlanta, here the couples were always
older. Not exactly elderly, but pushing it. They would bring out their
reading glasses at the kitchen table in the morning to read the papers
and wore old-fashioned striped pajamas. I thought Aunt Valerie fit this
category herself quite well. Her red hair was turning duller, into more
of a dim mahogany that fit in well with the shade of wood in the house’s
Valerie did some counseling
on the side when not much of anyone frequented the B&B. She didn’t put a sign out in front of the house or anything,
like the hairstylists or public notaries did, but people still found out.
She had several interesting patients that she told me all about – my
favorite one was a fifteen-year-old girl from the high school, a
very timid girl named Trinny. I liked Trinny a lot, and I always tried
to make brownies before she came. Before she left we would always
sit on the high stools in the kitchen and I would ask her about how things
back at my old school, Avensdale High. And then there was the married
woman who lived on Rotary Drive. As soon as the Rotary Drive woman left,
would always come into the kitchen, clicking her tongue in disgust.
“I think you have more mothering instincts than that woman right
there,” she would say, muttering under her breath. I thought that
this must have been the reason she failed her exam so many times, that
she would say such things in front of me. But she counseled people in Avensdale
who didn’t much care if she was licensed by the state. Valerie was
a wise woman, and people in town knew it, whether the state agreed
with them or not.
She always had a special place
that she did the counseling – in
a big room upstairs that contained only a desk, a lamp, a bookshelf and
a large inlet with a window seat. She dressed the window seat up with pillows
and had the patients sit there. I agreed it was much better than a couch
or a chair or anything else. When it was time for one of her counseling
sessions, I was in charge of keeping things in order for the B&B, which
was mainly in the downstairs part of the house. She always led patients
up the stairs in the same way, smiling and motioning with her head tilted
to the side. And even though I couldn’t hear anything but very faint
muffled voices through the door of the counseling room, I imagined her
always saying the same things to get started. Pleasantly sarcastic little
jibes like, “We’re very formal around here,” as she cleared
a few newspapers and legal pads off the big oversized desk. And then, settling
into her usual chair, saying, “So, let’s talk about things
already.” Of course, I had no idea what they actually talked about
in there, or what sort of troubles brought them to my aunt.
Crazy enough, this was how
we met John Reed, after one of Val’s
counseling sessions. The Rotary Drive woman had mentioned her brother,
who watched her kids while she was at her sessions. John Reed lived
alone, and had for years, in a condominium over in the busier section
Valerie and I had been introduced to John Reed before, and we saw
him on occasion. He went running down Pearson Street in navy jogging
a ball cap, and Valerie would yell out a hello to him from her perch
on the screened-in porch as he passed. His hair was graying at the edges
bit, but he was in shape and was very attractive for an older man,
always smiling warmly as he waved back at Valerie and I. According to
the bad mother from Rotary Drive, John Reed had some very complimentary
things to say about Valerie.
“He just said, ‘That woman…’ and grinned and shook
his head. I’ve never seen John have such a look,” she had confessed
to Valerie as she trotted downstairs after her session.
“See you next time,” said
Valerie, and just waved. I had to admit, her comment baffled me too.
I had heard just enough to be very observant
the next time he ran by. Valerie and I were doing some planting around
the hedge of the mailbox, and John Reed began to slow down as he
“Well, hey John,” she
called as she laid aside her trowel.
“Hi Valerie, hi there,” he
said in my direction too, stopping to wipe a bit of sweat from his forehead.
He was wearing the same loose
jogging shorts and a red T-shirt.
“Are you almost done running? Why don’t
you come in for some lemonade or sweet tea?”
“I think I could cut things short today.” Squinting in the
sunlight, he dragged his arm across his forehead and, smiling, came onto
the front porch, where Valerie brought out sweet tea for the three of us.
I sat in amazement as I watched my aunt talk to John Reed. There was definitely
something different about her—she laughed more, and richer. And when
she refilled his glass, I saw that she laid her hand on his wrist for a
moment, smiling as she poured. She was careful not to mention John’s
sister, but John did. He talked about the two kids as well, his niece
Sophie that was starting first grade in the fall and her brother Jason,
said already loved being outside.
“And he’s going to be tall too, like his uncle,” he
said, beaming. I went inside a little afterwards, to get out of the
heat, I said, and let John and Valerie sit outside until almost dinnertime.
When Valerie finally came in,
I was busy cleaning. We had had guests the whole weekend and there was
someone new coming the very next morning. I
didn’t say anything to her when she walked in, and she didn’t
say anything either. She just started cleaning too, all flustered, moving
files and files of papers from downstairs to upstairs, and then taking
up the broom, as if we had both been caught gossiping about someone and
had to feign innocence, even to each other. The last room to clean was
the counseling room on the second floor. I was cleaning the windows with
a spray bottle of blue cleaner and paper towels and Valerie was dusting
the bookshelves with an old rag. When the shelves were finally done and
she got tired, she collapsed back into the desk, sighing as she pulled
out a bag of jellybeans that had been hidden in the bottom right drawer.
I was scrubbing the last pane of the big front window as she groaned, “Oh,
my feet.” I turned around where I was standing on the window seat
and stared down at her moans. From above, she looked quite old. And
it seemed funny now, eyeing her from where I was, that she should have
flirting with John Reed on the screened-in front porch.
Valerie pushed her chair away from the desk and pulled one of her wool-stockinged
feet into her lap, pawing at them gingerly. When she asked me to rub her
feet, I collapsed into the pillows of the window seat, rolling my eyes.
She reached into the bag of jellybeans for another handful and threw some
on the desk, in my direction. I picked out the two pink ones and popped
them into my mouth.
“What do you say in your counseling sessions, Aunt Val?” She
had stopped massaging her feet now and was rolling her neck back
in a semi-circle.
“Mostly I just let them
do all the saying.”
“Maybe you should counsel me,” I
said as I grabbed a few more jellybeans. She popped her neck upright
again and nodded, feigning a meditative
“You know, I’ve always thought so.” There was a pause
before her grin set in; the wrinkles resting on her upper lip cracked like
bare tree branches. “Quit eating this junk and let’s go to
the kitchen,” she said, rising, with socks in hand. “I’ll
fix your favorite for dinner.” Fried bananas. I followed her downstairs,
already anticipating the sweet burnt smell that would fill up the kitchen.
Valerie always made a big Mexican-style breakfast for me from time to time – as
comfort food, on special occasions or whenever I had a lousy day.
Eggs and beans and fried bananas. Something about them always had a feeling
of homecoming, even though my mother had never actually fixed them
At the kitchen table, with the plate of platanos and beans in front of
me, I mulled over Aunt Val. Her head was bowed over her beans. She was
big on that.
“It’s not fair about John Reed,” I
said. Her eyes rose from her plate and she reached into the refrigerator
for the carton of
“What about him?”
“Just that he lives by
himself, and he has to put up with that horrible sister of his, and those
kids she always dumps on him.”
“Mmm,” she shook her head. “I don’t think John
minds. He loves those kids. Besides, I’ve always found that these
things tend to happen on an equitable basis.”
“No, you don’t.”
“I do too,” she
“If you caught anyone talking like that in one of your sessions,
you’d be all over it. You don’t think that people deserve whatever
bad happens to them.”
“No… no. Not deserving. The good things don’t get as
much billing of course, but life is usually in proportion alright. God
answered your mother’s prayers, He’ll answer you, and He’ll
take care of John Reed.” I scraped my fork on the ceramic plate and
pushed the last of the beans onto it.
“Equitable,” I repeated the word and she nodded. She picked
up my plate, dumped it in the sink, and I knew she would be headed out
for a cigarette. I wanted to ask if Valerie ever remembered hearing any
of my mother’s prayers, out loud, but she had already gone out to
the porch, and I decided to go to bed instead.
John Reed had jogged by our house three more times, Valerie invited him
to dinner. She planned
for a time when no other guests were staying
with us and she cooked a feast. Chicken and mushrooms, green beans,
sweet potatoes, corn bread, banana bread and mint chocolate chip
ice cream from
the freezer. The night was pleasant, if altogether uneventful. John
and I stuffed our faces and he asked me about the courses I was
taking in school
and what my friends were like. I told a funny story about what I’d
heard about one of my professors, and Valerie told several of her bad jokes
and the two of us really laughed hard. The dinner went really late and
finally John Reed dismissed himself around midnight, because he was taking
his sister’s kids to the zoo the next morning. This began a long
series of dinners, and the three of us were quite companionable for the
rest of the summer. Sometimes John brought Sophie and Jason over too; they
were shy, but sweet. And the guests staying in the B&B always loved
watching them play on the front lawn. It was always their own convoluted
version of tag, an imaginary game of sorts – one with no props or
clear rules, just a lot of running around and getting out of breath. I
even joined in occasionally. Business at the B&B was steady for the
rest of the summer, and everything seemed more crowded, especially the
kitchen. John’s sister came a little less to counseling, but Trinny
still came every week, and we sat on the high kitchen barstools and
talked about what a hot August it had been, about getting ready to
go back to
school, and for a while we even had a plan to drive to the shopping
mall, a forty minute trip away.
On the last night before I
went back to school, it was still blazing hot. I had packed up all my
things save a toothbrush and my two books for the
bus ride. One was the Collected Works of Emily Dickinson, which Valerie
had given me two hours before as we neared the end of dinner, and
the other was written by the psychology professor I would have the next
Valerie had made a cherry pie, my favorite, to cap off our little
going-away party. It was just me and her and John Reed and there was
one couple renting
a room upstairs, just passing through for the night on their way
south to the Florida Keys. I had two pieces of Valerie’s pie, and
then ran my finger all along the bottom of the plate in order to catch
bits of the cherry filling. All the food made me too tired to talk,
but I stayed and listened to Valerie and John Reed long after the Florida
couple had gone to bed.
As their talking got quieter,
I finally took my last glass of milk out onto the screened-in porch and
settled down in one of the rockers. In two
minutes I was already sweating from the heat. Since all of my other
clothes had been packed up for school I was wearing shorts and an old
of Valerie’s. It was green and the front was emblazoned with a big
umbrella pine tree and the words “Ridge Mountain Camp.” It
seemed funny to think of a much younger Valerie playing counselor
to all of those kids, telling Bible stories, hiking through the woods,
bad food in the mess hall off of flimsy plastic trays.
To this day, whenever I get
to church too early and find myself waiting in my pew at the big Congregational
church, I go back to almost four months
after my mother died, sitting on Val’s porch. I got the urge to pray
for Valerie as she was then, on Ridge Mountain, lining up kids outside
their cabins each morning and evening. I wanted to pray back time, to inherit
my mother’s words for that night. Invisible words, recanted into
the night, bringing down a childhood’s worth of memories—for
a moment, we rocked there again on the porch, my mother and I. The
deep after-sundown breeze sparked up and dried my sweat as I shut my eyes
Nodding off in my white wooden
rocker, my mind turned to the next summer and I wondered if John Reed
would move into the B&B; if it would be
Valerie watching after his sister’s kids. I pictured Valerie tucking
them into the little trundle beds in the downstairs bedroom when
they came for overnights, just the way she used to do for me when I came
her old house in Atlanta. Those crisp sheets pulled from the hall
linen closet, the warm and heavy nighttime air, and Valerie coming down
smelling like a stick of cinnamon gum, her feet creaking on the old
hardwood floor. And just as she bent over and her weathered lips grazed
I awoke with a start. The screen door slammed as John Reed was leaving,
and Valerie was calling me up to bed for the night.
Emily S. High ‘06 is an English Concentrator in Winthrop