Next of Kin
a story by Emily S. High


Behind the radio’s altar light
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 Reed. 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 choice—Valerie’s 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 intuited 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 brought 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.

 

***

 

Both 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 I came 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 six 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 procession in mute reverence, strewing the ashes like palm fronds. Right as my second year in college was ending, Valerie was a wreck, smoking packs straight through, more than I had ever seen, and that was all the warning I had.

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 be on 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. So 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 the country breezeways that blockaded every other house on Pearson Street. The floors of the kitchen and the bedrooms were made up of dirty oakwood paneling, 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 and felt; 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 started talking about my mother and I sat stiffer on my chair. In all of my mother’s 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 night with my friend Sherry, flirting with one of the boys that went to her college.

“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 house 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 this gentle, bored intimacy between us. I had never really seen the purpose of smoking, but if it could do this, I understood.

 

***

 

The 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 interior.

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 remember 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 were 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, Valerie 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 of Avensdale. 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 shorts and 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 a 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 his sister, 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 passed.

“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, who he 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 been 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 stare.

“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 for me.

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 milk.

“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 said.

“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.

 

***

 

When 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 semester. 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 the last 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 Keys 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 thin T-shirt 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, and eating 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 mumbling her words.

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 down to her old house in Atlanta. Those crisp sheets pulled from the hall linen closet, the warm and heavy nighttime air, and Valerie coming down the stairs, 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 my forehead, 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 House.