We are heat cranky, though we try not to be.
We sit in this hot room, hot because it’s South Louisiana, hot because it’s summer, hot because the air conditioner broke down. My mother carries a tray of sweet, iced tea into the enclosed side porch, usually the coolest room in the house, but it’s not, and all of us, Aunt Jewel, Uncle Ulysses, Grandpa Louis, and my persnickety Great Aunt Mary-Margaret wilt in wicker chairs, sweating bullets, swishing church lady fans across our hot red faces.
We each grab one of the tall dripping-wet glasses and press it against our cheeks, foreheads, and sides of necks. Then, like camels, we drink, and there’s a chorus of sighs, laughter, and one of my grandpa’s wet lip smacks of satisfaction.
“For heaven’s sake, Louis. Manners.” Great Aunt Mary-Margaret shakes her head with a shiver of disgust.
He smacks again. Of course, he does. He claims his sister beat him up every day of his life.
I’m glad we left my father home in Nevada, or rather he left himself. He calls my great aunt a dried up old biddy to her face. I’d never dare. I don’t want to see her lips curl with haughty disdain. I read Gothic romance novels filled with phrases like “haughty disdain” and “I am aghast.” I like the sound of them.
“How ’bout we play some canasta?” says Mary-Margaret like it’s a question, but we all know there’s no saying no.
She is the matriarch of this family, tall and thin, with old lady “blue hair,” her tiny tight curls cupping her head like a shower cap. My great uncle—I give him pitying looks all the time because how could he ever kiss Great Aunt’s wormy lips—says she was a “Bell” in her youth. When I was young, I pictured the Liberty Bell, cold metal on a snowy day hanging in a Philadelphia tower. I thought that was the perfect way to describe her, all noise and clang. Thanks to gothic novels, I know he meant “Belle of the Ball.” Still, I can’t see my aunt being one of those old-fashioned girls surrounded by “swains,” and I sure can’t see my great uncle with his chronic farts being a swain.
Everybody is talking at once, interrupting each other, and there’s my mother dragging the coffee table out the way, then fetching first one card table, then a second one which immediately crashes to the floor as soon as she leans it against the door, making my Aunt Jewel scream in surprise as Great Aunt Mary-Margaret lets go a squeaky noise and grabs ahold of her heart.
Grandpa hauls himself up, and I think he’s going to straighten out the chaos, but he doesn’t. Of course, he doesn’t. He walks out the room hitching his pants, and my mother looks after him and says, “Dad,” and he lifts his hand to wave her off, saying “I gotta pee, girl,” and she shakes her head because she figures he won’t be back, and there’s nothing she can ever do with her old man.
Me, I gather up half-empty glasses and line them along the old outdoor window frame between the enclosed porch and Grandpa’s bedroom. Yep, we have to walk through his bedroom to get to the add-on family room where Grandpa puffs fat cigars and watches the Saturday night fights on his tiny portable TV.
The card tables have been pushed together, and everybody is pulling over chairs, making their usual mutterings and complaints. Sometimes there’s an occasional laugh or a friendly slap on the shoulder.
Aunt Mary-Margaret says to my mama, “Why don’t you have circulating fans in here?”
“Because your brother takes his time fixing them.” My mama always meets Aunt Mary Margaret’s tartness with her own.
Aunt Mary-Margaret scowls as she moves to the tables and struggles to pull out a folding chair, but a leg gets caught in the rug, and she jerks at it, muttering what I hope are swear words, so I slip over to help. Nothing would be funnier than hearing a strait-laced old lady swear.
She’s got both hands on the back of the folding chair, yanking hard, her lips drawn into a thin line. I move next to her, giving her time to summon up some kind of curse, but all she does is grunt and groan, and I begin to feel sorry for her and slip my hands next to hers to help get the chair leg untangled from the rug.
She slaps my hands, pushes me, saying, “I got it.”
I’m sweating, she’s sweating, so I let go and the chair comes free, knocking us both to the floor, and as she rolls off, I hear Great Aunt Mary-Margaret loudly say the F-word.
We’re all silent, we all stare. I am aghast!
Mama rushes over and helps Great Aunt Mary-Margaret to her feet. We watch her smooth the skirt of her flowery pique dress, straighten her back, lift her chin. Her lips are all pushed together.
Great Aunt Mary-Margaret looks at Jewel, then Uncle Ulysses, my mama, me. Grandpa stares at us from the window between his bedroom and the closed-in porch. “What’s going on in here?”
Mama pipes up, “Your sister used a swear word.”
Grandpa starts laughing, his deep belly-shaking laugh. “That’s okay. She used to swear like a sailor.”
“I never did,” Great Aunt Mary-Margaret answers with all her dignity.
He grins and holds up a large electric fan. “This what you need?”
“Well,” she says, clearing her throat. “About time. Now we can play some Canasta.”
She turns and marches back to the card tables, takes a seat at the head. “Who’s got the cards? I’ll deal.”
Of course, she will.
Gay Degani’s many nominations include Pushcart, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions. Her work has appeared online, in print journals and in anthologies. She’s published a chapbook, Pomegranate, a full-length collection, Rattle of Want, (Pure Slush, 2015) and a suspense novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum, 2016).