Jack Urquhart - How I Came to Know

1958, Florida

It happened last Tuesday evening.  But it was yesterday that it really happened.  That’s when I mentioned to Aunt Janet what I seen out behind Grandpa’s shed.

Mama and me had just stopped off at Grandma’s to pick her up for the grocery shopping.  I was waiting for them on the porch ‘cause it looked like a rain was coming up.  That’s when I heard Mama in the kitchen asking Aunt Janet if she’d mind me while her and Grandma was down to the Winn-Dixie.  She was saying something ‘bout how she’d had enough aggravation for one afternoon, and how she didn’t need me traipsing ‘long behind her at the grocery store begging for a box of Animal Crackers.  We’d had us a time, Mama and me that morning, that’s for sure.  And from the sound of her voice, I knew better’n to argue.  Next thing I know, they had taken off and it was just me and Aunt Janet there in Grandma’s kitchen.

So, there I was—sitting on the stool picking the raisins out of one of Grandma’s oatmeal cookies—just watching Aunt Janet at the stove stirring up some turnip greens she’d put on.  In the next room, I could hear the TV set going and Uncle Jonas calling out his guesses for The Price is Right.  I remember picturing just what he’d look like, all stretched out there in front of the set.  I guess I’d seen him enough times to know.

Uncle Jonas, Aunt Janet’s Yankee husband, he sure does like to pretend.  He likes to play like he’s out there in Hollywood with Bill Cullen and the rest of them TV studio folks.  Ever since the packing house up in Zellwood laid off ‘most everybody, and he and Aunt Janet come to stay with Grandma and Aunt Maggie, Uncle Jonas spends near ‘bout every afternoon watching his game shows.  Sits right there in Grandpa’s ole rocker for the longest time—wearing one o’ his T-shirts with them pee-colored stains at the armholes.  Got his big hairy arms drawed up behind his head like a pretzel so’s you can see his scraggly arm pits and all them little polka-dotty vitiligo spots on his underarms.

“Sixteen-hundred ninety-nine dollars,” he’ll yell right out loud at that TV set.  “Seven hundred and fifty-three bucks, an’ not a red cent more!” another time.

I was picturing him in my mind just like that while I was eating that cookie.  Then, all of a sudden, I hear Aunt Janet say something kinda low to herself.

“Well,” she said, “at least it’s not the wrestling matches.”

That’s what she said.

And that’s what done it.  That’s what made me remember what I seen behind the shed Tuesday evening.  It was right after supper it happened.

See, Mama and Daddy and I had come up to Grandma’s special to barbeque some chicken.  Aunt Maggie, Aunt Janet and Uncle Jonas was all there at the table, too.  After we finished up eating, Aunt Maggie went on up stairs, or leastways, that’s what I thought.  Little while later I went on outside by myself.  Wandered on out by the shed, I did.  That’s how I come to see what was going on out there in Aunt Maggie’s convertible car.

It’s a Ford Sunliner and it’s real fancy. Grandma Aida bought it for her right before she went to twelfth grade last year; went down to Heintzleman’s on Orange Avenue in Orlando and she bought it off the showroom floor.  Aunt Maggie likes to leave the top down, so it was real easy to see what was going on in the back seat.  It wasn’t like a person would have to sneak up or anything.

So, anyway, yesterday when Aunt Janet said what she said there in the kitchen—you know, ‘bout how she’s glad Uncle Jonas wasn’t watching the wrestling matches?  Well, I just went ahead and mentioned real nonchalant what I seen out behind the shed.  I thought Aunt Janet might like to know seeing how they’s sisters n’all and they real close, her an’ Aunt Maggie.  They always doing things together.  Riding off in Maggie’s Ford car somewhere near ‘bout every day.  Just like two peas in a pod, my Mama says.

So, I just said to Aunt Janet—I just said I’d seen some wrestling going on out behind the shed the other evening.

That was all there was to it.

But I want you to know that soon’s the words was out o’ my mouth, Aunt Janet turned right around from that stove and she gave me such a look with them gray eyes o’ hers—a real hard look it was, too.  All clouded up like two of my aggie marbles, them slanty eyes of Aunt Janet’s.  It was enough, that look was, to make the hairs on the back of my neck prickle right up.

For a minute I thought maybe she’d misheard me and was thinking I’d said a cuss word or something?  So I hurried up an’ throwed in how they was laughing and carrying on out there in the back seat of that new Ford car, just having themselves a good time was all.  I told her that.  I told her so’s she’d know it was nothing bad that I said—nothing bad that I seen.

“You ain’t seen nothing, Mister Man,” Aunt Janet says to me real mean.  She’s standing there barefooted in her orange pedal pushers, her hair fluffed up like a big old thunder cloud.  It’s a silvery beige color—sort of like ginger ale—her hair is now; been that color ever since she spent ‘most of the whole day last Saturday down at Miss Juanita’s House of Beauty.  When my Mama asked her how much that hair was to cost, I heard Aunt Janet answer her back real snooty, saying that was between her an’ Miss Clairol, and that only her and her hairdresser knowed for sure.

That sure did get my Mama’s goat.

“Champagne blond my foot!” Mama said later on talking about Aunt Janet’s new hair to Daddy.  “Pure ole bleach-blond,” she told him.  “Janet keeps messing with it, ever last strand’s going t’fall right out!” Mama said.  “Trying to look like Lana Turner!” she said to my Daddy.

My Mama said a lot more, too.  She said Daddy’s sisters got a plenty high-and-mighty notions, the both of ‘em!  Said that right to Daddy at supper the other night.

“You got one of ‘em running the roads in that flashy Ford car and her a married woman now,” Mama said.  “Just you wait till that soldier boy o’ hers gets wind up there in Pensacola about what’s been going on.  Then we’ll see a fine mess,” Mama said.

Which didn’t make no sense to me a’tall, since it was Maggie’s husband Uncle Andy—who’s in the United States Army—he’s the one said he was glad about that car.  We all heard him when he said it—said it meant Aunt Maggie could run up to Pensacola to see him more often, and that he didn’t want Maggie stuck at home all the time while he’s off being a soldier.  She’s done been up there already two or three times.  I guess my Mama forgot about that, though.

“’Course, it don’t help matters none having a married older sister setting such a fine example as Janet—parading about in them tight pants, peroxiding her hair like the biggest hussy you ever saw!” Mama said to Daddy.  “Two peas in a pod, them sisters a’yours.  Mark my words, they’ll come a’falling out,” she says.  “Right on the floor in great big wads.”

But it didn’t look like Aunt Janet’s hair was falling out to me.  Not when she’s standing there in front of that stove, staring me down.  More like her hair was standing on end.  Like she’d picked up some of that static ‘lectricity that comes right before a storm breaks.

“Maybe you think you saw something,” Aunt Janet says to me.  “But you ain’t seen a thing, you hear?” she says, waggling Grandma’s wooden spoon in my direction.  “You been snooping in your Aunt Maggie’s business again, haven’t you,” Aunt Janet says.  “Exactly what you think you saw, Mister Too-Big-for-Your-Britches?”

I could tell from the way she was talking, from the way she was standing there with her hand balled up on her hip, with her elbow stuck out right sharp to one side, I could tell that I’d have to be careful.  Half-way down the street to mighty mad, Aunt Janet was, and there I was stuck in the house with her on account of the rain had come up.

“Oh, nothing, I guess,” I says to her.

I reckon I shoulda stopped right there, but recollecting what I seen made it just too hard to keep my mouth shut.  It’s kinda like when you run up against something like that, something you can’t quite figure, it gets so’s you can’t keep from talking ‘bout it.  ‘Cause you’re thinking maybe if you say something, well then there’s half a chance somebody else’ll make sense of it for you.  So, that’s how the rest of it just come busting out.

“It just looked like they was tussling there in the back seat, Aunt Maggie and somebody,” I says, the words bubbling up ‘fore I could do one thing about it.  “Kind of like they’s wrestling,” I says.

“You hush your mouth!” Aunt Janet says.

It wasn’t no more than a second later come that big clap o’ thunder, the one that Mama said later on liked to scared her to death when she’s downtown at the Winn-Dixie.  It sure enough was loud.  Loud enough to shake the house.

But I can tell you, that racket didn’t scare Aunt Janet none.  Not one bit was she scared.  In fact, ‘fore I knowed to jump down off that stool, she’d done cracked me on top the head with that spoon of Grandma’s.  Quick as a wink, she was.  That freckly old arm o’ hers—well, it just jumped right out at me and rapped my noggin a good one.  She done it right about the same time’s that thunder busted loose.  Wouldn’t a soul heard me for all that noise—even if I had hollered.  It smarted, that crack did.  Smarted to beat the band.  I still got the knot on my head today.

“Just like I thought!  You been snooping!” Aunt Janet hissed at me.

Reminded me of that old cat of Miss’s Gandy’s—that white and yellow-spotted one that bows up and spits at you through its fangs—the way Aunt Janet sounded.  It’ll scratch soon as look at you, too, that cat; even when you’re just trying to make nice like I’d been doing.

“Next thing you’ll be telling tales all over town, I expect!  Lord, I’ll be glad when summer’s over and you back in school out from under everybody’s feets,” Aunt Janet says, waggling that spoon at me again.  “You better not let me hear you been carrying tales about family business,” she says.  “You hear what I’m saying?”

Well I heard her all right, even though by then her voice had dropped down to a mean whisper.

“Yes, Mam,” I says, scared stiff that she might have another go at me with that spoon.

She was standing there in front of the stove a’staring me down, Aunt Janet was; standing there in them orange pedal pushers that Mama says is too tight for decency.  Had both her freckly little fists balled up on her hips now, with that old wood spoon o’ Grandma’s sticking out from her hand, and it dripping pot liquor all over the linoleum.

It was that spoon got me started thinking again.  See, it was kinda pointing sideways over Aunt Janet’s behind; bowl side up and quivering in her fist, it was.  Looked like it was stuck there.

So, then it hit me—what that spoon looked like.  Put me in mind of my birthday present from way last summer, that spoon did—the bow ’n arrow set Uncle Jonas give me when I turned nine.  All of a sudden that spoon started looking like an arrow to me, like somebody’d done shot a little pointy one right into Aunt Janet’s fanny.

Well, I couldn’t help it, the way that idea sure enough made me smirk-up—even though I was still rubbing at that knot on my head.

Aunt Janet didn’t like that one bit.  No sir.

“You think it’s funny, do you?” she kinda whispers at me, standing up straight and cocking her head toward the next room to make sure Uncle Jonas wasn’t coming.

“I’ll show you what’s funny, young man!” Aunt Janet spits.  “I hear you been blabbering other folks’ business, well I reckon I can tell a few things, too,” she says.  “A few little secrets ‘bout you,” she says.

By this time, she’s smiling down on me still sitting there frozen on that stool.  Drawing up right tall, she was, her head all crooked up to one side.  “I guess I might like to tell about what you been up to out there in your Grandpa’s shed,” she says, nodding her head at me real prissy like.  “You think I don’t know ‘bout what you been doing out there, don’t you.  Poring over them magazines you done found,” she says, her head a’bobbin’ just like Preacher Higgenbotham’s when he goes to reading from the book of Revelations.

She was looking at me, Aunt Janet was, like she knowed something so bad it could land a person in the lake of hellfire, lickety-split.

Pretty soon, it come out.

“I’m wise to what you been up to, Mister.  Out there just a’turning them pages fast as you can with them sticky little fat fingers.  Slobbering over them trashy pictures,” she says to me.

“I know what you been looking at, what you been reading,” she says, her smile spreading wiggly-wobbly over her face just like she done answered The $64,000 Question.

I don’t mind telling you, what she said took me right off guard.  ‘Fore I knowed it, I could feel my face burning like pure fire.  You see, I didn’t think anybody else knowed about them magazines, the ones with all them stories that comes with pictures—the one’s shows them womens caught up in the coils of big ole boa-constrictors and great big apes, just a-squeezing them so tight their bosoms is busting out.  Or the stories that has pictures of half-dead ladies a’hanging out the windows o’ wrecked trains with most of their clothes tore off.

I thought I was the only one that knowed about them magazines—the one’s Grandpa kept out yonder in the shed before he died.  There’s a whole pile of ‘em stashed up ‘neath his toolbox.

“Yes sir, I reckon I done seen a thing or two I could tell about,” Aunt Janet says.  “And that ain’t all,” she says, narrowing her eyes down to little beady slits.  “I hear you been gossiping about your Aunt Maggie, I’ll snatch you clean ball-headed, fat as you’ve got!  Snatch the rest that butch cut o’ yours out by the roots.  Just you see if I don’t,” she hollered.  “Your Aunt’s got a right to privacy same as anybody else.  She’s a grown woman eighteen years old, and it ain’t nobody’s business—not yours nor your Mama’s—who she keeps company with in her very own automobile.  A person don’t have to live lonely just to satisfy a bunch of Bible-thumping hypocrites,” Aunt Janet says, a’shaking that spoon at me so I was splattered all over with turnip juice.  “And anybody says different can sure enough kiss my foot!”

By now she’s a’booming ‘bout as bad as that thunderstorm that’d blown up outside.  She wasn’t even thinking about Uncle Jonas in the next room watching The Price Is Right—till presently he yells at us to “Hush up that racket” so’s he can hear what Bill Cullen’s saying about the next prize.

So Aunt Janet quieted down then, but I could tell she was still pretty fired-up by the way she was rocking back and forth from foot to foot there in front of that stove.  And sure enough, it was right then I seen what Mama meant about them tight pants.  I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if they wasn’t riding up higher and higher with all that rocking Aunt Janet was doing.  Till pretty soon I could see what Mama seen when she said it was a pure sin the way them tight pedal pushers got caught in Aunt Janet’s every nook and cranny!

“Yes sir.  I hear you been talking,” Aunt Janet whispers after a spell, “well, I’ll do some talking myself,” she says.  An’ then she went to make another pass at me with that spoon.  Only this time, I was too quick for her.  ‘Fore she knowed what happened, I’d made for the screen door—just about tore it off the hinges, I expect.  And then I was out there in the worst of that downpour, the lightning flashing all over the place.

“You mark my words, young man,” Aunt Janet screamed out at me, forgetting all about Uncle Jonas again.  “You go to talking, I’ll do some talking myself,” she says.  “I’ll tell ‘em all—your Mama and Grandma.  Your Daddy, too!  And just what you think they’ll have to say ‘bout your dirty doings!”

So, that’s how it come to me, standing out there in that downpour yesterday.  That’s how I come to know, how I come to know ‘bout what I saw last Tuesday evening: that it was something that’s got to keep hid.  Just like them magazines.

 

 

 

Jack Urquhart is a graduate of the Masters Creative Writing Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  His work has appeared in Crazyhorse Magazine and STANDARDS:
The International Journal of Multicultural Studies
.  A native Floridian, he lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Posted on December 7, 2013 .