Excerpt from Hell is for Children: Aunt Sunny

When Aunt Sunny came to Barstow to help mom when I was five, light and lightness filled our house. From the moment she walked through the front door, it was clear Sunny was the alpha. She wasn’t arrogant, but mysteriously self-composed and confident. Enchanting. Two years younger than my mom – 22 – Sunny was tall, thin, blonde, tanned, tattooed – wearing a tight black Harley shirt and tight fitting, high-waisted jeans. She was the most physically beautiful person I’d ever seen. She exuded something I couldn’t identify then, but which I understand now – a kind of pressure bomb sexuality. Something that could go off any second. But it was contained. There was no hair trigger. She was fully in control and I fell in love with her.

And my god, the way she made my mom laugh and come alive in a brand new way. Mom’s anxiety of being alone with two little girls and a dog after Reggie left was replaced by a new confidence, catching some of Sunny’s infectious self, but also waking up to a part of herself that involved a deeply felt history.

Sunny arrived in Barstow with her boyfriend, Dennis. He didn’t stay long, only a few days because he had to get back to personal business in New Mexico, but I was delighted he was around. He was the most non-threatening man I’d ever met until then. He, too, glowed with a similar shine. Also, he was hilarious and would entertain my sister Kim and me by sitting in a chair, wrapping his arms underneath his knees, and lighting his farts.

But then, early one morning, just after sunrise, Sunny got a phone call. Mom answered, but handed her the phone. I was there playing, then watching. Something went wrong in Sunny’s voice, and quickly. I don’t recall what she said, but the way she said it made my guts sick. It was the voice of something bad. Then she was screaming. She fell to her knees – like mom had when John Lennon died, only different. This time, I thought Sunny would die too. She was screaming – a desperate and horrible sound. She bent at the waist and hammered the floor with her fists, shaking her head, wailing more and more and more.

The call was to tell her that Dennis had committed suicide. He was dead.

Then he was gone, too, but Sunny still stayed.

We baked cakes on flimsy cardboard trays that came in an all-in-one mix. Mom and Sunny would throw Kim and me in charity clothing boxes and let us dig for clothes. There was still laughter, somehow. There was always laughter when the men were gone and the women were all alone together. Always.

There were lots of men, though. Especially after Reggie left. At some point, the red wagon mom used to pull us to the food stamps office was swapped out for a car, probably Sunny’s. There were many long afternoons spent with Kim and me sitting in the front seat in the sweltering desert sun while mom stood outside talking to men, enjoying her new-found freedom. It was always different men. We’d yell out the window complaining and mom would tell us to be quiet or that she’d be done soon. “Just a minute,” she’d say.

One night, some new man was coming over to eat dinner with us. I think it was a man who fancied Sunny. We had little food in the fridge beyond the oatmeal and eggs and a package of ground beef. When mom and Sunny took the beef out of the fridge to prepare it for dinner – spaghetti with meat sauce – they discovered it was rotten. It had gone green. There was nothing else to feed the stranger who was coming for dinner, so mom and Sunny prepared it anyway, adding extra salt and pepper, the only spices we had.

When the man showed up and we all sat down to dinner, the food was inedible. It tasted like salty rot. Everyone pushed the plate away. But shockingly, the man pretended to pay no notice. Such was his love for my Aunt Sunny – such was her charm over men – that he forged ahead and ate the whole meal slowly, quietly, and without complaint. When he left, mom and Sunny laughed so hard they cried as they cleaned up the dishes.

I’m not sure we saw the man again, but maybe it was him – or maybe it was someone else, some other man under some other charm – who scared us into hiding one night, not long before we left Barstow altogether. Someone was coming for us. Mom and Sunny told Kim and me to get down. We locked Gnome in a back room. We turned off all the lights and slunk behind the sofa. Then there was a pounding at the door. I looked at Sunny and she put her finger against her lips. I was frightened, but her eyes were smiling, soothing the fear right out of me. Then the person was at the windows, moving from one to the other to the other, peering in. My guts were sick, but I stayed quiet. Eventually, he left.

And, eventually, we left, too.


 

It’s summer of 1981 and I’m lying on my belly on top of pillows, toys, furniture – everything we own that could fit in the car – speeding down the highway in a green Dodge Charger. We’re getting farther and farther away from Barstow and closer and closer to some place called Roswell, which I can’t wait to see. Kim is next to me, also on her belly, the roof of the car inches from our tiny heads. Gnome is somewhere on the floor. Up front, mom and Sunny are talking grown up talk and smoking cigarettes. Occasionally, they pass a joint back and forth. We drive all through the night, stopping only once to get a few hours’ sleep at a rest stop. Mom, Sunny, and Gnome sleep outside. Kim and I get to sleep in the front. Otherwise, we drive. Sometimes mom and Sunny flash their boobs at truckers as we pass, giggling to each other – my mom in her favorite tank top with the words Itty Bitty Titty Committee emblazoned across the front. A constant stream of music pours out of the speakers as mom and Sunny change out the eight tracks, switching between REO Speedwagon, Eddie Rabbit, Juice Newton, and my favorite song in the whole world, “Dog and Butterfly.” Music and the voices of two young women leaving something behind and heading toward something new to me, but old and familiar to them, fill the hours and miles.


 

 

When we first returned to Roswell from Barstow, mom’s hobby of spending all her time in the company of men persisted. The days of sitting in a car waiting while my mom – in a bikini top and cut off shorts, a bandana wrapped around her head – sat outside on the hood smoking cigarettes and joints, holding court with strangers dragged on. Sometimes, these men would come home and sleep with mom in her space on the floor of the den, just outside the room Kim and I shared. The months were filled with sunshine and trees, and deep insecurity and separation anxiety, as I missed a mom who was inches away from me, but gone.

Sunny lived somewhere else at that point, but would visit us. She and mom had a lot of friends in common. One day, several months after we returned to Roswell, Kim and I were once again sitting in the car, this time outside of Dotty’s house, an old friend from before we were born. We’d been there quite a while when Sunny pulled up next to our car, got out, and walked over to the window. She stuck her head in, ruffled our hair, and said, sweetly, “Hi girls.” Then she went inside.

A few minutes passed, when all of a sudden, we heard the front door of Dotty’s trailer house bang open and mom came barreling around the corner, running like mad toward the car. Following behind her by a fraction of a second was Sunny. They were both screaming, mom in fear, and Sunny in rage. Sunny overcame mom just as she was getting to the car. She grabbed mom by the back of the shirt, flipped her around, and slammed her backward onto the hood of the car. She was holding a pair of scissors, which she put to mom’s throat. Mom was screaming, “Stop! Don’t!” And Sunny yelled, “Shut the fuck up! Do you hear me?” Then she pointed through the windshield of the car. “If you don’t start taking care of those fucking girls,” Sunny growled through gritted teeth, “I’m going to cut your fucking throat out! Do you hear me?”

After that, Kim and I spent less time in the car.


 

I’m a tiny girl in a kitchen and I’m sitting next to my beloved, my beautiful, my favorite aunt Sunny. She’s coloring in a coloring book and I’m watching her, rapt by the way she carefully outlines a flower in bold red, then uses the same red to fill in the edges of the petal around the center disk. She then takes another color and lightly fills in the center of the petals. I think it’s magnificent.

Eagerly, I grab a coloring book of my own. I take out some crayons, select my picture, and begin to color. But it’s a mess. Something isn’t right. I try to recreate what my aunt Sunny has done, but my picture is ugly and I hate it. The colors are all wrong and despite my best efforts, the crayon markings have gone all outside the lines. I get very mad, bang my crayon on the table, and start to cry.

Sunny turns to me and puts her hand on my shoulder. “What’s the matter, Glory Bee?” she asks.

Through tears, I bawl, “It’s not fair! I want to color like you do, but my picture is ugly and yours isn’t and I tried and it’s not fair!” I cry harder.

Sunny tells me, almost with a laugh, but not a mocking one, “Oh, baby. I only do it better because I’ve been coloring longer than you have! By the time you’re my age, you’ll color just as good as I do. You just need to practice more.” She puts her arm around my waist and pulls me nearer to her and I instantly stop crying, mesmerized by how close this idol of a woman wants me to be.

“Here, let’s practice together.” She opens my book to a new page, replaces my broken crayon with a new one, and then silently starts to color again.

I watch her for a moment. She’s back at magicking colors onto her page, just like before. She smells like sweat and something sweet and she has the prettiest face I’ve ever seen. She is the bravest, strongest woman in the whole world and I feel nothing but safe when she’s around. Someday, she told me just now, I’m going to be able to do something, even if it’s just coloring, as well as she does. I pick up my crayon, turn to my page, and begin coloring again. Quietly. Peacefully. Smiling.

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