Fall 2007, Volume 24.1
Aunt Clara's Keys
Karen Batchelor teaches at City College of San Francisco and has published poetry, professional articles and textbooks. Her first novel, Murder at Ocean View College, was published in 2006. Currently she is working on a sequel and has recently completed a collection of short stories.
Shivering on the front steps in the light rain, I hesitate before pressing the buzzer. I suck in a deep breath and roll my shoulders to loosen them. I am on a mission.
The electricity from the little button tickles the tip of my finger, and bugle notes ring out to greet me. The door bursts open, and there stands my Aunt Clara, just over five feet in height, flaming-red hair wrapped in a purple scarf. She is wearing a caftan of the same purple fabric, a garment intended to be free-flowing, but instead cinched around her plump middle is a red, silky sash. The skirt drapes over her ample hips and hangs to the floor. I look down to see slippers with pink feathers peeking out beneath the hem.
She waves one hand at me. The other hand clutches a cordless telephone to her ear.
"I’ve got to hang up now, honey. Got some company," she says into the receiver as she motions me inside her spacious home. She has lived in this 1940s era house for decades, and I’ve always loved it.
"Aunt Clara! You look great!" I give her a hug.
Her eyes are clear behind her glasses, and her skin is smooth, undoubtedly a combination of remarkably good genes, and her lifelong beauty regimen.
"Damn right I do! For a woman who’s eighty years old. Well, honey, I’m so glad to see you! Don’t get many visitors these days."
Is she a little shorter than the last time I saw her?
She never calls me Christine anymore, and I’m afraid she doesn’t remember who I am. I don’t bother to remind her. She recognizes me on some level, I am sure. Today I have to get on her good side. Actually, you never want to be on Aunt Clara’s bad side. Once she got so mad at my mother—for accusations that she had lied about her age—that she refused to attend the annual family reunion. Among the Walker clan, absence from this event is considered high treason.
She reaches up, pats my cheek, pulls my face down to her level, and plants a wet, resounding kiss on my forehead. She knows I’m family.
I follow her into the living room on paths of plastic laid out to protect her new green carpets. She motions to a dark green overstuffed chair, its arms and headrest also covered with thick plastic. When I sit, the plastic squeaks. She sits on a new sofa, also green, also wrapped in plastic.
"New furniture. When did you get it?"
"Let’s see. Not long ago. You know, honey, I just decided to treat myself. After all, I’m eighty-three years old and I’m not going to live forever. There’s no use having money if you can’t spend it."
"I agree. Be good to yourself." I smile at her. My mother was right. Clara has lied about her age so long that she can’t remember how old she actually is.
Mathilde Louise Walker Addison Wolf is my father’s older sister—older by about 20 years, as far as we can figure. She was the first of nine siblings, many of whom have already passed on. She is also a family legend. Some time in her teens, she changed her name from Mathilde to Clara, in honor of Clara Bow, the "It Girl" and sweetheart of the silent screen. The family, as far as I know, has called her Clara ever since. In fact, I wasn’t aware of her name change until I had graduated from college.
I look out the window into the backyard. "Your roses are lovely. Who does your gardening?"
My ears perk up. When my cousin, George, called last weekend, pleading that I drive to Hermiston, he said, "She calls all the men Bill—friends, family, guys she doesn’t even know!"
Except for her long-dead first husband, there are no Williams in the Walker clan.
"Bill?" I ask her.
"Which Bill do you mean? I know a lot of Bills."
"Well, you don’t know this one. He’s the gardener," she states with imperious logic.
Aunt Clara was married four times, although she kept the names of only two of her former husbands. She ran off early with Bill Addison, who may have been the love of her life, but they were together only about three years. During Prohibition, Bill was a bootlegger. He inadvertently left her a small fortune when he was shot and killed while making a delivery to the wrong address.
Her next three marriages didn’t have quite the drama, but there was usually a tidy financial settlement at the end. Marriage number two ended in divorce. "He was a lazy, no-account, son-of-a-skunk," in Clara’s words. Husband number three, Bradley Wolf, passed away from a heart attack on their honeymoon, so she felt obliged to keep his name, and the hundreds of shares of blue chip stock he had left her.
Her fourth husband ran off with a little old neighbor lady who had inherited an oil well somewhere in Oklahoma. I don’t know how she did it, but Aunt Clara cleaned out his bank account before she filed for divorce. We never mention him when Clara’s around.
"What brings you out in this rain? We don’t get much rain here in the desert, you know," Clara says from her perch on the sofa.
"I just wanted to see how my favorite aunt is doing. You say you don’t get many visitors?"
She ignores my question. "How about some tea?"
"Sure. Let me help you." I stand and follow her to the kitchen, still decorated in 1960s style of avocado stove and refrigerator and stainless steel double sinks. I start opening cupboard doors looking for tea bags while she fills a red kettle with tap water and puts it on her electric stove top.
I quietly lift the lid of the cookie jar and peek inside. No keys.
"Who’s been to see you lately?" I ask.
"Bill was here a few weeks ago."
I wrinkle my brow. Bill. A neighbor? A friend? The gardener?
When my cousin George telephoned me in Portland, he said, "The old gal is losing her marbles. Christine, confiscate those damn car keys." Confiscate is a cop word. George uses a lot of cop words because George is a cop.
He said, "Hell, I’ve tried. So have all the others. We’ve all been over there looking. But we don’t know where she hides them. The old girl’s gonna have an accident driving around in that tank. She sits on a phone book and a pillow, but she still can’t see over the steering wheel. Folks in town have made complaints—not to her, of course, to me! As if I can control her!"
That’s when he told me about the Bill Syndrome. Again I wonder why. Bill Addison has been dead for 70 years.
"When was Bill here?" I ask, taking a seat at the brown and white Formica-topped table. I catch a glimpse of a romance novel in the corner at my elbow. A ten-dollar bill marks her place. Lydia Takes a Lover. The picture on the cover shows the hero burly and bare-chested. Lydia is blond, buxom, and barely covered. I lift the book discreetly. No keys.
"When was Bill here?" I repeat my question.
She ignores me again as she opens a cupboard, pulls out a bottle of Bacardi rum, and sets it on the table.
I point to the bottle and ask, "For your tea?"
"Hell, yes. Been drinking it that way for years, honey. Tea by itself is just so bland."
I try it. Not bad. I wonder how many townsfolk know about my aunt’s indulgence. The citizens of conservative little Hermiston might be shocked.
My family has lived in this desert town in eastern Oregon for several generations. The current population of 15,000 is three times larger than when I was growing up here. When I fled to Portland, the ink was still drying on my high school diploma.
Last night, as I was driving the two hundred miles back to my hometown, I used the time to work out a ploy for getting those keys.
It’s time to get started.
"Aunt Clara, are you doing much driving these days?" I step stealthily into the ring.
She looks at me sideways through mascara-thick lashes. "You aren’t trying to get my car keys, are you? Bill tried that last week."
"George," I say automatically.
She ignores my correction.
So much for stealth. I back up. "No, no. I was just wondering how safe your car is. How long has it been since you checked the brakes or had a tune-up? That’s an old car. Anything could go wrong." I’m raising my voice, and I check myself.
"Come on out to the garage and have a look for yourself. She’s in great condition."
She rises and I follow suit. We leave our tea on the table for a little stroll down old auto lane.
As she opens the door to the garage, I catch the familiar sight of her car which fills the room. Lovingly referred to as Bertha, she was manufactured sometime in the late 1950s. It’s a two-tone Plymouth—white on top and tomato soup red on the bottom—with enormous shark fins behind.
"Sure is a beauty," I lie. "But how does she run?"
She chooses not to hear me. "You know, honey, someday this car is going to belong to you. I put it in my will. It’s an antique, you know." She beams at me.
I rethink Bertha’s beauty.
"How old are the brakes?" I take another swing at the issue.
"Did I ever tell you about the time I tried to teach your grandfather to drive?"
I have heard the story many times, but in most versions, it is my father, Ralph, who was doing the teaching. I just smile encouragement.
"Well, Dad had never driven a car. He always had a team of horses and a wagon. We—all of us kids," she makes a circular motion with her hands to indicate a group, "thought it was about time he learned to drive. So I took him out in my brother’s car." I think this part is true. That Model A Ford belonged to my father.
"Dad was probably fifty, maybe sixty, at that time. Well, we drove around the block, and he was a nervous wreck. When we got back to the house, he pulled up on the steering wheel and yelled ‘Whoa! Whoa!’ The car didn’t stop. The steering wheel came off in his hands. I shouted at him, ‘The brake, Dad. The brake!’ I tried to reach the brake with my foot, but I couldn’t. The car kept going right through the wall of the garage and out the other side. He never tried to drive again."
She laughs. I laugh too. I always do.
"You know, honey, that’s the funniest thing I ever saw in my whole life, and I’m eighty-seven years old!"
I place a hand on her shoulder and look her straight in the eye.
"Aunt Clara, what about the brakes? When was the last time you had this car in the garage for service, a check-up?"
She chooses to answer this time. "I just had new brakes put on about two weeks ago."
"Who did it?" I press my advantage.
"Some guy down at the garage. I think his name is Bill."
I feel my shoulders slump and give up for the time being, realizing I will have to try another course of action. I take her arm and gently lead her back into the kitchen. We need another cup of tea.
I try again. "If that car is going to be mine, I think I should try it out. Can I drive it for a while, just to get used to it and see how it runs?"
"Not yet." She looks at me, and I can tell that she’s on to my game.
I take another tack. "How about later I drive the two of us to the Dairy Queen. You still like soft vanilla cones, don’t you?"
Her eyes brighten, and she touches my hand. "Of course! Is a bear Catholic if he does it in the Vatican?"
I chuckle. I can remember when she started using this modified and slightly sanitized expression. My mother had scolded her about being a bad influence on the children, so she amended the sayings to her own personalized version. Aunt Clara’s language could never be considered refined.
I flash on an image of her dressed in the flapper garb of the 1920s. That photo always amuses me. This thought reminds me of her collection of family albums. I look through them every time I’m here. I leave the table and pat Clara’s arm to indicate that I’ll be right back.
In the living room, I lift the lid of the ceramic candy dish and look inside. No keys.
From the tall bookshelf in the corner, I select two of the albums and carry them back to the kitchen. I set them down, open the first one and take a new approach with my aunt.
I point to a family photo taken many years before. "I love this picture. This was at one of those great Walker family reunions, wasn’t it? Do you remember when?"
She squints at the picture. "I must have been between husbands. I don’t see any of them here."
She is probably right. She often nails down past events by remembering who her husband was at the time. "I was with Fred then." Or Charles or Bradley or Bill.
Aunt Clara shakes her head slowly and rolls her eyes. "Look at all those kids! I said to my mother one time, ‘Haven’t you figured out what causes that yet?’ Was she ever mad at me!"
I’ve never heard this before. "Did you really say that to your mother?" I ask, putting a shocked expression on my face.
"Damn right I did!" She grins.
I raise my eyebrows but return to the album. She has arranged the photos in some random, haphazard order that only she can understand. In the next picture, the six sisters are standing together by age, with Clara on the left, followed by Myrtle May, Mabel Ann, Maude Evelyn, Mildred Fay, and the baby of the family, Margaret Joy. Seeing the evidence lined up like this, I understand clearly how this woman might want to transform from Mathilde to Clara.
On the next page is a picture of my father, Ralph, and his twin brothers, all of them handsome and dressed in baggy suits and large hats—the finery of their day.
I turn the page and find my favorite black-and-white photo of Aunt Clara. She is dressed in a sleeveless sheath, fringe around the hem, stockings rolled to just below her knees. Her hair is bobbed, and there is a band across her forehead. A tall feather sticks straight up from one side of the head band, and a string of pearls reaches almost to her knees. She is waving her arms, and her feet are flying.
"Is that the Charleston you were dancing there?" I ask.
She takes a closer look. "God, that was fun. And I was pretty good at it too."
"I imagine you were."
"The neighbor boy and me won the dance contest every Saturday night. I think I still have one of those trophies in my closet somewhere. I’ll be right back."
I watch her leave. She moves more slowly than I remember.
I scan the kitchen, trying to think where she could have hidden her car keys.
When she returns, she is carrying a tarnished silver cup engraved with the words "First Prize." I haven’t seen this before. I admire it, wishing I could have known her when she looked like Clara Bow, when she danced the Charleston, when she bobbed her hair and rolled her stockings.
I set the silver cup aside, and we continue through the album, stopping at a picture of Clara beside her brand-new Plymouth—the reason George is now upset, the reason he begged me to come this weekend.
I study her standing by the behemoth and am suddenly surprised to be reminded how much this woman and I resemble each other. We have the same large eyes, full lips, oval face, and dark hair with a widow’s peak at the hairline. I trace my finger over the widow’s peak in the photo.
We continue turning pages in the photo album until my stomach starts to growl, and I suggest a ride to the local Denny’s for supper. My treat.
"Hey, Aunt Clara, I’d like to drive your car. I promise I’ll be very careful."
She eyes me suspiciously. Then she opens the freezer compartment, reaches in, and pulls out a little plastic bag. Inside are the keys to the Plymouth. I groan silently.
It’s just five blocks to the restaurant, so I’m not able to give it a thorough test drive on the open road, but the brakes work just fine.
Clara winks at our waiter, who looks young enough to be my grandson, and greets him. "Hi, Bill."
He must be acquainted with my aunt because his face lights up in greeting, and he helps her off with the mink jacket she insists on wearing everywhere. We order burgers, fries, and soft vanilla ice cream, deciding that a trip to the Dairy Queen is unnecessary.
As I am paying the $25 check, she slips the waiter a $20 tip. He too seems to know that it pays to be on Clara’s good side.
I drive us safely home again, and once I have parked the car in the garage, I slip the keys into my coat pocket, quickly and casually. I think I will also casually forget them. I wonder if this will work. I don’t look at Clara.
Once inside the house, I hang my coat in the closet, keys still in the pocket, and relax as best I can on a plastic-covered chair.
We watch the early evening news on her brand-new flat-screen television set, and I listen to her complain about the local government. "That mayor would sell his grandmother on the street if he thought it would get him re-elected. Cheat! Liar! Scoundrel!" She shakes her finger at his TV image.
At seven o’clock, I tell her that I must be leaving. It’s a long drive back home, and I have to work tomorrow.
"Are you sure you won’t spend the night? You know I have that spare room. It’s yours."
"I really have to go, but I’ll be back soon. I promise."
"I hate to see you leave," she says, looking quite sad.
I gather up my purse and struggle into my coat.
On the porch again, I lean down to hug my aunt. She kisses me and pinches my cheeks, as she has done ever since I can remember. Then without warning, she reaches into my coat pocket and pulls out her car keys.
For a minute, I don’t know what to say. She dangles the keys in front of my face and smiles. Before I can think of a joke, an excuse or an explanation, she takes my hand and holds it, palm up and open. She drops the keys into my hand and closes my fingers around them.
She looks me square in the eye. "I’m going to be ninety-four in June, and I’m not nearly as crazy as you all think I am." She smiles before adding, "Christine."
I feel my jaw drop. I stare.
She steps back inside the house and closes the door partway. I see her fiery hair wrapped in that purple scarf poking through the open space.
Before I can open my mouth to ask why, or how, she winks and says, "I get a lot more visitors these days. And I like it."
With a wicked grin, she shuts the door.