“This is the apartment you’re so proud of? Sardine cans are bigger than this dump!” Vivian grimaced and made her way through the tiny living room to the dinette set. “Too bad you didn’t listen when I told you selling your dad’s house wasn’t a hot idea.”
“Aunt Vivian, the place isn’t that bad,” Helen said. “Granted, it’s small, but roomy for one person.” She pulled out a chair for her guest. “Coffee?”
The elderly lady nodded and frowned. “I saw that beat up Toyota of yours in the carport. Where’s your patriotism? You’re born and raised in America – you should buy American!”
Helen's jaw tightened. She pulled the coffee container from the cabinet.
“What did you do with your dad’s Lincoln?” Vivian tossed her cigarette case onto the table.
“I sold it, along with most of the furniture and. . .what’s wrong?”
“Folgers! Are you trying to poison me?” Nostrils flared, Vivian said, “What happened to the Starbucks? You know that’s all Fred ever drank, and me, too.”
Helen stiffened. She took two steps to the refrigerator, removed a Pepsi, and poured it into a glass which she placed in front of her aunt. “Just the way you like it, Aunt Vivian – no ice cubes.” Helen struggled to keep her voice even. “You finished the the Starbucks when you visited after the funeral, remember?”
Vivian muttered under her breath before taking a sip of the fizzy beverage.
“Forgive me for saying this,” Helen’s fingers twisted the bracelet her mother left her years ago, “but the expensive coffee, car, and home are what got Dad into hock up to his eyeballs. Selling his things barely made a dent in the past due bills he kept in his desk.” She sighed and opened the Folgers to make herself a pot. “It’s going to take forever and a day to get them all paid.”
“What?” Vivian stared. “Are you nuts? You’re not obligated for his debt!”
“Well,” Helen’s brow knit, “if not legally, then I at least morally. After all, I warned Dad we were living beyond our means.”
Voice filled with contempt, Vivian’s eyes narrowed as she said “You got that self-righteousness from your mother’s side of the family! If she hadn’t gotten pregnant, Fred never would have married her."
Heat rose up Helen’s neck. She blinked back tears at the negative remarks about the woman who had given her life; the mother she remembered was kind and loving, even in the face of Fred and Vivian’s constant barrage of nasty remarks. But Helen didn’t say that. Instead she stammered, “I, I’m not trying to be self-righteous. I just want to do the right thing!”
Vivian shook her head and snorted. “This is just stupid. Your Dad’s debts were just that – his debts!”
Helen’s face burned as she turned to fill the coffee pot. “It comes as no surprise that you think I’m stupid, seeing as how you shared my father’s opinions.”
“Really? If Fred thought you were so stupid, why’d he spring for those expensive accounting classes?” Vivian pursed her lips and tapped her fingernail on the table. “Responsible and dependable, that’s what he always said about you.” She ignored her niece’s surprised expression, lifted her eyebrow, and said, “Which way to the bathroom, or did I blink and miss it?”
Brow knit, Helen pointed toward the hallway. She wracked her brain but couldn’t remember a single kind remark to, or about, anyone uttered from either her father or his sister – ever!
Thoughts still on the older woman’s words, Helen pulled a coffee mug from the top shelf just as a pain-filled cry breeched the silence. The cup hit the linoleum, shattered, and threw shards every which way. She raced to the bathroom and froze when she saw her aunt sprawled on the floor.
Writhing in agony, hand clutched to her chest, Vivian gasped, “Don’t just stand there, idiot! Call 911!”
Thirty minutes later, Helen, consumed with guilt, followed behind the ambulance. She mentally kicked herself, aware precious seconds were lost, seconds that could make a difference in her aunt living or not. I really am an idiot!
Preoccupied the next day, thoughts on finances, Helen carried a small bouquet into the hospital room. The heart monitor’s monotonous beep-beep-beep brought Helen back to reality. Her eyes misted. What’s wrong with me? Aunt Vivian’s medical expenses should be the furthest thing from my mind, and here I am wor...
“Are you just going to stand there gawking?”
“Oh!” Helen's hand flew to her chest. “I thought you were asleep.” She set the flowers down and kissed her aunt’s forehead. “How do you feel?”
“How do you think I feel? This place is a zoo! I finally get to sleep and some boob starts banging food trays. And then...”
With the exception of the tubes protruding from Vivian’s aged body, Helen thought her aunt seemed perfectly normal.
* * *
Budget spread before her on the bed that evening, Helen’s shoulders sagged. What if Aunt Vivian doesn’t have medical insurance? How will I be able to pay her medical bills, cover my own expenses, and still pay off Dad’s debts?
The aroma of fresh Folgers wafted through the apartment, providing a temporary reprieve from her worries. On the way to the kitchen, a glance in the hall mirror brought her to an abrupt halt. Her reflection displayed the same pinched mouth and knit brow that was a permanent fixture on her aunt’s face as long as Helen remembered. Under the assumption it was the price Vivian paid for incessant complaining, Helen was dismayed to learn the expression came with the Dorcet DNA.
“No!” Helen growled as she rubbed her hands over her face. “I’ll not spend another moment looking like that frustrated, angry old biddy!”
* * *
The evening before Vivian’s scheduled release, Helen said, “How are you feeling tonight?”
“Hunky dory!” Vivian pushed the button to adjust the bed. “They should have released me days ago.”
“I’m sure the doctors want to be certain you’re okay, Aunt Vivian.”
“You think so, do you? I think they get a kick out of making people miserable. They say I eat red meat, or have caffeine, or egg yolks. Even worse, they want me to quit smoking! How am I supposed to do all that? They might as well ask me to walk a tightrope over Niagara Fal. . .am I boring you?”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to yawn in your face!”
Brow knit, Vivian’s mouth tightened. “That wild hare you have about paying off your dad’s debts keeps you awake at night, I see!”
Helen’s face flushed, but, as usual, she clenched her teeth and held her tongue.
The next morning, as Helen dressed for work, the telephone rang. The doctor’s words floored her.
* * *
Seated in the Law Offices of McGruter and Devlin the day before Vivian’s funeral, Helen appeared dazed. “Mr. McGruter, forgive me if I seem a little, um...”
“Distraught?” he said, voice soft and kind.
“It’s all so confusing.” She twisted her mother’s bracelet. “How could my aunt tell me she felt good enough to have been sent home days earlier and then suffer a massive heart attack a few hours later? And now you say she not only had medical insurance, but she wants you to pay off my father’s debts as well?” Helen heaved a heavy sigh. “Where’d she get that kind of money?”
The attorney smiled. “Your aunt buried three husbands – her words, not mine. Each had insurance policies that left enough after funeral expenses to build Vivian quite a nest egg.” Mr. McGruter rose from behind his desk. “All you need to do is gather the information on this list and fax it to my assistant. She’ll send checks to your father’s creditors.”
Helen’s cheeks flamed; she stood, paced, and gritted her teeth. She took a deep breath to compose herself. “Thank you, Mr. McGruter, but I’m afraid I can’t accept,” was all she said as she returned to the desk and gathered her things to leave.
“I’m obliged to tell you that if you don’t, your aunt’s entire estate will go to her favorite charity.” The attorney smiled. His tone lightened as he said, “Miss Dorcet, your aunt’s final wish is more than generous. Are you not pleased?”
Helen turned at the door, eyes blazing. Her voice shook. “I’m sorry, but no; and if Aunt Vivian thought I would be, she was sorely mistaken!”
Mr. McGruter watched Helen turn the doorknob. “Vivian asked me to give you this if you took offense at the offer.” The attorney walked over and placed a sealed envelope in Helen’s outstretched hand. “She said you should open it when your blood pressure returns to normal – again, her words, not mine.”
Curled on the sofa that evening after fortifying herself with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, Helen open the envelope. A check fell out and landed on the floor; she let it lie.
Curious to see what her aunt wrote, Helen sucked in her breath as she read the first words. She dropped her hands to her lap as a familiar heat rushed over her face. She gritted her teeth, but this time the rage boiled over. She jumped up, flung the letter into the air, and screeched, “This is incredible – even from beyond she’s managed to criticize!”
Fists in tight balls, Helen stomped to her bedroom and slammed the door. Behind her the scrawled letter floated down like an errant feather from a pillow fight.
* * *
Helen wrestled with her emotions close to an hour; now she stood over the offending page and glared down. Caught between a curious need to know and the desire to cut the thing to shreds, she bent and picked it up. She read her aunt’s final words – words short and, as usual, none too sweet.
No wonder you’re an old maid. If you had any sense at all, you’d call McGruter and give him the information he needs to have Fred’s bills paid. Then you’d cash this check and buy a decent place to live and an American-made car.
You’re too old to be this ignorant, and if you’re reading this, I’m obviously not around to take care of you anymore.
Helen’s incredulous voice reverberated around the room, “Take care of me?” The absurdity of her aunt’s words made her laugh until she cried. Afterward she stuffed the letter and the six-figure check back into the envelope, years of derogatory remarks echoing in her head. Determined to prove, if only to herself, she was not the sum of her family’s low opinion, she placed the envelope in the desk and locked the drawer. She needed time to think.
Three days later, a determined set to her jaw, Helen placed a call to McGruter and Devlin. Then she unlocked the desk drawer, took her aunt’s envelope to the kitchen, and placed it in the empty sink. She removed a book of matches from the side drawer. The odor of sulfur lingered in her nostrils as the flame engulfed the envelope containing her aunt’s letter and check.
Into the empty air, she said, “Dad was right about one thing, Aunt Vivian: I am responsible and dependable. But somehow I managed to inherit Mother’s integrity and honor, too – things I believe you called ‘self-righteousness’. I could take the easy way out, as I’m sure most people would, and let you pay off Dad’s debt. And yes, I could obey your wishes and spend the rest of the money as you dictate, but it’ll do more good at the charity.” She twisted her bracelet and smiled, a sense of peace and freedom enveloping her. “But I like my sardine can!”
April Winters hopes to help people forget their troubles through her stories, even if it’s only for a little while. Her other works can be read at The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Linguistic Erosion, The Short Humour Site, The Story Shack, and here at Short-Story.Me.
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