My Aunt Bernadette thought everything was cute, and I do mean everything. She was very vocal about it, and it was very strange. It amounted to a mild form of madness, I’m pretty sure, though it was never actually diagnosed. Cookie jars, the homeless. Bolts of lightning. Paint. It endeared people to her, those on the periphery not personally afflicted by Bernadette’s chronic and obsessive vision of Life as something to ferociously nuzzle. To us she was just an oddball, not entirely unpleasant, to whom our blood had chained us; a widow, a compulsive enthusiast, a gusher. A hell-hound hyphenate, excuse me. One couldn’t shut her up sometimes. It’s fair to say that she had a lot of love to give, and at times one could not shut her up.
On a camping trip once, she made as if to caress a cute bear that had ambled into camp in search of something to eat, a hind legged T.V. walkabout bear with cuddly ears, buttons for eyes and a cute false looking nose like wet black velvet. Bernadette approached the bear, I screamed momentously, and with one elegant swipe the bear moved her entire face, intact, to a different part of her head. In the film I can’t stop running she falls slowly backward, one hand raised, as in a swoon. And she’s laughing gently. She sounds amused. Everybody screamed, but I screamed first. I haven’t forgotten.
Now she’s on her way over for the Brunch. I am freaking petrified, per the norm. This is a ritual. Tribal, inescapable. Not exactly archetypal, as it involves an affronted brown bear and a spinster in high tops. But it is destiny being spun out in its nattiest, most household form. The lifeline and loveline stymied, finally, by a callus. My disfigured aunt with her nightmare face, her terse demands, her impeccable aura of doom is coming to order us around, compound our misgivings, crystallize our regret into guilt. It will work, as always, like a charm. Contrition so thick you could hang a coat on it. My mother’s sister has been ruined by a bear, and she hates us for it. Me in particular.
Dear God, why did I have to scream like that? An eight-year-old screaming bloody murder at the sight of his mother’s sun-dappled older sister in a fragrant clearing of pines. That’s it. An eight-year-old boy, already aware enough to know the lethal distinction between a wild bear and its zippered Saturday morning counterpart, the difference between a cartoon and a contusion. And there is the eight-year-old’s funny, dandified aunt in her lumberjack shirt, new dark blue jeans, brilliant white sneakers; a city slicker in neon. And there is the bear, lumbering, dusty, blank of expression but certainly not smiling. A hungry bear, a sad looking older woman with hair in a ragged bun. Snow white tennis shoes.
Surgeries. One of the more awkward plurals in our language. That single unadorned word connotes such misery; endless antiseptic hours and days of soaking red gauze, sterile rags and steel, hinges, tubules, pinging robots. In the surgical aftermath of this gruesome bear hug gone wrong, Bernadette began, apropos of nothing but her own hunger for a design in all this, herself to point the finger of blame at her sister, my mother, for reasons neither we nor a cadre of increasingly pricey professionals could ever quite ascertain. And so once the half-baked therapeutic decision was taken, mom quickly and agreeably gathered around her trembling shoulders the thorny shawl of a tactical penitence that would rewrite our history, take the edge off the frank horror of it by putting us in approximate possession of the storyline. Mom thus draped herself in the fact of her own involvement in Bernadette’s physical and, it must be noted, spiritual ruin; for what faith in the loveliness of the tactile world can survive a mauling? Our bewildered, grieving mother adopted and lived this role with the zeal of a hopeful Hollywood starlet until after some time she began to shrink into it. When after two scarifying years of this her battered id showed signs of architectural collapse, it was suggested that a transference (if not an outright transplant) was needed in order to save mom. The blame-laying would be removed from my mother like the infected lobe of an offending toxic organ and bequeathed to one whose spiritual elasticity would more successfully tolerate the howling and unquenchable umbrage of our Bernadette.
She’s deranged. Yes. And who but a dimwit would try to hug a wild bear? But more to the point, one does not suffer lightly the scraping of one’s countenance nearly halfway round the head. Bernadette’s ongoing confusion of cause with effect has become the deal breaker of late, and for twenty years my boyish resilience has been put to the test. Now Bernadette hears a scream, the girlish piercing scream of an eight-year-old boy, she lands on her ass and life will never be the same.
The last Sunday of every month she strides in with the picnic basket, the hair in the bun, the sneakers, the jeans, the face like a big budget special effect –
Here she comes now. Hear that? Wait. Hear it? I can just hear the whistling; a velvet-capped dwarf homeward bound after a day in the mines. Listen to that! Hearing that gay and lilting melody you form a picture. Well, don’t bother.
“Paul, here comes Bernadette.”
“You don’t say.”
“Don’t start in, Paulie,”
Penance. Stage penance, the sourest kind. I hear the whistle and don the gaudy garb of the penitent. Always the whistling first, though. It’s like the old radio show. The Whistler? Who Knows What Evil etc. Bernadette is changing me, and not for the better.
Oh, we all have our parts to play. Mom is the heartbroken little tagalong who will never escape the fact of her older sister’s mauling and her tacit responsibility for it. Had mom not invoked the velveteen huggability of the natural world in her pitch to pry her eccentric and creepingly agoraphobic sibling out of the lavishly appointed hothouse of her studio apartment in town, we wouldn’t be trapped in this meat grinder today. Yep. Dad is the catskillian wiseacre from hell, spewing his litany of ostensible tension-busters; Faust meets Henny Youngman. Stephanie, my kid sister, a finger-popping brick-wall poet and dime store nihilist becomes uncharacteristically quiescent in the presence of the shocking Bernadette; Stephanie of the jauntily cocked black beanie, rebellious black bangs and angry coffee-house ennui, her hunched little wall-eyed Frenchman whispering his bleak encouragements in her ear. Even Sartre’s trash-talking carp mouth would fall open at the sight of Bernadette. Stephanie senses this.
We can’t upset Poor Bernadette, no no no no no. Upset Bernadette? Huh uh. The poor woman has suffered enough. She’s not so far gone she doesn’t suffer, not so far gone she can’t dispense suffering. She is not in a vegetative state. No, Bernadette distributes angst freely, incautiously. She sprays angst. She is a Rainbird Sprinkler of angst.
“Paulie, answer the door.”
“I’m sorry, sweetheart, but it’s time. I mean it.”
“Oh, you mean it, you mean it. I know you mean it. For God’s sake, ma, what can you threaten me with?” She looks away, shamefaced. The script is getting dog-eared.
Twenty years. Every last Sunday, a lifetime of Sundays, my entire adult life a corruption of the Sabbath. A bandage, they called it at first. Let her lay blame, it’ll help assuage her sense of despair. Make it clear to the boy – what’s his name?
– Make it clear to Paul it’s a game, that’s all. There is no real blame. By pretending, he can help his aunt. He can help her. This will all be over before it can hurt little Paul. You like games, don’t you, Paulie?
Well, play this one for a while. It’ll help your Aunt Bernadette. It’ll help your Aunt Bernadette. It’ll help –
HOW LONG? HOW LONG? TWENTY YEARS? I’M INNOCENT! INNOCENT! I’D GIVE ANYTHING JUST TO HAVE DONE SOMETHING TO DESERVE THIS! BETTER GUILT THAN THIS. BETTER ANYTHING THAN THIS!
“The door, Paulie,” Stephanie says, turning somber. The three of them are all somber now, hands folded in front, heads bent. The curtain’s about to rise.
What a pleasant surprise. A sixty year old woman in button fly jeans and SWEET JESUS, HER FACE IS ON THE SIDE OF HER HEAD spanking clean sneakers, perfectly laced THE FACE, THE FACE, THE FACE and unnaturally spotless. Hmm, hmm, she’s got her hair in a bun, now that’s a switch. What a lovely hairpin. God help me, I’m seeing right angles.
“Paulie prepared brunch today, Bernadette,” mom warbles to her monstrous sister. I’m grinning like a statue of an idiot. We all are now. We can’t help but be stunned by the scene as it starts to play out; the B-horror epiphany which features, again and again, the putrid Family Shame, the hairy rag-swaddled secret torn loose from its shackles to descend the attic stairs and shock the screaming daylights out of the dinner guests. The kind of revelation that can spoil dessert absolutely, and for all time.
“Bernadette, Paulie’s prepared something special.”
“I made enchiladas,” I inform genially. Aunt Bernadette turns away to regard me with The Face. What a treat. She’s not happy. My scalp twiddles and I nearly blanch.
“Enchiladas for brunch,” the cockeyed mouth repeats, the vibrantly lipsticked yap slipping outlandishly around crowned molars.
“We’re going south of the border,” I nod. I show her my lowered palms in a kind of supplication. The Face curls up. She’s smiling.
“Give us a kiss,” she says.
Lunch is all over the table. It’s a Mexican jamboree. Lots of orange and earth tones, plenty of gray paste. Arms ratchet in quiet confusion over the runny foodstuffs. According to tradition I prepare Bernadette’s plate. I always prepare her plate, whether she brings the food or we cook at home. This is but a tawdry fragment of the atonement I play out once a month. There is much forgiving to be done. I serve the enchilada and bow in retreat.
“There you are,” I sing. An enchilada, rice, pasty beans. By now I can almost imagine myself guilty of something. That’s the nature of the song and dance. Aunt Bernadette aims her head at the hallway and faces the plate before her. Stephanie gasps. Will we ever get used to this?
“Water,” Bernadette says.
In the kitchen, knives and grand looking pronged things glitter invitingly, all parallel and held conveniently fast by magnet. I fill a glass with tap water and return to the others.
“Lukewarm,” Bernadette says.
“Get your aunt a cold glass of water and make it snappy,” mom says with nary a wink of secret conciliation. I take up the glass and head back to the kitchen. Behind me, I can hear Bernadette berating.
“You people twist my face and break my goddamned heart, and still you refuse to teach that bear-loving nitwit son of yours the simplest tenets of courtesy. Tap water, for God’s sake!”
She then calls out to me.
“Say, kiddo,” she barks in an endearing Bette Davis staccato, “this food looks like an injury; your Mexican feast looks like something burst from a wound.” I scarcely break stride. I pour out the offending water and fill the glass to the brim with dad’s vodka.
“You’d better hurry, son,” dad calls from the next room.
“My friggin’ mouth is on fire!” Bernadette concurs with a ranchera sauce-muffled shriek. I count ten and hurriedly reenter the dining room. Everyone is alarmed at my tardiness. Bernadette grabs the glass before I can hand it to her, guzzling the vodka; an eight ounce glass of vodka and she gulps it down like spring water on a hot day, she throws the vodka back with urgency, throat pulsating, eyes closed, the very picture of refreshment. Only when the glass is completely drained do alarms appear to go off.
She sets the glass down, carefully, and presses her palms flat against the table top. Her head cocks back, her lips and jaw working, eyeballs dancing an Eddie Cantor jig, her immediate response positively vaudevillian; Jerry Lewis tasting caviar. Then suddenly the Face becomes ingenious, gear-driven, prosthetic. It metamorphically wads itself into contortions I would not have thought possible, as if the sutures of her skull are pulling apart to set the cranial components adrift. The eyebrows begin a palsic rollick of their own. Her neck flushes the color of sprayed blood.
“Assholes,” Bernadette rasps in a strangled whisper reminiscent of small-budget exorcism. Family is stunned, and gaping. Bernadette, her hands still flat on the table at either side of her plate, throws her head back in a twitching arc, a roaring stegosaurus in a late night claymation epic, gagging, gurgling. “Assholes. You’re all… assholes.” She makes fists and bangs the table, Soviet Premier style, sputtering, choking, eyes running like taps. The scene, as it is playing out, is hideous to behold. I notice dad’s nose working the air. He smells the vodka.
“Good Christ, Paul!”
But I see the mirth. He’s hopeful. And as my own respondent hope begins to unfold in kind, Bernadette brings her hands to her ‘cheeks‘ and launches a brilliant jet of vomit which leaps like a solid tentacle across the table to smite dad’s off-white Nicklaus V-neck square in the sternum. The figure and ground contrast is electrifying. Dad’s jaw clenches. There is the sudden and spectacular odor of vodka enchilada.
“Assholes!” Bernadette gasps, wiping her mouth, reaching out instinctively, bunching my shirt-front in her shaking fist. “Your little JOKE. No RESPECT,” she hisses at the lot of us. “And you,” she breathes all over my face, the unholy stink a damburst of sensate misery, “You are no doubt the perpetrator, you little shit.” She grasps my ears with both hands and pulls. “WHEN-WILL-YOU-STOP-HURTING-ME? WHEN? WHEN?” She jerks my head around, I think she may tear my ears off. Nobody moves, nobody speaks. My own arms are slack.
Oh, look what’s coming over the levee.
The E string snaps with a cochlea-rending shriek. The screaming bridge cracks explosively down the middle and spills traffic into the turgid river below. The camel brays in a final blood-seizing malediction as the last blade of hay settles into place and heartily rips his spine. My inhibitors give like so many tissue paper bulwarks before an onrush of superheated steam.
“Hands off,” I hazard in a HAL 9000 monotone. “Off, off, off.”
“Guy walks into a shrink’s office, says, ‘Doc, nobody talks to me.’ Shrink says, ‘NEXT!'”
“Guy walks into a nunnery in an ape suit -”
Bernadette rises from her chair, yanking my ears. I’ve got her by the wrists, trying to pry her loose, and in this manner we waltz about the room like epileptic prizefighters in a technically baffling clinch.
“This guy!” dad barks, wild eyed, thinning hair flung akimbo, newly vivid sweater dripping, arms launching like peacekeepers as he rises from his seat in haste. “THIS GUY, THIS GUY!”
“No, THIS guy,” I rant, hurling Bernadette away, changing the emphasis, all righteous theater now. “THIS guy, goddammit.”
Mom is fixated on the plate under her chin, she’s inspecting the food there in a clinical fashion. Stephanie cowers behind her bangs. Dad has cut himself off mid-punchline, which in itself is somewhat momentous. My glasses are on the floor. I believe I’ve stepped on them. My hair is splayed all over my face, and I push it back in a gesture of restraint. I feel like Bob DeNiro. Bernadette is breathing hard.
In the den I retrieve the bearskin rug we group-ditched all those years ago, a very expensive item given as a gift to my parents the day they married. It’s bunched up in the closet behind two sets of golf clubs, a mouldering box of lawn darts, various photo albums stacked as high as a four year old child, mom’s wedding dress. The rug is crammed into the corner, I can just see it in the dimness, feel it with my groping hand, all that luxuriant fur, wadded up like some cheap souvenir. We are all held prisoner to a wholly fabricated shame while our mementos of love rot in the dark.
UNH! Heavy. Jesus, what a smell!! God knows how many mites and their ilk are crawling happily onto my scalp right now. Let’s have a look in the mirror. Oh. Wow.
“Grrrrr! Grrrrr! Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!”
Lurching, head bobbing. I have to lean forward to keep the flea-bitten thing from sliding off my back. I can just barely see through the teeth, a certifiably bizarre domestic scene framed by long dead canines; a Picasso-face in vibrant denim, a shivering former nihilist in Grace Slick bangs, a vomit covered golf enthusiast, a sacrificial lamb. The Picasso is massaging her throat. In the midst of all this some two dozen glittering enchiladas. The scene comes slowly alive. Those seated rise, but very slowly. Bernadette has yet to take notice.
I scoot into the room a little more without growling, feeling marginally silly already, the original adrenal impulse now a memory, a faint buzz. When dad hisses, “Mother of God!”, I see that I’m quite alone in this. There’s none of the mild celebratory chuckling I’d counted on as my reward, none of the keen camaraderie of close knit family members guffawing in the face of rude tragedy. It seems, of a sudden, I stand alone. In a rancid bearskin rug.
Bernadette sees me, rushes to and flattens herself against the wall. Her jaw cranks open in a silent scream, and the silence hushes the room. I can see her now like a framed portrait, shoulder raised, screaming mouth. Her position in the corner prevents her from averting her eyes. She turns her head away and all she can see is me.
My mother takes her seat and passes a hand over her face, shoulders shaking. Laughter? She rises, walks over. Her eyes are bloody red, her face is wet all over. If one didn’t know these things, it would be hard to say where all that water came from, her face is so wet. My bear head nods, I don’t know what to do with my paws, but I’ve got to do something, I’ve got to do something. Her shoulders slump, her left eyebrow arches and I gasp. My grin blossoms like a spasm within the gutless, donned head of this former animal. Mom is very small, diminished but aflame, sighing, and in a gust of admiration I love her with all my sinking heart. She launches her veiny little fist through the taxidermist’s generous gape.
God bless us, every one.