Friday, December 26, 2008

Short story: "The Day Aunt Bonnie Didn't Kidnap Me"

My mom and I were spending August with my Aunt Bonnie in Templeton, California, something we’d done for as long as I can remember. Bonnie was braiding my hair as I perched on the kitchen counter in her one-room-above-garage apartment. She was in a chatty mood.

“What’s the best revenge, Suzanne?” she asked.

“Apathy?” I guessed.

“No. Good, but no. It’s the combination of a low BMI and a high degree of spiritual evolution. Without the whiff of religious dogma, of course,” she said.

“You know I’m ten, right?”

Before Bonnie had a chance to ignore my comment and expand on her fascinating thesis, my mom sighed heavily, rose from the couch, and announced that we were heading back to San Diego immediately. I was horrified. We never leave before Labor Day.

“We have another eight days here!” I said, in a voice that was louder and more desperate than I expected. I modulated, to sound more mature, more reasonable. (Bonnie values reason. There are four traits she values, and reason is number one.)

We made raspberry jam for the farmers’ market tomorrow,” I continued. “That’s why we're braiding my hair. For the picture on the label…” I had tears in my eyes. The sentences had exhausted me. Ten years of living with my mom had exhausted me.

“Why so soon, Claire?” asked Bonnie, moving an inch closer to me and moving her hand to my shoulder.

“I can’t stand it here!” my mom shouted. It was painfully shrill in the small room. She began shoving clothes into a duffel bag, including a couple of Bonnie’s T-shirts. “I’m dying here!” she added melodramatically.

“Does this have anything to do with that guy at the beach last night?” Bonnie asked, leaving my side to retrieve the T-shirts. “The guy with the Dalmatian?”

“No!” shrieked my mom. “This has nothing to do with that ____!” And then she used a word that I won’t repeat, because Bonnie doesn’t like cussing. She says it’s proof of a weak character and an even weaker vocabulary. And those rare times when I say something sarcastic, she calls me a “wiseacre.” Apparently, that used to be a word; it’s even in the dictionary.

“Get your stuff!” my mom yelled in my direction. “Now!” I was still on the counter, my bare legs dangling. I felt dizzy. That night on the beach, after my mom left with the guy and his cute dog, Bonnie and I discussed the summer's theme, which was Assertiveness (another trait valued by Bonnie, and an improvement over the previous summer’s theme, which was 19th-Century British Novels: Do We Love Them or Hate Them?). We even did some role-playing exercises sitting side-by-side on the damp sand, testing my newfound assertiveness skills, probably in an attempt to distract me from my mom’s sudden absence.

Remembering what I’d learned, I hopped off the counter. I stood up straight, feet apart, hands on hips, trying not to cry.

“You go, Mom,” I said, trying to sound casual, even helpful. “I’ll stay with Aunt Bonnie.”

She thought about it (or so I like to think), grabbed the duffel and her purse, and left. Bonnie and I listened to her feet on the stairs, the car door slamming, the tires squealing as she pulled onto the road.

After determining that I didn’t need to talk, cry, or eat ice cream directly from the carton, Bonnie suggested that we get back to work. She took a picture of me, scanned it, and printed labels with the clunky brand-name “Country Girl I Think You’re Pretty” above the picture, and the words “Raspberry Jam” below the picture. We made twenty-four pints, “affixed” the labels (that day’s vocabulary word), and put them in a box for the farmers’ market the next morning.

“Don’t we need to list the ingredients or something?” I asked.

“This isn’t Walmart, sweetheart,” she said. “The rules are different.”

That different?”

She nodded absentmindedly.

I went to bed early, but Bonnie stayed up making salsa and bone-shaped dog treats and listening to Neil Young on vinyl. I fell asleep in her bed, feeling safe and snug.

***

Months later, when I turned eleven, Bonnie—who home schools me—announced that I was now in junior high and would be required to shower daily in front of thirty strangers. I was puzzled and distressed, but apparently it was a joke. We went to a Mexican restaurant for lunch, and Bonnie presented me with five crisp twenty-dollar bills.

I was in awe, because another trait that Bonnie values is frugality. I half expected her to give me a coupon book for my birthday, with coupons for hugs and brownies and extra school holidays. I wouldn’t have guessed that she had a hundred dollars.

Instead of having a regular job, Bonnie cares for a Labrador retriever (Thomas) while his people (the Woodards, both accountants) are at work (and even when they’re not). In exchange, they let us live above their detached two-car garage. The apartment is a twenty-by-fifteen-foot room, with a wooden staircase running along the outside to the ground. The yard is full of trees, and we get all the avocados, limes, and figs we want (free!). At the bottom of the staircase, there’s room for Bonnie’s blue Honda Civic.

Bonnie claims to require a lot of sitting-around time, but I never see her sitting around. All week long, she makes things to sell at the year-round farmers’ market on Saturdays and Sundays. Well, we make things. And she reminds me frequently that it’s all part of my schooling. She also reminds me frequently that if anyone in uniform—or anyone who “puts off a teacher vibe”—asks, Bonnie is my mother, not my aunt. I asked if honesty is one of the four things she values, and she said that it almost made the cut.

Bonnie calls it home-ec class when we crochet scarves or make jumbo oatmeal cookies with walnuts and figs. She calls it woodworking class when we make buttons from the small branches of manzanita trees. She calls it botany when we transplant aloe vera cuttings into brightly painted terra-cotta pots. My friend Adam attends public school and informed me that: (1) botany is not an elective offered to sixth graders, (2) despite Bonnie’s dire warnings, school is not particularly “mind-numbing” or “treacherous,” and (3) the lunchroom pizza is excellent. Adam’s mom, Heidi, sells cloth diapers and tie-dyed onesies at the farmers’ market and is Bonnie’s only friend, as far as I can tell.

I love weekends. It takes an hour to two to get our stuff to the park and arrange it attractively on card tables, but then we relax and have fun. The people and the dogs are friendly, and most of the farmers hand out free samples (I take full advantage while avoiding gluttony, per Bonnie’s instruction). As things wind down in the late afternoon, we swap our unsold items for fresh fruits and vegetables, wheat bread, and the occasional bracelet made from an old spoon.

Bonnie doesn’t insist that I call her mom, but she prefers that I avoid calling her Bonnie or Aunt Bonnie when strangers are around. We resemble each other. We’re both tall, and take long strides. I have reddish-brown hair, and have lately noticed that Bonnie is coloring and styling her hair to look more like mine. I’m surprised she doesn’t insist that we wear matching outfits in public. She feels things deeply, and the thing she feels most deeply is love for me, and fear of losing me to my mom or to faceless “authorities.” My opinion is that she suffers needlessly.

There’s not a lot of variety in our schedule. We took a short vacation (“an extended field trip”) right after my eleventh birthday when Bonnie made $800 by selling a magazine article called “Passing for Rich: Good Teeth, Good Grammar, Good Manners.” We drove up the California coast and into Oregon. On our way home, in Half Moon Bay, we had lunch at a diner. Bonnie applied lip gloss before entering, and seemed particularly alert the entire time we ate. I’m quite sure she expected Neil Young (who, according to liner notes, owns a ranch in the area) to wander in for coffee, chat us up, and write a song about us. He did not.

The next morning, we went to the aquarium in Monterey, and drove through Steinbeck country. She had me read aloud from “The Moon Is Down” when we stopped for a picnic in Salinas. It was fun.

***

We spend a lot of time together, and Bonnie makes it clear that no question is off-limits. As a result, I know all about my mother and her shortcomings. One afternoon, when we were both bored with my algebra lesson, I asked Bonnie how old she was when I was born.

“I was twenty-one,” she said, “two years older than your mom. Even then, I worried that she lacked devotion.” (It probably goes without saying that Bonnie values devotion.) “When you turned two, she asked me to plan a birthday party, and she asked—as an afterthought—if I’d check with County Health to see if you needed any immunizations.” She shook her head. “You were so dear, Suzanne, so smart. And she was impatient, and easily distracted: by men, by shiny things, by novelty. I thought it would be in your best interest if I pretended that she was a good mom. But now…I don’t know. Maybe I should have kidnapped you. I spoke fluent Spanish; I should have colored my hair—and yours—and pretended to be an undocumented worker. It might have been fun.”

“It's probably not as fun as it looks.”

She shrugged, and looked wistful.

“Where did you learn Spanish?” I asked.

“Some guy,” she said, dismissing further discussion. “Let’s put Spanish on the list for next semester.”

***

Another time, I asked Bonnie about my dad. I knew he was killed in a motorcycle accident when I was a few weeks old. My mom always insisted that he was a great guy (“an amazing musician!”) and very devoted to me (for a few weeks, anyway). I’ve seen a half dozen photos of him, but none in which he’s holding me. I summoned the courage to ask Bonnie if he was, indeed, “a great guy.” Bonnie took a deep breath, looked as if she were in pain, and said, “Your mom has dated worse.” I asked her to tell me his best trait, and after some thought she said he seemed healthy. I asked her to tell me his worst trait, and she said, “A tendency to exceed the speed limit on rainy nights after a few beers with his buddies.”

***

Early one summer evening—after living with Bonnie for about a year—I was on Adam’s front porch, learning to play chess. Adam and I looked up when we heard honking, and Bonnie’s Honda came screaming around the corner. She pulled up onto the curb and shouted for me to get in the car.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, alarmed, reaching into the backseat to pet Thomas. “Is Thomas sick?”

“Tell your mom not to worry!” Bonnie hollered to Adam, as we peeled out.

“Why would Heidi worry?” I asked, fastening my seat belt. “Where are we going? Are we kidnapping Thomas? Did someone from the school district call?” Suddenly, I felt like I was going to throw up. I took a deep breath and asked the hard question: “Did an entire family die because we failed to list the ingredients on the jam?”

“No! No!” she said, maneuvering through neighborhoods on our way to a main thoroughfare. “Just a sec...”

A few minutes later, she explained that my grandma—my dad’s mom, whom I don’t recall ever meeting—recently died of lung cancer, and left her house (which was modest, but paid for) to me.

“Well…good,” I said. “Are we going there now?”

“No,” she said. “We’re not.”

I waited.

“Your mom came by, with a man, and the news about the house. When I suggested that the inheritance be used to pay for college, Claire said, ‘That’s one option.’ It went downhill from there.”

“Are they okay?” I asked. “Did you…hurt them?”

Bonnie gave me a strange look. She opened her mouth to speak, and closed it again.

“I know you have a gun taped behind your sewing machine cabinet,” I admitted.

“I didn’t hurt them,” she said. “Do you think I…should have?”

“No! No! I’m glad you didn’t!”

“I told them I’d be right back, with you,” she said. “They wanted me to leave Thomas behind, but I refused. He so enjoys a ride in the car…”

“My mom wants me back, so she can have the money. Right?”

“Yes.” Bonnie handed me a cookie from her purse. “But don’t worry.”

***

We drove for about twenty minutes (east, I think) before pulling into a truck stop. She parked, popped the hatchback, and retrieved the emergency kit (she refers to it as the emergency kit, but I always suspected it was full of craft items). She emptied the contents of the change caddy and the glove compartment into her large purse, and told me she’d be right back…to wait in the car, with Thomas and the emergency kit.

She walked among the big trucks, seeming to look for someone. She finally approached an older guy (good looking, wearing a plaid shirt) and talked to him earnestly. He looked over at me, shook his head, and swung up into the truck. Bonnie struck what she probably thought was a sexy pose, with one hip jutting out, and fluffed her hair with her fingers. I don’t know what she told him, but he seemed to think about it before reluctantly getting down from the truck. Bonnie motioned for me and Thomas to join them.

I walked across the parking lot, the heavy duffel bag in one hand and Thomas’s leash in the other.

“This nice man is giving us a ride, Suzanne,” she said.

“Where are we going, and what’s wrong with the Honda?” I asked.

“I’ll explain later,” she said, taking the duffel bag from me, and attempting to give me a boost up into the truck.

I backed away. Perhaps for the first time (or maybe the second or third time), I doubted Bonnie’s wisdom.

“There will be an Amber Alert,” I said to her. “You know that.”

And the guy climbed into his truck, and shut the door behind him.

***

Bonnie and I stood there in the parking lot. Thomas did a sit (his only trick).

“Bonnie...” I said. “Were you planning to hide us from my mom by pretending to be that stranger’s wife and kid?”

“Yes,” she said wistfully, looking out over the parking lot, at where the truck had been.

“A new life in Georgia or Ohio or someplace?” I asked.

“Florida panhandle,” she answered.

“Ah,” I said.

I took her hand.

“But that’s kidnapping,” I said. “You don’t have to sacrifice everything, Bonnie. You don’t have to go to prison. I’ll be eighteen eventually. And we both know that long before that, my mom will lose interest in me. She’ll get the money from the house, spend it, and then notice that raising a teenage daughter is a huge hassle.”

We walked back to the car.

***

By the time we got home, my mom and her boyfriend were furious.

“I was just about to call the police!” she said.

“I’m sorry we were gone so long,” said Bonnie, faking sincerity. “It’s Suzanne’s time-of-the-month, and we had to go to three stores before we found what we needed.” I was very confused (and embarrassed in a vague way), but my mom seemed to buy the explanation.

“I want you to come home with me, Suzanne,” she said.

“Why?”

“Because I miss you,” she said.

“I don’t believe you.”

“I don’t give a goddamn what you believe,” she snarled. “We’re leaving in five minutes.”

So I promised to tell any social worker or judge who would listen about the years of physical and mental abuse heaped on me by my very own mother. She turned angrily to Bonnie—probably convinced that this was her idea—but this was all me.

“I did not hit you!” she shouted.

“Yes, you did! Repeatedly!” I said, getting into the lie. I looked at Bonnie, exhilarated.

“You two planned this,” said my mom. “You planned this in the car on the way over here.”

“No, we didn’t! I’ve never told Bonnie about the beatings,” I said, surprised to hear my voice break. Bonnie took me in her arms.

“Why didn’t you tell me, sweetheart?” she whispered, but I knew that she knew it was “useful fibbing” (Bonnie’s term). “I wish you’d told me…”

The discussion confused my mom, who stood there awkwardly as Bonnie murmured reassuringly while stroking my hair.

“A judge will never believe you,” said my mom, but with less certainty. I think she was trying to remember if she had beaten me.

“I think a judge might,” said the boyfriend. “She’s a convincing little bitch.”

I thought Bonnie was going to hit him, or stab him with the kitchen shears.

“Get out,” she said. “Do what you have to do, but get out of our house.”

***

Bonnie and I had a long talk that night while making cloth-bound journals for the farmers’ market.

I know there are no limits to what you would do to protect me, I told her. I took a deep breath. I need there to be a couple of limits.

Okay, she said.

We admired the polka-dot journals. I fetched our cocoa from the microwave, grabbed a treat for Thomas, and put “After the Gold Rush” on the record player.

“I love you,” she said, grinning at me.

"Well, would it kill you to show it every now and then?" I asked.

"Wiseacre," she said.

1 comment:

Peggy said...

Great story Polly! Bravo!!! I really enjoyed it.