by Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 1978-80)
Author’s Note: My stories fall into modes. Some are set in rural Virginia, others in countries overseas where I lived and worked. Some seek their setting in Western New York, where I grew up. Some, like “Famous People,” are lighthearted and come out of a sense of play. Contrary to the view that a writer needs to know where a story is going, I had no idea where this one would wind up.
I’M NOT A NEUTRAL PARTY. I HAVE MY POINT OF VIEW. But for what it’s worth, I believe that a goodly percentage of the hell that Aunt Elodie kicked up was intended to rectify a problem. You might agree with her, if you agree that a lack of any famous people where you grew up is a problem. For the sake of argument, let’s say you do.
By its name, you would imagine Plains City is bigger than it is. The fact is, it’s not really a city, it’s just a town. Specifically, it’s a town that never had any famous people. I don’t count mayors or other ambitious people with overactive Facebook pages, or the guy from the West Edge who put his mother-in-law up for auction on eBay.
There was one bidder, by the way, by the time the powers that be made him take down the offer. Wouldn’t you like to understand that guy’s thought process?
Anyway, I love my aunt but have my own idea of famous. In my opinion, it’s what comes to a person on wings when he isn’t looking.
Aunt Elodie was my mother’s older sister. Momma was unstable and traveled frequently, and Daddy set no world records in coping skills, so Aunt Elodie had a heavy hand in the raising of me, her nephew, Augustus Milton. Which, of course, is another reason why I am the last thing from a neutral party in this discussion.
One of my aunt’s peculiarities was never admitting how old she was. Momma claimed she couldn’t remember, Daddy couldn’t be bothered to answer the question, and nobody else I knew had any reason to hazard a guess. I asked Aunt Elodie herself point blank on more than one occasion, and each time she boxed my ears. The last time I asked her, I was 23 years old, and believe me, it is humiliating for a full-grown man to have his ears boxed. According to Daisy, there are states where ear-boxing has been outlawed. Ours is not one of them. Daisy, I should say, is the woman I intended to marry when the time came.
Old, is the point. Aunt Elodie was of seriously advanced years when she dropped down on her hands and knees and bit the letter carrier’s ankle on the front stoop. She⎯I’m talking about Aunt Elodie, not the letter carrier, who also was female⎯had a walnutty look with oddly short limbs and currant eyes like a gingerbread person just out of the oven.
The letter carrier took the attack on her ankle with good grace, all things considered. She admitted that Aunt Elodie had a point, the amount of junk mail she was on the receiving end of was truly excessive. No charges were filed, although of course people talked. Man, did they talk. I think⎯I’m not going to pretend this is anything but my personal interpretation of events; I couldn’t get away with it if I tried⎯I think when it happened that Aunt Elodie saw herself as a modern-day Susan B. Anthony, taking action on an issue of social significance. Maybe that should have set off alarm bells for me. Sad to say, it didn’t.
In self-defense, I will say that things were complicated for me at the time of the ankle bite. Daddy had just retired. He was a washing-machine repair man and a ham radio operator. When he quit fixing broken washers, he began spending a high proportion of his day on the radio. In and of itself that was not a problem. But somehow⎯and to this day I cannot explain it to my own satisfaction⎯all that air time led to his Chinese theory.
According to Daddy’s theory, the Chinese were converting every last English-language transmission on every single radio frequency on the planet to their own language. You could press the transmit button on your radio and sa One small step for mankind, or What hath God wrought? but what came out was intelligible only to speakers of Mandarin. Not Cantonese speakers, interestingly. He used to read thick books on his lunch break, back when he was working, which presumably led to his knowing there was more than one Chinese language. I’m willing to bet not more than twelve percent of the residents of Plains City knew that particular fact, or cared.
Again, in and of itself, the Chinese frequency theory was not necessarily a huge problem. But the mental stress it put my father under caused me considerable heartache. It was like watching him drift away down the River of Bats, hands folded on his lap in the disappearing dinghy, and me with no boat to go after him.
By the way, if the Chinese did have the technology to do what Daddy thought they were doing, it would be curtains for Shakespeare, wouldn’t it? Not to mention Mark Twain and other writers you may enjoy reading. Make your own list of endangered authors. It’s good mental exercise.
Also, around the time of the ankle bite, I was dealing with the problem of Daisy. I hate calling the woman I love a problem. You’re probably already wondering, never mind his old man, does this guy have any coping skills of his own? Let me explain.
Daisy was a born entrepreneur, and she had gotten herself tangled up in what I can only describe as an insidious pyramid scheme. I did not understand it. I didn’t want to understand it, especially the financial aspect of the thing. But the business model involved linked investments in skin care products, spreading out like the ripples on a lake when you toss in a stone. The New Radiant You boasted an impressive range of products for every imaginable skin tone and color. In a multicultural society like ours, it seemed to Daisy, the potential market was vast.
She was spending so much time trying to make a go of it with the skin care scam that she pretty much ignored me. Daisy is an attractive woman. Not every woman in her mid-twenties can wear pigtails and mean it, but Daisy did. Not that how she looked is relevant, except to me. The point is, we had words. The words were sharp, and I got cut. I suppose it’s fair to say I cut her back.
Patching up the wounds was taking time, so when I heard about Aunt Elodie biting the letter carrier, I figured it was a one-time aberration and went back to worrying about Daddy and Daisy. And, of course, I was working, myself. I don’t mean to give the impression that all I did was sit around and fret. I had my own little janitorial business going. It kept me plenty busy, cleaning up other people’s messes.
Augustus Milton Janitorial Services, that’s the name of my business. It’s not catchy, but I couldn’t think of anything better the day I had the sign painted on my truck.
One day driving home from work, I stopped over to see my aunt. She lived in a very small two-story house on the East Edge. You’ve heard of a salt box? Aunt Elodie’s was a cracker box. It was blue and ramshackle to the point of falling down, but I was fond of the place because I had sheltered there, off and on, during my formative years. For example, there was the time Momma joined the circus and was gone for eleven months. Of course, she meant ‘join the circus’ in a figurative sense, but I was young and pictured her as a lion tamer cracking her whip in a leopard-skin bikini. When she did that, I believed, the crowd went wild.
It was summer, and the grass was extremely high, full of dandelions and clover and bees. The bees were members of some sort of club. I got out Aunt Elodie’s push mower and went at the lawn, which did not make the bees happy. They were not going to make me a member of their club anytime soon. When I finished, I put the mower in the shed and went in through the kitchen door expecting, I don’t know, a plate of chocolate and peanut butter cookies and Thank you, Augie, you’re a good nephew.
No cookies. But I did find a sword. It was being inserted into Aunt Elodie’s mouth. She was standing at a peculiar angle on the kitchen linoleum, which had that old-fashioned checkerboard pattern I notice people are bringing back lately. I saw right away that the angle she had adopted was intended to facilitate the entry of the sword down her throat. There was a bottle of cooking oil handy. Thankfully, she had researched the sport enough to know you had to lubricate the sword.
Which didn’t go all that far down her throat. For one, she noticed I had come into the room. For two, this turned out to be only her second stab at it, so to speak, and the blade nicked the skin on the wall of her throat. Which was probably the reason her voice sounded funny posing the question, as though she had swallowed a cat.
“Why is it, August, that Plains City never had a municipal sword-swallower?”
There are people who could come up with a clever comeback that would make the other person forget sword pain in the throat. I am not one of them. I told her I didn’t know. But it turned out to be a rhetorical question anyway.
“They’re too lazy to do the practice it calls for,” she told me. “If you intend to do the thing properly, that is.”
“Are you okay?” I asked her.
“What makes you ask?
“I want to give you a birthday party.
“My birthday’s not until October.”
“You know me, I like to plan ahead. I was just wondering how many candles to put on the cake.”
A bold question, you’ll say. A foolish question. With all that ear-boxing history between us, wasn’t I taking a gamble, asking the question that had set her off so many times before? All I can say is, I was now seriously worried about her, and my judgment was off. Later, thinking back to the conversation, I kept picturing that sword being inserted somewhere that was not down her throat.
I took her out to eat. She had a hankering for pizza, so we went to Pino’s, which had kept the same name through three changes of ownership that I knew of. To the best of my knowledge, none of the proprietors was even slightly Italian, and they never changed the menu. Aunt Elodie drank two glasses of house red because it soothed the pain in her throat. Halfway through the second Chianti, I got her to promise me to give up sword-swallowing. All in a day’s work, I told myself driving home after I dropped her off.
Or that’s what I would have told myself if it hadn’t been for something she said. I parked in front of the house. I went around the truck to open her door. As we went up the walk to the cracker box, she leaned on my arm just a little. In a woman a third of her age, it would have felt like flirting.
“One of these days, Augustus, I’m going to be an old woman.”
Another nephew, in similar circumstances, might have come back with a crack to the effect of What do you think you are now? Me, I was not even tempted. As I noted earlier, Aunt Elodie stood in for Momma all the many times she joined the circus, and I was grateful to her.
At the door, on the same stoop where she bit the letter carrier, she said, “I want to leave my mark.”
At first, I thought she meant on the woman’s ankle, but she was talking about posterity.
“I want to leave something behind, and I’m not talking about money. I want people to say, ‘Just like that woman over in Plains City, what was her name, the one that…?’ The only problem is, I don’t know what the ‘it’ I’m meant to accomplish is.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said goodnight. There are lots of things I’m no good at.
Well, she kept her word when it came to sword-swallowing, which was a relief. Things in my life motored along smoothly for a couple of weeks. I picked up a new contract, cleaning Pino’s once a week. And Daddy began taking one of those online Chinese language courses, which for reasons unknown to me put him in a good mood. He went around the house whistling and humming and spouting Chinese syllables. On top of all that, Daisy and I met for dinner⎯it had to be Pino’s, I seemed to have Pino’s on the brain⎯and put together a guest list for the wedding. Normally, I would not have the patience for that kind of thing, but this time, after all the cutting words, it was positively pleasant.
And then it was July, and hot, and Aunt Elodie climbed the water tower in her bathing suit⎯thank God it was a one-piece⎯and announced she was on a hunger strike. When I say announced, I mean with a bullhorn. She must have bought it for the occasion. I had spent a lot of time at her place and never saw one lying around the house. She also took a banner with her up the tower. She draped it from the little steel platform where she set up camp. The banner read Give Peace a Chance.
It worked, if by worked you mean she got the attention she was after. She went up the tower at nine a.m. on a Monday. By noon the TV trucks were there, and spectators swarmed on the ground below. There was oohing, there was ahhing, there was a fair amount of authentic consternation. I should have mentioned before that the water tower sits on the edge of Philipot Park, so there is almost always something of a crowd available, regardless. If you don’t care for the sounds of kids playing on swings and slides, you’ll want to avoid the place like the plague.
Really, it’s not surprising that my aunt drew the massive attention she did. An elderly woman in a floral one-piece at the top of a water tower with a banner demanding peace and threatening not to eat until her demand was met? Plus, she was breaking a town ordinance by climbing the tower, not that anyone considered that a significant factor.
The cops showed up. The mayor showed up. More and more reporters and film crews showed up. Somebody put up a website, trying to crowdfund a sketchy project only tangentially related to Aunt Elodie’s pacifism campaign. None of the authorities wanted to climb the tower and haul her down forcibly. That was basic public relations. You didn’t need to hire an expert to know this was a situation that called for kid gloves. The mayor and the chief of police drove off in the chief’s cruiser to think things through. Meantime, the sun climbed higher, and I began to worry about Aunt Elodie’s exposure, in more ways than one.
By four o’clock that afternoon, a guy was selling T-shirts that said Free the Old Lady on the Water Tower, and the sheriff and the mayor had approached me. Somebody must have told them Aunt Elodie and I were related. I agreed, at their request, to climb the tower and reason with her. With luck, I might talk her down. There has been no reason to mention this before, but I have always had a terrible fear of heights. Only love made me wrap my hands around the metal handrail and climb those damn steps. I went slowly, gut twisting at every step.
“I knew they were going to send you,” Aunt Elodie told me when I got within conversational range.
I froze where I was. I didn’t think I could climb and talk at the same time.
“You’re famous,” I told her.
“Tell that to the warmongers. Well, you’ve come this far, you may as well come the rest of the way.”
I did, but every step was an agony of vertiginous dread. She was sitting on the walkway, which was reassuringly solid, assessing the crowd size below her. Legs trembling, I sat beside her and handed her a ham and cheese sandwich from my backpack.
“If you’re going to be up here, you have to keep up your strength, Aunt Elodie.”
“Haven’t you been paying attention, Augustus? I’m on a hunger strike. If I so much as sniff that sandwich, I become a laughingstock. Trust me, I know the difference between famous and infamous.” She shook her head. “Not now, not when I’m this close.”
“Why, to winning, of course.”
“That was one of the things I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Bill Jenkowitz sent you up here, didn’t he?”
I nodded. Jenkowitz was the police chief.
I was feeling put upon. The feeling overcame my normal diffidence, and I asked her,
“How will you know when they’ve given peace a chance?”
“I’ll know. Believe me, I’ll know. You don’t get to my ripe old age without figuring out a thing or two.”
It was the perfect moment to ask her again how old she was. I didn’t.
I knew I was not going to win the argument about war and peace, so I said, “Will you please come down?”
She hesitated. She seemed to consider my request. Being her only nephew, I was her favorite nephew by default. She made up her mind.
“You can go now, Augustus. Go back down there and tell them I am staying up here until they call off the dogs of war.”
There was no point going back and forth with her. It would only get her back up. Previous experience trying to convince her to do a thing or not to do a thing had taught me how stubborn she was. I was defeated. Just as bad, or maybe worse, I still had to climb down the steps again.
I did. Not gracefully, and not fast, but eventually my feet touched solid ground again and I felt like a human being. Daddy was there in the crowd, which continued to swell. So was Daisy. Both of them were beaming. They had the idea that my climbing the tower in full view of a crowd of voyeurs, being filmed all the while and having my name shouted by twenty reporters, was a good thing. I was sidestream famous. But when the journalists converged on me, I shook my head. In retrospect, I kind of wish I had said No comment.
When Bill Jenkowitz heard that Aunt Elodie was refusing to come down, he ordered up a cherry picker and was ready to send highly trained personnel up to snatch her to safety. The mayor, a redheaded woman who was always trying to quit smoking and had made a campaign issue out of how hard it was, overruled him. I have to say, it was good to see civilian authority reinforced in a tense situation. These days, it doesn’t always turn out that way.
In addition, I tend to think the mayor⎯her name was Linda Garrett⎯saw the media frenzy as some sort of publicity bonus for Plains City. She would never admit that, but it had to enter into her calculations. At any rate the cherry picker went back to the fire station, night fell, and my aunt lay down on a foam pad she had thought to bring up with her. She covered herself with a blanket.
I was snappish that night. I couldn’t help it. Daddy tried to distract me with a demonstration of the progress he was making, learning to draw Chinese characters. I didn’t want anything to do with his amateur logograms and went to my room. Daisy kept texting me, but I did not respond. She had an idea about how to take advantage of Aunt Elodie’s newfound fame to sell more cosmetics. I didn’t want anything to do with that, either.
What does an older woman in a bathing suit at the top of a water tower on a hunger strike dream about when she lies down to sleep? If you could answer that question, you’d know something that was worth knowing.
The hunger strike went on. So did the media circus. Daisy was interviewed, making sure they introduced her as my fiancée. Daddy was interviewed, which gave him a chance to propagate his theory of Chinese radio frequencies. Bill Jenkowitz and Linda Garrett were interviewed, together and separately. There was talk of an Aunt Elodie biopic. Believe it or not, a film producer on CNN mused on camera at some length about how difficult it was going to be to amass enough film footage to do justice to the project. So much of Elodie’s life had taken place before cameras came on phones.
On the second day, I climbed the tower again to take Aunt Elodie a sweater, because our summer nights can be nippy. I’d like to say it was easier going up the second time. It wasn’t.
I was asked again and again to be interviewed. I refused to open my mouth. I was afraid I might tell them to give peace a chance.
After three days, the altitude and the solitude and the lack of food were taking their toll on Aunt Elodie. I climbed the tower again and sat there with her. She dozed a lot. Now and then, when she came to, she told me anecdotes about how it had been, raising me in Momma’s absence. I never got tired of hearing those little stories.
“Will you go down now?” I asked her as the sun was setting in the west.
It looked like a ball that had gotten away from some kid on the beach, floating on a lake too deep to go after it.
“Is there peace, Augustus?”
I couldn’t lie to her. She was too sharp. She would see through any subterfuge or false reasoning I came up with.
I went down. Back at ground level, I felt helpless. That’s the only excuse I can give for doing what I did. I called Linda Garrett. She called Bill Jenkowitz. Bill called the fire chief, a loudmouth whose only talent was spitting tobacco juice into a spittoon with deadly accuracy and needs no further mention. And at three a.m., the cherry picker made its way stealthily back to the park. I rode in the basket with a highly trained combat veteran who had a square jaw up to the platform where my aunt was sleeping on her foam pad.
The noise of the cherry picker woke her, quiet as we tried to be. She sat up, but she was disoriented. Later, she told an interviewer she had sleep in her eyes; otherwise, we would not have been able to take her. Be that as it may, we did take her. On the ride down, I wrapped my arms around her and felt the odd combination of strength and fragility in her beating heart. It made me think of a bird, how it soars and then plummets.
I’m hoping Aunt Elodie will forgive me, but at this point I have no idea if or when. I respect the fact that she does not sit at the computer all day looking and looking again at the enormous volume of coverage her hunger strike on the tower generated. She has integrity. It’s the integrity that makes her refuse to let me into the house when I knock.
My heart hurts on account of Aunt Elodie. It’s a dull ache that is always there. It hurts more acutely, at this point, on account of Daisy. The police arrested her the day after we brought Aunt Elodie down. There’s a whole long complicated list of charges having to do with A New Radiant You, whose founder was led away in handcuffs in downtown Minneapolis. I’m not interested in knowing, specifically, what the charges are. In her own way, Daisy is now famous, too. It won’t last. I’m glad it won’t last.
Well, but then there is Daddy. I marvel at the progress he is making learning Chinese. They say some people have an aptitude for languages. If that’s true, he is definitely on the list. There was an ad in the paper the other day for a part-time washing machine repair man. I told him he ought to go ahead and apply for it. Lord knows he is qualified. I could tell by the way he cocked his head to one side when I showed him the ad that he is thinking about it. So that’s another thing I think I’ve learned. You take your satisfaction where you find it. In the future, I want to say, spare me from the ambitions of famous people. I’ll wait for the thing that comes on wings. Not that I’m expecting it.
Mark Jacobs has published more than 150 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Baffler, The Iowa Review, and Delmarva Review. His stories are forthcoming in several magazines including The Hudson Review. His five books include A Handful of Kings (Simon and Shuster) and Stone Cowboy (Soho Press). His website.
Jacobs’s story is from the new Delmarva Review, now in its 13th year as an annual literary journal. It publishes the best of original new stories, nonfiction, and poetry from thousands of submissions nationwide, and beyond. Partial financial support is from individual tax-free contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with revenues provided by the Maryland State Arts Council. It is sold at Amazon.com and other online booksellers. For submission and other information, see the website.