By Jill McCabe Johnson
Mila said she never trusted the clouds out in that country. In the summer they looked harmless enough, soft pillows or feathery streaks, but it was their way of moving she distrusted, with no set path and no mountains to guide their course. Even after living there all her adult life, she said, she still felt a little nausea, like motion sickness, just thinking about it. Winter was bad enough, with that cold wind coming down from Canada and God knows where, bringing with it only bitterness like the dark, stale coffee she percolated every morning, or like the stained edges of her tongue. Like everything about her, in fact. But summer, that’s what really made her nervous, all those cumulous clouds “looking like so many lazy puffs of smoke, and shiftless,” as she would say, “every one of them, nervous, sidling across the sky, changing shape, almost broiling, unnatural, and indifferent.” She could taste the tornadoes the day before they came, sharp greenness to the air, and the ions, skittering off your scalp and skin like drops of water in a hot skillet, bringing the hair on your arms and in your nose and ears alive with a feeling like tart cherry pie partially swallowed and stuck in your throat, bright and burning just a little.
She said a man was just like a tornado, loud as a pack of freight trains, and never becalmed, touching on the ground here or there, sometimes he’d jump over you, but always lift off again, looking for the next place to light. She never could tell, she said, “which way they was gonna go. Maybe onto someone new, maybe back to someone they’d landed on before.” She said she just sat as still as could be and hoped they’d jump well over her. But I saw her closet once, full of summery, gauzy dresses that must have been half-scandalous back then. I suppose she was hoping the whole time one of those men would land and lift her away with him, but it never happened, at least not in the married sense.
Now my mama, she was no looker, as they say, but from what I could tell of her and her sisters, she was by far the prettiest one. Mila had the better body, even though Grandmama said she’d been born with a funny sort of dimple on one side of her tummy. It didn’t show through her clothes, though, and in spite of whatever flaws she might have had, she was built solidly, loaded like bricks, could weather anything, and mortared just about as perfect as you please. Anyone could see that, even in her later years. Something about the way she carried herself. When I was twelve and a little too dreamy, I told my other aunt, Joleyn, that I thought Mila “looked like an ice cream cone, dressed all the time in pastels, pretty and balanced, with just a little bit melting in the sun.” Joleyn was considerably older than both her sisters, and always direct. She told me I wasn’t the only one who saw Mila that way. She said that the boys had always looked at Mila like she was ice cream, “like they wanted to catch the ice cream that might melt and drip along the underside of all her curves.” That embarrassed me, so I never said anything about how Mila looked again, and I tried not to think of it either.
I suppose what wasn’t natural was the way all three sisters wound up together in that house that didn’t belong to any of them. One act of mercy leads to two of burden, my mama used to say, and that’s what it must have seemed to old Jake Forrester who had said Aunt Joleyn could live in the house after her Henry died. Everyone felt sorry for her, taking care of Uncle Henry those nine and a half years after his stroke, losing all their livestock, and eventually the farm. Jake said she’d be doing him a favor. That’s the way it was, and still is in that country. “Nobody does nobody no charity,” they like to say. They’ll ask you politely, as though you’d be doing them a favor, as though they simply don’t know what they’ll do if you don’t help them out. So Aunt Joleyn agreed to help Jake by watching over his mother’s old house that he hadn’t known what to do with since she’d died, especially since Jake and his wife already had a house of their own.
Joleyn moved in that Spring, and before the corn was higher than your ankles, she asked Mila if she would come to help her run the place. Well, my father, he’d been dead two years by then, and my mother, she was still walking around at half luster, so Joleyn and Mila told her to sell her place and come live with them. They told her they needed someone to take care of the chickens. Before long all three of them were living in that house. Jake’s wife, Minnie, was known to ask “how long they gonna live there, and do Joleyn and Esther” – that’s my mama – “do Joleyn and Esther think their kids’re gonna move in, too?”
Of course, I had my job with the postal service, and, though I wasn’t married yet, I figured I would be in a year or two. I don’t know why I thought that, since I didn’t have a boyfriend, but that’s what I figured anyway. I’d go at least once or twice a week, usually three times or four, to visit them in that rundown old farmhouse. Jake’s mother hadn’t been able to keep the place up, and neither could Jake, I guess, with all he had going on at his house and the rental company he owned. He did bring a tractor around once in a while to clean up the grass. But that skinny old clapboard house with its peeling white paint and gray boards underneath, looked like it ought to have had a coat of paint at least a dozen years earlier. The shutters were hanging on alright, but the screen door had so many holes in it, you might as well have laid out a red carpet for the mosquitoes.
The three sisters fixed up what they could. They beat the rugs, and scrubbed the kitchen so clean the wood in some places was rubbed raw. One of them oiled the hinges, Joleyn probably, she couldn’t tolerate any unnecessary noise. Mama washed whatever curtains she could save, and sewed new ones where the fabric was so old and sun-dried it tore at the slightest whisper. Mila did a pretty good job in the garden. She had her heart set on corn and green beans that summer and acorn squash for the fall. She always seemed to have her heart set on something, but gardens, she said, never let you down.
I pitched in, too, as much as I could. I even came over one Saturday with a fresh sheet of screen I bought off the roll at the Penny Hardware in town, and I fixed them up a proper screen door so they could get a little cross breeze without losing a pint to the mosquitoes once it got warm.
Joleyn never grew up out here, but she adapted to it well enough when their parents – my grandparents, even though I never met them – moved here for Granddaddy’s work. He was an undertaker, and when he heard about another undertaker out north of here who had died, he contacted the family, who sold him the business. He took grandmamma and their three kids to one of the river towns that leads to the Mississippi, and ran the business. A year later, the mortician in Fairham County decided to retire from an even larger funeral home, so Granddaddy closed down his business and moved again, although it was less than 10 miles away. From what I’ve heard, people kept asking him why he hadn’t sold the first place to make a little profit, but he said he didn’t need the competition. Folks say that was the way he was, thinking about long-term profits when everyone else figured the undertaker was too preoccupied to think of anything other than how to comfort the family of the deceased, or how to make the faces look flushed and vigorous enough for the showing of the body.
My ma, Esther, practically grew up there. She had been nine when they moved, so she was still young enough to call the new place home without too much fuss or worry. Besides, she was everyone’s darling, pretty as a cornflower on a sunny day, they used to tell her. Mila, though, she never got used to the place. Joleyn said she had a beau back in Washington, a logger from Kelso. Mila couldn’t have been more than 15 at the time, old enough to run off with him, but too young for my granddaddy to let her marry, even though, according to Joleyn, no one was talking about getting married. She said the reason she thought her parents moved was to get Mila away from those loggers who were used to “handling things rough, felling timbers and not thinking twice about their own safety and especially not about the tree.”
Mama said her mama told her there weren’t any opportunities for a young woman out there but to get married to a logger or miner. Everyone was ignorant, and we were probably no better, but Granddaddy had plans, taking on that funeral home, owning a business. When they got to the river country, marriage prospects couldn’t have been much better than they were back in Washington, though. Farmers, ranchers, and dairymen mostly. At first my grandparents schooled the girls at home, but about the time Mila started wearing those dresses, folks said it wasn’t proper, young girls being exposed to grieving families all the time. It might have been some other kind of exposure, though, knowing the way I’d seen Mila sitting in some old photos I found that had never made their way into the family photo album.
Mama felt sorry for Mila, having such big features, her oversized mouth and a jaw that looped around like a horseshoe. Joleyn said there wasn’t anything to feel sorry for. Mila knew what to do with that mouth of hers. I’d never thought she was terribly talkative nor witty, but maybe she’d been different in those days. Mama was a little bird, everything Mila wasn’t, so tiny and delicate you’d want to cup her in the palm of your hand and protect her, pet her a little, even I, her own daughter, had that feeling. With Mila, it was different. There was something to be consumed there, though I couldn’t say what exactly. Or something to be worked, maybe. She just seemed to call for it, her thighs like her jawline, drawing your attention to how healthy they were, big and hearty and twitching a little like what we used to see in a “hot” horse, those Arabians who were unbearably restless until they could run. That was the sense you had with Mila, that she was ready to run, though I didn’t know where, and apparently neither did she.
She had her crazy pursuits over the years. She spent some time running the funeral home for a while after Granddaddy died. She hired an undertaker, but no one much liked going to such a powerfully alive woman when their kin died. Something unseemly about it, they said. So they took their business upriver to Welch, even though they had to travel some distance. Grandmama said she was going to sell the business. Mila couldn’t understand why, and no one wanted to tell her it was because of her that folks took their business elsewhere. Eventually she conceded. Not much choice really. Grandmama died a year later, and all Mila could say was that she wished she’d waited to sell the business.
After that Mila led carriage rides along the river. Tourists had started coming into the area, and Mila would give them the history of the town, then drop them off at Mrs. Kendall’s Candy Shoppe, first telling them how tasty the candy was the entire trip. Mrs. Kendall gave Mila a percentage for bringing the extra customers. The money couldn’t have been much, but with no husband, Mila had to be resourceful.
By then, both Joleyn and my mama had found husbands. The sisters lived close to each other, Joleyn with Uncle Henry on their farm, and Mama and Father just outside of town, next door to the Wilson Dairy. Father was the supervisor there, and Mama had my brother and me to watch. When Grandmama died, she left what she had received from the sale of the business to Mila, since her other daughters had husbands and homes. Mila didn’t buy herself a place though. She said no man wants to marry a woman who’s already set up house, so she rented a room in town. Joleyn said Mila rented because she couldn’t cook. With a room in Mrs. Jenkins’ boarding house Mila could get three hot meals a day, and have someone else do her laundry. It was hard to imagine Mila doing her own laundry or tinkering around in the kitchen. You couldn’t say she was masculine exactly, though there was a peculiar handsomeness to her from certain angles, only that she wasn’t very feminine, at least not in the helpless or domestic sense. Womanly, yes, frail, no.
She made people in town a little nervous, but the tourists liked her. They lined up to take her carriage ride. Some of the men who came to town to work on the new bridge, and the ones who built the courthouse a year later, would pay to ride more than once. That’s when those flouncy dresses got worn. I never saw them on her because I spent my summers at Aunt Joleyn and Uncle Henry’s farm. Summer was when the tourists came, and construction workers, too. Although I didn’t see her in her pretty summer dresses, I could imagine Mila riding high on her carriage, up front while the men leaned back into the velvet seat watching her clear-cut form, the natural breeze created by the movement of the carriage causing the ruffle along her neckline to go first this way, then that, and the way she’d ride, with her thighs apart a little for balance, and how the breeze might bring her skirt up a little over her knees. Her legs were strong and tanned with no stockings, and I could imagine those men would enjoy that river view.
One time an artist came through town and took Mila’s river ride. Seeing her partial profile, he said it was so striking, could he paint it? Mila came by to talk with my mama that night. She hadn’t said yes, that she needed to think on it. Then she asked Mama if she thought it would be improper. Mama said she wasn’t sure, that as long as it was in an actual artist’s studio it seemed legitimate enough. Then Mila said it was in a genuine artist’s studio, and that she was going there tomorrow evening at 7 pm. Of course, it sounded like she’d made her mind up already, and I wondered if she just came around to show off to her sister, something like, “See, I’m pretty, too, prettier than you. No one ever asked you to pose for a painting.” Mama just said she hoped she’d get a chance to see the picture when it was done, and Mila said she’d make sure.
About a month later Mila took us all to the studio, even Aunt Joleyn and Uncle Henry came into town for it. The studio was around the corner from Menckle’s five and dime. You entered it from the alley, and it seemed a little dark for what you’d expect in a studio, but there was the painting of Mila up on an easel. She was in profile, with her features isolated, a little in shadow, as though a window or something put light on the other side of her. The clean lines of her forehead and nose really were quite striking, like the way trees look in lightning, lit up from the side, and not from above. And it hit me that that was Mila, lit up from the side somehow, though to this day, I still don’t know what that meant. Mila was all lit up that afternoon, though. She was just as proud as she could be saying how it wasn’t no Mona Lisa, but it was about the same size. When Uncle Henry said he never painted, but does it really take a whole month to paint such a small painting, Mila just said there were other paintings the artist was working on during that time, sunsets and stuff, and that hers wasn’t the only one. I don’t know where the artist was that day, but he wasn’t around when Mila brought us in. He must have let her use his key, but I was no good at thinking about details like that back then. My head was too full of its own fancies to think about anything practical or the kinds of questions anyone else would ask, like, can we meet the artist.
Sometime after all three sisters were living in the old Forrester place, about two maybe three years, and I had stopped by for one of my regular visits, we got word that that old artist had died. I never did meet him, but his family sent along a canvas entitled Mila’s Sunset, one he’d kept in his private collection. They’d had a hard time finding her at first, but then they heard a Mila was living up on the bluff. Since there weren’t any other Mila’s in the county, they figured she must be the right one. They thought she’d want to have it, and sent her the painting. Mila was out back in the garden when it arrived. We should have let her open it, but somehow we got the idea of how great it would be to surprise her with the canvas unfurled across the dining table. We remembered the light from Mila’s portrait all those years ago and were eager for a glimpse at a beautiful painted sunset. “Go ahead, unroll it,” Mama prompted me, and Joleyn did too, saying how big the canvas looked already, at least three and a half feet tall rolled up.
I fumbled with the canvas, and probably unrolled it more quickly than I should have. I don’t know how well paint adjusts when you spread a canvas too fast. In any case, it sort of fell open, and nearly to the floor just as Mila came in through the kitchen, asking what we were doing in the dining room. Luckily I didn’t drop the painting, but by the look on Mila’s face, I thought I must have damaged it somehow. Only then did I get a glimpse of the canvas. There was no sign of a sunset, though the river was in the background, and Mila in the foreground, completely naked, leaned back on her elbows, knees in the air, and her feet spread wider than she ever rode in that carriage. Smack dab in the center of the painting was an oversized snarl of black, and thankfully, no more detail between. I folded the canvas as fast as I could, which I don’t think you’re supposed to do. For a brief moment I thought how the painting was a little hazy like sunsets can be sometimes, though I have no idea where that thought came from.
Mama helped me with the canvas. For once, Joleyn was quiet. Mila didn’t raise her voice, but there was an explosion of anger like I’d never seen in her before. She swore at that old painter, and said he must have put her head on the body of someone else, and she’d kill him for doing it. When Joleyn finally got her voice back, she told Mila the painter was already dead, and that this was in his private collection. Joleyn couldn’t stop herself from adding thank God for small blessings. Mila snatched the folded canvas from Mama’s hands and none of us ever saw it nor spoke of it again.
Well, I thought it best if I got out of there. The less said the better. When I came back for Sunday dinner it was like there had never been a package. Joleyn and Mama talked about painting the sitting porch, and when Mila shifted a little at the word painting, I tried asking her about her garden. The greens in our salad sure are good, Mama said. And I wondered if Mila could tell me how far apart to plant my radishes. All that summer, we were careful not to bring up certain topics, and if on a day’s end the sunset truly was pretty, one of us would say how it sure was a lovely, and after a pause, evening. But the nicer Mama and Aunt Joleyn were to Mila, the more surly she was in return. I guess she lost the one thing she had on them. Sure they’d had husbands, but she’d had artists after her wanting to paint her picture.
At times it seemed like her orneriness was what helped her outlive both of them. When she finally died, years after she could no longer care for a garden, I cleared out the house quickly, knowing Minnie would want to know Joleyn’s kids and my brother and I weren’t making any claim to the place. That’s when I saw those ruffled dresses for the second time, packed away in an old steamer trunk in Mila’s closet, and smelling of moth balls. Underneath the dresses was the painting, carefully rolled again, not folded. “Mila’s Sunset” was written in the corner, on the back of the canvas, so I didn’t have to unroll it to know. Some itch of curiosity must have burrowed its way into me, though, because I found myself spreading it out across Mila’s bed anyway. Sure enough, there was Mila, her face, prettier than I’d ever remembered it, but it had been a long time ago. Her hair was down around her shoulders, mantle-like, and the look in her eye was, well, what would you call it? Knowing, I suppose. It wasn’t a twinkle exactly. More of a sureness and like she was looking at you like you were naked, too, though, of course, she was looking at the artist, not me. Everything was as I remembered it, what little I’d seen in that brief and flustered moment. I didn’t linger much with the painting. Something about seeing your aunt nude, even if it wasn’t really your aunt’s body. Plus it was, after all, art. Still, the memory of what Aunt Joleyn had said about ice cream made me ready to roll that canvas back up. Before I did, though, I noticed something I hadn’t seen the first time, a little shadow across the right side of the belly, round and dimple-like.
I took care of the dresses, along with the painting. The incinerator seemed fast and final enough. Then I invited my brother and cousins to come pick out what they’d like to remember Aunt Mila by. Don’t ask me why, but I didn’t put out that black steamer with the cracked leather straps. I kept it for myself, maybe for a hope chest, even though no one does that any more. You’d think I’d have spent this much time on my own mama’s things after she died, but maybe these old mysteries have their way of getting into your skin. That might explain why I felt such a kinship with Aunt Mila, even though she wasn’t anything like me.