A Distant Relative

By Ryan Meany

Featured Art: Coffee and Cigarettes by Ken Schles

Mom called Friday to say Linda died.
At least two people I don’t like at work
I know better than Aunt Linda. I carried her
casket yesterday, because my grandmother asked,
along with younger cousins, strangers I recognize from childhood,
tough men I see only as the children they were
in bony faces, stubble. The babies they were
they’ve locked up deep: Dusty on military disability
with three kids, and Billy, who used to be Little Billy,
with a court date for driving 137. My grandmother
looked like a Treasure Troll in tired skin, white broken
hair refusing to go down. When I hugged her the life in her was small
as a niece, her lineage drained out all around her. She reminded me
I was her first grandbaby in that smoky Southern Baptist
vibrato. A few days before, on Sunday, when I’d come to her house,
she talked like she’d long ago forgiven me for mostly staying away
for twenty years. I was glad she didn’t know the trouble I’ve caused, especially
because I doubt she’d love me less. My senior picture hung in her living room
as if I were as important as all these grandkids and great grandkids
who wondered who I was. Soon she’ll be dead and I won’t be so important.
So many people took turns holding her
the funeral seemed to be hers. I had no right to want to save her
from thinking, when I was helping to carry her daughter’s body,
that I’d soon be carrying her body, as I’d carried my grandfather’s body
just a couple years before, which was actually six years before.
We were not sad that, to time, we were like grass
under the feet of pallbearers. I was sad because
the time I had in common with this side of the family
we’d mostly forgotten, another thing my grandmother would die knowing.
The last time I saw Aunt Linda was outside the hospital
in the courtyard for smoking. I was there visiting someone
who’d mixed Vicodin and vodka to find out who cared. I can’t remember
why Aunt Linda was there, her heart or her brain. Her brain
would cause the most trouble later, a popped vessel, then
another, the top of her skull removed, screams
from the headaches and so many drugs, according to my grandmother
as we smoked outside Sunday morning. She’s at peace,
I said. Already we were down to our last words.


Linda’s heart was the first part of her to stop, a big heart
that had held a special place for crack ever since she fell
for it in the Eighties. She was not my real aunt.
My mom’s real sister we were visiting—
I must have been ten—when my real uncle, a role model
for staying away from family, answered the phone
to Linda. Mom, Aunt Pam and Dad were quiet. My uncle said,
“I heard they got you in the clink.” Dad tried not to laugh.
Clink? Like an ice cube trapped in a glass? Someone explained
Aunt Linda was calling from jail. I didn’t understand.
I don’t understand. I spent childhood wanting
my way into answers I couldn’t get out of. Linda
must have given some because I loved her
before I knew who I was supposed to love. My memory is
only questions. At four I might have asked Aunt Linda,
Will the posters in your bedroom kill me?
I don’t remember Alice Cooper, Iron Maiden, King Diamond,
but when I see those faces on now-old album covers I always feel Linda first,
the blue-eyed, freckled older girl, not an adult, not a child. I waited
for Aunt Linda’s bus at my grandmother’s window
when my parents had left me there—not my real grandmother, Mom
made clear, but the woman Dad called Liz, the hypocrite,
the unclean woman who had left her husband to marry my real grandfather
and smothered him with all of her daughters. But that was a long time ago.
Things didn’t have to make sense when Linda
got off that big yellow bus. Linda smiling at me, coming closer,
was closer than family. Sure I will carry your coffin because your mother asked.
You asked my mom if you could take me
to a Kiss concert when I was six. I still have my Kiss lunchbox
which Mom let me take to school when I hadn’t wet the bed.
You must have been the first I thought of
each time I got on the bus with my lunch in a paper bag.

You let me rub lotion on your legs, up and down. I was too young
to know the difference between touching family and touching a woman
but old enough to feel guilty for knowing the difference.
I should have fun with you now that it’s too late
and walk around my own house with that lunchbox
like it’s a kind of coffin. I don’t know how we got here either.
We don’t have to make sense. The least I can do is wonder where that boy is,
the one who came to see you once after you’d gotten home from school.
You knew I’d been waiting for you all day
so you made him play catch with us in the front yard.
He was only doing what would make you happy, which was make me happy.

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