The One Second Plan

by Kate Harding

The sign says “Welcome To The Avocado Capital Of The World — Home Of Duke Snider.” Charlie would be thrilled. I slap the top of my head to stop my new disease — Charlieitis. Obsessive thoughts about someone. Someone who is not my boyfriend Warren. Someone who will ruin my life.

On Old 395, I wind through Rainbow Valley. My car bounces onto Pot of Gold Road. Aunt Lottie gave the lane its name. She thinks it’s a path to paradise. All I see are ruts.

Today’s newspaper, curling in the sun, sits on top of a log-shaped mailbox. Big wooden chairs, once Wedgwood blue, have faded to gray. I grab six of the world’s most famous English novels and climb out of the car.

Before the doorbell chimes, Mugsy and Scotty start yipping. The sour lemon ball in my throat grows.

Lottie will know what to do. She’ll tell me to go back to Warren and our five-year plan.

She opens the door. I see the bow in her hair. I breathe in the smell of oil paints and pretzels. “Baby,” she wraps me in a cocoon of cloth and flesh.

•    •    •

In the living room over her Double-Play (strawberries and lemons) Lemonade she looks at me through half-shut eyes. “Who is breaking your heart?”

strawberrylemonadeYou can’t fool the people who raised you. “I met someone.”

“But that’s wonderful.”

“The boy is unsuitable,” I say.

“Unsuitable.” Under the cotton dress, Lottie’s stomach jiggles. She laughs and wipes her eyes with her sleeve. “He picks his teeth? He’s a thug?”

“He’s a ballplayer.”

“Ballplayer,” she gasps. “Not a centerfielder?”

“He’s a shortstop for a junior college baseball team. This isn’t a joke. This is my life.”

Her slippers thud on the rug. “It’s been terrific so far. You live in a room in a boarding house. Your hot plate keeps you company.”

My mother used to write “Dust me” on Lottie’s furniture. I blow air on an end table and watch a dust storm rise. “My room at the Palms is perfect for me. I need the quiet. College is harder than high school.” I glance at my skinny arms. “Okay, so I live on tomato soup and English muffins. But no one bothers me. When Warren comes over to study we don’t talk for hours. Sometimes I forget he’s there.”

“You live according to the Gospel of Alice.” Lottie shakes her finger and starts grinning again. “Your mother’s dictum. Always be rational. Hence your five-year plan. College. Grad School. Marriage. Barf. If you were happy with this plan we wouldn’t be talking about shortstops.”

“This Charlie thing is some weird crush. I watched his game instead of studying. I ditched a class and went with him to the beach. I got a C on a test. C for Charlie. C for mediocre. I wound up in his bedroom and for better or worse his mother interrupted us before I could do something else I was really sorry for.”

“Surprise. You’re a human being.” She settles deeper into the easy chair covered with chintz — little pink hearts. “Your Warren is a good, serious boy. You’ve needed that. But you’re not a robot. Your dates with Warren are trips to the library.”

I run my hand through my thin, wheat-colored hair. “Charlie smells of bubble-gum. He has a California tan. Those aren’t reasons to dump Warren. Don’t even know what Charlie sees in me.”

“He sees a lovely, intelligent, hard-working young woman. Where did all of Alice’s standards ever get her?” Lottie asks. “Dead. Plus, who was more successful? Me? The sloppy romantic? Or Alice, the disciplined intellectual?” Back in Longview, Washington, Charlotte Carey, the town fat girl, and Alice McMullen, the town brain, were best friends. “Who does my niece call the ‘Almost Celebrity?’”

“But you have talent.” I sag and look at a painting of a rusting plow. Lottie calls her work the Rural Decay School.

What would Charlie think of my two hundred and seventy pound aunt? What would he think of her Wedgwood-blue piano?  Would Charlie say what Warren coolly said, “Your aunt is nice, but eccentric?” Or would he love her the way I do?

Lottie fishes a bag of potato chips from under the coffee table. Varicose veins marble her white legs. She promised her doctor she would cut down on fat. She promised me she would dance at my wedding.

I pat my stack of books. “My final’s on Monday. I think I’m ready. Except for Persuasion. The rest I just have to review. Persuasion reminds me of you and me. Anne’s mother died and her mother’s best friend is her advisor. Do you want me to read you a little? It would help me concentrate.”

Lottie nods. “First I have to tell you something.” Her eyes brighten. “Didn’t you ever wonder why your uncle, a garment salesman, moved us to the country? Rose’s family lives here. Pam, she’s a beautiful young lady. I go to her swim meets.”

I study the portrait above the mantle. The baby girl with strawberry-blond Renoir curls sits in a bathtub and smiles at the painter, her mother. Lottie and my Uncle Jacob spent their savings to adopt Rose. They raised her for a year and a half. Then, the birth mother changed her mind and took Lottie to court. The trim birth mother, in a size five suit, grabbed Rose from Lottie’s arms. My mother said maybe if Lottie had been “normal” the judgment would have gone the other way.

I remember Rose waving her arms, and kicking, trying to swim back to Lottie. Now, I picture Lottie, a sad, moon face, in the bleachers. “Does she notice you?”

“I’m hard to miss.”

I tap my finger on the page so I won’t lose my place. “Does she know who you are?”

Lottie shakes her head. “Once I bumped into her, sort of ‘accidentally on purpose.’ For a second I thought maybe she remembered something.”

The smell of oil paints and pretzels. “I’m sure she did. So you’ve been spying on her all these years?” It makes me shiver. For a second I have the answer. After grad school I will marry Warren, but I can spy on Charlie, keep tabs on his batting average and make sure he’s happy.

“Her father left years ago. Her mother died just two months back. I could take Rose in.”

My smile is fake. I don’t want to share my aunt.

“Now, both my girls have lost their mother,” she says.

My foot kicks a box of pretzels. There’s a hole in the Oriental rug. “She may think you’re not in a position to help.”

“I sold the threshing machine painting you liked.”

“That’s a start,” I say. “Ready for Persuasion?”

“Give me a sec.” Lottie reaches for the phone. Her smile is nervous. “I’ve been waiting for an omen. You dropped in on me out of the blue. It’s a sign.”

“I needed to put ninety miles between me and Charlie.” I slip on my glasses. “I’ll just read silently.”

Lottie’s face is a blur. The words on the page get big. A dial tone bongs through the room.

“You’re going to call Rose now?” I lift my glasses and peer at my aunt.

...

Photograph by cristyxcore via a Creative Commons license.)