“Here comes Norma and Al”, shouted my mother. Norma was one of her five sisters. The “rotund one”, as mom used to say. She weighed in at around two-fifty, mostly muscle. She was a skydiver, a M.A.S.H. nurse in Korea. a bone crushing softball player, and now she performed autopsies on serial killers as part of a government study to see what made them tick. The 30-06 she used to hunt deer on grandma’s farm seemed a minor extension of her beefy forearm. Norma was also the most kind-hearted and funny person in my family, and as a pre-teen, I loved it when she showed up for reunions.
Their tan Lincoln barreled over the hill, climbing Rural Route #2 like a turbo-charged tank. Blue smoke shot from under the rear end like special effects in a movie, and you could hear the tires scrub the inner fender wells as Norma caught air over the final knoll before the drive-way.
People poured out of the house as she screeched to a stop in front of the last remaining parking space, across the street from the rambling old house with its patched roof, and rows of apple trees. My cousins and I were out to watch the entrance, always a good time. The adults were out to watch their cars, always a nerve-racking experience, judging from the look on their faces.
Norma gave a goofy smile across the passenger’s seat, past her husband Al, who stared straight ahead without blinking. He looked a little more pale than last I’d seen him. She cranked the wheel to the left, and pounced on the gas, sending Uncle AI’s cheek to be mashed into the side window. The Lincoln rocketed into the open spot, nicking the side of Uncle Frank’s brand new Bonneville along the way. Norma slammed on the brakes and let her head bob back and forth like one of those stubbily, fur dogs that ride in rear windows.
Aunt Norma threw open the door, banging into my dad’s old Granada (he always drove that piece of shit when Norma was coming) rolled out of the car, threw her arm on the roof, and buried her head in her elbow.
“This man is about to drive me complete crazy,” she bellowed. “He almost got us killed and arrested on the way up here, for piss-sakes!”
Al opened his door slowly, rose from his seat, and peered over the window, both hands visibly shaking. The sun reflected off a bead of sweat that sprinted across his bald spot, and winked back toward us as his head swung from side to side in painfully slow motion.
Uncle Frank ran to his car. His fingers were knotted in his gray hair, and the extra skin on his cheeks rippled from his exertion. He looked like Edith running into the living room; “Heea cha beea, Archie”. He might have been crying.
My cousin and I snickered at his performance.
Dad didn’t even flinch, knowing he’d never even find the new ding in the Granada’s door. He was snickering at Frank too.
Al mumbled an apology to Frank. who waved him away in frustration. Al was a divorce lawyer and therefore made a habit of trying to smooth out potentially volatile situations before they reach a boiling point. He was reaching for his checkbook when Norma threw their suitcase across the top of the car, catching Al in the chest. “You can carrv more than that,” she said. As he tried to get a grip on the overstuffed case, he stumbled back against the dented Bonneville. Frank whimpered. He was definitely crying. He ran his hands over the side of his new, car like he was smoothing out a bed sheet for company.
Frank was a new addition to our family. He’s come along after Aunt Bonnie divorced on the greatest men I knew, Uncle Jon. Uncle Jon still had a standing invite to all family function, bestowed upon him by grandma, and occasionally he showed up. As my cousin Sean and I slipped behind the big elm tree and headed down to the badminton net, we heard grandma make a crass comment about Frank to herself, and then about her daughters’ choice in men. The woman missed nothing, and when she fired off commentary, you could bet that it was right on the mark. She was born on the same day as George Burns. Norma and Al left Frank to fondle his car and crossed the road toward the family. Everyone was glad and scared to see them. Who would be first? Norma’s eyes darted.
Who looked most afraid?
Helen. Tearfully quiet, doe-eyed, Helen, standing there with her new boyfriend, Michael, and hiding her girth behind a loose fitting Thanksgiving sweatshirt. Her Irish-freckled skin seemed in contrast to her chubby size.
“Christ, I didn’t know. Pal, you move quick,” she said to Michael. She hadn’t even met him yet. “When’s the due date on that thing?” She cocked a thumb at Helen’s stomach. Michael snickered good naturally, then consoled his fiancée’.
“Hey, Bud.” My dad looked up as if he were staring across the ring at the champ, in the middle of a fifteen round fight. “What’d you already polish off that turkey? They got a process called liposuction now, you ought to look into it before you explode.”
Without a break…
“What, we got no kids here to rake these leaves?” She kicked happily at a falling of leaves from the front yard’s horse chestnut tree
“Danny, get over here.” I climbed back up from the edge of the side yard. “You must have some money on yeah, don’tcha?” She reached for my ear. “yeah, just as I suspected, hiding Susan B’s behind your ear again.” She pulled a shiny coin from my hairline. “Sallie,” she yelled toward my mother, “what, you never buy this kid a wallet?” She flipped the coin into my hand. “Grab my other bag, will ya?” I ran for the Lincoln. “And don’t disturb your cousin Theresa. She’s been in the back blattin’ and whining since the Catskills.”
Theresa was there, bone-thin, red-eyed, closely resembling a coiled snake. Sid Vicious and the punk scene hadn’t even honed their look at this time, but there was Theresa; a death-seeking, wanna-be social outcast, before people even knew what they looked like. Before they even had a name.
I opened the door, grabbed the bag, and tried to get out.
“Just leave me alone,” she hissed. I don’t think she said it to me in particular, but I was the only one around.
“Oh, hi Theresa.” She hated me. Hated everyone. She was so easy to piss off, and I was so good at it. “You look really good. Is that make-up new…”
I was running with the bag.
“Leave!” I swear, it sounded like it came from the car itself. No human could make that noise.
“Hey,” said Sean, “Bud and Norma are moving for the table.” It was a general summons. Anybody who was eating had better be around the huge dining room table with it’s padded table cloth, ‘cuz this family don’t wait.
I tried to slide in next to Uncle Al. I spotted the neck of a quart bottle of Genessee Cream Ale poking out from between his legs. The brown bag crinkled as he shifted his weight, and Norma caught him. “Either give me that thing, or get rid of it! Christ, I’m the one who needs it anyway.'”
“Ah, Danny-boy.” I hate to be called that. “I think your place is over there with the rest of the kids.” It was Frank. He flashed huge yellow teeth. I looked around the table for some support, but knew I’d get none. It was a standing rule.
Our table was a miniature of theirs, except rickety. A card table resurrected from the basement, scrubbed of cobwebs, and dragged up to the dinner room twice a year. On it was our dinner. One plate sliced turkey, half white, half dark. No drumsticks. One bowl mashed potatoes. One bowl orange potatoes. One plate late-season corn on the cob. One gravy boat secured to saucer. Four napkins painstakingly tucked and folded. Four glasses of milk, one in front of each plate. One cousin Sean in bow-tie. One Dan. One Dennis, too young to feed himself. One Theresa. Pit viper.
“l don’t drink cow’s milk, ” she said immediately.
At the adult table, hands were flying, intertwining. Silverware clinked and scrubbed as plates filled up. Finally, the hands stopped.
“Who’s going to say grace?” asked Aunt Bea.
Grandma rolled her eyes.
I know my family never said grace. I don’t think any of us ever did. But at these joyous occasions, when the whole family was watching one another, it was standard procedure.
“Michael, how about you?” Norma was after him.
Seems Michael was shy.
“Helen, where’d ya find this guy, heathen central? Bless us oh Lord,” Norma’s voice resonated like John Paul’s from the Vatican balcony. Sean flicked a pea at Dennis. Theresa curled her lip.
“I don’t drink cow’s milk!”
“Aunt Norma!” I said excitedly, “there’s a deer right out in the back yard.” Sean and I elbowed for room at the window. He had potatoes on his bow-tie.
“Keep an eye on it,” she said while chewing, “I’ll get to it later.”
Forty-five minutes later, dad was the only one left. He had every platter, every bowl on the table stacked around him. He was finishing them off one by one like they were beers at an open bar reception. As he finished each, one of the girls would take it away.
“Wait!” Sharon was pulling the bird away, and dad had caught her. He grabbed a last shard of meat from its side and tore it off. He looked it over quickly, searching.
“OK,” he said, as if they were closing the lid on his best friend’s coffin.
“Al been shot! Al been shot!” yelled Susan, screaming, arms flailing, as she ran through the living room. She’s never learned to say “s”, to make her statements possessive. Sean and I headed out the back, as the rest of the family bottle-necked in the front doorway.
“Al been shot! Al been shot!” Sue ran out the backdoor behind us, out into the yard, and down into the field of rough weeds that lined the backyard, still screaming. I watched her head over the knoll, through the tall weeds and down into the small creek.
She was still screaming, but we could hardly hear her now.
“He has not been shot,” Norma declared, her finger poking through the fresh shotgun blast in Al’s camouflage hunting coat. She was just about holding him up by it. His knees were wobbling and sweat poured off of him even though the temperature now danced around the freezing mark.
About half the crowd went back inside for their coats. Dad climbed the ladder to adjust the TV antenna, so we could watch the football game on CBS. “That damned Al,” dad yelled back over his shoulder. “Always distracting you, isn’t he, Norma.”
Norma dropped Al and grabbed the buck she’d killed with the shot. She hoisted the brute into the air by it’s huge rack of antlers. It’s eyes rolled phlegmatically forward in their sockets down toward the lawn, just like Al’s had done.
Twenty minutes later, Norma was posing with her hand on the deer, which was now hanging from the first branch of the front yard oak tree, so passersby could take note.
“Ya got the flash on on that thing?”
Mom looked at the flash bulb and it went off in her eyes. She staggered back, momentarily blinded, then held out her hands as if she were feeling her way through a dark hallway.
“My God, you people are graceful,” offered Norma.
Blood dripped from the deer’s tail onto the autumn leaves that covered the yard.
It was the last time I remember seeing Aunt Norma alive. Later that year, while riding in Chevy Chevette on Route 17, heading into Manhattan, a deer dashed out of the tree line, and into the grill of a car traveling in front of Aunt Norma’s. The first car hit the deer, which flew over that car, and through the windshield of Norma’s passenger’s seat, and kicked her to death.