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"Dot: What Makes a Person Good?", essay excerpt

Saturday 5/8/21

Nine o'clock, Saturday morning. I've been revising the essay collection, wrote a 2000 word story, revising this personal essay, which is now just about done. Excerpt:


I had a great aunt Dot who has been dead now for quite a few years. Her principle interests in life, it seemed, were the Lord, prune juice and talking about her bowels, and terming people fat—to their faces.


Other people said hello, how are you, how have you been, but Dot sized you up, looking from your feet to your forehead, shaking her head as her gaze locked onto your midsection, no matter what was going on there—you could have a washboard tucked in your pants—and then she would inform you that, alas, you were a porker.


The prevailing opinion was that Aunt Dot, well, kind of sucked, but that a ragged portion of her charm—as such—was that brand of orneriness. You admired her consistency, after a fashion. Plus, she made for great stories, and everyone—though never in front of her, of course—did an aunt Dot impersonation that invariably would prompt someone to say, “Poor old Dot,” even as they laughed.


Her recounting of her bathroom battles with her blocked passageways had a Homeric quality to them, and Aunt Dot’s deus ex machina could involve anything from forceps to her fingers—I shudder anew as I type—to apricot brandy to some lines from Paul to the Galatians.


She viewed her bowels as a battle front. The battle front might not have made for polite conversation, but it was where the news of the day came from, and you couldn’t stint on the news of the day. Was just the way of the adult world, but it was also never too early to indoctrinate children in the realities of the front—no more so than telling them that hell was real, and hell hurt, which was but another leaf from aunt Dot’s great book of wisdom.


You could be six, seven, and that would not preclude her from disgorging herself of her recent multi-hour torments of ornery constipation, and how she had come through, fatigued, but lighter, less blocked, more, presumably, flowing. People who met her would say that she was a trip, if they were trying to be positive, while others would wear that ashen rictus of shock that is the facial expression version of, “Are you kidding me?”


Dot was very anti-hell. She loved a good brimstone lecture, though, about what hell would be like if you landed there. These were joyless talks. She contrasted with my grandmother—Grammie—who was full of joy. She loved her grandkids and spoiling them. She loved mischief, forking you a ten dollar bill she couldn’t really afford behind your mother’s back after this was exclusively forbidden. She even had the eye twinkle thing going, and possessed some Santa Claus swagger, grandmatronly-style.


She wouldn’t stop smoking or playing the lottery, which Dot disapproved of, this being a form of gambling, and after she died we discovered piles of notebooks written in intense numerical ciphers that amounted to my grandmother’s life work of numbers theory, which I think may have cracked open the universe for her. Let’s just say that she won a lot. She wasn’t especially religious, but she had a scary-looking picture of a saint in her room, but everyone had that back then. She died before her beloved Red Sox won their first World Series in almost a century—you’d think, living as she did into her eighties, she would have seen at least one—and that made me sad, but not as sad as when she fell in the home she loved so much and broke her hip, and had to go into care at one of those establishments that, however well-meaning, smells of perpetual piss.


I’d take the commuter rail out to the closest stop to this house of recuperation, then walk through the wooded town of Milton to visit and experience anew her vows to return to her house, though she never did. When she died, she did not go easily into that good night. She slipped into a coma, but the end wouldn’t come. She was taken off machines, and still it wouldn’t come. I sat with her, alone, several nights, so that she would not have to die alone. And she did not.


But it was Aunt Dot who really knew something about sickness. When Grammie was out living her life, Dot took care of their ailing parents. They once had a brother named Teddy, and one of the few things that Dot and Grammie agreed upon was that this fellow was the absolute bee’s knees, he could have been a politician, they would both race to add, trying to beat each other to the punch of the rhetorical flourish, as if this was the biggest, best remark one could make about someone else.


This Teddy loved his drink, and one night, when locked out of the family’s house, drunk out of his mind, he scaled the roof to try and find ingress through a window, and fell to his death on the pavement, a senatorial career that was never going to happen crushed before its first filibuster.


When they were older in life, and Dot was decades deep into her spinsterhood and Grammie had outlived her husband, they were roomies at the house the latter loved so much. Dot had the top floor, my grandmother the ground one. When you visited, it was only a matter of time before Dot would make her descent and call you fat. You’d hear her pacing around upstairs, the beast stirring, and Grammie, knowing what was about to come, would say, “Oh dear.”

The cellar of this house was the stuff of nightmares. There was a coal shoot—very old school—and shadows numberless, such that you thought goblins of some kind or other had to have at least a temporary residence here. You were told—warned—even by Grammie, which was especially worrisome, not to go down there, save when she or Dot wanted something. Then it was cool.


Only, it was not cool, because Aunt Dot had created this character named Willie Winkle whom she said lived in the basement. He didn’t just abduct and murder children, but there was this seducing element as well in her narratives on the subject. It felt a little like he was going to do some other things to you that were less than ideal, even so far as basement goblins went.


Nonetheless, if Aunt Dot wanted her cribbage set, she wanted her cribbage set, so with your orders, down you would go, and she would carry herself to Grammie’s sink, where she’d take a hammer and bang on the pipes, so that an echo seemingly sourced from the fiery bowels of the earth—from someone who knew fiery bowels—would throb and ring in your brain, as Dot screamed, “Winkle is gonna get you ya! Here he comes!” It is worth noting that on the occasions when Dot tweaked her wrist—for she was also a hypochondriac—Grammie would take her place with the hammer, this being, again, one of the very few things upon which they found accordance. Perhaps Winkle was Teddy’s ghost, for all we knew.