Fiction · 01/31/2018

Skimping on Postage

Aunt Pam sent lavender hand cream as a gift. Its glass bottle was thick and would have been expensive to ship, so she emptied the lotion directly into a padded mailing envelope. She believed her method was sensible; bubble wrap was waterproof, and the edges were easily sealed by tape. She kept saying, “What’s the problem, did it leak?”

I wondered whether the scent was chosen with purpose. My clearest memory of Aunt Pam — before her mind began to go — was forged in a moment of unexpected anger. I was nine. Pam came over to babysit. She brought baking supplies to teach me an old family recipe. I laughed and called her crazy when she added lavender to the mixing bowl. “You can’t put potpourri in cookies.”

She slapped my face so hard that the shock persisted indefinitely, like fallout from a nuclear incident that settled in the folds of my brain. Pam had always been my cheery aunt, the one adult in our family who never seemed to succumb to the gloom that darkened others’ lives. If she were capable of darkness, too, I feared for my own prospects. Pam said, “This recipe has been in our family longer than you or I will walk the earth. Have some respect.” It was a reasonable request. I probably overacted by crying as long as I did.

I wondered whether that day entered Pam’s mind as she perused lotions at the mall. It seemed rude to ask if that was her intention, to resurrect nervous memories. I never brought it up.

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Pam’s retirement community put her in expulsion proceedings when she started wandering its streets unclothed. Her condo board explained in a letter that this was all with her safety in mind. Assisted living was no longer enough; she needed twenty-four-hour care.

To spare her the indignity of withering in a nursing home, I moved with Pam to a nudist colony in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, where she could wander the streets as naked as she pleased and never raise an eyebrow. Neighbors happily waved as we took our morning strolls.

I asked why she decided to stop wearing clothes at such a late stage in life, and she said, “They itch.” She quipped that she was glad incontinence was not among her many ailments. Strutting around naked was fine, but she’d be mortified to be seen in adult diapers.

For a while, I lived without fear that I was turning into my mother, the irritable recluse who hoarded boxes of cereal in her garage. She chastised me by phone for looking after her sister. “You’re throwing your life away to humor a lunatic.”

I said, “In fairness, my life was garbage to begin with.”

It wasn’t such a charitable act. Pam was ninety and dying of cirrhosis. Too old for the transplant list. Too frail for surgery. I expected to be back in clothes within weeks. A couple of months at most. Free meals in the meantime, thanks to Pam’s pension checks and many kind housewarming casseroles from neighboring nudists’ cottages. All it cost me was a job bagging groceries that I had never liked in the first place.

One cool autumn evening, I found Pam’s pizzelle iron among her baking pans — a century-old contraption used for making our heirloom waffle cookies. With effort, I discovered the recipe, too, wedged between pages of a Betty Crocker cookbook. The handwritten instructions were simple. Only six ingredients. I was shocked to learn that the last was not lavender but fennel seeds.

“Aunt Pam,” I said. “When you taught me to make these, years ago, why did you substitute lavender?”

She gave me a look that fell somewhere between perplexion and offense, raising her arm as if she were going to give me a second slap, forty years after the first. I winced, but she only placed a bony hand on my shoulder, saying, “I would never alter Grandma’s recipe.”

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Pam asked to be cremated and for the funeral to be held at the nudist colony. “Just to piss the hell out of your mother.” I obliged. Mom refused to attend, so I mailed the ashes to her home in a white plastic box provided by the mortuary, foregoing an urn to save money.

Afterward, I returned to San Diego, forced to settle for a smaller, more expensive apartment than the one I had abandoned less than a year prior. While unpacking, I happened upon Pam’s envelope of hand lotion. I propped it on my bedside stand. That night, after turning out the lights, I dipped two fingers in, rubbed my elbows, and massaged the cream into dry cuticles. The scent was so strong that, as I rested my palms on my chest, spicy, floral compounds reached my nose. I wondered how close those chemicals were to the ones emitted by fennel. I struggled to recall the scent of the seeds but couldn’t.

It occurred to me that I had never asked Pam about the origin of our heirloom cookies. I knew they dated at least as far back as the turn of the twentieth century. Pam had mentioned baking them every December with her mom. During World War II, certain ingredients were in short supply. Maybe they had to substitute the fennel with something else, but there was no one left alive to ask.

My mother was no help. When I asked her about the cookies, her response was, “I always hated those things.” She never participated in the tradition.

With fifty fast-approaching, there was a fair chance the recipe would die out with me. I dwelled on that thought too long, then rubbed my face, getting lotion in my eye. It stung so badly, tears began to well. Instinctively, I reached for the edge of a sleeve to wipe the tears away. Then I laughed. By force of a newly-formed habit, I had gone to bed unclothed.

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Ryan K. Jory lives with his husband in San Diego, California. His fiction has recently appeared in Hobart and Corium Magazine.