“Does she really need it Pa? Can’t you just tell her that you lost it, or that Ma didn't keep it?”
I don't really want to go up the attic. It’s a grim place, a trove of un-required items, and their un-required memories, stored away, mostly inaccessible. But with Pa's aged frailty, I don't know how he expected to get down anything heavy or bulky, and so I will go up.
“Well, I did promise your Aunt Susan she could have it, back before Thanksgiving. But I know it is difficult for you to climb up. Let me do it, or leave it, I'm sure Frankie will go up for it.”
“I can do it Pa. It's fine, it's fine.” I can't stand it when people start making excuses for me, just because an accident wrecked my arm; and I really can’t abide Aunt Susan or her long term ‘life-partner’ Frankie. She simpers and he whimpers, and between the two of them any conversation is like being patted down with a tepid face-cloth, when you really want a cold shower.
If she wants this box of letters, that she has lived without for countless years, then I will make sure it is here for her to pick up, as the two of them make their way to which ever Pensacola, or Mobile, seafood restaurant is handing out discount coupons for their Sunday treat this week.
I will be elsewhere for the day.
In the muggy heat of the attic, there is a stale mustiness from collected belongings that have lain, forgotten, for long periods of time.
“It's definitely up here is it?” I ask, not for the answer, but for an excuse to abandon the whole thing.
"It’s definitely up there, Son. But really, don't worry about it, we can get it later."
"I said it's fine, Pa. Just tell me what I am looking for." I can't keep the angry edge out of my voice. Even though I really don't want this hassle. I will not be treated like a cripple. I can feel him watching me, and then he relents, abandoning his protest.
"It was in a… Oh! I don't know, you know what your Ma was like for packing stuff away."
I did. I could remember her packing up my room when I went off to college. Childhood stuff I could not imagine ever wanting to see, or use, again. But she put it all in the attic, folded and packed in boxes. I stand on the broad top step, slide the trap fully open, and take the flashlight from under my useless right arm. Shining it along the length of the roof-space, motes of dust dance on the bright beam and I look at a lifetimes collection of boxes, and chests, and bags. I do not want to do this.
Resting the flashlight inside the attic, I clamber up awkwardly. Pa doesn't say anything but I can feel him fretting away below me. I take a moment to let my breathing calm down and stand, only slightly hunched, in the roof space.
“Do you have any idea were to start, Pa?” We peer at each other through the hatch, his rheumy eyes a paling blue as he shakes his head
"Sorry Son. It must be, thirty-five years since they went up there. I can’t even remember what type of box they were in."
I sigh and start looking, trying to discern a method of storage based on when I thought the contents of the boxes might be from. Ma had been a hoarder, tidy and methodical, but definitely a hoarder. I find boxes full of old counterpanes that matched wallpaper and paint long since replaced. I find old school books of mine, and ancient files from Pa’s vet practice. There are recipe books and used wrapping paper, folded and packed after long forgotten birthdays or Christmases. There are tins that rattle with a hint of hoarded buttons, and a box of canning equipment that brings back memories of afternoons helping to can pound after pound of sweet, fresh, peaches bought from a local wholesaler.
I start opening boxes at random and eventually it pays off. By now my good hand is dry and grubby from the dust, and my tongue clings to my palate.
Pa must be standing by the steps, listening, because when I stop moving about, his tremulous voice drifts up. “Have you got it?”
I call back, “I'm still looking Pa, there’s so much crap in so many boxes. Go have a sit down and I'll call you.” I hear him shuffle off, and I stand there with Aunt Susan's requested box of ancient letters and postcards in my hand, my eyes transfixed by what lies beneath.
Ma used Kilner jars a lot, they took over from cans as her favourite way of preserving food long term. There were always jams or pickles or preserves being made, and handed out, or stored in the big back pantry, and I am definitely looking at one of Ma's jars. Her name is on the gold coloured lid, written in the thick black marker she always used.
The fetus inside is altogether unexpected.
We sit at the kitchen table, the jar in front of us; the fetus floating eerily in its ersatz amniotic fluid, and I listen as Pa tells me the story of how he and Ma used his veterinary knowledge to help Aunt Susan abort the child. My would be, older cousin.
"You have to remember, it was different then. This was before Roe versus Wade; there were no abortion clinics, no morning after pills, and it was bad enough that she was pregnant and didn't know who the father was, without the possibility of it being… you know..." His voice tails off.
"What? Black? You can say it, Pa." I oscillate between vague numbness and calm fury. "God forbid that the child might be a nigger bastard! Or was it that she just couldn't live with the consequences of screwing every airman who rolled off-base?"
"G.I. Son. Fort Rucker is Army, not Air force."
"Like it really makes a difference Pa. Damn!" I stand sharply and the chair rocks back against the fridge with a dull thump. Picking it up, I refill our coffee cups and get the bottle of Wild Turkey from the cupboard. Pa refuses, but I pour him a couple of fingers anyway.
We sit silently, the fridge thrumming away behind me, a lawn mower chugs away somewhere down the street. Pa holds his glass and watches as I drink two quick shots, and then pour a third. I look back at him and try to work out who he is. This man, my father, my progenitor.
"I can probably get my head around the home abortion Pa, but why keep it? And what the hell is it floating in, formaldehyde?" As I gesture toward the jar, bourbon slops out of my glass, leaving an approximation of a question mark on the worn tabletop. "Dammit!" I pour the remains into my coffee and wipe the spillage with my arm. "Come on, Pa. Give me something. I just learnt that my odious aunt was the Fort Rucker community bike, and you and Ma helped her kill a child."
I stop short as a dark and uncomfortable thought strikes me.
"Was this the only one? Or were there more? Was it only Aunt Susan? Or were you the local back street abortionist?"
"Just the one. It was just hers. But one was too many. We were determined there wouldn’t be anymore. We wanted her to calm down, stop being an easy lay. The jar was your Ma’s idea, she thought that if we gave it to her, presented her with the reality of her actions, it might… you know…" He stops speaking and waves his arms in front of him as an end to the sentence, narrowly missing both the Kilner jar and bourbon bottle. He is quiet for a moment, his hands resting on the tabletop as he watches the jar. “And yes, it is formaldehyde. I used the stuff in the vets, to send samples and organs to the university."
He lapses back into silence and I have to prompt him further.
"So how come it ended up in our attic with all of her love letters? I presume they’re love letters? And not from Frankie either!"
"No, not from Frankie, from long before Frankie. There was a pretty steady flow of them from all over, wherever the men had been posted they would send her a card or letter, and she kept every single one. It was some kind of validation thing for her. She was a very insecure young woman. They kept coming for months after she left."
"After she left?" I can’t remember a time when Aunt Susan hasn’t been hanging around causing a nuisance, with some drama or another. Thankfully, it has quietened down in the eight or nine years she's been with Frankie.
"This was all four or five years before you were born. Anyway pretty much straight after the abortion she wanted to get away, to make a fresh start, and she threatened to head to L.A. to become a movie star or some such madness. We put her straight on a Greyhound and sent her up to a cousin with a ranch somewhere outside Topeka. Of course, your Ma had to go, make sure she didn’t jump the bus. While they were gone, I put the jar in a box for when she got back. But after a few months up there, she decided to stay, so we cleared her apartment and forwarded her clothes and the like. Other stuff went into our attic, and by the time she came back, two or three years later, we just didn’t think about it. I had forgotten all about it until she called asking for the letters."
My gaze was fixed by drying smears on the table while he spoke, but now I look at him incredulously.
"Forgot? How the hell can you forget there is a fetus, that you aborted, pickled in a jar, in your own attic?"
I pick the jar up and shake it at him, the strange little homunculus sways lethargically in the dense liquid, a proto-human denied its opportunity of life. I have no siblings and no cousins, so I wonder how we would have got on. Would I have been an annoyance to be tolerated by virtue of blood-ties? Would I have had the moral courage to stand by a cousin with a different skin color? Would I have forgotten him, her, whichever, as we grew up? In the same way my parents had forgotten the aborted fetus.
"Yes, forgot. Life happened Son. Your Aunt wasn’t here, the practice was busy, you were born, your Aunt came back, you moved away, your Mother died and all the other stuff that happened in our lives happened." The embarrassment in his voice earlier is changed to anger and frustration. "I do not need your approval or forgiveness for this Son, and neither do I require your opprobrium. We did what we did, and life has carried on."
I bite my tongue, but the words ‘NOT FOR EVERYONE’ burn inside me. Confusion twists me. As the son of a vetiranarian, I have seen sick and suffering animals put down, witnessed owners weeping at the loss of a loved pet; even hard faced, leathery handed, farmers breaking down at the loss of a favorite horse or cow.
But in all of this, my father made me view each and every animal as special, taught me to show compassion and offer comfort. Yet here he sits, this stranger, calmly telling me that the willing, illegal termination of a human life was just something that happened.
We sit in silence again. I can not begin to express my inchoate thoughts, to form meaning in how I feel.
Without warning the side door opens and, suddenly, there is Aunt Susan and Frankie, smiling inanely and dressed for the mall.
“Well aren’t y'all looking glum? Hey! You found more of Jeannie’s jars. What forgotten pickles have you discovered now?”
Stuart Turnbull is a communications manager with a local charity. Following redundancy from his stockbroking job a few years ago he rediscovered his love of writing, and is working on a a project to write one unique story for each American State.