y Auntie Caroline drove my dead mother’s plum red van on the way to the courthouse. Aaron, my older brother by two years but not quite as tall as me, sat unstrapped on the passenger side in what my mother used to call the death seat; Patsy, my seven-year-old younger sister, and I were in the back. We were dressed up to go to Dad’s arraignment, but no one was exactly clear on what an arraignment was, except maybe Auntie.
The van was soooo warm; Auntie had set the temperature knob in the red. We didn’t know about our dad, and I was afraid to talk about him–or anything–until I started sweating.
“It’s hot back here, Auntie,” I said.
“Shut your face,” Aaron snapped. I wished the death seat would do its job.
“I don’t want half moons under my armpits,” I said. It was a silk blouse my mother gave me.
“That’s not from heat,” Aaron said.
“What is it then?”
“From being so friggin’ screwed up,” Aaron said. Without Auntie around, he would have used the “f” word.
Auntie was my dead mother’s younger sister and she was taking care of us this month. This was her second day. The family members drew straws to assign responsibility for us. No one was eager to just take on three orphans like a new family.
Patsy and I missed Mom but having Auntie in the house suited Aaron just fine. He was crazy for her. He followed her around like a puppy dog and his eyes searched up and down her body as if her clothes had dropped off.
Before the arrest Auntie and Dad jogged together and when they returned, she would shower and dress in the guestroom and Aaron would hang around outside—as if he were there by accident–for a glimpse, I knew, of her nude through a partially opened door. After Auntie caught on and shut the door I saw Aaron on his knees looking through the keyhole. He said to shut up or he’d kill me.
Aaron talked back to Auntie now but he still liked her. He was just messed up because she acted like a parent. He would have liked to screw her. Believe me, it would have been his first time although he said he did girls all the time. No way, Jose.
“I’ll turn down the heat, Sandy,” Auntie said, “It’s hard to tell how hot it is in the back from up here.” We had at least an hour before we got to the courthouse.
My sister, who saw Auntie’s adjustment with the heat knobs as a victory for us in the backseat, stuck out her tongue at the back of my brother’s head. She was young enough to still do that. I would have given him the bird but Auntie had a clear view of me in the rear view mirror.
I hated my brother. There was talk of him going away to school again. I prayed that some place would accept him. But none did. I knew him for the devil he was and every school discovered it sooner or later. He’d been twice expelled from preppy schools and now had to go to public school. Aaron hated public school. He hated me too.
Aaron was furious that Auntie made him go to court. Aaron shouted and told her to mind her own goddamn business. But Auntie was like mother was, steely with the will, and she stared Aaron down and told him to get dressed, that our father needed us and she was not going to be a part of his son not being there. Aaron said it was the last time. She didn’t answer but there was a firestorm in her blue eyes that were usually glacier cold.
Next to me, Patsy leaned forward straining against the seat belt to be heard. “Do you think Daddy did it?” Patsy piped up with innocence but there was nothing innocent about Patsy. She could be twice her age if you measured craftiness. Aaron and I were dead silent. I wondered what Auntie Caroline thought about Dad. They were always best friends. Did she blame him for Mom's murder? Everyone on TV news acted as if he were guilty.
Auntie Caroline waited. She made an extra fuss turning left against traffic but I could tell she was finding her words. “Of course your father is innocent. How could you believe anything else?”
That’s exactly what the papers said about us. We had to believe. I saved the stories in an oversized envelope. Some had pictures of us, old and new, with lines underneath like “children of the deceased” or “family of the local doctor charged with wife’s murder.” The posed studio picture of Mom was taken before we were born. I don’t think she looked pretty even then, more determined and intense with a round face, cocker-spaniel eyes, and light reddish hair. I would look like her. Not like gorgeous Auntie Caroline.
“Has it been hard at school?” Auntie asked, to all of us and none of us.
“No,” said Aaron. Aaron’s friends were geeky pimple-assed weirdoes. They probably thought it was cool to have a Dad arrested for the murder of his wife.
“What about you, Sandy?”
“Oh, they’ve been just great,” I said. The kids my age shunned me from the day Dad got arrested, as if I had clap or AIDS. I went back to school for the first time a week after Dad was arrested. Girls who were once my best friends suddenly wore these frumpy frowns on their faces and ran into the restroom to avoid me. Groups of kids I used to hang out with would split up like exploding stars when I approached. I said screw it. It wasn’t my fault. My dad was not guilty. I don’t need you fartheads anyway.
“They asked me what it was like to be famous,” said Patsy.
“What did you say?” asked Auntie.
Patsy was acting like a four-year-old to make Auntie think she didn’t have a purpose. But Patsy wanted to know what Auntie thought. Auntie merged the van into the fast lane.
Mom called Patsy a mistake. I was never sure whose mistake Patsy was–mother, father, or God’s. Maybe that’s why Mom was always lecturing me about safe sex. I haven’t done it but I think Mom thought I did. She called me a slut once and said nice girls didn’t pierce their navels. I had wanted to but she wouldn't let me.
“Who killed Momma?” Patsy said.
“Someone in the park,” Auntie said. We rode in silence.
“Why do they think Dad did it?” Patsy finally asked.
Auntie didn’t answer, so Aaron said, “Don’t be stupid, Patsy. They don’t know Dad like we do. He’s too smart to be guilty. If he were going to hammer Mom to death he wouldn’t stab her with a knife too. That’s psycho stuff.”
Patsy said, “eeeyouuugh.”
Auntie said, “Aaron!”
I didn’t like Aaron’s talk either.
“They found the hammer in the garage,” Patsy said, “I saw the picture.”
I was a little pissed that Patsy, who had been reading my clipping collection, was acting like she knew it all.
“The papers say it’s only circumstantial evidence …” Aaron said.
“What does that mean?”
“… no witnesses, no confession.”
I read the columns over and over. This week’s Newsweek and Time had pictures of Dad in an orange prison jump suit holding his handcuffed arms up to hide his face. Dad was a famous surgeon. He lectured and taught other doctors. He had a clamp named after him.
“Will Daddy come home today?” Patsy said.
“He might if the judge sets a reasonable bail,” said Auntie.
“Would you stay if Dad came home?” I asked.
“Of course I’d help, Sandy,” Auntie said without a pause.
“Are we almost there?” Patsy whined.
“No, dear. Just a few more minutes.”
“Will we sit with Daddy?”
“Don’t be stupid,” Aaron said again.
“No. We’ll be far away. But your Dad will be able to see you.”
“Will he go to the electric chair?” Patsy said. I acted as if the thought had never crossed my mind.
“They don’t fry people anymore,” Aaron said, out of control as he usually was, even when Mom was alive.
“Oh yeah? Then what do they do?” Patsy asked.
“They stick you with a needle and shove drugs in you.”
I looked at Auntie Caroline in the rear-view mirror; her eyes were wet. But Auntie was tough and I didn’t expect tears. None came.
Auntie Caroline decided it was time for a bathroom break so we pulled off at an Exxon service plaza. Aaron got the men’s room key. The lock on the ladies’ room had been torn out of the door where there was now just a hole. Auntie and I waited outside the ladies room while Patsy was inside.
Auntie whispered, “You’re going to have to be strong, Sandy.”
“I know.” I was uncomfortable. I didn’t choose to be here with Auntie, or with any one in my family.
“Aaron can’t do it. And Patsy is too little.” she said.
“Okay,” I said, “okay!”
What did she expect me to do? I couldn’t make Mom alive. I couldn’t get Dad out of jail.
“We all miss your mother,” she said. But there were months when Auntie and Mom wouldn’t speak to each other.
Patsy came out and Auntie went in. Patsy and I walked to the van alone.
“I wish we didn’t have to go,” Patsy said.
“Dad needs us.”
“Auntie isn’t like she used to be.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Not as nice,” said Patsy.
I saw Auntie had come out and she bought pops at a dispenser. Aaron was still inside probably playing with himself.
We finally got back on the road and we rode in silence again. It seemed like hours.
I was surprised when Aaron spoke up. “Were you there where Mom was killed?” he asked Auntie.
“Of course not, why are you asking?”
“Your car was out front of the house,” he said. He would know. He would have looked for any opportunity to get a glimpse of Auntie’s legs in running shorts.
“I was jogging,” Auntie said.
“You were in the woods when Mom was killed.” It was like an observation. Not a question. Not an accusation either. But even Patsy held her breath.
“I don’t know when Martha was killed,” Auntie said slowly, emphasizing the words as if she were struggling to remember the details.
Aaron wanted Auntie to tell the truth. He didn’t want suspicions to spoil his fantasy life with Auntie.
“Rusty and me saw Mom and Dad leave together that morning,” said Patsy. Rusty was our dreary-eyed cocker spaniel.
We all sank into a silence.
“It’s not a big woods,” Aaron said. I had thought about these things too. And now we were on our way to sit in public and watch my Dad. We were all more nervous than I thought.
Auntie kept her eyes on the road. “It’s a lot of acres. You can jog and never see anyone you know.”
I watched Auntie in the mirror. Her look was a rock. Could I ever be a strong as she was?
“It must have been terrible,” Auntie said.
“She wouldn’t have died right away. It would have taken a lot of blows,” said Mr. Know-it-all in his I’m-so-important mood now. His information came from watching horror films on video. “Mom would have known who it was.”
“That’s horrible,” Auntie said. I think she meant Aaron, who thought words could make you brave.
We were silent again. Aaron slumped. We didn’t know what Auntie believed. I admired Auntie. She had opinions and stood up for herself as a woman, just the way I want to when I get out of school. And she was usually good to all of us. She wouldn’t hurt mom. I had convinced myself of that from the very beginning.
“I heard on TV that a lot murderers are family,” said Patsy. She’d been thinking about this. No one, not even Aaron had anything to say about that.
“Dad wouldn’t kill anyone,” I said but I was surprised. It just came out. I hadn't thought about saying it before.
“Of course not,” said Auntie. Her voice rang with clarity. With those three words we became a team all of a sudden. We seemed together for Dad on this. Our van was filled with purpose. As we get near the courthouse, we were a little army for Dad. All of us knew we had a role, even though none of us was really sure what exactly that role was. In her amazing way I thought Auntie had taken our few stray parts and made us whole.
This was my first time in this or any courtroom. I was amazed at how much wood there was. They must have cut down an entire forest for justice. There were wooden benches. The walls had wooden panels. The judge and jury boxes were polished wood too, although the chair seats were upholstered in red leather. I believed we should not sacrifice one tree for this court or any court for that matter.
The fluorescent lights on the ceiling glared so intensely they erased the shadows on faces; the bailiff, court recorder, and judge had an eerie sameness as if they were wearing Halloween masks. We sat in the third row on the left side facing the judge.
Aaron made sure he sat next to Auntie Caroline probably wanting to grab a feel of her bottom. His fantasies clouded any hope of decency. But Auntie stood up and repositioned us like checkers on a board. Aaron, me, Patsy and Auntie. Hah. She was as far away from Aaron as possible. She had not forgotten our purpose. We looked like fans at a football game.
In his pant’s pocket Aaron carried Clearasil for his acne. He used it fifteen, maybe twenty times a day. He had gotten it out now, mashing the tube for a little cream. The tube was as empty as you can get without really being empty. The stuff was not working and I thought he wasted his money. But pimples were his life: his face was splotchy with red and pink mounds; the skin on his back where he couldn’t reach looked like the surface of Mars: his thumb and forefinger were as strong as pliers from squeezing blackhead craters.
Aaron was sloppy too. His glasses slid down his pug nose. He was slack on brushing teeth and the crooked little devils were getting yellow. Aaron thought yellow was cool. He wanted to be a run away to New York or Seattle but that passed. A phase of junior high. He had tried drugs, I’d seen him, but I don’t think he was addicted. I thought it was more to go against Mom.
Dad’s case came up. The bailiff’s voice echoed. “Henry Gerhardt Greiner.”
After preliminary speeches and lawyers standing and saying “yes, your Honor,” Dad pled “not guilty.” His voice was easily heard but far from its usual loud, do-it-or-else tone.
After more discussion, the lawyer argued for release with no bail. Auntie leaned forward, I thought to hear better although the lawyer's voice seemed more than loud enough to me. The lawyer said Dad’s medical service to the community was beyond equal. Dad was magnanimous, always caring for others. The lawyer said the weaknesses of the prosecutor’s case were obvious. The DNA evidence was easily explained. Dad had a nosebleed that morning and it got on Mom’s dress. Finally he pointed out all of Dad’s family–us–and friends. All his support. Would any man leave? I barely listened to this, but Aaron listened with the intensity of looking at MTV with no sound.
The judge did not look impressed by Dad’s achievements. She denied bail. Auntie Caroline gasped, as did most of the other hundred or so people in the courtroom.
“He lied,” Aaron said under his breath to me.
“What?” I said. “Tell me!”
“No … he lied.”
“Aaarooaan …” I said but I realized he was shaking with silent sobs.
“The nosebleed …”
“What is it?” said Auntie from the end of our line.
“Aaron’s crying,” Patsy discovered, happy to announce Aaron’s baby side to the world. She thought he was crying about the bail. I knew better.
“Be quiet,” I said to Patsy.
I watched Dad. I searched for a brief glance as the lawyer droned on. Not one look! Dad was between two guards who held him by his arms. He could have looked at us. Easily! I willed him to do it, to make it all right. But he did not look. Had he forgotten we were there? Impossible!
Aaron held his sobs but tears still trickled down his face. "He didn't have a nosebleed," he said.
As the judge closed the proceedings, Dad stared between his shackled feet.
Aaron curled his upper body on the wooden bench like a possum in danger. I knew he’d been waiting for Dad to look too. Although Aaron's legs hung down now, his feet were not solidly on the floor. He was a mound of broken bones in a loose skin sac. I still hated him. But he knew something terrible, and for the first time ever, I wanted to touch and comfort him the way Mom did to me when we were small and happy. To tell him Dad was innocent. Not to worry. Dad would be home someday.
Duh. I was struck how crazy that was. How childish. I was fourteen. Mother wanted me to start taking the pill. Why would I say totally ridiculous things to my brother? He got on my nerves but he was not an idiot!
“Aaron’s still crying.” Patsy said again quietly.
“Let him be,” I said to Patsy. Patsy stared at me with an odd look I had never seen before. Something in my voice? She turned away and didn’t move. “Grow up,” I said.
Auntie leaned over Patsy toward Aaron and me. “Aaron,” she said, “you okay?”
“Leave him alone,” I said. Auntie backed away with a puzzled look, but she didn’t interfere.
I finally reached over and touch Aaron’s arm, just for a second; it was for the right reason. I was there. He didn’t pull away and he glanced ever so briefly at me. I saw the stress in his eyes shrunken by the lenses of his glasses. Then fear possessed him. I took his trembling hand. He was still staring at the closed door where Dad had been led from the courtroom.
“We'll get through this,” I said.