Palo Alto Weekly 16th Annual Short Story Contest
by Harriotte Aaron
Nancy Brown handed the glass of iced tea to Bertha. "There
you go," she said, starting to walk away.
About Harriotte Aaron
Harriotte Aaron was born just outside of Philadelphia. After
attending film school in New York and spending 20 years in
Los Angeles as a script supervisor, Aaron moved to the Bay
Area to attempt possibly the most difficult task of all --
"It was a very gypsy life. I wanted to settle down,"
Aaron and her older sister, Jane, adopted their daughter,
Lucy, in 1995. The two, known to Lucy as "Momma Hallie"
and "Mommy Janie," live in Palo Alto near another
sister and a brother. Their mother lives in Menlo Park.
The close proximity of family may have proved inspirational
for Aaron as she wrote her award-winning entry in the short
story contest, "Cousins."
"Cousins," which placed second, is a portion of
a series of stories about a family from Kentucky. Aaron's
writing background includes accolades at NYU, where her thesis
film won the Writers Student Academy Award in1979.
Aaron has worked on numerous film projects, including the
Elmore Leonard-scripted "The Rosary Murders, " which
starred Donald Sutherland; the indie hit "20 bucks;"
and her personal favorite, John Waters' "Hairspray."
"It was the most fun I've ever had working on a movie
in my life," Aaron said.
Aaron's future includes law school. Cultivating a fascination
with public interest law, she is currently volunteering in
the East Palo Alto community law project.
Though law is in Aaron's immediate future, writing has always
been her passion.
"The thing I really like is that there's no way I'll
ever master it, so it will always be a challenge. Something
to look forward to," Aaron said.
-- Tyler Hanley
Bertha stood up uncertainly. "Wait, I wanted to ask you something."
She tried to hide her tiny wobble as she said this; Nancy reckoned
she'd found the sherry in the dining room credenza. Bertha wasn't
a drunk, she just needed help getting through family occasions such
as this one, a barbecue dinner at the big house in September 1950.
Nancy's grandfather built the house in 1872, the year he married
and moved to Shelbiana, Kentucky. And in 1915, when Nancy was nineteen,
she moved out of her parents' house and into her grandfather's to
take care of him and her bachelor uncle John. Now, the men in her
life had died and Nancy lived alone.
"Stephen's going to the doctor tomorrow," Bertha said.
"Could you take him? I promised Mama I'd help her out at church."
"Hope it's nothing serious," Nancy said.
"He's complaining about some new aches is all. I knew I could
count on you. I said so to Stephen this morning. I said, 'You can
always count on Aunt Nancy."
"You oughta get out more," Bertha said. "You're looking
too peaked for my tastes."
"I'm fine, excepting this heat."
"So that's what's got your panties in a twist." Bertha
chortled at her own coarseness. "You've been loaded for bear
"Oh my word, yes," Bertha said.
As she was finishing serving ice cream to the children, Nancy looked
around the backyard. Her mother Emily was leaning on the arm of
a cousin as they strolled slowly along the fence. Bertha's father
Danny stood with three other men, all of them cooling their necks
with their lemonade glasses, and the teenagers were clustered conspiratorially
under the trees. The party was winding down; Nancy had hosted enough
of these to recognize the signs. Soon the young mothers would be
coming up to her to apologize for their children's irritable fatigue.
"Time they were in bed," they'd say. "Lovely party."
And after she'd stacked the dirty dishes in the sink and put the
pots to soak, Nancy would turn the downstairs lamps off and go to
her bedroom in the back of the house, where the latest Agatha Christie
was waiting for her.
Bertha approached again. "Have you got something to take this
out?" She showed off a circular stain at the hem of her skirt.
"That infernal Johnson Crickett crashed into me with his ice
In the kitchen, Nancy wet a cloth with warm water and blotted at
the stain while Bertha held the hem up.
"Those children could do with some manners learning. He didn't
even say he was sorry."
"I remember Hubert once did just the same thing to me,"
Nancy said. "But he apologized, as I recall."
"That was me that did that," Bertha said. "It was
a white dress you were wearing, and I ran into it with a chocolate
Nancy rinsed out the cloth and resumed blotting. "Maybe you're
right. My memory's not what it used to be."
Bertha looked around the kitchen Nancy knew she was inspecting it,
and surely finding flaws. Except for the stove and the fridge and
the electric clock above the pantry door, the room hadn't changed
in half a century. The wooden countertops were scarred from countless
knife chops and the cracks in the tiled floor, laid in 1901 when
Nancy's grandmother's legs were too old to squat on for scrubbing,
resembled a road map.
"Why you ever wanted to move in here with two crotchety old
men, I'll never understand," Bertha said. When Nancy didn't
respond, she went on: "I loved playing here, I'll give you
that, what with the gazebo and Uncle John and his horses. Remember
the time that old nag Silkie stepped on Hubert's toes? Lord, he
cried like there was no tomorrow. 'Course he wasn't but three or
Yes, she remembered. Hubert had whimpered as Nancy knelt down to
check for broken bones or skin. While she did her examining, Hubert
unconsciously rested his hand on her shoulder. "This might
be a little swollen or sore for a couple of days, but it'll soon
right itself," Nancy had reassured him. "Silkie's a mean
horse," he said. "She didn't mean to do it, child. She's
just too big for her own good and is likely very sorry for what
she did." Suddenly, Hubert was on his feet, all insult to his
body forgotten, and running back to the stable. "I'm going
to let her say she's sorry," he called back over his shoulder.
"You surely made a fuss," Bertha now said. She flapped
out her skirt, then inspected Nancy's cleaning job. "I reckon
the rest will come out in the wash. Much obliged."
"You're welcome," Nancy murmured, and looked out the window,
still remembering Hubert's tiny, grimy hand on her shoulder.
"Sun's nearly gone," she said.
Bertha started out. "Excuse me, needing a visit to the powder
Nancy continued looking out the window. Though a few low, drifting
clouds were brilliantly orange-bottomed, the sky above them had
taken on the deep blue hue of dusk. Beautiful as it was, she was
always saddened by the minutes before the night had settled in safely.
The guests in her backyard moved through the shadows now like ghosts,
hardly there, becoming memory.
She had watched, like this, in a summer's evening light, as Hubert
kissed his fiancee Melissa the night before he went off to the war
eight years ago. Nancy'd given him a going-away party, and was then
sorry she had. Hubert stood on the patio receiving the embraces
and good wishes of his neighbors and friends, while Melissa stood
beside him, occasionally resting her head on his shoulder. They
were good children, they would stay until the last guest had left.
When Hubert excused himself to go to the kitchen, Nancy followed
him. He was drinking a glass of water at the sink when she came
"Some crowd," he had said.
"Have you been able to greet all of them?" she asked.
"I must've. That's all I've been doing the past two hours."
He looked at her. "Then I reckon you've done your duty."
Hubert tried not to smile. "They won't mind?"
"Take my car, it's in the garage. The key's in it."
He took her in a sudden hug. "Thank you, Nancy."
It was the first time he'd called her that, without "aunt"
before it. She held on a moment longer than maybe she should have.
The last time she'd embraced him he was half her size; now he towered
over her. Like the polite child he'd always been, he waited for
her to break away.
And then he was kissing Melissa under the trees on their way to
the garage. That was the last time she saw him. The next morning
she found her car back in the garage, and Hubert was killed nine
months later when the Japanese bombed his destroyer off the southern
Bertha returned, a glass of sherry in her hand. "I took the
"Help yourself," Nancy murmured, and knew she was in for
"I'll tell you something." Bertha took a long drink. "I
don't think I ever loved Hubert."
"Course you did. He was your brother."
"Yes, he was. He was that." She looked at her aunt, waiting
for a reaction.
Nancy rinsed a glass at the sink, filled it with water, and drank
"I must've been thirsty," she said.
"You wanna to know why I didn't love him? Because you did."
"I've loved all the children in my family."
Bertha left the kitchen, then returned carrying the decanter of
sherry along with a second glass. She refilled her own and filled
the second glass for Nancy. They touched glasses, mumbling "cheers."
Nancy took a sip.
"This is good sherry. If I do say so myself." She smiled
"Honest, the way you carried on sometimes," Bertha said.
She knew right enough what Bertha was talking about, how Nancy lit
up when little Hubert came into the room, her hand finding the top
of his satiny dark head if he happened to be standing near her.
When Bertha filled her glass again, Nancy asked, "Aren't you
getting a mite tipsy?"
Bertha laughed. "Don't you put it ever so delicately! I think
what I am is drunk." She finished off the last sip and put
the glass down. "You shoulda married and had kids of your own."
"Nobody asked me."
"But Mama told me all about that Mr. Fitch asking you."
"Well then, nobody I wanted."
"So you latched onto somebody else's children."
Nancy couldn't resist. "No, just one child."
"He wasn't even your nephew."
Many times in the night hours after Hubert's death, Nancy had cursed
the term for their familial connection. It was too puny, too unauthorized,
to house the love she had for him.
"He wasn't but your first cousin once removed."
"Niece or nephew's easier," Nancy said. "You've called
me Aunt Nancy all your life."
As Bertha picked up her glass, her look lingered on Nancy's counter,
below the window that faced the backyard now emptying of people.
"Anybody seen Nancy?" Nancy heard someone outside saying.
"You see her, tell her our goodbyes for us..."
Bertha spoke softly, "You were wrong that day."
For a merciful second, Nancy didn't know what Bertha was talking
about. But her counter brought it all back.
"That was such a long time ago."
"You know the grief I got for that? They wouldn't let me out
of the house fo' a month."
"I never accused you."
"You didn't have to, you knew who'd get blamed."
"I tried to close the conversation."
For all the sherry she'd drunk, Bertha was unnervingly sober. "You
said ten dollars was gone from the kitchen counter."
"When I spoke up, I didn't want anybody to get into trouble.
I had no notion your mother would punish you anyway. I tried to
explain, likely I was mistaken. . .' She was yammering and she could
see Bertha knew it.
Bertha filled her glass, emptying the decanter. "Why can't
you say the truth, for once?"
The truth. Stepping into the kitchen with Julia, Nancy's look caught
by the odds-and-ends bowl she kept on the counter because the ten-dollar
bill she'd put there that morning was now gone, and her blurting
out "The money's gone." And then Julia asking questions
and Nancy realizing what Julia was thinking at the same moment that
she was remembering, her kneeling by the credenza, putting away
the candlesticks used the night before and observing Hubert emerging
from the kitchen, his hand coming out of his pocket. So Nancy blurting,
again, to Julia: "Wait, I had the money here yesterday, not
today." But seeing Julia would have none of it while calling,
"Bertha, Hubert, come in here!" And their coming in as
she was demanding, "which one of you stole ten dollars from
Aunt Nancy?" And their automatic and equally guilty looks,
until Julia was saying softly, "Bertha." And Bertha's
abrupt crying and screaming, "I didn't do it, I swear!"
But Julia apparently not believing her, as she was telling her daughter
now, because Bertha had stolen before, hadn't she? And Hubert keeping
his head down, and Nancy not saying a word because if somebody had
to be blamed, better it be Bertha and not Hubert. Never Hubert.
Nancy said to Bertha now, "You're right. I lied. I didn't tell
what I saw."
"And what was that?"
"Hubert leaving the kitchen putting something in his pocket."
Bertha barked a solitary laugh.
"See? I knew it. I knew it." She looked out the window.
"Oh, God, I guess it doesn't matter anymore. Who cares, right?
He's dead. I'd mention it to Mother but she'd first not remember,
then likely chastise me for dwelling on the past."
Nancy nodded. That is exactly what Julia would do.
"So, I'm going to get any satisfaction about this, I'm going
to get it here with you.
She was straightening up and facing Nancy when Stephen called from
outside. "Bert? You in there?"
Bertha shut her eyes as Stephen said, "Time to say your bye
Bertha put her glass on the counter. "So. Stephen's appointment
is at ten. That be all right?"
Nancy put her hand on Bertha's arm. "I'm sorry, Bertha. I've
always been sorry."
"I reckon I believe you." Bertha put her hand over Nancy's.
"That stuff I was saying about Hubert and not loving him? Just
a crock. You know that, right?"
"I know," Nancy answered. "But do you want to --
Bertha waved her hand. "No, Mother'd be right. Water under
She turned to leave, then turned back from the kitchen door. "Though
you never know. We might share a glass a sherry again sometime."
She always did have a flair for drama, Nancy thought.
Nancy closed her book and waited for sleep.
She was twenty-seven years old when Hubert was born in 1923, and
taking care of her grandfather and Uncle John. It was a contentful
existence, no storms she couldn't handle, few upheavals.
Then Hubert was born and it all changed. She didn't concern herself
with why, why him and not someone else, why him and not Bertha,
his big sister. Something about the way his green eyes looked steadily
into hers when she held him on her lap, a regard she lived for as
he grew up, finding reasons to be part of his life -- his cheerleading
section when he played basketball, his tutor when his grades dropped,
his go-between when he lacked the nerve to ask Melissa out on their
Nancy watched the shadows shift from one side of the ceiling to
the other and back again whenever the occasional car drove by the
After he died, sometimes she thought, Thank goodness I never had
children, I couldn't survive the death of them. Other times she
thought, Now I've lost Hubert, who is there to love? She wondered
if what had kept her from making a family had, finally, been the
fear of their dying, and she wept at the irony: a middleaged spinster,
no children or husband to die on her, just a first cousin once removed,
and her heart was broken nonetheless.
She turned onto her side and pulled the covers up to her neck. It
was her favorite time of year, when the nights got cooler before
the days did.
Let Bertha come back to drink up all her sherry again and berate her
for all her other slights and wrongdoings. Hell, let accusations fly
freely even. Let the name 'Hubert' be thrown about, recklessly if
need be, but often.
From the judges
Tom Parker: I was moved by the characters in "Cousins"
and compelled by their shared and newly revised history. Bertha's
festering grudge and Nancy's life of unfulfilled love anchored by
the weight of all the years gone by makes for a rich, multi-layered
story, subtly and artfully evoked.
Kim Silveira Wolterbeek: Through lively dialogue and thoughtful
introspection, "Cousins" explores the universal themes
of loss, family grievance and reconciliation.
Ellen Sussman: I love spending some time with Nancy and Bertha
at the big house in Kentucky, September 1950. The writer convinces
us of the place, the time and these fascinating characters. Their
story reveals itself slowly, through the characters' true voices
and in their silences. I especially love the ending!