This week I’m sharing with you the first installment of a short story I wrote for my writer’s group. They got a chuckle out of it. Hope you do, too!
The Secrets of the Mud Room
For long as I could remember, my great-aunt Sharon refused to use her back door, the one that led from her kitchen to the back yard. The neighbors thought she was odd. The neighbor kids called her crazy. I didn’t know what to believe.
Summers, she’d fill that back yard with a massive vegetable garden, growing everything from tomatoes to okra, onions to watermelons. I don’t think there’s a vegetable she didn’t try, at least once.
Some did better than others. The watermelon never got bigger than cantaloupes (and yes, she knew they were fruit. She just called the whole thing a vegetable garden.) The strawberries, on the other hand, took over and just about choked out the green beans. The corn, the one year she attempted it, didn’t grow higher than a dog’s eye, let alone an elephant’s.
Tomatoes and zucchini, those she could grow. We were eating salsa and zucchini bread long before they became popular. And if only iPhones were around then, we would have documented her zucchini lasagna, probably the first people in the world to eat it.
Raised beds of flowers circled the vegetables. Marigolds and begonias, impatiens and violets all raised a riot of color during much of the summer. The hostas and day lilies did their share as well, the cool green and white leaves of the hostas contrasting with the bright yellow of the lilies.
Aunt Sharon loved that garden. From dawn to dusk she’d toil away, weeding and deadheading, tilling and fertilizing, anxiously calculating how much water to give her tender plants. She’d only come inside for lunch, then head back again.
But she’d never use the back door.
Even though her house had a large mud room at the back, she never set foot in it. She’d leave the house by the front door and walk all the way around, through the dim coolness of the side yard with its six maples and a birch, then get her tools from the garage that stood twenty feet away from the house. To go back inside, she’d repeat the journey. At the front door, she’d shuck her gardening shoes and replace them with a pair of slippers she left just inside.
Uncle Otis tried to reason with her. She’d just wave her hand at him like she was shooing a fly. “You just listen what I tell you, old man,” she’d say. “Just do what I say.”
Sometimes he’d get frustrated and go all passive aggressive on her. One day he wanted to eat his lunch in front of the TV so he could watch the ball game. Aunt Sharon said fine, I’ll bring the ice tea if you bring the sandwiches.
The next-door neighbors told me they could hear her raging at him for bringing just the sandwiches, not the plates she’d laid them out on.
His defense was he’d listened to her, and done what she said. She hadn’t said anything about plates.
Oh, the neighbors had a good time telling me how Aunt Sharon would make trip after trip, carrying groceries in the front door, even though it would have been so much easier to go the back way.
And the time Uncle Otis fell on the ice and broke his leg, what did she do when she got him home from the hospital? She drove him up to the curb in the front and eased him up the long walkway with its eight steep steps and in through the front door, cast, crutches and all. Uncle Otis was a least a foot taller than she, and chubby to boot. The back way was much shorter and had only two steps. Why Uncle Otis didn’t argue I never heard.
Sometimes I’d overhear him, asking her if they could get it fixed. “It would be more convenient,” he’d say.
She’d always refuse, saying it worked fine and they didn’t need to spend the money. “Besides, it’s good exercise, taking a few extra steps.”
I lots of time with her and Uncle Otis, most of the summers and school breaks, handed off by my parents who were either on the brink of divorce or travelling the world together. “We’ll be right back for you, darling,” my mother would say. Usually that meant I’d be at Aunt Sharon’s for at least six weeks.
The first year it happened, I got up every morning and packed my bag. I’d pester Aunt Sharon all day. “When are Mommy and Daddy coming for me?”
She’d gently hand me a cookie or enlist me in helping her with some task. “They’ll be here when they get here,” she’d say. “In the meantime, we’ve got stuff to do.”
Sometimes my mother would drop me off and say, “I don’t think your dad loves you anymore.” I’d spend a week in misery, missing him, thinking I’d never see him again.
Then I’d get long letters from him, twice a week like clockwork, all telling me how much he missed me. All the back and forth and contradictory messages made it hard for me to know just what was what and where I fit in. And who, if anyone, could be believed.
I was small for my age, with limp red hair and stick-like arms and legs. It took some time for the neighbor kids to allow me into their games. Egged on by them, eager for their approval, I tried a few times to peek into that mud room to see what was in there.
Once time Aunt Sharon caught me with my hand on the door handle of that back door. “No!” She screeched so loud I jumped almost high enough to hit my head on the ceiling. “Never,” she told me, wagging a finger in my face, “never use the back door.”
Her brilliant blue eyes probed mine. “Do you hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I looked at my feet. What was the big secret?
I was too scared ask. But over the years I wondered what was in the mud room. Treasure? Dead bodies?
Come back next week for the conclusion.