Another Washington
Caitlin Kindervatter-Clark

When I was nine, my aunt Jane lost her way and came to live with us. My mother said she lost her way because she had a broken heart—there was some man in New Mexico. My father said she'd been lost before that. Still, he agreed D.C. would be a good place for her because of the jobs.

But Jane wasn't interested in looking for a job. What she was interested in was her broken heart. If there'd been a job related to her heart, she would have taken it, but there didn't seem to be anything in that department. She spent her days playing Joni Mitchell on my father's turntable and nights watching reruns over our leftover dinners.

I liked to curl up beside her on the couch. Her clothes were soft and threadbare and smelled different from my mother's perfumed blazers. They smelled like a person, like Jane's warm skin. 

A few months into her stay, I came home from school to find Jane doing an angel reading for our housekeeper, Teresa. The angels had filled three pages of a yellow pad and were still going. Jane was relaying their messages through her left hand in slanted all caps, her head drooping off her neck in some kind of trance.

Teresa claimed the angels knew things about her that Jane could not have known—her dead mother's name, her children's birth months. They delivered a message from Teresa's mother, who said Teresa should move back to El Salvador because she was unhappy in the States.

"I am," Teresa confirmed into my father's Harvard mug. "I am unhappy."

She quit the next day. It was my first experience with loss, and I did not take it well. I sobbed and clung to her long black parka, a hand-me-down from my mother. But Teresa had already steeled herself against my appeals. She kept her gaze fixed over my head, onto the sidewalk that led to her bus station.

My parents did not know about Jane's hand in Teresa's departure, and I didn't tell them. I couldn't bear to lose two people at the same time. My father suggested Jane take over the housekeeper position now that Teresa was gone. It would be an easy way for her to save some money, get back on her feet.

But Jane was preoccupied with the angels. Almost every time I came home from school there was a new nanny or landscaper sitting at our kitchen table. The angels told some people to get divorced, others to quit their jobs. They spoke to dead husbands, parents, children. They claimed no one was happy and wanted everyone to do something to change their lives. No one seemed surprised by what the angels said, but they did seem grateful. People began bringing gifts. Jane took to covering the frayed necks of her T-shirts with brightly woven scarves and replaced our dinner leftovers with tins of warm arepas.

Our house grew dusty. Crumbs collected around the table and crusted over the dishes in the sink. None of us could find clean underwear. Jane drifted through our rooms in an untouchable haze, and my father muttered things under his breath. Jane was making herself hard to love. 

But I still loved her. One day, she picked me up from school, and we got lost on the walk home. I don't know how it happened in our neighborhood's neat grid of streets, but the usual twenty-minute walk morphed into an hour, and the houses grew farther apart, with larger yards and low, ranch fences.

"We're in the country," I said.
Jane laughed. "This is definitely not the country."

"Well, maybe Virginia."

"Did we walk across the river?" she wondered. 

We stopped and looked around, as if we might have without noticing.    

Jane wasn't worried about being lost.  Taking my hand and leading me through a web of unknown alleys, she got us home eventually. I remember lilac and honeysuckle bursting through backyard fences, a dog that didn't bother to bark.

The last straw for my father was the mailman. He'd stopped by one afternoon for an angel reading and was still there when my parents got home. He and Jane were sitting on the back porch, half-watching me play on the swing set. The mailman was younger than Jane and laughed at almost everything. He had amber eyes and an accent I couldn't place.

"I think this is a federal offense," said my father, eying the mailbag abandoned by our backdoor.

The mailman laughed but got to his feet, gathering stray parts of his uniform that had come free while he and Jane were kissing.

"Don't worry," he said, hoisting the mail back on his shoulder. "I keep going 'til it gets done." He laughed, as if this were a wonderful joke. The mailman was taller than my father, with muscular calves that peeked out below his uniform shorts. Jane touched one as he walked away.

"I don't think this is a good fit," said my father over dinner that night. He was a big believer in good fits. My school was a good fit. Our neighborhood was a good fit. Teresa, the mailman—they were good fits, in their fitting positions. Jane hadn't found a fitting position. My father offered to buy her a plane ticket to anywhere in the country.

She chose Washington State. Some summers, if there's time between camp and internships, I get to visit for a little while. It's a silver, mossy place where Jane lives, a valley of fairy-tale fogs and raindrops falling from emerald pines. She has a cabin with a rickety porch and four free-roaming cats—grown up versions of a litter she found in the woods. Sometimes, she gets visitors, but mostly, it's just her and the angels. The air there is soft and filled with the sound of wind chimes.

Caitlin Kindervatter-Clark lives in San Francisco. She's had stories in SmokeLong Quarterly, Five Chapters, Necessary Fiction, Women Arts Quarterly and others.

Read her postcard.

Detail of art on main page courtesy of Townie.

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