Close up picture of a cockerel, 'Aunty Booby Gives Advice' by Cathy Adams on

Aunt Booby Gives Advice

Aunt Booby Gives Advice

Cathy Adams


“When planning a murder, just be yourself,” said Aunt Booby. “Don’t try to do it the way you see it in the movies because it never turns out easy the way those guys make it look. What looks like it would come off without a hitch will get all messed up, especially if it involves too much talking. How many times do you see in the movies when a person holds a gun on somebody and just talks the guy’s ear off threatening to kill him, but he never shuts up and does it, and then something happens and he gets killed himself? Hmmm? You have your own way of dressing, of combing your hair, fixing a sandwich, talking to a pretty girl, so you should have your own way of planning a murder that is unique to your personality.” When Aunt Booby finished her spiel she put her cigarette out in the planter on my coffee table. She was never one to take a hint. The fact that I didn’t put an ashtray out for her to use should have been proof enough that I did not want her smoking in my house, but she had never been the kind of person to respect the wishes of others if those wishes countered her own in the slightest way. I didn’t offer her anything to drink either, because the last time I did she was too drunk to hold the glass. She dropped it on my floor and there it went into a hundred pieces. I have very few nice things in my house, but those glasses were nice. They were from Pottery Barn, and now the set is an odd number.

“Vasily, dear boy, have you given this any thought at all?” Aunt Booby stared hard at me just the way she did when she told me to lie if the police questioned me about the stolen electronic equipment in the back of my Uncle Yefim’s diner. Don’t say anything Vasily, she said, just keep your mouth shut and I’ll buy you a scooter. As if I could be bought off with a scooter. I made her buy me an iPhone, too.

“Because when you say you want to do this thing but you have no fresh ideas about how to go about it, then it makes me think you are not the winner your mama, my dead sister, bless her sweet self, raised you up to be. No?” When Aunt Booby refers to my mother she always raises her eyes to heaven as if to make sure Mama is hearing what she says. She raised her eyebrows at me as if her eyes were lasers and she was trying to burn a hole right through me.

I told her that I had been giving the idea a lot of thought, and I made the suggestion that I could push him into the walk-in freezer of the plant and the door would lock behind him.

“Does he have a cell?” Aunt Booby asked.

I hadn’t considered that. If I pushed my boss into the big storage freezer, two things had to be true. The temperature would have to be sufficiently low to freeze him to death before anyone found him, and he could not have a cell phone to call for help. The more I thought about it, the less I was certain that the temperature was low enough to kill him even if he didn’t have a cell phone, so we scrapped that idea quickly.

“Let’s look at this another way. What are you good at, Vasily?” Aunt Booby pointed a long lacquered nail at me. She wasn’t allowed to have nails when she was in prison. Mama and I visited her once a month if Mama could dig up bus fare. Aunt Booby’s nails had been chewed to the quick, ugly and stubbed like a child’s nails, like a small boy’s. I’m sure prison was a stressful place, even for someone as resilient as my Aunt Booby. She’s been out four years, and she has her nails done every other week at the place she refers to as The Little Hanoi Shop, and now her hands look like those of an aging vampire. That nail on her right index finger was pointing right at my face, and all I could see was the shining white reflection of the overhead light on the fuchsia surface. “You have skills, Vasily. We just have to match up your abilities to the right scenario for the murder. Come on now, let’s think. You’re good at building model trains. You play tennis very well. You play the piano, don’t you? You do the little paper folding animals. They’re so cute. Your hands are small so you’re good at digging things out of small places. You think I forgot about the time you pulled little Nushka out of that pipe? Poor thing was scared out of her mind. Wouldn’t purr for a week. But you,” she jabbed the nail in my direction once more, “you rescued her.” That was twenty years ago. I had pulled her kitten out of the drain pipe because its mewing was driving me insane. And my hands were small because I was eleven.

“But I am not coming up with any ideas about how your natural skills and talents could help you do this job.” Aunt Booby took out another cigarette from her massive yellow vinyl bag and lit it. She seemed to read the expression on my face. “Don’t say you will shoot him. We both know you don’t have what it takes to do that. And our agreement was that you’d do it yourself. No helping from your Aunt Booby, no matter if you are my favorite nephew.” She reached out and cupped my chin with her free hand, grazing my skin with her nail as she did so. We’d made no such agreement. I’d told her what I had in mind over the phone and she insisted that we talk it over at my place because she had experience in such matters, and I had trouble even removing mice from the traps under the cabinets. Ever since Mama died, my Aunt Booby insisted on stepping in when occasions arose that required a mother’s support and guidance. Planning a murder was what she considered one of those occasions.

“You know how messy a gun is, my sweet one. Or a knife,” said Aunt Booby, trying to sound nurturing and helpful. I told her I didn’t want to use a gun anyway. America already has so much senseless gun violence. I didn’t want to add to an increasing national problem. And besides, a gun just wasn’t my style. Tripping Doug, my boss, at the precipice of the roof of a tall building would be right up my alley because I was naturally clumsy and my 5’2” height meant that I frequently got in the way of others who overlooked me. But our building was two stories high with no access to its flat roof. I could think of no plausible reason why I should be on the top of our building with Doug. We dispensed with that idea.

Driving him into a wall was my next suggestion. I could offer him a ride home after work. Doug’s Sentra was always breaking down, and since his girlfriend dumped him last month, he has no one to call to pick him up. Offering to drive him home would be a reasonable plan except I could think of no wall to drive into in the three mile drive between work and his apartment. The obvious hurdle in this plan, besides the lack of a surface to crash into, was the near certainty that I would die as well.

Aunt Booby was sighing with desperation as I talked through this last idea. I thought she was going to offer me a suggestion, but she threw this at me instead. “Are you really committed to this, Vasily? I mean really committed. Because I’m not hearing any passion in your voice. When my grandfather, your great-grandfather Anton, planned a job, he would sit in his chair next to the window and have a drink. He would be thinking it out, planning it.” She fluffed out the tips of her thick, red, puffed-out hair with her nails. “He would say to me, Bronya, I’m going out to make a bet on a chicken. And I always knew. He said that with passion, about the chicken, and I knew.” She carefully lowered her hand to her lap.

I assumed she meant he had planned a murder and successfully implemented the plan, because I’d heard my whole life that my great-grandfather was the consummate businessman. Whenever my mother spoke of him she used a voice that she reserved for no other person, as if he was listening from somewhere in the next room and she had to be careful what she said about him. He died long before I was born, when my mother was a teenager and Aunt Booby was not much older. I never heard my mother say anything about him going out to bet on chickens, and I figure that if he had my mother would just have thought that he was going to do exactly that, bet on a chicken. My mother was rather literal that way. I started working at Doug’s company the year before my mother was diagnosed with cancer, and she used to hear me complain all the time about him. I even told Mama once that Doug called me a “stooge” and laughed at me because I made a mistake in an inventory report. I said I was going to kill him with my own hands if he ever talked to me like that again. She didn’t even look up from her magazine. She told me that I mustn’t listen to people when they said such things because those words were more a statement about them than about me. I know that on a purely logical level Mama was right, but that look on Doug’s face when he was laughing at me made me want to shoot him right between the eyes, except I didn’t have a gun. This past week he watched me putting together my sandwich in the break room and said right in front of everybody, “What kind of weirdo puts ketchup and onions on a cheese sandwich? That’s disgusting.” And everyone laughed.

“Your great-grandfather,” Aunt Booby continued, lowering her voice a little, “would not have had to think about it this long. He would have tossed back his vodka, said he was going to make that bet, and the deed would have been done before Great Gran had supper on the table.”

My assumption at such a comment was that my great-grandfather Anton, who was a known henchman for a group of men whose names I’d read about in Internet articles, used a gun when he bet on chickens, and my Aunt Booby and I had already established the fact that a gun was not in the cards for me. I was tiring of the conversation and was beginning to wonder how much of the family tradition had actually made it into my blood, or if Aunt Booby was the last one with those particular skills. She must have been reading my mind.

“Vasily, I know you think that you can’t do this, but you can. I’ve seen your concentration when you set your mind to something,” said Aunt Booby. “You have good reasoning skills. You think things through like you’re some kind of scientist or something. I remember when you put all those little piles of rat poison all around the diner in the spots where you said rats liked to move at night. You studied those walls for days before you made a plan.”

In this she is correct. I scored over 70% on Intuition and 81% on Thinking on the Myers Briggs. Until Aunt Booby pointed this out, I’d never thought about how helpful it can be to know your Myers Briggs score so that you can utilize your best attributes when planning a murder.

“You’ve got it dear boy, you just have to believe in yourself.” And then she added the final punch and looked at the ceiling. “Your mother believed in you.”

I never for once thought that my mother believed in me as a cold, efficient killer, but such praise from Aunt Booby was one of the nicest things she’d ever said to me. When I was younger she often spoke to me as if she thought I was some dirty little thing the cat dragged up. I think she always imagined that if she’d had a son of her own that he would have been the opposite of me: tall, outspoken, confident, handsome, and able to make a bet on a chicken without hesitation and still make it home before dinner. We were the only two left in the family except for Uncle Yefim, and since his heart attack he didn’t get around much. For the past year he’s sat in the back room of the diner and let Aunt Booby run the place, so for all intents and purposes, it was just me and Aunt Booby who were left of the family chicken betting business. And I was not much good at it, as evidenced by this conversation which was giving me a pounding headache.

“Did you take chemistry at that college of yours?” Aunt Booby’s eyes squinted as if she was trying to remember something. “What was the name of that?” She snapped her fingers a few times. “What was that? Polonium. That’s it. Do you know about that?”

I said I’d never heard of such a thing and I couldn’t think of how she would know about it, either. She insisted that I look it up on my iPhone that she’d spent so much money on, so I did, and I was shocked to read just how lethal polonium is. Radioactive poisons weren’t our thing as a family; they just didn’t fit our MO. We discovered to our mutual disappointment that one gram could “in theory poison 20 million people of whom 10 million would die.” I also saw that polonium is present in tobacco, but I decided not to mention that part.

“There must be some other poison,” she said, lighting another cigarette. “Something a little less. . .apocalyptic.” My mother had once told me the story of how Aunt Booby had sought revenge on some high school girlfriends who’d made fun of her frizzy hair by inviting them to a sleepover and then serving them an Ex-Lax cake. The whole story was so clichéd, I doubted that Aunt Booby had actually done it. Serving them a polonium cake would have been more her style, if she could have figured out how to cook it without killing herself and 10 million other people.

Personally, I’d fancied the idea of a garrote for a long time. It would be easy to carry in my pocket. I could walk into Doug’s office when his secretary left for lunch, and find some reason to walk around behind his desk. Admire one of his framed photos of his children, perhaps. He has three ugly daughters with narrow, M&M-looking eyes set in puffy faces. He has this flimsy pressboard book shelf underneath his window that’s lined across the top with their photos. How simple it would be to feign interest, get up, put my hands in my pockets, saunter behind his chair, and then bam! One length of piano wire would be all it would take. I had a piano I hadn’t played since Mother finally permitted me to stop taking lessons in high school. I was sure she wouldn’t mind. And there was something about the garrote that I felt would have won my great-grandfather’s approval. It had an Old World feel to it. It was silent and quick. For me, the appeal was that Doug would know it was me strangling the life right out of him. This was so much better than shooting him. Any coward with a finger can squeeze a trigger. But a garrote would place me up close, right behind him, and there would be nothing he could do to stop me. He would be completely at my mercy, suffering, but not too long, grabbing at his neck, but his grip would be useless because the wire would cut off his oxygen and he would slowly slump over onto his desk with the knowledge that it was me who’d done it. Who’s the stooge now, huh? I’d whisper the words right next to his head as he choked to death. And it would be easy because Doug’s pretty tall, at least six feet, and at my height I would be level with his head while he sat in his office chair. When the job was done I’d coil up the wire, stuff it in my pocket, and walk out, just like Pacino when he walked out of that Italian restaurant in The Godfather after he blew those guys away. This was how I laid it all out for Aunt Booby, ending the scene by describing Pacino when he kept his eyes on the door and just walked out like nothing had happened. She was smiling, no, she was beaming. I’d picked a winner, and I’d made her proud. Maybe I’d made my great-grandfather proud, if he could have seen me. I even thought of a line to say after I did it, when Doug was lying there, eyes open, face down on his accounts ledger. That’s one chicken that lost the bet. And then I’d walk out.

Getting wire was harder than I thought it would be, just like all jobs worth doing. I had to use the wire cutters on three different wires before I found one that was thin enough to snap free on my piano. The other two were damaged in the process. There will be no “Jingle Bells” played at my holiday party this year because essential keys for that song are now damaged. The wire coiled easily and slipped into my jacket pocket.

Waiting for Doug’s secretary to leave for lunch was like waiting for the Disneyland gates to open when you’ve been waiting in the parking lot for hours. I was sweating, and my hands kept reflexively feeling the wire in my pocket every few minutes. I had a straight shot view into Doug’s office from my corner cubicle, and finally I saw his secretary grab her pocketbook and amble toward the door. I was at Doug’s office door before my courage could fail. In seconds I was standing in front of his desk, my hands in my pockets.

“Yes?” Doug asked.

I couldn’t think of a single thing to say to him.

“Do you need something?”

My jaw was moving but no sound was coming out.

“How about some water? You look like you’re going to pass out.” Doug got up and reached for a half-empty bottle of water and a paper cup. I spurted something about his lovely children which made him hesitate in his tracks and look back at me, but he kept going for the water. I wanted to hit myself. I needed him in the chair, and there he was getting water for me.

He handed me a cup of water and put his hands on his hips. I drank it down in one gulp and smacked the cup on his table, but there wasn’t much impact to the gesture since it was paper. I wanted to say something eloquent, but the only word I could get out was the one he called me that day in the break room. Weirdo.

“Oh, yeah, that,” he stammered in reply. “I was uh, I was letting some personal stuff get to me and I let my mouth run away with me that day. Let’s just forget I said that, okay?” He was still standing and he looked much taller than 6’1. I asked him if I could sit down and he looked at me funny as if to say no, but then he gestured to the chair and I sat, my hands instinctively going for my pockets. He sat down as well, and neither of us spoke for several seconds. I had to make my move soon or the opportunity would be lost, so I stood up quickly and when I did so the piano wire flipped out from my fumbling, sweaty fingers and onto the carpet.

He glanced at it and made a little “hmph” sound. “That’s a guitar string, right? Do you play?”

I wanted to shout out my line about the stooge or the chicken bet, but I got confused and what came out was incomprehensible. Then it came to me, the thing that my great-grandfather would certainly have said in the same situation. I snatched the wire up from the floor and announced in a clear voice that I had a garrote and I’d come to kill him. Doug gave a little laugh and pointed at what I held in my hand. “You crack me up, Vasily. A garrote’s supposed to have handles on the ends with the wire wrapped around them so you can grip it, like this.” Doug made as if he was holding the two ends in his fists. “A garrote,” he said, still making as if he was holding a garrote and laughing. “You’re a funny guy.” I stood there staring at the coil, and suddenly I knew he was right. There was no way I could grip the slick ends in my sweaty hands. Shame and failure flooded over me, and I could hear Aunt Booby’s voice when I told her what happened.

I told him that yes, I had taken up playing the guitar and then I headed for the door.

“Vasily! Wait a minute.” Doug stepped around his desk and stopped. “You know, in all seriousness now. I’ve been meaning to tell you. I’ve noticed you have a hard time fitting in around here, and you don’t seem to have many friends. You know? Figure out something you’re good at and maybe invite some people to join you. Like maybe playing the guitar,” he said, gesturing to the coil in my shaking hand. “You need to just be yourself. Okay?”

I thanked him for his advice and headed back to my desk, tightening the coil of wire around the palm of my hand and thinking of chickens.

About the Author

Cathy Adams

Cathy Adams’ first novel, This Is What It Smells Like, was published by New Libri Press, Washington. Her short stories have been published in Utne, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Tincture Journal, A River and Sound Review, Upstreet, Portland Review, and thirty-two other publications from around the world. She earned her M.F.A. at Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University in Washington. She lives and writes in Liaoning, China, with her husband, photographer, JJ Jackson.

Edited by Lisa Renee

Image: Unsplash | Jairo Alzate

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