Like hearing a ripsaw's teeth pulled gently across a chalkboard, or unwittingly chomping down on a bit of foil gum wrapper. That's how Priscilla had always affected Hooter. Just the thought of her.
Priscilla happened to be one of Hooter's shirttail cousins, second or third removed as best as he could remember, but not near far enough as he wished. Even though he and Charlie only had to see her about once a year Hooter would have traded two months worth of extra chores to forego even two minutes with her.
There's no explaining the innate dislike some folks have for others, the kind that can overwhelm good sense or even love. Given a chance, though, Hooter could explain his dislike of Priscilla, a long, long list worth of explanation.
For one thing, she didn't put on airs as much as she wallowed in them. Whenever she visited her country cousins, even today, she reminded them frequently of how sorry she felt for them being brought up in such a backwards way in such a remote part of the world. Speaking of which, she didn't just come from a few states away, she came from a few states north, which Hooter figured was a major part of her overall philosophical disarray.
For another, she wouldn't leave him and Charlie be. When they were kids they'd try to encourage her to leave them to their backward solitude with a well-placed snake, spider or mouse, then she'd go tattling to Aunt Pinkie. Their aunt would always take Priscilla's side. “Our little Miss Priss,” Aunt Pinkie would beam.
“She doesn't even know her,” a pubescent Charlie would lament as he and Hooter shared one more punishment for mistreating Priscilla.
“She knows us too well, though,” Hooter would say.
Plus, Priscilla had all of the conviction of first-time teetotaler. Her interests flip-flopped like a paper bag on a West Texas wind. One year, it would be Brownies and clarinet, the next year she'd have no use for either, casting her allegiance to something else entirely. Pricilla's phases progressed as the cousins grew.
Forced to sit at the same dinner table with her two years ago, Hooter has listened to her rail on about how grapefruit and psychoanalysis had turned her life around.
“You've got to have a life before you can turn it around,” Hooter had pointed out.
By last year, the grapefruit trees lay barren in Priscilla's life and she went on and on about the joys of being a vegetarian.
“She's just nuts,” Hooter said.
Worst of all, Priscilla's skin was thinner than frog slobber. Without even trying, Hooter could have her crying hysterically. “It's because she likes you, can't you see that,” Aunt Pinkie would scold him as she tried to console Priscilla at the same time.
It never changed: Priscilla visits; Aunt Pinkie demands Charlie and Hooter's presence at dinner; despite all threats, after listening to Priscilla jabber on about the latest trends in her life, Hooter makes a comment that sends Priscilla into tears and Aunt Pinkie into a defensive tirade.
Families are funny that way—mixing the same potion year after year always hoping for, even half expecting different results.
So, couple Hooter's historical dislike for Priscilla with the predictability of her annual visit. Now, toss in the fact that no matter how old you are, you're always viewed as, and view others, as the age when the acquaintance first hatched. That's why old men still puff up when they trot out a new horse for lifelong friends and why they've been known to do geriatric half-gainers over the swells of a saddle or the handlebars of a four-wheeler, still showing off for their used-to-be girlfriends who became their wives years ago.
That's how Hooter was feeling, and what he was capable of, as he made his way to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport to fetch, “our Little Miss Priss,” for Aunt Pinkie. He flipped Charlie for the honor and mistakenly pulled a real quarter from his pocket rather than the two-headed one he saved for such occasions.
All the way from Apache Flats Hooter would glare at the gas station signs that gave the price in cents because they apparently didn't have the 2's to show the dollar amount, and he'd mutter, “Over two bucks a gallon, and for what? One more ride with Smelly Nellie.” Bestowing her with that nickname for the perfumes she marinated herself in was one of the boys' first attempts to be shunned by their older cousin.
Are We There Yet?
Even Hooter was amazed by the Priscilla he found waiting at the curb. She was as tall and wormy looking as ever, but the waist-length golden curls he'd seen her with all their lives had been lopped off over the ears. It wasn't gold anymore, either; more of a hydraulic oil red. Perched on top was a bright purple, miniature pillbox hat. In one hand she was carrying what looked to be a quart jar full of water with some kind of green plant floating inside, a present for Aunt Pinkie Hooter supposed. In the other dangled an overnight bag with a “Kerry or Bust” bumper sticker.
“Guess it was a bust,” said Hooter with a grin.
“I beg your pardon,” said Priscilla crossly.
“Your bumper sticker there. I said I guess it was a bust seeing's how nobody but a few Yankees gave your candidate the vote.”
Instead of returning the volley as Hooter expected, Priscilla quickly handed him the bag, opened the jar and breathed deeply. Hooter thought it a bit strange, as did a couple of passersby marveling at this lady in a purple pillbox hat apparently trying to use her nostrils for straws. He didn't say anything, though.
They'd barely exited the airport before Priscilla unscrewed the lid of her jar and took another mighty whiff. “Hooter, I know we've had our differences over the years,” she began. “I'd like this year to be different, not for us as much as for Aunt Pinkie.” She took another deep breath over the jar. “Can we get along for Aunt Pinkie's sake?”
Rather than respond, Hooter made a show of taking out a Herculean dip of Copenhagen and sticking it inside his lip. He knew she hated that. For good measure, though he wouldn't do it any other time, he spat on the floorboard. He knew she really hated that.
“Still with that disgusting habit I see,” seethed Priscilla. “You know it's just a matter of time before you lip falls off or worse.”
“And, I smell that you're still buying your perfume by the barrel,” responded Hooter, dander up, ready for the game to begin. “It's just a matter of time before you nose implodes.”
Priscilla was ready to say something else, but she stopped and took another breath over the open jar. “Again, can we please just get along?”
“You started it,” said Hooter.
“No, I didn't. As a lady I just happen to be offended by that filthy habit. But, in the spirit of the occasion, I'm willing to overlook it.” She breathed from her jar again.
“If you're serious about a truce, that's fine by me,” said Hooter. “The only way I reckon that will work, though, is if we just don't chat. Think you can handle that Magpie Annie?”
He figured that would be the last straw, but again the deep inhale and the forced reply: “Fine.”
“Before we clam up, I do have one question. What is it that you keep sniffing in your jar?”
“I don't suppose where you come from they've heard of aromatherapy,” said Priscilla between clenched lips.
“Aroma what-apy?” said Hooter playing along.
“Aromatherapy,” said Priscilla tersely, then more calmly. “Aromatherapy, Hooter. It's ancient medicine, really, knowledge of the interaction between the body's olfactory nerves and limbic system, the emotions created by certain odors.”
“Kind of like the smell of horseflesh being good for the soul.”
Priscilla just breathed deeply.
“What flavor's that?”
“Scent, Hooter, scent,” said Priscilla. “The scent happens to be one customized specifically for me. It's called Halcyon Mist. There's Adriatic Sea water, a sprig of sea kelp and a splash of banana oil.”
“That's it!” cried Hooter.
“I've been trying to figure out what was different about you, that's it, the banana oil made it all click.”
“The banana oil?”
“Yep. You know Priscilla…in this light…with that hat…you remind me of…my pet monkey.”
Just like that—tears in torrents and hysterical sobs, just like old times.
“Well, you can't say it wasn't different, Smelly Nellie. We usually make it through Grace,” said Hooter. “By the by, you might ought to see if you can get your money back on that seaweed water.”