by Sara Solberg
No one in the family knew why Aunt Bea began collecting happiness. She never used any of it, after all. Bea remained surly and irascible up until her dying day, and it was long suspected she lacked the facial muscles necessary to adjust her expression into anything other than a scowl. For whatever reason though, her collection continued to grow at a steady pace: week by week, month by month, year after year—Mason jars with lids twisted tight enough to hold the luminous swirls of blue and green and burnt orange that trilled against the glass, keen to burst forth. But Bea never opened them. She never loosed any happiness from the prisons she preserved it in. The jars just sat on a dark pantry shelf, sheathed in ever-thickening layers of dust.
That’s the thing about hoarders, I suppose. Particularly older hoarders, who grew up with the Depression imprinted in their minds. They save and save and save, holding their breaths for an impending What if? that never arrives.
As with the why, we could never pin down the how of Aunt Bea’s collection. How was it that a person could walk into the living room where Bea sat in her armchair, only to find every ounce of delight suddenly sucked from their bodies and into the open jar she held in her lap, caught and sealed before anyone knew what had happened? How was it she could even steal happiness over the phone, drawing it like thread through miles upon miles of circuit wires until it squeezed out the speaker and into her palms, leaving a human husk on the other end of the line?
“We can’t hold it against her, June,” Dad said one morning at breakfast, sipping his coffee without looking up from The Times. The birthday card Bea had sent Mom—congratulating her niece for making it to fifty without becoming a deadbeat whore like Mom’s sister, and speaking of, how’s the hubby? Run off with a younger mistress yet? It’s just a matter of time now, June. Your age is really starting to show—was lying face down on the table. “You know what she’s been through.”
It wasn’t clear to what specifically Dad was referring. Maybe Bea’s childhood, spent under the watchful glower of a father who was rumored to have amassed a happiness collection of his own. Maybe her daughter, who withered away from leukemia the summer before she was to begin her first semester of college. Most likely, Dad meant the Great Tractor Catastrophe of ’98, which left Bea’s brother with a concaved skull he never fully recovered from, her husband prostrate and pulseless in a cornfield for the crows to peck at until the police could wade through the stalks and shoo them away.
Whatever the case, Mom pursed her lips without answer.
In a small house in Iowa, I imagined Aunt Bea was placing another jar on her pantry shelf, content with a job well done.
Sara Solberg is an emerging writer from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She’s an MFA candidate at Northern Michigan University, where she also reads for Passages North. She can usually be found trekking through the woods surrounding her home, procrastinating on the work she should be doing. Sara’s writing has appeared in Hippocampus, The Manhattanville Review, Tiny Seed and The Other Journal.