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May 13, 2024

Transitions 09

By Sand Pilarski

Nine: Arrivals

Aunt Andersol blew in the front door at about three in the afternoon, sooner than her class would have been out. The wind had risen in the drenching rain; no doubt there would be trees down across the estate tonight. She saw me on the couch in the sitting room, and asked, "What are you doing home from school so early?"

"Dear Aunt," I said, looking up from my book, "waiting for you."

I could have said something smart-mouthed, like "The same reason you are" or something clever, like "I convinced the principal that it was in his best interests to dismiss us early" or a mundane recitation as in "They let us out of school early because of the heavy rain." Instead I told her the immediate truth. I had been stationed downstairs in my thick socks and a thermal blanket (and a good book) to keep an eye out for aunts. I did restrain myself from asking why my fair Aunt was wearing sunglasses on such a dim and rainy day, and from asking why she continued to wear them indoors as she walked to the stairs.

Halfway up the stairs, she paused, seeming out of breath. "Owen, would you tell your mother and Bodie that I had McDonald's on the way home, and am not going to join them for supper?"

"Can do," I said. I would pass along that statement, but I knew she was lying. There was not hint of a whiff of McDonald's on her; unless she was trying to suggest that she had stopped afterwards somewhere, had a bath with unscented soap, and brushed her teeth, too.

"How was school?" I called to her as she slowly trudged up the stairs as though mired in mud.

"School is school," she answered noncommittally. "It's like riding in the back of an old truck with no shocks. Not comfortable, but it gets you where you need to be."

Along with my book to read, I had a notebook stuffed between my side and the couch cushions. I whipped it out and scribbled down Aunt Andersol's wisdom. "Thanks," I called to her, "that's going to make it into a book someday!"

"I'll buy a copy if you acknowledge my quote," she said at the top of the stair. "Can you tell Redell my truck is in the driveway?"

And then she disappeared, without pressing why I was home early, or asking what I was reading, or taking her sunglasses off even in the dimmer light of the upstairs hall.

Gathering my blanket around me, I shuffled down the hall of the service wing and rapped on Redell's office doorjamb. "Aunt Andersol just arrived home unexpectedly. Her truck's parked out front."

Redell frowned, but stood immediately. "We'll take care of that right away, Owen, thank you for letting me know."

Aunt Andersol's arrival had been a surprise to him, also. She wasn't just keeping us kids in the dark about what was going on with her life.

According to family stories, I met Aunt Andersol before Kelsa and Michel were born. I would have been about two. I cannot (nor can my siblings) remember a time when she was not involved in our lives. More fun than her brother, far more approachable than our mother, she was a bit earthier than Aunt Sully and less inclined to correct our manners. Since she and Uncle Bodie had taken up residence at the estate, Aunt Andersol had been both our bridge to and our bastion against the protocols of the adult world. Mother would rather send us to the nursery room to dine rather than be embarrassed by us at the table; Aunt Sully, when we visited her, was inclined to lecture us at length about various manners, speeches which we forgot when we were home and she was not there. Aunt Andersol took note every day of every scratch, every vulgar epithet, every glum expression, not criticizing, but just seeing what was going on.

Well, I will amend that. She was that aware with the twins, older and younger. Never did she ask Oesha if Marca was to blame for something -- she knew that Oesha wouldn't rat on Marca. When she dealt with Michel and Kelsa, she addressed them as a pair, gathering a whole picture from their half-sentences and gestures. Aunt Andersol didn't ignore me -- I don't want to give that impression at all. She was always kind and loving to me ... but she also always seemed a bit puzzled as to how to take my words, or how to deal with me, and didn't catch on to my expressions.

Since neither did my mother or Uncle Bodie, I went about in a state of near invulnerability, so long as I didn't openly transgress rules. Perhaps that was why God saw fit to have Aunt Sully in our lives. I don't know why Aunt Sully knew me so well, but I loved her for it, and when she was admitted and welcomed at the front door by Redell himself, I felt my heart lift. She would see that I was troubled, she would make me tell her everything, she would solve every matter to the benefit of all.

She had barely done shaking Redell's hand in greeting before she spotted me in my blanket. Her dog, Gabe, shook himself as soon as he was in the front door, sending a spatter of rain and a tornado of dog hair over everything. Redell had offered Aunt Sully a towel, just split-seconds too late. Gabe was already trotting toward me, wagging his thick tail, flattening his ears in friendly greeting. I rolled off the couch, grabbing his huge head, laughing, but trying to keep him from rubbing himself dry on me.

Aunt Sully hauled him away from me, rubbing him with the towel, to which he responded by arching his back and smiling with his white crocodile teeth. He woofed at her in pleasure as she dried his fur. "What kind of language is that?" she asked him, her face beside his muzzle. "How vulgar of you!" He panted and wiggled under the towel, not licking her cheek, but snuggling his furry face against her, his eyes half-closed in delight. "My good boy," she said, leaning her head against him in return.

Something was wrong. I could tell by Aunt Sully's expression and posture.

"Thank you," Aunt Sully said to Gerard, who was bringing her bag in from her van. "Thanks, Redell," she said to him as he smiled and sailed away to his office again. Watching Gerard mount the steps with her luggage, she turned to me and asked, "Why are you down here in the cold?"

As a kind of test, I replied to her as I had to Aunt Andersol, "Dear Aunt, waiting for you."

"Please don't tell me you were expelled again."

"No, I was waiting for you!"

"Something's wrong," she said. "You always wait for me in my study, not in the downstairs receiving room."

She was right, and probably my agreement to the plan to keep an eye on the door from the sofa in the receiving room was both a preemptive intelligence move and a plea for help. "Something's wrong -- with you, too. You looked sad when you were drying Gabe. Is he okay?"

Aunt Sully didn't look at me, but I saw her eyes get wet and the corners of her mouth tremble as she looked out the window at the rain. She shook her head just a little, then sighed. "I'm ready for upstairs and a fire, Owen."

"Okay, that sounds good," I nodded, then realized that she might want to be alone. "May I join you, or would you rather rest without pests underfoot?"

"Please do. I'm weary tonight -- I wonder if your mom and Bodie would mind if I just had a tray in my study?"

"I'll tell Redell," I offered. "See you upstairs."

She thanked me, and turned away, heading not for the stairs but for the elevator behind the kitchen. I was stunned, never having seen her use the elevator before. Our grandmother used the elevator; Papa had had it installed when she had badly sprained her ankle (long before I was born) and she had had to have a makeshift apartment set up in the ballroom, which made her very angry. In fact it still made her angry when she remembered the event. "There are any number of doors to that room," she would complain, "so I had no idea from which direction a visitor or intruder might arrive. For weeks I was on edge, having to be dressed and every hair in place all day long, surrounded by flimsy screens and hearing every sound echo against the high walls." Grandmother Claire had found it repugnant to be caught in her wheelchair by the maids, and once the elevator had been built, she referred to it as her own, using it exclusively after Grandfather died. Really, after it had been put in, she only used the stairs if Grandfather was with her. Maybe after he died, she didn't want to think about climbing the stairs by herself.

"Redell," I said, standing by the edge of his office. "Aunt Sully wants to just have a tray to take to her study tonight, please. And Aunt Andersol said she ate junk food on the way home, so won't be having dinner."

"Thank you for letting me know. And thank God there wasn't a big dinner planned for the evening. What with the flooding in town and half the people in the house in an uproar, service would have been a disaster." He picked up the house phone and punched the kitchen extension. "Have you heard whether or not your mother and her husband will be having dinner tonight?"

"No," I shook my head at him. "I haven't heard from them today, but I could call mother and find out."

"Please," he said, "before Chef makes a meal for no one to eat."

I picked up the outside phone and dialed my mother's department's secretary, who answered promptly. (Which was a pleasant change, because my mother never did, preferring to let the answering machine screen her calls for her.) "Miss Wills? This is Owen Reich-Ambris. Is my mother in her office, by any chance?" Miss Wills told me that she was, but that she had a student with her. "Could you leave her a message to call Mr. Redell Harris as soon as possible? Thank you very much," I said, and hung up the phone.

Redell was watching me. "Well spoken," he said, "but let your lower tones rule your voice. You're not a kid any more. Miss Wills may be doing you a favor, but it is a job for which she was hired. Leave no suggestion in your speech that what you have asked is of little importance."

"Half the time I don't even know where my voice is going to be," I admitted, feeling my face burn.

He laughed gently. "We all have to go through that. You can ride out to the orchards and practice where your sisters can't hear you," he suggested. "And in trying for the proper tone, raise your eyebrows while you talk -- this is for practice, now, not in real life!"

"Why?" I asked him.

"Raising your eyebrows makes you use the muscles of your face. Your expression molds the tone of your voice as much as your vocal cords."

"Yeah," I said, thinking about it. "That's true. I use my face when I do funny voices at my sisters."

"Also," Redell said, "never say 'Yeah'."

I raised my eyebrows, lowered my lids, and looked sideways at him, twisting an imaginary moustache. "Mr. Harris," I said in my deepest voice, "I shall remember this conversation en toto, for those occasions when a dark deed needs done and I am unable to see it through. It is to be hoped that you, too, will remember your instruction, and fulfill my requests as though they were graven on your heart."

He laughed loudly, threw a wadded-up piece of paper at me, and said, "Go visit with your aunt and find out what she'd like to have for dinner. If there's not going to be a family dinner, you all may as well have what you like. Forget pizza take-out, though, the weather is too horrible to send anyone out."

"I would not even send you out this night," I said in the same baritone. "The very elements are disturbed, and I must consult with my kin." I grinned, waved at him, and headed for the stairs.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-04-13
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