Twenty-five: The Uncle and the Aunt
I was out of the shower and dressed again when I heard a soft knock at my door. I opened it to find Uncle John leaning against the doorjamb, looking a little like James Dean. I wondered if he knew he looked like posters of James Dean when he did that, and if he did it consciously, or because he came from a line or a profession of doorjamb-leaners.
"Can I come in?" he said in his peculiar accent.
"Of course," I answered.
He closed the door behind him. "Did you hear what you needed to hear?" he asked.
My guts dropped to my knees. He knew about the recorder. When the room returned to normal horizontal, I said coolly, "Yes, we did. Now we understand."
"Fork it over, Owen."
"Are you going to turn us in?"
"No. I saw it on the table, knew what it was. I'm a cop, remember? If there had been anything said that you kids couldn't hear, I'd have pocketed it and stepped on it later."
I gave him the recorder.
"Thanks. Now I have leverage. You kids mess with your Aunt Andersol, ever, and I turn over the recording to your mom, who, as you know, is less merciful and understanding than I am. Or Sully, who makes your mom look like a cream puff."
"Got it," I said, my face reddening. "But I wouldn't."
"I know you wouldn't, but you gave the others the ammunition. That means you're responsible for making sure they don't."
"We're more circumspect than you know."
"You're a gang, is what you guys are. No more listening where you shouldn't, okay?"
"As long as we aren't excluded from family discussions, I dare say we won't." I finished tying my shoes.
"Pretty cocky for someone who got caught eavesdropping," he said, his brow furrowing.
"Play it back, and you will find nothing," I told him, standing. "I erased it. It is now a blank recorder. Your word is the only evidence. You are the recorder now."
To my surprise he threw his head back and laughed. "Sully said you're a cool character -- I didn't believe her until now. You're a criminal mastermind, just like she said."
"Thanks for not turning us in, Uncle John," I told him. "We were at our wits end as to what was going on."
He turned, his hand on the doorknob when I spoke to him again. "But she didn't want to involve the Russian in her pregnancy; why, or who was she calling a fucking son of a bitch and throwing things at the walls and the door?"
"When was this?" He said, turning back, his pale eyes glittering.
"Monday. It seems like it was so long ago, but it was only three days. Hearing about Gabe dying shoved it out of my mind."
"What else? Did you have her bugged, too?"
"Michel heard her as he went by her door. Scared the hell out of him." That much was true. "The other thing he heard was the phrase, 'swear to in a court of law.' We didn't know what to make of that, either."
"I don't know nothing about that," he said. "Don't be listening at your aunt's door. That's rude."
"Yes, we'll keep that in mind. That's why we're required to keep our doors open, so that you adults can't listen at ours."
"Don't be a smartass. Andersol needs some private space."
"I agree. We'll use earplugs or stick our fingers in our ears when we pass by her door."
"Come on, let's get some sandwiches. You better not be so snotty with your aunt tomorrow when you ride."
"Am I coming off as snotty?" I asked. "I'm trying for dignified."
"Snotty," he avowed. "Dignified would have been 'Thank you, I'll remember that.'"
We left my room. "Sorry," I said, "Thank you, I'll remember that."
After sandwiches, everyone retired to bedrooms. Aunt Andersol had joined us, still beautifully dressed, her eyes still swollen from her tears. But she ate two turkey sandwiches like a starving woman, along with a jigger of wine over crushed ice, which her physician had said would help with her blood sugar, whatever that meant. She was quiet, but her being there was far better than her not being there.
My brother and sisters were dragging while we ate, and all of us limped off to our rooms. I think I lasted three minutes into my current book, Asimov's "Caves of Steel" before I fell asleep.
I had no sooner closed my eyes, it seemed, than Philip rapped on my door. "Owen, Sir, your aunt has sent this tray to you."
"Augh," I coughed, rubbing my face. "Thanks, Philip, could you please just leave it on the table over there? I'll thank her in person in a few minutes." Looking at my clock, I saw that it was already ten minutes after eight. I thanked God that I'd showered the night before.
The tray had a pot of tea, and toast, and a hot custard dish packed with scrambled eggs topped with cheddar cheese, and on the side was a heap of out-of-season strawberries. The tea had already been sweetened -- fortunately just as I liked it. After I went to the bathroom, I ate every bit of the food, drank all the tea, and wished there had been a turkey sandwich to accompany it. But I knew that would come later, and so brushed my teeth, and then pulled on my black riding breeches, my boots, a long-sleeved grey cotton knit shirt, and a black thermal vest. I clomped down the steps to the front hall, and feeling the tea revive me as I walked, headed down the lane to the stables.
Aunt Sully was already astride when I got to the stables, sitting comfortably on Zigzag, who was standing peaceably while she chatted with Maida. My horse, Mackerel, was standing, saddled and bitted, being held by Morton.
"Thank you," I said to him, as I grasped the rein and lifted my left foot to the high stirrup. I hopped three times and then leaped up onto the saddle.
"Your aunt used a mounting block," said Morton.
"My aunt is a -- " I started to say.
"Your aunt is an early riser," she said. "Are you ready? Or do you want to take a few turns around the arena to make sure you remember what end of the horse is which?"
"Aunt Sarcasmia, good morning! Don't worry about me, I know the horse. The horse knows me. Have you a trail already in mind?"
She shook her head, her dark sunglasses below her visor giving away no expression.
I'm so glad I have Darth Vader for an aunt, I thought. "Let's loop up around the ridge and then down to cross the road," I suggested.
She smiled and nodded, and we rode on.
My aunt was a pretty good rider. She had always wished she could have a horse, she'd told me. While she lived Back East in Pennsylvania, she'd had a few friends who had horses, though she wasn't often allowed to go ride them. Her mother thought it was a dangerous activity. "She was right," Aunt Sully had told me. "We were crazy little kids, and since the saddles were heavy, we just rode bareback. We pretended we were in the cavalry -- hold the horses in, then shout 'Chaarrge!' and take the horses from a standstill to a canter, hanging onto their manes to keep from falling off."
By the time she'd graduated from college, she had better sense, and once she had a steady job, she'd put aside some of her paychecks to take lessons in riding English, with her trainer emphasizing dressage techniques for greater sensitivity and control of the horse. When the trainer had begun to specialize in competition riders, Aunt Sully had moved on, riding with a rancher friend of hers, buying her own English saddle and bridle to use.
I understand that she used to ride very rarely here before my father's death; but then, as she explained, we kids were all so young that she felt she should be with us. I remember the day, about a year and half after Father died, when we kids all went for a walk with her to the stables to visit our ponies. To that day, Aunt Sully had ridden my mother's horse, an unimaginative older gelding called "Putter."
Gary had teased her when she petted Zigzag. "Bet you'd be afraid to ride him."
She'd frowned at him. "I've never seen him ill-behaved."
"He's bigger than that cowhorse you ride when you visit."
"When was the last time he was ridden?" she'd asked, blowing gently into Zigzag's nostrils.
"He gets ridden three times a week."
Practical Aunt Sully had asked, "When was the last time he bucked?"
"He doesn't buck," Gary had sputtered. "What makes you think we'd keep a horse that bucked?"
"The way you're talking about him. If he doesn't buck, why would I be afraid to ride him?"
"Because he's big," Gary had repeated, becoming confused. It might have been the conversation, but it also might have been my aunt's red hair and green eyes.
"Big, schmig. Saddle him, if you have a helmet that fits me and some half-chaps."
Zigzag had been led to the arena, saddled. Aunt Sully had approached him, petted him, and then grabbed the stirrup and yanked with all her might. Zigzag staggered a bit, turned his head to look at her, and then stood still again. "Just checking," Aunt Sully had said to Gary, who stood near the horse's head. Then she'd hitched at her dress trousers, put a foot into the stirrup, and leaped up.
From the seats by the side of the arena, we kids had watched our aunt move the horse into a walk. She'd turned him this way and that, made him back up, and then he ducked his head, arched his neck, and began picking up his feet smartly. I was not able to tell what Aunt Sully did, but Zigzag had stopped, and to our surprise, began to walk sideways to the left. Then to the right. By that time, Gary had been staring at her like a kid at his first magic show. Aunt Sully had then moved the horse into a trot on the rail, and Zigzag had once again ducked his head. Amazingly, the horse began to trot in slow motion, his knees rising high, his cadence slow. Aunt Sully had begun to laugh with a sound like the sight of leaves swirling on the wind. Her posture had changed, the slow trot became a walk. She'd petted the horse, then set him into a canter and let him carry her around the arena three times. She'd dismounted in the middle of the arena, and walked over to us.
"Gary," she'd said, her face radiant. "Don't ever sell this horse. You didn't tell me he was dressage-trained. I hope you don't mind if I bring my own saddle the next time," she'd said.
From that time on, Zigzag had been her mount, though she never stopped calling him my father's horse. I think it was a way of her keeping in touch with her memories of Father, too.
My reverie was interrupted by her voice as we rode side by side towards the ridge path.
"Why haven't you asked any questions about Andersol?"
Mentally, I smacked my forehead. I'd forgotten I was supposed to be ignorant.