Forty-five: The Scope of the Irritation
"We could just tear down the whole damn house and build a whole new mansion," my mother said irritably. "Making the third floor livable and safe is going to be a major pain in the ass." Her right hand was on her belly, listening with her fingertips for little movements, and though she was delighted to be bearing another set of twins, her temper was getting shorter by the day.
Aunt Sully frowned a little and glanced at my grandmother. Grandmother's lips were a little puckered, and she was looking only at her plate, a sure sign that she was displeased, but whether it was about the idea of tearing down the house or about mother using vulgar language in front of us kids, I didn't know. "Damn" was not that offensive to her, but "ass" was.
The first stage of the renovation would be electrical re-wiring. After the days of flame, gas lines had been put in, and then, not much longer afterwards, some kind of electrical system. All four electricians who had been called out for estimates had returned from their inspections sweating and pleading with us not to turn on the electricity to the third floor before it was updated. They were convinced that the ancient wires would ignite and burn the whole house down. I wondered why my father had not had the third storey done when he'd overseen the renovation of the wiring on the first two floors several years before I was born.
"The electrical work won't be too bad; most of it can be run from the attic with minimal wall-cutting. All of the walls will need refinished, anyway -- when they're done you won't be able to tell where cuts were made, except for having outlets where needed." My aunt was patient with Mother, but not entering into her dramatic mood.
"You weren't here when we did the first and second floors," Grandmother said, breaking her silence. "You were in Africa somewhere. My husband and I went to stay in the villa in Tuscany until the dirt and the noise subsided. Poor Charles had to stay and oversee the whole mess. He never complained about it, either."
"He was a saint," Mother said in an even tone of voice, but one that had saw blades all around it. Uncle Bodie reached out and put his hand gently around her wrist. He was comforting her, but warning her to hold her temper. After all, my father was the only son Grandmother had. She still missed him; I did, too.
"He was," Aunt Sully agreed, thoughtfully. "It's the plumbing that is going to make a racket and an inconvenience."
"That was what convinced Michael and me to go remove ourselves to Italy. We had no interest in portable outhouses."
"Eww, gross!" cried Oesha. "Are you serious? Are we going to have to use porta-potties?"
"I don't think so, but you may end up having to share bath facilities for a while."
"Great," Mother said, in unison with Marca.
Aunt Andersol finished her dessert, scraping the plate with her fork. Her morning-sickness (all-the-time-sickness) had left her, and she greeted every meal with delight and left each one with regret. "Go stay in the apartment in town," she suggested. "I'll stay here and keep an eye on things."
"As will I," I mentioned. "I have a vested interest in the proceedings." I could not wait to take possession of my suite, see it polished and pristine, my abode, my castle, my retreat.
"Are we done for the evening?" asked Grandmother. "If so, I think I should email the staff at the villa and see if everything is in order. Then, when this make-over is done, you may contact me there and let me know. I remember the fireplace and sitting room there as being very cosy and inviting."
"We're done," my mother said, rising. "I want to watch the football game I missed on Monday because I fell asleep."
"And you're going to stay awake long enough to watch it tonight?" Uncle Bodie smiled.
"We'll keep each other awake," said Aunt Andersol. "And if not, then you will stand guard over us both."
"What about you, Sully? I can keep an eye on all three of you while you doze."
"No, I watched it on TV on Monday. I know how it ends and where all the stupid bits are. Denise lit a fire for me, so I think I'll just read and think and then hit the sack early. Good night, my dears." She headed toward the stairs.
She was rising every morning to commute to Riverton to her job. She seemed so sad to have her house empty after Gabe's death that Uncle Bodie, Aunt Andersol, and Mother discussed surprising her with a German Shepherd puppy for Christmas; Uncle John, by email, had emphatically disagreed. I shouldn't have known that; I shouldn't have accessed my mother's email. But I had, and now knew. I agreed with Uncle John, too. Aunt Sully had met Gabe in a local park, where she had sat to rest on a bench after a brisk walk, and he had scrambled past, dragging his owners. He doubled back, sniffed her shoes, and stomped at her. She had stood, laughing, and turned her back on him. He (according to her story) had poked her in the back of her leg with his nose, and woofed. "He likes you," said his owner, with more enthusiasm than Aunt Sully had expected.
Aunt Sully turned back, gently grabbed the big pup by the loose skin around his neck, and encouraged him to roll onto his back in a submissive gesture. She vigorously rubbed his belly, making him wave enormous tan paws in the air.
"You want this dog?" asked the owner, shocking Aunt Sully. "I'm looking for a home for him."
Always pragmatic, Aunt Sully had said yes, but specifying that the dog be delivered with pedigree papers, veterinary records, and a bill of sale for zero dollars. The owners of the dog had appeared on her doorstep Sunday morning, all the papers in order, dragging the dog by the collar. According to Aunt Sully, the pup hadn't even tried to follow his erstwhile owners out of the house. She'd contracted with a reputable kennel for extensive obedience training, and had, by her own account, fallen in love with his aggressive, interactive, silly personality.
To shove a new pup into her life would have been a disservice both to her, and to the puppy.
And to us. Gabe wasn't like a dog, he had been like a person. Other kinds of dogs were like other species. People carrying Yorkshire terriers seemed to be toting ornaments. I never saw a Bichon frise that I had any respect for. Gabe, on the other hand, had a purpose: biting wrongdoers, and being the biggest, baddest beast in the house. And the funniest, as there was no doubt that he had far more of a sense of humor than my sister Marca did.
If you threatened Gabe with a broom, he would shred the broom, and then grin his toothy grin, asking for another challenge. He would chase Aunt Sully around and around her wheel-barrow, threatening to pinch her with his teeth, with her laughing hysterically at the pursuit. On occasion, he would challenge Aunt Sully in the kitchen, and at her gasp, he would leap forward, snatch the dish-towel from her hands, and gallop madly about the house with it, shaking it, growling fiercely, and then returning to her to bow and dare her to try to take it back from him.
She, in turn, would chase him with the kitchen tongs, snapping them at him while he tucked his hindquarters close and scuttled back the hallway, only to return for another chase seconds later.
They had been people who met, who fell in love, and who had been people together. You couldn't just drag in a German shepherd puppy and expect sparks to fly. I'd never had a dog of my own, and I knew that. I couldn't support a move to gift my aunt with a strange German shepherd puppy; all it would do would be to remind her of her loss.
* * *
For us kids that autumn, Rachel had proved an unexpected unifying force. Where previously, Marca, Oesha, Michel, and Kelsa had sat in the back of the bus, now they occupied the front right seat and the second left seat in back of me. I still took the seat behind the driver out of habit; Rachel assumed the seat beside me as a territorial coup, which I did not mind at all.
"Your mom and your aunt are both expecting twins?" Rachel gasped, at something that Oesha had said. "That's four babies!"
Not only is she pretty, but she's a mathematical genius, I thought mildly, watching her hair bounce in the ponytail above the hood of her jacket. She was also a good sport, so to speak. My sisters had announced our "engagement" widely, and Rachel had admitted to bringing me a dowry of lint in exchange for a marriage contract. She embellished upon the report by saying that I had offered her mother a knighthood for the union. Her classmates were curious, annoyed, and confused. So were mine when they heard the echoes of the rumors.
"I heard she was a cousin of yours from family back east," Patty Dorsey mentioned to me as we stood in line for lunch. My older sisters and I called her Putty Patty, because she was the spokesperson of the gossip crowd, and could always be pushed into asking prying questions. ("Pushed into any crack at all," Marca had said last year, straightfaced and serious. Then she had laughed so long and so loudly that our mother came to see what we were doing in the nursery, and ever after, if Patty approached us to talk, Marca would have to walk away because her eyes watered at the remembrance of her own joke.)
"You're right, she is," I replied seriously. "My mother was born back east, and one of her cousins was made up to be closer than brother or sister to her. They call them 'placebo cousins' and Rachel is one of them." I winked. "We like to keep alliances 'all in the family,' so to speak."
"That's just sick," Putty Patty said, wrinkling her nose.
"You think so, but you've never tried it," I observed equably.
"Eww!" she screeched, and fled.
I'm not really sure why I enjoyed teasing my fellow students so much. Was it because my siblings were too wary to be caught any more, except on special occasions? Or was it that I took so much pleasure in writing fiction, and it bled over into human interactions?
"A placebo cousin?" Rachel asked incredulously on the bus ride home. "What the hell does that mean?"
"It's like a 'kissing cousin,' only without the real drugs," Michel supplied, hanging over the seat of the bus to put his face near Rachel.
"Oh, something like this, then," she said, and gently grasped Michel's head in her hands.
He shut his eyes in expectation, only to have her lick his right eyelid with her tongue, sloppily and disgustingly. He squealed in disgust and scrubbed at his face with his sleeve. I laughed so hard I had to hold my ribs, and I think the front half of the bus did, too.
Kelsa had to stop and sit down and laugh on the way home once we got to our lane. Michel turned purple with aggravation at her amusement, but appeased himself with thinking up epithets he should have made to Rachel the rest of the way up the drive. "Why didn't I think of shouting 'Dog-Mouth'? Or 'Snail-Lips?' Or 'Glue-Tongue'?"
"Don't even mention this to Mom," Oesha said, wiping her eyes.
"Wait up, you pieces of shit!" screeched Kelsa.
Cruelly, we all burst into a run to the house, leaving her behind, laughing, which slowed us up, so that we all arrived at the front door in an excess of puffing hilarity. Redell opened the door, his eyes wide, his face schooled to seriousness, even though he knew we were in a crazy fit. "Good afternoon to you all, how was your day?"
"A better day than most," I offered, wiping my eyes. "None of us was arrested or beat up."
"Well, some of us would have been if I was six feet tall and a hundred-eighty pounds," Michel said.
"Would pizza minis help you deal with your day?" Redell asked.
"Store-bought or real?" Marca said suspiciously.
"Real, with provolone, mozzarella, and Italian sausage."
"Black olives?" Michel wheedled.
"That can easily be arranged."
We all nodded to each other. Pizza minis. "And is this intended as a diversionary snack, or is this for our evening meal?" I remembered to ask.
"Dinner, as your mother, step-father, and aunt are dining out following evening appointments."
"Then we should also have some salad, and perhaps some sauteed mushrooms on the side for those of us who lust for them on pizza?"
Redell bowed, and went to the kitchen to relay the information to the chef.
We stomped up the stairs, Marca bitching about the food before even tasting it. "I'm going to bloat like a goat," she said. "Pizza is all carbohydrates."
"Then order something else," I told her irritably. "Eat some fish or a steak or a pile of pork chops. Just tell Redell."
"But then I'll look at you weasels eating pizza and get angry."
"Then shut up, my beloved eldest sister, and bloat. Blame the bloat on envy."
"Blame the bloat," intoned Kelsa, sinuously waving her arms in the air.
She and Michel danced up the stairs, waving their arms and silently mouthing "Blame the bloat!" Marca did not turn around to notice. They were the youngest, and beneath her wrath, by and large.
Marca did have a reply to me, however. "Stick it up your ass, Owen."
"Yes, Ma'am," I said. "However, I must inform you, that as many things as you have suggested I stick up my ass, the allocated space has been exceeded. Do you mind if I stick it up a minor branch ass in the suburbs?"
She paused, with a low gulping laugh I knew she didn't want me to hear. "As long as it gets catalogued correctly and has the right shelving, I don't care. Just get it shoved."