Forty-nine: Getting On Board
Without waiting for an answer, Aunt Sully said, "Would you please ask Philomena to assist us?"
Denise answered her anxiously. "I can help you, you don't need Philomena."
Aunt Sully stared at her with still face and piercing eyes that were, except for the color of their eyes and complexions, identical to my mother's, when she was pissed beyond all measure.
"Yes, Ma'am," Denise said, and hustled away.
"Fire her," said my grandmother.
"No," my mother countered. "She doesn't need to be fired, but she ought to be moved to outdoor duties so that she has no opportunities to listen at doors. She can quit if she doesn't hear enough outside to satisfy her curiosity or her paying inquirers."
Grandmother laughed. "Will she be as adept at pulling weeds as listening at doors?"
Aunt Sully turned from the door, her eyes flashing. "Weeds? She can use her talents scrubbing the porches and cleaning the planters in the gardens. If Dolores wants to teach her about the gardens, fine, but that's up to Dolores, don't you think?"
The impending and pending possibility of a move to Italy made me bold. "Aunt Sully, we need you here. Why don't you move here and help us keep track of the estate?"
She frowned at me, but my mother leaped in with, "Yes, Sully, my God, I've been begging you for years and years. You know what needs to be done, and if you won't accept the invitation to live here as family, muley-ass that you are, then I formally offer you the paid position as Estate Manager."
"There is no such position."
"There is now," Mother said. "I should have thought of it years ago."
"Here's my thought," I said impertinently. "If Aunt Sully is here to anchor the fort, then Grandmother Claire's plan might be feasible."
"If Sully is here to oversee the estate, my plan is flawless," Grandmother said.
"No, it isn't," Aunt Andersol cried. "I don't want to go to Italy for half a year!"
"We've never been apart for that kind of time, not in our lives," Uncle Bodie's forehead was wrinkled with worry. "I don't think this is a good idea."
"An unplanned pregnancy wasn't a good idea! What else are we to do?"
"Shh, there's no need to shout. Here comes Philomena, with Denise the Ear panting along with her." My aunt gestured Philomena in, shutting the door on Denise.
Kelsa leaned towards Michel. "Denise the Ear," she whispered, and both of them burst into hysterical, loud laughter. Without meaning to -- at least I didn't think she meant to -- Aunt Sully had permanently newly christened the staff member. The younger twins were still laughing too hard to give Philomena a drink order, feeding on each other's hilarity.
Their giggles were annoying the more serious adults, so I suggested drinks for them. "Could you bring each of them some hot cocoa with a dash of chloroform in it? And if you please, I'd like some ginger ale on ice." I gave Michel a kick. "Could you two go out in the hall until you're under control?" I hissed. "You're pissing people off!"
They went out into the hall, where they encountered Denise still standing there, and fell down on the hardwood floor in renewed screeches of laughter.
Their muted hyena sounds were a discordant background noise to the conversation that resumed when Philomena left, taking Denise with her. "I can't leave school for that long, or I'll be ineligible for soccer next spring," Marca stated authoritatively.
"And it would put off my degree for an extra term," Aunt Andersol said, wiping at her eyes.
Mother was quiet, frowning.
A clock could be heard ticking on the wall as the twins' laughter subsided into haws and gasps. A knock on the door allowed them egress back into the room, where they sat down on the floor by the door, blowing their noses into handkerchiefs and breathing heavily.
Another knock on the door, and Philomena brought in two trays with various drinks, assisted by one of the cooks. After she closed the door when she left, conversation resumed, but in low voices.
"Okay," Mother said, "let's think about this a bit. What do we see as the objective here?"
"Objectives, Grandmother Claire said. "One, admitting that Andersol has illegitimate children to be born, we must make certain the estate is not invaded by paparazzi who will make her delivery into a world-wide-web sideshow. Two: these infants must not be left to grow up here on the estate as complete dependents. That would not be good for them as they mature, nor would it be good for them if some offspring of your own children, Jesse, took a spite to them and wanted them ousted." She paused over her herb tea. "Of course your own children would not dare to do so, one hopes."
"Well, I don't think any of us would, so that's one worry we don't have to deal with." I hoped I was speaking for all of us. "But aren't you saying actually that the main objective is to keep the birth of Aunt Andersol's twins secret, keep her pregnancy secret?"
Grandmother pursed her wrinkled lips. "Yes, if you put it that way, yes, but the children also have to be able to legally consider themselves family."
"Claire, you're good," put in Aunt Sully softly. "They will be family, but not in the way the world understands it. Look, she's right," Aunt told the three generations before her. "We all know that love is thicker than blood, but the rest of the world doesn't, and we have no guarantee that your subsequent generations won't. Andersol's children have to be provided for."
"But why does that mean I have to go away?" my other aunt nearly wailed. "Can't I just hide here?"
"And never leave the house, or go near a window, until your babies are weaned?" Grandmother demanded. "Think! Think for your children as you did not think for yourself!"
"Take it easy, there, Claire," Uncle Bodie warned.
She turned on him in an instant. "I am taking it easy, as you put it. The world isn't! Your generation thinks that sex means fun and should be pursued whenever you need entertainment! And yet anyone who is in the public eye is condemned and harassed if they do not hold to the sexual mores that my generation held sacred! I can accept mistakes and accidents of love, but it is your public who are so hypocritical that they must make a headline of a night of passion, but no news or accolade of fidelity! Do you really want your sister's children to grow up being known as the bastard children of this Russian snip Khodorov? How do you think they will feel?"
All of us sipped our various drinks except Aunt Andersol, who drew her feet up close to her hips, buried her face in her arms, and began to cry in earnest.
Uncle Bodie was looking at his sister with agony on his face, to Mother, pleadingly. He was undoubtedly torn by this proposal; we knew from years of association that he and Aunt Andersol never wanted to be apart from one another -- but he had pledged his life in marriage to our mother. If he stayed in Italy with Aunt Andersol, he slighted his wife; if he kept to his marriage vows, he would have to temporarily, but outrageously desert his twin.
Kelsa and Michel had subsided from their humor, and looked from face to face in near-alarm. I watched only my mother, and Aunt Sully, who still leaned against the door jamb, sipping at her white wine.
My mother seemed lost in thought, her gray-green eyes focused on something the rest of us could not see.
"The villa in Tuscany is comfortable -- this is not a sentence of punishment. But it is remote enough from the cities that the paparazzi may not bother with it. Andersol, it is a beautiful place, I promise you."
She raised her head from her arms, wiped her nose with a tissue. "But my brother -- " she said, gulping back her sobs.
Uncle Bodie stared at Mother intently, his face whitening, which was horribly unusual compared to his normal reddish-brown coloring. She started suddenly, looked at him, and swung an arm to gently whack him on the chest. She chuckled. "Claire, I'm entitled to maternity leave, but my doctor has already insisted that I be put on disability very soon ... and since I'm due neither at the end or the beginning of a semester, I'll get excused from work until the beginning of the summer semester. There's no reason Bodie and I can't stay with you and Andersol until after the babies are born. My doctor will be put out, naturally, but I don't think any doctor is going to advise me any different -- they'd all say, 'Lots of bed rest in the last trimester and a C-section.' It would probably be better for me to be away from this place while it's under construction, anyway." She stared at Aunt Sully purposefully. "So you see that you're needed more here than as a bookkeeper for your little lawyer crowd, Sully -- no offense, but this is a bigger operation and your skills make you the only person to fit the job."
"What if Andersol has to testify in court with this sexual harassment case, though? She can't be flying back and forth from Europe!" my aunt took a seat near the door and put her wine down, rubbing her hands together.
Mother made a rude pfft-ing sound with her lips. "Trust me. There is not going to be a trial. The university loves the smell of our money far too much. They'll hem and haw for a little while, but after their lawyers look at the harassment claims against that little toad, they'll put him on the highway in record time and tell him not to let the door hit him on -- let's just say, there isn't going to be a trial."
"If Aunt Sully's here, then we kids don't have to go to Italy, right?" Marca turned the conversation back again.
"I think that a stay in another country would be good for all of you," Mother answered. "Broadens your perspectives."
"I want to go!" Kelsa yipped, with Michel nodding enthusiastically. "Will we have a tutor, and can we get one who has some art background? Our art teacher at school is still diddling with that limp modeling gunk made from dough and salt and poster paints."
"And construction paper," Michel added bitterly.
"Well, I don't want to go. By the time we'd get back, I'd be so out of practice I'd have to sit on the bench."
"I'm ready to go any time," Oesha put in. "Like Grandmother, I have a part in the plan. Listen: if I go, and stay until the babies are born, who's to say that they weren't mine? Then the adoption makes sense, that I was being sent away for a time, and that adoption was necessary to keep the children in the inheritance ... and no one can even speculate who might be the father of my children -- because I don't date, don't flirt, and don't talk to my classmates about my life at all!"
Grandmother threw back her head and cackled. "Genius! But what about your reputation?"
Oesha laughed. "If any kid sneers at me, Marca will bash her. But seriously, Grandmother, you have no idea what girls are like in high school. It's better for a girl to hide that she's a virgin, otherwise she becomes an object of ridicule, accused of sexual dysfunction or mental instability. If my peers suspect I had children, it would only raise their estimation of me."
"But you can't go," Marca said. "It's like Uncle Bodie and Aunt Andersol. We've never been apart."
"Yes, I can. And if you'd rather have sports than be together, I can live with that, but I'm not going to pass up a season in Europe for your sweaty socks."
"No," Marca said, but the conversation flowed on past her.
"I'm not going, myself," I stated, rather than asked. "Not if Aunt Sully is going to be here supervising the estate. I know you're going to ask why not, and so I will anticipate your queries: I want to make sure that my suite on the third floor is properly renovated. I intend to make this my home, so I don't want it screwed up."
Grandmother mumbled, "Will you stop using phrases that are so pedestrian? Do not say 'screwed up' in place of mishandled."