Maybe there's something to this whole estate thing, after all, I thought to myself as I sprawled on the couch, with my feet propped on its back, in my little upstairs study. The windows were open, and I could hear birds in the trees outside. The weather, for once, was so pleasant I probably wouldn't need even a fire in the fireplace. I was exhausted. In addition to my worry about Mary LeMay's illness, (though she was definitely on the mend) the law firm for which I worked had agreed to take on two new partners, as two of the older partners were planning on retiring soon, and wanted to reduce their caseloads. Well, of course the seniors' caseloads hardly changed, and the two new additions were swamped. I had been trying to teach them how to use our billing system as they kept track of hours on their clients' accounts. They hardly looked older than Marca to me, and I had to refrain from suggesting that they take a remedial math course. If I just took Jesse's perennial offer of living here seriously, I wouldn't even have to go back. I could walk into the office next Tuesday with a letter of resignation, have a realtor waiting at the house, with a moving van arriving the next day to pack up whatever I didn't sell.
Were there unused rooms on the third floor that I could convert to a studio? In the fifteen years since Jesse had married into the Reich family, I'd never toured all the rooms in this enormous house. Put that on my list of things to do with the kids, I told myself. Maybe it was time to make another change in my life. There was no doubt I could make myself useful here -- without being so irreplaceably useful that I couldn't bop around Europe with Claire when she conjured up one of her globetrotting moods. We could take one or another of the kids with us, give them a more wide-world view of life.
There was a formal dinner tonight, but I had begged off, citing my recent cold as an excuse, as well as being plain old, workin' dog tired. Not to mention that Owen, Michel, and Kelsa were still too young to attend the function, so we had planned on dining here.
"Can you stand another Auntie joining you?" asked Andersol from the doorway.
"As long as you don't expect me to move," I said, but reached up to hug her anyway. "You didn't want to attend the hoity-toi downstairs, either?"
"Shit, no," she said. "No one with an ass the size of mine should try to fit into evening clothes."
"Oh, bull. You just need to get past the off-the-rack mentality. I know Jesse has a tailor on tap somewhere. Get her to take you to have clothing fitted. You're not a size four, but you're not oddly-shaped, either."
"Maybe Jesse and Bodie will spring for an ass transplant." She threw herself on the oriental rugs bought for the room when the kids stopped spilling everything, and put her feet up on the chair. She held out her hands to keep Gabe from licking her face. "The other reason I didn't want to go was that I am so burnt out from classes, I can hardly think."
"That I can identify with. How are they going?"
"I'm carrying a 2.6 average. It'll do. I understand and remember more than a 'C' grade sounds like, but I take tests about as well as I wear formal clothes. I keep telling myself, all I have to do is pass, just pass." Andersol had signed up for one of Jesse's classes, which happened to be an introductory course on archeology, and was instantly hooked.
Owen's voice called out from the hallway, startling us both. "Observez ici! A colony of Aunts!" Kelsa and Michel bounded in, with Owen following at a more dignified pace. He was all of thirteen, and growing self-conscious about the size of his feet and how frequently he tripped over them. "Bon soir, mes tantes tres belles!" His grandmother had been teaching him French. She must be ready to take him with her when she travels. If I came to live here, I'd probably be able to tag along, and what could be more fun than traveling with Claire and Owen?
"He says 'Good evening to his very beautiful aunts,' " I said to Andersol.
"Why didn't you idiots tell me that I should take French as my language requirement before I signed up for Spanish?" she asked while the kids petted Gabe, who, to his credit, for once did not knock them down.
"And would you have listened to what idiots had to say?" I countered.
The kids looked at her to see how she would reply to our verbal fencing. Fencing! I had an idea about remedying Owen's lack of coordination. Mentally I made a note to talk to Owen later.
"Maybe if you were idiot savants, I would have."
I raised my eyebrows at her. "Idiots rush in where angels fear to tread."
Andersol and Owen laughed, thought the twins looked puzzled. Andersol said, "An idiot in time saves nine."
Owen waved his arms and said, "An idiot in the hand is worth two in the bush!"
Michel and Kelsa finally got it and laughed, too. I sat up and folded my hands primly. "Once an idiot, always an idiot."
"Never look a gift idiot in the mouth," snapped Andersol.
"Even an idiot may look at a king," I said quickly, while the kids shrieked with laughter.
"No idiot like an old idiot," said Andersol, looking straight into my eyes.
"An idiot and his money are soon parted," Owen interjected.
"Never a borrower or an idiot be," I laughed.
"Stop," said Andersol, "I'm getting a headache. This is worse than exams!" She wiped tears of laughter from her eyes. "What's for dinner, anyway?"
"Cream of Asparagus soup," Owen said, "artichokes stuffed with salmon salad, rolled chicken breast and prosciutto medallions with a creamy piccata sauce over rice pilaf, fried yam patties -- "
"Oh, crap, I hate those," said Kelsa.
"Kelsa, don't say 'crap' when someone is listing a menu," I said.
"Where was I," droned Owen, "Oh, yes, fried crap patties, all right, sorry, I don't know why the chef makes them, they're gross as cow flops, no, I'm sorry again, I won't say anymore about the fried garbage patties -- see, it's a subconscious thing, I can't overcome the tortures of my childhood. After that course of poisoning, the guests will be revived by a dessert of simple scoops of French vanilla ice cream with fresh strawberries in a light sweet glaze."
"Let's sneak down the back stairs to the kitchen and see if we can customize the menu," Andersol suggested, and I was as one with her in her resolve. Indeed, we were unanimous, except for Gabe, who was heartily insulted at not being included in the kitchen venture.
We secured trays of food that we could enjoy and retired to my red-walled study to dine. The coziness, the convenience, and the comfort conspired to make me turn my thoughts again to coming to live here permanently. After all, what sense did it make for me to be parted from the children and family I loved so much? The addition of me to the estate would affect estate finances -- if you used a microscope to measure the effect.
Andersol left to work on her homework after we ate, and Kelsa and Michel went to bed. Owen was reading H. Rider Haggard's She, sitting sideways on a chair with his legs dangling over one arm.
"Owen, would you be at all interested in fencing lessons?" I asked him.
"Could I do that?" he asked, sitting up eagerly.
"I don't see why not," I answered, "although we'd have to clear it with your mother."
"Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek knows how to fence," he said, "and I have this sci-fi book that was Mom's, about this guy who traveled to different dimensions, and his only fighting skill was fencing. That would be so cool to know how!"
"I'll recommend such to your mother and Bodie, then. I always wished I could, too."
"Great!" he said, pumping a fist in the air. "Are you and John going to move here after you're married? Then you could take lessons with me!"
There was a feeling like vertigo in my head, a spinning, disoriented feeling. "What? Married? John and me?"
"Mom and Andersol were talking about it a couple nights ago. They said that you and John would be married by next year."
"They told you that?"
"Well, no," he said honestly, "we were eavesdropping in the hallway downstairs while Mom and Uncle Bodie and Aunt Andersol were talking. You know that we always do."
"Whoa." I put both my hands in the air. "I have no intention of undermining your mother's parenting, or Bodie or Andersol's ability to tell the truth, but I assure you, Owen, suggesting that John and I are getting married is utter bullshit. Crap, if you prefer. Your mother and your aunt had no reason or right to suggest such a thing."
He shrugged. "I always thought that was why we called him 'Uncle John' -- because you were lovers."
"What?" I exploded again in disbelief. "We have never been lovers!"
"That's not what we hear," he said with irritating pre-pubescent failure to be serious. "We have heard talk," he said archly, pointing an index finger at me accusingly, and I was torn between giggling at his audacity and yelling at him to get out of my study.
The good-natured response won, as I had always thought Owen very funny when his affectation was turned on someone else. Besides, he and I did share an interest: intelligence gathering. As the years had passed, Andersol had become less and less of a source of information about what was going on; Bodie had clammed up tight when Jesse became the object of his affection. Jesse was oblivious to any need I might have to know what was happening; there was no malice in it -- the thought never crossed her mind. However, the kids did spy on their parents all the time, and often confided in me what they had learned.
He's gathering information right now, I realized. He doesn't know the truth and he's fishing to find some. "Fine. You tell me what talk you've heard, and I'll tell you if there's anything to it."
"Okay. Aunt Andersol and Uncle Bodie have said for years that John is crazy in love with you, and after last Christmas, Oesha heard Aunt Andersol saying that John was walking into doorjambs because you smiled at him."
"Mom said that you went to Europe with Grandmother to get away from us all, and came back realizing that you loved John."
Blushing is the most betraying characteristic of the human body, and I was chagrined to feel my face burn. I couldn't imagine how Jesse could have come to that conclusion. "Owen, men walk into doorjambs when women smile at them whether they're in love or not. You may do quite a bit of that yourself in a few years."
"No I won't. I'm practicing nonchalance and worldliness."
"Please take note of that statement. Write it in your journal tonight -- we'll review those words in two years. However, I did come back from Europe realizing that John was just as much a friend to me as Bodie and Andersol are. And that just because people keep pushing us into a match was no reason not to welcome his friendship. I loved Andersol and Bodie very much before they joined this family, because they were good friends. John is turning out to be a close friend, too. But to suggest that he and I are going to marry is absurd. I can't remarry, because of my religious convictions about valid marriage. Okay?"
"Okay, I guess. Sounded like a good idea to us," he said. "We like John a lot. Mom says he's the best thing that ever happened to you." He put his hand over his mouth. "All right, we weren't supposed to hear that, either. Are you going to tell on us about eavesdropping?"
"No, you'll remain unnamed sources, as long as you keep telling me what you hear."
"Aha!" he cried. "We may be eavesdroppers, but you're a spy! What if I'm a double agent?'
"If you turn out to be a double agent, I'll tell your mother to switch your instruction from fencing to square dancing. Besides, you would have nothing to report, as I am beyond reproach." I was, too. My mother's watchful tyranny had trained me to do nothing blameworthy in sight of anyone.
"Square dancing. I don't know, ma chere tante, I might enjoy that even more than learning to fence ... "
"So it seems, Monsieur Reich-Ambris, that we have a standoff. Yet it appears that the world has turned so far this day that I must let my noble dog out for the night, and hie myself off to bed before I drop in my tracks." A yawn overtook me, making me feel weak.
"I'll take him out," Owen offered.
"You are the best nephew an aunt ever had," I said.
"Remember that when I need to borrow a twenty," he answered, as he snapped his fingers for Gabe to follow him.
I intended to say, "Don't let him chase any of the staff," but instead I woke the next morning, still on the couch, with Gabe back beside me on the floor and a blanket draped over me.