Life is an endless parade of scoundrels, all conniving for an easy angle to feather their nest. All except Clara, that is; she soars above the folly. Perched in the parlor bay window of her Victorian home, she commands the world's troubled landscape, tsk tsking the tricksters who march beneath her. But Aunt Clara is about to condescend and join the wily band -- just this once -- with a cunning scheme to take over the Connover property next door.
A simple 'I do' will turn the trick. Heck, the Austrian Hapsburgs married like drunkards in Las Vegas and annexed half the European continent; Clara wants to marry into a quarter acre on a lazy side street in Peoria. At the root of Clara's treachery is a spat with Mrs. Connover over the boundary of their connected gardens. But last week, ole lady Connover pulled up her last weed, setting in motion a Hapsburg-style merger with Earl Connover, her live-in grandson and sole heir. The diplomatic maneuver will stretch Clara's realm all the way over to the rutabagas.
In the disputed garden territory stands the Earl himself, a coat rack of a man with a shabby trench coat draped upon its clavicle coat hanger. A light bulb nose fronts a bald head, its hair melted away but gathered generously in ham steak ears, cavernous nostrils, and caterpillar eyebrows. The jet stream tracing Earl's migrations comes from the stoked tree-bark cigar nestled between his thin lips.
Alas, the garden -- not the gardener -- is the prize of the envisioned matrimonial arrangement. That's why the tender offer will be, not for the crafty hand of Clara, but for the delicate, alabaster hand of her live-in niece, Angela.
As these musings stir Clara's tender heart, Angela, the would-be bride, delivers May flowers to the altar of the Episcopal Church. In a floor-length dress, she seems to float up the sun-draped aisle, the affect punctuated by an angelic curve of the lips and prayerful eyes tipped skyward. The meditative state of every earthly teen and twenty-something in the congregation turns from the preacher to the more heavenly being among them.
"It's high time you marry, Angela," Clara says later over Sunday afternoon tea. "Earl Conniver -- the fine fella next door -- is available, don't you know."
"Connover, Conniver." Clara waves off the irrelevant distinction. "Either way, don't let the bloom come off the rose, young lady." She waggles a matronly finger.
"But Auntie! This rose just turned twenty!"
"And Conniv . . . Connover there is a perfect twenty-five. Why, Earl just came into a tidy inheritance." Clara, pouring tea, leans in confidentially. "Besides, the gaaarden's at stake."
"Then you marry the garden, Auntie. You're only five years older than Mr. Connover. I won't have him tromp through any veggie patch of mine!"
With the stomp of Fury -- not the grace of an archangel -- Angela withdraws from the bargaining table to her bedroom upstairs. There, she whiles away in the pages of Pride and Prejudice. Ahh, if she could only live the romantic life of Elizabeth Bennett.
That evening, her Victorian daydream turns grim nightmare when the bachelor who surfaces at the ball is Earl Connover, not the coat-tailed Mr. Darcy.
"Dinnerrrr!" Aunt Clara calls upstairs.
On the winding staircase, Angela cocks her head at the two coat racks in the foyer, one of them flipping a hat onto its counterpart.
"Angela, I invited Mr. Conniver --"
"It's Conn-over, ma'am." Earl, hypertensive red, addresses Aunt Clara, but his beady eyes are bathing in the glistening brown locks cascading over Angela's shoulders. He extinguishes a half-chewed, half-smoked cigar against a shoe and pockets the remnant in his baggy trousers. Then, from the stogie's source, he treats Angela to a Cheshire cat smile with a brand new -- albeit tobacco-stained -- set of pearly white teeth.
"Conn-over then. Either way, I invited Earl here for some homemade Sunday dinner. On account of ole lady . . . Mrs. Conniver's passing." Clara dabs a tear. "God bless 'er mortal soul."
Angela sits at the far, darker end of the mile-long dining table and hides in the shadow of brown eyelashes. A general about to annex territory, Aunt Clara sits strategically at the table's head. The fidgeting Earl, the conquest of his heart complete, drags a chair with the screech of fingernails on a chalkboard and sits close enough to the angel to rub her halo. The general allows a coy smile.
Clara serves a lavish banquet fit for the rustic alliance she aims to forge. Roast beef, mashed potatoes, buttery biscuits. "Gravy, Earl?" Brussels sprouts, broccolini, carrots. "Wish we had rutabaga, Earl!" Beets, spinach. "Grows muscle Earl. Ask Popeye." Working double duty, Earl's false teeth chomp through Clara's feast and beam at the peerless Angela's charms. Angela hasn't eaten, on guard with a fork ever since she kicked the broomstick of a leg wandering under the table.
"Dessert wine, Mr. Conniver?" With a silver tray of cream puffs on the way, Earl cleans the pearly whites in a napkin on his lap. But, a victim of Cupid's arrow, the lovelorn man forgets himself and goes right on smiling at the target of his affection. At the sight of smacking, flapping, gravy-coated gums, Angela flies upstairs to take dessert instead with Mr. Darcy.
From that Sunday banquet on, Earl -- the poor, poor double orphan of a man -- punches a meal ticket in Clara's five-star dining room every night, all summer long.
Dear reader, 'The way to a man's heart is through his stomach' is a tired, tired old saw. Yet it has proven true since a cavewoman first roasted a mammoth's hock over newly discovered fire. It is also an immutable truth that man's affection turns to the provider of the vittles. Doesn't a dog cast his affection onto the giver of the bone? And let us not forget the truism that, when a man finds a field fallow, he turns his hoe to the nearest fertile soil.
These are the three intractable laws of nature and love that, like gravity, pulled the chair of Earl Conniver away from the angel -- now hiding at dinners under a tilted, wide-brimmed sunhat -- and into the orbit of the general herself. The change happened imperceptibly but surely, inch by inch, like a full eclipse of the sun.
Admittedly, Clara is tight as a schoolmarm, with hair pulled into a taut bun stretching her mouth into a perpetual, placid smile that really isn't there. Parties? Dances? Television? Makeup? No, no, no, and of course not. These are devil tools all, to divert time away from the bible. Her rigid domestic rules light Angela's path too -- especially so; she flew into Aunt Clara's strict nest after 'an unspoken incident' with her parents.
When it comes to culinary artistry though, Clara is a raging genius, flaring impasto strokes in her kitchen gallery like Van Gogh did on canvas -- except Clara has two ears. What a domestic upgrade she'd be from Gramma Connover, who couldn't boil an egg! After all, Earl's culinary horizon stops at peanut butter sandwiches, and he needs the written recipe at every meal. Besides, I'm no prize, Earl thinks. I oughtta hold onto 'er like grim death! And there IS that tiny hiccup regarding the inheritance. Wait'll she reads the will . . .
For Clara's part, what virtuoso doesn't take to the connoisseur who most admires her creations? What's more, Earl is the schoolmarm's first admirer; she's not about to release her white-knuckled grip. And there is that tiny matter regarding the inheritance . . .
* * *
After a scrumptious summer of love, life's parade whisks Clara and Earl down the aisle of the Episcopal Church, the harvest time leaves a harbinger of the season's fleeting color. Out of respect for Mrs. Connover, the newlyweds live apart until the estate -- and the disputed garden -- are settled.
"Earl dear? Earl, is that you?" Clara says from the kitchen. November's breath rattles the storm door and chills the household. Earl takes off the trench coat that refuses to button anymore; he drapes it over his shoulders these days like a funeral pall to tame the fall freeze.
Trailing Earl is younger brother Francis. The Reverend Francis that is, flown in from Italy to sign the final estate papers of Mrs. Connover. Tomorrow, the rutabagas will join husband Earl as part of Clara's landed estate.
"Dinnerrrr!" Aunt Clara calls from the foot of the stairs.
Slump-shouldered, hiding in the shadow of the massive sunhat, Angela trundles down the stairs, still in a mind movie parlor waltz with the debonair Mr. Darcy. Suddenly, oh suddenly, in the dining room, she -- Elizabeth Bennett -- leaps from the pages of Pride and Prejudice.
The angelic smile makes a celestial recovery. The sunhat is flung like a Frisbee. The fluttering eyelashes get a workout. She splashes the brunette waterfall over a shoulder, wafting a perfumed love note in the direction of Reverend Francis.
Bowing before the blooming Angela is Mr. Darcy himself in the fine form of Francis, except wearing a lily white clerical collar, not ballroom coattails. Younger brother Francis apparently had the claim ticket for the lanky build, wave of black hair, Roman nose, and confident smile that Earl left behind in the maternal womb. Reverend Francis doesn't need Cupid's bow; he lances Angela's heart with a plaintive greeting to melt an angelic woman's soul: "God bless you, Angela."
Dinner is served to lovers all. Earl and Clara dine at the married end of the mile-long table, Angela and Mr. Darcy -- ahem, Reverend Francis -- titter moon-eyed at the courting end. Only a sucking sound -- Earl's mastication with slipping teeth of a rump roast -- pierces the romantic silence.
Angela dribbles wine and splashes food, like Earl on his first ride aboard Clara's gravy train. But who can fault her distraction? The winsome Angela is rubbing the holy reverend's muscled calf with hers under the table. In time, the leg rubbers will find they have much more in common than enamored eyes.
The next morning, an estate attorney beats feet out of the Connover residence, the cold wind buffeting papers from a half-opened briefcase. A black BMW peels out, the harried driver living in the rear view mirror.
Following in the attorney's frantic wake are brothers Earl and Francis, carrying the limp Clara by arms and legs. Angela keeps pace, finger-flicking water into the ashen face of Aunt Clara. The recently betrothted Clara fainted dead away upon the reading of the will.
* * *
The following spring, rutabaga shoots break the garden soil and lovebirds trumpet the three month wedding anniversary of Francis and Angela Connover. Near where he buried the Costume Emporium clerical collar, Francis tends the rutabaga shoots with an upside-down hoe in his fertile garden. It seems that old Mrs. Connover changed 'Earl' to 'Francis' in her will, a one-word adjustment that left the whole family loaf to younger grandson Francis and threw Earl to the curb without a crumb. Old Mrs. Connover's holy heart -- and whole purse -- were taken by the prodigal son's promise of spiritual transformation from college playboy to reverend during three years of soul searching in Italy. Taken indeed. Big Frankie the con artist looked for his soul at the gambling altars of the Italian Riviera, not in any church.
"Frankie, say again why you couldn't make Aunt Clara's and Uncle Earl's wedding." Angela fixes stones with a surveyor's precision to mark her half of the disputed garden.
"I was woikin that St. Louie art con, Angie."
"Oh yeah. The swindle of the Van Gogh?"
"Dat's da one." He rotates a cigar in his mouth. "I was da smooth front guy who stole da heart of dat rich ol' widow."
Big Frankie and Angie float hand-in-hand to their inherited love nest. Inside, at the oak roll-top desk where the doctored Connover will was read last fall, Big Frankie and Sweet Angie plot the next hoodwinking of a rich widow in Chicago. Angie's also working to get the mistyped 'I' on her marriage certificate fixed so she doesn't live life as Mrs. Conniver.
Next door, at the kitchen window, the steam rises from Aunt Clara's tight collar to match the pot boiling on the stove. "I should never have taken the double-crosser in! Neverrrr!" Clara waves a wooden spoon at the pot. The saintly Angela had moved in two years ago this day after her parents were convicted on big-dollar forgery charges. Truth told, mom and dad took the fall and daughter Angela took a walk. "The apple doesn't roll far from the tree," Clara shrugs, resurrecting yet another of life's tired but abiding truisms. The pot whistles its agreement.
In the dining room, Clara reigns over her reduced earthly domain at the head of the table, and Earl sits a mile away from his lord at the other end; he may as well be next door where the political intrigue started. The Earl's lost weight. While Clara studies a bible, he speculates over a recipe whether the Jiffy peanut butter on Wonder Bread goes on the bottom, or is it the blueberry jelly.
The thought of rutabagas crowding out the reading of proverbs, Clara slams shut the holy bible. She shuffles to the bay window, cuffing Earl's bald scalp for healthy measure on the way. "Some Earl you turned out to be!"
Perched on high, Aunt Clara scans the world at large for any shifty miscreants. Aaaand, here comes a young couple now. Eating ice cream? Holding hands? "Huh!" She launches a snippy "Tsk tsk" missile at the likely reprobates in disguise, comforted knowing that, in the eternal comedy, she's a passive sidewalk bystander, never to be duped into life's farcical parade.