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She snorted. “Kuala Lumpur, my sainted butt. Want to try again?”

I sighed in abject surrender. My ammunition dump was empty. “Alright, Auntie, lay it on me. But I’m making no promises to do anything except listen. Who, exactly, insulted you?”

She had, it would seem, a friend. One could hardly credit it. She and this “friend”, Letitia Mortimer of the Brewster, NY Mortimers, one of the first families of the Upper Valley, a neighborhood where my Aunt Harriet is known to hang out to soak her feet and what-not, both belong to a club improbably named the “Needle Knockers” for its habit of getting together on the first available porch during the second-most Tuesday of every fifth week to knit comforters and tea cozies and sweaters for their freezing knees and, it would appear, quilts. “Afghans”, Aunt Harriet called them, on the theory that that was the country where the practice supposedly originated.

“Afghanistan? Really?” I said, feigning interest. “Can you prove that?”

“Of course not, you idiot,” Aunt Harriet snapped. “Anyway, it’s not important.”

“I beg to differ,” I said, hauling myself up to my full height. “It’s important to the Afghans.”

After remonstrating with me by swatting me across the ear with the end of her rhinestone eyeglass cord, she explained that the Mortimer in question had high-handedly purloined the “NK’s Champion Knockers” trophy which is awarded every Shrove Whitsuntide (whatever that is) to the knitter with the biggest knockers. Which isn’t what you’re thinking, you dawg. It’s an award for she who has banged her needles together the most often and produced the largest swatch of…whatever.

“That trophy is mine,” Aunt Harriet hissed, making the most of the only sibilant sound in her sentence, “and I want it.”

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She recovered quickly.

“Schemes, Nephew?” she asked, scowling in disbelief. “Was that the word I heard you use?”

Whenever she calls me “Nephew” I know I should be on my way to the nearest root cellar with a month’s supply of gouda under my arm and a good, stout lock, the kind that won’t open if you shoot it dead center with a .45 from a foot away like they do on TV.

“I come merely to ask the smallest, most inconsequential favor from a dear relative I saved from the horrors of New Age summer camps where he was forced to spend his time crooning to crystals and taking classes in Aroma Therapy, and instead of expressing the natural joy engendered by being given the chance to repay my kindness by doing the tiniest, least troublesome of favors imaginable, you tar me with the epithet ‘schemer’? I am disappointed in you, Ponsie. Tres disappointed. My heart is heavy to see one whom I so cherished and admired turn into an ungrateful twit without an ounce of filial love or compassion for an aunt who has suffered the most ignominious of insults.“

Her heart didn’t look heavy to me. Judging by the high color of her cheeks, it was more likely to explode than to lay there like a lump. Something was indeed stirring her steely inner core into a molten mess of dudgeon and pique but I know better than to give in to curiosity when an aunt’s tormented soul is loaded for bear. Not for me to blurt out a thoughtless inquiry as to what manner of “insult” she had suffered and thus loose the demons of her tortured spirit. Her tortured spirit could go spit for all I cared. Me for the desperate charge to the rear.

“Auntie,” I said, “I’d love to but I’m due in Kuala Lumpur tomorrow and I simply must pack.”

Chances of This Working: 0-1.5 Good enough.

 

Aunt Hariet on a bad dayThe door burst open as if it had been tapped by Godzilla and Aunt Harriet strode into my suddenly diminutive abode like the Collossus of Rhodes looking for a village to stomp. The fact that she was smiling as she did it sent shivers of ice up my spine so cold an Arctic glacier would have grabbed its hat and slunk off to the tropics in shame.

“Ah,” she said, showing all her teeth (which looked to me as if they’d been sharpened but moments before), “my favorite nephew. How are you, Ponsonby? Get a job yet?”

Doomed, that’s what I was. She was marshalling her forces early. There was to be no preliminary bout this time. “Aunt Harriet,” I said, trying out a carefree smile with what I suspect was a minimum of success. “What a pleasant surprise. Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? I would have killed the fatted calf and laid in a supply of your favorite snacks. Still eating your chickens raw and with the heads on?”

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In the pantheon of Aunts Who Plague Me, Aunt Harriet barely merits Honorable Mention. In fact, she’s fairly mellow as Braithwaite Aunts go. She doesn’t yell or threaten to haul platoons of exorcists to my rooms whenever she sees me, she doesn’t raise haughty eyebrows and sniff just because I don’t live in Oak Park or Palm Springs or one of the Lesser Hamptons, she isn’t one of the aunts who tries to dragoon me into Good Works or Making Something of Myself, and best of all, she doesn’t normally show up without calling first.

She is not, to put it in a nutshell, one of the short-tempered, high-and-mighty Dragon Aunts, which is why it came as such a shock to me when I happened to look out the window at just the moment when she was double-parking her beloved but unassuming Turd Fergus in front of the entrance to my apartment building.

She hadn’t told me she was coming and that was a Bad Sign.

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I live a quiet and contemplative life.

I like it that way.

I am not now nor have I ever been a Man of Action. I do not imagine myself as one, wish I were one, or suffer from the uncomfortable illusion that I could be one if only I could bring myself to spend more time lifting weights, chinning myself 100 times a day, and systematically jerking my abs to bad 80’s pop-rock. (Phil Collins? Please. Gag me with a table saw.) I will never leap over tall buildings in a single bound and I am content that it should be so.

It’s not that I have anything against the M of A. In point of fact, I count many M’s of A among my dearest acquaintances and have deliberately cultivated friendships with dozens of them, from boxers and skydivers to orchid hunters and marlin fishermen. I even once was buddies with the certified public accountant who did the Mob’s books, may he rest in peace.

No, it isn’t that I dislike them. It is simply that I know who I am and I am not one of them. I am a book collector, a fine wine appreciator, a student of history and literature, a chess enthusiast, and a trainspotter.

I am, in short, a Young Man of Leisure with exquisite tastes and a talent for living simply.

Fortunately, the trust fund I came into upon reaching my 21st birthday allows me – as long as I don’t get carried away – to indulge myself fairly liberally in this simplicity. Drown myself in it, you might say. I read 3-5 books a week, 7 newspapers a day, and have eggs Benedict for breakfast every Sunday. I make my own pasta, grow my own mushrooms – Shitaki, to be precise – in the closet behind my penny loafers, and pay a very grumpy woman to come in 3 times a week and clean whatever mess I’ve managed to make since her last visit while she yells at me in a combination of mangled English and what is either Silesian or Serbo-Croat to put my nail clippings somewhere she never has to see them (the result of some childhood trauma or other, I expect).

It may not seem like much of a life to you. Certainly it strikes my family as lacking in…something.

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