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Friday night was almost unbearable. Sleep was a gazillion miles away, give or take a few parsecs. I lay on sotted, sopping sheets sweating like a racehorse after a 5-mile jog and shaking so badly you could have used me as a cuisinart. Whenever I closed my eyes, movies played on the theater of my eyelids, movies about pit-wolves with huge, razor-sharp fangs dripping with blood – my blood – and marriages to black widow spiders with huge, razor-sharp pincers dripping with blood – my blood – and trophies that came to life sporting huge, razor-sharp needles dripping with – Well, you get the drift. It was horrific, worse than being down front at a Britney Spears concert.

What am I saying? It was worse than being down front at a concert featuring Britney Spears, Barry Manilow, and Kenny G playing Beethoven’s Third Symphony on, respectively, a nose flute, a zither, and a pair of Xavier Cougat’s cast-off timbales.

Morning came slowly, and when at last the sun rose it was blood red, the sky dripping with– I sat up with a jolt. I had to stop this. I was working myself into a state of marginal panic. No, strike that. I was working myself into a state of flat-out, full-bore, all-cylinders-pumping panic. All that blood and gore was sapping my strength, weakening my resolve, and ruining my sheets. Get a grip on yourself, I said to myself, as if I were someone else (which was at that moment my dearest wish – an Eskimo, say, or Marv Alpert, which shows you how far gone I was). I tried to tell myself there was hope but I knew I was lying (which demonstrates how difficult a 2-way conversation can be when only one of you is in the room).

With the sun up at last, I went into the kitchen and made pancakes with peanut butter. I didn’t eat them. I made coffee with the shards of a broken cup. I didn’t drink it. For all I know, I hung a string of bowling balls from the ceiling and played pin-the-tail-on-the-wapiti. I don’t remember. My entire being was subsumed with the consideration and visualization of the forthcoming catastrophe, the impending cataclysm, the imminent doom, the blazing, boisterous bathysphere of blood and–

“Stop it,” I said out loud just as Aunt Harriet wandered into the kitchen in search of her morning beaker of boiled baby seals and bunny brains barbecued in bloody– “Stop it,” I said again.

“Stop what?” she asked. “Are you talking to me?”

“No,” I mumbled.

“Then who on earth are you talking to?”

“The Angel of Death,” I said gloomily.

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The Andrea Doria sank without a trace. All hands were lost – but one, floating on a spike of spar. “But what about the dog? How am I supposed to get past the dog you said is guarding it?”

“Aha!” She beamed triumphantly and reached into that Chamber of Horrors pretending to be a handbag. From it emerged a small vial filled with a thick, noxious green liquid that looked just like the alien blood in Martian Monsters From the Forgotten Pool of the Black Lagoon.

I recoiled in shock. “Poison! I won’t do it, Aunt Harriet, I won’t poison a dumb animal no matter how big his teeth are. You’ve gone too far!”

“Get a grip, you nincompoop,” she snapped. “This isn’t poison, it’s a sleeping draught. A teaspoonful of this,” she cooed, rubbing its cap and patting its label as if it were an infant of unbounded cuteness, “sprinkled on a nice hunk of steak, and Brutus – that’s his name – will sleep like the dead for hours. You’ll be safe as houses.” And just how safe are they? one wanted to ask, and one might have had her purse been a few more feet from her fingertips and several dozen tons lighter than it was.

The single spar cracked, broke in two, and the last crewman slipped beneath the waves. My fate was in the hands of an aunt who had proved, in the final analysis, to be as ruthless as a bargain-hunter at Filene’s and as loopy as a sunstruck viper. I was chilled to the m of my b’s and I must have looked it because she asked the most superfluous question of the decade.

The Most Superfluous Question of the Decade: “You’re not afraid, are you, Ponsie?”

My Aunt Harriet’s idea of having it “all worked out” was roughly akin to a schizophrenic’s notion of an improvised therapy session.

“Lettitia is having a party to celebrate the theft of the trophy. You’re invited.”

“I can’t be. I don’t know them.”

“I know them and it’s all arranged.” Reaching into her pocketbook, she pulled out a piece of paper that proved on closer examination to be an invitation, though it was badly crumpled (no doubt from being unceremoniously shoved into the handbag crushed between her brass knuckles and her home-made thumbscrews) and equally badly stained. I tried not to notice how much the stain looked like dried blood but its decidedly darkish red color was…unhelpful in that regard.

She passed it over and I held it between my thumb and forefinger so as not to compromise any fingerprints that might later prove helpful to the police when whatever crime it represented was discovered. My stomach was rehearsing the last scene of The Sinking of the Andrea Doria . I could see no escape from my impending Doom, though I considered for a moment setting fire–accidentally, of course–to the rag of paper. It wouldn’t have worked, tempting though it was. Aunt Harriet would see through that old wheeze in a NY minute and Agnes De Renville would be at my door dressed in white before you could say “I do, damn your eyes!” But then, just as I was about to surrender, I saw on the invitation something that made Hope Dawn again.

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I demurred. I bespoke another engagement. I pleaded bad corns and eczema. Aunt Harriet tapped her foot. Finally, my manhood at stake, I put my foot down.

Unfortunately, I put it down on top of hers and by the time she stopped hopping around and screaming in what sounded like Mandarin, she was in no mood to be generous. “You will do it, my rat-brained, snaggle-toothed nephew, and you will do it tomorrow or in the morning I will call Agnes De Renville and tell her you told me you intend to propose marriage to her.”

I was about to object vehemently to her characterization of my dentation when an icicle pierced my brain with the punch of an ice cream headache. Agnes De Renville, a woman with the face of a moose and a laugh to match. Agnes De Renville, who had dogged my steps like a lawyer chasing an ambulance, who could sniff out my presence from a mile away like a cop smells donuts. Agnes De Renville, who was so certain that deep in my heart I was madly in love with her and would one day discover it, suddenly, like a stomach cramp, that she kept a blank marriage license in her purse and paid a minister to be on call 24 hours a day “just in case” I ever changed my mind. Agnes De Renville, my Nemesis, my Curse, my own private Ann Coulter. “You wouldn’t,” I said, shocked to my very penny loafers.

“Oh, wouldn’t I?” Aunt Harriet’s one red eye glinted like molten steel. “I would and I will, Ponsie my love, if you don’t get that trophy for me. Like a shot. Like two shots. By the time you down the third, I will have her here at your door with her train in train and the orchestra playing ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ on fifty accordions, every one of them out of tune. Get me?”

I sank into a chair, defeated. “How?” I said.

“Funny you should ask,” she said, abruptly cheerful (an attitude I found in extraordinarily bad taste under the circumstances). “I’ve got it all worked out….”

Prayer: O Lord–or whatever–please, next time let both my parents be only children. Amen.

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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