I sighed and took the phone. “Hi, Aunt Iris.”
Her big, loud voice blasted out through the earpiece. They say that from her position at third base on her varsity women’s fast-pitch softball team, her chatter could cause the toughest opposing batters to weep.
“Where have you been, you little rodent? I should have known to call Fillmore’s phone first. I’ve been trying to call you for hours.”
“No, you haven’t. I would have heard the ring tone.”
“Oh. Well, I’ve tried to call twice. You didn’t hear those times.”
“I had to come down and let Gloria in. She’s . . . ”
“Gloria? She’s here?”
“Yes. She just . . . ”
Aunt Iris wailed, “But Gloria was supposed to come for Christmas.”
Well, now I’m going to have to stop and explain. In the middle of September of the year I’m telling you about, Aunt Iris, during one of her regular phone calls, mentioned that she was beginning to make plans for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. In connection with that, she wanted me to do her a favor. Aunt Iris is an extremely excellent aunt, so I’m happy to do her favors when I can.
“How may I help you?” I asked in my interpretation of a nasal, customer- service-representative type of voice.
“None of your sass, young Melly.”
That’s my name. Melinda, or Melly, Shrop.
“I want you to get Gloria here for Christmas.”
Our two families, the Shrops and the Dalrymples, have been friends for generations, and Gloria nearly always joins us for at least part of the holidays, but it’s always on a when she shows up, she shows up, sort of basis. I was surprised when Aunt Iris made a special point of inviting her for Christmas.
I said, “Gloria? For Christmas? Why?”
“I’ll tell you why. I’ve just learned there’s going to be an opening on the board of the Council on American Creative Arts, and I want that spot.”
“What’s that got to do with Gloria?”
“I’ll tell you if you’ll shut up and listen.”
I took the phone away from my ear and found it a new position several inches out into the atmosphere.
“I want Gloria here for Christmas because the chairman of the CACA board is Paulette Peabody. Paulette Peabody has only one child – a son, on whom she dotes. And the son is obsessed with Gloria Dalrymple. If I can tell Paulette that Gloria is joining us for Christmas, then she’ll accept my invitation for same in the blink of an eye. And if I can get Paulette Peabody here for Christmas, I’ve as good as got that spot on the board.”
“Thank you. So. Can you deliver Gloria?”
That was a good question, and I said so to Aunt Iris. I went on to explain that I could ask Gloria to come, and she would almost certainly say, Of course. Love to. Which I did, and which she did. But, as I explained to Aunt Iris, did that mean Gloria would definitely be there? No. Because Gloria is a free spirit, and she blows whatever way the w bs, and at Christmas time, the w was as likely to be b-ing away from North Cliff as toward it.
So the matter stood. And now we can return to the story.
Aunt Iris wailed, “But Gloria was supposed to come for Christmas.”
I said, “Well, she’s here now.”
“Well I hope she plans to stay right through Christmas. Because I told Paulette Peabody . . . ”
“Aunt Iris. Calm down. She just got here. We’ve barely had time to say hello, much less review her travel plans for the upcoming months.”
“What time are you coming for dinner?”
“Uh, dinner? Um . . . ”
“Yes, dinner. It’s that meal you eat between lunch and breakfast.”
“I know what dinner is.”
“Well, good. So it’s not true what everyone says.”
“What who says?”
“I know your kitchen is all torn up. I was just over there this morning. So you have to come over here if you want a meal. So I want to know what time. What’s so hard about that?”
“Who did all the work upstairs, organizing Gloria and my closets?
“The two new maids, supervised by Dawes.” Dawes is Aunt Iris’s major domo, or butler.
“They did a beautiful job. Is Tyler here yet?” Tyler Powers is Aunt Iris’s son by a previous marriage. He grew up with Gloria and me and the three us are still as close as siblings.
“He’s coming sometime tomorrow. He’s bringing a girl.”
“I said, he’s bringing a girl.”
I didn’t know what to think about that. He’d never done that before, and he hadn’t mentioned bringing a girl the last time I talked to him. My first instinct was to think his having a girl hanging around was going to ruin all our fun.
She continued, “And Amanda’s bringing a young man. I don’t know when she plans to arrive, either.”
Amanda is Uncle Hamilton’s daughter by a previous marriage. I don’t know her very well, since she lived with her mother growing up, but she’s not my favorite person in the world. My feeling was that she could bring fifteen or twenty young men if she wanted to, for all I cared.
“And now, I’d appreciate it if you’d stop changing the subject and tell me what time you plan to do us the great honor of letting us feed you.”
“Who is here? Would we have to dress?”
I was thinking that Gloria was going to have a major wardrobe problem until we managed to get her luggage brought back to Cleveland, completely forgetting about that fully-stocked closet adjacent to her bedroom.
“It’s just Ham and me. You can come in ’jammies and bunny slippers for all I care. What’s the problem?”
“Gloria doesn’t have her luggage.”
“The fatheaded airline lost it?”
“No, I don’t think so. It sounds like her luggage is on its way to LAX . . . ” I glanced at Fillmore, who was listening with interest. “ . . . despite the fact that she’s here.”
“I suppose that makes sense to the two of you. You can explain it over dinner.”
“Um, and I don’t know if I mentioned it, but I brought Margaret and Richards, in addition to Fillmore. Can you feed them, too?”
“No problem. Dawes and the folks love it when they get fresh faces to look at over the dinner table. Breaks up the monotony around here. Is seven okay?”
“Seven?” I looked around in vain for a clock.
Fillmore, who had walked across the room to gaze out the French doors at the lights along the lakeshore, turned and said, “It is now ten of six, Miss.”
The man’s a mind reader. That’s what it has to be. A Svengali, if Svengali’s the word I want.
“Seven ought to be fine.”
As I returned the cell to Fillmore, Gloria ran back downstairs.
“Fillmore,” she cried, and threw her arms around him in an exuberant hug.
Gloria appreciates Fillmore almost as much as I do. The three of us were at school together, back when we were all students. In those days, we knew Fillmore as Will, and he was far and away the best server at the little bistro where Gloria and I almost always had dinner.
Fillmore said, “Did you have a nice flight?”
A cloud seemed to pass over her creamy complexion, but she rallied. “Sure. Great. Gosh, you know? I feel filthy. Do I have time for a quick shower before dinner?”
Fillmore and I exchanged looks. Mine said, Something’s really troubling Gloria. His said – well, his said nothing. Other than a slight raising of an eyebrow or a slight dip at a corner of the mouth, Fillmore’s face never betrays what he’s thinking. But I knew what he was thinking. He was thinking the same thing I was thinking.
I said, “Plenty of time. Go for it.”
She ran back upstairs.
Fillmore fixed an impassive eye on me and waited. He didn’t have to wait long.
“Something’s wrong with Gloria, Fillmore.”
“Yes, Miss. I noticed, too.”
“She’s going to make me pry it out of her, but I guess it’ll have to wait until after dinner. Aunt Iris wants us all over at the Hall at seven.”
“Richards, Margaret, and I can eat here if necessary. I’ll . . . ”
“No. You’re all invited, too. Aunt Iris says Dawes and that bunch will enjoy having some company.”
“Very good, Miss. While we wait for Miss Dalrymple, I’ll arrange for her luggage to be located at LAX and brought back to Cleveland.”
Once Gloria was ready, we hurried through a light snow toward the Hall. Fillmore insisted that he, Margaret, and Richards go around to the service entrance. Gloria and I climbed the front steps and I banged the knocker.
Aunt Iris and Uncle Ham were kicked back in the great room enjoying cocktails when Dawes showed us in. Iris Shrop Winthorp is a big, warm, loud woman. Think Julia Child, only twenty or thirty pounds lighter. Uncle Ham is tall, snowy-haired, handsome, and courtly. He jealously guards his privacy and despises the holidays because the holidays inevitably mean house guests.
Dawes announced us and the A and U greeted us warmly with hugs all around. They asked after Gloria’s extended family, what’s left of them, and Uncle Ham moved to the bar to mix drinks – for Gloria, her usual rum and Coke, and for me, once I spotted the little bowl of fresh lime slices, a gin and tonic.
Once we were all seated and cocktailed, Aunt Iris frowned at Gloria. “Now explain to me what happened to your luggage.”
Gloria said, “Well, I decided at the last minute to fly to LA for a few days, and the only plane I could get made a layover in Cleveland, and once we were on the ground at Hopkins, I thought I’d rather just come straight here. So I did.”
I watched her closely as she spun this little tale. She laughed when she finished, and the A and U laughed and shook their heads at the whimsicality of this younger generation, if whimsicality is the word I’m thinking of. I stared at Gloria. Before this night was over I was going to make her tell me what was going on.
Dawes announced dinner and we filed into the dining room. All the leaves had been taken out of the massive table so that we could be a somewhat cozy foursome. I noticed that the door that led out to the kitchen had been left open.
That was a first. It didn’t take me long to figure out why. Since Gloria was born and raised on the estate next door to North Cliff, most of the older staff knew her, but there were a few newish young maids who only knew of her. From time to time, one or another of them peeked around the doorway and stared until a soft but sharp word from Dawes caused her to jump back.
From where I sat, I could look through the doorway and see part of the staff table and several of the people sitting there. They spoke in soft voices, not wanting loud chatter or laughter to draw attention to the fact that the door was open.
Dinner was pleasant. Gloria entertained us with several celebrity stories. Uncle Ham teased Aunt Iris about wanting so badly to be named to the board of CACA. He insisted on making it a rather unfortunate noun instead of an acronym.
Aunt Iris, beside herself with anxiety as to whether her plans to woo this Peabody woman by producing Gloria would achieve the desired result, asked several times whether Gloria would be staying through ’til Christmas, and Gloria reassured her several times that yes, she would.
As dessert was being served and coffee poured, Uncle Ham said, “Did Iris tell you what she’s done?”
I grinned at him, thinking he was about to make one of his jokes. “What’s she done?”
“My fatheaded sister called from out of the blue and invited herself and her fatheaded family here for Thanksgiving, and Iris, who is my light and my oxygen, said, Sure. Come ahead.”
I was stunned. “I didn’t even know you have a sister.”
“We’ve been estranged for many years.”
Gloria, who is well aware of the way certain of my aunts have plagued me all my life, said, “Oh my God. You mean Melly has another aunt? What’s her name?”
Aunt Iris said, “Adelaide. Adelaide Crenolia.”
Uncle Ham said, “At least it’s just for Thanksgiving, I’m happy to say.”
I blinked at him. “You mean you don’t like her?”
“I can’t stand the moron, and I like her moronic husband even less. They’re bringing a daughter I’ve never met, but I feel safe in assuming that she’s a moron, too.”
I said, “Generous columbia, um – hey, Fillmore.”
Down the hall, Fillmore’s face appeared around the doorjamb. “Miss?”
“What’s that thing you said that time about the Ankleworts?”
“Our Paradise Valley neighbors, the Ankleworts. Or rather, their kid. You said, generous columbia something . . . ”
“Ah. Non generant aquilae columbas, Miss.”
“That’s the puppy. What’s it mean again?”
“Eagles do not beget doves, Miss.”
Uncle Ham nodded. “And it follows that morons do not beget rocket scientists.”
I said, “Thank you, Fillmore.”
He said, “I’m happy to be of help, Miss,” and disappeared from the doorway.
Uncle Ham said, “Oh, I guess in a way I’m glad Adelaide has made this overture. I know she hasn’t contacted me for no reason. I know she’s going to want something, but, even so, it has bothered me to be completely cut off from my only sister and her family all these years.”
Aunt Iris said, “That’s the spirit.”
Gloria said, “You said she’ll want something. What will she want?”
Uncle Ham said, “Dawes, please tell Mrs. Dawes that this is the best caramel apple pie in the history of caramel apple pies.”
Dawes, having finished topping off Gloria’s coffee, smiled. “Thank you, Sir. She’ll be pleased to hear it.”
Uncle Ham said, “What’ll she want? Oh, money or some kind of favor, I imagine. Why else would she get in touch after all this time? And if it’s within my power, I’ll probably go along with her, just to restore peace in the family. But speaking of people’s sisters, have you heard the other big news, Melly? Your favorite aunt, one Gazel Vanderlay, is also coming.”