Before I go any further I ought to explain about Fillmore. He’s roughly my age, possibly a year or two older, tall and exotic-looking, and keeps his shiny black hair very short. There’s something of the Comanche in his cheekbones and I think anyone would say he’s attractive except, perhaps, for his slightly overbroad forehead.
You may have inferred a certain stiffness in his manner. And your intuition is correct. The man has virtually no facial expressions, he stands as if he’s attached at many points along his spine to an extremely straight slab of marble, and he has the vocabulary, though not the accent, of a turn-of-the-century (twentieth, not twenty-first) British headmaster.
He hasn’t always been like this. When I first met him a little under two years ago, he was as slouchy and slangy and laid-back as the next guy. In those days, his longish black hair was free to curl and tumble wherever it liked. It was near the end of the fifth year of my five-and-a half-year college education.
My roommate, Gloria Dalrymple (Gloria wasn’t a celebrity then), and I, had formed the habit of eating dinner nearly every night at a cozy, ye oldie bistro kind of place, and this guy, Will, who worked there, became our favorite server.
He was funny and efficient and cute in a slightly dangerous way (I mentioned the quasi-Comanche cheekbones) and we liked him a lot. Gloria decided pretty early on that he was gay. Not because he exhibited any of the stereotypically-gay mannerisms (he didn’t), but because, as Gloria said, no hetero man would be that attentive or care that much about all the little details.
Where was I? Oh, yes. As graduation (finally) approached, a cabal of my aunts, led by my Aunt Gazel, held a secret meeting and emerged swearing blood-oaths that they would force me to hire a personal assistant before I left the warm embrace of the academic community and went out into the cold, cruel world.
As Aunt Gazel tenderly phrased it when she broke the news to me, “You ridiculous little fathead. Without a PA they’ll eat you alive out here.”
I chafed. I didn’t like the idea of a personal assistant. Like all soon-to-graduate collegians, I thought I knew it all. I thought I was a woman of the world. I’d had all I wanted of regulation, restriction, and time management.
I wanted freedom. Having a personal assistant trailing me around everywhere, so that every time I turned around I bumped into her, and probably spying on me for Aunt G, sounded exactly like everything I didn’t want.
I delivered many long and defiant monologs to Gloria in the warm embrace of the bistro, all the while knowing that no one who values life and limb actually goes up against my Aunt Gazel, who is the odious creature neurotic people fear is lurking under their beds at night. When Aunt Gazel tells you to do something, I don’t care who you are, you say, Yes, ma’am, and hop to it.
One night in the bistro, as I sounded off on the subj for about the millionth time, how there was no way I was going to hire a stupid PA even though I knew I was going to have to or else, and, anyway, where in the world does one even find a stupid personal assistant, Will said, “Melly. Hire me.”
I hadn’t noticed that he was at our table. Even then, Will seemed to appear and disappear tableside without any actual approaching or departing. Sometimes he was just there, and other times he was just not there.
Gloria and I stared at him, our mouths hanging open.
He said, “I’ll be your personal assistant.”
I suddenly had a frightening vision of the expression on Aunt Gazel’s face were Will and I to announce that he was my new PA. I burst out laughing.
He said, “You’re laughing because you think your aunt wouldn’t go for it?”
I nodded energetically, unable to speak.
“If I get her okay, will you hire me?”
I said, “You’re joking, right?”
He gave me a long, steady look that said no, he was not joking.
I finally recovered enough from my laughing fit to say, “Will, if you’re a talented enough salesman to sell the aunts, particularly my evil Aunt Gazel, on that idea, you’d be seriously wasting yourself as a PA.”
He continued with that long, steady look.
I wilted. “Or not . . . ”
Gloria said, “Anyway, why would you even want a job like that?”
This remark stopped me. I was about to ask her, job like what? I mean, it wasn’t as if being my personal assistant would be all that horrible, was it? I was about to point that out, but Will got in ahead of me.
He said, still looking at me, “You’ve got money, right, Melly?”
That’s my name. Melly, short for Melinda, Shrop.
“I’ve heard you talk about the house you inherited in Scottsdale, and there’s another one in Key West? And another one in Cleveland? And there’s a lot more besides?”
I shrugged and nodded.
“So you’ll live pretty well. Rub shoulders with the rich and famous? Do a little traveling?”
I shrugged and nodded.
“And when you fly, I guess you fly first class. As your PA, would I fly first class?”
I shrugged.“Well, sure. How could you assist me if you were stuck back in tourist?”
And I thought, assist me with what? Because I wasn’t at all clear what PAs do, beyond, apparently, preventing the cold, cruel world from eating one alive. But, I wondered, what else? Because it seemed like that prevention business in itself wouldn’t add up to a forty-hour work week, would it?
Meanwhile, Gloria said, “I hate flying tourist. It smells like poverty.”
Will, ignoring Gloria, said, “See? A few big houses to look after, not to mention flying first class, is all I need to make me happy. Just pay me more or less what I’m making here, which is not exactly enough to buy my own first class seat to anywhere, and I’ll be happy.”
Skip ahead a few months to Graduation Day. Somehow it had become established fact that, if Will could put the idea of himself as my PA past my Aunt Gazel, he was hired.
Beginning the day before the Big Day, or the Eve of the Big Day, if you like, my relatives began to arrive from every direction. The campus of the small private Midwestern college was crawling with aunts. Not to mention uncles and cousins.
I couldn’t get enough tickets for everyone to attend the ceremony, so, when the rite of passage was over, the somewhat resentful (if I read the vibes right) Non-ticketed met the Ticketed around the columns of the portico for photos and the procession to the party center. Chauffeured limos idled along the long driveway.
Will was there, too. One minute I was drowning in a churning sea of relatives, and the next minute, there was Will. He was still dressed in black, like when he waited tables in the bistro, but now it was black dress shirt and trousers (as opposed to black tee and jeans). His black hair was now homicide detective short, and his erect, formal posture made him look five or six inches taller than he had appeared to be when he was waiting tables and pouring wine.
I grabbed his arm and dragged him through the camera-wielding relatives toward Aunt Gazel. If you recall, I have already touched on the personality of the family ogre. My paternal aunt is of average height, lean and mean, brindle-haired, and her nose and chin are sharp and pointy. What with her lean, pointy face and that short, severely-layered reddish hair, she looks a lot like a fox.
I pulled him into The Presence. Aunt Eleanor and several other relatives, sensing a breaking news event, drew near.
I was scared. So I was glad Will, er, Fillmore, as I was now supposed to call him, had, during planning sessions, promised that I need not worry about a thing. That he would handle everything beyond the introduction.
We’d had several of these planning sessions, during one of which, in answer to my questions, he’d explained that from early childhood he’d always wanted to grow up to be like a character he’d discovered in some old British movies and books. This was a character named something that sounded like “Cheese.”
Will explained that people with only general knowledge remember Cheese, or Jeeves, or whatever his name was, as having been a butler, but he was actually a gentleman’s personal gentleman, whatever that is, for a rich and privileged young man in London.
Will wanted to grow up to be this Cheese, or whoever, the way other little boys want to grow up to be firemen, or Johnny Depp. Becoming my PA was as close a shot at the sort of life to which he aspired as he might ever get, so that was why he jumped all over it.
But I’ve gotten off the track again. Where was I? I think I was explaining that Will had promised to handle the aunts beginning right after the introductions, and that I would have no worries.
So I said, “Aunt Gazel, I’d like you to meet Fillmore.” That was what I was supposed to call him, starting now. He had explained that gentlemen’s personal gentlemen are always addressed by their last names. Whatever.
I said, “I’d like you to meet Fillmore. I’ve hired him to be my personal assistant.”
I hastily backed away to get out of the line of fire, and to let Fillmore have at it. Unfortunately, I backed up onto Uncle Edwood’s toes. Uncle Edwood yelped and said, “Hey.”
There was a little commotion as a result of Uncle Edwood’s yelp, so I missed what was said initially between Aunt Gazel and Fillmore, but I couldn’t have missed much more than a back-and-forth or two. As I tuned back in, Aunt Gazel was saying, “But . . .”
The left corner of Fillmore’s mouth twitched slightly, which, from that day to this, is the closest he has ever come to smiling, and he said, in a voice several octaves deeper than I’d ever heard him use before, “Ingens telum necessitates, Madame.”
Aunt Gazel looked completely baffled. Her jaw dropped. She said, “Uh.”
Fillmore said, “I shall endeavor to give satisfaction, Madame.”
Aunt G took Aunt Eleanor by the elbow and they turned like sleepwalkers and headed for the row of limos – lean, mean Gazilla teetering on her four-inch heels and plump little Aunt Eleanor’s ankles swelling visibly over the tops of her more sedate beige dress pumps.
I heard Aunt Eleanor’s whispery whine. “Was that Latin?”
Aunt G whispered, “You’re asking me?”
Aunt Eleanor said, “I think it was Latin.”
Aunt G said, “Think away, Eleanor, if it makes you happy.”
Aunt Eleanor said, as they faded into the general din, “But I don’t understand Latin.”
I turned to Fillmore, who had pulled his cell phone from his hip pocket and was scanning his directory. I meant to ask him to repeat that Latin phrase and tell me what it meant, but found myself asking instead, “Who are you calling?”
“You stated that closing the town house was the first order of business, Miss. I’ve arranged for the movers to arrive this afternoon, so I am now confirming with the cleaners that they will be there first thing in the morning. As soon as they’ve finished, we’ll be ready to go.”
The next evening we caught the last flight from Cleveland to Sky Harbor. Thanks to Fillmore, the town house had been packed up, moved out of, cleaned, and turned over to the real estate agent in a day and-a-half. If I’d tried to do all that myself, I’d probably still be there.
It wasn’t until later, after the seat belt light had gone off and we’d settled comfortably into our first class seats and had beverages in our hands – white wine for me, coffee for Fillmore (it was then I learned for the first time that Fillmore rarely drinks because he says it makes him lethargic), that I remembered to ask him about that L bomb he’d dropped on the aunts.
“Fillmore. What was that Latin quote you laid on Aunt Gazel yesterday?”
The attendant had supplied him with a pillow which he had tucked behind his head, and he had bought a New York Times on the way to our gate. He was reading it now, looking slightly smug. He looked up.“Ingens telum necessitates, Miss.”
I had hoped he would also supply the translation, but he didn’t. I didn’t want to ask, because asking what it meant would make me feel pretty stupid. I let a long silence go by. But eventually, since it was hardly going to be the first time in my life that I felt pretty stupid, and I wanted to know, I nudged him with my elbow. “What’s it mean?”
He looked up. “Miss?”
“That Latin. Ignum whatever. What’s it mean?”
“Ingens telum necessitates, Miss. It means, necessity is an enormous weapon.”
I said, “Oh.”
Fifteen or twenty minutes later I said, “Huh.”
We were probably high above Oklahoma or somewhere when I finally gave in. The thing was, okay, even after he’d told me the translation, I couldn’t really fathom why he’d said it. Because, okay, thanks to Aunt Gazel’s controlling personality, it was necessary that I have a PA, but how was the necessity a weapon? I didn’t get it.
I said, “Fillmore.”
Again I had interrupted his reading. By this time he’d finished his coffee and worked his way into the back sections of the Times. He looked up.“Miss?”
“Why did you say it? Enormous weapon. I can’t figure out . . . ”
The left corner of his mouth twitched. He cleared his throat quietly .“Actually, Miss, that wasn’t the quote I meant to use. I meant to say, Non quo sed quomodo, which means, not by whom but how. In other words, what does it matter if your PA is not a matronly woman with blue hair and orthopedic shoes, but me, as long as I prove to be adequate in the position. You can see how that one would have been appropriate.”
“Oh, yeah. Perfect.”
He nodded. “That was the phrase I had prepared. But, for some reason when the time came, I found myself reeling off the other one, which didn’t really apply. I suppose it happened because your aunt intimidated me a little just at first.”
The corner of his mouth twitched again. “I was relieved when I saw she didn’t have the slightest idea what I was talking about.”
“I guess you could have said anything in Latin to her and it would have had the same effect.”
“Very true, Miss.”
“Didn’t even have to be Latin. If it just sounded a little like Latin.”
“Possibly so, Miss.”
“You’re going to keep on with this, aren’t you?”
“Exactly. Miss this and Miss that. All this Fillmore stuff.”
“Yes, Miss. Complete submersion in my role, as they say.”
“Is this anything I should be worried about? I mean, you’re not having some kind of, oh, what did they call it in Psych 101? A blahdy blahdy episode, or something?”
“A dissociative episode, Miss?”
“That isn’t exactly the term I was thinking of, but I guess it’ll do. The term I had in mind started like the name of the class. Psych something or other.”
“Is psychotic break the term you had in mind?”
I smiled. “That’s the puppy. You’re not having a psychotic break or something, are you?”
“No, Miss. I assure you, I am of perfectly sound mind.”
I nodded. “Good to know.”