Thursday, February 07, 2013

Another week passed. Alice, a nurse, landed a job with a small home health firm. She began work almost immediately, and Ingrid and Annie were alone together for the greater part of the day.

They discovered a mutual love of Scrabble, and this kept them entertained. Ingrid had suggested having Mable or Imogene bringing one of their granddaughters to tea, but Annie shyly declined. "I'll make friends my own age with school starts." she said vaguely, hastily finishing her grilled cheese sandwich. Grilled cheese sandwiches were one of the few dishes that Ingrid had complete mastery of, and so she clung to them as a lunch time staple. She'd scarcely dared touch a cookbook since the disastrous evening of Annie and Alice's arrival.

"Well, suit yourself." said Ingrid cheerfully. "I've got Crispin St. James coming to tea today. He's been pestering me over the phone. You'll enjoy that, I think."

"Oh, I thought I'd just prowl around up in the attic this afternoon, if that's all right with you." Annie said, quickly.

Ingrid chuckled. "You're too much like your reclusive old Aunt, child. Very well. But I warn you, you're missing a rare treat."

She had high hopes for the afternoon. Crispin was bringing Edith Baker over to sit in on another 'brainstorm'. He had yet to meet Annie, as his courting had kept him largely preoccupied. Ingrid was unabashedly looked forward to watching him squirm. Professing to love grandchildren was a very different thing from actually engaging with them. Crispin would have his work cut out for him there. Ingrid was morbidly curious to see how he'd manage in front of Edith.

Shortly before three o'clock, Edith Baker and her aging Romeo arrived.

"Come in, come in!" said Ingrid, meeting them at the door. This in itself seemed to take Crispin off guard. Normally he had to root her out of her study or garden on his own.

"Oh Miss Delaney, it's so kind of you to let me join in again." said Edith.

"Most kind old girl, most kind. I'm so sorry we're a bit early. We'd planned a spot of lunch at my humble abode, but Edward rang up to say that the whole squad were arriving home from Switzerland ahead of schedule. Skiing trip you know. Dashed odd, skiing in summer, what? I told Edith we'd best be on our way. Didn't want the children hopping about not helping their mother and father unpack. They're so dashed fond of their old grandpa, my presence would be sure to distract, and I know my dear daughter-in-law would wish them to be on hand to help. So I whisked Edith away just a touch early. Knew it wouldn't disturb a good old egg like you."

Edith smiled confusedly. "I did so want to meet those grandbabies. He's told me SO much about them. I really am looking forward to being introduced." she said, looking at Crispin in a meaning sort of way.

"In good time my dear, all in good time. I simply want you to meet them when they are at their best, don't you know."

"I'll bet you do." said Ingrid, finally managing to get a word in. "Won't you come in and have some tea?"

They all sat down to partake. Crispin began to gabble on about his many imagined brushes with the stars, and Edith sat listening in rapt attention, while Ingrid drew stick men and flowers on her memo pad. She was hoping that Annie's curiosity would get the better of her. She was totally unprepared for what happened next.

Just as Crispin was nearing the climax of a gripping drama including himself, John Wayne, and Claudette Colbert, Annie burst into the room with a musty box full of old photographs. Her eyes were shining, and cobwebs dangled off her dusty person. Crispin jerked his tidy dress slacks away from her as if avoiding mud from a passing motorist.

"Oh Aunt INGRID! Just LOOK what I've found! Is that really you and Errol Flynn!?"

Ingrid stared at the photograph, temporarily speechless. She'd not seen that box in years.

"Ingrid," said Crispin, bracing himself up against his chair in a state of controlled panic. "What is that?"

The expression on Crispin's stricken face was enough to jolt Ingrid back into the present. 
"That, is my grand-niece. Annie. Annie, this is Mrs. Baker, and Mr. St. James, the man I told you about earlier."

Annie dropped the box to the floor and extended a dutiful (if somewhat grimy) hand to Mrs. Baker. "Hello Mrs. Baker." she said. Edith beamed up at her. "Why Miss Delaney, I didn't know you had family! What a pleasant surpise! Hello sugar pea, so nice to meet you."

Annie turned to Crispin and offered him a similar greeting. He eyed her hand warily, then slowly shook it. "Oh of course- the nieces. Yes, quite so, quite so..." he tittered nervously, glanced at Edith to make sure she wasn't looking, and then wiped his had furtively on his pocket square.

"Edith, Annie and her mother, my niece Alice have come to live with me for a while. I'm delighted to have them of course." said Ingrid smoothly. "They're the closest thing to children and grandchildren that I've ever had, and you can imagine I'm quite delighted to have them."

"Oh yes, of course." said Edith, a trifle wistfully. "How old are you, Annie?"

"I'm twelve, almost thirteen. I'll be starting seventh grade in the fall. My favorite subjects are history and literature. I don't play any sports." Annie said, an answer that was as respectful as it was efficient. She was used to the line of questioning all grownups seemed to use, and was quite weary of it. She picked a framed photograph out of the box, and held it out to Ingrid.

"Aunt Ingrid, is this really Errol Flynn with you?"

Crispin, recognizing the dangerous shift in the party's attention, sprang suddenly to life and pounced on the photo. "I say! I SAY! Yes, that's old Flynnie all right. Out on his favorite yacht to be sure. I believe I may have been the photographer. And yes, my child. That striking young woman next him is most definitely your dear aunt. Whom, I may say, you certainly do resemble."

He held out the picture for Edith's inspection. "Back in the day Old Flynnie was always having us out for the odd weekend on the clipper." Ingrid snorted into her tea and Edith's eyes opened wide as she took in the photo.

"Really Miss Delaney! You are a dark horse. So you rubbed shoulders with the greats as well? I wonder you never mentioned it!" "Yes, Auntie. You never mentioned being friends with Errol Flynn" said Annie, sitting down next to Edith. "Do tell!"

Ingrid carefully swallowed her tea. "I'm surprised you recognized him. Girls your age don't often watch his films."

Crispin interjected himself yet again. "What an interesting creature you must be, Miss Anne. Rum that, you finding that old snap of Flynnie. I miss the old boy sorely. Always a smashing good time when Flynn was about. What brilliant times we used to have, eh Ingrid?"

"Exactly which times were you referring to, Crispin?" Ingrid said pointedly. She'd given up on keeping him rooted in reality where his personal history was concerned, but her own was another matter.

"Yes, Mr. St James, I didn't know you and Aunt Ingrid were friends in the old days. She's never talked about that before." said Annie, innocence personified.

Crispin gave her a look that might have been laced with daggers, had the child not been seated beside his fair lady. "As I recall," Ingrid continued, "Sonny Morris took that picture. I'm not sure when Crispin ever joined us. Errol Flynn was Sonny's friend, more than mine. I got to know his poor first wife fairly well though. Poor Lili." Ingrid sighed.

"AH! Sonny Morris!!! OH, now that's the chap. We were speaking of him just the other day. Fascinating chap, no doubt you've heard of him Edith dear?" said Crispin, gliding swiftly into safer waters.

"Heard of him? I should say so! He and Tyrone Power and David Niven were all legendary- almost as big as Errol Flynn." Edith laughed. "A bit before my time of course! They were getting famous around the time I was born! My mother just loved Sonny Morris films."

Crispin gasped convulsively, realizing too late that he'd just irrevocably dated himself. Ingrid smirked into her tea cup, wondering how he would pull out of this one.

"Mr. St. James, I guess if you were friends with her mom's favorite actor, you're quite a bit older than Mrs. Baker, I guess." said Annie, wide eyed. Ingrid shot a questioning glance. Was it possible that this precocious infant had guessed Crispin's game too? She sounded entirely too bland to not be making mischief.

"Do you know, Annie, I'd never thought of it that way." said Edith, reflectively. "You never have mentioned your age, Crispin."

Crispin leapt to his feet, eyes nearly popping from their sockets. "Ye gods!" he cried, shrilly. "Edith dear, just look at the time! If we're ever going to make it over to Arthur Murray's in time for our lesson we'd best be getting along." He extended a gallant hand to assist Edith in rising from the couch. "I've agreed to take ballroom lessons with Edith. She's always wanted to learn, and is making a most promising start."

Edith laughed, apparently sufficiently distracted for the moment. "Oh Crispin, you're me making blush. You're such a beautiful dancer, it's really very kind of you to partner up with me at the studio."

Her use of Crispin's christian name had not escaped Ingrid's notice. "Well, run along you giddy young things!" she said brightly, as Crispin pointedly ignored the barb and escorted Edith to the door.

Before leaving, Edith turned to Annie. "It was so nice to meet you. I hope you'll enjoy your new school. I-" Crispin gripped her elbow and waved a hand to Annie in a haphazard manner as he began propelling Edith out the door and down the walk. "Yes, yes, charmed I'm sure, now Edith we really must be hurrying along. Traffic is so wretched this time of day."

Ingrid closed the door behind them, then fixed Annie with a searching stare. "Annie..."

Annie blushed, and chuckled a bit. "Maybe I shouldn't have pointed out that Mr. St. James is lots older than Mrs. Baker?" she said.

Ingrid opened her arms, and folded Annie in as robust a hug as her old arms could manage. "I'm so glad you did. It spared me the trouble!"

As the Cadillac pulled out, Alice pulled in, driving the Packard slowly into it's customary place. She'd not had time to look for a car just yet. When she arrived, she found Ingrid and Annie in stitches in the front hall.

Hello there Miss Delaney! Here to see your sister again?"

Ingrid's only reply to the perky receptionist was a terse nod. Alice, gripping Annie's hand in a vice-like hold, relaxed and snickered a bit as she overheard Ingrid mumble grimly that she'd been coming here three times a week for three years and it sure wasn't for the atmosphere.

The trio made their way down the main hall, young Annie absorbing the sights and sounds along the way. Mauve and teal seemed the dominant color scheme. She couldn't help peering through and doors that had been left open. Many of the little rooms had televisions blaring, and there was a pervasive smell that she couldn't identify. Their progress was slow, as it was nearing the lunch hour, and many of the residents were wheeling carefully down to the dining hall.

Finally they reached a set of large iron doors. Ingrid punched a few buttons on the keypad and one of them swung slowly open. They'd reached the Alzheimer's ward.

They found themselves in a well lit common room, where several residents were each whiling away the time in their own peculiar way. One woman was wandering the room with an old rag carefully wiping each table. A man sat in a corner quietly talking to an unseen visitor. As they crossed the room, they were joined by the oldest looking creature Annie had ever seen. The woman could barely push the walker she used, but managed to latch on to Annies's elbow with surprising speed and strength. "Help me!" she said. "I want to go home. Can you help me?"

Annie shuddered, and attempted to smile sympathetically as an attendant suddenly materialized to detatch the aged resident. "Come on Josephine. You are home. Let's go see your room!" he said. "I have a room?" the ancient one quavered. "Yes, it's a very nice one too. Lot's of candy jars!"
This appeared to have a somewhat mollifying effect. "Yes. I like candy. Can I have some if I'm good?" The attendant nodded and guided her away.

"She's been here longer than Ellen. Still can't figure out where she is." observed Ingrid. "Well, come along girls, we're almost there."

Down a short corridor, they passed a grey bearded man peering intently into a broom closet. He jerked his head around as they passed. "Dark outside already!" he announced. Annie almost smiled. Finally they arrived. "Here it is." said Ingrid. She entered without knocking.

A gentle looking woman sat on a small white bed, cradling a doll in her arms. Her long silvery hair flowed straight down her back, almost to her waist. She looked up absently and nodded before turning her attention back to the doll. She was humming softly. "Look Janie!" she said to the doll, "We have some visitors. They look friendly enough... don't be shy now."

Alice stared. It was difficult to say what was the more shocking; the fact that she scarcely recognized her own mother or the more devastating truth that her own mother could not recognize her. Annie looked on shyly, not sure what to do.

Ingrid stepped forward, and sat down next to her sister. "Hello Ellen, how's the baby this morning?"

"Oh Ingrid! You startled me! Baby's a bit fussy today. She just won't eat a thing! I'm telling you, when Al comes home, he'll have to take us for a drive. What are you doing here anyway?"

"Just visiting. I brought Alice and her daughter Annie here to see you. They're right over there." said Ingrid nonchalantly pointing to the woman and girl standing rigidly in the corner.

"How'd you do Alice, Annie. I'm Ellen. This is Baby Jane. You know Alice, I have a little girl called Alice too. I'm sure she's here somewhere... Alice? Alice! Come meet our visitors." she called out absently, as if not expecting a reply. "She's always out playing with the neighbors you know. Never comes when I call her."

Alice stared blankly for a moment before blurting "Mother, it's me! I'm Alice!" in a pained tone that brought tears to Ingrid's eyes.

Ellen looked up sharply and studied Alice's stricken features for a moment before throwing back her silvery head and laughing. "Oh no, no dear. You're fooling me. Alice is only five years old! Come sit down, and let me see your baby! She's absolutely precious. Look at all those curls. Come here darling and let me kiss you!"

She carefully handed "Baby Jane" to Ingrid and opened her arms to Annie. With surprising empathy, Annie rushed forward and embraced her grandmother. She sat down next to her, and Ellen held on tightly to her hand. Annie fidgeted a bit and Ellen chuckled. "Oooh, look how happy she is to see me! Just kicking those little legs! She can't be more than two can she? What pretty curls!"

"Mother, I..."

"Come sit down now Alice. Tell me about yourself." Alice stared at Ingrid beseechingly, not sure what to do. Ellen looked up expectantly, still clinging to Annie's hand. Annie decided to make the best of things.

"We just moved here from far away. My mom's looking for a new job. We're living with Aunt Ingrid."

"Oh, is that so? My you speak so well for a little girl! What big words you're using! Ingrid, you must be busy with such a little one running about the place. I never thought you'd be one for having children in the house. You being so busy with Sonny and all those parties and important people to look after. Well, you're never safe from surprise until you're dead! Alice, what do you think of Connecticut?"

Alice sank into a nearby chair and began to converse weakly with this familiar stranger. After half an hour Ingrid could see that she was nearing total break down, and signaled that it was time to go.

"Well do please come again!" urged Ellen as they said their farewells. "Maybe next time Albert and our little Alice will be here to meet you. They're just away so often!"

The drive home began in silence, punctuated by loud sniffs from Alice in the passenger seat.

"There now Alice. I ought to have warned you but she does have very lucid days occasionally. I suppose I was hoping this would be one of them, or that the sight of you would bring her back for a time. She fades in and out of the past you know. Today she was a happy young mother back in Connecticut. Tomorrow she might be middle aged and living in California with me. It's never certain where she'll be next."

Alice wheezed into a handkerchief for a moment before replying. "Oh Ingrid, I knew she was bad, but what really shocked me was the baby. She thinks that doll is Jane! She hardly ever mentioned Jane while I was growing up..." her voice trailed off into the handkerchief again.

"Aunt Ingrid, I think I've missed something." said Annie quietly. "Who was Jane?"

"Your mother had a sister many years ago Annie. Baby Jane. She died when she was only two. Ellen never could talk about it, and your mother was only six when it happened. It's a painful subject, and I'm not surprised that you haven't been told. We're not very good about discussing our painful pasts in this family."

"Aunt Ingrid?"

"Yes child?"

"How did she die?"

Ingrid fidgeted uncomfortably. "Well, hasn't your mother told you? It was an accident. I was visiting your parents with a friend of mine. We decided to take Janie and Alice to the county fair one night as a special treat... well... I..."

"Ingrid. Please tell her what happened."

"I can't remember most of what happened. My friend was driving us home, and the next thing I knew I was coming to in a hospital bed. There'd been an accident. He swore up and down that he'd had nothing to drink, but you just never knew with Sonny. Alice,  you were thrown out of the car, and badly bruised but otherwise all right. I had a few broken ribs. Sonnny.. I think he had a few things broken too... but Jane... oh.. little Janie..."

Ingrid choked back bitter tears of recollection.

Alice swallowed her tears and stared blankly out the window. She knew Ingrid hated open displays of emotion more than anything. It wasn't five minutes before Annie had another question.

"Is Sonny your knick-name for Frank Morris? Did he die? is that why you never married?"

Ingrid sighed. "Child, have you NO mercy? Not one scrap of human kindness or compassion? What makes you think I want to discuss Frank Morris with a little Paul Pry... oh fiddle sticks. No! Sonny was Frank's younger brother. He did not die in the accident. People like him never get their just reward.He recovered and for all I know is still alive and kicking some place, blast him. If I've managed to survive this long it's possible that he did too."

Annie decided that she'd pushed things far enough and lapsed into silence. There was so much to her aunt and her family that fascinated. She resolved to root out as much of the old story as she dared.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

One of the worst things a writer can experience is ‘block’. One sits down to compose great literature and finds that the only ideas flowing onto paper are those with absolutely no significance whatever. Grocery lists, schedules, and “Things to Do When I Find the Time” cover the page, but not one letter of it is relevant to one’s grand purpose.

Ingrid had suffered from this sort of block many times before. A great many of her published works had in fact begun as shopping lists. However, it never ceased to irritate her that she seemed to be under the curse of some greater form of life-long block that had never quite managed to clear itself out of her way.

It wasn’t as if she was unable to write at all. In fact, she had stacks of manuscripts piled in the attic. Essays, short stories, novels, even a few biographies. During her years in Florence she’d supplemented her income by writing articles about Italian art and culture for ladies’ magazines, and every article that ever made it into print was enshrined in her filing cabinet. However, nothing she had ever written had managed to communicate precisely what she wanted the world to hear. In consequence, she’d given up getting published decades ago, as soon as her financial situation allowed for it.

One morning shortly after the arrival of the long-lost Alice and her precocious daughter (and after the sooty mess of their “Welcome Home” dinner had been cleared up and dust of a friendlier nature had begun to settle), Ingrid parked herself behind the old Underwood and began to type.

It was nine o’clock on a Saturday, and young Annie happened to be playing with Melchoir out on the verandah. His feline ears were quick to detect the pecking of the Underwood. For reasons known only to himself, Melchoir felt duty bound to be present when his mistress set to work, and made it his business to twine himself round her ankles for the duration.

Having nothing better to do, Annie followed his bushy grey tail up the stairs to Ingrid’s dormer room. She paused shyly at the door, as Melchoir unabashedly nosed his way through and made a bee-line for his accustomed station at Ingrid’s ankles.

Ingrid appeared not to notice, and hammered away undisturbed. Annie, hidden in the shadows of the hall, studied her great-aunt with an expression of wonder and interest.

Annie had never beheld her Aunt ‘at work’, and the picture was an interesting one. Wrapped in her usual kimono of moth-eaten scarlet silk, white hair flying in every direction, Ingrid stared intently at the keys pencil tucked behind one ear, peering through thick, horn-rimmed spectacles that she’d owned since 1955 and wore only when typing. A small Brown Betty rested nearby, an empty teacup beside it. Her appearance reminded Annie of a crazed scarlet owl.

Just then, Melchoir who’d been purring and twining most devotedly decided to press his luck and hop onto Ingrid’s knees.

Apparently she had not been expecting 10 pounds of feline affection to deposit itself into her lap, and leapt back in her chair, sending the teacup that perched precariously at the desk’s edge on a suicide mission to the floor.

Annie began to giggle uncontrollably, and thus blew her cover. Ingrid’s head shot up, and the bewildered way in which she blinked through the horn-rimmed spectacles only added to the hilarity of the moment. While Annie continued to sputter in the hall, Ingrid calmly collected both her composure and the bits of shattered teacup and said “Well don’t just stand out there trying to be civil. You were spying on an old woman- Admit it!”

“You just look so…”

“Ridiculous is the word, though you were no doubt looking for a kinder one. Your grandmother often said so. It can’t be helped. I was never able to work any other way. Come in and sit down. We haven’t had an opportunity of getting properly aquainted yet.”

Annie stepped in, and settled into the dainty chintz covered chair that Ingrid pulled up to the desk for her.

“I’m Anne, and it’s a pleasure to meet you Aunt Ingrid.” She said, gravely extending her small hand. Ingrid accepted it with equal gravity. “I’m your crabby old Aunt Ingrid, and it’s lovely to meet you young Annie. Lovely weather we’ve been having isn’t it? What do you think of California? Does it agree with you?”

“Oh yes. I find it suits me admirably. The lack of humidity is quite refreshing.”

“You’ve got quite a vocabulary for a little girl of your age and generation. Are you fond of reading?”

“Insatiably fond, Aunt Ingrid. The Classics are my especial delight.”

“Delight? Well, well. How interesting. Which of the classics, pray tell.”

“The works of Miss Austen, Miss Alcott and the Miss Bronte’s are great favorites ma’am.”

“Are they indeed?”

“Oh yes. I also have a few contemporary idols. Perhaps you are familiar with the work of a certain Miss Delaney? Authoress of Hildegarde’s Whim?”

Ingrid pulled out the cushion that supported the small of her back and walloped her literary-minded niece with it.

“Impudent little hussy! Surely your mother told you I regard all those novels as absolute rubbish!”

Annie laughed wickedly and nodded.

“Of course she did. That’s why I brought it up. But really Aunt Ingrid, I’ve read the copies my mom has and I think lot’s of people would agree that they were very well written.”

“Yes, I was a stickler for form in those days. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that they are all, without exception, sentimental slush of the first water. It’s what made them so popular. I was writing to make money in those days Annie dear. I always supposed that once I was established I could start publishing important literary monuments. ‘The Great American Novel’ and all that. However, I made the mistake of building a reputation on fluff. I established a base of silly minded female readers, and when I tried to publish more serious works, the editors would have none of it because they knew it wasn’t what my readers wanted.”

“Well when was the last time you tried? You’re still writing aren’t you?”

Ingrid smiled wearily. “Some habits just never die, Annie. I’m all washed up and I know it, but it’s the only hobby I’ve ever had. Needlepoint and knitting simply don’t agree with me. Nor do collecting Beanie Babies, or ceramics or any other occupation deemed acceptable for old folks like me. I garden a bit, and read, and potter around the house, and visit friends. But writing is my standing occupation, and I don’t suppose I’ll ever give it up.”

“What were you writing about just now?”

Ingrid yanked the sheet out of the typewriter and handed it to Annie with an expression that clearly said “Don’t expect much.”

Annie began to read the page in an imposing and authoritative tone.

“Bread, wheat and white. Doughnuts- frosted. Milk. Chocolate Milk. Chocolate. Tea. Broccoli. Strawberries. Pineapple. Eggs. Hose- but you’ve got a hose Aunt Ingrid. I saw it on the porch.”

“It’s an old-person word for panty-hose. I could also say silk stockings. That’s what they were in my day.”

“What was your day?”

“Any time before the present really. Now, young Annie, enough about me. If we talk about me any longer I’ll be forced to start describing my physical ailments and those of my friends, and nobody wants to listen to that. Tell me about you. What do you do with yourself most of the time?”

Annie laughed and replied “Well not much since we got here, besides helping you and mom clean up from the fire. I guess I’ve been reading a lot. And exploring the attic. Your attic is totally awesome Aunt Ingrid. School’s out you know, and all my friends are back home. Mom and I have gone shopping a few times, but she’s so busy looking for work we don’t talk much. It’s only been a week or so since we came though.”

“I was always fond of a good attic myself as a girl.” said Ingrid, making a mental note to invite Imogene and her granddaughter over as soon as she possibly could. “What have you been unearthing up there?”

“Lots of old clothes and photo albums and” Annie stopped suddenly and changed direction. “Just lot’s of old things. It’s really a great place.”

“What were you about to say?”


“Out with it. I expect it’s something really terrible. I hope it is. It’s been a long time since I’ve had the pleasure of walloping a little girl with broomstick.”

“Well there’s lots of stuff you wrote up there. I’ve kind of been reading some of it.”

“Kind of? Tell me child, how does one ‘kind of’ read something?”

Annie looked up to gage her Aunt’s reaction and, finding that Ingrid was utterly unperturbed, relaxed.

“Oh, well I guess I meant that I’ve been reading some of it. It’s all really good, I think. Why didn’t you ever try and get it published?”

Ingrid smiled and shook her head. “No, no. This will never do. We’re talking about me again. Kindly step back under the interrogation lamp where you belong, if you please.”

“Well, I guess I really don’t do much of anything right now. Oh, that reminds me, Mom wanted me to ask you if she thought we could go visit my Grandma today. I haven’t seen her in a long while. She came to visit us a couple times when I was little you know. Before she got sick.”

Ingrid nodded slowly. “Yes, I know. You’ll find her a very different person now. But I don’t see why we can’t go to see her. I visited on Wednesday afternoon, and she seemed to be doing fairly well. Where is your mother?”

“She’s in her room, working on her resume again. She says that every interview she has gives her new ideas about how to improve it.”

“Have either of you had breakfast?”

“I have. Mom usually doesn’t eat breakfast.”

“All right then. Go tell your mother to be ready to leave by eleven. We’ll visit Ellen and go to lunch afterward.”

Annie went, and Ingrid’s eyes followed her with great interest. This little girl was the very image of herself at that age. But she had a way about her that unnerved Ingrid. There was a perpetual shadow behind those brilliant young eyes that often made Annie appear somewhat older and harder than a twelve year old girl should be. However, considering recent events, this was not at all surprising to Ingrid.

Which lead her to another subject that’d been no small source of wonder. In the week and a half since mother and daughter had arrived, not a word had been dropped regarding the reason for their coming. Alice hadn’t said a word about her husband Charlie, though perhaps that was not as strange as Annie’s complete silence on the same subject. For a young girl who has recently lost her father, she didn’t behave as though she mourned him or even remembered him at all.

Ingrid’s desire for enlightenment on these subjects was becoming increasingly difficult to restrain. But she’d promised herself that would NOT sink to the level of unabashed prying, and she meant to see the resolution through to the bitter end. And if she literally died of curiosity while waiting for her nieces to talk, so be it. Her days were numbered anyway.

As the venerable old grandfather clock in the front hall chimed eleven, the three ladies piled into the Packard and set off for Groveland Meadows, the nursing home where Ellen resided. It would be the first time that Alice and Anne had seen Ellen in nearly five years.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

“Anne! Annie, wake up! We’re almost there!” The tall, slender woman in her late forties reached across the cab of the U-Haul van and gently wobbled the shoulder of the curly headed girl in the passenger seat. Anne, who’d been in a deep sleep for the last few hours groggily opened her eyes and stared blankly out the window for a few moments.

“Nice.” She said. Indeed it was. The van was curling its way through the suburbs of southern Orange County. Wealth and prosperity were indelibly stamped upon every object that met the eye. Graceful, manicured palm trees lined the boulevards, surrounded by hedges of pampas grass. California was in full bloom, and everywhere the girl looked she saw bright splashes of color.

“So this is where you grew up?”
“More or less. We moved here in the mid 50’s after Dad died, when I was about fifteen.” Alice stared ahead absently, memories flooding over her as she drove through her old neighborhood.

“He died of a stroke right?”
“Heart problems actually. He was very young, and it was all very sudden. I’m sure I’ve told you all this before Annie.”

“Oh you have. I just like to hear you talk about your family. You didn’t do that much when Dad was- ” The observant girl caught a glimpse of her mother’s hardening profile and decided to change tactics.

“Tell me the part about Aunt Ingrid again.”

Alice sighed and smiled wearily. Over the past several months she must have repeated this story at least a thousand times. But Annie seemed to find it an unending source of entertainment, so her mother obliged. In a sing-song told-it-a hundred-times voice she began:

“When my dad died, he was still a fairly young man. He and mother hadn’t been prepared for it at all. Financially, I mean. We had very little savings, and most of the money Dad made was tied up in his business. We were living in Connecticut. Aunt Ingrid was in Italy then, and when she- ”

“Mo-o-om! You left out the part about what she was doing!”

“Oh fine then! Would you care to tell the story instead? ”
Alice’s retort was met with expectant silence. She glared a mock threat at her offspring, and continued.

“Aunt Ingrid was living in Florence. She was studying art history at the Academy, and working on a book she hoped to publish. She was in her forties then. Huh…” grunted Alice, absent mindedly. “Close to my age.”

“Anyway, when she heard about Dad, she packed up everything and left. Mother was her baby sister and they had always been awfully close. Aunt Ingrid didn’t have to ask to know that we were in a pretty difficult position. She arrived in Connecticut a few weeks after Dad’s funeral, and it was decided that as soon as she found a place to live in the States we would move in with her. Her parents- your great-grandparents- were still living in California, making it the most logical choice. Aunt Ingrid bought a house from an old friend, and we joined her a few months later. So, that’s how we came to live with Aunt Ingrid.”

“Ok, now tell me more stories about her. Who was the friend?”

“I’ve told you before- I don’t know who he was. His name was Frank Morris. His brother was an actor, and I think Aunt Ingrid was involved with him somehow. But that’s all I know about it. Aunt and Mother were always quite tight-lipped about the whole affair.”

“Ok, well tell me another one then- like the time she bought her car.”

“Annie, we’ll be there in fifteen minutes. You can ask her yourself when we arrive.”

“Ok, ok. Do you think she still drives it?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised. It’d be just like her. I imagine they’d have to pry the keys out of her fingers with a crow-bar. Now, try and comb out your mop so she doesn’t take us for a pair of bums off the street.”

“Is she cranky?” inquired Annie, as she began mining her mother’s purse in search of a comb. Alice grinned at her twelve year old daughter who gazed back with eyes that were carbon copies of those belonging to Ingrid Delaney.

“That depends, child o’ mine. Would you consider yourself a ‘cranky’ person?”

Annie began wrestling the comb through her thick black curls. After a few moments of outer battle and inner reflection she said “Are you saying that Aunt Ingrid and me have similar personalities?”

Alice merely laughed and turned left onto the road leading into Ingrid’s neighborhood. As they approached Ingrid’s street, Alice’s face grew tense and pale. Anne sensed her mother’s nervous excitement, and wished she could stop the crawling sensation in her own stomach.

“Anne, you’ll remember your promise to me, won’t you?”“About Dad?”
“Yes, about your father. There are many things that I want to share with Aunt Ingrid myself. It’s best if you don’t speak about him with her.”

“Did she like it when you married him Mom?”

A long, taut pause ensued.

“No. She didn’t. And I’ll save you the trouble of asking if that’s the reason we’vehardly ever visited her before by saying that you’re right. I could count the times I've seen Ingrid in the past 15 years on one hand. ”


“Yes Sherlock?”

“You’re really nervous, huh?”

“It’ll be over in a few minutes- look, here’s her street now. Hasn’t changed a- what-the?”

Alice slowed the van to a snail’s pace and carefully navigated onto Berkley Street. There was the gracious old house, the old Packard in the drive. The garden still overflowed with all the same old fashioned wildflowers. However, the fire truck was something of a shock, as were the thick clouds of black smoke that were billowing through the open doors and windows.

Alice sped down the street as quickly as she dared, and brought the van to a screeching halt a few yards from the fire truck. She jumped blindly from the cab, and Annie watched her mother run madly up the driveway to the front walk. A burly firefighter in full garb grabbed her by the arm and asked where she thought she was going.

“My- I… I don’t… My aunt! She lives here! I’m just…!” stammered Alice, attempting to pull away. The firefighter was having a hard time understanding her above the din of the trucks and other men, and had absolutely no intention of letting this crazy woman near the house. An ambulance careened around the corner, sirens blaring and Alice truly began to panic. “AUNT INGRID! WHERE ARE YOU?” she shrieked, her voice piercing the chaos.

Just then Annie observed a wiry, white haired woman coming round the back of the fire truck. She was wearing a bright red house dress, and clutching an enormous grey cat to the bosom of her white ruffled apron. The bottom half of the apron was charred almost beyond recognition. She marched over to the firefighter and whacked him on the arm. Annie rolled down the window, attempting to hear what she was saying.

“That’s my niece you big dolt! Unhand her!” howled the elderly woman. The firefighter grinned and stepped back. It was obviously Aunt Ingrid. She shoved the cat into his hands, and held out her arms to Alice. “Welcome home!” she bellowed, over the all the noise and confusion of the moment. Alice stared a moment, then embraced her aunt, weeping and laughing, and Annie heard her say “You tried to cook for us, didn’t you, old darling?”

Monday, January 23, 2006

As Imogene roared into the drive, Ingrid could almost hear the sabers rattle. Ingrid had the most childish urge to take to her heels and leg it before Imogene struggled out of her safety belt and launched her initial assault. Instead she calmly perused her wildflower beds, seemingly unaware of her dear friend’s rather explosive greeting.

“Well! Wasn’t that a pretty picture! Here I am trying to get you to help that poor woman see reason and there you are egging them on toward disaster! As I live and breathe Ingrid Delaney, you are enough to try the patience of a saint! A saint! Just what do you think you’re doing?”

“Imogene, lovely to see you! Won’t you come in? I’ve got some delicious lemon meringue pie on hand.”

“Don’t think pie is going to get you out of this one Ingrid… Is it fresh?”

“As fresh as Marie Callendar’s can make them- I picked it up this morning. You know I’ve never been able to make pies like yours.”

Imogene’s wrath could always be turned away by a soft answer coupled with good food. Especially pie.

“Oh all right. It would be rude to lecture you at your own table though, so before we go in, I demand to know just what that scallywag was doing in Edith Baker’s Cadillac.

“He was getting a ride home. Eddie dropped him off here earlier, and I suspect Crispin was hoping to spend time with Edith and introduce her to his grandchildren. She’s never had any you know.”

Ingrid stooped to pluck a few brightly hued blossoms for the kitchen table, and Imogene stomped her foot impatiently as she demanded to know just why Ingrid had allowed such an undesirable arrangement to occur in the first place.

“Honestly dear, I had nothing to do with it. He showed up this morning while I was hanging pictures in Anne’s room and informed me that Edith was coming to watch us at work on his memoirs.”

‘You’re writing his memoirs?” sneered Imogene in iron souled unbelief.
“Of course not, but he managed to convince Edith that I was.”
“I should hope you disabused her of that notion.”

“It’s really none of my business Imogene. Let’s have some pie, shall we?”
“Oh, that reminds me- I’ve brought you some groceries for when the girls arrive- nothing perishable mind you, but your pantry could certainly use a good stocking up. I imagine you’ll finally have to start cooking a few meals. I also brought you a set of cookbooks.”

She walked back to her car, opened the trunk and pulled out an enormous cardboard box,. It was packed with dry goods, staples, spices, and canned foods of all varieties. Ingrid followed her into the house and through to the kitchen. Imogene, in her late sixties yet still stout and robust, hardly broke a sweat as she heaved the box onto the nearest available counter space and began flinging open the cupboards to discern their contents.

“Shameful!” she pronounced, gazing with censorious eye upon the boxes of Rice-a-Roni, Instant Pudding, Instant Mashed Potatoes, and breakfast cereal. When she came to the cabinet just over the sink she let out something of a shriek.

“Ingrid! What are all these for?” she pointed at the tidy rows of pill bottles that lined the shelves. “Are you very ill?”

Ingrid laughed and explained that they were vitamins and dietary supplements. “I’ve never been much of a cook you know, and I have to get my nutrients somehow. I made something of a study of it years ago. You’d be amazed at what a healthy lifestyle I actually lead. The only difference between me and the next conscientious consumer is that I prefer to dine out rather than prepare my own meals.”

Imogene stared at her as if she’d suddenly sprouted a third arm. “Oh. I see. Well, you know what Julia Childs said about diet foods- the only time one should eat them is when one is waiting for the steaks to cook. Anyone who saw this cabinet would think you were the world’s greatest hypochondriac. But of course you’re in remarkably good health, so I suppose you manage fairly well. How interesting! I never would have taken you for being so health conscious.”

“I never was until Ellen…” Ingrid trailed off and let the sentence hang where it might.

“Of course dear. I understand. And it’s just as well, for now you’re healthy and strong and can look after Alice and her little girl. Now; look at these. You’ll have to cook your own meals some time. Eating every meal out with three people will bankrupt you. It’s time you learnt a thing or two about cooking.”

She returned to the box on the counter and hauled out three large books with energetic colors and designs running rampant on the covers. Ingrid thought the pattern on one was about to crawl off the cover and wrap itself around her wrist. In order to distract herself, she began reading the titles aloud. “Cooking for the Clueless, 20 Minute Meals for Morons and Baking for Boneheads.”

“They are just at your level Ingrid. You shouldn’t have any trouble working meals out from these. They’re all fully illustrated. Nothing could be simpler. Look- Cooking for the Clueless even has lists of what the well dressed kitchen is wearing.” Noticing Ingrid’s look of perplexed wonder she added “In layman’s terms dear, what every kitchen should be stocked with.” She glanced around at the gaping cupboards and grimaced. “I’ve brought most of what’s on the staples list. But I see that it’s only a small beginning. We’ve got to do more grocery shopping before they arrive.”

Ingrid didn’t know whether to feel grateful or insulted. She decided to take the high road and admit to herself that it was true. Her cooking skills were moronic at best. She smiled and thanked Imogene sincerely for all the trouble she was going to.

“I certainly appreciate the help, Imogene. Have a seat and I’ll put things away and serve the pie.”

“Oh no you don’t Ingrid. Goodness, is that all you can think about? You’ve got to put the things away in good order. We’re turning over a new leaf in your life- a kitchen ought to be organized. Now, spices and staples go near the oven where they’ll be in reach- That’s right.”

"What if I don't want to turn over a new leaf? What if I enjoy my negligible cooking skills? Can't you just love me as I am? You're always trying to change me." whined Ingrid, helplessly.
"Stuff and nonsense. That dying possum act doesn't fool me. It never hurt any woman to try and better herself. Now, start putting these away and line them up alphabetically while you're at it."

The next half hour was spent arranging Ingrid’s rather haphazard kitchen into a state of pristine functionality. Ingrid, who loved orderliness, was quite satisfied. “Now that we’ve got everything packed in there properly, I’m almost looking forward to this cooking thing you speak of.”

“How are the girls’ rooms coming on?”

Ingrid sighed. "I don't think I'll ever get the blue room cleared out in time. I've let it go to wrack and ruin for years now. Perhaps you could take a look and help me decide what to do with it all."

Up the stairs the decision maker marched, and Ingrid trudged after her, knowing exactly what her friend would say to the disorderly piles of clutter she’d allowed to amass over time.

The green room was in good shape. Until lately it had been Ingrid’s bedroom, and so had been kept in decent order. Imogene poked her inquisitive nose through that door first, and nodded approvingly. A double bed with a curving headboard upholstered in cream colored fabric occupied one wall. Over the bed hung a large Impressionist water color in shades of green, pink, and lavender. These colors were echoed in the pale green walls, the pink floral coverlet, and the lavender throw pillows.

A delicate cream colored slipper chair nestled in one corner, while a cream painted dresser occupied another. Long curtains of dotted swiss draped the windows. “Very pleasant Ingrid. It hasn’t changed since the fifties, but really it’s still quite nice. This was Alice’s old room, was it not?”

“Yes indeed. I thought she might like to have it back, although all of her things are still packed away in the attic. Annie will be just across the hall in Ellen’s room.”

Imogene tromped over to Ellen’s old room and shoved open the door. “Gracious Sakes! I can’t believe you let things pile up so Ingrid! It’s just not like you!”

“Well I do try to spring clean every year and get all the old things I’ve no use for out of the house. But the past few years it’s just been so much easier to throw them in here and hope that if I ignore them along enough they'll go away, or I’ll die and not have to deal with it. Not the most successful plan, as you can see.”

Imogene stepped back and glared at her friend narrowly.“That is a rather morbid statement Ingrid. Are you getting anemic? Never mind… you just leave this mess to me. I’ll take care of it. It’s no wonder you haven’t done much about it. Just gets so intimidating after awhile. Go on in and pick out anything you’d like to keep. It’ll be gone in a few hours. Now, where’s my purse?”

“Downstairs by the box you brought in.”

“Right! Of course! Let’s go down and have some of that pie you can’t stop mentioning. I’ve got to call my boy Billy.”

Wondering at the connection between the two actions, Ingrid followed her back down the stairs and into the kitchen. While Imogene began plumbing the depths of her mammoth handbag, Ingrid served the greatly anticipated pie.

“Here it is. Dratted thing is too small! Just gets lost in shuffle. Now… to turn it on I…”

She fiddled with the buttons on her cellular phone uncertainly for a moment. “These blasted buttons need to be bigger. Someone ought to do something about that. Oh- it’s dialing… hope that’s Billy’s number... Hello? Is this Bill? Billy this is your mother… YOUR MOTHER… YES… I’M CALLING YOU ON MY CELL PHONE!” she thundered. “WHAT? OH. Oh. Sorry dear. You just sounded so far away I thought…”

Ingrid watched bemusedly as Imogene turned her tiny cell phone right side up. “You’re right! You do sound much clearer this way. Now Billy, I have a job for you. Yes, and I want you to do it just as soon as ever you can. Is Miguel working for you today? Good. Put him in charge for a few hours, get Jose and Nate and come over to Ingrid Delaney’s place- you know where she is don’t you? Drive the two pick-ups. Yes, I realize that dear, but it’s your father’s business too you know. He hasn’t really retired yet. With the three of you it should only take an hour at the most. How soon can you be here? Well I’m sure Miguel knows all about that- he’s been in the business just as long as you have. Construction isn’t rocket science dear. The framing will still be there when you get back! Now, no more lip! Get over to Miss Delaney’s ASAP. Yes dear… I love you too.”

She withdrew the phone from her ear and poked at it a few more times before she was certain it was turned off.

“Now, wasn’t that sweet of him? I’ve always been so thankful that he chose to go into construction with his father. It’s a hard life, but a good life. Oh Ingrid, that pie looks scrumptious!”

She settled down across the breakfast nook table, and began to savor the lemon meringue one bite at a time. As they ate, Imogene chatted gaily about Billy and his children, who were the apples of her maternal eye. Bill Burke was a grown man of 48, but his mother still treated him as though he were a child. He was blessed with his father’s patient, forbearing nature however, and never seemed to mind her dictatorial manner. His wife was another story.

“Jackie was over the other day with little William. Why she insists on calling him William instead of Billy or Will is beyond me. Billy was good enough for me with my son. But girls these days just weren’t brought up the way we were is all I can say. Oh well. William is just the cutest little mite you ever did see. Looks just like his father did at that age. Aren’t toddlers just sweet? Jackie is finally allowing him to eat regular food- except it has to be organic. Did you ever hear the like? She didn’t do that with Brian and Kayla. But Billy says she’s got the whole family eating organic foods now. Waste of money if you ask me. Ingrid, if these health folks are to be believed, it’s a miracle any of us lived to adulthood. The way Jackie acts you’d think William was some kind of invalid who needed a special diet. Well, she was Billy’s choice, not mine. Although I will say she’s made him a fine wife. Yes, in spite of all her odd ways, she’s really made Billy happy and so I love her anyway. We don’t see eye to eye on much, but we get along all right after a fashion. I just have to remember to love her as a Christian even if she drives me batty as a daughter in law. Course, it’s a good thing Billy found someone with the gumption to stand up to me. Someone has to do it, I suppose or I’d just run that family like it was my own. Even I can admit that’s not how God intended it.”

They chatted on for about fifteen minutes, until two enormous pick-up trucks conspicuously labeled “Burke Construction” lumbered into the driveway, bearing Billy and two of his employees.

Imogene trundled out to greet and brief them. “Now, take off your boots and come in. You’re going to take everything but the furniture out of the blue room upstairs. Load it into your trucks and take it to the Salvation Army… or put it in a dumpster at one of the sites. I don’t care. It’s just got to go!”

The men set to work with great dispatch, and in spite of having to work in stocking feet, managed to make good time. In 30 minutes or less the room was devoid of all clutter. Ingrid invited them to sit down for some coffee and pie, and they agreed. After a fifteen minute coffee break, Imogene decided that it was time they were all on their way.

“Time is money, you know Billy. Ingrid, it’s been lovely visiting with you, but I really must be going. Oh- there’s your cat… Yes, I think I really must be going.” She repeated nervously, edging toward her handbag. Imogene hated cats, and she had an especially antagonistic relationship with Melchoir. He’d declared a sort of guerilla war on her ankles, and loved to hide behind corners lying in wait for them.

Ingrid grabbed Melchoir by the scruff of his furry grey neck, and scooped him into her arms. She suspected he was up to no good, and after all the help Imogene had been this afternoon it would be too bad to allow Melchoir the pleasure of assassinating her ankles.

“Thank you for all your help Imogene! And you boys too! I could never have done it without you!”

“Oh don’t thank me dear! I know I’m a meddlesome, bossy, cantankerous old woman. You’re sweet to put up with me. Billy and his boys are a wonderful set though. If you must thank someone, thank them.”

They dutifully assured Ingrid that they were only too glad to help, and after goodbyes had been said all round, the trucks rumbled away with Imogene’s Buick close behind.

Ingrid dropped Melchoir and wobbled over to the hammock that was tucked invitingly into a corner of the garden. Though Imogene and her crew had done most of the work, Ingrid was utterly spent. However, preparations for Alice and Anne were nearly complete, and as she swayed gently in the fading evening sunshine a smile of anticipation mixed itself in with her gaping yawns.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Greta Garbo and John Barrymore

Before we begin this segment, it would only be fair to reference certain items of Crispin's dialogue. I've been making something of a study of old Hollywood, the years between the late twenties and the late thirties. One site that has been of enormous help in researching this is a website maintained by Columbia University's Oral History and Research department. This site contains transcripts of interviews with actors and screenwriters of the period. Well worth taking a look at, should you have the time. It can be found at

Edith stepped out of her luxury car looking fabulous for 65 years of age. As a lovely young secretary in the office of an oil tycoon she'd caught the boss' eye and become his wife. Life had been very good to her, but somehow the small town manner she'd learned from the Texas farming community she'd grown up in never left her. She was gracious and simple, and totally unprepared for the many dangers that accompany a wealthy widow-hood.

She made her way slowly up the front walk, admiring the wildflowers that Ingrid permitted to ramble at will all over the yard. Before she could ring the bell, one of the dangers we mentioned earlier flung open the front door, bursting with enthusiastic greetings and solicitous inquiries after her general state of health and well being.

"It's lovely to see you as well Crispin! My, everything is just as I a pictured it would be!"

Edith glowed with happiness and anticipation. She could never thank Crispin St. James enough for this opportunity. "Genius at work" was how he'd phrased it, and Edith was very interested to see how her childhood idol worked its magic. She turned slowly to take in every aspect of the sitting room Crispin had gallantly ushered her into. Old prints, photographs, and paintings littered the walls. The bits of wall that were visible were a creamy yellowish tint that accented the hardwood floors quite nicely. Thick rugs of various designs were plopped at random, Craftsman furniture upholstered in reddish hued patterns clustered about in sociable groups, and bookshelves overflowed with volumes of every description.

"My! What an unusual... well, what is it?" she inquired pointing at a small wooden object that rested atop a pile of books on an end table.

"Oh some sort of heathenish sculpture that Ingrid dragged back from Africa. She was quite the globe-trotter in her day. Got quite a collection of largely useless items from all over the map. Like this one" Crispin said, handing Edith a similarly inexplicable object. "Old English pub game- you take the little ball that's hanging from the post and swing it about to knock over the tiny pins tied to the base. When they're all down, you pull the little knob there at the bottom and it re-sets the pins. I believe she found it in somewhere in Oxford. I say, Ingrid's just putting on her face for the day- would you like a tour of the lower rooms?"

Edith was about to give her willing assent, when the hostess appeared immaculately coiffed and attired in a red house dress with small white polka dots and a string of pearls. June Cleaver would have been impressed.

"Hello Edith, how do you do?" she smiled graciously and offered her guest a chair. If Crispin thought he was running this show, she was out to prove him wrong. She turned to him and said so sweetly that Edith missed the barbs "Is my face on all the way Crispin? It'd be a shame to have it fall off half way through our visit." He laughed rather too jovially and slapped her on the back. "HA HA, that's Ingrid for you! Sharp as a tack that one!"

"Crispin dear, will you fetch our guest some tea? There's a good boy- put it on a tray with cream and sugar. And I'm sure you know where the tea biscuits are kept." Knowing full well that he didn't have a clue and thus would be out of the way for at least quarter of an hour, Ingrid sat down in the chair opposite Edith with an air of dignity and poise, delicately crossing her ankles and arranging her hands neatly in her lap. This silly business had gone on long enough, and she planned to put a stop to it. Now.

"Oh Miss Delaney, may I say what an honor it is to visit with you today? I just adored your work as a child. I never thought I'd have the opportunity of meeting you, much less seeing you at work!"

"It's lovely to have you here Edith. I've been wanting to get better aquainted with the newest member of the Guild. I'm afraid you've grossly over-rated my talents, but I'm so happy to know that you've enjoyed my books. Now, tell me just a bit about yourself. You're originally from Texas?"

Edith loved talking of the happy days spent as a farm girl and later as a wife of an oil tycoon, and was gaily reminiscing over old times when Crispin returned with the tea tray.

"Here you are Edith. Ingrid- here's your favorite cup. Now then, shall we commence the great work? I've brought my notes from last session and I'd love to review them with you Ingrid. See what you think and all that."

He was just pulling the sheaf of notes from his attache case when Ingrid caused him to freeze in his tracks by innocently suggesting that for Edith's benefit they review a bit of the story for him. This suggestion ordinarily wouldn't have had the slightest effect, but Crispin was utterly shocked by the gesture that accompanied it. Ingrid reached behind her chair and pulled out a pencil and a large memo pad.

"Yes, I believe we were just finishing up with your childhood in Iowa. You know, out on the farm with the pigs and chickens. I'll bet Edith didn't know you grew up on a farm as well." She might as well have shrieked "Engarde!"

Crispin smiled broadly and with great bravado. So that was her angle eh? Well, he'd set old Ingrid right back on her ear. Noting Edith's smile of mixed approval and confusion, he answered his foeman's challenge with a cavalier air.

"Yes, Iowa farming was such a shock to a lad like me, used to the finer things back in the old country. You see Edith, my branch of the St. James' line emigrated to the colonies and founded a successful farming community. But let's progress a bit to the years I spent in Hollywood. Those were after all the most important. I moved in such glitterings circles then, though a mere speck amongst the brighter stars of that celebrated galaxy." He flashed a triumphant smile at Ingrid that shouted "Ole`!" as clearly as any matador who has successfully dodged an angry bull.

"Drat." thought Ingrid.

She settled back in her chair, carefully biding her time for another chance to aim and fire. Crispin proceeded to ramble about life in Hollywood as it was in the early thirties when he first arrived.

"I came to Hollywood a mere stripling of 15. My boyish good looks landed me several roles as a supporting actor in the comedies that were popular at the time. Those Depression Era movie goers wanted an escape, and Hollywood was only too happy to oblige. Gangster films, light comedy, romance and what have you. I was often told that my style was reminiscent of the young John Barrymore. Barrymore was in decline in those years, starting to forget his lines due to drink and on the way to becoming something of a has been. But he'd made a mold, and I fit into it rather nicely. I'd been in the business for several years when I met Ingrid at one of those grand Tinsel Town soirees that will never be forgot. She was a mere slip of a girl- just twenty years old and already making quite a sensation in the literary world."

Ingrid struck like a coiled viper. "You were 18 and angling for a 'role' as an extra in 1936's San Francisco, I believe. You got it too! Your portrayal of a young waiter in Blackie Norton's saloon was quite exceptional. Too bad it was cut out. Your single line was a showstopper by all accounts. I'm sure nobody could have said "What will it be this evening, Sir?" with greater expression than you Crispin."

Crispin shot Ingrid a defiant glare and coughed. "Er, yes. Of course! The one liner was becoming all-important. With the advent of talking films, studios were suddenly having to hire people who could act with their voices as well as their faces. Fortunately, I was gifted in both facial and vocal expression. A lack of true vocal ability was the ruin of many a great silent film actor. Clara Bow was the IT girl until the public found out she squeaked like a rubber duck when she spoke. And what of poor John Gilbert? "

"Ah yes. I remember that. He was quite a heart-throb amongst ladies everywhere until he started making talkies. That high pitched voice sounded ridiculous with his manly looks. His career was ruined, and most people blamed the talking films. When I came to Hollywood rumor had it that he'd been drinking heavily for some time. He died of a heart attack in '36."

Ingrid sighed sadly. She herself had been in Hollywood during those years trying to break into screen writing. Her first two novels, published when she was very young, had been quite unexpectedly successful and she absolutely loathed them. She had hoped to change the rather maudlin turn her career as a novelist was taking by branching into film. She'd been hired as a writer by one of the larger studios perhaps due more to the sudden demand for dialogue in films than her actual qualifications. In spite of that she managed to work on a few successful scripts. However, the studio wanted comedy, thrillers, or romance and absolutely refused anything thought provoking or profound.

In addition to this, the foundering careers of the silent actors cast a pall of despair over the whole business, and it was not long before Ingrid realized that Hollywood was not the place for her. It was heartbreaking to see the hopeful young starlets especially. They partied all night to maintain some sort of status but had to be in the studio early each morning. They often resorted to controlling their sleeping and waking habits with drugs and alcohol, and many ruined themselves physically before coming close to attaining the kind of fame they hoped for. The women who achieved it did so often at a high cost. Ingrid remained in a state of reverie for some time before returning to the verbal fencing match in which she and Crispin were engaged.

"Then of course there was the formation of the caste system. I had several friends in very high places, and so did Ingrid. This ensured our place in the higher eschelons. However, not everyone was so lucky. Apparently, in the years before talking pictures lowly camera grips rubbed elbows with celebrities, and parties included stars and techincal people of all descriptions. Anyone might turn up. After the talking films came it all changed. By the time Ingrid and I were there, the big stars only associated with each other and a few very wealthy socialites, producers with other producers, the writers with the writers and so on down the line. You were only 'somebody' if you were making a thousand a week."

"What Crispin means to say Edith, is that he became one of the greatest gate-crashers in Hollywood history. Because he actually did resemble the young John Barrymore, the men at the doors all felt they'd seen him somewhere before. He pulled it off so well that he never actually got caught. That's how you met your wife isn't it?"

Crispin ran a finger inside his collar, which suddenly seemed to be getting terribly snug.

"Yes... actually Ingrid. I don't know where you get these silly ideas... gate crashing indeed!" He laughed lightly. "History is all in the eye of the recorder eh what? No, Edith I was actually much sought after because I'd become bosom friends with..." his story petered out as he took notice of the menacing gleam in Ingrid's eye. "Well, it was all so long ago. Time does pass so quickly."

"We were talking of your wife weren't we Crispin? Do continue, as I'm taking copious notes." said Ingrid, flipping the memo pad around to show an entire page covered in her wiry scrawl.

Edith inspected it eagerly, having often wondered what sort of ideas were considered important to an an author. "Why, Ingrid surely you're joking? Mr. St. James never actually cared for pigs himself?"

"Why of course he did! Crispin was an accomplished swineherd until he ran off to better and brighter things. His brother once told me-"

"My WIFE!" screeched Crispin, "Dear yes, my beloved Helene! The California debutante of the year! I happened to be invited to her debut; the lovely cotillion her parents hosted. She was an angel beyond all reckoning that night- her golden curls accented by the white debutante gown! She was just 18, back from her finishing school out East. It was love at first sight- for me anyway. I've never had much luck with beautiful women at first. They often feel strangely disposed to distrust me. But once she realized my true good nature, all was settled. We were divinely happy. I miss her terribly."

As he uttered those last four words, there came across Crispin's face an expression that Ingrid rarely observed in him. It was one of absolute sincerity, devoid of any facade. At that moment he had no pretensions, no delusions of grandeur. He was just a man who missed his wife.

Though Ingrid had often scorned Crispin's original motives in marrying his wealthy wife, it was undeniable that he had truly loved her in the end. He'd been faithful to her throughout their long and largely peaceful marriage, and Helene had inherited so much from her adoring parents that his profligate spending was never much of a bother to them. She had wisely bequeathed everything to her very capable son rather than her spendthrift husband, more as a way of ensuring that Crispin would always have a roof over his head than anything else.

Ingrid had been just on the point of mentioning the interesting fact that Crispin was at the debutante ball as an extra server rather than a guest, but thought better of it.

Edith suddenly reached out a well manicured hand and patted Crispin's corduroy knee. "I know exactly how you feel Crispin. It was just like that for Tex and me. We were just so... happy together." she began to sniff dangerously, and Crispin produced an immaculate monogrammed pocket handkerchief and offered it to her.

"There, there old girl. We widowed spouses must make the best of things. Very hard going at first though, I must say." Edith began to sob quietly into the hankie. Ingrid refilled Edith's teacup and left the room. Crispin was right to believe that Edith was lonely, and Ingrid decided that it was time to throw in the towel and let the two sufferers console one another, if they could.

Though never having been married herself, the brief scene had been a painful reminder of her own loneliness. Ingrid recalled Crispin's earlier reminiscences of Frank Morris. He WOULD bring that up. After pacing the back porch for several minutes she returned to a happier scene.

The two mourning spouses had dried their tears and were gaily sharing hilarious stories of married life.

"Oh, Ingrid darling there you are! I wondered where you'd gone off to! Come on in and listen to us gab! Edith just told a corker about her dear old Tex! Apparently he was a man who enjoyed a flute of champagne with his tacos!"

"Oh Mr. St. James really, I've stayed too long already. I'm afraid I'm something of a distraction to you both. I must be going."

Ingrid assured her that she was welcome to return at any time, and Crispin at first protested her departure, but wound up finageling a ride home. Eddie had apparently dropped him off again, and Edith was more than willing to oblige. They set off together, evidently drawn closer by the afternoon's events.

Ingrid watched them go, and smiled benignly. Perhaps in the end it was all for the best. The aura of hope and good feeling did not last long. As the Cadillac pulled away down the street, Imogene Burke's white Buick shot round the corner, and even at a distance Ingrid knew that Imogene had seen and comprehended, and was not amused. Not even a little.

Friday, December 16, 2005

“Dear Aunt,

I can’t thank you enough for your warm invitation. The prodigal returns! We accept, and you may very well be in for an extended visit. We’ve decided to settle near you in Orange County and I’ll begin job hunting as soon as we arrive. Thanks for the offer of school information. We’ll look into that when we’re there. I will need information regarding storage facilities.

Thanks for your number- I would use it, but it’s been years since we’ve spoken, and I’d rather wait until we’re face to face. I have so much to tell that I would be tempted to say over the phone. I’d rather relate all the details over a pot of your Earl Grey tea… do you still drink it by the gallon or has your doctor forbidden it? I doubt that, as you’ve always had excellent health. Also my dear “Aged Relative” I know how much you hate talking on the phone, so I won’t put you to any bother!

Annie says that if you’ll refrain from complaining about your health, she’ll avoid whining about the unfairness of life in general. I foresee the beginnings of a great friendship. She is anxious to meet you.

I will keep you updated via snail-mail. As soon as the house sells we’ll be on our way. I hope to have most of the packing finished by that time. I expect to arrive a few weeks after the sale of the house- whenever that happens.

Love from the Prodigal Niece

When Ingrid received the letter, she rushed over to Mabel’s to share the news.

“Ingrid, that’s wonderful news! Isn’t it wonderful news Bill?” Basking in the glow of the California spring, Mabel’s husband Bill was meticulously trimming the Australian Fuchsia shrubs that populated his immaculate lawn. He stopped long enough to wave his shears and congratulate Ingrid with great cordiality. He then invited her to see his Brazilian Plume Plant. “And you’ll have to come out back and take a gander at the Lion’s Tail- never seen the blooms as big as this spring's!” Bill didn't show his garden to everyone. He was in competition with several avid gardeners at the Senior's Guild. Until the big unveiling weekend, in which members of the Guild toured each competitor's garden and voted on who had produced the most spectacular floral display of the year, Bill and the other Guild Gardeners restricted viewing to trusted friends and family members only.

“Ingrid’s busy this afternoon Bill, dear. If she started touring your lovely garden she’d never come away in time! Ingrid, come into the house.” Bill good-naturedly agreed. “You girls go on in and have a nice gab. Mabel, mebbe you could bring me something tall and cold later on!” His brown shorts and black knee-high socks disappeared round an enormous Flannel Tree shrub as he went on with his trimming. Mabel and Ingrid had a long and satisfying talk about the impending arrival of Alice and Anne, and it was determined that this was a most satisfactory state of affairs. “You will of course give them each their own rooms. A twelve year old needs a place of her own.” “Of course. I’ve been sleeping in the green room and working in the dormer room, but there’s no reason I can’t sleep there as well. The other rooms will go to Alice and Anne. I will have to put in a good deal of work to make them presentable though. I've been using the blue room for storage."

Several weeks later, Ingrid received another letter informing her that Alice’s house had sold, and they could be expected to arrive near the end of the following month. Two weeks thereafter Crispin St. James exploded through Ingrid’s front door, bursting with his usual fizz and fury. Finding the dormer room empty, he began a panicked search of the premises, finally discovering his confidante shuffling through knee-deep piles of boxes in the long neglected attic.

“My dear Ingrid!” he puffed “What are you about! It’s not like you to be wandering the house at this time of day!”

“Hello Cris! Come here and tell me what a child of twelve would hang on her bedroom wall.”

Crispin regarded her cautiously. She was clad in an old pair of overalls, her usually well kept hair was flying madly in every direction. Most disturbing of all, to Crispin at least, was the enormous grin that split her normally austere features from ear to ear.

“Well now Ingrid… just ah… I mean, that is to say… dear girl are you feeling quite well?”

“Never better Cris, never better! I feel no more than sixteen today! Just look at these will you, and tell me what she’d like.”

Crispin quietly accepted the fact that his dear old chum and her marbles had finally parted ways.

“Ingrid, I think you’d better come downstairs and have some tea. I don’t think you’re quite yourself today.”

“Oh! Mad, am I? Well Crispin, this is a unique state of affairs. It’s usually the other way round! Never mind, I’ll put up these lovely old Wallace Nutting prints. Everyone loves Wallace Nutting.”

“Might I inquire as to the nature of this “she”?”

"She? Oh haven't I told you? My imaginary friend Heloise. She began as a character in one of my books, but I've sort of adopted her and now she practically runs the place."

Crispin stared doubtfully. He didn't quite know what to make of all this. Ingrid, in spectacularly good spirits, relented.

"My neice Alice and her 12 year old daughter are coming to stay with me for a spell. I'm fixing up their bedrooms."

"Oh is that all! Marvelous! Simply marvelous to see you- I- WHAT?" the full impact of what Ingrid had told him sunk in at last.

"Did you say "twelve year old daughter" Ingrid?"
"Yes. Annie has just turned twelve."

Crispin paled visibly and sat down on an old trunk to catch his breath. "I hope you realize what burdens children can be. Eddie's eldest is nearing that age. Beastly little fiend of a girl. Nothing but trouble, I can assure you. Are you quite sure this is wise, Ingrid? I wish you'd consulted me before agreeing to have them. I'm sure the mother will be charming, but couldn't the daughter stay some place else?"

Ingrid shoved a small armload of framed prints into his unsuspecting arms and said briskly "Since you don't live with me Crispin, I hardly see what business it is of yours who comes under my roof. Annie is by all accounts a delightful girl. I'm told she's rather like me when I was a girl."
This brought no balm to the tortured soul. Crispin gazed at her reproachfully, and followed her down the attic stairs in mournful silence. They were in the blue room, and Ingrid was trying pictures on different walls when he finally spoke again. "I think you might have considered my position at least. This is my refuge! My sanctum! Ingrid, it's the only child-free home that's open to me at any hour of the day. How can you go about polluting the place with the patter of little feet in this mad-cap fashion?" The sorrow drenched tone of his voice was all that restrained Ingrid from using one of her pithiest retorts.

"Crispin, you're always welcome here. One twelve year old cannot possibly be as much trouble as all Eddie's children combined. You've always enjoyed my company- perhaps she'll be a minature of her old aunt."

"You at twelve? Were you ever really twelve? I should have thought you simply sprang into being at about 40 years of age. I say Ingrid, such a pity you never married. There was that actor chappie... Sonny Morris. Would have been a splendid match for you."

Ingrid ignored this abrupt change of subject, and turned to face the wall once again. Crispin entirely missed the brief flush that sprang into her cheeks at the mention of the actor chappie.

"Years ago of course. We all knew he was potty about you. And that brother of his... the screenwriter... what was his name?"



"His name was Frank Morris."

"Oh yes? Frank indeed! Yes! Not that he's got anything to do with the topic at hand, but Sonny Morris now...You ought to have married him. Would have done wonders for your character."

"Crispin, should I hang this one over the bed or near the window?"

Crispin sighed and came out of his reverie. "Ah. The bed I should think. Nice spot for it. I say, what are you going to do with all this rubbish?" He gazed about the powder blue room, noting that the bed, dresser, nightstand and dainty white vanity were all covered in books, boxes, and paperwork. An old bicycle reposed in a far corner, while stacks of magazines occupied much of the floor.

"I say Ingrid do you EVER subscribe to anything more interesting than The National Geographic?" he inquired as he kicked at dusty piles of Archeology, Smithsonian, and Literature Today.

"Never Cris. I'm too much of a bore to read the gossip rags. I'm planning to throw most of this mess away. Or donate them. I'd like to burn what I can't give away but that's against zoning regulations. I've allowed things to pile up here shamefully since Ellen moved out. Isn't it time you were leaving? Don't you play shuffle board on Wednesdays?"

"Oh. Right. Thanks old bird, you've just reminded me. Edith should be here any moment. You'd better tidy up and get a pot of tea on."

Ingrid dropped the hammer indignantly and asked him just where he thought he got off inviting practical strangers into her home without so much as a by your leave? And without any proper warning too?

"Well perhaps I ought to have said something, but the bus trip to Catalina has nearly finished me Ingrid. Finished me! That blister Waring had her full and undivided attention for an entire day! She's scarcely spoken to me ever since! I'm a desperate man, Ingrid. Do say you'll help me?"

Clearly, he'd left her with little choice, so she chased him down the stairs yelling at him to get the tea on while she made herself decent.

Approximately ten minutes later, Edith Baker's late model Cadillac purred into the drive way.