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(New Mexico red chili sauce went so well with these!)
It wasn’t just my desire to avoid a hangover on Wednesday morning that inspired me to pass the atypical copy of Nevermore’s Conventions over to Beatrice for her perusal – but also a little known fact about my roommate.
It’s no secret that Beatrice has dedicated the bulk of her adult life to the written word. Working at PULP, the West coast’s largest independent purveyor of glue, paper & string, she’s perpetually got her nose buried in one book or another. On top of her voracious reading, she pens blurbs, reviews, and reports for PULP’s patrons and bosses. Then there’s the small detail of her earning a doctorate in Medieval Literature at university. Owing to this continuous and long-standing immersion in printed material, Beatrice’s grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary are all top-shelf.
All of which makes her abominable penmanship kinda ironic.
Even Wood’s notorious chicken scratch, which he claims is the result of acing the elective ‘Calligraphy for Clinicians’ in medical school, doesn’t hold a candle to Beatrice’s scrawling hand.
I only stumbled across this quirk a few months back. Whereupon returning home one afternoon, I discovered a series of sinister symbols dashed across the cloudy glass of my bedroom door. Unsure if these unknown characters, scribbled in easy to clean red dry-erase marker, signaled the casting of a spell or a curse on my person, I sent a picture to Beatrice asking for a second opinion. She texted back a translation of the script, which to my eye, resembled the jumbled glyphs in no way, shape, or form.
(I returned her text with a picture of a great-horned owl dramatically swiveling their head with a caption – “Are U Sure?” and received an eye-roll emoji in return.)
Now unlike my handwriting-challenged roommate, the author of the unorthodox version of the Conventions probably won penmanship awards in primary school. The loops, flourishes, and slant of the script lends such an air of splendor and grace to its’ pages, your eye gets lost in the whirls, swirls, and flow of the midnight-blue ink.
And that’s the problem.
Our scribe favored form over function to such a degree it renders the unique copy of the Convention’s pages as unintelligible as Beatrice’s phone message to me. Indeed, our author was so committed to creating a gorgeous work of art they even deviate from the standardized spelling of words whenever a letter clashed with the overall flow of the page – thus making the book’s decoding that much more difficult…
…Unless you happen to have an expert on Penmanship Pandemonium on tap who possesses a competitive streak a mile wide.
Beatrice, the aforementioned expert, seemed to relish the battle of wits she was waging with a past Nevermorian penman. So much so she finished wading thru the entire tome by the time I got home from work on Thursday evening.
Stepping thru the front door, I called out, “Beatrice you home?”
Shedding my outer layers, I pattered on about my day before tracing the absentminded answer to its source.
“I hope you had a good day because mine was crap. Not only did Mr. Nowak manage to break a jar of sauerkraut in the Princess’s front seat this morning. Later a pregnant lady took a half dozen sniffs of the leftover fermented cabbage fumes and booted out the window – all over the passenger side panels of the Princess. The only upside is I’ve nearly finished my punchcard at Squeaky Clean Car Wash.”
Standing in the doorway of Beatrice’s office, I found her hunched over her desk, one hand manning a wooden ruler underscoring a line in the Conventions while her other pecked at the computer keyboard rhythmically.
“Nearly done here…”
“No worries, I’ll start dinner.”
Stepping into the kitchen, my mind on repurposing Tuesday night’s leftover arroz con pollo into scrummy hand-pies, I robotically clicked the radio on. Just in time to hear the headline leading KARB’s top-of-the-hour news segment, “Earlier today, community groups barricaded themselves inside two buildings in Nevermore to protest the Cemetary’s expansion plans. Said plans include the demolition of both clubhouses and the destruction of several acres of forested land…..”
Since the station’s news desk hadn’t reported anything new on the situation since seven this morning, I flipped off the mellow voice of the newsreader mid-sentence. Staring into space and tapping my fingernail against the plastic housing of the radio, I tried to figure out how this development fits in with the outline of events I’d started the other night.
Before I got very far in either my brooding or dinner prep, my cell started ringing – the name on its display sending my heart into instant palpitations.
Hands shaking, I managed to answer the call on my fourth swipe of the screen.
Little Ben (hesitantly): “Hey, Morticia.”
Squeezing my eyes shut, I struggled to keep the disappointment out of my voice. Finally, an Abernathy calls me, and it’s the wrong one.
Me (walking over to twist a knob on the oven): “What’s up?”
Pithy equals politic at the moment.
Little Ben (babbling): “I was hoping I could swing by on Saturday and talk with you.”
Me (yanking the necessary ingredients for dinner out of the fridge): “About?”
Little Ben: “I’d rather not get into it on the phone. Are you free around one?”
Me (slamming the microwave door on the leftover arroz con pollo): “Yes.”
Little Ben: “Can we meet at your place? There’s too much going on in Nevermore right now….”
I let his understatement roll right by.
Me (unrolling the premade pie dough on the counter): “Sure, do you need directions to the apartment?”
Little Ben: “No, I know the way.”
Me (cutting the dough into perfect circles with a rim of a bowl): “Cool?”
Little Ben: “Okay, see you then.”
Staring at my phone, I hit the red disconnect symbol, striving to fathom Little Ben’s sudden enthusiasm for my company – and I mean enthusiasm – he sounded downright giddy at the prospect of coming over. Beatrice, who apparently came in at the tail end of the call, fetched the container from the microwave and joined me at the counter.
Whilst mixing a prodigious amount of queso fresco into the warmed leftovers, Beatrice addressed the frown on my face.
“No? Frankly, I’m not really sure. Little Ben called to ask if he could stop by the day after tomorrow.”
“Well, at least you’ll have something to talk about besides the protests.”
Beatrice’s offhanded comment made me reel back slightly and inadvertently drop a dollop of cheesy filling onto the linoleum.
“You found something?”
Walking over to the now enthusiastically annotated copy of the Conventions Beatrice, after wiping her hands on a tea-towel, slid several sheets of paper out from under the front cover and held them out to me.
“Oh, yeah, I found something.”
Between the intensity of the conversation and my zeroed in concentration on the cutting board, I nearly lopped off my own fingertip when the buzzer above the oven sounded off. Beatrice, leaving the place settings on the counter, strode over to the stove and picked up the red hot orange pot. Setting aside the bloodthirsty blade, I scooted around Beatrice trivet in hand, placing it on the table where she wanted to set our sweet-smelling supper.
No longer able to maintain my feeble facade of non-existence, I wordlessly started shepherding the arroz con pollo trimmings (I’d already sampled for quality assurance purposes) to the table.
Beatrice began setting it – for two.
Ms. Hettie, who’d fallen silent after Beatrice’s cryptic observation, swirled her scotch and eyed me for a moment before shifting her gaze onto her great-niece.
Ms. Hettie (scour-pad voice scraping across the eardrum): “I know my bible-thumping sister and the rest of her brood are a bunch of nogoodniks Beatrice, but Grace is facing prison.”
Beatrice (thumping a plate onto the table): “A predicament that didn’t interest them the least when it was mine.”
Ms. Hettie: “Just think about it.”
Draining her glass in a single swallow, Ms. Hettie (who was wearing a sky blue sweatshirt with kittens chasing silver snowflakes across her bosoms today) levered herself out of the chair, casting significant looks at each of us before ambling out of the kitchen. The sound of the front door opening and closing followed a few seconds later.
Beatrice (dropping bonelessly into a chair): “Sorry, I didn’t think she’d keep hounding me if you were here.”
Me (placing spoons in the sides): “No worries, I’ve been on the receiving end of my fair share of familial guilt trips.”
Beatrice (rubbing her temples): “If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not talk about it.”
Watching Beatrice, I realized her gaze was fixed sightlessly on the glass of Oban Ms. Hettie had been sipping during their ‘discussion’. Unsure my liver had fully recovered from the last time we hit a bottle I caste about for a distraction.
Me (sitting down across from her): “Don’t worry about it. I’d rather not give Ms. Hettie the satisfaction.”
Beatrice (her hand pausing halfway to the bottle): “Satisfaction?”
Me (smiling): “She named the puppy. So I’d ask questions we’d talk and hopefully, in the end, convince you to do whatever it is she wants you to do. As I’m not interested in doing her dirty work, you needn’t explain a thing to me.”
Beatrice (flicking a glance at the three-quarter full bottle): “Damned, I always forget how good she is.”
Me (catching sight of the dull gold strip peaking out my pack next to me): “Funnily enough, Ms. Hettie’s not the only one hoping for your help tonight.”
Quirking an eyebrow at me, Beatrice waited a moment for me to elaborate. However, due to the proximity of the fragrant arroz con pollo – plus the knot of containers filled with lettuce, queso fresco, tomatoes, black beans, avocado, and steaming tortillas – my stomach chose that moment to issue a long and LOUD complaint.
Beatrice (corners of her mouth twitching): “Why don’t you explain after you’ve sated the beast.”
Feeling the tips of my ears grow hot, I simply nodded and started dishing up. After my first helping made a cameo appearance on my plate, my hands stopped shaking, and the hangries receded enough to resume polite conversation.
Leaning to the left slightly, I pulled the brown paper wrapped book from my pack and handed it to her. Pushing aside her plate and the nearest containers, she wiped the table with her napkin before carefully opening the cover and gently leafing thru the first few pages.
Me (speaking around a bite of beans and cheese): “I was hoping you’d have better luck deciphering it than I am currently. The handwriting gives me a splitting headache after ten minutes.”
Beatrice (eyebrows drew together in concentration): “Why not just stop reading it?”
Me (holding my breath for a second): “Because that’s the only copy of the Nevermore Conventions I can lay my hands on at the moment. As all the others, including mine, have disappeared. I’m hoping the reason why is somewhere inside.”
Beatrice (tilting her head and looking up at me): “And a bit more besides?”
Me (smiling wryly): “Yes.”
Beatrice (wrinkling her nose): “And the sooner I finish it, the better?”
Me (deflating slightly): “I know it’s a lot to ask…”
Beatrice (nodding once): “No problem.”
Beatrice (an edge of her mouth tipping upwards a little): “Consider it a thank-you for not falling into Ms. Hettie’s trap.”
Me (grinning): “Can I push my luck and borrow your laptop again?”
Beatrice (shrugging): “Sure. Why?”
Me: “I need to organize my thoughts and that mind-mapping program you’ve got looked like an excellent way to do it.”
Beatrice (looking very much like her Great-Aunt for a moment): “These events wouldn’t include Sarah ratting us out to Little Ben the night of the Brace Affair, would it?”
Well crap, so much for me not being an awful friend.
(I unfortunately lost the credit for this photo – but I did get it from Unsplash but the words are mine.)
Still in shock that T.V. dinners are Laney’s secret vice – Wood set over this photo as proof! Though the second photo makes me wonder if she’s alone in this vice…
(I have no recollection of ever purchasing a box of hands…)
The ransacking of my bedroom, after Aunt Pearl dropped me at the Lavender Lady library books in hand, yielded several exciting finds. Apparently, I own five copies of Melville’s Moby Dick (and haven’t cracked the cover of a single one), an entire box of mannequin hands I don’t recall purchasing, and my favorite purple sweater misplaced during the move.
Unfortunately, my copy of Nevermore’s Conventions (the massive three-ring binder dedicated to its history, bylaws, policies, and general guidance) was nowhere to be found.
Of course, this revelation only came after two-hundred-and-forty-nine minutes of rifling, piling, and sifting through the contents of my closet and bookcases. My scouring ceased the moment I unearthed a wad of documents stuffed in the middle of a geology text. Apparently, my Caretaker employment contract, Cottage lease agreement, and other Nevermore related paperwork decided, after eighteen years of residing inside the front cover of the Conventions, to go on holiday.
One more mystifying incident to add to the list.
Sitting on the sun-warmed stone bench, I took a deep breath of the vapor rising from the surface of my coffee. Closing my eyes, I cast my mind back, endeavoring to recollect the last time I held it…I’d taken a gulp of coffee and…pulled it from a stout moving crate in order to reference my lease! I’d needed to know the hour Little Ben could/would come by for the Cottage’s keys. Then something pulled me away…and the rest of the memory is swallowed up by the chaos of coordinating the convoy of vehicles carrying my possessions to the Lavender Lady.
Sighing in vexation, I opened my eyes. The view reaching my retinas mellowed my mood slightly.
Dawn and dusk are my two favorite times to sit outside in Nevermore. Tonight, the sparrows sang to each other, sun colored the clouds orange and the fragrance of freshly mown grass filled the air – reminding me exactly why I’m still trying to take care of this place. However, my other unique and oblique responsibility quickly supplanted this initial reminder by sending ripples of electricity across my toes, pulling me from my reverie.
Me (tracing of the stylized letter ‘A’ etched in the stone bench): “I was hoping you’d find me.”
Taking a seat next to me, “You’re the only one I know who eats bacon & eggs at this hour. I simply followed the scent.”
Fishing around inside the paper sack, I pulled out one of the egg, bacon & maple rolls I’d been too trepidatious to partake of before Joseph’s arrival.
Joseph (concern coloring his voice): “How are you feeling?”
Speaking of foibles, Joseph may find my love of breakfast dishes for dinner unconventional; however, he owns one or two idiosyncrasies himself. Case in point, he was asking after my health because we haven’t seen each other since the night we confronted the Woman In White. Why? Because, for reasons known only to him, he never leaves Nevermore’s grounds.
For any reason.
(He’s repeatedly rebuffed my questions about this quirk – btw.)
So I filled him on what happened after I left Nevermore that night, segueing rather nicely into the quandaries currently plaguing me. By the time I finished, the Golden Hour had transitioned smoothly into the Blue Hour, and my stomach let out a fierce grumble, letting me know of an egg, bacon & maple roll-shaped hole I needed to fill posthaste.
Me (summing up after a swig of coffee): “So, you wouldn’t happen to know where to find Big Ben or a copy of Conventions, would you?”
Taking a bite of my savory, I let him digest everything I’d just laid on him. About the time I was debating between licking the leftover bacony goodness off my left thumb or using my handkerchief as a napkin, Joseph broke the silence.
Joseph: “Yes, and no.”
Me (drily): “Well, that clears things right up.”
Joseph (chuckling): “Yes, I know the location of a copy. Yes, I can loan it to you.”
Bouncing off the seat and onto my feet, I waited for him to follow suit.
Joseph (an air of regret surrounding him): “No, I cannot retrieve tonight.”
The rollercoaster of emotions accompanying his words prompted me to rake my fingers thru my hair. (It wasn’t until Beatrice delicately sniffed the air later wondering why I smelled of bacon that I recalled I’d neither wiped or licked the leftover bacon grease off my fingers.)
Joseph (unintentionally deflating me further): “You know there are elements of Nevermore which must remain unpublished. Regrettably, the whereabouts of this particular copy is one of those elements.”
Turning away from him, I aim my aggravation at the moon. The main food for my frustration, above and beyond needing to wait for possible answers, was the understanding of his position. (Though the underlying current of his words, i.e., the sands of the Sahara would reclaim the Great Pyramid of Giza before he’d budged, grated.)
Me (still zeroed in on the moon): “Any clue how soon?”
Joseph (pausing for several beats): “Tomorrow, a week, ten days? I cannot retrieve it until the immediate vicinity is clear of both Residents and staff. “
Me (pivoting on my heal): “Do you know Nevermore’s bylaws?”
Joseph (who’d risen at some point, touched my arm): “I wish I could give you some easy answers.”
Me (sighing): “I know. I’d just hoped things would move quicker. I can pull on other threads until you can collect it.”
Joseph: “One of them being Orin’s Errant?”
Me (throwing up my hands): “Crap!”
(Obviously, Joseph correctly guessed I’d forgotten about that small task.)
(Rough map of the Von Haeville family plot.)
Ina Von Haeville: “Cat got your tongue girl? What do you think you’re doing?”
Letting my hand fall to my side, I opened my eyes and noticed that Ina’s nails were painted the same rosy shade as her suit.
Ina Von Haeville (leaning over the headstone towards me her brow set in a scowl): “Well? Answer Me!”
Moving my gaze up from her painted nails to her narrowing eyes, my brain understood she was suffering, however, countering her curdled tone with honey in mine proved difficult.
Me (my breath fuming the frigid air): “Good afternoon! My name’s Phoebe Arden. I’m completing a survey for the Rye Historical Society. As I’m sure you’re aware, they hold a geological interest in the county’s most venerated families. I’m here gathering information for their records.”
Levering myself upright, my eyes never wavering from hers, I flipped open my notebook and showed her my work.
Ina Von Haeville (studying my rough sketch): “This is what’s left of my family.”
Me: “What about the three sisters?”
Ina Von Haeville: “Their Von Haeville’s in name only! David adopted those girls the day he married their mother. She never bothered learning our family traditions, so neither did they!”
For not being genetically related, they sure seem to share a similar sour center.
Ina Von Haeville (the ambient temperature around her plunging): “You’re not related to Elizabeth, Mary or Catherine – are you?”
Those are the weird sister’s names? I’d imagined at least would be a derivative of Hecate.
Me (swallowing my tart retorts with a smile while trying not to shiver): “Not as far as I know. My mother was a Becker before she married my father. He’s originally from Bangor, Maine. So I doubt there’s any cross over there.”
Ina Von Haeville (eyes glazing over): “Thought not. Those three have no sense of family loyalty! They sold the house, my great grandfather built. Oh Maud….”
Turning away, Ina started back towards her mottled green bench.
Me (putting some punch in my voice): “I saw the Von Haeville sisters in the house this morning. They brought in an expert and tools…”
Well, that was the exact wrong/right thing to say (and mostly true).
Ina Von Haeville (jerking to a stop): “Tools? They’re going to find it! What are we going to do? What are we going to do!?….”
Fuming and fretting Ina paced in tighter and tighter circles around the central stone slab while repeating the question over and over again. While she boiled and bubbled, I slipped my notes back into my pack and slung it over my shoulder. When my breath started forming a fume, I knew her attention was squarely back on me…
Ina Von Haeville (with a curled lip): “You look like you enjoy eating.”
Seriously? Swiping at my weight? I’m no bean pole, but my hips aren’t that wide…
Me (grinding my teeth): “Yes, I’ve been known to enjoy a meal.”
Ina Von Haeville (smirking at my admission): “I thought so.”
A tepid breeze blew past me momentarily when indecision crept across her face.
Ina Von Haeville (softly): “There’s no other way, Maud…If you promise never to let those girls lay a hand on it, I will give it to you.”
Ina Von Haeville (voice wavering): “The only Von Haeville tradition they’ve left intact. “
Blind promises are always risky…Plus, how horrible can it be? Wait, don’t answer that.
Me: “I promise.”
Please don’t let it be what Beatrice was hired to find…..
Ina Von Haeville (turning on her heel): “Follow me.”