Tag Archives: cousins

2.43.b Carnivals & Cakes

Rewind eight hours. 

Before, KARB aired Berlioz’s, Béatrice et Bénédict. Before, I baked several breakfast treats. Before, I ingested several gallons of coffee. 

I sat alone in the kitchen of the Lavender Lady, listening to Wood tootle off in the direction of the living-room couch, finishing off the last swig of my beer…….When my eyes slowly slid towards the corner of Ira’s envelope peeking out of my pack. 

Firming up my upper lip, I told myself the contents would be exactly the same tomorrow morning. 

Emphatically nodding my head, my mind made up, I happened to notice a ring of condensation the bottom of my beer bottle left on the table. Getting up, I grab a rag from the sink and wipe down the table, then the counters. Because if you’re going to do one, you may as well do the other. However, whilst taking care of the counters, I knocked over the stack of empty containers I’d packed the Moon Bathing nibbles in. Deciding I couldn’t leave dirty dishes for Beatrice to find in the morning, I unloaded, reloaded, and ran the dishwasher. Because that’s what good roommates do. Similarly, I couldn’t leave the stack of soiled blankets sitting on the kitchen chair, so I washed them as well.

Scanning the kitchen, cleanup complete, my eyes once again strayed towards the manila covered temptation……and caved. One quick peek, to give my subconscious something other than Toby to chew on, what could it hurt?

Famous. Last. Words. 

Fast forward eight hours and twenty-seven minutes.  

Past the anatomizing of Ira’s information down to the subatomic level. Past the flabbergasting discovery of double-dealings. Past my forty-five-minute catnap hunched over the table, on top of my spiral-bound notebook. (I’m lucky to only have a wire imprint on my face. I’d missed dozing on my uncapped hot pink highlighter by mere inches.) Past Wood and Beatrice looks of incredulity when I’d begged off from their afternoon plan to partake of barbecue and sniff old books in favor of completing a chore.

Stepping out of the Princess and onto the drive, I leaned my seat forward and pulled my hulking pack from the backseat. Trudging around the side of the house, I slowly climbed the back stairs and pushed open the door. 

Stunned by the spectacle hitting my retinas, it took me a moment to recall the last time I beheld such a sight. (I do believe it occurred the year Robbie’s school hosted the regional Spelling Bee finals and the PTA pounced on the opportunity to fund their after school programs.) Every surface, plus a few extras brought in especially, were covered in unfrosted cakes, cupcakes, cookies, the odd pie, a half dozen loaves of bread, and one sad-looking pan of sausage rolls. 

My early morning efforts paled in comparison.

Amid this unadulterated homage to flour, eggs, and butter stood Aunt Pearl operating my great-grandmother’s stand mixer. Next to her stood my niece Ruby. Who, for reasons outside my ken, was responding to my Aunt’s instructions with expressive meows.

Aunt Pearl (over her shoulder): “Jesse, if you forgot the whole vanilla beans again, you can turn right back around.”

Me: “It’s not Jesse Aunt Pearl.”

Ruby (at the sound of my voice, she started scrabbling off her stool): “Ppuurrrrr? Meow!!!”

Aunt Pearl: “Hello Dear! Give us a minute. We’re almost done.”

Drifting towards the two-foot square of open space at the kitchen table, where Uncle sat sipping his coffee and reading his stack of newspapers, I looked around for another seat. Deciding the chances of finding a chair free of thumbprint cookie trays slim to none, I dropped both my pack and backside onto the floor. 

Uncle (setting aside his paper): “So what brings you by? Besides the floorshow.”

Me (leaning against the cabinet, my legs stretched out in front of me): “Did Aunt Pearl lose a bet?”

Uncle (chuckling): “No, one of the vendors for the district’s Carnival pulled out at the last minute. So your Aunt’s helping bridge the gap. She roped the whole neighborhood, plus Jesse, Tad, Dylan, and Dwight, into helping.”

Heart sinking, I reconsidered asking Beatrice and Wood for help, then rejected the idea immediately. There’s no way I could ask without being an awful friend. Ira and Leo were similarly off-limits. Maybe Mrs. Schmit? I trust her….but do I trust her that far?

Uncle (forehead crinkling in concern): “Phoebe?”

Me (pulling my heavy pack towards me): “Sorry, I didn’t realize you guys were so busy. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have bothered you with this…”

Uncle (tilting his head): “With?”

Me (sighing): “I was hoping you could double-check my work.”

Uncle’s gaze sharpened. However, before either of us could say anything else, Ruby scampered onto my lap purring madly, and Aunt Pearl thunked a bowl of frosting at my Uncle’s elbow. 

Ruby (four inches from the end of my nose): “Auntie Morticia! Come see! Come See! Grandma’s saving the Carnival’s cakewalk! And she’s going to let me decorate the cookies! I get to use ALL the frosting I want!… What’s wrong with your face?”

Aunt Pearl (bustling over): “Ruby’s right, what’s wrong with your face? You look tired. Did you not sleep well? Do you want some coffee? Can you stay and frost some cupcakes?”

It didn’t take the intuition of Nancy Drew to figure out Aunt Pearl let Ruby sample some frosting, her blue-tinged teeth told the story. The dark tint to Aunt Pearl’s lips told a similar sugar-filled tale. As did the fact neither waited for or required a response to their series of rapid-fire questions.

Me (sliding Ruby off my lap): “No, Aunt Pearl. I’m fine. I should be going….”

Uncle (finishing my sentence): “…back to my office. Mind if I take the coffee pot back with us, Pearl?”

2.39 Oh, For The Love Of Peter Pan…

If you haven’t already guessed my youngest cousin, Robbie, came as an unexpected surprise to Uncle and Aunt Pearl on November twelfth, nineteen-ninety-four. Well, the news they were getting a new addition to the household was a surprise – the inevitable event didn’t happen for another seven months. 

Unlike our parental figures, the news didn’t faze us kids a whit.

Dwight secretly hoped they’d bring a puppy home from the hospital. Jesse worried Uncle would miss his hockey games. I blissfully ignored everything as I’d just discovered all the old trunks/cupboards/suitcases in the attic & started excavating them. I’m not sure about what Dylan or Ian thought about it – but it probably involved Legos.

What we didn’t appreciate at that point, though Aunt Pearl and Uncle probably did, was the steep age gap dividing us from Robbie. A gap that became glaringly obvious the year Robbie transformed into a teen. His teenage angst provided my cousins and me, who’d already transitioned into our twenties, with heaps of vaguely uncomfortable perspective on our own bouts of frightful behavior based on bad hair, worse judgment, and hormones. (And some serious entertainment for my Aunt and Uncle.)

Even more delicious?

Robbie had five additional targets for his pique.

Case in point, the Christmas after Robbie turned seventeen, I spent the entire day wishing I could kick his rear up around his ears. Why? For the whole of Christmas Day, he wouldn’t acknowledge my existence. He didn’t respond if I spoke, didn’t open the presents I made him, and tossed out his slice of cake after he learned I’d baked it. Plus, a whole host of other infuriating slights.

All because I busted him splitting a six-pack of beer with his buddies in Nevermore. 

Apparently, I’d ‘completely embarrassed him’ after he assured his friends I’d be ‘cool’ if they got caught. Seems, ‘cool’ does not include packing said buddies into the Princess like sardines, insisting on driving them home and blistering their ears every inch of the way. Heaping insult on injury, Uncle caught Robbie sneaking in with beer on his breath and grounded him for a month.

Lamenting the sad state of affairs to Aunt Pearl whilst washing the last of the dishes. (In point of fact, my place setting as Robbie had been in charge of the clearing up.) I wound up my woe-is-me-s with, ‘I was never this bad at his age.’ 

Aunt Pearl laughed so hard she needed to sit down.

After she stopped wheezing, wiped away a tear or two, she assured me I had my moments. Then gave me a few words of wisdom that not only helped me deal with Robbie’s prickliness but with Abraham’s as well. “Don’t worry, Dear, he’ll figure out you’re on his side, eventually. Until then? Pretend you’re a duck.” So when Abraham’s voice dripped with barely contained disdain, due to my summons, I let it roll off my back like so much water. 

Me: “Would you rather I track you down?”

Abraham: “Is that a threat?”

Me (exasperated already): “No, I’m asking, would you rather I track you down or simply request your presence?”

Abraham (gritting his teeth): “The beacon is fine.”

Me: “Okay. So now that we’re clear that I’m trying to respect your privacy and in no way threatening you. Which by the way, I feel the need to point out I’ve never done. I was wondering why you Flared at Orin.”

Abraham: “Ah, yes, your pets.”

Me (tossing my hands up): “My gods, you’re a pain in my ass.”

Abraham, not unlike Robbie in his teenage prime, calls forth the urge in me to kick something. Once, during one of our conversations, I booted a plastic lawn ornament so hard it sailed clean across the street where it landed spectacularly on Mrs. Snells’s (dragon of the front office of Rye High) front porch. 

That being said, Abraham’s never let me down. 

Abraham (honing in on the irritation): “You’re only here because I threatened one of your pets.”

To be fair, he’s not totally wrong.

Me (taking a deep breath): “You’re right, I came because you threatened Orin.”

Abraham exhaled expressively, not unlike a punctured tire, at my admission, and muttered something about forking pets I didn’t quite catch. 

Me: “But I asked you to stop by because I was wondering why you felt the need to Flare at all.”

Abraham (sullenly): Why do you care? It took you months to come here and help them.

Me (utterly failing to marshal my patients): “I GOT HURT, OKAY! NOW CAN YOU JUST ANSWER THE FORKING QUESTION?”

Wood (calling out): “You okay, Morticia?”

Me (stomping to the gazebo’s entrance so Wood could see me): “Fine, just mad.”

Wood: “Okay?”

Me: “I won’t be much longer…”

Watching Wood reluctantly turn back around, I listened to him resumed his conversation with Laney. Still fuming, I turned back around and found Abraham standing opposite me.

Abraham (his shoulders hunched): “Sorry, Caretaker.”

Me (trying to relax again): “Accepted, now tell me why you Flared….please.”

Abraham (shifting in place): “I mistook Orin for someone else.”

Me (disbelief shorting out my brain): “Who could you possibly mistake Orin for?… Did you got bored again and Flared at some random girl trying to freak her out, and Orin caught you?”

Abraham: “Who are you, my mom?”

Me (bouncing my toe against the floorboard): “Oh, for the love of Peter Rabbit…”

Oh. My. Lords.

He’s actually reduced me into sounding like Aunt Pearl, she must have said something along those lines million times while my cousins and I were growing up. Completely unhinged by this inadvertent bit of muscle memory, it took considerable effort to refocus on Abraham’s words while keeping the tip of my sneaker from connecting with something, anything solid.

Abraham: “…..traded punches with a while back.”

Me (ignoring the resulting eye roll): “Come again?”

Abraham (condescension laced his words): “Aren’t you listening? Some old dude I’ve never seen before was sniffing around Eliza.”

Me (raking my hand thru my hair): “Could be someone new.”

Abraham (trying to sound casual): “Maybe, but I couldn’t take the chance. You know since we’ve started going missing….”

Me (head jerking back): “Hold on, missing? Missing how?”

Abraham (sounding both smug and worried): “Neither Eliza or I noticed at first, but we haven’t seen Gus in nearly a year. Now, Sam, Maria, and Grady are nowhere to be found.”

Me: “Why didn’t you come to me?”

Abraham (brusquely): “I’m not one of your pets. I don’t need your protection. I’m investigating this myself.”

Struggling to shove aside my desire to punt his ass across the park – I took a deep breath and counted backward from twelve as I exhaled….

…Damn it, Abraham intentionally threatened Orin knowing I’d turn up so he could drop this bomb. For the love of Venkman – only Robbie in all his teenage glory – could come up with a method more labyrinthine than this to ask for help. Pushing aside the feeling I’d let Abraham down for later examination, I began navigating around his hardened shell of adolescent surliness.

Me (cracking my neck): “How about this, since I know where the Genesis Points are for the other Errants in town, why don’t I make the rounds and see what I find.”

Abraham: “While you do that, I can try and lure that dude out by circling my spot.”

Me (lighting lancing thru my stomach): “Actually, I was hoping you could do me a favor…”

Abraham (suspicious): “Depends.”

Me: “Since this unknown guy already found Eliza, there’s a good chance he’ll be back. So I was hoping you could guard her for me. If he turns up again, lead him to Nevermore.”

Abraham (bouncing on the balls of his feet): “Nice! Joseph will make mincemeat of him. Alright, I’ll do it if you promise to tell me what you find out.”

Me: “Deal. Anything about this guy stand out?”

Abraham: “No, just some skinny old dude in a green suit.”

It took some doing, but I managed to keep my smile on the inside at Abraham’s answer. You see, Orin is a great mountain of a man, who is neither old nor wears anything that could ever be mistaken for a suit or any shade of green.

2.35 Lillith vs. Morticia

Daily Harvest - Halloween mockupjpeg

(Yeah, the Halloween mock-up looks just as silly in my mind’s eye as I thought it would!)

Wood, knowing the answer to my question, finished the rest of his beer in one long pull and left to fetch another. 

I’d texted him the news the moment Leo and I parted ways in the Rusty Hinge’s parking lot. The string of emojis he sent back mirrored my own thoughts on the matter. 

On the other hand, my cousins, close to succumbing to sugar comas, only showed a flicker of interest in my intelligence. Though in fairness, their comatose states were enhanced by twenty-five minutes of sprinting from pillar to post and beer. 

Fortunately, nothing, including Morpheus’s sweet embrace, could tamp down Dwight’s professional training and natural curiosity. 

Dwight (visibly forcing the word out): “Who?”

Lounging on the veranda’s railing, as was my custom, I was perfectly placed to watch their reactions in the dim light radiating from the open kitchen door – only Uncle was inscrutable. Sitting, as was his habit, in the comfy chair at the farthest end of the porch fully engulfed in shadows.

Me: “The Brownie Stealing Bench, Josie Reville.”

A collective groan, plus a few choice words, filled the air (the Mynah birds were out of earshot ). 

During the ensuing silence, due to everyone taking a healthy slug from their bottles, I’d have bet money that my relations were replaying a dusty old memory starring Josie and her pack of sycophants. (I wasn’t the only one she’d used to sharpen her poisonously honeyed tongue, just the first of us to ping her radar.)

A disturbingly loud crash from the kitchen treat makers and Susan’s subsequent shout of ‘everyone’s fine’ broke the spell my words had unfortunately cast over the party.

Jesse (sounding confounded): “Did Lucas open a hell-mouth under Rye to lure her back?”

Me (giggle snorting): “No, she’s not vying to reign over hell, Western Regional Bank made her their Chief Loan Officer.” 

Dwight (absently): “Don’t discount the whole Queen of Hell thing entirely.”

Tad: “She’d make a good Lilith though, using her position in the bank to corrupt the hearts of men. Oh! If it helps, we could change your nickname to Sabrina. You already have that luscious red coat, and if you adopted a black cat and named him Salem, you’d really be cooking with gas.”

Carefully backing out of the screen door, Wood reemerged from the kitchen, his hands occupied by a tray ladened with the next round of brown bottles, which we proceeded to helpfully lighten for him. Only Dwight and Uncle declined seconds.

Wood (chiming during the distribution of beer): “Never gonna happen, Morticia Addams would never allow an upstart like Lilith steal her crown.”

Me (laughing): “Plus, I look terrible as a blonde.”

Wood: “That too.”

Sealing our complete agreement, which may or may not be rooted in an unfortunate episode of summertime boredom and an old bottle of peroxide, we clinked our bottles together. 

Jesse (stretching his legs out): “Hate to rain on your parade, but isn’t Lilith literally biblical in origin? Morticia Addams is just a shade over eighty. Lilith would wipe the floor with her.”

Tad (happily diving into the debate): “Wrong part of the multiverse. The original Archie comic version, Madam Satan, is two years younger than Morticia. Lilith, from Netflix’s Chilling Adventures, is less than three years old. Making Morticia the hands-down favorite in a face-off!”

Jesse: “The story is three-ish years old I grant you, but in the Chilling Adventures, Lilith was the second person ever to walk the earth and was literally taught magic by Lucifer. No dice beans and rice.” 

Winding up for the defense of his stance, Tad took a deep and audible breath.

Knowing from prior experience, their bickering over pop culture spin on for hours without any outside help. (And I knew Robbie, who’d just joined us from the kitchen, mug of chocolate in hand, would be unable to resist throwing Dr. Who’s Missy into the mix.) I decided to track back to an earlier point in the conversation. 

Me (looking at an inattentive Dwight): “How exactly can Josie become Queen of Hell?”

It took Wood tapping him on the shoulder before he resurfaced, requiring me to repeat my question.

Dwight (raking his hands thru his hair): “While I was covering the Grindle trial for the paper, I overheard a rumor…”

Wood (grinning): “That Rye really is built on a hell-mouth?”

Dwight (missing Wood’s comment he shook his head): “No, though that might make interesting copy for Halloween, I heard Lucas might be retiring soon.”

Robbie (leaning against the rail next to me): “So? He’s about the right age, isn’t he?”

My cousins reflected a similar sentiment back to Dwight. Wood and I exchanged uneasy looks.

Dwight (clearly still having only half his mind on our conversation): “That’s what I thought too. Which is why it seemed odd that the person repeating the rumor was warned they’d lose their job if word got out they blabbed. So I did some digging in the Harvest’s archive. Do you know how Lucas Reville got his start on the city council?”

We all shook our heads in unison.

Dwight: “He took over his Uncle’s seat midterm. Apparently said Uncle caught scarlet fever as a child and developed a significant heart murmur later in life. After it was discovered and on the advice of his doctor, he retired immediately. Making use of a little known bylaw that allowed a family member to assume his post mid-term.” 

Tad (making the connection Dwight laid out): “At least if Josie was crowned the Queen of Hell, she’d be out our hair, do you really think……..”

The niblings, hopped up on cayenne and chocolate, unintentionally cut Tad’s appalled question off by exiting the kitchen en masse. Jesse and Tad’s lot set about pleading their case to sleepover at Uncle and Aunt Pearl’s house while Susan and Dylan’s two started entreating Robbie, Ian, Dwight, Wood, and I to camp out with them in the living room. 

2.34.b Olly Olly Oxen Free

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(This was the lure Aunt Pearl placed before us to get my cousins and I to comply with her ‘photo op’!)

Tad was slicing himself a second piece of cake when I stole into the kitchen, returning my puckish grin he saluted me with a wave of the cake knife. Easing open the screen door, Squiddy and I slipped onto the back porch and quietly shut it behind me. Tucking in next to Wood, who’d stationed himself in the patio chair next to the dinner bell, he handed me a beer he’d had waiting at his elbow.

Wood (softening his voice): “You’re losing your touch Morticia, twenty minutes?”

Me (twisting the cap off my beer): “The small fry were harder to fool than my cousins.” 

Speaking of those five adorable lookouts, they’d shifted from shouting out hints to peppering my cousins with questions. 

Do you see her dad? / Uncle Ian, do you want to borrow my flashlight? / Did the blueberry bushes just move? I’m pretty sure I saw it move! / Can I try looking? Please! / Have you ever caught Auntie Morticia dad? 

Uncle (sounding amused): “Once or twice.”

Dylan (over his shoulder, his eyes still scanning the yard): “More than that!”

Me (blandly): “Not since we were twelve, and I figured out no one cool wears neon.”

My reply sent a laugh rippling across the line of lookouts – because both Dylan and Ian’s frolicking kitten t-shirts sported a neon hue – pink and orange, respectively. A minute ticked by, then two, but none of the kids registered who’d made the funny, which sent a corresponding ripple of stifled chuckles thru the adults seated behind them. About the time I figured the only way they’d work out I was literally standing under the dinner bell was by ringing it, my youngest niece grew bored with her peripheral participation in the game and turned around.

Standing still as a statue, I watched Ruby’s eyes wander down the line of dim adult silhouettes until they landed on Aunt Pearl – three seats away from me.

Ruby (trying a parental end-run): “Grandma, can we make special coco now?”

Aunt Pearl (a smile in her voice): “It’s a little late, dear, you need to ask your papa if it’s okay.”

Intent on securing a cup of cayenne laced dark chocolate coco, her gaze slid right over me and on to Tad standing just inside the screen door on my left. The other kids perked their ears up but continued to keep their eyes aimed forward.

Ruby (squinting): “Papa, can I have some special hot coco?”

Tad (trying hard to contain a laugh): “After you find your Aunt Morticia.”

Ruby (expressively exhaling): “But it’s taking forever! And dad won’t let us help…”

Smothering a wide grin, I leisurely raised my hand towards the leather strap attached to the bell’s clapper, blocking her view of Tad’s face for a few seconds. When she succumbed to a fit of giggles, I knew my hint had been successful.

Ruby (pointing at me still tittering): “Now, can I have some special coco?”

Aunt Pearl (getting up): “You can be my sous chef.”

This appointment instantly redirected the other nibling’s attention off the backyard and spawned a chorus of protests. (Aunt Pearl’s helper gets to lick the pan – after it’s cooled sufficiently.)

‘Why does she get to be the sous chef?’ / ‘She hasn’t found Auntie Morticia’ / ‘That’s not fair!’

Ruby (thrilled at the chance to cover herself in glory): “Oh yes, I did! She’s right there.”

Pandemonium broke out on the back porch as the kids followed Ruby’s pointer finger and realized they’d been outfoxed. The adults split a seam, the lookouts started hollering for my cousins, and I rang the bell ending the game. 

By the time my cousins slowly rambled across the lawn, joining the rest of us on the porch, the nieces and nephews were in a full-tilt-tizzy; trying to figure out how I’d snuck past them, how long I’d been standing behind them and why Squiddy covered in fir needles….Aunt Pearl, heading off the inquisition, brought a bit of peace to the proceedings by herding the niblings inside to help her concoct the hot cocoa. 

My cousins didn’t bother to ask how I’d outflanked them – the liberal distribution of dirt and detritus on Squiddy, and I told the story. Though they did give me a series of high-fives, attagirl’s and a few friendly pats for Squiddy. (I did divest myself of my cephalopod friend, draping him over the bracket holding the bell, I needed a reprieve from his woolly magnificent.)

So after a quick detour to collect our promised slices and scoops (Wood and Uncle following us in for their second helping of dessert and Tad for his third), we regrouped back on the veranda and started talking about this and that. All of us keeping a half an ear on the din emanating from the kitchen – the clanging of pots and pans, opening and closing of cupboard doors, smacking of spoons against the rim of metal bowls, laughing and chatter – as the kids prepared their treat.

After a short strolling down memory lane, namely other epic bouts of kick the can, we fell into a comfortable silence. 

Right up until I tossed a tiger into our midst.

Me (glowering at my beer): “You’ll never guess who I ran into the other night…”

2.34.a Kick The Can – Becker Style

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(Just a portion of the offerings from Family Feast Day!)

Other than six memorable hours spent helping Mr. Chen locate his lucky fishing lure, he swore he’d left in a rental boat at the bait shop at the lake – the rest of my week flew by in a blur of parking lots, newspapers, sandwiches, and thermoses of coffee. 

Even the Errant Orin encountered in Remembrance Park failed to cause even a flicker of electricity to arc across my toes. (Though unfortunately, that doesn’t mean as much as you’d think – as whizzing past the park at twenty-five mph on my way to pick up Mr. Fernandez, doesn’t provide the most reliable of reads.)

But never fear – things picked up again on Family Feast Day (Friday night) when I showed up at Uncle and Aunt Pearl’s wearing Squiddy (and grinned so hard I think I may have sprained a cheek muscle).

Aunt Pearl, inspired by Squiddy’s magnificence, decided an impromptu themed family photo was in order.

So following dinner (featuring bratwurst, baked beans, corn on the cob and potato salad – in case you’re curious), Aunt Pearl set about bringing her vision to life.

Her theme? International Cat Day.

Digging up from her treasure trove, that’s the envy of packrats everywhere, an array of cat-inspired outfits of varying mustiness. Jesse wore a headband with ears and a tail attached to his belt – leftover accessories from a Rye High’s production of Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. Dylan and Ian sported matching t-shirts embossed with glitter and frolicking kittens – samples she’d whipped up while subbing in a junior high Home Ec. class years ago. With some help from Jesse’s partner Tad and a palette of old Halloween makeup, Dwight got his face painted like Mister Geppetto’s cat Figaro from Pinocchio. And poor Robbie, who by virtue of being the only one who could fit into it without busting a seam, wore the tabby cat onesie. Aunt Pearl uses said onesie to keep her student’s tardiness in check (if you’re late more than three times in two weeks – you must don the onesie for an entire class. Thank heavens for Squiddy. Otherwise I’d have had to shimmy into it!)

Aunt Pearl motivated my reluctant cousins into donning their respective cat costumes by withholding dessert until after the successful execution of her photographic vision. Since she’d gone all out this week, making a dark chocolate cake and homemade raspberry ice-cream, we were moderately motivated to assemble in the back garden and model for her.

Aunt Pearl (waving her hands around in an effort to convey her meaning – which may or may not actually fall in line with her words): “Robbie, stop grimacing and give me a smile! Ian, turn a little to your left so we can see the front of your shirt! Jesse, your ears are crooked, straighten them, please!”

Jesse (hollering back at her): “Mom, if any of my students get ahold of this photo, it will undermine my authority in the classroom!”

Aunt Pearl (scoping us out thru her viewfinder): “Nonsense. This shows you have a sense of humor! Now straighten those ears!”

Jesse (growling good-naturedly at me while readjusting his headband): “If this picture makes it on mom’s holiday card this year….”

Me (finishing his sentence with a giggle): “…then you’ll never fail to consider placing your Black-and-Blue-Becker-Betting-Pool wager on me!”

I could practically feel my cousins roll their eyes in unison.

Aunt Pearl (looking thru her viewfinder): “Perfect! Don’t move! Now channel your inner feline and meow for the camera!”

*Click*Click*Click*

Aunt Pearl, pleased with her tableau, continued her documentation, while I felt several unexpected tugs on Squiddy. 

Me (thru stiff smiling lips): “Robbie, what on earth are you doing? You’re going to pull Squiddy off my head.”

Robbie (voice muffled): “I’m following Brando’s example and embracing my inner feline.”

Me: “What does that even mean?”

Ian (chuckling): “It means he’s nibbling on a tentacle.”

Me (placing one hand on Squiddy and using my other to try and detach my cousin): “Robbie, you brat! Stop that, I don’t want to smell your bad breath every time that arm comes near my face!”

Well, that was precisely the wrong thing to say. 

As one, my cousins turned towards me, each sporting the same impish glint in their eye, eliciting several squawks of aggravation from the direction of Aunt Pearl. Reading their intent – to nibble on and impart their own unique brand of halitosis into Squiddy’s yarned arms – I leaped forward to save my cephalopod friend. Thwarting Dylan’s initial attempt to prevent my escape, I deftly ducked under his bearhug and ran hell for leather across the yard – my cousins hot on my heels.

The boys may be quicker – but I’m craftier.

Plunging into the wilderness Uncle’s never gotten around to taming, I dodged and weaved around tree trunks and bushes, knowing their boughs would both slow the boys down and amplify the dimness of dusk. 

Hearing the closest pair of pursuing feet stumble, I took advantage of the split-second reprieve. Relying on muscle memory, I scrambled up my favorite tree, and into a bolthole, I’d used in my salad days. Though a hair snugger than I remembered, I still managed to secret myself into the heart of the tall tree where all the branches joined. 

Crouching ten feet above the ground, I strained my senses, trying to catch a hint of my cousins’ progress. While I did detect a shape or two moving slowly through the shadows below, I doubt I could have heard an elephant if it wandered on by. As the nieces and nephews – thrilled at watching us act silly and drive our parental unit to distraction – roared with laughter, called out encouragement, and shouted hints to the seekers.

We don’t see her dad! / Check around the shed! / You’ll find her Uncle Robbie! / Try by the rhododendron! / I’m guarding the bell for you guys! / Don’t think you guys are getting out of the family photo that easily!

That last one was Aunt Pearl if you hadn’t guessed. 

It didn’t take a mathematician to figure the odds of me ringing the dinner bell – with five seekers on my tail plus five pint-sized lookouts ready to rat me out – were not good.

However, this wasn’t my first rodeo.

2.21.b How Robin Hood Ruined My Day

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Me (thru clenched teeth): “What about that Brownie Stealing Bench?” 

Aunt Pearl (lips twitching upwards in response): “Do you remember how she earned that nickname, dear?”

Pondering her hint, I took a bite of a crinkle cookie and nearly choked to death on it when the memory Aunt Pearl was referring to flooded my mind in full technicolor splendor (having a crumb go down the wrong pipe might also have played a part). 

The summer I turned thirteen, my Uncle got a wild hair one night and took Aunt Pearl, my cousins, Wood, and I to a drive-in movie. We were initially bummed that we’d missed The Creature From The Black Lagoon by a week and were stuck watching Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood. 

We’d seen the Disney version with all its singing and dancing, how different could it be? Turns out very. Watching the silver screen archery tricks and swashbuckling, we were soon spellbound, our disappointment of missing Gill-Man entirely forgotten.

(We were so enthralled in fact we forgot to bicker, squabble or pummel each other – bring peace & quiet into our midsts for the first time in a week, which was probably the point of the entire endeavor.)

The very next morning, we transformed the woods behind our house into Sherwood Forest. We into its Merry Me. Then we spent the rest of the summer questing and perfecting our swordplay. (BTW – both Uncle and Aunt Pearl steadfastly refused to arm a pack of six teens with bows and arrows – no matter how much we pleaded our case – pointing out our homemade wooden swords caused more than enough mayhem.) 

When September rolled around, we retired our sabers and replaced them with pencils. While my cousins and Wood moved on to other extracurricular activities (ballet in Wood’s case apparently), I remained stubbornly fixed on Robin Hood. Devoting all my free time to the devouring of every book, the Librarian Extraordinaire Mrs. Schmit dug out of the stacks for me. Somewhere around the twelfth book into my self-imposed reading regimen, it happened…

I watched Josie Reville steal Summer Yates’ brownie.

Seizing my chance to foil a real dastardly deed, I reported the crime to King Richard the Lionhearted, aka my homeroom teacher Mrs. Sable. 

(Snitches might get stitches, but if I’d attempted to thwart the Great Brownie Heist on my own? Josie would have sicced her sycophants – Agata Canetti, Larissa Cardenes, Thomi Margazoitis & Kiyomi Kimura – on me. So I opted for the possibility of stitches later to the guarantee of stitches now.)

Turns out, I’d misjudged Mrs. Sable – she wasn’t King Richard – but his devious brother Prince John in disguise. Instead of righting this very obvious wrong, she cut me off mid-story and scolded me (in front of the entire cafeteria) for tattling. When I asked what I was supposed to have done, instead, she expanded her dressing-down to include whining.

Then sentenced me to detention for the rest of the week.

Heaping insult onto injury? Summer’s brownie was never recovered, and Josie got off scot-free. (She snickered at me from behind Mrs. Sable’s back the entire time I was being told off.)

Yeah. 

So my dumb-ass-adult-self quietly accepted my termination after eighteen plus years of employment (plus another seven years of volunteering) from Little Ben because I was afraid Big Ben might think me a tattle-tale if I called to ask, “What the hell man?” When his son let me go.

After Aunt Pearl finished pounding my back, she pushed her mug of coffee my way – to help wash away the offending crumb from my craw. 

Me (rasping): “Well crap, of all the stupid reasons…”

Aunt Pearl: “Glad I could help you find an answer, dear.”

Me (saluting her with her mug): “Thanks.”

Perhaps now, if I ever get a hold of Big Ben, I’ll feel less tetchy while talking to him.

Pushing up from the table, I check the timer – two minutes left. Hoping to distract my Aunt away from her usual refrain pertaining to Nevermore and now FLYT (i.e., I was too smart to be a Caretaker or a Chauffeur), I placed a bowl under the stand mixer.

Aunt Pearl (falling for it hook, line and sinker): “You’re welcome…do you need help making the frosting dear?”*

Me (keeping my smile on the inside): “No, but I could use a ride to the library when I’m done. I don’t want to dump the cake on the ground walking there.”

Aunt Pearl (visibly disappointed): “Oh, the cake’s not for dessert tonight?”**

Me (controlling my lips): “No, Aunt Pearl, I made you guys cookies.”

Aunt Pearl (rising from her chair): “Let me know when you’re ready, and I’ll drive you.”

Hiding her “heartbreak” over losing the prospect of cake rather poorly, Aunt Pearl drug herself (and several krumkakes) out the door to get ready. 

Her exit cued the buzz of my timer. 

Pulling on the oven mitts, I let loose the broad grin that had threatened during our last exchange, and carefully removed the Orange Blossom Honey cupcakes from the oven. 

*(Aunt Pearl Subtext: Can I “sample” a spoonful or five for you, dear?)

**(Subtext of her disappointment: You’re not leaving the cake here unattended, so I can nibble on it until your Uncle gets home. Then blame a family of mice, who’s conveniently scampered away into the aether, for the missing portion?)

2.04 The Black-And-Blue-Becker-Betting-Pool

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Familiar Voice One: “Did you pick her?”

Click.

Familiar Voice Two: “Not sure I remember who I put my money on. Its’ been over a year since the last payout.”

Click. Click. Click.

Familiar Voice Three: “Someone’s going to get paid! She’s the dark horse.”

Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.

Familiar Voice Four: “Can’t wait until Dylan gets here, and Dad opens the envelope.”

Click. Click. Click. Click.

Me (cracking my left eye open just a slit): “You are going to wear out the shutter on that camera.”

Robbie (unrepentant): “Morticia! Did we wake you?”

My cousins (in descending order Jesse, Dylan, Ian, Dwight, and Robbie) agree with Wood that the nickname Morticia fits me better than my given one of Phoebe.

Me (staring blearily up at four out of five of my cousins crowding around the bed): “Yes. What are you guys doing here? And why is Dylan on his way?”

Jesse (continuing to snap pictures of me): “Mom texted everyone that the Black-and-Blue-Becker-Betting-Pool was paying out today!” 

Fantastic.

The Black And Blue Becker Betting Pool is one of our clan’s seriously cracked institutions, inspired by Aunt Pearl and observed by my cousins, their spouses, and me. 

On Thanksgiving Day six years ago, while arranging us in that year’s woodland-inspired family photo, Aunt Pearl let out a gusty sigh and thanked us for finally giving her her-heart’s-desire. We were baffled. None of us had any announcements pertaining to grandkids, promotions, or winning a marathon. So what did we give her? Besides each of us wearing (with minimal grousing) a sweater sporting a cuddly woodland creature on its chest? (At least she’d given up making us dress up as the woodland creatures. I feel sorry for my nieces and nephews.) 

The Answer: A group photo unmarred by bruises, gauze, or plaster-encased limbs.

(Personally, I don’t believe the addition of crutches, slings, or the occasional brace really detracts from these tableaus of mortification she insists on and includes in her annual Christmas letters – but I digress.)

My cousins and I thought her claim pure exaggeration. During dinner, we went round and round with Aunt Pearl, until in a fit of exasperation, she pulled out every photo album in the house (there were a dauntingly large number of them) and challenged us to find single unblemished holiday, any holiday would due, photo. Which, much to my Aunt’s disgust (and due to her excellent pie, Uncle’s smooth bourbon and the overall level of tryptophan), evolved into a bout of reminiscing over all the stupid shirt we did which unintentionally mucked up Aunt Pearl’s carefully planned and themed snapshots. 

Idle speculation from Jesse’s partner Tad compounded her indignation when he wondered who’d be the next one to mess up a family photo. The question caused instantaneous Bedlam when we all pointed at each other and loudly declared why our chosen-one would be “The One” to complete the deed. 

Then Dwight came up with a brilliant idea. 

To prove who guessed correctly and therefore won – we’d write our predictions down, put them in an envelope, seal it up and wait until one of us showed for a holiday sporting a cane, band-aid, or splint. To make things interesting, each of us stuck in a hundred bucks in, thus establishing the Black And Blue Becker Betting Pool (in case you’re curious, Dylan triggered the first payout by showing up the following Easter with his left arm encased in a cast).

The crucial detail here? You must be present to win.

It doesn’t seem like Aunt Pearl totally bought whatever Wood’s explanation was last night – so she called in the cavalry. 

Me (struggling to untangle myself from the blankets): “But Chinese New Year isn’t until next week.”

Uncle refuses to celebrate New Year’s Eve or Day, claiming seven days isn’t enough time to recover from his Christmas hangover. (I think he got tired of the squabbling over who had to don Baby New Years’ diaper for the photo.) So we now celebrate Chinese New Year with our neighbors, the Lu’s, instead (much to everyone’s satisfaction). 

Ian (drily): “You think that shiner will be gone by then?” 

Me (mumbling): “Maybe if I put a steak on it?”

Finally prevailing over the blankets and stiff muscles I sat up, the collective hiss from the four boys cut off the rest of my reply. Jesse even stopped snapping pictures (we record every injury responsible for a payout, it’s not as weird as it sounds). Looking down, I realized the scoop neck tank I wore to bed last night gave them a fair idea of the sheer square footage my bruise covered.

Dwight (recovering first): “You’re going to need an entire cow to cover that sucker.”

Robbie (sarcasm dripping off his words): “What happened? Purple hair too passé now? Decided to dye your skin instead?” 

Me (rolling my eyes): “No. A colossal land squid engineered on the Island of Doctor Cousteau attacked me! The Doctor set the enormous invertebrate on my trail after I uncovered his dastardly plan to steal Rye’s entire water reservoir to create an aquatic inland base. Of course, I foiled Cousteau’s evil agenda, but not before he told Squiddy to ink me! Fighting him is how I got banged up and dyed.”

Several beats past while my cousins considered the merits of my explanation.

Jesse (laughing): “The use of a historical figure, a cephalopod, and transforming a classic science fiction story to suit was inspired! Nine out of ten stars!”

Aunt Pearl may have called in the calvary – but we’ve hurt ourselves enough over the years that we don’t fess up to how it actually happened – because it’s usually really dull. Walked into a bulldozer while texting. Tripped on our own shoelace, dog, or second base. Got punched in the eye by a three-year-old. None of these make good stories. So unless we lose consciousness or hospitalization occurs, we don’t fess up to how a payout worthy injury actually occurs.

That being said, I was pushing the limits of the acceptable non-disclosure range of injuries. 

Which explains my cousin’s current close quarters hovering.

Me (smiling): “Only nine? Well, then I’m not going to lift up my shirt so you can record the magnificence of Squiddy’s inking!”

This was met with a chorus of boos and laughter.