Wednesday Words/Fiction: The Messy Heart of the Matter

It wasn’t like they were meeting royalty. Teddy told Lola to stop fussing in front of the bathroom mirror and “let’s get on with it, you’re clean and combed” and he was barely 9 years old, too smart for his own good. He had little patience with his sister’s (15 years old last week) rituals and wished fervently for a brother before another year passed. Fat chance, the odds seemed against it. If anyone else got born, it’d more likely be a she; there were more girls than guys in their line up.

Mother got as done up as she’d ever get and was waiting downstairs. Dad was likely checking his bristly mustache a last time in the round flower etched mirror, standing too close to their mom. Lola could hear her from the bathroom: “Hands to self, now, Art”, when likely all he did was put arms around her for a quick squeeze. Lola once thought she and Teddy must have been adopted; Mother was not the cushy sweetie type. She was a supervisor at a huge shoe factory. Dad was a freelance cartoonist for various periodicals and a singing waiter on week-ends at Cutter’s Steak and Seafood. What did they expect when they met? Everything was a joke waiting to happen for Dad; she obviously went along with it for the long haul.

“She’s going to give me the ole one-two boot one of these days, kids,” he’d say with a mock sad face. “Those big ugly ones right out of Brown’s Shoe factory.” He nudged them toward a hardee har har and they’d exit the room.

Luckily, his cartoons were much better–few words, great drawings. Mother admired him for his talents, as he did hers. And he was a good father.

Lola pressed down her springy waves and surmised her reflection. Her best navy sweater and the ugly gray polyester ankle pants and flats that pinched her left big toe–for what?

This day came about because Dad had been claimed and called upon by Madeleine Taylor Froheimer, apparently his lost great-aunt. There had been stories abut her, how she’d run away from home at 17 to marry some bigwig she’d met at the cafe where she’d worked. It was a scandal; the guy was 28, already a successful businessman. They married, to everyone’s surprise, and moved to Chicago, which was a long away away from Missouri in everyone’s small minds. Madeleine did not keep in touch after she was disowned. She lived one life and the rest of the family lived another–everyone was poor to improving yearly to modestly secure. (Lola guessed they fit in the last category though they still rented–a nice enough–duplex on Gorman Street.)

Three years ago Madeleine’s husband died, likely due to complicated, long nights and rich dinners out and the stress of being so important. Then she came back to the hometown to see if anyone was still around and maybe considered her family. Not many were around, and those that were, were unimpressed now, or plain put off–did she offer them money all those years they were sweating the bills, did she send them holiday goodies or fruit baskets when in the hospital? No. Did they care if she was home again? Please.

But she located Art Taylor, her great nephew. Or, rather, she was in line behind him at the old corner pharmacy, a nostalgic gesture since she didn’t live in that area, anymore. When his name was called, she fluttered inside and out with astonishment, relief and a surge of nerves. Arthur Taylor. Her brother’s son’s son….was that right?…Yes. Her brother who stopped speaking to her, so disgusted was he that she eloped with an older man, a total stranger. She’d heard he got a job in Fort Worth and was nearing retirement. Not much chance of seeing him in Missouri or elsewhere.

But Arthur, maybe.

She tugged at his sleeve gently. He half-turned, a quizzical look on his craggy face.

She ventured forth, sonorous voice floating to him. “Arthur Taylor…that was my great nephew’s name…!”

A few customers looked her over well, then him. She wore a dark fur of some sort, nylons, a deep pink dress, black heels. He smiled, stood taller, then held up a finger. Frowning slightly–was she for real?– he got his medicine. Heart stuff, she recognized it, the Taylor family curse. She was next in line–antacid pills– so he took a seat in a plastic chair along the wall. Looked up at her dumbfounded. 

As they walked down an aisle together, she updated him. briefly.

“Well, I already heard,” he said amiably, mustache twitching in agreement. “Sorry for your loss. Mom mentioned it.”

“Did she snarl about it? Or refuse to say my name?”

He laughed. She had, in fact, snarled about it. She wasn’t interested in meeting “low-down, snooty Maddie”–but, then, his mom wasn’t interested in much but crocheting, eating, and gossiping about her senior housing cohorts. He wasn’t close to her. But Art was excited to meet up with this great aunt. His whole family then was invited to her condo on the river the following week-end. “Like a pre-holiday ice-breaker,” she had said which he didn’t get, but why not go?

“Oh, I was going to ask about your father, my nephew… he’s still around, I presume–how can I reach him?” she inquired as they parted.

“He’s about three hours from here now. Good luck, he’s been drinking lately.”

She softly grunted; it was clearly not news.

The next Saturday afternoon Lola, and her brother and parents spruced up and piled into the van just as a cold rain was dumped. Art knew Alison, his wife, was agreeing to go out of respect for family ties; she wasn’t a social person, really. Teddy and Lila were more than curious. Great-Aunt Maddie was almost famous in the family. And rich, maybe.

The condo was a contemporary behemoth that seemed more like a penthouse snug upside a few others overlooking the river, near the aging, status-soaked marina. Art recalled when several creaking houseboats and docks had been relocated and ostentatious condos were erected; there was public outcry but no matter, they were built. And here he was setting foot in them.

“Fifteen stories up and a rooftop garden,” Teddy whispered as they rode a partly glass elevator. “I read up on it. Only one other condo other side of the building up here. And she has the views! Might be a penthouse?”

Lola was also fully taken by them as they ascended. How far the gaze could penetrate the misty treeline and beyond. It made her feel like she was in a different country. She wondered if they could see to Illinois from the top. She wondered if she could take off her flats upon entry, and planned a decent selfie from the topmost floor. She shook off the rain before her dad rang the doorbell which sounded like deep chimes, a European church chiming, maybe.

“Welcome!”

Great-Aunt Maddie, elegant in a silky persimmon and lemon paisley caftan (Lola described it thus to her best friend) and her silver hair in a tidy chignon, opened the door immediately to shake everyone’s hand. Hers were surprisingly warm and strong. Her small feet wore gold slippers and she slid over the wood floors after taking their coats and hanging them on a brass coat stand. They were led to the long, open and bright living room. The rain did nothing to take away from the flooding of light. The ceilings went on forever. The rooms could hold hundreds, she imagined. Teddy elbowed her and they smiled.

Their dad had been stopped by the art work hanging in the grey ceramic tiled foyer, but caught up. He would rather just wander about looking at her art pieces than chat but sat himself beside Alison, his kids at either end. Teddy, though, required stern coaxing to peel himself from the west wall of windows.

“Sunsets must be incredible,” Teddy mumbled.

Maddie laughed. “They are! You must come back for a viewing if you are so inclined. Now tell me who you are and and something about yourselves. I have coffee brewing and will bring out cakes in a bit.”

The air smelled sumptuous Lola thought, and then, pleased with her pick of adjective, thought of waves of satin that smelled of coffee. It was that kind of air in there.

Who says if you are so inclined, Alison wondered as she smiled at her son’s observation. Who asks for personal information when you first meet?

“Well, you met me,” Art offered. “I do cartoons that help me make a pretty decent living. And I sing.”

“I’ve seen a few. Amusing and canny, and you’re very skilled at drawing!” She beamed at him. “I like to draw but only for myself. And you sing? What sort of singing?”

His family looked at him and back at Maddie. She had classical music turned low on stereo system.

“Popular music,” he said, “old big band standards, some lighter, more recent fare…well, eighties and nineties. I like some opera but am not good at even at pretending I can sing that. I tried it at home once and everyone banged on the bathroom door until I gave it up. My audience prefers the standards.”

“He sings at a restaurant, he’s a waiter on week-ends, and sings as he delivers orders,” Teddy offered, a hand gesturing dismissively. “A steak and seafood joint.”

“But it’s a nice place,” Alison said, throwing Teddy a warning look. “He has a good solid baritone, so they say. I know I like it.” She patted Art’s knee.

“I think that’s lovely–an artist and musician in the family. I’ll come hear you at–“

“Cutter’s, it’s called,” Lola said. “The songs get boring but no one asks him to stop, a good sign.”

Maddie gave up a light laugh. “And so–you are…?”

“Lola Lee Taylor, 15, tenth grade, and I like creating collages out of odds and ends and playing basketball. I can cook, I guess, if you like Italian food and certain cookies. And this is my brother.” She pointed at him and thought too late, never polite to point.

“Sounds promising. Fun. I do like Italian. And cookies.” Maddie leaned forward, hands clasped and in her lap. Her caftan rustled softly. Lola noticed that her earrings were gold, hung with tiny bells that swished and jingled.

“I can speak for myself. Teddy Taylor here.” He raised his hand as if being counted as present. “I think Theo sounds better–at least when I’m older. That’s short for Theodore. I am into bugs and chemical reactions. I prefer spring, summer and fall to winter because I’m all about being in the field.”

“He means literally,” Lola interjected. “He takes his insect collecting stuff out every spare hour and brings back exotic, odd stuff. Dissects bug wings and things. A bit strange, I guess, but generally alright for a little brother.” Was that an unsolicited defense of him? Lola blinked.

Art said proudly, “An aspiring scientist. And an athlete and collage artist. We have good kids.”

Alison was studying Maddie’s feet as slyly as possible. She’d secretly wished for gold shoes when she was a kid: utterly impractical, beautiful, just made for leisure or parties.

Maddie got up. “The coffee must be done. Water or pop or iced tea for you kids?”

“Sweet tea with ice, please,” Teddy answered.

“I’d love coffee with cream and sugar,” Lola said.

Her mother was about to deny her but her dad stopped that with a hand on her forearm and winked. Alison could not resist his winks.

“Can I help?” Alison said, but Lola got up first even though the answer from the kitchen around a corner was a negative.

It was all white, spotless, sparkling. Even cupboards, with brass pulls. Copper pans hung above the stove top. The deep counter tops were white with a golden flecks. Pendulous lights dangled from the high ceiling, shedding a warm glow–were there any other sorts of ceilings and light in this place? There was a skylight, even, and rain drummed on it, rhythmical and silvery and sheer.

Maddie held out an oval shiny tray of perfect, one-bite cakes, colorful in a muted way.

“Petit fours–do you know of them?” Maddie said.

“Only what I’ve seen in magazines. I always wondered how you made these!”

“Me, too!” She grinned. “These are from a bakery downtown. I don’t cook much or well. I might need lessons.”

“I’ll teach you…well, I could that is if you– I mean…” This woman probably had chefs come in, that’s why she didn’t now how to cook.

Maddie looked at her with a friendly, appraising gaze. “I bet you could. I just might take you up on that, Lola. Especially cookie baking–haven’t done that since I was a teenager. How I miss making cut-out sugar cookies for Christmas…I’ll get coffee cups filled, then you can come back to help me, okay?”

Lola did as told, came back and retrieved a black lacquered tray with three cups and a tall blue glass of iced tea. Maddie had the tray with cream and sugar and spoons. She set it down and they both served each person.

Alison watched all this with chin hanging. Since when did Lola offer to do anything much serve people? But it was good, it was polite and well done. She was impressed. But Maddie was a definitely too high brow for them. And Alison’s pantyhose were tight and itchy, her feet tired out by the heels.

After they’d sipped and enjoyed the rich tasty cakes, and oohed and aahed over more views, Maddie resumed the intros.

“Alison, could you share some of what you do or like? You have to be a patient, fun-loving person to be with Art–he is a bit, well arty, I gather?”

They got a kick out of that. Alison let out a long breath and jumped in.

“Not sure about being a fun person, but I supervise at Brown Shoe Company. Have been there eighteen years now. I hope to make manager soon; I like being a leader, working with a team.”

“That’s interesting, a long career there. What do you enjoy outside of work?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She looked over at her family members. “I like to read. Thrillers and mysteries. I like suspense movies. I try to take good care of my family.”

“You like to go on long bike rides, Mom, you have endurance,” Teddy said.

“You love gardening our little plot, too,” Art noted.

Lola thought about it a moment. “You make pretty Christmas ornaments–I know Dad helps with design–each year.” She smiled at her mother, then Maddie. “She started on some last week after Thanksgiving, the best yet.” And she realized it was true and that she loved seeing them on the tree.

Alison’s cheeks grew warm; she looked down with a smile.

Maddie sat across from them in her favorite velvet wing-back chair and felt something she hadn’t felt in awhile: delight. She liked these people. She liked them much more than she even dared hope.

“All admirable.” She put her coffee cup on a side lamp table. “My turn, right? You know I left home young, ran away with a business man who was over ten years my senior. I had an adventurous streak. My family and friends said I was wild but I wasn’t all that. I just needed something other than what they did. Marty and I shared an instant passion and I thought it was love, would have followed him anywhere. Chicago seemed far away and he had money, enough to show me a different life than the hard one I’d had with an alcoholic father and withdrawn mother. Martin Froheimer was a stern, very smart man who let me see his gentler, romantic side. We had quite the social life, lovely homes, traveled. But he was gone often on business. It got lonely, I can tell you. And as time went on he got more stern–ornery, to be honest, and then a bit mean…Anyway. That’s how things went.”

She paused to collect her thoughts, smoothed back lustrous hair, rested her thin hands on the arms of the chair and sank back. The family waited, surprised at her frankness. Alison looked away, a little embarrassed at Maddie’s self-disclosure but Art sat up, attuned to undercurrents of sadness. Pain not openly admitted before and there it was, popping out now.

“We talked of divorce, but decided to put it off for our daughter’s sake. Then he got sick. Pancreatic cancer. And he died shortly after.” She sat up again and stared out the wide windows, lifted her head. “That was two years ago. I needed a change. So here I am–for now, anyway. Lizzie, our daughter, lives in Amsterdam. We will see.”

“Wow,” Lola said. “That’s a lot. Maybe you can rest up here.”

Teddy squinted at the aging woman. “Yeah. Good you moved.”

“Well, Great-Aunt Maddie…I–“

“Please, just Maddie will be fine. I feel less aged than that.”

“Well, I sure am glad you ran into me. I wondered if maybe you’d like to come by our place for dinner soon.”

Alison shifted. “Or we could take you out.”

“I’d like that–dinner at your home. I was hoping we’d get on alright. And I feel that we really will. All this–“she opened her arms to indicate the finely appointed rooms–“is just this, but I’m only Maddie, you great-aunt, you’ll see.” Her amused smile warmed them.

They paused at that thought. She was different but, then, so were they.

“I think we should all go to the Christmas Village, it’s so pretty there, especially if it snows well enough to cover buildings and pathways, ” Lola said, cheered at the memory of years prior.

“She might not like the smelly animals and paths that get muddy,” Teddy muttered.

“Of course she will,” Art enthused. What was not to like about the corny, lovely Christmas Village?

Maddie felt the steamy heat of tears behind each eye threaten her composure and she blinked them away. They barely knew one another, even if it was off to a good start. She was certainly not going to ruin it with any bawling. “I’d love to go. Really. I can’t recall when I last tromped in the dirt and was around smelly animals. And a simulated village–it sounds wonderful.”

“The decorations and lighting are excellent,” Art said, encouraged.

“Festive is the word,” Teddy added as he got up to gaze at the soon-to-set sun. “A festival of Christmas!”

“We could make a day of it, have dinner after,” Lola said and went to stand by her brother, taking in the expansive view of the city and river.

Alison relaxed and gave a welcoming smile to her husband’s great-aunt. Now hers, she supposed. “Would you join us next week-end, then?”

Maddie nodded and rose. They got up and got their coats.

“Good to have you here, Maddie.” Art gave her a quick hug; she held on a moment longer, her thin arms strong about him.

On the way back down, seeing the lit up city landscape rolling, open and beautiful from their vantage point they fell silent. Teddy felt annoyed he hadn’t asked to see the rooftop garden but believed he would get to see it yet; he wondered over the insects that lived outside a luxurious condo. Lola imagined the gleaming kitchen steaming up from pasta and sausages bubbling away in savory sauce. But she didn’t get that selfie shot–yet. Alison thought how funny it was that a woman who manufactured sturdy, ordinary shoes knew someone who owned golden ones for such delicate feet–and that Maddie was likely a decent human being.

Art felt gratified that he knew the truth or at least more of it, and that he liked her a lot. It was mutual, too. They’d share this Christmas together–she wouldn’t have to be alone up there in the clouds. Then he started planning his next cartoon. It’d be about family ties. It’d be funny, of course, only more so. He might frame and give the original to her. He wouldn’t care if she put it in her bathroom or hung it outside among bushes on the rooftop–it wouldn’t be an investment like the expensive art. It was all the same to him, and a good inside joke; he’d be quite pleased that it was hung there for her.