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Promises, Lies and Jelly Doughnuts by George Talbot © (Word Count 3306)

In Short Story on October 31, 2011 at 5:57 am

“James, there’s got to be a woman out there who will marry you. Try the want ads, and promise me — you’ll take care of my sister when I’m gone.” The last things my mother asked of me before she died. Find a wife, and care for mom’s sister, Miss Madeline Huntsberry. Both requests, blue-sky reaches.

Nonetheless, I asked three women out the next year. One accepted. Helen Langford. A forensic specialist. She made phone calls from the lobby throughout act one of an Annie Get Your Gun revival, excited that maggots in her most recent ‘client’ found behind a Fredericksburg convenience store could help pinpoint an exact time-of-death. Things didn’t work out between us. Never saw or talked to her again. And no call back from the tarot card reader with a perm I met at Pizza Hut, or the woman whose blind Chihuahua bit me. “Antoine, you and I aren’t a good match.”

I agreed.

The second promise nearly killed me, but I began once-a-month Sunday trips to have lunch with Aunt Madeline. Three hours each way. Richmond to her farm overrun with underbrush on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay. “Oh James, it’s good to see you. I look at the life in your face, and I see my sister, passed, and then my inevitable checking-out off this earth doesn’t scare me. Someday there will only be you and Luther left of our family.”

Luther. Aunt Madeline’s cat. A polydactyl with twenty-three toes, and a fondness for vodka and jelly doughnuts. Polydactyls supposedly have magical powers. They can walk forward by walking sideways. Maybe due to their additional toes, but in Luther’s case it was all about booze.

Aunt Madeline had a way to go before checking-out off this earth. I told her she had a young mind, and a girlish love of life. She’d smile, and though a thorough nut-case, I liked hearing her giggle.

“Tell me about the woman in your life. Your mother and I worried-so you’d never start a family of your own.”

“Aunt Madeline, I’ve come to hear about you, not to talk about me.”

“Quit the poppycock and balderdash. Tell Luther and me about your femme présente.”

“She’s a doctor.”

“A doctor. Gracious sakes alive. What’s her name?”

“Helen Langford.”

“Lovely. Bred and schooled in Virginia?”

“Yes,” I said. Luther sat on my aunt’s lap, finishing a crabmeat salad, spitting out anything resembling celery. I continued to lie. “Helen did post-graduate work in Switzerland while training for the Olympics. She won two bronze medals in skiing, a silver medal in swimming, and was nominated the same year for a Nobel Prize for research using fly larvae in forensic medicine.”

“Fascinating. Do bring her with you the next time you come to visit. Luther and I want to meet her. We’ll all go for a drive in the Oldsmobile.”

The Oldsmobile. A sky-blue and cream 1953 2-door convertible Ninety-Eight. I’d never seen the thing move. It sat in the barn with a bunch of pigeons, but she and Luther supposedly took drives everywhere. When I went back for lunch a month later, they’d been to a state park in the mountains of Tennessee. “Remarkable outing. Luther and I saw a momma black bear teaching her cubs how to fish.”

I told her Helen couldn’t come on my next scheduled Sunday visit because she had to attend an emergency medical commission meeting in Singapore. Maybe I said Romania. I’ve forgotten what I said, but the important thing — Aunt Madeline bought my story.

“You will promise to bring Helen with you next month, won’t you James?”

“I promise.”

In mid-June, Aunt Madeline broke an ankle falling off a ladder. Her lawyer, Theodore Bronson, called me. Hated him when he was my little league baseball coach. “She took a tumble this afternoon, but she’s back home with a temporary live-in nurse. She was trying to rescue a baby space alien stuck in a gutter.”

“A baby space alien?”

“Turns out it was a baby bird, but Miss Huntsberry does have an odd manner of expressing herself. I’d like to meet with you at your first available opportunity. You’ll have to sign-off on expensing the nurse, and maybe the time has come to consider Miss Huntsberry’s move to a continued living environment. She’s fine for the meantime. Give her a call. Lauren Baxter is the nurse. You’ll remember her. The two of you were in grade school with my Teddy junior.”

Of course I remembered Lauren, and I remembered Attorney Bronson’s Teddy junior with his ironed blue jeans. Lauren drew properly proportioned reindeer at Christmas on the bulletin boards either side of the double doors into the cafeteria. I called Aunt Madeline.

“Miss Huntsberry’s residence.”

“This is James Bradford, Miss Huntsberry’s nephew.”

“James — It’s Lauren Baxter. I’m helping your aunt for a couple of weeks. Hold on a second. She wants to talk to you. Good hearing your voice after all these years.”

“James?”

“Yes, Aunt Madeline.”

“Oh James, thank goodness you called. People are starting to call me cuckoo. Promise you’ll help me. You will help me, James, won’t you?

“I promise, and I’m planning on seeing you this Sunday,” although nowhere near my authentic plan. I wanted to get a new artificial ficus tree to replace the artificial ficus tree I killed by washing it with Soft-Scrub Extra with twice the cleaning power of Clorox. All the leaves turned white. “I’m bringing doughnuts and a bottle of vodka for Luther. Is there anything else you need? How’s your ankle?”

“Itchy. I think some lost crickets are inside the cast, but things could be worse. That little bird could still be trapped in the gutter. I feel like a ninny not being able to walk on my own two feet — James dearest?”

“Yes, Aunt Madeline?”

“Make sure some of the doughnuts are jelly filled, and James?”

“Yes?”

“Maybe don’t think of bringing your Helen this time. It might be fun for you and Lauren to spend some time getting reacquainted.”

I met with Attorney Bronson the next Saturday afternoon after checking into The Whispering Pines Motor Lodge, an overnight stay in town unbeknownst to my aunt and Lauren. I didn’t want to give them an inkling I was working undercover as some kind of counter operative meeting with Bronson. No need to alarm them. Faye, the motel’s owner, gave me room 100. She wore a flowered housecoat, lots of lipstick, and said my necktie looked ritzy. The Ghost Riders Motorcycle Club had block-booked rooms 110 down to the dumpster just off the corner of room 150. A Benny introduced himself and his wife, Beth. They offered me a beer. “Maybe later. I’ve got an appointment with a lawyer.”

Bronson’s building was unchanged with its antebellum columns and thick trails of English ivy creeping up the red clay brick exterior. The same way I remembered it when I’d go collect my fifty cents each week after mowing his lawn. “My concern hovers about her overall welfare,” Mr. Bronson said. “It’s time you step up to your power-of-attorney responsibilities, and furthermore, I recommend your aunt be relocated to a facility capable of providing around-the-clock care.”

“That would kill her.”

“Kill her?” His voice hadn’t changed either. Still sounded like a Little League coach wondering if my aunt wasn’t another fly ball I’d missed in deep right field. “Miss Huntsberry is falling into a clinically defined state of dementia. Answer me this — are you willing to personally care for, or are you capable of paying for in-home supervision on a twenty-four hour a day basis to insure your aunt’s ever apparent needs? Are you willing to change sheets after she’s relieved herself while taking a nap, and are you willing to witness tearful fights every eight hours when she repeatedly gags on another handful of pills?”

“No.”

“James. I knew your mom and dad as well as I knew my own parents. They loved your aunt with all her quirks and idiosyncrasies, but love isn’t the issue. It’s doing what’s best for Miss Huntsberry. She’s up in years, and isn’t safe being alone, nor can she afford a long term live-in nurse. Who’s to blame if one day she ambles off to take a swim in the bay, and never comes back?”

Maybe he was right. Two-three years ago Aunt Madeline and her leaky skiff attempted the rescue of an injured dolphin. The Coast Guard had to retrieve both of them.

“She’s sitting on sixty acres over there, with plenty of prime waterfront frontage. She doesn’t need it. What she needs is continuous care, air-conditioning, good food, and a chance to relax with a little more cash on hand. Look over this prospectus I’ve put together and then tell me the best thing for Miss Huntsberry isn’t to sell, and move into someplace comfortable and caring — someplace like Martinsdale. It’ll be a blessing for both of you. Lets spend some more time talking another day, but I’ve got to run. My wife and I are expected for a soiree over at The Club.”

“What’s Martinsdale?”

“It’s all in the prospectus. Good day James. Nice to see you again.”

It was six o’clock when I got back to The Whispering Pines with two pounds of legalese pages. The Ghost Riders were having a cookout. A guy with a salt-and-pepper handlebar mustache insisted I have dinner with them. The Sizzler. An investment banker and vintage car collector from Fairfax. “We like this place because it’s one of the few real motels left with barbecue pits and picnic tables. What brings you here?”

I told him I’d be visiting an elderly relative the next morning. Being James Bradford from Richmond worked for fifteen minutes, then Sizzler started calling me Jimmy B. Nice guy. We talked about the Oldsmobile.

“I’d like to take a look at it. If your aunt ever needs any help keeping it going or wants to sell, give me a call. I’ll get a couple of my guys down here to give it a once-over.”

About eight o’clock, Sizzler’s wife, Susan, sat with us. A speed reader contracting her comprehension talents to House Representative and Congressional types on Capitol Hill. She saw my stack of papers and offered to go through them. “Stuff like this is gravy compared to a thousand-plus pages of newly introduced Appropriation Committee Expenditure Recommendations.”

By nine I was eating roasted marshmallows. By ten I said goodnight to the Ghost Riders. It took Susan twenty minutes to read Attorney Bronson’s stuff. In a nutshell, he suggested my aunt was off her rocker because she told doctors she rescued an alien out of a gutter, thought she had a magic cat named Luther, and took drives with it in a defunct car the entire town knew had been unable to move for years. Susan told me to read the last five pages carefully. My aunt’s property was worth lots of money. “Bronson has an agenda,” she said, “and a fond propensity to overuse semi-colons.”

At six the next morning, I waved good-bye to the Ghost Riders, standing barefoot in my pajamas outside room 100. Sizzler said “Good meeting you, Jimmy B. Stay in touch.” Minutes later, my 4-door Honda with a missing hubcap and I were the only things left on the cracked asphalt of The Whispering Pines.

Aunt Madeline and Lauren sat on the back terrace when I arrived at the house. Luther napped in the hammock. My aunt looked more like Cleopatra on a throne than a woman with a broken ankle in a wheelchair. Lauren and I shook hands. Luther lifted his head after hearing I forgot the doughnuts, but did a deflated cat-meltdown when Aunt Madeline suggested Lauren and I go pick up some sweet tooth ammunition at the market while she took her siesta de mañana. “Do tell Mr. Grimsley I said hello. He’s been delivering my groceries for years.”

We weren’t to the end of the driveway before talking out my aunt’s dilemmas. “I hope I’m in as good of shape as she is when I’m her age,” Lauren said. “Her mind is sharp, and her ability to use imagination can put a healthy dose of childhood back into life.”

“When Attorney Bronson called, he was concerned about her talk of rescuing a baby space alien out of a gutter.”

“Your aunt sometimes talks in poetic riddles. She was rescuing a baby bird, and she thinks birds can perch on the point of a star as easily as they can sit in a tree. That’s not nuts, and don’t take everything Attorney Bronson has to say to-heart. He and his son have been out to visit your aunt a couple of times. They’ve got some tricks up their sleeves.”

“Tricks?”

“Teddy junior is a developer, and he’s all but come out and said that he’d buy your aunt’s place once she’s living at Martinsdale.”

“What’s this Martinsdale?”

“A retirement community Teddy built. His dad is the Chairman of the Board. The two of them are also behind the country club that went up once Gentry Johnson had to foreclose on his soybean farm. This area is becoming a hot-ticket target for DC and Richmond.”

Lauren, Aunt Madeline and I played cards after lunch. Luther snoozed. It was almost dark when I said good-bye. “Lauren might be gone by the time you come back to visit next month,” Aunt Madeline said.

“I’m coming back next weekend, maybe for a couple of overnights.”

“Goodness gracious. A whole weekend — You can sleep with Luther in his room, and James?”

“Yes, Aunt Madeline?”

“Don’t forget the jelly doughnuts.”

Two phone messages were waiting when I got back to Richmond. The first from Attorney Bronson. Sincere. He enjoyed our meeting, and stood ready and willing to answer questions. I decided to bail on spending Friday night at Aunt Madeline’s. I’d check-in for another secretive stay at Whispering Pines, and ask Bronson to set up a tour of Martinsdale for me early Saturday. No harm in looking. Then the second message.

James, dearest. It’s your Aunt Madeline. It was good to see you today. Even though Lauren, Luther and I are excited that you might come spend an entire weekend with us, don’t feel bad if it doesn’t end up happening. I’ll always love you anyway. Bye-bye, and sweet dreams. Aunt Madeline.

It‘d be difficult to tell her the move to Martinsdale was in everyone’s best interest, but Attorney Bronson was right. There’d be no more zany animal rescues or gardening, but she’d get around the clock care. Mom asked me to help take care of her sister, and I was helping Aunt Madeline make solid decisions.

In the weeks to come, scary stuff unfolded. Not Frankenstein-Dracula scary. Money-and- health scary. Aunt Madeline was readmitted to the county hospital. Observations. Something to do with reactions to medication. Her cash-on-hand was drying up. Offers started coming in to buy her place, complete with artists’ renditions of condominiums adjacent to a marina full of boathouses and gazebos. Attorney Bronson kept calling. God only knew what his bill would be next month. A move to Martinsdale looked better everyday. Lauren wanted to come back when Aunt Madeline returned home. Sure, I enjoyed seeing Lauren, but any woman whose wet hair smelled good enough to fill the air in Aunt Madeline’s kitchen was already taken by another guy. I’d suggest the move to Martinsdale when I visited next month, or maybe the month after. My presentation to Aunt Madeline needed more practice.

I transferred some of my savings into her checking account, and took a loan against my pension to buy us time. Lauren hugged me when she found out. Her hair smelled as good dry as wet.

Then came the suggestion Aunt Madeline undergo a psychological interview, prompted by Attorney Bronson on behalf of her insurance carrier after the stories of trips in the old car with a magical cat began to circulate. The first call I made was to Sizzler. “It’s Jimmy B. I’ll pay you whatever it takes to get my aunt’s Olds running again.” No way did I want Aunt Madeline to be referred to as a crazy. A nut case maybe — but not crazy.

“I’ll get one of my crews down there as soon as I can. They’ll get it going. I’ll let you know specifics when I get back from vacation.”

My aunt’s honestly and openness talking to the psychologists yielded favorable results when they met her and Lauren their second morning back on the farm. Aunt Madeline’s talent to speak poetically, full of metaphors, was accepted by the review panel as artistic. Inclined towards genius. Her insistence that Luther had the potential for magic encouraged them to look up pol-y-dac-tyl.

They concurred belief in popular folklore, well established with regard to the legends of these cats with unexplained extra toes, was not reason enough to clinically define any individual illusionary. A psychiatrist with thick eyebrows was particularly taken with Luther’s ballroom ability to walk sideways. Lauren had been an Ace. She’d spiked Luther’s water with an extra swish of vodka the morning of the interview.

The last speed bump was the biggest. “Now Miss Huntsberry, what about these stories of trips in your Oldsmobile? Maybe we could all take a little drive together. How about a drive into town for some ice cream. Would that be an imposition?”

“Certainly not. I like ice cream. Lauren — You drive. The keys to the Olds are under Luther’s pillow. I might get two scoops. One chocolate and one vanilla, and I’m fond of sprinkles.”

No sooner had Aunt Madeline spoken then Luther appeared with the keyring to the old car, tightly tucked between his teeth. He dropped it into Lauren’s lap.

I had assured Lauren that Sizzler’s guys worked on the Olds while Aunt Madeline was in the hospital, but that same morning of the interview, Sizzler left me a voicemail. “Hey Jimmy B — sorry for the delay, but I’m back in the office. My two top mechanics are coming down to look at your aunt’s car next Tuesday.”

Next Tuesday? I sat in my office, waiting for a call from Lauren or Aunt Madeline with the results of a failed interview. The heat would be on to make some decisions, and now the state was in the loop. It was four o’clock in the afternoon when I called them.

“Miss Huntsberry’s residence.”

“It’s James. How is everything?”

“Hi. Everything is peachy. How are you?”

“Peachy? How’d the interview go?”

“Great. We were going to call you earlier, but an orphaned bobcat kit was under the shed.”

“So the interview went well. Did the doctors ask to take a ride in the Oldsmobile?”

“Yep…and this little kitten is so adorable.”

“And the ride in the Oldsmobile happened?”

“Of course it did. Tell your buddy his mechanics did a wonderful job.”

“I will.”

“Luther helped me steer and beeped the horn when we got into town. He knows how to turn the ignition key and the radio on — did you know that?”

“No.”

“Hold on a sec,  Aunt Maddie is asking me something…she wants to know if you’re coming to visit anytime soon. I’d like to know too.”

“Yes. I’m leaving now, I’ll be there in three hours.”

“We’re making tacos. We’ll save you some. Hold on again — Aunt Maddie has something else…Luther is almost out of vodka, and she’d like doughnuts for breakfast.”

“I promise to remember.”

“And James — make sure some of the doughnuts are jelly filled for Luther.”

“I will. I owe him a favor,” the nature of which I’d never admit to anyone.

About George: How about this? “George Talbot is an extremely talented gardener who now is beginning to grow words on a page versus corn in dirt.” All of you gotta admit — that’s catchy.

Ed Lebowitz’s critique of “Promises, Lies and Jelly Doughnuts” by George Talbot

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