Authors: Charlotte MacLeod
Open Road Integrated Media
For Carol Brener
OFFEE, THEONIA?” MRS. ADOLPHUS
Kelling was a strong woman for her age and size. She managed to lift Dolph’s Great-aunt Matilda’s baroque silver pot without a quiver, and pour without a splash.
“Thank you, Mary dear.” Mrs. Brooks Kelling stretched a graceful hand from the chaise longue on which she was reclining like Madame Recamier to accept the ornate gold and green demitasse.
“Sarah, what about you?”
“I’d love some.” Bulgy young Mrs. Max Bittersohn, née Kelling, caught her husband’s stern eye and sighed. “You’d better make it mostly cream.”
“Good girl.” Max collected two coffees, one black for himself, and brought them back to the chunky Biedermeier sofa on which he and his wife had been sitting. “Cheer up,
It won’t be long now.”
“Thirty-seven days,” said Brooks Kelling, who had done a good deal of work on breeding statistics, though mostly among the confusing spring warblers. “Right, Sarah?”
Sarah’s Uncle Jeremy’s wrathful pink face poked around from behind the wing of a Queen Anne chair. “Can’t we let our dinner settle without dragging in the disgusting subject of obstetrics?”
“What’s so disgusting about babies?” snapped his Cousin Dolph. “Unless they go from puling infancy straight into doddering dotage the way you did.”
“Now don’t you boys start picking on each other,” Mary intervened. “Come on, let’s have some ideas. How are we going to raise that money?”
Max, who was feeling rather overstuffed himself, looked from the overstuffed furniture to the overstuffed mantelpiece to the overstuffed whatnots in the corners. “What you need is an auction.”
“What you need is a lighted match,” grunted Jem.
There was merit in both suggestions, Sarah thought. Back in their Beacon Hill brownstones, the Kellings of yore had lived sedately enough. Once they’d emigrated to the surrounding suburbs, though, they’d been all too prone to hunt up architects with delusions of grandeur and tell them in essence, “Let ’er rip!”
Sarah didn’t know who’d perpetrated the monstrosity Dolph had inherited from Great-uncle Frederick, but the designer hadn’t been one to stint on space. Naturally, finding themselves stuck with so many excess rooms, the Kellings had felt it their duty to fill them up. By now the whole house was crammed with much that was good and more that was ghastly.
She herself wouldn’t mind owning that Empire chaise Cousin Theonia was occupying so decoratively at the moment. Theonia might well be coveting the coffee cups. However, nobody in his right mind would ever give house room to those inspirational mottoes done in poker work on birch bark and framed in dried seaweed.
Great-aunt Matilda’s aesthetic leanings had found their ultimate outlet in seaweed. Her chef d‘oeuvre had been a wreath of bladderwort and kelp formed around a bent coat hanger and preserved for posterity inside a heavy gilded frame whose glass bumped out in the middle much as Sarah would be doing for another thirty-seven days. She couldn’t see the wreath from where she was sitting, and she was glad.
Dolph didn’t seem too keen on the idea of an auction. “We can’t go peddling Uncle Fred’s personal belongings to God knows who,” he started to object.
“Dear, nobody’s said anything about personal belongings,” said Mary. “But what about all this other stuff? I don’t see why we shouldn’t clear out enough so a person could walk into a room without cracking her shins every third step.”
She’d never met the aunt and uncle who’d taken custody of little Adolphus after his parents were killed in a crash between the Norumbega trolley car and a runaway brewer’s wagon. She’d attended one or two spiritualist meetings with Theonia, hoping Fred and Matilda would manifest themselves so she could give them a piece of her mind about how they’d browbeaten and brainwashed a helpless orphan child; but so far they’d been contrary in death as they had been in life. Theonia was all for having another go, but Mary’s Irish Catholic upbringing made her reluctant to try again.
Anyway, Mary had more urgent business on her mind. “Let’s face it, Dolph, somebody’s got to deal with the overflow sooner or later. Why shouldn’t we get the good of it? We can use the money as well as the next one.”
“And a damn sight better than some,” Dolph conceded, glaring at Jem from force of habit.
“That’s a matter of opinion,” his cousin retorted cheekily. “Were you planning to pass the decanter, old bane of my boyhood, or are you planning to auction it off with the rest of the impedimenta?”
“What the hell, why not?” Dolph picked up the handsome piece of cut glass, shook his head sadly at the inch or two of red wine left in the bottom, and handed it over to Jem. “Won’t have anything to put in it once you’ve swilled the dregs down your ungrateful craw. We’ve opened the last of Uncle Fred’s port. Haven’t we, Mary?”
“Two bottles left, and you needn’t start looking pitiful, Jem. I’m saving those for Dolph’s birthday party in November.”
“Don’t know what anybody wants to celebrate that for,” Dolph growled, looking pleased nevertheless. “Go ahead, Jem, hog the last of it and rot your gut. I’m surprised you haven’t died of a pickled liver long ago.”
“My liver is a happy liver,” Jem replied without rancor. “Here’s to your seventieth, old crock, in case I’m too soused to make an appropriate toast when the day rolls around. Egad, that’s a real milestone. Next stop the boneyard for you, my boy.”
“Nonsense,” said Sarah. “Dolph will live to be ninety-eight like Great-uncle Frederick. Don’t you agree, Brooks?”
The neat little man who’d been occupying himself in jotting down some of the birch bark mottoes for the family archives gave a qualified assent. “Ninety, I should say. Not much older. Dolph is pugnacious, but not cantankerous like Uncle Fred. It seems to me one might need that extra streak of general cussedness to hang on as long as Fred did.”
“Good point, Brooks,” said Jeremy. “You’ve mellowed lately, Dolph. You’d better quit immersing yourself in good works to the exclusion of a little healthy debauchery now and then, or you’ll go soft at the center as well as in the head.”
“That’s a hell of a thing to say to a man when you’ve snaffled the last of his port,” Max chided. “Okay, so Dolph and Mary have decided to hold an auction, to weed out the deadwood and make some dough. What’s next on the agenda?”
“Wait a minute,” Jem insisted. “They don’t need money. They’ve got too much already. Almost too much, I mean,” he amended hastily. Jem was, after all, a Kelling.
“That shows all you know,” said Mary. “I guess Dolph hasn’t told you we’re planning to expand our facilities.”
“Facilities? You’re not by chance referring to that high-class junkyard you’ve been running? What’s the matter? Are the empty beer cans piling up too fast for you?”
“The Senior Citizens’ Recycling Center is doing just fine, thank you.” Mary had once sold hats to Boston ladies; so it took more than a bit of ribbing from Jeremy Kelling to shake her equilibrium. “But there’s so much more to be done. Boston has better facilities for helping its needy elders than a lot of other cities, but there are still far too many who aren’t getting a square deal. There are subsidized apartments for those who have the resources, and shelters where the down-and-outers can find a bed if they’re lucky. What we have in mind is a facility that fills the gap in the middle.”
“Would you care to tell us your plans?” said Brooks.
“Well, you know Dolph inherited various properties from his uncle. One’s a smallish factory building that a paint company just moved out of. He’s had a couple of offers from would-be buyers already. There’s one real estate trust that’s been pestering the life out of us, but we’ve turned them down. You see, what we hope to do is convert the building into something like a great big boardinghouse.”
“You mean make it into bedrooms?” said Sarah.
“Essentially, yes. Cut it up into dozens of nice little rooms that people could rent for very small fees by the week or month. They’d have a reasonable degree of comfort and privacy and a safe place to keep their possessions. That way they wouldn’t have to tote everything they own around in shopping bags and never know where they’re going to sleep at night.”
“We’re charging the rent to keep them from feeling like objects of charity,” said Dolph. “If they don’t have the money, we’ll find ways for them to earn their board by doing chores. Give ’em a sense of pride, keep ’em self-supporting to the best of their ability.”
“How big is this warehouse?” Brooks looked as if he might already be drawing blueprints in his head.
“Big enough,” said Dolph. “It’s four stories high, two hundred feet deep and six hundred feet long. We’ll have room for several different kitchens, dining rooms, and recreation areas so the tenants won’t have to trek all over hell and gone to reach the facilities.”
“And plenty of bathrooms on every floor,” said Mary.
“But that will cost you millions!” Theonia exclaimed.
“Dolph has millions,” drawled Jeremy, holding the decanter upside down over his glass to catch the last drop of Uncle Fred’s port.
“Not so many millions as you think I have,” Dolph retorted. “Why don’t you lick the stopper, you old soak? We’ll have to run a major fund drive. Sarah can handle it.”
“Me? Why don’t you simply turn this mausoleum into a boardinghouse instead, the way I did with mine?”
“Because our people wouldn’t come out here, that’s why,” said Mary. “Don’t think Dolph and I haven’t thought of that. We’ve brought a few SCRC members out here thinking they’d enjoy the change, but they hightail it back to the city the minute we give them a chance. They all claim they can’t stand the quiet.”
“What quiet?” Jem demanded. “Birds squawking, leaves rustling, blasted squirrels chomping on acorns. All you have to do, Mary, is make a lot of asphalt paths through the grounds with wooden benches like the ones on Boston Common, import a flock of ill-behaved pigeons, strew a few truckloads of rubbish around to make the place look homey and provide wholesome occupation for your scavengers, and set up a public-address system with horns honking and sirens yowling. You might have a cop stroll through the grounds and pinch someone for loitering every now and then,” Jem added as an afterthought, “and pump whiffs of exhaust fumes through the house during rush hours. It would cost you a damn sight less than rebuilding that warehouse.”
“Yes, but the noise of Great-uncle Frederick’s ghost thumping around the hallways in a tantrum would scare them out in no time,” Sarah objected. “Besides, your neighbors would be sending their gardeners over here with jackhammers to tear up the asphalt. I’m sorry, Mary, I made a silly suggestion. Even if the SCRC people would come, can you imagine what would happen in this neighborhood, if you tried to upset the status quo?”
“The status hasn’t been all that goddamn quo since the second Roosevelt administration,” snarled Dolph.
“Now dear, you know what the doctor warned you about Roosevelt the last time he checked your blood pressure,” Mary interrupted. “Anyway, you’re a social reformer yourself now.”
“Like hell I am.”
“Like hell you’re not. Yes, Henrietta, what is it?”
“Mr. Loveday’s on the phone,” said the maid. “He needs to speak to Mr. Kelling right away.”
“Mr. Loveday?” said Sarah. “I thought you’d pensioned him off when Great-uncle Frederick died. Don’t tell me you’ve got him working for you now, Dolph?”
“Why should I pay Osmond Loveday money for doing nothing? He’s a damn sight younger than I am. Uncle Fred hired him straight out of college, don’t ask me why. I was already full-time whipping boy. Anyway, Osmond used to handle the books for those ridiculous foundations Uncle Fred kept setting up, so I’ve been keeping him on to help me dissolve them, which we’ve pretty well succeeded in doing, thank God. Now Osmond’s working almost full-time for the SCRC. He’s liaison man with the recycling plants, pays the bills, keeps track of the membership lists, all that sort of thing. He’s a blasted fussbudget, but he’s capable enough in his way.”
“You’d better go see what he wants, dear,” Mary suggested mildly.
“Huh. Probably mislaid a decimal point somewhere and wants me to help him hunt for it. Back in a minute, everybody.”
Adolphus Kelling was a big man, tall as well as broad. He hefted himself out of the oversize wing chair he’d been sitting in and marched from his great-aunt’s drawing room like a man well trained to do his duty in that sphere of life to which he had been summoned. Mary watched him go, the wrinkles deepening around her still lovely blue eyes.