The Story Continues!

16 08 2010

Another installment for our writers’ group!  And this time, it’s the same, but more of it!

Will Phillip get his hands on the man who is unknowingly stumbling into the love triangle of death?  Will Uncle Jerry ever realize he’s a madman with a gun who should be locked up?  Will anyone ever catch on that they’re calling a guy named “Roger” by the nickname “Reggie” for no apparent reason?  Only one way to find out!

Note: I’ve revamped a little bit here and there, so I’m just gonna post the whole thing with the new chapters as well.  Re-read if you wish, or cut to the beginning of the new part if you think I could only make it worse with my meddling.

* * * *

I’ve been nipping around this earth for a fair amount of years now, and if there’s one thing I’ve always been willing to stake my entirety upon, one thing I’m absolutely rock-solid about, it’s this:  Don’t depend upon Charlie Broxton’s trousers.  I understand that you may be hesitant to take me at my word first thing and all, but let me explain a bit about Charlie.  He’s not the sort of man you just feel fraternally bound to upon first hello, if you know what I mean.  Put another way, he’s not the sort of man you just saunter up to on a weeknight and ask if he wants to help you steal a lawn fixture.  Oh sure, he might join in if you and the boys are all set to go from the outset, but he’ll find his way to getting entrusted with guard duty, and at the first sign of a rifle sticking out the window he’ll leg it faster than Jimmy Cullen from a church vestibule on Sunday at 12:01, hanging you out to dry on the off-chance that he’ll accrue a stain on that perfect record of his with Cassleton’s finest.  And while you’re at the police station being remonstrated by Sergeant Folk while trying to exchange pleasantries with the desk clerks, Charlie’s at home sipping his caffeine-free soda and folding socks in his room with a clean conscience. (Although I’ve no idea how one could really dirty it, as I’ve no evidence that it exists.)  Put simply, Charlie is one who finds contentment in stagnation and repugnance in the exhilarating.  Not the sort of man whose name you find on too many a last will & testament, if you get my meaning.

However, you know what they say about old school ties, and as he is still under the impression that our friendship is a thrice-woven cord, I had no real reason to sever the knot until last Wednesday.  For that, as you’ll presently understand, was when he destroyed my best and brightest hope for happiness in this sorry world.

* * *

“Westerly, you blighter,” I hollered, “put down the watch before Mr. Bungleton finds out what you’re up to and chews your leg off.  The poor dog’s been through enough for one day.”  Phillip Westerly simply tossed a patronizing grin at me and continued to hold the shiny trinket aloft, provoking poor Bungles into another fit of frantic scratching at the cabinet hosting the offending light from its reflection.

“It’s good for him,” he said. “How do you expect him to take a bite out of the morning postman if he’s not kept in shape?”  I tried to explain to Phippy that that one simply doesn’t torture one’s dog into shape these days, but he became tone-deaf as soon as I started with one of my famous “Phippy, old man” parts.  Lately I’ve noticed many of my friends encountering similar hearing difficulties in such instances, and quite frankly it’s getting to be less than tolerable.  I bypassed the usual roundabout and got to the point.

“It’s no good, Phippy.  I’ve just received a note from Laurie, and her words are dark.”  This brought the lanky fellow ‘round.  We’d been looking ahead to this evening ever since the Cassleton Bridge Club called the police on Phippy’s birthday party last month.  To think that there are still people in this world who cannot hold with a good-natured gathering of humanity. Well, it deals the ever-optimistic Tiffin heart a blow, I can tell you.  One minute you’re in the throes of jubilation, breaking Jimmy Cullen’s record for Apex Reached by a Thrown Lawn Fixture, and the next you’re bolting haphazardly out of Ms. Garrouche’s garden, hotly pursued by a pack of middle-aged cardsharpers.  To be true, it’s almost more than the heart can bear.  But ever since Laurie Swellings had given word of her annual St. George festival, our spirits had began climbing steadily.  If you’ve ever been to a Swellings St. George party, little more need be said.  If you haven’t however, just be careful not to mention this failure in the higher circles, or you’ll find yourself being regaled with the tales of blindfolded rectors and loose tigers for hours on end.  Three years ago, I believe it was, Bobby Cronstile made a bit of a splash when he proceeded to scale the greater portion of the library wall before falling into a gardenia bush below.  I’d say he had a bit of the stuff, but the fact is he woke up the next morning, walked home in his shirtsleeves and still refuses to say a word about the event, so speculation is all the history books have as to the precise state of his mental lubrication.

With that in mind, to hear what I had only just been told was nothing short of devastating, and I could hardly fathom the effect it would have on poor Phippy.

“What?  Speak up man, what’s she say?  It’s not canceled?”  I looked at him somberly.

“Phippy, her family has invited the bishop to lunch that Sunday, and he’s to stay for the feast.”

Phippy just stared through me, barely able to speak.  He finally managed to gasp, in a mournful sort of way:

“But good Heavens, Roger, this is Laurie’s St. George Festival.  It’s no place for a man of the church.”

“I know.”

“He’ll keel over in fervent and apologetic prayer before dessert’s been served.”

“Quite likely”

“Not to mention that Caroline Gregson is going to be there.”

“Too right.”

“How am I to make eyes at her with His Eminence there peering over any shoulder he can find?”

“I’m afraid it’s set in stone, Phippy.  Apparently Laurie’s Aunt Gladys met him back in Tankerville last week, and simply drowned him with simpering pleas until he consented to come.”

Phippy snorted.

“I should have done the same thing in his situation.  The woman’s got the persuasive powers of Attila when she has you cornered.”

I thought about asking Phillip if he was recalling the summer when he found himself driving Laurie’s Aunt around the countryside every Saturday as she recorded the number of wheat fields in the southern county for her Grand History of the Land, but thought better of it.  As I recall, his assenting to be her chauffeur came shortly on the heels of the incident with the old woman’s dog and the barbershop quartet, so there was really very little investigation left to do in the matter.

“I’m afraid there’s more, Phippy,” I noted, steeling myself against the words I had only just absorbed myself.  “There’s to be no cocktails at all.”

“No cocktails?!  But how are we to honor our good man George without cocktails?  You’re quite sure, Roger?”

“Laurie made that point most evident.  No cocktails at all.  Apparently the bishop finds them a repugnant representation of the decline in today’s society or some such twaddle.”

“Well that’s jolly good.  A festival without cocktails and his Holiness freezing each grin miles before its crescendo.”  Phippy disgustedly aimed the biscuit he’d been saving at Mr. Bungles, who was only too happy to collect his reward after absorbing the hit.  “If you see something swaying from the library rafters, Roger, don’t be alarmed.  It will only be my corpse saluting this earth after having my life extracted by want of cocktails.”

I felt little need to alert him to the drool marking his pant legs as he got up to leave.

* * *

I was strolling through town on Tuesday morning having just gotten a fresh haircut and was beginning to feel a bit less downhearted about the upcoming frivolities when I heard a “What ho, Reggie!” and turned to see Charles Broxton bearing down upon me.  It’s situations like these that often aid one’s memory of imminent appointments and obligations, but my dejection had all but quashed my improvisational talents for the day.

“What what, Charlie,” I replied none too vigorously.

“Good morning, Roger,” Charlie piped.  The fellow clearly hadn’t quite found his bit of conversational impromptu yet either, so I stayed in the vein.

“Hello, Bronto.”  I felt this summed things up nicely, and prepared to continue on my way, when his eyes slowly lit up and he grabbed my shoulder.”

“I say, Reggie, you aren’t going to Laurie’s tomorrow?”

It was as I had feared.  The Tiffin atmosphere is widely known for its exuberant effects upon all surroundings, and the usually well-oiled attendees of the St. George fest were sure to experience the vivid pangs of excitement that came with being shown the real nature of a Proper Wednesday Night.  Charlie, however, saw himself leading the charge alongside Yours Truly to stake his place among the good names in the town.  Today, however, I had hardly the strength to keep my head from collapsing upon the barber’s razor as it brushed my jugular, so meeting with the full force of Charlie’s personality before lunch was a bit more than I could handle at the time.  I saw only one route: the polite dismissal.

“As a matter of fact, Charles, I don’t know that I can find my way to it.  I’ve simply so much to do — you know how things go towards the end of the spring — and I’m afraid it’s going to be rather a dull affair on all sides.  I hate to say it, but I fancy you’ll be finding yourself among livelier circles tomorrow night.  My condolences, old man.”

And such would usually have done the trick, but I found Charlie barely acknowledging that I had spoken.  He had come pre-loaded with questions for the first unfortunate soul he chanced to meet, and my name had come up on the register.

“Oh, that’s too bad Reggie.  But I’m sure it’ll be quite the affair even without you.  I’ve heard the Bishop is going to make an appearance, and you know how well I’ve memorized my minor prophets.  I’m sure to make a killing with the Gregson Bird when the subject of prophet memorization comes up.”

I started.  Now here was a pitfall if I’d ever recognized one.  Broxton had apparently found himself enamored with the same girl that Phippy had all but slain himself for already.  But when one’s friends are involved, a modicum of respect for reality has to come into play.  Here was Bronto, a stout but oblivious young scholar with glasses thicker than the beard he had been working on for months, unknowingly going up against Phippy, the captain of the squash team who had gained something of a reputation for striking other players’ ankles at their most vulnerable times.  Surely there was only one thing to say to Bronto.

“That’s a man, Bronto, Found yourself a girl, have you?  Quite right.  Well, you know the standard op. procedure, then.  Play it slow and steady and keep your distance until she’s driven mad with affection and throws herself into your arms in a few months’ time.”

“Oh Reggie, I can see you’ve never met the girl.  If you’d only looked into her eyes one time, surely you’d be tossing your cares aside tomorrow night and throwing yourself at her feet alongside me.”

It occurred to me that Bronto might well find himself splayed out tomorrow, but not of his own will.  I employed another tack.

“Look here, Charlie, are you sure she’s really the girl for you?  After all, I’d think you’d want a girl with more muscle, someone who could really match your vitality in all aspects of life.  From what I’ve heard of this Gregson, she’s absolutely ethereal with every breath she takes.”  Hopefully Phippy wouldn’t mind my stealing the third line of the sonnet he had been working on in his journal.  After all, he’d certainly have locked it better if he’d meant to keep it from the public eye.

“Oh, ethereal is just the word.  She simply floats about, stealing your soul before your very eyes.  I tell you Reggie, I’d climb the library wall even with a hundred gardenias awaiting my descent if it would incline her head towards me for only an instant.”

My efforts seemed to have only thrown fuel on Cupid’s inferno.  Like that one famous general said, there’s always a time to fall back upon the something and try again upon the morrow.  I bid Charlie a resigned good morning as he muttered something about epics, and headed off toward Chesapeake Hall.  As I turned down the lane, a distant gunshot and a following epithet told me Uncle Jerry was still as healthy as 78 years ever made a man.

***

I knocked out of courtesy for the household, but I treated Sallins with the same familiarity as ever, patting him on the shoulder and brushing by after acknowledging his “good afternoon, sir” with an impatient nod.   Uncle Gerald’s idea of casual sport was more fascinating than most people’s vision of the apocalypse, and I wasn’t going to miss more than I had to for Sallins or anyone.

Upon reaching the den, I stopped and admired the soft afternoon sunlight streaming through the new skylight my uncle’s Remington had just installed in the roof.  “Hello, my boy,” he said with a wan smile.  “What brings you up to Chesapeake this dreadfully boring day?”

As reassuring as it is to know that my uncle still finds boring what my departed mother would have found criminal, even I had to satisfy my curiosity at risk of offending his sense of normalcy.

“It’s good to see you, uncle.  Sporting for your spring fowl indoors this season, eh?”

Uncle rebuffed me right off.  “Now Roger, don’t give me any of that.  I know perfectly well you’ve come to ask a favor, and until your mouth went off I just might have granted it.  As it is, however, your hopes are likely to meet with the same fate of my recently remodeled roof.  Curse that starling’s nimble wings!  I’ll get him yet.”

Had he not tossed the rifle my way with the same geniality he initially expressed, I would have found myself downhearted.  As it was, I took aim about ten feet right of the original porthole, and began to let loose at the faint sound of chirping as he gleefully pointed out the targets to me to the best of his aged hearing’s ability.

“It’s like this, Uncle,” I began amid the falling splinters of the roof, and I proceeded to lay out the details of the pickle before we’d completely turned the house into a convertible.

“Here’s what I don’t—RIGHT THERE! BLAST HIM REGGIE!…understand,” shouted Uncle Jerry above the crashing chandelier.  “You’ve always despised this fellow Broxton, and yet you shy away from watching him meet with Lord Comeuppance himself in the guise of Phillip Westerly.  What’s preventing you from seeing this as a glorious bit of fortune to liven up the droll affair?”

“It’s not the excitement I’m dreading, Uncle,” I hastened, “It’s the risk of the thing.  If Caroline sees Phippy lay out the eternally helpless Bronto, her feminine sympathies are sure to align themselves with the mortally wounded rather than Phippy.  And goodness knows I’ve never seen another woman who could cow Phillip Westerly.”

“Well, so long as you’re not putting yourself on the line purely for the Broxton, I –OH BLOW HIM TO KINGDOME COME, MY BOY, JUST TO THE RIGHT! AGAIN, AGAIN!…suppose I could offer you some wisdom,” Uncle conceded.  “It’s just that he’s been railing against the liquor vendors in Forte Alley at City Council meetings lately, and I couldn’t abide my favorite living nephew’s sticking his neck out for the blighter.”

Having frequented the named alley myself on more than the odd occasion, the news of Bronto’s crusade only further soured me towards the subject.  While I’d spare his body for the sake of Phippy’s heart, I’d do no more than that if I could at all help it.  I consented, and Uncle proceeded to lay out his view of the thing.

“The way I see it, Roger, you have three potent resources at your disposal.  The Bishop, this Gregson girl, and your engaging way of speech.  All you have to do is find a way of using the first to get the attention of the second, and not-so-subtly point her in the way she needs to go.  As I’ve heard, she’s rather devout when it comes to religious authorities, and a bit of amiability from His Eminence would give you some credibility with the bird, what?  From there, you’ve only to say a few words about Phippy’s bright future and nothing about his past, and the bird’s in his arms by sunset and you’re home in time for port in the library with your favorite uncle.”

The plan had merit, I couldn’t doubt that.  However, I saw a rather tenuous facet of the plot that Uncle seemed to be taking in stride.

“And Phippy’s Aunt Gladys?  Am I just to tear the bishop from her  groveling with a wink and a glass of sherry?  The woman is sure to be violently possessive of the most notable man in the county the night through, and getting on Laurie’s Aunt’s bad side means getting on Laurie’s bad side, which means participation in the Grand Challenge of St. George at the hostess’s behest.  From there, you can hardly imagine the fate that awaits my person, but I’ve not doubt it involves gardenia bushes and a hospital bed.”

“Roger W. Tiffin, if I didn’t have so much sunlight illuminating your features, I’d swear it was your niece in here, bemoaning the lack of cranberry sauce at her third birthday par—YOU MISSED AGAIN, YOU FOOL!  GIVE ME THAT!  You don’t really think Laurie Swellings is going to risk putting you under the figurative, and perhaps literal, knife for her own amusement?  As the woman’s practically proposed to you on three separate occasions, I hardly think there’s much risk of her putting you in any bodily danger whatsoever, no matter what her aunt declares.”

Now, I can take some well-meant humor as well as any man, and we Tiffin’s are especially notable for our thick skin.  And if Uncle Jerry wanted to propose a plan for preserving my friend’s well-being, that was one thing – but defaming my noble and platonic relationship with Miss Swellings was another entirely, no matter how many people felt compelled to whisper about our “never-ending courtship” and whatnot.  We had a mutual respect for each other on completely, er, respectable terms.  Allowing that to be dragged through the mud was too much to allow even my favorite living uncle.

“I thank you for your advice, Uncle,” I said, stiffly reproaching him with a dignified air. “I’m sorry that you place yourself alongside the vulgar populace of this town who see nothing more entertaining to be had than disgusting banter about two upstanding individuals and their friendship.”

“Oh ho!  I hardly think you’ll be able to stand up for much of the night – goodness knows you wilt under her gaze like a tulip in July.  Now, you’ve had the better part of my marksmanship training to glean some wisdom from your elders, but I can hardly be blamed if you choose to maintain your headstrong ways, Roger.  I’ve laid it out for you clear as my newly-illuminated living room, but I’m sure you’ll erupt in some foolhardy scheme of your own just to impress your future Mrs. Reggie before the cocktails are even served.”

I let him have it with the full brunt of the Tiffin riposte as I marched out the door.  “There will not be any cocktails, my dear uncle.  Good day.”

* * *

As I walked home, I began contemplating my impending fate.  At times like these, one is naturally bound to think back to those who went before him, and I found myself pondering the noble Tiffin men who had navigated their portion of trial throughout the years.  I can remember Uncle Jerry telling me about old Grandpa Ira, who managed to dissuade a mob of irate citizens from burning down his shop with him still occupying it.  The issue had centered on some cologne he had sold with an unfortunate side effect of causing severe nausea an hour or two after application, which was hardly ideal for men who applied the stuff before a night on the town. Even the most lighthearted man finds little amusement in impressing the flora and fauna of Cassleton by publicly retching himself near death on a Saturday night.  Fortunately, my good old ancestor had clarified his position on the product with a word on the liquid’s fantastic possibilities as an insecticide, and the crowd dispersed peacefully.  It’s worth noting that Cassleton has been remarkably avoided by the creeping things ever since.  These days, a picnicker is more likely to lose his sandwich to Jimmy Cullen’s quick grab than a pack of ants.

However, the mess I was covered in demanded more ingenuity than usual.  If I was to hitch up Caroline Gregson to Phippy and spare Charlie’s ample frame from complete decimation in the process, there was only one thing to do.  Yes, in times like these, there’s nothing for it but to reach deep into the recesses of one’s mind and pull out the best scheme available.  In this case, with excruciating effort and the aid of three Gin and T’s from the Speckled Swan, I managed to exhume just the ghost of an idea:  I would somehow have to get Caroline’s attention long enough to briefly demonstrate goodwill between The Honorable Bish and old Phippy.  Anything less was sure to fail, and any extended interaction between the two men was sure to cause something of an unplanned adventure, and even we Tiffins find adventure something to be sought rather than be sought by. Of course, there was the matter of Aunt Gladys, but I’m sure a few words to my noble friend Laurie could alleviate that problem without a hitch.  The convenient thing about friendship is the reliability of help when called for, and Laurie was as steady a friend as one could ask for.

* * *

“Reggie, you’re a brute.  A vicious, heartless brute.  I’ve been cleaning and shopping all day, and when I stop by to ask for your help as you’d promised, I learn that you’re drowning whatever sorrows pitful aristocrats have these days down at that dreadful drinking establishment!  And now, you have the nerve to show up here empty-handed as usual!”

Laurie’s tone seemed markedly less than conversational upon my arrival that evening, and with my bloodline’s especially acute powers of perception, I determined the cause of the trouble right away, and set about laying the subtle lines of suggestion amid placid and sympathetic overtones.

“Why, old thing, that’s terrible.  Has your dreadful aunt gone and mucked up the preparations?  I suppose it’s time we put her up in the Rondson Home for Advanced Citizens as I’ve suggested.  Well, I’ll go pull the car around and we’ll load her up, waning sentience and all.”

Laurie looked at me, quivering, as her mouth opened and closed without mustering speech, which is a rarity indeed.  I offered a sympathetic arm, but found myself rebuffed as her vocal chords marked themselves present once again.

“Roger Tiffin, if you set foot on my doorstep again, I’ll have dogs, police, and even Auntie Gladys after you for the rest of your days.  Why, the nerve to suggest…well, it’s simply astounding!”

I sensed an opportune time to intercede with a bit of placatory dialogue, and held out a hand before she could really get up steam to finish imparting her sentence upon me.

“Now, now Laurels, I was only pointing out the shortfalls I’ve had the pain to witness in my own family.  Why, you of all people know how beset old Uncle Jerry is by drifting focus and loss of reason.  It’s a curse of advanced years, and I was simply offering my best effort to spare you the same ordeal.  Of course I have all the respect in the world for your aunt, and always will.”

Laurie’s anger suddenly abated as I finished my sentence, and as a rather sly smile took the place of fresh rage and indignation, I began to wonder if I hadn’t stumbled into something a bit greater than I had anticipated.

“Well, that’s simply refreshing, Reggie darling.  To hear that you’re willing to step in and be the savior of my precipitous evening is just marvelous!  I can’t wait to tell Auntie of your participation.  Oh, she’ll be simply thrilled to hear that one of Cassleton’s own will be braving the Grand Challenge for everyone to enjoy.”

“Now, er, Laurie dear, you know how much I relish these challenge deals and so forth, but you know, I nearly tore my arms off last week assisting Phippy in something of a rescue mission, and I’m hardly fit to impress the good members of your guest list with anything near their due dessert.”

Unfortunately, even the rephrasing of my impressive exit from City Hall last Tuesday evening failed to dissuade Laurie, which was fortunate in a way, as I preferred not to elaborate upon my extraction of Phippy’s numerous parking tickets from the traffic commissioner’s office any more than necessary.

“Oh, Roger, you are a sporting fellow, and everyone knows it.  Now you’d best grab a drink before the challenge starts, and put a brave face on for our good people!  I know that’s never difficult for you, so long as I avoid resting my head upon your shoulder in public.  How you are particular with your preferences, but what is a girl to do about her faithful man’s idiosyncrasies.  I’ll see you at the head table in sixty minutes sharp.”

I was about to object in every manner I knew of to everything she had said, when the mindless woman must have seen something upon my face, and brushed my hair away lightly before applying what must have been a medicinal peck to my clean-shaven cheek, and walked swiftly off.

Well, after all, what harm could a simple challenge be to the most robust Tiffin in Cassleton?

* * *





Ruetine

3 08 2010

Czeslaw Milosz was an author I was forcibly introduced to in Berkeley back in 2006.  I was distracted at the time by the usual things, and when the deadline came for reading his Visions of San Francisco Bay, I must admit I did him far less than justice.  However, I’ve decided to redeem that summer, so I bought one of his books.  In it, I read what instantly become one of my favorite pieces ever:

To get up in the morning and go to work, to be bound to people by the ties of love, friendship, or opposition — and all the time to realize that it was only meanwhile and make-believe.  For in him hope only was permanent and real, so strong that he was impatient with living.  He was to catch now, in a minute — to catch what?  A magic formula which contains all the truth about existence.  He would brush his teeth and it was just there, he would take a shower and practically pronounce it, had he not taken a bus, it would have revealed itself, and so on all day long.  Waking up at night, he felt he was working his way toward it through a thin curtain, but then, in that striving, he would fall asleep.

He did not regard kindly this affliction of his.  He agreed with the opinion that he should be here — entirely present, in a given place and moment, attentive to the needs of those who were close to him and fulfilling their expectations.  To think that they were just for meanwhile and that he practiced with them a make-believe was to harm them, yet he was unable to renounce the thought that, really, he had no time for life with them.