Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Cold Dishes

Geoffrey turned into the driveway belonging to his Great Uncle Ryan, the twin brother of Geoffrey’s paternal grandmother Isabel. Isabel had died ten years earlier from an infection caught in the hospital where she had gone for a minor knee operation. Ryan and Isabel had a younger brother, Geoffrey’s disagreeable Great Uncle Brent. All three had inherited the family hardware store in the 1970s, but only Ryan had taken a real interest in it. He  bought out Isabel and Brent before the end of the decade using loans that he somehow successfully paid off in short order. Isabel and Brent assumed he would be crushed by the huge chain home-supply stores sprouting up in malls everywhere, but somehow he made his neighborhood business thrive. He sold it for nearly $2 million in the ‘80s. Ryan sat out the ’87 Crash, but then invested heavily in the stock market, riding the 90s boom. He weathered the ups and downs of the 21st century market cannily and was now reputedly worth close to $10 million. This was not yacht-and-private-jet superrich, but it was secure-from-financial-worry rich.
Geoffrey never had been able to fathom Uncle Ryan on a personal level. The man was sharp-witted, hard-working, and gruff, yet in no way mean. Despite never having attended college, he was extraordinarily well-read. He always had the air of knowing something you didn’t. Once a handsome youth, today he was craggy and white-haired, but quite fit for someone in his mid-sixties. The man never had married or sired offspring despite involvements with an endless series of floozies who looked nearly identical to one another in height, hair color, facial characteristics, and age. Photographs of Ryan over the decades appear to show a man who slowly ages with a companion who doesn’t. Ryan found the women in odd places, not all of them (perhaps not most of them) reputable. Rumor had it he had picked up one literally off the street. A weakness of this sort typically costs men who have it dearly, but somehow Ryan had contained the damage. None remained with him for long. Each would leave when she realized there was neither an emotional, marital, nor a substantive financial future reward for staying.
Other than in his dating habits, however, Ryan eschewed extravagance and pretense. While he easily could afford Benz’s and Jaguars, he chose instead to drive Fords and Chevys. His house, designed by himself, was no mansion. Hidden amid a few acres of pine and spruce, the woodsy stone and cedar dwelling was comfortable rather than elegant. For some reason, Ryan always had taken an interest in Geoffrey, providing him with summer employment maintaining his property when he was in high school and now assisting with his college tuition. As far as Geoffrey knew, Uncle Ryan extended no such aid to his other grandnephews and grandnieces on Uncle Brent’s side of the family. Perhaps this was because the chronically debt-ridden thrice-divorced Uncle Brent himself was drain enough.
Uncle Ryan had called Geoffrey yesterday saying only that he wanted a family member to witness something. Geoffrey didn’t recognize the three cars parked in the driveway. The smell of a Connecticut autumn was in the air as Geoffrey walked from his Kia to the front door. Although the house was surrounded by evergreens, the aroma of decaying deciduous leaves on neighboring lots wafted on a breeze mixed with the smoky odor of a wood fire. The door opened before Geoffrey rang the bell.
“Come in, come in, we’re all ready,” said Uncle Ryan. He wore a corduroy jacket and a light blue open-collar shirt. Except at the most formal events, which he usually avoided anyway, this was about as dressed-up as Ryan was likely to be found.
“Am I late?” asked Geoffrey.
“No, you’re right on time. We’re early.”
He led the way through the wood-ceiling living room where a fire burned in the stone fireplace. In the dining room at the table sat a portly middle-aged balding man in a rumpled green business suit. Next to him was a prim bespectacled 40-ish woman whom Geoffrey recognized as Uncle Ryan’s attorney. A neat stack of papers and a pen were on the table in front of her.
“Geoffrey, this is Judge Alfonso, and I believe you’ve met Ms. Menendez,” said Ryan.
“Yes. Hi.”
A young woman with an open bottle of Snapple tea in her hand sashayed into the dining room from the kitchen.
“Geoffrey, this is Angelique.”
Angelique was pretty, hazel-eyed, strawberry blonde, and winsome: yet another lookalike of Ryan’s previous women. If anything she was younger than average – Geoffrey guessed maybe even younger than he. She was dressed casually in blue jeans and a black tee shirt that read “Come to the Dark Side, we have cookies.”
“Hi, Geoffrey. I’ve heard a lot about you,” she said pleasantly.
“Um, hello. I’m afraid I’ve heard nothing about you.”
“I’m sure that’s about to change.”
“If everyone is ready, let’s get on with this,” said Ms. Menendez, whose tone and expression indicated disapprobation. “Please everyone sit down…thank you. I’ve gone over the details with both parties – Geoffrey, you’re just here as a witness.”
Geoffrey nodded.
“Nonetheless, I want to reiterate to you in particular, Angelique,’ Ms. Menendez continued with an odd emphasis on the name, “that this prenuptial agreement eliminates any future claim to alimony. In addition, in the event of divorce, there shall be no division of any property acquired by either party before the marriage and no division of any property acquired after the marriage unless it specifically has been purchased or received in both your names. In short, you’re not likely to leave with more than you came with, which is basically nothing. Do you fully understand that?”
“Yes,” she answered with a smile.
“Prenuptial?” Geoffrey hadn’t meant to repeat the word aloud, but it had gotten away from him in his surprise.
“Yes,” said Angelique. “I’m going to be your great aunt. How trippy is that?”
Ms. Menendez slid the papers with a pen on top to Angelique. “Please sign all four copies at the indicated place.”
Angelique did so without a glance at the text. She passed the papers to Ryan who signed and slid them to Geoffrey.
 “Please witness the signature at the indicated place on the bottom,” said the attorney.
Geoffrey did. He noticed the name on the prenup was “Lee Ann Smets,” so “Angelique” was her own – or perhaps Ryan’s – invention.
“OK Ry, I’m going to get ready now,” said Angelique. “I won’t be long.”
She got up and headed toward the bedrooms.
“And I’m leaving, too,” said the attorney. “I’ll leave copies for you two, and will file one in the courthouse. Judge, I leave the rest to you.”
“Of course. See you in court sometime, Elena.”
Ms. Menendez treated Ryan to one more scornful squint, and strode to the door, banging it behind her.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Judge,” said Ryan.
“Quite all right. Truth be told, I came early in order to see this.”
“I hope we were suitably entertaining.”
“Oh, yes.”
“Is that everything you want from me, Uncle Ryan?” asked Geoffrey.
“No, no, my boy. You’re here to witness one more thing.”
Carrying a small camera, Angelique re-entered the room in a tennis outfit. She spun around. “This is the only thing white I have with me,” she said.
“You look delightful,” said Ryan.
“Geoffrey, take this camera. Start ‘record’ by touching this. But when this is over, don’t you dare call me Aunt Angelique,” she said with a wink.
They entered the living room. Judge Alfonso stood with his back to the fireplace while Ryan and Angelique faced him. Geoffrey stood back and recorded as the judge intermediated a simple exchange of vows. Alfonso declared them married. It was all over in two minutes. Angelique gave Ryan a quick peck.
“I’ll get comfortable again and pack a few things,” she said before bouncing back to the bedroom.
“We’re going to Charleston for the weekend,” Ryan explained to Geoffrey.
“I see.”
“No, I don’t think you do. Not yet anyway.” He handed Judge Alfonso an envelope. “Thank you for your help.”
“I wouldn’t have missed it. I’ll let myself out.”
“Thanks again. Geoff, my boy, come and talk with me.”
Ryan led the way to his study, which was lined with overstuffed bookshelves on every wall. He shut the door behind them. He sat down behind his desk. Geoffrey sat in a wing chair
“So, what do you think of the blushing bride?” asked Ryan.
“She seems nice.”
“I didn’t ask you in here to exchange inane pleasantries. You can be more honest than that. Be so. Your next and final semester’s tuition is pre-paid – don’t thank me! – so there is no risk to offending me.”
Geoffrey took a deep breath. “OK,” he said. “Well, she’s not blushing but she is awfully young. May I ask how young?”
“We usually ask ‘how old,’ but no matter. She’s 19.”
“Two years younger than I am. Oh, Uncle Ryan... Where did you find her?”
“California, with private detectives.”
“You’re not kidding. Why?”
“I am not kidding. I’ll explain why shortly. So, you disapprove.”
“No, not as such, but…well, she could be your granddaughter.”
“The thought has crossed my mind.”
Geoffrey’s stomach was suddenly unsettled. “You don’t mean…”
“No, of course not. Even I am not that twisted. Did you know I had a vasectomy back in the ‘70s? They were very popular at the time for those with no interest in children. That’s before all those ‘80s diseases started making us wear condoms again anyway. It rather defeated the point.”
“No, I didn’t know, and this conversation is taking a very odd turn. Perhaps I should go, Uncle Ryan.”
“Please, not yet. There is more you should know.”
“Well…alright. But marriage… why now, Uncle Ryan? Why marry after all these years? Why this kid instead of any one of the others who looked just like her?”
“Maybe because this one, who isn’t really a kid, isn’t quite like the others. Or maybe because I wasn’t ready to die on the inside until I was ready to die on the outside.”
“I don’t understand.”
“A small attempt at a joke. I’m dying, Geoffrey. That’s what there is to understand. The doctors give me six months at the outside, unless I submit to vigorous, harsh, and expensive treatment, in which case I might last a year. I’ll skip the torture and take the six months. Don’t worry, you’ll get the Mustang.”
“Uncle Ryan… So this is a final fling? You wanted to get married once before…before…”
“‘Death’ is the word you’re groping for. Not exactly a fling. First answer this, and be honest. I haven’t time for evasions. What do you think of your Great Uncle Brent?”
“Well, grandma didn’t like him much. Neither does dad. He tried to hit them up for money all the time. He still calls my dad. I know he is your brother and you two are close, but…”
“What makes you think we’re close?”
“Dad says that if it weren’t for you, Uncle Brent would be bankrupt – that you’ve bailed him out repeatedly and kept the bank from taking his house. You don’t do that for an enemy.”
“Are you sure?”
“Well, it seems improbable. Uncle Brent also seems to think he is inheriting your estate. That’s what he told my dad anyway. It’s how he said he would pay back the money he wanted from dad, though I don’t know why he thought he would outlive you… unless he knew about your…uh…condition.”
“He does not. And your assessment of Brent is far too kind. He is a drunken, lying, cheating, thieving, pill-popping, self-indulgent skunk with a gambling addiction.”
“Oh! I just realized…he’ll be horrified that you’re married,” said Geoffrey.
“I’m sure you’ll be getting a call from him as soon as he hears about it. Please reassure him that you witnessed a very stringent prenup and that my existing Will remains unaltered. I want you to promise me you’ll do that.”
“OK, Uncle Ryan, but I don’t understand why you are so generous to him if you dislike him.”
“Sometimes in order to be sure a fall is devastating, you have to be sure the object you drop is sufficiently high off the ground. I’ve been keeping Brent high enough off the ground.”
“What kind of fall?”
“Ah, that brings us to the story. Did you know that you and Brent are not blood related? No? Well, you’re not. You and I are, but not he. You see, your grandmother Isabel and I were adopted as twins. We weren’t supposed to know, but kids find everything in a house; there are no safe storage places. Isabel found the adoption papers and showed them to me when we were little. We never let on that we knew. Our adoptive parents after ten years of marriage apparently had assumed that they were unable to have children of their own, but then, as not infrequently happens after adoption – hormonal changes or something – they did conceive one of their own after all: your Uncle Brent. The three of us grew up working in our parents’ hardware store. I was the only one who enjoyed it.
“All three of us were good students – even Brent despite his laziness and chronic lateness with assignments. The problem was that there really wasn’t enough money in our family for college tuition for all three of us. So, while still in high school I agreed to work the store when it came time for Brent and Isabel to go on and get their degrees. I was confident I could educate myself through my own reading – especially if Isabel would share with me her texts and notes. She said she would. Life was not all work and school though. I met a young lady. These are pictures I rarely show to anyone.”
Ryan unlocked a drawer in his desk and removed a small box containing photos. He handed them to Geoffrey who flipped through them. The young Ryan in the photos was almost unrecognizable, but despite the headband, fringe leather jacket, and granny glasses, the young woman with him could have been Angelique.
“Is this…?”
“You have a habit of not finishing awkward questions and statements, Geoffrey. Work on that. Yes, this is the original – the first of the line and the only one who mattered, until now.”
“Who is she?”
“Her name was Angelica. And no, that’s not an assumed name like Angelique. Have you ever been in love, Geoffrey?”
“Um, maybe. Yeah, I think so.”
“Let me clarify matters for you. No, you haven’t been, or you wouldn’t be expressing any doubt. Well, I was – am – in love. Angelica was my first, and, in a sense, the last.”
“Did she feel the same way?”
“In a word, no. This was the 1960s and she was a free spirit, very much in sync with the times. She loved me to be sure, but she loved lots of people. That was OK. It was who she was. In that era I was a serious minded young man and she was a much needed unfettered counterbalance. She taught me how to dance – not very well but well enough for us to attend the Senior Prom, which she agreed to do with the words, ‘Sure, sounds like a trip.’ She taught me everything about life and love that you can’t learn in school or in a job. So, though she was not ready to settle down so young, I was sure that in time she would want to – and would want to with me. Even if it took years, I would be there for her.”
“But she didn’t end up with you. What happened?”
“War. It turned out that there was one piece of paper more important than a Bachelor of Arts of which my absence from college deprived me: a 2S student deferment for the Selective Service. I was drafted. While I was in Vietnam, my brother Brent attended college demonstrations against the war in which I was fighting. Out of habit, Angelica continued to stop by my house and the family store, and soon she was joining him in the marches. While I was fighting the NVA at Snoul during the Cambodian incursion with the 11th Armored Cavalry, she was protesting that same operation with my brother in DC, camping out at night in the hallways of the dorms at GWU. She was joining him in more intimate ways as well. He didn’t really care for her as I did. For him she was just another dalliance. Perhaps she regarded him the same way, but he was just enough influence on her to turn her mind and affections away from me permanently.
“Shortly before I returned to the States, she left Connecticut. She was going to California, she said to Brent. She never sent either one of us so much as a postcard ever again. She’d always been on rocky terms with her family so she didn’t stay in touch with them either. I looked for her with the limited resources I had available then. Social networks and cyber-footprints did not exist as they do today, however. You could disappear easily if you wanted to.”
“Uncle Ryan, I hesitate to say this, but she left you. She obviously didn’t want to be with you anymore.”
“Maybe, but I wanted to hear that from her. I would have overlooked the Brent affair, much as I hated it. I wanted to state my case, and, if she still refused to give us another shot, I’d have let her be. But I wanted to hear it from her.”
“So, instead of the woman you wanted, you’ve been finding substitutes for her time and again ever since. Uncle Ryan…”
“If you have something to say boy, spit it out.”
“You do realize that these substitutes of yours can’t possibly have much resemblance to the real thing. Your old girlfriend has lived a lifetime since you last saw her and has become someone else. She is collecting Social Security.”
“No, actually she isn’t. I know because I did find her eventually, though it took a decade. She never went to California. She went to a commune in New Mexico. There she developed a serious substance abuse problem and died of a heroin overdose in 1979, but not before having given birth to a daughter whom she gave up for adoption. From the birth date, I was pretty sure the child was Brent’s.”
“You blame him for Angelica’s death as well as for the betrayal of your trust.”
“Indeed I do,” said Ryan. “The smallest change in her life could have made all the difference. Her downward spiral began with Brent.”
“So, you hate your brother…really hate your brother…but keep helping him because of the old advice to ‘keep your enemies closer?’”
“Precisely. Do you know how eagerly he awaits my demise? He has debts amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, many of them owed to very dangerous people. Only my largesse has kept him from bankruptcy and from the hospital. His belief that he is my prime beneficiary is all that keeps him going. He’ll be much relieved to hear of the prenup and the unchanged Will.”
“I’m sure he will be. But then what does your young wife Angelique have to do with your issues with your brother?”
“Because the existing Will that remains unchanged is the one I filed six months ago when I first found Angelique, not an older one. Brent is cut out completely. She will get the bulk of my estate and, now that we are married, the Will will be very hard to contest. If my brother does try to contest it, she will fight him for every scrap. Angelique, you see, is an unapologetic golddigger, and I’m proud of her for that. I’m relying on it. She won’t let her heritage weaken her grip on what is due her. Angelique is Angelica’s granddaughter – and DNA confirms she is Brent’s, too. I was able to track adoption leads for her mother – not always entirely legally – and they led me eventually to her and to Angelique. I have paid Brent back at last. At his moment of his highest hopes and expectations, I intend to rob Brent of his future, his past, his anticipated fortune, and of a family he didn’t know he had.”
“Uncle Ryan, you asked me to be honest. Cavorting with the granddaughter, legal age notwithstanding, of your old girlfriend and your adopted brother is creepy. Also, I’m not sure I’m comfortable helping you with your frankly perverse revenge.”
“I suspected you might feel that way, so fully one million dollars (and the Mustang) is earmarked in my Will for you – provided you keep my confidence prior to its execution. The other 9 million or so goes to Angelique. I assume that will help overcome your distaste for the situation and assuage your conscience.”
“But Uncle Ryan…how do I put this? You won’t be able to enjoy your moment of vengeance because…because you won’t be here.”
“I’m enjoying it now, Geoffrey. That’s quite enough. There are times when revenge is best served not only as a cold dish but by a cold host. And now, I have a honeymoon waiting for me, so move along, Geoffrey. Keep your promise and my confidence. If I don’t see you again, it is likely you nonetheless will see me.”

It was a chilly overcast March day at the gravesite. The grass was still wet from an early morning rain. Geoffrey stood next to Angelique who looked stunning in a black mini-dress. Suppressing a smirk, she elbowed Geoffrey lightly in the ribs.
“You really shouldn’t be stealing glances like that at your widowed great aunt,” she whispered.
“You asked me not to refer to you that way, Angelique.”
“Did I?”
“Yes. Do you really think Uncle Brent committed suicide?”
“No,” she said. “He thought too highly of himself for that. His underworld creditors strung him up once they were sure he could never pay them.”
“That was my take on it. I liked Uncle Ryan despite everything, you know, but I feel sad that he wasted his life living in the past and plotting revenge.”
“Wasted his life? He did nothing of the sort. If he had married my grandmother, who from all accounts was a flake, that great love of his wouldn’t have lasted a year. They probably would have divorced, and then he really would have been a bitter, broken, and cynical man. By idealizing her and dedicating himself to avenging her he illumined his life, not wasted it. He lived as a romantic and died fulfilled. And what do you mean by ‘despite everything’? Does that mean me?” asked Angelique.
“No…I meant…”
“It’s annoying when you don’t finish your sentences.”
“So I’ve been told. I meant the vengeance thing, though your defense of it is interesting. I’m not sure I agree with you.”
“You are perfectly within your rights to be wrong.”
“I see. You know we’re not really related,” Geoffrey observed.
“I know, but this is not really the time or place to discuss what you’re hinting at so unsubtly. Besides, I’m a free spirit, just so you know. I’ll certainly never get too serious about anyone poorer than myself – which you are, at least as of now. You, on the other hand, strike me as obsessive, like your great uncle. If I played with you and left you, I think you would take it pretty hard.”
“Maybe. But maybe you were right about my uncle, in which case there is something to be said for family tradition.”