DEAREST NEPHEW NOEL, the telegram read, I WILL LEAVE JUNE FIRST TO TOUR THE MEDITERRANEAN STOP WILL YOU MANAGE MY AFFAIRS STOP HUGS AND KISSES FROM YOUR FAVORITE AUNT.
Auntie Kate’s affairs were paying the laundress and keeping the key to the linen closet, but I saw an opportunity for jazz and parties in the world’s biggest city.
LOOKING FORWARD TO VISITING NEW YORK FOR THE FIRST TIME, I replied. WILL BE THERE FASTER THAN JESSE OWENS.
My arrival instantly un-realized those plans. Far from steel skyscrapers and subway trains, she lived in a country house much like the family estate of her childhood before automobiles, canned ale, and modernity. There was no chance to change plans; she left her side of the pond the same day that I did mine.
Adding to a ledger full of directions, Auntie wired instructions. DEAREST NEPHEW NOEL STOP I HOST A BRIDGE PARTY FOR THE STROUD FAMILY STOP PLEASE CARRY ON FOR ME STOP YOU WILL LOVE THEM STOP HUGS AND KISSES FROM VALENCIA.
Not knowing her itinerary, I could not reply.
The only live-in help was her man Preston. The housekeeper and maid were part-time. Her late husband Irving’s leftover, Preston, was tall, slim, and maintained his pencil mustache with perfected craftsmanship.
“Preston,” I asked, pointing to the telegram, “What do you make of these people? How exactly does my aunt want me to invite them over?”
“She already has, sir.”
“How’s that? This came for me just yesterday.”
“Indeed,” he said. “As did her messages to each of them. All three rang this morning to RSVP.”
I had not yet found any telephone, let alone heard one ringing. Two steps ahead, the chap spared me several awkward conversations.
From the trolley line, their walk to Auntie’s was ten blocks. The abode was odd in size—smaller than a mansion but larger than a country cottage. I suppose it was a house, similar to what unexceptional people have. Auntie Kate’s place was larger than my city apartment suite but far more boring, lacking any decent pubs or recurring parties. Two gabled windows rose from the roof resembling eyes with arched eyebrows.
The Strouds were minor millionaires compared to New York’s Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Astors. Even worse, their fortunes were held by the Stroud dowager, an heiress and an invalid. Like me, I suspected, they waited for the golden apple to fall from the tree.
“Who’s who, Preston?” I asked. Through the window, we watched them approach.
Old enough to marry but young enough to get into trouble, Violet didn’t quite look twenty. She had the silhouette of a flagpole. Trimmed to a short bob, her hair didn’t look modern inasmuch as it was sexless.
Twice her daughter’s age, Joan was Stan Laurel to Violet’s Oliver Hardy: short and stout with rounded features. Her cascade of blonde ringlets would make any wig jealous.
Henry, the head of the household, walked stiffly with an elaborately carved cane. In rust red, he had a schnauzer’s shaggy mustache and goatee with eyebrows to match. He carried himself with seniority, a privilege exercised by gentlemen between the ages of fifty and Methuselah.
“Noel!” the Strouds cried in unison.
They entered with abundant handshaking and we’ve-heard-so-much-about-yous like distant cousins from Hong Kong or Bombay.
Preston led the way into the parlor. Not the grandest room ever decorated, it lacked a Metcalf or a Quince family portrait to identify the house’s good breeding. Instead, a stenciled flock of bird silhouettes hung in mid-flight on light blue walls.
Auntie Kate dodged the unpleasant state of the world’s finances. Her marriage to Irving Metcalf restored the Quince lineage. What he had lacked in pedigree was offset by American greenbacks. Their union resulted in early widowhood and no children, leaving me as her closest relative.
To allow room for us to play on the table, Preston set lunch on the sideboard. We started with tea and passed the pot like a bucket brigade. The ladies took theirs with cream and sugar, whilst Henry and I had lemon and gin.
Monogrammed napkins matched a pattern etched into the dishware. The table was centered within an alcove of waist-high bookshelves rolled there on casters.
Tricky situation and not what you think by the title, or is it?
Laurel was the thin one, Hardy the stout one.