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Contemporary Fiction

When I heard Aunt Maisie’s warble on the voice-mail I groaned. Although she and Uncle Leland are no-fuss visitors, the type who’d welcome a cheese sandwich at my kitchen table, I suspected they had an agenda behind their impromptu visit in late spring. They’re good friends with Genevieve’s family.

I wanted an excuse for a knock-down belly-busting barbecue. I was in the mood to coax a T-bone steak to perfection on my shiny new thousand-dollar deluxe grill enthroned on the deck that I had lovingly refurbished most of the past year while Genevieve was working long hours at the city hospital. I wanted to bask in the admiration of friends and neighbors for completing the big deck/barbecue project. Instead, my aunt and uncle just wanted to hang out in the breakfast nook. Whatever.

“The Crown Vic blew a gasket this past winter and we had to junk it,” Uncle Leland said, accepting with a sigh the mug of tea I handed him. “Hoo-eee, it’s an uncommon delight to be riding in luxury again.” I wished Genevieve was here to help carry my end of the conversation while I sliced and buttered.

“Musta been a rough winter,” I said, “getting to and from work by dogsled.” Leland was a bookkeeper and Maisie worked part-time for the municipality. They also did odd jobs like Christmas shift at the post office and selling fishing worms to summer vacationers.

They laughed appreciatively. “Good ole Pete, you haven’t lost your sense of humor here in the big city.”

Leland looks like a garden gnome dressed like an accountant. He has that spry, mischievous aura and bulbous features. Maisie has apple cheeks, an unexpectedly sharp nose, and a mop of yellow-gray hair. Looking at them, you’d never guess they’d lost their only son to meningitis two decades ago.

“We saved a passel of money, is what,” Maisie said. “And I lost ten pounds, toning my muscles as I tromped through waist-high snowbanks.” She patted her thighs proudly. “You know how he loves to drive, but not so much in winner,” she said, dropping the T in “winter” and thus making the harsh season into a positive. Typical Maisie.

“You don’t realize how much you pay Royal Dutch every week until you decide to quit driving a gas guzzler,” Leland said. Yes, the company has rebranded to Shell, but these two keep calling it “Royal Dutch.”

“We’re doing our bit to save the environment,” Maisie said, accepting the sandwich plate. She glanced at the clutter I had to push aside as I set down her plate. “What, is Genevieve away for a bit?”

“Ye-es,” I said carefully. “We’re…” I thrust a plate at Leland, who took one glimpse at my desperate face and helped man-to-man with a digression on the price of cheese.

“So, you saved up for a car?” I asked once we were safely past the topic of Genevieve. “Or is that a rental you drove up in?”

Leland’s eyes shifted to Maisie and back to me. “Started to… but then I realized we had a chance to double our money!” He grinned. “Ever hear of N.F.Ts?”

I blinked. In between rebuilding the deck and trying to placate Genevieve, I’d been researching NFTs, eventually concluding I didn’t feel comfortable jumping on a bandwagon whose name I could barely pronounce. (Come on, when’s the last time you heard “fungible” used in a conversation?) “So you got into NFTs…,” I said, “whose idea was that?” I’d decided to stir up this lovey-dovey pair. The best defense is a good offense. If the family sent them here to talk to me about Genevieve—perhaps to advise me to take her back—I would instead get Maisie and Leland quarreling. Nothing like questions of money to provoke a squabble, right? Their spats were legendary in the family, with not much crockery surviving from their wedding set.

Maisie chuckled. “Well, he started it… but, okay, I kept feeding it. I cut out articles for him... found a book. We might live in the boondocks of upper Maine, but we stay up to date.”

“So, what priceless artwork did you buy the NFTs for?” I said. “Not some pixelated gorilla, I hope.”

Leland nudged Maisie. “See, Pete knows all about ‘em. I told you he would.” He winked. “Sounds like you’ve been dipping into the alternative markets, too.”

I shrugged; I play my cards close to the chest whenever I can. Something else that used to drive Genevieve nuts.

“Problem is, the wiffy,” Maisie said.

“Wi-Fi,” I corrected her gently (as nephews have to do). “Rhymes with hi-fi and tie-dye.”

“You know what she means,” Leland said, loyally. “The WiFi’s pretty slow out there, and liable to interruptions. We know our limitations, so we went to the city to find a financial advisor.”

“Joe and Betty’s girl was getting married,” Maisie said, “so we caught a ride with them—they were glad to share the driving,” After a digression about Joe’s cataracts and Betty’s breast and the wedding, Maisie said, “We stopped at the first place we saw that offered NTFs.”

“NFTs,” I corrected.

She waved this away and they sailed merrily along with the story, scarcely missing a beat.

“It was an NFT on a painting by… who’s that guy?” Leland said. “You see his work everywhere…”

“Oh-oh-oh-tip of my tongue! He does gorgeous work, gorgeous,” Maisie said. “You know the Christmas cards we send out?”

“Ah, Thomas Kinkade.” I recalled the pink and yellow hues of a saccharin Christmas. On the plus side, Kinkade was extremely popular so that meant high demand. I seemed to recall he had died… which would also work in Leland’s favor. Moreover, there was some scandal attached to the artist… that would also make the NFTs more valuable. But on the negative side, Kinkade was extremely prolific—the NFTs issued for his kitsch would be a dime a dozen. With all the swings and roundabouts of volatile prices, I figured Leland would pretty much break even.

Leland nudged Maisie. “You see how polite this nephew of ours is?” he said to her and she murmured agreement. “I can see it in your eyes, Pete. You know the market for NFTs turned real soft…

“Soft as a moldy peach,” I said, “especially for over-exposed artists like Kinkade, whose pictures are printed on every coffee cup and roll of toilet paper this side of the Appalachians.”

Maisie looked like she’d been slapped. I suspected I’d never receive another Kinkade card. For a fleeting moment, I recalled Genevieve’s face the time—the one time—I dared comment on her choice of tableware. Her tastes, like my aunt’s, ran to the cozy and sentimental. I’d told Genevieve that I preferred not to eat my sardines on toast in the middle of a flower bed of lilies and forget-me-nots… and started nuclear winter.

Why had things blown up for Genevieve and me? I studied Leland’s profile. He didn’t share Maisie’s style. Any reference to their décor was self-deprecating. Somehow they’d been able to negotiate a truce, these two.

Maisie picked up her cup and said, “Would Genevieve be able to say hi if we drove by the city hospital, do you think?”

“No way,” I said. “They’re too busy to spit.” Maisie was veering toward the subject of Genevieve and me. “Don’t tell me you lost your shirt on the NFTs,” I said, figuring I could keep distracting them by asking about their lives. The worst they could say was, “Mind your own beeswax.”

But Leland had no false pride. “Ten cents on the dollar,” he said.

“Ouch!”

“Yep. So much for buying a new set of wheels.” Leland ran his fingers through his few strands of gray hair. I stared at him. I would never have admitted getting fleeced, not even with family. It seemed unmanly. Genevieve would have kicked me to the curb.

Or would she?

There was Maisie, placing her hand over Leland’s knuckles like she was wrapping her palm around a golden scepter. “The radio people came around to innerview him. My Lele here became a local celebrity.” She beamed. “They ran the piece a few times.”

“And the worm business picked up,” Leland said. “Folks kept dropping by to ask if they could see my famous painting. And they’d buy a cup or two of worms.”

“But the publicity meant we got targeted by identity thieves,” Maisie said. She dropped her voice ominously. “The nerve of some people!”

 “The scum!” I said.

“But the joke was on them,” Maisie said.

“I’ll say!” Leland crowed. “We hadn’t a cent left to steal.” His expression darkened. “Boy, did I feel like a fool. Seems like the whole country knows…”

“Well, so what?” she said. “Isn’t this what they mean by radical honesty? People learned from your experience. Takes a brave man to offer himself up like a life lesson.”

I sighed in commiseration. This spring I was voted the worst-dressed teacher at the school. Genevieve had left me and I still hadn’t figured out the washing machine. “Yes, it takes guts to face the public,” I said.

“Wish I could charge tuition fees at the School of Hard Knocks,” Leland said.

“See? He even made it funny,” she said.

He bristled. “Funny? It sure wasn’t funny…”

“Oh, Lele, you didn’t mean it to be funny but, in a way, it was.”

I nodded. “That’s the best kind of funny.”

“And then there was that heckler,” he said.

“She wasn’t a heckler,” Maisie said.

“Sure seemed like one to me.” Leland gave a shudder as if remembering the encounter. “She was from out of town; you could tell by how fast she talked and how odd she looked. No sir, she was no Mainer.”

“You say ‘odd’ like she had two heads,” Maisie said teasingly.

“She had something up her nose—”

Maisie hooted. “You say it like she had a cucumber stuck up her nose!”

This caused a gale of hilarity while I sat blankly, waiting to hear about Leland’s brief career on the lecture circuit. From the description Maisie wheezed, I realized it was a small diamond nose piercing the “odd” stranger had. I made a mental note to wear my nose ring the next time I see them. I’ll help broaden their horizons: that’s what a good nephew does.

“So she heckled you,” I said. “Then what?”

“She challenged this and that, things I’d done, answers I’d received from authorities.” He polished his big-lensed glasses, which had fogged up when he’d been rolling with mirth. “I had all the paperwork, right there.”

“Oh yes, he’s a real bloodhound,” she said.

“Used to be a forensic accountant,” he said.

“That gal thought she was going to take him down—but he turned it right around.” Maisie made a motion like she was steering a bus.

“The library asked me to give my talk again,” he said. “There’s big interest in ID theft out here.”

“We checked out some of the other library lectures,” Maisie said. “Lele, I said, let’s try that yoga class. He’s been having high blood pressure, what with the broken-down car, the worthless NFTs, and then getting his identity stolen.”

“And don’t forget the septic tank problem,” Leland interjected.

She patted his hand. “Any other man would be a puddle of stress hormone…”

“Yeah, and she kept going on about yoga…” He smirked. “What choice did I have?”

“High blood pressure—the silent killer!” she said. “Our doctor gave him some meds but also said, exercise and meditation.”

“The problem with yoga class is,” he said gravely, “I sometimes fart.”

She blithely ignored this. “It’s been very helpful. We do it every day now.”

“So… your library lecture was a bust, but you discovered meditation and improved your health,” I said. “With all the swings and roundabouts, you came out about even.”

I reflected… maybe I should try yoga. Genevieve was always saying I was too impatient and stressed. I pictured my aunt and uncle stretched out on yoga mats, possibly laughing too hard to get up from the “half lord of the fishes” pose.

“Oh, no, the lecture wasn’t a bust,” Maisie said.

“The chief librarian’s sister from New York was visiting,” Leland said. “Works for a big publishing house. She was the heckler,” he clarified. “She came to my next talk—”

“The back-by-popular-demand version,” Maisie said, grinning. “Came up and talked to us afterward. Said she knew an agent who needed this kind of book, ‘What To Do When You Lose Your Shirt.’ She asked Lele to make an outline.”

“An outline?” I replenished tea all around and collected the sandwich plates. I sneaked a glance at the stove clock. There was still time to call Genevieve and invite her over. She loved—loves, I guess—Maisie and Leland. She calls them the real deal, salt of the earth, and the family she never had. Yes, we were officially broken up, but I still had a box of Genevieve’s books. I could say Maisie and Leland were asking about her and by the way, I’d found some books. “Come on over and listen to their latest escapade,” I’d say.

“The agent said if I provided enough detail they’d write the book for me,” he said. “I looked them right in the eye and said, ‘thanks, but I’ll take care of that myself.’”

Maisie leaned closer to me. “Pete, a little bird told me you resigned from teaching recently. That’s good news for us—we’re hoping you can help us out.”

I choked on my tea. I pictured telling Genevieve I had landed a freelance assignment. This was sort of in my area: English literature. And I wouldn’t have to deal with overcrowded classrooms and belligerent students.

Moreover, it might be good to hang out with a couple of experts. Experts on marriage. I could use a few pointers. They were obviously used to dealing with the swings and roundabouts and coming out together.

THE END

July 22, 2022 22:06

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