and the Orphan Boy
It has rained all day. Not that I mind rain, but this is the day I promised to put up the screens and take my kid to the beach. I also meant to daub some giddy stencils on the composition walls of the place in the cellar which the realtor called a Rumpus Room and to start finishing what the realtor called an Unfinished Attic, Ideal for Guest Room, Game Room, Studio or Den.
Somehow I got sidetracked right after breakfast.
It all started over an old issue of the Digest. This is a magazine I rarely read. I don't have to, because I hear all of its articles discussed every morning on the seven-fifty-one and every evening on the six-oh-three. Everybody in Verdant Greens--a community of two hundred houses in four styles--swears by the Digest. In fact, they talk of nothing else.
But I find that the magazine has the same snake-bird fascination for me, too. Almost against my will, I read about the menace in our public schools; the fun of natural childbirth; how a community in Oregon put down a dope ring; and about somebody whom a famous writer--I forget which one--considers to be the Most Unforgettable Character he's ever met.
That stopped me.
Unforgettable Character? Why, that writer hasn't met anybody! He couldn't know what the word character meant unless he'd met my Auntie Mame. Nobody could. Yet there were certain parallels between his Unforgettable Character and mine. His Unforgettable Character was a sweet little New England spinster who lived in a sweet little white clapboard house and opened her sweet little green door one morning expecting to find the Hartford Courant. Instead she found a sweet little wicker basket, with a sweet little baby boy inside. The rest of the article went on to tell how that Unforgettable Character took the baby in and raised it as her own. Well, that's when I put the Digest down and got to thinking about the sweet little lady who raised me.
In 1928 my father had a slight heart attack and was confined to his bed for a few days. Along with a pain in his chest, he developed a certain cosmic consciousness and the instinct that he wasn't going to last forever. So, having nothing better to do, he telephoned his secretary, who looked like Bebe Daniels, and dictated his will. The secretary typed an original and four carbons, put on her cloche, and took a Yellow Cab from La Salle Street to the Edgewater Beach Hotel to get my father's signature.
The will was very short and very original. It read:
In case of my death, all of my worldly possessions are to be left to my only child, Patrick. If I should die before the boy is eighteen, I appoint my sister, Mame Dennis, of 3 Beekman Place, New York City, as Patrick's legal guardian.
He is to be reared as a Protestant and to be sent to conservative schools. Mame will know what I mean. All cash and securities which I leave are to be handled by the Knickerbocker Trust Company of New York City. Mame will be among the first to see the wisdom of this. However, I do not expect her to be out of pocket on account of rearing my son. She is to submit monthly bills for my son's food, lodging, clothing, education, medical expenses, etc. But the Trust Company will have every right to question any item that seems unusual or eccentric before reimbursing my sister.
I also bequeath five thousand dollars ($5,000) to our faithful servant, Norah Muldoon, so that she may retire in comfort to that place in Ireland she's always talking about .
Norah called me in from the playground and my father read his will to me in a shaky voice. He said that my Aunt Mame was a very peculiar woman and that to be left in her hands was a fate that he wouldn't wish a dog, but that beggars couldn't be choosers and Auntie Mame was my only living relative. The will was witnessed by the secretary and the room service waiter.
The following week my father had forgotten his illness and was out playing golf. A year later he dropped dead in the steam room of the Chicago Athletic Club and I was an orphan.
I don't remember much about my father's funeral except that it was very hot and there were real roses in the vases of the undertaker's Pierce-Arrow limousine. The cortege was made up of some big, hearty men who kept muttering something about getting in at least nine holes when this thing was over, and, of course, Norah and me.
Norah cried a lot. I didn't. In my whole ten years I'd hardly spoken to my father. We met only at breakfast, which for him consisted of black coffee, Bromo-Seltzer and the Chicago Tribune. If I ever said anything, he'd hold his head and say, "Pipe down, kid, the old man's hung," which I never understood until some years after his death. Every year on my birthday he'd send Norah and me to a matinee performance of some light entertainment involving Joe Cook or Fred Stone or maybe the Sells-Floto Circus. Once he took me out to dinner at a place called Casa de Alex with a pretty woman named Lucille. She called us both Honey and smelled very good. I liked her. Otherwise I rarely saw him. My life was spent at Chicago Boys' Latin School, or at Supervised Play with the other children who lived in the hotel, or messing around the suite with Norah.
After he was Laid to Rest, as Norah called it, the big, hearty men went off to the golf course and the limousine carried us back to the Edgewater Beach. Norah took off her black hat and her veil and told me I could get out of my serge suit. She said that my father's partner, Mr. Gilbert, and another gentleman were coming and that I should be around to sign some papers.
I went into my room and practiced signing my name on hotel stationery, and pretty soon Mr. Gilbert and the other man showed up. I could hear them talking to Norah, but I couldn't understand much of what they said. Norah cried a little and said something about that dear, blessed man, not cold in his grave and generous to a fault. The stranger said that his name was Babcock and he was my trustee, which I thought was very exciting because Norah and I had just seen a movie in which an honest convict was made a trusty and saved the warden's little daughter during a big prison break. Mr. Babcock said something about a very irregular will, but watertight.
Norah said she didn't know nothing much about money matters but that it sounded like a good deal of money, she was sure.
Mr. Gilbert said The Boy was to endorse this certified check in the presence of the Trust Company official and then it was to be notarized and the whole transaction would be finished and done with. It sounded faintly sinister to me. Mr. Babcock said, Um, yes, that was right.
Norah cried again and said such a big fortune for such a little boy and the trustee said yes, it was a considerable amount, but then, he'd handled people like the Wilmerdings and the Goulds who had real money.
It seemed to me that they were making a lot of fuss about nothing if all this didn't involve real money.
Then Norah came into the bedroom and told me to go out and shake hands with Mr. Gilbert and the other gentleman like a Little Man. I did. Mr. Gilbert said I was Taking It like a Regular Soldier and Mr. Babcock, the trustee, said he had a boy back in Scarsdale just my age, and he hoped we'd be Real Pals.
Mr. Gilbert picked up the telephone and asked if a Notary Public could be sent up. I signed two pieces of paper. The Notary Public mumbled some things and then stamped the paper. Mr. Gilbert said that was that and he had to step on it if he wanted to get to Winnetka. Mr. Babcock said that he was staying at the University Club and if Norah wanted anything she could reach him there. They shook hands with me again and Mr. Gilbert repeated that I was a Regular Soldier. Then they picked up their straw hats and went away.
When we were alone, Norah said I'd been a dear and how would I like to go down to the Marine Room and have a good dinner and then maybe see a Vitaphone talking picture.
That was the end of my father.
There wasn't very much to pack. Our suite consisted of a large sitting room and three bedrooms, all furnished by the Edgewater Beach Hotel. The only bibelots my father possessed were a pair of silver military brushes and two photographs. "Like an Ay-rab, your father lived," Norah said.
I'd got so used to the two photographs that I never paid any attention to them. One of them was of my mother, who died when I was born. The other photograph depicted a flashing-eyed woman in a Spanish shawl with a big rose over one ear. "A regular Eye-talian she looks," Norah said. That was my Auntie Mame.
Norah and Mr. Babcock went through my father's personal belongings. He took all the papers and my father's gold watch and pearl studs and the jewelry that had been my mother's to keep for me until I was old enough to Appreciate them. The room service waiter got my father's suits. His golf clubs and my old books and toys were sent off to a charity. Then Norah took the pictures of my mother and Auntie Mame out of their frames and cut them down to fit my hip pocket--"So you'll always have the faces of your loved ones near your heart," she explained.
Everything was done. Norah bought me a suit of lightweight mourning at Carson, Pirie, Scott's and an epic hat for herself. Mr. Gilbert and The Firm made all the arrangements for our trip to New York. On June thirtieth we were ready to go.
I remember the day we left Chicago because I'd never been allowed to stay up so late before. The hotel staff took up a collection and presented Norah with a fitted alligator traveling case, a malachite rosary, and a big bouquet of American Beauty roses. They gave me a book called Bible Heroes Every Child Should Know--Old Testament. Norah took me around to say good-by to all the children who lived in the hotel and at seven o'clock Room Service brought up our dinner, which featured three different kinds of dessert, with the compliments of the chef. At nine o'clock Norah made me wash my face and hands again, brushed my new mourning suit, pinned a St. Christopher medal onto my B.V.D.s, cried, put on her new hat, cried, gathered up her roses, made a brief last inspection of the suite, cried, and settled into the hotel bus.
It was easy to see that Norah was as unaccustomed to de luxe rail travel as I was. She was nervous in the compartment and gave a little scream when I turned on the water in the basin. She read all the warnings aloud, told me not to go near the electric fan, and not to flush the toilet until the train started. She amended this by telling me not to use the toilet at all--you couldn't tell who'd been there before.
We had a little quarrel about who was going to sleep in the upper berth. I wanted to, but Norah was firm. I was pleased when she nearly fell climbing into the upper, but she said she'd rather perish than ring for a ladder and have that black man see her in her night clothes. At ten the train started to roll and I lay in my berth watching the lights of the South Side glide past my window. Before we got to Englewood Station I was asleep, and that's the last I ever saw of Chicago.
It was thrilling to eat breakfast while the big New York Central train was racing over the countryside. Norah had lost her awe of train travel and struck up quite a conversation with the colored dining steward.
"Yes," Norah was saying, "thirty years I been in this country now. Come over as a girl from the other side, and green as grass I was, too. Went into me--my--first service in Boston, Massachusetts; on Commonwealth Avenue it was--oh, the stairs in that house--when this boy's mother was just a little girl. Then she married, and took me with them all the way out to Chicago. La, but I was frightened! I full expected the place to be run over with red In-di-uns. Eat all your egg, darling," she said to me.
"First herself died," Norah went on, "and I stayed on to care for the child. Then Mist-her Dennis passed on. Went off like that in the Athyletic Club. And now it's me melancholy task to take this poor little boy to his Auntie Mame in New York. Imagine, only ten years old and nayther father nor mother does he have." Norah dabbed at her eyes.
The steward said I was very brave.
"Show him the photygraph of yer Auntie Mame, darling," Norah said. I was embarrassed, but I reached into my hip pocket and brought out the Carmen picture of my aunt.
"Tell me, is this Beekman Place a decent neighborhood for bringing up a child? He's only used to the best."
"Oh, yes, ma'am," the steward said, "that's a very nice location. I got a cousin works on Beekman Place. Nearly everybody there's a millionaire."
Spurred on by her social success with the New York Central personnel, Norah ordered another pot of tea and regarded the other passengers with an imperious air.
We spent the rest of the morning in our compartment, which had mysteriously changed from a bedroom to a sort of living room. Norah said her rosary, with a special mention of the Seven Cities of Sin, and then began her tatting. After breakfast Norah managed to tell both the porter and the conductor, with mounting hauteur, that I was a fabulously endowed little boy--"jist like that King Whatsisname of Ro-mania"--who was going to live with his Auntie Mame, a woman of means and mystery who dwelt in a marble palace on Beekman Place.
It was six o'clock when we pulled into Grand Central, and Norah, for all her Pullman airs and graces, was scared and flustered in the throng on the platform.
"Take me hand, Paddy," she screamed, "and don't fer the love of the Lord get lost in this . . ." The rest of her warning was muffled by the uproar. Clinging to me with one hand and clutching at the money bag in her corset with the other, Norah fought a losing battle with a redcap, who, ignoring her protests, tossed all of our luggage onto a hand truck and rolled it away, with Norah and me racing after him.
Excerpted from Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis. Copyright © 2001 by Patrick Dennis. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.