The Plant Queen
We were living in the dark. The shades were drawn because the light hurt Mama’s migraines. Two of the kitchen lights had burnt out and Mama insisted we leave well enough alone.
She had created a soundtrack with hodgepodge recordings of music linked by references to black that ranged from “Paint it Black,” to “That Old Black Magic,” to “Black Magic Woman,” and so forth. This was looped and played through several speakers like elevator music in what Uncle Tod was to dub as the Theater of Cruelty.
Although the sound, for the most part, was thankfully soft, I had frequent headaches. Iris’s headache’s came from the strict diet we were to observe of black beans, black eyed peas, black berries, blackened tuna and so on.
Mama was particularly proud of the Escher prints strung on slanted clothes lines and rigged to glide throughout the house like electric trains. Iris had invented the technology for a science fair submission depicting the life of Albert Einstein.
It had proven disastrous, as the pictures that Iris had carefully glued to dry-cleaning cardboard inserts had fallen into Tory Nebel’s winning-entry titled, “fish aquarium lightshow,” with such eerie precision that it somehow shattered the tank, releasing a torrent of water into a bin of dry ice, turning it into an ad-hoc fog machine.
A cloud of steam mushroomed up that appeared to hallway monitor, Wanda Richardson, as nuclear, prompting her to yell, “duck and cover,” through the speaker system so loudly, that the evening’s festivities came to an abrupt halt and Tory Nebel’s grandmother lost hearing in one ear.
Iris was dubbed “Dr. Strangelove” for the entire year but none of this managed to invoke a keener attention to detail. This time the escher prints were sturdily fastened but pieces had to be pushed out of the way like clearing a path through bramble, for any gliding to happen,
To make matters all the more absurd, adorning the walls were Rorschach test samples that Mama had hauled out of the wastebasket at the psychoanalytic collective, one of her former Avon calling accounts.
We were living in a museum installation.
The first thing Uncle Tod said when he stepped into our basement apartment was, “This could be a movie set.”
“That’s what I intended, you dummkopf.” Mama may have been teasing.
“Don’t call me that.” Uncle Tod sounded like he meant business, which was difficult to reconcile as I doubt Uncle Tod wanted anything to do with any business requiring the type of effort he had long ago squelched in favor of doing the least and making the most of, by stretching the truth.
Mama spoke through her teeth, “I had to come up with this. Don’t you think I’d prefer to live in a streamlined London flat with anorexic whippets, serving hors d’oeuvres rather than in a haphazard, alphabet city crash pad?
I couldn’t help myself and said, “How would you get the whippets to serve hors d’oeuvres?
Everyone laughed but Iris, who said coolly, “What’s so funny, Max?”
“The city with alphabet soups,” Max squealed, spitting up just a bit. I wiped her mouth with the edge of a table mat that needed cleaning anyway, saying, “That was a little mean,” to Iris, who ignored me and inquired, “What are whippets, again?”
“Whippets are the same as they’ve been for years,” said Mama, still smiling from my joke. We waited for further clarity but Mama was trying to comb Max’s hair. Maybe she was getting back at Iris.
“Ow, that hurts, Mama,” Max complained.
“We all must suffer for beauty,” Mama answered but seemed to be going at it a little more gently.
“Whippets are those dogs that look like greyhounds, but smaller, and much skinnier,” I said. I was the proud possessor of “The Universe of Dogs,” courtesy of the fourth-grade spelling bee championship.
Uncle Tod became chatty, “My friend, Astrid, had a greyhound and whenever she would walk her, people would yell out, ‘Hey, feed your dog,’ and she would get so distraught. Astrid, that is. The dog could care less. He was hands-down, one of the stupidest dogs I’d ever met.”
“Most pedigrees are,” I said, then realizing that I maybe seemed like I was being a know-it-all, added, “I’m pretty sure.”
“My mother’s poodle, Stanley Livingston, could have split the atom bomb! Remember, Tadpole?” said Mama, with an even expression as if she just said that the dog enjoyed outings in the park.
Iris’s mouth hung open in disbelief. There was no telling if she was reacting to Mama’s lunacy or the amphibian pet name for Uncle Tod. Uncle Tod looked at Mama with what I thought could be care, but he simply may have been thinking of his next line.
“London is dismal, remember? It rains all the time. That’s why everything stops at tea time. They need it to lift their energy and their spirits.”
“Maybe so, Mr. Globetrotter, but,” Mama took his arm and lowered her voice, “the plants need tending.”
Mama had said that Uncle Tod was the bane of her mother, Carol’s, existence but she never elaborated. We had only seen Uncle Tod a few times and it wasn’t a warm and fuzzy memory, for me, anyway. Mainly because he never brought me any presents.
I wasn’t the type of kid who expected presents, but I was happy to get them and Uncle Tod spun elaborate stories about gifts that never panned out. A couple of mine were a Barbie Hawaiian dream house, seized by customs officials after a lady at the airport claimed that mice were living in it and a coral necklace bought from a camel-riding, bedouin at a gas station enroute to the Dead Sea, which during the gift wrapping process, got snatched up by a roving goat. “Goats are fond of foil,” Uncle Tod had told me, sadly.
Iris was old enough to think these near acquisitions hilarious, but I was I was just repeatedly heartbroken. Still, he wasn’t the bane of anyone’s existence, that I could see.
This visit, he didn’t bother tempting me with treasures that might have been, or could be expected. He was distracted enough with the mess Mama had made of the house, for me to study him.
Uncle Tod had those explosive, alien eyebrows that grew up to his hairline in an asymmetrical, “V” pattern. His eyes were almost black and narrowed into slits whenever he talked, like Pinocchio’s nose fluctuated with the truth.
His hair was both curly and wiry, the kind Mama said added insult to injury. It had been dyed red, resembling a hairdo combo of Ronald McDonald and Don King.
Iris thought he looked like a Chucky doll struck by lightening.
Uncle Todd was short and stocky with disjointed movements that added to the whole puppet, clown, doll look.
Max was terrified of him and started to spit up in worry.
“You must be Max,” Uncle Tod said, reaching an arm out for a paper towel and fumbling in his pocket with the other.
“Now where is that coin I brought you?”
Immediately, Max was captivated. “What coin?” she asked.
“The magic krona from the black forest,” he told her.
Iris was disgusted. “The black forest is in Germany.”
“Do not say anything to the Nazi’s.” Mama spoke out of nowhere.
“No one’s going to say anything, Mama,” Iris said. “They’re all dead.”
Uncle Todd picked up the thread, opportunistically, “Except for the one who gave me this coin.”
“What Nazi?” I couldn’t help asking.
“The Nazi in his soul that makes him lie,” said Iris.
Uncle Todd laughed. “Oh, I killed that one a long time ago.”
“What coin?” said Max.
Uncle Todd went into an espionage tale of danger and disaster while searching through all his belongings and then through ours.
“If you find my cameo, sell it Aunt Dora.” Mama directed.
The coin, of course, was never found, but Max had relaxed, as had all of us. Engaged on a hunt for the imaginary, everything real seemed okay.