Uncle Alex was sweating when he arrived at Camp Talequa. No wonder. The Greyhound bus had left him off at the point where the camp road meets the highway, and it was all uphill from there. The camp road was not paved but laid with rough gravel. It was July, and it had not rained for three weeks. Uncle walked those three dusty miles wearing wing-tip, leather-soled oxfords; a long-sleeved, buttoned-up shirt; suit jacket; necktie; and a Borsalino hat. Tartufo, his dog, walked at his side. He had bought his hat, his shoes, and his dog in Italy. His hat was tan, his shoes brown, and his dog was white with brown spots, but by the time they arrived at the office, all were gray with gravel dust.
Not until he was standing in front of the camp office did Uncle remove his Borsalino or put a leash on Tartufo. He stood on the bottom of the three steps leading to the office door and flicked the dust from his hat and, as much as he could, from Tartufo's paws. With his handkerchief, he wiped first his forehead and then his shoes. Having a shine on his shoes was an Old World point of pride.
Holding his hat against his chest and Tartufo's leash with one hand, he knocked on the office door with the other.
Mrs. Kaplan, the camp director, called, "Who is it?" and Uncle stepped inside. He told her that he was Alexander Rose and that he had come to take Margaret home.
For the best part of a minute, Mrs. Kaplan was speechless. At last she said, "And just who are you?"
"I am Margaret's uncle, Alexander Rose. Don't you remember? We spoke on the phone last night."
Mrs. Kaplan had called shortly before nine. After introducing herself she had said, "We are calling, Mr. Rose, because Margaret seems to be having a bit of a problem adjusting to camp life."
"What have you done?" he had asked.
"Everything," she replied. "We have done everything we know how to do, but she is totally unresponsive. When we ask her to do something -- anything -- she says, 'I prefer not to.'"
"Let me talk to her."
"We can't do that, Mr. Rose. Campers are to have
no contact with their caregivers until the two-week adjustment period is over. We cannot make exceptions."
"Then how can I possibly help?"
"We would like your input on how we can help her want to participate. We do not like to force our campers to participate."
"I suggest you change your activities."
"We can't do that, Mr. Rose. We cannot tailor our activities to every single child in this camp. As a matter of fact, it is the very nature of the activities we offer that sets Talequa apart from all the other camps. We want Margaret to fit in, Mr. Rose."
"Let me think about this," he said. "I'll be in touch."
Uncle had thought about it and decided that the best thing he could do would be to go directly to Camp Talequa and bring me back with him.
Staying with my uncles -- Alex, who was an old bachelor, and Morris, his brother, a widower -- had been one of my two first choices of "What to do with Margaret" while my parents were in Peru. The Uncles lived in an old house on Schuyler Place. I loved them, their house, and their garden.
I loved their Old World habits. Like wearing a Borsalino hat from Italy instead of a baseball cap. Neither one of them owned a baseball cap. Or blue jeans. Or sneakers. Or a sports shirt. They never watched sports on TV and had never been to a football game, even when the home team, Clarion State University, was playing. They could speak three languages besides English. They had wine with dinner every night and ate so late that sometimes it was midnight when they finished. They served coffee with real cream and lump sugar that they dropped into the cup with a tiny pair of tongs. They had never eaten at a McDonald's or standing up. Even in the summer when they ate in their garden, they still covered their table with a white linen cloth, served their wine in crystal goblets, and their food on china dishes. And they never hurried through dinner. If it got to be too late when they finished eating, they would leave unwashed dishes in the sink and go to bed.
-- their house
I loved 19 Schuyler Place. It was within walking distance of Town Square, a city bus stop, the main library, and the pedestrian mall downtown. I loved sleeping over. Two years before, when I was only ten, they had allowed me to pick out the furniture for the bedroom that they told me would be mine whenever I came to visit. They took me to Sears in the Fivemile Creek Mall and let me choose. I chose a bedroom suite with only one twin bed (the room was small) in genuine French provincial style, white with gold-tone accents. When it was delivered, Uncle Morris had said, "Very distinguished," and Uncle Alex proclaimed it, "Quite elegant." I was so convinced that they approved of everything I did that I believed them.
-- their garden
Their garden was unlike any other in the neighborhood -- or the world. Like all the others nearby, theirs had started out as a long, narrow yard that stretched from the service porch in back of the house to the alley, but the resemblance stopped where it started.
The Uncles had unevenly divided their backyard space lengthwise into two thirds and one third. They further divided the narrower, one-third section, in half, crosswise. In the narrow third closest to the house, Uncle Morris raised peppers. They grew in shapes from bell to cornucopia and in flavors from sweet to jalapeño. Their colors were red, yellow, purple, and every shade of green from lime to pine. The other half of the narrow third was planted with roses. Entirely with roses. Some were trained to grow along the iron pipe fence that separated their yard from their neighbor's at number 17. Others grew in their own hoed crater of earth. Some blossoms were quiet and tiny as a bud; others were loud and six inches wide. There were many varieties, many sizes, but they were a symphony of a single chord, for all of them were rose colored -- blooming in every shade from delicate to brazen, from blush to Pepto-Bismol.
In the larger section, the two-thirds, wider strip, were the towers. There were three of them. They zigged and zagged along the perimeter of the fence that separated my uncles' yard from their neighbor's at number 21. They soared over the rooftop of their house and every other house in the neighborhood. The tallest was Tower Two, so called because it was the second one built, and it was closest to the house. Tower Three was in the slant middle.
My uncles had been building them for the past forty-five years.
Even though all of the towers were taller than any of the two-story houses in the neighborhood, even though they were made of steel, they did not darken the space around them. They were built of a network of ribs and struts that cast more light than shadow. Like a spider-web, they were strong but delicate. From each of the rungs, from each section of each of the rungs, dangled thousands -- thousands -- of chips of glass and shards of porcelain and the inner workings of old clocks. Some of the pendants were short and hugged the horizontal ribs, while others dangled on long threads of copper. In some places, a single wire held two drops of glass, one under the other; in other places, there were three -- dangling consecutively, one beneath the other. Some of the pendants were evenly spaced in groups of three or four. Some were bunched together like the sixteenth notes on a musical staff followed by a single large porcelain bob -- a whole note rest. On another rung, or perhaps at a distance on the same rung, a series of evenly spaced glass drops dangled in a rainbow of colors.
Like gypsy music (my uncles were Hungarian), the pendants hung in a rhythm that is learned but cannot be taught.
The towers were painted. Not solemnly but astonishingly. Astoundingly. There were carnival shades of mauve and violet, ochre and rose, bright pink and orange sherbet, and all the colors were stop-and-go, mottled into a camouflage pattern. Lavender pink met lime green in the middle of a rung, or cerulean blue climbed only halfway up a vertical axis until it met aquamarine.
On top of the tallest tower, fixed in place, were four clock faces, none of which were alike. Atop the other two towers was a single clock face on a swivel that rotated with the wind. The clock faces had no hands.
I loved standing under the towers -- choose any one, depending on the time of day -- looking up and farther up, until the back of my head rested on my shoulders. I would hang there until a certain slant of light caught the pendants and made them refract an endless pattern of colors. And then, and then I would spin around and around, making myself the moving sleeve of a kaleidoscope. And when I stopped, I would look down and watch their still-spinning shadow embroider the ground.
I had always loved spending time at 19 Schuyler Place, and I thought that my uncles loved having me. I expected them to jump at a chance to have me spend the four summer weeks that my parents would be gone. But they had not.
My other first choice of "What to do with Margaret" had been to go with my parents to Peru. They had always taken me with them before. I had assumed they would want me along because as an only child, I had spent a great deal of time among adults, and I was an excellent traveling companion. I never required extra bathroom stops -- my mother always carried empty cottage cheese containers as an emergency portable potty -- never demanded special foods, and regardless of how endless the car ride was, I never asked, "Are we there yet?"
Since I was not given either of my two first choices, the only remaining alternative was summer camp. That being the case, I decided that the choice of camp would be mine and mine alone. So it was with a bruised heart and wounded pride that I set about making my selection. I decided that I would choose such a wonderful camp and have such a wonderful time that my parents and my uncles would be sorry that they had not come, too.
I invested many hours in making my decision. I sent away for thirty-six brochures, read them all, and sent away for thirty-two tapes, of which I watched a total of nineteen all the way through. I chose Talequa.
After recovering from the shock of Uncle's unannounced appearance, Mrs. Kaplan asked, "Why, Mr. Rose, did you not give us notice of your arrival?"
"Because if I had, Mrs. Kaplan," he replied, "you would have told me not to come."
That was true, but she did not have to admit or deny it. "How did you get here?" she asked.
No one walked into Camp Talequa. Visitors arrived by car or minivan and by invitation. Mrs. Kaplan had heard that once, long before she had bought the camp, an elderly couple had arrived in a taxi, but there were no living witnesses to that story, so she placed it into the category of creation myth. But even if there really had once been a couple who had arrived in a taxi, no one had ever walked into Camp Talequa. There was no rule against it because who would have dreamed that such a rule would be necessary? Actually, there were no rules at all about how to arrive, but the Talequa handbook made it clear that there were definite rules about when. One strict rule was: No visits from friends or relatives for the first two weeks of a session, which, in Mrs. Kaplan's interpretation, made Alexander Rose a trespasser. There were other rules -- rules about what you could bring with you. Alcohol and drugs were explicitly forbidden, of course, but it was just as clearly written, so were dogs. The punishment for bringing a dog was not as well defined as that for alcohol or drugs (immediate, nonrefundable expulsion), but the basic animal rule was: Dogs were not allowed in camp. Never. Paper trained, potty trained, K-9 trained: No. Even if they were trained to flush, they were not allowed. There was to be no Lassie, no Pluto, no Scooby-Doo. Never. Not as visitors. Not with visitors.
And this man had brought a dog!
Collecting her wits, Mrs. Kaplan presented Uncle with her best varnished smile. "We are most willing to discuss Margaret's problem with you," she declared, "but, Mr. Rose, we cannot permit dogs on our premises."
Alexander Rose knew that any smile that registered as high on the gloss meter as Mrs. Kaplan's came from well-practiced insincerity. Uncle also knew that Mrs. Kaplan did not object to Tartufo as much as she objected to his disobeying one -- no, really two -- of her rules. He could have told her that Tartufo was a working dog and allowed to go where no dog had gone before. He could have asked her, Would an ordinary dog be allowed on a Greyhound? But, wisely, he didn't tell, and he didn't ask. Instead, he said, "Tartufo is here, Mrs. Kaplan. I'm not a magician. I cannot make him disappear."
With her smile lashed to her teeth, Mrs. Kaplan replied, "Then we must insist that it wait outside."
Uncle had learned long ago that obeying a rule in fact but not in spirit was very hard on people who say we for I and who do not allow dogs on their premises. So without hesitation, he led Tartufo to a spot just outside the front door of the office cabin. With the door open so that Mrs. Kaplan could hear, he told Tartufo to sit. Then he removed Tartufo's leash and carried it back into the office.
When he reentered, Mrs. Kaplan had her back to him. She was removing a file folder from a cabinet behind her desk. Uncle stood in front of the desk, conspicuously holding the empty leash in his hand. When she turned around and saw the leash, she realized that not only was there a dog on her premises, but it was not tethered. The smile left her face, and her mouth formed a Gothic O. She started to say something, thought better of it, and didn't. Instead, she sat down, opened the file, and began studying it. The file was all about me, Margaret Rose. Considering that this was only my ninth day at camp, the folder was quite full.
Uncle continued to stand, waiting for Mrs. Kaplan to look up again. "May I be seated?" he asked.
"Please," she said, sweeping her hand toward the right chair, one of two that faced her desk.
Uncle sat down, quickly got up and moved the chair four inches, sat down, got up and moved it again in the opposite direction, and then did it a third time. "What seems to be the problem, Mr. Rose?"
"The sun," he said. "It's shining in my eyes, and you are a dark shadow." Uncle meant every word.
Wearing her patience like a body stocking, Mrs. Kaplan said, "Suppose you take the other chair."
"Good idea," Uncle said, and moved that chair once before settling down. With a fussiness as elaborate as it was deliberate, he inched his bottom toward the back of the chair. He steadied his gaze on the woman sitting across the desk from him and waited until only the sheerest shroud of patience remained. Then he folded his hands in his lap and said, "Now we can talk."
In more ways than one, Alexander Rose resembled a set of Matryoshka nesting dolls. He was short and squat, he had many fully formed layers beneath his roly-poly outer shell, and deep inside was an innermost self, a core that was solid and indivisible.
In an unconscious effort to create as much distance as possible between them, Mrs. Kaplan leaned back in her chair and slowly turned the full force of an uppish smile on him. "We see, Mr. Rose, that you are not this child's parent."
"That is correct. I am her granduncle."
"You must mean great-uncle."
"Great or grand, they mean the same: I am the brother of her grandmother." Mrs. Kaplan was not sure if great-uncle and granduncle were interchangeable, but she decided to let his remark go. She would check it later. Uncle said, "At the moment, though, since Margaret's parents are out of the country and unable to tend to her, I am in loco parentis, in the position of a parent."
Mrs. Kaplan replied, "We know perfectly well what in loco parentis means, Mr. Rose." But as soon as she said it, she regretted it. This interview was not going well. Best to get to the matter at hand. "Yes, it was in your capacity as guardian of Margaret that I called you last night. As I mentioned on the phone, Margaret refuses to participate in any of our activities. She says, 'I prefer not to.'" Tapping the folder, she said, "We have here a report from Gloria, Margaret's camp counselor." She lowered her head, put on her glasses, and began reading aloud. "On Monday --
Margaret did not take a copy of the words to our camp songs when I was passing them out. I did not force a copy on her because I assumed that like a lot of our other girls, she had learned the words from our tape. Then on Tuesday, our karaoke and sing-along evening, she did not sing with the group. When I asked her why, she said it was because she didn't know the words."
Mrs. Kaplan raised her voice slightly while reading the phrase because she didn't know the words. She looked over her reading glasses at Uncle and waited until he indicated with a nod that he had caught the significance of her emphasis. She continued, "On Wednesday --
Margaret did not show up for origami class. When I went to her cabin to fetch her, she refused to attend. When I asked her why, she said that she preferred not to.
Margaret failed to create a design to paint on a T-shirt. She said that she preferred not to. Then in the afternoon when we were to paint the T-shirts, she said she couldn't because she didn't have a design. I suggested that she do something spontaneous -- an abstract, maybe -- and she replied, 'I prefer not to.'"
Uncle folded his hands across the expanse of his belly and cocked his head a little to the left, his supreme listening mode. He waited.
Mrs. Kaplan took off her reading glasses and laid them on top of the open folder. "That brings us to the events of yesterday. The girls were scheduled to go tubing on the lake. Everyone but Margaret boarded the bus. Everyone waited, and when Margaret did not appear, Gloria went to Meadowlark cabin to look for her. She found Margaret still in her bunk, not ready. We had to leave without her. A little later, we personally went to her cabin to have a talk with her."
Mrs. Kaplan waited for a response from Uncle. None came. She cleared her throat and continued. "Our visit yesterday elicited a remark from your niece, Mr. Rose, that was so uncalled for that we were prompted to phone you last evening." She again waited for a response from Uncle, expecting him to ask what awful thing I had said, but Uncle asked nothing. In truth, he did not want to possibly have to agree with Mrs. Kaplan that something I had said was truly uncalled for. When it became clear that Uncle would not ask, she continued. "Your niece has become increasingly unreachable." She put her glasses back on, took two pages from the folder, and handed them to Uncle. "You will find that Louise Starr, our camp nurse, agrees. You may read her reports."
She handed Uncle Alex the forms. The first report said that I, Margaret Rose Kane, was neither anorexic nor bulimic nor suffering from preadolescent depression. In conclusion, I find her simply uncooperative. The second report again eliminated the same things -- bulimia, anorexia, and depression -- and upgraded me from uncooperative to incorrigible.
Uncle Alex was not a rapid reader, and he took the time to read the reports twice before laying the sheets back down on the desk. He slowly pushed them toward Mrs. Kaplan. He said nothing. Mrs. Kaplan closed the folder, removed her glasses, and rested her hands on the cover. "What do you have to say about those reports, Mr. Rose?"
"Nurse Starr has a very nice handwriting," he replied.
"Is that all you have to say?"
"Yes, it is all I have to say. Not all I can say."
"Please feel free to tell us what is on your mind."
"Well, Mrs. Kaplan, I can tell you that I understand. You see, I, too, once lived under a monarchy. I, too, preferred not to, so I emigrated."
"We would hardly call our community here at Camp Talequa a monarchy, Mr. Rose."
"And that, Mrs. Kaplan, is because you are the queen."
"We deeply resent that remark, Mr. Rose."
"I'm sure you do, Mrs. Kaplan, but with all due respect, your camp here has a surprising resemblance to the camps in my old country. You require blind obedience. So did they. You demand conformity. So did they." Uncle then waved a hand toward the folder. "You have your spies. They had theirs. And you have -- "
"We have happy campers, Mr. Rose."
"And so you should, Mrs. Kaplan. And it is for that very reason that I want to remove an unhappy one." He stood up. "Now, if you'll please tell me where I can find Margaret Rose, I will get her, and we shall leave."
Mrs. Kaplan protested. "We have procedures, Mr. Rose."
"Start the procedures."
"There are forms to be signed."
"Bring them to me. I will sign them."
Mrs. Kaplan resisted. Uncle insisted. Finally, Mrs. Kaplan called over to the main house and asked Gloria to come to the office. As they waited, Uncle asked Mrs. Kaplan for a refund.
"A refund, Mr. Rose?"
"Yes, Mrs. Kaplan. It is my understanding that all the fees were paid in advance. I expect you to deduct from my refund the eight and a half days Margaret Rose has spent here plus something for your administrative costs."
"But surely, Mr. Rose, you know that we are at a total loss."
"Surely you have a waiting list. Most places do."
"Of course we have a waiting list. Certainly we have a waiting list. We have a long waiting list. Our waiting list is as long as that of any camp in the Adirondacks. But at this late date, there is no way we can sell the space that was to have been taken by Margaret. Our supplies have been ordered with a certain number in mind. That number includes Margaret Kane." She pulled a sheet from a file drawer and thrust it at Uncle Alex. "Read your contract. No refunds after June twenty-first. There will be no refund, Mr. Rose."
"That being the case, Mrs. Kaplan, I would appreciate some lunch and a ride back to Epiphany."
"We can allow lunch, Mr. Rose. But a ride back to Epiphany is out of the question. We cannot tie up a bus and a driver to transport two people all the way to Epiphany."
"Not a bus, Mrs. Kaplan. A van."
"We have no van, Mr. Rose."
"Do we have a car, Mrs. Kaplan?"
Mrs. Kaplan gritted her teeth. "Yes, we have a car, Mr. Rose."
"That will do nicely," he replied.
Mrs. Kaplan pushed a sheath of papers across the desk and handed Uncle a pen. "We are a business, Mr. Rose. A ride back to Epiphany is all we can afford. Time is money, Mr. Rose."
"Time is not money, Mrs. Kaplan. Time wasted is often time well spent. Money wasted is merely redistributed." Uncle signed the papers with a flourish and then took a plastic bag from his jacket pocket. From the bag, he took a rag and said to Mrs. Kaplan, "If Margaret Rose comes while I'm gone, please tell her that I'm burying the rag. She'll understand what it is that I am doing."
"And just what is it that you will be doing?" Mrs. Kaplan demanded. Uncle explained that he was train-ing Tartufo to be a truffle dog. "Tartufo means truffle in Italian, Mrs. Kaplan. The rag is soaked in truffle oil. I will bury the rag out in your woods and have Tartufo retrieve it."
"We do not allow dogs on our premises, and we have no chocolate in camp. Certainly no buried chocolate."
"The truffles of which I speak are underground mushrooms, Mrs. Kaplan. A natural food."
"Whatever," Mrs. Kaplan said. "But of this I am certain: There will be no dog loose in our woods. I repeat: No dogs in our woods."
"Whatever," Uncle said with a smile, replacing the truffle rag back in the bag.
That is when Gloria came into the office. Mrs. Kaplan told her to help Margaret Kane collect her belongings and bring them to the office. She did not introduce Uncle, but as Gloria turned to carry out her orders, Uncle introduced himself. "May I ask," he said, "what kind of sandwiches you had for lunch today?" Gloria told him there had been tuna and bologna.
With a childlike delight, he exclaimed, "That's what I guessed. To myself, I guessed sandwiches, and I guessed tuna and bologna." To Gloria, he said, "We'll take two tuna each. That'll be a total of four. With lettuce. We prefer whole wheat bread. Toasted."
Turning to Mrs. Kaplan, he said, "Toasting helps to keep the bread from getting soggy." Again addressing Gloria, he said, "I'll bet you had chocolate chip" -- he glanced mischievously at Mrs. Kaplan and corrected himself -- "some kind of chip cookies for dessert, and I'll bet you have a couple of those left, too." Gloria looked toward Mrs. Kaplan for a quick check before nodding. "And milk?" he asked. Gloria nodded again. "We'll have two containers of milk, please."
Mrs. Kaplan picked up the phone. "We'll call the kitchen with your order to save time."
Uncle waited until Gloria left, and then, holding the plastic bag in one hand and the disconnected leash in the other, he spun around, examining the four walls of fake paneling. "Yes," he said, half to himself, "tuna and bologna."
Uncle shrugged and smiled at Mrs. Kaplan. And she knew that Mr. Alexander Rose had gotten everything he had come for: the sandwiches, the ride back, and, most of all, me.
Copyright © 2004 by E. L. Konigsburg