Aunt Agatha's Mail

ANYONE who has watched a cat extract the full measure of amusement from a half-dead mouse, or who has admired a small boy’s ability to make a dish of ice cream last an hour, will have some notion of the Fabian strategy with which Aunt Agatha attacks the morning mail. To watch her as she engages in this, her favorite diversion, is one of the unique entertainments provided by a dour universe.

Her talents are wasted when she is given an envelope which she can identify from the outside without her glasses. The light fades from her eyes; the flush recedes from her cheeks; she cannot hide her acute disappointment. But when a letter arrives mysterious in handwriting or postmark — ah, that is something to challenge her special genius, and she rises to the occasion with the deliberate joy of an old campaigner.

For her to open it at once and solve the mystery would be unthinkable. Aunt Agatha takes the letter, holds it at arm’s length, and squints at it over her thin nose. (Her own ruling forbids the use of spectacles at this stage of the proceedings.)

‘Now who in the world can this be from? It looks like Irene’s handwriting. . . . No, it can’t be; it was mailed in Buffalo. But maybe she gave it to Fred when he was starting off on the road, and he carried it in his pocket for a week or two. . . . Hm-m, it does n’t look like Irene’s writing, either — but then, her hand is getting shaky. She’s going to have palsy just like her father. You remember, Mary, that I spoke about it the last time she wrote. He was just about her age when it started. It’s too bad. . . . Yes, it’s Irene’s writing, all right — but what is she doing in Buffalo? Maybe she’s visiting Helen. Helen lives in Buffalo — or is it Syracuse? ’

Throughout this soliloquy the letter is being turned over, scrutinized, examined at close range, held off to see what it looks like in perspective. Just when the observer feels that if this goes on any longer he will have to scream, Aunt Agatha surrenders. She decides that it is time to hunt for her glasses. It makes no difference where she is, the glasses are always somewhere else; they are the ultimate witness that no two bodies can ever be in the same place at the same time.

Finally she returns with the glasses astride her nose. The letter is opened, and Aunt Agatha begins to read aloud: —

‘Dear Agatha, I am here in Buffalo visiting Helen. (Did n’t I tell you? I knew it was Irene’s writing.) She has not been very well this last month (I should n’t wonder, the way she runs around half-naked and smoking cigarettes all the time), and I am helping her out with the children. (Maybe if she’d stay home from some of her club meetings she’d be able to look after the children herself and not have to have her mother come and do it.) They are all well. Thomas has had the mumps (That’s the second oldest boy; he must be ten or twelve now. No, I guess he’s only nine. He was born the winter Gladys was married, and that’s nine years ago), but is back in school again.

‘Tom lost his job (I knew it! He was n’t satisfied with the wages old Mr. Perkins was giving him, so he had to go into that new company that offered him so much more. I told Irene at the time that he’d better stay with his father-in-law. If he had listened to me, he’d have his job now), but Mr. Perkins has taken him back. (Well, that’s pretty nice of the old gentleman. I’d have told him to go somewhere else, after leaving the way he did, but I suppose he figured that with a wife and four children . . .)’

This goes on and on and on. At times the listeners give the letter up for lost, but it rises to the surface for a phrase or two before sinking out of sight again in the sea of Aunt Agatha’s commentary. No Teuton ever buried a text in footnotes with greater gusto.

When one first hears it, this performance is very, very funny. The second or third time it is still rather amusing. But when it is repeated day after day with the regularity of the postman’s visits, it becomes increasingly annoying, even distressing. Of late I have found myself setting my teeth and clutching the seat of my chair. I am a mild man, but I have a premonition that sooner or later the county paper will carry a story which will begin like this: ‘Miss Agatha Watrous was strangled by her nephew this morning while reading her mail.’