Look carefully and see clearly. . .
| A heavy, furry weight landed on his knees.
"Aaahk!" Peter jumped; startled awake.
The black cat, affronted, leaped off again, knocking the book off his lap and leaving Peter face to face with the old lady regarding him with hands on hips. She had on arather severe navy blue suit that seemed only a bit out of date. Her matching hat had been flung onto the coffee table nearby. The effect was spoiled by the tattered pair of tennis shoes that decorated her feet, and the little tufts of white hair that stood straight up above her ears.
"So you're awake," Matilda answered. "How'd you get in? It's enough to give an old person a heart attack, coming into her own home and finding an overgrown nephew asleep in her Lazy Boy."
"I was trying to find you." Peter rubbed his eyes.
"And hard at work at it, I see."
"No," Peter put the chair's footrest down and pulled his lanky body to its feet. "I was worried--I came to the door, and you didn't answer, but the door was unlocked." Without taking a breath he continued, "I let myself in and decided I'd just wait til you came home. Must have fallen asleep." Here he assumed the piteous look of a worn-out college student. "All that late night studying for finals next week, you know. Where did you go on a Saturday, anyway?"
"None of your business young man," his aunt answered. " My clients count on my professional confidentiality."
"Well, you just have to be more careful, M." Peter stood and picked up the book that had fallen off his lap. He loomed over her with the book in one hand and the other waving in the air. "You're inviting any old burglar to walk right into the house."
"You're absolutely right. Look who did come in and fall asleep in my best chair--just like Goldilocks." Matilda brushed burglars aside. "What did you want me for?"
Peter dropped his hands and began to examine his fingernails. "Well, I wanted . . .see, there's this girl." His face began to feel hot. He knew Matilda wasn't going to like his request.
"Which girl? A new one or an old one?"
"A new one. Her name's Naomi."
"And?" she prompted.
He sighed. "But . . ." He perched on the edge of Matilda's chair. "See, she's just not responding very enthusiastically to my noted personal charm. I've been trying to offer some help with the chemistry homework--she's a music major--but there's this Ronald guy who's in the orchestra with her and she's usually talking to him."
Peter's gaze wandered to the front window. "He's no help to her in chemistry and that's my major, you know." His reflection changed from a worried to an evasive look, and his hands twisted together. "So, I thought, see, maybe you could give me something to make me . . . more . . .you know. . . attractive to her."
Matilda's eyes narrowed.
Peter had seen that look before. He fidgeted.
"She's really super, M. Pretty, talented--she's a harpist in the university orchestra. I heard her play in Mahler's Fifth at the fall concert." His face fell. "Ronald's the principal violinist, and I'm only the guy in her chemistry class."
"So, you're smitten." Matilda summed the situation up. "Can't eat nor sleep for thinking of her?"
Peter nodded eagerly. "That's it exactly."
"And you want me to help you steal her away from Ronald."
A smile began to twitch at the corner of Peter's mouth. "You got it!"
Matilda sighed. She heaved herself to her feet and went to put on the tea kettle. Peter followed her into the old-fashioned kitchen with its round-topped refrigerator and ancient blue and white tile countertops, taking a deep breath of familiar, spicy odors. How often he had sat at the worn oak table as a kid, stuffing down molasses cookies and milk while watching his aunt concoct some of her more exotic recipes. As long as he stayed out of her private corner cupboard--she'd got him good once for interfering in what she called her professional equipment. He set the book on a corner of the table.
"This caper has some questionable ethics, I'd say, but you were right to come to your old auntie for advice." Matilda opened the tea canister and filled the strainer to go in the teapot. "I know just the thing to win her heart. In fact, I have a whole list of things you can do."
"Yeah?" Peter got out some spoons and the jar of honey.
His aunt poured in the hot water and set out cups.
"Where did I put those cookies? I know I baked some yesterday. . ." Matilda's voice trailed off into a mumble.
Rolling his eyes, Peter got some cookies out of the jar on the counter and stacked them on a plate from the shelf above the sink. He began to eat as Matilda continued.
"Start by bringing her flowers, or send some nice red roses with a romantic note around to her dorm. Or maybe you should have them delivered to her in class, so all her friends can 'ooo' and 'aaaah' over it."
"Oh, M," Peter said through a mouthful of cookie, "girls don't go for all that chauvinist, mushy stuff anymore."
"You just give it a try, sonny. A woman is always touched by flowers. Chocolates are good, too. Try some quality truffles."
Peter frowned and chewed silently, elbows propped on the table. He picked a few grains of lavender and a cat hair out of the pile of cookies. Matilda must have used that jar for some other purpose before storing baked goods there.
"Of course," said his aunt after a moment while she poured out the minty tea and took a dainty sip, "none of these ideas will be any use unless you can handle the most important step." She paused.
"Ask her out again!"
Peter ran his hands through his dark hair until it stood on end. If he had
been younger, he might have stomped his feet and made a fuss at this point, but he had promised himself to be mature and tactful. He took a gulp of tea and met his aunt's gaze before he spoke.
"M., advice wasn't exactly what I came here for," he said in a sober voice. "I was hoping for something more . . . umm . . .influential and concrete."
Matilda frowned and set down her teacup.
"Boy, you know the rules. It just doesn't work like that. And besides, you can't afford Love Potion #9, or whatever it is you're thinking."
Peter leaned forward across the table. "All I really need is a good recipe. I could make it up myself after hours in the lab. But I know there are some tricks to putting those kind of ingredients together, and I need your help."
Matilda shook her head. "I don't give away secrets like that, even to a favorite nephew. It's bad for my reputation with my clients, to say nothing of your personal growth process."
They glared at each other for a moment, and then Peter took a deep breath and stood up. He rinsed out his teacup in the sink, unhooked a sprig of dried henbane from the rack in the cupboard, and attached his cup. He looped the herbs over a hook hanging from the iron ceiling rack to join assorted other dried bunches of catnip, wormwood and lavender.
"If I ask her out, can I bring her to see you? A quick spot of tea and cookies while I return this book to my aged aunt?" He held it up and suddenly grinned down at her.
"Aged, my foot! I can hold my own with you young folks any day."
"So, can I bring her? Maybe some little spell that's helpful and ethically ok will occur to you between now and then."
Matilda's frown relaxed. She lifted one eyebrow. "All right. Just don't forget the flowers when you pick her up. And what book is that you've got there anyway?" Matilda demanded.
"Only one of those personal growth things--Potions for Relationships."
Naomi finally said yes, she'd go to a movie and stop for tea with his aunt on the way. Peter drove to her apartment visualizing her soulful brown eyes, and of course, her shapely, tanned legs. (How do girls get tan in December, he wondered.) He had been a little surprised that she had been willing to give up a Friday night, presumably with Ronald, for him. At the back of his mind, he wondered if Matilda had relented and done some behind-the-scenes work on Naomi after all. Sometimes he couldn't tell exactly what the old lady was up to. He had his own concoction in his pocket just in case; that book of Matilda's had really been quite helpful.
He ran up the steps to Naomi's dorm and was knocking on her door on the dot of five. She was ready to go a mere twenty minutes later.
Stealing glances at his date as he drove, Peter thought he'd never seen anything more beautiful. Her long, dark hair was pulled back, contrasting with a pale complexion and expertly applied make-up. A faint perfume floated across to him that made him think of spring flowers. They chatted about chemistry homework until Matilda's house came into view.
Peter parked on the street and escorted Naomi up the garden walk, bare and brown now with winter. He saw her glance dart around as they walked past ghosts of spent foxglove stalks and clumps of wormwood silvery in the moonlight. Naomi started as the wind moved a dry, thorny vine to cast a shadow over the slippery brick path running up to the house. The house itself was an ancient bungalow. Huge, thorny vines twisted along the edge of the covered porch roof, promising a cool green shade next season.
"Matilda has a beautiful herb garden in the summer." Peter tried to make conversation. "When I was small, I used to follow her around as she weeded and cut catnip for tea."
"It's awfully cold and spooky now," Naomi said, as she clung to his arm and shivered in a gratifying way that made Peter feel protective.
"Here we are," he said. "You'll get warm in a minute."
Matilda's cat, Horace, met them with a baleful stare from his sentinel position atop the porch railing. Peter gave him a pat as they climbed the worn wooden steps.
Naomi sneezed. "Oh, gosh, a cat!"
"Don't you like Horace?" Peter asked.
"It's just that I'm so allergic," his date answered, fumbling for a Kleenex in her purse.
Peter pushed the ornate brass doorbell and bent his head to peer into the tiny, gem-like panes of red and blue set into the weathered door. He was rewarded by swift footsteps approaching from the other side.
"Come right in, dears," Matilda welcomed them in a flowing dark skirt and matching sweater. Dangling earrings matched the silver-white of her hair. "I'm just putting the tea on now."
The cat followed them in. Naomi stepped away from it to Peter's other side. He put his arm around her to guide her into the kitchen, where the old oak table was covered with a cheery, red-checked cloth, and laid for three.
"Why don't you take Naomi's coat, Peter, and then you both sit right down here and I'll pour the tea. Go ahead and start on those shortbread cookies if you like."
Peter inspected the shortbread. The cookies looked perfectly normal, but his aunt was being so particularly sweet that he distrusted her mood. He bit into one--mmm, just like when he was a kid. That buttery, melt-in-your-mouth taste always made him smile. Matilda handed them each a cup of tea. He took a sip to wash down a mouthful of cookie.
"No, thank you," said Naomi, as Matilda offered her the plate. "Shortbread just has too many calories for me." Peter was surprised to notice that Naomi's smile looked condescending as she inspected his rather plump aunt over the rim of her teacup.
"Well, the waistline is a constant battle, isn't it, dear?" said Matilda. "I've let it get ahead of me, I'm afraid."
Peter watched Naomi take a drink of her tea, and thought how nice her slender figure looked. Calorie counting was ok with him.
"It does take some work. I swim every morning before class. What type of exercise do you do, Matilda?"
Peter searched for the tiny bottle in his jacket pocket, and wondered if he could slip a bit into Naomi's tea while she and his aunt were talking.
"I'm afraid I don't get much of a workout these days," Matilda replied. "My clients keep me too busy."
Naomi gave a disparaging glance around the kitchen at the mis-matched kitchen towels and lingered on the untidy stack of mail on the counter. The cat jumped onto the fourth chair at the table and peeked over the edge.
"Yes." Naomi wrinkled her nose, and a slight whiteness appeared around the nostrils. For a moment her face looked unfamiliar to Peter. He took another drink of tea and shook his head, trying to collect his thoughts. Something was happening to Naomi. He didn't like it. Peter glanced quickly at his aunt's placid smile and his eyes widened.
"Matilda!" He wasn't going to just sit by and let his chances with this beautiful girl be ruined . . . now where had that potion he'd brought gone?
"I noticed the unkempt garden as we came in." Naomi remarked in a falsely sweet tone. "At least you've kept the inside decor consistent."
"Uh. . . " Peter said. His fingers closed on the vial in his pocket, but he didn't bring it out.
"Excellent." murmured Matilda. Horace jumped down and began rubbing around Naomi's legs. Small, tight lines of ill humor appeared around her mouth.
"I need to leave, Peter. I told you about my allergies. Cats give me asthma." Naomi held a Kleenex to her nose. "That one's invading my personal space. Get my coat."
"But, Naomi. . ."
"That's fine, Peter," interjected Matilda. "Run along now, dears, or you'll be late for your movie."
Matilda opened the door as Peter helped Naomi into her coat. Standing close, his eyes began to water in response to her perfume. The door shut behind them.
The next afternoon a distraught nephew confronted his aunt.
"What did you do to her, Matilda? She changed from wonderful to repulsive right before my eyes!"
"I didn't change her, my dear."
"You certainly did! I've never heard her talk in such an obnoxious, superior way to anybody. Her appearance even changed from angelically beautiful to nasty and calculating. I want you to put her back, before anyone else notices, the poor girl."
"That's just not possible, dear," Matilda finally got a word in. "I didn't change her. I merely enhanced your perspective."
"That's right, dear. That tea we were drinking is called Clear Perceptions. I always keep a good supply on hand. It's especially useful after a dose of LP #9. In fact, they form kind of a series of dosage, although obviously I didn't use both for you." Matilda led her nephew into the kitchen and set a plate of shortbread in front of him. "I drink the tea a lot myself, and I felt sure that you'd want to see Naomi's true personality in order to make good decisions about your future."
Peter's mouth, which had dropped open some time ago, gradually closed. He opened it again, and then closed it once more. "So, the way she acted is what she's really like?"
"That's right, dear."
"She wanted to go home awfully early. I guess she didn't like her observations of me, either." He rubbed his forehead with his knuckles.
"Never mind, Peter." Matilda patted his hand. "I always love what I see in you. You just have to find a girl who's got better taste in men. And someone who likes cats."
Peter groaned, and got to his feet.
"Guess I'd better start looking, then. Can I have some of that tea to take with me?"
Matilda moved over to the corner cupboard and took down a small package.
"I had some all ready for you."
"Oh, by the way," Peter reached into the backpack he'd worn in earlier, "I brought this back, with interest."
He leaned over and put the book he'd borrowed in Matilda's lap, and a box of chocolates on top of it.
"Truffles! My favorite. Thank you, dear."
"You'll have to wait until pay day for the rose."
He let Horace in on his way out the door.