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My cousin Fred is a puzzle, and Aunt Mabel and her daughter Kate love puzzles. Whether it’s the New York Times’ Crossword, a thousand- piece jigsaw, or the mixed-up lives of our family members, Aunt Mabel and Cousin Kate are obsessed with trying to put everything into the exact right order. To Mabel and Kate, Fred is as fascinating as a Rubik’s Cube. His problems and shortcomings seem so obvious to them, they are sure that if they just spin him this way a few turns, and then twist him round that way a little, everything in his life will suddenly come into brightly colored alignment. If only he would listen to their simple advice, he could become successful, desirable to women, and maybe even pay them back some of the money he is always borrowing at every family gathering.

“You’ve got to sell your boat!” Aunt Mabel tells Fred. “What do you need a boat for? Are you a fisherman? You think you can catch lobsters and caviar in Lake Erie? It just eats up all your time and money, and what do you get out of it? A sunburn!”

“I make money with that boat, Aunt Mabel,” says Fred. “I entertain clients.”

“What kind of client wants to go out swilling canned beer and getting seasick? They’re drunken bums! Stop pretending to have your own accounting practice and go back and work for Uncle Henry.”

Uncle Henry chimes in, “I never said I’d take him back! He shows up for an appointment with his pants on backwards, and the first thing he does is spill coffee on my client’s lap. Besides, what client wants an accountant that doesn’t even know when they’ve overdrawn their own bank account?”

“Sell your boat,” insists Aunt Mabel. “And stop seeing that girl Jessica. She only wants you for your money.”

“He’s got nothing to worry about there,” says Uncle Henry.

Then there’s Cousin Doug. He hasn’t held a legitimate job since he was a newspaper delivery boy and started breaking into people’s houses when the papers piled up and he realized they were out of town. He gave up breaking and entering when he bloated to 300 pounds and could no longer climb to a second story or fit through most windows. Doug is dressed in a different disguise every time I see him because he’s wanted in three states for stealing cars. Aunt Mabel knows the solution to all his problems. “He needs to get a bicycle. Now he can’t buy a car, or get a license, because they might track him down, but nobody ever bothers a kid on a bicycle. Plus once he starts riding, he’ll lose that extra weight.”

“I’ve got a friend that owns a bike shop on Oak Street, I’m sure they’d pay him under the table,” says Cousin Kate.

“Then it’s settled,” says Aunt Mabel. “Let’s get him one of those flashing lights with his bike, so he can ride at night.”

“You don’t suppose the police would ever notice a 300 lb. kid riding a bike with flashing lights, do you?” asks Uncle Henry.

How about Cousin Debbie? She’s a doctor, works out every day, likes to travel, speaks five languages fluently, and hasn’t had a steady relationship in 10 years. Aunt Mabel, Cousin Kate, and practically everyone else who knows Debbie are constantly trying to fix her up with guys (or sometimes girls) they’re sure are perfect matches. Aunt Mabel is exasperated. “It’s the cats!” she says. “Who can put up with six cats? We had the perfect guy for her, that lawyer who worked on my will. But he was allergic. She’d rather have cats than a rich, handsome husband.”

“Debbie tried,” says Kate. “She wrote him a prescription for special allergy pills. But it turned out he was allergic to the pills, too.”

“We have to get rid of her cats. She’ll never do it herself. The next time she goes on a trip and you’re feeding her cats, Kate, you’ve got to catch them all and take them to the animal shelter.”

“She’ll kill me! She’ll never speak to me again.”

“It’s for her own good. Instead of cats, when she comes home, we’ll leave the lawyer on her couch. She’ll thank you later.”

“We’d better get her a new couch, too. Cat hair is hard to get rid of. And that lawyer practically stopped breathing the last time he was visiting her.”

Then there’s Uncle Ed. Aunt Mabel has been trying to figure out Ed pretty much since he was born more than 60 years ago. Uncle Ed has emphysema but still smokes two packs a day. During the day he goes to the track, and at night he drinks and plays poker. He’s been married and divorced at least six times that we know of, and despite being bald, and wrinkled as a prune, has several different girlfriends who call him at all hours of the day and night, wanting to bring him gifts, cook him meals, and take care of him in every possible way, even though they know he’s double- and triple-timing them. Ed sold his bar ten years ago, and lives off the royalties from patenting the mosh pit.

“Some people are just born lucky,” says Aunt Mabel. “Ed’s always been the most miserable good-for-nothing in the family, but no matter how bad he is, something good always seems to come out of it. When he goes to hell he’ll find some way to make a buck off of it by selling portable air-conditioners. Well guess what? I’m done trying to figure him out. This year I’m going to send him a card wishing him a Happy New Year, and inviting him to come over for brunch. And I’m going to tell him I’m never going to give him another piece of advice as long as he lives.”

“Aunt Mabel, that’s brilliant!” says Kate. “He won’t know what to make out of it. He’ll either think that you’re dying or he is. It’ll scare the hell out of him! He’ll come over begging you to help him!”

“I won’t say a word,” says Aunt Mabel.

“It’ll drive him crazy,” says Kate.

“Crazy enough to give up smoking and learn to play the piano?” asks Aunt Mabel.

“I’m sure someday you’ll figure him out,” says Kate.

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