The Armani shoes, the sleek indigo-black ones with the angel-hair laces he could never keep tied, were too big for William, but he slipped them on anyway. He’d wanted to wear one of Frederick’s suits, too, maybe the newish Pierre Cardin that Frederick had liked because he swore the tiny black-and-white checks were slimming, the one William thought really made Frederick look like a circus clown, although love had kept him from saying so.
But the suit was impossible on William, the shoulders drooping wide on both sides like little mutant fins, the sleeves dangling past his wrists, the flapping waist that suggested William might be a spokesman for Weight Watchers, except it wasn’t his weight he’d lost. He couldn’t wear that to the grand opening, but he didn’t mind sliding around inside the Armanis, just for one day, and if it got too awful he had his clogs in the canvas tote. Surely no one would care if he made himself more comfortable inside his own store.
His own store. It had been Frederick’s idea, the older man thoughtful as always even with his guts turning to jelly and a daily joint the only thing that had still worked to keep the pain at bay. “Look, sweetie,” he’d said as William helped him into the tub one night near the end, “this is perfect. It’ll keep you busy, put food on the table, which God knows you need, you skinny little thing, and it’s all I’ve got to give you. And you can stay here,” he’d said, with a weak little wave that scattered rose-scented bubbles across the black-and-white tiles, “at least until Cassie gets wind of it.” Then he nearly sank under the water until William got him propped up and started scrubbing his back with the loofa. Cassie. William hadn’t met her, and Frederick usually referred to her as the evil stepsister, the reason Frederick hadn’t inherited the house from his aunt outright.
And it was Frederick who’d found the empty retail space and negotiated the lease and hired a couple of his former students, tobacco-chewing dropouts, to move the stuff in, although it was just as well he hadn’t been around to see the brutes manhandle even the most delicate pieces.
As William scuffed down Central Avenue, braced against a chilly November wind and stopping every so often to tie the shoes, he could scarcely believe that at the age of twenty-three he was on his way to the shop that he owned, the shop to which only he had the key, the ancient black safe of which only he knew the combination to, and that in just a few minutes after opening the door, no more than that surely, he would be pressing all the buttons on the complicated new cash register Frederick had ordered just for him, to ring up the first sale. His own store.
William & Frederick. That had been William’s idea, and it pleased him. They’d wanted to call the store Blue Ridge Antiques, but when Frederick checked around, thumbing through the phone book, a blustery call to directory assistance, an Internet search for listings up and down the Valley, he turned up no fewer than fifty shops with that name, including one hidden away inside the ghastly mall outside town, and another a few miles south, that looked, when William drove Frederick’s Riviera down to investigate, like it had been somebody’s garage, converted into a flea market, half an acre of rickety tables covered with muddy tarps, and a hand-lettered sign out front that said, “Make an Offer! Swap Meet Saturday.” But the perfect name had come to William two weeks ago while he sipped a latte in Java Mountain, watching the lanky kid behind the counter flirt with the fuchsia-haired Madonna, worried about the letter he’d received that morning, just gibberish to him, from the lawyers handling the estate, the Richmond firm of Botts & Allen, whose offices had impressed William with their dignified style, plush Persians and early Americana. That’s it, William said to himself, or maybe out loud because the girl with the freakish hair turned to look. An elegant, refined name, to sell elegant, refined antiques. William & Frederick.
It wasn’t all elegant stuff, though, William had to admit. Frederick had owned some fabulous pieces, collected over half a century of shopping and travel, and roomfuls he’d inherited from the aunt he’d claimed was royalty. “We’re all queens here, honey,” William had said, mortified when Frederick didn’t laugh. “Well, she was,” he’d insisted, running his hand over the dark surface of the walnut Queen Anne highboy, the gem of the collection. Then there was the mahogany breakfast table that had its own name. Duncan Phyfe, Frederick called it, as if it were a guest in the house and not a piece of furniture. “Let’s join Duncan Phyfe in the kitchen,” he’d say, determined that they should actually use the thing, despite William’s fear of damaging a valuable antique. “What,” Frederick had said, “you don’t think the colonists ever spilled their tea?” The one piece that really unnerved William was the Khmer bust of Buddha, which Frederick said he’d acquired for a blowjob in Bangkok in the sixties. William didn’t doubt the price, a currency familiar to him, but Bangkok didn’t sound like the kind of place Frederick would have been caught dead in—dusty and smelly and filled with women on the make. That wasn’t Frederick at all. When he’d arranged everything in the shop before the grand opening, William had settled the bust into a corner and, when its stony eyes followed him everywhere as he dusted and shifted and rearranged, hoping customers wouldn’t notice the little nicks and scratches that cropped up everywhere like acne from his not-so-long-ago adolescence, he draped over it a soiled batik sarong from that same Asian trip. But in addition to those valuable artifacts, William had elected to display stuff that people in their god-forsaken, drought-parched village might actually buy: Frederick’s childhood rocking horse; a pair of glass candlesticks, with red wax cascading down the sides from last Christmas; five shelves of dusty books, “The Classics” Frederick had called them when he’d tried to get William to read something other than mysteries and true crime, and there were plenty more where they came from in the den at home; a yellow porcelain teapot that William had no use for now that he could drop the pretense he’d adopted to please Frederick, even though he knew Frederick knew it was all for his benefit, but they both had gone on as if the love of chamomile was something they shared. Thank God he could drink coffee again.
William stopped just short of his store, in the glare of the tacky gift shop Frederick had
always refused to step foot in, but that William admired for its clever inventory, like those
darling salt and pepper shakers in the shape of Dalmatians. He gazed at his future. His
store wasn’t on high-traffic Main Street—the rent for both vacant spots there had been too
expensive, one next to the coffee house and one tucked between the tavern and the town’
s only nail salon—but he could see his door from the corner of Central and Main, a location
Frederick had been sure would guarantee success. Of course, the door was below street
level, five steps down into a tiny courtyard, more like an overgrown window-well that
collected leaves and cigarette butts and any other trash that blew down the hill from the
courthouse, and would probably fill up with grimy snow come winter, but the gold lettering
on the window, William & Frederick, was visible, even from across the street. It sparkled a
little, William thought. He stooped to tie his shoelace.
Dodging a red pickup and then a Ford van with a crater on the passenger side that looked like the kind of dent an old cannonball would make, although William couldn’t imagine how that had happened, maybe some Civil War reenactment gone awry, he crossed the street in mid block. He didn’t have to fish in his pocket for the key because he was wearing it around his neck on one of those lanyards, a gift from Frederick because William, who had never owned anything valuable to speak of, had a knack for losing keys. It didn’t matter so much, really, because the house was never locked, most folks didn’t bother unless they lived on the west side of town, and Frederick hadn’t let William drive the Buick except on special occasions. So the house key, the one key William had, until the shop, was more a token of Frederick’s affection than it was of any practical use. William didn’t bother to take the lanyard off, just bent over and fit the key in the lock, jiggled it a little like the real estate agent—that handsome, thick-haired Mr. Lynch who had seemed to hurry through their appointments—had demonstrated when he showed them the property.
A musty smell greeted William (why hadn’t he ever noticed it when all this stuff was
cluttering up the house?), and new paint, the lilac they’d picked over the bleeding-heart
pink because the pink was too passionate, Frederick’s color, and was sure to bring up all
kinds of memories he didn’t want to deal with. The lilac was just right, soothing and soft, a
color that made you think of your grandmother’s garden, which was exactly what customers in an antique shop should think. Or at least that’s what Frederick had asserted
when he told William the rest of his plans for the store.
“I don’t want you going back there,” Frederick had said, and William knew he meant
back where they’d met, as if William could ever think of hustling again. Frederick had
rescued him, given him things, taught him things. Now he knew about wine and music and
antiques. A little, anyway. That other life was over.
“No,” William said. “I’d rather kill myself. But at least that way we would be together.”
That was something else they talked about, how fate had united them when Frederick
popped into a gay bar in D.C. and found William, and nothing like a little colon cancer was
going to tear them apart, at least not for long. Frederick wouldn’t listen to that, though.
He shook his head. “You’ll meet someone, honey. You’ll move on. I know that. But in the
meantime, there’s enough stuff in this old house to keep an antique store going a long
time, and when it’s gone you can buy some junk and sell that. It’s decided, then.” And
William had gone along to keep Frederick happy. The momentum had been too strong to
fight. “A shop. You know, I’ve always wanted to run a shop, keep the customer happy,
service is our business and all that. Where everyone expects you to be gay anyway, so it’s
no surprise when it turns out you are. And I’d paint it lilac, like my grandmother’s garden.”
Lights on. William hadn’t realized before just how dark the space was, on an overcast
fall morning, on this side street with no direct light anyway and the shop window half-
hidden by the stairs. Even with the fluorescents the place felt like a cave, or the bowels of
a ship, and William made a mental note to use the proceeds of his first sale to install
better lighting, maybe a couple of torchieres like Frederick had shown him in one of his
magazines, or a spotlight aimed at that nasty Buddha, maybe it would even help sell the
thing. He took a quick look around, sure he wouldn’t get another chance once the store
flooded with customers, a last-minute inventory of Frederick’s life before the hordes
started picking at the brocade on the Venetian divan, testing the strength of the spindly
comb-back Windsor chair, the one Frederick had never let anyone sit in, not even
featherweight William, for fear it would collapse into splinters, or caressing the seductive
satin of the Rococo rosewood chairs, the pair that Frederick had been given by a friend,
about whom he never said any more, no matter how much William pleaded, or forgave him for past indiscretions.
William wanted just one last minute of respite before he started haggling with the gaggle of bargain hunters: “It’s not quite what I’m looking for, and isn’t that a burn mark on the top, and I saw the exact same piece at Blue Ridge Antiques for a third what you’re asking, and I couldn’t possibly go any higher than . . .” William’s eyes landed on a Georgian wing chair that had been one of Frederick’s favorites at home, angled by the fireplace, perfect for a quiet evening with a book and that awful cognac he liked, while William curled up on the couch with a Heineken. The leather was caramel, and spidery veins had emerged on the seat where it sagged into a bowl.
“Come sit with me for a second, honey,” said the chair, although it was Frederick’s lilt
that William heard.
William turned around, slowly, making sure he was as alone in the store as he thought he was. “I am not getting into a conversation with this chair,” he said. “I’m not. Do you hear me, Freddy?” He spun on his heel and saw the Buddha, hiding under the sarong. “Do you hear me? So please just shut up.” William knew perfectly well that the furniture wasn’t talking, any more than the cozy tub at home called to him, or the big four-poster in their bedroom whispered in his ear. He wasn’t crazy. He missed Frederick, that’s all. He missed candlelight suppers of exotic dishes he’d never heard of before, he missed that awful opera screeching from the stereo, he missed being corrected whenever he mispronounced a word. He missed Frederick.
He hopped to the cash register, always reluctant to step on the grizzled Heriz rug from the living room, even though Frederick had insisted rugs were meant to be walked on. “They’re not fragile, honey,” he’d said more than once. “Some camel probably fornicated on this rug.” William had been unconvinced. “All the more reason not to walk on it,” he always said. William took up his position behind the counter, turned on the cash register, saw by Frederick’s marble-and-gold Belgian mantel clock that it was almost ten, and eyed the door, ready for business.
Just before noon, William still stood behind the counter. The door had yet to open, although he had watched countless legs go by, legs cloaked in jeans and cowboy boots, bony legs in running shorts and Nikes, elephantine legs that ended in what looked to be fuzzy slippers, shapely legs in high heels behind a stroller. A little girl peeked out of the carriage and waved at William. William waved back.
“Well, it’s understandable that business would be slow the first day,” William said aloud. “I’m sure there’ll be a crowd at lunch.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” said the wing chair.
“I’m not talking to you,” shouted William.
When no one came in during lunch, William looked for ways to keep busy. He took down the grand opening sign he’d taped to the window, got out the Windex to attack a streak he’d noticed, and put the sign back up. He took Frederick’s collection of Toby jugs out of the glass case under the cash register and dusted each one, wiped the shelves, and put the jugs back, careful to leave them facing forward, as Frederick had shown him after dusting them at home. Then William pulled the books off the shelves and set about arranging them, in alphabetical order by author, and wondered if maybe he should kill
some time by reading one of them.
“Frederick would be pleased,” he said.
“And astonished,” said the bookshelf, a handsome oak lawyer’s cabinet with glass doors and white porcelain knobs. “But what you really ought to do is move a chair outside, so people can see some signs of life.”
William backed away. “Shut up!” But when he thought about it he saw it wasn’t a bad idea, and he settled on one of the sturdier pieces, a heavy Roycroft chair from the dining set Frederick had been so proud of because he’d assembled it from different arts and crafts designers—the Greene Brothers, Gustav Stickley, even Frank Lloyd Wright. William lugged the thing out to the sidewalk.
“Ouch,” said the chair, when William bumped it into the door. “Be careful.”
“Sorry,” said William. He went back inside, hopped over the rug, and grabbed a book off the shelf without looking to see what it was, then sat outside, with his knees together as Frederick had taught him, Frederick’s gray cashmere sweater over his shoulders, waiting to be noticed. The street was empty. William opened the book and read: “Call me Ishmael.”
At three, William was hungry. He made another mental note, this time to bring his lunch in the future, but on opening day he’d been so sure he wouldn’t have time to eat anyway, he hadn’t bothered to pack anything. And he was reluctant to close, even for a minute, to run down to Java Mountain for coffee and a bagel, because surely in the time it took to get there, have that slow-witted boy with the snake tattoo on his wrist, cute as he was, make the sandwich and the latte, someone would have come looking to buy the highboy and gone away disappointed. He stood up, sleepy from reading about the doomed whaling voyage, and took a step toward the shop door, then stepped back, worried even now that he’d miss a customer if he took a break. His stomach growled.
“Put a note on the door, sweetie,” said the chair. “I’ll be right here and people can wait.”
“I suppose you’re right,” said William. He scribbled a little sign—Back in 5—and taped it to the door. He ran up to the corner, took a right on Main, and ran back, slipping inside the Armanis both ways, confident there’d be someone in the chair when he returned.
“Did anyone come?” William asked the chair, wheezing from the unfamiliar exertion.
“Nope,” said the chair. “Nobody. Nada. Zippo. Zero. Zilch.”
“Shut up,” screamed William, and looked around sheepishly when he remembered he was standing on the sidewalk. He sat down, sipped the latte and nibbled at his bagel, toasted, with rosemary chicken salad, no tomato, and opened the book again, this time in the middle to see if the action might have picked up by then. “Chapter 49. The Hyena.” Hyena? What happened to the damn whale? “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke … ”
“You got that right,” William said, and closed the book. He dragged the dining chair inside.
At five, William banged the “enter” button on the cash register, heard the satisfying bing-bong when the drawer popped open, and counted the day’s receipts. Zero, of course.
“Nada, zilch,” said the chair. He certainly didn’t remember selling anything, but he considered the possibility, likelihood even, that he had spaced out, suffered temporary amnesia perhaps, because surely there had been a steady stream of customers, it being opening day for the elegant new antique shop near the corner of Central and Main, a location that couldn’t miss, painted in surefire lilac, William & Frederick, a welcome addition to commerce in the sleepy hamlet. He closed the drawer.
“Good night,” said the chair.
“Good night,” said William.
Although the first day had been disheartening, even frightening because it raised the specter of poverty that his life with Frederick had, until now, allowed him to nearly forget, William arrived the next morning armed with a rosy outlook. For one thing, the shop was less lonely than the house. He’d moved so many of Frederick’s things into the cramped store, and they’d been so vocal while the hours dragged on, that he actually looked forward to leaving the echo chamber that had once been the living room of the Victorian mansion and having a chat with the wing chair. Even if no customers appeared, at least he’d have someone to talk to. Maybe the Louis XVI armoire would speak up today. William had always wanted to learn French.
By the end of the first week, though, William was truly discouraged, the talkative antiques being little relief in the end, a steady cinema of bleak alternatives playing in his head—getting a real job, seeking out the brother he knew he had somewhere but hadn’t spoken to in a decade, going back to the bar in D.C. where he’d first latched onto Frederick, almost as hungry and desperate now as he had been then. The furniture tried to cheer him up, assuring him it was only a matter of time, that the breakthrough would come, that he only needed to be patient. William listened, dusted everything as lovingly as he had seen Frederick do it, and even tried to read more about the devilish whale. At home he’d painted a new sign to hang in the window, “Grand Opening Sale,” but it hadn’t enticed a single browser into the store, much less a paying customer, and since it blocked what little natural light he had, William took it down.
On Saturday morning, he opened the glass case to take out the Toby jugs yet again, to remove for the fifth straight day dust that hadn’t had a chance to settle from the first cleaning, when the shop door scraped open.
“Helloooo,” crooned the woman who entered, a behemoth in a flowered dress, with overflowing chest and hips, breathless from the five steps down. She looked vaguely familiar to William, as half the town did. Whenever he and Frederick had ventured out of the house, resolved to ignore pointing fingers and stage whispers, Frederick offered William a running commentary on the townsfolk. “That’s Bobby Cabe, a drunken old backwoodsman who tried to pick a fight with me once because he thought I was staring at him, not that I’d be the least bit interested in him even if he were the last fag on earth. Now he’s just belligerent and babbles on about fairies, and it’s not me he’s talking about, I’m reasonably sure. That one over there is Mildred Rutledge, from the high school. From what I hear, she’s fond of young boys, so you better look out. And that one, the one with the white hair bent over double like she’s looking for a dime, that’s Henrietta Doak. She’s ninety years old and still drives herself around in her late husband’s Cadillac, so when you see her coming, best get out of the way.” William wasn’t sure if this woman was one Frederick had described, but he wouldn’t have been able to remember anyway, despite her eye-popping girth, caught up as he was in the excitement of having his first customer.
In his haste, he dropped the smallest Toby jug on the glass shelf, and gasped when the handle, a delicate, gray thing in the shape of a dolphin, or a whale maybe, or at any rate some big fish, rolled away, sheered clean from the face that made up the body of the jug, apparently a seafarer of some sort, William couldn’t tell. A mental note to glue the fish back on, and William donned his widest smile, stuck out his hand as Frederick had suggested even with the most unlikely buyers, and this woman looked as likely as William could imagine, and welcomed the giantess into the shop. Mrs. Benson, as it turned out.
“I knew Frederick,” she said in a low, sympathetic voice, as if they were at the funeral, although that had been over a month ago, early October, and no one from town had been there except the lesbian couple who ran a candle and macramé shop out on Sparksburg Pike, and a handful of Frederick’s former students. “He might not have known me, though,” she admitted. “My boy Joshua was in his literature class for a while, but we put a stop to that when we heard.” Heard what, William wanted to ask, but even around Frederick, gentle, patient Frederick, he’d been afraid to ask questions because it seemed like the answer was always something he was supposed to have known in the first place but, he usually rationalized, he’d been too busy just surviving to learn. His confusion must have been scrawled on his face, because Mrs. Benson whispered, in a pitying voice that said, as clearly as if the words had come out of that cavernous mouth, “don’t tell me you didn’t know,” along with the words she actually spoke: “About his illness.”
Oh, that. He had cancer, it wasn’t the other, William longed to say, looked over at the wing chair, the most outspoken of the collection, and shook his head, silently apologizing.
“Is there something in particular you’re looking for, Mrs. Benson?” That’s what Frederick had told him to say, wasn’t it, get the customer to commit to a quest, then put the Holy Grail in her hands and you’ve made the sale. Assuming you had the Holy Grail in stock, of course, and hadn’t offered the Golden Fleece instead. Just browsing, she said, so William took up his post behind the cash register while Mrs. Benson pawed over Frederick’s Waterford goblets, and the silver cake server that William really should have taken to a jeweler to appraise, but that seemed too crass somehow, and an insult to Frederick. Mrs. Benson stumbled into a Victorian writing table, a one-of-a-kind mahogany jewel on which Frederick had written daily his letters and lists, recorded every household expenditure, graded remedial compositions, and she looked over at William with stiletto eyes, so disturbing in a woman that large, as though he most certainly had put the table in that spot for the sole purpose of injuring her. William shrugged, hoping it conveyed his meaning, which was, I’m terribly sorry, but I hope you haven’t damaged Frederick’s desk, lady, or there’ll be hell to pay.
Mrs. Benson browsed a while longer, and picked up and carried around with her like it was a watermelon, or maybe a football, a pear-shaped coppery vase that Frederick had said was Ming but to William just looked Chinese and William hadn’t even wanted to know what Frederick had done to get. She sat for a minute in the wing chair that William could hear groaning under her incredible bulk, ran her fingertips over the cracked leather, then struggled up and over to the bookshelves, and lifted her glasses to read the titles. She even took one out to thumb the pages. But her wandering eyes always came back to the offending table.
“How much is it?” Mrs. Benson’s voice had lost both its ingratiating melody and funereal whisper, and she was now all business. “Your best price, of course.”
This was the moment Frederick had tried to prepare him for, the first negotiation with a customer. There was so much to consider! He wanted to make his first sale, of course, because he had to admit that things were not going well and he’d been so sure the money would just be rolling in at this point, and there was always the apparition of the evil stepsister lurking in his subconscious, so a sale would be a good thing, an omen of better things to come maybe. But he couldn’t start out too low, could he, because the desk had some value, and not only the price Frederick had paid for it or the services performed in Paris or New York or wherever, but it had belonged to Frederick! Frederick used it! Frederick treasured it! On the other hand, there was the rent, and if he didn’t sell this piece and several more by the end of the month, William would have to dip into the cookie jar of cash Frederick had filled for him, and as Frederick had explained over and over again, that was not—what was the word Frederick had used—sustainable.
But despite all the planning, Frederick hadn’t gotten around to telling William what the prices should be for anything. What did William know? He’d never sold a thing, apart from his own companionship, unless you could count that fiasco behind the men’s fragrance counter at Macy’s one of his regulars had finagled for him and that William had walked away from during a coffee break. Too stressful, too much to remember. Frederick had begun to talk about antique prices once, but somehow the subject of his stepsister had intruded and he’d gotten so upset, so overcome with what it would mean to William when she eventually showed up to claim the house and whatever William hadn’t managed to sell by then, that he hadn’t been able to continue. He’d gone downhill fast after that, barely able to speak, too weak to leave the house, too horrified by his appearance to allow visitors. And now William was on his own.
He opened a notebook, a black three-ring binder, and looked for the writing table on the list. Frederick had made the list years ago for insurance purposes, and when they were going through his papers, near the end, he had discovered it and handed it to William. “Perfect,” he’d said, in a breathless gasp. “An inventory. Just what you need, my boy.” And William had put the list in the binder, a dusty torn thing he’d found in the attic, and had decided that the values assigned for insurance purposes surely were the least he should try to get for each item. Hadn’t Frederick called it perfect? He ran his finger down the page to the writing table, then across the row to the value, and closed the book. But wait, he thought, that’s where I should end up, so I’ll add a little for bargaining purposes, and then I’ll give her a discount and we’ll all be happy.
“Because you are such a delightful woman, I could let you have this darling table,” William began, imitating as best he could the warble Frederick had demonstrated repeatedly, and remembering what Frederick had said about flattering both the customer and the purchase, to make them think they were made for each other, “for five thousand five hundred dollars.” The woman’s jaw dropped. Comically, William thought. He wondered what he’d done wrong.
“You’re joking, of course,” she said, recovering, laughing even.
Was the price absurdly low? It seemed expensive to William, but then he’d never lived in the world of objects until he’d met Frederick. For years, after running away from his mother and stepfather’s home in New Jersey, his older brother already free, off in the Army, the only thing on his mind had been food and shelter, and sometimes getting high, and after awhile even food and shelter receded in importance. But then Frederick had rescued him and brought him home to the country and the house filled with curio cabinets, lace tablecloths, real china plates, engraved silverware. Frederick had tried to teach him, but there was only so much a boy could absorb. How could he know the real value? Too low? Or was the price too high? That must be it, William realized. Frederick wouldn’t have put a low value on the insurance forms, even William understood that, when he stopped to think about it. He might have inflated the value a tiny bit, right?
“I could consider a discount,” William said, reciting the dialogue he’d learned from his lover, his mentor and savior. “One shouldn’t really bargain with the customer,” Frederick had insisted. “Bargaining is so … tacky. But one may offer a discount. A special price. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“I bet you could,” said the leviathan, and ran her bloated finger over the table one more time. “I’ll give you fifty bucks for it. And that’s because I hit the jackpot at bingo last night.” She pulled a wad of bills from her purse and counted out two twenties and ten wrinkled ones. William hesitated, felt Frederick pushing him to take it, heard the armoire whispering that rent day was just around the corner, actually lifted his hand to touch the cash, when out of the corner of his eye he saw the Buddha, shaking his head under the sarong. William put his hand in his pocket.
“No,” he said, taking a step back from the counter. “It’s worth much more than that.”
“I see,” said Mrs. Benson. “Bingo has its limits, I’m afraid.” She stuffed the bills back in her
purse and moved to the door, turned the knob, pulled it open, raised her foot to step out.
“Wait,” said William.
Mrs. Benson closed the door and grinned. Maliciously, William thought. She reached into her purse and waved the cash at him.
He looked at the floor. “No,” he said. “I can’t.”
The following week, William’s expectations were lower. He’d put the Armanis away in Frederick’s cedar closet, along with the checked suit, the cashmere sweater and all the rest of his clothes. He’d have to give them away or, better yet, leave them for Cassie to deal with. William’s Dockers, that Frederick had bought him when he couldn’t stand to see him in jeans any longer, and the clogs—Frederick bought those, too, of course—would do just fine. It’s not like anyone would see him anyway, tucked away in the dark basement. He arrived at the shop just at ten, a lunch packed, nothing fancy, a bruised apple and expired yogurt, no reason to think that the situation had changed, especially now that his one and only customer, the enormous Mrs. Benson, would spread the word that his shop was too expensive and that he, skinny, pasty little William, would never make it in the world without Frederick. On the way, he’d stopped at the Ace Hardware and picked up some glue, the only kind he knew, the milky white stuff that smelled like pudding, tasted a bit like it, too, if he remembered right, and set about fixing the little Toby jug. That done, he pulled the book off the shelf and settled into the wing chair. If I’m going to be bored to death, not to mention starving and poor, he thought, I might as well do what Frederick was after me all the time to do. “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long ago, having little or no
money in my purse—”
The shop door swung open and a gust turned the page. “Hellooo. Anybody home?” It was
that colossus again, this time with a woman who could have been her twin in tow, or rather her shadow, William thought, since she looked to be just a deli slice compared to the big woman’s beefy slab. And anyway, their resemblance might only have been an illusion, as William realized he might have lived his whole life so far thinking that all old women looked exactly the same, only in different dimensions, with the salon-curled, blue-gray helmet and the high-collared flowered dress and gold broach.
“This is Lydia, and I told her all about how charming you were and how you had some wonderful goodies in your shop and those candlesticks would look just fabulous on her mantel and how much do you want for them?” Mrs. Benson tugged Lydia to the armoire, where the candlesticks sat in semi-darkness. William had struggled out of the chair while she spoke and now opened his binder with the insurance list. He ran his finger down the page, but didn’t see the candlesticks anywhere, which was no surprise because at home he’d found them under the sink in the powder room and knew they’d either been forgotten, or worthless. He picked one up and then the other, pleased with their heft, and even the dripped wax cheered his fingers, reminding him of his last Christmas with Frederick. He set them down gently on the counter and looked again in the binder. He ran his finger down the page one more time and stopped when he came to the armoire, value $15,000.
“I can let you have the pair for, let’s see,” William said, stalling, hoping they’d think he was calculating a discount off the asking price, when in fact he had no idea what number would be high enough to keep this gargantuan and her shadowy friend from buying the candlesticks, “I think, maybe, I suppose, two hundred dollars.”
The wraith called Lydia opened her purse and pulled out a checkbook, but Mrs. Benson laughed so loud the Buddha’s sarong fluttered and Frederick’s rocking horse launched into motion. Mrs. Benson shook her head and laid a meaty hand on her friend’s arm. Lydia looked up at her, obviously puzzled.
“You’re a silly boy, William. No doubt this appealed to dear, sweet Frederick.” She raised her eyebrows, and William understood she wasn’t talking about Frederick’s weakness for antiques. “But it’s no way to run a business.” With that, Mrs. Benson pulled Lydia, whose hand still clutched her checkbook and a fountain pen, up the stairs. The window shuddered, William thought, when the door slammed behind them.
“Now you’ve done it,” said the highboy. “You had the fish on the line and you let it get away.”
“But at least the store is still afloat,” said the wing chair. “For now.”
“Forget the list, mon cher,” said the armoire. “Go low.”
In the afternoon, a young couple came in, a sloppy bra-less teenager with a pierced eyebrow, and a slim young man about William’s age in khakis and a polo shirt, a silver ring on his thumb. William watched his careful steps, trailing the heedless girl. They looked at everything, laughing and poking at each other, “you’re such a nerd,” said the girl, and “at least I don’t have a tattoo on my butt,” said the young man. She called him Donnie, he called her Pammy, more like sister and brother than a couple.
“Is there something I can help you with?” he asked them.
“We were just looking,” said the girl, pawing through a drawer full of costume jewelry that Frederick—William didn’t really want to think about why Frederick had a drawer full of costume jewelry.
“Yeah, just looking,” said the man, now keeping his eyes on William, straightening his collar.
He stuck his hand out, thin and pasty, a light grip, like William’s own. “I’m Donnie.” Now the
girl turned around to look, eyes wide.
“William,” said William.
The girl clucked, grabbed Donnie and pulled him out the door. Donnie waved.
At home that night, there was mail. Addressed to him. He never got mail, but enjoyed the ritual of opening the box and going through the catalogs and junk mail and solicitations still being delivered for Frederick. This was a pale-blue envelope, the kind you might expect to be scented, with his name on it and a return address in California, and a regular first-class stamp, not one of those telltale bulk postage stamps he’d noticed on all his other mail. Frederick’s mail. Who did he know in California?
It was from Cassie. She’d just heard, was deeply saddened, sorry she and Frederick hadn’t been closer, and by the way she’d be arriving next week to turn the house over to a Realtor she’d hired and would William be so kind as to be gone by the time she got there? William sank to the window seat, clutching the letter, pictured Frederick in his silk robe descending the stairs, Frederick reading by the fire, Frederick beating eggs for a soufflé. What to do?
The next morning was damp and drizzly and William was happy to open the shop, shake out his umbrella, and ease into the wing chair to wait and think. There was still room in the shop, he saw, especially if he started piling things up, so he could call those awful boys Frederick had hired and ask them to bring another load over from the house. William didn’t have much of his own to move, he could use one of Frederick’s suitcases and still have room for some more of Frederick’s things, and until something turned up he could sleep on the divan, shower at the Y maybe, and things would be fine. “You’ll see,” he said to the armoire. There was no answer.
He was still sitting there, gazing out the window, when he saw a pair of skinny legs in tight black jeans go by. Then the same legs went by in the other direction, stopped and crouched down, and that guy from the other day, Donnie, was looking in, upside down, grinning, William thought, but it was hard to tell that way, with the chin at the top. Donnie waved, and then his face popped out of sight and the legs skipped away. William felt a chill.
The titan came back, with Lydia in tow. “You silly boy,” Mrs. Benson said, opened her purse
and pulled out the bills she’d offered before. Lydia peeked around her megalithic friend and
flashed her checkbook at William, a narrow grin on her lips.
“Forget your pride, mon petite chou,” whispered the armoire. “Take the money,” said the wing chair, “what choice do we have?” “Cassie is coming,” said the highboy. William backed into the counter, rattling the Toby jugs on the glass shelves, and nodded as the whale closed in.
He slid out of her path, spun around to the cash register and pressed the buttons. Nothing
happened. He looked up at her and shrugged. Pressing harder on the numbers, he hit “enter” with the heel of his hand, as if he just hadn’t been convincing enough the first time, as if the machine would not allow him to surrender Frederick to this goliath. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Donnie’s legs again, the black jeans, slowly now, stopping just at the steps. With a sheepish grin toward Mrs. Benson, William felt around the back of the box and threw the switch, felt the hum of power in his fingers, and rang up the sale, the insurance list forgotten. The drawer popped open and William slipped the bills inside, while Lydia wrote out her check—twenty dollars, Mrs. Benson had decreed—for the candlesticks.
“I’ll pull the Lincoln around in a few minutes,” said Mrs. Benson, and plowed up Central, with Lydia in her wake. While the door was still open, Donnie stepped in.
William pretended to busy himself at the cash register, which for the first time actually harbored cash, but watched Donnie move through the store, examining everything he and the girl had seen already, making his way deeper inside, stopping again at the pile of costume jewelry. He turned toward William with a tiara in his hand, slipped it into his wispy blonde hair and blushed crimson, then set it down on the counter. “How much is it?”
“A dollar?” guessed William, suppressing a laugh. Donnie’s fingers brushed William’s palm when he handed him the bill, and they both turned away. William felt himself blushing now, too.
He’d barely finished the small sale when the door whooshed open again. A young couple—
newlyweds, from Philadelphia, they announced right away, as if that somehow was going to make a difference in any price he might quote them and, William had to admit, it did incline him toward a bigger number than he would have otherwise—instantly moved in opposite directions, the woman asking William about the highboy, then the armoire, while the husband shouted questions from the back about a dusty school desk he’d noticed in the corner. “It’s from the oldest school in the county, a real collector’s item,” William lied loudly to the husband, with a wink to Donnie. “Previously owned by royalty,” he crowed to the wife, when the door opened again and an elderly couple came in and started nosing around and they were all still in the store when Randy, from Java Mountain, strolled in, waved at William, and began fingering the books. Donnie leaned against the counter. William pretended not to notice.
As William was writing up the chair for the young couple, watching how the dark finger hair
curled over the man’s wedding ring while he steadied the checkbook, the older couple asked for the price of the armoire and this time William halved the insurance estimate, told them there was room for discussion and let them mull it over and in the meantime Randy had grabbed a couple of books off the shelf and stood at the register with his wallet open. Donnie still leaned. Oh my, thought William, this is just as I’d imagined it would be. The world isn’t going to come crashing down after all! Let Cassie come!
Randy had gone with his books and the old couple was still examining the armoire and William would be sorry to see it go, but selling the most expensive piece in the store would be a real coup, even at the more realistic price, and he left them alone to talk themselves into it.
Mrs. Benson’s Lincoln pulled up out front, idled there, a little cotton candy cloud of exhaust out the back, and he knew it was finally time. He leaned over the writing desk, tried to hold both ends and lift, but the table dragged its feet. William laughed at himself. You are a silly boy, aren’t you, he thought, the table doesn’t have feet. Well, it does, but . . . He leaned over again and it still seemed like the table was reluctant, but William knew perfectly well what was happening. He wasn’t a total dunce, despite what his stepfather might have thought. It wasn’t the furniture who was foot-dragging. Donnie hopped around the counter, touched his hand to William’s shoulder and grabbed the other side of the table.
Clifford Garstang has published in Confluence and the Ledge. His story “Nanking Mansion” won the 2007 GSU Review Fiction Prize and will be published shortly. He also has work forthcoming in Potomac Review, The Hub and elsewhere. Leviathan originally appeared in North Dakota Quarterly. Garstang blogs at Perpetual Folly.