Authors: Tamar Myers
“Are those your goons, out front?”
“In a manner of speaking. Funny, you should refer to them as that; they're listed in the phone book, under security, as âGoons for Tycoons.' I couldn't resist.”
“TrÃ¨s droll,” Rob said, without being the least bit sarcastic.
“Kitty,” I said, “how did you meet these two sorry characters?”
“Hey, watch what you say,” the phony duchess said. “We commoners have feelings too.”
“Abby,” our hostess said, “do you mind if I sit first before I answer your questions? It seems as if I've been on my feet for hours.”
“No, that'd be fine. Why don't I just call your goons, while you watch this diabolical duoâ”
“You can't prevent us from leaving,” Bruiser growled. “We got rights, you know?”
Big Larry smacked a bowling ball size fist into a dinner-plate-size palm. “I'll watch 'em fer ya, little lady.”
“Abby! Be grateful.”
“Yes, Mama. Thank you very much, Big Larry.”
“My pleasure, ma'am.”
And it was his pleasure to fix both Kitty and I plates of food before ushering us into the downstairs conservatory. The room was wallpapered in cherry red; housed two concert grand pianos, both white, and a gold harp. Each instrument was flanked by a semicircle of side chairs, which were painted white and gold in the old French style.
On the floor, connecting everything, spread an enormous Savonnerie carpet from seventeenth century France. At perhaps eighteen by fourteen feet, it was the largest carpet of its kind I had ever seen in a private home. The patternâmulticolored floral on dark creamâwas pretty enough. However, the border, a garland of cheery blossoms that beautifully echoed the wall,
made it “pop.”
Mama and Rob had thoughtfully remained behind, so only Kitty saw and heard my reaction.
“You like?” she said.
“It's awesome! Where did you get it?”
“Once upon a time I had the pleasure of living in Parisâwhen I was younger, and not quite so foolish.”
“Please, Kitty, don't put yourself down. Those two are con men. Sooner or later we all get had by the likes of them. Tell me, how did it begin?”
“I found them on the Internet. I was looking for a title to buy?”
“Like a car title?”
“I wish it was as normal as that. No, there are actually
sites where, for enough money, you can purchase titles of nobility. That's how Zsa Zsa Gabor's husband became a prince; he paid a German princess to adopt him. I thought their graces, the Duke and Duchess of Malberry, might create a position of honor for me in their court if I helped keep their struggling little corner of the world afloat.”
“And which corner would that be?”
“The ancient Kingdom of Malberry, of course. Where
Where else indeed? In school I stunk at math, was pretty good in English, and enjoyed geography (which is different from being good at it). Still, I don't remember studying about a kingdom named “Bad”-berry, as it would translate, if one read the first syllable as if it were from the Latin.
“Where is Malberry located? Next to which other countries?” I dipped a shrimp into cocktail sauce and bit it off at the tail.
“Well, I'm not exactly sureâbut it's one of those countries where English is spoken.”
I swallowed before speaking. “I see. How much would your title cost?”
“I didn't say I was going to actually
a title, now did I?”
going to do just that, am I right?”
She looked miserably down at her plate. “Okay, so you found me out. He was only a dukeânot even a royal oneâso the best he could come with was the title of countess in my own right. In other words, I don't have to be married to a count to be called a countess. The title alone was a quarter of a million U.S. dollars. The title plus the crest, and the ancestral home
was 4.5 million dollars. But first I had to pass a very stringent test.”
The two best ways to close a gaping mouth are: to either push it shut with a closed fist, or tempt it shut with tasty food. I popped in another shrimp that was dripping with sauce. Unfortunately I am not the neatest thing since toothpicks, and a very teensy, weensy, tiny, minuscule bit of sauce didn't quite make it into my mouth. Perhaps it would even be more accurate to say that it ended up on the Savonnerie carpet.
“I'm so sorry,” I said, and in the process may have drooled a mite more of the sauce on that colossal work of art.
I must give credit where credit is due. Although she was clearly nouveau riche, Kitty showed the restraint of a true queen. “Oh, that old thing,” she twittered, although her face was as white as a sushi roll.
You can bet that I did my best to undo the damage. First I soaked the surface sauce up with one of the thick, soft paper napkins Big Larry had handed me along with my plate. Meanwhile I sent Kitty in search of club soda and a roll of plain paper towels. Not only did she return with the requested items, but she had Mama, the aforementioned giant, and Rob with her as well.
“Oy vey,” Rob said when he me saw trying to remove a red stain on a four-hundred-year-old masterpiece.
“Don't worry,” Mama said. “My Abby has had a lot of practice at this.”
“Thanks, MamaâI think.”
The secret to cleaning just about anything is to blot, blot, and blot some more. Whatever you do, use white paper towels, not the fancy designer towels that fea
ture drawings of kitchen implements or silly renditions of geese with bows tied around their necks. The ink from these printed towels can transfer to the object one is trying to clean. White cotton clothânever use polyester, or even a blendâis also good for blotting, but the cloth must be dry in order to wick up the liquid, and one can go easily go through more cloth than one has on hand. That is why it pays to always keep rolls ands rolls of plain paper towels on hand.
Rob, ever the good friend, joined me on his hands and knees. “Dear sweet Abby, whatever are we going to do with you?”
“Put me in a pumpkin shell, there to keep me very well?”
“I thought of that, but your skin tone doesn't lend itself to orange. To watermelon maybe. Do they grow watermelons as big as giantâ”
“Rob, look,” I whispered
“Believe me, dear, I am looking. Fortunately, we've managed to lighten the ketchup stain enough to whereâ”
look. At the carpet. And keep your voice down.”
“What am I looking for?” he asked in an exaggerated whisper. “Does it do tricks?”
“Rob!” If there had been an S in his name, I would have hissed.
“Okay, I'll behave. I was just trying to make you feel better by employing a little humor.”
“How about you employ your diagnostic skills instead?” I ran my index finger along a line of pale green stitches. “Do these look hand-stitched to you?”
“And these? Or these? Or any of these?”
“Holy guacamole, Abby! This thing's a fake!”
“Well, genuine facsimile of an original sounds a little kinder.”
“Rack of lamb sounds nicer than ribs of a dead baby sheep, but that doesn't change what it is. Does Kitty Bohring know what she has?”
“I don't think so.”
“Are you going to tell her?”
“I don't know; I guess I'm going to play it by ear.”
We worked in silence until the stain was barely visible to the naked eye. After Rob helped me to my feet, we flipped the carpet back until the damp area was exposed to the air.
“Just leave it dry like that overnight,” I said to Kitty. “Tomorrow morning I'm sending Charleston's best carpet cleaners over to finish the job.”
My announcement seemed to startle her. “What? I mean, there's really no need to do that. I can't even see where the sauce was anymore.”
“I can,” Mama said.
“Well, I can. Abby, you never could understand why I made you rewash half the dishes when it was your night to wash them. But honestly, dear, if you'd have scraped off all the food you left clinging to those plates before you stuck them in the soapy water, you'd have solved the issue of world hunger. No doubt they would have awarded you the Nobel Prize.”
I flashed Mama a look that I knew would be wasted. “Anyway,” I said, turning back to Kitty, “I insist that
this is professionally cleaned, and I'm footing the bill.”
“That's very nice of you, Abby,” Kitty said, “but after tonightâI just don't want intrusions for a while. I'll call somebody on my own when I'm ready. But thank for you for your kind gesture.”
“Okay, but then I still owe you one free cleaning, good for whenever the mood strikes you. By the way,” I said, as I slid into my most casual voice, “it's none of my business, so please feel free to tell me to mind my own business, but seeing as how I
in the businessâ”
“She wants to know how much you paid for that rug,” Mama said.
“Well, it's the truth, isn't it? Abby, I'm fifty-eight years old; I don't have time to be beating around the bush like that.”
“Speaking of the truth, Mama, you were fifty-eight years old during the first Clinton presidency. “I smiled coyly at Kitty. “So how much is this cutie?”
“Two hundred and fiftyâif I remember correctly. It was so many years ago. And of course that's after converting it into dollars.”
I was immensely relieved; she'd paid a fair price, even way back then. It was, after all, a replica of excellent quality and unusual size.
“Even in today's somewhat repressed market,” I burbled, “I bet I could still get you ten grand for thatâshould you ever wish to sell. You did good, Kitty.”
“I hope so, Abby, because what I meant to say was two hundred and fifty
arth to Abby, come in, Abby.”
It was three weeks later and I was still stewing over the events that transpired the night of Kitty Bohring's party and their many repercussions. In the time-honored spirit of “kill the messenger,” Kitty was no longer speaking to me. On the other hand, just a few minutes of posing as a fake blue blood had turned my life upside down.
Disclaimers did absolutely no good. I would like to think that most folks knew I wasn't royaltyâat least in their heads. But if they did, that didn't stop them from thinking of me as a celebrity. Everywhere I went, even in the produce aisles of my Harris Teeter, people pointed and whispered. Some even asked for autographs, and they were sorely disappointed if I signed their grocery lists as Abigail Washburn. In their minds I was a
just for pretending to be oneâlike Paris Hilton, I suppose.
But then there were those folks who thought my disclaimer was just for show and that I really was royalty. For them I was the princess of the peninsula. The
fact that I owned and ran an antiques store was part of my disguise. Who, or what, I was hiding from was fodder for a dozen different tales, none of which seemed to have anything to do with the principality of Weisbladderbadden. My favorite story was that I was the granddaughter of Anastasia, and was waiting for the day when I would be crowned empress of all of Russia. That day, by the way, was imminent, now that communism was a thing of the past (one version had it that I was already quietly assembling my court).
At any rate, as a result of that one evening, I was suddenly the belle of Charleston. The invitations poured in and business boomed. I was in need of both a social secretaryâother than Mamaâand another hand in the shop. Greg, who is happier on a shrimp boat than any place on earth other than our bed, was distinctly not overjoyed by the prospect of becoming Charleston's “first man.” As for me, there is only so much smiling the human body can endure before even the perkiest of us begins to feel mandibular pain. Is it any wonder then that the genuine blue bloods are sometimes photographed looking as if they've been caught preparing for their colonoscopies?
I was scurrying from my car to my shop's back entrance when Bob assaulted me with his annoying “earth to Abby” clichÃ©. “Oops,” he said, “on second thought, maybe I better let you orbit in peace.”
I breathed deeply, of what I hoped was cleansing salt air. Unfortunately it was early Monday morning and the garbage trucks were late. All of King Street, even my fairly sedate part of it, smelled like the College of Charleston had partied hard over the weekend.
“I'm sorry, Bob. I probably look like a bitch on heels.”
“But a very good-looking one. Hey, can I buy you a cup of coffee?”
“I'd love that, but I'm interviewing someone to help out in the shop. In fact, I was supposed to meet her ten minutes ago.”
“Through help wanted ads?”
“Yeah, afraid so. I don't know how long this position will last, so I didn't think it was worth it to go through an agency. You want to come sit in on the interview? Give me your thoughts afterward?”
Bob and Robâthe Rob-Bobs, as they are affectionately knownâare very successful antiques dealers themselves. Their shop, The Finer Things, is one of those places that appeals to folks who'd been vying for my attention as of late. To enter, one must ring the bell and be scrutinized via a sideways glance (although the Rob-Bobs vehemently deny this), but once inside, a customer feels like a member of an exclusive club. A handsome young stud, or a gorgeous young nymph, from the College of Charleston drama department is always on duty to charm the pants off the men and women customers alike. While they're being charmed, the customersâreferred to as “guests”âare treated to champagne, coffee, and a variety of finger foods. In the background the soothing sounds of soft classical musical have begun to hypnotize those lucky enough to be buzzed through. When they've consumed enough to feel somewhat beholden, one of the Rob-Bobs will step in and offer a guided tour of the shop, as if it was a museum.
Each piece in The Finer Things has a story, and often, by the time the tale has been spun, the guests will be bidding against each other for the right to own this piece of history. It is an interesting way to do business, but far too labor intensive for me. Besides, it smacks of some of the churches my friends dragged me to as I was growing up in the very buckle of the Bible Belt. The right music, a little snack, a spirited lectureâby the end of the experience you actually
to part with your money. But once you're home, then what? At least shoppers can return most items. Still, I think manipulation should be reserved for stiff muscles and potter's clay, not two-legged pigeons with too little willpower to resist college kids and cheap champagne (I've seen them switch the labels).
“I'd love to come sit in on your interview,” Bob said.
“You sure Rob won't mind?”
“Hey, I own half the business. I can be late if I want. Besides, the high tide floats all boats. We've hired another sharkâit's a she. She started yesterday. That's what I came to tell you.”
“You've hired a docent?”
“Ha ha, very funny. Her name is Sandy. She's in her early seventies, very well turned out, has beautifully coiffed hairâalthough that shade of red looks totally unnatural at her age. But who cares, everyone colors their hair now, right?”
“That's because Betty Anderson and June Cleaver would never have colored theirs.”
“You're so right. Anyway, this woman really knows her antiques. What's more, she knows how to handle
Rob. All she has to do is give him the
, and he jumps three feet.”
I tried in vain to stifle a giggle. “You know, that really
funny, because your new saleslady sounds exactly like his mother. How Freudian is that?”
Bob grimaced. “Abby, what is Rob's mother's name?”
“Sandra Goldâ¦Why slap me up the side of the head and call me Marvin three days from Sunday! You poor, poor dear.”
“What did you just say? About Marvin?”
“Oh nothing; it was just an expression my daddy used whenever he was shocked by somethingâwhich was rarely, I assure you. Tell me, how did this happen?”
“It was my fault. She made a comment about sitting around our town house all day being bored. So Rob suggested she look into volunteer work. She said she'd already done enough mitzvoth to last her three lifetimes. Then Iâschlemiel that I amâtold her that she could always come and help us organize the stockroom. I thought that might scare her off. Instead she said she thought it was a wonderful idea, but you know how anal our Rob isâno pun intendedâhe couldn't bear anyone reorganizing his precious stock, so bingo, she was instantly promoted to sales associate. And do you know what the worst thing about it is?”
“She's awesome! Hurricane Sandy. She racked up a hundred thousand dollars worth of sales in just one afternoon. Then she went home and insisted on making us a celebratory supperâin
what kind of supper is scrambled eggs with smoked salmon?”
“High in protein?” I glanced at my watch. “Jeepers creepers, I gotta run. You coming?”
“I might as well; it's not like they'll miss me over at Casa de la Goldburg.”
Wynnell flew at me like a bat from a cavern at dusk. “Abby, where have you been? You're late.”
“I know. Bob and I got to talking andâ”
“She's here.” My buddy was suddenly speaking like a ventriloquist, through her teeth, but her voice wasn't being thrown anywhere.
“I'd hope so. Did you put her back there in the corner where I've got that Eastlake living room ensemble set up?”
“That's what you told me to do, butâ”
“Then we're all set. Bob's going to sit in, by the way. He wants to get some hiring pointersâin case they decide to hire over at The Finer Things.” I winked at him. “All right then, Wynnell, I'll just let you get back to minding the shop. I know it's in good hands. Oh, if you get a chance, bring us some coffee, will you?”
“Yes, boss,” she said, with a dollop of sarcasm and two scoops of acerbity.
I tiptoed back to the corner in question. Walking quietly is part of my interviewing process. I make allowances for human behaviors like pit-sniffing, head-scratching, or nose-picking, because we all do them when we think we're alone, but making nasty, leering faces into the small mirror that hangs above the Eastlake love seat, or performing the Nazi salute (I've seen
it done), tend to raise red flags with me. Once I observed a woman get on her knees and pretend she was me. When I promptly showed her to the door, she had the nerve to be miffed.
Despite a dearth of caffeine that morning, I breezed into the homey nook, my perk factor cranked to the max. “Good morning, Miss Cheng.”
My interviewee stood and turned. I did a double take.
“C.J.! As I live and breathe!”
“Hey, Abby. Aren't you going to give your sister-in-law a kiss and a peck, and a hug around the neck? Of course in your case you'll have to jump to do it.” She laughed good-naturedly.
I made her bend down for the kiss and the peck, but instead of the hug, I gave her a playful smack on the bottom. “You
Miss Cheng. I skipped my Starbucks routine on account of you.” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “Now I have to drink Wynnell's coffee.”
that,” Wynnell growled from somewhere unseen, which just confirmed my belief that my shop was far too small.
“Well everybody, since there is no interview, and we don't open for another twenty minutes, why don't we all sit down.”
Bob and I sat, but C.J., bless her oversized heart, seemed too nervous to sit. “Actually, Abby, I am Miss Cheng.”
“Isn't that a Chinese name?” Bob asked.
“Yes, and I am Chinese.”
I smiled at my friend, who is five feet ten and has mouse brown hair. “I thought you were a Ledbetter from Shelby, North Carolina.”
“That's true too, but Abby, don't you remember that Granny Ledbetter said she found me on the front porch in a basket?”
“Yes. She claimed that giant stork dropped you off.”
“The fact that you believe that story,” Bob said dryly, “is one of the reasons we love you so much.”
C.J.'s large gray eyes filled with tears. “Then maybe you should start loving me less, because I no longer believe it. You see, my Great-uncle Billy died three weeks agoâ”
“Oh C.J., I'm so sorry,” Bob and I said as one.
She thoughtfully nodded at each of us. “That's all right; you didn't know him. Anyway, when Great-aunt Nanny was going through his things she found some letters and some newspaper clippings. I didn't bring them today because they're all in either Russian or Chinese, and I know how parochial y'all's educations have been. Anyway, Great-uncle Billy was a Russian major in college, although he became a vet, and when a group of Russian farmers came to Shelby to study goat husbandry, the government asked if they could stay with him.”
She took a deep breath. “One of the farmers was a young womanâSvetlana Neerkovichâwho'd fallen in love with a Chinese exchange student. His name was Cheng Shin Jouâin Chinese, the family name comes first. Anyway, she was eight and a half months pregnant but no one in her group knew it, on account of my birth mama was a very big-boned lady. And she was scared to death too that anyone would find out, because they might kick her out of the collective. Then
one dark and stormy night she gave birth, and not only did Great-uncle Billy help out, but he put the baby in a basket and set it on Granny Ledbetter's front porch, because he knew she had a soft spot for young'uns.”
“You had me right up until âdark and stormy night,'” I said, and flashed my friend a warm smile to welcome her home.
“I'm afraid she had me until âyoung'uns,'” Bob said. “Does anyone
C.J. sprang to life like a tyrannosaurus that had been napping only to discover a herd of herbivores trampling across its tail. “Dang it, I'm telling the truth, Abby! Stick an acorn up my nose, blast it out with a garden hose!”
“Ouch! You're serious, aren't you?”
“More serious than a meeting house full of preachers on Judgment Day. And you know what? It turns out I'm really three years
than I thought. How cool is that?”
“Bummer,” Bob said.
“You really are half Chinese?” I said.
“Yes, ma'am, my birth daddy was from Beijing. Somehow Granny managed to get me a copy of a birth certificate with his name on it, but she never told me about it. Why do you think that is, Abby? Do you think she did something illegal?”
“You mean like stole two eyes of newt from a government supply house and held them ransom? That kind of thing?”
“I don't know, C.J. Maybe she was trying to protect
you; even as recently as twenty-five years ago, Shelby wasn't exactly a bastion of diversity.”
“Oh yeah, AbbyâBobâI know you guys like to call me C.J., which stands for Calamity Jane, but my name isn't even Jane, so now you'll have to think of a new name I guess.”
“Will I be able to pronounce it?” C.J.âI mean, whoever she isâsnorts when she's happy, and she let out a horse-pleasing one now. “I hope so. My mama named me Cheng.”