Authors: Tamar Myers
Florence Knudsen emitted a howl of despair and then appeared to slip into catatonic shock. Her husband Lloyd betrayed his low-born, perhaps even “off,” origins with a string of invectives, some of which even I had never before heard. Meanwhile the waiter's face turned a macaw scarlet and he attempted to flee back into the kitchen. Following him, just as close as bird lice, was our irate and belittling host. As for most of the other guests, years of rubbernecking along the I-26 corridor to Columbia (sometimes referred to as Death Row) had given them the ability to see everything that was going on without leaving their seats.
“You see what you've done,” Jill hissed to poor Aunt Nanny.
I told myself to remain professional. Blot, blot, blotâthat's what a professional would do. But with what? My napkin? It looked pretty, and had been folded
beautifully, as a matter of fact, but it was pure polyester, and barely soaked up the condensation left on my hand from my water glass.
But wait! There was indeed something within reach. Jill Manners was wearing a blue satin sheath that was strapless. In order to guard against the chill of the evening, or perhaps an overcooled room, her ensemble included a matching pashmina shawl that she'd draped (with a great deal of dramatic flair) over the back of her chair. Six feet of wool and silk was just what I needed to undo Aunt Nanny's boo-boo.
“Nooooo!” Jill threw herself at her pashmina as it slithered off the back of her chair, but it was too late.
Just as I thought, the shawl was exceptionally absorbent; from now on I highly recommend pashminas for blotting up tomato aspic from Persian carpets. Since Aunt Nanny, who only drinks clover wine, was sipping club soda that night, I had everything I needed to do a bang-up job on cleaning the Knudsens' carpet. I did have a little extra help that night: first, the carpet in question had been well protected with Scotchgard or a similar substance; and second, Aunt Nanny couldn't help herself and licked the bulk of the aspic right off the carpet before I even had a chance to blot.
Aside from Jill's now red and purple pashmina, my efforts at restoring the Knudsens' carpet to its former glory would be overâexcept for one very important thing.
ou're got to be mistaken, Mrs. Washburn,” Lloyd said, and bashed his left fist into the palm of his right hand. Ah, so he was a lefty.
“Abby knows her carpets,” Florence managed to say between sobs. “I trust her, Lloyd. What are we going to do?”
“Where did you purchase this carpet?” I asked gently.
“Where else?” he demanded. “The best place in town, of course.”
“But Mr. Knudsen, I assure you, I would never pass off a machine-made copy as a hand-made original. In fact, I have only ever sold threeâno, make that fourâmass-produced carpets, and each one had a fascinating provenance. Elvis was said to haveâ”
“I don't give a dog's ear what Elvis did on your carpet, Mrs. Washburn. It wasn't your shop I was referring to, but the one with them two gay boys.”
“That would be The Finer Things, and as they are both well over eighteen, I believe the proper word would be âmen.'”
“Yeah, whatever. Sit right here, ma'am, while I go get the bill of sale. That dang thing cost too much to be a reproduction.”
He left me with Florence in what, I suppose these days, one is supposed to call the formal living room (their massive home was a new house in a gated community, one that Lloyd Knudsen himself developed by destroying a pine forest). The family room could have housed a small third world village, or two Buckeyes and one of their children; the dining room was large enough to seat ten Charlestonians, even the transplants among us; but the living room was barely large enough to accommodate two nearly life-size Raggedy Anne and Andy Dolls, after which the small space was decorated.
“Florence, dear, do you mind awfully if I put Andy on the floor so I can sit? It's been a long day.”
“I'd rather you held him on your lap, Abby. He could get a complex down there.”
“In that case, I'll just stand. If he can develop a complex sitting on the floor, no telling what would happen if he sat on my lap.”
“Are you making fun of me, Abby?”
“No, ma'am. Absolutely not.”
It was actually a relief to see Lloyd return, triumphantly waving a sheet of paper. “
. It says so right here. So, Mrs. Washburn, this leads me to believe that one of y'all is lying.”
“Or perhaps there is another explanation.”
He folded his hands, resting them carefully on what was the beginning of a paunch. “Yeah? Like what? Maybe a spaceship zapped it up and made a switch?”
“Anything's possible, although some thingsâlike thatâdon't seem probable. Tell me, do you have a maid?”
“We use a cleaning service,” Florence said, for which she received a glare from her husband.
“We could afford a maid,” he said. “You know, a real one, with a uniform and allâjust like on a TV showâbut heck, Florence and I ain't all that messy. Are we, hon?”
“I believe you,” I said. “I was just wondering aloud. Do you think the cleaning service might have switched rugs on you?”
“Yeah, and next week they're gonna switch wives, and I ain't gonna notice until it's my birthday. Look, Mrs. Wiggins, this ain't just any old rug. This here is an authentic Persian carpet fromâfromâ” He glared at his wife for not having finished his sentence. “Florence, where the hell was that again?”
“UhâI don't remember, Lloyd.”
“You playing stupid, again, Florence, or this time did you really hide your brain under a rock? It didn't take a very big rock, did it, Florence? No siree, it was more like a pebble, wasn't it?”
“I think it had something to do with a breeze,” she said.
“Yeah, that's it: Taliban Breeze, although it ain't got nothing to do with them bad guys, I assure you.”
“That would be Tabriz, sir.”
“Nah, that ain't right.”
His dismissal of what I knew to be the truth really hiked my hackles. “Look, sir, I know what I'm talking about. I may not know much about chopping down
virgin forests, or cluttering marsh views with ten thousand square foot homes, but I know something about Middle Eastern carpets.”
“Make up your mind, little lady. A minute ago you were calling it something else altogether.”
in the Middle East,” I said. Then, as painful as it was, I adhered to Mama's admonishments to always be a lady, so I refrained from adding what I was really thinking. But had I, it might have gone something like this:
Didn't you study geography in Chester, or Gaffneyâor wherever it is you're really from?
I might even have turned to his wife and said:
Florence, why on earth are you living with this Neanderthal?
“Mrs. Washburn,” the caveman said, “you're wrong about this one, and you flapping your gums like this is just a waste of my time. I'm calling the police and reporting a stolen rug.”
He pronounced it POH-leece. In less than five minutes Lloyd Knudsen had gone from being a pillar of the Charleston community to being a hot-tempered social climber from the Upcountry region of South Carolina. His speech habits alone were enough to get him ejected from the dinner tables of even the lowest rungs of the Lowcountry social ladder. It was clear that he had married far above his station in life, and were it not for the big bucks his business as an environmental rapist brought in, I wouldn't have even been there listening to his abusive tirades.
I looked at his bill of sale again. “Mr. Knudsen, this receipt is three years old.”
hang on to my receipts. I'm a businessman, Mrs. Washburn. I take it you don't do the same?”
“This house wasn't even finished then,” Florence said. “The carpet was our first purchase for it.”
“Florence, just hush up, will ya? That ain't got anything to do with nothing. What was your point, little lady?”
“My point, bigâI mean, sir, my point is that you don't have a legal leg to stand on. In three years time you could have done anything with the original, and gotten a machine-made one that sort of looks like it. How are the police to know that you didn't make the switch? No offense intended, sir.”
I was with Greg and Booger Boy once when they netted a puffer fish. That's almost exactly how Lloyd Knudsen looked just now, only less compelling.
“How dare a little tart like you insinuate that I stole my own carpet? What would be the point? Insurance fraud?”
If only I could tell him to shut his pie hole. Oh why did having good manners have to come with a price? My daughter Susan would have verbally tied him into knots by nowânot that she wasn't properly raised; she was. But times have changed, and what was shocking just ten years ago doesn't even turn a head these days.
“Florence,” I said with a quick bob of my head, “that was a lovely dinner. Thank you so much for including me and Aunt Nanny. I would like to return the favor sometime. Good night.”
Being such a tiny tart, I can turn on a dime, which is what I did. I like to think that I walked regally away. At any rate, I didn't look back once at my fuming host.
I waited until the next morning before contacting Rob, and even then it was at his place of business. In retrospect the delay was due to the fact that I was hoping to catch him on one of the many days that his mother took off to work on her tan. Rob didn't mind it when his mom was a “no show”-âI think he much preferred it, in factâbut he couldn't very well come right out and flatly refuse her help. And believe me, he'd already tried all the more subtle approaches.
The beefcake who saw me ring the bell mouthed the words
and waved a hand that appeared to be a mite loosely attached. I pointed to the open sign. He shrugged and mouthed something again, and soon we were engaged in a battle of gesturesânot all of them as polite as they should have been. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Rob's mother appeared and buzzed me in.
“I'm sorry about that, Abby. Stanley is new, and of course another drama student from the College of Charleston. He also just got the lead role in
, as they call it, although everyone knows it's
so he's a bit full of himself today. Would you like me to call him over to apologize?”
“Hmm, that is really tempting, but I need to speak to Rob.”
“He's closing with a customer right now. Perhaps I can help you.” Her diction was Old Charlotte, as rare these days as a four-sided triangle.
If I didn't already know that Mrs. Goldburg was impossible to live with, just looking at her would have been enough to prejudice me against the woman. Whereas Mama carried eccentricity to the max by wearing fifties outfits, with Rob's mother the pendu
lum swung in the other direction; she was Junior League on steroids. For her, linenâthe more wrinkled, the betterâwas the holy grail of fabrics, followed closely by cashmere. Silk ran a poor third. Cotton was for summer only, and polyester was merely a curse word you flung at Democrats come election time.
Every stripped and colored hair on her head was somehow held into place without looking lacquered, and the miracles wrought by Charlotte's finest plastic surgeon were maintained by Botox tune-ups and a plethora of minor nips and tucks. In short, the woman was about as natural as a veggie burger.
“No, I'll just wait over here by the noshes, thank you.”
“Noshes! That's a good one. You're such a quick study, Abby. Too bad you and my Robby didn't meet years ago.”
“I don't think that would have done either of us any good.”
“Rob would still be gay; I can't turn men straight, Mrs. Goldburgânobody can. And besides, until about five years ago I wasn't someone you'd want to bring home to introduce to Mama. Not with that second head. I'm telling you, it wasn't a pretty sight, especially not on bad hair days. And those weeks when I'd forget to wax our lipsâ”
“Abby, are you making fun of me?”
“Not really, Mrs. G. But Bob is my friend too, and I just hate that you don't think he's good enough for Rob.”
She glanced around before cupping one hand to her mouth as a shield. “But his aunt really isâwell, peculiar would be an understatement. Yesterday, when she
thought no one was looking, I saw her open a door by butting it with her head.”
“But I did.”
When we both realized that she'd inadvertently punned, we burst into peals of unladylike laughter. That's when Rob, of course, materialized out of nowhere.
“How are my two favorite ladies doing? Why so mirthful this fine-feathered morning?”
“Mornings can't be feathered,” I said. “Although mourning doves can.”
“Good one, Abby.”
“I don't get it, Robby.”
“It's just a little wordplay Abby and I like to engage in.”
Mrs. Goldburg shot me a triumphant look that seemed to say,
Wordplay, foreplay, they're practically the same thing in my book. You should have held out for my Robby instead of marrying that detective cum shrimper.
I shot back one that said,
Just remember, sister, that you and I have both been divorced and that in this town you can't be
with the D word in your past.
“Rob, darling,” I actually said, “I need a moment of your time.”
“Can it possibly wait? I have an eighteenth century commode at stake. I'm just on my way back to the office to get an appraisal that I had done on it by Sotheby's.”
“I'm sure your mother can bring home the sale. We both know she's an extremely talented people person, or she wouldn't even be working for you. Right?”
“There, you see, Mrs. Goldburg? There was absolutely no need to worry; I told you he'd say yes. Your son has total confidence in you. Now go out there and make him proud.”
At this point Rob had his hands on his hips and was about to huff and puff and blow down my house of bravado. I snagged one of his arms and dragged him off behind a Philadelphia hutch circa 1830.
“So help me, Abby, this better be good.”
“Hang on to your socks, Mr. Wolf, because this little pig has some information that just might knock you flat on your big ol' lupine bottom.”