Authors: Tamar Myers
ou're serious?” Rob said for the bazillionth time.
“I can't really blame Mr. Knudsen for being angry; I would have been too. But that didn't stop me from leaving in a snit. I swear, Rob, when am I ever going to grow up?”
He didn't even hear my confession of bad behavior. “I remember selling him that rug, feeling at the time that it was like taking blood money. Believe it or not, Abby, it wasn't just your charm and your wit that lured us down to the Lowcountry, nor was it the lucre to be made off all the filthy rich retiring to the peninsula. A lot of it had to do with the vistas that Pat Conroy brought to life in his novels, and which we got to see for ourselves every time we crossed one of the bridges. Now it's all high rise condos and business complexes. Look how Mount Pleasant has grown from a sleepy fishing village bordered by marshes to a real city with bumper-to-bumper traffic on Highway 17. The
factor that brought outsiders down here in the first place is getting damn hard to find. And do you know who I blame? Developers! They're the very sons of Satan himself.”
“Believe me, Rob, you're preaching to the choir.”
Rob had to pause and catch his breath, just like some real preachers. “Sorry, Abby. I probably wouldn't be so emotional on the subject if I wasn't feeling so guilty. I'm every bit as greedy as Lloyd Knudsen. The only difference is that I don't chop down trees and pollute marshes. When he and that mousy little wife of his came and practically wanted to buy out my place, I was as pleased as punch. I'd like to think that I'd draw the line somewhereâHitler surelyâbut heck, I'd probably even sell to George W, and you know how I feel about him.”
“What's done is done, so quit beating yourself up. Can you think of any explanation for how the copy showed up in place of the original rug? And trust me, Rob, it
an original Persian Tabriz. I'll sign a paper right now turning everything in my shop over to you if it turns out I'm wrong. That's how sure I am.”
“Hey chill, Abby. I believe youâalthough there are a few things in your Den of Iniquity I've had my eye on.”
I laughed. “You don't need double entendre to enter my den; cold hard cash will do fine. And, of course, as a fellow dealer you get a twenty percent discount.”
“Fair enough. Quite seriously, you do have that Meissen candelabra tucked away in a corner on an ugly pine table, and which, I'm happy to say, is already vastly underpriced.”
“That candelabra is Meissen porcelain?”
“Yes, but in all fairness, it is a very early mark and not well stamped.” He paused and lightly bit his lower lip. “I was just thinking,” he continued, “what if it was the wife who switched out the rugs?”
“I'd forgotten her name. Anyway, I had this distinct impression that he treated her like a piece of Shih Tzuâminus the dog.”
“He still does.”
“Do you think he beats her?”
“I don't know. You think she's selling off the family jewelsâso to speak?”
“Could be. I'd have to think of an excuse, but I could swing by to see if some of the other major pieces I sold them are still there.”
“Would you? I mean, don't you think it's strange to have two very large expensive carpets turn out to be fake in such a short period of time?”
“No. Strange things happen all the time, Abby. Why not here? It's called coincidence.”
“Yes, but that I should be the one to discover this coincidence?”
“Abby, look, I said I'd swing by there. Now sweetie, I've really got to get back to these customers. Ma means well, but you know how she can be.”
“Was the Shih Tzu a female dog?”
“Abby, that's my mother,” he said, but walked off smiling.
There is Charleston, and then there is
Charleston. They are separate cities and not meant to be compared. To do so would be needlessly unkind. For example, one does not compare a piece of gravel with a gem-grade diamond, although both are pebbles and both have merit in their own way. That some Charlestonians playfully refer to North Charleston as Up
chuck is merely an indication that these folks lack maturity, and has nothing to do with the reality of things. So what, if Charleston is undeniably the fairer of the two cities? That is surely no reason to boast.
At any rate, Rivers Avenue, home to car dealerships and strip malls, is exactly where one would expect to find Pasha's Palace, and frankly, the vaguely Taj Mahal appearance of the blindingly white building rather dresses up this otherwise mundane stretch of highway. Knowing that parking spaces would be at a premium, I focused on positive thoughts, and sure enough, after circling the lot five times I found a space only six rows back, and less than half of it was in a rain puddle.
As I attempted to do the “Charleston walk” (one saunters on the shady side of the street, thereby minimizing perspiration) I noticed that most of the license plates were from out of state. How odd. Then it occurred to me that our tourists were watching television as well as dining out in the evenings, and were taking advantage of the ridiculously low prices at Pasha's Palace before heading back home. But what were they getting? Surely not handmade rugs.
So intent was I on examining the first large carpet I came across that I didn't see the lanky young man who practically hurled himself at me until he was inches from my face. I stifled my cry of alarm by clamping a hand firmly over my mouth. Unfortunately, in doing so I accidentally whacked him in the groin with my latest Moo Moo bag. The poor lad staggered backward, hopped up and down several times, then with a pinched look on his face gamely went back to work.
“Looking to buy a carpet?” he asked through clenched teeth.
“Perhaps. Can you tell me something about them?”
The boy had long blond hair tied neatly back with a stretchy band, but he would have looked so much nicer had it been shorter. I gave myself a gentle mental slap. I was there on an unofficial investigation, not to do a make-over. Still, it was nice to see that when he picked up a carpet, it was with fingers that sported clean, well-trimmed nails.
“You've got good taste, ma'am. These here are the top of the line. They are one hundred percent wool, with more stitches per inch than any of the others. Feel how thick the pile is.”
“It does feel very good, but with such thick pile, how can the weaver cram in more stitches? They are handmade, aren't they?”
“Oh, no ma'am. Like I said, these are all top of the line. You
want them handmade rugs. The stitches in those things tend to be crooked and the colors are uneven.” He lowered his voice. “Besides, those carpets are made by pheasants in bare feet and some of them smell.”
“What smells? The barefoot
, their feet, or the carpets?”
“The carpetsâalthough maybe some of them pheasants smell too; they don't have a lot of water in the desert.” He chuckled, no doubt proud of his worldly knowledge. “I reckon that's why they call it that.”
“I bet you're right. I hadn't really thought of that. Anyway, doesn't Pasha's Palace sell any handmade carpets?”
“No, ma'am. Not as long as I've been here.”
“And how long is that?”
“Two weeks, ma'am.”
“Do you sell any silk carpets?”
“We had one; somebody bought it yesterday. Most of what we have are the synthetics. They're cheaper than the wool, and most folks think they wear better, but that's because they've listened to the wrong salesman's hype. Now me, I actually took a course on Oriental carpets. I'm not saying I'm an expert or anything, but I do know me a thing or two.”
“A course? At the College of Charleston?”
Paulâat least according to his name badgeâreddened slightly. “I watched a DVD in the break room. But it's like three hours long. If you make it all the way through, they start you on the fast track to management.”
“Well, good for you. That's what we need in this country: more motivated young people like you.” I shut my mouth quickly before any of the sarcasm could drip out and possibly ruin a decent wool rug.
Although poor Paul, bless his heart, did his darnedest to sell me a mass produced rug, and even excused himself twice to speak to the manager (whereupon the prices plummeted to an embarrassingly low level), I just wasn't in the market. But he showed me a broad selection, and what I learned from the experience was that Pasha's Palace was not only seriously undercutting the home improvement stores, but making a killing while they were at it. It's not every customer who will ask for a discount, or for that matter who will stick around long enough to be offered one.
When I finally arrived at the Den of Antiquity, I found Wynnell and Cheng at each other's throats. Literally.
“What on earth are you doing?” I demanded. I was not in a mood to play arbitress to two alpha women, both half again as large as me.
“C.J. was trying on this Victorian garnet necklace from the jewelry case, but it got caught in her hair.”
“My name is
“That explains why Wynnell's hands are around your throat, Cheng. Why do you appear to be strangling her?”
“Because Wynnell was trying on this gold locket and the chain got caught in her unibrow. When I finally got that loose and tried to undo the clasp, my ring got caught in her hair.”
“It's not a unibrow,” Wynnell growled.
“Ladies, this is not a jewelry emporium. And where are the customers?”
“We don't have any, Abby. C.J.âI mean, Chengâhung the closed sign on the door so she could talk to your brother.”
?” I had half a mind to toss both women out into the street, tangled together or not.
“Abby,” Cheng whined, “do you want us to get back together, or what?”
“Frankly, Cheng, knowing Toy a whole lot better than you doâand let's not even go thereâI might be tempted to say âwhat.'”
“Go where, Abby?”
“She means that you've slept with him and she hasn't,” Wynnell said. “At least I hope she hasn't.”
“But I haven't slept with Toy either; that's the problem.”
That's all it took to get the pair apartâthat, a couple of shrieks, and some huge hunks of hair. They staggered away from each other like prize fighters when a round has been called.
“Why do you mean you haven't?” I said.
“Exactly what I said, Abby.”
“Is my brotherâ¦well, is he impotent?”
“I don't understand.”
“It's not important. Can we change the subject? I think I see some women about to try the door.”
“Pretend they tried five minutes agoâor whenever. Toy's my brother, Cheng, so you have to tell me.”
“And Abby's my best friend, Wang,” Wynnell said, “so I get to listen in.”
“You see how she treats me?” Cheng said.
funny,” I hissed. “What if I called you Wynnell Crawdad, instead of Wynnell Crawford? How would you like that?”
“Okay, I'll behave.”
“Now spill it, Cheng,” I said.
“Abby, I just can't bring myself toâuh,
with a white man.”
“Run that by me again, please.”
“No offense, Abby, but I find Caucasians kind of yucky.”
“I'm still not quite comprehending this. Yucky how? In what way”
“Y'all's skin, for one thing: it's too hairy. And while I'm being frank, you smell a bit like wet dogs, even when you're dry.”
“Cheng, that's racist! I've never heard such blatant
racism in all my born days. If you were my employer, instead of the other way around, I could probably sue you.”
“You tell her, Abby,” Wynnell said. She glared at Cheng beneath her unibrow.
“Wynnell,” I growled, “I'll thank you to butt out of this.”
“But she offended me too.” My friend did a quick sniff test. “Stale lavender soap? Maybe. Yesterday's Secret? Maybe. But definitely not wet dog.”
“Besides,” I said, “what about Granny Ledbetter and Aunt Nanny, and that entire clan? And if you think Toy is too hairy and smells a bit too much like Fidoâ”
“Funny thing,” Cheng said, a nostalgic smile spreading across her massive face, “Granny Ledbetter always smelled like feta cheese. Aunt Nanny smells that way too, don't you think?”
“Hmm, I think you're right. But Cheng, look here, your mother was a white Russian, so you are half Caucasian, and for all the years we've known each other, I've smelled just fine to you. So here's the deal: I'm going to keep on smelling fine to you, and you're going to keep on being the loving, goofy C.J.âI mean Chengâyou've always been, or you no longer work here.
“Yes, Abby. I'm sorry.”
She sounded sorry too, so I was about to wrap my short doggy arms (perhaps I'd been a Chihuahua in a former life) around her when one of the customers not only knocked on the door, she practically broke it down.
t always pays to be courteousâwell, most of the time it does. I brushed some hair out of my eyes and put on my perky saleslady face. Then, despite the continued banging, I took ladylike steps to the door. I even managed to turn the dead bolt with deliberate slowness.
“Good morning, ladies,” I said as I stood aside to usher them out of the May humidity.
Three ladies sailed through, but a fourth stopped just inside. It was immediately clear by the frown lines on her face that she was not a believer in Botox, and that she'd been the one responsible for the annoying racket.
“How may I help you?” I said.
“You can stop being so perky, for one thing.”
“When I moved here from Michigan, I anticipated there'd be times when I'd have to fight that damn Civil War all over again. That's what friends who'd moved here from Kalamazoo warned us about. But aside from letters to the editor complaining about Yankees ruin
ing everything, everyone has been so damn polite. And no one ever says anything bad to your face. Not ever.”
“You sound disappointed.”
“You're damn tootin' I am.” She grinned. “Nah, not really. But I've been here almost a year and I'm still on the defensive, waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop. So let me ask you, is it for real? This niceness, I mean?”
She was a large woman and sweating profusely (Southern women don't sweat, we dew), so I steered her toward the office, where I keep a box of tissues. There, she accepted the guest chair, which is nearest the air-conditioning vent.
“My name is Abby, by the way.”
“Yes, I know. I'm Andrea Wheating.”
“Well, Andrea, I have heard stories of northern transplants who've been accosted by ill-mannered locals and told to go home. Happily, these stories are few and far in between.”
She flashed me a smile. “Good. Abby, you don't remember me, do you?”
I shrugged. “Should I?”
“Oh say it isn't so!”
“You're not a long lost relative of Daddy's, are you?”
She brightened considerably. “Your father has relatives in Michigan?”
“Sadly, my father has passed, but his granddaddy, Great Grandpa Wiggins, liked sowing seeds as much as Johnny Appleseed.”
“Cool. To my knowledge, we don't have any Wigginses in our family tree, so that's not why I'm here.
You sold meâoh shoot; I knew I should have written it down. It has something to do with bees and a jar.”
“Ah, a Bijar! That's the name of a city in Iran. Describe the carpet please.”
She did better than that; she extracted a photo from her purse. And yes, I remembered her carpet. In fact, I remembered it as well as my first date with my husband, Greg. Then again, Greg took me to the Red Lobster and I had a giant margarita and got so tipsy that I ended up in the men's room by mistake, and it was only on my way
that I noticed the urinals.
At any rate, the carpet I sold Andrea Wheating was mid-nineteenth century, and although it had been in constant use, it was in excellent condition. It had a triple floral borderâthe background was orange, the flowers blueâa large cream insert, with an orange medallion inside that, and a bazillion flowers woven everywhere, but in a symmetrical, formal design. It was a real showstopper and, quite honestly, the price tag was a heart stopper.
“Are you asking me to buy it back?” I asked. “Because I will, assuming we can agree upon a price.”
upon a price? What kind of crap is that? I want a complete refund, of course.”
I could feel the blood drain from my cheeks. “But you see, dear, that's not the way most antiques stores operate; that's why we post signs that say all sales are final. It's too easy for someoneânot you, of courseâto take a one-of-a-kind item home, then bring back something that resembles that item and demand a refund. How can Iâthe dealerâprove that what you've returned
what I sold you?”
“Listen, Abby, I'm not trying to pull a fast one on you; I'm just trying to get my money back on a piece of junk I bought from you on good faith.”
“And now it's time for you to listen up, Andrea: I
sell junk. Case closed.”
She was silent for a moment. To her credit, I could tell that she was trying her level best to control her temper.
“Look, I bought what you told me was a genuine Persian carpet for my formal living room, and it turns out that I have a cheap knockoff made in Beijingâor wherever it is in China that they mass produce the fake Orientals. I thought this might happen, so I already have an appointment set up with my lawyer.”
“Wait just one cotton-pickin' minute, missy,” I said, hopping mad myself. “You're besmirching my reputation at my place of business. I stand behind that carpet. It was the genuine article.”
She fished a second item out of her purse. “You see this? I had B. S. Heuchera out to the house at the crack of dawn this morning. It cost me an arm and a leg to do it, but here's his report. Surely you know Mr. Heuchera, Abby.”
Every antique dealer in the Southeast knew and feared Barry Sullivan Heuchera, if only because his syndicated column, “The Finer Things” (and yes, the title was stolen directly from the Rob-Bobs' shop), could make or break a dealer's reputation. Barry Sullivanâprivately we called him B.S. for shortâhad a way with words, rather than a depth of knowledge upon which to draw. I was skeptical that he could even tell a genuine antique wool carpet from a recently made synthetic one.
I scanned the report. “Hmm. Well, this is certainly interesting. Tell me, Andrea, what made you choose him? And why now?”
“Lloyd Knudsen called me last nightâyou mean now you're not denying that what's in this report is true?”
“What did you say? Did you say âKnudsen'?”
“Weâthe upper middle classâhave friends too, Abby.”
“What am I, a
?” As long as I had to be something, I'd rather be a matzo ball than chopped liver.
“What? Are you making jokes at my expense?”
“No, I gave up humor for Lent. But back to this report: I'm sure B. S. Heuchera meant well, butâAndrea, may I possibly go back with you to your house and look at it myself?”
“Well, I don't knowâ”
“I'll make you a baroness.”
“Really? You have that power? I mean, I heard you were a princess of some kind, but I thought that Americans can't have titles. Which brings up an interesting point that the ladies in my bridge club were discussingâ”
“Their titles aren't recognized by the government here,” I said. “But the next time you're in Europe and want a good table at a restaurant, just say you're Baroness Wheating from Charleston and see what happens.” I cleared my throat softly. “Or not.”
Andrea chortled. “Abby, I know you're pulling my Yankee leg, but I love it. Do you want to ride with me, or do you prefer to follow in your own car?”
“I'll ride with you,” I said.
Andrea Wheating lived in a seaside mansion on the Isle of Palms, just down from Charleston's premier public beach. To get there from downtown meant crossing the Cooper River on North America's longest cable-stayed bridge. As one climbs up and over the harbor one can see all of Mount Pleasant and as far north as Dewees Island. To the west is Daniel Island, of course, and on a clear day the chimneys and vents of Nucor Steel are visible floating on the horizon, while to the east is Pinckney Island, and beyond that the container ships diminish in size until they become indistinguishable from distant seabirds.
As a little girl we used to take the old Grace Memorial Bridge across on family vacations to the beach. At its best the GMB seemed to be built out of a boy's erector set, and was pitched at a nose-bleed angle, so that cars appeared to be launching themselves into the sky, rather than crossing a broad estuary. Everyone I knew, including Daddy, had grown nervous at the thought of crossing this bridge, and with good reason: lots of folks died in the attempt, and lots of folks had attempted to die from these dizzying heights. It didn't help either that there were tales of the bridge being haunted, of unrecovered bodies entombed forever in the massive concrete pilings.
Today, riding with Andrea, I was happier than ever that, after five years of aggravating construction, the new bridge had finally been completed. Andrea, however, was the world's second worst driver (behind only Mama). I discovered after riding only one block with her that she had a lead foot and took the speed limits merely as suggestions. What's more, she zagged
when she should have zigged, and vice versa; she never once used her turn signals, although she did use a lot of rude hand signals; she jerked to stops in one-third the recommended space; and once she jumped out and left the car running at a red light while examining a window display. Of course she failed to make it back to the car before the light turned green again, providing me with yet another excuse to color my hair.
That said, I wouldn't have missed going out to her house with her for the world. It's one thing to have rich friends, but this was taking it to a whole new level. I'd actually driven past Andrea's house on many occasionsâwe go by there every time we have out-of-town guests we want to impressâbut never without a drool bag in my lap.
Although mere words can't do it justice, I am willing to give it my old Winthrop College try. The house has three floors and was designed as the vacation home of a wealthy builder. Since the builder eventually hoped to retire there, he used the finest materials and took no shortcuts. As a result, what sleeps twenty-four and could have eventually ended up as rental property is now a showplace. U.S. presidents, both sitting and former, have used the residence on both official and nonofficial trips.
Because the exterior was built to resemble Tara from
Gone with the Wind
, it has been the location of a number of films, including that short-lived television dogooder show,
. With all this publicity, one would think that Andrea Wheating would be paranoid about security, but there is no front gate, and the
only privacy fence is a row of Sabal palms under-planted with variegated Japanese pittosporum.
The oval drive wraps around a bronze fountain featuring a pair of dolphins (presumably mother and offspring). The front doors are appropriately massive, and daunting, until one notices that there is a normal size door embedded into one of the monstrosities. Andrea didn't bother to use a key, metal or otherwise. Instead, she just pushed a button.
“Thackeray, it's me. Open up.”
Immediately, the normal door was opened by a butler in tails, straight out of a P.G. Wodehouse novelâexcept that this one was very young, and to-die-for handsome. “Good day, madam.”
“Thackeray, I'll have my usual, and Mrs. Wiggins will haveâ”
I jumped right on it. “Sweet tea.”
Thackeray rolled his eyes. “Will y'all be having any corn pone with that, ma'am?” he asked in the most exaggerated Southern accent this side of Hollywood.
“Now Thackeray, be a dear and just get the drinks please, and maybe some light finger food.” She waited until the butler, who walked like he had boards in his pants, had turned a corner before addressing me.
“Sorry about that, Abby. He's English, you know. He thinks we Americans are terribly uncivilized, especially Southerners. It's the movies, you know, that are responsible for giving the English that stereotype. Anyway, Thackeray used to work for Buckingham Palaceâgosh darn it, I should have told him that you're some kind of royalty. He would have globbed onto you like nobody's business.”
Now there was an image I just might file away for future use. As obnoxious as he was, Thackeray cut a handsome figure in his morning suit. Still, the line between condescension and hostility seemed too fine to distinguish under pressure, so I was determined to swallow as little of my sweet teaâassuming it ever arrivedâas possible.
“Andrea,” I said, turning up my perkometer a little higher than usual, “please show me that carpet.”
She led me straightaway into a living room fit for a king, a room even Thackeray might approve of. Although most of the furniture was twentieth century, they were quality pieces made in North Carolina, the capital of furniture making in the United States. The floral sofas and lightly stuffed armchairs were remarkably traditional, not at all “beachy,” as one might expect to find in a house so close to the ocean that the breaking waves were all that could be seen through the expanse of glass at the far end.
I will admit to being mesmerized by the view, and that Andrea had to remind me to look down. But then instantly I was on my knees, choking back a cry of despair.