Read Larceny and Old Lace Online
Authors: Tamar Myers
For my husband, Jeff
Of many Arts, one surpasses all. For the maiden seated at her work flashes the smooth balls and thousand threads into the circle,â¦and from this, her amusement, makes as much profit as a man earns by the sweat of his brow, and no maiden ever complains, at even, of the length of the day. The issue is a fine web, which feeds the pride of the whole globe; which surrounds with its fine border cloaks and tuckers, and shows grandly round the throats and hands of kings.
The real good of a piece of lace, then, you will find, is that it should show, first, that the designer of it had a pretty fancy; next, that the maker of it had fine fingers; lastly that the weaver of it has worthiness or dignity enough to obtain, and common sense enough not to wear it on all occasions.
And here the needle plies its busy task,
The pattern grows, the well-depicted flower,
Wrought patiently into the snowy lawn,
Unfolds its bosom, buds and leaves and sprigs,
And curling tendrils, gracefully dispersed,
Follow the nimble fingers of the fairâ
A wreath that cannot fade of flowers that blow
With most success when all besides decay.
At christenings lace was always abundantly used. In 1778 the infant daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Chandos was so weighed down by the immense amount of lace on her robes that she fainted. George III and Queen Charlotte stood as sponsors, and although the child's mother observed her condition she said nothing, so that the dignity of the christening, with Majesty in attendance, should not be disturbed. As the Archbishop of Canterbury gave the child back to its mother he remarked that it was the quietest child he ever held. It died soon after, having never recovered from the effects of its christening.
The Lace Book
, by N. Hudson Moore, Tudor Publishing Company, New York 1937 (copyright 1904 by Frederick A. Stokes Company)
Eulonia Wiggins was found strangled to death by an antiqueâ¦
Again, I should have paid more attention at our monthlyâ¦
“She was murdered,” Anita Morgan told me over the phone.
My phone rang off the hook. Virtually every other shopâ¦
The cowbell rang on the stroke of one. It didn'tâ¦
“You know who killed Aunt Eulonia?”
I am ashamed to say I hadn't been to Auntâ¦
“Go away,” I shouted.
On any other day it would have knocked my socksâ¦
Mama could have her disgusting roll in the hay. Auntâ¦
Bob Steuben's need for company outweighed his resentment towardâ¦
I slept very well on that authentic Queen Anne couch.
Greg Washburn was waiting for me when I got toâ¦
I was shocked to see Mama in pink.
I will confess to tippling Mama's wine, but I maintainâ¦
Rob's bear hug left me smelling like cologne for theâ¦
“You didn't!” Peggy's screaming voice does not flatter her.
“I don't want to go away for the weekend,” Mamaâ¦
Mama stalled. I don't mean she delayed. I mean myâ¦
“So, does this mean you're going to the mountains withâ¦
Anita was waiting for me impatiently. The toe on oneâ¦
“Wait! Can I say good-bye first?”
It was either luck, or divine providence, but somehow weâ¦
ulonia Wiggins was found strangled to death by an antique bell pull. It was a fine example of nineteenth-century needlework. On the blue velvet background, a splendid red rooster paraded, his comb erect, his spurs as long as talons. An elaborate crest of one of the finest noble families in England was displayed proudly above the cock. I would have charged at least $200 for the pull, more to the right customer. I suppose if my aunt had to die by strangulation, the pull was as suitable an implement as any. But I can't help thinking that if I had reacted in a more rational and placating manner, my aunt might still be alive.
Weâthe members of Selwyn Avenue Antique Dealers Associationâhad gathered together for our monthly breakfast at the local Denny's restaurant. Normally this is just a social event, since our organization is too small to have any real business. Today, however, the business was my aunt.
I must immediately point out that my aunt was the first of our group to open a shop on prestigious Selwyn Avenue. If it hadn't been for her pioneering spirit, and persuasive tongue (the zoning board was slow to come around), none of us would have our shops today. Plainly put, we all owed her a great deal.
In the interest of fairness, I am compelled to say that her shop, Feathers “N Treasures, had seen better days. Okay, to put it frankly, it was an eyesore, but she didn't deserve to die for it. Lightly flogged, maybe. I mean, since when is peeling paint a capital crime? As for those tacky cardboard signs in
the windows, she did change them every time she ran a sale. I'll even admit that most of her merchandise was garage sale leftovers, but hey, this is a free country. Eulonia Wiggins, age eighty-six, had paid her dues to society. If the Selwyn Avenue Antique Dealers Association had a problem with my auntâwell, they could lump it, or else answer to me.
My name is Abigail Louise Timberlake, and I am going to tell it like it is. Call me mean-spirited if you want, but never call me dishonest. Life is too short for pretense.
I am forty-six years old, and not ashamed to admit it. I have earned every one of those years. I weigh ninety-three pounds on a good day but have been known to hit the triple digits by the time New Year's Day rolls around. My hair is naturally brown, but I purposely put a gray streak in it, so as not to be mistaken for a teenager. That is the price I pay for not smoking and staying clear of the sun. My eyes are cat green, and I have never needed glasses. That is the reward I get for having picked Hugh Wiggins and Missy Monroe Wiggins as my parents. That, and my height. I mean the lack of it.
I have one sibling, a younger brother named Toy. That's his real name. At any rate, Toy is six foot four, and not adopted. Either Mama wasn't the saint I think she is, the laws of Mendel are a bunch of bunk, or Toy is some sort of genetic throwback. I prefer to believe in choice C.
Toy lives in California and thinks of himself as an unemployed actor. In reality Toy is a busboy for a sleazy restaurant where leather ties are required. Although Mama and I write to Toy every month, neither of us have heard from him directly in several years. He has no phone.
I got married right after graduating from Winthrop College in Rock Hill, South Carolina. I met my husband, Buford Timberlake, on the water slide at an area amusement park. It was a mixed marriage. Buford was from North Carolina and a big fan of North Carolina State. I rooted for Clemson. Buford had louder lungs and we ended up setting in Charlotte.
Buford and I were lucky enough to have two children, a daughter, Susan, and a son, Charlie. I was lucky enough to be able to stay home and raise these children. I won't say I was deliriously happy, but neither did I look for a gas oven into
which to stick my head. Life chugged down a fairly predictable track, and we managed to hang on for the ride.
One day our engine jumped the track. It happened right around Buford's forty-fifth birthday. The obstacle in our path was a blond bimbo with huge but perky boobs who called herself Tweetie. The boobs undoubtedly had names as well, perhaps supplied by her surgeon. Our marriage was over.
Did I mention that Buford was a lawyer? He handled personal injury cases, not divorces, but he was plugged into the good-old-boy network. The only plugs I had were connected to household appliances. To make a long and gruesome story shorter, Buford managed to keep our beautiful and expensive home in the Myers Park neighborhood of Charlotte, our two teenage children, Susan and Charlie, and our dog Scruffles. I got the cat, Dmitri.
Charlie was fifteen at the time and still lives with Buford, as does Scruffles. Fortunately for her, Susan, who was seventeen at the time, is now out of the nest and safely in college.
I said I was going to be honest, and so I will admit that Buford did offer to pay me alimony. Even before the court compelled him to. Of course, the alimony Buford volunteered wouldn't support Mother Teresa in a year full of fast days, much less yours truly. The amount he pays is nowhere close to as much as I deserve. Since I would rather suck venom from a timber snake than accept money from Buford Timberlake, I rolled up my sleeves (something people my size are used to doing) and set about finding a way to support myself.
With money my mother loaned me, and advice from my Aunt Eulonia (not always taken), I bought a failing card and gift shop on South Selwyn Avenue and turned it into an antique store. The Den of Antiquity has been a modest success. I would like to say that my life is now back on track, but I can't. Not with Charlie still in Buford's clutches.
Someday Buford Timberlake, the timber snake, is going to get what's coming to him. Frankly, I have been too busy with the shop to invest much energy into revengeâperhaps Tweetie will do it for me when she gets dumped. I was certainly far too busy to have to deal with what was about to happen.
gain, I should have paid more attention at our monthly breakfast. Surely the signs of doom were there, like the biblical handwriting on the wall. If I had paid as much attention to what was
said as to what was said, my poor sweet aunt might still be alive. But oh no, I had to go on the defensive.
“I don't see any sense in complaining,” I told the group, after I'd heard enough. “My aunt is who she is, and she's not about to change. Besides, we all owe her. If it wasn't for herâ”
“Bullshit,” somebody whispered.
I panned them with a glare. “Now that's downright ungrateful after all she's done.”
“What she's done is drive away top-dollar customers.” Rob Goldburg pounded the table with a fist, sending the cutlery flying. “And there's no use talking to her about it, because she won't even listen. Damn it! I could strangle that old crone!”
“Hear, hear,” Major Calloway said. “Whoever bumps off that old biddy deserves a commendation. But given the fact that she's spit in all of our faces, may I suggest a firing squad?”
“I'll drink to that.” Peggy Redfern held up a half-empty water glass. “To Eulonia Wiggins's hasty demise, by whatever means.”
“Harm one hair on her hoary head and you all die!” I said
graciously. I hate having to curb my tongue, but my training as a southern lady is hard to counteract.
Anita Morgan, our president, tapped on her water glass. Finding it empty she tapped on Peggy's. “Quiet please, so we can start eating before our food gets cold.”
By that Anita meant she wanted to say grace. In the South folks aren't shy about things like that, and Anita was less shy than most. She had taken it upon herself to see that some sort of prayer was said at each and every meeting of the Selwyn Avenue Antique Dealers Association. Of course, not everyone in our little organization is a Christian, but that's irrelevant. Southern piety, as presumptuous as it is, is well intended.
After grace, which was unusually and mercifully brief, I dug into my food. The bacon was suitably supple, the yolks in my poached eggs firm, and the biscuits slightly doughy on the inside. The grits, under their mantle of melting butter, were perfect as well. For one blissful minute I thought the subject of my aunt was behind us. I kicked off my shoes and settled in to enjoy an installment of heaven.
Gretchen Miller broke the spell. “Personally, I think Eulonia Wiggins is a jewel. Last week she sent four of her customers over to my place. Told them that I had what they really wanted. Now that's a friend, if you ask me. Although I will admit that her shop isâwell, sort of run down.”
“The pyramids are run down,” Rob said. “Eulonia's shop is several stages beyond that.”
Gretchen adjusted a pair of tortoiseshell glasses on a mere stub of a nose. “Just the same, she's a very sweet woman.”
“But she's so
,” Peggy said, her mouth full of pancake.
I was surprised to see Peggy eating pancakes for breakfast. Her usual fare is men.
“So is blue eye shadow, dear,” I said helpfully.
“Come, come,” the Major said. “Just because she's your aunt, doesn't mean you have to be so defensive. The antique shops on Selwyn Avenue have an image to maintain. Old clothes and chipped glass don't cut the mustard.”
I stared at the pale, pudgy man with the abbreviated mus
tache. “Hitler's pajamas don't exactly cut the mustard either, Colonel.”
“That's Major, not Colonel. And I sell military artifacts. Antique military artifacts. The FÃ¼hrer's nightwear is for display purposes only.”
Rob Goldburg's fist sent the cutlery flying a second time. “Then display them in Germany, damn it! All that fascination with Nazi crap makes me sick.”
Rob is Jewish, born in Charlotte, a fact which surprises most Yankee visitors to his shop, The Finer Things. Furthermore, Rob is tall and robust, with a thick head of sandy hair, only touched by gray. The good news is that Rob is worthy of a little drool. The bad news, at least for women, is that Rob is gay.
The Major has never liked Rob. Or maybe he likes him too much. “That Nazi crap, as you call it, puts the bread on my table. A sale is a sale, after all. An S.S. insignia is every bit as legitimate as some gold-covered chair where Louis the somebody rested his ass.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. Much better to be talking about some despot's pj's than my Aunt Eulonia's shop. The debate on Nazi paraphernalia didn't last long enough.
“It looks like someone dropped a bomb on the Brussels flea market,” Wynnell Crawford said, referring to my aunt's shop. “Someone should set off a bomb in there. I bet she wouldn't notice the difference.”
Wynnell had a lot of room to talk. If Hitler was still alive, as the tabloids claimed, then he was undoubtedly hiding in her shop, sans pajamas. Along with Elvis and Salman Rushdie. Wynnell sells period furniture, but massive pieces, like armoires and breakfronts. Because her shop, Wooden Wonders, is relatively small, and her inventory large, items are packed tighter together than Vienna sausages. On top of this leafless hardwood forest Wynnell has stacked innumerable smaller, less expensive things. We in the trade call it “fluff.” You would call it clutter. Neither Wynnell's shop, nor the pitifully sewn homemade outfits she wears, are likely to win any aesthetic awards.
“People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones,” I said pleasantly.
Wynnell gave me a withering look. Peggy gave me another glimpse of her pancake.
“You should talk some sense into her. Yesterday I brought an old friend over. A dealer from New York who wants a place in the sun. Eulonia wouldn't even listen to his offer.”
my aunt's keeper,” I said. I recrossed my legs then, and if I kicked Peggy in the shins, it was purely coincidental. At any rate, her yelps were far too theatrical.
“I move we vote to oust that woman from our organization,” Wynnell said.
She may have given me another withering look, but I couldn't be certain without taking a hedge clipper to those eyebrows first. And anyway, some of the furrows on Wynnell's forehead have been permanently fused together.
I was prepared to apologize to Peggy's shins, when it dawned on me that it was my Aunt Eulonia that was facing the boot, not me.
“But she hardly ever attends these monthly breakfasts,” I said quickly. “She isn't here today. Besides, if you kick her out, then how do you expect to talk her into doing what you want?”
“Ho, ho,” the Major said. “We don't. That's your job, little lady. Think you're big enough to handle it?”
That did it. That ended breakfast for me. The nerve of Major Calloway to bring my height into our discussion! Just because I'm on the short side doesn't mean that I will tolerate being treated like a child. I slipped my three-inch heels back on, bringing my height up to five foot even, and strode from the room.
It was an action I regret to this day.
After I closed my shop for the day, I took I-77 south, past Carowinds Amusement Park and into South Carolina. My destination was Rock Hill, home of Winthrop University. Of course I'm prejudiced, having grown up there, but I think there is something special about small college towns. When all
roads lead to a campus, one can't help but be the recipient of the occasional lofty thought.
I got off on the Cherry Road exit but switched over to Eden Terrace as soon as possible. Cherry is four lanes, and easy to drive on, but it isn't easy on the eyes. There are still thriving businesses on this once proud commercial strip, but signs of neglect as well. The old mall is dead, a victim of its small size (not a comfortable thought to me), and its carapace lies empty and indestructible like a katydid shell. In some places the kudzu comes too close for comfort.
For y'all who aren't from the South, kudzu is a tropical vine that was imported to control erosion and as a possible source of cattle fodder. It was very successful. Although it dies back to the ground each winter, this plant grows so fast that by the first hard frost, it will have covered an entire large tree. I know of a woman who fell asleep on her front porch after lunch, and by the time she woke up to start supper, the vine had wrapped her tight like a green mummy and all but smothered her. If killer tomatoes ever mated with kudzu, we in the South would all be goners.
Comfort, however, was what I was after. Although I live in a perfectly adequate house of my own in Charlotte, there are times when I need the comfort and security of my mother's house. My old home. That need includes my father too, but Daddy died sixteen years ago in a skiing accident on nearby Lake Wylie.
Mama lives on the south end of Eden Terrace, just a few blocks from the campus. It is a street of older brick homes and towering trees. Its gardens are bouquets of roses, petunias, gardenias, and camellias. Even in the dead of winter, pansies add a splash of color. Mama lives in the house I was born inâliterally. Mama says I was so eager to join the world that I made my appearance only twenty minutes after her first labor pain. As a reward Mama stuck me with the name Abigail. Go figure. She smelled me coming.
The Monroes (Mama's maiden name) smell all impending events, especially the arrival of kinfolks. Consequently Mama met me at the door with a glass of sweet tea and minutes later forced me to choke down a supper of grilled pork chops, sweet
potatoes, and fried okra. Not that I don't love those thingsâI doâbut the portions Mama serves could keep a small third world country fed for a week. Apparently Mama, who is five foot one, feels personal guilt for the fact that I am so small. No doubt she harbors hope that I may yet grow an inch or two before my fiftieth birthday. Then she can relax.
“I smell trouble coming,” Mama said as I walked in the door.
I explained the situation briefly then patted her arm. “Not to worry. Their barks are all worse than their bites. Besides, we were all witnesses. It's not as if anybody was really going to bump the old dear off.”
Mama smoothed the skirt of her gingham apron and then lightly fingered a strand of pearls. She wears pearls when she cooks, just like Beaver's mother. But Mama's are real.
“I wasn't talking about the threats against your Aunt Eulonia. I was talking about your Aunt Marilyn. She's coming up from Hilton Head for a visit next week.”
I choked on a bite of chop, and Mama had to pound my back to get me going again. “Here? Aunt Marilyn? Did she call or write?”
Mama shook her head. The naturally brown hair swung gracefully and then settled neatly back into place. She's sixty-nine years old and there isn't a gray hair to be seen. The next person who asks if we're sisters is going to get a clop in the chops. While I am proud to own my age, I draw the line at owning Mama's.
“She didn't call or write. But I can smell it. There's trouble brewing for sure.”
“You didn't tell her about the camellias, did you?”
As a reward for my impertinence Mama plopped another chop on my plate. “No, I did not!”
“Next week, you say?” Mama's nose has an accuracy range of up to two weeks if the pollen count is down, but it was September, a bad time for nasal detecting.
“Wednesday, I think. Tuesday, at the earliest.”
I breathed a huge sigh of relief. There was still time to do something about the camellias, if I could only figure out what. It was Buford's fault, of course. If he hadn't kept the house I
could have afforded to remain in Myers Park, near my children, and not too far from my shop.
Thank God, Aunt Marilyn came to the rescue. She owns a modest but respectable house on Ridgewood Avenue, just a skip from my shop, and two hops from my old stomping grounds in Myers Park. Aunt Marilyn wanted to retire to Hilton Head but didn't want to sell her house, “just in case the coastal scene bores me.” Aunt Marilyn is Mama's sister, but you'd never know it. Mama is a
. Aunt Marilyn is a
who firmly believes she is God's gift to men. Any man. Her last name is Monroe, and she claims to be the inspiration for
Marilyn Monroe. Platinum hair and all.
“I met that Norma Jean girl at a party,” she once said. “She was a frowsy little thing with dishwater hair and no attitude. She took one look at me, and immediately I could see those brain cogs turning. Next thing I knew, there she was, on the cover of
, with my name and my face. And my bosom buddies.” By that she meant her breasts; Aunt Marilyn has no buddies, just lovers.
Because I am her only niece, Aunt Marilyn agreed to loan me her houseârent-free. Of course there were strings attached. The house has to be available for her exclusive use whenever she is in town (fortunately, almost never). There are other strings, but the biggest string, which is as thick as the transatlantic cable, is that I am not allowed to make any changes, no matter how temporary, in either her house or her yard. Nothing. Nada. For instance, I am allowed to cook using only her pots and pans. I may place only her dishes on the table. I may not add as much as one chair to the inventory. I have to use her linens on my bed (although I am permitted to use my own toothbrush and wear my own clothes). These restrictions, although frustrating, are manageable. They have in fact saved me oodles of money. But the stickler, the source of impending trouble, is the fact that I may not plant any new flowers or shrubs in her garden, nor remove any that are already there.
Last fall (which just goes to show you how frequently she visits) I experienced a moment of insanity in which I purchased two beautiful double camellias and planted them on
either side of the front door. Last winter, despite record cold temperatures in Charlotte, they produced an abundance of exquisite blooms. Everyone on my block, and many casual passersby, complimented me on these flowers. There is no way, short of a lobotomy, that I will agree to dig these camellias up.