On a perfect June day, late morning sun shining bright, I drove across the steel and concrete bridge over the muddy Mississippi, which actually didn’t look muddy at all, wind whipping little whitecaps on the deep azure water beneath a cloudless blue sky.
Like one of those miniature Dickensian villages you’d see in a better gift shop, the downtown of Serenity spread out before me: old, proud, restored Victorian buildings, positioned a cautious distance from the unpredictable flood-prone river, along which a bike path lined with old-fashioned lamp fixtures ribboned its way.
On the car seat beside me, Sushi, my shih tzu, stirred from her travel bed, stretched, and put her furry little face up to the passenger window. But I doubted the dog could see anything.
“We’re almost there, sweetie,” I said soothingly.
Sushi turned toward me, white eyes staring spookily out of a brown furry face, like a baby Morlock in that great old Time Machine movie I caught on TCM one insomniac night (not the terrible remake!). Even before she’d gone sightless from diabetes, Sushi’s vision had always been hair-impaired, so when the vet suggested I spend two thousand dollars to restore her vision, I had a good excuse not to … also a good reason, which was not having a spare two thousand dollars.
“Almost home,” I repeated, more to myself than the dog, and took a swig of bottled Wal-Mart water.
According to Thomas Wolfe, you can’t go home again; of course that’s not true—many of us can, and do, crawl back to the nest to lick our wounds, regroup, rethink … and dream of leaving home again.…
My mother, Vivian, much to her surprise, conceived me at the tail end of her child-bearing years, in the mid-1970s, when her only other child was eighteen. Unplanned though I was, I provided Mother timely company, because shortly after I arrived, my father departed.
Now, this is not a sad story of paternal desertion—it’s another kind of sad story: my father died from a sudden heart attack, presumably having nothing to do with my arrival.
My dad, Jonathan Borne, had been an army photographer during World War II, really quite a distinguished one among those anonymous heroic shutterbugs; many of the pictures taken at the Battle of the Bulge—which were seen in Life and other magazines of the day (and, later, history books and in documentaries)—were his. Dad might have had a big career with one of the news magazines, but like so many Greatest Generation guys, he only wanted to come back home to his sweetheart and start a family and make an honest living—he accomplished the latter by setting up his own photography shop.
Mother named me Brandy, after a corny but kinda cool then-popular song (my older sister, Peggy Sue, didn’t fare so well with her own Buddy Holly–inspired moniker). Do you remember that “Brandy” tune? It got to number one, I think. Anyway, it talked about what a “good wife” Brandy would be—well, this Brandy … yours truly, Brandy … did not grow up to suit those lyrics. Not unless you’re into irony.
Point of fact, Brandy Borne was coming home downsized, and not just in the physical sense: my beautiful silver Audi TT Quattro had been traded for this used urine-specimen-yellow Ford Taurus. My forty-something husband had been traded in, too, for … well, I’d say for Sushi, only actually I already had her back when I still had Roger, and the affluence that came with him.
Yup. No more retro-packaged Benefit makeup from Stephora, or cute shoes from Aldo’s (why have one pair of Jimmy Choos when you could have three of theirs? I’m not stupid), or designer clothes from Neiman Marcus. Now I was strictly drugstore makeup, discounted shoes, and outlet-center apparel. Checking in with my new reality, I changed my subscription from couture-featured Vogue to off-the-rack Lucky.
In the back of the car, however, hanging from a rod, were some of the clothes I just couldn’t bring myself to sell on eBay: a black Stella McCartney satin bomber jacket with tons of zippers; a black Chanel loose-weaved wool jacket with silver chains and frayed edges; and a black (okay, I’d been trying to hide my weight) Versace low-cut spandex dress (the one Angelina Jolie wore to the Oscars … except a tad bigger).
I also couldn’t give up some vintage pieces: a Betsey Johnson bat-sleeved burgundy corduroy dress with big black patent leather belt, and an orange parachute-material jumpsuit by Norma Kamali that I never had nerve to wear. Since the split with Roger, I’d lost fifteen pounds and no longer fit many of these things; somehow, though, they were the only part of my former life I hadn’t been able to cut loose.
According to my mother, the town of Serenity used to be called “the Pearl Button Capital of the World,” button factories lining the riverfront like a brick battlement. Then when plastic fasteners became popular (and cheaper), and government restrictions were put on the number of mussels that could be harvested from the river, half the town got a pink slip, including factory owners.
But Vivian Borne had a vision (actually, she’s had many, but more about that later); she thought the town could reinvent itself by opening lots of antique shops and cute little bistros, and become a tourist destination. Mother formed the Historic Preservation Committee, and marched on City Hall to stop the demolition of many a downtown building.
I suppose I should interrupt myself again to explain that my mother has always had a touch of the dramatic. She’d been a tall, slender, beautiful blonde in high school (willowy, they used to call it) who had snagged the lead in every play since kindergarten. Her plans to go to Hollywood had changed when she abruptly married her high school sweetheart (my dad, Jonathan—remember him?) on the eve of his marching off to war.
When my father marched home, Mother retreated into community theater and manic depression—in the fifties and sixties, they called this being “nuts”—and some of the therapy Mother got in those days was no picnic, though the plays were pretty good.
Don’t get nervous—she’s been medicated and beautifully sane for some years now … not counting occasional missed appointments, and ill-advised “drug holidays” from doctors who ought to know better.
Anyway, once upon a time poor put-upon Peggy Sue (I was only five) had to post bail when Mother’s commitment to preserving downtown Serenity extended to chaining herself to the front door of the old Capitol Theater. The movie house with its great art deco facade didn’t survive (it’s now a parking lot), and that threw Mother into a deep depression that lasted for months; Sis had to move in for a while and take care of me. And Mother.
I suppose I should appreciate my sister for that, and for keeping an eye on our wonderful eccentric mom when I moved out after high school, leaving all the “fun” to Peg. But I’ll be honest with you (you may already have noticed I’m not perfect), I’ve always resented Peggy Sue, for no reason really, other than her finicky, fault-finding attitude toward me.
Once over the span of the river, I swung onto Elm, one of Serenity’s oldest streets, shooting out from the center of town like a spoke in a wheel. Along either side of the tree-canopied avenue, grand old homes built in the late eighteen hundreds, currently looking a little long in the tooth, were occupied by middle-income families, and those foolhardy enough to find romance in a fixer-upper. The local “barons” had long since moved out to the many subdivisions that now bordered the city.
At the end of Elm, I turned into the long driveway of a two-story white stucco house whose green shutters and wraparound porch were solely in need of a coat of paint. Or two.
I got out of the car, stretched from the long trip, then retrieved Sushi from the front seat. I stood under an ancient, familiar forlorn-looking pine, listening to the wind whispering in the tallest branches, while Soosh peed. Many of the lower boughs that I used to climb as a kid (getting sap stuck in my hair) were long gone, sheared off by storms or man.
Leaving my stuff behind in the car, I picked up the dog and headed toward the house.
As usual, the door was unlocked—actually, finding it locked would signal an alarm, indicating Mother might have reverted into one of her “spells,” in which case even the sheriff would have had difficulty getting in. But the barricades were down, and I easily stepped into the small front foyer.
Nowhere else smelled like our house. It wasn’t unpleasant; it wasn’t pleasant. It was just my nostrils welcoming me … home.
All the way from the Chicago suburbs, I had been dreading this moment. How would I feel? Defeated? Miserable? Depressed? Would I see the ghost of a little Brandy—skinned-knee, dirty Scooby-Doo T-shirt, long stringy hair—looking back at me accusingly for making such a mess of her future?
But little Brandy wasn’t there. And grown-up Brandy felt nothing negative at all … in fact, something comforting. And a surprising sense of … possibilities. Why, I had practically my whole life ahead of me. A second chance for love, wealth, and happiness. A new dawn was beginning!
Thank you, Prozac.
I went through the mahogany French door separating the entryway from the large front parlor, and put Sushi down on the bare wooden floor. Peggy Sue had tried to prepare me on the phone, but it was still a shock.
Gone were the Queen Anne needlepoint furniture, Hancock straight-backed chairs, Duncan Phyfe table, and Persian rugs … family heirlooms, all. Even the colorful collection of small glass shoes (think Cinderella’s slipper) that had forever graced the picture windowsill was AWOL. I felt a terrible lump in my throat, and a sense of loss rippled through me in a wave reminiscent of nausea.
“Everything can’t be gone,” I’d said to Peggy Sue on the phone, knowing how she could exaggerate.
“Not every thing … but most of the downstairs things.”
“Surely Mother didn’t let go of the chairs Grandpa caned?” I wanted those.
Her silence was all the answer I needed.
“Can’t you get it all back?” I wailed. “Mother was mentally ill—isn’t that fraud or something?”
My sister sighed heavily. “I’ve already talked to our attorney.”
“Mr. Ekhardt? Is he still alive?”
“He is, and he said the antique dealer bought everything in good faith and had no idea Mother was … well …”
“Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs?”
“… off her medication.” Pause. “Why these doctors don’t call the family, when a patient misses an appointment, I will never know.”
“But those are precious things. It’s like the bastard bought our childhood! Stole our memories!”
“Brandy—you are taking the Prozac …?”
“Yes, yes … they just take awhile to kick in, is all. But even when she’s in one of her lunatic phases of the moon, Mother surely wouldn’t give away such precious—”
“Brandy,” my sister said, voice tight, “I wish you wouldn’t refer to Mother’s condition in so, so … insensitive a manner. You know as well as I that it’s a disease.”
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly, hoping to thwart a probable, inevitable scolding. Peggy Sue had a way of reducing me to six years old. Or five.
“How,” she was saying, off on a pedantic tear, “are we ever to eradicate the stigma attached to this illness, when you keep using words like ‘cuckoo’ and ‘lunatic'?”
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
“Do you have any idea how lucky we are that Mother responds so well to medication?”
Note that Peggy Sue hadn’t said how lucky Mother was.
“I said I was sorry,” I said.
Make that four years old.
The strained silence that followed was not unusual in our phone conversations.
Finally Peg asked, a trifle testily, “When are you coming back to Serenity?”
“In a couple weeks. After the divorce is final.”
And my medication has kicked in.
“And will Jacob be with you?”
Why did she even ask that? Peggy Sue knew Jake’s dad had custody!
“No, Peg—he’s better off with his father. For right now, anyway. At the moment, Jake blames me for everything.”
Peggy Sue didn’t jump to my defense—not that I expected her to. Instead she shifted gears, saying pleasantly, “It’ll be such a relief to have you living with Mother.”
“Finally, someone else to drive her to the doctor, so she’ll never miss another appointment.… You do know she had her license suspended?”
“Yes, you wrote. How are the cows?” Mother had taken a shortcut through a pasture, on her way to a play at a rural church.
I could almost hear the frown in my sister’s voice. “Are you being sarcastic?”
“No.” But I wondered if Peggy Sue could almost hear my snide little grin.
“If you really want to know, there was only one bovine fatality, though the others were certainly traumatized.” She added cheerfully, “Thank God the insurance paid for everything, including the damage to that combine. They’re terribly expensive, you know.”
“Combines! Honestly, sometimes I don’t know whether you really are that thick, or are just pulling my chain!”
I’ll leave it for you to decide.
“Personally, Peg? I’m most relieved that in the accident the only casualties were farm equipment and some shaken-up livestock. That Mother wasn’t hurt …?”
After the next strained silence, we had managed to chat a bit longer about nothing in particular, both of us sensing the need to work our way somewhere where the conversation could end on a cordial note of truce.
That was about a month ago.
I watched as Sushi took a few tentative steps from me in the living room, feeling her way along. At least with most of the furnishings gone, the dog wouldn’t be bumping into so many things.
I was wondering where Mother was when I heard the muffled sound of the downstairs toilet flush, then running water. In another minute she was gliding through the kitchen doorway, and my smile froze.
Mother was wearing an unbecoming, ill-fitting purple dress—I might have made it in seventh-grade sewing class with my eyes shut—and a huge red straw hat arrayed with plastic fruit, arcs of white hair swinging like scythes on either side of her face, her attractive features bordering on self-parody with an overapplication of makeup and her blue eyes huge behind the big thick-lensed glasses.
My heart sank. Peggy Sue had said she was stabilized!
Mother beamed when she saw me, magnified eyes bright with delight. She had put a few pounds on over the years, but remained a tall, striking figure, despite the ghastly dress. “Brandy, darling! Thank the Lord you’ve come! And just in time, too.”
“Yeeees,” I replied. “I think I am.”
The big buggy eyes narrowed suspiciously as she advanced toward me for a hug. Then she held me out in front of her like a painting she was considering to buy and said, “Darling child, you look simply stricken—are you all right?”
“I am … question is, are you?”
“Of course, dear. Well and truly medicated. Now hurry up, or we’ll be tardy …”
What was I, back in school?
“… and this is not the kind of event where a late entrance is considered fashionable.”
Mother made a little cluck with her tongue. “Oh, Brandy! At my age, I’m the one with an excuse for being forgetful—you promised you’d go with me!”
“Go … where?”
“The Red Hat Social Club luncheon! Remember? The guest speaker is one of the Keno twins!”
Well, I had forgotten—or rather banished it to a corner of my mind. The idea of dressing up in a red hat and purple dress was not my idea of a good time, particularly on the heels of a long car trip.
I said hopefully, “I thought you meant you just needed a ride. How can I attend? Don’t you have to be, you know, uh …”
“Old? Why, yes, dear thing, an incredibly ancient fifty! And I know you don’t qualify, but didn’t I mention it?”
“This is mother-daughter day! And I’ve told simply everyone that you were coming back, and would be with me. Brandy, every chapter in Serenity will be there!”
“Why not take Peggy Sue?” Vaguely I recalled either Peg or Mother mentioning that Sis was a Red Hat, too.
“She and I are in different chapters,” Mother said. “She’s going to sit with her own group. Now shake a tailfeather!”
I guess I was going. Half sarcastically, I said, “How can I attend? I don’t have a red hat!”
“Ah, dear girl, don’t you know your mother by now? I think of everything.”
She disappeared in a swish of purple fabric and a bobbling of fake fruit.
All too soon she had returned, from the kitchen, saying, “Luckily I found some paint out in the garage … I do hope it’s dry.”
Mother handed me a straw hat that I remembered from some play she’d been in, when I was a kid; she had revamped the nineteen-hundreds-looking affair with bright red paint, which was tacky in more ways than one.
“What,” I said, “no fruit?”
Mother put her hands on her hips. “Fruit is strictly optional, as is the purple dress. Now, if you don’t want to go, don’t. I am perfectly willing to call a cab and go and be humiliated.”
My own humiliation in the worst, wackiest “Red Hat” imaginable did not occur to Mother. She had always lent her theatrical production touch to apparel, makeup, and other everyday matters, forgetting that what looks good to an audience past the footlights might seem bizarre in what I laughingly like to refer to as “real life.”
Long ago I’d lost every battle over Mother’s homemade “solutions” to various fashion crises; now was simply not the time to change my ways.
“I’m coming,” I said, dutiful daughter that I am.
Anyway, why not attend a Red Hat meeting, and see what I’d be doing with my free time in about thirty years? Don’t laugh (or cry)—that’s how Peggy Sue wound up, right?
But I had enough dignity left to say, “Just give me a few minutes, Mother,” and went out to the car and retrieved some things.
When I returned, Mother was cuddling Sushi in her arms. I wasn’t sure how she would take to Soosh; it had been a number of years since a pet had invaded the house … and a high maintenance one at that.
“Look, dear,” Mother said, beaming, “the little darling—unlike you—likes my outfit.”
“Sushi’s blind, Mother … she can’t see your lovely ensemble.”
Mother held the dog out, inspecting her. “I thought something was strange about those eyes.…”
Oddly, Mother’s eyes and Sushi’s looked about the same.
Then Mother shrugged, clutched the dog against her chest, and sighed, “No matter … we’re all damaged goods around here.”
In the upstairs bathroom, I ran a brush through my shoulder-length golden-blond hair (L’Oreal Preference; you can usually find coupons) and applied a little Rimmel makeup (at least it was British, even if it didn’t look as good on me as on Kate Moss).
I put Sushi in her bed next to the tub, left a bowl of water (diabetic dogs get really thirsty), and shut the door.
“Let’s take my car, dear,” Mother suggested when I came back downstairs. She had found a big lighter purple purse somewhere, which actually went well with the purple frock. “Automobile engines are like people, you know—if they sit too long doing nothing, they wind up dead before their time.”
Even medicated, Mother had no shortage of such words of wisdom. Anyway, it sounded like a plan.
At the end of the drive was a freestanding garage, with an old, heavy door you had to open yourself. If things hadn’t changed, the keys to the ancient pea-green Audi would be waiting on its dashboard—and they were. That careless key security had made sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night and taking the car so beautifully easy, way back when.
While I drove downtown, Mother informed me Serenity had six chapters of the Red Hat Social Club, and over twenty thousand in the entire country (I feigned interest), and that each chapter had its own “darling” name like Better Red Than Dead, and Code Red Hat, etc.
When Mother and some of her friends who belonged to a mystery readers’ book club—Mother “adored” Agatha Christie—had tried to join various chapters around town, each in turn was told that all the chapters were closed to new members.
Whether she and her fellow eccentrics suspected they had been turned away for any reason other than no-room-at-the-inn, Mother didn’t say.
What she did say was: “At any rate, we just started our own chapter, turning our little readers’ group into ‘the Red-Hatted League.’ That’s a Sherlock Holmes reference, dear.”
“I know, Mother.”
At that point Mother launched into a detailed comparison of the relative merits of Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett as the great Baker Street detective, making a good case for each.
I parked in a packed lot adjacent to the Grand Queen Hotel, which at eight stories lorded over its loyal subjects, the surrounding riverfront buildings. The view of the Mississippi from the top-floor ballroom (where the luncheon was being held) was breathtaking. For a small town. In the Midwest.
The wealthy publisher of the Serenity Sentinel had saved the Queen (named after one of the founders of Serenity, Nathan Joshua Queen, and an ancestor of said publisher) from the chopping block, giving her a face-lift to the tune of three million dollars. People came from all over the nation just to stay in one of the many “theme rooms”—from the serene Grecian-spa bedroom to the way-out moon room, complete with space-capsule bed.
That such funky fantasy suites had nothing to do with the Victorian wedding cake of a building that housed them bothered no one, particularly not the Sentinel publisher, who was even richer now than before.
By the time Mother and I reached the ballroom, the luncheon was getting under way; we were among the last to arrive, but we weren’t late. Several hundred hats bobbed in a sea of red as the ladies were served what appeared to be chicken salad (not my favorite). Only a few women, however, were wearing purple dresses (good call), and daughter day or not, hardly anyone seemed my age.… Maybe they had to work.
While we were standing in the doorway looking for our table, pretty-pretty-pretty Peggy Sue came over, maybe glad to see us, or maybe just feeling obligated. Her red hat was a pillbox, à la Jackie O, but a new number, not something Mother had dredged from the basement or attic for house-paint conversion.
Her skirt and jacket were a lavender Ralph Lauren (and not the Blue Label), though her brunette hair was in the same shoulder-length flipped do as in high school, sprayed to where you could bounce ball bearings off it.
“I was beginning to think you weren’t going to make it,” she said with a forced little laugh. Even when she was being pleasant, Peggy Sue buried a kernel of criticism in her words. Suddenly her eyes widened to where they were almost the size of Mother’s magnified orbs: our homemade hats had just appeared on Peg’s radar, alarming unidentified objects.
But Sis did have the good grace not say anything—it wasn’t like such “fashion statements” from Mother were unheard of.
Anyway, Peg gave me a cursory embrace, and said, “Great to see you, Brandy. Thanks for being a good sport.”
This seemed to be a reference to my red hat.
“Your group is seated over there,” Peggy Sue said, pointing in the opposite direction from where she’d come—which was no surprise. Somehow I had the feeling that Peg had been involved in the seating arrangements.
My expression must have conveyed that, and Peg said, “I do wish we could sit together, but you know how it is.”
Actually, I did know.
But Peg was gracious enough to walk us over to the table, even taking me by the arm and asking, “How was your trip?”
“Pretty boring. Interstate, mostly.”
Sis gave me a canned smile. “That’s nice. Well, I’ll see you two later.”
And she vanished.
We had been deposited at the table where the other members of Mother’s chapter were eagerly awaiting our arrival. The friendly, motley crew consisted of a retired schoolteacher (I had her in fifth grade), a widowed nurse, a homemaker (who might as well be widowed because her husband had Alzheimer’s), and a divorcée (she left her husband immediately after their fiftieth wedding anniversary party, and I mean that night).
These were Mother’s dearest friends (you needn’t know their names, just yet), and I didn’t mind spending an hour or so with them, and hearing stories (sometimes more than once) about how they did things in the olden days.
I took a pass on the chicken salad and waited for the main course. Then I realized, too late, after they took away the plate, that that was the main course. Next thing I knew I was staring down at a big slice of chocolate cake.
Chocolate on an empty stomach is a no-no for a migraine headache sufferer, which I am (thank God for Imitrex). So I removed myself from temptation and went off to find a bathroom.
Weaving around the tables took me by Peggy Sue, where she sat with a clutch of longtime, so-called friends.
I despised these women, each of whom had at one time or another betrayed my sister. The ringleader of the cattiest clique this side of the Mississippi was Robin (wearing the stodgier side of Anne Klein); she once stole Peggy Sue’s fiancé, then threw him over. Lana (looking silly in Lilly Pulitzer—where’s a palm tree when you need one?) had had my sister kicked off the Pom-Pon Squad (at the time called Pom-Pom, before anyone realized it meant “whore” in the Philippines) for being “too fat,” which had sent Peggy Sue on an anorexic cycle. And my “favorite,” Connie (hiding her heft under a voluminous Eileen Fisher dress; it wasn’t working), had once spread a vicious rumor that my sister was pregnant, when Peggy Sue studied in France her freshman year of college.
I had heard all of this—and more—as a kid listening at the top of the stairs, or with one ear to closed doors, when Peggy Sue went crying to Mother. Why my sister still cared about what these middle-aged over-Botoxed bitches did or thought or said was a mystery that even the Red-Hatted League’s Holmes couldn’t have solved. Rathbone or Brett.
When I paused at their table, Peggy Sue smiled in her frozen way and said, “Brandy! You remember my friends …?”
I bestowed my sweetest smile on them. “Why, of course. I’ve heard so many interesting stories about all of you, over these many years.”
Several pairs of eyes narrowed—of those smart enough to perceive the dig—while Peggy flashed a glare, as if to say, “Don’t make trouble, Little Sister.”
Robin turned her Cruella face toward me. “I understand you’ll be living here again. Moving back in with Mother? How sweet.” Her smile was sly, knowing.
“Yes, and I’ll be looking for a job,” I replied, then asked innocently, not missing a beat, “Do you think your husband could use a secretary?”
Her hubby, Mel, ran the biggest auto dealership in Serenity. And was the biggest letch.
“Why … uh, I … don’t …” She managed an embarrassed smile, then said, “I don’t really keep track of such things.”
“No problem,” I replied, then crinkled my nose, Bewitched-style, cute as heck. “I’ll call him myself.”
I let Robin chew on that and headed for the ladies’ room, which proved deserted, everybody but me busy snarfing down that rich cake. I was drying my hands when the door swished open. I half expected Peggy Sue, come to admonish me for being “not very nice” to her supposed friends, but it was even worse.
“Hello, Brandy,” the woman said. She held her ground by the door, and was clearly not here to pee.
“Jennifer.” I threw the paper towel in the bin.
She was slender and pretty and two years younger than me, with thick auburn hair, a porcelain, doll-like complexion, large green eyes unblinking in her pale face, her thin lips a red lipstick slash; she wore neither a red hat nor a purple dress—just a smart periwinkle suit.
“I’m here with my mother,” I said.
“I’m with mine. Spotted you talking to Peggy Sue.”
“Ah.” That’s me, always ready with the smart comeback.
“I just thought,” she began, clutching her black purse like an oversize fig leaf, “as long as you’re back in town …”
Bad news travels fast.
“… we’ll be running into each other …”
Not necessarily. I wouldn’t be shopping the better boutiques.
“… and we might as well get this over with.”
She really was quite beautiful; why would her husband have cheated on a ten like her with a seven and three-quarter like me, I’ll never understand.
Well, okay—the sex.
And a guy at his high school class reunion, which his wife chose not to attend, who runs into his old steady, might make a sad mistake.
So might the old steady.
I noticed her hand shaking a little as she toyed with a button on the jacket of her suit.
“I just wanted to say,” she continued, “that I don’t hold a grudge. What happened just … happened.”
I had no words. None.
“You just came along at a rough patch in our marriage—it could have been anybody.”
“And, anyway, Brandy, Brad and I are doing fine now. I have no intention of causing a scene, here, today … anywhere, ever.”
“That doesn’t mean I forgive you, of course, for what you did.”
Of course. But Brad’s forgiven.
She raised her chin; was it trembling, just a little? And I’m happy to say that my marriage is stronger than ever.”
Not “our” marriage—“my” marriage.
I really could think of nothing to say, except, “Was it really key to your happiness, calling my husband and telling on me and ruining what I had?”
Which of course I said only in my head.
“Well,” Jennifer sighed with a half smile, “I’m so glad we had this little chat. Good luck on your new start. Sorry if you thought Brad might be a part of it.”
She wheeled and left.
I had to admit, what Jennifer did took guts. I felt about as cheap as my $49.99 cotton dress and Dutch Boy–painted red hat.
As I returned to my table, all eyes were on me, looking for cat scratches, maybe. Thankfully the after-luncheon program was about to begin.
Stepping to the center-front dais was Mrs. Lindel, evidently in charge of the day’s historic mother-daughter Red-Hat citywide event; she was a trim, energetic, perpetually cheerful woman in her sixties who, like Mother, had been active in community theater since I was in diapers. Her red hat was by far the most … What, you’re not interested? Okay, be that way.
The upbeat Mrs. Lindel, however, was looking a little down in the dumps as she spoke into the microphone. “Ladies …” She had to repeat this several times before the crowd—eagerly anticipating the featured guest from the popular Antiques Roadshow program—quieted. The excitement was palpable, the suspense excruciating—which Keno twin could it be?
“As you know, Mr. Keno is in our little corner of the world for a Des Moines taping of the Roadshow,” she said. “He was gracious to make time for us in his busy schedule, but unexpected production demands made it necessary for him to cancel at the last minute.”
Oh. Neither Keno twin.
“He sends his best and his apologies.”
The latter half dozen or so words were barely audible over the moans and groans.
Mother, who always projected well, said, “Well, shit!”
Laughter followed—everyone in town knew my mother (and most knew her favorite swear word), though a mortified Peggy Sue, glancing our way, didn’t seem to realize how well received and even cathartic Mother’s little outburst had been.
“However … however,” Mrs. Lindel continued, “we have a wonderful substitute speaker, Clint Carson, who moved here recently from Boulder, Colorado. Many of you already know Mr. Carson, and are familiar with his antique shop in Pearl Button Plaza. So, without any further introduction, let’s give him a warm welcome and a big hand!”
And she began clapping wildly to rouse the crowd.
I’d bet Mrs. Lindel had the man waiting in the wings like an understudy ready to go on, should something go wrong with the featured guest. The substitute came out (stage right) to polite applause, and the director returned to her seat.
Clint wasn’t bad on the eyes: tall, slender, youthful, yet old enough to have some gray in his brown ponytailed hair. He wore a black Stetson, a tan and brown plaid western shirt, and dark slacks. I couldn’t see his feet, but I was betting on tooled leather boots.
“Good afternoon, darlin’s,” the man drawled into the mike. “I’ve never seen so many pretty faces—not to mention hats—all in one little ole room.…”
I was thinking, Lame, but then noticed that the women all around me apparently liked this chicken-fried blarney, some even giggling.
Carson began to talk about his love of antiques, and I looked over at Mother, to see if her disappointment had been placated. Unlike the women surrounding us, who were eating this up, Mother’s head was lowered, the wide-brimmed hat mostly covering her face. Her normal outgoing self seemed to be shriveling, as she withdrew into herself, in a way that often signaled a bout with the blues.
And I could see a tear trickling down one cheek.
Now, I knew she loved Antiques Roadshow—especially when the Keno twins were on—and surely had been looking forward to today; but her reaction didn’t seem right—perhaps her medication made her overemotional … or needed adjusting.
I leaned in, peering under her hat. “Hey, we can always go to Des Moines to see the twins. When are they taping—do you know?”
But my normally outgoing Mother said nothing.
And the tears were streaming now.
“What is it, dear?” I whispered, alarmed at her distress. The other ladies at our table had noticed, and concern registered on their faces, too.
“That … that … terrible man … is … the one …” Her whispered words came in little choking breaths. “… the one who … took advantage of me.…”
And I knew what she meant; we hadn’t even discussed it at home, I hadn’t wanted to upset her, or hurt her feelings, but I knew exactly what she was talking about: folksy Clint Carson had scammed my mother out of our precious furniture!
A ball of fire rose from my stomach to my throat, the worst heartburn I’d ever had.
Carson spoke for fifteen minutes on the subject of unscrupulous dealers who passed off replicas as antiques (“A good way to tell the real antique from the reproduction is to look at the manufacturer’s mark …”).
I sat through it seething, my face getting redder than my hat. But I waited for the Q-and-A portion, at which time I flew to my feet and did not wait to be recognized.
“I have a question, relating to unscrupulous dealers.”
Red hats swiveled my way. Dozens of eyes locked on to me, amid murmurings of (no doubt) how rude I as.
The speaker seemed a little thrown himself, and a touch irritated at my presumption, but he gave me a patronizing “Yes?”
“Is it ethical for a dealer,” I said firmly, “to take advantage of a seller? I don’t mean a seller who hasn’t done the research, and is just carelessly getting rid of items that are actually valuable.”
Carson was frowning.
“What I mean is, is it ethical for a dealer—let’s say … oh, you for example—to buy treasured family heirlooms from anyone who is not, well, aware, for one reason or another, of what they are doing?” I thought that came out rather nicely.
He was silent for a moment before responding. “I’m not sure I entirely understand the question, little lady. When you say, ‘me,’ are you in the hypothetical realm?”
“There’s nothing hypothetical about dealers taking advantage of seniors.”
The crowd was beginning to realize that this was not a friendly exchange, and I heard some disapproving murmurs. But here and there, surprisingly, were smatterings of applause.
Carson’s eyes narrowed and his voice had a quake that might have been anger, or even fear. “Are you implyin’ that I am unethical?”
“No—I’m saying it.”
He stiffened self-righteously. “You want to be very careful about making such statements. We have laws against slander in this country, you know.”
“We have lots of laws in this country, Mr. Carson. And the truth is the best defense against slander.”
But now my confidence was flagging; the audience was grumbling, and more seemed against me than for me—I had ruined the Red Hat luncheon!
Time to cut and run.
I turned to Mother, who was looking at me with a big smile and those blue eyes huge behind the lenses, though her face was streaked with tears. “Come on, dear,” I said, “we’re going.”
I took her by the arm, and we exited the ballroom, leaving the stunned group behind. And yet among the rumblings was again more scattered applause. Apparently we weren’t the only ones who didn’t think well of this Colorado highwayman.
We sat in the Audi in the parking lot, Mother blowing her nose into a big cloth hanky that had seen better days.
“Brandy, I’m so proud of you. Not only did you stand up to that man, you showed …”
That instability ran in the family? Or maybe galloped?
“… you showed a great dramatic flair. How I wish you’d followed me into theater!”
“Mother—what about the real-life melodrama? How much did that jerk give you for our things?”
Mother sniffled. “About a thousand dollars … I think.”
“For everything? The pine armoire alone was worth triple that!”
She nodded dejectedly.
“Shit!” I said.
“Brandy,” Mother said. “Language.”
I started the car and decreed, “I’m going to get that creep Carson—and all of our things back—if I have to run right over him to do it!”
Then I wheeled out of the lot, tires squealing, and headed for the home that unscrupulous dealer had emptied of so many memories.
A Trash ‘n’ Treasures Tip
It’s said that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure, but that’s not entirely true. Trash is still trash … but there’s no law against treasuring it. Just don’t expect a lot of resale money.