Dearest ones! This is Vivian taking pen in hand—that is, hands on keyboard—to write this, the first chapter of our new book, “our” meaning daughter Brandy and myself. Usually I have been relegated to a paltry two chapters, mid-way, but even Brandy agreed that the adventure described in this opening chapter should flow more fittingly from my tongue.
But I would like to thank all of you lovely readers who brought pressure upon our publisher to make this happen. I won’t let you down!
Before we proceed with our story, I’d like to give a long-distance shout-out to Mr. Culverton Allsopp across the pond in Aston-in-Makerfield—that’s near Liverpool for you fans of four certain mop-topped lads. Mr. Allsopp wrote to say that, despite conventional wisdom asserting “cozy” mysteries are intended for females, he—a male (as the pronoun indicates)—enjoys reading our books (large print editions). Well, I’m sure I also speak for my darling daughter Brandy when I say, “Good on ya, Mr. A!”
(NOTE FROM BRANDY: Actually, that’s an Australian expression, but I do join with Mother in thanking Mr. Allsopp for his support.)
One blustery mid-March morning not long ago, Brandy (thirty-two, bottle-blonde, who feels the need to take Prozac since coming home to live with me after her divorce), Sushi (Brandy’s blind, diabetic, cute-as-a-button shih tzu), and myself (age on a need-to-know-and-you-don’t basis, Danish stock, widowed, local thespian, amateur sleuth, with just a teensy-weensy bit of bi-polar disorder) packed-up our battered burgundy Buick and set out from our Mississippi rivertown of Serenity for Manhattan. Why, you ask?
(NOTE FROM MOTHER: To those of you studying this novel in an English literature class or perhaps in Creative Writing, as an example of “how to,” I would like to point out the variety of sentence length in the previous paragraph. Changing it up like that will add verve to your prose! You’re welcome! )
Last fall, Brandy and I won a storage unit at auction, and among the contents found a rare Superman drawing by creators Siegel and Shuster. After word got around among comic collectors about said drawing—and our desire to sell it—we were contacted by Tommy Bufford, who offered us an all-expenses-paid trip to New York, where he would showcase the artwork in an auction during his new comic convention.
Needless to say, we said yes.
So why weren’t Brandy and I seated in First Class on a Boeing 747, Sushi tucked beneath our seats?
Because, dear reader, we had a mission to perform that made an East Coast road trip an ideal two-birds-with-one-stone proposition. You see, we simply had to find poor lost Aunt Olive!
Allow me to explain: some years ago my Aunt Olive passed away, and her daughter (my niece) (perhaps you deduced that) gathered her mother’s ashes and had them encased in a highly decorative glass paperweight. Upon my niece’s death, and with no other living relatives, Aunt Olive came to live with me. So to speak.
Well, Auntie accidently got mixed in with a collection of other paperweights that I’d put out for my yearly yard sale, and a strange woman (in the sense that we weren’t acquainted, as opposed to peculiar) came along and snapped up the whole lot. My lucky day! Or so I thought until I realized Aunt Olive had just made a second tragic departure.
After interrogating several other attendees of my yard sale who’d been there at the same time as the strange woman, I learned that my paperweight buyer’s name was Fanny Watterson, and that she had just been passing through Serenity on her way back to Akron, Ohio. But since Fanny wasn’t listed in the Akron phone book, nor did she Facebook, Tweet, Instagram, or Pinterest—I could find nothing else.
Luckily, my undercover contact at the Serenity PD, Mona the Mole (whose name isn’t Mona, though she does have a mole) managed to locate an F. Watterson on Cuyahoga Falls Avenue, in Akron, and so we headed off. Brandy was behind the wheel (I had lost my driver’s license after several minor infractions blown way out of proportion by local law enforcement), me riding shotgun (not literally), with Sushi settled on a blanket in back, and the valuable Superman drawing safely tucked in the trunk in a briefcase (which I would eventually handcuff to my wrist as soon as we hit the Big Apple).
Fast-forward to Akron, where, to my relief and delight, the woman who answered the door of the two-story stucco house—while a frowny-face Brandy waited in the car with an antsy Sushi—was indeed the Fanny Watterson I recalled from my yard sale triumph-turned-debacle.
To my dismay, however, Miss Watterson informed me she had purchased the paperweight collection as a birthday present for a friend with a penchant for glassware, and had shipped the whole kit and kaboodle on to her in Scranton, PA. (What exactly is a kaboodle, anyway? And what does a kit have to do with anything?)
(NOTE FROM BRANDY: It’s a British term, combining a soldier’s “kit” with a “boodle,” meaning a bunch of stuff. Since you asked. The “ka” just sounded cooler, I guess.)
Fast-forward once again, this time to Scranton, where upon our arrival (I had called ahead this time), Mrs. Watterson’s friend, Mrs. Ida Davis, graciously invited Brandy and me in, while Sushi stayed in the car.
Ida took us into her dining room and showed us with pride her (my former) collection of paperweights, displayed on an antique sideboard, lined up like soldiers on parade.
After a careful examination, however, I did not see Aunt Olive in formation.
“Oh, that ugly thing,” Mrs. Davis said, making a face, after I had described the paperweight. “I got rid of it.”
“Oh, dear,” I said, aghast. “You threw it away?”
I sighed with relief.
“Not...exactly,” she added.
I gasped in the opposite of relief.
Mrs. Davis went on, “I re-gifted it to my sister for her birthday.” She made an embarrassed face. “It was something of a prank. You see, we...ah...don’t exactly get along.” She paused, then asked, “Was that hideous paperweight of some importance?”
Brandy stepped in. “Actually, yes, it was fabricated from the ashes of Mother’s Aunt Olive.”
“Oh, my,” the woman said, eyes as big and round as her paperweights (not really). “That’s certainly an...unusual thing to do with a beloved one.”
Brandy said, “For a relative hanging around, she was surprisingly little trouble.”
I shot my daughter a glare, and said, “Yes, Mrs. Davis, unusual indeed...and despite what Brandy says, Olive has been quite a burden of late...as you can see by what has happened.”
Brandy said brightly, “Mother doesn’t want to become a paperweight. She says she’d like her ashes spread around in various favorite locations of hers, so she can say she’s in different places at the same time.”
Mrs. Davis did not find this amusing, or perhaps she was still upset that she’d given our late loved one the bum’s rush.
At any rate, she said, “This may explain the terrible vibes I got from that paperweight—it was as if...your aunt didn’t want to be here.”
Do you know what spooky Theremin music sounds like? If you do, insert some here.
Perkily, Brandy asked, “Could you give us the number of your sister in Hackensack, so we can call ahead and make sure she still has her? Or, uh...it?”
“But, of course,” Mrs. Davis said, clearly glad to be helpful at last. She got a slip of paper and wrote the information down for us.
We bid goodbye to our aunt’s former landlady, and, in the car, I made the call on my cell.
A boy answered. “‘lo?”
“Well, hello to you too young man. And what is your name?”
“Billy. What’s yours?” Despite the question, he didn’t sound terribly interested.
“Vivian. Is your mommy home, Billy?”
“She’s sleeping. Said don’t bother her.”
“Oh, I see.”
“What do you want, Vivarin?”
“That’s Vivian, dear. Vivarin is something else entirely.”
Perhaps Billy would know if his mother still had the paperweight. I asked as much.
“Well, she did have it,” the boy told me. “But then I took it to school.”
“For show and tell?”
“No, I was gonna drop it out of a second-floor window.”
“Oh, dear! Did you?”
“Naw. That was the day the third grade took a tour of this submarine—the USS Ling?”
“You didn’t...didn’t throw it overboard , did you, dear?”
“No! Better! But...well—you promise you won’t tell?”
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” I said, crossing my fingers instead.
Such a big breath for a little boy. “I lost it,” he said, adding quickly, “but I know right were it is.”
Then it wasn’t lost, was it?
But I asked, “Where would that be, dear?”
“A torpedo hole.”
Billie gave me further vital information, I thanked the boy, he said, “Yeah, whatever,” and we both hung up.
As Brandy steered the Buick south on 380, catching interstate 80 east to New Jersey, I used my cell to connect to the USS Ling’s website, which listed tour information. Since it was now noon, and the drive to Hackensack would take about two hours, Brandy would have to put the petal to the medal for us make the last tour of the day.
(NOTE FROM BRANDY TO MOTHER: That’s pedal to the metal, Mother.)
(NOTE MOTHER TO BRANDY: Perhaps I was just being poetic, dear.)
(NOTE FROM BRANDY TO MOTHER: Yeah, whatever.)
On the drive, I conducted a little more research about the submarine, which had been commissioned during WW II to protect the eastern seaboard from enemy U-boat attacks. After the war, the sub was moved to the Brooklyn Navy Yard and used as a training vessel. Eventually, she (ships are always female) was destined for the scrap yard, but saved by the Submarine Memorial Association and a wide range of folks who donated time and money to have the USS Ling restored to her former glory, and moved to a cozy corner of the Hackensack River.
In a little under two hours, we took the Essex Street exit, following it into the heart of Hackensack, then hopping over to River Street.
Brandy guided the Buick into a parking lot and up to a gray building marked “New Jersey Naval Museum—Tours.” With just minutes to spare, we jumped out—Brandy hiding Sushi inside her winter coat in case dogs weren’t allowed on board—and made a dash for the building to buy our tickets.
Tickets in hand, we hurried back outside, then along a cement walkway to the river, where the USS Ling rested at the shoreline, a metal gangplank leading to the aft of the vessel.
I had expected a larger, plumper submarine, but the Ling was long, narrow, and sleek—really a stirring sight to behold!—and the goose bumps I felt were surely not from the March wind.
Besides Brandy and myself (and the hidden Sushi), the attendees included a group of Cub Scouts—perhaps ten of them...I couldn’t be sure because the boys wouldn’t stand still long enough for me to make an accurate count—along with their scout master, a sandy-haired man around forty imbued with enviable patience as he corralled his charges.
Then another man appeared, having emerged from the museum. Distinguished-looking, with salt and pepper hair, he wore a heavy khaki coat and tan slacks.
“Hello,” he said in a commanding voice, “I am Christopher Kafer. I will be your guide this afternoon.”
As he began an introduction about the Ling, Brandy whispered, “Mother, when he’s done, let’s take him aside and tell him about Aunt Olive. Why not do this the smart way, for once?”
I shook my head. “What if Billy wasn’t telling the truth? What if a search for the missing paperweight required scads of governmental paperwork? No, dear, I must see this through myself—then, perhaps, I’ll bring Mr. Kafer up to speed.”
Brandy said nothing. In fact, she seemed distracted, her eyes bulging and staring nowhere in particular, as if in a trance.
After our handsome guide announced a few rules and regulations—which did not include forbidding one to stick one’s head in a torpedo tube to look for a missing paperweight made from a loved one’s ashes (or any missing paperweight at all, for that matter)—Brandy and I fell in behind the rambunctious scouts. We all ascended the gangplank, single-file.
Mr. Kafer escorted everyone along a side of the vessel to the bow where a hatch had been enlarged to accommodate a metal staircase, and down we all went into a gray-green world of exposed pipes, valves, switches and dials. All together now: AUUGH-OOOGAH! AUUGH-OOOGAH!
As we stood crowded together in the front torpedo room, and as our guide began to talk about this important (and dangerous) area, I took stock of the large six tubes, trying to reason out which one might contain poor Aunt Olive.
Immediately I ruled out the two positioned on either side of us, which would have been difficult for a small boy to reach. Among the cluster of four central tubes (two on top of two), I ruled out the top left because it had a real torpedo sticking out (disarmed, one would hope).
The bottom two tubes were blocked by what appeared to be sandbags, so what remained was the upper right tube, which was about four feet from the floor.
Mr. Kafer finished with his little speech, and as he instructed the group of scouts to follow him into the next area—the officers’ quarters—I motioned to Brandy to stay behind.
She came over, Sushi’s head now poking from the front of her coat like a hairy growth. Cute hairy growth.
She frowned at me (Brandy, not Sushi). “What are you thinking?”
“Dear, I’ve narrowed it down.” I pointed to the likely torpedo hole. “I just want to see if Olive is in there.”
Brandy shook her head and Sushi seemed to mimic her. “Absolutely not! Do you want to get thrown out of here? Or maybe arrested? Let me get the guide and explain the situation. This kind of thing has surely happened before.”
I just looked at her.
“Well, maybe not this precise kind of thing...”
“Dear...Mr. Kafer is busy. He has his hands full with those scalawag scouts. I won’t try to liberate her just yet...but I must know.”
And I whipped up a few tears, consummate actress that I am.
Brandy rolled her eyes. “Oh, fine. As if I could stop you. Go ahead.”
I asked Brandy for her car keys, which had a little flashlight on the ring, then I stepped over a low metal guard rail—intended to keep people from doing what I was about to do, although those people surely didn’t have as noble a cause—and approached the tube.
I reached for the tube’s handle and tugged, and the heavy door opened, revealing a dark interior, the rounded chamber about twenty inches in circumference, large enough for me to stick in my head and arm in.
Using the key-ring flash light, I aimed the beam down the tube and, lo and behold! Caught the glint of glass at the far end.
Extracting myself, I turned to an uneasy-looking Brandy. “Once she was lost, but now she is found!”
Brandy gave up a relieved grin. “Well, praise the Lord and pass the ammunition! Now we can rejoin the tour—I’m looking forward to peering through a periscope.”
Always a problem with Brandy—lacking in focus.
I pressed a hand to my chest, fingers splayed. “You...you go on without me, dear.”
She narrowed her eyes at me. Sushi’s milky orbs narrowed some, too. “What...?”
I raised my other hand, as if swearing in on a witness stand. “I...I need to rest a minute, dear...catch my breath. I find myself rather winded from the excitement of finding poor Auntie. You go ahead. I’ll catch up.”
Shaking her head, Brandy disappeared into the next compartment, I went back to the tube.
But you’re ahead of me, aren’t you, gentle reader? And I wonder if Brandy wasn’t, as well....
(NOTE FROM BRANDY: I’ll never tell. And I don’t have any trouble focusing at all. Unless Mother is talking.)
Why burden Mr. Kafer with retrieving Aunt Olive, when it was readily apparent that the tube was big enough for me to crawl inside (well, scoot along, anyway) and take care of this family business my own self?
So into the breach I went, dear friends, all going swimmingly until just after my hips cleared, and even though I was wearing my Spanx, I got well and truly stuck. And the more I struggled, the tighter I became wedged, my cries for help only echoing back to taunt me.
Then, thankfully, I heard muffled voices, and felt strong hands tugging at my ankles, and gradually—like a splinter from thumb—I was extracted from the tube.
Mr. Kafer asked if I was all right, and after I replied in the affirmative, he admonished, “Ma’am, I might have expected this kind of ill-advised stunt from one of these young boys here, but not you.”
“I’m afraid I stumbled, and simply fell in.”
“That is the least credible excuse I’ve ever heard, ma’am.”
“What other excuses have you heard from tube crawlees?”
“Actually, you were the first ‘crawlee,’ and that was the first excuse.”
So he really didn’t have a basis for comparison, did he?
Mr. Kafer had turned to Brandy. “Is your mother all right? I mean...” He tapped the side of his head.
Brandy replied, “She’s young at heart. And on lithium.”
Finally I apologized, and came clean.
The guide listened skeptically, but after shedding a few more tears (didn’t have to work nearly as hard to summon them, this time around), I convinced our guide that my tale was true.
“Well,” Mr. Kafer said, “I’m not exactly sure how to reach your...ah...aunt.”
Forehead crinkled in thought, Brandy said, “I have an idea that might work.” She patted Sushi’s furry head. “Our little first mate here can get that paperweight.”
Now I was skeptical and said, “Dear, even setting aside the fact that she is blind, how can Sushi get the paperweight in her mouth? Olive is simply too big a bite!”
“Sushi can’t use her mouth for the task, Mother...but she can roll Olive toward us.”
My skepticism remained unabated. “But how will the little darling know what to do?”
Brandy looked sheepish. “Well...sometimes she and I used to play hide and seek with Aunt Olive—sorry, Mother. I only did that when she needed exercise. So, really, quite inadvertently...I taught her how to roll Auntie along.”
“Did you mean Sushi needed the exercise?” I said, confused. Surely Aunt Olive was past that.
Looking exhausted, Mr. Kafer said, “Well, why don’t you give it a try. I’m pretty sure that little dog won’t get stuck.”
Soon Brandy was loading Sushi into the tube, commanding her, “Fetch Aunt Olive!”
I could hear the dog’s little toenails clicking along the metal tube, then the glass paperweight being rolled around and then along. It was almost ominous, as if a shell were coming our way.
Brandy, standing at the hatch opening, caught Aunt Olive as Sushi gave the rolling glass ball a final nudge to the edge.
Then Aunt Olive was safely tucked into the pocket of my overcoat, and Sushi into the front of Brandy’s coat.
I turned to Mr. Kafer. “Kind sir, I have one final, fairly simple request.”
“Do you think we might finish the tour?”
“Of course, but....” Then he laughed. “I was going to say, ‘But the next time this happens...’ only I don’t imagine it will.”
“Shouldn’t,” Brandy said. “Mother’s already made it clear she doesn’t want to be a paperweight.”
Sushi barked her approval.
And that, dear reader, is the end of our extraordinary adventure in the search and rescue of Aunt Olive.
But just the beginning of Antiques Con, with another extraordinary series of adventures awaiting us in New York City.
Mother’s Trash ‘n’ Treasures Tip
To avoid seller’s remorse, make sure everything in your yard sale is indeed something you want to part with. Once it’s gone, it’s gone—even if it used to be a family heirloom...or member.Return to BarbaraAllan.com