A "Luminations" Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
"The place through he made his way at leisure was one of those receptacles for old and curious things which seem to crouch in odd corners of this town and to hide their musty treasures from the public eye in jealousy and distrust. There were suits of mail standing like ghosts in armour here and there, fantastic carvings brought from monkish cloisters, rusty weapons of various kinds, distorted figures in china and wood and iron and ivory: tapestry and strange furniture that might have been designed in dreams."
-Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop
My storefront's previous occupant was an antiques dealer named Stephenson. He spent five years waiting for the tourists to discover his little side street a short walk from City Hall in downtown Worcester. They never came. Before that the place had stood vacant a year, and an old-fashioned stationery shop did business there prior to that. The stationer was a father-son operation that had started in the early sixties, keeping a loyal clientele even as the office supply chains opened in the big-box strip that grew up around the Auburn Mall. I used to take a bus out that way to work a cash register at, well, let's just say it was one of the large bookstores that begins with a "B". Next week I'll be back to working a cash register, but it will be as my own boss.
The stationery store opened in 1961. That's where my research into the history of my rented storefront begins to have gaps. I do know that the building was constructed in 1924, and that it has housed a general store, a furniture store, a barber shop, and even another bookseller during its history, although which, if any, of those occupied my storefront I haven't been able to determine.
When Stephenson left he was six months behind on the rent. He brought in a broker and sold off his stock for pennies on the dollar to make payment on an out-of-court settlement he'd reached with the landlord. The broker showed up with a U-Haul truck and carted off everything he thought he could sell. He left the rest, and the landlord hauled it into the basement.
On a wet, raw day near the end of January, I sat behind the counter of my store waiting for some friends who had promised to help me get the basement cleaned up.
Early that morning I'd hung a "Grand Opening" banner in the window with the date of the big event, next Wednesday February 1st, in patriotic lettering. I ordered the banner from a print shop a block away from my apartment, and they'd also done the stack of signs that were sitting on the front counter. The signs provided the organization for my book shop, neatly categorizing the vision I'd spent so long working on. The signs seemed strangely superfluous. In my mind the nooks and crannies of the shop were already set up in their natural taxonomy of mystery, literature, romance, fantasy, horror, poetry, history, and the rest. I'd worked in the shop for a month arranging the shelves while the contractors finished up the lighting fixtures. I'd shelved books under tarps and drop cloths as trim got painted and worked late nights living on Chinese takeout while I unpacked, sorted, priced, dusted, and dusted some more.
It was all finally coming together. I wandered out from behind the counter, stopping to admire my Christmas present from Mom. The carved wooden sign had come from one of the crafters at King Richard's Faire, and it featured an old-style streetlamp with the inscription: "Gaslight Books, Nancy Matteo, Prop."
I set out to walk my domain. The shop was small of course, but the shelves formed a labyrinth that gave the illusion of more territory than was really there. My friend Nate had taken a look at the floor plan and observed admiringly that it maximized surface area much like an intestine. Coming from Nate, that was awfully sweet.
I'd just stopped to look at the occult section when I heard a knock on the front door. Nate's skinny frame was bundled in a massive winter jacket with an extra-long Tom Baker scarf wrapped several times around his neck. Behind him, Em and Belle grinned and waved. Belle was skinny like Nate, but short and bouncy, wearing a little denim jacket and a flimsy skirt that didn't look like much protection from the wind and rain. Her girlfriend Em was more my build, stocky and thick, and dressed more practically for the weather in jeans and a fleece sweater. Her mass of dark hair hung thick down her back, barely contained by a single clip. She held up a bag from the sandwich shop around the corner, an Italian deli that we'd eaten at a few times. She knows I love their roasted red pepper and fresh mozz, but I usually go with the cheaper option of Chinese takeout.
I unlocked the door and let them in, and they hugged me in turn, ignoring my protests that lunch was supposed to be on me.
"We were early, we were hungry. Besides, you can pick up the tab when this place starts making the big money." Em laid out napkins and sandwiches and Nate produced a bag of Doritos from his backpack.
Belle was already off wandering through the aisles, and it took the sound of us eating to lure her back to the counter. She came back with a book in each hand.
"I'm gonna be your first sale ever! What do you guys think? Clark Ashton Smith or HP Lovecraft?
"Lovecraft!" Nate and Em proclaimed simultaneously.
"Wow! Clark Ashton totally gets no love." Belle grabbed her hummus sandwich and scrambled up onto the counter, placing the books down next to the register.
We spent almost an hour eating and chatting before I declared it work-time and herded the group in the direction of the cellar stairs.
There was only one light bulb, so I'd bought three camp lanterns to for us to work by. I passed them out at the top of the stairs and descended behind my friends. I'd gone to high school with Nate although we hadn't become friends until later. Em and Belle worked in Cambridge sharing a nasty morning commute from their condo in a development behind Shoppers' World in Framingham. I met them when I was living in Cambridge. They were playing in a GURPS game I joined, and our friendship ended up long outlasting that campaign.
The basement was cold and damp, although the previous tenant had brought in wood pallets to keep the goods off the cement floor. I'd been assured that the basement didn't flood, but the pallets told me otherwise. Of course I wasn't planning on storing much down here besides a few crates of Harlequins that wouldn't fit in their section upstairs.
"Hey cool!" Nate had found the sword.
"There's a battle axe in the corner too, Nate."
"Way." I surveyed the mess of junk, piled mostly in the opposite end of the basement from the stairs. There were chairs and stools, some of them broken, and atop them were piled boxes of old bottles, rusted tools, and glass dishes. And the occasional weapon.
Nate looked like he was getting ready to try out the sword, but I put a stop to that with a dirty look. Nate had some coordination at least, but the last thing I needed was him encouraging Belle to join in swinging that axe. Scary thought.
"Okay, let's get this done. Em, help me move these chairs. Nate, grab those plastic tubs and start sorting dishes and bottles. Anything that's cracked or broken is going to the recycle center. Anything you think could be sold put in the other tub. I'll give it to the white elephant table at Immaculate Heart School's yard sale. If you find anything that's worth the big money we'll sell it online."
"Right, boss!" Nate put down the rusty sword and started picking through the dishes.
I sent Belle to check out the other pile of junk that was under the basement stairs while I set to work moving the furniture with Em.
We worked for an hour or so, digging through the junk, piling up the things to be thrown out, a pile that Nate would attack every so often, hauling bags and boxes of trash up the stairs and out the back door to the dumpster. I'd missed these people, I realized. Ever since the store had become a reality, I'd had no time for anything social. My life had gotten consumed by the dream-turned-reality, and by the endless details of lawyers, leases, and leads on more collections of rare books I could sell. I hadn't been gaming since the summer, hadn't had a night out since around Halloween.
"Treasure chest!" Belle squealed from deep under the stairs.
I'd spotted the old steamer trunk when I first started cleaning up the place. It was full of moth-eaten old blankets.
"Search for traps," Nate cautioned from the stairs. "And don't forget to check it for a false bottom."
He headed for the alley carrying a broken end table while Em launched into one of her classic gaming war stories. I'd heard them all a million times before so I nodded and smiled as she got to the part where the archer had score three consecutive critical hits on fellow party members. That was when Belle interrupted us with an excited squeal.
I looked at Em and she looked back and then we both ran to the back of the stairs.
My first thought was of the Unicorn Tapestries I had seen on a school field trip to the Cloisters in New York City. There was no unicorn in the scene, but the style was similar, and the woman overshadowed by the massive tree behind her had the appearance of a courtly lady, her eyes glancing to the side as if keeping watch for her secret lover.
The light was dim in the basement, so we'd hauled the box and the embroidered cloth upstairs. It had taken Belle a minute to remove it from the bottom of the trunk and she was now staring intently at her find while Nate focussed his attention on the trunk with its trick bottom. He was having a field day with it.
I wasn't sure the thing could really be called a tapestry. It was small, hardly a tablecloth. And it was certainly not something that dated back to the Middle Ages. Early twentieth century was my guess, based on my limited experience wandering around antiques shows.
It was also damaged. There was a big gap missing from the lower left, although the figure of the maiden (an assumption I was making based on my associating this piece with the Unicorn Tapestries) and the tree were intact.
"Too bad about it being ripped like that." Em was saying. "Hey, Nancy, you think it's worth anything?"
"I doubt it." I shrugged. "But the chest with the fake bottom. That would probably fetch a nice chunk of change on Ebay. What's say we split four ways, okay?"
Em shook her head. "This thing is your property, Nancy."
"But I would've thrown it out if not for you guys." That finally seemed to settle it with Em and Nate. I looked over to see whether Belle was ready to give in and accept her fair share, and she just blinked and gave a quick nod.
Em pointed at the tapestry. "What about that?"
"I suppose I could just cut out the part with the woman and the tree and frame it. The rest is wrecked, but that part would look nice. There's a spot on the wall by the shop window," I said.
Nate finally pulled his attention away from the treasure chest. "Aren't you just a little curious why someone went to all the trouble to hide this thing? You sure it's not worth some bucks?"
"Okay, maybe a little curious," I admitted. "I have one buying trip to do before the grand opening. I'll take it around to some of the antique shops and see if anyone knows anything."
Belle mentioned something about getting tired. Typical Belle: She bounces all day and then crashes hard. She gets migraines too. I told the gang I could handle the cleanup from here and we said our goodbyes as Nate rattled off joke after joke about pirates and hidden treasure.
"Yes, Nate. I'm so glad you're impressed with my booty. Safe trip home, hon."
I waved to them through the shop window and turned to get back to work. I still had an hour of pricing to do, and the online auctions and Amazon.com shop needed attention. My phone and DSL lines weren't going to be installed at the store for another two days, which meant that any online research on today's odd find would have to be done at the glacial pace of my dialup connection.
When I got the loan to start the business I thought about buying a car. I hadn't owned one in years. It was all I could do to make rent on my apartment on retail wages, with a little left over to pay for food, phone, and lights. So when I first got a look at that money in my bank account, I had a lot of ideas about the things I had gone without for the last eight years or so.
But I kept reminding myself that the business had to come first. A car would be nice for driving around to bookstores and yard sales, but the days when that kind of buying would be useful to me were over. I needed to mind the shop. As far as purchases went, I needed to get the sellers to come to me. I had to concentrate on marketing and advertising or else I'd end up like Stephenson, broke and back at square one.
I didn't buy a car, or a cell phone, or a laptop. I did indulge in a business DSL package for the store, and a serviceable desktop PC hooked up to a register drawer and barcode scanner. I spent money on making the store look nice, on some advertising, and on acquiring the best stock of used and rare books I could get, but I had lived cheap for too long to suddenly start spending on myself. The loan was only a chance at a beginning. I still had to make the store pay somehow.
Still, it was worthwhile to check out the competition, and there was always the possibility that I could find something that another dealer had overlooked. It wasn't unheard of. So for several weeks I had been making plans to rent a car for a weekend and head north, hitting as many antique shops and used book stores as I could manage. I'd done a lot of research into how other shops operated, of course, but that had been focussed on city stores like mine. I wanted to get out into the back roads.
Besides, with my shop about to open, I was looking at kissing my free Saturdays goodbye for a long time to come. This would be a rite of passage for me, a transition from collector to business owner, and one last shopping spree before I settled into my new routine would be a ritual. I've always had an affinity for rituals.
I took a bus out to the car rental place on Friday morning and got myself set up with a bargain-rate Hyundai, which suited me just fine. It looked like it would be easy to drive and easy to park.
I'd shared the driving on some road trips with my friends, so I wasn't totally out of practice. It didn't take long until I was enjoying the open road. January wasn't the best time for a trip like this. I had guidebooks from the Massachusetts Antiquarian Booksellers Association and its counterpart in New Hampshire, but not all of the listings were clear on whether the stores stayed open all winter. At least the forecasts weren't calling for snow.
I worked my way up to Jaffrey, New Hampshire, stopping in at all the little shops in the towns that ringed Mount Monadnock. I didn't buy much: a book of local folklore that would go nicely with some of the books I'd purchased from the Olson estate and the New Hampshire Paranormal Society, a couple of roleplaying modules that I found stuck in a pile of comics and magazines, and a nice old edition of Dickens' A Child's History of England.
I chatted with the shop owners and I tried to drop Stephenson's name into each conversation. Nobody seemed to know him. My searching on the internet hadn't turned anything up either.
It was late afternoon in a little shop that specialized in Depression Era glass when I finally got an answer about Stephenson.
"Mike Stephenson? Used to have a shop down in Worcester? Dead six months, missy. Sorry to bear the news."
The store was run by an elderly couple, and the wife fixed me a cup of tea while the husband filled me in on what little he knew. Stephenson hadn't been able to stay away from the business. After the store in Worcester went belly-up he'd started setting up at the flea market at the racetrack in Salem, dealing in garage-sale junk mostly. He's wrecked his van driving home from the show on a clear Sunday afternoon in August.
"Damn shame, too. Had a feel for the goods, even if he never had no sense for money."
I asked about the trunk and the tapestry, but the man just shook his head. I asked if Stephenson had any living relatives. None that he knew of. I was wasting my time, and figured if I hurried I could make it to one more shop before they were all closed.
I apologized for not being able to stay for tea after all, just as the wife came out from the back holding a mug.
"What about Stephenson's ex-wife? Those pieces could be hers."
The old man shot her a look nastier than I'd thought him capable of and she almost dropped the mug of tea. A little bit spilled onto her blouse and her hand was shaking when she put the mug down near me on the counter.
I didn't want to press whatever issue I'd stumbled into so I took a look sip of tea out of courtesy, ignoring the pain as it scalded my tongue and the roof of my mouth.
"Don't you mind her, Missy. Mike Stephenson split from Annalee more'n twenty years back. I don't even know if she's still around here."
Now he was lying. I could see it in his wife's face.
I thanked them for their hospitality, made some last bits of small talk, and got out of there. I drove straight back into Jaffrey and was informed by the woman at the circulation desk of the public library that I had fifteen minutes to use one of their public access computers before they closed.
It took me three minutes on Google to find Annalee Stephenson's address.
Annalee Stephenson sold antique furniture out of a barn on a narrow little road that twisted its way through woods and fields crisscrossed by stone walls. There was a small wooden sign that hung from her mailbox indicating her business. It didn't list hours or give any indication as to whether her shop was open or closed.
I pulled into the driveway and parked in front of the barn. It was getting dark, and turning cold, and I was thinking about how far I'd have to go to find a reasonably priced room for the night. The day had been an exhausting one, but the curiosity was getting the better of me, especially since my visit with the old couple who ran the shop in Jaffrey.
The barn was locked and I stood there fidgeting, wondering if I wanted to bother the lady by knocking on the door of her house. There were no lights on, and no car in sight, but as I waited there unsure of what to do next, the door opened up and a woman wearing jeans and a thick wool sweater emerged and started down the path toward me. She looked like she was in her fifties, with hair that was long and gray, blowing all over the place in the wind.
She walked past me to the barn and unlocked the padlock on the small side door, then reached inside to flip a light switch. I came inside as the fluorescent lights hanging from the rafters flickered to life hesitantly.
"Well," she said by way of introduction, "This is it."
I spend time at flea markets, thrift shops, and garage sales, so I'm accustomed to seeing cluttered collections of junk, but this place had them all beat. Aside from a crooked path down the middle of the barn, it was piled almost to the roof with dusty old furniture packed amid stacks upon stacks of bundled papers, book, magazines, toys, and knickknacks.
I turned to the woman. "Are you Annalee Stephenson? I have something I wanted to show you."
"Go fetch it and we'll see."
I hesitated a second. Between the paranoid looks that the husband and wife in Jaffrey were exchanging and the cryptic tone of Annalee Stephenson's reply, I was starting to get nervous about where all of this was going. But my curiosity won out, and I went to the car and brought the tapestry in for Annalee to look at.
She looked it over for a moment while I explained where I had found it, then she asked, "You came all the way up here to ask me about a scrap of cloth?"
"An exceptionally well-concealed one." I pointed out.
"So you like riddles, then, do you? Know what it is that keeps close by, over shoulder yet unseen, that follows close upon you whatever place you've been?"
I smiled. If she was going to be evasive, she was at least being reasonably clever about it. Some folks get frustrated when people play games with them instead of giving a straight answer. Me, I like games.
"The past. Yesterday."
"Ha!" She snatched away the tapestry and walked down the narrow space between the piled junk, arriving at a spot where she started rummaging through some boxes.
I followed. "Does that mean I passed or I failed?"
"Partial credit. I was a schoolteacher once, you know? I have something for you."
"Hardly. The answer to the riddle is your arse. The answer you're here for? Try this on." She held up a scrap of cloth. I could tell immediately that it matched the missing piece that had been cut from the tapestry.
In the dim shadows of that barn I could finally see the fear on the face of the embroidered woman under the tree. She wasn't taking shelter from a light rain on a midnight stroll, or awaiting the midnight rendezvous with a lover in a forest grove. She was cornered, exhausted. The antlered huntsman with his two massive wolfhounds menaced her from the scrap that had been cut away. The dreams from that night in the snow two weeks ago came rushing back and I found myself shivering even though the barn had seemed warm a moment ago.
I started to tell her she could keep the tapestry, but she shook her head.
"It's all yours now." She held out both pieces for me to take. I folded them neatly so that none of the embroidered images were showing on the outside of the bundle.
"I should go." I said. Immediately I knew that I wasn't going to look for a motel. I had what I came for, as much as I felt I could deal with anyway. I wanted to be home.
Annalee seemed to sense that too.
"Take care of yourself. And good luck. What you've taken on isn't going to be easy."
"You're the second person to tell me that recently."
She waved from the side door of the barn.
"Well, the first person was right. Oh, and one other thing. There's another answer to that riddle. It's betrayal. Watch your arse, girl."
I thought about that all the way back to Worcester.
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2007