The auctioneer's voice is loud and clear. "Andirons and fireplace tools, 1870's. Bidding starts at $750 . . . 750 . . . 775?" Steve has no desire to be here at the auction. He watches the crowd squirm; a wave of bid cards goes up across the room. Most of these people aren't buying, but this early in the bidding, it's fun to play along.
Back up a month. Steve had been planning a vacation just before his mother died. It was postponed not so much because of her death, but because of the house. He was the end of the line—the only child of an only child. So it fell to him to get the house and its contents ready for sale.
His boss's teenaged sons helped him sort through and pack up the remains of the "estate." Estate is a strong word for old household goods and mementos. As it turned out, there was little of value in the house, and he found it easier to donate most of it to Thrifty Joe's New to You Shop.
"Helped" is a strong word, too. Mostly it was conversations like: "What in the fuck . . . oh, I get it—toothbrush holder, see? Confucius say man who brush teeth no have cav-a-tee!"
Steve laughed in the other room, where they couldn't see. To himself, he thought, "Oh, to be young and stupid again . . ." but out loud he said, "Hey, a little less yacking, a little more packing, huh? Put it in the box for Thrifty Joe. The only other big thing that has to go is this rug. After this load we'll get some lunch."
Return to the auction. "Next item: Rug, Persian, 1890's. Bidding will start at $3,200." Again the bid cards shoot up, dwindling from everyone down to the serious bidders.
Here's what the auctioneer doesn't tell you. This rug isn't just some throw rug from Sears. It belonged to Aunt Gladys—it came from the Orient in 1927, as a gift from Colonel Sutton. He gave it to her after the four years she spent as a nanny for his son and daughter, Willis and Katherine. Aunt Gladys hated those children, mainly because they hated her first. At her funeral, Willis spoke of what a kind woman she was, and how she was like a mother to him. "I loved her like my own mother" is what he said. Buried his face in a handkerchief and left the room, but the family never bought it, and neither did she.
In her eulogy, Reverend McAllister said that love is a decision. He never mentioned the time that the children decided to show their love by locking Aunt Gladys in a closet for three days without food or water. She was never the same after that—she made it very clear to Willis that if he didn't watch his step, his life would be in jeopardy. Was it possible such a gentle person could carry out a threat like that? It was exactly that element of uncertainty that kept Willis in check for the rest of the time he knew her. Perhaps there's a fine line between fear and respect.
Although he frequently asked why the closet smelled like urine, she never told the Colonel what had happened that weekend while he was away, out of embarrassment. Once it gets into the wood, you can't get it out. It's always there, you notice it especially on a damp day.
Colonel Sutton had the rug specially ordered from someone he knew from his days in the Far East, as a thank you for the years she was with them. He said it was a thank you, Aunt Gladys always said it was more like a peace offering to make up for the nightmare of caring for those children. It was supposed to be for her hope chest. This was back in the day when a young lady needed to have a hope chest—for when she got married. That was way over the top, considering there was no way it would fit in a chest of any kind.
The shame of it was that she never married. It always seemed she was carrying a torch for the Colonel all those years. He was probably never even aware of how deep her feelings for him were. Nothing serious could ever have happened between them. She was, after all, a young lady, and he was her employer. After she came back home, they saw each other from time to time, when he was stateside. She sometimes accompanied him to some fancy dinners in New York or Washington, after his wife died. He always paid the travel expenses and once he even let her buy a new gown for the evening at an exclusive dress shop in Manhattan. Somewhere there's a photograph of them from one of those balls. He in his dress uniform, she in a long gown, with a pearl necklace. She was a beauty in the classic sense, a definite looker.
That went on for several years, until the Colonel remarried. He still sent her a card every year on her birthday, right up until the year he died. Occasionally she'd get a note from whatever far corner of the world he traveled to; she always said that he did it so she could see the stamps. She saved every one of those like they were from a long lost lover. She kept them in a hatbox, wrapped in a lace handkerchief, all tied up with a ribbon. The only other things in that box were two newspaper clippings. There was one of those society page blurbs about one of the dinners they went to. It mentioned the Colonel and that he was accompanied by Miss Gladys Pippington of Boston. The other clipping was his wedding announcement. Although that woman was not as pretty as Gladys, she apparently came from money. Without asking, Steve's helpers had simply thrown the hatbox away when they cleaned out the attic.
In her later years, Gladys would often stay in her room, sitting on her bed, just holding the box on her lap. By that point, she was slipping from eccentricity to plain senility. Later on, the doctor said she suffered from dementia, which was a nicer way of saying she was addled. In fact, that box was on her bed next to her when she died—Steve's mother found her in the morning on top of the bedspread, curled up next to the box. She was so small, so tiny and slight, that the bed didn't even look like it had been slept in.
This rug was in the parlor, the one that was almost never used except for special occasions. Things like holidays or cocktail parties. Like so many things about Gladys, it was barely touched. The appraiser said it was worth between $5,500 and $7,000, given the shape it was in.
Steve is waiting anxiously in the third row. He casually waves his card to bring the price a little higher.
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