Puck ~ Edith Pearlman

The statue – hollow, bronze, about three feet in height and about thirty pounds in weight – wasn’t the sort of thing Rennie usually bought.  And for an excellent reason: it wasn’t the sort of thing she was able to sell.  In the antique business you couldn’t just follow your whim; you’d go broke in a month.  At Forget Me Not, Rennie’s shop, she dealt in French clocks, and English silver, and pottery made a century earlier in a Boston Settlement House – a set of those plain plates now fetched more money than the immigrant potters had made in a year.  Forget Me Not was known for its Regency teapots and Victorian jewelry and hatpins from the nineteen-forties, bought these days by collectors or – who knew? – murderers.

Rennie herself was known for discretion and restraint.  She allowed certain customers to use the telephone to get in touch with a detective or a divorce lawyer — cell phone calls can be traced, the customers nervously confided; may I …?   Old ladies came in with valuable salt cellars; circumstances had forced them to part with the family silver.  Men bought pendants for women not their wives.  Elegant matrons wept over sons in jail.  Rennie kept such facts in her head like diplomatic secrets.  And this caution had led, through the years, to a general prudence: she did not tell any customer anything whatsoever about any other customer.  It was one of her two Cardinal Rules. 

The other Rule also involved keeping her mouth shut: she refused to give advice.  “Advice is the province of psychiatrists and hairdressers,” she said.  “Me, I’m just a rag and bone woman.”  

The statue belonged in a Chamber of Oddities.  Rotund, almost naked, male – at least, fig leaves hinted that the figure was male – with a little jacket over his shoulders and a tophat over his curls.  He carried a spear in one hand and held a mirror aloft in the other.  His face was round and merry.

Ophelia Vogelsang had staggered in three months ago with this fellow in her arms.  “From Uncle Henry’s apartment,” she crowed, as if saying “from the Vanderbilt Collection.”  She set the statue on the floor and sank onto the striped love seat.

Ophelia was also small and round.  She wore her abundant hair – mostly beige but streaked with rust and pewter and old gold – in the same confused whorl she must have adopted during her free-spirited days in New York’s Greenwich Village.  She had been in her twenties, then, under the guidance, such as it was, of her Uncle Henry.  She was seventy-five now, and for the last half-century she had lived here, in Godolphin, Massachusetts, with her dear husband Lew.  Lew had died six months ago.

The day Ophelia brought in the statue she was wearing her version of widow’s weeds – black sneakers, a full black skirt, a black blouse open at the throat, and long earrings woven out of tiny beads.  She bent to touch the statue’s curls.  “He’s called Puck,” she said, looking up at Rennie.  “He guarded Uncle Henry’s back parlor fifty years ago.  Though parlor isn’t the right word,” and she sat up straight and shook her earrings.  “The place was all carpets and cushions and fringes.  Oh, my!  Not a chair or a respectable piece of furniture in sight.  A room to frolic in.”  She poked her fingers into her unfashionable, immensely flattering coiffure, dislodging several gingery strands which then floated near her lined and lovely face.  “Puck watched over my love and me.” She didn’t smile in a reminiscent fashion, as a less subtle person might have done.  She didn’t smile at all.  Nevertheless, information was transmitted.

“The statue stood on a pedestal in the archway,” she went on.  “We could see it from our pillows on the floor.”

Rennie had been running Forget Me Not for twenty-five years; very little could shock her now.  But even twenty-five years ago the news that Ophelia had once conducted a love affair on the floor of Uncle Henry’s back parlor would not have brought a lift to Rennie’s eyebrows.  Yet something did surprise her – a hot fizz that accompanied the little confession.  The space between the two women seemed to have been sprayed with Attar of Sentiment.

“Are you selling the statue?” asked Rennie, high on Romance.

“I am.”

“Well, I’m buying,” Rennie heard herself say.

“I’m so glad,” said Ophelia.  “I wanted to honor dear Lew’s last wishes, and one of them was: get rid of that goddam Puck.”

So apparently it was not husband Lew who had made love to Ophelia on the floor of Uncle Henry’s parlor.  But it was certainly Lew – a small, twinkling academic — who had made her happy for half a century.  And it was Lew who had collected modern paintings –  oblongs of gray overlapping other oblongs of gray.  “Puck did look out of place in our living room,” Ophelia admitted.  “But Uncle Henry had left him to me – what could I do?  Now Lew’s wishes trump Uncle Henry’s.  And I drop in here so often – I’ll get to visit the boy.  Until you sell him, of course.”

Rennie figured she would die before unloading this impulsive purchase.  Nevertheless, she installed Puck in the shop window.  There he brandished his spear and waved his mirror for several weeks.  Children passing by pointed at him and laughed.  Dogs too seemed to laugh.  Rennie moved him inside and put him next to an elaborate Chinese vase.  It was a miserable pairing.  Finally she put him on top of the safe.  And so, a customer entering Forget Me Not saw the usual old things: the striped love seat facing the waist-high jewelry case; within the jewelry case brilliant adornments; behind the case, impassive Rennie; and behind Rennie the safe, high on its table.  And one new thing: cavorting on top of the safe, a plump bronze boy.

The man with the white mustache came in on a Monday.  He was tall and somewhat awkward, but his suit was expensive.  The tanned skin around his eyes was puckered and pleated, so that the eyes seemed on display.

“Good morning,” he said.  ‘I’m staying at Devlin’s Hotel – they recommended your shop.”

“Good morning,” said Rennie.

His blue gaze traveled around on a preliminary exursion.  It landed briefly on Puck.  “That’s a nice piece.”

“Would you like a closer look?”

“No, thank you.”   And then he took his mild self around the store, looking at this and that.  Eventually he chose one of the millefiore paperweights – for his sister, he said.  He paid cash – his wallet delightfully bulged – and dropped the glass weight into his jacket pocket.  “You have wonderful taste,” he said, like everybody else.  “I’m in town for the rest of the week, on business.  I’ll drop in again.”

He didn’t come on Tuesday – at least, Rennie didn’t think he did.  The store was particularly busy, and people often glided in and out without speaking.  Cathy Lovell the artist did come in.  Her sneakers, her jeans, her smock and her hair were noticeably spattered with paint, as if she’d decorated herself before leaving her studio.  As usual she tried on all the Art Nouveau jewelry. She bought a Lalique pin.  She’d return it in a few days, again as usual.  Yuri the fix-it man came in hunting for old radios; he wanted to scavenge their insides.  Mr. Brown, who had a high, freckled dome, came in to buy a bracelet for a beautiful girl friend and a similar but less expensive bracelet for a less favored one.  Rennie suspected that neither of these women existed. Many of her customers were subject to harmless delusions.  She wondered what Mr. Brown did with the jewelry he frequently bought – maybe sold it to a dealer at a loss.  Mr. and Mrs. Yamamoto …  Ophelia came in.

Ophelia had at last ended her period of mourning.  She was wearing a red checked skirt, an orange dotted blouse, and her signature earrings.  On Ophelia Hodgepodge looked like a style worth copying: every woman should go out and bedeck herself from the nearest dumpster.  She settled on the loveseat, and Rennie, helping the Yamamotos, felt her spirits rise several notches.

“Hello, Rennie,” said Ophelia when the Yamamotos had gone.  She raised her eyes above Rennie’s head.  “Hello, Puck.”  She picked up a paperweight from the table beside the loveseat … one of the paperweights that the man with the white mustache hadn’t bought.  “He was king of the fairies, you know.”

“Uncle Henry?”

“Oh, Uncle Henry was indeed gay, gay before being gay was even mentionable in polite circles.  But Henry didn’t give a damn for polite circles.  He was a tender guardian.  He liked Lew.  He gave me away at my wedding.”  A tear traveled down her cheek.  “Henry liked the other one, too.  The man I shared the pillows with, in the parlor.”

And who was he?  But Rennie didn’t ask.   She never had to ask.  She just sat on her high stool behind her jewelry, her brow wide, her jaws wide, her red hair scraped into a topknot, her shoulders square in the inevitable jacket (she owned them in dozens of colors), her lapel adorned with a single splendid pin.  She had none of the softness of a therapist, none of the forgivingness of a clergyperson, none of the piled-up wisdom of an old family friend.  Still, calmed by her inexpressive face, people talked.  She nodded, never commenting, never making suggestions, never breaking Cardinal Rule Two.  But they left comforted.

“Who was he?” said Ophelia, echoing the question Rennie hadn’t asked.  “Oh, not one of your sparkling personalities.  Deep, didn’t say much.  Geology was his passion.  He was getting an advanced degree in it.  And then he was going out west … some desert in Colorado.  So very far from New York.  Lew, now, he came along later, he belonged to Uncle Henry’s world – funny, irreverent.”  She paused.  “The soul of a gentleman,” she said; and Rennie knew she was referring to the other man.

Ophelia sighed, and slumped; and for a moment she was a wretched old woman in tatters.  Then she collected herself and gazed up again at the statue.  “Puck was King of the fairies, as I was saying.  He put love potions in people’s eyes.  Brought about misalliances.  A mischievous sprite.  I have to go now, Rennie.  Today is my grandson’s ballet recital.”

The man with the mustache came in again on Wednesday.  This time he was interested in silver.  His daughter-in-law collected pillboxes, he said.  “In that way she wards off illness.”  He was attracted not to the most expensive item in Rennie’s collection, just to the finest – Georgian, chased, with a tiny painted sheperdess enclosed in a glass oval.  The pillbox had a little slide which revealed a hidden compartment.  “What do you suppose that’s for?” he wondered.

“Love potions.”

“Oh, no, love potions, that’s his business,” said the man, raising his face to exchange a stare with Puck.  “I’ll buy this mysterious pillbox.”  Again he paid in cash, a wad of hundreds.

She watched him leave, as she watched everybody if she had the leisure.  He wore a long brown suede raincoat.  Hair as white as the mustache grazed the raincoat’s collar.  He had an outdoorsy stride, for all that he appreciated indoor things like paperweights and pillboxes.  He had purchased presents for a sister and a daughter-in-law, not a wife.  Of course he could have bought his wife a mink downtown.  But she didn’t think so.

“A baby gift,” said Ophelia breathlessly, on Thursday.  “A very special baby, my next door neighbor’s grand-daughter, four pounds and some ounces.  In our day they didn’t live at that weight.  Now they grow up to play third base and the trumpet.  Have you got a silver mug?”

Rennie had a silver mug; it lay on the very shelf in the cabinet where the pillbox had rested.  Which reminded her: “Somebody’s been admiring Puck,” she recklessly revealed.  “You might consider this tiny spoon,” she said in a hurry; and together they bent their heads over an exquisite and useless utensil.

“I’ll take them both,” said Ophelia.  She wrote a check, backed away with her purchases, gave Puck a little salute.  “The arm holding the mirror,” she said.  “I used to hang my clothes on that.  He hung his clothes on the spear.”  She was at the door now, but she didn’t leave.  “I had a necklace made out of campaign buttons – Madly for Adlai, each one said.  He wore an I Like Ike hatband.  Nineteen fifty-six.”

It was a hard-fought election, the Stevenson-Eisenhower Presidential race.  Once at a flea market Rennie had found a cigarette case enameled with the message: Stevenson for President.  She sold it to a collector.  The case now resided in a University library.

“Politics … politics drove us apart,” said Ophelia.  A pair of customers came in, sidling around her.

“Well,” said Rennie.

And then Ophelia was gone, and someone wanted to examine the Turkish opium pipe that had been part of an estate sale.  “Does it work?”

“I’ve never tried it,” Rennie confessed.

A dreadfully dirty old woman bought a diamond and emerald ring.  She paid with a money order.  Mr. Rodriguez the piano tuner, installing his bulk on the love seat, complained at length about his son, who wanted to become a mechanic instead of going to Harvard.  Mr. Rodriguez, taking first one point of view and then another, finally talked himself into letting the boy apprentice himself to a machine shop for a year, to see how things worked out.  “Thanks for the advice,” said Mr. Rodriguez to Rennie, who hadn’t said a word.  Cathy Lovell came in to return the Lalique pin.

“My business in this town is concluded,” said the man with the mustache on Friday.  “I’m an engineering consultant,” he offered.  “I’ll take the Puck.”

Rennie never showed surprise.  “Shall I arrange to have him delivered?” she inquired.

“No, I’ll escort him myself  to Devlin’s Hotel,” he said.  “He can be my carry-on tomorrow – probably just fits in the overhead rack.  Or else I’ll buy him a seat,” he added idly.  “How much?” he thought to inquire.

She named a price higher than she expected – people usually liked to haggle over objets d’art.   But he silently took out his checkbook.  Rennie looked at the check, drawn on a Denver bank, and then climbed onto a little stool kept near the safe and fetched Puck down.  He stood on the glass case between them.  “Yes,” the man said at last, and stowed the statue under his long left arm, and tipped an imaginary hat with his right hand, and was gone.

An hour later Ophelia found Rennie sitting on her stool, elbows on the counter, staring into space.  A check lay on the glass.  “Rennie, are you all right?”

“Yes.”

“Heavens, where’s Puck?”

“The man who admired him bought him.”

“What a loss,” sighed Ophelia.

“Actually, a profit.”

“I mean to me.  I’ll miss him.  I hope his new home is …  “

Rennie took a ferocious breath and broke Cardinal Rule One.  “The man is from Colorado.  He’s staying at Devlin’s Hotel.  He’s tall.  He’s in his seventies.  He has the soul of a gentleman.”

“Oh.  Oh?  Oh!”  Ophelia now put her elbows on the glass case.  They stood face to face, the check lying between them.

“Eyes like sapphires?” Ophelia inquired.

“Well, blue.”

“Hair like wheat?”

“Snow.”

“Politics is perhaps no longer so important,” Ophelia speculated.

Rennie said nothing.

“Lew has been gone for less than a year,” she whispered.

Rennie said nothing.

“But I am not in my first youth.”

Nothing.

Ophelia touched the check with two gentle fingers, rotated it until the signature faced her. “‘John Ipp …’  I can’t read this, Rennie.”

“Ippolito.  He showed me his driver’s license.”

“My heart’s delight – his name was Horace Cannon.”  She gave the check a quarter rotation so they could both look at the name.  “Can we transform John Ippolito into Horace Cannon?”

“ … I don’t think so.”

Ophelia retreated from the check, and from Rennie, who had broken Cardinal Rule One to no purpose.  She sat down on the love seat.  “Horace,” she mused.  “How my heart leaps at the thought of him, him and Puck.  I was ready to run to Devlin’s Hotel … burst into his room … fling myself onto his chest.  ‘It is I, Ophelia!’”

“Mr. Ippolito would have been charmed,” said Rennie.

Ophelia, in a voice almost accusing, said: “You have kindled a desire in me …”

“I’m a terrible chatterbox.”

“ … that will not be easily quieted.”

Rennie’s second Cardinal Rule leaped to the floor and smashed itself to bits.  “Hunt him down,” she snapped.  “Try the Internet.  Call his college alumni office.”  Advice spurted out of her mouth.  “Hire a detective.”

Some of Ophelia’s hair had come loose from its confining pins.  Her earrings swung.  Her blouse had worked its way out of her waistband.  To Rennie’s acute eye Ophelia became in succession everything she was and had ever been, in reverse order: a colorful grandmother, a woman who had known a long and happy marriage, a girl in love for the first time.  “Hire a detective,” Rennie wound up; and she turned her back on Ophelia and climbed the little stool and put in Puck’s place a blue glass epergne she had bought yesterday — an ugly and misbegotten item; but it would probably be snapped up before closing time. 

                                                           

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