The bee collects honey from flowers in such a way as to do the least damage or destruction to them, and he leaves them whole, undamaged and fresh, just as he found them. – St. Francis de Sales
--Ned Bloodworth’s Beekeeper’s Journal
Memories are a thief. They slip up behind you when you least expect it, their cold hands pressed against your face, suffocating. They blow icy cold air even on the hottest days, and pinch you awake in the middle of the night. My grandfather had once told me that memories were like a faucet you could turn on or off at will, and that after I got to be as old as he was, I’d have figured out how it works. Maybe I just wasn’t old enough, because my memories always had a way of getting stuck in the on position, flooding my mind with images and snatches of conversations I’d rather not relive.
Perhaps that explained my obsession with old things, with antique clocks, armoires, and shoes. My fascination with ancient books filled with brittle paper, mismatched china pieces, and metal padlocks with missing keys. It was as if these relics had been left for me to claim as my own, to make up a past that was devoid of my own memories.
Old china was my favorite. It allowed me to live vicariously through somebody else’s imagined life, to participate in family meals and celebrations, to pretend to be a part of a bride’s place setting selection. Experiences from somebody else’s life, but definitely not my own. Despite, or probably because of, my family’s well-grounded belief that I was born to founder, I’d discovered a vocation I not only loved, but was actually good at. I was an expert in most things antique, a sought-after consultant, and proof that it’s possible to become someone different than the person you’d once been. The person who everybody expected you to still be. If only I could figure out how to turn off the memories, I might have been able to sink comfortably into the new life I’d created from old china and discarded furniture.
I dipped the cotton swab into the cleaning solution and dabbed at the intricate scrollwork of the padlock on my desk. The silver shield-shaped lock with grained bar and diamond embellished trim had been found in a box of old horse tackle in a barn in New Hampshire in an estate sale. Mr. Mandeville, my boss and owner of the Big Easy Auction Gallery had grudgingly let me go. I had a good eye and an even better instinct about these things and after eight years of working for Mr. Mandeville, he’d finally started to agree. I would study the history of a property and its owner when an estate sale was announced so that I could look at pictures of boxes stacked in an old barn or pushed against the walls of a humid attic and know what treasures I’d find.
I wouldn’t say that I was particularly happy, or as successful as I’d like to be, but there was nobody in my life to ask me if I were. Nobody to hold up a mirror to make me see who I’d become, or to see the person I’d been who had never really believed she could be anything more than ordinary. My mother had once told me that she didn’t know that particular sorrow, the sorrow of being ordinary. But I did. And I relished it if only because it made me not her.
I opened the large bottom drawer of my desk, listening to the clink and slide of dozens of mismatched keys I’d collected over the years, my hope at finding a matching key and lock one of the stupid little games I played with myself. I’d just grabbed a fistful of keys when I heard the front door of the building open, the bell clanging ominously in the empty space. It was Sunday, the offices and gallery below were closed, and nobody was supposed to be there. Which was precisely why I was there, unconcerned about the vintage jeans with frayed bell-bottoms that sat a little too low on the hips, flip-flops, a 1960’s tie-dyed tee-shirt, and hair pulled back in a pony tail that made me look about ten years old.
“Georgia?” Mr. Mandeville called up the stairs. The gallery was an old cotton warehouse on Tchoupitoulas, and every word bounced and ricocheted off the brick walls and wood floors, unencumbered by rugs or wall coverings of any sort.
I stood to let him know where I was then froze as I heard another male voice and two sets of footsteps climbing the stairs.
“Georgia?” he called again.
Knowing he’d probably seen my car in the small parking lot behind the building, I sat down behind my desk, hoping to at least hide my flip-flops.
“I’m in my office,” I shouted unnecessarily, their footsteps coming to a stop outside my door. “Come in.”
Mr. Mandeville opened the door and stepped through, then ushered his companion into my office. The tall ceilings and windows dwarfed most people, including my boss, but not the visitor. He was very tall, maybe six feet four, with thick and wavy strawberry-blond hair. As a person who studied objects of beauty for a living, I decided that’s what he was and didn’t bother to hide my scrutiny.
He was lean, but broad-shouldered, the bones in his face strong and well-placed, his eyes the color of Wedgewood Jasperware. As they approached, I stood, forgetting what I must look like, and allowed my gaze to rove over the full length of him like I would a Victorian armoire or Hepplewhite chair. I’d started to grin to myself as I realized I must be one of a very small number of women who’d compare a handsome man to a piece of furniture.
He must have caught my grin because the man stopped about five feet from me, a pensive look on his face. It took me a moment to realize that he was studying me with the same examination I’d just given him.
I sat down quickly, chagrinned to know that I wasn’t as immune as I believed myself to be.
Mr. Mandeville frowned slightly at me seated behind my desk. I knew he had issues with my insistence on solitude and working long hours. He was a family man who thrived on noise and bustle and the adoration of his employees and extended family. But he’d never had concern over my manners. Until now, apparently.
“Georgia Chambers, please meet a prospective client, James Graf. He’s come all the way from New York City to see you. He was so excited to meet you that he made me bring him straight here from the airport.” He sent me an accusatory glare as we both understood my lack of a cell phone meant he hadn’t been able to give me advance warning.
James tucked a parcel under his left arm to free up his right as he extended his hand toward me. I half-stood, painfully aware of my low-slung jeans. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
His hand was large and swallowed mine in a firm handshake. I slid my fingers from his and sat back in my chair. Turning toward Mr. Mandeville, I asked, “What’s this about?”
“James is in the process of settling his grandmother’s estate and came across a set of china that he believes might be valuable. He Googled china experts and found your name.”
The visitor continued, “But I couldn’t find a phone number for you so I reached Mr. Mandeville instead. I offered to email a photo, or speak with you directly, but he explained that you have no office phone or email address and that it was probably best if I brought a few sample pieces for you to look at in person.”
He said it without the usual derision I was accustomed to hearing when people learned I had yet to move into the twenty-first century.
“Or cell phone,” Mr. Mandeville added as if that weren’t already implied.
The man looked at me with assessing eyes and just for a brief moment I thought that he might understand why a person would choose to live surrounded by other people’s things.
Then he said, “I couldn’t imagine.”
He was right, I knew. But I could almost believe that I’d seen something in his eyes that seemed a lot like longing for a world he hadn’t even known existed.
“Do you know anything about antique china, Mr. Graf?”
“Not a thing, I’m afraid. And please, call me James.”
I nodded, taking in his well-tailored suit and Hermes tie—possibly vintage. He wasn’t a Jim or Jimmy, had never been one. He was mid-thirties, but had a youthful air about him that didn’t look like a Mr. Graf at all. He looked like a James who sailed a lot and was probably on the rowing team at Dartmouth or Yale or wherever up north he’d gone undergrad. His hair was a little too long for the Wall Street stereotype, but I’d bet my collection of Swiss watch parts that he was part of the fast-paced financial world of constant texts and two cell phones to manage the craziness.
He narrowed his eyes and I realized that I’d been too busy cataloging him to be aware that I’d been staring again. Flustered, I slid the items on my desk to the side then reached for the brown corrugated box. “May I see?”
“Of course.” He handed the small square box to me and I placed it in the center of my desk.
I picked up an ivory-handled scissors—from an auction in Louisville, Kentucky—and slit the single layer of packing tape that held the top flaps in place. He’d carried it on the plane, then, not trusting anyone else to its safety. I imagined it must mean something important to him. He’d said it had belonged to his grandmother.
I began sifting Styrofoam peanuts from the box. “Did you eat from this china when visiting your grandmother?” I’m not sure why I asked, why I wanted to know more about the life of the inanimate object I was unwrapping.
“No,” he said, almost apologetically. “We never used it. It was kept in a place of honor, in her china cabinet ever since I can remember from when I was a little boy. She’d dust all of the pieces and carefully return them to their spots on the shelves, but we never used it.” There was a note of wistfulness in his voice, a hint of loss and longing I wasn’t wholly convinced was about his grandmother or her china.