The Armani shoes, the sleek indigo-black ones with the angel-hair laces he could never keep tied, were too big for William, but he slipped them on anyway. He’d wanted to wear one of Frederick’s suits, too, maybe the newish Pierre Cardin that Frederick had liked because he swore the tiny black-and-white checks were slimming, the one William thought really made Frederick look like a circus clown, although love had kept him from saying so.
But the suit was impossible on William, the shoulders drooping wide on both sides like little mutant fins, the sleeves dangling past his wrists, the flapping waist that suggested William might be a spokesman for Weight Watchers, except it wasn’t his weight he’d lost. He couldn’t wear that to the grand opening, but he didn’t mind sliding around inside the Armanis, just for one day, and if it got too awful he had his clogs in the canvas tote. Surely no one would care if he made himself more comfortable inside his own store.
His own store. It had been Frederick’s idea, the older man thoughtful as always even with his guts turning to jelly and a daily joint the only thing that had still worked to keep the pain at bay. “Look, sweetie,” he’d said as William helped him into the tub one night near the end, “this is perfect. It’ll keep you busy, put food on the table, which God knows you need, you skinny little thing, and it’s all I’ve got to give you. And you can stay here,” he’d said, with a weak little wave that scattered rose-scented bubbles across the black- and-white tiles, “at least until Cassie gets wind of it.” Then he nearly sank under the water until William got him propped up and started scrubbing his back with the loofa. Cassie. William hadn’t met her, and Frederick usually referred to her as the evil stepsister, the reason Frederick hadn’t inherited the house from his aunt outright.
And it was Frederick who’d found the empty retail space and negotiated the lease and hired a couple of his former students, tobacco-chewing dropouts, to move the stuff in, although it was just as well he hadn’t been around to see the brutes manhandle even the most delicate pieces.
As William scuffed down Central Avenue, braced against a chilly November wind and stopping every so often to tie the shoes, he could scarcely believe that at the age of twenty-three he was on his way to the shop that he owned, the shop to which only he had the key, the ancient black safe of which only he knew the combination to, and that in just a few minutes after opening the door, no more than that surely, he would be pressing all the buttons on the complicated new cash register Frederick had ordered just for him, to ring up the first sale. His own store.
William & Frederick. That had been William’s idea, and it pleased him. They’d wanted to call the store Blue Ridge Antiques, but when Frederick checked around, thumbing through the phone book, a blustery call to directory assistance, an Internet search for listings up and down the Valley, he turned up no fewer than fifty shops with that name, including one hidden away inside the ghastly mall outside town, and another a few miles south, that looked, when William drove Frederick’s Riviera down to investigate, like it had been somebody’s garage, converted into a flea market, half an acre of rickety tables covered with muddy tarps, and a hand-lettered sign out front that said, “Make an Offer! Swap Meet Saturday.” But the perfect name had come to William two weeks ago while he sipped a latte in Java Mountain, watching the lanky kid behind the counter flirt with the fuchsia- haired Madonna, worried about the letter he’d received that morning, just gibberish to him, from the lawyers handling the estate, the Richmond firm of Botts & Allen, whose offices had impressed William with their dignified style, plush Persians and early Americana. That’s it, William said to himself, or maybe out loud because the girl with the freakish hair turned to look. An elegant, refined name, to sell elegant, refined antiques. William & Frederick.
It wasn’t all elegant stuff, though, William had to admit. Frederick had owned some fabulous pieces, collected over half a century of shopping and travel, and roomfuls he’d inherited from the aunt he’d claimed was royalty. “We’re all queens here, honey,” William had said, mortified when Frederick didn’t laugh. “Well, she was,” he’d insisted, running his hand over the dark surface of the walnut Queen Anne highboy, the gem of the collection. Then there was the mahogany breakfast table that had its own name. Duncan Phyfe, Frederick called it, as if it were a guest in the house and not a piece of furniture. “Let’s join Duncan Phyfe in the kitchen,” he’d say, determined that they should actually use the thing, despite William’s fear of damaging a valuable antique. “What,” Frederick had said, “you don’t think the colonists ever spilled their tea?” The one piece that really unnerved William was the Khmer bust of Buddha, which Frederick said he’d acquired for a blowjob in Bangkok in the sixties. William didn’t doubt the price, a currency familiar to him, but Bangkok didn’t sound like the kind of place Frederick would have been caught dead in— dusty and smelly and filled with women on the make. That wasn’t Frederick at all. When he’ d arranged everything in the shop before the grand opening, William had settled the bust into a corner and, when its stony eyes followed him everywhere as he dusted and shifted and rearranged, hoping customers wouldn’t notice the little nicks and scratches that cropped up everywhere like acne from his not-so-long-ago adolescence, he draped over it a soiled batik sarong from that same Asian trip. But in addition to those valuable artifacts, William had elected to display stuff that people in their god-forsaken, drought-parched village might actually buy: Frederick’s childhood rocking horse; a pair of glass candlesticks, with red wax cascading down the sides from last Christmas; five shelves of dusty books, “The Classics” Frederick had called them when he’d tried to get William to read something other than mysteries and true crime, and there were plenty more where they came from in the den at home; a yellow porcelain teapot that William had no use for now that he could drop the pretense he’d adopted to please Frederick, even though he knew Frederick knew it was all for his benefit, but they both had gone on as if the love of chamomile was something they shared. Thank God he could drink coffee again.
William stopped just short of his store, in the glare of the tacky gift shop Frederick had always refused to step foot in, but that William admired for its clever inventory, like those darling salt and pepper shakers in the shape of Dalmatians. He gazed at his future. His store wasn’t on high-traffic Main Street—the rent for both vacant spots there had been too expensive, one next to the coffee house and one tucked between the tavern and the town’ s only nail salon—but he could see his door from the corner of Central and Main, a location Frederick had been sure would guarantee success. Of course, the door was below street level, five steps down into a tiny courtyard, more like an overgrown window-well that collected leaves and cigarette butts and any other trash that blew down the hill from the courthouse, and would probably fill up with grimy snow come winter, but the gold lettering on the window, William & Frederick, was visible, even from across the street. It sparkled a little, William thought. He stooped to tie his shoelace.
Dodging a red pickup and then a Ford van with a crater on the passenger side that looked like the kind of dent an old cannonball would make, although William couldn’t imagine how that had happened, maybe some Civil War reenactment gone awry, he crossed the street in mid block. He didn’t have to fish in his pocket for the key because he was wearing it around his neck on one of those lanyards, a gift from Frederick because William, who had never owned anything valuable to speak of, had a knack for losing keys. It didn’t matter so much, really, because the house was never locked, most folks didn’t bother unless they lived on the west side of town, and Frederick hadn’t let William drive the Buick except on special occasions. So the house key, the one key William had, until the shop, was more a token of Frederick’s affection than it was of any practical use. William didn’t bother to take the lanyard off, just bent over and fit the key in the lock, jiggled it a little like the real estate agent—that handsome, thick-haired Mr. Lynch who had seemed to hurry through their appointments—had demonstrated when he showed them the property.
A musty smell greeted William (why hadn’t he ever noticed it when all this stuff was cluttering up the house?), and new paint, the lilac they’d picked over the bleeding-heart pink because the pink was too passionate, Frederick’s color, and was sure to bring up all kinds of memories he didn’t want to deal with. The lilac was just right, soothing and soft, a color that made you think of your grandmother’s garden, which was exactly what customers in an antique shop should think. Or at least that’s what Frederick had asserted when he told William the rest of his plans for the store.
“I don’t want you going back there,” Frederick had said, and William knew he meant back where they’d met, as if William could ever think of hustling again. Frederick had rescued him, given him things, taught him things. Now he knew about wine and music and antiques. A little, anyway. That other life was over.
“No,” William said. “I’d rather kill myself. But at least that way we would be together.” That was something else they talked about, how fate had united them when Frederick popped into a gay bar in D.C. and found William, and nothing like a little colon cancer was going to tear them apart, at least not for long. Frederick wouldn’t listen to that, though. He shook his head. “You’ll meet someone, honey. You’ll move on. I know that. But in the meantime, there’s enough stuff in this old house to keep an antique store going a long time, and when it’s gone you can buy some junk and sell that. It’s decided, then.” And William had gone along to keep Frederick happy. The momentum had been too strong to fight. “A shop. You know, I’ve always wanted to run a shop, keep the customer happy, service is our business and all that. Where everyone expects you to be gay anyway, so it’s no surprise when it turns out you are. And I’d paint it lilac, like my grandmother’s garden.”
Lights on. William hadn’t realized before just how dark the space was, on an overcast fall morning, on this side street with no direct light anyway and the shop window half- hidden by the stairs. Even with the fluorescents the place felt like a cave, or the bowels of a ship, and William made a mental note to use the proceeds of his first sale to install better lighting, maybe a couple of torchieres like Frederick had shown him in one of his magazines, or a spotlight aimed at that nasty Buddha, maybe it would even help sell the thing. He took a quick look around, sure he wouldn’t get another chance once the store flooded with customers, a last-minute inventory of Frederick’s life before the hordes started picking at the brocade on the Venetian divan, testing the strength of the spindly comb-back Windsor chair, the one Frederick had never let anyone sit in, not even featherweight William, for fear it would collapse into splinters, or caressing the seductive satin of the Rococo rosewood chairs, the pair that Frederick had been given by a friend, about whom he never said any more, no matter how much William pleaded, or forgave him for past indiscretions.
William wanted just one last minute of respite before he started haggling with the gaggle of bargain hunters: “It’s not quite what I’m looking for, and isn’t that a burn mark on the top, and I saw the exact same piece at Blue Ridge Antiques for a third what you’re asking, and I couldn’t possibly go any higher than . . .” William’s eyes landed on a Georgian wing chair that had been one of Frederick’s favorites at home, angled by the fireplace, perfect for a quiet evening with a book and that awful cognac he liked, while William curled up on the couch with a Heineken. The leather was caramel, and spidery veins had emerged on the seat where it sagged into a bowl.
“Come sit with me for a second, honey,” said the chair, although it was Frederick’s lilt that William heard.
William turned around, slowly, making sure he was as alone in the store as he thought he was. “I am not getting into a conversation with this chair,” he said. “I’m not. Do you hear me, Freddy?” He spun on his heel and saw the Buddha, hiding under the sarong. “Do you hear me? So please just shut up.” William knew perfectly well that the furniture wasn’t talking, any more than the cozy tub at home called to him, or the big four-poster in their bedroom whispered in his ear. He wasn’t crazy. He missed Frederick, that’s all. He missed candlelight suppers of exotic dishes he’d never heard of before, he missed that awful opera screeching from the stereo, he missed being corrected whenever he mispronounced a word. He missed Frederick.
He hopped to the cash register, always reluctant to step on the grizzled Heriz rug from the living room, even though Frederick had insisted rugs were meant to be walked on. “They’re not fragile, honey,” he’d said more than once. “Some camel probably fornicated on this rug.” William had been unconvinced. “All the more reason not to walk on it,” he always said. William took up his position behind the counter, turned on the cash register, saw by Frederick’s marble-and-gold Belgian mantel clock that it was almost ten, and eyed the door, ready for business.
Just before noon, William still stood behind the counter. The door had yet to open, although he had watched countless legs go by, legs cloaked in jeans and cowboy boots, bony legs in running shorts and Nikes, elephantine legs that ended in what looked to be fuzzy slippers, shapely legs in high heels behind a stroller. A little girl peeked out of the carriage and waved at William. William waved back.
“Well, it’s understandable that business would be slow the first day,” William said aloud. “I’m sure there’ll be a crowd at lunch.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” said the wing chair.
“I’m not talking to you,” shouted William.
When no one came in during lunch, William looked for ways to keep busy. He took down the grand opening sign he’d taped to the window, got out the Windex to attack a streak he’d noticed, and put the sign back up. He took Frederick’s collection of Toby jugs out of the glass case under the cash register and dusted each one, wiped the shelves, and put the jugs back, careful to leave them facing forward, as Frederick had shown him after dusting them at home. Then William pulled the books off the shelves and set about arranging them, in alphabetical order by author, and wondered if maybe he should kill some time by reading one of them.
“Frederick would be pleased,” he said.
“And astonished,” said the bookshelf, a handsome oak lawyer’s cabinet with glass doors and white porcelain knobs. “But what you really ought to do is move a chair outside, so people can see some signs of life.”
William backed away. “Shut up!” But when he thought about it he saw it wasn’t a bad idea, and he settled on one of the sturdier pieces, a heavy Roycroft chair from the dining set Frederick had been so proud of because he’d assembled it from different arts and crafts designers—the Greene Brothers, Gustav Stickley, even Frank Lloyd Wright. William lugged the thing out to the sidewalk.
“Ouch,” said the chair, when William bumped it into the door. “Be careful.”
“Sorry,” said William. He went back inside, hopped over the rug, and grabbed a book off the shelf without looking to see what it was, then sat outside, with his knees together as Frederick had taught him, Frederick’s gray cashmere sweater over his shoulders, waiting to be noticed. The street was empty. William opened the book and read: “Call me Ishmael.”
At three, William was hungry. He made another mental note, this time to bring his lunch in the future, but on opening day he’d been so sure he wouldn’t have time to eat anyway, he hadn’t bothered to pack anything. And he was reluctant to close, even for a minute, to run down to Java Mountain for coffee and a bagel, because surely in the time it took to get there, have that slow-witted boy with the snake tattoo on his wrist, cute as he was, make the sandwich and the latte, someone would have come looking to buy the highboy and gone away disappointed. He stood up, sleepy from reading about the doomed whaling voyage, and took a step toward the shop door, then stepped back, worried even now that he’d miss a customer if he took a break. His stomach growled.
“Put a note on the door, sweetie,” said the chair. “I’ll be right here and people can wait.”
“I suppose you’re right,” said William. He scribbled a little sign—Back in 5—and taped it to the door. He ran up to the corner, took a right on Main, and ran back, slipping inside the Armanis both ways, confident there’d be someone in the chair when he returned.
“Did anyone come?” William asked the chair, wheezing from the unfamiliar exertion.
“Nope,” said the chair. “Nobody. Nada. Zippo. Zero. Zilch.”
“Shut up,” screamed William, and looked around sheepishly when he remembered he was standing on the sidewalk. He sat down, sipped the latte and nibbled at his bagel, toasted, with rosemary chicken salad, no tomato, and opened the book again, this time in the middle to see if the action might have picked up by then. “Chapter 49. The Hyena.” Hyena? What happened to the damn whale? “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke . . .”
“You got that right,” William said, and closed the book. He dragged the dining chair inside.
At five, William banged the “enter” button on the cash register, heard the satisfying bing-bong when the drawer popped open, and counted the day’s receipts. Zero, of course.
“Nada, zilch,” said the chair. He certainly didn’t remember selling anything, but he considered the possibility, likelihood even, that he had spaced out, suffered temporary amnesia perhaps, because surely there had been a steady stream of customers, it being opening day for the elegant new antique shop near the corner of Central and Main, a location that couldn’t miss, painted in surefire lilac, William & Frederick, a welcome addition to commerce in the sleepy hamlet. He closed the drawer.
“Good night,” said the chair.
“Good night,” said William.
Although the first day had been disheartening, even frightening because it raised the specter of poverty that his life with Frederick had, until now, allowed him to nearly forget, William arrived the next morning armed with a rosy outlook. For one thing, the shop was less lonely than the house. He’d moved so many of Frederick’s things into the cramped store, and they’d been so vocal while the hours dragged on, that he actually looked forward to leaving the echo chamber that had once been the living room of the Victorian mansion and having a chat with the wing chair. Even if no customers appeared, at least he’ d have someone to talk to. Maybe the Louis XVI armoire would speak up today. William had always wanted to learn French.
By the end of the first week, though, William was truly discouraged, the talkative antiques being little relief in the end, a steady cinema of bleak alternatives playing in his head—getting a real job, seeking out the brother he knew he had somewhere but hadn’t spoken to in a decade, going back to the bar in D.C. where he’d first latched onto Frederick, almost as hungry and desperate now as he had been then. The furniture tried to cheer him up, assuring him it was only a matter of time, that the breakthrough would come, that he only needed to be patient. William listened, dusted everything as lovingly as he had seen Frederick do it, and even tried to read more about the devilish whale. At home he’d painted a new sign to hang in the window, “Grand Opening Sale,” but it hadn’t enticed a single browser into the store, much less a paying customer, and since it blocked what little natural light he had, William took it down.
On Saturday morning, he opened the glass case to take out the Toby jugs yet again, to remove for the fifth straight day dust that hadn’t had a chance to settle from the first cleaning, when the shop door scraped open.
“Helloooo,” crooned the woman who entered, a behemoth in a flowered dress, with overflowing chest and hips, breathless from the five steps down. She looked vaguely familiar to William, as half the town did. Whenever he and Frederick had ventured out of the house, resolved to ignore pointing fingers and stage whispers, Frederick offered William a running commentary on the townsfolk. “That’s Bobby Cabe, a drunken old backwoodsman who tried to pick a fight with me once because he thought I was staring at him, not that I’d be the least bit interested in him even if he were the last fag on earth. Now he’s just belligerent and babbles on about fairies, and it’s not me he’s talking about, I’ m reasonably sure. That one over there is Mildred Rutledge, from the high school. From what I hear, she’s fond of young boys, so you better look out. And that one, the one with the white hair bent over double like she’s looking for a dime, that’s Henrietta Doak. She’s ninety years old and still drives herself around in her late husband’s Cadillac, so when you see her coming, best get out of the way.” William wasn’t sure if this woman was one Frederick had described, but he wouldn’t have been able to remember anyway, despite her eye-popping girth, caught up as he was in the excitement of having his first customer.
In his haste, he dropped the smallest Toby jug on the glass shelf, and gasped when the handle, a delicate, gray thing in the shape of a dolphin, or a whale maybe, or at any rate some big fish, rolled away, sheered clean from the face that made up the body of the jug, apparently a seafarer of some sort, William couldn’t tell. A mental note to glue the fish back on, and William donned his widest smile, stuck out his hand as Frederick had suggested even with the most unlikely buyers, and this woman looked as likely as William could imagine, and welcomed the giantess into the shop. Mrs. Benson, as it turned out.