Diogenes In New England
The search for an honest man continues
“Emily! Over here. Now.” Phil’s voice had a quiet urgency.
Emily stopped picking through the basket of costume jewelry, looked up and tried to locate him in the dim afternoon light that suffused the old barn. When she couldn’t find him, she considered that instead of coming from inside the derelict structure, his voice must have come from outside and he had exited to wait by the car. She sighed and reluctantly let go of the scarab bracelet that seemed like a good buy.
When she got to the barn door, she heard him again but it definitely came from behind her.
“Emily! Where are you going? I need you to see something.”
She turned and systematically scanned the area and finally saw him in the farthest corner, crouched over a box which was half-covered by an old moth-eaten raccoon coat. She picked her way over to him, past the rusty farm implements and the fireplace andirons and the wagon wheels.
“Okay, what is it Sherlock? A Babe Ruth baseball? Molly Pitcher’s pitcher?” Emily dug out the small flashlight at the bottom of her purse, turned it on and focused it on the object Phil was pointing to at the bottom of the carton.
“For God’s sake, turn that thing off,” he hissed. “Don’t draw attention. Do you want everyone running over here?”
“Do you think anyone is paying attention to you?” asked Emily. “Take a look and get a clue.”
The only people in Teresa’s Treasures aside from them were three raucous older women who evidently had imbibed too much on the local vineyard tasting tour, highly recommended as a lunch stop in the brochure for The Flea Market Trail. The elderly couple that ran the place were sitting behind the counter in lawn chairs watching an episode of House Hunters on a TV perched on a microwave cart. Emily noticed that the television was one of the old bulky types that you hardly saw anymore. It didn’t appear that Teresa’s Treasures was bringing in the big bucks.
Phil surveyed the space.“Where is that other couple? You know, the woman in the Burberry raincoat and the guy with the driving cap? They noticed this first. I saw her taking a picture on her phone and he was looking up something. Then she said ‘Holy, shit. I need to make a phone call. Let’s go outside’. And then they said something to the old lady and went out so I came over to see what they were looking at. Do you see what I see? Do you think it’s real?”
Emily pulled away the raccoon coat for a better look. The coat obscured a smaller box inside of the larger box. Inside the smaller box was the base of a lamp standing upright and next to it was its shade, wrapped in newspaper. Even without seeing the shade, Emily could easily identify what Phil was referring to in such an oblique manner- one of the most famous art and style icons of the twentieth century, right up there with Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Comfort Tiffany, only even more coveted due to the scarcity of product after the artist’s tragic death at an early age. She had seen an original once in a glass case on a Newport Mansion tour and she remembered the tour guide saying that there was only one limited run; as far as the world knew, fifty lamps had been made and forty five were accounted for. Was she at this moment looking at one of rarest and most valuable lamps in the world?
“A real Martin Tillsbury lamp? Here, in this dump? Why would they have something like that back here?” Emily stooped down to peer more closely at the patinated copper base. “ It really does look like the Tilllsbury Turquoise people talk about. But, Phil, it’s probably a fake and nothing to get excited about.”
“I read that there really weren’t any fakes to speak of, because no one could figure out how he got that iridescent undertone in the turquoise. Fakes were spotted so easily, the frauds just gave up. Can you see what the shade is?”
Emily reached down and tugged at the brittle newspaper and pulled it far enough away from the shade so that she could see one side completely. “Mica. Spokes. Dragonfly embellishment around the bottom. It looks just like the one I saw in Newport. I think I’m going to have a heart attack. What are we going to do?”
Phil chuckled. “Do? What are we going to do? We’re going to buy it of course.”
“With what?” asked Emily. “We don’t have enough cash.” The barn was emblazoned with signs everywhere that proclaimed Cash Only — All Sales Final. “ What would you offer anyway? We can’t afford it regardless.”
“We can’t afford a rubbishy old lamp shoved in a box in the back of a falling down barn run by Ma and Pa Kettle in Nowheresville New Hampshire? Oh, I beg to differ. I doubt they have any idea what this is or what it’s worth. I did bring some bucks, just in case something turned up. I used to come up here with my uncle and I remembered the cash thing. He dealt in comic books and baseball cards and knew some of the dealers — they got burned a lot with people cancelling the charge after they were safely back in Boston or wherever so they all went cash on the barrel-head, all sales final. Can’t really blame them.”
“How much do you have?” asked Emily. “You might have said something. I hope you didn’t drain the checking — I just sent off the property tax.”
Phil shifted slightly uneasily. “No, no, not the checking. It’s just an old savings account I forgot I even had. I closed it out last week. I didn’t tell you because I wanted it to be a surprise if we found something you liked. For an anniversary gift. And look, you found something you liked. Happy Anniversary.”
“You’re forgetting that other couple.” said Emily. “What if they come back? They saw it first.”
“This isn’t first grade, Em. There’s no dibsies in flea markets. Either they put down a hold and a deposit or they didn’t. I bet they went to find an ATM and the nearest one is probably in Lake Everyman. They won’t be back anytime real soon. But we need to get a move on and get that thing out of here before they do. Come on.”
He grabbed Emily’s hand and steered her to the front of the barn and the counter. Emily was relieved to see the three inebriated Golden Girls had vacated and that they had the place to the proprietors and themselves.
“Hello? Hello? I was wondering if we could get some help? We saw something we might want to buy. It’s in the back. It’s in that box with the raccoon coat on it. It looks like an old tarnished lamp, but I think I could fix it up and use it in my game room. Do you know what I’m talking about?” Phil put on what he called his hail fellow well met look.
The old woman glanced at her husband before answering Phil. “You’re the second person today who’s asked about it. We just got it in from a storage auction. Haven’t really had a chance to get a good look at it. There was a couple just a little while ago. She asked me to hold it and they would be right back. She offered me $500 for it.”
The old man looked at Phil, all earnest and eager, and Emily who was trying to emulate naive hopefulness.
“Terry, did the lady give you a deposit?” he asked his wife.
“No, she didn’t, “ responded Terry.
“Did you accept $500 as the price?”
“No Glen, I didn’t. I said I would have to talk it over with you first.” Although Terry’s name (Teresa) was on the sign on the building, it was clear who called the shots at Teresa’s Treasures.
Glen smiled at Phil and Emily. “Well now, you know my rule Terry — no deposit means no hold. What do you say we let these young folks buy it? But son, like Terry said, we haven’t really had a chance to look it over and it seems to be getting a lot of interest even though we haven’t even put it out yet. There’s an offer for $500 on the table. I don’t think I could let it go for less than $1000. Plus, you see, Terry and me need to be careful about our money.”
Glen gestured to a big jar on the counter with a sign in front of it — ‘DONATE Glen’s medical bills so we can keep Teresa’s Treasures open for another thirty years. God Bless.’ There were a few dollar bills and one five and some spare change in it.
“Still working off my last by-pass. Terry let my supplemental lapse while I was in a coma for six months. Oh, well what’s done is done. So, do we have a deal?” Glen thrust his hand out towards Phil.
Phil had been prepared for hard bargaining but realized that the combination of factors- competing interest in the lamp, the fact that the other couple was probably driving back as they spoke, and the pathos of the collection jar would make him look like a heel if he maneuvered for less; not to mention that they were about to close a historically meteoric deal, one that he planned to dine out on for the rest of his life, literally, as the proceeds from the sale of a Martin Tillsbury lamp would pay the dinner bill at the club for decades.
“Done! $1000 dollars. It’s more than Em and I planned on, but she likes it and it’s our anniversary and plus, hope it helps out your situation.” Phil counted out the amount in twenties and after he got to “one thousand”, he magnanimously pulled out an additional twenty and shoved it into the collection jar.
As they were exiting out the drive of the barn, a Jaguar with a man in a driving cap at the wheel and a woman in a Burberry coat in the passenger seat was pulling in on the other side of the median. Phil gunned the engine making the right onto the highway and then yelled back at the Jaguar “The race goes to the swift my friends!” He laughed exultantly and grabbed Emily’s hand and held it up in a champion gesture.
The couple walked back into the barn and the woman said as she took off her raincoat, “Looks like our timing was perfect. How much?”
Glen smiled. “One grand, my lovely sister-in-law. That’s the fifth Tillsbury this week. And spring is just beginning. I have a feeling it’s going to be a banner year.”
The man in the driving cap said, “And you never hear from them again? Even after that turquoise glaze chalks up and flakes off in a week. No one ever complains?”
“What would they complain about, ducks?” asked Terry. “That their plan to defraud a poor old couple with medical bills didn’t go as planned? We never say the name ‘Tillsbury’ and believe or not, no one ever mentions that name to us either. It’s always ‘what do you want for this old thing?’ Like Glen says, you can’t con an honest man. Although we haven’t found one yet.”
Teresa turned and went into the small storage room just to the right of the counter. When she emerged, she had a lamp base in one hand and a newspaper wrapped bundle in the other. “Time to restock the Tillsbury,” she grinned.