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Lady in Waiting

The mantel clock was exquisite, even though its hands rested in silence at twenty minutes past two. Carved --- near as I could tell --- from a single piece of mahogany, its glimmering patina looked warm to the touch. Rosebuds etched into the swirls of wood grain flanked the sides like two bronzed bridal bouquets. The clock’s top was rounded and smooth like the draped head of a Madonna. I ran my palm across the polished surface, and it was like touching warm water.

Legend was this clock originally belonged to the young wife of a Southampton doctor and that it stopped keeping time in 1912, the very moment the Titanic sank and its owner became a widow. The grieving woman’s only consolation was the clock’s apparent prescience of her husband’s horrible fate and its kinship with the pain that left her inert in sorrow.

Emma said he’d read the accompanying note about the clock as if reading the rules for rugby.

My mother watched now as I positioned the clock on the lacquered Black mantel that rose above a marble fireplace. She held a lead crystal vase of silk daffodils in her hands.

“It should be ticking.” She frowned. “People will wonder why it’s not ticking.” She set the vase down on the hearth and stepped back. Her heels made a clicking sound on the parquet floor beneath our feet. “You know, you probably would’ve sold it by now if it was working. Did Wilson even look at it? You told me he could fix anything.”

I flicked a wisp of fuzz off the clock’s face. I hadn’t asked the shop’s resident-and-unofficial repairman to fix it. “It wouldn’t be the same clock if it was fixed.”

“It would be a clock that did what it was supposed to do.”My mother leaned in and straightened one of the daffodil blooms. “This isn’t just any clock, Mom.” I took a step back too. My mother folded her arms across the front of her Ann Taylor suit. Pale blue, the color of baby blankets and robins’ eggs. Her signature color. “Look, I get all that about the Titanic and the young widow, but you can’t prove any of it, Jane,” she said. “You could never sell it on that story.”

A flicker of sadness wobbled inside me at the thought of parting with the clock. This happens when you work in retail. Sometimes you have a hard time selling what you bought to sell. “I’m thinking maybe I’ll keep it.”

“You don’t make a profit by hanging on to the inventory.”My mother whispered this, but I heard her. She intended for me to hear her. This was her way of saying what she wanted to about her aunt’s shop --- which she’d inherit when Great Aunt Thea passed --- without coming across as interfering.

My mother thinks she tries very hard not to interfere. But it is one of her talents.

Interfering, when she thinks she’s not. It drives my younger sister, Leslie, nuts.

“Do you want me to take it back to the store?” I asked.

“No! It’s perfect for this place. I just wish it were ticking.” She nearly pouted.

I reached for the box at my feet that I brought the clock in along with a set of Shakespeare’s works, a pair of pewter candlesticks, and a Wedgwood vase. “You could always get a CD of sound effects and run a loop of a ticking clock,” I joked.

She turned to me, childlike determination in her eyes. “I wonder how hard it would be to find a CD like that!”

“I was kidding, Mom! Look what you have to work with.” I pointed to the simulated stereo system she’d placed into a polished entertainment center behind us. My mother never used real electronics in the houses she staged, although with the clientele she usually worked with --- affluent real estate brokers and equally well-off buyers and sellers --- she certainly could.

“So I’ll bring in a portable player and hide it in the hearth pillows.” She shrugged and then turned to the adjoining dining room. A gleaming black dining table had been set with white bone china, pale yellow linen napkins, mounds of fake chicken salad, mauve rubber grapes, plastic croissants, and petit fours. An arrangement of pussy willows graced the center of the table. “Do you think the pussy willows are too rustic?” she asked.

She wanted me to say yes, so I did.

“I think so too,” she said. “I think we should swap these out for that vase of gerbera daisies you have on that escritoire in the shop’s front window. I don’t know what I was thinking when I brought these.” She reached for the unlucky pussy willows. “We can put these on the entry table with our business cards.”

She turned tome. “You did bring yours this time, didn’t you? It’s silly for you to go to all this work and then not get any customers out of it.”

My mother made her way to the entryway with the pussy willows in her hands and intention in her step. I followed her.

This was only the second house I’d helped her stage, and I didn’t bring business cards the first time, because she hadn’t invited me to until we were about to leave. She’d promptly told me then to never go anywhere without business cards. Not even to the ladies’ room. She’d said it and then waited, like she expected me to take out my BlackBerry and make a note of it.

“I have them right here.” I reached into the front pocket of my capris and pulled out a handful of glossy business cards emblazoned withAmsterdam Avenue Antiques and its logo --- three A’s entwined like a Celtic eternity knot. I handed them to her, and she placed them in a silver dish next to her own. Sophia Keller Interior Design and Home Staging. The pussy willows actually looked wonderful against the tall, jute-colored wall.

“There. That looks better!” she exclaimed, as if reading my thoughts.

She turned to survey the main floor of the town house. The owners had relocated to the Hamptons and were selling off their Manhattan properties to fund a cushy retirement. Half the décor --- the books, the vases, the prints --- were on loan from Aunt Thea’s shop. My mother, who’d been staging real estate for two years, brought me in a few months earlier, after she discovered a stately home filled with charming and authentic antiques sold faster than the same home filled with reproductions.

“You and Brad should get out of that teensy apartment on the West Side and buy this place. The owners are practically giving it away.”

Her tone suggested she didn’t expect me to respond. I easily let the comment evaporate into the sunbeams caressing us. It was a comment for which I had no response.

My mother’s gaze swept across the two large rooms she’d furnished, and she frowned when her eyes reached the mantel and the silent clock.

“Well, I’ll just have to come back later today,” she spoke into the silence. “It’s being shown first thing in the morning.” She swung back around. “Come on. I’ll take you back.”

We stepped out into the April sunshine and to her Lexus parked across the street along a line of town houses just like the one we’d left. As we began to drive away, the stillness in the car thickened, and I fished my cell phone out of my purse to see if I’d missed any calls while we were finishing the house. On the drive over, I had a purposeful conversation with

Emma about a box of old books she found at a jumble sale in Cardiff. That lengthy conversation filled the entire commute from the store on the seven hundred block of Amsterdam to the town house on East Ninth, and I found myself wishing I could somehow repeat that providential circumstance. My mother would ask about Brad if the silence continued.

There was no missed call, and I started to probe my brain for something to talk about. I suddenly remembered I hadn’t told my mother I’d found a new assistant. I opened my mouth to tell her about Stacy, but I was too late.

“So what do you hear from Brad?” she asked cheerfully. “He’s doing fine.” The answer flew out of my mouth as if I’d rehearsed it. She looked away from the traffic ahead, blinked at me, and then turned her attention back to the road. A taxi pulled in front of her, and she laid on the horn, pronouncing a curse on all taxi drivers.

“Idiot.” She turned to me. “How much longer do you think he will stay in New Hampshire?”Her brow was creased. “You aren’t going to try to keep two households going forever, are you?”

I exhaled heavily. “It’s a really good job, Mom. And he likes the change of pace and the new responsibilities. It’s only been two months.”

“Yes, but the inconvenience has to be wearing on you both. It must be quite a hassle maintaining two residences, not to mention the expense, and then all that time away from each other.” She paused, but only for a moment.

“I just don’t see why he couldn’t have found something similar right here in New York. I mean, don’t all big hospitals have the same jobs in radiology? That’s what your father told me. And he should know.”

“Just because there are similar jobs doesn’t mean there are similar vacancies, Mom.”

She tapped the steering wheel. “Yes, but your father said ---”

“I know Dad thinks he might’ve been able to help Brad find something on Long Island, but Brad wanted this job. And no offense, Mom, but the head of environmental services doesn’t hire radiologists.”

She bristled. I shouldn’t have said it. She would repeat that comment to my dad, not to hurt him but to vent her frustration at not having been able to convince me she was right and I was wrong. But it would hurt him anyway.

“I’m sorry, Mom,” I added. “Don’t tell him I said that, okay? I just really don’t want to rehash this again.”

But she wasn’t done. “Your father has been at that hospital for twenty seven years. He knows a lot of people.” She emphasized the last four words with a pointed stare in my direction.

“I know he does. That’s really not what I meant. It’s just Brad has always wanted this kind of job. He’s working with cancer patients. This really matters to him.”

“But the job’s in New Hampshire!”

“Well, Connor is in New Hampshire!” It sounded irrelevant, even to me, to mention the current location of our college-age son. Connor had nothing to do with any of this. And he was an hour away from where Brad was anyway.

“And you are here,” my mother said evenly. “If Brad wanted out of the city, there are plenty of quieter hospitals right around here. And plenty of sick people for that matter.”

Lady in Waiting
by by Susan Meissner

  • Genres: Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: WaterBrook Press
  • ISBN-10: 0307458830
  • ISBN-13: 9780307458834