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The Conjurer

a short story by Pat Crandall

light reading

            Gertrude Carver sat cozy in her kitchen, absorbed in The ABC Murders  by Agatha Christie when suddenly, there was a knock on the door.

            “Come in,” Gert invited reluctantly, taking care to mark the page in her book.

            Gert’s cousin Brett’s grandson, Scott, came through the door and stood indecisively on the welcome mat. It was so dim at first, coming in out of the sunlight, he could barely distinguish what was in the room.

            “I can’t see a blasted thing in here,” he said. “My eyes have spots in front of them.” He rubbed his eyes hard and blinked.

            “I’m taking in a great deal, Scott Barber.” Gert stared at the tall, olive-skinned young man with curly black hair, endowed with a body shaped in a fitness center. “The last time I saw you was at Uncle Milby’s wedding to Sarah Mellon. You were eight years old, wearing a hand tailored tux. What a devilishly handsome fellow you were then and have grown to be.”

Yet in spite of his striking looks, Gert’s strong, academic instincts plied her to tell him the ragged patches on his cut-off jeans irked her. Was that an earring in his right ear? She kept still, realizing she was no longer at liberty to tell the younger generation what they should wear or how they should act. No longer was she MISS Carver, teaching at Cobble Hill School in Valley Falls, New York. She was semi-retired; tutoring students when she and her friend, Myrtle Westakott, were not on one of their bottle mining adventures.

            Scott’s eyes adjusted to their focus. A pleasant, round face beamed up at him. He said, “It seems the only time our family gets together is at weddings and funerals.”

            “I should imagine the next wedding will be yours,” Gert jested.

            Scott took out a cigarette and lit it shakily. “I’m stayin’ single til the day I die. Do you mind?” He indicated the cigarette.

            Gert passed over an ashtray, then said, “Take all the time you need, Scott. One day you’ll meet your match or I’ll drink vinegar. What brings you here?”

            Scott strode across the floor and spread his wide hands on the table. “Pop tells me you dig old bottles. Can I see your collection?”

            “We’ll get along fine if you wear pants that have been washed and aren’t skin tight. Your hair needs a trim. Girls wear earrings, not boys.” She caught her breath and motioned for him to follow. “Come, I’ll show you my collectibles.”

            Towering over the square shape of his late, middle-aged relative, Scott laughed. “Pop warned me you were feisty. I can’t wait to see your jewels, Auntie.”

            Gert arched her eyebrows. “I prefer to be called Aunt Gert.”

            Stubbing his cigarette in an ashtray, Scott mused as he followed her into the shed. ‘Teachers always want to change your looks and your mind. I’ve never made a good impression on one yet.’

            A cement floor stretched along a narrow aisle in an uneven room where wooden shelves jutted out of a stone wall and small-paned windows were set in the back of the building. Numerous boxes and flour sacks filled with old bottles took up most of the space.

            Scott whistled as he fastened his eyes on the sparkling glass set upon the window ledges. The low sun glinted hues of red, blue, gold, green and amethyst. He took each bottle in his hand and examined it. ‘Hostetters Bitters, Hall’s Catarrah Cure, Bromo Seltzer, Pine tar’… he thumbed through a notebook he had removed from his back pocket, his fingers moving with a fluttering rapidity, making a check-list. He calculated the colored inks and Thorpes Medicines, Hoosick Falls, New York, would sell for a good price. He looked at Gert in earnest. “Do you sell any of these?”

            Straddling a wooden sawhorse, Gert said, “Mert Westakott and I set up a display at the Farmer’s Market in Greenwich on Saturday mornings. We don’t make a lot of money at this enterprise but we make our entrance fee plus ‘spending money.’ Most of all, we enjoy fraternizing with dealers.”

            As leafy shadows began to form, Scott begrudgingly set down the last specimen of glass and returned with Gert to the pine-scented kitchen. They sat at a floral-patterened, oilcloth covered table and conversed on mining and collecting old bottles. Scott drank Gatorade which he brought in from his truck while Gert sipped iced tea.

            It was twilight when young Barber left the quaint household totally immersed in bottle mania.

            With a gleam in his eye, Scott strolled into his Aunt Gert’s screened-porch on a warm June afternoon. He carried two large paper bags in each arm. Gert let the Sunday papers fall to the floor and watched in amazement as he unwrapped paper bundles containing a cranberry glass pitcher, a Mary Gregory barber’s bottle, a hen covered dish of carnival glass and a green glass pig. He set them down carefully on a long, rectangular table laden with plants.

            “I’ve only seen glass like this displayed at exclusive bottle shows,” Gert said. “Where did you dig these specimens…in a museum?”

            Scott smiled triumphantly. He explained, “my digging partner makes deliveries for Essex Oil in Vermont. Hub Cromwell knows every back road, ramshackle house and tumbledown barn that exists there. I rode the route with him one day and in Arlington we found an old dump filled with gimcrackies and bottles. We’ve been digging there since. The best of the litter is on that table. Say, would you mind if I went to the Farmer’s Market with you and your friend on Saturday?” He asked in a sudden eager voice. “I need cash. I could sell this stuff easily.”

            For the moment Gert could not think of any reason why Scott should not join her and Mert on their weekly expedition to the flea market and paying no heed to an inkling she felt to the contrary, she replied, “if you don’t mind tagging along with two fluffy ladies, be at the south entrance to the Farmer’s Market at seven-thirty.”

            After the flurry of excitement and activity of the flea market was over, Gert and Mert traveled wearily toward home. The station wagon was packed to the brim with boxes of old bottles, antiques and memorabilia.

            “It isn’t that I don’t like your cousin, Gert,” Mert was opening a window to let in fresh air. “It’s…how can I say this without giving offense.” Her voice was weak at first and then to the point, “Oh dear, there’s no tactful way…he was rude to our customers.” She peered squint-eyed in the visor mirror, touching up lipstick.

            “Is there anything else that annoys you about my young cousin?” Gert managed to keep a lid on her fast rising temper.

            “I don’t like the way he dresses. Those beads and partridge feathers on his hat are outrageous and sequined boots!” She blotted her lipstick on a tissue. “I saw you looking at him out of the corner of your eye.”

            Gert sucked in her cheeks and admitted, “Scott dresses atrociously.”

            They passed through the village where white picket fences embraced the properties of huge gothic structures. All the while, Gert reiterated on Scott. “That boy is no different than the foppish dealers we mingle with only he is younger and can get away with the flashy clothes he wears. The customers he argued with were trying to cheat him out of good bottles. I don’t consider that rude. Smart is what I call it.”

            Gert parked the wagon in Mert’s tidy drive and clambored out. She opened the trunk and began to unload the flea market items. She continued on relentlessly, “I want to give Scott a good opportunity. I feel certain with the right influence, he can make something of himself. These Saturday ventures may be the answer to my old maid prayers.”

Mert grunted, “old school ‘Marms’ never die. They don’t even fade away. I see the picture clearly. You’ve taken this young man under your wing.” She paused a moment, then asked, “How much money did you make today?”

   “Twenty-five dollars!”

   Gert’s eyebrows raised, “How much cash did you take in?”

    “Eight dollars.”

    “No wonder you’re upset,” Gert said in a sympathetic voice.

    “The way I see it,” Mert made dabs in the air with an emphatic forefinger, “Scott took in nine hundred dollars after taxes. He sold ‘The Sun Canning Jar’ for eighty dollars and the blue and green pontil and Saratoga bottles brought him exorbitant prices. He also purchased a tobacco tin for six dollars and turned around and sold it for forty dollars.

    The next time your protégé accompanies us to a flea market, have the foresight to set him up in his own booth at the opposite end of the hall from ours. At the very least, I’ll make my entrance fee.

    One dismal gray dawn, Gert sat at the table in front of the big kitchen window and gazed wistfully at the stalky geraniums and clumps of daisies growing in the patch of ground she reserved for flowers. The untended garden was barely visible in the fog. She made a promise to herself that later in the day she would pull weeds. Presently, there were errands to do. She procrastinated under her breath, ‘the gardening may have to wait until tomorrow.’

    At nine o’clock, she pinned her red beret in place and was about to step through the front door when the telephone rang. She answered the phone.

   “Gert, this is Annie. Scott Michael has removed my sainted mother’s collection of bells and owls from the parlor shelves and replaced them with canning jars and old bottles. I forbade him to bring any more clutter in her. How could you encourage my son to salvage junk and solicit at flea markets? It’s caused a major row in our house. Scott’s left in a huff.” She sniveled.

    There was the sound of a door slamming in the driveway. Gert looked out the window. She could barely determine through the lifting fog, a familiar form unloading a truck. Scott dragged a large box up the hill, then disappeared into the shed.

    “Your problems are resolved, Annie. They are now mine. I’ll speak to you later.”

  Gert cradled the phone, shoved her handbag into a drawer and went into the shed.

  “What are you doing, Scott?”

  He saluted her with a wave. “Hi Aunt Gert. Say, I like your hat. Nice shade of red. You don’t mind if I store my valuables with you for a while?”

Gert tightened her hands at her sides and said, “I cane chairs, can vegetables and do my carpentry work out here. I need this space.”

Scott jostled a box of antique glass into a corner. I’ll have this stuff out of your way soon. Don’t worry about a mix-up. I’ve labeled everything.”

“How soon?” asked Gert suspiciously. “It’s unlikely you’ll store them at your house. I’ve just spoken with your mother. She’s livid.”

Scott gave Gert an impervious look, “Mom should relax and enjoy life. She takes things too seriously. She’s made the house into a shrine to Grandma Kate.” There was a long pause. He said, “I’m getting my own place next week.”

“How will you support yourself? You don’t have a job. Besides, this will truly upset your mother,” said Gert, highly agitated.

Scott answered in a simple, straightforward manner.

“I’ll dig old bottles and sell ‘em.”

Gert watched Scott travel from the van to the shed depositing seven boxes and one garbage bag filled with old bottles, glass, and tin ware, in her precious space. When he was done, he advanced to the van with the easy, unfettered motion of the athlete and drove away.

Giving a milk toast wave, Gert mused that all gripes concerning her protégé were indeed proving to be substantial.

A jet streamed in a northerly direction above the Schaghticoke fairgrounds where the annual flea market was in progress. Gert and Mert were spacing their wares on a folding table as a neat appearing young man approached their booth. Each woman looked up, anticipating her first customer.

Mert couldn’t believe her eyes. Scott Barber’s hair was trimmed and neatly combed. He was dressed in a smart, rugby attire. A tall, scruffy man with bristling red whiskers and thinning hair, dressed in an old army fatigue suit, drew up alongside him. Next, came a pale complexioned girl with sensitive features and slate gray eyes with an abundance of feathery blond hair. The pretty, petite stranger gave the two women a warm smile.

“Aunt Gert, Mert…Hub Cromwell, my digging partner, and Tia, Hub’s sister.”

Finding her voice at last, Gert asked, “Aren’t you ‘setting up’ today?”

“Scottie is giving me a tour of the flea market, Aunt Gert,” said Tia presumptuously. “I’ll see what excites him so every Saturday morning.” Her laughter was tinkly and she drew close to him. ‘By by.” She waved daintily.

Gert stood agape as she watched the threesome mill through the crowd. Inside the cubicle, Mert smiled sagely at Gert. Before she could utter a word, she was distracted by a heavy and foul breathing man who demanded to see a porcelain shaving mug displayed at the far side of the table. From then on, the booth excelled with patrons.

Late in the day, while the low sun was still beating down on the crowd, Mert was browsing at the other booths, and Gert, fanning herself, exalted in the fact it had been a record profit day and there would be fewer items to repack and bring home.

Suddenly, Tia appeared, quivering with excitement. She extended her left hand revealing a ring with twelve two-point diamonds encircling an emerald-cut sapphire.

“That’s an exquisite ring, Tia,” said Gert in admiration.

Tia said effusively, “Scottie bought it at the jewelry booth next to the Elvis Presley booth. Isn’t it a magnificent engagement ring?”

Gert blurted out, “at least I won’t have to drink vinegar.”

Tia said in a reproachful voice, “How can you jest at a time like this?”

Intuitively, Gert hugged the girl and said, “I’m truly happy for you and Scott.” She released her as her young cousin came jostling through the crowd clutching a newspaper wrapped parcel. He exulted to Tia, “you’re the antique expert, hon. What do you think of this piece?”

He withdrew from the bag a finely etched Chinese bowl and handed it to Tia. Upon examination, she discovered a tiny, scroll-like mark printed on the bottom of the piece. She gasped, “this is a Chinese Emperor’s bowl worth $2,000.00.” She notated the $3.00 price tag adhered to one side. “It’s a steal. Where did you find it?”

Scott inclined his head toward the grandstand, “I bought it off old Farmer Cary. He’s cleaning out his attic.”

Gert tipped her straw hat forward and asked, “what makes Tia an expert on antiques? She’s never been to a flea market.”

Scott and Tia looked at each other all-knowing. He laughingly explained, “Aunt Gert, old bottles and faddish collectibles mean absolutely nothing to Tia. No offense to your goods, but Tia is a senior buyer for Landrigan’s Old World Antiques…you’ve heard of the most prestigious Auction and Estate House on State Street in Albany?”

Gert removed several bills from out of her tin money box and handed them to Scott.

“Here’s three dollars. I want to give this bowl to you and Tia as a wedding present.”

Scott winked at Tia and accepted the three dollars.

“Aunt Gert is a conjurer!”

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