Crystal turned twenty the night she moved into Mark’s apartment above an antique store. They sat on the futon in the dark living room drinking beer at midnight. He kissed her and handed her a small white envelope.
“No, Mark…no presents. You promised. We need the money for you to start your own business.”
* * *
Five years older than Crystal, Mark worked as an assistant to the antique dealer who owned the building and shop below. Mark helped his boss do everything from upholstering weak-legged chairs to buying chipped Victorian tables at house sales and fixing them up to sell. He cleaned the building and got a break on the rent. He wanted to be an antique dealer himself one day.
They met a few weeks before in the arts and crafts store where she had a job cutting fabric for customers. He leaned on her cutting table with his elbows, his arms streaked with veins in relief. She was slicing through a cheap potato-colored remnant he’d bought for one of his boss’s footstools.
Crystal had long, dirty blonde hair, parted in the middle, and she was thin. When she stretched to cut the fabric, her waist was thinner than two feet measured on the yardstick taped to the table’s edge. She had one blue eye and one gray eye. He compared her blue eye to a target.
* * *
He shook his head. “This is different.”
She opened the envelope and found an earring. It was almost as big as her ear and covered with cascading strands of diamonds. The piece glittered faintly in the midnight light of the room. “It’s beautiful, Mark.” She held it up to the moonlight from the window. “But, I don’t wear earrings. I hope you didn’t spend much money.”
“It’s an estate piece I picked up when I was out looking for things to buy for my boss,” he said. “It didn’t cost much because there was only one, but I could put a needle on it or something and you could wear it as a pin.” He lightly tapped the place on her chest over her heart.
Crystal slid the earring back into the envelope. She felt happy he thought to give her a present. But it was a bit useless because she didn’t like earrings and she didn’t wear pins. Her family never had enough money to give her presents of jewelry, and she never missed having any pieces of her own.
* * *
Crystal’s mother cleaned houses, and her father did odd jobs, except during the summer when he worked a ride called “The Turnaround” at a boardwalk amusement park. The strand of cigar-shaped cars turned around 360 degrees over the pier in mid-air at the highest peak of the track. When Crystal was a young girl, it was the most popular roller coaster in the state. Her father went from summer to summer operating “The Turnaround,” but the family struggled the rest of the year.
Her mother’s jewelry box was a shoebox she’d covered in the worn calico of a shirt she’d loved, but torn beyond mending. Sometimes she’d let Crystal touch the few old pins and necklaces nestled on cotton wool. Her mother said they were pieces she found or her grandmother owned. She told Crystal the box would be hers one day, but after she died, the box disappeared.
* * *
She kissed his cheek on the part of his jaw line between the smooth skin and the dark stubble. Her top lip touched the soft skin; her bottom lip grazed the prickly hair. “Thanks for the gift, Mark. But no more spending, okay?” She kissed him again. “We promised each other that everything is for the future.”
He turned on the lamp beside her. “Here’s your second present.” He handed her a newspaper clipping.
Crystal read the first line. “Her family mourns the death of long-time resident Helen Jasper…”
Mark put his finger over her lips and whispered, “Stop.”
She looked at him.
“I’ve been trying to save money, but if I’m buying stuff for my boss to sell, I’ll never get enough money for my own shop.” He held her hands in his. “There’s only one chance to get the best antiques.”
Crystal, confused, continued reading the obituary. The last line said Helen died after an accident in her home, and she left behind a grieving daughter. “I don’t understand, Mark.”
“I go to the house before the estate sale is announced and ask whoever is there if I can buy some of the dead person’s stuff, or help them fix up the place if they’re going to sell. I can do it off hours and cheap. They pay me with furniture or collectibles, or whatever.” He hugged her. “I’ll beat my boss and the other dealers. We’ll build up our cash, and I’ll have my own store really soon.” He kissed her eyebrows, and said in a hushed voice, “And we’ll be on the way to our future.” He gently reached for her, and drew her close to him.
* * *
The first time they went out together, Mark held her hand over the Formica table at a diner on the highway. She remembered the careful way he brushed a strand of hair off her forehead. One day at work, she heard the unusual announcement on the store loudspeaker that she had a call, and was surprised when she heard his voice on the fabric department phone. He called to say hello, and met her outside after the store closed. He’d softly wake her up without the alarm and bring her coffee in bed after she spent the night with him. She felt cared for, and relief from the loneliness she’d carried since her mother died. And when he talked about their future together, she didn’t want to be alone and without him.
* * *
“I don’t know, Mark,” she said. “People are sad soon after someone dies.” She remembered how her mother cried for weeks after her grandmother died. Her eyes were swollen from off and on weeping for months. Whenever Mark asked about her family, though, she said she’d tell him about them someday.
* * *
Her father’s moods swung from one extreme to another. Her mother lived for the good times, and the bad she compared to the worst part of the ride he operated at the boardwalk. For some, she said, the ascent was the worst, but for her, the painful part was the crashing of the cars to their lowest point. Crystal took a job washing dishes at a local restaurant after her last class in high school, and realized she felt better being away from her father’s angry bursts and peaceful moments.
* * *
“That’s the beauty of it, honey,” Mark said. “They need someone like me just like they need the funeral parlor people. And all we have to do is read the obits, find out where the dead person lived, and offer our services.
“We…” she said.
“You can help. The woman’s touch can make the difference.”
“I’m not sure about this, Mark. I just put in an application at that big warehouse store and I could get benefits, maybe for both of us…”
He frowned, and shook his head. “Just come with me the first time, and you’ll see how great this is going to work.”
She thought he was too confident. If this idea were so great, wouldn’t someone like Mark’s boss be doing it this way already? She felt protected and loved when she was with Mark, and thought she probably loved him, but she never considered him a genius.
* * *
Mark drove Crystal in his pickup truck to Helen Jasper’s house, an enormous mauve Victorian with turrets, towers and white gingerbread trim, on a quiet street in the northern part of town. The house was on a corner in the middle of a large lawn and reminded Crystal of a cake set squarely on a plate. The brick chimneys looked like candles set in no particular pattern. He stopped the car on the street in front of the house.
“You just wait here, and watch how I do this,” he said. He got out of the car and
walked up the slate sidewalk.
He looked back at her before he rang the bell. An older woman with long, light gray hair, who was Crystal’s mother’s age when she died, answered the door. She saw the woman hold the door open for Mark, and he disappeared into the house. The woman let him, a complete stranger, into her home after her mother, Helen Jasper, died.
A white van pulled up and parked in front of the pickup truck. A broad red sign on the back said “Friendly Carpentry” in black script letters. A short muscular man in white overalls got out and walked the slate path to the door of the dead old lady’s house. The same woman answered the door and Crystal saw her look confused. The man in overalls pointed back to his van, and the woman peered behind him at the truck. Then she let him inside the house. In about a minute, Mark came out of the house, and walked to their pickup truck.
She asked, “What happened?”
“Just be quiet and let me drive,” he said through clenched teeth.
Crystal was silent. Her father always told her mother to shut up, and he called her names. They fought constantly until her mother died. Crystal thought her father wore her mother down like dripping water on limestone. Her mother told her she couldn’t bear being alone, and enduring her father’s moods was better than loneliness. But Crystal got used to being by herself in her bedroom, listening to their arguments. When Mark held her, she felt part of something greater than herself, and she thought she understood why her mother lived for the better times with her father. She hoped it would be different with her and Mark.
Mark drove the truck down some side streets, and parked on the other side of Helen’s house. They were around the corner from the Friendly Carpenter’s van.
“She started telling me about things she needed fixed. There’s holes in the walls, flaking plaster, furniture that has to be taken to the dump, and the whole basement is full of things from as far back as the 1940s,” he said. He slammed the steering wheel and the truck shook. “It was just what I want to do…damn it!” He inhaled. “She was showing me a maple veneer record cabinet when the “Friendly Carpenter” showed up.”
Crystal waited for him to finish.
“So, she gets angry at me and says ‘I called him, so who are you?’ I started to tell her I could do handyman work for her, and I can get rid of her mom’s stuff, but she told me to get out of the house. Then she said she didn’t call me.” He sneered and turned to Crystal. “Right there, in front of that guy, she tells me to get out of the house like I’m some kind of dog.”
She put her hand on his, but he slid his hand away from underneath hers. “Let’s just go home,” she said.
“No!” The muscles in his neck strained in relief.
Crystal never saw him like this before, and she was nervous.
“This time,” he said, “you’re coming with me to the door, after he leaves.”
“I’m not sure…”
“I want you to do this for me,” he said.
“We can just keep saving money. We don’t have to do things this way,” she said.
“Oh, like you know anything. The great fabric cutter at a grandma’s craft store,” he said. “I’m the one with the ideas. I’ve got the brains.” His voice softened, “It’s for our future anyway, honey. Dreaming doesn’t get things done. We can’t just dream about our future. We have to do something big.” He touched her cheek with his hand, and kissed her lips.
She saw him smile, but not with his eyes. She didn’t want to go with Mark. She didn’t want to do things this way.
“She sees a nice-looking young woman with me who is going to help her organize her mom’s personal things, and she’ll forget all about kicking me out before.”
They watched the Friendly Carpenter leave the house and walk back to his van from their truck parked around the corner. He wrote on a clipboard for a few minutes, got in his van and drove away. Mark drove the truck around the corner to where they’d parked before, stopped short and the truck shook. He opened her side door, reached for her hand and entwined his fingers in hers. She let him lead her down the walk to the front door, and he rang the bell. She thought it was like the quiet part of the roller coaster ride, the easy part before the plunge.
The same older woman answered the door. Her long, white hair looked brittle and the skin around her eyes was swollen and her face splotched red, probably from crying. She said, “What the…”
“Just give me a minute to explain. I do handiwork, and my wife here can help, too.”
Crystal looked at him. He’d never mentioned marriage.
“I didn’t call you,” the woman said. “I don’t have your references.”
“Of course I’ve…we’ve got references.” He explained he worked for the only antique dealer in town.
The woman exhaled loudly, and pulled her hair back behind her head with both hands. It immediately returned to its original position around her face. She said she’d been in that shop a few times. Crystal thought she looked very tired.
“How did you know I needed help?”
“I was in the building supply store yesterday picking something up for my boss, and I heard that carpenter talking about your job,” he lied. He gestured with his right hand toward her, palm facing upward. “Look, times are tough, and if I can do some work for less than the carpenter, we both benefit.”
The woman looked directly at Mark. “Okay, you can do some work here if your prices are fair, and if your boss vouches for you when I call him,” she said.
He smiled, and nudged Crystal. “My name is Mark and this is Crystal.”
“And like I said before,” he continued, “you can pay me with furniture, paintings, china, or even jewelry. I know how to sell these things. They’re as good as money to me.”
“Maybe…” She opened the door wider and stood back for them to enter.
It took a few moments for Crystal’s eyes to adjust to the darkness inside the house. The damask curtains were drawn and the dark wood trim around windows and doors created sunken areas of shadow. Faded chintz covered couches and chairs hugged the perimeter of the room and were interspersed with small tables. A grand piano was in the center of the room, and paintings of landscapes were stacked on top of each other on the walls.
“My mother taught piano,” Angela said. “She played in concerts, and she knew famous musicians.”
Mark nudged Crystal.
She looked at him, and he winked and gave her the thumbs up sign.
“There was some plaster damage on the third floor when the roof was leaking,” said Angela. “Mom got a new roof, but she didn’t care about the plaster.” She motioned for them to follow her upstairs. “I’m told it’s got to be fixed or buyers will think the leak is active.”
They were halfway up the stairs when the phone rang. It was the warble of an old phone somewhere in the back of the house. Crystal thought it was probably in the kitchen. Angela stopped and said she’d be back before descending the stairs and disappearing through a door.
Mark tugged Crystal’s shirt, and led her back down the stairs into the living room. He walked her through a pair of French doors. “You gotta see this…” He pointed to an enormous gilt-framed painting of two people walking into the ocean. The light in the painting was so bright that the horizon was barely discernable between the sea and the sky. Crystal had to squint to look at it.
“It’s a Gisson,” he said. “See the name in the corner.”
Crystal could barely see the scrawled letters of the artist’s name.
“I could get a few thousand for that one easily…I checked,” he whispered. “And she’s got more in the other rooms.” He walked to another doorway and pointed to different framed paintings on the walls. “Those are all Gisson’s paintings, too, and people love his stuff. It’s thousands of dollars worth of paintings.”
Crystal heard Angela’s voice raising in the back of the house somewhere. She was arguing with someone on the phone. Crystal wondered how Mark knew so much about these particular paintings, and where they were in the rooms.
Mark nudged Crystal back to the living room to wait for Angela. They passed a tall chest, and he opened a door on its front. “Take a look at this,” he said, pointing to a shelf of dull green and blue colored vases with embossed flowers trapped under crazed glaze. “These are Rookwoods, all of them, worth hundreds each and we’re not even talking about the stuff on the other shelves…”
How could he have known about these? They were behind a glass door in a chest, and they’d probably been there for years. The old lady must have wanted to protect them in this little closet.
“Tons more where that came from,” he said, closing the door and leading her back to the foot of the stairs. He pointed up the staircase at an enormous painting on the wall near the second floor.
Crystal could barely see the outline of the carved gilded frame; the painting’s image was dark. She heard Angela’s voice rise, followed by a loud slam.
Angela rejoined them in the living room. “My mother made some arrangements for an in-ground pool and playground, though she didn’t know how to swim and I don’t have any children,” she said. “She shouldn’t have been left alone, but I didn’t live close enough to watch her, and she wanted her independence.”
They followed her to the third floor and she showed Mark the flaking yellowed plaster that needed repair on a bedroom ceiling. He proceeded to check the ceilings of the other rooms for more water damage to the plaster. She motioned for Crystal to follow her back downstairs to the second floor. They entered a large room with wallpaper pictures of birds in cages among flowers. A large bed shared space with white and gold bedroom furniture. Open packing boxes were scattered over the discolored, once light blue shag rug.
“I’m going through my mother’s clothes and donating them if they’re wearable. You can do this,” she said. “I need you to go through her drawers and the closet and just put them in the boxes, tape them shut and mark them charity.” Angela turned to face Crystal. “Here’s something important. I want you to keep a look out for this.” She held out her open palm to show Crystal a large earring covered in diamonds.
Crystal recognized the dense maze of short strands, heavy with dimly glittering stones. It was the same earring Mark gave her for her birthday. He gave it to her before they ever came to this place.
“They found this earring on the floor near my mother after she fell down the stairs and broke her neck,” she said. “The other one must be around here somewhere.” Angela rolled her eyes. “My mother would never be seen wearing one earring, just like she’d never wear pants. I don’t care how batty she was…”
“I’m sorry about your mother,” said Crystal.
“Thanks. She never fell before, or I’d have moved her to the first floor.”
Crystal agreed she would have done the same thing for her mother if she were still alive. And, she considered the earring. The woman told her she’s been searching for it for days. Crystal said she’d try to find her mother’s earring for her.
Mark came downstairs from the third floor, and they walked together down to the front door. He said he’d leave an estimate for some of the work in Angela’s mailbox the next day. They exchanged phone numbers, and Mark and Crystal left.
* * *
They argued that night in their apartment. Mark wanted Crystal to look for jewelry in the old lady’s room while packing the old clothes in boxes. She told him she didn’t know what was the point of looking. He said it is what you do before taking. She said she didn’t want to take anything from the woman who lost her mother. He was slamming kitchen cupboard doors when she went into their bedroom and took the earring from a dresser drawer. The mourning woman showed her the same earring, her earring’s mate. Crystal put it in her pocket. She remembered hiding from her parents in her bedroom when they fought in the kitchen. Now, she fought with Mark, and couldn’t escape him.
He stood in the doorway of their bedroom, his fists clenched. “You’re going to do this,” he said.
She shook her head.
He pushed her.
She lost her balance and fell hard against the wall. She struggled to get up, confused about what was happening. It was as if her mind was behind what was going on with her body. It was like a ride she wanted to get off and never take again. She remembered the ones from her father’s amusement park. Squeaky, rust-pocked cars in different shapes carried her high into the air and made her sick. They were rides she’d never take again, not even for free. Was it this way with the old lady when she fell from the top of the stairs?
“You’re going to do this…forget snooping around, we’re going back there tonight, and as many nights as it takes to get what I need.”
She thought of her mother. She wished her mother could help her. Her mother was dead now and had taken her share of beatings. Crystal left home because she couldn’t watch it anymore. Then, her mother died.
“You’ll be my look-out in the car,” he said. “You call me on my cell if a light goes on in the house, or a neighbor sees me, or a cop drives by.”
“Okay, Mark.” He thinks of everything. Her back turned to him; she opened her purse, picked out her cell phone, and put it in her back pocket. “I’ll just be a minute,” she said, walking into the bathroom. She turned on the faucet, and made a call.
* * *
It was after midnight and Crystal sat in the driver’s seat of the pickup truck around the corner from Helen’s house. She watched black clouds floating past the moon in silhouette, and drifting away into the dark sky. Mark had been inside the house for ten minutes.
Three police cars pulled up in front. Two officers went to the front door, and four others disappeared into the bushes in the yard. At the edge of her peripheral vision, Crystal saw a shadow pass by the windows of the truck on the passenger side. The door opened and Angela stepped up into the truck, sitting beside Crystal.
She inhaled and exhaled deeply before turning to Crystal.
Crystal smiled at Angela, and locked the truck’s doors.
The two women looked at each other in the darkness for a few moments. They watched two officers walk Mark, hands cuffed behind his back, down the front walkway. They leaned him, face first, against the hood of one of the patrol cars. Sirens wailed in the distance.
Angela said, “He’s being arrested. He’ll be out of commission for a while. He could mention your name as being part of this. They might call you in, too.”
Crystal looked down at her hands.
“I know you didn’t go along with him. I’ll tell them how you called me.”
Angela shifted in her seat. “Why did you turn against him?”
“We circled your block that first day after you told him to leave. He wanted your mother’s things so much. I didn’t like him anymore.”
“Later, he wanted me to help him steal from you. Then I knew I lost him, or who I thought he was. A flash wave of grief washed over me. It was a little like the way I felt when my mother died. That’s when I called you. And…”
“You reminded me of my mother.”
“Thank you,” said Angela. She held out her opened palm to Crystal. “Take this…please.” Helen’s diamond earring gleamed in the now cloudless moonlit sky. “This and the other one and you’ll be okay for a while.”
About the Author
Cecelia Schier lives and writes in Montclair, New Jersey. Her short fiction, poetry and nonfiction have appeared in The Bicycle Review, The Iconoclast, The Pianist, and academic journals. She is currently writing a collection of short stories.