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"By any chance, is your pocket watch for sale?"
The old man raised his head. The woman asking about his watch was leaning across the glass display case separating them. Inside the case were snuffboxes, hatpins, razors with bone handles, saltcellars with their dainty sterling silver spoons, and various pieces of jewelry recently acquired at an estate sale.
But the woman's focus was on his watch.
He guessed the woman and her husband to be in their midforties. To them the gold timepiece probably looked dapper and quaint, Rockwellian. The couple were dressed in the preppy fashion of country club members. Both were trim and tanned, and they looked good together, as though they had come as a set, the man as handsome as his wife was attractive.
They had arrived in a sleek SUV, which looked out of place on the dusty gravel parking lot in front of the antiques store. In the half hour they'd been there, several items in his inventory had attracted their interest. The things they had decided to purchase were of good quality. As their appearances indicated, they had discriminating taste.
The old man had been listing the items on a sales receipt when his customer posed the question about his pocket watch. He laid a protective hand over it where it rested against his vest and smiled. "No, ma'am. I couldn't part with my watch."
She had the confidence of a pretty woman who was accustomed to beguiling people with her smile. "Not for any price? You don't see pocket watches like that these days. The new ones look...well, new. Shininess makes them appear phony and cheap, doesn't it? A patina, like that on yours, gives it character."
Her husband, who'd been browsing the bookshelves, joined them at the counter. Like his wife, he leaned across the display case to better inspect the watch's workmanship. "Twenty-four-karat gold?"
"I would imagine so, although I've never had it appraised."
"I'd take it without having it appraised," the man said.
"I wouldn't consider selling it. Sorry." The shopkeeper bent over the case and continued to painstakingly write up their purchases. Some days the arthritis in his knuckles made handwriting difficult, but what place did a computer have in an antiques store? Besides, he distrusted them.
He did the arithmetic the old-fashioned way, carrying over the two and arriving at his total. "With tax, it comes to three hundred sixty-seven dollars and forty-one cents."
"Sounds fair enough." The man pinched a credit card out of a small alligator wallet and slid it across the top of the case. "Add two bottles of Evian, please." He went to the sleek refrigerated cabinet with a glass door. It had no place in an antiques store, either, but thirsty browsers stayed to browse longer if drinks were available, so the refrigerator was the shopkeeper's one small concession to modernity.
"On the house," he told his customer. "Help yourself."
"That's awfully nice of you."
"I can afford it," he told them with a smile. "This is my biggest single sale of the weekend."
The man took two bottles of water from the refrigerator and passed one to his wife, then signed the credit card receipt. "Do you get a lot of traffic off the interstate?"
The store owner nodded. "People who're in no particular hurry to get where they're going."
"We noticed your billboard," the woman said. "It caught our attention, and, on the spur of the moment, we decided to take the exit."
"The rental on that billboard is expensive as all get-out. I'm glad to know it's working." He began carefully wrapping their purchases in sheets of tissue paper.
The man took a look around the shop, glanced out at the parking lot, which was empty except for his own gas guzzler, and asked, somewhat doubtfully, "Do you do a good business?"
"Fair to middling. The store's more a hobby than anything. It keeps me active, keeps my mind sharp. Gives me something to do in my retirement."
"What line of work were you in?"
"Were antiques always an interest?" the woman asked.
"No," he admitted sheepishly. "Like most things in life, this" -- he raised his hands to indicate the shop -- "came about unexpectedly."
The lady pulled forward a tall stool and sat down. "It sounds like there's a story."
The old man smiled, welcoming her interest and the opportunity to chat. "The furnishings from my mother's house had been in storage for years. When I retired and had time to sort through everything, I realized I didn't have any use for most of the stuff, but I thought other people might. So I started selling off china and doodads. Gradual like, at weekend flea markets and such. I wasn't all that ambitious, but, as it turned out, I was a pretty good merchant.
"Soon friends and acquaintances began bringing me items to sell on consignment. Almost before I knew it, I'd run out of space in the garage and had to rent this building."
He shook his head, chuckling. "I just sort of fell into becoming an antiques dealer. But I like it." He grinned at them. "Keeps me occupied, keeps me in spending money, and I get to meet nice folks like y'all. Where's your home?" They told him they were from Tulsa and had been to San
Antonio for a long golf weekend with friends. "We're not on a deadline to get home, so when we saw your sign, we decided to stop and take a look. We're furnishing our lake house with antiques and rustics."
"I'm glad you stopped." He passed the woman a business card with the shop's logo on it. "If you change your mind about that Spode tureen you spent so much time considering, call me. I ship."
"I just might." She ran her finger over the name embossed on the card as she read it aloud. "Solly's. That's an unusual name. First or last?"
"First. Short for Solomon, after the wise king in the Old Testament." He smiled ruefully. "I've often wondered if my mother had second thoughts about that choice."
"That's twice you've mentioned your mother." The woman's smile was warmer, even prettier, when she wasn't using it to try to finagle her way. "You must have been very close to her. I mean, I assume she's no longer living."
"She died in the late sixties." He reflected on how long ago that must sound to this couple. They would have been babies. "Mother and I were very close. I miss her to this day. She was a lovely woman."
"Is Gilead your home?"
"I was born here, in a big yellow house that had belonged to my maternal grandparents."
"Do you have a family?"
"My wife passed on eight years ago. I have two children, a boy and a girl. Both live in Austin. Between them, they've given me six grandchildren, the oldest of which is about to get married."
"We have two sons," the woman said. "Both are students at Oklahoma State."
"Children are a joy."
The woman laughed. "As well as a challenge."
Her husband had been following their conversation while examining the selections in the bookcase. "These are first editions."
"All signed and in excellent condition," the shopkeeper said. "I picked them up at an estate sale not long ago."
"Impressive collection." The man ran his finger along the row of book spines. "Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. A Steinbeck. Norman Mailer. Thomas Wolfe." He turned to the merchant and grinned. "I should have left my credit card out."
"I also take cash."
The customer laughed. "I'll bet you do."
His wife added, "For everything except your pocket watch."
The old man slipped the fob through the buttonhole on his vest and cupped the watch in his palm. It hadn't lost a second since he'd last wound it. Time had yellowed the white face, but the slight discoloration gave it a richer look. The black hands were as thin as the filaments of a spider's web. The long hand had a sharp arrow point. "I wouldn't take anything for it, ma'am."
Softly she said, "It's invaluable to you."
"In the strictest sense."
"How old is it?" the man asked.
"I don't know for certain," replied the shopkeeper, "but its age isn't what makes it meaningful to me." He turned it facedown and extended his hand to them so they could read the inscription on the back of the gold case.
"August eleventh, 1934," the woman read aloud. Then looking back at him, she asked, "What does it commemorate? An anniversary? Birthday? Something exceptional?"
"Exceptional?" The old man smiled. "Not particularly. Just very special." Copyright © 2009 by Sandra Brown Management Ltd.
When Ella Barron woke up that morning, she didn't expect it to be a momentous day.
Her sleep hadn't been interrupted by a subconscious premonition. There had been no change in the weather, no sudden shift in the atmosphere, no unusual sound to startle her awake.
As on most mornings, sleep released her gradually a half hour before daylight. She yawned and stretched, her feet seeking cool spots between the sheets. But catching another forty winks was out of the question. To indulge in such a luxury would never have crossed her mind. She had responsibilities, chores that couldn't be shirked or even postponed. She lay in bed only long enough to remember what day of the week it was. Wash day.
She quickly made her bed, then checked on Solly, who was still deep in slumber.
She dressed with customary efficiency. With no time for vanity, she hastily twisted her long hair into a bun on the back of her head and secured it with pins, then left her bedroom and made her way to the kitchen, moving quietly so as not to awaken the others in the house.
This was the only time of day when the kitchen was quiet and cool. As the day progressed, heat was produced by the cookstove. Heat seeped in from outside through the screened door and the window above the sink. Even Ella's own energy acted as a generator.
Proportionately with the thermometer, the noise level rose, so that by suppertime, the kitchen, which was the heart of the house, took on a pulsating life of its own and didn't settle into cool repose until Ella ex...
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