"Comb your hair, it looks like a bird's nest," whispered Molly O'Hara, grabbing her sister by the sleeve of her T-shirt and locking Nell's green eyes with her own. "And stay away from oyster plates, you hear me? We've got twenty-six and that's enough."
Nell replied with a wink and a grin in the early morning light but didn't say a word. This was hardly surprising. She hadn't spoken since she was eight.
A slow rustle swept through the restless crowd, the kind of sound the summer wind blowing makes through a stand of loblolly pines. Grim-faced men ground out cigarettes on the slate walk. Women with skin the North Carolina sun had cured to old-wallet perfection licked lipstick off their lips and checked their watches. A young man in a chartreuse shirt tittered and waved his long fingers in the air, indicating either that he found the tension unbearable or that he needed to dry his nail polish in a hurry.
Suddenly the door of the big old house opened, and the crowdsurged through as one. Molly grabbed her sister's hand, not so much to protect her as to haul her inside ahead of the others.
Three competent-looking ladies, all blondes, were sitting at a card table in the entrance hall. Their tired eyes filled with a mixture of awe and terror as the mob of early birds swarmed past them and into the house.
It had taken the women weeks to price and advertise the property that the late Miss Edna Gerritze had acquired over a long lifetime. It would take only two days for the dealers, the decorators, and the public to strip the house clean, the way maggots strip the carcass of a dead fox. Already the madness that was a tag sale had begun.
"It's mine," declared a deep voice.
"I saw it first," replied a shrill one.
One of the tag sale ladies jumped up from her chair and scurried toward the noise, but Molly knew that the combatants would already have fled the scene of the crime in search of undamaged booty. She was an old hand at this, starting from the days when she had bought Depression glass with baby-sitting money to sell from a begged table at the Clark County Flea Market. Now, at twenty-eight, Molly O'Hara owned Enchanted Cottage Antiques on Porcupine Road at U.S. 29 and by her calculation had been an antique dealer half her life.
Across the room Molly caught a glimpse of her sister juggling three Noritaki teacups and shot her a furious look.
Nell casually plucked the cups out of the air and deposited them back on a table. Molly's sister loved showing off and never dropped anything, but Molly hated the attention she drew to herself with her antics. Since Nell didn't talk, the apologies and excuses were always Molly's to make, and these took time. Time was money at a tag sale. They were here to work.
With a practiced eye Molly took in the cluttered panorama as she walked briskly from room to room: umbrellas and flowerpots; birdcages and end tables; once-precious pictures whose only value now lay in their frames.
The late Edna Gerritze's dining room was piled high with tableware. Unfortunately the "silver" was commercially produced plated stuff. The candlesticks were cheap glass reproductions. Even the two sets of Sunday dishes--one modern Lenox, the other hideous Limoges--weren't anything a savvy dealer would ever consider.
This was the sort of stuff you found at tag sales, Molly knew. At least it was what you found here in Pelletreau, North Carolina, though there were still treasures to be had. Even the best tag sale ladies missed things occasionally, which was why Molly had roused Nell before dawn today to get here before the doors opened. By ten o'clock a sale was so picked over that any real bargains were gone.
Molly turned her attention to the glassware, which was laid out on a sideboard across from the china. The estate suddenly began to look a little better. Molly recognized a dozen pieces of pattern glass, which had surely come down in the Gerritze family; it was already clear from the contents of the house that the deceased had simply accumulated her worldly goods, not collected them in any conscious manner.
Molly nonchalantly ran her fingers through her short brown hair, then flicked the rim of a Seneca Loop pattern goblet. It produced the dull noise: soda-lime glass. The price of the goblet in her hand was reasonable, but Molly already had too much pattern glass. It might be years before she could sell an ordinary piece like this one. She put it back on the table.
Another flick with her fingernail on a Waffle-and-Thumbprint pattern celery vase sent an unexpected thrill down Molly's spine, a thrill she never tired of. The glass rang like a tinybell. It was "flint," as pre--Civil War lead glass was called. This piece was priced as cheaply as the others but could easily bring a hundred dollars from a collector.
Leaving the rejects on the table for other dealers to pick through, Molly brought her prize back to the front hall. Her sister was just coming down the stairs with an old radio, an RCA Victor in a red plastic case.
Nell was four inches taller than Molly's five feet one and three years younger. The family resemblance between the girls was still obvious, however. Though Nell's figure was more curvaceous, both of them had green eyes, upturned mouths, and too-small noses. They shared the same brown hair, cut short with bangs, and the same porcelain complexions that had to be kept out of the summer sun. Even their eyebrows, which were too thick to be pretty but which Molly refused to pluck, were similar.
But there the resemblance between the girls ended.
While Molly was intense and driven, a gregarious chatterbox so impetuous that she kept a packed suitcase in her van so that she could take off at a moment's notice, Nell was unhurried in her actions, uncertain of what she wanted and entirely mute. Her moods swung crazily. One moment she was impish and full of mischief, the next she could fall into an inexplicable sullenness that lasted for hours. Though Nell had the body of a woman, she seemed to have the mind of a child. She could do complicated tasks like ringing up sales on a cash register or baking a pie, but the simplest interaction with anyone other than Molly was all but impossible for her.
It was as if Nell had slammed some inner door against everybody in the world but her sister. There was no mystery as to why she had done so, why she had withdrawn from everything and stopped speaking. Seventeen years ago, when she was eight, Nellhad seen something that no one should have to see, certainly not a little girl. There was no way she was going to grow up to be normal.
Molly checked the price tag as Nell laid the radio on the card table in front of the blond salesladies.
"Good girl!" she exclaimed, patting her sister on the shoulder and placing her precious celery vase down next to Nell's find.
There was big nostalgia for old radios, and they might be able to quintuple their money on the one Nell had just found if the right tourist wandered into the shop. As much as Molly loved her sister, she wouldn't have brought Nell along if her eye for bargains wasn't almost as good as Molly's own.
Nell was already bounding back up the stairs. Molly left her business card on top of the radio so the ladies could keep track of her purchases. Then she hurried back into the house, which had gotten crowded in the last fifteen minutes as more people had arrived. The feeding frenzy had begun in earnest.
Molly elbowed her way into the late Edna Gerritze's living room, hoping to find something everyone else had overlooked. As usual she was the shortest person in the room, but that fact never stopped her. What she lacked in height and reach, she made up for in speed and determination. Antiquing was a kind of warfare, and Molly would take on Arnold Schwarzenegger for the right piece of printed fabric.
A couple of women were fighting it out in front of the curio cabinet, though Molly didn't see anything particularly exciting--just the usual china birds and silk fans. The young man in the chartreuse shirt was wrestling with a Gone with the Wind style lamp.
There was a nice mahogany breakfront that nobody seemed to be looking at, probably because it was so big. Molly checked the price tag--quite reasonable for a piece like this, but it would be hard to sell and a bitch to get home. Molly passed.
In the kitchen a young couple was inspecting the refrigerator, probably because they couldn't afford a new one. A gaggle of old ladies--civilians, not dealers, judging by the sweet, kindly look of them--poked through assorted tea strainers and juicers. In the back hall a greedy-eyed bald man scooped up mason jars like they were filled with jewels. A collector? Or was he just someone into canning preserves?
By the time Molly made it back to the front hall, Nell had returned from upstairs and was putting a large cardboard box down next to their other purchases.
"What did you find?" said Molly eagerly, coming over and fingering through the contents. Her excitement quickly evaporated, however. The box was full of old theater programs. The Chattanooga Civic Light Opera presents Show Boat. Tennessee Williams's Summer and Smoke at Playmakers of Chapel Hill.
"What are we supposed to do with these?" she exclaimed. "You know nobody wants this kind of stuff. What's the matter with you?"
Nell's pretty smile collapsed and she looked away. Molly immediately felt guilty. It wasn't her sister's fault if she sometimes got confused or carried away.
"Come on," Molly said in a conciliatory voice. "Let's take them back upstairs. I was just going up."
When Nell didn't move, Molly picked up the heavy box by its cutout handles and struggled up the stairs with it. Nell finally followed, looking confused and a little hurt. Molly deposited the box on the landing at the top of the stairs--there was no point in worrying exactly where it had come from--and started into the upstairs hall.
"See if you can find some baskets," she said over her shoulder. "We could sell a million of those nice old peach baskets, like the kind you found up in Leightonville. You know the ones I mean?"
Nell stared back with an unreadable expression. Molly didn't wait for an answer--she knew there wouldn't be one. She walked into one of the bedrooms, a typical old lady's room with a mahogany bedstead, crocheted comforter, and heavy curtains that smelled of lavender.
By the time Molly had satisfied herself that there were no valuable perfume bottles among the late Edna Gerritze's dressing table bric-a-brac, the hallway had begun to fill up with browsers from downstairs. Nell was still where Molly had left her, however, squatting next to the box they had brought back upstairs, leafing through a theater program.
"Will you please put that down?" said Molly in exasperation, marching over and taking the program out of her sister's hands. "We don't have time to waste today. We have to see Grandma before we can open the shop. Now, please, sweetheart, go down and see if you can find something I missed. Go on."
Molly dropped the program on top of the others and waited as Nell reluctantly made her way down the stairs. What was the girl thinking? Molly shook her head and checked her watch. It had stopped, of course.
Molly cursed under her breath and knocked the cheap timepiece against the bannister railing. Grandma had given both her and Nell watches when they were teenagers. Grandma was too poor to afford good ones, and Nell had thrown hers away years ago. Molly couldn't bear to hurt the poor old woman's feelings, however, and buy a replacement. Grandma looked for the watch every time Molly visited--at least she had until recently.
Molly spent another ten minutes checking out the remaining second-floor rooms, then came back downstairs to settle up. There were presently only two tag sale ladies on duty ringing up purchases at the card table in the front hallway. Molly went to the more benign-looking one: a small-boned woman with bronze-coloredhair and lips no thicker than chives. Her name tag proclaimed to the world that she was LILLIAN of THREE BLOND LIQUIDATORS.
"Let's see," said Lillian the Liquidator, tapping a calculator. "You've got the glass vase, the radio, and the oyster plate."
Nell smirked and gave Molly a little pat on the back. Molly felt her face go red. So what if she had happened to find another oyster plate in an upstairs bedroom? This one was different than all their other ones. Besides, the price was too good to pass up.
"I'll need your resale number," said Lillian the Liquidator. "And we take only cash, no credit cards or checks."
Molly took her wallet from the back pocket of her jeans and counted out the bills. The third tag sale lady had now come back into the hall from the house and was taking her place at the card table. She was the oldest of the trio, a wrinkled blonde not a day under seventy. Something stopped her before she sat.
"You okay, honey?" she asked in a quivery voice, looking over Molly's shoulder to where Nell was standing. "You need a drink of water or something?"
Molly turned around in time to see her sister cover her face with her hands. Nell's amused expression had suddenly changed to one of sheer terror. Her eyes brimmed over with tears. Her mouth opened as if she were screaming, but no sound came out. She took several steps back until she was against the wall and began to shake violently.
It was happening again. Nell was having another one of her attacks. She had had them on and off since that terrible day so long ago. Months had passed since her last attack, however. Molly had almost begun to believe that they were a thing of the past.
"She's all right," said Molly, rushing over. "Just leave her alone. She'll be fine in a minute."
Molly put an arm around her sister's shoulders and gently stroked the back of her neck. That sometimes worked when Nellgot like this. What had brought it on? The crowded house? Oyster plates? Too many blondes?
"Did I say something wrong?" said the elderly tag sale lady, looking concerned. "I just thought she looked a bit peaked and asked if she wanted some water."
"Do you want us to call a doctor?" piped in Lillian.
"Thanks, but that won't be necessary," said Molly. "My sister just gets like this sometimes. A nervous condition. It's nothing to worry about. She's perfectly okay. I need a receipt for those things."
The ladies returned to the paperwork, occasionally glancing nervously at Nell. Molly led her sister over to the door, stroking her neck and speaking to her in a gentle voice. After a few moments, Nell dropped her hands from her face and stopped shaking.
Molly dug into her pocket for a tissue and wiped the tears from her sister's cheeks. Then she held Nell out at arm's length and scrutinized her.
"You okay now?"
Nell nodded her head.
"What was it?" Molly asked. "What frightened you?"
Nell didn't answer. She smiled weakly and slipped out of Molly's hands. Then she opened the front door of the house and ran out across the lawn in the direction of their van.
Molly didn't try to stop her. She returned to the card table and finished up the details of their purchases. An overwhelming sense of guilt descended on her, as it always did after one of these episodes.
Why did Nell still have these attacks? Why wouldn't she speak after all these years, even to Molly? The doctors all said that there was nothing physically wrong with her voice. Molly had always feared that Nell was just angry. Angry at her. She could hardly blame her sister for that. After all, what had happened to Nell that day had been Molly's fault.
"That wasn't much of a sale, huh?" Molly said later, when she had loaded the morning's treasures into their ancient minivan and they were on the road back home. "But can you believe how they had that radio priced? Those poor women didn't have a clue what they had. We're going to sell it to some fool Yankee for a fortune, you just wait and see."
Nell nodded, then stared silently out of the window at the strip malls and red clay that passed for scenery in their part of the world. Molly rattled on, as was her nature. The van made more than its usual quota of creaks, knocks, and groans. It had taken to stalling out if you drove it for more than a few hours a day. Molly knew that she'd have to replace it soon--maybe at the end of the summer, if she could put together enough money.
It was another twenty minutes before they had driven back across the spread-out old city of Pelletreau and pulled into the unpaved drive of Enchanted Cottage Antiques. There was parking for up to six cars in front next to a stand of oak trees, but Molly drove the minivan around back and parked under the carport by the rear door. The day was already getting hot, but that was hardly unusual for North Carolina in July.
Molly got out carrying the celery vase and the oyster plate. Nell followed Molly inside with the radio. They deposited their haul on the round maple table in the little kitchen at the back of the shop. It was ten after nine according to the cuckoo clock out front--early, but there was still a lot to do.
"I've got to take care of business before we see Grandma," said Molly, resetting her watch and giving it a good wind. "You go on upstairs and get ready. I won't be but a minute. I thought you were going to comb your hair."
Nell had sat down at the table on one of the cathedral chairs that Molly liked too much to sell. She didn't move.
"Come on, honey, we've got to get going," Molly said gently."And please put on some lipstick. You look like an iceberg lettuce. You don't want to scare Grandma, do you?"
An image of their beloved grandmother the way she used to be flashed into Molly's mind--a big woman sitting in an easy chair, sewing dresses for rich ladies. She would sit there like that ten hours at a time, seven days a week sometimes.
One of Molly's clearest memories from her childhood was of a six-year-old Nell, a Nell who was still a normal, happy little girl climbing into the old lady's expansive lap and stopping Grandma's needlework with her tiny hand.
"One day I'm going to buy you a great big house, Grandma," Nell had promised, her eyes wide and earnest. "And you'll never have to work again."
Grandma had smiled her sad smile, clearly not believing that it would ever happen, not believing that she would ever have anything but a two-room apartment in downtown Pelletreau.
Even then, even before the tragedy that had befallen them all, hers had been a hard life, but until three months ago Grandma had still smiled her resigned smile and sung funny old songs in her big, raucous voice. Then she had had the stroke that had put her in the Pelletreau Charitable Nursing Home. Now it was Molly who tried to smile and do the singing.
"Nellie, what are you doing?" asked Molly, coming out of her reverie only to find Nell lost in one of her own. "Where are you?"
Nell still didn't move or make eye contact with her sister. She looked deep in thought, like she was trying to remember something, something very important, but very lost.
"Go on," said Molly, coming up behind her sister and squeezing her shoulders. "Git."
Her expression unchanged, Nell rose and wandered through the kitchen archway into the back hall. Molly listened until sheheard footsteps going up the stairs to the bedroom they shared over the store. Then she brought out the ledger in which she kept track of purchases.
In her tiny neat handwriting, Molly entered the information for the celery vase, the radio, and the oyster plate.
The cuckoo clock out in the shop chirped its quarter hour reminder that cuckoo clocks didn't sell. If someone didn't buy it soon, Molly was going to bury the damn thing in the backyard. The shop fell silent again.
Molly closed the ledger and replaced it behind the sugar jar. She sat for a moment, enjoying the silence and the unfamiliar sensation of being alone.
Another image from childhood drifted into Molly's mind. She and Nell were at their grandmother's tiny apartment again. Their mother had often left the girls with her when she had to do something in the city. Nell was coloring with a crayon in a coloring book. Grandma was sewing, as she always was.
Suddenly the old woman's face grew dark with unmistakable rage. She took the garment in her hands and tore it in half, threw it on the floor. Molly was terrified. She had never seen her grandmother so angry, even when she argued with their stepfather after Sunday dinners.
But Nell wasn't frightened by Grandma's unprecedented outburst at all. She looked up from her coloring book with a stern look and shook her finger at the old seamstress.
"Temper, temper," she chided in a mild little voice.
Grandma's face had melted into a smile. She cut another piece of cloth and returned to her thankless work.
Nell had been such a brave, smart little girl, Molly remembered. But this morning at the tag sale she had been a mass of terror. Why? It couldn't have been just what happened seventeenyears ago, that was ancient history. What had set her off this morning? What had she seen?
The kitchen was getting too crowded, Molly thought glancing around the room, trying to shrug off the guilt that began to overwhelm her again.
There were books everywhere--under the table, lined up against the walls, blocking the hall. Molly might not have had a lot of formal education, but knowledge was survival to an antiques dealer and she was probably better read than many PhDs. There were even books in the oven, a 1940s-vintage gas behemoth.
That probably explained why Nell hadn't baked any pies lately, Molly realized. Nell's apple pie was something directly from heaven. But this wasn't the time to worry about her lack of library space. Or about Nell. Or about pies. Molly stretched and headed for the stairs.
Upstairs, Nell was sitting on her bed, staring at a small white booklet in her hands. She had made no move to comb her hair.
"Oh, for pete sake's," Molly exclaimed. "Next time I cut your hair I might as well do it with the lawn mower if you can't keep it combed. You want Grandma to think you're some kind of semihuman creature from the swamp? What am I going to do with you?"
When Nell didn't look up, Molly went over and took what she was reading out of her hands. It was a "Playbill" from the Booth Theatre in New York City. The late Edna Gerritze had apparently been to Broadway.
"Oh, this is marvelous!" Molly exclaimed. "My baby sister's a thief now, too. You stole this from that box at the sale this morning, didn't you? What did you do? Stick it under your shirt when I wasn't looking? Are you going to start knocking over Seven-Elevens next?"
Nell reached for the program, but Molly pulled it away.
"I should make you take it back to those people. If it weren't so far away I would, I swear. You know how we feel about shoplifters. You should be ashamed of yourself. What's so darn interesting about this thing anyway?"
But what was so interesting was right on the cover--a beautiful young woman in an elegant white gown. Molly's mouth dropped open as she read the caption beneath the picture of the strangely familiar-looking actress.
Margaret Jellinek in Without Reservations
It was Margaret Jellinek, their grandmother. Margaret Jellinek, the seamstress.
THE GIRL AT THE END OF THE LINE. Copyright © 1999 by Charles Mathes. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.