Chapter 1: Margaret 1 MARGARET
Margaret Byrd watched the two new vendors who had taken her dear friend Patricia’s vacated booth (#1-146) lug in their boxes of inventory, thinking: There were antiques and then there were collectibles. She ought to poke her head out from behind her immaculate, organized-by-color shelves of perfume bottles, some of which—on the top row, of course, locked behind thick, bulletproof glass, the storage unit screwed securely to the wall, and, of course of course of course, the entire set insured to its precise value—dated back to the eighteenth century, and introduce herself, welcome the gentlemen to the Heart of America Antique Mall family, perhaps show them to the café and treat them to a package of Nilla wafers and a Pepsi from the vending machines. Yes, she certainly should, and in a little while she would. But for now she only watched, making note of the many collectibles (which consisted of any crafted or manufactured items less than one hundred years old, unlike antiques) the two men removed from overstuffed cardboard boxes and set haphazardly on the fiberglass shelving units they probably assumed the mall had provided but which had actually belonged to Patricia. Margaret had thought her leaving them there was a sign she’d return one day, she hadn’t really meant the unpleasant things she’d said two months ago, before she dropped, quite deliberately, Margaret’s Royal Flemish biscuit jar with gold and amethyst butterfly embellishment, shattering it into a thousand glittering pieces—but no, in retrospect, an accident, just an accident, Margaret was certain, unequivocally so—and stormed out, sending her three brutish sons to collect her inventory days later. They’d forgotten Patricia’s beautiful hand-painted porcelain doll, and although it didn’t fit, Margaret had been keeping it safe behind a shelf in her own booth. Margaret called her, sometimes twice a day, ready to explain away the simple misunderstanding that had led to all this trouble. She’d written her spiel down on a telephone pad, just in case she got flustered or nervous—though why should she be nervous? The calls went unanswered, the messages unreturned.
One could make out dust rings on the shelves left by Patricia’s exquisite Josef Hoffmann–style candlesticks and already these two were moving right on in, proudly displaying Dallas and The Beverly Hillbillies board games where Patricia’s gilt nineteenth century hand mirrors once sat, fanning back issues of Playboy and Oui and Mad magazine on the lowest shelves where anyone’s children could get at them, and stacking tin lunch boxes whose brightly colored visages—the Fonz, grinning; a tense Lee Majors, standing impassively in a fluorescent sea of flames; soaring, dead-eyed cartoon superheroes; potbellied, silver-jumpsuited casts of science fiction television programs long forgotten—mocked everything booth #1-146 had once been. And even though their ten-by-twenty-square-foot space was stuffed thick and musty with the accumulated ephemera of a thousand Generation X childhoods, they left for the parking lot and returned with still more things.
Margaret’s heart began to hiccup as they continued to unpack. There were artifacts and then there were knickknacks. There were knickknacks and then there was junk. With the emergence of each item, she was surer that these two were nothing more than half-rate junk dealers. When one of them pulled out an unopened box of Mr. T breakfast cereal, she began to choke. She needed some coffee, with a lot of cream and half a spoonful of sugar, and maybe some popcorn or those Nilla wafers. However, the only route to the café was past the dreaded twosome. Oh, what the heck, she thought. She may as well satisfy her own morbid curiosity. She couldn’t help it. She was human, too, always slowed down with the rest of them to take a gander at a grisly accident at the side of the highway, though she did it out of concern, in case someone would happen to flag her down for help; she wasn’t some thrill-seeking gawker.
She waited until their backs were turned to slip out of her booth and down the aisle, named, according to the wood-carved street sign hanging from the ceiling, Memory Lane, but one of the men—the blond, mustachioed one—cornered her and stuck out a visibly moist palm. “Hello there.” She nodded, tried to smile, took his hand daintily. “We’re new,” he said unnecessarily.
The dark-haired one, his hands tangled in a bundle of video game joysticks, turned and said hello, but not so friendlily as the other. He looked at his partner in a way to suggest that the blond always talked to strangers in terms too intimate and that, although the dark-haired man didn’t like it, he was helpless to stop him. There was something obscenely paternal in that look, especially given that the dark-haired one, judging by his receding hairline and the thin skin around his eyes, appeared significantly older than the blond. Wasn’t that the way it worked with these homosexuals? Their relationships hinged on bizarre power struggles that reversed themselves in the privacy of their bedroom, culminating in unimaginable acts of perversion. Anyway, something was off about these two. They were both so tall and thin. As a couple, they seemed unbalanced. Wasn’t one of them supposed to be short and stout, the Laurel and Hardy dynamic? They were gays of a type that used to be popular on raunchy television sitcoms that Margaret, as a rule, refused to enjoy: Hawaiian-shirt-wearers who drank flamboyantly named martinis like fuzzy navels, sex on the beaches, and pink flamingos, who called themselves bitches and meant it as a compliment, who used words like po-mo and kitsch and camp as if anyone knew what they meant.
“I don’t think we have room for this, Lee,” Blond said to Dark Hair, motioning to a large Styrofoam hamburger, the vestige of a defunct and better-off-forgotten novelty diner. He turned to Margaret and said, “You mind if we keep it in your booth?” Margaret must have blanched, because he touched her shoulder and said, “Only kidding, dear,” and then, “Seymour,” more like an exclamation than a way of identifying himself.
“Margaret,” Margaret said uncertainly. “Booth one-dash-one-thirty-eight, corner of Memory Lane and Treasure Way.” Seymour didn’t say anything, so she added, “Welcome aboard.” The words tasted sour, camp counselorish, and unnatural. Already these men’s tackiness was affecting her. After a few weeks’ exposure, she’d be decorating her mantel with plastic fast-food prizes and those googly-eyed fuzzballs with sticker feet, wearing shirts that jingled with myriad gaudy charms and buttons sewn in willy-nilly patterns, eating Lucky Charms for breakfast out of a Tiffany bowl.
Seymour said, “Don’t mind us. We’re just settling in. Got this booth here and one in Hall Three for our vinyl.”
She prayed that by vinyl he meant record albums and not some sort of depraved sex apparel. You just never knew when it came to these people. They had been here less than a day and already they’d staked their claim to multiple halls! As much as it would anguish her, Margaret would have to investigate their other booth later. As the Heart of America’s senior-most dealer, it was her duty.
“Nice to meet you,” Lee said without sincerity and then left, probably to gather even more junk. Frankly, she preferred his rudeness to Seymour’s hello there aren’t I cute brand of social charm. He was presently digging through the boxes and humming. Having made himself known, he evidently had no interest in continuing the conversation, no desire to ask Margaret what sorts of antiques (official dictionary definition) interested her, how long she’d been in the industry, or if she would introduce him to the community of dealers who made the Heart of America their home away from home. Just as she was preparing to sigh pointedly and leave for the café, he yanked out of a box an object so vile and blatantly violative to the mall’s clear policy guidelines that Margaret swore she could taste—she could actually taste—a wisp of vomit in the back of her throat.
It was a doll, not just any doll, but one fashioned in the likeness of a man named MC Hammer, whom Margaret—though she’d never cared for popular music, preferring opera and classical—recalled as a rap musician she’d watched, despite herself, perform his clangorous so-called songs on many late-night talk shows in the nineties. The man, with his ridiculous circus pants and a swagger that intimated violence, had been inescapable. Margaret especially did not care for rap music or whatever nonsense name it was called by now. The doll was of compatible dimensions with the Barbies and Kens that Delores Kovacs sold in Hall Two, and manufactured by the same company. With horror she pictured it, in its distasteful sparkling outfit, cavorting with the clean-cut figures of her childhood: staring out of those still, white eyes and flashing that menacing grin as he reclined on the DreamHouse sofa, his arm around Barbie, stripped down to her black-and-white underthing, a nearby boom box quaking with the cacophonous beat of the bonus cassingle the box boasted was included inside, while poor Ken lay dead on the floor, shot up by the rapper himself.
Seymour must have noticed her looking, because he held the doll close to her face. “I know,” he said. “Isn’t it hysterical?”
Margaret pinched her lips and nodded. There was junk and there was—even in her thoughts she pardoned her French—shit. The Pac-Man beer stein was one thing, the My Secret Princess play set quite another, but this—this was just too much. Something would have to be done about it. She would see to it that something was done. She nodded a curt goodbye to Seymour, walked down Memory Lane, turned the corner at Good Deal Avenue, and stopped in the lounge/café area at the intersection of Good Deal and Fancy Street.
The mall was so immense—nearly two hundred thousand square feet, featured upon its opening in Martha Stewart Living magazine as the largest year-round antiques market in the state of Kansas—that, for the benefit of fatigued customers, rest areas such as this had been strategically placed around the building near the bathrooms. There sat a large TV on mute tuned to the listings channel, an old couch and a couple of recliners (not antique, not collectible, but flannel thrift store cast-offs), a couple of humming vending machines, an “old fashioned” popcorn cart, and—thank heavens—Heart of America co-owner Keith Stoller, hunched over the surface of a wobbly card table with the focus of a monk as he collated a mess of papers into neat stapled packets.
“Keith,” Margaret said as she took the seat across from him, “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Just getting some stuff ready for the meeting.” Keith, an astonishingly short man with a pale comb-over on an even paler scalp, whose clothes were forever haunted by stains of mysterious origin, and whom frankly Margaret could sometimes scarcely bear to look at, kept his eyes trained on the papers. “Lindy Bobo Action Plan,” the cover sheet read, referring to the local toddler, a beauty pageant champion already something of a regional celebrity, who had recently gone missing. Margaret felt for the little girl and her family, she truly did. The world could be so wicked. But the Heart of America was supposed to be a haven from the wicked outside world, offering respite from the stresses and calamities of modern life. Littering the rest area with such stark reminders of the brutality people came here to escape ruined the ambience, to say the least.
“We have a problem,” Margaret said to Keith’s bald spot. When he didn’t look up, when he continued to slap slap slap the stapler with machine-like efficiency, when it became clear he was ignoring her, she added, at a volume that surprised even her: “A big problem!” Keith recoiled and knocked some papers onto the floor. Margaret made no move to pick them up. Now that she had his attention, she continued. “As you may or may not know, you’ve got a pair of new vendors under your charge. They’ve taken over—completely—Patricia’s booth.”
“Her old booth, yes. Lee and Seymour. Nice guys.”
Of course, she didn’t have anything against gays in general. She enjoyed many reality television shows they hosted and appreciated their zest for life and eye for color. She especially liked decorating and remodeling programs and used to watch them together with Patricia as they talked on the phone, her TV across town tuned to the same channel, her laughter blowing through the receiver like a soft breeze in Margaret’s ear.
“Perfectly friendly gentlemen whom I have no personal feeling toward one way or the other. However”—Margaret’s eyes drifted to the television screen behind Keith, a commercial for a racy movie thriller that alternated images of bare flesh, guns, and explosions—“a doll they are selling and putting on prominent display in their booth is in violation of policy guidelines.”
“Do we have to do this right now? Maybe we should save this for the meeting. Veronica wants these booklets ready before—”
“I would love to talk about it at the meeting, Keith, but I think it’s crucial you get the whole story beforehand so you know I’m right. Now, as you and I and most dealers are aware, there are different policies for different areas of the building. What works for one hall may not work for—may in fact actively work against—the aims of another hall. Over in Hall One, the logical starting point for most customers and thus the hall with the heaviest foot traffic, we have a rule—a very generous rule, I think—that all items displayed must be made before the year 1989.”
“And you think this doll is from after that time.”
“I am almost certain.”
Keith shifted in his seat. He had thumbprint smudges on the oversized lenses of his glasses. Margaret sensed he was going to tell her something she didn’t want to hear. He was positively radiating meekness. He was the abstract concept of ineffectuality made concrete. “Look,” he said, “it’s just one doll. Let it go. I’ve got more important things to—”
“It’s not just one doll. There’s more. Computer game apparatuses, I think. A My Secret Princess play set that looked suspiciously contemporary.” She clenched her fists. She should have known not to bother with him. It was his wife, Stacey, who sported the figurative pants when it came to antiques—Keith didn’t know cameo from cloisonné—but she and Margaret, through no fault of Margaret’s own, had a somewhat strained relationship. “The doll’s name is McHammer,” she said.
“A McDonald’s thing?” Keith fiddled with the stapler. “Oh!” he said. “MC Hammer.”
“You of all people should be aware that this is no time to be upsetting the equilibrium of Hall One, what with Mark and Grant coming on Monday. Unless you want to look like some dirty old flea market on national TV.” The past couple of years had not been kind to the Heart of America, and stalwart Hall One, itself larger than many entire antique malls, was their only shot at making a good impression on the “Peddlin’ Pair” (as the promos called them). If Keith and Stacey knew what was good for them, they’d direct the camera crews to Hall One and Hall One only, as it was the only of the mall’s six sections at anything close to capacity; some of the others—Hall Five in particular—were frankly in shambles.
Keith pushed back his chair and stood. “If it matters so much to you, all right. We’ll look it up.”
Margaret followed him down Fancy Street to the lobby, noting but not in any way appreciating or even meaning to look at the yellow-white strip of ripped underwear briefs his sagging pants revealed. On the bulletin board a neon flyer adorned with the missing girl’s image was pinned so it overlapped with the laminated announcement of her own booth having been voted “customer’s choice” at last month’s sales event. At the register, Keith’s teenage daughter, Ellie, paged idly through a textbook, ignoring the customer who stood before her and cleared his throat for attention.
“Customer, Ellie,” Keith said.
“What am I supposed to do about it?”
“Your job,” Keith said tremulously. “Please, sweetheart.”
Ellie slammed her book shut with such force the customer startled. Through gritted teeth she said, “How may I help you, sir?” Far be it from Margaret to poke her nose in other people’s family affairs, but the Stollers ought to do something about that girl of theirs.
In the EMPLOYEES ONLY area in the back room behind the counter, among storage lockers, a kitchenette, and a series of desks and bookshelves that functioned as a dealer reference library, was an old computer that purred like a motorcycle whenever you turned it on and an assortment of illustrated antiques and collectibles price guides to satisfy every niche. Keith selected a heavy tome whose cover read TOYS: From Victorian Dolls to the Electronic Games of the Future. Holding it close to his chin so that Margaret couldn’t look over his shoulder, he turned the pages thoughtfully. “Well,” he said, “the My Secret Princess thing is definitely okay.” Margaret pictured the heavy book colliding swiftly with Keith’s skull, though in her mind’s eye she couldn’t tell who’d swung it; she guessed with slight embarrassment that she had. “But the Hammer thing is from 1991. You’re right.”
Keith bit his lip, removed his glasses, and wiped them on his shirt. When he put them back on they were somehow even more smudged than before. “Are you really sure this is worth me having to talk to them about it?”
“Yes,” Margaret said, “I am.” After all, she wanted to add, it took less than a doll to fell Rome, though she wasn’t sure what that even meant.
Having done her due diligence, Margaret thought it prudent to let Keith confront the men discreetly, so she left to attend to some errands and did not return to the Heart of America until later in the afternoon.
The Dealer Association meeting was not to take place until after closing, but as usual many dealers had arrived early with plans to update their stock or redecorate their booths. They shuffled in, unusually listless, the small talk strained and automatic. A couple of men from Hall Six flicked cigarettes past the outdoor ashtray and traded macabre gossip about the Bobo case.
“I heard they already found her body in a dumpster behind Big Lots.”
“Nah, the mother went psycho and staged the kidnapping, only she tied the rope too tight and the kid choked.”
“Guy in the comments of the Eagle article, but it seems legit.”
Nevertheless, once Margaret made her way past those boors into the mall proper, she found herself overcome with a sense of comfort and belonging. How nice, even amid all the ugliness of the world outside, to know she belonged to a true-blue community. It was just too bad that the Dealer Association continually failed to elect her president, despite her expertise and seniority. She had been selling at Heart since before antique was a verb, years before current president Peter Deen began cluttering up Hall Two with his little playthings.
Margaret dreaded running into the new dealers. Perhaps it’d been unnecessary to raise such a fuss over a single item, even if it was by date of manufacture verboten vis-à-vis official Hall One policy. She hoped Keith hadn’t mentioned specifically that it was she who’d reported them. It wasn’t as if Margaret were some humorless shrew who lived and died by arbitrary principles, who never jaywalked even across empty streets, who never let loose or enjoyed half of a vodka gimlet to celebrate special occasions. And it wasn’t as if the power that came with being the senior-most dealer had gone to her head. She wasn’t out to disallow anyone the freedom to sell whatever merchandise he or she wished. This was the Heart of America, after all. She was, in fact, the driving force, so many years back, in the successful petition for looser merchandise restrictions in Hall One; before she changed things around, the area was limited to antiques and antiques only, but she hadn’t been able to see why she shouldn’t be allowed to include her fine Depression-era glass with the rest of her collection. And all the other dealers—most of them gone now, moved on to other malls and flea markets, or else they’d since dropped out of the business entirely—agreed with her. No one could accuse her of sticklerness. She had her fun, kooky side, too. If one doubted that, one could be directed to her second booth, in Hall Three, containing the most expansive selection of Hazel-Atlas juice glasses in the state, if not the entire nation.
Still, as she returned to her little corner of Hall One, she was relieved to see the offending item had been removed. She hoped—though she didn’t care one way or the other what most people thought of her, not really—that the men wouldn’t hold against her the fact that she’d, with no personal animosity but only a humble respect for the policies to which even she herself was held accountable, seen to the excision of the doll.
Now that it was gone—and sincerely she appreciated the men’s compliance—other sights poked her in the eyes: a big-headed Batman shampoo bottle, demonic stuffed creatures she vaguely recognized from TV ads, an illuminated beer sign with a picture of a scantily clad woman leaning over a pool table, a framed illustration of a crude Charlie Brown smoking a marijuana joint, a statuette done in the Precious Memories style of a grotesquely shrunken man with a base that read “Dirty Old Men Need Love Too,” a board game that endorsed binge drinking and pill popping called Pass-Out, an unopened six-pack of Billy Beer. Even if it was all manufactured prior to 1989, it tested the limits of what belonged in Hall One. An antique mall, in its ideal state, was a sort of museum in which all the curios and artifacts were available for consumption, not just by the wallet but the mind and eyes, too, the perfect hybrid of gift shop and exhibit. Accordingly, a smart vendor selectively curated his or her allotted space. This booth presently inhabited by Seymour and Lee (it just didn’t feel right, with Patricia so recently gone, to refer to it as their booth, as if they owned it, as if they belonged there) was meretricious, circus-colored. Surely the men meant no harm. They just hadn’t yet been thoroughly familiarized with the mall’s ethos. She’d just have to have a nice little nonconfrontational chat with them about it after the meeting.
Margaret turned away from booth #1-146, closed her eyes for a moment to clear the burned-in image of the big mess, and entered her dear #1-138. She felt as if she’d just emerged from the murky depths of a foreboding tar-colored body of water onto a sun-speckled white sand beach. Soft light and clean, delicious air seemed to flow outward from the yawning cavities of each piece of glassware surrounding her. She spun around, feeling almost girlish, picturing herself bathed in the kaleidoscope of colored light like that projected from a church’s stained-glass windows. After all—no blasphemy intended, of course—there was something slightly solemn, holy even, about it, a sort of near-silent sound—a vibration or presence—that emanated from the glass; she’d always thought so, but never shared this thought with anyone, anyone but Patricia, who then took Margaret’s hand in hers and whispered, her breath moist and particley from the crumbs of the Nilla wafers they’d just shared, “I know exactly what you mean. There’s a word for it, hearing something just by looking at it.” Margaret stopped spinning now and straightened her collar. The kiss—it had been meant only as a friendly gesture. That was the way they did it in Europe, wasn’t it? It was true that there was no occasion for it. Margaret had never had many friends growing up, she hadn’t been trained in how these sorts of relationships functioned. This is what she would say if Patricia finally answered the phone. Yes, she’d call again today, Margaret decided, after the meeting. She should be home by then. Margaret remembered that Patricia’s Thursday yoga classes ended at six.
It was then, out of the corner of her eye, that she caught sight of a foreign body at rest in one of her sugar bowls. As the silhouette came into focus, she dropped her purse and pitched backward, tripped on a heel, and collapsed on the cold floor. Looking up at the doll’s ominous brown face, its arms clutching the rim of the bowl, a tiny microphone in its tiny hand, she thought: This will not do. This will not do at all.
Anger lifted her off the floor and she grabbed the doll, careful not to disturb her bowl, and carried it, a plastic foot pinched loosely between two delicate fingers, down the aisles of Hall One. This was, in her opinion, grounds for eviction, and she was sure, if she reminded them of how loyal a renter she’d been these many years, Keith and Stacey would agree.