this book is for—
my hands-on family: ross adam konigsburg, sherry berks, michael berks, harriett rosenberg, leonard rosenberg, paul konigsburg, lesley konigsburg, laurie todd, robert todd;
and friends: joan hill, susana urbina, judy jacobson, helene edwards, judith viorst, joan monsky, phyllis lewis/lesley kirkwood, debby/jack dreher, jane condon/dan selhorst, jane novak, helene baker, mary carr patton;
and doctors: steven buskirk, louis russo;
and the ineffable: bobbi yoffee
IN THE LATE AFTERNOON ON the second friday in September, Amedeo Kaplan stepped down from the school bus into a cloud of winged insects. He waved his hand in front of his face only to find that the flies silently landed on the back of his hand and stayed there. They didn’t budge, and they didn’t bite. They were as lazy as the afternoon. Amedeo looked closely. They were not lazy. They were preoccupied. They were coupling, mating on the wing, and when they landed, they stayed connected, end to end. They were shameless. He waved his hands and shook his arms, but nothing could interrupt them.
He stopped, unhooked his backpack, and laid it on the sidewalk. Fascinated by their silence and persistence, he knelt down to watch them. Close examination revealed an elongated body covered with black wings; end to end, they were no longer than half an inch. The heads were red, the size of a pin. There was a longer one and a shorter one, and from what he remembered of nature studies, their size determined their sex—or vice versa.
The flies covered his arms like body hair. He started scraping them off and was startled to hear a voice behind him say, “Lovebugs.”
He turned around and recognized William Wilcox.
William (!) Wilcox (!).
For the first time in his life Amedeo was dealing with being the new kid in school, the new kid in town, and finding out that neither made him special. Quite the opposite. Being new was generic at Lancaster Middle School. The school itself didn’t start until sixth grade, so every single one of his fellow sixth graders was a new kid in school, and being new was also common because St. Malo was home to a lot of navy families, so for some of the kids at Lancaster Middle School, this was the third time they were the new kid in town. The navy seemed to move families to any town that had water nearby—a river, a lake, a pond, or even high humidity—so coming from a famous port city like New York added nothing to his interest quotient.
Amedeo was beginning to think that he had been conscripted into AA. Aloners Anonymous. No one at Lancaster Middle School knew or cared that he was new, that he was from New York, that he was Amedeo Kaplan.
But now William (!) Wilcox (!) had noticed him.
William Wilcox was anything but anonymous. He was not so much alone as aloof. In a school as variegated as an argyle sock, William Wilcox was not part of the pattern. Blond though he was, he was a dark thread on the edge. He was all edges. He had a self-assurance that inspired awe or fear or both.
Everyone seemed to know who William Wilcox was and that he had a story.
Sometime after William Wilcox’s father died, his mother got into the business of managing estate sales. She took charge of selling off the contents of houses of people who had died or who were moving or downsizing or had some other need to dispossess themselves of the things they owned. She was paid a commission on every item that was sold. It was a good business for someone like Mrs. Wilcox, who had no money to invest in inventory but who had the time and the talent to learn a trade. Mrs. Wilcox was fortunate that two antique dealers, Bertram Grover and Ray Porterfield, took her under their wings and started her on a career path.
From the start, William worked side by side with his mother.
In their first major estate sale, the Birchfields’, Mrs. Wilcox found a four-panel silk screen wrapped in an old blanket in the back of a bedroom closet. It was slightly faded but had no tears or stains, and she could tell immediately that it had been had painted a very long time ago. She priced the screen reasonably at one hundred twenty-five dollars but could not interest anyone in buying it. Her instincts told her it was something fine, so when she was finishing the sale and still couldn’t find a buyer, she deducted the full price from her sales commission and took the screen home, put it up in front of the sofa in their living room, and studied it. Each of the four panels told part of the story of how women washed and wove silk. The more she studied and researched, the more she became convinced that the screen was not only very fine but rare.
On the weekend following the Birchfield sale, she and William packed the screen into the family station wagon and tried selling it to antique shops all over St. Malo. When she could not interest anyone in buying it, she and William took to the road, and on several consecutive weekends, they stopped at antique shops in towns along the interstate, both to the north and south of St. Malo.
They could not find a buyer.
Without his mother’s knowing, William took photos of the screen and secretly carried them with him when his sixth-grade class took a spring trip to Washington, D.C. As his classmates were touring the National Air and Space Museum, William stole away to the Freer Gallery of Art, part of the Smithsonian that specializes in Asian art and antiquities.
Once there, William approached the receptionist’s desk and asked to see the curator in charge of ancient Chinese art. The woman behind the desk asked, “Now, what business would you be having with the curator of Chinese art?” When William realized that the woman was not taking him seriously, he took out the photographs he had of the screen and lined them up at the edge of the desk so that they faced her. William could tell that the woman had no idea what she was seeing, let alone the value of it. She tried stalling him by saying that the curatorial staff was quite busy. William knew that he did not have much time before his sixth-grade class would miss him. He coolly assessed the situation: He was a sixth grader with no credentials, little time, and an enormous need. He squared his shoulders and thickened his Southern accent to heavy sweet cream and said, “Back to home, we have a expression, ma’am.”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“Why, back to home we always say that there’s some folk who don’t know that they’re through the swinging doors of opportunity until they’ve got swat on their backside.”
It may have been because he returned each of her cold stares with cool dignity, or it may simply have been the quiet assurance in his voice coupled with his courtly manners that made it happen, but the receptionist picked up the phone and called the curator, a Mrs. Fortinbras.
William showed Mrs. Fortinbras the photographs, and Mrs. Fortinbras was not at all dismissive. She said that the photographs—crude as they were—made it difficult to tell enough about the screen. But they did show that it might be interesting. She suggested that William bring the screen itself to Washington so that she could arrange to have it examined by her staff.
When school was out for the summer, William convinced his mother to pack up the screen again and drive to Washington, D.C., and have Mrs. Fortinbras and her staff at the Freer give it a good look.
And they did take it there.
And Mrs. Fortinbras and her staff did examine it.
And Mrs. Fortinbras and her staff did recommend that the museum buy it.
And the museum did buy it.
For twenty thousand dollars.
When they got back to St. Malo, William called the newspaper. The Vindicator printed William’s story along with the pictures he had taken. The article appeared below the fold on the first page of the second section.
William was now standing above Amedeo as he crouched over his backpack. Taking a minute
to catch his breath, Amedeo examined the lovebugs on the back of his hand and asked, “Do they bite?” He had already witnessed that they did not.
“They’re harmless,” William said. “They don’t sting or bite.”
“Are they a Florida thing?”
“I haven’t ever seen them before.”
“They swarm twice a year. Spring and fall.”
Amedeo pointed to one pair that had just landed on his arm. “Is that all they do?”
“From about ten in the morning until dusk.” William raised his shoulder slowly and tilted his head slightly—like a conversational semicolon—before continuing. “The females live only two or three days. They die after their mating flight.”
Amedeo laughed. “Way to go!”
Amedeo picked up his backpack and started walking with William.
“Do you live here?” Amedeo asked.
“Then why did you get off at my stop?”
“I meant that I live here. So it’s my stop.”
“I’m not gonna take it away from you,” William replied, and his smile disappeared.
They had reached the edge of Mrs. Zender’s property. Without a whistle or a wave, William headed down the driveway.
Amedeo stopped to watch.
William lifted the back hatch of a station wagon that was parked at the bottom of Mrs. Zender’s driveway. No one who lived on Mandarin Road owned a station wagon. Mrs. Zender drove a pink Thunderbird convertible: stick shift, whitewall tires, and a car horn that pealed out the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Amedeo watched as William removed a large brown paper bag from the back. It was not a Bloomingdale’s Big Brown Bag, but a no-handles, flat-bottom brown bag from a grocery store. He could tell from the way William lifted it that the bag was definitely not empty. He carried the bag up to Mrs. Zender’s front door and walked right in without ringing or knocking. He knew that he was being watched, but he did not once look back.
Amedeo waited until William closed the door behind him before he walked down the driveway himself.
Amedeo had been inside Mrs. Zender’s house once. Two days after moving to St. Malo, they still didn’t have a phone, and his mother had sent him next door to ask the lady of the house permission to use her phone to “light a fire” under them. Them being the phone enemy.
Amedeo’s mother was an executive with Infinitel, an independent long-distance telephone company that was a competitor to Teletron, St. Malo’s communications provider. To his mother, the telephone was as vital a connection as the muscle that connected her hand to her arm. If St. Malo already had had access to cell phones, she wouldn’t be in this predicament, but then if St. Malo already had access to cell phones, they wouldn’t be in St. Malo at all. The only thing neutralizing her indignation about not having a working phone was the embarrassment the local company was suffering at not being able to properly service one of their own. But on this morning there was also the pool man (whom she secretly believed to be the one who had cut the line) to deal with. She chose to wait for the pool man herself and to send Amedeo next door to deal with the phone. Amedeo had been happy to go.
A wide threshold of broken flagstones led to the front door of Mrs. Zender’s house. There were no torn papers and dried leaves blowing up against a ripped screen door as in the opening credits of a horror movie. Her grounds were not littered with papers but with pinecones and needles, fallen Spanish moss, and big leathery sycamore leaves. Her lawn was cut but not manicured; her shrubs were not pruned, and except for the holes through the branches that the electric company made to protect the wires, her trees were wild. The paint on her front door was peeling. Her place looked shabby. Shabby in a genteel way, as if the people who lived there didn’t have to keep up with the Joneses because they themselves were the Joneses.
Amedeo wiped a moustache of sweat from his upper lip with the sleeve of his T-shirt. Like a performer ready to go on stage, he stood on the threshold and took a long sip of the hot, moist gaseous matter that St. Malo called air. He lifted his hand to ring the bell.
The door swung wide, and the entire opening filled, top to bottom, with a sleeve. The sleeve of a silk kimono. “Yes?” the woman said, smiling. Her smile engaged her whole face. Her mouth opened high and wide; her nostrils flared, and her eyebrows lifted to meet a narrow margin of blond hair. Just beyond the hairline, her head was covered by a long, gauzy silk scarf—purple—that was tied in an elaborate knot below her left ear but was still long enough to hang to her waist. She wore three shades of eye shadow—one of which was purple—and heavy black mascara. Her lips were painted a bright crimson, which feathered above and below the line of her lips and left red runes on three of her front teeth.
It was nine o’clock in the morning.
Amedeo had never seen anyone dressed like that except when he was in an audience.
“Hello,” he said. “My name is Amedeo Kaplan, and I would like permission to use your phone.”
Mrs. Zender introduced herself and commented, “Amedeo. Lovely name.”
“Thank you. People usually call me Deo.”
“I won’t,” she said. “Amedeo is Italian for Amadeus, which means ‘love of God.’ It was Mozart’s middle name.”
“It was my grandfather’s first name. I’m named for him.”
“Lovely,” she said, “lovely name, but how did you get here, Amedeo?”
“You walked? From where?”
“From next door.”
“Oh,” Mrs. Zender replied. “I didn’t know there was a child.”
“I didn’t know.”
“I was at camp.”
“Music camp?” Mrs. Zender asked.
She smiled expectantly, waiting for an explanation. Fascinated, Amedeo watched her upper lip squeegee away one of the red runes. When he didn’t answer, she told Amedeo to follow her, and with a sweep of sleeve, she pointed the way. The underarm seam of her kimono was split. Mrs. Zender was not a natural blonde.
As they traveled the distance of a long center hall, they passed two or three rooms so dark it was hard to tell where one ended and another began. Every window was covered with heavy drapes, which dropped from padded valances. The word portière from Gone With the Wind came to mind.
In several windows, the drapes had been shortened to accommodate a bulky window air conditioner that was noisily waging war with the heat and humidity. And losing. They passed a dining room large enough to be a ballroom. In the semilight, Amedeo could make out a Phantom of the Opera chandelier hanging over a table that looked long enough to seat the guest list at Buckingham Palace. Opposite the dining room was a room with a baby grand piano; its open lid reflected the few slits of light that pierced the parting of the drapes. The darkness and the drawn drapes added a dimension to the heat. It was August. It was St. Malo. It was hot. Hot, hot, hot.
But the thickness of the air carried the sound of music—opera—out of the rooms and transformed the hallway into a concert hall. Amedeo slowed down and cocked his head to listen.
Mrs. Zender said, “So you like my sound system.”
“One of a kind,” she said, “Karl Eisenhuth himself installed it.”
“Karl Eisenhuth? I’m sorry, I don’t know him.”
“Then I shall tell you. Karl Eisenhuth was the world’s greatest acoustician. He had never before installed a sound system in a private home. He had done opera houses in Brno and Vienna and a symphony hall in Amsterdam. Mr. Zender, my late husband, contacted him and requested that he install a sound system here. Karl Eisenhuth asked Mr. Zender why he should bother with a private home in St. Malo, Florida, and Mr. Zender replied with three words: Aida Lily Tull. That was my professional name. Tho
se three words, Aida Lily Tull, were reason enough.”
Amedeo said, “I’m impressed.” He was.
Mrs. Zender said, “I’m pleased that you are.”
And for reasons he did not yet understand, Amedeo was pleased to have pleased.
Mrs. Zender swept her arm in the direction of the back of the house. The hallway was wide enough to allow them to walk side by side, but Mrs. Zender walked ahead. She was tall, and she was zaftig. Definitely zaftig. She was also majestic. She moved forward like a queen vessel plowing still waters. Her kimono corrugated as she moved. There was a thin stripe of purple that winked as it appeared and then disappeared in a fold of fabric at her waist.
Amedeo was wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt and shorts, but the air inside the house was as thick as motor oil, and perspiration soon coated his arms and legs and made his clothes stick like cuticle. Mrs. Zender seemed not to be sweating. Maybe she followed the dress code of the desert and insulated herself with layers of clothing. Arabs and motor oil had been in the news a lot lately.
The combination of heat, music, and the mesmerizing rock-and-roll of Mrs. Zender’s hips made Amedeo worry about falling unconscious before reaching the door at the end of the hall. What were the names of clothes that desert people wore? Burnoose . . . chador . . . chador. His mother did not approve of chadors.
The rock-and-roll stopped when Mrs. Zender arrived at the door at the end of the hall. She waited for Amedeo to catch up, and then with a flutter of sleeve and a swirl of pattern, she lifted her right arm and pushed the door open. For a minute, she stood against the door, her arm stretched out like a semaphore, beckoning Amedeo to pass in front of her.
He walked into the kitchen, and Mrs. Zender quickly closed the door behind her.
The music stopped.
An air conditioner was propped into the kitchen window and was loudly battling the throbbing pulse of heat that bore into the room. Like his house, Mrs. Zender’s faced east. By August, the afternoon sun was too high to make a direct hit on the kitchen windows, but was still strong enough to bounce off the river and push yellow bands of heat through each of the slats of the Venetian blinds.