Authors: Tamar Myers
“Okay,” I said, eager to be on the move again. It had seemed rather decadent, sitting down for lunch in my favorite new restaurant while my personal freedom or, at the very least, my reputation was at stake.
The address on my paper was for Leeburg's Gym, not Marvin Leeburg's residence. Partly because Rob had insisted I see the house, and partly because the gym was closer, I chose to visit the gym first.
To reach Mount Pleasant from downtown Charleston one had to cross the Cooper River on the most magnificent bridge ever constructed. The longest single span suspension bridge in North America, the Thomas Ravenel Bridge, resembles two pair of sails that have been lifted off the water by a strong wind and soar high above the harbor, brushing the heavens with their mast tips. On foggy days the tops of the spans actually disappear into the clouds. On clear days it takes concerted effort to drive from one bank to another without being dangerously distracted.
Less than half a century ago Mount Pleasant was a sleepy little village that depended on the shrimp industry. Today most of its workforce is employed feeding, clothing, and otherwise tending to the needs of thousands of retirees who have discovered this sun-drenched paradise. Whilst previous generations retired shortly before dying, many Boomers retired early, only to realize that, thanks to an increased life expectancy, they had more free time on their hands than they knew what to do with. Not wanting to spend this time
in less than peak condition, they began exercising with a vengeance. Gyms replaced shuffleboards, and personal trainers took the place of bingo callers.
But the quest for healthy bodies and svelte waistlines does not always go hand in hand with logic. Drive by any gym in the country and you will observe that the parking places nearest the front door are invariably filled. Folks who are eager to pace both aimlessly and endlessly on treadmills are often loath to walk an extra hundred yards to get to their machines. Many of these people, who are content to jog in place for miles on end, must drive to the grocery store that is just up the street.
Thus it is that Mount Pleasant is chockablock with cars. Bob, who clearly had had something on his mind, took advantage of the congestion to unburden his soul.
“Abby, I'm trying to be as open-minded as I can about this, but I don't see it working.”
“I'm not saying that I have much hope for it either. But what else can I do? If by the time Greg gets home tonight I don't have some plausible explanation, he's going to be one unhappy camper.”
“UhâAbby, I don't think we're talking about the same thing.”
“No, I hear you. I really do. Every time I get in
a tight spot, rather than waiting to be rescued, like any sensible woman would, I come out charging, rattling my saber.”
“Would you be willing to rattle that saber in her direction?”
ob's mom. We did tell you she's coming to visit, didn't we?”
Oops. Maybe we weren't on the same page. “How long is she staying?” I asked. That was the most important question. I can take Greg's mom just about as long as it takes a fish to spoil. Any longer than that and we both get into rotten moods.
“Six weeks,” Bob said.
“Rob's sister, Rachel, and her husband are going on a South Pacific cruise. Rachel usually looks in after their motherânot that she needs a lot of careâso I can't blame her for wanting a break. But Abby, the mother lives entirely on her own, and is completely capable of looking after herself. The only reason Rachel is so involved is for her own peace of mind. But in that case, why doesn't
she just hire a live-in companion? She can certainly afford it.”
“Abby, what will I do? The woman hates my guts. She blames me for turning her son gay. Never mind that he came out decades before we met.”
“What does Rob think of this extended visit?”
“He's worried to death. He won't say anything about it, but I can tell. He's never been so solicitous. If I didn't know his mother was coming, I'd think he was having an affair. Abby, what shall I do?”
We were stuck at a traffic light behind an SUV that bore a perplexing variety of bumper stickers, including honk if you love noise and silence is golden. I took my time in formulating a response.
“Use what you've got,” I finally said.
“Great. I have a receding hairline, a bit of a gut, and arms and legs like matchsticks.”
“You have a keen intellect, a love of classical music, and you're a whiz in the kitchen.”
“I am? Abby, I thought you hated my cooking. You're constantly thinking of new excuses not to eat with us.”
“Trueâand I mean that in all kindness. But Bob, it isn't your cooking per se, but those ghastly
ingredients you use. Emu meat, duck embryos, locust butterâthe kind of stuff they make you eat on
“Abby, emu is becoming very popular. It's low in fat, high in proteinâ”
“But not ordinary, right? And that's what Rob's mother likes; ordinary food. And she listens to elevator music, not the classics. So here's the deal: turn your dial to the classical music station and start cooking the weirdestâI mean most exoticâdishes you can think of. If you have any doubts, call me. I guarantee you that she'll be packing her bags again within a week.”
“But where will she go?”
“Where not? The woman has more money than God and Fort Knox put together. Last year she went on four cruises, by
And you know she has more friends up in Charlotte than she can shake a stick at. Cousins, too.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“She went on six cruises.”
“I stand corrected. So you see, Bob, the only reason Rob's sister checks in on her mother every day is because it makes herâthe sisterâfeel good. If you play your cards as I suggested, you can get Mrs. Goldburg to leave on her own account. Rob
won't be able to blame you for thatâfor just being yourself.”
Bob leaned over and kissed my cheek. You're the best, Abby. I have a great new album,
Bland Bach (Sonatas for Sleeping By).
And I think I'll start by cooking some haggis. Do you know what haggis are, Abby?”
“Please don't remind me.”
The light changed, and just past the intersection we turned right and into one of Mount Pleasant's unfortunate strip malls. Leeburg's Gym occupied what used to be a bowling alley. To the left was Bubba's Chinese Buffet, and to the right was Sweated in by the Oldies, an upscale clothing consignment shop. One could fill up on Moo Goo Gai Grits, pretend to work it off, and then buy a set of larger clothes, already broken in. The American dream in only three stops.
Sure enough, all the parking spaces immediately in front of the gym were taken. But as luck would have it, a car parked right in front the restaurant pulled out, drove twenty yards, and began to cruise the lot, waiting for someone in the gym to depart for the clothing store. We gladly took their spot.
Luck held with us and we located Marvin Leeburg at the reception desk. He smiled when he
saw us, revealing teeth that only a dental supply company could make.
“Hi,” I said, “I'm Abby Timberlake, and I believe you already know Bob.”
I could see how Rob would find Marvin attractive. In addition to perfect teeth, he had a strong profile, a thick head of hair, piercing blue eyes, and sported the Yasser Arafat beard that is so popular these days.
“Hey,” he said. I could tell that he didn't remember Bob, but I think he recognized me.
“Mr. Leeburg, I was wondering if I might have a few minutes to discuss antiques with you.”
His scowl was slight but unmistakable. “I don't solicit at your place of business, so please don't solicit at mine.”
“I'm not here to solicit, sir. It's just that Bob here says you have an awesome collection of antique canes. I know this is very forward of me, but I was wondering if it would ever be possible for me to see them.”
His scowl melted. “Well, why don't you step into my office. We can talk in there.” He called to a young man with a mask of freckles who was helping a vastly overweight woman regain her self-esteem. The lad trotted over to cover the reception desk.
We followed Marvin into a long, narrow room
that had undoubtedly once contained shelves of rental shoes. The lingering odor of feet only just overcame the smell of cheap Chinese next door.
“Please, have seats.” He gestured to a pair of folding chairs. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“We're fine,” I said, before Rob had the chance to request rare Tibetan teas picked from inaccessible Himalayan ridges by virgin monkeys wearing HermÃ¨s scarves and Versace sunglasses.
He nodded. “I have over three hundred canes in my collection,” he said. “I know that sounds like a lot, and it is, but once you start collecting, it can become an obsession. It's like I live and breathe canes. I go to as many shows as I can. Forget what I said before. If you have something really special to show me, I might be interested.”
It's hard to stay on one's toes when they are so tiny. “Uhâyes, I do have some canes. As a matter of fact they came from a storage shed sale on Johns Island. I believe you bid on that lot yourself.”
He didn't even blink. “Yes. Didn't have much hope for it. But you say there were some canes? Any nice ones?”
“Do you mind describing some?”
“Dark. Fine grain. Handmade.” I felt like I was describing fudge.
“I assume your intent is to resell them?”
“May I have first crack at them?”
“Absolutely, that's why I'm here. Mr. Leeburgâ”
“Please, call me Marvin.”
“I'm a relative newcomer to this business. At least when it comes to cane collecting. I was wondering how it is you knew to bid on that storage shed? I had no idea there were canes in there, or anything else in there for that matter. I mean, the shed could have been empty.”
there in the shed? If you don't mind my asking.”
“Junk.” I'm sure that answer would have cleared a lie detector test. Nobody in their right mind would consider a dirty gym bag containing a skull to be anything but trash.
“One man's trash, another man's treasure,” he said.
I keep my bottle-brown hair short. Nonetheless I reached up and tugged on what little bangs I have. If folks kept reading my mind, I would have to grow my hair long, possibly even wear a scarf. A HermÃ¨s scarf, of course.
“As a matter of fact, that's how I started collecting canes. When I was a young boy I inherited a walking stick my granddaddy always used. And
When he wasn't leaning on it, he was whacking me with it. The old codger was so mean he'd fight a circular saw with one hand and a camp meeting of wildcats with the other. Anyway, when the cane finally ended up in my possession, the first thing I did was run over to the nearest Dumpster and toss that sucker in. Well, somebody knew it was worth something. The next thing I knew, there was a front-page article on it, with a photo, in the
Post and Courier.
It said Granddaddy's walking stickâthe same one he used to beat me withâwas also a blowgun.”
“What?” Bob and I chorused. His bass and my soprano sounded pretty good together.
“The staff was hollow. It also unscrewed to make two sections. The top section contained little darts. Poison-covered darts from South America, the kind some Amazon tribes use for hunting. The poison comes from frog secretions. At any rate, the bottom piece was the actual gun. Well, I did some checking with relativesâmy mom was dead by thenâand learned that Granddaddy was in a so-called import-export business that never actually imported anything. He spent most of his time away from home, and a lot of it in Europe. Especially during World War Two. My uncle Bart, mom's older brother, said he'd heard a story that his father was an American spy whose mission it
was to kill Hitler. Of course he didn't kill Hitler, but that doesn't mean the story isn't true. In fact, it made a lot of sense to me; a lot of things started falling in place.
“To make an even longer story shorter, I was able to buy the cane from the guy who found it in the Dumpster, but I had to top several other offers. But ever since I got that cane back, I've been fascinated by them. Unlike paintings, or statues, canes were actually used by the previous owners, and a lot of themâif they could speakâwould have real tales to tell.”
Bob, bless his Yankee heart, knew a tale when he heard one. As interesting as the poison dart cane was, its story had neatly diverted us from the question I had posed. Why did Marvin Leeburg bid on the shed, and did he have any inkling it contained canes?
“I saw the ad for the locked trunk sale,” my friend said, “but I passed. It didn't seem that excitingâmaybe just some lawn chairs and an old backyard grill. I'm with Abby; what made you think there might be canes?”
Again Marvin's gaze held steady. “I didn't. But I have Saturdays offâone of the perks of being ownerâand I try to get around to as many sales as possible. I even hit the yard sales if I'm up that early. You know what I mean; you have to get up
at five these days to make it worth your while. If you're not there when they lay out the stuff, you might as well stay home.” He paused to scratch his stubble. “You fish, Mrs. Timberlake?”
“My husband's a shrimper. He likes to stay on land on his days off.”
“Not ocean fish,” he said. “I mean pond fish. With a bamboo poleâGranddaddy whipped me with that tooâand a bobber. Used to love to fish like that as a kid. Especially if the water wasn't clear and I couldn't see beneath the surface. That way you never knew when that bobber was about to jerk and you had something on the line. Maybe something really big and special. Been trout fishing, where you can see the fish, and that isn't the same. Well, that's what the locked trunk sale felt like to me. I love those things. But you were the lucky one this time and caught the fish.”
His explanation seemed quite reasonable. The thrill of the hunt is something every dealer I've ever known well has admitted. One even said it was like going on safari, not to a game park where you knew there'd be payoff, but to some obscure dark jungle where at any moment a leopard could leap down from the branches. This dealer, by the way, had just acquired a Bengal cat, a rare breed that is descended from the Asian leopard cat, and seemed to have leopards on the brain.
I stood, and Bob hastily followed suit. “You've been very helpful, Marvin,” I said.
“But don't you want to set up a date to see my collection? You could bring the canes from the auction with you.”
Silly me. More and more it seemed like I had elephants on my brain. Literally. Youth is wasted on the young, and so are active brain cells.
“Certainly,” I said. “How about Thursday evening?” Frankly, I was satisfied that Marvin was who he presented himself as, and that a visit to see his collection could wait until after I'd extricated myself from the jam I was in. By Thursday I'd have the entire mystery tied up with a bow, and if the ribbon was long enough, I'd tie up Tweedledee and Tweedledum as well. The nerve of them to threaten me with an ape's skull!
“Sorry, no can do. Not unless you're into watching
Survivor, the South Pole.
I'd forgotten that was on. It was, in fact, my favorite show. Greg's too. We had a tradition: I'd make a huge bowl of white cheddar popcorn, he'd whip up a batch of chocolate martinis, and then along with Dmitri, our cat, we'd curl up on our California king-size bed, pull up the drawbridges, and utterly relax. It was not the kind of thing we could, or would, share with someone else.
“I said. “Tell you what.
Here's my card. Call me sometime and let me know when it would be convenient for you.”
“How about breakfast tomorrow?”
“I'm taking the morning offâhave to see my chiropractor. I live on the Isle of Palms, oceanfront. We could have breakfast on my deck and watch the container ships come in.” Since Marvin Leeburg could read my mind, reading my face was child's play. “Rob is welcome to come as well.”
“That's Bob,” my companion said, clearly annoyed.
“Yes, of course. Well, Mrs. Timberlake, how about it?”
Breakfast by the sea, watching ships and dolphins, what could be nicer than that? Given all the stress I had on my plate, salt air might just be the tonic I needed. Of course Bob had his own shop to run, so it wouldn't be fair to ask him. But I wasn't about to breakfast with Marvin Leeburg without a chaperone present.