Back in the day, I was an art and antiques editor for a lovely southern magazine. I launched on a few odd odysseys. Three French haints dropped in for a midnight chat in the bedroom turret of a 17th-century chateau. (It was a dark-and-stormy midwinter night; I was the only guest.) A crazy collector of African art in New Orleans regaled me with the tale of his second cousin’s tacky second wedding: “Fifty-two bridesmaids in yellow-green gowns lined the gallery; she made them wear that color, so she wouldn’t look so sallow.” (How freaking big was that mansion?) Then came my trek into the hinterlands to cover an antiques shop loaded with Federal and early Empire furniture.
In the far-flung days of Dixie—look away! look away!—planters walked in tall cotton. But in the decades after “The War of Northern Aggression,” worn-out soil and boll weevil infestations plagued dirt-poor subsistence farmers.
After a long drive into the deep night (no streetlights, new moon), I arrived in No-Name. I showed up at the office of the roly-poly, rosy-cheeked shop owner, Mr. R, who ruled the town. We took a turn around the shabby courthouse square.
“I understand the shop is in a Greek-Revival mansion,” I lamely attempted small talk while wishing to drop into a feather bed.
“Oh, yes, my great-great grandfather built it in the 1840s. Our people came here in spring wagons, following pig trails.”
“Now that must be a story.” Then I waited for the southern “people” question.
If you’re a Yankee condescending to read this text, here’s the meaning of “people.” On the rare occasion I trotted home a young man from college, Nannie, my grandmother, magnanimously greeted him and then pulled back, cocked her head slightly, knitted her brows, and intoned, “Who . . . Are . . . Your . . . People?” She was the mistress of the theatrical pregnant pause. The last word came out as “pipple.” If the poor boy hailed from beyond the Mason-Dixon Line, then a bewildered “what’s-a-pipple” look crossed his face to which shot a silent reply: brows knitted more deeply over a squint.
Once Nannie figured out the fellah sprang from foreign lands, she assumed Mrs. Gracious Living form, skipping the holy ritual of “your-mother-must-have-been-acquainted-with-my-dear-cousin-who-lived-next-door-to-some-lovely-people-who-share-your-surname-and-surely-must-be-connected-by-marriage-to-our-mutual-sixth-cousin-once-removed-who-finally-had-twins-after-a-harrowing-illness-that-I-cannot-specifically-recall-though-it-was-almost-tragic-nonetheless.” That privilege was reserved only for “pipple” of true blood.
It’s like a little song. “Your pipple who love my pipple must be the luckiest pipple in the world.” Somehow, I can’t picture Barbra Streisand taking kindly to that strain.
Then it rolled out of Mr. R’s mouth. “Well, dear, who are your people?”
For a millisecond, I considered telling the gentleman that my ancestors showed up after the Potato Famine and staunchly supported the Kennedy brothers. That would have stopped the conversation dead. But I could not fib any more than I could chop down a cherry tree, so I decided to drop a bunch of meaningless ancestral surnames from other provinces.
“The Tillmans, The Brannans, The Martins, The Rutledges, The Dorns, The Ballews, The Hamricks.” When one marries an all-important article such as “The” to a Surname, well, it sounds downright gentrified. However, in this case, my utterances amounted to plebian, as my “pipple” had no origins in his county.
Success! I shut down that protracted conversation but good. Oh, sleep! Perchance to dream!
Mr. R was ready to shuffle Lowborn Moi out of his town square. “Well, now, we must get you to comfortable quarters before our big day tomorrow.”
“Great. Where’s the hotel?”
“Oh, my, we’re not a big enough town to have a hotel.”
“Okay, where’s the motel?”
“It’s on the other side of town.”
I assumed that meant four blocks.
“I would appreciate directions.”
“Well, it went out of business.”
“What about a bed-and-breakfast?”
“Oh, my, dear, no. It’s not tourist season.”
I guessed Mr. R owned the No-Name Convention & Visitors Bureau. What to do? Head out umpteen miles into the wilderness, jump on a highway, and search for a Denny’s with an empty booth? While ordering decaf coffee from a disgruntled waitress, I could beg to nap on an upholstered bench.
“You are going to have the best time tonight!”
Did I miss something?
“You’re going to spend the night at Camellia House.”
“You, mean, the shop?”
“Well, we’re having the floors redone at Magnolia Place, my home, so I cannot offer you a guestroom.”
Dah-Da-a-a-h-DAH-DAH! (That’s the best I can do with “Tara’s Theme”/Gone with the Wind in running copy.)
Son of a gun, the Sacred South still flowered in No-Name! If Mr. R told me he also owned ancestral homes called Wisteria Way and Hibiscus Haven, I would not have batted an eye.
Mr. R jiggled opened the door of the antiques shop. It was a classic four-over-four house. A long hallway separated two spacious rooms on either side. Although usually left open, it was possible to close off the adjoining rooms with pocket doors.
The tour was painful. I received a lengthy lecture on early Federal, middle Federal, and late Federal furniture. Mr. R downshifted into Empire furniture, Napoleonic wars, including the Egyptian campaign, and Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, all the while explaining how Napoleon, Josephine, and their cohorts readily took to motifs such as obelisks, scroll pillars, egg-and-dart inlays, Greek keys, animal paw feet, acanthus leaves, bronze, and ormolu.
I thanked God for my last-exit McDonalds’ pit stop. Nary a crumb was in sight.
I faded fast. In all that chatter, my brain wandered wildly off topic. An unholy thought crossed my mind: the Washington Monument, as the nation’s First Obelisk, was also one of the greatest phallic structures in the world.
After the period enlightenment phase, Mr. R gleefully led the way, throwing open jewelry cases that lined the yawning center hallway of each floor.
“Play pretties! You can play in the jewelry all night if you want to.” Diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but I would not have wished this gem tour on my worst enemy.
I was frantic. Sure, there were beds, all kinds of beds, up to a massive rosewood Rococo Revival tester bed by Prudent Mallard, complete with a carved crest and a serpentine half-canopy. But where was the guest bedroom?
As if reading my mind, Mr. R said, “I had Tea Pot make up a bed for you downstairs.”
Who was a Tea Pot? I was too weary to ask.
My host ushered me to a cannonball bed set in the left front widow of the shop. It was a modest maple affair, with four posts and a crescent-carved headboard. Had my lack of aristocratic heritage relegated me to this heap of wood instead of the grand Mallard bed?
While assailed with a lecture on mortise-and-tenon construction, I glanced about nervously. There were no draperies.
“Pardon me, Mr. R, but the window is bare.”
“I wouldn’t worry. Everybody’s in bed by nine o’clock.”
Talk about a pregnant pause. I was struck dumb.
Mr. R looked at his watch. “Sakes alive. It’s nine-thirty.”
“By the way, this is a rope bed. No boxspring. You will sleep in another century.”
News flash: I already had time-traveled the minute I hit No-Name’s courthouse square.
“Look around all you want,” said Mr. R. “Don’t pay the ghost any mind.”
“Oh, yes. When Union raiders invaded this area, they made the house their headquarters. They restricted my great-great grandmother and her family to the front parlor. She tolerated the situation until a Yankee soldier made inappropriate advances. She picked up a poker and bopped him on the head dead.”
“Did they arrest her?”
“No, her children dragged the Yankee out back and buried him in the scuppernong arbor.”
Images pranced in my brain: Scarlett pulling a revolver from her skirt pocket and shooting a Yankee deserter cold between the eyes while he fumbled with Miss Ellen’s [her mother’s] earbobs; Melanie dragging herself out of sickbed, half-naked in her torn shimmy, ready to charge down the stairs with Charles Hamilton’s saber; Scarlett dragging the body out back to bury in a shallow grave; the head going bump-bump-bump down the outside steps.
Had I made a literary discovery? Did Margaret Mitchell research part of Gone with the Wind in No-Name?
“If you hear a thump and a foot drag, don’t pay it any mind. That fellah’s never hurt a soul.”
Mr. R backed up to the door. “I’ll be leaving now.”
“What about the alarm system?” I said, staring at a nearby keypad.
“Oh, don’t worry about that. Let’s just punch in the lock the old-fashioned way.”
The minute Mr. R departed, I dragged antique folding screens to the front room and arranged them around the cannonball bed. I lay there until two o’clock, with the covers up to my wide eyeballs and overhead lights blazing in every room. The ghost was a no-show. Maybe he was a fabrication of the No-Name Convention & Visitors Bureau.
After a while, I lay back—but no sleep tight for me! The mysterious Tea Pot had not tautly pulled the ropes laced across the bed frame. With great effort, I crawled out of bed for a bathroom break at four o’clock. Then I rolled to the sagging center of the bed—dead weight on a thin mattress.
The photographer showed up at eight o’clock. We unloaded her equipment and chose a few pieces to shoot.
Mr. R arrived with his retainer, Tea Pot, to drag around any furniture: Apparently, Mr. R favored nicknames.
“Our families have lived side by side since 1828.”
I could not look at the photographer, a Pennsylvania native. However, I sensed heat, intense heat steaming from her ears. Mr. R wandered off to spit-polish a heavy mahogany Empire chest.
Her face reddened. Oh, Lord, boiling blood. Irish ire. I felt the fire of all three days of Gettysburg in one hot minute.
I hissed. “Don’t shoot Mr. R. Shoot the furniture. As God as my witness, we’re getting the hell out of No-Name by high noon.”