How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life

A Novel
By Mameve Medwed

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright ©2006 Mameve Medwed
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060831197

Chapter One

It's midafternoon on a Monday, too quiet here at Objects of Desire. And too gloomy. Those cruel calendar pages have flipped to January. Short days. Endless dark nights. After months of ho-ho-ho to assault a bah-humbug soul. The fluorescent tubes ringing my booth flicker and buzz. The shepherd and shepherdess lamps that flank the faux mantel -- $129 a pair, nineteenth-century English, a real bargain -- lack bulbs. Their wiring is faulty. Clyde promised to fix it. He promised a lot of things. I look at the sign -- A&C ECLECTIBLES. I should have painted over the C when Clyde ran off with that woman whose goods he appraised a month ago. But A ECLECTIBLES offends my grammarian's soul.

I pick up the New York Times crossword puzzle. Four-letter lake in Africa. Starts with M. Clyde was good at geography. He collected old maps. I toss the paper in the coal shuttle -- solid brass, eighteenth century -- which serves as wastebasket. You never finish anything, I can hear Clyde say.

Not true, I'd protest. It's just that I don't like putting periods on the ends of sentences; I prefer to keep things open. Have many experiences. A lack of focus, my father would diagnose. My mother would have said I was finding myself. She'd found herself in her fifties when she left my father, the world-renowned R. Griffin Randolph, the holder of the Epworth chair in humanities at Harvard. She ran off with Henrietta Potter, the wife of Bickford Potter, the Harvard economist, near Nobel laureate. Henrietta had been her roommate at Smith. You go on finding yourself until you die, my mother said.

It comforts me to remember that my mother, having found herself, also found happiness before she and Henrietta died last year in that earthquake in India. You saw the photos in the newspaper. Tattered, soot-showered children buried under the rubble. Sari-wrapped keening mothers. Cows and goats flattened by collapsed walls. In such a landscape, who could ever picture my tidy mother and no-nonsense Henrietta with their scrubbed rosy faces, their neat gray pageboys, their sensible Birkenstocks, their money belts and multipocketed safari vests ordered from the Travelers' Catalogue? Their natural self-effacement struck an incongruous note against such high drama. But when a postcard came a month later, Sunset over the Taj Mahal, I realized the niche I'd put my mother in couldn't contain her. I have at last discovered true joy. Pure ecstasy, my mother had written.

Now that my mother's not around to defend me, or Clyde to defend myself against, I have to admit that Clyde had a point about my not finishing things. I'd quit Harvard four credits short of my B.A. I joined the Peace Corps and dropped out before the posting at Rwanda. I headed for a banking internship on Wall Street but turned back at Hartford.

At thirty-three, though, I figured I was starting to settle into a career as a partner in A&C ECLECTIBLES. The A for Abigail. The C for . . . Well, it doesn't take a Harvard degree to figure that out. In spite of my starts and stops, I'd always liked everybody's leavings, the discarded and dented bits and pieces of other people's lives. Even as a kid, I'd look forward to trash-collection mornings the way my lower-school mates anticipated opening day at Fenway Park. The old books, chipped china, frayed lamp shades I'd rescued from Brattle Street barrels threatened to turn my room into a Collyer Brothers annex. Our Abigail's a pack rat, my father would opine as I'd tiptoe past his study with yet another box of salvage. Everything's a learning experience, my mother would soothe.

My mother took me to flea markets and auctions before I could walk. She scored the Lincoln portrait in my father's study while I was in utero. When I was seven, I bid on a yarn-haired, gingham-pinafored doll at a farmhouse auction in Maine, where we rented a lakeside cottage. I'd squirreled away five crisp birthday dollars. All the other bidders dropped off when they saw my grubby hand shoot up in ten-cent increments. All except a burly man sporting a billed trucker's cap who raised me a dollar to my every dime. Let the little girl have it, chimed an angry chorus, the summer people and locals for once in accord. A great big bruiser like you, somebody scolded, shame slapping him down into his seat.

The victory of that moment trumped my successes to date: winning the neighborhood scavenger hunt and guessing, within twenty, the number of jelly beans in a mayonnaise jar. I was hooked.

I met Clyde two years ago at the Brimfield flea market when our hands grabbed at the same time for a copper bed warmer stamped Plymouth, Mass and on sale for a song. He tugged; I tugged. He wouldn't let go; neither would I.

"Ladies first," I said, a feminist not opposed to using nonfeminist wiles. My grip tightened on the splintered wood.

"All's fair in love and war." He yanked.

"This isn't either," I said, though I could hear the roaring of far-off tanks. "And may I point out that I won the badge for arm wrestling in Girl Scout camp."

"Not to one-up you," he one-upped, "but I myself have wrestled steers to the ground in a rodeo." He smiled. His eyes crinkled. Just as I was thinking, He's cute, he said, "Though let me add, I've never wrestled someone quite so cute."

I felt my grip loosening. I couldn't help myself.

He pulled. I held on. "Do you ever read those wedding columns in the New York Times about how people met?" he asked.

"Not really," I lied. I who ignore the news, flip past Sports and Business, and turn to the Styles section the second the Sunday papers hit my front door.

"Well, there was one recently about this couple who met at the Chelsea flea market while fighting over a pink pasta canister."


Excerpted from How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Lifeby Mameve Medwed Copyright ©2006 by Mameve Medwed. Excerpted by permission.
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