Conjunctions:71 A Cabinet of Curiosity

Why Brother Stayed Away
The moment had come to see if it was true that Grumpa had a collection of ties lined with pictures of what her brother called “naughty ladies.” Her brother lived in Buffalo and had not volunteered to have any involvement in cleaning up their grandparents’ house. That had fallen to her and her husband. Only three ties hung on a hook inside the wardrobe. She examined the lining of the first. Weren’t the women supposed to be naked, even if only from the waist up? Was Grumpa so lame that he was showing his men friends a picture of a woman wearing a scarf wrapped around her tits? Or a girl smiling over her bare shoulder from under a sunhat? The third tie was lined with a drawing of a carved pumpkin, smoking a pipe. 

     Her husband reached around her, opened the door of the wardrobe, and fingered Grumpa’s polka-dot robe, his scuff slippers barely visible on the dark floor beneath it, and a couple of poorly hung, sagging sweaters. There were other clothes mashed together. With one finger, she separated a striped shirt from a wrinkled vest Grumpa had sometimes worn on holidays, his father’s watch fob dangling an ornate, gold-filled watch, tucked inside a pocket.

     In the secret shed—well; it was hardly a secret that the shed stood at the back of the property under the maple tree that had once been hit by lightning; only its contents were unknown because of the padlock. She watched with little interest as the screws were drilled out of the hinges. They fell on the ground as he walked off to do the next chore.

     Call me if you find a dead body, he said. Sure, she replied, she certainly would. She stepped in. The shed was remarkably uncluttered. There was a lawn mower. A bicycle entirely missing its front tire, the back one deflated. A box. Inside the box, various tools, some of them rusty. A barbecue fork. An old issue of Life magazine with Richard Nixon on the cover. There was a dead body: the rotted carcass of a squirrel, the tip of its tail still bushy, like a groomed poodle.

     Received information was that Grumpa had put the cash from the sale of his business into his wife’s sewing basket, but that was not to be found on any shelf, in the attic, in the shed, in the garage, or anywhere else. In the garage, however, a cedar box was found, unlocked. Inside was half a pack of Camels, a cork coaster imprinted with the words Ben Bow, a splayed toothbrush with blackened bristles that had been used for something other than brushing teeth, Murine, a bottle of solidified glue, a white pill with no marking, and a small calendar (1962) from a local gas station. Also a penny, a dime, a tin soldier about the size of her husband’s thumbnail, and two buttons.

     The screwdriver was required to remove the latches on a wooden box dragged out from under the bed. “Voilà!” he said, walking out. She thought the box looked too rugged to contain, for example, her grandmother’s wedding dress. It contained a quilt, log cabin pattern, twin bed size, nice. There was also a second quilt, badly folded. That one was not quite equal in size, but also intended for a twin bed. There was a faint, very faint, scent of lavender that disappeared as her nose pressed into the fabric.

     Twenty minutes early, the man showed up who’d bought Grumpa’s “antique” Ford truck and was having it hauled away. He stood around, one hand jingling change in his pant pocket. The flatbed arrived. Some twitchy guy loaded with chains jumped out. He and his young helper, or son, or whatever he was underneath all those tattoos, got the black truck onto the flatbed in no time, and just like that, they were gone. The check had cleared the day before. The man drove away in his Saab without even waving.


In the dream she has that night, Nixon requests, by engraved invitation, her presence at the White House. Well, dreams can sometimes be like smoking perilously strong weed. Like she’d be invited to the White House! Like Nixon would send a carriage for her, pulled by prancing white horses! Cinderella, off to a fabulous evening, wearing her finest gown, the night just a bit chilly. Fuckin’ Ambien, she thinks, or dreams. The quilt warms her as she bounces in the back.

     (She clutches the duvet.)

     Through the gates she goes! Mrs. Nixon, wearing a midcalf fur coat, waves a gloved hand. She and President Nixon approach. The driver opens her door. He offers a gloved hand. A horse snorts, raising its head.

     (This is her husband, snoring.)

     She steps out, her satin slipper as beautiful as Mrs. Nixon’s shoes with sparkling buckles. She swirls, to delight the adults. She’s a child again. She opens her cape, exposing the deep blue lining. Big mistake! The velvet’s imprinted with dancing figures: long-legged showgirls, high-heeled, bare breasted, red lipsticked, one with her butt stuck out, another whose lips coquettishly kiss a rosebud.

     The Nixons are flabbergasted. Then they laugh so hard they frighten the horses, who run away, the driver helpless as his carriage disappears. All smiles vanish. Nixon narrows his eyes. What to do? She can’t even flee without the carriage. Imploringly, she turns to Mrs. Nixon. But she’s vanished, fur coat, splendid shoes, and all. Desperately, she turns toward the president. Men in military uniforms flank him. They’re everywhere, a child’s soldiers grown life-sized. Go ahead then, Nixon says to one of them: that driver fellow lost his carriage. Now he’s gotta be beheaded. Who’s our swordsman? Or will we have to have a firing squad and so forth?

     She’s sputtering spit, she finds, as she awakens and wipes her fingers across her mouth. Her weight is on one hip; she’s propped awkwardly on her elbow, her nightgown tangled, the duvet, as always, sliding off the bed. Her husband sleeps.

     She forgets the dream until she’s about to toss the Life magazine down on a pile of someone’s recycling in the trash room that stinks of mold mingled with pine, when she looks at Nixon’s jowly face. Such an awful, dishonest man. He even extended a war because it better suited his purposes. In that instant, she realizes that her husband found the money. He must have found it, and not said so. Why else be so incurious about everything from the old man’s ties to the contents of the shed? “Call me if you find a dead body.” All he did was drill latches and walk away.

     I’m going back to take another look, he says, picking up the car keys from the hall table as she reenters the apartment. Half senile or not, your grandmother insisted to her dying day that he’d hidden a vast sum of money in her sewing basket. It’s a sewing basket I’m looking for, not a needle in a haystack. What’s that look supposed to mean? Remember I’m the one who’s giving up my weekends doing this, not your brother.

Ann Beattie has written over twenty novels and short story collections, most recently, The Accomplished Guest (Scribner). A Wonderful Stroke of Luck (a novel), will be published by Viking in April 2019.