April 19, 2023

Silver Spoon (excerpt)

Chapter 1

Are you positive she’s a member of our family?” queried Donna’s client.

Donna gazed across the table at Mr. and Mrs. Walter, a middle-aged couple with matching sweaters, eyeglasses, and gray hairdos. They leaned towards each over the padded arms of their conference chairs. The intent question came from Mrs. Walter.

An oil portrait of a colonial woman lay on the glossy mahogany table between the Walters and Donna. The colonial woman wore what could pass for a twenty-first-century gown. Shiny material clung loosely to her shoulders. A frothy tucker emphasized and covered her ample cleavage. Like so many colonial subjects, she challenged her modern audience with lidded eyes and a faint self-congratulatory smile.

Donna said, “The picture was painted in the mid-1700s by John Smibert. He was a Scottish émigré to the colonies. He settled in Boston where he opened a shop and painted portraits. Some of his works are owned by Maine’s Bowdoin College. The woman in the portrait is Frances Conner.”

Mrs. Walter straightened, clapped, and beamed. “I told you! Didn’t I tell you?!” She alternated her gleeful grin between Donna and her husband.

Mr. Walter chuckled and patted his wife’s shoulder.

“I’ve wanted to know her identity for years,” Mrs. Walter told Donna. “All this DNA talk in the news inspired me. The Human Genome Project, that murder case where scientists matched DNA to a killer’s nephew—obviously, I don’t want to discover I have a murderer in the family! But it made me think, ‘There has to be a way to find out more about this portrait!’ Frances Conner was my four times great-grandmother, and I can see it. I really can! My sister Lizzy has her nose.”

Donna rather thought that most colonial portrait sitters had that particular nose. But she nodded and placed a document on the table.

“An expert on Smibert works at Bowdoin. The college has an archive of Smibert documents, including a daybook. A notation in the book confirms that your ancestor sat for a painting by the artist. This is a photocopy of the page—the book itself can be viewed on location.”

“Of course. This is more than we expected. Thank you, Donna.”

“Mr. Gregerson arranged for me to meet with the expert.”

“But you’re the one who put the pieces together.”

Donna smiled placidly. She didn’t mention how she’d put the pieces together.

Three weeks earlier, Paul Gregerson asked Donna to find out more about “a painting for clients with a genealogy obsession—I swear these people are nuts. Why not say, ‘We’re all related to John of Gaunt’ and be done with it?”

Donna remonstrated with Paul as usual and took the painting home. Two days later, she walked into the house to find a thin-faced, energetic man with receding hair and large brown eyes peering at the painting with the critical eye of its creator.

Once she identified him as John Smibert (1688–1751), the next steps fell into place. She researched experts on Smibert and found one at Bowdoin College. Paul pulled a few strings, and Donna dropped by Bowdoin for an interesting afternoon of “shop talk” about history, art, artifacts, and provenance.

She didn’t tell the Walters about her historical visitor. Some of her clients knew of her ability to see the no-longer-living, but Paul Gregerson was paying Donna’s fee (for which he would later bill the Walters) and he preferred physical corroboration. The Walters would likely assume that Donna had spent hours comparing colonial paintings at the Portland Museum of Art, which gave Donna far too much credit. Still, these were Paul’s clients, and Paul never minded a little prevarication.

She followed Paul’s clients into the hall and ran into David Gregerson.

“Oh!” she cried, startling the Walters, who glanced back, then beamed when they saw Donna hugging the lanky young man.

“I swear you’ve grown another two inches,” Donna exclaimed.

David was over twenty now, past his last growth spurt. But Donna first met him when he was thirteen going on fourteen, scrawny and short, though with the same tangled black hair and impudent grin. She was allowed to tease him about his near six feet.

Donna was a cheerful five foot three. “A diminutive brunette Kate Winslet,” her best friend Theresa called her. “I am shorter and older,” Donna pointed out, but she wasn’t surprised when David laughed and swung her off her feet like she was a girl of twelve. She patted his shoulder.

She said, “Are you done with classes?”

David was in his second year at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where he was getting a Juris Doctor and a Master’s in Computer & Information Technology. Donna’s brother Chester said David’s life path proved the Parable of the Talents: The rich keep getting richer.

“Back for the summer,” David said. “To New England at least. Are you, uh, finished with those people?”

“The Walters,” Donna said. “I gave them good news about a painting. Why?”

“I might have another case for you—” David began, then faked a frown as Paul clapped him on the shoulder.

Paul had raised David since David’s mid-teens. David liked to pretend that he didn’t look up to Paul as a father figure while Paul liked to pretend he wasn’t ridiculously proud of David. Donna didn’t think they fooled anyone.

Paul said, “Another case for Donna? I’m not paying for this one, David. The firm can only handle one wackadoo consulting expense a month.”

Donna planted her hands on her hips as the two Gregerson brothers—almost equal in height now—sent her seraphic smiles. She knew from experience how misleading those smiles could be.

Then Paul leaned forward, hand outstretched, and said, “Thanks, Donna. The Walters are thrilled. They’ll be strolling in here in colonial dress next time, just like good old Grandma Frances.”

Donna shook his hand and her head. “People enjoy finding out about their roots,” she said primly.

“I never saw that series all the way through.”

“I watched the Geordi La Forge parts,” David offered.

“He wasn’t Geordi La Forge then.”

David shrugged. Paul focused on Donna. “When are we going to dinner again? Now that you’ve kicked the latest boyfriend to the curb?”

“I’m still settling into my parents’ house.”

“Donna. Donna. Donna.” Paul moved away, shaking his head sorrowfully. “I’ll catch you next time,” he called over the cubicle walls. More than one of Paul’s employees swiveled to smirk at Donna.

Paul was—Paul. He was good-looking in a blunt sort of way, like those classic movie stars who played gangsters. His clothes were finely tailored, and he wore them with careless grace, managing to appear comfortable and elegant at the same time.

He and Donna dated but weren’t dating. They both had less than stellar relationship records. Theresa called Donna and Paul “gun shy.” Donna called her ambivalence about Paul “not being foolish.”

The fact was, she and Paul weren’t compatible. After two non-compatible boyfriends, she didn’t want another “women are from Venus—men are from whatever Pluto used to be” disaster.

She wasn’t even sure if Paul was serious—it was hard to tell between all the teasing. Theresa said Paul’s teasing was his way of flirting while keeping himself safe, especially after Donna moved in with her second long-term boyfriend.

That was about the same time that Paul was dating an attorney from Boston. “Did he expect me to stay available?” Donna said, surprised, and Theresa said, “Sure he did. He won’t hold that you didn’t against you. He’s too objective for that. But at some level, yeah.”

Even David got in on the matchmaking act. Guiding Donna to a smaller conference room, he said, “You know, Paul thinks the world of you.”

David was more than fifteen years younger than Paul. He didn’t unnerve Donna. She raised her eyebrows and he held up his hands in an I’m backing off gesture.

“What’s this new case?”

“Just a sec.” He leaned through the doorway and called, “Jane, you available?”

Ducking back into the room, he said, “You know my mom’s second husband has several kids. I try to stay in touch—with the kids at least. Family, ya know. Larry—he’s my stepdad’s oldest—his girlfriend Jane is a law student. Not at my school. She’s at Stetson University in Florida. But I got her an internship here—”

He broke off as a young woman entered the room. She had a lightly freckled nose and curly hair currently moussed into a sleek bob. Donna, whose “day job” was co-owner of a hair salon, guessed that Jane’s curly hair was the type that frizzed at the earliest opportunity and had to be sternly manhandled into obedience. Donna could recommend some products.

Jane shook hands with Donna and sat at the circular table. “Donna Howard? David told me about you.”

“We were discussing the kind of evidence lawyers can bring into court,” David explained as he also sat. “Admissibility and all that. I pointed out that court rules can’t stop a lawyer uncovering information in less traditional ways.”

Jane said, “Then David mentioned you. He said you did a job for Paul.”

David choked on a laugh. “The guy in Falmouth,” he reminded Donna. “Oh, man, was Paul ticked about that!”

While working out a resolution between a church and a Falmouth homeowner, Paul loaned Donna an old deed. That night, she dreamt of two men in breeches and tricorn hats moving a stone to indicate a boundary.

It turned out later—through letters and maps and the discovery of the stone—that the property line was far closer to the homeowner’s side than the church’s side. Since Paul was representing the homeowner, he was less than thrilled.

Donna told Paul, “You shouldn’t be harassing churches in the first place.”

Jane continued, “My sister and her husband collect antiques. You know, treasure hunting and all that. They picked up this one item, a silver spoon from colonial times.”

“They want to establish its provenance, where it came from?”

“I guess. Yeah. Probably. Maddy likes history. She used to work in an antique store. But—this is going to sound weird—it’s more like she feels haunted.”

“I don’t do ghosts!”

What Donna did was glimpse images of historical persons long dead. Sometimes the personage was tied to a place. Sometimes, like John Smibert, the personage was tied to an object.

“I know how crazy it sounds,” Jane said quickly. “Maddy is a sensible person usually. Level-headed. But she’s got this spooky feeling, which she thinks is linked to the spoon. Maybe if you checked it out, she would feel better. I’d feel better,” she ended softly.

Donna broke off another refusal and studied the young woman across the table. Like David, Jane was in her early twenties, at least ten years younger than Donna. Her face twisted into a half non-smile. She ran a hand through her bobbed hair before Donna could stop her.

She said, “I totally get why you might be reluctant. But I think Maddy has a lot on her plate right now. She and Seb have a great marriage. They really do. But they’re starting a new business—it’s very stressful. Even if you tell her that she’s not sensing anything, that it’s all in her head, I think she would be grateful. And you’re—you know—a historian! You two could discuss digging up and dealing with the past.”

Amateur historian,” Donna said. “What’s her phone number?”

“Thanks,” David said as Jane departed down the hall, her hair frazzling. (Personally, Donna thought an overexcited hairdo invited pleased glances, but she supposed it wasn’t entirely professional. The next time she visited Gregerson & Gregerson, she’d drop off some products.)

“I’ll talk to Jane’s sister,” Donna said, refusing to commit herself to anything that might potentially involve a séance.

Assuaging a client’s troubled feelings sounded more like therapy than research. Except David was asking. In an indirect way, Jane and her sister were related to David. Plenty of family losses dotted David’s past. It made sense that he would hang onto the ones that worked. Donna could help.

“Great.” David rubbed his neck. “Uh, so Paul’s got a meeting tonight—” He trailed off.

“I suppose you want to come to dinner?”

“Sure!” David said as if Donna had extended him the invitation without being prompted.

She watched him saunter away to hassle Paul, then glanced back at Jane’s retreating figure.

I don’t do ghosts, she reminded herself. Or séances. Or exorcisms. Or anything remotely like what the boy did in The Sixth Sense.

In fact, Donna didn’t entirely believe in ghosts, which people found odd.

“You see them,” Theresa said once.

“I see people left over from the past. They don’t show up with tasks for me to complete, such as asking me to speak to their descendants. They’re simply there. And most of them don’t care about the rest of us.”

In other words, the dead had better things to do than linger in mortality and harass the living.

Jane knew her sister was upset. She knew her sister wasn’t okay. She seemed to believe her sister’s marriage was in trouble.

Things other than spirits can haunt a person.

Chapter 2

Jane’s sister, Madeline Carlisle-Smith, didn’t sound haunted when Donna called her that evening. She did sound stressed.

“My husband Seb and I are starting a new business,” she explained. “We’re antiquing!”

She said the last word extra-brightly, the way mothers did when their children had to get shots and the mothers wanted the “trip to the doctor” to sound so fun.

“Jane told me you might call,” Madeline said. “Come see our spoon any time.”

They set an appointment for Donna to visit Newburyport that Saturday.

“What do you know about Jane’s sister, Madeline?” Donna asked David when he strolled into the house without knocking, the way he had since he was a teen. “Have you two met?”

“Once when she was visiting Jane in Florida. I was down there to see Larry and we all met up. She kept saying how remarkable I was to get two degrees at once.”

“Nice, then?”

“I guess.” David slumped into a kitchen chair, then straightened and grinned when Donna brought him a slice of cake. “I’m not getting two degrees to impress people. I actually want to. I thought she was a little tactless praising me around her sister, as if a single J.D. isn’t good enough. But Jane didn’t mind.”

“You got Jane the internship at Gregerson & Gregerson. What about an internship for you?” Donna filled David’s milk glass.

David snorted. “Paul insists on outside experience. I’m interning at a Boston firm.”

Donna heaved a theatrical sigh at yet another example of Paul’s dictatorial nature. He would never accept David into the family law firm out of sentiment or trust or good faith. Of course not. David must meet Paul’s standards, his professional standards, that is. Donna had doubts about Paul’s moral standards.

“You’ll do great in Boston,” Donna told David. “It was nice of you to help out Jane.”

“Larry works for whale watching outfits, so Jane was looking for an internship in a seaport. It helps that she’s smart. Paul complained about us taking advantage of his good nature—you know how he is—but he’s not disappointed or anything.”

He grinned at Donna’s long-suffering look (Oh, Paul).

With a wink, David added, “I bragged to Paul about eating here tonight. He’s got a meeting with that lawyer who uses those Robert Vaughn spots, the ones with the tag line, Tell them you mean business! I’m pretty sure he’d rather be here with you. And, ah, Sammy. Will Sammy be here?”

“He should be,” Donna said.

Sammy was Donna’s youngest brother by five years, which meant that he still had to dare the big thirty (a few more months). Like Donna, he was living temporarily at home while he completed a project for the Portland Museum of Art.

Chester, her other brother and the middle child, lived with his girlfriend of three years by the University of New England (once Westbrook College). He often popped in for free meals but he wouldn’t tonight. Wendy, the girlfriend, had persuaded him to take her to see Shrek 2, which Wendy said was “okay” because it was “PG.” Wendy faithfully attended church every Sunday.

David said, “You know Paul would rather spend time with you, Donna, than with his clients.”

“He’d rather be making a deal,” Donna said tartly.

David laughed a little hollowly. “That shyster act is a front,” he said. “People aren’t always good at saying what they want, you know? Jane talks a lot about how her sister has this perfect marriage. Madeline and her husband finish each other’s sentences, that sort of thing. Do you believe in that? The whole soulmate idea?”

“I’d like to.”

“Yeah.” David frowned, then leaned back and cleared his throat as Sammy walked in.

“Hey, David,” Sammy said at the same time David said, “What do you have there?”

Sammy smirked and handed over his latest ThinkPad laptop. David lifted the screen.

“Semester finished?” Sammy said.

“Yeah. I managed to keep my 3.8 GPA.”

“You didn’t tell me that,” Donna said.

“I sent you an email about it,” David said without heat. “Don’t worry. I know you barely check your Yahoo account.”

“If you had a real crisis, you would call,” Donna pointed out reasonably.

Sammy laughed. “The Millennium was three years ago, Donna.” (Sammy was one of those people who argued that the Millennium started in 2001.) “Email is here to stay.”

“Tell me about it,” David said. “I just signed up on a new service called Google.”

Donna said, “The detectives on CSI use cell phones.”

“They use email on NCIS.”

“Gibbs doesn’t,” Donna said.

Mark Harmon as Gibbs on Bellisario’s new show was the purveyor of all that was cool, so Sammy gave up arguing—temporarily.

He said instead to David, “So you’re here to mooch a meal?”

David hesitated, and Donna said, “He recruited me for a job.”

“Good idea,” Sammy said, opening the refrigerator to rummage. “I’ve gotten a few pointers from Donna myself.”

David’s eyes flicked towards him. His brow creased as if he were on the verge of asking the kind of question that stopped people rummaging. At first, Donna thought that maybe David had crashed the laptop and was worried about Sammy’s reaction. But his expression was more wary (and David was never wary). After his third glance, Donna contemplated Sammy herself.

Sammy had the same sparse ranginess as a younger Kevin Bacon. He wore his blond hair rather disheveled these days. Donna wanted him to come in for a cut, but he kept putting her off. The shagginess looked rather good on him, Donna conceded.

He was wearing khakis and a button-down long-sleeved shirt despite the warmer weather since he worked in air-conditioned rooms. He looked, in sum, much the same as usual. She refocused on David as Sammy turned back with a pitcher of lemonade. David was fixated on the laptop.

He said, “You’ve only got half a gig of RAM in this thing! C’mon, max it out.”

He and Sammy talked “computer” while Sammy poured a glass of lemonade. Donna ignored them and began to contemplate sides for dinner. She knew how to use the computer at The Beauty Cut and how to check and send emails when she absolutely had to. She didn’t need to know about the beige box’s inner workings.

Sammy said, “I have one of those free AOL mailers. You youngsters probably like all those seizure-inducing flashy designs. I’ll get it for you.”

Carrying his half-empty glass, he strolled out of the kitchen. This time, David’s eyes followed him.

He said to Donna, “He thinks I’m still fourteen, doesn’t he?”

“Yes,” Donna said.

During dinner of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, leafy green lettuce, and apple pie (Donna believed in the culinary classics), David plied Sammy with questions about his current project at the Portland Museum of Art. Sammy was a consultant on museum cataloging and inventory and had a growing reputation as an expert.

“It’s similar to the project I worked on as an intern,” he told David (Donna already knew all about it). “Except instead of hauling boxes, this time I’m creating an online archive for local researchers on Colonial New England.”

“Witches and whatnot.”

“You must be a lawyer in training—you think in clichés.”

David grinned without umbrage.

“Yea, witches,” Sammy conceded. “It’s impossible to do an exhibit on Colonial New England and not mention Salem and witches. But the museum wants to do more than that. The Martha Ballard special that came out in 1997, the one on PBS? It inspired a lot of interest in everyday colonial life.”

“Was that the show about the midwife in Maine?” Donna said. “I watched that.”

“You see history,” David said. “Why bother with television?”

“I like to get context,” Donna said. “Education,” she added pointedly.

“And what did you learn from PBS?” David said in the pedantic tones of an unctuous professor, causing Sammy to spit up a mouthful of lemonade.

Donna said, “I’m very grateful for modern medicine, plumbing, and heating.”

She didn’t mention the other truism she took away from the Martha Ballard special: No matter the time period, relationships are difficult. Martha Ballard’s oldest son got a hired woman “in trouble.” Martha confirmed her son was the father when she questioned the wife-to-be during the baby’s delivery.

Sometimes Donna thought that history wasn’t a tragedy or a comedy—it was one long soap opera. During her antique investigations, she often had to untangle interwoven strands of desire, greed, pride plus honest affection and wishful thinking.

At least the couple from today—the genealogy-obsessed Walters—left Donna’s consultation happy, which wasn’t always the case with Donna’s clients. After she told Sammy about the Walters, she and David told Sammy about the case of the silver spoon.

“It sounds like a Bellairs novel,” Sammy said.

It did rather. Donna said, “Jane’s sister thinks the spoon is haunted.”

“You don’t do ghosts!” Sammy said. “Besides, aren’t spirits or spooks supposed to be place-centered? Rattling about in old houses and cemeteries and what-not?”

“Now who’s speaking in clichés?”

“The historical people Donna sees around town never follow her home.”

Donna agreed. “Not unless I’m carrying an antique that’s connected to a particular personage.”

David said, “And that particular person stays with the object, right? I mean, they don’t get to a house like this one, go, Yuck, suburbia, and move on. They stick around. Hey, there’s a good definition of a ghost—an entity that sticks around.

Sammy said, “An entity that sticks around could apply to you, David.”

David grinned and ducked his head. “Okay. What’s your definition?”

“A ghost is a being with purpose; it has someone or someplace to haunt. But Donna’s historical people aren’t looking to achieve anything—not in the living world anyway.”

That was true. The personages Donna encountered willingly discussed their circumstances and conditions but always in reference to past events or routines, usually in connection to a specific object.

Sammy said, “Donna’s spirits are like endless promotional material.”

Donna objected. “They don’t try to sell me their objects—well, not all of them. It’s more like a particular object carries their strongest memories.”

“That you know of,” David said. “If a tree falls in the forest—”

“It makes a sound!” Donna said.

She hated metaphysical questions that treated reality like a game. Things happened. History had. Life wasn’t a big con taking place in some alien’s imagination.

She knew David and Sammy agreed with her, but they didn’t mind the metaphysical questions. They started debating “subjective reactions to sensory input,” which led to how people reacted to images versus sound, which led to a discussion of the Nixon–Kennedy debates.

They were two seconds from debating the upcoming election, George W. Bush versus John Kerry. As usual, Sammy was backing the Libertarian candidate while David liked to choose a candidate “who actually stands a chance of winning.”

Donna found politics even less interesting than metaphysical questions. She said, “I saw this NOVA special about how sleep paralysis explains alien visitations.”

David said, “I saw that. When we sleep, the body numbs or paralyzes us. To keep us from sleepwalking,” he explained in response to Sammy’s querying eyebrow.

Donna said, “But sometimes our minds wake up before our bodies un-numb. We can’t move, and the brain overreacts, imagines someone is in the room with us or sitting on our chests.”

“Like aliens,” Sammy said. “You know, I’m pretty sure that happened to me once. I didn’t think aliens. I thought, Bad dream. Go back to sleep.”

“Ah, that’s because the aliens wiped your brain,” David told him in an X-Files voice.

Sammy laughed and glanced at Donna. “What are you thinking?”

Donna said, “During sleep paralysis, the brain creates a, ah, ghost in the bedroom.”

“It compensates,” David agreed.

Sammy nodded. “The way people who see half a picture think they saw the whole thing. There’s a decent definition for a ghost: an entity created by the brain to explain away confusion.”

It was a good definition. Donna wondered what stress or fear or guilt or confusion could push a person like Jane’s sister to imagine a ghost.

Or maybe attract one.

After dinner, Sammy and David settled in the living room to watch The Matrix and criticize the bad science. Donna put away the leftovers, left the plates for Sammy to wash, and looked up “Spoon” in the World Book Encyclopedia set that her family still owned. She preferred print, no matter how often Sammy extolled online encyclopedias.

Spoon took her to Knife, Fork, and Spoon. The passage started with a discussion of child development; a spoon was a child’s first utensil. Hence, the passage argued, the spoon was the first manufactured utensil. Forks weren’t common until the 1500s.

There was nothing about antique spoons in the American colonies.

Sammy and David entered the kitchen, oddly subdued, and Donna studied them anxiously. They never argued, not to the point of actual dissension.

Before she could ask if something was wrong, Sammy said to David, “I’m getting more memory for the laptop. But I’m not like you young guys. I don’t need the equivalent of a PlayStation to play MMORPGs.”

“Still fourteen,” David muttered as he let himself out the kitchen door. He didn’t even pause to badger Donna about Paul. Instead, he said over his shoulder, “Remind your brother, Donna, that one of these days I’m gonna to make way more money than he does.”

Donna didn’t bother to relay David’s message—Sammy already knew that David was destined to be the kind of guy who could buy a house overlooking Back Cove.

Instead she asked Sammy for directions to Newburyport where Madeline Carlisle-Smith and her husband lived. Sammy looked up the area on MapQuest but that got too frustrating, so they capitulated and used an old-fashioned McNally’s Road Map to locate the couple’s address.

“Be careful,” Sammy told her. “Remember, on the highway, you have to drive the speed limit or over.”

Donna would have to tell David that Sammy sometimes saw her as fourteen too, even though she was five years his senior.

Read the rest

Apple Books
Google Play

Labels: , , , , , , ,