Under the Egg, page 1
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Copyright © 2014 by Laura Marx Fitzgerald
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Fitzgerald, Laura Marx.
Under the egg / by Laura Marx Fitzgerald.
Summary: Her grandfather’s dying words lead thirteen-year-old Theodora Tenpenny to a valuable, hidden painting she fears may be stolen, but it is her search for answers in her Greenwich Village neighborhood that brings a real treasure.
[1. Neighborhoods—Fiction. 2. Art—Fiction. 3. Friendship—Fiction. 4. Recluses—Fiction. 5. Holocaust, Jewish (1939–1945)—Fiction. 6. Greenwich Village (New York N.Y.)—Fiction. 7. Mystery and detective stories.] I. Title.
PZ7.F575357Und 2014 [Fic]—dc23
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
It was the find of the century.
Or so I thought at the time.
This was back when a great day meant finding a toaster oven on the curb with a sign reading WORKS GOOD. Or scoring a bag of day-old danishes (slightly stale), which taste like heaven after months of plain oatmeal.
Manhattan’s treasures aren’t hard to find. You just have to look. Ignore the skyscrapers and shop windows for a minute, and look down. You’ll see, people here shed possessions like dandruff. I’m not complaining. I’ve found clothes, toys, school supplies, enough books to open my own library branch. The sidewalks of New York are like an outdoor shopping mall where everything is free.
One time I found two Barneys bags full of moth-eaten cashmere sweaters. It only took $3.25 in quarters to shrink them at the Laundromat, and I was able to use the thick, felted wool to make a new winter jacket, stuffed with feathers from some old down pillows. All the leftover sweater arms I sewed together into leggings. The scraps I patched into a schoolbag with my name, Theodora Tenpenny, embroidered with thread I pulled out of a hotel sewing kit I found in my grandfather’s dresser.
Another time I found a mint-condition snowboard. It makes a decent bookshelf.
Of course, this was back when I thought the greatest things you could find on the streets of New York were things.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was coming back from the hardware store on one of those sweltering July days when you can’t decide which is hotter: the sun beating down on you or the pavement radiating beneath you. From the sticky sound of each step, I could tell that the soles of my sneakers were starting to melt. What was left of my sneakers, that is.
My Keds had seen me through the seventh grade, but they couldn’t keep up with my summer growth spurt. I’d already slit the canvas to free my toes and strained the laces to their limit, but as I flapped my way past Hudson Street’s Korean tapas bars and bespoke bicycle boutiques, it was clear that something had to give. Most likely the seams.
By then I saw it. Just as I turned the corner onto our street, Spinney Lane.
A pair of shoes, perched on top of a mailbox. Not the neighborhood’s usual discarded pair of glamour queen high heels, but sneakers, brand-new and, on closer inspection, exactly my size: 51/2 extra wide. Yes, the colors were garish, and the owner had, for some reason, hand-painted them with graffiti. But they fit. That’s all that mattered.
I grabbed them before they could attract any competition, and peeling my skirt (really a yellowed cotton petticoat I’d found in the attic) off my sweaty thighs, I plopped down on the hot curb. But as I pulled off my Keds, I could hear my grandfather Jack’s voice: “What? Plenty of life in those shoes! Well, if you must, here—hand me those laces. I can find a use for them.”
I stopped for a moment to savor my treasure-finding triumph, when the taxi in front of me peeled away, revealing a dark, sticky spot in the middle of the street.
At first glance, you’d think it was an oil spill or gum burned black by the sun.
It had only been a couple of months ago, but it felt like years already. I had rounded Spinney Lane, as I always did on my way home from school. But this time, I saw that the street was at a standstill behind a barricade of ambulances and police cars. Truck horns blared and whined. A bike messenger and cabdriver pointed fingers and cursed in various languages. I peered into the middle of the commotion and saw . . . Jack. He was lying on the ground, thick, red blood puddled underneath him.
My own blood went cold.
It didn’t matter how fast I ran to him. He was already halfway gone.
As soon as my face crossed into his line of vision, he struggled to lift his head. “It’s under the egg,” he rasped, his once–icy blue eyes now foggy. “Look under the egg.”
The EMTs told me to keep him talking. “What is, Jack?” I said, my mind whirling between the things I knew I should say and the things I really needed to ask. “What’s under the egg?”
“There’s . . . a letter.” His speech became more labored as blood gurgled up through his lips. “And a treasure.” He closed his eyes, summoning the strength to whisper, “Before it’s too late.”
The rest of the day exists only in fragments. The ambulance ride. The young doctor’s sweaty hand on my shoulder. The police escort home, despite my insistence that I was perfectly all right to walk. The strange little song my mom hummed as the cops spoke to her. I knew that she had stopped listening and returned to the theorems in her head.
That was the day the Tenpennys of 18 Spinney Lane went from three to two. And really from two to one. Because without Jack, everything we had now weighed on me.
Which is why Jack told me, with his last words, where to find the one thing that would change everything.
Eighteen Spinney Lane is easy to find. Just cast your eyes past the row of gleaming town houses, with their uniform brick facades and polished brass plaques and, in some cases, packs of paparazzi.
Then find the one house that looks like the residents are ready to just pack it in and get that condo in Florida.
It wasn’t always like this. Great-great-great-great-gra
As it turns out, this building boom represented the peak of the Tenpenny fortune, and a year later the adjoining town house had been rented out and Grandma moved in with the rest of the family. As time went on, Greenwich Village was abandoned as the city’s elite moved farther and farther uptown, but we Tenpennys stayed put.
On that hot July day, I used my new sneakers to kick the business cards and flyers (“Dear Occupant, Do you need cash—and quick? Let Town Home Realty handle your home sale!”) off the stoop and jiggled the front door’s brass doorknob until it finally surrendered.
No warm welcome here. Just the hot, stale parlor, silent and thick with the smell of musty books and last winter’s pop-in from a stray cat. With Jack by my side, the room held a certain artistic-eccentric charm: an antique desk repaired with an oak branch in place of a leg, an ottoman made out of Yellow Pages bound together with sailor’s knots, autumn leaves ironed between sheets of waxed paper and wallpapered around the room. But now, alone, with the autumn leaves drifting to the ground as the glue gave out, the place just looked odd, like a stylish great-aunt who has begun wearing her wig backward.
A breeze from the dining room windows brought in the clucking of our backyard chickens, probably thirsty and impatient for dinner. Jack had started a little garden plot back there in the Great Depression, and now that garden had taken over the entire lot, including not just rows of veggies, but an apple tree, a raspberry bush, and a well-built coop for a fine flock of chickens.
At least for now. I’d lost one this week to a Jurassic-sized rat. Camille had been a tough old broad; she could’ve taken that rat. But since Jack died, I think we’d all had the fight knocked out of us.
The grandfather clock in the corner struck five low tones. The chickens would have to wait. It was teatime.
• • •
The stairs to the second floor creaked under my weight, made heavier by the tarnished silver tray with hard-boiled eggs and a chipped teapot, which I carried like a waitress.
Using my free hand, I gave three knocks. No answer.
Mom didn’t so much as glance up from her desk as I pushed my way in. From the door I could see beads of sweat running down the back of her neck, below a knot of straw-colored hair bound up absently with a pencil. She wore her terry-cloth bathrobe, even in the stifling, dank room, with its scent of fermenting tea bags and dirty laundry.
“I’ve got your tea.” I set the tray on the floor next to her chair. Mom got pretty agitated if I put anything on her desk, which was blanketed in yellow papers filled with numbers and cryptic characters.
She said nothing and continued scratching a pencil on her latest legal pad.
Jack said my mom was always a bit “off,” even as a little girl. It’s not that she was crazy or even slow. It’s just that she always preferred the world inside her mind to the world outside.
I can understand this, not having much to do with the neighborhood kids myself. I’ve never met one who could even tell you the difference between a standard and a Phillips head. But Jack said Angelika was different than all that. She used to go out, help with chores, go to school. Her teachers and professors used words like “genius” and “extraordinarily gifted.” But as the years went by, she withdrew deeper and deeper within herself, and now here she was, at her childhood desk in her childhood room, working on a dissertation that NYU stopped expecting over fifteen years ago.
Since Jack’s death, she’d started refusing to leave her desk at all, save for her daily morning walk to the tea shop, where she religiously collected every variety they sold. But I caught her last week trying to leave the house in her bathrobe, so clearly things were going south.
My dad I don’t know at all. My mother barely did either. Jack said he was a grifter who seduced my mom just to get his hands on the deed to our house. He sent the guy running.
I started to gather up the stray teacups from the windowsill, crouching to snag a few from under the bed.
“How’s the dissertation going, Mom?”
“Solving any theorems?”
“Well, I thought I’d made a breakthrough, but clearly the unique factorization approach won’t work.” She shook her head, never looking up from her notepad. “Unique factorization. Silly.”
“Huh.” I sat down on the bed and its tangle of sheets. “Mom, have you given any more thought to what we talked about? About selling the house? We could get a lot of money for it, I think. And we could get an apartment somewhere else in the city, maybe Brooklyn or Queens or somewhere cheaper like that.”
Mom’s pencil paused in the air, and she turned her sallow face slowly to stare at me. “What house?” she asked, her voice low.
“Um, this one?”
She dropped her pencil, her hands shaking. “Sell this house? But where would I work? My desk has always been right here. It’s the perfect place; I can see the birds in the tree outside. See their nest? That’s just where I look when I am working on an equation. And my bed is right here,” she waved her hand in my direction, “in the perfect spot, so the light can fall on my pillow in the morning. Sell the house? No, no, no, it’s just not possible.” Her voice became higher and thinner as she shook her head wildly, and I noticed she had started winding a loose thread from her bathrobe tightly around one finger. “And where would I buy my tea? Madame Dumont always has the perfect blend ready—”
“Okay, Mom, okay. We’re not going anywhere,” I broke in. “Not yet.”
“Because all my papers are here, my archives, you see.” She frantically pawed the piles and scraps that surrounded her. “And I still have to organize them, put them in order, and my footnotes—”
“We’re not selling the house, okay?” I stood up brusquely, knocking two teacups off her book-cluttered night table, which rolled under the bed. “But, Mom, I’m serious. We can’t afford all this.” My hand waved over the mess, as if I were surveying the Taj Mahal. “And when winter comes, there’s the gas bill and the electric bill. I’m not sure how much longer the boiler is going to hold out. How are we going to pay for that?”
Now she was humming again.
“Mom, are you sure Jack didn’t mention anything about a secret stash? Somewhere he would have hidden—I don’t know, money? Jewels? You know, like a treasure?”
I began to collect the teacups again. “Should I bring up some dinner in a little while?”
I looked up to see her dangling the Lipton tea bag in front of her eyes, hot drops of tea splattering the papers that carpeted the floor. “Where’s my vanilla Rooibos?”
“The Rooibos tea is gone, Mom. And that’s what I’m talking about. You can’t buy these expensive teas from the shop anymore. I got this kind for you—”
“But vanilla Rooibos is my afternoon tea. It’s made with Madagascar vanilla, which is the finest vanilla, at least that’s what Madame Dumont says. I’ll get some more in the morning. Madame Dumont said she’d have a new shipment of Golden Assam ready for me . . .”
I closed the door behind me as my mother began to methodically categorize the differences between Indian and Chinese tea leaves.
• • •
After tending to the garden, the chickens, and some clogged gutters, I took my own dinner to the top floor and the room that was once Jack’s studio. Jack and I had traditionally sat down together in the old dining room, where we’d spoon up our rice and beans on the Tenpenny china and then send our dishes back down to the kitchen in the dumbwaiter. But now the big dining table felt cold, even in the heat, and I preferred to eat somewhere more filled with Jack’s presence.
As I ate, I riffled through the mail I’d brought up with me. One official-looking letter, with a large seal featuring an American eagle, fell to the floor. The return address: the Department of Veteran Affairs.
To whom it may concern:
The Department of Veterans Affairs was recently alerted of the death of
JOHN THORNTON TENPENNY V.
This letter is to notify you that all existing and future VA pension benefits will be hereby terminated.
Please accept our condolences at this time of your bereavement. Mr. Tenpenny’s sacrifice and service to his country are deeply appreciated.
Roger D. Fowlke
DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
I read the letter several times over. Veterans Affairs? When I did my sixth-grade history fair project on World War II, Jack told me he sat out the whole thing on account of his asthma. It seemed strange that the VA would hand out pensions to 4-Fs with breathing issues.
More to the point, the letter meant that Jack had run the household with money I’d never known about. Money that had now dried up.
I put the letter down and reached for a Mason jar, tucked in with assorted paint cans and bottles of paint thinner. The jar had once held some sky blue paint, now dried and opaque, which hid the bills and coins inside. Jack had always kept five hundred dollars in this jar, spending it down to the pennies, and then replenishing with a fresh five hundred from some unknown source.
Once, when I was around five, Jack caught me trying to sneak some change out to buy a candy bar. He roared—the only time he ever directed his famous temper at me—enraged more by the betrayal than the theft. “But it’s a magic jar,” I gasped between my sobs. “You take money out, and it always comes back.” He got down on one knee, his strong, paint-flecked hands gripping my shoulders. “It’s not magic. It’s hard work that fills that jar. The hard work of earning the money, and the harder work of keeping it.” His hands moved to my cheeks, wiping the tears into his calloused palms. “Now, don’t cry, sister. You’ll see—I’ll make sure there’s always money to be found.”