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The Auction Piece

by Jeanne Martz

Good Friday. Just the time to get outdoors and plant potatoes, but a lingering frost prevented Mrs. Willaby from starting her garden. Indoors, the soap operas which normally filled her day were preempted by the Iowa basketball championships. Not one to sit around twiddling her thumbs, she dressed and took the local transit across town to the Auction Palace.

A woolen bandanna tied under her chin drew it further upward for lack of support from the top dentures she left behind on the sink, giving her the look of a Slavic peasant. The weight of her large slightly hunched arthritic body was sustained by her thick soled shoes as she lumbered across the parking lot toward the main entrance to the auction. She liked to come her and get caught up in the commotion, but she seldom made a purchase for herself. It just intrigued her to see what people bought and what they would pay for other people's castoffs.

As she entered the narrow dimly lit hallway lined with flyers advertising upcoming events, she could see the buyers inspecting the merchandise. Everything in the auction house was always neat and orderly, but the unmistakable smell of relics that had rested too long in dusty attics and the odor of mold growing in the corner of drawers and behind cupboards was always present.

Mrs. Willaby quickly marked her seat for good viewing and made her way to the tables for her own inspection of the sale items. Among the usual array of discarded junk, there was some very nice antique glassware. Her eyes came to rest on a magnificent blue glass Swan, exactly like the one that decorated her grandmother's mantel many years ago. What wonderful memories came flooding back to a time when she was a small girl resting in her grandma's arms as she listened to fairy tales of castles with ponds supporting beautiful swans like the one she fixed her eyes upon. It had long ago been passed on to aunts, then cousins, and by now was probably in the home of some shirttail relation.

Startled back to reality by an arm that reached in front of her and took hold of the very item of her transfixion, Mrs. Willaby recognized Mrs. Winston Dupont III, a lady she worked for years ago as a housemaid. The wealthy Dupont family dominated the community and her old Victorian house on the other side of town was filled with antiques of the highest quality. Her dress and manner were always prim and proper, and she did everything according to protocol. Despite her regal bearing, she was a pleasant lady although a bit frugal, as Mrs. Willaby recalled.

"Excuse me, Mrs. Willaby, but I must have a closer look at this Swan. I believe it's he only one I need to complete the set I have exhibited in my dining room cabinet. You remember the cabinet at the corner by the table? There are six pieces in all and this is the one I have searched for unsuccessfully for many years." Her eager hands stroked and clutched the Swan as she noted the perfection and opalescence of its slender neck and delicate beak, brilliantly illuminated by the dull light above them.

Mrs. Willaby saw the excitement that came across her face as she reluctantly placed the piece back on the table. "I have some fond memories of my own," said Mrs. Willaby as she related the story of her grandmother and her childhood attachment to the beautiful Swan. "I'm thinking I wouldn't mind owning it myself. I have the perfect spot for it and it would bring me much enjoyment in the days that are left to me."

"I must say, Mrs. Willaby, it's a very rare, valuable piece and I doubt you can afford it," said Mrs. Dupont, not feeling threatened as she sized up Mrs. Willaby's purchasing power and turned to take her seat as the auction began.

"We'll just see about that, Mrs. Dupont the Third!" shouted Mrs. Willaby, amazed at the sound and tone of her own voice as she spit out each syllable of Mrs. Dupont's name and she too retreated to her seat ready for battle.

The auction went on for several hours while the two women exchanged ugly and menacing glances. Both snapped to attention when the auctioneer declared, "And what am I bid for this Swan?"

Mrs. Dupont braced herself for the encounter and began to breathe heavily as her demeanor changed drastically and the sharp features of her face became even more pointed. The vein in her temple was visibly throbbing, her nostrils flared, and her pale skin became ashen. The auctioneer got a bid of two hundred dollars and fifty cents from her, and Mrs. Willaby made it three hundred.

"Three hundred twenty five," shouted Mrs. Dupont.

"Make that four hundred," Mrs. Willaby countered.

"Four hundred twenty five," screamed Mrs. Dupont who virtually seemed to be coming apart as the severe hairdo that ended in a knot at the nape of her neck showed a few strands of escaping hair straggling around her shoulders. She unbuttoned he collar and began fanning herself with the auction card to ventilate her perspiring body.

"Five hundred," came from Mrs. Willaby as she glanced at the balance of her bank book, and the bid was getting close to the figure that stared back at her. Suddenly, she remembered the credit card that had been sent to her several months ago. Reaching further into her bag she found it and began waving it at Mrs. Dupont. She never intended to use the card, but had not bothered to send it back. There was no stopping her now. She was prepared to go the limit.

The bidding went past one thousand dollars, well beyond the value of the Swan. The spectators were both awed and amused at the same time because the ladies were no bidding on their own without any help from the auctioneer.

Mrs. Dupont's frugal upbringing could not be repressed, and much as she wanted the Swan, she found it hard to justify such an exorbitant price. Her shoulders slumped almost in defeat as she retrieved her gloves from the floor and offered her final bid.

"Twelve hundred and fifty dollars," she said, feigning her determination in the hope that Mrs. Willaby would come to her senses and drop out.

"Thirteen hundred," said Mrs. Willaby and the auction was over.

The auctioneer handed Mrs. Willaby the cherished Swan and the smile on her round pudgy face almost made her eyes disappear into the folds of her skin. She wrapped it carefully in her headscarf and put it in her bag for the trip home on the transit.

She found the perfect place to display her treasure where it could be seen from every room in the small house. It was only hidden away when the grandchildren came, for fear it might get broken in a moment of horseplay. She loved to tell anyone who would listen about the exacting day at the Auction Palace, but she never told anyone what it cost her, fearing they would think her foolish. it gave her so much pleasure to invite people to view the auction piece. There's no doubt about the change it brought to Mrs. Willaby's dull life before she passed away several years later.

Her children, lacking any sentimental attachment to the secondhand decor of her furnishings, disposed of her belongings in a well-advertised tag sale. And Mrs. Winston Dupont III's collection -- that set in the dining room corner cupboard minus the blue swan for so many years -- is now complete.