"Not long after I was born, my mother started having health problems. I was never told what was wrong with her She was in the hospital somewhere, although she came home briefly a couple of times. I was too young to understand where she was or why. Those times she came back, she was very sad. I remember her eyes and the wrinkles around them. Then she was gone. So was my father."
Ames Quentin punctuated the last part of the sentence with a stiffer jaw line and a small swallow from the glass that was sitting on the table in front of him. Amalia wasn’t sure she had done the right thing letting him in, even if her friend Laurel had sent him. He was, after all, a stranger. It was rather odd for a stranger to be telling her those things
"My grandparents are the ones who brought me up, really. Grampa always said that when I was twenty one he’d give me the picture. He always referred to it with such respect. I knew it was important. He just called it ‘the picture’ and that’s all I knew.”
Amalia was unable to comprehend why the picture was important. It didn't make sense that Mr. Quentin would be looking for someone to help locate something vaguely called a ‘picture’. Not a bit of sense.
"On my twenty-first birthday, we went to get the picture. It had been stored in the attic, wrapped in tissue paper, in a box with a dark purple ribbon. We opened the box, but the picture was missing. Grampa recalled that my father, Anson, had been around for my mother's funeral. In the days afterward, I guess my father had packed up things. Some he moved to Grampa's. Some he got rid of. He took the rest. He never said much about what he was taking, but Grampa knew it was not the box that supposedly contained the picture. I imagine my father found some items he could sell in his shop. He dealt in second-hand things. A few might even have been of some value, but the majority weren’t worth much. The worst part was he felt he had the right to take what he wanted because they'd been married, although nothing in his relationship with my mother seemed to justify that sense of ownership over her belongings. Grandma Eva alluded to that, suggesting he never paid much attention to my mother or to me. What could he possibly want with my mother’s things? Even a small boy knows when something's odd."
Amalia couldn't help thinking how Ames seemed to be carrying that emptiness his parents had left him around inside.
"A few months ago, I discovered my father had ended up in Maine. It was when I was going through the last of my mother's things and found an address for him at my grandparents' house. That was when I decided to try to find him. I discovered he was dead, though. It wasn't a pleasant end, but I imagine he deserved it."
The harshness of the remark surprised both of them. Ames looked as if he'd like to take it back. Amalia’s eyes widened. She didn’t venture to ask how he’d found out about his father’s death nor the circumstances. Not yet, anyway.
"The store (he didn’t say Dad’s store) had been shut down. Soon after that after its contents went to other second-hand dealers. I became determined to find what I suspected he'd taken. So that's how my search, unsuccessful up to now, began. When I met Laurel a few months ago it was one of the first things we talked about."
Why did Laurel bring me into this? Amalia wondered. She didn’t ask it out loud, however.
"At first I wondered the same thing.” It was if Ames had read her mind. “Then Laurel told me a little more about you, and I agreed she might be right. You were the one to help me. You could find it if anybody could.”
"And?" She hoped the word would encourage him to expand on that statement. It did.
"You're having to make an important change in your life.” (Laurel must have told him about the divorce, damn her.) “You live in this area, have lived here for a few years. The picture has to be on the coast somewhere, I just feel it. Archivists are supposed to be able to identify everything, I’m told.”
Identify, maybe. Finding things is a different matter.
Mr. Quentin then mentioned that both of them had lived in New York State, but it wasn't relevant to where the picture was likely to be now. Laurel must have filled him in on that, too.
"That's still not much of an explanation." A risky comment on Amalia’s part, but it might draw out some more information.
"Yes, there's more. Laurel says you understand what an obsession means you. That means you can understand the type of search this is, or could turn out to be. She thinks you're creative in the way you put information together.”
Whatever that means, Laurel.
"Laurel also said you have a sense of justice. It doesn't always get you what you want or take you in the right direction, but she loves your sense of right and wrong, which she says is not just for yourself but for others as well."
This was somewhat unexpected, but Amalia was grateful to her friend, finally. That did not stop her defensive nature from lurking in the back of her mind. Or maybe it was something else. She replied:
"Sounds a bit like the good Protestant girl brought up by good old-fashioned, Protestant parents. Something out of a novel, right? Sentimental, believing fairness exists.”
She sensed she sounded sarcastic again, and was flustered, ready to withdraw her offer to help before she said much more. The last part of Ames' argument for requesting her help had sounded like a prepared speech; she could sense falseness in a lot of people. It was usually something in their eyes. Ames was looking down, but he and noticed her hesitation, and her back stiffened. Then he looked up and his eyes had an extra glint in them. It was not the wine. He was trying to hide his sadness.
"I need to know about the picture because I need to know what happened to my mother. I didn't really have the chance to get to know her; she was gone by the time I was six or seven. Laurel thought you might understand that need yourself."
Ames appeared worried, as if he sensed the trust, the small bit they’d established, had started once again to crumble. Amalia was becoming worried that her friend had been running off at the mouth after a second glass of wine.
That Friday night they met again to fill in more of the blanks in the story of the lost picture.
The story Ames subsequently began to reveal, with a slow urgency, left its impression. Amalia listened very, very carefully now, despite the fact that they were sitting in an open space, where anybody could hear them talking, and might decide to share what should not be shared. One of those thick, insistent coastal fogs had wrapped itself around them, erasing the normal world and beckoning toward another.
"So now I'm goin' to play art bloodhound, poking around a lot of musty shops, looking for a picture you hope is a botanical print of some flower, a lily, perhaps? Yet you’re not sure if it might also be a photograph? And you don’t know if it’s a picture of your mother or someone else, maybe someone you never met? Do you know just how many possibilities there are?"
Amalia knew the way she was talking wasn’t going to help matters much.
Ames’ respectful tone, so controlled, told her she had been too critical. Of course he knew how many possibilities there were.
Since Anson had had shops in Damariscotta and Rockland, and another in Bath, Amalia decided to start in those three towns.
The trip to Bath, so-called ‘City of Ships’, was a quick one. It was only a five mile drive from Brunswick, six at tops. There were two bookstores, of very different sorts, on Centre Street. Amalia quickly eliminated the one that sold former library books to benefit the town library. The books there were used, but most were pretty recent. There were no prints or photos of any kind, either.
The other bookstore, a few doors down, was a jumble of tomes, shelving, and other forlorn tidbits somebody had seen fit to rescue from their pages and set out on display next to the books. Amalia went through the sections on photography, history, and Maine before rethinking her selection of topics. She added travel and women to her search. All the while, the owner, somewhere in his late forties, was watching her study and shift items. His tousled salt-and-pepper curls wandered about his head as his gaze did not stray. She shuddered. What she was looking for couldn’t possibly be there, although she felt obligated to ask, to say something to the man so he’d know she wasn’t in the store for the wrong reason.
“Do you have any old prints or photographs?” She asked, wondering if it was insulting or redundant to insert the word ‘old’ in her query. (There were, in fact, a few of these very items tucked here and there among the books, albeit in random fashion.)
“Well, there are some, scattered around. On different shelves, as you must have noticed.” It was, of course, the obvious, bored answer. Amalia winced and her shoulders sagged inward. Obviously he didn’t know she was an archivist and his reply was more than a bit dismissive, but then she wasn’t acting like she knew what she was doing.
“Oh, yes, of course,” she said in a near-squeak. She applied her best respectful tone. Maybe that would appeal to him.
“I only wondered if there happened to be a separate section, one I might have missed.”
Mr. Salt-and-Pepper shook his head a bit too energetically.
“Just look around. What you see is what I’ve got.”
He looked anxious to return to the pages open in front of him.
Amalia tried to continue her polite attitude toward the man by poking around a little more, but she was anxious to get out of there after sensing his cold gaze.. After a long three minutes or so of feigning interest in the dust and worn edges, she escaped through the front door onto the sun-washed sidewalk. It would have been impossible to ask the owner of the bookstore about antique shops in town. Walking up the sloping street toward her car, she passed a couple of places with old items and stopped in on the chance they had prints. Briefly, but immediately - so as not to look suspicious - she inquired about old pictures. This puzzled the storekeepers, who wanted to know what kind of old pictures? Paintings? Photographs? Engravings? She wondered herself and, embarrassed, left. She hoped they’d forget they’d ever seen her.
Ames and Amalia arranged to talk on Sunday after she’d gone to Bath. This time she was not reluctant to see him, at least not as much as before. This unnerved her. She should be cautious, but she needed more information to go on if she were ever going to locate whatever it was that he’d asked her to locate. They’d selected Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick again as the place they would meet.
"Do you have more details about this picture you’re searching for, any at all?"
She found herself almost begging, now truly wanting to help him. The bloodhound was barely on the trail, but the scent was enticing. Was it the distraction she need from her own personal situation? Amalia was concerned that she wasn’t focusing well.
"No, I don't, I'm sorry. I can tell you my mother's name was Rosie, or maybe Rosiña. Her last last name was Devesa. She was born somewhere in New York, I’m pretty certain. It isn't much, and won't have any bearing on your search, but I don't want you to think I'm keeping anything back."
Why would she think that?, she wondered, noting his concern.
Just then, Laurel called, as Amalia could see on her cell. She wanted to meet for a quick chat, and suggested they get together in the library. Amalia said that was convenient, because she had to check out a book by Celia Thaxter and another by Sarah Orne Jewett. Both writers had been interested in the Boon Island matter, since it was virtually in their back yards. Because recently an artifact that had surfaced in relation to the island, the director of the historical society where Amalia worked wanted her to do more research on the item. It was an intriguing task, because Boon Island was associated with a shipwreck in the seventeenth century. There was another wreck in the eighteenth century, and yet another in the twentieth. Thaxter had said the island was "the forlornest place that can be imagined.”
When the two women met, for some reason Amalia didn’t tell Laurel she’d just been at the library with Ames.
"How've you been?" Laurel smiled, and Amalia had the feeling she wasn't entirely uninformed as to what was going on with the stranger she had sent to her archivist friend. Surely a person who was used to working with old things could sort out some clues and put Ames on the right path. He could probably do the rest on his own.
"I'm running into dead ends everywhere," Amalia replied, with the tinge of a frown.
"I'm not surprised, but you've really only just started, and this isn't much different than your work on maritime navigation or women’s lacework, is it?" Laurel even knew Amalia thought that her work at the historical society qualified her as being somewhat of a sleuth. Archive sleuthing can be achingly slow, though. Ames seemed to have a more pressing need, even if he couldn’t provide many details about the missing ‘picture’. Laurel’s interest in all of it was a mystery.
"I'll feel awful if I can't come up with anything for him. If my own research goes nowhere, nobody's the worse off and I can go in another direction, but I’d hate to let Mr. Quentin down. He seems like a nice person.” Run, or hide, she should have said, if she were being honest, not knowing why she was thinking about running or hiding. It was just that she was used to working with artifacts that were presented to her, not one she had never seen.
"Well, you are at least eliminating possibilities. Poor Ames has been trying for so long to make up for not protecting his mother more while she was alive.”
Where did this fellow come from and why now?
"But he was only a boy when she got ill. And surely he's not responsible for her illness, is he?"
For a moment, the initial nervousness reappeared in full force. Had she stopped being on guard with Ames? Was she foolish to be less cautious? There some shadowy areas around the man, she sensed. Shadowy, not shady. Things he's kept to himself.
He’s not telling me everything.
"No, but since she had problems with depression and her cause of death was never clarified, he can't shake the idea that he's to blame. He thinks he should have been a better son when she had so many problems with his father."
"A little boy does not have that responsibility," Amalia shot back, a bit sharply.
The sharpness probably came from understanding all too well what guilt feels like. Guilt wasn't something she wanted to talk about, though. Laurel looked at her, a hint of surprise in her expression at the abrupt comment. She twisted her stiff shoulders slightly, her arms bent at the elbows. Amalia’s tone had been almost aggressive, which meant it didn’t sound like her. It made Laurel very uneasy.
"Anyway, that was just something I thought you should know so you can understand better why Ames is so determined to find this picture. I don’t know what he wants to do with it. Maybe just have it for safekeeping - put it in a safe place along with the recipes he inherited from his mother."
Laurel’s remark added to Amalia’s uneasy feeling. Who searches for something just to lock it away, out of sight again? Why hadn’t the recipes been kept by his grandparents, especially by his grandmother, Eva? Why did he have those and not the picture?
Recipes? What would he want with those? He probably doesn't even cook.
Amalia knew she should not have been so judgmental, but one doesn’t think usually how a man might receive a collection of recipes and actually use them. (It was a stereotype and she felt guilty at thinking like that, but she couldn’t help herself. Maybe it was just that her ex had so little ability to prepare food of any kind.) Anyway, what concern of hers was it what Mr. Q did in his kitchen? She certainly hadn’t thought of him in that light.
Not that one. Maybe a different one...