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Winter/Spring 2020

Antiquing at the Scene of the Crime

Catherine Vance


This woman’s voice was young, not a particularly Appalachian accent either.  I took note.

 “What kinds of things do you have?”  I asked her. The IWANNA weekly had an ad with good potential, kind of vague like I like them to be: “Antiques and collectibles, all kinds of stuff in my house and storage space,” and the phone number.

“What are you looking for?”  She turned it back to me.

“I’m an antiques dealer but I don’t have a specialty.  Small furniture, pottery, linens, old books and postcards, jewelry, you name it.”

“Well, I got all that.”

She gave me an address in the Sandy Mush area. Good. It was the most rural part of Buncombe County. Old stuff sitting around neglected for decades in houses and barns, not some subdivision yard sale, that was the best-case scenario. “One o’clock okay?” I asked.


I hadn’t been up that way for ages. The fall colors were still showing burnt orange and burgundy red.  I was winding around the curves of Peepeye Cove Road and up ahead on the right I saw four or five tiers of single-wide trailers stacked up the mountainside.  Dammit!  China knick-knacks and used housewares from Walmart. 

I drove by the plywood sign for Dogwood Park and found the address.  There was a raking wet wind today, so I had worn my jeans and a sweater and a jacket over that.  I had gloves in my pocket, expecting that we might look in some outbuildings.

The woman who opened the door looked unlike any seller I had dealt with before.  She was young and slim, but a rough young, with tousled straw blonde hair down to her shoulders, and a face slightly pocked by acne, a scar that jagged through her upper lip to her nose.  I thought she must have been beautiful as a child, but something had gone awry.  Whether it was all in the past or still going on, I couldn’t tell.  She had put on red-red lipstick and it hadn’t stuck to the place where she’d been cut.  She was wearing a pink and orange mini-dress and was barefoot.

“Come in,” she said and motioned to an elderly lady sitting in a Barcalounger holding an evil-eyed Pekingese dog.  “That’s my granny, she lives with me.”

“Hi,” I said, scanning the room for things to buy.  Granny, bunchy in her elastic-waist pants and cardigan, pursed her mouth and looked at me.  “‘Lo,” she said.

“Thanks for letting me come and look,” I spoke to the room.  I was already discouraged to see nothing of interest.  I keep a list of items I search for in my purse as a prompter. Most of the time I don’t need it; the things that are available are immediately obvious in the sales or storage units that advertised, but now I handed the paper to her. “My name is Cathy,” I said. “These are some of the things I am interested in, but I’d be glad to look at whatever you have.”

“I’m Dawna,” she said. 

“Donna,” I said.

“It’s Daw-na.  D-A-W-N-A.  I have a court case coming up soon, so I need to raise money to pay my lawyer.”  She continued to read my list.  “Linens, pottery, e-femra?  What’s that?”

“Like old maps, postcards, photographs, paper things like that.”

“Oh. Okay.  I bet there’s some of that in here.”  She went across the room to a cheap little particleboard drop-front desk and opened it. Her granny made a face at me and rolled her eyes away.  I looked around at the pictures on the wall and saw a photograph of Dawna prominently displayed as part of a plaque: “Hooters Employee of the Month.” There was also a picture of a man with a banjo, a professional portfolio shot.

Dawna straightened up and handed me a set of Betty Boop postcards. They were not old, and one had a stain on the corner. But I wanted to “break the ice” as they say on the TV antique-finding show, and hopefully, there would be something of substance to look at later on.

“Yeah, these are cute,” I said.  “I would take these.  What else?”

“I have linens in the bedroom,” she said and started in that direction.

“And that’s my Daddy,” she added, pointing to the picture of the banjo player.  She gave me his name. “Maybe you’ve heard of him,” she said. 

“Yes, I have.  I really love bluegrass.  I’ve heard his songs on the radio a number of times.”  More questions arose. If she had a famous father, why didn’t he help her so she didn’t have to sell her Betty Boop postcards?  

Dawna brought out a stack of sheets and pillowcases, which stunned me a little.  It seemed like maybe these were things she was using now.  “Are you sure you really want to sell these?”  I tried to inquire as gently as possible. 

“Oh yes, I have what I need.  These are extras. They fit a double size bed.  I have a queen size now, and my boyfriend doesn’t really like flowered sheets anyway.  Well, he’s my boyfriend, but he’s also my lawyer.”

 Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Granny shift in her chair and exhale loudly. Too much information, I silently agreed with her. The Pekingese growled a deep little r-r-r like a tiny motor trying to start.

“Well, okay, these are sweet.”  I set aside some with a pattern of red roses.  They had a vintage look but seemed new.  I figured I could use them on my guest bed.  “Do you have some things that are older, any jewelry, glass, small furniture?  The older the better is what I am really looking for.”

“You can have that if you want it.”  She pointed to a round wooden table by her granny’s chair. It looked like an old oak plant stand.  It had a lamp on it, and the light was switched on.  Granny furrowed her brow and looked at Dawna.  Her crabbed hand reached out and pinched the edge of the table.

“No, I don’t think so, but thank you.” I took the hint. “Do you have any outbuildings, storage areas where you keep things you might be ready to part with?” I started to wonder why she had put an ad in the paper. Where was the stuff?  

Dawna put her fingernail between her teeth.  Sometimes when you look at a person you can see the thinking happening, the wheels turning. “Well, my mother has some pottery, and she lives right nearby.  We could go to see her.  And then there’s the Old Place, it has lots of stuff, but I haven’t been there for a while.”

“The Old Place. That sounds nice, if it’s not too far away, I can drive us and then bring you back.”

Dawna went to get her shoes, or rather her flip-flops, and a sweater.  I stood up and looked at her grandmother.  “Nice to meet you,” I said.

“We’ll go by my mother’s first,” said Dawna, “check out the pottery.”

Dawna got in my car and rolled down the passenger window.  She pulled a pack of American Spirits out of her jacket pocket. “Mind if I smoke?” she said, a cigarette already in her lips.  She punched in the car lighter, which I didn’t even realize I had. “Just turn left over the creek, and it’s about two miles on down,” she said.  It was cold with the window open.  We could hear the stream now and again, saw its icy glitter through the branches as we went.

Finally, we pulled up in an unpaved driveway that was bordered with a series of wooden boxes up on stands.  As I got out of the car I saw there was a rabbit inside each container.  Dawna went up to the screen door and pounded with the side of her fist.  “Mama,” she called. I waited behind her, watching a black and white lop-ear gnaw his limp carrot.

Her mother came to the screen door in her slippers and robe. She was in the middle of her beauty procedure.  There was some kind of exfoliant cream on her face. It looked like it had little pebbles in it.  “Dawna,” she said, “what are you doing now?”  She heaved a sigh, sounding astonishingly like a younger version of Granny.  She barely glanced at me.

“She wants pottery,” said Dawna and held the door for me.  I stepped inside, but just barely.  It was clear this was a mistake.  “I’m sorry,” I said. “This was not my idea. You have a nice collection, though.” There were shelves on every wall, as well as boards rimming the ceiling, and every inch crowded with pottery and glass. Quality stuff too. I recognized McCoy and Redwing pieces, as well as artisan face jugs and some Pisgah pottery done locally, very desirable, with the cameo images.    

“I’m sure it was not. Your idea.  Dawna, I am making me some soup. Did you eat today?  Take some. But I have to get to work. What do you mean by dragging this woman in here?”

“Well awlright,” Dawna said.  “I just thought you might want to get rid of some of this clutter and help me out.”  She turned to me. “Do you see anything you like?”

I kept my eyes on Mama.  “It’s all very nice, but I am not here to pry into someone’s private collection when they are not interested in selling.”  I turned to Dawna. “You had mentioned The Old Place. Maybe we could check there, and then I really should get on my way.” I had decided that this whole visit was a wash.  I was getting impatient, starting to lose the day, and so far all I had were some cartoon postcards and a set of cheap sheets.

Mama stopped stirring her soup.  “Dawna, you are not going up there.”

“Why not?” she said, “The stuff she wants is up there. It’s high time I got rid of some of it.”

“It’s been shut up for months,” said Mama.

“I’m not scared,” said Dawna.

I glanced from mother to daughter.  I didn’t know what was going on, but apparently I was about to be taken to a place where people might rightfully be afraid.

“Take the key, then,” the older woman said and yanked a small leather strap off a hook by the light switch.  “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”  She said this to me.

Back in the car, I put both hands on my wheel.  “Look, Dawna, I appreciate this, but maybe I should just take you back and call it a day.  This seems like a family situation and it is better if I stay out of it.  You might want to rethink having an ad in the paper, though, until every One and every Thing is ready to sell.”

Dawna got another cigarette ready and then twisted in her seat.  She reached out and caressed my hand.  The last seller who did that to me was a beer-T-shirt-wearing flea market vendor with a walleye, and I won’t repeat what I said to him.  This time, I looked down, sort of frozen.  Dawna’s nail polish was blue, with silver sparkles in it.

“Listen, I like you.  I want to take you up there, and it has some good stuff, I promise.  I just need you to know that I haven’t been there for like, a year and a half, so it will be a little weird for me.”

 I looked at her blue nail polish and said, “The world is full of stuff.  There is lots of junk out there in other places for me to find and buy.  I am perfectly fine to skip this.”

The weather backed me up.  It was threatening to rain.  It really was deep fall now, inspiring to look at from afar, but bone-chilling if you were standing in it.

She pulled her sweater tighter around her ribs and propped her cigarette arm on the car window.  “You are the one I have been waiting for to answer my ad.  I can tell.  Just drive.”

We turned off the main road into a weedy, bumpy little track.  I was pretty sure we had limited cell phone service, if at all. This woman was a head case, and we were alone.  The car nosed up the road until finally the track opened out into a clearing and there was a little bungalow with a barn/garage off to the back. 

“I used to live here,” said Dawna.  She had gotten out of the car but was still standing by the open door. “Me and my husband.”

“Oh,” I said.  It was starting to drizzle, but I just waited for her to take me wherever she was going to. I was hoping we could get this over with soon.

“He was the mandolin player in my daddy’s band, “she said. “He’s dead now,” she added and looked toward the barn.

The trees behind the barn spun a little in the wind.  I said, “I’m sorry to hear that.” 

“Don’t be.  I’m the one who killed him.”

She didn’t just say that.  I managed, “When did this happen?”

“Like I said, about a year and a half ago.  I shot him right over there, right by the barn. I could barely see when I did it, he had hit me in the face and my eye was swollen shut.  And there was blood in my mouth from where he had cut me with his pocketknife.”  She put her hand to her upper lip.

I looked at the car keys in my hand.  “I’m so sorry,” I said.  “Are you sure you want to be here?”

“Yeah.” She shifted her hip and smiled a little at me.  “You got good energy.  It helps me handle it.  Look, come here, I’ll show you the bullet holes, and then we’ll get you some stuff.” 

I followed her, dragging questions I wasn’t going to ask.   It was dreary in the shed, lit only by the clouded white sky.  Damp boxes and a litter of tools and automotive supplies filled the space.  Maybe I could buy something quick and get going. Wasn’t that my job?  The concept of “inventory” was a little surreal at the moment.  I’d never had bullet holes pointed out to me by a murderer.

“Here, and here.”  She reached up and touched the planking of the shed, and you could see the spots, with daylight coming through, and splinters spiking around them like crowns.  Her pink and orange dress made a glow in the dark.  “I shot him twice,” she said.  “I really did try and not kill him, but I got him in his right shoulder and lung.  He bled to death before the ambulance could get here.”

“Oh my goodness.  How awful for you.”  He probably deserved it, I had already decided.  A knife flashing, her face sliced open.

“Thank you.  Thanks for coming.”  She hugged herself.  “I can’t believe I’m standing here.”

“Well,” I said, taking the bull by the horns, “since you brought me, would it be okay if I looked in some of these boxes?  It’s pretty chilly, but I can do it fast.”

I looked in the first box.  An old handmade quilt, a little moldy, but with good colors, and not coming apart or shredding.  I could wash it and make it show well again.  The second box had something heavy, wrapped in moist newspaper.  A silverplate teapot, blackened, but in an ornate Victorian pattern.

It was time to give my standard story, lay out the plan for exchange.  “What I normally do is make a pile of the things I want.  Then you can tell me either a flat price for all of it, or we can go item by item and add up the numbers.  How does that sound?”

She flicked up her hand.  “Just fine.  Have at it.”

Silently I rustled through the boxes, setting items aside.  Some lanterns, a wooden milking stool, some unusual milk glass.  She stood watching me, then decided to help.  “There’s some old pottery over here,” she said, and picked her way through the muddy ground in her flip flops.  She lugged back a large jardinière nestled in some hay under the steps to the loft.  Roseville, it said on the bottom. Wow, I thought. Good stuff.

She brought piece after piece of high end 1940s pottery over to me, and we worked until our hands were black from newsprint, numb from the cold.  “This is enough,” I said.  “We’re freezing, and I’m sure I’ve reached the top of my budget.  I gestured at my finds. “So--how much?”

 I had a price formulating in my own mind; that is what dealers do. “I still have the postcards and the sheets, too, remember.”  I felt I had to add that. “I like the seller to say what they want.  I’m not much of a bargainer.”  I always preferred for the person to tell me a number.  If I know I can’t resell something for double the money, I just tell them that “at that price I won’t be able to make a profit, so I guess I’ll pass.”  On the other hand, sometimes your conscience will haunt you if you know the value of an item and the person selling it doesn’t. 

“I don’t know.”  She jumped up and down, warming herself.  I could see her thinking again.  “Those pots are pretty nice, let’s see, 1,2,3,4,5, plus the old sled, the quilt, and the rest… Hmmmm.  A hundred bucks?”

I paused, my conscience hovering. Working at Hooters had not prepared her for this.  “What about your mother?    Wouldn’t she be interested in keeping some of the Roseville?  Will she be upset or say you sold too low?”

“You saw it.  The last thing my mama needs is another pot.  Anyway, this is not hers to decide on.”

“Well, okay, if you’re sure.  But let’s say two hundred.  It’s more than worth it.”

“Really?  Okay, great, I’ll take it.”  She opened her hand.  The key from Mama’s still in it.  “We didn’t go inside.  Maybe next time.”

I didn’t say yes or no.  I just told her to get in the car.  “You’re not dressed for this weather.  I’ll load things.”  I started the engine and turned on the heat for her.  When I finished and got in myself, she seemed brighter. I drove back down the sort-of-a-road, reeling a bit from the success, and the oddity.

When we got to her trailer, I put my car in neutral and handed over the $200, cash, which was all I had brought.   I hesitated, and then told her, “This was a good deal for me.  I gave you all the dollars I had, but I’m going to make a profit, for sure.”

“I know,” Dawna said.  “I knew you would.  Y’all antique pickers have your fun, but you got to make some money, don’t you?”  She waved my handful of twenties.

I was glad we understood each other.  Sometimes we antique dealers might say we “made a killing” on a find. But this was clearly a win-win.  “Good.  Well, I wish you luck with your court case,” I said, thinking of her lawyer lover.

Some dealers are superstitious, they say there is ju-ju on Things, Karma good or bad. 

I’m not so sure. The people who buy at the antique mall, they don’t know.  The Roseville sold for great prices, and I was glad about that.  But whatever blood there was in the history of that particular pottery, it was washed clean.

If only people got fresh starts like that. 


[Check out Catherine Vance's back porch interview]