It’s Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and the flea market’s narrow aisles are overflowing with holiday shoppers, searching for the perfect Christmas gift. Packs of girls wield bulky bags. Lovers walk hand in hand. Surrounded by others, my loneliness is lost in the crowd.
Browsing, not shopping, I stop at an aromatherapy table and sample a few scents before dabbing lavender oil on each wrist. The lavender blends with a fragrance I call “New York City A.M.,” an enticing mix of freshly washed pavement, deli coffee, and an aromatic mystery somewhat like musk. Wandering deeper into the market’s racks, I sort through colorful peasant skirts and sling a few handbags over my shoulder. There’s a turquoise pashmina that would brighten winter grays. As my hand caresses the plush cashmere, a surge of static sends a shiver down my spine. Pulling away, I collide with a teenage girl, then crash into a vendor’s table.
“I’m so sorry,” I say, mortified. If I had a friend in tow to laugh at my clumsiness, the gaffe might not seem so bad. But I haven’t met many people since moving from North Carolina. There are a handful of co-workers at the bookstore. One girl, who’s about my age, always smiles. I’d like to get to know her better, but we haven’t shared a shift.
“No worries,” the vendor says, setting his wares back in order. He’s wearing thick wool gloves with the fingers cut off, and his nails are grimy.
I’m kneeling to pick up a leopard headband when I spot an ivory hair comb. No more than three inches long, it pales in comparison to the rhinestone jewelry that surrounds it. Its simplicity is beautiful.
The vendor stops straightening earrings and his mouth gapes, exposing teeth as discolored as the ivory. A web of fine lines suggests he’s a smoker, or was. He has colorless, shoulder-length hair, tied with a blue bandanna. He might be 50, or older, though his eyes glisten with youth as he gazes down at the comb. “Curious choice.”
The comb’s delicately tapered prongs and careful craftsmanship allude to a bygone era. I can’t imagine owning it, let alone wearing it, and doubt whether my stick-straight, shoulder-length hair would hold it. It belongs in rich, dark locks, where it will not wiggle free.
“Pretty gal like you can have it for a special price,” he says, picking up the comb and jiggling it in his outstretched palm as if weighing it.
I’d prefer to be sophisticated, but pretty isn’t bad. I imagine how I appear in his eyes: soft brown eyes and hair that’s almost a perfect match; a decent body, good legs. Most people warm to my girl-next-door looks. My most distinctive feature, and the one I’m most proud of, is my mouth, with lips that are full and slightly pouty.
“Thanks,” I say, wondering what he means by ‘special price.’ He doesn’t sound cunning or perverse, though there’s a lilt to his offer that implies more than a monetary transaction.
“Where you from?”
“The neighborhood,” I say, smiling because it’s true. In the three weeks that I’ve lived here, I’ve learned to ride the subway, wear black, and not gawk at the tattooed woman who walks around Washington Square Park with a boa constrictor draped around her neck.
The vendor’s wares are as eclectic as the city. Along with the velvet-lined trays filled with hair accessories, rhinestone brooches, and ostrich-feather earrings, the table displays tattered record albums and books. I recognize “From Here to Eternity” and a dog-eared copy of “Catcher in the Rye.” Glass jars, filled with colorful sand, contain sticks of burning incense. Smoke curls from each.
A mustard-yellow cover catches my eye. “A Season in New York” is written in ornate script, decorated with flowers. Below that is the date: 1801. The spine cracks as I open it and dry pages fall free. Inside there are oval miniatures of a family. The father has shoulder-length hair tied like George Washington’s. The vendor styles his hair in a similar way, though his frayed bandanna is more Woodstock hippie than founding father. The mother is shown in profile, a black-and-white silhouette with a weak chin and ample bosom. The girl, who is closer to my age, interests me most. Dark curls graze her forehead. Her hands are folded across her lap, clasped with tension that implies expectation.
“You a reader?”
I’m about to mention that I clerk in a bookstore when I hear my mom’s warning. “There are all types of folks in New York.” Her voice sounds small and frightened. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that that was exactly why I wanted to live here.
I turn the volume over in my hands. The weight, even the musty odor, is comforting. “This looks interesting.” It’s easy to chat about Elizabeth Bennet or Bridget Jones, imagining myself in their shoes. My secret dream is to write a best-seller that would seamlessly blend Jane Austen’s social insights with a chatty, chick-lit style, but I can’t settle on a topic that’s both familiar and fresh. I flip through “A Season in New York,” hoping it might offer a clue.
The vendor is watching me carefully. “That’s new.”
I nod, thinking he might be kidding.
“Take it. It’ll make interesting reading, especially for you.” He’s wearing a worn Grateful Dead T-shirt and as he bends forward, the skull on the shirt puckers into dimples. “Do you like mysteries?”
“Umm . . .” I expect him to offer another book and am reluctant to take advantage of his generosity.
Instead, he passes me a mirror. “Try the comb.”
Curiosity, or some equally compelling force, pushes me forward. I reach for the comb and it twitches or throbs in my hand. At least that’s the way it feels. I study it carefully, running my fingers along the crest. What I’d thought were scratches are actually a design, a flourish of letters that twist and curl like an exotic vine. Slowly, as if reading Braille, I trace each one. The last letter is clearly an “A.” Before that could be two “Ns.” The first is the most ornate and the most difficult to decipher. I believe it’s an “A.”
The revelation is both exciting and, inexplicably, sad. “I’m — my name’s Anna.”
The vendor nods or bows, some gesture between the two that seems old-fashioned and chivalrous. “Vincenzo,” he sings in an operatic baritone, then grins as if he were concluding a performance and anticipating applause. Despite his yellow teeth, he has a pleasant smile. He’s utterly unlike anyone I’ve ever met. I like that about him.
“I’m Anna,” I repeat, wondering if he’s heard me correctly. “Isn’t that weird?”
“The dead and living are all mixed up.”
Mom’s voice is telling me to smile politely and walk away. But to me, Vincenzo’s words sound poetic. I see lost souls, wandering shadowy streets. The image is surprisingly vivid. There’s a young woman. She has dark curls like the girl in the miniature, and an emerald green dress.
“Fly on my sweet angel, fly on through the sky,” sings a soulful voice. Vincenzo has ducked under the table, where he is shuffling boxes. He’s down there, huffing and humming, for several minutes.
“Pretty song,” I say, when he comes up for air.
He startles as if noticing me for the first time. “Hendrix.”
“What about the comb?”
Gummy spittle balls in the corners of Vincenzo’s mouth. His features are drawn and vulnerable as if he senses his forgetfulness. His confusion is troubling. I reassess his age, deciding he may be 70 or older. My hand trembles as I hold out the comb.
Vincenzo’s eyes jump to the vacant spot on the table. He looks as if he might snatch the comb away. “That’s one of a kind.”
I want to leave, but can’t part with the comb. I picture it secreted away in the old cigar box where I keep my most cherished possessions: the collar of my cat Felix who died when I was 10, a postcard from Rowan Oaks, William Faulkner’s home in Mississippi, and a faded photo of my mom. A rare one in which she is smiling.
My fingers close around the comb. “How much is it?”
“Nothing’s more costly than an object which hath no price.’”
I squeeze the comb until the prongs scratch my skin. “Where’s it from?”
“Found it.” He nods toward the opposite corner. “In the snow one night. Went down headfirst, looked up, and there it was.”
I imagine a snowy street, the ivory glistening in the morning sun.
“No one ever claimed it. You’re the first to show any interest.”
The peculiar story makes me want the comb more than ever. Digging into my pocket, I pull out a crumpled bill. “I’ve only got 10, but if we agree upon a price I can give you more each week.”
“Ah — ” Vincenzo’s brow wrinkles as he looks at the money in my hand. “Mr. Hamilton.”
I know Alexander Hamilton’s name, but can’t recall exactly who he was or what he did. I’m fairly sure he was never president.
“Dapper fellow, a true genius, but also an arrogant son of a bitch.”
If someone had asked me yesterday if I knew who was on the $10 bill, I wouldn’t have been able to answer. Hamilton has wavy hair that flows back from a broad forehead, a square chin, and strong cheekbones. The image is grainy and has a green hue, but there’s no mistaking the man’s striking good looks.
“He was his own worst enemy.”
The story is coming back to me. “Didn’t he kill someone?”
“Colonel Burr shot him.”
“Aaron Burr?” It’s another name lodged in the gray matter of my brain; one I should probably know.
“Oh — right.” I recall a black-and-white drawing in a history text of two men brandishing pistols. “What were they fighting about?”
Vincenzo leans across his table. His breath smells tangy like fruit. “Why do you ask?”
“Just curious, I guess.”
“That’s not good enough,” he snaps. People turn to look.
Vincenzo’s mood swings make me anxious. I’m debating whether to say goodbye or simply go when he grabs hold of my wrist.
“I’ve never told anyone this before, but you chose it. You’re the first.” A police car weaves in and out of traffic. Sirens blaze and crimson lights flash then fade. Despite the noise, Vincenzo lowers his voice, “Burr shot Hamilton to keep him from telling what he knew.”
I scan the table looking for histories or biographies, some clue to the source of his knowledge. “What’d he know?”
“He knew what really happened to that girl.” His bony fingers pry open my palm.
“You’re saying Hamilton knew the girl who owned this?” I study Vincenzo’s face, searching for some clue that he’s pulling my leg.
“Damned himself on account of her. Burr did, too.”
The comb feels heavy in my hand, and precious. “Were they in love with her?”
“Not them. It was the carpenter who loved her. And it’s easy to see why. Raven hair, and those eyes.”
“You’ve seen — ” Photos didn’t exist back then. “You’ve seen her portrait?”
“Seen her — with her cousin, in my stall.”
Now I’m really lost. “When?”
“After the war.”
“A world war?” Even that would make Vincenzo inexplicably old.
“Wrong century,” he scoffs. “Haven’t you been listening?” His words make no sense, but his voice is clear. “Those men trampled her grave to elevate themselves.”
The image I’ve conjured of a raven-haired beauty with a swan neck and flawless complexion is replaced by a desolate grave.
“She never got justice. That’s why you’re here.” There’s conviction in his voice. He doesn’t falter. I believe him.
“Tell her story.”
I drop the comb and rush out of the market as if being pursued.
Eve Karlin, an East Hampton resident, has had two stories published in The Star. She is working on a novel, of which “New York, New York” is the first chapter.