Authors: E.L. Konigsburg
Without making her debut, Aida Lily went off to Rochester, New York, to train as an opera singer.
St. Malo society never lost interest in the duchess or the family Tull and several years after what would have been her debut, those three words,
Aida Lily Tull,
began to appear regularly in the newspaper. Every week the
seemed to carry an article on the front page of the Features section about Aida Lily Tull. The newspaper always referred to her as
our local diva.
Most of Aida Lily Tull's career in opera took place in Europe. After World War II, before rock-and-roll hit the charts, the continent had many small, first-rate companies, and towns no bigger than St. Malo had opera houses. Aida Lily Tull never made it to any of the famous opera houses like La Scala in Milan or the Garnier in Paris, but she had a solid career in the first row of the second section. She toured with excellent small companies in towns all over Germany, Austria, and Italy.
Then Aida Lily Tull married Mr. Zender and moved back to St. Malo and lived in the big house on Mandarin Road and news about
our local diva
Amedeo couldn't wait.
As soon as he changed his clothes, he would be back. He would once again be inside Mrs. Zender's pneumatic music-filled house.
He flung himself through his front door, skirted around the kitchen, and started toward his room. His mother, who was on the phone, quickly hung up and asked, “What's happened?”
Amedeo kept walking as he tried to explain that he had to change clothes because he was going over to Mrs. Zender's to help Mrs. Wilcox manage the sale of her estate.
“I didn't know Mrs. Zender was moving. There isn't even a
sign out front.”
“She is definitely moving. The rugs are already rolled.”
“Rolled rugs don't necessarily mean she is moving. She could be having them cleaned.” Then his mother stopped, thought a minute, and said, “I've seen her place. Having them cleaned is not a possibility, is it?” Amedeo laughed, and his mother asked, “Where is she moving to?”
“And where is that?”
“I don't know where it is. It's some retirement home she's cranky about having to move to. There is a Mrs. Wilcox who is liquidating Mrs. Zender's estate, and her son, William, invited me to help with the sale.”
“He invited you?”
“After I asked him to.”
Amedeo's mother followed him into the bedroom. “I think I should meet this Mrs. Wilcox.”
“I don't think you have to,” he said as he pulled off his shirt. “She's nice. She's just like Mrs. Vanderwaal.”
“Yeah. She calls everyone
William told me to change clothes, but I think it'll be all right to wear these jeans over there, don't you?”
“Yes,” his mother answered. “What time will you be back?”
“I don't know. I think I'll be going over there every day for a while.”
“If you've seen Mrs. Zender's house, you know there is a lot to do.” His mother hesitated. As much as he didn't want to take time to explain, Amedeo understood that after-school visits were not something she was used to. In New York, visits with kids had involved a lot of scheduling: drop-offs and pickups. Even after he was old enough to get to and from school without an escort, there had never been anything spontaneous about his after-school friendships.
Amedeo pleaded, “Mother, this is something I definitely want to do. It's like Backyard Explorers. It will keep me busy after school, and you won't have to rush home from work. I'll be fine. There's a phone over there if you need to get me. Mother, please.”
After another moment's thought, his mother said okay, and Amedeo was out the door.
He went around back and knocked on the kitchen door.
William called, “It's open.”
And Amedeo said, “Yes!” and to himself he added another
William was on a ladder reaching into the top shelf of one of the cupboards. “It'll be a big help if I can hand you this stuff and not have to climb back down the ladder with each armful.”
“Where shall I put them?”
“On the countertops, the table, the stoveâon any surface that doesn't wobble.”
William waited patiently until Amedeo had safely placed and balanced whatever had been handed to him before turning back to the cabinet he was emptying. There was so much stuffâso muchâthat it didn't take long for all the surfaces to be covered with stacks of dishes and cups on saucers. Amedeo asked, “What shall I do now?”
“Consolidate. Stack all the dinner plates on top a one another if they're the same pattern. Same with the saucers and so forth. Then make some nests with the cups. Soon's we get these top shelves empty, I'll come down and help.”
Amedeo waited until they were both at ground level and had empty hands before asking.
“How did Mrs. Zender find your mother?”
“The Yellow Pages.”
William sat down on the second rung from the bottom of the ladder. His legs were so long that even sitting on the second step his knees were steeply bent. William had started what Amedeo would soon learn was one of his customary long pauses when Mrs. Zender burst through the swinging door of the kitchen. “It's extremely warm today,” she said. “I'm keeping a bottle of champagne cooling in the refrigerator.”
She handed William her empty champagne flute, and without further instructions he went to the refrigerator and filled her glass. Mrs. Zender took it but didn't leave. She asked Amedeo, “Do you know that the famous Yellow Pages do not have an index?”
She had been listening.
“No,” Amedeo answered. “I've never used the Yellow Pages myself. Sometimes my mother would look up the phone number of a restaurant, but she never used them for anything important.”
Mrs. Zender said, “In my considerable experience, the phone number of a restaurant is not unimportant. Every conversation I have ever had in New York City either begins or ends with a discussion of real estate or restaurants.” She lifted her glass but stopped it short of her lips.
“I was thankful that the categories are listed alphabetically.” She raised high her arm holding her champagne and said, “I toast the good Lord for inventing the alphabet.” She took a drink and added, “Although I am not certain He wants credit for what I found under the letter
The good Lord”âshe lifted her eyes and her glass toward the ceilingâ“knows I am not a prude, but I was shocked at what I found there:
RENT A WIFE
: Let Us Organize Your Space and Your Life.
: Major Credit Cards Accepted.
I say the world as it ought to be has come to an end.”
Amedeo said, “My mother is an executive.”
“Exactly!” Mrs. Zender said. “Executives are not what they used to be.”
“Where in the Yellow Pages did you find Mrs. Wilcox?” Amedeo asked.
“Under the letter
” Mrs. Zender said, and swept out of the room, holding her champagne glass in one hand and pushing the door open with the other.
When the door had swung shut, William smiled shyly. “Ma is under
EstatesâAppraisals & Sales.
” He opened the drawer beneath the counter, where the turquoise princess phone rested. He took out the phone book and leafed through the pages before handing the
opened book to Amedeo. Near the center of the page he pointed to a small boxed ad.
Dora Ellen Wilcox
Appraisals and Estate Liquidation International Society of Appraisers
William waited until he was sure that Amedeo had focused. “Ma's name rang a bell,” he said. “That's what did it. The name
Dora Ellen Wilcox
did it. Mrs. Zender remembered an article in the St. Malo
Amedeo took the prompt. “What was the article about?”
William tipped his ear to the angel on his shoulder and told Amedeo the story of how his mother had sold a Chinese silk screen to the Freer Gallery.
Amedeo asked, “Do you mean that your mother found something that actually belongs in a museum?”
“Bought it. She bought it from the Birchfield estate. Then resold it.”
“Was it very old?”
William nodded. “Hundreds of years old. About the time of Marco Polo.”
“But she did discover it, didn't she?”
William shrugged. “It wasn't like she discovered something
that had never existed before. And it wasn't really lost because no one was looking for it.”
With relish, Amedeo told William about the four boys who discovered the cave of Lascaux. “You could say that it wasn't lost because no one was looking for it, but you could
say that all those drawings were lost from sight. For seventeen thousand years they were there, and no one knew it.”
“How do you know that?” William asked. “It might could be that someone had seen them just a thousand years before and covered them up again. Just like someone might could have seen that screen at the Birchfields' and just covered it up and stashed it back in the closet.”
“Those kids discovered something. Something special, and they knew it.”
William said, “Ma knew the screen was something special.”
“I call that a discovery,” Amedeo insisted.
William remained modest about the part he had played in the sale of the screen, but he was eager to tell Amedeo about his mother. “Before taking it around, Ma studied on it a long time. She determined that the pictures were telling a story about washing silk and weaving it.”
As Amedeo was saying, “Some experts now think that those cave drawings at Lascaux are a kind of writing that
tells stories,” the kitchen door swung open. A hand holding a champagne glass preceded Mrs. Zender into the room. She walked over to the refrigerator, opened the door, and started fanning the air from it toward her bosom. Speaking into the refrigerator, she said, “Louis Pasteur said that âChance only favors the prepared mind.'” She topped off her glass, turned, but continued to stand at the open refrigerator. “If one doesn't want to be more anonymous than his discovery, one must have a prepared mind. Of course, Pasteur did discover something. I think it was germs. But Pasteur really did
something. A process. He got the whole thingâ
ânamed after him. Not like Columbus, who discovered America and only got the capital of Ohio named after him. Of course, Columbus didn't invent anything. He didn't really even
America. It was never lost.”
William and Amedeo exchanged a look. How long had Mrs. Zender been eavesdropping?
Mrs. Zender bumped the refrigerator door closed with her behind and kept her back to it. “Sometime just last weekâor maybe it was last yearâa man in Siberia had a woolly mammoth named for him because he
a tusk sticking out of the ground.” Holding her champagne glass, she pushed the kitchen door open with her elbow, and as she stood in the doorway, said,
“They brought in bulldozers and cut out a huge block of permafrost and carried it off somewhere. They expect to defrost it. With hair dryers,” she added with a hoarse laugh. “They claim they're going to save its sperm. For what? I ask. For whom? I ask. Who wouldn't choose anonymity over giving his family name to generations of wide-bottomed, extinct hairy mammals?” She was out the door.
Amedeo waited until the door stopped swinging before he asked William, “Do you think that's true about the woolly mammoth?”
William tipped his shoulder to his ear. “Mrs. Zender knows more than she lets on.”
Then Amedeo asked, “Do you think we might discover something here?”
“Might could. When Mrs. Zender called Ma she said that selling the contents of her house would be more prestigious than selling the Birchfields'.”
“She said the reason is just three words.”
Amedeo said, “Let me guess. Those three words were
Aida Lily Tull.
William's blue eyes fastened on Amedeo. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, those were the three words.” Suddenly, William clapped the phone book shut, dropped it into
the drawer with a thud, and pulled the ladder over to another set of cabinets. He stood at the foot of the ladder and held on to both rails. He spoke to the space framed by the rungs at eye level. “When Mrs. Zender and Ma first spoke, Mrs. Zender told Ma that she knew she had to downsize, but she hated the word as much as she hated having to do it. She told Ma to never use that wordâ
âor the words
in her presence.”