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Annabelle

“Done!” David Brynn signed the contract with a flourish.

“Congratulations, Mr. Brynn. It’s all yours.” Alice Showalter handed David the keys. The hundred-year-old bungalow and all of its contents, was now his very own. Well, his and the bank’s. But with mortgage payments half of what he’d been paying on his lakeside condominium, plus profits from the condo’s sale, David was confident he could cover the expense even in his reduced circumstances. It did seem odd to him that the sale included all the contents of the house and garage, but when he asked Ms. Showalter whether the owner might want some items, she told him that she had been told by the owner’s son to just get rid of it all for whatever she could get. David felt no small amount of pride that he had negotiated the sale all on his own without help from his mother, Madalynn Brynn — owner and top saleswoman of Brynn Elite Realty. He checked himself — almost without her help. Madalynn had gotten top dollar in selling his condo.

David pulled his five-year-old Jeep onto the weedy gravel parking space next to the slightly listing, one-car garage. The Jeep seemed far more comfortable in this setting than had his Range Rover. He would have pulled into the garage but it was full. Besides the 1963 Rambler Ambassador resting on its flattened tires, the building held a host of Sarah Kondrazyk’s garden tools and machines — a rusty reel mower and two gas powered mowers of questionable vintage, along with David’s bedroom set and moving boxes of his belongings. As he inserted the key into the bungalow’s back door, David was overtaken by an emotion he could not recall experiencing since boyhood. He was home.

*****

David Brynn was a nerd. There really was no other word to describe him. After his plastic surgeon father’s death when he was eight, and his mother’s subsequent marriages and divorces, David had taken to his room. There he discovered and got lost in a world of numbers, algorithms, programming languages and codes. He kit bashed the 486 his mother had given him for Christmas one year, and from then on there was no stopping him. He was just barely sixteen when he started college and nineteen when he graduated.

A bizarre encounter in a gay bar during his senior year — the result of a prank pulled on him by his jock-star roommate — led to a business partnership with Marty and Geoff. Three years into the venture, when his salary was in kissing distance of six figures, his mother insisted he needed living quarters in keeping with the prestige of his career. With the real estate market still reeling from the 2008 housing bust, Madalynn negotiated a phenomenal deal for the three bedroom, two bath, seventh floor unit. The nighttime views of Chicago and the daytime views of Lake Michigan were stunning. David’s older sister Marilyn, a successful interior designer, took charge of furnishing and decorating the condo. Everything from the oil and vinegar cruets in the kitchen to the art on the walls to the shower curtains, was the ultimate in post-modern decor — stainless steel, chrome, black, and grey. The exception was David’s bedroom. He had been gifted with his maternal grandparents’ bedroom set when Grandma Flo had given up her house for an assisted living apartment. The waterfall design of the bureau, with its huge round mirror, dresser, nightstands, and headboard in a warm walnut veneer with honey maple and ebony inlays was definitely out of place. But it gave David a feeling of connection with his beloved grandparents. Madalynn and Marilyn had given exasperated sighs at his intransigence on the issue and said, “Fine! Just keep the door closed when you have company.” Not that David had much time for guests. He traveled frequently as he set up the tech and trained staff for his business franchises scattered across the country, Canada and Mexico.

At 32, David was at the top of his game. Although most days he made the short commute to his office in the Loop, he also worked late into the evenings from his computer room at home providing tech support to the franchises. Despite the high profile career and condo, the long hours and his own introverted nature led to a frugal lifestyle. While an expense account covered elegant meals when he traveled, at home David preferred his own cooking — a style he called Midwestern Farmhouse. His two extravagances were his computers, tablets, and phones and his car — a Range Rover he purchased new every other year. Between the trust fund from his father and his own savings, David was an eligible bachelor indeed. Although that was about to change. He had recently become engaged to Steffi, a woman introduced to him by his sister Marilyn.

Then came the novel corona virus. David’s company was an essential business and David was well equipped to work from home, as was his secretary Esther Thomas. His partners, Marty and Geoff, not so much. Promotion, marketing, and sales, their areas of expertise, suffered from a lack of face-to-face contact. As the weeks dragged on, the partners agreed to a significant pay cut. It wasn’t a hardship for David. He didn’t miss the travel.

But then the lockdown was extended. It was the middle of May when he received an urgent summons from Esther. A secret meeting was taking place at the office. David arrived just in time to learn that Marty and Geoff had sold the company to the Chinese. He also learned that due to negligence on his part in failing to read the terms of his latest contract, he was out of a job. And so was Esther, albeit they both had handsome severance packages. Madalynn, of course, was furious with him for his carelessness. Worse, as he explained his need to downsize to Steffi, she broke off the engagement.

*****

Finding the bungalow was a happy accident. Though over a century old and much neglected, it had good bones, a sound roof, and a dry basement. It had languished empty on the market for three years. When Madalynn discovered it also had historical significance and that David refused the services of her favorite architect to turn it into a showplace, she threatened to buy it out from under him, but David had been a few steps ahead of her. Now it was his — two bedrooms on the first floor, one Pepto-Bismol pink bathroom, kitchen, dining room, living room, enclosed back porch, and attic, — all fully furnished circa 1972. Not to mention the one-car garage complete with car. The only furniture David had brought with him from the condo was his bedroom suite and computers. Still, to move his stuff in, he had to move a lot of stuff out.

Esther Thomas had the solution. While old, the beds, dressers, easy chairs, recliner and sofa were all of top quality and in good condition. Esther’s church had a list of families in need of home furnishings. She also had connections. A cousin had a trailer. A nephew led the youth group at her church. And so, at 8:30 on a Saturday, Esther, her cousin, nephew, two girls and four boys from the youth group showed up to clear out the bungalow. David had decided to keep the kitchen and dining room tables and chairs, but the rest could go. The living room was easy. The big pieces were quickly carried out. There was some debate as to what to do with the Sauder entertainment center but when the boys got it outside and dropped it, it collapsed. There was no debate over the analog television set. No one wanted it. It and the round shouldered refrigerator would go to a recycling center some other day. The bedrooms were next. And while the beds were easily disassembled the bureaus presented a problem. They were filled with Sarah Kondrazyk’s clothes. The closet in the back bedroom was also full. And though David knew that Mrs Kondrazyk had been a widow for twenty years before her son moved her into a nursing home, it still held men’s clothes. The underthings were bagged up for disposal. The youth group girls, however, were excited to see the retro clothing and begged to take it. David was happy to let them. Finally, the bunk beds from the attic were carried out to the trailer. David would have liked to rip up the brown and orange shag carpet once the living room was empty, but that was a project for another day.

Once the large items were out of the house it was time to tackle the small pieces. The built-in shelves of the dining and living rooms were filled with knickknacks and the glass fronted cabinets in the kitchen with dishes. It was here that Esther called a pause. Esther Thomas was an avid “Antiques Roadshow” fan. On top of that, her nephew Jamal was in the antiques and collectibles business. One set of dishes was decorated with blue and white Currier and Ives prints. “Believe it or not,” Esther said, “these were once grocery store giveaways. Now they’re collector items, especially the serving pieces.” The other set, obviously the “good” set was 80-year-old Dresden china. “David, I think you should consider keeping these. And if you don’t want them, I’m sure my nephew Jamal could get a good price for them. Since you’re not working, I’m sure the income would be welcome.”

David hadn’t considered that any of the home furnishings would be of value. He thanked Esther and agreed to her plan. Esther’s keen eye came into play again in the living and dining rooms. Among the knickknacks she discovered tacky kitsch, valuable kitsch, and some real treasures, most notably the genuine Hummel figurines. More treasures lay behind the knee wall in the attic. The boys went crazy over the Lionel train sets from the 1930s, 1950s, and 1970s, along with the Lincoln Logs, Erector sets, G.I.Joes, comic books, and Matchbox cars, most in their original boxes and in near mint condition. And then there was the doll. Esther gasped when she saw her. Cradled in yellowed tissue paper inside a wooden suitcase, the doll was something from a bygone era. She was large, eighteen inches tall, with beautifully sculpted bisque face, hands, and feet, a fine kid leather body, and a soft mohair wig. Her lace dress was yellowed and worn but intact, as was the doll’s entire trousseau — nightgown, calico dress, white apron, green woolen coat, and leather shoes.

Esther lovingly caressed the doll. “She must be at least a hundred years old. And worth a fortune. “

“I’ll bet she belonged to Mrs. Kondrazyk as a child.” The idea came out of nowhere. David looked at Esther. “I wonder if she would like it back?” He saw the answering spark in Esther’s dark eyes and the plan was born — find Mrs Kondrazyk.

One more surprise awaited David when Esther’s cousin LeRoy led the youth group to the garage to bring in David’s belongings. Just as Esther’s jaw had dropped at the sight of the doll, so did LeRoy’s when he saw the Rambler. Although the tires were long flat, and David had no idea if the car would even start, there wasn’t a speck of visible rust, and under the heavy coat of dust the gold paint job gleamed.

“I can’t believe it! A 1963, 400 cubic inch V8 Ambassador! I don’t know what you paid for this house, but this car and all those other treasures you found will go a long way to paying for it.” LeRoy made an appointment to call David and discuss selling the Rambler later in the week. Then he instructed the youth group to move David’s possessions inside. In no time, David had a functional bedroom, his primary computer set up in the other bedroom, and most of his boxes neatly stacked in the attic. Seated on the remaining boxes in the living room, the hungry kids devoured the pizza and soft drinks he ordered, and the under Esther’s direction, cleared everything away. David was left to enjoy his new home in solitude.

*****

The search for Sarah Kondrazyk took a week. Esther Thomas had connections. But it was another two weeks before the nursing homes were open to visitors. Sarah was residing at Sunnyvale Memory Care, an upscale facility. Carrying the doll in a brightly wrapped box, David approached the reception desk. Before he reached it, an attendant stepped out, took his temperature, and handed him a mask. At the desk, he asked to see Sarah.

“And what relationship are you to Mrs. Kondrazyk?” the receptionist asked.

“Uh. Um. She’s my aunt,” David lied.

“I see.” The receptionist buzzed for a CNA. The woman, whose name tag read “Betty” led him down a well-appointed corridor.

“Mrs. Kondrazyk has been with us for three years. She came to us from the hospital after falling and breaking a hip. In all this time she’s never had a single visitor. So what brings you here now?”

“I just found out about her being here a few weeks ago, and of course, visits weren’t allowed then.” That at least was the truth.

“Well, I have to warn you that Mrs. Kondrazyk has her good days and her bad days. Besides the dementia, she suffers from conditional depression. If she’s confused, it’s best to just agree with her and not try to correct her. She usually refuses to take part in our activities. She may or may not know you.”

Despite his fractious relationship with Madalynn, David could not conceive of leaving her in a nursing home, no matter how posh, unvisited, even though Madalynn herself made but one duty visit to Grandma Flo a year.

Betty opened the door to a private room. A frail woman with wispy white hair lay semi-reclined in the bed. Her eyes were closed.

“Sarah,” the CNA called softly. “Sarah, you have a visitor.”

Slowly the woman opened her eyes. Slowly she turned her head. Slowly the China-ble eyes blinked away an unseen fog. “Jonathan! Oh, Jonathan! You came!”

David approached the bed. “Um, Sarah, hi. I’m not Jonathan. I’m David. David Brynn. I bought your house. “

Sarah’s eyes closed. Her hands fluttered as though trying to pin something down. Then a smile lit her face. “Oh of course. How silly of me. Of course you’re not Jonathan, although it’s hard to tell with that mask.” She looked across to the CNA. “Shirley, this is Davey, my sister Susie’s boy. Oh, Davey! It’s good to see you.” She took David’s free hand and patted it. “Have you seen Jonathan?”

“Um. No.” David answered.

Sarah’s smile dimmed for a moment. “You always were the thoughtful one, Davey.” She sighed and continued patting his hand. “Shirley, this is my sister Susie’s boy Davey.”

Betty smiled. “Well then, I’ll just leave you two to visit. Ring when you’re ready to leave, Mr. Brynn. “

David pulled his hand free. He reached for the box. “Mrs. Kondrazyk,” he began.

“Mrs. Kondrazyk!” humphed Sarah. “Is that any way to address your aunt?”

Remembering Betty’s instructions, David tried again. “Aunt Sarah, I’ve brought you a present. ” He laid the box in her arms .

“A present! I do love presents. Is it my birthday?”

“No. I just thought you would like this.” He helped her tear away the wrappings and lifted the lid of the box.

Sarah’s lips formed a soundless “Oh.” “Oh,” and “Oh,” again. To David it seemed she almost stopped breathing and he became alarmed when a tear slipped down Sarah’s cheek. He was about to push the call button when Sarah regained her voice.

“Annabelle. Oh, Annabelle. Oh, Davey, you found her! I thought she was gone forever!” Silent again, Sarah gently touched the doll’s face and hair and peeked beneath the lacy skirt. Then, hugging the doll tightly began to sing, “Hush little baby. Don’t say a word. Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird…” Sarah sang through the song twice, the sat fully upright. “What am I doing? A lady shouldn’t receive callers in her nightie and in her bedroom even if he’s family. Shirley? Where’s that Shirley?”

David pressed the call button and Betty returned in a few minutes.

“Shirley! Look at that, Shirley! Here it is broad daylight and I’m still in my nightgown. And I have a gentleman caller. It’s just not proper!”

Betty asked, “Would you like to get dressed, Sarah?”

“Of course. How could you let me lie abed so late in the day?”

Betty asked David to step out. Ten minutes later she opened the door. Sarah was now ensconced in a wheelchair, clothed in a blue flowered dress and clutching Annabelle. Betty indicated David should follow and she pushed Sarah down the hall to a cheerful day room. Betty wheeled Sarah’s chair into a circle of comfortable chairs and wheelchairs where their occupants and another staff member were playing a game with giant inflated bats and an enormous ball. The game stopped as the young man said, “Why Sarah, this is a surprise. I’m glad you’ve joined us. Now who is this you have with you?”

Sarah held up the doll. “This is Annabelle. My sister Susie has her sister Clarabelle and my other sister Barbara has their other sister Lillybelle. And this is my sister Susie’s boy, Davey.”

The women who were mobile clustered around Sarah, all wanting to touch or hold Annabelle. While Sarah allowed them to touch, she did not relinquish her grip on the doll. The men who were mobile clustered around David to shake his hand and ask him again and again his name.

Then Patrick, the recreational aide called for attention. David took a seat and listened as Sarah told the story of the three doll sisters. Lillybelle, Clarabelle, and Annabelle had all belonged to a childless great aunt. The dolls had been presented to Sarah and her sisters each on her tenth birthday. “I thought Annabelle was lost forever but my sister Susie’s boy Davey found her and brought her to me.” At this, David received a genteel round of applause.

David could see that Sarah was growing tired, so he stood to say his goodbyes. After he kissed Sarah lightly on the cheek, all the other women wanted the same and the men wanted to shake his hand again. It took twenty minutes to break free. Sarah called out to him, “You’ll come again, Davey, won’t you?”

“I will, Aunt Sarah. I will.”

And he would.

4 replies on “Annabelle”

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