The old house sat back from the country road, islands of brambles and brown grass dotting the mostly dirt yard. Its rusted tin roof sagged on one side lending a lopsided aspect to the wide front porch. A single overgrown rose bush leaned against the side of the porch, shedding its petals like drops of crimson blood.
On the porch was a plump elderly woman with a florid face, her hair in little gray curls. She sat on a faded blue sofa, dirty white stuffing escaping from the padded arms, and watched the two old men playing cards at the table next to her. The men were serious about the game even though they were using bottle tops as chips. Occasionally a car or truck would go past them and they would pause to wave at the passersby, and then resume their game.
Margie and Frank Barone were on their way back to Boston from the little town of Sutton and had decided to forego the busy highways for a more scenic route. It was a brisk fall day, but the sun was shining and the colors of the trees were magnificent, reds and yellows lighting up the landscape.
“I feel like we’ve wasted a trip going to that antique auction,” Margie complained.
“At least it’s a beautiful day for a ride in the country,” Frank, always the optimist, replied.
“True. But we really need to find some bargains to replenish our inventory,” Margie continued, gazing out at the landscape rushing by the truck’s window.
As they passed the little house, Margie saw several elderly people on the porch raise their hands in greeting. She returned the gesture and then, with mouth open in astonishment, turned to Frank.
“Did you see that?” she asked.
“What?” Frank replied.
“That table on that porch back there. I could swear it was Jacobean! Let’s go back.”
“That was an old shack,” Frank said as he slowed the truck. “I doubt it’s an original. Probably a cheap copy.”
“Well, it won’t hurt to look. They may not know what they have.” Margie said, beginning to see dollar signs in her head.
As they pulled into the rutted driveway, the two old men stood and the elderly woman stayed on the couch. One of the men, tall but stooped with a mass of white hair, hitched up his baggy pants and started down the rickety stairs to meet the couple.
Trying not to show their excitement, Margie and Frank walked up to the man, Frank extending his hand.
“Frank Barone,” Frank said as they shook hands. “And this is my wife, Margie.”
“Warren,” the old man said.
“How do you do, sir?” Frank beamed. “Hate to disturb your card game, but couldn’t help but notice that table there when we drove by.”
“Eh? That so?”
“Yes,” Margie said. “We’re in the used furniture business and may be interested in purchasing it.”
“Well, I don’t know. Been in my family for a lot of years.”
He didn’t say no, Frank thought.
“Mind if we take a look at it?” Frank asked.
“Don’t see why not,” the old man said as he headed toward the porch, Frank and Margie following him.
Margie smiled and nodded at the man and woman on the porch, but neither acknowledged her. She and Frank went to the table and, careful not to disturb the cards and piles of bottle tops, examined it carefully.
“Would really like to take this off your hands,” Frank addressed the man named Warren. “If you were going to sell it, what would you ask for it?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” and he glanced quickly at the old woman.
“Let me show you something else you might like,” the old woman slowly got to her feet and started waddling toward the open door. “Been in my husband’s family for hundreds of years.”
Margie and Frank followed her into the house, glancing around the dark interior. It seemed that every corner of the small room was filled with old furniture, most dating from mid-20th century, ragged or broken and dirty with a few new pieces of the Walmart variety.
The old woman maneuvered painfully around the furniture in the crowded room until she was standing at the back of the room.
“Well, what do you think of this?” she said as she removed a graying sheet with a flourish.
Frank and Margie looked at the newly exposed chair and then at each other. This was unbelievable, they thought. Sitting before them was a Jacobean rocking chair with a drawer under the seat and a floral motif engraved on the back.
Margie, trying to maintain a poker face, said, “What do you want for it?”
“Nothing,” the old woman answered.
“Nothing?” Frank repeated. “You mean it’s not for sale?”
“Oh, it’s not for sale outright. And as much as I’d like to give it to you, I can’t. ‘Course, if you were to come in here when we’re not here and just take it…. Maybe leave us a little money over there on that table…..Nothing we could do about that, right?”
Frank and Margie looked at each other, both thinking the same thing. This woman was crazy.
As she moved past them, the old woman said, “Fact is, Mr. Warren and I are going into town in an hour or so and we never lock our door.” Then she winked.
As Frank and Margie emerged from the dark house into the sunshine, they noticed that only Mr. Warren remained on the porch.
“Sure you don’t want to part with that table?” Frank asked.
“Can’t,” the old man said. “Besides, that’s my card table.”
Margie slid into the passenger seat and waved to the old lady on the porch while Frank shook hands with Mr. Warren. Then Frank got into the truck and looking in the rear view mirror slowly backed out of the rutted driveway.
When they pulled out onto the road, they looked back at the little shack and the two old folks waving to them from the porch.
Frank drove down the country road, neither of them speaking, Margie looking out of her window at the passing farmland. They came to a crossroads with a Shell station on one corner, a convenience store on the other and a small country restaurant across the road. A metal sign, its letters faded from the sun, stood on the fourth corner proclaiming in large letters that the vacant land was for sale.
“Hungry?” Frank asked as he slowed for the flashing yellow light suspended over the road.
“I could eat something,” Margie replied.
They pulled into the parking lot of the small restaurant, empty except for a dusty pickup truck.
Frank pushed open the door of the restaurant and they entered to the sound of a bell chiming above them. A heavy-set woman with a big smile on her face came out of the kitchen wiping her hands on the apron she wore around her waist.
“Sit anywhere,” she said after looking around the small dining area as if she thought it may have filled up while she was in the kitchen. “I’ll be with you in just a minute.”
Margie and Frank sat at a small table near the window. Sunshine filtered through the cloudy window and bounced off the small glass vase in the center of the table. The vase held a single faded plastic carnation which for some reason reminded Margie of funerals.
The jolly woman came to their table and gave them each a plastic coated menu, then wiped her hands on her apron as if the menus had left a sticky residue. She left and returned bringing two plastic glasses of water.
“You folks just holler when you’re ready,” she said as she sat the glasses down and left again.
“Well?” Margie said to Frank as she opened her menu.
“Do we go back?”
“Are you serious?” Frank questioned. “That would seem like stealing. You know that old woman can’t be right in the head.”
“I don’t know. I think she made herself pretty clear.”
“They have our names. What if we go back and get the chair and they call the police?”
Margie hesitated only a moment, “We’ll leave them some money. Weird that she said she’d give it to us but she couldn’t.”
“I still can’t get over poor people like that with 17th century Jacobean furniture. That chair is worth three or four thousand dollars. And did you see the condition of it? I’ve never seen anything like it. Original finish, too.”
“I say we eat and go back and get it. Maybe the table, too.”
“No. I feel funny enough about taking the chair; we can’t take the table, too,”
“You’re right,” Marge agreed grudgingly. “Besides, that rocking chair is worth more.”
It was just beginning to get dark when Frank turned down the rutted drive to the old shack. He was nervous. Margie was excited.
“I don’t like this,” Frank said as he slowed the car, stopping near the porch.
“Oh, don’t be silly, Frank,” Margie said. “The old lady practically invited us to take the chair.”
“There’s a light on inside. What if they’re home?”
“Then we’ll just say we came back to make them an offer,” Margie answered.
They exited the car at the same time. Both stood for a moment and watched the house, then met at the front of the car and continued toward the house.
“If they’re home, they had to have heard the car,” Frank whispered to Margie as they approached the rickety steps.
They noticed that the table was no longer on the front porch. Perhaps the old couple had moved it inside.
“Look!” Margie exclaimed in an excited whisper. “The front door is open!”
It was dark inside the house except for a soft glimmer of light coming from the depths of the gloom.
“Hello,” Frank said through the open door. “Anybody home?”
There was no answering call so Margie pushed lightly on the door until it creaked fully open.
“Hello!” she called and then looked at Frank.
As if in silent agreement, they both moved toward the door, Frank stepping back to allow Margie to enter first.
“I wish we had a flashlight,” Margie grumbled.
They reached the back of the crowded room and saw that the dim light came from an old floor lamp, its dusty stained shade blanketing the glow. It gave off enough light that they could see the chair, no longer covered with the sheet, standing as if waiting for them.
“Let’s hurry up and get this thing out of here. This place gives me the creeps,” Frank said as he grabbed one side of the heavy oak chair.
“Do you see the table?” Margie asked as she grasped the other chair arm.
“Forget the damn table,” Frank said. “Let’s just get the hell out of here.”
They had moved the chair as far as the front door when Frank remembered the money.
“Wait a minute,” he said and Margie lowered her side of the chair with a disgusted look on her face.
“I’ve got to leave them some money,” Frank said as he reached into his rear pocket and withdrew his wallet. He counted out five twenty dollar bills onto a worn table, then thought better of it and put three of the bills back into his wallet.
“OK, let’s go,” he said as they picked up the heavy chair and carried it awkwardly to the truck.
Margie and Frank were tired when they got home to their brownstone which was a shrine to their mutual love of antiques. After struggling to get the chair into the living room, they collapsed on the maroon velvet Victorian sofa, looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“Wow!” Margie exclaimed. “What a trip!”
“In more ways than one,” Frank agreed. “It was kind of exciting, wasn’t it?”
They both looked around at the beautiful furnishings and then at the chair sitting in all its glory in the middle of the Persian rug.
“I want to keep it,” Margie said wistfully.
“You know we can get a lot of money for it. The store hasn’t been doing that well lately, what with the economy lagging.”
“Oh, I know,” Margie agreed. “But can’t we keep it for a little while?”
Frank got up, went to the bar and began to make them both a drink. After giving Margie her cognac, he stood sipping his scotch and looking over their acquisition.
“It’s a beauty, alright,” he said. “I guess we can keep it here for a while.”
Margie grinned like she’d just been given a present.
“I know just the place for it,” she squealed.
Frank went to the fireplace that was already laid with wood and knelt to add kindling. Still squatting by the fireplace, he reached for the extra-long wooden matches that were kept in a fancy tin and struck one to light the fire. The match went out before he could touch it to the kindling. He reached for a second match and pressed it hard against the rough surface of the tin. The match flared and then the wooden stem broke, the burning head landing on his sweater. Instinctively he swatted at the singed sweater and Marge jumped up and threw her drink on it. The cognac reignited the flame and, realizing what she’d done, Margie ran into the kitchen and retrieved a dish cloth to smother the flame. Meanwhile, Frank had managed to pull the smoking sweater over his head and had stomped out the remaining flames.
“Oh my God!” Margie screamed. “Are you all right?”
“How the hell did that happen?” Frank said as he examined his arm. “The sweater got most of it. Maybe some salve, but I don’t think I need a doctor.”
Margie, still holding the dish towel, leaned over to look at his arm.
“Your hair is singed, but the skin just looks a little red. You scared the hell out of me!”
“I didn’t exactly plan on that happening,” Frank said sarcastically. “Weird.”
“Forget the fire,” Margie said. “I think I’m going to bed. I’ve had more excitement than I can handle.”
“Yeah, me, too,” Frank agreed and drained his glass of scotch.
“How’s your arm this morning?” Margie asked as Frank came into the kitchen.
“Not bad,” Frank answered as he shambled toward the coffee maker sitting on the granite countertop.
Margie was in a good mood. She’d been mentally rearranging the living room as she sipped her coffee at the small kitchen table. The chair would fit perfectly near the fireplace, she thought, if she moved the overstuffed chair into her bedroom.
“You weren’t much help,” Frank continued as he sat across from her. “I can’t believe you threw your cognac on me. That was a stupid thing to do.”
“I panicked,” Marge responded. “At least you weren’t hurt badly and we do have the chair.”
“Are you going to the shop with me today?” Frank asked.
“I’ll come down there later,” Margie said. “I’ve got some bills to pay. I’m afraid I let some slip, what with the trip and all.”
“Well, I could use some help,” Frank complained. “I’ve got to do inventory and I told Lindsay she could have the day off when we got back.”
“OK, I guess I can put off the bills another day,” Margie said with a disgusted look.
Frank went upstairs with his cup of coffee and Margie walked into the living room. The morning sun was streaming through the large bay window and she stood admiring how the sunlight gleamed on the polished wood of the antique chair. She still couldn’t get over that they’d found it in a shack.
Leaving the room, she caught a movement out of the corner of her eye and turned back to look at the rocking chair. She could have sworn it had rocked, but it must have been a trick of the sun through the window. Perhaps it had been a shadow of the tree outside, she thought, although there was no wind.
“I’ll come with you,” Margie called to Frank upstairs. “Just give me a minute to get dressed.”
Frank fished in his pocket for the keys to the antique shop as Margie stood behind him, bouncing up and down and hugging her wool coat to her. The sky had started to cloud over and a brisk breeze whipped her hair forward, covering her eyes.
“Hurry up,” Margie moaned. “I’m freezing.”
Frank pushed open the door and warm air enveloped them as they entered the shop.
“Lindsay must have forgotten to turn the heat down when she left last night,” Frank commented as he turned the lights on.
“I’m not complaining,” Marge said. “It feels good in here.”
“We can’t afford a high electric bill,” Frank said. “At least, not unless business picks up.”
“You’ve been awfully negative, lately,” Margie said. “That’s not like you.”
“One of us has to be realistic,” Frank responded. “By the way, I’ve been thinking about that rocking chair. You know we need the money.”
“Frank, you said we could keep it!”
“I know, but I’m having second thoughts. The inventory is down and business has been slow. You know we only had a couple of buying customers last week.”
Frank walked through the showroom with its small groupings of furniture representing several different periods, his footsteps cushioned by exquisite oriental rugs. Crystal chandeliers hanging from the low ceiling cast their shimmering light onto polished mahogany, cherry and oak.
Reaching the back of the shop, Frank opened the door to the store room and called over his shoulder to Margie, “Margie, come back here for a minute.”
Margie left the front desk and joined him in the doorway of the store room.
“This is what I’m talking about,” Frank said, gesturing with his arm at the few dusty pieces of furniture scattered around the large room. “Most of these pieces need some work before we can sell them and right now we can’t afford that expense.”
“Alright, Frank. I guess you’re right, but I really wanted that chair,” Marge said regretfully.
“Let’s put it out on display and if it doesn’t sell in thirty days, you can take it home, OK?” Frank compromised.
Marge knew it would sell so she gave Frank a doubtful look and walked back to the front desk.
A few minutes later, Frank came out of the back room and headed for the front door of the shop.
“I’m going to get the chair,” he said to Margie as he passed her.
“Can you manage it by yourself?” she asked.
“I think so,” Frank replied. “If not, I’ll see if George will come over and help me.”
Margie frowned as the front door closed. George was their neighbor and, since he’d retired, spent most of his time with a glass of whiskey in one hand and the television remote control in the other. She hoped Frank could manage the chair on his own. She didn’t trust George not to damage it in some way.
Frank pushed the front door open and stepped into the shop. His face was red from the cold wind and he rubbed his chilled fingers as he looked around the showroom. Margie must be in the back, he thought, briefly irritated that she wasn’t at the front desk.
“You want to come give me a hand?” he yelled as he headed to the rear of the shop.
“You don’t have to yell!” Margie snapped as she came out of the store room. She was upset that Frank was going to sell the chair when he knew how much she wanted to keep it.
After wrestling the chair out of the back of the truck and into the shop, Frank and Margie stood in the showroom deciding where to put it for the best display. They moved it over next to a large wardrobe, then decided it would show better if it stood alone on one of the antique Persian carpets under a chandelier. Finally satisfied, they decided to close the shop a little early and head home.
“Did you turn the heat down?” Frank asked Margie as they donned their coats. “It feels awfully warm in here.”
“That’s just because we’ve been moving around,” Margie commented. “I turned the heat down an hour ago.”
The ride home was strained with neither of them speaking. The more that Margie thought about the chair, the angrier she became. It wasn’t fair that Frank should insist on selling the chair just because they were a little low on inventory and finances were tight. They’d made it through tough times before.
Frank reached over and turned the radio on, switched the channel a couple of times and then turned it off. His arm hurt and he was irritated with Margie for making such a fuss about the stupid damn chair.
When he pulled up in front of the house Margie opened the truck door, jumped out and headed for the house. Frank followed behind, expecting her to leave the door open for him. Instead, she slammed the door in his face. He stood there for a shocked moment, staring at the closed door. He waited until his temper cooled and then opened the door and went in.
Margie had removed her coat and was putting it in the foyer closet. Frank moved past her and walked into the living room. He stood several steps into the room with his back to Margie.
“My God! Margie, we’ve been robbed!” he exclaimed.
Margie ran up behind him to peer around his back at the disarray. The sofa cushions were in the middle of the Persian carpet and the 18th century side tables had been turned upside down and rested by the bay window. Her prized Tiffany lamp was balancing precariously on its ornate glass shade and all of the framed paintings were scattered about.
They stood in shock for a long moment and then Margie rushed upstairs to their bedroom. Her jewelry! She had several antique pieces that were irreplaceable plus a gaudy diamond dinner ring she had inherited from her grandmother.
When she reached the bedroom, she saw that nothing had been disturbed and her jewelry box was sitting untouched on the dresser. Strange, she thought.
“Nothing’s been touched upstairs,” she told Frank as she walked into the living room.
“Looks like nothing’s been taken here. Nothing missing or broken,” Frank said. “Just a case of vandalism.”
“Why would someone do this?” Margie asked. “We need to report it to the police.”
For some reason, Frank was hesitant to involve the police. Perhaps, he thought, it was because he still felt a little like a criminal since taking the chair, even if he’d left money for it.
As he stooped to pick up the cushions from the floor, Frank said, “No. Let’s just forget it. Probably some neighborhood kids thinking it would be funny.”
They straightened up the living room and Frank started a fire, careful not to press too hard on the wooden match, as Margie prepared dinner.
“How about a glass of wine before we eat,” she called to Frank.
“Sounds good,” Frank responded, coming into the kitchen.
“I promise I won’t throw it on you,” Marge said with a smile as she uncorked the bottle of red wine.
“What’s this stack of bills over here?” Frank asked, gesturing toward a stack of open envelopes on the counter.
“Oh. I keep forgetting to go through those. They’re some unpaid bills I need to take care of. I’ll do it tomorrow,” Margie said, handing Frank a glass of wine.
After a dinner of poached salmon and spinach, they relaxed on the sofa and talked about the antique shop and what they could do to increase sales. Then, tired from the emotionally stressful day, they went to bed and fell asleep as soon as their heads hit the pillows.
Frank awoke to the jarring sound of the bedside phone ringing. He turned to look at the glowing face of the digital clock and saw that it was just after three AM. Who the hell could be calling this time of night, he thought as he reached for the phone.
Margie sat up in bed, a worried look on her face as she watched Frank answer the phone.
“Yes, this is Frank Barone,” he said. A long pause ensued and Margie watched as his face reflected shock and disbelief, her own fear growing.
“I’ll be right down,” Frank said and then put the phone down and turned to Margie.
“The shop,” he said. “That was the fire chief. It’s burned to the ground. Everything’s gone.”
“Oh, Frank,” Margie groaned and got out of the bed. She went to the closet and grabbed a sweatshirt and jeans and started pulling them on.
Frank got up and dressed in the same clothes he’d thrown over a chair the night before. As he sat on the edge of the bed putting on his shoes, he remarked, “It’s a good thing we’ve got insurance.”
Marge stood in the middle of the bedroom floor, her hand to her mouth, a look of anguish on her face.
“Frank, those bills I didn’t pay. One was the insurance bill. I just got a final cancellation notice from them yesterday.”
Frank and Margie drove home in silence. Their faces were darkened with soot from the fire ravaged shop and they were bone tired having spent the day rummaging through the remains of what had been their livelihood. Nothing was salvageable.
As they stopped in front of the brownstone, Frank turned to Margie and said, “We’re ruined, you know.”
Margie didn’t respond. Moving like an automaton, she opened the truck door and climbed down to the driveway, then slowly made her way to the front door. She was still in a state of shock. This has got to be a bad dream, she thought. This can’t be happening.
Frank got out of the truck, slammed the door and followed Margie into the house. She had gone into the living room without turning on the foyer lights, the setting sun sending long shadows through the living room and hallway.
Frank ran to her, thinking the vandals had been back and stopped abruptly, aghast at what he saw in the middle of the Persian carpet. The Jacobean rocking chair stood silently in the fading light, and then it slowly rocked.
Margie fell to the floor. Frank hesitated a moment, still trying to comprehend what his eyes were seeing, then dropped to his knees to hold Margie as she opened her eyes and a mewling sound issued from her mouth.
Frank felt as though they were returning to the scene of the crime. He glanced over at Margie as she stared, unseeingly, out of the passenger side window.
“You know, we’re doing the right thing, Margie,” he said and put his hand gently on her blue-jeaned thigh.
“I know,” Margie concurred in a dead voice.
Frank slowed the truck and turned into the rutted driveway of the old shack. The place looked deserted, the table gone from the slanted porch. No lights shone from the house but they could see from the glare of the truck’s headlights that only the depressing blue sofa and old rickety chairs remained.
They went directly to the back of the truck and opened the tailgate. They had struggled with the rocking chair and had placed it on the ground next to the truck when a voice startled them.
“Might as well load it back on.”
Turning, they recognized the old man that had been playing cards with Mr. Warren.
“That’s Mary Warren’s chair, you know,” he continued as he walked up to them. “The witch that got away.”
The old man stood there, hands in his pockets, a grin on his wizened face.
“What are you talking about?” Frank asked with an irritated look on his face. He just wanted to leave the chair, get back in the truck and drive away.
“You ever hear of the Salem witch trials?”
“Of course,” Margie said. “Everyone’s heard of them. A bunch of innocent people accused of witchcraft by hysterical girls. What does that have to do with the chair?”
The old man’s grin widened.
“Well, I’ll tell you,” he answered. “Mary Warren was an accuser, but then she was accused herself. Only she didn’t hang. John Warren is her direct descendent and inherited her chair and table about fifty years ago. Nothing seems to be wrong with the table, but that chair there is cursed. Can’t sell it or give it away. It’ll just come back every time.”
“That’s crazy,” Frank said, but then he had a vision of the chair miraculously sitting in the living room of their brownstone when it should have been destroyed in the fire.
“Maybe so,” the old man said. “But the Warrens used to own all this land around here and lived in a big fancy house until he inherited that chair. Then everything went to hell. Lost all his money in the stock market, house burned down, even the cows he had got sick and died. He tried to sell the cursed thing, and then tried to give it away. It always came back. He even tried to burn it once – a regular bon fire. Didn’t even singe it.”
“Where are the Warrens?” Marge asked as she looked behind her at the dark house.
“Oh, they’re gone. You know that money you left them for the chair? Well, damnedest thing. John took himself up to the store and bought himself a congratulatory bottle of wine and a lottery ticket. I’ll be damned if he didn’t win the jackpot on that lottery ticket. They cleared out of here so fast, it’d make your head swim.”
“But I don’t understand,” Frank said. “If you can’t sell the chair or give it away, how were we able to take it?”
“Well now, that’s the key, you see,” the old man said, his smile growing even wider. “Takes a special kind of person to get the chair. Got to be sneaky and greedy, a liar and a cheat and a thief. Someone the Devil himself would look kindly on. Looks like you two fit the bill.”
Frank stood in the hallway drinking his coffee and watched as Margie dragged the Jacobean rocking chair from the living room to the front door.
“I could use some help here,” Margie said as she stepped around the chair to open the door.
“What are you doing?” he asked between sips.
“I’m putting it on the front porch. You never know who might drive by.”
Frank put down his coffee cup and went to help her.