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MEN TREAT ME WITH amusement, women with sympathy. My name is Mary Lou Bateson, but the nickname "Dunk" followed me from Des Moines to New York City. I am almost six-two—in my bare feet. When I wear heels, I loom—or so a man once told me.
"Don't worry about it, Dunk," Daddy advised. "People look up to you."
That will give you an idea of his quirky sense of humor. That, and the fact that he named my three brothers Tom, Dick, and Harry. I suppose that if I'd had two sisters, we'd be Faith, Hope, and Charity.
About that "Dunk" ... Both my parents were tall, and all my brothers were over six-six before they were fifteen years old. If you think that means basketball, you're right. We had a barrel hoop nailed to the garage as long as I can remember. Having no sisters, and, being too tall to have close girlfriends, I joined my brothers in their daily practice.
We divided into teams of two, Tom and Dick flipping a coin to decide partners. The loser got me. But I worked as hard as they. And after months of striving to master the dunk shot, I succeeded well enough to earn my nickname. Everyone called me Dunk.
My brothers were stars in high school, and I played center on the girls' team. We won all kinds of tournaments, and our home was filled with trophies. Mother kept an album of newspaper clippings about our exploits. The Register referred to me as "the lofty, spindly Dunk Bateson." I know they meant it kindly, but it hurt.
The same year that story appeared, I wore a bikini to a pool party and overheard a girl say, "It looks like two Band-Aids on a broomstick." And I endured the usual chaff: "How's the weather up there?" and "Do you get many nosebleeds?" Sometimes people can be cruel without really meaning to be.
I tried to grin my way through all this. Wore my flats and kept telling myself not to slump. But it is difficult being a very tall girl. And the fevered attentions of very short boys are no help either. I didn't have a date for our high school prom. I went with my brother Harry and his date, a cute, cuddly blonde who came to his belt buckle. Everyone thought they made an adorable couple. If I had shown up with a male midget, we'd have been laughed off the dance floor. It's not fair.
My brothers got athletic scholarships to prestigious universities. I ended up at Chase, a small liberal arts college that had no organized women's athletic activities except field hockey. I had already decided that my competitive dunk shot days were over.
Chase was a four-year vacation from the realities of life. I breezed through the required courses, and in my last two years took a heavy dose of art history and appreciation. I hadn't the slightest idea what I wanted to do with my life. But just to be on the safe side, I learned how to type and operate a personal computer. You never know.
The high point of my career at Chase was losing my virginity. I must have been the only nineteen-year-old virgin in the state of Iowa. It happened in the grass under an old billboard that advertised: "Coca-Cola: The Pause That Refreshes." Daddy would have liked that.
Clutching my sheepskin, printed in Latin that I couldn't understand, I went home to Des Moines and played some lazy driveway basketball with my brothers. Late in August, with a cash graduation gift from my parents, I headed for New York City, determined to seek fame and fortune. Or at least find a man who might sweep me off my big feet. A tall man.
This was several years ago, but even then it was hard to find reasonable rental apartments. Now it's impossible. Anyway, I ended up in a closet on West 76th Street. It was before the West Side became Madison Avenue-ized, and there was a small-town flavor about Columbus and Amsterdam that I liked. Also, my apartment was so small that I could furnish it in Salvation Army Traditional for less than $500.
So there I was, living in glittery Manhattan, and too poor to do much else than sightsee, eat tunafish sandwiches, and agonize over the Times want ad pages as if they were reprints from Remembrance of Things Past.
I had a number of discouraging interviews, none of which led to anything much. For a while I sold men's gloves at Macy's, worked behind the counter at Chock Full o' Nuts, and addressed envelopes for a mail order company that sold a baldness remedy and a wrinkle remover.
My personal life during this period was something less than ecstatic. I met a few men, who seemed to be hungry and lecherous, in that order. We usually settled for tunafish sandwiches. I had no close women friends. I suppose I was lonely, but there was so much in Manhattan, so many things I wanted to see and do, I can't honestly say I was unhappy. I resolutely avoid self-pity.
I had a brief affair (about six weeks) with a man a few years older and a few inches shorter than I. He told me he wasn't married, but he had been out in the sun a lot the previous summer, and his hands were still tan. Except for a pale strip around his ring finger. He always took off his wedding band before he met me. I never told him I knew.
But he was handsome and amusing. I knew it couldn't last—but that was all right. I often wondered why he started up with me in the first place, and then decided it was for the same reason some men climb mountains: because I was there.
Also, there are certain men who seek the outré in their personal relationships: very tall women, very short, the very obese, those exceedingly ugly or, for all I know, the crippled and the blind. The whole subject is too depressing to think about.
Anyway, we broke up after six weeks (no tears), he went back to his wife, and I went back to the want ads. I answered a very short one requesting résumés be sent to a box number by anyone interested in becoming a secretary-assistant-salesperson for a numismatist.
As a kid, I had collected Indian head pennies and buffalo nickels in an empty pickle jar; that was the extent of my knowledge about coins. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I sent off my résumé with a covering letter. I remembered I answered a half-dozen ads in a similar fashion that weekend, and had no high hopes for any of them.
But two weeks later I received a letter from the numismatist asking me to come in for a personal interview. I was tempted to dash to the library and bone up on the history of coinage, but then decided it would be a waste of time. A few days of cramming would never convince him I was an expert. If he wanted to hire me, he'd have to live with my ignorance.
His name was Enoch Wottle, and he had a small, dusty shop on West 57th Street. It was really a hole-in-the-wall kind of place with one narrow, barred show window. The entrance was kept locked, and when I rang the bell, he peered at me from behind a torn green shade. I held up the letter I had received. He examined it carefully, then opened the door just wide enough for me to slip through.
He stared up at me, smiled, and said, "You're hired."
I worked for Enoch Wottle for almost three years, the two of us alone in that dim, cramped shop filled with locked glass cabinets and a safe in the back room as big and heavy as a bank vault. We started out as Mr. Wottle and Miss Bateson. Within six months we were Enoch and Dunk.
He was the dearest, sweetest man who ever lived. Pushing seventy, with a nimbus of snowy white hair surrounding his skull like a halo. He was terribly afflicted with arthritis, could hardly handle the coin tongs, which was why he had advertised for an assistant after working by himself so many years.
He had been a widower for twenty of those years, and now lived alone in a dinosaur of an apartment house just a block from his store. His only child, a son, was married and lived in Arizona. He was constantly urging the old man to come out and spend his remaining days in a hot, dry climate.
But Enoch resisted. His shop was his life, he told me, and giving it up would be the final surrender to age and mortality.
"Don't you want to see your grandchildren?" I asked him.
"I see them," he said. "Occasionally. I talk to them on the phone. I carry their photographs in my wallet."
I don't think he was a wealthy man, but I'm sure he was well-off. I know he was generous to me. I started out at just a little over minimum wage, but at the end of my three years with Enoch, I was doing very well indeed, had moved into a larger apartment with new furniture, and was buying my clothing and shoes at tall girls' shops. Expensive.
Wottle's was a strange sort of business. No off-the-street trade at all. But he had a faithful clientele, most of whom he served by phone or letter. So noble was his reputation and so trustworthy his judgment, that customers bought valuable coins on Enoch's say-so, without ever seeing their purchases until they arrived by mail or messenger.
He, in his turn, bought from collectors, other commercial numismatists, or at coin auctions all over the world. Most of this by phone, mail, or cable. After a while I started making weekly deposits at the bank for him and saw how profitable Wottle's Coin Shop actually was. He made no effort to minimize his success or hide it from me.
Although he dealt in all kinds of metal and paper money, tokens, and even a few medals, his specialty was ancient Greek coins, and most of his income was derived from buying, selling, and trading those little bits of minted gold, silver, copper, and bronze.
He taught me so much. I learned all about dekadrachms, tetrobols, and trihemitartemorions. (Try humming that last on your old kazoo!) I learned to distinguish electrum from purer forms of gold and silver. I even learned to judge between Extremely Fine and Very Fine, and between Fair and Mediocre. Close distinctions indeed.
Once Enoch tried to explain to me the fascination of those ancient Greek coins. It was a dusky November evening, and we were having a final cup of tea and a biscuit before closing up and going home.
He sat behind his battered desk in a wing chair so worn and burnished that the leather had a mirror gleam. He looked with quiet satisfaction at the glass cabinets containing his coins. The disks twinkled like imprisoned stars. He knew their history, and the men who had minted them, worked for them, fought for them, died for them. A wonderful people who lived short, harsh lives but never lost their capacity for joy or their love of beauty.
Those old bits of metal he loved were at once a link to the past and a promise of the future. In a way he could not define, Enoch Wottle saw his coins as proof of immortality. Not his own, of course, but of the human race. When great thoughts had been forgotten, great wars ignored, great art scorned, and monuments of stone crumbled to dust, money would survive.
That evening I think he infected me with his passion.
It couldn't last. His arthritis became progressively worse. And then came the summons from the landlord. The entire block, including Wottle's Coin Shop, was to be demolished so that a luxury high-rise could be erected. It was time to go. Enoch was not bitter—or claimed not to be.
"Off to Arizona," he said, trying to smile. "I'll close up and sell my stock to Fletcher Brothers on Lexington Avenue; they've been after me for years. The important thing is—what are we going to do with you?"
I kissed his cheek and held him tight.
What he did for me was beyond expectations, even my most fantastical hopes. Three months' salary as severance pay; a gift of his cherished library, including rare and gorgeously illustrated volumes on Greek coinage; all his catalogues of coin auctions of the past several years.
Best of all, he made several impassioned phone calls to old friends, and by the time I put him on the train to Arizona (he refused to fly), he had obtained a promise of a job for me with Grandby & Sons, the old, respected auction house on Madison Avenue. I was to work in the estate and appraisal department as resident numismatist.
And that was where my Great Adventure began.CHAPTER 2
"MY NAME IS FELICIA Dodat," she said, looking up at me in amazement. "It is spelled D-o-d-a-t, but pronounced Do-day. Please remember that. I will supervise your work at Grandby and Sons."
I nodded brightly. I loathed her on sight. She was everything I could never be: petite, shapely, and dressed with a careless elegance that drove me right up the wall. She was dark, with a bonnet of black hair as soft as feathers, olive skin, brilliant makeup. I could understand why men might drool over her, but I dubbed her a bitch from the start.
"You will be responsible for all coin appraisals," she said sharply, tapping blood-red talons on her glass-topped desk. "Occasionally it may be necessary for you to go out of town to appraise an estate. You understand?"
Again I nodded, beginning to feel like one of those crazy Chinese dolls with a bobbing head.
"Unfortunately, our space is limited, and I cannot assign you your own office. You will have to share with Hobart Juliana, who handles stamps, autographs, and historical documents. I should tell you at once that he is gay. Does that offend you?"
"Not at all."
"Good. Then let's get you settled in so you can go to work at once."
Sweet lady. I tramped after her down a long decorated corridor furnished with raddled settees, end tables with cracked marble tops, and oil paintings of dead fish. She stopped before a solid oak door equipped with a small judas window.
"This will be your office," Felicia Dodat said severely. "Since you and Hobart will be examining valuable consignments at your desks, this door is always kept locked. Is that clear?"
My nodding was giving me vertigo.
She rapped briskly. In a moment the judas was opened, an eye peered out at us. The door was unlocked, swung open.
"Hobart," my boss said, smiling winsomely, "this is your new roommate, Miss Mary Lou Bateson. I'm sure the two of you will get on just marvelously. Show her the ropes, will you, dear?"
Then she was gone, I was inside, the door locked again. He turned to me and said, "My name is Felicia Dodat. It is spelled D-o-d-a-t, but pronounced Do-day. Please remember that."
It was such a perfect impersonation in tone and manner that I cracked up. He smiled and held out his hand.
"Hobie," he said.
"Dunk," I said.
"Dunk? As in doughnut in coffee or basketball in hoop?"
"Basketball," I said.
"Ah. Well ... welcome to the zoo."
He had a little coffee-maker next to his desk, and we each had a cup. Mine paper and his a porcelain mug with DOWN WITH UP printed on the side.
"You better bring in your own mug," he advised. "About the boss, she's a pain in the ass—as you've probably noticed—but she can be dangerous, too, so do try to get along. She handles estates and appraisals, so she's a power to be reckoned with. Got a lot of clout with god."
"Stanton Grandby. Who owns the whole caboodle. He and his multitudinous family. He's the great-grandson of Isaac Grandby, who founded the house way back in eighteen hundred and something. You'll meet him eventually, but Felicia Dodat is the one you've got to please. The office gossip is that dear Felicia has something going with Stanton Grandby. We all keep asking, 'Does Felicia do dat?'"
He gestured about our office, which seemed enormous to me after three years in Enoch Wottle's cubby. Hobie pointed out that we'd each have a window, overlooking a splendid airshaft. Each a massive desk, pine worktable, wooden file cabinets, glassed-in bookshelves. All a wee bit decrepit, but serviceable nonetheless.
"What happened to my predecessor?" I asked.
"Fired," Hobie said. He looked at me. "I don't mean to put you down, Dunk, but I fear she was just a bit too attractive. God was showing interest, and Madam Dodat took offense."
"Oh-ho," I said. "Like that, was it?"
"Just like that."
"Well, Felicia has nothing to fear from me."
"She would," he said, "if god had any sense."
"That's the nicest compliment I've had in years," I told him, and we smiled at each other, knowing we'd be friends.
Grandby & Sons dated from 1883—and so did most of the furnishings. We may have been installed in an elegant townhouse on Madison Avenue, just south of 82nd Street, but the place looked like a recently opened time capsule: velvet drapes, Tiffany lamps, Victorian love seats covered with moiré, and ornate clocks, chinoiserie, and mind-boggling objets d'art that had been purchased outright as part of estates and had never been sold.
Excerpted from The Eighth Commandment by Lawrence Sanders. Copyright © 1986 Lawrence Sanders. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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