The Tea Set

“I want to go to Zelotes.”

It was tradition. Ever since my grandmother’s vision got too bad for her to drive, every Sunday I’d take her downtown for whatever shopping she needed to get done. We’d been doing it for years, but for whatever reason, when she picked up the phone each Sunday she acted like my call was a total surprise. Oh how nice to hear from you, no I don’t really need anything, well if you’re going anyway….

I don’t know why she was like that, but she was. Until about a month ago, anyway. I called her like usual, and she barely even waited for me to finish saying hello before she told me she wanted to go to Zelotes.

“Sure, Gramma! What’s Zelotes?”

“Doris went last weekend and she’s been cooing about it ever since. She was out with her great-granddaughter and bought her some sort of doll that she’s just in love with. Madisyn, I mean, though Doris is in love with it, too. But Doris says that the whole shop was just a treasure, and honestly I’m sick of hearing her say ‘You should go see it!’”

“Then let’s go see it. Do you know where it is?”

“No, but we can ask Doris when you get here.”

“I’ll just look it up online, Gramma.” There was no such thing as a short conversation with Doris, and if she was half as enamored with this shop as my grandmother seemed to think she was, then if we stopped to talk we’d be there for at least an hour. I intended to avoid Doris completely until the trip home at least, where I could fake another commitment and flee if I had to. She was a sweet lady, but loved to talk. The retirement home—sorry, “independent living community”—was full of women like that. You’d think that they could just talk to each other and spare everyone else, but apparently it didn’t work that way.

Zelotes turned out to be down in the old warehouse district, which provided cheap floor space for all sorts of businesses from breweries to rug wholesalers. It didn’t have a website, but a couple of local reviews described it respectively as “a charming collection of oddities” and “a delightful maze of vintage treasures,” which told me about what to expect from the place.

Nearly, anyway. The first thing that I noticed when we walked in was that the place was enormous. Tall shelves divided the cavernous space into winding aisles, intersecting and ending apparently at random. If there was a plan to its layout, I couldn’t see it.

Gramma was delighted from the moment we walked in. “Oh, look at what they have!” she exclaimed, making a beeline for one aisle’s endcap. She picked up a china figurine of an angel and showed it to me. “Isn’t it adorable?”

I’ve never really been one for kitsch, but I smiled. “It really is, Gramma.”

She replaced the fragile statue and drifted off down the aisle. I followed in her wake, nodding appreciatively and making noises of approbation for each item she held up for my appraisal. I didn’t really get it, but I hadn’t seen her this animated in years, so I was loving it.

We’d been in there for an hour or more before she found the tea set.

“Oh. Look at this,” she declared. Her tone was different than it had been. A little bit lower. More possessive, maybe? It was enough to sharpen my attention, certainly, to pull me out of the fog of yeses and mm-hms that I’d been uttering.

So I looked, as she demanded. It was, as I said, a tea set. A delicate one of bone china, with intricate patterns of vines and flowers twining around the rims of the cups and bowls. It was certainly a marvel of craftsmanship, and lovely as far as these things go, but it was a tea set. The sort of thing you put in your cupboard and ignore for years on end.

Gramma felt differently, clearly. She approached it with an almost reverent look on her face, plucking a cup from its stand with the sort of care usually reserved for handling newborn kittens. “Oh, this is beautiful,” she breathed, turning it over in her hands.

She turned to me. “Will you carry this up front for me?”

I blinked. I’d never known my grandmother to make an impulse purchase in her life. I’d seen her dither for five minutes over what brand of canned green beans to buy. I knew that she was on a fixed income, and this was a full tea set, with cups, saucers, servers and all.

“Are you sure, Gramma?” I asked, leaving unspoken the last part: are you sure you can afford this? I would have offered to buy it for her, but honestly I wasn’t sure I could afford it, either. I figured that a set like this had to be a few hundred dollars minimum, more if it had any sort of vintage value.

She nodded and answered the question that I hadn’t quite asked. “Look, they’re practically giving it away!”

She held up a small, handwritten tag affixed to the teapot which read only “$25.”

“Maybe that’s just for the—” I began, but she was already turning the tag over. On the reverse in the same handwriting was “FOR SET.”

“Wow,” I said, impressed. “Shoot, let’s get two.”

Gramma gave me a bit of a glare. “This is clearly one of a kind.”

I shut up before I said anything else stupid.

We made our way to the front of the store, Gramma still examining various items on shelves, me staring intently at the clinking, teetering miscellany in my arms to make sure that nothing slipped. When we finally reached the front, I set the whole collection down with relief.

“Oh, a lovely choice,” said the unctuous little man behind the counter. “That was absolutely one of my favorite finds.”

Gramma smiled. “You have a beautiful store here, Mister—”

“Oh, call me Thaddeus. And thank you! I just have such a love of collecting. If I didn’t run the store, I’m sure I’d be one of those hoarders they make television shows about these days.”

“This is not hoarding! Your collection is wonderful. And this!” Gramma indicated the tea set.

“Well, I’m glad it found you. Shall I wrap it up?” He reached for the teapot. His motions were as smooth as his voice, almost unnaturally so. Have you ever watched a movie shot at forty-eight frames per second, instead of the standard twenty-four? It’s too smooth, too clean. It ends up looking sort of uncanny. That was how Thaddeus moved and spoke, like he had more frames than the rest of us.

When he reached for the teapot, my grandmother flinched. I saw her start to reach out as well, then restrain herself. “Yes, please do,” she said, a hint of strain in her voice. “We certainly wouldn’t want anything to happen to it.”

“Oh, bone china is very durable,” Thaddeus assured her, his hands swiftly wrapping each piece of the set in too-smooth motions. “This set might well outlive us all!”

He produced an attractive gift box from behind the counter and carefully nestled each piece inside, then rang us up on the register. As promised by the tag, the cost was only $25. I was astonished; I’d still been expecting there to be some mistake. But if Thaddeus was happy with the price he was getting, I certainly wasn’t going to convince him to charge my grandmother more.

“I’m bringing this out for book club,” Gramma announced on the ride home. The box was settled snugly in her lap, her arms wrapped protectively around it. I’d offered to put it in the trunk, but she’d insisted that it might slide around, and it would be safer with her. “They’re going to be so jealous.”

“So Doris was right about Zelotes?” I asked.

Gramma snorted. “All she got was that doll for her granddaughter. She’ll be kicking herself once she sees this! Serves her right for not looking around carefully enough.”

“It’s a really big store, Gramma. Maybe she just picked the wrong aisle.”

“Her loss!” Gramma sounded smug, almost gleeful.

“She’s still going to get to use it at book club, right?”

“Yes, absolutely. But I’ll own it.”

Internally, I shrugged. I knew that the politics ran deep in that community, and I mainly just stayed out of it. This was clearly some game of oneupmanship that I had never before wandered into. If Gramma was happy, I was happy.

That was the last time I ever saw Gramma. I spoke to her that Monday night, the night of book club. She called me to talk afterward, as she often did when she had opinions that differed from the other people in the club.

“So how was book club, Gramma?” I asked.

“Oh, the tea set was such a hit!” she told me, practically crowing. “Everyone loved it.”

“Okay…but the book?”

“And Doris was so mad. ‘Did you get that at Zelotes? Where was it? I didn’t see it!’”

“So, the tea set, huh?”

“I think it even made the tea taste better. I swear I haven’t had tea that flavorful in years. It’s the ritual of it all, it really adds to it.”

“I’m glad you’re happy, Gramma.”

“Can we go back this Sunday? We can take Doris this time, it’ll give her a chance to find something. She’ll go into a complete sulk otherwise.”

“Absolutely, Gramma. Let me know if anyone else wants to go and I’ll bring the SUV.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, none of us can climb up into that thing. It’ll just be me and Doris. Everyone else can find their own way there.”

The next Sunday morning, though, I called like usual. The routine started off the same way as always: Oh how nice to hear from you, no I don’t really need anything…, the usual routine. But she never got to the well if you’re going anyway part of it, and after a couple of minutes, I just flat-out said, “Gramma, I’m going to the grocery store. Do you want to come along?”

“No,” she told me. “I’m just going to stay home today, I think.”

“What about going to Zelotes? I thought you and Doris wanted to go back.”

“I don’t think I’m going to go out today. I’m just going to stay here.”

“Are you feeling all right?”

“Oh yes, I feel fine. I just don’t trust some of the people around here.”

“Okay, well…do you need me to bring you anything?”

“Well, if you’re going anyway….”

A trip to the store later, I was toting two full grocery bags down the hall to Gramma’s apartment. The door was ajar, so I nudged it open with my foot.

“Gr—” I started to call out, but my voice died in my throat. Gramma was lying on her back in the middle of the room, her arms held feebly above her. Blood was spurting from both forearms and her chest, a lurid red against her right rug. Straddling her, striking viciously downward with a kitchen knife, was Doris. She was coated in blood and screaming incoherently, the knife seeming to flash outward with a mind of its own.

“Stop!” I shrieked, the groceries spilling to the floor. I raced into the apartment and hurled Doris aside. Her head impacted the TV stand and she crumpled to the ground, but I wasn’t paying any attention to her. My eyes were on my grandmother, my hands wrapped desperately around her forearms, pressing them to her chest in an attempt to stop the bleeding.

“Don’t—” she coughed, whispering out the word.

“I’m sorry, Gramma! I know it hurts, I’m sorry. I have to. Help! HELP!”

She shook her head weakly. “Don’t l—” She coughed again.

“Don’t what?”

“Don’t le…let her have…the tea set.”

Those were her final words to me. The staff came thundering down the hall, practiced hands pulling me away, applying bandages, calling 911. It was too late, though. Too late for my grandmother and too late for Doris, who had died in the corner while my grandmother choked out those final words. I sat on the couch, bloody and shocked, while the paramedics came, while curious heads poked around the doorframe, while the police arrived and cordoned off the scene.

I told them that I had no idea why Doris did it. I told them they had been friends, that it didn’t make any sense. I didn’t mention the tea set, because it was just a stupid tea set. She might have been obsessed with it, but that obviously wasn’t what this was about.

So I believed, anyway. But we had the estate sale last weekend, all of my grandmother’s jewelry and clothes and belongings out for the world to pick through. I went by at one point to see how it was going, and a number of the folks from her retirement community were there. They were polite, they all greeted me and expressed condolences and all of the usual social niceties, but every single one of them had the same question for me: “Where’s the tea set?”

They wouldn’t accept “I don’t know” as an answer, either. Further questions followed.

“Did your parents take it?”

“Do you have it?”

“Did she give it to someone already?”

“Who has it?!”

The look in their eyes was desperate, vicious. I made my excuses and left before it got any worse.

I don’t know who has the tea set. My parents don’t. They never even knew about it. I’d assume that someone in my grandmother’s building took it, except that all of the people she associated with were at the estate sale, looking for it.

The day she was murdered, when I showed up at her apartment, the tea set was on the table. I remember it, I remember seeing it. The image of her murder is fixed clearly in my mind, like a painting. And just past her flailing arms, to the left of Doris’s upraised knife, the tea set is plainly there on the table.

But when I left the apartment, when I stood up from the couch where I’d been sitting for hours, I had a brief moment of dizziness. I steadied myself on the table for a second until it passed. I put my palm flat on the table while I caught my balance. The empty table. There was no tea set there.

The whole episode is a blur. I remember the opening image distinctly, and then it’s just blood and flashing lights and an endless parade of faces. So many people came in and out of my view while I sat on the couch and stared and cried.

And in there, in the middle of it all, was there one person who moved smoothly through the crowd, too smoothly? Who glided in as if he belonged and removed the tea set? There were so many faces, so many blurs. I can’t recall.

Zelotes doesn’t show up on a web search. The warehouse downtown is vacant.

Doris and my grandmother are dead. I don’t think I’ll ever know the truth.

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