The bus had spewed out most of its passengers by the time it reached Shirley Street. Vangie stepped down onto the pavement, Darla following, and waved goodbye to the driver. For a moment she saw her street as Darla must be seeing it—cloned story-and-a half post-World-War-II bungalows skulking behind skimpy lawns, the only distinction between them the colors of their wavy asbestos siding, either dingy yellow, an algae-like green, or the faded peach of the home she and Mama shared. “Number 2744 is ours,” she told Darla. “The one with the shiny ball in the yard and those plaster ducks and the
dwarfs? Mama’s crazy about lawn ornaments.”
They started down the street, but before they’d taken ten steps Vangie realized something was wrong. Mama was standing on the narrow slab of concrete that served as a front stoop, leaning forward, one hand cupped over her forehead like the carved figurehead on an old-time sailing ship. Vangie grabbed Darla’s arm to hurry her along. “Mama, what happened?” she called soon as they were close enough for Mama to hear.
“They’ve been at it again, changing things around. ” Mama cried. “Not more than ten minutes at most was I gone, just next door to see Mabel’s night-blooming cereus.”
Vangie flinched, feeling as if a fist had been jammed into her midriff, even as she strugged to keep her voice calm and reassuring. “Mama, are you sure?”
“’Course I’m sure. I knew it was them soon as I saw what they’d done.”
Vangie’s eyes swept the room, taking inventory. Mama had long since turned their home into a museum of discards, fringed Victorian lampshades, evergreen-scented pillows embroidered with “For you I Pine and Balsam,” a lava lamp from the sixties, an Eames chair knockoff, a plastic hassock from the forties, an uncomfortable wood-framed love seat covered in a tapestry design that was the Depression Thirties notion of elegance, a table with cattle-horn legs, furniture, vases, pictures, and ornaments in every style from every era.
“It all looks the same, Mama,” Vangie told her. “I can’t see where anything’s missing or moved.”
Lotte beckoned toward the far wall. “Just you take a look at that picture, the one hanging over the settee. You’ll soon see what they been up to.”
The picture showed three women dancing in a circle around the columns on a Greek patio wearing flimsy little chiffon scarves draped around their hips, the kind the Kmart sold for $1.59 in ladies’ accessories. “I don’t see…it looks exactly the same,” Vangie said.
“Ha. It is the same. The picture, that is.”
“The frame. They’ve switched the frame on me.”
Vangie pretended to examine it more closely. Sometimes if she went along with these weird notions that was enough to satisfy Mama. “I can’t tell any difference,” she said. “Are you sure the frame’s been changed?”
“’Course I’m sure.” Lotte poked her forefinger at the frame. “The gold’s much yellower than on the old one. Not even chipped in the same places.”
Darla’s mouth gaped wide enough to reveal her wad of gum. “Mrs. O’Toole, you mean to say somebody came in your house, and took a picture out of one frame, and then put it back in another? Like if they want to steal something, why not just take the whole picture?”
“That’s what makes them so devilish clever,” Lotte told her. “They mostly never take things outright, just switch what you got for things that look almost the same. They’re sharp, they are.”
Darla gaped at Mama, dumbfounded. “Who’d want to do a weird thing like that?”
“Gypsies, that’s who. The frame was gold. Gypsies love anything that’s gold.”
Darla shot Vangie a questioning look. “Gypsies come into your house and take stuff?”
Lotte gave Vangie no time to answer. “Oh, yes.” she assured Darla. “There’s hardly a single piece Vangie’s Dad brought home off the route the Gypsies haven’t carried off. You take this very rug we’re standing on, a real Oriental. Came from this big house out in Greenspring Valley. Hardly any wear on it except for one charred spot where it must have been put too close to a fireplace. They came one day and took the real rug, left this one in its place. Looks exactly the same, right down to the burnt spot.”
Darla stared down at the rug’s intricate pattern. “So what makes you think it’s different?”
Mama pointed to an overstuffed chair covered in a salmon, red and lime-green floral pattern. “That armchair used to set with both its front legs on the rug. Now it barely comes to the edge of the fringe.”
“Ain’t there no way you can stop them? Like maybe call the police?”
“Doesn’t do a bit of good.” Mama said. “Oh, sure, Gypsies are scared to death at the sight of a uniform, but time the police get here they’re long gone. That’s what was so good about when Vangie’s Dad was alive. He was a Sanitary Engineer, you know, had that embroidered right above the pocket on his uniform, Albert O’Toole, Sanitary Engineer. ‘Hap,’ everybody called him, even though his real name was Albert. With a man in uniform close by, my stuff was safe. Now he’s gone, they’ve got so bold they walk right into the house in broad daylight. That picture frame is just a warning. My only hope is that Floyd will get here before they come to carry me off.”