A special meeting of the museum docents had been called for seven a.m., and Ellis, who was usually plugged into the buzzing undercurrent of administrative happenings, had no idea why.
Hoping to find out something if he arrived early, Ellis decided to take shortcuts in his morning work-preparation ritual. Usually, Ellis fried one lamb chop for breakfast each day, which he ate with a piece of rye toast with butter and one cup of black coffee. This morning, he decided to forego the meat.
The arthritis in Ellis's right shoulder was flaring up, so he was slower than normal as he put on his clothes: khaki Bermuda shorts with elastic waist, black support hose and white tennis shoes, his official, city-issued baby-blue polo shirt with Edison Winter Estate embroidered on the breast in navy-blue thread. Everything but the shoes had been washed the night before and laid out on the empty side of his queen-size bed.
On the way out the door, he grabbed his broad-brimmed, white straw hat, the very same style worn by the famous inventor himself. For years Ellis had searched for such a hat, and then, on one fortuitous morning during his walk to work, down McGregor Boulevard, he found precisely the hat he'd been looking for. Clean and new-looking, it sat atop a pile of rubbish set out on the curb for trash pick-up. Thinking it too good to be true, like a piece of fresh cheese on a mousetrap, Ellis looked over his shoulder … right … left. Surely this handsome hat belonged to somebody.
Right … left.
Surely they did not mean to throw it away.
Right … left.
Perhaps it had flown out of a passing car, and a pedestrian set it on top of the heap so the rightful owner could spot it later on.
Reluctantly, Ellis left it alone, but three hours later, during his coffee break, he returned and was thrilled to find it untouched, now warmed from a morning in the Fort Myers sun. Yes, he was certain this hat did belong to someone, but as he heard the whine and banging of the approaching sanitation truck farther down the boulevard, Ellis realized it was he and only he who could save this hat from an early, undeserved demise in the Lee County incinerator. He plucked it from the top of the trash pile, put it under his arm, and walked briskly back to work. With the help of some duct tape and a smashed, empty toilet-paper roll, it fit him perfectly.
As he anticipated, Ellis arrived at the historic Edison home before anyone. The chairs had been set up in the break room in a manner he had never seen … in straight rows and at an angle, facing, of all things, a podium in the corner.
A podium! Where did such a thing come from?
It was oak and appeared to be new, with the seal of the city of Fort Myers on the front, which featured a shield in the shape of a U.S. Interstate sign, segmented into three pictures: a thrashing silver tarpon hooked on a fishing line, a beach scene with palm tree, two oranges hanging from a branch.
The bulletin board was bare. Gone was the work schedule and the take-out menus for Sub and Pub and Wings 'n' Ribs, and the list of local young men and women who'd been nominated that year for King and Queen of Edisonia at the Pageant of Light. Gone was the photograph of Mary Ellen's new granddaughter in Dayton. Gone was Ellis's new handwritten suggestion that docents carry in their pocket a bag of tissues for runny-nosed guests unaccustomed to the prodigious amount of pollen from the sub-tropical flora on the grounds.
As Ellis absorbed the blankness, the door swung open and in walked a moderately plump woman dressed in a tailored black suit and very loud heels. She looked to be about thirty, and she wore the strangest glasses Ellis had ever seen … lemon-yellow plastic frames in the shape of perfect ovals. She'd pulled her dark-brown hair into a tight bun on the back of her head. Edison thought this unbecoming; it accentuated her somewhat fleshy chin.
"Good morning," said the woman.
"Good morning," Ellis answered warily.
"You must work here."
"Yes, madam, I most certainly do."
She nodded her head, saying nothing.
"I am the senior docent," Ellis continued. "I have worked here longer than anybody. Except Larry."
"Mr. Livengood?" she asked.
"Yes. Larry Livengood. The director of the museum."
She leaned toward him to read the white-plastic, light-bulb-shaped ID pin on his chest.
"It says your name is Edison. Can that be right?"
"Well, that is not exactly my name. Not my real name."
"You will notice Edison is in quotation marks. That is so people realize it is only a nickname."
"And how did you get to be called Edison?" she asked.
Ellis suddenly was distracted by a sound outside, the clatter of the rakes and hoes and other gardening tools jostling about on the back of Mike Rathbun's golf cart, which was passing outside the window.
"May I be of some assistance?" Ellis asked. "Are you looking for somebody?"
"Actually, no," she answered. "I'm new here. I start today. I'm running the meeting at seven." She offered her hand. "I'm Judith Ziegler."
"Does Larry know you are here?"
She paused, looked at the floor, then finally met Ellis's stare. "Mr. Livengood is no longer with the Edison estate."
"I beg your pardon?"
"It was in The News-Press today. Did you not see it?"
He had not. Ellis had let his mother's subscription expire after she died nearly twenty years ago. The only thing he missed was Dear Abby and Hints from Heloise, both columns still featured in the newspaper, though they were now being written by the women's daughters. If there was anything important about the museum in the paper, Ellis read it during lunch break from the copy in the museum's employee lounge.
"Larry has left the museum?"
"I'll talk more about it at the seven o'clock announcement."
She looked over Ellis's shoulder, toward the kitchenette. "I came in to make coffee before everyone got here."
"I make the coffee," Ellis said.
"You make the coffee?"
"Yes. I make the coffee every day."
"Who makes it when you're gone?"
"I am never gone."
She gave him an amused, crooked smile. "Then … would you mind? I need to run across the street for something."
When the door shut behind her, Ellis hurried to the window and watched her walk across the parking lot. She first retrieved a manila envelope from the back seat of her bronze Saab, which had Virginia tags and a Wellesley sticker in the back window. She then stopped to chat with Frank McComer, smiling and offering her hand. It was Frank who sat on the stool along the white-picket fence and controlled the stoplight over McGregor so the docents and their gaggles of tourists could cross from the ticket office to the estate. Sometimes, when Frank had a doctor's appointment, Ellis would sit in for him, and while he much preferred to be educating visitors about the greatest inventor in American history he did find great satisfaction in watching hundreds of cars stop and go at his command.
Ellis went to check Larry's office but found the door locked. "This door is not supposed to be locked!" he said, out loud. On the wood were the two square, cushiony, sticky white pads that once held the nameplate.
Ellis's face grew flushed. His eyes began to blink twice as often as normal, as they were wont to do when he became agitated or challenged by a skeptical tourist who did not believe something Ellis had said on a tour.
He went back to the lounge and found the newspaper on the white Formica table. Through the clinging, clear plastic bag, Ellis could read the headline above the fold: Edison Home gets new head: New director hopes to take museum to 'world-class level.'
"World-class level, indeed," Ellis said.
At the press conference, the front row of chairs was filled by members of the greater Fort Myers media … and Ellis, who had firmly but politely insisted to a young female reporter from WFMY that she was, indeed, sitting in his chair.
Dick Moody, the mayor, stood up to speak, telling of how the city was committed to turning the winter residence of Thomas Edison into a Smithsonian-caliber institution, with a research library and annual symposium on American creativity. Just as the mayor was introducing the new director, Ellis raised his hand.
Dick Moody looked at him, quizzically. "Yes?"
Ellis stood from his chair and smoothed out the wrinkles on his thighs where his pants had gathered while sitting. "Your honor," he said. The mayor smiled. "Did you know that the Edison home is the third-most-visited historic home in all of the United States?"
"Yes," he answered. "I'm not sure about the exact numbers, but, yes, I certainly know it does well. We're very proud of the job y'all have been doing here."
"Well, then forgive me for being forward, sir, but then why would you want to change such a lucrative, famous landmark when such changes obviously are not warranted?"
As if on cue, three cameramen hurried to the front of the room and turned toward Ellis. One by one, they clicked on the lights atop their cameras, instantly bathing him in bright whiteness.
The mayor looked over his shoulder at Judith Ziegler, then spoke. "As good as things have been here at the Edison home, we think there's always room for improvement," he said.
Judith stepped forward and gently grabbed the mayor's upper arm. "Of course, we want to build on all the wonderful work that's already been done here," she added.
A TV reporter in a salmon-colored suit - Ellis recognized her as Stefanie Maddox from Eyewitness NewsCenter 4 - held a microphone up to Ellis's face. They had met before … three years earlier, when someone stole three of Mina Edison's historic wicker chairs off the porch in the moonlight and escaped by motorboat down the Caloosahatchee River. Viewers that night watched Ellis Norton make an appeal for twenty-four-hour FBI surveillance of the historic site.
Ellis lifted his chin twenty degrees and looked into the camera, not straight on but obliquely, the way Gloria Swanson did at dramatic moments in her silent films.
"Larry Livengood's job has been terminated," he declared with punctuated force. "The man who made this museum into what it is today has been fired from this institution!"
Muffled banter rose from the group of blue-shirted docents, many of whom had not heard the news. The mayor, recognizing that he was now riding in rapids, motioned for Judith to take over. She stepped up to the podium, smiled, and authoritatively grabbed the edges with her hands.
"That's correct that Mr. Livengood will no longer be directly involved with the museum," she said. "After a long and proud tenure he has decided to retire, and I am replacing him, effective today. … I'm an archivist specializing in the industrial revolution, and I've been brought on board to help organize the museum collection into what we hope will become a resource not only for researchers worldwide but for this community as well."
"Where did you come from?" Ellis asked. "What are your credentials?"
"I was the associate curator of collections at Monticello. I have a PhD in material culture."
The mayor leaned into the microphone: "And we had to pay a pretty penny to snag her away, too."
Ellis, who was now holding Stefanie Maddox's microphone himself, continued to stand. "Did you know, madam, that Larry used to deliver the The Tropical News to Mr. And Mrs. Edison? He personally knew the inventor and his wife."
Judith fought to contain a smile. "Mr. Livengood contributed something very … unique to this institution," she said. "But he was ready to move on and do something different. … Next question?"
The cameras and their lights abandoned Ellis, and he suddenly felt cold and anemic. He wished he had brought his cardigan with him.
Ellis had never had another boss. Larry hired him when he was twenty-four. The only other job Ellis had had was as a stock clerk at the old American Department Store, which was now a climate-controlled storage facility for snowbirds who migrated south with too many material possessions.
It was Larry who let him play-act as Edison every Saturday afternoon, walking the grounds like a ghost.
It was Larry who gave Ellis a key to every lock on the estate.
It was Larry who discovered him one time lying in Thomas Edison's bed, eyes closed, dressed in a pair of the inventor's pants and shoes.
"Oh, hello, Ellis," he said at the time. "Are you feeling all right?"
Ellis sat up, as if just woken from a nap in his own home on Wilna Street. "Fine, Larry," he replied. "Thank you for asking."