What makes you think they’re Potter people?” Eugenia Williams asked her weekly lunch companion and oldest friend Mariah Perrine.
“Genie, puh-lease. You know their background better than anyone. We’ve gone through this a million times,” retorted Mariah.
“Well, you never can be too sure nowadays,” Eugenia backtracked politely, as folks tended to do at the Certain Age Club. Eugenia sat there pondering the Potter predicament, drumming her long, neatly manicured fingers on the edge of the table, her back straight as a board. She had always been admired for her ramrod posture. Her every hair was in place, that is, whatever hair remained after a million tease-outs at Patricia’s Hair Design.
Eugenia always spiffed up for her Tuesday lunches at the club, where nothing much had changed in its century of existence. The photos on the walls accumulated, but no one had bothered to paint or wallpaper the walls beneath them for at least a decade. As long as one left the photos intact, one wouldn’t necessarily notice the rim of grunge left behind in their wake.
Not much had changed membership-wise either. The vast majority of Certain Age Clubbers were of a certain vintage, say 1959, a good year for both Chateau Lafite Rothschild and wedding receptions at the club. There had been a recent membership drive for “young” members, targeting the under-60 crowd, who actually considered themselves too young to join. Today 60 was the new 40.
Every Tuesday at 11:30 on the dot, the same members meandered into the club, which was quietly ensconced on the historically significant corner of Mercer Street and Library Place. Clubbers play bridge there on Wednesdays, with the occasional garden club or book group or some other occasion on Thursdays. On Fridays, once the sun came out in the late spring, Eugenia took a break from the CAC and grabbed a more casual lunch under the umbrellas of the greystone terrace at Spring Brook. Sundays were reserved for her grandkids, which left Monday as a day of “rest” from socializing and the like.
But it was not in Eugenia’s DNA to sit still and take a day off. Especially now that she had taken on the important responsibility of local genealogical research among her fellow charter members of the Princeton Historical Society, which also happened to meet monthly at the CAC. Mariah was a fellow member, having married into the prominent Princetonian Perrines.
“A real Potter hasn’t been spotted in Princeton in 20 years,” Eugenia explained, seemingly exasperated that her old friend did not trust her thorough digging. “Where do they say they are from?”
“Charleston. Which is exactly the birthplace of the original Potters, correct?”
Eugenia sighed. She hated to be wrong, or rather, she always had to be right.
“Yes, Mariah, I do believe you are correct. John Potter hailed from South Carolina in the late 1700s. But that could be just a coincidence, don’t you think?”
“A coincidence? Hah! There’s no such thing in genealogy.”
The “coincidences” tended to be babies born out of wedlock that returned to Princeton years later to reclaim their birthright. Every dozen years or so, a Potter poseur popped out of the woodwork. The Internet had done wonders for tracking down the begats and begots of long-lost Cuyler cousins and Bayard brethren and the Dod dynasties, not to mention the Pyne progeny (whom Eugenia always suspected were secretly Jewish; Moses sounding much more Hebrew than Episcopalian).
“Alright, alright, Mariah, do tell.”
“Elijah Potter is meeting what’s left of the family tomorrow afternoon at the Mercer Club,” Mariah breathlessly reported, a subtle thrill in her voice and high color newly visible on her chiseled cheekbones. “He somehow tracked my name down through the Society and asked me for a family introduction, and I couldn’t resist. “Want to come?”
Want to come? Who was she kidding? Eugenia literally drooled at the thought. All those Potters amidst what must be a con artist. There was no way they would have never heard of a Charleston cousin. Charleston and Princeton had many deep connections, despite the ill will that lingered over the War of Northern Aggression, as they still liked to call it down there.
Eli’s comin, Eli’s comin, Eli’s comin . . . Elijah Potter hummed the Three Dog Night tune as he jaunted up Witherspoon Street. He felt at home in Princeton even though he had never been here before, at least not that he remembered. The quaint shops and hip boutiques lining the streets “downtown” reminded him of the eclectic commerce of Charleston’s colorful East Bay and Queen Street. Except that these streets were bedecked by orange and black Tiger paraphernalia in lieu of hot pink bougainvilleas climbing the walls along the Battery’s Rainbow Row.
Princeton felt almost Southern to him. People were pleasant, nodding and smiling at him like he was somebody they knew. Maybe they knew he was a Potter by the way he dressed and carried himself. Confident, but not too much so. He felt buoyed by the generations of Princetonians who had walked these streets before him.
Eli glanced at the storefront window to his right and smiled at his reflection — his longish, salt-and-pepper hair and unlined face projecting a casual, artsy handsomeness. In truth, he lacked any shred of artistic talent, but that never stopped him from commenting on paintings and architecture and fashion in an effort to ingratiate himself to women, who all seemed impressed by such things. There were many of these impressionable women in both Princeton and Charleston. Beautiful historical places attracted a wide-eyed bohemian lot, full of pent-up sexual aggression unfulfilled by their stuffy preppy investment banker lawyer hubbies.
Eli was bemused that many of these women had the strange commonality of rescuing stray dogs. He should come up with some sort of profiling tool that queried the general population of women on their proclivity toward adopting “Lab-mixes” (aka pit bull mutations). They were also mostly blonde, tall, and a lot more athletic than him. He was a companionable tennis player and could even hit a golf ball straight off a tee if given a Planter’s Punch before hand, but would always be a club hack.
What would today hold for this soldier of fortune, he wondered, as he hung a right turn at the top of Witherspoon onto Nassau Street and passed the venerable line-up of Maclean House, Nassau Presbyterian Church and Rockefeller College. He would soon find out.
The front entrance of the Mercer Club was unmarred by any visible signage that Eli was indeed at the Mercer Club, just a small, subtle historical plaque tucked away at the side of the door. Not sure if he was at the right place, he let himself in and wandered down the hall after confirming that this was indeed the address offered by that nice woman at the Historical Society. Like its sister club (the CAC), the Mercer Club was filled with ancient portraits of important Princetonians — University muckety mucks and the lesser-known townsfolk. Eli gazed at the memorabilia as he meandered down the hallway, and somewhat lost, stuck his head into the Gun Room, a haven for men’s get-togethers that would have been even more popular in Charleston, he mused. Finding no one there, he kept going, and finally found a few live bodies in the large art deco-ish dining room anchoring the back of the building.
“Why, you must be Cousin Eli!” an attractive older woman exclaimed. Her long silver ponytail, billowing flowered skirt, and peasantish blouse reminded him of an aged Judy Collins — who was probably aged now anyway.
“Hello, well yes, I’m Elijah Potter. Are you a Potter too?” he quipped in a singsongy Southern twang.
Eugenia, who was chatting in the circle of women just to their left, heard the interaction and decided to insert herself into this likely charade right away.
“Oh . . . So you’re Elijah, hello, I’m Eugenia Williams. Mariah has told me so much about you,” Eugenia introduced herself before Cousin Marjorie Potter could get a word in edgewise.
Edged out of the conversation, Marjorie wandered over to another circle of friends to chatter about who knows what. Marjorie was the biggest space cadet in Princeton, Eugenia thought, and would believe anything anyone told her.
“Hello. Are you also a Potter?” he asked, with what Eugenia considered a slight sneer.
“The Williams are distant relatives of the Stocktons, who as you know were Potter people. But no, I wouldn’t say I’m a Potter. So, how do you know you are one?”
Eli smiled back at Eugenia. He had met his match.
“I have my ways. Would you like to see my DNA test?” he smiled at her, conspiratorially.
Eugenia rolled her eyes and gave him a once over as she reviewed the list of Potter family physical traits: good bones, check; nice teeth, check; rosy complexion, check. The Potters had always been a hearty bunch, of good stock (hence the Stockton marriage of long ago), and Eli seemed to fit the bill in the looks department. The only things that gave Eugenia pause were that he didn’t look her in the eye, and his clothing seemed a little off. Despite Charleston/ Princeton preppy fashion — threadbare khaki’s, loafers with no socks, blue cotton button-down and faded seersucker jacket — Eli’s get-up seemed somehow contrived, as if he had just visited the PDS Nearly New consignment shop and hastily assembled his wardrobe.
“There is a family resemblance, you’re right about that,” Eugenia responded. “But maybe there is another way to find out without DNA testing.” Eli looked back at her quizzically for a moment, then grinned and finally looked her smack dab in the eye. “Do tell.”
There hadn’t been so much buzz around an event at the Certain Age Club since the 250th anniversary celebration of the Princeton Battlefield’s famous Mercer Oak, which had sadly fallen prey to a lightning strike a few years back. Even the aging staff had a spring in their steps as they scurried around the ancient building, welcoming CAC members for a period costume ball, circa 1780. The older ladies and their escorts — most were divorced or widowed by now — arrived preening in their finest ball gowns. Who knew where they found them, possibly the family attic? Eugenia wondered. It was to be a rollicking evening of sherry, desserts and coffee, and then dancing to chamber music of the late 18th century.
“Where’s your new friend Elijah?” Mariah whispered to Eugenia when she spotted her old friend in the corner of the parlor, standing alone and looking impatient.
“Good question. He’s late. Younger men just don’t have good manners it seems,” she answered, obviously peeved.
“He’d better come soon. The music will start any minute, and we need a partner to share.”
The string quartet practiced a few notes and then launched right into a Haydn piece that made Eugenia want to lie down and take a nap. As the adagio picked up, a bustle of activity moved through the front hallway.
Mariah stared in shock, aghast, as a naked man with a bag on his head streaked through the parlor. His exact age was unknown but silverish chest hairs and slight paunch led one to believe he was not a very young man. Mariah turned to share her disbelief with Eugenia, whose face was bright red and mouth open in laughter.
“As period costumes go, that one takes the cake,” Eugenia guffawed. “And yes — that is definitely a Potter penis.”
Wendell Wood Collins is director of corporate relations at Princeton University’s Bendheim Center for Finance. She enjoys writing for area websites and publications and is working on her second novel. She lives in Hopewell with her three daughters.