It didnít matter that I was cruising the higher, supposedly cooler elevations of northern New Jersey. The ambient August blast furnace wasnít doing the upholstery any good, which, if hyperbole serves me correctly, was hovering about two degrees below magma. I drive a `66 Lincoln convertible and depend on the kind of old-fashioned kinetic air conditioning that went out of style with two-stick Popsicles. Though, admittedly, with all the windows open, the airflow is about the same as when the top is down. So my practical side was thinking of pulling over and putting the top up, while my aesthetic side was thinking otherwise. Canvas up, you just donít have that invigorating hemispherical perspective vital to the convertible driving experience. When you drive with the top down, tin-top motorists are Mr. Magoo to your James Bond.
Cresting a hill, I saw a checkerboard valley of farmland and shopping centers spread out below, New York Cityís carbon monoxide smudge beckoning on the horizon. Factoring in the tunnel traffic, I estimated home and the embrace of my gal Angie were about two hours away.
Iím one of those people who have a hard time making up my mind about where to pull over for gas, food or even just to turn around. "That would have been a good place. And that, too." What can I say? I donít like pulling into strangersí driveways, or "did-dinging" a gas station bell for naught.
Odd but true, I even had a hard time making up my mind about pulling into the little dusty antique store that approached on my right. Iím a collector by trade, and I was returning from canvassing little rural junk shops across northern Pennsylvania for bargains. "Timeless Tiny Treasures" the sign read, and my resolve waffled. Iíd noticed the place before. Having visited literally thousands of antique stores, knickknack huts and junktique boutiques across this great land, Iíve learned to size them up quite accurately from their outward appearance. Personally, I go for the type of rustic log shack that has all manner of woodsy stuff hauled out onto the porch, the proprietor your basic ill-shaven blue-eyed coot. Tiny Timeless Treasures had all the makings of a doily shoppe with crafts posing as antiques. And so I drove by.
And so I applied the brakes. In passing, I had, of course, scanned the contents of the shoppe window and spied what looked like a penguin. Throwing my arm over the seat, I whirred and wiggled the Lincoln in reverse back into the dirt parking lot, a feat made all the more difficult by the little cargo-loaded flatbed trailer I was towing. The dust cleared, and I saw that it wasnít a penguin in the window. It was a loon, which is not to say I was disappointed.
Maybe not such a big deal to most people, but to me a good loon ó or a penguin, for that matter ó is a thing of rare beauty. And value. My business card reads: "Carsonís Critters ó TAXIDERMY ó Renter, Procurer, Broker and Vendor." This bird was a find. I pulled around back and parked the Lincoln in the shade to let the upholstery cool, right across from another vintage car. By the hood ornament, I guessed it to be a Chrysler Saratoga, one of those chubby-cheeked chariots from the early fifties. The dark green paint was badly faded.
As you would expect of a place like Tiny Timeless Treasures, a wee bell tinkled when I entered, the smell of cookies and potpourri all over the place. Not two beats passed before a strapping woman popped out from behind a rear curtain. I donít mean to suggest she was fat, just that she was full-figured and had a very forthright deportment. She was dressed in cuffed denim dungarees, red and white checked shirt, tomato red lipstick and beauty parlor copper hair. Her every move seemed initiated by her broad shoulders. This woman was straight out of a Coca Cola ad from a musty LOOK magazine, or out of a 1956 TV spot driving the latest Ford wood-paneled station wagon, or even possibly out of a billboard picnic with one of them new-fangled tartan galvanized Thermos coolers. What I found odd was that she didnít seem to be much over twenty-five, but her eyebrows were turning white. Not exactly the fashion wave that makes me hang ten, but Iíll take it over grunge Sunday through Saturday.
"Welcome to Tiny Treasures," she said, striding behind the register. Her voice was loud, but reedy, like an accordion. "Let me know if thereís anything I can help you with." I was favored with a quick toothy smile, her upper teeth smudged with lipstick.
"Okay," I smiled, pretending to be some chump searching for a set of cork coasters for granny. "Iím just looking." I like to fancy I can cut a pretty nonchalant, neutral figure, although Iím often worried that my unruly blond hair has a habit of tipping my mitt. Garth Carson is one of those dull types who opts for the same variety of clothes every day of his life. Drab sport jacket, white Oxford shirt, baggy cuffed chinos, running shoes. Itís eminently comfortable, affordable, respectable and decision-free. I deny categorically that I dress like a high-school drama coach, no matter what some people say.
"Just let me know if I can help." She made the pretense of lifting and scanning a well-loved copy of MUGUMBO - Saga of the Pride and Passions of the Old South. Her eyes moved back and forth, but they wobbled in a way that made me think she wasnít actually reading a single word. The nervous type, I guessed.
So I nosed around, idly appraising a glass relish dish, Huck Finn statues, old sewing machines and a complete, encased collection of thimbles bearing the official flower of each state in the union. Did you know the goldenrod is the state flower of Nebraska? Feigning disinterest in the object of my desire, I finally picked my way around, giving the bird the once-over.
Loons are large birds, and when at full attention the way this one was, it looked like a small emperor penguin. It stood nearly thirty inches tall, its tiny eyes wild and red. Male or female, they both have the same black head and black and white striped neck. Its head was turned slightly, as if the loon sensed a wolverineís approach. The white feathers had turned tan, badly in need of cleaning. Big black webbed feet and legs betrayed no peeling, and appeared in good condition. They were firmly attached to a rather good fake rock. Beached between the feet was a yellow striped perch ó a nice touch.
But something was amiss with the long, sharp beak. It was a tad transparent, and at close examination had begun to peel apart. What at first looked like sawdust was visible inside the beak, so I turned the bird, produced a penlight and looked into his head.
"Damn," I uttered, despite myself.
"Whatsamatter?" my hostess barked.
"The price tag on the bird says $250."
"Iíll let you have the penguin for $150," nodded my ignorant hostess.
"Well, if you look inside the birdís head, youíll see itís full of bug shucks." I was reminded of a bin of moldering squirrel mounts I once saw at Brimfield, the box rife with shucks like someone had spilled a box of Rice Krispies.
"Bugs!" Cola Woman grimaced.
"Larval shucks. Frankly, Iíd be afraid to bring it home for fear the moths would get into my clothes." Or my polar bear. Or my puma, my lynx, bobcat, foxes, beavers, owls, marmotsÖ
I brought the loon over to the register and tipped it so that some of the shucks fell into my hand. "I thought they were sawdust, but lookÖ"
She recoiled. "Awright. Twenty bucks."
Ah, the rarest and most beautiful bird in my forest: The Copper Crested White-Eyebrowed Pushover. I dusted my hands off into a waste bin. "Do you have a bathroom I could use, you know, to wash my hands?" It was then that my eye focused beyond Cola Woman, to a gray squirrel mounted in a glass case. My keen attention to detail alerted me to the fact that this was not your garden-variety trophy-case squirrel. Attached to the paws were thin black sticks. The eyes were unnaturally large and cross-eyed, the front teeth hung down below the chin, and the pink tongue stuck out to one side. A seam at the back of the jaw betrayed that the mouth was articulated. A sudden realization made me lose my dealerís savvy.
"Thatís Pipsqueak!" I pointed. "Pipsqueak the Nutty Nut!"
Cola Woman set her jaw, and with visible force of will didnít turn to look at Pipsqueak.
"Not for sale. Bathroomís through the curtain, on the left."
"That canít be The Pipsqueak," I said with a nervous laugh. "Perhaps if I could speak to the shop owner?" I tore my eyes from the squirrel and encountered Cola Womanís rock-hard visage. I was a little taken aback, as much by her stern manner as by the fact that I noticed her freckles were painted on.
"Iím the owner. Not for sale. Bathroomís through the curtain, on the left."
Raymond Burr with a wig was telling me ó in no uncertain terms ó that Iíd better go toity. So I did, but found it on the right, not on the left.
There wasnít a thing in the bathroom that didnít have some kind of plush, cutsie cover. Even the spare toilet paper roll was covered with the hoop skirts of a southern belle Kewpie. I gave my hands a quick rinse and dried them on one of those wimpy embroidered hankies polite society calls guest towels.
Was I still tucked in bed, drooling on my pillow, Mr. Sandman working his magic? Nothing at Tiny Timeless Treasures made sense except in the bent, id-laden realm of Dreamland. All this frou-frou merchandise should be the wares of a dowdy, daisy-frocked maid with a penchant for scented soaps. Cola Woman should be riveting B-25 wings over at the Grumann plant, not soaking up sappy romance novels and mending doilies. Pipsqueak the Nutty Nut was the tip-off that this might be a dream. You know, one of those childhood icons that loom inexplicably large in the subconscious.
I looked in the mirror and gave myself a pep talk. "Well, so what if Cola Woman defies pigeon-holing, Garth? The loon is only twenty bucks!"
Even if I could get the bugs out of it, I wasnít entirely sure I could salvage the bird. The beak looked beyond repair, and Iíd probably have to replace it with an artificial one. Youíd be surprised what extraneous and mundane animal parts taxidermy suppliers manufacture. Otter noses, beaver teeth, elk septums, peccary tongues, widgeon lipsÖ
The other option was to take it home for parts. There was always the possibility that I could Frankenstein it to another loon with a good head and bad legs. There was also the possibility that I could use loon parts in conjunction with another piece in a diorama, like as fresh kill for a fox.
But my desires drifted back to Pipsqueak. A real piece of taxidermy, too, only made into a puppet. The genuine Pipsqueak, I figured, would be found at the Museum of Broadcasting. This one was probably a promotional double, or something.
The front door to the shop went Ďting-a-ling:í another customer. I heard Cola Woman greet the visitor in a harsh whisper: "You son-of-a-bitch!"
"Gimme the squirrel!" a male voice boomed. Glass shattered. There went the front display case.
I held my breath, hand hovering over the bathroom doorknob. To my mind, this had the makings of a domestic dispute. You know, the kind you read about in the papers where some do-gooder tries to intercede and gets a gut full of lead for his trouble.
"Bastard!" Cola Woman screeched. There was a shot, the bathroom mirror shattered, and I dropped to the floor, trying my best to curl up into a ball behind the commode. A rip in the wallpaper betrayed where the slug passed through the wall, sheet rock dust still hanging in the air.
Out in the shop, the struggle progressed, staggered stomping and grunting, lamps crashing to the floor, the case of thimbles rattling.
"Help!" Cola Woman wheezed, and I think she meant me.
"Squirrel!" The man barked.
Sure, Iíd trip a fleeing purse-snatcher any time. Or throw stones at a mugger to ruin his day. But Superman and bulletproof Iím not. Even so, to do nothing but cower behind a toilet rowels the conscience and paints a yellow stripe down your back.
I crawled over to the bathroom door, pushed it open and stuck my head around the corner. Through a part in the curtain, I caught a glimpse of the happy couple in their spastic waltz, a black gun waving in my direction. My yellow stripe and me were quite happy where we were, thank you very much. All I could see clearly were their feet: her modest white tennis shoes, his black motorcycle boots. They lurched out of view and there was a tremendous crash. The gun went off again, I heard some grunts and groans, but it sounded like neither combatant had prevailed. On my belly, I squirmed over to the curtains to take in the outcome ó and to see if I might be able to scoot out the front door.
A pair of black motorcycle boots stuck out from behind the collapsed display case, the toes swaying slightly. Outside, I heard a car start, rev, and the distinctive growl of a hemi V-8 trail off down the road. Cola Woman making her escape, probably in the Chrysler.
Glass crunched underfoot as I cautiously advanced into the room. Biker Boy, decked out in matching black jeans and T-shirt, was sprawled on his back, his hairy bare arms badly glass-gashed and responsible for a lot of extraneous blood. He had long messy dark hair, sideburns, and thick black-framed glasses half wrenched from his face. I scanned the floor for the gun: zip.
There was a canvas folder tucked in his belt, a small shaft of silver metal sticking out of it. I thought it was a knife at first, but then recognized the metal for what it was: a tuning fork. Hellís Piano Tuners?
The loon lay in front of the counter, legs broken, head pulverized. But the perch and fake rock still looked useful. On the wall behind the counter there was a dust shadow where Pipsqueak had been.
I stepped over a smashed porcelain poodle lamp and next to Biker Boy. He was still breathing, barely, but had stopped moaning or moving. My idea was to try to bind up some of his leaks before calling the cops, so I grabbed a stack of linen napkins, took the bikerís hand, and lifted his arm. Thatís when I saw another, more dramatic wound under his arm, near his armpit. Though I couldnít get a good gander at it through the ter in his T-shirt, it looked very nasty, with meat or something sticking out of it.
The room suddenly got a little dim, and began to twist. I dropped the bikerís arm and braced myself against the bookshelf. Without having much of a chance to be grossed out, I realized I was about to faint, and struggled past the bathroom and into the small efficiency dwelling beyond the bathroom. I sat on a nicely ruffled bed, slapped myself a couple times, and picked up the phone.
Chalk one up for steering clear of strangersí driveways.
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