It didn't matter that I was cruising the higher, supposedly cooler elevations of northern New Jersey. August's ambient blast furnace was running full-throttle and not doing the car's upholstery any good. If hyperbole serves me correctly, the black Naugahyde seats were 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 don't 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 City's 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.
I'm one of those people who has a hard time making up his 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 don't like pulling into strangers' 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 parking lot of the dusty antiques store that approached on my right. I'm a collector by trade, and I was returning from canvassing little rural junk shops across northern Pennsylvania for bargains. tiny timeless treasures, the sign read, and my resolve waffled. I'd noticed the place before. Having visited literally thousands of antiques stores, knickknack huts, and junktique boutiques across this great land, I've 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 shop 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 shop window, and I spied what looked like a penguin. Throwing my arm over the seat, I whirred and wiggled the Lincoln in reverse 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 wasn't 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--or a penguin, for that matter--is a thing of rare beauty. And value. My business card reads: Carson's Critters--TAXIDERMY--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 don't 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 newfangled tartan galvanized Thermos coolers. What I found odd was that she didn't seem to be much over twenty-five, but her eyebrows were turning white. Not exactly the fashion wave that makes me hang ten, but I'll 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 there's 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. "I'm just looking." I like to fancy I can cut a pretty nonchalant, neutral figure, although I'm 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. It's 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 wasn't 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 wolverine's 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 taxidermied perch--a nice touch.
But something was amiss with the long, sharp beak. It was a tad transparent and, upon 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 muttered, despite myself.
"Whatsamatter?" my hostess barked.
"The price tag on the bird says $250."
"I'll let you have the penguin for $150," my ignorant hostess said, nodding.
"Well, if you look inside the bird's head, you'll see it's full of bug shucks."
"Bugs!" Cola Woman grimaced.
"Larval shucks. Frankly, I'd 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, marmots . . .
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 look. . . ."
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 over 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 dealer's savvy.
"That's Pipsqueak!" I pointed. "Pipsqueak the Nutty Nut!"
Cola Woman set her jaw and with visible force of will didn't turn to look at Pipsqueak.
"Not for sale. Bathroom's through the curtain, on the left."
"That can't 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 only to encounter Cola Woman's 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.
"I'm the owner. Not for sale. Bathroom's through the curtain, on the left."
Raymond Burr with a wig was telling me--in no uncertain terms--that I'd better go toity. So I did, but found it on the right, not on the left.
There wasn't a thing in the bathroom that didn't have some kind of plush, cutesy 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 froufrou 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 Grumman 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 pigeonholing, Garth? The loon is only twenty bucks!"
Even if I could get the bugs out of it, I wasn't entirely sure I could salvage the bird. The beak looked beyond repair, and I'd probably have to replace it with an artificial one. You'd be surprised what extraneous and mundane animal parts taxidermy suppliers manufacture. Otter noses, beaver teeth, elk septums, peccary tongues, widgeon lips . . .
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. Then again, Pipsqueak may have loomed large for me as a kid but was ultimately the product of a dinky two-bit program. This could be the Real McCoy.
The front door to the shop went ting-a-ling: another customer. I was a little surprised to overhear Cola Woman greet the visitor in a harsh whisper: "You son of a bitch!"
"Gimme the squirrel!" a male voice boomed. Glass shattered. Probably 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 exploded, 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 had passed through the wall on its way to the mirror, Sheetrock dust still hanging in the air. The buzz of that lead bee still resonated in my ear; it had passed close enough that I could hear its wobble through the air. I tried not to think what it would have been like had I been stung.
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, I'd trip a fleeing purse-snatcher anytime. Or throw stones at a mugger to ruin his day. But Superman and bulletproof I'm 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 sizable black gun waving in my direction. The echo of that bee sent me scrambling back into the bathroom, where my yellow stripe and I were quite happy, thank you very much. But I picked up a shard of the broken mirror and angled it to keep tabs on the action. 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 their little mambo had come to an end. I couldn't see anything with the mirror. On my belly, I squirmed over to the curtains to take in the outcome--and to see if I might be able to scoot out the front door.
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. Hell's Piano Tuners?
Excerpted from Pipsqueak by Brian M. Wiprud. Copyright © 2004 by Brian M. Wiprud. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.