by Profe Steve
I leaned my elbow on the window frame of my little pickup and rested my head against the warm glass. The day should have been perfect; it was spring, the mesquites had put out new leaves and were beginning to bloom. Nevertheless I found myself restless and took a day off work to get away from the same four walls and fluorescent lights that made up my normal environment.
It wasn’t working very well. I could feel the depression creeping back like a shadow lengthening slowly with the falling of the sun, yet at the same time, there was another weird something tugging at me, something I could not identify. A pull.
I drove through several of the small towns in central Texas, wandering in whatever direction my battered Ford Ranger wanted to go, slowing down to eye the shops that lined the highway.
The ones that caught my attention were the junk stores. Antique shops bored me and were almost always overpriced; no, the ones I sought were the ones that were piled from floor to ceiling with pure junk.
The trip had been a failure so far. Treasure hunting was merely an excuse. What I really needed was a hunt, a quest, and a project that would take my mind off of the sense of loss that had been building for the last several weeks and the constant foreboding I felt.
Without awareness, I turned off the highway and stopped in front of a run-down looking house that bore a hand lettered sign that read "Joe’s Junk." I pushed the shifter up into Park and bumped my shoulder against the sticking door when my gaze fell on the side mirror. I saw froze.
I saw froze. An old face stared out of the glass. My visage was lined around the eyes and flesh sagged at each side of my mouth, forming a perfect set of parentheses. Thin short hair fluttered gently in the afternoon breeze and I noted that it had gotten even thinner since the last time I noticed.
A wry grin formed even more wrinkles in my face as I silently remarked that I should have expected such thinning and the fact that my hair was now almost as white as my beard. It came along with getting old. Still, it was better than the alternative.
Life wasn’t fun lately. Over the past few weeks I had been forced to deal with funerals of people close to me. Some had been related by blood, but most just by life. The best family is the one you choose.
A day of junking had seemed like the thing to do, the best way to forget, to put my life back into perspective, but nothing I saw all day caught my eye even after stopping in a half dozen stores in almost as many towns. So here I was opening the door of my truck as the sun reached the tops of the trees on the west side of the highway.
The little shop sat near the edge of town, an insignificant building of wood that had not seen a coat of paint since Nixon was in the White House. From the outside, the shop had nothing to recommend it, but my hands had turned the wheel off the road anyway. Something was pulling on my spirit.
The door creaked and my nose was immediately struck by a wave of aroma that was made up of equal parts dust and memories. I inhaled deeply, pausing to turn a full circle just inside the door. Spinner racks jammed with books rubbed elbows with scarred shelves piled high with electronic gadgets that were outdated before George Strait had his first hit.
Racks and racks of clothing, boxes of LP records and tables of tools competed for space with VCR tapes of movies long forgotten. I chuckled as I felt the weight start to ease from my mind. Here was a place where I could get happily lost.
“Well, young man, don’t jes stand there, come on in. And ya might orter shut yer yap before ya catch flies.” The voice came from stooped old man in a brown cardigan who was perched on a stool behind a glass counter filled with costume jewelry and long-dead watches.
A couple of baseball cards had been carelessly tossed in among them, partly covering pocket knives and buttons from old presidential elections. The man was almost completely bald, but he could have covered most of his pink scalp had he chosen to comb out his eyebrows.
A quick estimate told me that he had probably been around to vote for Kennedy, and possibly even Ike. His eyes danced in the glow of the desk lamp that sat on the counter, eyes that knew; eyes that had seen more living than most people had even read about.
I responded amiably and chatted for a moment until he grew bored and turned his attention back to the Mickey Spillane paperback turned face down on the counter. With no goal and only the faintest growling beginning in my stomach, I wandered the shop.
Joe, the proprietor, had assured me that he had nowhere to go and that I could take all the time I needed. “Ophelia, God rest her soul, has been gone since ’05 and I got no place else to be.” He had also recommended a local café that served a great apple pie and passable chicken fried steak. I could take my time.
There were treasures here, mementos of youth, many of which I had owned myself at one time. It seemed like each one came with a memory attached, and as I let my thoughts be carried away, I could feel the heaviness of spirit begin to lift a little.
I finally arrived at the back corner of the farthest room, and I was a bit sad to find that I had reached the limits of the shop; I had seen all of it. Of course I had only skimmed the surface, and made a mental note to return when I had more time so I could explore more thoroughly, but for now there was no more.
I turned my feet back toward the front room, intending to speak to Joe again and then go try the diner he had mentioned, but something made me stop and turn back. A door. Behind a rack of old winter coats was a white door that looked like it had seldom been opened in the last few years,
and as my eyes fell on it I felt the pull more strongly than ever. I froze, staring and wondering if the room that lay beyond was part of the public area of the shop or if it was off limits. Something called to me from back there, something old, some deep thing.
Joe solved my dilemma when he walked up behind me with two mugs of coffee, shattering the silence, “Let’s share a mug.” He jerked his head toward the strange door.
After my heart rate settled back to normal, I nodded assent and thanked him, wrapping my fingers around the warmth of the mug. It made me aware that the temperature in the shop had become rather chilly. Much later I remembered that detail and thought it strange.
The afternoon had been warm, and there was no air conditioning in the building, so I had been sweating inside the long sleeved denim shirt I wore. Joe produced a key ring and fumbled with them for a moment, finally selecting a small one that had become discolored to a deep brown by time. “I hardly ever come back here, but it seems like the place to be today.”
Joe's eyes held mystery and pain, and I couldn’t help wondering why. What secrets did the old man hold clenched tightly in his heart? How did they connect with the back room?
Following him in, I discovered a room that had probably been a bedroom in the house that now held the junk store. Another door, dingy and faded from what had probably been pink, stood ajar enough for me to tell that a bathroom lay beyond. Joe motioned me to an overstuffed armchair and a slight puff of dust rose from the cushions as I eased myself into it.
There was another aroma mixed in, a faint hint of flowers. Taking a sip of the bitter coffee, I forced myself to not make a face while I examined the rest of the room. The ceiling was high, as were the ones in the rest of the rooms, and one window passed light from the outside. Through it I could see the yard and a pair of pecan trees, new leaves beginning to grow.
A massive desk stood along one wall and a metal-framed bed along the other. The bed held an assortment of stuffed animals and dolls, and I inferred that this had been the bedroom of a young girl. It was the desk that kept drawing my eye. Completely clear except for a ledger, the wood was dark, and had once been polished but was now dim.
I could count a dozen cubbies on the back panel above the writing surface, and several drawers below it, three large ones to the right of the knee hole, and four smaller ones to the left. Their handles were brass and just as faded as the rest of the room.
The desk spoke to me of business transactions and homework assignments, and I found myself drawn to it as a moth to a flame, a slight sense of vertigo overtaking me for a moment.
I came to myself with a start as I realized that Joe had spoken, “You like it, don’t you? You can feel it. I see it in your eyes, it speaks to you.” He had set him mug on a side table and was leaning toward me, intensity pouring out of him. “She is in there.”
My mouth dropped open. Who? Who was in where? Did he mean in the desk? I tried to speak, but my throat was too dry and I had to swallow coffee to try to clear it. I could tell that my new friend needed to tell the tale, so I settled back in my chair and took a sip of coffee, waiting.
*** End of Part 1 *** Look for Part two coming soon. What tale will Joe tell of the desk? What mysteries will unfold to draw me in?