I have nebulous plans to write an autobiography someday.
Not today though. Probably not tomorrow either. But in the meantime, I’m thinking it might not be a horrible idea to chronicle the weird little occurrences that are forever popping up in my life. Not the huge events that are going to mark the milestones and chapter-titles later on, but the small universe-hiccups of you-gotta-be-fucking-kidding-me that I’m sometimes asked to recount at parties.
I don’t have hard proof, but I feel more or less justified in saying that one of the ways my friends probably describe me to people I haven’t met yet is: “She has some really weird stories.”
“All the Ingredients for an Axe Murder”
New Hope, PA is a tourist town right across the river from New Jersey. It’s a strange little place full of bright yellow buildings and freshly painted doors: ice-cream parlors, biker bars, and magic shops.
And on the bank of the river, in a basement accessible through a side door down a sloping alley with several stairs, is an antique shop that deals in Victorian funeral memorabilia and other hella freaky shit. It’s the kind of place you visit with two or more friends and—despite the crowded, relatively small layout of the shop—browse together as a single clump.
I went with my cousin Sara and her wife Sam (then her girlfriend) one summer in my early twenties. We talked about horror movies on our way there. Sunlight raged all around, so it didn’t feel like much of an omen at the time.
The first thing I noticed upon entering the antique shop entering was the wall of skeleton keys, hanging on a grid of rusty nails just inside the door. One of the keys caught my eye, for no good reason at all, I just liked the look of it, but I couldn’t imagine what I would do with the damn thing if I bought it, so I passed it by.
Next there was a tall, glass cabinet full of mysterious medical instruments, glass vials, and an old syringe that was longer than my hand, laid out in a black velvet case. I stared, and tried to imagine what some of they could be for, then decided I was probably better off not knowing.
Display cases ran around the edges of the room, and inside were old dolls and bouquets of dried flowers, photo albums and framed pictures of men and women who sitting up right in chairs, sometimes alone, sometimes with pets, often with other family members standing around, while the subject staring glassily off into space, looking like he or she was bored to tears.
He or she wasn’t of course. He or she was dead. The Victorians were a morbid bunch of whackos in many ways, and if you’ve never heard the term “Post-Mortem Photography” I encourage you to Google it. When you’re done googling you can come back here and tell me what I bad person I am for inflicting that knowledge upon you.
The windows of the shop clung with dust and let in only enough light to keep me from tripping on the antique bicycle leaned against a doorframe, spokes still slowly spinning from the motion of the last passer by. Taxidermy animals were tipped over and propped up in the back room. An old wedding dress hung on the wall.
Hanging scattered across the ceiling were numerous empty, rusted birdcages.
Ain’t nothing sets the mood for a possible murder like numerous empty, rusted birdcages.
The shop owner, who stood behind one of the display cases as we browsed speaking with other customers, was tall, old, and had a voice like the flipping pages of an ancient book. He seemed, for a mortal, to be unusually well versed in the personal opinions of God on all matters great and inconsequential. I’m told that sometimes he is in a good mood and talks to people and tells jokes. And sometimes he’s in a terrible mood and all but chases them out the door.
We avoided him. We perused. We made to leave, our thoughts turning to important matters of ice cream and waffles.
On our way out I paused and looked at that key again. I took one step out the door, paused once more, and looked back at it again.
“I’ll catch up,” I said to Sara and Sam. “I keep looking at this stupid key and I think it’s because I want it.”
Sara and Sam agreed to wait for me at the top of the stairs. I left them there, standing in the lovely sunshine, and went back into the basement to pay for my key.
The other customers had just left and I was the only person, other than the owner, left in the shop. I carried my key to the main display case, which doubled as the shop counter, and set it down with a click on the glass.
“Ah, decided you wanted it after all?” the shop owner asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I just kept coming back to it and I figured it must be a sign.” I laughed, meaning it as a joke. The shop owner smiled.
I fished my wallet out of my purse and pretended with every ounce of pretending I had in my twenty year old body that I couldn’t feel the hairs standing up on the back of my neck, and the breeze from the half opened door brushing against them.
“Would you like to know the history of this key?” the shop owner asked as he filled out a yellow paper receipt by hand.
My key had a history? Of course I wanted to know.
“Yes please,” I said, interested.
I’m interrupting here briefly in order to solemnly swear to Santa that all the following events are exactly as I remember them with no hyperbole or exaggeration. No really. I’m serious.
The shop owner held up the key into a shaft of dusty sunlight and turned it over in his fingers a few times.
“This key is from the early nineteen hundreds,” he said slowly. “Around 1910. It would have opened a door, probably to a garden shed or a basement, possibly also to a bedroom. This key was used in the large farm houses of the time and would have been carried on the end of a pocket chain.”
He handed it back to me.
“Wow,” I said. “Fascinating.” I took my key and looked down at it. That wasn’t so bad. A friendly little farmhouse key. I liked it more already.
The shop owner slid over my receipt.
“Thank you,” I said, smiling politely. Before I could turn to leave, he asked suddenly, in a honey-quiet voice:
“Do you like stories?”
I froze and looked up to meet his gaze. I was still alone in the shop. The empty birdcages creaked in the circulating breeze from the door. And it wasn’t like the movies, where the protagonist ignorantly flounces into danger. I knew right away exactly what kind of moment I was standing in, and I made a conscious decision.
“I love stories,” I said firmly.
Because I do. And what the fuck else was I supposed to say? I’m a writer, I couldn’t just walk away from pure-gold horror shit like that when it happened in real life.
“Come with me,” he said.
I followed him over to the glass display case full of ancient medical equipment. He unlocked the cabinet and pulled instruments out one at a time, explaining them to me.
The first was a long, curved metal wire at the end of a handle. The sort of tool that would have been used, the shop owner explained, to treat an anal fistula in the time of King Louis the XIV. I will spare you the gory details because I’m eating breakfast as I write this (mmm, yogurt) and because Google will always be there to fill in whatever gaps you feel I’ve left behind. But given the design of the object (long, slender, curved) I’m sure you can make your own hypothesis that will be close enough to the truth.
The second was a wide mouth glass vial, of the sort that would have been used in blood letting to cure (using that word in its loosest possible definition here) yellow fever. The shop owner told me about Benjamin Rush, a physician in the late 1700’s, who had a theory that the human body contained roughly 25 pounds of blood, and that it was medically safe to remove about 80%.
He went on to explain to me the state of Rush’s blood-soaked yard in Philadelphia (I’ve finished breakfast now) during the height of his practice.
That’s when the other part of my brain (the one that to this day can’t believe I would answer “yes” to such an obvious fucking precursor to horrific murder as “Do you like stories”) realized that I was standing alone in a dusty antique shop with a man wielding sharp, 18th century medical implements. As a result, I don’t recall at all what he said about the last two objects he removed from the case. I waited, skin buzzing, for him to put the four inch needle back down before explaining that I really probably should run because my friends were waiting outside.
The shop owner peeled a grin across his face and shook my hand.
“Of course my dear,” he said. His hand felt like a dried out orange skin. “Come back any time. The stories are always free.”
“Thank you. Uh, have a nice day,” I said and literally backed out the door.
I felt sunlight against my back like a hearty slap from a friend and looked over to see Sara and Sam, still waiting.
“We were starting to wonder if you’d been murdered in there or something,” said Sara.
I pocketed my friendly little farmhouse key.
“Not super positive I almost wasn’t,” I answered. “I’m ready for those ice cream waffles now though. Like, so ready.”