[Sometimes I write a story in one hour based on an intriguing image. I call them Postcard Stories.]
Damn that show, thought Gavin as another pair of city boys slid and shuffled down the embankment of loose leaves toward his trailer. They had flashlights clipped to their belts and pairs of work gloves stuffed into their pockets, like they always did.
“Hey, buddy!” one of them called. He was short, both of them were, but this one was skinny, too — like some of the folk he often saw in the woods. That’s why Gavin didn’t pull both triggers of the shotgun the minute he saw them.
“Mornin’” Gavin said. He didn’t lower the shotgun.
The other one, muscular and tattooed, got to the bottom of the ravine first, sliding on his ass the last six feet. He landed with a grunt, dusted off the front of his jeans without realizing the back was slicked with jellied mud, and came forward with the paper.
Oh, the paper. The usual paper.
“You ever see the show American Pickers?”
Gavin closed his eyes. “I’ve heard of it.” Oh, had he heard of it. Every scrounging dumbass in America considered it license to loot barns and bust into abandoned houses. Most of them weren’t even as respectful as the fellas on the show.
“I’m Patrick,” the tattooed one said, “and he’s Bobby. We’re like those guys, traveling the backroads of America looking for history.”
“To sell,” Gavin said.
The two guys traded glances and then grinned.
“We don’t sell all of it,” Bobby said. “We keep the special pieces, the important ones. We’re just like you. We love old junk, too. Everything’s got a story, and we just let those stories out into the world.”
There wasn’t nothing to reply, so Gavin didn’t.
Patrick pointed back over his shoulder. “I notice you got an old railroad car full of stuff.” He handed the paper to Gavin. “Anything like this stuff in there? Old toys, signs, vintage car parts? Circus stuff? Anvils? Police light bars? Confederate cavalry swords? Medical oddities?”
“Movie posters?” the other one interjected. “Glass interior house fixtures? Old wire spools?”
“Any folk art? Human hair, momento mori, cross-stitch, matchstick, microscopic Bible verses on rice?”
Gavin nodded back up the embankment. “Y’all could go to the Country Barn restaurant on the interstate for all that shit.”
The two men laughed nervously. Gavin liked to make them do that.
“So what’s in the train car? Anything you could see your way to selling?”
Gavin shrugged. “Maybe. For the right price.”
Bobby slapped his hands together. “That’s what I like to hear. You mind if we take a look?”
If this was the show, they’d take no for an answer after some dickering. But jackasses like this with their city license plates and SUVs would just skulk around and take the stuff if he didn’t agree.
“Sure.” Gavin propped the shotgun on his shoulder. “Let’s take a look.”
They followed him down the trail he’d cut from years of walking down to visit the railroad car. He hadn’t known it was there when he bought the property, not the car and not the old rusty spur line they’d let rust almost to nothing from Jenkins Notch. Time was when they’d carry tourists up to the resort there and then lumber on back. Someone must have left this one all by its lonesome, and that worked out great for Gavin.
He let them stomp and crash their way through the reaching branches like city men often did; they swatted gnats away from their eyes and sputtered them from their lips. Once, Patrick stumbled on a root and went sprawling. Another time, a switch came snapping back right into Bobby’s fleshy beak.
“It’s way out here,” Patrick said. “We saw it from above off the bridge but I had no idea it was this far back.”
“Keeps folks away,” Gavin said.
“I’m sure it does.”
They came out onto the old gravel roadbed and tottered their way another twenty yards to the car. Even Gavin didn’t know how long it had been there, but the windows had long ago glazed over with fungus and vines had formed a kind of pelt along the top and sides. It was the fort he’d always wanted. The playhouse.
“I call it my playhouse,” Gavin said.
The two men chuckled. Bobby reached for the door on the near end.
“Be careful. It sticks.”
He propped up his leg on the old coupler and gave the door two good yanks to the side. It slid open and a cloud of dust motes sparkled in the beams of sunshine between the trees.
“Wow,” Bobby said. “It’s like a little theater in here.”
Playhouse, thought Gavin. It’s a playhouse.
Gavin let Bobby and Patrick climb inside and then he followed. They turned their heads all over the place like a couple of magpies, taking in the little red velvet curtains Gavin had sewn, the theater seats he’d rescued from the Bijoux when it burned down, the little wooden stage he’d built with the trap door for special effects.
“This like a little puppet theater?” Patrick turned on his little flashlight and aimed it. “You make this?”
“More or less,” Gavin said. In a way, it had made him, finding the parts over the years.
“It’s in great shape,” Bobby said. “These seats are amazing. What would you get for one of these?”
Gavin hadn’t thought about it. Since he’d put them in the train car, he’d been the only one to sit in them for long, leaning back and watching the shows. They were pretty comfortable.
“I don’t rightly know,” Gavin replied.
“Well, you think about it,” Bobby said, sidling down the aisle toward Patrick.
“Look at all these puppets. Wow.” Patrick reached behind the stage and pulled out Colonel Squirrel. He turned him around, checked his ass, and then shoved his hand inside.
“That looks almost real,” Bobby said.
“It should. I sew them from the ones I catch.”
Patrick squeezed Colonel Squirrel’s mouth shut as though the puppet was the one disgusted to have his paw up a rodent’s colon. Then, wincing, Patrick slid it off his hand.
“You’ve got all kinds back here,” Bobby said. “A couple of woodchucks, a crow, a raccoon. What’s this one? Oh, some kind of wildcat.”
“These are awesome.” Patrick turned over Dr. Eatum Crow in his hands. “Stand these up on a nice dowel rod base and you’ve got a real statement piece for a mantel or display case.”
A statement piece. Yes, it was that, Gavin figured.
“Holy shit, what is this?” Bobby’s voice got high all of a sudden. “Oh, my God. Is this human?”
Of course she was. She’d always been.
“She fell out my mama’s belly all dried out like that. When I was a boy. She’s my sister.”
Bobby dropped it to the stage and stepped back, wiping his hands on the back of his pants. “And you kept it?”
“Wasn’t supposed to,” Gavin said. But he’d waited a long time for a sister, all his life back then, and he wasn’t going to let them put her in the ground just because she was different. No, sir. They’d tried to stop him the first couple of times he dug her out, but by the third or fourth they just let him have her.
“She wanted to be an actress.” Gavin picked her up from the stage and petted the hardened black smear that might have once been wispy hair. “To tread the boards in Branson, she always said. So I made this for her. It’s our playhouse.”
Through the fingers clasped to his lips, Patrick said, “Oh, no. There’s another one.”
“Folks ’round here don’t always mean to have children and I take the extras, that’s all. I’m like one of them foster homes the state runs. But I teach them how to act, how to sing. So Wendy isn’t lonely.”
“How many are there?” Bobby asked, his words slow and quiet.
“‘Bout seven or eight. Enough for a decent production of King Lear if you let a couple of them do double-roles. Colonel Squirrel usually plays King Lear, though: he’s the master thespian of the troupe.”
Bobby and Patrick turned away from the stage now and crushed each other between the seats in their hurry to get up the aisle.
“I don’t think any of them are for sale after all,” Gavin said.
“No, that’s okay. Sorry to have bothered you, sir.” Bobby motioned that he’d like to get past but Gavin stood his ground.
“Oh, I went ahead and locked the door. You can’t have folks come busting into the middle of a show. Ruins the dramatic dream.”
“You don’t have to–”
“Oh, no. It’s no trouble. I was fixin’ to come down here and run a show anyway. It’s nice to have a bigger audience than usual. Have yourselves a seat and I’ll get everything going for you.”
Bobby and Patrick backed down the aisle.
“I said, sit down.”
“Sit,” Gavin said. He hated having to say it so many times but city folks were dense.
They did, their knees curled up to their chests, and Gavin stepped behind the curtain for a limited engagement performance.