The door was unlocked, which surprised Helen: The place really was open. Still, she could see that the shop was rarely visited. She entered quietly, afraid to wake the ghosts that surely inhabited the place. She wanted to take her shoes off, to make no noise, but did not. The shop floor was unswept; dirt sounded like sandpaper when she stepped. The shop lighting was insufficient, and it took a minute for her eyes to adjust.
There was junk everywhere, packed in and up and under to the point of absurdity. How could they sell anything when you couldn’t move through the sea of stuff, let alone see the merchandise? But under studied examination, she found cut-crystal lamps and hanging bronze lights, and from a filthy corner of Cairo were two-toned scarab rings that protruded from slits in a dirty, blue velvet box behind a glass cabinet. In another cabinet, she could see silver toe rings and lapis earrings, and brass and copper bracelets of low quality and considerably worn. On a shelf above were small stone statues of Osiris and Anubis. There was practically a whole shelf of Anubises, and Helen wondered if the plural, in English, was Anubi. For all she knew, the figures could have been authentic. But surely not for the thirty-five dollars on the yellowed price tags. Real value? She thought they might be worth a dollar and a half, retail. Helen prepared herself for exorbitant prices on, essentially, thrift-store junk. But it made her smile. This was her lucky day, after all. There was no telling what she might find.
On another shelf were cigarette lighters of green and red plastic and transparent Lucite with colorful beads and tiny bobbles inside, drowned in clear naphtha. There were woven scarves on wooden coat trees, glass boxes, enameled boxes, Russian boxes, nested boxes shaped like little Russian girls with daisies but she could tell at a glance they were from China or Mexico; there were baskets, blue bottles, cocaine or snuff vials possibly from the Ming Dynasty if they weren’t fake, which they were, and an odd assortment of stringed and wind instruments, both broken and unbroken, strung and unstrung.
There was even an old kobza! It was now getting interesting. She hadn’t seen a Ukrainian folk kobza, like a lute but with a rounder soundboard, since she was six.
There was used furniture of every kind and from every age and nation. She saw camphor chests from China and cedar chests from Pennsylvania. There were tchotchkes beyond number from the spherical earth’s infinity of corners.
Soon, she could see that there were two people in the store besides herself. The shop’s proprietors included an angulated, antediluvian crone whose skin loosely covered her unfortunate, twisted bones, and a man in his sixties or seventies or eighties who may have been her son or her husband or her unfortunate lover, and who was her equal in emaciation and ugliness, inside and out. The man was tall and favored one leg when he walked, and his feet hit the floor heel-hard, as if he were in cowboy boots and wasn’t used to them. He wore shoes that had once been black.
The crone suffered a debilitating curvature of her spine and could not stand erect. She spent her days staring at the floor, and she had to turn her head to the side to see, for example, a customer. Her white hair hung sideways off her head, and it was long and ill-kept. Bent, she was little more than four feet tall.
The man, who was her son or lover, could stand erect but had to keep his head turned to the side so a customer such as Helen wouldn’t see his left side, which had no teeth top or bottom, and the skin on the left side of his face was scarred at the temple and cheek, and the general structure crushed in upon itself like a withered melon, which made his left eye slightly protrude. He blinked long and squintingly. The left corner of his mouth was wet, and he wiped it continually with the back of his hand. He was a two-sided man with one half being moderately acceptable (though pitiful), and the other half, when he happened to accidentally show the opposite profile, as frightening as Dorian Gray’s portrait.
Perhaps they were the ghosts she had teasingly mentioned to herself earlier, the ones she didn’t want to waken. She tried to laugh at her fear, but she had a lingering feeling that these two store clerks would do everything in their power to hurt her. She sighed. She decided she was overtired. And she was too young to lose her mind.
On the day that Helen entered the antique store for the first time, encountering its peculiar and even grotesque proprietors, she also discovered a spinning wheel that had been stacked high on wooden chairs, dressers, and chests. There were Chinese baskets in the mess, and red tassels, and empty picture frames that stuck out from the pile. ...
* * *
When Helen’s eyes fell on the spinning wheel, an electric shock coursed up her spine. She felt that she somehow knew that wheel. Her heart caught. After a minute, she realized that she had stopped breathing, and she gasped, sucking in the stale air of the shop. The air tasted like dust and had an after-smell that reminded her of the glazed ducks in the shop nearby. ...
* * *
Helen was now dealing with Vic, because the crone had vanished into the back of the store, behind the counter where they kept the cash register. She hadn’t seen her leave, and was uncomfortable alone with Vic.
Vic sighed when she said she had only the two-hundred-dollar holding fee. He looked up, trying to spot the crone. Then he looked back down at her, for he was much taller than she was. He whispered, “You can return with the rest before the end of the week. There will be sales tax, for the governor, as well.” He forced a smile, but it didn’t work. “We don’t need to collect it now. We’ll make an exception. We know you are a nice person and will be back.” The smile had corrupted his face.
She agreed to return with the rest of the down payment, plus the sales tax, before the end of the week.
After straining her ears to hear the discussion from her post at the back of the store, the hag slinked back to the middle area where Helen and Vic were closing the deal on the spinning wheel. The old woman had pulled on rubber gloves and had a paint brush in one hand, having busied herself with the business of staining and varnishing an old chair. The brush had dried, brick-red stain in the roots of the bristles. It was the same color as most of the refurbished furniture. As they stood, Helen had no way out of the store, for the proprietors blocked the narrow aisles. She was suddenly very uncomfortable, and looked quickly toward the window, hoping for a way out.
Affectionately, the old woman placed her hand on the younger woman’s forearm, much as any auntie would touch her favorite niece. “I am sure you will love your new spinning wheel,” she said. Helen knew the old creature was smiling; she couldn’t see her face. But there was a hint of something in her voice, when she squeezed out the “s” of spinning wheel. Something of the serpent, something from a B movie.
The rubber glove was wet and cold with solvent, and the sensation on Helen’s wrist was unpleasant. It seemed to burn slightly. The unexpected creepiness of the touch sent a chill up her spine.
She smiled briefly. It had been a long afternoon. Things had gone fairly well, but she really didn’t feel all that well, physically, at the moment. It was very warm in the tight, airless shop. She had difficulty getting her breath. Yet her feet and hands were now freezing. She found it strange, because she had been so hot before. Now, she felt sick to her stomach. Her forehead was wet with perspiration.
She felt claustrophobic in the store aisle, not least because she was blocked fore and aft by the owners. She gently pulled the hag’s hand off her arm, patting it, trying to appear friendly. She was confused, and felt she might have to vomit. She had trouble catching her breath. The solvent was thick and clear on her skin. It had been smeared when she tried to remove the old woman’s hand. She carefully eased herself into a nearby chair that Vic had taken down when he’d freed the spinning wheel. Her heart was racing.
Helen was very dizzy. She glanced over at the shop’s front door forlornly, knowing she couldn’t run there before she would have to vomit. She swallowed, and blinked a few times, trying to clear her eyes. She closed them, but when she did it felt like she was spinning madly.
She fell from the chair, barely conscious, and lay on the floor, her legs and arms askew, her eyes open and looking at everything sideways. She was strangely embarrassed, and tried to pull her skirt back down over her thighs, but couldn’t manage it. At first, her breathing was like a fish gulping air, but soon she grew quiet. Her newly-shallow breath began to vanish. Then Helen grew still. Though her eyes remained partly open, there was no vision.