Here’s the second of my aforementioned backlog of columns from Mum’s visit.
To make it up to all three of my faithful readers, I solemnly swear to publish this coming Sunday’s column on Friday, two whole days early! The newspapers might not be happy about a broken embargo, but we’ll see.
Anyway, the following story paints a picture of a very old, kinda spooky antique store in central Maine. It was a fun place to explore.
I was always a well-behaved kid. I still am, for that matter. I’d tell you to ask my mother, but by the time this hits newsstands, she’ll be back in Australia after her three-week Maine vacation.
Since I was so well-behaved, I’ve always felt a niggling sense of anxiety whenever I feel like I’m about to be caught. By that, I don’t even mean anything criminal: I get the same feeling now, when I’m hurriedly wrapping gifts in secret, as I used to when I was doing the “hide” part of Hide and Seek.
Those sensations cropped up again last week when a friend delivered the following piece of advice ahead of a quick day trip with The Mother:
“Explore every room. Sometimes you’ll get the feeling that you’re somewhere that you’re not supposed to be, but that’s okay.”
And if that didn’t make me preemptively nervous enough, my imagination kicked into overdrive at the sight of the hulking, weather-worn structure looming in front of us on that rainy October morning as we pulled into a driveway in Coopers Mills.
“Mum, welcome to Elmer’s Barn of Junk and Dead Things.”
For someone who’s been living in Hallowell, a city fair teeming with them, I haven’t actually spent much time in antique stores. Couple that with a heightened awareness that Maine’s been around a lot longer than where I’m from, and I had an instant, morbid fascination.
I’m not sure whether it was the miserable day outside, or the fact that this was a mid-week morning, but Mum and I basically had Elmer’s to ourselves. It was eerily quiet, save for Mum’s occasional exclamations about various trinkets familiar from her childhood and beyond.
The stillness only served to accentuate every creaking floorboard under my boot and the metallic clanking of rusted and long-abandoned tools shifting as I moved past. I’ve read far too much Stephen King to be comfortable in an environment like this.
It didn’t take long for my friend’s prophecy to come true: I found myself in a small room way in the back of the ground floor, staring at a pile of dozens of bedheads older than I am, illuminated by a buzzing, bare lightbulb that I had to duck under.
“I shouldn’t be here. This has to be a storage room,” I thought. “Those bedheads look like props from a horror movie set in an old-timey sanitarium.”
And of course, just when I thought I couldn’t be creeped out any further, my mother called me over to check out a wicker 1920s-era wheelchair she’d cleared off. All I could think of was who sat in that chair last. Thanks for completing the mental image, Mum.
In a way, it was the perfectly spooky precursor to Halloween, which is a holiday that only really gained popularity Down Under due to its portrayal in popular culture. I can remember my dad grumbling about how “this isn’t America, you know” when trick-or-treaters came to the door asking for candy when I was a kid. The getting-drunk-in-costumes element of the holiday seems to be the part that caught on back home, even if the door-to-door sugar collection didn’t.
Because I didn’t grow up with a yearly reason to come up with a costume every October 31, I’m not very good at it as an adult. I’ve spent three All Hallows’ Eves in the United States, and in all three of them I’ve gone the route of foam-rubber animal costumes. Real creative. I tried my hand at carving a jack-o-lantern last year, and discovered that it’s a messy project that gets even messier once the pumpkin starts to sag, and the tipped-over candle spills melted wax everywhere. Cleaning up is a scarier prospect than the back rooms at Elmer’s.
Eventually I worked my way through the barn and into the loft, where I could hear the rain falling on the roof and see the grey skies through dirty and cracked windowpanes. Racks upon racks of old tools, wooden crates and mannequins made plenty of hiding spots for whatever I kept thinking I could see moving out of the corner of my eye, and despite that nagging gut feeling of “I’m not supposed to be in here,” I kept pushing on. I didn’t want to miss some hidden treasure, after all.
As I got to the front of the loft, my edginess reached a crescendo when I swore I could hear someone’s footsteps behind me. Seeing nothing, and cursing my own imagination, I turned around to survey the final piles of discarded Maine relics, and what I saw in front of me broke the tension and made me laugh out loud.
It was a sign. A beer sign. Of course it was. “Foster’s. Australian for Beer.”