As they approached the city the subtle curves of the country gradually became veiled by the right angles of architecture. The old buildings of the textile quarter huddled together whispering tales of youth.
“I think it’s nice Dads buying something so expensive for our wedding present.” Walt said, with lopsided grin. “But listen, this place is pretty weird so don’t get too freaked out and make sure you take it easy.”
Walt had red hair that covered his head in a haphazard fashion; curly in some places, straight in others. Freckles dotted his face in varying sizes radiating out from his pug nose.
She’d been looking out the window following the jagged skyline when his voice brought her back to the car, “Where is this place?” she said as she shifted position. The baby had entered the last trimester and elbows and knees continually poked her searching for room to stretch out.
Jillian was a small woman of European descent. She had straight, raven black hair that ended severely on the top on her shoulders and very dark eyes that reflected everything around her.
The young man looked up from the asphalt to the buildings as if trying to see the sun for bearings.
“We’re taking the next exit and it’s just off the highway.”
After the turn, the road narrowed to an alley that, at one point, threatened to scrape both mirrors before expanding out once again. In the middle of the urban clearing sat an old warehouse surrounded by crenellated, much taller buildings. A sign on the side of the warehouse read ‘A. Zoic and Sons’ in red lettering and beneath that a big, green sliding door with a smaller door constructed for human passage. The door sat atop a loading dock which was surrounded by huge posts that looked to Jillian that they may’ve been salvaged from some ancient shipyard judging by their size. The posts not only appeared to be laid out to prevent intrusion by 18 wheelers backing up, but perhaps to thwart larger things from leaving the building.
He parked at an angle to protect the car’s finish, even though there were no other autos in the parking lot. He paused after opening his door, looked back at her and said, “C’mon”, as she sat with her arms across the top of her stomach. Jillian turned, placed her legs carefully on the ground and using the back of the car seat and pushed herself upright just as he arrived to help her.
They approached the door and pressed a button which was complimented by a carefully lettered sign that said, “Push here for service”.
She heard the steady thump of footfalls across a wooden floor as they advanced towards the doorway. They became so thunderous; she thought they’d awakened a T-Rex or some other guardian of this dark space. The door swung inward.
“The soon-to-be Kings, I presume?” said a large head that appeared within the casement. The door finished opening and the head was attached to an equally large body of a man that appeared to Jillian to weigh over three hundred pounds. He had a doughy face with a pallor that made his features seem almost, but not quite, translucent.
“Walt King, Mr. Zoic. It’s been years since I’ve seen you.” He reached out to shake the fat man’s hand as his red hair wobbled in the wind. “And this is my soon-to-be wife, Jillian.”
“It has been quite a few years since you were here the last, my boy. Back you’ve come with such a pretty young girl.” He gave a slight bow that made his lungs give out an involuntary wheeze. “It’s easy to see how such beauty steals your heart. Carrying a special package too, I see.”
“Thank you, sir. It’s an interesting building you have here,” Jillian said.
“Forgive me for embarrassing you, my dear. I’m an old, fat man who lives alone and joy visits me so seldom. Come in, come in.”
The exterior of the building belied the interior. It burrowed five stories below the ground creating a huge expanse. Crates, filling the air with raw wood smell, lined shelf upon shelf alongside a walkway that wound down towards the bottom; each box scrawled with some ornate language.
Something caught Jillian’s eye and she gave a startled “oh” as the baby did a little flip.
“Don’t worry, dear.” Mr. Zoic said, patting the feathery statue. “This is just Mr. Clark. He’s an Anjouan Scops Owl from the Comoro Islands.”
The owl stood perched upon a wooden stand, frozen in time and sporting a small lampshade on his head. It was if he was the life of the party last night and had forgotten to remove his crown.
“He’s something of a front door guardian here.”
“Wow, he looks so alive.” Jillian said.
“He is. In his own way,” said Mr. Zoic. “We usually receive people in our showroom, but your fiancé asked to be taken to the warehouse and as his father is such a special customer, I couldn’t deny him. Are you sure you’re up for it, m’dear?”
“Thank you, Mr. Zoic. I’ll be just fine. It’s just a little… different here.”
“Too true. Well, come on then.” They began the circuit of wooden walkways that spiraled down towards the center.
“Thanks for coming down here, honey. It’s so cool.” Walt whispered. He held her hand as they walked and she noticed it was sweaty.
They passed all manner of animals used for different purposes; a coffee table made from a ram, a coat rack made from a snarling bear, a chandelier made from a condor.
As they passed the boxed and unboxed, Zoic talked. “This business started with my great-grandfather back in the 1880’s.”
The boards were uneven in places and Jillian had to keep her eyes down to maintain her balance, even with her fiancés help she could only risk only occasional glances at the animals and furniture. The floor reminded her of the craggy dock behind her parent’s lake house with its wide gaps and splintered wood.
“He achieved some notoriety as a taxidermist and was commissioned by Teddy Roosevelt to create a number of pieces that proved to be a reliable source of income. But when Teddy’s wife, Alice, told him to stop filling their house with what she called ‘nonsensical objects d’art’, that source of income threatened to stop. ”
The floorboards rasped under his feet.
“That’s when Mr. Roosevelt contracted my grandfather to incorporate something usable into his art to assuage Alice. His first piece was a foyer table using a snow leopard and this business was born.”
“I remember this story. Didn’t Alice pass away soon after that?” Walt King asked.
Mr. Zoic stopped walking and turned, “Yes, she did in 1884. She died of kidney failure that went undiagnosed due to her pregnancy at the time.” He turned to Jillian and gave her a slight grimace and bow of his head, “Sorry, dear. Sometimes my mouth runs away from my brain.”
“That’s all right,” she said. The pendulumed lights that hung from the timber delineated the dark shadows with bright light that created strict lines of separation from the dark. Mr. Zoic’s back seemed to flash as he started to walk again.
“When did you start using endangered species?” Walt asked.
“We prefer to call them unique breeds,” said Zoic, looking back over his shoulder.
“A man came into the shop while my Grandfather was the proprietor. He brought with him the carcass of what was thought to be the last Wisconsin cougar and wanted to have it immortalized. Although his wife hated the idea of taxidermy, he had heard of the unique things my Granddaddy did with materials and so left it with him.
He made a vase stand with the cougar climbing and clawing the pole to reach the base. The wife liked it so much she placed the urn that held his ashes on top of it when he passed.”
As they sank deeper into the warehouse, Jillian couldn’t help but feel that the animals used to create the furniture appeared more desperate. She could swear that some of their heads turned in silent pleading to be released from these contrivances. She released her fiancés’ hand and hugged her stomach.
“Maybe this wasn’t a good idea,” Walt said.
“Ah, but we’re here. It doesn’t look as though they moved the box down.” Zoic said, perusing the area with furrowed brow. “Wait one moment.”
The voluminously overweight man climbed upon a box as if he were a spry teenager; just one hand and up he sprang. Jumping from box to box, he climbed higher toward the lights. Upon reaching the top, he clamped a large box in his hands and lifted it as if it were empty. Zoic bounded down from the top of the pile and placed it to the floor with care. Although he handled it as if it were hollow, the box clumped to the floor and rattled the floorboards showing its true weight.
Zoic focused his concentration and then wedged his fingers in between the side panel and the box. The nails at first groaning protestation, screamed as they came out of the wood two at a time.
The young couple peered inside the shadowed box. Within were two dark shapes that looked like very large grey footballs. Mr. Zoic pulled back the top and then the two sides allowing the light to reveal two seals inside. Each had its nose pointed to the sky as if balancing a ball and a flipper supporting a side of the glass table that they worked as a team to support. They lay, intertwined, on a ceramic pedestal finished with gold balls as feet.
“Your father wanted you to have something special and so I created this curio table from the only two Caribbean Monk Seals ever found. They were discovered washed ashore on the Yucatan peninsula five years ago and it was something of a coup for me to attain them.”
For some reason this piece was different to her. The fear that she had felt and the growing sense of dread drained away as quickly as a sunset. The seals, forever locked in each other’s fins, looked happy. They seemed as if there was no other place they would rather be than lying braided together; content to have only that. She thought that was what love should be.
“I love it,” she said.
“Great,” Walt said. “Dad’s been so successful in life, even after losing Mom, that he wanted to give us something that would be one of a kind.”
The fat man beamed. “That’s brilliant, ma’am. I’m so pleased when someone sees the beauty, the singular distinctive grace of something I create.”
“It’s quite beautiful, really.”
“Excellent. Let’s retire to the office so we can arrange delivery.”
They climbed back up the subtle incline, told him the particulars and then were guided back out to the green door.
She felt the little one move and thought he mirrored her feeling of joy to be leaving the dark warehouse.
Just inside, on the wall adjacent to the door, were pictures of men and boys standing in front of this very building. Each picture showed two solitary figures and the building behind them in each case.
She studied the latest addition with a ten-year-old fat boy standing next to a man so skinny he could hide behind a straw.
“Your picture?” she asked.
“Yes. It’s something of a tradition in our family.”
She studied each picture that aged as she moved left to right. Each harbored an odd assortment of men and boys. In one a virile, blonde-headed young man beside a short, dark man and in the next a curly headed, pudgy young man alongside a gaunt man with straight jet black hair.
“Do you have any children Mr. Zoic?”
“No, sadly. My work has always kept me away from the fairer sex.”
“That’s too bad. I’m sure your parents would want you to carry on the tradition.”
He smiled. “Thanks, dear. I never knew my mom, but my dad always had faith in me to carry on the business.”
“That’s, O.K. Miss. I’m ever confident that things will work out. Here’s the door and mind you watch the step. You wouldn’t want anything happening to that little man.”
“Thank you so much, Mr. Zoic.” Walt said, shaking the doughy man’s hand.
They climbed into the car and left the crenulated city; the smells of decay broken by the country’s fresh air. They drove for a good way in silence and she waited until the last buildings faded away into the distance.
“Yeah,” he said.
“How did he know I was having a boy?”
“I dunno. Maybe Dad told him.”
She felt a bit queasy and thought it was perhaps hunger.
The black curve of the highway slithered over the hill before dropping out of sight.
Pete Carter lives on Cape Cod where he did most things wrong until he married. After twenty years and two children, he decided he is much happier being right, if only occasionally.
He most often writes short stories and has published on Wild Child, Bewildering Stories, Theatre of Decay, Oddville Press and the Battered Suitcase.
When not writing he enjoys car repair, building, painting, plumbing, reading, debating, fishing and computer repair.