Who knew that looking at antiques would stir up old memories?
The shades are down, but the sign says Open, so I twist the knob and go right in. A bell hooked to the top of the door clinks loudly, giving me a little start. The shopkeeper is sitting at her desk a few feet inside, pretty well concealed by bulky old furniture and some department store mannequins standing at attention between me and her, like bodyguards. Even before her cheery `hello' I know she is there, because her cigarette smoke hits my nose, mixing unpleasantly with the acetone smell from her nail polish remover.
I wish she wouldn't smoke. I suffered nightmares of withdrawal symptoms before I could quit smoking. After taking the Five Day Plan three times, I still get a nervous tightening of my throat when I'm in a smoky room. At the hospital, I saw one guy who had lost both feet to a land mine, and now he lay there dying from lung cancer. That oncology ward was real Marlboro country.
There are worse things than being a Section Eight.
"How are you today, sir?" Almost no accent, but I'm sure she is Vietnamese.
"Just fine," I say. "How about you?" I squeeze through the barricade of cupboards and dressers to see her better. She is slim, with long, straight black hair and dark, lustrous eyes. She is very good-looking. As with so many women of her race, her body is like a child's, though she is surely forty years or more. Why is she hiding back here, anyway? Of course, there is good cover all through this big, one-room shop, and it is dimly lit. Apparently no one else is here, except the lifelike but grotesque mannequins. In this light, they could be taken for real... if they had on any clothes, that is. I don't see any indication that the lady is packing a gun, unless--what the hell! She's only an antiques dealer, so why should I even think about that? Actually, a woman alone in a shop like this one probably should have a pistol at hand.
She continues working on her nails, like an untrained gift-shop clerk, but asks me the inevitable question all dealers like to ask: "Are you looking for anything special I could help you with? I am Millie Tran. I know everything in the shop."
Was that meant to be just a helpful bit of information, or was it really a tactful warning against shoplifting?
"I'm not looking for anything in particular," I tell her. "Will it be O.K. if I just browse around a few minutes?"
"Certainly, sir. It is so warm this afternoon that I closed the shades to keep out some of the sunlight. If it is too dark for you to see things, I will open them again."
"No problem," I tell her, as I move away. I wonder if she will really let me off the hook this easily, or if she'll tailgate me through the place, trying to sell me something. If you tell them the kind of things you like, they'll hound you about it.
Jimmy is in the little shopping plaza across the street, and I won't have long to look before he comes for me. I was careful to tell him where I would be, as a good little kid should. Actually, Jimmy is my brother, three years younger than me, which is what kept the lucky son of a gun from going to 'Nam along with me. So what does he do instead? He joins a busload of war protesters to block the Pentagon entrance.
At the time, I thought he was nuts. Now who's nuts?
As I meander toward the back of the room, Millie appears again, wraithlike, to tell me about an inlaid mahogany sideboard I am trying to navigate around. Why can't she just let me look? I don't give a damn about furniture.
"This sideboard," she announces with an air of importance, "came out of one of the oldest houses in Washington County, and I just marked the price down this morning. It is a very good buy."
"Thanks, but I don't have space for any more furniture right now." It's none of her business that my temporary home has been an attic room in Jimmy's house since I was released from the Martinsburg Veterans' Hospital last month. My third stint there since I was discharged. Recidivist, you might say. I wonder how many chances they'll give me before I have to stay there permanently?
A little voice in the margin of my consciousness is saying, parrotlike, "Maybe it would really be for the best, Don. Maybe it would really be for the best. Maybe it would really be...." Hell. At least I didn't get Agent Orange.
For a while after I left the service I dabbled in collectors' items, mainly from the Fifties. Not real antiques, but stuff like old juke boxes, Coke machines, almost anything coin-operated. I don't have room for that sort of thing now, but I still enjoy looking. Long time since I browsed in a place like this. I can move through every square foot of the store that's big enough for a man, and all without making a sound. If I do just that, maybe she'll lose track of me for a while. So far, the old floorboards haven't squeaked at all. In the jungle, any step could go crunch or squish or send some other creature scurrying away. Then all hell might break loose.
Other than furniture, a lot of Millie's inventory is scruffy, damaged yard-sale items. A push-type lawn mower with corrugated metal wheels, like some tracked vehicle from the First World War. A white wicker rocking chair with a hole in the seat. Had been a potty chair, of all things. Imagine rocking while you go. Good for a planter now, says a tag tied to its arm. As I turn into the other aisle, heading back toward Millie's desk, I see a baby carriage with two wheels missing, looking more like a covered wheelbarrow or maybe the R2-D2 in "Star Wars." An old farm scythe, which my touch finds to be still sharp enough to cut through heavy jungle brush. No jungle here around Hagerstown, but my imagination grows it instantly, so the scythe can once more enjoy its purpose in life. It must be nice to have a purpose. To hold a job again.
I bend down to examine a large, brass shell case. But I see it's not, really--it's actually an umbrella stand. For fun, I start seeing other things around me as something different, but similar to what is really there. The way, as a boy, I used to look into hot coals in the fireplace and imagine that I could see glowing people and animals moving around. The same with clouds skimming along overhead, changing shape to act out their roles. Now Millie's furniture begins transforming into caissons and howitzers. The smaller things are grenades and spent shells and helmets and whatnot. It's like a game now, to identify these things.
As soon as it hits me that I'm playing a game, I try to stop myself. Dr. Moscowitz warned me against this sort of daydreaming. He said it could induce a relapse. Hell, I don't need that again, after being out just a few weeks. The pills I take help some, but I have to do my part, too. It's just that antique shops are supposed to induce nostalgia, and I've always been an easy mark for that sort of thing.
Unexpectedly, Millie is beside me again, interrupting my reverie. "Do you like cigarette cases or pipes? Many men collect smokers' items, even when they do not smoke." She is leaning over a table, slender as a bamboo, with dark hair swinging loosely over her shoulder. Her low-cut neckline permitting me to glimpse her small breasts. Is she doing that deliberately, to distract me?
With an effort, I focus on her voice. Now I know that this lady can be pretty stealthy. "I quit smoking a few years ago," I tell her, "and so far I don't collect smoking or tobacco items."
"I have a showcase of such objects over there next to that old blue pie safe. Some very fine examples. I do hope you will just take a look at them. Not to buy, you know, but just to see."
"Thanks, I'll look when I get over that way." I wonder why she is so eager for me to see the smoking paraphernalia?
I don't think it shows on the outside that I'm in recovery--drugs and alcohol, among other problems, according to those well-adjusted, well-degreed healers at the hospital. They think they know who's sane and who isn't. But the maze of rooms there offers many corners for lies to hide, unspoken, unnoticed.
Now she seems unwilling to let me go. Looking me up and down, she asks, more like a statement, "You are military?"
"Not any more, but I was in the Army, years ago. How did you guess?"
"I would also guess you were in Vietnam, in combat. It is not difficult to see the signs when one knows what to look for. You still have the erect carriage, the short haircut, the right age, the depressed, haunted look."
"What do you mean, `haunted look?' What does that have to do with anything?"
"Sir, there is a gentle child in each of us, who may not be ready for the fast maturation demanded by war. People like that, the healthy type, often continue to suffer damages from war long after peace has come. Then there are those of the unhealthy type, whose violent nature is nourished by battle, who remain forever immature. I think you are of the healthy type. So I know that you could never become a general." Her small, solemn laugh.
She is really beginning to bug me, but I am also curious. "You seem to be a philosopher as well as an antiques dealer."
"Actually, a psychologist." She smiles, appearing friendlier than she has up to now. "The Americans pulled out of Vietnam shortly before I received my doctorate in Paris. I came to this country, since I could not return home."
So she must be close to my age, but doesn't have a single gray hair. While my hair is mostly gray. Makes me look older than I really am. "How did you happen to come to Hagerstown?" I ask.
"I married an architect, also a Vietnamese refugee, who practices in Hagerstown. But I soon found there is not much need in this town for a female Vietnamese psychologist. So I started this little business. My parents once had an antiques shop in Saigon, and I learned from them. I import a few things, you see." She waves toward a display of Oriental porcelains.
It's possible I had visited her parents' shop back in the seventies. I had days off in Saigon, and sometimes browsed the antique shops. Some had porcelains just like these. "You have a very diversified stock," I said. "Just about anything a collector might be interested in, I suppose."
She gestures to encompass the room. "But you will see that I have no military artifacts of any sort in my shop. To me, in a broad sense, there is no justifiable war, and I make no concession to that kind of collecting."
"So you could never become a general, either?" I ask, seeing now that she was trying to make me swallow some kind of chickenshit propaganda. I'm not a hawk anymore, but she's now an American dove. Hawks, doves... chicken bones make good missiles to launch at weaklings. I start to remind her about the box of grenades under a nearby walnut dining table, but then I remember they are really pewter ice cream molds.
I've always disliked talking about the part of my life spent in Southeast Asia, but this woman knows a few things already. So I tell her, "When I first went to Vietnam, I thought it was justifiable from our point of view: we were going to help South Vietnam fight the Communists. Since I got back home and learned more of the truth, I've had to reconsider the whole business."
She smiles faintly, wearily. "The truth is not an absolute. The French believed they were helping us, too. Then, later, the Americans. After more than a million Vietnamese died, and sixty thousand Americans, many others also reconsidered the war. They are the ones who are now drowning in guilt and who keep the psychiatrists busy."
My head is beginning to feel a little woozy now. Maybe Robert McNamara is seeing a shrink, too. I read something about him recently.... Maybe he does, but just won't tell us. Only your warmonger knows for sure.
"I don't have long to look today," I tell Millie. "Do you have anything coin-operated? That's one of my interests."
"Oooh, my one-armed bandit," she says, her manner instantly changed. "Look over here. They are hard to find, and this one is dated 1938. It works perfectly, but the jackpot has only a few nickels, now. I bought it at an estate sale just this week. You are welcome to put a nickel in to test it, if you wish."
"Maybe I will." I touch the embossed decoration on the slot machine and stroke the lever affectionately. "I don't see a price tag. How much is it?"
"I haven't really decided on a price yet. Most of the ones I have seen run over a thousand dollars, but this one is pretty scratched up.... Would you like to make an offer?"
"No, thanks," I say. "I can't buy it, but I'd like to look around a little more"
"O.K., sure, but please let me know if I can help," she says, and turns back toward the front of the shop.
I've never liked making offers. I'm not a gambler, either, but I do like the old slots. I continue admiring it for a couple of minutes, then look at my pocket change. Yes, there are three nickels. I put the first one in and pull the lever. A lemon, a cherry and an orange. I push in the second and third nickels. No better luck.
It's a little like feeding ammunition into some bizarre model weapon. The lever works like a trigger. Probably meant to be man-portable, but it is a little too heavy. Maybe a prototype. The R&D people back home are always sending us something for field-testing. I lift it, my finger at the ready on the trigger. It's unwieldy, not like any weapon I've ever handled before. Must have some pretty complex mechanism inside. But they'll have to make it lighter if they expect it to be standard issue. Holding the thing in front of me, I move cautiously around a shipping case. Such good cover, but I'm sure one of them is here, pretty close....
"Oh, you startled me!" Now Millie is in an alcove near the front window, trying to straighten a large painting. "Do you want to reconsider the slot machine?"
She turns around, so her back is to the wall. Her eyes widen now--she is suddenly aware of being cornered. I fix her in my gaze and squeeze the trigger gently, just as she screams out.
But something else has happened, too. A door has opened, and I am surprised to see my brother walking in.
I don't know what he's doing here.
He could get himself hurt, standing in the open like that....
Will Payne (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in south-central Pennsylvania, where he has been an environmental activist and a columnist for several newspapers. His poetry, fiction and nonfiction have appeared in several literary magazines, including Potpourri, Warm Welcomes, Potomac Review, and Bohemian Bridge. He is currently working on his first novel. "Millie's Antiques" is his first publication in an online magazine.
InterText Copyright © 1991-2000 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 10, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2000 Will Payne.