Gary A. Braunbeck




“Hey, Gil-your air freshener’s standing by the side of the road.” Cheryl adjusted the focus on the new binoculars and then laughed.

“My whosee-whats-it is huh?”

“You’ll see when we catch up to him in a minute.”

Traffic in our lane wasn’t moving nearly as fast as it was in the other two-in fact it was barely moving at all. We were coming back from the grand opening week of my second “novelties and collectibles” store, this one in Columbus, and had gotten into Cedar Hill just in time for rush hour-lucky us.

“Why are you messing with those things?” I asked, nodding toward the binoculars.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I was hoping for a glimpse of the mysterious lion, or tiger, or bear, oh my.”

I grinned. Over the past few months there had been several reported sightings of various animals wandering Cedar Hill; a lion on the cliffs at Black Hand Gorge, a tiger in the woods of Dawe’s Arboretum, a Kodiak bear lumbering through Moundbuilder’s Park. I half-expected the next report to be of an elephant near the Twenty-first Street exit. The reports were being dismissed as pranks, but it was still fun to follow them on the news and in the pages of the Ally. My nephew, Carson, says the animals come from “… the Magic Zoo.”

“So, no exotic circus animals out there?”

She smacked my arm. “Don’t make fun of me. You never know what might or might not be true.”

I checked the rearview mirror to see if I could make it into another lane, but the traffic was coming so fast it was impossible to gauge my chances.

“You sure you’re not going to mind this commute?” I asked.

“Not at all. I like driving. I’m just sorry that I had to bother you for a ride home today. At least you didn’t gripe the way Larry did when I asked him to bring me over this morning. My car is supposed to be out of the shop tomorrow.”

“It’s no bother. Besides, I wanted to come over and check out how my new Columbus manager was handling things.”

She turned toward me. “And how is the new manager doing?”

I grinned. “You’re doing one hell of a job, Cheryl, and you know it.”

I own and operate The Packrat’s Attic, a store that specializes in hard-to-find movies, LP records, film posters, CDs, and various other paraphernalia, both from the present and days gone by. Want an 8-track tape and a player? An original one-sheet lobby poster from the first release of Star Wars? Maybe the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever on pristine vinyl? Then you come to The Attic.

The original Cedar Hill store had been so successful, thanks in large part to Cheryl, that I’d gambled on opening another one in Columbus and handing her the reins. So far it was paying off; the new place was a big hit, especially among baby boomers.

Cheryl looked through the binoculars once again, giggled, then pointed toward the object dangling from the rearview mirror. “Okay, I give. What the hell is that thing, anyway? I’ve been seeing a lot of them around lately.”

“It’s an air freshener. Apple-cinnamon-scented.”

“Well, duh. Thanks for pointing that out, Mr. Obvious. I mean, what’s it supposed to be? Some guy in a derby with an apple in front of his face. Sheesh.”

“Actually, it’s a bowler hat, and the air freshener is a reproduction of a painting called The Son of Man by Rene Magritte. He was part of the Surrealist movement, like Dali and Escher. He used that image of a man wearing a bowler in several of his paintings. His work has been reproduced a lot-posters, coffee mugs, air fresheners, you name it. Hell, we’ve got prints of his work for sale at the stores. Most people recognize his work on sight, but have no idea who he was.”

She stared at me for a moment, and then smiled. “And how is it that you know about him?”

I shrugged. “I once minored in art history at OSU during a previous life. Also World Languages and American Literature. No, I never got a degree in any of them.”

“You’re kidding?”

“If I were going to make a joke, don’t you think I’d pick a funny subject? Something like Art History tends to make people’s eyes glaze over and clear the room of humans.”

“I’ve worked for you for five years, Gil, and I never knew that about you.”

“It never came up before.”

She shook her head. “That’s no excuse. You ought to be more forthcoming with people. Especially your friends.”

Not wanting to get into another one of our discussions about my social life-or, more specifically, my lack thereof-I nodded toward the binoculars. “You should stop playing with those and put them back in the case. They won’t be much of a birthday present for Larry if you break the things before he’s had a chance to use them.”

“I will not break them… but even if I did, my hubby would love them, anyway. He’d return them for a pair that worked, but he’d love me for the thought. Besides, he was such a grumpy pants about bringing me over this morning, I figure I should get to play with them first.”

“Remind me to never get on your bad side. I’d hate to-”

I spotted him standing by the side of the highway.

Since traffic in our lane was all but crawling, I was afforded a better-than-average look at the old fellow: early seventies, gaunt-faced, reed-thin, dressed in an impeccably tailored suit, he stood with arms held rigidly at his sides, wearing a bowler hat as if he’d been born with it on his head. Cheryl was right; throw in a floating apple the size of a softball, and you’d have The Son of Man in the flesh.

I checked my watch. It had now taken almost ten minutes to move less than half a mile. At this rate, it would be getting dark by the time I got to the group home to pick up my nephew.

“What do you suppose he’s doing?” asked Cheryl, leaning forward.

Up ahead, the old man was turning to the left, then to the right, lifting his hand to shield his eyes from the sunlight, and for a moment I thought: He’s looking for me.

(Where did that come from, pal? Jeez-us, but you’ve been entertaining some weird notions lately. Well, weirder than usual. Maybe it’s time you talked to the doctor about changing meds… except the last time, remember, she mentioned the word “neuroleptics”? That’s all you’d need at this point-a goddamn antipsychotic drug pumping through your system day and night for the rest of your life! As if you needed any more excuses to not trust your own memories. Hey, speaking of, remember when…)

Blinking the thought away and silencing the voice, I inched the car forward and watched the old man.

Just standing there, all Dapper Dan, looking for something along the road, but also looking behind him every few seconds.

“Is there someone else back there?” asked Cheryl. “Maybe his car conked out on the access road and he climbed up the side of the incline to flag down some help. Maybe his wife’s in the car down there and she’s sick or something. Oh, God, Gil, do you think he needs help?”

I didn’t answer. I couldn’t.

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