“HERE WE GO. They should be right about… here. It’s sort of in this… mass… right beside this stack of boxes.” Bryan Nowtley, respected bio-chemist, loyal husband and father of two unfolded a hand drawn map of the family storage unit, showing the configuration the boxes and wares within. No matter how well intentioned, his blueprints did little to ease his wife’s suspicion that chaos lurked inside unit F-116.
“What do you mean mass?” Nicole, his dishwater strength wife grabbed the drawing to examine it.
“Well, they weren’t put in a box but according to my map, if you connect the vectors, they should be right here… By the desk… And this bunch of chairs. They’ll be under the desk I’ll bet. Safe and sound. It’s super organized. It’s like —”
“World War Three,” Christopher said tossing a baseball into the air.
“That’s enough, buddy. They weren’t packed till the last minute. They never made it into a box but none of the good stuff did. The valuable stuff all got put on solid ground under tables and chairs. I don’t think we trusted them in a box.”
“I’m getting a bad feeling about this.” Nicole rubbed her forehead and steadied herself on the countertop. “Those were Gramma Goebelschatz’s. They’re… collectible.”
“Oh don’t worry about it. They’ll be easy to find. Eh, kiddo?” he said ruffling Christopher’s hair.
“Yeah, piece of cake.” The ball he’d been tossing clipped the fat fingers of his glove, caromed off the kitchen tabletop and disappeared into the hallway.
“Ok, let’s roll. Christopher get cleaned up. Honey, are you coming?”
“Oh… no… I have some things I need to take care of, and I should look after the baby.”
Bryan un-docked "the boat" as young Christopher referred to it, and backed his car out of the driveway. Father, son, and baby Debby. Nicole fluttered a wan goodbye on the porch stoop, leaning against the doorframe with a package of frozen peas on her forehead. “Migraine, I’d better lie down. Here’s the baby.”
Figures, he thought. How often has she got me running off with the kids to find her… stuff?
Embarking on their journey the bungalows and brutalist homes of Alameda’s east-end rolled past. Mottled sunlight flecked the windshield as a thousand chrysanthemums, irises, and bougainvillea decorated the route. Helmeted neighborhood children on bicycles wobbled alongside, waving at Christopher and the baby. Drake Manley watered his pristine lawn, whilst chatting into a headset that eclipsed his dome like a high-tech aurora. A couple in a Lexus honked and swerved, en-route to a lifestyle shopping spree at Whole Foods or a poetic stroll along Berkeley’s Fourth Street. A truckload of day workers unloaded into a driveway clutching what would look to all but a licensed horticulturist like torture instruments of the Spanish Inquisition. Bringing up the rear was a spray wand-waving chap in a white mask, harnessing a plastic jug of fertilizer on his back. The scientist Bryan approved their choice of product, which he ceded with a thoughtful nod.
“See that Christopher,” he said to his son’s reflection in the rear view. “That’s Tetramethrin 76. Daddy helped create the enzyme that breaks down the Cyclopropanecarboxylic acid so it won’t kill Mommy’s flowers.”
Christopher grunted back. It was just as well. Bryan didn’t want to think about how expensive the stuff was, much less their landscaping bill, and he fell into a fugue state of melancholia. To drive past all this… perfection… to a storage unit… for a missing Hummel?
Nowtley punched his code and pulled through Lockyer’s security gate. He parked in front of the manager’s office and went inside to pay his bill.
“… back there fuckin’ her,” said Angel to a person on the phone. “I haven’t gotten a good look yet…. Oh hello… Nowtley… Bryan… Unit —”
“F-116. Yeah, I’d like to pay my bill, please.”
“Hang on.” The custodial engineer cradled the phone in his shoulder and punched his index fingers onto a cracked and stained keyboard. “Aw I’m sorry Mr. Nowtley, the systems’ down right now and it’s not accepting checks.”
“System. What system?” Bryan scribbled into his pocket ledger.
“Well… you can pay me but the system’s down and I wouldn’t want there to be a mix-up or —”
“Angel, if this has anything to do with the other week I’m —”
“Oh noooo Mr. Nowtley… it’s just that… well… I’m just…” Bryan rolled his eyes, laid his rent on the counter and walked out the door.
Angel chuckled, and returned to his phone call. “Anyway, this guy and this chick are here like, twice, three times a week, lunchtime and yeah, he’s been fuckin’ her…”
Bryan Nowtley smiled at his children. A tap on the garage door was met by an ominous, echoing boom. “Well, here we are,” he said. “Wow buddy, wasn’t that something last time?”
“Yep, you called it a piece of one of those words that I’m not allowed to say.” He bounced the ball against the container on the opposite side of the driveway.
Bryan popped the locks and grabbed the plastic handle for the rollup doors. “One, TWO (the children joined in), THREEEEE.” With a violent tug Bryan heaved open the door to his midriff where it jammed, collapsing shoulder blade to vertebrae in a sudden stubborn crash.
“Jiggle it Dad, like Angel told you.”
He rubbed his neck and rotated his shoulder till it popped back into its socket. “Like Angel told me…yeah” He shook the bottom of the door and eased the bearings into their slots. “You like Angel huh?” Ugh, this is dusty, he thought. “Christopher, get the map out of the car.”
They picked through the pile of belongings like a pair of prospectors in search of a legendary seam of gold. The contents had ‘settled,’ since their last visit and the piles of furniture and boxes looked nothing like the neat rows and crisp corners of his drawing. “See this here… that’s it… there.” He pointed to a mound of chairs whose legs stabbed the air asymmetrically. “I think it’s under that.” The cluster of debris was pocked with clothes, bed sheets, stray pillows, antennae, electric wire, a geo-politically obsolete globe, a folded up Stanley work-bench, stereo speakers, coat rack, shoe tree, curtain rods, fire-poker… All poised to gash a shin or poke out an eye.
How the hell are we gonna… He sighed. “Christopher? Come here a sec.”
“Now, buddy. See that furniture, that… stuff over there – by the wall… it’s right by the … yeah that’s it. I need you to crawl underneath… crawl on the ground below the pile… and, see that table? You can just see the corner of it. Yeah that’s it. Under that table… I’m pretty sure that’s where the Hummels are.”
The look in his Father’s eyes told Christopher they were about to embark on one of his inscrutable misadventures. “Dad, what’s a Hummel?”
“Oh, right. Well, remember back in Ohio, in Mom’s ceramics cabinet? On the bookshelf – the little – elf-like things – the ones Mom got when Gramma Goebelschatz died?”
“Yeah, the dolls. The statues.”
“That’s right, the little statuettes. Well, we gotta find them and bring them back home. They mean a lot to Mom. All this stuff here.” He spread his arms, “Means an awful lot to her.” He’d never given the figurines much thought - could barely remember what they looked like, but he sensed he was at a critical juncture in Nicole’s coming to terms with having moved to California. Maybe the talismans were her key to happiness? He grabbed a garbage bag full of yarn and recycled holiday ribbon and clasped it to his chest. “Let’s do this for Mom.”
Christopher crawled on his belly with a clothesline tethered to his right ankle. He crept under piles of carpeting, over curtain rods, past stacks of vinyl recordings, between the legs of chairs; he shimmied across bookcases stacked against flower pots, guitar cases and poster tubes. He uncorked a spline of breadbox joined to a television caddy and snaked around a Haywood-Wakefield coffee table. “Don’t scratch that,” Bryan said. “For the love of God don’t scratch that.”
His son wasn’t listening. He was busy rappelling into moldy caves, stalactite-dripping caverns - the dens of foul beasts and unsavory ogres, exploring the tight dark spaces where the noise of the outside world became hollow sounding and muffled. He paused to plunder marbles and coins, and to ransack castles of their trinkets. Goggles clear, he secured his oxygen mask and dived deeper into a crevice. Eels twisted inches away from his oxygen mask and a school of barracudas turned a corner beyond a reef of luminous coral. The jungle floor was cool, and as he squeezed between a pair of foraging anteaters. A jaguar resting on a tree branch gathered its paws and prepared to pounce. He parted two large banana leaves and stared into the humid forest. Eye level to the floor, he spotted a familiar silhouette of pointed cap and elfin nose. He reached for his ankle and tugged on the rope “Hey Dad,” he said. “I found them.”
“Yes! Great job Christopher. How do they look?”
“Well… The little laughing man is fine. The other one… it’s been smashed.”
“Yeah, it’s been squashed by the TV set - the black and white one we used to have in the kitchen.”
Bryan extracted his son out of the collapsing pile of debris and gathered the pulverized remains of Gramma Goebelschatz’s little, broken, very collectible gnome in his hand. “We’re going to have to replace this. I don’t know how the heck we’re going to do it, but we’re gonna try. Let’s go kids.” They piled into the car, and headed to San Francisco – fabled city of Harvey Milk and Jack Kerouac; home of Carol Doda, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and the cradle of the Beat Generation. “To buy a freakin’ Hummel.”
Chesterfield’s was a fixture on Union Street, one of an elite guild of family-owned businesses pre-dating the 1906 quake. “I bought Mom her anniversary ring here,” Bryan explained. It would have been a fourth generation business had the Chesterfield children not cashed out their trust funds and moved to Mendocino. The store was in the Sotheby’s mold and specialized in grandfather clocks, crystal, Deco ceramics and metal-ware, estate jewelry, Steuben, Waterford, Tiffanies - the works. Mr. and Mrs. Chesterfield, a pair of Hummels themselves: all fuzzy cardigans, half-lens spectacles and silver hair - were an anachronism amongst the fakery and flattery of society’s circles - not that they got out much. They were after all, very old. To their clientele they were gerontological hobbyists, enthusiastic, bauble spotters, gasping their last before they passed the property on to a fashion accessory store in waiting. In fact they were fusty, proper, ruthless appraisers, with an expert eye for gems, crystal and precious metals. They pretended not to care about price – and in fact made a point of discounting newlyweds, tossing in the odd bottle of Champaign for major purchases. But it was all for show. They had major inroads to the finest heirloom markets in the Middle East and Europe and their lucrative mark-up allowed them to live comfortably in the house they built out of field stones and redwoods in Pacific Heights.
“Mister Chesterfield,” Bryan said extending a hand. “It’s so nice to see you again.”
“Bryan… Bryan Nowtley?”
“Ah Mister Nowtley,” he said, glancing at the children. “And how is your… wife…?”
Bryan paused to hear her name, but after an awkward beat rescued the filigreed merchant. “Nicole, yeah, we got our anniversary ring here… We kind of upgraded her engagement band to a —”
“Why, of course, Nicole. And she is well?”
“Oh, yeah, fit as a fiddle, as they say. And how is Mrs. Chesterfield?”
“Oh, she has her good days and her bad. It’s mostly me here these days. So what can I do for you today?”
“Hummels, we want Hummels.” Christopher pantomimed in a robotic voice while tossing his baseball.
“Oh, yes, ummmh.” Chesterfield turned to Christopher. He scrutinized the baseball, and squeezed a lemony smile across his bared teeth.
“Christopher that’s enough. OK?” Bryan whispered. Then to the shopkeeper added, “We’re here to find a Hummel.”
“Oh.” Chesterfield brightened. “Did you have anything specific in mind?”
“Well. We’ll probably need to take a look at what you have first. Right Chris?” He rubbed his son’s hair.
“Yeah rrrrrriiiight...” Again he tossed the ball, but this time Chesterfield snatched it mid-air.
“And this.” He adjusted his spectacles and handed the ball to Bryan.
“Yes, oh sorry, Mr. Chesterfield… Christopher, stop it.”
The shopkeeper smoothed his woolen vest, “Hummels. Right. Please… come this way.”
Dirty and disheveled from their adventures at the storage unit, the threesome was given a wide berth by the patrons who were pirouetting through the aisles. The merchant reappeared behind a display case near the back of the store, and placed three adorable ceramic figurines on a green felt mat for inspection.
“Wow, they sure are cute, hey kids?” Bryan said.
Geppetto-like, Mr. Chesterfield cupped a tiny figurine in his hand and presented it to Bryan like a gift plucked from a falling star, or a treasure carried on the wings of a giant singing swan. His eyes watered. He was moved.
“Now this is one of our most exquisite pieces, crafted in the Bavarian studio of Reinhold Unger, under the supervision of Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel herself. The ceramic, you can see is so very fine grained, almost porcelain-like. The color. The brushwork. Such detailing – ahhh.”
Bryan examined the figure of a little boy having his pants pulled down by a puppy. “It’s great. Amazing, really. I mean, look at those rosy cheeks. Christopher?”
“Take a look at these. Can you remember are any of these the Hummel we’re looking for? This one rings a bell.” He pointed to a manikin of a boy walking jauntily upon a garden path with a fishing rod.
“Well, Mom’s had a boy and fishing rod, but this one’s being followed by a cat. Mom’s had a dog with a fish in its mouth.”
“Aaah, you must mean ‘Die alten Fischersiedlung Loch’”
“‘Die alten Fischersiedlung Loch.’ The Old Fishing Hole, by Arthur Moeller. Oh it’s collectible, very collectible indeed. I’ve not got one in at the moment, but I have a German distributor who could have it here by next weekend.”
“That’s super Mr. Chesterfield. As a point of interest, how much do these run?” Bryan said.
“The Old Fishing Hole, let’s see.” Chesterfield located a dusty catalogue and set it on the countertop. “Legend has it that Richard Strauss was inspired to write ‘Horn Concerto No. 2 in E flat major’ after receiving it as a gift, um hmm.” Wetting a fingertip he hummed a bar and flipped though the leaves. He settled on a page, and, looking above the rims of his spectacles spoke. “Ah, yes. That will be thirteen hundred forty two dollars and seventy six cents.” He tucked his chin primly to his chest. “But I can go as low as twelve-sixty… for a friend.”
Bryan’s head began to hurt. He felt feint. Twelve-hundred what? For a, a, a doll? It was absurd. An insult. Highway robbery in an angora cardigan. When the patrons of the tiny store gasped and froze, he assumed they too were outraged by the price he’d been quoted. But all at once the clientele rushed for the exit and Bryan turned to face a much bigger problem.
“Elmo,” baby Debby pouted. “Bad, bad Elmo…” While Bryan and Chesterfield were chatting the baby had grabbed one of the Hummels off the counter.
“Hah. She thinks it’s Baby Elmo.” Christopher laughed as his baseball veered tantalizingly near a rack of Waterford crystal.
“My God, honey, stop, please, not Baby Elmo – not toy.”
She snatched a second Hummel off the glass case and flung her arms around the stroller, grimacing, “Baby Elmo bad.”
Chesterfield collapsed against the counter, his face an ashen grey. His arthritic knees buckled and he gulped for air.
“Baby Elmo Bad.” she waved her arm several times within the disquieting radius of a lighted display case featuring a three-and-a-half foot high Steuben crystal vase.
“Whoa,” said Christopher, as he juggled the baseball from hand to glove.
“Bad Elmo.” She flailed her little arm toward the display case. End over end, the Hummel arced on course with its target. Bryan picked up the angle from the point it left the baby’s grasp and leapt to intercept the airborne figurine. Time slowed as he lurched into a potpourri display scattering flower petals and dried herbs into the air. Each quarter of a second lasted a full ten count. His body extended, in flight he saw the world in miniature: Christopher’s baseball hung as if dancing on a puppeteer’s string; dew-like beads of sweat glistened on Chesterfield’s baldpate; bacillary motes of dust floated in dollops of amber. Surfing spectral beams thrown by the Steuben’s crystalline etchings, he calculated his trajectory, and moved his hand to snatch the Hummel, immobile in the silence. And then…the face of the custodial engineer leered back at him, refracted dozens of times in a display of turn of the century silver tea-spoons… “Fuckin’ some guy in back…” and it dawned on him: the reason why his wife had seemed so distracted, why she begged out of every family outing. “Nicky’s having an affair with Angel.” The impact of his body smashing against the display case preceded a deafening shower of crystal and glass. The Hummel bounced onto the carpet. Bryan commando-rolled across the wreckage and addressed his stunned children: “That’s why we’re out tracking down this fucking Hummel.”
“And then all of the sudden he collapsed, officer. One minute he’s showing us his Hummel collection and the next… Well, there he goes.”
Two paramedics brought Chesterfield out of the store on a gurney. His face was covered with an oxygen mask; his body a tangle of electrodes and intravenous tubes. He disappeared into the back of the ambulance, which then sped away.
“Yeah, there he goes. So let me get this straight,” officer Garrity said. “He just fell over. Did he say anything? Did he look ill? Complaining of chest pains? Complaining of anything?”
“No. Like I said, one minute he’s showing us his figurine collection and the next he’s doing a figure eight into the display case. Isn’t that right buddy?”
Christopher tossed his baseball in the air and chuckled. “Yeah, right.”
“By the way officer, what will they do about the Steuben, the crystal vase? What happens now?”
“Well you can bet its insured. These places are covered up to their ass for situations like this.”
“Yeah… that’s good. Real good.” He clutched the Hummel in his pocket and watched the policeman remove the barricade tape. So I got the Hummel – the one with the cat, not the dog, he thought. Would Nicole notice? Would she even care?
'The Hummel' is an excerpt from my novel Lockyer Self Storage, 2011, Ninth & Broad Press for sale on Lulu. Thanks for reading.