Karlo’s Curiosity Shop
by Rob Crandall
There were two places that Jimmy always wanted to go, but he wasn’t allowed: the Museum of Magic, and Karlo’s Curiosity Shop. The Museum of Magic, because it was by appointment only; and Karlo’s Curiosity Shop, because his mom said it was “creepy.”
However, there was no law against looking in the windows. And Karlo’s always had something worth gandering at, whether it be a crystal ball, held by a pewter eagle claw, or a book of ancient stamps, or maybe a clay dragon with jeweled eyes. It was always something mysterious, and right up the alley of a nine-year old boy.
It was right on his way home from school, and, as he passed on this day, he wondered what treasures he might find. He rounded the corner and there it was. Somewhat daunting, and, yes, a little bit creepy, but creepy had different meanings for a mom and a young boy. In fact, it only drew him in further. The sense of magic was attractive, and pulled him into its vortex.
The sun was shining bright, and reflecting a searing beam of light onto the window. Jimmy moved closer, cupped his hands around his eyes and pressed his face against the glass. He noticed a few new items right away. An old Royal typewriter set up within an old black leather case. It had seen better days, but enthralling nonetheless. A stuffed bobcat, its faced masked into an eternal growl at all who might pass by. Jimmy’s mom wouldn’t like that one. He could almost feel her shudder and pull him away from the window, as she would have done if she were there. Leaning against a platform was a painting of a ship on a stormy sea. It was painted on velvet.
And then he saw it. How had he not seen it right away? Jimmy swallowed once hard, and wiped the window to get a better view, even though there was nothing on the glass. It couldn’t be. There were only a few left in the world, to his knowledge. But, there it was, in all it glory.
There, wedged in a small wooden stand, was what he had seen only pictures of before. It was a Honus Wagner baseball cigarette card. The Honus Wagner card. The one that was worth, what? Was it a million dollars? Something like that. How had Karlo gotten his hands on it?
He had to see it up close. Just had to. He might get a strap across the wrist from his mom if she found out, but it was worth it this time. It was even worth having to talk to Karlo. How bad could the guy be anyway? I mean, it’s not like he was a wizard. He was just some old guy who sold neat things.
Jimmy walked over to the large wooden door with the iron handle, and pulled hard. For a moment, just a moment, he thought about running home and not turning back but, instead, he rushed in before he could change his mind. It was a bit like diving into a pool. A large silver bell made a ding! and the large slab of door closed in behind him.
The smell hit him first. It was a mixture of some kind of strong cologne, leather, and old books. Not much unlike a library, but with a combination of scents that could only be described as mystical. Jimmy breathed it in, almost afraid of being intoxicated by it.
“Hello, young man. Look about as you please,” came a voice from across the room.
It was a normal enough voice, and Jimmy’s spirit settled somewhat. He nodded, and went straight for the window display. He wondered if he could touch the card, and suspected that he had better not. Just get a real close look at it, and then he would leave the store, and no one would know he had been in there.
There it was! Jimmy craned his neck and leaned in closer. “You like Buster?” Came a voice that seemed impossibly close behind him.
Jimmy jumped as if someone had jolted him with an electric current. “Huh?” he said stupidly.
“Buster the Bobcat. That’s what I call him. He came all the way from South America.”
“Oh, uh, yeah. Real neat.” Now that he had Karlo’s attention or, rather, the other way around, he might as well ask him about the Wagner card.
Before he had a chance, Karlo spoke again. “Name’s Karlo. And you are?” He stuck out one gnarly hand.
“Jimmy. Jimmy Freeman.”
Jimmy didn’t want to shake that hand, but it was better than being impolite, so he reached toward it like a wet noodle. When he made contact, it was like a dry, raspy, bunch of twigs curled around his small hand. He pumped it twice. He quickly drew his hand back.
“Freeman, you say?”
The old man rubbed his chin, and then his eyes brightened noticeably.
“Freeman! You wouldn’t be related to Erwin Freeman would you?” His eyes positively aglow now.
Jimmy was a bit surprised. Yes, he knew Erwin Freeman. Ought to! He was his grandfather.
“Yes, sir. He’s my grandfather.”
A large hand came slapping down on his back in a friendly gesture that nearly knocked him down with enthusiasm. The old man’s eyes misted over then, and he got a far away look that spoke of past times.
“Why, Erwin Freeman saved my life in 1972. Yes, sir! It was right on this street. I nearly got run over by a bus... Guess my mind was on other things. And, Erwin — your granddad — pulled me back by the collar, just before I would have been smushed flatter than an Aunt Jemima pancake. I owe your grandfather my life, Jimmy!”
Jimmy felt his face flush with a rush of pride, and he smiled at Karlo from ear to ear.
“Yes! ...Now then, what can I help you with, Jimmy?”
Jimmy pointed to the card. “I just wanted to get a look at your Honus Wagner card... But I won’t touch it!”
Karlo looked to the card and then back at Jimmy, and a pained look crossed his features for just a moment. A casual observer might not have noticed at all.
“Oh, that, Jimmy?” Karlo raked his palm over his mouth. “It’s just a copy. Yes... just a copy. Are you interested in it?”
“Well, I only have” — he reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of change — “75 cents.”
Karlo coughed, and gave a winning smile. “Well, you’re in luck then! I’m selling that card for 65 cents.”
Jimmy smiled broadly and began to reach for the card. Karlo stopped his hand short. The smile had turned into a serious brood.
“Do me an honor. Treat it like it was the real thing, OK?”
“Sure, I will.”
Karlo let his hand go, and the smile returned. Jimmy gingerly cradled the card in his palm, barely touching the edges, as if it was a small baby bird, and walked over to the cash register. Karlo tapped in the paltry sum, and ever so gently slid the card and its wooden base into a small square box, and then into a brown paper bag, and handed it to Jimmy.
Just then his eyes glistened and his chin trembled almost imperceptibly. And, then, his face returned to normal. “Remember. Like it was the real thing.”
“Like it was the real thing,” Jimmy repeated, beaming from his new purchase.
“All right then. You be sure to tell your grandfather that Karlo said hi, won’t you? And show him what you bought. I have a feeling he will like it.”
“I sure will. Thank you!”
And with that, Jimmy pulled the heavy wooden door, and soon he was out in the fresh air of a spring day. He bobbed along happily, and made his way home.
* * *
“Where did you get this?”
Jimmy’s grandpa leaned forward in his recliner, and plucked his glasses from the side table. He perched the glasses on his nose and moved the card backward and forward, studying it carefully.
“Karlo’s Curiosity Shop. He says you saved his life, Grandpa!” Jimmy grinned widely.
Erwin set the card on the table with care, and took his glasses off, a denture filled smile spreading across his face.
“That I did, Jimmy. Sometime in the late 1960’s...”
“1972,” Jimmy interjected.
“Was it 72? I guess it could have been. That old goat almost got himself flattened by a bus, right in front of his own store, although he was a young goat back then. I grabbed him by the collar and dragged him back, just in the nick of time. His hat took off sailing after that bus in the tailwind. It was a close one! Karlo swore he’d make it up to me some day. Never did though, but I don’t hold it against him. Sometimes, a man’s just gotta do his civic duty. Do you get me, Jimmy?”
“He said he was almost an Aunt Jemima pancake,” Jimmy said, laughing.
Erwin slapped his knee, and gave out a good chuckle. “Is ’at what he said?”
The two of them laughed together at the thought of it, and because it had turned out for the good. Then the laughter petered out and Erwin took up the card again in his hand. He wiped away a few stray tears from the laughing, holding the card backward and forward again, eyeing it closely.
“But, Jimmy, I think there’s been some kind of mistake. There is no way you could afford this. Do you have any idea what a card like this is worth?”
“It’s just a copy. 65 cents is all I paid.”
“A copy, eh?” He held the card very close to his eyes. “I don’t think so, Jimmy. I’m no expert, but I’d bet my hat that this is the real deal. I think there has been some kind of mistake. We’ll go down to Karlo’s together tomorrow afternoon, and hash it out with him. I’m sorry, Jimmy, but I think we have to give it back.”
“Awwww. I understand. But, just think. A real Honus Wagner card! We’re millionaires, Grandpa!”
“Millionaires for a day,” Erwin said. “I’ll keep this until tomorrow, and don’t tell your mom you went to Karlo’s shop. You know how she gets about it. It gives her the spooks.”
* * *
The next day, Jimmy was once again pushing through the large wooden door, except this time he was with his grandfather. Once again the musty smell filled his nostrils. There were no customers save one, who was over in a corner studying a framed poster of the Titanic.
Karlo was at the counter, polishing the engine of a model train. He glanced up, and practically jumped out of his shoes when he saw who was walking toward him. He pushed the train engine aside into a pile of similar treasures, and wiped his hands on the rag he was using. “Erwin!” he erupted.
He wiped his hand again, this time on the back of his pants, and stuck it out for Erwin to shake. Erwin shook his hand, a bit embarrassed at the fanfare he was receiving.
“Hello, Karlo.” Erwin smiled pleasantly.
“I presume Jimmy’s card brought you here, as I suspected it would.”
“Yes, that’s what we are here for. It seems there may have been a mistake here.”
“No mistake,” Karlo said in all seriousness.
“Well, I don’t mean to question you, but I believe this card may be the real thing, Karlo. I’ve looked it over pretty closely, and it looks that way to me. And so we have come to return it to you.”
Karlo took his glasses off and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. He stooped a bit, in the posture of someone who has done something wrong, and then he straightened up again.
“That’s right, Erwin. I did tell a fib to Jimmy. The card is genuine. I just wanted to tell you to your face. I’ve been wanting to repay you for forty years now, and I never had the opportunity until now. Now, take it and do with it what you will. It’s out of my hands. You can’t put a price on saving someone’s life and adding decades to it. I want to do this for you with all my heart. Will you accept it?”
Jimmy tugged on his grandfather’s sleeve and looked up at him with awe.
“Of course, you and the boy will have to split the earnings, as I sold it to him.”
“Of course, but...” Erwin put a hand on the counter to steady himself. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“You saved my life, Erwin. It is the same as if you had given me one of your kidneys. I’m completely serious.”
“I... I don’t know what to say.”
“Just say ‘Thank you,’” Karlo said.
“Of course! Thank you, Karlo!”
“Thank you!” Jimmy parroted.
Erwin took Karlo’s hand in both of his hands and shook it once again.
“We won’t squander it. We will put it to good use. And I’ll never forget this, Karlo, and neither will the boy.”
“I’ve never forgotten what you’ve done for me. Now, you better get out of here before I go and change my mind.”
“Very well, then,” Erwin said. “But we will be stopping in again, I’m sure.”
“I look forward to it.”
And with that, Erwin and Jimmy walked out into the street, bag in hand.
“Can we keep it for a while? You know, just to look at it... before we sell it?” Jimmy asked.
“We can keep it as long as you want, Jimmy. As long as you want.”
The two figures, one tall and one short, walked off down the sidewalk, both dreaming of what they might buy in the future, feeling thankful for good fortune and speeding buses.
Copyright © 2016 by Rob Crandall