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I Didn't Go Looking For Trouble

Copyright © 2012 J. Matthew McKern



The Middle of Nowhere

Somewhere between Readlyn and Oelwein, a couple of small towns in the middle of Iowa, we got lost.

There are parts of Iowa where the fields of corn stretch from horizon to horizon. On a cloudless day, if you were standing in just the right place, it would be easy to imagine the world split cleanly in two: The top half sky blue and the bottom corn-stalk green.

Driving along with clouds of white dust billowing up behind us, I glanced over at Neuma, sitting on the dash flexing her wings lazily. Noticing me watching her, she turned around to share an observation with me.

“You know, Willy, sometimes, when the wind is up and the corn is blowing in the breeze, it looks like waves rippling across the surface of the sea,” Neuma said with a tone of wonder in her voice. She hovered at the window, her little dragonfly wings humming.

I looked over at her, surprised. “Have you ever seen the ocean?” I asked. The ocean seemed a world away to me. The closest I’d ever come to the coast was a sandy beach on the shore of Lake Michigan.

“I think so. I’m pretty sure I crossed the Atlantic on a steamer once.”

“A steamer, huh? That must have been a long time ago.”

She came to rest, using the little knob you pull up to lock the door as a stool, just watching the wind rippling the cornstalks.

“You know they genetically modified like every stalk of corn in the whole state?” I asked, getting no reaction. Neuma was too engrossed in her fake-waves-steamer-crossing-the-ocean daydream.

“You see any signs lately, Neuma?” I asked, trying to pull her back into the real world.

“Nope,” Neuma answered, still gazing out the window.

“You should look at a map or something,” I suggested. “I have no idea where we are.”

Neuma dutifully pulled a map out of the jockey box and worked on spreading it out across the seat. At her size, maps are a bit awkward to manage.

The old Chevy trailed billowing clouds of white dust as we drove on aimlessly, looking for an old farmhouse that might have good junk to pick.

“We’d better make a find soon. If we’re not buying, we’re not making any money.” I said. Of course, never a day went by that I didn’t say that exact thing so I guess I couldn’t be surprised that Neuma didn’t feel any real need to reply.

“Here’s something,” I said, spotting a square-shaped cinderblock building standing at a crossroads. It turned out to be an old country store. The roads in this part of Iowa cut straight lines East-West and North-South through corn standing taller than the top of your head. Where the roads met, there was almost always a farmhouse, a Lutheran church or a country store. It seemed to be a rule of some sort.

I rolled to a stop in wide spot in the road just to one side of the store. “I think the radiator might be dry,” I said, winking at Neuma. This was one of my tricks when I didn’t want regular folk who weren’t in the trade to catch on to what I was really up to. Pretending my radiator was dry was a ruse I learned from my dad. He believed it drove the prices up if people knew a picker was nosing around. The whole idea was to distract the owner of the place so Neuma had time to get inside and take a look around without having to worry too much about being seen.

The building had been painted yellow some time ago. In the decades since, the color had faded to a milky tone the about the shade of a stick of butter.

I got out, lifted the hood and began looking around the engine block. An old lady came out and stood on the porch to watch me. A little bell tinkled as the door swung open. Hearing that sound, Neuma took off at top speed, slipping past the lady before the door swung closed.

She wore a print dress, a white apron, thick glasses and a scowl that would wither a spring tulip. As Neuma was nearly invisible in bright sunlight, the old lady took no notice of her as she flew past.

“Something wrong with your truck?” the old woman asked in a tone suggesting she didn’t approve of trucks with engine problems.

“Not sure. Smells a bit hot.” I pulled a handkerchief out of my pocket as I gingerly removed the radiator cap, taking a sniff. “Yup. About to run dry. You mind if I get some water from your well?”

The old lady scowled some more, balancing her Christian charity against her midwestern stinginess. “Well’s around back.” She pointed around the back of the building.

I nodded and went behind the truck to open the camper, reaching inside to retrieve the water can.

Out in the middle of nowhere, stores like this one were where the farmers and their wives came to buy things they needed to make it through the week. Still, they might have a selection of antiques in addition to their usual fare. The old lady watched me with a wary eye as I topped off the radiator, a task I performed slowly since the radiator didn’t actually require topping off.

Finishing up, I wiped my sleeve across my forehead. “Hot out here,” I observed. “I think I’ll step inside. I’d kind of like something cold to drink.”

The old lady worked her gums. I imagined her pondering the thought of me wandering freely through her store, fingering all her goods.

“Well, come on in,” she said in a tone that I wouldn’t quite describe as welcoming. She turned and pushed her way through the door. I caught the door before it could swing closed and let myself in.

The interior of the store was kind of stuffy, despite the fan oscillating in the corner.

The shelves were stocked with all manner of stuff—food, clothes, sewing needles, buttons, toys, boots, school supplies, hammers, nails, saws, nuts, bolts and irrigation pipe—none of which was of any good to me. A sparkle up on the shelf running the length of the wall caught my eye. Neuma was up there poking around.

Sitting between boxes of dry goods was a children’s pedal car. About three feet long, it was the kind of toy car a you’d see a five-year old peddling around the driveway in. A crank shaft ran from the pedals to the rear axle, which would propel the toy car when the tiny tot at the wheel worked the pedals.

I looked away quickly, not wanting to show too much interest. Taking a quick look around, I verified that no one else was in the store. I stepped around the far end of an aisle holding notebooks, pencils, pens as well a selection of handkerchiefs and sewing kits and waited for Neuma to come make a report.

Looking up, I saw that the walls were hung with a variety of oil paintings. The quality was nothing to get excited about. There were also a couple of old prints including that one with the old farmer holding the pitchfork and his wife. I looked around for a copy of the The Hay Wain but it was no where to be seen. So I went back to poking around the aisles, just browsing.

Within seconds, Neuma had joined me.

“You saw that pedal car up on the shelf?” she asked quickly.

I nodded, picking up a notebook and pretending to be interested in it while taking another stealthy glance at the pedal car on the shelf above the cash register.

“The paint is a bit faded but I could still see the brand ‘Hudson’ stenciled right on the nose,” Neuma whispered. “There’s a bit of rust here and there. Nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a little elbow grease. It was manufactured by Gendron in 1920. Very collectable and rare. I saw one in one of your Antique Traders. It used to belong to their son but I think he passed away some time ago.”

“Ok,” I said. “Go take another look and see what else you can find out.”

Neuma spun around and flew back up to the shelf and ducked inside the car. I came around the end of the aisle and approached the counter. The lady with the pop bottle glasses just stood there glaring at me.

“Thanks a bunch for the water for the radiator—you saved my bacon,” I told her. “I think I would like a soda, if you’ve got orange. Orange is my favorite.” I dug inside my pocket for change. The old lady looked at me with her magnified eyes glaring dubiously, apparently doubting whether or not I might actually have a quarter or two in my pocket. I took no offense. Old folks who lived through the Great Depression could be that way.

“Meine güte!” A voice came from behind me, nearly causing me to jump right out of my shoes.

Startled, I whipped around to see where the voice had come from. An old man in a plaid shirt, jeans and suspenders had just come out of the bathroom and was standing there behind me, holding a newspaper in one hand. I heard the sound of the toilet flushing from the open door behind him. He was looking right up at the shelf at the pedal car where Neuma was.

“Woman, we’ve got a ghost,” the old fellow announced matter-of-factly.

Bending over the cooler with an orange soda in her hand, she paused.

“Oh what do you mean, you silly old cucumber. There’s no such thing as ghosts.” She fairly slammed the soda down on the counter. “Need change?” she asked, turning back to me.

Startled, I pulled a dollar out of my pocket and slid it across the counter at her.

“I saw Tommy’s spirit. He was going to take a ride in the little car.” The old fellow turned and pointed at the Hudson pedal car. His German accent made ‘going’ sound like ‘go-ink’ and ‘the’ sound like ‘zee’. I winced as Neuma made her escape. Her timing was cutting it a little close; the old man had only just turned to argue his wife. Flying down, she hid amongst the cereal boxes a couple of aisles over, nearly knocking one over with her trembling.

“Don’t be a schnook, Reiner.” She leaned over the counter to confide in me. “He’s gone a bit verrückt, crazy you know? He’s old,” she said in a loud whisper.

“I’m not crazy, Woman. I saw Tommy up there, peddling the car. I tell you, I did!”

“Ach—” She barked, waving him off. “That’s crazy talk!”

“That is really something,” I looked up at the pedal car, like I was seeing it for the first time. “Is that a Hudson? I saw one of those once.”

“Jah. It’s a beauty. We bought that for our son Tommy… long time ago. He’s dead now. I saw his ghost just now, right up there.” Old Reiner pointed again up at the pedal car.

“Can I take a look at it? If it’s for sale, I’d make you a fair offer,” I assured them.

The old couple looked up at it. “Oh, I don’t know,” the old lady answered.

“Get it down, Gertie. Maybe this young lady would be willing to take it off our hands. You’re in the market for a haunted pedal car are you?”

I smiled earnestly. “It just happens I told my nephew I’d bring him a gift. My older brother Hermann loves fixing up old stuff.” Of course, I didn’t have a nephew at all—or a brother Hermann, for that matter. Telling whoppers wasn’t a problem for me; I did it with regularity.

Reiner brought the ladder out, asking me to climb up and bring it down, all the while Gertie was voicing her reservations about selling it—but the old man had his mind made up. The car had to go.

Perfect for me.

As the pedal car was extraordinarily heavy for its size, I had to have Old Reiner help me pull the car down from the shelf. I gave it a once-over, checking the axle and working the pedals.

After we’d haggled over the price, I ran my fingers through my hair, trying not to smile and betray my complete satisfaction with the deal.

I took one last look around, my eyes falling again on that funny old print hanging on the wall. The image was a familiar one, with the old guy in his black jacket and his wife looking all serious as they stood in front of their farmhouse. I almost had to laugh. The couple in the painting reminded me more than a little like the couple standing right there in front me.

Seeing the print reminded me that I needed to keep-up the hunt for the American Treasure I’d been searching for. I turned back to the counter.

“You folks ever see a painting called The Hay Wain by John Constable? I’d really like to get my hands on one—a print of course. The original is in London somewhere, probably in some museum.”

Looking into their pop bottle glasses was like looking into four great big ice cubes. They shook their heads. Likely, they had no idea what I was talking about.

I smiled. “Hay wain. May rain. Plain Jane. Better call the constable.”

They looked dazed, trying to make sense of the nonsense I was speaking.

This was Neuma’s cue. Emerging from behind her cereal box, knocking it to the floor, she spun three little circles around their heads, all the while whispering nonsense words in their ears then repeating the phrase “forget about us, forget about us, forget about us”.

When Neuma was finished, the old couple’s eyes were utterly blank. I felt kind of bad about having Neuma erase their memories but, since Old Reiner had seen her, I thought that we’d better be safe than sorry.

“Now, what was I saying… Do you… remember?” I wondered aloud.

The old couple looked back and forth at one another with dazed looks on their faces.

The old woman was the first to answer. “I have no idea. You, Reiner?” she asked her husband in a whispy voice.

“Nope,” he answered plainly, reaching out to wedge his hand against the counter for balance.

“Well, ok.” I looked around, my eyes coming to rest on a little weather vane nailed to wall. “Ah yes. Weather vane. How about that weather vane?” pointing to one hanging on the wall. “Any way you’d you’d part with that?”

While I was busy talking them out of the weather vane, I noticed Neuma hovering in front of the frames print on hanging on the wall—American Gothic.

“Nuema,” I hissed. “That’s not the one. Come on!”

“What’s that?” Gerty asked, confused.

“Umm… nothing. I was just saying this is a cool weather vane.”

Gerty nodded, apparently satisfied with my explanation.

We hit the road for Oelwein. I slapped my knee and gave a whoop. “Uncle Marty will love that car. I bet he fixes that up and sells it for a bundle.”

“I feel bad that that old man thought I was his son’s ghost,” Neuma said sadly.

“Don’t think twice on it. It got us a better deal, that’s for sure. They might not have even sold it to us otherwise. But seriously, you do need to be more careful to stay out of sight. We don’t want any stories to get around.” I fiddled with the radio, looking for a good station.

“I didn’t know he was there,” Neuma protested.

“I know. Neither did I,” I informed her. “Don’t think about it anymore. It’s no big deal.”