I'd been roaming the back streets of London's oldest neighborhood for the better part of the morning when I suddenly found myself nearing the end of a small cul-de-sac wedged between two ancient brownstone structures. Somewhat confused, I could not for the life of me recall entering this narrow crevice from the street I'd been walking just seconds ago. The cobbled lane had curved, blocking the view from where I'd entered and ended in a brick wall about sixty paces in front of me.
A cold, damp wind whispered in passing. I use the word whispered purposely, still hearing its warning sift through me like fog through an old, derelict picket fence. I shivered despite the thick, warm pea coat I'd chosen to wear that morning as protection against the legendary London fall weather. Another, stronger gust nudged me deeper into the alleyway towards the brick wall. This time its current disturbed an odd sign precariously hanging by two, thin rusty chains attached to an iron bar. The bar protruded from the wall above the only door located near the end of the lane. The sign swayed back and forth while a soft glow coming from the window next to the door allowed me to read the words...
ONE OF A KIND SECOND HAND SHOP
BROWSERS – R – WELCOME
“Look, but don't touch!”
Had the wind actually whispered those words to me before vanishing into some hidden mortise within the brick wall?
The sign continued to sway; a pendulum, beckoning me closer. My doubt chased after the wind and I found myself standing in front of a weathered plank serving as a door for the second hand shop.
The nape of my neck felt uncomfortable, as if wrapped in an eerie damp cloth. My hand slowly reached for the door knob, moved by something other than my own free will. A spark, the color of hot cobalt, leaped the two inch distance between my outstretched hand and the coal-black metal doorknob. Usually I would have jerked my hand back in a reflex reaction but instead I felt a magnetic pull drawing my palm steadily toward the handle. Turning the knob and stepping inside, I sensed something strange. A heaviness of body, as if I’d just come to the end of a long journey.
A small bell attached to a spring on the door frame heralded my arrival. Glancing around the tiny, overstuffed room, I suddenly felt queasy. Disturbed by my presence, a thin layer of smoke wove lethargically around me. My nostrils flared as the ghost-like cloud crawled into my lungs filling them with everything and yet nothing. I sensed movement behind a glass-topped cabinet, upon which I now noticed a holder containing a single stick of burning incense. A Wilton carpet, supported by an ornate iron rod, hung on the wall behind the cabinet. Both ends of the rod were formed into dangerous looking medieval spear heads. Although I know Wilton carpets to be thick floor rugs this one seemed to ripple like fine silk as the strangest of figures eased it aside to make his appearance.
Tall, standing a minimum of six-foot-five, his manner and figure appeared artificially stiff. Long, unkempt oily hair, rested in a pool of curls about his shoulders. There was a cigarette. He'd seemed to have forgotten that it was pinched between the thumb and index finger of his left hand. Both digits were a sickening shade of yellow indicating his addiction to nicotine. Although I hadn't seen his teeth, I couldn't help but think that they too were stained that awful yellow color.
“You are late, my dear fellow. I must say I expected you earlier.” The voice lacked any substance. It was as if it had traveled further than the short distance between us.
A thin, almost forced smile sent wrinkles, like ripples in a pond, scurrying across his face. “Oh, I do beg your pardon. Please allow me to begin again.”
His voice contained no malice, although I could have sworn the wrinkles, having reached the boundaries of his ashen face, reversed direction, were rolling back into his mouth swallowing the meager smile along with them.
“I, I'm not sure.” What was it that I wanted to say? My eyes darted around the room searching for something to make contact with. Something to steady my balance. “I'm just looking; that's all.”
“Oh, I see, you are a browser; indeed the sign does say that browsers are welcome.”
Wedging my fingers together behind my back, I realized there was little, if any room at all, to move about the cramped shop. Turning my head, first left then to the right, I quickly decided there was nothing of interest for me among the overflowing shelves and cabinets.
“Thank you but I don't have much time. I'll be on my way then.” It was a convenient lie, while still not all that untrue.
“Nonsense. You have more time than you think! I'm sure you will find something of interest.”
He spoke as if it were a matter of fact and to my surprise I could think of no reason to dispute him. I wanted to turn and leave but feared a retreat would bring more harm than my momentary inaction. Why did I sense harm?
While he waved an outstretched arm over his offerings of odds and ends, I was once again courteously asked to find something of interest. Looking about I noticed an engraved silver flask similar to one my father holstered in his back pocket while I was growing up. Just looking at that flask caused bile to rise from my stomach.
My father had been a drunk for as long as I'd known him. He hadn't been a hateful or a happy drunk; he'd just been a drunk. I have no memories of him ever being sober. Not one! That flask was all he lived for. His world, the whole world, revolved around the relationship between him and that engraved silver vessel. I hated him for his weakness, for his not caring for, or about my mother or me.
Once I asked him. “Why do you have to drink so much?”
“To keep focused,” was his only response before once again lifting the flask to his eager lips.
I'm not sure what happened next. I'm only sure the shopkeeper, in a mysterious way had something to do with it. As I'd thought about my father and the phrase to keep focused, everything in the room – with one exception – went out of focus. Nothing in the room had any describable form or shape except for that silver flask. It spoke to me in a silent, raw and sexy voice. It sparkled in my eyes, facets of light reflected from the engraving.
I shook. Not in an attempt to keep something off of me, but rather to keep something out of me. Unfortunately, my defensive act was too little, too late. I turned away from the shinny flask as the room began to sway. I felt something begin to crawl and scratch beneath my skin. I shook again, but this time for wanting. No, I didn’t want something… I needed something. The room and the world beyond turned blurry as if seen through a milk glass window. The floor, ceiling and walls waffled in and out of recognition.
Then the shopkeeper called out my name... or was he calling my fathers name? My father and I shared the same name with only a Jr. appended to mine for distinction. I turned, following the sound of his voice. He was still behind the cabinet, standing tall and looking like an atheist preying mantis. The flask now rested on the glass top between us. The itchy, crawling feeling receded the longer I stared at it. While some truths turn out to be only illusions, I had the feeling this illusion was destined to become my truth.
“Lovely, isn't it?” He continued with a whisper. “Pick it up. I do say, it is most unusual.”
His smile had returned, although now it contained a hint of malice. His gestalt, along with every movement he made, seemed to be a slow, deliberate calculation to override my free will. I had been out-maneuvered and we both knew it.
Outside, the chained sign began to moan against an invisible force. The wind had returned. Its strength shouldering against the shop door until finding a crack to gain entrance. The tiny bell released a tingling warning before the shopkeeper silenced it with a cold stare. I heard a distant memory echo in my head, “look, but don't touch”, then the echo also went silent under the cold eyes of the shopkeeper.
Holding the flask in his extended hand he obliged me to “please have a closer look!”
My hands reached out with an intoxicated anticipation I could feel but not explain. My fingers traced lightly over the engraving. I sensed a feeling of broken romance in its touch. Then, unexpectedly, I clasped the flask between both hands, pressing it to my chest. The shopkeepers laugh rippled around the room. I hastily unscrewed the cap, craving the aphrodisiac I knew waited within. Taking a long, yet hurried drink, I felt the liquid pour deep into my soul, filling an empty space I had never acknowledged until now. The effects were both sobering and intoxicating all at once.
Then, with the next swallow, my entire world came to an end. Unexplainable, and impossible as it may sound, I had somehow become my father. A beaten down man. I, he, we were now alone in the world with only this silver flask to keep us focused. I cried for both of us, and for our failure to resist the temptation offered from the silver flask. I had hated my father for his weakness. Now I hated myself for the exact same reason.
That's when the shopkeeper pointed to the door and unceremoniously announced he did not approve of, or allow. common drunks to loiter in his shop. And so, without offering any resistance, I slowly shuffled toward the exit. His insult and insinuation meaning nothing to me as long as I held the flask tightly within my grip.
Once again I found myself in the strange, narrow alleyway. Only now I was my father; the person I hated most in my life! I turned quickly to reenter the shop, hoping I'd find myself still inside. Panic overtook me as I stared at a brick wall where, only seconds ago, the shop door had been. As I turned to leave I heard the shop-keeper laughing; or was it only the wind sending me on my way?
That was a year ago.
A year spent in my fathers shoes, holding on tight to a silver flask in order to keep focused. A year spent roaming every back street and alleyway in search of the one leading back to that mysterious shop. I have forgiven my father now because I understand his weakness, his need to stay focused. His need for that silver flask. He had been a victim, willing or unwilling made no difference... the result remained the same.
With all hope spent I enter another narrow passage like so many over the past year. Seeing and feeling nothing unusual until a cold wind runs through me, like fog through an old, derelict picket fence. It pushes me further towards a familiar sign swaying above a shop door. Finishing off the last drop of liquid from the flask, my eyes become focused on the words written on the sign above the door.…
Browsers R Welcome
A familiar ring escapes the tiny bell above the door sounding a traitors warning. I have that strange feeling again, a heaviness of body, as if I’d just come to the end of a long journey. This time I'm hoping it is the end of my journey!
The shopkeeper hasn’t aged a day. In fact I'm not even certain if he has moved since sending me on my way a year ago. I could swear he's holding the same cigarette wedged between his thumb and forefinger. Without looking he snaps the half inch ash casually into the incense bowl.
“You are late, my dear fellow. I must say I expected you earlier.”
Those words grated on my memory, like an old scratched 78 phonograph record. The past year started whirling around inside my head. All the humiliation and filth I'd endured as a common drunk swelling up in a sea of emotion. I wanted to know what he'd done to me and why? But before I could say anything he continued on without giving me a chance to speak.
“What did you learn?” This sounding more like an accusation than a question.
I was shocked, confused! What had I learned? What kind of question was that? I wasn't interested in learning, I was interested in grabbing that son-of-a-bitch by the collar and pulling him over the counter top. I was about to do just that when he extended his hand saying, “You can give me the flask back after you’ve told me what you've learned.”
Once again shock and confusion overtook my power to think. I had not let go of that flask for one second since leaving this shop a year ago. Not that I hadn't tried. I'd tried thousands of times, only to realize I could not release it. It had become a part of me, the same as it had been a part of my father. Suddenly I knew what the shopkeeper wanted to hear from me. I knew the truth.
I suddenly found the voice I'd drowned out during the past year. A strong, confident voice, and a clear mind to put it in motion. I straightened my posture, taking him on, eye to eye.
“What have I learned? I've learned that some things are impossible for some people. I've learned that my father couldn't love me because he couldn't love himself!” I'd lived and seen the life of my father through his eyes. Those blurred eyes always searching for something to focus on.
“I've learned life shouldn't be taken as a given, but as a give and take.” The words drifted out of me mixing with the thin wafer of incense hanging in the crowded shop. All at once I felt free, really free. I didn't hate my father any longer. I only wished him well and hoped that somewhere in death he'd finally found his elusive focus.
The shopkeeper reached out and took the flask. It had lost its shine and its magnetism. It drifted out of my hands like a boat sailing out of sight over a distant horizon. I sighed with relief thinking my crusade had been won.
Turning to leave the shop, I made the mistake of biding him a farewell with the words. “I don't want to lose any more time than I already have so I'll be on my way then.”
Once again his voice sounded further away than the simple space that was between us. “Nonsense, you haven't lost any time at all! Look around. I'm sure you will find something of interest.”
Upon hearing those words, everything in the room – with one exception – went out of focus! From the far corner of the shop an old broomstick hobby-horse seemed to wink at me.
But that's a story for another time.