Black Knight Short Story Contest – Notables
Fool’s Gold by Matthew A. Munich
When he saw it in the corner of the dealer’s stall, he knew it immediately. Seemingly lost amidst vintage decoy ducks, chipped yellowing bowling pins, and hickory canes with faux ivory handles, it stood leaning against a ceramic container that held some painted bamboo umbrellas. It was just the quarry that he had unknowingly had in mind when he decided to come to this madhouse of an antiques bazar. The ancient squash racquet, from the 20s or 30s, he surmised, stood in its press somewhat woebegone, with its leather grip faded and fraying, its old grey strings the gauge of sail rigging, but its name (“SureShot”) still clearly painted in a fine cursive with an arrow through it where the thin neck met the sturdy head. Filmore believed that its forgotten dilapidation belied a certain stoic nobility, the very stance toward the world he sought, indeed was bred, to represent. Gazing coolly around so as not to betray his interest, he quickly judged, based on the general dishabille of the dealer’s stall, that the SureShot could be his for a song.
The Brimfield Fair (“Brimfield”), an antiques event three times per year, the largest in New England, occurs on a mile-long stretch of rt. 20 in central Massachusetts. Dealers from all over the world ply their wares in stalls that fill fields on both sides of the road. Filmore always came to the week-long affair, offered three times a year, May, July and September, on the Saturday of the July date because he found the dealers to be at their most pliant. May is far too crowded with eager antiques freaks (“Tique Freaks”), their desire pent up from dreary cold days and nights watching reruns of “Antiques Roadshow.” Dealers, too, came from all over the world to fill their shipping containers with good old American antiques to send back to Japan or Australia, and double their price. Deals were hard to come by in May, and often people upbid you even while you were in mid-haggle. Rather, Filmore favored the more subdued date, where it seemed that dealers were more than happy to part with a piece than pack it up for hopeful sale at their next vagabonding site.
Filmore came by the love of antiques naturally, and remembers clearly his grandfather showing him some old piece on his writing desk and stating, with a simplicity that was his moniker, “Older is better.” And while Filmore’s Back Bay house (“The Smittsonian”) was filled to the gills with many of the Smitts’ heirlooms, he attended Brimfield to pick up pieces for his office. He found that telling a client an object’s story often made the difference between sealing or losing a deal. In one memorable moment, with a client lingering on the brink, he launched into a discussion of a light fixture from a 1930s yacht that he had picked up at Brimfield recently and mounted so as to illuminate the taxidermied boar’s head hanging on the wall behind his desk. This client had been a sailor and happened to admire vintage boating fixtures. Filmore remembers repeating almost verbatim the antique dealer’s speech about the yacht (the famed “Quicksilver” of Amagansett, NY) to the client, and bingo, a deal was inked within seconds. On another occasion, a client became so enamored with a Bakelite radio from the 40s (the Fada “Bullet”) on Filmore’s mantle, and its accompanying story, that he not only became one of his better clients, but took up a keen interest in Bakelite, and soon had amassed one of the largest collections of the Fada “Bullet” in all of Akron. Nor did it bother Filmore that he hated both sailing (“All that bucking and heaving!”) and the radio (“All those infernal ads!”). He could not deny the talismanic power of old objects to move people to fits of irrational exuberance.
Filmore was surprised he had caught sight of the “SureShot,” because he usually avoided dealers whose stalls had neither theme nor order. Filmore had an entire catalog of dealers: the true antique people (the “Pros”), who had established shops, an on-line presence, and who specialized in niche objects (cast iron cook ware from the 1910s, country French, Fiestaware, Victorian lace) and knew encyclopedic amounts of information about their pieces. These, he felt were reputable, a repute reflected in the orderliness of their stall and their proper, which is to say, grammatical, use of language. Then, there were the folk (“the Free Spirits”) who seemed to follow their hearts rather than pigeonhole themselves into a niche. You might find anything in their stalls (old mill weights in the shapes of animals, industrial and farm tools whose use only they could decipher, Deco cocktail shakers, antique mah jongg sets). Despite the apparent mess, they knew their inventory and could give very compelling histories of their pieces. But, the lack of unifying theme drove Filmore batty: the Smitts clan abhorred chaos. Then, occupying the lowest rung, was the group Filmore liked to call the “Junk Peddlers,” for it looked as though they had trawled every trash dumpster on their way to Brimfield from Whereversville, USA: Pez dispensers, key chains from the 70s, 8-track tapes, Beanie Babies, lava lamps, Star Trekiana. They seemed just as content to sit by their stalls in their camping chairs and watch the fair go by, often sharing a chuckle and a bottle from stall owner to stall owner. For them, Filmore figured, Brimfield represented a brief stop on some endless caravan that had neither beginning nor end.
But, if he permitted himself a few seconds of honesty, he had to acknowledge that behind his studied contempt of this lot also lay his most ardent curiosity and, dare he admit, envy? For who was this band of traveling minstrels, these merry pranksters who trundled their wares from every corner of the country to occupy a fifteen by fifteen square foot plot in one of Brimfield’s fields? They seemed so unburdened of schedule and responsibility, their laughter so deeply guttural, their attention to their own appearance and physical health so absent. They were his anti-selves: no roots, no anchors, no trajectory. They flitted from one fair to the next, while Filmore’s life had been well planned since before his conception. The Smitts clan rarely permitted “idiosyncractic divagation,” a phrase Filmore’s father often used during Filmore’s youth when the lad would conceive some idea heretical to Smitts’ doctrine, like attending Andover rather than Exeter. Or a junior year in France.
As Filmore was lingering in this stall, waiting for some attention from the dealer, he noticed that, while his stuff fell in the “Free Spirit” category, the dealer’s appearance put him squarely in the “Junk Peddler” category: a tall spindly fellow, about his age (49) but looking much older, with a receding hair line and a long wispy graying pony tail dangling down his back. As he spoke, he could not discern the accent (upstate New York?), but he did notice a mouth with an incomplete collection of teeth. He was wearing tattered, cut-off jean shorts and a t-shirt, the faded symbol of which Filmore could barely make out the words “Grateful Dead” in scrawled lettering made by the smoke that was, on closer inspection, the exhalation of a joint. “Oh, brother,” Filmore thought, as he contemplated some of his Exeter classmates from his past who would drop out of school, load up their parents’ Audis with dope, beer, amphetimines, LSD & sleeping bags to follow that incompetent, cacophonous band of phonies. Filmore found it, and the whole culture around it, repulsive. But, true to the “Free Spirit” category, this dealer seemed to have passion for his wares, as he overheard him lecturing on a very odd looking patinated copper ball with four assymetrical spikes to some overattentive couple. He gleaned from the dealer’s sermon that the object was the tip of a lightning rod (“the “thistle” they called it back in the day; “sputnik” to collectors”). He continued his speech with facts about electrical conduction, the knowledge arc of lightning rod manufacturers at the turn of the century, and the items of a lightning rod tip that made each particular one collectible. Filmore snickered to himself when the couple eagerly paid $75 without haggling, seemed delighted with themselves, thanked the dealer whole-heartedly, and told him they would look for him next year. “Sycophantic suckers,” Filmore thought to himself.
“Haverford or Harvard?” the smiling man asked, and as he approached, Filmore received the bouquet of aromas: hay, patchouli and b.o. Filmore looked behind him to see if the dealer was talking to someone else, but then remembered that he had put his crimson bucket hat with the white ‘H’ on this morning. He always felt as though, outside the city, he could wear this hat without giving his Harvard affiliation away, and usually, when asked, he demurred.
Noticing his hesitation, the dealer continued, “I saw you looking at the racquet. It’s a squash racquet from the 1920s, the Bancroft “SureShot.”” A twin irritation instantly arose in Filmore: the first, at being told something he already knew, and the second of having his well concealed interest discovered all while the dealer was involved in another sale. Nevertheless, he found himself strangely drawn to this gangly man with the affable tooth-impaired smile and easy manner. Filmore always made it a policy at Brimfield not to talk about personal matters for fear that it made him too easy a mark, but he found himself telling the dealer about his days going to Harvard squash matches (they never lost) and their legendary leader Jack Barnaby, around whom an entire hagiography had blossomed. In an effort to seem a bit wilder and crazier than he was to this man he all of a sudden wanted to like him, he also told of the many drunken parties at his final club, the Delphic, which ended with some sloppy game of mixed doubles squash on their in-house court.
“That’s funny…, oh, I didn’t get your name,” the dealer uttered.
“That’s funny, Phil,” the dealer continued, “my father, who had many jobs in his life, spent some time as a tennis pro at the Buffalo Tennis and Squash Club. And of course, you can’t play much tennis in the winters in Buffalo, so he learned squash so that he could give lessons in the winter. My mother couldn’t stand his hours, nor all that snow, and so convinced him to leave with her to follow the Grateful Dead around the country and sell macramé and tie-dyed t-shirts out of the back of their VW microbus. I was two when we left Buffalo, but my sister was born at a show, I think it was at a venue called the Fillmore East. She was named Magnolia, but of course, they all called her “Sugar Mags.” You could say that it was my early days on the road got me into this business. I’m still on the road. A way of life, really.”
“Yes, “Filmore East” was one of my nicknames some of my friends gave me in high school,” Filmore added, not knowing why he was sharing so much information, particularly since he had cringed at being called “Phil.” He always believed both that one should be addressed as introduced, and that nicknames were a privilege for insiders. Still, he was not sure what was so compelling about this Junk Peddler that drove him to so quickly forgive him these social gaffes. Actually, Filmore Smitts had a long legacy of nicknames: “Films” also at Exeter, one of his favorites since he had been a film buff; “Smitty” at Harvard, which he didn’t like due to its potential confusion with someone named “Smith.” But his least favorite was authored by his nascently speaking younger sister (“Amanda”), who called him “Flimsy,” which instantly stuck. His parents, who had been calling her “Mams,” then decided to switch the “a” with an “i”, making it a perfect collection: “Flimsy and Mimsy.”
“I didn’t get your name,” Filmore said, trying his best to remove all emotion from his voice.
“Jefferson. But you can call me Jeff. Yep. Jefferson Airplane Roberts. My mother loved the Bill of Rights so much that she named me after Thomas Jefferson. But then, she also loved the band. That was before she started following the Dead, or who knows what my middle name would be.”
“A real lover of freedom, your mother.” And then, fighting off urges to know more about this Jefferson Roberts, this offshoot of a true hippie, he ventured the following, safer approach, “So, how much were you looking to get for the “ShureShot?”
“What??!! I thought you might say, 20, or even 15!” Filmore felt as though outrage was a good first bartering technique, but even at that, $200 seemed truly outrageous.
“Well, Phil, that’s no ordinary racquet. You see, it belonged to a Herbert Howe Hopkinton, the third, (“Trip”), of Buffalo, NY, who was a captain on Harry Cowles’ first Harvard squash team of 1922. Harry was one of the game’s legends, believed to be the founder of intercollegiate competition and the first coach at Harvard, the man who started the Harvard squash dynasty. Cowles himself is now a member of the exclusive Harvard Masonic Lodge. His player Herbert was undefeated in intercollegiate competition, earned a Rhodes Scholarship, and beat all of the leading amateurs in England, surprising all but Cowles with the feat. Though on the old side for service in World War II, he enlisted, and was a much-decorated pilot until he was shot down over France. His widow, knowing how much squash meant to him, donated the ShureShot, the very racquet he had with him on his victorious tour of England, to the Buffalo T & S, where my father would eventually become pro. But, what very few people know is that Bancroft had made this ShureShot especially for him. The General Manager of the club, looking to make more space in the trophy room where the ShureShot had been housed, passed it along to my father, who, I guess, took it with him on his escapades with my mother. I got it from him and I figure that it’s about time that I pass it on to someone who can appreciate it. Being a Harvard man, I’m thinking you’re that guy.”
Filmore’s interest was piqued further. On the one hand, the story sounded utterly preposterous. On the other, he had heard of this Cowles person while at Harvard, and even of this conquering Hopkinton, who was also a Delphic man. He would love to own such a thing, could imagine just how many clients he could lure with this storied piece of sport paraphernalia, but he was skeptical. “How do I know this is a true story?”
“Well, Bancroft engraved both the racquet and its press for Hopkinton.” With that, Jefferson hoisted the ShureShot up to a display case. With the delicacy of a surgeon and the reverence of a priest, he lightly loosened the four screws of the racquet’s wooden press. When he managed to remove it, paying attention to hover the slats of the press between the racquet’s head so as not to chip it, he pointed out to Filmore a spot on the inside of the lower slat of the press where, embossed and with a few remaining traces of gold leaf, were the letters: “H.H.H.III,” and an equivalent engraving in even smaller, but matching font on the racquet’s neck.
Without hesitation, Filmore summoned his wallet from his back pocket, removed two crisp hundred dollar bills and handed them over to Jefferson.
“Good choice! I knew you were the man for the ShureShot,” he said as he placed the racquet back in its press and handed it to Filmore. He shook Jefferson’s hand, and recognized a strong urge to hear more stories of World War Two pilots, club professionals who threw it all away, and tales from a peripatetic childhood. But like most urges that came to Filmore, he squelched it, smiled politely, and walked away. With the racquet now in his grasp, he uttered the word “ShureShot” to himself over and over, as an incantation, thinking that this would be the perfect deathbed valediction. As he went, almost lost in his reverie, he was not quite sure if he caught the silhouette of Jefferson out of the corner of his eye, winking and giving the thumbs up sign to the dealer in the adjacent stall.