Catskills — a treasure chest for antiquing. Cozy back roads, like a dead end with a mysterious dark-green pond at the end, tall grass. Around the corner, all of a sudden, a snowmobile with a big headless doll sitting on the front seat, a dilapidated barn. Then more barns and sheds with a mishmash of rusty tools, cracked frames, pilgrims’ brass utensils, empty chessboards.
Marina knew the owner, named Dick. He was sitting in a small building that looked more like a small family house than a toolshed. Downstairs behind the unfinished desk, there was a dusty phone next to him, amidst half-broken china sets and nineteenth-century frames.
“You can’t sell an 1890s frame or an 1850s painting to somebody who knows shit,” said Dick, an eighty-nine-year-old fellow with piercing eyes, a wife-beater shirt, and still-visible bumps of muscles. Dick was a retired prison guard, with more than thirty years’ experience in the nearby maximum security facility. He looked at me like a pro: “You are a strong guy, from where? Wrestling, yeah, that’s what I thought.” That look, estimating who you were from his perspective: strength, endurance, stamina, patience, your breaking point.
This was how a doctor, a cop, a prostitute looked at a client or a subject. Professional interrogator: how long you would endure. The soul is irrelevant, only what’s job-related. But Dick was really interested in me. He had seen a lot during his local life in this county, all his life. Told Marina, “I know what you are interested in. The washing bowl and the set you liked last time are behind that sewing machine.” The machine was from the 1800s; probably live-in help on a farm used it.
Marina was involved in a meaningful hunt in the conglomerate of treasures mixed with junk. The place smelled of death, but also of the life of many generations. And what was death: the end of the life of many generations. The antique shop was like a conserved DNA of families, analyzed years later — turns out we have three percent DNA from the Neanderthals.
Dick said: “It’s their own prison world inside the other outside world, has its own rules, adjusting to our world but never part of it. Once in for time, you are gone. Those who survive understand that.”
I said, “But wasn’t it your job to regulate, to control, to prevent damage?”
“No, wrong — our job was to maintain order and quiet, not to engage into their world. If you see someone becoming a leader, inmates congregate around some guy in the yard — he is out! Different jail, if serious — even to Attica. Hard to get out of that hell. When coming back here after a long time, they watch themselves, behave, and keep low, hoping to get out on parole, perhaps. Minor infraction and we don’t need that shit.”
Marina found a fantastic old china set for my country home. “Needs some cleaning, though almost whole.” Dick approved. He gave her a good discount. Marina was a trusted, understanding customer. She brought her guests, who also rummaged through Dick’s inventory of miracles.
“You are a guy who is interested; you know what to ask about my work.”
“So, it is very bad there for child molesters and rapists. Why?” I asked.
“Because most of them were abused themselves as kids. By Dad, Stepdad, Mom, Uncle, or whoever. It was not a good addition to the environment they grew up in. They hit them bad. Gays, too. It could be relatively okay until there was a riot.”
That moment, another family came in with a little girl. She had braids, a lunchbox with Dora on it. “Yeah, the tools are in the back on the left.” The father made a beeline to the left. The girl got interested in a doll, no dress, but a wreath on her stuffed head.
Dick continued to me, “I’ve been through a couple of real riots in my thirty years. Once had to call the SWAT team, staties, and such. The whole block burning and all. They got drunk there, too. They knew how to make wine from bread, you keep it for a few days, and you got alcohol. In the end, gays were coming out, they were turned into Jell-O. We isolated them and then transferred whatever was left of them.” He turned to the customer. “Hey, look, what a girl!” Dick said: “she found the whole set for you — the carafe and the tumblers. It’s early-nineteenth-century. Good for you. Need some polishing. She can do it. I know her.”
He returned to me. “And then, you know, they knew about you much more than you did about them. You went over the inmates’ files, you watched them, but you knew shit. Info about you spread around the joint like rapid fire: Some guards were pushovers; some were bad with their nightsticks; shorthand. No weapons on us, though; too dangerous. If you were careless with your weapon and some hard inmate fell through the cracks and got into the population and had a long time to do, they got your weapon and worse. This was how they built up their reputation in the prison world.”
We shook hands. “You have strong hands,” Dick said, leaning back in his La-Z-Boy and pulling a Marlboro. “I don’t really smoke anymore. Just like the feeling of nursing a smoke.”
As we were coming out, the father materialized with a set of screwdrivers and the girl with a naked doll. Needed some rusting off, though.
As we walked to the car, passing sets of lawn furniture overgrown with tall grass, I sat for a moment on a broken snowmobile and imagined being buried under snow in the dead of winter. Now, the machine was half-submerged in the soil, covered with moss and weeds. I turned around — the barn was looking at us, but the windows were dark; I could see nothing, as if there was nothing there.
Marina pushed the accelerator and said, “Look back, I’ve got a gift for you!” On the back seat — a map of wine regions in Italy, oil painting: Valle d’Aosta, Trentino Alto Adige, Veneto, Piedmont (Nebbiolo — high tannin, bristling acidity), Lazio (still, refreshing and zesty Grechetto). My neck was hurting from reading.
She sped away, and soon we had the best pastrami sandwich on rye outside of the city with fresh Saranac Amber on draft.
“Next time we are here, we are going to Dick again. He said there is more stuff coming next week.”
“Where from?” I asked as we were passing a gray cement block compound still visible from the local highway, empty barren fields around it.
Photo by Roberto Sorin/Adobe Stock