VII Sid’s Toy Bazaar
VII Sid’s Toy Bazaar
Peter’s thoughts drifted to what had just transpired. At first he couldn’t figure out why Principal Harding only took Leela. As an adult, he possessed a decent chance of just commanding them all to go with him. They had been caught off guard without a plan; they were all scared and hadn’t run away. Only Bug had given him any serious lip. Mr. Harding owned a certain amount of real estate on their respective futures. A threat or two could’ve gone a long way to ending their quest.
He said Leela’s mom was on her way to meet him to look for her, Peter thought. That implied Leela’s mom gave him permission to detain her. Maybe that is what stopped him from detaining them. School hours were over. He probably needed a parent’s approval to track them down.
And Principal Harding said that Aunt Gretchen… sweet Aunt Gretchen told him Leela had skipped school. Despite Leela’s disguise, somehow she had recognized her. How? Aunt Gretchen didn’t know who their friends were.
Jeez, Peter mused, Dad didn’t even know who their friends were!
But informing Principal Harding that Leela had skipped school – knowing her name – and telling him that she was out looking for her niece and nephew, it all implied that Aunt Gretchen knew a lot about Peter and Priscilla.
But she couldn’t get him to detain us.
Because she didn’t have the authority.
Their phone at home had been disconnected over two months ago; Principal Harding wouldn’t have been able to reach anyone around that time.
Wasn’t there some kind of rule with missing people? Twenty-four hours or something?
This arrived to Peter as a positive sign. It meant that a real possibility existed that other adults held no power against them as long as Dad remained missing, at least for another day. And if Dad suddenly turned up, they would be protected. But that didn’t mean Aunt Gretchen wouldn’t try something. He remembered her demeanor at Dooley Downs just a few hours ago. They could not afford to underestimate her.
Principal Hard-ass had ended Leela’s participation, which probably crushed Peter more than any of them. Leela’s quiet attentions through this intense journey served to accentuate the excitement side of it, adding some exhilaration. He actually had come to fancy himself as the hero in some respects, and Leela seemed like a kind of heroine. He wondered what her lips felt like and blushed at the thought. The sensation he suddenly felt thrilled him, but it also scared him, like something threatening to spill out of control. He wondered, because of this ordeal, if they would ever see each other again.
The lipstick mark on Principal Harding’s forehead drifted back into his mind, pushing aside other thoughts. What was that about? He didn’t even think the man was married, much less dating. Did Aunt Gretchen do that? The thought seemed impossible as it was repulsive. Aunt Gretchen didn’t even wear lipstick. Mr. Harding’s appearance and personality hardly commanded the attention of ladies. But Aunt Gretchen was a sincere hag with her long frizzy hair, lack of make-up, old shabby clothes, and horned-rim glasses. Dad referred to her as an Old Maid, a woman who lived alone and shunned men, “…or was shunned by them,” his dad would add. What man would take interest in her?
Maybe a man similar to her, Peter considered. At Beer Can Flats, Leela mentioned that Aunt Gretchen looked different somehow. Peter thought she said that her hair was up, or something, but that she hadn’t obtained a good look. But Peter had never seen Aunt Gretchen wear fancy clothes or put on make-up, much less lipstick. He had never even seen her hanging around the school. But now that events were in motion, and it seemed that she had set them so, it appeared that she also knew much more about his family than he knew about her.
The whole affair boggled the mind. Peter suspected that his imagination might have some bearing on the matter. Truth be told, the details of other peoples’ actions swirled about them like a storm. They marched within the eye of a hurricane. Only if they strayed too close to the edge would the gale force winds of the unknown scoop them up in a grasp and throw them about against their will. They needed to stick together and stick to the plan. Priscilla broke into Peter’s wandering thoughts and broke the silence that had settled between them.
“Peter, what are we going to do? Did you hear that about Aunt Gretchen? She’s getting people against us!”
“Leela was a weak link?”
“WHAT?!” Priscilla nearly shouted, grabbing Peter’s arm and spinning him around. “Peela is my best friend! Why are you saying that! If you only knew…”
Fresh tears welled up in her eyes. Peter placed his hands on her shoulders gently.
“I do know, and I’m not trying to be mean. She is my friend, too. She is all our friend. But turn it up in your nog. Principal Hard-ass took her because he had permission from her mom, and he had a witness that she skipped school. While Dad is missing, at least for a little while, nobody has the right to take us. We don’t know if he tried to call Bug’s parents or Doodle’s grandma, but if he did would he have been successful?” He looked to Bug and Doodle for a response.
“Nope,” Doodle said first, without hesitation. He took the break in their travel to clean his glasses against his sleeve.
“No way, brother! My pop’s on the road and my mom’s out with a trick.” Bug said it so naturally it was easy to overlook how pathetic and sad his home life was. Couple that with how other adults treated him, like Principal Harding several minutes ago, and Bug’s attitude and behavior seemed notably admirable. Peter wondered when his friend’s veneer would crack and imagined that several more years of disappointments, rejections, and failures might do the trick. It filled Peter’s heart with sorrow and made his quest feel sort of selfish. But unknown to Peter, Bug would walk the ends of the earth to bring joy to his friends. Being around Peter and seeing him happy made Bug feel good about himself.
“So you see, Priscilla? We lost a member of our crew, but it would’ve happened sooner or later and if it happened later, it might be much more complicated. Besides, we haven’t really lost her. She’s out there; we’ll get her back.”
“Okay, P.” Priscilla hugged him and let a few tears trickle out onto his shoulder.
“We’re almost there,” Peter hugged her strongly. “We still have us to look after. Red will help us, you’ll see.”
Priscilla separated from him, sniffed, wiped her nose and eyes with the palm of her hand, and nodded. Peter clasped the fingers of one of his hands with hers and led her towards the edge of the park. Bug and Doodle followed. Red’s Recovery Room lay in sight just beyond the edge of trees.
Peter lifted the chained placard hanging from the mouth of the brass goblin head door knocker up to his face as if doing so would clarify the large words printed on it. He dropped it, an unsatisfying grimace twisting his mouth. His eyebrows arched in an expression of confusion. Stepping back from the large, brightly painted red oak door, he surveyed the rest of the drinking establishment’s storefront. As with the door, the building was wood and painted a bright red. It stood out from the bordering buildings, The Horned Shoe and Fatboy’s Donuts, both currently closed, like an open wound. A long brass sheet of metal bolted above the door proclaimed the building as ‘RED’S RECOVERY ROOM’ in punched out letters to allow the red painted wood to show through. A similarly worded wooden sign with bold red lettering hung in a brass frame at one end of the building, perpendicular so that people walking on the sidewalk or driving on the road could see it. No windows adorned the building, but above the goblin head door knocker was an iron barred shuttered viewing port, now closed. Between the viewing port and the door knocker, a small white placard warned: ’No one under 21 allowed inside!’
“Back in fifteen minutes,” Peter repeated the words printed on the hanging placard.
“Try the door knob,” urged Bug, nudging Peter in the ribs.
“He’s not here, you nob,” Peter retorted.
Bug popped his eyes open and shrugged.
Peter sighed. He glanced furtively around. Relatively few people walked the sidewalk or drove on the bordering street, nobody they recognized. Since nobody appeared to be watching them, Peter shot his hand out, grabbed the brass door knob, and attempted to twist it. It did not budge. He let go and immediately wiped his hand on his pants. Then he bunched up his shirt in his fist and hurriedly wiped the knob down.
“What, is somebody gonna dust it for prints?” Bug asked.
Peter popped his eyes open and shrugged, mimicking his friend’s gesture a few moments ago. Bug clicked his tongue and waved Peter off.
“Kids’ a little young to be bar hopping, eh?”
They all nearly jumped out of their clothes. Turning in the direction of Fatboy’s Donuts they saw Harold Cutter ambling his way towards them. Apparently he had just come around the corner of the doughnut shop. Everybody sighed with relief.
“Damn hell, you kids are all gurped up! Sheesh!”
“Hi Harold,” Peter acknowledged.
“Yo, Harold, my man! What’s the haps?” Bug did a high-five in the air and Harold returned the gesture. Priscilla and Doodle remained silently cordial.
Harold held the triple position of Town Guide, Town Drunk, and Town Homeless Person. The guide business was slow. Prudence was small enough that most of its residents knew their way around and tourism remained minimal to nonexistent. Still, Harold carried a number of crudely drawn maps of the town on various scraps of cloth and paper in his huge, tattered brown overcoat in case he crossed paths with a stranger. He generally charged five dollars for them. His other two professions filled the rest of his time.
Nobody really knew with any amount of certainty Harold’s real story, though many knew a version of it. If one lent him a fair amount of their attention, Harold wove a tapestry of hard luck that drew a decent amount of pity from most people with any amount of heart. But if one heard it more than once or corroborated the tale with someone else’s recollection, the versions never matched, not even remotely. The only similarity existed in the theme, as in Harold once had it all and then he lost it all. Apparently, Harold had once held a successful position in nearly every profession known to humans, and some even unknown. Interestingly enough, the details Harold recalled from these unlimited versions of his life were astonishingly elaborate.
Peter once entertained the notion that Harold’s numerous pasts were real, that he lived all these circumstances that he talked of in some kind of circular time warp that all converged on this one current homeless condition. The thought had made Peter so sad that he had cried for an hour. Occasionally it crossed his mind and he found the explanation as compelling as any Harold himself had concocted and began to think there existed a certain truth to it, as sorrowful as that sounded.
Harold, however, seemed quite pleased with his lot in life. Once having it all, apparently, failed to muster much meaning for the man, save for a good story he could generally get a drink out of. Peter passed his time loop theory on to Dad one day, who seemed an expert in the weird and unexplained. Dad found a great deal of value in the notion, but drew a fair amount of air out of the balloon when he told Peter that Harold was most likely just lonely, but adept at gaining attention through his tales. Peter found it difficult to argue with that kind of logic.
“Any of you kids wanna buy a map of the town?” Harold grinned at them, jogging his eyebrows and scratching his stubbly chin. Peter noted the missing teeth and disturbing lack of dental hygiene in the man’s mouth, vowing to himself an increased diligence in the matter of his own mouth.
“No thanks, Harold. You here for the bar?” Peter felt stupid saying it, but could think of no other way to breach the subject of Harold’s appearance at Red’s.
“Oh yeah. I know he opens at five, but Red usually lets me in a little early. He likes to jaw jack a bit while he’s getting the place ready.” Harold winked at them knowingly.
The kids nodded in unison, not sure what to really make of that assertion.
“It looks like he’s out for a few according to this sign.” Peter motioned to the placard chained to the door.
“So it looks like he won’t be back until close to opening time,” Bug added. “I mean, it must be around a quarter to five, right?”
“Well sure,” Harold agreed, “about the time that is. It’s twenty to five, to be more on the point about it. But the sign don’t quite explain when he left, not to mention why. Maybe he just left or maybe he left fifteen minutes ago. Or maybe he left an hour ago and just wants you to think he left fifteen minutes ago so you won’t think you have that long to wait until he comes back. Or maybe the time that he left and plans to return is rhetorical, and he just has the one sign to notify passer-bys that might be interested in the matter that he did in fact leave at one point in time and plans to return at another point in time.”
Peter’s theory about Harold’s circular time warped past popped back into his mind and seemed much more credible, given this new evidence presented before him. However, the fact that Red wasn’t in and they were kids standing out in the open if front of Prudence’s most notable and notorious buildings posed a problem in light of their current situation. He turned to his friends.
“What are we going to do? The plan was to get here before the bar opened and talk to Red about Dad. Standing here waiting is not a wise option.”
“We’re sitting ducks,” Priscilla observed.
“Sid’s,” Doodle suggested.
“Huh?” Peter didn’t understand.
“Weapons,” Doodle explained.
Peter looked desperately at Bug for an explanation. At first, Bug was at a loss. Then he slapped his palm against his head, suddenly getting it.
“Oh, yeah! Doodle, you are a genius! Listen, right around the corner, down from Fatboy’s, is Sid’s Toy Bazaar. That place is a jungle and it stays open until eight, I think. In light of what happened to Peela, we should prepare ourselves for future conflagrations.”
“Right,” Peter caught on, though he was noticeably shocked at Bug’s word choice. It was interesting when people you thought were less educated used a word that you didn’t think was in their vocabulary. Then Peter cringed at his own arrogance. He collected himself.
“We could hide out there and figure out how we can get Red’s attention. We can’t enter the bar once it is open without drawing undue attention and possibly the police. Actually, I think I have an idea about that. And, since Aunt Gretchen is after us and possibly has others involved, we could pick up some ‘weapons’, as Doodle so eloquently put it: smoke bombs, sling shots, squirt guns, sharp sticks, etcetera. We may need some tricks to help us dodge a tight situation.”
Everyone seemed to be in agreement. Even Harold nodded in approval, though he really had no idea what they were talking about. Still, he felt compelled to show his support. Peter was actually glad Harold was interested. He addressed him now.
“Harold, I’ll give you… I mean Priscilla will give you twenty bucks to tell Red, when you see him, that the Dooleys are hiding out in Sid’s Toy Bazaar and that we need to talk with him privately and that it is really, really important. Dad is missing. Can you remember that?”
“Sure as I know shit from shinola!”
Peter wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but Harold’s assurance sounded reassuring, so he turned and took the twenty dollar bill from Priscilla, who already had it ready, and handed it to him. Harold’s face looked at the bill as if Peter had handed him a brick of gold. Peter felt oddly good about helping Harold out financially without resorting to blatant charity. Harold seemed to be a man who appreciated fair trade. To his recollection, Peter had never seen him beg.
“Keep it between just you and Red, okay? I mean the message part.”
“You got it. Dooley? Hey, your Tim’s boy, right? And you’re his daughter. I recognize you kids. Tim’s missing?”
“Don’t go on about it to anyone but Red… PLEASE.”
“All hush hush and buttermilk pancakes, boy. You got it!”
Peter paused, not sure what to make of what Harold just said. Hurriedly, he added: “We gotta go Harold. Remember the message.”
Harold gave them a wink, clucked his tongue, and stuck out a big thumbs-up as the kids ran down the sidewalk. They quickly disappeared around the corner of Fatboy’s Donuts.
Sid’s Toy Bazaar stood out as much, if not more, than Red’s Recovery Room, but in a different way. The storefront sat wider, with a giant semi-circular awning extending out in the middle. An old converted theater, the double door entryway recessed inward to form an alcove. Coupled with the awning, it gave the front of the building prominence and depth. The movie poster holders had been converted into plate glass windows, even into the recessed doorway, so that the passerby could easily see the cacophony of colored objects and toys within, both in motion and still. The portions of the building not windowed were predominantly bright white with strategically highlighted accents, pinstripes of blue and pink.
On top of the giant awning, where the movie announcements used to be displayed, towered an enormous fabricated fiberglass clown holding a big bucket. The bucket overflowed with larger versions of standard toys: teddy bears, cars, action figures, balls and jacks, and even a pogo stick. A long red ribbon crossed over the bucket and up into the clown’s upraised hand, proclaiming the name of the toy store in comical bright white letters: ‘SID’S TOY BAZAAR’. The clown’s planetoid-like head bobbled in the breeze on an oversized spring.
The kids wasted no time gawking at the Bazaar’s bizarre storefront. They rushed right past the tall hand carved Indian and the coin operated fortune teller guarding the front entrance and breezed through the glass double doors, stopping in their tracks within as they realized their entry set off a series of bells, announcing their arrival to all inside. Fortunately a brief scan of their surroundings revealed only the myriad assortment of boxes, cartons, cylinders, canisters, jars, blister packs, packages, and free floating toys stacked, shelved, hanging, and otherwise dangling all around them. This, however, only meant that nobody was currently visible. The proprietor, Sid, was not at the front register, an ancient monumental turn-of-the-century hunk of mechanical brass.
Sid’s Toy Bazaar merged the trappings and simple pleasures of leisure from the past with the mind-boggling electronic contraptions of the present, or for some the future, depending on how old you were. The deep, theater sized store was divided into thirds. The front third contained the claustrophobic collection of purchasable toys and games. The middle third was the Playroom, filled with an assortment of purchasable experiences: video games, air hockey, skee-ball, and even a remote controlled race track. The last third was closed to the public, labeled as ‘STOREROOM’. But most kids and some adults conjectured that it secretly held Sid’s workshop, as the store contained a certain subset of unique objects near the ‘STOREROOM’ not seen by anyone anywhere else: a set of glass eyeballs that blinked and followed a person’s gaze around the room, a full scale clunky steel Robot whose light bulb eyes answered ‘yes or no’ questions with amazing accuracy, an exquisitely manufactured play doll split down the middle half male/half female and dressed accordingly, and a large blue ball, light as a feather that you could throw in slow motion, among others.
Every once in awhile, a new oddity would show up that Sid derived great pleasure in showing off for a period of time. Although interesting and reasonably priced, they appeared singular in nature, never seeming to leave the store with a customer. Certainly nobody claimed ownership of one in their house. There was no indication when or where these toys were created. Sid often offered hints of far off unknown islands with unusually named indigenous populations, such as Guantonopulous or Strigmagnobules, but never gave up details. People marveled when some new fascination arrived, but gradually the novelty wore off and these bizarre creations ended up in one darker, rarely visited section of the converted theater near the storeroom door. They took on a sort of disturbingly creepy aura, as if they were alive and waiting.
“Hello?” Peter ventured timidly.
“HELLO!” Bug bellowed. Peter elbowed him in the side. Priscilla shot Bug a sharp look. Bug shrugged back at them quizzically.
“Mr. Sid, sir?” Peter raised his voice.
Peter took a step forward and felt the tug of his sister’s arm around his. He hadn’t noticed when she had made that move, but he understood why. She was scared, as were they all. He patted her forearm with his free hand but made no move to dislodge it.
“What the brear?” Bug wondered aloud. “Where is he? I mean, this place could so get ripped off right now… sincerely.”
“Register,” offered Doodle.
“Yeah,” Peter observed, “have you seen that thing? It’d take a crane and some C4 to pop that leviathan, and you’d probably just end up destroying whatever loot is inside.”
“What about all these toys?” Bug asked. “Any drip, nob, or squib could waltz in here and make off with the goods. Then they could come back and get a refund, making straight grip off the deal.”
“What kind of squib knocker would do that?” Peter shook his head. “Sid doesn’t have any employees. He’s the only one who works here. He’s his own employer. He’d sniff that tactic out at once and get Holt the Jolt down on them. They’d find that their once clever plan landed them behind bars. Then they’d have to live with the shame of their own stupid actions.”
“Then why do people continue to steal, oh wise one?”
“Because they are idiots, you nob, plain and simple. Some people are born one deck short of a six-pack.”
“What?” The explanation was lost on Bug.
“Never mind. Listen, some squib comes in here with the bright idea of pilfering some of these toys and games; they wouldn’t take the time to select ones that they really wanted. They would just grab and go, for the thrill of it or for some master genius plan like you just mentioned. Then they’d get home and if they had any shred of sense they would realize that they grabbed a bunch of stuff that has no value to them, number one because they don’t really want it, and number two because they didn’t pay for it. So it would just end up in their garage or in the garbage. What a waste.”
“Well, what if they gave it to some kid or to a charity?” Bug tried desperately to salvage some shred of his original hypothesis, but knew it continued to crumble under the weight of Peter’s reasoning.
Peter just looked at him. Bug caved in.
“Yeah that probably wouldn’t happen,” he resigned, visibly deflated.
Peter looked back into the depths of the store and called for Sid once again, glancing back briefly to give Bug another look. Bug turned away and pretended to browse the contents of one of the shelves. Doodle giggled softly.
From somewhere in the Playroom came a metallic rhythmic clunking sound. The kids craned their necks to catch a glimpse of what might be generating the sound, but a clear view of the Playground proved impossible where they stood at the front of the store. Priscilla’s grip on Peter’s arm intensified, almost uncomfortably.
“What the breck is that?!” Bug rasped.
It was Peter’s turn to shrug and look bewildered.
The metal clunking continued to get louder, coming towards them steady and heavy.
“Robot,” Doodle said.
At that prompt, the same image emerged in each of their minds: that of the steel, bolt encrusted Robot with the blinking light bulb eyes that Sid introduced to his customers a few years back. It had been a wonder of the day until it started answering correctly questions that it couldn’t possibly know or that people really didn’t want the answer to. Then fewer and fewer people came to see it, with some avoiding the shop altogether. Dejectedly, Sid was forced to place it in a dark and remote corner of the Playroom where most of his oddities were retired. Rarely, some kid would venture over to it and ask a question, but the Robot remained motionless and its eyes remained dark. Once Peter had asked Sid about the thing, but Sid had merely smirked and said “he is tired.” So that was that. Peter couldn’t recall if the automaton even had a name.
“Uh, maybe we should make like a Monopoly board and Pass Go,” Bug suggested.
“Wait,” Peter said, “why should we think it would be dangerous? It never was before.”
“Maybe it killed Sid and ate him.” Bug wiggled his eyebrows up and down at the thought of such an atrocity.
“Ate him. Really? For one thing, you nob, Robots do not eat.”
“It could still crush him and then mash him in his mouth like it was pretending to eat him.”
“Give it a rest, Bug!” Peter and Priscilla both said in exasperated unison.
Doodle remained silent on the matter. Then he snapped his fingers spasmodically and pointed excitedly down one of the aisles. Sure enough, Sid’s amazing and creepy bucket of bolts tromped steadily down the aisle that Doodle gesticulated at. Its arms stayed at its sides, but its eyes blazed with consciousness and blinked in alternation. They all stepped back to allow it room to enter the open front part of the store, and as precaution. The Robot came to a stop just past the end of the aisle. Its head scanned them over in one sweeping gesture. Then the rest of it stood motionless as its flexible, hose-like arm rose to the height of its head. With a pneumatic whine, its three-pronged hand opened up and jiggled about as its eyes blinked on and off in unison. Peter realized the Robot was waving at them.
“Whoah, what a trip!” Bug’s face lit up in a smile.
“Hi!” Doodle beamed, waving back at the Robot enthusiastically. He brought his hand up to his derby and tipped it in a welcoming gesture.
Priscilla loosened her lock on Peter’s arm and squeaked out a welcome for their metallic visitor. Peter took the opportunity to carefully remove her arm from his and he stepped forward, gazing at the Robot with a new sense of wonder.
“You’ve been silent all these years!”
Both the Robot’s eyes blinked once and remained lit, indicating ‘yes.’
“Are you here to help us?”
The Robot blinked yes, again.
“What about Sid? Is he here, too?”
The Robot’s eyes blinked on and off alternating, indicating that it could not answer the question because it was open-ended. It could only answer closed questions, yes or no. Peter realized his mistake almost immediately.
“Can you take us to him?”
The Robot indicated affirmative. Then it moved forward, extending its flexible arms, and opening its claws towards the front door. With one it flipped the ‘CLOSED’ sign and with the other it secured the door and locked it. Then with a smooth motion it pivoted around, retracted its arms, and clumped back down the aisle it emerged from, eyes blinking on and off. The kids followed it carefully.
“Dude,” Bug said, speaking to Peter surreptitiously, “he just locked the door!”
“Shhh,” Peter lifted his palm in a gesture of calm while keeping his eyes on the Robot, “Sid will reopen it when I tell him that Red will be coming for us.”
“If Sid is still alive,” Bug cautioned, cocking his left eyebrow up at Peter. Peter gave him a look of incredulity, but his gut churned inside as he thought of reasons to refute that dark possibility.
They all patiently strode behind the seven foot tall clanking, walking canister as it methodically and rhythmically made its way past the cluttered shelves in what once served as the old theater’s reception and concession area.. The aisles felt claustrophobically narrow, either because they really were or due to the fact they were packed to the gills with toy products, almost to the ceiling. They Robot’s girth threatened within millimeters to knock everything it passed to the floor. But somehow it managed to avoid catastrophe without even seeming to notice. The kids kept several feet behind out of caution
Now they emerged into the long sprawling vastness of the Playroom. The lights had been dimmed, giving the cherry wood paneling and deep orange carpeting a warm atmospheric glow. Where once there were rows of seats there now resided a large curving racetrack with go-cart sized race cars. Along the peripheral walls stood electronic arcade games, basketball hoops, air hockey tables, chess boards, and all manner of interactive amusements. Strung between the balconies above hung a mind boggling arrangement of train tracks and wires and cords where motorized trains, balloons, monkeys, and trapeze figures cavorted in a complex and cacophonic ballet of motion, sound, and color. It currently hung motionless. Neither Peter nor the others had ever seen it in such a state. Hanging above them like that, still and silent, the monstrous contraption seemed heavy and dangerous.
Lastly, the Robot led them to the dim corner where a few shelves and stands held the quiet and abandoned oddities that had once brought brief marvel when first introduced by Sid to a dazzled public, now nearly summarily avoided. Peter pondered how briefly elevated their status once was and how it transpired into a long, cold avoidance. Toys were meant to be played with, and while toys in general seemed to have a sort of life about them, the interaction came from living people. Toys did wear out their welcome as their owners grew older and found other interests, but many of them enjoyed a long life and found new discovery amongst the next generation that emerged. The thrill of many toys could last indefinitely, but these curios of Sid’s held little sustained draw of attention. Peter thought, like the Robot they were following, that the reason may lie in the life these oddities seemed to possess, to emanate. They did more than toys did. They initiated the interaction rather than the other way around, but because they weren’t commonplace, like other living things, and their characteristics were limited, unlike living things and more like toys, they felt unnatural and strange to the general public after a short spell. Peter wondered why Sid kept them around at all, much less in semi-public viewing.
Peter thought one reason may be that they resided near the door to Sid’s Storeroom, or as some conjectured his workshop, which was off limits to all. Perhaps Sid used them as guardians of some sort, confident that their lost star power and new found creepiness would ward off the overly curious. The Robot drew them there now, much to everyone’s apparent dismay. All of the objects displayed a certain emergence of life as they approached: the glass eyeballs “blinked” and followed their movements, glistening and dilating as if they were real eyes trapped inside; the half-man/half-woman doll simultaneously saluted and blew them a kiss, the male side of its mouth holding firm as the female side upturned in a smile; the blue ball tumbled in place in mid-air above its pedestal; and all number of other gadgets and devices glowed, rocked, spun, or otherwise motioned their awareness of their visitors’ presence.
“Aw man, I think I’m gonna mess my pants,” Bug whined. “This is seven levels of eeriness right now.”
“Peter,” Priscilla began, but she only finished by grabbing Peter’s arm once again. Peter simply gritted his teeth and tried on a brave face.
“Wow!” Doodle marveled, wide eyed and mouth agape. For some odd reason, Peter found it aptly fitting that Doodle still felt a sense of wonder and awe at these disturbing oddities.
The Robots cylindrical head swiveled to face them as it continued to walk forward, a decidedly uncanny gesture. If it could just talk or something, the thing may seem a little less unnerving. Its loud body clanks and silent light bulb eye communication felt ominous, like you expected it to do something unexpected and set your arms to goose bumps and your hair on end. Its eyes turned dark, then flared back on and held. Yes? Was it trying to reassure them or acknowledge their fear? Or both?
“I think it is trying to tell us it’s okay,” Peter offered to the others, who looked doubtful.
The Robot blinked affirmative, then swiveled its head back around as it came to a halt in front of the door labeled simply ‘STOREROOM.’ At that same moment, every one of the oddball toys around them stopped moving, dimmed out, or otherwise went “silent.” The Robot stretched out its right arm and opened the door. It wasn’t even locked. As it opened the door the left arm reached up past its shoulder as its hand wiggled back and forth, motioning them forward. It disappeared into the STOREROOM and after a brief hesitation, so they all did, prompted by Peter.
The Storeroom or Workshop or whatever its purpose was stood before them, virtually empty. Peter then realized that it wasn’t empty, just immaculately clean and organized… the relatively complete opposite of the Toy Bazaar proper. It was a somewhat narrow, elongated room which used to be the back portion of the stage and screen of the old theater. Several featureless metal cabinets flanked a sturdy oak workbench with a mounted blue painted iron vice clamped to one corner and a shelf underneath. The shelf contained a large industrial hammer with a couple odd looking tubes and assorted shapes of sheet metal. In one corner, a large porcelain sink protruded from the wall. To one side rested a mop and bucket while on the other side leaned a broom and dustpan against the wall. The floor was very slightly concave, with a single drain in the middle. The only splash of color in the room came from two framed movie posters: 1987’s The Untouchables and 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America; both movies were recent modern depictions of an older time, and quite possibly older movie, Peter noted.
“Cool digs,” Bug commented with a combination of sarcasm and nervousness, hands shoved deep in his pocket as his head shifted one way and his hair shifted another. Nobody acknowledged him. They were all focused on what the robot was doing now.
The robot stood facing away from them, motionless. There emitted from it a series of low buzzes, a couple pops, a deep metal clunk, and then silence. The kids all took a step back instinctively. Unexpectedly, a riveted panel dislodged smoothly from the back’s main body and swung open. The kids stared incredulously as a short scarlet-cheeked man emerged, almost tumbled, from the exposed cavity. He offered up a furtive grin from his sweat laden face and then hurriedly tried to tame the single tuft of straw colored hair on his pointed head while simultaneously smoothing out his drenched plaid buttoned up shirt, odd without a tie. He shook out his beige slacks and polished black oversized shoes, then snapped his rainbow suspenders and beamed a huge bucktooth grin at them. It was the Bazaar proprietor Sid himself, fogged up spectacles and all.
“Whoah,” was all Bug could quip, which was unusual.
“Whoah,” Peter and Priscilla echoed in slack jawed unison.
“Cool,” Doodle marveled.
“Howdy, y’all,” Sid chortled, still beaming madly. He patted the now inanimate automaton, the gesture sounding an echoing gong.
“You mean that hunk of bolts isn’t real?” Bug was truly astonished, as were they all.
“Oh, it’s real alright, mmmhmm,” Sid teetered on his heels, proudly snapping his suspenders.
“B-but I don’t understand,” Peter stammered. “You were never inside that thing… y’know, whenever you brought it out, paraded it around… who…”
“Mr. Dooley?” Doodle said it, but Peter could barely believe it.
Dad? Why… how…?
“That’s correct, Mr. Doodle, sir. Hmm.” Sid nodded respectfully.
“Yes, Peter. Your father Tim spent much of his time helping me out and, along with Red, took turns playing the robot.”
“But I thought…”
“Hmm, yes. Your father does do his share of drinking, and has his reputation about town, but he is also a kind, thoughtful, intelligent man. He played the robot the best.”
“That’s why it knew so much! That’s why it eventually creeped people out!” Bug blurted.
Sid let out a heavy sigh and turned forlornly to the robot. “Yes, sadly enough… I’m really not much of a toy maker.”
“What?” Priscilla asked. “You mean you made that? You made all those strange objects out there? I thought they came from all those weird unpronounceable, unknown places you told everyone about.”
“Hmm. Wishful thinking, my lady. Mmmhmm. I’m afraid I have a bit too much imagination. It’s showmanship really. That’s what draws the crowd. But I’m afraid I overdo it. I can’t help myself. Eventually, it drives them off… the customers, I mean. Not in the sense that you might think I mean, but in the sense that it makes me a lovable outsider. People get tired of my complicated shenanigans and return to the mass produced, predictable, perniciously packaged childhood products that feel safe to them, controllable. Ah, I guess it’s just human nature.” He rubbed a gnarled, grease stained hand through the tuft of hair on his pointy head. His spectacles were still steamed and he seemed to jog his eyebrows and cheeks about, trying to focus in on their condition, as if mentally he might be able to clear them.
“Mr. Sid, sir,” Peter announced, capturing the toy store owner’s attention, “I hate to change the subject…”
“Not at all, my dear boy! Hmm, you go right on and speak your brain.” Sid leaned forward trying to peer at Peter over his fogged up glasses, scrunching and un-scrunching his nose.
Peter opened his mouth to continue, but nearly jumped out of his skin at a sudden tug on his book bag. Priscilla had lifted the flap and was peering in on Bo Bo. Peter understood. He knew she was worried and just checking in. Bo Bo’s purring vibration against his side served as a constant reminder that, despite motion and jostling, Bo Bo felt generally safe and comfortable. However, Priscilla’s unannounced gesture brought back recent memories of Max’s aggressiveness in the restroom of Fast Eddie’s Last Gas. He stood there scared and tired, with only his adrenalin and companions propping up his composure.
“Just Sid, please. Mmmhmm.”
“Um, we’re waiting for Red to come for us. The robot… I mean you, locked the front door. Aren’t you open after five?”
“Usually, my boy, usually. But I had some much needed repairs and maintenance to perform. I posted a note on the door. But alas, it seems you blew in here so fast you missed it. The robot was one of those items I needed to do some maintenance on. So I decided to close shop with it… you know, scare off any stragglers. Mmmhmm. Didn’t scare you off, though, now did it, sir!” Sid’s smile gleamed with appreciation over his own craftiness. He tapped a finger to his nose, then to his head, and then pointed it at Peter. The signal was totally lost on Peter.
“Well, the thing is…” Inexplicably, Peter felt his voice pitch higher and his throat threatened to choke up. Moisture insinuated itself at the edges of his vision. He fought it back. He didn’t want to appear weak or out of control, even though he wasn’t raised that way. He just didn’t want to disappoint anyone. As Kramer had pointed out, this was he and his sister’s quest and Priscilla had nearly lost it a number of times so far. He wanted to be the leader he felt he could be, one that Dad could be proud of. He wanted to find, no save… save Dad, even though there was no indication Dad needed saving. The pressing urgency of that self-appointed responsibility welled up in him now.
“There, there young, Mr. Dooley.” Sid patted Peter’s shoulder. “Everything’s just fine.”
“No!” The strength that emerged in Peter’s own voice surprised him, as it did Sid and the others. “I’m sorry, Sid, but no. Nothing is alright. My father is missing. He’s been missing since Saturday with no word from anyone on his whereabouts.”
“No word, hmm? Hmm, that is indeed strange. How did you know to seek out Red?”
“Well, he was going to Red’s the night he left, so we figured that Red would’ve seen him last… maybe have some insight into where he might be. Plus, he kind of left us something.” He immediately cringed at divulging the latter.
“Oh, really?” Sid’s eyebrows bolted up, his interest now highly peaked.
“It’s nothing, just a letter he wrote and told us about should he ever go missing.”
“Oh, hmm.” Sid deflated noticeably, slumping his shoulders. Peter felt Sid might be able to offer some insight into the mysterious workings of the Sooth Jewels, but they just didn’t have the time. They’d be there all night if Peter showed him the artifacts. Sid was a tinkerer. Maybe when this was all over, Peter and his sister would come back to get Sid’s perspective on the matter.
“So to sum it up in a nutshell, we need to talk to Red.”
“So that’s why you came in here?”
“The front door to Red’s was locked…”
“And, well,” Bug interjected, “we were hoping to purchase some munitions,”
“Oh, it’s like that is it? Hmm, being chased, are we? Belligerent bullies? Aggravating adults?”
“A little of both,” Peter admitted.
“Trogs!” Doodle announced.
“Trogs, squibs, squib knockers, nobs, pills, spazoids…” Bug further explained, accentuating each name with a shake of his hands and hair.
“Oh, I see, mmhmm. Well, then, I will need to make sure you are fully stocked. F.O.C.”
“F.O.C.?” Priscilla asked?
“Of course,” Sid explained, “‘Free of Charge.’ I was bullied a bit when I was around your age. It will do my heart well to help provide a little push back… non-lethal of course, except to the senses.”
“About Red…” Peter started.
“It’s quite alright, young Dooley,” Sid said, making his way over to the cabinets and workbench. Bug and Doodle took the opportunity to peer inside the robot, ogling at the complex innards. “Red will be by shortly, just like you requested. He knows the way.”
“He’s got a key?”
“Better!” Sid exclaimed as he dug around inside one of the cabinets. His voice turned into quieter unintelligible mumblings, no doubt aiding his memory as he searched for whatever he was searching for.
“What do you mean by better?” Priscilla asked, somewhat peeved at Sid’s apparent lack of urgency.
“Aha! Mmmhmm! Here we go.” Sid emerged from the cabinet with a basketball sized draw-string cloth sack. “Oh yeah, these will do the trick, my, my.”
Bug and Doodle turned away from the robot, intrigued by what Sid was bringing over. Peter felt annoyed and anxious, as did Priscilla, and they both felt bad that they felt that way. Clearly, Sid’s intentions were in the right place, but the twins weren’t at all convinced that Sid knew where that place resided. Sid opened the sack and began handing them a variety of objects of different shapes and colors.
“Now, each of you gets one of these tubes. These are self-lighting, you see… here at the top… that little pull tab, mmmhmm. Now keep these pointed away from you when you activate them, they are not toys.”
“Do they shoot fireballs?!” Bug hoped.
“No, my follicle rebellious boy, they shoot webs! Lots and lots of webs. Sure to stop any pursuers in their tracks, at least of your size. And here, each of you take three of these brightly colored balls.” He handed them each three chalk textured, pastel colored spheres with what appeared to be fuses sticking out of them. “These are self-activating, as well. Just pull the fuse, but throw them or get away fast when you do!”
“Do they explode?!” Bug inquired again, less hopeful this time.
“No, boy! They smoke! These are smoke bombs. Lots and lots of smoke, colored just the way each is colored now. Great for a quickly obscured getaway!”
“Cool,” Doodle was genuinely amazed. Bug tried to muster the same enthusiasm, but felt a little let down over the lack of punch these items seemed to provide. Still, it was probably best that they weren’t too powerful. They could really get into trouble. Plus, looking a gift horse in the mouth carried with it a decent amount of insult.
“This is very generous of you, Sid,” Peter said very sincerely. “I mean sincerely, we really appreciate your assistance. But see… Dad… we need to see Red…”
“All good things in due time, mmmhmm. Did you know that this toy store was once a theater?”
They all nodded in agreement, though they had never known the place when it actually was a theater. It had always been Sid’s Toy Bazaar to them.
“Yeah?” Bug asked somewhat smartly. “Did they show them gangster films like you have on the wall there?”
“Oh yes, mmmhmm. But not those films. Those are more modern versions of the type of films they showed here.”
“So why don’t you have the old posters?”
Sid looked a bit peeved at the question. “Because, I don’t like the older versions; I like the newer versions. Have you ever heard of Prohibition?”
“Every time Principal Harding opens his mouth,” Bug quipped.
“Hmm, good one,” Sid admired, apparently not too fond of Mr. Harding either.
“Wasn’t that when they banned alcohol back in the olden days?” Peter asked.
“1919 to 1933,” Priscilla corrected. “It was the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution. It failed and was repealed on December 5, 1933 with the ratification of the 21st Amendment.”
“Just in time for Christmas,” Bug mused.
Peter stared at his sister. “How did you know that?”
“I listen in class,” she replied smugly.
“She is quite right,” Sid marveled. “This theater was built during prohibition. People during the time devised all sorts of clever ways to surreptitiously sip their liquid succor. And while they did enjoy those old gangster films of yore in this theater, they enjoyed a tasty alcoholic beverage from local soda shop next door, as well; the one that secretly made alcohol in a hidden still in the storeroom.”
“Red’s?” Peter asked incredulously.
Sid walked over to the far wall. “Not Red’s then, but yes, Red’s now.”
There issued a knocking from the other side of the wall.