(Content Warning: Blood, Gore, some mild language.)
Let’s get one thing straight here people, I am not an American Picker. If you don’t know what a Picker is, why don’t you google it because I don’t have time to explain it to you. If you were to call me something, I guess you could call me a sign collector. All my life I have been searching for a highly collectable 1950’s Chevrolet Bel Air Dealer sign.
There are two versions of this sign. One is an indoor poster that dealerships would display in their stores. The only problem with this poster is that it can be easily replicated. The other one is an antique porcelain enamel painted tin sign that is worth a fortune. I call it my golden beauty.
The sign itself is a beauty indeed and is highly sought after. It has that classic Chevrolet logo on the upper left-hand side with Bel Air written in cursive nestled just below it. The Bel Air itself is centered in the middle of the sign with navy blue paint, a white top, and white-walled tires. Three young people are sitting in the car with big goofy grins plastered on their faces. To me, they looked like they were having the time of their lives. On the upper right-hand side just above the car was the slogan: Style Star of an All-Star Line. The sign is an American classic and I need it for my collection.
I own a Museum dedicated exclusively to signs called The Signs of Yesteryear and Beyond. I have signs from all over the world that are worth millions. I pay top dollar for real signs after they go through my extensive testing phase to determine if they are indeed the real thing. I get a lot of scammers coming in off the streets with fake signs hoping to get rich with their fancy reproductions. In fact, I would say about 95% of the signs I see nowadays are fakes.
Take this morning for example: A guy named Larry Johnson came in with a Vintage Tin 7up Display Sign. The real sign was manufactured in the 1950s or 1960s by the Indiana Wire and Specialty Company of Indianapolis.
The first thing I look at is the condition of the piece. Signs this old always have some wear to them because back then they actually hung them for advertising. I’ll also check the material of the sign because I can tell what the real thing should and would be made out of. Checking the paint is also a crucial step in inspecting these antique signs. The paint will have aged and even faded in time. Reproductions can try to duplicate this but being in this business as long as I have you can smell a fake a mile away. The last thing I check is the story behind the sign. I want to know where it came from and how the person got their hands on it. Every piece has a story.
Larry was wearing blue jeans and a red flannel shirt along with a brown 7up baseball hat. The typical country-boy look. I greeted him warmly at the entrance of the museum and led him back to my office. As he handed me the sign for inspection, I noticed his hands were trembling. He was clearly nervous. That was my first clue that the sign was a fake. If it were real, why would he be so nervous? I dismiss the notion completely because some people are just nervous by nature and deal with a lot of anxieties.
As I took the sign from his quivering hands, I noticed the weight was off. It just didn’t feel right. The real sign should have been heavier, this was obviously not made from the same material as the original. I played along not wanting to be rude and proceeded with my inspection. The color on the sign was in perfect condition and the fresh paint smell aggravated my senses.
I looked at Larry who was fidgeting in his chair like a highly-strung toy dog who wanted nothing more than to go outside to take a leak, but it’s owners were too moronic to notice. I could tell he was anxiously awaiting my reply.
I wasted little time and uttered, “It’s a fake, an obvious reproduction.”
Larry raised his eyebrows in shock and objected, “It can’t be a fake! I got it from my dad’s garage and he’s not the type to keep fake things!”
He got it from his dad’s garage! Maybe I have a new lead to something better… hmmm.
My thoughts expose my intentions and I spoke aloud, “I’m sorry but this is clearly a reproduction. I can even smell the fresh paint. Doe-“
I was rudely interrupted, “I can prove to you that it’s not a fake. My dad had several of these made back in the day and he kept them all sealed away.”
“Does he have any other signs that I might be able to take a look at?” I berated in a sarcastic tone.
I watched as Larry lifted his bewildered eyes towards the ceiling lost in thought. After a few minutes he raved, “Yes he does. In fact, I just remembered he has an old Chevrolet Bel Air sign hanging up in the back of his garage.”
I could feel my heart skip several beats as I raised my eyebrows and opened my eyes in amazement like a treasure hunter finding a pot of gold. “Could you take me there? I would love to take a look at it!”
Larry twisted his face, and mumbled, “I-I don’t know, dad doesn’t like strangers coming around the place.”
I need to win him over and gain his confidence. If that sign is the real deal, I can’t pass up this chance. I want my golden beauty!
I took a deep breath and clapped my hands together. I gave Larry a reassuring smile and said, “I’ll tell you what I can do. If you take me to your dad’s garage to have a look at that sign, I’ll buy this reproduction for a thousand dollars in good faith. And if that Bel Air sign is the real deal I’ll make an offer to your dad that even he couldn’t say no to.”
Larry didn’t have to think long this time. “Well… my dad does like money and I know you have a lot of it, so you got yourself a deal, Mr. Sullivan”
“Oh… you can call me Dan!” I shout, barely holding in my excitement. “Let me write you a check and this afternoon we can go and see your dad’s sign!”
“Why can’t we go right now?” Larry asked.
“I need some time to cancel some other appointments and to clear my schedule. Why don’t you meet me here at 1pm?”
Larry scrunched his lips together and replied, “Sounds good to me. I suppose I could run over to the bank and cash this check!” He stood up and before leaving he called out, “See you at one.”
I wait by the front of the museum anxiously awaiting Larry to pull up. I didn’t have much trouble rescheduling my appointments. I mean come on, at this point nothing else matters to me but that sign. The odds of it being real are slim to none, but I have to know.
I see a red rundown pickup truck pull up to the curb and sure enough its Larry. I get in and notice that his bottom lip is puffed out like he just got stung by a bee. He holds up a can of snuff and offers me a chew. “No thanks,” I say, withdrawing my face away from the can.
“That’s a nasty habit!”
Larry tucks the can of snuff into his flannel shirt and spits out the window. “Well… to each his own.”
“You know I could follow you in my car, so I have a way back.”
He gives me a cockeyed look and utters, “My dad doesn’t like strange vehicles coming onto his land. It’s better this way. Don’t worry I’ll bring you back safe and sound.”
Safe and sound. That really puts my mind at ease.
He turns the radio on as he drives away, and wouldn’t you know it… country music. Is there anything worse than this stereotypical situation? If I could have followed him in my car, I would be blasting some classical tunes, but no… I have to sit in his dirty bug infested truck watching him spit out the window every five minutes.
His dad’s farm is about twelve miles down the road, way out in the sticks. That explains Larry’s weird behavior. Most people who live in an isolated area always seem a bit off. That’s just my opinion and honestly it doesn’t really matter what I think as long as I can lay my eyes on that sign.
Larry pulls into his dad’s front driveway and I immediately notice the garage to the left of the truck where my golden beauty awaits! The one-story house off to the right looks like it should be condemned. The whole house looks like a moldy piece of bread. The outer boards are barely hanging on the walls, and the enclosed front porch is sagging like a barn that has seen to many winters. How can they live like this?
Putting my thoughts aside, I step out of the truck expecting to see Larry’s dad run up to me with a shotgun, but he is nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s your dad?” I ask, stepping through the muddy grass.
He spits his whole wad of snuff out onto the lawn not caring where it lands, and replies, “Oh… I suspect he’s down in the basement. He spends most of his time down there.”
I want to get this thing over with. The anticipation is eating away at my bones. “Well,” I say, walking towards the garage, “let’s have a look at this sign.”
“Well alright, I’ll take you to it.”
“Good - time is a very precious resource and I hate to waste anymore of it!”
Larry takes the lead and strides through the soggy soil like an elephant. I prance like a little pony behind him; taking special care not to ruin my shoes. He reaches into his pants and pulls out an enormous set of keys. With a loud click the garage door is now unlocked. He grabs the handle and swings the metal door open.
As we step inside, the first thing that pops in my head is that a hundred different hoarders must have threw-up in this dump. There are piles and piles of junk and trash scattered all about. I see no resemblance of organization whatsoever. This is not a good omen for my special prize.
“That sign is right back here Mr. Sullivan.”
“I thought I told you to call me Dan.”
We journey deeper into the hoarders paradise, and Larry points up to the rafters with his flabby arm. My eyes follow his direction and there hanging on a rafter beam between two big metal bookshelves is the sign. My sign. My Golden Beauty.
Tears fill my eyes because I instantly know that it’s the real thing. Despite this disgusting bear hive the sign looks pretty darn good. I’ll need to get up there to take a closer look.
“Alright Dan, why don’t you wait here, and I’ll go fetch my dad to let him know that you’re here.”
He gives me a big pat on the back and I quickly utter, “Yes… Yes, by all means.”
Larry stomps off and I can feel my heart shudder like a giant turbine engine. I can’t wait. I need to get up there.
I look around and see a metal ladder leaning against one of the metal bookshelves and my eyes light up in excitement. I look up at the sign again and feel like singing a grand tune. I rush over and grab the ladder and extend it to it’s full length. As I look for a suitable position to place the ladder, I notice an old rusty nail holding the sign up. It doesn’t look too sturdy, but not to fear your new daddy is coming to the rescue.
Once I get up there I will bring you down to safety!
My eyes find the perfect spot to place the ladder: on the right side of the sign just off from one of the bookshelves. I place the legs of the ladder down on the concrete floor and notice a foul smell coming from a nearby drain. Ignoring the stench, I stumble closer with the ladder grasping firmly with both hands. The damn thing is heavier than I initially thought.
As I lean the top of the ladder against the rafter, the vibrations start to rock the tin sign back and forth. Oh no! That rusty nail isn’t going to hold it. I need to save my golden beauty. I can’t risk any damage to it. Climbing the ladder may not be the best option because my weight will surely cause the sign to fall.
I glance at the ladder and then my eyes dart back to the swinging sign. Shit! There’s no time. That nail isn’t going to hold. I must try to catch it.
Acting quickly, I rush under the sign with open arms ready to catch the falling star. My eyes are glued on the sign as it sways from one side to the other.
Back and forth, back and forth… Snap!!
The scene seems to play out in slow motion; at least to me. My heart feels heavy and I feel knots in my stomach. The rusty nail breaks and the sign flaps its way down towards my loving arms. I slap my hands together above my head grasping the sign, but oops, I misjudged the weight. The fierce momentum of the golden beauty slices through me like a hot knife cutting a stick of butter. It split me in half and darkness swallowed me.
Then suddenly I see a bright light and I’m staring at my lifeless body. I can hear the lonely sound of my blood pouring into the nearby drain like a majestic waterfall falling from a mountain side.
Oh, shit I’m dead. It can’t end like this!
After a few minutes I hear voices approaching. I see Larry and his dad walk into the garage and they both have big smiles plastered on their faces. What the hell are you two smiling about? I just lost my life! Can’t you hear me? I scream as loud as I can.
Larry’s dad rubs his fat fingers against his white beard and says, “You see boy, it works every damn time, ha, ha!”
He looks at his father with a dumbfounded look. “I know you did dad, but I thought this guy was different. He was smart.”
What the hell are they talking about!
“Whew boy!! That’s the fun part ain’t it?” He points to my body and orders, “You grab one half and I’ll get the other. I can’t wait to add him to my collection! This man here is special!”
Collection? Special? What the hell is going on here?
I watch in shock as they each grab one half of my body and walk off into the distance. I follow close behind, screaming profanities to no avail. They can’t hear me. What’s the use?
I see them go down into a cellar that I can only assume is their basement. I’m too afraid to follow at this point. What could they possible do with my body anyway.
Boom, boom, boom…
I hear a thunderous pounding coming from the depths of the basement and I guess you could say my curiosity is getting the best of me. I run down and to my horror, I see hundreds of dead corpses hanging from wall to wall. My body is bolted up in the center of the room surrounded by candles. I see a faint copper sign hanging above my head that reads: My Golden Beauty.
I see Larry and his dad laughing hysterically like two spoiled whiny pigs. Larry reaches over and pats his dad on the back. “I’m so glad you got your golden beauty, dad!”
“Ha, ha… I knew I would someday!”
I place both hands on my head as the room starts spinning. I feel like I’m on a merry-go-round from Hell.
This can’t be real!
I can’t die like this!
Oh, someone please… help me!
Daniel R. Hayes