Armitage found himself driving due-east on I-90 fighting the rising sun on the Sunday morning of the third week of July. He was dying for a cup of coffee, and maybe a breakfast sandwich and it irked him that he had left his sunglasses back in his own car, which was parked in his garage seven states away.
He was on his way to a Monday morning meeting with the Chief of Police in a town east of Albany that was large enough to have its own police force but not considered important enough to have a commercial airport.
He had wanted the whole weekend to prepare for the meeting, but the connector flight out of Newark to Albany had been delayed twice – no surprise there, Newark Airport was not referred to by air-travelers as The Twilight Zone and the Black Hole of New Jersey (if you are unlucky enough to get sucked in there, you can’t ever leave) for nothing – and that had thrown his schedule out of whack. Well, no matter, he was finally on the road, but driving toward the sunrise was like looking directly into a bank of halogen lights.
He fiddled with the sun-visor in the rented Chevrolet sedan, tried adjusting the seat back and forth – there was no up and down feature in this model – and stretched and scrunched his head, neck and torso every which way to keep the intense glare out of his eyes, but nothing worked.
The Interstate was already crazy with cars and he had just had a near-miss as a black, oversized sport utility vehicle with government plates randomly changed lanes, nearly wiping out a red two-seater convertible in the SUV’s blind spot. Armitage had narrowly avoided both of them by taking violent evasive action and whipping the Chevy over into the far-left lane, earning a middle-finger salute from the driver of a four-door pickup towing a silver camper-trailer shaped like a beer can. And then, salvation. The green sign of an exit suddenly materialized out of the glare. Enough of this!
A quick three-way check in the mirrors, and then he cut over hard-right two lanes toward the exit-ramp. There was plenty of room behind him to safely execute this maneuver but it obviously annoyed the driver of an eighteen-wheeler with a fifty-foot reefer coming up on his right, who woke up the big-rig’s air horn that blatted out an angry snarl. Ah, well, can’t please everyone. He zipped down the ramp and stopped at a T intersection.
His intention was to find an oasis with food and drink and wait until the sun was up at a less-acute angle to get back on the turnpike, but there was no succor in sight in either direction. A glance at the GPS told him there was a secondary highway that paralleled the Interstate. A poet friend had told him that his destination wasn’t far from the laureate Robert Frost’s stomping ground, so he decided, whimsically, to take the road less travelled and turned toward the parallel secondary route.
He had been navigating the two lanes of hardtop for thirty-five minutes, and had slowed to meet a 40 MPH speed zone, when he came upon the country store. It lay snugged up alongside the highway, like a passenger vessel moored at dockside, and appeared on his right just after he had passed between a deep-green, high-summer-tall cornfield on the same side, and a farm with a prominent white house and neat, prosperous-looking outbuildings and a weathered split-rail wood fence on the left. A sign on the store beckoned him to stop.
It was a suitcase-sized, black-letters-on-yellow-background rectangle that jumped out at his eyes off the recently-painted barn-red siding of the building. It said, simply and irresistibly, COFFEE.
When he got out of the car, he saw that the store now appeared – at least from the roadside – more like an island than a ship. Its parking area in front of the veranda’d facade was actually a complicated confluence of roads, footpaths and mailboxes that converged in on it from along and across the highway, at thirty-degree angles.
There was a picture-postcard charm about the setting. The store’s exterior siding was clean and well-maintained and the building was bracketed on either end by a huge stand of rhododendrons, in full bloom. There were also two other signs that conveyed both a welcome, and a sense of fun.
One was a large, colorful and new-looking wooden banner fastened across the front of the veranda featuring the name – Metcalf’s Country Store – which he assumed referred to family ownership, with a sub-heading that said: Groceries, Notions and General Merchandise. The other was a small indoor sign in a window facing outward that read: If we don’t have it, you probably don’t need it. The building only lacked outstretched arms to warmly embrace an approaching visitor.
A man who could have been fifty or eighty, with a lined, weathered face and a bushy gray beard was sitting on a bench on the veranda near the store entrance. He was wearing a Boston Red Sox baseball cap, a green plaid shirt and brown Carhartt work pants, and was drinking something steaming from a white ceramic mug, also featuring a Red Sox logo.
Armitage made two mental notes: You are definitely in Red Sox territory, be careful what you say, and: Good! There is coffee here, as advertised. He smiled at the man as he opened the door into the store, and received a perfunctory nod.
Going through the entry activated a bell hanging overhead on a chain from a black wrought-iron bracket. As it tinkled musically, and the door was slammed shut behind him by a coil spring, he had the impression of stepping through a time-warp portal into the past. Other than a modern cash register with a credit card reader on the front counter located at a right-angle to the door, and a bank of stainless steel coolers along a back wall, the store’s interior looked as if it hadn’t changed in seventy-five years.
There was no one in sight as he stepped in, but his olfactory senses were able to detect and sort two distinct scents in the air. The first was a faint, pleasant, lemony-tang of furniture polish. And overlaying that was the stronger and alluring aroma of freshly-brewed coffee. Ahhhhh, so far, so good.
He followed his nose, and steered a well-defined path from the entryway, that had been worn into the wood of the floor and polished smooth by constant foot traffic. It spoke of decades of daily use, and countless thousands of shoes and boots. As he turned the corner past the counter with the cash register, he entered an alcove with a four-pot coffee station on a waist-high table. A woman was just closing the glass front of a commercial food-warmer that sat beside it.
“Oh, good morning,” she said, and her smile was warm and genuine. “I just put on another pot of coffee and there are fresh sandwiches here in the hot-box.”
“Sounds good,” he said, filling a large paper cup with coffee. He looked up and saw by an old-fashioned wood-bezeled analogue clock on the wall behind the coffee station that the time was just after 6:40 a.m. “You’re here early.”
“Privilege and responsibility of ownership,” said the woman. She looked to be in her forties – it was hard to tell, he was never any good at judging age – and attractive, with a casual sweep of thick dark hair going to salt and pepper, wide-set blue eyes, a pert ski-slope nose and a generous mouth with turned-up corners and smile-lines.
“Right,” he said. “and that would be the Metcalf on the sign out front?’
“Used to be,” she said. “I took my husband’s name when I married, Snyder, but I grew up a Metcalf. This store has been in the family for ninety years. My grandfather built it and my grandparents ran it. Then my parents took it over. I started working here in high school.” She paused and looked at him directly; not a challenge, but a definite statement of proprietorship. “You’re up before the chickens on a Sunday, as well.”
“Traveling,” he said and told her where, and how, he was going. “I flew into Albany from Denver, through Newark.” He paused for effect. “But I left home yesterday afternoon.”
“She rolled her eyes knowingly, and chuckled. “Oh, good grief! Newark? You have my sympathy. I worked in California for twenty years before I came back here for good, when my dad died. But I came for a visit at least twice a year and I can’t tell you how many times I was stuck there in…” here she lowered her voice playfully to a sinister tone of mock forbidding, “The Twilight Zone.”
Armitage laughed at this. “You’ve been there, alright. We should start a club.”
She grinned. “Sign me up. But keep me off the executive, please! Every time I get talked into joining an organization, I wind up on the board for some strange reason.”
“Well, you know the old saying,” he said, snapping a plastic travel-lid down over the rim of the coffee cup. “If you really want something done, ask a busy person.”
“I suppose,” she said, then walked over and picked up a yellow aerosol can of furniture polish and a rag from a corner shelf.
“Not too busy at the moment,” she mused, turning away and giving another shelf a short spray from the yellow can, and a vigorous wipe. “But it’s the calm before the storm. We open at six, and I take the early shift on Sundays. Make the coffee and some breakfast goodies for the early birds,” she nodded at the egg and sausage on a bagel that he had taken from the warming oven, “and, if there’s time, I try and get some dusting done as well. Jennifer, she’s a high-school senior who works part-time, comes in to help at ten, and then my daughter, Molly, gets here about two and closes up at nine.”
Armitage took in the coolers stocked with milk, beer and soda that clashed with the retro setting, and the rows of old wooden shelving with dry and canned goods, many of them long-established and trusted brand names now supplanted by trendy new products in the major supermarkets. He estimated the store, with its niches and blocky angles to be between three and four thousand square feet and imagined the work involved to keep it operating.
“That’s a long day,” he said.
She shrugged. “I usually go home when Molly gets here, so it’s not so bad.” She looked up at him brightly, “California was nuts. I’m glad to be back here. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
He returned her smile. “I can see why you would feel that way’” he said, sincerely, taking his lidded coffee cup and the warm breakfast-sandwich wrapped in a decorative, waxy-feeling paper to the counter to pay. “It looks like a great place.”
And then he spotted it, propped up in a corner, waist-high, on top of a two-tiered stack of wooden apple crates that were arranged as makeshift shelves for pet food; dog food in the bottom crate and cat food in the top one. For no logical reason, his heart gave a little turn. Treasure, and not even buried.
It was unmistakably a chrome, tri-bar wheel-disc from a 1956 Oldsmobile Rocket 98 Starfire model. And not just a commonplace hubcap of the period, but a flanged, full wheel-cover, with the distinctive tri-bar but also the marque (or was it a logo, what did it matter?) cast in raised chrome, and set in a white circle, dead-center on the disc.
And in spite of this attractive woman’s – he suddenly wished, irrationally, that he knew her first name – apparently regular and diligent application of the lemon-smelling polish on the many surfaces in and around the store, the wheel-disc had a layer of dust on it.
He wondered why it was there, and if it was for sale.
The crazy thing was how instantly and accurately he had recognized it. And why he knew that the design was exclusive, not only to that particular year and make of Oldsmobile, but to that specific model.
For Armitage, cars were produced for transportation, to take people from point A to point B. He generally didn’t give a rat’s patootie about different variations, but when it came to this particular vehicle, he had been tutored by an expert. His best friend was a self-admitted antique-car zealot.
Peter Galloway lived three doors down from Armitage and they had been neighbors and friends for sixteen years. Armitage could date that with accuracy because it was now that long since his own marriage had broken up, and when he had bought the small, brick bungalow with the attached garage on a tree-lined Denver street, with his share of the divorce settlement.
And, in his large and well-equipped garage three houses away, Peter had a pristine 1956 Oldsmobile Rocket 98 Starfire hardtop with a three-tone paint-job, that he had inherited from his grandfather. Armitage had shared many after-work beers in Peter’s garage with his elbows on the fenders of the 56 Starfire. And he had watched his friend point out the numerous small distinctions between the Rocket 98 Starfire model, compared to the plain-vanilla (Peter’s words) Rocket 88s of the same year. Those lectures had included the wheel-discs.
Peter had a birthday coming up. And Armitage could visualize his friend’s face if he received a rare Starfire wheel-disc as a birthday gift. It didn’t matter that the car already had four immaculate wheel covers. All spare parts were welcome.
When he approached the cash register with the coffee and sandwich, the woman put down the aerosol can and the dust-rag and slipped behind the counter. “Well, glad we could satisfy the appetites of a hungry and thirsty traveler this morning,” she said, with that warm and genuine smile. “Will that be everything?”
He pointed over to the Starfire wheel cover that he knew Peter would treasure. “Is that for sale? I didn’t see a price on it.”
She frowned, and turned, puzzled, to look at the dull and dingy chrome disc propped against the corner of the wall, on the top of the apple crates.
“That thing? This will sound silly, but I don’t know. I don’t even know where it came from. It’s been here collecting dust..,” she walked over, lifted it off the crates, gave it a wipe with her finger and wrinkled that ski-slope nose, “literally collecting dust, since before I got back from California. I’ve never given it much notice. If I thought about it at all, I assumed it probably belonged to dad.”
“Well,” Armitage said, “I’ve got a friend back home who has a birthday coming up, and I know he would appreciate getting that as a gift.”
The woman carefully put the disc back on the crates, and came back behind the counter. She looked at the coffee and wrapped sandwich, gave him a long, searching look as if to test his sincerity, then put her head to one side and said, “Just a minute.”
She went to the door and spoke to the man in the Red Sox baseball cap, who was still sitting on the bench outside.
“Walt, would you mind coming in for a minute? Got a question for you.”
When the man got up off the bench, Armitage could see by his movements that he was much older than he had first appeared. He hobbled in through the door.
“Yup?” he said.
She held out the disc. “Do you know where this came from?”
“Accident,” he said. “Not far down the road. Car hit a gravel-truck. They cleared the mess away but that got left in the ditch. Yer dad picked it up the next day.”
“Anyone get hurt?”
“So, how much do you think it’s worth?”
The old man looked Armitage up and down, and gave her a knowing look.
She laughed. “You old pirate,” she said fondly. “You’d probably want half, too.”
She fixed Armitage with a firm look of business. “Thirty-five dollars,” she said. “It’ll be one less thing that I’ll have to dust. And I’ll throw in the food. On second thought, that’s probably cold now, so go pour yourself a fresh coffee and grab another sandwich from the hot-box.”
He thanked her, paid with cash, and went back out to the car, carefully carrying Peter’s gift, with the coffee and sandwich balanced on top. He had his hand on the door handle when the old man called to him from the veranda.
“Ya, got a good deal, y’know.” There was no rancor in the statement.
“No argument there” said Armitage with a smile. “Some days everything just goes your way.” He looked up at the sky, bemused. For no apparent reason, the morning now seemed glorious.
He was sliding into the car when the old man called to him again.
“Her husband’s gone, y’know. Ran off with a young waitress from over town way. Age of his daughter, she is. Been gone a year now. Won’t be comin back.”
Armitage looked at him thoughtfully. “That so,” he said.
Armitage fired up the rental-Chevy. He gazed at the chrome object on the passenger seat and took a sip of his coffee. He couldn’t remember when he’d tasted one better.
With a sense of well-being he couldn’t explain, he imagined Peter’s astonishment when his friend saw the Starfire treasure. Then, a revelation. This was a shared treasure. In gifting Peter, he had also done for himself. He noted the GPS coordinates for the Metcalf Country Store. Without a doubt, he would exit off I-90 and stop here again, on the trip back home.
And he would ask her for her first name.