There are nights like this – with the drops of rain hammering the windshield like there’s a tiny kamikaze pilot controlling each one – when I hate my job. My headlights pick out two arcs of wet asphalt surrounded by wet trees and wet, cold darkness. There are no other cars, no other people and no other lights. I haven’t been able to get a signal on the car radio in a half hour. The car is bouncing into ruts and potholes I don’t see before it’s too late. I’ve got the heating off to conserve gas and even in thick gloves I can barely feel my fingers on the wheel. All this for one fifty an hour.
I’m a reporter for the Northchester Echo. I get the contentious planning disputes, the school fetes and, if I’m lucky, the odd interview with a local “character” for the back section of the paper just before the funnies.
My boss got a letter Wednesday and called me into his office. Might be nothing, he said (which is why he’s sending me I guess), but this guy looks a bit of a fruitcake so it might make a story. Says he’s got the greatest collection ever amassed.
“Collection of what?”
“Celebrity memorabilia of some sort. Doesn’t say exactly,” my boss says unconcerned, waving a letter which has been hand-written on the back of a mailshot advertising a car washing firm. “It’s not strictly speaking in our district...” I groan “...but it’s only just across the county line. It’ll be a nice trip out for you.”
I grab the letter my boss holds out and turn to leave.
“Oh yeah,” my boss says, grinning slightly, “the man hasn’t got a phone, so he says you can visit Sunday evening between 8 and 10pm. This Sunday.” My boss obviously still hasn’t forgotten the complaints he got after my livened-up coverage of the homeowners’ association meeting last fall.
So I tell the guys I won’t be able to make the pool tournament and I borrow my uncle’s car for the weekend. It’s an old jalopy with a can of oil in the trunk. I have to stop every ten miles or so and tip some more into the engine.
It’s about a two hour drive through the loneliest roads I ever saw before I get to Mr Wiezniewski’s house. It’s your usual backwoods affair with an outhouse standing a few yards away just visible in the gaslight from the windows.
The mud out front is all rutted into puddles, so they must get vehicles up here although there’s nothing in sight. I slide from the car into one of the larger ruts and get wet to the shins.
The porch roof is rotted through and water is forming a river down my neck. I knock on the door with both fists and holler.
Mr Wiesniewski answers the door looking mildly reproachful for my urgency. Still, he invites me in and offers me a coffee and a threadbare seat next to a small but still glowing fire. The floor all around is stacked with twenty-year old newspapers.
I drink my hot drink and I start to steam slightly, adding wet dog smell to the already pungent mix in the shack. When he judges I’m thawed enough, he drags me out of the chair and up to his back room, piled high with junk.
“So, my collection,” Mr Wiesniewski begins, picking his way towards a wardrobe the far side of the junk mountain. “Why aren’t you writing this down?”
I pull out my notebook and peel two pages apart, although they’re so wet the pen just tears them. “I’ve got an excellent memory,” I tell the old guy.
“Very well. So, here is my collection.” He lifts a small wooden box out of the wardrobe and carries it back towards me.
Inside the box, there is fluff, matted hair, mud, dried grass, insects and a few buttons and rusted nails. It looks like the contents of a blocked u-bend.
I’ve got all sorts here, he says. But I’ll show you some of the ones likely to be of interest. This, said Mr Wiesniewski holding up a desiccated object, is a mosquito that bit Bert Schneizack; holding up an unidentifiable clod: this is mud found on the shoe of Colin Hoag before he died. This – he holds up a bent pin – was one of the pins used by Elsie Carter to mend the dinner jacket of Charlie Wenderman before he gave a speech at the local Conservative Society.
“Oh, great.” I say. “Bert...?”
“Bert Schneizack, you know.”
“You got me.”
“He won the Higher Stapleford best kept lawn three years running, 1964-67.”
“Where’s Higher Stapleford?”
“I... Somewhere out West, I think.”
“And don’t tell me,” I say, “Charlie Wenderman, his claim to fame? What, he once sneezed at a concert? He grew big marrows?”
“Have you really never heard of Charlie Wenderman?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“He ran for mayor of Northchester in 1949 and came fourth. I thought it would interest you, at the Northchester Echo.”
“Oh, yeah, local interest. What about the other one. Uh, Colin Hoag?”
“He was a cub reporter on one of the local rags. Died mysteriously two years ago. He’s buried quite near here, actually.”
“Yeah? I think I recall reading he’d gone missing at the time. I didn’t realize they’d found a body. Where, exactly, is he buried?”
“Oh, quite close.”