Sometimes on our way from one place to another we would stop at Al Mizrayan’s Novelty Shop on Main Street to scoff at its false fangs and wigs and ogre and gorilla masks, practical jokes like hand buzzers, sneezing powder and hot pepper to sprinkle on someone’s food, scientific novelties like gyroscopes, kaleidoscopes and periscopes, magic tricks, decks of cards, some of which were labelled “marked,” dice in their own little cloth bags and boxes of poker chips. Behind the counter, under a display of whoopee cushions arranged according to size, Al Mizrayan stood and watched us, conflicted about whether he wanted us to leave or to stay, because occasionally we would buy something.
At the top of the long Cedar Avenue hill, up the last hundred yards of which Eddie Horowitz and I, the fat ones, had to walk our bikes, was our favorite destination, Kimlin’s Cider Mill. The Cider Mill was a red clapboard lodge, low-ceilinged, airless and smelling like a barrel of apples someone had left in the garage and forgotten about. The dust motes were so heavy that it didn’t take a shaft of sunlight streaming through one of the narrow windows to see them in the gloom. Everything was tinted sepia with cider residue. The muffled sound of tawdry radio music (Teresa Brewer, Frankie Lane, Eddie Fisher) seeped up from beneath the squeaky floorboards. On a table near the front door there was an old guest book, open to a page with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s signature.
(Millay meant more to me than she did to the others. The only poetry on my parents’ bookshelves were eight slim grey volumes of Millay – the original Harper edition. On the inside front board of each was scrawled a date (from before my parents had met) and my father’s signature thick with youthful, reckless diagonals. Just listing their titles– A Few Figs from Thistles, Wines from These Grapes, The Buck in the Snow – is a madeleine, and I can recollect myself alone in the living room, in that melancholy hour between the end of whatever had been occupying my day and dinner, kneeling beside the bookshelves and deciphering one of the sonnets in Fatal Interview, hearing not the voice of the Vassar charmer, but the voice of my father, his secret voice, the one which, from time to time, broke through his conversation in a flash of wise and sentimental irony.)
The Kimlins’ other curios were more substantial. Pride of place was given to a marvel, a stuffed two-headed calf, then there were a stuffed horse, stuffed birds (exotic and indigenous), stuffed varmints (raccoons, ‘possums, squirrels, chipmunks), the mounted head of an eight-point buck, a mounted swordfish, antique cooking pots and kitchen utensils, an American flag with forty-five stars, china plates and cups and steins commemorating forgotten political campaigns and public celebrations of fifty years before – the launching of a steamship, the christening of a dam – mechanical piggy banks, swords, buggy whips, wagon wheels, and four huge horseshoes which, an index card in a small metal frame informed us, once were worn by the world’s largest horse, Supreme Queen, which had weighed two tons and stood twelve feet high.
With this dream-like detritus of the past lowering at us through the gloom, with Mrs. Kimlin, specter-like, appearing and disappearing behind her counter, the dusty taste of the cookies and cider making it seem like the cookies had been baked and the cider pressed before we were born, and the radio so faint that it felt like the real world was light years away, the Cider Mill was the closest thing to an adventure like the ones that boys in books had that we could get.