Rust Amongst the Relics
August 7, 2012
For E. T. Breithaupt, the only difference between yesterday and today was the lock on the front door. He preferred yesterday. He glanced out the window and smiled as an aging yellow school bus rolled to stop in the dirt parking lot. He wasn’t surprised. His old Country Store on the outskirts of Lorman was the final fragmented remnant of living history found along the eastern edge of rural Mississippi. The decrepit mercantile and grocery started out old and never quite caught up. It did need a fresh coat of paint. But what was the use? Wait a few years. Wait out a few hard rains. Wait out in a blistering sun. It could not get any worse. Why go to all of the trouble of painting when he could wait out a few more years, rain, and sunshine. Nobody complained. He doubted if anyone noticed.
The school children probably in the fourth grade, maybe the fifth, eased their way awkwardly through the front door as Breithapt had seen school children do so many times. They were in a line that no longer tried to be straight. Their faces were scrubbed, their clothes cleaned and pressed their shoes mostly tied and least still on their feet even during the barefoot time of May. They were holding hands, one leading the other, one laughing, then another, one doing her best to squeal loud enough for all of them.
Breithaupt nodded to the teacher. She smiled. Her face was young. Her eyes were old. Her shoulders were slumped wearily as she walked. “Where is the museum?” she asked.
“Upstairs,” he said. “Make yourself at home, and stay as long as you like.”
“We’ll try not to disturb your business,” the teacher said.
“Children never do.”
The teacher walked past the barrel of flour, around the tub of lard, and on toward the stairs. The children followed.
Breithaupt turned his back and forgot them. He had not always been content to live within the cobwebs of the past. Back in 1956, he had even made a serious attempt to modernize the store. Keep it country, maybe. But no longer old. “We didn’t do a nickel’s worth of business,” he told me. So he returned the store to its dimly lit and old-fashioned, down-home atmosphere of kerosene lamps and Shankstowne bonnets and cracker barrels.
The morning’s laughter echoed from upstairs. “I need to get more lights up there,” Breithaupt said. The attic was a little too dark, a little too dusty, a little too unkempt. For years, or maybe it was decades, he had wandered the pastures, trekked the woodlands and ventured into kudzu-covered ravines that made up a vast battleground during the long, tedious, and deadly siege of Vicksburg. In the unlikeliest of places, he had stumbled across wagon loads of swords, muskets, pistols, cannon balls, and rifle shot.
He brought them back to the store and hauled them upstairs to a dark, dank, and wide-open attic. He dumped them, aged and rusting, unceremoniously on old wooden shelves. The relics were always out of place or in the wrong place. There they lay amidst the dust and rust. He never bothered to clean or polish them. He left them the way time had left them on earth.
“I need to dress them up a little,” Breithaupt said. “Knock the rust off. Give them a good polish. Put some glass around them.” He shrugged. “The attic doesn’t look like a museum,” he said. “It looks like a wreck.”
He had tacked a sign to the inside wall of the store that read: Special. Slightly used Yankee cannon balls. Shot at us by Admirals Porter and Farragut. We will sell them back to you. And he had tacked a second sign to an outside wall: If you’re not going to stop, come in and tell us why. He was not kidding about either.
An hour passed. Then two. Breithaupt looked up from his ledger and saw the schoolteacher looking across the counter at hi. She had tears in her eyes. He frowned.
“Thank you so much,” she said.
He was puzzled.
“You have the best museum in the world,” she said.
Now he was flabbergasted. “It’s not much,” he said.
“It needs a little more light up there.”
“Not to us, it doesn’t.” She paused, then continued. “This is the first museum we’ve ever gone where the children can actually pick up the muskets and pistols and rifle shot. They held them in their hands. They touched them to their faces. They now know how long the swords were, how sharp the knives were, how round the rifle shot was. It meant so much to them.”
“I need to get rid of the rust.”
“Please don’t get rid of the rust.”
“The children feel and smell the rust and realize how old everything is.”
Breithaupt frowned again.
“You don’t understand, do?” the teacher said.
“No ma ‘am, I’m afraid I don’t,” he said.
She wiped away a tear and smiled. “We’re from the school for the blind,” she said. “Other museums have their artifacts and relics behind glass. The children can go. They can hear us talk about each of the pieces. But it doesn’t mean anything. Your museum let them see the relics the only way they can see them. With their hands. With their touch.”
She smiled again. Her eyes didn’t appear to be so old anymore.
The children – still in line, still holding hands, still laughing – moved back through the door, walked slowly but confidently down the steps, and headed toward the yellow bus. The teacher was right behind them.
Breithaupt glanced upstairs. “Just as well,” he said. “I couldn’t afford the glass cases anyway.” His voice was a little more husky than it had been. He wiped his eyes. “It’s the dust,” he said. “Can’t keep the dust out of here. I guess it’s the cracks in the wall.”
The walls were old. I wouldn’t argue with that.
They hadn’t had a crack in years.
Caleb Pirtle III is author of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story.