Fiction. (Based on the Reedsy prompt, “Write a story about someone who works in a wax museum.”)
The tin sign off the dusty strip of desert highway was faded and rusty. It hung from a large pole via a couple of metal rings and swung in the lethargic, arid breeze. “Moby’s House of Curiosities,” the jovial, space-race era font read. The building itself looked antiquated but functional. Drivers approaching from miles down the old stretch of forgotten highway often mistook it for a diner or drive-in – some sign of a town or civilization – and were disappointed when they saw the lone museum nestled in among the desert rocks and hills and nothing else.
Harold Cobbler sat inside at his workbench in the room behind the reception counter. He was taking a break from working on his diorama and reading a paperback western. He often thought about getting in touch with the L’Amour estate to see if they’d thank him for contributing so much to their inheritance over the years. In this one, a young boy ran off and got held hostage by bandits. Harold hadn’t gotten there yet, but he was pretty sure the sheriff and a posse were going to save him by the end. He was just turning the page when Marney came in.
“Afternoon, Harold,” Marney said as she walked over to the reception counter. She didn’t even notice the wax figures, specimens laid out in jars, and oddities of all sizes she passed on her way anymore. She’d been delivering mail to Moby’s for decades now, and she had long since stopped wondering about the place. Harold didn’t get a lot of mail, in fact, he almost never got anything other than utility bills and junk mail, but every Friday, she would deliver a letter in an old-style faded envelope, and it was always from the same return address.
The letters were from someone named M. Asmodeus at 13 Rue Despote in New Orleans, and Marney had delivered them every Friday for as long as she could remember having this route. In those early days when she and Harold were just getting to know one another, she’d ask him about the letters every so often, but Harold would only say, “They’re from my landlord.” Then he would change the subject. After a while, she stopped asking.
Harold looked up from his book when he saw Marney lay his landlord’s letter and a couple of other envelopes on the counter. “Oh,” he said. “What else’d ya bring me?”
“Same thing I always bring you on the third Friday of the month, Harold,” she said. “Power bill and the Ralph’s circular.”
“Hmm,” he said. “Guess I’d better throw one of those in the trash. Lay the Ralph’s circular back on the counter, please.” They both shared a chuckle. “Lemme see the other one,” he said.
Marney rolled her eyes and handed him the faded envelope. Harold took it from her and turned to put it on the desk behind him. “You wanna Coke?” he asked her. “It looks like it’s awful hot out there.”
Marney looked at the nearly empty letter bag at her side and thought, Not too much more today… Then she said, “Sure, Harold. I’d love a Coke.”
“Comin’ right up,” he said.
He turned to go back to his workroom and Marney noticed that he took with him the faded envelope from his landlord. What’s in those letters? She thought.
From behind the workroom door, Harold called out, “How are the kids these days?”
“Hmm,” Marney scoffed. “Might as well ask you.” She took the cold red can of Coke that Harold now offered and smiled bitterly.
“Still haven’t heard from ‘em?” he asked.
Marney shook her head. “Last time was nigh-on two years ago,” she said.
“Where’d you say they were again?”
“Tennessee,” she said. “Robbie’s in Memphis and Tina’s in Nashville.” Then she got a little brave. “What about your kids, Harold? Where are your kids?”
Harold flushed for a moment – like he had no idea what Marney was talking about. Just as quickly, though, he regained his composure and said, “Oh, they’re fine. Can I get you another Coke for the road?”
Marney shook her head. “No thanks. This one’ll hold me. Besides, the faster I get these last few delivered the faster I get to go home and relax.”
“That sounds nice,” Harold said.
“Yeah,” Marney scoffed. “Go home, fix dinner, get in the chair, fall asleep watchin’ the tube, then get up and do it again,” she said. “Ain’t it the life.” After a slight, awkward silence, she added, “Well… maybe in my retirement, I can set about the great big wide world and become an international woman of mystery. A girl can dream, right? If I thought I’d have to do this until I die I think I might go nuts.”
“Uh huh,” Harold said, but there was an absent look on his face – like he was lost in some long-discarded memory only now rediscovered.
“Alright,” she said. “I’m gonna hit the road. See you next week, Harold.”
After Marney left, Harold went back into his workroom and grabbed himself a Coke. He sat down at the small desk opposite his workbench and opened the letter.
My Dearest Mr. Cobbler,
My apologies once again for my delinquency in visiting you this past while. I do, however, have some good news. It appears I have found your relief. You may expect my arrival within the week. I’m sure you have many preparations to make, so let us not dally further with this letter, Mr. Cobbler. Your deliverance is nigh.
Harold didn’t know what to do with himself. Nearly every letter he’d received from Mr. Asmodeus in the years – no, decades – that he’d been here at Moby’s House of Curiosities had said essentially the same thing. Apart from the greetings and salutations, which varied from week to week, the body always read,
My apologies for my delinquency in visiting you this past while, I am steadfastly working to procure your replacement, I assure you. You will be relieved soon, Mr. Cobbler. In the meantime, continue maintaining the museum and as always, should you find anything our patrons may find interesting, by all means, use your discretion in making the displays.
And Harold did just that. He lived in a small addition built onto the back of the main building. He had a murphy bed, a hot plate, sink, mini-fridge, microwave, and a small table. The biggest drawback to his living situation was that there was no restroom inside. Even though it was a commercial building, it was built before there were legal requirements for such facilities. Harold made use of an outhouse on the property about fifty yards behind the building.
On a rare occasion, a “customer” came by. More often than not, they were a minivan full of snarky, bratty kids and worn-out adults, and one or all of them needed a bathroom break. It got to be a game Harold played with himself – how disappointed would they be when he told them they had to pay for admission; and how pissed would they be when they found out that they’d just paid admission to use an outhouse?
But Harold wasn’t complaining. He welcomed the break in the routine most of the time. Sure, if he was working on a new exhibit – making the mold, casting the wax, or painting the delicate little details like eyebrows – then their timing could be a bit inconvenient, but he really didn’t mind. They were his friends, the people who stopped by. Whether they stayed for an hour and took the tour, or stayed only long enough to find out that they had to pay admission to do their business outside, he valued each and every one of them. That was because other than those casual conversations and the small talk with Marney a couple of times a week, Harold didn’t get much human contact. Except, of course, his weekly letters from M. Asmodeus.
The details of when Harold had come into his current arrangement were lost to him now after the decades. When he tried to remember, flashes of images from a life before this one bombarded his mind. They were no more than impressions, really – the sound of a child laughing, the sunset gleaming across a field of unbroken snow, a curly lock of brown hair – never more than an instant, these flashes, but they spun around his mind like a swarm of locusts, eating at his sanity.
Harold would get whipped into a frenzy, and then he’d have to take one of the pills his landlord had left with him. Often, right before he took the pills, he would wonder why he never had to refill the bottle – why there was always the same number of pills, but as soon as he took one, all of those concerns faded away into the fog.
This Harold did now, as Mr. Asmodeus’ letter had jarred him somewhat. He didn’t hate his life here at the museum, but the promise of a reward for his service – an even better life to come – excited him. In fact, had Harold never been promised those things, he wasn’t sure if living at and running the museum would be worth all of the loneliness and monotony that came with it. But he did have the promise, and so it was.
Harold remembered it as the fog settled in around his head – M. Asmodeus’ warm smile and soothing voice as he described the leisurely retirement waiting for him. The fog became a cloud that wrapped around Harold, comforting him and obfuscating every anxious thought inside of him. Eventually, all that was left was a blurry, abstract concept of bliss that would be awarded Harold should he faithfully and honorably serve his landlord. Then he put on his magnifying glasses and got back to work on his diorama.
The predatory scene he was crafting was for the “local natural history” section of the museum. Harold had laid out the foundation by gluing some sand and dirt to a large sheet of styrofoam. He added mounds and larger rocks here and there to make the “ground” uneven and add to the realism. He had also placed some tumbleweed around the periphery and a large piece of deadwood toward the back.
There was always some new exhibit to keep him busy, whether it be the wing of medical instruments or the hall of torture devices. Harold took great pride in getting the displays just right. His favorite was one that visitors also tended to fixate on. It was a set of conjoined cat twins that had apparently died after a few months. The grotesque abomination had two heads, two front legs, four hind legs, and two tails. Harold had hand-painted a sign for the display in the old P.T. Barnum style of writing that said, “Gaze upon the astounding Siamese Siamese!” The insensitive pun humor still made him chuckle.
He couldn’t remember exactly, but he’d been working on this diorama for at least a couple of years. The idea for the scene was a vision that came to him from the fog. It had taken time to get the specimens and to prepare them.
Harold was no taxidermist, though. He did all of his dioramas in wax. He’d find a specimen, make a mold, cast the figure, and painstakingly add color and texture with hand tools to make the finished statue as realistic as possible. Over the years, Harold had gotten really good at making the wax look like real feathers, real fur, and real scales. For as long as he was awake he would work at his dioramas. Hunched over his workbench, magnifying glasses on, fine paintbrush or Exact-O knife in his hand, he would fixate on the smallest details. He put a great deal of care and pride into his work, even though nobody except for the occasional customer would ever see it. He knew that his landlord would see the works of his hands eventually, and it was this assurance that motivated him.
Now, it seemed, that time was at hand. Harold knew that he only had a few days left to finish the mouse so he couldn’t be quite as picky as he usually was. Still, as this was to be his last contribution to the museum, he wanted it to be his masterpiece, and it would take him all the time he had left to do it.
For the next few days, he worked on whiskers and fir, getting the texture and the coloring just right. He’d grown quite fond of the mouse, which was only about half the size of his hand. The original specimen long disposed of, he had a hard time trying to decide at first between brown or grey when it came time to add color. He thought the original specimen was grey, but brown matched more nicely with the rest of the colors in the diorama, so he decided to go with that. Of course, coloring and texturing the wax figure was only part of the work. Placing it within the scene was almost as much of an art as painting it.
Six days had passed since he opened his landlord’s last letter, and it was time to place the mouse at last. Harold woke that Thursday, took his pills, and eagerly started his work. Throughout the morning, he tried different arrangements. He would place the mouse, then move around the room, looking at it from various angles. By the afternoon, he had settled on a place near the piece of dead wood on the left side of the scene.
He stood back and looked at his creation. Under the track lighting, the scene played out. The mouse perched on its hind legs, eating a piece of dried grass. Behind it, in the center, is a large diamondback, apparently lying in ambush, caught in mid-strike, mouth agape, menacing fangs aimed at its prey. At the other end of the diorama, an owl swooped in from above with its wings spread wide and its talons armed for attack. Its bulbous yellow eyes peered out from the characteristically flat face and locked onto the viper.
Harold was satisfied. He went back into the workroom and grabbed the sign he had painted for this scene when he had first been inspired to start working on it. “Ambush Predators of the West,” the title read. Below that was a description Harold had written. It read:
The meek pocket mouse blissfully consumes the blade of grass. The fearsome rattler has been lying in wait for his own chance to consume. Little do either of them know, however, that the mighty owl above has other plans for them both.
Harold gently placed the sign into the placard in front of the diorama and smiled. Then the front door opened.
Marney came into Moby’s House of Curiosities around noon on Friday. She immediately noticed that the light was different when she walked in. She walked up to the reception counter, expecting to see Harold coming through the workroom door. Instead, she saw a striking man appear. His jet black hair was combed straight back and he had a smile the size of the Sierra Nevadas. He wore a white shirt with a black bow tie, a pair of black suspenders, and gold cufflinks. Before Marney could take in what she was seeing he said, “Hello, madam! Welcome to Moby’s. May I interest you in a tour?”
“No thanks,” she said. “Where’s Harold?”
“Oh,” the man said, eyeing Marney’s USPS uniform. “Forgive me, it didn’t occur to me. Of course, you’ve been in before. Harold has finally retired. His work here is finished. I’m manning the shop until I can find a suitable replacement.”
“You’re the landlord?” Marney asked.
“Ah, yes. M. Asmodeus at your service, Miss…”
“Charmed,” Mr. Asmodeus said. He looked at Marney quizzically and said, “Pardon me, but are you alright?”
“I feel dizzy,” Marney said. She began to swoon, and Mr. Asmodeus rushed around the counter to steady her. She put her hands on the counter and said, “What did you do to the lights in here? My head hurts.”
“Oh dear, Ms. Jacobs,” Mr. Asmodeus said. “Here, let me get you a chair” He led her away from the main part of the museum and back into the small apartment. He sat her down at the table and opened a bottle of pills from the counter. Marney sat slumped over, head in her hands, sobbing.
“Here. These will help with your headache,” said M. Asmodeus. He handed her two pills and a glass of water. Marney took them and gulped them down. She could think of nothing else but making the pain and dizziness in her head go away.
When she woke, she did not remember how long she had worked for the museum, nor how many weeks now she had been working on the statue, but she knew that today was the day she would finish it. She knew that on Friday Bill would deliver another letter from her landlord reassuring her that once he returned with her replacement she would get to retire and be happy forever. She took her pills and set to work finishing up the eyebrows. By the afternoon she was ready to place the sign. It read:
Harold Cobbler – Behold the Works of His Hands