The Sign

That was odd. Shop Boy had come across the hall to scout for a background form — a type-high block (8 by 10 in this case) for printing a solid block of color — and lazily left the door open behind him. It was mid-afternoon on a Thursday, not a high-traffic time for the Fox Industries Building, and I’d only be a sec. Mary needed the block pronto for a demonstration over at her Maryland Institute College of Art letterpress class. We’d been moving everything imaginable around in the studio recently, but Shop Boy had a basic idea where such a thing might be.

Just as I pulled open a file drawer, there was a weird sound behind me. Somebody else was here. Shop Boy looked around for a heavy, blunt object just in case.

OK, every stinking thing in a letterpress studio is a blunt object capable of inflicting bodily harm. I might be dead before I could choose among potential weapons. Shop Boy summoned his courage and peeked sheepishly around the corner.

“Are you the Grim Reaper?” I asked.

OK, I asked that in my head. Mostly I just stared at the figure who’d wandered through the open door. But it was definitely what Shop Boy was thinking: My escort to the next world had arrived. She was the picture of calm, her long, white hair framing a serene, smiling face.

Shop Boy was struck dumb. I grew up on the Grim Reaper of the Monty Python sketches, the black-clad, skeletal Death with the scythe impatiently gesturing toward the salmon as the killer of all the dinner guests as the hostess quite literally dies of embarrassment.

The older woman was silent for a moment as well. Then she spoke …

“I have been coming here for years,” she said.

Gulp. Death had been stalking me. Waiting for this moment. Why this one? Was it the deli turkey?

Now, I’d always told my late mom that she wouldn’t die anytime soon, that she was too mean for a heaven-type atmosphere, that God didn’t want any part of her until she mellowed. Shop Boy figured the big fella saw me as someone who had a few issues to work through as well before I could even get a tee time at St. Peter’s Country Club, never mind pulling up a bar stool at the ultimate 19th hole. Guess you never know.

“Are you an actual museum?” she asked with a smile. “I get a shiatsu massage down the hall regularly , and I’ve never seen the museum sign before or seen the door open.”

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. The sign next to the door. We were thinking of a demarcation for the studio, something that would be fun. Mary and Chris Hartlove came up with the words: “The Old Printers’ Home and Museum of Mostly Useless Antiquities.” Shop Boy had come up with the idea of a “right-reading” copper-on-wood printer’s plate. A normal plate would of course read backwards so as to print correctly. The plate maker, Owosso, thought it was all a cute idea, too.

“Um, hee-hee, that’s kind of a joke,” Shop Boy stammered. “Our old roommate was a photographer who used actual film, and we use these crazy old presses. You know, it’s all outmoded stuff no sane person would, uh, be caught dead using to try to make money nowadays.”

She looked around for an uncomfortable moment, turned and floated back toward the exit, as Shop Boy — still a bit shaken, honestly — realized he’d probably seemed kind of rude to his, um, guest.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was just, uh, surprised to see someone here.”

The woman grinned. Then she was gone.

Spooked, Shop Boy grabbed the background block for Mary and decided to knock off, uh, cash in, er, stop working … for the day. Not, like, forever or anything.

And I drove home very cautiously, pausing only to pay $53 for 14 gallons of gasoline, an oddly reassuring reminder that this truly ain’t heaven.

Whew.

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