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The most unexpected thing Celia Bergman ever found for sale at a flea market was Bonnie Parker's finger. It floated in a wax-sealed, alcohol-filled test tube, and looked like a wet cigarette.
     “Got to expect a little wear and tear,” the dealer said. She was somewhere between thirty-five and sixty, and wore a faded T-shirt bearing an eagle, a flag, and the words, NEVER FORGET. She laughed, and coughed, and sucked up the last of her Sprite with a straw. “Isn’t that something? Now that’s gangster memorabilia.”
     Celia was also a dealer, though one comparable to this lady as a cellist compares to a player of spoons. She eyed the tube that held the finger, eyed the dealer, eyed the finger. Like anyone who earns their keep by lobbing the past’s shrapnel at those in the present willing, wanting, or anxious to be hit, Celia could deadpan with the best when the moment of negotiation arrived.
     “How’d your grandfather get it?”
     “Great-grandfather,” the dealer said. “Shot it off.” She glanced sidelong at Celia to gauge her reaction. “He was one of the ones shootin’. Can’t honestly tell you he was the one did the clippin’.”
     “Of course.”
     The dealer pulled another Sprite from a cooler and popped the top. “Pappaw was a Texas Ranger,” she said. “Got his badge, if you’re interested. Beautiful craftsmanship. Great condition. He wore it every day for thirty years but if you didn’t know better you’d call it mint in box.” She paused. “Texas Rangers material’s hot.”
     Celia smiled. “In Texas.”
     The field in which she stood, and the dealer sat, was ten minutes south of Allentown, Pennsylvania. Celia’s plan was to reach the Ohio River by sunset, but as was almost always the case, no sooner had she spotted the words FLEA MARKET than she found herself rolling her car into yet another field, lulled and comforted by the gentle patter of gravel raining against the oil pan.
     “Say you’re from New York?” Celia nodded. “How are things now?”
     “Normal,” she said, “considering.”
     The dealer smiled. “Here’s hopin’ it stays that way.”
     Celia nodded, and reappraised the finger. She was at least sure it was once attached to a real hand. It appeared to have been cut rather than shot away, just below the first knuckle, but that didn’t surprise her. If the dealer’s story was true, Celia figured great-grandfather had whipped out his jackknife the moment the smoke cleared and snagged a souvenir. The natural response; indeed, almost two months to the day after Bonnie and Clyde flew up to case that big First Farmer’s Savings and Loan in the sky, the FBI ambushed the even more-wanted John Dillinger outside a Chicago theater. Soon as the shooting stopped, passersby ran into the street to dip handkerchiefs in Dillinger’s blood, behaving as onlookers always behaved at killings, or executions, be they in London, or Paris, or Rome, one hundred or four hundred or two thousand years ago. They came. They saw. They grabbed souvenirs. They collected, bottling history as it spills, the better to savor once it mellows.
     Dillinger had a lot of history to spill. In twenty years Celia had been offered three such blood-soaked shadows of cloth. She’d bought and sold two, the last one in 1993. That time, she’d paid $1500 and immediately resold it to a Boston collector for $5,000. Both of the handkerchiefs she’d bought and sold were made of yellowed-white Irish linen, with hand-rolled edges, bearing stains bittersweet chocolate in color and cracked as a drought-webbed riverbed. Both came with notarized statements attested to in period ink on period paper by Chicago policemen who had -- she checked -- worked for the force in 1934, the year Dillinger was shot.
     She’d have passed on buying the third handkerchief even if it hadn’t borne the outline of the Trylon and Perisphere, and read NEW YORK WORLD’S FAIR 1940. Even so, Celia suspected the third handkerchief would eventually find a happy home. Collectors never really care how people, especially themselves, obtain the things they are compelled to collect.
     And, when it comes to the relics of the famous or infamous, imagined or actual, they care less.
     The dealer lit an unfiltered Camel. Specks of tobacco clung to her upper lip until she rubbed them off. “What’d you say your specialties were?”
     “Sex. Death. Books.”
     “Got the bases covered.’ She brushed a horsefly away from her neck, and pointed to the finger. “I’ll go three hundred on that. With dealer’s discount.”
     The dealer smiled, and shrugged – caveat emptor, however she might try to put it. Provenance was often a problem when it came to body parts. Not always – Beethoven’s liver has been on the market several times, most recently the year Celia was graduated from Hunter. (She could still quote from memory the catalogue description she’d read: “Shrunk to half its proper size, leathery in consistency and bluish-green in color, with bean-size nodules on its surface”). In that case, which was the exception, demonstrable provenance was readily available.
     Still, Celia knew, provenance ultimately proves nothing. The histories of most objects have been artfully, repeatedly, rewritten. Nearly all items locked away by collectors or museums, be they Happy Meals figures, Modiglianis or two-headed babies in jars, will one day be sprung. And when each finally hits the street again it’ll be hard to know for sure whether the piece up for grabs did time in a neighbor’s dresser drawer, or some great-great-aunt’s Terra Haute attic, or the Chicago Art Institute, or Vienna’s Museum of Electrocution.
     Nobody ever knows what will appear on the underground market when it comes to body parts of the famous and (more often) infamous. At any given time there may be locks of hair – George Washington’s, Carole Lombard’s, Ted Bundy’s. FDR’s fingernail clippings. Marilyn’s Kotex. Gallstones, kidney stones. Slices of brain, and other post-autopsy variety cuts. Rock-hard lumps of excrement, celebrity coprolites. Once Celia was offered a bag full of what were supposed to be Jean Harlow’s baby teeth, but she declined.
     In this field, she didn’t so much mind the material sold as she did the potential purchasers, though to be fair they differed from Beanie Baby ladies only in the objects of their obsession. Celia usually – not always – left what she came across in this area to parts specialists. She knew dealers who knew dealers on the rarefied levels, the ones who, so long as a customer provided not only money but the right bona fides, could offer for sale such items as Napoleon’s penis. Celia once saw a photo. It resembled a flat gray mushroom. She’d heard it was now owned by a Russian.
     Celia had a comprehensive knowledge of her chosen fields, but ultimately she relied on intuition. As she stared at the finger, she knew it might well have been Bonnie Parker’s. But she intuited that she could buy Bonnie’s finger that afternoon and come back a week later for another one.
     “Thanks anyway,” she said.
     “I’ll go two fifty,” the dealer shouted. Celia continued walking away. “I’ll throw in the badge.”
     Halfway back to her car, Celia looked at her watch. Almost three; she’d be lucky to make Charleston by nightfall. A Holiday Inn overnight and then on to Lexington by noon the next day -- that would do. That way, if she happened to spot another sign, she’d still have time to stop.
     Celia had her own pickers, who haunted flea markets and garage sales and estate auctions; they were low-key guys with hygiene that didn’t cause comment and eyes that could size up a table or shelf in under fifteen seconds. When it came to their work they were reliable, close-mouthed, and didn’t miss or forget a trick. She could have let them do all the digging, but it was impossible for her to pass a flea of any size. The compulsion never dwindled, the yen never left, and the skill of plucking diamonds from the mountain of cubic zirconium, once perfected, could never be lost.
     (And when it came to finding such, Pennsylvania was good as Oregon and far better than New England. Celia sometimes imagined no one in the state had ever heard of eBay. In Pennsylvania, not even professionals ever know for sure what they might find – there is no end to the attics, basements, barn lofts, church attics, back rooms and sun porches from which remarkable items forever seem to be hauled.)
     Celia and her pickers were good. They found things not only in Pennsylvania, but in every other state and several countries as well. In the past year, Celia had bought and sold spectacular items in all of her specialties. Sex: pornographic photos of Joan Crawford, a collection of 230 Tijuana Bibles (including the only known copy of one whose story featured Popeye, Eleanor Roosevelt, and a cow), an early 19th-century dildo painted to resemble an arcing sperm whale. Death: a letter on Cunard Lines stationery dated July 21, 1938 offering condolences to the family of a man who had in mid-Atlantic taken a header off the Queen Mary, a traveling mortician’s portable cooling board complete with the usually-missing headrest, a set of 19th-century embalmer’s instruments (which Celia thought very much resembled 19th-century obstetrical instruments). Books: The Dodo and Kindred Birds, Wilkins’s Mysteries of the Great War, two inscribed Shirley Jackson novels, and The Fall River Tragedy, the extremely rare contemporary insta-book on the Lizzie Borden trial. (In a pre-20th century display of the power celebrity begs to endow, after Lizzie was acquitted of having murdered her parents, she bought as many copies as she could find – her inheritance was sizeable -- and burned them.)
     This was the second time Celia had sold that particular copy of Fall River. “Who was Lizzie Borden?” her first customer, the COO of, had asked her during the initial sale, a couple of years earlier. As he appeared to be not much older than twenty-one she wasn’t surprised he needed to ask. “The O.J. of 1893,” she told him. He handed over the bills (Celia dealt only in cash, or certified check) and happily dashed off with the book. Before he had much of a chance to gather up more true crime titles, however, Blurpz’s stock unexpectedly dropped from $70 to forty cents a share. He had to sell the book back to Celia for one-fourth the price, and she resold it for twice what he’d paid.
     But if he ever again had the money, and she ever again had the book, she’d have been pleased to resell it to him, even if she had to remind him who Lizzie – or O.J., for that matter -- was. When it came to customers, Celia wasn’t a snob. She was more selective about what she sold than she was to whom she sold it. In the class system of antiques and collectibles Celia, a private dealer who didn’t advertise, held a fairly lofty though not stratospheric position. Layered successively below her were: private dealers who do advertise; specialists who both deal privately and work antique fairs; specialist store owners; the people who run what were once junk stores but are now antique stores; flea market sellers; your neighbors, holding yard and garage sales; your grandmother, selling her spare pencils on eBay; and, finally, the guys in New York who blanket the sidewalks with broken toasters, coverless paperbacks, chipped Star Trek: Voyager mugs and jacket-free records with pie-shaped wedges of vinyl missing.
     (Above Celia’s level were dealers who sold only to specific customers, as well as the aforementioned private dealers known only to other private dealers: the people who could sell you Napoleon’s penis, or Jimi Hendrix's record collection, or videotapes of Elvis having sex of a sort with his co-stars, or the mechanicals of Beatles LPs, or Lee Harvey Oswald’s can opener.)
     In her chosen fields, Celia passed on buying, and would refuse to sell, eighty percent of the items that came her way. By doing so she ruled out potentially lucrative areas of revenue, but that was unavoidable. You have to draw the line, or lines, somewhere. One of her lines circumscribed World Trade Center memorabilia, which ordinarily would – and did, with most such specialists-- fit within, among others, the broader category of Death. No less than three times a month Celia encountered a freelance picker, a street-level dealer, a collector on the lookout to trade what they had to offer. They’d sidle up to her at trade shows or outdoor markets or auctions, muttering, frozen-lipped, “Got some real stuff.”
     She wouldn’t even look, any longer. The first few times she had, she wished she hadn’t. It was always the real stuff, all right. The last time Celia agreed to look at what one of these characters had for sale, she found herself staring into an attache case filled with flyers with torn-away corners, each quickly posted in the hours and days immediately after. Worked at Aon. Scar on left shoulder. Please call. With love and thanks from Nancy Corday.
     “Get away from me,” Celia said. She drew her lines, and never crossed them.
     At least, she hadn’t yet.
     She continued toward Kentucky, the items she’d pulled from stock for her new customer safe in her bag on the seat beside her. Celia had been lucky for a long time. There were always objects to be bought and sold. Always customers trying to pursue their personal God, or gods, or demons, through the agency of the objects they so desperately sought and which Celia, so often, was able, and happy, to provide. Now the days when freshly-moneyed clients constantly turned up, keen to burn off excess venture capital on home décor, or one-of-a-kind gifts for a wife or brother or co-owner (or himself – most, but not all, of her customers were men), were over. Every month it was harder for Celia to believe those days had ever been real.
     Luckily, some people always have money -- though like everyone else, they never have enough. But the ones who almost think they have enough money are inevitably the ones who do have enough to buy the things that everyone else has to sell.
     Thanks to her husband, Barb Carver always had money.


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