Short Fiction: Dead Animals and Dirty Laundry

 Elliott Pinchman was used to naysayers. Having family members, friends, legal experts, clergy and even strangers tell you that you are headed for failure seems to be a rite of passage for any self-taught taxidermist. “Oh Elliott, it’s such a gruesome profession.”

“Elliott, find a new hobby. Why don’t you take up roller skating or something?”

“You won’t make any money stuffing animals. You should use your engineering degree and get a real job.”

“Elliott, I’m not sure a ninety-thousand-dollar business loan is a good idea.”

“Elliot, where are you getting all these dead animals?”

“Elliott, I told you before, you need to get proper training and a licence. You’re going to get yourself in trouble.”

“Why did you sew a rabbit head onto that eel?”

He never admitted it, but the criticism stung. There were times he would have traded his masterpiece, a bull moose standing upright in a boxing stance, for a single word of encouragement.

Despite the lack of support, Elliott succeeded. He called his business Elliott’s Shop, officially listing it as a laundromat. He even kept an old washing machine and dryer in the back corner of his store. But everyone knew what business he was really in. His informal training (mainly trial and error), unorthodox tools, lack of accreditation, and two-dozen denied applications to the Guild of Taxidermists—things his accountant considered negatives—Elliott turned into positives. He told potential customers that taxidermy training these days was too political—a bunch of out-of-touch old timers clinging to out-of-date methods—and that his “independent self-apprenticeship” allowed him to provide the best possible service, rather than just what was approved by the taxidermy elites. His unusual instruments and materials, he explained, were the tools of an artist. Instead of offering a bland cotton stuffing, like most taxidermists, Elliott experimented in other stuffing, such as grass, rice, petroleum jelly (for a more malleable piece) and sand. Being unlicenced meant Elliott had lower overheads than other taxidermy businesses, and he could pass the savings on to his clients. And as for not being a member of the Guild of Taxidermists, Elliott only said he could not in good conscience belong to an organisation that condoned child abuse. He was careful to keep the statement vague, never explicitly accusing anyone of anything, but the mere suggestion was effective enough. People flocked to Elliott’s Shop for all their dead animal-preserving needs.

Anyone who has known success, knows that it comes with its share of enemies. And the Guild of Taxidermists was no mean foe. One day, a man wearing a black suit and dark sunglasses turned up at Elliot’s place of business lugging a fully loaded garbage bag. He removed his glasses and looked around disapprovingly at the mounted elk heads and buffalo heads and crocodile heads, and at the stuffed dogs and mice and possums and toads and flounders and cockatoos and snakes, and at the stuffed horse whose legs had been removed and then reattached in single file along its belly. The man approached the counter, set down the garbage bag, reached into his jacket pocket and produced an inspector’s badge. Elliott, sitting behind the cash register, glared at him and gently slid his hand beneath the counter to where he kept a sawn-off shotgun.

“Are any of these preserved animals for sale?’ asked the inspector.

“No,” said Elliott. “I’m a collector, that’s all. I thought the animals might brighten up the place, make it interesting for my customers.”

“Right,” said the inspector. He looked again around the store. “Are you aware it is illegal to operate a taxidermy business without a licence?”

Elliott shrugged. “Why would that concern me?”

The inspector smirked. He kept a cold stare on Elliott and reached down into the garbage bag. Elliott returned the look and moved his finger onto the shotgun trigger.

“Maybe this will concern you,” he said, eying Elliott as he took a scrunched-up pair of blue underpants and tossed them on the counter.

Elliott glanced down at the underwear. He looked curiously back at the inspector. “Undies?”

“Huh?” said the inspector. He looked down and saw the underpants on the counter. “Oh sh**,” he said, snatching the blue briefs and trying to hide them in his fist. He hurriedly opened the garbage bag. “Oh, no, no, no. I wasn’t supposed to… That’s not what I… Sh**.” He shoved the underpants into the bag and closed it back up, his face turning red. “Hang on,” he said, lowering his eyes. “This is the wrong bag. It’s the… I’ve got the other bag in the car. Just give me a second.” He lifted the bag and rushed for the front door.

Elliott released the shotgun and stood up. “Wait! What’s in the bag?”

The inspector stammered a few words, then dropped the bag on the floor and hung his head. “It was supposed to be animal heads.”

“What?”

“I have a bag full of stuffed animal heads in the car. I was supposed to take out the cat head. In its mouth is a letter that says you have thirty days to get your taxidermy licence or else your business will be shut down. And then I was going to tip the bag open, and all the other animal heads would fall out and go everywhere.”

“What the hell?” said Elliott.

“It was supposed to be intimidating,” mumbled the inspector.

Elliott stood silent a moment and processed this strange information. “So… what’s in that bag?”

The inspector sighed. “My dirty laundry.”

Elliott watched him a moment, then scratched his ear and remarked, “You know… this is a laundromat.”

The inspector looked at him. His eyes narrowed.

“Yeah,” said Elliott. “See for yourself.” He gestured to the washer and dryer at the back of the store.

“Is that right?” said the inspector.

“It is,” said Elliott. “And uh, as it happens, we have a special offer going at the moment. Yeah. Monday to Friday, all government inspectors can wash their clothes here for free.”

The inspector stared at him. He looked down at his bag of dirty laundry. “Hmm. That’s a generous offer.”

“Well, I believe in being generous to hardworking government inspectors,” said Elliot. “So… What do you think?”

The inspector tilted his head in thought, then gave a tiny grin. “I think maybe the tip-off I got was wrong. There’s no taxidermy going on here. It’s just a laundromat.”

“Yeah,” nodded Elliott. “It’s just a laundromat. Help yourself to the machines.”

The inspector picked up his bag and headed past Elliott to the washing machine. Elliott sat down and breathed a short sigh of relief.

© 2021 MILES VENISON ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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