Ah, Maine, with its mossy forests, its briny cliffs dotted with picturebook fishing villages, its bracing salt air, and its discount-tastic outlet malls! What could be more uplifting to the benighted soul of a grimy city-dweller than an autumnal visit to the cheerful redoubt of the gaily-painted puffin, the marshy lowlands of the lumbering moose, or the azure waters of the delicious lobster? Such was our spirit as we bounded north of the city, clad in windbreakers and LLBean gear two weekends ago. Little did we know that behind the facade of unspoiled nature’s bounty lay an altogether more sinister side to the state known as “Vacationland”.
Our pursuit of Maine’s finest lobster roll led us an hour north of Portland to the clapboard Victorian town of Wiscasset, home of Red’s Eats. Renowned for being the tiny shack that feeds big, Red’s stuffs their lobster roll with the meat of more than an entire lobster, and as a result has been featured in the pages of most food magazines, as well as almost every “big (preferably grotesquely outsized) is better” food show.
Lulled into a contented, almost comatose, state by a pound of their buttery crustacean, we puttered gently around Wiscasset’s myriad antique stores before following a “ye olde” style sign for “The Music Box House Museum” at a fork in the road. After half a mile, and with the shadows lengthening as the light faded towards dusk, we came upon an impressive white Victorian mansion toward which a brick pathway led through a pair of overgrown flower beds.
As we approached, a man and a woman exited the front door, giggling to one another and remarking how extraordinary the museum had been, before hurrying away, their laughter echoing in the gloaming. Encouraged by this show of enthusiasm, we entered. A high-pitched bell sounded and the front door gave onto a deep lobby from which a central, red-carpeted stairway led to the first floor. All was illuminated by a magnificent chandelier. Enchanted for a moment by the tinkling of nursery rhyme tunes from all around, we failed to notice the presence of a grey-haired, shiny-faced Mr. Belvedere look-alike who had appeared before us.
“Good evening.”, he purred, unsmilingly. His voice, like his skin, strangely oily. “You must be here to see the music boxes.” “The full, guided tour costs $20 each and takes at least an hour – longer depending on how excited I get.”
Guessing that he couldn’t get excited without actually killing someone, but still overcome by lobster, I could only gape back at him and grope for my wallet as “a freaking hour of music boxes fer chrissakes?!” flashed across my mind. Fortunately, my wife reacted much more adroitly, lying that “we’re not sure we have that much time – we’re meeting friends for dinner in Portland. Is there anything we can look at unguided?”
“Well, yes, there are a variety of coin-operated music boxes here in the lobby, and, of course, the gift shop at the back too.” He replied, gesturingly towards the dimly lit far end of the room. “So, can we explore the lobby? Great! Do you have any quarters, Jonny?”
Suddenly, I was overwhelmed by a desire to leave this place. The bright light, the uncomfortable atmosphere of the leering attendant, the inane tinkling of music boxes all began to freak me out. Somehow though, my clammy palms still reached into my pockets for some change. I pushed a coin into the polished slot. Three tiny, glossily-enameled characters in Chinese costumes appeared from behind their tiny silver doors and began to beat three tiny drums to the plinkety tune of Auld Lang Syne.
“All machine-operated, no electricity at all.”, murmured our guide admiringly. “Wow, that’s, um, fascinating!” my wife blurted out. Then, feeling like we ought to ask a follow-up question, I blurted “how does it work?”. “You’d find out if you took the tour.” He replied icily.
The music ended abruptly and unsure of whether to make for the exit or check out the other dark wood cabinets lining the lobby, we looked embarrassedly at each other. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the attendant reaching into his shirt-front pocket and loosen the top of a cigar shaped cylinder, briefly withdrawing something sharp-looking before replacing it and patting his pocket. Since he was between us and the door, I backed away towards what turned out to be a giant automatic organ, complete with dancing keyboard, recently acquired from Switzerland.
“Where’s the slot on this one?”, I asked half-jokingly, quarter at the ready. “There isn’t one, and, besides, this magnificent piece is not in working order anyway.” “It requires $20,000 worth of renovation and the person the owner wants for it is stuck in California.” Wondering if he was talking about himself in the third person, or if he was hinting that the restorer had been encased in concrete after failing to negotiate, my wife asked where the owner was. “Oh, he’s two towns away and won’t be back for at least a week”, he smiled creepily back. “Quite long enough for the mortar to dry after you brick us up in the basement walls”, I thought with a shudder.
Now, thoroughly freaked out and feeling hemmed in by the attendant who was now occupying a bench between us and the exit and still fiddling with whatever was in his pocket, we backed away further. As we did so, the sound of tinkling music boxes grew louder. Turning a corner, we found ourselves surrounded by what seemed like a thousand enameled music boxes, the cacophony of nursery rhymes was almost overwhelming and we were struck by a nervousness that had us giggling and fidgety.
“You’ll never find a better deal in the whole state of Maine…”, he said having followed us in. His voice trailing off. “… In what little time remains of your life”, I mentally completed his sentence. “I don’t think we’re in the market for a music box”, said my wife. “No, I mean these postcards of the museum. They’re a dime each. You’ll never see value like that again in your life”, the attendant corrected her ominously.
After a couple of moments during which the inane jingly music became so intense that I began to feel like maybe someone had actually flipped open my head inserted a music box mechanism in place of my brain, my wife quickly calculated that a dollars’ worth of postcards might be a good trade for getting out of there alive. Dragging me out of my stupor, she hastily picked a handful of them, tossed a dollar at Mr. Belvedere and hurried to the exit. It was only afterwards that we looked at them did we realize that the phantasmagoric show we had experienced was not a patch on the house tour and that the almost hysterical couple we’d passed on the way in must have taken the whole thing and had likely gone mad as a result.
After hurrying to the safety of our car, we drove back along the street, past the museum. No more than three minutes had elapsed, yet there was not a light on in the whole place nor any sign of occupation, only a peeling sign creaking in the wind and the rustle of dry leaves… We can neither confirm nor deny that a surfeit of lobster can lead to hallucinations, but as a precaution, we steered clear of it for the remainder of our stay in Maine.
Main St. & Water St., Wiscasset, ME
The Lobster Shack
110 Perkins Cove Rd
Ogunquit, Maine 03907
J’s Oyster House
5 Portland Pier
T: 207 772 4828