The big pitch

Late in the spring of 2015, I had the strangest encounter of my life.

It was just after 10 in the morning, and I was opening up my sports-memorabilia store -- a small but neat concern that, in a rare moment of deviltry, I had named Nobody's Role Model Sports Cards and Collectibles. I was spraying a Plexiglas display of John Rocker postage stamps with Windex when the first customer of the day walked in. He was about my height -- not tall, not short -- and looked to be of medium build. It was hard to tell, though, because he was dressed in a full-length trench coat. A fedora was pulled down low over his eyes, keeping the entire upper half of his face in shadow. The last time I had seen anything like this guy, it was on "Sesame Street," trying to sell Ernie a silent "e."

I looked down. In his hand was a beat-up bowling-ball bag, the kind that overfed Polish-Americans used to carry before the national ban on indoor smoking obliterated the sport (and paved the way for the rise of internet Skee-Ball).

"Can I help you?" I asked.

Though I couldn't be sure, I knew that his eyes were darting from one side of the shop to another. He spoke in a voice that was barely more than a whisper.

"This is your lucky day, my friend. I have something in this bag I know you're going to want for your collection."

"And that is?"

He paused for dramatic effect. "Ted Williams' head."

My mind reeled at the possibility. Back in the early aughts, I knew, Williams' head had been separated from his body as part of a shady cryogenics operation. While his relatives were dickering over estate issues, the head disappeared from its Arizona freezing facility, never to be recovered. Periodic sightings were reported -- an eBay auction came and went before the authorities could get involved, and there were rumors the disembodied dome had changed hands yet again at a Baptist swap meet just outside Little Rock. That part of the story I had deliberately avoided looking into. But somehow the bizarre memento had ended up here. Or had it?

The salesman's voice brought me out of my reverie. "Genuine hall-of-famer coconut, that's what I'm talking about. Lopped clean off at the shoulders, beautifully preserved and brought to you at a price way lower than blue book."

"How much?"

"Forty thousand, same as a new Vespa."

"Where'd you get it?"

He let out an evil chuckle. "Buddy, what do you take me for? I don't need the FTC, the FBI and Cooperstown coming down on my head, just because some cash-register caddy decided to play the hero. All you need to know is that I'm the answer to your prayers. I'm handing you the souvenir of a lifetime, and it's only going to take a simple transfer of currency to make it happen."

I gave it some thought. I had received weird offers before: Wilt Chamberlain's epiglottis, Seabiscuit's spleen, even a hunk of Evander Holyfield's ear wax. That last time, I had chased the would-be vendor out of the store and down the street, waving a Louisville slugger in his direction and demanding that he never come back. Some things are too sick to get into, even for a struggling businessman like me.

But this was another matter entirely. Having the head of the Red Sox giant on display in my humble shop could be the turning point I had long waited for -- the calling card that could transform the place from a glorified flea-market booth into a genuine attraction. I'd need a silent alarm system, I mused. Maybe even a 'round-the-clock security detail.

What was I thinking? There were a million more important considerations to address first.

"Does it come with a display stand?"

"Your problem."

"Can it take Scotchguard?"

"I wouldn't."

"How can it be in decent shape? Those things need constant refrigeration, and you're carrying it around in a bowling bag, for crying out loud."

"Pack her in with 40 bars of Fla-Vor-Ice, and she's good to go. You might notice a slight grape aroma for the first few weeks, but a hit or two of Glade'll clear that up like nobody's business."

"Open up the bag and let me take a look. I have to inspect the merchandise before I can say yes."

"Well, that's where it gets difficult. Any exposure to air degrades the condition of the item. I'll do it when it's absolutely necessary, like at popsicle time. But otherwise, the bag stays zipped up tight. No offense, but this place is full of dusty old baseball cards and swimsuit-edition SIs. Old Mr. Williams could curdle like cottage cheese."

It was a tough call. On the one hand, having Ted Williams' head among my inventory would rocket me to the upper echelons of national celebrity. But there was a lot of guesswork involved. What if I shelled out the 40 g's, then spent thousands more to install a walk-in cooler -- only to discover that I had actually purchased a head of cabbage wrapped in Enquirer shavings? Suddenly, I knew how Solomon had felt.

Working in retail demands hard choices. I made mine.

"No, no deal. I'm not giving you a dime for a head I can't even see with my own two eyes."

The seller took off his hat and rubbed his temples. For the first time, I was able to get a good look at him. He was older than I expected, either coming up on retirement age or just past it. He seemed tired, or dejected, or some combination of the two. Maybe he had lost everything in the great Social Security collapse, and was desperate to help send one of his grandkids to college. Without even knowing the truth, I started to feel sorry for the poor old duffer.

He turned and began to shuffle away in defeat. When he was halfway to the door, I called after him, lightly.

"Hey, old man. Don't run off so quick. You got anything else I might want to take a look at?"

He cocked his head a quarter-turn in my direction and smiled.

"Son, what do you know about DNA?"