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The Collector Down the Street
The polite term for my habit is collecting. Collectors are the preservers of history, encasing priceless relics in glass and cataloguing them for the benefit of the human race. The true, however crude, term for my habit is hoarding. My house is not so much an impractial museum, a tribute to the achievements of humanity as it is a whirlpool, inhaling historic items and ensuring that they never see themselves in a proper museum’s display. In a cramped town like Mariul, Oregon, my status as the town hoarder, or “the crazy Negro man down the street”, as I have heard from the schoolchildren, is undisputed. The parents may camouflage their distaste more expertly, but the malice is universal; they hold as much, maybe more, contempt for me than their rugrats.
Imagine my astonishment, then, as I edge open my front door to confront a tittering boy twenty years my junior, with a gap-toothed smile that has yet to be battered by life’s hardships and ebony skin smeared with grime.
“Hey. Is you the crazy Negro man, Allen?” He speaks with a slight lisp because of his missing canine, spitting out the ‘k’ sound. I collect myself, acutely aware that my jaw is slack. I somehow cannot bring myself to be offended by his bluntness, nor by the fact that he’s uninvited.
“I suppose I am. I’m Allen.” He hesitates, toeing at the wooden panels of my porch, before battling past me, his little hands digging into my flabby side, into the foyer of my house. I swirl to face him, any amusement I might have felt drowned in a wave of confusion and rage.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” The boy ignores me; my words may as well have been a passing wind. He prods at the hour hand of a broken cuckoo clock I keep meaning to repair.
“So it's true,” he breathes in awe. I grasp his shoulder, slightly rougher than what is perhaps appropriate, as he tenses under my touch. I withdraw my hand, willing myself to be tolerant.
“What’s true?” The boy continues to gawk at me in my foyer, ghostly cinnamon eyes swallowing his surroundings. They dance, scarcely focusing on anything for more than a moment.
“You’re a collector.” A roaring laugh rips through me unexpectedly, and soon I’m nearly doubled over, face reddened and lukewarm tears threatening to leak from my eyes.
“Collector? No, what you see here-”I gesture to my foyer. “Hoarding.” The boy tilts his head to the left, ever so slightly.
“Hoarding?” His voice quivers as he speaks it, and for a brief moment, I’m fearful that he might bawl. He squares his jaw, and I swear there’s a glint of liquid fire in the depths of those intransigent eyes. “Nah. Collecting.” I almost protest again but he dashes into the kitchen. I hear the tell-tale slam of a drawer being carelessly opened. Followed by the off-key symphony of its contents being dumped onto the floor. I follow him, patience rapidly waning, and am taken aback to find the boy crotched in a sea of my cutlery, examining each spoon and fork as though it’s a relic from a deceased empire.
“Where’d this one come from?” He holds a gaudy spoon I received at an exquisite banquet some years back, honoring the election of some powerful English lord.
“England.” His eyes widen to the size of saucers.
“England? Like the England all the way across the sea?” I scoff despite myself.
“What other England is there?” The boy sets his jaw, as those he’s attempting to discern whether I’m mocking him. He points the spoon accusingly at me, presses the cold curve of metal into my the center of the chest. “So, you’ve been to England?”
“Yes. I’ve been to England.” He hums a long, low note, before his expression contorts to display his zealous, gap-toothed smile.
“Woah. I’ve never been outside the States. What’s England like?” I dwell on the inquiry. To me, England is the comforting pitter of icy rain on a windowsill. England is seemingly infinite plains of jade, and gentle hills. England is the passing scent of coffee beans and creamer, the stark albino cliffs of Dover. But I only say,
“Astonishing.” The boy nods, almost knowingly.
“I’ll bet,” he pauses, inhales deeply. “I’d like to visit when I’m older.”
He speaks as though he’s confining a lethal secret, and when I question him about his hesitance, he says,
“My mama says that I have ‘ta go into the family business. Going places is a luxury.” His words drive a familiar knife into my gut, memories of my own upbringing. The coarse baritone of my father as he scolds me for my childish dreams of travel. He was a mechanic, a man made of grease and cigarette smoke, a man who disavowed me the moment I set course for England. Uncertainty was a colossal weight on my shoulders, but one fact cushioned me: despite his wishes, I was destined to be more than a mechanic in some one-star town. I travelled the world, drank in its features, and retired as the hoarder of a cozy little Oregon town. How I mustered the courage to do so is lost to me.
“Well,” I weigh my words with care. “No one controls you, except you.”
He gifts me with a coy smile, “You think I can travel?”
“Well, you burst into my house without any permission, didn’t you?” His mouth is slightly agape, as though he’s considering for the first time that his current situation might not be entirely socially acceptable. His expression shifts, to one of guilt.
“I guess I did, huh?... do ya want me to leave?” My initial response was to cast him out, abscond back into my home and deadbolt the door; the kinder impulse was nipping at its heels.
“No, stay for tea. I’ll make honey and peanut butter toast.”
He unclenches his fists, assuaged. He pulls out an antique chair, seats himself; his feet dangle beneath the table. I sense his eyes on me as I zip expertly about the kitchen, toasting bread and lathering it in honey and peanut butter. As I slide a plate of the toast his way, the kettle wails, demanding attention. Steam curls in the air as I pour myself a cup, steep it with a tea bag.
“Do you want a cup?” I ask, out of politeness, and the glaringly obvious crinkle of his nose reveals his answer before he opens his mouth. He comically stuffs his mouth with the toast; I sip cautiously at my tea. How many minutes slipped away in this tranquil manner I cannot say, for at the next moment, we are seemingly back at my front door.
“That was almost...fun,” I exclaim, and the flash of that patchy grin I know that he agrees. “Tell me your name, so I can invite you over sometime again.” His smile falters.
“You can tell me,” I urge.
“Well,” he drawls, “I’m Allen. I’m a collector.”
And then he was gone.