Monday, March 26, 2012

Scavenging Angels


          Moving into a new house is a classic symbol of metamorphosis and, like all change, it's traumatic.  In the best scenario, I would be exceedingly wealthy and my personal assistant, who resembles George Clooney, would hire minions to handle every detail of the transition from my 5th Avenue penthouse to my bungalow in Malibu.  And when it's all over, I'd thank everyone involved by catering a lavish party on the beach with music, dancing, flowers, champagne, and sushi, that would end with the sun calmly rising over the Pacific ocean. We would all go home feeling a little better about ourselves and each other and the state of the planet. And my assistant would clean up. And we all live happily ever after.

Vines creeping into the house
          That's one way.  Another way is to squash myself and two teenagers into my dilapidated childhood home with my 85-year-old mother—whom I will not call a hoarder. She is simply and unconsciously maintaining a shrine to my father—whom I will also not call a hoarder. There is no room here for our furniture or personal belongings.  For four months, we were forbidden to use the living room.  However, after a successful coup d'état, the living room is now mine and I have planted a TV the way an astronaut plants a flag on the Moon. During this period, I endured the eruption of three consecutive, disfiguring herpes lesions extending from my lower lip all the way to my chin and I believe that my mother was briefly suicidal.

          Yesterday Danny stopped by in his fire-engine-red truck.  Danny is the first scavenging angel. My mother had invited him over as a gesture of good will, after reading a small ad in the local paper declaring his willingness to offer a fair price for almost anything. Before crossing the threshold, he squealed, "Oh, goodie, I'm going on a treasure hunt!"

          "What's this?" Danny peered into the shadow box containing my New Year's Resolutions. "And why are there an assortment of frogs looking at it?"

          "They're just old buttons," I explained.

          "Woa.  Why does this one say passion and this one says fun?" Each button is neatly pinned to a black background and labeled with my aspirations for the New Year.  Isn't it obvious? I had wanted them (my aspirations) to have the appearance of valuable specimens or rare coins that I could easily visualize.

          "It's just something I made."

          Danny tossed his thimble-sized magnifier and caught it backhanded before putting it in his pocket again. "You're pretty freaky."

          Instead of scrutinizing the small collection of objects my mother had assembled on the dining room table, Danny said, "Let's go room by room.  You might be willing to part with things you didn't think of. No harm in looking, right?  You never know."

          Danny had perfect red ringlets without a hint of gray but, despite having the physique of a body builder, his skin had the sallow slackness of someone older.  Much older.  He carried a black Samsonite suitcase, plastered with FIFA stickers, which he swung lightly like a briefcase.

          He turned to look at one of my favorite paintings, an old watercolor I had fought with my mother to display, which she had wanted to cover because even ambient light in a shadowy corner might cause harm.
          "Oh, I see you've got a signed George Cooper, 1888.  These are a dime a dozen, there are so many of them out there."  That was good news since I didn't want my mother to sell it, but then he turned and caught sight of one of my father's tablescapes.

          "The Germans call it a Kunst und Wunderkammer—" literally it means Art and Wonder-Room, my mother told Danny "—and my husband had many of them, but there's really nothing I'm willing to part with here."

         But I was.
          "What, this mechanical bank? There was a time when you could pay up to eight-hundred dollars for one of these at auction, if it was in mint condition. Now you'd be lucky to get anything."

          The "jolly nigger," as it is called, is not an object any Caucasian should openly display or privately covet, but here it is for all to see, in a showcase that might as well be labeled White Man's Shame. It's not so easy to get rid of guilt, apparently.

          "Do you collect anything yourself?" my mother asked.

          "I used to, sure.  But it got out of hand and I just didn't have any more room, so I got rid of it.  You know how it is when you start collecting something, you get one thing, and then you look for something better, till finally you only want the best?  Just the best, and there's no point in anything else.  So I got rid of everything, but I still collect two things.  Money and real estate.  People always want those, right?  I've got 15 houses in 14 states, always rented, and folks are always interested in different kinds of currency from different places, different times, old coins."

          I didn't understand; if he collected things to sell, how was that collecting?

          His briefcase rang and he scrambled to find a clear surface on which to open it.  He finally laid it on the floor and sprang open the locks to retrieve his cell phone.

          "Sorry, I gotta take this," he apologized before taking the call.   "Yes, I'm still coming this afternoon, but I'll be running about an hour late, if that's okay. The client I'm with now has more than I'd anticipated."  He smiled at my mother.

          From the basement, he took three mildewed violins that had belonged to my Armenian grandfather, who was a shoemaker and furniture restorer with a third-grade education.  He didn't read music but had natural, raw talent and an excellent ear. My mother has a few shellac albums of her father playing but they were warped when her basement flooded. She never listened to them because they made her cry.  But it was important to keep his records, warp and all. There was also a large, signed oil painting depicting a ship on a turbulent sea at sunset; the canvas was ripped in two places.

          "I'll give you seventy-five for the violins and a hundred for the painting."

          He took four puppets; there was an old canvas painted with a tomb and skulls, a dead tree, stormy skies, the whole megillah, that I wanted to keep yet I never wanted to look at it; an assortment of old coins; an old vase; a silver inlaid mother-of-pearl pillbox; several pieces of costume jewelry; and a collection of what might be called tiny curiosities.

          Among them was something I'd never noticed before and, therefore, should have had no sentimental attachment to, but I was seized by something irresistibly powerful, like homesickness or regret, but not quite either.  I reached across the table to pick out the worn velvet rectangle, rubbing an oval of white plaster embedded in its center to memorize the sensation. It fit in the palm of my hand.
          Danny said, "It's probably Caesar, probably Victorian.  What I'll do with all these little things is put them in an old chest to make it look like a treasure chest.  I put a couple of big things in it, like your tomb-and-skulls canvas, drape it with some nice old velvet or silk, and then all these little things start to take on significance.  People feel like they're finding buried treasure.  Individually, I'd probably sell only one or two pieces, but together, I can sell the whole chest for two- or three-hundred dollars and people think they're getting a bargain."

          Caesar's head is an exquisitely detailed relief than seems to come alive out of the chalky white plaster, while his neck and shoulders disappear into white dust. Whether he is on the verge of extinction or on the brink of becoming manifest, that is the question.

          "You can keep Caesar and I'll still give you a hundred bucks for the group."

          I looked at my mother.

          "Fine," she said.

          Danny asked us to call him back when we're ready to sell other things, including a painting that my mother had paid thirty-five dollars for at a yard sale--a painting she disliked and had bought just for the frame, but which I found intriguing.
I believe it's a picture of a mother bird teaching its baby how to fly, but she's a fantastical scarlet bird with crisscrossing tail feathers and she looks like she's falling, not flying, while the boring, colorless baby bird calmly watches from the safety of its nest. Is it a flying lesson or a falling lesson?  How do you leave the nest and what does it really mean? These are some of the questions this painting poses, and they seem to be questions worth contemplating.

           Danny offered one-hundred-fifty dollars and said, "Think about it." My mother glanced at me and I gave her the tiniest shake of my head to indicate no.

          On the way out, when Danny passed my box of aspirations, he nodded his head in its direction gave me his card.  "Call me when you're ready," he said. He handed my mother a check for seven-hundred-fifty dollars and left with our stuff.

           After he drove away, I felt uneasy, but I couldn't put my finger on it.  Our real estate agent, who used to be a social worker, had asked us once, "Do you own your possessions or do they possess you?"

          "Well, that depends. Does your commission include exorcisms?" I had thought it was funny when I said it but nobody laughed, including me.
          As my mother hangs on to my father's things, so she hangs on to him, because preserving his study just as he left it is to preserve him, and to seal her living room is to remain intact and inviolable. We preserve ourselves as long as possible and surrender only when no choice is left.

           Following that logic, I find myself dismembered, dispensable, stuffed into a hundred boxes and labeled according to theme or room, as a reminder of who I was or thought I was--but clearly it's not who I am. Gloria Vanderbilt once said, "Interior decorating is autobiography." If she's right, then maybe I'm worse than dead. Maybe I never existed.

          I cling to the idea that I'm entitled to my possessions, my taste, my space, but I'm a little curious about who I am without all that. It's all a stage set, our things and perhaps even our feelings and aspirations. Why stubbornly cling to certain ideas and feelings—shame, guilt, pride, for instance—like they are solid objects, like they are life preservers, as if they define who we are? Why do objects—a warped shellac record, a tiny plaster Caesar—represent our deepest emotions and attachments, and why do we need to manifest them outside ourselves?  Is that the purpose of art?  Are we only able to live symbolically?
          What survives? What matters? And whatever it is, I hope it's not made of metal. This morning when I was squatting at the curb, preoccupied with the puzzle of how to dispose of seven bags of metal bookends—what is the meaning of bookends without books?—I didn't immediately apprehend the appearance of scavenging angels because the bags were so heavy they were tearing and spilling their contents onto the street.
 
          "Ma'am? You don't happen to have any metal, do you?  We collect metal."

          Two black men in a white pick-up truck introduced themselves to me as scrappers. Each had held down a normal job once—one had been a real estate agent—but now, "We just go fishing."  Ten dollars for a hundred pounds of metal, six thousand pounds a week. Then someone else makes more stuff out of the molten metal and the cycle starts again. "Just another way to make a living—and it's fun!"

         After Jimmy and Thomas loaded up all the bookends, they followed me to my old house and took everything that was metal, from an elliptical machine my ex-husband had scavenged from someone else's curb, to a broken swivel chair and rusty metal shelves.

          "Are you sure you don't want me to pay you guys for carting this stuff away?"

          "No thank you, dear."

          Turned out I went to the same high school as Thomas, but nearly a decade later. While we talked at the front door, my real estate agent drove up.  He shook hands with the scrappers.

          "So where are your people from?" Thomas asked my agent as naturally as he had asked me where I'd gone to school.

          "I'm from DC but my people are originally from North Carolina."

          "North Carolina, you don't say?  My people are from there, too.  You wouldn't happen to know of the Mundy family, from Ashe County, the Edmund Mundys?"

          In the end, they determined they were both probably related to the same Lily Mundy and were almost certainly cousins, if not half-brothers.  The two men embraced and laughed.  The angels gave me their phone numbers and assured me they would help me move if I needed a hand.  We all hugged before they left.
   
          In nature, of course, a scavenger is different.  He is an opportunist who feeds on the dead and decaying.  He is a death omen, as much a reminder of what we must do to survive as a warning that all our attempts at survival are futile.

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