One day Hank found a penny. It shined up at him, and he put it in his pocket and ran into the house. His mother looked up from the peas she was shelling and said that it was good to find money and, yes, he could keep it. Hank asked if the person who lost the penny might look for it and be angry. Hank was still young enough to value a penny.
His mother thought that the owner of the penny would not be a problem. “How will he know that you have his particular penny, anyway,” she asked.
Although often she was stinting in her attention, and usually concentrated on shelling her peas or rolling out her batter, she paused in this instance to add another penny to Hank’s palm, and to admire his diligence in finding his penny. She even stroked his hair.
After that, Hank walked around looking at the ground, with a slight stoop in his gait. He found other coins, and once outside the drugstore a dollar bill, and he put them all in a wooden butter box with a splintered end retrieved from the grocer’s trash.
* * * * * * * *
Henry was having trouble writing his lab report, and spread his notes and drawings over his desk and table and onto his bed. The floor of the dormitory was chilled to his touch as he bent to place more recent figures and sketches around his feet in a tight arc. A draft rippled the pages, and Henry moved the corner of a large Jim Beam bottle onto one edge as an anchor; the bottle had been filled nearly to the top with pennies, and Henry had to strain to pull it across the tiled floor.
Standing to evaluate his arrangement, Henry carefully tapped the edges of each sheet with flicks of his finger until all were square and even in relationship to each other sheet and to the square corners of the bed, desk and floor tiles. Some pages were in piles, and seemed disorderly. He opened a drawer and took out a few small boxes. Selecting one, he undid the rubber band and thumbed through the various paper clips, selecting six or eight of identical size to place on his papers. He resealed and replaced the box in the drawer, putting the box of larger clips, rubber bands (narrow) and rubber bands (wide) and tacks on top. Henry felt satisfied with how those boxes fit together squarely in the drawer, on top of the larger boxes containing his staples, post cards, bottle caps and pennies.
It was a shame that he needed to use drawer space for those rolled pennies in the old White Owl cigar box, but his foot locker finally had been filled with other cigar boxes with pennies and, of course, the beer cans took up so much space no matter how neatly you placed them in rows. The spaces left open by the untouching arcs of the cans Henry had filled with rolls of pennies placed vertically. He had considered collecting and rolling half-dollars which would have more fully filled those spaces, but he had been saving pennies for so long that the mere thought seemed disloyal.
After three semesters at State, Henry finally was beginning to enjoy the campus. Although he stayed to himself, and worked on his collections, he enjoyed going to sports events and concerts; in fact, all the programs for these events were in chronological order on his closet floor. His job at the movie theater took some of his time, but lately Mr. LoBianco began letting him take home the torn ticket stubs. That had greatly boosted his stub collection, which now filled some of the shoe boxes under his bed.
Once Henry stood at the edge of a dance floor at a Sophomore mixer, an old corduroy jacket hanging on his square shoulders and away from is thin body, and had smiled at some of the girls. They passed nervously by him, and Henry imagined the sweat beading in his pencil mustache that he carefully raised to give his uneventful face more character. He left half-way through the evening, dancing with no one. On the steps of the gym, his glasses fogged in the early winter air; the music could be heard clearly from inside, and three girls ran past him up the stairs. He imagined that their laughter was about him.
After that, Henry went to parties and dances only at their very end, dressed in jeans or overalls. He would pretend to be part of the clean-up crew, and thus could fill his bags with bottles and caps for his collection. Some of the girls would chug their remainders in an effort to be helpful.
Henry liked lab reports. Even though his measurements often were imprecise and did not match expected results, he was able to type them in precisely prescribed formats, and he bound them all with blue covers. They were on the shelf above his desk, between the green English themes and the yellow history reports. Henry glanced along the shelf at last year’s brown, red and gray covered folders.
Henry wrote quickly on his typewriter once he began. The contents of the report, after all, were not very important, and he was comfortable with all the Cs he received. It was not like he planned to go to graduate school; just a simple degree for a simple job. Henry’s pleasures lay elsewhere.
He leaned back in his chair, and thought again of the plan. A house with a den, a door with a lock. No one could enter except him. His wife, blonde and petite, would leave his cup of soup on a table by the door and retire. Then he could open the door and get his soup and not be disturbed. Inside, the room would be larger than you might expect to find in a modest white colonial. In fact, its shelves and cabinets stretched many yards in each direction. All the labels were black on tan, lettered in a calligrapher’s hand that made full use of the power of India ink. All the boxes rolled out on smooth slides or casters, and the vivid colors danced in the intense florescent light: beer cans, cigar wrappers, postage stamps, paper money from around the world, bottle caps, tobacco tins. At one end, an easy chair facing the older classic part of his collection: rolls of pennies, by now thousands of rolls, behind a waist-high plastic barrier, a mountain of rolls, a brown hillside of neatly, tightly rolled coins. One day a week he would maintain this part of his collection, moving among the rolls and resealing the ends with long strips of scotch tape.
When Bill from across the hall knocked on his door, calling out for dinner, Henry’s room disappeared around him. He was hungry, but remained silent until Bill left. Recently Henry had begun to take his meals late; fewer people were there to stare at him as he poked through the barrels at the tray return.
* * * * * * * *
“What do you mean that we’ll sleep on the fold-out?”
“I mean, I need the space.” His fingers moved back nervously through his thin brownish hair and held onto his neck; he stretched back against his hand to fight against the tension.
Terri stood up from the table and walked around the kitchen. She shook her head, finding no words. “Do you really, really think that two grown people with a perfectly good bedroom ought to sleep in their living room just to make room for a collection of — of — junk?” Her voice, normally strident in disbelief, had this time a flat monotone that frightened Henry.
“Look, the living room is fine. It’s not like we ever have anyone visit.”
She looked up. “Is that MY fault?”
“Not a matter of fault, a matter of fact,” he explained. “It’s like having three bedrooms, not two, that’s all. Why have rooms designed by someone for THEIR idea of living? Why not have rooms for how WE live?”
“Live? Live?” Her voice rose again to its accustomed incredulous stridency. “You call this a way to live? There is so much crap in this apartment, I don’t know whether to shit or go blind. I come back from the office, you’ve been here all day, and I figure at least today he will make dinner, but no. You haven’t made dinner for a month. Instead, I gotta run a fucking obstacle course of your shit. And now it’s what—bottles? What’s wrong with the ten million goddamned cans? Why now bottles? You nuts? I think you’re nuts.”
Patience, let’s explain it again, sometimes Terri forgets. “Look, Ter, it’s just a hobby. You knew I collected when we met. You thought it was funny.”
“A carton of match books is funny. A closet of wire hangers without clothes is not funny. A carton of shirt cardboards next to my dresser is not funny. Used toothpaste tubes isn’t even quaint. It’s sick shit, Henry. Sick, sick, sick!”
Terri started to clear the dishes, then put them back on the table. “Henry, Henry, what’s happening. Why do you do this? Why do I stay here? Each morning I get up and I say, this isn’t happening, this is too absurd. But it IS happening, Henry. What are you doing? What are you doing with your life, with OUR life? Are you going to ever work again? Are you looking? All day alone, what do you do? Do you call for jobs? Your unemployment is running out. Then how do we afford to live? Or do you –fuck with this crap all day? Henry? Henry? Talk to me Henry‼”
There were some crumbs on the table. Henry swept them with the edge of one hand into his other palm. Their sharp texture was pleasing.
“Henry? Oh for Chrissakes! Henry, I’m going to the movies with Helen. Then I’m coming home and going to sleep in my own bed. Do you hear me, my own bed. BED. BED!”
Terri paused but there was no response so she left the room. Minutes later, the front door closed. Silence, She was gone. “Good,” thought Henry. Good that she is gone. Good because there aren’t enough hours in the day to do what needs to be done. So much to organize, to handle, to arrange. Neatening up the dinner dishes in a stack, Henry walks, smiling, into the bedroom. He strips the bedding, and carries the linen into the living room. By the time Terri returns, she’ll be so tired she won’t care where she sleeps. The square flat expanse of mattress lies before him. Its potential calls to him, and he sees clearly what shall be done. With new surfaces to fill, Henry can expand once more. Even now, he has stored several trash bags in the basement. Now he can bring them upstairs, empty them and arrange their contents onto the bed. And when Terri returns home and he shows her, Henry is sure that she will understand.
* * * * * * * * * *
Old Hank moved stiffly in the dawn chill that permeated the kitchen of the farmhouse on the hill. Although he had lived in it for twenty years, ever since his mother’s death had given him enough money to buy, finally buy, a home suitable for his hobbies, he never got used to how the wood stove took so long to bite into the chill each morning, particularly since it heated so intently once it was well-fired.
Old Hank – the kids in town called him that on those few occasions each year that he went down to Mort’s to restock – carefully dunked yesterday’s tea bag into the cup; a penny saved was a penny earned, and since he collected the printed tabs at the end of the tea bag string he instinctively pulled the string through the staple to disengage it. In the decades since Terri left him his palate had fallen to the simplest of levels; tea and toast, toast and cheese, one or two chops and a potato for dinner. Old Hank always was too busy to bother much with cooking, anyway.
Each morning the ritual was reenacted, although Old Hank knew the ending, knew it as well as he knew the number of bottle caps in the four hundred and twelve shoe boxes in the attic. Each morning he would mentally list his collections, and pretend to decide which ones would occupy him for that day. The pennies were no longer any good; they were in the floor-less basement, too heavy to move around in any meaningful way, too damp to the touch to be pleasing. Besides, the bugs were eating the wrappers and the yellowed tape was drying off the end of the rolls, and sometimes when Old Hank picked up a handful of rolls the coins would dribble free and go rolling along the dark earth. With the arthritis in his bones, Old Hank had a devil of a time picking them back up, although of course he would never quit and leave even one on the basement floor; that was what was good about having them rolled, you knew exactly how may there were so you would also know exactly how many were missing.
Smooth stones? Postage stamps with flowers, racetrack programs, baseball programs, graduation programs, fifty-four separately sorted categories of programs; not enough to sink your teeth into, really.
Of course, that was the problem all along, the problem he noticed about twelve years ago when he went down to Nashua for the first time to attend one of those collector shows. No matter what he had collected for all of those years, no matter how many rooms he filled with his collections, so full that the ten-room house and the barn were bulging and he had taken to sleeping on a cot again, in the hallway, just as he had shortly after Terri had left him…. But there seemed to be a collector at the show specializing on each separate thing, and that person’s collection was so much grander than his own. The bottle man displayed many bottles that Old Hank had never even seen, and the books of photographs showed even more. The beer can man said he had eleven thousand beer cans at his own home, including nine hundred and forth-five different brands; Old Hank had driven quickly home, and when the dawn arrived and he had finished counting he knew that he just couldn’t measure up.
Of course, strangely, each of these people only seemed to collect one single thing. At the stamp section he thought that he had found a kindred spirit or to, but he soon realized that the envelopes and post-cards were all different aspects of a single collection of postal materials, and not truly different at all.
Although until then he had collected for sheer pleasure, he now found himself awake most nights, worrying about all his inferior collections. He felt like a failure whenever opening one up, and for three or four days actually stayed in bed without resorting even once; and this with several cartons of rubber bands askew in the very next bedroom!
Then Old Hank found the secret of his unique new collections, collections so special that no one in the world would ever be able to rival them. Old Hank had become the ultimate of specialists, and all at once he had stopped sweating and starving himself. In fact, he found new need for the energy he got from his dinners, and he doubled his rations just to be sure.
Old Hank placed his teacup in the center of his toast plate after he had scraped all the crumbs into his pocket. He placed the plate in the corner of the sink, exactly opposite his dinner plate from last night. He climbed the stairs slowly, sliding his feet on the bare treads, lightly toeing every third or fourth riser just to be sure his footing was sound. At the end of the hall he unlocked the door to the main bedroom and bolted it behind him. Seated at the table he had placed just in front of the doorway, he picked up an empty mason jar, have released the top and waited.
He shifted, felt the warmth of the sun obliquely cutting across his face and chest from the uncurtained window, and then tried to relax his body and let it come. Soon, he has able carefully to uncap the bottle, and deposit a soft passage of belched gas. Quickly he recapped and replaced the jar, a trace of a smile edging his face.
It was Thursday, so he could clip his nails on both hands and feet. These remains he swept into an empty dishwasher carton he had picked up in front of a neighboring farm years before. Remembering, the toast crumbs went into a large Tupperware jug.
It was a sunny day, and Old Hank felt good. He couldn’t really wait for tomorrow and besides, one day’s growth didn’t much matter, did it? Pulling the mirror forward, he carefully trimmed his few hairs and let the ends fall onto a white sheet of paper; leaning forward, he carefully clipped his nose-hairs as high as he could reach into his nostrils with his little scissors, and then stood and took off his bathrobe. After trimming his chest hair, he stretched each arm over the paper in turn, cutting carefully because once, last month, he had nicked something badly and he hadn’t been able to stop the bleeding for hours. Worse, it was just a slow leaking, and there was no real way to collect and save it.
Pushing his hips forward until the bottom of his torso stuck over the edge of the table, Old Hank adjusted his mirror and trimmed his body hair around his genitals; they fell as gray coils onto the gray and black residue. Finally, he took his shavings that he had caught in the sink the prior evening and dried overnight, and shook them onto the small pile. This too went into its own Tupperware, which sealed tightly and was so much more effective for saving, well, things like these.
Old Hank always had been quite regular, so he was able to grab two of the appropriate jars and add to those collections in the bathroom next door; for these he used smoked glass jars with tight screw caps and rubber gaskets, because he had heard that released gasses sometime could build up explosive pressure and cause unfortunate problems. With two room full of the stuff, he didn’t want any surprises.
Although Old Hank couldn’t hear very well anymore, the result of too many deep probes into his ears for his wax jars, he was distracted by a shrill call below. Looking out the window, he saw a small fox caught by the leg in the trap he had set for the raccoon that had been at his trash. “Serves him right,” thought Old Hank, who nonetheless descended the stairs as quickly as he was able. Grabbing a squirrel gun from the cabinet and two shells, slowly Old Hank lumbered through the hall and kitchen and out the back door. But by the time he got off the porch and around the corner the fox was gone, its gnawed leg already collecting flies in the growing heat of the day as it lay bloodied in the jaws of the trap.
Old Hank cleaned out the trap and reset it, throwing the leg towards the woods. He was half-way up the stairs when he paused, absorbed in some inexpressible revelation, and then he hustled down the steps and thrashed through the tall grass and underbrush until he found the fox leg. He held it by its paw with some distaste, but he carried it into the kitchen and placed in on the table, turning it around with one finger and examining the smooth fur, and the ripped flesh where the animal had gnawed and pulled until he was free.
Looking under the sink, Old Hank found a coffee can with its plastic lid holding a supply of used soap pads. Impatiently he shook out the contents, and carried the can over to the table and dropped the leg into it. He covered and uncovered it several times, each time peering over the rim and shaking the can a little. It was good, this leg; it was interesting too. But there was something wrong, something not wholly pleasing. Old Hank was not used to observing solitary things, and the truth of it was that fox leg, rattling around in there, just looked kind of lonely.
Old Hank took the can and replaced its cover, and took a roll of paper towels, and two or three of the thicker kitchen knives, and went upstairs to the bathroom. He pushed aside a few brown glass jars with disinterest and, dropping his robe off his body, began to turn in front of the mirror, figuring out what parts really weren’t all that important.