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Reds and Dodgers. Disembodied mitts swarmed the scene like Luna Moths, horrified and attracted as he himself had been. Ground zero for all collections, it seemed, was the glue bottle, the lumps of pearly translucent white that held the swirling chaos of the world in place even as they officially devastated the value of any item affixed, according to all known specialists. You were a fucking idiot to glue anything to anything else but you did it all the time. A ‘real’ collector tolerated the slippage, the loose and therefore implicitly temporary nature of his hoard, by capturing coins and cards and shells and stamps in sheaths and slipcases, delicate frames. You glued shit to backgrounds like a maniac. You’d have sealed the books on your shelves in laminate if you could. Superglue, which was reputed to solder fingers to eyeballs, was too scary to even let into the house, knowing your propensities.
The gluing impulse was especially treacherous when it came to stamp collecting. He’d been given the albums and a head start of a million torn-off corners of envelopes by an uncle in from Vegas. Here was another precise history to duplicate, every stamp ever issued in the United States, plus their dark cousins, the Postage-Due stamps. In fact, in two years of solid work he’d never catch up with the backlog of stamps to soak or steam off envelopes. The ideal stamp had nothing to do with this bogus labor anyway, but was clean of postmark, never licked, perhaps even in an intact block of four. These were purchased at the Collector’s Counter on the eighth floor of the department store, a somber ritual, religious possibly, related to visits to the bank window, and with no overtones of the grocery-store baseball-card gumand-garbage runs. Yet faced with a pristine stamp and its appointed place in an album, a date with destiny, how to keep from just licking the thing and pressing it into place? What the fuck was a dry-mount, anyway? On a humid day they licked themselves, self-ruining, so why lose the chance? Thirty year-old stamp-glue had the titillating savor of an old wine uncorked. Who was it waiting for, if not for him? Maybe the only thing you collected, after all, was glue itself.
Drugs and music made another set of twins. Each was like seashells or stardust you took into your body. Living where he did, in the city locked in pavement to the sea, the drugs and the music were his first chance to import nature beyond his own boundaries. They made tidy analogues for sex or the forest, possibly more satisfying than any wider exploration would ever be, certainly safer. Drugs and songs were seashells he could seek to turn into pennies. First you saw a band, absorbed the essence of live moments which like drug fumes evaporated into your organs and left no evidence apart from your altered sense of self and any bragging rights you’d risk. Then you collected their albums, all the b-sides and rarities from the Denver Mint. In drugs he dabbled, a ready tourist, stopping nowhere but gathering sample flavours like stamps in a passport, Quaalude, Mescaline, Amsterdam hash. His record collection, on the other hand, was a plummet into addiction. He’d boarded a carousel of pure and infinite unsatisfaction, where solid ground whirled beneath his gaze, no chance of stepping off. He rarely listened to a song to its end anymore, perpetually upping the dose with a junkie’s agitation. The connoisseur soon learned every song had ‘versions’, which raised the stakes. Music was a kind of fractal disaster area.
The first time he put blotter acid on his tongue he thought: they printed the player’s statistics directly on the gum. And the player is me. The whole team, even the third base coach frantically signaling from his lime-drawn grass box in the foul area, touching his nose, his ear, his crotch, the bill of his cap – hey, what’s he trying to say to me? If I’m the coach why don’t I grasp the coach’s signals? If I am my own collection why am I scattered outside of my body? If that’s my favorite band why don’t I enjoy any of their albums?
Now somebody started a band, four guys in a basement, pawnshop instruments reflecting no consensus as to whether stickers were cool or not, in a sea of amplifier wires in a concrete zone cleared in the clutter of abandoned family stuff, including, he couldn’t help noticing, a pile of rotting stamp albums, lurching herky-jerky song openings with no firm conclusion in mind, except perhaps the ongoing argument certain to escalate to band break-up level, which would easily enough solve the problem of how to end the song.
One day a bunch of them drove down into Borrego Springs on mushrooms and it was exactly as good as Disney’s The Living Desert, and at that moment he realized the thing he loved most was a seashell. It was time to get out of the city.
Now he was a birdwatcher, with binoculars and a field guide. He walked in the woods but also sought to draw his collection to himself, magnetize his subjects like iron filings. He lured them to the edges of the house, to miniature platforms and chimney-shaped feeders mounted and hung in the trees, with piles of seed and corn and dried berries, bait for feathered creatures. He spied at them through his windows, enumerated them in his book, a reverse peeping Tom. Sparrow, wren, cardinal, crow.
On a daytrip to the beach he garnered pipers who ran like tidy punctuation at the edge of surf, then was taken aback at two lumpen terns nosing for clams at the breakwater rocks. Guiltily he noted these rarities in his book. Not all birds were birds, he felt. Category errors nagged his psyche. He wanted a division between water and sky. He saw he was trying to purify: the collector’s fatal mistake. Repentant, he logged the dirty-looking terns. Between birds he picked mushrooms, not psychedelic things, and at night he gazed at the stars. His military-surplus thigh pockets bulged with field guides. At night a single light brought flat moths of all sizes to his windows, self-adhering decal-souls. But he hadn’t glued anything to anything else in what felt like years. Whatever he’d wish to affix was beyond reach of Elmer’s nozzle. Then came the squirrels. These anti-birds clarified things radically. They filched seed and corn, clambered along wires, defeated all measures, and, bad actors, screeched off the visiting birds. The vermin needed to be thwarted,
Document which gave his life a new grim purpose. A war of logistics rapidly escalated, how to feed one kind and starve another. The squirrels twitched past any obstacle. Soon enough he concluded death was not only the preferred solution, it was too good for the bastards. He’d been converted into Elmer Fudd, a poker-in-holes. The wabbit kicked the bucket. The day he found his first victim curled like an ampersand in dead leaves, tiny mouth curled in disdain, tail rigid, he understood. It wasn’t really about birds anymore. Poison was the new glue.
Years later he attended a party at the home of a wealthy big-game hunter, a man of feral leisure. The hunter had a carriage house behind his mansion, full of trophies. He’d left it open for the guests to peruse. Wandering in among a gaggle of partiers, bearing drink and ice in a plastic cup, expecting perhaps a few tattered moose heads, he was shocked instead at entering a multi-chamber temple of earthly death. The walls were heaped everywhere with stuffed and mounted corpses, ibex, yak, water buffalo, Scottish goats with wiry beards. Room after room, countless bodies leapt from the walls, cougars and pythons arranged in elaborate tableau, miming attack, their frozen moments of death, perhaps an argument that the hunter had only shot in self-defense. The floor beneath guests’ strolling feet was a bear’s skin, then a tiger’s, then a pebbly crocodile’s back. Plaques accompanying the stuffed heads accounted for the dates of the kills, a regimented life’s work, no time wasted in the global hopping. Photographs showed the teams of natives who’d assisted in trapping the victims, framing them for the hunter’s bullet. The hunter the triumphant white face in their center, boot on a head with a lolling tongue. Staring at the uncredited taxidermist’s eyeball work, he spotted the telltale glue.
Back in the main house, they were introduced. In that razor look, the collector felt himself collected, or at least browsed. The hunter had worked out a handshake unlike any other, encircling a proffered hand in a tight ring and squeezing the line of knuckles together to produce unmistakably intentional pain. You had to grant it was an accomplishment: a handshake you’d gnaw your arm off to get free of.
“ Sometimes when I see a Lincoln-head penny I still think that an uncirculated 1909 S-VBD would be the ideal one.”
“Remember William Burroughs in Drugstore Cowboy, searching through that whole bedspread covered with pharmaceuticals, just looking for one Dilaudid? He tells them the rest of their stuff is crap, that the Dilaudid was the only pill worth anything.”
“When I was a kid I used to get confused about the difference between astronauts and dinosaurs. The only evidence of either was basically just footprints. And rocks.”
“Dude, what if birdwatching was not about watching lots of different birds, but watching just one. Pick a bird – not a species, but a sole, actual bird – and follow it anywhere, watch it forever. Like, Vertical instead of Horizontal birdwatching. That would be pretty fucking cool.”
“You know those machines that smash a penny into a souvenir image of some local building or monument? I can’t begin to explain how depressing I find that.”
“What I find depressing is that you can pay to have your filthy name put on a star or a crater on the moon that never did anything to hurt you in the first place, never so much as glanced in your direction.”
“I once put a quarter in a vise and cut it in half with a hacksaw. Then walked around with the halves in my pocket, trying to figure out if it was still money.”
“Me and my brother once spent a five-dollar bill that was autographed by Muhammad Ali. We basically just needed five bucks that day.”
“I heard this comedian say that he keeps his seashell collection scattered on the beaches of the world.”
“I still like birds, though.” “I like birds fine, man. Just not at the expense of other things. Like, say, mammals.”
His uncle, who’d lived alone in an apartment, had to be moved into a home. His father asked him to drive out to Vegas to help. In an instant, walking through the door, a lifetime’s romance with his uncle’s bachelorhood was shattered, a romance he hadn’t noticed himself sustaining. The ropetied newspapers and unopened mail formed a maze for a creature barely human. A sofa had been buried what a quick inspection proved was 19 years before, Newsweek with Bhopal on the cover.
When he got home he tried to flush the stamp collection down the toilet. They reeked of putridity to him now, a flaky carcass, skin of so many lost years, steamed off envelopes whose overlaid routes would describe the nervous system of the world. He ended up plunging the toilet. The stamps, moistened a third time for their final voyage, swam on his tiles, and over the bathroom’s doorjamb, to be wrecked on the reef of the carpet. Others invested in the toilet’s crannies, where he had to scour them free with a brush.
These days he wondered if all the aspirins and cigarettes in circulation resembled pennies, whether they were issued from different mints, and whether their point of origin as well as their date of issue could be ascertained by examining microscopic serial-number imprints. He began to consider the possibility of an aspirin or cigarette collection mounted into embossed holders, as with his lost penny collection.
Such a collection would, of course, be destined like all others for failure, the die-cut cardboard slots intended to bear the earliest and scarcest aspirins or cigarettes reproachfully empty. He had fantasies of flash-laminating his coffee table, capturing everything on it in a plastic glob, magazine, coins, half-eaten sandwich, ashtray.
The truth was he needed to quit smoking, clean his apartment, and scoop up the pennies everywhere. He’d laminate when he was dead, what was the hurry? Stuff was collecting everywhere you looked. He’d be OK. The universe was the glue that held him together.
Jonathan Lethem’s latest novel, Chronic City, is published by Faber and Faber. www.jonathanlethem.com