You are reading Fiddleblack #8
They inter themselves, premature burials in narrow private heavens, entombed in stupendous and utterly prosaic wealth. The material sum of their lives rises in disorder on every side, thoughtless tribute of a sullen people to their remote monarch. Privileged in his place, the god of Plenty causes his bounty to flow over desks and chairs and up walls, to slosh in seas in side rooms, to rear up toward specked ceilings and to delve down toward the fundament where dark convergences of fluids work insidiously, where the silt and slurry of decomposition rains down on a floor like that of the sea, becoming that which pollutes it.
Blazoned on a torn white envelope that once conveyed to Wilson his public assistance check: the aquiline mascot of a strong and unified nation, taloned insignia of pride. It protrudes from a carton of dinner rolls now turned to gray-green knots of mold, its storied escutcheon stained by seepages of rancid citrus. Higher up in the moraine of trash a box of grapefruit juice leaked or burst and the sticky cascade traced a route of migration for a race of tiny piss-ants, each barely larger than a grain of coffee or a crumb of brown sugar. One could be forgiven for mistaking the pests for animate particles of garbage.
Intake estimated that if Wilson signs the release, four 20-foot dumpsters will be needed for removal of the contents of his farmhouse, outbuildings and grounds. I see immediately that eight wouldn’t be enough.
I struggle for footing in heaps of trash. Wilson’s hoard is bad. He’s vigorous considering his age and living conditions, but his house could easily become his tomb. Every room full to the ceiling, every passage blocked. Narrow paths connect zones for eating, sleeping, elimination, television. Paths lead nowhere, or rather, deeper into the hoard. I follow one of these to a battered filing cabinet. Inside, plastic bottles of motor oil.
They are provisioned against every eventuality except that disaster which has in fact befallen them.
They are all remarkably the same, these frowning houses. Whether or not any pretense of normality remains, the exteriors are bitten by the illness inside. Accumulation is taking hold, leaking from doorways and creeping from side passages. And while the interiors reflect to some extent their keepers’ particular obsessions, they are also much the same: narrow stairways choked, the clogged paths like game-trails through and over the mess, the smells… We study this disease, yet no one can tell me why, in every hoard, I’ve always found two things: the tall stack of VHS players, dust-shrouded and in various states of disassembly; and the overflowing box of Christmas decorations. I didn’t find either in Wilson’s hoard.
Ludicrous or seemly typefaces on shaggy cardboard, calling mutely from the piles: White Ribbon, Land o’ Lakes, Krasdale, Quik Stop, Auto Zone… I tread on them all.
The hoard is, of course, a concealment—at the heart of each is a hidden fiction which is the most precious treasure of all.
Some hoarders are clever children who’ve beaten the game of life to achieve everlasting communion with their toys. Others are gnostic dissemblers heaping up a bulwark against the tides of all that’s worse than trash and decay. Some have discarded everything else for their hoard, and would hide among the ruins—they fail to realize what a titanic undertaking it truly is to give this world the slip. They’re just as likely to rise up from their abject middle- or old-age and go to sea in a sailing ship or trek to the bottom of the jungle. Not only do they lack the mettle to truly disappear, they’ve already marked themselves out as heretics against the iron directive of disposability. Instead of building cover they raise cairns of shit, revealing their whereabouts and weaknesses to malign spirits. Despair and madness will be the last prizes—but one—that they add to their pile.
Faded ink on cardboard. Molded plastic in forest green or Christmas red. Outside the kitchen window, more cartons, a folded wheelchair wedged behind a mattress. Unopened toys still on bubble cards. Faded trademarks on cardboard: Hostess, General Foods, Blue Ribbon, Michelob, Jimmy Dean. The Cellar.
Nothing of value can last in the glacier of refuse. True things are ground to dust. I see photo albums, covers crusted with dried matter, pages fused by mildew, the blithe or portentous faces of children consigned to an outmoded past… No room for history in a hoard. They are altars to an immobilized future, built out of the dead and conquered past, on which are offered futile prayers for an undisturbed eternity of acquisition and neglect.
The hoard is a new form of truth, the world of metastasizing plenty in twisted miniature, a doomed attempt at exhausting the world’s threat of bounty by totemic replication.
There’s nothing to a heap but the heaping-up; what’s on top, what’s last added to the pile is the least of its atoms. Like a king, it has surrendered its identity or its identity has been stripped from it and where it sits atop everything else is never the apex.
Some see it as a valiant effort of preservation, a reproach to wastefulness, a stewardship of the wonderful things men have bestowed on themselves. They don’t see how thin is the dividing line between citizen and garbage, and in turn they don’t see that they’ve infected themselves with the malady of the garbage dump, the stigma of obsolescence. They would arrogate to themselves the right of special communion with the world’s plunder. We may be tempted to see them as weak and afflicted when in fact they are in the throes of the most terrible hubris. And for this presumption they are of course punished by that most assiduous Hoarder of all.
Before I fought my way through the clogged rear hallway, before I descended into the cellar and heard the door click shut behind me, I saw the room where Wilson sleeps.
After a short, inconclusive conversation (“I think, sir,” he said, “I’m ready for a change”) he invited me to look around, said he was in the middle of something. Soon he’d drifted away, calling vaguely from a distant room. Bed heaped high. Frayed flannel shirts stuffed into plastic milk crates alongside fat brown paperbacks of James Clavell. No television facing the narrow strip of gray mattress. But a large telescope rose from the muck on its tripod, its barrel directed toward a narrowly exposed window. Instruments, perhaps a seismograph, sat nearby, tethered to a thick harness of wires that fed through a ragged hole in the floor.
Somnambulous ascent of Wilson’s trove. The black heap, the stars, my hands, the night all crumble and disintegrate yet still I mount toward the sky that lowers like a rotting fly-specked ceiling. (I used to imagine that sleep was peace for them, that in sleep was the possibility of recovering the outlines of home that lie buried under every hoard, but that was before I spent a night in one. In dreams the dragon must work harder than ever—the lamentable solidity of objects is dissolved and he can see through the yawning surface of his prisoning objects, apprehending each of them in its aching imperfection, seeing through the hoard entire to all the world that remains unamassed, hearing the cries of every homeless object that languishes unclaimed or squats in forgotten basements or lies sprawled and shredded on roadsides going hellishly to waste.)
Objects shorn of generosity, stripped to their lethal essence, the desert in the bazaar. The impact of empty years on things never intended to bear names. Forms without dignity, household implements and vessels designed for emptiness and quick decay, tinsel and garlands and petrochemicals. A dumb riot of repurposed boxes and unfillable sacks, all under the slow oleaginous rainbow extruded by spectral obsolescence.
The molecular holocaust of each second’s universal decay weighs down light and air, feeds the miasma, a stained firmament in which heavy motes lumber and collide like doomed brown stars sullenly spinning through the orphaned hinterlands of creation.
Much is said of the atavistic aspects of the disease that afflicts Wilson. There is much facile theorizing about the psycho-mechanics of the hoard. It is a shell, a buffer, it is a maze and the hoarders are the minotaurs. Is it a form of magic? What is the fetish they make from the vortex of lifeless things that is our heavy birthright and lifeblood, but to which we decline to pay tribute in our collective bonfires of higher feeling? Sympathetic magic seeks to form a bond between like things, to exploit the mysterious leverage that is implied by the deceptive phenomenon of similarity. It is a special case of that figure of thought called metaphor, and is often employed in the service of revenge. But what wrong does the hoard seek to redress? What access to other powers is bought by devotion to the garbage dump, this model of black chaos, this curse doll whose object is the maniac universe?
Visits to the city dump with my grandfather. The extravagant stink. I wasn’t any help, I was too stricken by greed. A feeling haunted me in dreams afterward—what was it that I, having looked upon its naked shame, now owed to the garbage? And why did I tell myself that the panoply of broken forms, broken bits and whole chunks, plaster and paper and tin and rancid fat, was somehow meant for me, that looking upon it obligated me to choose?
I gravely misunderstood, as children will, the idea of treasure. I thought it was that which had been misunderstood and discarded in error, and which only I, knowing what I know, could know and claim. But treasure is never overlooked or unknown, or it isn’t for long.
I expect to live for quite some time down here in the bilge of Wilson’s hoard. Maybe long enough for help to arrive, maybe not. (I realize now I never actually saw Wilson’s address posted. I waited at the end of the long drive or unpaved road that the map seemed to indicate was his for nearly an hour before he arrived to take me in.)
There is light, a sullied light that struggles from buzzing fluorescent panels as if through membranes of horn. The air is freighted with the spores and particles shed by mounds of furred cardboard boxes (Department of Agriculture, Tide, Dole, Ludgate, Random House)…
There’s no unraveling the trail that brought me here. It would be easy enough to pick one or another thread from the tangle of numb duty, chance, and deception, but now the whole knotted mess has gone to the refuse pile. Almost ten years now since I turned my back on life but declined to die. The answer was simple and was always before me, as it is before all of us. But I upheld and undersigned a foolish cowardice and not only went on living but tolerated and promulgated, deep within myself, the sin of hope. I went back to work. I indulged the selfish illusion of charity. I endured the small disasters left to me and, with somewhat more care, helped my clients negotiate the shipwrecks of their lives. While the light lasted, the pinhole of empathy allowed the scattered and inverted image of their souls into the darkened chamber of mine.
When my family left I threw everything away, by which I mean objects. I adopted and maintained a new asceticism out of mourning and tribute and then resentment. Some part of me still covets my clients’ expansive disarray and unstinting devotion to their things.
I thought I understood them: their illness is a cautionary tale, they are like us but they lack the crucial grain of equivocating sanity which allows us to carry on our carelessly intimate and sacrilegious relationship with our garbage. But of course it is only by giving ourselves over to the world that we transcend it. What does their abjection teach the rest of us? What if our souls are also a kind of garbage and what if they only find their level when we descend into the kingdom of waste? What happens when our souls’ faculties are so corroded by the journey to the midden that the belief is engendered that some other garden is down there, a species of inverted exultation beyond the mere consolation of misery—another truth, hidden from the burning eyes of God?
What dances in the lightless night? Will men crowd it out of our last-ditch world? With what do we stuff our ears and eyes against the truth?
In moonlight it is the Great Pyramid that I ascend, that crumbles beneath numb hands and feet, that still radiates the stale warmth of a distant day that hides around a corner of the earth, unwilling to look upon the scene on the desert floor.
Caught by night on the tomb’s stark surface, I am alien to the great pile, the temple that is entered from within, wherefrom I hear the terrible gnawing of a great ferment… that hypocritical monument that shows only staid geometry to the vacuum and holds writhing fullness inside—
My dream ends in a sweltering black continuum.
To come to my clients I drive long on lonely roads. Other counselors have grown inured, but I still struggle with a feeling of stricken trance each time—not because of the clients (they are usually thinly amiable at first) but because I can’t help looking into the hoard (is it the true client? Am I?) The hoard presents an intractable problem of perception—where to look, what to see, and why. Perception is organization, and the sad pointless chaos defeats and excludes the will to order. I’m still capable of perceiving the particulars well enough to do my job, but the overwhelming surface saps my will, threatens in its dank plurality, its sorry and accusing decay and waste. I am a pathetic voyeur spying on the traffic to the garbage chute. I feel shame, at our way of life, but also at the universe of things we find ourselves in—why are so many cheap forms possible at all? When one cheap thing is piled atop another, the value of both is decreased, and on and on. Why can a whim or desire be molded once and then reproduced forevermore? The endless issue of the factories and our own frailer forms, produced en masse to unvarying specifications. Does something worse than greed motivate the provisioners to set loose a clockwork of manufacture and then, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, turn their backs on the consequences? No matter, someone will weep for the senseless progeny of the factories, misguided foster parents will mourn the great abandonment and take in the abandoned, but they take garbage to their hearts. Their sympathy is misspent and teaches the futility of all such feelings.
What is it that enrages me about so many simple desires, so simply met?
…What brood from a fouled nest? Inside the calyx of a lonely house: a runner in darkness. Here in the heart is the grub… “As high as the heap, the roots are deeper,” I thought I heard him say.
Moonlight in the cellar, Wilson’s back—he really was ready. his fingers are numerous and long enough at last to caress his every treasure.
Adam S. Cantwell is a writer, musician and father living in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author, most recently, of Orphans on Granite Tides (Ex Occidente Press, Bucharest). His stories have appeared in Fiddleblack and various anthologies including Ex Occidente’s tributes to Meyrink, Bulgakov, and Bruno Schulz.