The Collector

My observations of the world have led me to believe our sympathy for others is frequently based on selfish motives. Although I cannot be sure, there is a chance that, with a few exceptions it is always the case. Imagine this scenario: It’s Someone’s funeral. A rainy autumn day, asters wilting in the cold wind, the casket, the open pit in the ground, darkly-clad shivering people, mournful mood in the air. You are standing behind somebody’s back, a bit to the side because you don’t belong to the family and came here only to show your respects to the deceased, whom you had known only but slightly, and therefore you are able to perceive everything rather impartially. You see the casket being lowered into the pit, you hear somber music. What else? The cry of the widow: “Oh, how can I live without him?! He is mine! He is my sweetheart!”
Along these lines. Do you see it? “I, mine, my…” Nobody really cares about the expired and how uncomfortable it might to be lifeless to him, having lost everything. No. It’s only, “I can’t live without him,” “we won’t survive without him,” etc. Can you see my point here? All those tears are just an indication of selfishness, nothing else.
If you thoroughly examine your own feelings it won’t be hard to reach the conclusion that we are all similar and thus you are like me. Then you will understand why I can’t stand sick people, even the closest to me. I feel a heavy burden of responsibility for their survival, like I must somehow help them but can’t, and that drives me crazy. It’s an extremely uncomfortable emotional state to me and I would like to avoid it.
Back in the sixties a person very close to me fell ill, and my luck (or the lack of it) led me to take care of him — feed, wash, dress and undress, etc. — for he had no one but me. Being a reasonable man and knowing my views on nursing, he didn’t demand my fulltime presence and attention to his calamity. Nevertheless, I still had to be around to help him if necessity arose, and, out of the killing boredom, I read newspapers. Usually, I don’t care about the rubbish the papers like to print, but the whole house contained nothing else but technical books, which I couldn’t understand anyway and wouldn’t have tried to entertain myself by attempting to.
One morning, after breakfast, I was browsing newspaper personals. Among various ads that let me know of the availability of a black poodle, motorcycle parts, some furniture, strollers, garage doors, and more, there was one that I didn’t notice at first but later came back to, for it looked like there had been some error. The ad said: “Collection for sale. Sunsets.” The address and the best time to contact the seller were printed below. At first I thought “Sunsets” belonged to the address line, but after reading more attentively I realized it wasn’t a part of the address. But then there was the obvious lack of information. What sort of collection? What did sunsets have to do with it? Was it a photographic collection? Paintings? Movies? Rather a strange ad. Later, I couldn’t explain even to myself why I tore the ad from the newspaper and put it in my pocket. Automatically. Not unlike when people pick up and save something they absolutely don’t need: a pebble of an unusual shape, a clamshell from the sand, a feather.
A few months passed. My friend fully recovered, and I was living my usual life again. In late fall, accidentally (I would say ‘by chance’. Although used colloquially the way you have, in writing ‘accidentally’ is reserved for events that occur involuntarily or beyond our control. I would even say ‘I chanced to find myself’ but your writing voice is more direct so use ‘by chance’) I found myself in the area that was mentioned in the newspaper ad. Sure enough, I didn’t need any collection and wasn’t looking for one. It’s only my curiosity that made me look at the place from the ad.
The house was there, a wooden structure on a stone base. It must have been quite old, for there was grass growing in the concrete cracks. Also, there was a truck in the driveway, surrounded by trash: old magazine covers, pieces of paper, shapeless rags, wire coat-hangers. Four men in gray overalls trying to move an old-fashioned wooden chest through the door were taking directions from a younger, a blond man in an unbuttoned raincoat, its skirt flapping in the wind. The blond man was smiling and joking with the movers. It took a minute or so for him to notice me standing there. He walked up and said, “You are a friend of his, right?” Actually, he didn’t say “his”, he used a name, but I missed it and didn’t feel like asking him to repeat the question. It just wasn’t important, as I didn’t know anyone there anyway. The blond man, however, was still there waiting for my answer. It was a little awkward for a moment, but then I remembered about the newspaper ad in my pocket and showed it to him. This seemed to make things clear to him. “Oh, I see. You are one of those,” he said. “Well, not really,” I said, as I had no idea who ‘those’ were, but he decided not to pay attention to my objection and continued like I was one of those after all: “He is gone. I guess he felt he was about to pass when he placed the ad. I am his son. The property is going on sale. We are cleaning it up.” He took my arm: “Let’s go inside. I’ll show you where they are. All the closets were full of them, so we moved everything into one room. He himself kept everything very orderly, but it’s a mess now. I thought it was all trash and nobody wanted it, was going to throw it away. You can have it all. To me, it’s still junk, useless. You know, to make it even easier, we’ll load them into the truck alongside the furniture and drop it off at your place. It will be faster this way. How about that?”
Without breaking the chatter, he was walking me through empty rooms with yellowish stained wallpaper. It smelled of cinnamon and wet spider webs. Clear traces on the floors where furniture had been standing for very long time. At one door, he stopped: “Here they are.”
I had not had any expectations, but perhaps had inadvertently assumed it would be a collection of some kind, while there was none. Just a pile of various containers: mostly coffee cans, but also cartons from other foodstuffs, perfume boxes, brown vitamin bottles, plastic cups with lids, glass jars wrapped in dark paper, you name it. Some had handwritten labels attached to them with glue or a rubber band, others only had traces of glue — evidence of some labels in the past. The man repeated, “Here they are.” “What?” “The sunsets,” he said and kicked a can. By the sound it made while rolling across the room, there was nothing inside.
He looked at my face, which must have showed disappointment. “My father constantly complained about packaging, the lack of it. All the neighbors knew and brought him cans as soon as they were empty. A good number of them here, aren’t there? You know, at first, he started out collecting sunrises but later switched to sunsets. He got interested quite late in life and didn’t have time for both. As he grew older, it became harder for him to wake up for sunrises, especially in summer when sun rises very early. Sunsets were more convenient. Sunrises, you can have them too if you like, they are in the basement, pretty much no labels… It would be much easier for me if you took everything.”
I declined, though. It was already going to be a burden. My place was rather small and this amount of junk would make it unlivable. Until I threw all of it away, that is. The blond was trying to make his problem mine, but he didn’t push when I said, “Sorry, sunrises are beyond my area of interest.” “OK,” he said, “no problem.”
With the movers gone, alone in my apartment, facing the pile of junk, I started swearing aloud at my own stupidity. I took a can, shook it, but there was no sound inside and I threw it back on the pile. Now I chose a can with a label that said “1946, Spring” and some coordinates beneath, latitude and longitude. For a split-second, it seemed to me that it made a tiny high-pitched sound, but when I jiggled it again I could hear nothing. Just an empty can. I saw myself in the mirror on the wall, with a can at my ear, the look of an idiot.
In the kitchen, I found a knife and opened the can. For lack of right word, I would say I was petrified, but in fact it was more than that, much more. Silver light filled the room. Things — furniture, cans, books, everything — disappeared. All I was seeing was a side of the sky with the sun very low on the horizon. A strange foreign place, bathed by bright red and shimmering light. Like reflections of fire on silver dishes. A few clouds of ivory porcelain hung in front of the blue backdrop, and a disk of sun the color of raspberries. The sky wasn’t evenly blue. At the top it was green like the fresh grass in spring, at the bottom like a ripe pear, with the golden hue spreading upwards in a glowing fan. The air was clear like gin in a glass, but you could feel a hint of fatigue there, a slight weariness.
It was a true sunset. It lasted a very short time, only a few minutes, until the sun set completely. I closed the can and put it back on the pile. I felt lightheaded.
It took about half an hour for the vertigo to go away. I started examining the labels. They only had the year, the season, and location on them, nothing else. I found a few containers from before World War II, three or four from the war years; however, most of them were from the last twenty years. I tidied the cans, more or less, stacking them against the wall, and went for a walk. I needed to think things over with a clear head.
It took me a month to go through all cans. More than ten a day, it was very exhausting, physically impossible. I would get vertigo, lose my orientation in space and time, and all awareness of who I was. So ten was the limit I never crossed. Much later, I established a rule for myself to never open more than three on the same day. But at the time, I was obsessed like somebody who almost died in the desert from thirst and now can’t stop gulping water down as if it were about to run out. I couldn’t understand how I had never paid any attention to sunsets, but also how that man, the collector, managed to get so close to me. Now, I knew him no less than myself. Sure, he was dead and buried, nevertheless there was a strong link, like a golden wire, between us. Perhaps stronger than any connection I had to anyone during my lifetime. My opinion about him was based on his selection of keeper sunsets: their colors, their lines, and moods. Some of his sunsets left me untouched, some I just liked, but others were magic, so flawless and powerful. They were like open windows into his soul. It had never occurred to me that it was possible to judge someone by sunsets that he or she had either liked or disliked. Without knowing any details, I was able to feel that man’s solitude like my, to be aware of his pain and the anxieties from which he himself was free now. Sometimes, it was necessary to watch a sunset a few times to perceive what he worried about at the time. There were no casual sunsets; all were significant, only you had to find their meaning. With time, I made my selection of about twenty that I never tired of watching, and every time I would discover more and more meaning in them. I would watch the rest only occasionally, if I needed additional guidance to fully appreciate the main ones.
The whole world acquired new, incredible breadth and depth for me. One day, I went to the house where it all started, hoping to find the sunrises, too. The door stayed locked for too long–evidence the house was still unoccupied and that I might succeed. However, finally the door opened slightly, and I saw the suspicious face of an old wrinkled woman. I pretended to be a friend of the deceased and asked her which cemetery he was buried in, but she didn’t know. Nor did she know about the son’s whereabouts. Before all hope was gone, I mentioned sunrises. She was startled: “Sunrises! What sunrises?”
“In cans,” I explained. “They should have been in the basement.”
Well, not very surprisingly, she muttered “madman” and shut the door. While walking away, I could still hear the woman rambling inside, “they poisoned my cat… but that wasn’t enough… I need to call the police… I will definitely sue…” That was the last time I saw the house. The cemetery warden wasn’t cooperative either. Too many people die, it’s not possible to memorize all of them, he would occasionally remember the casket, but not who was inside.
As time went on, a feeling emerged that I should have something of my own, personal, intimate. The fancy soon turned nagging and, before I consciously committed to it, I started hoarding empty cans and tight boxes. I chose lakes, as I always found them somehow appealing. I took a weeklong vacation and hit the road. After three gloomy days, the fourth was quite agreeable, and by evening I was ready. I have to admit, my anxiety and fear of failure were enormous. True enough, my first attempts were not very fortunate, albeit it didn’t take long to figure out my mistake. It’s not enough to watch the sun setting, you have to live it. You need to concentrate all your essence, thoughts and feelings — love, passion, desire, sorrow — into one thing, the sunset. It is difficult, though. Not every sunset is capable of lifting your inner being to such levels. Another impediment: you can experience only one sunset a day. You will not see it ever again. You only have one shot and you either hit or miss forever.
All that happened fifteen years ago. Today, I am able to say I accomplished it. For a great many days, I have been adding to my own collection, tirelessly hunting for sunsets on every occasion that befalls me. The selection–weeding out weaker sunsets and keeping the better ones–takes a lot of time and effort, but it has been worth it: my set is beautiful, neat, and tight. In a way, I have become a virtuoso at it. I only need a split-second to discern the merit of a sunset, and whether it will be suitable for my collection or not.
I’ve been retired for two years now. Understandably, my last sunset is not that far away. I will see it, but won’t be able to add it to my collection. I travel a lot these days. In some places, locals know me by name, and children offer their help in carrying my cans around. Nobody knows why I come, although it’s possible one day I will explain to them the purpose of my visits, tell them all I know about sunsets and this world. It’s becoming harder and harder for me to walk long distances with the load on my back. I haven’t decided yet what will happen to my collection at the end. One option is to sell it while I have time, though I could just give it away as a gift, eventually. Thus, don’t be surprised if you see an ad in a newspaper:
“A collection for sale. Sunsets.”
That will be me.