PROSE: “Collect” by Richard Charles Schaefer

After 20 years, Benjamin Wheeler was just another person I didn’t talk to anymore, never mind why; when a friendship is that far in the rearview, a falling out and a quiet fizzle are both specks on the horizon.
Human-interest stories don’t interest me, so I don’t know why I read the article on the “Collection Collector;” I didn’t recognize Ben’s name at first.
A few paragraphs in I made the connection that this Benjamin Wheeler was my high school best friend. For a price, he’ll take stuff people don’t want any more—no, that’s not right, it’s stuff they do want, but don’t have the time to appreciate—and he’ll appreciate it for them. I could pay him $100 a month to polish my mineral collection (if I had one) and I’m supposed to derive some joy from this.
The article interviews one of his clients, a mother who pays Benjamin to hold her college-aged son’s Hot Wheels cars. Per their contract, he plays with them at least once a week, admires them, reorganizes them. The woman says her depression has noticeably decreased since hiring Benjamin; her “empty nest syndrome is eased knowing someone is enjoying Killian’s toys” in his place.
We also get a sample of Ben’s daily schedule: cook breakfast using equipment owned by the husband of a deceased professional chef, take a morning hike in boots owned by an environmentalist-turned-lawyer with no time to enjoy nature, return home, listen to a Rolling Stones LP (per the contract, he must appreciate that it’s a mono recording), read 50 pages from a well-stocked library of books (contractual terms vary, but most insist there be no background noise, no cracking the spine, no eating, no multitasking), sort a baseball card collection, watch a LaserDisc movie, and masturbate to a vintage pornography magazine (this contract has a very carefully worded “no splatter clause”).
The Benjamin I knew hated many of these things, particularly hiking and the Rolling Stones. He was a fan of masturbation, though.
It might have ended at that, an anecdote to share at parties: “I know that guy the Collection Collector. We used to have sleepovers.” But I kept thinking about what he was supposedly doing for people. The lawyer with the boots had lost weight since Ben started hiking for him, and Ben had actually put on weight.
Back when I knew him, Benjamin was lazy and unwilling to do pretty much anything for anyone other than himself. Even for money, I couldn’t imagine him imbuing any of these collections with genuine joy and attention. Again, except the pornography. And reading 50 pages a day? He never did any of the reading assignments in high school; he only passed because he was charming and poor so the teachers either bought his bullshit or pitied him.
Well, he’s not poor any more; the pictures in the article showed a house that was larger than my father’s by a factor of 10. He owns 50 acres in Salt Lake City, far from where we grew up in Massachusetts but within a day of where I live in Denver. He picked SLC for the climate: good for storage and preservation. As far as I know he’s not Mormon. He was always an in-your-face atheist. But who knows, all the loudest homophobes turn out to be gay so maybe he’s a closet believer.
The biggest thing I’ve been thinking about, the thought I can’t get out of my head, is what will happen when Benjamin dies. I mean, all that stuff, where will it go? The article said the business started as a way for people without families to ensure their stuff wouldn’t get thrown out when they die. Is he just granting a reprieve before the inevitable? I don’t know why it’s bugging me.
The guy who wrote the article even asks him about that: “Benjamin smirked and said ‘I guess I’ll have to start franchising.’”

A few days ago my aunt Cleo called and asked me to visit her at her house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She’s a professor in the history department at Harvard, an expert on ancient Rome and especially their coins.
December is a busy time for me in Denver (I’m executive chef at a restaurant you’ve heard of, but I’m not a name dropper), but when Cleo asked me to come visit I figured something must be up.
“Why now?” I asked.
“I’m dying, that’s why!” Cleo said.
“You’re sick?” Cleo has no kids of her own, so we’ve always been close. I spent summers with her on the Cape and lived in her house in Cambridge for a year or two in my twenties.
“No, I’m not sick,” Cleo sighed. “Just old. And disorganized. And I need to get it together, as the kids say.”
“As much as I love the thought of visiting…”  
“You’re busy, I get it,” Cleo said.
“If you need me, I can come out. But I need a reason.”
“I’ll pay for your ticket,” Cleo said.
“Cleo,” I said. “What do you need?”
“It’s winter break,” she said. “The graduate student who shovels my walk is out of town.”
“The university takes care of that,” I said. Cleo downgraded her house in Huron village to a townhouse maintained by Harvard maybe 10 years ago.
“They don’t do a very good job.”
“I’m supposed to fly a thousand miles to shovel your driveway?”
“Alan, I practically raised you. Don’t I get the benefit of the doubt?”
“I need to know what’s happening,” I said.
“I told you, I’m dying.”
“But you’re not sick.”
“How’s the restaurant?” Cleo asked.
“It’s great,” I said. “Busy.”
“Busy is good. More tips.”
“I don’t get tips. I’m the executive chef.”
“You should. You could live somewhere bigger than that loft.”
     “It’s big enough. Room to spare.” As I said it, I realized my mistake.
     “I’m glad to hear that. There’s room for me to stay in when I visit, then. I’ll look at tickets, I bet I can be out there by Wednesday.”
That was Sunday. She did in fact find a ticket for Wednesday, which is today. I just picked her up from the airport and she’s talking about skiing.
“I thought you were dying,” I say.
“No, Alan, I’m only 65 years old, you’re not rid of me yet. I’m in the prime of my life.”
“You can rent skis at the slopes. I can get you a good instructor, I know them all.”
“You think I don’t know how to ski? You underestimate your dear aunt.”
“It’s different here. The slopes aren’t like New Hampshire.”
“I’m not too proud to take instruction, you know. I’m willing to work with an instructor. I don’t want you to think I’m so stubborn.”
“Great,” I say.
“I bet a lot of people my age aren’t out there on the slopes,” she says.
“They mostly drink in the lodge.”
“And at your restaurant, I hope,” Cleo says. “When are you going to start your own place? You’re ready.”
“It’s a lot of work,” I say. “Finding a space, getting approved for a loan, finding staff…”
“Oh, I’ll give you some seed money. I’ll be an investor.”
“That’s nice of you to say,” I say.
“I mean it. I’ll sell a few of my coins if I need to. You’ll have everything you need.”

“Did you bring a jacket?” I ask. I don’t have a guest room so I put her suitcase by my bed. I’ll sleep on the couch.
“I’m wearing a jacket,” Cleo says.
“That’s not warm enough. What is that, a pea coat?”
“It’s Burberry. It’s quite warm.”
“You can wear my down coat,” I say.
“The airport wasn’t as strange as I hoped,” Cleo says.
“Blucifer wasn’t everything you expected?”
“A giant blue horse; so what? And the symbolic meaning of the murals was hardly subtext.”
“They’re creepy,” I say. “That’s all. People are frightened by them and they want more to explain their fear than what they have.”
“They want me to retire again,” Cleo says.
“The murals?” I ask.
“Harvard. They haven’t said it outright, yet, but I feel the turning of the screws.”
“I’m sure you’re wrong.”
“I’ve been through this before, I’ve fought it once,” Cleo says. A few years ago they forced her into retirement because of her age (and, according to her, her gender); faced with the prospect of unemployment for the first time in her career, Cleo had a nervous breakdown and required nursing care for about six months. Then one day she woke up and declared she was going to get her job back. At first she aimed for the Extension School, but the following year she was back teaching undergraduates. I’m not sure how she did it.
But the thing about fighting to get your job back (successfully, to her credit) is you never stop feeling like you’re going to lose it again. And it sounds like that’s where she’s at now. Cleo has never had anything other than her career.
“When do you think you’ll retire? I mean when did you imagine retiring?”
“Never,” Cleo says. “There are men teaching at Harvard who are deaf, decrepit, impotent, and incontinent. Genuinely elderly people. But I’m still in the prime of my life. I could easily live another 40 years without being a burden to anyone. I can still ski! Put some of these old men on skis they’d tear up the middle and blow away.”
“I’m not sure them being impotent has any bearing on their jobs,” I say.
“You’d be surprised.”

“Have you talked to my father recently?” I ask. I’ve just gotten home from the restaurant and Cleo is on the couch, writing in a journal. “You can use my desk for that if you want.”
“That?” Cleo says. “It’s not a desk. It’s a kitchen table. Desks have drawers.”
“Whatever it may be, you can use it if you want.”
“My TAs want me to write on my laptop,” Cleo says. “I think they’re worried I’m going to die and they’ll be tasked with sorting through my notebooks. They think I trust them.”
“You don’t?”
“You’ll take care of all that for me,” Cleo says.
“Weren’t you saying you plan on living another 100 years?”
“Be that as it may,” Cleo says, “I want you to hear this. I trust you.”
“I hear you,” I say.
“Do you ever eat at that table?” she asks.
“No, I use it as a desk.”
“You shouldn’t eat in bed,” Cleo says. “It’s a sign of depression.”
“I eat at my couch.”
“You should eat at the table.”
“Then I wouldn’t have a desk.”
“It will never be a desk.” Cleo sighs.
“I’m sorry that my furniture disappoints you.”
“How was brunch?” Cleo asks.
“Busy,” I say. “Let me wash up, then I’ll make you something.”
“I have no appetite,” Cleo says. “But I might be able to eat some huevos rancheros. Not that I should, it’s practically dinnertime. I don’t get jetlag travelling to Rome, but send me a couple hours west and my body is crying surrender.”
“You okay?”
“Yes,” Cleo says. “You shower. Why don’t you let me make you something to eat?”
“I’m not hungry,” I say.
She’s already returned to writing in her journal.

Cleo leaves after five days, without having clearly stated the purpose of her visit. Maybe she did just want to see me, see Colorado, ski and take a vacation. But Cleo, who has travelled the world, has never taken a vacation in her life. Her trips are research excursions, excavations, information-gathering missions.
So when I return from the airport, I’m not surprised to see the envelope stuck on my fridge door with a Colorado-shaped magnet she must have bought downtown. The envelope contains a letter and a check. I try not to look at the amount of the check before reading the note, but I can’t help seeing a five with at least a few zeroes after it.
“Dear Alan,” the letter begins, “Thank you for letting a decrepit old woman ruin your week with her presence—” she loves to be self-deprecating in contexts where she can’t be refuted—“and for providing me with a warm place to stay and exquisite food. You are a talented young man, and you work quite hard. You deserve success. You have attained some degree of success already. If your father were a different kind of person, I wouldn’t need to do this; he already would have. If your father were a different kind of person, he would be offended at me for doing this.
“But I know he doesn’t care. He cares about you, of course. He loves you. But his love is static, as is his relationship with you. It will not change no matter how much you do. You were a difficult teenager, and this took him by surprise—he never expected you to be like him. Remember you almost moved to… I don’t remember, somewhere in the South with one of your friends? Your father would have died.
“My point is that I am here to help you. It feels increasingly like my only purpose. The check I’m enclosing is perhaps enough to start your own restaurant. If it isn’t I will give you more. Consider me an investor, but one who has no interest in a financial return. Your happiness is the return on my investment.
“I love you, my dear nephew; you are family and that is all that matters. To me at least.
“Yours, Aunt Cleo”

My first instinct is to call my father and ask if Cleo has enough money for the check to clear. Not that he’d know. He’d assume she doesn’t have any money at all. Everything she does, he deems a misstep. Even when she downgraded to the condo, by all other accounts a sound financial move, my father saw it as “squandering her largesse.”
So I don’t call my father to tell him about the check. It should be easy because I don’t talk to him often, but the urge is there nonetheless.
And maybe that’s in the back of my mind when I see the post on Facebook about Benjamin Wheeler getting sued. Someone from our high school shared it, not a link to an article or anything but a status: “Our man Wheelie—” a nickname no one used since sophomore year—“is getting sued, bogus! I did pre-law and can confirm, he’s perfectly legal. The suit is an attention grab.”
A quick search and I find what the post is referring to: the estate of a woman who left Ben her deceased husband’s jewelry collection is suing him. The husband was an auctioneer and, over the course of his career, amassed an assortment of designer jewelry valued somewhere in the area of $750,000. The woman’s children argue that she deprived them of their rightful inheritance by leaving the jewelry to Ben. They claim she wasn’t in her right mind when she changed her will.
“Our mother paid this shyster to steal our father’s jewelry collection, in effect,” says one of the children in the article.
Seems like free press for Ben, but I want to know what my father thinks, so I call him and describe the situation.
“I remember him,” my father says.
“Of course, he was my best friend.”
“I assumed he fell off the face of the earth,” he says.
“Nope, just out of my orbit.”
“We all remember what happened with that. As far as I’m concerned he still owes you money.”
“I’m curious what you think about what he does; you think the lawsuit has footing?”
“If the contract’s good, and if they can’t prove the mother was insane at the time she signed it, then your friend is safe.”
“He’s not my friend.”
“You said he was your best friend.”
Was,” I say.
“You took an interest, forgive me!” my father says.
“It just struck me as odd.”
“A grown man playing with toy cars.”
“Among other things,” I say.
“He’s genius or a madman, that’s what he is. I’ve met the boy, he’s not a genius.”
“Not in my experience, no,” I say.
Not in my experience, that’s good. How’s Denver?”
“Cold, snowy, busy.”
“I never understood skiing. If I wanted to die so fast I’d put a bullet in my head. And so cold. You know people die doing that?”
“Cleo skied when she was here and she was fine.”
“Yes, Cleo visited, she told me. You never invite your old man to visit.”
“She invited herself,” I say.
“Then I’m inviting myself too!”
“You have to schedule your father? Cleo can be spontaneous but your father needs to warn you six months out?”
“You can come whenever you want, Dad,” I say.
“She told me she gave you a check,” my father says. “Something of symbolic significance, I’m sure.”
“She didn’t tell you how much?”
“Am I her accountant?” my father says. “My sister long ago divested herself from my financial expertise. If she were on the street, I’d give her a dollar, but until that day we don’t discuss money. She says she gave you a check, she’s baiting me. She wants me to ask ‘how much for?’ I said ‘I’m sure the boy appreciates it.’”
My father is a lawyer, his name is Saul. He doesn’t watch television so he doesn’t get the Better Call Saul references but if he did he would hate them. Cleo’s 10 years younger than him; her full name is Cleopatra (between his naming and hers, my grandparents had something of a hippy-like conversion, but it didn’t last much longer than the time it took to fill out her birth certificate. They attended the same temple in Newton until they died).
“I believe in hard work,” my father says. “And I believe that hard work means money. I hope that this check doesn’t make you think you can skip the hard work.”
“I work hard every day. The check is an investment. I want to start my own restaurant.”
Very risky,” my father says. “Restaurants are more likely to fail than marriages, and over 50% of those fail. If you had a wife, she could make this kind of decision with you. A man alone isn’t equipped to make choices in life.”
“You haven’t had Mom for years,” I say.
“May she rest in peace. I’m established,” my father says. “I don’t need to make any choices now. I get out of bed and I work. I have my two children and when I die everything goes to you 50/50. My days of choosing are done.”
“She believes in me,” I say.
“We all believe in you,” my father says. “You’re family, of course we believe in you.”

My father’s right, Ben beats the lawsuit. He gets to keep the jewelry. I can’t bring myself to feel bad for the family; they seemed so entitled about it.
I send Benjamin a friend request; within minutes, he accepts.
I message him: “Hey!”
“Hi!” he responds.
“How are you? I was thinking about high school, when we used to stay up all night watching Degrassi and driving around and stuff. Isn’t it crazy that Drake is famous now?”
“If you have a collection you want to send me, check my website here for criteria. There’s a form to fill out and I will review within 2 weeks of receipt. All entries are reviewed but due to the high volume of requests, I cannot respond personally to every one.”
“Oh,” I say, “I thought this was Benjamin Wheeler’s personal page.”
“This page is run by his team. He keeps his personal social media hidden. Only he can send requests.”
“Will you tell him my name and that he can send me a friend request if he wants?”
“I can try.”

After high school, Ben and I were supposed to move in together; we were both going to school in the Boston area, and we spent all our time together anyway. At the last minute, and I do mean the last minute, the day before freshman orientation at his college, Ben decided to go to school in North Carolina instead. I don’t even know how he swung it. He’d already moved his stuff into our apartment in Brighton; all he took with him was a suitcase, saying he’d send for the rest of the stuff.
He moved to NC because of a girl. Some grand romantic gesture. He only lasted one year down there anyway, from what I hear. For a week after he moved out, we kept talking, discussing the possibility of me transferring down there after a semester, promising his parents would pay for his half of the apartment until I found a new roommate.
But I didn’t want another roommate. I wanted Ben. Otherwise I would have lived in a dorm. It had been an uphill battle to get approved for living off-campus as a freshman. And now I was commuting 45 minutes one way and coming back to an apartment that was practically empty, except for a bunch of Ben’s stuff in one bedroom. His parents never sent any money.
After a few weeks, he told me he’d pick up his stuff at thanksgiving. About 200 records and a bunch of comic books. I told him I’d had to ask my father to help with rent; he knew how hard that was for me. This didn’t feel at all like the Ben who helped me through my mother’s death. He didn’t seem like he cared at all.
So one day I loaded the records and comics into my car and drove around town to a few shops and sold them. At Thanksgiving, when Ben came to get his stuff, flanked by a couple friends from his new school, I said nothing. I let him in and then I left. I waited in a coffee shop until the uHaul van was gone.
He must have been distracted partying with his new friends, because I didn’t get an angry call until the next morning. He told me I was a selfish prick, I told him his girlfriend was a whore, and that was that. We didn’t talk again.

My father and Cleo never found out what I did to Ben’s stuff, what I did to Ben. They think he was completely in the wrong. There was a terrified moment when they were sure I was going to move to North Carolina and ruin my life getting high all the time. Instead I ruined my life by dropping out of college and going to culinary school. Now I live in Denver and get high all the time.
I wait a few days to see if Ben sends me a friend request, but he doesn’t.
His career keeps bugging me and I can’t stop thinking about it, can’t reconcile what he does now with the Ben I knew. He was a slob, he was lazy. It feels like a puzzle with a missing piece.
So I go to his website and fill out the application form.
“Dear Ben, my name is Alan. My aunt Cleo has a rare coin collection, and she is dying. I want her collection to stay with someone who really cares.”

I remember how empty that apartment in Boston felt after I sold Ben’s things. I mean, it was just stuff, just a bunch of boxes full of nothing. But I felt strangely lonely without it. When I took the crates out of his room, they took the room with them.
I even went back to one of the record stores (I’d split up the collection so they wouldn’t think I was a thief) and tried to buy some of the records back. They were already priced and spread out throughout the store. I couldn’t remember everything he’d owned and even if I did, how could I have known which copies were his? I left with one album that I later decided hadn’t been his in the first place.
It wouldn’t have meant anything even if it was his. It’s like trying to reassemble a stick of dynamite after it’s exploded; you can’t find all the components and stick them back together because some of it’s gone. Like gone gone, not just scattered.
It’s like trying to catch smoke to keep wood from burning.
Things fall apart; I see it happen everywhere I look. It’s in the stars, it’s in my skin, and it’s everywhere in between.

I never get a response from Ben or his team. It doesn’t take long for the news to get back to me explaining why: two of the people who lost the lawsuit over that jewelry collection burned Ben’s house to the ground, destroying everything in it. Ben was out of town appraising a collection in Texas, but, even with insurance, his business and reputation were ruined.
SLC’s not too far from here. Maybe I should call Ben and offer him a place to stay. A couch to crash on. Somewhere to collect his thoughts while he figures out what to do next.
We should all be so lucky, to have a friend like that.
A friend like me.

Richard Charles Schaefer is a graduate of UMass Amherst living in St Augustine, Florida with his wife, two children, and three cats. He has written two novels and two collections of short stories. His work has appeared in The Opiate, Lowestoft Chronicle, Furious Gazelle, Nude Bruce Review, Sweet Tree Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Apricity Magazine, and The Vicarious Traveler anthology. He won third place in The Charles Carter’s Character Study Contest and is a finalist appearing in the Adelaide Literary Award Anthology 2019.