Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Hoarder

This was supposed to be a short-short, but it grew long.  This is a first draft, more or less, written on the fly.  I got most of the ideas I've been tossing around into it, though there's one bit I couldn't shoehorn in.

This is Copyright 2011 by Harold Jenkins.  Steal it from me and I'll rip your arms off.

"I realize this is a difficult time for you, Mr. Johnson," the young woman said, "and I want to assure you that I am here to help you come to terms with what is happening as gracefully as possible."

She sat across from him in a musty old armchair.  His armchair, next to a small table and a lamp.  He sat dejectedly on a threadbare sofa, his head down, his arms hugging his chest, wearing the casual clothes of an old man with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

The young lady was smartly dressed, perhaps more smartly than she might have been had she known that she were going to be called out to such a dingy, musty location.  Her hair was cut in a fashionable short cut, and she wore the popular half-moon reading glasses that likely as not were just flat panes of glass.

"You must have been aware, sir, that what you were doing is against the law.  Such a waste of resources, and space, and a fire hazard to boot.  And a health hazard."  The workmen moving around them wore body suits and gloves, hair covers and masks.  No knowing what they might stir up.

"You don't have to do this," the old man said.  The woman looked him over.  What is he, in his late sixties, maybe his seventies?  He looks old, whatever his age.  It'll all be in the record, anyway. "They're not hurting anyone.  They're not bothering anyone.  They're mine and I love them."

"One or two would be...a peculiarity," the woman said, her fingers dancing on her pad as she spoke.  "But you have...what, do you have any idea how many you have?"

"I don't know, I never counted them," he said bitterly.  "A thousand, maybe more.  I don't know exactly."

"And look at the condition they're in.  Here, this one."  She turned to a box that one of the workmen had dropped off for her earlier.  "Look at it.  It's a mess.  It's falling apart.  Probably full of bugs.  Have you ever even read it?"

He laughed.  "That one, yes, that is old."  He took the book from her gently, held it in his hands, opened it.  "This was a reader I used in second grade.  A baby book, I called it.  It was so far beneath what I was reading on my own.  But I still read it.  It has some great old stories in it.  'The Three Billy Goats Gruff' - the Norwegian version of the story, I recently discovered. 'Trip, trap, trip, trap!'  Did you read it when you were growing up, Miss..."

"...Reeves," she finished.  Doctor Reeves, actually, but she didn't press the issue.  No need, really.  "I can't say that I recall, exactly. Did it involve a bridge?"

"Yes, yes!" he exclaimed, his eyes lighting up.  "And a troll lived under the bridge, and wanted to eat the goats, and the first goat was the littlest, and said..."

"Hardly appropriate for a children's reading lesson, I think.  But, Mr. ...Johnson, do you really feel that it's appropriate for a man your age to be holding onto a book that he first read some sixty years ago?"

He looked at her, his eyes squinting slightly.  "Do you remember the fairy stories from your childhood, Miss Reeves?  The stories you loved when you were growing up?"

She looked hard at him.  "Mr. Johnson, I am not the one being evaluated here, you are."

"Humor me.  Do you remember, say, 'Hansel and Gretel'?  Two little bastards break into a witch's house made of candy, start to eat it, she comes home, she tries to throw them in an oven, and then they throw her in the oven instead and get away?"

She smiled grimly.  "Yes, that sounds familiar, I suppose."

"I'm guessing that electronic doodad you're playing with can call up books and stories, right?"

"Of course, Mr. Johnson.  Easiest thing in the world.  Why you can't embrace such a thing..."

"Look it up.  Look up 'Hansel and Gretel.' It's a children's story, take you two minutes to read.  Look it up and tell me how it ends."

She hesitated.  "Humor me.  Please," he said.  "You're evaluating me. Take two minutes to do this. Please."

She looked it up.  It wasn't a normal function of her pad, to use it as an e-reader for children's stories, so it took her a few seconds to call it up, but soon she had it.

Two minutes later Johnson spoke up.  "So.  How did it end?  Witch in the oven? After she tried to toss our plucky child heroes in?"

Dr. Reeves looked up at him over the top of her glasses.  "Obviously you have misremembered those details."

"Nonsense!" he roared.  "The story's been changed!  They've all been changed! The story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff - now there's no troll, it's an old man, and he doesn't want to eat them, he wants to charge them for passage!"  He held up the book, shook it angrily.  "But the story didn't change in here!  It's the same as when I first read it, sixty-three years ago this November!" 

"Let's move on," she said.  She did not try to take the book from him.  "Now, this..." She picked up a massive box, a slipcase containing two books.  "'Shorter Oxford English Dictionary,'" she said, reading from the spines.  "'Volume I, A-M.  Volume II, N-Z.'"  She dropped it back into the box with a thud.  "A dictionary.  There are dictionaries online, you know."

"They're crap!" he said, excited again.  The children's reader tumbled out of his hand and landed between his slippered feet, just missing his instep.  "Unreliable crap! This is based on the definitive dictionary, the Oxford Eng..."

"Excuse me, Dr. Reeves."  One of the workmen was standing in a doorway holding a large box.  "These appear to be part of a set.  Thought you might want to have a look."

"Bring them over here."  He dropped the box near her and went back to the task of clearing out the old man's musty library. "'World Book Encyclopedia,' she read.  She casually flipped it open, moved through the first few pages.  'Copyright 1997.'  Rather old information, don't you think?  Out of date?"

"Encyclopedic entries written by the leading authorities on each subject!  Carefully researched, thoroughly reviewed, meticulously edited and checked for factual accuracy..."

"Yes, yes," she cut the old man off.  "The appeal to authority.  One so-called expert writes an entry, and that's the gospel, at least until whenever the next revision was.  All this information is online, up-to-date and constantly checked and revised."

"Every fact and its opposite is online!" he shouted, and then he sank his head into his hands.

"Perhaps someone will find some historical value in them.  But speaking of gospel..." she reached into the first box again.  "Look at this thing.  It's a mess.  It's held together with, what, duct tape?  It's falling apart!"

"It's the old family Bible!" Johnson cried, a new emotion flooding his voice.  "Passed down through generations!  It has our family tree!  My parents, my grandparents filled it out...my grandfather's parents..."

"You have a sentimental attachment to ink marks on decaying paper," Dr. Reeves said coldly.  "There are hundreds of versions of the Bible available online.  And if they left any traces, there will be records of your ancestors online as well."  She held the book like it was a dessicated squirrel found under the front steps.  "This...this is just...garbage."

Now there were tears in his eyes.  "Did you know," he said, "that the word 'Bible' means 'Book?'  I'm willing to bet you somehow missed that in all your years of education, Doctor."

"Yes, as in bibliophile.  An interesting segue into our next exhibit.  A bit of pornography about an older man and a teenage girl?"

"'Lolita' is not pornography!  It's brilliant literature!  Nabokov was a genius of the English language, a language that was not his native tongue, I'll have you know!  His command of foreshadowing, his main character thinking he knows more than we do, when in fact...Have you even read the book?  Ever?"

"It's pornography for pedophiles.  I wouldn't let that trash manifest itself on my screen even if I could find a reputable source for it, which I'm sure you cannot."

"No.  No."  His head hung down again, but now his arms rested limply on his knees.  "My books...what will be done with them?"

"They won't go to waste.  Most will be recycled.  Wood pulp is more valuable than it was back when these things were printed, you know.  Some that have historical value will be scanned and added to the ether.  Everyone will be able to see what you have been keeping to yourself all these years." 

"And me?  And my house, my parents' house, my grandparents' house?  What about that?"

She looked around.  "This place will be opened up.  'Boarders not Hoarders,' you know.  This old house will provide a home to three families, over a dozen people who have nowhere so pleasant to stay.  You will be well taken care of.  Society will not toss you on a garbage dump - or stick you up on a shelf, never to see the light of day."

Johnson shook his head.  "My books, my books...I loved them all.  I can't believe you're taking them all from me."

"Not to worry," she said.  "I'm sure you've already forgotten most of the titles.  The rest...most of the rest you'll be able to call up on your e-reader to revisit whenever you wish."  She made a few final entries on her screen about a recommended course of treatment for the crazy old man, then snapped the pad neatly shut.

"I don't have an e-reader," he said, his voice weary, defeated.

"Well," Dr. Reeves said, smiling slightly, sitting up straight in the armchair.  "That is a problem."


baltomd said...

Brilliant story. I'm going to try to post it on my FB page. Thanks for sharing it. BTW, I was led to your blog through Hyperboleandahalf: her Simple Dog story. I'll be following your blog from now on as well!

D.B. Echo said...

Thanks! I love Hyperbole and a Half, and I hate hijacking her comments with links to my own blog, but I'm finding that I can relate many of her posts to my own experiences that I have written about here. After I posted that picture of Spooky the dog, I realized that the cocked head made him look like the Simple Dog!

Ashley said...

Great story Harold! Fantastic idea. I can totally relate. I feel like people walking around with kindles and iphones think I'm crazy but I really just don't think I will ever be able to let go of my books.

Anonymous said...

Harry: As your professional writer friend, I have to stay this is great stuff. It's perfect -- Bradbury for the Internet age.

You should consider sending it for publication in print -- while print is still allowed!

Not kidding, Harry. It's that good.

Bill H.

D.B. Echo said...

Heh. I had Bradbury's "The Pedestrian" in the back of my mind as I wrote this. Practically a companion piece.

Of course, you realize you helped to lug many of the items mentioned in this story!

D.B. Echo said...

From the Strange Horizons "Stories We've Seen Too Often" list:

6.Technology and/or modern life turn out to be soulless.
c.In the future, all learning is soulless and electronic, until kid is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a book.
d.In the future, everything is soulless and electronic, until protagonist (usually a kid) is exposed to ancient wisdom in the form of a wise old person who's lived a non-electronic life.