The Collector

— Juliana Converse —

Art by Carabella Sands

I walked without thinking into a well-dressed younger woman, younger than I, I mean, coming out of the tavern.

She said, “Oh, excuse me,” and began chasing after the Styrofoam cups that tumbled out of my arms onto the street.

They were scuttling around the sidewalk as she went after them with her bum in the air, but they would not be caught again now. One of them rolled under the hissing tire of the ten. “Sorry,” she said again, “they just keep getting away!”

I was just standing still as I do, looking at the space between my elbows where there used to be things but now was nothing.

I remembered my manners, said “It’s okay, they were nothing,” which was a lie, because they were less than that, and besides she didn’t ask about them yet.

“Come inside, I’ll buy you a cup with something in it.”

And I followed her inside the light dark and humming neon flicker. The game was on. I could hardly hear her order over the cheers and groans, which is what people like to do for others so they feel a part of things.

The woman slid me a can. She was kind of severe.

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“What’s your story, pops?”

I didn’t correct her. I’m no one’s pop, but she could have it. 

I mist up and she rushed to me, saying, “Come on now, none of that. Everyone tells me their stories. I’m a good listener. Why’re you so sad? And what’s with carrying all those cups around? They for beggin’ change? I got some here.”

“No,” I said, stopping her, “they’re for collecting tears.”

She said, “Why you got so many tears, pops?”

She was excited and talking loudly like it wasn’t just for me, but for everyone else to feel a part of things.

I stared into my amber foam and said my sister died today. As I knew it would, that got her all excited and suddenly she became a true expert. She started telling me about grief—you know, it’s healthy; it’ll pass, this too; and the Bible and so forth.

I said, “No, it don’t pass. This doesn’t pass.”

She can’t accept that, starts telling me I got more life ahead, that it’s paved with angel crap and a child’s kisses.

I listened to her for a while, watching her lips move and her hands make circles in the air, her eyes rolling and her eyelashes twitching like spider legs.

I started back up with the tears because no one’s been so nice, and besides, booze will make a stone leak.

She told me about a bad man she had once that she was even married to for a while, that he called her fat and no good, and I said hurt people hurt people.

She says, “You’re right, his daddy beat him, how’d you get so wise? On the streets?”

I said, “I’m not from the streets.” She drew back and said only, “Oh.”

I remember my manners, all these questions about me, so I asked her, “Are you?”

“I look like I’m from the street to you?”

She had one mean eyebrow raised. I looked her up and down as per request and told her she was much too beautiful to know anything about the streets. I thought she would be pleased and flattered somewhat, but she wasn’t.

“How dare you! How dare you size me up and down and try to tell me about what I know. I don’t mind tellin’ YOU I been down some dark roads, you know, you’re not the only suffering soul out there.”

And she muttered to nobody, “Tell ME what I know and don’t know. I bet you don’t know nothin’ bout nothin’ ‘cept what you don’t got in those cups. Bet your sister didn’t even die.”

“She didn’t,” I admitted.

She shoved my arm off the bar, stood up mumbling again, “He gonna tell me his sister died, for what, a free drink and a cheap pickup line? Not THIS sister.”

Before I swallowed I was being lifted from the stool and sent sailing out the door. Then there’s a man, maybe her man, yelling at me in a crumple, “How you gonna pick up a sister with a fake sister, you downright cruel, you sonofabitch, you HEAR?”

I heard, but what could I say? I have a sister. I have a helluva sister, but only she’s not dead, but not so alive either. She’s out in Switzerland, if you want to know, at a special place for confused girls. They got the best programs out there, the most expensive, don’t I know. If it were up to our folks, she’d maybe be in the streets begging drinks.

I don’t have a job, but I’m no tramp. I used to work plenty, not so many expenses ‘cause I don’t want for much. Just one day I realized I had something better than a good job, I had a good cause.

Then I began to want, but not for cars or those marshmallow beds, for my sister, poor and lifeless just like me collecting tears in Styrofoam cups, and worse.

Much, much worse.

I don’t ask for much. I got a place to set my head. I got the sun in the sky and the moon at night, and my sister sees the same ones, only differently, because she’s so confused.

The only thing I’m wanting is because I lost all my cups, and I won’t tell you a phony story about a dead sister or anything because I can see you’re smarter than the average, you have a face you can tell a true story, so if you’re done there, and if you don’t judge me too harshly, after all an honest scoundrel is better than a lying scoundrel, if it’s nothing to you, it’d be everything to me.

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