The Collector

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I wasn’t sure if I should keep waiting on the porch or see myself inside. I’m not sure why I let this bother me today, as I’d come in uninvited to many places before.

It was a cold one this particular night. The wind penetrated through the holes in my jacket, nipping at my skin. I need to invest in a new coat, I remind myself for the thousandth time.

And, my feet were tired from a long day of traveling. These business trips always take their toll on me. I wanted to turn around, tread lightly back down the rickety porch stairs and head home, but winter season is always busy in my line of work and my boss likes the momentum I’ve had these last few weeks.

A young, smartly dressed couple skips up the stairs and slip inside, escaping the falling snow. They don’t see me at all.

Since they didn’t wait for someone to open the door, I too enter and let the door latch quietly behind me.

The interior of the house was shrouded in age. The underside of the banister was coated with dust, as were the picture frames of the family lining the fireplace. But it wasn’t neglect necessarily, that put cleanliness by the wayside—something tells me the homeowners were always preoccupied with entertaining and inviting guests, living, that there was little time for upkeep.

I inhaled a combination of dust, cedar and the aroma of a roast wafting from the kitchen. I followed the scent, and the sound of saxophones blaring from a record player.

The couple that came in before me, along with twelve others, was seated at a table most likely meant for six. Aside from them, there were two elderly women—sisters?—another couple, though slightly older than the first, their baby, two middle-aged men and their wives, and a boy about ten years old. In the kitchen, the matron of the house kept a close watch on the roast.

I scan the room, looking for the man of the house. I’d collect what I came for and then I could leave.

The teakettle on the stove began to wail, competing with the steadily increasing volume of the company.

I recognized one of the men at the table, the one in a faded denim jacket. Yes, I remember, we both knew all too well the lives the war had taken. We lived in close quarters but never quite crossed paths. I became rather familiar a few of his comrades though, many of whom I saw fall on the front lines.

I knew he’d recognize me the instant we locked gazes, so I kept my eyes on the floor. It wasn’t a time either one of us looked back on fondly.

I felt, however, the young boy’s eyes boring a hole in my back. He recognized me somehow…ah yes. I had visited his younger brother not long ago after the car accident.

I retreated back into the living room, but I could hear his small footsteps following close behind.

“You’re not welcome here,” the boy said coldly.

When I first started this job, I might’ve scoffed at such a retort, but I’d grown weary from years’ worth of these sorts of remarks. My kind are never welcome anywhere.

“I’ve come to collect one thing and I’ll be on my way,” I responded quietly, heading up the stairs.

The boy said nothing. He knew very well I don’t stop for anyone.

I heard coughing from one of the rooms upstairs. I gently pushed open the first door on the right.

My client was a man with an equally thin frame and hairline. At the moment, he was hunched over, gripping the wall for balance as he held a cloth over his mouth.

I glanced over the wastebasket next to him. The top was brimmed with bloody tissues. The sight shouldn’t have made me squeamish, considering how many times I’ve dealt with blood.

He’d avoided me for years, this man. I probably should have visited him when the coughs made their earliest appearances. No matter—I decided I’d take what I came for while his back was turned.

I placed my hand on his shoulder and closed my eyes. Before he could turn around, I inhaled deeply, taking in his scent, his memories, the air he breathed.

I could taste the wax dripping from birthday candles, frost from that one Christmas morning, the ash of a tobacco pipe. I could also hear children’s laughter, the sound of wedding bells, the roar of a jet, the voice of a minister praying for the souls of the deceased.

Never once did he see the face of the one taking it all away from him. It was easier this way.

After I was finished, the man stumbled forward onto his bed before he finally lay unmmoving.

At least he had a soft landing, I mused. I didn’t usually go to great lengths to ensure a comfortable exit for most of my clients.

I could sense the boy standing in the doorway, watching me. I glided past him as I left the room, before I could surmise how much he’d seen.

___________________

I retired from that position not long after that day and have since begun a job in the human resources side of things—mostly paperwork.

I suppose the moral of the story is that if it isn’t me, it’ll be the new guy who replaced me—or the one who replaces him when he gets jaded from the work—who comes to collect from everyone.

Just before the end of the day, the new guy left on my desk a healthy stack of death certificates he’d filed from today’s rounds.

I shuffled through the papers, skimming over names and dates. Perhaps there is consolation in knowing that many of our clients lived sufficient lives.

My eyes stopped over the shorter stacks of reports.

Jane Sire: 1987-1988. Joey Long: 1984-1988. Ellen Lovelace: 1974-1988. D.J. Schofield-Pratt: 1986-1988.

In all my years as a collector, the most frequent complaint on my comment card, if you will, is that “it isn’t fair.” Most often, it’s said that I come too early but on some occasions, I hear that I don’t visit others early enough.

I disagree, however, with the so-called “unfairness” of it all. If anything, the real injustice is that the longevity or overall satisfaction of man’s life is generally correlated with his appearance, wealth, popularity and intelligence.

But I am not man; death doesn’t take any of these things into consideration. I treat everyone the same—that is the definition of fairness.

The sad truth is that death comes for all.

Yet as I justify this, I will admit that I’ll never know why it is that there are simply those who receive visits from me far sooner than others.