A Partial Catalog of Items I Collected as a Child
The artifacts of memory
By Matt Tompkins
1. Nondescript rocks of all shapes and sizes, rough-edged and rounded, jagged and smooth, reds and grays, yellows and browns, black- and blue-veined, dull and sparkling, gathered from grass and driveway, from gutters and road, clay-clotted, cursorily cleaned in the stream from the side-yard spigot, sun-dried, piled in fraying, dusty, mite-eaten cardboard boxes, secreted under the basement stairs, and socked in plastic buckets, behind shovels and rakes, under flowerpots, dotted along the walls of the garage.
It begs the question: Why this amassing? What was I after? What was I missing?
2. Pencils in every imaginable state, from brand-new to bitten-down eraserless nubs, bright colorful pattern-wrapped and yellow octagonal standards, mixed in with occasional pink-rubber toppers, a handful of fast-fading felt-tipped pens, a scattering of paper clips, a smattering of pushpins, some rusted and blood-specked from haphazard grabbing, a Snoopy-headed Pez dispenser, a couple of popping plastic frogs, lined and dumped and tumbled in my bark-brown-laminate bedside desk.
At the time, to the extent I gave it any thought at all, I fancied myself a collector—an artifact preserver, keen observer, hunter, gatherer, enterprising acquirer. My childish myopia afforded me that guise.
3. Pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, old and recent, shiny, tarnished—the odd half-dollar, Canada looney, bicentennial commemorative token—coins mixed in with grime and dust, with sidewalk grit and pocket lint, coins that I imagined having far beyond their stamped face value—coins that I envisioned cashing in one day for a modest fortune, a sum that I would use to buy a one-way coach-class airline ticket somewhere far away, my future fortunes riding on the edges of these spinning, clinking disks of raw potential, rattling in an opaque-plastic, quart-size freezer fruit container, tucked behind my socks and t-shirts in my top-left dresser drawer.
I recognized much later I’d been trying—fumbling clumsily, kid-fingered—to impose some governing order on whatever little objects I could wrest into my grasp.
4. A sticky, sweet and slowly dwindling candy stash each Halloween—Kit-Kats, Sixlets, Smarties, SweeTarts, Rolos, Mounds, 3 Musketeers—nestled in a pack rat’s nest of half-clean laundry, buried in the dark back-bottom corner of my bedroom closet, kept for far too long, well into the new year, past the point it tasted any good at all, until the flavors washed out to leave a waxy mass of sugar, cloyingly sweet, with an acrid metal after-tang from the big round biscuit tin I packed it in.
I grabbed what bits I could herd and hew from my tiny, frightened life—shadowed in the corners by things felt but left unsaid, flavored with shame I couldn’t quite place. A life lacking a stable center, spinning beyond my control.
5. Assorted action figures, spread-eagle and contorted, their interlacing limbs akimbo, flailing, flagging, waving from the bottom of an ocean-blue, rectangular, rubberized tote: Batman, Robin, Aquaman, The Hulk and He-Man, Lion-O, G.I. Joe, some Ninja Turtles and their mutant nemeses, outerspace cowboy Marshal BraveStarr, Voltron lacking one mechanized leg, a dozen GoBots, two Transformers, a wrestler with a tree-trunk neck—these muscle-bound, hydraulic heroes, untenable totems with hollow cores, brandishing their burly fists, whose only obligation, whose sole occupation, was to lash out, swift and forceful, at enviably simple, self-evident evils.
Each day was underpinned and overcast by my mom’s untreated anxiety, deep depression, and excessive drinking—disordered and disorienting—which could swerve the day in strange and unpredictable directions.
6. Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars: little blocks of die-cast metal, with tiny turning axles, black-plastic wheels and two-toned paint, color-changing, dipped in lukewarm bathtub water, and some with swivel panels that when clacked together made them look as though they’d smashed—been crumpled, dented, damaged, dinged—and then, with a flick of a fingertip, you’d turn them back, the damage done undone—not really fixed, of course, but flipped down inward, spun beneath the surface.
She might have been doting in the morning, sobbing to one of her sisters on the phone in the afternoon, clear-headed enough to make dinner, then half-asleep at the kitchen table, slurring, a cigarette burning, by my bedtime.
7. Baseball cards in wax and foil packs, some stuck to stale gum sticks, some not, arrayed and arranged by the hundreds, in toppling, camel-backed haphazard stacks, in cardboard cartons, in polyethylene pages in three-ring binders: these countless stock facsimiles of men, frozen still in stiff-jawed poses, or caught in flying action—sliding, leaping—the picture of someone’s athletic ideal, flipsided with grids of statistics, in which I could find no real, sincere interest, but came to collecting for its in-built approval, even awed elevation, of the seeking, accretive, acquisitive act.
Pair my mom’s instability with my dad’s half office-bound absence and half-confusing half-presence, which had two settings: simmering, subsurface anger, and a forced, false placidity that pulsed at the seams and strove to say, “I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”
8. A shoebox full of blank cassettes I filled with pointless pop-rock songs, whole Saturdays spent sitting silent, waiting, on my bedroom floor, through thirty, forty songs or more, through endless ads for auto dealerships and local grocery stores, until I heard the opening chords of the song that I’d been waiting for, so I could click “Record,” then wind it back and play it back a dozen times, and write the name and timestamp on the tiny, fine-ruled liner card.
Here, and here, and here, around my room, and tucked in odd, neglected corners of the house and yard, were caches of these little things I felt I could entrain.
9. The minute, mundane details of my numb, slow-melting days–the clothes I wore, the foods I ate, the TV shows I watched–crammed tight in a miniscule mix of print and script, in small, white, crew-cut squares, in ranks of thirty-odd blank stares, on the page of a calendar hung from a tack in my beige, blank wall, in grids beneath a dozen different pictures of planets, or dinosaurs, or dogs.
I’d fit these things, by force of will, in little square-edged frames, would gather and place them, and walk away, and trust that they’d remain in a solid semblance of the same or a passably similar state, when I came back to check on them later, to see that they were safe.
'For 'A Partial Catalog...' my intention was to revisit the unexamined compulsion toward accretion that I felt as a child. By re-accumulating remembered piles of objects in list form and by re-examining them from a distance, I aimed to relate to my younger self with empathy and curiosity, to gain some insight and perspective, and to hopefully tap into something universal about the (generally futile) desire to be in control of our lives.'
Matt Tompkins is the author of Odsburg (Ooligan Press) as well as several fiction chapbooks. His stories have appeared online at the Carolina Quarterly and Puerto del Sol, and a prior essay appeared in Prairie Schooner. He works as an editor and lives in Virginia with his wife and daughter.