After the launch, Dewayne stood there beside me. It seemed to me he was sizing me up, perhaps to see if I had changed in any fundamental way. Sensing this, I guzzled the beer, just as I might have the summer after our senior year in high school. He guffawed and squealed with delight “Naw! Naw, he ain’t changed!” as if it were a shock to see me, college educated, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon from a can. After finishing it, I crushed the can and tossed it carelessly on the ground, just for effect. “Yes sir! The Beast lives!” he yelled for all to hear, pointing towards me. I felt the collective gaze turn from the arc of my brother’s descent towards me, on solid ground.
Within 24 hours I was visiting Dewayne at his house, although I doubted we any longer had much in common. He had inherited the place from his father who had died two years prior. His mother had long since moved from the area after eloping to North Georgia with a man she met in the early days of the internet.
As I got out of my car, he slouched in the doorway of the little house in which he had lived his entire life, wearing a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and flip flops. The herald signs of the disease that took his father piece by piece — pot belly, doughy appendages and slit like eyes — already marked his nearly 40 year old body. “It’s too hot out here,” he yelled, holding his position and motioning me forward.
The steps leading up to the porch gave way as I ascended them. Junk littered the front porch, the most prominent item being an old weight bench, unmoved since the early 1990s. I complimented him on the shirt. “I got this at Hudson’s,” he replied. “They just got a whole shipment in. You outa go up there an’ git you one, ‘fore they all git gone.”
“I just might have to do that,” I said.
I followed him through the doorway, bracing myself for the initial jolt that comes upon discovering the conditions that people live in.
“Yeah, I’m a hoarder,” stated Dewayne as I entered fully into the living room to view it in its entirety. “But I get it honestly,” he stated, referring to how cluttered his house had always been when we were growing up.
“You still got your dad’s old Popular Mechanics?” I asked, taking his statement as an invitation to comment on his everyday surroundings. He pointed to a corner of the room to a stack of magazines six feet high.
“All the way back to the 1960s.”
Furniture and mounds of clutter occupied nearly every square foot of living space in the house, except for the trails that led from room to room. The clutter appeared to be comprised primarily of magazines, books, and assorted ephemera, with random objects interspersed throughout. My eye gravitated to a Kermit the Frog puppet and a bike pump, but the volume of material overwhelmed my mind’s ability to process the scene. Though there was little room to walk among the relics that littered the room, there was some element of order to the place. There was a route to a pleather recliner that sat in front of the television. There was an xBox. The central air conditioning (I remember that Dewayne’s father had often reminded us with pride that the house had “central AC and heat”) blew as cold as ever. There was only a faint, musty smell as one might expect in the house of a man who lives all alone with no one in particular to impress. The smell was not of anything rotten or forgotten.
True, Dewayne was a hoarder. But he wasn’t one of the full fledged variety, the likes of which TV series are based upon. He was a junior hoarder of sorts — the common variety as his parents and grandparents before him. In fact, he had inherited much of their stuff. Like his relatives, his tendency to store in times of plenty went all the way back to the Irish Potato famine.
You have to understand the psyche of a hoarder. I did better than anyone else, I thought. After all, it’s what I wrote my master’s thesis on. To Dewayne’s story I could add in some personal details as well. One of my earliest memories of Dewayne was when he was about eight years old. I must have been ten. He told me of his backup plan for if he ever ran out of food. He would slip into McDonalds or Hardees and steal mustard and ketchup packets and crackers if they were available. Perhaps sugar packets as well. He was even prepared to drink coffee creamers as a milk substitute. I accepted the plan at face value at the time. Only many years later did I consider the fundamental, Maslovian insecurities that could have inspired such a contingency.
“I heard about your brother,” said Dewayne. “He touched down in Gordo. That’s even worse than Re-form. Those folks is Cou-u-u-ntry! I heard they thought he was an alien when they first came up on him. Then, when they saw he was a human, they thought he was a communist. The communist has been gone a long time. But that’s just how backwards those people are,” said Dewayne.
“I reckon he will do alright. He always does,” I replied.
“You reckon?” he grinned, knowing that the word was not genuine coming from my lips
“Hey, you ever listen to NPR?” Dewayne asked.
“Sometimes,” I said.
“Me too. They have a little dif’ernt take on things,” replied Dewayne.
Just as I was trying to jog my mind to come up with deer hunting inquiries or other subjects to bridge the gap between us, so he must have been going through similar exercises in his mind.
“Ever bow hunt anymore?” I asked.
“No. My joints is startin’ to give out on me. It’s hard for me to git in and out of a stand anymore.
“And I refuse to take pain killers.” Dewayne had always attempted to disguise his lazy tendencies as something noble. “Them thangs is bad news. Half the people we grew up with is hooked on lortab or oxycodone. The other half is in jail for crystal meth. I aint goin’ down that path.”
Dewayne proceeded to list out a dozen or so people that attended high school with us that were now imprisoned on drug charges.
“So much of this stuff is Daddy’s that it is hard to part with it. One day I may package some of it up and give it to Goodwill. Or else sell it on eBay. A lot of these is collector’s items. I haven’t even ever gone through all of this stuff. Some really valuable stuff could be buried in here and I wouldn’t even know it.”
The “innumerable Southern superstitions about money buried” written about by Edgar Allan Poe over 150 years earlier still held true, but in a different form. Captain Kidd’s treasure was now replaced by State lotteries, reservation casinos, and hoarding. I listened as Dewayne went on about the variety of items he collected. As if some future generation might sift through the mess and properly catalog it and realize his greatness.
Atop a heap in the corner was something that looked like a cross between a HAZMAT suit and something a cosmonaut might wear. I could tell that its original color was white, but it was now dingy.
“What’s that suit?” I asked just to be polite. There was a pause.
“A bee keeper suit,” he replied sheepishly.
“Where did you get that?” I asked.
“A while back I ordered it online. I took some classes to become an apiarist.”
“Did you keep any hives?” I asked with genuine curiosity.
“No. I never got to that point. It was a few months after Daddy died. I was just looking for something to get my mind off of it.”
Tears began to well up in Dewayne’s eyes. I realized I hadn’t even come home from college when I got the news about Uncle Mike.
I looked down at a stack of magazines nearest to me. I picked up an old issue of Sports Illustrated with a picture of Catfish Hunter on the front. “This one must be pretty valuable,” I suggested, trying to break the awkwardness. Dewayne did not look up. He continued to grieve.
“Sometimes I think of just burning this whole place down,” Dewayne said. Neither of us spoke for 20 seconds or more. I had been taken off guard by how quickly the conversation had turned.
“Dewayne, are you seeing a doctor about the sad feelings you are having?” I asked after the long silence. He didn’t answer immediately.
“I should have gone to college like you,” he said.
“College is a little overrated if you ask me. But it’s never too late, if that’s what you want to do.”