The Collector's Tale

When it was over I sat down last night,

shaken, and quite afraid I’d lost my mind.

The objects I have loved surrounded me

like friends in such composed society

they almost rid the atmosphere of fright.

I collected them, perhaps, as one inclined

to suffer other people stoically.


That’s why, when I found Foley at my door—

not my shop, but here at my private home,

the smell of bourbon for his calling card—

I sighed and let him in without a word.

I’d only met the man two months before

and found his taste as tacky as they come,

his Indian ethic perfectly absurd.


The auction house in St. Paul where we met

was full that day of cherry furniture.

I still can’t tell you why he’d chosen me

to lecture all about his Cherokee

obsessions, but I listened—that I regret.

My patience with a stranger’s geniture

compelled him to describe his family tree.


He told me of his youth in Oklahoma,

his white father who steered clear of the Rez,

a grandma native healer who knew herbs

for every illness. Nothing like the ‘burbs,

I guess. He learned to tell a real toma-

hawk from a handsaw, or lift his half-mad gaze

and “entertain” you with some acid barbs.


So he collected Indian artifacts,

the sort that sell for thousands in New York.

Beadwork, war shirts, arrowheads, shards of clay

beloved by dealers down in Santa Fe.

He lived to corner strangers, read them tracts

of his invention on the careful work

he would preserve and pridefully display.


Foley roamed the Great Plains in his van,

his thin hair tied back in a ponytail,

and people learned that he was smart enough

to deal. He made a living off this stuff,

became a more authenticated man.

But when he drank he would begin to rail

against the white world’s trivializing fluff.


Last night when he came in, reeking of smoke

and liquor, gesticulating madly

as if we’d both returned from the same bar,

I heard him out a while, the drunken bore,

endured his leaning up against my oak

credenza there, until at last I gladly

offered him a drink and a kitchen chair.


I still see him, round as a medicine ball

with a three-day beard, wearing his ripped jeans

and ratty, unlaced Nikes without socks.

I see him searching through two empty packs

and casting them aside despite my scowl,

opening a third, lighting up—he careens

into my kitchen, leaving boozy tracks.


I offered brandy. He didn’t mind the brand

or that I served it in a water glass.

He drank with simple greed, making no show

of thanks, and I could see he wouldn’t go.

He told me nothing happened as he planned,

how he left Rasher’s tiny shop a mess.

I killed him, Foley said. You got to know.




You know the place. Grand Avenue. The Great

White Way they built over my people’s bones

after the western forts made stealing safe.

Safe for that fucking moneyed generation

F. Scott Fitzgerald tried to write about—

and here was Rasher, selling off such crap

no self-respecting dealer’d waste his time.


I heard he had good beadwork, Chippewa,

but when I went in all I saw was junk.

I’m thinking, Christ, the neighbors here must love him,

the one dusty-shuttered place on the block

and inside, counters filled with silver plate

so tarnished Mother wouldn’t touch it, irons

with fraying cords and heaps of magazines.


He had the jawbone of a buffalo

from South Dakota, an old Enfield rifle,

a horn chair (or a cut-rate replica),

German Bible, a blue-eyed Jesus framed

in bottlecaps—I mean he had everything

but paint-by-number sunsets, so much junk

I bet he hadn’t made a sale in years.


You got to know this guy—skinny bald head

and both his hands twisted from arthritis.

I wouldn’t give his place a second look

except I heard so much about this beadwork.

He leads me to a case in the back room.

I take a look. The stuff is fucking new,

pure Disneyland, not even off the Rez.


Foley’s glass was empty; I poured him more

to buy time while I thought of some excuse

to get him out of here. If homicide

indeed were his odd tale’s conclusion, I’d

rather let him pass out on my floor,

then dash upstairs and telephone the police.

I wouldn’t mind if “fucking” Foley fried.


It’s crap, he said. I tell this slimy coot

he doesn’t know an Indian from a dog.

I can’t believe I drove five hundred miles

to handle sentimental tourist crap.

He rolled himself upright in my kitchen chair

and looked at me with such complete disdain

that I imagined Mr. Rasher’s stare.


I knew the man. We dealers somehow sense

who we trust and who the characters are.

I looked at my inebriated guest

and saw the fool-as-warrior on a quest

for the authentic, final recompense

that would rub out, in endless, private war,

all but his own image of the best.


Pretty quick I see I hurt his feelings.

He gets all proud on me and walks around

pointing at this and that,

a World’s Fair pin, a Maris autograph,

and then he takes me to a dark wood cupboard

and spins the combination on the lock

and shows me what’s inside. The old man


shows me his motherfucking pride and joy.

I look inside his cupboard and it’s there

all right—a black man’s head with eyes sewn shut—

I mean this fucker’s real, all dried and stuffed,

a metal ashtray planted in the skull.

I look and it’s like the old man’s nodding,

Yeah, yeah, you prick, now tell me this is nothing.


He’s looking at me looking at this head,

telling me he found it in a house

just up the street. Some dead white guy’s estate

here in the liberal north allowed this coot

whatever his twisted little hands could take,

and then he hoards it away for special guests.

I didn’t say a thing. I just walked out.


Now Foley filled his glass, drinking it down.

His irises caught fire as he lit up.

I sat across from him and wiped my palms

but inside I was setting off alarms

as if I should alert this sleeping town

that murder lived inside it. I could stop

the story now, I thought, but nothing calms


a killer when he knows he must confess,

and Foley’d chosen me to hear the worst.

Weird, he said, looking straight at me beyond

his burning cigarette. I got so mad.

Like all I thought of was a hundred shelves

collecting dust in Rasher’s shop, and how

a dead man’s head lay at the center of it.


I had to get a drink. Some yuppie bar

that charged a fortune for its cheapest bourbon.

I’m in there while the sun sets on the street

and people drop in after leaving work.

I look at all these happy people there—

laughing, anyway; maybe they aren’t happy—

the well-dressed women tossing back their hair,


the men who loosen their designer ties

and sip their single malts—living on bones

of other people, right?

And two blocks down the street, in Rasher’s shop,

a head where someone flicked his ashes once,

because of course a darky can’t be human,

and someone’s family kept that darky’s head.


These genteel people with their decent souls

must have been embarrassed finding it,

and Rasher got it for a fucking song

and even he could never sell the thing.

No, he showed it to me just to get me,

just to prove I hadn’t seen it all.

Well, he was right, I hadn’t seen it all.


I didn’t know the worst that people do

could be collected like a beaded bag,

bad medicine or good, we keep the stuff

and let it molder in our precious cases.

Some fucker cared just how he dried that head

and stitched the skin and cut the hole in the top—

big medicine for a man who liked cigars.


It’s just another piece of history,

human, like a slave yoke or a scalping knife,

and maybe I was drunk on yuppie booze,

but I knew some things had to be destroyed.

Hell, I could hardly walk, but I walked back,

knocked on Rasher’s door until he opened,

pushed him aside like a bag of raked-up leaves.


Maybe I was shouting, I don’t know.

I heard him shouting at my back, and then

he came around between me and the case,

a little twisted guy with yellow teeth

telling me he’d call the fucking cops.

I found the jawbone of that buffalo.

I mean I must have picked it up somewhere,


maybe to break the lock, but I swung hard

and hit that old fucker upside the head

and he went down so easy I was shocked.

He lay there moaning in a spreading pool

I stepped around. I broke that old jawbone

prizing the lock, but it snapped free, and I

snatched out the gruesome head.



I got it to my van all right, and then

went back to check on Rasher. He was dead.

For a while I tried to set his shop in fire

to see the heaps of garbage in it burn,

but you’d need gasoline to get it going

and besides, I couldn’t burn away the thought

of that weird thing I took from there tonight.


It’s out there, Foley said. I’m parked outside

a few blocks down—I couldn’t find your house.

I knew you’d listen to me if I came.

I knew you’d never try to turn me in.

You want to see it? No? I didn’t either,

and now I’ll never lose that goddamned head,

even if I bury it and drive away.




By now the bluster’d left his shrinking frame

and I thought he would vomit in my glass,

but Foley had saved strength enough to stand,

while I let go of everything I’d planned—

the telephone, police and bitter fame

that might wash over my quiet life and pass

away at some inaudible command.


I thought of all the dead things in my shop.

No object I put up was poorly made.

Nothing of mine was inhumane, although

I felt death in a kind of undertow

pulling my life away. Make it stop,

I thought, as if poor Foley had betrayed

our best ideals. Of course I let him go.


The truth is, now he’s left I feel relieved.

I locked the door behind him, but his smell

has lingered in my hallway all these hours.

I’ve mopped the floor, washed up, moved pots of flowers

to places that he touched. If I believed,

I would say Foley had emerged from hell.

I ask for help, but the silent house demurs.


c. 2004 by David Mason from Arrivals (Story Line Press, 2004)