Fossils and Artifacts

When I was seven, Dad took me to a dusty gem shop and I picked out a quartz crystal in a plastic display box. Nestled on a small bed of foam, its geometric solidity offset by ethereal translucence, it was a rock important enough for a small label typed out in blotchy text.

I took it to show-and-tell and a classmate told me that he loved it, and could he have it? I didn’t know why not—other than that it was mine—so I handed it to him. After school, I sobbed about giving it away, bitter tears burning hot on my face. Dad kindly took me back to the gem shop, walls dotted with trilobites and fossil fish, the rotating minerals in their display cases jittering and jostling for my attention. I picked out another quartz, brown this time, different enough from the first one to balm the wound left by my gift.

I took it to school, proud of this one too. The same boy said he loved it, and could he have it? And other than it being mine, I didn’t know why not, so I gave him that one too.

Dad did not get me another quartz. 

Buried Secrets, gouache on paper, 1995

Buried Secrets, gouache on paper, 1995


At the beginning (or Dad’s end, however you want to think of it), when I was breaking up his housekeeping, I was moved with both great sadness and great reverence for his things. I packed gingerly, even if the objects weren’t valuable. I made piles of “to keep” and “to go” but nothing for “the dump.”

There was plenty for “the dump,” but it took me a while to come around.

In the first place, Dad’s art studio had had water problems and many paintings and drawings had been ruined by mold and mildew. How do you throw art away? Are you allowed to throw art away? Is it art if it ends up in the landfill? But this art was not salvageable: No one would hang these mildewed, and frankly, uninteresting abstracts in their living rooms unless they were deranged.

So “the dump” pile began. Initially broken by the broken tchotchkes which went in the pile at first, by the end of sorting through a houseful of tchotchkes I was willing to chuck perfectly useable stuff into the pile. I couldn’t sort through fifty-seven cables for old computer systems, now hopelessly obsolete. One of the cables might work? Who cares?

The house, finally, was emptied of Dad’s artifacts. What we couldn’t part with we shoved into his former art studio, which became a holding pen for thousands of Dad’s painting and drawings which had no other destination. The rest of Dad’s life was haggled to death by cheapskate garage sale shoppers, or, more pleasantly, went to Goodwill, who cheerfully took load after load of linens and sheets and shoes and dishes and glasses and coffee mugs, many of which I remembered from my childhood with absolutely no fondness whatsoever. Sayonara, crappy stoneware!

There was one box, though. One box we weren’t sure how to deal with.


 Chris helped me move on the last of the crap. We rented a truck and took a surprising amount to the dump: broken picture frames, ancient condiments, frozen meat over a year old, boxes, VHS tapes. Old mattes, rusty screws. The paintings which had rotted in the damp. Weird, broken boxes filled with half-considered art projects, including one of the more chilling multimedia creations Dad fashioned: a grotesque, life-sized baby doll from the Seventies, her expression blank with chubby realism, one eye staring like a corpse in a cliché horror film, the other, of course, missing. Her limbs were cloth, a stuffed sock monkey from the neck down, until you reached her disturbingly life-like hands and feet. She was filthy, wrapped in tinsel, and hammered into a roughly hewn wooden box: in a word, she was gross. Chris and I scratched our heads at Dad’s willingness to live with her nailed up on the wall of his art studio, and neither of us felt compelled to adopt her now that Dad was gone. We thought it unfair to foist her upon underpaid Goodwill employees, though Dad would have found great humor in such a finish. To the dump she went.

The objects which remained in Dad’s house were notable to me for their very lack of meaning. One forgets that the last things to get packed in a house are always wadded up socks that had been lost behind the dryer, or silver polish, crusted over after years of disuse. A box of Saran Wrap? Really? The meaning of a life, my father’s life, comes down to a useless slide carousel and a lone speaker cable?

But the box. Now that was a whole other kettle of fish.

Goat Song, gouache on paper, 1999

Goat Song, gouache on paper, 1999

Dad was a satyr. Born under the sign of Capricorn, though he didn’t put much faith in astrology, he identified with the goat in a personal way. The thought of horny old Pan running around in a permanently priapic state upending nymphs and naiads was one to which, were he a Greek god himself, he would aspire.

Alas, these are not the days of Pan, and Dad was confined to the mores of a less earthy, more uptight time. One can argue that the pervasiveness of porn makes this a wanton era, but Dad didn’t see it that way. He felt that pornography was our culture’s method of dealing with suppressed sexuality—that the over-the-top antics of Bunny Boobs-A-Lot and Biff Wanger were the result of us not embracing our sexuality as humans. Or, more precisely, animals. We made sex unacceptable, and so it went underground but popped back up somewhere else, bigger and stronger. Like a weed. Like a giant phallus. Like Pan.

The box was sitting in the garage. We kept ignoring it because we didn’t know what to do with it. Other things were obvious: the garbage goes to the dump, the linens go to Goodwill. The porn goes...Hmmm. Where does the porn go?

Some spicy graphic novels that we put on Craigslist remained unclaimed—though I’d be pretty embarrassed wandering into someone’s house to On the other hand, the ones we gave away to friends were welcomed—unabashedly too—because we knew the recipients were a randy bunch.

But the DVD’s kept getting overlooked, or moved, or forgotten as all the other artifacts made their way to different futures. It was the last box in Dad’s house. Chris and I were wrapping things up, and this was our last charge.

The same morning we dealt with the affectionately dubbed “Blue Box,” we went to a gem shop to pick up a tool for Chris. It was the first gem shop I had been in years, maybe decades. Reminiscent of the dusty store in my heartbreaking quartz crystal-history, it had the same jittering display shelves and an old granite-faced rock hound behind the counter. I was nostalgic and compelled to buy in a desperate attempt to fix the loss of my quartz, so many years ago. I wanted amber with trapped bugs, and agates to smash, and one amazingly well-preserved 10,000 year old crocodile skull, but walked out with only a lone peacock stone and three polished egg-shaped minerals, none of which I could decide whether to hoard or to give to Milo.

Our next destination was the porn shop. We searched out a few, calling ahead to ask if they purchased personal DVD’s. “You can bring ‘em, in,” a clerk said, “but we hardly ever buy anything.” With no other options, we drove to the store closest to the gem shop at the decidedly unsexy hour of 10:30 in the morning.

Chris grabbed the box from the car and we walked in. “I’ve got to say,” I said, “this is the weirdest brother-sister errand ever.” Chris just laughed and strode boldly to the counter, behind which were three very different, very pierced, women. They, aside from myself, were the only women in the joint. But porn takes no holiday: the aisles already had a number of shoppers idling in their areas of interest.

Chris set the box on the counter. “You guys called earlier, huh?” asked a slightly round, long-haired lesbian with huge grommets in her ears and a ring in her septum. She must have spotted us a mile away.

“Our father was a collector,” Chris said. I hung back sheepishly, less wigged out about the store itself than being there to break up Dad’s porn-estate with my own brother. I looked up and over the counter, through the giant dildos, past the fetish gear, and burned a hole right through the back wall of the employee bathroom, so focussed was my gaze away from this conversation. The clerk looked at us skeptically over her charming geek-chic glasses. She opened the box.

A gasp, which snapped my attention out of the girders in the far wall, escaped her lips. “I don’t believe it,” she said. “This is the first porno I ever saw! My roommate stole it! I’m keeping this one for myself.” She turned to the woman next to her. “You have to look at this fucking disk. Not a single scratch. Nothing. It’s perfect!”

Source Sketch for ink drawing [Color inverted], pencil on paper, no date

Source Sketch for ink drawing [Color inverted], pencil on paper, no date

The other woman leaned over her shoulder to gaze at the backside of the iridescent DVD, truly pristine. A collector’s hands took good care of this one.

She grabbed another. “Jesus, this one’s perfect too!” She reached in enthusiastically to see, like a kid at Christmas, what the next surprise might be. “Holy shit!” she exclaimed, “This is a collectors’ item. We lost our last copy. Should I keep it for myself or give it to the store?

“Omigod. You have got to see this. ‘Ginger’ here was my first wife, though she didn’t know it.” The three employees gathered around the box, oohing and ahh-ing over Dad’s exquisite taste. “He’s got I, II and III! I’ve never seen a complete set!”

The stack was tall enough, and I was now comfortable enough, that I had time to wander into the displays of DVD rentals and massive vibrators to see what was selling these days. Pirates of the Caribbean porn looked like it had the best production values, while I was charmed by the XXX-Files porn for purely sentimental reasons. Plus, XXX-Scully was a dead ringer for Scully-Scully. Vampires were an obvious trend, but the puns were stupid: no points for funny. Apparently, porny vampires have even less of a sense of humor than regular ones.

The women purchased every last DVD we brought. Divided into two stacks: Better and Best, not one of Dad’s disks was orphaned. The clerk made clear that they hardly ever bought anything, from anyone. Apparently, even in porn Dad had exquisite taste. “Thank you, sincerely, for bringing your disks here,” the geek-chic woman said. 

“Thank you,” said her co-workers. “Really.

If there was any fitting memorial, this was it: three sex-positive lesbians gushing over our father’s epicurean taste and respect for the form.

Chris and I ate nearby in some weird German place we would never go to otherwise. It was dark and empty and cavernous, and we ordered two absurdly teetering beers with our schnitzel and wurst. 

We raised our glasses. “To Dad, who would be proud.”

Invoking the Goddess, gouache on paper, 199?

Invoking the Goddess, gouache on paper, 199?


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