Pack Rat

Being a long-term married man, I felt compelled to sing the praises of financial planning to my fancy-free bachelor brother. In fact, I was just about to unload some free advice about TSAs when he goosed his newly acquired, twenty- year-old VW bus up to freeway speed. Bits of cardboard and other debris, suspiciously similar to mouse droppings, came flying out of the dash. We could have used windshield wipers on the inside to swat away the blizzard of flotsam swirling around our heads and shoulders. “Mice,” Zygot explained. “The previous owner shouldn’t have left it in the woods all those years.”

That’s my brother for you. He has a penchant for retrieving failed, all but useless, cars and appliances and trying to prolong their lives the way some people pick up stray cats.

Before there were garage sales, he used to comb neighborhood alleys looking for scraps and thoughtlessly cast-off fragments of other people’s lives. We called him an alley picker. He didn’t care.

When Zyg filled our garage with junk, my father, in an effort to find some professionally redeeming value in my brother’s innate proclivities, took him to a junk yard.

“That,” Dad said, pointing to computers with databases and numbered parts in labeled bins, “is how you should do it. It doesn’t do any good to stash things if you can never retrieve them when you want them.”

Zyg, underwhelmed, even turned down an offer for summer internship in reclamation management by the junkyard owner.

No, my brother had his standards. Like the symbolic mathematicians who revel in the absolute, non-utilitarian nature of their chosen profession, my sibling collected trash for its own sake. Retrieval and recycle were not even on his radar screen.

In fact, he actually wears a rusted bottle cap on an old string around his neck in memory of his senior field trip to a zoo outside Tucson – a pivotal moment in his self-definition. It seems there was an underground exhibit to demonstrate life under the desert. Zyg was speechless in front of the pack rat diorama. He had found his totem. His kindred spirit in the animal world. While his classmates bought souvenirs at the gift shop, my brother scavenged through the trash cans till he found just the right bottle cap and a shredded piece of string for his amulet to the gods of hunting and gathering and gathering and gathering.

So, here I was, spitting bits of cardboard and studying the boat Zyg had turtled on the van roof for our day of brotherly bonding and fishing. I watched the bow wiggle and bounce above the windhield. It actually looked shiny and unused.

“I finally took your advice,” he announced through teeth clenched against the next mouse-nest blizzard as he accelerated to pass. “I went to the Odd Lots store and actually bought a new boat.”

“Hey, great!” I exclaimed hoping to encourage any signs of moving up the chain of manufacturing from obsolete to new. “How much did you pay for it?”

“$99.00.”

“Uhmmm. That’s quite a bargain,” I observed.

“Well, I had been eyeing it for three months. It looked so lonely sitting in the corner of the store. When it was marked down for the last time, I finally decided to pick it up.”

This seemed like as good a time as any to segue into my financial planning lecture. But as I watched my brother swat nesting material from the air, from his hair, from his clothes, I quickly ratcheted down from the value of 401Ks to Certificates of Saving, to a simple savings account. Maybe I could leverage his need to stockpile into at least some form of savings. I was just about to broach the broad subject when we approached the public landing to our favorite lake.

“Oh, and while we’re fishing,” Zyg offered, “I plan to leave a cup of milk under the dash to lure out the snake that I think is hiding in there.”

“Ahh, you did say you found this van in the woods?”

“Yep,” Zyg smiled with the righteous self-satisfaction of a back-packer saving an injured bird. “Abandoned. But I got it running again.”

“And how might you have arrived at the conclusion that a snake inhabited the dash – along with the mice?” I gingerly inquired, curling my ankles under my butt.

“There was this hissing sound any time I tried to change the radio from an NPR station.”

“Milk sounds like a good plan,” I replied. “You wouldn’t want to have a strange critter crawl up your leg while you were driving 70 mph.”

“Well, not without knowing what kind of snake it was. It could be deadly.”

“Indeed,” I concurred. “But, back to the subject of your new boat. The question does come to mind,” I gently prodded, “why no one else saw fit to snatch up this bargain.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Zyg explained. “Its an irregular.”

He uncharacteristically picked up on my open-jawed incredulity.

“Oh don’t worry. It’s just a couple of misplaced rivets – above the waterline.”

Nevermind long term savings. “You didn’t happen to think to bring a pack of gum along,” I suggested, “just in case we spring a leak in twenty feet of water.”

“Good idea,” Zyg concurred, patting his chest and pockets for a stick of gum. “I don’t seem to have any on me. But wait a minute,” he smiled, reaching under his seat, ”there’s probably some stuck under here.”

He doesn’t deserve savings, the squirrel.

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