How They Were Found and Who They Were That Found Them
Matt Bell

"Homer and Langley Collyer were gentlemen, the sons of a physician. Homer was once an admiralty lawyer, but blindness overtook him and then paralysis. He retreated to the brownstone home many years ago and never came out again. Langley, a tender and talented man five years younger than Homer, took care of him…  When he spoke he was polite and rational, but people said he was crazy. This was because he wanted to live alone and because he never threw anything away."
     —"Strange Case of the Collyer Brothers," Life Magazine, April 7, 1947, p. 49.


William Baker breaks a second-story window from atop a shaking ladder. William Baker peers into the darkness and then signals to the other officers that he's going in. William Baker uses his nightstick to clear all the glass out of his way. William Baker climbs through the window into the room beyond. William Baker gags, but does not vomit. William Baker turns his flashlight from left to right, then back again, like a lighthouse in a sea of trash. William Baker thinks, Not a sea but a mountain rising from a sea, a new, unintended landscape. William Baker begins to take inventory in his mind, counting piles of newspapers, broken furnishings, books molded to floorboards. William Baker puts his hands to a wall of old newspapers and pushes until he sinks in to his wrists. William Baker finds the entrance to the tunnel that leads out of the room. William Baker gets down on his hands and knees and crawls forward. William Baker passes folding chairs and sewing machines and a wine press. William Baker passes the skeleton of a cat or a rat as big as a cat. William Baker turns left at a baby carriage, crawls over a bundle of old umbrellas. William Baker crawls until he can't hear the other officers yelling to him from the window. William Baker is inside the house, inside its musty, rotted breath, inside its tissues of decaying paper and wood.

William Baker disappears from the living world and doesn't come back until two hours later, when he climbs back out the window with his face blanched so white it shines in the midnight gloom. William Baker knows where Homer Collyer's body is. William Baker has held the dead man like a child, has lifted him from his death chair as if the skin and bones and the tattered blue and white bathrobe still constituted a human person, someone worth saving. William Baker counts the seconds that pass, the minutes, the days and the years. William Baker thinks it took a long time for this man to die. William Baker has no idea.


Artie Matthews doesn't understand how a house like this can smell so bad throughout every inch of it. Artie Matthews thinks the garbage should have blocked the smell at some point. Artie Matthews smells it on the sidewalk, smells it in the foyer, smells it in the rooms he and the other workers have cleared and he smells it in the rooms they haven't. Artie Matthews wears coveralls and boots and thick leather gloves and a handkerchief over his face and wonders if its enough to protect him from what happened here. Artie Matthews has arms that ache and knees that tremble from yesterday's exertions as he climbs the stairs to the second floor. Artie Matthews throws cardboard and newspaper out a window. Artie Matthews throws out armfuls of books that reek of mold and wet ink. Artie Matthews pushes a dresser to the window and empties its contents onto the lawn below. Artie Matthews wonders who these clothes belong to, wonders if there is a wife or a mother or someone else still trapped in the house, or if this woman left long ago. Her brassieres and slips and skirts fall to the ground. Artie Matthews watches another worker trying to gather them up before the pressing crowds can see them. Artie Matthews wonders why the worker is bothering. Artie Matthews doesn't think anyone who has ever lived in this house has any dignity left to spare. Artie Matthews thinks that what they are really removing from the house is shame made tangible by wood and steel and fabric.

Artie Matthews will find Langley Collyer, but not for two more weeks. Artie Matthews will find him buried beneath a deadfall of trash just ten feet from where his brother died and wonder why he didn't yell, why he didn't ask Homer for help. Artie Matthews will not realize that Langley did yell, did howl, did scream and cajole and beg and whimper. Artie Matthews will not be able to hear how sound moved in that house before all the walls and tunnels of trash came down. Artie Matthews will never understand, not until it is far too late, how a man might cry out for help only to have his last words get lost in the deep labyrinth he's made of his life.

Matt Bell lives in Ann Arbor, MI, with his wife Jessica. His fiction has appeared or is upcoming in Meridian, Barrelhouse, Monkeybicycle, Keyhole, and Best American Fantasy 2008, and his chapbook How the Broken Lead the Blind will be released from Willows Wept Press in January 2009.

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Detail of found photo on main page courtesy of Olivander.

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