UNITED STATES—Zozobra–that’s a Spanish word for colossal delirium which was unleashed when my elderly mother revealed that some letters of mine had ended up in the recycling bin. Coming from a legendary packrat this was disturbing, indeed unhinging. The revelation added urgency to a long delayed trip up north to get to the bottom of how the letters got into the recycling bin.
No, mom didn’t throw them out, but someone around her did. I drove to Watsonville with an even frame of mind, relatively secure that I was able to take it all in stride. I have never been much attached to things. But, the fact is, part of my archives were at stake; the papers with the scribble and the stamped envelopes are all part of that physical part of an author’s legacy that ends up getting measured in feet. But so what if a few inches got cut off from that legacy.
Somebody in Mom’s employ had gotten zealous, that was all. When I arrived home, after a 7-hour drive, Mom was reading one of the tossed missives, from over 10 years ago where she was healing a neck vertibrae fissure, from a fall in her garden. The prognonsis had been death or paralysis. And now she had made it to a more venerable age (near 90) and cheerful if somewhat fuzzy grip on reality, “Well, like they say, some people’s trash is another person’s treasure. The people who are cleaning don’t have any idea of the sentimental value of what they’re cleaning.”
I glanced over and saw the olf cabinet perennially mounded with papers and stationery was looking immaculately tidy. When I got to the recycling bin and saw the registration for a 1972 Olds Cutlass, mixed with 22-cent postage stamps and crumbling rubber bands, I put two and two together and realized that the cleaner’s zeal had been exercised precisely on the family room hutch. That’s when I felt a pang: the immaculate cabinet no longer had one of my earliest cartoons, from 1970. That was something I really regretted losing, in spite of my stoic nature. In the middle of the letters indiscriminately thrown out, there was this cartoon. It remains an enigma, but it was indisputably a cartoon.
So this really got me motivated to dig into the plastic can, go through the motions in search of the cartoon. Yes, there were letters there, like the time we added a vacation onto a vacation at Harris Ranch and stayed overnight in Buttonwillow. The homemade Father’s Day card for my late dad: On the front “YOU’LL ALWAYS BE MY DAD. (inside) … THAT’S SOMETHING THE CASINOS CAN’T TAKE AWAY FROM YOU.” (I’m laughing. I wonder if dad laughed as much as I did). Those were findings enough. I didn’t really go through everything, but figured if the cartoon hadn’t leapt out from the morass, maybe I wasn’t meant to keep it.
The second day I decided to turn the recycling can over on its side, and riffling from it on top. This time, in addition to a few momentos gleaned like my daughter’s infant drawing of a man and a bridge, which I set aside to take home, also there were documents with personal information, sensitive numbers. These I set aside for shredding via soaking in water and hand shredding them. Then I dumped the wet mass on town paper on top of the bin.
That night I told my daughter about not being able to find the cartoon. She made a little sigh that motivated me to go back into the bin one last time, long after feeling I had taken the search far enough. This time I went all the way and turned the bin upside down and spilled the whole contents. A lot of the stuff was water damaged now: I recovered a copy of “Tanks for the Memories,” I comedy piece written one morning at the Sunset 5 before opening the box office. Imagine if Bob Hope had performed for the troops in Iraq–that’s the premise. Gosh, it made me happy to remember that piece, even water damaged.
I went over the individual pieces of the bin contents this one last time, pausing to have a chat with a neighbor over the fence.
Finally, when I got back to the task. There were several black pieces of white-sided cardboard like the one this cartoon was drawn on, and then I turned them over, and there it was! The cartoon which none of us has been able to decipher, but we still missed it, and there it was, dry and intact.
Yes, there is an angel that protects lost and fugitive art. I am certain of it. In the case of the disposed letters and cartoon of Watsonville, I turned out to be the angel.
Graydon Miller is the author of the short-story collection “The Havana Brotherhood.”