A man and his house of relics, in search of a self

What is the right way to treat artifacts that do not belong to you?

Roger sets his 64-ounce Polar Pop down on a case of Hohokam axes and says he wants to be preserved in amber when he dies. He throws his head back and shivers his limbs out to mimic a fly. His eyes flutter and his neck strains, his expression stuck somewhere between ecstasy and grimace.

 

Roger — not his real name — mentions how humans have been preserving each other for centuries. The “tar people,” murdered bodies found in bogs, kept in tannic acid. Vampires with stakes stuck through their throats. A frozen iceman in Scandinavia discovered with his penis stolen.

Beads of cola sweat down from the rim of Roger’s Styrofoam cup. The ax heads are made of stone, willow branches boiled and wrapped around them for the handle, rawhide strapped around that for the grip. A rancher and his sons found them while grazing their cattle. Roger picks up his Pop and describes the kiva houses where the Hohokam held weddings. He leans in. Elders would take peyote and psilocybin, he whispers, and then ceremonially rape the child-bride.

As for the amber, Roger straightens up. “I decided I wanted to look out on all my belongings forever.” He gestures around the room, sips his soda, laughs. “Naked,” he adds.

The belongings Roger refers to sit 20 miles outside Tucson on Kinney Road, the lonely two-laner where you gas up before hitting the interstate south to Mexico. Nearby is a rifle and pistol range, a saguaro forest, and Old Tucson, a studio town of saloon doors and replica hitching posts that Hollywood built in the 1950s to film Westerns. A big canvas teepee stands in a gravel lot off Kinney where Geronimo’s grandson, or so he claimed, held court, charging tourists a dollar to take his picture until the day he was found in the mountains outside Oracle, slumped over in the van he was forbidden to drive since he was over 100 years old.

Next to this teepee, tucked slightly off the road, you’ll find a storefront. Its wood will be weathered the color of root beer, its facade as if built for an Old Tucson shoot and then never taken down

This is Roger’s shop. Rocks of all shapes and sizes fill its yard. Rocks in old wheelbarrows and mine trolleys. Rocks on a foldout table, in baskets and wire mesh cages. Rocks in a shallow ditch with wood trim where a garden was once planned then thought better of. Geodes, $2 a pound. Banded onyx, $1. A green pickup in the gravel parking lot. On the glass of the store windows, stenciled-out cowboys ride over hills. A sign, handwritten in white paint, says, “We have a large selection of quartz crystals inside.” Another: “Proud To Be An American.” A third: “Open 9-5, Every Day of the Year.”

I first entered Roger’s shop three years ago, when my mother flew out to visit me in Tucson. I’d driven past the storefront before she landed and thought this just the place to take her, the woman who never stopped reminding me to send copper and quartz crystal back to her in New York.

When we entered Roger’s, we noticed two things. The first: This was the most crowded store we’d ever been inside. The second: It was also the emptiest.

When Renaissance noblemen first displayed their cabinets of wonder, the private collections of natural and artificial curiosities meant to show off their wealth and good taste, they must have had in mind something like Roger’s shop. And when these cabinets of wonder grew so copious and cluttered they spilled onto anywhere there was an inch of space, they paved the way for Roger.

Here is some of what you will find inside Roger’s shop: Glass cases of meteorites and tektites, turquoise and wulfenite. A lizard’s tracks in shale. Ram’s horn. Apache tears. A Mayan penis-piercing tool (“Ouch!” its description reads). Mummified packrats with gold-plated corpses.

A contemporary warthog skull from Africa is just one of the bone specimens that can be seen at the shop.
Courtney Talak

There’ll be an Apache hair comb and a freeze-dried rattlesnake’s head. A wolf’s penis bone like a bleached shepherd’s crook, glued to a Styrofoam plinth. “Makes an excellent swizzle stick,” reads the paper stapled to it. Crucifix nails used in Spartacus’ uprising. A sarcophagus carrying the remains of a 4,500-year-old child. A chest-high filing cabinet of alphabetized minerals: chalcopyrite, coal, coke, conglomerate, copper, copper native.

You will also find Roger’s prized possessions sitting in a glass case: the skull of a Roman gladiator missing his jaw; the skull of a Spanish conquistador killed by the Aztecs; and the skull of a soldier dead at the Alamo, a bullet hole through his occipital, the word Mexican inked above it. A picture of a smiling 1950s housewife is taped to the glass case with the caption: “Unattended children will be given espresso and a kitten.” Before that, a grainy black-and-white photo of a man being lynched and the words: “All shoplifters will be prosecuted.”

What you will not find at Roger’s is many people. Grit crunched the floor where we walked. A layer of dust covered the shelves. The lights were turned off. You could stroll around, take what you wanted, and walk out. A house of relics, fittingly, had become a relic itself.

It’s said that the difference between a collector and a hoarder is that while a collector takes joy in arranging his accumulations, the hoarder finds none. The collector assembles a museum of the self, but a hoarder still searches for that self. The hoarder holds out an almost perverse hope: the nagging thought that everything, if seen in the right light, contains value.

When he does emerge from his back office, “A Correlated History of the Earth” poster taped to its door, Roger appears in some variation of the following: a blue Route 66 T-shirt, jeans with the cuffs worn away, flip-flops, and a veterans’ hat with U.S.A. stitched across the brim. A bald eagle perches above the S. Its eyes will swivel.

A prehistoric megalodon shark tooth at Tucson Mineral and Gem World.
Courtney Talak

Roger is tall and has a gut. He slouches and his gut sticks out some more. He smells of cigarettes, not necessarily in the sense of someone who’s smoked, but of someone who’s spent a long time in a house where cigarettes have been smoked. Roger looks telluric. Liver spots pepper his neck and arms and it looks like you could dig a good inch into one of his fingers with a pocketknife and still not draw blood. Burn holes singe his T-shirt. To say his feet are dirty would not broach their condition. They rival Jesus’ in the wilderness.

But what stands out most about Roger is his face. Simply put, it’s kind. It’s the face of your favorite old, absentminded professor you run into when he’s out of quarters at the coin laundry. Roger smiles when you find something you like — a puddingstone from the Great Lakes, a concretion like flattened cow dung — and explains its geology to you. He exudes that treasured quality of making you feel like a kid again, of letting you know — even if you don’t know him at all — that everything is all right. If you protest and offer to pay, he’ll say what really matters is not the exchange of money but the exchange of information, that with each item he gives away he also offers up a piece of himself.

At the counter, Roger explained to me and my mother that he and his brother, Rick, also not his real name, inherited the property after their parents died. The brothers were born on Long Island after World War II. Roger studied paleontology at the University of New Mexico, then worked at New York’s Museum of Natural History and the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, Tucson’s nearby open-air wildlife habitat. At one point, in the mid-1990s, he led a team of paleontologists that discovered the bones of a new dinosaur in the nearby desert. They christened it the Sonorasaurus.

Rick, Roger’s brother, is missing his middle and ring fingers on his right hand. He tells his Boy Scout troops that a bear ate them, but really he lost them in different work accidents. The mummified packrats are his handiwork. He finds them dead in his backyard, hangs them up on a clothesline, then dips them in a barrel of gold paint before spray-painting on a final coat. A framed picture of Roger and Rick from the 1985 Tucson Winter Skeet Shooting League — the brothers nearly identical in trucker hats, mustaches and heft — hangs on the wall next to the back room.

Roger seems to disdain making any profit; instead, he gives what he calls “deals.” When my mother and I dumped our haul at the register — copper, quartz, a mummified pack rat, and the cowboy belt buckle given away for free on any purchase over $15 — Roger ambled over, waved a hand, and quoted a price much lower than it should have been. A few years ago, he said, he even gave away most of his stuff. “You did?” my mother asked, taking a look around. “Doesn’t look like it.” “Oh yeah,” Roger said. “I have loads more. I even have a mummy out back.” He folded his hands on the table. “You wanna see?”

Draped with cobwebs, baby pig and vampire bat skeletons, top, sit on a shelf at the rock shop.
Courtney Talak

Roger led us through his backyard — caliche, cacti, little shade — to a low-slung, one-story house. We entered a screened-in porch. Laundry piled in front of the washing machine. Plastic soda bottles and old DVDs carpeted the floor. Empty packs of Marlboro Lights scattered across a glass table.

Roger’s living room was a menagerie. A severed elephant’s foot, stretched into a bowl, sat on a side table. A green-glazed turtle rested on a buffet. “Oh, I love this,” my mother exclaimed and asked how much it cost. Roger told her it was his fifth-grade pottery project. In the corner, a snake hid in a glass terrarium, its skin shed onto wood chips. The hide of a platypus hung on the wall. “It’s the only mammal that injects venom,” Roger said. He pointed out the fourth toenail that hooked into its victim’s flesh. A small statue of Horus, the Egyptian falcon god, stood next to the elephant’s foot.

In the far corner of the living room, next to the bedroom hallway, stood an Egyptian mummy. Roger had propped its sarcophagus upright and cut out a square of wood to display the skull. A clip-on reading light attached to the wood. “I only did the one sacrilegious thing,” he said by way of explanation. “Otherwise, I think this is as good a home as any.”

The mummy, Roger said, belonged to a 16th Dynasty pharaoh. He was missing an arm, lost in battle to the Hittites. Roger speculated a chariot might have lopped it off. “This guy was a brave one. He was probably leading the charge.”

Upright, it stood shorter than you might expect. I had never seen one in person, and what I anticipated — first-aid gauze, a solid cast between body and casing — wasn’t there. There seemed little telling what was packaging and what skin.

Inherited seems the wrong word, so let’s say Roger came into the pharaoh when he worked at the Museum of Natural History. He befriended an old Egyptologist, whose house he visited for tea. When the Egyptologist died, he left Roger the mummy. Roger and Rick hoisted it onto a dolly, wheeled it down the Egyptologist’s stairs, and eventually — this explanation of its shipment is elided — ended up with it in Tucson. “I don’t focus too much on whether this was legal,” Roger said. He named the mummy Heck.

Roger brushed his fingers over the hieroglyphs running down the sarcophagus. “Extrapolating,” he said, pointing to the uppermost, “this refers to the pharaoh’s name.” For the next one, “This is his name in the afterlife.” And the third, “This means that if you open the tomb, you’re cursed and will die.”

I raised my eyebrows. Did he believe any of this? “I think it becomes true if you want it to be true,” he said. He had given the same answer when I asked about his descriptions of Sedona vortex rocks. Roger rubbed the mummy’s head and asked if I wanted to as well. “Come on, it’s for good luck.” “Are you nuts?” my mother yelled, to which of us I couldn’t tell. I reached toward the head — it seemed, perhaps perversely, the polite thing to do — and gave a hesitant pat. “Tom!” she punched my arm. The skull was smooth and cold. It felt very brown. I looked at my palm to see if any had rubbed off.

Before we left Roger’s house, the three of us stopped in the hallway. Roger told us his dad had bought the property to turn it into a working gold mine. Really, Roger said, he thought this was where his father brought his girlfriends. He winked. He and Rick had to take their mother’s name because their father’s was too well-known.

“What did your father do?” my mother asked.

“He was a film director.” My mother scanned the black-and-white photos in the hall. She nudged me to look at one: an older man at a party in a tuxedo, tall, bald, blue-eyed like Roger.

“What was his name?” she asked. “Otto Preminger,” Roger said.

Roger reads a letter by a World War II soldier that accompanies a mummified shrunken head, priced at $350, at his Tucson rock shop.
Courtney Talak

I should mention, before proceeding any further, that alongside my affection for Roger and his shop, there creeps a doubt. The cabinet is a bit too curious. It’s not every day I walk into a store in the middle of the Sonoran desert selling gladiators’ skulls and Indigenous Australian pointing bone necklaces. Nor do I visit many places that so strenuously insist on the legality and “100 percent authenticity” of everything for sale. If you have to try so hard to prove it, I think, then what do you have to hide?

Take, for example, Roger’s descriptions. Here’s what he writes for the pointing bone necklace: “This artifact has actually killed people. The act of boning someone is always done in secret, attended by a small number of suitably initiated men, who act as witnesses and support the ‘sorcerer’ in a low chanted ceremony where the bone is pointed in the direction of the victim and through ‘diabological agency’ draws a little blood (or life essence through the air) to the bone.”

This baffles me. Does Roger expect others to believe this, or is he only fulfilling his journalistic duties? Why use the words “actually killed people” instead of “supposedly”? Given what’s written, it’s unclear if Roger the collector believes in the power of his collection or if he feels these beliefs are worth naming because they are a part of their objects, however unreal.

Most of all, there’s the problem of spelling. Call me fussy, but here is Roger’s description of a Roman crucifixion nail:

“$49 100% guaranteed, as described ancient roman iron crucifixion nail
c.a. 2,300 years old ound in mass exicution grave, ner Brundisium on the Adriatic coast of Italy on the ‘Apian Way’ where 6000 crucifixes took place around 312 bc. More below line”

These typos appear everywhere. Wouldn’t one expect a paleontologist and historian to have care when spelling “found,” “near,” “execution,” or “Appian?” Why wouldn’t the detail used to assert the accuracy and legitimacy of the objects extend to the language used to present them?

Of course, my skepticism in the shop might also be my hope. What could be more interesting than if Roger were faking it all, creating a false self and passing it off as the real thing, “100 percent guaranteed as described”?

Otto Preminger, the famed Austrian American film director responsible for Laura and Anatomy of a Murder, had, to put it lightly, a notorious streak in Hollywood. Like many directors, his temper created headlines. He was known alternatively as “The Terrible-Tempered Mr. Preminger,” “the most hated man in Hollywood,” and the caustic “Otto the Sweet.” He bucked many of the protocols established by the House Un-American Activities Committee, casting an openly gay actor, Clifton Webb, in 1944’s Laura, and depicting rape and sexual assault in a manner never before seen in Anatomy of a Murder. But Preminger might have been best known for his affairs: Dorothy Dandridge, the African-American actress in Carmen Jones, and Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque performer who gave birth to Erik Preminger, Otto’s illegitimate but eventually acknowledged son.

Rock shop owner Roger holds what he says is one of the shop’s most interesting pieces, a fossilized mosasaur jaw from the late Cretaceous period.
Courtney Talak

Whether or not Preminger had other extramarital children, whether any of them were Roger or Rick, or whether this is Roger’s own paternal longing — I have no idea. He had a boy and a girl with his third wife, Hope Bryce, but no other children on the record, and when I email Foster Hirsch, Preminger’s definitive biographer, he says he ran across no such name as Roger’s in his research. Preminger did live some of the time in New York City, close to Roger and Rick’s birthplace. And he might very well have been familiar with Old Tucson Studios and the surrounding landscape, putting him in a position to buy the property.

But Pima County records show a Helen and Peter with Roger’s last name as the original owners of the land where Tucson Mineral and Gem World now stands and the store as built in 1976 before being willed to Roger and Rick. Helen, who would have been Roger’s mother, was born Sept. 26, 1919, in Long Island, New York, and died in December of 2005. Peter died in 2003 and was an editor on a few films. Perhaps Preminger met Helen through Peter. But who else could Peter be but Helen’s husband, since he was born only two months after Helen in 1919 and in Connecticut no less?

The results do not substantiate Roger’s claims. Nor do they entirely rule them out. The same applies to when Roger mentioned offhandedly, as we shuffled from his house back to his shop, that a few weeks ago he and Richard Gere grabbed breakfast at the diner across the road. The actor and his father, Roger said, had been old friends.

But if this is false or less-than-reliable information, then suspicion must vein through everything else: Roger’s deciphering of the mummy’s hieroglyphs, the information listed and misspelled, the relics and artifacts, and ultimately Roger himself — his identity, his authenticity, his livelihood, his life. Not to mention, say, his assurance that no such bad luck will befall you if you rub a mummy’s head.

A collector displays a self and a hoarder searches for one. Perhaps what matters most, however, isn’t which self one is — hoarder or collector, pack rat or curator — but what that self requires of its objects.

Most of Roger’s possessions come from people not his own. Many come from civilizations and cultures that Roger or people like Roger and myself have helped to expel from their ancestral home — the American Indian museum Roger stocks up at when it shuts down, the ranchers who find others’ relics on their land, the cotton farm Roger buys so he can piece together its Navajo pottery.

If a collection memorializes its collector, then I wonder what comes at the expense of that memory. Ruins and artifacts may cement the id of a collector, but they also preserve the work done by lost civilizations. Heck’s reading light, the Mayan penis-piercing tool (“Ouch!”), the wolf penis bone (“an excellent swizzle stick”) — what hay should be made of Roger’s treating these objects as a joke or, worse yet, trophies? Just what does a curiosity cabinet make curious?

All around us — the stunt teepee where Geronimo’s grandson sat; the Old Tucson studios with their cowboy-and-Indian facades; I-10, Nogales, and its wall an hour away — is evidence of the often-violent and always irremediable change wrought upon a land in the creation of a new identity. The evidence of the somewhat surreal lengths people who think they own that land will travel to in order to wrap up and preserve that identity, to dip it in gold and say here it is, shiny and plated, ready to last, and if you spend $15, there’s a free tin star and a cowboy belt buckle in it for you.

What is the right way to treat the relics that do not belong to you, but in some way define you? How should we treat our subject matter — what we study and collect and try to piece together — whether we believe its truth or not? I should ask Roger this, but maybe I should also ask myself.

 

Tucson Mineral and Gem World, on Kinney Road in Tucson.
Courtney Talak

Excerpted from The Book of Resting Places: A Personal History of Where We Lay the Dead by Thomas Mira y Lopez. Courtesy of Counterpoint Press and copyright of the author. All rights reserved.

Thomas Mira y Lopez’s work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review Online, The Normal School and other publications. He’s the 2017-2018 Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Follow @TMiYL