Kay Aye Ess Ess Aye En Gee
A Mnemosyne story
Start at the beginning of the Mnemosyne series
Scars heal over time. That's what I told myself on the drive home. I had a very clear recollection of burning myself on the element of a stove as a child, and for years had a dark scar running the length of my inner forearm. Yet now my skin was pristine and smooth; not even the faded remnant of that old pain could be seen. Scars fade with time, and if I hadn't noticed my Papa's scars fading, it was because I wasn't looking, either by familiarity or by unconscious choice.
My father's recollection was more difficult to rationalize. I could easily understand his desire not to talk about Kevin again, but when asked a direct question it wasn't like him to deflect. And, although Papa Poppa was known as a man who always had a joke on his tongue, he never joked when it came to my wellbeing. There was no reason that I could fathom for his denial of knowing Kevin, other than to voice indirect disapproval of me even mentioning my old flame. Even that made very little sense.
By the time I got back on the road to go home, the snow was falling faster than post Christmas retail prices. It was a white fog, and the only way you could guide your car was to carefully follow the melted tracked of the vehicle in front of you. I leaned as far forward as I could in my Volvo, arcing over the steering wheel and pressing my face near the glass. Despite the knowledge that it would do little good, I continued to rub my hand on the inside of the windshield, trying to get better visibility. A few times red tail lights lunged out of the furious snow smoke and I had to pump the break rapidly to stop in time. The car would usually slide around on the road a bit when that happened. All around me were cars huddled on the side of the road, waiting for a break in the storm to try and scurry home.
The third time I almost crashed into the minivan in front of me, I decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and pulled my car into a 7-11. The lot was nearly full already, but I was able to maneuver myself in between an oversized pickup and an old beat up Escort. I was slightly paranoid about leaving my car in the parking lot overnight, but the sheer amount of vehicles left abandoned on the roads made me think that the police might have larger concerns that someone who was legally parked. However, my Papa had always taught me that when in doubt its best to ask someone in the know, so I went into the store to make sure I wouldn't come back the next day to an empty lot.
There were at least thirty people crammed into the tiny store when I went inside. The atmosphere carried an air of familiar joviality, filled with conversation bred by strangers in shared difficulty. There is nothing like an emergency to give people from all philosophies and backgrounds shared ground to communicate. There were only two people actually in line when I entered, the rest were simply leaning against counters or standing in the aisles hoping the snow would abate and they could go home.
The man in front of me was a curious sight, bound in all manner of rags and castoffs of old clothes. Around his body were wound dozens and dozens of old scarves, with a wool over-jacket unbuttoned and hanging open framing his multicolored attire. A ripped tuque adorned his head, and I could see tufts of brown and grey hair sticking out of the holes. He carried a new scarf, a cup of coffee, and a large snow shovel in his hands. He looked back at me when I joined the line, and we exchanged polite nods before turning back to minding our own nonexistent business. The act of standing in a line is such shared experiences, much like a snow storm, that I am surprised strangers do not make more conversation while standing there bored. The knowledge that a line will end predictable probably keeps us more isolated than events for which we cannot predict the outcome. You know you will get to the end of a line and leave, so you remain focused in your own world, forgetting the revolutions that occur around you. A storm, on the other hand, throws you out of your comfort zone and bodily into the circulating current of humanity. If only we could keep from fuzzing the edges of our perceptions all of the time, instead of only when we are shaken to it, the things we would see, the people we would meet. We forget most of the world before we even know it.
The man in front of me was obviously a regular at the convenience store, because the dark haired girl behind the counter knew him. She said, "A new shovel, King?" Her voice was rough and unexpectedly deep, from cigarettes perhaps, though she didn't look old enough to have worked that much blue-collar hopelessness into her vocal cords.
The ragamuffin man responded, "Yeah, I broke my old one packing in the snow for the house this year. Hit an old cinderblock and snapped it right in two. Looks like I'm just in time to get a new one." He jerked his thumb out toward the windows and laughed. I laughed along with him, though I didn't feel any humor. I simply wanted to belong for a moment to the crowd sheltering from the storm. The girl only rang up the scarf and the shovel for the man, and he paid with a few greasy bills pulled out from under his banded clothes. He tipped the coffee in appreciation, and then pulled his tuque on tighter and walked out the door. Everyone stepped back away from the blast of cold air and snow that shot in when he left, and the conversation lulled for a moment before resuming.
I asked the girl if it was acceptable for me to leave my car in the lot overnight, but she only shrugged at me. "I dunno, really." She gave a sound halfway between a giggle and a snort. Her scratchy voice made it more than a little unnerving. "I'm not gonna call the towing company on ya, and I doubt they could get out here anyway. I'd say go for it." I thanked her and followed the King out the door into the storm.
The walk home was physically exhilarating. The air was cold enough to burn my lungs as I breathed, which made powering up the hills quiet a workout. The world around me was devoid of humanity; the snow pushed back time to a place we see today only in paintings, a quiet world unbroken by the buzz of industry and people, blanketed by thick snowfall. Only the crunch of the fresh powder under my feet disturbed the serenity, and it was easy to feel as though I were the only living being in the city. I slipped and fell a few times on the slick ice underneath the snow, but in whole it was a pleasant walk.
It also gave me a bit of time to reflect on what to do next about Kevin. Papa's strange behavior was even more of a motivation for me to track my ex down and invite him to the party. I knew that it was probably a mistake, but I've never been able to abide being thwarted in my desires, even simple whimsies. The easiest way to motivate me has always been to tell me that I can't do something. That brings out all of the wily cunning in my nature. It's a trick Kevin would use against me to great effect. He would forbid me something, and then enjoy the spectacle of me composing devious plans and plots to achieve my ends. He always saw through my manipulations and would laughingly give in, though not before letting me know that he was in control. It was maddening.
The situation with Papa felt so much like that same game between Kevin and I, it was difficult not to imagine they were in league somehow, though that was patently ridiculous. I could almost hear his gently mocking voice in the back of my head, telling me that getting him to my party would be impossible. After all, if Papa refused to even acknowledge that Kevin existed, what other factors would prevent me from finding him and convincing him to attend? I didn't even know where he was. He could have been in prison, or even dead. Despite all that had happened, the thought of his body laying cold on a morgue slab like the "guest star" of an episode of CSI was discomforting.
The walk home took the better part of an hour, and I was red-faced and puffing by the time I arrived. I pride myself on staying in excellent shape, but hour long hikes in snowstorms are not the exercise to which I am accustomed. After shedding my wet clothes and showering, I dug through my old filing cabinet for Kevin's Rolodex. The cabinet hadn't been opened since things went south between us, and cracking the whiny metal drawers was a difficult tug, both on my hand and my heart. Each drawer was a veritable treasure chest of old memories, but I was in no mood to be drawn that deeply back into painful nostalgia. I grabbed the metal and plastic cardholder and tried to pull it out, but the hard number cards were stuck under something. A few sharp tugs pulled it free and the wheel spun like a windmill, blowing in the exhaled breath of regret.
I'd given Kevin the Rolodex as a joke during our first spring break together. He refused to own a cell phone, and was constantly asking me to look up the numbers of people we'd met in Aspen. I finally bought him an antique two piece rotary phone and a Rolodex. True to his nature, he turned the joke around and displayed the thing in our room with pride. It was filled with every number important in Kevin's life at the time, from pizza delivery to his drug dealers to his Mom. The pizza chains were probably long gone by now, I'd burned out the pages with the numbers of his dealers, but it was the last number that I was looking for. If anyone would know where to find Kevin, it would be his mother.
Kathleen had been great to me throughout the whole relationship, even after it ended. She was appreciative of Papa Poppa not pressing charges against Kevin, and helped pay the hospital bill for Papa's stitches. I think she felt that the way Kevin had turned out was her fault in some fashion. If it was, I certainly could not tell. She was a sweet and caring woman who tried to get her son help after his drug problems were exposed. She didn't have much luck at the time, but I thought it was possible that she might have been persistent enough to help him. Kathleen was not the type to give up on her only child.
I crossed my fingers and hoped that she had kept the same number these last few years as I dialed the phone. A small chuckle escaped my lips when I heard the ring back tone on the other end of the line start to play Journey's "Don't Stop Believing". The number was definitely still hers. After a few rings Kathleen's soft voice answered. "Hello?"
I swallowed hard at hearing her voice again. My throat tightened, and for a moment I was afraid I wouldn't be able to speak at all. "Kathleen? Hi, it's me."
There was the sound of a throat clearing on the other end of the line, and then a hesitant reply. "I'm sorry, I don't know who this is. Can you be more specific?"
At that moment I didn't feel that I could be more specific. The act of naming myself seemed too personal, too revealing somehow. To give voice to my own name put me into the situation and made it real, and I desperately wanted to preserve the dreamy illusory quality the day had acquired since talking with Papa. Instead I said, "I'm calling for Kevin, Kathleen. I'd like to get in touch with him."
Again there was a pause before her soft voice carried over the phone. "I'm sorry, who? Who is this?" And with those words the fanciful strange quality the air had acquired suddenly became oppressive and confusing. My father pretending not to know Kevin was strange. Kathleen saying that she didn't know her own son was insane. For a moment breathing became difficult as it seemed the world was shrinking around me and pressing in on my lungs. I no longer wanted to exist in that dream, I wanted to break out.
"Kevin? Your son? Kathleen . . .I . . ." She didn't allow me to finish my thought, though I'm not certain where it was going in any case.
"I don't have a son. I'm not sure who this is, but I think you have the wrong person. Goodbye." And with that there was a click and then the buzzing of an empty dial tone. I was left holding my phone and a page from Kevin's Rolodex, staring at the faded ink and wondering what it all meant.
I tried to call her back, a few times. She never answered. I finally gave up, putting the Rolodex carefully back into the filing cabinet. It seemed an impossible task to think or act; I was like a piece of software fed bad data. I simply didn't know what to do with it, so couldn't do anything.
When I was younger, I used to have a persistent fear that someday some basic fact, common to all denominations of life, would be completely missed by me. Someday I would suddenly do something that highlighted my complete ignorance of a bare tenet of life, some fact that by a series of simple coincidences I had escaped learning, and I would be a complete laughingstock. Such as finding out that at night invisible jellyfish flew around in the sky, or that at age thirty all humans reported to some facility to have a microchip installed in their brains. It seems like a silly farfetched fear of the imagination, but I would be caught in the grip of this terror for hours on end, anticipating the day when the entire human race could have a good laugh at my expense. That is what the day felt like to me after speaking with Kathleen. The universe was changed in a profound and fundamental way that I didn't expect, and I did not know how to deal with it.
So I sat and futilely attempted to make some sense of the situation. My Papa and Kevin's mother were refusing to acknowledge his existence. My experiences with Kevin, though painful in the end, were a core building block of who I was, the person that I became. I did my best for years afterward to put it completely out of my mind, and think on it as little as possible, but it still informed my decisions and personality years later. It was a foundation block upon which I had constructed my outlook on the world. And now two of my most basic connections to that foundation were telling me that it did not exist, though I could still see it in front of my face as clear as day. Sitting on my couch, still damp from my hike through the snow, I began to question my memories, to question the things I still had of Kevin, and even to question my own sanity.
I grasped at the straws of my mind for some kind of purchase of rationality upon which to stand, and the rope of safety that I seized was the thought that both Papa Poppa and Kathleen were external sources of confirmation of Kevin's existence. Kevin himself would of course be the best confirmation, but I did not know where to even begin looking for him if his own mother denied him. I thought, however, that the next best thing would be something that we had created, together; something that would not fade with time, or be confused in my memory for anything else. I knew exactly the thing.
It required another walk in the cold, but this time I was more prepared and girded myself accordingly. Out came my ski gear with thick warm winter pants, gloves and goggles, accompanied by my LL Bean winter boots. I made a small ritual out of getting my clothes on, trying to delay the journey as much as possible. I was like a man who believes there may be something wrong with him, but is afraid to go to the doctor to find out. Visiting the doctor can result in confirming the fear, and making it real. Until the doctor tells you you're sick, it might just be all in your imagination. I wanted my suspicions to stay in my imagination, without confirmation. Nevertheless, soon I was fully dressed and ready to depart.
The walk was longer this time, down to Whiskey Stream Park. There's an old local legend that back in the 1800's, when the current incarnation of the city was first settled, moonshiners kept stills upstream from where the park is now, and the runoff from the great copper and lead machines would enter the river and make it smell of whiskey. Kevin and I used to like taking walks through the small woods still hugging the babbling water and joke about building a still ourselves. Pleasant memories.
The snow in the woods was getting quite deep by that point, halfway up my calves, and the hiking was hard. A few times I lost my sense of direction in the white snowfall, but my trail was the only one breaking the virgin snow on the ground, so I was able to orient myself using my own footsteps. A nice parable of life - walking through a snow storm in the woods, unable to see anything but your own past to guide your way. What do you do if the snow fills in your tracks and washes them away, as if they never existed? Then you're just lost in the woods.
After an hour and a half of walking, I finally reached the Banyan Tree. It wasn't really a banyan, of course, just a regular tree for the area, but years before it had been struck in twain by lighting, and both halves had sprung back to life and grown tall. It gave it the appearance of a huge and ancient jungle tree squatting in the middle of a city park, a tiny slice of the exotic dotting the humdrum landscape of the ordinary. Kevin and I used to prop ourselves in the crook, each one laying his back against a half of the tree and propping our knees together to hold us up. We'd sit like that for hours and talk, or just look up through the leaves at the twinkling stars. Once we had brought a knife out with us, and had laughingly carved our names inside a big heart, like something out of an old movie. Kevin loved the classic cheesy gestures of romance, and I thought it was sweet at the time.
It took me a minute to find the heart. I had to brush snow off of half of the tree before I could make it out in the pale light of the flashlight I'd brought along. The tree held the dark scarring left by the knife well, and my name stood out clearly against the bark. However, Kevin's name, in the bark of the tree as it had been in my heart and mind for so long, had healed over and disappeared, leaving not a trace of it behind.
Story and image by Nick Bergeron, Copyright 2010