Memory is Elsewhere

Brian Michael Murphy
June 25, 2016
Comments 1

“I want you to tell me a story ‘bout when you were a little boy,” says my four-year-old girl every night. I tell her things I remember, and things I’ve forgotten. Muscle memory is like the sea floor, and it isn’t until it’s dredged that you realize what’s down there. For her, because she is truly open and absorbing everything, anything can be a story. When telling her about how I used to mow the backyard when I was twelve, I realize that I had forgotten about the twenty-year-old Master Lock on the shed, its heft and scratched blue and silver surface that always made me think of the slow-motion commercial from the ’80s where they shoot a slug right through the center of the lock, and it still stays closed.

Then I remembered how I’d leave the key in the lock and hook it on the latch, or rest in on the curved ledge of the shed’s shingle roof, where Chy and I once spelled out BROWNS in huge letters with the white gravel laid under the wood stack, just to kill an afternoon in the country where time can become a kind of menace. From there, details rose to the surface, and the flat scene of childhood chores grew stereoscopic with all the obstacles to mowing that yard: the grapevine clinging to white wood framing next to the climbing tree, the long garden through which we donated corn to the local raccoons, harvested strawberries, green peppers, tomatoes, chilis, jalapeños, cucumbers, and zucchini, the silver post of the parallel dryer hung with clothes, the deck and the shrubs and the two pines, the dog’s stake, the sprawling rhubarb on the sun side of the house, beside the red brick chimney and the air conditioner humming its single note till nightfall.

At this point, she’s listened to stories about sledding in the front yard, building forts with rolled up bricks of snow, staying out in the cold so long your face is windburned and your fingertips sting, stories about going to the pool every day in the summer, about fishing at Alum Creek and almost stepping on a water snake, about riding out to Lima or Springfield or Steubenville or Dayton or Akron with her grandpa on one of his work calls, and about a game me and my friends made up called Fugitive. At my friend Allen’s house, there was a wonderland of outbuildings with mysterious histories—great for hiding and seeking. The old farmhouse his family lived in had been burned out, then renovated, but none of the other ancient structures on the property received such attention, so by the time we were teenagers they had ruined beautifully. There was the old corn silo, still half-full with husks visible through the rusty wire grid of its sides; the garage on which the basketball hoop was tacked, just like in the movies when they depict rural areas of towns like mine. There was the other room attached to the garage, with is strange stone slab that must have served as a bed for someone. According to Allen, that was where a worker slept when the farm still grew crops and raised hogs. The swaybacked barn was going to fall in upon itself any minute, but that didn’t stop us from going into it, guessing at which animal made that hole in the ground, wondering what this twisted red machine once did to seeds and soil, its metal teeth cocooned in a barbed vine, also long dead. There was the shed at the start of the high-grassed back forty, boringly piled with relatively new, pressure-treated wood, leftovers from fifteen years ago when they had to re-frame the walls upstairs after removing all the char.

The required equipment for Fugitive, the game we played in this maze of ticks and tetanus, was as follows: black clothing, a flashlight, an old two-stroke moped with spotty breaks but a working headlamp, and midnight. To start, there were two agents, one on a moped, another on foot with the flashlight. Everybody else—there were often five or six of us—would hide somewhere on the property, including in the towering oaks, though there was a rule that you couldn’t stay in a tree for longer than about 10 minutes. The agents would locate and chase down whomever they could, and once caught, that person would become an agent, too, and pursue the remaining fugitives. It would go on this way until there was one person left, who was the winner. A game could take two hours, or longer. Running full speed in pitch dark around a property like Allen’s was part of the dangerous fun. Scratches and scrapes and bruises were usual. I once cracked my shin bone on a chunk of cement perched just behind a groundhog hole I’d stepped into while sprinting away from the moped’s chase. Then I kept playing.

Some nights, my daughter says, “You have a lot of stories.” She asks me if I’ll ever run out, and I tell her that I won’t. She’s amazed, but that’s because she thinks the stories are all coming from me. She doesn’t yet realize that they are coming from her—it is her eyes and her anticipation and her breathless attention that pull the details and patterns and pauses and epiphanies from my memory, which always feels like it is somewhere else, like something I’ve misplaced. She finds it for me.

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