One by one they’d disappeared. Whether it was distance or death, people had been whisked out of Karl’s life faster than he’d been able to replace them. He’d noticed the phenomenon happening in his 40s – a person would pop into his head and he’d realize he hadn’t spoken to them for them for a long time – but back then, the attrition seemed unavoidable. When he and Louise took jobs at Montana State, the Indianapolis people started falling away. When he got the job at Gonzaga, the Bozeman contacts became scarcer. You can’t keep in touch with everyone. Now at 77, the pace had accelerated, and what worried Karl most was how they weren’t just disappearing from his life, but from his memory. Sometimes a name would rise into his consciousness and it felt like seeing a ghost.
He came to think of it the way one thinks about climate. The weather of any particular year is just the weather that year, a hot summer is just a hot summer. It’s only when you track it over years that you see the trends, the shifts in the climate that rule out anomalies. But he couldn’t track the people who were slipping away. Some came to mind – buddies from the war whose names he couldn’t forget, a few of his band members from his rockabilly days, a couple of women he wished were still around after Louise passed – but the others, those who weren’t tethered tightly to a memory, vanished unnoticed. How could he track those migrations? Making a list of everyone he’d forgotten would only result in a blank list.
Seventy-seven was a strange number. It would have seemed “old” at any other time of his life, but now that he was there, it didn’t. Like the climate, it had come on gradually, imperceptibly, until one day he was older than his parents had ever been. Older than Louise ever got to be. Old enough that his neighbors on East Glass Avenue might be wondering when the old man at 1811 would put his house on the market and move to one of those “communities” where he could play canasta with people his own age. If they’d asked when, he’d have told them, never. He pictured some excited young man in a suit pitching the place, itemizing the amenities, raving about the group activities, the whole time failing to mention the turnover rate. Karl imagined that every morning he’d need to find a new fourth for cards, until eventually it would be his chair that needed to be filled.
He didn’t feel old, and he definitely didn’t feel done, but he didn’t have anything to do. Twelve years since retirement, nine since losing Louise, so many trips to the library that the young clerk joked that they were going to have to order new books because Karl would soon have read them all.
This same clerk later planted a strange seed in Karl’s mind. As he ran three books over the scanner, he remarked that the information in all of these books must make for tight quarters in his brain. Wouldn’t he eventually run out of space to add more? Karl laughed, but the seed sprouted as he walked home – he felt like he’d spent more time reading history than history had taken to unfold, and while he did it to keep his brain busy, maybe what it was busy doing was discarding the old data so it had room for the new. Maybe he was the one making people disappear from his memory. He decided that making a list wasn’t a futile idea after all. He detoured to Grocery Boys and purchased a three-pack of legal pads and decided on a plan: every morning for 30 days, while he had his toast and Postum, he would think about one specific moment in his life and write down anyone he could remember.
The first day he picked an easy one – the day he met Louise at the Butler University. While the moment had only involved the two of them, he quickly recalled two friends he’d met when he picked Louise up for their first official date. Her roommates Claire Stevens and Vivian someone, sat on the sofa and asked questions like suspicious parents. He remembered Claire had a boyfriend, David, who hated being called Dave. He wrote the name down: David, not Dave. Every little memory seemed to trigger more, and while he worried that he wasn’t focusing on the one particular moment, he didn’t dare save a name for later. He couldn’t be sure it would ever come back again. That first day, he filled two columns halfway down the sheet.
The next day, he thought about his high school basketball team and recalled six players, plus eight cheerleaders. Louise would have ribbed him about that ratio. The tangents that came to mind that day supplied 14 other friends from high school. Another day, he thought about First Base, the sports bar he went to after class most Thursdays in his last year at Butler. He remembered six colleagues and Jack the bartender, though even then, Karl wondered if his name was really Jack. He thought of the seminar in Orlando he’d attended with several Butler colleagues, playing hooky on the final day so they could ride Space Mountain. He thought of the office at Montana State he shared with Charlie Spender, a guy who whistled the X-Files theme so often it was still stuck in Karl’s head after he moved to Spokane, and Eugene Polk, a smart cookie with a big beard and the giggle of a six-year-old.
To keep all the lists straight, he’d taken down the two watercolors in the living room and imagined a map of the United States covering the wall. Then he tacked each sheet to the location of the memory on the invisible map. By the end of the 30 days, the wall was plastered with yellow-lined pages, an external memory bank that gave him more satisfaction than the two painted chickadees ever had. Maybe it wasn’t the same as having all those people back in his life, but it felt like he’d plugged a few of the holes in his memory where the people had been leaking out.
Tomorrow, he’d get a stack of postcards and start filling his life back up.
© 2016 WPReagan. This is one story in the 2016 series, Everyday Stories: 30 Tales in 30 Days Inspired by 30 Stranger’s Photographs.