The Ghost House of My Childhood by Alan Lightman

Courtesy of the New York Times | 08.22.15 | Alan Lightman
Katrien De Blauwer
Katrien De Blauwer
THE distant earth bristles with tiny imitations of houses and roads as I slide through the air in the silver ghost, a miracle of science. Now that my second parent has passed away, all things seem strange. Am I awake or asleep? I am flying back to Memphis, the place of my childhood, to settle the last of my father’s affairs and to see one final time the house where we all lived.

I sit at a table at Panera Bread. After lunch, I will get into my rented car and drive out to West Cherry Circle. I was hoping my brothers would join me on this trip to our family home, but they don’t want to see it again. We sold the house months ago.

I look out a window toward Poplar Avenue and remember the diner that once stood across the street, the Ohman House, where my friends and I used to go late at night, after high-school dances and parties, to eat hamburgers smothered with onions, hash brown potatoes and black bottom pie.

It’s time. I get into the rented car. When I last visited the house, two years ago, my father was waiting to greet me. He sat in the den in his wheelchair, wearing a warm sweater even in April and soft bedroom slippers, an open book on his lap.

I turn onto West Cherry Circle, drive past familiar houses. Flowers are blooming, it’s spring. But something is wrong. The house isn’t here. There’s a hole in space where the house used to be. Slowly, I inch up the driveway and park the car. Something is terribly wrong. I feel as if I’m not in my body any longer. My body is a distant, cold moon. There was a two-story house here, with pink brick walls and a porch with white posts and dormer windows. I can see right through the empty air to bushes and trees on the other side. And on the ground where the house was, new grass. Not a single brick or splinter or piece of debris.

Slowly, I get out of my car, a knot forming in my gut, somebody’s gut, and I walk around the patch of grass where the house used to be. The space is too small. I stare at the driveway, follow it with my eyes as it winds down to the street, curves by the towering magnolia around which my brothers and I once chased one another with a gushing garden hose. I stare at the neighboring houses, the fence at the back of the lot, thinking that somehow I’ve made a mistake. The air has a stillness it never had before.

I take a step back, blink. But there is only the silent, dead air. There was a house here. There was a cosmology of lives lived here, meals of fried chicken and mashed potatoes at the wood table in the kitchen, closets of clothes, drawers, homework by the light of the maroon double lamp, cops and robber games with my brothers, my father shaving in the morning, evenings watching TV.

I try to put back the house where it was, the kitchen, the bedrooms, the closets, my father practicing his guitar, my mother dressing in front of her long mirror. I try to will it into solidity. It was here.

Some careless god has cut the ribbon of my life. The 65 years of the past, and the remaining years of my future. The piece that was the past has slipped away into black eternity, or perhaps into nothingness. Until this moment, I was sure that the past was still present, caught in the spaces between things, in photos, in books, in places my body had been. I try to spool back time in my mind. I walk to a spot near a disheveled azalea. Here, in this empty corner of air, I remember waking up with a bad dream and getting into my brother’s bed beside him. Our beds were six feet apart, a desk against the wall, a closet, a white woolly rug on the floor. Here, where I am standing at this moment. And over there, I remember helping my father get the boat paddles out for a trip to the lake. Second floor. A closet with a dangling bulb for light. And there, the mahogany secretary with the leather-bound books, where my mother wrote letters in her back-slanted script. I can see her sitting there at the desk in her bathrobe, twitching her legs nervously under her chair.

I am trying to remember where I came from this morning — another city, another house, my wife, what precisely she said as I packed my small bag. I try to picture her face, her hair, what clothes she was wearing. I try to remember what we ate for dinner last night. Partial images slide through my mind, a scattering of words spoken. Neurobiologists say that memory isn’t the replay of a video camera, but instead a pastiche of neuronal fragments gathered from here and there, wandering smells, oddly cut visual scraps, translucent experiences laid on top of one another. It’s all in the electrical currents and flow of particular molecules. Neurobiologists say that connections between the billions of neurons in a human brain change over time. If so, the universe shifts and shifts and shifts in our minds.

I am remembering wrong. I wish that my brothers were here. I want to see the people who lived in my past, the piece of the ribbon that has slipped away. We could compare testimonies. They lived in this house. But their heads are not mine. They have their own billions of neurons with shifting connections. Some philosophers claim that we know nothing of the external world outside our minds — nothing compared to what sways in our minds, in the long, twisting corridors of memory, the vast mental rooms with half-open doors, the ghosts chattering beneath the chandeliers of imagination.

If there’s a mismatch between what you remember and what you see 10 feet away, which one is real? Chairs. Smells. Brothers. What do you know? How do you prove that the drawer that you opened this morning is the same drawer you closed at night? And the billions of neurons go spinning their tales.

I REMEMBER a moment from when I was 12 years old, as I watched my father get measured for a shirt. His tailor had come out to the house and met him in the middle bedroom downstairs — about 10 feet from where I stand now. My father would have been 41 years old, a slight man with handsome, delicate features. The tailor wrapped his tape measure around my father’s neck and they talked casually as if they were old friends, laughing together. I strained to hear the exact words. I had never seen this tailor before, but he and my father were on such easy terms with each other that it brought a calm over me. A world where a friendly tailor comes out to the house to measure my father for a new shirt is a safe world. I am standing there now. I am standing here now. I am waiting, and listening.

I am imagining it all. Perhaps even myself. Or rather, the sense that I am a self, something other than the massing of atoms and molecules, the tinglings of neurons. From all of those chemical and electrical tremblings, the illusion of consciousness. “Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion,” wrote Emerson. For the moment, my body has left me. Physicists say that time is relative. Here, in this space where there once was a house, time has also dissolved. I’ve been tricked and defeated by time.

A landscaping truck is coming up the driveway. It parks. Two men get out of the truck with shovels, plants, bags of manure. One of them gives me a puzzled look, as if to ask why I’m here, then ignores me and sets about spreading the fertilizer and digging into the soil. Perhaps I am not here. I look at the men and imagine that I can see right through them as I see through the slab of air where the house used to be.

These guys have no conception of what was once here. They go about their business digging and placing the plants, and all they see is an empty lot. Their neurons are different from mine. They have their own cabinets of memories. Perhaps at this moment they are thinking of their own gardens and yards, places they’ve been, girlfriends and wives. I wonder if I’ll remember these two men tomorrow. They are brief, here at this moment. For a couple of days, I might remember them as they seem now, wearing jeans and boots and dark glasses, gloves, one smoking a cigarette. The picture will grow dimmer and dimmer, until it is gone, lost like the house that was here — part of the past that does not exist.

I am back in the restaurant of a few hours ago. It is all here as I remember it. The people typing at their laptops. The blue flames in the gas fireplace. A piece of paper in my pocket says that I am flying away tomorrow. Someone I used to know sits at a table. I think it is him. “David,” I say. Perhaps he does not hear me.

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