I’m a man “of a certain age”-curious phrase, meaningless on the face of it, yet resonant. And the resonances are almost all bad. Aches and pains and forgetfulness and failing vision. Yesterday even with bifocals I couldn’t read the fine print on a bottle of Glucosamine. I dug through the utility drawer until I found a magnifying glass, cheap thing, plastic handle, aluminum band circumscribing a plastic disk. And then something strange: in reaching for it, my hand, without my conscious acquiescence, formed itself to receive a different magnifying glass altogether. I felt it before I saw it in my mind’s eye: a beauty, glass disk in a tortoise-shell rim affixed with a brass rivet to a leather pouch, which the glass slipped easily into and out of with a flick of the wrist. In memory the glass is large and heavy, covering the palm of my hand. Of course I was just a young boy then, wielding the magnificent glass to torment ants and burn holes in autumn leaves, or, pretending I was a detective, ferreting out clues invisible to the naked eye. I took it to the park one day when I was, oh, seven or eight, and didn’t come home with it. I still feel its loss.
How much I have lost over the course of my life! I wonder, do the losses form me, make me what I am every bit as much as what I have retained? Yes, yes, the losses have eaten away at me like a dull chisel on stone. I am what’s left, not smooth and polished but pitted, fissured. Losing my current cheap dime-store magnifier-easily replaced, easily forgotten-would trouble me not at all, but I carry the loss of my leather-pouched glass like a small scar, not fatal, no grand tragedy, but it’s there, it has marked me.
Some of the scars run deeper; some I have conspired in. A cool, clear October night, a high school football game. I am six or seven, son of the school superintendent, little cock of the walk. Halftime, I strut over to my mother, best friend Jerry at my heel. I demand money for a snack, enough money for me and Jerry, too. My obliging mother counts out ten nickels from her coin purse, lays them across my palm. I can feel my hand close around the cylinder of nickel, feel the heft of them. Then, with a gesture of contempt and the arrogance of the baby of the family and the only boy, I fling them backward over my shoulder. “Naw, I want more than that!” The look on my mother’s face: anger and hurt and disappointment. Then she snaps her coin purse shut. “You can have as much money as you can find in that grass behind you, not one cent more.” How long did she remember the incident? Not long, I suspect (I would always be the fair-haired boy), but I never fully recovered from the disappointment in myself. Of the ten nickels, Jerry and I found six. I lost four, lost self-respect, and to this day count ingratitude among mankind’s great sins.
Forever losing things as a child–hats, gloves, coats, on and on–I was the absent-minded professor of the grammar-school set. I especially remember two incidents involving coats, both lost in the space of a few months. The first one was a real humdinger. I can’t pretend that I recall exactly what it looked like, but I do remember that I loved it, so it must have been black because black was that little proto-Goth’s favorite color, and I must have felt that I looked “tough” in it because I was one bad-ass dude, or at least thought that I was. But one day I came home from school, and my mother said, “Where’s your coat?” and I had not the foggiest. I’d had it when I left school, I was pretty sure, but I stopped on the way home to play with friends, and
. . . that’s it. Not a clue. Never saw the coat again.
My mother was furious. She couldn’t make me go all winter without a coat, of course, but she had her revenge. She bought me a coat that I loathed, loathed myself in it. It had a hood covered with some sort of fake fur. I thought it made me look like a girl with long hair. I refused to wear that hood up no matter what the weather and in fact looked for any excuse not to wear the coat at all. For most of one winter I fought that coat, and then the solution came to me: if I could lose one coat, why not two? I stuffed the contemptible coat into a trash container outside the ice plant on Main Street, then went home and reported it “lost.” No doubt I caught hell, but I don’t remember, don’t remember what coat replaced the hideous hooded thing. I do know this: I never felt an instant’s guilt or regret. I would embrace mendacity rather than suffer the slightest blow to my tender vanity. Have I outgrown that? Or was the child father to the man? Today my closet bulges with coats. None has a furry hood.
Coats, hats, gloves, books, pens I have lost in abundance, but over the years I’ve probably lost more knives than any other single item.
I’ve carried a pocket knife for as long as I can remember. I use them to cut coupons, open shrink-wrapped packages, cut the tape on Christmas and birthday presents. Mostly, though, they sit in my pocket making an unsightly bulge, eventually wearing a hole through which they’ll make their escape, never to be seen again. I probably average a new knife every two years. Why do I bother when my need for them is so slight? Some vestige of the warrior mentality, I suppose. I go into the world armed. I’m nobody to fool with, Bub.
Which brings me to one of my great losses: my “Bowie knife,” I think of it, purchased for me by my parents in Juarez, Mexico, when I was a boy. The blade was at least six inches long, the handle steel with bone inserts, steel eagle’s head on the end. What on earth were my parents thinking, letting me loose on the world with a weapon like that? I can’t answer that except to repeat that I was just a tad spoiled. What I know for sure is that one day my Bowie knife was nowhere to be found. I don’t know how long it was before I saw it again-on the belt of my friend Larry Monaghan’s older brother. I can still see him on their narrow front porch, one hip hiked up on the railing, arms crossed, staring down at me insolently, challengingly. The knife-my knife-dangled down from his belt in its tooled leather scabbard. I could easily have made a grab for it. But I didn’t. Larry was a tough little nut; all the Monaghans were tough. His older brother? He would have massacred me, I know that. Still, my notion of manhood required some action, yet I did nothing, said nothing, swallowed my pride and walked away with him in possession of the field and the knife, unchallenged.
When I teach The Iliad in my World Literature classes, I talk about how the Greek warrior’s concept of self was inextricable from what he possessed, and to lose something was to feel himself reduced. Hence the desperate need to get an equivalent to make up for a loss, and hence Achilles’ irrational anger at the loss of his Briseis in Book I of the poem. So too with me and my knife. Had I charged up on that porch and taken my beating, I wouldn’t have come away with my knife, I’m sure, but I would have come away with an equivalent: scars I could wear like battle ribbons. Proud flesh. I might have lost, but I would have had the consolation of knowing I fought the good fight. But I didn’t fight the good fight, or any other.
I’m bemused by the loss of two other knives. I was a wee lad living in tiny Appleton City, Missouri. I’d helped myself to two knives from the utility drawer in the kitchen. One was a frail thing made of what looked like sheet metal with a rounded end and no cutting edge. (I’ve since learned it was used to spread icing.) The other was stainless steel with a wooden handle, a dullish edge and blunt end. (Used to cut cakes? I don’t know.) I took them out to the wide, deep, weedy ditch in front of our house, site of many a glorious battle against Indians, Germans, Japs, villainous hordes of all sorts. At a certain point I come up out of the ditch sans knives. Their loss is discovered by my mother. Back out to the ditch we go, my ear clutched between her thumb and forefinger. We search the ditch. Don’t find the knives. My father gets home. We search and search that ditch. Zilch. OK, so two knives lost, big deal. Here’s the kicker. Years later we move to the big city of Sedalia, Missouri (where, anon, the Bowie knife debacle would transpire). We’d make periodic trips back to Appleton City to visit old friends. On one such I go off with my old pal Jerry to see what trouble we can get into. We pass my old home. Go down into the ditch. Bingo! There are the knives.
It may have been as close as an eight-year-old can come to a Proustian moment. Or, if those knives weren’t my madeleine, perhaps they were more like the hrönir in Borges’ “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius,” objects from another world, another time, at once charged with familiarity and strangeness. They were almost totemic for me in ways that I couldn’t then understand, don’t now. But ain’t it funny how time slips away?
A coda to the Tale of the Two Knives: I’ve lost them again. My mother appropriated them-they were hers, after all-and stuck them in our utility drawer in Sedalia. There they stayed for almost fifty years until she lay dying in a nursing home, and, one rainy fall day, I and my sisters watched every single thing she owned pass into the hands of strangers at an estate sale. I think the knives must have been in a box of miscellaneous items that went for, oh, probably two bucks. They’re still out there, no doubt, those knives. But I doubt I’ll ever see them again. Good thing. I’m not sure I could bear it.
My youthful losses mounted. I lost my Louisville Slugger Junior baseball bat, a pair of galoshes, my father’s fountain pen. Lost a pack of baseball cards before I could even open it and press my nose to the gum. I just knew there was a Mickey Mantle card in it. I lost . . . Oh well, you get the idea. They’d all happen in the same way: there’d be a moment of inattention during which I’d forget not simply that the item was mine but that it ever existed. To punish my existential lapse, when I finally remembered the item it would no longer be where I last saw it. It would exist now and forever more in a world I was no longer privy to.
With maturity such lapses would no longer plague me. Ha. I jest. There exists a whole parallel universe, invisible to me, comprised of things I have lost. Yet more hats and gloves and belts and knives, books and contact lens, combs by the dozen, the odd bag of groceries purchased and then . . . who knows? Where are my good navy-blue slacks, not that old, the ones that fit just perfectly around the waist?
Some losses are wished for and, in some cases, long overdue. Before I lost my virginity, I’d begun to suspect that sex was a myth invented to torture shy males. The morning after I lost my virginity, I remember walking down the street a changed person, a full-fledged member of the club now, in good standing. I wonder, do women feel the same after their “loss”? I doubt it.
Some losses, even though of brief duration, are as painful as a brief stabbing. The first winter after we were married, I lost my wedding ring in the snow. We found it, miraculously, after a search of only a minute or two of exquisite pain. I briefly lost my son at a carnival ride where, I did not realize, the children exited the side opposite the entrance. I found him running through the crowd, his arms out like a blind man running through a forest, the look on his face, oh, that look, that look. When my daughter was only two or three I dreamed that I lost her on a supermarket parking lot. She had been seen taken into a car by a strange man. In my dream I looked out over the city, knowing that my angel could be anywhere, just anywhere, and there was nothing I could do. Few losses I’ve suffered have been more terrible than that dream of loss.
I lost my father when I was nineteen, my mother when I was fifty-four, my older sister three weeks ago. I have lost all my grandparents, all aunts and uncles save one. Each Sunday our local newspaper profiles someone prominent in the community. Among other questions, they ask the person so favored, Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner? I’m always amazed when they say Shakespeare, Jesus, Lincoln, and the like. What could these people be thinking? For my fantasy dinner I’d invite only those I’ve loved, and lost. At my age, it would have to be a fantasy banquet.
But you knew all along I was heading there, didn’t you: to people I have lost? You knew all along that would be the ultimate catastrophe. Not so.
If you’re not a person “of a certain age,” you probably can’t understand: walking out into the shopping center parking lot and having no earthly idea where you parked your car; hemming and hawing and gesturing because the name of that thing with tines that you shovel food into your mouth with will just not come to you; filling out a form and for a terrifying moment not being able to remember the telephone number you’ve had for thirty years. Is this the onset? Is this where it starts? Alzheimer’s.
An even greater fear than the loss of loved ones is, I think, the loss of memory. A man can bear a lot, bear more than he ever imagined he could bear. As much as it still hurts-the loss of parents and sister-I’m still here, I’m bearing up. But to lose the memory of them? I can still see my father’s splay-footed walk, feel my mother running her fingers over my back to lull little me to sleep, hear my sister’s choking laughter. Could a man bear to lose that? I’d rather lose my life.
But it’s happening even now. Surely, surely, it’s been happening all my life: not just losing a thing but losing the memory of ever having had it. How much of the world-things and people and experiences of joy and laughter and passion-was once mine but now is not simply lost but every vestige obliterated by the failure of memory?
Our lives are made up of instants of time no sooner experienced than gone forever. Memory, that faulty, ephemeral record of loss, is damn poor consolation. I grow old, shuffling painfully along through the dwindling years, back bowed under the weight of all I have lost.
I need a cane.
I had a cane once, cheap thing, unpainted wood. I bought it when I was a boy of sixteen working for the carnival-Gooding’s Million Dollar Midway! I used the cane to wave pretty girls over to the Tilt-a-Whirl where I took tickets. On the wooden walkway surrounding the lurching cars, oh, how I strutted with that cane. I danced with that cane to the delight and amazement of all. I conducted grand music with that cane, the music of the spheres of those hot August night skies of the Missouri prairie. But then I lost the cane. I lost the hot starry nights and the pretty young girls. I have lost the dancing boy.
Dennis Vannatta has published stories and essays in many magazines and anthologies, including BOULEVARD, ANTIOCH REVIEW, and PUSHCART XV, and three collections: THIS TIME, THIS PLACE and PRAYERS FOR THE DEAD, both by White Pine Press, and LIVES OF THE ARTISTS by Livingston Press.