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Break for the Tape

by Willie Smith

If you look directly at an object, you see the most detail. But if you look slightly to one side, the most light is gathered. Interference patterns occur when ripples collide — reinforcing one another; mutually cancelling; or something in between, that is, a fugue of ripples, a third voice composed of multiples of both.

High school, used to run with this kid Duncan. I ran the mile, Duncan the half. One afternoon, rainy, jogging laps, we get to talking about hoodwinking parents.

Duncan puffs out his cheeks breathing. He is short, with spindly white legs. His hair and eyebrows jet black. He is the second-best half-miler in the County. Damn sight better than me — only third-best miler in the school. We’re on about the eighth lap of twenty-five. A few other distance runners straggle out behind us. Cinders kicking up. Drizzle dewing our glasses. A more boring practice hard to imagine.

“I got drunk this one time,” Duncan says. “Purple Passion. Had a gallon. Danced all night. Got in a fight. Won. Drove home perfectly. Parked the Buick in the garage straight as you please. It’s four a.m. Lights out. The house a tomb. I let myself in without a hitch. Tiptoe across the living room, through the dinette, down the hall. Get in bed in the dark. Nobody the wiser.”

While orbiting the track, listening to Duncan with half an ear, I am memorizing, for tomorrow’s test, the declension of the Latin noun lux: lucis, luci, lucem, luce...

They say the hippocampus stores short-term memory; running it around a neural tape loop. Runs around enough, imprints on long-term. Why they say you must say a new word and its meaning many times running, before it enters your vocabulary.

It is twenty years ago, Duncan and I jogged that track. Hippocampus Greek for seahorse. Early anatomists, slicing it from the rest of the brain’s jelly, thought it resembled one.

“Everything is fine,” Duncan says. “Even get into my pyjamas. Gallon of Purple Passion sloshing in my belly.

“Can’t recall where I drank it. Fight was under arc lights — McDonald’s parking lot? I dunno, I was smashed. He swung. I ducked. Gutpunched. He doubled over. Screamed. Gasped. I got in my car; passed out; left him on the asphalt whimpering for mom.”

Collapsed like a beached seahorse. Unlike me, swimming up through dreams. Every time I remember this story, comes out different, and I’ve rehearsed it a hundred occasions over the past twenty years. But this time, the memory registers exactly on the edge of a dream.

“So I wake up that morning,” Duncan says, “and I can’t see. Can’t see a thing. I know it’s Sunday, because I hear Mom in the kitchen making early dinner noises. Dad in the den farting over professional bowling. I run out of my bedroom screaming I’m blind, Dad! Help — I’m BLIND!

“I smack into Dad, where he’s on the sofa in front of the tv. I’m in my pyjamas. My elbow accidentally rams his groin. He grunts into action. Dumps me off his lap. Calling me a dumb shit twice before my cheek finishes bouncing off the carpet.

“It’s eleven-thirty. My dad loves to drowse to bowling Sunday mornings. He also happens to be recovering from a hernia operation, due to something happened at the steel mill.”

Am I sinking — a last grain of sand raining through hourglass awareness... a ghost picking itself up around the house, reliving the crunch of 1968 cinders... catching the light... replaying the hippocampus swamped in that shiny word’s inflections?

“The shock,” says Duncan, “of hitting the carpet broke loose my eyelids. I layed there blinking at the ceiling — Dad towering overhead, swearing down at me; rolling up his sleeves, clenching fists.

“Guess I threw up in the night.” We come out of a bend, and he ups the pace, I fall into step. “Hadn’t even noticed. I sleep on my stomach. So the puke dried across my face. Sealed my eyes shut with purple barf.”

Memories never come up the same. Each time we recall something, the event seeps into consciousness through an altered series of sieves and filters. Because new memories are always adding on, old ones re-arranging, the old and the new mutually re-influencing. Such is the nature of time, the nature of life, the nature of nature — there is no avoiding the reordering of order.

I am becoming an abacus, my heart a pebble, the blood strings. I have fallen into a pattern of all the same. Is this the frozen instant?

“Ain’t,” Duncan says, legging ahead into huffing silence, “been allowed out in the Buick since. Take bus to dances. Lug wine home on foot. Stash in hedge out back. Like always.”

But what, oh what is the meaning of light?

Copyright © 2005 by Willie Smith

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