by Charles C. Cole
My middle-aged sister Adeline was surfing the Internet for New Age answers to relationship questions when she discovered a site organized according to states. “Reincarnated souls” of the recently deceased listed intriguing details about their past lives, in hopes of making contact with living relatives and validating their secondhand memories.
Per Adeline’s e-mailed instructions, I checked out a case from Maine. The arcane factoids — National staff of the Boy Scouts, edible plants expert, Donelap’s Disease — sounded enough like my father that I was curious. The “living vessel,” a teen-aged boy, lived less than thirty miles away. What harm could there be in meeting him?
I told my wife.
“How will you know he’s your reincarnated father?” she asked. “Will he look like him?”
“Of course not. He just shares his memories.”
“Maybe somebody told him things,” she warned.
“My father’s been dead for ten years. If he ever told him anything, the kid would have been eight years old because he’s only eighteen now.”
“What did your father do: transmigrate after the boy’s birth? Is that even possible?”
“I don’t understand that part. The way Adeline explained it, some people are born blank slates: perfect hosts but unoccupied for a time. Then someone on the other side is drawn to them.”
“Don’t take a lot of cash with you,” she said.
“Why would I need cash?”
“You wouldn’t. I’m just saying: Be careful.”
* * *
We met at the Miss Portland Diner, off Route 295. I was immediately struck by how young he was.
“Mr. Cole,” he said, shaking my hand. I felt like I was interviewing a babysitter or qualifying a prom date for one of my twin teen-aged daughters. “I’ve taken the liberty of ordering your coffee. Cream and sugar, right?”
“Right,” I said.
“And apple pie, but no ice cream, because it’s your favorite birthday treat.”
“I should warn you: I don’t remember everything. It comes in bursts. Sometimes I’ll hear a song or a name and think, ‘That was from the trip Lena and I took to Italy.’ Only I’ve never been to Italy, and I don’t know any Lena.
“Sometimes I remember a lot about certain events and sometimes I just get trivia. I carried a notebook for a while, to write things down, but then nothing would happen for days, so I stopped.”
“Do you remember my siblings?” I asked. “They’ll want to know.”
“I know you have three sisters and a brother, but those are details anyone can find on the Internet. I can tell you how you helped me build a house back in the seventies. Somebody from New Zealand visited. Your mother was there, but I don’t honestly recall her. That’s weird, remembering more about you than her. You’d think as my life partner, she’d be more vivid in my memory.”
“He was mad at her towards the end.”
“I remember us canoeing upriver to a Scout camp where the water was so shallow and fast we had to tie ropes to the canoe and walk on shore, pulling it. I remember meeting Norman Rockwell. Was he a family friend?”
“The official painter to the Boy Scouts?” I asked. “Not a friend, but you met him. He hung out at camp one summer. We’ve got an autographed picture of you two.”
“I bet him a steak dinner that he couldn’t paint left-handed, and I lost.”
“I don’t remember,” I said.
“It was at Shift.”
“Schiff,” I corrected him. “That was the name of the camp.”
“The painting was called ‘Get it while it’s hot.’ That much I know.”
“We have a reprint of that in our dining room,” I said.
“I’m not supposed to ask life details — I don’t want you to think I’m data mining — but was I one of the good guys?”
“I know I didn’t swear or drink.”
“At least not in front of me.”
“I didn’t live to meet my grandkids,” he said.
“Almost, but life had other plans.”
“Do you think I could stop by some day?” he asked. “Unless you have pictures on you. I thought maybe that’s why he’s hanging around. You know: unfinished business.”
“I don’t have pictures on me — it didn’t occur to me — but I can’t see anything wrong with your stopping by.”
“But your wife’s a doubter,” he said. “I heard the tone when I called.”
“We’ll send her grocery shopping when you visit,” I offered. “It’s no big deal.”
We kept our visit short due, in part, to the weirdness factor. And we set up a date. I gave him my address and went home to dig up photos, hoping he might reveal details from Dad’s childhood and his time in the Merchant Marines, back before I was born.
* * *
Not long after, the police were cruising our neighborhood and observed my new friend breaking into our house. He was caught with the Rockwell picture in his trunk. He was sitting in the patrol car when I got home. After I answered a few questions, the officer let me approach him.
“Why?” I asked the kid.
“Because that Rockwell is an original, not a print, and it’s the only one he ever painted with his left hand. It’s worth a lot. Guess you didn’t know.”
“Where did you get all those details?” I asked.
“My mother was an administrator at the hospital where your dad spent his last couple of weeks. The bus would drop me there, and I’d hang out until her shift ended. Your dad took to me. He taught me chess and cribbage, and he’d talk at length about everything he’d done and accomplished. I had no idea that it would turn out to be useful.
“My mom always said I had a mind like a steel trap. When I heard about the recent Rockwell touring exhibit, I knew my ship had come in. Nothing personal.” He shrugged. “For what it’s worth,” he said, “I think your dad had a good life.”
Copyright © 2014 by Charles C. Cole