Fixed Points in the Universe By Ashley Bethard
This is her memory (hers, not mine; we are not the same):
The cold is a smell; the smell, a particular memory – one that has stuck with me for years, long after I convinced myself I had no use for it.
“The Shop,” as we called it, was an old garage-style building, large enough to house a small business. The bottom half consisted of cinder blocks painted a shade of putrid moss, the upper a thick siding the color of deep forest. It blended almost seamlessly with the surrounding woods – you could barely make out its shape until you were close, where it looked as if it had suddenly sprung forth from the wild tangle of foliage and trunk.
It was where my father kept most of his tools, toys, and other equipment. It was a boneyard filled with various pieces of machinery and rusted frames, a hoarder’s heaven with treasure filling all corners of the yard, spilling out of the building and into the stone pathway leading to the door. There, he kept several old cars he was fond of, hardly any of them running. On a good day, he could turn the key in one of them – maybe the old VW Beetle or the ancient, beat-up pickup truck – and it would rumble and grunt and gasp as my brother and I stood watching, wide-eyed, wondering if maybe, just maybe, its spark of life would reignite, and we’d have a new toy to play with that day. We learned to appreciate the feeling of almost getting lucky, of speculating on what it would have meant for us, and imagining the adventures we would have had.
The Shop was my father’s playground, perhaps his idea of wealth. Or maybe he felt like a king as he carefully made the turn off of Old Baltimore Pike into the stony, pebbled driveway – two worn strips of earth carved from his very own tires – and pulled up to the 15-foot high gates, crowned with lacy barbed wire and padlocked shut. Perhaps it made him delirious with happiness when he heard the “click” of the lock releasing, the gentle creaking as he pushed it open, the soft, trembling metallic sound as it swayed back and forth before finally resting against an old maple. But it wasn’t his home. No, it was more of a kingdom, his kingdom – a place to keep his things separate from everyone else, to keep his prizes and collections out in the open, on display for himself.
“Pack-ratting” sounds selfish. Some call it “collecting.” But collecting – collecting doesn’t seem right. Collecting suggests something of choice, the conscious selection of an object to add to an already-appreciated group. It brings to mind deliberation, a distinct weighing of the thing’s value, either sentimental or fiscal, before claiming it, deeming it worthy. His objects do not seem worthy of this distinction – there are too many of them, and they are not aesthetically shelved, on display for all to admire.
No, his intentions were not that of a collector, a connoisseur of lost treasures. His seemed thoughtless, verging on a gasping need to fill – what? I do not know. His collecting was hungry, greedy, self-serving in all senses.
Some view it as a disease. There is certainly something obsessive-compulsive about it, this never ending need for “things,” the need to amass, the need to stockpile. But maybe it’s preservation. And in another sense, overcompensation.
But regardless of what it may be, I do not condemn my father for this behavior. As children, Andrew and I derived hours of endless enjoyment from these objects, and so we learned to appreciate, even cherish his impulsivity, knowing that most kids our age didn’t have access to such a wide array of toys and diversions. Of course, my father didn’t know it, didn’t recognize what he was giving us. But he gave us something.
Inside was where the real treasures, the ones we were most fascinated by, were meticulously stowed away. There were all sorts of them hidden in torn, musty cardboard boxes, placed high on shelves, tucked into corners – a hodge-podge of tattered black and white or sepia photographs with rough edges; broken jewelry with heavy, gleaming gold pendants; thick glass paperweights with the profile of a bronzed horse’s head etched against a royal blue background so shimmering and rich it looked like velvet; yellowed papers so thin they were nearly sheer, their faint markings like whispers, spelling out land dimensions or sales; sometimes a romantic note with a heavy, deliberate flourish of curving cursive in deep blue ink – but they were someone else’s memories.
My father was good at buying other people’s memories. He moved quickly, never hesitating, purchasing pallets of them in bulk, stacked high with boxes at auctions and estate sales. His face lit up with the thrill of a prospective chase, his eyes latching on the item in question as he pulled out his handkerchief (always white, always in the right back pocket) to wipe the sweat from his forehead as his mind began calculating, assessing its potential worth, the value it might add to his collection. He made these decisions with sure swiftness, often with less than twenty seconds of deliberation. There were no consultations with others. My father was a man who trusted his own instincts. When he saw something he wanted, he’d shove the handkerchief into its rightful place and hurry towards it, his long legs carrying him, his tall, broad frame about a head above everyone else, even as the rest of him disappeared into the crowd.
My mother never understood this way of thinking, and would roll her eyes at what she called his quest for the perfect heap of “junk.” She didn’t understand, as we did, that there was a chance that we might find something worthwhile amidst someone’s long-forgotten, left-behind belongings, their fragments of a former self, fossils of a past life. What I didn’t understand was why anyone would allow their personal mementos – no matter how old or broken – to be sold by a loud, crude man shouting numbers obnoxiously in every direction, to be purchased by someone they didn’t know, wouldn’t ever know.
Looking through these memory boxes, I always wondered about the people who once owned them. Andrew and I would spend hours concocting stories, devising plots and solving mysteries, convincing ourselves that everything about this unknown person could be discovered through the contents – if we paid close enough attention. Perhaps it was these situations that led me to understand, even at a young age, that my life was not the only one in the world. People had lives, past lives, that they just didn’t talk about as they got older. There were shades of a person, degrees of depth and change, and what I saw of someone at any given moment couldn’t offer me the stories and secrets of his past. Instead, those lives were eventually boxed up, shoved away, stuffed in cloistered attics to smother and suffocate until somehow, some way, they ended up in my hands.
The past. It seemed alive and well in that place, where we were confronted with the characteristics of age, items attesting to the inevitability of decay everywhere we turned. But age wasn’t a bad thing. It didn’t mean death. It meant a history. That’s what we heard, my brother and I, as we walked past rusted meter maids with missing doors that had somehow mutated, joining forces to become a sort of mind-boggling hybrid with the earth, all of it dust and rust and malleable material, a handful of silt sliding through our fingers. We passed stacks of hardened rubber tires that had turned shiny; past our knotted swinging rope dangling from the tree, so thick it was nearly twice the width of my wrist, and it all sounded the same, a chorus of enticing whispers that beckoned – story, story, story.
Out front, my dead uncle’s cream Pinto was one of the first things to greet us as we reached the gate. It had always been, as long as I could remember, unchanged — the bright silvery metal handles dotted with flecks of rust like age spots on my grandmother’s arm, clumps of matted leaves trapped beneath the windshield wipers that had been there so long they left a greasy black residue of soot, a faded decal of The Roadrunner in the window. We have photos of my uncle eating cake with us on my brother’s fifth or sixth birthday, a small smile creeping across his wide, pleasant face as he held his fork. But when I think of him, I don’t think of him eating cake with us, or playing cards at a kitchen table late into the night. I think of that car, a solid boulder in the landscape of my childhood, a fixed point in my own universe.
Near the Pinto there was a military-issued Dodge truck painted a chalky reddish-brown, taller and wider than any I’d ever seen, serving as a jungle gym for my brother and me. I asked my dad several times how and why he’d gotten it, and he’d always told the same story: it was a gift to my mother years ago, before they had children, before they had gotten married. I was puzzled by that – I had no idea what my mother could possibly want with a huge truck that, to my knowledge, she couldn’t drive, so I asked her one day – a day when I was still a child, long before we moved to Ohio and I learned about the affair and that woman, long before I loved a man named Bryan who didn’t – couldn’t – love me back.
To my surprise, she confirmed the story. And according to her, she had driven the truck. But it wasn’t until years later that I realized she could have had no interest in it whatsoever. No doubt my father’s generous “gift” was an impulsive auction splurge, one bestowed on her to alleviate some of the potential backlash he may have received for purchasing such an unnecessary item in the first place. It was a gift to himself, really, shoddily disguised by offering it to my mother.
But let me return to the cold, to The Shop. It tempered some of our adventures, shortening them with the need to run inside and heat our hands by the woodstove as we sipped instant hot chocolate from Styrofoam cups, but for the most part it was another adventure unto itself. In the winters, The Shop took on a new persona, a sleepier one, one that kept memories safe and the past intact beneath blankets of snow. But other than that, it’s difficult to remember the cold, because the majority of my childhood memories are rooted in warmth.
I am six or seven, old enough to know that touching a woodstove whose door is glowing a bright, liquid orange around its edges will be hot. I know this. Don’t I? But I reach my ungloved hand forward (ungloved? Why was it ungloved? I must have taken it off once I had gotten inside the shop, away from the icy wind) and placed it – bare, naked – on the stove.
My father and my cousin Ross were in the middle of the building, the center of my father’s world, oblivious to everything else. There were no actual “floors” with stairs to reach them. Instead, there were levels. The middle of the building was open, but the edges were lined with a thick, sturdy shelving system. There were iron bars mounted along the walls, secured with bolts half the size of my fists. On top of that, there were shelves made of a material thick enough to hold the piles of crates, boxes, and other weighty items that littered them. To look up from the first floor, in the center of the building where there was a small opening, was something like Alice in Wonderland falling down through the rabbit hole: a jumble of items, some curious, some scary, adorning the walls, the shelves.
Here’s where the memory falls short: I assume that my father and Ross were in the middle of the building. Rather, that Ross was in the middle of the building – the only place on the ground floor clear enough to stand – waiting for my father, who had disappeared into his piles of dusty toys, scurrying one way and the next like a weasel. He often sifted through these piles of boxes stuffed to the brim, looking for one particular object or another to complete a project – a certain tool to tinker with the engine of his old, pale green VW Bug that was usually covered in tarp, maybe a chain to attach to the rusty old hook hanging from the ceiling, a wrench for tightening or loosening bolts.
I was fascinated with the way he seemed to know exactly where everything was. It was as if he’d mapped it out in his mind, memorized it, knew how many paces it took to get from the doorway to the old Avon box overflowing with old Christmas ornaments, how many shuffles to get to the cartons of random car parts. I looked at the room and saw only the overwhelming clutter and disorganization; he took one glance and saw everything in its rightful place.
I screamed, a little-girl scream, but mighty nonetheless, the sound echoing in the tall building, bouncing off the high walls and ceiling. It was a piercing, metallic sound that would stop any adult in his tracks, thrusting pulses of fear and panic into his gut.
To a parent, there can be no worse sound than the shriek of a child. Especially, as was my case, an invisible one: I was hidden from view, as the woodstove was tucked away into the makeshift front room next to the main entrance, partitioned off with a wooden frame hastily constructed with 2x4s, a skeleton whose narrow beams were filled with coffee cans full of nails.
Yes, this is most likely what happened: Ross was standing alone in the middle, completely out of place, hands in pockets, glancing up at the metal rafters and worrying about the possibility of bats while my father was weaving through piles and aisles of what my mother called “junk.” This, I say, must be true, because it was Ross who reached me first, after the scream.
He rushed over, saw me, my hand still outstretched, my face shiny and moist with tears and snot. He knelt down in front of me, asking if I was okay, grabbing my wrist, attempting to turn my hand over so he could see the damage done.
I can imagine his confusion and terror when I began to scream louder and louder, yanking my hand away as if his touch was as equally scorching as the stove.
I could chalk it up to childlike embarrassment—I didn’t want him or anyone else to see me that way, crying and hurt—all the while feeling stupid for reaching out to touch the stove in the first place, a stove I knew would be hot.
But the truth of the matter was this: I wanted my father.
DADDY! DADDY! I WANT MY DADDY! I screamed.
Not knowing what to do, Ross turned to look for him. But my father was already rushing around the corner.
He knelt down in front of me, slowly turning my hand over. I can remember what he was wearing as he inspected my palm: blue jeans and a thermal, a black and red checkered button-down flannel, a black winter hat. I smelled the smoke that lingered in his clothing from setting the fire in the stove, the thick leather of his work gloves, the slight scent of sweat as he began to perspire beneath all of those layers.
But here is what I don’t remember: what my hand looked like. It makes sense that after touching the stove, I’d be immediately concerned with the damage and, like any child, look down in fear to see what I had done to myself. But I don’t remember glancing down. I don’t have any scars or telltale signs of injury on my palm. I don’t remember if there was an ugly, raw impression made by the hot iron, if there was a red, weeping wound that impeded my movement for weeks.
What I do remember is this: my breathing started its descent, its gradual return to normal, the moment my father was in front of me. My heart rate slowed, the screaming stopped, and a feeling of fullness began to settle in, to creep over me – that stuffy, somewhat satisfied fatigue I feel after I’ve had a good cry and know there aren’t any tears left inside me. My chest feels hollow; my head feels heavy, as if it’s stuffed with weighted cotton and steel wool. There it is: the overwhelming sense of exhaustion coupled with sheer relief.
That was a memory from another time. Its keeper, another girl.
How strange it is, looking at it now, a fixed point in my universe that I see in the distance, but can’t reach – the path has been destroyed, the link, broken. And that girl stands on the other side of the chasm – I know her, but she doesn’t know me.
I feel pity for her. And envy.
I pity: that she did not understand, or could have begun to fathom, the crimes that her father would commit against her, her mother, her brother – their family. I envy: her bright eyes, her trusting manner, her truth that her father would be there to run around another corner when he heard her scream. I pity: that she didn’t know that someday, she’d scream – only to find that he was not there. I envy: that the woman I am today, who I am now, sitting upstairs from him as I write this, cannot, ever again, see her father as the little girl did.
She didn’t know the truth of the stove at the time – how a small, simple gesture would turn into a guiding principle, a truth she lived by without understanding it.
This is my hand on the stove. I am writing to understand it.
Ashley Bethard is an editor, writer and nerd with no hidden talents. She’s obsessed with cheese, argyle socks, her two dachshunds, Joan Didion, and beatnik culture. She blogs at ashleybethard.tumblr.com and sporadically celebrates Didion’s genius at dailydidion.tumblr.com. On a more professional note, she has an MFA in Creative Writing from Ashland University and a BA in English, Creative Writing and Applied Writing.