The Persistence of False Memory

I just finished having lunch with my childhood best friend, Jonas. The meal was great, and the conversation was even better.  We discussed end-of-life issues, politics and beards. On this last, I have great envy of Jonas, who grew his first facial hair in, I think, fifth grade, and definitely had a fuller beard when we were in high school than I do today. On the other hand, I have more hair on top of my head than Jonas does, so I suspect the jealousy goes both ways. Jonas and I get together every month or two, and we’re both glad to be in each other’s lives. I love him very much, but . . . Jonas remembers some things differently than I do, and I secretly fear he is correct. In other words, before I remember some parts of my childhood, I need to check with Jonas to make sure I’m not full of beans.

Today, I happened to mention our second-grade class, taught by Mrs. Fullam, and that I was just writing something about it. Jonas wanted to know more, so I told him I thought we’d had a class newspaper—I’d written the 500 or so words below based on my memory, although I didn’t mention this to Jonas.

“You mean ‘The Mouth of the Eagle’?” he said. “I think Janet Larson started that. I know she drew the eagle. John Dunn wrote a story on the invasion of Czechoslovakia for it. I may have a copy of it.”

As I said, I love Jonas, but who the hell remembers those kinds of details. Even worse, Jonas, like me, is turning 60 this year—what’s he doing with a copy of our second-grade class paper? I don’t have anything I’ve ever written, and he’s got a more than 50-year-old paper? Not only that, in my memory, odd though it may sound, the newspaper was designed to get me to stop interrupting the class. Unless Charlotte Fullam used a copy of it to train me like a puppy, it appears my hazy rememberies are more fog than memory. Not wanting to waste the time I’d put into recording a fantasy, I reproduce it below, abandoned mid-sentence. I’d call my sister to check other memories of mine, but I’ll first need to check with Jonas to make sure I’ve got her name right.


I am a terrible craftsman/draftsman with an artistic soul, or so I like to tell myself.  The first phrase of that last sentence is undoubtedly true:  I am unable to reproduce reality using pen, paintbrush, pencil or crayon.  Unless I take as validation comments like, “That reminds me of a mountain range” or “That makes me think of a beach” or “That’s kind of like a dog, if dogs had five legs,” nothing I’ve ever created with my hands has ever looked like the object by which it was inspired.

My second-grade teacher was the sainted Charlotte Fullam. Her beatification brought with it the ability to listen to me without bursting into either guffaws or tears. She had to keep a straight face when I confessed to her my shyness—after standing on my chair and calling out for the class’s attention. Still, I thought I was shy. Mrs. Fullam didn’t snicker when I said I thought my voice was too soft—after she’d spent a morning competing with a little Keith who hoped to fill all available silence with words, words, words. Still, I believed my voice was a whisper. Charlotte Fullam didn’t laugh out loud when I spoke told her I was afraid I was forgettable and would be forgotten—when she probably wanted to forget me but couldn’t. She didn’t break a smile or offer me a large cup of reality.

Instead, she suggested I start a class paper.

That is a saint.

The class paper, designed I’m sure to distract me from being a distraction, would record the events of Jonas and Ginger and Janet and all the other kids in the class, which meant I might need to listen to my fellow students instead of pleading for their attention. It was a great ploy on her part.

Mrs. Fullam suggested I have a picture of myself on the masthead, which I’m sure appealed to my vanity.  Remember, this is in the days before computers, before easy access to copying machines, when purplish alcohol-smelling dittoes were the only schoolwide form of reproduction.  (In this context, that last phrase is completely innocent since what Freud would call my “latency phase” lasted most of second grade.  In first grade, I discovered how good lying on my bed on my belly pretending to be Superman felt; in third grade, I started fantasizing about kissing girls in my class and rolling downhill with them.  In second grade, though, I was an earnest if ill-behaved young man.)  Since ditto technology didn’t allow second chances, I took the safest route with my editorial self-portrait—I drew a worm with two dots for eyes and a shy smile. It was the best I could do and I was much more interested in generating copy than in drawing myself.

My self-portrait, though, somehow became a source of amusement to my classmates. it was nothing like my classroom presentation,

A Free-Association Scream (900 or so Words of Id-Driven Rage at Addiction Poured onto the Page without Editing or Re-Reading)

Larissa’s had another red-letter day/week/month with the same red-letteredness I brought on myself near the end of my drinking. Moving from mid- to end-stage alcoholism is distinguished by increasingly common losses (or throw-aways) and satisfaction with less and less and less in life. The border between the stages may come with the recognition that buying Sam Adams is a waste of money. Natty Daddy gives you what you want without all that taste and craftsmanship. (Or, in my case, Chardonnay is for suckers when Lavoris gets me drunk and gives me minty-fresh vomit. I quickly slid from brand-name mouthwash to Dollar Store generics, but that was less for aesthetic reasons than for its being easier to steal.)

This week, Larissa, who’s just started a new job—she’s charming and smart and pretty, in addition to being a nearing-end-stage alcoholic—wrecked two cars in one day, got her first DWI and has been asked to move out of her home.  Like a child whistling as she walks past that house with the mean dog, Larissa tells me she’s got a plan for pulling things together. As she tells me about it, I taste the same “once-I’ve-jumped-over-the-canyon-and swum-the-Pacific” nonsense that had infected all my end-stage dreams, and I’d never faced the public and practical problems of holding down a job with no public transportation, no car and, oh yeah, no driver’s license.

After losing a second job for drunkenness or its aftermath, I quickly went through my tiny savings. (In the previous sentence, “savings” is a euphemism for “what remained in my checking account after I’d paid my rent and bought cigarettes and booze.”) When my girls got home from school, they had a chance to see the eviction notice on the door of our s-hole apartment in a section of Nashua just north of Dicey and west of Danger. Ah, memories. Feeling like a victim always, I assumed some deus ex machina would appear to rescue me. Didn’t happen. A week later, after the girls had packed up their things and taken them to their mom’s, I had a final night alone, alone except for a box of Chardonnay. I laid on the futon in the dark corner of the back room, cradling the wine except for when I lifted the spout up to my mouth. That box made me feel like a wealthy man indeed.

The next morning, homelessness felt like freedom. No more boss telling me what to do! No more wasting money on rent! Finally, I could drink the way I wanted to—desperately and self-destructively, just as God intended.

Larissa today is like a woman in a pool of freshly-poured Plaster of Paris. She can still move, although the cake-batter consistency around her presents a challenge. As time goes on, she’ll find life getting slowly but inexorably harder to control as the plaster hardens. The slow-motion thrashing she does will create a space for her inside that solid pool, until she’s as snug as a bug in amber, a bug with a taste for booze and little else.

If she’s like me (and most of the other drunks I’ve known), she’ll begin to think of suicide, or at least an end to her existence, going to sleep at night praying she won’t wake up. Warnings from friends and family will increase.

“If you don’t stop drinking,” they’ll say, “you’re going to die.”

Promises, promises. Promises that never come true.

Six months after our eviction, when I’d found a series of depths below the deep, I realized there was no “bottom” for this drunk to find until my body thumped onto the bottom of a casket. Luckily, instead of continuing to drop, I reached out for help from the VA and a program of recovery. Many (most?) (nearly all?) aren’t that lucky, burrowing deeper and deeper into despair, finding it harder and harder to find lower companions, creating ever-duller red-letter days/weeks/months.

Like Larissa.

Like Larissa, I continued to be charming, if charming means “manipulative and dishonest with no regard for how I affected others.” Like Larissa, I continued to be smart, is smart means “manipulative and dishonest with no regard for how I affected others.” Unlike Larissa, I was never pretty, but I’m afraid alcoholism doesn’t leave much beauty inside or out. In women in their forties, booze seems to dissolve their looks, first slowly and then completely.

By the end, I was amazed if not amused that it takes as much energy to be a semi-employable drunk with a taste for mouthwash as it did to direct alternative schools, run an improve theater company and be a homeowner. The energy didn’t result in achievement any more, barely resulted in anything, but I kept on needing it, or at least needed the booze that fueled my energy.

Readers know I’m not a God guy at all, not real interested in whether the Big Joker in the Sky is paying attention. Still, I pray 50 or 75 times a day, saying the same prayer over and over and over: “Thank you, God.” For today, I’m going to amend that prayer to “Thank you, God, and please help Larissa find a way to want to find a path to sobriety.”

Those of you who have a chattier relationship with a higher power, please feel free to embroider this message, and insert whatever other names are appropriate for you.

One-Hit Wonders and An Unguided Tour of One Mind Snapping

The artwork is the cover of The Knack’s Greatest Hits, which I imagine is 12 remixes of “My Sharona” and the Single Version of “Good Girls Don’t.”

I’ve always loved one-hit wonders, from Wheatus (“Teenage Dirtbag”) to Thunderclap Newman (“Something in the Air”) to Johan Pachelbel (“Canon in D”) to Carl Douglas (“Kung-Fu Fighting”) to Fountains of Wayne (“Stacy’s Mom”), although I picture each of the artists in a Holiday Inn bar in Fort Wayne, Indiana, playing that same hit three times in the same set. Except for Pachelbel, who died, I think, in the early 1700’s. Him, I picture with an eraser in his crypt, slowly removing each note of his classic.

Decomposing, as it were.

Because of this love, I’ve always wanted to have one hit, one song that everyone knows and that will be the lead in my obituary. While I’ve written a few dozen songs, only one ever made it to the top of a chart, and that was a specialized list indeed: favorite songs to sing on car rides with my daughters before they developed any musical taste. That song, “Out-of-Town Tuna Fish,” was always neck-and-neck with Loudon Wainwright’s “Dead Skunk,” and often came in first.

Alas, I fear I may never accomplish that goal, although I continue to write and record songs no one will ever hear. Sigh. What I do write for public viewing is these columns, and a very kind reader sent me an email to update the list I published a while ago that pulls together the most popular columns of the first six months. So, Samantha, this is for you—nary a hit among them

An Unguided Tour of One Mind Snapping

Drug/Alcohol Rehab Stuff

How to Exit Your Escape Vehicle

Lazarus and the Prodigal Son Got Nothing on Joe

Too Smart and Charming for Our Own Good 

No More Crises Because That’s All Life Is Three-Dimensional Russian Roulette: Heroin and Me

Alcohypochondria: The Disease I Discover, Describe and Suffered from

Swimming Together, Not Drowning Alone: Thoughts on Alcathons

I Wasn’t an Alcoholic. I Just Drank to Stay Sane

There is No God, But that Doesn’t Stop Him from Working

A Pair of Christmas Miracles

Adoption Stuff

Sally Piper Words, Words, Words: A Brief Sketch of Sally Piper, a Woman I Never Knew

Sally Piper Had A Peck of Unplanned Pregnancies

Political Stuff

You Can’t Wring Your Hands with a Fist in the Air

A Patriotic Rant with a Twist: A Veterans View of the National Anthem

“But He’s a Muslim”: The Reason (I think) I’m Being Given an Award

An Undelivered Speech at the Turkish Cultural Center’s Friendship Dinner (along with what I did say)

Wouldn’t It?: Response to the Texas Church Shootings

Tiny House Stuff

Tiny White Box Profiled in Vagabond Monthly

“My Name is Keith and I . . . Live in a Tiny House

A Phrase that Will Not Pass My Lips

Veterans Stuff

Today is Not a Good Day to Die: Waiting for My Murderer (or a sad man) (or no one at all)

The Hermit with the Pastor’s Heart or How I Managed to Avoid Death, Make Some Jokes and Maybe Help a Veteran a Little Bit

Childhood Stuff

Food Fights and Politics

First Memory and Existential Dread

Marie Myers, Hogan’s Heroes and Me

Mi-Te-Na Born and Mi-Te-Na Bred

False Valor on the Mantelpiece

Shooting a Chickadee

Silence is Golden, Slumber is Final: A Fishing Story

Cute, with a Side of Evil: Making My Grandfather Cry

Murdering Chatty Cathy:  A Fairy Tale

Totaling a Car at 11: I was Trying to Get Out of Trouble


Rumors Can’t Be Disproven—Please Spread These!

Casper’s Pensees:  Thoughts on Ghosts

Rejected Book Titles

More Rejected Book Titles

Mocking My Betters:  Luckily the World is Filled with Them

On Being a Double Orphan





And for My Next Trick, I’ll be Impersonating a Book

Next Wednesday, March 21, is the First Day of Spring, which I suspect will mean more to most of the United States than

it does to residents of Pittsburg, NH, where winter reigns until Mother’s Day. Likewise, next Wednesday, March 21, is also the 12th Anniversary of the founding of Twitter, says @novelistador. And next Wednesday, March 21, is the 55th Anniversary of the closing of Alcatraz Prison.

Most important to me, though, next Wednesday, March 21, is my chance to play a tough acting role—an inanimate object! I’ll be one of the books at Southern New Hampshire University’s Human Library from 2 until 5 in the Shapiro Library Café in Manchester. One of the main acting challenges of playing a book in a Human Library is that it’s all improv—no script, no director, no stage. Also, the book I’m playing is me. Let me explain.

A Human Library is a collection of folks who have experienced discrimination, great or small, and who are willing to talk one-on-one about that experience with visitors for about 15 minutes at a time. Begun in Denmark in 2000, an animating notion is that dialog between marginalized humans and the mainstream will raise the consciousness of all. In short, although not necessarily in accuracy, two people talking for a quarter-hour will each walk away with their prejudices somewhat melted and their desire to be better people somewhat strengthened.

A few years ago, I was a book in the Goffstown Public Library’s version, and it’s there I met my friend, Dianne, who was apparently charmed by my combination of erudition and jackassery. I believe I was playing the part of “formerly homeless man now director of homeless program,” a role I was born (and have lived) to play. Unfortunately for visitors to SNHU’s Human Library, when the charming and talented Heather Walker-White, the library’s communication coordinator, asked me to participate, she directed me to an online form. I filled it out, submitted it and promptly forgot which role I’d assigned myself. Until I walk in next Wednesday, and look at the program, I won’t know which, if any, of the following parts I’m scheduled to play:

“former high-school revolutionary now a radical moderate”

“dancer laughed off the dance floor by child in leg braces telling him people are laughing at him”

“man whose only adult fistfight was with a fully made-up transvestite”

“formerly but imaginarily obese child”

“novelist whose first book has yet to sell 5,000 copies”

“blogger who insists on being called a ‘columnist’”

“formerly toothless man whose dental woes were miraculously solved by dentures”

“nitwit writer who believes if he mentions Tonio K. enough, Senor K. will achieve the fame he deserves”

“unshaven man whose facial hair is always ‘on the verge’ of becoming a beard but never quite achieves that”

“nondescript man who believes he resembles an unpuffy Matthew Broderick while the rest of the world sees the pathetic brother from ‘Two-and-a-Half Men’”

“drunk who’s been sober more than 94,000 hours IN A ROW”

“misguided singer who’ll perform at a moment’s notice with no talent whatsoever”

This list could go on—a possibility more entertaining for me than the rest of the world, I’m afraid—but it doesn’t need to. Whatever role I told Heather I’d perform is the one I’ll play. Except.

Except this is improv, so who knows where the role will take me. Wherever that may be, this dog-eared old volume of toothless tales looks forward to meeting you there.

Pssstttt—Secrets of Secret Clubs (for a price)

Secret clubs generate . . . secrets. I had an uncle who lived in San Francisco and belonged to a well-publicized secret club—add that to your oxymoronic list—Bohemian Grove. If you Google Bohemian Grove, you’ll discover its links to the Trilateral Commission, the Illuminati, the Knights Templar and various other conspiracy-producing bogeymen. Members reportedly engage in blood sacrifice, oaths of fealty to the devil and drinking white wine with beef.

This particular uncle was a larcenous scoundrel, but I don’t think that’s the primary reason he was tapped for selection to the Grove. He was very rich, Harvard-educated and married into a California family of means—these things likely played a greater part in his selection than his willingness to run a flimflam game on his relatives and leave them with worthless promissory notes in the place of their life savings. He was a robber baron of his own flesh and blood, but he was also a member of Bohemian Grove, and therefore knew secrets.

Likewise, I’ve known Masons, with their penchant for making the mundane mysterious, turning membership into a series of arcane handshakes, nods, winks and other secret signs. I’ve never been formally asked to join the Masons. In fact, I don’t have a clue what that tap might look like, although I’m sure it involves some secrets. Still, when I’ve been with a group of Masons, their in-jokes make it clear they feel pretty damned special, and I can’t blame them for that. While I can pile rock upon rock in the desert to make a memorial cairn for a dead friend, I could never use mortar to actually make a chimney, wall or floor the way a mason can.

I do belong to one secret club, but I can’t name it or tell you about it. Even if you were to send a check made out to Cash for $1,500 to PO Box 446, Pittsburg, NH 03592, I couldn’t give away all the secrets. Even if you were to buy me a week-long trip to Israel, all expenses paid, I couldn’t reveal everything.

Since you’ve read the above paragraph, and are continuing to read, I assume we’ve got a binding contract. You will now pay me one-thousand-five-hundred dollars and fly me to Israel, and in return I will not give you all the secrets of my secret club. For your generosity, though I will reveal exactly 10 (ten) (X) secrets. Please do not read on until your check has cleared.

Really. Stop reading. Don’t look at another word if that money hasn’t been deducted from your account. And you’ve bought me my Israel vacation.

Welcome back. Now that our finances are in order, I will continue with the Ten Secrets.

1. Keith’s Secret Club is named Keith’s Secret Club.

2. Liverwurst is the sacramental lunchmeat of Keith’s Secret Club. On light rye. With caraway seeds. And raw onions. And Gulden’s Spicy Brown mustard.

3. Diet Coke with freshly-squeezed lemon juice is the sacramental drink of Keith’s Secret Club.

4. Wise Potato Chips are not sacramental, but they are a nice accompaniment.

5. Membership is secret. If a member is asked about his or her membership in Keith’s Secret Club, the proper response is, “What the hell are you talking about?” This occasionally leads to confusion, as the Keith in Keith’s Secret Club often draws this response in conversation.

6. Tarot cards are not to be used as bookmarks!

7. No member of Keith’s Secret Club is allowed to eat lizards, unless those lizards are also members of Keith’s Secret Club.

8. Keith’s Secret Club is for life! Dead members will be expelled with great force and insults.

9. Members must keep their beards and toenails well-trimmed.

10. Members may only drink coffee from cups without handles, unless those cups have pictures of adorable kittens or the 1968 Red Sox.

For another $1,500 and an all-expenses-paid trip to Madagascar, I will reveal another 10 secrets and send you a t-shirt from my trip to Israel.

Robert Frost was Right: The World Will End in Fire (or Ice) or a Snow Storm

I just got a message from a friend down south (well, southern New Hampshire), wanting to know if I’m preparing for Snowmageddon, which apparently what this upcoming snowstorm is to be called. I know other storms have been called Snowpocalypse, and I’m not sure if there are meteorological distinctions here, or if weather forecasters just toggle back and forth between these two. To sweeten the pot, I propose the following words be added to the rotation: Snowtastrophe, Snowlamity, Snowstruction, Snowsaster and, of course, Snowtheendoftheworldisnigh aka Snowabandonallhope. Call me cynical, but I think the more cinematic the title of a storm, the less likely it is to be memorable. Sometimes the only thing louder than a huge noise is a very small one spoken with urgency. I’ll become concerned when a forecaster comes on and says matter-of-factly, “Bad blizzard coming. Might want to get ready. More at 11.”

My friend had just come from an emergency meeting in the town she works for, where I picture Lego mock-ups of the town square with Matchbox snowplows and ambulances and 55-year-old boys going vroom-vroom as they pour confectioner’s sugar over the scene. In my mind, two men are fighting over a police car while a third man tries to make things more realistic by spraying lighter fluid on Town Hall and starts flicking matches at it. My friend, the town librarian and hence the voice of reason, tries to wrestle the matches away while listening to the police chief talk about instituting martial law for the duration of the emergency.

I’ve laid out these fantasies of small- to medium-town government before, and Dianne has repeatedly told me the emergency meetings are generally staid and boring. I choose not to believe her, and will continue to believe falsely in my dreams, particularly the ones where Dianne defends the library against book burnings by suggesting the angry villagers direct their ire toward the coven of witches behind the annual Halloween Parade.

Her concern about me, though, was genuine and sweet, if misplaced. People who live in civilization and have orderly lives must be concerned about disruptions to that civilization and that order. That had been my life up until last September, so I understand how upsetting a snowstorm can be. Today, though, as a functional hermit on the outskirts of nowhere with no place I need to be before Friday, my preparations for a blizzard consist of making sure my batteries are charged—check—I’ve got water and oatmeal—check—and, well, that’s about it.

If it’s snowing when I get up tomorrow morning, I’ll go out for a walk. If the roads look passable, I may go to the store to get some treats—Wise Cheese Doodles, for instance. If they’re not, I’ll make do with the canned soup, canned vegetables, peanut butter and crackers here, the former heated over a burner if the electricity’s out. Other than that, the blizzard won’t affect me much, although I do appreciate the concern.

I’ll just wait out the end of the storm or the end of the world.

The Existential Void of the Three-Year-Old Boy (or A Trip Down Memory Lane under the Vast Indifference of Heaven)

We’ve all got conversational ticks, questions we ask to keep the ball rolling—or give it a good kick if it’s stalled. For some people, it’s a “would you rather” question:

“Would you rather eat a living human or be eaten by a living human?”

“Would you rather be able to change the past or see into the future?”

“Would you rather have no fingers or no eyelids?”

Other folks use a more direct approach:

“Whadya wanna talk about?” or “Know any good jokes?”

This second tactic can lead to further silence, followed by one person giving the other a good kick.

My favorite conversational gambit is simple:

“What is your first memory?”

This typically brings a strange, dreamy look into the listener’s face. She then tells a confusing dream-like story that often goes something like this:

“I think I was at my grandmother’s house, along with my big brother. He was seven or so, which would make me about three, and he was teasing my grandma’s cat—maybe tickling her with a feather—and a beam of light came down and bounced off Tabby’s eye.”


“I was five years old, and my little sister choked on a bite of sandwich. Tuna, I think. Then my dad came in, and she was okay.”


“I don’t remember anything about my little-kid childhood. Maybe nothing before I was in like junior-high school. Except—wait a second, I do remember playing with a blue-and-red boat in the bathtub at the house we lived in when I was four. The bubbles in the tub were as thick as meringue and I was able to float the boat on the bubbles for a little while. I remember feeling empty when the bubbles were gone.”

In short, these first memories tend to be snippettes, little pieces of pre-story that have randomly stuck to the brain like sawdust to sneakers. Once folks have answered my question and returned from their fugue states, they often ask me about my first memory. Here’s what I tell them.

“Well, my father was what’s called a ‘mirror twin,’ so he and his brother were physical opposites. That is, they were identical twins except that every physical feature was opposite. For instance, my dad was left-handed and his brother, Roger, was right handed, leading my dad to be a star pitcher and Roger his catcher. Even facially, when my dad looked in the mirror, it was his twin brother who stared back at him. Everything about them was mirrored, down to the whorls of hair on their head and the teeth in their mouth.

“This ‘mirrorness’ is pretty rare, I think, or at least my dad liked to act as though he and Roger were part of this pretty select fraternity—except they were identical not fraternal twins so I guess they’d be part of an identity instead of a fraternity. I know my dad would claim he sometimes knew what his brother was thinking, even when they hadn’t talked in months. As a kid, I had no way of checking this story out, and as an adult I couldn’t imagine calling my Uncle Roger out of the blue to ask if he was thinking about a liverwurst sandwich with raw onions. That would be as weird as the claim itself.

“Anyway, in 1994, when they were both 71, and had not even lived in the same region of the country for 40 years, my uncle died unexpectedly when a blood clot went to his heart, killing him instantly. A few days after my dad and mom returned from my uncle’s funeral in Virginia, my dad was sitting at the kitchen table and felt a pain behind his kneecap that just wouldn’t quit. My mom convinced him to go to the emergency room, and the doctors diagnosed him immediately and amputated his leg above the knee—it was the same exact kind of blood clot that had killed my uncle, except it had migrated south instead of north in my dad. Mirror twins. It’s an amazing thing.”

As I pause to let this sink in, my listener typically gives me a look of sympathy, then wants to know if my first memory took place in 1994, when I was 35 years old.

“No, no, of course not. I was just giving you some background, some way of understanding how my first memory took place. I was about three, I think, and while I may have heard about my dad and my uncle being twins, I’d never met the man and his family, since they lived in Virginia and we lived in New Hampshire. I’m not sure I’d ever met a twin, and at the age of three ‘twinning’ isn’t a concept likely to have arisen organically in your mind.

“One beautiful summer afternoon, though, at our house on Faculty Road in Durham, a man walked through our front door who looked just like my dad. I don’t remember this, of course, because my first memory didn’t come until a little later, but I can imagine this must have confused little Keith greatly. Here was the spitting image of my father, except he had a different wife and three daughters. I expect my mind struggled to make sense of all this, and was still puzzling it out when we had a family reunion cookout in the back yard later that day.

“And that’s my first memory. Not the cookout itself, but playing alone in the middle of the back yard, a bunch of strangers around me. As I recall, I had a large metal spoon in my hand and was digging a hole when I looked up and saw Daddy standing near Mommy by the garden hose faucet on the house. Normal. Then I looked to my other side and saw Daddy talking with my grandfather by the weeping willow tree. That was normal too, but the two normal things couldn’t both be happening at the same time. I don’t know if I’d forgotten about the twin piece or what, but as I sat with dirt all over my hands, the most important thing in the world was for me to go and get a hug from my dad. Except. Except I couldn’t figure out which was my dad, which was his double and, most frightening, how to figure it out.

“At this point, one of the older girl cousins I’d never met before that afternoon looked down at me and must have seen the confusion in my face. She could have come over to her little relative, squatted down and comforted, or at least distracted me. She didn’t. She could have gone over to my dad or her dad—I’m pretty sure she was old enough to tell them apart, or at least remember what clothes her father had been wearing—and told them I looked confused. She didn’t. I don’t blame her for not making either of those choices. Not really. Well, maybe a little.

“I do blame her for the choice she did make. She called out, ‘Look at little Keith! He doesn’t know who his father is!’ At this, my head was on a swivel, going back and forth from one identical man to the other. No doubt it looked so funny no one noticed the terror I felt—or my nervous smile camouflaged it.

“My father and my uncle each squatted down on opposite sides of the backyard and urged me to come to him. They each smiled—I was too little and scared to have noticed my father’s smile rose slightly higher on one side of his mouth and his brother’s on the other. They each reached out their dominant hands in welcome—I didn’t know left from right and would have forgotten in the moment if I had. They each called out my name—I don’t know how ‘mirroring twinness’ affects the vocal cords. Regardless, they sounded identical.

“Terrified of making the wrong choice and, I imagined, bound to live with whatever I chose, I looked at the 20 or so faces in the yard, hoping to get a clue on what to do. Instead, I saw good-hearted, cheerful smiles as though watching three year olds determine their future were as normal a part of backyard cookouts as a game of croquet. At that moment, the universe felt as cruel and cold and as alienating as it ever has for me. Under the vast indifference of heaven, and surrounded by people who claimed to love me but who now made sport of my dread, I froze like a bunny discovered mid-meadow by a hawk shopping above.

“I tasted despair at the age of three. Not to put too fine a point on it—for that last sentence is too sharp by half—but I looked at The Void, gazed into it, and saw it was a hall of mirrors reflecting infinite Voids. If I happened to choose wisely in this backyard, by chance went to my father instead of the identical stranger, life would simply offer me a new choice in a minute or a week or a year. As a barely walking human child, I saw the folly, the necessity and the absurdity of choice.

“Then I cried, and buried my face in my soiled hands.

“It’s said that rabbits can die of Exertional (or Capture) Myopathy, literally scared to death by the appearance of a predator, a very loud noise or, I believe in my heart of hearts, sitting in the middle of a backyard forced to choose between a father and an Imposter. Before I was myopathized, my mother sensed my terror and ran to sweep me into her arms. If she hadn’t carried me to my father at that very moment, I believe I would have been a dead bunny in the form of a little boy.

“Instead, I’ve become a man whose life began when he embraced despair in the form of his father’s arms.”

And that’s my first memory.