Authors note: I apologize for any formatting issues, I’m on a cross country road trip and I’m writing and posting from my phone.
There’s a man that lives by himself in that big house at the end of the street. In the mornings before class I bring him groceries and I feed his cat, in the afternoons I wash his dishes, and every Saturday I clean what needs cleaning, cook us dinner, and read him the stories I’ve written. Sometimes he responds; most often he sits and stares. I rarely see him move from one place to another, but sometimes he sits in a large rocking chair on the porch and sometimes he sits in an armchair by the big window filled with small porcelain figurines and potted plants. It feels like we have always been this way, that this routine is part of who we are.
He has a hole in the side of his head, right above his temple. I pretend I don’t see it; that’s the polite thing to do. When we first met, when this routine didn’t quite exist as such, he would tell me about his grand adventures. He told me about friends he made and people he loved and places he’d seen. He told me so much. But there was always more, another story saved for another day. Back then, the hole was very small. I could see it, but I could not see inside.
As time passed, the hole got bigger. One day–it was fall, I brought him fresh picked peaches–I looked into the hole, and I could see inside. I knew it was impolite, but he didn’t seem to notice, and I’ve always been just on the wrong side of too curious, so I looked. The top, where you could see if you weren’t being nosy, was black. Empty, void. But, if you looked at an angle, deeper and down, there was something. It looked liquid, and it swirled gentle, beautiful, spinning colors. Some patches were neon, some pastel, some outlandish color combinations you would never expect.
It’s rude, I know, but I couldn’t stop looking. I’d seen people with these holes before, mostly elderly, some very ill, but I had never gotten this close. They say as you get older, everyone gets one, but they usually stay small until you are very old. I didn’t consider him old, nonetheless very old, but I certainly didn’t consider the hole small.
Winter came, and the growing slowed. The hole seemed to stay the same size whenever I visited. I came more during the week, shoveling the driveway and bringing some of the baked goods that appear throughout my house around the holidays. That made him smile.
In the spring, he yelled at me. I hadn’t seen him this active in at least a year, probably much longer. He was yelling at the top of his lungs about how I needed to get out of his house and how he didn’t have anything worth stealing. He seemed genuinely terrified, like he didn’t know who I was, like he didn’t know I got in using the copied key he taught me how to make. He threatened to call the police so I backed out slowly and then ran home. The next morning I came to check in, and he had forgotten the whole thing, welcoming me in with renewed energy and telling more stories. When I looked, the hole was bigger, but what’s worse, it was leaking. The glowing molten rainbow I had previously noticed flowing around the bottom of his cranium was leaking out slow, like molasses.
A drop ran down his chin, creeping down and sticking to his stubble, but he didn’t seem to notice. I wanted to say something, but it was sort of mesmerizing. Hot pink and shiny, clinging to the end of his chin like it didn’t really want to fall, it just hung there. But of course it fell just the same. It hit the floor with a quiet pop, then fizzled for a couple seconds, before dissipating completely.
He froze then, only for a moment before picking right back up where he left his story, but for long enough that I could tell something had happened.
I had heard the stories, everyone had, but seeing it happen in front of me was nothing like I could have anticipated. I had been told they were beautiful and precious, little drops to be cherished like liquid gold. I was told that when they fell, it hurt, not like a wound, but like an ache in your heart for something you can’t know you’ve lost.
They were memories. Every drop a moment, all flowing like a river of a life lived to the fullest around in each person’s mind. No two drops are the same between people and no rivers are similar. In one ounce of memories is a million thoughts and a million more emotions and once they are gone they are gone forever. The river is constantly growing until the day a hole forms. From then on it acts as an overflow drain, releasing a little bit at a time to keep the same height river even as you make more memories.
It took me a moment to realize he had stopped talking, and I looked up from where I had been staring at the floor where his memory fell–which memory I can never know. He looked annoyed, like he could tell I wasn’t listening. He didn’t know what I saw. He couldn’t know.
I apologized and he continued telling his story, and this time I listened. Really, truly listened. I clung to his words, out of respect, but also out of fear. Fear that as that hole continued to grow, as pieces of his life slosh out and disappear, they will be lost forever.
When I went home that night I couldn’t stop thinking about the single pink drop. It may have been a story he already told me, or it may be one he kept to himself, but he won’t know now. He’s going to lose every memory he has ever made, and only a select few will live on in me, in the form of his stories. Then, one day, a hole will form in my head, and every story will be gone.
I sat down at my desk and write. Every story he had ever told me from his memories went onto paper. It’s only slightly more permanent, but that’s all I could ask for. I wrote well into the night, stopping only to drink more caffeine and to pace when I couldn’t remember details. I wrote past the point of my hand cramping and my eyes burning and when I looked out the window the sun was back, high in the sky.
It was around noon and I realized I needed to go check in on him. I was exhausted as I drug myself down the street, my mind still reeling with borrowed memories. When I opened the door, I expected to be yelled at for forgetting about him, but when I looked inside I instantly realize it was worse. He was in his armchair, staring blankly at me, tears falling silently. The hole had doubled in size since the day before and there was a steady trickle of color running down and mingling with his tears.
He whispered and I had to crouch on the ground and lean in close to hear. He was babbling about no one remembering him, about dying alone and forgotten. I wanted to tell him he isn’t alone and he won’t be forgotten, I wrote him down, and I’ll make sure he’s remembered. But that wasn’t what he meant. I was too busy trying to hold onto his memories, and forgot he was still there, still around and still in need of being remembered in person. I forgot him when his memory let him forget that anyone would remember him, too busy preserving a life already lived to consider the one still happening.