I knew a man once who was cruel, but his story was also cruel. The memory of how his life unfolded still haunts me.
It began when he saved the life of a wizard. Remarkable in and of itself. As it happened, the wizard was merely crossing a street and this man was doing the same. He noticed the oncoming car first and whisked them both out of harms way. It was a simple act, more instinct than kindness, but the wizard was grateful and he granted the this man a unique wish. He could give him any one power, to be used over and over until his death. It would be a unique gift and one he must decide for himself.
As it happened this man was broken-hearted at the time of his heroic act. His girlfriend of many years has left him only weeks before. He was haunted by his love for her, particularly by a memory that came each time he glanced at a photo on the fridge door. She stood on the beach, backlit, her hair a silver outline against the grey of sky and ocean. It had been a sunny day, but the picture was not a good one. Still, it brought back his happiest memory, and that was something that broke him every time. He had torn up the photo, but later taped it back together. He couldn’t let it go, but the pain just didn’t seem to let up.
So when the wizard asked him what his power would be, the man said he wanted to be able to take away a person’s happiest memory. He would use it on himself and once he did the photo would be all but meaningless. It would find its way into the waste basket.
At first the wizard pulled his beard and seemed to hesitate, perhaps mulling over the cosmic ramifications of rendering such a trick. But then his cell phone rang and, reaching into his flowing robes, he took a call. It was his mother and he seemed peeved to get it.
“This really isn’t a good time,” he said.
The wizard shook his head at the man, his expression seeming to say, “Moms. Am I right?” At last, he held out a hand and placed it on the man’s forehead. His lips moved in a silent incantation.
“There,” he said aloud.
Then into the phone, “Not you, Ma. Some guy.”
The wizard walked away, but turned back, flattening the phone against his chest. “It is done,” he said. “You need only say, ‘Happiest memory you are gone.’ Use it wisely.”
When the man got back to his apartment, he took one long look at the photo. It had been in Malibu and the memory was a short one, though it represented a broader swath of his life. When he and Diana were first falling in love. He had looked into the sun too long, so that when his eyes tilted on her, there were spots of blackness floating around her face, and a dimness that shrouded her eyes in secrecy. But her smile came through his small blindness, a flash of gorgeous lips and bright teeth. He then felt her hand slip into his and heard her voice, husky and sweet and golden, “Ready to head back?” That moment encapsulated everything good about one fantastic year. His hand rose involuntarily and rested on the corners of the photo, flattening out the curling paper.
Taking a deep breath, the man closed his eyes.
“Happiest memory, you are gone.”
He let his mind go blank, breathing the way he did when he did yoga, sure that the magic worked best when you gave it a little space. Then he opened his eyes and looked at the picture. But the memory was still there, sharp as ever, bitter and sweet and agonizing.
He tried it once more. Then again.
When he was drunk later that night he tried it so many times that he fell asleep on the kitchen floor in front of the refrigerator. Each time he said, “Happiest memory you are gone.”
In the morning he could still remember everything about that moment. The cry of the seagulls. The smell of her shampoo and sunblock. He decided that there really was no such thing as wizards. The wizard had just been some dude stumbling toward Comic Con or a meeting of D & D players. Or a lunatic with a strong grasp of wardrobe.
He laughed at himself until his head hurt.
There was no such thing as magic and he had no super powers.
Then in the Spring a small blue flower budded in the mulch at the corner of his yard. He spotted it one morning on the way to the coffee shop and he paused, a smile opening on his mouth, and he had a strong sense that whenever this blue flower bloomed, he felt happy. Because.
Then he realized that the only thing he knew for sure about the blue flower was that for a long time it had been a thing that meant something. Now he couldn’t remember what it was. He asked his sister if it meant anything to her.
“Mom planted those for us. Some in each of our yards. Cassie has some, too. Mine never made it. The year she was dying. You remember.”
And when she said it, he realized that part he could recall. And helping her plant the flowers wasn’t a happy memory really. He’d been irritated with her about it. Thinking it was sentimental. He might not always live here. One day he might not even want a yard. She’d blown off his grousing the way she always did.
“Let me do this,” she said.
It wasn’t the planting day that he couldn’t remember. It was something else. Of course, he was a kind of forgetful man. He often walked into a room and paused because his reason for coming was already out of his mind. Still, that blue flower hit him when he looked at it. It was sharp, but vacant. There had been a memory there and a meaning. It just wasn’t there anymore.
He began to wonder if he did have the super power. Had this forgotten thing been a happier memory than the day on the beach with Diana? He’d been sure that was his most joyous recollection, but he had been in the throes of his grief then and perhaps he’d not been seeing things clearly.
Then in the autumn he was cleaning out the grate when another missing memory made itself known to him. It was a damp day outside and on those days the chimney really smelled of wood smoke the most. As he leaned in to clean out the ashes, the smell caught him off guard. And he felt a smile forming on his lips – just like with the little blue flower – and then it was just a feeling like being empty. But if emptiness could itch. Because he knew that this smell of woodsmoke always made him think of something else that was sensory, like another fragrance or a taste, which was in turn connected to a person and a moment.
He was stunned by the loss.
Leaning back from the grate, he stared into the shadows of the room, but there was nothing there to answer the question. How many times had he used his power on himself that first night? How many happy memories had he erased?
Or was this more of his usual scattered mind?
He stayed late at his neighborhood bar, until only he and the bartender were left. Two feet of mahogany, waxed over the years to a mirror finish, separated them. Charlie had told him some good jokes; he knew a lot of them already. They had been talking for years.
If the wizard had been a wizard – and if he had a super power – tonight would have to show it. He couldn’t live anymore with the uncertainty. It had been terrorizing him, not knowing if he had magic or was simply on the precipice of Alzheimers. That’s what took his Mom. It ran in the family.
He looked into Charlie’s eyes a little too long. Men have codes about things like this. But he had to study him and see just how his eyes looked in the beginning. Charlie frowned at him.
“Yes.” His voice sounded distant to himself.
He took a deep breath and then said to Charlie, “Happiest memory you are gone.”
Charlie blinked. “I’m glad I already called last call.”
“Tell me about the day with your Granddad on the ferry ride.”
Charlie frowned. “What the fucks got into you, man?”
“Tell me about it. The hotdogs and the fat lady whose dress blew up. The thing your granddad said.”
Charlie shook his head, “He just…”
Charlie straightened up, braced his hands on the bar. He turned his head to glance down the bar, his eyes probing the dimness of the room, looking for an answer.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think that’s me.”
“Of course it is,” the man said. His heart was racing, his hands trembling. “I just asked you too quick.”
“No,” Charlie said. But his brow was creased as he dropped his gaze to his feet. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t have no memory like that.”
When he glanced up at the man, his eyes glistened with tears. The man looked into his eyes, trying to find a missing light. Charlie turned away, taking the towel off his shoulder to wipe glasses.
“What was that thing you said a minute ago? The thing about the happy memory?”
“I don’t know.”
Charlie put a hand up on the shelf in front of him and leaned into his arm, resting his face against his sleeve. “I think you’d better get out of here.”
But the man had already slipped off his stool, his face white and his fingers numb and awkward as he shook a twenty out of his wallet.
The bartender wouldn’t turn to face him. He didn’t say good night.
After that the man was sure his power was real. It awakened something in his personality. There had been a thrill that came when he took away Charlie’s happiest memory. It was undeniable. When he tried to think about the morality of it, his thoughts broke apart like a puzzle fresh out of the box. He couldn’t piece together a way to look at the mess of his new magic. He just knew it to be exhilarating.