April 10, 2006
We all have images stuck in our heads that drive us towards something or away from something. Indelible images that come to us at odd hours of the night.
Bernstein in Citizen Kane: " A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn't see me at all, but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl."
I am haunted by a dozen and a half such memories several of which I did not actually see with my own eyes, but images I picture clearly nonetheless. My own constitution is such that no one vision dominates and they are equal parts pain and pleasure. Having a child has certainly added to the inventory and perhaps colored the collection in memory.
When I was a boy I was fascinated, as most boys are, with fireworks. In Mexico there was a grandmother in the neighborhood who sold bundles of gunpowder extracted from bullets. They would be delivered neatly wrapped in small brown bags through her bedroom window. She also sold handmade watermelon popsicles. I visited often. For a few pesos we would amass quantities of the dark powder, hiding it in cigar boxes in the back of a dresser. With a bit newspaper, a wick from a candle, and some wax you could make a pretty good firecracker. We would sneak out to abandoned lots and experiment. A stolen can of gasoline, rubbing alcohol, and motor oil were used to turn our small firecrackers into larger bangs and eventually we were blowing up rocks and cans.
One sweltering August afternoon after a particularly satisfying round of explosions things went wrong. A little girl, someone's young sister who had been watching from a distance, was upset by a fire burning in some trash. She picked up what she thought was was a cup of water but was actually a cup of rubbing alcohol and threw it on the fire. In a flash the flame raced back up the liquid and she ignited. She fell to the ground, rolling and making screeching like an animal. The fire was out in a few seconds but the damage was done. The skin on her legs and arms was melted and she screamed. The other kids ran away leaving me standing there alone.
For many years I saw the image of myself standing there immobilized with fear, guilt and horror. I remember her eyes and I remember closing my eyes before I could summon the will to do something. But now my memory has shifted. While I see the little girl, my primary image is now of the mother. Weeks after the accident I went to the girl's house to apologize. The mother opened the door but would not let me in. I understand now what she must of have felt in that moment and I know why she could not meet my eyes when I told her I was sorry.