Beginnings, or the Three Principal Types of Memory, or Playing With Trains

Published in: Ink Magazine, Cornell University, Fall 2011 issue

While university students were learning that the Big Bang was still a source of great mystery to scientists, Mr. Sanders had no trouble imagining everything about it, down to the last detail, with great precision and clarity. Walking along the cobblestone sidewalk of the city on a cold winter afternoon, the snow and ice mixture sloshing about under the treads of his smart two-tone beige and black winter boots, he imagined it play out right there in front of him, on the intersection between Bradley and Winfred. First nothingness as the black streetlamps sternly regarded the empty streets…then bam! Boom! An explosion of profound proportions as two cars coming from opposite directions zipped toward the four-way stop. A great big expansion of smoke and flames spreading over the city’s grid of honking cars and blinking traffic lights, curling purple and pink clouds breaking off into stars and planets, beginning a universe anew! He rounded the corner of Winfred toward the toy shop as the stars and planets gradually cooled and faded, leaving only the sound of his sloshing boots on the once-again deserted street. In the quiet, Mr. Sanders pondered how, indeed, anybody could find the origin of the universe so difficult to imagine.

As he entered the toy shop, a bell rang, inexplicably turning the infant planet of his thoughts into a human baby sliding its way down the birth canal and climbing out right into the hands of eager doctors and nurses, peeking up with wet blue eyes from its coat of slime and blood. He saw the image perfectly in his mind as he drifted among the aisles of the little toy shop, running his hands over military action figurines, designer yo-yos, and collectible race cars.

Seeing the toys made him smile as he thought of the beginning of school, a major milestone for every child. Who couldn’t remember, as clearly as though it were yesterday, standing at the end of the street holding Mommy’s hand, waiting to glimpse for the very first time that big yellow bus rolling down the street with a smiling driver and bucketfuls of other laughing kids? Letting go of Mommy’s hand, and climbing those steep steps with a mad determination not to look back–that kind of trepidation couldn’t be easily forgotten. And then, the wave of relief after arriving in the brightly lit classroom, colorful blocks of geometrical shapes scattered across the ground, children running and playing, and a smiling teacher with a multi-colored vest extending her hand covered in papery cool skin.

Mr. Sanders raised his blue eyes to the red-nosed shopkeeper, who was splitting time between watching him warily from behind the desk and concentrating intently on a remote-controlled toy plane that he was busy navigating between the shelves of merchandise. Mr. Sanders inquired where the toy train sets were. Nodding as though he expected this kind of question, the shopkeeper carefully lowered the plane onto a landing he had set up on a table in the middle of the shop, moved from behind the desk, and drifted toward the back, Mr. Sanders close on his heels. A slow, lengthy grunt emerged from his lips, which sounded like it could be, “For a little boy?”

“No,” said Mr. Sanders, annoyed that the shopkeeper thought it was any of his business. His two daughters were both fully-grown. One was off finding herself in Arkansas and the other was busy working and living teaching English in France. Both had called him independently to say that they would be unable to make it home that year. His ex-wife had left a message on his answering machine wishing him a merry Christmas and asking if he needed a place to spend the holiday. He refused to respond.

As his fingers grazed the shiny black trains laid out on the tables before him, he remembered that not all beginnings were good. For example, an argument about getting laid off from a job can begin a downhill path that eventually leads to divorce, and sending kids off to college can be the beginning of almost never seeing them again afterwards. And a brother who barks at you to hide his jealousy that you’ve gotten into an Ivy League school while he’s stuck behind helping his father with the mechanics shop can mean the beginning of not speaking to one another for close to thirty years.

Mr. Sanders nodded at the shopkeeper, who was biting his lip as he eased his remote-controlled plane off of the landing and maneuvered it into a few tight whirls around the top of the shelves near the ceiling. The toy trains were displayed proudly in their boxes, boasting of shiny black exteriors and meticulously-cleaned wheels and tracks. He bought the whole set.

Beginnings are easy to imagine, but middles are a little tougher. Lazy, uneventful winter days, where brothers play with their train sets in their bedroom while Mother cooks dinner and Father is out at the mechanics shop, meld together into one continuous apple-red-cheeked memory, with no beginning and no end. Only a few key elements comprise the memory–brothers giggling together as they each race their toy trains around their tracks, the scent of homemade tomato sauce drifting in from the kitchen, the much-anticipated click of the front door as Father arrives home for supper–and these repeat themselves endlessly like ghosts who cannot rest.

As happy as he could be, Mr. Sanders returned home to his empty house and stopped by the living room on his way to the den, to check on the small Christmas tree. He passed without a glance the photo of his two daughters as small children with frizzy red hair and toothless wide grins. After spending a few minutes in the den placing the trains and their tracks delicately on the coffee table that he had cleared just for this purpose, he sat down cross-legged on the floor, smiling, and began to play. Gripping the remote control, Mr. Sanders rolled the train that most resembled the one his brother had had when they were children around the track he had created, at first slowly, then with gaining speed, as his amused smile widened to a loose grin. Then he began chuckling with glee, pulling the little lever to hear the train’s shrill whistle, watching it race around and around the beautifully-polished tracks. He’d set it up again on Christmas Day! He’d sit on the couch in his den in a cozy cardigan, a hot cup of tea resting on the end-table as he would play with the trains he had just bought, watching them chug around one another with the same kind of magical charm that his oldest memories seemed to drug him with.

Beginnings are easy enough to imagine, if one ever gets around to imagining them. After all, all individuals on earth have experienced dozens of beginnings in their lives, which were once monumental for sometimes a minute, sometimes a day, and sometimes several months,  but in any case now  sit shelved away in memory, occasionally unearthed by trepid explorers of the past. But middles, one must admit, are a little fuzzy. Mr. Sanders sat there in his living room, whistling as he rolled the train along, an exact replica of his brother’s favorite all those years ago; his brother, whose hand now lied cold because he had died, alone, in a nursing home, after receiving a stroke which he never recovered from.

An end, the third principal kind of memory, is a very difficult thing to imagine, so much so that most people avoid thinking about it. Mr. Sanders, being quite like most people, sat lost in thought, his eyes watering up, neglecting to think of what he would do next when he was done playing with trains for the day.


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