Are all memories just ghosts?
midnight pond scene
Photo: Ted Bobosh / cc2.0.

One warm summer night a lifetime ago, I slipped into the midnight water of an Oklahoma farm pond near the city where I grew up. I remember, for many reasons, that particular night among the innumerable similar nights spent chasing fish across the years of a youth spent directionless and wandering.

I remember it for the peculiar, ghostly quality of the crescent moonlight shimmering on the gin-clear water and for the solitude. I remember it for the inky velvet sky that seemed so close above, and for the way the water transformed into brilliant sprays of molten silver every time a hooked bass broke the surface.

I remember the slap of the beaver's tail, the tympanic chorus of the bullfrogs, the wonder I felt at the countless unseen life-and-death struggles taking place in the space around and below me as I floated on the water's surface.

But most of all, I remember that night for the exquisite rightness of it all, the synchronicity of place and moment, the sense that this was exactly where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing in this place at this time. Nowhere else but here. Nothing else but this. Nothing. Not school, not work, not love, not even fifty-cent happy hour draws on a laughably fake ID down at Mr. Bills on the OU campus, which was about the only other thing besides fishing and hunting that I put much effort into back then.

At the time, I was still two or three years away from discovering the witchery and dark magic, the lifelong vexing frustration and manic obsession of the fly rod. The old 6wt Fenwick that would eventually give me that infectious bite was still wrapped up inside an old battered aluminum tube in my father’s garage in Montana; unused, unloved, and utterly forgotten. Back then, my life obsessions were a bit less pretentious than such things as fly rods and trout — mainly baitcasters and bass, shotguns and birds, sometimes girls, occasionally a little weed, but mostly beer. Simple, uncomplicated, and like almost all youthful obsessions, utterly, almost charmingly unsustainable in the long term.

But then again, when you’re 19 and on your own, the easily-understood concept of “future” extends out on roughly a two-week linear timeline commensurate with the pay period at your shitty minimum-wage job. Beyond that, boring abstractions like goals and career paths turn quickly into inscrutable Rorschach blobs best not worried about. So I didn’t. Instead, I fished. But that night …

I caught a number of fish that night. I specifically remember only one. It was not particularly large, maybe three pounds, but so vividly and deeply marked that after I brought it to the float tube and unhooked it, I held it there on its side in the water before me, marveling at its color, its pulsing, primordial aliveness.

It remains, to this day, one of the most beautiful fish of any species I have ever caught. And as I floated there in the warm water, half in my world, half in its, I slowly released that bass from my hands. It hovered there for a second or two, suspended in the celestial waters, its pectoral fins sweeping back and forth, before disappearing into the luminous depths somewhere between the moon and the stars. I have never forgotten the memory of that bass and that moment and that place. Sometimes a memory just works that way, grabs you, and for whatever reason, never lets go.

I fished the pond many times after that night. I hunted it, too, watched my first Chessie, now long dead, retrieve ducks from its waters. But that moment stayed with me. Eventually, however, I moved away and those experiences turned to memories, which in turn were overlaid with other, newer memories tethered to other, newer places.

Decades and much life later, death and a funeral tugged me unwillingly back to the city I had long ago left behind. Feeling morose, mortal, and unsettled, I spent an early summer evening driving around my former life, looking for ghosts and answers. I found neither, but by chance or perhaps some other unknown impulse I did find myself driving in search of the spot that had so gripped me that long-ago night.

Memory lane, indeed. Only memory lane was no longer a bucolic and familiar path, but a teeming, bewildering concrete artery four lanes wide and buzzing with people; so many people seething with purpose and impatience and irritation toward the dawdler poking along trying to find old memories buried under the asphalt and intersections and Bermuda grass and sidewalks. My pond was gone, of course: It had been drained, filled in, leveled, compacted, surveyed, flagged, gridded and erased; both it and the mixed-grass prairie surrounding it scraped clean, smoothed, and then covered with a skin of fresh, glistening progress.

Rows of vinyl and brick-clad houses so close together you could literally jump from roof to roof lined streets so new the gleaming asphalt still exuded an oily, viscous stench. Beyond the cookie-cutter houses, I could see the dozers and graders and other earth-moving equipment scraping away what remained of the half-section that once contained my pond. It was all going under the blade, and when it was finished there would be nothing, absolutely nothing; not a native tree or plum thicket or blade of native grass to indicate that it had ever been anything other than poorly-conceived, cheaply constructed, high-density suburban sprawl. Nice, shiny, planned blight.

Never have I seen the physical place of a memory so completely obliterated and transformed into something so different from its original form. A befuddled middle-aged man was now driving, roughly, over the same spot where the kid that man used to be had once floated on water so alive and had once caught a bass that still haunted him. The same spot where that kid had shot mallards and gadwall and teal and watched a young dog leap like a brown missile into the water after them was now someone’s living room.

If wonder and amazement and mystery and magic are still gods, if indeed they ever were, they are old and feeble gods these days, powerless against the gods of profit and progress. As I waited at a stoplight where 30 years ago there had been only grass and meadowlarks, I looked about in that special kind of dissociative fog reserved for those who have been long-lost upon seas both literal and metaphysical. I watched a perfectly satisfied, seemingly self-actualized and well-adjusted specimen of Modern American Suburbanite fertilizing his lawn, a lawn which, to my rattled and shaky mind’s-eye, occupied the spot where my 19-year-old legs would have been dangling in the midnight water all those years ago, where in fact they still dangled in my imagination.

I looked at him. He looked at me, then blithely turned back to his pressing matters of nitrogen application, green-up rates, and mowing heights. The light changed, and I drove on, back to my own pressing matters of remembrance and forced reconciliation.

I decided then, driving down a street I still recalled as pasture, that memory is a helluva thing. We carry it only within us but still have the urge to seek out the physical markers and locations of where that memory was created, where it was once not memory but experience.

I guess we seek out these places, with our now so distant from our then, to remind ourselves that yes, that did indeed once happen, and it happened here. But what if that here is now gone? What becomes of that memory? Are all memories ghosts, or just the ones that no longer have anything physical upon which to tether? I tried to reconcile what I remembered with what I was seeing, but reality had already begun untethering memory from place, corrupting the close association of the two I'd had in my mind all these years.

I cannot now think of that long-ago bass without also thinking of loss, obliteration, the easy, almost casual exchanging of one reality with another, and some random dude in flip-flops spreading synthetic fertilizer on a synthetic yard where once, decades ago, an entire organic, fascinating doomed world existed and played itself out to a young man’s endless amazement and wonder.

Memory is like that, I guess. Unreliable, capricious, and susceptible to the intrusions of competing realities. I suspect in another twenty years I'll have as much luck trying to remember the first day of my life as I will the details of that night. In the face of my new reality and the waning of my old, I did the only thing I could. I turned and got the hell out of there as quickly as I could.


I've read this piece three or four times now. It continues to be one of the best things I've read in a long, long time.