I found him sitting in the sand, watching the waves bob and weave their way through the rickety timbers that held up the decrepit old pier. His top hat and tails, the clothes that made him an institution up and down Venice Beach, were thrown next to him on the ground, ragged and threadbare. Smoke from his cigarette curled around his bald head, noxious little ringlets that replaced hair long vanished. The years had not been kind.
I didn’t think he noticed me until he spoke.
“You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific? They say it has no memory.”
Before he even finished talking, the images started to flash in my head. I saw a used bookstore I frequented during my teenage years, and Mindy, the older woman who owned it. I heard her voice, sweet and kind. “It’s different from anything Stephen King has ever written. It’s not scary at all. It’s so good, especially the first story, the Rita Hayworth one.” I saw the book, a dog-eared copy of Different Seasons with a slight tear on the left of the cover. Mentally, I flipped it open, scanning page by page, line by line, until I came to the part he quoted. The words unfurl across my subconscious like a banner towed behind a plane.
Other images popped into my mental slideshow, Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, conversing in the prison yard, and Tara Milner, who was gracious enough to let me touch her boobs that day in her parents’ darkened basement, the movie playing on her old TV. The same Tara Milner who, seventeen days later, would scratch the word virgin off my life’s resume and who, fifty-four days later, would break my heart and crush my ego by breaking up with me for Brian Rivers, because she had heard a rumor and wanted to know if “bigger was better.”
This rapid-fire flood of memories--nostalgic, mundane, painful--passed through my brain faster than the time it took him to take a drag of his cigarette. It is something I have long grown accustomed to. Hyperthymesia, the doctors call it, a superior autobiographical memory. Every detail of every day of my life, nestled snug and secure in my brain, to be thought about, again and again.
“The first time I met you it was Ray Bradbury, now it’s Stephen King,” I respond.
He turns and looks at me. And though many years have past, I see recognition creep into his eyes. A wave of relief washes over me, and I know that I have found somebody who will understand.
“So, how was Medieval Times?” he asked with a grin.
The waves crash onto the sand with a thunderous clap and mammoth storm clouds hang over the Pacific. It is the first time I have ever seen the ocean and I am surprised by the sour tang of the briny sea air. My parents shuffle us along, prodding us towards our next stop on our whirlwind vacation of California, the infamous Muscle Beach at Venice. My brother, full of raging teenage hormones, is ogling the bikini-clad woman rollerblading up and down the boardwalk. For me, at this point still a good six years away from my summer dalliance with Tara Milner, these wheeled beauties are more safety hazard than sexual titillation. I spy a street performer on the pier. Dapper and debonair in his full-dress tuxedo, he is standing on a small stage in front of a hand-painted canvas sign emblazoned with the words:
The Incredible--The Indisputable--The Omnipotent
I mix into the small crowd gathered around him. He hands a woman a three-year old calendar. He asks her husband to pick any date.
“February twelfth,” the husband says.
Mr. Memory puts his hands to his temples. An image flashes in my mind. The word Wednesday, neon pink against a black background.
“In 1992, the twelfth of February was,” he pauses for dramatic effect. “A Wednesday.”
The woman checks the calendar and gasps in awe. The crowd roars its approval. He picks up another calendar, this one from 1990, and hands it to a teenage girl. He asks her mother for a date.
“June thirtieth,” she responds.
Once again he puts his hands to his temples, and once again I see a vision of a word.
“In 1990, the thirtieth of June was…”
He looks directly at me. I silently mouth the word Saturday. I see the shock in his eyes. He clears his throat and regains his composure.
“The thirtieth of June was a Saturday.”
“My God, that’s amazing,” says the girl, as the group breaks into another round of applause.
“Now for my final act, I need a volunteer.” He points at me. “You, young sir, could you please come up here?”
He motions towards a trunk sitting on the corner of the stage.
“That trunk contains books, forty-nine of them to be exact. Would you please open it up, select one, and turn to a random page?”
I rummage through the trunk until I come across one with a burning man on the cover. I pull it out and flip open the cover.
“Ah, Fahrenheit 451, a great book, that one. What page did you open it to?”
“Sixty-seven,” I mutter.
“Sixty-seven,” he whispers to himself. He closes his eyes, and begins to nod his head.
“They read the long afternoon through, while the cold November rain fell from the sky upon the quiet house…”
As my eyes follow along with the words he is reciting, I feel a hand on my shoulder and hear my father’s voice.
“There you are, don’t wander off like that. Come on, we have to go, we have dinner reservations at Medieval Times.”
Written by: Ben Cook
Photograph by: Nathan Mansakahn