PREVIEW FRIDAY: The Memory Merchant


This story appears in CommuterLit Selections: Arrivals & Departures anthology. Copyright is held by the author.

I COULD see the old man watching me. He stood alone in the middle of his front yard, bathed in shadow beneath a dense canopy of birch and pine. I knew I must have looked crazy, just standing there dressed as if it were winter and studying the charred remains of my father’s house: Only portions of the north wall and the cement foundation had survived the fire.

Before acknowledging him, I finished a prayer for the dead, one my mother had taught me only a year before she passed. I then turned and waved him over. The old man tipped his cap and stepped carefully through the twisted and knotted underbrush. When he reached the property line, he stopped and leaned against an aged red pine. Though mid-August, the old man wore an old Army jacket, but for him the coat was more of a concession to his advanced years than to the subtle hint of fall chilling the air. “Is there something I can help you with, young man?”

Only a 94-year-old would consider me young.

“I’m watching my father’s cabin burn,” I said.

The former mayor of Mercer, Wis., and ex-sheriff of Silas County, Mr. Quincy J. Tuttle, or the Big QT, inched closer and studied me. I had no doubt he noticed the open sores along my neck and the greyness of my skin. My father once said that QT, better than any man he knew, could determine the content of a man’s character and the desire of his heart with one look. “Sir, I hate to offer you disturbing news,” he said, “but that cabin burned down 45 years ago.”

I smiled. “I know. It’s a memory — a vivid memory. It is as if I am there. I
feel the heat from the fire clawing at my skin and its smoke choking my lungs. I feel the terrible sense of loss. Fifteen years of labour and love — gone.”

Quincy sighed. His chest echoed with his long years. “I understand. Our memories can be cruel.” He reverently looked upon the dead space among the trees.

I waited for the facts to collate. I wondered if the old man’s wits had gone the way of my father’s cabin.

They hadn’t.

He abruptly pivoted. “You’re Bill Kipligat’s son, young Willie,” he said. “I should have known right away. You match your father’s height and complexion.”

“Yes, and the memories I have shared with you are not mine,” I said. “They are my father’s.”

Quincy’s eyes widened with confusion, then quickly narrowed. He glanced back at his cabin, probably debating whether to retreat or to remain firm. With its collapsing porch, peeling paint, and boarded up windows, the old man’s cabin appeared barely more alive than my father’s.
I waited for his choice.

Finally, he said, “Sir, why have you come here? I suspect it is more than nostalgia.”

“I have come to collect memories,” I said, “memories for the dead.”

“Jesus,” the old man uttered. He probably thought that his days of dealing with lunatics were over the day he retired. He reluctantly stepped forward. “Son, my hearing is not what it should be, and I abhor hearing aids. Damn things echo and screech like an old crow. Did you say you’ve come home to collect memories for the dead?”

Quincy didn’t fool me. His folksy attitude was a cover for the suspicion he rightfully held. His shoulders tensed and his slack features hardened. He looked like a predator determining its best course of action. The old sheriff within had emerged.

“You heard correctly,” I said.

He continued his appraisal. I knew that I didn’t elicit fear. My illness had devoured my strength and mass. At six feet seven, I weighed only 177 pounds.
“William, I must ask you again. Why have you come home?”

“I told you.”


I drew in a breath and cringed as my lungs, scarred and
weakened by my illness, struggled to collect sufficient oxygen. Internally, my body temperature rarely surpassed 97 degrees. “Sir, I have not come home to deliver a lie.”

“You obfuscate the truth.”

I always admired the old man. He was forthright, educated, and brave — everything my father wasn’t. “I’ve come home to collect memories. I’ve come for Lily’s.”

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