The Physics of Memory by Shannon Mullins

After we moved from Knoxville and returned to my mother’s hometown in 2000, after the divorce, the city decided to drain the duck pond, fill in the gaping hole, and pave it over for a new whoop-dee-do water fountain. 

Numerous streams jet out of the ground on timers, higher than a man stands. The most frequent tourists are stay-at-home moms or their proxies, with baby strollers and large beach bags filled with towels, a dry change of clothes and a comb to run through the tangled, damp hair of their children who run screaming through the water on a hot day, feet slapping sharply against the wet pavement as heat waves distort the horizon.

The small water park is visible from the balcony of the Knoxville Art Museum, where my father had worked as a security guard, and where I would often accompany him. My brother and sister would be in school, my mother at work, and my grandparents asleep. Out of all my options, I would have chosen to walk alongside my father as he made his rounds, sit in the swivel chair of the control room downstairs to watch the cameras, or play shadow to Glenda, an Oompa Loompa of a woman with frosted blond hair and overly tanned skin who pushed about her janitor’s cart and let me spray the Windex onto the bathroom mirrors. 

“Atta girl,” a dimpling fuchsia smile.

The last time I had stayed home with my napping grandfather, I had accidently busted a wardrobe mirror by feigning punches at my reflection. Here, I polished them with care.

Lunch break meant a small adventure. If my father and I walked out the large garage doors of the basement where they received the shipments of new art installations, we would cross a set of rust-red railroad tracks. Following a twist of gravel and sidewalk was the World’s Fair Park, complete with outdoor amphitheater and performance lawn, with the duck pond beneath the all-seeing eye of the Sunsphere across the river. 

            The silence which overwhelmed us is never exactly the same, the memory colored by the projections of the future. Despite subtle variations, this moment of time is locked in place like a touchstone. . . 

Ducks were the order of the day, a special trip father and daughter could make without the other children, who were far too boisterous and uneasy to keep from startling the “wildlife.” Had my siblings been with us, we would have no doubt been scrambling about the lawn in search of stray feathers and the odd unfertilized egg abandoned to the elements, the mother exhausted by her own fruitless endeavors. Even from a young age, however, I was observant, and chose rather to wander slowly over the lawn with my father, watching him closely for my cues, dreading other children and sympathizing with the ducks who fled to the middle of the pond to be out of curiosity’s eye line.

The silence which overwhelmed us is never exactly the same, the memory colored by the projections of the future. Despite subtle variations, this moment of time is locked in place like a touchstone, over which my mind will still occasionally graze. Ever shifting nuances of our relationship keep the long ago sky overcast, blocking the sun from cresting the bronze panels of the Sunsphere, standing dull-eyed and empty. We were not as concerned with the ducks’ antics as we were with simply feeling the presence of each other, gauging the other’s contentment of the moment. Dad, glancing at his watch to see when we had to head back, while my eyes rested upon the hand yet shoved deep into the pocket of his heavy winter coat.

Absently, I wondered where the ducks came from, if they came of their own terms or if the city bought a starter flock from a zoo to give the city a filial ambiance. Before I knew it, time was up. Dad turned to leave, my cue to follow. I waited a beat longer by the pond’s edge, wondering if he’d reach back to take my hand when I don’t immediately trail behind. When I glanced back over my shoulder, however, he was already halfway up the lawn, thinking only of returning to the museum and finishing out the day.

My fingers were still stubby at less than four years of age. It was a time in which we are led by the simplicity of a child’s physics, that the wider I stretched the web-like skin between my fingers, the more I could hold. There is no version of this memory where anything becomes of this simple theory. I turned to scurry after my father, who paused several yards away with the vague impatience of the working class. My hand remained empty, scrunched inside my own pocket to keep the digits warm against my palm, my fingernails already suffering from a tendency to turn blue from poor circulation. My father placed a hand on my shoulder to steady me as we stepped over the railroad tracks, held open the door on our way back inside, but our fingers never once grazed. It was too late; the moment had passed, and I didn’t think to try again.

To this day, I regret the city’s decision to convert the pond into a piddling water park. Although I am sure the children of the city would much prefer the cooling treat in the middle of a sweltering July day, there is very little left to admire through these newly adult eyes. The landscape now looks empty, lacking. Maybe one day I will return to allow my own children to run through the jets of water, smile at their laughter, roll them in towels and tell them about the ducks that used to waddle about the lawn, of a place now vanished into concrete. A parental appreciation.

It is one of my most corrupted memories, belonging to a child who had to rely heavily upon a single mother to fill in the gaps of those earlier years. The last time my father and I were truly alone together, when life still seemed simple on the surface. Before the divorce, the faceless fiancée that would come and go, the Sunday night phone calls, the twice-a-year trips to visit the city of my birth. Before the moments when I would think I could let my father evaporate into thin air without a regret, a vanishing point where my eyes would be forever fixed. Before I realized just how alike we are, something both startling and soothing.

When we were just two dark smudges of memory, standing at the edge of the duck pond, neither making an attempt to speak. Observing the world around us in silence, forming a phantom tenderness for a place which wouldn’t last the test of time before we even knew what to think of each other. 

Shannon Mullins is a senior at Berea College pursuing a degree in English. “The Physics of Memory” is her first publication. She claims a home in both the streets of Knoxville, the city of her birth, and the hills of Manchester, Kentucky, where she was raised.

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