I may regret sharing this, but I have a very personal story I would like to tell. I hope it doesn’t get too long… Anyway… I was 20 years old when I was sent to erase a man from existence and became haunted by him.
I was going to college in Texas at the time and a group of us were contacted about a service project. The State needed a handful of young volunteers over the course of a Sunday afternoon and I was one of about ten that agreed to help.
We were asked to go to the home of an elderly gentleman that had recently died and help sort his belongings. He didn’t have any close relatives and his estate was going up for auction.
So, we were tasked with tearing everything out of his home and identifying items that had value to place inside “Auction” boxes, while the rest would be tossed in “Trash” boxes. I was excited about spending an afternoon doing service work with a group of friends.
I was not prepared for what I was about to face in this dusty little house somewhere in west Texas. It was immediately unsettling to step into a stranger’s bedroom and try to assign value to his possessions.
Should we really be digging through his drawers trying to decide if any of the tiny bits remaining of his life were of any value now that he was gone? The truth hurt, as I was forced to admit that almost none of it had any value.
No one would want to buy an old deck of cards or a worn sweater. There’s no value in VHS tapes or water-damaged paperbacks. The “Trash” boxes grew heavy. The “Auction” boxes sat mostly empty.
I was already rattled by the experience when halfway through I opened a closet in a guest bedroom and found a stack of banker boxes. Inside I uncovered something that made my heart freeze.
I’m shuddering as I write this. The boxes were filled with several old photo albums.
I was tempted right then to just throw the entire cursed things in the trash without ever opening them. But I couldn’t do it. I was drawn by the mystery of those albums.
They were covered in dusty fingerprints as if a ghost had prepared them and then led me to find them. And they were now pulling me gently down, begging me to open the covers and to be a witness of what was inside.
Inside I found a man’s life, compartmentalized into a stack of images, bound together in leather books. Photos.
At first of a young boy. Black and white. Faded. Surrounded by strange people. Happy. Brothers together in a field. A sister with long black hair. A dog on a porch somewhere.
As I turned the pages, I watched as the boy grew. His hair became longer. He became a young man. He grew a mustache. It went away. Sometimes he was in the pictures. Sometimes the pictures were a vision seen through his eyes.
My fingers burned with the realization of what they had to do next. It was time to make the choice about where the photo albums should go. Where was this man’s life going to be placed? Did it have value or was it “trash”? The answer to the question hung over my head like a sword.
I closed my eyes, replaced the lid of the box, and put it back in the dark corner where I had found it. I couldn’t do it. I quietly closed the closet door and walked away.
Later I returned to help some friends move a dresser from the same room and out the corner of my eye I saw where a shaft of light now fell onto a blank patch of carpet in the corner. The photos were gone. Maybe they had never actually even been there.
I thought about this as I helped maneuver the heavy dresser through the now empty ribcage of the home. As we were preparing to leave, we were met in the yard by the person from the state that had called us to help. They thanked us for our efficient work.
I just stared at the ground in shame watching a cloud of ants as they carried away bits of something hidden in a tuft of nearby grass. We were ants. I shook my head. No. We were vultures.
As payment for our work, we were told that we could take one item from any of the “Auction” boxes to keep for ourselves. My coworkers leaned their heads into the cardboard tombs and somberly held treasures up to the sun.
They playfully fought over who could take the old jewelry that looked as though it hadn’t been worn in years (Only I knew how many). One boy took a heavy flashlight, another took a pocket knife.
I waited, uneasy with the whole ghoulish activity, and as I waited I wander through the ocean of “Trash” boxes. I ran my hands over the items with a reverence that I did not fully understand.
I felt like I knew this man, and it humbled me that I may be the only living person on Earth that did.
Was it possible that I was the only person to contain the knowledge of him, the only one to watch him grow from a young boy into a man, the only person to watch from a distance as he fell in love, the only person that saw him as he watched his love die?
I was a stranger, but I had, by strange chance, followed him through his life watching as his life boiled and dissolved down to a small collection of silent images, preserved and rifled through in the course of 30 minutes time by some young boy hired to erase him.
That alone would be the gift, I decided. Just carrying the memory of this man secretly inside my soul. That is all I would take with me.
But then I passed a box full of black garbage bags and something caught my eye. I froze in place. I was suddenly unable to even breathe. With a trembling hand, I reached deep into the pile of discarded debris and touched it. It was real.
A tan canvas fedora. The same exact tan canvas fedora that I had seen this man wear so often in photos that it had almost become a part of him. It was in the pictures with his wife, and it was in the years that follow. This hat had gone with him.
I held it gently by the brim and lowered it onto my head. It wasn’t a perfect fit, but it somehow felt right. It felt, providential. I felt like something quiet and sad had led me to find it and now that it was on my head there was a change in the air. There was contentment.
I slowly walked back to meet up with my group as they waited to climb into the van. As I stood in line with them I stopped for a moment and turned around.
I was standing just inside the gate of a white picket fence on a paved walkway leading to a small house somewhere in west Texas. I turned to look at the house one last time, I adjusted my hat, then I closed the gate and left. I wore that hat for the next ten years of my life.
It traveled with me around the world. I was yelled at once by a Ukrainian woman for placing it on the ground in a park. And I nearly caught it on fire by foolishly hanging it on a lamp in Mexico City.
It was on my head as I climbed to Machu Pichu and it ducked through a stone doorway with me as I explored the Coliseum of Rome.
And I was wearing it at the airport in Kiev as I waited for the plane carrying the woman that would later become my wife, and I held it behind her back in the rain a few days later as we kissed under the watchful eye of Lenin.
I have albums of pictures hidden away and I’m proud to say that this old canvas hat shows up in it often. I stopped wearing it around the time that my first daughter was born.
It was starting to get dingy and show its seams and there was something that felt disrespectful about that. So, one day I took it down off its hook and I walked to the shed and placed it in the box where I save my most loved possessions.
Someday, perhaps a long time from now, a young boy might open the lid of that box and find an old canvas hat and then… who knows?