Dispatches | July 18, 2005
The Problem of the Beard
[By Steve Gehrke]
When I was thirteen, I was forced, due to budget restrictions or overcrowding, or for some other reason I have never learned, to share a hospital room with three grown men. A lot happened in that room, and so those men stayed with me, though oddly not as individuals, but all mixed together, so that I know that one of them was a mine-worker, one was hard of hearing, one had a long-legged girlfriend, etc, though each trait might have belonged to any of the men. Trying to reconstruct the men is like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube–the more I work, the more confused things get. The solution to this, when it comes to the Rubik’s cube, is to cheat, to tear off the tiny colored stickers and reapply them, but that doesn’t quite work with the men.
An example. For a long time I remembered that one of the men had a beard, an erratic, poorly trimmed number that he had grown in order to camouflage his deep acne scars. But whose beard was it? With little effort, I could attach that beard to any of the men (except, of course, myself). It seemed to fit them all equally well, but none of them quite perfectly. Then, as I was thinking about an entirely different time in my life, I remembered that I had run into one of these men, years later, at a visit to the clinic. The man had gained a lot weight since leaving the hospital, and he had grown a beard, thinking it would help disguise his inflated cheeks. Of course! I had simply conflated the events. The beard fit no one, because there were no beards in that room. But why had my memory insisted that there was a beard in that room? Was it because my own thirteen-year-old acne made me wish I could grow a beard? Was it because there was something that needed disguised in that room? Who knows?
My point is that if I could be this confused about a beard, how could I be sure of anything that happened in that room? If it had taken me a dozen years to solve the problem of a beard, how long could it take to construct three entire humans, with personalities and interiors and histories, from the few snippets I still recalled of them? It’s like being given a dozen individual frames of a film and asked to recreate the plot. I could rely on hospital records, photographs, letters, documents, etc., to fill in the barest detail, but there’s no way to recapture the four of us as we were in that room. These men may still color my thoughts, my sense of myself and the past, but as people they have disappeared.
But like I said, a lot happened in that room, a lot I would like to write about, without calling it fiction. But how can it be done? How does the non-fiction writer, the memoirist, deal with the problems of memory? I think I know: they cheat. They invent details and dialogue and character traits and even entire scenes. They tell us that the randomness of the past can be arranged (it can’t), that happenstance, coincidence, the folly of the gods are little more than fate’s disguises (they aren’t), and by doing so they make the past seem inevitable, and so real.
By the way, when it comes to the Rubik’s cube, everyone cheated. Everyone I know, who ever had one, tore off the colored squares and reapplied them. It is the only way, I am convinced, that a Rubik’s cube was ever solved. And maybe that’s the genius of the game, that the real solution “is” to cheat, and to cheat well, to reapply each tiny colored sticker with such precision that you will have appeared to have made order from the chaos. And though you won’t have done it, you will be able to convince those around you that you have. They will be happy enough to believe it, because there’s something reassuring about the fact it can be done. And it won’t harm anyone. The secret of your cheating will haunt only you.
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