I was 20 years old when I was sent to erase a man from existence and instead became haunted by him.
I was going to Mission School at the time, in Texas, and our class was contacted about a service project that required a handful of young volunteers over the course of a Sunday afternoon. 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 of his life that he had saved 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 mostly used for storage and found a stack of banker boxes. Inside I uncovered something that made my heart freeze, and even to this day, two decades later, 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 already in dusty fingerprints, as if a ghost had led me to find them and was now pulling me gently down by the chin, forcing me to open them and to witness 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. I saw what he saw. I saw what he valued and found beautiful. Stones. Light. Shadows. And then, suddenly, as if conjured from those stones and shadows, he was joined by a young woman. She was also beautiful. Flowing brown hair and brown eyes. Always seeming to be caught mid laughter. I could hear her. I still hear her. It was haunting. I fell in love with her, or rather, I fell in love with the way he had fallen in love with her. It was a love that caught in my throat. They grew. Held hands. Were married. I smiled, seeing their joy as they stood together at the altar. My heart nearly stopped seeing her in her simple white dress, as if this man had possessed my body and was looking at these photos with me, through my eyes, one last time.
Time passed as I sat cross-legged on the floor meditating over the albums. I heard my friends as they banged around in the kitchen and elsewhere struggled to move a dusty red couch from the living room, but I sat solemnly in the closet desperately looking at every picture in the dead man’s album. I felt torn. I could not look away. So, I hid, and I forced myself to look at each and every picture.
I turned the pages, and the young man and the young woman grew old. Here was a happy couple standing together at a white fence in front of a small house somewhere in west Texas, him in a tan fedora and matching suit coat, her in a dark green dress. Here was a woman on the porch drinking tea watching the sunset. There was a speckled dog sitting on the porch beside her. Time passed so quickly as I turned the pages. It felt unfair as if I were hurrying their life on to its conclusion. The couple stood together and smiled at me apologetically from an old polaroid. I kept going. There were no children. Only various friends. Side characters appeared for a time and then disappeared at random as new ones arrived. But always it was the two of them, the man and the woman. Adam and Eve standing in their dusty garden around a flowering Creeping Thyme. The sun flickered in spirals across the pages. And then suddenly it happened. The woman, the beautiful woman, she started to change quicker than the man. Her eyes became sad. Her laughing smile became less frequent. She looked tired. There were no more trips to the Grand Canyon. No more summer drives and picnics in the forest. She was dying. And then I turned a page and she was gone. There were still several more albums of this man’s life, but from that point on he was alone. Instead of this beautiful laughing woman, he took pictures of stray cats. Instead of posing with her in front of motels on some blazing yellow-tinted adventure, he took photos of the moon over a dark house shrowded in purple twilight.
The man was less visible in the images now. As if he were already fading out of existence. Sometimes he showed up in mirrors or reflections in dirty shop windows. An old man in a tan fedora, alone, in a house, somewhere in west Texas.
I closed the last album and sat for a long time on the closet floor, resting my head back against the wall. 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 put them back in the dark corner where I had found them. 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. The only person to ever witness 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, and someone that followed him through the lonely years after as his life all 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 what 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?