12 November 2012, 14:47: as I doze to the soporific thrum of the bus to Paysandú, the scene just outside my window—neat single line of tall eucalyptus trees bounding the west side of the highway, broad expanse of pale green and brown fields carrying the imagination off to the horizon, puffs of shaded clouds clipped at a uniform depth framing a height of sky in all directions—superimposes on a remarkably similar scene from nearly twenty years before, December of 1993, when Elder Howell and I traveled a similar road in the opposite direction from Paysandú to Fray Bentos to a missionary zone conference, and it occurs to me that that distant morning happened: happened at a particular moment and in a particular place, both unrecapturable, both vaporized, now living only in memory, harkening to what really was then, yet transformed into images and words, for convenience and safekeeping. Likely mine is the only mind anywhere on earth that houses any version of that moment, forgettable as it was, unlikely to be worth a second thought, though it has stayed with me, has called on my attention often since then, asking to be written, wanting me to find for it some meaning or resolution.
I take out my computer and begin to write this piece, and thus justify my use of the present tense. I am still aboard the bus. I am still writing to gather and to drive my thoughts.
Beyond the scene, which was beautiful but common (I also recall quite vividly the vast fields of sunflowers along that same route, but in general, not with any specifics attached), that particular day is meaningful for me because it contained a question for which I still have no answer.
What happened was this: It was morning, we were traveling south, the sun was low in the eastern sky, obscured by clouds, shining brightly in shafts and beams shot through at all angles, the effect I knew as “Jacob’s Ladder” from a Rush song of that name… The dust in the air illuminated the rays so that we could see them emanating from the ball of fire in the sky and touching the fields and cows far in the distance. Elder Howell, whose mind was always churning, asked, “You’re a physicist. If the sunlight that reaches the earth is all traveling in basically the same direction perpendicular to the earth’s surface, how come we’re seeing those beams spread like that, as if the sun were right there?” I had never thought of that before. It did seem strange, suddenly, that we’d see light cast in all directions (or half of them, the lower half of the circle) when the path of light from the sun-to-earth was essentially a straight-line cylinder.
A few minutes later, we pull through Young, whose inhabitants pronounce their town’s name “zhoong,” then, an hour beyond, we arrive at Paysandú, the city where I began my mission and learned to comprehend the rumbling-rolling accents of Uruguayans. I put away my computer, met my host, borrowed a bike
and then took off riding the northwest quadrant of the city I used to traipse under the callous sun. I hoped, perhaps, to meet again the people I knew long ago, to reintroduce myself, see how their children had grown, hear how their lives had changed… I was in search of familiarity, scenes to line up with the visions I carried in memory. Where did José and Teresita live? Where was that thicket of bamboo we called “the jungle”? Where was that distant crossroad we sometimes rode to, just to escape for a moment, to ride fast in a rush of wind? With each place I remembered came an image, a scene, a recollection: the chicken that’d jumped up on my companion’s arm while he read aloud from the scriptures; the ground-beef-and-raisin empanadas late on my first night in the city; the bakery where we sometimes got the unsold bread at the end of the day; the almacen where I sheepishly asked to use the bathroom because we were too far from home to make it in time; the first time I ever saw the moon moving, at dusk, over the distant trees, as we stood in the Pollero family’s front yard, chatting idly until that first sliver of light peeked out in a radiant glow and we hushed and watched long moment by long moment the seeming birth of the orb from the horizon until in a slow unsticking it broke free of our referents into open space and then seemed to stand still.
But I couldn’t find these places. The Polleros’ was in the northwest corner of an open field just up a small hill, a clapboard hut that might well have been dismantled in the time since I’d last visited. The jungle where we’d encountered a seemingly possessed old man might well have been razed and built over. The cinder-block house where José and Teresita brought their severely deformed daughter to convalesce and to grow in the days after her birth might be down another road, one I didn’t happen across. Almost the only place I fully recognized was the block of apartment buildings where the Damianos and Dacolis lived, where Hermano Damiano graciously offered us a drink he was convinced tasted just like our American root beer. My companion demurred, accepting, finally, half a glass, but I took one filled to the rim, then tried valiantly to dissimulate my disgust as I gagged it down.
Above all, I had wanted to refind Ybar Rossimo, a man whose dream-vision of messengers aligned so convincingly with the day Elder Howell and I met him that he joined our church. When I found a house that I thought might have been his—though its door was bricked up and its backyard was full of apartments instead of trees—I asked next door after my old friend. The patch-eyed man I met at the gate was certain he’d never heard of such a person. Over forty years he’d lived there, and he knew all the family names, but Rossimo, what’s that? Italian? No. Not around here.
I wanted to but didn’t ask him if he had any memory of me, lustrous-under-dust in my fluorescent-pink helmet, my right pants leg wrapped to my calf, my shoes pumping the pedals of my shiny bike. Surely I’d crossed his path; light reflected from my hunched and straining frame had passed through his one good pupil; sweat from my brow had fallen to the dust outside his door.
But nobody remembers a particular missionary. Missionaries, yes: tall and fair foreigners, alternately serving and bothering, always in pairs, knocking at doors or clapping at gates, asking to share a message. Probably everyone in Paysandú remembers missionaries, but me? There may still be some few folks who remember me. But I couldn’t find them.
Sometimes, to square my basically scientific-skeptical worldview with the fascinating ghost stories I hear, I posit some kind of universal memory, either unattached to living things or consummate with all of us, in which the waves of light and sound that once emanated from verifiable objects and events periodically regather and rehappen in diminished form. Thus the hazy, ill-defined shapes of apparitions and elusive lights, like shooting stars, barely visible unless you’re not quite looking for them, or half-caught reverberations you can’t quite be sure you really heard anywhere outside your head. In this model of the universe, my insignificant passage through Paysandú is never quite lost entirely. Every now and then under the smaller shade of a younger tree along a street I can no longer find, your peripheral vision might suggest the ephemeral forms of Elder Howell and me, sitting for a moment to pause our harried fishing-of-men, talking of our homes and our loves, sharing with each other some small encouragement from our scriptures. Every now and then you might catch a flash and crunch of gravel-under-rubber and think there’s a tall gringo riding by, who is he and what does he want here?
“What I remember is a picture floating around out there outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did, or knew, or saw is still out there. Right in the place where it happened. … [And] if you go there and stand in the place where it was, it will happen again.” — Toni Morrison, from Beloved
In the ensuing days, I heard back from Hank Howell, who also recalls that distant morning along the highway with the sunlight beaming, which brings me some comfort, because beyond my supernatural imaginings, there’s at least one person who remembers, which is to say who can put things back together, in his version, of course, but there in his mind am I, sometimes, looking out the window with him, unable to answer his question. And ghosts or no ghosts, now there’s you, reader, who’ve likely never been to Paysandú and certainly weren’t sitting next to me on the curb or the bus, but you’ve got your version now, too, diminished and hazy, suggested by my words but filled out by your imagination, so the things I saw and heard do re-happen, right there in your mind when you read.
I am no longer on the bus, no longer riding my bike through the dusty hot streets of northeastern Paysandu, no longer struggling to square the scene before my eyes with the vagaries stored in my brain. But I once was.