Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Terrible Minds Challenge: Memento Mori

The Talented Mr. Wendig, Chuck Wendig of, has once again inflicted upon the world a challenge Flash Fictional. He asks his loyal subjects to consult the "M" section of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and write something using one of the entries there as your title and theme. As simple as that.

Mine is called "Memento Mori" (which is Latin for "remember to die". It basically means something that reminds one of one's mortality.)

It was a chair, just like all the other chairs in the room. Metal frame, one piece, the four legs connected to the back, two hard plastic pieces of a comforting neutral pastel to rest the sitter's body against. A school chair, put onto a desk at night so the floors could be cleaned. It probably wasn't even the same chair- their sameness made it certain they were rotated, borrowed, changed. It had probably been in every room in the school at some point.

It was more appropriate to say it was his seat. The art room had long tables instead of traditional desks, with four chairs around each. I don't remember how the seat was picked, or even who picked it. The table was along the wall, the chairs facing away from the inviting views of the street outside. In retrospect, a little cruel- high school students, trapped against their will, viewing a world they are not participating in.

He probably took his chair first. I'm sure that the sight of another male, especially one that he was friendly with, made me the first choice for his seat mate. It was art class, not a male dominated preserve, and while we were not close friends, we were friendly enough to get along together. We were friends like high school boys are friends: sarcastic, jokey, profoundly unserious. We liked heavy metal music, and usually tried to connive ways to make our art about album covers or band logos. We played basketball sometimes, and played guitar- he with skill, me with enthusiasm. He ate my pretzel sticks at lunch when I didn't want them.

He was there, the outsider with the long dark hair who didn't isolate the new kid who talked funny, making art projects, cracking jokes in poor taste, wearing concert shirts, being cooler than a kid had any right to be. Then, over a long summer, in an event that shattered the lives of everyone I knew, he was gone, felled by a hidden heart ailment, laying down under a tree on a car trip and not getting up.

It happens, relatively speaking, all the time- but there are the times it happens to other kids in other towns, and there is the time it happens to you. It is a part of life. We are all mortal- Charlemagne and Julius Caesar, Bill Clinton and Harmon Killebrew, LeBron James and Barack Obama. It still seems cruel, after all these years, to upend a kid's life, to tell them that the seat that was full in June is cruelly empty by the following September. It's true, but it's still unnatural to pull someone out of the self centeredness of youth so bracingly.

I don't know if the teacher said anything to other students, or if the psychic pull was just strong enough. For whatever reason, the chair was empty when the next school year started. I sat where I always had, and life continued on. As it does. It was never the same. Nothing ever is, having someone ripped away like that leaves a hole that can never be fully repaired. When presented with F.Scott Fitzgerald's essay "The Crack Up" in later years, it resonated powerfully. Fitzgerald writes of a dish that is cracked and mended with glue, saying that the plate is still the same functionally, but it will never be as strong as it was before. Hemingway, as he does, was blunter, noting that the world breaks everyone.

The chair is probably thrown out now. The building it sat in isn't even a high school anymore. His seat stayed empty, a silent reminder, while I pressed on, taking a class that really wasn't relevant for reasons I didn't fully understand. When I look back, so much of what has followed has been like that- acting to somehow try and make sense of the senseless.

High school students are often told they have to shape up for the "real world". Sometimes, the real world finds them.


  1. This really resonated with me for some reason. Powerful stuff, Michael.

    And it's funny, because I've written a passage akin to The Crack Up about broken hearts. I might post it one day.

  2. I remember sobbing graveside for someone I never knew, for the pain a loved one felt, and for the possibilities that would never come. Children should not experience loss like that nor should children be taken away so early.


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