I have this incredibly vivid memory of being young and walking with my grandmother and my parents along Main Street in Manayunk, the Philly neighborhood where both my parents grew up. It’s a warm summer day and we’re going to Overbrook Water Ice, one of my favorite places in the world (someone later told me it was a drug front, but I don’t know anything about that). I’m stomping on the metal cellar doors in the sidewalk outside every storefront, and my parents are warning me not to do it, and I keep clanking anyway, and then one swings open like a trap door and I plummet into a strange basement. I am injured and terrified. Adults scramble to piece me back together again.
This memory flashes into my mind every time I’m walking through a city, watching people recklessly step onto these doors, thinking about how the sidewalk is littered with gaping holes, tombs for the careless. If crowding forces me to step on one, I try to skip lightly across the surface. I imagine myself each time plummeting into an underworld from which there is no escape, hot and full of hissing steam pipes and ruled by sewer trolls (it’s possible I’m picturing the Negative World from Super Mario Bros., it’s possible I’m only capable of conjuring nightmares based on entertainments). I have frequently told friends and acquaintances about this traumatic moment from my past.
But it couldn’t have happened. My parents have no memory of it, for one thing. For another, those doors are designed to swing out, not drop in, to avoid exactly the accident I have always feared. I have no scars or other evidence of the type of injury that would accompany the fall (I know I broke my first bone at 12 and got my first stitches at 20). There would have been doctors and lawyers and lawsuits.
Then why do I remember it so well? Did I invent this memory in a dream, or was it planted there by my parents’ dire warnings? Isn’t the most important thing that this fear has dictated my behaviors for years? This was a formative experience, whether it happened or not.
I can try all I want to be as truthful as possible, but I have no way to verify most of the things I’m saying. They are things I remember having occurred, and that I can describe in great detail. Still, I need to acknowledge that it’s possible I’m fabricating entire chunks of this book, and that some of the stories I’ve told to friends over the years have been invented, in whole or part. What I really want to know is: can fears, if felt deeply and intensely enough, generate these experiences in our minds? What is the difference between me having actually fallen and me feeling absolutely certain that I have fallen?
Another memory: I’m at my grandmother’s house, a few years after I did not fall through the cellar door, and it is trash day. Her dog, Patches (a shepherd mix) has died. My grandmother is stoic, but I know she is very sad. Later that day, we are watching Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier andI am wearing my beloved coonskin cap. When Davy dies at the Alamo, I ask why he had to die. My question is literally about the movie, as in why would they kill off the hero instead of letting him win? But she thinks the question is about death in general, and she enumerates the reasons God calls people’s souls into heaven. I regret having asked the question, because I know that evening my dad will sit me down at the kitchen table and have a serious talk with me about death and dying. He will ask me to articulate my own vision of the afterlife, and explain how I’ve come to these conclusions.
When we leave her house, I see that Patches has been stuffed into a cardboard box on the curb. The box has tipped over and Patches’ head lolls out the side onto the sidewalk. I stare into her dead dog eyes and I feel a dread I will never forget. I can close my eyes right now and visualize the dog’s face. I have written this image into a half-dozen failed short stories. I’m putting it here in hopes of finally getting it out of my brain.
Again, there’s no way this could have happened as I remember it. Wikipedia tells me that Crockett doesn’t even die in the movie (though his death is described as “inevitable”). It is extremely unlikely that the death of Patches occurred on the same day as the Davy Crockett incident (your mind likes events to be orderly, likes to combine things that have no business being combined). And, most importantly, why would my grandmother, a devout Catholic who harbored a deep respect for God’s creation, just throw a dog into a cardboard box? Why would nobody address the dog in the box with me, but spend time gauging my feelings on the Alamo? It’s all so vivid. The dog’s head, the blank eyes, its tongue. I’ve seen it so many times.
Here’s one more: I’m in the backseat of my grandmother’s car and there is a hole rusted into the floor beneath my feet. As we drive through Philly, I stare down into the hole, watching the asphalt whiz by beneath us. At a red light, I try to work up the courage to reach my foot down through the hole to the street. Before I do it, the light changes and we’re rolling again. Every couple minutes, I let my foot dangle just above the hole and consider jamming it through like Fred Flintstone, just to see what will happen. When we’re stopped, I think about crawling through the hole like Alice into some other world, but I’m too afraid to move. Imagination is overall a good thing, but sometimes it can get you killed.
It goes without saying that this also couldn’t have happened as I remember it. Car safety standards were more lax, but my grandmother was a careful person. My parents wouldn’t have let me ride in a car without a floor. Yet just this week I sat in the back seat of a friend’s car and when I pressed my foot down to the mat, the memory of that hole flashed back in perfect detail, and I felt that sensation of always being inches from being sucked into another dimension. There are holes everywhere, and you never know what’s at the bottom of them until you dive in.
Does the fear create the memory or does the memory create the fear? This country is sick with nostalgia for a forgotten, lost America, but most of the things people love about that America never existed in the first place. Politicians paint vivid portraits of a great America just beyond our grasp, and even accounting for the way these narratives whitewash history and represent a longing for a return of racial segregation, it’s strange to think about how much of our understanding of the country’s golden age comes from Grease and reruns of Happy Days and visits to kitschy diners. Every cherished entertainment turns into propaganda eventually. Most of the far-right organizers and militias forming online are very young; they have been told their whole lives that just a generation before they were born, this place was a utopia. It’s all predicated on invented histories. Their fury is a fear of losing something they never had in the first place.
Tom McAllister is the author of the novels How to Be Safe and The Young Widower’s Handbook, as well as the memoir Bury Me in My Jersey. His short fiction and essays have been published widely, and have most recently appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Hobart, The Rumpus, Buzzfeed, The Millions, Juked, and Pithead Chapel. He is the co-host of the weekly podcast, Book Fight!, and nonfiction editor at Barrelhouse. He teaches at Temple University and lives in New Jersey.