1. In May 2010, my mother handed me a manila folder with a sticky note that said “For Danny,” written in her immaculate cursive.
1a. “Maybe these will help with, you know, your stories,” she says, and goes off to play with our girls. “Your memoir.”
1ab. She pronounces “memoir” like “mem-wah,” in exaggerated French, accompanied by a hand motion or her cigarette waved in the air, flapper girl-style. I must have jerkily corrected her at one point.
2. Old boxes of mine have lingered in her basements for years, and now that I live in a house, it’s been transferred one car load at a time. She’s retired and shares a smaller house with my stepfather Bill, so she needs to scale down.
2a. Gone are the four nativity scene sets, each of different scales and ethnicity, which she had arranged every December in a straight line, each figurine equidistant, as if four Josephs and four Marys and twelve wise men were taking a curtain bow at a Broadway show.
2b. Gone are the landscapes of seagulls, the “Footprints” and “Desiderata” plaques.
3. I opened the folder. I hadn’t seen this stuff in 20 years: Polaroids, report cards from Our Lady of Perpetual Help and Camden Catholic High School report cards on thin, crinkly paper.
3a. There’s a photo of me wearing an athletic headband: a lot of guys did that to look like Jim McMahon of the Chicago Bears, who just won the Super Bowl.
3b. There is a follow-up letter from Burlington Country Juvenile Court after the golf ball arrest.
4. Rifling through all this, it occurs to me that she’s handing over the last relics from my childhood.
5. And then there’s a 1985-86 academic calendar. Flipping forward, August and September 1985 are empty. Then the entries begin.
5a. October 31, 1985: “Mike left us.”
5b. Blank for November and December 1985.
5c. January 10, 1986: “Flu.”
5d. January 11, 1986: “Flu.”
5e. January 12, 1986: “Flu.”
5f. January 13, 1986: “Flu. Dad [my grandpop] bought us tires.”
5g. January 14, 1986: “Ck. for heat assistance.”
5h. January 15, 1986: “Chris pregnant!”
5i. January 16, 1986: “Look into getting own checking account.”
5j. January 17, 1986: “Job interview, Treitsman and Robin, 11:15am, Phila.”
5k. January 20, 1986: “Treitsman and Robin, 4pm 2nd interview.”
5l. January 21, 1986: “Got the job. Gave OLPH 2 wks notice.”
6. The calendar dates mom getting back on her feet, finding a better-paying job. I still wonder why she kept it.
6a. “I just don’t remember anything from that time, not at all,” she says now. “It was all such a blur. Maybe that’s why I kept it. I wanted to remember what was going on. I didn’t know one day to the next, one week to the next.”
6b. January 27, 1986: “Meri sick”
7. January 28, 1986 was my turn. I said I was sick, but really wasn’t. What did it matter? Nobody cared if I went to school or not. I hadn’t talked to dad since he moved out, mom was going crazy, starting a new job in Philly working for a guy who owned cheap suit factories. I just had to get finish high school, maybe go full time at the car wash or get another job. Nobody around to bother me, no homework to finish. If you remained in front of the TV until the “Let’s Make a Deal!” theme started, I figured you’ve written off the day.
7a, January 28, 1986, a Tuesday, was one of those days.
7b. This is one day I remember because I was watching TV and I had one of those old school numeric remote controls from Maple Shade Cable Company, the kind with big numbers on them and nothing else, and it was connected by a long straight phone cable wire, and when we would fight over the clicker as we called it dad would unplug it when he got to what he wanted to watch and throw the remote across the couch as if to say game’s locked everybody; I win.
7c. That morning it was just me and the remote, and I sat in front of the couch on the rug, soaking up as much cable TV as I could before we got rid of it. The heat was turned down to 60 degrees. I sat there, confused and cold, eating crackers and peanut butter.
7d. I flicked over to CNN to watch the Space Shuttle countdown. I used to love this kind of shit—astronauts, space, rockets, looking at the stars. All that joy from castle-building in the sky, most of it gone. Who could I share it with? Reverie didn’t cut it anymore.
7e. White plumes of smoke from the launchpad, flame up in the sky. In an instant, a booster rocket fell off. The shuttle disappeared in a fire cloud.
7f. The phone rang. It’s Paul Stern, of all people, from school. He wanted to know if I was OK, and then mentioned the shuttle.
7g. “Sucks so bad,” Paul said.
7h. “Yeah,” I said. “Bummer.”
7i. And I felt bad for the Challenger, the astronauts and the teacher who went up with them, but I knew I was also detached from that moment. Not aloof really, but for the first time I felt like it didn’t make a difference if I cared or not; it wouldn’t matter if I prayed for their souls or for their families. I didn’t pray for mine anymore, didn’t go to church. Whatever conscience or moral compass outside myself felt like it had evaporated. I felt like I was not in the main current of humanity, and Paul somehow was. He cared. He was going to college. He was part of the larger conversation while I was cooped up in mine.
8. It occurred to me then that it didn’t matter what I did with my life: not to others, not to my mom or my sister, and certainly not my dad. Four years before, I was writing in my journal about how I wanted to do great things or at least emulate people who did, and now I was watching people die on TV, people trying to do great things hundreds of miles away and blowing up in space, and it didn’t matter.
8a. Or I just didn’t give a shit.
8b. I was still in my pajamas and I would stay that way all day. Later I went down to the record store on Main Street, and talked with the owner about the Shuttle. Nobody knew anything about rocket science or the boosters and gases. We just said it was a shame and then talked about music and I bought a couple Kinks records. I was a clown, a troublemaker; I was born into this world a Shader and would enter adulthood as one.
9. I couldn’t help but notice that mom didn’t put down that I was sick that day in the calendar.