I remember, almost thirty years ago, preparing the mushrooms with Tom Kim: steeping them in boiling water, then fishing them out and setting them aside. We suspected, correctly, that the water would taste horrible. Mixing in the instant coffee made things worse. A half hour later, we felt nothing and began to eat the fibrous stems and caps.
An hour later, we could only grin and mumble. Alone, we might have been terrified, but Tom and I were old friends, drinking huge sodas with straws, wandering the tree-filled, sunny campus that was our home. My girlfriend didn’t experiment like this, but she laughed at our joyful incapacity. She took us to her room to keep us from the public eye.
And there we found Mr. Potato Head. Unable to form complete sentences, we built fantastic facial combinations: nose, mustache, ears, feet, eyes—a cubist exercise in stability. Our words would not hold still but our creations would. We giggled at our newfound secret language.
Today, my father holds the book prepared for him, filled with photos from the past and present. He cannot recall names but stares at faces—he suspects these people all belong to him. That’s me, he crows, placing his finger on his image. My mother shows a picture of my youngest son: ten years old, wearing a suit of armor he built from duct tape and paper plates. My father laughs and laughs and laughs.
My father and his friends in the memory care unit sit outside on sunny days. My mother says they talk and talk. None of it makes the slightest sense, but they laugh anyway.
Matthew Harkins teaches writing and literature at a college in rural Minnesota where he also directs a reading series for visiting creative writers. His articles on English early modern literature have appeared in a number of critical journals.
A Song for Matthew