Once upon a time, I briefly found myself in a clapboard, rusty trailer, semi-ghost town in Nevada. The hotel I stayed in was a rundown has-been, where ceilings soared high, and the lumpy, almost colorless wallpaper was surely a century old. Outside, an ever-buffeting wind dragged dust across the frozen ground, rattled low-lying grasses, set the wooden doors of abandoned shacks tapping. The only warmth to be found was in the hotel’s shabby bar room where, under an ancient tin ceiling, a talentless band whined out bad country music, and eccentric locals dished up tall tales, wry humor, and suspicion. It was a singular place, that community, eerie, even magical, and I’d give anything to get back to it. But where was it?
Believe me, I’ve searched for it over and over, traveling back and forth across Nevada, peeking into shabby trailer communities, fading towns, ghost towns, and I’ve never found it. I have found other ghostly places, though: former boomtowns, clapboard, rusty trailer ghost towns decorated by bullet holes; abandoned manor houses, forgotten spas, snow-covered to rundown rooms where ceilings soar high, and lumpy wallpaper is a century old; to nowhere communities where wooden doors tap in the wind, and bare stalks scratch; to dreary bars where eccentrics dish up tall tales, and suspicion. Am I scared? Well…sometimes. Even when I think I’m alone, there could be someone watching from a hidey-hole. That’s the risk: ghostly locations always come equipped with thrills and chills.
Aha. So the culprit is memory.
Of course, times have changed. Places that were abandoned years ago have become tourist attractions. Casinos have replaced shabby bar rooms. It’s just as well I haven’t found the town I was looking for again, because I can conjure it up in my mind. Even better, I have used t as a setting for my two books, All About Charming Alice and Desert Rose.
Certainly, we’ve all had the experience of meeting up with someone we haven’t seen in years, and discovering that a shared experience has been remembered in quite a different way. In fact, a memory is rather like a color photo taken at a special moment in life; pull out that photo years later, and look how those once-bright colors have faded with time.
We like to think we’ve kept a memory accurately, that it stays the same no matter how many times we go over it. But the sad fact is, it’s impossible to remember something without changing it each time we turn it over in our mind or bring it up in conversation. We always alter it in some slight, even imperceptible, way, add a detail, a scent, a sound, an atmosphere, an intensity that never existed. And, constantly updating the memory in this unconscious way, the newer version replaces the older. Which means it ceases to be a memory and becomes an anecdote.
So how can we recover the true, original memory? We can’t. Sure, sometimes returning to a place can trigger a certain amount of recall, but not all of it. To reconstruct a memory — even if that reconstruction is imperfect and will always remain so — we depend on available information stored in our brain, on the coordinated activity between the hippocampus and the frontal cortex. The hippocampus is the brain’s director, and it tells the cortex which particular neurons it should activate. Frequently activated neurons become part of a permanent memory in the cortex; rarely activated neurons are lost. And that means that some — or all — of the real information we’re looking for, has probably vanished, along with the telephone number of a long-lost lover, an old password, the first and last names of people who once meant something, faces, birthdays, and once-important, deeply intense conversations.
Of course, as a writer, I do embrace a certain amount of memory loss. Perhaps if I remembered that nameless semi-ghost town as it really was, it wouldn’t seem so romantic now. It might well be an ugly place, a hostile community of dullards, one that, after a lifetime of rich experiences, would seem banal, without charm, without mystery. But because my memory has played me tricks, I’ve been able to turn it into a delightful fictional community — Blake’s Folly, the setting for my romance, Desert Rose.
Here’s how my heroine, Rose Badger, sees Blake’s Folly:
Even if Blake’s Folly was a wash-out now, it had been jumpy and nervous enough back in the old Gold Rush days. Today’s residents were the descendants of the wild gun-slingers and goodtime girls, those who’d hung around too long, gotten so caught in the gluey languor of this place, they’d been unable to move off.
Today, this place was a rusty trailer, scrapyard, abandoned car, clapboard shack, sagging old house community: a dead end if there ever was one. This was nowhere. This was the end of the line, socially speaking. This was a has-been. This was home.
And, of course, that terrible country band I remember so well, has now become The Old Boy’s Band, and as the pride and joy of Blake’s Folly, it’s still playing away:
The Old Boy’s Band had, so far, destroyed the Tennessee Waltz, bungled Oh Suzanna in a hopelessly sadistic way, was now going for a full kamikaze hit at I Remember You. Even worse than the horrendous noise level, was the local idea of party togs: better-dressed ancestors were probably spinning at high velocity in their graves at this very moment.