UNKNOWN

By John Thomas Tuft

The map of their struggles and griefs, their joys and hopes are etched onto their faces in routes of careless explorations, and construction-riddled highways that lead to back roads of hidden fears and priceless gifts. After thirty-five years their conversations are like aleatoric music, sitting on the front porch watching the Norfolk Southern 7:37 making its lazy way through the heart of Roanoke every evening, rain or shine, as one will speak of a memory or dream, so often recited that the other picks up the story effortlessly and carries it forward without need of the sheet music of old photographs or diary. Sometimes it is a shared quiet, a remarkable achievement in today’s world. This particular evening,  Marcy turned to Abner and said, “Let’s play greatest unknown!”

Abner rolled his eyes, but just a little. “Okay, what is it tonight?” Marcy thought for a moment. “The greatest unknown is: was King Arthur and Camelot for real? I say, yes, that the world needs and wants stories like that so, like Neverland, it had to be invented so it might as well be real.” Having covered all the bases, she looked to him in triumph. “You could say the same thing about the devil and Hell, couldn’t you?” replied Abner. Marcy pulled a face and stuck out her tongue. “So, Mister Smarty, what is the greatest unknown?” Abner watched the train click-clacking along about thirty yards from where they sat. “The greatest unknown is: was there knowledge that’s been forgotten, and how would we know? Surely, somebody thought of wheels long before they finally started being made and used. Can the human race ever find out what it forgot?” He took a long pull of sweet tea and smacked his lips.

Marcy chewed on her lower lip, sizing up the man. “What did we have for lunch yesterday?” This was met with an embarrassed sigh and shrug. “Yet you sure remembered to eat it.” Wives learn early on how to set the knife just so. “Okay, my turn again. The greatest unknown is,” she pointed to the big star on Mill Mountain, indicating the sky above, “is there anything or anyone out there? And how would we know?” Abner pondered that. “Are we talking gods and aliens? Parallel universes and weird science?” He took another swig of tea. “All I know is that there is no nothing. We aren’t something in the middle of nothing. It’s all connected. There is no nothing.”

They sat with that for a while. The train moved south down the river valley. Finally, Abner said, “The greatest unknown is what was the first word? I’m going to say that the first word was ‘I’. What say you, my dear?” Marcy harumphed. “Sounds like a typical man’s response. Nobody asks you anything because there’s no words yet and the first thing you say is ‘I’?” Abner smiled. “And the second one was hush!” “I bet if it was a woman, the first word was ‘you,’” protested Marcy. “You and a motion to get in here or get out of here! Or you, sit down and eat. You, what do you need? That’s the answer to that greatest unknown.”

Marcy suddenly jumped up and ran down the stairs to the street. She went right out into traffic, motioning to cars to get out of her way. Abner watched her for a moment, confounded. Then he saw it, a small kitten wandering off the side of the road and into danger. He too quickly got down the stairs as fast as he could and out into the street. Between the two of them, they managed to corral the frightened animal and bring it to safety. Abner went to get a saucer of milk while Marcy cradled the forlorn creature and spoke in soothing tones. They spent the rest of the evening ministering to the kitten and asking their neighbors if they knew where it came from.

When the last of the daylight faded and they prepared to go inside, Marcy cuddled the kitten against her cheek. “What’s the greatest unknown?” she whispered. Abner looked up. “Chicken salad. We had chicken salad for lunch yesterday.” Marcy smiled and winked at him. “And there is no nothing. And maybe the first word was ‘we.’”

Words are magic and writers are wizards.