What I was least warned about in life was not knowing. They told me all about pain, sorrow, and human weakness. But they hadn't fully explained to me how little I would know all of the time. I can deal with the other imperfections of the universe if I understand them. If you understand a problem, then you can solve it or know it is unsolvable. That is why my entire life I have sought to know, I have questioned, researched, and extrapolated. If I could only understand everything, then it would all be bearable.
The first time I truly experienced the lack of understanding was at the age of four. Finding my mother crying one morning for no apparent reason. It was confusing to have this sturdy, unbreakable person, broken. I asked her what was wrong. She had tried to explain through her sobs, but I didn't understand. I couldn't understand. I was only four. I cried with her then, and not because she was crying, but because I didn't know why.
Not knowing followed me throughout the rest of my life. Not knowing how to do math in elementary school. Not knowing why I needed to do math in middle school.
"Why won't anyone tell me how we actually use line graphs? There must be a use, or we wouldn't have them!" I might cry to my friends. My greatest frustration was when people didn't explain things adequately or, when they acted like something didn't need explaining, 'because that's just how it is.' "Everything needs explaining. Not one thing is this darn beautifully confusing universe is, 'just how it is.' No question should ever be answered with, 'just because.'" I would say again and again to my two very endearing friends.
If you want to understand our journey of learning, you must know the people involved in it. Our small but tight group was made up of three friends, Kurt, Nora, and me, Clark. Our opinions on incomprehension varied widely.
Nora, unlike me, reveled in it. Mystery was her best friend and dreaming her second. Nora wanted to understand how little we understood. She studied history, particle-science, black holes, paleontology, and the human mind. But what she liked most was myth and fantasy. Nora loved the mistiness of it. The idea that living under every tree stump could be a gnome. That over the next ocean could be a land inhabited by the spirits of things forgotten.
Though she preferred possibilities over reality, we shared a love of questions. Nora was wise enough to know that every truthful explanation actually brought more questions and more possibilities.
Then there was Kurt. Out of us three, he probably had the healthiest relationship with not knowing. Kurt, too, liked to know things. He enjoyed the process of becoming proficient at a subject or skill, but not knowing something didn't bother him much. Kurt knew what he knew, and he knew what he didn't, and he didn't mind that. Kurt could build a car out of only pieces, and that's all that really mattered to him. He treated knowledge like any other resource. He only gained more of it if needed, and if he didn't, there was no reason to be greedy.
We had all met at the library when we were around eleven. Nora and I spent lots of time at the library, I was there research some subject or another, and she spent half of her life reading a mountain of fiction. So, it wasn't hard for Kurt to be noticed by both of us when he came. We saw him trying to find and check out a book on how to make a boomerang. That captured all of our eleven-year-old interests, so a friendship was born.
Our journey took place when we were fifteen and enjoying our spring break. The smell and feel of early spring was buzzing in the air that morning, I barely noticed it though. My mind was occupied with riding my bike through the busy streets of the small and quaint town, listening to an informational podcast. I was on my way to the library to meet Kurt and Nora. Stopping at a crosswalk, I absentmindedly peared across the road to the green. The well cut field of green grass was lined with trees, reading chairs, and children. At the end of the field was the library. Though the brick building only had one story, and three real rooms it was enough for us. The walking-man light came on, and I crossed the road. I still couldn't get it into my head how intersections functioned. The not knowing began to gnaw away at my insided. Understanding a system was one of the most satisfying I could experience, and not understanding one of the least.
Once I reached the other side, I jumped aboard the bike and pedaled quickly down the sidewalk next to the green. My anxiety about road systems faded as I saw Kurt’s bike and Kurt himself. He was sitting on a bench in the shadow of a tree next to the bike-rack
“Why are you waiting outside?” I asked with a smile. I jumped off my bike and began to lock it onto the rack. “We are going to be outside most of the day already. You always wait outside.”
Kurt shrugged, “It’s nice out, and you can never have too much of a good spring day.” He said, standing up. Kurt was wearing a simple but slightly grease-stained pair of jeans and a red T-shirt with a sweatshirt tied around his large neck. Though I was taller than Kurt, he definitely had more oomph to him. Heavyset and muscular with a broad face and large nose, he looked like a giant teddy-bear. None of his features were hard or hard to understand. Kurt rarely smiled if he was not happy, frowned if he was not sad, or laughed if he was not amused.
I pulled out my headphones and turned off the podcast I hadn’t really been listening to since the crosswalk. “I guess,” I laughed, “Maybe I have no patience, but there is so much you could have been doing while just sitting there. We don’t have much time today… or any day, really, for that matter.”
Kurt smiled and shrugged again, “There are some interesting things you learn from just sitting. That kid over there has spent at least thirty minutes trying to throw frisbee from way over there and hit this tree. Turns out, that’s difficult.” Kurt gestured at the tree behind him and a kid across the green. He looked about ten. The ten-year-old took a step back and threw a blue frisbee in our direction. As I watched the frisbees arc, I anticipated it wasn’t going to hit the tree. Instead of letting the kid fail to hit his target once more, I ran and caught it.
“Great throw! directly into my hand!” I yelled, and I threw it back to him. I chuckled as the frisbee made its way shakily back over to the general area the kid was in.
“You’re terrible at frisbee,” Kurt commented.
“I know,” I said, grinning, “I’m even surprised I caught it.” Kurt began to chuckle but was interrupted by someone yelling.
“Hey, slugs! Y’all want to solve a mystery? I have the coolest thing to show you!” Nora yelled, jumping down from her mom’s minivan. She was wearing a small backpack, jeans, a space unicorns T-shirt, and rainbow checkerboard vans that were so scuffed and stained they were barely recognizable. Nora was small in stature and large in personality. This was shown by the fact she was running over, clapping and yelling. She thoroughly disapproved of doing the same thing twice, unless she felt like it. Nora was easily excited and easily bored, flitting between subjects, ideas, and moods. So none of this was out of the ordinary for her. “Come on! Come on, let’s go! I found the coolest thing in one of the books Mrs. Prichered gave me! Well, I found nothing, and that’s the cool thing!”
Nora ran up to us and pulled off her backpack. “Sit,” she said. We sat. “Last month, I have been given the responsibility to look through donated books to see if they are fit for the library shelves. Mrs. Prichard used to do this, but she said that I might enjoy it.” Mrs. Prichered was the older southern woman in charge of the library volunteers. Since we hung out around the library so much, we had accidentally become volunteers. Though we thought we knew her well, it had never really occurred to us she was an actual human being you could get to know. But we loved her, and she showed us infinite kindness and had always treated us as equals.
“I did, I like looking through old books. So many little moments surround them. The pages people earmarked, the notes written inside, and the coffee spilled on pages. But this one-” Nora pulled a book out of her backpack. “Is a whole new level. The book is about modern art. Most of it is a bore to me, but it talks about this one super contested piece of art. It's called Blue That Knows. Apparently, It’s a big deal, but we don't know who made it because it was anonymously donated to a museum. Since then, it has been vandalized, fixed, fought over, and stolen. People hate and love this piece, it's talked about as if it is a religion. ‘Blue That Knows is the answer to everything!’ ‘It proves the world is broken!’ I was excited to see it, but the page with a picture of it was torn out. The book describes Blue That Knows rarely, but from what I can gather is that it's super simple. Just a few colors. Not like a picture of anything that would cause these kinds of emotions. I now really wanted to see this painted. So I googled it, but guess what? It’s not anywhere online, I only found a link back to this book and a local news article in Alabama about someone stealing the painting. But there is no picture of it. Blue That Knows has been missing for twenty years now. Next, I googled the author of the book's name, and it’s a pen name. The only result was this book. And guess what? The book is 45 years old and out of print. Behind the Paint is really the only thing deeply connected to Blue That Knows, if it weren't for the Alabaman article, I would say the book made it up. My only way to link it to someone besides me, are the two names written in pen on the first page. Maybe one of them tore out the page. The first was faded, old, and had been crossed out, but it was still readable, Wylock Madruga. Weird name, easily googleable. Only a couple results, a Facebook account, and obituary. The Facebook account is for an old guy of the same name, he lives here, in Davidson, or did, the obituary is for that old guy, he died a month ago. That's probably why the book was donated.”
“And the next name?” I asked. This was causing the edges of my brain to buzz with questions.
“Oh, that's the real mystery. See, the first name was crossed out with relatively fresh red ink, and the second name was below the first and written in the same pen. So, it obviously came after the other name. Why would someone put their name on a book only to donate it? The name was Aristera Tis Petras, even weirder name. I googled it, no results.” She exclaimed, throwing her hands about as she explained.
"Aristera tis petras,” I repeated, “How is that spelled?” She handed me the book open to the first page, there were two names written in the upper corner. A smile broke across my face. "The reason you didn't get results is because that is not a name. That's Latin, and If I'm not mistaken, it means Left of the Stone. If I can participate in this mystery-solving, I would like to guess that would be a clue to ‘left of the gravestone.'"
No one spoke as we internalized that. Maybe after years of searching, we were finally on to something. Kurt broke the silence by laughing, “I don't know how you did it, Nora, but I think you may have found a real mystery, and even if you didn't, it's a nice walk to the graveyard.”
Nora jumped up and down in excitement. “That is the coolest thing you have ever done, Clark!” Nora cried. I stood up and bowed, I did feel pretty cool. Mrs. Prichard would be proud, she had convinced me to learn Latin, looks like it came in handy. We set off immediately to the cemetery. Taking the nice spring day walk through our smalltown. We might be jumping at shadows, but as Kurt put it, “At least we were having fun.”
We found the grave in the corner of the cemetery among trees and bushes. The grass hadn't grown over it yet, and the headstone looked fresh. “Wylock Madruga, 1927-2019” Kurt read from the simple white headstone.We began to search a well-trimmed bush that sat to the left of the graveyard. After a couple minutes of fruitless crawling in the dirt, all we had found was an old brick and an empty bottle of Dasani water.
“This can’t be it,” Nora said, sitting on the ground and holding the piece of trash. “Is anything even here?” She began searching again, and I joined her.
Kurt seemed unaffected by our failure to find anything. Instead, he picked up the brick and studied it. “This is old, but in good condition. It obviously was in a building at some point, there is still some mortar on it. By the condition, color, and the markings on it, it's probably from that antique shop.” Both me and Nora were still searching in the dirt, so we barely paid attention to his brick ramblings. He continued talking anyway, “Y’know the one next to the pizza place on main street? It’s under construction right now, that’s probably why the brick isn’t in it. I just don't know how it ended up here.” He thought allowed. Nora and I stopped, looked at each other, and whirled around to face him.
“Kurt, how in the name of Wylock Madruga, do you remember where a random brick is from?” I asked.
He shrugged, “I Dunno, I notice things. I was building a brick shed at my grandpa’s house a couple weeks ago, and I’ve been going to that pizza place a lot, and it has good bricks. I like looking at them.”
Nora's face lit up like the sun. She covered her mouth and her eyes wrinkled with a smile, “I’m pretty sure laughing in the graveyards gets you haunted,” I teased.
“I think you just found a clue to where we need to go next.” Nora said, voice filled with smiles. Kurst's traditional bear gin appeared.
But then I had to think about it. I began to shake my head sadly, ”It was probably just a brick. If there had been a clue, it probably had already been found. The guy has been dead for a month. And even if it was, the place is thirty minutes away by car, we don't have thirty minutes, let alone a car.” I pointed out, looking around at them the excitement deflated like a popped party balloon. Kurt's colossal smile slid off his face, and Nora punched the ground angrily.
“And it’s under construction, so we wouldn’t be allowed in anyway.” Kurt agreed glumly.
“Better to think about it than go anyways. Even if we find the painting, it won’t be as good as we expected. Modern art is rarely what it's made out to be. Probably just some boring blue on a boring canvas in a boring room somewhere,” Nora said, standing up, and angrily wiping the dirt off her pants. “Another boring question that we can’t answer.” She said, angrily kicking the Dasani bottle. We looked at her, shocked, and she angrily furrowed her brow in response, “Well, am I wrong? Don’t chase your dreams, because when you catch them, you’ll realize they aren't as good as they looked from far away. The realities we invent are always orders of magnitude more interesting than the realities that exist.”
Kurt cleared his throat awkwardly, and I opened my mouth to say something, but we were interrupted by the sound of a car horn. The sound came from a dying 2007 Honda Civic that sat stationary on a nearby road. I believe it to be it is the most boring car humanity has ever devised. This specific breed of boring was my brother Mat’s. The car was a silvery color and one huge long scratch that it had sustained in its 8 years of service to my family. Mat had taken the car with him to college, and whenever he came back, he was set on an infinite amount of errands to pay my parents back for the car, and most of which he squirmed out of. Mat stuck his head out the window, “Why are you hanging out in a graveyard?” He asked incredulously.
“We like the company of the dead,” Nora replied for me.
“Cool, cool. Well, mom thinks you need a haircut, Clark. We have family pictures tomorrow, so get in.” He said, rolling up the window and putting the car in drive as if we would drive away if I didn't get in soon.
I said a quick apology and goodbye to my friends, and then ran over to my brother's car. I jumped down the curb and slid into shotgun. The car was immaculate, Mat desperately wanted a nice car but didn't have the money, so he had to make do with half working honda civic.
“Mom said I had to get my haircut now?” I complained, directing my current frustration at the current situation toward my brother.
“Yeah, she said we don't have much time. Especially because I had to search half of the town for you.” Mat replied, not looking at me as he made a three-point turn.
"Okay,” I replied, “My bike is in town, could we swing by and grab that?"
"Nah, sorry, I have a busy day. Going to a junkyard. We can grab it another time." Matt said as he pulled up to a stop sign and turned on his right turn signal.
"Yeah, me and Tom found it, looks like a good place to poke around." He said. Tom was Matt's best friend.
"Like, your breaking in?" I asked. Matt had a track record for going places he wasn't entirely allowed.
"I don't know, but I'm sure as heck not asking anyone. I'm more of an ask for forgiveness, not permission sorta guy." Mat replied, the road cleared, and he turned right.
“So you're committing what might be a crime just to see what’s probably a bunch of junk?” I asked.
“We’ll see where it goes. You got to jump into the dark if you ever want to do anything great. If you try something new, something dangerous, maybe you'll get rich.” Mat said, a mix of self-serious and unfocused, his attention probably on happily speeding up well above the speed limit. The car was a hybrid, and its battery was dead, so it accelerated like a two-legged drugged dog who has been told that it has made a mess, but that didn’t stop Mat from speeding. As I half-listened to my brother's lecture and stared out the window at my friends across the graveyard, a feeling came over me that I hadn't ever had. Like a dam breaking, years of held back impulsiveness and rule-breaking flooded over me, pushed by the always strong curiosity. A fire of adventure was lit, a fire of fun and possibly idiotic rebellion. In short, I felt like a true a teenager.
“Stop the car,” I said calmly, turning to Mat.
“What?” Mat asked, glancing at me but continuing to accelerate the car.
“Stop the car now,” I repeated, “And you might get twenty bucks.” The car came to a jerking halt.
I rolled down my window and stuck my head out. “Kurt, Nora! Come over here! I have a plan!” I belted across the graveyard. I knew Kurt would be onboard. He was like a Golden Retriever, loyal and along for the ride. Nora would have been normally as well, but right now, she didn't seem in the best mood. Kurt jogged over with Nora in-tow, who was slower from a mix of reluctance and shorter legs.
“Kurt, you got twenty bucks?” I asked as he reached me. Kurt fished around in his pocket and pulled out a crisp twenty-dollar bill, Kurt always had money, and he was always too nice not to let me take advantage of that. I took the twenty from his hand and passed it to Mat.
“Is that enough for a ride to that antique shop on main?” I asked as he yanked it out of my hands and studied it.
“For five more you get control of the music,” My brother replied. I produced five dollars, though it was not as crisp as Kurts, wrinkled and haphazardly shoved in the corner of my jeans pocket, it was money all the same.
"It doesn't look like you're getting a haircut today," Kurt said, a smile creeping up his face as I handed Matt the money.
"No, it doesn't," I said, stepping out of the car. "But more importantly, we are getting a ride, and you can have shotgun," I said, gesturing at the seat.
He jumped in and put his feet up onto the dashboard, "Sounds good, but if we get arrested for breaking into an antique shop, I was a hostage, not an accomplice."
"It's a deal," I said with a smile.
Matt pushed Kurt's feet off the dashboard. “If you get my car dirty, I’m dropping you all off at the curb of the barber.
I opened the backdoor. “It’s better than just dreaming, right, Nora? Don't you want to make your own stories?” I gestured towards the seat.
“I’ve never been sure if there is anything better than dreaming,” Nora sighed, but then raised her chin up and smiled. “But if there is, it's finding a missing work of art by breaking into an old brick building with your friends.” She ducked down into the car, I ran around to the other side and jammed myself into the other backseat. A huge smile alight on my face as I closed the door with a slam.
“I’m such a good brother, Clark. I convinced you to go on an adventure with my wise words about seizing your moment.” Matt said, accelerating the car as fast as he could once more. (Which wasn't very fast.)
“No, I just remembered your love of money, and I thought I could exploit that to get a ride.”
To be continued