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Mr. Monroe would have been 100 today. The world is a slightly darker place without him even though the 7 billion other people still going about their daily lives do not necessarily know it. I can remember it as though it was yesterday... hearing the Duke Ellington over the Victrola record player...

I remember the five dollar bill he’d always feebly attempted to shove into my hands...it felt as old as he was...wrinkled and worn from the many years of being passed through countless pairs of hands. I remember placing it back into his palm and watching him wrap his bony, arthritis ridden fingers around it.

“I said no money, Mr. Monroe!” Later that night, I made sure that the bill made it back onto his nightstand and not into my wallet, as if by magic, like it usually did. It had happened like that for a while, I would return the bills to his nightstand, and late that night, when I got back home, I’d find my wallet five dollars fatter. I kept telling him I didn’t want the money, but the moment I turned my back, even for the slightest amount of time, the bill would find its way off the nightstand and into my possession.

“Come on Mr. Monroe, I told you, I don’t want it!” He looked at me through his aged blue eyes and drily chuckled.

“Yes you do! Who wants to be helping an old fart like me on a night like this?” He gestured wildly at the window. He always used to tell me how he kept the thing open after darkness fell (even though it made his room cold) because the twinkling lights and brisk air that brought up the nighttime city sounds reminded him of his young, able-bodied self and his adventurous and seemingly endless nights filled with Benny Goodman, fast-paced Swing Dancing and night club hopping.

Suffice it to say, I gave the money back time and time again.

“A story.” I asserted one night. He looked at me puzzled, his questioning eyes magnified through his thick glasses. “Instead you tell me a story...no money, a story!” I could see him eyeing the limp bill laying on the dresser. “I know you always tell me stories about people you’ve met...” Thinking back on it, I may have been just seeing things, but I could have sworn I saw a light reappear in his tired eyes that I had not seen in the longest time.

“Y-yes, I’d like that very much...” he breathed suddenly sitting up a little big straighter in his old, distressed bed.

And that’s how it began. Every night Mr. Monroe would tell me a story. I soon noticed that the five dollar bills were staying on his dresser and he made no more moves to ensure I went home with them. He had realized he was providing me with something far more valuable and important than money...

***

Fleet Week: 1970. Max Roberts and Charlie Jones walked across Times Square relishing the feel of hard concrete under their feet. They kept their dress white uniforms on because they’d been told time and time again it’ll help them get lucky with the New York City ladies. And just like that, they found themselves falling into step next to two young girls, no older than 27 Charlie reckoned. They were laughing softly to themselves, with burning cigarettes nonchalantly dangling from their fingers.

“Well, hello. Who might you be?” Max asked in his most suave voice, adding a sultry smile for effect.

“I’m Janet Johnson.” One said gesturing toward herself with her cigarette laden hand. “And her over there is Tammy” She said nudging an artificially lengthened nail in the direction of her friend.

“Tammy...?” Charlie piped in. He heard a smoke roughened laugh come from his left.

“Tammy, just Tammy.” She breathed into the chilled night air.

“Okay then, ‘Just Tammy’ what brings you ladies out on a night like this?” Max asked. The four talked for blocks...wandering past the array of X rated movie theaters peppered with peep shows. No one had noticed how late it had gotten until even the “open ‘till Midnight” theater attendants began pulling rickety gates down over doors.

“Well, fellas, we better be getting back home” Janet interjected as she deposited her cigarette butt onto the pavement along with the countless others.

“It was nice meeting you though. Best of luck with whatever it is you sailor types do.” Tammy said as she and Janet hurried down the avenue.

“G’night, ladies!” Charlie called out into the night air. Soon it was, again, just Charlie Jones and Max Roberts walking alone with the only the smell of perfume laced with cigarette smoke to remind them of Janet Johnson and Tammy.

Max Roberts never really forgot about Janet Johnson and Tammy. He hoped that one day, after he was finished with his tour to Japan and England that he and Charlie Jones could tell Janet Johnson and Tammy exactly what the sailor types do.
***

The sparkle in young Ann Russell’s eyes as she gazed upon the tallest building in the world lit up her whole face. She had never seen anything like it...the true scale and height had been truly unfathomable before she was able to see the real thing (not just pictures). It was summer of 1955 and Ann was going to finally be able to ride to the top, the “tippy, tippy top” she’d call it, of the Empire State Building.
The elevator ride was long, her ears popping the whole way up. But all of that didn’t matter because when she got to the top, it took her breath away. She explained being “able to see as far as forever”. She reached up, feeling as if she could touch the clouds with her hands. Everything once so big seemed so small now that she was on top of the world.
***

“HEY! Look at me! DANIEL! Over here! Take a picture of me like this.” Michael Foreman struck a pose imitating the large statue behind him. Daniel Samuels knew it wasn’t going to be one of his better pictures, say, but why not. He laughed and clicked the picture. Michael ran off, probably to get ready for another picture, Daniel mused. His thoughts were interrupted by the whir of the camera. He had filled another roll of film. He delicately rewound the camera and extracted the film. He would add it to his film box at home...he had endless rolls...from along Manhattan Beach, from his trip to the Statue of Liberty, and the top of the Empire State Building.

“Daniel! One more, buddy! Look at me in this one! It’d make a helluva picture and you know it!” Michael’s enthusiastic voice echoed across the small park.

“I’m dead outta film, Bud! Besides, I don’t need any more of your stupid poses tarnishing my collection!” Daniel conveniently left out the fact that he knew of a small photography store (full of ready-to-use film) just around the corner.

Daniel recently began to feel like he was living through his lens. His ears had become accustomed to the click of the shutter and he wanted to capture every single moment before it slipped between his fingers and fell through the cracks of history as it often did. The photographs were moments turned time-proof (and yes, even Michael’s stupid poses) and motion-proof, imposed upon the blank film.
***

Abraham Lincoln kept a watchful eye over the rest of the National Mall from his grand perch; his pensive and stony gaze fixed in the distance. The subject of many photographs whose memories would be remembered for a lifetime.

Frank Sampson remembered feeling inferior and in-debt to the great figure sitting majestically upon his rock throne. Though the man had been long dead, he still felt as if there remained a breath of life within his stone interior. A fire that would never cease to burn, as if he were happy watching over us all for as long as his stony gaze lived on.
***

July, 20, 1969. The clock next to Gary Smith’s black and white television flashed to 4:18 pm. The news reporters droning voices crackled over the speakers. “The Eagle has landed”. Four simple words just like that had changed the future of humanity.

Gary couldn’t believe what he’d seen. He could practically feel the human race’s collective and admiring gasp. Each passing second was making history. He could already imagine the thousands of young boys (aspiring astronauts, of course) hopping around their living rooms, and that night, dreaming of being the next Neil Armstrong and of being able to add their footprints right next to his.

“We’ve landed, no walked on the moon...” Gary tried rolling the words around for the first time. He never thought he’d be able to say it. He peeled his mesmerized eyes from the small television screen and cast them to the sky, searching for the late-afternoon, barely shining moon. He could not believe that at the moment he was looking at the small circle in the sky, a man was walking on it.

He had changed...every atom in his body seemed to have shifted, the air in the room felt different. The definition of humanity had changed. Thus began the exploration of our home; our universe.

With an motionless red, white and blue flag and pioneering footprints embedded, for eternity, upon the crater filled surface, we boldly leave our mark...let others know we were here.

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
***

Rocky Sadler remembers the taste of his Mother’s apple pie as if he had eaten it only yesterday. The only thing was, it wasn’t yesterday...it was 15 years ago. He still remembered making them with her (“made with love, and of course apples” she’d say to him every Saturday afternoon in their kitchen). They’d go apple picking earlier that day because not just any apples would do for his Mother’s pies.

As a child, he could never get enough of the taste. He looked forward to Saturday nights eating the pies. He’d sit in his room, on his bed, and count to 100 over and over again until the freshly baked pie was on the kitchen table waiting for him. It became the taste of his childhood and of his Mother.

Still (a whole 15 years later), he still sometimes thinks he smells it, even when walking on the street. Without warning, the smell envelopes him. He turns around and almost expects to see her standing there with her lopsidedly tied blue apron around her waist with a warm smile (as warm as the pie) and apple-y heaven in her hands.
***

That last night I could tell something was different...something was wrong. Mr. Monroe’s eyes seemed glazed over and far more removed than normal. His smile was slower and his voice quieter. The air seemed thinner. I sat down in the usual old chair whose worn cherry stained wood seemed to listen to the stories along with me.

“This one’s gonna be about me.” He started. His eyes were directed at me, but I could tell he was seeing something else.

“You know I wanted to be a singer...” He had dreamed of the spotlights illuminating his body. He imagined a packed nightclub and adoring cheers. He imagined himself as the new Bing Crosby. He imagined himself up on stage next to Billie Holiday...hearing his voice mixing and weaving with her silky tones as they would sway through a rendition of Summertime. He envisioned the full band behind him and the crowd, as he described it, “dressed to the nines”. He imagined shining just as bright next to the stars...his list was endless...Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong, Rudy Vallee, Ella Fitzgerald and even, if he were to stumble upon such immense fortune, Frank Sinatra, the man of the American voice himself.

Mr. Monroe felt like nothing could stop him. He was ready for the flights and the tours. The drive to New York City after the concert in Vegas...the time on the road and the time on stage. The bright lights and camera flashes. The headline, sold-out shows...being the big name around town...the autograph signing and the recognition. The dream consumed his every thought.

“But things...happened. I realized I couldn’t make it big. I would remain my plain, old self...no flashing billboards...no nothing.” His eyes wandered the blank wall in front of him as if he were seeing the image right there in his small, Spartan bedroom.

“What ‘things’, Mr. Monroe?” I asked tentatively. He never took his eyes off that wall...to this day, I wonder what he was so entranced by...

“That, my dear boy, is a story for another lifetime.” He seemed to drift away from me completely now, a faint smile ghosting over his dried lips. He seemed to sway to an inaudible rhythm. Perhaps he was hearing the echoing melodies of duets he had ached for.

He had realized how dreams do not always come true...how reality gets in the way. He realized what time really was. It was a fluid, never ending torrent whose malicious ways tended to eat people up in its path. Lives often started, trekked on and ended without recognition. Slipping through the cracks of time and history. Forgotten, as life goes on, and never recognized for the mark they undoubtedly made on this world.

Mr. Monroe, from that moment on, dedicated himself to being a recorder of their stories. To make sure those with whom his path crossed would not be forgotten. The stories, he said, proved to the world that these people existed. That these people mattered.

The next morning the phone rang. Before I picked it up, I knew what I was going to hear. Mr. Monroe’s death came as no surprise.
That night, after his last story, he had passed peacefully in his sleep.

I soon realized that his last story, the only story about himself, had been his own special way of saying goodbye to me. It was a profoundly personal show of gratitude...I had helped him in more ways than just getting him into bed at night; I had listened and absorbed...I made sure his stories did not leave this world with him...I made sure that time was kept alive. He has passed the stories onto me to cherish and to care for, and most importantly, to never forget. I now carry the responsibility as well as his story...I have become a recorder of experiences; a collector of human lives.



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