Excerpt: Harold R. Johnson’s ‘Clifford: A Memoir, a Fiction, a Fantasy, a Thought Experiment’

Shifting between memory and fantasy, childhood stories and adult grief, the Saskatchewan author tells the story of his older brother, whose life was cut short by a drunk driver
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on Jul 18, 2019
Nam Kiwanuka and Harold R. Johnson
Nam Kiwanuka interviews author Harold R. Johnson.

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Philosophy and shoelaces

I have a memory of riding a bicycle, fast down the gravel highway, and I know a truth, an absolute truth. Clifford told it to me. But it isn’t until I am alone — my legs pumping, my heart pounding, wind and sun and sky — that it hits me and I know it: “You are the only one who is real; there is only you and God. Everyone else on the planet is a robot put here by God to keep you company.”

It’s my moment of awakening. I am seven years old and I am alone on a planet. I experience the birth of consciousness.

If I was seven, he was 13. What kind of 13- year-old comes up with something like that and tells it to his little brother? Did he have any idea what that was going to do to me?

book cover for CliffordMaybe he did. Maybe it wasn’t just a malicious trick. Maybe he saw Dad sitting in a wooden chair, holding on, and he wanted to shield me from it. Maybe if I thought of Dad as just another robot, I wouldn’t hurt so much.

No, that’s too simple. I hold the hoop out in front of me and examine it closely. Anyone who could imagine something like this spaceship wouldn’t make up a single-use philosophy.

That idea, that I am the only real person, infects my seven-year-old self. I have a sense of self, an absolute sense of being. I am awake, on a planet. I belong here. I have more respect for the people around me. Maybe because I see none of them as my masters, I can be benevolent toward them, treat these robots, who don’t even know they are robots, with kindness, because I know the secret of our relationship and they do not.

Maybe Clifford was right. Maybe that is what he wanted me to experience: that I had no master on this planet, that I was an independent, sentient being. Maybe he planted that seed in my forming mind to help me as I became aware.

Or he was a 13-year-old mischief maker having fun with his gullible little brother. Tell me anything and I’d believe it. But somehow I don’t think so. Whatever he did to me was intentional. It was more than that he was six years older than me. I came into this world and he was here waiting for me, waiting to teach me, to guide me.

“Roar like a lion.”

And I would make the sound the best that I could.

“Hiss like a snake.”

And I would put my teeth together the way he told me to and make snake sounds.

In the early 1960s in northern Saskatchewan, there were no speech therapists. There still aren’t. A child with a speech impediment has to travel south to a city to learn how to speak. I had Clifford. I made lion noises to learn how to make the r sound, snake talk to pronounce s. Otherwise, I told of seeing “a cow on du wode” instead of “a car on the road.” Or excitedly report that “I teen du puppied” instead of “I seen the puppies.”

There’s an earlier memory. A high chair, Mom, Clarence, the stove, a pot of porridge, and I know something. I know that you have to put salt in porridge when you cook it. I might be two years old and I am trying to tell these adults that someone forgot to put in the salt. No one can understand the garble of my words. I am just a little person trying to show off that I know something, and they keep putting more sugar in my breakfast.

Clifford gave me my voice, my words.

I don’t remember his teaching me how to tie my shoelaces, but he must have. The memory is of his teaching a cousin a year older than me to tie his laces. The cousin couldn’t, kept getting it wrong. Finally, Clifford says, “Ray, you show him how.” And I untie and retie my canvas running shoe. I do it quickly, show-off style. “See.” Clifford’s voice is gentle. “He can do it and he’s younger than you. Try it again. You can do it.”

There on the north side of the house, where the grass is tall, that is where we had been sitting. I can almost see him there, the teacher, patient with his two young charges.

This house and this yard, these trees, the old garden, even the sand out front stirs memories, some of them sharp. But others, like tying shoelaces, are soothing. These are the memories that I’ve come back to find, to bathe myself in, or maybe to feed upon, to fill myself, to restore my soul.

Memories of Dad and memories of Clifford combine and become a memory of Clifford and Dad, the pair of them: Dad working in his garden, bent over at the waist with a hoe in his hand; Clifford with a watering can still dripping its last drops. Clifford was saying something, something long-winded, as I came up to them. Dad straightens up as I approach and says, “That’s a very interesting idea you have. But have you thought about how you’re going to use that idea to make things better?”

Excerpted from Clifford: A Memoir, a Fiction, a Fantasy, a Thought Experiment, copyright © 2018 by Harold R. Johnson. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press, Toronto. www.houseofanansi.com

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