Article - Winter 2022

From Murderpan to Mattapan

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A writer’s traumatic experiences lead him to travel in time to the places where he was hurt

By Quentin Lucas | December 1, 2021
Photo-illustration by David Herbick
Photo-illustration by David Herbick

As a child, I imagined I would escape Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood through my writing. As an adult, the Mattapan branch of the Boston Public Library hosted the writing classes I taught, where, among other things, I guided my adult students through the steps of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, he introduces his idea of the “monomyth,” also known as the “hero’s journey”: an outline of storytelling moments that run through many of the heroic myths told around the world and that shape a preponderance of contemporary stories. Campbell called his work a pursuit of “human mutual understanding” through “myths and folktales from every corner,” quoting the insight of Hinduism’s Vedas to underscore his intent: “Truth is one, the sages speak of it by many names.” Perhaps there are Hindu myths that symmetrically complement the myths of Mattapan, now my place of business, mythologized as murderpan for as long as I’ve known it.

Of all the murdered people I cross paths with, one rendezvous is most common, snatching me out of the present the way time eventually snatches away everything. To be fair, time does seem to give as well. Frequently, it lets me borrow my round, prepubescent body and my grandmother’s couch. I am sitting on a soft cushion on a Saturday afternoon. My age is hidden from me, but I am young enough to feel cool because I am hanging out with a big kid, a 15-year-old. I know his age because I ask him. He’s a friend of my cousin’s, and this is the only time we meet. Unlike other big kids, he doesn’t tease me. He just asks for my name, and we quietly watch college football.

The next day, my father tells me that the boy I was watching football with is dead. He’s been shot on his porch. His father held him while he died.

I tell myself that this incident hijacks me so often because it is being kind, because even time doesn’t always want to be cold and mathematical. That’s why the incident hides my age. It refuses to tell me whether I am nine or 10 or 11 years old because numbers alone can’t truly express an age. This slice of time tells me only that my grandmother’s cushions were soft and so was I. That I was, once, a person who shared a Saturday afternoon with a stranger and was comforted. This slice of time reminds me that my past can become my present because the difference between the two is a myth, that if I can be comforted in the past, then I can be comforted in the present.

The trickiest part of discussing time travel is resisting the urge to convince people that you aren’t insane. For me, the weight of that trickiness lies in the twin realities that time travel may be powered by post-traumatic stress disorder and the human tendency to fail at distinguishing PTSD from madness. But I don’t worry too much about it, for neither an elegant argument in defense of my sanity nor a capitulation to the idea that I am a lunatic will have any bearing on my experience of time travel.

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