Posts Tagged ‘Alzheimer’s’

The Gift of the Old Guy

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

(This short story appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2012)

1

Ray, a slender man of eighty-two, his white hair sparse, gazes out the bus window at the passing fields. He is lost in thought, truly lost, unaware of who he is or where he’s going. Ray’s wife Vera, on the other hand, knows exactly who she is and where she’s going. A buxom gal of seventy-nine, her fantastically curly hair tinted pinkish blond, Vera is Flo’s mother and Otto’s grandmother, and she and Ray are on a Greyhound bus going to Ukiah to be with Flo and Otto for Christmas, which is only two days away now. She sits so her shoulder touches Ray’s as she knits an orange and black afghan, her mind crammed with gift lists, recipes, and words of wisdom for her grandson.

“We should have driven,” says Ray, frowning at Vera. “How are we gonna get around without a car?”

“We don’t have a car anymore, dear,” says Vera, smiling at her husband. “Remember? We sold it three months ago. Since I don’t drive and they took your license away, there wasn’t much point in keeping it.”

“Must you remind me?” he says with mock indignation. And then, straining to remember, “Why did they do that?”

“You had another accident. And thank God no one was hurt.”

Ray frowns. “The light was green. The light was not red. I don’t care what anybody says. The light was not green.”

Vera nods. “Yes, dear.”

Ray glares out the window and remembers the light was red and that he had every intention of hitting the brakes. But his foot went to the accelerator pedal instead of to the brake pedal and…he closes his eyes and braces himself for impact.

Vera watches Ray for a long moment before returning to thoughts of turkey and pies and gingerbread and all the stores she wants to go to when they get to Ukiah.

On the edge of sleep, Ray hears a man’s voice, a voice his doctor calls a primary symptom of Alzheimer’s. Sometimes Ray thinks the voice is God, but other times he knows the voice is his memory.

“Hello Ray. Would you like to be Santa Claus again?”

Ray shrugs and says, “Sure. Why not?”

Vera looks at her husband and sighs with relief to see him temporarily content.

Ray is a department store Santa again, sitting on his red throne, a line of children stretching out of the toy department and snaking past Sporting Goods before making a sharp turn at Beds, which is where Ray loses sight of the line, though he knows there are kids lined up throughout the store and out the doors and down every road to the sea.

A little boy climbs onto Ray’s lap and says, “Where’s my candy cane?”

Ray says, “Ho ho ho! Have you been a good little boy?”

The boy grabs Ray’s cotton beard and pulls off a big chunk. “You’re not really Santa Claus!” shouts the boy. “You don’t even know where I live!”

Ray wakes with a start. Vera puts a calming hand on his arm.

“I could kill him,” says Ray, looking at his wife, unsure of her name, wondering if she can be trusted.

“Time for your pills,” explains Vera. “That’s why you’re cranky. I thought we could wait until we got there, but we can’t.”

 2

Otto, verging on seventeen, pushes the old station wagon up over seventy. His mother Flo arches an eyebrow. Otto slows the old wagon to sixty. He wants to stay in good with his mother because he needs the car tonight for his big triple date with Zak and Josh and their respective Awesome Babes.

“Think Gramps will like my blue hair?” asks Otto, making sure to signal when he changes lanes. “Remember when I had it real long and he said I looked Arthurian?”

“Fortunately, your grandfather is color blind,” says Flo, finding it impossible to relax when Otto is driving. “And your grandmother thinks anything you do is fabulous, so…”

“Um…” says Otto, clearing his throat, “about tonight?”

“I said you could have the car,” says Flo, rummaging in her purse for lip balm. “I want to take mom on the bus. That way she’ll be limited to buying what we can carry.”

“Um, mom?” says Otto, exiting the freeway at the suggested speed and hoping Flo is impressed by his magnificent show of self-restraint. “I was wondering about a slight advance?”

“On your inheritance or your allowance?”

“Very funny,” says Otto, flooring it through an intersection to beat the red.

Flo winces. “Since when is it a sin to stop at a yellow?” She clears her throat, remembering the family therapist’s admonition: Try not to be too hard on Otto. What with his father moving out and the ensuing emotional confusion…“How much do you need?”

“Forty?” he says, forcing a hopeful little smile.

Flo forgets all about the family therapist’s admonition and says, “Who do you think I am? Donald Trump? You think I’m made of money? I gave you forty dollars two days ago.” She sighs. “Long gone, I’m sure.”

“My skateboard was shot,” says Otto. “It’s how I get around. I needed…”

“Nothing,” says Flo, unable to restrain herself. “You get nothing more from me. And I want you to fill this car with gas before you bring it home tonight. Zak and Josh can chip in.”

Otto frowns deeply. “Are you serious? It takes fifty dollars to fill this old hog.”

“That’s right,” says Flo, her eyes narrowing. “And I work forty-eight hours a week. I bring home nineteen hundred and sixty-seven dollars a month, from which I pay the rent, insurance, utilities, food for you, clothes for you, music lessons for you, school supplies for you, an allowance for you.” She’s screaming now.  “…and every time you take the car out, it comes back empty, which means fifty more dollars, doesn’t it? And every time you go out with your stupid friends you want forty dollars on top of the fifty I just spent to fill the fucking car. And I can’t afford it. Okay?”

Otto is confounded by the intensity of his mother’s anger. “So you want me to get a job? Flunk out of school?”

Flo squints furiously at him. “No. I want you to get a job, stay in school, stop watching television and diddling your cell phone every second you aren’t skateboarding, and start being some HELP!”

Otto thinks for a moment and replies, “Okay, then. How about thirty dollars?”

 3

Ray sits up front with Otto, while Vera sits in back with Flo. Quietly, so no one up front will know, Vera hands her daughter a wad of cash—five hundred dollars. Flo kisses her mother’s cheek and whispers, “Thank you, mama.”

Vera holds Flo’s hand, gazes at Otto’s blue mop and says, “I find your coiffure positively daring.”

“You should see my friend Zak,” says Otto, relishing her praise. “He totally shaved half his head and dyed the rest magenta.”

“Daring, indeed,” says Vera, feigning delight. “Will we be meeting your girlfriend tonight?”

“You better believe it,” says Otto, winking at his mother in the rearview mirror.

“And her name is?” asks Vera, already knowing from Flo.

“Natasha,” says Otto, nodding emphatically. “Natasha Svetlana Jones. Her mother is like half-Russian and her dad is like Ukrainian or something, and, uh…I should warn you she’s got a massive gold spike in her right nostril.” He pauses dramatically. “Well…massive is like a relative term.”

“I can’t wait to meet her,” says Vera.  “And I just love how colorful and poetic your speech has become.”

“Is this girl a cannibal?” asks Ray, unsure of what anybody is talking about.

“No way, Gramps” says Otto, grinning. “On the contrary, man, she’s actually a vegetarian.”

“So why the spike?” asks Ray, touching his nose and wincing.

“It’s the fashion these days, dear,” Vera explains. “A fashion statement.”

“Or something,” says Flo, rolling her eyes.

“A statement of what?” asks Ray, frowning at Otto.

“Like her personal statement,” says Otto, nodding thoughtfully. “You know, like her personal belief about being able to like…express yourself.”

Ray surveys the suburban sprawl and he thinks they’re in Los Angeles in 1976. He frowns at Otto and says, “Jesus, Frankie, we’re supposed to meet those guys on Wilshire in ten minutes. Step on it.”

“What’s he talking about?” asks Otto, confused by his grandfather’s confusion.

“Don’t ask her,” says Ray, slapping his grandson’s arm. “Listen to me. This deal is as good as made.”

“His Alzheimer’s,” says Vera, nodding sadly. “He thinks you’re his old business partner, Frank Lazuli.”

Otto looks at his grandfather and says, “Gramps. I’m not Frank. I’m Otto and it’s two thousand and twelve and we’re in Ukiah. Okay?”

Ray blinks a few times as he returns to the present, turns to look at his wife, and says, “Like I was there again, honey. Just like I was there.”

 4

After supper, Otto’s girlfriend, Natasha, petite and pretty, her long hair maroon, her purple belly shirt revealing a big silver ring piercing the rim of her navel, explains the thrill of thrash dancing to Vera.  “It’s like…” she says, staring into Vera’s eyes, “it’s a way to get past societal repression into a state of physical bliss. I mean…after I thrash for like ten minutes I’m just totally free. I’m like totally…uninhibited.”

“We had Elvis,” says Vera, taking Natasha’s hand. “And then going wild at the Fillmore with Quicksilver and the Airplane.”

Flo shows her father how to operate the automatic channel changer. She points the device at the big screen television and the images jump from starving Africans to the Marx Brothers to somebody selling used cars to a woman taking off her clothes to a Canadian weather report to Australian soccer and back to the Africans.

“Can’t I just get up when I want to change channels?” asks Ray, sneering at the little plastic thing.  “It’ll be the only exercise I’ll get today. We missed our walk.”

“But dad, there are over two hundred channels to choose from. Part of the fun is channel surfing.”

“Fun for you maybe,” says Ray, reluctantly accepting the changer.

Otto, wearing his razor blade earring, ripped combat jacket and purple combat boots, gets the car keys from Flo and proclaims, “Hey everybody, be happy. I’ll be back by midnight for sure. Or so.”

When the young ones are gone, Vera says, “I like Natasha. She has a wonderful energy. Says she wants to be a veterinarian acupuncturist. Do you think they’re having sex?”

“What?” says Ray, glaring at the television. “Who?”

“Sex,” says Vera.

“Not now,” says Ray, winking at her. “I’m busy pushing little buttons.”

5

Vera and Flo catch a bus downtown, and when they are settled in their seats, Vera brings forth her list of things she wants to buy. Flo leans her head against her mother’s shoulder and says sadly, “He’s much worse, isn’t he?”

“Day by day,” says Vera, nodding. “I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to handle him by myself.” She shrugs. “Two weeks ago, he got up in the middle of the night, went outside without his pants on and tried to flag a cab. He thought it was 1973, the year he lost a fortune on all that desert land.”

“What will you do?”

“What can I do? I’ll have to put him in a home.”

“Oh, mama, I’m so sorry.”

“Let’s not think about it now. It’s Christmas. Let’s spend some money.”

6

Back at the television, comfortable in a recliner, Ray is stuck on MTV, dazzled by beautiful young women with long legs and perfect bodies. He forgets he’s watching television and thinks it’s 1972, the Starlight Lounge in Vegas. He and Frank Lazuli and Murray Cornish are celebrating closing a big deal—a new shopping center. They’ve got money to burn. Vera and Tammy and Twyla have gone to bed and left the boys to blow off steam and chase girls.

The phone rings and rings and rings until finally Ray emerges from the past to answer it, a voice saying, “Gramps? It’s Otto. Is Flo there?”

“Flo lives in Ukiah now,” says Ray, feeling rather proud to have remembered this new information.

You’re in Ukiah,” says Otto. “Remember? You came up for Christmas. We picked you up at the bus station today.”

“But of course,” says Ray, remembering nothing. “Hold on a minute.”

He wanders through the house, but finds no one. He vaguely remembers that Flo and Vera went somewhere, but by the time he gets back to the phone he thinks Vera has left him for another man.

“Hello, Frankie?” says Ray. “You still there?”

“This is Otto.”

“Where’s Frank?”

“I don’t know. This is Otto. Your grandson. Is Flo there? My mother?”

“No!” says Ray, glowering at the television—someone dunking a basketball in slow motion. “And if you don’t stop harassing my daughter, I’ll have the police on you so fast you won’t know what hit you.”

And with that, he slams the phone down and goes back to the Starlight Lounge.

 7

Otto, Zak and Josh come up with a plan for getting money so they can fill the station wagon with gas and take their girlfriends to a dance club in Santa Rosa. The plan centers on Ray. Otto parks the station wagon in Zak’s garage and jogs the seven blocks home. He finds his grandfather transfixed by The Empire Strikes Back. Yoda, a little green person with pointed ears, is speaking to Ray.

“Hey Gramps,” says Otto, full of false joviality, “you figured out how to use the DVD player. Cool.”

Ray says nothing.

Yoda says, “You will only find what you take with you.”

Ray replies, “Your color is bad. You should see a doctor.”

“So…Ray,” says Otto, “I’ve got a little business proposition for you.  Interested?”

Ray clicks off the set, turns to his grandson and says, “Frankie, I’ve had it.  Vera’s left me. I can’t do this anymore. The Wilshire deal wiped me out. Took me months to find a steady job. It’s not much, but it’s steady, and I want her back.”

“Okay,” says Otto, taking a deep breath, “but if you can front me a hundred dollars, I’ll turn it into ten thousand by Christmas morning and wrap it up in a little blue box and put it under the tree. Promise. It’s an absolute sure thing.”

“I’ve heard that line a thousand times,” says Ray, shaking his head. “Hell, I’ve said it a thousand times.” He grins at Otto and winks. “But okay.”

He fishes his wallet out of his back pocket and gives Otto all he has—five twenties. Otto tries to thank Ray with a kiss, but Ray shoves him away and says, “Don’t get queer on me, Frankie. Just make the deal, okay?”

“Okay, Ray. Okay.”

8

On Christmas morning, Vera is in ecstasy and Ray has become addicted to watching Otto play a video game in which he attempts to conquer an alien civilization. Flo is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

“We have some big news,” says Flo, smiling wanly at Otto as they gather in the living room to open presents. “Vera and Ray are moving to Ukiah, and so for a few weeks…until we get them settled nearby, they’ll be living here.  Won’t that be great?”

“Here?” says Otto, shocked at the prospect. “We only have two bedrooms.”

“Oh, it won’t be so bad,” says Ray, winking at his grandson. “And now we can turn that ten thousand into a million. Right?”

Otto blushes, stunned that the old man remembered that two-day-old con job. “Whatever, Gramps,” he says softly. “Whatever you say.”

Flo hands the first present to Vera. She unwraps it carefully to preserve the wrapping paper.

Ray peers at the presents under the tree and sees no little blue box. He frowns at Otto and says, “So…things didn’t work out so well, huh?”

Otto stiffens. “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

Vera shrugs. “Don’t worry, honey. It’s just his Alzheimer’s.”

“No, it’s not,” says Ray, feeling remarkably lucid. “I may forget a lot of things, but I don’t forget a business deal.” His eyes fill with tears. “You promised me, Otto.  You promised me.”

“This is too weird,” says Otto, standing up. “I didn’t promise him anything.”

“I’m sorry,” says Vera, bowing her head. “Maybe our staying here isn’t such a good idea.”

9

Otto sits on his bed feeling guilty and cruel. He talks quietly to a large smoky quartz crystal, a Christmas gift from Natasha. She says the crystal has the power to convert negative reality into positive reality.

“I never should have lied to him. I hurt him. I didn’t think I could. I didn’t think it would matter to him. I always loved him when I was a kid. I really did. So please, please make this all okay.”

Having said this, Otto has a vivid memory. He is seven years old, walking with Ray along a beach at Lake Tahoe. Suddenly a huge dog rushes toward them, murder in his eyes. Otto wants to run away, but Ray holds onto him and says, “It’s okay.”

Now the old man squats down, holds out his hand to the dog, and makes kissing sounds. The dog becomes docile and friendly. Otto is astonished by the transformation of the beast. Ray explains, “They get aggressive like that because they’re afraid, not because they really want to hurt you.”

Someone knocks at Otto’s door and he expects his mother to come in, angry with him for robbing his grandfather, but it’s not Flo, it’s Vera.

She sits beside Otto, runs a hand through his blue hair and says, “We’ll only stay if you want us, honey. We certainly don’t want to intrude on your life.”

And Otto is about to confess his crime and ask for forgiveness when Vera adds, “Oh, and by they way, did Ray give you the money I gave him to give you? The hundred dollars? Or did he forget?”

fin

Crazy Memory

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser January 2012)

“Every man’s memory is his private literature.” Aldous Huxley

I used to know a loquacious drunk who punctuated his pontifications with the disclaimer, “Of course, memories are, at best, only fair approximations of what actually happened, so please don’t quote me.” At least I think that’s what he said. And I took his disclaimer to mean that his memory was not so sharp, whereas my own recollections were essentially photographic and therefore highly accurate. Silly me.

A few nights ago we watched the movie Bedazzled (the original work of genius, not the execrable remake) created by and starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, with a stirring cameo by the preternatural Raquel Welch, and we laughed so hard at some of the scenes I felt five years younger at movie’s end. I hadn’t seen Bedazzled in thirty years and feared the sarcastic romp might not stand the test of time, but it did with ease. However, what did not stand the test of time were my memories of favorite scenes from the film, for they were, as the drunk foresaw, only approximations of the actual scenes.

Indeed, I was crestfallen that my most favorite scene (as I remembered it) only barely resembled the actual scene in the film. Which scene? The one in which Raquel Welch brings Dudley Moore breakfast in bed. In my misremembered version, Raquel’s seduction of the hapless Moore lasts a good ten minutes and features the nearly naked Raquel erotically enunciating each syllable of the expression, “hot buttered buns” as part of an excruciatingly slow build to an orgasmic finish; when in actuality Raquel spat that delectable phrase rapid fire in the midst of a badly blurted speech prelude to seductus interruptus. Yet thirty years ago my brain seized on those three little words and made them the centerpiece of a seduction scene far more lurid and glorious than the one they filmed.

“Memory is a child walking along a seashore. You never can tell what small pebble it will pick up and store away among its treasured things.” Pierce Harris

During one of my many stints as a single man, I attended a party featuring scads of married couples and two single women, one seven-feet-tall, the other a midget, though now I’m not so sure about their heights. I am sure I fell into conversation with a vivacious married woman and ere long her jealous husband joined us. To assure him I had no designs on his wife (though she certainly inspired several marvelous designs) I asked them how they first met.

Vivacious Woman: We were working on the same float for the Rose Bowl parade and…

Husband of Vivacious Woman: No, honey. Rex and Sally set us up on a blind date a couple weeks before the parade.

Vivacious Woman: No, dear, you’re thinking of Tom and Rita. And it was two weeks after the parade. And it wasn’t a blind date because we already knew each other. No. You approached me ostensibly to borrow some pink flowers, but I knew you just wanted to get a closer look at me.

Husband of Vivacious Woman: Honey. Come on. You think I don’t remember how we met? It was only four years ago.

At this juncture, we were joined by a beautiful pregnant woman and her dumpy bald husband, and before Vivacious Woman and Husband of Vivacious Woman could come to blows over their divergent Rose Bowl memories, I asked Pregnant and Bald how they first met.

Pregnant: I was dating his brother…

Bald: You were not. We met long before you ever dated Jack. At the bowling alley. Remember? Then you went out with Jack a couple times, and then…

Pregnant: A couple times? I went out with your brother for a year, and if he hadn’t been transferred to Atlanta…

Bald: Ten months is not a year.

Pregnant: That’s true. Ten months is technically not a year.

“


Memory is a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food.” Austin O’Malley




Speaking of crazy people and what we think we remember, in my former life as an author of books published by large publishers, I often performed in bookstores, cafés, theaters, and college auditoriums. And though I enjoyed performing and my audiences were generally appreciative, I eventually shied away from such public exposure because crazy people kept coming to my performances and zapping me with their psychic toxins. Here are two such encounters as I remember them.

Encounter #1: I am in a large old bookstore standing on a small dais facing an audience of sixty people. I have sung a couple songs, accompanying myself on guitar, and read a few stories, and the laughter and applause have been raucous. The master of ceremonies (the owner of the bookstore) announces a fifteen-minute intermission, various people thank me for my performance, an aggressively attractive woman hands me her business card and suggests we meet for coffee, and an old friend hugs me and whispers, “Watch out, buddy, she’s crazy as a loon.”

As I make my way outside for a breath of fresh air, a big man with long hair and a neatly trimmed beard approaches me. He is wearing a red plaid shirt, gray slacks and brown hiking boots, and I recall seeing him smiling at me during my performance—smiling gigantically. I stop walking when this man is within six feet of me and I fully expect him to stop at a reasonable distance from me, but he doesn’t stop until his face is within a few inches of mine.

“You kept looking at me,” he snarls. “Why were you looking at me?”

“I beg your pardon, but…”

“Don’t deny it,” he spits. “You kept looking at me because you thought I liked you, didn’t you? You saw me laughing when everybody else was laughing and you thought I was laughing because I liked you but I was only laughing because I wanted you to think I liked you when I don’t like you. I hate you. And if you don’t stop looking at me, I’ll kill you.”

“Now you’ve gone too far,” I say, looking around for help. “And I’m gonna call the police if you don’t leave on your own.”

“Fuck you!” he shouts, running away into the night. “Fuck you famous writer asshole motherfucker piece of shit!”

Encounter #2: I have just finished performing for a good little audience in a small café, (by good I mean they laughed at the funny parts and cheered at the end, and by little I mean more than ten but less than twenty) having larded my reading with improvisations rendered on a remarkably in-tune old upright piano. I am making my way toward a table where a half-dozen people are waiting to buy my books and home made cassette recordings, this being in the days before the advent of CDs and digital everything, when a slender cowgirl blocks my path, her red velvet cowboy hat dotted with silver sequins, her blond hair sprinkled with gold glitter, her black cowboy shirt detailed with creamy white embroidery, her skirt rawhide brown, her shiny boots lime green, her age somewhere between thirty and forty-five.

“Hey,” she says, her voice as breathy as the wind they call Mariah (not really, I just couldn’t resist using that expression), her accent distinctly Serbian, “can I speak with you for little moment?”

“Sure,” I say, happy to see the people waiting to buy my books have fresh drinks in hand. “What can I do for you?”

“You are so generous,” she says, staring at my lips—her eyes shattered blue marbles. “I can hear how generous in your music, and…well…I can see things. Is my special gift. To see things. You know what I mean? What can be and what cannot be when certain things don’t or do fall into place, or not.”

“I think I have an inkling about what you mean,” I say, imagining her face without cowgirl war paint and guessing she is way more than cute. “What do you see?”

“I see you must stop writing.” She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, and nods prophetically. “You must give everything to music or gift will be taken away.”

“But why? I like doing both. Music and writing.”

“Maybe you like doing both, but they don’t like you doing them both.” She opens her eyes and glares at me. “Just as I would not like you doing me and doing somebody else, too. I could not stand it. I would go crazy.”

“But music and writing are not people,” I say, relieved to see no holster, no gun. “And I like doing both.”

“No, you don’t,” she says, sudden tears spilling from her eyes. “You are afraid to give yourself completely to music because…such intimacy terrifies you. I can see clear as day. I can see your life on one path or another path. And if you do not stop writing and give yourself only to music you are doomed to play in junky rat holes like this for rest of life begging people to buy your shitty little books and shitty little tapes, when you could be huge.”

“Maybe so,” I say, wondering what it is about me that attracts such cuckoo birds, “but if not for this junky little rat hole, I never would have met you.”

 “There are lots of people who mistake their imagination for their memory.” Josh Billings

What are we without our memories?

When I was forty-three, my seventy-year-old mother led me away from the Thanksgiving feast, made sure we were not overheard, and whispered urgently, “I’m losing my mind and it’s not coming back. I’m in a nightmare and I want it to end. You have to help me kill myself.”

I realize now that my mother’s request was perfectly reasonable, but at the time I couldn’t imagine abetting her suicide, which I felt would make me a murderer. Twenty years gone by, I can easily imagine seeking the proper pill to curtail the horrendous suffering I watched my mother endure for twelve long years until finally, blessedly, at the age of eighty-two, she died in the skilled nursing facility where she had spent her last few years, having spent the previous eight years in a storage facility for those suffering from the brand of dementia known as Alzheimer’s.

Every few weeks for the years of my mother’s internment, I would take the train from San Francisco to Menlo Park and walk the half-mile from the station to that pea-green warehouse where Avis was a favorite of the friendly staff of Mexicans. They pronounced her named Ah-vees and identified her as ella que andando: she who walks, for my mother did little else when she wasn’t sleeping.

One day, after my mother had been in the joint for three years, I found her—lank white hair, plaid slacks inside out, yellow blouse wrongly buttoned, mismatched shoes—walking down a dimly lit hallway speaking to no one.

“Hi, Mom,” I said, catching up to her.

“They wanted fifty-seven and I told them where do you think?” she said, frowning at me. “How did you get here?”

“I took the train,” I said, holding her hand.

“You’re allowed to do that?” she asked, shaking her head. “I don’t trust him. Hiding under the mattress over his bandana.”

I took her outside where we could amble along the cement walkway that outlined the facility, my mother trying the locked gates to see if they might open—the air scented with stink from a nearby car fire.

“Would you like to go somewhere else?” I asked, hopelessly. “Into the village for an ice cream cone?”

“I sleep in a refrigerator,” she said, sitting on a bench and looking at her hand. “What a funny fig.”

I sat beside her and she jumped as if shocked.

“It’s only me,” I said, making light of her surprise.

“Who are you?” she asked, frowning suspiciously. “How did you get here?”

“I’m your son. Todd. I came on the train.”

“How dare they,” she said, pouting. “I gave him fifty-seven and he spilled nobody over again.”

“Are you thirsty?” I asked, wanting only to soothe her.

“I had fifty-seven overviews with red disasters,” she said, shaking her head. “But they couldn’t get over the river. Kaput.”

An old man, bent and grizzled, came around the corner, walking with mincing steps and peering intently at the ground.

My mother leapt up, embraced the old man, and kissed him on the lips.

The old man stuttered, “I haven’t…I don’t…why…who…okay.”

My mother took the old man’s hand and walked away with him, forgetting all about me.

“They hid under the milkshake and stayed there,” said my mother, kissing the old man’s cheek. “And pretty soon the shit was dry.”

Enough Already

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

(This essay appeared originally in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2010)

Many of us traveling into late middle age have by now laid our parents to rest and/or moved them in with us or into transitional facilities. In so doing we have come face-to-face with the detritus of their lifetimes, and having disposed of their stuff (or, heaven forbid, added their stuff to our stuff) we are seized with new ambitions: to downsize and streamline and free ourselves of the burden of so many things we used to think we couldn’t live without. We have learned again what we already knew: things, cumulatively speaking, are a pain in the ass.

Carl Jung in his old age was convinced that all things, including pots and pans and knives and books and shoes and stones, were animate entities and demanded our attention and energy. It is said that when the elder Carl entered his kitchen he would politely greet the knives and pans and forks, and ask them to be kind to him so he might successfully brew his tea and scramble his eggs. He was convinced that by acknowledging the aliveness of these allies they would be less likely to jump from his hands or fall to the floor. Thus his cooking would be a delight rather than a danger.

Indigenous North Americans, dubbed Indians by their irrational conquerors, believed, as Jung did, that spirit animated all things. Stones, water, wind, trees, stars, clouds, and fire were alive, so it was common practice (not crazy) for a person to address a tree or a rock or the sky as brother or sister or friend. Would we want to possess and keep captive hundreds and thousands of things if we felt each was our relation and possessed a soul? I doubt it.

When my mother began her Alzheimer’s adventure, she developed a grave concern about her things. How did they get here? What were they called? And what were they for? I would soon learn that Alzheimerians cannot learn. They only unlearn. But before I gained this awareness, I would patiently explain to my mother that she had bought the things called bowls and books and vases, and they were for putting things in or for reading or for holding flowers. She would nod, see another thing, frown, and ask, “What’s that?”

“That is a teapot?”

“How did it get there?”

“You put it there.”

“Why?”

“Well, because it looks nice there and you can reach it easily when you want tea?”

“But I don’t want tea. I want coffee.”

“Fine. I’ll make some.”

My father was a pack rat of psychotic dimensions. I theorize his junk was the main thing that drove my mother crazy, along with his incessant cruelty. Long before the onset of her Alzheimer’s, my mother would go into rages about the ever growing stacks of magazines and newspapers and junk mail and just plain junk, none of which my father would allow her to throw away. For some years he collected electric motors, though he never did anything with them. When I cleaned out his garage the year before he died, I found fifty-seven little electric motors in various stages of disintegration, thousands of rotting magazines, and over five thousand books, none of which had been looked at in decades.

My father went off to work every day and left my mother alone in a big house full of useless junk. When she would leave the house to visit friends or shop or do volunteer work, or for the ten years she practiced law, she was an entirely different person than the person she was in her dysfunctional house. I’m talking Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde different. Away from the massive jumble of things she was brilliant, competent, funny, and happy. Then she’d come home and become helpless, befuddled, humorless, and miserable.

And isn’t it true, as Perry Mason liked to say, that when you get away from your accumulated things you feel lighter and, dare I say, happier? Why are vacations so refreshing? Certainly because we’re seeing new sights, breathing new air, and breaking free of ossified behavior patterns; but I contend we feel most refreshed because we are free of those myriad animate things, each demanding a share of our psychic energy.

Reading interviews with people who lost their homes and possessions in the Oakland firestorm of 1991 in which nearly four thousand homes were destroyed, I was amazed to discover that after their initial shock wore off, many of the survivors said they were greatly relieved to be free of their accumulated stuff and to be “getting a fresh start.” Which reminds me of cost analyses proving the average American spends a much larger portion of her income providing life support for her things than for herself.

When my first marriage ended, I went from being a home-owning car-owning person to being a room-renting bicyclist pedestrian, and I felt, literally, fifty thousand pounds lighter. Some of this lightness came from escaping an unhappy emotional life, but some of it was unquestionably the result of being freed from the psychic responsibility for a house and a car and the ten thousand attendant things.

My Jewish grandmother, poor from birth until thirty, wealthy from thirty to sixty, and poor again until she died at eighty, told me she was happiest when singing or reading poetry, no matter her financial state. And it is from that perspective I prefer to judge the current economic collapse: the failure of a thing-based economic and social order, but not necessarily the end of happiness.

The mainstream pundits and politicos and economic puppeteers keep telling us that the much-ballyhooed (but essentially non-existent) recovery is mere moments away if only people will resume buying things they don’t need. Never mind that all fifty states are bankrupt and their citizenry bankrupt with them, people have got to roll up their sleeves and start stimulating the economy. Come on! What are you waiting for? A job? Money? Yet despite historically low interest rates, people are saving money as never before, if they have any money to save. People are driving less, shopping less, and needing less than they used to think they needed.

So wouldn’t it be great if this meltdown turns out not to be a meltdown, but a turning point, an awakening? The death of the parent equals the death of the old economic paradigm. In cleaning up the parental junk, we come to terms with the futility of hanging on to huge piles of stuff. In picking up and reforming the economic pieces, we leave out the making and getting of piles of junk. If we aspire to possess anything, it will be a few high quality things we lovingly care for as opposed to crap we stack up and eventually throw away or leave to our children to throw away for us.

I know. I’m waxing utopia here, but maybe, just maybe, there are good times ahead and they won’t look anything like the previous good times but rather more elegant and spacious and egalitarian. There will be less judging people by what they own and more celebrating people for how uniquely they jitterbug, how kind they are, and how fun they are to hang out with.

Todd Walton’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.