2016 Margarita Donnelly Prize for Prose Writing Honorable Mention

 

Conundrum

by Elaine Howell

After the doctors diagnosed her father with Alzheimer’s disease, Sarah began to lose her memory. It was astonishing, the rate at which it left her. Like a soul upon death. Sometimes she thought she heard it at night, a steady whoosh in her ears—names, events, shapes, words, flying away.

For an entire day, she forgot the name of her favorite author. She started saying thing a lot. But she didn’t panic until she drove home from work one night and saw a giant, white “M” creeping along the sidewalk. It was the color of the moon and seemed to have crawled up from the sewers—was there a massive, mobile alphabet beneath the city? Or was she just watching it leave her mind? She hit her brakes. Something beyond her eyes focused—it took a while—and she recognized that the “M” was actually two white terriers, out for their nightly walk, a woman not far behind them.

She saw doctors, all kinds. “You’re young,” they said. “Don’t worry yet.” They ran tests, expensive ones with cryptic acronyms for names; all insisted she was normal.

“It’s probably stress,” one specialist said. “Or it could be early-onset, but there’s really no way to diagnose that without taking out your brain.” He laughed.

**

Sarah tried to hide it at the Los Angeles News office, where she had worked for ten years and was now a managing editor. It was easy enough to use spell-check and the Internet to jog her memory, but she couldn’t remember specifics on demand. If someone pressed her for names, dates, or places, she couldn’t always supply them. She dreaded their weekly meetings. She began to write down everything and carry a recorder with her, even when she wasn’t working.

One afternoon, her supervisor asked her for synonyms for vacation. She could only come up with respite and retreat.

“Because you need one,” he said.

She locked up her bungalow haven in Larchmont, said goodbye to her friends and to the woman she was just beginning to love, and boarded a plane to see her parents.

**

It was late autumn in Michigan. The trees huddled bare under a milky sky, waiting for the cold to hit them.

Sarah’s father sat in his recliner at the window, in exactly the place she had last seen him.

“Carol,” he said.

“Dad, it’s Sarah.”

“How was school?”

He showed her the new DVDs he’d received for his birthday.

“Let’s see,” he said, pulling out the box from next to his chair. “Mission Impossible, Gladiator, and what’s this? Lord of the Rings.

This went on for a half an hour. It was always a surprise to him, what was in the box. He seemed especially pleased each time he realized he owned Gladiator. She tried to be as happy as he was, but the fifth time he opened the box, she knew she wasn’t that good of an actress.

“Did I already show you these?” he asked.

She shook her head.

He put the box down.

Sarah noticed a book in the magazine flap of his chair. A Brief History of Time. Something she remembered: Her dad swore time travel was possible. He told her theories, when she was a child, that extraterrestrials were actually humans from the future who had come back through time to observe us.

“Like a field trip,” he would say. “Instead of reading about history, you just travel there.”

Now, he nodded in agreement when she read to him about black holes being the key to the time-space continuum. And one part interested him most: There was a place near the edge of a black hole called the event horizon, where matter, particles, people, had a chance to turn around before being destroyed.

“We always have a choice,” he said.

She wanted to believe that.

**

Her mother counted pills every Saturday and dropped them into the blue “medicine calendar” for the next week. Aricept, Coumadin, Zoloft, Buspar, and five other drugs sat in pastel hills on the kitchen table.

“He wakes me up at two in the morning by poking my forehead with his finger,” her mom said. “Like a child.”

“What does he want?”

“A white pill.”

“Which one?”

“I don’t know. He just wants something small and white.”

Sarah listened to her mother’s complaints. The pink had drained from her face and she had stopped coloring her hair. “He won’t remember if I look crappy, anyway,” she said. In her father’s mind, his wife was probably still twenty-five, with thick blond hair and a tight sweater.

Sarah’s own memory seemed better now that she was around her father. Perhaps it was just the comparison—next to him, she was normal. Her loss was subtler than his, less noticeable.

**

Something happened when they were at the drugstore, refilling seven of her father’s prescriptions. Her mother loved to shop, especially with Sarah, who despised it.

“Since we drove all this way, let’s do a little browsing,” she said to Sarah. “Uncle John won’t mind sitting with Dad a little longer.”

Sarah indulged her mother; it had been a long time since the two of them were alone together.

As they approached the makeup aisle, her mother glanced at her and said, “Honey, you look so pasty. Are you eating enough red meat?” Her mother knew she was a vegetarian.

“And your lipstick is so dark,” she added. “It makes you look old.

The last word came out in a whisper, too horrible for anyone else to hear.

“Mom, I’m thirty-four.”

“It’s just the lipstick, honey—try this one.”

Her mother handed her a sample tube that had been used almost to the casing. There was an eyelash on the surface: A trapped wish. The lipstick was frosty orange—the hue her mother wore—called “Conundrum.”

Sarah said the word out loud: Conundrum. “It’s not me.”

“Just try it.”

Before she could stop her, her mother drew a thick line across Sarah’s mouth.

“See?” her mother said.

The lipstick was sticky and smelled like cheese. Sarah wiped it off with the inside of her wrist.

“I’m just trying to help.” Her mother tossed foundation, powder, blush and eye shadow into her basket. “I’ll give you a complete make-over when we get home. Maybe get you some cute dresses, too.”

“I don’t want a make-over.”

“Sarah, we all need a little help sometimes. Just because you say you’re a lesbian doesn’t mean you have to look like a man.”

She could see in her mother’s face that she was on the verge of breaking. Just a few words and she would cry. She was hanging onto this makeover as if it would save all of their lives, make everything better.

Sarah took a deep, simmering breath and headed toward the exit. “I need some air.”

“Wait.” Her mother followed her, with the basket. As she walked out the door after Sarah, an alarm blared. A strobe light turned the store front white.

“Oh my god,” her mother yelled, looking down at the drugs and cosmetics she had just shoplifted. “I forgot to pay!”

Two teenaged security guards accosted them on the sidewalk. Shoppers gawked.

Sarah followed the boys as they ushered her mother back into the store. “If she really wanted to steal these, do you think she’d put them in a big red basket?”

Fortunately, one of the older cashiers was on a first-name basis with her mother.

“I can vouch for her,” the cashier told the security guards, batting them away.

The cashier and Sarah’s mother chatted during the transaction. Apparently, they both had husbands with dementia. The cashier squeezed her mother’s hand in farewell and called her sweetie.

Sarah carried the bags to the car, put them in the trunk, and jumped behind the wheel before her mother could.

They drove in silence for a few minutes. Then her mother said, “It’s left here, honey. Not right. Don’t you remember?”

“Oh, right.”

“Do you think I’m crazy,” her mother said, “walking out of a store without paying?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “I just feel like something terrible is going to happen.” She started to cry. “I don’t know how much longer I can do this.”

Sarah stopped at the next light.

“Have you thought about assisted living?”

“A home?” Her mother wiped the tears off her cheeks with two quick jerks of the tissue. “You know I don’t want that.”

“But he needs more care than you can give him.”

Her mother took this as an insult. “I think I’m doing just fine, thank you, with absolutely no help from anyone.” She opened her compact and daubed powder under her eyes.

“Mom, you’re not a nurse.”

“Maybe if you hadn’t moved to the other side of the country with that lifestyle of yours, you could help me and we wouldn’t be in this situation.”

It was an old argument, but still alive and strong.

“I can’t move,” Sarah said, cracking the window. “It’s my home.”

“Your home is here.”

“But I don’t want to move. I like it there.”

“Well,” her mother said, “I’m glad one of us is enjoying herself.”

Sarah could never offer a convincing enough reason to stay in Los Angeles. Her mother saw Sarah’s life there as a prolonged rebellion, something that would end once Sarah came to her senses. And what better time to end it then now, when her parents needed her?

The lipstick had made her mouth itch; she rubbed her lips together and turned on the radio.

**

Her parents now ate dinner several times a night. After the first meal, usually fruit salad and tuna, her father would return to his recliner and watch CNN. An hour later, he would ask Sarah’s mother what she was making for dinner.

“I’m hungry,” he’d whine.

They used to fight for hours about it. A few times, Sarah’s mother had made him sign an agreement right after dinner, stating that he’d eaten at a specific time and date.

“I even had him write in what we had,” she told Sarah.

But he accused her of gaslighting him. The arguments were worse with the contracts. He tore them up and threw them on the floor.

“Then I thought of videotaping our dinners, with a clock and that day’s newspaper sitting on the table—for proof—but I couldn’t do that to him. Imagine the embarrassment.”

And Sarah could imagine it. Ten minutes of watching yourself eat dinner—the clock would say it was only an hour ago—a salad, potatoes. A glass of water. You could still smell the pork chops in the air, the bitter hint of fried apple peel. Smell your hands. Run your tongue across your teeth and try to taste your evening, your life, slowly living itself without you.

 

To avoid further conflict, they ate dinner as often as her father wished. The second dinner was usually the real one: meat entrée, dessert. An hour after that came the third, usually a small sandwich. The strangest thing was that her father was losing weight.

“She doesn’t cook much anymore,” he whispered to Sarah after the third dinner. “Should we go get something?”

He said it while her mother was in the kitchen, microwaving leftovers from dinner number two.

“What do you want, dad?”

“French fries. There’s a place around here.”

It dumbfounded her what the memory chose to retain and release. Her father remembered Marv’s—and so did she—a couple miles away. Thick steak fries glazed with vinegar and salt, barrels of pickles, homemade black licorice wrapped in wax paper.

“But he can’t be hungry,” her mother said, exhausted. “Now he wants fries?”

“Are you coming?”

“No, just please take your father.” She looked ready to cry again. “I need an hour alone.”

Sarah was nervous about being alone with him. Her mom said he was prone to mood swings and outbursts, which seemed to get worse at night. And Sarah was afraid he might wander off when she wasn’t watching.

She helped her father into the passenger seat of their Buick and stretched the seat belt across his shrinking midriff. Time was eroding his soft features, his shoulders’ broadness, his height, his hair. His eyes were still green, but muffled.

It was twilight. They had added onto the neighborhood in the last few years: scores of identical colonial houses with basketball hoops on their garages. It was a maze.

“Is this the way?” she asked.

“Sure. Don’t you remember?”

There was Steepleview Road, and Westbrook, and Fairlane. Sarah couldn’t remember how to get to Marv’s, or back home. She had always been terrible with directions, but now nothing was familiar, even though she had grown up here. Her father stared out the window.

“We used to live there,” he announced.

“Where?”

“Johnny lives there now.”

Uncle John lived in a brick house with blue aluminum siding, but it wasn’t that one. None of them had ever lived there.

“Dad, where’s Marv’s?”

“Around the corner.”

He was so sure. She turned the corner, and there were more houses. They went down a steep hill and ended up in an empty and dimly lit area: the still-undeveloped part of the suburb. Wood planks lay in a pile in one lot, the earliest beginnings of a family’s house.

She maneuvered the road slowly, looking for a sign. Sarah had a feeling of unraveling, as if they were following the tiny, flickering threads of her mind as they burned out.

“This isn’t the way.” Her father was wringing his hands.

He did this on a regular basis, got lost. Her mother had to hide the keys and get special locks for the larger windows.

“I don’t know where he thinks he’s going,” she’d say. “What’s out there that’s so important?”

Sarah and her father finally drifted to a larger street, one that her school bus used to take to Our Lady of Mercy every day for almost twelve years. It was Bradner Road. Somewhere on this road, a long time ago, she had finished her homework on her lap. She had sat next to Heather Scarlett and given her a bouquet of purple impatiens, stolen from her mother’s garden. She had drawn a heart on Heather’s blue-and-gray plaid uniform.

Bradner Road saved them. She followed it until they saw the Marv’s sign and pulled into the parking lot. Her father was triumphant.

“So,” she said. Her hands were shaking. “Fries?”

He nodded and sat in the passenger seat while she ran out into the wind, into the restaurant, and got him what he wanted. She watched him through the window. He didn’t move.

They ate in the car; the vinegar and salt had a vaguely human odor, like nervous sweat.

“Delicious,” her dad said. Then he smiled at her and called her Carol again. Who the hell was Carol?

A Kroger’s truck wheeled down Bradner road, creating a gust of wind that snapped the gingko leaves from trees and sent them high into the air, swirling above the street lamp in a gold funnel.

“Look,” her dad said. “They’re going up instead of down.”

He was right: The leaves appeared to be falling in reverse, up toward the sky.

**

Her mother hadn’t read any of the books on Alzheimer’s Disease that Sarah had sent her during the past few years. They were all in the closet, stacked on top of each other. The 36-Hour Day, There’s Still a Person in There, The Forgetting, Alzheimer’s for Dummies. Sarah must have spent $300 on books that were never opened.

But, she should be honest, Sarah hadn’t read the books either. Just the blurbs on the backs. She had left the Alzheimer’s puzzle up to her mother to crack, by herself. Sarah wasn’t helping at all, just swimming in her own forgetful oblivion.

She opened a book about brain disease and communication. She would learn her father’s language—one of gaps and silences, missing syllables, the language of merciless repetition. Was there any liberation in any of it, the unconscious embrace and surrender of each minute?

Sarah read that, in Alzheimer’s, the hippocampus—a tiny “seahorse” curled under the cerebral cortex—shrank, hindering a person from learning new things or remembering what happened a few hours ago. This interfered with word recall, too, and spatial navigation. Even the most familiar word or street could suddenly seem foreign, turn its back on you.

But the hippocampus, the book said, can also shrink in a person with anxiety, stress, and depression. Family members of the Alzheimer’s patient were especially vulnerable and often mirrored their loved one’s symptoms.

**

At three o’clock in the morning, a noise woke her up. Sarah leapt out of bed, bumping into her mother in the hallway. The wind was blowing the front door against the wall—it was wide open, but neither of them knew why or for how long.

“He’s out,” her mother yelled. “He found the keys.”

She wore the same sheer, pink nightgown she had slept in when Sarah was a child. Sarah pulled a coat off the hanger and zipped her mom into it.

They ran outside, the autumn wind nearly picking them up. Her mother shouted for him—a quiet, embarrassed noise that was more like a gasp. Jim!

How far could he have gone? He was an old man with clogged arteries.

“Where is he?” Sarah said, alarmed. This was what her mother must go through alone, over and over.

They stumbled down the road to the right, her mother reasoning that since he was right-handed, he would naturally have gone that way. It made sense. They passed the dark shapes of houses, panicking.

At last, there was a thumping sound.

“It’s him,” whispered her mother.

Her father was in a driveway, in boxer shorts and an undershirt, trying to open the door of a parked pick-up truck.

“I have to go to work,” he explained. “They’re giving the bonuses.”

“It’s Saturday, Jim,” her mom told him.

“Is it?”

Sarah stared at her parents. They had been married sixty years. All the memories they had made together, the many millions of shared moments, and now her father’s brain was tossing them all away. He was leaving her, and she couldn’t stop him.

Sarah imagined moving back here and doing this every night with them until it was over, whatever that meant. Death? Her mother wanted Sarah to move back, and her father already thought she had moved. Would it be the right thing to do, or would it be foolish? Sarah didn’t know. All she knew was that, unequivocally, she did not want to do it. She did not want to give up her life to take care of them, but right now, she could see no other way.

Her mother grabbed her father’s arm to steady him, but he shrugged her away, suddenly irritable.

“I can walk,” he hissed at her.

Sarah took her mother’s hand, and they followed her father as he shuffled down the road, leading them either back home or to some other destination, the three of them moving in slow motion: a meditation at the edge of a vast gravitational force.

 

Elaine Howell is a Los Angeles writer whose work has been published in several magazines, including ZYZZYVA, Cobalt Review, and Cactus Heart. One short story was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Competition for New Writers, and one—a parody about Winnie the Pooh—was first runner-up in the 23rd International Imitation (“Bad”) Hemingway Competition. In 2012 she received a Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging Writers fellowship. Since then, she has been writing a novel based in her hometown of Detroit.

 

 

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