By Jessica Langan-Pack
Featured Art: Wheatfield by Georges Braque
My daughter is nine, and she has recently grown taller and lost most of her softness. Now she’s a thin and delicate thing with very straight, very smooth hair that she wears in bangs across her forehead. She is afraid of bees. She is afraid of forest fires, and of strangers, and of a book she read called The Face on the Milk Carton, which is about a little girl who sees her own face on a missing children
poster. She is articulate and serious and very imaginative. When she finds out, at the beginning of her summer vacation, that her father is losing his memory, not slowly, or gracefully, but at a possibly alarming rate, what she decides to do is remember everything.
“So that you can tell him?” I ask her. For a few weeks I have been thinking of my head as an empty room of some kind, and sometimes my voice reverberates off its walls. We are sitting in the kitchen eating cereal.
She shrugs. “Just so I don’t forget.” She is at a stage where she has trouble differentiating between other people, real or fictitious, and herself. I wonder if she is afraid of losing her own memory.
“That sounds like something he would like to help you with,” I say. “You two could collaborate.”
“Maybe,” she says. She reads the back of the cereal box intently.
My husband is a professor of literature. At first, in the spring, he noticed he was forgetting the names of writers, the names of students, and, more alarmingly, how to sign his name on department documents. I found this out later. Our daughter noticed his forgetfulness before I did. When they were on their annual summer camping trip in June, he didn’t seem to remember how to dial the phone, when they came back to civilization and made their customary call to me. I tried to imagine it: the two of them, muddy and tired, tromping into the little general store with the payphone in their hiking boots, my daughter’s hair plastered down around her face, my husband with three days of stubble. When she told me, she was laughing, but her eyes were wide, and she was watching my face closely.
“I don’t know,” she said. “He was probably kidding.”
“He probably was,” I said. “But let’s ask him.”
And when I did, later that night, I hoped that he would laugh too. Instead, he said, “I made an appointment for a scan later this week. I have been noticing some strange things. Just totally weird, inexplicable things.”
He works at a small university where he is well respected and where he likes the students and his colleagues. He is a man who wears khakis that are a little too long for him and clogs, for back support. He has close-shaved hair and a thin, strong body. I love the way a belt sits around his hips. Being married to him has made me more measured, more steady, but the way I wanted to be right
then was hysterical.
“What could it be,” I said. “You’re so young.”
I knew these were pointless things to say. He didn’t answer, just found my cheek in the dark and laid the palm of his hand on it.
My daughter begins to ask questions like this: “Do you remember the first time I got stung by a bee?” Usually I’m in the middle of doing something else. She brushes her bangs out of her eyes, and then she narrates the story:
In a pretty, green part of New York State, a little girl picked up the baby doll she left on the porch and held it in the crook of her arm like she had seen her mother do with her baby cousin. A long, skinny black wasp had crawled onto the baby doll, and it stung the little girl’s arm right above the soft space behind her elbow. This was her first sting. She was crying so much she didn’t notice it lift off from her arm and land on the window, crawling quickly into the space between the glass and the frame. Her parents were hot and sweaty from working in the garden and they came running, at least her mother did, and she remembered her father acting calm, holding onto her arm with his fingers, pressing down hard, looking for a stinger in the center of the swelled spot. For years after, the girl got in the habit of turning her toys over and over with just the very tip of her first finger to check for bees.
I realize, while she’s talking, that she doesn’t quite sound like herself. She sounds poised, and oddly formal. Maybe they practiced this kind of thing in third grade.
“You still do that,” I say to her. “You’re right, I don’t know if I’d ever realized it until now. Are you still afraid of getting stung?”
“Yes,” she says. “I always have to check.”
My daughter goes to camp at the YMCA, where she makes sand art and gets a swim cap with her name on it and shows me new cat’s cradle moves she learned.
“What’s the theme this week, Seventies throwback?” my husband asks. He hums the Harry Chapin tune, “Cat’s in the Cradle.”
She and I play cat’s cradle. “It’s true,” I tell her. “I used to do this when I was little.” She doesn’t answer because she is focused on the string formation between my hands. She goes in gently, her fingers like pincers, and swoops up and under to make a new arrangement, one that’s rectangular and flat and has beautiful symmetry.
“She must get these motor skills from you,” I say. I look up at him. He mimes a fake belly laugh and goes to look at the newspaper, which is easier than reading actual books these days, he says, because most of the articles are at a fifth grade reading level. He has been stacking up his books, stacking and
restacking, sometimes alphabetizing, on better days.
Later, after he’s gone outside to feed the chickens, my daughter comes into the kitchen, where I am trying to cut up some vegetables for ratatouille. Zucchini disks, some thick, some barely slivers, keep rolling off the cutting board. My own motor skills leave something to be desired. She stands with one hand on the counter, like an opera singer, and says she has another story she wants to
tell me, about her life:
The little girl and her father went backpacking, to the Adirondacks, which he called the Adiraindacks. It was always raining here, and the girl had a blue raincoat with matching rain pants that made a lot of noise when she walked. Between the sound of the pants and the sound of the rain on her hood, she couldn’t hear anything that was happening in the woods. They walked for most of the afternoon. Up ahead, her friend Andrew and his father walked. Andrew always liked to be first. He was swinging his hands and sending all of the water on the grass and brambles that lined the trail flying. It was getting dark and they were still hiking along. Finally, they stopped along the banks of a big river filled with boulders. While Andrew and his father fired up their cookstove and boiled water for pasta, the little girl and her father sat in their smelly old tent eating raw marshmallows. She could tell he was feeling down, so she patted him on the knee, and he looked at her. “We’ll feel better in the morning,” he said.
In the morning, there were so many no-see-ums that they had to tuck their pants into their socks and their pancake batter was full of the tiny bugs.
She is leaning on the counter, with her chin in her hands, and for a second she looks like a teenager. “I think that was our first year. It was definitely before we got the new tent.” She counts on her fingers. “This year was our fourth year. She has been counting lately. Cataloguing. I ask her if she writes any of this stuff down and she says she prefers to keep it in her mind. She had always relayed
their adventures to me, in a more broad, scattershot way, probably as things occurred to her. “It seems like you’re putting a lot of thought into choosing specific stories,” I say. “How do you remember all of those details?” What I mean is that I am hungry for them.
She is looking up at the ceiling, mouthing numbers, and doesn’t seem to hear me. “Oh!” she says. “It was the same year that Dad had to carry me through a flooded part of the trail on his shoulders.”
This morning her father had woken up with a look of panic on his face, had looked at me, had looked at the ceiling, his jaw working like an old person’s. He looked just like his mother, who had lived to be a hundred.
In the afternoon, my husband and I mow the lawns, all of them, together, which is something we like to do, waving at each other when we pass. He wears a rolled-up bandanna tied around his forehead. Because we let the grass get so long, it’s hard work—we have to keep stopping to clean the clumps out of the mower blades. This is the kind of thing that could infuriate my husband, this working in fits and starts and puttering machinery, but he seems calm. We make neat rows in the lawns. We collect the cuttings for the compost, and for the chickens, which like to peck the bugs out of them. He is in front of me, and I notice that he’s wearing a good shirt, a crisp, blue-striped button-down, instead of an old ripped one he uses as a work shirt.
My daughter comes home from her friend Becca’s with her nails painted pink. When I look closer I notice that each of her tiny nails has a tiny white flower painted on it. “Wow,” I say. “That’s gorgeous. Who did it?”
“Becca’s mom,” she says. She is quiet, mopey, and she doesn’t eat her dinner. She says snotty things.
“Hey,” my husband says. “What’s all that ratatouille doing on your plate? Does someone not want ice cream?”
“I don’t care about ice cream.” She has her head down on the table. I know, because she has told me, that she likes to open her eye in the dark space she’s made and see nothing but black. “And I have always, always hated ratatouille.”
“I didn’t know that,” I say. “Too bad for you.” I get up and take her plate, take everyone’s plates to the kitchen, where I put them in the sink. I turn the water on as hard as it goes and if they’re talking, if my husband is trying to reason with her, I don’t hear them.
The house we live in is on land that was my parents’, which they did not sell, even after they sold the house we grew up in and moved away. This has become much more significant lately, because now it seems like we will be here forever. Before, there was always the possibility that my husband would be offered a job somewhere else, and we’d only come back here in the summers. Our house is in a clearing in what used to be much deeper woods, near where my father once built a cabin for himself. I remember when he did it. It is still standing, its sides dark from weather, its door stuck and swollen from water. I look out the window above the kitchen sink, pushing my daughter’s leftover ratatouille into the compost bucket, and from here I can see where our lawn slopes down to the streambed. For most of my life I have resisted the idea of settling less than a mile from where I grew up, but right now, in the late light, it seems right. At the table my daughter is saying that maybe we can go out for ice cream tomorrow instead. My husband says he doesn’t think it works like that. I would like to see you act a little more grown up, he says. He asks to look at her fingernails, and when I look over he is running his callused fingertips over the bumps of the flower petals.
Sometimes my daughter’s stories don’t involve her father at all. A lot of them involve her friend Andrew, a gangly red-headed boy she’s known since she was a baby:
At Andrew’s house, which is an old farmhouse with wide, smooth floorboards, the little girl learned how to make marinahd (this is how Andrew’s mother pronounces it) for pork chops, and she also learned how to play chess, and she and Andrew hung stuffed animals from their necks over the edge of the loft space in their house when they had done things wrong. Andrew’s mother, who has wild curly hair, is a gardener. Their yard is huge, made up of beautiful gardens, with fruit trees and flowers and hops. But at a certain time of the year the plants were being eaten by tent caterpillars. The caterpillars made big tents out of web material using the branches of the trees, and then they lived in there, eating the leaves. The girl and Andrew were given the very important job of knocking down the tents with a big stick, making sure to catch all of the caterpillars in a bucket that they put under the tree. Then they brought the stick down into the bucket over and over again, killing the caterpillars, making their green insides squeeze out of them like green poop.
She seems to remember being particularly fascinated by the way the caterpillars’ guts retained their cylindrical shape, after they’d shot out of one end of the insect or the other. This is probably Andrew’s influence, and I feel relieved by her obvious glee. “Did you tell Dad that one?” I ask.
She shakes her head. “I don’t think he’d remember that one,” she says. “That happened over at Andrew’s. That one is also not that important, just funny.”
A week later I wake up and my husband is not in the house. He fishes in the early mornings, so this is not unusual, but when he’s not home by eleven I go look for him. The pond he uses is on the state land north of our house, not far, and I put on my sneakers and decide that I will think of this as my daily walk. I swing my arms. I take deep breaths in and out through my nose.
After a mile uphill, I’m sweating. No sign of him. There has been a drought in our area, and the timothy grass in the fields looks parched and prairie-colored. When we were first married, we’d go off into the woods and hike around, finding things like a crop of fossil-ridden rocks that looked like they belonged under the ocean, falling down stone walls, and once, what looked like an arrowhead. I think this way would be faster, he’d say, he always knew right where we were, and I would say you’re not the one who grew up on this property, are you. And then I would stubbornly go my roundabout way through brambles and swampy areas. But I have always been secretly relieved, and proud, that he is so capable in this way, which is why I’m worried. It isn’t like him not to leave a note, to be gone so long. I take the uneven trail down to the pond, which is deep and clear for a pond, with floating islands of shrubs. He is not there. His kayak is, a light, red, one-man that he chains to a tree for the summer. I call his name. I look for his tracks in the mud.
I find him on a dirt road so remote it is more like a track—a seasonal road, with weeds growing in the middle. All around are tall spruce trees planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps. He is carrying his fishing bag over one shoulder, the pole sticking out the top of it and bobbing a few feet above his head. He is walking purposefully, in the opposite direction of our house.
“Honey!” I call. He doesn’t turn. I call him again and he stops, looks back over his shoulder. In his fishing hat, he looks like a tall child. His face has always been almost smooth. “There you are,” I say.
He squints his eyes and stands half turned toward me, stuck, his feet still pointing forward. “Going for a stroll?” I say. This stillness, while he rifles through the content of his brain, will get longer and longer, we’ve been told. After a long minute, he seems to relax.
“Hi,” he says. “I’m confused to see you here.”
“Well,” I say. This is when I realize that he has lost his bearings. “I came looking for you.”
“I’m just on my way home.”
I take a few steps toward him. I am not sure whether to laugh, because it seems like he could be kidding. “You’re going the wrong way, Mr. Wilderness Guide,” I say.
He looks at the trees all around him, he looks up the road toward one of the first big hills of our cross-country skiing routes, a place we’ve been coming every winter for years. “I guess I’m not sure where I am,” he says. “Do you know how to get home from here?”
For a minute, I’m confused about the way home too. I turn and look down the road, away from us, and think about the turns I took, and how to retrace my steps. “Yes,” I say. “I do.”
We walk back down the hill to our house, the fishing pole and the fishing bag between us, and he slows and speeds up, sometimes holding onto my arm, sometimes passing me and whistling a little. From the back, he looks the same. He has a distinct gait—springy, with a steady neck and swinging arms.
My daughter has inherited the swinging arms. She walks over to her bike in the front yard, and she rears it up like a pony to turn it in the right direction. She rides up and down our driveway, which is a mile long, over and over again. She says she’s doing laps. “I’ll go with you, if you want,” I say. “We could go on an actual ride, to Worcester.”
“Maybe,” she says. Her father has taught her that she should be in a gear that’s hard enough for her to pedal, even on the downhills, but not so hard that she has to fight it. She is athletic. She is in a running club for fourth- and fifth-grade girls at school. I wonder how long it will be before she can outrun me. I convince her to take the bike ride, and we pedal hard when we can all the way down the hill to the main road. We can’t hear anything over the air in our ears. “Slow down,” she yells from behind me. “I can’t keep up!”
I do. She comes up next to me on the flat, on a quiet stretch that we can ride side by side. “I keep remembering things over and over,” she says, out of breath. “Do you think that’s the opposite of what is happening to Dad?”
“You mean you can’t forget things even if they’re unpleasant?” I concentrate on moving my legs steadily.
“Sometimes unpleasant, sometimes not.” Her cheeks are red but she is not breathing hard. “Did you know I got spanked once?” Before I can answer her, she has switched to her narrator voice, which is difficult for me to hear over our moving tires and the moving air:
One day, her parents were home so it must have been summer, she got out of bed where she was supposed to be napping and snuck downstairs to get herself a glass of water. She took one sip, and then her hands slipped on the wet glass and she dropped it on the kitchen floor. The glass broke into a thousand, very tiny pieces. She didn’t know how to clean it up. So she turned and went back upstairs, very quietly and calmly, but her heart was beating fast, especially when she heard her father come in the house. “What in the hell,” she heard him say. He seemed to know, somehow. He came upstairs. “Did you break a glass?” She pretended to be asleep. “Did you break that glass?” he said again. He jostled her shoulder until her eyes opened. “I’ve been here the whole time,” she said. He sat down next to her. “I think you’re lying,” he said. “I’d like you to tell me the truth.” She shrugged her shoulders. “I didn’t do it.” He kept sitting there. He was making her angry. “Get off!” she yelled. “Get off my bed!” And then she hit him as hard as she could, on the side of his face.
She would always remember how he pulled down her pants, made her lie facedown on the bed, and how hard he’d hit her, and how for days she felt a heavy weight in her stomach, like there was some kind of metal in there, like she needed to throw it up but couldn’t.
This story in particular concerns me. I’m worried that she is starting to embroider the facts. I tell my husband about it later, lying in bed.
“She remembers that?”
“She said that she ‘will always remember.’”
“I don’t think it was so traumatic, as far as spankings go.” He is lying on his back, looking at the ceiling. He pauses before he speaks. Things seem worse when he’s tired, but otherwise I can’t predict his lapses, his wanderings, his inability to remember our address or how to get home from the grocery store.
“She is also really weaving yarns. I’ve never heard her talk like this before.” I don’t say that I am also upset that she is leaving him out of her storytelling project—she never recites them to him—because this seems like a childish thing to bring up. Sometimes I try to recreate them for him, for entertainment, but I see him fumbling around in his own memories, comparing hers with his own.
“That’s bound to happen, I think, the exaggerating,” he says. “She’s at that age. She’s learning to embellish. I hope she remembers nice things too, not just the one spanking I ever gave her.”
I hold his hand. “I think she does,” I say. The ceiling fan makes quiet creaking sounds as it spins. After a while I turn sideways, against him, and press my eyes and nose and lips into his upper arm.
When my daughter is going to tell a story she does think is important, she plays a fanfare with a pretend trumpet. “I’m trying to read the paper,” I say to her, but she stands in front of me like a kid at a spelling bee, with her hands clasped in front of her:
On the girl’s most recent camping trip with her father and Andrew and his father, they were paddling in a canoe across a big lake. Her father told her to keep her eyes focused on a gap in the trees ahead of them, and to switch sides whenever the front of the boat moved to one side of the gap or the other. She paddled until her arms were sore and there were blisters on her palms. The wind seemed to be picking up, and the sky was getting darker and darker. She felt nervous but she didn’t say anything to her father. She knew that he had already noticed. The clouds got lower and blacker and suddenly it was raining. They were caught without their rain gear, and the water was running down their faces, into their eyes, into their mouths. “Keep paddling!” her father yelled. There were waves in the lake, and the canoe was bouncing up and over them. She could hear her father grunting with the effort of paddling against the wind. Then, there was a bolt of lightning. It was big and jagged, and it came from the darkest part of the cloud and traveled all the way down to the surface of the lake, right in front of them. She watched it hit the surface and go under the water, she could see the light coming off of it all the way to the bottom of the lake, and she felt the electricity travel from her paddle into her hands into her arms into her arm hair.
She takes a deep breath. I look up from my paper. “Well, that seems pretty unlikely. Did you make that up?” Even though it’s far-fetched, I feel a faint sense of alarm at the prospect of lightning on a lake, and my daughter out on the water.
“No,” she says. “That’s what happened. It was just this summer.”
“That couldn’t have happened,” I say. “I think you’d both be dead, if that had happened.” My voice wavers. “Grace, lying is still lying, even if you are storytelling.”
“Ask Dad,” she says, and ambles away.
July goes on, and as it gets hotter and the grass gets browner, we are in a holding pattern. My husband tells the head of his department that he won’t be teaching this fall. He starts working on a new stone wall, which is what he often does if he has thinking to do. It is too early for him to really be steadily deteriorating— he still has better days and worse days, and these are difficult to predict. I pick green beans. My daughter goes to YMCA camp and comes home red-eyed from all of the chlorine in the pool there. When she’s not at camp, she and Andrew are in the yard, galloping on bike-horses or setting up elaborate restaurants with old dishes and pots and pans they have collected from our friend Tom, who sells junk. My daughter pours me a glass of what looks like water and weeds. “It’s dandelion wine,” she says.
“Why thank you,” I say. I pretend to sip it. “Dandelion wine is actually a thing, you know.”
“How about mud coffee?” she asks, and she and Andrew think this is hilarious. They are on the grass laughing.
“Maybe in some circles,” I say. Andrew’s mother and father, who are our close friends, are coming over for dinner tonight, and soon I’ll start cooking. I look down at them, pretend to step on them on my way back into the house. I have to stop myself from always calling my husband’s name, to see where he is.
I’m making potato salad when he comes into the house a few hours later, this time in his appropriate work clothes: old khakis and a worn-out dress shirt, open. I can see the sticky sweat on his chest.
“Making progress on the stone wall,” he says.
I whisk vinegar and oil and lemon juice in a bowl. “Pat and Gary are coming at six,” I say. When he doesn’t respond, I say it again.
“Who’s coming?” He stands with his hands on the counter.
“Pat and Gary,” I say. “Our friends Pat and Gary.”
He shakes his head.
“They’re our best friends,” I say, quietly. “We’ve known them for many years.”
He shakes his head again, more violently. “I wish you’d asked me first, I don’t feel like hanging out.”
“Which is it?” I say. “You don’t remember them, or you don’t feel like hanging out?” I chop chives with unnecessary force. “They’re coming. So you’d better think about taking a shower.”
He has been resting his arms on the counter, and now he grabs the edges of it as hard as he can. “Goddammit!” he yells. “Goddamn son of a bitch.”
At this moment, I can’t help him. I am so angry, at being shouted at, at being married to an insane person, that I have to put the knife down, and take a step away from it. Once, when we were younger, we’d been fighting in similar positions, me standing as far away from him as I could get, him by the kitchen table. I think we were having a dinner party, and I was mad that he wasn’t helping more, and he thought he had been helping, by putting little paper lanterns along the path to our front door. We were screaming at each other. I will never be able to do enough, he said. He went out the door, and slammed it so hard the glass broke out of it all at once and dropped, still window shaped, to the floor.
Now, he deflates. I look at him standing there with his head down like a chastised child or a very old person, still gripping the side of the counter. I wipe my hands on my shorts and go wrap my arms around him. He’s strong, his body has a mind of its own, and he flinches away from me. I hold on. My daughter comes inside to use the bathroom and sees us like this. We don’t move, and she doesn’t say anything, just slides past.
“Did you know that I was blind for awhile when I was in kindergarten?” my daughter says, while she is dumping crackers into a bowl for the guests.
“You told me that you were faking,” I say. “Remember? You told me earlier this year that you made that up for attention.”
“No,” she says. “I really couldn’t see.”
“No,” I say. “You told me you were faking. Definitely.” I pull on the end of her ponytail.
My husband, calmer now, drinking a glass of wine, puts his hand on top of her head. “We really need your memory expertise around here,” he says. “You have the best memory out of any of us.”
She tilts her head up at him, and his hand slides to her forehead. She grabs it and moves it down over her eyes. “I can’t see right now, either,” she says. “That’s what I meant. I was just so little that I was learning what would happen if I covered up my eyes.” She pulls his fingers apart, and through the slits I can see her eyes. She blinks her long eyelashes against his hand, then she moves it
back up to her forehead. “Amazing!” she says. “Now I can see. Do I feel like I have a fever?”
My husband looks like he is thinking about it. He turns his hand over, feels her forehead, then turns it over again. “No,” he says. “You feel nice and cool.” He keeps his hand there. “Grace,” he says. “Did you hear what I said about your expert memory?”
I watch her from the sink, where I’m rinsing lettuce.
Grace nods solemnly. “I heard you,” she says. She takes a cracker from the bowl on the table and brings it with her to the couch, where she sits and takes small bites of it. She crosses her legs and looks out the picture window like she has seen us do some evenings. She is holding her glass of soda gently and gracefully, with two fingers and her thumb.
Jessica Langan-Peck‘s short fiction has appeared in the New England Review, Daily Lit, and elsewhere. She’s held residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and JENTEL Center for the Arts. A native upstate New Yorker, Jessica lives in Tucson.
Originally published in NOR 15