Sunday Story: “Your Secret Reminders”

Your Secret Reminders
by William Clifford

This is a list of things you need to remember. It’s a list of things you don’t want to forget, because they’re your memories and memories are who we are but you’ve been told that something is going to take all your memories away and never give them back. Something soon. So this is your secret list. It isn’t going to save you (nothing’s going to save you), but if used properly, it should add a few months to the calendar, life’s little cheat sheet (ha!).


1—Your name is Judy Kephart and you are 58-years-old.  Bill Clinton is the President of the United States, which is where you live. These days (and when did these days become theses days?) half your day is spent swallowing medicine, and you never even had the flu! You were offended when they prescribed antidepressants, because you always prided yourself on being chipper and seeing the good in people. But this thing in your brain, it takes its sweet old time warming up— like your first car, a blue Plymouth, big as a Zeppelin—so since you got the news a year ago, you’ve felt pretty much as sharp as you ever were, but you can feel these little blank spots every now and then, like waking up from a strange dream you can’t remember, only to find yourself alone in your own basement with maybe a blender (or, once, a butcher knife!) in your hands. And even though it’s your basement and your kitchen appliance, you don’t know how or why you got there. You blink at the decades-old boxes against the cider-block wall, the mothballs you yourself shook into corners, the deflated speed-bag you got Billy when he was little and said he wanted to be a boxer, and you vaguely recognize these signposts from a life you lived, you’re familiar with the damp, but with the way you feel, you might as well be in Katmandu. You rush up the stairs and slam the door and hope that you won’t have to ever see the basement again, but a few weeks go by and then you briefly die in a blackout and are resurrected in the basement.  Take your pills.


2—About a year ago, 1993, in Baltimore, Maryland (which is close to where you live), a doctor—who seemed too young to have the right to ask you anything at all, and who wore a puny mustache like Cary Grant used to wear (although this doctor was a far cry from Carey Grant, unless it’s slipped your mind that Carey Grant had big ears, razor burn, and absolutely no idea how to look a person in the eye). Every time (and there were many, many times) you met with him, the doctor, you couldn’t stop thinking how absurd his mustache looked. Your life, your death, was the purpose of these meetings, but you couldn’t help it, that mustache was just tragic. As far as you’re concerned, leave mustaches to the pornographers and car salesmen.

Fuzzy lip asked you about a million and one questions and had you do a lot of pithy little tests. You smiled and answered and he never said if you were right or wrong, he just nodded and wrote what might have been short novels on his damn notepad. Once he asked you how much money you would have if you had a quarter, a dime, and a nickel, and you said “not much”. He barely smiled and sure as heck didn’t laugh. He waited for another answer but you gave him none because if you can’t take a joke.

You remember the last test you took. The doctor told you he was going to say three words and for you to remember them. The three words were Blue, Motorcycle, and Rabbit. After a few minutes, in which he asked you other bizarre questions, he asked you what the words were and you could only remember Blue. You weren’t much needed at the hospital after that.  The disease, the doctor explained diplomatically, was going to make you forget little things, like phone numbers, then bigger things, like how to use a phone or even what a phone was.  And as a showstopper, it was going to riddle your brain with something called black plaques and leave you ignorant of how to walk or eat or pee.  You wouldn’t know your name. You wouldn’t know that you didn’t know your name. And then one day, it would simply slip your mind to live. Whoops! He attempted to simplify the situation by tossing around helpful words like,  senile plaques, black plaques, tangles, vacuoles. Aphasia, apraxia, agnosia. Palliative care. Aricept, Prozac, Ativan. Ronald Reagan. Thanks! The actual word they gave you, the actual diagnosis … is disgusting. Don’t repeat it. That horrible word, and here you just thought you maybe needed a vacation. But no, it was death, and going to Aruba wasn’t going to fix that. 53 years old and here it was already, so blunt, so cruel, so…rude. A blue rabbit on a motorcycle.

After his friendly bit of fearmongering, this numbskull actually smiled when he told you he had good news.  His good news was that you might very well live like this for twenty, twenty-five years. Oh, grand!  And finally, however long it took these black plaques to completely consume your brain— three years, thirty, who can say!—you would end up dying in some horrible way. He didn’t say horrible, but you got the picture (pneumonia, accident, which he called misadventure, stroke—he might have gone ahead and added shark attack). You suffered in silence, feeling naked and ugly, waiting to be rescued, and at long last you were. When the subject turned to the eventuality of bed-rails and adult diapers, your husband stepped in and told the doctor that we would cross that bridge when we came to it. But forget about crossing that bridge; Ron took the first easy steps with you but, then, when your back was turned, he took a dive.


3— Ron. When you met he was working as a cop, a truck driver, and a stock boy.  Blue-collar through and through. He had a gruesome scar on his knee that he said he’d gotten as a boy, a sledding accident of some kind. When you first married you used to like to run your finger along its smooth pink surface; Ron said it tickled.  It was the only sure-fire way to make him laugh. He was with you during the visits to the hospital but is not with you now. You married Ron when you were young, young enough that after the wedding you still had a locker and cheerleading practice. You’re not sure where that was (the school, the marriage, the honeymoon) but you think it doesn’t much matter. Ron was your husband for—well, for a long time, and you tried for romance (vacations, candle light, once you even attempted to watch a dirty movie together, but the only blood it got pumping was to your faces, flushed beet with embarrassment, you turned it off after ten minutes and played gin rummy),but in the end always saw him from a distance, like a movie or a fish in an aquarium, and that never sat quite right with you.

Ron was what people call the silent type. You don’t remember talking much either, but you never felt like the silent type. Pretty soon, though, you will be the silent type, a regular mime thanks to a pretty sounding word, “aphasia” (it sounds like a flower, but it’s nothing like a flower).


4 – You lied back there. You just looked back at number one. Little blank spots every now and then. The little blank spots you mentioned are huge and happen every other day. Look, it’s okay to keep secrets, but please don’t keep them from yourself. Your thoughts don’t drift away, they sprint away, one second your having a bowl of Cheerios and the next you’re in a dark room with no windows or doors and barely enough space to stand up. You know it’s not real, but it might as well be. This lurid little room is cold and reeks of sickening things, bargain basement perfume and soiled diapers. Your head pounds and it’s like you’re seeing by the convulsions of a strobe light. You press your eyes shut but still see the world upside down and bleeding. You go deaf.  You vanish. When you come to—and who knows when that is, who knows how much time and life has ticked away without you knowing—you’re usually in bed, fingering some amazing bruise.


5—Your son’s name is Billy. He likes Bill but you like Billy. He’s away at college, in San Diego. Or maybe San Francisco.  San something. He keeps his hair on the long side and never combs it.  Ron rode him about it but you always thought it made him look cute. You think he drinks too much.  The last time he was home he walked like he was half-asleep and stumbled smack into the sofa and fell down—and right in the middle of the day!  He cracked his head open on the coffee table (to this day there’s a little chip of wood missing if you know where to look). Three stitches. He told you he had been acting so queer because he had a toothache, but even with a piece of Swiss cheese where your brain should be, you know that’s a load of malarkey. My darling Billy, bless his soul. He feels things.  He hugs you every time he sees you. So thin!  Don’t forget his care-packages! Send him razor blades, pretzels, candles, batteries, socks, toothpaste and twenty or fifty dollars!!! Put a little note in there that says, “I miss you and can’t wait to see you, love mom”!!! Do this every three months!!! It’s okay to ask your sister to help you keep track of the time, and for Bill’s address. (San Juan?)


6—Your sister’s name is Deb and your mother’s name is Charlotte. They live with you now, or you live with them. In any case you all live together, just you women. (Where do men go? What do they do?). Your mother and sister help you do things. Your sister is always cracking jokes and singing songs like the one that goes “that little Nash rambler’s right behind me, beep beep, beep beep” and pretending she’s happy but you can tell she’s not. You love her. Your mother looks tired and scared. You love her too, but not as much as you love Deb. Deb looks right at you, all the time, even when she and everyone else and even you in a frightening, draining way, knows you’ve asked “what time is it” about a dozen times in a row. (You almost look forward to the days when you’re so far gone that you no longer realize you’re behaving like an idiot. Almost.) You and Deb once snuck some cherry wine and crashed your bicycles. You were grounded for an entire month but thought the whole thing was wonderful. At night you’d tell one another the story over and over again, changing it a bit every time.

Your mother is a good person, but sometimes, a lot of the time since the diagnosis, she can’t look at you.  Or you feel like she’s looking at you the way you looked at your husband, like you’re a fish. She looks at you like you’re not real. But you don’t blame her. An old friend of yours had a daughter with Downs Syndrome and you’d avoid going to her house for tea or bridge because you felt uncomfortable around the girl (she sometimes threw things), so you’re no angel, Judy Patooty.


7—During your marriage, many men, some of them friends of Ron, would flirt with you. And truth be told, you sometimes flirted right back. You never took action, but flirting … it was like the first bite of a tasty piece of cake. You were a good-looking lady, Judy Kephart, and don’t you forget it. (Not for nothing, you used to make a mean Texas sheet cake.)


8—You peed yourself the other day. Don’t sit there and boohoo about it, either, just suck it up and wear the adult diapers like they told you to in the first place.


9—You love to drive. But the government suspended your driver’s license not four days—four days!— after the good Doctor gave you the news that you were going to forget everything you ever knew and then die. But sometimes, late at night when Deb and mom are asleep, you sneak the keys (she hides them in the microwave oven and thinks you don’t know, but you do know!), and go for a little spin around the neighborhood.  You go slowly and keep to the safety of the tree-lined streets. Your house is the only house in the neighborhood with green shutters. You picked the paint.


10—Hide the pink pills. Out of the thousands you take, they are the best. They make you float and not much mind having this thing you have.


11—Adult diapers.  Jesus H. Christ.


12—The microwave oven is a small white box next to the refrigerator, which is a big white box. The telephone is the smallest white box and has numbers on it. The microwave chirps, the refrigerator hums, the telephone sings. You like the sound of the refrigerator the best and sometimes at night when you can’t sleep or are having spooky feelings you like to sit next to it and enjoy its soft rumbling hum.


13—Sometimes everything go wrong, objects look soft, like they are melting, and every single sound you hear is shrill and nonsensical, like a dozen boiling tea-kettles. You took LSD once, lord knows why, some boy probably, some rock and roll, forty plus years ago, and thought/wished you were going to die. This is like that. You sweat, burn, don’t have a clue what you’re supposed to do or say and so you scream out loud, you scream and scream and scream until it feels like you’re swallowing sandpaper. People get frightened and start to run around and shout back at you, and this makes you swoon, and so you scream even louder and sometimes accidentally break something and twice now they even had to take you to the hospital, once because you lit a match and held it to your chin, and once because you apparently screamed like such a madwoman that some vein or vessel inside your nose or maybe inside your head must have popped because, just like that, strings of black-looking blood started streaming out of your nose and onto the floor. For a minute you thought it was chocolate sauce and tried to remember the recipe for Texas sheet cake, but then your sister wrestled you into the car and took you to the doctors.

You hate the doctors, with their hasty condescension. You hate the nurses, with their persnickety contempt.  And you absolutely hate the hospital, with its complete misery. This is important to remember, Judy: the hospital has straps and needles and hard lights and people who will find a million different ways to keep you there for as long as possible (a few more tests, possibilities, let’s wait and see, let’s not rule anything out—yes, for heaven’s sake, let’s not do that). It’s just you and a farting companion behind a sheet.  So try to stop screaming. When you feel like screaming, when you feel that hand pushing you into that bad room, quickly take some of the pink pills, go to your room, get into bed, turn on the radio, and scream and cry into a pillow. Make sure the radio is loud but not too loud.


14—When the others are asleep, practice talking in front of your mirror. The mirror is the thing that shows you what you look like. Say things like,

Hi guys, what’s up?

How about this weather?

Seen any good movies?

Try to stick with questions and when people say something back to you, always remember to smile—and not like a loon, just a polite little smile like a normal person would do. Also, nod your head and maybe squint your eyes a tad. Sometimes say Mmmm, like you do when something tastes good, like orange sherbet. You love orange sherbet!


15—Stop cussing!  The other day you actually told the mailman to go F himself. You’re in a respectable home with two upright ladies, not lost at sea with a fleet of sailors,


16—Try to use the bathroom when no one’s paying attention. But always, always use it when you feel pressure or something strange bellow your belly button. You relieve yourself, number one or two, by sitting down on the toilet (the white bowl with water in it). Always wipe between your legs with toilet paper (it should be right next to you when you’re sitting down). Always flush.


17—You don’t know where your father is. Or who he is. You’re not sure if you ever did.


18—When people are around, hold books or magazines up to your face and once in a while turn the pages. Do this for a short time. This is also a good time to make the sound you make when something tastes good, but try to make it sound like your not quite sure if it tastes good, like with tofu.


19—What else? Oh, when the LSD thing happens, and if you’re absolutely sure no one is looking, it’s okay to use your hands and knees in order to climb up and down the stairs.


Oh, and 20—Paul Newman is a beautiful looking man and a sensational actor.

Robert Redford is overrated.


Okay, well, I guess that’s it, I guess you’re all out of secrets. Hide this, read it every day, and keep it to yourself.


William Clifford has had short stories published in the literary journals Opium and Fiction, and in the magazine Zembla: The New International Literary Magazine (#5-Rachael Weisz), out of London. His fiction has also appeared online, and, as well as in the book, Pieces (MTV/Pocket Books). Most recently he was included in the book, The Word Made Flesh: Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide (Harper Perennial). To pay the bills, he works with toxic ink as a cue card guy for Saturday Night Live. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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