All 2017 Nonfiction (a-z)
We chose “A Run on the (Memory) Bank” not only for its exquisite prose, but also for its powerful insight into mental illness. Brian Metz showcases the complexities of relationships in his piece, and his talent for character development made the essay an easy pick for editor’s choice.
bank (baNGk) n.
- A place of safekeeping or storage: a computer’s memory bank.
- Obsolete; a moneychanger’s table or place of business.
[Middle English banke, from French banque, from Old Italian banca, bench, moneychanger’s table, from Old High German banc.]
The sun is running through the sliding glass doors to the patio, painting a jumping veil of highlights off the surface of the pool outside, onto the ceiling above the kitchen table where she and I are sitting. We’ve each got the first in a long series of coffees in front of us, the too-warm, too-still desert air winding the twinned pillars of twining smoke from our respective cigarettes (hers: menthol, mine: relentless, filterless Camels. It bothers me that I can’t remember her brand). I have The Times crossword in front of me and she has the local Tri-Cities one. In the quiet of the summer morning kitchen we occasionally look to one another for inspiration, or more often make cracks about the news on the radio.
The smell of the tomato plants—that for-me ever so evocative bitterness that comes from the leaves and stalks—and the huge basil bush in the beds, just outside the door, are promising the dinner we’ll make later in the day. The hot sun and rich soil of Eastern Washington give her the canvas to paint a garden I can only dream of in misty, grey Seattle. We talk about gardening and the possible effects of “The Area”—the Hanford Nuclear Reservation—on producing gigantism in veggies. This leads to a discussion of the politics of the state and how they affect her husband’s work at The Area.
She asks for a light off of my burning cigarette, and we lean together conspiratorially; we’re the only two smokers left—her husband having quit recently for health reasons—and she leans back enjoying what she knows will be one of her last. She’s quitting in solidarity, but taking her time about it. For years afterward, when we’d meet after a separation, she’d lean in, give me a big hug and take a huge sniff of my mane of hair—it reached all the way down my back for a long time—and declare, “I love the way you smell!” If she couldn’t smoke, she could still enjoy it vicariously.
Eventually, the rest of the house joins us. I’m in art school, so my schedule runs far earlier than the rest of the world. She is just always up and there in the kitchen. As the house begins to fill with people, she picks up speed and dances herself into the day. Wry observations on each conversation. Drinks always to hand.
And ever a smile.
Spin on a decade and a half.
The smile’s still there. But there’s a hint that hindsight will know as “don’t look at me too closely; there’s something here you don’t want to know.”
“That I don’t want to know.”
Several months before, ever the dour Scot of my heritage, I’d browbeaten her children into a summit meeting.
After a dinner of tarragon chicken pasta, liberally washed down with bottles of wine, we cleared everything except the empties from the heavy blonde slab of the table, and in the slanting light of a late winter day, we got down to it.
My wife said, (though I’ll probably burn for remembering it this way) “What ever shall we do with Mummy?” putting on her very best Hepburn. It was her family’s way of registering despair. As the seven of us sat around the table, we recapitulated the now- undeniable arc of their mother’s decline. The oldest present son, the engineer, took as much lead of the proceedings as the crowd would accommodate.
“She’s wandering into other people’s houses.”
“She took a knife to dad.”
“They’re all alone up there on the Peninsula.”
The middle son, the musician, tried to steer a laissez-faire path.
“Look, they’re grown-ups. Show them some respect. Let them live their lives the way they choose.”
The youngest son, the sergeant, made the inevitable offer of taking in his father.
That may have come later, but I remember thinking at the time that the son who most resembled his father would again open his house to him, having already suffered the collapse of one marriage to just that fidelity.
My wife’s sister looked on, out of the decision-making stakes because of her own burdens and woes.
The engineer’s wife and I, being spouses, listened, and had little to contribute save a willingness to back whatever plan her children settled on.
Some months later, as the sergeant and I sat at a small, stainless steel table in the emergency room, waiting to have his fingertip sewn back on, we reviewed the “farewell” dinner we’d left in such a hurry.
“Remind me again how many years you worked as a cook before you traded in your chef’s knife for a gun?”
His uneven smile, a product of his off-center jaw, was my only answer.
He’d been preparing the dinner (his house, his party, largely his plan), cutting up tomatoes for a family-favorite tomato and basil pasta, when one of the charged currents of conversation winding through the kitchen caught his attention at just the wrong moment.
A curse, a clatter, and a red arc of liquid.
I was sitting out in the yard at one end of the family heirloom table; a huge, narrow farmhouse table of ancient wavy boards, tea-lights scattered down the length of it like a river of light in the night. The musician and I were talking (anything but to the point), laughing, and drinking red wine. When the commotion from the kitchen spilled out the back door, past the arcade and hot tub toward us, a cold liquid feeling ran down my gut; she’s found out what we’re about and we’re going to have to try and restrain this woman who’s been our matriarch.
It was a low point in my personal moral journey when the facts of the thing came clear; the son, not the mother, and an excuse (as supercargo) to drive him to the emergency room along with the blanched bit of flesh in a Tupperware container on ice.
Escape, if only temporary, from the charade we were all performing for an unwitting (though not yet witless) audience of one.
As we leaned on the examination table waiting for the ER doctor to come and start her needlework, we tried, each in our own way, to wryly comment on the accident and what the morrow would bring. Neither of us were detailed to the extraction team—my wife and the engineer, being the most trusted, had that poisoned duty. The experience of the party (pre-ER and post) pointed up the bedrock decency and, paradoxically, the capacity for deception of my other family. We rejoined them some two hours after the accident, and everyone smoothly wove the incident into the collective narrative of the evening, passing off any strangeness of affect to the bloody scene in the kitchen.
We ate, we drank, some of us smoked, and we had a lovely party all in the warm summer night, flickering candles painting our faces, chiaroscuro helping to mask the unreliability of our expressions.
The next morning, she went for a drive with her two best-beloved children.
Though the Alzheimer’s had savaged her in many ways, she was still able to read the large sign at the facility as they pulled in, and like some beautiful antelope on the veldt, fought for her survival, even though the lion’s teeth had already done their damage.
She kicked and spat and swore and struck out at the betrayers with lying faces beside her in the car; the world had become disjointed and hazy, pulling in and out of focus. But this was Death, and every cell of her knew the bone-white leer coming at her. She fought and she fought and of course, she lost.
She was checked in, checked out, and medicated to a fare-thee-well.
The next time I saw her, she was sitting at a small, umbrella covered table in the courtyard of the facility. She was sitting with two older gentlemen, one of them accompanied by a neat and tidy older woman. We made small, awkward, painful conversation, half of the table, to one degree or another, in a thickening then clearing haze; the other half, like new parents, trying to parse the disconnected babbling of their loved-ones.
Gone were the tales of her girlhood in Pittsburgh, gone the Depression-era dodges of darkening a boy’s nascent moustache with a burnt-out match, of dances (how she loved to dance), and reading Mary Roberts Rinehart. Gone the talk of books, any books; she’d been as mad a collector of books as I was, her house filled with bowed shelves and neat stacks of them in every free corner of every room. Gone the cigarettes (for many years), gone the crossword puzzles. She still mostly recognized me, but would occasionally, as when we first met, give me the name of my wife’s first husband. It didn’t bother me before because I could make the personal comparison and admit that, yes, I’d done the same sort of thing when someone new slipped into an existing relational slot.
Now, however, it was a sinister outlier to the truly evil thing that was happening to her; memories being flayed off the surface of her mind and patched up with the next bit of information to come by that might fit.
It was evil. I’d never believed in true evil until I met this disease in my mother-in- law, my friend. It was, in fits and starts, murdering her consciousness, hiding away forever (except for occasional, desperate flashes of awareness and personality) the woman she’d spent most of eighty years becoming. And like all the people in her family, she’d been a person of the mind, valuing those qualities in herself and others above all. It was worse than incontinence, though that would come too; failures of physical systems were unfortunate, but at least understandable. The collapse of the tower of reason, and the vicious slow motion “here’s another example to frighten you with” nature of it gave the thing a malevolence that TB, or cancer, or a stroke, or having a meteor obliterate you just lacked.
The next time we came to visit, we looked for her at the table, the weather being quite nice, but the courtyard was empty. The three of us (the engineer, my wife and I) fanned out looking for her, and quickly found her, mumbling to herself and walking along the inside of rust-red wooden fence that surrounded the facility, trailing her fingers along it and looking for a break in the fence; a gate, a door, a loose board . . . anything . . . that would get her out. As time went by, she forgot more and more, could keep less and less clear in her mind, but the one idée fixe that never left her was, “I must get out of here; I want to go home.”
There was a John Dahl movie with Nicolas Cage, Red Rock West; it had a laughing/groaning repeated motif involving the “Welcome to Red Rock West” sign at the outskirts of town. Every time Cage seemed to be escaping from the escalating trouble he kept finding and adding to in the town, events would conspire to bring him back, inevitably past that mocking sign.
The next few years were variations on a cruel commedia dell’arte that seemed to echo that movie. The same cast of characters swooping in on her in her isolation, taking her out for some activity: the zoo, a restaurant, a party, shopping, and then her rising agitation, then horror, as she realized that she was going back to That Place with Those People.
My wife and the sergeant were the two in the family most haunted by the possibility of inheritability, that what they were seeing in their mother was going to come to them in full measure. The sergeant was humorously stoic about it, accepting it as a very good possibility. He dutifully made weekly visits and drowned himself in work.
My wife, survivor of cancer a few years earlier, mostly excoriated herself for not visiting and helping more, but even more, retreated in appalled silence from the beast she saw in the corners of every room. Every slow-to-be-recalled fact or face or name was the scratch of its claws at the door. Now and again she would collect together the bolus of guilt that had built up between visits and expel it in the effort to spend time with her mother, but in fact, to her, her “mother,” the real mother, was already dead. Those desperate scintillae of her that would pop to the surface out of the mud of her dementia were like the voices of ghosts and only served as cruel reminders of what was gone. The bolus would begin to reform, and the whole cruel progression continued.
When my wife left me, amid the random storm of thought that her departure made in my mind were two countervailing (and of course profoundly self-absorbed) possibilities. First, that she’d left me to spare me what her father had gone through and was still going through. Or, that seeing her time coming to a more abrupt end than she’d imagined, she was going to strike off and live a proper life, like Dostoyevsky in front of the firing squad receiving his commutation. Sometimes, in the dark of night as I wailed into my pillow, I took cold, poisoned comfort in the notion that I would be spared seeing her go that way, regardless of my vow anent “sickness and health.” This sort of thinking did not make things any pleasanter, and I imagine I largely indulged in it the way a penitent does a hair shirt. Regardless, it still spoke poorly of my character as a man and a husband.
I got a call on New Year’s Eve, shortly after my wife had left me, and a few days before she would tell me that she would never be coming back. It was the engineer. Our mother was in the intensive care unit at the nearby hospital, raving and delirious, wracked by infections, mini-strokes, and seizures.
I walked over, got a visitor’s badge from the security desk, and made my way up to the ICU. The on-duty doctor gave me a dire rundown of her state and prognosis. While I was there, she was heavily sedated, but had come out of a similar state earlier and tried to drag herself and all her attendant tubing out of the bed; even in extremis, she was trying to get out.
I stood and watched her poor, ravaged form making swimming motions under the covers, and periodically she’d yelp something, but she was deep, deep down. There was a little swinging table over her bed, but it had been cleared of any items that might have been there; she was on IVs, so she wasn’t using it to eat or drink; I imagine the nurses had left it in place to hold the various examination tools, and so on, for when they worked with her.
I had a card I’d been meaning to send to her in my pocket. As I looked at her, I thought of leaving it on the table, but in the end, I left it in my pocket, leaned over the clean, empty table, and kissed my friend goodbye, brushing the wisps of white hair away from her forehead.
Then I went home and got drunk.
About Brian Metz
Brian Metz is a 2017 graduate of the Murrow College at WSU, attending the Everett campus. After 25 years as a graphic designer and illustrator, he returned to school to finish the bachelor’s degree he began in 1977. He lives in north Seattle with his hetero-life partner, two cats, and a house full of books whose mortgage he pays to keep the previously noted contents dry.