Speak, Memory! Anthony Moore Macro-Fiction

map Speak, Memory!

by Anthony Moore

Published in Issue No. 182 ~ July, 2012

Photo by: Richard Nicholson

 

brings her into her room, laying her in her crib as carefully as he would a loaf of plastic explosives.

But something is developing.

She’ll be lying there between Paul and his wife on her fleece blanket, sleeping, still as a shoe. Suddenly, her face contorts, her mouth turns down at the corners—a grimace—and her face apple reddens. Then she lets out a siren squeal. Like a siren that had its hand caught in a door. A siren that saw its puppy get run over in the street after school. A siren.

Then her eyes open and they flash back and forth and back and forth. She has no idea where she is. Tears start to roll. They don’t like to see tears. Tears upset all of them there at night.

But the tears come and come and her eyes fill up and float on the tears and move from side to side buoyant on that sea of tears that waits and waits until just the right moment before it overflows and spills down her hot, pink cheeks. One of them, usually Paul at first, picks her up and holds her. It doesn’t help. She’s totally disoriented and will not calm down. He holds her against his chest and hopes that the sound of his beating heart will calm hers. It doesn’t. He can hope all he wants. Then he hands her to his wife.

It’s a mother-thing, he tells himself. She takes the baby and holds her and the baby’s eyes are flashing around through her thick sea of tears like she’s caught in a trap and her pajamas are on fire. Like she’s in a trap wearing pajamas. That would be bad enough.

But eventually she calms down. Paul and his wife look at each other—What the hell!—and then she sets the baby back down between them where she sleeps restfully until Paul puts her in her crib later on.

It’s obvious at this point, but they’ve decided that their baby is having nightmares. She is clearly otherworldly when she starts crying, and when she opens her eyes and the tears start to flow, they’re not even sure she’s really awake. It’s very upsetting, and the idea that she’s having nightmares has led them into the same conversation more times than they can count. It goes like this:

—What do you think she’s dreaming about?

—I can’t imagine. I mean, what the hell could she be dreaming about?

—That we’ve left her.

—That’s horrible. Why the hell would she dream that?

—What else could it be?

They both sit and think about it for a moment. They look down at her lying there between them.

—She doesn’t even know enough to have nightmares. Fears.

—That’s what makes me say it must be that she’s dreaming about us leaving her behind.

—Behind? Behind where?

—You know. Like, just, behind. In general. Don’t be an idiot.

—You don’t.

—You.

—I suppose that does make sense. She doesn’t know much beyond being with us and being without us. Really, what else is there?

—Eating.

—Eating? I suppose there’s that, but would eating really drive her to have nightmares like that?

—No, probably not.

—Well, here are the things she knows: us, food, sleep, and poop. What more does she know, really?

—Nothing. I can’t think of anything.

—There’s no way she’s that upset about food. Sleep? I mean, if she’s having nightmares about sleep, then…I don’t even know what the hell that would mean.

—No. And it can’t be about poop. If it is, gross.

—Yeah, I can’t imagine that would be it.

—So it has to be us.

—That we left her behind.

She gives Paul a look.

—What?

—Are you making fun of me?

—What do you mean?

But he knows what she means, and he is kind of making fun of her.

—You know what I mean.

—No, I think that really must be it. That we’ve left her behind.

She shakes her fist at him because she knows he’s making fun of her.

—I mean it!

Paul laughs and shakes his fist at her. They sit there on the bed with the sleeping baby between them shaking their fists at each other.

The next night they’re in bed watching this Japanese game show on TV and the baby is between them, splayed out on her fleece like a spider tanning itself on the beach.

She is adorable. Unlike a spider getting a tan. Which is an unpleasant image, and clearly misplaced here.

The next night they’re in bed watching this Japanese game show on TV and the baby is between them, splayed out on her fleece like a wad of uncooked dough. Jesus.

The next night they’re in bed watching this Japanese game show on TV and the baby is between them, splayed out on her fleece like a dead cat. No. They have a cat.

The next night they’re in bed watching this Japanese game show on TV and the baby is between them, splayed out on her fleece like a load of laundry. That’s not it.

Anyhow…

Then she starts to have her nightmare and she’s not adorable anymore. She is possessed and heartbreaking. Something is squeezing her soul between its fingers. Something that she is generating in her mind. Something that is tall and has ragged clothes draped over its boney

shoulders. It wears all black, a wraith. She is creating it, and they want to know why. After
they settle her down as much as possible, they have the following conversation, trying to uncover the truth:

—What do you think she’s dreaming about?

—I can’t imagine. I mean, what the hell could she be dreaming about?

—That we’ve left her.

—That’s horrible. Why the hell would she dream that?

—What else could it be?

They both sit and think about it for a moment. They look down at her laying there between them.

—She doesn’t even know enough to have nightmares. Fears.

—That’s what makes me say it must be that she’s dreaming about us leaving her behind.

—Behind?

—You know. Like, just, behind. In general….

It’s comical, in its own way, the repetitive nature of the entire situation. In another way, it’s not. But it feels familiar, and although they say that familiarity breeds contempt, Paul is more on board with the idea that it breeds comfort. At least most of the time.

Soon, these nightmares start to happen everywhere they go, not just when the baby is stretched out between them like a hammock between two elm trees. They’ll be in the supermarket, the baby sleeping and stretched out in her stroller like a miniature pillow shaped like a baby. She’ll make her face, start to cry, and spring to life in her horrible dreamstate. Everyone around them thinks that Paul and his wife must do terrible things to her when no one is looking. It’s a good time-killer to imagine what Paul and his wife might do.

And then they’ll be at a restaurant and it’ll happen again. Their soup will get cold as they try to throw cold water on her nightmare.

Or they’ll be at the hospital visiting Paul’s father, who is suddenly laid up with some wretched, nameless disease. They’ll visit him there and Paul will be holding his father’s hand at the side of the bed watching him wither away like cheese left out on the counter top. He’ll be dictating the revisions to his will to Paul with the last of the day’s sun coming in through the gauzy curtains that Paul keeps trying to pin back but can’t because they’re so gauzy.

—What do you think? Should we take off?

—Wait until he’s asleep.

Paul looks down at his father’s face. It’s yellow. There are pints and pints of bile backing up in his system, waxing his skin until he looks as he does now. Chinese.

—I think he is.

—Chinese?

—No. Not Chinese. Asleep. I didn’t even say that out loud, so don’t do that.

She looks down at Paul’s father’s sickly face.

—Sad.

Paul’s father squeezes his hand. It’s like a death grip without the death. Just a grip. It almost hurts, but then Paul remembers that his father is dying and convinces himself that he’s stronger than a dying man could ever be. He gives his hand a squeeze. It has to hurt, but Paul’s father doesn’t make a peep.

—Dad, are you awake?

And then the baby starts in. Her face as red as a stop light, tears squirting out onto the front of her shirt, darkening the tiny puff of a rabbit embroidered there. The sight of the rabbit soaking up her tears almost makes Paul cry.

—Oh god.

His wife leans over and picks the baby up from where she’s been lying on the blanket with Paul’s father. She holds her up over her head and the sun comes in through the gauze and lights her up like a torch. Paul’s mother comes in suddenly.

—How’s your father?

—Asleep.

She puts her hand on her husband’s forehead and smooths his hair down.

—And how’s the baby?

—Relaxing.

The baby is asleep. After Paul’s wife held her to her heart and patted her back and kissed her head and squeezed her behind, the lights went out on her day again.

—She’s so precious.

She puts her hand on her granddaughter’s forehead and smooths her hair down.

—Is she still having those nightmares?

—She is.

Paul’s mother takes the baby from his wife.

—You poor thing. Do you have nightmares? Do you have nightmares? Do you?

The baby’s eyes suddenly open and she’s a wild animal again. The cage door swinging closed behind her, locking her in.

That night she has the nightmare again. They think that maybe it’s the hospital. The smell and all. They’re stuck, though. They can’t just let Paul’s father droop and sway under his own weight all alone. They console the baby and rub her head and Paul holds one of her feet in his hand (she likes that) and she finally quiets down and closes her red-rimmed eyes again.

An hour later, Paul is loading her into her crib and an hour after that he’s asleep. He has this dream that he’s in the hospital. It’s just like you’d imagine a dream about a hospital: fog rolls down the glowing white hallways; patients wander, some headless, back and forth with nowhere to be, nowhere to go, pushing IVs mounted on wheeled poles that nearly touch the ceiling; gurneys with blood-soaked sheets draped over them are wheeled by ghoul and non-ghoul orderlies; skeleton surgeons operate on people screaming for more anesthetic. It’s your typical dream-hospital.

Anyhow, he’s there to see his father. In the dream, at the reception desk, he calls him something, but not Dad. It might be “Jefe.” Like how Mexicans in movies address each other on the streets.

Paul goes into his father’s room, but instead of his father, his daughter is on the bed. She’s still a baby. She’s going through the channels on the TV with the remote. At home, they rarely let her have control of the remote, so he’s clued in right away to the bizarre and fantastic nature of this dream. She puts the remote down when Paul comes in and leans back against the pillow.

—What’s on?

—Horse racing.

She never watches horse racing at home, so he knows he’s delving deeper into the world of the unknown. It doesn’t occur to him until later that she can’t usually talk. And then he starts to become aware that he’s dreaming. That he can kind of control what he’s doing in there. He suddenly wishes there were a girl there to have sex with. That his daughter weren’t there. She touches the tip of her nose and points at Paul.

—Do you want to know what my nightmares are about?

He moves over to the chair by the window. The sun is coming in hot and white and he realizes that it’s the first time he has ever noticed a change in temperature in a dream. The horses’ hooves pound around the dirt track on TV. His peripheral vision is filled with flying clods of mud.

—I guess that’s why I’m here.

He’s not sure if that’s true, but he thinks it sounds dream-like and appropriate. She sits up on the bed.

—Do you remember when you woke up this morning and you had this feeling that everything was going really well and the place you were at now in life is exactly where you hoped to be when you were younger?

He just stares at her. He thinks that almost every day when he wakes up.

—Almost everything. But what about my father?

She looks into his eyes for a moment. The sound of the pounding hooves is growing louder.

—Everybody dies.

—I know, but…

—You remember that moment, don’t you? When you woke up?

—Yes.

—Well, I don’t. Anything.

—What do you mean?

—If you couldn’t remember having that moment, would you be less happy? I think you would.

Paul looks up at the horserace, and a huge black horse, longer by a neck than the others, is crossing the finish line in victory. Paul turns back to the bed and his father lies there, wheezing; a device that takes up half the wall is now surging like a giant, mechanical lung behind him. His head lifts from the pillow. Then it drops back down and the machine behind him lets out a deep sigh.

—I have to go, Dad.

After that, the nightmares wane a little. They don’t think there is any connection between the dream and the waning. If there is, what would it be? When they take the baby to her doctor for a routine checkup, they mention the nightmares.

—What kind of nightmares is she having?

—We think it might be about the hospital. My dad is in County General.

—Nothing serious, I hope.

—It is, actually.

—I’m sorry to hear it.

—Do you think that could be it?

—I don’t think so. Let me tell you why.

They stare at him. Paul notices that his eyes have both brown and blue in each. They are mottled.

—A baby your daughter’s age has no memory to speak of. Except for her day-to-day routine, which, for an infant, is composed of eating, sleeping, and filling her diaper, nothing sticks.

He smiles at them. A twinkle in his eye.

—That’s why, say, if you drop her off the couch and onto her head, she won’t be mad about it when she wakes up the next morning. And she certainly won’t have any idea why she has a headache, or what a headache is, for that matter. Or even how to register the pain. This chain of unknowing goes on forever. Like a reflection in a series of mirrors.

—So, you’re saying…

—I’m saying that as an independent memory, she cannot possibly remember the hospital. As a dependant memory, one contingent on her seeing the hospital again, she will, in fact, remember being there previously. But in her dreams, her memory nearly doesn’t exist, except for those things I mentioned earlier.

—Really?

—Yes.

—So…what do you think it is, then?

—Most likely, it’s the fear of being left behind.

—Behind?

—You know. Like, just, behind. In general.

But Paul starts to think that the doctor is wrong. He thinks of the dream he had. About memories being left behind. About remembering nothing. Like their daughter, maybe. What if he didn’t even remember the dream? If he forgot how he got to this doctor’s office? What if Paul forgot that he loves his wife? Forgot that he hopes his father doesn’t die?

He looks down at his daughter where she lies sleeping on the padded table. Her mouth suddenly turns down aggressively, her eyes squeeze against themselves. Her lips are wet. Her bald head turns red, a balloon of thought ready to puncture itself.

In the night, coming through the monitor at their bedside, is a high-pitched squeal. Paul doesn’t know how, but it doesn’t wake his wife. Everything wakes her up, but not this. He slides out of bed and creeps back to his daughter’s room. He turns on a dim table-mounted nightlight and peers into her crib. She’s in there, wrapped horribly in her blanket. It’s come undone and squeezed itself around her like a constrictor. It looks like a fairly dangerous arrangement, but Paul can tell by looking at her that she is upset about something else.

As her eyes adjust to the light, they squint open, and tears are released onto the sides of her face, where they quickly puddle in her ears. He wants to pick her up, but he feels weak. He is draining down with each tear that rolls out of her eyes. She looks up at Paul and she is sadder than anything he has ever seen.

Something makes Paul think about his father, but he can’t pin down what it is he’s actually thinking about him. A vague, blurred after-image of something that he was supposed to do. Something he was supposed to take care of. A duty undone, but an image of that undone duty. It makes no sense. A fading picture of something that was never tangible, something that should not create any kind of mental impression.

Is this how a memory fades? With the creation of a false memory of something that doesn’t exist? Something about his father. That’s as far as it goes. Paul doesn’t hear the baby anymore, although he is staring into her eyes, watching them soak her face with tears. She looks like she is screaming now. She has moved away from whatever nightmare she had and into something worse. Paul can feel it in the room. In the air vibrating around the crib.

Paul reaches down and the baby takes hold of his finger and squeezes it with all her might. Everything is everything at once. What if he forgets how to get back to the bedroom? That they called earlier and told him that his father had died? Or that the baby wakes up screaming with nightmares every night now? His wife could remember for him. But their daughter, he couldn’t lose her like that. And who would remember for her, like he tries to do now?

But that’s nonsense, he thinks, there in the baby’s room in the middle of the night. Everything is fine. He puts his hand on her forehead and her eyes stop and take dead aim at his and they are locked there like that until Paul slips over and clicks the light off and backs out of the room.

—But you can’t be too careful, he says to himself, taking a piece of paper from the desk by the front door. He snaps on a light and sits with a pen.

—Better safe than sorry. He laughs at how stupid what he’s about to do would seem to anyone watching. But no one is.

The pen touches the paper, the scratching sound strangely satisfying in the night.

—I don’t want to forget, he says, writing those very words at the top of the page and underlining them.

And then:

—Paul’s wife gave birth to a baby girl about three months ago. A daughter.

Their first. They are very excited. Every night, he

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Tony Moore is a writer/editor at Dickinson College, a contributing author to "Drinkology Beer: A Book About the Brew," and a writer for IDrinkGoodBeer.com. He has worked for the U.S. Senate, the Financial Accounting Foundation, and A&E Television Networks. He is married and has three kids and will never have a moment to write another thing ever again.
  • Matt Getty

    A great meditation on memory, language, narrative and the fears that bind all three. Loved seeing how the odd device of starting in the middle of the sentence paid off at the end.