Memory is like a puzzle. You have to slide all the pieces in the right slots to see the image you want. Sometimes you don’t know what image you’re going to get, or someone interrupts you in the process and you have a hybrid of your memory and someone else’s. At my age, I am afraid most of my memories have been altered. If I were young, like Richard, I would document my life more carefully, while I am alive and my grandkids are young. I remember some things from my youth, like my father needing a cane after the war was over. I don’t remember him leaving for the war, but I remember him returning. Even those memories are faded. I think about it enough to know it happened, but the images all blur together. My fathers old cane has taken on some of the qualities of the standing lamp in my house. The knotty, stiff cane he used to support himself—and occasionally whack us with—has begun to straighten out and gloss over as the number of times I have seen my lamp overtake the number of times I have seen his cane, or felt it on my back. Most of my early memories are like that, as if there isn’t enough room in my mind for everything and the old stuff gets pushed aside for the new.
Where is that cane? Did I leave the lamp on downstairs? I can’t go to sleep now thinking I left the light on. Getting out of bed isn’t that difficult and I’m not too tired to walk down the stairs tonight.
I grip the rail and begin the gentle wind down to the first floor. I have to move slow in this dim light or I will panic and fall. You learn to do things different when you get as old as me. Time is the only thing that moves faster. Everything else slows down. As the staircase turns to face the living room, a soft yellow light travels around the corner, like a sunrise viewed while laying down. The bulb glows and finally appears beside the wall as I approach the tight end of the curve. I lift my other hand for balance against the wall here, half expecting to feel the heat of the light, but all I feel is the cool smoothness of the plaster. Where my hand meets the wall, it also meets a slightly darker line that looks more like a shadow until I get up close. The shadowy stroke on the old paint was mine, my wife’s, and our children’s handprints all stirred together by the passage of time. I think about Richard when he was a little boy placing his hands on the wall, usually covered in grime and dirt. I think about my wife coming in from the garden and walking up the stairs with her gloves on, absently stroking the wall’s inner curve. I stop and trace the outline of the dark blemish. It moves like a hand would. First laying flat on impact and then easing up to a brush of fingertips as the body travels forward. Where the color starts, it is dense and thick, and where the hand begins to lift the color pales until—where the hand reaches the tip of contact—it is hardly there at all. I back up a few steps and try to recreate the effortless motions of all our hands over many years. It’s difficult when you are concentrating on the mark, and it’s difficult for me to back up on the steps without squeezing the rail as hard as I can. If I can step backwards up these stairs, I can reverse time itself. Even strangers, or distant family members we didn’t know very well probably used this spot on the wall to balance as the steps curved. It was uniting all of us more than the painfully awkward dinners we sat through with distant family. I think of all the times Rose and I walked down the stairs together, and how hard I felt her loss when she died. Why hadn’t we ever talked about the smudge on the wall? I reach the first floor thinking about dinner. I try to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I must have come downstairs to make something to eat.
Richard comes over in the morning and wakes me up from the couch.
“Dad, did you sleep down here?” His dark hair is halfway dry and stuck together in small, wet ropes. I look around at the living room. The lamp is on and there is a sandwich on a paper napkin on the side table. “Dad, you shouldn’t sleep on the couch. It’s not good for your back.” Richard picks up the sandwich and turns it over. One of the pieces of bread flops open to expose a slice of peppered turkey. He leaves the room and I pull myself up to a sitting position. What was so important about last night? How did I end up on the couch? Richard ran the sink in the kitchen. Pieces of sunlight sparkle through the vertical blinds of the front window. I feel the puzzle briefly come together, then fall apart again. Richard returns and helps me to my feet. His face is dotted with small hairs on his chin and cheeks, each one of them concerned for my health. “Do you want me to help you back to bed?”
“No, I’m awake now. I have to let Geggy outside.” Richard gives me a curt nod and opens the back door. I don’t look at him when I step outside. Richard treats me like a child sometimes, but he is still the child to me. Geggy is already waiting at the window and seems disappointed to see me instead of his owners, who will be back tomorrow. My grandkids called the dog Geggy before they could say “Gregory”, just like I was Papa, and my wife, Nanie. In my stern, younger days, I would never have tolerated this baby talk, but grandkids soften you in ways your children only prepared you for. Geggy circles around the yard until he pees and we go inside to eat. I scoop his kibble in the bowl, making sure to close the lid on the food tight so it wouldn’t get stale or covered in ants. Richard is picking up the debris that blew onto my driveway during the night and I stay at the neighbors window for a moment to watch him. Richard looks like I used to, only slightly thinner. When he dips towards the driveway to remove a piece of trash that landed there in the night, I feel his movements in my body, in my hips or shoulders, in the puzzles of my muscles and bones. He looks weak underneath spindly muscles and the small pot belly forming under his shirt. At that age, I was already stronger than my own father. I have the cane to thank for that. Geggy chomped down his food. I guess I stayed at the window or watched the dog eat for too long because Richard comes in to get me. We leave the house together and stand outside, surveying the morning.
“Dad, do you need me to take you anywhere today? I can go into work a little later.” I think about it for a moment, but nothing important comes to mind. Either something important is on my mind, or nothing is on my mind. It’s frustrating a little, but I guess if you can hardly remember the important things, it doesn’t really bother you.
“I can’t think of anything. You go to work. I’m going to stay home.” He pats me on the back and I stand up as straight as I can, which is still sort of stooped. I feel small beside the span of his long shoulders.
“Ok. Call me if you need anything. I can send Julia over too. She’ll bring the kids if you want.”
“Yes. It would be nice to see the kids.”
I must have said something about the kids to Richard because while I was picking up the sticks from my lawn, Julia’s red wagon pulled up the driveway. The back doors open and two kids sprint onto the lawn. They’re so young. Richard had his kids too late in life.
“Grandpa!” They shriek and wrap around my waist. Handfuls of sticks keep me from hugging them back. Julia is out of the car with her bug-eye sunglasses on and her hair in a ponytail. She looks like she needs another cup of coffee. The kids break free and run into the garage to get the sidewalk chalk, big-wheels, and other toys I will probably have to pick up later. Geggy stared out the window when they emptied the entire canister of chartreuse rubber tennis balls onto the cement and start to kick them around. I think he will go crazy from the sight. I put the sticks in the waste bin and Julia gives me a warm hug.
“How are you, grandpa?” she says and I look at my dual reflection in her sunglasses. I appear to be facing slightly away from her in both lenses. “Richard said you had quite the night.” Her smile is one I have seen before, when my mother would visit her father in his later years, when he could hardly remember her name. I hate it when they talk to me that way. I see the two sides of my face smile gently in her sunglasses. The man in her eyes is feeble, a threadbare blanket with stains hidden in the corners. A man that doesn’t know why he entered a room, or why he is thinking about her hands on his shoulders like they are dirty, and why he feels an odd sense of comfort at the thought. I hope I’m not the man in those glasses, with two sides of a face and a mind that won’t meet in the middle. “Do you have everything to make grilled cheese?” Julia turns away so I can see myself in only one dark lens. This time I am fatter in the protruding curve.
“I think so.” We leave the kids to tear around the back yard until they get hungry and want to watch a movie. How long until they’re old enough to mow my lawn?
My body slowly erases the house. I am afraid when I die, I will have taken more and left less. On my toothbrush, the bristles stick out or are worn down. The couch is faded around the arms and seats. The doorknobs are polished and small. What has my body contributed? Something starts to form in my mind, a dark smudge appears but everything goes white when I try hard to remember. Something I have possibly created, a part of me I can leave behind so I won’t be forgotten. The thought doesn’t come to me anymore.
“What?” Julia says as she presses the first grilled cheese sandwich down onto the skillet. It sizzles with the warmth of bread and oil.
“I didn’t say anything,” I say.
“You did. You said something but I didn’t hear you.” Her sunglasses are pushed up onto her head and the hairs that are caught behind the stems are spread out like the yellow feathers of a royal penguin. Perhaps I did say something, but I certainly don’t remember.
“It wasn’t important.” I settle for this compromise, just in case. Julia flips the sandwich over and turns down the heat. I open the morning paper and rub the newsprint between my fingers absently. A sentiment is aroused in me when the ink rubs off onto my thumb, but I have no idea why. It just occurs to me how I might smell a bit foul today. Julia is too nice to ever say anything about it, but I haven’t been upstairs today so I must not have bathed. Julie has her back turned away so I bend my chin down and sniff. Not too bad, probably not noticeable to anyone else. I swipe a few potpourri from the bowl on the table and put some in my pockets just in case.
“Grandpa, are you ready for Richard to come over on Saturday? You remember we’re going to touch up the paint in the living room.” Julia sets a sandwich down in front of me. This sounds familiar, but I can’t remember when we talked about it.
“Of course. I’ll go out for the supplies tomorrow.” My sandwich looks delicious. I wish I could smell a little better.
“You don’t have to worry about all that. Richard found the same color paint and already has what you need, OK? You and I will go out to lunch and take the kids to the park. They should have more time with their grandpa.” Her kindness still amazes me. For having kids so late, she looks great too. Richard got lucky. Julia is at the door, calling the kids inside for the other sandwiches. They are bouncing tennis balls at Geggy’s face in the window and catching them with two of my old baseball hats they found in the garage. Geggy looks about ready to leap out of his skin.
My Rose had trouble with words sometimes. After fifty-three years together, she never felt that she had said exactly what she wanted me to hear. I heard her say lots of things anyone not used to living with her would find strange or inauthentic. She told me once, as if fighting through a bramble of language seeking to pull out a rare fruit: “I wish you could dip your hand inside my heart, and when you drew out you would be covered in something thick and dark, like tar. That’s how I love you.” She struggled under her love and against her lack of words, fighting so hard to tell me a thing any man would find so much simpler. I love you, I could say and know exactly what I meant, and she knew too. But when she was facing me in bed, or at the table, or on the porch over a glass of scotch, she got a look about her and I could see it was painful. “Tell me what you’re thinking,” I’d say, hoping she found those perfect words to use, the ones that would relieve her anguish. “Tell me, please.” She swirled her glass and seemed about to speak, but more often, she just squeezed my hand and looked in my eyes all the way through me until I squeezed back. This was the way she let me know.
She said something a year before she passed away, when the puzzle pieces of her own memory were dulling fast at the edges and slipping off the picture. She said something after breakfast while sitting at the table. I was headed into the living room to collect stray water glasses when she spoke. And I finally understood what she had always been trying to say. I felt as if the floor burned away and I dropped a flight in our house, down to the basement where the kids used to play and I kept a room of old hats. I looked back at her, slumped forward at the table over small splatters of syrup getting hard and sticky. Her favorite coffee mug spotted with dribbled liquid going dark at the edges. My once most graceful, composed companion was slipping away from me into the blurred dark of old age. Yet, she finally found the language to—not tell—but to show me with her words the exact way she had felt for me when we were young, and now old, and soon will be gone. Those words are still sharp in my memory, and I plan to die with them. I can never do justice to what she said to me, so I will never try.
After we eat, the kids ask to put on a movie. They speed ahead of me while I extract myself from the chair and open the chest of tapes. They squabble for a bit while I make my way into the living room.
“I want to watch my birthday tape but Lindsay won’t let me!”
“I want to watch my birthday tape but Matthew won’t let me!”
“Well,” I start with my hands on my hips. They stare up at me, waiting for a verdict. “How about we watch America’s birthday?” They are still puzzled so I rifle around the chest and pull out the Fourth of July party we threw in our back yard when the grandkids were toddlers. They lay on the floor and the tape starts a few minutes in. My son grins and waves a spatula at the camera through a light cloud of rising smoke. Behind him, my neighbors hold Gregory the puppy out for the grandkids to pet. Richard says something in French and leans in to kiss the camera lens. Julia giggles and swings the camera around to my wife and I. I lift a hand and Rose waves her little American flag for a bit. We both drink Pabst on this special occasion. Next we are watching the grandkids take turns holding the puppy, and putting him down, and picking him up and wobbling off with him. As the tape plays, I search for signs of my wife. Signs of her presence are muted in the background. The pink and red mums are alive on the side of the garage. The hanging birdfeeder is full and the seeds that have fallen off sprout underneath. Things I haven’t seen in years are suddenly young and alive.
Matthew rolls onto his side and looks back at me. “What’s America’s birthday?” he asks.
“July fourth. That’s why we celebrate it.” I can see the understanding eclipse his moon face. He turns back and we watch until the tape is over. Julia comes in and announces it’s time to go home. The kids jump up and give me another hug.
“Bye grandpa!” they shout and I tell them there’s no need to shout. “Bye, grandpa,” they whisper and tiptoe out to the car. Julia hugs me too.
“Richard and I will see you on Saturday. Let us know if you need anything.” She kisses me on the cheek and in her bug-eye sunglasses, I look a little confused. Her face contorts. “You didn’t forget we’re painting this week, did you?”
The man in the dark lens hunches further down. “I’m not crazy.”
“Grandpa,” she says, “that’s not what it’s called anymore.”
It’s Saturday, not the day Richard usually comes over to see me. I try not to look surprised when he unloads the painting supplies from his truck. If I look surprised, he will know I forgot about his plans to paint the living room, so I greet him at the top of the driveway.
“Dad, Julia will be here soon to take you out for lunch and to whatever else you want to do today. It shouldn’t take long to paint the room, but I can’t do it with you here.” He doesn’t mince words with me anymore, but he speaks in an even tone. He instructs me to move the couch pillows and cushions into the kitchen where they won’t get paint on them. He pulls the couch out to the center of the room. The change reveals lost artifacts that fell under the sofa long ago, but it’s nothing of great value. There is a receipt with the words and amounts all faded out, a dead battery, and a bit of plastic that broke off something long gone. I bend down to pick these up and dry sprinkles of mauve potpourri flutter from my shirt pocket and join the strange collection of debris. How the heck did that get in there? I scoop everything up and go to throw it in the kitchen trash. My couch pillows are on the kitchen table and I grab two to carry back to the couch, but the couch is in a different place and Richard is putting blue tape along the base of the wall. He looks up from the tape and his face is very heavy.
“Dad, do you have everything you need for the day? Julia will be here really soon. Could you check your bag again and make sure I packed everything?” He has a good point and I walk back to the kitchen with the couch pillows and open up my duffle bag for going out. There are some medications I take for my bladder, a granola bar with a running man silhouetted against a mountain, and a light sweater.
“I have everything I need, Richard. Should I come help you?” But Richard is standing in the door to the kitchen, still looking very sad. He moves forward to embrace me with his long arms and broad shoulders. He smells like fading deodorant and of something cold and dusty. My son has not hugged me for a long time, I think since his mother died and we had a big fight about something. That was important once, but I don’t remember what we fought about. Rose has been gone for two years. My son hasn’t hugged me in two years. We don’t fight anymore but we are men and we are strong and we don’t need to fight about the past anymore. I spend enough time fighting the past in my head, but I am fighting to hold onto it a little longer. Richard holds onto me while I am thinking about these things and a horn beeps in the driveway. Julia helps me into her red car and we drive to a place with chicken noodle soup.
When we return, my son is standing at the top of the driveway with his hands on his hips, covered in fresh spots of clean white paint. They both help me inside and offer to help me get changed. I decline and feign like I will watch TV tonight. Richard and Julia duck out of my house and instruct me one last time to wait a while before touching the drying paint. I watch their cars back out of the driveway and disappear from my block. The room looks very clean and fresh and empty. Everything I had before is still here, but something is missing and I don’t know what. Something is missing in the way I felt something was there when I saw my wife in the family video. I’m perplexed by this feeling, because in the video something I missed was present, but now…something is missing, but what was present? Of course, I can’t hang onto this for long. All the color drains from an image like wet, white paint drips over old colors on the walls. Pictures slip out of frames and drift to the floor, leaving something you saw everyday gone and leaving you in a fight to remember what the frame first contained. It’s late now in the evening and I’m tired from spending the day with Julia. The only thing I feel like doing now is getting into bed.
Something odd comes over me when I reach the stairs. The house still smells a little like paint, but a cool breeze blows through the open windows, airing it all out and dispersing in the world. All the old smells of a single old man living alone have not resurfaced yet from the carpet, or the walls behind the fresh paint. All the old has blown away through the open windows. I grip the rail and climb the stairs in an act that feels weighted by a sense of finality. The stairs curve and I brace myself with my hand against the wall. It is the first time I touch the new coat of paint, and a deep and unexplainable sadness rises in me. I stand on the stairs with my hand on the wall and try to understand why I feel so alone, and so sad, and so old. The wall is cold like plastic in the way only fresh paint is cold. My memory is slipping through the cracks and leaving behind only sediment and sand. I struggle to retain the feeling and to connect it to some memory, but I grasp at nothing and there is nothing to remember. I lift my hand off the wall. It’s dark throughout the house and dark outside too, but I can still make out the shadowy print of my large old hand, holding up the wall on its own and in some quiet way pleading to stay forever.