When Working Memory Retires
by Tom Crowley
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Brian Jorgenson’s life changed as one word, “unscored,” bounced in silent echoes around his office.
He’d worked four months on that grant application. Although seventy years old, he’d arrived this morning at 7:18, before any other professors. With his usual cup of tasteless vending machine coffee, he’d walked to his office and hung his black cotton jacket on its hook behind the door. He booted up, then saw the incoming email’s tag, National Institute on Mental Health Grants Office. It said, “Your application was unscored,” meaning, “Seen as so weak it was given no score.”
He’d always gotten grants for lab equipment, rodent subjects, and salaries for a technician and part-time student assistants who knew his motto: “You are what you produce.” Their productivity, including co-authorship of his papers, got them into strong graduate neuroscience programs.
His current grant would expire in three months, dispersing his team. At his age, he couldn’t start rebuilding a lab again. Producing would end.
* * *
Marta and Willy
At age seventeen, Brian was doing Minnesota-style ski training: an eight-gate slalom on Buck Hill’s three-hundred-nine vertical feet. He caught a tip, spun 180 degrees, and fell hard, knocking out his breath. Kids gathered, some laughing at his struggle to breathe. He spotted one hatless girl with high cheekbones, narrow, strong nose, tropical-lagoon blue eyes in porcelain-white skin, and anthracite-shiny hair. He couldn’t talk, then he could, then he couldn’t find her, but he never forgot her. Years later he still told people, “When I first saw her, I was breathless!”
Six months later in Nordland, Minnesota, at Carson College’s freshman orientation, Brian saw those eyes again and chatted up Marta. For spring break, Carson’s Ski Club organized a trip to Winter Park, Colorado. Kids with cars drove the twenty-two hour route; ride-alongs bought gas.
While skiing, Brian watched Marta launch off a big bump, crash into another, slide thirty feet downhill, and sit up laughing. He arranged to ride homeward with her in the car of two freshman boys.
They left Winter Park about four in the afternoon, taking Berthoud Pass to a diner: Joe’s Awful Coffee near El Rancho. After dinner, the highway turned northwest, bringing them into Big Springs, Nebraska, around midnight.
The two front-seat boys, loving nighttime highways, alternated napping and driving. In the back seat, Brian and Marta alternated napping and making out. Though the temperature fell to eight degrees, their blanket stayed warm.
Tires hummed loud on pavement at seventy in rural fifty-five zones, but fell quiet at twenty-five where the highway became Main Street through U.S. 30’s bead-string of small Nebraska towns: Ogallala, North Platte, Grand Island, Columbus. Nebraska seemed endless, but finally they turned north toward Sioux City, Iowa, as a frozen sun rose.
Brian whispered, “We’ve been disgusting. Let’s repeat it when we’re back.” Marta, smiling, looked past him to brilliant window-frost forms: jumbled spears, trees, crosses, diamonds all backlit now by the rising sun, their combined breaths’ gorgeous art.
At a Sioux City diner, downing stacks of pancakes with Aunt Jemima syrup, country sausage, and strong coffee, they puzzled over how Westerners skied those giant bumps, “moguls,” unknown in Minnesota. Marta got a big laugh, saying, “It’s like skiing through a VW dealer’s lot,” but she skiied them so smoothly. Brian thought, She’s a keeper.
Most Thursdays in their junior year, Brian and Marta shared beer and a greasy pizza at Paisano’s, mushrooms all over, plus pepperoni on Brian’s half. One Thursday, six inches of new snow had fallen, and the wind was picking up. Brian’s wrinkled brow told Marta that he was nervous. Then he said, “It’s time for me to tell you: I love you and I want to share the rest of my life with you. I want to have children with you, but I don’t want to get married. Please, please join me.”
Marta smiled, not at all surprised, laid her hand over his on the table and said, “I love you, and marriage is for the families, not for the couple. I want to be with you, and I don’t need marriage, but I will need a contract specifying how we’d handle money, property, and children, including in case we break up.”
Without articulating it Brian sensed, Feelings... physical touching... no hesitancy... so practical. I love her so much! Sex that night was memorable, and three weeks later they moved together into a tiny apartment.
Yellow and blue crocuses appearing in late February were buried by another snowstorm. Marta made coffee, four boiled eggs, two glasses of OJ, and two slices of rye toast, while Brian shoveled an opening in the snowplow berm imprisoning their car. Over their hurried breakfast, Brian said, “I was awake a lot last night. I decided that after we graduate, I want to get a PhD.”
Marta answered, “I knew that all along. Our kids will like saying, ‘Dr. Daddy.’ And by the way, I’m going for a Doctor of Musical Arts. To pay for it, I’ll just cut us down to one egg apiece.”
Four years later, with doctorates from the University of Minnesota, Brian’s in neuroanatomy and Marta’s in music, they loaded their bed, two desks, two chairs, eight cardboard boxes of books and papers, and their meager cooking gear into a U-Haul trailer, heading toward Brian’s Stanford post-doctoral fellowship.
Back on U.S. 30 in Nebraska, with money tight, they ended their trip’s second day at Bud’s Motor Court, a one-story line of small adjoining rooms with 1930’s brown exterior stucco walls. Beside the office entrance an empty trellis needed paint. They registered, got a key, and checked for bed bugs. Finding none, they walked to Bud’s Diner, its flashing red neon sign, EATS, topping a twenty-foot pole. Their Seafood Special, battered deep-fried frozen tasteless fish with soft greasy French fries, came with “green” beans rendered khaki by canning.
Marta ate her ice cream with left eyebrow raised and a coy smile, her come-hither look, and said, “Today I thought about our last U.S. 30 trip in that back seat and I decided something. While you stain brains, I’ll gestate.”
It was time to start a family. Brian grinned and asked, “Anything I can do to help?”
She answered, “Back in that bug-free bed, I might think of something.” Willy, born ten months later, had Marta’s fair skin and Brian’s blond hair. When Willy first crawled away from them at seven months, his laugh exploded like fireworks. He owned them.
After Stanford, with Viet Nam heating up, Brian owed the military three years at New Mexico’s Holden Air Force Base. He loved telling friends, “I’m keeping the Viet Cong outta here.” Evenings, they sat outside with wine, watching the sun set somewhere past the White Sands, asking, “All that training, now where do we settle?”
Looking past their base-watered Bermuda-grass lawn into the vast caliche desert beyond, Brian said, “I don’t want that grim grind of publish or perish. I want teaching in a small, fine, liberal arts college, a place where faculty know students’ names, where professors teach intro courses, not half-paid adjuncts or grad students.”
Always wise, she said, “Let’s apply in Nordland. With the two colleges, it’s perfect. You apply at Carson. I will, at St. Magnus, since it’s great in music. And Nordland’s a peaceful small town, perfect for raising kids.”
They applied, got offers, and accepted but, before leaving New Mexico, Willy said his head hurt. Seven months later in Nordland, a Twins baseball cap covering his chemo-balded head, Willy told Brian that another child patient had said she would go to Heaven when she died. “Daddy, will I go there?”
Brian, a life-long agnostic, answered, “Willy, if anyone goes to Heaven, it’ll be you.” Then he left the room to cry. Willy died a week later.
After the funeral Brian said to Marta, “We’re like shipwreck survivors tossed onto some desert island. I need you so desperately; you’re my life vest. Let’s marry.”
She said simply, “I need you, too. I will.” They did, but neither could face having another child and, despite their closeness, they mourned apart. Annually on Willy’s birthday Brian pushed a candle into a cupcake, lit it, blew it out, and removed it. Then, hosting in solitary sorrow a party never held, he ate the cupcake.
A year later they began their “C.P. Snow Soirees,” inviting to their home a dozen senior students, from Carson in neuroscience and from St. Magnus in music, for pizza with a beer or soft drink. They summarized Snow’s book, The Two Cultures, before asking, “You’re all now into the culture of science or of musical art, but how much should you know and respect that other culture, where you’re no expert?”
Marianne, a musician, answered first. “I don’t want to offend anyone, but scientists are data geeks. Yeah, they keep the lights on but, for stuff that counts, like human emotions...” She shook her head.
Eddie, a neuroscience kid who’d dressed up in white shirt and dark wool sweater to visit his professor’s home, grinned and said, “Well, for an expert in human emotions who didn’t want to offend anyone, you’ve made a bad start.”
As they all laughed, another neuroscientist said, “Yeah, are you claiming that Evlis guy is some expert in human emotions?”
“He’s Elvis, not Evlis, and no musician. He’s a male stripper,” answered Marianne.
Marko Viitala, a quiet boy from the Iron Range, chimed in, “I’m a neuroscience major, but I’m also an amateur fiddler.”
Marianne, unimpressed, said, “Turkey in the Straw isn’t art.”
Marko, looking down to hide his grin, said, “Well, I am an amateur, but I was soloist when our County Orchestra did Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto.”
“U-o-o, well that is art,” said Marianne, blushing.
Marko continued, “And I’m doing neuroscience because half of my male relatives have congenital deafness. I want to find out why and do something about it. I’ll be too busy to make your lights go on.”
Recognizing her old mistake, Marianne said, “Sorry, I came on too strong; I do that.” Smiling at Marko, she added, “But who knows, maybe you’ve already turned my lights on.”
To a laughing chorus of “Oh-Oh,” Marko got up for more pizza, brought a piece to Marianne, and sat beside her.
The Soirees became famous.
* * *
Marta chaired Music at Magnus for a decade before dying at home from breast cancer on a Friday at 4:51 pm. She and Brian were sixty-three. The soirees stopped, leaving him to teaching, research and loneliness.
Every Friday for several years, Brian visited Marta’s and Willy’s graves at 4:51 pm, a near-dark time in Nordland’s Decembers. On one Friday, sitting in his car, Brian ate Willy’s thirty-fourth birthday cupcake. He would have helped, Brian thought. Instead, I’m just alone. Tears fell on his jacket; snow, on the graves.
He drove home, raised the garage door, drove in, and stopped the engine. As the door closed behind him, he thought, Solitary confinement. Entering the house, he continued: If I die here tonight, no one will know or care until I miss Monday’s 11:00 a.m. class.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Tom Crowley