When Working Memory Retires
by Tom Crowley
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Charles and Hjalmar
Six years before Marta died, on a cool brilliantly sunny late-August morning with the earliest-changing leaves showing some yellow or red, Neurosci 101 began again. Nervous before his first-ever college day, Chuck Anderson was awake all night as his dorm-mate’s steam-locomotive snoring thundered out the window and across the northern prairies. Chuck rose, showered and shaved, noting that his facial pimples, mostly gone now, had left no scars. He arrived at the big classroom forty minutes early, “just to be safe.” The only other person there, a pretty blonde girl examining the class textbook in a front-and-center seat, ignored him when he sat beside her.
At 10:57 Brian strode with confidence into the classroom, tall, slim, once-blond hair graying, wearing tan chinos and a blue button-down shirt open at the neck. Soon a deep blue slide behind him announced in large gold letters, Introduction to Neuroscience. At eleven a.m. sharp he said, “Welcome to Neurosci. We’ll meet Monday-Wednesday-Friday for fifteen weeks. To begin, would each of you briefly say your name and why you’re here.” Pointing at Chuck, he said, “Please start.”
Chuck, excited, scared, but never shy with authorities, said, “I’m Chuck Anderson, majoring in Creative Writing. Frankly, I’d have eaten ground glass to avoid Neuroscience, but they said freshmen need three science credits.”
Brian frowned, staring through silent seconds at Chuck. Palpable anxiety spread. Then Brian pursed his lips and slowly shook his head. His sorrow-stricken voice intoned, “Don’t do ground glass. Last year that student who did had no bowel movements for eight months.” He held that sad look two more seconds, further confounding the students, before his laughter burst over the relieved class. Adding “But he did save on toilet paper” got more laughs.
The next time, Chuck, embarrassed, sat in the back. The blonde, Angela, she had said, stayed forward. So each day he moved forward, finally reaching the front, but way to the right. Then each day he moved leftward, until he finally sat next to her. She smiled and said, “I hoped you’d come back.”
Before he could ask, “What brought you to Carson?” — his dumb but only icebreaker — she leaned toward him, touched his arm, and whispered, “I’m glad you’re here. I’m majoring in music, and I felt exactly like you that first day. I loved ‘ground glass’, especially that you said it.” Three years later, Chuck and Angela would marry and, with her father dead, she had asked Brian to walk her down the aisle.
* * *
Two weeks into classes, Chuck was surprised to be enjoying Neurosci. He’d learned that just three pounds of gray jelly inside people’s skulls produce and regulate all emotion and behavior, and so his first story for Creat. Writ. 101 concerned an Anglican priest who became Jack-the-Ripper when brain seizures blocked both control and memory of his gruesome acts.
Chuck loved his story, so one morning in a cold rain he crossed campus to Professor Jorgenson’s 8:30 Office Hours. Chuck felt shaky, partly from nervousness, but mostly because the previous night had involved too much poker and way too much beer.
Professor Jorgenson’s journals were crammed into a rickety metal bookshelf, and he worked in an uncomfortable-looking roll-about chair at a simple gray secretary’s desk. In six photos on the wall Chuck recognized Lake Saganaga in the Boundary Waters bordering Canada, with the prof and a woman, presumably his wife, canoeing, setting up camp, and fishing by a rocky point. The other two walls were barren. The gray-tile floor had no rug, but there was a comfortable leather chair for student visitors.
“I’m that ‘ground glass’ guy from Neurosci 101,” Chuck said, “but in two weeks you’ve already taught me that our humanity lives in our brains, and I think if I knew more about brains, I’d write better. Also, you were very nice — and funny — with me that first day. So, I hope you’ll be my faculty advisor.”
“An English prof could probably help you more,” said Brian.
Leaning in toward Brian, Chuck said, “They’ll teach me tons about writing stories, but they spend the rest of their time alone in empty rooms telling printers to put ink on paper. You wrestle every day with how our brains make us live the way we do. I’m sure that the more I understand that, the better I’ll write.”
Brian agreed to advise Chuck in three hour-long meetings that year. In the last one Brian asked about summer plans. Chuck answered, “Four of us rented a small house for next year. It leases for twelve months, meaning I could stay here this summer, if I find a job. Otherwise, I’ll go home and do roofing with my dad. So far, no job.”
Brian said, “Carson hires a few students for grounds maintenance every summer. You could apply at the Maintenance Office in Wheaton Hall, and I could write a reference letter.”
With a big grin Chuck said, “Oh-h, fabulous.” The Maintenance Admin Assistant later told him that Brian’s letter put Chuck way ahead of other applicants.
Chuck, trimming bushes, crossed paths with Brian four times that summer, always calling out, “Hi, Professor J.”
Brian always answered, “Oh, hello there, how are you? How’s the work going?” Chuck’s name wasn’t “There,” and he wondered how Brian had forgotten it after so many meetings.
* * *
After graduation, Chuck entered the University of Minnesota’s writing program but still met Brian occasionally for informal advice. Three years after Marta’s death, with Brian sixty-six years old, Dr. Charles Anderson returned to Carson, an Assistant Professor of English. He accidentally bumped into Brian in the Quadrangle on a bright-sun but light-sweater Columbus Day, as big scalloped crimson leaves fell from the school’s ancient oaks, mixing with bumblebee-yellow maple leaves in foot-deep drifts. After warm greetings, Brian said, “Well, welcome! I didn’t even know you were coming back. Let me buy your lunch in the Faculty Club!”
Charles had sent Brian an email in January, telling him of Charles’s appointment. Brian had responded, “Whoopy.” Charles now just said, “Thanks, that sounds great. I don’t have class until two.”
The Faculty Club employed students as dishwashers and servers. After Brian and Charles sat down, a nervous young man approached in a starched white jacket. It was plain-fronted, tied in the back, its collar an inch high like a priest’s and too tight around his bull neck. His tense, formal “Hello Professor Jorgenson,” suggested some worry that this semester’s grade in Brian’s course might depend on his serving skills.
“Hi there,” Brian answered, also sounding tense — he apparently didn’t recognize the student. Brian ordered chicken noodle soup and a salad. Charles asked for burger and fries “and a salad that cuts grease.” With classes ahead, Brian wanted no alcohol, but Charles ordered a beer.
After food arrived Brian said, “So, where are you living, and how’s Angela?”
Looking down, eyebrows scrunched and lips pursed, Charles answered, “Uh, she’s not here. She stayed in Minneapolis.” Then he added, “We’re getting counseling.”
In a darkened tone, Brian said, “Uh-h-h, I’m sorry, Charles. May I... may I ask what happened?”
Charles, pausing, signaled the waiter for another beer, shrugged, looked down, and said, “My Advisor asked me to critique an MFA student’s writing. I met her nights, we drank some beer. The nights got longer. ”
Brian asked, “Is she here with you?”
Shaking his head, resigned, Charles said, “No. For her it was just a fling. She’s a poet. You know what they’re like.”
Brian didn’t and preferred not to go there. He asked what Charles was teaching. It was “Story Arcs,” building tension toward some crisis or climax, followed by resolution and denouement.
After lunch, the waiter arrived and set down the bill packet so quickly that a water glass spilled. No damage, nothing soaked except the tablecloth, but the manager, always ingratiating with faculty and demeaning to employees, rushed up. “Oh, Professor Jorgenson, I’m so sorry! Do you need a towel?”
Fortunately, at that instant the waiter’s name finally stood up in Brian’s brain, and he said, “No, no, everything’s fine, and Jack gave us great service. He’ll be one of your best servers. I know he’s a fine student. So, next time, just make Jack my server.”
The manager beamed, Jack relaxed, and Charles thought, “No wonder they love him. After dinner tonight every kid in the dorms will know this story of a noble knight protecting an innocent youth from an evil prince.”
Walking out of the Club, Brian said, “Hjalmar and I have Raid practice at 4:30 today.”
Charles of course knew Hjalmar, his chairman, but asked, “What’s Raid practice?”
“You know about the raid?” asked Brian.
“In 1876, Jesse James, Cole Younger, and their gang rode into town to rob Nordland’s bank. But the Nordlanders saw what was happening and shot ’em up, capturing or killing the whole bunch, except for Jesse and Frank James. Nordland re-enacts it every summer as a tourist draw. Hjalmar and I volunteered as raiders.”
Charles asked, “The Wild West reached up to Minnesota?”
Brian, lapsing into Minnesotan, said, “You damn betcha!”
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Tom Crowley