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When Working Memory Retires

by Tom Crowley

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4


Brian’s motel was about a mile from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. On Monday a physician took his history and did a neurologic examination. A tech drew blood, and another ran an MRI.

A gentle, soft-spoken young woman wearing a short white coat, but otherwise like the young Marta with straight black hair and finely wrought face, conducted Tuesday’s five-hour test session. Where are we now? Count down from one-hundred by sevens. Connect the dots on the screen, starting with number one, then two, and so on. Tap your finger on this spot as fast as you can until I tell you to stop.

On Wednesday a psychiatrist confirmed Brian’s fears, discussing the increasing help he’d need.

* * *

He told his Department chair, “That’s a kind offer, but a retirement party for me now would be a wake. I really don’t want one.”

He brought cardboard boxes to the office one Sunday morning when he’d be alone. He filled them with a few books, his three Best Teacher of the Year plaques, the pen and clock that had sat on his desk for years, his old Rolodex and calculator, his personal laptop, and six pictures of himself and Marta in the Boundary Waters. He placed the boxes in the car’s trunk and never returned.

* * *

With a part-time housekeeper and the Visiting Nurse Agency sending twice-a-week help, Brian stayed in his home another year. Then one day he got up from his living-room reclining chair to get a warmer sweater from the bedroom. A ten-dollar bill had been on his dresser. It was gone.

He charged into the restroom where the nurse, the fat one with the stringy black hair and some impossible Greek name, was replacing a pill bottle. “What the hell did you do with my ten-dollar bill,” he demanded.

She smiled — too sweetly — and said, “Mr. Jorgenson, it’ll turn up. Sometimes patients mislay things and blame us, but you’ll find it.”

Brian got so mad. She was blaming him for stealing his own ten dollars, so he slapped at her face, but she turned her head, and he accidentally hit her nose. She cried when she looked in the bathroom mirror and saw that damned blood, but it was her own fault, the way she turned. She grabbed her stuff and ran out the front door, still crying.

Going to bed that night, Brian found the ten dollars on his nightstand. She must have dropped it there when she heard him getting up in the living room.

Two days later a new social worker came to Brian’s home, a very gentle, very big, very muscular young man. He said, “Yesterday Rice County Social Services was appointed as your legal guardian. Visiting Nurses won’t be coming—”

Brian interrupted, “That’s fine! That fat bitch tried to make off with ten bucks of mine.”

The worker continued, “Well, you need nurses to look after your meds, and with Visiting Nurses gone now, Social Services wants you to go into the Minneapolis Veterans Administration Nursing Home, so I’ll help you pack your things today. Then on Thursday two of us will drive you up there.”

Brian thought about telling him, “Get out of my house and go to hell,” but the guy was so damned big, and Brian had gotten so damned old, that he just went along.

* * *

Charles’ short-story anthology, The Frozen North, won the annual Best Fiction Prize from the Minnesota Booksellers Association, earning him an early promotion to Associate Professor. He saw his editor in Minneapolis several times each year, usually stopping to visit Brian, now called “Lieutenant Jorgenson,” in that huge, lovely old nursing home, its gracious grassy grounds adjoining Minnehaha Park.

Charles soon learned which long, winding corridors led to Brian’s ward, its big open dayroom and nurse’s station brightly lit by immense, south-facing windows. Shari, a nurse’s aide, perky, pretty, and plump in blue scrubs, often was leading a bingo game for patients when Charles arrived, but Brian stayed alone in his room. “He comes out for meals,” said Shari, “and we check on him hourly, but otherwise we don’t see him.”

Charles’ last visit was four months ago. Brian, then seventy-three, sparse hair cut short, lay in bed in a white undershirt and rumpled gray suitcoat wildly mismatched to woolen trousers, black with white pinstripes. Its shade drawn, the room was lit only by the open door to the dayroom and a silent unwatched TV replaying old football games.

Brian, saying nothing, ignored Charles’s several invitations to visit the dayroom. So Charles sat and followed the conversation protocol of many Minnesota men. He declaimed for two or three minutes about the lovely fall weather, then switched to trailering his aluminum skiff and old Johnson outboard north to Mille Lacs Lake to get some walleyes from a favorite hole fifty yards south of Bird Crap Island. He began the protocol’s third topic, “What do you think of those Twins?”

But Brian interrupted. Turning onto his side, facing away from Charles, he said, “Thanks for coming, Willy, but now I need rest.” Those were Brian’s last words to Charles, who, after reaching his car, wiped away some tears.

* * *

Last month, Social Services informed Charles of Brian’s death from pneumonia, “the old man’s friend.” The will named Charles as executor; he first found Willy and Marta’s burial place. Except for funeral costs, the bequest would go to the departments where, for years, Brian and Marta had taught science and art.

Before sunrise last Tuesday, the time when Brian had run or skied, ten mostly older friends gathered to inter him. Entering the cemetery a bit early, Charles watched Hjalmar Gustafson draw the last few drags from a cigarette before he tossed it, coughed deeply, and walked in. Charles thought, Typical poet.

At twenty-four degrees, with night not fully vanquished, November’s north wind chilled the site. A stone gave birth and death years for Brian Carl Jorgenson, Wilhelm Anders Jorgenson, Marta Anders Jorgenson. Brian and Marta gave the world a loved child, educated adults, art, science, and wisdom.

In the graveside telling of Brian stories, Hjalmar recalled, “Brian and I volunteered once for the Raid Re-enactment. I was ‘Frank James’ and he was ‘Cole Younger.’ They got us up in cowboy boots, denim shirts with leather vests and chaps, and holsters for our cap guns. The gang rode down Main Street on decrepit old nags they gave us.

“At the bank we tied the horses to wooden ‘hitching posts’ — between parking meters! Two seconds later, lightning and this deafening thunder scared hell outta the horses. Rain and hail came down in sheets, and the announcer said, ‘This re-enactment is cancelled. Go visit the Jesse James Museum on Elk Avenue.’ But hell, all the locals and lotsa tourists ran straight to O’Malley’s.”

Hjalmar, grinning, went on, “We packed in there like King Oscar sardines. It took me twenty minutes to get my first beer and, in those days, I was damn good at getting beers. Main Street was a river, and these pretty tourist girls all wanted pictures, them posing with us in our outfits. Poets ain’t usually celebrities, and I loved it until Kristen and Marta shooed the girls away. Rain lasted a couple of hours, cap guns popped, and it musta been Jim O’Malley’s best afternoon ever.”

Then, grin fading, Hjalmar fell quiet. He turned to the urn, nodded, and softly, slowly said, “Kristen and Marta both are gone, Cole. Now you’ve been caught and, in a few minutes, you’ll be in your cell. My doc thinks the same posse will catch me soon, so it’s time to say, ‘Thanks for saving my life’.” Turning away, wiping tears, he muttered, “See ya soon.”

Homer Carlson had directed the St. Magnus Brass Program. As the urn and ashes slipped underground, his trumpet wept on a slow, heartbreaking Taps.

Charles bent down, pushed a hand trowel into the dirt beside the hole, and threw some onto Brian, ending their connection, making Brian only a memory. Others threw dirt as Charles wiped his eyes. Angela touched his arm as she had in class, years before. His hand on hers, they cried together.

Minnesota’s November sunrise is a pale pink, slow-spreading stain on that gray cloaking of the eastern sky, that stain seen by a hundred generations of Dakota People, by the first white settlers, by Brian, who had run beneath it, and now by Charles.

He thought, “Last stories don’t arc. They just decline. We do well or, maybe not so well. Then things get worse, then much worse; then we die. When life’s other arcs end, decline remains. You are what you produce. When you don’t, you aren’t.”

Copyright © 2018 by Tom Crowley

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