POCKETS OF FORGETTING
BY JAMIE ZERNDT
When Alma stood in the back of the kitchen and looked out, all she could see was water. A platonic blue. The loons and their laughter served as the bookmarks to her daydreams, reminding her to go into town, to fillet the fish, to bathe. She could watch the deer from the other window, the one above the kitchen sink. Norman put food out for them, corn mostly, so that she could watch them while she did the dishes. It was all gone now, but they still came by to see if it had been refilled. They were wise, both calm and frightened. Every part of their tip-toed frames awake with life. On good days, when she felt fresh and light, maybe while raking the leaves or planting bulbs, she felt possessed by them. Almost as if she were seeing through their eyes. She kept this to herself though, what was the point in telling anyone.
The trees were changing dress in dramatic fashion, the thin hand-me-downs of fall being replaced by winters' sweaters. The sky was constantly showing off its many faces, sticking its tongue out at you some mornings while in the afternoons it smiled so brightly you had to look away. The evenings you couldn't tell what it was doing, hiding beneath its thick blanket of stars.
Alma kept the door to the living room closed as much as possible, though some nights she left the television on for comfort. She still listened to her radio program while she washed the dishes although there weren't nearly as many to do these days. She saved them up over the course of the day so she had a small pile at night. To watch her do the dishes was to see her genuflect. The dishes became like beads in a rosary, passing one by one through her hands in a soapy reverence. It calmed her. Once, a long time ago, he'd offered to buy her a dishwasher, but she refused.
She forgot sometimes. That Norman was gone. Like after washing the dishes and putting everything away. The forgetting part was good, it was the remembering that was hard. That mechanical moment when she opened the door to the living room with her cup of hot milk and saw the empty spot where he should have been. The indentation that he left behind. The patina his bald head had left on the leather cushion where he napped or watched his movies. A Bridge on the River Kwai. Moby Dick. Holiday Inn. Movies she swore he'd watched at least a thousand times. The kids wanted her to move back to the city. She wasn't so sure yet. He was still there somehow and she wasn't about to leave that.
Now she watched what she wanted to watch. She could watch CNN or any of the newer movies she was interested in but she eventually went back to the history channel. Or Murder She Wrote, he liked that one. She never found it all that challenging but it put him in the room with her. Sad that a TV program could do that, even if only partially. Sleep was becoming a problem. It was too quiet now. The loud tumble of his snore was absent, a thing she'd wished for when they had first married some forty-three years ago. At some point she had gotten used to it, relied on it even to send her off to sleep. Some nights she didn't fall asleep until two in the morning. She just lay there, pressed into the bed under a heavy thumb of silence.
Her son was coming tomorrow. She'd have to clean the place. Wash the linens. More pockets of forgetting. Get the upstairs room ready. And the grocery shopping. All things she grumbled about doing before, but now it was a relief somehow. Still, her own children sometimes forced her to remember with their peeking looks of pity. What will she do without him? That's what they were all thinking, as if he had taken care of her his whole life. It was too ridiculous to even think about.
The last time she'd seen Herman he looked like a Russian poet. Or at least like the picture of one she remembered her son having tacked up in his bedroom years before. Herman was tall and thin and had been sporting a scraggly brown beard the last visit. It reminded Alma of armpit hair. She just smiled and told him it made him look scholarly.
Herman would arrive first. He'd been driving for three days. Something he hadn't done since his twenties. Back then it had been adventurous. Swallowing down a bottle of cheap red wine at an anonymous rest stop bench and then curling up in a sleeping bag was time well spent. There was the occasional nudge of a patrol man's boot, but nothing more serious than that. Now he stayed in roadside motels, exchanging the canopy of stars and dreams for a hot shower and free HBO. It was okay. He still enjoyed the slow unraveling of the country's landscape that you got when driving the two thousand five hundred miles from Oregon to Wisconsin.
But this trip was different. The rows of corn waving like a flag along the roadside left him impatient. The small town cafes he stopped at, the 'hey hun' kind of places, began to irritate him.
By the time Herman arrived at his parent's house, his mothers' house, he was exhausted. He could see Alma in the kitchen window. Washing dishes no doubt, he thought and smiled. It had been six months since the funeral. He had flown in for that. Since then he'd busied himself with work at the shop. It tired him out. That plus the drinking at night let in little more than brief appearances of his father. It wasn't the best way to deal with it but it was how he was dealing with it. His mother, on the other hand, did what everybody expected. She prayed and grieved. In that order.
"Herm! You shaved your beard!" she said coming out the front door and clasping her hands in excitement. She looked like a grandmother now. The black hair she had kept her whole life had suddenly turned white at age seventy-four. It added a hundred years, took away the illusion of strength and immortality that had always surrounded her. It broke his heart.
"Hey mom!" he said, his throat clenching as he wrapped his arms around her. "How are you?"
"You're earlier than I expected. I haven't finished getting your room ready."
"I can take care of that."
"No, no. It'll just take me a few minutes. You look tired. Didn't you sleep at the motel?"
"I'm fine. It's just all the driving. It wears you down after a while."
"Well you look good anyway. It's so nice to see that beautiful face of yours again."
Herman smiled. He had an adolescent girl's smile. It spread shyly across his face, exposing a mouthful of stained teeth. He was incapable of smiling any other way. It was an all-or-nothing sort of smile. Alma was relieved. So far no pity glances.
"Your sister will be here tonight," she said and scanned her son's face for a reaction.
"What do you mean why? She wants to see you Herman. She misses you. You know that don't you?"
"Yes I know that." He didn't. Not really.
They were at the screen door. It always caught on the latch so that you had to jerk it open. It made more noise than it was worth. The aluminum frame buckled and twisted and had Herman lived there it would have been torn from its hinges the very first day.
Inside, the old brown couch still sagged where his father normally sat. He could still see him smiling, the cubes jingling in his Manhattan as he set his drink down to greet his son, letting out an exasperated groan as he rocked himself back and forth until he gained the momentum needed to get up. It always reminded him of a car stuck in snow.
His mom would riddle him with nervous questions while his fathered watched him, then the television, then his son, until finally the television would win out. It wasn't that he lost interest in his son, it was more the annoyance he felt for his wife grilling the boy that made him turn away. What did he want to eat? Was he hungry? She would make him something. It was better to just watch the TV until she got it out of her system. But there wasn't even that now.
Above the TV hung the model airplane Herman had sent two birthdays ago. It cost a fortune but had been worth it. Every phone call his Dad would tell him again and again how he loved to look at it there above the TV. How it reminded him of his days in the war. Herman liked to picture his father, knee deep in a Manhattan reverie, looking up at the Sopwith Camel his son had sent him. He'd only clicked it off the Internet but his father had acted like Herman had personally gone to England to buy it.
"Still the same," his mother said almost apologetically. "I haven't had the heart to do much with it."
"No, it's fine. I like it the same."
They walked into the kitchen, or the church as his Dad used to call it. A plate with lettuce and tomatoes already diced sat out. She was frying bacon. BLT's were the family staple. "It's all yours if your hungry dear heart. It'll only take me a minute to make another one."
"Okay mom, that sounds good." It was easier to just say yes. She wouldn't let up otherwise. Plus he was hungry.
"Just give me a minute to put it together for you." She was doing this sing-songy 'do-do-do' under her breath that she always did. It meant she was happy. Busy.
"I'm gonna go down to the dock for a second Mom. I'll be right back."
"Don't be too long honey or this will go cold."
To get to the back door you had to go through the bedroom. The bed with its quilt covered in pictures of ducks and shotguns was still there, blending somehow perfectly into the room. Into Wisconsin. Outside the back door there was a rope tied to the leg of the balcony that led to a tree near the dock. It was both a safety precaution and a necessity. It prevented people from slipping down the small slope in the winters and also helped them on the way back up. It was a small incline, something Herman could run up and down any number of times without giving it much thought, but to a seventy year old it was a mountain.
The dock was still raised out of the water. He'd taken care of that years ago by wading in up to his stomach and then pushing two cylinder blocks into the muck below and hoisting the sinking beam on top. He'd overcorrected the problem leaving one end of the dock higher than the other. He'd thought it would level itself out but it never did. Secured at the end of the small dock was a bait box made out of chicken wire. His father used to sit on that dock and catch bluegill and sunfish by the dozens. Most of the fish were tiny. Fish anybody else would have tossed back with a pang of guilt for hooking them in the first place. His father would throw them in the bait box with the intent of eating them sometime later but never did. Some days Herman found a dozen or more dead and floating sunfish, bluegill, catfish or bass in there. He'd scoop them out and toss them in the water. Their bodies drifting about the empty looking lake like sad haikus.
As a result, he'd gotten into the habit of checking the box when visiting. If there were any fish who survived his fathers senseless torture, Herman would release them. This time when he opened the lid, he saw a lone bluegill swimming about, its scales glinting up like an oil spill. It still had some spirit left in it which meant it had been caught recently. He half expected his father to be standing behind him, but there was nobody. He looked back at the fish. Nine inches maybe. Big for a bluegill. A fish his Dad would have gotten excited about. Talked about over a pork chop dinner. Herman closed the lid. Mom, he thought to himself and smiled out over the blurred blue of the lake.
They ate their BLTs quietly around the now leafless table near the back window that overlooked the lake. The radio was on NPR. Years ago Herman had told her about the station only because the talk radio she always had on used to drive him crazy. When he had asked her what she was listening to she would say she didn't know. That she didn't really listen to it. He'd gotten up and changed it to NPR. Then leave this on, he'd told her, it'll make you feel better. Now she only switched the station to catch up on the baseball scores. Herman grabbed the dishes and went to the sink to wash them.
"Just leave those honey. I'll get them. You can get me a cup of coffee if you want to help out your old mother."
She always said that. Your old mother. But suddenly it seemed true. She did look old. He poured the coffee and put it in front of her.
"When will Janel be getting here?"
"About six. The kids won't be coming. I told her they'd be too much for me to handle right now. The truth is I wanted to talk to you both alone."
"Why? What's going on?"
"Let's just wait for that. It's nothing serious. I hope not anyway."
He had spoken with his sister at the funeral but only briefly. She had gotten up and told everyone about how her father used to take her fishing as a little girl. About the Northern pike she had caught by accident. About nailing the head to a tree by their campsite. The story took a long time to tell because she had to stop and collect herself after every sentence. Herman didn't go up to the podium. And he didn't cry. This, he figured, was the real reason she was so upset with him.
They had gone to their mothers house after the funeral. The whole family had come up for the weekend, most stayed in nearby hotels while his sister took the room upstairs and Herman the camper in the back yard. When everyone had left, Herman found himself brooding in front of the fire pit down by the dock. He was smoking and offered one to Janel when she entered the orange halo around the fire.
"Thanks, Herm. I was hoping you had a cigarette." She'd been smoking for years and hiding it from their parents though she only smoked twice a week if that.
"Chloe isn't. She's probably trying to sneak downstairs right about now. To be honest, I don't care much."
"Yes you do."
"No. I don't. You'll know what I mean when you have your own."
They sat for a while and listened to the fire spit, each cold in their own way. For a while it seemed the glowing innards of the fire were pages in a book both were trying hard to read.
"I think Mom should move in with us." Janel said, her eyes pinched and squinting away from him.
"And why's that?" He already knew the reasons but felt he should ask anyway.
"For one, she's seventy-four Herman. Two, she'd be around her grandkids. And three, there's a hospital not four blocks from us. The closest one here is thirty miles away."
"All excellent reasons."
"Let me guess. You think she should stay?"
"I think she should do whatever the fuck she wants to do."
"Nice, Herman. How easy it must be for you to waltz on down here and--"
"And what, Janel?" That waltz part made him want to pull out the car rental receipt in the glove compartment. She never seemed to realize how much of an expense it was for him to come down there. How he didn't have the same kind of money she had.
"--and let lose some Zen bullshit like that."
Herman smiled. He realized once again how little his sister knew him. In college he had shown some interest in Eastern philosophy and ever since then they had treated him like he had incense burning from both ears.
"I just think she should get to decide. She's only got a few good years left. If she wants to move in with you, fine. If she wants to stay up here alone, that's fine too."
"So you'd just let her stay up here all alone. What if she slipped on the ice? She'd freeze to death before anyone found her."
It was true. There were a million things that could go wrong. She wouldn't be driving much longer either. She'd already slid off the road twice since they'd moved there. Then there was the problem of getting groceries. Still, his mother was the strongest person he'd ever known. He wasn't about to tell her how to go about living, let alone dying.
"You're right. It's not the safest choice but I still think it's up to her."
"That's very big of you, seeing how you don't have to be here when something goes wrong. You'll just breeze into town, go to the funeral, not say a god damned thing and look at everybody like you're not sure exactly how you know them."
"Oh, and thanks a lot for having the balls to stand up and say something nice about Dad. I'm sure he really appreciated that. Sometimes you really piss me off, Herman!" She tossed her cigarette into the fire and disappeared up the hill into the house. Herman poked at the logs, rearranging the sentences in hopes of finding something that made sense. He hadn't spoken to his sister since.
The phone rang at 5 o'clock. It was Janel. She couldn't make it. Chloe was sick. No, nothing serious but she didn't want to leave her. Next weekend maybe. Tell Herman she said hey. And that was that. His mom hung up. Alma knew something was wrong between the two but neither would talk to her about it.
After dinner, chicken with mashed potatoes, gravy and green beans, they decided to go for a walk. A ritual he and his mother had started the first year his parents had moved there. His dad went a few times early on, lasting until they got to the stream at the first bend then he'd have to stop and catch his breath before heading back to the house. Herman had bought him a walking stick once but it was too late. After all the surgeries he was getting winded just paying for gas when they went into town.
Alma never tired of walking. Even in the winter you could find her out by herself covering the same stretch of white that was their street. There was always something to see. Like that corner of the lake that was still unfrozen where the small family of swans sometimes gathered, a row of question marks bobbing in the icy water. Or the deer, you were guaranteed to see at least one if you stayed out long enough. Sometimes she brought her bird book and binoculars. Every now and then she'd get the thrill of finding one in her book, a black-capped chickadee or a yellow breasted finch becoming momentarily famous in her eyes.
Herman had loved those walks. They talked like old friends. He'd tell her about problems with girlfriends, with work and not knowing what he wanted to do with his life. She always listened with unending patience. He never could talk to his father. His father loved him, he knew that, but he also knew he couldn't talk to him about anything serious. Even his friends growing up had always called him a mamma's boy. Herman would leave whatever he was doing at six o'clock exactly so he wouldn't miss his mom's dinner. Pork chops. Meat loaf. Pot Roast. Tender loins. That was his Alma.
She still had an energy about her, a light in her eyes that refused to grey. Somehow, when the black had gone, it had brought out the wrinkles in her face. They looked deeper to him, like someone had carved them into the wood of her face. And she seemed quieter now. The nervous chatter she used to fill their silences with was gone now. When she wasn't talking, it looked like she was holding a secret in her mouth that might fly away if she opened it.
"So," Herman said, for once becoming the more awkward of the two, "have you been fishing lately by any chance?"
"I started taking your father's boat out about a month ago. How did you know?"
"Who else Herman?"
"I don't know. Do you use the motor?"
"Well I certainly don't row myself out there. Don't worry, your old mother isn't as frail as you might think. Your father tinkered with that engine constantly. He must have gotten it right before he passed because it starts up every time now."
This was exactly the sort of thing Janel would be worried about. Herman too could see his mother clutching her heart after yanking on the pull start and then falling back helplessly into the boat as it drifted into the middle of the lake. It wasn't like him. Fatalism was Janels' job.
"So why the sudden interest in fishing? I didn't think you even liked fishing."
"Ever since your father died I've spent hours looking down out of that window at the dock. You're going to think I've lost it but one day I felt like that boat was calling to me. Like somehow your father was asking me to go fishing with him."
"That doesn't sound crazy."
"Don't tell your sister. I know how she'd worry."
"I won't. So did it work, I mean, do you feel closer to Dad?"
"I don't know. I think he'd be happy to see me out there doing what he loved to do most."
"I saw that bluegill in the bait box today."
"I thought maybe we could have fish one of these nights depending on what I catch."
"For a second I thought I'd see dad walking up behind me with a couple of fishing poles."
"Oh honey I'm sorry. I didn't even think of that."
"It's fine. I'm just glad you're happy."
"I don't know if happy is the word Herman, but thank you."
They came to the end of the road. You could either turn back or head into town. They decided on home. Herman was feeling tired, disoriented though he wasn't sure why. There was a certain peace, a resignation in his mother's voice that was making him feel strange.
When they got back to the house Herman felt like a drink. Ever since he set foot in the house he had an overwhelming thirst for a Manhattan. His father had shown him how to make them once. They were horrible tasting. Like the drink itself had been sitting around since the 1940s. Still, he poured one into the large tumbler his dad used to drink from.
Herman sat in the old wooden rocking chair his mother sometimes used. He avoided the couch. He hadn't sat on it since the funeral. The old digital pocket game of poker still sat out on the coffee table. He wondered if his mom ever played it. It was almost morbid the number of things still untouched in the house. But then again he'd probably be more upset if everything had suddenly been removed. He couldn't imagine what it would look like not seeing the brown couch upon entering the front door.
Herman could hear the radio in the kitchen, his mother alternately humming to herself and exhaling loudly anytime she bent over to put something away. The running water. It was all exactly the same. She came in to ask if he wanted another drink. Just like she would have his father. He said yes and she made two Manhattans, one for each of them and sat down on her end of the couch. It had been worrying him. Would she sit in his father's spot now? He felt relieved that she hadn't. Herman handed his mother the remote for the TV. She refused at first, telling him to watch what he wanted, that she didn't care, but Herman insisted. He couldn't remember a time when she'd chosen what to watch. He was surprised to see her put on CNN. After the world news they watched a show about mothers in the animal kingdom on National Geographic. Seals looking after their baby cubs, panda bear mothers teaching their young how to climb, baby monkeys learning how to crack nuts. At some point Herman fell asleep. Later his mother gently nudged him awake and told him to go up to bed. Something she'd done nightly when he was a child.
In the morning Herman crept down the stairs into the kitchen where a half pot of coffee waited along with four strips of bacon and two sausage links. Alma had left three eggs in a bowl with a fork for him to complete his breakfast. It was already nine o'clock. She'd probably been up since six. He touched the bacon, it was cold. The house was quiet. He called down into the basement to make sure but there was no answer.
Herman set about scrambling the eggs and reheating the meat in the microwave. By the time he sat down at the kitchen table Alma was already sputtering out towards the middle of the lake. There was a note tucked between the salt and pepper shakers. They were in the shape of a male and female loon. His mother even had a letter opener loon and a bottle opener loon. The engine had cut out. He watched as his mother hunched over searching for something in the bottom of the boat. He turned back to the note, opened it and stuck an entire link in his mouth.
"Herman -- Good morning dear heart. I'm out fishing. I'll be back with some fish for tonight. Hope you enjoy your breakfast. -- Mom xxxooo"
Herman looked back out the window, at the toy boat carrying a white-haired old lady with a fishing pole and a red-and-white bobber dangling over the side. He thought about his dad, how he always said his mother was an amazing woman, how it always came out as an acknowledgment of something he himself lacked. He thought about his own life, about the emptiness he never told his family about, about his lack of friends, his waning interest in life and it made him ashamed. How full and rich his mother's life seemed compared to his. How brave.
Herman finished his breakfast and watched the boat. He could see his mother sitting in the boat. His father's old fishing hat was sitting on the seat opposite her. He couldn't be sure, but it looked like there was a beer can next to the hat. And the boat should have been lopsided with only one person in it, it should have been dipping further into the water but the boat was level.
Herman went into the living room and sat down on the couch. In his father's spot. Herman felt his body sink slowly into the absence there. He closed his eyes and for a moment felt as if the worn fabric of the couch were his father's tired arms. Wrapping around him. Holding him there. Telling him not to leave. That it was time to come home. Herman looked over at the table by the arm rest and saw his mother's loon coffee cup. She'd been sitting there too. Whatever flimsy thing had been holding back his tears the past six months now suddenly gave way. He'd have to call Janel later, but for now he just wanted to sit there.