THE UNCONSCIOUS MAN BLEEDING BESIDE THE FURNACE
BY R.M. COOPER
I assumed Albert had killed him, but that’s the second problem with dementia: you have to remember not to assume anything (which leads back to the first problem: the remembering).
Albert explains dementia like this: it isn’t the same as forgetting—people forget things when they enter a room and are unsure why they came, but dementia is like already being in a room, already reaching for something (a glove, maybe) that’s fallen behind the couch (it’s always fallen behind the couch) when you feel a little string pull in your back, and just as you recall your doctor saying something about your fifth vertebra, that string turns out to have a razor tied to its end, and sometime over the course of the next hour while that string cuts across your spine (leaving the left side of your body numb and draped over the couch), that becomes the reason you were in the room (instead of the maybe-glove) because that’s (the searing pain) occupied your every thought (which is, of course, why old people complain so much: pain has a way of shoving everything else aside), and that’s why most people don’t understand the difference between being mindless (forgetting) and your mind turning on you (dementia), because later that night you’ll be asked what you were thinking (reaching behind the couch), and for the life of you, all you’ll say is that’s where you hurt your back, and they’ll look at each other (they’re always in multiples) like you’re a cat who won’t stop licking electrical sockets (meanwhile, that glove is still behind the couch, waiting for the next cold day you remember it / forget the fifth vertebra)—which is why the only people you can rely on not to treat you like a socket-cat are others suffering from dementia; and for the last six years, that (our shared diagnosis) has been the bedrock of Albert’s and my marriage (the same way sex accounted for the first five, and children the next twenty-two).
We don’t have a perfect system; a prime example being a note pinned to the fridge last week, Al’s scratchy handwriting reading: Halloween—Frank wants a Lone Ranger mask (our son Frank being forty-seven and the month May); and (in the interest of fairness) a second, this morning: the gas bill underneath an inch of freezer burn—admittedly, the bills are my responsibility, but the note and the man in the basement are Al’s; which is why you need a system, an etiquette: you take the bill out of the freezer (along with some hamburger) to defrost, and you call your husband of fifty-eight years in from the den to dispose of the man in the basement who isn’t moving but still seems very much alive, not to mention yet to be dismembered so he might fit into the already-overflowing garbage bin (which Al neglected to take out Tuesday); which is to say, you don’t nag.
Al joins me atop the stairs and spots the man in the basement, then raises his eyebrows—the same way he does when the bagger at Safeway says hello (Albert questioning: Does this boy go to our church? Did I teach him in school? Piano? Your sister’s boy? One of ours?)—and I put my arm on Al’s shoulder to remind him, this is a common courtesy—and that’s the same shoulder I touch now and say in a calm voice, “The hammer is on the workbench, the handsaw is in the garage . . .” Al’s eyes open like saucers “. . . First the hammer, then the saw. I’ll clean . . .” and then I let my voice trail away to tell Al this is the important part (no less important than questioning whether we got the oil changed or who stopped feeding the cat) because the moment has to pass without either of us admitting we don’t remember—in this case, how the man beside the furnace got there (there’s a pool of blood seeping towards the basement drain, and the man’s wearing a taupe work shirt with his name, Tommy, sewn on the sleeve, the same as a mechanic or handyman might wear; which doesn’t necessarily mean anything, seeing as there have been reports of similarly dressed con men entering retirement communities, saying the association hired them to inspect the pipes and then leaving a window open to reenter the house later or outright robbing the place right then and there, leaving the homeowner no choice but to defend themselves with a lamp or fire poker; but then there’s also that loose bottom step, which I’ve asked Al to fix, where I’ve nearly fallen a half-dozen times, not that I’m nagging; and there’s always the possibility of an honest-to-God accident like what happened when the water heater exploded on Gale Holliday’s boy)—because it’s only after that silent moment passes, Al holding me with his eyes, and I him in mine, that Al clenches his jaw and descends the stairs.
A small puddle has formed beneath the gas bill, the envelope damp but easy to open (had I opened it before, or does frost counteract envelope glue?), and I withdraw the statement.
Albert’s footsteps get further and further away, then there’s a distant-sounding thump followed by a muffled voice like someone talking in their sleep, a second thump, and then silence.
The gas bill seems high for May, and I try to recall the temperature of the past month—try to remember words like unseasonable or record-breaking from the forecast, look at the coat rack for our parkas, but find it empty—so I call Albert in from the den, and he scares me half to death when he comes up behind me from the basement; scares me so terribly Al has to hold me to keep me from shaking, something bulky in his hand settles against my shoulder, something heavy and cold, which (closing my eyes, leaning into Al as he strokes my hair) I have to ask Al to identify, to which my husband replies, “Never mind, dear. Hush. Never mind it.”
R.M. Cooper‘s work has appeared in dozens of publications, including Best American Experimental Writing, Cream City Review, Denver Quarterly, Fugue, Passages North, Redivider, and Yemassee and has received awards and recognition from UC Berkeley and American Short Fiction. Cooper lives in the Colorado Front range with his wife and cat and is the managing editor of Sequestrum.
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