“A Failure of Memory,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

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Madeline sometimes exhibited a dizzyingly optimist view of things past, which ranged from sweetly touching to downright frightening. For instance, there was the now-infamous time when John read “Of Mice and Men” for his eighth grade English class. From an early age, John possessed an uncanny ability to predict the outcome of a story from very near the beginning of a book, movie, TV show, etc. He paused the movie, or put down the book, and could not go any further until he asked if the outcome was going to be what he expected. Then he considered whether he wanted to go forward and face the inevitable, or whether to take a pass. He asked Madeline if “Mice and Men” was going to have the tragic, heartbreaking ending he foresaw. And Madeline, over the course of the many years since she had read it, had somehow spun the story into a sparse, entirely lovely Steinbeck tale about the love and devotion of two brothers. Epic fail. Even as a nearly-six-foot, fourteen-year-old who shaved, John took to his bed immediately after dinner the night he finished the book.

Then there was the time Madeline got serious about her responsibility to ensure that her growing children experienced the wide range of world cinema, and not simply the mainstream American extravaganzas that they all loved. Where to start, she thought. Something with a simple story, little dialogue, stunning visuals, and the far slower, languid pace that characterized films from nearly every other country. Got it, she thought, remembering a film she had seen in college: Nicholas Roeg’s “Walkabout.” Somehow, in her memory, the movie had metamorphosed into a lovely, mysterious trek through the outback where two lost children follow a young Aboriginal boy back to home and safety. She would never forget the expression on both John’s and Kate’s faces when they turned to her, five minutes into the film, their mouths slightly open, their faces pale and clearly questioning her sanity. Madeline’s rosy memory had completely erased the part where the dad drives the children into the outback, kicks them out of the car, attempts to shoot them, then proceeds to douse the car with gasoline and set it ablaze before shooting himself. While they watch.

So there was much precedent for Madeline remembering, at least at first, a happy scene where Savannah tickled Dylan’s newborn cheeks with the turkey feather while cooing and giggling at her baby boy. But with the laundry away and Dan’s quickly-scribbled note in her hand, Madeline picked up the turkey feather from the sofa cushion and remembered the rest.

“He’s wonderful, Savannah. Completely wonderful,” Madeline said. Dylan followed the sound of Madeline’s voice with his eyes, and smiled.

“Yeah…” Savannah said.

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“What’s wrong? You sound like something’s wrong.”

“Nah. I was just remembering when my dad used to tickle me…”

“Oh. Are you…missing him?” Madeline wasn’t sure how to read Savannah’s wistfulness.

“Ha! Miss him? Nah. I mean, he was an OK dad, I guess. Sometimes.”

“Was he, Savannah?”

“ I mean, yeah. No. I don’t know. Things got pretty bad there.” Savannah stopped stroking Dylan with the feather and laid it beside her on the sofa. She wrapped her hands around Dylan’s arms and held fast. “You know he called the cops on me, right?”

“Yeah, I heard that,” Madeline said.

“You know they took me away? Put me into juvey? Did you know that?”

“No,” Madeline replied. “I didn’t know that.”

“Yep,” Savannah said. “Cause I was late coming home. He told the cops I was all violent and out of control. Ha! HE’S the one who’s out of control. After a few days, the cops told me I had my choice, I could go home or I could stay there. Guess what?! I stayed. For, like, more than a week.”

“Really?”

“I knew I better than to go home, until he, you know, cooled off.” Savannah shrugged. “I knew he’d just…be all physical with me.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’d…you know…shove me around…a little”

“Shove you around? Like, what are we talking about here?”

“I never had to go to the hospital or anything like that…” Savannah said. “Well, just that one time.”

“Are you shitting me?” Madeline said, loud enough to startle Dylan. “What happened?”

“I got taken away. But they sent me back.”

Madeline’s head was spinning. “ How badly did you get hurt?”

“Oh. Nothing broken. Well, just a finger. Stitches and stuff.”

Madeline did not know what to say. Inside her head, she said, “WHEN DID MY WHOLE FUCKING LIFE TURN INTO THE FUCKING JERRY SPRINGER SHOW;” but the words that actually emerged from her mouth were: “I’m so sorry you had to go through stuff like that, Savannah,” which seemed woefully, tragically inadequate, but she said it nonetheless.

“Yeah. Whatever.” Savannah shrugged again. “Now I got this little guy,” she said, as if that explained, as well as solved, every single thing.

Madeline looked down at the turkey feather and became aware of Dan’s note still clutched in her hand. She pictured the following chain of events that would extend into the inevitable future:

she would put the turkey feather back in its honorary spot on the end table. At some point, Dan would vanish, again, and this time for good. The feather would remain for some amount of time, sometimes striking Madeline as a lovely and poignant token of a person who had stood beside her at an enormously tough time, sometimes as a stab of painful reminder of someone who was prone to vanishing, and would live the entire rest of his life in like fashion. The day would come when the feather was no longer imbued with any particular meaning whatsoever. It would be a detritus. It would get tossed unceremoniously into a large plastic garbage bag, end up covered with coffee grounds and used tissues and egg shells and rotten leftovers. The bag would be hauled out to the alley, and crushed together with other bags. On some Thursday, men would toss it into the back of a truck. It would be squished and compacted and compressed. It would be dust.

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Top to Bottom: Photo of Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Vincent Van Gogh

 

“Turkey Feather,” new from the novel “Pushing the River”

Here is the scene it its entirety:

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Madeline thought she was hearing a kerfuffle of footsteps running up and down the stairs as she folded the clothes in the basement laundry room. Weird, she thought.

Madeline believed tenaciously in the power of simple pleasures. Folding freshly cleaned clothes into an architecturally-arranged, enormous pile that she could carry in one trip always tickled her. She had to rest her chin on the top of the heap and bear down, sniffing deep into the fragrant laundry, in order to manage the load. Her arms carefully cradling the bottom of the stack and her chin planted, she began her ascent of the first of two flights of stairs between her and the laundry’s final destination in her bedroom.

Rounding the landing on the second flight of stairs, saying to herself: hahaha, nearly there and not a single sock teetering, Madeline caught a glimpse of the wild turkey feather, lying on the sofa, where Savannah had been running it back and forth across Dylan’s cheeks while she wrinkled up her nose and cooed at him.

The turkey feather. A souvenir from the day she and Dan drove to the Lake Michigan dunes and took a magnificent hike. They were walking single file on a narrow path, with panoramic views of the forest, the water, the rolling hills, on both sides of the ridge. Dan walked a bit ahead, and they were mostly silent as they looked back and forth, drinking everything in. It was a warm day for the season, with the heavy, thick sunlight of late fall that Madeline had loved all her life. Dan was nearly at the top of the hill when he stopped walking and turned to face her. He smiled at her, and his blue eyes shone.

She breathed a little heavily from the climb through the sand. They stood a good twenty-five feet apart, saying nothing. Dan looked a million miles into the distance, then had his attention caught by something lying on the ground. He walked a little way off the trail and into the thick undercoating of the forest floor, reaching down to pick something up. He walked over to Madeline and held out a long, thin striped feather.

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“A feather!” Madeline said.

“A wild turkey feather,” Dan said.

“Really? Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure. I grew up around here.”

“I will keep it forever,” Madeline said. “A souvenir.”

“Of course you will,” Dan said. Everything about his face belied the fact that he loved her, and that this fact made him proud, and shy, and embarrassed, and profoundly confused.

Madeline cajoled the laundry up the final flight of stairs, down the short hall and into the bedroom, where she immediately noticed…some lack. Something not-there that had been there before, the empty space shouting at her. It took her a moment to realize what was absent. Dan’s various paper bags, there in the corner since he had unexpectedly taken up residence a month earlier, were gone.

Before Madeline had time to ponder any further, she saw a single white page, its ragged edge clearly ripped out of a school notebook, lying in the center of the bedroom chair.

Dear Madeline,

I’ve never known anyone like you before, nor any people like your family either. You guys are all amazing – your incredible openness and energy for one another, your devotion, the intensity with which you communicate and love each other. I have truly never seen this before. Frankly, it makes me incredibly uncomfortable. I need a break. You guys are awesome, but it’s all a little much for me. You may have noticed that my stuff is gone; I’m going tohang out with my family for a while and chill. I’m really sorry for the abruptness of all this, but I just need to go.

Love always,

Dan

What? Madeline thought. I mean: WHAT!?!?!!!

Her thoughts went approximately like this:

–You son of a bitch, who asked you to MOVE IN HERE IN THE FUCKING FIRST PLACE?

–You total asshole douche bag, WHO THE FUCK SAID YOU COULD LEAVE NOW?

–Wait. Seriously?! You couldn’t even fucking wait until I was finished folding the laundry? You seriously had to rush around and sneak out before I even came upstairs? You chicken shit slime bag coward, YOU COULDN’T EVEN FUCKING FACE ME?

And finally:

–LOVE ALWAYS?!?! YOU HAVE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING ME. LOVE. ALWAYS.

dunes