“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

 

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

  1. Wow! I love this. It’s really powerful. Plus, Walkabout had a big impact on me in high school (and, you know, there was Jenny Agutter). I haven’t thought about it in quite a while, and you know what, I totally forgot about that opening scene also! I really have no recollection of it. I had to look up Roeg’s filmography and was reminded of the long list of amazing films he’s done. Walkabout and Picnic at Hanging Rock were two of the Australian new wave films that affected me most, with their pervasive sense of the hazy mystery of the Outback. And I have a story to tell you about cops.

    Like

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