Make New Memories, Our Story is Enough
I call our son. Mom, he says, after he has tapped the symptoms into Google, have you ever heard of transient global amnesia?
The defunct radiator in the sunny pocket of the room is twenty-three cast-iron quanta long. The thing has been heatless for years, its hundreds of pounds sinking the thin floorboards, its valleys and hills and cul-de-sacs grimed with hair clump, paint chunk, the claustrophobias of dust. It is a presence begging for an absence, the question being how.
He will do it himself.
With an iron wedge and a dumbbell hammer, with hands and head and heart.
This will be your room, he says. Your room for making books.
He wedges, bangs, and lifts. He carries. The arctic air blows through the open front door as he lugs each liberated iota of freighted history from the room, down the hall, and out, and again returns—heroic, romantic, his ancient waffle shirt stained by rust, his jeans pocked by dirt, his glasses steaming with the indoor and the outdoor of this winter operation.
The quanta disappear. The floor takes a measure of its measure.
Now the room is just a room, empty but for the old spinning wheel and the chalkboard art, the modem platform and the modem, the long narrow table and the two stools where I will stand and work, but also: the two periscoping pipes that rise through the floor where the radiator had docked. The pipes are artifactual, stubborn, and these, too, he says, must be removed, and he is the one to do it.
Don’t bother, I say. With the pipes.
It will be your room, he says. It should be perfect.
My room of my own after all these years in this antique house where he has been the artist and I have been the writer. I have crowded the house with books, not with tools. I have kept my obsessions behind bindings, shoved my drafts out of sight, used words like lavender for lavender and red for red without traumatizing paint tubes, and white space has been my glue.
Odorless. Mess-less. Contained.
But in the silence of quarantine I have been unstoried. I am now not writing books but building them. Blank books. Bladed and bone-folded signatures. Ghost printed and corner-tipped covers. Scored concertinas; measured lengths of ribbons, cord. The Snow White pricks of my finger with the binding needle, and, across the covers, in the tuck of seams, into the discrete corners of painted endpapers, the X-Acto-knived words of writers who kept writing.
Virginia Woolf: But I have written for particulars.
Paul Horgan: What it comes down to, for a writer, is to discover for himself how he sees the world. This is a matter not so simple as it might seem.
Isolate and out of context, these words mean other things. Isolate and within my context they are the presence in the absence of the books that I now make, on the kitchen table, by the kitchen sink, a mess of blank books needing a room.
But those pipes. Those periscoping pipes. Centuries old and damnably enduring. A pox on the room, my husband suggests. Pipes as insurrectionists, obstructionists, the ruin of what might otherwise be a quite-excellent room. He must, he says, excise the pipes.
I’m not worried about the pipes, I say.
It would be a better room, he insists, without them.
He disappears for hours and then returns, Google-search enhanced. He is weighing two options. One: Rent a Sawzall and go at it, but there’s the risk of metal sparks. Two: Rent a ratcheting pipe cutter, which is to say fifteen alloy steel cutting wheels and grease from one end to the other.
He votes for the ratchet. Sets off to negotiate the rental. I say—
But he does not hear me.
I am left alone with the near-emptiness of this room of my own, which was once a bedroom, and then an office, and then a guest room, and then and most recently the room where my husband preferred to sit and charcoal sketch fantasy and realism. He has been happy here in this room with its good light. He has been drawing journal small and chalkboard big, waiting for dinner or waiting for me. He throws his clay pots in a spiderwebbed basement. His easel sits on the sooty top floor of the garage.
But here, in this room, he has sat or stood and sketched, he has been peaceful, he has lately decided: This will be your room.
He returns with just three hours and twenty-eight minutes left on his four-hour ratchet rental. He removes his coat, crouches to the floor—knees and elbows, neck in a curvy strain—and begins the long wrestle with the fifteen cutting wheels. The aim, it seems, is to belt the pipe with the greasy wheels, cinch tight, and ratchet until the pipe snaps clean. What a sound that will be—the pipe snapping clean. The first pipe. Then the second.
But first he needs to belt the pipe, and this is no easy operation. Everything resists. Everything is just off, a little bit, but I know my husband, he does not fail, take that hauled-off radiator as your best and most recent exhibit. I walk in and out of the room as he works. I watch him retrieve the laptop and set it near and dial up YouTube instruction. I watch him snatch a blue-striped towel and place it close so that he might wipe away the grease. He is fully concentrated as he works. He waves me away when I speak.
You don’t have to do this, I remind him. I don’t mind the pipes.
He seems to hear time tick. He seems to understand that this ratchet thing is failing, that the pipe will not be snapping, that no amount of muttering is making this thing work. He pauses. He thinks. He tries again, recalculating the wheels and the grease and the cinch. Finally, still on his knees, he straightens. He turns and stares directly through me, his glasses partly steamed, his fingers black with grease.
Where did that towel come from? he asks.
You brought it from outside, I say.
He shakes his head, does not believe me.
What is the laptop doing here? he asks.
You’ve been watching YouTube, I say.
My words don’t register. I don’t register. I catch my breath, calculate, recalculate, listen as now my strong-armed artist husband latches onto a single insistent thought. As now, minute by minute, he repeats himself: What time is the ratchet due back at Home Depot?
He asks. I answer. What time, he asks, as time goes by, a half hour, an hour, two hours, three: He keeps asking.
Don’t bother, I say. With the pipes. It will be your room, he says. It should be perfect.
I think I can talk him out of this; I try. I think I can neuter this obsession, persuade away whatever has happened here, shock off the shock of this brain freeze. His speech is not slurred. His movement is not impaired. He is graceful, agile, capable, and yet.
It is a Saturday in the Age of Covid, and having only just a week before spent an afternoon in the emergency room for a harrowing procedure that has left me bruised, bleeding, and shaken, I run the math in my head, the risks of staying home or rushing out to—what? What kinds of tests? What kinds of procedures?
I run the conjecture, let the imaginary movie roll: I tell him we are driving and he doesn’t understand. I drop him off at the ER entrance and he does not know why I am opening his door. He stands on the curb confused, pissed off, still insisting about the ratchet. I urge him toward intake and maybe he obeys and maybe he heads inside and down the short hall but now he has nothing to say to the lady behind the glass, only a question to ask about that ratchet. If he makes it to triage, he’ll have to explain himself. He will ask the nurses, inevitably, about the ratchet.
He is on his own in the movie in my mind.
I cannot leave him.
I think of my mother’s strokes. I think of my father’s concussions, anxieties, panics. I think of the children I knew, years ago, who processed the world obsessively. None of that looked just like this looks, and I have no words for what I am seeing.
The blankness in him. The blankness in me. The plan I must assemble, the rules I beggar from some corner of my mind. If I cannot slow this whirling down by . . . I will call, but who will I call? If he cannot perform the simple tasks I design for him, I will . . . what? If nothing works by . . . I don’t have any idea what time . . . then I will concede and without crying cursing panicking drive him to the emergency room, saying, We’re just going for a ride, we’re just figuring this out, we’re just imagining that you will know what to say when I drop you off, when I leave you to explain what you will not explain, when I leave you alone.
He is the man I love, my world.
He fixes everything, goddam the ratchet, goddam the wife who managed not to imagine blankness bigger than any unimagined tale.
I love those periscoping pipes, don’t you dare touch them, don’t you dare, I should have said.
When the immediate happens, it happens slow.
Here: I will help him jump the rut. With him at my side, with the ratchet in the trunk of my Mini, I will rush us to the rental place and we will be done, at last, with the ratchet. No more ratchet. No more question. The deed will be done, the cycle will break, it will have to break, and if it doesn’t?
If it doesn’t, I don’t have another here. If it doesn’t, I’ll need help.
I don’t know what time I have to take the ratchet back, he says, while I drive.
Let’s talk of other things, I say.
What time, he says.
And I drive. And we arrive. And the ratchet is lifted from the trunk and returned, and he returns, and I drive.
What did you have for breakfast this morning? I ask. A test.
I don’t know, he says. Does that matter?
What happened with the pipes today? I ask.
Something, he says. I couldn’t fix it.
A day wiped clean. Hours gone. But the needle has lifted from the song of the ratchet and now, many hours after this all began, many hours into a calming about the ratchet, I call our son.
Mom, he says, after the day has been described, after he has tapped the symptoms into Google, like I might have done had I not quietly panicked, have you ever heard of transient global amnesia?
He reads from a National Institutes of Health website: A condition characterized by sudden onset of memory loss and confusion. During an episode of TGA, a person is not able to make new memories.
My son reads. I breathe.
“Yeah,” I say. “Sounds like that.”
In the days afterward my husband will, enduringly, have no memory of these hours of this day.
He will apologize about the pipes, ask if he tried hard enough with that ratchet, talk about how much finer the room might have been without the periscoping pipes, schedule all the right tests with the right doctors.
I will tell him that he tried way too hard, that he cannot scare me like that again, that if anything anything anything happens like that again, he’ll have to send me some kind of sign.
What kind of sign? he’ll ask.
That you’re still you, I’ll say. That we’re still us. That isolate and out of context: Our story is enough.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of three dozen books in multiple genres and an award-winning teacher at the University of Pennsylvania. Her new memoir in essays is Wife | Daughter | Self (Forest Avenue Press). Her new craft book is We Are the Words: The Master Memoir Class, from which this essay was adapted. More at bethkephartbooks.com.
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