Jul/Aug 2023  •   Fiction

The Burden of Memory

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Photo Art by Michael Dooley

Photo Art by Michael Dooley

He stood at the intersection, peering down the avenue through fierce morning sunlight. The light stung like a cold wind, like ice cream too quickly swallowed. He closed his eyes, but the brilliance scarcely diminished and the pain continued, making him wish he had worn his sunglasses. The glasses were the self-adjusting kind, getting darker as the light increased. He had let the optician talk him into ordering a pair, not realizing how annoying it would be to have the world always dimming or growing lighter when it was actually doing just the opposite. A hat with a bill would also have done the trick, but he looked ridiculous in a baseball cap, an old man in boy's clothing.

Just as he decided it was safe to cross, the high brow of an oil delivery truck materialized out of the blinding light. He shaded his eyes with his hand, his mouth stretched into a grimace wide as a clown's painted grin, cheeks pushed so high that his eyes were all but sealed, his teeth exposed as if some sort of surgical device had been applied to his mouth: her face, he realized with a shock, his first wife's. What was he doing imitating the expression of a woman he hadn't seen in ten years and hadn't lived with for more than two and a half decades? It was a look that had always seemed especially grotesque for a woman whose normal expression was placid as the surface of a still pond, who when she slept took on a look of such serenity he could contemplate her profile as he might a statue or classical portrait. Their son assumed the same look when he slept, lips closed, chin slightly elevated, his breathing deep, regular, and silent.

The oil truck roared past him, belching black smoke like a dragon, the force of its backdraft almost knocking him off his feet. Such recklessness on a city street!

It was bizarre to think that so long after he had stopped living with the woman, he should suddenly reproduce one of her facial expressions, as if some part of her resided in him like one of those viruses only expressed when someone's immune system is compromised.

Cautiously, he lowered his hand from his forehead and allowed the 11:00 AM sun to strike him. His face assumed the same wide-mouth grimace as before. Only this time it was not just a matter of muscles contracting a certain way but of seeming to feel how she actually felt, she who was so open to everyone and everything, expecting and receiving nothing but good will in return, even from the sun.

The avenue was free of traffic, but he continued to stand on the edge of the sidewalk like a mental case afraid to put one foot in front of the other. He turned again toward the sun, unresisting as Lydia would have done, hoping to feel her again inside him, to become one with her as he could not recall ever feeling when they were man and wife.

But it—she—was gone. His eyes ached from the harsh light. He was just a middle-age man standing at the corner of a busy intersection making a spectacle of himself.

"Bipolarism," his wife Margo said, laying the "m" tile onto the game board with a snap. "Thirty-two points."

She was already well ahead, though the game had scarcely begun. She won every time, taking what seemed an unholy delight in each victory, given the ineptness of her opponent. Still, losing at Scrabble was better than watching television, or pretending to watch, while Margo read one of her paperbacks. Even so, their game-time conversation remained restricted to purely immediate concerns: whether they should make a trip to the supermarket or if it could wait till morning; the antics of their respective children and what if anything to do about them; noisy neighbors. Such topics were by their nature perennial and unresolvable, so in that sense they never ran out of something to say. But what they did say was rarely new or interesting, a deficit to their relationship that largely seemed to have escaped Margo's notice.

"'Choice,'" he said. "Eight points."

She added his score to the tally on the sheet she kept at her side of the board. There was never any question about who kept score. She clearly relished tabulating the cockeyed results of their competitions.

"Wait," she said, lifting one of the tiles he had just laid down. "That's triple-point," as if she had caught him cheating. "Ten points, not eight."

"Thank you," he said, watching her vigorously rub out the old sum and recalculate, not so much magnanimous in the victory sure to be hers as ensuring every point by which she trounced him would be certifiable. If the need ever arose, she would go without food so he could eat. She would walk miles in the dead of night to have his prescription filled. But she would never let him win at Scrabble.

"You're not paying attention."

"I am," he said, forcing his mind back to the board where she was counting up her new score.

"Thirty-seven points."


"Two triple-letter scores and a double-word score."

"What a ridiculous game."

"Would you rather play cards?"

"Cards are boring. Although at cards at least I win sometimes."

"If you paid closer attention, you'd do better."

"So you say."

Of course he would score better if he tried. But he had no desire to challenge her superiority at the game. If he really made an attempt to win and then lost anyway, it would be worse than losing after just a half-hearted attempt. Besides, she so thoroughly enjoyed her victories, his winning even one game might end up causing trouble.

"I don't think I can make any more words," he said.

"You still have several tiles left."

She would like nothing better than to change seats with him and rack up some phenomenal score with the meager resources left to him. He glanced down at his remaining letters—all consonants. How could he make a word without a vowel? And there was nothing on the board for any of his consonants to be added to. Why did he play this silly game with her in the first place? It was like being back in school and forced to take a test he hadn't prepared for and didn't have the slightest chance of passing.

"Why are you making that face?"

"What face?"

"That awful grimace. Are you in some kind of pain?"

Was he doing it again? But, of course, his first wife didn't just make that expression when she was in bright sunlight. It also appeared whenever she was stumped by something—a tough decision about whether to accept or decline an unappealing social invitation, a problem with the checkbook.

"Did you remember to take your medication?"

"I took my medication."

"Then why did you make that face?"

"I was thinking about something."

"It must have been pretty dreadful, whatever it was."

"How can I concentrate," he suddenly shouted, "with you yapping away nonstop?!"

She sat back looking as if she were offended. But she suffered his outbursts often enough not to take them seriously. He snapped at her for being too solicitous of his chronic physical ailments, which he would just as soon ignore. He snapped at her for not being solicitous enough. He jumped down her throat for not hearing him when he mumbled, for disagreeing with him, for agreeing too much. But this time he was angry because she had caught him wearing his first wife's face. And now he remembered how on the rare occasions when he and his first wife used to play a board game and she had to think hard about what her next move should be, she would stretch her mouth wide and scrunch up her forehead just as she did when she was in the sun. Only, in those days he was the predictable and easy victor, especially when the game involved word skill or general knowledge. Back then his irritation was for his spouse's inability to keep up with his own mental agility. But Lydia was much less able than Margo to absorb his angry outbursts, and his attempts to repress his anger only made the outbreaks more volcanic when they occurred.

"It's your turn," Margo said, eager to get on to another win. She deferred to him in virtually everything, from driving their car (she had a license but claimed their eight-year-old Ford was too unwieldy for her) to deciding what they should have for dinner. It was only when her intellectual powers were at issue that she insisted on dominance, though she would no doubt deny as much, her habit of perfect wifeliness being so deeply rooted.

"I know it's my turn," he lied. "Do you think I'm some kind of idiot?"

"You're miles away."

"I'm not."

"Probably thinking about some old girlfriend. Sarie. Or Deirdre."

"Do you mind? I have enough trouble playing this game without your running commentary."

He marveled how whenever she threw up his other women to him, she never thought to include his first wife, the only woman he actually did think about with regularity, the only woman who could conceivably be considered her rival. His adult life seemed like a big circle, beginning and ending with the figures of his first and present wife. All the rest, the scheming Deirdre and restless Sarie, women who cajoled and pushed, using sex as a reward for his acquiescence in whatever it was they wanted and managed to convince him he wanted as well, seemed like mere tangents, temporary deviations from the loving, loyal, nonjudgmental woman he really needed but was ashamed to admit he did, even to himself.

"You're doing it again."

"Doing what?"

"That face. It's horrible."

"I can't help my face."

"It makes you look like some sort of monster."

They had lunch, tuna salad and soup, then Margo lay down for her afternoon nap, and he took the dog out for its midday walk. Margo still worked three days a week as a consultant. It brought in much-needed cash and also kept them out of each other's hair. He had never mastered the art of living easily with someone, not even when he was still working full-time and had a home-based business to attend to. When he was married to Lydia, it was he who looked after their son, back when a man spending mornings at the sandbox was frowned upon by the same women who later demanded their men be more "nurturing." He was good at parenting, at least until the boy reached puberty and nothing he was going through seemed in the least related to his father's own, placid teenage years.

Children and animals still seemed his natural companions. Grownups, even the women he loved, required a presence he could only pretend to at an emotional expense that left him drained and irritable. He used to think time would change him, that when he looked the part, had grayed and his children became adults, he would feel at home with people his own age. But he still felt ill-at-ease with anyone over 20—least so with Margo, but even after a couple hours in her company he preferred a long walk with their aging cocker spaniel who didn't complain about his master's facial expressions or delight in recounting the incompetence of the checkout girls at Key Food.

"A penny for your thoughts," he said to the dog who had been his most reliable companion since his son entered college six years ago. The dog looked up from her inspection of some litter near a tall plane tree. The tree had already shed most of its leaves, adding to the clutter of old magazines, plastic coffee cups, and the odd condom. The cover of leaves gave the walkway, separated from a nearby highway by a low louvered fence and steep bush-covered slope, almost a suburban look, as well as making for a more interesting outing for the dog, who delighted in sniffing what lay beneath the debris. In summer the trees provided uneven cover from the fierce morning sun. In February, when their seedpods burst, the wind formed them into deep tan drifts. No matter how cold the weather, those seeds assured him spring was not far away. He and his son used to watch for the first burst pods on the sidewalk. The event was always a good starting point, even when the boy was pre-school, for conversations about reproduction, weather, or anything else they had a mind to talk about—and they talked about everything. To this day, when he spotted the first ripe pods on the sidewalk, he murmured, "Look, Jamie, seedpods bust," imitating the boy's own infantile speech. Only, nowadays the memory brought tears to his eyes, and Maisie, who knew him better than any other living creature just by the tone of his voice, stopped her investigations of the clutter on the sidewalk and frowned up at him sympathetically.

Maisie was now middle-age, too, though with no progeny to get teary about. She had been Jamie's dog, the love of the boy's life until he replaced her with a college classmate, then asked his father to take the animal when his mother remarried and moved to Cincinnati. Till then his father had never much cared for the animal, for dogs generally. But soon after he agreed to take her on as a temporary boarder—at the time he didn't think of it as anything more than that—she suffered a hip displacement and was left with a permanent limp, making it too painful for her to get up and down the two flights of stairs from their apartment to the street. The vet suggested putting her down. But Margo, no great friend of four-legged creatures, had burst into tears in the vet's examining room, and the man quickly withdrew the suggestion.

As they turned and started the return walk up the long incline, the present world became glazed with a sense of loss so powerful, he came to a halt. His son, a full-grown man now, probably had no recollection of those walks and conversations. The memory of them would die with the only person who did remember, perhaps vanishing even before death if old age erased his mind as it had his mother's. Gone like a puff of wind, like yesterday's sunshine.

The idea that after he was gone no one would claim those cherished moments, that they would disappear as if they never had happened, seemed more than he could bear. He felt it like an iron weight in his chest. His mind tried to run from it but was surrounded by its dreadful inevitability replicated over and over again.

Maisie's whimpering brought him back to the present.

"All right, pumpkin," he said, using the pet same name he used to call his son. "We'll head home."

"You were gone a long time," his wife said from behind her latest paperback thriller, wrapped up on the bed in a cocoon of blankets as if it were the dead of winter.

He consulted the analogue wristwatch she had given him on their tenth anniversary back at the start of the digital craze. "Twenty-nine minutes."

"Usually you just go out and come right back."

"I didn't realize you were timing me," he said, draping his jacket over the stump of a coat stand she had mail-ordered the previous winter, but which had snapped in half almost immediately.

"We have nothing in the house for supper. Do you feel like taking a ride down to Key Food?"

"Why not."

He walked over to the tall, south-facing living room window. The sky was brilliant blue, the sunshine so intense it could keep the entire apartment warm even without help from the radiator Margo forbid him to turn off. He stood up close to the glass and closed his eyes. Even though it was February, the heat from the sunlight was like an open oven. He felt if he stood like this for a few minutes, his face would broil like a lamb chop. But the warmth felt cleansing, absolving him of the burdens of memory he seemed to carry around with him like a psychic backpack. He thought he could stand there all day, letting the fierce radiation burn the misery out of him, make him whole again as he must once have been, if only in his childhood.

"When you get a chance, would you mind making me a cup of tea?" Margo called from the bedroom. "I'd do it myself, but I'm freezing."

He tried to open his eyes, but the fierce sunlight kept them sealed shut. He turned toward a less brilliant part of the sky and just barely managed to get them open. But his lips, he noted, remained closed, and he felt nothing out of the ordinary, no spirit inhabiting him, just the same restless self he had been living with for more than six decades.

"Would you mind?" Margo called, her tone cautiously nagging.

"I don't mind," he said, turning away from the inviting but ultimately unbearable brilliance. "I don't mind at all."