Noe Valley Voice November 2008

The Last Page: Memory

By Ed Miller

It was a winter night on a small island not far off the coast of northern Maine. Snowflakes fell silently through the darkness. In a bay half a mile off, icy waves lapped at the shore.

There was a house with a porch in a clearing surrounded by tall pine trees. Inside the house, in the living room, a kerosene heater was on, glowing. The furniture in the room was dark and overstuffed, relics of a more tranquil era. An oriental rug with a faded floral design covered the floor, and a gilded mirror hung over the mantle. Several portraits in ornate frames adorned the walls. The light was muted, absorbed by the soft surfaces of the room.

An elderly man sat in an easy chair reading a book on commercial fishing. A woman with short silver hair holding a bunch of artificial white flowers crossed the room in front of him. She seemed to glide, erect and graceful like a fashion model.

The man continued to read as the woman stopped before the mirror. He glanced up and their eyes met in the slightly distorted glass. He noted, as if for the first time, the web of lines near her eyes and mouth, like cracks in an antique oil painting. They had been married a very long time.

He smiled and recalled their wedding day: a civil ceremony--neither of them had wanted a big wedding. A spring rain was falling. The sun came out just as they left City Hall. She was so elegant, so cultured, and he was so ordinary--he had a difficult time believing it when she finally agreed to marry him. There had been other suitors. It had taken him almost two years to win her over.

"I love your wit and gentle ways," she had told him.

Now he watched as she arranged the flowers in a blue vase that sat on the mantle. The wind sighed down the chimney. A moment later, she spoke to his image in the mirror.

"Darling, you know, it's strange, but just now, for a moment, you looked exactly as you did when we first met."

He got up and looked in the mirror.

"You mean back before I acquired all this character?" he laughed. An image of the two of them sliding into the back seat of the '49 Ford leaped to his mind.

"Hey, I've been meaning to ask," he interrupted himself, "did you get that message from the doctor?"

She frowned. "It used to be my parents telling me what I should and shouldn't do. Now it's other people, my doctor, my children, telling me how to behave...."

He put his arms around her and kissed her. A minute later, she pulled away, saying, "I've got to get those shirts out of the dryer."

"I'll be here if you need me," he said, not mentioning that she'd folded the clothes an hour ago.

He sat back down and tried to return to his book. But his thoughts kept blurring the lines.

Often these days, she'd forget things. It had started about a year ago. She'd forget the names of well-known acquaintances. (That man, who is he?) Then she began having trouble making change at the grocery store. Baffled, she would stare at the coins in her hand as though they were from an ancient civilization.

A month ago, they'd had a friend over for dinner. She had asked why the friend's husband wasn't with her. She had forgotten about his recent death. Reminded of this, she'd reacted as though it was the first time she'd heard the news.

His wife's doctor had said it could get worse, this loss of memory. And it had.

Occasionally, she'd even forgotten his name. Once, she had become alarmed and said to him as they prepared for bed, "You're not my husband. My husband has black hair."

His eyes had filled with tears, and he had been shocked into silence. He wondered how long it might be before she forgot him entirely. Without memory can there be love?

Their life together had seemed so blessed, a good and loving union. Even the loss of a child had in the end only drawn them closer together.

He recalled a newspaper photo of former president Ronald Reagan seated on a park bench wearing a baseball cap, a vacant expression on his face. The story said he was battling Alzheimer's. He read somewhere else that the painter Willem de Kooning had the same disease. In the long run, he didn't care about anyone but his wife.

It can't be true, he thought. She's the picture of health. She spends hours working in the garden, she loves long walks, even in the rain or snow.

He had begun to worry about her going off alone as she often did along the nearby beach. There were steep cliffs and crumbling paths. The doctor had said Alzheimer's patients sometimes can't sit still. They tend to wander, often in circles.

He recalled her aged mother who lived alone until her death more than twenty years ago. She was found dead in her garden seated in a chair next to a concrete statue of Saint Francis. She was clutching a stuffed dog that each of her children had loved in turn when they were small. The man who found her said she looked like she had sat down to watch the snow and fallen peacefully into eternal sleep.

He got up from his chair and climbed the stairs to their bedroom. It was cooler upstairs, the air a bit musty. He liked the smell. It reminded him of his grandmother's house. Strange, but he remembered the floor in that house quite clearly, the thick rugs, the black iron heating grates.

He stopped and looked under some folded shirts in the lower drawer of the oaken bureau and removed a photo album, then sat on the bed, on the faded quilt his grandmother had given him and his wife as a wedding present. He opened the album.

He was seated on a pony. He was very young, perhaps five or six. There was someone hunched down behind the pony, a faceless someone, trying to stay out of the camera's sight while keeping a grip on the reins.

His mother was clear-minded until her death at ninety-two. The last day of her life, she had given him good advice, over an afternoon glass of wine, about a financial problem he'd had. That night, she went to bed and never woke up. The perfect way to go, he thought.

He turned a few pages and stopped at another photo, a portrait from high school. He had an Elvis haircut and a look of subtle defiance.

Then there he was standing in the bright sunlight wearing a khaki uniform with a dufflebag slung over his shoulder. A young man who might die, uncertainly, for his country.

Next, a shot of his wife alone on a beach, her auburn hair windblown. She held a fishing pole in one hand, a tackle box in the other.

Turning the page, he stared at a picture of himself and his wife standing in front of an oak tree. He held their first-born, Tim, who drowned when he was only eight years old. She smiled at the camera, blissfully unaware of what the future held.

He put the album down and wiped his eyes.

At that moment, his wife came into the room, saw him with his chin in his hand, and leaned over to kiss the top of his head. She paused for a few seconds before slipping her hand under his woolen bathrobe and resting it on his thigh. She sighed and he drew her down onto the bed.

That night he dreamt about time. The past. The future. The Ocean of Time. He floated on its surface. He dove into it. He became part of it like a microscopic underwater organism among millions of other organisms. There was no end to it.

He awoke the next morning feeling strangely calm. Sunshine filtered into the room through the thin blue curtains. He stretched and threw back the quilt and crossed to the window. The snow had stopped. Points of light reflected everywhere in the expanse of white. The bay sparkled in the distance beyond the silent trees.

He heard his wife stir in the bed behind him.

"Good morning, Henry," she said.

He smiled broadly and turned to face her.


Ed Miller's work has appeared in several venues, including Metro magazine and a collection of fiction published in Tel Aviv titled The Blue Men: Contemporary North American Short Stories. "[The book] was printed in Hebrew, which I don't speak or read," Miller says, but his piece is in good company (Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff). Another of his stories, about a San Francisco classical musician injured in a car accident, was broadcast on KALW-FM Radio. He has also written an as yet unpublished novel that he calls a "combined adventure and love story." An Excelsior District resident, Miller notes, "I once lived on Clipper Street with a wonderful view of Twin Peaks." He often goes on walks on 24th Street with his two daughters, who still live in Noe Valley.