Alzenheimer The Great
6:16. The microwave's LED flickered. 6:17. And
his father was yammering about savings
bonds. Hundreds! Of hundreds! Mom had
crammed them between old Vogue and
Simplicity patterns in Her Room.
"She don't sew nothing now! Won't even do me
a button. So I figure I clean out the junk,
right? Good thing I stuck my schnozzola in
there. Seventy-five grand. No records! What
if the house burns down?"
Bobby yawned into the half-sleeve of his
pajamas. "The smoke alarm. Did you check the
"Dresses, curtains, what have you.
Tinderbox, ready to go. I never asked how
she spent her money. She got some that go
back to 1948!"
Brenda, Bobby's wife, had just walked into
the kitchen, rubbing her hair above the
sliver of dusty light coming through the
east window. He raised his eyebrows in her
direction and said into the telephone, "So
what's the problem, Dad?"
"They're all in her name. And your name. And
your sister's." Bobby hadn't heard his
father actually speak his sister's name
since 1969, when she'd passionately soiled
the living room carpet with a conscientious
objector from Julliard. Now Elizabeth lived
alone in Baltimorejust an hour up Route 95
from his parents' house in Alexandria.
"So congratulate us," Bobby said. "We're
catching up to your net worth."
"They're E series bonds. No interest for
years, while the stock market's been going
through the rafters. If I'da known about
"You know about them now. Explain it to
"She won't listen to me."
"Just speak. Slow. And. Loud. She'll
"No way, Bobby. When we went to the Red
Lobster last week, she didn't even recognize
me. Her own husband! She asked the waiter
who I was."
Now Bobby was wide awake. "Sweet Jesus. I
thought it was just her hearing."
"It's a mental thing. In her head, Bobby.
You couldn't see it last summer. Now half
the time she's someplace else. Alzenheimer's."
"Get off the phone, Yvette. I'm trying to
have a private talk with your son."
"Birds," she said. "Look at ze birds."
She would be downstairs, by her kitchen
window, looking at the Droll Yankee Feeder.
"What kind, Mom? Wrens? Chickadees?"
His mother had been an avid birdwatcher even
during his childhood, leading him through
the Peterson's Field Guide, drawing by
drawing, map by map. Focusing his eyes. His
ears. "Wrens?" he shouted. "Chickadees?"
"No. Ze red ones." She swore in French. "Zey
"Cardinals," his father said. "She means
He wondered if his father could identify any
other bird he'd never eaten. Crow, probably.
"Dad, when's the last time you both saw a
"She ain't alone in this, Bobby. Look at
Ronald Reagan. They can't do nothing for the
poor guy. The Great Communicator. I watch
the TV. I know Alzenheimer's when I see it."
"Stop talking about Alzheimer's, Dad."
"Alzenheimer ze Great!" his mother
screeched. "Because one of zem is whatever,
he's trying at me." She laughed. "Name him
an airport and he still knows nozzing."
Bobby's ear stung when the kitchen receiver
slammed into its cradle, five hundred miles
"That's it!" His father was shouting into
the other extension. "I'm gonna call you
back from my lawyer's house. He's a jogger.
Nobody ever gets the jump on him!"
Bobby figured he'd have twenty minutes,
while his father was on the road, so he
called Elizabethto keep her informed. When
he woke her up, she was even more Elizabeth
"La Donna E Mobile. It's always
A notorious contralto, Elizabeth gave voice
lessons to a large and ever-changing cast of
"Can't you drive to Alexandria?"
"I can't even call. I can't speak to
and he won't let me speak to her. He turns
the telephone down so she can't hear it
"Just walk into the house. You could take
them to your therapist."
"Therapist? They don't need a therapist.
They need David Copperfield." When Elizabeth
laughed, he always imagined a goose with its
beak stuck in the small end of a megaphone. "If he can zap the Empire State Building,
maybe he can make fifty years go kapoof."
"He doesn't have to. Mom can't remember a
"Good for her."
"I fail to see"
"You were too young, Bobby. You can't
understand what he put her through."
"And you spent 1945 in Lyons?" Elizabeth was
born during the Berlin Airlift, in the
"Do you believe he never learned a word of
her language? The Great Master Sergeant
Robert J. Semansky. She was seventeen, for
God's sake. Statutory rape. And don't think
he's not good at forgetting, either. I'll
never set foot in that house again. Not as
long as he's alive. You don't know the half
of what he did to me."
Bobby and Brenda had just seen A Thousand
Acres in Charleston, and last year he'd had
a girl in one of his classes whose
Monday-morning bruises had forced him to
call Social Services. But his father was no
Jason Robards, and he couldn't imagine his
anything, except sympathy. "Elizabeth, did
"A prevert. That's what he called me. Mr.
Head of Internal Security." She made her
Goose Sound again. "I would've Lorena'd him.
Bobbitt J. Semansky!"
Bobby had been a late child, a
surpriseborn when Elizabeth was already a
teenager. His father never talked about the
war when Mom was in the same room, and she
never talked about it at all. He couldn't
remember ever not knowing never to ask.
His father called back, finally, at eleven
o'clock, saying he wanted to arrange an
appointment in Arlington next weekfor
all three of them. "Your mom needs you. To
get her to come over here. To see Mr. Menzer."
"She needs a doctor, Dad. Not a lawyer."
"It's incurable, son."
"You can't know that."
"Okay. To make you happy. A doctor, too."
"A doctor. Period."
"She needs you up here, Bobby. She's afraid
of going out of the house. At the
anniversary party, that was my last hope. I
tried my best. I just wish you could've been
"Dad, it was right before final exams. A
"Explaining it to her. In French. After the
toast, when I had Mr. Menzer here show her
the durable power of attorney, she started
screaming. Said I was trying to put her
"You brought the lawyer to the house? For
your fiftieth wedding anniversary?"
"Mr. Menzer's a friend. Hey, I'm at his
house, right? He set things up so the Feds
don't Jew nothing from me. From you. You got
to help me, son. My money's tied up in the
market. We might need those bonds for your
Mom. Look, no skin off your heinie. I'll pay
for your ticket. I know schoolteachers don't
"I'm coming, Dad. Soon. Goodbye."
Bobby had never hung up on his father. He'd
told himself that the telephone was one of
the few things an 83-year-old man could
still control. Anger and embarrassment
swirled together, blurring his eyes while
he stared at the cat's water dish on the
Fingertips were kneading his shoulders. "If
you don't start talking," his wife
whispered, "my mouth will be doing something
else in fifteen seconds."
"You can't be responsible for your parents'
happiness," he intoned. "That's what Father
Kane told me. Every week. In confession."
"He was right," Brenda said.
"Of course he was right. He just wasn't very
"You can drive to Virginia in ten hours."
"I can't do anything today. I'm going back
to sleep." He kissed her hair. "If I leave
tonight, I'll get there first thing
He was on his knees in the sewing room, Her
Roomreplacing the frayed extension cords
with new ones from Home Depot. On his annual
visit, every summer since he'd married and
moved to Charleston, he'd never gone inside
this roommuch less looked behind the
hummocks of seersucker, satin, and chintz.
Now he understood why his father had talked
about fire. It was a miracle the bare copper
piercing the insulation hadn't set something
off. Pulling blindly, both arms under the
convertible couch, he'd felt the tingle of
electricity in his hands. One outlet, two
brittle extension cordswith piggyback
plugs on both of them. Most of the wires led
to ancient Christmas tree lights, with bulbs
nearly the size of Easter eggs, half of them
missingexcept for one string that was
almost complete. His mother must've been
testing them, trying to salvage bulbs to
make one set work. And shoved them under the
He tossed them all into a tangle next to the
closet door. He kept only the floor lamp and
the radio clock plugged in, each with its
new vinyl cord.
What else? Before he returned to South
Carolina, he'd have to install a railing on
the cellar stairs. He couldn't believe that
his mother had been carrying baskets of
clothes, soiled and laundered, down and up,
for all these decades, with nothing to hang
onto. She could have tumbled to the
concrete, killed herself. And he'd lived
here for seventeen yearsher footsteps
echoing from the bare wood every other
morning, while he gazed into his dresser
drawers, making his choices, his father
already at the department store in a shirt
so immaculate that it seemed to create its
own light. Bobby began to doubt his own
capacity for seeing and hearing. . . .
Ask her, Doctor. Ask her who I am.
I know who you are, old man.
Do you have children, Mrs. Semansky?
Can you tell me their names?
Robert. Ou est Robert?
I'm here, Mom. Ici.
What about your daughter?
Her name, Yvette. It begins with an E.
C'mon, you know.
Mrs. Semansky, I'm going to give you three
colors. A little bit later, I'm going to ask
you what they are. All right? The colors are
red, white, and blue.
He listens to her lungs, her heart, takes
her blood pressure. 130 over 90better than
his! He lavages the wax from her ears. Then
he asks for the colors back.
Her eyebrows narrow. In concentration?
You know, honey. The flag. The country that
saved you. The country that gave you those
I'd like to see you next week, Mrs. Semansky.
She stands up. Oh, we'd like a lot of zings.
His mother sits in the back seat of the El
Dorado, holding his hand, while his father
Her name. Say it, old man.
You did good, honey. Real good. You up for
She struggles against her shoulder harness.
You can't make me eat anyzing! No! Nein!
From far beyond the open doorway, the vacuum
began wheezing like an old tenor with
pneumonia. After he double-checked the
connections and reset the clock, he walked
down the hallway to the master suite that
was now the guest bedroom. His bedroom, once
a year. Smiling, graceful, mignonne as ever,
his mother was pulling the Kenmore
canisternot a swirl of gray in her dark
hair. She could have been the elder sister
of the young woman in the wedding portrait
on the nightstand. But his father? His image
had collapsed into itselfchest to stomach,
dimples to jowls, a strong, stocky man
sagged to a waddling mound of flesh. How had
his voice survived?
The carpet attachment was grumbling across
the hardwood floor. When she saw Bobby in
the doorway, she turned off the machine and
centered his empty suitcase beneath the
windowsill. "You're so clean, my darling
Robert." Her smile belonged on a seventh
grader trying to hide her braces. "Like
That evening, he was standing with her by
the bathroom sink, tryingtrying to do
what, exactly? To remind her to clean her
dentures? She didn't know how any more. The
first time he handed her the Efferdent
tablet, he barely stopped her from popping
it into her mouth. "You don't eat this one,
Mom. It's not like your Aricept."
When he'd finally gotten her to take out her
teeth and put them into the plastic
container, his father came into the room.
"What the hell are you doing, Bobby?" His
father turned over a ceramic soap dish and
put the Efferdent tablet on top of it. Then
he took out his Swiss Army knife, scoring
the tablet until it separated into two
"What in the hell are you doing?' For his
mother's sake, Bobby kept his voice to a
His father dropped one of the halves into
the plastic container and handed its twin to
Bobby. "Don't you know the stuff they put in
these things? Way more than you need. It
don't take no more than half." His father
grinned his upper lip into his gum line. "I
get by with quarters for mine."
His mother was sitting on the edge of the
bathtub, sliding her feet in and out of her
bedroom slippers. Bobby grabbed his father's
arm and led him out into the hallway.
"Dad, I'm trying to keep her from swallowing
those tablets. How's she supposed to
remember to cut them in half?"
"I can remember for her."
"It's better for her to do as much as she
can. By herself."
"I'll let her cut."
Bobby thanked God that Elizabeth was in
Baltimore. "You don't want her fooling
around with knives, Dad."
Bobby rarely remembered his dreams. But when
he heard the pipes rattle through the wall
behind the headboard, he knew he was
dreaming. About his own house. About Brenda.
The Mistress of the Night, she called
herself. She'd zip through bodice-rippers
for hours after he'd gone to bed, wake him
up for whatever he could manage, then beat
him into the shower stall the next morning.
How did she do it? They weren't kids
anymore, they'd both be forty before they
could blink. . . .
The bedroom door opened to a dim light, and
he felt himself drifting awake. Someone was
there. Testing his parents' bed, smoothing
the comforter, then lying on top of it.
Fingertips brushed his temples.
"Cet homme"his mother was speaking in
French"this man, this Boche, he comes and
he says he is you to me. He comes and he
goes. Sometimes nice, sometimes not so nice.
He sounds like you. You understand?"
He moved his head slowly, up and down, so
she could feel his answer with her own
Now she said, in English, "I don't know who.
I don't know who he speaks."
"Close your eyes," Bobby said. Following his
own words, he listened to the dark house for
a future in which they could still believe.
But she was already asleepbeyond him,
beyond herself, beyond the unseeable ocean
that she still had the courage to cross.