Short fiction by Stuart Greenbaum
Whether the act was impulsive or thoughtless is neither here nor there. As far as Jennifer was concerned, either excuse was indefensible. She saw the whole thing and, in her mind, it was an unseemly sight to behold. Still, she managed a smirk, evidently to be clear she had witnessed his indiscretion.
The whole thing was nonsensical, really. All five seconds of it, George figured, 10 tops. The mission: Dodge the early morning sprinkles of sunlight that dotted the path down to the bottom of the brick walkway out front and snatch the rolled copy of the Times. (The paperboy undershot the front porch, again.) This was hardly the first time he’d accomplished the task, not even the first time wearing nothing but his old-man briefs.
The arched legs bend-over, like an umpire dusting home plate, was what grabbed Jennifer’s attention. Unintentional as it may have been, he nonetheless mooned her from across the street. Then, adding insult to her perceived injury, George deftly offered an implicating wave — whisking his gnarled hand back-and-forth between his spindly limbs, while still upside down.
This was an egregious lapse in judgment, determined to be more than enough for Jennifer to file another “incident report” with George’s daughter. Ruth had given the relatively new neighbor her number for emergencies (relating to her elderly father). What seemed like a good idea had become a regrettable choice.
The yuppyish, fortyish Jennifer could be extremely pleasant, a regular Stepford wife, George would joke. More often though she would reveal her truer self — self-righteous and judgmental — which she felt obliged to over-expose as the neighborhood gossip and provocateur.
Ruth got off the phone with (the more unpleasant version of) Jennifer and promptly called her father, who correctly anticipated the “wellness check.”
“Did you really go outside in your underwear, Dad?” Ruth asked.
“Yep,” George answered with a shrug.
“To grab the Times because the paperboy missed …”
“Did you forget or just don’t care?”
“Hmm … C’mon, what are the odds? It was the break of dawn.”
“Well it’s a little late now, isn’t it? You know, the only thing more annoying than Jennifer’s disingenuous concern for your wellbeing are those euphemistic diagnoses. She claims you’re acting ‘kooky and confused and forgetful and,’ she fears, ‘potentially a danger to yourself … and others.’ You see where she’s going with this?”
“I honestly don’t give a shit.”
George then shifted to offense, pitching this untethered rant that had been festering inside him for some time.
“You know damn well this is ageist B.S. To condemn me for something that would be dismissed as funny if I weren’t an old fool.”
“Oh Dad, you’re not that old. But you are kind of a …”
“Listen, Honey,” George interrupted, “you tell Jenny — never mind, I will — to mind her own damn business.”
“You do that. Oh, and she prefers Jennifer. … But seriously Dad, my only worry is whether this could be, you know, a legitimate memory issue?”
“No! And that’s the naked truth, Ruth. Ha! Love you.”
“Ha yourself. Love you too, Dad.”
THOUGH HE DIDN’T LET ON TO RUTH, that morning’s exposure had begun to bother George. However, for another reason altogether.
“What if this is it, the one? I’m 89,” he considered. “Jenny’s scowl could take me on my final stroll down memory lane.” A sobering notion for George, who had to contend with the desire of this residential wrecking ball to push him out of his home of more than 50 years. Jennifer and her gentrification cabal, as George and the other aging-in-place homeowners dubbed the new generation of neighbors, would like nothing better than for his family to compel him to move out and sell the house. That way, new owners could spruce up the place — hire proper gardeners, repaint the exterior white or beige instead of the dark gray — and also participate in block parties and neighborhood yard sales, and put up Christmas lights.
But George had every intention of living out his days in his own home, if just to spite Jennifer. He would always mow his own lawn, irregularly trim his shrubs, and grab his own morning newspaper … in his underwear if he wants.
The (potentially problematic) fact was that his farcical little jaunt truly was more hilarious the more he thought about it, which was making it extra memorable as well. And therein laid the much bigger and bleaker worry that literally could not be dismissed as insignificant or B.S. This was worse than a “senior moment,” much worse.
GEORGE ALWAYS SUSPECTED THE PHENOMENON EXISTED. Now that the growing body of research on indiscreet memory validated his intuition, he had good reason to fear the unenviable encroachment of his 100th rememory, also known as the “terminal rememory.”
“Please, this cannot be,” George pleaded to himself, as he glanced irritatingly out the front window, down the path and then across the street. Like many of his rememories, the underwear escapade would be so undeserving. It had nothing to do with a particularly purposeful experience. Just the unfortunate misappropriation of quantity over quality; the basest level of instinctual human nature.
“Too few and arbitrary, too unfair … too round!” George yelled, echoing the universal cry of those seated at the short end of the actuarial table; the twilight-agers whose brains are already almost full of rememories.
Numerarchy should not rule every aspect of our lives nowadays. It does, however. A number of scientific studies prove that the human brain has the capacity to store and access a finite amount of memories in a lifetime. Breakthrough research additionally identified our so-called rememories that the human mind beholds — on average collecting one or two per year starting around age five and, astonishingly, topping off at a perfectly even 100.
REMEMORIES INHABIT THE PURGATORY OF THE HUMAN BRAIN — living in neither our whole conscious nor unconscious state. They live in perpetuity, in between. They are not declarative memories — the working ones we store and process in order to complete basic tasks and functions. Nor are they implicit memories — the sort that innately influence our perceptions and behavior.
These are visceral, evocative rememories that transport us back to places and events important to our psyche — oftentimes for inexplicable reasons. Unlike with Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine, these nutty jaunts through our past remain unsettled. Perhaps the strangest characteristic of rememories is that they do not declare themselves on impact and seldomly before resurfacing. To put it another way, we don’t realize the staying power of a rememory until it announces itself … over and over again.
The amygdala is the brain’s memory retention complex, where these frequently recurring recollections reside. Called “flashbulb memories,” they are distinguished for their vividness and for how simply they switch on and off. Rememories comingle without reason or priority; and, for better and worse, get equal time and space and “countability” while building up to 100.
When George’s imagination got the better of him, which happened more often these days, he wondered whether these accumulated recalls represented the totality of his past? Could they be nothing more than a piecemeal storyline implanted by the author or director or “maker” of our existence? He had not, nor did he intend to ever share this hypothesis with anyone.
GEORGE WAS A COUPLE WEEKS SHY OF HIS 90TH BIRTHDAY. His lifespan was tick-tocking at an uncomfortable pace. During his nine decades on the planet, he had accrued his fair share of bad memories, and thankfully more good ones. It was not asking too much, he believed, for his final rememory to be something better than mooning that snooty Jennifer.
For sake of comparison and as a challenging mental exercise, later that afternoon George sat down with pen and paper to do something he had meant to do for the past 10 or 20 years. To his best recollection, albeit rough and disordered, he started making a list that he finished late that evening. Alternately laughing, crying and wondering, he had finally deciphered his lifetime inventory of each and every rememory.
A total of 99, just as he suspected … and feared. From childhood, through adolescence and adulthood, up to and including his ripe old age, he outlined them all — jotting down who, what, when, where and, to the extent possible, why? For example:
#6 — This massive barge loaded with gigantic rocks that somehow morphed into a recurring nightmare.
#8 — About seven or eight when I asked my older brother, “How strong is a spider web?” and he responded matter-of-factly, “It could stop a bullet.”
#13 — While I didn’t celebrate becoming a man with bar mitzvah, age 13 was when I glimpsed my first sideboob.
#24 — Dad teaching me how to tie my tie on the first day of my first real job.
#27 — On our first date Helen took me for a hike in the redwoods. She was climbing like a mountain goat and I was out of shape and out of breath and constantly had to stop and “take photographs,” so I said. Years later I confessed my “false impression,” which gave her the biggest laugh (#33).
#37 — Shouting “One-hundred-dollars!” I hit seven-year-old Louie a towering fly ball, which he patiently camped under and caught (to my amazement and his thrill.) And then he smartly refused my offer to do a double-or-nothing.
#39 — Sitting on the couch with little Ruthie, around four- or five-years-old, sharing a Jethro Bodine-sized bowl of Cheerios while watching Looney Tunes.
#55 — Watching the sunset through the silhouetted blades of a windmill on Santorini.
#62 — An especially good (and melancholy) one, the exquisite bliss on Helen’s face when she held our first granddaughter for the first time.
#78 — Ugh, Helen’s beautiful smile turning to sheer panic the split-second before a drunk driver’s truck smashed into our car.
#99 — Just this fall I welcomed what would turn out to be this next to last rememory: the purchase of a new Levi’s jacket, something I always wanted but figured I couldn’t pull off. It was while admiring myself in the mirror that it occurred to me (I am so old) this will probably be the last jacket I will ever buy.
PHEW, THAT TOOK SOME RECKONING, GEORGE CONCLUDED. Although resigned to the scientific fact he had no control over his muscle memory, he surmised if personal intervention and discretion were ever deserved, it should be for number 100. Moreover, if it were going to be a joke on him, it should be of his own choosing.
George considered too, from a more scholarly perspective, Nietzsche’s theory of “active forgetfulness” — how the brain pushes out old or less-important memories to make room for new, more-important ones. “What if …,” he proposed aloud, as though bargaining with a friend to trade two Derek Jeter rookie cards for one mint-condition Mickey Mantle, “I bump a couple of random rememories to make room for an extra, new one?” A shame displacement was not an option, he conceded.
Or, what if … he could trick his brain into uploading a custom rememory. That, too, he dismissed — as impossible as trying to fall back asleep to re-enter a fantastical dream.
GEORGE WARNED RUTH to never again talk of the infamous newspaper incident. She agreed without caring to ask why. Days turned into weeks and the memory was turning more ordinary, more elastic than he initially dreaded.
One Saturday a month or so on he found himself laughing hysterically at a John Mulaney stand-up special premiering on HBO. The comedian described President Trump’s disruptive behavior as a “horse in a hospital.”
So random, so classic, George thought, every time he recalled that image. Who knows, maybe, if only, this could be the one … hundred?
Come to think of it, George ruminated, that meddlesome bitch Jenny reminds me of a horse in a hospital, too …
“Damn you!” he hollered out the window and across the street.