Most memories were gone.
The name of the ship he had served on. The name of his commanding officer. His daughters’ names, which husband went with which daughter, which grandchildren came from which marriage, which fiancé held hands with which granddaughter. That had mostly melted away. His head felt like an icebox, and someone had opened the door for just a simple moment and let all the cold air out, filled it up with thick stagnant heat. Alzheimer’s was a muggy goddamned country, the airless stomach of a huge beast that took its time digesting old useless machinery.
He could hold Audrey’s hand, like he was doing now, and he could remember her name and he could see the wedding ring he had given her, could run his trembling fingers over it and feel its coldness, its sharpness, the places where it had scratched and speckled and lost its shine. But he couldn’t remember the wedding, not a goddamned thing about it. He reached into that broken old icebox, strained a little further and tried to find the little details: what did her dress look like? How did she wear her hair? Was she smiling? Was she crying? It was gone. Melted. And he panicked because he knew it was there, knew that if he could just reach a little further… And then he looked around and realized he wasn’t at home. He was in a strange, stinking bed in a pastel–colored room, surrounded by mechanical noises meted out in impersonal rhythm, a bubble universe that screamed Waiting–For–You–To–Die. And he looked up at her and tried to say, Audrey, I’m scared, dammit, I’m scared and I want to go home, and some small part of me knows that I never will, that there is nothing to be done to save me, but lie, goddamn you, lie and tell me you’ll make it better, you’ll reverse it, redact it, reduce it and destroy it, please! And all he could ever say was, “Audrey… I don’t know…”
And Audrey said, like she always said, “Hush Cotton.” And he could see himself in her eyes, a useless old man, or not even a man but a reminder of the husband she ought to have. And he could see how tired she was, could see the part of her that wished the whole mess would just end. The part that wanted a period on the end of this awkward run–on sentence. It would be a period of a death, too. Not an exclamation point death like he’d always pretended to want in his Navy days, a smile on his face and the devil at his heels, a man’s sort of death. It — no — he would end quietly with a mushy melted head and a single dark period.
The hospital room was dark when Cotton woke up again. In the dimness, the white panels on the checkered linoleum floor looked dull blue, and the dark ones like pits.
Eisley was there in his frumpy brown suit, the hound’s–tooth pattern catching the room’s shadows, covering him in tiny honeycomb pools of dark. He sat in a chair next to Cotton’s bed, the same chair Audrey sat in every day, holding Cotton’s hand and looking tired. He tilted his head up and his glasses caught some secret pocket of light from somewhere in the room and held it in their lenses.
In the end, people never changed much.
“Hi, Cotton” he said, and his lips pulled back in a weak grin. “How are we holding up?”
“Fair,” said Cotton and pushed himself up in bed. “You?”
Eisley made a noise like laughter.
Another night, another visit from the eternally middle–aged Greg Eisley. One more evening with the lampreys. Their teeth shining in the lightless corners of the room.
Cotton closed his eyes for a second, and the undertow in his head sucked him away again.
Most of what was left came to him second hand; imprints of stories he had told a thousand times about memories he used to have, memorized monologues about a life for which he had no context. Copies of copies. But he still had a few pure memories. These, the last original prints, played over and over again. The cold Professor Eisley and what he turned into. Maybe what he’d been from the beginning.
“Biology,” Eisley said, “is a nasty old bastard of a science. Without it, there is no medicine, and there is no psychology, and there is no neurology, and there is no understanding. You want to trace your way back to the very lynchpin of knowledge? It’s all here,” a gesture toward the blackboard, symbolic for a moment of the entire discipline. “And here,” a hand swept across the textbook, open on the podium. “And here,” a calculated, self–aware tap on his own temple, an act of conceit so unapologetic that it could hardly be objected to. “You know nothing about life if you don’t know about biology. And you know nothing about biology if you can’t accept, emotionally as well as abstractly, one simple, awful fact: that we are all going to die, and that there is nothing we can do about it.
“The terrific thing about modern biology is that most of it is based on the idea of natural selection. Or, in other words,” And here he’d look over his glasses at the lecture hall and the ceiling lights would catch on the lenses making them into a pair of twirling white urchins. “If you, as a species, don’t want to die, you’d better hope something else does.”
Eisley, brushing the errant strands of his thin brown hair back from his forehead, drinking in the apprehension of the class, the silent, weirded–out fascination naked on the faces of the collected class. It made Cotton jealous somehow to see those restless strands of hair fall down over Eisley’s wide white forehead. He brought a hand up to his crew cut, the bristled shortness of it, and he knew it made him look big and stupid. Soldier–boy sitting in class and pretending to take it all in.
“We’ll take a look at the lamprey,” said Eisley and wrote out the word in big capital letters on the black board. “The lamprey is… and I’ll ask you to forgive the hyperbole here… a true bastard bastion of natural selection. Phylum cordata, which if you’ll recall from last class just means he has a spinal cord, and class cephalaspidomorphi.” All of this he scrawled across the black board with that frantic and obvious intelligence, that flaunted and frenetic cunning. Phylum Cordata. Class Cephalaspidomorphi. The letters becoming smaller and messier, curving downward across the board like worms.
The lamprey. A jawless fish most commonly found in fresh water or just off the coast. He drew a wide circle on the board, “In their mouths…” He fleshed out the mouth with a series of smaller circles, “past all the sucking cups that allow them to cling to their prey…” In the center a circle left empty, dark; he pointed to it. “Really down deep here, they’ve got a couple of very sharp teeth that function like knives. Really, they’re more parasite than predator. They attach themselves to an old and dying fish and,” he chopped downward through the air with his hand and Cotton recoiled a little at this man, this slight and bespectacled professor, “they slit the skin, secrete an anticoagulant, and gorge themselves on the blood of the dying fish. When the fish finally shuffles off this mortal coil, so to speak, the lamprey detaches and looks elsewhere.”
The image sat in Cotton’s belly like a lump of raw meat, heavy and wet. When he swallowed spit, his Adam’s apple felt swollen.
“Fish are lucky. They’ve got tiny, stupid brains, six–second memories, no cogent idea of what is happening to them at any given point. Just consider your last moments, the loneliness, the humiliation, as you die with this…” he gestured weakly at the mouth on the black board, “sucking against your side. Fish don’t care. They don’t know that they should. Nature does have, it appears, some compassion. Anyway, the lamprey is a single example — not a very good one, but one I’m sort of fond of — of a larger biological mechanism…”
Cotton loved Eisley then, wanted to become him and feel his own hair tangle over his forehead, to have spectacles that filled with light. He wanted those blazing crazy smarts, wanted a brain that sizzled like Eisley’s. And in those days, after that weird lecture when everyone in the room seemed to become aware of the hardness of their seats, he was a little afraid of him, too. Because that lecture had stopped being about biology. Because Eisley was talking about something else for a second, lost in a tangent that seemed to have swept him up and dissolved him and washed him over the entire lecture hall. And when he said that last bit, the thing about nature and compassion… Cotton could tell he was lying.
“You know the funny thing about these visits?”
Eisley looked up again. For a second, his glasses looked like they might flood with whiteness again, but just a flicker and then his eyes were on Cotton, those eyes that used to be so wild, so mad with the things he knew, now just sad and accommodating. He sighed and said, “What’s that, Cotton?”
“When you’re around,” Cotton said and shifted his weight on the hard, lumpy hospital bed. The memories of his dead–sleeping mind still stuck to him and he was grateful. “I feel better… Not… you know, not all the way right again. Just… I know where I am.”
Eisley nodded. His eyes left Cotton and he sighed again. He really hadn’t changed. Not in sixty damned years had he changed. His brown hair still crept down across his wide pale brow and he still brushed it back in place with the side of his finger like he didn’t even know he was doing it. He had the same suit. Even now, in spite of his compassionate tone and his pitying eyes, he was still performing, still impressing himself with his own aesthetic control.
Nobody really changed all that much. Not in the end.
The things in the shadows chattered and mumbled. They sounded like children… no… no, like the tapes he used to play for… for his grandkids, the ones, the… the Chipmunk tapes. In the van. On the way to… to what? Jesus, what a thing was this that he could remember the goddamned tapes but not the names of the kids he used to play them for. What a goddamned thing was this.
“I guess… this will probably be the last visit?”
Eisley leaned forward, rested his arms on his knees and squeezed his long thin hands together. His fingernails looked blue. His voice was clinical. “What makes you say that, Cotton?”
“I’m tired. I’m… running out of…” His mind locked up. He felt his mouth open up, heard the confused mewling, croaking noise that came out. He felt stuck, locked inside his own body, pounding his fists against the walls and screaming, No, damn it! Don’t do this to me now! Give it back, it’s mine, it’s been mine for eighty–four goddamned years! It’s my body, my mind, let me have it back!
“You’re running out. I understand.” Eisley stood up, brushed his hands down the front of his brown pants, the pleats standing out from the shadows they cast. They were too long on him, bunching around his well–polished loafers. This was the way with Eisley. Everything always polished. Everything always just slightly ill fitting. “I hope,” he said, his eyes disappearing again behind the great white flood in his spectacles, “that you’re right, Cotton. About this being the last, I mean. I hope that quite sincerely.”
The things in the shadows, slick and black, smiling with their whole faces, crawled forward. Cotton closed his eyes again.
He changed his major after that lecture with Professor Eisley. There was some fall–out. His father was an engineer. His grandfather, too, and even though neither man ever said anything, Cotton was sure they both felt a little betrayed. In the end, biology offered something to Cotton that engineering never would. It was the same something that had him up nights on his honeymoon in Jamaica, long after Audrey had fallen asleep. Just watching the bugs gather on the porch light of their small bungalow. It charged him. Because despite what Eisley said, and in part because of it, biology was about life. Every organism on earth had this crazy seizure of energy and emotion for a short period, had the chance to change everything, and then fizzled out and died. Maybe with a big romantic exclamation, a Cotton Lee kind of exit. Maybe with a period. And then there was something new. Something to change the things the first creature changed, change them even more.
And, of course, there was Eisley. Eisley in his office with his books and desk and his lamp that seemed to be designed to send that glare over his eyes. At every opportunity, Cotton would take a spot as Eisley’s lab or research assistant. Cotton with his white lab coat digging through the riverbanks or furiously scribbling notes from a thousand books about tree frogs or taking dictation as Eisley paced around his office with that weird lunatic sending lightning bolts from his brain. And yet, no matter the project, no matter how excited and crazy he became, there was something dishonest about everything he did. Like all of this was just to fill time. To keep up appearances. Because Eisley, Cotton knew even then, was the king of liars.
“How long?” asked Cotton. He could see the shiny wet head of one of the shadowy things, the lamprey–children, the sucker–babies, just cresting over the metal guardrail of the bed. He could hear them everywhere, maybe fifteen of them in all, crawling across the walls and the ceiling like lizards. Chattering. “How long, Dr. Eisley?”
Eisley put his hands in the pockets of his blazer and grinned a little. “A long time, Cotton. They’ve been around for a very, very long time. And, I suppose, so have I, though not nearly as long.”
They crawled between his legs, pawing at those perfect deep pleats in his pants with their bulbous fingers. They were like his children, swarming around him, looking up at him with such a clear expression of fondness that they almost looked human. But they weren’t his children. He was their chauffer, their custodian, shuttling them around in the shadows all around him to find the next dying fish. They’d been doing it forever, maybe, and maybe Eisley wasn’t the only one. Maybe he wasn’t even Eisley, or maybe there was no Eisley and he sprang fully–formed into the memories of all of their flailing supper–times, granting context and familiarity and anesthetic. Maybe it didn’t matter.
Their grins disappeared. Their mouths changed. Cotton watched the skin around their dark slimy lips stretch until it looked like it would split, then settle like there had been no change at all. In the end, they all looked the same, their O–shaped mouths full of fleshy grey suckers and that infinitely, terribly dark hole at the very back.
Ah, Jesus. He had pissed himself. Hot tears swelled up behind his eyes, ran down the swell of his bottom eyelids, pooled in the deep old line where his eye socket met his cheek. He could see the dark bloom on the sheets, felt them stick to his hospital gown, felt both of them stick to his skin.
He wanted Audrey, wanted her to hold his hand and say, “Hush, now, I’ll call the nurse, we’ll clean you up.” He didn’t care if she looked tired, ready to go home, ready to be done, just as long as she’d be here right now, just in this one single moment, and tell him he didn’t have to be embarrassed of his body or his mind or the fact that he had just peed all over himself, that he and this stupid goddamned broken ice–box were not the same thing! Please, Audrey, for the love of God, please!
“I…” he said. “I feel… I don’t know…”
The little smile on Eisley’s face faltered, died. He looked sad. He closed his eyes and breathed deep through his nostrils. “Jesus, Cotton,” he said. He pulled his glasses lower onto his nose and rubbed the bridge with his finger and thumb. “I just want you to know that this part never gets any easier for me.”
What was it he had said about nature and compassion? That was the great big damned rub, wasn’t it? That was the great lie Eisley had perpetuated, that God or chaos or mindless evolutionary competition could birth something like these hungry little monsters and still be called compassionate. No degree of truth–telling now, no amount of confession, could excuse him for that, could it? Cotton hated him, hated that he had wanted to be him once. He wept.
The sucker–babies leapt onto him.
A thousand little cuts. The death of a thousand little cuts. That was familiar, somehow, like from a song or a poem or something… The Jabberwocky wasn’t right, but it was the only thing he could remember then. One of the grandbabies, how lovely she had been with her fat cheeks and dark eyes, sitting on the couch while he pantomimed the scene from Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There.
They’d hung up afghans in the living room to act as curtains, he and Audrey, and he’d tied one around his neck as a cape, and Audrey had manned the super–8 camera. He struck a heroic pose and stared up at the imaginary jaberwock, with his jaws that bite and claws that catch. He pulled the plastic sword from his belt and his little grandbaby gasped. He’d glanced at her, at Audrey next to her. Her face… where was her face? “The Vorpal blade went snicker–snack.”
And then the memory dried up. He watched the grandbaby’s brown eyes turn black, watched her skin implode toward her skull, watched her mummify, watched the afghans burn and crumble to ash. The memory died. The lamprey things gorged themselves on it.
Eisley said, “I wish there were a more poetic reason for this. For them. I wish I could convince you of some grand cosmic choreography. I hope that gives you comfort that I know so little more than you do.”
His daughters at the breakfast table. Cheerios. Grapefruit halves. Halloween. The girls were both too old for it by then, but Audrey had hung up all these plastic spiders and hanging skeletons all the same. The spiders bugged the hell out of him. The legs were all wrong. “Daddy, why don’t you get a different haircut?”
“You need a new one, you’ve had that one forever.”
Audrey. Damn it, why couldn’t he… remember her face? “Your father’s had the same haircut since his Navy days, sweetheart.”
“You never change, Daddy.”
“Nobody really changes, baby. Not much. Eat your Cheerios.”
The memory burnt and blew away.
Eisley said, “The truth… the only truth… is that everything is hungry. All the time. And everything eats everything else.”
The sucker–babies squealed now, and inside his head, trapped in the steaming hot broken piece of shit brain of his, Cotton demanded to know where the hell the night nurse was, didn’t she hear them in here? Couldn’t she do something? He heard himself making that mewling noise again, that helpless whine. He pounded his fists against the inside of his skull. Wasn’t anyone out there listening? Couldn’t anyone get him out of here, damn it? Couldn’t someone find a way to get hi —
The Cotton Lee in the bathroom mirror of the Faith Community Church men’s room was handsome. Cotton had never seen himself as handsome, had never thought about it one way or the other, but that image in the mirror, the man with the black tux (he had forgone his Navy formals, and now he was glad), the patent leather shoes, his hair just a little longer than he usually wore it, or ever would wear it again after this day, was exactly and perfectly… handsome.
The door opened a crack and he saw in the mirror Mr. Danvers, Audrey’s father, peek in. He smiled, the bristles of his beard moving with his face. “How you feeling, Cotton?”
“Oh, yeah. I can honestly say I’ve never felt better. Not once in my entire life.”
“Okay. I gotta get back to Audrey. You ought to get ready, we’re about to start.”
Cotton nodded, brushed a perfect strand of hair from his forehead, and followed Mr. Danvers out of the bathroom. He crossed the lobby, felt the sun on his face through the windows, took his position at the back of his groomsmen. This was it, this feeling right here, that he wanted to freeze and keep, to be able to revisit on a whim every lonely moment, surrounded by his friends, moments away from marrying the most perfect human being anyone could possibly imagine.
(No, damn it. Not yet. Not this one, not when he had just found it again. Cotton pushed against his body, clenched his fists around the tail of the memory. Those little monsters would have to chew off his fingers to get this one away.)
The doors to the sanctuary opened. The procession walked in. Cotton’s feet were so numb that moving felt alien, like he had learned a new way of doing it. He stopped at the front of the sanctuary, turned and looked out at all these faces, all of them looking at him because they saw, they knew what he had. This sort of insane joy. Like this professor he’d had once.
Cotton’s best man (his name, then his face, dissolved to ash, blew away) gripped his upper arm.
Oh, Christ. This really was it, wasn’t it? This was the period on the sentence. The spiteful, stupid, quiet finale. He felt himself in two places at once, two times, two different universes occupied by sense and by nonsense, by joy and by ruination, by potential and by running–out. Those faces in the pews, they were all turning to mummies now, dry and dead, their smiles drawing up over their gums. This was no way to die. Like a fish. Like a stupid fish with a six–second memory. This was no way for a man to die.
The organ stopped with a blunt churr. And even though the organ player was gone, the music started up again. They had sung lyrics to this tune when they were little kids, hadn’t they? Here comes the bride, all dressed in white. Where is the groom? He’s in the dressing room. Why is he there? He lost his underwear! And then they’d all laugh like mad. Underwear! Get it?
The memory of the song died.
But, oh, Jesus. Here was something. The church was turning to dust around them. Even his tux was beginning to curl like old paper and flake away. But this really was something, wasn’t it? With the song gone, he could hear her heels clack against the stone floor. She held Mr. Danvers’s arm… but… Mr. Danvers was not attached. Already in the bellies of the sucker–babies, maybe. She took another step forward and the arm burst away in a million tiny specks.
She was perfect.
In that simple white dress, her clavicle curving proudly above the neckline. She smiled at him with all of the love in the universe. She redefined love, and Cotton saw his whole life there. The children he would have with her, the grandchildren, the fights, the sex, the books they would read sitting side by side on the sofa, the medications they would remind each other to take, the smiles, the anniversaries, the whole universe of what they would build, and the end, the finality, the loss, and how wonderfully part of it all it was.
The church was gone. There was a profound nothing around them, a complete absence, a vacuum of any–ness, And in its center was Audrey, smiling, standing with her arms by her side, one foot in front of the other. Looking like an exclamation point.