Toward the end of January, Joe was caught eating Proust, dipping each page in linden tea. This was how Bette knew it was hopeless. The man she’d known for fifty years would never have eaten Swann’s Way.
Long ago, at the beginning of their marriage, he’d said he’d walk into the snow shoeless if it ever came to this, but when it did, he’d forgotten about the snow, forgotten his promise to her, and Bette raged at the mess, at the loss. She was not ready to think about it. She thought about fury instead. He was a betraying son of a bitch who couldn’t remember anything useful, who’d forgotten what she looked like now, and only remembered what she’d looked like then.
Joe stared forlornly at a photo of Bette circa 1953, dressed in a polka–dotted bikini, and asked where that woman was.
Bette adjusted her glasses and told him that woman was long gone, and good riddance.
By this time it was clear that something was the matter: small fires set in the kitchen, doors left open, car with keys in, engine running, books with offending pages torn out and crumpled. He’d been a professor. His life was made of bindings, but now he was unbound. He went on and on about horses. Somewhere in his interior, he’d gone equestrian, though he’d never had the least interest in horses before.
“Secretariat?” he said, tilting his head, listening to a hidden horserace. “Man O’War? Seabiscuit.”
“He has to go,” said the oldest son, Reardon, who thought he was being gentle enough, given the circumstances, given the fire (set with the collected works of Philip Roth) that’d consumed half the kitchen cabinets before being discovered. One of the granddaughters had been sleeping two bedrooms away, and that was the only reason it hadn’t been worse. The granddaughter woke, called 911, and roused the house, walking both of the elderlies outside, where they fumbled around for the delectation of the neighbors, dressed in the near–nothingness of thinning cotton, elastic overstretched, pajama hems threatening to root in the dirt. That granddaughter reported Bette to the sons for slapping Joe across the stubbly jaw. Bette had gotten wholly sick of his wide eyes, his furious recitation of Eliot.
“He’d never,” said Bette wrathfully. “He’d never, not Prufrock, not if he was himself.”
Joe, meanwhile, trailed through the house. He smoked The Grapes of Wrath like it was Ginsberg. Bette caught him with a ripped copy of Finnegan’s Wake, in the bathroom, installed where the toilet paper had been. Joe’d already shredded Dostoevsky into a bird’s nest and left it for the robins, used Chekhov for drawer lining, made a piñata of Pynchon.
He’d been maddeningly busy. A few weeks earlier, he’d cannibalized a volume of his own critical theory, baking it into a lasagna. He’d interspersed each chapter with ricotta, tomato sauce, and spinach, and served it for Sunday supper. He’d always been the cook. Bette had to admit that the results weren’t terrible. She ate it with relish. It was the Bovary book. Not her favorite. She thought the fiend of an analysis he’d stalled on years before, an unfinished manuscript about Flaubert’s Temptations of Saint Anthony might be better, but Joe told her he was saving it for a phyllo pastry filled with nuts and honey.
There was a weird rightness to it, the eating of the books, and Bette had convinced herself that nothing needed to be done, not quite yet. It could wait.
Now, though, she looked out the window at the snow and wood, and thought, you bastard. You should have gotten out of here when you had the chance.
“It’s time,” said the second oldest son, Leor, the one who’d picked Joe up at the police station after the last time he drove the Cadillac. He’d been captured in the pharmacy parking lot, having rammed a BMW, perhaps purposefully, and then reversed into a Jaguar, his pockets stuffed full of prescription Viagra, stolen painkillers and the unloaded handgun he’d used to stick up the pharmacist, who, thankfully, knew him and did not press charges.
A year ago that was, and even then Bette had suspected he’d been trying to do himself in, though the Viagra made no sense. Why Viagra? Had he swapped seduction for suicide? But she’d left it alone. She regretted it now.
“I’ve done the research. You’ve seen the brochures on the facility. I’ve made the calls, and it’s all set up,” said the youngest son, Nathaniel, and then, a concession to propriety, “It’s very nice there, dad. It’s just like home. There’s even a cat that comes around and sits in your lap. And there are activities. There’s a piano. There’s dancing.”
Joe, dressed in his zipper suit and stocking feet, looked Nathaniel in the eye and said, very clearly, very aggravatingly, “I can feel their tiny hooves.”
“Whose hooves?” Bette asked, for the tenth time, but Joe just looked mysterious.
“It’s the Alzheimer’s talking, mom,” said Reardon. “Not dad.”
“Fuck off,” said Bette.
She went along behind them in the Cadillac, carrying homelike items, though she happened to know that Joe did not care about rag rugs. All Joe cared about, all he’d ever cared about, were dead men and last sentences.
Bette rampaged through the house that night, packing up belongings, tagging them with the names of betraying sons. The toilet brush for Leor, the bedpan for Reardon. For Nathaniel, the set of towels stained by the neighbor’s visiting spaniel.
Then she sat down abruptly in the middle of the half–charred kitchen floor and stayed there until sunup.
They hadn’t known of each other’s existence. On opposite sides of the world, they’d swum in their own salt seas, tails whipping, wings beating, bearing them up out of the surf then diving again, their hooves cutting into the waves.
One day, though, a sound, and the feeling of something moving in the water, something unknown. In the Western sea, one raised his head up out of the water, shaking his mane. He churned his long, scaled tail. He whinnied.
In the Eastern sea, the other untwisted from his curled shape, and whinnied back. It was dark in these oceans, and neither of them could see the other, but now they knew what they’d been missing. They began to swim, dazzled by love. It had been months of tiny motions, delicate perambulations of tails, fins, wings and hooves.
Bette went to visit.
“Hooves,” Joe told her darkly, and then drank his hot tea in one frantic gulp, as though it was cold lemonade. He looked out the window, toward the groomed, flowering hedge. Bette had reason to know that the flowers in it were fake. She’d tried to smell them, against her will, knowing full well that it was winter.
“Damned little hooves,” said Joe. “I should have been a pair of ragged claws, scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”
“No more Prufrock. And no more horses. I wish you’d be clear,” Bette said. “I’ve brought some crossword puzzles, and a book, if you’d like a little reading aloud. I’ve brought some of the chocolates you like.”
They were not exactly chocolates. They were carobs. He was not allowed chocolates.
“I’m being clear, Bette,” Joe said, lucid for a moment. “Hooves. But also fish. And wings. All they do is gambol.”
“Wings? Gamble?” said Bette. She glanced over toward the activity table, where the women were playing bridge with a kind of savage glee. One was wearing enough makeup to cover an army of teenage girls. Love’s Baby Soft was covering other things. That woman gave Joe the eye. Bette wondered, her heart carbonated.
“No,” said Joe. “No, no, no. Gambol. Trot. Gallop. And they swim, like dolphins. There’s a name for things like that. You know it,” he said, suddenly angry. “You know what I mean. They’ve got wings, Bette. You know.”
“I do not,” said Bette. “I absolutely do not.”
“Hip,” said Joe. “Hip, hip.”
Bette considered the locked door that led to the shallow swimming pool. It didn’t seem like a good idea to have a swimming pool at a place like this. He could only be referring to activity hour, and the women. There was some form of water aerobics on the schedule. She wondered if she should stay and make sure nothing untoward was happening. Wings. There was nothing good about wings.
But no. Here was Leor and here too were Reardon and Nathaniel. She had no use for any of them, though the trunk of her car was full of bad little gifts for her sons, wrapped and tagged. She’d thought to drop them off on their porches later.
“I’ve brought you a ukulele,” Leor announced, triumphant. “Music soothes them.”
Bette glared at Leor. “Them?” she said.
“Them,” said Leor. “How are you, Dad? It’s Leor.”
“And Reardon,” said the older son. He’d gotten a haircut. He hardly had hair. Bette suddenly felt appalled to imagine herself birthing them, these grown men, the way they’d tumbled out of her, the way foals turned into hall–height horses. Horrible centaurs, maybe. She considered that. They galloped down the hall of the facility. She knew her sons’ steps. The way they snorted.
“Nathaniel,” said Nathaniel, using his most toddler voice. “You can call me Nath, dad, if that’s easier.”
“Joe,” said Joe. “Pleased to meet you.”
“He knows who you are,” Bette snapped. Leor strummed the ukulele, playing some sort of tinkling, terrible song.
“What is that?” Bette asked.
“You can stand under my umbrella,” sang Leor.
Joe nodded along, and Bette felt so frustrated she wanted to sing herself.
“Hooves, and whipping fish tails,” said Joe, and smiled. “There are two of them now. They’re together.” He looked at Bette. “Remember the beach and the drinks and the paper umbrellas? Remember the polka dot bikini she wore?”
“I wore it,” said Bette. “It was blue. You’re the one who bought it for me.”
“Ella, ella,” sang Reardon. “Hey, hey, hey.”
“Hippopotamus,” said Joe, and snapped his fingers. “That’s the word I was looking for, and I’ve been saying horses. The Hippopotamus Test. It’s in Water Babies.”
Even as Bette leaned in, trying to get clarity, he began to sing with the sons.
“Now that it’s raining more than ever,” he sang, his voice sweet and pure, like her husband had gone choirboy. Where had he learned the song? What was it? Surely not a hymn, and it wasn’t the Beatles either.
The four of them, father and sons, sang it to the end, but Bette didn’t know the words, and even if she had, she didn’t feel like singing them.
She went to the library and checked out The Water Babies, looking for clues as to what was still in her husband’s head, and found only a short satire of scientists debating evolution, apes versus men. The brain apparently contained two pieces, one on each side, each called the hippopotamus. At four in the morning, she had a moment of joy when she realized they meant the hippocampus, and more joy still when she learned from the internet that for fifty years, from the 1770’s to the 1820’s science had referred to those parts of the brain as the hippopotamus, due to a typo. The joy faded, though, when she realized that all this came to nothing, that brains were brains, and that Joe’s was gone. This was nothing she hadn’t already known.
She woke in the night, singing the umbrella song, smelling the lost smoke of the kitchen fire. She opened the volume of Eliot beside the bed, tore one page into small pieces, and swallowed them with a glass of water.
The seahorse from the West saw the other first, his mane rising over a wave. He uncoiled his tail and galloped through the surf, whickering.
On the shore, a paper umbrella left too long in the sun burst into flame, and two cocktail glasses splintered. Three children made sand castles. One buried himself beneath the castle walls, and the others dug a moat. The second hippocamp trotted up partway onto the sand, its serpentine tail trailing, and the little boys watched it come, amazed. It ignored them.
Then one little boy was gone beneath the castle, quicksand, the moat growing larger.
The seahorses rose up and over the waves, brushing aside a foam of nouns and verbs, last lines, similes. They butted heads, and their tails lashed, scaled and gleaming, and another little boy was gone, a rogue wave rising over his head.
The second hippocamp looked at its counterpart and neighed, surfing over the waves to get to him, and tossing in delight. The waves rose higher, higher, tidal, taking seagrass, dunes, taking bathing mats and little shovels made of plastic.
“Do I dare disturb the Universe?” Bette said, her weekly visit, reading aloud in resignation to Joe, who placidly looked at her. An hour earlier, he’d sat down at the piano and played a song as though she was a stranger, and as though he was too. Joe had never played the piano before. He didn’t know how, or at least, Bette hadn’t known he had.
Joe whinnied. Bette looked at him. Should she call a nurse? There was no point. He would whinny if he wanted to whinny. He would paw the air with his hooves. He was still Joe, to some degree. The exterior was the man she’d been married to. The interior was a wicked landscape filled with mythical horses.
“Hippopotamus,” he said, and smiled.
“Hippocampus,” she said, correcting. She’d puzzled it out. It had seemed like a victory until she’d realized there was not much in the way of victory left. The brain’s hippocampi were named for their shape, after horse–headed serpent–tailed seahorses, but the two of them were also the relevant parts of Joe, the places where everything should have been and wasn’t. The snow he’d meant to walk into had melted into a sea, or so Bette imagined.
She’d stared for hours at a scan of Joe’s brain, its quadrants mapped out, the twin hippocampi on either side outlined in red. Those horses contained her, and her sons, and their lives. She did not want to say take me with you, but she wanted to go. He was on a vacation in a place that didn’t exist.
Bette looked at Joe. She whinnied.
In the waves, a piano surfaced. A woman in a blue polka–dotted bikini foundered, gasping. A man in swimming trunks leapt in after her. The hippocamps played together, their wings spread, their tails looping, and the water rose, but the man swam out, out, and the woman, stronger now, swam up from the bottom, her bikini straps untying, the salt making her hair stiff.
The sun was hot and the ocean was full of bubbles and bright fish.
The hippocampi swept through the water, side by side, and down below, at the very bottom of the sea, the sand sifted over gold coins and bones, bassinets, mammography records, fondue sets. A wedding ring lost in Greece in the sixties and replaced, pages from every book ever written.
The woman was naked now, a strawberry mole at the top of her thigh, a bruise on her upper arm in the shape of a madeleine cookie. The man was naked too but for the keys around his wrist, the cabana number on them fading, unreadable, some shack knocked down in a storm.
The hippocampi took flight, ears flattened, water rising up, up, up. The sky was cloudless, but the woman looked up and a snowflake landed in her lashes, falling from nowhere. The water was very salty, and it kept her afloat. It bobbed with disappearing words and faces, pictures of people long dead, old chairs, a woman crooning a song. An umbrella appeared suddenly, high in the blue, flying like a kite.
The hippocamps landed again in the waves, and the woman clambered onto the back of one of them. The man was still swimming, out there, far off, his trunks bright against the horizon, and after a moment, the other hippocamp flew out to snatch him up. The two moved in unison now, driving through the waves, brazen–hooved horses of Poseidon, as the sky opened up. From it fell everything left behind, last words and first lines, poems, wakes, birthday cards, letters from students, letters from lovers, the memories of eating, of sleeping, of drinking, of dancing.
From the sky fell the memory of talking, and then the memory of breath.
The hippocamps opened their mouths, and then the woman did. The man opened his mouth, and finally, the mouth of the world opened too.
All together now, in one tremendous draught, they drank of the sea, the sky, the last lists of the living.
All together now, they drank of sunlight and of the falling snow that eventually would bury everything, the world shifted into a sweet, sugared expanse of ice, and below it, the darkness of a night sea.
There would soon be nothing left but the memories of the dead, all of them floating silently, the bones of forgotten words turned into toothpicks, arranging and rearranging themselves in the cool black sand, but for now, the beach was bright and white and full of flying, swimming, singing horses.
In Memory of R. Dwayne Moulton & Bob Schenkkan, Sr.