The Rubble That Is the Past

Illustrated by Teresa Fasolino

 

What is forgotten may be deleted, as if it had never been. Another story may bury it, or it may become a question mark, an absence, an oddly blank page in a thick book. What Reuben Katz, geologist, could or could not recall since the stroke, Hannah Winslow could not tell. He could not recover the day of the catastrophe. To talk required great effort – “coffee … uh … good” – but he retained, it seemed, the name of every rock in his collection: molybdenite, magnetite, limonite, micaceous hematite…. This had been tested by the speech therapist in collusion with their friend Charles Mackey, who knew the answers, being himself a geologist. Of course Hannah also knew the answers.
 

Reuben had never been much of a talker. Might a predilection, a tendency, become a person’s fate?

 

The Artist

 

Hannah Winslow was the sort of artist who experimented with paint, sand, silk, stones, buttons, beach glass. She began a series of collages in memory of Reuben’s memory, in memory of their twenty years together, in memory of their romance: she, a geology graduate student who had dropped out of the program; he, her lanky, joke-cracking, unhappily married professor. Theirs was a companionate relationship, for he had never divorced his wife, at first for the sake of her religion and their daughter, and later because the affection between him and Hannah did not seem to require marriage. Would tying the knot, in fact, have rocked the relationship? For the past fifteen years they’d lived in the rented house on Greenwood Avenue, a house with a garden much to their liking. Landlady next door. Reuben sent his daughter to college. Hannah sent herself to art school. She had liked geology, but not enough to become a geologist.

Since the disaster, some things had not changed. Hannah got up early, made coffee in the French press, brought Reuben his coffee – now in a lidded plastic hot-mug – before retreating to her workroom to work on the collages. She had two hours before going to North Seattle Community College to teach. Meanwhile, Reuben would get dressed, a process that took him the whole two hours, a process that he would not permit her to assist with, a process that he carried out with his one good hand, with his rag right hand hanging from a rag wrist down the rag right side of his thin body.

 

The Test of Breakfast

 

Reuben lurched into the kitchen. He prepared to enter the battlefield of assembling the breakfast things. He took the canister of muesli off the countertop, clutched it to his side and put it on the table. He opened the refrigerator door, grabbed the orange juice with his left hand, and shoved the door closed, lurched to the table, set down the orange juice. The same with milk, the same with bowls. Accomplishing the smallest task – conveying a carton of milk from the refrigerator to the breakfast table – was a challenge, a battle, a struggle, but you have to do it. Unless you want to end up drooling in a wheelchair. Staring into space for days and years with the addled aged. Unless you want the perpetual drone of TV voices, TV cheer, TV static. He set the breakfast table and then switched on the gong he’d built back when he was the clever contriver of gadgets. The little hammer rose and the brass gong turned to face it. Then hammer and brass moved to meet each other. The gong sounded, deep and melodious. Hannah’s signal to emerge.

She did emerge, preoccupied, he could see. She sat and he sat. Reuben began to feed himself – that’s what he called it now – feed himself with his bad hand, each spoonful trembling toward his gaping mouth. Hannah sat there “feeding herself,” tapping her foot, glancing around, clearly anxious to be gone.

“I’m going to lunch with Kulani,” she said.

Reuben nodded. “…good…”

“We might get a group show,” she said.

Reuben struggled to speak …

She stood up. “Well, bye, Hon.” The quick kiss and she was gone.

And Reuben wanted her gone. He wanted her gone so he could crawl. 

 

Learning to Crawl

 

To walk meant to lurch, to fall. They had given him a walker but he didn’t always use the walker. Once, a couple of hours after Hannah had left for work, he fell in the living room. He lay there, permitting the anger to subside. Then he got himself up. He rolled to one side, pulled his no-good leg under him, hung with his good arm on the easy chair, face-fell into the chair, turned himself around, straightened out his bad leg with his good hand, then hauled himself up, using mostly his left side. Then he lurched forward, swaying first to one side, then to the other side, in this way progressing across the living room toward the kitchen.

Reuben came to fear crashes, falls, broken bones. A broken bone on his good side would finish him and he knew it.

Another day, alone in the house, he fell in the kitchen, crashing against the table, knocking over a chair, smashing a glass of milk to the floor.

First the chagrin. Then anger. Then he calmed down and began the process of getting up and cleaning up. The stakes were high. He could imagine the quiet conversations among his separated wife, his daughter (now a lawyer in her thirties) – and Hannah – the question of whether he could safely be left at home. For all he knew it had already started. The beginning of the end. So he cleaned it up. The milk, the broken glass. It cost him three hours and a minor cut on his hand, but he did it. When Hannah arrived home the house was in perfect order, the kitchen floor cleaner than before. He did it by crawling.

When Hannah was out of the house he crawled. Crawling was straightforward and it was easy and it got you from here to there. You can’t fall from a crawl. He began using his geologist gloves to protect his hands.

 

You Need a Friend

 

Every day before going to teach the class they had been co-teaching before disaster struck, Charles Mackey would drop by. Reuben had mentored Charles, writing recommendations, advising him in negotiating the unstable ground of departmental politics, working with him on the Sanford Pasture Landslide, a million-year-old formation in Yakima County. Charles, the first and only black geologist in the department, had paid it forward, mentoring grad students, especially those of color. Now he was also paying it back, helping Reuben study stroke rehabilitation. When Reuben discovered crawling, Charles had looked it up on the Internet. He’d brought up the story of the Catalan poet and scholar Pedro Bach y Rita, felled by stroke, who had to go live with his son in Mexico. His son and the gardener had to feed him, lift him to the toilet, dress him, bathe him. Ignorant of the medical opinion of the time, which held that a brain injury was irreparable, the son urged or forced his father to crawl by dragging his weak side along a wall. They played marbles with him, forcing him to try to catch the marble with his bad hand. And on and on. Neighbors looking down from an upstairs window seeing his father crawling in the garden would object, say, you are making the professor crawl like a dog. Within three years this man had made a complete recovery, had returned to his full life of the mind and body. When, a decade later, he died of a heart attack while mountain climbing, the autopsy revealed that the stroked part of his brain was quite dead: the remaining good tissue had rewired itself to work both sides of the body. So Reuben should crawl.

It was Charles who unearthed the idea that you had to disable the good side, you had to work the bad side. He began bringing toddler toys, the shape sorter – red, yellow, and green squares, triangles, rectangles, and circles, to be fit into like holes by the bad hand, working two hours a day at this. “Do it,” he said. “Try it.” Another day he brought a different shape sorter, flat pieces in primary colors punched with holes supposed to fit on small wooden pegs, three for the red triangle, four for the blue square, one for the yellow circle, eight for the green octagon.

 

The Visitor

 

One Saturday morning found Hannah in her studio-room gluing a sliver of sandstone onto a photo of sandstone, and Reuben in his workroom doing what, Hannah had no idea. Reuben was “working on an article,” whatever that meant. She frankly didn’t know.

A loud knock on the front door, the door they never used, got the immediate attention of both.

Hannah opened to a tall, skinny youth in shirt and jeans, with a tattoo of a dragon crawling up his left arm. His hair hung to his shoulders. The youth was a carbon copy of Reuben, only younger, if you were disposed to seeing the resemblance, which Hannah was not.

“Is this the house of … Katz?” The boy spoke so fast that Hannah had to ask him to repeat.

“Reuben Katz, is this his house?” He shifted from one foot to the other.

“Reuben is not available just now. May I help you with something?”

The youth put down his backpack, hoisted it to his shoulder again, put it down again. “Are you his wife, Mrs. Katz?”

“I am Hannah Winslow. And you are?”

“Ridley.” He stuck out a large hand. Hannah did not take it.

A shuffling behind. Reuben lurched toward the door. He grabbed the open door and pulled it open wider.

“This is Reuben Katz,” Hannah said. “He’s had a stroke.”

Reuben and the youth stared at each other. Reuben gestured for him to enter. Hannah looked at Reuben pointedly but Reuben’s return gaze was opaque. 

They made their way into the kitchen. Reuben and the youth named Ridley sat at the kitchen table and Hannah got out a coke for Ridley and poured another coke into a covered drink-cup for Reuben. She sat down.

“I’m related to him,” said Ridley, looking at Hannah and then back to Reuben.

“How related?” said Hannah.

Reuben was staring.

“I didn’t come for a long time,” the boy said. “My mom died of breast cancer last year.” Ridley fumbled in his dirty backpack and drew out a letter, sealed but soiled, bent, creased, as if it had been carried around for months, which it had.

Hannah reached for the letter but Reuben put out his arm to block her.

She felt stunned. “Well, she said, “I’ll let you two talk.” She stood up.

“My Mom was Susan Doyle,” he said. “She died of breast cancer last year,” he repeated. “She was 63.”

The youth looked at Hannah again and then back at Reuben. “After Dad left she told me I was her love child,” he said. “She told me … ” He stopped.

“Susan Doyle, the department secretary?” Hannah looked incredulous.

“She made me promise to give you this letter.” He put the letter on the table. “So now I did.”

 

The Letter

 

Dear Reuben,
 

     I have prayed for a long time over this and I believe I was asked to do this, as my last significant act on earth.
 
     This will serve as an introduction to Ridley Doyle, your son. If you have any doubt about this, feel free to do the DNA test or just look at the boy’s face. I do not have much time left and only a few regrets, one of them being not telling you about Ridley long ago. Ridley’s “Dad” has always resented him and now that the going has gotten a bit rough, given my diagnosis, his “Dad” has split for parts unknown. I do not have much time left.
 
     Ridley has stood by me and I can tell you that he is a decent and kind young man. I made him swear on a Bible – even though he has turned his back on his faith – that he would go to see you and carry this sealed letter. I told him you were his father. This is the truth, so help me God.
 
     I suppose having a son walk into your life at this late date is a shock. Still, anyone who gets Ridley is a fortunate person. Of course this is his Mom speaking.
 
     Ridley is only 19 and when I go he will have no one, unless you count Pastor Johnson to whom Ridley refuses to speak. He has two sisters and two brothers but they are much older, were almost out of the house when he was born. He was my late and unexpected and untoward love child. I have been blessed with him and now I consign him to your concern and care.
 
     May the Lord Bless you and keep you, and Ridley with you,
 
          Susan O’Dea Doyle.

 

Reuben looked up from the letter.

“Yeah, yeah, I guess that’s about it, like, I guess, why my Dad always kind of ignored me, I wasn’t really his, like he was never really all that nice to me. I guess he wasn’t my real Dad, ‘cause you are. What’s the matter with you?”

Reuben opened his mouth but no words came out.

“How old are you?” Hannah asked.

“Nineteen,” the youth said. “My girlfriend said I should come, she said I should do it and get it over with, before the letter rots or I lose it or somethin’.” The youth got out his phone – a decent smartphone that belied his rather run-down appearance – tapped it a couple of times and showed them his girlfriend. “Meet Flora Diaz,” he said. Flora was a pretty girl with dark curly hair and gold hoop earrings.

Hannah stood up.

“I didn’t know,” said Reuben.

“Yeah, well, I didn’t know either. Like I looked like an orphan, I mean, I didn’t look like anybody else in the family and I guess I was sort of an orphan or anyhow I am now ‘cause Mom is gone and Dad is gone too, I mean he’s not my Dad, I know that now, but hey, this doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t mean you have to do anything, I can take care of myself. I don’t need anything but I had to bring the letter ‘cause I promised Mom.” The youth stood up.

“Son…” said Reuben. “You and girlfriend… dinner.”

Hannah glared at Reuben.

“Dinner…” Reuben repeated. “Come…”

 

The Fight

 

“So, you were screwing the department secretary, just when we were getting together?” They were sitting in the living room, Hannah on the sofa, Reuben on the easy chair.

Reuben struggled to speak. “Long … time…”

“He’s nineteen, sweetheart. We’ve been together twenty years.”

“I…was… confused…”

“Oh, it sounds confusing. I would be confused.” Hannah took a sip of wine and gazed out the window.

“I … you.”

“Did you know you’d knocked her up? Or maybe you just don’t remember, maybe you knew but – just one of those things you forgot.”

“Didn’t … know.” Reuben stood up and clumped into the kitchen. He returned with the opened bottle of wine.

“More?” he said.

Hannah held out her glass. He poured with his left hand.

“Hannah,” he said. “Not his fault. Nothing to do. You decide. You decide what …” He turned on his good leg and clumped back into the kitchen, gripping the bottle of wine to his side. Hannah could hear him put down the bottle with a clunk and shamble into the bedroom.

That night she slept in the living room.

 

You Need a Friend

 

“I’m in shock!” Hannah said, taking a sip of Chardonnay. She and Kulani Lieberman were eating lunch at Bleu Bistro as they did every week. “A son! He has a son! What else don’t I know?”

“Oh, Hannah.” Kulani dabbed at her mouth with her napkin. “Wow, men. They might have two, three, many children. Take my friend Billy. Billy says ‘I have at least one kid, maybe two.'”

“Kulani, what shall I do? Shall I stay with him?”

“Well, Hannah. It is a done deal, happened long ago.”

“Just when we were falling in love, he was screwing this other bitch. Well, now he needs me, doesn’t he?”

“Hannah, this is what men do.”

“He was screwing her just when we were falling in love!”

Kulani broke off a crust of hot bread and dipped it in olive oil. “Let me think.” She took a bite of bread and chewed on it, took a swallow of wine. “Confused guy but brilliant, very attractive, taciturn but articulate, god-awful marriage, all kinds of women eager to relieve him of his distress, got tangled up with the department secretary, who was herself an unhappy camper. Then you come along.” Kulani looks pleased with herself. “You are it. You are what he has always wanted. So okay, he’s now in two relationships. He is inexorably” – Kulani waves her hand above her clam chowder – “attracted to you. But guilt over the secretary, what was her name?”

“Susan Doyle! I knew her!”

“Guilt, and he is, as we know, a social incompetent. Of course she was married?”

“Married with four children.”

“But finally he does. He manages it. He breaks it off with Ms. Doyle. Much to his intense relief. What he doesn’t know is that she’s pregnant. She doesn’t say a word, because what would hubby say? She quits her job, which is what she does when she is pregnant.”

“I’m going to leave him. And what about all those memory pieces. Should I call them Bullshit Memories? Yep. I’m outa there. I’m gone.

“Wait, wait. Let’s think about this…”

 

A Year Later

 

The show, titled The Rubble That Is the Past, was a gratifying success, Kulani and Hannah agreed, seen by some 300 people during the month it was up, reviewed favorably twice, and they’d each sold a piece, not spectacular in the sales department, but something. “Here’s to art,” Reuben declared after the three had carried Hannah’s black-painted boxes from the car back into her studio, after he’d brought out the wine glasses and a bottle of excellent Beaujolais, after he’d put out the tray of cut-up cauliflower, broccoli, and carrots with the two dips and a second tray of cheeses and crackers. He rather liked this new house-husband role, especially the cooking, a chore they’d once shared but with little pleasure. The difference was that since the stroke he’d found cooking to be, at first, a grueling challenge, but then, an entertaining challenge.

After Kulani left to go home, Hannah and Reuben sat down again. There was a moment of silence. Then Hannah burst into tears.

“What?” said Reuben.

“It’s all a lie.”

“No.”

“Reuben, it’s a lie,” she said softly. “This past that I remember did not happen!” She stood up. She stamped into Reuben’s workroom, stamped back out with his hammer, stamped into her studio, and began smashing the pieces.

“Stop!” Reuben ran into the studio and threw himself on top of the boxes. If she wanted to continue she would have to hammer him.

Hannah lifted the hammer above her head.

“I didn’t want to lose you,” Reuben said.

Hannah whacked the hammer down an inch from his hand.

“I didn’t know she was pregnant,” Reuben continued.

She lifted the hammer again.

“I never saw her again.”

Silence.

“Hannah, you were everything I always wanted.”

She dropped the hammer.

“Hannah.” There was a long silence. Then Reuben said, “I’ve been thinking about this … will you marry me?”

Neither of them spoke. The grandfather clock in the living room whirred and began its midnight chime.

Finally Hannah said, “My father…”

“Carl Winslow, auto mechanic…”

“And my Aunt Marjorie …”Hannah gestured at the small abstract oil painting hanging on her studio wall.

“The painter,” said Reuben.

“She wasn’t my real aunt.”

“She wasn’t?”

“She wasn’t my real aunt,” Hannah repeated.

“She was a fake aunt.”

Hannah ignored the joke. “She’s why I’m an artist, really …

“So you’ve said. So whose aunt was she?”

Hannah sat on the floor. “There was some secret … something they weren’t saying. She treated my dad like he was her son or something.”

“Maybe she had an affair she later regretted.” Reuben offered his crooked smile.

“Oh stop it!” Hannah suddenly laughed. “Anyhow, whatever the story was, I’ll never know. Anyone who could possibly know is dead and buried.”

There was another silence. Reuben slid off her boxes and onto the floor.

“Ridley,” she said. “We need to send him to college.”

“He needs to go to college,” Reuben agreed.

“He could start at Central,” said Hannah.

“I can afford it, after I go back to work in September.”

“We’ll talk to him, see what he wants to do. It’s video games, I think.”

“He could run a tattoo parlor.” Reuben gave another grin.

“He’s a pretty good musician,” said Hannah.

“He’s a damn good musician,” Reuben said.

 

 

Author's Comment

I like to think about how the past does not really go away, but bears down on the present, and sometimes even arrives at the front door. But also so many things remain a mystery, such as the relationship between Hannah’s Aunt Marjory, and her father, Carl Winslow. Even though I wrote the story, and made the people up, I feel they are real people with real lives, and rereading the story, I really like them. I’m glad they have a happy ending.

Bio

Priscilla Long is a Seattle-based writer of poetry, science, creative nonfiction, fiction, and history, and an independent teacher of writing. Her most recent book is Holy Magic (MoonPath Press), which won the Sally Albiso Poetry Book Award. Her collection of memoirist essay is Fire and Stone: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (University of Georgia Press). Her how-to-write guidebook is The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writer’s Life. She grew up on a dairy farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Learn more at priscillalong.com.

2 Comments on “The Rubble That Is the Past

  1. A lean, fast, story with a strong protagonist who shows his strength by accepting and coping with his disability. Character development happens in his partner-lover of 20 years, as she responds to the unfolding of a secret from the past. So elegantly constructed as to seem simple. A work of art!

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