February 2007

Gilbert Allen


Gilbert Allen has lived in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, and taught at Furman University since 1977. His fourth collection of poems, Driving to Distraction (Orchises Press, 2003), was featured on The Writer's Almanac and Verse Daily. "The Assistant," a long sequence of poems, will appear in the Spring 2007 issue of The Southern Review. His new chapbook, Body Parts, will be out this year from The South Carolina Poetry Initiative.

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 battery?"

"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 Baltimore—just 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 them—"

"You know about them now. Explain it to Mom."

"She won't listen to me."

"Just speak. Slow. And. Loud. She'll understand."

"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."

"No, no—"

"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?"

"Zey fly."

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 fly away."

"Cardinals," his father said. "She means cardinals."

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 doctor?"

"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 away.

"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 Elizabeth—to keep her informed. When he woke her up, she was even more Elizabeth than usual.

"La Donna E Mobile. It's always her fault." A notorious contralto, Elizabeth gave voice lessons to a large and ever-changing cast of students.

"Can't you drive to Alexandria?"

"I can't even call. I can't speak to him, and he won't let me speak to her. He turns the telephone down so she can't hear it ring."

"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 thing."

"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 American sector.

"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 sister repressing anything, except sympathy. "Elizabeth, did he ever—"

"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 surprise—born 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 week—for 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 there."

"Dad, it was right before final exams. A hundred kids—"

"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 away!"

"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 make squat."

"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 vinyl floor.

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 helpful."

"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 tomorrow."

He was on his knees in the sewing room, Her Room—replacing 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 room—much 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 cords—with 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 missing—except 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 furniture, forgotten.

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 years—her 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?

My 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 90—better than his! He lavages the wax from her ears. Then he asks for the colors back.

Her eyebrows narrow. In concentration? Disdain?

You know, honey. The flag. The country that saved you. The country that gave you those beautiful bonds.

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 drives.

Her name. Say it, old man.

You did good, honey. Real good. You up for some food?

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 canister—not 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 itself—chest 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 nobody's here."


That evening, he was standing with her by the bathroom sink, trying—trying 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 perfect halves.

"What in the hell are you doing?' For his mother's sake, Bobby kept his voice to a whisper.

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 hands.

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. "Ecoutez. Ecoutez."

But she was already asleep—beyond him, beyond herself, beyond the unseeable ocean that she still had the courage to cross.



Gilbert Allen: Poetry
Copyright ©2007 The Cortland Review Issue 34The Cortland Review