I AM TO BE TESTED. Tuesday. Ten o’clock. Or is it Wednesday?
I think you have to care in order to know what day it is. It has to matter to you.
My doctor asks me the day. I get it on the third try. All my life the day has been the one I’m living in my head, the one I dread. Reality: whatever I’m afraid of.
Could anxiety cause memory loss?
Are you anxious?
My whole life.
Then that might not be it.
MY DOCTOR ASKS, “What tip would you leave for a seventeen-dollar lunch?”
“Three dollars and forty cents,” I say with no delay. (Is this a test for Alzheimer’s or generosity?)
“How much is sixty nickels?” he asks.
I’m stumped. I see a pile of coins spill from my sister’s pale-orange piggy bank and across the bedspread the day she broke the bank open, but I cannot answer him, unless he wants the number of Tootsie Rolls or Hershey’s Kisses we spent those nickels on.
“Sixty nickels,” he repeats. Kind look.
A little cough. I do not remember: Was it his or mine?
I do recall, though, every question I got wrong.
It appears my frank confusion now entitles me to take the test of tests, which, from what I can tell, will include everything but fingerprints and a chest X-ray. My doctor is nothing if not thorough.
The human brain has 100 billion nerve cells. (Presumably someone counted.) You’d think losing a few wouldn’t shut you down.
I should practice remembering things. A murder of crows, a skulk of foxes, a parliament of owls. The Pledge of Allegiance. The day of the week.
I stop off for coffee on my way home from the doctor’s office. Coffee makes me hopeful. I’m a nicer person on caffeine.
I spy an old man reading at a wobbly table in the corner and recognize him in a flash. In another lifetime I was in a women’s group with his wife, who spent every minute she could commandeer detailing the black secrets of their married strife. I probably remember more about him and his sins than he does. I stop myself — but only just — from pausing by his table and stooping close to whisper, “So, do you still punch holes in the wall?” I have always remembered people better than I am remembered. I have been — for as long as I can remember — so easily forgotten.
This old man, the husband, looks as though his life depends upon his finishing his book by nightfall. According to his wife, he never read. Or thought. Or said an interesting thing. I’m pretty sure she hated him. I’m pretty sure we hated her. Years after she and I were in that group, I volunteered with her at the Food Bank. One day she told the other volunteers her husband had never even heard of Puccini. The things some wives endure!
Someone drops a tray, and a hundred spoons clatter on the hard tile floor. The husband reading in the corner does not look up. I like that in a man. I’ll bet he doesn’t give a hoot what day it is.
MY MOTHER CALLS ME the night before the test. It is a well-kept secret that the elderly have parents. Always have. Sometimes they trail you down the years, survive to witness your demise.
Shall I tell my mother I’m demented, same as she? Would I have to tell her over and again, every time she calls? My mother is ninety-six and lives alone in the house where I was born. My brother pays someone to drop by twice a day and feed her pills and ask her is she fine. Her life now held together with baling wire, scotch tape, and twine.
She calls me all the time. It’s the one activity her brain refuses to forget how to do.
“I called you,” my mother says, “because I was lying in bed, and I remembered I used to say to you, ‘Giddy-up, Margie,’ and you would say, ‘Giddy-up, Mummy.’ ”
I don’t know what to say. I tell her I remember.
I don’t know where to keep her in my mind or what to make of it when she calls and says, “Hello.”
Who is this? I always want to say. Who’s calling?
ON THE TEST DAY I awaken still tangled up in dreams of my grandmother, the one who loved me: I met her in the supermarket. We were both wearing nightgowns, hair askew, no makeup.
I get out of bed older than I was when I got in but young as I will ever be. The man on the radio calls for a little “afternoon snow.” I try to puzzle out how this is different from evening snow or morning snow. I scribble on my palm, “Don’t be poetic. It puts people off.” I’ve been quirky my whole life, and now, when it matters — when I have the least access to working equipment — I am to convince someone I am entirely regular.
I make breakfast, then google the ten warning signs of Alzheimer’s. I fistfight with the list. Bottom line: I would not have scored well on a dementia test when I was seventeen. I remember having symptoms 4, 6, and 7 when I was in junior high and had pimples on my pimples. Hardly my finest days, when my grandmother, the one who loved me, had the cobbler — we called them cobblers then, or at least I did; I read a lot of novels — attach loud, attention-calling metal cleats to the bottom of my shoes, to make them last. They are no doubt still in their original condition. I wish I’d kept them. I wish I’d kept everything from my childhood. I have a red velvet dress I wore when I was two, before memory clicks in. Still, that dress calls something back for me: an angry mother would be a good bet. I can’t remember where I parked the car, but I can tell you what my mother said and in what tone of voice the day I got measles.
I spend fifteen minutes deciding what to wear to the dementia test. I change my shoes three times. Back in my late fifties, when strangers started calling me “dear” and asking if I was retired, my friend Nancy said she thought it was probably my footwear. I’m still amazed how many people take time out of their busy lives to comment on my sneakers.
I brush my teeth with my left hand this morning. It’s supposed to make new neural pathways in the brain.
I considered dying my hair brown for my evaluation, but the stuff I use is only temporary; by the time I got the test results, it would be gray again. Besides, I don’t want to look like I’m trying too hard. Plus dark hair above an old, pale, wrinkled face looks like it’s not attached to your head — as if the hair, no matter how wispy-skimpy, is just resting there temporarily on your bald head.
Every single person in the world is bald underneath the hair.
Question in a magazine: Which would you rather lose, your health or your mind?
Which would you rather: drown or be electrocuted?
Body, mind. Mind, body. I took an IQ test once, when I was in the seventh grade. An oral exam — the world so very personal back then. Toward the end the tester asked, “What would you do if you went to the store for bread and they didn’t have any?” and I answered, “Buy the ingredients and make it.” The tester sighed a mighty sigh and shook her head. And now she’s dead, or surely must be — she had gray hair in 1959 — and we must wonder: Did she keep her own IQ until she died? You always think the ones who give the tests have minds in perfect working order. You never think your dentist will end up having root canals.
You never think your tester is at home this morning, deciding what to wear.
I take a lot of care with makeup today. Lipstick makes more difference than any other thing you can do, including being nice. Just from licking my lips, I probably have ingested 187 tubes of lipstick in my life. I still use the same blush I used in high school: Bonne Belle Sheer Red. I order several tubes at a time from the factory in Ohio, through the discontinued-products catalog. I always ask the woman on the phone how come they still have it if it’s discontinued. She always says, “It’s only partly discontinued.” I think it’s the same woman every time I call. Sheer Red: it makes me look like I have windburn, or a high fever, or am about to have a stroke. Without it, my skin is yellow, and people ask me if I have the flu.
It occurs to me to wonder if I might meet a man today. I basically figure I just might every place I go. I never do. I won’t today, and even if I did, he would be there to have his memory calibrated, too. But that might be OK. A man like that might not remember moods I have or words I say; he might forget to ever be unkind, his old sarcastic ways deserting him. He might be pleased to meet me over and over again, throughout a day. And I could be in charge of remembering. I would not be the one requiring care. I’d keep the car keys in one place. I would remember what to use them for.
Barring that scenario, I am not the main character in anybody’s story. But every once in a great while I am jolted by the notion that I was made to be alone. All my life I have stood on the sidelines and watched and wondered. And so perhaps it is not a tragedy that I am not with someone now. Maybe it’s a blessing. Maybe this has been a good life for me to have.
But at the end of the day, if it turns out I have had a good life, I will wish I had known it at the time.
I read about this study of old people: They lived for a month in a hotel that re-created the 1950s, down to the forks and spoons and tunes and hair spray. These people were instructed to do everything exactly as they had during that decade. By the end of the week they could lift more weight, run faster, jump higher. They could see better. Their hearing improved. They had more sex.
I leave the house reluctantly, but I think I’m ready. I’ve memorized a lot of interesting things to say if I get stuck, to make the tester think maybe my mind’s on other things: The first Ford cars had Dodge engines. Babies are born without kneecaps. The interstate-highway system requires that one mile in every five be straight, to double as airstrips in times of war. I like that. I like — I mean I really like — anticipating trouble.
I walk into the testing center and give my name to the receptionist. I open up my wallet and raise my eyebrows to ask how much. She frowns. I tighten my lips. She shakes her head. I read somewhere that communication is 97 percent nonverbal. (And I have always tried to make words be enough.)
“How much?” I ask the receptionist, and I try to make my fingers free the credit card from its tight slit.
“Insurance pays for this,” she says.
Too little, far too late.
What if insurance had been there to pay when it mattered — say, in the dentist’s waiting room, where I sat as a child, alone at far too young an age, beside Charlie Lukehart and his mother? Charlie was a boy I knew from school; his appointment was right after mine. I was at ease — or at my personal equivalent: primed to be taken unawares. I try at all times not to be caught off-guard: an invitation for the world to end.
“Tell your parents to give me the money that they owe me.” The dentist’s mean words cross the waiting room and rumble through the corridors and out into the street and down across the years. “Tell them to pay me; then I will do your teeth,” he is still calling out to me this morning.
“I can pay,” I say to the receptionist at the testing center, three words I’ve used a thousand different days and ways, and every time with them in mind: Charlie Lukehart and his mother, hearing, bearing witness.
“Insurance pays,” the receptionist says again — just so we’re clear. She wants me to be no longer standing here, wants me to be sitting, writing everything that’s ever happened in the history of the world on the twenty pages she has fastened to the clipboard she points to now with one tattooed finger. Nonverbal communication.
I sit down and eye the questions on the sheet:
Do you have trouble remembering?
“Yes,” I scribble, “but I have more trouble forgetting.”
After my dismissal from the dentist’s waiting room when I was eight, my father took me to another dentist two towns over, and during the next six years that dentist pulled twelve entirely useful teeth. He told me that movie stars had all their teeth pulled and replaced with false and shiny, perfect teeth. At high-school reunions I meet other patients of his, slack-jawed alums who chose the soft pasta option on the dinner menu. That benighted dentist did so much harm for so very long, and then he grew old and died.
Almost everyone who ever hurt me is dead now.
It should make more of a difference.
My face is sunken, my jawbones brittle, thinned from fifty years with air where teeth had briefly been. Could it be my brain, just like my face, is only the natural consequence of what I’m missing, what I was deprived of? Is the problem frank dementia now, or nothing more than a brain scarred and whittled by the natural consequence of living in the world as I perceive it: my town, my time, my story — the one with not a single sympathetic character?
The brain, even encased in hard-bone skull, is not protected from the things life does to you.
Maybe I am fine — or as fine as I have ever been. It’s just with time the scars are showing through, the cover thinning. There’s that word again: I am not demented, only thinned. Or perhaps it’s simply that a person wearies of the ruse, tires of pretending, and so shows up in public one day wearing unmatched gloves, two different socks, and red lips drawn with a less-than-steady hand, and the game is up, though nothing’s changed; it’s only what has always been is nowadays on display.
I wonder: Might I tell this to the tester before she asks her questions? I make a few notes on a card I find inside a magazine in her stark waiting room. Then I finish the questionnaire, sit back, close my eyes, and tap my foot.
They call my name and lead me to a tiny room. The tester says hello like it’s a tricky word to say. She’s pale as death and mildly beautiful. She’s fake-nice to me. I’m genuine-terrified of her. She asks me if it’s still raining. I try to think which answer might sound more capable, less fuzzy headed. She asks if I found the office OK. I reject the first six responses that occur to me and finally say, “Oh, sure,” except my voice cracks. I clear my throat about eleven times. “I’ve been clearing my throat for my whole life,” I say. “Even as a child.”
I’m not in my right mind. I’m not in anybody’s right mind.
She says we’ll start with simple questions, by which I hope she means what day it is, as that particular answer is written in black ink on my palm. I’m OK for another eleven hours or so on that score. Plus I practiced drawing about a hundred clocks and memorized lists of twenty vegetables, and twenty animals, and twenty words that start with p.
I eye the tester and try using mental telepathy to make her ask, If you went to the store for bread and they didn’t have any, what would you do? I have amazing answers for that one.
The tester scribbles notes and sighs. You assume everybody in the helping professions wants to be helpful, but I read somewhere that a Las Vegas hospital suspended workers for betting on when patients would die.
My tester raises her weary head. “Now, dear,” she says, “I’m going to say a series of words, and I want you to repeat them back to me. Ready? Potato. Mole. Rain. Chair. Buffalo. Algebra. Bus. Banana. Toothpick. Now can you say them?”
“Banana, buffalo, toothpick,” I say.
“Very good. Shall we try another one? Elephant. Christmas. Orange. Boy Scout. School bus. Lettuce. Stove. Moose. Stocking.”
“Christmas, elephant, orange, school bus, Boy Scout, lettuce, stove, moose,” I say very quickly. It comes out sounding almost impatient. “Oh, and stocking.”
“Wow.” She looks almost peeved, to the extent that her frozen face can register emotion. “How did you do that?”
I tighten my lips and raise my eyebrows. I have these upper eyelids that droop down to make little triangles of my cloudy eyes. You could see it coming even in pictures of me as a girl. By the time I was thirty, it was well underway. To counteract it, you’re supposed to open your eyes super wide and try to make your eyelashes touch your upper eyelids. I try it now.
I do not tell the tester my secret: I read that if you put the words into a story in your mind, you can remember every one.
I repeat the next list of words in monotone, but still it comes out sounding cheeky. This is the story of my life: I bring hostility to any party. I’m only ever friends with people who are willing to dismiss their first impressions, or those precious few who charm me from the start and draw from me some graciousness. I can count them on ten fingers. One every seven years.
I want this to be over. I’m always in such an all-fired hurry. It takes a lobster seven years to grow to be one pound, and I want this test — the illuminated manuscript of what will be the last years left to me — to take five minutes.
“Are you tired?” the tester says.
I nod involuntarily. “But I was always tired,” I say, in case weariness is diagnostic. “I was exhausted all through high school.” Of course, I was working thirty hours a week, and taking all honors classes, and marching in the band, and going to church with my family every fifteen minutes. I slept about four hours a week. I had one of those childhoods that refuse to fade in memory. It seemed so beige-gray, so inconsequential at the time, but decades later it still calls the tune.
“How much are eighty quarters?” The tester pulls the question from the air, tries to catch me unaware. It works.
But no one knows everything. There are a lot of things this woman doesn’t know. Ask her about quarks and fracking, about quicksilver, Bertrand Russell. Ask her to explain the sky or why my mother hit me. Ask her where has Charlie Lukehart gone. (He is nowhere in my memory after that day in the dentist’s office, and we were at school together for eight more years.) Ask her: Did Charlie Lukehart have a life? A wife? And did he love her or pretend? Let her answer; then I’ll tell her how much eighty quarters is, how far John could walk in forty days if he walked a hundred steps every fourteen minutes and took a break six times, each break one-twenty-ninth as long as the length of the entire journey. Or whatever.
Let her tell me how I might have done a lifetime differently, and I will draw her all the clocks she wants.
“Do you ever find yourself puzzled about the proper use of things?” she says.
“You mean like computer software?”
“I mean like car keys.”
I arrange my face to register amazement that this might be the case for anyone.
“Are you all right?” She looks alarmed.
Clearly I have overshot. It makes a big difference what you do with your face and all its muscles, which is information I could have used earlier in life. I hardly ever smile. Turns out this was a bad move. Smiling works the muscles in your face, which means that after you crest sixty, you can still look down at your lap without your whole face sagging like a cartoon crone. Word on the street is that aged women no longer have sex on top for just this reason. If I had spent my seven decades smiling, I could still have sex on top. If I had sex. Top or bottom, it’s been sixteen years.
You never know when it’s the last time, not at the time.
“Do you ever find yourself confused about the proper use of things?” the tester asks again.
I cross my fingers and say no. I’ve been confused for my whole life on this score — or, if not confused, at least periodically terrified, afraid I would indeed misuse a thing, maybe inadvertently use the hair dryer in the shower, as the boldface product warnings caution not to do. Plus I have a whole list of no-nos’ of my own: Don’t drink poison. Don’t leap from balconies. Don’t drink twelve quarts of beer. When I was a little girl in Sunday school, Earl Owens told us that if you drank enough beer, it would kill you. What he neglected to say was that if you drank enough water, it would kill you. My uncle told me if you ate — even by accident — one seed of a green pepper, it would kill you immediately, without even a minute to confess your sins before you died. I grew up thinking so many things were lethal. Then I got older and found out it’s true, it’s just true of different things.
Nutmeg is extremely poisonous.
If injected intravenously.
The tester takes out a box of blocks, and I am done for. She seals the coffin lid with three sheets of diagrams that make geometry seem like child’s play. In fact, geometry was the only math that ever made some sense to me — at least, until my geometry teacher raped and killed a girl from his second-period algebra class out on a country road one day after school. A thing like that can put you off math for life.
I try to guess if the tester might find my life story a mitigating factor. But no. Excuses only snivel, shrivel you, make other people cut you less slack in the end. It’s the plucky ones who get extra points for trying.
After she has asked a hundred questions in a row, the tester hands me a sheaf of papers, saying it is time for the written part. She asks if I’m too tired, a thing I would not admit to were I to fall unconscious to the floor.
She says we have all the time in the world. I love that. It’s like the world is full up to bursting with time — not just minutes or hours or afternoons but time like a foggy vapor, like soft and silky air. All the time in the world. The universe, a fat vat filled with precious time.
She leaves the room. I eye the questions, skimming, finding nothing to entice. I turn to the last page and work from end to beginning, impulsive, guessing, hurried. Maybe they give extra credit for speed. Fast or slow, if I am going to get on with my life, this would probably be a good time to start.
At some point words begin to blur on the page. I am mistaking meaning, confusing parts of speech. I sit back and rub my eyes. The designated hitter bats for the pitcher. The liquid inside coconuts can be used as a substitute for blood plasma. But there’s nothing you can substitute for a working brain, not a thing to put in place of knowing who and where you are, or how to draw a parallelogram.
I stand up and stretch dramatically — there’s no sign of a one-way mirror, but I don’t rule anything out. Besides, I’ve always felt observed, watched critically — that, or I’m invisible, not seen or recognized at all: whichever one feels worse at the moment.
I go into the hall to find the ladies’ room. The sound of voices stops me short.
“The treatment is not working.” The tester is talking to the receptionist. Her voice is strained, as if pushed through a sieve that catches any feeling. “It’s so odd, because some days she seems almost fine. Her doctors won’t make eye contact anymore. They joke too much.” Her voice is a husky whisper now. “Molly’s birthday is next week. She’ll be eight. I gave birth to her on Thanksgiving, but that’s a different date each year. Things are so strange this week. The drug they’ve got her on makes her feel much better for about a day.” The tester gives a small, odd-sounding laugh. “It’s so deceiving. You have to stop yourself from thinking she is well.”
It seems the hallway floor is tilting. I go back inside the room and sit down. I am not being watched. Nobody knows I am alive, and I don’t know that anybody else is either. The world is littered with bodies dying. Some are children. Some are newly born. And I have devoted all my days to thoughts of me and what has been, have clung tenaciously, remembering every tiny injury, every dopey slight, every oversight.
“How are we doing?” The tester appears in the doorway looking like a woman whose child might soon die, just as she no doubt has looked all morning, had I only bothered to see.
We are dying, I want to say. Me, on time; Molly, almost before her life is properly begun.
But I only nod and mutter, “Fine.” It’s what we say to one another when we’re not.
In the tester’s left hand is a bottle — not a can — of root beer. The only childhood story that my mother ever told is of the Fourth of July: she said that every year, on that day, her dad gave her a nickel, and she bought a bottle of root beer.
The tester sits. “And can you tell me what season we’re in?” she says.
I frown and eye the door, which she has closed on any clues. I should have thought to comment on the season when I first walked in, clamp the memory into place, so I wouldn’t have to rely on studied calculation to know that it is fall. The tester rifles through the stack of papers. I feel like I could die. The story of her little girl has finished me. I remember riding in a subway car one day with a man and his three small children who ran about and shrieked and climbed on seats, bumping into other passengers. Finally one passenger had had enough. “Can you keep your children more in hand?” he said. And the father said quietly, so the children couldn’t hear, “Their mother has just died. We’re coming from the hospital. I don’t know what to say to them.”
And still they want to know what day it is.
My tester asks me to take a seat in the waiting room while she reviews my score. She wants to see if I have missed anything. I want to tell her I missed my fifties, skipped that whole section of my life, lived anesthetized for a decade, ten years on autopilot — years you think will continue to replicate themselves, dull and identical, until you die. Then the serious aging starts, and you know your fifties as gold poorly spent.
“If you please,” she says and walks me to the door.
The receptionist is not at her desk. The waiting-room floor has been taken over by a large, sleeping dog, harnessed as if ready for a sudden dog-sled competition or a rescue operation involving ice and roiling water, men in yellow suits with ruddy faces. But this dog is ready only to guide the tiny woman in the corner through her blind days, the obstacle course of a fall afternoon, the barricades of daily life.
“How you doing there?” the woman says. At first I think she’s talking to the dog; but he knows better, slumbers on, snagged fast in dreams. “You OK?” she says.
“Sure thing,” I say. “These tests are something else.” I, who see with working eyes each word, each question mark, in stark relief and have for my whole life, will not rest until I have complained. “They’re wicked,” I say.
“Do they ask about geography?” she says. “I love geography.”
“They ask for a list of colors and of presidents. They want to know what day it is. It matters way too much to them. The rest is mostly math and memory.”
“Then I’m snookered,” the woman says.
The outside door opens, and a little girl walks in. She eyes the sleeping dog as if fighting the urge to pet him, then asks if she can.
“Absolutely,” the woman says.
I seem to remember being told you weren’t to mess with the focus of a dog when he’s on the job, though his concentration’s clearly divided at the moment. The little girl moves closer to the dog.
“What’s his name?” she says.
“Christina,” the blind woman says. (I thought guide dogs were male.) “And I am Jayne, with a y.”
“I bet I could guess your name,” I say to the child. “Is it Molly, by any chance?”
“Nope,” she says. “Guess again.”
My whole body sighs in thanksgiving, and Jayne and I guess and guess: Henrietta? Cordelia? Stephanie? Roberta? Penelope? The girl shakes her head, grinning.
The receptionist returns to her desk. I thought she’d left for the day. She seems not to notice Jayne. Are the blind so easily not seen? Or does she think Jayne is with me?
“Molly,” the receptionist says, “I’m leaving now. Does your mom know you’re here?”
“Nope,” the little girl says. “I was just playing a game with these ladies here. Pretending I was somebody else.” She gets up and heads back toward the test rooms. “Bye,” she says. “I do really like this old dog. He isn’t any trouble at all.” And she is gone.
“That little girl is dying,” I say to the blind woman, a whisper, sharp and cold.
“In what sense?” she says.
“In the terminal-cancer sense, I think.”
“I thought her name was Molly from the very start,” she says, as though she has not heard my words.
“No, you didn’t,” I say.
“Yes, I did,” she said. “You asked her, and she said, ‘Nope,’ but gave a little giggle. You missed it.”
“I miss everything.”
“Some people do.”
“How much can you see?” The rude question practically asks itself.
“Sometimes jagged lights, patterns on my eyelids, but they say it’s neurological, imagined. I say they are imagined. I see right through them. But as for sight, nothing to write home about.”
Nothing to write home about. I haven’t heard that expression in years. Today it strikes me as a good way to decide the worth of anything. The bar set that high.
Molly’s mom appears in the doorway. “You can go now,” she says to me, as though, now that she has strip-mined my memory, I can be summarily dismissed, returned to my life, no questions asked — or, rather, all questions asked.
“How may we help you?” she asks Jayne. The volume of her words gives them an edge. Molly appears behind her and winks at me.
“I’m here to find out if my brain’s still working,” Jayne says.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“Yep.” Jayne fingers her braille watch. “I’m right on time.” She gives her name.
Molly’s mom walks over to the desk and punches a few keys on the computer, harder than need be. “Your appointment is on Thursday.”
“What day is this?” Jayne says.
“Don’t ask me,” I say, although, in fact, I’m pretty sure I know.
“Tuesday,” the tester says, clearly torn about sending this woman away. It’s hard to refuse the blind. We cut people slack when their bodies don’t work. We’re never quite as cross or stern. It’s different with the mind.
“I’m happy to wait with Molly here,” I say. How rare to be of use to anyone.
Still, I wish I hadn’t spoken. How do I know this sad mother has not counted up the hours left of Molly’s life, and now I’m asking to take one away?
“Why not?” Molly says.
Jayne has risen to her feet, and so has the dog, who looks in better shape than anybody in the place. The tester’s shoulders sag, and she motions Jayne to follow her. She is that spent. “Go with her now,” I say to Jayne.
Molly walks over and plops down across from me.
“So,” she says. “What’s your situation?” She frowns and rubs her flat hand back and forth across her nose.
“My situation?” I say. “I’m old, and I can’t seem to remember things.”
“Hmm.” She reaches in the little bag she carries and pulls out a ratty blanket. “What is it you want to remember?”
“Oh, I don’t know. What day it is.”
“But you can look it up or ask someone. Almost anyone could tell you. You could ask your mother.”
“She doesn’t know either.”
She folds the blanket with some care, gives the matter thought. I lean toward her. Is this what hope used to feel like?
“Well,” Molly says, “I guess you two could get a real good calendar.”
“How old are you?” I say.
“When I was seven,” I say, “we lived near a farm. The farmer’s wife kept bees, and every Friday she sold my mother a honeycomb in a wooden frame and bread she baked, and we had bread and honey every single week.”
“You were really lucky.”
“I was. But not everything was good. There was a boy named Ralph who hit me with a board. There was a girl at my school that year named Candy Clark; she was so mean to me.”
“You remember a lot of things. Now tell me what day it is.”
I look down at my hand; I do not want to disappoint her.
“Tuesday,” I say.
She beams. “Wait till you tell your mom!”
The radiator makes a tinkling noise, the sound of heat soon coming; a chunk of ice falls from the roof, lands on the trash can just outside the window.
“Jesus is breaking my mom’s heart,” Molly says. “I’m not going to live for a long time, and she loves me like crazy. I don’t want to die.”
“Oh, honey,” I say. “You won’t.”
“I will,” she says. She drops her blanket to the floor, then scoops it up to hold it close. “There is this book they read you at the clinic. It’s about this squirrel who loses his mother, but it’s OK with him. I hate that book. I put it in the trash.”
“Good for you,” I say.
“I hate that book,” Molly says, “but I do love that old dog Christina.”
“Me, too,” I say.
MOLLY’S MOM AND JAYNE and the dog we love walk back into the waiting room. Molly has been curled up sleeping on the sofa, her head on my lap, for most of the last hour. She opens her eyes.
“That was fast,” Molly says. “How did you do?”
“Just fine,” Jayne says. “I was a whiz.”
“Well, good for you.” Molly leans down and pets Christina as though the dog might have fed Jayne answers.
The tester starts turning out the lights. Christina leads Jayne to the door. We say goodbye. None of us can think what else to say. I put on my coat. I do not think that I will see this little girl again.
We may not, any one of us, live longer than today. And till we die, we will make do: With sadness and each other, with our little bits of fellow feeling. With what strength we garner from our stockpile of lost heart, what stern resolve we fashion out of disappointment. We will soldier on through winter afternoons until the early darkness comes, and greet it as the enemy it is. And we will say: This is not the world as it was meant to be.
“Don’t forget to get yourself a calendar,” Molly says to me.
Don’t forget to live forever, I want to answer back — the only plan that makes a lick of sense.