My new agency was big on family. Despite his residual unease about weathering surprise sniping by the troopers’ union, my boss didn’t think twice before giving me two weeks off to go to Georgia. “Family is why we work in the first place — go!”
The Georgia news was bad: the matriarch’s memory was sinking beneath the dark cloud of Alzheimer’s disease. My mother and her boyfriend, BC, drove her to Atlanta to meet my plane. At my mother’s home in the Territory, the matriarch’s memory only came out of the shadows intermittently. Often she had to be told again her husband was dead — painful to see her fresh pain. She had always been going to recite the novel she burned as a teenager so I could write it for her — and now she wasn’t.
I drove her and my mother to Tallahassee in my mother’s Monte Carlo to see my brother and his family. One evident Alzheimer’s characteristic was anger: the matriarch’s bitterness toward BC was unrelenting. On the road she was constantly at my mother: “Which of his women you think he’s got in your bed now? Think they’ve let out your cats to get run over?” Then she’d doze, wake with a start and gripe she had to pee.“But he won’t ever stop the car till I’ve wet myself.” My long-suffering mother: “Now she thinks you’re Daddy.”
My brother joined the three of us for a sentimental journey to the Beaches and St. Augustine. In her brief periods of lucidity it called to mind house-hunting junkets when we were kids before we moved to Florida. But her inevitable relapses unsettled my usually sanguine brother. When her memory vanished in the middle of a conversation he swore our mother was a saint to put up with this. His jaw dropped when our mother agreed, because she never bragged. What a laugh we had when they sorted it out: with her poor hearing she’d heard him say “insane.”
Back in Georgia, BC proved he still had his sense of humor. He said the matriarch’s beer consumption astounded him. After all the years of scrimping my mother freely indulged her, because why not? He said he thought to get rich recycling all her beer cans but “I never should of tol’ her. She stopped drinkin’ beer that very day. Ain’t had a drop since. Jus’ to spite me!” He laughed and laughed.
Memory loss or not, the matriarch’s iron will survived. Just before I boarded the plane her crippled old hands fastened on my arm with the painful force of talons. Fierce blue eyes fixed on something far beyond me. Lips working feebly. “Don’t forget. Don’t ever forget!” A last futile defiance against her affliction. My mother gently prized her fingers loose. She dropped her arms and stood head-down like a deactivated robot. My last view was BC’s arm around her slumped shoulders, my mother rubbing her clawed hands.
Her last words haunted me. Besides “patrician” ankles she had been proudest of her infallible memory. So of course Fate took that. All my self-actualization rigmarole could not insulate me from such unfairness. Yes, the old must die and the young do die — but must what you prize most be stripped away first?
One person whose empathy at the matriarch’s decline touched me deeply was the preacher’s daughter, who had enjoyed tales of my Georgia childhood. Once, after her own trip home to Georgia, she brought me a jar of red clay and cotton bolls to symbolize the weird talisman the matriarch kept as an obscure proof she was a practicing witch.
We had not seen each other much after I changed agencies. She had been planning her son’s wedding when she told me he jumped the gun and might be a father before he was a husband. She said it was unseemly for a grandmother to be having an affair; she doubted the matriarch ever did. She never said outright it was over, she just stopped calling. She had no direct outside line, and my voice would be instantly recognized by her supervisor. Calling to say a formal goodbye would only break her cover. A mournful way to end a relationship that had brightened my depressed years.
The year after I went to Georgia, my hatchback logged 200,000 commuting miles. I bought a new Accord sedan with all the bells and whistles: power everything, AC, good legroom, a good radio. One day I took the dangerous redhead to lunch to show off my new car. I still kept in touch, though I never shared her bed after attending the positive-thinking seminar.
One of my favorite Beethoven works was on FM: the Coriolan Overture for a play about a Roman emperor. A new car, my favorite composer, sunny day in a port city with seagulls flying — one of those little moments of happiness the matriarch had always said appreciate when they come, because nothing lasts forever. We were at the waterfront restaurant before the Overture ended. The redhead stepped out of the car. I hesitated, listening. She pursed her lips. “I thought you enjoyed my company. Why are you playing that funeral music?”
Without thinking I said, “No, no, this is Beethoven not Wagner.”
“What?” Blank green-eyed stare; she didn’t have a clue.
I switched off the engine. “Never mind. Let’s eat.”
“Okay. Can we have some real music on the way back?”
Final proof of total incompatibility; I was glad I outlasted her prurient interest. In another couple years I was assigned my own unmarked patrol car, the state paying commute gas — a huge perk for a civilian. The very day I took delivery, I was surprised by a call from the attractive brunette I didn’t fuck the night I met her. She was in town and invited me to dinner with friends. I was self-conscious going to her hotel in my new patrol car, always aware the troopers’ union had an eye out to embarrass me and thereby my boss. The highway cops’ implicit entitlement to extracurricular sex did not extend to civilian employees.
The brunette’s wing-woman from last time had her husband with her this time. He was oblivious to the brunette’s intent. But her friend smirked at me when the brunette said she’d forgotten something in her room and asked if I’d walk her up. At her door she turned and kissed me hungrily. That old familiar groan. I was out of the game, but suddenly didn’t want to be.
“This is what I came back for — you,” she said. “I don’t need anything in my room. I just wanted to tell you, so you wouldn’t leave after dinner. I’ve been thinking about you ever since that night…” My memory evoked the sixties newspaper heiress who went clear to Miami, then came back to Georgia for me — too late. I was already with Chloe. Now I was trying to cleave to Chloe again.
At dinner her friends said she sold her business and successfully started another, quite the entrepreneur, knew what she wanted and went after it. Her girlfriend really smirked at that. The couple left. I went back to her room — a time clock ticking in my head. I was due at home. But in minutes we were naked and she was all over me, whispering I need to come so bad…I failed her. She was uncomfortable with cunnilingus. My heart wasn’t in overcoming her resistance. She kissed and stroked and massaged my whole body, nonplussed. She knew our attraction was mutual; was this the first time I had this problem? I was humiliated.
She pragmatically concluded I had some underlying health issue, was in denial and needed to see a doctor. When erectile dysfunction went home with me, I was further humiliated. Chloe, equally pragmatic, instructed me to go to the doctor. He diagnosed low testosterone from poor sleep and prescribed patches that solved the first problem. The second problem persisted. I called the brunette to say she had been right, I was back in business. Her wry rejoinder: wish I was there to benefit from my advice. I never heard from her again.
But the testosterone fix didn’t last, and my old bugaboo depression swept back. The matriarch had lost her mind. I had lost my potency. My convoluted brain served up an almost forgotten time I felt this bleak: when the Army drafted me in the middle of the success of my first and so far only novel. In youthful despair, I had pegged the speedometer of my brand-new Barracuda over the most dangerous highway I knew. I had a half-baked notion of finding out if I was meant to be a soldier, or not. My Barracuda refused to kill me. I resigned myself to the Army.
Two years ago the dangerous redhead had condescended about my new Accord, preferring the speed and handling of a long-nose Porsche acquired through shady transactions that may have involved her drug sideline. I had told her the company were idiots to try to design a better car than Herr Porshe’s turtle-back sportster with the engine over the drive wheels. Miffed, she challenged me to wring it out. She said she thought I’d forgotten when I called. I didn’t tell her the question on my mind was if I was meant to be a eunuch.
One night we blew down a largely empty I-5 toward Portland. There were no aerial patrols at night. Doubtful a trooper could catch me from a standing start, given anemic post-Hemi patrol cars. A 5.0 Mustang might have a shot, but none was assigned down there. And despite the omnipresent trooper’s union, my status as the chief’s man came with blanket immunity for high speed. Even if a trooper cited me, his paperwork would be blocked internally before it reached a court. I was free to tempt destruction in an unfamiliar car. Destruction didn’t seem particularly fearsome in my mental state. I didn’t consider my passenger’s fate.
The gears meshed perfectly. The engine purred. Above 100, I turned only 2700 on the tachometer. The redhead got twitchy at 115, paranoid about troopers. I pushed it to 130. The damn car was rock-steady. She got quiet. Finally she said, somewhat shakily, she really hadn’t planned to go to Oregon tonight.
When I turned back the car hugged the off-ramp as if glued. The tires shrilled some. She pointed out I was doing seventy against a posted thirty. I admitted the car impressed me, and drove back leisurely. She said I was crazy. Takes one to know one, so she was probably right. Certainly that night. But the run relieved some inner pressure, as had that long-ago run in my Barracuda. I resigned myself to the Army then. Now I resigned myself to my lost virility. Cue “funeral music.”