The International Literary Quarterly

February 2008

Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. From "The Unaccompanied" by Bret Anthony Johnston  

Author’s note:

The following is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress, tentatively called The Unaccompanied, forthcoming from Random House. The character is named Cotton; he’s a seventy-eight-year-old widower suffering from vascular dementia, which is similar to Alzheimer’s disease. His wife, Beverly, drowned sixteen years ago in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of South Texas, but Cotton still feels her absence acutely. One of the ways his dementia is manifesting itself is that he believes his dead wife is visiting him, holding conversations with him. Another aspect of his dementia is that Cotton is inundated with memories and images he doesn’t understand, many of them having to do with animals. Beverly and Cotton have a daughter and a son; Kyle, their son, is a violin prodigy.

From The Unaccompanied

He went to sleep with his mind casting into the whirling water of memory. The sense of having forgotten something was familiar as breathing, familiar as being short of breath. Not a moment from life or a person or place—there were plenty of those holes in his mind; they devoured it—but something more acute, like turning off the stove or locking the front door. Or maybe he never really fell asleep, but simply lulled away the hours, hovering in the gauzy, compulsive realm between waking and unconsciousness, between knowing and unknowing. A patchwork of images, disparate enough to give the illusion of sleep: His own father dying in a stifling bedroom, his mother telling Cotton to run and feed the horses, because she thought he didn’t yet know. A kayak washed up in a flood, the oak wilt spreading and spreading and skinning the trees. The beautiful pungent scent of sweet oats for the colts. A swarm of bees carpeting a floor in a high school, or the hardwood floor in an old apartment. If a mouse infiltrated a beehive, they killed it and embalmed the corpse in honey; Egyptians buried their dead in honey, dressed their wounds with it. Crocodiles will swallow stones to reach deeper waters. Cotton saw all of this at once; time had folded in on itself, collapsed like a five-story building; the ceiling and floor were confused, smashed into dust.

Why did he remember one thing and not another? Not significance, not yearning. How crucial was it to recall the gritty smell of burnt sugar from one of the kids’ birthday cakes? He remembered a mason jar of nickels and pennies, a painting of daffodils, records of musicians whose names seemed composed of nothing but consonants, an ice cream truck in a field of clover; he remembered that where his wife had grown up kids still found coral from when the ocean covered Iowa; he remembered a dog won in a poker game, the way his wife said his name softer than everyone else did, softer than every other word, remembered his son climbing to the top of a tallow tree and refusing to shimmy down he’s still up there daddy until Cotton came home from the pawnshop, waking up to find all of the tires slashed on his truck and his daughter saying now that mama was gone maybe he should sell the house and move and him saying Not a fucking chance, not one fucking chance and her crying and his son having been a genius and Schubert’s grave read Music has here buried a rich treasure, but still fairer hopes, and the scalloped edges of her favorite napkins and she never remembered her dreams or never dreamed and the seasick feeling of lying to your children, how he used to stand outside their doors and listen to their breath like sonatas, how he couldn’t tell where he ended and his family began and how he bit a man in a fight and tasted rain and liquor and nicotine and clouds and clouds and clouds, and how Bev bit her lip when she threaded needles, how that poker-game dog scared itself every single time it broke wind, how the grass was animated with coral snakes and how music looks like waves and how there’s a euphoric state before you drown and how Cotton’s Cajun father would never let a cat into their house because he truly believed the thing would suck your breath out while you slept and how his mother would snicker about that, and how Bev always laughed when anyone fell, so one time he fell and she’d thanked him with her light-colored eyes.

He was watching his animal channel on television when his dead wife plopped down on the couch beside him. He felt her weight on the cushions and when he looked over he saw the maroon scarf tied around her hair, saw her legs crossed at the knee, but when he reached out, his hand displaced her like wisps of smoke. She said, “Not yet, I guess.”
“Not yet,” he said.
They watched the animal channel in silence. They learned that an octopus has three hearts and if it’s starving it will eat one of them. They learned that deer only sleep five minutes a day, that a donkey will sink in quicksand, but a mule won’t.
She took his hand. “Look at those fingers,” she said, as she’d been saying for years. “What I wouldn’t give.”
“They’re yours,” he said, because they were.
She studied his palms, which always pleased him, as if he’d crafted them himself. Her fingerprint pressed to his. She made a tent with their fingers, a steeple. It was as if she were reading Braille; she could do it for hours and still be captivated. Because this wasn’t real and because she never came home after they’d quarreled that night, and because she went swimming in a storm and now wouldn’t come home at all, Cotton knew that she was thinking about their son, about his prodigious fingers rippling over the necks of violins like silk-spinning spiders. And like that, she giggled and said, “If Kyle had these fingers, you and I would get Christmas cards from every concertmaster in the world.”
“You still giggle?” he asked.
“I giggle all the time,” she said. Then, “Cotton, you need to turn off the stove.”
He said, “Crocodiles will swallow stones to swim into deeper waters.”
“You sweet man,” she said. “Don’t you think I know that?” Her tone was even, but he feared he’d upset her. When he looked over, though, she was smiling. Then he was, too.
He said, “I guess you would. I guess you would know that.”
“And whales sing songs that rhyme. And flies hum in the key of F, the middle-octave. And the horse latitudes are all around us. And a lost dog is about to pay you a visit.”
“I don’t follow,” he said. “I don’t know what you’re saying to me right now.”
“Oh, honey,” she said, “I’m just saying that your animal heart isn’t alone anymore.”