Lance Turner

Teller of Tales

Holly and Adam sat on the wooden bench outside the drugstore. Holly�s cane rested across her legs, and she kept her hands in her pockets. Adam held a flask of bourbon in his hand and adjusted his glasses.
  They were waiting for their bus.
  Holly and Adam looked content sitting on the bench waiting for the 515. A knitted scarf was synched high around Holly's neck. She reached up and pulled her woolen cap lower over her ears. A few white strands of hair framed her face, coming loose from her ponytail. It had been an odd afternoon, she thought. The grocer down the block yelled at her. He accused her of stealing. The grocer talked about a handful of grapes. He pointed at an orange and held up a stick of lip balm. She didn't remember how the items got in her coat. She clutched her cap close to her body as she walked with Adam throughout the store. He told her he wanted to get some juice the dining hall never stocked. Her cap was lumpy and cold in her hands and she started eating the grapes inside, unsure of how the grapes got into her cap.
  When the grocer saw her eating the grapes from her cap, he asked her about them, but she didn�t know how to answer. Holly didn�t know how the orange and the lip balm got in her pockets, and if she didn�t know, she thought, how could the grocer stand in the store and yell at her. When she put her hands in her pockets, the grocer grabbed her wrist. Adam stepped up to him. She remembered him saying something and the grocer stepped back, pulling her arm with him. Her hand came out of her pocket and the orange dropped out, rolling across the floor. Holly watched it careen between shoes and wheels of carts, almost colliding with a pair of red boots standing nearby. The grocer told them to leave.

  Holly checked her watch. The bus was still ten minutes away. She looked across the street and saw the office supply store. Holly liked looking at office supplies. Picking up the big staplers and trying out the new stamp designs with different ink colors. Holly checked her watch again. She adjusted herself on the bench; the wood was hard against her ass.
  �Tell me a story, Adam,� she said. Adam's stories were the best, she thought, and it would help pass the time until the bus arrived.
  Adam swallowed a mouthful from his flask. �Which one?�
  �Whichever.� Holly enjoyed Adam�s stories, especially in her more lucid moments when she recognized whether or not the stories were true or false. �One I�ll like,� she said. She had known Adam for a while now, but she couldn't remember how they became friends. She knew her condition made her memory spotty, so she tried to fake it, filling in the details with what she thought sounded right. But even though she didn't remember her past with Adam well, she knew he would tell her a good story. That memory stayed with her.
  �My grandmother once told me,� Adam started, �that the first house she owned had trees growing up from the basement floor. The basement had a dirt floor and near the basement windows the trees grew up to the ceiling with small leaves sprouting on their thin branches.� Adam made a small movement with his free hand, shaking the leaves in the trees. �The sun could get in by the windows, but in the middle of the basement, in the dark places, the trees were like short shrubs, stunted and bare. She walked down in the basement barefoot for the first few months they owned the house. The ground was cold and wet against her feet . . .�
  Holly interrupted him. �No.� She shook her head even though he was not looking at her. He had just told her that story, she thought.
  Adam stopped. Coming up with a story for Holly was difficult with her memory and her losses. There were too many options to think about; too many variables to include. He could set the story in San Francisco, Paris, Dallas, Australia, or Albany. He never had to be overly specific, but sometimes she wanted to know where the story took place.
  �My dad and I,� Adam began anew, �went to see this play at the community theater. We stayed out all night, and he talked to me. He almost never did that when I was younger. Or never seemed to anyway. He was never that much of a talker.� Adam stopped and waited to see what she would say.
  �No.� Holly shook her head again. �It�s not the day for that story.� She did not want a story about fathers, she thought. Adam�s father-stories tended to be too sentimental.
  �What do you want?� Adam took another sip from his flask before passing it off to Holly.
  Pulling her hands out from her pockets, Holly wrapped her fingers around the flask. �Don�t get snippy,� she said.
  �I�ll get snippy whenever I feel like getting snippy.� Adam rubbed his hands together before Holly passed the flask back to Adam and put both of her hands into her pockets.
  Slipping the flask back into his coat pocket, Adam pulled out a tin of mints. He popped one into his mouth and offered them to Holly. She shook her head and he put the tin back in his pocket. He loved mints. Holly used to, too.
  Adam never bothered to remind Holly they were married. He hated how she looked confused when he told her, her mouth open as she tried to piece the information together in her mind. Her eyes would turn upwards, like the answer was floating above her. Adam was fine as long as she felt comfortable around him, but the doctor said even those days may disappear as her condition worsened.
  Adam used his stories to help fill the holes in her memories, but now Holly�s gaps were bigger. But Adam knew their stories. The stories were their bond, he thought. He told their tales, always trying to tell Holly something Adam thought she should want to remember.

  Holly moved her head. She didn�t look at Adam as they sat on the bench. �Tell me a good story.�
  Adam heard the whine of breaks down the block. He turned his head to see the bus stopped down the street. Adam waited. He had a feeling of what she wanted to hear. �You want to hear the Kansas story?�
  Holly nodded and turned to look at the bus. �Think we have time for it?�
  �A little bit of it.� Adam sighed. The Kansas story was their story. She liked hearing about her husband. She just didn't remember her husband was Adam. �You and your husband lived in Kansas,� he started. �You married during college, but you didn�t want to tell your grandmother a wedding was even in the picture because, well,� Adam paused. He stopped using his name in the stories and had to stop to think about how he would phrase it. �Your grandmother didn't like your husband. Never even liked him when you were dating. Even though he always came to your parents' house to pick you up, she still thought he was an arrogant son-of-a-bitch. Because, she found out, that, in his free time, he was always playing cards and betting a couple dollars here and there. He loved going to the rodeo and drinking beer, and that really chapped her ass because she felt you deserved better than some roughneck.�
  Adam looked across the street. He saw inside the ice-cream shop next to the office supply store. He saw a little girl standing up on her tip-toes, her hands pressed up to the glass, looking into the vats of ice-cream. He was glad they never had children. He didn't know how he would have reacted when she forgot them. �He took you down to Atlantic City,� he continued. �And you two got to walk along the boardwalk together.�
  Holly leaned forward, her cane grasped firmly, ready to stand and catch the coming bus.
  Adam took her hand and pushed the sleeve of her coat up. �You could tell he was a good man with how he touched you.� With her skin exposed to the cold, he caressed the underside of her arm, tempting her memory. �He never hurt you.�
  Holly shivered.
  �See. You still get those goose-bumps,� Adam said. �I knew him. He changed the tire on my car when I picked up a nail in the parking lot of the mechanic shop he worked at. He knew cars. And you were surprised at how he touched you because he worked with his hands all day. He was always hauling and gripping and turning things. Connecting hoses and exchanging parts. You thought his hands would be hard and calloused. But they weren�t.� Adam gave Holly�s hand a tight squeeze and stood up, lumbering towards the curb. �Don�t let anyone tell you differently.�
  A gray city bus pulled up along the curb, the unmistakable hum of the engine filling the street, the breaks whining to a stop.
  Holding onto her cane, Holly lifted herself up from the bench. �Wait for me,� she said, the tingling of her arm caused her to smile as she remembered the feeling of a husband's touch.

  On the bus, they sat together on a seat towards the front. Holly sat closest to the window. Adam yawned. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out an orange handkerchief. The wind outside had kicked up dirt, smudging his glasses.
  Holly rocked with the bus as it moved through the streets. Every pothole and speed bump caused her to bounce in her seat. She made a game of it to see if she could anticipate of the movements of the bus. Lean left here. Brace there. Hold on.
  �It�s too bad, though,� Adam said. They had been planning to eat lunch out, but with the grocer and the cold, they had to go back home. He did not want to deal with another scene in front of strangers.
  Holly turned to her window. It was broad and dirty. She saw flashes of passing cars and other people waiting for a bus. �The cancer,� she said.
  Adam turned and stared at the back of her head as she looked out the window. Cancer, he thought. Who had cancer? He knew Holly's brother-in-law died of cancer a little over ten years ago, but he did not understand how Holly made the connection when he was getting ready to talk about the weather.
  �You should have heard him at night. During those last few days. Before he died,� Holly reached out to Adam, the memory too strong for her to remember and not cry. �He cried. We would sit on the edge of our bed, or on our couch, or lean up against our pillows, and I would hold him. His head on my chest, listening to my heart. The beating. The rhythm. I could feel it through my blouse.
  �We made love that night. We made love in our bed and I could see his ribs.�
  Adam squeezed her hand. �Who are you talking about, Holly?�
  She turned from the window and looked at him. The look on her face made Adam seem like he should know who she was referring to.
  �What do you mean?� She asked, her head turning back to the window. �I told you about my husband before. He had a heart attack that night. It wasn�t the cancer.� Holly pulled her hand away from him. �But you didn�t know that,� she said.
  Adam swallowed. He had to do something and that was the only thing he could think about doing. Adam turned away from Holly in their seat. A passenger across the aisle looked up to watch Adam cover his mouth. Adam heard Holly talking next to him, her voice echoing softly off of the window. He shut his eyes and tried to picture Holly in their house back home; she was filling a pan with water to take out and throw on the neighbor's cat lying in her flowerbed. He tried to push her voice away from his mind as she told her story, her lie.
  �He was still alive,� she continued. �He was talking to me. This is it, he said. And I called 9-1-1, but he didn�t want the ambulance to come while he was naked. So I dressed him in a pair of brown slacks. It was the pair I bought him for Christmas. And then a white, button-down shirt because I had to put it on him. I couldn�t hold him up and he couldn�t sit up on his own. And then his black church shoes. I kissed him. And we sat there on the bed. Waiting. I heard the sirens. They seemed to come out of nowhere. But he was already dead.�
  She just killed him off, Adam thought. There were times when she forgot about him, but she had never killed him before.
  �He died,� Holly said. �And he was all done up and handsome when the ambulance arrived.�
  She didn't turn away from the window.

  After an outright refusal of assistance and a sharp jab with the end of her cane, Holly relented and took Adam�s outstretched hand, stepping down from the bus. �I�m not an invalid,� she said.
  Adam rubbed his side. He was sure a bruise would form where she jabbed him. �Then stop acting like a baby,� he said. He knew Holly couldn't control what she said sometimes and Adam held back from saying more, the bitterness of his death on his mind. He hoped Holly saw the pain of his death on his face. He hoped she heard him cry on the bus. But after her story, Holly leaned her forehead against the window and watched the city pass.
  From the bus stop, it was a quick walk to the iron-gate surrounding the retirement home and the assisted living facility. The retirement home had nurses on site, with the option of being moved to the company's assisted living community when the time came, and then to the nursing home when things got worse. Adam knew the last years of their lives would be spent there, moving between facilities.
  After her diagnosis, Holly's case was still in the early stages and often went unnoticed except for a few misplacements, a few jumbled words. She was able to get along, physically at least. But then Holly left an empty pan on a hot burner in the kitchen as she went to shower and Adam knew they couldn't stay in the house alone.
  As they lived in their new residence, Adam found Holly self-aware and coherent most of the time, but most of the memories were gone. The people. The places. The past. And sometimes Adam found himself burdened with the load he bore. He was her memory. He knew her stories.

  Inside their apartment, Adam stirred the tomato basil soup on the kitchen stove. Soup was perfect for the cold day, he thought. He liked cooking when he had the time or wanted to stay inside. He didn't want to go to the dining hall with Holly telling her stories. The apartment was ample for the two of them anyway.
  When they first moved, they started out living in a one bedroom, but as Holly forgot him, they moved into a two bedroom. Adam did not have to answer as many questions in the mornings that way. There was one bathroom to share, a kitchen, and a large living room that doubled as a dining area when they did not walk to the dining hall. There were also three closets and a storm shelter.
  Holly worked in the large living room dusting bookshelves. She picked up each object and ran the duster under the books and along the folded up newspapers, the movie and music cases, the five-hundred and fifty-five piece puzzle boxes and the ceramic vase. Along the top of each shelf stood pictures. Adam thought the pictures would help.
  Holly picked up the frames, one by one, running the duster around the edges and across the glass. One picture was of Adam in a bright orange vest holding a rifle. One was of Holly and Adam standing in front of a Christmas tree, across the top of the wood frame, in green, sparkling letters, Greetings from Kansas, glittered brightly.
  �What�s this,� Holly said, stepping over to him as he set the table, jutting the picture towards him.
  �It's a Christmas picture.� Adam left the table and headed back into the kitchen. Holly followed him.
  �I don't remember it,� she said, holding the picture up in front of her. �When did we take it?� Adam looked at her. �It was,� he paused, trying to think of the date. �It was four years ago.� He did not know how much he should tell her. He did not know if she remembered more or if she just knew it was the two of them in the photograph. �It was taken before we moved here,� he added.
  �Oh,� she said. Holly shrugged like the story behind the picture was not as impressive as she thought it would be. She then turned and headed back into the living room.
  Adam stood at the stove and stirred the soup. That was a good moment, he thought.
  A sound rushed out from the living room.
  Adam dropped the soup spoon into the pot as he went into the living room. Holly stood by the dining table. Glass littered the table and floor. The Christmas picture was torn and jagged. Holly held the broken frame.
  �Holly,� Adam said, edging closer to the table in his socks. He never wore his shoes around the house. �Be careful. Watch the glass.�
  Her eyes were focused on the torn frame. �I don't know this place.�
  �I'm your friend, Holly. You need to watch where you step. There's glass on the floor.�
  Holly tensed, squeezing the broken frame, small shards of glasses slicing into her palms. Pain made her cry out but Adam wondered if she knew why she was hurting. Adam lunged toward her, grabbing for her hands across the table. Holly drew back and flung her arms out to the side, the picture frame hitting the wall. She balled her hand up into fists, blood pumping out between her fingers. �I don't know you.� She shook her fists against her chest. �I don't know you.�
  Adam tried to stay calm, but he saw Holly's eyes. She was terrified and angry. Her chest heaved with each breath. �I'm your husband, Holly. I'm Adam.� He talked to her like she was a child. His voice was low and monotonous. �I'm Adam.� He stepped closer to her.
  Holly�s face changed. She stood, appalled, searching her mind, trying to find the words, any words, to get her through her episode.
  Adam wondered if she even believed him. Once, when she was better, she described the bad days to him as if she was standing in a fog. She placed her fingers over his eyes and told him to imagine it. Sometimes the fog was dense and she couldn't see where she was, couldn't even see her own hands. But sometimes the fog was lighter and she could see everything except the distant parts because the blanket of fog was farther off and she didn't need to know what was there.
  Her fog was denser.
  �Many years ago, you worked in the school house,� Adam began, stepping over the broken glass. The soles of his socks soaking up a bit of Holly's blood seeping into the carpet.
  �What are you doing?� Holly backed away from him and started looking at her hands, her blood running.
  �I'm telling you a story.� He watched as Holly nodded. �You worked at the little school house down on 7th street. You were teaching the first grade for the first time and it was hell.� He chuckled, trying to get her to smile.
  She didn't.
  �You�d only been teaching for about three months. You were still trying to get your feet. Trying to plan your lessons more than a day ahead of time.� Adam smiled as he got closer to her, still hoping she would smile back. �Teaching them whatever you teach in the first grade.
  �Now, there was this guy in town you really liked. He was a mechanic, and he worked on the school buses. You liked him. You really did. You would stand outside the school door every morning, greeting every child, asking how their day was, what they had for breakfast, if they finished their homework. You had a big smile for every child. And you would see the mechanic out in front of the school house working on a bus because something in the engine had busted on the way. You always had a big smile for him, too.� Adam reached Holly and pressed his hand over her cuts. �Your cheeks were rosy because of the blush you wore and the mechanic said it made your cheeks pop. He thought you looked like you just came in from a snow day; your cheeks so flushed.
  �You�d see each other during lunch breaks and you�d talk and after classes were over he met you at the swing set and you would swing with him.� Adam held her hands, wrapping his dish towel around her wounds. Spots soaked into the fabric. �Do you remember?� He didn't want to know the answer, he thought. He wished he didn't ask the question.
  Holly stuttered and Adam leaned into her. She hesitated in saying it, �He tasted like mints.�
  His voice was quiet. �What?� Adam moved her over to the sofa as he cradled her, compressing the makeshift bandage.
  �It�s the only way I can explain it,� Holly said. �He was always chewing on mint candies. And I could taste it, something sweet in his mouth.� Holly raised her free hand up to her lips and then to Adam's. He felt her body press up against his.
  Holly leaned into him and rested her head on his chest. Adam breathed deeply, feeling the weight of her on him, sensing the closeness of the embrace, the dishtowel red in his hand.
  �Tell me a story, Adam,� Holly said.
  Holly would pull away from him soon, he thought.
  �A story about what?�
  �About tomorrow,� she said.
  Adam wondered if Holly heard his heartbeat, the pulsing rhythm, betraying his outward calmness. She had asked him this question before, wanting to know what would happen the next day and the day after that, and Adam weaved tales of grandness for her. He told her of places she was going to go and of the people she was going to meet on the street as they walked downtown. Sometimes he would throw a celebrity she once talked about into one of his stories and see if she got excited hearing the name, if she remembered who it was.
  Today, as he held her hands wrapped in a dishtowel, and as Holly wondered how he knew her husband, Adam thought it best to start the story out with a simple premise, even if it was more of a lie than usual. �Tomorrow,� he said, pulling her closer to him, �will be a good day.�

Lance Turner

LANCE TURNER is a writer from the Heartland. He has a MFA from the University of Kansas and a BA in English from Kansas State University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Loveliest Magazine, Route 7 Review, The Penumbra Review, Gravel, Indiana Voice Journal, The Pierian, and Touchstone. You can follow Lance on Twitter at @lturnerMFA.

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