Alexis Orgera, You Don’t Mind: A Memorabilia

 

Excerpts from Alexis Orgera’s cross-genre manuscript, You Don’t Mind: A Memorabilia, a finalist for the 2015 TS Book Prize.

 

A LANGUAGE YOU HAVE YET TO DISCOVER

[The conceptual operation of turning a system around an axis. Don’t fuck up the rotation: Puff puff give. Rotate your crops. Curl curl curl. Around around the mulberry bush so early in the morning. Round here she’s slipping through my hands. Planetary movement. Plantation movement. Plant. Fell. Replant. A passage of privilege. A baton. That sneaky little bastard tip-toes up behind you, taps you on the shoulder, and lodges in your eyesocket. Heinous houseguest. Night-wanderer. Attuner to the sounds of darkness.]

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Days shift and fasten themselves onto better days or worse days like doors on rusty hinges. The first Alzheimer’s patient, Auguste Deter, died within four-and-a-half years of her first symptom. As time passes and drugs become more effective, people with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias live ten, twelve years inside the maze. On a scale of forgetting, sometimes I’m my father’s friend, most days I’m a nice girl, occasionally I’m his daughter back from California, and sometimes I’m a shadow-wife, my mother and I resembling two eras of the same woman. When he stares at me, tells me I’m pretty, I dread the possibility of his tongue shoving into my mouth when I’m not paying attention. I pull out some photos of Mom and me in different eras. The one of Mom and Dad posing at their 70s wedding: Dad’s platform shoes, Mom’s pixie cut. The flecked photo of Mom pregnant with me, the photo’s imperfections giving her freckles. The one of me, bucktoothed and boyish, in a school photo. Or the one of me in glasses too big for my face, looking boyish again with a stupid haircut. See, Dad, see how alike but different your wife and I are?

~

to reach home is to be a redridinghood to reach there is a doll house which is a Barbie house and train tracks upstairs and downstairs and so many shelves and pianos and cacti and in my bedroom the red carpet which is mine is blood which is the pumping sound in my brain and the fan klink klink klink klink klink klink but first is the kitchen

~

Over a period of months a few years into his disease, my demented father penciled hundreds of thumbprint-sized, broken circles into the pages of a legal pad. An act of obsession or devil’s possession in the starburst of decline: circles in rows, circles with diagonals and zig-zags connecting them, a planetary map. Circles growing strands of hair, like nerve cells buffered by synapse or weird cancer cells. Lines from a straight edge. Xs and Os in a deranged game of Tic-tac-toe.

~

Ooze of chemical release in the brain, the factory-style increase in neurotransmitter productivity as seratonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine bubble out, as vessels expand to bursting. Warmth and sizzle and starmap lightness all over—like falling in love in a bowl-shaped sky. It’s enough to bowl me over, and there’s no hitting the brain’s pause button even if the show is too much to watch. I’m zonked. I reach up for comfort between the bed pillows and feel for my blanket, which I do every night, but nights like this make my desire for comfort even more critical. My blanket has a name, Nanky, and a gender, she. She has been with me nearly every night for thirty-seven years minus vacations in my thirties and two or three day stretches when I inexplicably lost her as a kid. I sleep with my blanket’s tatters now, a rat’s nest, the kind made with bits of dryer lint, gnawed paper, and waterlogged cardboard. My blanket is disgraceful, strange, and regularly loses parts like a leper, but I reach up nightly between the pillows on the edge of sleep to grab her to my face nonetheless.

As a kid I had a nightly ritual that involved placing my blanket over the air-conditioning vent in the percussive South Carolina heat—that familiar heat that leapt into your skin and bounced off—108 degrees in the daytime shade. After a few minutes of cooling, I’d pull my blanket onto my face, and her cool satin edging gave my body a cool satin edging. This ritual became a necessity on migraine nights during which Nanky would work in shifts, vent to head to vent to head to vent to head, substituted for the cold washcloth in between.

It’s easy for me to be five again, but for a child to picture her father as a little boy takes a conscious act of defamiliarizing, a dislodging of the birth relationship, and a re-imagining of time. I can see my father, as if in a photograph, sitting in the driveway of his parents’ second story duplex apartment in Stamford, Connecticut. I become the girl next door, watching. He’s wearing suspenders and shorts, knee socks. His light brown hair is neatly parted in an eternal school portrait. I see his sisters playing office on the landing, one sister burning the hair off of another’s Barbie dolls. I see my grandmother on the phone in the pantry hiding from the chaos, sneaking a cigarette while talking to her own far-away sisters. I see my father collecting. Now, childlike as he’s become, he’s strewing his collection in the air. There are three childhoods, mine and his and his.

When days are prolapsed from their calendar you can be anywhere.

~

silly witch old wives tale who boils boils toils and troubles caldron of apple cider vinegar bubbles on the stove which is to say give it some power against migraine let it steam let it steam let it steam

~

In “Circles,” Emerson writes, “The man finishes his story,—how good! how final! how it puts a new face on all things. He fills the sky. Lo! on the other side rises also a man and draws a circle around the circle we had just pronounced the outline of the sphere,” where we are overlapping concentric circles echoing ovoid sound, ripples on a pond before definition. A Venn diagram of familial intersections where experience follows experience based on collective memory.

~

Leviathan octopus—a suction-cupped arm reaches out of the abyss. Sweet hereafter, let it be that heaven is a geometry. What does it look like on the other side of dementia when, neuron by neuron, in that silent apoptosis housed inside the skull, there’s nothing left but tangles of dead pathways and fistfuls of plaque? Alzheimer’s puts you in an empty room where keys get misplaced, lists get made and lost and rewritten and lost again—and as neurons die and roadways are abandoned in a five-finger spread through the brain’s cortex, the vacancy reaches deeper and deeper into your past until you don’t remember new information, and the stories of your childhood are specters speaking to you out of the corners of rooms, or in your head, and then not at all. Then, everything’s silent:

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~

I’m three again, I’m dancing, I’m dancing naked in the bathroom lit by a 1970s red lampshade. Is it really red? Mom’s filling the tub for a bath. She’s kneeling on the floor. She’s kneeling and singing to me. Mom’s filling the tub for a bath. She’s filling the tub. In the tub is water and it makes sound. In my memory, the sound of water spilling. The room’s lit in reds and yellows. Is it a yellow lampshade? I’m naked. The bathtub’s running, and its running in the next room and the next. Here’s the mounted pencil sharpener below a light switch, the kind of sharpeners in elementary school. In this mind-photograph I see myself naked; I stick my pinky into one of the sharpener’s pencil holes and sharpen in the slosh of running water, the tear of grinding finger. The bell curve reveals a relationship between forgetting and time, but where is the curve for dream-as-memory? Does dream inhabit everywhere too? This memory scythes a mad C onto my synapses. The one thing, Emerson writes, “we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory and to do something without knowing how or why; in short to draw a new circle.” To seek is to be loosed from the restraints of reality, set loose as if on the heel of the first wheel.

~

breathingbreathingbreathingbreathing brown towel-tented over the stovetop imagine the migraine is a mushroom and you are its mother

~

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, by the year 2050, over 11 million people will have Alzheimer’s disease. Roughly four percent of those people will be under 60, like my father. How many of them will walk the streets alone? How will they feed themselves? This year alone, the U.S. spent over $200 billion to care for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. It’s our country’s sixth leading cause of death. The disease of forgetting is killing us off, and not very swiftly, but I know the end of the road when I see it.

In November 2012, my father was almost hit by a car as he crossed the street on the lam from his nurse. Another day, he sat working things out, couldn’t move, shackled to the confusion. His fingers played with invisible bits and bobs—weaving the air or grabbing at invisible bugs on the floor. These facts can be written, but they don’t spell the man he once was to me—the guy I watched basketball with, who made me bananas and saltines fried in butter, who helped me carve a pirate ship for a school project, who rubbed my stubble and smiled when I came home with a shaved head. You don’t see who he was, rather he is a cartoon character traipsing across the page.

When the forgetting was born, in the mix of dismantling diagnoses, an x-ray to my father’s abdomen uncovered a small hunk of a metal in his stomach. We marveled at its appearance, tried to explain the forgetting as heavy metal toxicity—a possible reversal on the horizon—but the inversion of reversal is stasis. No doctor bought our story. Like so many narratives, this one was left unfinished, its leaps illogical. My dad’s oldest sister told a story about him as a small child collecting blue gravel from the family driveway into a small chewing gum tin. He popped the round rocks into his mouth, eating them one by one. We reasoned in our desperation that a small piece of shale might have lodged in him forever—the way the poet Charles Wright remembers his time in California as “two yards and the flat back of the ocean, another tri-color splinter forever broken off in my heart.” My father is forever splintered here, the man he was. As for me, during the struggle to keep him safe, I’m a shard too.

~

take the painkiller with most ingredients the red one and go straight to bed but you can feel the over-the-counter under your counter and it makes you constrict your body and sweat bullets and in short far short it does nothing but constrict your vessels and make you smell your own blood

~

Like my father’s obsessive Xs and Os, preteen migraine forces acts of fixation. In my bed hovering over the sea of blood that is my carpet, I count dryer cycles and ceiling fan rotations. Aroundandaroundan…Outside my room the world spins on. Brother constructs his Lego cities or plays with plastic sharks. Smell of dinner wafting under the door makes me run to the toilet. Sometimes the sounds of a table saw. A hammered house project. But me, alone me, in bed me counting. Whirthump. Whirthump. Fifty, sixty, one hundred rotations before the next wretch. The knobs on the pull chains knock against each other. Three hundred, seven hundred sixty two, nine hundred seventy-five. Count and count and count to forget. From a ceiling fan blade I watch myself counting. Dislodged and spinning.

Or on the bathroom floor, two a.m., sweetest sweetest coldest tiles, big-toe frostbitten tiles. Ice queen dream tiles. In a dream, I’m a little girl in a red dress with a balloon in my right hand. I walk into this bathroom, but its size has changed. It’s fit for a giant. My bathroom and not mine, all cathedral ceilings, and a shower the size of a frozen waterfall, a cool and swimmable toilet bowl, porcelain of heaven, so white and inviting to sleep next to all night. Wrapped in a quilt, safe to throw up whenever I want, this is a bathroom fit for a queen’s sleep-and-wake.

~

wake up wake up wake up wake up wake up wake up wake up like alarms clock alarms fire ones police ones

~

What’s behind his glacier-blue eyes is a landing strip where memories and reasoning touch down and alight again with the aid of a majorly fritzed circuit board. Landmarks of navigation become apparitions entering and exiting the field depending on barometric pressure, energy flow, and electrical pulse. The self splits and mirrors the botched interconnections of a neuron forest or a deranged, madhouse cell division, and upon us is a whole generation of forgetters living in an age of left behind.

Circles become two eyes inside a head: ghostly woman, her features always obscured by squiggles and scribbles. Out of atrophy’s madness.

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~

When we experience a work of art for the first time, what are we really seeing, if not our own contexts. Our knowledge of the visual field is built around our experience of the world. The how does this make me feel? moment, and momentarily I am devastated that my father has Alzheimer’s, or momentarily I am ecstatic because he’s making art. In her essay, “Art Objects,” Jeanette Winterson recounts the story of an encounter in Amsterdam with a painting in a gallery window, one that stopped her in her tracks. “Here was a figure without a context, in its own context,” she writes, “a haunted woman in blue robes pulling a huge moon face through a subterranean waterway.” Winterson recalls that after her fleetingly intense encounter with this painting, she fled to the comfort of a bookstore where there were things she understood better than paintings, and how that moment compelled her to find a way of looking that garnered in her a true appreciation for painting. The same is true when I encounter my father’s artwork. I have had to find a way of looking, find a context from which to view something wholly foreign to me. A change of perspective might just turn the cave drawing into a work of genius.

Do we seek to forget ourselves, or are we desperate to connect to others as ardently as we relate to ourselves? As Dad and I paint together one lazy Wednesday, I chatter about a recent trip to England during which Parliament announced plans to rename Big Ben as Elizabeth Tower for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. “Kids go on that thing at school,” he says, “and they throw ‘em in there.” He makes a throwing motion, mimics a child throwing something away, “Where is that thing? I don’t need it.” I paint strange faces with horns, fangs, and bulbous noses. Dad paints dots and splotches. He’s doing Pollack meets Monet meets Basquiat:

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~

marathon glazed-brick hall that is the corridor to another world—we know it is. In dreams, I need not use airline puke bag        trash can         brown highway shoulder grass          middle school hallway             carpet—anywhere       Tupperware pasta pot plastic grocery bag     vehicle air conditioning vent (projectile) but in real life I will use anything that catches

~

Art therapists describe how art can calm Alzheimer’s patients, help them express their feelings when words no longer do the trick. Occasionally, our painting sessions and their accompanying CD soundtrack initiate language: “This reminds me of my pot-smoking days,” Dad mutters about the Aretha Franklin’s Greatest Hits. He tells me mixed-up family histories or mumbles to invisible friends on the other side of the room. If in his paintings my father is free to express himself in ways that only get expressed in half-lives otherwise, outside of his paintings, extant clippings unclasp.

The circular woman re-emerges: a pumpkin head situated in a neat patch of Xs and Os, Os cascading from her skull, Xs marking age spots. Here are her eyes, erased and redrawn to eerie doubling effect. Her mouth is an open wound, bean shaped, and may have its own neck. I see two circles where her ears might be. She’s underwater or under cloud-hair, or the haze my father’s mind, and then she emerges whole:

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~

 expunge your guts until you’re spitting bile and bile and yellow mustard yellow bile scientifically interesting both practically horrorshow

~

The woman again, finally in color and fully rendered, her hair a nun’s habit. A nun from Catholic school? Dr. Frankenstein’s Mona Lisa? One eye self-satisfied, a slit, the other eye a frightened doll’s. Is she pieces of many women? The head to my headless nightmares? She’s wearing glasses. The hint of a smirk in her magic-marker smile. Is that a mustache or is it teeth? The pieces don’t fit, but they make a ghostly face. Her face is drawn in thick, black marker, but look at the shading beneath her left eye! Yellow and orange below, a light etched blue above. The intimations of a black eye. And her body a semblance. Childlike scribbles and jags. This could be a three-year-old’s masterwork or a dark assemblage. Instead it’s a rendering of regression. A thought bubbles against the woman’s head. It’s the same colors and scribbles as her body: greens, yellows, oranges, lighthanded, tentative. A phantom appendage? A memory-in-flight? The eyes inside the thought bubble could be the eyes of an owl or a pair of lost visions. Inside the thought, the woman’s twin, the never-born one, the one who lives just outside her, always a step behind. It holds everything escaped.

In my father’s artwork is the flesh-and-bone depiction of the surface of the moon. “Whether art tunnels deep under consciousness or whether it causes out of its own invention, reciprocal inventions that we then call memory, I do not know,” Winterson writes, “I do know that the process of art is a series of jolts, or perhaps I mean volts, for art is an extraordinarily faithful transmitter,” the way that neurotransmitters are released and diffused across synapses, transferring impulse to fibers across the brain.

The language we use for art and for recovering memories is surprisingly similar: Sparks, flashes, jolts, volts, transmissions. Memory loss and creativity loss also carry similar language cues: dryness, emptiness, barrenness, block. You can’t have one without the other. I know there is a shadow of my dad’s former self precisely because he’s painting, recalling events, and I’ll know when it’s all dried up when his canvas remains empty as he stares and stares across the white space.

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~

migrate migraine to the bathroom for the night blanket and pillow and coldcold tile set up a fort a fun fort it’d be once in not-migraine but in fun

~

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“Turn it the other way. It looks like a house,” Dad says, echoing the voice of the contractor he used to be, the man who could look at blueprints of a house and then go out and build that house. Rolls and reams of plans from my childhood. To mime him, I kept a notebook full of house plans, unmeasured but drawn and straight-edged in careful pencil. This is where the toilet is. This is the master bedroom. Neat capital letters, mimicking my father’s handwriting. Sometimes I’d add a round room for flair, and he never said, No, that can’t be done. Dad built rooms in the houses we lived in tailored to our specific desires. I once had a whole upstairs floor to myself. Bedroom, bathroom, walk-in closet. My palace. My brother got a loft with a ladder leading up to it where he kept his top-secret Lego collection and a whole wall plastered with a map of the world. In those father-built houses, we lived in dustless perfection and were made to feel special, like our father had the goods. He was someone who could build you a house, and this shaped us.

In this drawing, a house toppled over—part Modernist beast, part spaceship. Floors at strange angles made for slipping and sliding so that every day’s a game of downswing. Stairways lead into geometric attics with porthole windows. A square of grass on the ground floor—he’s made us an atrium! Along the side of the house runs a lap pool, so he understands that water is a god, always the fish, never the bear. All the light is yellow in the rooms of the toppled house, the light of comfort and birth. A disembodied face floats in a triangular room in the belly of the house. The face wears a perfect frown just below a blacked-out moon. The house is a galaxy. Straight black lines shoot out of the toppled house, over-reaching perfection. Remnants of the underlying structure of a dying beast.

All houses protect, contain, decay.

Winterson explains the experience of really seeing a thing as being dropped into a foreign city where “out of desire and despair, a few key words, then a little syntax make a clearing in the silence.” As I search my father’s artwork, I look for clues or remnants flickering in cheap acrylic and marker out of the void. I’m looking for a small patch of light in the dark, an empty field akin to promise. Does art spark memories or does it create memory? If art and imagination go hand in hand, which of course they do, then the memories I created as a child, the ones I know are unreal dreamscapes but that I remember nonetheless as discrete events, do they become in retrospect art or memory? Likewise, what is my father’s art saying about the space between his ears? He’s working with fragments of memory that are ghostlike swimming pools in which time loses linearity and practices every stroke at once.

~

and how the night’s begun under a setting fettering body your tiny bird-bone body its tireless childness or the day it’ll give up the ghost

~

At the Worldwide Church of God, our worship services were held in a downtown storefront one year, a bingo hall the next, some years a Woodmen of the World office building—wherever there was cheap rent in the lowcountry and coastal plains of South Carolina, our congregation followed. The Church didn’t believe in owning building because God’s kingdom was nigh. It’d be wasteful to own pretty churches when we’d all soon be ushered to the Place of Safety out in the desert as the antichrist rose to power.

I hoisted myself out of my metal folding chair, away from the two-hour sermon and fidgeting congregation, and into the winter parking lot. Migraine compelled me like a spirit possession. If a voice asked, remember all those shiny bits of shale? I’d be the only girl nodding yes. Migraine suspended me between God and pavement. Between brick buildings, a parking lot packed with pickups, and a dirty, glass-hard inch of ice, I vomited on a short-stacked snow hill. Not much snow; enough ice to slip on. I wandered between cars in an onset daze. I slipped on the ice. Down hard, banged up, ass-hurt, and my head full of tar black detritus.

In the backseat of the family sedan where the sun tongued the window with such angled precision. I almost didn’t mind the light all around all around all around even with nowhere to fix my head into, no pillow to hide…But then I did mind it, or my head did. I slept through the service. I threw up all the hour’s drive home, my father stopping the car at intervals along the highway where I left splotches of bright yellow bile against green, green grass. Could be a painting.

A language you have yet to discover explains the world in plain, unfettered images. Its precursors—rather than alphabets and accent marks—are the viewfinder, the Venn diagram, the home movie, the black-and-white photograph. Then, the language of science with its apolipoproteins, receptors, amyloid precursor proteins, cutting enzymes called proteases that attack and cut the amyloid precursor proteins into fragments; phrases like cell death, memory loss, neurological dysfunction. Science is a language built on naming, but in the new language, the language you’ve yet to discover: the first time you played Pac-man, the joy with which you vanquished all those little dots, floating fruits, and snarky ghosts by swallowing them whole. Or the snapshot of the first crab you ever caught with a halved mussel between clothespins, the brine and tin of its shell. The brain’s multiverse where there are more planets than stars, more violent Big Bangs birthing than leaves on trees that speak to each other through root and pollen, where silent reflection becomes the perfect communication.

~

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Faint wisp, the lightest of all possible pencil marks, so delicate, but unmistakable as the same wraith vanishing into thin, electrified air. Woman in a brainstorm. Woman in locked synapse and frail-bone cage. Let it come! she’s screaming. She is definitely screaming out of her slit mouth. When I ask my father about this lady, the familiar wry smile crosses his mouth, a bag of alive flesh, a celebration of flesh, commemoration of a man in his decline, but he doesn’t have the words.

 


11049476_10153873535229097_5532949386870668733_nABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexis Orgera is the author of two books of poetry—How Like Foreign Objects and Dust Jacket, three chapbooks, and a forthcoming full-length collaboration with the poet Abraham Smith. Her poems, essays, interviews, and reviews can be found in Another Chicago Magazine, Bat City Review, Denver Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Drunken Boat, Everyday Genius, Forklift Ohio, Green Mountains Review, Gulf Coast, The Journal, jubilat, Memorious, Powder Keg, Prairie Schooner, The Rumpus, storySouth, Typo, and others. Her website is alexisorgera.com.

AUTHOR STATEMENT

YOU DON’T MIND: A MEMORABILIA is an experiment in the immediacy of grief. Written during the end stages of my father’s Alzheimer’s Disease, it was my way to both integrate the process of his dying into my writing life and a desperate act of making meaning out of an ultimately ugly reality. YDM chronicles both the visceral and the lyric experience of memory and pain. It’s a hybrid work: memoir-essay meets thought-experiment. I examine Alzheimer’s Disease and my dad—as well as my own migraines, dreams, and visions—through the lenses of mythology and religion, visual art, poetry, and science in seven main sections. Woven into the longer sections are short “photograph” lyrics that explore the manuscript’s cover photograph from various angles (forthcoming @ lumenmag.net). The narrative, as envisioned in the first section, deteriorates (deconstructs, decomposes) near the end of the manuscript into a sort of frantic lament for my father.