Here Be Monsters
by Lynn Bartels
I had never been Medusa's friend, but we had lunch occasionally. We would sit by the riverbank, Reuben sandwich and ambrosia salad.
Actually, I had the sandwich; Medusa only ever ate the ambrosia. Always the same, even the very first day, when I realized that half was more than enough for me, I offered the remaining piece and cup of sweet creamy fruit to the woman who shared my bench.
I had to clear my throat to get her attention. Somehow that seemed more acceptable than "hey you." She turned toward me, her long dreadlocks kept clear of her face by a teal blue scarf worn as a headband. The dark tendrils bounced and swayed, each ending in either a black bead with two red dots, or a brown bead with two yellow ones. Her wrinkled skin was the color of toasted coconut, so her parentage was obscure. She could be Latin, possibly black, or even just sun-tanned to that point of no return. It didn't matter over the two years of our acquaintance I never bothered to ask.
Most likely we were close to the same age, but for some reason she always seemed ancient in my mind. Her clothes were worn, but serviceable. Usually she wore a cardigan, always free of holes, yet rarely having all of its buttons. Her colors seemed to reflect the earth, brown and grey in fall and winter, green, yellow and cream in summer and spring. Only the scarves she used to tame her wild array of locks ever showed any bright hue—sometimes teal or orange, other days purple or pink.
Not that I can say anything, since my clothes reflected the touch of youth I couldn't bear to give up. Many times I wore lilac or mint, too young for my age. Like that day, my flower print skirt and peach sweater set belonged to a time before arthritis declared war on my hands, when my knuckles were not so swollen that I could no longer remove my rings.
Yet, I didn't care about that at the time. Instead, I opened the styrofoam box and removed the cup of salad. Silently I handed Medusa the plastic fork then watched as she pried the lid off the container.
Sometimes we would talk, but our conversation tended to run parallel, rarely intersecting.
The first few lunches I tried the give and take of normal discourse, but she would not have it. Her answers became short, distracted and mumbled. It worked better to let her speak what was on her mind, listen to the rambling. In turn, she did the same for me.
One day I watched as she dipped the fork in the sticky white salad. As usual she seemed to manage to get a miniature marshmallow with every bite. I ran my finger along the crust of rye bread. I had no appetite.
But I needed to talk, so I had brought lunch, as was our custom.
"I went with my daughter this morning to get the results of my tests." Medusa nodded without looking up from her food. One dreadlock swooped down close to her fork she waved it away with her hand.
"You know, that doctor who Bethany's friend suggested." Bethany was my daughter, busy with her life, rarely home now that her father is gone.
They had always shared a special bond. She was much closer to him talking books and characters than she had ever been making cupcakes with me.
"It seems some protein is high in my blood, the CAT scan shows some lesions, my vocabulary recognition scores have deteriorated, all indicative of Alzheimer's." Suddenly my vision blurred slightly. I should have been embarrassed by my tears ï¿½ I was never one for being demonstrative in public—but I was just relieved to be feeling something.
While in the doctor's office and then again in the car, it seemed Bethany was waiting for my reaction. All I could do was sit and think: I should be upset, this is devastating news, but no matter where I searched, I could not find any hurt, no desperation, nothing. I guess I just needed time for it to seep through my slow moving brain.
"False gods are so annoying," Medusa commented, licking the fork before wrapping it in a napkin. "I always hate the way they think they have some ordained right to affect the lives of others." I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand and took in a shaky breath.
"Real gods, now they live their own lives," she continued. "Not that they don't meddle, they meddle plenty, but only when someone does something to attract their attention. They don't consider it their job to interfere on a daily basis." My eyes cleared and the clasp of my bra pressed into my back a bit as I let the wooden slat of the bench help support me. I found my voice and started the process of adjusting to my new future. "It is not as if I can say I am surprised. I think the idea of Alzheimer's has been on my mind ever since I first started having memory problems." "But the false ones, they refuse to take responsibility for their actions." Medusa paused as she leaned over and set the container and the wrapped fork on the concrete at her feet.
My turn to speak. "Last week I could not remember how to work the microwave. I've had the same one for years, but for one morning I couldn't remember if you hit the time first and then the power, or the power first and then the time, or the start button and then the time or maybe power. I finally made my coffee with hot water from the tap." "Now a real god may change someone's life. They may not admit it was wrong, even when it obviously was, but they will always admit that it was their doing." I closed the container, leaving the sandwich untouched. "I quit using aluminum pans years ago. As soon as I heard that aluminum might have something to do with Alzheimer's. But apparently it's in everything, even deodorant. Which could be it—I've used deodorant every day of my life—started when I was thirteen." Medusa leaned back like I had and tipped her face up to the sun. "And now there are so many of them, false gods I mean. The real ones, well, there never were a lot of them to begin with, but now—well now there are even less." Lost to our thoughts for a bit, we shared the silence like we shared conversation, together and, in a way, apart. As much as I hated it, I knew it was getting time to leave. The shadows had lengthened and I needed to walk by the store to get something that might tempt me for dinner—a breast of chicken or maybe a sausage.
Pushing the container with the uneaten sandwich over to Medusa, I started to stand. "For your friend Cy. With luck he will be hungry enough to eat the whole thing today." It was part of the ritual we established with the first lunch. I always left the half I did not eat and she always took it for Cy. I was not sure if there was a Cy who loved Reubens, but I always hoped there was. One of us should have someone to share dinner with.
She reached out and placed her hand on mine. Together the difference in color was accented; my skin seemed translucent, pale and hers dark, almost ebony.
"You have a kind heart," she said.
"Thank you," I whispered and started to slip my hand out from under hers.
Her grip tightened. "I have someplace to show you." For a moment we just looked at each other. "Is it far?" "No" she answered as her dread locks bobbed and weaved in a wind I did not feel.
"Okay," I breathed out.
Sticky notes are everywhere, like ice in the aftermath of a sudden winter storm, except they reflected yellow in the sunlight. Bethany's attempt to support my failing memory. Appliances got double treatment - one with their name and another with directions on how to use them.
Very simple directions: push big white button to open door, put cup inside, close door, etc. And very simple warnings: HOT, DO NOT USE, PUT WATER IN FIRST, all in big block letters.
I hate this. But even more I hate the short periods of time I don't need it. The on again off again ability of my mind to function like it should. The scattered mornings I am clear and there is no confusion.
The occasional hour I know where everything is, what everything does and am so aware of what I'm losing.
It's time to go, safer to live in an assisted facility. A place where others can make sure there is dinner available and that I actually remember to eat it. People to do my laundry and clean my apartment. But most importantly, help to make sure I take my medication, which has the annoying habit of not working if you miss your dose.
A nice place, not that much smaller than where I live now, but still unable to hold the clutter my life has accumulated. Bethany has been working with me to decide what to take. A few full boxes sit near the couch. How can so many years fit in such a small pile of containers? The newer photo albums sit off to the side. I have a harder time recognizing the people in them. Instead I have taken the ones from before we moved out of our big house. Pages of Bethany in college, in high school, in girl scouts and in diapers. Our family, while I was still the mother, Greg the father and Bethany the child. Fun times, when we bought our first house, first car and had small but loving Christmases.
Most importantly, I have my wedding picture—Greg and I, all smiles and youth. Dianne, Bethany's partner, was over helping us sort things when I took it down from the wall.
"Is that you and your husband?" she asked.
"Yes, this is me and Greg." I smiled. "We used to call his winkie, Harold." I sighed. "I miss Harold." Everyone was silent for a minute.
But even then it did not dawn that my words were betraying me again.
Of course, it could just be Bethany; she's a lesbian, she was one even before it was fashionable. I assume Dianne is too. Most likely they have not had many Harolds in their lives.
It doesn't matter, just the fact that I can recognize the interaction now as a faux pas, shows I am having a few moments of normalcy. And suddenly, I know what I want. I want to go see Medusa. I want to sit in the park she took me to. I could think clearly there.
That day I followed her down 28th street, the buildings reaching progressive stages of neglect, we moved in silence. Something furry scampered over the curb and ducked into a sewer. I nearly stumbled on a half-crushed beer can as I turned to look. A part of me felt I should be concerned. This was not a section of town I belonged in. But on I walked.
We turned left on Overlook and entered a residential neighborhood. Big houses with wide porches, some surrounded by chain link. Lawn care seemed to be optional. Down a block, after we passed Hellsgate Ave., was an overrun park surrounded by a wrought iron fence.
We followed the repetitive spikes to the entrance. There, framed by a large wrought iron archway was a fountain. Water poured over a flat piece of stone on which eternally sailed a bronze ship. Carved along the wide circular base were the words, "Here there be monsters." Medusa grabbed my hand as the cracked concrete sidewalk changed to slate, slightly uneven with age and we entered the park. Once we reached the fountain, her fingers dropped mine and she sat upon the ledge.
"This is a special place. I think you, too, will like it here. " I sat next to her and looked around. From this side of the arch, it became apparent that the foliage was not overgrown, but wild flowers and full bushes that seemed to give that appearance at first glance. It was pretty, very pretty.
"Thank you," I responded, and I meant it. The gentle splash of the water behind me and the soft colors of the flower-filled borders began to take the stress from my shoulders. As we sat, I relaxed. Neither my life, nor my future seemed so important.
It was not that day that I first saw the snakes, but a week later when I brought lunch, this time directly to the park. I hesitated under the archway. Something felt ï¿½ not right. A vague smell of over-ripe fruit filled the air. For a minute part of me refused to enter.
Then Medusa appeared and held out her hand. As her fingers touched mine, my anxiety evaporated. I crossed onto the slate path and smiled.
We didn't sit on the fountain ledge that day. Instead we went further into the park.
Around a corner the foliage opened to a large pond. Sitting on an outcropping of rocks not far from the center was an older man. He looked up from his fishing and waved. Medusa waved back.
"That's Den. Mostly he fishes, but sometimes he takes to swimming." I just nodded and shyly lifted my hand in acknowledgement. The water sparkled blue, and for a minute I thought I could smell the sea. Maybe it was just the fish that sat in his bucket.
We walked on, I assumed to take a tour of the park. The path seemed to wind, and wild flowers I had never seen before lined beautiful little clearings, some no bigger than an alcove, others small meadows. From behind us came the sound of an engine, growing louder as it neared.
Medusa stopped and stepped to the side of the path. I followed her lead. An officer on a three-wheel motorcycle pulled up to stop beside us. He took off his sunglasses and looked me over. He had a full beard and mustache, and more than a few wrinkles around his eyes, but his shoulders still looked powerful and the muscles on his arms stretched his shirtsleeves to their limit. He did not look happy.
"Zeus, meet Lillian, she's my friend." Medusa nodded in my direction.
"Nice to meet you," I whispered as a peace offering.
He didn't respond but studied my face as if it told my character. I returned his gaze. His eyes were startlingly blue.
"Don't be rude," Medusa stated without reprimand, then repeated, "She's my friend." "I hope you enjoy your time here." His voice was gruff, but his look softened. His gaze shifted to Medusa. "You be careful now," he said.
With a slight kick, the cycle engine roared and off he took down the path.
"Don't mind him, conversation's not his strong point, but he keeps the park safe." "He seems to do a good job." For being in such a bad area of town, I had not seen one spray of paint or word of graffiti. No vandalism, or for that matter, any groups of teenagers hanging around.
We came to a big oak tree and a bench that sat in the shade. Medusa walked through the slightly long grass and motioned me to follow her.
Once seated, I opened the styrofoam container and handed her the cup of ambrosia and a fork. Violets grew around the base of the tree and though I could hear birds all around us, no white splatters marred the walkway.
"Cy walks this path most days. I'll introduce you if he comes by." "That would be nice," I answered. And it would be, to finally put a face with the name I had heard so many times before. I took out half the Reuben sandwich and started to close the container.
Her hand covered mine. "Don't, the smell will bring him to us." I took an involuntary sniff, and could not detect anything but spring air scented vaguely with nectar.
It was then that I saw the snakes. Out of the corner of my eye, first a slick black one with red eyes, then a dull brown one with yellow eyes, separated and curled from the mass of dreadlocks held back by the scarf. They rose in the air and turned to look at me. Two tongues came out, tasting the breeze.
It would have startled me, but nothing startled me any more. My world no long consisted of the solid boundaries it used to. It must be the Alzheimer's, I thought. I could live with this, at least I was not confused. I hate it when my mind feels like it left something on, then took off for vacation.
So I crunched a bit of sauerkraut between my teeth and kept my eyes ahead, but just short of the edge of my vision one curl after another moved with purpose. More tongues flicked like sparks and unblinking eyes shared our view of the purple and pink wild flowers.
I fought the urge to turn and look. Maybe I did not want to know. Or maybe I already did.
Tired of the anger and desperation in my life I had settled into a melancholy peacefulness—a reluctant surrender, my compromise with fate and god. So I no longer needed to understand why things happen, just that they do. On that bench, in the shade of that tree, I was safe. Everything was better. Not just for me, but Medusa too. Here we held conversation, gone was her distracted monologue.
I could handle snakes for that.
Today as I sit among the yellow reminders, next to the boxes of my life, I realize I may never get back to Medusa. The times of clear thinking come less often and never last long.
Urgency wells up and forces me off the couch. I must go, and I must go now. Tomorrow I will be across town, worse yet, tonight I might not remember the way.
I grab my sweater from the hall closet and head for the door. My wedding ring clacks against the cold knob, and for a minute I look back. I do not want to leave Greg here.
I find him in the second box down from the stack next to the couch.
Luckily, my cloth knitting-bag is in there too. I dump out the aqua blue yarn that was half way to being a sweater, or was it a scarf? For a minute my memory flickers.
Panic creeps up my fingers and I look away from the yarn. Shoving my wedding picture in the bag, I run to the kitchen. Concentrate, that is what the therapist had said. So I stand on the tile floor and stare at the table.
I have my sweater on, and I was leaving. I know that much. I walk to the table and grab a bag of Hershey kisses that sits where the candy dish used to be. Next I pick up the half package of Fig Newtons and add it to my bag. Under the cookies sits the take out menus I used to peruse on those nights I was too tired, or bored to cook.
The top one is from Katzingers, the deli. And suddenly I remember.
Medusa. I was going to see Medusa. Stopping only to grab my purse from the counter, I head back for the door.
I do not let my eyes wander. My focus is the door, and after that the hall, and then of course, the outside. The truth had been in front of me all the time. If only I can hold on to it long enough to get there.
My feet increase their pace. Somehow I know this is my last chance.
The first day Medusa and I waited for Cy he never showed up. It was not until my fourth visit that I met her shy friend. By that time I was familiar enough to wave at Den, and Zeus even winked at me as he made his rounds.
Medusa and I had walked to the back of the park where a few stone tables and benches sat tucked behind a large patch of honeysuckle bushes. Seated at one of them was a figure stooped over a newspaper. We approached quietly as not to interrupt his reading.
At first I was not prepared for the sight I was to see. An old brown knit cap was pulled down over his bald head. His face was broad and the features seemed a little off kilter. There was a patch over the place his right eye should be. It was a little disconcerting, but then he smiled and all seemed fine.
We talked for a bit. After a slow start, he turned out to be quite the conversationalist. Besides my half Reuben sandwiches, Medusa often brings Cy a newspaper. There is a machine near the river where we used to sit. But Medusa was quick to tell me that most days at least one paper gets left at the bus stop across the street from the park.
He reads every page, even the ads. Mainly he enjoys the political commentary. Election years really get him riled up. He doesn't appear to favor one party over the other, he just likes to argue whatever side of the issue you are not taking.
By then I was used to the snakes. In fact, at times Den's wading boots looked so slick and tight I would swear they were skin, of course that is not even mentioning the scales. Somedays Zeus' nightstick would for a moment or two reflect the light and seem longer in shape, occasionally throwing off sparks. Then, of course, there was the fact that it never rained here. No matter what the weather on the other side of the gate, here it was spring, with maybe a hint of a breeze.
A car honks and I stop short of stepping off the curb in front of it.
The light has changed from red to green and I didn't notice. I look at the street sign. It says Granview Avenue, but for a moment it doesn't seem right.
I turn and look back over my shoulder. The river is behind me, as it should be. I need to walk east and then north. As the light changes I lower my head a bit and start off again.
Concentrate. I can see my shoes and the wet brown leaves that have collected by the edge of the sidewalk. They look familiar; they look like autumn; Halloween and pumpkins; bonfires and heavier coats. Is this October? My internal calendar slides the months around. I do not know, I can not come up with what month it is.
Concentrate. I do not care what month it is. When I get there, to the special place, I will be able to think. Then I will find out what month it is. Or maybe it just won't matter. I start to count the sidewalk breaks.
The buildings change to houses and I know I have to turn. This makes me smile. Nothing is as comforting as knowing. It's a feeling I rarely experience any more.
A chainlink fence runs down the street and I follow it like a guide.
Three blocks become four and then four becomes five. I should be counting the lights; I used to do that. Yet, it seems too hard.
I look down the way to find my destination. Like a swimmer, I can feel myself tire. Now I know how people drown. It becomes so much work to get to shore that you finally just surrender.
The houses do not seem familiar anymore so I stop. Bewilderment settles around me and the shock is almost enough to bring me back to the surface. I want, I want so badly. Part of me fights to keep hold of my purpose. Yet the rest of me starts to look for Bethany, I think she was coming to take me to dinner. I think.
The soft sound of water splashing draws my attention. A fountain sits not far, just beyond the cracked concrete sidewalk, through the wrought iron archway, surrounded by a slate path.
The words on the base of the fountain read, "Here there be monsters." I whisper the saying to myself and something pulls at me. My hand reaches out as if to grasp the information that my mind can not find.
But confusion washes over me. Despair envelopes my heart, dragging me slowly down to where I will fight no longer.
Suddenly warm brown fingers slide over mine and grip tight. I am pulled across the entrance, under the archway and on to the slate path.
Medusa smiles as I stumble into her. After a startled moment, I laugh.
"I almost didn't make it," I say.
"I know," she answers.
Story Copyright © 2007 by Lynn Bartels. All rights reserved.
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About the author
An active member of The Naked Word Shop writing group, Lynn Bartels lives in Ohio with her two college-age sons, one cat and one dog. Semi-retired, she works as a substitute teacher when the mood strikes. During the summer she is a Guest Instructor at the Thurber House Children's Summer Writing Program.