Tag Archives: cultural decay

Something Different

I am very close to finishing up Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, a novel which too few people today have ever read or even care about, and I will have something to say about that soon. But for now, I thought I’d post a short story I’ve written, whose title is…

The Decay of Memory

I

 The first and only time Terri Goodkind went to Vienna, she fell ill with a harrowing fever that kept her a prisoner in her boutique hotel room, shivering and sweating on a bed that was much too big for her aching body, and getting to know each crack in the salmon-colored walls far too well.

“If I’d known I was going to get this sick,” she would tell her children when she got home, wearied and depressed, “I’d have picked a nicer hotel.”

The trip had been a crazy idea, the kind of thing a middle-aged woman does when she realizes she’s getting older and may be running out of time to do the things she’s always dreamt of doing. The things that are commonly relegated to one’s “bucket list,” although Terri had always hated that term, saying, “Why put everything together into a bucket just to reach in and pull something out at random? If it’s important to you, you should do it intentionally, purposefully, as if it really means something.”

With Rob gone after years of illness and her 30-year marriage a piece of personal history, Terri found herself ready to travel but unwilling to visit either of her two children—both of whom would welcome her, certainly, but would do so out of a sense of obligation, perhaps even pity. Instead, she bought a ticket to Vienna one Saturday evening in January after watching a travel program about the city’s delights.

Vienna was one of the cities she’d missed when she had traveled through Europe after college with her cousin and Rob, back in the early 1980s. They had done the American equivalent of the Grand Tour but had somehow managed to leave out Vienna. When she asked her cousin why they’d skipped it, he couldn’t quite remember, but told her it was probably because they just didn’t want to leave Italy. They’d been having so much fun there, he said.

“We had a good time in Italy?” she had asked him over the phone, surprised. She remembered very little about their time there.

“Sure,” Alex replied. “Don’t you remember the beaches, the parties—the grappa?”

“Oh, right,” said Terri, and laughed. But after she’d hung up the phone, she wondered whether she had enjoyed her Italian experience as much as Alex had, or rather, as much as Alex thought he had. Had they really danced their way through Bacchanalian parties in Vomero with other college students? She wished she could ask Rob, but even if he were still alive, it had been a very long time since he’d had any grasp of any memories from their early years together.

During the flight across the Atlantic, Terri had congratulated herself on her resilience, her new-found independence, and her ability to get on with the business of living. She sustained her energetic optimism through two connecting flights—the last one delayed—a struggle with an awkward carry-on bag, and the silent and tense Uber ride to her tiny hotel, which was nestled in a non-descript part of Vienna. She could have believed she was anywhere, she thought, as she entered the lobby. While it didn’t look quite like New York City or even San Francisco, it bore no resemblance to the Vienna of her imagination.

She was tired by the time she reached her room, which was one of a half-dozen units that opened onto a central courtyard. Across the courtyard, she could see the hotel’s kitchen, as well as a few workers struggling to carry large pans from which steam floated in lazy, curling wisps. She would eat dinner there, Terri decided, rolling her suitcase into the alcove by the bathroom and sitting on the corner of the bed.

She looked at her surroundings. Four walls painted a shade of reddish-yellow, meant to be trendy but achieving only a sickly ambience. A rickety side table with a large, wine-red chair next to it. Wall sconce lighting above the bed. A spare but clean bathroom, with the shower, toilet, and sink tightly compressed into an efficient use of space never found in the United States. Threadbare but freshly vacuumed rugs, with foot traffic patterns clearly visible across the lavender and lime pile.

Terri resisted the urge to curl up on the bed. She was tired, but she knew the rule: to avoid jet lag, don’t succumb to the desire to sleep upon arrival. Push yourself to get out, walk, tour a museum or two, just keep moving as long as possible. Go to bed at 6 pm if necessary, but do all you can to reset your internal clock. And so, instead of lying down, she splashed cold water over her face and brushed her hair, even though she yearned for a long, hot shower.  She forced herself to put on her coat and walked back through the courtyard, where the tantalizing scent of fried onions, garlic, and something else—was it coriander?—floated through the wintry air. It wasn’t lunchtime yet, but the restaurant must have been preparing dishes ahead of time.

Terri made her way to the lobby, where she hesitated only a few seconds in warmth before pulling open the entry door and stepping outside onto the sidewalk. Her hotel looked like a normal apartment entrance; there was no real indication, except for the three stars on a plaque by the doorway, that it was indeed a hotel. It was colder than she thought it would be, and she fumbled with her zipper, pulling it all the way up to her neck.

Walking through streets she shared with businessmen and businesswomen, Terri admitted to herself that catching up on sleep was not the only reason she longed, despite her best judgment, to return to her room. Now that she was in Vienna, she realized what a crazy idea it had been for her to come here like this. Why hadn’t anyone stopped her?

It was more than crazy, she decided, the chill of the air seeping through her jacket and making her irritable. It was nothing short of cockamamie. She smiled, despite her growing sense of dismay. “Cockamamie”—that was a term her Brooklyn grandmother had used in the early 1960s, before Brooklyn had become a haven for millennials in search of success. During Terri’s childhood, Brooklyn had been an ethnic neighborhood, inhabited by Jewish and Italian families, by young men and women who would say, when asked where they were from, “New York,” ashamed of being a product of a lower-class neighborhood composed of people whose one unifying characteristic was the desire to escape to Manhattan as soon as possible. That Brooklyn, Terri knew and understood. It was the Brooklyn of six generations of Goodkinds like herself—although the name had originally been Gutkennt, Americanized, like so many other surnames, into a pair of syllables that denoted two unarguably benevolent adjectives—“good” and “kind.” Though she never told anyone this, fearful as she was of being ridiculed for sentimentality, Terri had tried throughout her life be both good and kind, but it had become increasingly difficult these last few years as she jostled her way through her fifties, burdened with Rob’s illness. The earlier decades, she thought, stepping around an older couple who were holding each other’s gloved hands as they shuffled down the sidewalk, had been easy enough, but now she was running out of her reserve of both goodness and kindness, and, most of all, out of patience. Perhaps she had been born with a certain supply of patience, just as all women were allotted, even before birth, a certain number of eggs, and when that stock was used up, she would be neither good nor kind any longer; she would enter a kind of ethical menopause, bereft not only of fertility, but of her rationed amount of shits to give as well.

Terri shook her head, trying to dispel these disconcerting thoughts. Snow flurries flitted through the air. She had not anticipated this kind of weather when she had planned the trip two months ago at her kitchen table in Virginia. Shoving her bare hands deep into her coat pockets, willing herself not to shiver, she walked through the streets, looking for a likely place to have lunch. It was only ten in the morning, however, and she knew it would be at least an hour before any restaurant would be open. A park opened on her left, across the street, and she made her way to it, entering through a set of magnificent gates that looked like they belonged in a palace.

“Cockamamie.” She thought about the strange word, wondered about its origins, and then remembered another word from her youth: “Nincompoop.” As her thoughts flitted from one ridiculous term to the other, Terri thought about how strangely satisfying words could be. In coming to Vienna, she had done something worthy of a nincompoop. Her Vienna trip, meant to heal the wounds left by lingering grief and emotional exhaustion, was nincompoopish. That wasn’t right, though. Nincompoopy? What was the adjectival form of “nincompoop”? Her teacher’s brain whirred but found no answer. Besides, all that  mattered was that she was a nincompoop for following through on this cockamamie idea of taking a vacation after Rob’s death.

But, she thought, as she sat down on a frigid park bench, was that really all that mattered? Like a nagging pain, her thoughts went on, stupidly, because she was too tired to corral them. She remembered that “nincompoop,” that outrageous-sounding word beloved by outspoken Yiddische bubbies and by small children alike, was actually a portmanteau—a word formed from a foreign expression. It derived from the Latin legal term non compos mentis, which translated as “not in control of one’s mind.” In other words, “insane.” Funny how a language takes its shape, Terri mused, then felt her stomach seize up a moment later, when she considered whether she herself was indeed non compos mentis.

After all, this half-planned trip to Vienna did appear to be the brain-child of someone who was slightly unhinged. That was another odd word, making it sound as if the lid of her brain was liable to fly off, unattached, loosing upon the world strange fancies and impressions that had escaped the stern censors of everyday life. Certainly there had been that incident at the doctor’s office last September, just after Rob’s death, when she wouldn’t allow the nurse to take her blood pressure, saying only, “I just don’t feel like it today” with a stiff smile as an explanation. On that day, Terri had learned that when a nurse spends more than five minutes typing notes into her tablet, it could result in the doctor’s earnest offer of a referral to a mental health professional.  She had declined back then, heartily sick of doctors and treatment plans, but now, sitting by herself on a bench in a park on the outskirts of Vienna, Terri wondered whether she should have taken him up on it.

Somewhere a church bell tolled twelve, and she realized it was noon. Where had the time gone? Restaurants should be open for lunch now, Terri realized, and she stood up, dusting a shallow layer of snow from her lap. She left the park, crossing the street again, and found a restaurant on the corner of the wide boulevard she had followed to the park. Once inside, she had to put her hand on the maître d’s podium to steady herself. The dark interior, combined with her growing sense of fatigue, was making her feel more than a little dizzy and disoriented.

She ordered a light meal and indulged in a glass of a local white wine. But after just a few mouthfuls, she set her fork and knife down on the table, no longer hungry. The wine, too, had lost its appeal, but Terri downed the last bit of it with a sense of determination. It was when she was handing her credit card to the obliging but somber-faced waiter that Terri first recognized the symptoms of what would turn out to be a debilitating illness.

II

Later that afternoon, when she woke up with her head pounding and her body damp from sweat, Terri admitted to herself that her malaise was not merely the result of exhaustion nor, indeed, even a normal cold. Her limbs ached terribly, as if she’d just played the most intense game of tug-of-war in her life, and she could not remember showering or putting on her nightgown and getting into bed. Yet her hair was damp, and she could see a bath towel draped over her open suitcase. She settled back beneath the comforter and fell back asleep, unable to make the effort to dig through her toiletry kit for aspirin or any other tablets to soothe her head.

For the next three days, Terri suffered.  

She lay, sometimes asleep, sometimes in a torpid state of semi-consciousness, shivering and sweating in turns, burying herself under the covers and huddling against inadequate pillows, only to fling them away from her, unable to bear even one more second of claustrophobic warmth. And all the while her head throbbed with an insistent and painful reminder that she was, indeed, still alive. Sometime in the early afternoon of her second day in Vienna, Terri got up and filled a large glass of water from the bathroom faucet and downed it quickly, before her stomach could rebel. She could feel the cool liquid make its way down her esophagus and into the very top of her stomach.

By now she was certain she had a fever, and probably a high one. But she never traveled with a thermometer, and indeed, hardly ever used one at home. Why bother? A person knew when she was sick, muttered Terri to herself. What kind of nincompoop doesn’t know when they’ve got a fever? She shuffled back to her bed, hoping that the sheets weren’t too damp with her sweat.

The pain in her head troubled her a great deal. It pounded, a furious and rhythmic sensation that felt like a hammer walloping at her from inside her skull. She had seen definite marks of illness when she’d looked at the bathroom mirror: unruly hair, flushed forehead, bright, watery eyes with no depth to them, like a still pond in winter that was just on the verge of freezing. But what did it matter? She was sick, she knew that well enough. What did anything matter in such a state?

Perhaps nihilism is an inevitable result of illness, especially when one falls ill far from home. Terri gave in completely to a lethargic, almost pleasant emptiness that second day of her trip. Death, a slow winding-down of life, a sweaty dissolution into nothingness, seemed the certain end to this experience, and, rather than fearing it, Terri accepted it. But what she could not feel for herself she did feel for others. She thought of other travelers who had died while abroad. She knew no one personally who had died in this way, but there was, of course, John Keats.

And once he came into her mind, he refused to leave it. She remembered, not bits of Endymion or Hyperion, nor loose-flowing lines of poetry about Grecian urns and unsated desire, words that might have soothed her and lulled her into a healing sleep, but instead her trip to Rome ten years earlier, when she had made Rob go with her to the Spanish Steps to see where the young poet had died. Rob had protested when she had leaned well over Keats’s narrow bed to catch a glimpse of the last thing he had ever seen: a patch of blue sky from the open window.

But now, teasing it over in her wearied mind, Terri doubted whether that had indeed been the last thing Keats had seen. Her own eyes open, staring first at the ceiling and then across the bed to the salmon-colored wall, she noted a network of small cracks in the plaster. “Why salmon?” she thought, listlessly at first, and then with some degree of hostility. It was such a silly color for a hotel room, which called, not for a bold or eccentric fashion statement but rather a bland neutrality that would welcome travelers with non-descript and comfortable banality.

Those cracks, too, bothered her, running as they did in hairline trails that, taken together, suggested objects such as a rabbit or a chair, only to slip off their identities, as a woman might shrug off her coat after changing her mind about going outdoors and deciding that she would, after all, stay inside a bit longer. Terri found the situation annoying and frustrating, not least because she suspected the entire thing was the result of a sick and fevered imagination.

By evening on that second day, Terri had gotten out of her bed only to go to the toilet and to fill her glass with water several times. She had at last found some tablets to take, and, too tired and sick to think about dinner, she had eaten a couple of stale crackers she’d saved from the airline meal the day before. Convinced that she would not sleep that night, Terri lay down again, resigned to tossing and turning throughout the long spring night, but she fell into a deep sleep composed of night sweats, nihilism, and poignant sorrow for Keats.

In the morning, Terri was feeling just well enough to shower. She dressed slowly, still unsteady on her feet, and avoided looking in the mirror. She waited for the hotel restaurant to open, intent on having a cup of sweet, hot tea to fortify her. She had not eaten since her Viennese lunch two days earlier, and though she felt weak enough to collapse into a spectacular and dramatic heap on her bed, she forced herself across the courtyard to the small hotel restaurant.

She was the first person to arrive for breakfast, and she had her choice of the best Kaiser rolls, sliced meats, boiled eggs, and creamy cheeses. Yet Terri could take no more than two bites of her buttered roll before she pushed it away, disgusted. The tea was good, though, and realizing she needed sustenance, she took another cup and loaded it with sugar. Today, she told herself as she left the table and made her way back to her room, she would feel better and get out to see some of Vienna. Walking might be impossible, but she could catch a tour bus that stopped nearby and see the city from the comfort of a double-decker.

She decided to rest a bit before exerting herself, however, and the next thing she knew, it was late afternoon. Terri realized that she would not be seeing Vienna that day, either. Three days into her seven-day trip to the center of the Hapsburg Empire, she had seen nothing but snow-dusted city streets, a dingy café, and her hotel room. At this rate, she thought, her most vivid memory of the trip would be of those cracks on the wall, which almost but not quite coalesced into the figure of a stout woman carrying a basket, only to rebel at the last instant and become an outsized cartoon elephant balanced on an improbably small ball.

And so she resigned herself to another day of rest and recuperation—except that there was no real recuperation. She wasn’t feeling any better. And although she wasn’t really feeling any worse, she didn’t like the fact that she was getting used to feeling badly. That thought scared her a bit. Was this how Rob felt when his memory started failing—thankful for what he had left, and asking for nothing more than a slow, ponderous slide into decay? Wasn’t it a good sign that she was frightened by this evidence that her nihilistic despair was receding far enough for her to begin to care about what happened to her?

That evening, she went back across the courtyard to get a bowl of soup for dinner, and, on her way back to her room, she picked up a trade paperback from the rack in the lobby. Still feeling exhausted but utterly tired of sleeping, Terri propped herself up with her pillows and read the book, a biography of an English actress she had admired. She read deep into the night. Sometimes she would drift off, waking when the book toppled from her hands onto her chin or her chest; at other times, she would stare, perplexed, as the words on the page separated into individual letters and scrambled across the page like a colony of angry and confused ants. Once, startled by this strange diacritical activity, Terri tossed the book aside, as if she had discovered real insects on the page, a linguistic hive skittering through the book.

III

At the Schonbrunn Palace the next afternoon, still feverish but heavily dosed with aspirin and just well enough to force herself into doing some sight-seeing, Terri surveyed the sad remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The rooms were smaller and less opulent than those of Versailles, but they were built and fashioned from identical material: the bodies and souls of men and women who had lived, labored, and suffered under Imperial rule.

Terri shivered against the cool draft blowing through the Grand Ballroom, and wished that the brightly-colored enameled woodstoves had been stoked and lit. They were ingenious contraptions, designed to be loaded from the back side, so that servants could tend to the fires without ever being seen by the people whom they served.

How convenient for Franz Joseph, Empress Sissy, and the rest of the Hapsburgs, thought Terri, as her fever-dried lips broke into a sardonic smile. Never to set eyes on the miserable creatures who wasted their lives in abject service. It was a brilliant idea, a fine concept—an image that should have been included in Yeats’s portrayal of Byzantium, where gilded mechanical birds, so much easier to care for than real ones, sang for the pleasure of withered Emperors. And in many ways, Terri thought, as her steps echoed through the room (for the Schonbrunn Palace was not a popular tourist destination in the middle of March), there was a Byzantine feel to Vienna that she had not expected. She tried to dredge up an interest in the lives and histories of the people and dynasties that had lived here, but she could not draw anything from her fevered brain save an overpowering sensation of revulsion. She was disgusted by late-Empire decadence, by what she was coming to see as the Viennese insistence on excess and its monstrous, insatiable appetite for power, beauty, and ornate, crushing adornment.

It was hypocritical, of course, for an American to feel this way. She realized this as she was drinking her tea in the Palace tearoom. She had no right to call any other culture out on its decadence or corruption—she who hailed from a nation consumed by excess, whose rapacity was pushing it to a level never yet seen in history. She had no right to condemn the Hapsburgs, she told herself.

A man sat down at the end of her table, and Terri peeked at him over the rim of her teacup. He was well dressed, his dark-gray suit perfectly pressed, his shirt a starched and blinding white. The only concession he’d made to creative fashion was his tie, a loosely knotted slash of green silk, complemented by the shock of blond hair that fell across his forehead and bobbed slightly as he worked his fork over and through the slice of apfelstrudel he had ordered. Teri couldn’t see his eyes, didn’t dare to look at him that long, but she guessed they’d be bright blue, or perhaps green.  She continued her internal conversation as she placed her empty cup on the counter and left the store, wondering whether this man might have a Hapsburg ancestor or two in his family tree.

It felt good to leave the Palace and walk outside in the brisk March air. The sun had come out, and, still feverish, Terri welcomed the cool breeze on her aching head. She knew she was being unfair to the man at her table—he might not have been a descendant of Emperor Franz Josef, might not even have been Austrian, for that matter. But she was still very sick and far from the comforts of home, and she was in no mood to be charitable. The smell of decay, the odor from waning civilizations and empires, was strong in her nostrils, as if she had inhaled some unseen smoke from those enormous porcelain stoves that drifted through the Palace rooms for years after they had last been lit and had somehow gotten lodged in her sinuses, the way cigarette smoke remains in your hair long after you’ve left a bar or dance club. Nothing could remove that stale odor, Terri knew, except water and shampoo. What would it take to get rid of the pervasive scent of cultural decadence, that aroma of mingled delight and decay, that encompassed both the best and the worst of human culture?

What a stupid, overdramatic question, Terri decided, once she was back in her hotel room, laying, utterly exhausted, on her bed. She greeted the cracked plaster of the walls and ceiling as if it were an old friend, smiling at it as she allowed her head to sink into the pillow. This feeling of inertia, which comes after intense exertion, was delicious. Was it this sensation that marathon runners felt after the adrenaline rush of crossing the finish line had subsided? This glorious sense of virtue rewarded, this muscular exhaustion that came from exerting one’s will over all obstacles–the biggest being the human inclination towards laziness–in order to achieve one’s goal? Terri considered the question for a moment, resolved to ask her triathlete son about it, then shut her weary, aching eyes and fell fast asleep.

Feverish dreams assailed her almost at once, flitting through her embattled consciousness like dragonflies hovering over a pond on a summer’s day. Mostly images of the day: the bus ride to the Palace, the long, wearying walk up the path to get into the museum, the empty halls, the sharp click of her shoes on the marble tiles of the Grand Ballroom, which, dreamlike, turned into the tapping of a conductor’s baton and was still audible even through an orchestra’s rendition of The Blue Danube Waltz.

How she longed to see the beautiful dresses and starched military uniforms of the dancers! Was this dream a cultural memory, a buried recollection of a time when such opulence could exist without guilt? Did beauty—for waltzes and music, yes, and even palaces and intricate woodstoves were indeed beautiful—did beauty always have to come with remorse and shame? In her dream, as the couples whirled by, blissfully unconscious of the difficult question they posed, Terri contemplated it and could not find her way to an answer.

Waking in the darkness of her room, Terri heard waiters talking and the clink of dishes being cleared from across the courtyard. She realized at once that she had missed dinner. No matter—she wasn’t hungry, anyway. She could not really believe that she would ever be hungry again. Some hot tea would have been nice, however, and might have settled the gnawing, uncomfortable feeling in her stomach.

She lay in the dark, trying to remember what it was she had planned to do this evening. Was there a concert? An opera, perhaps? A night-time ride on the Ferris wheel made famous by Orson Welles in The Third Man? It didn’t matter, Terri told herself, shutting her eyes against the dark: she was going nowhere tonight.

But why couldn’t she remember what it was she had originally planned? Was it just the fever, or could it be that she was no longer able to rely on her own memory? Had she used it up, perhaps, serving as Rob’s memory, too, for these past five years? The thought terrified her at first, but after a few minutes, she shrugged. Everyone suffered some memory decline, she realized. In fact, memories themselves decayed, growing less sharp, less precise, over time. What was she wearing when she first met Rob, anyway? What was their first argument about? And, for that matter, what color were Rob’s eyes?

Terri stopped, panicked. She held her breath for one, two, three seconds. What color were Rob’s eyes? She tried to pull up a happy memory of him, a moment from ten years before, when they had been drinking coffee in their backyard. They had laughed at some joke and then looked at each other. But Terri couldn’t get Rob to look at her in her memory of that moment. He was like the man in the Schonbrunn Palace tea shop, looking down at his coffee mug—or was it a slice of cake?—completely absorbed by it, unable or unwilling to lift his head and meet her gaze. Terri felt another wave of panic grip her stomach. She sat up and turned on the light.

Time, and history itself, moved in cycles. She was surely at a low point in her own time cycle, Terri realized. It wasn’t so much that she was sad or depressed; it was just that she had nothing to look forward to, no landmarks to head towards. She was languishing, like a drifting sailboat, in an endless bay of despair.

She had left Virginia for a vacation from that bay, for a chance to re-set her life, to restock it with new memories, but it turned out that decay had not only followed her; it had lain in wait here in Vienna, hidden like a lion ready to pounce on an unwary gazelle. Her illness, which had stripped her of both stamina and will, had left her no blindfolds, no distractions. What started as a tourist outing had turned into a harsh look at European dissipation, at the decadence of a Viennese court that prefigured the opulence, at the self-indulgence of her own country. But even more damaging, it had also anticipated the decay of her memory, of herself, of her very person.

Panicking, Terri grabbed her phone and dialed the airline. She would leave the next day. Her trip to Vienna was over. She would be drinking no Viennese coffee, ordering no sacher torte that she could not stomach, scheduling no visits to ornate buildings that housed priceless books or dancing white horses. She had finished with Vienna, just as she had finished with Rob and the life they had made together. Going home, she decided, was the only honest thing left for her to do.

IV

Was it a delicious sense of irony, or simply the relief of ending this trip, fraught as it was with suffering, that made Terri laugh out loud when, buckled into her seat and awaiting take-off the next afternoon, she heard “The Blue Danube” piped through the jet’s sound system? Terri didn’t allow herself to think about it. She watched, satisfied, as Vienna—the Staatsoper, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the Kirche am Steinhof—grew smaller beneath the plane’s wings, fading like old memories as she ascended through the thick white clouds, making her way back home.

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