J. B. Polk


January 2, 2016

As I stand in front of the open kitchen drawer, I’m trying to remember why I’ve opened it. It’s full of things whose uses I am not sure of. I bought most of them in spur-of-the-moment shopping binges in the Chinese mall near the college where I teach creative writing to students who dream of becoming future Nobel Prize winners but who finally settle for jobs in local schools. The remaining items, advertised as “gadgets a self-respecting cook cannot do without,” came from online catalogs or websites.

I’ve used some of them once. Twice, at most. The others are still in the same plastic wrappers they were in the day they left the production line in Beijing. Or Taiwan. Why did I buy them in the first place? Probably because I am a cheapist, a person who “delights in finding cheap articles to help her live frugally.” A definition I found on a cheapist website and whose accuracy I now doubt.

Just like finding objects I never use, I love discovering new words. The same way I found the concept of cheapism which I then wrote in the ninety-page notebook that I have kept for that purpose for the last twenty-five years. It has hundreds of words and I know them all. Words such as “apricate,” which means “to bask in the sunshine.”

“Like cats, I love apricating, especially in winter,” I say to myself. Using the word is like trying on new shoes, to see if they fit. This one does, feels comfortable and I’m satisfied.

Two rows down there is “eschew”—a fancier word for “avoid.” At the bottom of the page, I spot “insouciant”—the synonym of “not bothered.” Words that, like the items I buy, I seldom use but cherish keeping in my notebook and in the drawer of my memory. Terms that I apply in mental conversations with myself because if I said them in real life, few people would understand.

I peep into the drawer again, full to the brim with articles that I have no need for. I realize that I’ve been deceiving myself. The truth is, the money I’ve spent on the objects that gather dust for the entirety of their useful lives makes me the opposite of frugal. A plain and simple waste. Like the words that I religiously write in my notebook and then consign to oblivion.

I see a thing shaped like a banana with stripes of plastic between the upper and lower borders. It is supposed to “cut whole bananas into thin ultra-uniform slices.” I must have used it once because the wrapper is gone, but I can’t remember when or for what. A banana smoothie? Why would a banana smoothie need ultra-uniform slices?

It is lying next to the hot dog slicer, the strawberry slicer, and the avocado slicer (yes, I bought one even though I hate avocados). I seem to have all the special slicers that exist but which I rarely use or have never used at all. I “eschew” finding a reason for my impromptu buying habits. Or writing down words that are too complicated to use in everyday conversations.

The next piece looks like two ferocious lion paws. They are meat-shredding claws that I bought from a catalog because of the wild call of “buy buy buy” uttered by my inner carnivore and my deep-seated cheapism. I must confess that they are completely useless for anyone (even for an inveterate meat-eater like me) unless one buys them for a barbecue addict or a chef who regularly grills whole hogs on the garden spit.

Next, I catch a glimpse of something that looks like a metal ring with another metal ring in the middle. I imagine it must be a medieval instrument of torture because as much as I try to remember, I cannot figure out its use. A thumbscrew, I think, or something equally grotesque.

And that brings me back to wondering why I’ve opened the drawer in the first place. I stare at the contents then look around trying to find something that would remind me. Was I making tea and needed a spoon? Or maybe I was about to prepare a grilled cheese sandwich and wanted to grate some parmesan on the cheese slicer that lies between the banana slicer and the avocado slicer? No to both—the kettle is empty and my stomach purrs gently telling me it’s satisfied.

It may sound crazy, but as I rack my brains, a ticking sound goes off in my head. Click…click…click. Three sounds that resemble the crackling of a live wire touching water. I know it must be my imagination, but it seems so real that I bring my hands up to my temples and rub them for a few seconds to stop the noise. Click…click… Down to two, but still there.

In the end, I shut the drawer without ever recalling what it was that I was looking for. Pretty sure it was not the avocado slicer.

April 5, 2016

When the phone rings, I’ve been trying to find my car keys for more than forty minutes. I’ve checked my handbag, the pewter plate on the counter I sometimes leave my keys in, the pockets of the tweed jacket I wore this morning and ten other places, including inside the fridge. I even lift the doormat. Nothing, apart from a Freshen-Up mint wrapper.

I jump up on the fourth ring, knock my knee against the coffee table, making the pile of ungraded students’ papers lying on it fall to the floor. They slide off with a swish and, because they are not attached by clips or staples, they spread around the parquet like a white rug. I despair at the prospect of having to collect and sort them out then pick up the phone that keeps buzzing.

“Yes?” I am breathless and annoyed.

“Lauren?” It is Ros, my boss.

“Of course, it is Lauren, who else,” I snap, think better of my tone and add: “Yes, it’s me.”

There is a moment of silence then she continues.

“Lauren…you are supposed to be here. You should be in class right now.”

It’s my turn to be silent.

“What do you mean I should be in class? It’s not an April Fool’s Day joke, is it, Ros? Today is Monday, April the fourth, not the first.”

Silence again.

“No…it…is…not,” Ros pauses after each word.

“It is Tuesday, April the fifth, Lauren. Every Tuesday this semester you have a 10 a.m. class with six students who are waiting for you. Like—right now!” She puts a stress on the last two words.

I want to challenge her and tell her that she got it all wrong but unless I hang up, I cannot check the calendar on my mobile phone.

“It cannot be Tuesday,” my mind screams.

“Because if it is, what happened to the whole of Monday?”

I cannot remember anything. What was I doing yesterday?

“Are you…sure?” my voice is barely a whisper.

“Of course I’m sure. And I’m phoning you only because it’s the second time this semester that you’ve forgotten your class.”

My heart sinks. What is she saying? Second time? There’s no way I would have forgotten twice.

“Ros…” The word comes out like a hiccup.

“When…when was the first time I forgot?”

I hear a rustle of sheets as she looks at something then answers.

“Three weeks ago. Just after the spring break. An afternoon skill builder. 5 to 7 p.m.”

My mind is empty. Words seem to have abandoned me. I hear the same click…click…click in my brain. I know it is not tinnitus because I have suffered from it before. It was a whoosh whoosh and not a click click noise and, in the ears, not in the head. This click…click…click…resonates as if something was short circuiting or a thermostat was overheating in my head.

“I…I am so sorry,” I finally manage with another hiccup.

“It won’t happen again.”

Her tone is softer when she says: “I’m sure it won’t, Lauren. But if I were you…” A pause as if she were trying to choose the right words. And I can understand her because sometimes words don’t come easy, as F.R. David already observed in his song.

“I’d start writing appointments and things in your phone. Or maybe in a diary. Or even on a piece of paper,” Ros says.

I thank her then hang up. All around me the cascade of ungraded papers sighs under my feet as I sit on the sofa trying to calm down. I realize with a jolt that I cannot remember what I had been looking for before Ros phoned…

October 15, 2016

The burst of a song surging from the door to my office takes me by surprise.

“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday, dear Lauren…”

Ros and Emily, Ros’s personal assistant, are standing in the threshold. Emily is holding a small cake with pink and blue frosting topped by what seems like a million burning candles. They dazzle. I blink then furrow my brow to hide my surprise.

Emily and Ros inch their way into the room. The cake wobbles dangerously, the candles flicker and I rack my brains for an explanation.

“Blow out the candles and make a wish!” Emily tweets in her chirpy voice. In addition to her voice, everything else about Emily is bird-like—her hair is a magpie’s nest, the nose is a pronounced beak and her fingers sport long red-painted nails.

“What are they doing here? Why the cake?” I try not to panic but my gut fills with foreboding.

“It’s not every day that one turns sixty,” Ros says.

“But you don’t look a day over fifty,” she quickly tries to cover up for the faux pas of pointing to my age.

“Is it…my birthday?” I think and try to establish today’s date. It’s October, I know that. And today is Tuesday… Or is it Thursday? It could be either because I have classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And if it’s Thursday, then it must be the fifteenth. My birthday…my sixtieth birthday.

I quickly manage to wipe off the shock and change my facial expression to one of gratitude.

“Thank you! Thank you so much!” I approach ready to blow out the candles.

I fill my lungs with air when Ros stops me: “First tell us your wish!”

I feel a lump like an ice cube stuck in my throat. I want to say that the only thing I wish for is to go back to the times when I didn’t have to fight to remember dates. Appointments. Words. Instead, I say: “I wish…I wish I could take a summer vacation in Hawaii next summer.”

I nearly choke on the lie, swallow then blow out the candles.

December 3, 2016

“I’m sorry,” Doctor Jensen says.

But is he really? I doubt it because his face remains noncommittal and his voice is inflectionless, as if he were announcing that Christmas was just around the corner and it was time to buy presents.

“The news is not good.”

“No shit.” I want to be vulgar but instead squeeze Richard, my son’s hand to steady my nerves. He squeezes back.

“Middle-stage Alzheimer’s,” Jensen throws at us.

Although the words are terrible, it is no surprise. I knew that things were not right. Or rather, I knew things were bad. Maybe not as bad as dementia but not good at all.

“As you might already know, there’s no cure. Not at present, anyway,” Jensen adds but all I can think of is that, indeed, Christmas is approaching and I haven’t bought any presents yet. I usually shop in November but this year, worried about the sudden loss of memory and my mood shifts, I haven’t gone out much.

I promise myself that as soon as we are done here, I’ll stop at the mall to buy a nice pair of bell-bottomed jeans for Anne, my granddaughter and a cashmere sweater for Brianna, her mother. Soft blue cashmere to enhance her lovely features. Richard is easy—he collects pipes so a nice meerschaum from the tobacconist…

“…confusion and difficulty organizing thoughts or following logic. She will forget the meaning of words, might get disoriented to time and place and may not understand problems. She will remember things that are long gone, but will forget names and faces,” Jensen is talking to Richard, not me.

I’m about to stand up when Richard puts a calming hand on my arm.

“Not yet, mum. Let doctor Jensen explain,” he says.

I sit down again. Why are we here? Is Richard sick? And who is this doctor? Richard’s pediatrician is not called Jensen but Vergara, a nice second-generation Mexican with a Che Guevara mustache and warm honey-colored eyes. He always carries Jolly Rancher Hard candy in his coat pocket and smells of cinnamon and taco de pastor.

Doctor Jensen takes off his glasses and cleans them with a piece of suede he has taken out of his pocket where I’m sure he doesn’t keep candies. And he doesn’t smell of anything, apart from his own self-importance. He’s still looking at and talking to Richard as if I were not in the room. I make a mental note to myself to switch back to Doctor Vergara. He was never rude to me and whenever he gave a piece of candy to Richard, he would also give one to me!

“There will be other things to watch out for: apprehensiveness, withdrawal or passiveness. She might begin to pace and ask repetitive questions. Then, as the illness progresses, there will be delusions and hallucinations—she might hear and see and smell things that aren’t there.”

I get bored with the conversation and reach into my bag. My word book is there and I open it at random. I often do that—look for words and use them in mental conversations.

“To help her cope, she should take a class. Embroidery or something manual to improve eye to hand coordination. Playing cards with friends or doing crosswords might be good, too. At least for a while,” I hear Jensen say.

“But in the long run, there will be a complete metanoia in the way she sees the world…”

“How do you spell it?” I interrupt and poise a pen to write it in my netbook.

Both Richard and the doctor look surprised.

“Spell what?” asks Jensen.

“The word you’ve just used…” I answer but for love or money, I cannot remember the word! I snap my notebook shut and burst into tears.

April 5, 2017

“Hi, Mom, it’s me, Richard. I’ve brought your granddaughter, Anne, to visit,” the tall red-haired man with a teenager at his side says as I open the door.

Richard. Of course, I know who he is. He is my son. He’s just said so. And the girl must be Anne, my granddaughter. She is wearing bell-bottomed jeans with frayed edges and a shiny parka. She looks so much like… I’m desperately trying to remember Richard’s wife’s name but it refuses to surface. I think it starts with a B…Belinda…Betty… It doesn’t matter, really. They’ve come to visit so I let them in.

“How nice of you to come,” I say politely and show them into the living room.

They sit down. The silence that follows is awkward.

“So…how have you been? Have you been alright?” Richard asks while the girl…while my granddaughter sits with her hands folded in her lap. Her shiny parka whispers as she shifts from time to time. 

Richard is speaking slowly and clearly, using a simple language, repeating the message. Just like Doctor Jensen told him to do. How come I remember what he told Richard but I cannot remember my daughter-in-law’s name?     Click…click…click… The sound in my head again. It must be the neurons dying by the hundred. That is what Jensen also said. How long ago was that? Last month? Last year? Longer?

“In Alzheimer’s, neurons are injured and die throughout the brain, connections between networks break down, the nervous system kind of overheats and many brain regions begin to shrink,” he said.

I think that the clicking sound inside my head might be the neurons overheating and dying with one last scream of protest. Click…click…

“Another hundred are dead!”

The thought makes me chuckle. Dead neurons deserve a funeral with all the pomp and white chrysanthemums!

“How about some tea,” I offer.

“And toast. I’ve bought some Chilean avocados. The greengrocer said they are the best.”

Richard stares at me with incredulity.

“I thought…” he starts then his mouth shuts with a snap.

“You thought what?” I ask.

“I thought you hated avocados.”

“Why would I hate avocados? I have an avocado slicer,” I retort angrily.

The girl, the one who Richard says is my granddaughter, stands up.

“Why don’t the two of you have a chat while I make the tea?” she suggests then disappears into the kitchen with the murmur of her parka.

“Such a polite girl,” I tell Richard approvingly.

“Her mother has done a great job. Is she a friend of yours? The mother, I mean.”

He looks at me bewildered but says nothing.

After we’ve had our tea and toast with avocado (I hate the look of the nasty green mush on my bread!), they stay for a while and we chat. Don’t ask me about what. Weather maybe or a movie we have all watched. When they leave, I’m relieved. I hate having strangers visit so late in the evening.

October 13, 2017

“Mother?” I call to the woman in the bathroom.


She doesn’t answer. Instead, she looks at me with sad gray eyes. Eyes so much like mine. She is in her sixties, but she has aged badly. Her complexion looks as if trampled on by crows dancing a wild flamenco. The nostrils are wide, cavernous even. I can see a hair or two sticking out.

“She’s no idea what tweezers are for,” I think.

I raise my arm to touch her face and she copies my gesture. Yet I can’t feel her fingers graze my skin just like I cannot reach her.

“How are you, mother?” I ask.

Her lips mouth the same question.

“Are you sad?” I ask and so does she.

I feel tears gather in the corners of my eyes then one by one roll along the furrows of my wrinkles and flow down slowly to the chin. I realize now that it’s not my mother but me. Me in the bathroom mirror. The shock sucks the air out of my lungs. The old woman with the untidy wispy hair and the deep-lined face is me—Lauren. When did I turn into my mother?

That’s how I remember her. The same weary expression and the emptiness in her gaze. That is how she looked the day we took her to the hospice.

Just like with me, it started small. Forgetting things. Forgetting names. Forgetting words. When we spoke on the phone, she became distracted. We finally got her diagnosed when she got lost in Medora, her hometown—the one she had lived in for more than sixty years.

I’m surprised at how much I remember! I recall the drive, my mother sitting next to me in the blue Corolla with a faulty exhaust pipe, completely oblivious to what was going on around her. As if she simply existed in a vacuum. She was looking out of the car window commenting on how dirty the snow was and how she hoped the spring rain would come and wash all the dirt away. And then the daffodils would come…

When we got to the hospice, she didn’t protest. She’d already forgotten the daffodils. She marched in without one backward glance. At me. At the world she was leaving behind. Because in her mind, the mind riddled with dementia, the mind where neurons perished by the hundred, there was no world to leave behind. It got erased from her memory and she lived for now. Or, at most, for the day.

“Goodbye, mother,” I said, but she kept walking.

Now, as I look at the woman in the bathroom mirror, the one who so much resembles her, I raise my hand and say: “Goodbye, Lauren…”

The woman doesn’t answer. She has already given up on the world. She has given up on me, too.

January 2, 2018 

Standing in front of the…of the…what is this thing called? I’m trying to remember why I’ve opened it. It’s full of things whose uses I am not sure of and whose names I don’t know either. Or, rather, can’t recall. Yes, words haven’t come easy lately.

I must have used them in the past, known their names. Some of them, at least, because most are still in plastic wrappers.

I catch a glimpse of something that looks like a metal ring with another metal ring in the middle. I wonder what it is but cannot figure it out. It may sound crazy, but as I rack my brains, something weird goes off in my head. Click…click…click… Sounds that resemble the crackling of a live wire touching water.

There is a thick, well-thumbed notebook on the counter. I open it at random. Words jump at me from the pages. Works like “apricate,” which is supposed to be “to bask in the sunshine.” That’s what the definition says. But it doesn’t mean a thing because just as I don’t know what “apricate” means, I can’t remember what “to bask in the sunshine” is.

And that brings me back to wondering why I’m here in the first place. I look around trying to find something that would remind me. I smell something. A nasty smell. I look to my right and see orange tongues leap and dance, slowly spreading to the kitchen counter. There’s a lot of smoke.

I’m not sure what to do so I just keep standing. Standing and watching. The fire leaps towards the notebook and slowly eats it up. I know I should move. Call someone. But call who? How? I do nothing and simply keep looking. There is the click…click…click sound again as if something were overheating in my head. Or maybe it’s the fire that has climbed up my jumper sleeve onto my hair.

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J.B. Polk is Polish by birth, a citizen of the world by choice. First story short-listed for the Hennessy Awards, Ireland in 1996. She became a regular contributor to Women’s Quality Fiction, Books Ireland and IncoGnito. She was also the co-founder of Virginia House Writers, Dublin, and helped establish the OKI Literary Awards.  Her creative writing was interrupted as she moved to Latin America and started contributing to magazines and newspapers and then writing textbooks for  Latin American Ministries of Education. Since she went back to writing fiction last year, 43 of her stories, flash fiction, and nonfiction have been accepted for publication in anthologies and magazines in Australia, the UK, Germany, the USA, and Canada.