The Map Says Fred Astaire

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The map says Fred Astaire's house: there. I lower my window, feel the warm arid breeze. Carole flinches.

Down here, at street level, a low chain-link fence shoulders masses of vine. Perhaps it's only the dry season, but the vines seem utterly dead. Sagebrush, yucca spikes, and spots of bald yellow-gray earth. Atop the uncertain slope leans a ghostly California sycamore.

"Fred Astaire," I say.

Up close, the hill crumbles. Sand-like soil slumps, leaving shallow caves overhung with roots. Slow erosions fan into deltas and distribute against the next barrier, gravely waiting.

Surprisingly soon after Dr. Ibriham told me it was Creutzfeldt-Jakob, Carole stopped talking. Even eye contact has gone. Her gaze is diseased and sedated, but despite taking leave to be with her, in truth I choose not to look. When she does speak, it's not in my direction. I try to understand but can't. Is it some echo of the lithe laughing girl who gathered shells in a green glass vase on our honeymoon? A candid CPA patiently explaining taxes or recounting a comically logical dream? Shouldn't it be desperate last advice for the husband and distant daughter who so clearly lack her unshakeable balance and horse sense? Most likely, her hijacked brain just emits word tangles, like the increasing jerks and lurches of her skier's legs. Nothing in this sudden improbable world feels fair.

A matter of months—for her type, the average is five. Something like 350 people per year in the entire US, so literally one in a million. No treatment; just sedation, then hospice at the end. So I take her for drives. The car seems to calm her and driving gives me something tangible to do. Leave, steer, stop, start, choose, signal, turn, arrive, return. A little soothing music. The ebb and flow of surface roads, the gush and stutter of freeways. Always sunlight, domesticated by dual climate control.

Up here on a clear day, the map notes, you will see blue Pacific and islands beyond. I picture the sharp, uncanny line of sky and ocean after a storm. Today, the smogged horizon shimmers uncertainly. Still, I feel the power of elevated views like this. I am reminded of emergence, arrival, position, possession. My eloquent grinning confidence as the young editor, young teacher, young Associate Dean. Here, with the breeze firm against his face, that younger man would have imagined himself at the prow of a great sailing mountain. To see so much and so far simulates mastery, even if—or perhaps because—details are impossible.

But beneath, a gravitational pull, a swirling, strangling center.

Down there is a house shared for twenty-five years. Our places at the table, on the couches and beds. Expressive toy animals, lovingly stuffed and named, buried in their own clothes and toys and chairs. Vacation videotapes with no means of watching. Half-filled coloring books. Two guitars, strung and tuned. Boxes of empty frames. Boxes of unframed photos. A wall of green plastic storage tubs, neat and menacing and inscrutable. Carole's oak filing cabinets, color-coordinated record collections, maternity clothes, ski clothes, work clothes. All my ransacked books. Angels and Dodgers memorabilia. Montreal souvenirs. Drawers of pens and scrap paper. The ugly stoneware, a wedding gift.

A fully inhabited space. A monstrous, overpowering deception.

It occurs to me that fate—not stories but real fate—has precisely two components: entropy and consciousness.

Nothing to be done about the entropy part.

"Great dancer," I say, closing my window. Carole answers with an ambiguous twitch.

We pass Pickfair Way, named for onetime Hollywood lovers Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Summit Drive twists and curves. Old stars sought these little hilltops, to see and be seen, to share dazzling moments. Now there are maps to the stars and people seeking the brightest of them, dead so long ago. We crest the next hill, see the road bend away ahead.


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Image of Abigail Haworth
Abigail Haworth · ago
The descriptions here are incredible! Very immersive, thoughtful and sad.
Image of Gib Prettyman
Gib Prettyman · ago
Thank you very much for taking time to share your thoughts!