“I never could understand it,” Jean said, as she fumbled to pull her heavy green wool coat tighter across her chest. The bell over the coffee shop door tinkled as a cold blast of air reached the table where the three women sat.
Rossetti shook her head of raven, dark but now silver-streaked ringlets. “None of us could.”
Bette pushed a sugar cube about in a pool of coffee on her saucer and bit at her chapped lower lip. “She was just so amazing.”
“The best,” Jean said. “The best of us.”
The others nodded.
Except for her shoes and sox, Helen was allowed to keep her clothes on. After all it was only a neuro exam and a follow-up visit. Still the room was cold, ungodly cold. Helen perched on the bitter end of the exam table. She stared down at her bare feet and let her big toenail drag across the black ridged rubber surface of the step below. Tic, tic-tic it sounded in the silence of the exam room. How many other people had sat here, she wondered idly, making the same sound, crinkling the table paper, staring at the green and brown tile on the floor? Waiting, waiting for the doctor to speak and give you news that wasn’t new at all? The news was maybe something that was old, a few years, or decades, or generations old, or lost somewhere in our leftover Neanderthal DNA. Helen already knew the news, but then again she had known it for a quite a while. Otherwise there was no explaining it. The doctor came in with the scan film in one hand. The other he laid on Helen’s knee.
“And how are those reflexes today?” he said.
“Well I can see your sense of humor is still intact. Let’s just give them the old once-over. OK?”
Helen nodded as the doctor turned away and picked up a small red rubber-tipped hammer for what seemed the hundredth time to her. He struck lightly at her inner elbows, the inner wrist above her hands, below her kneecaps, and the Achilles tendons at the backs of her heels. Each time, her limb would give a little involuntary jump. Finally he turned the hammer about and with the sharply pointed metal end stroked the bottom of her foot from heel to toe.
“Ugh,” she said, and shivered as her toes contracted and her foot sickled.
“No change there. Now with your head, push against my hand, now the other way. Close your eyes tight and don’t let me open them. Good. Grit your teeth.”
Helen felt the muscles at the angle of her jaws bunch like they did when she was frustrated or in one of her bad dreams. The doctor touched her there on both sides of her face.
“That’s enough,” he said, and quickly moved on. “Shrug your shoulders; don’t let me push them down. Now grasp my fingers and squeeze as hard as you can. Push against my hands with your forearms; now pull as hard as you can. Harder, Helen. Now step down.”
He held her hand as she stood on the little black rubber step. For a moment she felt the hard ridges press into the soles of her feet and then the cold of the tile floor faded the sensation, like a memory you can’t catch hold of.
“Walk across the room heel to toe. Stand on one foot, now the other. Jump! Good. Now stand up straight, feet together, and hold both your arms straight out in front of you, palms up. Close your eyes and balance.”
The room was quiet. Helen stood and swayed slightly. Where was she? In a field, tall yellow grass waving above her. The sound of water far off, but just over the rise, music, something very old, but familiar, Welsh or Irish, a guitar, and a rough voice. She could see, find it, if she could just move…suddenly she slumped and the doctor caught her by the elbow before she fell.
“I’ve got you Helen, we’re done. You can sit back up on the table.”
“When you think about it, it’s incredible,” Jean said. “She did so much to be so young.”
“Graduated third in our class,” Bette said, leaning back on her chair. “Then that summer after she went south to college she did that weeks-long trip on the Appalachian Trail, by herself.”
“And her voice—so, so lovely,” Jean said.
“Yes, and she was fearless,” Rossetti said. “You remember Lake—right, that creep I dated the last year of high school?”
“As if we could ever forget, Rose, when he left those marks on you,” Bette said as she inclined her head toward Rossetti’s hand that held her coffee cup.
An inch-thick turquoise bracelet, several narrower ones, and some fine silver wires encircled Rossetti’s right wrist, but still, an ugly string of three small round keloid scars moved in and out of view beneath them. She pulled her hand back as if a bee had stung her and put it under the table in her lap. A moment later she laughed.
“It’s silly, but I still don’t like people to look at them. It would have been much worse if it hadn’t been for Helen.” Rossetti rubbed her wrist under the table.
They knew the story by heart, of course. They had all been together moments after it happened, but it was always good to hear it again and especially now as they waited for Helen.
“This time he had me down on the ground, sitting on my chest, so far out on the playing fields and into the trees no one could see us from the back of the school. He’d finished with my wrist and he said he was going to do my eyelids, and he would have done it too, just like the others.” Rossetti fumbled at the neck of her turtleneck and pulled it higher.
Jean tried not to look at the little quarter-moon scar still peeking out above sweater’s edge just below her right ear lobe.
“I was so afraid of him I couldn’t move. All I could see was the red glowing end of his cigarette coming closer and closer, when Helen just appeared. I didn’t know where she had come from; she was just there. You remember those boots she used to wear?”
“Black cowboy boots.” Bette laughed.
“With stitching all over the very pointy toes,” Jean added.
“That’s right. Her kick caught him in the breastbone. Knocked the breath out of him and flipped him onto his back like a turtle. She stood over him while he gasped for breath. ‘Touch her again, and I’ll come for you,’ she said to him.”
“Then she snapped her fingers in his face,” Jean said.
“‘Like that!’” they all said together and laughed.
Rossetti smiled. “Later she told me that by chance she’d been passing the back door and had seen him dragging me into the trees. She ran all the way. I think she may have saved my life that day. Anyway, it woke me up and I never went back to him.”
“She was like that tattooed dragon-girl, only before there was one,” Bette said.
Rossetti frowned. “That’s why it was so weird when she married someone like Front. But now, I suppose it makes some kind of sense.” As she reached for her cup, the bracelets slid down and covered her wrist in silver and blue.
The doctor swiveled around a laptop so Helen could see the latest rainbow images of her brain. For a moment, the only thing she could concentrate on were the shades of psychedelic colors—greens, yellows, magentas, and blues. They swirled about like a Peter Max painting as he moved the cursor and cut down through different levels of her brain tissue.
“So Helen, the scans don’t really show any significant progression. We still see these very, very few, tiny, tiny micro hemorrhages on the MRI, and maybe a minuscule increase of the decrease of brain mass in the cingulate of the frontal region. The PET scan is inconclusive for tau protein.”
Helen nodded and thought about the coffin-like tube that she had lain in for the scans.
“Lie down, cross your hands over your chest, and don’t move. Really, don’t move,” the technician had said as she leaned over Helen, securing her in the big machine.
“I won’t move,” Helen said.
“Lie absolutely still or we can’t get a good picture and it will be a big waste of money and time. We don’t want to get backed up.” She eyed Helen, stepping back, hands on her hips, cheeks flushed.
“There will be lots of noise—banging, clanging—but don’t move no matter what you hear. We’ll play some music for you to help you stay still.”
“I won’t move,” Helen said again. “I promise.”
If there was one thing she was good at it was not moving. She could lie still for hours, barely move, barely flutter an eyelid, barely breathe, barely think a thought. For a long time now, moving was like pushing the stone from Christ’s tomb. She knew, though, there had been a time when she never stopped moving, was never still. But when was that and what had she done with all that furious energy?
The tech looked at her doubtfully and shook her head but went off to the controls. “I’m starting the music and you’ll hear the noise now,” the tech’s disembodied voice echoed from a speaker inside the tube.
Some inane music, Japanese techno surf, which Helen disliked so much and heard behind every TV commercial these days, began to play. The noise started, all kinds of banging, clanging, crashing, and whirring. It was disturbing, but Helen didn’t move. Then in the mundaneness of the music she heard something familiar, a few notes, then a few words, and a phrase: …what a Boone what a doer, what a dream come a true…a man just a big man with an eye like an eagle…tall as a mountain…top of his coonskin cap…heel of his rawhide shoe… rippin’ess roarin'ess fightin’ess man…frontier ever knew…Daniel Boone was a man, Daniel Boone was a man. The tune repeated pleasantly over and over like a soothing mantra. Now she could see the man in the song, dressed in buckskins, going about his frontier business. He seemed so familiar.
“One for all and all for one,” the man in the coonskin cap said, leaning over her, only now he had a pearl earring in his ear, a huge black velvet cavalier hat on his head, lace at his throat, and a cocked pistol, with a lit fuse in his black leather gloved hand. “Time for the angel to roll away the stone,” he whispered in her ear, not with a French or Southern accent, but a folksy warm New England drawl. “Clarence?” With the pistol he motioned toward an old man in a white robe and feathered wings, who stood beside a huge millstone set in a rock face. With a nod and a smile the old man gave the stone a mighty push, the fuse ignited the gunpowder in a deafening bang, the stone began to roll, and a tiny bell sounded.
“That’s it,” the tech said, sliding Helen out of the mouth of the machine with a jolt and pulling her to a sitting position in one swift movement. “Makes a loud bang when you turn it off. That bell will quit in a second, there it goes. Hey, you weren’t kidding, you didn’t move a muscle, must have gone to sleep. Thought you were dead there for a second.” She laughed. “Best patient I’ve ever had.” She held out her hand and Helen shook it.
Helen looked away from the shape-shifting scan and tried to focus on what the doctor was saying.
“You know diagnosis of degenerative brain disease is still a bit of an inexact science. Certainly there is a whole spectrum of conditions including dementia praecox, Alzheimer’s, and dementia pugilistica, named for the brain changes boxers experience.”
Suddenly Helen had an image of a tall man in buckskins wrestling with a brown bear in a piney wood. He landed a blow to the top of the bear’s skull and down it went.
“And of course,” the doctor continued, “there is CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the current flavor of the week, since professional football finally caught on to brain injury from concussion. But of course the only absolute diagnosis for that, as well as your garden variety Alzheimer’s, is to detect the tau proteins or plaques in the brain through autopsy.” The doctor smiled at Helen. “We wouldn’t really want to do that yet, would we?”
Helen saw the frontier man take out a big knife to skin the beaten bear starting at the head.
“Helen? Helen…? I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“No, no, we wouldn’t want to do that….” She turned to look at him and smiled. “Yet,” she said.
Bette shivered then took her down coat from the back of her chair and slipped it around her shoulders over a heavy Icelandic sweater. She flipped her blunt-cut ashen hair from the collar and it fell to the exact length of her jaw. The cut framed the perfect oval of her pale face, which was set off by Nordic blue eyes and an almost perpetual smile.
“Thinking back, it really all started after the accident didn’t it?” she asked.
“Yes, in hindsight, it’s easy to see now.” Rossetti said. “But she never made much of it then.”
“Wasn’t she still dating that odd boy then? You know, the one who was so thin and wiry, dark wild hair and eyes. Always in trouble with the teachers for his smart mouth, but too brilliant and funny by half to punish?” Bette asked.
“Irish family, played music, could play anything,” Rossetti said. “Helen used to sing with them.”
“Yes, Cleary,” Jean said. “He was there when it happened, we both were, but Cleary had the worst injuries.”
“God, that’s right,” Bette said.
Jean shook her head then looked up. “It really wasn’t that bad, how I remember it. It was true we’d all had a bit to drink. It was the end of the summer. Six of us had gone out West. We’d been picking fruit and playing music all summer long, so we were celebrating, because Cleary had to fly back East to start university the next day. Helen and he had been off, then on, then off again, all summer.”
“I always thought it would be him that she ended up with,” Rossetti said.
Bette nodded, picked up the creamer, and poured; the milk spiraled into her coffee. “They were like alchemy, the two of them. Smart, funny, caustic single elements.” She lifted a spoon of sugar from the bowl and let fall in a white shower into her cup, then stirred. “Mix them in a crucible, heat, and abracadabra, gold.”
For a moment Jean was quiet. “A few days before it happened, I’d found her standing still and silent in front of the mirror. It wasn’t until I saw her face reflected in the glass that I realized tears were running down her cheeks. When I asked her what was wrong she said, ‘I love him but I’ve never told him.’”
“That night, though,” Jean said, looking up, then went on, “the night of the accident, there seemed to be a happy intensity between them, as if something had been renewed, or was about to happen between them. We went to eat Mexican food. We were all laughing and singing when we came out. It was dark and late and it had rained. The pavement was all shiny-black in the streetlight. I drove the truck, Helen was in the passenger seat, and one of the boys was in the middle. Cleary was in the camper-back with his brothers.
“The truck was old and had a bench seat. There weren’t any seat belts or we never wore them. I don’t remember which now. He didn’t have his lights on,” Jean said, then paused and blinked. “We were still laughing and joking when I pulled out of the parking lot and hit him, full on. He didn’t have his lights on, the other car I mean,” she trailed off.
“It was different then Jean, we all did it then, drank, smoked weed, raced our cars around, and never wore a seat belt. It could have been any of us,” Bette said as she leaned over to stroke the green sleeve of Jean’s coat.
“Yes, well, that’s what I try to tell myself now. And at the time it was bad but it didn’t seem that bad. The windshield was cracked on the passenger side and the car was smashed up a bit in front but it was still running. It had started to rain again, misty-fine drops were falling through the brightness from the headlamps that were broken but still on. There was a lot of noise and screaming, but up front all we were was a little bruised. Helen must have had a cut on her head because a hank of her dark red hair looked black and wet. We finally realized it was blood, but it seemed to have stopped and she said it didn’t hurt. The guy from the other car was already out staggering in the street shouting and cursing at us, not a scratch on him, and drunk as a skunk.
“Then we heard Cleary’s brother screaming and pounding on the camper top. They had all been thrown around the back of the truck but Cleary was lying in his brother’s arms, moaning in pain and breathing raggedly. I looked at Helen who was staring at them and trying to reach Cleary. She was so pale and had such a look of agony in her face that I thought she seemed as if she had already passed into the spirit world.
“Time warps in a moment like that, and it seemed impossible, but the ambulance was already there, and they were pushing us back from the truck and Cleary. They loaded him up with his brother as next of kin and rushed him off to the hospital. Helen never saw him again after that night.”
“Most important Helen, how are you feeling?”
“I don’t know Doc. I can’t explain it but I just don’t seem to be who I was. Whoever that was.”
“Hmm…well yes, sometimes identity and memory loss can be a part of it, even in your case of just a single concussion. Do you still remember the accident?”
Helen closed her eyes for a moment. Yes, that night was still there.
They had been in the restaurant, mariachi music playing, and bright colors, painted piñatas. Beautiful Latino serving boys and girls with café au lait skin and shining black hair that she had never seen before that summer, green guacamole she had never eaten before that summer, green margaritas salted at the rim never drunk before that summer. And laughter, so much laughter and he was there beside her at the white-cloth-covered table, just out of sight, but with a presence like a force field.
They were still laughing in the wet black parking lot. Still laughing in the old truck, three of them up front. Her sister driving, one of the boys straddling the shift on the floor, and she riding shotgun. She heard the screechy hollow sound of the old truck door as she pulled it shut for the thousandth time that summer. She felt the frayed armrest she always leaned hard on, and the warmth at the small of her back, radiating through rusted steel from him, amid the laughing boys in the camper-bed behind. And last she looked across the shining laughing faces of the boys and Jean turned to the windshield, illuminated by a streetlight that shone on them like a tungsten star. Then there was an explosion, something hard and made of the strength of stone, a second of darkness, and the laughing stopped. And immediately, there was a spider web of fractured crystal hanging above her face, dripping in the rain and streetlight like dew and she could hear screaming.
“It was the glass you know, the windshield. You cracked it with your head,” the doctor said, leaning closer to her.
Helen opened her eyes and looked at him. “Yes, it was the glass.”
“You had to have impacted it really hard to have done that, Helen. Do you remember going to the doctor?”
“We all went to the ER, but separate from the ambulance.”
“Did they do a scan?”
“I was alone in a dark little room, all dark green tile, very clean, with a drain in the floor. I sat on a huge cold steel table. Something was wrong, I didn’t know what it was, but it was like darkness.”
“What did the doctor say?”
Helen looked up. “He told me to stop crying, but I didn’t know I was. He said I was fine. That God made my head harder than glass.”
“Yes, that’s all. Jean took me home but I don’t remember it. She came to find me the next morning when I hadn’t come to breakfast, but she had to shout and shake me awake. When I got up, the bed was wet and the sheets soiled. Jean told me not to worry about it and begged me to stop crying, but I didn’t know I was or why, only that something was gone but I didn’t know what.”
“But Cleary didn’t die,” Bette said. She turned to look when someone new pushed open the front door and the little bell sounded again. Turning back to Jean, her pale hair swung and settled in its perfect line. “He’s some big environmentalist out on the West Coast.”
“No, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked in the dark that night,” Jean said. She leaned over to see past a waiter, checked the entrance to the clinic across the street again, then leaned back. “He’d cracked a collar bone, broken three or four ribs, and was in a lot of pain. He had to fly out that day or lose his scholarship, so they taped him up like a mummy and loaded him up on painkillers. His brother brought him back to the house after we had gone to bed and they had to leave for the airport before we were up the next morning.”
Rossetti shook her head and said, “He never contacted her, Jean?”
“He tried, he called, he wrote, but from the morning after the accident she never spoke of him. She knew his name and his face in a photograph if you asked her, but it was as if she had forgotten him, who he was, and what had been between them. And then quick as that, she’d taken up with Front.”
Bette made a sound through her teeth, “Tshh…”
“After a while, Cleary gave up. He met someone else a few years later. They’ve been married more than thirty years now—sweet, but not Helen. But then the Helen he’d known was gone anyway.” Jean looked away for a moment.
“Such a shame,” Rossetti said.
“It all started that night, but we didn’t know anything was really wrong then. Physically she seemed the same as ever. She had her first migraine a few weeks later, but no more, it seemed like a onetime thing, and we’d been told everything was fine…now I suppose she was getting worse. She stayed out West and wouldn’t go back to school. She stopped singing and started working at whatever mindless job she could find; file clerk, receptionist, waitress. She never went out. The only thing she did was follow Front like he’d put some kind of a spell on her free will and before I knew it, they were married.”
“How did that ever happen?” Bette asked. “I know he was beautiful but still, he was so…”
“Soulless?” Rossetti said. Bette nodded.
“Well, you wouldn’t know this because you didn’t move here until high school, but Rossetti does. When we were in elementary school together, do you remember how crazy Helen was about the actor Fess Parker in the Daniel Boone TV show?”
Rossetti laughed. “Oh God, yes! I haven’t thought about that in forever.” She turned toward Bette. “Every week she’d buttonhole me the day after it aired and give me the blow by blow. She was constantly singing the theme song, Daniel Boone was a man, just a big man… She had a major crush on that man. She said he was so handsome, honest, and fair.”
Jean nodded. “And when they showed It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart at Christmas, she never missed it. She started watching every one of Stewart’s old movies like, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Rear Window, anything on the late show that she could catch. Then when we could drive, we’d go to the old film festivals at the university or to the drive-in to see him. She was always comparing Boone with Bailey, and Parker with Stewart, saying they were such kind, good, honorable men.”
“Oh I was there for that,” Bette said. “Jimmy and Grace Kelly forty feet high on a hot summer night in a grassy field with the speaker box squawking in the window, or George Bailey and Clarence the angel in a freezing art house theater. But then she changed over to Michael York. Remember when he played d'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers in ’74?”
“That’s exactly right, Bette.” Jean smiled. “She must have seen that movie at least ten times if she saw it once.”
“She dragged all of us to it at least twice.” Rossetti laughed and rolled her eyes.
“Three times,” Bette said, and they all laughed together for a moment.
“So I know this sounds crazy, but when I first met Front he came to dinner and I watched him. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first, but then I realized it was like you took Fess Parker, Jimmy Stewart, and Michael York and mashed them all together and got Front, at least looks-wise.” Jean paused and looked at their doubtful faces. “Just think about it. He was towering and lanky like all of them, Parker, Stewart, and York. He had that deep Southern, black-velvet voice like Parker, and that deceptively folksy drawl and sense of humor like Stewart and Parker. Then there were those slanty eyes, high cheekbones, and that jaw you could cut yourself on. Hanks of yellow hair, and that perfect slightly smashed-in flattish English face like Michael York’s d'Artagnan.”
“Hmm…I never thought about it, but now that you mention it…” Rossetti pondered.
“My God, he did look like them!” Bette said.
“So I think that’s why. He looked so much like them that in her altered brain I think she thought he was them, or like their characters on TV and in the movies, good and honorable men.”
“Except he wasn’t good and honorable,” Bette said.
“No, but as we worried,” Jean paused while Bette and Rossetti nodded, “he proved behind all those good looks and that sweet voice there was apparently no room left for a soul.”
“It makes some kind of sense, I suppose,” Rossetti said. “It might explain why she fell for him and endured so much.”
“Maybe,” Bette said frowning. “I’ll never forget the night I drove a hundred miles to pick her up on the side of a road where he’d dumped her out in a blizzard.”
“Or when he kicked her and cracked her shin, because he'd chipped a tooth on a piece of grit he found in the beans she'd made,” Rossetti said.
“And the women,” Jean said. She sighed and her shoulders slumped a little inside her green coat. “I don’t know if she could ever reconcile who he was with how he looked, and the Michael, Jimmy, and Fess in her mind.”
“Then he left her, thank God,” Rossetti said, and grinned at the others. She lifted her coffee cup like a tankard. “‘All for one and one for all.’”
They all smiled. Jean and Bette took up their cups and clinked them together with Rossetti’s, then they looked out the front window toward the clinic.
“Well, Helen, assessment of concussion has changed a lot since then. We know now there can be changes, even with a single minor impact.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” she said as she finished tying her shoes.
“Like I told you I don’t see a lot of change. Just continue on your medications. They’ll help to keep your mood up; that’s so important in cases like yours. Of course you have your friends to help you with that too, don’t you?”
“You’re very lucky to have them.”
“Yes, very lucky.”
“Come back and see me in six months and we’ll do another scan.”
“OK.” Helen shrugged into her heavy plum-colored coat and began to button it up slowly. But when she was finished the buttons and holes were misaligned. She frowned.
“Here, let me help with that,” the doctor said. He quickly rebuttoned the coat. “There, how’s that Helen?”
“Good,” she said, pulling on a pair of fuzzy bright-yellow gloves.
“Here. I want you to have the film of your latest MRI. I know how you like to look at them and show them to Jean and the girls. I circled the frontal area where you have the most significant change.” For a moment he pointed to a small black magic-marker circle he had made on the big black-and-white translucent piece of film, then slipped it inside a large manila envelope and handed it to her.
“Thank you Doc,” she said and tucked the envelope under her arm.
“And Helen, don’t worry too much about who you were once. You’re still quite someone and the old you is still in there somewhere.”
“Yes,” she said as she left the room.
Helen walked down the clinic halls to the entrance. She pushed through the revolving door and made her way down the sidewalk between mounds of dirty snow to the street. Then she stopped and took the manila envelope from under her arm, opened it, and slipped the scan out. She looked at the film and found the little black circle there at the front of her brain. As she touched it with her gloved finger, she wondered if that was where everything she had once been was hiding, along with the man in the buckskins, the one with an angel for a friend, the musketeer, and maybe someone else she could no longer quite remember.
Jean, Rossetti, and Bette sat at the little table watching for Helen to come out of the clinic.
“I think she’ll need more help soon,” Jean said as she put down the tip.
“I can take her for as long as you like next time, Jean, not just a few weeks,” Bette said.
“Me too, any time. In fact we could just go ahead and split up the year,” Rossetti said.
“You guys are wonderful.”
“Well, Helen was and is wonderful,” Rossetti said. She was quiet for a moment. “Who knew back then that such a small thing could have such an effect?”
“Really,” Bette said.
“Yes, a whole life devastated by a little blow to the head.”
Bette pointed and they saw Helen standing on the sidewalk in front of the clinic. She had the big scan film out and was staring at it intently. Then it slipped from her yellow-gloved hand and landed in a pile of dirty snow on the curb. They watched as she bent to pick it up and tried to wipe away the slush with her coat sleeve. She looked up and saw them. Helen smiled, then raised and waved like a flag the ghost image of her brain above her head.