BENNY'S MISSION
A Novel

(Chapter 1, 9 Pages in Typescript)
 
 
 
 
ONE                        
 

                Gramps Anthony's system of mnemonics enabled him to remember almost everything.
                "As a youngster, don't you know (the word youngster, a tinkly dinner bell in lean and hungry times, caused a few of them to sit up straighter, caused others to realize for the first time that someone was speaking to them), "as a youngster, trying to remember the names and dates of all those presidents and kings, why I'd just, don't you know, make up one thing to remind me of another. If it were a war we were studying, and the war had four theaters, say, Barbaropa, Obramanie, Akeldama, and Tetrazinni, I'd just remember the word, the word, ah, boat. Yes, yes, that's it! Boat!"
                His listeners were slower to think of it than he was—if they thought about it at all. The old man's use of the antique names, while a clear sign of his learning, set their little rivers of nostalgia to flowing and, as happened so often, the time they should have spent thinking on the problem they spent wrestling with intractable dams and sluices.
                "Yes, boat," Gramps Anthony said triumphantly, rolling the word across his lips as if it were a special word, a magical word, a word so full of associations he hated to give it up.
                On his right, someone coughed: a guttural noise that sounded like rocks being caught in a lawn mower. The embarrassed cougher cleared his throat, gargled moistly, and spit into a tissue.
                Ignoring the disturbance, Gramps Anthony went on.
                "Now, if I had to remember a date, or series of dates, don't you know, why I'd just make them into patterns, arrangements, and multiples of one another. The sixteenth century was the easiest. The house I grew up in was numbered 1549, so I matched earlier dates with houses on the left, and later dates with houses on the right. After that I could picture the century sweeping in under the railroad trestle over the Post Road, flowing behind the dried-up creek bed beside the woods, coursing down the middle of our street, and trailing off behind the Vanity Place Shopping Center. Mrs. Miggins, our neighbor Mrs. Miggins picking up the morning paper in her bright red robe—Mrs. Miggins represented for me the Edict of Nantes. The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, let's see, that would have been 1572, 1572, I think it was, was where Tommy and Joey Kindling lived. And across the street on those beautiful, crystal-clear days in late fall, Mr. Driscoll raked leaves in front of the Battle of Lepanto."
                A deeply peaceful snoring from the back of the room was caught up short in mid-breath. There was a surprised cough, a moment of silence, then the resumption of snoring.
                Was any of this getting through to them? Could he detect anything in their expressions to suggest that the barest hint of sunlight was radiating out over the soggy tidal pools of remembrance? Fearful of losing what little beachhead he had established, Gramps Anthony summoned up his energy, and pushed on.
                "Do you see how logical it was? In my mind, Queen Elizabeth passed her final days in the junkyard behind the Two Guys Auto Repair Shop down—where my parents never liked me to go—on the other side of Havenold Avenue."
                On his right, the footplate of a wheelchair fell down, and with an angry squeak was kicked back up. And fell down again.
                "It was just a matter of making a correspondence, don't you see, a correspondence between one thing and another. Here's another example. I had to remember the date 1807, once. Well, there was an old tumbledown picket fence surrounding our property, and in the rear of the back yard, behind the willow tree, there was a place where one of the slats had broken off. Next to it there was a slat that was intact, then a space where a slat was missing, and finally a slat almost as tall as the second. It was a kind of figure for '1807,' don't you see. That section of the fence had that kind of feeling. And I had only to think of the fence, or of the yard, or all the fun us kids used to have playing there, to be reminded of it. But since fun is something everyone remembers, why, I didn't have to think of anything. The date was just there in my mind like any pleasant thought."
                Fun. Pleasant thought. The words punctuated the dozy silence like rifle shots in a marshy swamp. Leave it to Gramps Anthony to bring cheer to a drab, cloudy afternoon, leave it to Gramps Anthony to brighten a day as endless as this one. At least that was the meaning of the glance that Miss McCreary shot Miss Murdock, both of whom were quite dried out now, and alert.
               "When I went on to my studies in ancient history, and to the various, ah, books I wrote, I naturally needed mnemonic devices of greater scope and versatility. It was about this time that I devised a system of notations using colored pencils—let's see, I think there were, ah, fifteen colors in all—that could reduce the movements of whole armies, the migrations of whole races, to a few curves and curlicues. A little hash mark in brown, don't you know, would indicate the fortifications of Rameses the Second—that's roughly 1300 to 1225 B.C.—and some wavy green lines the advance of the violent and marauding Hittites. An orange or red triangle might indicate the pyramid of a Cheops or Cephren, and broken blue lines the advance of those fierce Sea Peoples. All of these scattered about in a diagram, don't you know, so as to reduce the history of the period to an abstract picture."
                On the left, there was a new spate of coughing. As a wad of tissue was handed down the row, someone dropped a metal knitting needle, making an ear-splitting clinnng. As folks bent over to retrieve it, their metal folding chairs squeaked on the linoleum floor.
                But at least some of them were paying attention, he was sure of it. When the commotion had subsided, he once again pressed on.
                "Now so much was happening during those years, oh dear, so very much, that I soon had a quite large and unruly collection of diagrams, and got confused trying to follow my little chicken tracks from one to the other. It was not enough to lay the pictures side by side, don't you know. What I really wanted to do was to see through them. I wanted to lay the dynasties and successions one on top of another like sheets of mica, or layers of phylo dough, I wanted to build up, and peel back, the layers of civilization as though they were layers of pastry. And didn't I have a sweet tooth, in those days, didn't I though!"
                Startled by his recollection, the old man stared off into space for a moment, his mind apparently wandering off to a time when he was sitting under a willow tree by a white picket fence, eating pastry. When he eventually remembered where he was and what what he was doing, he returned to his subject.
                "Now where was I? Oh yes, I remember. Well, I always say: where there's something to be remembered, there's a mnemonic device to help you remember it. Do any of you remember how, way back when, textbooks and encyclopedias would use overlapping, transparent pages to illustrate human anatomy? There would be a page for the skeleton, a page for the circulatory system, a page for the musculature, another for the reproductive system—this, unfortunately, always strategically amputated—and when you turned the page it would fit right over, and mesh with the one beneath it. Well, that's what I did with my studies in Egyptology and Sumerology, and the like. I drew my maps on celluloid pages, then I could lay the Nineteenth Dynasty, say, on top of the Eighteenth, and the Twentieth on top of the Nineteenth, I could read my little hieroglyphs like schools of fish in clear water. I could excavate my notebook, don't you see, the way they excavated Troy."
                From the rear of the room, the sublimely self-contented snoring droned on. A nurse appeared in a doorway, then, as though this were not the room or these were not the people she were looking for, darted back out. Gramps Anthony clutched the armrests of the bumpy vinyl chair in which he was sitting—in which he had all but sunk, like a tiny child on a throne—and rocked forward and back until he had succeeded in raising himself out of it. As he surveyed the gnarled and wrinkled faces before him, it seemed to him that the solarium was where he had always done his best thinking, where he had always been at his most keen and insightful. He contemplated the spectral presences with the kindliness of a minister getting set to perform a baptism, and went on.
                "You can remember anything, if you really want to, he said. "You need only relate it to something you know, something that sticks in your mind. Make a jingle, perhaps—do anything. And he began to sing in his thin, mellifluous voice, as if from a great distance over snow: "This is. . .the sympho-nee. . .that Schubert wrote and never finnn-ished. . .!"
                As the point seemed lost on them, he cast about for another example.
                "The song. . .you heard. . .was Bee-thoven's Third. . . ."
                This time there were several wan smiles of recognition.
                Then someone sneezed, which briefly, but only briefly, startled the person behind him who was snoring.
                "The mind's harmony is the world's harmony," the old man intoned, his voice rising with excitement. "And you can tune into it as easily as anyone. You need only relate one thing to another. Say it's the names of the planets you're trying to remember. It's easy! Proceeding outward from the sun, you have Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Saturn, ah, Uranus, ahhhh, Neptune. There. You see? 'Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.' 'Sun'! Then there's Jupiter and. . .oh what's that last one? Ah, Pluto. Yes, that's it! Pluto!"
                He paused briefly and reflected on his close call.
                "But you see?" he resumed. "You have only to remember the word 'sun,' and the rest of them will fall naturally into line! Oh, memory is a precious thing, and if you don't want to lose it, that is, ah, lose more of it, that is what you must do: make one thing remind you of another. Give things around you personal and emotional significance, create a store of memories just in the way things feel and smell. Why, I can walk down a little lane—I used to be able to walk down a little lane, don't you know—beneath towering elm trees or past a house bordered by a picket fence, or a yard full of newly mown grass, and be reminded of whole areas of learning and whole periods of my life! The house would remind me of one thing, and that, of another. In no time at all, my thoughts would wander off to the smell of the sea, the sound of seagulls on windswept beaches, the tapping of heels on sidewalks on quiet summer evenings. And at moments like this, the world would positively sparkle. The world itself, you see, is luminous with a memory. The world itself—taken in its entirety—is just a sign, a signal, a beautiful mnemonic device. And it serves to remind me of, that is, it points the way to, ahh, the world in its totality is just a beautiful metaphor for, that is, I should say, represents...."
                For the first time since he had gotten warmed up, Gramps Anthony faltered. What did it remind him of? The world had always been about something. What was it? Taken in its entirety it had long called up thoughts of—what? He was certain he had known, but it escaped him just now, he could no longer put his finger on it. What the world—as a single, beautiful, mnemonic device—pointed to, or reminded him of, was. . . .
                His right hand, which had been poking the air for emphasis, now moved closer to home and began sweeping imaginary crumbs from the top of the bumpy vinyl chair, then floated aimlessly as if to dust the air.
                "oh dear," he said. "Oh dear me."
                The train he was on had come to a halt, he sensed that. But he could neither recognize the station, nor remember just why or where he had gotten on.
                "Oh dear," he repeated, to no one in particular. Sensing a shift of mood in the room, some who had not been paying attention looked up, and trained their eyes on him. Yes, it had always been about something. What was it?
                He cast about for an ending to his speech, formed words on his lips, began sentences for which he could find no suitable conclusion.
                "Oh dear me," he whispered.
                In their rows and rows of metal folding chairs, they stared at him and waited patiently. With trembling faces and shaking hands, scrawny fingers that clutched canes and crutches and the armrests of wheelchairs, they stared and waited.
                Suddenly, as though carried on a gentle breeze—smiling weakly and whimpering to himself, "oh dear, oh dear me"—Gramps Anthony ambled off, wafted through the double doors at the end of the solarium, and like a wisp of smoke evaporated down the hall.
                From the very last row, the sound of sublimely contented snoring droned on.

 
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