Story Excerpt

Take a Look at the Five and Ten

by Connie Willis

 

Everybody has a traumatic Christmas memory, and mine was always Christmas dinner, partly because in my family (a term used very loosely)—it’s actually a series of dinners—Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas dinner, and a New Year’s Eve buffet, and if my one-time stepfather Dave had his way, we’d also have St. Lucia’s Day and Boxing Day and Twelfth Night dinners, and who knows what else.

He’s very big on family  and family gatherings, even though he’s been married at least half a dozen times and has terrible taste in women (including where my mother was concerned), which means he thinks of me as his daughter, even though he was only married to her for about fifteen minutes back when I was eight, and is always really nice to me, even to the extent of helping me with college, so it’s hard for me to say no to coming.

I’m not the only sort-of-relative he invites. There’s also Aunt Mildred, actually a great-aunt of Dave’s second wife, and Grandma Elving, the grandmother of his fourth. Got all that straight?

Also at the dinner are Dave’s current wife Jillian (another bad marital choice), her stuck-up daughter Sloane, Sloane’s boyfriend of the moment, who is always blond and tall and going to law school or med school, and Jillian’s equally stuck-up friends, who Jillian introduces Aunt Mildred, Grandma Elving, and me to by saying, “Dave is so kind. He wants to make sure everyone has someplace to go for the holidays!” as if we were people he’d picked up on the sidewalk outside a homeless shelter or something.

Add to that the fact that Jillian refuses to have roast turkey and pumpkin pie like normal people and insists on serving poached sturgeon and Senegalese locus-pods, that Aunt Mildred complains about everything from the table settings to my failure to bring a date, and that Grandma Elving insists on telling the same interminable story of how she worked at Woolworth’s in downtown Denver one Christmas, and you can see why I start dreading Thanksgiving dinner some time in July.

This year was no exception. Jillian met me at the door with a look that said clearly, “Why didn’t you use the servant’s entrance?” and the news that I needed to go pick up Grandma Elving. “Dave’s on a conference call, and he doesn’t think she should be driving.”

“Couldn’t I go get her instead?” Sloane’s boyfriend said to me. He was named Lassiter this year and was even taller and blonder than usual.

“Oh, no, Lassiter, I couldn’t let you do that,” Jillian said. “You’re a guest. Ori can go.” She turned to me. “And on the way, pick up ice and some turmeric.”

“And don’t drive Grandma Elving anywhere near downtown on the way back,” Sloane said. “I don’t want her telling that stupid Woolworth’s story again.”

“Woolworth’s?” Lassiter asked.

“It was a dime store,” I explained, “a kind of variety store, like—”

“The Dollar Store,” Sloane said, putting her hand possessively on Lassiter’s arm. “She worked there one Christmas back in the fifties when she was ‘a girl,’ and we have to listen to her go on about it every single year.”

“Really?” he said. “That’s interesting.”

“No, it’s not,” Sloane said. “It’s boring beyond belief, so, Ori, whatever you do, don’t mention Christmas shopping or snow.”

“Or Bing Crosby,” Jillian put in.

“Oh, God, yes, especially don’t mention Bing Crosby. Or lunch counters or nativity scenes.” She turned to Lassiter. “And if she starts in, don’t encourage her. She can go on for hours. Just ignore her. Or change the subject.” She turned back to me. “Do not say anything to her on the way here that’ll set her off.”

That was easier said than done. Almost anything, from buses to the weather, reminded her of Woolworth’s. Even the traffic lights. “Look at them, turning from red to green,” she said after I’d picked her up from her retirement community apartment. “They look so festive, almost like Christmas decorations themselves. I remember that Christmas I worked at Woolworth’s getting off work and seeing them, turning red and green on Sixteenth Street.”

“Jillian asked me to pick up a few things on our way back,” I said, pulling into Safeway. “Is there anything you want?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t suppose they’d have hot roasted nuts? They sold hot salted peanuts and cashews at Woolworth’s from this little red-and-white striped cart. It had a yellow heat lamp in it to keep the nuts warm, and little paper bags to scoop them into.”

“I’ll see. Will you be warm enough sitting here?” I asked, looking at her doubtfully. She was bundled up in a black cloth coat and a gray scarf and gloves, but she was awfully thin and frail-looking, and my car heater doesn’t work all that well.

“Oh, I’ll be fine,” she said. “This is much warmer than the bus I used to take that Christmas I worked at Woolworth’s. It was so cold the windows used to frost over and—”

I fled into the store, grabbed the ice and the turmeric and hurried back out, hoping she’d forgotten about the roasted nuts.

She had. She was looking at the Santa Claus collecting money for charity outside Safeway’s main door. “That Christmas I worked at Woolworth’s there was a Santa right outside the front door. He had a cotton-wool beard and a chimney you put the money in. It was made out of—”

“Aunt Mildred’s going to be at dinner,” I said, trying to change the topic. “And Sloane and her new boyfriend and Louise and Stan Devers—”

“Is he cute?” Grandma Elving asked. “Or whatever it is you girls call it nowadays?”

“Stan Devers?” He was at least fifty and completely bald.

“No, Sloane’s boyfriend,” she said. “Is he cute? And more importantly, is he nice?”

“Yes,” I said, even though I was basing that solely on his having offered to pick up Grandma Elving and the fact that he’d spoken to me at all. None of Sloane’s other boyfriends had ever so much as asked me if I wanted some more salad, though last year it had been distressed kale with anchovies, so that was no loss.

“Lassiter,” she repeated thoughtfully. “There was a boy named Lamar who worked in the music department at Woolworth’s that Christmas. They sold record players and 45s and guitar picks,” and she was off again. 

*   *   *

Dinner was just as bad. Mrs. Devers said, “What a lovely table, Jillian!” and Grandma Elving piped up, “Your tablecloth looks just like the ones we used to sell at Woolworth’s. They were white with poinsettias embroidered on them, and they came in a set with eight napkins for $2.99.”

Jillian, who’d never owned anything  that cost $2.99, looked offended, and Sloane leaned across the table to whisper to me, “I thought I told you not to let her get started on Woolworth’s, Ori.”

“In my day,” Aunt Mildred said, glaring at me, “we were taught it was rude to carry on private conversations at the table,” and launched into a diatribe on the current decline in table manners and in civility in general.

When she paused to take a breath, Jillian said, “So, Lassiter, Sloane tells me you’re in medical school.”

“Yes, at C.U.,” he said.

“Ori goes to C.U., too,” Dave said.

“You do?” Lassiter said. “What are you majoring in?”

“Lassiter’s going to be a neuroscientist,” Sloane interrupted. “He’s working with Dr. Riordan on a major project. Tell them about it, Lassiter. It involves memory, doesn’t it?”

“Memory’s such a strange thing,” Grandma Elving said musingly, “I can remember that Christmas I worked at Woolworth’s like it was yesterday.”

Uh-oh, there she goes again, I thought, and started to say, “This venison carpaccio is delicious, Jillian” (a lie), but Sloane had beaten me to the punch.

“Lassiter works all the time,” she said. “I practically had to tie him down and threaten him with violence to get him to take two weeks off and go skiing with me in Vail. We’re going up tomorrow.”

“You young people, always running around,” Aunt Mildred said disapprovingly. “In my day young people stayed put.”

“I didn’t,” Grandma Elving said. “That Christmas at Woolworth’s I worked in a different department almost every day—Leather Goods, the cosmetic counter, the music department selling 45s: Perry Como and Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby. Woolworth’s piped in music, too. I can remembering them playing ‘Silver Bells’ and ‘It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas’ and—”

“Ori, have you found a job yet?” Sloane cut in, trying to head Grandma Elving off (and remind everybody that I, unlike her, had to work during Christmas break).

“No, not yet. I have an interview tomorrow with—”

“Young people today don’t even know what work is,” Aunt Mildred interrupted. “In my day—”

“What else do you remember about that Christmas besides the music, Mrs. Elving?” Lassiter interrupted. “As you came into the store?” and Sloane looked like she wanted to throttle him.

He won’t be at Christmas dinner, I thought.

“Do you remember what it smelled like when you walked into the store?” he prompted.

“Oh, my, yes,” Grandma Elving said. “Roasted nuts and fudge. And pine from the Christmas tree by the door.”

“Lassiter—” Sloane said warningly, but he was oblivious.

“What else do you remember?” he asked.

“The store had silver garlands wrapped around the pillars and red-and-green bells, you know, the kind made of pleated paper that fold out, and—

“Is everyone ready for dessert?” Jillian asked brightly. “It’s lychees flambé.”

Grandma Elving didn’t hear her. “The store windows had artificial snow around the edges and Christmas lights strung across the top, and they were always steamed up.”

Lassiter didn’t hear Jillian either, even when she told me to go tell the maid to bring dessert in. “You said you could hear Christmas music playing,” he persisted. “Can you remember hearing other sounds?”

“Oh my, yes, the shoppers talking and the cash registers ringing up sales and Santa Claus ringing his bell across the street . . . oh, and the traffic. They had cars on Sixteenth Avenue then, and—”

It took the arrival of flaming pyres of lychees and Aunt Mildred’s subsequent remarks on fire danger to bring them to a stop.

“What were you thinking?” Sloane whispered to Lassiter as the after-dinner coffee (balsamic espresso) was being poured. “I told you, she can go on for hours.”

“Really?” he said, looking thoughtfully over at Grandma Elving, and I was afraid he was going to go over and ask her what else she remembered, but he didn’t, and we got to spend the rest of the evening discussing the comparative merits of Aspen, Vail, and Snowmass for skiing and how people nowadays didn’t know how to make a decent cup of coffee and why didn’t I have a job yet—or a boyfriend.

“Can’t you find one for her, Sloane?” Mrs. Devers asked. “You know lots of young men. There must be one who—”

She didn’t finish the sentence, but it was clear what she’d intended to say: “One who’s not too picky, who wouldn’t mind going out with an unemployed shirt-tail relative who can’t get a boyfriend of her own.”

An absolutely delightful beginning to the holiday season. I could hardly wait for Christmas.

I used taking the coffee cups to the kitchen as a way to go get my things from the guest bedroom, so I could sneak out and at least not get stuck taking Grandma Elving home, which would be a perfect ending to a perfect night, but as I was putting on my boots, Lassiter came in. “Can I talk to you for a minute, Ori?” he asked, pulling the door shut behind him.

“Umm, sure,” I said, astonished that one of Sloane’s boyfriends had actually registered the fact I existed, let alone wanted to talk to me, and a little flustered. He was so, in Grandma Elving’s word, cute.

“Good. It’s about your grandmother.”

Oh, well, I knew it was too good to be true. “She’s not actually my grandmother,” I said, yanking on the other boot. “She’s my stepfather’s grandmother-in-law from his fourth marriage.”

“Oh,” he said. “But you’ve heard her talk about the Christmas she worked at Woolworth’s before, right?”

“Yes. Every Christmas,” I said, wondering what this was leading up to. He was a med student. He was probably going to tell me repeating the same story over and over was a symptom of dementia. Which wouldn’t exactly surprise me.

“Is the story consistent?” he asked. “Or does it change from telling to telling?”

“No,” I said. “I mean, she tells different details each time, but the story stays basically the same.”

“Good,” he murmured as if to himself. “And it’s a true story? She really did work at Woolworth’s?”

“As far as I know. I mean, obviously I wasn’t there, but she’s been telling the story for as long as I’ve known her. And why would she make up a story about working at Woolworth’s when she could just as easily invent one about spending Christmas in Paris or something?”

“That’s true,” he conceded. “Is there a point to the story? A moral?”

“You mean is it a lecture in disguise, like Aunt Mildred’s stories? Things were better in the old days or young people nowadays don’t know the meaning of the word ‘work’ or something? No.”

“Hmm, interesting,” he said, “but that’s not what I meant. I meant is the story about an event in her life, like how she met her husband?”

“No, it’s totally pointless.”

He frowned for a minute and then said, “Do lots of things remind her of it?”

“Are you kidding? Everything reminds her of it.”

He nodded as if that was what he’d thought. “Do you know if something traumatic happened while she was working there?”

“Traumatic?” I said blankly.

“Anything shocking or frightening or tragic. Like finding out her boyfriend had been killed in World War II or something.”

“I don’t think Grandma Elving’s quite that old,” I said. “Why do you think something happened to her when she worked there?”

“Because memories like hers are triggered by a trauma of some kind.”

I was about to ask him what he meant by “memories like hers” when Jillian opened the door, looked daggers at me, like I’d enticed Lassiter in there or something, and said brightly,

“Oh, here you are, Lassiter. Sloane, he’s in here!” She turned to me. “Good, you’re still here, Ori. I was afraid you’d left. You need to take Grandma Elving home.”

But at least Part One of the horror was over, and I had four weeks to brace myself for Part Two.

Or not. On Monday morning Grandma Elving called me and asked me if I could give her a ride to an appointment.

*   *   *

“Dave promised he’d drive me,” she told me, “but he was called out of town on business, and Sloane’s in the mountains, so Jillian said to call you.”

Which meant if I turned her down, the main topic at Christmas dinner would be how selfish and heartless I was, especially since the appointment turned out to be at a medical clinic in Cherry Creek.

But at least I could make it clear to her that this was a one-time thing. So as soon as I got her in the car, I said, “I’m afraid after today I won’t be able to take you places. I’ve got a job interview this afternoon, and after that I’ll be working, but I’d be happy to show you how to call an Uber. They’re really fast and reliable.”

“So you still haven’t found a job for Christmas vacation?” she asked.

“No,” I said, and half-expected her to suggest I apply at Woolworth’s, even though the store had been out of business for years, but she didn’t.

She said, “How would you like a job driving me?” and named an hourly wage that was more than I could make at Starbucks or the mall.

But it would mean having to listen to her Woolworth’s story for a solid month. I wasn’t sure I could stand that. “I’m waiting to hear about a job at Starbucks,” I lied, “and I told them I was available, so . . .”

“Well, if it doesn’t work out, I’d love to have you as my chauffeur. I know how hard it is for students to find a job. That Christmas I worked at Woolworth’s, I applied at I don’t know how many places before they hired me,” and launched into the familiar story of her working at Woolworth’s. “It was so exciting being there. The store was all decorated and the tree by the front door had bubble lights on it. You probably don’t know what those are. They were Christmas tree lights shaped like candles, with red and green and gold liquid in them that bubbled when they got hot. They were so pretty.”

There was certainly nothing traumatic about that. She sounded happy recounting the story, and her wrinkled face lit up with pleasure at the memory. There was no moral, either, no lectures about what a hard worker she’d been or how girls in her day had known what Christmas really meant.

Which was strange, now that I thought about it. Aunt Mildred wasn’t the only old person who told stories about the failings of the younger generation and the vast superiority of the “good old days.” Everybody I knew over the age of sixty did. But not Grandma Elving. The fact that the memory was so clear was strange, too. I couldn’t remember that many details about Thanksgiving dinner, and that had only been a few days ago.

She was still talking about the Christmas decorations. “They had evergreen garlands strung above the center aisle,” she said. “With a big red bow in the center.”

“Those are pretty gloves you’re wearing,” I said. “They look warm.”

“Kidskin,” she said. “That Christmas I worked at Woolworth’s one of the departments I worked in was Leather Goods, and they sold gloves just like these.”

Of course they did, I thought. “There’s a lot of traffic today,” I said, but my comment didn’t even put a dent in the flow.

“They sold all kinds of leather gloves—pigskin and Moroccan leather and suede,” she said. “And handbags and wallets. And music boxes. Pink and blue ones with satin linings that played ‘The Blue Danube’ when you opened the lid. Every time I hear that song, I think of those music boxes. Some of them had a little ballerina that spun around, too.”

The music boxes got us all the way out to Speer. “What street’s the doctor’s office on?” I asked her.

“Oh, my, I don’t know,” she said, which surprised me. I’d assumed she was going to see her regular doctor. She must be going to see a specialist.

“I wrote it down,” she said, fumbling in her handbag.

And please don’t let that remind her of the handbags she used to sell at Woolworth’s, I thought.

“Here it is,” she said, pulling out a slip of paper.

She read me the address, and I drove to it, wondering what sort of specialist she was going to. The building didn’t offer any clue. It listed dozens of clinics and labs, and the door of the office she headed for said only “UCHealth” and under that, “Hayden Clinic.”

Grandma Elving gave her name to the receptionist, and she said, “Oh, yes, he’s expecting you,” and disappeared through a door. I glanced over at the magazine rack, thinking it might have pamphlets that would give me a clue—“Managing Your Cancer” or “The Ten Warning Signs of Heart Disease” or something—but all they had was copies of Travel and People. No help there. I’d have to hope the doctor, when he came out, would have his specialty on the name-tag of his lab coat.

He didn’t. He wasn’t wearing a lab coat. He was wearing the same blazer and chinos he’d worn at Thanksgiving dinner. “Lassiter,” I said, surprised, “what are you doing here? I thought you were in Vail with Sloane.”

“I was. Sloane’s still up there. She’s staying till Christmas, but I couldn’t take that much time off. I’ve got this research project that’s due.”

Well, he definitely won’t be at Christmas dinner, I thought. Sloane didn’t like guys that weren’t constantly at her beck and call. “Research project?” I inquired.

“He means me,” Grandma Elving said, and when I looked blankly at her, “I’m the project. This young man is going to record my memories of that Christmas I worked at Woolworth’s.”

“You are?” I said.

“Yes,” Lassiter said happily. “She’s agreed to let me take down a full account of her memory.” And I thought, Oh, you have no idea what you’re letting yourself in for.

“Are you ready?” Lassiter asked Grandma Elving.

“Yes!” she said.

“Good,” Lassiter said, and a nurse appeared at his side. “Anne here is going to get some information from you and have you sign a release form saying that we can use what you say to us during the interview, and then we’ll get started.”

“Oh, good, I have so much to tell you,” Grandma Elving said, and went off with the nurse, and as soon as the door shut behind them, I said, “You want Grandma Elving to tell you about that Christmas she worked at Woolworth’s? Why?”

“I think Sloane told you on Thanksgiving that I’m working on a project concerning memory. It involves TFBMs, and Mrs. Elving’s Woolworth’s memory has all the earmarks of being a textbook example.”

“TFBMs?”

“Yes, they’re memories that are indelible due to the heightened emotional state at the time of the event, like people’s memories of the Challenger explosion or 9-11. The subject remembers every aspect of the event, down to the last detail—sights, sounds, smells, emotions, everything—as if it had been captured on film. They used to call them flashbulb memories—that’s what TFBM stands for, traumatic flashbulb memory—because of the way a flashbulb lit up everything for a blinding instant and then left an after-image, though nowadays no one knows what a flashbulb is. TFNMs are marked by being exceptionally vivid, multisensory, and highly detailed.”

Well, that definitely describes Grandma Elving’s, I thought.

“They’re also persistent,” Lassiter said. “Unlike ordinary autobiographical memories, which fade over time, TFBMs remain just as vivid as when they happened for years, sometimes even for a lifetime. It’s as if they were branded into the brain.”

And that was definitely Grandma Elving’s. But there must be lots of people who’d had flashbulb memories that were a lot less boring than hers. “I still don’t understood why you want Grandma Elving as a subject,” I said.

“Because ordinarily we’re limited to, one, asking people with shared TFBMs like I told you about—the Twin Towers or the Challenger, or, two, interviewing patients suffering from PTSD. Or, three, simulating TFBMs in the lab by having volunteer subjects view, say, a slasher movie, which is what we’ve been doing on this project. But all three methods have drawbacks. Lab-simulated TFBMs are shallower and last a shorter time then real memories, and many of them aren’t authentic TFBMs at all. And with the ones caused by an event, you’re limited to third-hand data, relying on transcripts of interviews taken at the time of the event, or else you have to wait for another event to occur. You can’t just produce them to fit your timetable.”

“Unless you’re a terrorist,” I said.

“Right,” Lassiter said. “But blowing things up to produce a memory is frowned on by the medical profession.” He grinned.

“What about the PTSD patients?” I asked.

“Calling up their memories can produce anxiety, depression, and even flashbacks. Plus, they’re understandably reluctant to revisit the experience that caused the memory, whereas Mrs. Elving is eager to share her story. She’s an ideal subject, if her memory’s a TFBM. I want to run a battery of tests on her to determine that, but—”

“Hang on,” I said. “Tests?” Grandma Elving was eighty, and my stepdad Dave would never forgive me if I let anything happen to her. “What kind of tests? You’re not going to stick electrodes in her brain or anything, are you?

“No, of course not. Nothing invasive,” Lassiter assured me. “A questionnaire and a series of targeted questions and then a CT-LLI scan to determine her brain activity as she’s remembering the event.”

“A CT-what?”

“CT-LLI. Computerized tomographic lattice light-sheet imaging. It’s a new kind of scan that combines two technologies to measure neural activity in real time. But before I do the scan, I need to get a complete account of the memory from her to determine its parameters and establish a baseline for targeted questioning.”

Knowing Grandma Elving, that would take days. Or weeks. I gathered up my scarf and gloves. “What time should I come back and pick her up?”

“Actually, I was hoping you could stay and sit in on the interview,” he said. “That is, if you can spare the time,” and gave me a smile that made it impossible for me to say no. “I’d like to have you there just in case she needs prompting.”

*   *   *

She didn’t. After a couple of preliminary questions about which Woolworth’s she’d worked at and how old she’d been, she took off and talked for three hours straight, at which point Lassiter’s recorder ran out of space, and we had to stop so he could upload the transcript to his computer.

“I told you,” I whispered to him when his assistant took Grandma Elving out to show her where the bathroom was. “Are you sorry you did this?”

“No,” he said excitedly. “This is exactly what I hoped for. The clarity, the heightened emotional state, the irrelevant details . . .”

“If it’s irrelevant details you want, Grandma Elving’s your girl, all right,” I said.

“I know,” he said, completely missing my sarcasm. “Irrelevant details are one of the primary indicators of a TFBM. With ordinary memories, the brain filters out any details that aren’t pertinent to the main memory—with a birthday, for instance, you remember the cake and your presents, but not what shoes your mother was wearing or what you had for breakfast that day—but with TFBMs, every bit of detail that was recorded at the moment of the triggering, the moment the metaphorical flashbulb went off, becomes part of the memory.”

I thought of the traffic lights and the music boxes.

“There’s no filtering,” Lassiter said, “so the more irrelevant details she remembers, the more likely it is to be a TFBM, and she’s remembered a lot.”

“And she still hasn’t told you about the bell-ringing Santa Claus or the nativity figures,” I said.

“Nativity figures?” he asked, instantly interested.

“You know, like in a nativity scene. Mary and Joseph and the wise men and everything. There were fifteen of them, which is how many times I’ve heard her talk about them. Listen, when Grandma Elving comes back, I think I’d better take her to get something to eat. It’s nearly one o’clock, and she’s an old lady.”

“You’re right,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking. I was just so excited at the prospect of this being a TFBM. We can finish this up tomorrow.”

But Grandma Elving refused to quit or even stop to eat something. “Why doesn’t Ori go out and get us sandwiches or whatever it is you young people eat these days, and we can eat while we work? That is, if Ori wouldn’t mind.”

“I’d be glad to,” I said. I asked Lassiter what he wanted to eat, got directions to the closest Wendy’s, and ducked out just as Grandma Elving started in on the nativity figures.

At least I won’t have to listen to that story for the sixteenth time, I thought, but when I got back, she was still regaling Lassiter with them.

“We got paid once a week on Fridays,” she was saying. “They paid us in cash, and as soon as I picked up my pay packet, I’d go straight down to Christmas Decorations and buy some of them. The first week I bought Mary and Joseph and the baby in the manger, and the next I bought the shepherds.”

You’re the one who wanted irrelevant details, I thought, handing Lassiter his hamburger and Coke, but he looked totally engrossed.

“There were two of them, one kneeling down and one standing up, with a lamb on his shoulders—”

I handed her her tea, but she kept right on talking. “And the third week I bought the sheep—they were only fifteen cents apiece—and the angel and then two of the wise men, and the last week I bought the third and the camel.”

It took her another half hour to get through the nativity set—“You could buy a stable, too, but they were really expensive, and without it, I could arrange the figures so the shepherds were out in the fields and the wise men were in the East, looking up and seeing the star for the first time, realizing what it meant and having a—what’s the word I’m looking for? Where you have a sudden flash of insight?”

“Epiphany?” I suggested.

“That’s it, having an epiphany,” she said. “I thought that was much better than having them all crammed together inside a tiny stable—” and then she moved on to the rest of the things in the Christmas Decorations department, the ornaments and packets of tinsel and bubble lights (which she described all over again) and then on to Toyland, which was in the next aisle over.

“They had Flexible Flyer sleds and Lincoln logs and talking dolls and a big electric train layout in the middle, with tunnels and bridges and a depot. There were always dozens of children gathered around, watching it.” And on and on. This was the first time I’d heard the whole thing uninterrupted (except for my lunch run) and it was just as boring and pointless as I’d been afraid it would be.

And as interminable. Lassiter’s tape recorder ran out two more times before he called a halt to it, and even then Grandma Elving wasn’t done. “I still haven’t told you about the candy counter,” she said. “Or the cosmetics department.”

“You can tell me tomorrow,” Lassiter said. “I don’t want to tire you out.”

“Oh, but I’m not tired—”

“Right now Anne’s going to check your vitals again, and then I want you to go home and get a good night’s sleep.”

“I’ll go get the car and bring it around to the front door,” I said, and went out to the waiting room.

Lassiter followed me, and I expected it was to ask me for help in finding a way to tell Grandma Elving he didn’t need her to come back, but the moment the door shut, he said excitedly, “Your grandmother’s account has all the earmarks of a TFBM, the intensity, the sensory involvement, the irrelevant details, they’re all present. I won’t know for certain till I do the brain scans, but I’m convinced it’s a TFBM. Can you bring her in at eight tomorrow? I want to finish her preliminary interview and then conduct a second one to determine the consistency of her story.”

*   *   *

Over the next week I heard her account of that Christmas she worked at Woolworth’s at least five times. Grandma Elving loved every second of it. “My, that was fun!” she said when I was driving her home after the third day. “Wasn’t it, Ori?”

“Yes,” I said, and I wasn’t lying, in spite of having to hear her story over and over. The more she rambled on, the more time I got to spend with Lassiter, who was even nicer than I’d thought he was that first night at dinner. And Grandma Elving was paying me not only for my driving but for the time I spent with her at the lab, so I didn’t have to worry about finding another job. And it was more fun than working at the mall would have been. Or Woolworth’s in 1960, even though Grandma Elving made it sound like that had been an unmitigated delight from beginning to end.

I’d had Christmas jobs before, so I very much doubted that, and so did Lassiter. He’d had her recount her memory while undergoing a CT-LLI scan, and decided it was definitely a TFBM. “There’s activation of the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the pre-frontal cortex. It matches the neural pattern of a TFBM exactly, which means it had to have been triggered by some kind of trauma.”

“But her memory of that Christmas is so positive. I’ve never heard her mention anything bad. Couldn’t something happy have caused it instead?”

He shook his head. “Happiness isn’t a strong enough or a concentrated enough emotion to trigger a TFBM. It’s too diffuse. And besides, it has a completely different neural signature. Positive emotions activate the limbic cortex and the precuneus, not the amygdala or the hippocampus.”

“But you’ve heard her,” I said. And heard her and heard her and heard her. “She’s never said a word about a trauma.”

“She may not consciously remember it,” Lassiter said. “It’s common with TFBMs for the core trauma to be repressed and only come out after questioning.”

“But wouldn’t there be some indication—?”

“There is. The persistence of Mrs. Elving’s memory over the years, for one, and her compulsive need to repeat it.”

She definitely had that. Even though she spent all day every day talking about it, that wasn’t enough. She brought it up at every possible opportunity on our trips to and from the clinic. And when she couldn’t find one, she manufactured one. The night before on the way home, she’d said suddenly, apropos of nothing, “The first week I was at Woolworth’s, I worked at the cosmetic counter for three days, selling nail polish and Tangee lipsticks and ‘Midnight in Paris’ perfume. It came in this dark blue bottle, which I thought was the height of sophistication.”

But except for the scent of the “Midnight in Paris,” which was apparently nauseating and extremely strong, nothing she shared with me was negative, and Lassiter’s questioning didn’t turn up anything either.

When he asked her if she remembered anything negative about her time at Woolworth’s, she said, “The customers complained about the prices and having to wait in line, and they were sometimes ill-tempered, like Aunt Mildred. Or condescending like Jillian. Oh, and Mr. Gipson used to yell at Alice and me—”

“Alice?”

“She was another Christmas break hiree. We worked together in Leather Goods and Giftwrapping, and Mr. Gipson would yell at us for giggling and talking when we should have been waiting on customers.”

But crabby customers and being dressed down by the boss hardly qualified as traumas, and the personal-history survey Lassiter had her fill out didn’t turn up anything either. She hadn’t met her husband till the year after she graduated from college, and there hadn’t been any family crises, health scares, or deaths during the relevant period, not even the loss of a family pet.

“Could she have found out some terrible family secret?” Lassiter asked me.

“You mean like the knowledge that she was going to be stuck going to horrible holiday dinners for the rest of her life?”

He grinned. “No, I’m serious. What about a car accident in which she was to blame?”

“She didn’t have a car,” I said. “She took the bus to work, remember? Why don’t you just ask her whether something bad happened and what it was?”

He shook his head. “That might drive the memory of the trauma even deeper. It must have been something at work,” he said thoughtfully. “Maybe she was groped by one of the men she worked with or had an affair with one of them and he got her pregnant—”

Or she fell in love with him, and he didn’t even know she was alive, I thought. Like me.

“Or she might have shoplifted merchandise or taken money from the cash register,” Lassiter went on.

“Grandma Elving?” I said. “No. Absolutely not.”

“You’re right,” he said. “And guilt activates a different area of the frontal cortex.” He thought a moment. “Maybe it was a shared trauma. When was President Kennedy assassinated?”

“Not till 1963, and the year she worked at Woolworth’s was 1960.” I looked the year up on my phone. “There were several plane crashes that year, and Ben Hur came out,” I said, scrolling down through the list of events. “Sputnik 6 was launched with two dogs . . . the Vietnam War—”

“There you go. She fell in love with someone she met at Woolworth’s that Christmas, and he was killed in Vietnam.”

“But the war had hardly started,” I said, looking it up on my phone. “The draft didn’t begin till 1969.”

“Then that’s probably not it,” Lassiter said. “But there has to be something.”

But successive sessions failed to turn anything up (except more irrelevant details—the wise men had been named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar, the lunch counter had sold hot dogs and hamburgers as well as ice cream sodas) and Lassiter grew more and more frustrated. “I know there’s a trauma in there,” he told me. “I want to do another CT-LLI, only this time with memory enhancement. There’s a new experimental drug, Reminizil. It recreates the original intensity of the TFBM.”

“I thought you said you weren’t going to do anything invasive.”

“This isn’t. It’s perfectly safe. No harmful side effects.”

“How do you know that? You said it was experimental. Some side effects take months to show up, and Grandma Elving’s eighty and awfully frail.”

She was also awfully determined. When I tried to talk her out of taking the drug, she told me, “I’m doing it. I’ve already signed the permission forms. You’re as bad as Dave, so over-protective. I’ll be fine.” And I had to comfort myself with the knowledge (gleaned from the internet) that the clinical trials of Reminizil had shown only minor side effects—headaches and fatigue—though I was still worried.

And so, it turned out, was Grandma Elving, though not for the reasons I expected. At the last minute, after the nurse had put in the IV and was about to start the feed for the Reminizil, Grandma Elving asked Lassiter, “This isn’t like truth serum, is it? Where you take it and tell the doctor everything you’re thinking?”

“You mean like sodium pentathol?” he said. “No. All it will do is help you remember.”

“And the scan won’t show what I’m thinking?”

“No.”

“Look, Grandma Elving,” I said, “if you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to.”

“No, no, I want to,” she said. “Go ahead and inject the Reminizil.”

The nurse did, and Lassiter proceeded with the scan, taking her through her story all over again and watching the shifting images of her brain’s activity on the screen.

I was watching the screen that had her pulse and heart rate on it, worried that he’d been wrong, and Reminizil—or the shock of remembering the trauma—might cause a stroke, but nothing happened. And I do mean nothing. If Lassiter had expected Grandma Elving to suddenly say, “Oh, my God, now I remember! Something terrible happened that Christmas!” he was sorely disappointed.

Her answers to Lassiter’s questions were just the same, and after the scan, she clasped his hand with her bony, veined one in gratitude. “Thank you for giving me the Reminizil. It was just like I was back there, living through it all over again!” she said. “I could hear the cash registers and see the garlands and smell the ‘Midnight in Paris’!” and when Lassiter asked her how she felt while she was remembering it, she said, “Wonderful! That was the happiest Christmas of my life.”

“Maybe she’s telling the truth, and it was,” I said to Lassiter while she was being unhooked from the IV.

“No, the activation of the amygdala and the hippocampus were even stronger with the Reminizil. There’s definitely a trauma. It’s just buried in the subconscious, probably because it’s something too painful or too humiliating for her to remember.”

“Then should we be dredging it up?” I asked, thinking how happy she’d been talking about Woolworth’s and the snow and the bubble lights. “Maybe she’d be better off not remembering.”

Lassiter shook his head. “She has an obsessive need to retrieve it. That’s why she keeps returning to it again and again. She’s trying to exorcise the trauma.”

I wasn’t convinced of that. Her reminiscing didn’t strike me as obsessive but as fond, and I kept remembering what he’d said before about how forcing PTSD patients to recall their experiences had caused flashbacks and traumatized them all over again. Maybe it would be better to stop now and let her go on thinking that Christmas had been a happy one.

But when I broached the subject of quitting to her, using the excuse that all the trips to the lab and tests and interview sessions might be wearing her out, she refused to consider it.

“I’m perfectly fine,” she said, and looked at me shrewdly. “What’s wrong? Has something happened between you and Lassiter?”

“No, of course not.”

“Good,” she said. “The two of you make such a nice couple.”

No, we don’t, I thought. He doesn’t even know I exist.

“But if you’re getting along, then why all this talk about my quitting?” Grandma Elving said, looking suspiciously at me. “Did Lassiter tell you my memory isn’t the kind he needs for his study?”

“No, of course not,” I lied. “Lassiter thinks you’re a wonderful subject.”

“Good,” she said, and started telling me about the dry goods department at Woolworth’s, but a few minutes later, she said, “Yesterday I heard Lassiter telling Dr. Riordan my memory was a TFBM. What does that stand for?”

Lassiter had said asking her directly about her trauma would only drive it further underground, but saying I didn’t know what TFBM stood for was likely to make her even more suspicious.

“It stands for Traumatic Flash Bulb Memory because it lights up the entire event, just like a flash bulb,” I said rapidly. “When Lassiter told me, I had to ask him what a flashbulb was. I’d never seen one. Do you know what they are?” I asked, hoping she’d focus on that and forget I’d said “traumatic.”

It worked. She said, “We sold them at Woolworth’s, at the camera counter, along with camera cases and tripods and film. You probably don’t know what film is either. It came in little square yellow boxes with ‘Kodachrome’ printed in red. The camera counter was next to the pipes and tobacco counter, and next to that was the candy counter,” and launched into a description of gumdrops and chocolate creams and ribbon candy.

I was relieved she hadn’t picked up on the trauma thing, and even more relieved the next morning when she didn’t bring up the TFBMs again. But she didn’t bring up anything that might point to a trauma either, and when I went out to fetch lunch, Lassiter followed me down to the car.

“I’ve been looking at her physical responses during the scan,” he said. “None of the stress indicators—pulse rate, muscular tension, skin conduction—showed any elevation.”

“So what does that mean? That there isn’t a trauma after all?”

“No, I’m absolutely certain the neural signature matches that of a TFBM. But it could mean the trauma’s so deeply buried it’s undetectable even to her brain’s stress centers, which means it’s too deeply buried to be retrieved, and without it . . .”

You can’t finish your project, so you’re going to have to find someone else for your study, I thought, and spent a good part of the afternoon session listening to Grandma Elving prattle on happily about the stationery department and the Santa Claus on the street outside and the lunch counter, thinking about how impossible it was going to be to find another Christmas job at this late date and how much I was going to miss Lassiter.

“I was terrible at working at the lunch counter,” Grandma Elving said. “I couldn’t get the hang of the malted milk machine. I kept spewing ice cream everywhere, so they assigned me to doing balloons.”

“Balloons?” I said. “At Christmas?”

“Yes, they had these red and green balloons taped to the mirror behind the lunch counter, each with a slip of paper inside with a price on it: ten cents, twenty-five cents, all the way up to a dollar, and the customer picked a balloon and we popped it for them, and that was the price the customer paid for Woolworth’s special Candy Cane Sundae. My job was to write out the slips of paper and stick them in the balloons and then blow up the balloons and tie them, but they kept getting away from me and flying all over the store . . .” She stopped, an odd, bemused expression on her face.

“What is it?” Lassiter asked. She had put her hand to her forehead as if it hurt.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “Grandma Elving?”

“Nothing,” she said. “It’s just . . . for a moment there I thought I remembered something.”

“What was it?” Lassiter asked eagerly.

“I don’t know. You know how when there’s a word on the tip of your tongue, but you can’t think of it. It was like that. Only it wasn’t a word. It was . . .” Her voice trailed off.

“It was what?” Lassiter prompted. “Did it have something to do with the balloons? Or the lunch counter?”

“No, I don’t think so,” she said, frowning. “I don’t know what it was.” And no matter how many questions Lassiter asked her, the memory didn’t return.

“I’m sorry,” Grandma Elving said as we left for the day. “Whatever it was, it’s gone.”

But Lassiter was still elated. “The memory of the trauma’s starting to break through,” he’d told me just before we left.

He was right. While I was driving her home, she stopped in the middle of telling me about buying one of the wise men for her nativity set and stared blankly at the windshield for a minute before exclaiming, “Drat! I almost had it!”

And the next day, answering a question about who all she’d worked with at Woolworth’s, she said, “There was Mr. Gipson and Mrs. Solomon—she worked at the candy counter—and Alice. We worked in Gloves and Scarves together . . .” She ticked the names off on her fingers as she said them. “And Tom at the lunch counter, and Marty . . .”

She paused, and Lassiter looked up alertly. “What is it? Did you remember something?”

“Ye-e-s,” she said doubtfully. “I’m not sure. This is so annoying, not to be able to remember. You don’t think it’s a sign of Alzheimer’s, do you?”

“No, not at all,” Lassiter said. “It’s perfectly normal. Now, you were telling me about the people who worked at the lunch counter—”

“Oh, yes,” she said. “There were Tom and Marty and another boy named Ralph, he had this mass of curly hair, and Mr. Gipson made him wear a hairnet like the girls.” She laughed. “Oh, and speaking of hairnets, there was Mrs. Proudy. She worked in Leather Goods, and she wore a hairnet, too, and those thick brown cotton stockings.” Which led to a story about the nylons they’d sold “in little flat boxes, layered in tissue paper.”

“You told us Woolworth’s sold a special Christmas sundae?” Lassiter asked, obviously trying to get her back to the lunch counter and Marty.

“Oh, yes, the Candy Cane Sundae,” she said. “It was made with peppermint ice cream and hot fudge sauce and whipped cream, with crushed green and red peppermint candy on top and a candy cane stuck in the side.”

“And who made those? Marty?”

“Marty,” she said. “You never see green candy canes anymore, just red. You never see those pastel mints we used to sell, either, the round ones, pale green and yellow and pink. Woolworth’s used to sell them in boxes, to husbands mainly, looking for a last-minute gift for their wives. They’d come in right before Christmas, looking desperately for something, anything to buy. Like a can opener. When I worked in Kitchenwares, they’d do that all the time. Not an electric can opener—they didn’t sell those at Woolworth’s—just an ordinary hand-crank one.”

“Going back to the sundaes, you said Marty was in charge of making them,” Lassiter persisted. “Did you help him?”

“No,” she said. “I mean, can you imagine someone giving their wife a can opener for Christmas? I’d suggest a box of the pastel mints or something up in Cosmetics, bath powder or a bottle of ‘Midnight in Paris’ or an assortment of bubble bath or something,” she said, and veered off into how the bubble bath had come in little paper packets, “like the ones seeds come in, with a picture of flowers on the front—roses or lilies-of-the-valley or jasmine.”

The message was clear. She didn’t want to talk about Marty.

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2020. Take a Look at the Five and Ten by Connie Willis

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