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"The Atlas of Memory" by Mike Lee

"Before words can run out, something in the heart must die."

—Alejandra Pizarnik

Bella closed her eyes at the bar, and memory formed two people from shadows. They were born six months apart, alternating elevenths, opposing points in the revolution of the Earth around the Sun. One. One. Adding to two, until one night, they became none.

Bella sounded a little scared when she got to that part of the story, and considering what happened, she was sad when she concluded it. It is never a straightforward story to relate to but tell it, she did, painful as it was. The compulsion was obsessive. Bella just had to talk about them.

Tomorrow, Bella’s sister Vivian would have been 71. This weekend, Bella planned to get a cousin to drive her to Granger and visit her. Bella will join Vivian, Daddy, and Mama, a family, then forgotten.

That assessment scared Bella the most. People needed to know about them. She did not want them left unknown. Also, Bella did not want to die without their story entirely told, realizing her mind continued to fail her frequently. That next step of her long decline was coming soon and she was running out of time.

The symptoms of her illness were irreversible and not going to stop until everything else did.

Drinking made it worse. Bella did not care. She was beyond that, weary of fighting against the tide before the inevitability of being pulled underwater into oblivion. But, there was something Bella had to say, to grasp, and pass on before this lifetime of facing a shattering mirror, watching once-important memories fragmenting into shards. She always hated puzzles; now, her life was becoming one.

* * * *

The specialists called and told her she had organic brain syndrome. Daddy had suffered from this. It crept up slowly. As his condition worsened, he sat in his overstuffed chair in the den, a television tray serving as his desk. While holding a notepad and pen, he would ask Bella about past events, himself, and the family.

Bella would tell him. Daddy would write them down, his arthritic fingers struggling while scrawling over the lines of the notepad. Then, when he finished writing her answer, he would look up to ask another question, and Bella would answer.

It was vital for him to write it down himself.

When he finished, he would look up and ask her again.

One afternoon, at the dining nook in the kitchen. Daddy stood up and said he had forgotten his name. He reached his throat, grasping Vivian’s Confirmation medal, tugging on the chain until it snapped.

“My name,” he said. “What is my name?”

This is what was going to happen to her. She found that talking about her sister Vivian helped. Who she was. The time she went to the Dairy Queen. Everything changed after that. But she needed to understand why that was and how she stood in the wreckage of Vivian’s death.

With a drowning grip, Bella held to the story of her older sister. There was hope in those days. Life was easy, and choices were simple. Dairy Queen, Holiday House for burgers and shakes, and the Woolworths counter for grilled cheese sandwiches. Dance squad, and working towards making varsity cheerleader and good enough grades for the University. Coming home to her room, and always finding Vivian sitting on her bed, reading magazines and books and writing in her diary. That was the time of her life Bella focused on. That time led to a thunderstorm night and the officers at the door, but as months passed, Bella realized the fragments of weeks before and after her sister died mattered the most.

Daddy had just joked to Mama that Vivian wished the rain would never end when the doorbell rang.

After being pulled underwater, the disease proceeded with Bella’s slow but discernable decline. Yes, she was told the drinking made it worse, but she felt she had to die of something and decided she should feel good in the process, and nothing made slow-motion suicide in the face of an incurable disease feel as good as a single malt scotch, neat, with a water sidecar.

Since the symptoms began three years ago, Bella had already forgotten much of her life. For a time, she worked furiously, keeping a diary of stories about growing up, the years at the University of Texas, and the time she went to San Francisco and Marin County for two years before returning home broke and humiliated.

She filled two spiral notebooks before she realized there was no one to read them but her and that so many of these stories were meaningless. They were not that important to Bella. What was important was remembering the date, when to take her meds, that she took them, and doctors’ appointments. Eventually, piecing together those shards of memory was too much for her to handle. She needed to focus.

But Vivian, her sister, was the most important. Bella needed to remember her.

After Bella’s diagnosis, she recalled Vivian in as much detail as possible. The night she had left them forever was when everything changed. Woke up every morning with an empty bed next to Bella’s. A space at the table permanently left untouched. Mama started getting sick shortly afterward and died when Bella graduated high school. Finally, it became Daddy alone, staying that way except for his trips to the family ranch in Granger.

As Daddy sat alone, Bella went on that adventure to find herself. That was San Francisco after it was fun. The architecture was crumbling as the people staggered around looking for angry fixes, caging change, stealing, and kicking the crap out of each other to finish that mathematical problem of maintaining addiction. If it wasn’t the heroin used to sink oneself into the ground, it was a go-go of shooting speed. Bella went for the former. She wore long sleeves for years after that.

She whored herself out. Backstage at the Fillmore, sweet-talking touring musicians into bed with an eye on what was in the velvet trouser pockets in the morning and running out to the Haight to score.

Eventually, this got too much for her. She flipped out and ran with one of the lesser self-proclaimed gurus to a tumbledown Victorian in Marin County. She latched onto a fantasy of the Boxcar Children amid the chaos of filthy mattresses and became pregnant.

Junk sick and desperate, she hung a ride from her rescuer. All she could remember was his flaming red hair and beard. He drove her to a clinic. Got a referral to a halfway house and spent months there on brown rice, beans, and methadone. She was as much of a blur as those memories.

She willingly gave up the child at birth, incapable of taking on anything more than getting clean.

She wished the redhead had been the father. But instead, it was probably the guru.

His name was Gus. Or Gaston. She couldn’t remember even back then, and no reason to start now.

After taking night business classes at the University of San Francisco, she returned home to Texas.

* * * *

On several occasions, Daddy told Bella, “I can accept loss, but I cannot abide it forever.” She felt the hurt in those words, in his voice. He didn’t speak much about it otherwise, but Vivian lived on in the silences between sentences during conversations.

And on Bella’s dresser, a cedar box with revelatory artifacts inside. The adoption papers were neatly folded in the cedar box. She looked at them daily to remind herself, especially after Carey was hired as the bartender.

Vivian was Bella’s sister, and Mark was the boy Vivian met. It was a cold spring day at the Dairy Queen on Guadalupe Street.

Her sister had just turned fifteen. Her given name was Irene, named after her grandmother. Irene did not like her name and insisted on calling herself by her middle name, Vivian, as in Leigh. Gone with the Wind, with God as my witness.

Irene was a Texas girl, but Vivian wanted to be someone bigger than Texas.

Bella ordered another scotch neat. The disability money went into her bank account yesterday, so it was The Balvenie today. She was feeling expensive.

“Do you want me to close out the tab?” Carey, the bartender, was sweet and one of those new girls. Her dad was a cop in Rhode Island, and behind the nose ring, the color streaks in her hair and tattoos was a young woman raised right. Looking at Carey’s expression, Bella recalled Vivian telling her: “I am a good girl, not wishing to be bad, but learning to be both. Good bad. That’s the thing about me.”

“I guess I’m good for now,” Bella said. “Maybe the one after this.”

Bella glanced up at the television screen. The fantastic young quarterback backing up for the injured starter, Dak Prescott, tossed a five-yard slant to Whitten. First down, Cowboys.

* * * *

Vivian was a genius as all she touched turned to gold. Except for that boy she fell in love with at the Dairy Queen on Guadalupe Street. He was one boy parents would wish best left unmet, but that’s the kind of boy some of us dream of, Bella thought.

But what a boy Mark was. He was one handsome fella; Bella recalled that brunette ducktail sliding down over his forehead, the blue denim Levi’s jacket, and his striped t-shirt. Yeah. A greaser.

Vivian was a good girl. She sure looked like one wearing her Girl Scout troop leader’s dress, with black lace-up shoes and knee socks. It was cold that day, so she had on that black wool jacket while listening to music on the jukebox, sitting at the table alone, waiting for her strawberry shake.

Vivian said she was the only customer until Mark entered the Dairy Queen. When her order was called, she went to the counter and stood beside him. He smelled like Fatima cigarettes. Their eyes met.

Bella was not there because she was practicing to be a line girl for the opening of the new Interstate. It was a big event. The Interregional Highway was going to become Interstate 35. But, the newspaper said, when finished, the highway would be from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Cape Horn in South America; instead, the road goes from Duluth, Minnesota, to Laredo.

While sliding her finger over the glass, Bella remembered her sister’s face when she told her about meeting that boy.

He just sat down across from her. Slapped a pocket paperback book, The Informer, by Liam O’Flaherty, on the table and sipped his soda, staring at her.

“He’s a poet,” Vivian later told Bella. “He wrote me a poem on a sheet of paper and slid it across for me to read.” Bella folded the poem in fours in the cedar keepsake box on her dresser.

Bella read it before bed. Mark could write. Had something going on as he was growing up. What Vivian wanted and held on to until the very end.

We were born six months apart, alternating elevenths.

Opposing points in the revolution of the Earth around the Sun

The spider-chalk scrawl we gaze upon from our seats.

Unexpected emotions were shared, clustered around silent glances.

Furtive defines our rhythms as our interrupted lives now control this shared space.

We speak, betraying the sense of wonder and surprise.

I think they know.

Watching your smile return to lips,

eyes flickering.

Undeniably happy in the place where your heart suddenly stops, starts

on a different shore

Okay. Should we--

add a note into the atlas of memories?

Discovered. Dusted.


* * * *

Vivian had dirty blond hair, cut in a bob like Barbara Bel Geddes, who Mama said she resembled. Thick black glasses hid a Southern beauty, and her overbite added character. That’s what we all said when we took her home, crying, from the orthodontist when the family could not afford braces.

Those were different times. Only the West Austin girls in Tarrytown had the money for braces. We had to make do with whatever God gave us for appearances. That and makeup, but we were Catholics, and our parents were stern. Vivian was a good girl and made do. She did, you see, she did.

Vivian saw Vertigo at the Paramount on Congress Avenue when she was 12. Bella was 10 and too young for that movie, but Vivian went.

She loved Barbara Bel Geddes in the movie. She played a painter in love with the hero, a detective who feared heights and couldn’t save the girl. She wore glasses like Vivian.

After that, Vivian cut her hair into a bob like Barbara’s.

When they looked at the fashion magazines, Vivian kept pointing out Kim Novak’s dresses. While Barbara was a pretty girl, Kim was beautiful.

Vivian pointed at a photo of Kim Novak. Then, pushing her glasses back, she said, “I can be Barbara and her.”

* * * *

The bartender carried out a rack of barrel glasses from the kitchen. After setting it down next to the twin steel sinks under the bar, she removed and stacked them neatly beside the cash register.

Bella watched the bartender work without actually seeing. She was too busy trying to remember.

Bella took a sip from her scotch. Then paused, downed it, and asked Carey for another, placing her bank card on the bar. She promised herself the next scotch should be her last.

She smiled as Dak Prescott ran a quarterback draw into the end zone. Touchdown Cowboys. The most dynamic quarterback they have had since Staubach.

A shard from the past flickered. The family gathered, watching the team on the Zenith console. So this is who they were, and Bella wanted them back.

Mama sat on the plastic-covered tan couch with her knitting. The cancer was already growing deep inside. She died from it five years later, three after Vivian passed, who sat cross-legged next to Mama, reading her book. She was disinterested in sports.

Bella sat at her father’s feet. She loved watching football. She was a cheerleader at junior high that year and hoped to make the freshman squad at McCallum High the following year.

Looming above Bella, Daddy sat nervously in his chair, tapping his pipe against the polished oak end table.

The Cowboys wore navy blue uniforms with star designs on the shoulder pads and white helmets. They were dark gray on the black and white Zenith.

Eddie LeBaron was the quarterback. The playcalling was rudimentary. They were a new team—an expansion franchise, they called them. They invariably ran on first down, with the fullback, Don Perkins, driving into the pile of bodies.

The television game announcer, his voice rising, said, “First down. Perkins up the middle.”

* * * *

“This one’s on me, Bella,” she said. Her smile was a little sad, Bella thought. Got her thinking again that Bella was old enough to be her grandmother. She never did become one. Did marry, though. Didn’t like it and learned to hate the man she was with. Living with him became worse than in the commune in Marin County. It is a memory that fades. She knew it was terrible, but Bella forgot why.

Carey started working here two months ago. A petite blond from Rhode Island. Father is a cop—a detective. She told Bella he raised her himself. Bella knew not to ask why. Instead, she remembered how Mama started to fade after Vivian died. The summer before Bella began University, she had passed, the first to join her daughter in the family cemetery in Granger.

Carey listened to Bella’s stories with a sympathy that grew with intensity in each visit. The other night, she confided to Bella that her mother left when she was a little girl. Her mother was still around, remarried, but their gulf was an unbridged abyss. Carey commented she was the wandering type, obsessed with finding her birth mother. The family that adopted her was abusive.

Bella suddenly stared. Carey had Vivian’s hair and eyes.

Since then, Bella had thought about asking her over to the apartment. Make her dinner, and talk. Show her the life she had and the essential things about Vivian. Carey was alone. She just broke up with her boyfriend: Bella saw the fight in the parking lot the other afternoon.

Yes, Carey would listen. Ask questions. She cared. No, Mama--I guess that would do it, Bella thought. But I never fit the part, she whispered.

* * * *

The Eagles quarterback fumbled the snap on the first play after the kickoff. Dallas recovered the ball on the Philadelphia 25.

Carey handed her the receipt.

Bella paused before signing. It was laborious to write her signature.

Her hand quivered as she overarched the B, followed by a straight line. Sometimes she signed with her old married name, her older signature. Her last driver’s license had this, which was often problematic when signing paperwork.

She remembered the night Vivian wore the party dress Mama made from a Vogue pattern. It was black silk chiffon with an angled neckline that framed Vivian’s coltish body, particularly her shoulders. She was such a skinny girl, but she grimaced when Bella zipped up her dress that night.

The lining was taffeta, and Mama tailored the fitted waist to give Vivian more of a figure. The shirred skirt flowed over her legs. The dress matched the church gloves Mama gave Vivian for her birthday.

“That’s a right, pretty girl,” Daddy said, biting nervously down on his pipe, his newspaper spread across his lap. It took some convincing for him to allow her to go out.

Vivian did look like Kim Novak and Barbara Bel Geddes.

Daddy drove her to the dance at the roller rink in South Austin. Bella knew Vivian switched out her kitten pumps the minute she walked in. Vivian’s forbidden high heels were Lucite stiletto slingbacks with rhinestones. She borrowed them from a girl in school.

Mark waited for her. Bella imagined him leaning against the wall behind the back tables above the rink, smoking his Fatima cigarette. They said he was dressed in a dark green suit and a string tie, with his black shirt and cowboy boots. They made quite the couple, with Vivian as that Texas girl wanting more.

She came to him. They kissed. And left.

* * * *

The Cowboys won. Maybe this is their year. Bella remembered sitting and watching the games with Daddy. Unfortunately, he died the night after they beat the Bills the second time in the Super Bowl.

In her notebooks, Bella speculated that Daddy’s decline began when the new owner of the Dallas Cowboys fired Tom Landry. Daddy loved his football and obsessively held on to the team after Vivian and then Mama died.

The franchise firing the legendary coach changed Daddy. Bella wrote that he started to forget parts of his life, like mixing up the stories he used to tell of working at the ranch in Granger, which he spent in Lawton, Oklahoma as a mechanic during World War II. He married Mama in Granger at the old Czech church on Christmas Eve in 1944. Irene Vivian, and then Bella Ruth were born.

They moved to Austin, and Daddy went to business school at night and took courses at the University. While he never earned his college degree, Daddy had a good job in the billing office at Winn’s. Daddy worked his way up and retired the year before Landry was fired and planned fishing and hunting with his old friends. But, as Bella later discovered for herself, Daddy began acting like sleep was coming down, as he put it.

Bella moved in with him, back into the house of her childhood. Daddy was adamant he didn’t want the nursing home. So Bella hired a nurse and a housekeeper. She had long since divorced, and the house wasn’t far from Antone’s blues club. Bella was seriously drinking by then, and listening to the music made a good fit. She does not remember those days well other than the margaritas, which she had more than she could handle.

After the trophy presentation, Daddy asked Bella to turn off the TV.

In a rare moment of lucidity, which was few and far between in the last two years of his life, Daddy reached out from his worn-out chair, grasping Bella’s arm tightly.

“I miss my little girl,” he said. He paused, tears in his eyes. “He was a good boy, Bella. This wasn’t his fault. None of it.”

“Yes, Daddy,” Bella said. This was the first time he mentioned Mark to her.

Suddenly, Daddy was a younger man. Bella sensed his sunken chest filling with the air and his stare with a mindful sharpness that had been thought faded forever years ago.

“Bella,” he said. “I never told your Mama, but I visited his family. We all had a long talk. His parents were good people. I came away wishing I had met that boy. Wanting things to be different.”

His grip slackened just a bit as if aware he could hurt Bella.

He continued, “Jim—the father, you may remember—took me to Mark’s room. We sat together on his bed, walked around, and touched his possessions. The books. That boy certainly read a lot.

Papers were stacked neatly on the desk--his poems. Jim talked of publishing them, eventually. He never got around to it—I guess it was too much for him to do.”

Daddy described his hands traveling over the broken spines of battered old paperbacks, sliding over what Mark’s father called the “smooth geography of books” Mark read as a child. But, he added, “Jim said Mark would go to the bookstore above Dirty’s on Guadalupe and spend hours there. Jim also said these books would do no good sitting on his desk and would sell them back to the bookstore.”

Bella put her hand over his.

“We gathered them up and took them there,” Daddy said. “But I held onto one. I accidentally opened it when we stacked it on the bookstore table. Then, when Jim wasn’t looking, I put it into my satchel.”

He raised his hand toward his father’s live oak shelf during the Depression. It had been in the same spot in the den for forty years.

“I put the Coronado’s Children dusk jacket over it. I didn’t want your mother to know we had it. She would know that the book belonged to him.”

“Why hide it from her?” She had to ask.

Daddy was already starting to fade away into the shadows of his mind. It took a lot for him to get the words out.

“You’ll know when you open it. It’s not about the book but what the boy left inside. Trust me. You will know.”

His head slumped slightly to his left. “I’m tired, Bella. But, how ’bout those Cowboys?”

They smiled.

Bella walked him to bed and did the Decades of the Rosary before he slept. When she checked on him an hour later, Daddy had already passed.

She had read the Celine novel as part of her mid-century literature class before finally getting her degree in the mid-1970s.

The unfortunate coincidence of its title had already touched Bella. Out of bored curiosity, she had already discovered the book one afternoon a year before and had it in her hands when she found her father. She held his still-warm hand, read the note aloud, and called for the ambulance.

With the letter were the adoption papers for Bella’s daughter. Bella had thought she had lost them when she moved in. But, instead, she sat at his side, numb to the consequences of silence.

* * * *

Bella finished her drink and said goodbye to Carey.

Pausing, their eyes met. The young woman resembled Vivian.

She really did.

I am scared, and I am brave. Bella recalled the look in Carey’s eyes the night she broke up with her boyfriend.

This happened in the parking lot. Bella and the other patrons watched out the window. One of the young men shooting pool went to the door, slapping the cue stick in his palm, ready to act if needed.

When Carey returned, she started crying in front of Bella.

Bella reached out and grasped Carey’s wrist. “What’s wrong, sweetheart?”

“I don’t want to cry alone.”

Bella gasped. She remembered when Vivian said that after she vomited and told her why.

I am scared, and I am brave. I am ready to tell the family, but Bella already knows. I had no choice.

The dates she recalled. Those numbers matter only to Bella. 1968. 1990. Carey’s mother. Carey.

Bella left unsteadily out the door.

Bella was drunk. Nothing is as disgraceful as an old drunk almost turning 70.

* * * *

Vivian had kept that in her clutch purse, neatly folded with her Confirmation medal, a lucky rock she found in the dry bed of Shoal Creek, and loose change in a zippered pocket.

The clutch purse lay on the oiled asphalt, a white chalk line circling it. Bella went with Daddy to the police station to pick up the box when it was released after the inquest.

They did not go directly home. Instead, Daddy drove them to Bull Creek Road, the television and radio antennas on top of the hills outside the city limits.

Several years later, when she was hanging out to see The 13th Floor Elevators play at the Jade Room and the New Orleans Club, Bella found out that was where all the freaks stashed their dope.

When they arrived, Daddy told Bella to stay in the car.

He took the cardboard container from the backseat, setting it on the hood of the Dodge. He opened it and looked inside.

“Bella,” he said. “You can come out and see this.” He was crying.

Daddy kept the Confirmation medal. Bella, the poem. They buried the rest behind a gnarled mesquite tree.

Daddy’s tears were still on her mind when she saw the antennas. In this part of the story, she repeatedly tells herself to remember what remained from her life as it crumbled slowly, inexorably to nothingness.

Daddy wore the medal around his neck for the rest of his life. He told her that the award felt warmer around Vivian’s birthday. Daddy explained it to Vivian, letting him know she was always there.

Bella had that poem in the cedar box, too. Next to the book she intended to give Carey when the time was right. Bella felt the time was coming soon. She needed to do it before she forgot.

* * * *

Bella crossed the parking lot to the apartment she was resigned to die in.

She would invite Carey tomorrow night, and if she said yes, Bella would tell her everything. Carey had heard about it many times, though she did not know the entire story. Some essential details had been left out.

She did not know about the book and the story folded inside. A letter. It was more than just a poem. So much more important—this was about what was cut short on U.S. 183 one night.

Bella will soon forget about this, memories vanishing, and no one will ever know. She cannot withhold.

There is a lot to talk about with Carey. She needs to know.

There is that letter to show her from the book Daddy found. Then Carey will fully understand what it all means. Why this is important. Bella planned to leave nothing behind when the lights went out.

Bella resolved that Carey had to know. So finally, she decided it was time to say to it once and have it fade into the shadows. At last, someone will know and remember.

Bella tried to focus as she walked, her thoughts moving quickly from inception to disintegration. But, instead, she focused on recalling the rest of the note Vivian wrote: There are times when you walk into a particular room where all you ever wanted is in place or meet someone, and somewhere in your head, a door opens, and the light shines blindingly on you. This yellow envelope in its warmth.

Our grandmother said: Do not put out the fire that burns you.

As her mind began flying again into pieces, Bella resolved that this was what she must share before she lost it for good.

So this is what this is all about, Vivian. Right? I have to remember you to finally come to remember me? Right?


The clouds had darkened, filling the sky, portending a thunderstorm.

MikeLee was raised in Texas and North Carolina trailer parks. Editor, writer, and photographer for a trade union in New York City. Stories are upcoming or published in Brilliant Flash Fiction, Drunk Monkeys, BULL, Fictionette, Bright Flash Literary Review, and many others. His book The Northern Line is available on Amazon.

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