The Memory Palace by Mira Bartók: An ExcerptBy TNB Nonfiction
May 18, 2012
The first picture in my memory palace is from the baby book my sister and I found in our mother’s storage room. It’s a close-up of her, taken shortly after she gave birth to me in 1959. Her face is soft and demure in the cropped photograph, and a little startled. If you could see the entire picture, you would notice me on my mother’s lap looking up at her, smiling. What you can’t tell from the photo is that not long after it was taken, my mother tried to fly out of a second-story window.
The other picture, hanging across from my mother’s photograph, is Caravaggio’s painting of the Gorgon Medusa, right after Perseus cut off her head. I remember someone reading Medusa’s story to me when I was a child, about how men turned to stone when they looked at her and how the hero, Perseus, with his helmet of invisibility, his winged sandals, and sword, slayed the terrible Gorgon. Medusa’s children were born from her spilled blood; one of them was Pegasus. For years I dreamed I was a winged horse, watching, from the sky, my mother’s serpentine head float away from her body.
In 1964 I am five and my sister is six. We live in a second-floor flat on the west side of Cleveland, next to a church with a small crabapple orchard out back. Most of the tenants in our building are transplants from Appalachia. At dinnertime I can hear the sound of fiddle music and TV drifting through the walls. In our own apartment our mother keeps the classical radio station turned up loud. Triskett Road in the early 1960s is full of fast cars and chattering shoppers, families walking to church, the movie theater, Pick ’n Pay, or Kresge’s five and dime. Off Triskett, on West 148th Street where our grandparents live, and Rainbow, Gramatan, and Tuckahoe, a quiet hush shrouds the side streets after the fathers leave in the morning and the children are hurried off to school.
Our own father, Paul Herr, had disappeared shortly after our mother divorced him in 1963, a few months after I turned four. Once in a while he sends money but has no permanent home or steady job. My mother says he’s living in a South American jungle, eating snake meat and writing his second book. Sometimes she tells me he is painting pictures in Mexico; sometimes she says he is dead. His first book was called Journey Not to End. Does that mean my father can’t find his way home?
At school, in my kindergarten class at Riverside Elementary, I run and hide in the cloakroom whenever someone asks me to play house. I don’t know how to play; how would I? Mrs. Bemis comes inside to coax me out. I tell her I am a cat. I curl my hands into claws in front of my face. I’m an invisible cat. Mrs. Bemis is kind and gently leads me to the art table. She gives me paper and crayons, or fat wooden beads to string and count. “You don’t have to play if you don’t want to,” she says. Mrs. Bemis teaches me how to plant seedlings in small pots, how to make butter from a cup of cream.
There is a boy at school who lives in our building on Triskett Road. He’s not in my class at Riverside but I watch him at recess sometimes, running in wild circles by himself. When the other kids see him, they call out, “Retard!” then run away fast. One day, I am looking for my mother but can’t find her anywhere inside our place. I am on the stairs leading down to the basement when the boy plunges a long pole into my face, not because I call him Retard or some other name; I am just standing in his path. I wake up in the hospital, my face covered in gauze.
For the rest of the year I wear a black patch over my left eye. It isn’t easy to see. I run into furniture and trip over my feet. At home, in our apartment, I pretend I am blind. I close my good eye and walk with my arms stretched out in front of me, circumnavigating the rooms by sound and touch. I pick up random objects on the floor near my mother’s bed and try to guess what they are: Cracked coffee cup. Empty perfume bottle. Cigarette lighter. Scattered pills. “You’re my little Helen Keller!” she says when my fingers find her soft, cool face. She pulls the black patch up; kisses the spot above my big ugly swollen eye.
I’m in my sister’s and my bedroom when I hear it one day—a low guttural sound followed by strange chattering and laughter. I am playing Helen Keller, eyes shut tight, ears open to the world. There are two small beds in our room and one old dresser with a broken drawer. My grandma told me once that when I was a baby, my mother put me in the drawer to sleep, then forgot she had left me there. Someone shut the drawer and I almost suffocated to death. My grandma had to break the handle to get me out.
I reach up and touch the objects on our dresser—an old teddy bear, a stuffed horse, and a plastic palomino I call Pony. I pick up the plastic horse, run my fingers over its hard thin legs, its pointy ears and tail. Something isn’t right—the sound, the strange laughter. I feel something grab hold of my breath; I want to hide and don’t know why. I clutch the little horse in my hand. Where’s Rachel? She’s older; she should be the one to see what’s wrong, but she’s not here. Maybe she’s at a friend’s. Rachel is more outgoing than I am. I usually tag along and she always lets me come. She does the things my mother doesn’t do for some reason—fixes my hair, ties my shoes, makes me toast. Where is she now?
I walk out into the hallway, my good eye open. Who’s there? Is it the man who lives across the way, Mr. Bade, the pimply man with the fat neck and bulbous red nose who leers at our mother when he passes her in the hall? Is it a stranger at the door? The police? I follow the sound to the living room. Is it the radio? The TV? I tiptoe down the hall. Who is she talking to? What is so funny?
And then I see her. She is stumbling around in her underwear as if she’s drunk, but she’s not. My mother never drinks. Her voice sounds familiar, but it’s not her own. My mother is impersonating a drunk. I recognize the voice from TV—it’s a character from The Jackie Gleason Show called Crazy Guggenheim. I take a step back so she can’t see me and peek around the corner of the hall. Her voice changes again. I know who she is now; she’s Joe the Bartender, a character Jackie Gleason plays on the show.
“The usual?” says my mother. She pantomimes Gleason wiping down the counter at the bar. “There ya go, pal!” She laughs. “There ya go, there ya go, there ya go!” She keeps repeating the line, then switches back to Crazy Guggenheim, walking in circles. That’s how I remember it, her stumbling around, muttering these things, but who can say for sure? I am only five years old. The girl downstairs says that sometimes the devil crawls inside you when you’re sleeping and only Jesus can get him out. Is the devil inside her body?
On the real show the joke about Crazy is that he’s mentally impaired, or, as people used to say back then, retarded, like the boy who hurt my eye. He’s a retarded drunk. Jackie Gleason always calls out, “Craz! Come on out here!” and Crazy totters to the bar, tripping over his feet. The audience goes wild. Gleason and Crazy tell a few jokes, Crazy gets drunker and dumber, until finally Joe says, “Hey, Craz, how ’bout a song?” “Okay, Joe,” he says, and Crazy lumbers over to the jukebox every time, pushes a button, and goes back to the bar. Then he takes off his frumpy turned-up hat, places it on the counter, and transforms into someone else. He sings a heartbreaker of a song, a lovelorn Irish ballad in his rich, melodious voice. The audience explodes. He puts his hat back on, says, “’Bye, Joe,” and waddles out the swinging doors. That is how it always is on the show.
My mother doesn’t know I am there. She struts around the living room, mumbling and shouting, “How ’bout another, Joe?” She rolls her eyes like Crazy Guggenheim, makes her lips droopy like his. “I’m C‑C-C-raaaaazy Guggenheim!” She stutters, “I’m C‑c-c-c-crazy!”
To her left is the baby grand piano she had rented for a few months, which will be repossessed in a week or two because she can’t pay the bill. To her right and in front of her are walls lined with the books our father left behind. Will he ever come back to get them? There are big art books—Gauguin, Klee, Picasso, Bosch, and Brueghel, books in Spanish, Russian, Yiddish, and French, plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Ionesco, Beckett, and Shaw, Russian classics, books by all the Beat poets, and Chaucer, William Blake. On the top shelf is The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends with the story of Medusa and Perseus inside. There’s Oscar Wilde’s Salome, on the cover a madwoman with wild snaky hair. My mother reads it over and over like she rereads Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, searching for prophetic signs.
Suddenly my mother turns into someone else, someone I can’t recognize from TV. She makes slicing movements in the air. She’s holding something now, something long and shiny. She spins around fast as if someone has just crept up behind her. She is spinning and spinning, obscenities rolling off her tongue, words I’ve only heard my grandfather use. There is the smell of burnt toast and cigarettes, no music coming from anywhere, no radio or TV. The radio is always on twenty-four hours a day, but today it is silent. Behind my mother is the couch and three big open windows. Can the neighbors below us hear her? Can people see her from the street? Will she jump?
I don’t know how it ends, this scene—the beginning of knowledge, the knowledge that I have a secret I must keep from the outside world. In this scene, my mother is forever spinning, wielding a knife. My sweet beautiful mother merges with Medusa—they meld into one another, pull apart, and come together again, morphing into other restless creatures—characters from TV shows, mythological monsters, demons from my dreams. She is forever spinning and I am forever watching her with my one good eye—a small child frozen behind a wall, both of us surrounded by so many beautiful books.
Excerpted from THE MEMORY PALACE by Mira Bartók. Copyright © 2011 by Mira Bartók. Excerpted with permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
MEDUSA is the perfect companion for Mira Bartok’s interview, which deserves to be revisited. -QM
MIRA BARTÓK is a Chicago-born artist, writer and commentator for NPR. She has written twenty-eight books for children and her writing for adults has appeared in several literary journals and anthologies. Her paintings, illustrations and artist books have been exhibited all over the United States and abroad. She lives in Western Massachusetts where she runs Mira’s List, a blog that helps artists find funding and international residencies and North of Radio, a multi-media collaborative. You can find her at: mirabartok.com.
The Memory Palace, which was released last year on Free Press, won The National Book Critics Award on March 8, 2012. She is currently working on two books.
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