Marital Amnesias

by Jan Stout

Mort Doesn’t Remember What the List Is For

Mort pays no mind to the chattering zaftig women walking at the ocean’s edge. Or to the shvitz pooling on his plastic chair. No, his mind is on the words on the notepaper in his liver-spotted hand, the fingers of his other pressed against his forehead, blocking the morning sun. Maybe they hold in the memories.

Bananas.

Sweet fruit. Sylvia’s favorite. Mouthwatering bread she baked, the chocolate chips collecting at the bottom of the pan. You’re an engineer, she said, figure out how to keep them dispersed. He could never devise a plan that worked. They laughed about this. Only Sylvia knew how to make him laugh at himself.

Bagels.

Toasted bagels. Daily. Hers slathered in margarine, his with cream cheese and lox, for what? For 57 years, that’s what. Nothing to sneeze at, the kids say, turning his marriage into cliché. No onions, honey, he’d remind her. He never mentioned he hated making her cry.

Canned tomato soup.

Canned tomato soup. What’s canned tomato soup got to do with anything?

Mort stands and pats his bathing trunks, searching for pockets, but can find none. How can he find his car key if he has no pockets? The car. Their first car, a Chrysler Imperial. White walls. They fought over the color. Sylvia wanted pale yellow. He bought black. She said it looked like a hearse but he refused to return it. He wishes he had.

***

Sylvia Doesn’t Want To Think About The List

It’s been a month and Mort is coming to understand I’m gone. That’s what the Jamaican woman who fixes his bagel and walks him on the beach every day tells me. She’s the only one I can phone to check up on him. The kids won’t answer my calls. Or try to understand.

Yvonne tells me he takes my grocery list to the beach every morning and studies it. What she wouldn’t give to know what he’s thinking, she says in her Caribbean lilt. Once an engineer, always an engineer, I say, even though I too am curious what that list triggers. God knows it won’t trigger me. Night after night at the office, endless conversations about how to manage his staff.

Every day, like clockwork, Mort ate a bagel and a banana. One year the trees developed a fungus and bananas were scarce. He flared and railed. You’d have thought I’d planted the fungus myself. He loved my banana chocolate chip loaf. I begged him to figure out how to keep the chips from falling to the bottom of the baking dish but he said it was a waste of an engineer’s talents. Once I laughed when he said this and he wouldn’t speak to me for three days.

When I spoke with Yvonne yesterday, I asked her what the kids say about me. She clicked her tongue and read me the items on the grocery list. I laughed as she ticked them off.

57 years I was at that man’s side. And then one day he went into the guest bedroom to nap and I dropped my grocery list, packed up a few shirts and a pair of trousers, and left.

The last time the kids would speak to me they said Mort thinks I’m dead and they’re not going to tell him otherwise. They asked why I put tomato soup on the grocery list and I told them I have no idea. They want me to figure it out because it’s frustrating him.

In 57 years we never had canned tomato soup. Not once.

Jan Elman Stout is a writer of flash fiction and short stories and is currently working on a story collection. She is an assistant fiction editor at Indianola Review. Jan is a native Chicagoan who lives with her husband in Washington, D.C. Her work has been published in Literary Orphans and Pure Slush.

What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “Marital Amnesias”?

    I am most intrigued by stories in which things are not as they appear on the surface and Marital Amnesias arises from this. I wrote Mort’s story in response to a photo prompt. In the photo, taken by my flash writing group partner Paul Beckman, an old man in bathing trunks is sitting in a white plastic chair on a beach. He holds a piece of paper in one hand and the other hand shields his eyes. He appears unsettled by what he’s reading and one easily imagines it’s a letter bearing unhappy news. I turned the letter into a grocery list, the items on which trigger Mort’s memories of his 57-year marriage to Sylvia.

    And then Mort’s wife Sylvia sprang to mind, along with the intention to write her story from the grave. I was surprised when she instead told me that she had recently left Mort after a lengthy yet unhappy marriage, and tells a story about their marriage that differs greatly from Mort’s.

    Are Mort’s memories real? Are Sylvia’s? Can two very different accounts of a marriage coexist? What do marital partners choose to remember? What do they forget?

    “Marital Amnesias” is a story that gives rise to more questions than answers for me. I hope it does the same for its readers.

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