20/20 by M.C. St. John

“As the old adage goes, Mr. Grunwald, the eyes are the windows into the soul.”

Leonard Grunwald considered the man across the expansive desk from him. The desk’s felt top was the color and size of a putting green—dappled shadows fell across it from the window. The name plate read Cerrick Carlisle, and his speech had just enough of an Irish lilt to prove it.

“At Minuet Acres,” Carlisle said, “we simply use such windows as a projectionist would at a movie theater.”

In one pale hand, he offered a pair of a glasses. Leonard had to lean over the desk to take them.

“They look like ordinary reading glasses to me,” Leonard said. “For some reason, I thought they’d be rose-tinted,” he said, smiling. “Since we’re speaking in adages, of course.”

Carlisle brayed as if this were the funniest joke in the world. “No, no, Mr. Grunwald. Clear as glass. Clear as memory itself. Clear as the memory of the one who wears them.” The man took a measured pause, as if the pause were in parentheses for a stage play, perfectly scripted. His face now was a mask of concern. “How long has your father been suffering from Alzheimer’s?”

Suffering. There was a chosen word, if there ever was one. Carlisle was good. Leonard had earned his living selling real estate many moons ago, and he knew that the right words chosen for a client could make or break the deal. Which, of course, was what Carlisle was doing.

“He started slipping a bit about five or six years ago. He was never someone with an iron-clad memory anyway. Forgetting his keys happened all the time. When mom passed away, that was when he went downhill.”

Leonard recalled grabbing his father’s arm before he stuck a fork into the slot of the toaster, the coils red-hot around a poppy seed bagel. When Leonard asked him what he thought he was doing, his father said, Getting your mother’s wedding ring, you dunderhead, what does it look like?

Carlisle nodded in all the right places. Perhaps he too had a father suffering in the way Leonard’s father was suffering. Perhaps Leonard would hear about it at the appropriate time in their conversation. And Leonard, despite knowing all these talk-massage techniques, would welcome it. Anything to share the brunt of hopelessness in the face of his father’s condition. Whether or not Minuet Acres could do anything more than that remained to be seen.

As if reading Leonard’s mind (surely, his face, at least—salesmen recognize their own kind), Carlisle said, “What if I told you, Mr. Grunwald, that we could bring genuine comfort to your father in his twilight years? I’m not speaking in just namby-pamby platitudes.” He pointed towards the glasses. “The solution is right there.”

“So I’ve read in the brochure…along with the price tag,” Leonard said.

Outside the window, a gust of summer wind ran its fingers through the branches of an elm. Shadows and light shuffled across Carlisle’s desk. Leonard imagined the shadows on the desktop were very much like the shadows thrown on the manicured lawns and gardens of Minuet where, no doubt, residents the age of his father tottered along.

“Our product will be worth the financial investment, believe me,” Carlisle said.

With both his forefingers and thumbs, Leonard moved the glasses back and forth from his face. If not for the arrows of light at certain angles, the lenses may not have been there at all. “So, sell me on them. What do they really do?”

“They provide life as our residents want to see it,” Carlisle said. “Our senior facility offers the rehabilitating nature of nostalgia.” A smile lit up Carlisle’s face, made his eyes shine. “The neural pathways in our brain are plastic, Mr. Grunwald, did you know that? What we see and feel shape the very faculties we use to see the world. Sure, we all start with the basic equipment, if we’re lucky: eyes, ears, fingers, schnozz, kisser, all that.”

He made an about face to the window and pointed to the outside—the swaying elm, the blue sky, a pepper shot of birds.

“However, you have to use those senses out there. Experience life. Hear your mother’s voice. Smell a campfire on a boy scout trip. Taste liver and onions. Kiss your first girlfriend. Drink beer with your father.” Carlisle paused again, letting his poetry sink in. “Those experiences forge the pathways in our mind and create memories. They make us unique.”

“But what happens when the equipment breaks down?” he said. “Hell, I hate putting it like that with my father, but that’s what’s happened. His mind is shorting out, he’s…” becoming a dunderhead, what does it look like?…mistaking a bagel for a wedding ring…screaming and crying at night…

“…he’s losing himself.”

With his eyes still to the outside world, Carlisle spoke in a consoling tone. “Then an aid is in order, Mr. Grunwald. Everything from toupees to orthopedic shoes have been designed to maintain the integrity of a person’s life. But none have gone so far as the glasses you are holding.” He turned around. “They assist the wearer in seeing the strong memories he or she still has and re-experiencing them. Remember how I said the pathways in our brain are plastic? Memories themselves are just as malleable. With time and repetition, they can be strengthened like any other muscle.”

In his mind, Leonard was right behind his father, holding his old man’s arm away from the toaster. Despite being determined (and even crazed) with the fork, he wasn’t strong anymore. Leonard felt it. The muscles had gone slack.

“What about phantom limbs then?” Leonard said. He screwed his eyes shut. A headache had come on from remembering his father, and he felt like crying. Grief was a confusing beast. “I mean, what about the memories that are lost already or on the way out? Can you bring them back?”

“We are still trying to find that out, Mr. Grunwald. The test trials have been promising, though.”

“Test trials? What do you mean test trials?”

“Ah, well…”

“You mean to tell me you’re still working out the bugs? At this price? Are you insane?”

For the first time, genuine emotion washed over Carlisle’s face: mostly unease. This wasn’t part of the script. Leonard recognized the pained expression as a young, green real estate agent—flubbing the one detail that unraveled the deal. Carlisle should have known better.

“…My comparison between muscles and memory may not be one-hundred percent accurate for our product,” Carlisle said. He either hadn’t heard Leonard’s question or didn’t care to answer it as he attempted to compose himself.

“What are you driving at, then?” Leonard surprised by the anger in his voice. He relished in it. “What’s the catch? I knew there had to be one.”

Carlisle leaned over the huge desk. He now spoke as if Leonard were a slow-witted child. Closing on the Grunwald account was a botched job now—what else did he have to lose? Leonard thought he may have done the same thing if he were in Carlisle’s position.

Carlisle put one pale finger down and began drawing on the desktop. The line he made showed a darker green as it went against the grain of the felt.

“You see, Mr. Grunwald, when our residents exercise a memory, reinvigorate it with other sensory inputs, make it live and breathe…” The line curved one way, jagged another, spiraled off another way. “…the memory not only grows stronger—it also changes the memory itself. What one remembers the first time is already a copy of the real event. And the remembrances after that…”

He leaned back to show Leonard the tangled drawing, smiling. Ta-da.

“I assure you, though,” Carlisle said, “we are doing R and D as we speak to recalibrate memories and prevent such memory tangents from getting too tangled.”

Leonard was trying very hard to keep his hands on the arms of his chair. His fingernails dug into the expensive wood. “So when your residents take a trip down Minuet’s memory lane, they just keep on going? Is that how you treat the elderly who can’t remember their kids’ names? It’s the cruelest damn thing I’ve ever heard.”

Leonard was crying now. He looked at Carlisle and thought of how that freckled face resembled the poppy seed bagel in the toaster. If only he had a fork. He’d show the Minuet man who the dunderhead really was.

“I would never bring my father here. A comfy, posh maze is a still a maze for a lab rat.” Leonard shot up from the chair. His knees popped from sitting there as long as he had. “You can take these glasses here and shove them up your…your…”

Leonard had lifted his hand to throw the glasses at Carlisle, but they weren’t there anymore. When was the last time he felt them? He had lost track of them during the conversation. He looked in his other hand and then around his chair. Nothing.

“I’d rather not finish your thought,” Carlisle said. Carlisle came out from behind his desk and walked over. He placed a comforting hand on his lost client’s shoulder. “But I do agree with you, Mr. Grunwald. You would never bring your father here.” The Minuet man smiled and lifted his chin. “He would, though.”

Leonard turned to see a new man standing in the office. The doorframe the new man stood inside might as well have been a mirror, considering how much they were spitting images of one another.

“Why don’t we try again, okay?” the man said. “Just one more time.”

“Who the hell are you?”

The new man gave a sad smile. “It’s Leonard, Pop. You remember, don’t you? It’s Leonard.” He sighed. “There’s no need to cry, Pop. It’s going to be all right, won’t it?”

“It will be,” Carlisle said. “Your father just had a rough go today. Prescription’s still off, I’m afraid. You’re right. Things will be better the next time around.”

Mr. Grunwald would have agreed as well, except his headache had gotten worse and he couldn’t speak. Couldn’t even open his eyes, for that matter. It all hurt so much. Grief was such a confusing beast. All he could do was pinch the bridge of his nose and wait to see when if he would feel better.

It was then he finally found the glasses. They were right there on his face the whole time.

M.C. St. John is a writer living in Chicago. His works have been published in After Hours Press, Literary Orphans, Maudlin House, Chicago Literati, Quail Bell Magazine, Word Branch, and Unbroken Journal–the last of which nominated his poem “Telling Stories” for a Pushcart Prize. He is currently working on his first short story collection and killing as many darlings as possible to do it.