Some Things I Remember by Mark Jacobs

Some Things I Remember

Mark Jacobs

Some I don’t. The ones I remember are like stones. The ones I don’t are the emptiest of spaces, the darkest. They are the abyss surrounding you when you go down in a mine. Dropping down the shaft, you restrain the urge to reach out your hand for a stone to close around. Something real, that’s what you’re after. What you forget is no longer real.

An example. In La Paz, Bolivia, I met a woman from the Falkland Islands at a party in a penthouse. Couldn’t tell you who owned the penthouse, or why I went to the party. But the name of the islander has come back to me; I can’t say why or why now. Fiona Robinson. Fiona knew a lot about the shore birds of the Falklands. This was a long time ago when you had to memorize something if you loved it. Her bird facts were a notable feature of her personality. Saying her name, I also remember her English accent, hundreds of years in the making, an ocean away from the tongue of the mother, and that she came to my room in the hotel where I was staying and wept, although the reason for her tears eludes me.

I went to La Paz as a consultant. A mining engineer, that was my profession. An Anglo-Argentine with serious money wanted to believe there was an undiscovered lode of silver in an abandoned mine up in the Andes, which he had purchased on the cheap. For the life of me I can bring back neither the man’s face nor his name. All I have is the sense of entitlement he exuded and a certain harsh impatience. There was so little time left in which to become still richer.

I’m old now, as you will have guessed. There are times when continuing to live feels like committing a crime. So far, so good. I’m getting away with it.

There’s a peak that overlooks the city of La Paz. In the enormity of its indifference the mountain is sublime. Its name is Illimani. Once, years ago, an airliner went down on Illimani and disappeared in the deep, perpetual snow. If you knew somebody who died in the crash, you remembered many things about that person and forgot others. Over time, you forgot more things but occasionally surprised yourself by coming up with something that felt new, it had been gone so long. That’s how it works. It feels pretty good, rescuing memory from oblivion.

I never got used to the altitude in Bolivia. Soroche is what they call the sick feeling you get from being up so high. Your equilibrium suffers. The Bolivians offer you coca tea to counter the effects of soroche. I drank mate de coca by the gallon but never felt any better. Going down the shaft of the abandoned mine with the Anglo-Argentine’s capable engineers, who resented my being there, I imagined the air getting just a little thicker as we descended. It was more breathable, or that was how it seemed to me.

Here is the place to say that we never found any silver in that bargain mine. The capitalist wasted the consulting fee he paid me. I think I recall that he was able to unload the property without taking a loss. The last time we spoke, as I was leaving La Paz, he was brusque. I have known a handful of people like him. They are always looking for the next major success they are due. Anything that’s not part of the plan is a weed in the garden of their blooming bounty.

It’s flat where I live now, on the coast of the Atlantic in a cold state. I abide at the level of the sea. I was about to say that I’ve eliminated any and all interest I used to have in mountains, highlands, in the hiding places of valuable minerals. But the formulation is not precise. The choice of what to ignore, what to cease caring about, what stays and what goes, was not mine; it was never mine. There was a kind of leaching out, over time. I am what’s left.

I live alone now and have for some years now. There are ways to talk about who did the leaving, and why. Momentous stuff, that, certainly. But it was not uppermost in my mind this morning. This morning, I was interested in stones.

In any world I can conceive, the prices of precious metals, minerals, stones of intrinsic value, will fluctuate.

I tend to wake early. Day after day, despite a lifetime of disappointment, my body expects something of significance to happen. I am poised; I wait. My kitchen window looks out over the water. As I went about the comforting routine of brewing coffee, I saw cormorants. The dark fleet skimming of those water birds brought back another detail of Fiona.

Shortly before I left Bolivia, she prevailed on me to go with her down what the Bolivians called the Camino de la Muerte. The Highway of Death. It ran from the Altiplano at 14,000 feet down to the Yungas Valley, many thousands of feet lower. A wild ride it was, and dangerous. A terrible narrow road with no guard rails. Local folklore collected and disseminated the stories of the buses, trucks, and passenger cars that periodically went off the road, their occupants crashing to certain death down the precipitous slope.

Part way down, Fiona parked the Landcruiser she had rented, and we got out. A landscape that spoke to the unhuman in us, if such a thing can be. Hills and valleys littered with massive boulders. A few hardy trees, bent stubbornly by stubborn wind. Low bushes that had a sullen look. Some sheep and the stony remains of a sheepfold abandoned long ago. The sky was peremptorily blue, cumulus cloud-heads bumping speedily westward. We opened a bottle of wine. I studied geology in college and told Fiona the names of some of the rocks, which pleased her. Her pleasure in the act of naming brought back to me the deep satisfaction I once felt doing fieldwork, saying the rocks’ names, and piecing together the story they told in time.

You would think, with all this specificity, that I would have had a clear sense of what it was that Fiona demanded of me that day along the Highway of Death. But I didn’t. My inability to bring it back dismayed me.

She was demanding something. I have no doubt of that. At a certain point in that valley of boulders she lost her temper. I was the rightful object of her anger. Did I apologize? Was I empathetic? Did I even understand what she wanted of me? I couldn’t say. She was ashy blonde, sturdily built, low to the ground. I was sexually drawn to her. Was she to me? Why can’t I say with any confidence that she was or was not?

It was quite pleasant, recovering the memory of the day Fiona and I spent in the Yungas, going down and then up again la Avenida de la Muerte. You don’t have to know Spanish to appreciate the ominous name. Even recollected, it sends a chill down the spine. For the life of me, though, I could not bring back the thing Fiona wanted of me, the thing I couldn’t or wouldn’t give, or do, or say. I came up short.

After coffee and the cormorants, I cleaned up and drove into town, something I do two or three times a week, even if there is no errand to run. I drive with vigilance, slowly but not so slowly as to present a hazard to other drivers. The coast road deserves the superlative adjectives it draws in the tour guides. I have seen the sun lay a blanket of light on the Atlantic with a grand, lavish display. I have seen seals and sharks and boats with sails of purple papyrus, Egyptian mariners blown off course, and the stately disintegration of stupendous clouds.

The town itself had been gentrified almost to death, but it was mid-March, and the summer residents had not yet begun trekking north in their expensive vehicles. I went where I always went, to Heaney’s restaurant, which drew tradespeople and others with a recognizable local accent. In a booth with a view of Main Street the waitress served me a late breakfast of pancakes and sliced ham. I knew her, had known her for years. She had a distinctive tattoo on the underside of her left forearm. The tattoo depicted a snake with its head cut off. She had green inquisitive eyes and enough decades’ wear in her angular face that she could be trusted with your secrets if you had any. The problem was, really, the only problem, I could not remember her name.

“So, how are things out your way, Mr. Costas?”

“Blustery. In a nice way.”

Business was slow. She had time to chat. She did not treat me as an alien species because of my age. She knew about my background in mining and wanted to know how many countries I had been to.

“Ten or a dozen, I suppose. I don’t think I ever added them up.”

“Ten or a dozen. I’d be happy with one or two. Not counting Canada, of course.”

She wanted the names of all the countries where I had worked. I gave them to her. The tally took some time but seemed like an achievement when it was done, and she wrote the names down on a page of her order pad. The Congo impressed her the most, although she did not say why. And the Philippines.

“You must have some wonderful memories.”

I nodded. She intended no harm.

“Did you ever think about writing a book?”

“A book about what?”

“Your experiences. The things you saw, the places, and the people.”

She was being kind, she was genuinely interested, and she was doing her job in the most expansive way possible for that thankless work to be done. I repressed the impulse to be tart and told her I didn’t think I had a book in me. She knew something was bothering me but, of course, had no idea it was her name, my inability to come up with her name.

I spent more time in Heaney’s than I usually do.

Sometimes, I imagine a chilling in my extremities. Sometimes, I can will away the sensation, but not always.

It felt good to wrap my hands around a mug of hot coffee. It felt good to watch the waitress going efficiently about her work, making, and remaking a connection with the patrons, while Heaney sat at the cash register with a crooked face that spoiled his smile, his long gray hair in wispy ridges.

Love. That was what Fiona wanted from me in Bolivia. I’m almost sure of it. But, of course, that was not the whole story. It was just the beginning.

When I felt that I was overstaying my welcome I drove to the park on the south edge of town. Summers, it’s a much-used spot. There’s a band shell where musicians of all persuasions perform. There are flower gardens and a kids playground and an ingeniously designed skatepark. Across the cold grass, an on-again, off-again wind was playing with low-scalloped snow mounds that had a glacial look. I sat on a bench. I’ve never minded cold weather.

I wondered whether Fiona was still alive. It gets cold in the Falklands. Island life is rugged. There is plenty of hard weather. I imagined her looking out her own kitchen window at the raging southern sea, scanning for the birds an admirable knowledge of whose habits she has clung to.

I’d lost track of time when here came the waitress from Heaney’s trudging up the path. She was wearing one of those puffy long coats people have taken to, a startling pink, and her face was red in the wind.

“You okay, Mr. Costas?”

“I’m all right. You’re off work early.”

“This week, I’m doing half-shifts. Me and my sister, we take turns looking after our mother. It takes some juggling, but Heaney’s pretty good about the schedule.”

“Is your mother sick?”

“We think she’s beginning to have some dementia. For now, she’s still living on her own. Anyway, I was driving past, and I saw your car parked and I wondered was there maybe something wrong. At the restaurant you seemed worried.”

She sat down next to me on the bench. It seemed like an opportunity, though I could not have said for what.

“What I have,” I told her.

She looked at me sideways. The skin of her face had an appealing polished look, like something that had been worked on with skill and diligence by a craftsman.

“What I have is not dementia. It’s a different kind of forgetting.”

“What is it you forget?”

“Important things. Things that matter. Things I need.”

“That happens to all of us.”

“Not like this.”

She nodded, taking me at my word. She asked me whether I minded if she smoked. I didn’t. I held up a hand to shield the flame of her lighter from the wind. She inhaled. The jet of smoke she let out disappeared in an instant.

“What kind of thing is it that you’re forgetting?”

“I don’t want to tell any lies.”

“Would that be such a bad thing?”

“Maybe not. But I want to be accurate.”

“That’s important to you, I guess.”

“It is.”

I told her about Fiona. Bolivia sounded exotic to her—she visualized cartoon alpacas grazing on snow-capped mountains—and she wasn’t sure she’d ever heard of the Falkland Islands, although, then again, maybe she had. I described the Highway of Death down into the Yungas Valley.

“Guess,” she said.

“Guess what?”

“Take a stab at what this Fiona woman wanted you to do.”

“It feels like watching a play. From a great distance. And that makes me feel helpless.”

“But you’re there, aren’t you? That’s the important part, you’re there.”



“I forgot your name. It just came back to me.”

“I’m betting you won’t forget it again.”

“What Fiona Robinson wanted from me, it involved love.”

“One way or another, most things do, don’t you think? I mean love or the opposite of love.”

“I didn’t give her what she wanted.”

“So,” she told me, “you have the main idea after all.”

“I do?”

She stood up. “I can’t stay. Sorry. I have to get to my mother’s so my sister can go to work. She’s on afternoons at the fish packers. See you at Heaney’s next time.”

I watched her make her way back down the path to the parking lot. She drove an old car. Here it was again, that sensation of cold in the extremities. It wasn’t going to last. I still had plenty of time to think about Fiona.

About the Author

Mark Jacobs has published more than 190 stories in magazines including The Hudson Review, The Atlantic, Playboy, and The Baffler. His sixth book, a novel set in the Congo, is forthcoming from Evergreen Review Books.