Introduction by Halimah Marcus
Bill Cotter’s “The Good Room” is a story about memory—memory as a place you visit, or a place you avoid. Douglas Brunig has come to see his father in a nursing home after a decade without communication. Gripped by dementia, the elderly Brunig’s memory is displaced and porous, crossing boundaries of time and space. From the perch of his wheelchair, he thinks his son is a boy called Albie.
At first, his father’s confusion calls Douglas’s very existence into question: “Douglas wondered, for an instant, if he were here at all. He studied his left hand. A week-old cut, from the lid of a can of sardines, scribed the love line in his palm. It still ached. Douglas was alive, present. Yes. He was here with his father, the thing in the wheelchair.”
The thing in the wheelchair. Douglas’s father is reduced, physically weak. Yet he wields the transportive power of memory, the very weapon Douglas has arranged his adult life to avoid. Douglas presses his cut to remind himself of his own corporal reality, a reality synonymous with pain. Living, for Douglas, is pressing an open wound. So easier not to live, to drink, to numb, to avoid.
At first Albie is a mystery, then an opportunity—for Douglas to interact with his father as someone other than himself, to ask questions he could not otherwise bear to ask. In the story of Douglas’s life, at least the parts he is willing to recall, there are indications of who knew what, when. His wife’s stubbornness, his mother’s depression. With certain knowledge, it can seem like the only options are to deny it, or to let it kill you. As Douglas begins to allow himself to remember what happened to him as a child, his father’s openness, his remorseless—his honesty, even—are their own fresh atrocities.
With tremendous compassion and restraint, Bill Cotter has written a character who, in order to survive, cannot experience his own life. “The Good Room” shows that memory doesn’t actually bring you back, nor does it bring the past to life. Memory brings the past forward, even the long-dead past. It comes at you like a ghost.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor, Recommended Reading
His Father’s Memories Are Not His Own
The Good Room by Bill Cotter
This story includes references to child sexual abuse.
On his first visit to his father at the new nursing home, Douglas Brunig was surprised to find that the elderly man, whom he had not seen in a decade, looked nothing like his old, tough-guy self, but more like the unwrapped mummy of an adolescent; his face a shallow hole, his feet boney and fuscous, his hands papery and gray. The only signs of vigor were his blue-black eyes and the florid stings on his ankles from the mosquitoes darning the courtyard where the staff wheeled the residents out every morning. Douglas’ father was strapped with leather belts to a slightly reclined wheelchair that was far too large, all the gaps around him stuffed with bath towels, his feet supported by two phone books, his head leaning against two soiled pillows.
“Dad,” said Douglas, the word cool and foreign in his mouth. “Are you feeling all right? You want me to call a nurse or something?”
Rather than answering, the old man began to explain the rules of straight pool, the game that had been his best. Partway through his father’s monologue, Douglas realized that his father thought Douglas was someone else, someone named Albie, someone from his father’s past that he’d apparently cared for but never before mentioned.
“Albie,” said his father, “you remember, right? Like always, you hear me? Remember, boy?”
Douglas assumed that his father’s addressing him as Albie was an effect of dementia, possibly the one signaling the end. But he really knew nothing about the old man. He was his father, but they had never really known each other at all. He had been married to Douglas’ mother until her death, when Douglas was eight. He searched for feelings of sadness or regret, but none came. No feelings of any kind. It was a vacancy with which Douglas was familiar. He looked down at his own body, his protruding belly, stretching tight the old yellow dress shirt he’d elected to wear that morning. Douglas wondered, for an instant, if he were here at all. He studied his left hand. A week-old cut, from the lid of a can of sardines, scribed the love line in his palm. It still ached. Douglas was alive, present. Yes. He was here with his father, the thing in the wheelchair.
The old man spoke, with a disembodied voice of youth: “Are you still my friend, Albie?”
“Yes,” said Douglas, squeezing his cut hand into a soft fist.
The old man began crying in concussive hacks. Nurses came running, filling the courtyard with fret and starched white order. The visit was over.
Douglas returned to his hotel, watched an Astros game at the bar, and thought about who Albie might be, but by the seventh inning Douglas was too drunk to do any serious thinking at all. Balls, strikes, endless foul tips, a fight at the mound. Then, the old familiar oblivion.
In the morning the old man recognized Douglas for who he was: his son. His father was stretched out on a metal-framed hospital bed, his angle of repose such that Douglas could see deep into his father’s head whenever he opened his mouth to speak.
They talked about the penny arcade in Port Aransas that Douglas had owned and managed ever since his father, who opened it with Douglas’ mother in 1964, had turned it over to him in the mid-eighties, not long after a medication had come on the market that allowed Douglas to live outside of psychiatric hospitals. Douglas married a cashier from the arcade, Donna Mott, who then took over the day-to-day attention that the arcade demanded. Douglas’ father continued to visit, spending his afternoons there watching the kids play, sometimes giving away money and free tickets, until 1990, when Douglas was thirty-one, and Donna banned Douglas’ father from the arcade altogether.
“He’s in the way there,” she’d said, standing in the doorway to the TV room, one hand on a hip, the other holding the top of the doorjamb, while Douglas sat, drinking Scotch and watching baseball. At the time, Douglas had recognized her posture, visible in the reflection of the glass hutch that held the old arcade memorabilia, as one that dared him to question her, but Douglas simply turned up the volume on the game. Her silence, behind him and to his right, was more strident than the sharp tchak of the filthy sliders landing in the catcher’s weathered mitt.
“Still married, boy?” said his father, looking up at the ceiling of the room. His skin stretched over a cleft Adam’s apple that looked as though it would collapse like a cardinal’s egg if pinched.
“Still married,” said Douglas. “Dad, who’s Albie?”
“Albie?” he said. “I don’t know a goddam Albie.”
Douglas did not know his father well enough to tell if he was lying, or if he simply didn’t remember, or if there never had been an Albie. It made Douglas tired to think about it. He ended the visit with a promise.
“I’ll bring a bottle of good single-malt next time. Okay?”
It was their connection. Scotch. A low tripwire, hidden in the ferns, taut and invisible, stretching from the root of an old oak to a bomb. Douglas thought about which of them was the oak, which the bomb.
“Good,” said the old man, seeming as separate from dementia as an old man could be. His eyes glimmered with lupine awareness. Douglas looked away.
On the eight-hour drive home Douglas stopped at a liquor megastore and spent a hundred dollars on a bottle of 18-year-old Bruichladdich, way too much considering the arcade was faring its worst since his father first opened it. His father would like this stuff. He wouldn’t know what it was, but it looked expensive and very Scottish.
The arcade’s principal draws back in 1964 were Skee-ball, fascination, ring-toss, and a few kiddie games of his father’s invention that involved baseballs; these were easy and a prize was virtually guaranteed for any six-and-under who attempted them. Douglas, five at the time, wanted more than anything to win the big kiddie prize, a three-foot papier-mâché cowboy complete with leather holsters and toy six-guns and a big black felt hat. Douglas practiced throwing baseballs at the knots of driftwood on the beach, at stray dogs growling in their packs, at the unreachable palm fronds, at the arcade itself, its back wall, behind which was the room where his father played pool while his mother ran the busy arcade. His father would sometimes invite his favorite young customers in to watch the “man’s game.” Those were the best years, when Douglas remembered seeing his mother counting stacks of cash as tall as his head, when they built a house on the beach a hundred yards from the arcade, when his father would emerge early in the morning from his pool games, rolls of ten-dollar bills stuffed in his shirt pockets, reminding Douglas of the breasts of his first-grade teacher, Mrs. Arrowsmith.
Now sixty-three, Douglas had gotten flabby and was sporting his own man-hooters, as Donna called them. As he drove, Douglas tried to flex the pectorals buried under the fat, but the exercise left him in a blue mood he felt only a drink could lift, but no store or bar appeared—he was in an ugly stretch of dry-county Texas between Abilene and nowhere. Five minutes passed before Douglas remembered the Bruichladdich right next to him on the front seat. He laughed. He opened the bottle, and drank only what was in the neck, promising himself no more, like always. The peaty burn of the golden liquid fanned out through his body while he drove towards Port Aransas, toward the same house his father and mother had built in better times, and where Douglas now lived with his wife.
A vast Peterbilt semi slowly passed Douglas’ Cutlass Supreme on the right. It was pulling a brand-new trailer, chrome polished to a mirror finish, stenciled with red and white lettering too large to read in the frame of the passenger window.
A man there, ghostly, familiar, drinking something from a bottle. It took Douglas a moment to realize it was his own reflection in the corrugated chromium mirror of the trailer’s shuddering wall. He laughed again, losing some of the Bruichladdich down his chin. The bottle wouldn’t fit in the drink holder, so Douglas jammed it between his legs, laughter and ethanol stinging his gums. The man in the chrome laughed, too. The truck pulled away, and the man was gone. Douglas was alone again, the coastal plains spreading out before of him like something spilt by a god.
At the front door to his house, Donna took her husband’s near-empty bottle away, and sat him in the black leather chair in the corner of the living room that still smelled faintly of his father’s chain-smoked Chesterfields. Donna sat at the dining room table. The looked at each other. It was familiar territory, this mutual gaze in a quiet room, faint with the musk of tobacco ash and alcohol. This was their way. Douglas quiet and pretending not to be drunk; Donna divertive and verbose, ignoring her husband’s condition, and both of them fully aware of the absurdity of it all. It was their private pas de deux, and both were as nimble as deer.
Donna groused about their prize six-thousand-dollar video game that had cramped up in the middle of the afternoon with no repairman available, about the half-century-old toilet’s meager appetite, about the two menacing crustpunks that loitered in front of the arcade with their yellow-toothed dog.
“Seems like they’re only there, hanging around, when I’m working by myself. You heard me, Doug?”
“Yeah. I heard.”
The fuzzy edges of Douglas’ world had begun to resolve as the Scotch metabolized. Douglas was sobering up. He wanted to tell Donna about the chrome man, how that man was the real Douglas. Instead he told her—slowly, deliberately, conscious of the slurring that colored every word—about Albie.
“Could be anybody,” she said, quickly.
Douglas studied his wife.
“Anyone at all.”
He closed his eyes. Functionally sober now, he thought, but tired. Donna brought him six Advils and some milk, then led him to the couch, where he would sleep until eight the next morning, when he would receive a call from the nursing home informing him that his father had contracted a bladder infection which, in his condition, could be the last affliction of his life.
“So,” said the voice on the phone, “we advise returning as soon as possible.”
Which, Douglas understood, meant now.
This time, Douglas decided to fly. He was happy that the airport screeners didn’t catch the mini shampoo bottle full of Scotch in his carry-on, because it was all that was left of the costly Bruichladdich, and Douglas wanted to keep what was surely to be his last promise to his father. Douglas drank only half of it on the plane ride, leaving just enough for his father to have a sip.
When Douglas entered his father’s room, the old man was still strapped in his wheelchair. He woke in a torrent of babble. Douglas offered him some of the Scotch but the man immediately rejected the booze and began questioning in an arid whine why Albie would want to poison his old pal after all these years; had Albie also poisoned their friends, Terry and Arthur and Harold and Faron and a few others that Douglas would try, and fail, to remember after this was all over.
“Boy,” he said, in a tempered voice at odds with the confused blather of a few moments before, “do you remember coming to my dear wife’s funeral in 1967? All our friends were there.”
Douglas remembered only a few adults at his mother’s funeral. His father’s pool-room buddies mostly. However, Douglas clearly recalled the hundred or more kids that were regulars at the arcade who showed up because Douglas’ mother, Helga, had been loved and often gave away free plays, especially to the younger kids, who would never understand the ideas and actions behind suicide, like the bigger kids, who themselves simply did not understand why someone as keen and friendly as Mrs. Helga Brunig would open up her arm in a bathtub, leaving a husband and an eight-year-old son behind.
Douglas did not often think of his mother. She had left him. She had not said goodbye. His father had banished Douglas to his room while the men took her away. When they were gone, and the house was silent and empty, Douglas emerged from his room. Down the hall, in the bathroom, the carmine water was just draining away. She had been swallowed whole before she could scream her son’s name.
Douglas sipped at the Scotch remaining in the bottle, and, in the guise of Albie, told his father that he sure did remember the funeral.
Douglas had been barefoot. He had stood next to the empty bathtub, the humid linoleum sticking to his soles. He imagined roots growing from his feet and down into the floor, branching into the wood beams beneath the tiles, around the lead pipes, anchoring him there like a thistle. The drain croaked.
“But,” said Douglas, “I never understood why Mrs. Brunig killed herself, can you tell me why, Mr. Brunig?”
“Well, Albie, said his father. “I’ll tell you.”
Douglas stared into his mouth, the drain of his face.
“I had done a thing a good husband shouldn’t do, Albie, you know what I mean, and Helga caught me, and even though I tried to explain and apologize, she wouldn’t have it and so just after I refused to give her a divorce—because I loved her—she did herself in, all for spite. All she would’ve had to do was try to understand, and give me a little goddam room, but she was too selfish. You see, young man? Suicide is the great spasm of the holier-than-thou. Hell, you don’t know what I’m talking about, do you.”
A light fixture overhead buzzed faintly. Douglas looked up. The light in the bathroom where his mother had vanished was a cloudy amber globe, mysteriously dark at the bottom. Some years later, his father removed the fixture and handed it to Douglas. It was almost filled with the carcasses of hundreds of tiny scorpions.
He asked his father if he—Albie—had been the cause of all the trouble, that he just couldn’t remember, and if he had been, that he was sorry.
“No, no, boy, you were my favorite, it had been another little friend I’d gotten caught with.”
Douglas looked down at the pale slit in the palm of his hand. He splayed his fingers, forced them backward with his other hand, pressuring the lips of the wound. His father went on.
“The door to the pool room—that was my place, our place, our good room, remember?—hadn’t clicked shut like it should’ve. And old Helga just waltzed right on in and saw our business and shrieked. She just refused to understand that this was natural to me, it was me, that I was sorry I’d never told her, and yes it had been going on since we opened the arcade, but if you tell anyone I will hurt you, Helga, but good.”
Douglas watched as his palm bloomed with a fresh dome of blood.
“Come to find out ol’ Helga beat me to it.”
The window to Douglas’ father’s room looked out onto a hazy, featureless sky the color of frostbite. Douglas studied it, this sky. He looked for his friend there, the drinking man from the Peterbilt trailer. That man understood things better than Douglas did. That man accepted Douglas’ burdens. But he was not there. Just the bloodless Texas sky.
“I knew Helga’d never tattled,” Douglas’ father said. “Because what I’d done was illegal, you know, boy, against the laws of the state, and probably still is, so I’d’ve been arrested, and the only time that had ever happened was during a pool game, when the Nueces County sheriff himself raided our good room and took all my goddam money and the rack of balls for himself.”
Douglas jammed his bleeding fist into his pocket. “How is your son Dougie doing, Mr. Brunig?” said Douglas, mechanically, watching the sky in the window. “Is he still at the arcade with his wife? Did they ever have any kids?”
“No kids,” said Douglas’ father, a renewed strength in his voice. “That flip bastard and I have not seen eye to eye since he turned delicate and moody when he was little, all those money-sucking crazy hospitals, they nearly broke me, and I finally gave him the arcade so he could ruin it on his own time. I thought the fucker’d end up like his mama but he lives on because he did visit me a little while ago, he was supposed to bring me some decent liquor but he never showed up again.”
Douglas drew the bottle of Scotch out of his coat pocket and drank down the last inch. He said: “Were you ever friends with Douglas, Mr. Brunig?”
“We were good friends for a while there,” he said.
Douglas’ fingertips tingled. He dropped the plastic bottle. It bounced and spun, rolled under a chair. The tingle accelerated to a kind of numbness.
“I kept it a secret, you and Doug being the same age and all, I didn’t want you to have jealous feelings, Albie, you see?”
The feeling that his nerve endings were dying climbed his arms. His toes now, tingling, then insensate. It scaled his legs. Douglas felt like a vessel, a vase, a hollow doll, slowly filling with Xylocaine.
“You had a lot of friends my age.”
“Lots,” he said with a smile that reminded Douglas of the pink, ringent seashells that could sometimes be found on the shore after a storm. “Always.”
“Not just me and Doug.”
The strange, cold deadness began filling his torso, up his esophagus, to the base of his tongue.
“I made little friends every year till Doug’s wife threw me out of the arcade, and some after, too. You listen to me Albie, I loved every one of them, but it was you I loved the most.”
His father coughed; dissonant blares. Douglas was full-body numb now, filled to the scalp with the clear anesthetic. Only his eyes felt vital. He gazed into the window of Texas sky, searching there for the good room. Darkness now. Then a curtain, which split down the middle and separated to reveal a door. Behind the door there had once been a pool table, an ornate oaken Brunswick with woven leather pockets. It had been sold years ago to a lawyer from Dallas who complained about the cigarette burns in the felt, and the room in which it had stood for years was now used for storage. It was stuffed from floor to ceiling with cardboard boxes, many filled with spent tickets, which Donna reminded her husband from time to time were a fire waiting to happen.
“One cigarette, one bad wire, one bolt of lightning,” Donna would say, “and fwooosh, all gone. Everything.”
The door to the room had been a heavy layered-steel affair, back in the old days. It was now long gone, replaced with a flimsy, hollow wooden door. The original steel door had been painted blue-green, the keyhole set into a brass panel his mother tried to keep polished but which was always smeared with fingerprints, the doorknob a pocked bronze sphere too big to turn with one hand. Douglas remembered it all now as a series of blanching, internal Polaroids: closeups of the knob over his head, the knob at eye level, the knob at his chin, the knob at his neck, the Polaroids sharper and sharper as he got older and taller, until the knob was at the level of his solar plexus. Then the pictures vanished into a smeary non-memory that brought him back to the present.
“I’m tired, boy,” said Douglas’ father. “Go home and come back tomorrow.”
His father turned his wheelchair away to face a blinking machine. Douglas waited for the liquid in his body to drain off. He took a step, then another. He left.
At the hotel, Douglas sat in the bar on the same stool he had occupied two days before. A vagal nausea had awakened deep in his chest. It was early afternoon. The television was off. The place was empty but for the bartender, a thin man generous with the bottle. Douglas’ body, especially his hands, felt as though he had survived a weak lightning strike. He dropped the first tumbler, spilling his Scotch neat onto the bar. The nausea accelerated. From a distance the barkeep tossed a stack of black napkins into the puddle and poured Douglas a new one.
Douglas drank. The sick retreated. In his head he asked his mother why had she not taken her son with her down the drain. Douglas listened to the silence in his head for a while, searching the chaotic static for a signal. A ray of late afternoon light inched across the bar towards him.
. . . runners at first and third, Jake Odorizzi will intentionally walk Knizner . . .
Douglas left the bar at 7:30. He had some trouble finding his hotel room, and more trouble inserting the keycard in the lock. Once inside the over-air-conditioned room, he fell asleep on the bed, fully dressed.
At a few minutes past two in the morning, the telephone rang. A man at the nursing home informed Douglas that his father was dead, and that the body must be collected in the morning and delivered to a funeral home by noon.
At nine Douglas checked out of the hotel and took a cab to the nursing home, googling funeral homes on the way. Sometime after one in the afternoon, the funeral home he’d chosen called to say they were running late. The nursing home advised Douglas that they would extend their “checkout time” to two o’clock, after which time they would begin assessing storage fees for his father’s body.
Douglas told the nurse that he’d like to see his father. Douglas was led down a flight of stairs to the morgue, through whose small viewing window the old man’s sheet-covered body was visible spread out on a white enameled table. The room was otherwise empty. The nurse left. Douglas tried the door to the morgue, and, finding it unlocked, went inside. He stood over his father’s body, considered it for a moment, then touched its shoulder. He looked around. The floor was tiled in green, the walls in white. It smelled of menthol and Play-Doh. Brown, unlabeled bottles sat on counters here and there. A makeup kit on a gurney was open to reveal brushes and colored powders. Douglas looked down again. He touched the corpse’s Adam’s apple. A surprising warmth radiated from it, and a firmness, like a microwaved Brazil nut—nothing like a cardinal’s egg. Douglas threw the sheet back. He took hold of the body by its right wrist and right ankle. He leaned back, testing its resistance, its dead gravity, the meat of the silent thing. He leaned farther back, then more, until the equipoise broke, and his father’s body slid towards its son and off the table. It landed on the hard linoleum floor, something inside it tearing or splitting. It lay there, stiff, naked, on its back. One eye had partly opened. Its scrotum was corrugated, one testicle was larger than the other. Its penis, a small, shriveled, greenish-pink wick, inexplicably erect, pointed at the ceiling.
Douglas stared. Then, the nausea, no longer in retreat, appeared in an ambush. Douglas turned away just as his body turned inside out.
When the sudden violence was over, he waited, breathless, eyes shut. He stood, and without looking down at what he had done, what had been done, Douglas left the morgue and went back upstairs.
The people from the funeral home had arrived. Douglas told the woman in charge that he wanted a plain, modest casket of their choice, no more than a thousand dollars, an equally modest funeral, at which Douglas advised them there would be no attendees. He said he wanted his father to be buried when and where they wished, please send me all necessary paperwork, here’s my address and a credit card number. The woman protested, saying that his desires were highly irregular, but Douglas waved away her words, turned, and left.
That evening at home, while Douglas was placing a small, whole chicken painted with olive oil and seasoned with salt, pepper, and paprika into a glass casserole dish, he told Donna nothing more about his father except to say that his death was in some ways a relief, which, Douglas told himself, is what one is supposed to say after the death of someone that had survived long past expectations. Douglas glanced at Donna, who was staring at him.
“Did he mention Albie again?” she said.
“No. Except to say he didn’t know who he was.”
Douglas would tell her the truth, all of it, later. Someday. He hoped she would understand why he had lied. If she didn’t, it wouldn’t matter anyway. There was not much of Douglas left now, and what did remain could see no further than the doorknobs and drains and ring-toss rings that shone on the scrim of his brain whenever he closed his eyes.
They ate in a silence. After dinner Douglas put on a light coat.
He told his wife he was going to the arcade.
“Tomorrow’s gonna be busy,” she protested. “Doug, remember—”
“I know, I know.”
Douglas walked there. It was nearly dark.
The brick-red of the boat paint on the concrete floor dully reflected the harsh fluorescents overhead. In the back, beyond the ranks of the pinball machines, on the right at the end of a short hallway, was the flimsy wooden door to the old pool room. He wondered briefly what had happened to the original metal door. Douglas opened it, turned on the single dim bulb hanging from the ceiling by a yard of zip cord, and went inside.
Douglas began to move the many boxes, one by one, out to the main room—there was nowhere else to put them. By two in the morning he had cleared most of them out except for three big, heavy boxes stacked up against the back wall, probably full of old receipts. Douglas looked around in the dim light. There was nothing remarkable here. A few water pipes ran from floor to ceiling, thumbtacks and nails stuck in the paneled wood walls, four five-by-five-inch square indentations in the old gray carpeting where the pool table’s legs had once stood. Douglas placed himself in the middle of the rectangle they formed. He sat. Nothing stirred. He tried to imagine it, but could not. It wasn’t him. If it was anyone, it was his friend the drinker who lived as a reflection in the side of a semi tractor-trailer.
At one point Douglas realized he could make extra space—for what, he didn’t know—if he moved the three big boxes against the back wall a few feet to the left into a corner. He sat down on the floor next to the wall, put his back flat against the bottom-most box, braced his feet up against a water pipe, and began to push. The boxes started to move. He pushed harder. There, they’d moved a foot, a couple more to go.
He looked to his left. A doorknob. The boxes had been hiding a door, off its hinges, leaning against the wall. A large steel door, painted blue, with a bronze knob pocked with irregular dents and set into a tarnished brass plate, right at eye level. He stared. He reached up with both hands and touched it. Humidity, sharp body odor, the bare scent of banknotes covered in sweat. Felt. Green felt, faded, cigarette-burned, mashed into his cheek.
Douglas shut his eyes and turned away. The half-memory stained the inside of his lids. He stood, grabbed a box, dropped it in front of the door, then another on top of that, and another and another, until the door was hidden. He dragged in more boxes, all of them, till the room was full again, just as it was before. The memory was slipping into impossibility, dissolving in a black liquid that slowly evaporated, its fumes accumulating just below the ceiling of the good room, roiling among the fluorescents, far out of reach.
Douglas locked the hollow wooden door to the storage room. Down the hallway, it was growing light. Outside, at the front doors to the arcade, a line of youngsters, each holding the hand of a father or grandfather, all stood waiting to get in, so they could play any games they wished.