Next Steps for Monte
by Ed Peaco
So many annoyances had piled up—so many bewildering medical documents, so many well-meaning but annoying people calling, texting, knocking. The speech was two days away, and Monte hadn’t written more than Hello, I’m Monte Thompson.
Recently he was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, a form of dementia. In lieu of a cure, his neurologist prescribed many steps that might keep Monte’s brain staying on that plateau for as long as possible. One of the steps was to keep talking, to share his story at a meeting of the local association of The Memory Team.
Monte was nervous. His capacity for thinking and writing was slow these days, and his speech had become a bit halting. He found himself grasping for words that were just out of reach, feeling like a slug, a slug with cognitive difficulties. Anyway, it was worth a try. A few months ago, people called him a hero for what he did on his last day at work. He was proud of the job that he’d held for many years as a writer and editor, and the only person in the company who could provide voice-over narrations. It was a tough time. He couldn’t find the words he needed to talk to his doctor, or the guy who mowed his lawn, or a server at a restaurant. Who knew ordering tacos could be so hard? He was getting used to writing scripts for most conversations, face to face or on the phone. If he didn’t have a script, the outcome would be a mess. The presentation for The Memory Team group would take forever to write.
That day he began scribbling, slowly, and he decided on three topics: neurology, orthopedics and employment. Then he was disturbed by the thump of the back door. It was Cable, Monte’s nephew, bringing home two six-packs, chips and guacamole. He had the ability to distract Monte in small ways that caused big distractions. Cable lived with Monte because Cable didn’t like his father who lived in Los Angeles. Cable found a job as a bartender in the thriving city of Bristol Springs, Missouri. He kept reminding Monte what the neurologist said: Keep talking. Both of them were grappling with Monte’s dementia.
“Hey, Uncle, I got this idea for a way to write your speech. Start with the first thing that happened that day, then the next, then the next. You know what happened.”
Monte started with getting fired by the big boss, leading to an active-shooter incident and his big breakdown, all on the same day. He felt like he shouldn’t talk about certain workplace events; he didn’t know everything. He was running away, or hobbling away, on his finicky new titanium hip. He didn’t understand what the gunplay was all about. Monte led his team across the greenway to a wooded area beyond and over a fence to safety. They made it, with the help of his co-workers and his old rope ladders that he’d used at work for lunchtime workouts, back before his hip had acted up, eventually leading to pain and hip replacement last year. As he scribbled, he realized how much he’d been through in just the last year or so. What a mess! One good thing was that the hip felt better now, but the aphasia and other brain stuff were way messier.
Another interruption: Tori, Cable’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, hastened back to the house to fetch the phone attachment she needed for her customer-payment system. She was sharp-witted, a speed-walker, striding with a purpose. Her hairstyle was two-fold. On one side of her scalp, she had an undercut. Over the rest of her crown, she had long hair gathered in a ponytail with a streak of blue violet. Tori had originally worked with Monte at their old place of employment. He’d been fired and she opted to quit after the bullets whizzed by. Who could blame her? She had multiple part-time jobs now and was, in Monte’s opinion, too curious about his condition. She had unending questions. She and Cable seemed to want to mess with his business. She kept asking what he had.
“My brain is compromised due to dementia.”
“The kind where you can’t find words.”
Then she always wanted to talk about that horrific day at work.
“Do you have PTSD? Flashbacks? Nightmares?”
“No, no, and no.”
“I still think about it. Do you need help? What can I do?”
“Tori, you’re a nice person, but I’ve had enough. You’re an enterprising hustler in the gig economy, but you’re going on, chattering like a four-year-old.”
“Oh, sorry. I’d better get going.”
After he shooed Tori away, he went back to his speech. Monte liked Cable’s idea, and he ran with it, although it was slow going for the slug.
— — —
Monte was nervous as he entered the big room for the monthly meeting presented by The Memory Team. Tori told him that being nervous is good, up to a point. He glowered. After the preliminaries, Monte began with, “Forget Alzheimer’s or any kind of dementia. Just run your life the best you can, and do what you want as much as you can.”
Then somebody in the crowd shouted, “Easy for you to say.”
That ticked off Monte, all things considered. “Yeah, and I can say that, too.” He looked at the people in the chairs and continued to discuss his disorder. “FTD is an umbrella term for a number of brain disorders, not a bunch of florist shops,” which got a few snickers from the chairs. “Disorders like Alzheimer’s and Primary Progressive Aphasia.” He went on to explain that he was in the early stages of PPA, and he emphasized that he was thankful for this time when he could still do things almost as well as before, but more slowly and sometimes forgetfully.
“Whatever stage of your disorder, make the most of it, because you may lose what you have at any time,” he said. “Don’t mope!” That launched another laugh. Then he looked down at his pages with the three topics. Beginning again, he said, “And now, to the story of my strange and scary incident at work.”
After he described each part of the rush to safety, there was a swarm of questions about the exodus, and a heckler popped off, “You sound like a disgruntled employee, some sad sack who got the shitty end of the stick. Why are you talking about all this stuff that happened one day at work, and nobody got hurt except maybe the boss?”
“I don’t want to talk about that part of the incident,” Monte said.
“You sound like a fraud.”
“If you say so,” Monte said. Next, he summed up and finished with “Don’t mope!”
He hoped to break free from the gaggle at the podium and move to the refreshments, but he was caught. Cable gave him a thumbs up from across the room. Conversation covered short-term memory, difficulty with finding words, and spelling issues. As Monte was getting ready to leave, he saw a tall woman approaching, with a white mane of hair like spun candy.
She reached him with congratulations. “I like that title, ‘Forget Alzheimer’s.’”
“I wanted to say more, but I forgot. This is what I get for becoming a senior citizen.”
“I’m a senior citizen, too,” Monte said.
“I have more seniority than you, Mr. Thompson. Oh, I’m Nova Grimes, a writer who can’t write much anymore.”
“What kind of writing?”
“Novels of love, dissension and redemption—or revenge,” she said with a smirk.
“I used to write stuff for outdoor magazines. I’m the trail walker who can’t walk very far anymore, and I’m also the voice-over guy who can hardly talk.”
“You were reasonably fluent up there.”
“I had a script,” Monte said.
“How did you get here?” Nova asked.
“My nephew drove me.”
“My daughter Abbey and my granddaughter Celeste drive me around. Otherwise, I’m housebound.” She quickly thrust a business card into his hand. “Text me. Call me, please.”
Monte looked down at the cookie selection and when he looked back, she was gone.
— — —
For a few days, Monte examined Nova Grimes’ card, repeatedly. He thought about her being in the publishing world and himself a newly retired marketing scribe. What was it that she wanted from him?
Writer of original stories and novels
Editor of books and periodicals
He googled her and found many pages of real work, but the references stopped three years ago. Monte decided he couldn’t lose anything but a few minutes of texting. She seemed to be a reasonable person. Nova replied, thanking him for contacting her and praising him on his talk and the way he handled that heckler. She asked Monte to call the next day, around two o’clock, if he were free to chat by voice, not fingers. Texting, they chatted about being retired, and Monte asked what more she wanted out of life. She replied, “I want good conversation, that’s all.” Before she logged off, she wrote, “I just want to expand my horizons.”
At the appointed time, he called and they chatted about horizons—beyond visits to church, hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and Walmart. Abbey set strict rules for when Nova was alone in the house: Don’t use the stove, don’t use the space heater, don’t answer the doorbell, and don’t go outside, all so she wouldn’t get lost or burn the house down.
“It seems a bit much,” Monte said. “Are you on your own, ever?”
“They both work at the noodle company. Sometimes Celeste comes back for lunch. Abbey calls all the time to check on me. It drives me crazy.”
“And what about your writing and editing?”
“That’s a long story. Maybe we can meet and talk about it.”
“Or, how about an early afternoon movie?” Monte, thinking he could persuade Cable to do the driving to Nova’s house, then to the movie complex, and the reverse afterward. “Think of what you want to see.”
— — —
As Monte and Cable arrived, Nova, wearing a long velvet top, slim tie-cuff pants, and sandals, presented her choice: “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” Celeste offered to be the driver and chaperone, but Nova said that wasn’t necessary. Celeste could hold down the fort at home.
“Working around Abbey: That’s kinda adolescent, don’t you think?” Monty said. “All those rules?”
“I’ll tell you,” Celeste said. “One night when Gramma was still living alone, she went on a long walk and Mom couldn’t find her. Mom was scared then and she’s scared still. She doesn’t want her to be on her own.”
“Why not just text Abbey to let her know where we’re going?” Monte said.
“No, we’re going, and nobody else needs to know.”
At the enormous complex, Nova took Monte’s hand as he steered her out of foot traffic in the middle of the hall. He said, “Just to make sure, this isn’t a date, right?”
“No, not a date! I was holding your hand so I wouldn’t lose you, that’s all. Isn’t it great to go somewhere other than a doctor’s appointment?”
After another few paces, Nova paused at the women’s room. Monte said he’d wait for her if she wanted to stop in. As he loitered, he thought about the time that women used in the bathroom and his mood went from puzzled, to a little annoyed, to worried and then to terror-stricken. Feeling ridiculous, he stopped a woman about to enter the ladies room, and he asked the stranger to look for a tall, skinny, elderly woman with long white hair. Monte did not see the woman who he stopped, and he had not found Nova. He went through the building with growing panic. Then, in an explosive glimpse of puffy white hair, he saw Nova and went to her. Nova was whimpering and Monte was sweating, his heart pounding. They seized each other in a smothering clutch.
“Where were you?” Nova asked.
“What happened? Where did you go?”
“Going to the movies is harder than I thought it would be.”
“I think I know what happened,” he said. “There are two doors for the bathrooms. You went out the other door, and you expected me to be right there.”
“Really, two doors?”
“Keep holding my hand.”
They found the right screen with plenty of time to chat about losing and finding each other, and feeling small in the massive maze.
Monte said, “You know, back there at the ladies room, I wanted to shout out your name, but my brain hadn’t uploaded your name yet. That’s really bad. Sorry.”
“Hey, I get it. One time, I looked at my daughter, and I didn’t know who she was. It was for just a minute. She was really worked up about that. So was I. Since it happened once, it might happen again.”
They were silent through most of the film, until the scene where Billie is thrust off the stage and the police arrest her. Nova shouted “bastards!” Another voice yelled a refrain,“cops!” At the end of the film, with Billie in a hospital with liver failure, Nova expelled a soft groan.
When they left the complex, Monte was getting fretful about Cable’s timing. They needed to get back before Abbey did. Grimacing, he said, “We could be late.”
“So what? Don’t worry about Abbey. I’m still the big mama in that house, even though I’m all messed up.”
When they arrived at Nova’s house, Abbey’s car was in the driveway. They approached the front door. Loud angry voices emanated from inside.
“That’s Abbey and Celeste,” Nova said.
“You OK?” Monte asked.
Nova nodded and told them, “Stay here!” But Monte got his foot in the door before Nova could shut it.
They all entered and faced Abbey’s rage. “Hey, here you are, little miss delinquent with your juvenile shambles of an escort. Who’s that lunkhead, the wingman?” She glared at Cable and continued. “What were you doing? You could be one of those pathetic faces on the evening news. You could be wandering into another state. You could have been hurt!”
“Oh, Abbey, we went to a movie.”
Celeste was trying to say something. Abbey told her to shut up. Cable also was silenced. Monte looked back and forth as the women went at it.
“You shut up, Abbey,” Nova said. “Nothing happened. I’m not gonna sit here all day. Your rules are good for you, but not for me. I want more from the rest of my pitiful life.”
“All of these things that I’ve put into action—the security, the rules, my calls—are for your protection, Mom,” Abbey said. “Who’s your boyfriend? Don’t tell me.”
Nova sent out a peel of laughter. “I don’t have a boyfriend. Do you, my dear?”
Celeste barked, “Gramma can do what she wants!”
Abbey said, “Sure, she can, and I can scrape her off the pavement. And as for you, baby girl with the nose ring, you lied to me. You let Gramma out of the house with that baboon!” She paused for a moment to shove Monte and Cable out of the house.
Monte hopped into Cable’s pickup and they drove the short distance in silence until Cable slapped the steering wheel and said, “I really feel a whole lot better now that we’re outta that fuckin’ cat fight.”
“It was my idea,” Monte said, shaking his head.
“To get into a cat fight?”
“No! The movie. It was only a movie.”
— — —
The next day, Cable was supposed to pick up his dad at the airport, but he’d forgotten about it. Larry and Monte were brothers, though not particularly close. Larry was flying in from LA for a long weekend. Monte shook the car keys in Cable’s direction and told him that he might be late. “For what?” Cable asked. “Oh, shit, my dad! But I need to get to work!” The Error Code Bar was celebrating its grand re-opening after a year of being shuttered.
“Get your ass outta here. I’ll call for a limo for your dad. He’ll want first class.”
Monte understood the reasons for his visit: to be sure Cable was gainfully employed, and to check on Monte’s health. The only enjoyment Monte could see having his older brother around would be to make a few ridiculous remarks at his brother’s expense, like when they were kids. Monte always thought of Larry as a dull blowhard, bragging about his business and getting nosy about other people. He’d made it big in the tech world and seemed perpetually disappointed in Cable. Larry hadn’t been in contact much with Monte since the diagnosis, either. He expected a less-than-happy visit. He checked Larry’s flight; it was thirty minutes late.
Once he arrived, the peaceful lull was broken; Larry barged in, grousing non-stop about the flight. Monte toted his bags up to the spare room, noting no twinges from his hip, grateful for last year’s hip surgery. But what happened to traveling light? Next, Larry was asking for wine and something to eat.
“How about cheese and crackers? No wine. Cable might have a bottle of Jim Bean.”
“So, that’s something anyway. Why didn’t you pick me up?”
“I don’t drive anymore,” Monte said. “Not for a couple of months now.”
“I probably could drive, but I don’t want to. If I get stopped by a cop, even for just a broken tail light, my speech might be blocked, and the cop might think I’m stoned or drunk.”
“Are you messing with me?” Larry asked.
“In a sense,” Monte said, enjoying Larry’s confusion.
“You said you had that aphasia thing.”
“Oh, yes, aphasia, she’s my girlfriend.”
“Why are you saying such idiotic things? Is it dementia or what?”
Monte laid out the jargon, the cognitive faculties that would be degrading over time, and that there was no cure. “Too bad you weren’t here for my speech.”
“Any clinical trials?” Larry asked.
“Yes, but somebody would have to drive me three-hundred miles every month to participate. If I want to go somewhere, it won’t be to a research center for scientists to gather data for five years, and for what?”
“What about your work trauma thing?” Larry asked. “Flashbacks, trouble sleeping? Also, have you thought about selling your house and moving into an independent living place? It’s a seller’s market, you know. ”
As Monte tried to keep up with Larry’s barrage of questions, Tori came in the back door, dragging a tote bag. She looked totally drained, sweaty and tired. She and Larry greeted each other. Monte forgot for a moment that they’d met last year.
“What happened to you, little lady?” Larry asked.
“Tori has four jobs, and this one’s in a branch bank,” Monte said.
“Yes, very busy,” Tori said, trudging back to her car. Returning, she transported her bounty of a big take-out carton from Wingin’ Chickin and placed it on the table.
“Thirty-six wings. Save some for Cable. I’m not sure when he’ll be home.” She found the beer and the Jim Beam and brought it all to the table.
“Wonderful,” Larry said. “You really understand hospitality better than my brother. I really mean it.”
Larry ate twelve, Monte six, and Tori four.
Larry asked about her jobs and how she tracked her income and expenses.
She reported about personal shopping, pet sitting, balancing the books for food-truck owners, and working in a bank during off-hours. “I always get paid immediately because I have a card swiper on my phone that funnels my money direct to my bank account. Nobody can say, ‘Oh, I don’t have it on me right now.’”
“What do you do at the bank?” Larry asked.
“If you really must know, I scrub floors and toilets.”
Larry persisted in asking her about her resourceful approach toward work, droning on and on. Tori seemed to like the attention. Monte found it annoying.
Later in the evening, Monte didn’t want to listen to Larry, so he went to bed. After a few minutes, he was awakened by Cable’s entrance and the charged voices of both Larry and Cable. Monte could heard them arguing. It was a little after midnight. Larry had knocked back the rest of Cable’s bottle of Jim Beam, and there wasn’t much beer left, either. Cable was peeved and went upstairs, stomping hard; Tori followed, and their raised voices made sleep almost impossible.
— — —
Before breakfast, Tori told Monte that Cable found an old bottle of Percocet pills in Monte’s bedroom and was ready to help himself. That’s what the fight was about. She was still livid. “Opioids! He’s a likable guy, but he doesn’t have good judgment. He’s not for me.”
“I’ll deal with that,” Monte said.
“Don’t tell Larry. Cable has too much on his plate now.”
“My fault. I should have dumped those pills long ago. Those were from my hip surgery. Cable is really stressed about his dad and his new job, but no excuse.”
Later in the morning, Monte went with Cable to get groceries. They sat in the pickup and sorted out Cable’s problems in a way that made both feel good. Cable apologized and assured Monte that he would stay on track to help Monte with the things he couldn’t do anymore.
When they returned they found Tori and Larry at Monte’s desk, pouring over his medical and financial documents, and looking up the value of his home according to Zillow. Larry was pontificating about the gig economy and advising Tori how to successfully move into the corporate economy. Monte was absolutely furious.
“What the hell are you doing with my stuff?”
“We were only trying to help,” Tori said. She avoided Monte’s glare and had the grace to look a bit guilty.
“Is this the snooping economy? Whaddaya say, big brother? Hey, Tori, you know everything from Larry about the schmooze economy and the boot-licking economy. How about the go-away-and-don’t-come-back economy!” His hands shook as he tried to gather up various papers from the desk.
“Uncle, I don’t blame you, but just chill. Dad, why do you have to keep doing this shit?”
Tori turned to Cable and said, “Larry has some good ideas for my employment.” She turned and left the room as Cable stood there shaking his head, not knowing what to say.
“This is fucked up. So, now what?” Monte asked.
“We really need to talk about things once you’re willing to listen,” Larry said. “Not that you ever will though. At least Tori gets what I’m saying.”
“I’ve listened long enough. You need to listen to me! I’m done with this.”
Cable helped Monte collect his documents and put them in a briefcase. Then Cable suggested he and Monte take a walk around the pond at a nearby park to calm down a bit. Getting out of the house would be good.
When they returned, Larry’s luggage was gone and Tori’s belongings that she’d had in Cable’s room were gone, too. A short note was on the kitchen table propped up with a juice glass. In Tori’s handwriting, the note said, Taking UAL to LAX. We tried our best. Bye!
“What? Isn’t this weird? Larry and Tori? This makes no sense.” Monte said.
“Really screwy, for sure,” Cable said. “I get my dad; he’s been like that all the time. But Tori? Yeah, my fault. Anyway, I gotta go to work.”
Monte noticed a text from Larry: “Will call you soon.” He wanted to send a snarky reply, but that would start another dustup. He wouldn’t reply. He needed peace and quiet.
— — —
Monte tried to reach Nova every day for almost a week with no response. Cable told Monte that he was moping, and he agreed—moping about the crap from Larry, which Monte understood as issues that he needed to deal with, but it just bugged him that he couldn’t reach Nova. With a stroke of brilliance, he called Celeste. She told Monte that Nova was under the weather but she would be up for a visit any time, cleared by Abbey.
So, Monte asked Cable for a ride to Nova’s place, once again.
During the drive, Monte recalled some fragments of things Nova had said about losing parts of your brain and about which disease was worse: Alzheimer’s or word-loss disorder. Either way, you could end up in the same place.
“Wow, that’s really depressing,” Cable said.
“Well, it’s my world now,” said Monte. “Just trying to get a handle on things.”
Once they arrived, Cable announced he would stay in the pickup.
“Hey, Abbey’s just protective,” Monte said. “OK, that ‘wingman’ comment probably still stings. So stay here. I’ll be out soon.”
Abbey’s door-bell camera sounded Monte’s arrival. When he stepped into the living room, Abbey gripped his shoulder and apologized for her previous outburst. “I’m glad you came, but take it easy.”
With a gentle knock, Monte entered Nova’s room. He found Nova in a chair with a book in her lap, possibly sleeping. “Hey, Nova,” Monte whispered. “How are you?”
“What are you reading today?”
“Sorry, I’m not grasping who you are.”
“Oh, I was with you when you yelled ‘bastards!’ in a full theater.”
“I did?” Nova said. “I did!” She looked up at him and grinned. “Monte!”
“Yes, it’s me!”
“Now Abbey will let me go places with people we know, if I keep in touch. Juvie stuff, but better than nothing. She decided you’re OK.”
“How did that happen?” Monte asked.
“Celeste bombarded her with all the good stuff she found about you online, those outdoors articles and the speech at The Memory Team.”
“How does Celeste make it from the doghouse to the penthouse so quickly?”
He sat next to the bed as they chatted about the movie. She did seem pretty wiped out. When he went back to the living room, Abbey asked him how Nova looked.
“I’m not sure, she might have just been tired,” Monte said. “Anyway, she had a laugh.”
Back in the pickup, he told Cable about his visit.
“So, what you’re saying is, it was good, but maybe watch movies at home,” Cable said.
— — —
Next morning, Monte made a protein breakfast of eggs and sausages. He asked Cable to take him to the beginning of the rail trail. It was a great day for a hike and he wanted to make the most of it. Cable said he could drop him off, but he couldn’t pick him up until later. The bar was changing its decor and Cable would have to work a double shift. Monte was OK with that; he had packed plenty of water and a few energy bars. The day was sunny and his hip wasn’t giving him any trouble. It was so calming, being outside. After a while, he went off the trail onto a hilly path, just to see where it went. In no time, he ran into a guy riding an ATV. He hopped off his four wheeler and accosted Monte with a threatening stance. He told Monte that he was standing on his land and he needed to leave. Spontaneous conversations were the worst for Monte. He was jittery as he hoped words would pop out. He started to talk but every lane of speech was blocked. There wasn’t any script for this! He made an about-face and went back to the trail, shaken by the encounter. He hoped he wouldn’t see that guy again.
Monte didn’t check his phone until lunch, when he found a long text from Larry telling him that he and Tori would come back later that day, and apologized about the invasion of Monte’s documents. Tori also sent voicemail apologies.
“We went to LA for a little fun and I ended up getting a job there in mobile banking, thanks to Larry,” she said. “I got just a week to pack, fly and find a place to live. Isn’t that great!”
At first, Monte was annoyed with Larry, then thought he should learn to be more amicable. After all, Nova was working through family issues; he could, too.
As he finished his hike, he called Cable to see when he would be able to pick him up.
“Not yet. Stay at the trailhead and hang,” Cable said.
Monte sat on a stump for a while, then strolled around the area, noting a stream, a run-down house, and a highway sign decorated with bullet holes. Weirdly, a stretch limo rolled slowly up to the trailhead. The doors opened and piling out of the vehicle came Larry, Cable, and Tori. They seemed excited to see him.
“Hey, we’re on our way to the restaurant of a great country club, Three Sycamores,” Larry said. “We’re all going.”
Monte was sizing up Larry, wondering how he could so easily help Tori but not his son or brother. What was going on? At least Larry came back. Maybe he was going to be reasonable after all.
“Hey, how’s the hip?” Cable asked. “I took a long dinner hour. I brought you clean clothes. You can shower at the clubhouse. You’re really ripe.”
“Monte, smile, OK?” Tori said. “What did you see on your walk?”
“A grumpy guy. I tried to talk to him. It wasn’t pretty.”
“Well, keep talking,” she said. “I looked up aphasia.”
“Yeah, I know about that, too,” Monte said, as they climbed into the limo.
Ed Peaco is a writer of short stories and a freelance writer of articles about music. His work has appeared in The MacGuffin, Alabama Literary Review, Santa Fe Contest, and other journals. During the COVID years when musicians were locked out, Peaco had very little to write about for an article. However, music can be funneled into the short story, such as Langston Hughes’s “Dance.”