Until You Remember

Claude Alick
Everything seemed very quiet until that black man entered the room carrying a clock with big bright numbers in one hand, and a calendar decorate with images of little ceramic tigers in the other. He placed the clock on a table to my right, turned and pinned the calendar to a corkboard across the room, and then he looked at me and smiled.

The tag on his shirt read, Dr. Nearpass. Recognizing the man set off an alarm. I knew I had gone full circle, back to where I had started. Attempting to move, I came to the realization that I was strapped to a bed, totally restrained, feet, arms and everything else. The image of a cop with a gun standing on the other side of the door flashed across my mind. There must be some kind of guard out there. The doctor must have recognized panic because his first words seemed measured.

“How you feeling this morning, Nelson? I think we can remove those. What do you think?” And he started to take off the straps.
The doctor’s casual approach offered some consolation.
Oh Lord, what have I done? The details are sluggish, fragmented, like looking into broken glass. I feel this grief all over, especially inside, way down in my bones, and I’m unsure about so much. I know I did something wrong, very wrong, but what, what did I do? I remember this need to run away. A long, winding road stretched out before me like a grey snake and night was coming. I’m tormented by the night. That’s when the bullies converge, conversing between themselves, commenting on my thoughts, all rude and ugly, talking about me as if I weren’t present.

I recalled an impulse, an urge to get off some shoulder-less road, find some level ground to pitch my tent, rest my bedroll and crawl in, take my tongue lashing, let the darkness pass. And the bullies in my brain were agreeing with me: walking this road at night, not safe, not safe at all, visibility would be sketchy and if one of these cars or trucks passing, coming around a bend, brush you in the dark, knock you into the brush, they would assume just another deer, a glancing blow, and keep going. Weeks later your stink will draw scavengers, insects feeding, maggots crawling out of your nostrils, eyes, mouth, not a good way to escape the harpies.

When the voices are present they call me by name, and that would remind me; who am I, where am I-pills twice a day, and those people, trying to make me talk. I’m a listener. What the hell do you want from me?
I’m no lover of drugs and I know there is nothing wrong with me, memory gets fuzzy now and then, but… silly bastards trying to rob me of all familiarity, telling me, take this medication, it would help to soothe your mental agitation. Nothing wrong with me mentally, I see things as clearly as the other guy, sometimes even more clearly, and the critiques from the bullies, even from them, nothing as succinct, but after the pills, just silence, such a lonely place, so I had to leave. I had no idea what time it was or where I was headed exactly, but I had to go before they pull the flesh from my bones.

Crows were cawing in the fading light, flying low over the cottonwoods down near the river. At the edge of the highway a tall snag stood there, black bones reaching towards the sky as if daring the lightening that had killed it once to strike again. When I reached the dead pine, I stood there in the evening light admiring the scars in the rotten bark and trunk where heavens fire had traveled through to ground and expire. I just couldn’t believe my luck, a dirt road led down to the river, must be some level spots down there, away from the road, away from the noise of passing traffic and inquisitive eyes.

“You look like a man in search of a place to spend the night.”
The voice reached me just before I saw the man sitting near the dead tree. He was a young man, about my age, dressed in cowboy boots, jeans and a striped denim shirt, the kind of clothes you see fake cowboys wearing on television. Strange, I was a little disappointed that he wore no hat. He stood, dusted the dirt off his pants with the palm of his hands, but avoided looking at me directly. He seemed vaguely familiar. My skin itched and the bullies began casting doubts: Don’t even think about it. How will you sleep? What are you going to do when you wakeup with a gun or a knife in your face? What are you going to do when he tosses you into the basement and locks the door? How are you going to handle it if he’s a pervert?

I’ve been in the company of strangers before, handled all kinds of weirdoes. I checked myself, looked at the fellow’s reaction to see if I had allowed my thoughts to escape my mouth. I saw nothing.
But this one, the bullies continued, no telling. You sure? How safe are you when he knows where you are camping? The voices streamed through, an odd mix of advice and accusations. I tried to appease them, tried to integrate their opinions.
“I’m alright. I’ll find some place further up the road,” I said.
“No place to camp for another five miles. Darkness will catch you.”
Now, even his voice sounded slightly familiar. But the circumstances eluded me. Where have I seen him, where did I meet him?
“I don’t like being a bother…”
“No bother at all, man. The house is just below that rise, near the river and I can use the company.”
“I’ve a problem, can’t sleep inside of houses,” I said.
“Don’t worry. You can pitch your tent, but the ground could be wet.”

Just when I was about to decline his hospitality his remark registered. Great mounds of clouds tumbled above as if boiling. A crack of lightening shredded the sky, and then thunder cracked in the distance, a prolonged rumble that started up high and then came down and echoed across the valley floor. Startled crows took to the air. The drops came quickly, driven by a determined wind; big fat sags of rain pelted the top of my head and back.
“Seems as though the heavens have made this decision for you.” Still doubtful, I loitered between, but he started walking away in a hurry, and I followed, intending to stay dry, hoping the boom of the storm would drown out the chatter of the bullies in my brain.

He reached the structure before I did, ducked inside and left the door open. The place was not a house really, more like a shack, galvanized roof, uncured pine logs walls; nothing matched any aspects of the man. The bullies were screaming at me now, but I ignored their commentary on my foolishness. Wet, shivering and apprehensive, I stepped inside to avoid the lightening, the thunder and the rain.
The floor groaned under my weight, the place smelled of wood-smoke, everything stale and off. I took in the rest of the place in one glance, the man stood in one corner, engulfed in the shadow, near a cast iron stove that rested on a concrete slab. A heap of split wood and a small ax near the stove, a table and two chairs wedged up against the only window, a bunk bed built into another wall and two cupboards over a sink.

The man turned, brushed by me, and kicked the door shut. A streak of lightening illuminated the window and the interior of the hut. I tried to get a look at his face, initiate some eye contact. He moved by me again, back towards the stove. I threw off my bedroll and tent, sat down in one of the chairs, listening to the wind and rain whipping the trees. Water streamed from the roof, beating the ground and the walls of the structure. I wanted the stove to roar to life, combat my shivering innards and bones, heat the place. But then I noticed the host not approaching his own stove. He spoke for the first time since we had entered the place.

“We should start a fire.”
“Yeah,” I said, and moved towards the stove and the small heap of wood. The man moved again, and sat down in the chair I had just vacated. I filled the stove with wood, grasped the ax and started chipping some kindling. A dull thump on the tabletop drew my attention, a gun sat near his unfolded right palm. I continued to chip away at the wood as if the gun held no importance. Another streak of lightening lit the place and that time I recognized him, from fourth grade. I was nine years old and this fellow and his friends tormented me daily, all the way into middle school and beyond. Does he recognize me? Does he remember?

I nursed the fire to life and watched as it worked its way into the bigger logs. The stove began to kick off some heat. I moved to the table and sat down across from the man as the storm raged outside. We both sat there looking at the gun, not saying a word. It was a big old gun, looked like the weapons you might see in a western. There was something familiar about the gun.
In the dim light, I looked at his face and it became distorted, like an old television, it changed from one bully to another and the faces were speaking to me: Your mother wears combat boots. Another sneering face: Shit for brains say something, you queer. All those boys who had tormented me in school streamed across his features, speaking and laughing at me: Let’s see what you brought us for lunch today, not another bologna sandwich. Get that shit out of here. feed it to the crows.

An urge to just grab the gun and start blasting away at the tumbling visage almost took control of me, but another voice started speaking, sinister and cold, it dared me: Go for it, pick it up, pick it up, you yellow belly, coward, coward, that’s what you are. Pick it up. My fingers were inches from the gun and trembling when suddenly, palms slammed down on the tabletop. The gun jumped off the surface. When I looked up, the face was now my father’s and he was holding the gun. His voice began speaking loud and furious as if to combat the storm: Only cowards use guns. I know I taught you better. You can’t be a coward, boy. You can’t let them see you cower. Pick the biggest one, punch him in the nose hard, very hard and don’t stop, beat him into tears. When you make that fist, make it hard. Clinch it tight. A slack fist will do no damage. You can break you fingers with a slack fist. Expect to take some blows. It won’t kill you. Keep beating the bastard until he cries. I’ll back you up, I’ll tell them how you have suffered at the hands of these…
I can’t do that, dad. I’m not like you. I’m afraid.

Then you will suffer, suffer like a dog then, I’m telling you what my father told me. I did it and it felt good. That’s the remedy, take it, take it like a man. End your misery.
A bubble of rancor detonated in my throat, sloshed around my esophagus and I belched a rancid taste onto my tongue. I swallowed to rid my mouth of the aftertaste, and unexpectedly my voice poured forth with rage and clarity, strong over the clatter of the rain.
Yes dad, yes dad. I’ll beat those bastards, I’ll stomp them into the ground. I’ll fight for my life. No guns, no guns. Thank you dad. Thank you. What took you so long…
That’s my boy. That’s my boy. Fight em.

My father sitting at the table with the gun in his hand made me nervous. The feeling that he would do something with the gun, something that I didn’t want to witness churned my blood. The fire in the stove was burning low, so I used that pretext which allowed me to separate myself from my father. I placed more wood on the embers, and then I went to the bunk, crawled onto the old mattress with all my clothes still on, closed my eyes and tried to sleep. Escaping my father’s rage and the gnawing in my brain became my primary consideration, but my father’s voice continued to drill me intermittently, sending shivers deep into my bones. Toward morning, the rain ceased and a mixture of heat from the stove and a noxious silence doubled around me. Languishing somewhere between half-sleep, and an edgy awareness that felt a lot like a dream, I told myself at least I was getting some rest.

When the sun finally broke through the trees, I felt relieved. It was morning and I had survived. Feeling clammy and wet from the heat of the stove, and the sunlight curving through the dust-filled windowpanes, I sat at the table wondering where my father and the bullies had gone. And then I noticed the gun was still there. I pondered all that had transpired the night before, my father’s advice, the bullies taunting, must have been a dream because my father was dead, killed by his own hand and with a gun just like that one. What next, where do I go from here?
You need to get moving, get far from this place. One of the bullies spoke to me.

I stuffed the pistol into my belongings, strapped the bundle to my back and went down to the river, skirted the stream until I came to a spot where the shoreline gave way to a slope of sand and rocks. While rummaging to find my crusty towel, the gun slipped slowly into my hand with the towel, and I pulled them both out of the bag. I spread the towel on the sand and rocks, put the gun on the towel, used the weapon as a weight to keep the towel from being blown into the river by the temperate breeze.

I stripped bare and wadded in until the water reached my waist, and then I ducked under. The water felt invigorating. I came back to the surface with water streaming down my face, looking through the haze, and contemplating the deliberate wind on my skin, I imagined how a baby might comprehend the world for the first time. Cold, shivering and through a miasma, I saw a man scurrying toward me with an object in his hand. And my first response to his presence was fear. Moving calmly, I got out of the water, put on my pants, picked up the towel with the gun, started drying my hair and face as I waited. What the hell does he want? I asked myself.

“Who the hell are you? How did you get here?” The man shouted his questions and kept stomping toward me with determination.
“I don’t want any trouble. Show me the way to the road.”
“You can go back the way you came. How did you get down here? I don’t see a raft. You must have crossed private property to get here. No public access, no public access. You didn’t read the signs?”

The man looked enraged. He stopped a few yards from me and I realized the object in his hand was a gun. He started waving the gun at me as if it was a piece of stick and he was chasing a dog. Suddenly the gun the man was carrying discharged, the bullet zing past my ears and I fired twice in response. The man dropped his gun, grabbed his chest and fell to his knees. He knelt there for a moment, looking at me with a surprised expression, and then he toppled over onto his face. For a moment, I doubted that I had hit him because I never took aim.
“Harry? What’s happening? Harry?”
The woman came running out of nowhere. She screamed and threw herself on top of the man, turned him onto his back.
“You killed him. You killed him, you son of a…” she grabbed for the gun on the sand near the man. I fired again, with aim this time and she collapsed in an awkward sprawl on the man. For a moment it all seemed unreal, but as it sunk in, sheer terror came with it. I dropped the gun and started to run away, leaving my belongings behind. I had to find a way up to the road. I remember scampering up the embankment, over some shale rock and then I slipped, started falling backwards into the river and the world became black.

“Nelson, you kept rambling about two people you killed on the Huntley River.” Dr. Nearpass was speaking as he released the straps that held me. “The sheriff did a search, as they do in all these matters. They found nothing. When do you think you did this?”
“Yesterday. What time is it, what day is it?”
“There’s the clock, that’s the correct time. Today is Wednesday the twenty-seventh of May, nineteen ninety-two. You have been in this bed for the past three days.”
His words struck me as if I had been held by one arm and one leg, spun around a few time and thrown. It took me some seconds to believe him; I finally did, but some uneasiness still remained.
“Doctor, why do I feel this… this guilt, this remorse.”
“You had a psychotic break. Don’t worry it’s normal to have feelings of false self-accusation, guilt, sin, that too will pass. Memory is a powerful thing. You’re stable now. Your mother wanted to come out, take you home for a while. I think I convinced her that we have things under control. You can resume your classes in a few days. We’ll talk again later.”
I watched him exit the room and it occurred to me that I could never be certain about reality, not ever again. He could have been a figment of my imagination, this building, this hospital room, all of it, imagined. Once that line is crossed can one ever go back for sure? A car horn sounded on the street and I got out of the bed, crossed the room to the window, and looked out at the buildings, the cars, the people moving about like ants; I saw all of it in a whole new way.


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