A Short Story In Two Parts
I am not black. Not much else is clear to me: what hospital this is, why I’m here, why I’m handcuffed to the bed’s safety rail, why my hands are black although I’m not.
The television is on. It hangs on the wall near the foot of my bed, a red-faced pundit wailing in strangled tones about injustice. Her shrill voice pierces my head, but I don’t lower the volume or change the station. The remote control rests on the table next to my handcuffed wrist.
A man enters my room. He is dressed in blue scrubs, a stethoscope draped over his shoulders. “How are you feeling, Mr. Meyer?” he asks.
“Confused,” I say. Meyer. That doesn’t sound right, but there’s no other patient in the room.
“Well, that’s to be expected.”
“What happened to me?”
“You had an accident,” he says.
“Is that why my head hurts?”
“And why I can’t remember anything?”
I raise my hands. The handcuffs rattle along the railing. “Okay, but why are my arms black? I’m not black.”
“Maybe you should ask the doctor about that,” he says.
“I thought you were a doctor.”
“R.N.,” he says, and he glares at me. “But I guess I should expect those sorts of assumptions from you.”
After the door closes behind him, I strip off my white sheets and lift my robe. My body is dark brown, old and soft like overstuffed furniture. My penis lays there, small and fragile between my thick legs. This confuses me even more than I’m already confused.
I am not black.
An hour passes. The screaming television insists that I’m now in “The Vortex with Bob Flynn.” Today Bob talks with several of the protestors who claim the police beat them during something called “The March for Wheeling.” This appears to be an anniversary of some sort.
Another nurse enters my room: same blue scrubs, same stethoscope. He’s a little Mexican, or Latino I guess. He grabs the chart from the foot of my bed, and while he reads it he says, “And how are we feeling, Mr. Meyer” with little interest.
“Fine, fine. Hey, nurse, can you hand me that remote over there? I can’t listen to this idiocy anymore.”
“It’s Doctor Maduro, and I’ll be glad to,” he says.
“Sorry, I just assumed.”
“Yes, that’s to be expected.”
“Can you explain to me what’s going on, please?”
“You’ve been in a coma,” Dr. Maduro says. “Medically induced. I am the neurosurgeon who performed your procedure. The headaches will dissipate over time, but there’s nothing we can do about the amnesia.”
“You were in an accident,” the doctor says. “Well, everything looks great. You should be able to go home today.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have that information.”
“What happened to my skin?” I ask.
“I’m afraid I’m not a dermatologist, but your skin looks fine to me. I can write you a referral if you’d like,” Dr. Maduro says.
“No, why am I black?”
“I don’t know. Why am I Guatemalan?” he laughs, but only with his mouth. His eyes remain serious, perhaps even a little sad.
“And why am I handcuffed to the bed?”
“I’ll start the discharge paperwork. You should be home in a few hours,” Dr. Maduro says.
It takes a moment before I realize that the officer is talking to me. He’s a big old buck, arms like tree trunks and head shaved to the bone. I wonder if he has to have his sheriff uniforms custom made. “Yes?” I say.
“Please place your palms on the mattress and extend your legs,” he says.
“What’s this all about?”
“Here to remove your cuffs. You’re free to go,” he says.
“Free to go where?”
“Not my problem.”
“Are you suggesting that I was under investigation?”
“Not suggesting anything.”
“Look, I demand some answers,” I say. The handcuff releases with a click, and I rub my wrist. “I’ve gotten nothing but runaround from you people since I woke up this morning. Either you can explain to me what’s going on or you can give me your superior’s name and I’ll ask him.”
The policeman empties a bag of clothing onto my bed: socks, sneakers, jeans, a faded red and blue sweatshirt with “Tommy” stamped across the chest in cracked white letters. Is that my name? Tommy Meyer. “Put these on. You’re free to go,” the officer says.
“And if I refuse?”
He unsnaps the top of his holster. “I wouldn’t,” he says. “And let me tell you something else, brother. You need to work on how you talk. You’ll never fit in like that.”
My police escort leaves me standing in front of the unfamiliar hospital on an even more unfamiliar street. No money, no possessions, no destination: nothing but the raggedy clothes the cop threw me and a persistent headache. I pick a direction at random and begin walking.
I try to use my surroundings to gauge how long my coma lasted. Nothing looks startlingly unfamiliar. The cars, clothes, and architecture seem the same, but what is “same” to a man with no memory?
I wander for hours. My legs ache and my belly rumbles. The smell of hamburgers hits me like a gavel. I follow my nose to a fast food restaurant and pull open the door. It’s both bright and loud in every imaginable way: plastic trays clattering against fiberglass furnishings molded in primary colors; timers blaring over cashiers screaming orders; kids running and playing. The lighting is harsh, like an interrogation room.
I wind through the long line, just another customer waiting his turn to order a Deluxe Bacon Clownburger with Cheese. It feels good to belong somewhere.
“Welcome to Clownburger. Would you like to try one of our Dealsaver value meals?” She’s much too pleasant for a young woman forced to wear a clown nose.
“Listen, honey, this is rather awkward, but I was released from the hospital this morning,” I say.
“That’s awesome!” she chirps.
“Thank you. I’ve been walking all day. I don’t have any money or anywhere to go. I don’t even know who I am, or even where I am.”
“You’re at Clownburger. Can I take your order?”
“That’s the thing. I don’t have any money,” I say.
“The Dealsaver value meal is your best value,” she says.
“No, see, I don’t have any money.”
“Just order, dude. She don’t need your life story,” the customer behind me says. He wears a t-shirt that reads “Tapout.”
“Could you maybe just spare a Jr. Clownburger? Maybe one that the cook messed up or some such?” I ask.
“Um, we don’t really do that,” the cashier says.
“Please, anything you can spare.”
“Let’s go, Shawshank,” Tapout says. “I got to get back to work to pay for your lazy ass drug habit.”
“Excuse me?” I say.
“You heard me. Get the fuck out of the way and let the paying customers through, you parasite.”
“Parasite? You don’t know anything about me,” I say.
“I know you’re a fucking bum that’s about to get his ass kicked,” Tapout says. “Get moving.”
“Where’s your decency? Where’s your compassion?”
“Jesus Christ, get out of the way already,” somebody shouts from the back of the line.
A man wearing a tie rather than a clown nose emerges behind the counter. “Is there a problem here?” he asks.
“This man wants a free Jr. Clownburger,” the cashier says.
“Oh, I’m sorry. We can’t do that,” the man says.
“Look, you kick this piece of trash out or lose my business forever. I’m a paying customer. Paying. Customer,” Tapout says.
“Please,” I say to the man in the tie.
I see something flicker in the man’s eyes. It’s brief, but it’s there. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry about the delay,” he shouts to the line. “We’ll get to you soon, and to thank you for your patience we’re giving each of you a free Clownburger.” His generosity is met with a smattering of tepid applause and a few mutters of “about time” and “damn right.” “Meet me over by that door,” he says, and he points to a door separating the counter from the dining room.
I stand and wait. Twenty minutes pass while the line dwindles, the man in the tie barking orders to employees and glad handing irate customers. He’s magical, part field marshal, part orchestra conductor. I admire his ability to bring order to this unruly room.
The door creaks open. He hands me a slip of paper. “There’s a shelter just off B Street. They’ll give you a hot meal. Here’s the address. What?”
“Nothing. Thank you. I just thought you might have some food for me.”
“We’re a business. We don’t give away food,” he says. “I’ll give you a little free advice, though: Get a job. Earn your way. Have a little dignity.”
I don’t know this city, but I know my numerals and my alphabet. Why doesn’t my amnesia affect that? Why can I read and speak English? Never mind. The hunger in my belly hurts far more than my curiosity does.
The sign on the street corner indicates that I’m standing at the intersection of 30th and X. The slip of receipt paper in my hand states that the shelter is at 4th and B—49 blocks away. I don’t dare risk another confrontation by trying to get on a bus, so I begin to walk.
This is a beautiful city, its streets lined with so many trees that I almost forget I’m in an urban area. Craftsman bungalows and Victorian dollhouses have been repurposed as law offices, yoga studios, art galleries, holistic healing centers, and piercing shops. I pass through neighborhoods where the old houses remain impeccably maintained residences. These areas clearly have been gentrified by the gays, which I’d gladly give them credit for if they weren’t flying their rainbow flags from their gingerbread porches.
Slowly the trees thin and the house paint peels. I cross a set of railroad tracks. Houses give way to cement boxes: auto parts, window tinting, carnecerias, payday loans, bail bonds, gun shops, taco stands. What houses remain feature grinning window bars, like those “grilles” the blacks love so much.
Traffic picks up. Cars speed past well beyond the posted speed limit. Nobody stops. They’re all on their way from or to. This is not a destination place. Sidewalk traffic picks up, too. Some people push stolen carts filled with cans and other garbage, others simply walk unsteadily, stopping occasionally to shout at nothing. Many simply stand, sit, or lie on the concrete, sheets of filthy cardboard their mattresses. Human rats.
I hear it before I feel it: crinkling paper and a sort of wet thud on the back of my head. I hear laughing, too, and the growl of the engine as the car speeds away. The laughter sounds young and male, the fingers waving from the car windows clearly white. I stare at the crumpled fast food bag at my feet and rub my hand over the spot behind my ear where it me. I feel a small scar. The accident. I wish I could remember the accident.
Someone shoves me. I tumble to the sidewalk. A filthy man in a filthier coat tears open the bag and jams the remains of a Clownburger into his toothless mouth. I’d vomit if my stomach wasn’t empty.
Five more blocks. Lesson learned: I walk as far away from the curb as possible. The beautiful city filled with trees is a memory now. At least I finally have one.
I stand in line with dozens of men and women—mostly men—waiting for our free meals. Some stare at their feet, others talk to invisible friends and enemies. Down the line an old man in a dirty parka screams, “Do you know your history, black man?” His eyes are closed. I seem to be the only one who notices him.
We don’t walk so much as shuffle–the institutional shuffle, as if we’re shackled together. Eventually I make it to the serving line, a stainless steel table crammed with steam trays.
“Good evening, sir, how are you?” the server says. These are the first words of kindness I’ve heard all day. I want to cry.
“Tired. Hungry. Confused,” I smile.
“Bless your heart,” she says.
“Can you tell me where I am?”
“You’re at Manna From Heaven, hon. We’re a homeless shelter.”
“No, I mean what town? What state?”
I see the pity on her face. “You’re in Becerra, Idaho.” She grabs a tray and ladles food into its little compartments. “You’ll feel better when you get some food in your belly, soak up some of that poison,” she says, and she hands me the tray.
“I don’t know who I am.”
“Jesus does. Put your faith in the Lord and He’ll show you the way,” she says. I realize that she thinks I’m a drunk. There’s no point correcting her.
The food is good: hot, starchy. Aside from the chirpy voices of the volunteers, the only noise is the dull clang of forks against fiberglass trays. They remind me of the trays that jails use, and then I wonder how I know what trays jail use. “Do you know your history, black man?” the man shouts at his green beans.
I don’t, and I’m not black.
The line for beds is even longer than the food line. We don’t shuffle here, we just wait.
“You look like you got a million dollars,” he says. He looks young, but his face has hardened. Something about his eyes. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a handful of cigarette butts. “The way you stand, like you some kind of African prince or some shit,” he says. “The way you look these niggers straight in the eye. Don’t nobody look these niggers in the eye, nigger. They’ll cut you.”
“I don’t have a million dollars, and I don’t appreciate you using that word,” I tell him.
“All I’m saying is you don’t belong here, know what I’m saying. I don’t belong here, neither. These niggers will stab you in your sleep for your shoes. I seen it happen, man.”
“I don’t have anywhere else to go,” I say.
“We got a campsite down by the river, me and my man Bernard,” he says, and he shoves the longest cigarette butt between his lips and pockets the rest.
“You know the rules, Mik-Al,” a volunteer says. “Put it out.”
“It ain’t even lit, nigger. Calm down,” Mik-Al says. “Come on, man, me and Bernard will hook you up.”
Outside we meet Bernard. He sits in front of a pair of ratty mountain bikes attached to trailers filled with garbage. Bungie cords hold dirty silver tarps in place over the cans, bottles, bike parts, etc.
“Who this?” Bernard says.
“This the Prince of Africa, nigger,” Mik-Al says. “Who are you?”
“The fuck,” Bernard says.
“He going to stay with us tonight. Them niggers in there would tear his ass up, know what I’m saying,” Mik-Al says.
“Come on, man,” Bernard says.
“Nigger, where your compassion? Where your concern for your fellow man?” Mik-Al says.
Bernard stands up slowly, more like he unfolds. He’s a good foot taller than either one of us. “Okay,” he says, and he mounts his bike, “but you’re going to have to walk.”
“Thank you,” I say. “I greatly appreciate it.”
“Damn. He do stand out, don’t he?” Bernard says.
“I told you, this motherfucker the Prince of Africa,” Mik-Al says. “I bet he got a million dollars.”
I follow the men for a block or two until we reach a dead end. Knee high posts mark the end of the pavement, the thick steel cable running through them hangs limply. Mik-Al and Bernard pedal their bicycles over the cable’s low spot. A street sign attached to the cable crinkles beneath their tires. I glance at the sign before I step over it. It reads: No Dogs Without Leashes. No Bicycles. No Camping.
The men ride down a narrow trail worn into the brush. I lose sight of them, but I assume I’ll catch up if I continue along the trail. Eventually I do. “Took you long enough, nigger,” Mik-Al says. “He sits in a molded plastic lawn chair, smoking a cigarette. Bernard sits atop a dented red ice chest. They have strung a green tarp across a blackberry thicket in the same way a bird might line her nest with feathers. No casual passerby can see their bikes, trailers, chair, and ice chest, but on our side of the tarp we’re safe from the thorny vines.
“Aren’t you worried about getting arrested?” I ask.
“Arrested for what, being broke?” Mik-Al says, and Bernard grunts. “Arrest me, motherfucker. Three hots and a cot, know what I’m saying?”
“You make jail sound like an improvement,” I say.
“Nigger act like he ain’t never been in lockup. I bet you got out this morning.”
“No, I was in the hospital this morning.”
“I don’t know. They said I was in an accident, but I don’t remember.”
“You don’t remember nothing?”
“Well, I remember I’m not black,” I say.
Bernard and Mik-Al look at each other. “Look like a nigger to me,” Mik-Al says. “Prince of Africa. Look like a million dollars. Grab that plastic sheet over there and find a place to lay down, nigger.”
The plastic sheeting is dirty. I flatten it out best I can, lie down, and fall asleep to the sound of the trickling river.
The dream begins as sex—hands all over me, low whispers—then turns to struggle. I need to fight but I can’t lift my arms. I try to run but I can’t move my legs. Impotent panic.
My consciousness rises within me and shoves the twilight aside. Bernard sits on my thighs, his thick hands pinning my wrists to the ground. Mik-Al shoves his bony fingers into my pockets and turns them inside out. “This one broke ass nigger,” he mutters.
“What are you doing? Get off me,” I say.
“Man, shut the fuck up,” Mik-Al says.
“Check his shoes,” Bernard says. Mik-Al pulls off my shoes. He pulls out the insoles and throws them into the blackberries. He rips out the laces and yanks the tongues free.
“Broke. Ass. Nigger,” Mik-Al repeats. “Man, why you play me?”
“What are you talking about?” I ask.
“Acting like you somebody. You ain’t shit.”
“I never said I was somebody. Listen, please. This is just a misunderstanding. Just let me go, please.”
“Yes. I’m sorry you thought I was somebody else. I don’t know who I am, but I’m just like you. I don’t have anything.”
“Oh, I thought,” Mik-Al says. “You just like me. This shit is my fault, right? I’m just some dumb country nigger, know what I’m saying?”
“I didn’t say that. Honestly, I don’t even know what we’re talking about,” I say.
“Where do you hide your money?” Bernard asks.
“I don’t have any. If I did, why would I have been eating at a shelter?”
“Where do you hide your money?” Bernard repeats.
“Why would I be here with you?”
Bernard sighs. He releases my wrists and sits up, and then a flash of sound and light shoots through my head.
My face feels heavy and my eyes won’t open completely. I hear a television. I’m back in The Vortex With Bob Flynn. His anger pounds inside my head.
“Mr. Meyer? Mr. Meyer, can you hear me?” I don’t recognize the voice. I try to nod, but the pain is too great. “Mr. Meyer, I’m going to start a line in your arm, then we can get you some pain meds, okay?” I try to nod again. I try to ask what happened to me. “Just stay quiet, bud. You’ll feel better soon,” the voice says.
Nobody really sleeps in a hospital: too many lights and noises, too many attendants poking and prodding. The best I manage is a few minutes between the distractions, but it’s enough to feel human again, or maybe it’s the painkillers.
Human hurts. Even with the opiates I still feel my swollen face throbbing. Bernard must have really beaten the hell out of me. My feet hurt, too. I assume that I must have walked out of the woods barefoot.
“Let’s get some photos. Jesus, did he get hit by a car?” He is wearing a suit rather than scrubs. His companion clicks several pictures with a cellphone.
“What is this?” I say. “Are you the police?”
“Better. I’m a lawyer. Jack Clemmons,” he says.
“I don’t need a lawyer. I haven’t done anything.”
“No, you didn’t, but they did,” Clemmons says.
I try to laugh but it hurts too much. I wonder whether Bernard broke my ribs, too. “You need to find another ambulance to chase, Mr. Clemmons. All you’ll get out of those two is a couple of worn out bicycles.”
“No, Mr. Helton—the state. You’ll own the capitol building when this is over,” Clemmons says.
“You’re in the wrong room. My name is Meyer.”
“No, that body’s name is Meyer. You are Judge William Helton, age 56, born, raised, and resident of Nampa, Idaho. Wife, Rose. Two sons, Matt and Clay. Convicted June 10 of honest services fraud, sentenced to one year kernel swapping . You’re also the most bigoted son of a bitch I’ve ever met.”
I don’t know what he’s talking about, but I know he’s telling the truth as surely as I know I’m not black.
Clemmons drags a chair over to my bed and sits down. I know his type: cocksure, defiant. The law is a game to him. I can see it in his suit, in the way he sits. “Damnedest thing,” he says. “I argued a half dozen cases in your court room, and you have no idea who I am.”
“Amnesia,” I say.
“Not exactly. I’m not a doctor, but I can give it to you in layman terms. About fifteen years ago some eggheads out in Silicon Valley were working on systems to help Alzheimer patients. Their idea was that just as a computer drive develops corrupts sectors over time, so does the brain. If they could develop neural implants, then they could cure Alzheimers with artificial memory. Boom—billion dollar market.”
“That explains the scar behind my ear?” I ask. “They gave me one of their experimental implants, and now you want to sue them?”
“Let me finish,” Clemmons says. He’s clearly told this story dozens of times. It’s practiced, rehearsed, every pause and inflection intentional. This guy loves an audience. “So these geniuses are poking around, lighting up different parts of the brain with their machines, and right down here near what they call the lizard brain they find an area they name the kernel memory.”
“Because it’s in charge, I assume,” I add.
“Not colonel, kernel. Like corn kernel. The nugget. These sons of bitches found our goddamned souls.” Clemmons slaps the chair’s arms and leans back, fixes me with a rehearsed stare. “That little bit of brain tissue back here is the essence of who we are. The rest of this,” and he waves his hand over his head, “The rest of this is analogous to computer programs and memory storage, but the kernel memory—that’s you.”
I understand what he’s telling me, but at the same time I don’t. This clearly relates to my amnesia, but I don’t understand how. “My accident affected my kernel memory?” I ask.
Clemmons shakes his head. “Look at yourself. You’re an upper middle class, middle-aged white man, yet you’re also a homeless middle-aged black man. What’s wrong with this picture?”
I touch the little scar behind my ear, only it’s not my scar or my ear. What the lawyer is telling me is unbelievable, yet it’s the first thing that’s made sense since I woke up from the accident.