Memory is a complicated and stubborn mechanism. – “Toy Village,” Seymour Epstein.
THE TRAFFIC LIGHT flicked to yellow as he approached the suburban intersection of two four-lane streets. Each street had its own left turn signal and there were six or eight yellow lights facing him. For a moment he was tempted to run the caution signal but was quickly dissuaded by the sight of a bright yellow police car coming to a halt in the facing traffic. “It’ll take five minutes,” he sighed as he watched the cars pouring across the intersection from the cross street. After an interval of minutes, the left turn signal came on, and he watched the cars from the facing traffic make their left turns.
As each car reached a certain point in its turn, a beam of windshield-reflected sunlight swept painfully across his eyes, and each car made a whumping noise as it hit a joint in the pavement where the black asphalt-looking material had been squeezed up by the concrete expanded by the intense heat of the August sun.
This intersection of Twin Oak Avenue and Leetown Road was quite near his home, and he was accustomed to the long wait. He always said, when his wife was with him, “This light’s so long you could forget where you’re going.” Saying this was almost as much a routine as was getting stopped by the light.
The sun beating down on the car was raising its temperature rapidly and the lack of movement offered no relief from the stagnant, humid, 95-degree atmosphere. He could feel trickles of sweat on his shoulders and his shirt was glued to the plastic seat back.
He closed his eyes to avoid the periodic irritation of the blinding reflections. Suddenly a car horn honked and he opened his eyes to find that the light was green. He felt undefinably uneasy and confused, but he automatically took his foot from the brake and accelerated through the intersection. As he reached the other side, he recognized the source of his discomfort. “I don’t know where I’m going,” he said aloud. He eased into the right-hand lane, pulled off onto the shoulder, and stopped in the shade of a large walnut tree. “Just a minute, just a minute,” he said, a little frantically. “That’s not the half of it. I don’t know who I am. What in the hell is going on?”
“Don’t panic, don’t panic, there’s got to be some explanation,” he said. He examined the dashboard. It was totally unfamiliar though “Ford” stood out in a metallic script. The gages were all digital, and there were some whose functions were not at all clear to him. He was sure he’d never seen that dashboard before.
He opened the glove compartment and found a registration card which stated that the car belonged to Norman Clay Carlson of 4816 Pisgah Lane, Burlington, New York. Nothing about the name or address was familiar. The registration card was for a 1979 Ford for the year 1980. He said, “Something’s wrong with that, it can’t be 1980.” He reached into his left hip pocket and pulled out an unfamiliar wallet that he opened to find a New York driver’s permit made out to Norman Clay Carlson of the same address. On the permit there was a picture in color of a white-haired, round-faced man with a black and white, ornately trimmed beard. Something about the shape of the forehead and the wrinkles about the slightly hooded brown eyes seemed familiar. He quickly raised his head to the level of the mirror and stared into vaguely familiar brown eyes and at a totally unfamiliar salt-and-pepper beard.
He breathed out the lungful of air he discovered he had been holding and tried to get a grip on his thoughts. He tried to absorb the apparent fact that he was Norman C. Carlson of Burlington, New York. How old? “Birth date 03-22-20,” said the permit. “Sixty,” he said. He got out of the car and walked to the front and stared at the New York tag which had a small sticker in one corner which said, “81.”
He searched through the other compartments in his billfold and found a library card, a BankAmericard, and a telephone credit card all of which proclaimed him to be Norman Carlson.
“Everything checks,” he said, “and I don’t believe one bit of it. I don’t believe my name is Norman Carlson. I don’t believe I live in New York; I never even heard of Burlington. Man, oh man, something is really fouled up.”
Unconsciously he had been registering the tags on passing cars, and now he consciously paid attention to them. They were: “Maryland, Maryland, Maryland, Virginia, Maryland, D.C., Maryland”
“Sure,” he thought, “Maryland, that’s where I am, and that’s where I live.” A blurred image formed of the street he lived on and of the house he lived in, and he almost knew how to get there from this intersection.
He let his muscles do the driving and kept his brain occupied with trying to figure out who he was, and just as a horse could take his unheeding rider to his home, he realized that his habit-trained muscles had caused him to turn onto the street where he was now sure he lived. He looked around as he drove and was uneasily aware that something was wrong. Was that house the right color? Shouldn’t there be a huge oak tree on that corner? Surely the street paving should be concrete instead of asphalt? He passed a street sign and suddenly he remembered where he lived. “Sure,” he said, “at 550 Poplar; next block.”
Without conscious intention, he turned into a driveway, felt the familiar jolt and heard the usual thump of the car’s suspension at the steep rise from the street to the driveway level, automatically braked hard, and turned off the ignition.
He stared thunderstruck at the house in which he was now certain he lived. The lower windows were boarded up. Every window was covered on the outside with ply-board. As he took in more details, he saw everywhere evidence of abandonment. The front door had a hasp and padlock, the gutters were filled with leaves, paint was everywhere peeling, and in places strips of weatherboard had come loose and were hanging at an angle. Several of the panes in the upstairs windows had been replaced by cardboard. The yard was choked with a waist-high growth of weeds. It was clearly a house in which no one had lived in a long, long time.
As if in a daze, he got out of the car and walked stiff-legged along the walk leading to the rear of the house. He stopped and surveyed the ruins of a patio, a patio he was sure he had built. Foot-high grass stuck up between the bricks of the deck, and one of the roof supports had been knocked, or blown, down, and the translucent roof hung at a crazy angle. The back door had boards nailed across it, and all the back windows were covered with plywood. He went to what he was sure was the kitchen window and tried to pull off a corner of the plywood. Though the panel seemed insecure, his tugging merely broke a corner off the board and did not expose any window area. He sat down at the decrepit picnic table in which all the nail heads seemed to be standing half an inch above the boards. The slanting roof protected him from the direct sun as he slowly surveyed the weed patch that the back yard had somehow been transformed into. He could see the brick outlines of flower beds, and he was positive that the yard had contained a carefully tended flower garden. He could almost picture the flowers, but he could not decide if he had been the gardener.
He felt light headed, nauseated, and very much afraid. He rested his elbows on the table and supported his chin in both hands. He was very much aware of the unfamiliar feel of his beard.
“Sir?” Startled, he turned his head to see a policeman standing about ten feet away at the corner of the house. He wore a uniform of light blue trousers and a short-sleeved shirt open at the neck, but a heavy badge glittered in the sun, and his belt was weighted down with handcuffs and a revolver. He was a blond giant who looked too young to be a policeman, but his air of authority was unmistakeable.
As he continued, without answering, to stare at the policeman as if he were an incomprehensible apparition, a slight wariness appeared in the policeman’s manner and his right hand hovered near his revolver while with his left he pointed to what appeared to be a miniature television camera at the intruder.
“Sir,” he said, “may I ask what you are doing here?”
“Oh,” said the man who did not believe he was Norman Carlton, “I happened to be driving through the area and I decided to stop to see my old army buddy, but it looks like he moved away. Some time ago, in fact.”
“The Thorntons were friends of yours?”
“Thornton,” he thought, “that’s my name. My name is Jim Thornton. Be careful, be careful, something’s wrong here.”
“Sir? I asked if they were friends of yours.”
“Well, not friends. Long ago, in the war, I knew Jim Thornton, but I haven’t seen him in ten, maybe twelve, years. I was just driving through, and I thought I’d stop by to see him and his wife.” He saw that the policeman had relaxed from his suspicious attitude and was regarding him with a more friendly concern.
“You don’t know about the Thorntons, then?”
“No, I don’t. What about them?”
“Well, no one knows exactly what happened. They went off to Greece about five years ago and never came back. Both of them disappeared on a sightseeing visit in the mountains in Greece and not a trace of them has ever been found. Even the rental car they were driving has never been found. Some people think bandits did away with them, and some think their car simply went off the road into the ocean or into a ravine where it has stayed hidden.”
“Five years ago?” asked the man who was sure he was Jim Thornton.
“Yeah, about. I didn’t know them because that was before I moved to this town, but you can be sure there’s been lots of talk about them. Their estate has never been settled because their deaths have not been proved, and so this house has just stayed empty. We’ve had an awful lot of vandalism around it and some serious thefts of large appliances from the house. That’s why I investigated when I saw your car in the driveway. I didn’t really expect a thief would park in the driveway in daylight, though.”
“Did Jim and what’s her name, uh, uh, Eileen have any children?”
“I don’t know too much about them,” said the policeman. “Let me ask.” He turned his mouth to his lapel and said, “Let me have Chief Carvel.” Then he said, “Chief, Private Bolling. I’m at the Thornton house.” He described the situation and asked the chief about the children.
“No,” said a metallic voice, apparently from the TV camera, “no children. Let me look at him.” Officer Bolling pointed the camera at Jim Thornton, and the voice said, “Check his I.D.”
“May I see your driver’s permit?” said the policeman. “Please remove it from your wallet.” He held the permit some six inches from the lens for a minute and then handed it back.
“Bring him in,” said the radio voice. Jim Thornton saw that Officer Bolling’s wariness had returned and now the policeman was watching his every movement. Officer Bolling spoke into his lapel microphone, “What do I charge him with?”
“No charge. He is voluntarily assisting the police in their investigations,” said the voice with a hint of sarcasm.
“Did the Chief know Jim personally?”
“Yeah,” said the policeman. “Listen, you can drive your own car and follow me to the station. Uh, now, you’re going voluntarily, but just the same, I’ll be watching in my mirror. The Chief said to bring you in, and that’s what I’ve got to do.”
“I understand,” said Jim. Why did he feel such a sense of danger? What had he done to make him so wary of meeting the Chief? Why did he have someone else’s identity? Or was it? What could it mean? Was he Jim Thornton? Where was Eileen? Why couldn’t he remember more than bits and pieces of the past? What town was this? Had the Chief of Police recognized him?
He drove carefully behind the bright blue patrol car which had “Kennelton Police” in gold letters on its sides. As the cars approached an intersection, the light turned yellow so that the patrol car could have continued but instead had to brake sharply in order not to lose its follower. As the cars began pouring from the cross street, he saw that he was on Leetown Road and that the cross street was Twin Oak Avenue. Neither name meant anything to him. The heat was nearly unbearable. He looked at the dash and discovered that the car evidently had air conditioning. He pushed the lever to “fast cool,” but nothing happened. The failure of his expectation made it seem even hotter. He felt slightly dizzy as if he might be having a touch of heat stroke. As the left-turn light came on and cars began making a sweeping turn in front of him, the reflection of the sun from their windshields as each car was at a 45-degree angle caused such a painful glare that he closed his eyes seeking some relief from it.
Suddenly Jim Thornton was aware of a horn blast from the car behind him. He took his foot off the brake and stepped too hard on the accelerator, causing the engine to choke down, but it finally recovered, and the car accelerated through the intersection. “Soon as the 76’s come out, I’m going to get rid of this thing,” Jim thought. “That damn carburetor has never worked right.”
At the next corner, he turned right and almost immediately turned into the parking lot of a Seven-Eleven store. “Roquefort,” he said aloud. “I wonder if Eileen has ever cooked a special dinner when she didn’t send me to the store in the middle of her preparations.” He remembered a series of Thanksgiving turkeys being cooked while he went to the store and from store to store about once per hour for some missing ingredient. Today, he’d returned from the golf course to find her embroiled in preparation of a dinner for guests this evening. She had, without even letting him change clothes, rushed him out immediately to procure the missing cheese for her salad dressing.
As he was about to get into his car after buying the cheese, he heard someone calling his name. He turned to see Larry Carvel, the brand-new Chief of Police of Kennelton. He was standing by his police car about five cars down the row of parked cars.
“Whatever are you doing in this part of the world?” yelled Larry.
Jim, all of two miles from home, snickered. They were ardent British whodunit fans and often addressed each other with Briticisms, or what they believed to be Briticisms, from those books.
“Hey, Larry, congratulations on your promotion. Top hole, what?”
Larry Carvel grinned and waved his thanks as he got into his car.
After Jim closed the front door of his house, he paused in the foyer to luxuriate in the cool contrast to the out- door temperature.
“Jim,” called Eileen, “I forgot to tell you. I picked up our tickets today.” She handed him an envelope which he automatically opened and from which he removed two airline tickets. “New York to Athens,” she said, “two weeks from today.”
Jim looked at her happy, triumphant smile and felt an onslaught of terror. He tried to control his increasing, senseless fear with no success. The cool house now made his sweat covered body feel clammy, and his teeth nearly chattered in cold fright. “No,” he said, “no, we’re not going.” He pulled Eileen into his arms and held her very tightly.
“Ouch!” she said, “you’re hurting me. Not so tight, if you please.” She seemed oblivious to the depth of his feeling. She pulled away. “What do you mean, not going?”
“We’re not going. We can’t go.”
“Listen,” she said, “I spent six months convincing you that when you retired we were going to Greece for a long vacation. Fat chance, I’m going to let you change your mind, now.” While she talked, she examined him closely. “Hey, you really mean it, don’t you? What’s wrong? What is it?”
“I don’t know, but all of a sudden, I know we must not take this trip. I have a terrible premonition or something. We just can’t do it. I know how much you’ve always wanted to go to Greece, and I know I agreed that we could go. But we can’t, we just can’t.” Part of his despair was now because he knew that her iron will was difficult enough to deflect when he had a logical case. Eileen was a no-nonsense person who could be persuaded only with hard logic. Now, although he was completely sure he was right, he clearly recognized that he had no logical argument for his feeling. This knowledge increased his fear and made him even more incoherent.
“OK,” she said, “you are obviously upset about something. It’s not like you at all. Let’s wait until you feel better, and we’ll discuss it calmly and rationally.”
“Yeah, but listen, we really must not go. I just know we must not go.”
“Let it rest. We’ll talk about it later.”
“But we don’t go, no matter what.”
“Later,” she said soothingly, “we’ll see.”
Hand set in Goudy’s Deepdene. Title is in 72-point Caslon Italic; remainder of cover is in Univers 55. Inks are Van Son’s Red Pepper and 40904 Black. Published by Jake Warner and 450 copies printed by him on a C&P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.