A stolen Jaguar had veered off Wiley Road into the Needle River. We followed the reports from the very beginning, the kids and I. No body was found. Anyone inside could have escaped, as near as the half-submerged vehicle had been to the riverbank and as warm and slow as the current had been running that time of year.
The owner of the car, a local milliner, had reported it stolen from in front of the post office. “It had been hard starting,” she said on Channel 10 news. Behind her a towtruck hauled out the purple Jag, water gushing from its windows. “So I left it running. Just to drop a bill in. Car payment, matter of fact.”
“Stupid, Incorporated,” Clara said.
Lloyd said, “Even Mom knows you pay online.”
That evening a disheveled man was found wandering through Everything & More “trying to start strange conversations.” One witness said the man “was talking in, you know, tongues.” Another described his suit as “stylish but sandy and damp.” The news showed the police escorting the handcuffed man into the station. He had a gangly grace about him that made me frown and grin at the same time. Looking right in the camera, alert and curious, the man showed not a drop of guilt or shame.
The reporter explained: “The alleged car thief claims to have lost his memory. The first thing he recalls was, quote, ‘climbing up the bank and going for a walk.’ At Everything & More he had been trying to ask people where he was, but, quote, ‘My words weren’t forming yet.’”
Not only had he lost his memory, he had no wallet, money, or ID—nothing but himself and his clothes.
“The unknown man,” as the police spokeswoman referred to him, appeared “educated and well-mannered,” though “somewhat slow in terms of his responses,” which “could be a sign of hiding something, or a potential effect of the accident, if it was an accident.”
There was one particularly odd update: the woman whose car the man had stolen was refusing to press charges.
“That’s fishy,” I said.
“She’s scared of him,” Clara said.
“He didn’t look scary,” Lloyd said.
“That’s the worst kind,” said Clara.
“So, looking scary is the best kind?” I said.
“Um,” Clara said, “he climbs right in a car that’s running, drives it in the river, wanders around, talks in tongues, and pretends he can’t remember anything? Scary enough.”
A bulletin disclosed that the police had run the man’s prints and found nothing, which meant he hadn’t been arrested before, according to the computer, so they had to let him go.
“Oh, great,” Clara said.
“Is he just creeping around town now?” Lloyd said.
“I’m sure he’s long gone,” I said. “Glen Glade is not for a man like that.”
When he knocked on our door two days later, a jaunty little tap-tap tap-tap-tap, I looked through the peephole. I didn’t recognize him from Adam. He had on a nice sport coat and a tasteful gray fedora which did not call to mind “amnesiac car thief.”
“What is it?” I said though the door.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, ma’am,” he said. “I’m the unknown man from the news.”
He said it as if it were an official position. He removed the hat and turned his face to the sun that I might have a better look through the peephole. He certainly resembled the man on TV, even with the fish-eye perspective. By then the kids were peeking through the curtains on either side of the door. We all gave him the once over and opened our mouths at one another.
“The unknown man!” Lloyd said.
“Don’t open the door,” Clara whispered.
“By any chance,” the unknown man said, “do you happen to know me?”
I assured him in no way did I or anybody present happen to know him. He apologized for “pestering you folks unannounced.”
I was struck by that phrase, its impromptu intelligence. It sounded like a pre-exit phrase as well, but the unknown man remained standing on the porch, looking down and stroking his chin. I came this close to opening the door, believing no psychotic killer would employ such a phrase. Then I imagined him butchering us all, me asking with my dying breath, “How could you have employed that phrase ‘pestering you folks unannounced’?” and him responding, “It never fails!”
“The reason I’m here,” he said, moving close to the peephole, as if to deliver confidential information, “I found a matchbook in my pocket, and your address was written in it.”
“What in the world?” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “And at this point, I’m afraid it’s my best clue. My only clue.”
“Clue as to what?” I said.
The news reports had mentioned nothing about a matchbook. The police hadn’t called to inquire about any such thing, which they certainly would have been obligated to do. I whispered to Lloyd to go call them, the police. Lloyd was 13, a year older than Clara.
“What should I say?”
“Just tell them what’s happening.”
He scurried down the hall with his cell.
The unknown man and I joined in small talk through the peephole, including was his memory coming back (“No sign of it yet, I’m afraid”), was he feeling better (“Yes, come to think of it, thank you, I am”), and how had the police treated him (“Frankly, the longer I was in their custody, the more they seemed to relax toward me”). As we discussed these matters, his voice had an inappropriate light-heartedness about it, considering the circumstances.
Lloyd returned with an AOK signal. “They’re coming,” he whispered. “I told them the unknown car thief knocked on our door and wouldn’t go away.”
I wasn’t sure about that. It suggested the man was belligerent or even trying to force his way in. But if some urgency weren’t included, the police probably wouldn’t respond at all.
Not once, as we waited, did the man ask why we were conversing through the peephole. He must have understood. Were it not for the door between us, it could have been a conversation between patients in a waiting room. At one point he expressed admiration for the “remarkable” architecture of our house. As a matter of fact, the structure did boast a measure of design significance. The builder and original owner had been an admirer of a Spanish architect famed for his primitive flourishes. When we were in the market for a house, early in our marriage, my ex-husband Don (a general contractor) and I had been drawn to its eccentric features, including a spiral chimney, rounded corners, and a roof, eaves, and window borders that appeared to be fashioned of mud. The overall aura of the house was both child-like and solemn. Forgetting that the man was as unknown to himself as he was to us, I asked if he happened to be in “the real estate game,” as I oddly phrased it. He thought about it and said he didn’t know. I myself was in real estate, and realized that I had been trying to find a way to impress him with that information.
The police arrived, a male and a female. I opened the door as they moseyed up the walk. The unknown man smiled at me as if we knew each other. I had never laid eyes on the man. He tipped his hat at me and nodded at the kids, who knew enough not to respond. He appeared quite comfortable in an uncomfortable situation which he himself had created. Dressed sportily, topped off by that herringbone fedora, he was not the most unattractive man in the world—well-groomed enough, somewhat vibrant, no ring, perhaps taller and leaner than I normally would have cared for. He was in his 30s, a few years younger than I.
The police took up positions on either side of him.
“I’m Holly Brown,” I said. “We live here. My son Lloyd called.”
Before I could explain further, the woman officer—Young, her name tag said—indicated that they had seen the man at the station. He said hello to them as if this re-acquaintanceship were a rather pleasant experience. Young assured me that I didn’t “have to take him back” if I didn’t “care to.” I told them I “couldn’t take him back” whether I “cared to” or not, because he had never left. That is, he had never been there in the first place. She had managed to be condescending to both him and me at the same time. He discreetly looked away, at our rose bushes and birch trees, as if preferring not to eavesdrop on a private conversation, even though he himself was the topic.
Young said, “He tested negative for drugs and alcohol.”
The unknown man raised his eyebrows.
“If that’s any reassurance,” Young added.
“Yes, it is,” the unknown man said.
“I meant for Mrs. Brown,” Young said, indicating me.
The male cop, Lugo, gave the unknown man the once over. “You look to be doing better than the last time we saw you.”
“Thank you.” He regarded himself. “Mrs. Sanders was gracious enough to provide this ensemble.” He tipped his hat.
“Sanders,” said Young. “The woman you stole her car?”
“Yes,” the unknown man said, without a dime of shame.
Young and Lugo exchanged a blank look. I asked them why the police hadn’t contacted me about our address in his matchbook. That knocked the blank look off their faces.
“What matchbook?” Lugo said.
I recounted what the unknown man had told us. Lugo muttered something about “suits,” which I took as a flimsy attempt to blame the snafu on the detectives.
“Let’s see this matchbook,” Young said.
The unknown man searched himself in vain. “It was from a tattoo parlor. I can’t remember the name. There was a red symbol. Japanese.”
“Do you have tattoos?” I asked him.
“No,” Young said, “he doesn’t.”
“Does he smoke?” Lloyd said.
“I don’t believe so,” the man said. “I haven’t wanted to.”
Clara said, “Did you have the matchbook when you went in the water?”
He thought about it. “I don’t know.”
“Was it wet?” said Lloyd.
“It would have smeared,” said Clara.
“Waterproof ink,” Lloyd said.
The unknown man shrugged. “It was plain and clear: 555 Columbus.’”
“Did you write the address in it?” I said.
He thought again. “If I did, I don’t remember.”
“Was it your handwriting?” said Clara.
He looked up at a corner of the sky. “I wouldn’t say it was radically unlike mine.”
“How do you remember what your handwriting looks like?” Lloyd said.
“How do you know the symbol was Japanese?” Clara said.
“All right,” Officer Young said. “So, you’re saying you lost it, the matchbook?”
The man patted his pockets again and looked over the ground around him, which led the rest of us to do the same, to no avail.
“You didn’t report the matchbook before now?” said Lugo.
“No,” the man said. “I hoped it might be my address. I thought I’d go there—here—and surprise them, my family. Alas.”
He regarded the kids and me with a smile that had both sadness and something of a reluctant accusation in it. Were we supposed to feel guilty that we weren’t his family?
The man remained calm and courteous throughout the encounter. When the cops had had enough and shooed him away, he immediately complied, setting off up Columbus with a lanky determined stride, as if he had an appointment with destiny.
I had to admit that as an individual human being the unknown man had not made that terrible of an impression on me. The events he was in the center of were awkward for all concerned, but he didn’t appear, after all, to be the author of them, and in fact seemed as much a victim as anybody. Yet he handled himself with utter gentlemanliness. His artless mix of inscrutability and transparency had a certain charm. If it had been me in his position, I’m afraid I would have been remarkably more frantic and troublesome.
Somehow Channel 10 got wind of his visit and sent a crew out, after the fact. We pretended not to be home. Later we saw our house on TV, with Clara and Lloyd peeking through the curtains. The story itself was meager and truncated, with no mention of the matchbook, the cause of the visit. The reporter left the implication that the unknown man had wandered up to our door for no reason. They didn’t know how to tell stories on the news. They just slapped up whatever they had, as long as there was a bit of video, and left it up to you to ask the questions they should have asked. Of course, that didn’t stop Clara and Lloyd from going absolutely giddy after the report, making fun of the unknown man, his careful manners, his curious gaze as he tried to remember things, his serious tone of voice, his amble. They were funny, I admit, but it didn’t feel right.
“Imagine,” I said, “blundering around town day and night, wondering who in the world you are. Were.”
“We didn’t take his memory,” Clara said, but at least they stopped laughing, which gave me hope that I hadn’t raised a couple of complete animals.
* * *
He called three days later, to my unlisted number, no less. By then I had changed my mind about him and the whole mess. I had lost all sympathy. I realized the absurdity of the goings-on and foresaw the danger. He was simply not imbalanced enough for me to believe he had lost his memory. What did he want? The kids probably had the right idea after all—laugh it off. We hadn’t taken his memory.
I pretended not to know who he was. I wanted to make him say, “I’m the unknown man.” That I didn’t even remember him would show how unconcerned I was, how little his infiltration of our life had affected me. As I played dumb, he seemed reluctant to call himself “the unknown man,” but finally did because that was exactly who he was and that was all he had to say for himself.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “The unknown man. Yes. Hello. Um, would you, would you mind my asking how you came by this number?”
He claimed to have used the library computer to look it up. I doubted that, but anything was possible with the internet.
I wasn’t cruel, but I certainly wasn’t friendly. He gave me his number, “just in case.” My good manners made me let him finish. I pretended to write it down. “It’s nice but somewhat inexplicable how you’ve managed to obtain your own phone number when you don’t even know who you are.”
“Oh, the police taught me how to buy a prepay phone. You throw it away, I believe, at some point. Apparently you don’t have to know who you are.”
“How did you prepay for it, if I may be so rude.”
He hesitated. “I was the fortunate recipient of a small loan.” He changed the subject back: “I don’t have my name or the other data, but I sense something of who I am. I’m through a glass, darkly, to myself, but I intuit that I’m me, and that’s real, though amorphous. I can’t put words or numbers to it.”
I ask you, how many homicidal maniacs would use the word “amorphous”? Still, I had an indecent urge to give Mr. X a dressing-down, to remind him that those words and numbers which he so off-handedly dismissed were one of the glues that held civilization together. I was so irked that I almost asked him how he remembered a saying like “through a glass, darkly.” I felt as if he were using his anonymous position to take a poke at those of us who happened to remember who we were, as if we were silly for not having lost our memory, too. As if having no memory elevated him, spiritually or otherwise.
I said, “Sir, I’m afraid this whole arrangement is a series of mistakes and strange events, none of which is our fault, or, frankly, our business. I say, God bless you, and I trust your situation will be looking up soon, but I request that this be the termination of our acquaintanceship. Therefore, farewell.”
I hung up, and my mind, against my will, repeated his phone number to itself.
I told the kids about the call and they took to acting out giggly fantasies of who he was and what he was up to—an alien, a spy, an escapee, a cyborg, a cannibal, a participant in some devious government mind experiment, a ghost, and so on.
Most likely he was just some poor fellow who had received a bump (or two) on the noggin and whose own poor family was out scouring the countryside for him that very moment. They undoubtedly lived at some distance from Glen Glade, for he had been all over the local news and nobody in town had stepped forward to identify or claim him. Unless, of course, they had seen the news and didn’t want him back for some dark reason.
* * *
For the next several days I was busy prepping and showing a house. When I had a chance to catch my breath it struck me that he was not going to call back. Well, hadn’t I asked him not to? His accommodation of my request, along with the picture of him naively wandering around out there, led me to consider reaching out, letting him know that somebody was at least thinking about him. If it had been me, I would have welcomed an encouraging word. Although by then his memory had probably returned and he was likely enjoying a happy reunion with his family. On the other hand, such a wonderful turn would have been reported in an update or even as breaking news.
I dialed the number he had given me. I myself have an excellent memory. A surly fellow answered with what sounded like, “Reds!” It was noisy in the background, a crowd of people shouting and laughing, somebody pounding something, a TV blaring.
“Hello?” I said. “Is this the, um, unknown man?”
“Is this 865-6696?”
“What if it is?”
“Well, is the unknown man from the news there? This is Holly. From the house that he—that was in his matchbook?”
“Lady? Lose this fucking number. Now.”
* * *
The next day, the unknown man called me from the hospital.
“I was in the shelter,” he began. While relieved he was off the street, I doubted the shelter was a place for a tenderfoot like him. “I was having dizzy spells. Apparently I had gotten dehydrated. They gave me fluids and told me to go home and rest.” The word “home” hung in the phone like a black hole. He apologized for calling after I had asked him not to, but told me, “You’re the one in Glen Glade I’ve had the most human conversation with.”
“Well, thank you,” I said, although it sounded like a trap. “Speaking of conversations, I called that number you gave me. Some gangster answered.”
“No,” he said, quietly horrified.
I recounted my exchange with the thug, including his profanity.
The unknown man stammered his dismay. He claimed his phone had been stolen while he slept in the shelter. “They took my socks, too, but left my shoes.”
What a sad, mysterious, and sickening detail, I thought. I felt mean for imagining he had any connection to the goon on the phone. I wanted to do something for him, maybe buy him new socks, but that felt too intimate. Before thinking it through I offered him a ride from the hospital to wherever he wanted to go. Where in the world could he go? I expected polite resistance, to which I would have immediately deferred, but he accepted my offer without hesitation.
Backing out of the driveway, I said to myself, “I’ll just take him back to the shelter. But they robbed him there. I’ll give him twenty dollars. Fifty. Wait, I can’t write him a check.” I pulled back in the driveway to look in my purse, when here came Lloyd and Clara up the sidewalk from school. I started to back out again quickly but they knocked on the window, asking me where I was going. I could lie, I thought, but if on some extreme outside chance I happened to bring him back to the house, just to catch his breath, it was better they knew about it beforehand. I told them my plan as vaguely as I could and, naturally, they began arguing with me.
“I’m going,” I said. “He’s waiting.” They climbed in the back, as if the unknown man had reserved the front. The whole way there they tried to talk me out of it. Their arguments were expressed as fears but were based on “nothing but spoiled selfishness,” as I pointed out, which “I apparently taught you.”
“You taught us don’t talk to strangers,” Clara said.
Lloyd said, “Much less bring him home for . . . what again?”
“The police didn’t consider him a threat,” I countered.
“The police have guns,” Clara said.
“Take him to the shelter,” said Lloyd.
“He was robbed there. They even took his socks. He just needs to catch his breath.”
“He can catch his breath anywhere,” Clara said.
Lloyd said, “Let somebody else help him catch his breath.”
“There is nobody else. He’ll catch his breath, have a home-cooked meal—”
“Home-cooked meal!” said Lloyd.
“The more you argue, the more you convince me it’s the right thing to do, and we’re doing it.”
He stood at the curb in the hospital roundabout, thumbs in pockets, rocking on his heels, wide-eyed when he saw us pull up. He got in and thanked me, I introduced myself and the kids, which had never been formally done, although it reminded me, and I’m sure him, too, that he had no name to introduce himself back with. He turned to the kids and commenced asking the usual corny adult questions, what grade were they were in, what subjects they liked, if they had hobbies. There was a nervous goodwill to his questioning, as though he cared about their answers. It was hard to resist jumping in to defend him against their sullen responses. In the rear-view mirror they had their arms crossed like bodyguards.
“Let’s just say,” Clara said, “we hate everything.”
“Oh, no,” the unknown man said. “No. You can’t.”
“Why not?” Lloyd said.
“Why?” he said.
“Three guesses,” Clara said.
“I have no idea.”
“Okay, stop being rude,” I said.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the unknown man said.
The kids couldn’t help but laugh, Clara even covering her mouth. It was a beginning.
“Not you,” I said. “I meant my ill-mannered darlings.”
Lloyd uncrossed his arms. “Have you tried to find yourself on the internet?”
“I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
He had known how to find my unlisted phone number on there fine.
Clara said, “Strangerwithnomemory.com.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Why isn’t his own family doing this?” Clara muttered.
Looking out the windshield, the unknown man touched his mouth and nodded thoughtfully.
“Maybe they are,” I said. “From their side.”
“I’ll help you,” Lloyd said, “with my computer.” He gave the back of the unknown man’s seat a kick.
“I can use it. Thank you, Lloyd.”
Clara snorted, though without much oomph, and rolled down her window.
If people saw us and didn’t know, they would have thought we were a normal family out driving around. Somebody might have questioned why I, the wife, the woman, was driving, but that wasn’t as big a problem as it had once been. The side of the unknown man’s left shoe tapped a tune against the bump in the floor, as if a kicking energy had been transferred to him from Lloyd. I wondered what music he liked. Sometimes people’s musical tastes surprised you. When his memory cleared up, would his earnestness remain? Earnest was undervalued in the world. What if he were a billionaire who had soured on humanity, gone undercover to find a good person, a good woman, a good family, who would be kind to him without knowing of his wealth? After he returned to his normal life, would he remember our helping him, maybe send us a postcard now and then? I wondered what he did. Whatever it was, his co-workers had to admire his honest, unadorned character. On the other hand they might be looking for opportunities to feast on his banquet of vulnerabilities.
I peeked over at him. He leaned forward, alert to the little sights of our little town rolling by, as if we were on a field trip. There was an ardent unself-consciousness to him that you had to struggle to not be drawn to. Some lucky woman and family were missing him, and I felt sorry for them. And envied them. And, actually, resented them a little, for losing him in the first place and causing this turbulent uncertainty in our life.
* * *
Dinner proceeded as flounderingly as could have been expected. The unknown man, more exhausted than hungry, was barely able to stay awake. The kids gobbled their food and asked to be excused, which they had never done before, but for which I was grateful. As I cleared the table, the unknown man said, “May I lay my head down a moment?” And he did, right on the tablecloth, before I could think of a proper alternative. I raised my eyebrows, made a cup of coffee, sat back down, watched him sleep, listened to him breathe, and thought of the last time a man had slept in the house.
Don and I had withered on the vine, divorcing when the kids were 3 and 4. He was a workaholic, big contractor, 16-hour days. He claimed it wasn’t another woman. Funny, I’d been feeling a little frisky myself, looking around. I had no idea how miserable I was until he moved out. I felt such liberation. He sent the checks and kept up his fathering duties. I had a friend in real estate, got my license, and she took me on. My life was a quiet gulf, salted with occasional parenting crises. It was no picnic raising children by yourself, but I made sure they didn’t hate him. One day you turned around and two mindful little human beings were standing there with their own little lives.
The unknown man groaned and flopped his head from one side to the other on the tablecloth.
Don was rugged, I wasn’t bad looking, we had a fire, but it never spread inside, never warmed. I didn’t know him any better at the end than at the beginning. I dated a little, which the kids didn’t seem to mind, but it was too much work to become known by men who seemed like all the other men I’d already known.
As if he were a painting, I found my eyes playing over the unknown man’s rumpled brown hair and sleeping forearms. His hair could have been cleaner. He had nothing in the world but himself, and I had so much, and he was in my home. Certainly too tired for a shower, he would probably have died for a good night’s sleep. I wondered what he would do if I reached over and stroked his head. Hadn’t I earned that much by what I’d done for him, by what I would do? Would he wake? Would he pretend to sleep? I didn’t think he would. I didn’t think he would pretend anything.
The kids squealed with laughter across the house.
We had a very comfy room and bath in the basement. It had been my husband’s rec room, and a place for a boarder three times when the housing market dipped, so that was no problem. We had so much, and in the face of such a blatant opportunity it would be a sin not to give some back.
* * *
At breakfast, when I told Lloyd and Clara that the unknown man had spent the night in the basement, where he still slept, they put on a little show of territorial resentment.
“He’s not staying tonight, is he?” said Clara.
I shrugged. “We’ll see.”
They fussed a bit but I believe by then they viewed him more as rare bird than threat. They recognized an adventure at hand. Kids liked being different, to a degree, and an unknown man in your basement—the unknown man—that was different. They were proud enough to tell a friend and that friend told another friend and and it swept the school like wildfire. They had to deal with some taunting which focused largely on what was the deal between the unknown man and me. The other kids did their riding, the town did its talking, and we endured. I had raised them to think for themselves, to defy the herd, the chatter of busybodies. Many folks doubted his amnesia, so, I presumed, to be fair, that the gossip was partly rooted in a simple concern for us. In fact, the unknown man’s status in our house was similar to that of the boarders, men whose presence, given the economy, had raised no eyebrows. He wasn’t paying rent, no, but we were the only ones who knew that, and though the boarders had had references, I tended to lean more on intuition than testimony, which I was doing now again.
As fate would have it, three days into the unknown man’s stay, the married police chief and the anchor from Channel 10 were caught in a roaring affair involving city funds, with photos, and we and the unknown man dropped like rocks off the gossip radar.
* * *
He kept to himself, ate like a monk, hardly made a sound day or night. He read biographies from the library which Lloyd checked out for him, one after another, from General Patton to Mother Teresa to Bob Dylan, never (as far as we knew) even turning on the radio or TV in there. He went for long walks somewhere, and wrote in a journal that I bought after I saw him at the picnic table in the backyard trying unsuccessfully to hold loose papers together in the wind. I tried not to read anything as I helped him gather the pages, but I did see the phrase “family of leaves,” which I wondered about. I considered it a beautiful phrase, sad, and eerie, too, considering the coincidence of the blowing pages.
Other than that you wouldn’t have known he was there. He didn’t do much around the house in terms of voluntarily pitching in, but he didn’t leave much of a footprint and enthusiastically did his part when asked. I decided he wasn’t lazy, or unconcerned, merely forgetful that the house didn’t run itself. Almost every day he was up and gone early and back late in the afternoon. Where he went or what he did, I didn’t ask and he didn’t say. If he were working, or looking for work, I didn’t see how, without an identity, unless he was down with the day laborers outside Broke ‘n’ Fixed, but he never came home dirty. Considering what he had gone through, and was still going through, it seemed fair not to ask too much too soon. I bought him more clothes (something Don had never let me do for him), and he was abundantly grateful. The subject of money never arose, but every other day or so he came home with a bag of groceries, staples, all the brands we used, which, tabulating in my head, had to come to twenty-five or thirty dollars. That added up, so he had an income from somewhere. I hoped he wasn’t panhandling, or, with the Jaguar in mind, stealing.
I knew the situation couldn’t remain the way it was, but it felt right for then, as long as I was calling the shots.
The kids decided we needed to make up a name for him, but he politely declined. He preferred to wait until his real name came back to him. It was odd: without having a name to call him, you changed your voice to address him, to aim it right at him. To get his attention I took on an extra respectfulness, as if he were a slightly dumb, royal child. He was nothing of the sort, but my voice had a life of its own. Clara had an impatience that crept in, a “Hey” now and then, as if he had no right to not have a name. Once Lloyd said, innocently, “Unknown man?” and everybody laughed, including the unknown man. “Yes, Lloyd?” he said. Lloyd forgot what he was going to ask, which set off another wave of laughter.
* * *
We imperceptibly absorbed his mystery into our lives. He and I did share dinner most days, but even then, in increasingly comfortable silences, the unknownness prevailed. In fact, all of the conversations the kids and I had with him were not much to speak of. You could only ask someone if their memory was coming back so many times, but it was surprising how saying little became familiar, or easy, in a situation where you had little to say anything about.
With an uptick in the market I was busier than usual, and the kids had their own concerns. Kids of their generation were pretty passive to begin with, mainly because of their infernal private electronics, in my view. On the plus side, that passiveness kept them from freaking out at the bizarre circumstance we were in the midst of. I had raised them to be tolerant, and adaptable, and this was a good real-life application in going with the flow. Once, when he wasn’t there, Clara joked that no matter what she was never going to call him Dad. I almost joked that I was never going to sleep with him. Lloyd bet that he didn’t play football. “Have you asked him?” I said.
* * *
The kids were sprawled on the couch and floor as if they had fallen out of an airplane and could move only enough to text their friends about it. They provided quite a contrast to the teenage couple dancing frenziedly away on TV, throwing each other around like dervishes to a Chuck Berry tune.
“Boy, are they good,” I said. “Look at that. They must practice all day long.”
“It’s a re-run from about a hundred years ago,” Lloyd said.
“I know that. I can see that. Well, I got groceries out there.”
Nary a move.
Clara said, “Melissa says hi.”
“To me?” I didn’t know any Melissa.
“To me,” Lloyd said, his thumbs working as if at a tiny steering wheel.
“I said I got groceries.”
“Anything good?” Lloyd said.
“Come on, let’s go.”
“Who?” Clara said.
They rose like geezers from their death beds.
I slipped down the stairs and plucked an earring to listen through his door. I thought I heard a page turn. A long silence followed, broken by the door suddenly opening. I faked having my hand up to knock.
“You scared me!” I held my heart. “Whoa.”
“You were listening,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Would you like some coffee? Listening?”
He smiled. “You’re putting your earring on.”
“It fell off.”
He waited until I looked in his eyes. “Come in,” he said, stepping aside. His curly hair lay matted on one side. He wore glasses when he read. I wondered where he had gotten them, or if he had had them all along.
“No,” I said, but I did glance in. After all, it was mine. It was neat as a pin in there. He had a book in one hand with his thumb in it, the autobiography of Billie Jean King, the tennis player.
“What was it you wanted?” he said.
“We hadn’t seen you today. I just wanted to make sure you were all right.”
“Oh. I’m fine. Thank you. I’m beginning to wonder if my work is something where a person keeps to himself.”
“Hmm, could be. Well, I have to get the groceries.”
“May I help?”
“The kids are out there.”
Clara and Lloyd were at the open trunk, looking through the bags.
“Hi,” the unknown man said.
“Hi,” the kids said, neither enthused nor sullen. It had only been a couple weeks or so, but I believe they were still a little uncomfortable with how much they liked him, or didn’t dislike him.
I told them, “Don’t poke through ‘em, bring ‘em in.”
In the kitchen, the unknown man murmured, “I’m happy stacking cans in the cupboard.”
“Huh?” Lloyd said.
“Did I say that out loud?” the man said.
Clara giggled. “I do that.” She and Lloyd resumed scrounging through the groceries for snacks.
“I’m happy,” he repeated, as if the declaration were an exotic fruit he was gently turning in his hand.
I said to the kids, “Either help put stuff away or beat it till we’re done.” Clara grabbed a box of Sweet & Spice and they beat it.
The unknown man said, “How could I be happy when I don’t know who I am?”
I was putting away the frozen stuff. “I don’t think I could. But people are different.” I wondered what facts about myself, if I forgot them, would keep me from being happy. In the distance, as we worked, you could hear a lawn mower, a small airplane, and a child calling. I said, “May I say I’d be willing to help, if you’ve lost your memory and decided to see a professional?”
“A professional happy person?”
I laughed. “A therapist.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” He paused, deftly tossing a can of kidney beans back and forth to himself. “I don’t feel the urge. It doesn’t feel as if anything’s wrong, as brazen as that may sound.”
I watched him stack the canned soup and vegetables with a playful precision. I had had a little therapy myself, around the divorce and later when the kids started school, and it hadn’t brought me anything like the well-being this unknown gentleman emanated. In fact, I wondered if his very disconnection could be responsible for that well-being. Would he lose his aplomb when his circumstances changed, when he remembered who he was, when he returned to his previous life?
He closed the cupboard, stood and dusted his hands. “By the way,” he said, “I’d love some coffee, yes, thank you.”
I got the water going and finished putting things away. We leaned against the counter, he and I, several feet apart, looking in the same direction. The TV or a computer played in the living room. I thought of how just a couple weeks ago he was crawling out of the water and I didn’t even know he existed, and now we were standing together waiting for the tea kettle to go off. I feared my heart would speed up and he would see it in the side of my neck, but it didn’t. I was calm as a clock. Every now and then out there the kids raised their voices excitedly.
“You know,” he said, “you can ask me things.”
“What things? Haven’t I?”
“Don’t give up. Something might jog loose.”
Did I want it to jog loose? What if I wanted things to stay the way they were, unknown, unspoken, cozy? I wished I had somebody wise to talk to about it. I realized the paltriness of my social world. My independence had cut me off. Real estate people were on the fast track, not good listeners, especially about something as inexplicable as this. Anyway, what would I say? How embarrassing it would be. I could hear the advice: “Get rid of him. You’re loony. He’s a complete stranger. You’re being taken. Give him the boot. Even if every word he says is true, what are you, the Red Cross? Really, are you that desperate, that pathetic?” I couldn’t imagine what Don would say.
“Do you play football?” I said.
“Lloyd asked me that earlier. Yes, I do. We’re going to play.”
“Oh.” I thought of fall, maples ablaze, the world relaxing and cooling, my father and brother tossing a ball in the yard. “Good.” The kettle went off and I set to making us coffee.
“If you didn’t know me,” he said, looking at the palms of his hands, “would I appear normal?”
“I do know you. I mean, not well.” He turned his hands over. “It’s hard to say. You appear you.”
“Personally, I wonder what I do more than who I am.” Again he looked at his hands. “I don’t dig ditches.”
I brought our coffee and a bag of snickerdoodles and we sat at the table.
“That’s why I’m reading biographies, you know. They may ring a bell.”
“That’s an interesting approach.” I recalled the books he’d been reading. “Do you think you might be a general, a saint, a tennis player, or a folksinger?” I laughed.
He didn’t laugh back. “You said, ‘if’ I’ve lost my memory.”
“Do you think I might be pretending?”
“I don’t even remember saying it.”
“Why would anybody pretend to not know who they are?”
“Hmm. I can only think of about a hundred and fifty reasons. With all the problems and responsibilities people would love to get away from? Who hasn’t thought of dropping out and popping up somewhere far away and brand new.”
He took a bite of a cookie and chewed thoughtfully. “But popping up somewhere new with no memory, that would attract the very attention they’d want to avoid. And stealing a car and driving it into a river? Besides, how could I do such a thing to you?”
Carla charged in and yanked the fridge open. “How could you do what to her?”
“To all of you,” he said. “Pretend not to know who I am.”
“Why, did Mom say you were? There’s no way he’s pretending.”
A commercial blared in the living room.
“Would you turn that down!” I said. Lloyd muted it. “I didn’t say he was pretending.” I turned to the unknown man. “It’d just be nice to know your name, that’s all.” The bite in my voice surprised me.
“What difference would it make?” Clara said into the fridge. “You can’t remember our names half the time. Names are just junk your parents stick on you.”
“Your grandmother would be thrilled to hear that,” I said.
“So what nobody knows anything about him,” she said. “You always say how bad it is that everybody knows everything about everybody nowadays.” She emerged from the fridge with grapes and a tube of Cheezoom.
I sought to regain control of the conversation. “When you try to recall, say, where you were headed when you went in the river? And you can’t remember? Is it like a wall your mind runs into? Or a cloud, or—”
“God, Mom,” said Clara. “What’s it like when you can’t remember where you put your glasses? Is it like smoke? Is it like a garage door? Geesh.” Her arms full of food and drink, she slipped from the kitchen.
The unknown man and I shyly smiled at each other in her teenage wake. I hoped he didn’t think me too permissive, taking her backtalk like that. I refilled our cups. “What do you say we go out there? See what they’re up to. Bug ‘em.”
He set his face, nodded, grabbed his cup, and led us into the front room where the kids lay about.
A show was on Discovery with the sound off. Clara worked her cell phone and ate at the coffee table; Lloyd was at his laptop, propped against the ottoman. The unknown man and I plunked down on the couch. The kids didn’t even look up, but I sensed a bristling at our presence.
The show on TV had special effect graphics of geological catastrophes on land and at sea—cliffs falling, tidal waves, lightning storms, gaping chasms, etc.
“What’s this?” I said.
"Continental drift," Lloyd grumbled.
“Oh,” I said. “Look at that.”
“I have to do a report on it, so I could use, like, um, undistractions?”
“That’s not the actual continents,” Clara said.
“I think we know that.” I asked the unknown man, “Do you remember continental drift?”
“He’s not a billion years old,” said Clara.
“Continental drift,” the unknown man said, as if to himself. He dunked a snickerdoodle in his coffee. “‘Drift’ makes it sound so gentle. Like a boat on a lake.”
“Did you save your clothes?” Clara said. “From when you went in the river?”
“You should have kept them,” Lloyd said.
“Forensic experts could find out where you bought them,” said Clara.
“Then they could check receipts.”
“And look at the store video. What’s the very absolute total first thing you remember?”
“Swimming. And crawling. Crawling up the bank.”
“You don’t remember anything from your childhood yet?” Lloyd said.
He closed his eyes. “I can feel it there, there’s a space, and it’s full of things—shapes, movement, shadows—but I can’t say what they are.”
I liked this, listening to my kids and the unknown man talking.
“Did you think you were going to drown?” Clara said.
“No. I felt very strong and alive. I felt strange and scared and powerful.”
“So, you weren’t trying to kill yourself,” Lloyd said.
“Trying to kill myself? Did they say I was?”
“Oh, everybody says all kinds of things,” Clara said. “Do you speak another language?”
“How would I know?”
Lloyd said, “Somebody’d say something in it and you’d understand.”
“Que sera, sera,” I said.
“Whatever will be, will be,” he said.
“That’s from the song, though,” Lloyd said.
“Do you remember TV shows from when you were a kid? Ozzie and Harriet, or Leave it to Beaver?”
“I do, but that’s not from my childhood. I’m not that old, I’m pretty sure.”
“So you remember songs and TV shows,” Clara said. “Probably movies, too. Do you remember Titanic?”
“There’s a bunch of different Titanic movies,” said Lloyd.
The unknown man looked into his coffee. “Sometimes, you know, when I try too hard to remember, I get a little seasick.”
Clara whispered, “I bet something doesn’t want you to remember.”
“Maybe it’s time to change the subject,” I said.
“In all the movies about people losing their memory,” Clara proclaimed, “they start to remember small stuff here and there, and then all of a sudden everything comes crashing back in and they remember the shocking trauma thing that made them lose it in the first place.”
“Not always,” Lloyd said.
“Name one where it doesn’t.”
“Anyway, this isn’t the movies.”
“Are you all right?” I asked.
The unknown man turned and looked at me, at different parts of my face, seriously, as if I couldn’t see him looking, as if I were asleep. It wasn’t nearly as offensive as it might sound.
“Have you ever seen the Grand Canyon?” Lloyd said.
He was back looking at the TV. “I believe I may have.”
“Oh, you’d know if you’d seen it,” Clara said.
“I can picture it.”
“We’ve seen it,” Lloyd said.
“It may be a photograph,” he said.
“In the memory,” I said, “everything’s a photograph.”
“Or a movie,” Clara said.
“Do you remember if you believe in God?” Lloyd said.
The unknown man thought about it.
“That might be too personal,” I said.
“I don’t mind,” he said.
“What if,” Lloyd said, “what if you don’t have any memory? What if it’s all just gone?”
“I don’t think that’s the case here,” I said. “That’s not the case here. What an awful thing to say.”
“You mean Alzheimer’s?” Clara said. “He’s not old enough.”
“What if you’re the only person in the world that has what you have?” said Lloyd.
“Would that be good or bad?” he said.
“Maybe you’re a philosopher,” I said.
“Is that a job?” he said.
“He’d have to write books,” said Clara.
“He writes poetry,” I said.
He looked alarmed. “Did you read something?”
“Only a line, when your papers blew in the yard.”
“Oh. Those things just come to me.”
“‘Family of leaves,’” I murmured.
“He wrote that?” Clara said.
“It does sound familiar,” he said.
“Could you be an alien?” Lloyd said.
“It doesn’t ring a bell.”
“How about a cyborg?”
“OK, Lloyd,” I said.
“Were you ever in love?” said Clara.
“Now this is just getting silly now,” I said.
A knock came at the front door.
I was sure it was his wife, his wife and children come to claim him back. They had tracked him down and now here they were with their wild greetings and hugs and joyous weeping, all of them running down the walk in the sun and piling in a car, him looking back once, turning the corner, and gone.
I opened the door to find not the unknown man’s wife and family standing there, but my own ex-husband Don. I was further stunned to see nighttime behind him.
“Is he here?” Don looked grim in the porch light.
“Is he here or not?”
He looked like a hawk from hell. I hadn’t seen him for a couple months. He’d been up the coast on some big job or other. Time and work had taken their toll. How his haggard glower clashed with the vibrant countenance of the unknown man.
“I want to meet him.”
The kids appeared with “Dad!” and “Daddy!” Don leaned to hug them, but straightened quickly, nodding at their chatter while peering at me.
“Go inside,” I told them. “Daddy and I need to talk.”
“Are you coming in?” said Clara.
“Yes,” Don said.
“No,” I said. I shooed them inside.
“I don’t care what you do,” Don said. “I don’t care who you mess around with. But I have every right and duty to protect those kids. Have you even nailed down who the hell he is?”
“We’re getting to know him.”
“What’s his name?”
“We’re working on that.”
“Jesus Christ, Holly. You really believe this fucking nut con-man has lost his memory? I want to meet him. Go get him.”
“Why? Did you want to meet the boarders?”
“This isn’t the boarders. He’s not the boarders. And I did meet the boarders.”
“On regular visits, not in the middle of the night.”
“It’s not the middle of the night. What are you talking about? I just found out about this. I get back in town, my neighbor can’t wait to give me the gossip on some clown that stole a car and lost his memory and moved in with my wife. Ex-wife. I can’t believe it. He shows me an article. He saved it for me. Can you imagine how stupid I looked?” He rubbed the back of his neck. “This whole fucking mess, it’s just not like you, Holly.”
“Oh. OK. Well, congratulations. Look, I have a father’s right to meet a stranger that’s hanging around my children in my house.”
“My house.” I watched him, watched him boil in my gaze. I did want something to happen, to jog everything loose. “Why not.” I stepped aside and made a bullfighter’s swoop. He entered, though not as forcefully as I expected. In fact, stepping in and stopping, he waited for me to close the door and advance before him into the living room.
For the first time in a long time, Clara and Lloyd sat there rapt at something besides their devices. They gaped from their father to the unknown man, who stood but did not move toward the unexpected visitor.
I said, “This is Don, my former husband. Don, the unknown man.” Both men stayed put. I sat and smoothed my skirt.
“Are you serious?” Don said. “That’s what you call him, ‘the unknown man’? That’s what they call you?”
“Yes. I prefer that, until my true name comes to me.”
“Oh, you prefer that.”
“We’re used to it,” Clara said.
Don looked at her, through her, then back at the unknown man. “What’s your name? Men have names.”
Lloyd said, “He doesn’t need a name.”
“That’s enough,” Don said, keeping his eyes on the other man. “I guess you think you really lucked into something here.”
“Yes,” the unknown man said. “Would you care to sit down?”
“Would I care to sit down in my own goddamn house?”
“Would you like to sit down, Don?” I said.
“What for? I can see when I’m not wanted. I can see when I’m outnumbered.”
“Don’t be a child,” I said.
He ground his jaw. “Are you sleeping with this phony?”
“That is so colossally inappropriate,” I said. I looked at the kids. “But I’ll answer, for their sake. No.”
“Ha.” He glared at the unknown man. “I’ll tell you one thing, buster. If you hurt these goddamn kids—”
“Why would I hurt these kids?”
“—it’ll be the last fucking thing you ever do.”
“All right, that’s it, Don.” I stood and pointed to the door. “Go.”
He snorted. He looked at the TV. A commentator in a windbreaker gave way to a cataclysmic landslide cascading into the sea.
“It’s continents,” Lloyd said. “Drifting.”
He nodded. “Well, I just wanted to see what the fuss was. From the looks of it, not much.” He patted his stomach, as if having had a fine meal. “See you next week, kids?”
They got up and hugged him perfunctorily. Their hearts must have been churning. Don gave the unknown man one last look of some kind, punctuated by a chin thrust, and I saw him out. We said nothing.
I closed the door and peeked through the curtains, then, angry at myself for peeking, pushed them wide and put my face right against the glass. It was cold. Pretending not to see me, he regarded the house, the roof, the architecture, and nodded Mussolini-like, as if he were master still of all he surveyed. He actually hiked his pants up before climbing into some red sports car I’d never seen, and peeled out.
* * *
“Whew,” Clara said.
“Well, well, well,” I said.
The unknown man surprised me with a mischievous half-hidden smile. Lloyd and Clara returned to their devices, likely texting their friends about our family drama. I thought how the whole world would know about it in minutes, but what if it did?
Clara said, “Dawn wants to know if you’re still getting that tattoo.”
“Shut up,” Lloyd said.
“Tattoo!” I said. “Don? Your father?”
Clara laughed. “D-a-w-n. A girl. At school.”
“And what would you be getting a tattoo of?”
“Dawn,” Clara said.
“Just D,” Lloyd said. “That way it can stand for anything.”
“Including Dead. Well, hey, go for it, boy.”
“Then I’ll carve it off with a carrot peeler.”
“Ouch,” Clara said.
On a whim I went and threw together peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwiches and a pitcher of ice cold orange juice. It didn’t even seem like it went together but I brought it in and everybody greedily partook.
“What did I miss?” I said. “Did I miss anything.”
“What if,” the unknown man said, “what if the continents drifted back together?”
We looked at him and then the TV. Lloyd stopped the show, put it on rewind, then slowed it down, and, voilà, the continents were drifting back together. Silently, gently, the tumultuous catastrophes began running backwards, the eruptions of fiery boulders the size of houses and tidal waves reversing and disappearing into sea and earth as the terrible wounds in the planet closed on themselves and healed. Then Lloyd made it go forward, the apocalypse recurred, and then backwards in a return of calm and peace. Again and again we watched the continents torn apart and put back together.
“I can’t decide which is better,” said Clara.
“I like both,” Lloyd said.
“Can we do something?” the unknown man said.
“What?” we said.
* * *
We piled in the car, as per the unknown man’s suggestion, and drove around the block, the unknown man behind the wheel and, to our relief, not a bad driver at all, although there were no rivers in the immediate vicinity. As we passed our house, the unknown man exclaimed, “There’s an excellent house!”
Clara laughed nervously.
“I wonder who lives there,” the unknown man said.
“Let’s go see,” Lloyd said.
The unknown man turned around at the end of the block, came back and pulled up slowly to the curb out front. He shut the engine off and we sat there looking at the house. A big moth was meandering around in the porch light.
“It is an excellent house,” Clara said.
“Let’s see if anybody’s home,” the unknown man said, getting out. We moved up the walk, the kids giggling, the unknown man gently hushing them, “Sh-sh-sh.”
We stood on the porch, listening. The moth bumped into the light and flew away. The unknown man knocked. We waited, looking at one another, trying not to laugh.
“Boy, is my heart beating,” I whispered.
“Can I push the doorbell?” Clara asked the unknown man.
“Be my guest.”
She did. We waited. The unknown man jumped off the porch and disappeared around the side.
“Where’s he going?” Lloyd said.
“What if he just disappeared,” Clara said. “Just like that. Just like he came.”
Then we heard him inside the house, on the other side of the door: “Yes?”
“We found your address on a match book!” said Clara.
“That’s odd,” said the unknown man through the door.
“It’s in Japanese or something!” said Lloyd.
“We don’t know who we are!” I found myself saying.
“Do you happen to know us, by any chance!” said Clara.
The front door opened and the unknown man stood there, looking us over. “I believe I do, by chance,” he said. “I believe I do happen to know you.”
RICHARD MARTIN's work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, North American Review, Chicago Review, Greensboro Review, Night Train, Wind, and Fried Chicken and Coffee. He is looking for a publisher for two novels, Oranges for Magellan and I Inherited a Mixed Animal from Uncle Living in Woods, while he completes a third, a literary ghost story. He can be reached at richwillmart at verizon dot com.