Note Prior to Departure
I saw a raindrop fall three hundred feet. I tracked it in a beam of light that seemed like an enormous telescope gone haywire, projecting light and images rather than pulling them in. The sheer chance of this—the implausibility of seeing a single raindrop travel so far, the beauty of nature’s fluid vertical movement in contrast to our horizontal urban glitch—gave hope for the possibility to absorb a projectile and proceed with a life enriched, unimpeded. For a beam of light, anyway.
The moment passed. Satisfied, I stepped from the curb. I cannot claim the ability to reveal anything of myself before this moment. Neither details nor broad strokes are forthcoming. My life began with a drop of rain. Please don’t think me obtuse or difficult. On that street, I am told, I was struck by a bus.
• • •
I have amnesia. My memory is lost to me now, they say. They say it might return bit by bit, or all at once, and that certain memories might never return. I grasp the notion of memory, but that falling drop of rainwater is almost the only thing I’ve got right now.
The people who visit treat me like I should have a memory, like I’m the man at the party who’s completely forgotten to wear pants. They’re encouraged when I engage them in conversation and disappointed when I’m unable to remember. Memory must be some mysterious entity—powerful, godlike, unseen.
I asked a nurse about it late one night, when the people keeping vigil weren’t around. She said, “No memory. Ain’t that something? Sure wish I could forget a few things. I say, approach your memories like the natives probably thought of Columbus as they watched him sailing back to Spain. ‘That was a nice visit. Let’s hope he doesn’t return and try to take over.’”
I’ve been told many things since what they call “the incident” but what I have come to call getting hit by a bus.
I am told that the smell of Leah’s hair, once so familiar and pleasing to me, must be learned anew if I am to gain any familiarity or pleasure from smelling her hair.
I am told that returning to my job at a local bookstore, where I am apparently a buyer and manager, will require patience and desire—not necessarily my own. This man who calls me his best friend and himself Jester (so: is he kidding?) tells the grumpy bookstore owner that I am the best worker he’s ever had, I’ve kept his store afloat for three years, he owes me. The man says, “I owe Echo nine hundred and change.” He opens a ledger and writes me a check for that amount and rips it from the book with such clumsy force that he misses the perforation and ruins the check. The sound of ripping paper causes me to think of the word “mother.” The man curses and writes out another. He perforates carefully, and this time I am nearly a thousand dollars richer. Money.
Jester takes me to a bank with pretty women behind thick, clear Plexiglas to deposit the check. The pretty woman behind our particular pane asks for no identification. It seems that in this business anyone can give. Only when you take: then they want to know who you are.
Jester asks for a balance. I have $4,509.21.
I live with Leah. Maybe she has some money, too. Maybe we share it.
Jester says I once mentioned to him my bliss from pressing my palm to Leah’s hip, that my eyes sparkled when I told him about this. Leah is lovely. She was cautious when she first approached in the hospital and nearly hugged me but didn’t: her arms moved up and then quickly down, as if a conductor about to begin the symphony suddenly forgot to turn off the coffee pot at home. I would have placed my hand on her hip, to see if Jester’s account of my description was accurate and maybe to ease her caution. But Leah also looked fragile, and I don’t know how to deal with fragility, and I didn’t want to alarm her.
I am told that nobody really knows if I will regain my memories. I am told that I said I believe in memories, the power of them, their importance.
Importance. Import. What we bring in.
I am told that I am a voracious reader. Some people hesitate or trip on “were” or “are” when they tell me about myself. I am told that I was a storyteller.
Jester lives with an attractive woman named Elaine. I am tempted to touch her hip, too, but I suspect this would cause problems. Of course, I could do so and simply claim “the incident” prevented me from knowing this was unacceptable behavior. Maybe everyone has their B.C. and A.D. Maybe I could get away with it.
I remember a dreamy silence in an open field of yellow dandelions, the sun bountiful upon glistening leaves with red berries, a girl in the distance, her sunburned shoulders, the straps of her powder blue dress; she turns and smiles; her eyes are closed. I smile at her. The silence is a womb. Her smile, her presence, is my amniotic fluid. I am told none of this.
The bus that struck Echo had been chartered by a church in Charleston, West Virginia, filled with a group of forty Baptists who had planned this trip to New York for half a year, scheduling their departure the day after the election so that everyone who wanted to vote could vote. You should vote, they’d agreed.
The driver of the bus, Dan, was also a parishioner of the church, and through the Holland Tunnel, coming up 6th Avenue headed toward their midtown hotel, on 23rd Street Dan made a right turn instead of a left. The rain was falling harder now, compounding the confusion of all that traffic and ceaseless sprawl of tall buildings, the excited double buzz of almost being there and negotiating these crazy drivers, lending to what locals accepted as natural flow and the first-timers knew was chaos. Man, I’ll never drive in that city.
Dan finally saw the avenue signs descending, realized he’d have to circle around, turned right on 2nd Avenue, and would have cut back across town on 19th Street but for a van parked too close to the intersection. So Dan turned right on 17th Street instead, and in his relief after passing 3rd Avenue—back on track, the light was green, New York City was working with them now—he gave it a bit more gas. When they made it to their hotel, he could let the group off, find out where to park, park, check in, walk up and down Times Square, and see the neon reflecting off the rain-slicked streets. It’ll be surreal. Just like in the movies.
Dan saw the man step from the curb and stand there, in his path. He wondered why a man would do a thing like that. Instinct put his foot on the brake, and the bus lurched and skidded, and Dan and the man locked petrified eyes before the man in the road fixated on the Mercedes logo. The braking snapped everyone’s attention to the windshield, and those nearest the front saw head and shoulders and chest, then head and shoulders, then just the head, and then just the windshield wipers and the black shiny street in front of them, and the bus almost stopped before it reached the man but not quite, and they hit the man but didn’t run over him, and a wave of panic and adrenalin washed over the group and did not let go.
A handful of screams preceded an unnerving silence, and finally a woman in the group gathered wits enough to tell Dan to open the door, and she rushed to the man on the pavement, unconscious and banged up but with a pulse, breathing. Other people from the bus and the street surrounded them.
Someone called 911. Police car, ambulance. The paramedics stabilized the man with a neck brace and left the scene as Dan, wide-eyed numb, was questioned. He passed the breathalyzer test, and there was much murmured assent: This wasn’t Dan’s fault. That man simply stepped into the street. Bad timing. If the man lives, it’ll be okay for Dan, but if he dies, well, then, that’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax, so let’s hope the man lives.
Shaken, Dan couldn’t drive so someone else drove, a police car leading the way, a handful of men on the right side of the bus keeping their excitement in check at the sight of Madison Square Garden, and they reached their hotel and nobody wanted to see the lights on Broadway, and instead they gathered in a room off the lobby to pray for the life of the man and for Dan and for their strength and the Lord’s guidance, and they discussed paying for any hospital charges. They would continue to pray for the man and take care of the financial burden: this was what they would do. This is all we can do.
It was Dan who stayed in his hotel room the next day and tracked down the hospital where that man was taken and instructed that all bills should be sent to his address in Charleston and he’d like to keep this anonymous, please.
They had to be strong so they saw shows and went to the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building and the trip was exciting but their Big Apple adrenalin was tinged with lingering guilt that had descended on them in the bus and would not go away. Four days later they gave Dan their full support and insistence on his driving back to Charleston, and he drove them without incident, their silence giving way to chatty confidence and relief the nearer they reached home. When Dan finally parked in the church lot they hugged him, shook his hand, and patted him on the back, and when they had all left he sat in the driver’s seat and wept.
A week later the ambulance and hospital charges arrived in the mail, along with a handwritten note informing him the patient had been released from the hospital. Dan sat on his porch, trying to erase the image of that man’s petrified face as the bus skidded. He could not. He convinced himself that time and faith would allow him to move on. He lived. He made it. Dan phoned the reverend with the good news about the man, and later that day the reverend knocked on Dan’s door with a large envelope. The group had divided the $14,000 bill evenly among themselves, $350 each, a combination of checks and cash.
Dan refused the envelope but the reverend insisted and you couldn’t argue with a reverend, but he did negotiate the church’s share back into the minister’s hands. God bless you, sir, God bless you.
En route to the bank, Dan considered skipping town with all that money—lots of cash, and all the checks were made out to him; it wouldn’t get him far but far enough to start fresh—but he didn’t, and he didn’t even feel too guilty about that because it was human to be tempted and felt even more human to overcome temptation. He exchanged the money for a cashier’s check and mailed it to the hospital, and everybody got on with their lives the best they could, the best we can, and for most of them, for a long time after, the simple mundane things like driving to the store and back was a gift, was God’s good grace shining on them.
They all wondered what became of that man.