Editor’s Note: Kathryn Holzman and her husband Lew Holzman have both published here at the Fictional Café in the past, but not together – until now. Kathryn wrote this story, entitled “Amnesia,” and Lew created original digital illustrations to accompany his wife’s words. We all hope you enjoy this psychological thriller!
The C5 transport plane crossed the spring sky descending towards the nearby Air Force base. Low and slow, the plane had a cargo compartment big enough to supply a battalion and capable of carrying six Apache helicopters. We were taking a weekend hike with friends and had almost arrived at the summit of the low, verdant hill they called Mount Blacklock. The block of ice fell dreamily from the plane. There clearly was no intent. We didn’t see it coming.
It was the first spring day that the sun’s warmth actually penetrated our winter weary skin. Jim and I had been quibbling for months, shut in together by snow that never seemed to melt. All winter he had been engrossed in preparing for his spring show, combining digital images into chaotic collages of color and unlikely shapes. His solitary obsession excluded me.
Now we tramped together through lingering puddles with our friends Shep and Dalila. Shep pointed out that the skunk cabbage was just beginning to break through the leaf litter in the low ground, a plant that generated enough heat to actually melt the snow. “Bears emerging from hibernation love it,” he told us. In a few weeks, the deciduous trees would leaf out and the view from the summit would be less spectacular. Following Jim’s advice we headed to the top, intent on seeing the full sweep of the valley and having a picnic at the peak. A turkey vulture flew low in the sky. We could see its talons extending.
The plane’s roar swallowed the subtle music of birds and the scratch of the breeze blowing dry leaves on the hillside. We looked up as we arrived at the summit, gazing in the wrong direction, due to sound travelling1 slower than light waves. We saw the shadow of the transport plane before spotting the plane itself. Jim pointed his camera at the sky hoping to catch the military giant. At the exact moment the behemoth descended into our view, a large block of ice slammed into him, knocking him off his feet and leaving a large, bloody gash on his forehead. The camera went flying.
“My God!” Shep, Dalila and I ran over to where Jim lay on the ground, his eyes open. Shep looked away in horror, shying away from the blood that gushed from Jim’s wound. Jim stared at us blankly, his expression stunned.
Jim asked: “What happened?”
I answered: “Something fell from the sky.
Jim asked: “Where am I?”
Dalila wrapped her sweatshirt around Jim’s head. Shep dialed 911 on his cell phone.
Jim repeated: “What happened?” I answered.
Jim repeated. “What happened?”
Again and again and again.
Shep reached emergency services. They transferred him to an EMT to receive instructions. A rescue team would have to fly in by helicopter.
Following the EMT’s instructions, Dalia asked Jim:
“What is your name?”
“Jim, of course. Why do you ask?” Jim sounded pissed.
A good sign, I hoped.
They said that help was on the way. And then we waited.
Shep climbed the slippery slope to where the projectile had landed. “My God, guys, look at this block of ice!” He kept his distance, poking at it with a stick. We looked up at the empty sky. Shep was a lawyer and was already doing the math.
Dalila dumped out our backpacks, set aside the picnic, and poured water for each of us. She held a glass to Jim’s mouth.
I answered Jim’s repeated questions with increasing panic, chewing on the granola bar Dalila handed me.
In his most impatient tone (and Jim had so many impatient tones) he asked, over and over: “Karen, where the hell am I?” Over and over he asked: “What happened?” “Where am I?”
Over and over I replied.
I listened for the rescue helicopter for what seemed like hours. Puffy white clouds drifted overhead. As we waited, the day became warmer. In the valley, life continued without interruption, the cars heading purposefully in every direction but ours.
In the back of the helicopter, the EMTs went about their business, attaching IVs and recording vitals.
Again, Jim asked “Where am I?” and “What happened.”
I watched the EMT’s faces. They told me nothing.
“It might not seem like it at the moment but he’s a lucky guy. The wound is clean and easy to close. His vitals are fine. I’m not seeing any signs of trauma,” the E.R. doctor chatted as he examined Jim.
He reviewed the test results and announced: “The pathophysiology of amnesic syndromes varies with the extent of damage and the region of the brain that is damaged. The precise process of how we remember — on a micro scale — remains a mystery.” I made notes on a piece of paper, clueless as to their meaning. Jim listened attentively and when when the doctor was done speaking Jim asked him impatiently “Where am I?”
The nurse explained Jim’s condition to me. Anterograde Amnesia, a loss of the ability to create new memories. Tests might identify where the damage to the brain occurred, but only time would tell when or if the condition would resolve. “Unfortunately,” she told me, “no medications are available for amnesia. For the next few days, we will need you to stick by his side at all times. If he goes to the bathroom, you’re there. If he goes outside to get the paper, you’re there.”
I had always stuck by his side, often with resentment.
For two days, I did as instructed. When Jim went to the bathroom I stood in the doorway watching. When Jim went to the kitchen, I followed him. The hardest part was attending to my own needs. Jim didn’t appreciate my proximity. He watched in disgust as I went to the bathroom and told me he wasn’t hungry when I made myself a sandwich.
Some things never change.
Our apartment was decorated with framed copies of Jim’s digital art. Usually, Jim spent
hours at his computer, whole nights printing finished composite photos, matting and framing. Now Jim showed no interest in his work.
By the third day, our life developed a new pattern. We watched the morning news. Jim, who had never been able to watch network news without raving about the imbecility of politicians, stared at the screen with disinterest. We took morning walks. Curious neighbors expressed horror and sympathy. Except for the white bandage wrapped around his skull, Jim almost appeared normal. They all agreed that we had a promising lawsuit. I explained to them, “Jim’s memory is perfect up until the moment of the accident. From that point on, he remembers nothing. From that point on, he remembers nothing.” Jim placidly nodded in agreement.
Our life was suspended, a video frame frozen for a bathroom break. The worst of it was that the past we were now forced to live in had been tolerable, at best. Consumed by his art and preparing for the upcoming show, Jim hardly saw me. Now I had to consider a life in which I might always be invisible.
On our living room wall hung one of Jim’s works: a mash-up of city reflections, neon lights with a homeless man silhouetted against the concrete of a nondescript building. On the horizon, large letters flashed “NO EXIT.” I inspected the work closely. In the eyes of the homeless man, I saw an accusation that I had always found disconcerting. Here, too, was a man without a future, a man whose life had been taken from him. His expression held no sympathy for his observers. Unable to escape his eyes, I took the picture down from the wall.
Every time Jim passed the empty spot where the picture had hung, he asked where it was. For him, the absence only evoked its presence. Even though I told him begrudgingly that the picture was in the closet, he always remembered it hanging there. My action never happened.
Jim’s colleagues called to see how he was doing. An account of the accident appeared in the local Sentinel. A government inquiry had been launched. Jim was a bit of a celebrity, if oblivious to his fifteen minutes of fame. Jim’s curator laughed and said that the publicity would be good for business.
I called in sick. My boss expressed sympathy and then asked when I would be back. The quarterly reports were due. “Soon, I hope,” I replied. Soon, I reassured myself watching Jim clean out the dishwasher, putting each dish away exactly where it belonged. Where it had belonged the day before his accident. Where it now would always belong. “I’ll be back as soon as I am able.”
At the one-week follow-up exam, the neurologist repeated that there was no way of knowing when, and if, Jim’s memory would return. He gave me instructions for monitoring Jim’s condition. He called me the caregiver.
When Jim was not in the room, I asked the the neurologist about Jim’s art. He replied, “Few artists are able to continue to create after sustaining severe brain damage.” He typed notes into his computer without looking up.
“But you’re getting ahead of yourself. It’s still very possible that his memory will return. Now it’s just a matter of waiting. Be patient.” His solicitude was well-rehearsed.
Jim’s curator asked if his work was ready for hanging. I conveyed the request to Jim.
“I’m tired.” Jim answered. “I hardly remember my own name.” He watched TV for hours, usually reruns of shows he had watched before. Their familiarity seemed to offer him some comfort.
It fell to me to prepare the works for hanging. Each night, after Jim had gone to bed I studied the disparate works he had chosen, looked for the pattern in his distortions, the logic of the images he had melded. His idiosyncratic palette colored my dreams in jarring neon.
I changed the blanket on our bed. I preferred the lighter quilt, but Jim needed to wrap himself in the down comforter as he fell asleep. Night after night, I threw off the cover in the middle of the night, waking up wet with sweat.
As I slept, the colors of his art filled my dreams with panic like a raging fire. He slept like a baby.
At Jim’s two-week follow-up, the social worker suggested that it was time Jim learned to retain memories in a new way. She suggested that Jim carry a notebook to help him keep track of names, people, medications and the proper way to take them.
“We find,” she told me, “that this little bit of independence can be a great help to caretakers.”
I bought the notepad. I waited to see if, once Jim had pencil and pad in hand, his desire to create would return. I placed the pad on the coffee table, listing on an open page the names of the art works I had chosen for his show. Jim turned the page restlessly, almost angrily. When he left the room, I tore the pages out and threw them away. As instructed, I wrote the names of our friends, listed medications, dosages and the times Jim was supposed to take them.
I needed to get out of the house with an urgency that felt like a disease.
Dalila agreed to babysit so that I could spend an afternoon on my own. She arrived with stacks of Jim’s favorite books and DVDs. She stopped at Whole Foods to buy salmon and fresh asparagus, his favorites. It didn’t seem to bother her that these books, these DVDs, these foods (oh, how Jim used to proclaim his preferences, expecting them to be catered to) would never change. Jim’s life now was a monument to choices already made. Dalila noticed the notepad and I explained its purpose to her. As I left, the two of them sat side by side reviewing the medication notes, discussing them as if sharing an intimacy. As always, she was kind and patient.
How comforted Jim appeared as I fled.
Did Jim ask Dalila after I left, “Where did she go?” If so, how many times?
I drove to my office where I was greeted warmly by my colleagues. “How is your husband?” they asked with concern and curiosity. I took pleasure in the smells of the office, the laser ink, the dust, the nasal sting of the strong solvent the maintenance staff used to clean the linoleum floors. The neon lights were brighter than anything I had seen in weeks. I described the accident, our ride in the Medevac and Jim’s resulting amnesia. The secretaries, always happy for a diversion, clustered around me and listened with great interest. I was, for the moment, the unlikely hero. For the moment. it was all about me. We chatted some more, but too soon, the women began to disperse to their desks, returning to computers and waiting for phone messages. I paused a moment, savoring the background rustle of work being accomplished.
The lights in my office were out.
Joann, my boss, approached. “Karen, we’re all so sorry. Will you be applying for family leave?”
The obvious question. The obvious expectation. I would take time off and wait with Jim to see if he returned. We would live our frozen life, me with dwindling expectations, Jim coddled by his past, forever secure in the prestige of his reputation and confident of my devotion.
“I don’t suppose I have any alternative.”
She looked at me with pity. It was more than I could bear.
I didn’t go to Personnel. I got in my car and drove back to Mount Blacklock. The skunk cabbage had tripled in size in the past three weeks. The trees had sprouted bright green leaves. Small white flowers were emerging from the dry winter grasses. Fiddlehead ferns were beginning to unfurl.
I climbed to the peak again. As Jim had predicted, the view was already obscured. That one perfect spring moment we had all enjoyed was gone. Maybe not for Jim, but certainly for me.
Today, my view was lost to the new foliage. I was alone with my thoughts, responsible to no one. Finally, I could admit that I wasn’t the person I was expected to be.
If I were to tell Jim that I wasn’t up to the task of taking care of him, he would not remember. If his memory never returns, he would always remember me on top of this mountain on a beautiful spring day. If his memory does come back, he would be better off without me. The settlement would provide better caretakers to accompany Jim on this new journey.
I drove away from Mt. Blacklock and headed west on the Turnpike. I wondered how many times Jim would ask, “Where is she?”
I’ll never know. But for now, I work on an image of the nascent spring scape. I merge a stark photo of the dripping block of ice in black and white with the profile of a transport plane. My canvas is composed of the bloody folds of the cerebral cortex. As these images take on a life of their own, I begin to feel free.
Kathryn has published poetry in the U.S. and Hong Kong and had recent short stories accepted by Calliope Magazine,Zodiac Review and Cowboy Jamboree. She finds inspiration in Western Massachusetts and the Green Mountains of Vermont.
Lew writes, “My work is photographically based digital art. It is transformative and is meant to direct the observer to view things in different ways. It amuses me to experiment and hopefully that feeling is passed on to the viewer. My work has been exhibited in Europe and regionally in New England. It has been published in everything from a Green Construction Manual, to an Australian Travel magazine (Get Lost), to an online magazine (Interstizi) and most recently in Preview Magazine (2/16 edition). My next scheduled exhibit is a solo show in November at the Amherst, Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce. You can find more of my artwork on Flickr and in my Fotographers group on Facebook.”