P A S S E N G E R
First Digital Edition
P.O. Box 338
North Webster, IN 46555
Passenger © 2011, 2008 by Ronald Damien Malfi
Cover Artwork © 2011, 2008 by Mike Bohatch
All Rights Reserved.
Copy Editors: David Marty & Steve Souza
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
For John Edward Lawson and Jennifer Barnes—
Passengers on a similar journey.
“And that was the first of our adventures on the Road of Mystery.”
“The Lunatic Mystique”
“Everyone has at least one scene that they cannot erase from memory….”
The bus shudders to a stop, the moan of its brakes like the melancholic mating call of humpback whales. I sit up, jarred awake, eyes wide. The harsh interior lights sting my pupils and, blinking reflexively, I bring a single hand up to block out the light. The bus is practically empty yet I’m sitting in the very last row. Outside, dusk claims the city, punctuated by the wink of sodium streetlamps and the smeary headlights of oncoming traffic. Just above me, the hinged door of an overhead bin vibrates.
I look down at my hands, which are clean and pale and cold. My fingers are absent of rings and my wrist holds no watch. I turn them over. Curiously, there is handwriting on the palm of my left hand. Printed in black ink in simple handwriting, it says:
1400 St. Paul Street, Apartment 3B
I am wearing dark jeans, sneakers that still look new, and a plain white dress shirt, heavily starched, with no undershirt beneath. A stiff canvas overcoat that could have been cut from the fabric of an army tent completes the ensemble. I run a hand through my hair and find it freshly cropped close to the scalp.
There sounds a wheeze and a hiss as the hydraulic doors at the front of the bus separate. The few remaining people stand from their seats and shuffle in a dreary line toward the doors. The driver has the windshield wipers clacking, though it does not appear to be raining.
I turn my head to the left and stare at the window. Not out into the oncoming night, not into the streets or at the passing vehicles in the opposing lane, but at the window itself—at my reflection in the glass. I can make out the vague suggestion of a slender, white face with dark eyes set in deep pockets and a strong definition to the mouth and chin. I examine the close-cropped hair, also dark, and the way the cheeks look sunken and hollow. The eyes stare back at me, nearly wincing.
At the front of the bus, the last of the passengers exit.
Above me, the overhead bin continues to rattle.
“Last stop.” The bus driver, a dark-skinned woman with messy thighs that spill over the edge of her seat, leers at me in the enormous mirror above the windshield. “End of the line.”
I stand and shuffle into the aisle. Walking toward the front of the bus, my gait unsteady, I find myself studying my reflection in every window I pass. I stop beside the bus driver and pause long enough to examine in detail my countenance in the oblong mirror above the windshield. Gaunt, skeletal, hollowed out like a pumpkin at Halloween. I appear to be of an undetermined age.
“Have a good night,” the bus driver says. She is not being polite; it is an attempt to hurry me along.
I turn away and face the open doors. Three rubber-matted steps lead to the sidewalk. A muddy shoeprint resonates ghostlike from the first rubber-matted step. There is a handrail to the right, which I grip on the way down. Like an old man. As if I have never taken a step on my own.
Outside, the canvas overcoat provides little protection from the cold. There is no one else on the street; I am alone. And for several moments, I can only stand on the curb, uncertain of myself, uncertain of my surroundings: the slouching concrete buildings with the monkey-bar fire escapes conspiring to close in on me; the bone-colored sidewalks and gouged streets; the rise and loom of larger buildings just off in the distance, their lighted windows shimmering; the wooden bench just behind me, the horizontal slats of its backrest stenciled with one cryptic word in glaring white letters:
The bus doors hiss shut. There is a squeal as the brakes disengage and a peal of grinding gears as the bus eases forward. It moves slowly, chugging through the intersection and a yellow traffic light. Black exhaust burps from the tailpipe.
And I cannot move.
And I cannot think.
With a weakness reserved for the terminally ill, I ease myself down on the believe bench. I press my hands into my lap. The cold causes me to shiver and tremble. I am aware of my feet in my sneakers, the way the toes feel raw and numb and how they curl up underneath themselves in hiding, and of the cold in my nearly hairless scalp. I am aware, too, of a ghostly throb toward the back of my head. It is a syncopated tribal beat: WHUMP-whump, WHUMP-whump, WHUMP-whump. My chest is cold and I feel like I am swimming in my too-big pants.
Suddenly, as if prompted by a brilliant idea, I eject myself from my seat.
I must have a wallet.
Hands slap against my coat, my chest, up and down my thighs. I take both hands and stuff them into the rear pockets of my jeans, a desperate choreography. But there is no wallet. There is nothing: the pockets are empty.
I have no name.
I could be any of a million people in the country. In the world, even. The universe.
There is a moment when fear grabs at my throat. The fear-fingers threaten to cut me down and shake me loose. I struggle to overpower them. It takes some heavy breathing before I force the feeling into submission. Because that is what it’s like when you’re a stranger to yourself. When you don’t know who you are.
Because you can be anyone.
Anyone at all.
I recall my reflection in the bus mirror and estimate that I am in my early thirties, although I think I feel older than that, what with my sunken face and deep, soulless eyes. It is a reaching, grasping estimation, influenced by the rundown, worn-out, fatigued look of my face in the bus mirror. Also, I feel underweight for my height.
Across the street, a young couple emerges from one of the row homes and empties onto the sidewalk, talking inaudibly and smiling with their heads pressed close together. Beyond the young couple, a line of streetlamps flickers then dies. I can see traffic up ahead at the nearest intersection—the wash and swirl of intermingling taillights and headlights, the shhh-shhh peel of car tires through sodden streets, the distinct bleating of occasional irritated horns—and I begin moving in that direction.
Here, the brick-fronted shops and row homes are packed tightly together. They are like teeth crowded into a too-small mouth. The vehicles at the intersection are caught in a clog. I pause on the curb and watch the blinking orange palm on the other side of the street.
“Don’t walk,” I say, surprising myself by the sound of my own voice. And for all I know, they are the first words I have ever spoken. I know what the sign across the street means. I know, too, that if I disobey the sign I will be run over. And beyond all that, I am aware I require air to breathe and food to sustain myself—I know, in other words, all the basic things one needs to know to survive.
Yet I know nothing about myself.
Nothing that defines me and designates a place for me in the universe.
The persistent throbbin
g at the back of my head will not relent. This, coupled with the absence of a wallet, prompts me to wonder if I have been mugged and beaten. Robbed and left for dead in some alley somewhere. Lead pipe to the scalp and they gut my wallet like an eel on a fishing pier. It is easy to imagine such a thing. In fact, my imagination is so vivid I wonder if it is imagination at all.
Gently, I touch the back of my head. It causes me to wince.
Cars slide through the intersection as I watch. I squint and see the white license plates flit by in a blur. As one vehicle slows, I see it is a Maryland plate. Another and another. They all appear to be Maryland plates. Maryland after Maryland after Maryland. And beyond all that, I know what Maryland is, am able to define it—that Annapolis is the capital, that I am on the east coast flanking the Atlantic Ocean, that the Baltimore Orioles are the local baseball team and the Baltimore Ravens are the football franchise, and that I will most likely need a key to get into my home, if I even have a home, because people in Baltimore and in cities all across the U.S. lock their doors when they go out and, for all I know, I do not have a key…
I know all this, but I do not know who I am.
Or how I got here.
The traffic lights change and I hurry across the street. A drizzling rain starts to fall and I pull the collar up on my canvas coat. There stands a grimy-looking sandwich shop on the corner, its front window reinforced with a retractable iron gate behind which neon lights welcome me. Iron bars and welcome signs seem an oxymoron. Two black teenagers in matching gray pullovers mull around the shop’s front door. Although they act like they do not see me, they quickly disperse as I approach and go through the front door.
It is a small, cramped little sandwich shop with a few makeshift shelves of canned goods, sodas, soups, and breads at its center, and a glass counter at the far end of the shop behind which an ancient-looking Middle Eastern woman mutters while stapling receipts together. It is the type of shop willed from generation to generation, never changing. Directly above the front door a wall-mounted heater hums and breathes hot breath on the nape of my neck. The tinny, discordant plucks of recorded sitar music seem to emanate, ghostlike, straight through the walls.
I move to the first shelf and touch a bag of Wonder Bread. Overtop the aisle, I examine the bronze-skinned old woman behind the sandwich counter, then peer over my right shoulder. The neon lights in the front window sizzle and pop. Beside the window, a wire-mesh newspaper stand groans under the weight of a stack of papers. To my left, just beside the noisy wall-mounted heater, is a tortoise-shell mirror…and once again I find myself staring at myself. The skeletal appearance of my face—the way my thin skin seems too taut around the bones of my skull—is exaggerated by the convexity of the mirror, and I suddenly have no idea how old I am, or if I am dying of some terminal illness.
I negotiate around the aisle of groceries, forcing my eyes off my hideous reflection. A wall of magazines greets me as I round the last aisle, moving alongside the sandwich counter. I can read all the magazine names and know the ones wrapped in the black cellophane are pornography—I know the workings of the world, in other words—and even, to my own surprise, find I am able to understand some of the Spanish titles among the queue. Do I speak fluent Spanish? Yo hablo español. Did I grow up in a Spanish home or study it in school? Did I even attended school—undergraduate, graduate, medical school? Am I a brain surgeon or a derelict? I know the cellophane-wrapped magazines are pornography, are Playboy and Penthouse, but I do not know if I am a college graduate.
Yet I know some Spanish, I think. I can read and understand some of those words. Not all of them, but some.
Again, the newspaper rack catches my attention. I go to it, pick up the top paper, hold it up to my face. The Baltimore Sun. This is Baltimore City. The date—today’s date?—is December 1.
“Is this today’s paper?” I call to the woman behind the sandwich counter, holding up the paper in one hand.
“Hey?” says the woman.
I repeat this question, my skin suddenly prickling with sweat. I credit the overactive wall-mounted heater for its arrival.
“Today,” says the woman, not looking up at me. She executes a single agitated nod of the head. “Today, today.”
I set the newspaper down…then think better of it. Although I feel I know everything I need to know about the larger world around me—I know who the President is, for instance, and the countries of the world—I do not trust this knowledge. I do not trust anything about anything. And, anyway, is it impossible there could be an article about a man who was mugged, beaten and mugged, and left in an alleyway somewhere? A man like me? No—I feel this is a very real possibility.
Along with a bottle of water and a small tub of aspirin, I carry the paper to the counter and set the items down. “And,” I say, scanning the sandwich board above the elderly woman’s head, “a turkey on white, please.” Not because I have a preference, but because the turkey on white is on special and it is the first sandwich that catches my eye on the sandwich board. I do not know if I like it or not, but it is the first thing I see. Also, I am ravenous.
The woman waves a hand—flutters it up and down, up and down—and when she looks at me, I can see the way her eyes have gone all narrow with impatience and disdain. The lines of her face are so deep they look like knife wounds.
“No sa’wich now,” the woman intones, still fluttering her hand. “Is closed. Is late; is closed.”
“Then just this,” I say, sliding the newspaper, aspirin, and bottled water over to the cash register. “Oh—wait. Damn.” I shake my head, embarrassed. I am a fool. “I’m sorry. I don’t have any money.”
“Hey?” says the woman.
Holding up my empty hands, I repeat, “I’m sorry. No money.”
“Ahhh,” says the woman, disgusted. She snatches my items from the counter and buries them somewhere down below. Then that fluttering hand appears over the counter—goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. It is not her intention to waste good heat on nonpaying customers.
“Sorry,” I say, and cross the small shop toward the door.
I only pause once, briefly, as my eyes fall on a tiny red and blue painted gumball machine, its circular glass fishbowl half-filled with tiny colored balls.
Then, a moment later, I am back out in the night.
Lost, I meander in the drizzling rain for some time, the black sky highlighted with the dull sodium pulse of city lights along the horizon. All of a sudden, the city is not completely alien to me: I can recall certain street names and find a haunting familiarity with some street corners and specific buildings. It is the acid of déjà vu burning through the fabric veiling my mind’s eye. It takes reading the street signs and spotting the buildings to remind me that this city is familiar, that this place may actually be home for me.
At one point, I crowd beneath a bus stop portico to examine a large map detailing the different bus routes. Two homeless men huddled together on a bench, sharing a fibrous charcoal-colored blanket, eye me with incredulity. I locate the you are here asterisk then, tracing with one long, white finger, find St. Paul Street. It is the address written on my hand. I am not far—just a few blocks. I have been walking in circles, it seems.
“Baltimore,” I say to the two homeless men. It is not a question. I am merely speaking to hear the words. Like a toddler who walks not to get someplace but simply because he can. “This is Baltimore.”
The homeless men ignore me.
In the dark, I hurry along the avenue and, eventually, cross over to St. Paul Street. A misty rain radiates like a halo at each lamppost. Around and above me, the limestone and sandstone buildings press in to crowd me. The façades are old and straight, rigid like arthritic men, ornamented with intricate brickwork and elaborate arches. The street seems to narrow and I feel my breath catch momentarily in my throat. Am I claustrop
hobic? I do not know. Am I hypoglycemic? Homosexual? Racist? Fascist? Nothing—
My mind is an empty web.
I have to review the address on my palm once more in order to locate the appropriate building. An icy finger of fear prods the base of my spine when I realize the dampness of the night, coupled with my carelessness, has smeared some of the writing. Still, it is legible. Crossing St. Paul, I stand for a moment in the center of the empty, darkened street, turning in a full circle while watching all the lights in the windows of the row homes shine through the night. This specific street is foreign to me. I could be standing in the middle of Cairo, or some remote village in South America. Detroit. Bermuda. Bangladesh.
I think, You are here.
I think, Believe.
Headlights glimmer farther down the street, heading toward me. I hurry to the other side and watch from the curb as a small, red Triumph with a convertible top sleeks by. I know cars. I recognize it as an old Triumph.
I turn around and let my eyes scale to the top of the complex directly in front of me. It is a four-story row home, decoratively corniced, replete with barred, narrow windows and the protruding embankment of a stone parapet. The address on the building, imprinted on an embedded stone block beside the entranceway, matches the address on my hand.
You are here.
I do not know where here is.
I take the incline of steps to the entranceway and pause to examine the names and apartment numbers on the small panel just outside the door, a buzzer next to each name. None of the names are familiar. I locate the buzzer for apartment 3B—the apartment written on my hand—and discover it is the only buzzer without a corresponding name. Is this my home or someone else’s? The address on my hand could be anyone’s…