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Passenger, Page 2

Ronald Malfi

  Cold, hungry, my head throbbing, I try the door. It opens. Relief washes through me. Suddenly, I want nothing more than to curl into a bed and close my tired eyes. Because this is a dream, a nightmare. Because morning will bring with it the spark of remembrance.

  I hope this is my apartment.

  The foyer is tight and low-ceilinged, with sickly yellow walls and a scuffed linoleum floor. The near-subliminal odor of old sweat and dust just barely register. Directly above my head, a dome light fizzes and crackles and hums. A row of locker-type mailboxes climbs up the wall to my left. Again, I do not recognize any of the names on the mailboxes. Again, there is no name on the box for apartment 3B.

  There is a stairwell at the end of the foyer. My footfalls echoing on the linoleum tiles, I cross the foyer and proceed to mount the steps. Exhausted, I take them one by one. The ancient, wooden risers sigh beneath my weight. As I climb, I look up at the dizzying spiral of stairs, all the way to the ceiling four flights above. Another milky-looking dome light sits in the center of the ceiling, and it could be a million miles away: a sun in a distant galaxy.

  I recognize none of this.

  The apartment is 3B, but before I get to the third floor landing, I collapse on the stairs under the combined weight of my exhaustion, fear, and helplessness. Reflexively, I reach up to grip the head of the newel post for support. It is an ornamented, wood-carved pinecone that, to my shock, comes loose in my hand as I fold to the floor. I feel my body shudder, feel myself attempt to sob—but all that comes is a dry, heaving expulsion of air. My eyes are so dry they might crumble to dust and spill out of their sockets. I ease myself down on the stairs, my skin clammy but freezing. I let the wooden pinecone roll across the landing. Looking down at my shaking hands, I am seeing double, triple.

  There is something inside me that refuses to move. There is an apartment somewhere above that may lend some insight into who I am and—hopefully—what has happened to me. What will I discover? What if I do not like what I discover?

  Hugging myself, pushing myself up against the wall—

  And then I remember a narrow stretch of roadway, with tall pines rising up on either side, with a sky of vivid blue, cloudless—

  I am seeing this image projected on the undersides of my eyelids. It is instantly lucid and real…then quickly disperses in a scatter of light. Only then do I realize my eyes are pressed shut. So I open them and find myself huddled in the corner of the second floor landing, my knees pulled up to my chest, my hands gripping my shins. My vision is temporarily pixilated and, for a moment, I think I might pass out. And I welcome it, welcome the blackness. But the blackness does not come. And the vision of the roadway—the memory, if that is what it was—blinks out of my mind. Gone and disremembered.

  “Don’t walk,” I tell myself, content to spend the rest of my days in a fetal position on the second floor landing. In my mind’s eye, I see nothing but a flashing orange hand.

  But I do not listen to myself. I feel my body rise, straighten, and continue advancing up the stairs. My knees pop; my bones creak. The stairs, too, pop and creak. The balustrade feels loose under my hand; I can wiggle it like a tooth in diseased gums. The whole building is silent.

  Then I am here: the third floor landing. I stand at the far end of the hall, taking in the doors on either side of the hallway and the single door at the opposite wall facing me. The oaken, musty smell of aged wood and grime infiltrate my senses—not just my sense of smell, but all my senses, to the point where I can acutely see the oldness of the hallway in detail, can hear the floating of the stagnant dust through the motionless air and feel the weight of the oldness, all of it, like a force against my skin, pushing down, pushing down. It is a wellspring of power, of overpower, the amplification tantamount to overdriven stereo speakers. It is my imbecilic, useless mind desperate to grasp at all my surroundings in an attempt to fill the void where my memory was once stored. An empty, voiceless void; a rip in space and time. Because if you can’t fill it with memory, you fill it with senses.

  My memory…

  How does someone forget who they are? How does someone wake up on a city bus as if fresh from the womb?

  This waltz therapeutic—

  Cut it out, I think. End the dance.

  The door to apartment 3B faces me. There is a pitted brass number and letter above a peephole. Maybe it isn’t my apartment after all. The address on my palm could be anyone’s.

  I walk toward the door and the hallway appears to expand with each step. I will never reach it. And—deeply, firmly—I almost hope this is true.

  I reach out and touch the doorknob. Jiggle it.


  I have no keys. I have nothing but a canvas coat and an address scribbled on my left palm. But—


  The fact that there is a key hidden beneath the potted fern on a wooden pedestal beside this door occurs to me without hesitation. Before I lift the plant and discover the key, I know with unwavering certainty that it will be there—know, in fact, that it is a single bronze key affixed to the bottom of the flower pot with a bit of masking tape. But actually seeing the key beneath the pot causes a beam of hope to radiate throughout me. It is possible, after all, my memory will return. That this is only a temporary derailment.

  I unlock the door and step inside.


  The funny thing is I’ve been here before.

  The funny thing is, it starts not with the disremembered but, strangely enough, it starts with déjà vu. The memory of memory. It starts with the confidence of subconscious recollection. Time immemorial. Looping, soundless footage projected straight into space. Dust motes spiraling dizzy in the spotlight.

  This is how I would tell it, anyway.

  If I had to tell it.

  But it is an instantaneous and fleeting realization, wistful and clawing at hope, gone before I am able to get my mental fingers around it.

  This apartment, like my life, is meaningless to me.

  Helpless, I stand in the open doorway and allow my eyes time to adjust to the darkness. Automatic, one hand goes to the wall and feels for a light switch…and finds it. This thrills me, but it is a feeling that does not last. It has nothing to do with memory. Light switches, after all, are on walls. Where else would they be?

  It is a square room with perfect white walls. The ceiling yawns up to twice the height of a normal ceiling. There is a bank of windows to my right, shaded by a pull of blinds, and framed in elaborate crown molding. The floor is faded hardwood—old, scuffed, the natural grain buffed to near nonexistence—and there is a blue shag throw rug, the size of a manhole cover, in the center of the floor. No table, no chairs. A cramped kitchenette off to the left, opposite the shrouded windows, where the dripping faucet is the only sound in the world. Other than my breathing.

  The place smells empty.

  The place looks unused.

  I don’t live here, I am certain. No one lives here.

  “Hello?” My voice echoes throughout the room. It is like tossing a rock down a well, or a gunshot in an open field. “Is anyone here?”

  One other thing, which I do not see until I bump my left leg against it: a foldout card table beside the front door on which sits two flattened dollar bills, both with George Washington facing the ceiling, one dime, one nickel, three pennies. I stare down at this and do not move. Not because it means anything to me—this $2.18 summons no memory—but because it seems the only semblance of humanity in the entire place. These bills have been passed through countless hands, stuffed into pocket after pocket after pocket, tipped to strippers and used to snort cocaine. These bills have touched the lives of countless people involved in countless activities. They are real, tangible. And feeling this only makes me aware of how alone I am. Utterly; completely.

  There is no wife, no girlfriend here to greet me.

  No photos on the walls.

  Only a blue throw rug. And $2.18.

  So I do what I do to keep my sanity. For t
he moment, anyway. Because when you can’t find anything to hold on to and you are on the verge of losing it all, the last thing to do is pretend you are holding on until you follow yourself down into the black and realize you haven’t been holding on to anything. Or holding on to the wrong thing, a drowning thing. What you do is you create a life for yourself—an entire life—in the span of a nanosecond. Blink. There—see it? See it? You give yourself siblings—two of them, a brother and a sister. You make them both older because you find a misunderstood comfort in having guardian angels. You grant yourself two perfect parents, almost Brady Bunch perfect (and why is it you remember the Brady family but cannot recall your own?): a squinty-eyed, jovial father partial to decorative sweaters and suede elbow patches, and a mother, young, but who prefers her hair in a bun. And just for realism you curse one with cancer. Strike thee, cancer! But they suffer through and make it out alive. No, wait—no, they die. Because realism requires grief and grief requires realism. And there was plenty of grief, but you have all moved on in your own undisclosed and personal way. You share communal jokes. You share a big sloppy dog with large, black, wet eyes, and it lived a good, long life until, in the throes of some heartbreaking yet inevitable canine illness, it had to be put down. That’s how they say it: put down. As if it was previously up. But it was a good dog. Sure. Sure it was. There are the memories, after all. Always the memories. And did you always live in Baltimore, in Maryland? This does not have to be the case. Not at all. Because you are making this up as you go and it can be whatever you want. Anything—anything at all. Perhaps there is some remote and fantastic geography in your past—perhaps the Swiss Alps, or Paris, or a cattle ranch somewhere in Texas…

  Sure. Why not?

  Why not?

  But this isn’t working, and I feel something inside me come crashing down to reality. It is like being pushed unprepared into a swimming pool. I am still in the unused apartment, still alone. Still blind to my memories, my past. My traitorous mind. I know not what is important to me. I have no faith, no belief system. It is miserable to walk into the middle of your life and find you are disappointed with the lack of things and people waiting for you. Blink-of-an-eye mentality. Everything I have worked hard for my entire life has ceased to exist in a split second. And have I worked hard my entire life? I do not know.

  I am, in all actuality, an infant.

  Could be a blessing.

  Could be like starting over.

  For a moment, I am rattled by a divine conviction: that there is a God, a Lord, a giant floating Sloth in some galactic void, and I have been granted a do-over. Like children playing games in a schoolyard, I am granted by this all-powerful, invisible Lord a do-over, a redo. Foul ball and wait for the next pitch.

  The kitchenette is small, too bright. I open the cupboards one by one, leaving each one open as I move to the next, and find that I am the owner of only a few plastic plates, some utensils, and a few mismatched drinking glasses. There is a dishwasher, but it is empty. Also, there is nothing in the sink. Except the spreading puddle from the dripping faucet. Leaning over, I unstop the stopper and listen as the water gurgles down the sink’s throat.

  My intention is to open the refrigerator next. I even reach out one hand to grab the handle. But I stop before I ever touch it, one hand—my right hand—frozen and held out directly in front of me, as if in preparation to shake the hand of the Invisible Man. I stay like this for perhaps a second. Or perhaps twenty. I do not know; I have lost all track of time.

  Taped to the front of the refrigerator is a note.

  Taped at eye-level, on a blank white sheet of unlined paper.



  Says nothing. I blink my eyes. There is no paper, nothing taped to the refrigerator. Still, I remain standing with my hand held out, still shaking the Invisible Man’s hand, still staring at the blank face of the refrigerator. I allow more time to pass, hoping my mind will be able to come up with some answer, some reason. The best I can come up with is: the note must be part of some disremembered memory. Something that was once taped to the refrigerator that my mind is struggling to remember. Perhaps this is how memory returns, sudden bit by sudden bit. Perhaps like randomly placed explosions across a vast desert landscape.

  The memory of memory.

  Inside the refrigerator: bits of food that no longer resemble what they once were. Stuff wrapped in tinfoil and other items culled into balls of plastic wrap. It is not a full refrigerator. Like the cupboards, there is hardly anything inside.

  Foul ball. Next pitch.

  I walk down the small, darkened corridor and pass a bathroom on my right. I pause and lean into the bathroom, flick on the light switch. Again, I find satisfaction in the immediate discovery of this light switch. It is the one thing that I know to do, the one thing that keeps me anchored, keeps me grounded and sane. You can always count on light switches.

  The bathroom is tight, cramped, white-tiled floor and spotty blue paint on the walls. A water-stained mirror hangs above a white porcelain sink. The toilet runs continuous while a transparent plastic shower curtain is flush to one side. I grip the mirror above the sink and, in opening it, discover it is a medicine cabinet. I stare, zombie-eyed, into its guts. Empty. Not even a toothbrush, toothpaste, a stick of roll-on deodorant.

  The bedroom is the final room at the end of the small, darkened corridor. The door is shut, nearly all the way. Beneath my feet, the hallway groans. I prepare myself to learn everything or nothing, each one having the potential to be equally damning, equally rewarding.

  Because when you don’t know who you are, you could be anyone.

  Anyone at all.

  But I am no one; I learn this upon entering the bedroom. The walls are blank, sightless, the single window above the single bed drawn against the nightlife of the city. There is a lone comforter on the bed, heaped like a carcass at the foot, and a few random wads of tissue scattered indiscriminately about the carpet. There is an open double-door closet, but it is empty. There is no smattering of shirts and folded slacks hanging inside like fresh kills. Empty. A squat little table stands on one side of the bed, half covered by a mound of pillow, and there is nothing on the table. Nothing I can see, anyway.

  With little emotion, I peel off my clothes. I am panicked doing this, fearing I’ll find some bodily abnormality. Lesions on my chest or a knife jammed into my abdomen to the hilt. My clothes drop listless to the floor and make a sound like the popping of a soap bubble. All seems how it should be with my body. Back down the hallway, I pad into the bathroom and stand before the spotty mirror above the porcelain sink. This is the best look I have had of myself since I awoke on the bus. The floating visage of my face belongs to an Auschwitz Jew. There are dark, scrubby patches of stubble peppering my chin, the sides of my face, my neck. My eyes are so retracted into their sockets, I am cautious not to rub them for fear I will press them loose into the back of my skull where they might tumble, like two gumballs, down the pit of my neck and into the cavity of my chest.

  I stick out my tongue. Examine it. I have no idea what I am looking for. What can a tongue tell you?

  “Who are you?”

  I do not answer myself. I have no answer.

  I shower. I soap up my body under the stream of pelting relief, washing the city’s dirt and grime from my flesh. Mottled gray water, corrupt with hair, swirls toward the drain. I remember the famous scene from Psycho, the chocolate-syrup blood funneling down the drain, but I cannot remember when I saw it, where, or with whom. I cannot recall if I have a job or a favorite color. I am aware the population of Manhattan is approximately eight million people, yet I do not know what food I like or dislike. If I am allergic to peanuts or shellfish or anything else.

  When the sound begins, rumbling up from my inner core and bursting through my mouth, I am unsure whether I am crying or laughing. It is a wavering, shaky sound, but there is some musical tonality to it, so I decide it must be laughter…although there is no humor in it so it
may as well be crying, too.

  I have things broken in my head.

  I am hitting foul ball after foul ball.

  Still, I shower. My body is too thin—washing my stomach is like running my hands along a picket fence—and my hips look painfully narrow. My penis has retreated into the sodden nest of black pubic hair. Thighs the color of herringbone bow toward two clunky red knees. Strangely, I am more naked than naked, crablike in a subhuman carapace, molted and flayed. Yet the water stays warm and feels good on my flesh. There is a comfort under the spray, and while it is a homelike comfort, there is nothing familiar in this. I cannot remember this shower. I cannot remember the bowing white thighs and clunky red knees.

  There is a scar. I discover it along the apex of my left shin, perhaps six inches long, maybe longer, and very faint. But undeniably visible. The skin is puckered, pinched, and somewhat shiny. Mineralized. What does that mean? What does any of it mean? I run two fingers down its length, feeling the smoothness of the skin…and feeling the soreness beneath. It is impossible to tell if this is an old injury or a new one.

  Yes—at least six inches. How did this happen?

  Climbing out of the shower, I towel off in slow motion before the fogged-up mirror over the porcelain sink. I dry my left leg off and prop my left foot on the closed toilet lid. Again, I examine the six-inch scar. Old or new? There is something fruitlike about the pink, dimpled flesh. No leg hair grows on the ruined flesh. It is like looking at colorless rubber stretched too tight.

  Dry and naked, maintaining my crustacean status, I search the apartment for a pen, a marker—anything with which I can write. I shuttle sideways, feet arched, this crab. Finally, after several minutes of hunting around, I locate a Bic ballpoint in one of the kitchen drawers. With concentration, I trace over the address on my palm, all but faded to nonexistence after the shower.