Fiction

The Impossible Man

J. Robert Lennon

Around four in the afternoon Tricia sent Clay out to get some ground beef, and because it was the first nice day in a week, and because he wanted a little time alone, and because he was annoyed with Tricia and inclined to take his time when giving her what she wanted, he snatched his wallet and cigarettes from the top of the refrigerator and walked downtown.

Downtown, broadly put, was a couple of miles south of where they lived alongside, though not directly on, the man-made lake. The name of the neighborhood was Lakeside. At one time it was supposed to be upscale, but then there was a recession, and by the time the recession was over it was too late. Now there was another recession and Lakeside felt just about right. It didn’t look so great, but nobody was likely to steal your car or TV, and nobody cared if you cut the grass or not. It was a place for everything to be about as good as could be expected. Clay belonged there. He was pretty satisfied. He had a job and not much debt. He had his health, cigarettes notwithstanding. Trish was problematic but who wasn’t? It was the first nice day in a week.

It took an hour to get to the supermarket, or rather it should have taken half an hour, but he made sure it took an hour. During that time he smoked three cigarettes, recalled four sexual experiences, and told himself to try to remember to call his mom on Mother’s Day. By the time he got the ground beef and another pack of smokes and a fishing magazine, it was a quarter past five, and since Trish liked to eat at six he figured he ought to hurry up. So he got walking fast and cut through a marginal neighborhood known as Kelvin Heights, which stood between Lakeside and downtown.

Kelvin Heights was semi–high crime, though Clay had never had any trouble there. The residents were mostly black people and Hmong, with a few Puerto Ricans from back in the day, and it was usually rivalries among the different races that caused the crime. But the guy who approached him five minutes into his walk was white. He was a little guy, about five-six, with stringy gray hair and a lot of tattoos and a big old mustache. Clay knew him, he’d seen him around, just a local freak who may or may not have been sleeping on the street. Today he had a wild look in his eyes. He also had a knife. Not as in, he pulled out a knife—he was just carrying one down the street. Clay could see him coming a block away, moving along with the knife twitching in his hand, and he thought he ought to move to the other side of the street. But then he thought, I’m not going to be afraid of a guy walking down the street with a knife. So he kept going. 

When the guy was ten feet away he brought the knife up and out in front of him and fell into a kind of quasi kung-fu stance, and said, “Wallet and smokes, gimme ’em.” 

Clay said, “Uh . . .” 

“Shut it, motherfucker! Wallet and smokes!” 

In another context, this guy would be hilarious. In a movie, for instance. He had a Charlie Manson thing going—Clay thought he might bust out into ooga-boogas at any second. The knife was a hunting knife, with a dark gray nonreflective blade, some kind of composite material. It looked expensive. The guy doubtless had stolen it. Clay said, “OK,” and reached for his wallet. 

Everything after that was kind of a blur. At first he thought the little guy had stabbed him in the head, but he’d just clocked him with the butt of the knife. “Told you shut it!” the guy was saying. Clay staggered from the blow and the guy pushed him up against the wall of the abandoned industrial laundry they were standing beside. He was all over Clay like a monkey.

Clay was still incredulous about the whole thing. It was broad daylight, right? Like rush hour? Where were all the cars? Where were the cops? It didn’t make sense. The guy was holding what looked to be a hank of Clay’s hair in his hand and waving it in his face. “See, motherfucker? See that?”

He tried fighting back. He hit the guy with the bag of meat, then with his fist. But it was hopeless. His body didn’t yet fully recognize what was even happening. He felt his head hit the brick wall, and then the sidewalk. The guy was killing him! Jesus Christ!

Before he fell unconscious he thought, Hell, there’s nothing I could have done different except walk down a different street. The guy’s nuts. The whole thing’s a fait fucking accompli.

 

He woke up in the hospital. He assumed. It looked and smelled like a hospital. His chest and ribs seemed to be wrapped in bandages and he felt something on his head too. His head felt thick, with a kind of painless pain. He figured, I’m in the hospital, I must be on painkillers. He saw an IV-drip bag and thought, They put the painkillers in there, and they go right into my veins. He felt as though he was making excellent progress. He had to piss something awful, and then he just kind of did, but felt no warmth or wetness. So OK, yeah, there’s a tube in my dick. Awesome.

He lay there a while, dozing. Something didn’t seem quite right but he couldn’t put his finger on it. He was very much in the moment, as they say, and everything beyond it was a blur. It was sunny outside, he knew that much: the curtains had that glow. There was another bed, but it was empty. A nurse came in, and he said hi.

“Oh!” She came over to him, felt his forehead, held his wrist, etcetera. “We’re glad you’re awake.”

“Thanks,” he said. His mouth was very dry. “Can I have some water?”

She brought it to him and he drank it right down. His throat itched.

“Let me get the doctor,” said the nurse.

“OK.” 

The doctor was a young guy, black hair, kind of Jewishy looking, with big scowling eyebrows and a stethoscope hanging around his neck. “So,” he said, taking a seat next to the bed. “How are you feeling?” 

“Not too bad.” 

“Do you know what happened to you?” 

He gave it some thought. Something had to have happened, or he wouldn’t be here. With bandages on. He was sure it would come to him. “Nope.” 

“You’ve been here a day and a half. You were lying on Fulton Street with head injuries. The police will want to talk to you—you must have been attacked.” 

“Wow.” 

“You don’t remember it?” 

“No. I sure don’t.” 

“You didn’t have any ID on you. There was just a plastic sack with some ground beef in it, lying ten feet away. We have no idea who you are.” 

He just looked at the doctor, waiting. 

“Who are you?” the doctor said. 

He smiled. Why was he smiling? It was kind of funny, that’s why. This was a really easy question, and he couldn’t seem to answer it. His name: he didn’t know his name! It was certain to come to him, any moment now. He felt the smile fade. Man, he thought, that is just bizarre. What’s my name? 

“I guess I don’t know,” he said finally. 

“Do you remember where you live? Any family? Nobody reported you missing. Do you know what street you live on?” 

“Boy, I sure don’t think so.” 

“Do you know what city this is?” 

“Milwaukee?” he said, because he had this feeling he used to live there, at some point. 

The doctor shook his head. He named the city they were in, and not only did he not remember living there—he had never heard of it! Crazy! Just crazy! 

Later a couple of cops came and asked him a bunch of questions he couldn’t answer. They seemed irritated by him, and soon left. He lay in his bed for the rest of the day, trying to puzzle it out. Was he married? He didn’t have a ring on, though there seemed to be a little depression in his finger where there should have been one. So he was recently divorced? Or maybe whoever beat him stole his wedding ring. He had no memory of any wife, any woman at all. Yet he knew he’d dated some, had sex with some. He sensed that his mother or father was living, he wasn’t sure which, but not both. He thought he had a job. Which he wasn’t showing up for, ha-ha! But if he had a job, how come he hadn’t been reported missing? He should have asked the cops that. 

Days passed. The nurses seemed to like him but the doctor seemed to be growing weary of him. He got up out of bed, walked around. They ramped down the painkillers and he hurt, but then he hurt a little less. He’d broken four ribs and fractured his skull, but there was no brain damage, no permanent disability. Except the amnesia. Amnesia! He couldn’t believe it. It was like a TV show. Though not any particular one he could remember. He couldn’t remember a single TV show at all, in fact—just TV, its existence, that he had watched it at some point in his life. For a minute he thought he remembered watching baseball on TV, but realized, with some disappointment, that it was just deductive reasoning: he remembered baseball, knew it was on TV, so he must have watched it. But he couldn’t recall anything specific, other than what he’d seen in the past few days: mostly soap operas and comedies. 

After a week, he was moved to the psych ward, where he sat around watching, in fact, TV and talking daily to a neurologist. When he asked who was paying for all this, the neurologist shrugged. “We hope you’re insured,” he said. The TV was more informative than the doctor. He learned what September 11th was, and the names of lots of celebrities, and that the president was a black guy. 

About three weeks in, he fell asleep in the middle of the afternoon and dreamed, for what seemed like an eternity, of a squirrel fondling a walnut. It wasn’t entirely a squirrel though—it appeared sleeker, womanlier, a little like a rabbit actually. And its tiny hands looked something like a human’s, with thumbs and everything. It wasn’t trying to crack the nut, or eat it. It was just holding the thing, turning it over and over in its creepy little hands. 

Then a noise woke him up and he knew everything. His name, his wife, his quality-control job at the HVAC plant, and his mom in, yes, Milwaukee, who he forgot to call on Mother’s Day. He even remembered the little monkey guy with the knife, and he told the cops, and the cops knew exactly who he meant. He didn’t remember getting clocked on the head, though. In any event, he felt so stupid—it’s like it was all right there, hidden in plain sight. It was like losing your keys and then suddenly remembering where you left them. It was an embarrassment. 

Everybody was relieved, especially about his insurance. He called home. Trish wasn’t there. He called work and explained what happened. His boss, Rupert, was poleaxed. They’d already replaced him. Anyway, they’d work something out. Trish had apparently told him that Clay had quit. 

“Well, that’s weird, because what really happened was I got the shit beat out of me on the way home from the supermarket.” 

“Yeah. Yeah, I hear you. OK. Wow. OK, let me think about this a while, Clay.” 

He discharged himself from the hospital and got a cab home on the hospital’s dime. There was an unfamiliar truck in the driveway and the door was locked. He rang the bell and peered in the window. Everything looked different. Where the hell was the stereo? And there was a new sofa. A neighbor, old Mrs. Burns, came over and said hello. 

“You come back, eh?” 

“Hey, Mrs. Burns. You got the key?” 

“She said you’d come crawling back. On your hands and knees, she said.” 

The old lady looked delighted. Clay said, “Well, what happened was, I got injured. And I couldn’t remember anything. And then I did. So here I am.” 

“She had a yard sale.” 

“Oh, is that right?” 

“She went around saying she threw the bastard out.” 

“Mrs. Burns,” Clay said, “I got stitches on my head, right here, see?” 

“She said she threw you out once and for all.” 

“Well,” Clay said, “that is not an encouraging sign.” 

Mrs. Burns said she did not have a key. This was probably a lie, but whatever. He sat on the steps to wait. It was ten in the morning, roughly. About an hour later, Trish showed up with a new hairdo, and a blouse showing major cleavage. She was carrying two paper sacks of groceries, which she put down on the sidewalk when she saw him sitting there. 

“I knew it, you pussy,” she said. “I knew you’d come crawling back.” 

He told her what happened. He showed her the stitches on his head and ribs. She wasn’t having it. 

“Uh-uh,” she said. “No way. You’re not wriggling out of this one. You left and I moved on. Your stuff is gone. You’re gone.” 

“I was buying meat for you. A guy nearly killed me.” 

“You weren’t ever coming back, Clay, and you know it.” 

The fact was, they would have broken up eventually. And now he didn’t want her back at all. What kind of woman doesn’t even bother calling the cops when her husband goes missing? He had to get in touch with his mom, poor Mom. 

He convinced Trish to let him inside to make some phone calls. He called his mother, explained what happened, apologized for her distress. He called Rupert again, to make sure about the job, and could he stay over at his place for a few days until he worked something out? Sure, sure, Rupert told him, but he sounded as though he wished Clay would just redisappear. As he talked, Tricia watched him, her eyes wide and fearful like he was some kind of monster. He finally called a cab, led the driver to an ATM, took out his last hundred dollars, and used a third of it to get over to Rupert’s place in the suburbs. 

By the end of the week, he had his old job back, his medical bills more or less covered, and an apartment on the edge of Kelvin Heights four blocks from the place the monkey man attacked him, rented under the assumption that lightning wouldn’t strike twice.

 

He noticed, though, that people had started treating him different. He would go out for beers after work and everyone would look at him funny and make excuses to leave early. When he walked onto the floor at the plant, guys suddenly became ill at ease. When he went out on dates, women shrank from his gaze. 

Over Memorial Day weekend he drove out to see his mother. She kept looking at him, too—little glances across the sofa or up over her coffee mug, just checking him out. He finally asked what was bothering her. 

“I just think you should relax, Clay.” 

“I’m trying to relax, Ma.” 

She shook her head. “You’re intense.” 

“I don’t feel intense.” 

But it ended up being an OK weekend. He caught her looking at him now and then, but he ignored it. They went to the movies and out to lunch. Once, in the car, she reached out and squeezed his shoulder and said, “I love you so much, you know that, right?” It wasn’t the kind of thing she said. But he replied, “I love you too, Ma.” Monday night he drove home and in the morning he went back to work, and people continued to appear not to like him, and girls continued not to answer his phone calls after the first date. One night he turned on the fluorescent light over the bathroom mirror and stared at himself for a long time, trying to figure out what it was about himself that was upsetting people. He was a regular man in his late thirties, fairly good-looking, with a neat beard and unruly hair. His face was asymmetrical; that is, more asymmetrical than most people’s. In the past, he believed, this had made him seem amiable, approachable. Now it looked strange. Freakish. 

He went to bed, but he was up half the night thinking about his father. He didn’t remember much about the bastard. Watching TV in his shorts, smoking long brown cigarettes. Standing on the sidewalk arguing with a cop. Laughing like a hyena at somebody’s joke on the phone. He left when Clay was, what, four? He called his mother from the office the next day. 

“Tell me about Dad,” he said. 

His mother sighed. “There isn’t much to tell.” 

“C’mon, Ma, just give me something.” 

“I don’t like to think about him, Clay. He wasn’t a good person.” 

“Yeah, but specifics. Just anything.” 

“Well . . .” 

“Like what was he good at? Was he really good at something?” 

There was a pause as she thought it over. “He was . . . precise. He had a precise way of moving. The way he opened a bottle of beer. Or handed me things.” 

“So he was a good hander,” Clay said. “Great.” 

“You asked. That’s what I remember. He had a kind of strength, but it didn’t have any place to go. He probably had other girls. Maybe they got pregnant, too.” 

Clay didn’t say anything for a while. 

“Honey, are you still there?” 

“I’m still here, Ma.” 

“Are you all right?” 

“Yeah, sure,” he said. “I’m just fine.”

 

Actually he was kind of depressed. He lost interest in women, and Rupert seemed to be hunting for a reason to fire him. The other guy, the one who had replaced him, had gotten demoted to warehouse supervisor when Clay turned up, and Clay suspected Rupert liked him better. He bumped into Tricia downtown one night, the only night for weeks that he’d been able to drag himself out, and she told him he was looking terrible and ought to see a doctor. The friend who was with her, a skinny girl with big frightful eyes, stared at him with her mouth open. 

“I didn’t ask your opinion,” he said. 

“I’m still your wife, you know.” 

He leaned in close. “I wasn’t leaving you,” he said. “I was getting you ground beef.” 

Her face wrinkled in anger. 

“Clay, I’m gonna do you a fucking favor,” she said. “OK?” 

“Absolutely. I could use a favor, thank you.” 

She gave him the finger, told her friend to sit tight, then led Clay out to her new truck. They drove in silence to Lakeside. Clay felt nervous, like she was leading him into a trap. He tapped the dashboard with both fingers. 

When they got to her place, she marched inside and went straight to what used to be their bedroom. It was cleaner now, with a neat new floral-pattern bedspread and landscape photos on the walls. She jerked open a drawer, took out a manila envelope, and handed it to him. “I was saving these for the divorce, but here. Have ’em. I don’t give a shit anymore.” 

He opened the envelope. Inside were about two dozen letters, some on lined paper, some on sticky notes, some crumpled up into a ball and smoothed out again, all of them in his handwriting, all of them telling her how he couldn’t stand her anymore, how she treated him like shit, and how one of these days he was going to walk out the door and never come back. Also, at the bottom of the envelope, the scuffed gold band that was his wedding ring. 

He sank down and sat on the bed. “What the hell is all this?” he said. 

Trish’s eyes were wet. “That’s you being an asshole for three fucking years, Clay.” 

He turned the ring over in his fingers a couple of times, considered putting it back on. Instead he shoved it, along with the letters, into the envelope, which he dropped beside him onto the bed. 

He turned to her. She was pressed into the corner, arms crossed, lip between her teeth. He said, “Let me get a ride back to my car, OK?” 

They drove to the bar in silence. Three or four times he formulated a sentence in his head—a protest, a plea for sympathy—but in the end he just kept his mouth shut. He didn’t thank her for the ride, and as he walked off toward where he was parked, he heard the chirp of her car alarm and her sarcastic voice saying, “You’re welcome, Clay.”

“No,” his mother said, “you never met him.” 

“Ma, you got it all wrong. He was around for years.” 

“No. He was gone before you were born.” 

“Then who was the guy? The guy with the loud laugh, who argued with everybody?” 

When she spoke again, her voice was quieter. She sounded like one of the nurses at the hospital. “Sweetheart, there was no guy. I didn’t have a date until you were six.” 

In his apartment, Clay was shaking his head. “No, Ma. No way, Ma.” 

She didn’t respond. 

“How come you’re fucking with me, Ma? Why would you do such a thing?” 

“Clay, sweetie, I’m not.” A little quaver in her voice. 

“Just quit fucking with me, Ma!” 

“No, Clay. No, I’d never.” Just flat-out crying now. 

Rupert, it appeared, was actually a little afraid of him. They were sitting in the foreman’s tiny office with only the desk between them. Rupert’s hands were tightly folded together on his giant calendar and his glasses were a little bit fogged. 

“You’ve always been a decent sort, Clay,” he said. 

“Well, I appreciate you saying that. Really I do. But I want the truth.” 

“Seriously, Clay. Do we have to go through this?” 

“Yep.” 

“You know you’ve never been a model employee.” 

“Go on.” 

“I mean, you recall I talked you out of quitting, oh, three times I think?” 

“Do tell,” Clay said. 

Rupert took the glasses off, cleaned them on his shirt, scowled openly. “This isn’t funny, you know.” 

Clay shrugged. “Nothing funny about it.” 

“I could have fired you half a dozen times, you know that. Seriously. I brought you back on because I felt bad for you, you know that.” 

“Wow. I’m so grateful.” 

He put the glasses back on. “No, really, Clay. You should be. Seriously. You really should be. I always gave you another chance, because of Trish. Because I like Trish and I wanted things to work out.” 

“No, you’re right. You’re right. I am very grateful. Seriously. No, Rupert: seriously.”

 

He realized the cops had never called with an update, and so he called them himself, and it took ten minutes to find anybody who would even talk to him, only to tell him to quit calling and harassing them. Well, fuck them. He got to drinking a fair amount, all by himself in the apartment, which had lost most of its new-apartment charm and was beginning to look like a flop. He wasn’t sure how this had come to pass. Wasn’t he a tidy guy? Or didn’t he used to be? This whole thing—the solitude, the drinking, the mess, the sarcastic tone he adopted with everybody—seemed to him a ridiculous mistake, a phase he was going through. Like the phases a child goes through, throwing tantrums at the doctor’s office or food on the kitchen floor. And yet, even though he was an adult, he couldn’t seem to make out the end of it. He couldn’t seem to get up off this sofa bed, unless it was to not be able to not get himself another beer. 

He remembered having a sense of humor, and people liking him. He remembered the feeling of being happy, and making other people happy. He felt this was his nature. But when he tried to remember specifics, he couldn’t. He cast his mind back to company picnics, weddings, nights out on the town, times when people would have surrounded him in celebration, when he would have been in his element. But he couldn’t remember anything. He could only remember what it was supposed to be like: the feeling of Clay being his best self. He missed that self. He didn’t understand where it had gone.

 

For a little while, anyway, he tried to evoke this version of himself he thought he remembered. He tried to joke around with the people under him at work—a little gentle ribbing. But it always came out wrong. He told a guy operating a sheet-metal folder, with a hearty clap on the back, that he was so skinny he oughta be careful he didn’t get sucked into the machine. It sounded like some kind of threat. He complimented the new girl, the maintenance planner, said that he liked her haircut, and it got back to him, through Rupert, as sexual harassment. At home one Saturday morning, he gave cleaning a shot, but once he picked something up, a magazine or blanket or hat, he didn’t know where to put it, and so what little progress he made was erased before sundown. He found his beard trimmer, but the battery ran out, and he couldn’t find the charger, and in the end he flung it in frustration and broke a lamp. 

Finally the moment arrived when Rupert called him in to fire him. He had to hand it to the little twerp, he didn’t puss out on the execution. He walked onto the floor, gave Clay a discreet tap on the shoulder, said, “Let’s talk in my office.” 

“You’re firing me,” Clay said. 

“We can do it here, or we can do it in my office, it’s up to you.” A couple of people glanced over at them and Clay thought he could read delight on their faces. 

When he didn’t answer, Rupert said, “Don’t give them the satisfaction, Clay. Seriously.” 

Clay did as he was asked. The terms were not bad. He would be given enough money to get through the next couple months. Rupert expressed his disappointment and meant it, and Clay didn’t have the will to be a dick about it. 

A moment of weakness made him say, from his slumped position in the chair, “What happened to me?”   

“You will have to figure that out,” Rupert said, and when he offered his hand, Clay shook it.

 

And so now here he is, on a Sunday a month into his unemployment, taking a walk a couple blocks from his Heights apartment, trying to smoke slowly, to think slowly, to slow everything down enough to make it make some kind of sense. It’s the end of something, but it doesn’t seem to be the start of anything else. Summer’s here, but where’s he going to be in six months? Cold and out of money. Living off unemployment. Back in Milwaukee with his mother. He is thinking he’d rather off himself than burden her with his presence. And then he looks up—looks across the street—and here comes the monkey guy, muttering to no one, dragging his fingers along a chain-link fence. The guy’s demeanor is completely different now—he’s deflated, hangdog. He isn’t holding any kind of weapon and he doesn’t look like he has one on him. He looks like a guy with nothing. And so Clay steps off the curb, crosses the street, strides right up to him. The guy cringes, presses himself against the fence, squeezes his eyes shut 

“Hey man,” Clay says, trying to keep it cool, to keep his voice sweet and low. “You put me in the hospital a couple months back. You nearly killed me. You remember that?” 

The guy won’t meet his gaze, but his eyes are twitching, rolling beneath the closed eyelids. “Wasn’t me, man . . .” 

The guy starts edging away. Clay corrals him back. “It was you. You had a knife the size of my arm.” 

“Ain’t got no knife . . .” 

“It was just a couple blocks over there. You pounded my head against a wall.” But looking at this guy now, it seems impossible that he managed to overpower Clay. He is just this shriveled little person. 

“Don’t know you . . . never seen you nowhere . . .” 

“That’s bullshit, man,” Clay says, and now he grabs the old man by the shoulders and spins him around. He starts patting the man’s pockets, getting right up in the old man’s face and starts shouting: “You cracked my head open! Let’s hear you say you’re sorry!” 

He knows what this looks like, he knows what it is like. But all in all he feels pretty good right now. 

“Didn’t do nothing . . . dunno nothing . . .” 

Clay holds him fast now, pinning the arms to his sides, shaking him. The small round monkey’s head bobbles on the old thin neck. 

“At least admit it. At least admit you know what I’m talking about!” 

“Dunno . . . dunno . . .” 

“Come on!” 

He’s crying, the old man is crying. But it doesn’t deter Clay. It just makes him angrier and angrier. Diagonally across the street, a family has happened by and are staring at him, a mom and a dad and a couple of little kids. They’re trying to decide whether to stop him, or run, or call the cops, or what. Their indecision is like some big hilarious joke.

“C’mon, fucker!” Clay shouts, grinning, spraying spit into the old man’s face. “Tell me. Tell me, old man. Tell me you remember.” 

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