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.
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.”
“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.