Bill Garwin

The Man Who Forgot to Remember

A novel excerpt

They keep beating on him and all I can do is watch his bloodied face bruise and swell. The Russian’s right-handed; each strike drives like a piston into his nearly swollen shut left eye. There are two of them and they say he has something they want. A list they gave him to carry in his head and they need it now. I don’t look, but even with my eyes firmly closed, I see them pounding on him. His arms, gray duct-taped to the old wooden chair rocking on uneven legs, fighting against the force of a fist the size of a country fair turkey leg. Each strike’s momentum only momentarily slowed by his face.

I’ll never forget this because I never forget anything. Well, almost nothing. I’m a mnemonist. I have a memory which knows no depth. Everything I’ve seen or heard or read is cataloged awaiting recall. The problem is sometimes my recollections are clouded. Obscured by colors, flashes, tastes, sounds. And there are so many memories. As I’ve aged, I’ve had to be more careful. More meticulous. Used to be when someone said the word “horse” I’d construct a whole scene. Maybe something in the old west with cattle and ropes and sagebrush. That became too much even for me. I could resurrect everything, but my memories were expanding as if a universe unto themselves. Plenty of space, but too much to search efficiently. Now someone says “horse”, I see a foot in spur. It’s all I need.

They’re becoming desperate. I can smell their frustration. This has to stop. Sitting still, not wanting them to notice, my eyes scan the warehouse. There’s a concrete floor, but the area under his chair is covered by thick, clear plastic sprinkled and splattered with his blood. I don’t like the tarp. Is it intended to make disposal easier? Just wrap him up like a burrito and haul him off? But they want their list and if he dies the list goes with him.

The building’s tired, gray concrete walls, decorated only by colorful, spray-painted graffiti, rise up thirty feet to windows uncleaned for decades. Light struggles to penetrate with only partial success. Cobwebs glint and cracks in the glass send rays off in random directions. The place has lost what little dignity it might have had because no one cares anymore. Heavy, round concrete pillars, even and periodically placed, are the only things keeping this heap from collapsing on itself. Two truck bays and one small metal door offer the sole connection to the outside, which is where I need to be. And soon. 

The Russians keep repeating the same demand. They want the list. Words and a few numbers. All he has to do is regurgitate what he’s been told. There’s nothing to understand or interpret. Just spit it out and go home. He’s silent, as if he isn’t even there.

Early on he told them he couldn’t do as they asked. He heard the list, but it was delivered by a hurried, scared man. His voice grated, smelled of rancid fat, a horrible mix of red, gray, and brown. The color of dirty motor oil. So offensive he could barely discern what the man was saying. The words ran together as if the man didn’t have time to put a space between each one. They remained somewhere in his memory but were damaged.

Memory requires clarity. Each word must be taken, spun carefully, examined, placed where it should go; otherwise, they become something else. Smells and tastes, or morph into shapes and flashes. They call this synesthesia. Anything spoken and heard attacks all the senses with colors, forms, scents, textures. Sounds cool but isn’t. It’s exhausting and worse, doesn’t add meaning, just makes understanding more difficult. Decoding is possible but takes time.

The Russian’s talking again. Fast, loud, insistent. I can taste and smell his accusations, but I no longer understand. I want to help, but I can’t. I visualize myself stepping up, saying something inspired, and ending the torment. I see the scene as vividly as if my eyes were open. But I can always imagine a better way, a better result. I am eternally hopeful and perpetually disappointed. The world I create is invariably, indelibly detached from reality.

The boss isn’t happy, “He has to talk. Tony, leave his face alone. And goddammit keep him conscious. Are you beginning to understand why I told you not to touch the accountant?”

“Boss, he was a loose end. He knew everything. The Feds get him and we’re done.”

“Tony, you’re like a bad comedian. You got horrible timing. Sure you get rid of the accountant. After we’ve got the property. Right now this guy’s the only person in the world with the key to our future. How’s that working for you? He hasn’t said a word in fifteen minutes. The look on his face, I’m not even sure he’s still there.”

The Russian turned to him, bent down, got right in his face, paused, and slowly, distinctly demanded in a voice soaked in threat, “We gave the list to you at your shows. We know you remember because you never forget anything. Don’t give us this bullshit about shapes and colors. Just give us the list.”

I begin to understand. A list was given at a performance. All part of my stage act. Long lists are memorized. Incoherent data, such as unfamiliar names, numbers, entries in books, even gibberish. It’s a roadshow funded by the San Francisco Chronicle. I report in from each city, giving the provincial Chronicle a worldly feel.

The Russian strikes again. And again. And again.

This has to end. This is a problem. I can solve this; I just need to visualize a solution. I have to see it. Construct a picture, a full story. Imagine a list. This is easy. I’m given lists all the time. They said it happened at a show. What do I need to know? When and where. They tell me when and where and I’ll go back. Reconstruct. Can’t do it here. There’s too much noise; the memory is damaged, but maybe it can be recovered. Retrace, and remember. At least buy some time.

I could stay here and watch forever, not feeling the pain. My powers of visualization are incredibly strong. I can lower my body temperature by imagining ice on my wrist; reallocate pain in the dentist’s chair. I’ve spun off this beating. They think I’m sitting in that chair. In a way, I’m not. The pain’s not mine, but to reason with them, it will have to become mine again. I have to go back in and take his place. Take my place. This will hurt. I don’t want to do it, but if I don’t, they’ll kill me and while it might not hurt, it would be real permanent. All I have to do is stop visualizing and rejoin the “reality”. Concentrate on something. Something real. The blood on the plastic. The drops. The splashes. It’s brightness. Damn this hurts. Grab the pain, pull on it like a rope. Drive to the surface. Welcome the pain. It’s how I’m going to get out of here.

“Stop! I know what you want. I can give it to you; just not here, not now.”

“It speaks!”

“It better keep speaking. Right now and fast. Be persuasive Mr. Bronsky. Be very persuasive.”

“I know you want a list.”

“We want three lists.”

“Yes, three lists.” This is more difficult than I thought.

“And I can get them for you. But sometimes my memory is clouded by people who don’t speak clearly. Who speak too fast or too forcibly or too loudly. I still have the memory, but it’s obscured, distorted. I can recover your lists. I have them; they’re just hiding. I have to go back, reconstruct, revisualize. Recreate. I can do it. I just need some information from you. Some dates and places.”

“He’s lying boss. Just stalling. He needs more persuasion.”

I can see the “Boss” starring at me. Eyes squinting, head tilted, evaluating. His fist is clenched, his knuckles white. He’s deciding between force and a more subtle approach.

“I can always find you. You have two weeks. At two weeks and one minute, you deliver. You don’t and you don’t live to see two weeks and two minutes. You give the list to anyone else, you’re dead. You understand?” I nodded. He returned the nod. He recited three cities and three dates. Nothing more, then with a flick of his wrist he produced a switchblade knife, its handle polished black obsidian veined in red. With two swift swipes, the duct tape was cut. I wanted to ask who else was after the list, but they were already walking away. I guess the bargain didn’t include a ride home. I didn’t blame them; I was still leaking blood in a bad way.

Bill Garwin holds three college degrees and a third dan black belt in Shotokan karate. He resides in the high desert of New Mexico and can now wear his cherished cowboy hat year-round. Eight years of lacrosse, fifteen years of karate, and five years of fencing taught him lessons that can only be earned. While others may accept the fertile middle-ground, he respects his readers too much to write down to them, striving to blend action, humor, and considered reflection in his books. When you meet him, understand he enjoys nothing more than a conversation on a topic he has never before considered. He will, of course, opine with complete confidence.