By Rick Bailey
This really happened.
One Saturday night the spring of my junior year in high school, I was working until closing time at my father’s gas station. At 9:30 we would raise the hoist, wet the floor, and sprinkle a pungent, yellow granular cleanser all over it to cut grease and oil that had accumulated through the day. Then we mopped the bathrooms and office, brought in tires that were outside on display, and emptied garbage cans on the drive. Ron Fritz was closing with me that night.
I was about to empty the can on the front island of pumps when I noticed a car stopped at our town’s one stoplight. It was a pale green Nash Rambler. I remember its rusted door panels. I also remember the left rear of the car sagged, so much I wondered if the tire was flat or the springs were broken. Just sitting there, the car began to rock, first gently, then violently, like there was a wrestling match going on inside. I was about to turn away when the light changed to green. The driver revved the engine two or three times, and the Rambler wheezed through the intersection, trying to accelerate, until the car’s brake lights flickered on and off, then on again. The driver slowed and swerved toward the right shoulder, the right rear door swung open, and a person spilled out of the moving car and tumbled across the pavement. The flailing arms and legs made me think at first it was a dummy.
The car kept going, disappearing into darkness around the bend in the road north of town. The person lay there on the shoulder. I thought he must be injured, maybe even dead. But after a few seconds, he stood up. I saw now it was a man. He dusted himself off, checked his moving parts, and limped off in the direction of the parking lot behind the bank on that corner.
Inside the gas station, Ron was hosing down the floor. I told him what I saw.
“No way,” he said.
Not much happened in our town. We’d had a murder and a plane crash, but too long ago for us to feel the impact.
“Wish I’d seen it,” he said.
We closed the gas station that night, watching for the man, both thrilled and worried that he might come back, that we might have witnessed some skullduggery and were now involved in its sinister aftermath. Before we turned the key in the door, one of us had to walk money, the day’s receipts, in a locked bag across the street to the night deposit box at the bank, an action always fraught with minor drama. After some discussion, I decided to make the drop. I crossed the street, avoiding the spot where the man had rolled out of the car. At the deposit box, the keys jingled nervously in my hand when I opened the box. I stuffed the bag inside, closed and locked the box in one fluid motion. I couldn’t help but turn and look behind me as I crossed the street.
Nothing further happened. At 10:00 p.m. we killed the lights and locked the doors.
It was Ron’s turn to drive. We climbed into his ’55 Chevy and rode into Saginaw listening to the Amboy Dukes on 8 track, arguing about UFO’s. I had seen one; he had not.
Memory is capricious, frequently a liar.
Recently my brother remembered to me an event from our childhood. It was the summer of 1957. The Mackinac Bridge was under construction, an engineering feat that must have appealed to our father’s imagination. We took a family trip four hours north, boarded a ferry, and motored a few miles out into the Straits. The two giant bridge towers had been erected on footings poured in 120 feet of water. They rose 550 feet in the air. The piers, cables, and catwalk were all in place. That summer, trusses were being lifted and positioned to provide the framework for the roadway. It would have been cold on the water, probably windy and rough. The bridge project must have been an awesome sight. I have no recollection of it.
I was four years old at the time, a timid child, so I’m sure this whole adventure was terrifying. Maybe that’s why I don’t remember it. But I remember other events from childhood that also must have been terrifying. My earliest recollection from childhood is standing up in a hospital crib, bouncing up and down, holding my groin, which was bandaged from hernia surgery. I was probably around two years old. At that time parents walked off and left their children in hospitals. Sleepover, in order to comfort the child, was not an option the way it is today. I think I was given a stuffed animal and told to buck up. I must have been traumatized being left alone like that. Around this age, I also remember sitting alone in the sandbox in the backyard of our house in town. While I played, a big black dog trotted up to me. Its head was the size of a large ham. It thrust its giant muzzle into my face, sniffed me, then ran off. It was archetypal visitation, an encounter with a strange black beast, and I remember it as if it happened yesterday. Why do I remember these moments and not hundreds of others, among them being on the water of the Straits of Mackinac?
Another childhood memory: waking up in my father’s arms as he carried me into a strange house at night. I’m pretty sure it was the home of a relative, probably his Aunt Clarice, but as I’ve replayed the memory over the decades, I now wake up in my father’s arms in the home of Danny Leman, my neighbor and childhood friend. It is a place I got to know some years after the event in question. In this finished memory I see the sofa I knew, the front door and stairway. It even smells like Danny Leman’s house. Memory has mixed things up, providing me with the wrong setting for the visit, but the recollection feels true nonetheless.
Sometime after the man fell, or was pushed, out of that car, I began to notice a figure skulking around town. He was old enough to be someone’s father. He wore khakis, a light blue Oxford shirt, and a navy blue jacket he kept zipped up. He had a thin, serious face, pointed features, and wavy gray hair. I saw him in front of Rodeitcher’s Chinese Restaurant. I saw him on the sidewalk across from the coffee shop, walking with a determined gait past Al Roberts’ market and Howard Schaffer’s barbershop. He would pause, look behind him, then resume his jerky, agitated walk.
That spring, everyday after school a group of us gathered in the coffee shop to drink cokes, eat French fries, and play Led Zeppelin on the jukebox. Before long others also noticed the skulker. Dennis Vickroy pointed out his uncanny resemblance to a character on television, in the commercial for Glad Wrap. He looked like the Man from Glad.
What did he want? Why was he there?
I began to wonder if he was the one who had fallen out of that car, thinking that in his fall, he had sustained a head injury and lost his memory.
When I proposed my amnesia theory, Dennis took a long drag on a cigarette and considered it. “Maybe,” he said. “But then why is he anti-social? Wouldn’t he ask questions? Wouldn’t he want to know who he is?”
I said he might be right. Still, with amnesia, based on what I knew from TV and the movies, you could never tell.
Dennis tapped an ash on his plate. “I say he’s here on an errand. It looks like he’s waiting for someone.”
We took turns wondering out loud about this stranger.
“Where did he come from?”
“He’s a drifter.”
“He looks dangerous.”
“He’s on the run from the law.”
“Where does he sleep?”
“He’s a thief.”
“He’s a secret agent.”
“He’s an assassin.”
Dennis took a last drag on his cigarette and extinguished it in a puddle of catsup left on his plate of fries. “He is the Man from Glad,” he said. “He’s here to help keep our sandwiches and leftovers fresh.”
One day, when five or six of us were pressed into a booth, the Man from Glad came in the coffee shop and sat in the booth closest to the front door. He sat with his back to us, facing the sidewalk and street. When the waitress took his order, he practically shouted it at her. I wondered if he had both hearing loss and memory loss. While we watched him, Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown” blared on the jukebox. Doug Propp had figured out how to turn the jukebox volume up. Once or twice, the Man from Glad turned in his seat and glared at us. When the song stopped playing, we all fell silent, watching.
“Man from Glad,” Dennis said, barely audible.
Everyone at the table hunched down and snickered.
“Man from Glad,” he said again, louder this time.
If he heard us, the Man from Glad didn’t let on.
The internal gizmo in the juke box clunked and its needle lowered to a 45 to play more Zeppelin, “Good Times Bad Times.” We sat listening, watching. When the song ended, we all stood up and flung ourselves at the door, where we piled up like so many nervous, chuckling idiots. We couldn’t resist turning to look at him. The Man from Glad was having black coffee. On the table next to his cup was a pen and a blank piece of paper. He looked up at us and yelled, “What do you goddam kids want?”
“Are you the Man from Glad?”
“Get the hell out of here,” he barked at us. “Leave me alone.”
The Man from Glad remained a shadowy figure around town for only a few days, then disappeared. Whatever it was, his mission was completed. I liked to think of him getting into a car at the edge of town and speeding away. In fact, I pictured his exit as a rewind of sorts: the rusty Rambler backing into town from the north, the Man from Glad rolling backward, arms and legs flailing, falling back into the car as the right rear door opened and closed upon him.
And away he went, his memory intact.
For some time now I’ve had the sensation of something that is about to happen.
I think of it as a premonition experience. I will be backing my car out of the garage when I anticipate, all in a flash, the entire structure caving in on the car. Or waiting for coffee in a Starbucks, I’m visited by the vision of the place exploding. Only it’s not a vision. That suggests a scene more fully realized and protracted than this is. And it’s nowhere near as precise as the house falling on top of me. It’s simply, well, obliteration. The premonition experience lasts less than a second. It’s always catastrophic.
I have an idea this is not really a premonition. It’s actually more like a postmonition, the recovery of a memory.
The fall of 1971 I was in a serious car accident. I attended the local community college, preparing for a career in public accounting. Driving my Volkswagon across sections of farmland one morning in October, on my way to class, I cruised through an open intersection. Tall corn grew on three out of four corners, making it also a blind intersection. I was in the middle of it when a van coming from my left collided with my car, which rolled like a yellow ball through a shallow ditch and eventually came to rest in the vegetable garden of one Mrs. Metevier. She saw everything, called for help, and was able to give an exact account of what happened. I have no recollection of the accident, nor do I remember the morning or the day before the accident, or a week to ten days that followed.
Gradually I woke up, finding myself in a hospital bed, in traction, immobilized. I experienced the confusion, that baffling sense of disorientation and strangeness, one feels when awakened from a deep sleep. Rather than passing in a few moments, however, it lasted a few days. Nurses told me where I was. My parents, borrowing from Mrs. Metevier, explained what had happened. My legs were broken. I’d had a bad bump on the head. I began to piece together the story of that morning and the days that followed.
My memory of it was gone. That happened to me? Really?
Had I been out, I wondered, unconscious all these days?
It was more like a semiconscious state, my parents said. They asked me questions, I answered in gibberish.
Did I know who I was?
They said it was hard to tell at first.
In his 2001 memoir Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks recalls two events in his life that illustrate the complex relationship of trauma and memory. In the winter of 1940-41, while London was under bombardment during the Blitz, he recalls a 1000-pound bomb falling very near his home. The bomb didn’t explode. It was the middle of the night. He and his family, and the entire neighborhood, got out of bed, and, still in pajamas, walked gently away from their homes, away from their neighborhood, convinced that the bomb might explode any minute. (It didn’t.) The second memory also involves a bomb, this one an incendiary device that did detonate behind their house. He recalls his father and brothers pumping water, carrying buckets and pouring it, to no avail, on the fire.
It wasn’t until the publication of his memoir that Sacks learned, from an older brother, that the first memory was an accurate account of what happened, whereas the second one was accurate but actually an acquired memory. At the time the second bomb struck, Sacks had already been relocated from London to the countryside, the way many youngsters were. He learned of the thermite bomb from an older brother’s account of it in a letter. Over time, Sacks has taken possession of the story. He had become an eyewitness. It had become his memory, part of his life story.
“All of us ‘transfer’ experiences to some extent,” Sacks writes, “and at times we are not sure whether an experience was something we were told or read about, even dreamed about, or something that actually happened to us.” An individual’s personal truth, his or her core sense of self, can be founded on both actual verifiable events and on acquired, altered, and even fabricated events. Sacks asserts, “Some of our most cherished memories may never have happened—or may have happened to someone else.”
I stayed in the hospital three weeks, fastened at first to a circle bed. It was like an indoor carnival ride. I lay on my back. Every so often they latched a thin board and mattress just above me to the bed frame, the bed rotated and deposited me on my belly. Then after a while it rolled back and returned me to my original position. Once my condition improved I was moved to a regular bed. Day and night, nurses swished around me in their crisp whites. I sipped water through crooked hospital straws. I peed in a can and pooped in the pan, I looked forward, unembarrassed, to daily baths given to me by female nurses roughly my age whose touch was gentle and impersonal and sure. I woke at night and knew where I was. I waited eagerly for the bland scrambled eggs and the meatloaf and fruit cups when the food cart arrived. I was returning to my broken body, discovering my altered self.
In the bed next to mine was a boy my age waiting for scoliosis surgery. He was small in stature, pale and fleshy. He had a round face and a head of thick black hair. Afternoons when his friends came to visit, they huddled around his bed and talked in low voices. It was impossible not hear their stories. They broke into houses and stores. It was like a hobby. They talked about their fresh loot: cowboy boots, a reel-to-reel tape deck, a glass fishbowl full of souvenir matchbooks from places around the country. They said they were waiting for my roommate to come back, to join them again in these heists.
When he asked me one day about myself, I said something about college and public accounting. It was only a few weeks since the crash, but that version of myself felt like a story now. He wondered when I would walk again. I said it would be months.
“Four or five.”
He explained they were implanting a rod in his spine. He hoped it would help him straighten up and grow taller. I tried to picture him bigger, stronger, and imagined him breaking through the backdoor of someone’s house with a gunnysack over this shoulder and carrying off people’s stuff.
“What happened?” he said.
I told him what little I knew about the morning, the collision, what happened next, then added, for good measure, “I had amnesia.”
He turned with his whole body and looked at me. “Cool,” he said.
Having said it, I felt strangely enhanced. It was cool. No one I knew had ever had amnesia. Probably no one he knew. Then I thought of the Man from Glad, his mysterious wanderings around town, his crabby disposition. “Yeah,” I said. “Just for a week or so. It was pretty strange.”
“What was it like?”
“You don’t know where you are,” I said. “You’re very confused. You can’t answer questions.”
He turned away and thought for a minute, smoothing his thick hair. “What if it comes back?” he said. “What if you forget again?”
It never came back. And in truth, I don’t really know if it was amnesia. What if it did come back? Could a person remember amnesia? Could he remember not remembering? Shortly before leaving the hospital, I asked the nurse if I would ever recover those days before and after the accident.
“I don’t know, honey,” she said. “Why would you want to? What good would it do?”
No good whatsoever. But I wanted to know. One of my most important memories, I said, and it was like it happened to someone else.
“You leave it alone,” she said. “You’re going home. You should be glad.”
Home, to my family, to my past. And to a whole future of memory that lay ahead of me.