'Strange and Unproductive Thinking'
James woke up in a muggy haze, his head feeling two sizes too small. He squinted, he was lying on his back, the way his doctor told him not to. He saw the fan was still going but not doing a lot of anything. The night had taken with it it’s cool countenance and the morning glared at him through his unshaded bedroom window.
His alarm told him it was six am.
She was gone, her indentation still lingered.
It wasn’t that unusual. She usually got up much earlier than him and pottered around for a little bit before she went to her volunteering at the homeless shelter. Serving them breakfast made her feel better about not having to line up for breakfast.
He showered. He had one of those old fashioned shower baths with a curtain.
He got out of the shower and dried himself. He wiped the steam from the mirror and looked at his reflection in the mirror. His hair slicked back in the two door mirrored cabinet over the sink. The seam of which was right in the middle. The door hinges were a little loose and they buckled in the middle causing the doors to sink inward a little. Thus resulting in an almost funhouse mirror reflection of James’ sallow face split down the middle. He looked at himself and saw a face that was still quite handsome but time had added a few extras where they weren’t needed. A bit too much neck fat made him almost afraid to tilt his head down. With his hair slicked back his hairline was disheartening. His face sagged in places it didn’t use to. The bags under his eyes were now permanent fixtures next to the flecks of little grey hairs that he struggled not to notice.
Other than that his forehead was relatively unlined and his eyes still looked youthful, the result of years of not being very expressive. This gave him some comfort as he stared blankly at his own reflection.
He continued to floss and brush his teeth, gargling mouth wash and spitting. He skipped shaving, his face was still fairly smooth from yesterday.
He was dressed now in a short sleeve shirt and tie, bent over the kitchen sink scratching the black off a burnt piece of toast.
He sat at the kitchen table alone reading the paper. A plate of abused toast sitting next to a glass of store brand orange juice. It was just one shade dingier than the name brand and came with it a slightly coppery after-taste.
The kitchen was new looking, but just as the bedroom it was bare. Aside from the slight messes, the toast ash in the sink, the jam and butter fingerprints on the counter. It looked like a show house. Beautiful in its emptiness.
It wasn’t a particularly large kitchen, mid-range, stone floors. The counter was some type of imitation granite. He sat at a small breakfast bar which corralled the fridge and stove and combination oven. He was sitting on a minimalist chair made of plastic with metal struts. The kind you get in sandwich shops that force you to lean on the counter like hipster bar stools. He read the paper with his back bolt upright.
The door on his left lead to the utility room, the door to his right lead to a small dining room and the door behind him lead into the hall.
Across from the breakfast bar which jutted out like a little pier in the middle of the kitchen. The sink and dishwasher which overlooked the only window onto the small AstroTurf back garden.
Both of them knew they couldn’t really afford to live here. So they rented, and neither of them really lived in the house as much as they just existed there. A stop over until they could get something more liveable and secure their place on the ever shrinking island of California’s middle class.
The headline of the paper read;
“MATCHBOOK KILLER SUSPECT IN CUSTODY (Pictured page 30)”
He padded his way through the sport section and quickly shirked the relationship section. The politics section was as grim as usual given a brisk scan. He mouthed the words but they didn’t really go anywhere. On page twenty-nine he thumbed the corner as if it was a crumpled copy of playboy stored under a neighbours shed.
He got his hopes up for nothing. Just a few glossies of cops with their backs turned and a white tarp with an arm sticking out of it.
He sighed and felt a little dirty, he could have just looked it up online if he wanted to but he was running a little late now.
He closed his eyes and remembered something he’d seen before but he couldn’t quite remember if it were real or a dream or both. A picture of a tree at dusk, there was a plane crash he thought or at least that’s what he was meant to think. Arms and legs hung from the tree, clean and perfect like doll parts. In fact, they looked just like odd mannequin pieces. So recalling it didn’t alarm him as he was sure even if that picture did exist it was fake or some tween’s edgy art project.
He then proceeding to eat his burnt toast with long teeth and wash it down with glugs of gritty orange juice.
James’ car was parked out front. A Hyundai with a sagging bumper. He left his single story house on North 12th street which was located in a suburb of Colton. He lived opposite the park which consisted of two fenced in basketball courts with a shaded eating area in the centre. Sparsely decorated with an array of trees ranging from sycamores to the standard palm. It was pretty much empty except for a handful of kids that should have been in school. They were playing some form dodge/basketball hybrid he’d never seen before.
It was an ok neighbourhood, the houses and lawns were well kept. All single storied with wire fences around the lawns and carports.
He took a right and then another past the park onto North Mt Vernon Avenue towards the river. He passed a new looking truck stop with a big blue bud light truck out front and a sign that read “LQUOR”.
There was a 7-11 on the other side and a cosy Mexican restaurant off the highway.
He continued along South Mt Vernon past a motel and a garage selling discount cylinder heads. It took him over the highway and snaked around to join it. He got onto the I-10 towards Redland and found himself in a conga-line of early morning commuters.
The glare on the windshield reminded him he forgot to wear sunglasses driving in California.
Despite that he had some time to take in the scenery squinting at pretty much flat nothing. A drainage canal ran underneath the highway and lead to a strange grouping of green trees walled on either side by thick concrete. The other side of which was a lot containing several mounds of brown dirt, the result of digging or some kind of construction.
On the left there were sickly looking spruce trees poking over the top of the freeway. He took the time to read some of the billboards which were suspended along his side of the highway. The first was for a pest control business, a picture of a suspicious looking cockroach. The next has a big red truck on it claiming to be the #1 at something vague. The one that followed just had “$720,000” written on it with a phone number below it. After that was a movie poster with a blue guy strangling a blue woman, it didn’t look that interesting.
He was over the river before traffic started going again. Some idiot was being towed, his car died across two lanes, maybe he needed new cylinder heads.
There was another billboard on the other side of the river. It caught his attention because it had a really obnoxious heart shaped logo that looked like it consisted of two 2′s. It was advertising something called ‘Second love’. The tagline read ‘Prepare to love again’. It seemed to be just another dating site and his eyes dropped back to the steadily moving traffic.
He continued straight along the Redland Freeway. Passing through the spaghetti junction of interlacing highways going overhead. The hills surrounding them were so clean it looked like the set of a movie; the second moon landing, this time with palm trees.
Nothing but bushes and an open expanse of obnoxious blue sky. He kept his eyes forward since there was nothing to see, a bland looking storage lock up came up on the right but he didn’t bother to turn his head.
He drove for another two minutes following signs for the airport. He took the exit on 75 near the Alto Camino trailer park on Loma Linda. The road was a narrow one way with the highway on one side and the trailer park on the other. At the end of the trailer park was a car wash and his turn off. He went left under the freeway onto Mountain view avenue. Opening up into another great big empty expanse framed by a California mountain range.
He continued on Mountain view past the children’s hospital. Taking a right onto East San Bernardino avenue which bled into East San Bernardino. Passing a power plant that looked like a 1950’s postcard, all chrome lined with perfectly spaced palm trees out front.
It was nothing but industrial parks from here on out, steel and white sand, power lines as far as the eye could see.
He took a left at marigold avenue, which was a cute street name for a bleach factory to sit on. He took another left into the employee car park and already he could smell the bleach cooking.
He didn’t work on the factory floor, he had a cubicle in their complaints department call centre. Despite that the smell couldn’t be escaped no matter where you were in the building. It was just something you had to get used to. A cloying nauseating smell, teamed with the halogen lights made his head feel like it was soaking in lye.
He clocked in around nine and tried to get situated at his desk. He had one of those ergo back supports that did nothing but make his back sweat less as he sat in his swivel chair. The chair balked as he pressed his weight on it and he sighed audibly as he placed his headset on.
“Hello this is Marie
-No Marie, Maria is out right now, can I take a message?” The woman the cubicle across from him furrowed her brow at the person on the phone.
As soon as he sat down he logged into his company computer and searched the “Second love”. He couldn’t seem to get it out of his head. It was like he’d heard it before in a dream and he had to know what it was. But as soon as the results of the search started to appear, slow as usual, his phone rang and he hesitantly pressed the flashing red light.
“Good morning this is James with the complaints department, how can I help?”
“-I’m sorry, I think you have the wrong number, we sell bleach. This is not a dating agency”.
“-Ok I have to hang up now”
“Another weirdo?” A familiar voice travelled through the cardboard thin wall in James’ cubicle.
“Err yeah, every fucking day”
His co-worker Edd popped over their adjoining cubicle wall “I hear ya man, how you doin anyway? Haven’t seen you for a while, you been sick?”
Edd was an average looking guy, he wore a generic band t-shirt with cargo pants. Short and sort of plump with a limp sandy blonde hair cut he looked like he did himself that was a little too young for him. A shaggy peach fuzz beard covered rounded features with an almost abnormally large head and a set of eyes that screamed “be my friend!”. He was harmless, James found him annoying but tolerable in small doses. He found his company favourable for passing the time but would always make excuses to avoid social situations with him outside of work.
“The boss wanted to see you in her office but she’s not here today. I think it was a conference or something.” He paused to take a swig from a generic brand can of energy drink dangling from his wrist. “So anyway man, how’s it going? What you lookin’ at?”
James goggled and shook his head as he looked back at the screen. “Err, well I saw this billboard on the way to work and I wanted to see what it was about that’s all”
“Billboard huh? What was it about?”
“I dunno that’s why I wanted to look it up”
“Oh this thing again, didn’t you already go to that?” Edd came around the side of the cubicle pointing his bulbous nose at the lcd monitor. “Yeah getting serious de-ja whatever.” Edd took the mouse from Ed and started clicking through the site.
“No it’s the first time I’ve seen it”
“Seriously I was sure we had this conversation already.” Edd squinted at James a little too close to his face as he squatted next to him.
“You must have me confused.” James said.
Edd stared at the screen and started to scan aloud. “Yadda yadda ‘Has your love life with your partner become stale?’ blah blah blah ‘temporary memory loss’. Something something ’breakthrough technology, hypnosis techniques, ‘hypnosis’ what the fuck?”
James pushed his chair back into place and took back control of his mouse off-balancing Edd who almost had to roll out of the way.
“Having some trouble with the old lady?” Edd asked as he righted himself.
“Everything’s fine” James looked a little flustered.
Edd straightened and circled around back to his cubicle.
“That’s cool dude, you wanna grab a beer after work? I know this great place near the airport, they have all these foreign beers, it’s awesome.”
“Nah it’s ok, Laura is cooking tonight, I have to get home early.”
“Ok dude, no worries, rain-check baby”. Edd gave him the guns and a little wounded wink and scurried back behind the dividing wall.
James closed his eyes and rubbed them with his finger and thumb. Rolling his pained eyeballs in his skull. He opened his desk searching for loose aspirin but it was empty.
James lies flat on a dentist’s chair, his head rolling back and forth not finding comfort in any position. His head is bleating; he can feel his pulse behind his eyes. The light is so strong and so fake, he can feel it sucking the liquid from his eyes. Those greasy halogen bulbs beaming down at him in that stained pot marked asbestos face.
He grimaced shutting his eyes, wanting to rub them so bad as if that would make a difference at all. But he can’t move his arms. They’re missing or they’re strapped down. His neck hurts, he’s looking up at the ceiling. He feels very small all of a sudden and he hears a man clear his throat.
A ringing in his ears travels all around his head, from one ear to the other.
He felt dizzy and there was cotton in his mouth, his throat was dry. He looked calm, docile, a deer in headlights. All the while his head was alive with little dots of light buzzing around like moths in a lampshade.
He looked around the room, it looked like a normal doctor’s office. All an off-white eggshell. There was a small metal surgical table next to his feet on his left side. A chair with a man in it with his leg’s crossed in the corner of the small room as if he was waiting for something. James couldn’t turn his head around far enough to see him. His field of view was limited to up and everything immediately in front of him if he lifted his head slightly.
There was a door to his right leading into the hallway. He couldn’t remember how he got there. There were no windows in the room and nothing around him to give him a clue of where he was.
Just cupboards that looked like they held medical supplies, a filling cabinet. Plaques and certificates on the walls he was too far away to read and what looked like butterflies under glass framed on the wall.
His hands and feet were restrained, just a precaution he remembered being told. It was fine, he didn’t feel the need to strain against them.
The man in the office chair wheeled over to his side on his left. His head down eying a chrome clipboard.
James looked him up and down in a daze, he blinked and couldn’t seem to focus on any one point.
The man was average height and build. His skin was lightly tanned. He had a tight angular face with light stubble. His nose long and rounded, lips almost non-existent. Gaunt cheeks, well groomed. His eyebrows looked plucked. His skin was smooth and almost glowed. His features were almost too dark and pronounced as if on purpose. His eyes were a dark grey but they never met his. He had short dark dark brown salt and pepper hair. He wore a white lab coat with a blurry name tag, a plaid sweater underneath and brown corduroy pants.
“Well Mr. ??????????, it looks like you’re ready to begin” He said his name but it didn’t come out right. The words sounded far away.
“How did I get here?”
The man put his clipboard down on the small metal surgical table and reached into his top left breast pocket.
“No need to worry, you read and signed our terms of service, memory loss at this early stage is entirely normal. Just relax, the restraints are for your own protection, I assure you.” The doctor’s voice boomed in James’ ears as if his head were in a glass box filled with toilet water. The doctor leant over James and took hold of his head with a small but firm hand and opened his eyes one at a time flashing a small pen torch in them.
He then swivelled around behind James out of his cone of vision. James felt a jerking in the chair and release of gas as the chair moved to an upright position. “I just need you to look at these pictures and tell me the first thing that comes to your mind and then we can begin the procedure.”
“Where’s my wife?” James heard his own voice, a tight sense of urgency in it coming out unintentionally.
“She’s in the other room with my colleague undergoing the same procedure. Don’t worry you’ll see her soon” He placed a light hand on James shoulder.
“What’s going on?”
“You have to relax Mr.??????????. It’s a very simple procedure. Think of it simply as induced amnesia, but instead of losing a day or two you lose a whole person.” He wheeled back around into James cone of vision. He sighed. “’Lose’ is a poor choice of words, we ‘borrow’ them, just like amnesia the effects are temporary. You’ll forget her entirely for a day based on our pricing structure. It’s all covered in the brochure.” The doctor swivelled over to the small table and picked his clip board back up and lifted a sheet of paper. Eyeing it indifferently. “Ok, let’s begin”.
The doctor turned in his chair, put the clipboard back down on the metal end table. He crossed the room still seated shimmying along with his feet. Over in one of the cabinets against the wall to the left of James he pulled out a small stack of A3 flashcards. He swivelled back over to James but now he was wearing a surgical mask or his face was obscured somehow, blurred. James had almost instantaneously forgotten all of his facial features as if they slid off his face. Forgetting how distinct they were only a moment ago.
The doctor flipped the first flashcard. James studied it for a moment feeling dull and groggy.
“Please, answer as quickly as possible” The doctor asked politely.
They weren’t the typical black and white inkblots. They were brightly coloured, oranges and reds mainly. The first image looked like a set of fallopian tubes, surrounded by a halo of light orange blood.
“Ok, and this one.” He carefully shuffled the first card to the back of the pack.
The next card looked like an x-ray of a woman’s ribcage. It was brightly coloured like the first. The lungs were bright orange and the heart was a lighter coloured red and seemed to be oozing a pale liquid that could only be blood.
“Ok” The doctor shuffled the deck again.
The card seemed grotesquely obvious. It was what looked like a melted clown’s face in the same style as the others. It’s grotesque tongue hanging out of its mouth, with blood and matter seeping out of every orifice in its head like it was being microwaved.
James paused “A cuddly toy”
“Uh huh” The doctor shuffled the deck again.
The image on the card was a red cat eating a brightly coloured butterfly.
“Interesting” The doctor turned and put the cards back into the draw.
He quickly swivelled back around to James’ blind spot from his left.
“Your wife, she’s very pretty, is she a natural redhead?”
A tight jerking came from behind James’ head followed by a hollow metal clinking as the dentist chair was reclined all the way back.
“She has dyed her hair red” James said as if reading it off the ceiling.
“I see” The doctor said as he looked down at James. A smile emerging from the blur of interchanging facial features. A cold leather strap tied around James’ head, tightening slowly with a mechanical ratcheting sound.
“This is just to stop your head from moving, you’ll be with your wife soon” He cleared his throat again. James could hear the sound of squeaky wheels on a linoleum floor. “I like to tell all my patients one of my favourite quotes. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby; “personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures.” There was a smile in his voice now as the sounds of typing and indistinct fumblings could be heard behind James’s head. “People over time forget, how important a first kiss is. Every second you create new memories of the person you love rewriting the old. Every negative thing you’ve ever said or done to each other builds up over time. And those old memories fade and you forget that initial spark that started the whole thing. You get comfortable, complacent. This is not a fresh start, it’s just a reminder of what you mean to each other.”
His head hung moon-like over James’ face “We’re ready”
The squeaking sound got closer and slowly a large metal device pierced his line of sight which was only up now. It looked like some kind of x-ray machine crossed with the grabber arm of one of those coin slot games kids play to win stuffed animals.
“Nurse, if you please”
James’ still couldn’t turn his head. He had no idea she was in the room until a cold thin hand took hold of him by the wrist. A sharp pinching sensation made him turn his eyes hard in his skull trying to catch a glimpse. Had she been there the whole time and not made a sound or had she entered and he hadn’t noticed?
As soon as the pinching sensation stopped, his face started to get cold and numb.
“Try to stay awake just for a moment.” The doctor said as he angled the arm of the machine over James’ head.
“Wah didth sheee gibb meh?” James’ speech was slurred and strained.
“Just a mild sedative, now I need you to look directly at the light, can you do that for me? James?”
James’ blinked, his eyelids felt much heavier. His breathing slowed. What light there was no light, and then there was. A brilliant light, just like at the dentist. It shone down on him and his eyes became two harsh slits.
“You must keep your eyes open”
He opened his eyes wider and the light flooded in a cool light that turned blue when it hit his iris. It filled his head with a cool stillness. His body felt rigid and he could feel his muscles jerk against the restraints uncontrollably. It was an odd numbing sensation; he could almost feel his teeth wiggling in his gums.
It felt like he was lying on his back in a field of grass starring up at the sun through closed eyes. The room was cold and still and surgical and smelled faintly of vomit.
He closed his eyes tightly, clenching his jaw shut. The ringing in his ears got louder and louder building to a cacophony. He could feel his fingers working tighter on the rubberized arms of the chair.
Then it stopped.