It Unrings A Bell
This is a story about transient global amnesia, or TGA. According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s a sudden, temporary episode of memory loss. Short-term memory simply vanishes for no apparent reason. You cannot recall recent events, nor can you remember where you are or how you got there. The gap can extend as far back into your past as a year.
You still remember who you are and can recognize family members and people you’ve known for a long time. But in the midst of increasing disorientation and, in some cases, sheer, blind panic, that’s small comfort.
A typical episode can last from six to eight hours. Your memory gradually returns once it’s over.
You’re left with no recollection of anything that happened during the time you were affected. You might also be unable to recall certain events that took place in the hours just before. Aside from that your memory is as good as new.
The most commonly afflicted are people between the ages of forty and eighty. But men in their sixties are particularly vulnerable. Strenuous physical activity, such as sex, can be a trigger.
Because of this, and because there have been enough documented cases by now, TGA has been included in warning labels on Viagra, Cialis, Levitra, and other drugs used to treat erectile dysfunction.
“Ooh, baby, you’re really somethin’. That was incredible!”
John Williams blinked in confusion. A young, naked woman sat astride him, her long, dark hair falling past her bronzed shoulders and halfway down her large, enhanced breasts.
“Incredible,” she repeated, shaking her head as she smoothly dismounted and slid off the bed. She bent down and plucked a pair of panties off the floor.
He could hardly speak. “Who…?” was all he could manage.
She put on the panties, eyeing his still-erect, condom-clad penis. “Looks like you been takin’ your Vitamin V, baby,” she crooned. “You wanna go again? Same price as the first one.”
This is a dream, he thought automatically, even as he knew it wasn’t.
“What’s happening to me?” he asked hoarsely.
She giggled. “You’re cute.” She reached toward the other bed where the rest of her clothes were. “You sure you don’t wanna go again?” He continued to stare at her in confusion.
“No? Well then, maybe you got a little present for me, huh, baby? Little somethin’ extra ’cause I’m so good?” She gave him a sexy smile that sent a chill through him.
Where was he? It felt like this was some hotel room. But why was he here—and with a prostitute? He hadn’t been with a woman other than Edith for forty-seven years.
Edith. Where was she? When was the last time he’d seen her? It was a blank. What was happening; was he having a stroke?
In rising fear, he pushed himself off the bed and groped his way past the girl into the bathroom. His hands shook as he located the light switch, turned it on, and stared at the wild-eyed face in the mirror.
John Williams, he thought, I’m John Williams. It echoed in his head and seemed strange, like three meaningless syllables he was programmed to say if someone asked him his name. They were connected to nothing.
He gaped at himself, unable to turn away, dimly aware of the sound of a door opening, then closing.
It broke his trance. “Hey, wait a minute!” he yelled, diving out of the bathroom and tearing open the door to the hallway, only to realize he was still naked and wearing the condom. He jumped back and slammed the door.
He stood there for a moment, his mind in a whirl. Then he realized he had to take off that condom and wash himself. Before he put on any clothes, he needed to wash himself off good.
In the bathroom the wrapper on the soap finally told him where he was: Casino Royale Resort Hotel, Atlantic City.
What was he doing here? He’d never gambled in his life, never even bought a lottery ticket. He thought people who gambled were desperate fools and suckers.
He climbed into the bathtub and cleaned himself up (amazingly, he was still erect), and decided that he hadn’t had a stroke. Whatever this was, he could still move and function.
He dried off and came back out into the room, noticing for the first time that his clothes were tossed all over. His pants were sprawled on a chair, his shirt and underwear on the floor. One sock was here, the other one there.
Grabbing the pants off the chair, he plunged his hand into the pocket where he always kept it.
It was gone.
He always kept his wallet in that pocket, didn’t he? Yes, he was sure he did. Now why could he remember a thing like that and forget so much else?
He realized he was already having trouble remembering the prostitute. Was she even there?
Yes, because his wallet was gone, and his cell phone too. He knew he had a cell phone because he carried it in the same pocket as his wallet. He’d been doing it for years. He even knew the number by heart: 917-555-6348.
What the hell was happening? His stomach twisted uneasily.
He also remembered his home number, the number they’d had since they bought the house in Huntington over twenty years ago. He reached for the hotel phone, got an outside line, and dialed it.
It rang four times, and then the machine picked up. Edith’s voice said no one was home and please leave a message. The sound of it brought tears to his eyes.
“Edith,” he said, “it’s me; are you there? Pick up.”
He waited through silence.
The clock on his bedside table said it was nearly midnight. She should be home. Where was she?
“Edith, I’m in Atlantic City. I don’t know how I got here. I’m at someplace called the Casino Royale, in Room…” He realized he didn’t know the room number. “They must have it at the desk. I don’t know what’s happening. Call me, but not on the cell; that seems to be gone. Call me here at the hotel, Edith. Please!”
He listened as the silence extended, desperately praying for her to pick up the phone.
He said her name several more times, but it was no use. Finally, he hung up.
Heather. His daughter’s face appeared in his mind’s eye with total clarity. She and her husband lived in Northport, about fifteen minutes away from Huntington. He knew her phone number too, like his own. He was good at memorizing numbers.
Wondering again how this all could be happening, he pushed the buttons. This time there were two rings before a shrill sound blared in his ear and a recorded voice said the number he’d dialed was no longer in service.
A cold dread was mounting inside him, but he fought it. He knew he had to do something or he’d lose it altogether. He had to get up, get dressed, get out of this room, get moving. Try to find out something, anything.
He began to put on his clothes, noticing that his erection had subsided. Had he really taken Viagra or one of those other pills? It was completely foreign to him.
His eye fell on his sports jacket, draped over the back of a chair, and it occurred to him that maybe he’d put his wallet and cell in there. It would be uncharacteristic but it was certainly worth a shot. He checked the inside pocket, and his hand closed around something square and cardboard, which he drew out. It was a package of Levitra.
Perplexed, he dropped it back in the pocket and checked the others, which were empty. He resumed getting dressed.
As he pulled up his pants, he felt something brush against his thigh. His car keys! He kept them in the opposite pocket from his wallet and cell phone, and they were still there! He took them out, rolling them around in his hand, relishing their familiarity. Find his car; there was an idea. That might be a start.
This new sense of purpose so energized him that he almost walked out of the room without the key card he’d need to get back in. He looked around and there it was, sitting on the dresser in plain sight. Thank God she didn’t take it, he thought. He had a scary vision of the woman and her pimp coming back in the middle of the night, maybe tying him up and torturing him, stealing even more of his…
Wait, where was his suitcase? Or his overnight bag, if that’s what he’d brought? Did she grab that too? He wouldn’t have checked in without a change of clothing or his toothbrush and shaving stuff, would he?
He peered into the bathroom. Except for where he’d used the soap and towel, it was pristine. Maybe everything was still in his bag, he decided, and he hadn’t had a chance to unpack before she stole it. He tried to think what else might be in there but had no idea.
Tucking the key card into his jacket pocket next to the Levitra, he stepped out into the hallway and took careful note of the room number on the door: 715. He said it to himself again and again, like a mantra, as he waited for the elevator.
In the spacious, ornate lobby, bustling even at this late hour with people flowing in and out of the casino, he asked the desk clerk where he might find the parking area. The clerk directed him to an alcove just off the lobby, and soon he found himself on the first floor of a giant, multilevel garage.
And “found himself” was the right way to describe it. He couldn’t remember getting there. In any case, all he had to do now was walk up the ramp and keep his eye out for a blue 2001 Nissan Altima.
The levels went on and on, and they were all filled with cars. He saw a few that were similar to his but weren’t. Finally, he reached the roof and stood there in the chilly breeze, looking around in vain.
Maybe he just hadn’t noticed it, even though he knew he’d looked at every car. The lights were dim in the garage; it was possible.
Then it occurred to him: what an idiot! The car keys had a remote entry button, and even another one that makes the horn go off if you’ve lost your car in a crowded parking lot. All he had to do was walk back down the ramp clicking it.
So that’s what he did. About halfway down a car lit up, but it wasn’t one he recognized. It was a Nissan Altima, same as his, but it wasn’t blue. It was light green and a later model.
He opened the driver’s side door and got in. It felt foreign yet familiar somehow, maybe because the interior was similar to the car he remembered. He reached over and popped open the glove compartment.
Inside was a leather-bound manual, which he removed and checked under the flap for the registration and insurance card. They were there, and they each had his name and address.
How weird. When did he buy this car? What happened to the other one? He looked around the front and back seats for any items he might have left but found nothing.
As he was putting the manual back in the glove compartment, his hand slid across something hard. He withdrew the manual and squinted inside to see what it was. What he saw was a gun.
Again, he found himself someplace, this time in the lobby, breathing heavily. He had no memory of slamming shut the glove compartment and getting out of there. He did remember that before he found the gun he’d intended to look in the trunk, but he had no desire to go back and do that.
He stood there until, after several minutes, his heart stopped pounding. Then he went over to the front desk.
He asked if they had Internet access, was told that they did and where the lobby computer was. The clerk wrote down the access code for him, for which he was grateful.
The computer, fortunately, was unoccupied. He sat down, logged in, went to the AOL Web site where he had his e-mail account, and typed “ediepie,” the little pet name he’d always called Edith, in the password box. The screen said “Invalid Password.”
Well, maybe he’d mistyped it, so he tried again. Same thing.
How could this be? He tried a third time, making sure of every single letter.
Again, “Invalid Password.”
He sat staring at the screen. After a minute or so, he Googled his own name, just to see what would come up.
There were a zillion John Williamses, of course. He could eliminate the film score composer and the British actor from the ’50s, but that still left an astounding number.
He glanced down the first page. Nothing seemed to describe a John Williams that might be him. He clicked on to the next page and his breath caught.
At the top was a news site whose text contained the phrase “fugitive John Williams.” Fearfully, he double-clicked on it.
It wasn’t him. It was some gang member in Los Angeles.
Thinking he might as well, he typed “fugitive John Williams” into the search bar. There were about a half dozen, and he wasn’t any of them. Well, hallelujah.
But who was he? It would’ve been easier if his name were Zladko Nosovowich or something like that, but he was John Williams, who’d worked for over forty years as a claims adjuster for Liberty Mutual before retiring in 2003 at the age of sixty-two. He remembered that much. He decided to try their Web site.
There was nothing on it about him.
He went back to the original list and kept at it until his eyes were practically crossing in fatigue. His watch told him it was past 3:00 a.m. He needed to go back up to the room and get some sleep.
What was his room number? It was gone from his mind; utterly gone.
His legs felt like tree trunks as he crossed the lobby to the desk and informed the clerk of his problem. The clerk told him sympathetically that it happens a lot and looked up his name in the register.
He waited, praying that he’d checked in under his own name. Thank God he had, and he was told it was Room 715. He lurched his way over to the elevator, muttering to himself, “715, 715.”
When he got to his floor, he staggered to the room, barely making it to the bed, which he fell onto face-first and was instantly asleep.
His eyes popped open as the clock radio said 6:00 a.m. He again had no idea where he was. The events of the night before seemed like shadows, appearing and vanishing in a murky soup.
This time he learned the name of the hotel from the guest directory near the phone. Again, he picked it up and dialed his home number, hearing Edith’s voice on the answering machine. He left a similar, confused message, all the while feeling a sense of déjà vu.
Why wasn’t she home? Wait, maybe she’d gone to stay at Heather’s. He remembered now that Heather and Stan lived in Baltimore; they’d moved there almost a year ago. He didn’t know the number offhand, but he could get it from Information.
Before he did, though, he went to the door and found out for the third time what room he was in. Then he dialed Information, and then Heather.
Her voice was drowsy, befitting someone who’d been awakened by a 6:00 a.m. call. “H’llo?”
“Heather, it’s Dad. Is your mother with you?”
“I tried reaching her just now and nobody answered, so I got worried. Is she staying with you?”
There was a long pause.
“Dad, where are you?”
He told her the name of the hotel and the room number, which he now had no trouble remembering.
“What are you doing there?” Her voice sounded anxious.
“I don’t know; I just woke up. I seem to be forgetting things.”
There was another pause.
“Dad, stay where you are. I’m coming to get you. Stay in your room, okay? Don’t go anywhere.”
“Sure, honey, but what…?”
“Just stay put. It’ll take me a couple of hours, but I’m leaving now.”
“All right, but I don’t understand…”
“Neither do I, but we’ll figure it out when I get there. I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you too, honey.”
She hung up. Gee, he thought, she hasn’t called me Daddy since she was twelve.
He suddenly realized he was starving. He called room service and ordered a large ham-and-egg breakfast. Then he rediscovered the fact that his wallet was missing.
A jolt of panic shot through him. Should he call the police, or at least cancel his credit cards? But no, he’d wait until Heather got here. She could handle it, and there was time enough. The room service delivery wouldn’t be a problem because he could sign for it. All he had to do was wait and stay calm. And try to remember what the hell had happened to him.
He turned on the TV to CNN, marveling at the peculiarity of the news. They referred to President Obama. The last he remembered, Obama was on the verge of getting the nomination. Isn’t that something? he thought. President Obama! And yet, it seemed like he knew Obama was president, now that he was reminded of it.
One of the talking heads referred to the Wall Street meltdown. He guessed he knew that too, but it was as if he were just learning of it.
His breakfast arrived and he included a big tip when he signed the bill. Man, was he hungry!
About three bites into it, a Levitra commercial came on, and he recalled that he’d taken Levitra for a while when he had that prostate problem. But, of course, he’d stopped after…
He put down his fork and concentrated. Levitra. Something made him think about the box in his jacket pocket, the jacket he was still wearing. He took out the box and stared at it.
He hadn’t worn this jacket in a while; that’s why the pills were still there. But he must have taken one last night. Why would he do that?
A vague memory came to him of the prostitute. He’d been leaving the parking garage. She’d come up to him and offered herself. He remembered thinking, Why not? If this is going to be my last night on Earth, why not?
His last night on Earth? Why would he think something like that?
The answer came to him like a knife in his heart. Edith is dead. I killed her.
It took his breath away. He knew no more than that, but he knew it with dead certainty. He’d killed Edith.
But why? Why would he ever? He loved her more than anything in this world.
He got out of the chair and began to pace the room, his breakfast forgotten, his hunger gone. Sure, they’d had their disagreements, like any couple who’d been together forty-seven years, but nothing that would be a reason for murder!
He willed himself to remember: when did she die; how long ago was it? It seemed like three or four months, that sounded right. He’d changed his AOL password because it was too painful, but he’d left her voice on the answering machine because he couldn’t bear to erase her. All these details and more came back to him, as he tried to penetrate the mists and remember that one crucial thing. After awhile the pacing exhausted him, and, frustrated, he sat down heavily on the bed.
Time passed but he was unaware of it. Two hours went by as he concentrated furiously. Sometimes he sat, sometimes he paced, but he still couldn’t get there. It was just beyond the horizon.
His obsession was interrupted by a knock on the door. Heather was here.
And that’s when he remembered.
They’d been driving home from Heather and Stan’s, a lengthy drive from Baltimore to Long Island. They were on the Jersey Turnpike near Exit Three when Edith noticed the sign.
“Look,” she said, “we’re right near Atlantic City. Come on, let’s stop there. I’ve always wanted to gamble in Atlantic City.”
It annoyed him for several reasons. First, there was his long-standing aversion to gambling and people who liked to do it. Then there was the fact that Edith had consumed way too much wine with dinner, knowing he’d be doing the driving and feeling free to indulge herself. Third was her lousy sense of geography.
“We’re nowhere near Atlantic City,” he said. “That sign was for the Atlantic City Expressway. It’d be fifty miles out of our way in each direction.”
“No, it wouldn’t,” she insisted. “That sign distinctly said ‘Atlantic City.’”
“I’m telling you, it’s way across the state.”
“Well, I think you’re wrong,” she said with drunken assuredness.
It was so galling. He couldn’t stand it.
“Look at the map!” he shouted. “It’s in the backseat. Get it and look at it!”
“I don’t need any map,” she slurred. “I know what I saw.”
“Look at the goddamn map!” he yelled at her.
“All right!” she snapped back, undoing her seat belt. “Whatever you say, my lord and master.” She turned and clumsily reached over the cushion toward the backseat. And that’s when the car in front of them lost control.
It swerved and bounced off the median, turning sideways across their lane. He saw it too late and slammed on the brakes, but there was no chance. They plowed headlong into the other car and careened across the turnpike, sliding onto the shoulder and down into the ditch beside the road, where their car came to rest, tilted to one side.
His airbag had deployed. That and his seat belt had saved him, left him with only a few scratches and bruises. But Edith had been thrown through the back window. She was killed instantly. If she’d been in her seat and wearing her seat belt she’d be alive today. The reason she wasn’t was no one’s fault but his own.
He knew now why he’d come here. He’d taken a thousand dollars from the bank, leaving plenty behind for Heather and the grandchildren. His intention was to gamble with it for as long as he could, like she’d wanted to that night. Then he was going to drive those fifty miles along the Atlantic City Expressway to the New Jersey Turnpike, pull off the road at the exact spot of the accident, and blow his brains out.
“Dad?” Heather knocked on the door again, louder. “Dad?”
He opened the door and there she was, her face filled with love and concern. How could he ever have thought of killing himself? He must have been crazy. He took her in his arms and clung to her.
She told him how worried they’d been about him living alone in that house, how he needed to move to Baltimore, so they could see each other, so he could watch his grandchildren grow.
She was right, of course, she was right. But he didn’t want to think about anything. He just wanted to stay there in that moment, holding on to his daughter and to this strange sensation of peace that had come over him.
He didn’t know why, or how long it would last. But he knew that he never wanted to forget it.