Schwerner, Chaney & Goodman. Mean anything?
“Meridian,” from my first short-story collection, MATTERS FAMILIAR, raises that question, in the context of a conversation we need to have among ourselves that’s long overdue. “John Doe” awakes without his memory after a traffic accident, and his journey to its recovery reaches into the past he shares with his local caregivers.
Read the sample below and the full story to learn where they’re lead–links to follow.
He stirred. John? Who’s John?
It was Apparition Number Two. He was pleased. “Hi—I’m Rosa. How are you feeling?”
“Am—” The throaty fullness of the word brought him up short. “Am I, ‘John?’”
Her laugh was what music must be, he thought. She covered her mouth momentarily, embarrassed at the breach in her professionalism. “No; that’s just what we call you, or anyone else that we can’t identify: ‘John Doe.’ Do you know what your name is?”
“John” shook his head, gravely.
“Let’s try something.” Rosa reached into the nightstand drawer and produced a framed object. She pushed it toward him until her face was edged out by the reflected growth of another. Aside from the freakish sutures that snaked around his forehead and across the bridge of his nose and an eye socket the color of an eggplant, he found himself drawn to what he saw. Light, mottled skin, close-cropped hair, and pale-bright eyes were visible there. John watched them cloud as any association he’d expected failed him. She lowered the mirror and the sight of his disappointment defeated her expectation as well.
“Worth a try,” she said softly as she laid the glass aside. “You talked a lot in your sleep last night. Do you remember?”
“N-No. What did I say?”
“Nothing worth repeating.”
He studied the room as if for the first time. “How long have I been here?”
“How did I get here? That other girl said ‘accident.’”
“Ambulance brought you. Your car slipped off the highway in the rain last Saturday evening, dozen or so miles north of here, and rolled over. This was the closest place, given your condition.” She looked again for any glimmer. He shrugged.
“Good afternoon, Mr.—?” A tall, white-coated man appeared in the doorway and glanced at Rosa, his eyebrows raised. She shook her head. “—Doe. How are we feeling today?” Close dark hair salted with gray framed his head, as did the mustache surrounding another expansive smile with strong teeth.
Terminally confused—and you?
“I’m Doctor Dunbar. Stitched you up last weekend, up to the limits of a General Surgeon’s abilities. Since then, we’ve just watched and waited to see what Nature brings.” Glancing at the parti-colored digits and squiggles on the vitals monitor, he unpocketed a fluoroscope and peered into John’s eyes and ears. Seizing his hands, he drew John’s arms parallel in front of him and manipulated them like jump ropes. He moved down the bed and tapped the cartilages below his patient’s kneecaps until they jerked. He pulled back the sheet and knifed John’s arches with the edge of his hand. John felt the concussions dart from the brow of his skull back toward his ears.
“Well, sir; I’d say we’re about ready to get you on your feet, if you’re up to it. I’m going to ask Nurse Scott here to dial down the painkillers a bit so’s you can get a better idea how you really feel. I’ll check in tomorrow.”
“What happened to my face?”
“Hit that air bag pretty hard, you did. Lacerations—cuts—accounted for by partial roof collapse and flying glass in the rollovers. Other than that, you were pretty lucky. That seatbelt held you in tight; bruised clavicle and pelvis was the worst you got from that.” Dr. Dunbar leaned in a little and modulated his voice. “Truth is, that nippin’ flask he—they—found under the seat helped keep you relaxed. Good thing it was late and that passer-by wasn’t the law.” He winked.
John grinned a little, not fully understanding why. “What about my memory?”
Dr. Dunbar scratched his head. “How long you been here?”
“Six days; but what—?”
“See, you’ve got short-term retention and that’s good. What it is, is traumatic amnesia—total memory loss caused by sudden shock and physical injury. I could explain it better if I was a brain doctor. Best we can do is get you clear-headed and moving around some and see what develops after that. Could be that some association might trigger a longer-term memory function. Give it three or four weeks; if there’s no improvement by then I’ll make some calls down south to see about a neurological consult. Meantime, you just focus on getting better.”
“What is this place?”
“Convalescent center,” the doctor said. “Ambulance took you to Jeff Anderson. I was on call and had you transferred here when you stabilized.”
“Meridian.” Dr. Dunbar paused. “Mississippi. Accident happened partway up 19 near Okatibbee Lake.” Another pause; he and the nurse traded glances. “You were headed here from Philadelphia, apparently.”
“Oh.” John blanked.
Dunbar motioned at Rosa with his head and they adjourned to the open doorway, whispering.
“I’ve directed Nurse Scott to leave that drip open enough to give you one more good night of knockout sleep.” Doctor and nurse departed; over his shoulder he said, “Courage, Mr. Doe. Time is on our side.”
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