From Dallas Doctor’s soon to be published 4th collection of short stories, “The Hitchhiker & Other Stories”:
Walter Street’s Convenient Amnesia
By Dallas Doctor
Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary happened that morning. Everything was exactly the same as it ever was. At the front door, my wife gave me her usual peck on the cheek and sent me off, as was her habit, with: “Don’t work too hard, Darling.”
The only thing I can think of that was remotely different — and you couldn’t really call this unusual — was that on my way to the office that day, I stopped in to see my old friend and physician, Dr. Bob, for my semi-annual check-up. My friend, Dr. Bob, just as he always did, after all the usual pokes and prods, told me, yet again, that I was working too hard. He scolded me. He warned me that sooner or later, I was heading for a breakdown.
“Someday you’re going to snap,” Dr. Bob prophesied.
I confessed I’d been under a great deal of stress lately, trying to put together a particularly complex portfolio. “But that’s always the way it is in business,” I reminded him, “the pressure’s always on. You pitch one deal, then you pitch the next deal. That’s just the nature of the game. For all our talk about keeping an eye on the future, we only truly experience the now. And the now is always burdensome. The to-do-list never ends. And the days all just seem to run into each other.”
“In the old days, they called what you’ve got coming to you “a ramble in aphasia.” Dr. Bob elaborated, “we used to think brain disorders came only from injury or trauma. But nowadays we’ve come to understand that the causes are just as likely to be psychological — and stress is particularly dangerous.”
“Oh, you’re such a worrier Doc, I’ll be fine,” I assured him, “as soon as I wrap up this next dossier, things’ll get easier.”
“My prescription for you is to take a break,” Dr Bob suggested, “I’d send you to the pharmacy, or to the beach, or to the Himalayas, if I thought you’d go.”
“I’ll be fine, Doc,” I promised. And we left it at that.
I can’t say with any certainty that Dr. Bob’s warning was the very thing that precipitated my attack; all I can tell you is that the condition came on suddenly.
I awoke, stiff, cramped, crumpled, and confused in seat 2C in the first-class cabin of a non-stop-flight between LAX and NY-LaGuardia. The only reason I knew New York was my destination was because, when I searched my pockets, I found the stub of a boarding pass stashed in my coat. Other than the partial-ticket-stub however, I found no other documents — none — no wallet – no I.D. — no documents — only a large paper bag stuffed with cash — quite a lot of cash — large bills — far too much to try to count while there was a stranger sitting right next to me. “How-the-hell did I board this airplane with this much cash and no I.D.?” I wondered. “Something must have happened after the security checkpoint and before I boarded the plane.”
The stranger in seat 2A noticed I was awake. “You headed to the grocer’s convention at Javitz?’ He asked.
“Javitz?” I was utterly confused. I had no idea what he was saying. “Grocer’s convention?” I didn’t know how to respond.
“Most of us on this flight are headed there,” my talkative new friend in seat 2C explained, “I happened to notice the large package wrapped in brown grocer’s paper in your coat-pocket, and I witnessed the way you refused to let the stewardess hang your coat when you took your seat, so I figured, naturally, that like many of the rest of us, you’re guarding a special presentation for the Grocer’s Convention this weekend at the Javitz Center.”
“Yes, that’s it exactly,” I was glad the stranger had provided an explanation, no matter how bizarre or unlikely. I began to try to gather my wits.
“My name’s Murphy,” The stranger extended his hand.
“Nice to make your acquaintance,” I returned hoping not to have to take the conversation any further, but my row-mate paused — that waiting-for-the-other-shoe pause — that expecting-some-reciprocity pause. I knew I needed a name. Shit! I glanced around the cabin. Nothing came to mind. Then I saw the newspaper folded in my new friend’s lap. “My name’s Wall,” I ventured, but I must have mumbled, because my new friend misheard me.
“Did you say Wall or Walt?” Mr. Murphy wanted to know.
“Walt,” I decided to run with his mistake, “Walter actually,” I improvised before glancing again at his newspaper, “Walter Street.” I admit it wasn’t very clever concoction, but I was on the spot. I needed a name. The pressure was on and I wasn’t thinking as clearly as I might. Before I could take it back, or attempt a second try at a new identity, my new friend put me at ease by seeming to accept my explanation just as if there was nothing unusual or suspicious about it whatsoever.
“Well, Mr. Street,” Murphy began, ‘if you don’t mind me asking, what’s this big secret you’ve got wrapped up in that bag? Or are you saving it for the convention?”
“I’m saving it,” I embraced the ready-made excuse and hoped I could bring the conversation to a close, “I’m sorry, but you’ll just have to wait for the convention.”
“Well I’ll tell you mine,” Murphy volunteered, “I’m going to propose to the Grocer’s Association a new protocol — that we henceforth adopt an industry-wide standard — and agree that jams and jellies should be separated, in order to avoid further confusion to the consumer.”
“Jams and jellies? Confusing?” I searched in vain for a way to pretend to understand what this Murphy was blabbering about.
“People confuse the jams and jellies all the time, but they’re actually quite different,” Murphy sounded like he was about to launch into an oration. “it’s like cucumbers and zucchinis. You’d be surprised how many people can’t tell the difference. It’s like H2O and H2O2! You wouldn’t put distilled water right next to the hydrogen peroxide, so why should we place the jams and jellies in the same section?”
“But if you separate similar items by increasing the distance between them,” I was trying to decipher his ramblings, “that only makes it harder to tell the difference. Surely the salient characteristics of each product would become more evident if they were placed side-by-side for comparison.”
“I don’t need to see New Orleans and New York side-by-side in order to tell the difference,” Murphy finally said something that made sense, “they’re both cities, but they’re not the same, so why would you put them together? It only adds to the confusion.”
“I see your point,” I acquiesced and then lobbied for an end to the conversation: “you can count on my full support when you make your proposal at the convention.”
“Well, Thank you, Mr. Street.” Murphy seemed placated. He’d won his little victory. He picked up his newspaper in a smugly satisfied way. But the quiet lasted mere moments. “Here’s another one of those bullshit amnesia cases,” Murphy started in again as he read aloud from his newspaper: “(AP) San Diego: Stock broker disappears without a trace. William Sydney Porter – a prominent citizen has been missing for three days. All efforts to locate him have been in vain.”
“Bill Porter, eh?” I glanced over to see if there was a photo attached to the article.
Murphy continued reading: “On the day of his disappearance, Porter withdrew a large sum of money. Police have not ruled out foul play.”
“Could be a genuine case of amnesia,” I suggested.
“Oh nonsense! Amnesia only happens in the movies,“ Murphy countered, “that’s not real life. It’s more likely that this fellow just got tired of his hum-drum life and ran off. If I thought I could pull it off, I might try the same stunt.”
I wasn’t sure I should say anything else, so I asked Murphy if I could borrow his newspaper. Murphy graciously gave it up. After reading the article twice and deciding I had nothing of substance to contribute in the way of further speculation, I moved on to another article, and then another, and another, and luckily, I was able to keep Murphy silent for long periods by pretending to read.
When we eventually landed, Murphy offered to share a cab into the city. “Where you staying?” Murphy wanted to know.
“The Essex House,” I blurted out the only name of a New York City hotel I could remember.
“Oh, very nice,” Murphy nodded, “what firm did you say you worked for again?”
“Independent counsel for a conglomerate of concerns,” it sounded like such bullshit when it came out of my mouth that I almost laughed out loud when I said it, but much to my surprise, Murphy bought it completely. He had the driver drop me off on Central Park South in front of The Essex House.
I checked in as Walter Street without identification or luggage, explaining that the airline had lost my bag, along with my I.D., but that I had enough cash on me to make good my promise to clear up the registration as soon as my bags arrived.
And it was that easy. The next day began the short, happy life of Walter Street. And what a wonderful life it was! I walked the streets of Manhattan. I sought refuge in sidewalk cafés. I went to the theatre. I visited museums. I rode the ferry. I meandered through Central park. It was glorious. I began to like being Walter Street.
I think it was my third day as Walter Street that I was spotted. I was returning to The Essex House with yet another excuse, when a well-dressed older gentleman lobbied some unwarranted and unwelcome familiarity in my general direction:
“Porter? Bill Porter?” The old gentleman asked peering with something-less-than-certainty into my eyes.
“Bill Porter is a very common name,” I deflected, “my name is Walter Street.”
“Oh, I am sorry,” the old gentleman retreated, “pardon me. I thought I knew you.”
That’s when I decided I’d better leave the Essex House. I was running out of excuses anyway. I gathered up the few items of clothing I’d purchased, settled my bill, and moved into a much-lower-profile, and much-seedier, hotel in the East Village – one of those kind of places that didn’t ask many questions.
I liked my new situation. I was quite happy with my new smaller, cozier, more-anonymous room and I was enjoying the city with even greater abandon than before And I realized something that I’d never previously understood. It was this: “Freedom isn’t about wilderness, or geography, or adventure, or even about breaking free from convention. Freedom doesn’t come from eschewing convention; but from embracing it. The freedom is in choosing which convention fits.” For me, freedom is sitting in a café in the middle of day disconnecting myself from all life-long expectations and entanglements. The feeling is unmatched in all existence. It’s absolutely glorious.”
I was thus reveling in exactly the aforementioned euphoria, while simultaneously partaking in a little fine Italian fare, seated outside — and solo — at Pete’s Tavern on East 18th Street when I heard an almost magical voice:
“William? Is that you?” A stunningly beautiful woman — the kind any man would be proud to know — approached me with a tentative, but hopeful smile. “Bill Porter? Well I never expected to see you here. What on earth are you doing in New York?”
“I’m sorry,” I prepared her for disappointment, “I’m flattered by the attention, but are you quite sure you know me?”
“Why, Bill?” She exclaimed, “I’d know you anywhere.”
“What would you say if I told you my name was Walter Street?” I winced.
“Oh, Bill? You scoundrel! I’d say your wife is not with you on this trip,” the beautiful woman winked, “and that you’re up to something — probably something no good. Quite frankly, I’m happy to see you out and about like this. I always thought you were too conventional for your own good. I’m happy to see this side of you. Tell me one thing though. I’ve always wanted to know: When I threw you over. When I chose the other William, instead of you, all those years ago, you said you’d never forget me and that you’d never again be able to look at a bird of paradise without experiencing bottomless grief. Do you still feel that way about a bird of paradise? I’ve often wondered. And have you really forgotten me? Please don’t say you’ve forgotten our …” … and she trailed off in thought.
I didn’t know how to respond. She was not only beautiful, but she seemed kind and gentle, as well. I realized that I would have liked to have known her better. “I’m terribly sorry to disappoint you,” I hoped to ease the blow of what I was about to say, “but I have no memory of birds of paradise, or sadly, of you.”
“Why William Sydney Porter? You proposed marriage to me with the most colorful, most exotic bird of paradise bouquet anybody ever saw. Surely you remember that?”
“As pleasant and pleasing as I imagine such a scene might have been,” I assured her, “I have no memory of any bouquets of paradise, … or of any proposal. My name is Walter Street and I must bear some resemblance to …”
“Your name is not Walter Street,” the lady insisted, “who do you think you’re talking to?”
“Okay, you win. You’ve got me on that point,” I revealed, “I should confess to you that it’s possible you might be correct. I don’t know my name. As far as I can tell, my name is Walter Street and I’m suffering from a particularly myopic form of amnesia. Tragically, I have no memory of the wonderful things you are telling me. I want to believe you, because they sound heavenly. Any man would be lucky to have loved you — even once — even long ago. But I’m sorry I cannot satisfy your curiosity. I do wish you nothing but the best. Please forgive me if I don’t remember.”
“Not even the birds of paradise?” Her smile faded.
“I’m sorry,” I hated to say it, “not even the birds of paradise.”
“My car is waiting,” the lady abruptly changed her attitude and turned to walk away, but hesitated, “and don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me.”
Oh what euphoria? I’d forgotten how magical it was to find yourself in the presence of a kind, beautiful woman. I decided this day was my best day ever. I walked, tripped, skipped, and almost danced, as if on a cloud, all the way back to my cozy little room in the East Village.
When I arrived at my hotel, a strange man in a dark suit pulled me aside and asked for a moment of my time. “Good afternoon Mr. Street,” he seemed to know me, “my name’s Bowery. I represent an interested party and I’d like a word with you in private, if you please. Would you be so kind as to accompany me into the lounge for a moment? I’ve got a table reserved for us.”
“Certainly,” I followed him to the lounge. Seated behind a particularly obtrusive flower arrangement in the center of the table the stranger had reserved was another man and a woman, both looking very concerned. The woman would have easily been described as attractive but for the obvious worry on her face. The man however seemed to temper his outward concern with barely-concealed satisfaction.
The man spoke first: “Porter, old man, I tried to warn you.”
“My name’s Street,” I insisted.
“Oh, Bill? How could you?” The woman erupted. She threw her arms around me.
“I’m sorry, but I think I’ve been mistaken for the Bill Porter one too many times today,” I tried to explain as I unpeeled the woman from my person, “I’ll forgive you your mistake if you’ll please forgive me taking my leave, with my apologies. I do hope you’ll find what you’re looking for.”
The woman turned to the man, pleading, “Doctor? Isn’t there anything you can do?”
“Perhaps,” The doctor nodded, “perhaps there is.” The doctor then turned to the private detective, thanked him for his service, and asked him to take the lady upstairs so that the doctor and I could have a moment alone.
“OK, Now. Out with it, Man,” the doctor began as soon as the detective and the woman were out of earshot, “your name is not Walter Street. That name is neither creative nor clever. What were you thinking?”
“I had to make it up on the spot,” I revealed, “I admit it’s not a very good name, but I was in a fog and only had a mere moment to come up with it. After that, I was stuck with it. I’m actually quite surprised that everyone seems to accept it so uncritically.”
“Well in any case,” the doctor continued, “your name isn’t Street; it’s William Sydney Porter and you are a respected stock broker, upright citizen, and patron of the arts from San Diego who is suffering from a very rare case of retrograde amnesia. That lady you just sent away in unmerited grief is your wife, Elizabeth.”
“I meant her no harm,” I excused myself as carefully as I could, “she seems like a fine-enough woman. I wouldn’t mind at all being associated with her in the way you describe. It’s just that I don’t remember.”
“You should think about what you’ve put her through. She’s barely slept since your disappearance. We received a call from an old Marberry, who said he saw you at the Essex House. We flew out immediately.”
“Yes, I remember that strange encounter at the Essex House,” I put two-and-two together, “that’s when all this Bill Porter rigamarole started. Would you be kind enough to tell me exactly who you are and what — exactly — is your interest in my situation?”
“I am your doctor and your oldest friend,” the man replied, “I do not need to tell you my name, because you already know it. I’m here to cure you.”
“Cure me – eh?” I asked: “This cure? I wonder. Let’s say, hypothetically, that I’m willing to go along with your plan and be cured. Will it take a long time and be very expensive? Or can it happen quickly and inexpensively?”
“Hard to say,” the doctor considered, “recovery could be gradual, or it could be instant. Are you willing to submit to my treatment?”
“It depends,” I conditioned.
“On what?” the doctor inquired.
“On confidentiality,” I set my terms, ‘I must know that our conversations will be kept in strict confidentiality between us. If you agree to that, I will agree to your treatment.”
“Absolute confidence, guaranteed,” the doctor accepted my terms.
“Very well, then, let’s have the less-expensive instant cure,” I shook the doctor’s hand, “but before we begin, I need to do one thing. There’s one last thing bothering me that I must take care of before I am cured. It’s this damn centerpiece! Why am I sitting here with a bird of paradise mocking me? Why are there birds of paradise bouquets everywhere I go? Will you please ask the bartender to remove this damn flower arrangement?”
“Certainly.” The doctor did not hesitate. He removed the flowers himself. He transported the birds of paradise, the vase, the garnish, the doily, the entire arrangement across the room and requested the bartender remove the offense from my sight. The doctor then returned to the table and asked, “feel better now?”
“Much better, Doc,” I grinned, “you are indeed a miracle worker. You can go ahead and bring Elizabeth back down now. I can feel my amnesia slipping away. But oh Dr. Bob, just between you and me, in complete confidence, I’m sure going to miss my condition. It was a real hoot there for a while. Just exactly what I needed.”
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