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Man Walks into a Roomby Nicole Krauss
WHEN THEY FOUND him he was halfway down the only stretch of asphalt that cuts through Mercury Valley. The two police officers saw him up the road, ragged as a crow. He looked at them blankly when they pulled up next to him, neither surprised nor grateful. They asked him questions that seemed to confuse him, and his gaze slipped past them to scout the desert. He didn't struggle when they frisked him. They opened his wallet and counted out twenty-three dollars and change. They read his name and address aloud to him but his expression registered nothing. The man before them in a filthy suit bore almost no resemblance to the bright, focused face on the New York State license; sun had darkened his features and dust had worn itself into the creases of his skin so that it was impossible to believe he was only thirty-six. They assumed he'd stolen the wallet, and though it was clear he was dehydrated and confused they locked his wrists together as they led him into the car. He sat rigidly in the backseat, at a forward tilt with his eyes fixed on the road. They called him Samson not because they believed it was really his name but because they could think of nothing else to call him.
While they treated him in the emergency room in Las Vegas for whatever he was suffering, one of the police officers put in a call for a search on Samson Greene, d.o.b. 1/29/64. When it was discovered that Samson Greene had been missing for eight days, last seen walking out of the gates of Columbia University and down Broadway into the clear afternoon, things began to get interesting. Someone in the Twenty-fourth Precinct in Manhattan was able to connect the police officer to the social services agency where Samson's wife worked, and after speaking to three people he was finally put through to her. Hello? she said quietly into the phone, already informed of who was on the other end. Is he alive?
There was a short, confused discussion: what did he mean, they weren't sure if it was him, didn't his license say Samson Greene?, to which the police officer didn't want to reply, Lady, Samson Greene could be lying in a ditch somewhere outside Vegas having taken a knife to the chest from the man who's now a card-carrying member of the West Side Racquet Club, the Faculty of English at Columbia University, the Museum of Modern Art. Are there any distinguishing marks? the police officer asked. Yes, she said, a scar down the back of his left arm. She paused, as if Samson were lying in front of her and she was inspecting his body. And a birthmark above his shoulder blade. The police officer said he would call her back as soon as he knew anything, giving her the number of the pay phone out of courtesy. She insisted on waiting on the line, so he left the receiver hanging off the hook while he went to check whether it was in fact her husband on the gurney. A nurse passing by picked it up and said, Hello? Hello? When there was no answer, she hung up. A minute later the phone rang but no one was around so it just rang and rang in urgent bursts, each ring separated by a brief, desperate silence.
Later they were able to reconstruct most of his journey from the receipts for bus tickets in his pockets, from the few accounts of witnesses who recalled having seen him — a waitress, the manager of a motel in Dayton, Ohio — confirmed by the ghostly flicker of his image caught by the wandering eye of security cameras. When they eventually played these tapes back to Samson he smiled and shook his head because he could not remember where he'd been or why he'd gone there. In a way that she couldn't explain, alone in her own sadness, those images made Anna Greene want her husband terribly, as she hadn't since they began to share a bed, a car, a dog, a bathroom. In one of them, the only one in which you could see Samson's face clearly, he was standing at the checkout desk in a Budget motel outside Nashville. He was holding open his wallet and his face was tilted upward, his expression as peaceful and absorbed as a child's.
While Anna was looking down from the plane on the rucked mass of Nevada cut by a glinting vein leading to Vegas, the neurologist, a Dr. Tanner, was studying a CT scan of Samson's brain. By the time Anna arrived at the hospital, disheveled, wheeling behind her a small suitcase none of whose contents she could remember packing, Samson had been diagnosed with a tumor that, all those months lost in work or sleep, had been applying its arbitrary, pernicious pressure on his brain. The heat during the drive from the airport had been, even in May, almost unbearable. Now Anna was shivering in the air-conditioned hospital, her damp shirt clinging to her back. She couldn't understand, nor was anyone yet able to explain to her, how Samson had gotten to where they'd found him, some nowhere in Nevada. It was with great difficulty that she registered the words of Dr. Tanner, who was sitting across from her now. It's about the size of a cherry, pressing on the temporal lobe of his brain, most likely a juvenile pilocytic astrocytoma. And in her own mind — clear, unthreatened by disease — Anna imagined the shiny dark red of a cherry nestled into the gray matter of the brain. Once, five or six years ago, they had pulled off the road in Connecticut to follow a painted sign that said Cherry Picking. They'd driven back through the early summer evening with two baskets and stained fingers, the windows open to let in the smell of cut grass. As she listened to Dr. Tanner's voice and his patient, kind pauses, Anna sensed he was a happy man, one who would drive home in his soundproof car listening to classical FM, to his wife with her bright and easy laugh — a man who did not wake each day to the misery he'd left slumped in the chair the night before. She felt envious of him, envious of the nurses passing in the hall who were happy enough to dress themselves this morning in starched uniforms, envious of the orderlies and the janitor pushing his gray mop along the linoleum floor.
Dr. Tanner continued: After the surgery we'll perform a biopsy and hope it's benign, he said, a word, Anna thought, that seemed unkind as all euphemisms are, and as Samson had once pointed out to her. Dr. Tanner turned the CT scan around and slid it across the desk to her, leaning forward in his chair to trace the atlas of Samson's brain with the cap of his pen. It came to rest on a yellow island in a continent of blue. He seems, for the moment, to be operating on a kind of autopilot, an awareness educated enough to get him across the country alone. Whether or not some or all of his memory functions have been destroyed permanently, or whether the surgery will itself incur such damage, is impossible to predict. Anna looked out the window to the hospital's landscape kept evergreen by the steady dose of water meted out by sprinklers. She was thirty-one years old. She had been with Samson for almost ten years. She thought of the time he'd had a toothache so severe he cried, and also, inexplicably, of the time he'd sent her flowers for her birthday but on the wrong day. She turned back to Dr. Tanner and studied his face. If you remove it and it's benign, she finally said, is there a chance he'll be all right?, though by all right what she meant was the same. I don't think you understand, Dr. Tanner said, his voice filled with the compassion that is sometimes confused with pity. Chances are his memory will be obliterated. He paused, a deep, medical pause, his fingers resting lightly on Samson's brain. He probably won't remember who you are.
WHAT HE REMEMBERED about opening his eyes was the clock on the wall above the door that read 3:30. He must have drifted in and out of consciousness for a while longer, because when he woke again the clock was gone and he was in another room with a window, the curtains pulled back to let in the sun. Later he tried to remember exactly what he felt and thought in those first hours, but unlike the sharp clarity of what followed, he could only recall the vague wake of the anesthesia. He wanted to remember those first pure moments without reference, when something had been removed from his brain and what filled its place, like air rushing into a vacuum, was emptiness. Though there was nothing else to call it, it wasn't quite forgetfulness. He tried to explain this to Anna once enough time had passed that he learned, again, what forgetting was; it wasn't like the amputation of an arm where the mind still feels an itch in phantom fingers. It was a complete eradication, the removal of both memory and its echo, and it was this that Anna couldn't understand, this lack of regret. But how can one regret what, to the mind, has never existed? Even loss is an inaccurate description, for what loss is without the awareness of losing?
Weeks later, on the plane back to New York, Samson sat next to Anna, his head shaved and bandaged over the incision, the large envelope with his CT scans resting on his knees. He had lost twenty pounds, and the clothes he was wearing — the only things Anna could find in the cheap stores near the hospital — were unfashionable and didn't fit properly. Out of the corner of his eye Samson saw that Anna was staring at him, but he was afraid if he spoke to her she might cry. He trusted her because she cared for him and there was no one else. When the plane began its descent into La Guardia, she covered his hand with her own, and as they touched down he looked at her hand, trying to make something of it. During the taxi ride through Queens, Samson pressed his forehead against the window and read the illuminated signs along the highway. When they crossed the Triboro Bridge and Manhattan rose against the night sky, Anna asked, "Do you remember?"
"From the movies," he said, and leaned forward to see.
The benign astrocytoma they removed from his brain had been preserved on slides, and stored in the hospital's pathology lab. The biopsy suggested that it had been slowly growing for months, maybe years, without effect. It was what they called a silent tumor, without the manifestation of symptoms that might have alerted anyone to its presence. Before the moment Samson had put down a book in his office at the university and closed his memory with it, there might have been small falters, moments when his memory lapsed into blackness before returning seconds later. But if these had happened there was no way of knowing now. All the while, the tumor had been forming itself in his mind like a nightmarish pearl. That late May afternoon, school just let out, the shouts of students floating in through the open windows, it had finally gained enough mass that its gradual exertion of pressure became too much. Between two words in a book Samson's memory had vanished. Everything, save for his childhood, which days later in a hospital in Nevada he woke up remembering.
At first he couldn't even remember his own name. Still, there were things, like the taste of orange juice, that were familiar to him. He knew that the woman who stood by his bed in the red shirt was pretty, though he couldn't think of plainer faces against which hers stood out. These early signs were promising, and as the doctors tested him it became clear that not only had he retained a sort of intrinsic memory of the world but, more remarkably, he was able to lay down new memories. He could remember everything that had happened after the operation. The doctors seemed puzzled by this, and during teaching rounds they paused for a long time in Samson's room. They continued to inject him with glucose, but as the days passed it was clear his memory loss wasn't an effect of the edema. His particular scenario — retrograde amnesia causing the loss of all specific memories prior to surgery, while the capacity to remember still functioned — was highly unusual. And while Samson seemed to have forgotten his entire autobiography, he nevertheless knew that the flowers on the night table were called amaryllis and that the woman who stood by his bed, Anna, had brought them for him. And it was in opening his eyes to those obscure white blooms a week after his operation that something like a fragment from a dream dislodged itself and floated up to the surface of his mind.
It was the vivid color of the memory that startled him, a luminous blue. It was all around him, warm and smooth, and moving through it toward the glow of light he could hear muted sounds that seemed to come from a great, impassable distance. There was a felicity despite the slow pressure on his lungs that finally pushed him upward. He remembered that when his head broke through the surface of the water he'd been surprised by the chill of the air and the world that stood in perfect, microscopic clarity: the blades of grass, the night sky, the dripping faces of two boys illuminated by the pool lights. "Forty-three seconds!" one shouted, looking at his watch, then barreled down the diving board, leaped into the air, and clutched his knees, dropping into the water with a lucid splash.
In the days following his operation, memories from his childhood continued to appear in his mind with unnerving precision. It was as if the apertures of his eyes, confused by the outside world, had been directed inward and begun to cast, like a camera obscura, perfect images on the whitewashed walls of his mind. The hairline cracks of a sugar bowl on the kitchen table. The sun falling through the leaves casting shadows on his fingers. His mother's eyelashes. Anna had been overjoyed, squeezing his hand each time he described to her what he could remember. That's what she was at first, this woman who sat day in and day out by his bed, whose thin wrists he could encircle with two fingers: an audience for his memories. And although it alarmed him that she knew, like an informed agent, many of the years and places of those memories, he continued to narrate them to her because he sensed that she could help him. Again and again he described his mother to her, in the hope that Anna might find her and bring her to him. When he asked why his mother wouldn't come, she covered her mouth and looked away.
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