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A Hint of Self-Awareness
By Leland Neville
Cole James, alone in a Honda Accord, was traveling sixty miles per hour when a gray Corvette materialized dead center in his lane. A head-on collision was inescapable. It was thirty years ago, a Sunday, and the driver of the gray sports car who would possibly kill Cole had underestimated the speed of the semi-trailer he was attempting to pass. Cole, trapped between a truck, a car, and a granite mountain, heard a sonorous blast from the diesel’s horn. Tightening his grip on the steering wheel, he held his breath and closed his eyes.
Cole had lived a fortunate life.
U.S. Route 15, an endless strip of asphalt patched concrete, was inexplicably deserted. The Corvette had impossibly wedged itself in front of the semi. He owed the truck driver, who had evidently braked just in time, his life. Or maybe he was dead and didn’t owe the trucker anything. Perhaps he had been saved by an unintelligible rip in the space/time continuum. No, Cole was probably dead. He estimated the velocity of the gray car and his Honda and did some math: E(kinetic)=1/2mv . It had been a relatively quick, painless, and loud demise. Cole drove for another hour before stopping at Paul’s Pancake Barn. Although he had never liked pancakes and was not much of a coffee drinker, Cole ordered the big stack and a bottomless cup of coffee. Chocolate chip pancakes soon became his favorite meal. Cole also grew addicted to coffee.
He never told anyone about his close call. Not his parents. Not his girlfriend Katie. There wasn’t, of course, much to tell. The terror on U.S. Route 15 had been fleeting. There were no subsequent flashbacks or nightmares. Psychological studies suggest that tens of thousands of people undergo near death experiences every day and most suffer no long term effects. Except for a diminishing sense of self-awareness that infected what had been his soul, Cole never felt better. He could exist in heaven or hell or a not quite parallel universe. He was adaptable. Life doesn’t have to be either/or. It doesn’t have to be neither/nor. It is certainly not black and white.
Katie immediately sensed his metamorphosis or his death. Her kiss was passionless, almost obligatory. “How are your parents?” she asked.
“Fine. I told them you’d see them next month. They told me to tell you not to study too hard for finals. They said you’re already plenty smart enough.”
Katie laughed. “Did they really say that? When did they start talking like hillbillies?”
His parents did not, of course, talk that like hillbillies. Cole’s mother was a teacher and his father was a scientist at the Smithsonian. He was their only child. But suddenly it was impossible to remember what they looked like. He envisioned graying featureless humanoids living inside a cylindrical yellow spaceship. It didn’t matter. Memories, he knew, are a meaningless construct.
The sex between Katie and him that evening was sad and forgettable; at least that is what she told him two weeks later. “Something is not right,” she explained at the Original Pancake House in Rochester. “Maybe it is you or maybe it is me. It’s probably both of us. I feel more alone when I’m with you than when I’m by myself. I love you, but I need to stop seeing you. I don’t like being lonely. We need a break from each other. I need to move out.”
He swallowed the syrupy remains of a chocolate chip pancake. “Okay.”
“Is that all you can say?” She quietly dabbed her eyes with a paper napkin. “Is that really all you can say?”
Cole didn’t know what he was supposed to say or what she needed to hear. Katie was, however, right: Something was different. He illogically felt like he needed both more and less of life. A comfortable veil of ambiguity had descended. Something was both missing and overwhelming. He helped Katie move into her best friend’s apartment. She left behind the unpretentious jewelry he had given her and two photographs of a contently smiling young couple. Katie went missing eight weeks later. The police talked to him a few times, but she was soon forgotten. It was as if an alternate universe had swallowed her up. The jewelry and photos also vanished.
Cole was fired from his accounting job when the language of business became indecipherable. Simple mistakes proliferated. Unpredictable numbers tumbled into space.
“Are you okay?” his supervisor asked. “Do you need to have your eyes examined or maybe take a few days off?”
He spent his severance pay and unemployment insurance on gasoline and budget motel rooms along U.S. Route 15. He ate chocolate chip pancakes three times a day. His eight hours of sleep each night was sound and dreamless. He did not look for the gray Corvette. He did not detect any unfamiliar emotions when he passed the spot where he had possibly died or been transformed by unearthly forces. He did not listen to the radio or watch television. He found Memory, a tattered novel by Donald Westlake, inside his room at the Big Mouth Bass Motel and began reading it during his meals. He hadn’t read a novel (The Stranger, by Albert Camus) since college. After finishing Memory he would immediately begin rereading it. Memory continued to evolve.
His assets dropped below two hundred dollars when he was in Williamsville, a small Pennsylvania town whose economy revolved around the Western State Penitentiary.
“Are you here for an interview?” Hannah the waitress refilled his coffee cup and he looked up from the excellent chocolate chip pancakes. She didn’t wait for a response. “Western State is expanding. There’s a crime wave caused by drugs and lead in the environment. They need correctional officers and teachers. You look more like a teacher than a guard.”
Her fingernails glowed red and her tight black hair sparkled. Hannah was of indeterminate age. He didn’t know if she was engaging in friendly banter.
“I’m looking for a teaching job.”
“I knew it,” she cooed. “Well good luck. This is a nice town.”
“Were you born here?”
“No one is born here. There aren’t any schools. Taxes are low. I’ve started a nest egg. Pregnant women move to Pittsburgh, sometimes with their boyfriends, usually alone.”
“Have there been many prison escapes?”
“None. We’re as good as Alcatraz, and we’ve been around longer. We don’t get the publicity because Alcatraz is near San Francisco which is near Hollywood. Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery were in Alcatraz movies. Western State has been used in a few low budget Dracula movies, but it’s not the same thing.”
“We have an opening for a reading teacher,” said the superintendent of education.
“Inmates hate to read. Correctional officers hate to read. Most of my teachers hate to read. If you take the job everyone will begin hating you when they see you with a book.” The superintendent didn’t smile.
“That’s okay,” Cole answered. “I have trouble interpreting people’s feelings so I probably won’t notice. I seem to lack consciousness.”
“You’ve come to the right place,” said the superintendent.
“It feels comfortable,” Cole answered. “Timeless.”
“What book are you currently reading? You have five seconds to answer.”
“Memory by Donald Westlake.”
The superintendent smiled. His teeth were wide and shiny, like the plastic cabinets at the Penn Motel. Cole wondered about the prison’s health and dental plans. Government jobs usually come with outstanding benefits. Cole thought about starting a nest egg.
“I love Westlake,” said the superintendent. “If only we could persuade people to read and write. It would be revolutionary.”
“I could spend years just teaching Memory.”
“You can start Monday. We don’t do evaluations or worry about credentials around here. The good teachers stay and the bad teachers quit. It’s an effective system.”
Later that evening there was rapid but gentle knock on his motel door. “Did you get the job?’
“I start Monday.”
“Congratulations,” said Hannah. She wore sandals, jeans, and an orange sweatshirt. Her spikey hair was damp. “I brought you a chocolate cake.” The white frosting letters spelled CONGRATS.
The sex was of the clenched-faced sweaty blindness variety; the orgasms were muted.
“I live only a few rooms away. We should save money by sharing a room. I need to accelerate the growth of my nest egg. I’m putting all my money into computer and robot stocks.”
“You don’t know anything about me. Maybe I’m a murderer.”
“There are worse people than murderers. You’ll see.”
Hannah picked up his copy of Memory. “Is this any good?”
“I’ll be teaching it.”
Hannah opened Memory. “The first word I see is your name.”
“The novel changes with each reading.”
“I keep a detailed journal. Every night I write for at least two hours. Occasionally, I will read something I wrote only a few months earlier and it is like looking into the life of a stranger. I also remove pages that are no longer relevant. Writing is mostly rewriting and discarding.”
“You’re very disciplined.”
“Full disclosure: You will be in my journal. Our conversations. The sex. Everything. I hope you don’t have a problem with that because I like talking to you and the sex was okay and will probably continue to be satisfactory.”
“None of that matters,” Cole shrugged. “Sooner or later it will be erased.”
“I do take liberties with the facts. I like to add background information on people.”
Memory was an inspired choice for the Western State curriculum. The inmates instantly identified with the novel. Memories, the inmates apprehended, were defective. Witnesses and surviving victims were not to be believed. Even honest lawyers, cops, and jurors misremembered reality. Class participation was unmatched; the inmates were soon engaged in their own journals. They voted on the best creative writing.
Hannah went missing two weeks before Christmas. Her boss at the diner called the sheriff. Hannah had never even been late for a shift.
“When was the last time you saw her?” asked Sheriff K, a clone of the actor Sally Field.
“Two nights ago. We agreed not to pry into each other’s lives. We were sharing a room to save money. We both need nest eggs. I assumed she got sick of me and left. It happens.”
“Did you notice a recent change in her behavior?”
“Hannah cashed out her investments. She is anticipating an economic meltdown.”
“Was she pregnant?”
“We don’t pry.”
“All the pregnant women decide to move to Pittsburgh, usually during their first trimester. Mothers believe that it’s not healthy for children to live in the shadows of Western State. There are frequent UFO and angel sightings. There are occasional werewolf and vampire reports, but not many zombies and little in the way of satanic cults. Anyway, pregnant women will often leave without even a lukewarm goodbye. They’ve got new priorities.”
“I don’t think you do. You’re a man.”
Sheriff K eyed the fat spiral notebook on the corner desk. “Is that Hannah’s?”
“It’s her journal. She was very disciplined. She is very disciplined.”
“Now that’s odd.” The sheriff picked up the notebook and began thumbing through the densely written pages. “I can’t imagine someone forgetting their journal.”
“Maybe it’s just a part of Hannah’s old life that she no longer needs.”
Sheriff K perused the journal. “Your name appears frequently, Cole. Did you know that?”
“She told me I’d be in in.”
“Did you ever read her journal?”
“Did she tell you not to?”
“She didn’t have to tell me. We don’t pry.”
“There appears to be information concerning you that goes back years. Did you talk about your past with her?”
“Not really. She did tell me that she liked to add background material to the people in her journal.”
“She wrote that you were pronounced dead after falling into an icy pond when you were a teenager. What do you make of that?”
“People metaphorically die many times. Hannah told me that she had died three times. Old memories mutate until there is a new person.”
“I’ll need to take Hannah’s journal. It might contain some valuable clues.”
“And could I borrow your paperback? I’ve been meaning to read Donald Westlake. I write. Mostly screenplays about prisons.”
“Keep it. I’ve got extras.”
They shook hands.
Cole decided to live at Western State. Employees were permitted to inhabit one of the doublewide cells on the upper floor that had once been reserved for big time mobsters and politicians. It was a nice perk provided by the state. He was also allowed to eat with the inmates. His doublewide cell was equivalent to most of the motels he had visited, and the breakfast pancakes were second to none.
Then his classes were abruptly cancelled.
“I’m sorry,” said the superintendent. “Private prisons are cutting into our business. Pennsylvania is experimenting with robot correctional officers. The future doesn’t look promising.”
“Then I’ll be a volunteer. We’re right in the middle of Memory.”
“All right, but you will have to share a cell.”
They shook hands.
Cole’s bunkmate, one of his more promising students, never slept. Tom claimed he murdered a man for having sex with his wife. “I just blanked out. I know I did it, but I don’t remember doing it. The entire episode is embarrassing. No one kills in a jealous rage anymore, and I’m not the jealous type.”
“You’re being too hard on yourself,” answered Cole.
“I have an inoperable brain tumor,” said Tom. “I’ve got to see my wife before I die. I don’t want to apologize or hurt her. I just need to see her so I can try to understand why I killed her lover. It doesn’t make sense. I was never consumed by her beauty or personality.”
“No one has ever escaped from here,” said Cole.
“The timing is perfect. The guards are upset about being replaced by robots and you will make a perfect hostage. If you resist I will kill you in your sleep.”
“I guess I don’t have a choice.”
“Don’t worry. Once we’re outside I’ll tie you up in a place where you’ll be found within twenty-four hours. It’s supposed to stay warm tonight. You’ll be fine. Maybe you can write a story about it. Try not to make me look too bad.”
“So how do we get out?”
“There are some old sewer pipes that haven’t been used in decades. Your job will be to hold the flashlight and look out for the giant rats.”
Sheriff K squinted into the laptop and jabbed at the keyboard with her trigger finger. There was still too much about UFOs and angels and satanic cults. She deleted the Rosemary’s Baby plagiarism. The prison breakout scenario was also overwrought and too familiar and needed extensive reworking.
Why did Cole go along with Tom? Was Cole afraid of Tom? Was Cole caught between life and death? Is that the essence of being zombie? Can a zombie fear death? That didn’t make sense. Tom was never captured. The authorities assumed he had fled to Mexico and a life of anonymity. Cole, who was wanted for aiding and abetting a fugitive, was also never seen again.
Sheriff K was beginning to believe that it was Cole who had persuaded Tom to escape - not just the prison - but life. Cole didn’t persuade with words but with the serenity of his existence. The sheriff had not been immune from the allure of Cole’s tenuous relationship with his past. Memory can be a curse and forgetting can be a blessing. She closed her eyes and saw her dead parents and her ex-husband. She couldn’t imagine a pleasant future.
“Is everything okay?” asked the waitress at the Waffle Barn.
“More coffee would be nice,” answered Sheriff K.
“How is your writing going?”
“It’s mostly deleting and rewriting.” Sheriff K glanced at the waitress’s plastic name-tag. “Thank you, Hannah.”
Every week someone goes missing from one of the identical towns along U.S. Route 15. Men, women, and children looking for a warmer climate, opportunity, and love make a break for parts unknown. That’s what the police and their families need to believe, but the sheriff knew better. They lose themselves. Decades pass. Their bodies continue to function but their essence degrades. Their memories are not their own. They retain only a hint of self-awareness. They are between here and there, inside the gray.
The Sheriff decided to again rewrite the storyline. The pages about the prison escape, needlessly long, a distraction, almost irrelevant, were severely edited. Then the sheriff affixed a new beginning to the narrative. An essential life-changing event must have occurred before Cole’s relationship with Katie abruptly deteriorated. There was probably a near death experience on U.S. Highway 15. A terrifying incident with a gray car. An event when Cole learned that life is not either/or. She would add some science and an impressive looking equation.
The sheriff finished her coffee and chocolate chip pancakes. She left behind a twenty percent tip, a well-read paperback copy of Memory, and a memory stick.
Cole’s life didn’t feel right to Hannah. He was obviously an unfortunate victim. His self-awareness had been degraded by spiritual shocks. Sometimes a hint of self-awareness isn’t enough. Life isn’t either/or. Between here and there is not a nice place to be. Poor Cole. He needed professional therapy. Hannah closed her eyes. She was a licensed therapist who had the gift to make things right.
Hannah was ten years old when Cole James became the most wanted man in America, maybe the world. Every Sunday night clues and tips were analyzed by experts on the television show Wanted Alive! There were occasional fingerprints, iffy DNA samples, and unreliable sightings. The person whose tip led to Cole’s capture would receive ten million dollars. But Cole remained…elusive. That’s how the host of Wanted Alive! referred to him. “The most elusive man in the civilized world.” How did he stay off the grid? How did he avoid the ubiquitous surveillance? Why was he afraid? Why did he hate America so much that he refused to be part of its conversation? He wasn’t a corporate criminal. He wasn’t a prison snitch. Hannah once thought she saw Cole James in the Safeway but was afraid to call the Cole hotline.
Suddenly no one cared anymore. Wanted Alive! was cancelled. It had all been an elaborate prank. It had been a corporate scam. Cole James became a never-was-person, deleted and erased. Doom is temporality.
But not for long, thought Hannah. No one owns the truth. I can get Cole James into Wikipedia. He will become a teachable moment.
She made a few quick changes. Plato’s Republic perished. Instead Cole found a discarded copy of Memory at a motel. Novels can be dangerous. Fiction gives you an artificial sense of wellbeing. Life is collaborative! Cole wasn’t a bad man. He was weak. He was given excuses instead of counseling from a licensed professional.
Cole would soon be ready for Wikipedia.
Hannah left her laptop and memory stick inside her unlocked gray Honda Accord in the parking lot outside a diner.
Cole lived in his Honda. When his car was towed by the police he lived beneath an overpass. A hitchhiker found his skeletal remains thirty feet east of U.S. Route 15 in a shallow pond just south of Paul’s Pancake Barn. The police were too busy towing cars to investigate.
Cole James suffered a fatal blow to the head. The coroner said it was a hit and run. There is no escape. Sometimes there is no moral agency. Sometimes it’s not your fault. People often discount misfortune.
The inmates in Cole James’s composition class liked this ending the best. The vote was almost unanimous.
Leland Neville is a full-time writer in upstate New York.