I reach hard into the alcoves of memory, searching, attempting to reenact, but the inability to recall details, anything, hurts my brain.  I know that I'm alive, or so I believe.  At least a machine next to my bed tells me so, the contractions of my heart appearing as neat green lines that abruptly jump and fall to form sharp points on the monitor.  When I'm awake, a cluster of faces, some familiar, are staring down at me, lips forming words that I hear and understand perfectly.  My verbal response, however, dies somewhere in my frontal lobe, or perhaps my spinal cord, certainly sometime before reaching my lips, and so I just stare upward at the faces with expressionless frustration.  

I recognize my wife and daughter, my sister, and an old friend from high school who I haven't seen since our college days.  They all look concerned, and I can feel their concern overtaking my thoughts, the concern turning into me, my brain sputtering, just enough to let me catch glimpses of my own ghastly face framed atop each of their bodies. I fight to push aside these surreal images, telling myself that I am not my wife and she is not me, that the staring faces are not covered with cruel mirrors designed to reflect the horror spewing from within.  But refuge is reluctant to come, my closed eyes doing little to alleviate the hollowness of my body, the logjam of emotions, thoughts, and questions that desperately push against my ribs, my skin, and my eyes, begging for an outlet, a destination. 

IT had been years since the old man had been in Cincinnati, and he felt self-conscious in his tattered pickup truck as he exited the expressway into downtown, the truck backfiring at each red light, the busted exhaust leaving behind a singed stream of gray pollution. He'd highlighted the route on the atlas spread across the truck's bench seat, and every time he'd pan his eyes over and down to the map, the truck would wander left into the next lane, resulting in a chorus of horns.  

He parked the pickup in a no parking zone, next to a fire hydrant. It was a sunny afternoon in August, and as he stepped out of the truck he felt the eyes upon him, upon his torn coveralls, ratty hair, and crude homemade tattoos.  He tried to ignore the faces, expanding the atlas in front of his own with both hands, getting his east-west bearings, making sure he understood the route.  

He'd walked a block when he remembered the photo in the glove box of the truck.  He wondered whether he really needed it, his uncertainty eventually yielding to certainty. Sitting on the passenger side of the truck, his dangling boot brushing against the pavement, he studied the photo, the resemblance, not just in facial features, but in posture, the way the young figure rested the baseball bat on the left shoulder as the leather of the mitt rested against the exaggerated bend of the right hip.  Was it a crime to look at such a photo, he wondered, as he traced his wrinkled index finger across the glossy paper and tried to take an inventory of memories, life events, the ones traditionally apt to be relived during one's final hours, the ones that bind life’s meaning.  But when he was really honest with himself, during those lonely dark moments of sobriety and clarity, he knew that such memories were few in number, even fewer of them involving the figure in the photo.  And that, he told himself, was why he was here, as he slammed close the truck's passenger door and worked his way through the city streets, south toward the river.   

THE lights are dimmed and my wife is the only person left in the hospital room, her head propped against the wall, eyes closed, legs dangling over the arm of a chair. Her shoulder-length blonde hair covers her face, tendrils occasionally waving with the sequence of her shallow breath.  I struggle to recall whether I've been asleep, my recent existence a streak of anxious confusion.

I attempt to distract myself by reciting, over and over in my head, Isaiah 33, the prayer for strength, but with wavering convictions and darting thoughts, the words have little chance of taking hold.  The more I attempt to focus on the words, the more I'm overtaken by a desire for comfort, for normalcy, which compels me to try to touch my wife, to feel another human being, to force myself back into the world and the life I've known. And while I will my arm to reach for her, to gently caress the nape of her neck with my outstretched fingers, nothing happens, my arm remaining limp at my side.  No one has told me that I’m paralyzed, but they don’t have to.  I know it.  

When my wife wakes, I blink my eyes furiously for her attention, my eyelids being the only part of my anatomy that seems to function.  She clears the corners of her eyes when she finally notices the fluttering, and comes to the side of my bed. 

"I love you," she says, her hands cupping my face, tears glazing her eyes.  "We'll get through this."  She looks old, but I suspect she looks the way she's looked for years, that I'd be familiar with the faint creases starting to form around her eyes, the sun spots dotting her temples, had I taken a moment to pause, just once, a moment to take her in.  But at some point I’d apparently lost my way, the simpler visages of life yielding to the bustle of a career and social obligations and a daughter and comings and goings. 

"Do you remember," she asks, "our first vacation down in the Gulf, how excited we were to sink our toes in to the warm sand of the beach, the way you let me hold you under water?"  I don’t.  She continues trying to spur my memory, asking whether I remember the cheap engagement ring that we purchased together from a tourist dive in Pensacola ... our first apartment in Covington ... the first time we drove out to the Appalachian foothills to meet my mother ... the way we conceived our daughter under the cover of our rain-soaked car during the encore of the Dave Matthews Band concert ... the way we used to sprawl across the hood of my Dodge Dart on a warm night, watching the stars and the fireflies and the glow of airplanes from Washburn Road ... the time our daughter pulled the bottle of vodka from the shelf, her toddler body swaying under the large bottle as she tumbled onto her bottom, the bottle still held high above her head with two hands ... And I think and I dig, and my mind grates and grinds, but I can recall none of it, and it hurts. And with each question, with each recounting of experiences cleanly plucked from memory, our relationship, the one that I know must exist, loses context as a void gains momentum and spreads all around me. 

But, finally, with continued prodding, a memory, a faint recollection of recent events, eventually starts to form.  I close my eyes tightly, pushing out the outside, using what ability I have to live within the confines of my own two eyelids.   In the memory, I am running.  Clouds and water hang below the cadence of my feet, and my ears are filled with a nasally whisper of dances with Mary Jane, of feeling the pain once more as summer creeps in.  The vagaries, however, eventually give way to clarity, of running across the pedestrian walkway of a bridge, as music works its way from my iPod, through two small wires, and exits the buds planted firmly in my ears.  I've crossed this bridge countless times as part of my daily run, my running shoes landing upon and lifting from familiar footing, my bare back sweating under the August sun.  As I near the far edge of the bridge, my pace quickens on the decline, and that's when it happens.  An oncoming pedestrian -- faceless at first -- my eyes lighting upon him momentarily as his left shoulder brushes my left shoulder. My legs continue for several strides before catching up with my brain, before realizing that he resembles my father.  As I turn and steadily backpedal, I notice that he's also stopped, standing, facing me, his arms resting on the  bridge's railing.  Are you my ... By the time the third word rolls off my tongue, he's slowly shaking his head, and by the time I see the oncoming car and hear its screeching tires, its driver's face taken with confusion, it's too late.  

THE old man had seen a lot of things in his life, none of them leaving much of a scar, but the impact left him momentarily in shock, so much so that he didn't remember what he'd had in his hand until he pried his eyes away and looked over the railing, watching the photo land softly on the river's surface, where it briefly rested atop the steady current, the color print staring back at him for just an instant before he descended into the murkiness.  There below the bridge.

J.S. Burns grew up in a rural area of southern Ohio, and now lives in Covington, Kentucky. His work has appeared
in Splash of Red, Carpe Articulum Literary Review, and Troubadour 21 . To earn a paycheck, he gives advice.


The idea for this story came to me one afternoon while jogging across a bridge that spans the Ohio river, connecting northern Kentucky to Cincinnati, Ohio. There were two men standing at the foot of the bridge, resting against the railing of the pedestrian walkway, watching a barge pass by.   The difference in ages suggested that they might have been father and son.  One of the men (I couldn't determine who) released what appeared to be a sheet of notebook paper over the railing.  (I still wonder what was on that sheet of paper.)  For whatever reason, the scene left an impression on me.  Initially, I tried to draw from that scene to write a happier story of reunion, but it just didn't work.




Copyright 2009