Rabbit Redux

By
Updated: November 3, 2013

by Yuma Bulldozers

 

Scorched earth

Scorched earth

He had no idea where he was.

Nothing looked familiar. The sky wasn’t blue anymore. The earth neither brown nor green. Where were the trees, the bushes, the bugs, the birds?

The silence was stultifying. He stood in a hazy nowhere and wondered, Where am I? The question hung in the haze about him.

He looked up. A swirling whiteness made him cough. Smoke? he wondered.

He looked down. The ground he stood on was scorched black. Ash and soot covered everything, even his slippers.

Slippers? he asked himself. Why am I wearing slippers? Am I inside or out?

He looked down again and saw his bare legs sticking out beneath a white sheet. Roman toga? he wondered, but rejected the idea as proposterous. I’ve never been to Rome. Never worn a toga. So why were his legs bare? He was outside, he was certain of that. Or was he?

He looked up again and saw a hole forming in the haze above his head. Through that hole he thought he could see … a different shade of white. Grey almost. Like clouds, he thought, and was convinced he was, indeed, outside.

Which left the puzzle of his bare legs.

He looked at his hands. They extended from his arms—well, that’s obvious, he thought, why even think it? Because these hands seemed … unfamiliar. How could that be? He shook them, he squeezed them, he waved them at himself, so he knew they were his hands. They were responding to his orders.

And yet.

He studied his hands. They were old. Liver spots and wrinkles and strange discolorations on them. Peeling skin around the fingernails. And oh, those nails! What a disaster: torn, chipped, discolored, broken. Everything that could be wrong with fingernails were wrong with his. And dirty. The dirt under his thumb nails was particularly dark in color, black, like the soot on the ground.

He knelt and examined his hands next to the ground. Same black.

With one fingernail, he scraped some of the black dirt out from under his left thumb nail. It fell to the ground and lay there, indistinguishable from the rest. He must have soot under his nails. But why?

So many questions.

Reason, he reasoned, would not get him very far. There were limits to what he could figure out.

He cleaned the black soot from under each of his fingernails, especially the thumb nails, where the soot and dirt were packed more deeply and densely. He wiped his hands on the white sheet and noticed he must have wiped his hands there sometime before. He saw the smudges where the dirt had stained the cotton. But when? When had he wiped his hands, and if he had wiped his hands why were they so dirty they needed to be wiped again?

Too many questions.

He stood up. He looked left, he looked right, he looked behind him. The same in all directions: a flat landscape of black earth and grey-white sky without a distinct line marking the horizon. Flat and black below, flat and grey above.

Where was he? How had he gotten here? Why was he wearing a sheet and slippers? How had he gotten so old? And …

No, don’t ask.

He had no answers. But he kept asking himself the other questions, to occupy his mind, because he knew very well, without even thinking it, what question lay behind all these others, the question he didn’t want to be asking himself, the question that made his bowels rumble and threaten to evacuate on the spot.

The question he refused to acknowledge.

He pursued lesser questions. Was he naked under this sheet? He peered beneath the white cotton. Nope. He had on a pair of faded shorts and a t-shirt.

That’s a relief, he thought. At least I’m not …

A light went on. A door opened. A bell rang. A breeze blew through his brain. A dozen clichés clammored to be voiced. He said nothing. The haze cleared momentarily and he could see exactly what he was not. He was not crazy.

He laughed. “Guess I know what I’m not,” he said aloud. “That’s something.”

He looked around to see if anyone had overheard him. No one anywhere. Nothing to see. Nothing to hear.

Did it mean rows of fur?

Did it mean rows of fur?

In an unfamiliar landscape, he reasoned, even the slightest variation was a clue. He looked down again, and discovered that the ground wasn’t perfectly flat. There were small depressions in the black ground, like rows, that stretched toward the horizon and into the haze. Like furrows, he thought, and then wondered if that was the right word. Furrows. Did that mean rows of fur? He was certain it didn’t, but he had no clue why he was certain.

He kept looking. The ground appeared furrowed as far as he could see. He realized he might not be seeing very far, given the general impenetrability of the haze, but as far as he could, there were furrows. Why? he wondered. Certainly no one is growing anything in this scorched ground. Or are they?

He knelt to explore the ground, to see if something was growing there, but just before his hand touched the blackened earth he pulled it back. It’ll just get dirty again, he thought. And then he realized: if his hands were dirty, he must have touched the earth before, and if he touched it before he must have had a reason, and maybe if he found that reason he’d be able to figure out why he was here.

That was the question, wasn’t it? He nodded. It was comforting to agree with himself. Especially when he wasn’t at all certain what the question was.

“Why would I get my hands dirty digging in the dirt?” he wondered aloud. And then, to his surprise, he knew the answer. He knew what he’d been doing when he dirtied his hands, and without considering how dirty his hands might get, he began digging again.

Digging for food.

The thought came to him like a thunderbolt, like a flash of insight, like a clap on the shoulder or a slap on the back, it hit him in the head and he reeled.

I was hungry. I am hungry.

So, I’ve been here long enough to get hungry. Long enough to look beneath the earth for something to eat. What grows beneath the ground? He made a mental list:

carrots

turnips

onions

potatoes

tomatoes

No, that was wrong. Tomatoes didn’t grow beneath the earth. Tomatoes grew above the ground. What grew underground?

carrots

turnips

onions

potatoes

I just thought that, he thought. The very same list. Isn’t there something else? Something that grows under the earth? He couldn’t think of anything, just …

carrots

turnips

onions

potatoes

I can stand here all day and repeat the list, he thought, or … or what? What choices were there? Stand here and repeat the list or …?

“Or not stand here and not repeat the list,” he said aloud. Obvious, he thought. Stupid, he realized.

This is getting nowhere.

What had led him to list things that grow underground? He tried to remember but memories were hard to pin down. He wished he could reach out and grab them and hold them and make them obey his wishes.

“Wait!” he said aloud. Grab them and hold them—with his hands, right? It was his hands that had led him to listing vegetables. He looked at his hands. He saw the nails he had cleaned and he remembered the dirt. He looked down at the earth. He remembered connecting the scorched earth to his dirty hands and realizing he’d been hungry and he’d dug in the earth to find something to eat.

It was all coming back. All because of one clue: his hands. Where could he find other clues? He looked around. Nothing but black earth and grey sky. No change there. Where else? Maybe he had more clues hidden on him, like the hands. Well, they weren’t exactly hidden, but he hadn’t realized they were clues.

With his hands he touched himself. First his head and shoulders. Nothing worth reporting there. He put his hands beneath the white sheet and felt his chest and belly. Nothing unusual. Then he put one hand in the pocket of his shorts and pulled out …

a rabbit’s foot.

A rabbit’s foot? Why would he have a rabbit’s foot in his shorts? He searched the other pocket and found a small card with a blue back. From a deck of cards? he wondered. But when he turned the card over, instead of finding a number or the face of some nameless king or queen, he found a name and three columns of numbers. What kind of card was this?

He had to squint, but he could make out the name on the card:

Edwin Lee, Jr.

“Eddie”

MATHEWS

The columns of numbers made no sense whatsoever to him. Are they a clue? he wondered. A code perhaps, that he needed to crack in order to …

In order to what?

He had no idea. What he had was a mysterious card and an even more mysterious rabbit’s foot. Was he supposed to relate them in some way? Did they fit together like pieces of some abstract puzzle he was trying to solve? And if he did solve it, where would that lead? Would it suddenly reveal where he was? Or how he got here? Or where he came from? Or—most mysterious of all—why?

He doubted it. And yet.

He had nothing else to go on. He felt like he was playing some game where he had to figure out puzzles in order to move on, but the gameboard was an enormous empty field of scorched earth and grey clouds, and no one told him he was playing a game, and he had no idea what the purpose of the game was, or even what rules he was supposed to follow to play the game.

No, this wasn’t a game, this was something else, something strange, something insidious, something downright —

“Wait!” he said aloud. “Eddie Mathews!”

He looked at the card again. The name in red, the red and blue columns of numbers, the blue back with the large letters APBA. And suddenly he remembered.

The clouds opened and a beam of light shone down on him like he was standing in the middle of a landscape by Bierstadt or whatshisname, the other landscape painter (give him a minute, he’d remember, it was on the tip of his tongue) or maybe it was like he was in a spotlight on stage or …

He didn’t care what it was like, he had remembered something. He’d remembered the card! This very card.

Edwin Lee, Jr.

“Eddie”

MATHEWS

What he held in his hand was a baseball card for a baseball game with dice and cards and it was called APBA and he had played it as a kid but also as an adult and he kept the cards hidden in his pillow and he brought them out to play with his friend the Cook—but a cook where or for what restaurant he couldn’t remember—but that didn’t matter because he’d remembered the card and the game and Eddie Mathews who played third base for the Milwaukee Braves and was a slugger and led the league in home runs once or twice maybe he wasn’t certain but Eddie was a great hitter and his card was a great card to have what with him being a power hitter and fine defensive third baseman and the Braves had won the World Series when Eddie was their star along with Hammerin’ Hank Aaron—it was all coming back now!—and Warren Spahn on the mound back when “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” had been the team motto or song or maybe just a saying but it meant they had two great pitchers but no one to follow them up so they had to pray for rain to give Spahn and Sain a rest and so “Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” had been the team prayer you might say way back then when the Braves were in Boston before they moved to Milwaukee but that was before Aaron joined the team back when baseball was all white—but that was years and years ago before he was born yet he remembered it like it was yesterday—and no one was sadder to see the Braves move than he was but not from Boston but out of Milwaukee and down south to Atlanta where Hank Aaron broke the Babe’s record—he remembered that glorious day!—but it still wasn’t the same and the Braves were never the same after they left Milwaukee and maybe that was because they traded away their brilliant third baseman Eddie Mathews whose card was the very card he was looking at in his hand.

He looked. The card was still there.

Yup, that card.

Yup, that card.

The 1957 Milwaukee Braves, that he remembered. This card belonged to the ’57 Braves, to the set of cards that made up that team. They’d won the National League pennant, he remembered that. And he had the whole team, had had, but he’d lost them. Was he searching for them? No, that couldn’t be, not out here, not in this wasteland. But he had lost them. The question was how.

So many questions! He was losing track of them. What were the others? The other questions he was trying to answer. No, stay on track. One question at a time. And this one was … what was it?

Why was it so hard to remember? And that’s yet another question! Damn all the questions! They were multiplying faster than he could keep track of. Faster than rabbits.

Rabbits! He pulled the rabbits foot from his pocket. Is that how this connects? Bunny humping? He didn’t think so. No, get back to the question at hand. The question …

… about losing this card, yes. No, wait, that didn’t make any sense. He had the card in his hand, he hadn’t lost it. He lost the others, the ones that went with this one. Right. Where were they? How had they been lost? When had he last seen them?

Something clicked, another light went on, another door opened, and a host of clichés lined up to make their appearance on stage but he dismissed them all with a wave of his hand, the hand holding the Eddie Mathews card, and he looked at it, looked hard, then turned it over and studied the back. White letters, APBA, on a blue background with the image of a baseball. APBA was the name of the game, a baseball game he played with dice and cards —

“Damnitall!” he said aloud, recognizing that he’d been over this before. What’s happened to my brain? No, don’t answer that! Just get sidetracked. Whatever has happened to the old gray matter I just have to live with it. Get on with it.

“There were cards,” he announced to no one. “Each player had one and I had a whole team of them. Eddie Mathews’ team. Right. The ’57 Braves. And they got lost. All but Eddie here.”

He studied the back of the card again and then he saw them. All of them. Scattered across the floor like … like … well, like cards scattered across a floor, that’s what. Had he dropped them? Thrown them? No, he’d knocked them off the table when he slipped. Yes! He remembered now. The table, the cards, the game he was playing with the Cook, and then he stood up—but why had he stood up? He didn’t remember, but he did remember slipping and catching himself on the flimsy card table and down it all went onto the floor, the cards, the dice, the scoresheets and him too. He’d fallen, the cards had scattered, someone had helped him up and someone … someone … it was coming … someone had confiscated the cards.

Nurse Peters!

The breeze was blowing steady now, the clouds running, the haze lifting, and that shaft of sunlight spilled across the entire field of rows and rows of scorched earth. It was all coming clear.

Nurse Peters had taken the cards. All his precious baseball cards. Except … he studied the Eddie Mathews card in his hand. Except one, which he’d hidden in his pocket. This pocket? He looked down at his shorts. He reached into the pocket, half hoping he’d find another card there, like some retarded magician’s trick, the card that appears at the wrong moment in the act, but nothing. No card. No magic.

Still, he realized, if the card was in this pocket, then I must have been wearing these shorts. And this sheet too? Why would I wear a sheet? Why would anyone wear a sheet? And where do you wear one? To a toga party, of course, he reminded himself, but he wasn’t going to a toga party, he’d never been to a toga party, not that he could remember. So where else? Halloween parties, maybe, if you dress up as a ghost. But it wasn’t Halloween—

Wait, how did he know that? He had no idea, but he was quite certain it wasn’t. Besides, he hated Halloween parties. No, there must be some other occasion for which a sheet was appropriate attire. He laughed at the thought. A sheet appropriate? Where would anyone wear a sheet?

And then he knew.

And he stopped laughing.

And he felt a rumbling in his bowels.

And he knew where and when and, as his guts demanded he do something, even why someone would wear a sheet.

He looked around. Where could he go? His bowels were adamant.

Now! 

He stumbled across the fields, tripping over the furrows, until he saw a line of skinny trees where the furrows ended. He ran, as best an old man in a sheet can run across a scorched field of furrows, which is to say he hobbled and he stumbled as fast as he could toward the line of trees. Even as he ran toward them, he realized such thin trees with so few branches and leaves would not offer much protection. Better than nothing, he thought. Better than doing it right here in the middle of this field.

His slippers broke through the thin crust of burnt earth and kicked up sooty clouds of dust as he made his broken, bumbling way across the field. He lost his left slipper when he tripped on a sprinkler head—what are sprinklers doing out here?— but he didn’t stop to retrieve it, just hunkered down and pressed forward in his now lopsided gait until, a few yards from the trees, he lost his other slipper, sucked off his foot by a small mud puddle he hadn’t noticed, and now barefoot and bowel-driven, this old man in a sheet stumbled up to the line of trees and realized they offered no cover whatsoever, just one lonely line of very skinny trees with a few branches, very high up, and no protection against wind or rain or the prying eyes of voyeurs, but it didn’t matter any more, his bowels were calling out, crying out, his guts churning, his body demanding he stop and drop a load, here and now … so he did, right there beneath the trees, holding with one hand to the skinny trunk of the nearest tree while the other hand pulled the sheet away from his bare arse, hanging in the wind for anyone to see.

But there was no one to see.

The landscape was bereft, except for one old man, doubled up like a slave prostrating himself before the lord of necessity.

He shuddered. He gulped. He evacuated. The relief was so intense it took his breath away and he fell forward on his hands and knees gasping for air, gulping it down, like a man rescued from drowning.

On all fours, he had only to turn his head one way or the other to see across the landscape. He looked left, he looked right, he saw no one. No one who might be watching him. And yet, in his solitude, in his supplication, he felt guilty. Hands and knees in the ashen earth, ass in the air, he felt like he’d committed some crime, some unpardonable offense against society, some sin.

What twisted sense of morality makes a man feel guilty for doing what his body needs to do? It wasn’t logical. His rational mind could make no sense of it. And yet, he felt dirty.

He pulled his hands out of the dirt and leaned back on his haunches. Dirty hands, yes, dirty knees too, and no doubt ash smeared on his face from every time he wiped away the sweat, but there’s no shame in this kind of dirty, he told himself. Dirt dirty. No shame in doing what he did because it’s what all humans do, all animals. And yet.

He stood slowly, a bit lightheaded from the run, and looked down at what he’d added to the rich loam of the earth. He kicked dirt to cover it. It’s what we do and what we are, he thought, and yet we hide it, we do it in private, and we feel dirty about doing it. What have we done to ourselves?

When did we get so confused about what is natural and what is sinful? He couldn’t fathom it. Not standing there, barefoot in a dirty sheet, beneath a stark row of trees on the edge of a field scorched by fire.

Fire!

There was a fire and he was running away from it and … and … No! He ran toward it, into the smoke. Why would he do that? Why would any sane person run INTO a fire? Was he trying to kill himself? Why would he do that? He wasn’t unhappy, he wasn’t depressed, he had everything he needed, he had … he had …

What did he have?

A sheet, yes. But no slippers anymore. And …

He reached into the pocket of his shorts and pulled out the rabbit’s foot. No no, he said to himself, not this. This is useless. The card, where’s the card? He pulled it from his other pocket and looked at it like a man who had never seen a baseball card before. Where did this come from? he wondered. What a strange looking card! Why was it in my pocket?

He felt like he had lost everything he once had, even the memory of having it.

“You there! You alright?”

A voice! Had he heard a voice? Terrific, now he was hearing voices. What next, full blown visions? Angels descending from heaven? Or dogs out of the bowels of hell?

Bowels, he thought. I have to— No, wait, he’d done that. He felt … fine. He felt … relieved. Empty, even. My bowels are fine, so …what was I just thinking?

“You alright?”

Again with the voice! He WAS hearing voices.

“Found another one. Over.”

He spun around to where the voice seemed to be coming from and was amazed to see a figure coming toward him out of the haze, striding across the scorched field, a strange figure, human—well, maybe, definitely walking upright like a human, but no face, just a mask, and yellow clothing, big boots, huge gloved hands, and a big tank on its back. Like no human I’ve ever seen, he said to himself.

A voice out of nowhere.

A voice out of nowhere.

“Looks alive and alert and … dirty. Over.”

The creature just kept coming toward him, one giant stride after another, crossing the same furrows he’d stumbled over without so much as a shift in its stride, and talking the whole while into a large box it held in its gloved hand.

“Send a wagon to the fields north of the admin building. Over.”

The strange yellow creature seemed to be signalling to him, waving perhaps, so the old man waved back, all the while wondering, Why the hell am I waving at this yellow alien? It might have come to eat me, isn’t that what aliens do in the movies? Movies! He hadn’t thought about movies in ages. Maybe, just maybe, he was IN a movie. That would explain everything, even his dirty sheet and this very movie-like yellow creature, who was just now removing its mask.

Just like that it’s going to devour me? The old man couldn’t move. He awaited his fate with a stoicism he never knew he had.

The mask came off and inside the huge yellow suit appeared the small head of a young boy. The head was speaking but the old man couldn’t understand a word.

“Sorry,” the boy-head seemed to be saying and then it flipped a switch on the box it was talking into and the old man could hear it just fine. “Forgot to turn it off.”

The old man didn’t trust this yellow alien just because he had a head that looked like a boy’s, but he nodded anyway. Nod and smile, he thought, and maybe the thing will spare me.

The yellow-suited boy came closer and kept talking.

“You’re okay now. We’ve got you now. We’ll get you back home and cleaned up and fix up any cuts or bruises or whatever you got out here, okay? Don’t worry. You’re saved now.”

Saved? From what? From you? Others like you?

The yellow boy reached out a gloved hand, and as the old man tried to back away from the alien he stumbled on one of the furrows and fell—SPLAT!—on top of the pile he had just covered with dirt.

“Shit,” he said.

The thin coating of dirt he’d kicked on top to cover it did nothing to protect him.

“Here,” the alien offered his gloved hand.

Too late now, the old man thought, no way out. I’m in it now.

He allowed the alien to pull him up out of the muck and the mire and he stood there, in a scorched field, face to face with a boyish alien, wrapped in a sheet smeared with his own excrement.

This is what I’ve come to? he thought. This is how it all ends?

Aliens?

Aliens?

He saw them before he heard them, dozens of aliens pouring out of huge yellow vehicles and striding across the furrowed field toward him, their walkie-talkies squawking orders in an alien tongue, their vehicle sirens wailing at an ear-piercing pitch. The old man covered his ears with his soiled hands and waited, passively, for the end.

“Just don’t hurt me,” he said, but no one could hear above the squawking and screeching and wailing. “Please don’t hurt me.”

“Have you home in no time,” the boy alien said, steadying the old man by holding his elbow. “You could use a shower.”

“Or two!” chimed in one of the other aliens. Laughter spilled from behind their masks, and then, one by one, they were removing the masks and the faces that emerged were just like the first alien’s, the faces of young boys, towheads and dark haired, butch cuts and girlish curls, but young, all so young, boys, smiling and laughing and all talking at once.

It’s an army of children, the old man thought. Alien children.

“What’s your name?” the alien holding his elbow asked.

“Where are you all from?” the old man said, not hearing the question.

“Us?” the boy alien said. “We’re from all over. Ventura, Santa Barbara. Jimmy over there’s from Arcata. Up north.”

“That’s a star, isn’t it?” the old man said, hoping to distract them with small talk.

“What?”

“In some constellation. Northern hemisphere, I think.”

“Jimmy!” the boy alien called out.

Another boyish face emerged from the gathering crowd of alien youngsters. “Yeah?”

“He thinks you’re from some star or something!”

“He’s thinking of Arcturus. That’s where Arcata gets its name. Some bright star somewhere, I don’t know. Learned it in school once, but …”

The alien holding the old man’s elbow was guiding him down a furrowed row—much easier walking in the furrows instead of over them, the old man realized—and toward the row of bright yellow vehicles with flashing lights.

The sirens had ceased their wailing and the old man could hear the young alien beside him saying, “You know about the stars? Their names and so forth?”

The old man looked into the young alien’s face. It looked like a face you could trust. It looked friendly. It looked … human. And for the first time, the old man considered the possibility that these alien boys were not aliens at all, but … but what?

“The stars,” the young face was saying. “You study them?”

“No,” the old man said. “Not anymore. Once. Long ago. In school. But I remember things back then like they were new, like they were happening now. But things now, recent things? Those I can’t remember.”

Several hands gently lifted the old man across the ditch on the edge of the field and helped him stand on the asphalt of a narrow road. Where had that come from? the old man wondered. When had they had time to pave a road across this field?

“Well,” the friendly young face said, “if you want to talk about the stars, you should talk to our very own space cadet. Heh, Cos, get over here and talk stars and stuff with this guy.”

Another boyish face appeared, smiling and talking. “You watch the stars, man? Cool, huh? These goons think it’s all trash but the stars know things, don’t they? Oh yeah.”

The old man looked at the smooth face of the boy standing before him. “You’re a space cadet?”

The boy laughed. “Just what they call me, cuz I pay attention to the stars and stuff. You know. Like I been watching Mars in retro this month, which means it’s bad karma for romance, if you know what I mean.”

The boy laughed. The others around him laughed too. The old man had no idea what they were laughing about, but he smiled and tried to laugh too.

“I guess I been in retro for some time,” he said, which made the boys laugh, so he laughed too, but that just made him cough.

“Get him some oxygen,” the boy holding his elbow said. “You been sucking in all that soot and ash, but we’ll put you right in a moment.” Then, to the boy who’d started the laughter, he said, “Tell him where you’re from, Cos.”

“Oh yeah. I come from a little town up north called Ceres. Cool, huh? It explains a lot, you see—”

But the old man never learned what it explained, or what it was exactly, because they placed a mask over his face and he was suddenly breathing the sweetest, richest air he’d ever breathed. It made his head spin. All he could hear was the sound of his own breath going in and out, in and out, so he just smiled and nodded while the boys surrounding him talked and laughed about things he would never understand.

The air filled his lungs and made him feel young again, like he could run across these fields or just float up over them, fly away to … To where? he wondered. Where would he go?

He couldn’t think of any place better than this because he couldn’t imagine feeling any better than he felt just standing there in the middle of a road breathing the air these boys had brought him. He smiled at them. He wanted to thank them but had no idea how. So he smiled. And nodded. They smiled back.

If he had one wish, besides the wish to keep breathing like this forever, he’d wish for a chair to sit on while he sucked in this sweetness. Yes, a chair, and maybe a little table so he could spread his baseball cards out on them and —

Baseball cards! He remembered the one in his pocket. Which card was it? He reached for it before he realized it might not be a good idea to show his card to these boys. And then he wondered, Why not? So he pulled the card from his pocket and showed it to the boy who had first found him.

“Eddie Mathews? Is that your name?”

“Let me see that!” Another boy said and stepped out of the crowd of yellow uniforms, reaching to take the card from the old man, who withdrew it protectively. “Don’t worry,” the boy said, “it’s a baseball card, right? I got a collection too. What kind are yours?”

He removed the glove from his right hand and extended it, palm up, toward the old man. The hand looked human, the voice and face definitely were, and the old man wondered for a second time if maybe they weren’t aliens but just boys. But what were boys doing out here? And in such yellow uniforms?

He let the boy hold the card in his hand, turn it over and examine it.

“This is an APBA card, isn’t it?”

The old man nodded, relieved that someone understood. He smiled a big grin at the boy. He nodded up and down in relief.

“What’d you say it was?” the boy who’d first found the old man asked the boy holding the card.

“APBA. It’s a baseball game, with cards and dice. My dad used to play it. But this card,” he turned the card over and over, “I don’t recognize the ballplayer and I can’t tell how old it is, but it looks even older than the ones my dad had.” He spoke to the old man, “What year is this card? You know?”

“1957.”

“Wow! That’s like … like older than my dad! Almost as old as my granddad. How old are you?” he asked the old man.

The old man shook his head, “I don’t remember.”

“You don’t remember?” the boy said, chuckling.

“He’s a patient back there,” someone in the group said. “Whadda ya ‘spect?”

A general chuckling rose in the group of boys, and once again the old man felt threatened. They were just being nice so they could … could what? Teleport him to their spaceship? He didn’t think they were aliens anymore. Their faces, their hands, even this mocking laughter, it was all too familiar, too human. They were just boys. Boys in yellow uniforms. Boys laughing at him.

That felt vaguely familiar. Boys laughing, but the old man couldn’t place the fragment of a memory. So he asked, “What are you going to do …?”

“Get you back to the hospital,” said the boy who’d first found him, “soon as we hear they’ve secured the buildings. Wouldn’t want to toss you right back into the inferno, now would we?”

Southern gate to the Camarillo State Hospital

“The hospital?”

“Where you came from.”

The old man couldn’t quite put it all together. Scorched earth, Eddie Mathews, aliens who turned into boys, and now a hospital. Everything seemed familiar, individually, but together … It was too complex a puzzle for him to solve. Too many pieces.

“Maybe he doesn’t remember. He’s been through a lot.”

“Disoriented.”

“Get him some water.”

“And food,” the old man said.

“Grab some of those granola bars!” the boy who’d found him yelled to the others.

They sat him on the step of the cab of one of their giant yellow trucks and handed him a plastic bottle of water. He sipped as he studied the faces of his captors. Now he noticed some had facial hair, others had a tired, haggard look about them. Maybe they weren’t all boys, maybe …

“Who are you?” he asked bluntly.

“Who are we?” said the boy who’d first found him. “Well, who are you, my friend? That’s the question.”

“We’re firefighters,” someone at the rear of the group said.

Firefighters! A light went on somewhere, a dim hallway lit up, and he remembered being somewhere before he was in this field. Where was it?

“We found you wandering in this field. Do you remember that?” the boy offering him a granola bar said.

Of course he remembered that, you idiots. That was minutes ago. What he couldn’t remember was … was … Now he couldn’t remember what he couldn’t remember. Oh god, has it come to this?

But he didn’t mind, at least not right now, because the granola bar was the best tasting food he’d ever eaten. He chewed it slowly, and sipped the water, and began to wonder if maybe this was his lucky day.

“What’s your name?” the one holding his card said. “You’re not Eddie Mathews, so who are you?”

The old man held his hand out for his card. The boy held it up for the old man to see. “It’s okay, see, no harm done. But if you want it back, you gotta give us your name. Like a trade. We’re swapping baseball cards. Eddie Mathews … for your name.”

The boys waited.

The old man searched the scorched fields of his memory and came up with three names. He didn’t know which was his, so he offered them all.

Mathew Mark Luke.”

He waited for his card to be returned.

“That’s your name, Mathew Mark Luke?”

“That’s not his name, that’s the … the whatchamacall’ems.”

“Gospels.”

“Yeah, them. He’s just giving us the names of the Gospels.”

“But there’s a fourth Gospel, isn’t there?”

“John.”

The boy with the card studied the old man’s face. “That your name, John? You trying to trick us or something?”

The old man considered the name John. It didn’t belong to him, he was pretty sure of that, but it had a familiar ring. Mathew Mark Luke … and John. He looked at the baseball card in the bare hand of the boy facing him.

Edwin Lee, Jr.

“Eddie”

MATHEWS

He had Mathews. So he must be looking for the others. But why? And why out here in this burned field? What could he possibly find here?

“I’m looking for a Mark,” the old man said. Then to the boy holding his card he said, “You have a Mark to go with my Mathews?”

“You want a card with the name of Mark on it to go with this Mathews card?”

The old man nodded. And smiled. And nodded again.

“Any Mark?” the boy asked. “Any year?”

The old man nodded once.

“Okay,” the boy said. “I’ll find you a Mark.”

The old man smiled.

“Wait,” the first boy who’d found the old man said. “Make you a deal. Let us wash you down and put you in some clean, dry clothes and return you to the hospital, okay? You let us do that and we’ll find you a Mark, a Luke and a John. Whadda ya say?”

The old man’s eyes got big. “All of them?”

“You have my word.”

“Wait a minute,” said the boy whose father had played the baseball game the old man’s card came from. “He doesn’t want just any old baseball card, it’s gotta be an APBA card. Like that one,” he added, pointing at the Eddie Mathews card. “Where we gonna find a bunch of those?”

“I thought your dad played this game.”

“He did, but that was years ago, when I was little. I don’t think he even has the game anymore.”

“We’ll find someone who does.”

“Where?”

“And when?” another boy asked. “Between shifts?”

The boys guffawed at the thought of doing anything except sleeping between their shifts fighting the brushfire. Though they had successfully put the fire down around the hospital, it was still moving across the mountainside and they would soon be called back to the front lines.

“How soon you need the other cards?” the boy who’d found the old man asked.

The old man didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know when he needed the cards because he couldn’t remember why he needed the cards. He just knew he needed them.

He smiled and shrugged at the boys.

“But not too soon, right?”

“I don’t think so,” the old man said.

“Okay then, it’s a deal. You get cleaned up and returned to the hospital and as soon as we can, we’ll find you those other cards. Mark, Luke and John, right?”

The old man nodded and smiled. He wasn’t out of the woods yet, he realized, but the fog was lifting and he was beginning to feel safe again.

“Okay, boys, clean him up. Careful with that hose and pull some of the dry sweats out of the second truck, they oughta fit him. Here we go!”

He helped the old man stand, then led him to a spot in the middle of the road. Two other boys came up with a long hose and turned a giant crank and water jumped out of it like flames from the mouth of a dragon.

The old man pushed back against the young man in yellow.

“Nothing to fear, old timer. They’ll turn it down until it’s just a trickle. Hear that, boys? A trickle!”

The water subsided into a tiny stream that seemed to barely escape the end of the hose, and the other boys pulled the hose up behind the old man and splashed the water over him with their gloved hands.

It was cold, and the old man tensed against it, but it felt good too, and in a moment he was enjoying the sensation of water splashed against him. He scrubbed his hands in it, then washed his face. Cool water against his dirty flesh! It was another kind of heaven altogether.

Someone took his sheet and wadded it up and tossed it into a huge plastic bag. Another boy scrubbed his feet with a soft brush and the tickling sensation made the old man’s body suddenly feel alive with energy. A boy with bare hands scrubbed the old man’s balding head while two more boys wrapped him in soft, thick blankets.

Warm! the old man realized. The blankets were warm!

“How do you do that?” he asked.

“Do what?”

“Make the blankets warm? Out here?”

“Oh,” the boy holding his baseball card said, laughing, “we store the blankets above the engine. Keeps ‘em nice and warm.”

The old man luxuriated in the warmth, in the clean tingling of his flesh, in all the attention bestowed upon an old man by an army of boys. He smiled. He nodded. And two boys smiled and nodded back.

Maybe it was the scrubbing the boys gave him, or maybe just the relaxing warmth of the blankets, but memories began to return to the old man. At first they trickled back into his brain like water from the hose when the boys turned it on him, but soon they were gushing forth like the water when the hose first appeared. He didn’t want the memories—not all at once like this—but he couldn’t stop them, he couldn’t divert them, he couldn’t do anything but let them wash over him like the water and spill out of his mouth without his ever intending to speak them. Out they came, and it was all the old man could do to keep up.

“I remember,” he was saying as the boys kept splashing and scrubbing him, “cold water, colder than this, and scrubbing brushes that hurt, and smelly stuff they sprayed on us, disinfectant I think, and rough hands drying us, hard, rubbing until we were raw, and the stiff towels they used and the long walk back from the shower room, up the cold floor of the hallway—I once rode down that hallway, did you know that? On a gurney, all the way to the wall at the bottom, what a crash that was! Orderlies everywhere and Peters barking orders, did you ever meet her? God, what a woman! Barking orders like Napoleon, only she was tall, gigantic, and everyone was afraid of her, even the nurses, well, almost all of the nurses ‘cuz there was this one, see, who used to sneak me things, you know, extra food and books and even once a telephone, yes, hard to believe, the kind of phone you carry in your pocket, what do you call that?”

But the boys weren’t listening, they were too busy drying him off and putting away the hose and towels, so the old man continued, “She stole that phone for me from Nurse Peters, imagine that! And then she let me make a phone call and that’s when they caught me—or was that later? I’m not sure, it’s all a jumble, the phone call and the young nurse and the gurney … that gurney …”

Without warning, like he was in some Broadway musical for the demented, the old man broke into song, his voice rusty and cracking as he squeaked out lyrics he didn’t remember he remembered:

The wheels on the gurney go round and round, 

Round and round, round and round, 

The wheels on the gurney …

The old man stopped singing and looked around at the boys in yellow uniforms, all staring at him, and the giant yellow trucks and the scorched earth and furrowed field and the blue returning to the sky—and none of it looked quite real.

“Am I really here?” he asked, but no one answered him. “Is this really happening or … or is this another … another session? That’s what they call it, you know, a session, which is just a … a … whatchamacallit, a nice word for what it really is, which is more painful than you can imagine, but that’s not the worst of it, no, the worst is you don’t remember it, even just a moment later, like your memory is erased and you know something was hurting you but you can’t remember what and since it’s not hurting you anymore you forget about it. You forget everything.”

The boy with the card leaned in to the old man and said, “Sounds like you remember it, though.”

“You forget everything,” the old man repeated, emphatically, “even who you are and where you are and why you’re there. But then … then it begins to come back to you, not right away, not the same day, but days later, the memories come back, bits and pieces, like someone far away is sending you snapshots of when you were little and you see the picture and you think, Heh, that was me back then, and maybe you even remember something about what it was like but not all of it, not like a real memory where you can call it up and remember what it felt like, no, not like that, more like … like … it happened to someone else and you’re remembering their story, not yours.”

The old man stopped speaking and the boys didn’t move. The air was still, the fog stopped swirling, not even a whisper of air moved, only a crow far off against the sky circling, searching, waiting and hoping to find its prey and then swoop down out of the heavens and snatch it up and take it somewhere far off, somewhere private, somewhere safe, and eat it.

“Shall we take you back now?” the boy who’d originally found the old man asked.

“No,” the old man said, and he trembled.

“You cold?” the boy asked and gestured for one of the others folding the blankets to bring one over to the old man.

“No,” the old man said.

“You’re shaking.”

“Scared,” the old man said.

“Scared? We won’t hurt you.”

“Not you,” the old man said. “Them.”

“Them who?”

“The nurses and the orderlies and the administrators and … their machines.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“I remember now, I remember that place and … more, much more—too much.” The old man looked at the kindly eyes of the boy who’d found him. “I don’t wanna go back.”

“We have to take you back.”

“NO!” the old man shouted and tore the blanket off his shoulders. “Gimme my card!” he demanded and held out his hand. It shook.

In silence, the boy who’d held the card handed it back to the old man, who held it against his chest like the card would protect him, like it was the icon of some saint whose name the old man couldn’t remember but who was supposed to protect the weary and frightened and lost. Saint Eddie Mathews.

“Mathews, Mark, Luke, John,” the old man said. “I got Mathews, I gotta find Mark, and I ain’t gonna find him back there. No, you can’t take me back. I can’t go back!”

The firefighters looked at each other, unsure what to do. The one who knew about the stars, the one they called Cos, stepped close to the old man.

“What’d they do to you?”

The old man’s eyes got big and round and they welled with water before he said, in a voice so small, so quiet, only the boy called Cos could hear, “They made me forget.”

Cos put his hand on the old man’s shoulder and said, in nearly as small a voice as the old man’s, “Made you forget what?”

“Who I am, who I was, what I was and what I did before they put me …”

“Put you … where?”

The words leapt from the old man’s lips, “In there! In the hospital!”

The moment he said it he started to cry, uncontrollably, big gulping heaving sobs that doubled him over and shook his back and left him breathless and aching for the sweet oxygen the boys had given him earlier.

The boys didn’t know what to do. They were trained to rescue people from fires, give them CPR if necessary, save their lives, but this … this they had no training for. This left them standing, staring at their boots.

“A hospital,” the old man muttered between gasps for air, “that’s what it is … isn’t it? … It’s a hospital … and I was there … an inmate … and they took away everything … my cards and my … my … my job and my memories too … they took them all … erased them … with their machines.”

The old man rocked himself and one of the boys put the blanket back over his shoulders and he sat there until he was breathing normally again and the boys just watched and wondered what they could do, what they should do, thinking all the while about what they had to do.

Finally, the boy who’d held the old man’s card said to the others, “There’s gotta be another hospital we can take him to, don’t ya think?”

“But he’s an inmate, he said so himself.”

“He meant patient—he’s a patient not an inmate. He just got confused.”

“Maybe not. It’s a state hospital, they’ve got inmates, you know, the criminal and—”

“He’s no criminal! He shouldn’t be locked up. You can see what it’s done to him.”

“I just meant—”

“Doesn’t matter,” the boy who first found the old man said, “what we want to do, what we think should be done for him, none of that matters. We have our orders. We have to take him back.”

“No!” the boy who’d held the card cried out. “It’ll kill him.”

The two boys stared at each other, neither wanting to do what they felt they had to do, yet ready to do it. They held their ground.

“I know what you’re thinking,” said the boy who’d found the old man, “and I think I know what you want to do.”

“So?” said the boy who’d held the card.

“I won’t stop you, but …”

“But what?”

“You know what this will mean for you, for your job here.”

“And I know what taking him back will mean for him.”

“Okay,” said the boy who’d found the old man. “Put him in your truck and you drive him back to the hospital.” With that, he turned his back on the boy who’d held the card and on the old man and began giving orders to the other boys. “Pack it all up and let’s head back. Move it!”

“Wait!” said the old man, and he turned to the boy who’d held the precious baseball card and said, “You can’t take me back there.”

“I’m not going to.”

“But he just said,” the old man gestured toward where the boy who’d found him was carrying the blankets to his own truck. “He told you—”

“But I’m not going to,” said the boy who’d held the card. “I’ll drive you away from here, somewhere else, another hospital maybe where they’ll make sure you’re not suffering from exposure and then release you.”

“Release me?”

“Yeah, you’ll be free to go wherever you wanna go.”

“Free?” the old man smiled. “No money, no clothes, no … um …” He gestured to his hand, tapped his palm several times. “No uh … whaddayacallit? The card you need.”

“You have your baseball card,” the boy said.

“Not that kind, the kind of card you need, to prove you are who you are. What kind is that?”

“I.D.?”

“I.D.” The letters sounded foreign to the old man, as strange as if they were Greek. “What’s that?”

“What’s I.D.? Identification?”

“That’s it,” the old man said. “My identification, it’s back at the … the place. And my clothes and a little money and … all my cards.”

“You want—no no, I can’t go back there and get that stuff for you unless I return with you. They’re not just gonna hand it—”

“Not you. Me.”

“You?”

“Me,” said the old man. He tapped his chest with the Eddie Mathews card. “Me.”

“But you don’t wanna go back there. You said—”

“Not go back like that, not return, not … not let them know, but without them knowing, without anyone seeing me, just to get my cards and money and clothes.”

“You wanna sneak back in there and get your stuff?” the young man laughed.

“Yes,” the old man said.

“Just like that?”

“Just like that … or some other way.”

“It won’t work.”

“Why not?”

“Because they’re looking for you, expecting us to return you, you can’t just—”

And then with a clarity he didn’t know he had, the old man said, “They’re not looking for me anymore. You found me. Now they’re waiting for me, right? When you drive up with your truck, they’ll come out to get me, the orderlies and nurses, and Nurse Peters giving the orders like she always does, only I’ll already be inside, see? Getting my stuff while they’re out front waiting for you.”

The young man thought about it. The idea intrigued him.

“So what happens when I tell them I don’t have you?”

“Don’t tell them. Let ‘em find out for themselves. Go use the bathroom. Tell them I’m in the back of your truck and I’m afraid to get out and I need to be persuaded they won’t hurt me.” The old man’s eyes cleared and his voice grew stronger as he warmed to his plot. “Tell Nurse Peters I want her to assure me no one will punish me. Tell her to climb into your truck and talk to me herself.”

“It won’t take her more than a minute to figure out you’re not in the truck.”

“Time enough for you to head into the building to use the bathroom. First thing Peters will do is order someone to find you. And while they’re waiting for you to emerge and explain why I’m not in your truck, I will escape out the back.”

“Of the truck?”

“Of the hospital. I’m never going to be in your truck. Put me in a different truck and have them drive me up to the loading bay on the west side of the hospital. That way I’ll already be inside before you even arrive. By the time Peters swallows her pride enough to climb into your truck, I’ll already have my stuff and be headed out the south end of the hospital and into the ditch that runs away from the hospital on that side.”

“The fire scorched everything on that side of the buldings too. There’s nothing to hide in.”

“Oh,” said the old man and for a moment he looked liked he’d lost everything.

Then his eyes lit up and he said, “Give me a blanket, a black blanket. It’ll make me invisible in this burned out landscape.”

The young man laughed. “It might just work … if we had a black blanket.”

“Watch,” the old man said and he took the blanket from his shoulders and walked over to the scorched field. He dropped the blanket in the dirt and hopped on it. Then hopped all over it, raising dust and ash from the ground with all his hopping. For a moment he looked like a mad rabbit.

The young man laughed when he realized what the old man was up to.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s give it a try. Cos, you drive him to the loading bay—he knows where it is, he’ll direct you.”

As the old man and his filthy blanket climbed into Cos’ truck, the young man who had once safely taken care of his Eddie Mathews card said, “Still got your rabbit’s foot?”

The old man produced it from a pocket.

“Good, cuz you’re gonna need it.”