The Forgetter

The Forgetter

The Forgetter 1920 1440 Joe Baumann

Michael Huxler keeps forgetting he is dead. Every morning he sits down on the sofa and pulls on his running shoes, and his sister Missy, busy cooking sausage and maple bacon that fill the house with the sweat of meat, has to rush out from the kitchen, spatula still in hand, and talk him out of going for a jog. She explains, speaking sotto voce, that most of the neighborhood went to his funeral (not exactly a lie, but not exactly the truth, either), and that if they saw him huffing along the sidewalk in his tank top and thigh-high running shorts they would probably be confused at best and terrified at worst.

Michael blinks up at his sister, his fingers crawling through the process of tying his shoes, a double knot so the laces don’t skitter free while he pounds along the pavement. He takes in her words, a scrunchy look on his face as he processes each one with caterpillar slowness. Awareness dawns on him like an egg is breaking on the crown of his head, the white dripping through his hair and down his face. Missy watches recognition coursing through him like an electric jolt. When he leans back and shudders, crossing his arms over his chest, she knows he won’t go outside.

She gestures toward the kitchen with the spatula. “Come on,” she says, voice leavened like fresh bread. “You can eat something, at least. Dead people don’t really have to worry about their waist lines, anyway.”

*

A harsh burning sensation hits his throat like a scratchy collar every time he remembers. Michael claws at his t-shirt, the same one every day, a black Grateful Dead shirt with the quintet of colorful bears marching across the chest. Missy is relieved that ghosts don’t stink or rot, because Michael won’t put on anything else. It’s been three weeks, and the cotton doesn’t reek of sweat or mold or excrement. The fabric has wrinkled into rippling waves, but when she suggests he let her wash it so it smoothes out, he blinks at her and asks who there is for him to impress. This shuts her up.

He stares at his neck in the mirror. The memory of his death is hazy, like a murky dream that snatches away whenever he tries to remember it. He runs a finger across his collarbone. The flesh along his throat is smooth, no bruises or rashes there despite the fact that it feels like an army of ants is crawling beneath his skin, tickling at his veins. He swallows over and over, turns his head side to side. The itch won’t go away. Michael brushes his teeth, even though he doesn’t need to; the film of morning breath, the gunky build-up that cleaves to the crevices and corners while he sleeps, no longer plagues his mouth, his teeth as glossy and smooth as the surface of an ice rink. But he likes the effervescent feel of his peroxide toothpaste with its bubbling action and the baking soda taste that fills his mouth when he scrubs at his molars. He flosses, too, twice daily, wrapping the twine tight around his index fingers, shoving his fat thumbs in his mouth to get at the far back where his wisdom teeth still push through the edges of his gums, bumped up against his jawbone. Sometimes, if he’s too quiet, Missy comes looking for him, asking what he’s doing as if he’s some idiot child who’s gotten into her face creams or make-up, biting off the ends of lipsticks he might mistake for candies.

The house is like something out of the French countryside, narrow and tall instead of spread out like the gaudy suburban sprawl of American flyover country. The kitchen, living room, and a half-bath take up the first floor; Missy’s and their dead parents’ rooms fill the second; and Michael’s is tacked at the top, a slant-roofed bedroom that traps hot air like an oven. After he died, Missy offered to trade rooms because, she said, she didn’t like the idea of him spending so much time in the place where he took his own life. The first time she said so, Michael blinked and stared at her like she’d spoken Russian, a dazed look on his face. She felt like she’d slapped him and didn’t mention it again.

Missy doesn’t know what Michael does when she leaves for work, her apron stuffed with pens and coins, fabric curled in a mess of string ties. Ever since his death her boss has put her on the best shifts: Wednesday nights (the wing special brings in droves), Thursday and Friday lunches, the weekend dinner rush, where she’s always assigned the best section: three booths and two four-top tables that are regularly shoved together for parties of six or seven or eight. She expected to slow down when Michael killed himself, to lose the perky luster that has made her a great server—she’s one of the lead trainers, makes a full dollar more per hour than the other plebians, which has boosted her bi-weekly paychecks unexpectedly and substantially—but the only time she forgets about him is when she loses herself in the rhythm of refilling drinks, asking how steaks should be cooked, what dressing to slather on wedge salads. Not until her shift is over and her tables are empty and she’s marrying condiments at the front computer station or refilling the sugar caddies and salt shakers does Michael come rushing back and a queasy worry settles in her stomach. Every time she comes home she wonders if this will be the time he’s finally left, slithered out into the ether or simply walked through the front door, never to return.

But he’s always there, somewhere. More often than not he’s on the couch, staring at the television, watching a repeat of Law & Order or a Harry Potter movie. There’s always a moment when she catches a look on his face like he’s seeing what’s on the screen for the first time, the tiniest bit of that childish wonder rushing through his skull like a first taste of sugar, and Missy wonders what else, besides dying, her brother has forgotten.

*

He finally asks about David.

“Was he there?” Michael says. She’s just explained to him again that he can’t go running, this time cutting him off in his steamy bedroom while he is rolling socks over his feet, fabric bunched halfway up the arch of his left foot. He stares down at it, pills of torn fabric spiking up like shoots attached to a rotting potato. Michael picks at one of them, the cotton spooling away in his hands, growing as he pulls and pulls, a white filament curling away from his foot like a parasite.

“Yes,” Missy says. She can feel the lie bursting in her mouth. It bubbles like gas farting into the room. But he’s not looking at her, he can’t see the broken glass of her face.

“Oh,” he says. “Good.”

He has forgotten David until today. He doesn’t know why. Things come in starts and stops, fits and bursts and flat-lines and spikes. David floods into his bloodstream, the taste of his body, his contours, his hairy legs, the stones of his shoulders. Memories of lazing in bed together crash like waves, David’s hot breath like the churning of an open oven. Michael wants to stick his head in one at the remembering.

Missy sits down next to him, lays a hand on his curved back where his spine rises against his t-shirt like tiny sand dunes. She has not touched him since his death, and she expects him to be shifty, porous, but he is still the same solid Michael, the brother who ran cross country in high school, who attracted the flirty cheerleaders with his smarts and swarthy face, already growing a five o’clock shadow when he was sixteen. Girls asked about him all the time, what made him tick, what he liked. She could never bring herself to tell them: boys.

But no, she knows that’s not quite right. As she grinds her palm against his lumbar thorax, she remembers Delaney, the quiet girl from their trigonometry class. Michael took her to Homecoming and then wouldn’t stop talking about her, the almond-shape of her eyes, the culottes she wore when the weather dipped into spring, how her hair curled naturally and bounced along her shoulders. Missy had been so sure they were in love. He’d even told her about the first—and only—time they had sex, crammed in the back of Delaney’s Corolla, limbs akimbo, backs bent at awkward angles, necks craned so they were stiff the next day. They’d both been virgins, and the sex had been fast, likely painful for her, confusing and embarrassing for him. They’d avoided one another’s eyes the entire time, gazes flickered toward the rearview mirror or the pouch attached to the back of the driver’s seat, where Delaney kept her chemistry book, its cover wrapped in a doodled-over folded paper bag. Michael had told Missy about it while they sat in a hotel room on vacation a week after their shared high school graduation. Their parents were busy sucking down rum runners at the tiki bar by the Holiday Inn’s indoor pool. Missy hadn’t been sure why he was sharing this; siblings were supposed to cringe at one another’s sexual exploits, but the thought of Michael finally getting laid—she hadn’t told him, but she lost her virginity nearly two years before he did—brought a calm comfort to her chest, like someone had poured warm caramel down her throat.

But Delaney, whom Michael broke up with days before hauling off to college, was the first and last girl to fall into his good graces. By Labor Day, when Michael and Missy came home for the weekend from their respective schools—she from Mizzou, he from SIUE—he was already talking about David. At first, she thought he was simply happy about a great roommate, and it took her longer than she likes to now admit to realize that David didn’t even live in Michael’s dorm. They’d met in Latin class, paired together for a short presentation on the myth of Romulus and Remus. For a week they met up at one of the dining halls for a breakfast of squeaky powdered eggs, too-acidic orange juice, and a confluence of cereals pulled from the mill boxes lining one of the walls, and discussed who would say what about the founding of Rome. David was handsome and lithe, hair like midnight, teeth straight and large, cheeks dimpled. His eyes were deep-set and chocolate, and his nose was flat like a button on a pea coat. When she heard Michael describe him, she knew she was hearing the chiming warmth of someone falling in love.

It worked out, thankfully. Missy was worried that her tender, sensitive brother would get his heart broken. How, she wondered, could he possibly know if David was interested in Michael in the same way? She lost sleep, torn up by images of Michael being rejected, David gently pressing a hand to her brother’s chest and pushing him away, shaking his head and banishing Michael forever. But by Thanksgiving Michael announced at the dinner table that he was seeing someone, and from the fervent shimmer of his voice Missy knew what was coming next: the announcement that the someone was a him, and that the him was David. Their parents took the news well, nodding their heads in vigorous agreement, asking no questions besides When will we meet him, offering no signs of shock or surprise that their son was dating someone else’s son.

They were together all of college, even surviving Michael’s senior year when David had graduated and moved back to St. Louis—though they shared Latin class, David was a year older—and they almost moved in together when Michael too came home, but David wanted to wait. For what, Michael wondered all the time, but David would just press a finger to Michael’s lips and shake his head. For Obergefell v. Hodges, it turned out, the morning of which, immediately following the ruling, David fell to a knee and proposed. Michael, breathless, said yes, head spinning and vision spangling.

Missy, for all the closeness between her and Michael, would never know what exactly went wrong. Her brother was engaged for eight months, and although no date had been set, he asked for her input—plate dinner or buffet; Friday night or Saturday ceremony; color schemes for table settings—even though she was clueless when it came to these things (though she did say she was on board for a live band instead of some crappy two-bit deejay). But then, all of a sudden, the questions stopped. The engagement ring was still on Michael’s finger, a glinting pewter thing probably half a size too big that regularly slipped along his knuckle so he fiddled with it, twisting the band between his middle finger and thumb as he talked. Something gloomy had smacked itself across his face. She tried not to pry, and Missy couldn’t decide if she’d done him better or worse by pretending nothing was wrong. In retrospect, she wishes she’d said something.

Because then the ring was gone. She was in the habit of looking for it, but she still felt the cold slap of shock when she saw his bare hand for the first time. Missy almost cried out, yanking his knuckles into her hands and staring at the spot where the band had been, massaging her finger against her brother’s, as if the pliant motion would bring the ring back to its rightful place. Instead she said hello, asking him how he was doing. Michael shrugged, and she saw the vacant look in his eyes, as if all the color and glint had been vacuumed out.

Three months later, their parents died, a freak airplane crash as they were on their way to Saint Lucia for vacation.

And then two months after that, the wounds still fresh and the paperwork for the insurance money still stacked on the dining room table, Missy found her brother hanging in the attic.

*

When Missy wakes up—always minutes before her alarm, always a wretched jolt, ripped out of some nightmare involving a car chase or serial killer—she tries to imagine what Michael is feeling when he opens his eyes. Does the knowledge that he is dead sparkle there in front of him, evaporating like mist? Or does he will his personal history away, walling it up in a corner of his brain, only for Missy to pick-axe it free? Is it like her dreams, so vivid and clear at one moment and then soggy, dripping into a swirly nothing moments later? She tries to listen for his noises: feet sending rickety creaks through the floorboards, a throat-clearing cough, a wheezy fart. The steady, warm sluice of urine in the toilet. But most mornings he is silent as the ghost he is, appearing downstairs only after she meanders into the kitchen to make breakfast, armed with his running shoes.

Her greatest fear is not that he’ll slip out the house but that he won’t appear at all. That he’ll make like their parents and be dead, dead, dead and stay that way. That she’ll traipse up the winding, narrow stairs to his room, hand trembling along the banister, and find his space abandoned to dust and moths and morning light. The bed will be made, the clothes in the dresser lined up as carefully as she left them the day after he died, weeping her tears onto his cotton boxer briefs as she stacked them, the elastic bands arranged in a clean heap. She’s not sure how to be the only one breathing the air in the house.

But every day she finds him eventually, a hopeful look on his face, as if the three-mile loop he intends to make through the neighborhood, past the community pool, along the shuttered storefronts, around the rusty playground equipment and the back of the elementary school they attended a decade and a half ago, will lead him to a satisfying destination. That there’s a finish line somewhere along the way, a banner he can bust through with a satisfying lunge, a crossing that will be transformative, uplifting, give him the boost he needs to forget the past and sear into the wild, white future.

Header photograph © Jackie Mantey.

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