I have forgotten everything. That is what the nurses tell me. I remember what the nurses tell me. I should be clearer. I have forgotten most things. I still have thoughts. My thoughts, though, are brief. There are words which represent ideas: Saudi Arabia, cinematography, sports. I understand that this is my hand, that my hand holds this pencil, and that the palm of my hand is placed firmly on the paper to keep it from sliding. It leaves a small damp spot. I understand cause and effect, the paper slips when my hand shakes. I’m not sure if this is a result of my condition or genetic behavior. I understand there is such a thing as “genetics.” I have been tested for this. I understand this is complicated. I’m not sure if I understood this better at some point, now I only understand that my body reacts to unknown forces within me. I should ask the nurses. I have started a list of questions for the nurses. They tell me this is something I should do. When I have a question, write it down. It is possible I might forget between when a question occurs and when they next arrive in my room to answer my questions, to bring my fruit, to bring my bread, to bring flashcards.
It was the nurses that referred to them as “flashcards.” I remembered the word when they said it; it appeared in my mind—white text floating on a black screen. They said, “We are going to show you some flashcards” or “Please identify these items on the flashcards.” It was one or the other. That was the first day. I remember less about the first day than the second day, and so on. It did not take long to match the words with the image, they arrived easily. I wasn’t disturbed by their questions. I understood people had jobs, that there were things which required being done. Boxes on their clipboard that needed to be checked. I wanted the nurses to be impressed with my abilities to name the objects. I said apple, I said automobile. They smiled, they nodded. I said hourglass. I said I am soft sift in an hourglass. I was certain these words were not mine, or rather I knew it was not the first time I had heard them. When I asked for a break, I was not exhausted. I was only thirsty. I was unsure how long, before this moment, it had been since I had spoken. Or spoken aloud. I am beginning to understand there is a difference.
I should describe my setting. It is an exercise in observation. I am told this process will aid memory, the recovery of which is an ambition of those who arrive daily to monitor my being. I believe I might feel neutral about this task. I am in a bed. Most things are white: bedding, wall, floor, and ceiling. There is a window. Mostly the gray curtains are drawn. In the morning, sometimes, they are open and lying flat I can see a band of sky. I have a wooden table beside my bed. I am not sure what type of wood. This frustrates me. I understand there are people elsewhere, not in this room, who could easily identify such things. I have seven books. A copy of The Junior Quiz Book, compiled by Sylvia and Rosetta C. Goldsmith, copyright 1938. The book is blue. It is inscribed: For Ingrid, May you have all the answers, Yrs, Brett. And six volumes of The Century Dictionary, copyright 1889. I have a white plate and vessel for drinking printed with the word: us. I find the word in book 8. The objective case of we. I look up we. I could spend a day this way. I spend the day this way. We is frequently used by individuals as editors and authors when alluding to themselves in order to avoid the appearance of egotism, which it is assumed would result from frequent use of the pronoun I. We are beginning to learn. There is a single work of art. It hangs on the wall directly across from me. A painting, or a reproduction of a painting. We cannot be certain. It is Saint George. We don’t know this; or rather we know this because in gold on metal it states “Saint George Slays the Dragon.” We think it must be from the bible. We can’t remember much of the bible. We wonder if we ever could. We remember Jesus, Job, Abraham, God bless you when someone sneezes.
Things come into my field of vision and depart, which is how I describe thinking and the nurses describe daydreaming, not be confused with “waking dream.” I’m not positive of the distinction, though it involves duration, dissociation, refraction, thresholds, and attention fatigue. I reach for my pencil. I’m beginning to want answers:
What is the rise and fall of the sea called?
How many colors in the spectrum?
What is the modest flower?
How many points has a snow crystal?
What is the song played at parties when it is time to go home?
Who wore the coat of many colors?
What is the birthstone for August?
What is the next line after: “The quality of mercy is not strained.”
Who is president? Don’t answer.
On what island is the famous Labyrinth situated?
What French naturalist wrote many interesting books on the lives of insects?
Is alchemy practical, spiritual, or symbolic?
Are we alone now?
Is this being recorded?
What is the royal road?
What is at the beginning of every end, and the end of every place?
Primarily, I wait for the rain. I watch the window; watch a train in the distance and the direction its smoke travels. Yesterday, I spoke these words aloud: Can I have my pipe? The next day a pipe was brought to me and I recognized it as being mine. If I am not smoking the pipe, I am holding it in a position that simulates smoking—this helps me think. I am terrible at thinking and often wait for others to finish my thoughts, to provide information. For instance, I have learned the earth apparently is spinning and the sun, beyond belief, is a star, that experts report has ceased shining. I’ve learned roaches will eat your brains and can survive a week without their own head, that contrary to the sensation beneath my skin, I am not inhabited by pests, this is imaginary, either shadows or psychology. I’m shown a flashcard of a variety of pests. I answer: ants, cricket, moth, flea. I should add more questions to my list; strike the ones answers have been attached to. I wait for the rain, it will come suddenly like mercy; will drop gently from heaven upon this place beneath.
I’m torn between wanting their conversation and wanting them to leave me alone. There is a distinct odor lingering about them: sulfur. It may be real or a metaphor. I learned this concept when enquiring about the native habitat of St. George’s dragon. My body reacts to their scent, to their knowing something that they believe I don’t, a pride in power coalescing in an orange aura around them. “The patient should continue to take about 100 naps a day for at least a fortnight after he is apparently convalescent; otherwise a recrudescence is very probable.” This seems convenient. They ask “What is the difference between this card and that card?” I say that the apple has been infested with a worm. The seasons have changed and the leaf has fallen from the tree. They showed me a needle. I answered: empathy. I have more questions than answers. They said it was a sign of regression, which is a mathematical term. Sometimes when I asked questions, they did not always answer, or did not answer in a manner which satisfied the question on my list, or they changed the subject. Sometimes when I wake, they ask me where I have been. They say “You were off somewhere far away. We are so happy you are back.” I don’t necessarily believe their sincerity.
On the seventh day no one comes to speak with me. When I wake there is food on my table. I can hear footsteps in the hall. The curtain is open. I watch the sky. The wind is a very deceiving thing. I can hear voices in the room behind me. I believe it must be identical to mine. I can’t imagine otherwise. I can hear the voices if I press my ear to the wall. A man’s voice says apple. A man’s voice says “Autumn.” The man’s voice says “A worm is cleansing the apple.” I hear something else. It sounds like people clapping.
Brett Fletcher Lauer is the author of the book of poems A Hotel in Belgium and the memoir Fake Missed Connections: Divorce, Online Dating, and Other Failures. With Lynn Melnick, he co-edited Please Excuse this Poem: 100 New Poems for the Next Generation. He is the deputy director of the Poetry Society of America and poetry editor of A Public Space.
Los Angeles artist Bruce Richards lives along the Hudson in Dobbs Ferry, New York. Access to New York museums and galleries and some global travel with his wife on her museum business trips have allowed him to finally see and learn more. He has been the recipient of NEA, COLA, California Arts Council Individual Artist grants and a commissioned print artist, Graphics Arts Council, LACMA. He exhibits whenever asked and enjoys collaborations. He works in oils mostly, does sculpture and prints, works daily.