by Patton D’Arque
Pam pestered her with new documents and had new questions about old documents. She had scanned and copied them as files to her tablet.
It took her a while to get the knack of focusing on the device. She didn’t even own a smart phone though she knew some of the residents had tablets they could do something called ‘facetime’ with and which became very popular during the lockdowns. But she had no known relatives, that is until Pam and her companion claimed that she was not who she thought she was and she did have a close relative, now deceased. And cousins undoubtedly.
Pam showed her how to pinch the screen of the device to make the document larger. It showed a handwritten letter, a scribble of underlined words and exclamation points that she had no trouble reading. “We did it! We stopped the Communists There won’t be anymore Cuban Marxists or Chinese Maoists threats to our beloved country from within! The evil Kidney Beans have been eliminated!” She felt a pulse of revulsion when she read the words and caught her breath.
Pam noticed and inquired if she were all right, had what she read triggered a memory? She shook her head no and stared at the name singing off, “your devoted niece, Mary.”
Pam, showed her another file, this one she recognized as a text Pam had previously asked her to copy out. “Do you see the similarity of the two sample?. I submitted them to a graphologist. He stated that there was a very high likelihood they were written by the same person.”
“You’re saying I’m the same person who wrote the first letter.”
“Yes, the one dated June 19th, 1968. Does that date have any meaning for you?”
She shook her head, confused, why that date, so long ago? All of her time before she was rescued was a blank or a blur, vague shapes and indistinct voices, an amnesia caused by the trauma of her imprisonment and sexual assault. “But my name is Sharon,” she insisted.
Pam gave her a tight lipped smile and glanced at her companion, the man who would be a woman, typing on the small keyboard of the laptop computer with her large hands.
“Jean has prepared a short video for you to view. It’s a documentary about the sixties, that period of time you are having difficulty trying to recall.”
And when she seemed reluctant, Pam insisted. “It’s quite short, right, Jean?”
“Less than fifteen minutes,” Jean answered in a low raspy timbre giving a vague orange lipstick smile.
“Kidney beans,” the large woman said, “It is some kind of code. We have come across it in several other instances. I am convinced that it is a key. A trigger, perhaps, or a safe word.”
Sharon acquiesced and Pam touched the screen to begin the video. After a while she recognized some of the images as ones she had seen before on TV shows, particularly the ones that depicted various decades in the past. Karen, her former roommate liked watching them, and she didn’t mind them all that much although she felt no nostalgia for those bygone days. The narrative started by showing trending fashions of the time, an actress wearing dark sunglasses and a polka dot dress, comedy shows, upbeat popular music TV spectaculars with large sparkling floating spheres or dots, strobing lights and dancing musicians, some looking decidedly scruffy and uncouth. It was all very amusing except for the occasional bright flash of light that blanked out the screen. After the first few times she found it annoying and said so.
Pam waved a hand, dismissing her concerns. “It’s a glitch in the software. Don’t worry about it, you won’t notice after a while.”
She continued watching and the fun and games of the sixties era had subtly shifted to footage of mushroom clouds and submarines launching missiles, mobs of protesters and men in uniform beating them with clubs, bombs being dropped on jungle terrain, a man in a motorcade slumping forward, and a military funeral, a black man giving a fiery speech and then a picture of his dead body. The images of violence picked up their pace showing buildings set afire, flaming bottles thrown aloft, police cars being overturned, National Guard cordons, and then another man in the arms of others, blood on his shirt front and superimposed on the image, the date June 18th, 1968. It was all overwhelming and fatiguing, causing a spike of senseless emotion to well up. She had enough and closed her eyes, handing the tablet back to the researcher.
“Are you alright? Did any of these images trigger a memory. Do you remember where you were when those events occurred, especially of June 1968?”
She began trembling as she often did when she encountered the barriers to remembering, as if she were in a maze whose walls became narrower and narrower as she sought the memory that would allow her to exit. It frightened her. She was standing on the edge of a precipice overlooking a smoky fiery abyss. She repeated the words that seem to rise out of the void like a vapor. “The kidney beans, the kidney beans. Kill the kidney beans!”
Pam frowned and turned to her companion, “I think we’re done for today, Jean.”
“Kidney beans,” the large woman said, “It is some kind of code. We have come across it in several other instances. I am convinced that it is a key. A trigger, perhaps, or a safe word.”
Pam nodded in agreement. “I think you may be right.” And then regarding Sharon with concern, “I better ring for the attendant and get her something to ease her agitation.”
Sharon did calm down after the drug took effect but she was still upset and fearful. She told the aide that she didn’t want to see those people again, and the aide agreed that they should not be allowed to get her all worked up like that and that she would mention it to Mr. Ray. But she did have some good news. Her old roommate, Karen, had been released from the hospital and would be rejoining her and May.
The day Karen moved back she was in a wheelchair and on oxygen. And the same day All Souls was locked down again because of another outbreak in an adjacent wing of the facility. And Christmas was less than a week away.
“What a great Christmas present!” she’d announced as the aides helped her into her bed, “From the frying pan into the fire!” At least her sense of irony was still healthy. “Where’s the remote? I can’t watch this garbage!”
And she’d caught a different virus while she was in the hospital, conspiracy, and of course she’d known all along, just as she’d suspected. “Stop the steal!” she would yell at the TV, the breaking news that flickered across the wide screen with regularity, the scenes of violence and war, or threats of civil war. It was just as depressing as the video clip of the sixties the man who would be a woman had made her watch. Fifty years separated those events and nothing had changed except that the definition was sharper and the color better. She found that she spent more time in the recreation room, doing puzzles, or watching movies. Fortunately Karen slept more because of her medication and would often doze off with the remote in her hand offering a little respite from the constant badgering of pro and con pundits.
The sudden blackout was almost a comforting relief. And as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, her memory returned as if it had never left.
It was sometime after the beginning of the new year and the quarantine had been lifted that the day shift supervisor informed her that the team from the college upstate had asked for another appointment for the next day and Mr. Ray had agreed. But not to worry, the attendant had reassured her, “With this snow storm they predicting for overnight? Ain’t nobody going nowhere unless they got a sled and a dog team.”
All evening she fretted about the visit from Professor Pam and the She-Hulk, a name one of the aides had dubbed Jean. Just the thought of them made her shiver. And it didn’t help that Karen couldn’t decide what to watch and was flipping from channel to channel, surfing for the right wave of pixels that would keep her attention. She finally paused on a news broadcast, the chyron under the young woman talking to the camera read Governor Denies Parole, and then footage of a grey haired compact little man whose parole had been turned down.
He looked older, of course, but the mannerisms hadn’t changed, the way he held himself, erect, unbowed, and a complete obliviousness as if he were existing in another world. She couldn’t help thinking, hypnotized. The picture of him when he was first sentenced was more familiar. She recalled being in the same room with him, they were playing an odd card games, a droning deep voice guiding them. Had she dreamt that? It was all too real. She gave a little sigh and tried to push it from her mind. Karen took notice and commented for her benefit. “It was a conspiracy. He didn’t do it, he didn’t have the brains to plan it, and nobody’s that lucky! But who’s to say? That guy in Dalles wasn’t so lucky. At least this one’s still alive.”
Then the lights flickered and the power went out. An emergency generator switched on somewhere in the maintenance room and powered the dim emergency lights in the hallways and the bedside monitors in some of the rooms. The aides could be heard assuring everyone that it was just the storm, a powerline had probably been knocked down, and that everything was going fine. They should all close their eyes and relax.
The sudden blackout was almost a comforting relief. And as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, her memory returned as if it had never left. There it was in a dusty corner of her consciousness, obscured by a tangle of specious suggestions. She could visualize it all, the faces, the names, everything.
Because she was the only woman in the room she felt at the periphery although the men gathered there in celebratory post mortem of whiskey and cigars, fumes and smoke, the careless jocularity, boastful claims made in confidential conviviality, had thrown her an occasional curious glance of the will-she-or-won’t-she variety, they were intent on what the distinguished older gentleman was saying. He spoke with persuasive assurance, what one might expect from a university lecturer in tweed, tartan vest, horned rimmed glasses, and hand tied bowtie, a Doctor of Psychology, perhaps, and the talk had turned to hypnotism and the idea that a hypnotized subject could not be made to commit a crime, say a murder, if it violated an innate moral sense.
She had carried one hundred thousand dollars in cash in her make-up case along with a sachet of gems to deliver to the mysterious Mr. Chad.
“We have just proved that idea erroneous. It has nothing to do with morals at all. And there’s nothing innate about morals to begin with. Man is the only animal that is possessed of them which would lead to the conclusion that morality is something that is learned, and if it is learned, can it be unlearned or at least modified? It is primarily about survival, the will to survive and how strong is the life force in a particular individual. You’d be surprised by whom possesses it. One might naturally assume that the archetypical he-man would be a repository of such a force, but it is often the scrawniest, most unassuming of vessels that have the greatest resilience. The ancient Greeks had a saying, the bigger the pot, the easiest to crack. And as we know even a rabbit will attack when cornered.
“Combine that with the concept of the heroic, a romantic notion of eternal life, something that will bring acclaim, live on the lips of men, so to speak, leave a mark on history, the catalyst for chaos and change. If those two traits can be brought together in the same mind set, the heroic and the survival of the embodied ideal, any ideal, then those conditions create their own moral basis and justification. Certain individuals can be hypnotized to do just about anything. In some cases, hardly any conditioning is required, especially among the chronically depressed when potential questions overwhelm potential answers. Given the notoriety that comes with being associated with a cause, however fleeting, these subjects can be easily convinced to surrender their lives because the most momentous of all decision has been made for them.
“Of course the Ruskies were on to that early on, but we caught up with them. Now the Chi Coms and the Koreans, they’re not very subtle about it. They’ll take a square peg and fit it into a round hole, and they’ll use a big hammer to do it with. Brutal. Our thinking on this matter, and I mean the community, it is more instructive and cost effective to get the square peg to think it is a round peg and will fit easily into the hole. It’s called ‘rescripting’ among the academics. They know that it can be done and they’re wondering why it can be done. We only care that it can be done. And we did it. A reliable untraceable patsy is the key to this type of operation.”
She had grown bored of the stuffiness and the words she didn’t understand, and after all, being a good looking eighteen year old in a polka dot dress like the one Audrey Hepburn had worn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, yet no one was paying any attention to her and she’d given Eugene the look she hoped he’d recognize as one of bored agony.
Eugene was the one who had met her at the Los Angeles Greyhound Bus Terminal. Over the Christmas holidays she had left the snow bound east and spent a week crowded, cramped, and cold crossing the continent, and Eugene, or Gene in less formal moments, was like a knight in shining armor in his dark suit and narrow tie, trilby cocked to one side of his mischievous expression, long sideburns, and an accent she just couldn’t place, Southern perhaps. He had come to escort her to the location where she would be staying, a horse ranch on a bluff overlooking the Pacific that was home to a two story farmhouse and a collection of mobile homes and trailers. She had carried one hundred thousand dollars in cash in her make-up case along with a sachet of gems to deliver to the mysterious Mr. Chad. She did not see him again for the six month she had stayed at the ranch or in the Los Angeles area until the day before everything was set to go, and then only in the distance, talking to Gene out by the stables. Otherwise she played cards with the cook and her sister who lived in one of the trailers. Or watched TV, comedy shows mostly. And participated in the sessions, but that was only toward the end. Gene would come around to relieve the boredom. There was a private airfield nearby and he said he was training to get his pilot’s license and fly planes down south of the border where there was a lot of money to be made. It was always about the money for Gene, but they got to be friends, then more than friends. He would take her to the racetrack on occasion. He knew many of the grooms and some of the jockeys.
Still, those six months had passed so quickly and she was sitting in the living room of an expensive home in Palm Springs while a group of men inflated their egos by venting hot air.
“Wouldn’t you also say, Hal, that along with an untraceable patsy, a backup plan is essential should things go sideways.” The man posed the question with stiff military severity.
“Agreed, General, but we must also trust our expertise and planning will succeed so as to avoid using a second option.”
She’d became aware that their eyes had turned to her as if they had expected her to join the conversation. And her mind had gone blank and she blurted the first thing that crossed it. “Is it possible to erase someone’s memory by just hypnotizing them?”
The man who’d been holding forth nodded sagely and steepled his fingers. “Erase memories? I don’t think that is possible, but blocking memories, that can be done, and has proved to be quite therapeutic in some cases. But only on the most susceptible of subjects. Never on a strong willed individual such as yourself, that would be near impossible.”
“Surely there must be some sound scientific basis for the method,” the General insisted.
He explained that had the first scenario failed, the second was the bomb. She would have been ushered into close proximity to the target.
“Of course,” and the man in the horned rimmed glasses had launched into a long explanation about the science and theory behind the method and what was occurring in the cognitive pathways, and it was once again very boring.
The men had laughed and she had laughed although she couldn’t recall anything funny being said. And Gene had left, she hadn’t noticed him leaving. One of the other men, a rougher darker sort with shifty eyes and gold caps, had slapped his knee, laughing, “You gotta be kidney me!”
She was certain she’d heard it right. Her uncle would fly into an apoplectic fury at the mention of their names, and she had come up with an alternative that he could accept as demeaning and because she had thought of it, precious. The Kidney Beans became their private code, the ‘beans’ standing for the brothers, in their shared loathing for them. And Diggs, that was his name, Harold Diggs, the hypnotist, knew this private detail. It had come out during the small talk after the sessions. Had he shared it with the others and she had not noticed? She had felt suddenly very self-conscious because she suspected that they were laughing at her. That was when she excused herself and went to find Gene.
She found him, or rather he had found her, putting his hand over her mouth with a whispered “quiet” and led her out through the patio doors, past the pool, and out the gate to where his car was parked. When they were in the car and he had started the engine, he’d explained.
They were going to get on the 86 and make the run down to Mexicali before the men in the house knew they were gone. But why? He was getting to that. Because those men would not let her leave the house alive and he was certain that they had the same intentions for him. Knowing what they knew, they were loose ends that needed to be tidied up. Of course, she didn’t want to believe what she was hearing.
And then he told her that she was the ‘backup plan’ the General had been talking about, and she didn’t understand at first but then he told her about the purse. But she couldn’t remember. She had carried the purse with the bulky radio inside, he insisted. The one that was supposed to monitor the security detail frequency and that they had never used. It was a bomb, he’d told her, and still disbelieving, she had looked over her shoulder at where a rather conspicuous white leather purse was sitting propped up in the back seat, certainly not someone with any sense of style would have been caught wearing with a polka dot dress. He explained that had the first scenario failed, the second was the bomb. She would have been ushered into close proximity to the target.
Sharon stared out into the darkness of the room and listened to the sounds of the attendants dealing with the demands and complaints of their charges, assuring them that the power would return soon.
And he would have been the one to detonate it. But he was glad that he hadn’t had to because he had feelings for her, and once they got to Mexicali he knew some people who could help them with new identities and get them out of the country, down to El Salvador. And she remembered thinking even then what he was saying was just so fantastic and unreal that she had feared for her life, his behavior becoming more delusional and driving more erratic. He’d claimed that they were being followed, they had been found out, and they were gaining on them. And a large vehicle had indeed come up behind them and then passed them to speed ahead in the trafficless night, taillights disappearing into the darkness. And then frantically, as another delusion had overtaken him, he demanded to know what she had done with her purse, and they had both looked over their shoulder at the back seat.
He’d jammed on the brakes and she’d been thrown forward against the windshield. He’d pushed his door open scrambling to reach into the back seat. She had forced her door open as well and had stepped out in anger at his antics. He had the white purse in his hand when it exploded in a ball of fire. The shock wave had knocked her off her feet and down into the roadside ravine where she lay stunned trying to process what had just occurred. She had got to her feet and surveyed the flaming wreckage of what was left of Gene’s muscle car and her impulse had been to run, run as far away from where she was at the moment.
At an approaching vehicle slowing to assess the fire in the middle of the highway, she had cut away from the headlights to hide in the shadows off to the shoulder. She had not noticed that the ground fell away into a dry arroyo. And that was where she had been found by Luke. She couldn’t recall how long she had lain there, leg broken, in pain, going in and out of consciousness, but she did remember the sense of relief at being found.
She fell asleep savoring and replaying those recovered memories and at each instance feeling more complete, more complete than she had ever felt in her life.
When she awoke the power was back on and the aides were distributing breakfasts and checking on the residents. Karen had already turned the TV news on to reports of the snow storm that was paralyzing roads and causing accidents, some fatal, among them a prominent researcher from the college upstate and her companion, a transitioning male by the name of Jean DuBois, who were killed when their car slide off an icy rural road into a ditch and caught fire.
Well, that will save some explaining, she thought. A wave of relief engulphed her, one that she could compare to having been found and regaining her life, no matter its fraught tragedy.
The attendant had been handing her a tray. “Aren’t those the people who’ve been interviewing you?”
When she didn’t answer, Karen chimed in. “Is that true, Sharon, you knew those people?”
“My name is Mary,” she said, and at Karen’s surprised expression, she laughed and laughed and laughed.