by Timothy Reilly
He got off the train without knowing where he was. He thought he was just woozy after waking from a travel nap. But while finger-combing his hair, he discovered a painful lump in a matted patch of blood. Impulsively, he checked for the hour and noticed his wristwatch was missing. A pocket check came up short on wallet and keys.
Stunned and wounded, he shuffled from the platform, into the unfamiliar train station, where he plopped down on a heavy wooden bench. His neck and head were throbbing and his vision went in and out of focus. I was mugged, he thought. The phrase seemed to him almost heroic, like something from a Bogart movie. But he did not feel heroic; he felt like he needed help. ‘I was mugged,’ he said, loud enough to be heard from a distance. ‘I need help.’ But no one responded. It was as if he were invisible, a ghost. That creepy notion gathered steam as he looked around at the people in the station and realized they were all donning some rendition of the human skull.
The world is in danger, he thought. ‘You are all in danger,’ he shouted. He felt foolish as soon as the words left his mouth. Shouting in a train station is the behavior of a nutcase, he thought. But he again shouted the warning.
A little girl, wearing a pink shirt, embossed with a Hello Kitty skull, stopped to stare at him. Her mother quickly pulled her away, telling the girl not to look at the man on the bench. She handed the little girl a smartphone. ‘Play a video game,’ she said. ‘Watch a cartoon.’
‘I’ve been robbed,’ he said in a normal voice, hoping to temper his former outbursts. He continued watching the bizarre choreography of skull-arrayed commuters: flowing around him like a ballet of sleepwalkers.
Although dizzy and in pain, he forced himself up from the bench and made his way to the ticket counter. ‘I need help,’ he said to the clerk.
‘I was here first,’ a boney young man insisted. He was sporting a Jolly Roger porkpie hat and a matching Jolly Roger tank top. A festooned skull was tattooed on his skinny forearm.
‘Step aside, please,’ the clerk said to the man who’d been mugged. ‘This man was ahead of you.’
The man who’d been mugged looked at the young man’s tattoo. ‘Why do you have the symbol of death on your arm?’ he asked, his eyes bugging like Peter Lorrie’s.
‘What’s your problem, old man?’ the young man said, taking his ticket and leaving without waiting for an answer.
‘Now. What can I do for you?’ the clerk said.
‘Why is everyone wearing skulls?’
‘I don’t know. Is that it?’
‘No. I was mugged. I need help.’
‘Should I call the cops?’
‘I think I suffered a concussion.’
‘I’ll call the cops.’
‘I need to lie down,’ he said before losing consciousness.
When he awoke, he was lying on a cot, in a small room, somewhere in the train station. Someone had applied an icepack to the back of his head, and two paramedics were attending to him. A police officer stood nearby, and when the man seemed coherent, the officer began asking him questions.
‘What’s your name, sir?’ the officer asked.
He sat up and spoke loudly: ‘‘‘Men shall be lovers of their own selves…covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers…’’’
‘Take it easy, sir. You’re going to be okay. We’re here to help you. What is your name?’
‘You are all in danger!’
‘What danger? A bomb? A person? What kind of danger?’
‘‘‘Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived.’’’
‘Can you calm him down?’ the cop said to the paramedics.
One of the paramedics gently pushed the man’s shoulders to the cot. ‘You need to relax, Capt’n. You’ve had a concussion. You’re going to be fine. But you need to relax and answer the police officer’s questions, so we can help you.’
He looked at the faces hovering over him and nodded in response.
‘What’s your name, sir?’ said the cop.
The man opened his mouth in reflex but made no answer.
‘Can you tell me your name?’
‘I know my name. But I’m drawing a blank.’
‘Can you describe the person or persons who assaulted you?’
‘Where do you live?’
‘What city are we in, now?’
The cop said a word that sounded like ‘Camel-ears.’
‘That’s not it. Why I’m I here?’
‘You’re the only one who can answer that, sir.’
‘Why is everyone wearing skulls?’
‘I don’t know. Are you married?’
‘Yes.’ His eyes widened and he sat up. ‘Yes. My wife will be worried. Will you please phone and tell her I love her, and that I’m okay?’
‘Of course. What’s her name and phone number?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said, becoming more agitated. ‘I can see her face but I can’t remember her name. I can’t remember our phone number.’
‘That’s alright. Settle down. We’ll check for a missing person report. But I’ll need any information you can tell me at this time. What can you remember?’
‘‘‘Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines and earthquakes in diverse places.’’’
‘We’ll talk more, later,’ the cop said. He looked at the paramedics and shrugged his shoulders.
The injured man was transferred to a gurney and taken to a waiting ambulance. On the ride to the hospital, he tried to remember things: his name, his wife’s name, his address and phone number. He could recall no personal information. But a train of curious and unbidden thoughts and images continued to enter his head. He pondered these thoughts and images as he was wheeled into the hospital emergency area.
The paramedics spoke to a group of people wearing blue gowns. They all seemed disturbingly jolly.
‘Stay strong, Capt’n,’ a paramedic said to the man who’d been mugged. ‘These folks will take it from here.’ A skull tattoo peeked below the wrist-line of the paramedic’s latex glove.
The man was wheeled into a dimly-lit room, where he fell asleep without wanting to. He later awoke to a ringtone: an arpeggio from the open strings of a ukulele.
‘Hello?’ a female voice said. The female voice began a one-way conversation that trailed off in a Doppler effect.
My dog has fleas, the man with a concussion spoke or thought.
A male voice said: ‘We’ll need to prep him for an MRI.’
‘GCEA,’ said the patient.
‘What’s that?’ said a man in a blue gown.
‘The strings on a ukulele. G above middle C, middle C, E and A above middle C. My dog has fleas.’ He sang the notes: ‘My-dog-has-fleas.’
‘That’s good,’ said the man in a blue gown. ‘That’s real good. I’ll bet you can remember your name.’
‘My name. I know it.’ He felt a rush of despair. ‘I know I know it. I’m remembering all sorts of things—things I don’t even remember. Why can’t I remember my name?’
A woman in a blue gown said, ‘It’ll come to you. Just lie back and rest a while.’
‘Why is everyone wearing skulls?’
‘I hadn’t noticed.’
‘‘‘You can discern the face of the sky, but can you not discern the signs of the times?’’’
‘Close your eyes and rest. We’re getting ready to take some images with the MRI.’
He closed his eyes but he couldn’t rest. He was worried about his wife. He was worried about not knowing her name, his own name, where he was from, what kind of life he had led. He was worried that his soul was about to leave his body. He was worried about the fate of humankind. He sat up and shouted: ‘You are all in danger!’
Two blue gowns, a man and a woman, flanked his gurney. They eased him back down. The woman said, ‘There’s nothing to worry about. It’s something like a big camera. All we’re going to do is take some pictures of your skull, so we can see what the damage is. Then we’ll know how to treat the injury.’
The man said, ‘It’s really kinda cool.’ The woman said, ‘While you’re waiting, just close your eyes and think pleasant thoughts.’
He closed his eyes and thought about Jiminy Cricket singing, E-N-C-Y-C-L-O-P-E-D-I-A. In Disney’s Pinocchio, he thought, Ukulele Ike was the stage name of the man who was the voice of Jiminy Cricket. He sang When You Wish Upon a Star. But in Carlo Collodi’s book, the cricket isn’t named Jiminy; it’s called the Talking Cricket. The Talking Cricket doesn’t wear a top hat. The Talking Cricket doesn’t sing. Collodi’s Pinocchio becomes angry when the Talking Cricket scolds him for being a self-centered idiot, and he kills the Talking Cricket with a wooden mallet.
My-dog-has-fleas. . .my-dog-has-fleas. . . ‘Hello?’
A flea can jump more than 13 inches in a single leap. Fleas leapt from the rats on docked merchant ships, spreading the Black Death and wiping out nearly two-thirds of the European population. Skulls and the Danse Macabre were all the rage. Some people thought the plague was caused by a planetary conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Others, like the fourteenth-century Irish monk, John Clyn, believed that the End of the World was in motion and the Evil One was having his way with the human race. But that didn’t stop Brother John; he continued to work, recording the things that should not be forgotten, and leaving instructions for a survivor (should there be a survivor) to take up pen and finish his manuscript.
‘I’ll need paper. And something to write with.’
Timothy Reilly had been a professional tubaist (including a stint with the Teatro Regio of Torino, Italy). He has published widely, including works in Iron Horse Review, Zone 3, Fictive Dream, and Superstition Review. He has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in Southern California with his wife, Jo-Anne Cappeluti: a published poet and scholar.