RERUNS REZOOMED: a serial novelby Jonathan Baumbach
Part One ended Jack’s epic search for his kidnapped ex-wife Molly—in a hail of gunfire—after taking up with two thieving vixens on the run and crossing paths with some trigger-happy FBI agents.
The doctors lie when they say I have no memory. Look, I remember everything. To tell them they’re fucked up is only going to make them angry so I keep this wisdom to myself. It could be that I have already told the doctors that they lie and I have forgotten that I’ve told them. It is also possible the doctors say I have no memory (while knowing it isn’t true) to protect me from the team of interrogators who refuse to believe my answers to their questions.
Something happened to me a while back from which I haven’t altogether made my way back.
I am strapped to a cot in what appears to be a hospital ward, though that was true yesterday. It may be true again tomorrow. Reality changes in this place from day to day, from hour to hour.
“What is this place?” I sometimes want to know.
“We’re the ones that ask the questions, dummy,” the interrogators say.
I like that they call me dummy. It is something to hang on to, a familiar name. Otherwise, I am no one.
The interrogators—there are three who interchange—like to get the answer they are looking for, the one they have in mind before they ask the question. I do my best to please, but my best tends to fall short.
An example: they’ve asked on several different occasions where I met Antonia and Winifred for the first time and when this meeting took place. Each time they’ve asked, I’ve come up with a different answer, which is always, it seems, the wrong answer.
It stands to reason if I keep on inventing new answers, eventually I’ll hit on the right one. The law of averages, unless it has been rescinded since I got here, is on my side.
If I get it right, they tell me, if I tell the truth (meaning their truth), the quality of my life while strapped to this cot would improve immeasurably.
On certain days, I never know in advance which ones, visitors are allowed.
Today, as a matter of fact (perhaps it is no longer today), my parents, recently dead, come to see me.
“The authorities informed us of your accident,” my mother says. “Your father and I were most unhappy to hear of it.”
“What did they say?” I ask, wanting to get the whole picture or at least complete the patchy jigsaw puzzle I carry around in my head.
“Well,” my mother says.
“We can’t say anything,” my father says. “We’ve been sworn to secrecy.”
My mother winks as if to say wait until old stick-in-the-mud is out of the room.
Moments later, as if on cue, my father announces he’s going to the Men’s Room, having rushed from home without taking time to do his business. My parents embrace and tears fall on both sides before my father actually departs.
“So?” I say to my mother when we’re alone.
“What so?” she asks, so I spell it out for her.
“Please,” she says. “Do you want me to betray your father? Is that what you’re asking your mother to do. In a marriage, if one person is sworn to secrecy, so is the other. That’s the nature of a marriage.”
“Not really,” I say.
“What did I always tell you when you were a child?” she says. “You can never go wrong—never—by telling the truth.”
I can’t remember her ever saying that before, but maybe she has.
“What if you don’t know what the truth is?” I ask her.
“That’s the kind of question that’s gotten you in trouble before,” she says, “isn’t it? Everyone has a right to make a mistake once if they confess.”
At this point my father returns, drying his hands on the side of his pants. “I can see something’s going on here,” he says. “What has mother said to you behind my back?”
“Nothing bad,” I say. “Nothing about you.”
“If it wasn’t about me, who was it about?” he says. “What did you tell him?” he asks her.
“I told him nothing,” she says. “Nothing. What do you think I told him? Sometimes I can’t tell the two of you apart.”
“What did you tell him?” he says as if it were the recording of the first question.
“I told him,” she says, winking at me, “that your father and I believe that the truth is always the best way to go.”
“Nah,” my father says. “The truth never did anyone any good. Except in the movies. If it ever did me any good, I wasn’t around to notice. I want you to listen to your mother but not listen to her. You have to get the intent behind the words, the unspeakable meaning. She knows the right answer but not the words to dress it in. Now we have to go, I’m sorry to say. You’re not our only child.”
Funny. I thought I was.
“If dad says so, it must be so,” mother says without perceptible irony.
In a flash, they’re out the door, my mother blowing a kiss, my father saluting.
I mourn their loss.
Dinner doesn’t arrive at the usual time, but of course the wall clock has stopped and so my only gauge of time is whether I’m hungry or not. Not is the preferred alternative. They sometimes skip a meal to test my memory.
When there is food, I usually try to identify it, negotiate its source, before chewing and swallowing.
Soon the interrogators will return, sometimes in a group of three (in reverse size and place), more often one at a time and I will be urged to confess yet again.
I work on a confession that could well be appropriate to whatever they might ask.
“Fuck you,” I answer. It is the voice of outage speaking.
“Fuck you is not going to get it done,” the number two interrogator (he’s the Klaus Kinski type with the ripe German accent) says. “You want to get your hands untied, you got to do better than that. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if your arms were coming out of their sockets.”
“Please untie me,” I say.
“You got to give us something first,” says the head man.
“Why don’t you untie him,” says number three who is a woman and less abrupt in her manner than the others. “If you don’t get what you want, you can always tie him up again. I think he’s ready to cooperate.” She puts her hand on my crotch.
“Yesterday, you told us you knew those girls in high school,” number one says. “The thing is, we know Winifred and Antonia didn’t go to the same high school. So what’s the real story?”
“Fuck you is the real story,” I say.
“You’re a terrorist, aren’t you?” Two says.
I’m wondering which answer will get them to untie me. “No,” I say, which induces no response. “Actually, yes.”
“Were the girls working with you?” the woman asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Yes.”
“Cut him down,” one says. They look around for a knife, find a pair of scissors in one of the drawers and, after a few agonizing minutes, cut the ropes that had my arms strung over my head.
I am prepared to tell them anything not to have my arms strung to the pipe thing again.
“Did they take orders from you or you from them?” one asks, placing a recorder on the edge of the bed.
“Sometimes one way, sometimes the other,” I say. “They were driving alone in their open car and when they noticed me on the side of the road with my thumb in the air, they slowed down.”
“And when was that?” two asks, interrupting my train of thought.
“Five years ago,” I say.
“You’ve known them for five years?” the woman asks, seemingly surprised by my answer.
“Perhaps it was three years ago,” I say.
They look at their notes, huddle in the far corner of the room. Buzz buzz buzz buzz. “In our first interview,” says the woman, “you said you only knew them for a short while. Were you lying then or are you lying now?”
“In my profession,” I say, “which I have only the vaguest recollection of having practiced, I feel obliged to tell whatever seems the best story at the time.”
The interrogators leave the room, the woman returning moments later. “When you say ‘in my profession,’” she asks, “what profession exactly are you referring to?”
The answer comes to mind, then slips away. “Don’t you know?” I say. “Who do you think I am?”
“It’s an old trick,” she said, “to try to turn the tables on the questioner. Would it be accurate to say that the profession you’re referring to is the commission of seemingly random acts of violence? Please answer if you don’t wish to be tied again with your arms in the air. You know that I’m the best friend you have in here.”
“I appreciate your kindness,” I say, only half aware that I am dissembling. “The profession I was referring to is that of story teller.”
“You are saying that you’re a professional liar, is that it?” she says, turning away. “And I was beginning to like you, sweetheart.” She takes a tiny cell phone from her pocket to answer a call or perhaps to make one. The word ‘story-teller’ makes itself known from time to time.
“Look, I am not a professional liar,” I say when I have her attention again, “though I admit there is a connection between liar and teller of stories. I confess that I have violent mood swings and a bad temper and that a former therapist said—I think he meant it in a positive way—that I tend to be self-involved.”
“That isn’t anything I want to know,” she says. “Unless…”
“Unless it was your uncontrollable temper that got you into the situation we’re talking about,” she says.
“I made every effort to avoid fights because of my temper,” I say. “I knew that once I got started I wouldn’t be able to stop myself. So I avoided all provocations except for this one time.” I have no idea what I am going to say so I pretend I am censoring myself from telling the story while at the same time trying to come up with something vaguely credible.
“Were you with Toni and Win when this happened, story-teller?” the woman asks.
“I must have been,” I say. “I mean, your asking me about them must have stirred up this memory. That makes sense, doesn’t it?”
She turns on the tape recorder, which she holds out in my direction and clicks it on. “I’m listening,” she says, but that isn’t what she means.
“One of them was dancing with this drunk aggressive guy who was leaning into her. It might have been that I was the guy. I don’t think so. I think it was someone else and that I was sitting across from them. I had the sense that Win was appealing to me to help.”
“Where was Toni?”
“I think she was in the bathroom at this time. The drunk—he was a big guy, burly—forced Win to go outside with him. I seemed to be the only one aware of what was going on, which urged a certain responsibility on me, wouldn’t you say. Win had this imploring look on her face.”
“Did she?” the woman says. “Would you repeat that? You had your head turned. Questioner is asking prisoner to repeat his remarks.”
“So I went outside to see what was going on.”
“Was this man who was in your words forcing Win to leave the establishment in his custody a law enforcement officer?”
“If he was, and I can’t be sure one way or another, he wasn’t wearing a uniform.”
“Describe what the man was wearing.”
I’m not very observant so even if my memory was working on all gears, I wouldn’t be able to answer her question. “He had on a plaid shirt,” I say, “and shit-kicking boots.”
“And as you say, you followed them outside. Is that right? To what purpose?”
“To protect her if there was no other way.”
“And why would you think she needed protection? The man, who you say was forcing her, might have been taking her outside in his capacity as a law enforcer. Isn’t that a possibility?”
“You’re right of course,” I say. “I’m just describing what I saw and what I did.”
“I didn’t see them at first but then I heard what sounded like a call for help and I went in the direction it was coming from. I was holding a wrench in my hand, though I’m not sure how I acquired it.”
“The woman, Win, was being pushed into the back of an SUV parked at the side of the road. I could see bruises on her face where she had been punched. When her assailant saw me coming towards them, he pointed a gun at me and said to mind my own business if I knew what was good for me. I don’t know why but I kept moving toward him and then Win bit his hand and the gun came loose. Crying out, her assailant hit her with his fist knocking her head into the back of the car. The other woman, Toni, who I hadn’t seen before, picked the gun up off the ground.”
“Where did Toni come from? You said she was in the restroom.”
“Well, maybe it was Win who had picked up the gun and Toni was somewhere behind me coming on to the scene.”
“He had just knocked Win unconscious, how could she have picked up the gun?”
“I take your point. It wasn’t likely that Toni would have gotten to the gun before me. So I must have been the one to pick up the fallen gun. I had never fired a gun before and my intent was to rescue Molly, although it was Win this time, wasn’t it, by keeping the gun away from her assailant. Win wasn’t moving so I gave the gun to Toni, who had just come up behind me and told her to cover me while I carried Win to safety. Before I could react, Buck, I think that was his name, had Win in a stranglehold and was using her as a shield. And then I noticed that two of his redneck friends had come out of the bar and were calling to him and we had lost whatever limited advantage we had.”
“I’m losing you,” the interrogator says.
“When Toni shot Buck in the leg, Win was able to free herself and we got into a pink Cadillac convertible which had been left unattended about a hundred feet away.”
“So you admit to having stolen the car.”
“Yes, but we would have returned it if given the chance. The three of them chased us in Buck’s Blazer and we exchanged gun fire and I got lucky and must have blown out a tire because their van went off the road and crashed into a tree.”
“And after that you stopped to see if anyone had survived the crash.”
“No. Not that I remember. I think we just continued on.”
“Didn’t you want to know what happened to your pursuers?”
An image flashes before my eyes of a large man slumped over a steering wheel, his face crusted in blood. The interrogator removes her blouse and sits down on the side of the bed. She removes her bra and invites me to put my head between her breasts. I am not usually so reticent. An unseen hand lingers on my crotch as if it were the only possible resting place.
“I wanted them dead,” I say. “I killed them all. I fucked both girls that night.”
“You lovely man,” she says.
Check in with the Rail every month
for a new installment of Reruns Rezoomed.
Brooklyn native Jonathan Baumbach is the author of 3 collections of short stories and 11 novels including Reruns, B, Seperate Hours, Babble, Chez Charlotte & Emily and On the Way to My Father's Funeral. His stories have been anthologized in O.Henry Prize Stories, Great Pool Stories, Best American Stories, Full Court, All Our Secrets are the Same, Best of TriQuarterly among other.