Once a week, around 7:30 in the morning, I meet up with three other ex-professors over bagels and coffee, sometimes coffee and cinnamon buns if we’ve given up on diets. I’m the youngster in the group, at age sixty-four. The other three men are emeritus, aged 75, 70, and 69. I think that they accept me because I’m the most liable to drive around and knock over mailboxes with a baseball bat in gated communities, then tell them about it with cream cheese covering half my upper lip.
We do not talk about the weather. We do not talk much about sports, wives, car engine repairs, house improvements, idiot colleagues of the past, obituaries, and anything else that might make us depressed or flustered. It’s all how to save America, and the books we’ve been reading.
Two days ago, I looked across the table at the seventy-five year-old man—a guy who became an administrator after about thirty years of teaching foreign languages—and said, “Hey, tell me about that time you got hit by a car.”
He should be writing this essay, by the way. I don’t know if he’s embarrassed about the story, or what. I’ll change his name to Frank. It’s a good strong name, and a wonderful adjective. Frank has cycled across Europe, and up and down the East Coast. He stands about six-two, maybe weighs 180, and keeps his head shaved. He can talk eloquently about French wines, the World Cup, bad roofers, Don Quixote, whatever. Most of the time I sit there thinking, Please don’t ask me a question. Ten years ago he hired me for some kind of fancy endowed chair thing to teach fiction workshops and Grit Lit. I’ve always been scared of him.
Frank said, “Well, I was riding on a two-land road I’d ridden for twenty years. At a four-way stop, I stopped. I motioned to this woman ‘Can I go first?’ She waved her hand. A mile down the road I was going about eighteen miles an hour, looking at my peddles, when I saw, peripherally, the bumper of her car.”
This accident happened in 2017. He’d just retired.
Somehow I didn’t know the whole story—only that Frank got in an accident, but he’d be okay. He said, “When I woke up, the police and a fire truck were there. Evidently I got my left foot out of the peddle, but then skidded across the asphalt and banged my head into a cement curb. I wore my helmet, which saved me, I guess.”
Of course I said, “Damn, man.”
He said, “I was in ICU for a few days because they couldn’t get my heart rate down.”
No broken bones. Road rash everywhere. Memory problems.
Now, all of this story brought on flashbacks, ones that I think about infrequently: When I was fourteen, in Greenwood, South Carolina, on highway 254, a woman hit me from behind at fifty-five miles an hour, while I rode my tragically-heavy Schwinn ten-speed. Luckily I had a friend in front of me. Evidently I flew off the bike, landed some feet up a telephone pole, and slid down. Man, I was out. I didn’t regain consciousness for three days, and spent ten in Self Memorial Hospital.
This was near-dusk, and I had a flashlight attached to the handlebars.
The woman who hit me took off, but luckily the driver behind her caught the license plate. Or maybe it was the passenger, or one of the two women in the back seat—they all served food in the cafeteria of my junior high school, and came home from work late. These were women who’d scooped Lima beans, or mashed potatoes, or kerneled corn on my segmented platter in the past. They’d handed over Sloppy Joes to me and smiled.
As it ended up, I didn’t have any broken bones, but owned a couple blood clots. I still have a scar on my left upper ankle from the front sprockets of the bike. To this day I have smudge-like scars on my knees, elbows, and right upper hip.
Ten days in the hospital. Six weeks doing nothing until the blood clots dissolved or whatever. $2,000 hospital bill (good god, can you believe this?) and a meeting with a judge, the woman who hit me in attendance, the judge saying that she needed to pay my parents for the hospital bill, plus a new bicycle, which I got—a really nice Raleigh ten-speed that I never rode, took to college four years later, and had stolen.
I don’t remember ninth grade, if it matters. I went, I took classes, and for some reason I did really well in French I, but not much else. I remember, after I came out of a coma, that a nurse gave me an enema before I went in for a series of odd X-rays. I remember telling my mom, “They gave me an emnia and I went to the bathroom in the bed!”
Here’s an aside: Greenwood’s a small town. They tried to get in touch with my parents. My neighbors knew that my parents went to the drive-in movie. I have no clue what what my parents thought important to see without me. There, over the driver’s side speakers, the guy in the concession stand announced, “Can the Singletons please come to the booth? There’s an emergency.” My father later told me that my mother became a Christian, praying from the Highway 25 Drive-In to the hospital.
Anyway, two months went past, I quit wearing pajamas over my abrasions for the entire summer, this girl named Jonie and another named Kim quit showing up to teach me how to French kiss on my parents’ front porch, I went on with myself, and I took up distance running instead of riding a bike.
“After four months the doctor brought me in for cognitive tests,” Frank said there at the coffee shop. “He had me count backwards from a hundred by sevens. He gave me that test they gave Trump, you know: Person, Woman, Man, Camera, TV.”
We laughed. Then we went, “100, 93, uh, 86, um…”
Actually, of all people, I went, “100, 93, 86, 79, 72, 65, 58,”quickly, and then stopped. I didn’t want to show off, understand. But, in reality, I wanted to make sure I could kind of do it.
Frank said, “He told me I was fine, that I did well.”
Two men behind us at the next table started talking about warehouse jobs they had in the peach industry, back when they just got out of high school. I turned around to find two guys, maybe older than I, who looked like lawyers. I thought it necessary to say, “My first job out of college? After I graduated with really meaningful degree in philosophy? Budweiser warehouse. What a mistake on Budweiser’s part! I had to take twelve-ounce longnecks out of a box, place them in six-pack cardboard containers, then put them back in the box. Then I’d put them on a pallet so they could go to grocery stores. This was some kind of test-market thing, for Greenville. About every day I’d go, ‘Oops, accidentally dropped a case,’ but in reality I put a case in the trunk of my old Toyota.”
One of the other guys with me—not Frank—whispered, “How can you do this, just talk to strangers?”
I said, “Damn, man, how can you learn anything without talking to strangers?” but secretly I wondered if, perhaps, this was a terrible repercussion from my previous head injury. I said, “Yeah. Maybe I shouldn’t’ve barged in like that.” I thought back out how comfortable I’ve always been when it came to including myself to anyone’s conversation.
“Anyway,” Frank said. “I got an offer to run a program over in Europe for a month. I’d done work for them in the past. This guy was leaving. It was a lot of money, plus an apartment added. I said hell yes! I went for a month. And then for two months, and then for three. As it ended up, I was over there illegally, ’cause I didn’t have a visa for that long. Well, my wife was there, and she went off to visit some people in Amsterdam, leaving me alone for a long weekend.”
I zoned out a little. I envisioned that Schwinn bike, which got kept in my parents’ crawlspace for years, the back wheel with its bumper-crater that looked like the letter C.
Frank said, “I don’t know what happened. One night I woke up at three in the morning and I felt flooded with my entire life: my bad childhood, how I’d gone off to college, and then grad school, how I’d gotten a job teaching, then being an administrator—I thought, ‘My life has been nothing. I’ve done nothing.” That’s all I obsessed about.”
One of the other two guys said, “Goddamn, it’s not true. You got a Ph.D. from Chapel Hill.”
Frank shook his head. “I saw a radiator, and got up on it. I tried to open the window. I was going to jump out, but I couldn’t get the window open enough.”
No one said anything. We sat there for a solid minute. One of the men behind us said something about how they were growing oranges in Georgia now, that he’d seen a clip on CNN. Finally, I said, “I’m never going to ask you another question again.”
Frank broke out in a smile, high-fived me, and said, “Fuck you, Singleton.” He said, “I called my wife and told her about it, and she said, rightly, that we needed to get back to the United States immediately.”
A psychiatrist told my friend Frank—and I might have some of this wrong—that the frontal lobe, or something, holds all the past’s memories. And that it keeps those memories locked up. The rest of the brain’s working hard on little things, like Breathe, Here’s How to Drive, Go Take a Shower, Walk, and so on. But sometimes that frontal lobe releases all the old memories, and it can be devastating. With a brain injury, such things can occur. That’s what happened to Frank.
So here I sit, waiting. I’m writing this on Thanksgiving Day. Earlier, I peeled three pounds of sweet potatoes that I grew and harvested this year. There’s a chance it’ll be my only memory, later on. I kind of hope that’s the case.