Robinson lives and writes in Alabama.
She didn’t drop her big basket of laundry or scream when she saw the man sitting in her living room, on her couch. Later, when she explains what happened, that will strike her as odd. When she saw him sitting there — very good-looking, really, crisp shirt, tidy creases in pinstriped pants legs, smoking a cigarette — she probably should have dropped it, letting all the white sheets and soft, warm pillowcases tumble onto the carpet without worrying about them getting rumpled or dirty. She was shocked, of course. Her eyes got round and wide, her mouth was a little round hole, and her nostrils flared a little. Her tidy, childlike face, five circles all at once. She supposed it just wasn’t in her nature to drop things.
Then she went to the bedroom, where she saw his underclothes in their little heap at the foot of the bed. She opened the hamper and with delicate fingers separated his wrinkled white shirts and her white panties from her printed skirts and his black socks. She stripped the bed and shook the pillows out of their cases.
Scooping the pale mound into the king-size sheet, she hoisted it into the washing machine, emptied a cup of detergent and a little extra bleach, and set the knob to Normal Wash. In the spring and summer, after the clothes finished their spin — and this was the thing, the crucial, unequivocal thing for her — she put the soft, damp mass into a basket and took it outside to the backyard, where she had strung three lines from the high wooden fence that surrounded their small yard and rigged them to the edge of their small patio. She was the only person in her neighborhood who line-dried her clothes, ever.
On this Tuesday, it had rained the night before, so the grass was wet and the ground was still a little muddy. She was barefoot, and the mud squished under her feet and between her toes. The sun warmed her forearms and intensified the clean, damp smell from the laundry. She slung the clothes over the line until her hands and arms were slick and sore.
When she finished her routine, she usually spent a few minutes between the clotheslines, looking at her work, letting her mind wander. This Tuesday, she was outside for quite a while after she had hung up the sheets and pillowcases and underwear. The grass was a deep, vibrant green, wet and very shiny. Even the mud looked rich. The clothes looked especially white, bone white, brilliant white, and she pressed her nose into them and inhaled deeply. She smelled sunshine and electricity, and also something else, a whiff of rich smoke that faded almost before she noticed it. She looked at the sun through the clothes. From far away, she heard a crow caw. Feeling strangely childlike, she spent the next 30 minutes in between the lines of laundry, just touching, imagining that the sheets were the sails of a ship, the inside of a circus tent, the fluid white walls of an undersea castle. Then she started to feel silly and went inside to dust the furniture.
It was after she took the clothes off the line, folded them up and brought them inside that she first saw the man on her couch, the man in the button-down shirt who had folded his suit jacket neatly on the arm of the couch and loosened his tie, the man who was smoking a cigarette and casually tapping the ash into his palm — no one in the house smoked, so there were no ashtrays. All the doors were locked except for the sliding door that led to the backyard, so she had to assume that he had somehow slipped inside while she was out with the laundry. But that made no sense. The yard was tiny and surrounded on all sides by the fence. There was a gate, but surely she would have noticed if he’d opened it, snuck into the yard and walked right into her house, wouldn’t she? The man smiled.
“Oh,” he said, cupping his hand to catch the ash from his cigarette. “I see I’ve caught you in the middle of something.”
He closed his fingers around the ash and slid his fist inside the pocket of his jacket. His voice was soothing and deep, just a little timid.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said as he took his hand out of his jacket. The ash was gone. He smiled agreeably.
“I promise you, and I’m not saying this to frighten you or anything, I really don’t plan on hurting you, truly,” he said, “but I promise if you scream, it will have absolutely no effect whatsoever.”
Lying on her coffee table where a nice bowl of flowers had once been was a black gun. She stared at him as she held the basket of laundry and, after a long minute, made a noise in the back of her throat.
He was down to the end of his cigarette. Holding the smoking butt between his thumb and forefinger, he glanced around the room. After a moment, he picked up the pistol and turned it upside-down, which made her put down her laundry. She backed herself against the wall, and he smiled reassuringly as he carefully pressed the cigarette tip against the butt of the gun, stubbing it out. He slipped what was left of the cigarette into the pocket of his jacket and, still holding the gun, stood up. He was quite tall, she thought.“There now,” he said. “I think it’s time for us to be going. We’re both very busy people.”
What could she do? She had never seen a gun up close before, and she was sure that if she tried to run outside or into the kitchen to dial 911, he would easily shoot her. By the time she had given it any thought, he was already holding the front door open for her, jacket on, gun tucked away somewhere. Still barefoot, with her hair in a knot and no purse, she left her house. They walked down the little path that she had lined with moss rose and lavender a few weeks before, and he held the door of his pretty blue Mercedes open as she slid inside and buckled her safety belt. She stared at her front door as he started the engine and backed out.
She didn’t really know much about cars, but she could tell this one handled like a dream. As they glided along her street, she noticed the world seemed different, richer somehow, when she was riding inside a nice car. The houses looked dainty and quiet, and the trees curved regally over the road.
He coughed. “You know, I grew up not too far from here,” he said. “I think your husband did too, didn’t he? I remember him, from grammar school. He was a little older than me. I’m sure he wouldn’t remember who I was.”
She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. She didn’t spend a lot of time watching the news or reading the paper, but she scoured her memory for his face — surely there were warnings about him, a this-just-in bulletin about a strange, handsome, perfectly pleasant man, a local, who also carried a gun and kidnapped women. He drove expertly, she noticed, just a hair over the speed limit with one hand on the wheel and the other resting lightly on the gearshift. He had a tranquil smile on his face, and even whistled a little.
They were riding through a part of town she knew of but never visited. They passed through a neighborhood, and then a business district. The miles slid by underneath them, and the office buildings and stores grew farther and farther apart.
He cleared his throat. “It’s hard sometimes, to remember so much.” He glanced at her. “I remember everything. Everything. Can you imagine what that’s like? Everything I do and see has its own separate memory. Every single day a new batch, all of them, into the old storage bin.” He tapped the side of his head.
She smoothed her hands over her skirt. She knew she was supposed to say something or ask something. But what? She didn’t know. It was too late for Do I know you? Where are you taking me? Maybe, What are you going to do to me?
Did it matter? She smoothed her hands over her skirt and licked her lips.
“I can’t imagine what that’s like,” she whispered. Her voice was almost lost in the soft purr of the engine. He brightened.
“Nobody can,” he said. “It’s really strange. I ask other people what they remember all the time. They give me a handful of childhood stories, tell me about a few great or terrible moments, and that’s it. And that’s the thing, you see? Those memories shape them. Me though, I have too many memories. Can you see? I’m completely shapeless.”
He rubbed the steering wheel and let out a long, low whistle. He laughed.
“It’s OK if you don’t understand,” he said. “It’s just the way I’m different, I guess.”
The road had turned to dirt now. She was completely lost. He stopped the car along the side of the road. He looked at his hands and spoke in a hesitant voice. “There’s a place I like to go, not too far from here,” he said. “I found it once and never forgot it. Barely a few minutes’ walk.” He got out of the car and opened her door.
He walked in front of her, so that she could see the faint outline of the gun tucked into the waistband of his trousers. They walked through the dirt, and into grass and a young forest, where the trees were small and barely budding.
After a few minutes the trees opened and, looking around him, she saw a pond, pale green and hardly 20 feet across. He sat on the ground near the edge of the pond and motioned for her to sit next to him. When she sat, tucking her skirt around her legs, he patted her knee and smiled at her.
“I think it’s almost finished, though,” he said. “I celebrated my 31st birthday just a few weeks ago, and I think I’m finally starting to forget.”
She looked out at the water.
“Memories fade as you get older,” she said in a low voice.“Fade? No, not quite,” he said. “No, it’s more like a party. This room,” — he tapped his head — “is full of people, and more keep piling in. Soon, the room gets so packed that for every person that comes in, another one has to leave. Can you imagine?
“Take today, for instance, or this week. What do you think you’ll remember about it in 10 years? Not much, that’s what. But not me. I’ll remember every great and awful and boring thing from here on out.
“I would get so depressed. Sometimes, I could barely take it, when I was a younger man. It was so hard to just live,” he said.
Her eyes got wide. She thought about the gun in his waistband.
“But I’ve accepted it. I’m a memory man.” He laughed. “And now, at least, I have a little control. I can’t control what I lose, of course, but the new memories, those I can create. It’s a power I haven’t had before.”
He rested his head in his hands, rubbing his scalp. When he looked at her, he didn’t smile.“And let’s say something terrible, something completely unforeseen happens. Let’s just say I end up with a new, horrible memory. So what, who cares? It all just ends up in the old file anyway.”
She stared into his eyes, his dark, bottomless eyes. He seemed so very old, and she wondered why she hadn’t noticed it before.
The pond shimmered in front of them as they sat together, side by side, not moving and not speaking. After what seemed to be the right amount of time, she snuck a peek at his face. He looked peaceful again, smiling. She pictured the roomful of memories crowded in his mind, always loud, always moving, always threatening to invade the present. She really couldn’t imagine.
She stood up and walked to the edge of the water, waded in up to her ankles. Her feet looked large and bloated. She took a deep breath.
“When I was little, I used to look for places like this,” she said. “We lived in a suburb, but I always liked forests and creeks and things like that. I’d ride my bike for hours, out into the country, just to find places like this.” She laughed. “My parents would be so worried about me.”
“That’s a nice memory,” he said. “You’re lucky.”
She looked at her reflection in the water, at her quivering lips and eyes and hair. The light was fading.
“I need to go home,” she said quietly.
He sighed and stood up, brushing the dirt off his rumpled pants. He smiled, and his face reminded her of a dishcloth that had been wrung out one too many times.“I guess I’ll be arrested,” he said. “You’ll have to tell the police, you know. It’s the only thing you can do.”
The sun had set by the time they pulled into the driveway. She was relieved to see her husband wasn’t home yet.
He lurched the car to a stop, and she stepped out gingerly, feeling the cold, hard cement under her toes. She turned, trying to catch his eye, but he won’t look at her. Wordlessly, without unbuckling his seatbelt, he reached over, closed the passenger door and sped away. Sudden as he came.
The smell of exhaust mingled with the scent of lavender and night air. When she opened the door, the first thing she saw was the basket of laundry, glowing in the darkness. The sliding door was wide open, yawning, calling her outside. She shut it and locked it.
She wandered upstairs, trailing her fingers on the banister, into the bedroom. The lump of dark dirty laundry was still on the floor where she left it, crouched and crumpled, like a sleeping dog. She perched on the bed, staring at the lump, until she heard the hum and cough of her husband’s car in the driveway. She got down on her knees and picked through the pile, pulling out a pair of shorts and her husband’s navy t-shirt. She stripped in the darkness and slid into the clothes. After slipping her cold feet into a pair of tennis shoes, she jogged down the stairs as her husband opened the door.
“I’m going for a run,” she said. She kissed him on the mouth, squeezing his butt. He laughed. She was out the door before he could ask any questions.
Tonight, she ran, listening to the slap-slap of her shoes and the night birds — weightless, like a sheet in the breeze.