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Amnesia Nights

Amnesia Nights

by Quinton Skinner


His mind is playing tricks on him. He sees people he thinks he knows, but they’re only strangers. His memory flickers in and out of focus. What he does know is this: He hasn’t seen his fiancée, Iris, in over three years. He fled their Los Angeles apartment one night after a fit of rage that may or



His mind is playing tricks on him. He sees people he thinks he knows, but they’re only strangers. His memory flickers in and out of focus. What he does know is this: He hasn’t seen his fiancée, Iris, in over three years. He fled their Los Angeles apartment one night after a fit of rage that may or may not have left her dead. He’s been living off a small fortune he stole from Iris’s wealthy, manipulative father. He keeps it hidden behind the wall of his Minneapolis bedroom. He bides his time and waits for the police to find him and charge him with his lover’s murder—though he isn’t sure if he killed her, or if she’s really dead.

Iris was his anchor, the one joy in his troubled life. At Harvard, she transformed John from a shy and awkward freshman into an elegant, self-assured man. But now she’s gone, and his memories of her are obscured by a miasma of guilt and uncertainty.

Then one bright day Iris returns. But is she real, or just a cruel figment of his addled brain? Only a journey into the deepest corners of his past will reveal the truth about John and Iris—about life and death and love, and secrets too dark to reveal.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Quasi-debut fiction. In the amnesiac manner of Guy Pearce living his life backward in Memento, and of this present tale's hero, John Wright, who also lives his crumbling life backward, novelist Skinner forgets that he co-authored the novel Protokol (not reviewed) with Eugene Golub, counting this his debut instead. In the unfolding confusions here, we meet Wright in wintry Minneapolis, where he lives in a decaying house and has stashed $400,000 and a plastic bag of photographs in his bedroom wall. He's there to find a neutral space, away from the past and memories of his lost Iris Kateran, whom he vaguely remembers having killed, and afterward having stolen the money from her father. He also remembers lonely years at Harvard and then, vividly, meeting the unattainable Iris during his third year. So highborn-still, she asks him out for coffee. The story weaves between seven days today and fragments from the past. He has a strange scar in his hair-from where? Then Iris reappears, strange, mentally fragmented, not a ghost but really not alive, and also with scars in her hair, scars Wright believes he put there when he killed her. She hangs around the way disconnected-from-time Jennie does in Robert Nathan's memorable Portrait of Jennie. Her zillionaire father, Karl Kateran, has private investigator Solomon Ford tailing Wright. Iris had changed John's name to Jack when they'd lived together at Harvard, also sharing her fabulous account jointly-she even gave him a credit card and dressed him anew in the finest duds. In LA, they start up a money-managing office with Frank Lee, their Chinese buddy from Harvard. Success blooms but, emotionally, things fall apart. Karl turns mean, Frank screws upthe business, the company fails, and Iris tells Jack, "You and my father are going to kill me." Well, is Daddy the baddie when Iris disappears? Will John ever find her again-for real?Spelled out on a level you don't expect. But plenty of reader stickum. Agent: Alicka Pistek/Alicka Pistek Literary Agency

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.18(w) x 8.01(h) x 0.64(d)

Read an Excerpt

Amnesia Nights

By Quinton Skinner

Random House

Copyright (C) 2004 by Quinton Skinner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0345465423

Chapter One


Minneapolis, Minnesota.


Several winters ago, young romantics in Japan devised an elegant way of committing suicide. After draining a bottle of liquor, the despondent soul went to a public park in the middle of the night, where he (it was always a he) stripped naked and rubbed snow all over his body. Soon consciousness deserted him, and he closed his eyes in a velvety hypothermic embrace. It was painless, it was beautiful.

I remember walking past Cambridge Commons, across the Charles River from Boston, with cold freezing my fingertips through my gloves and the wind insinuating itself around my exposed neck. I walked the footpath by the shadowy copses and thought about the Japanese.

In Minnesota the cold envelopes with an embrace equal parts fearful and seductive. Winter is coming.

Don’t get the impression that I’m an unhappy person. Really, nothing could be further from the truth. If you met me, I’ll bet I could get you to like me. I used to be very good at that.

On one of the rare occasions when she was willing to talk about him, my mother told me that my father was a construction worker. His particular specialty was industrial interiors— drywall, plaster, paint, acoustic ceilings.

Frankly, I have a hard time imagining my father laboring on a construction site, sweat collecting in the wrists of his heavy gloves. From various family members, I gather that my father’s long-completed tenure on this earth comprised an uncompromising run of indolence, cheating, lying, abandonment, womanizing, and neglect. He kept those who loved him on edge with the ever-present threat of his hurricane temper. I suppose it was theoretically possible that he might have put down his beer bottle from time to time and gone to work. Everyone does things out of character.

I barely remember him. One time, when I was about five or six, he came to see me. He was angry, red, not doing much talking even though he was a visitor to my mother’s house. He bickered with her and she left the room before he felt provoked. I was alone with my father, who at first didn’t seem to notice I was there. He shook his head, muttering to himself. Then he turned and fixed me with a pitying look.

“Some fucking world, huh?” he said with surprising congeniality. This was the sum total of all the wisdom he had to impart, but he believed in what he was saying.

I sort of knew what he meant.

I bought a house in Minneapolis a little more than two years ago. The first thing I did after closing on the property was to follow in my father’s footsteps with some interior work of my own. I tore a hole in my bedroom wall, just above the baseboard. Inside it, I hid a plastic bag of photographs and almost $400,000 in cash. On top of the money, I set down a wooden truncheon bought from a martial arts store in Los Angeles. It’s a nasty little club, black and hard, with a handle for swinging, like the ones the cops use on rioters.

The club was barely used. Just the one time.

It’s stupid of me to keep it. I’m like an arsonist watching his handiwork from behind the police barricade, reveling in the colors of the blaze, twitching every time a detective spots my sweating face in the crowd. But I can’t bear to get rid of it. I’ve wiped away my fiancée’s dried blood and doused the thing in rubbing alcohol, knowing full well the capabilities of DNA forensics. Still, it’s evidence, and if they ever find Iris Kateran’s body, it might suffice to put me in prison for the remainder of my useful adulthood.

Two years ago, I thought Iris was mocking me behind my back. I was afraid of her. I thought she was going to destroy me. When I went back to her home, Los Angeles, I was poisoned by money—by my desire for it, by my new image as someone who deserved it. When everything went wrong, I was no longer myself. The John Wright I once was would never have bashed his lover’s head in.

The Pertinent Facts, and Unanswered Questions, of John Wright’s Life:

1.He was born poor, and his childhood could best be characterized as uneventful. He was reared by adults who lived lives of no distinction. He evinced intelligence at an early age, though he also developed a nervous disposition and had difficulty relating to others. This may have been due to the influence of his mother’s chaotic and mercurial personality. Although his occasional interactions with his father couldn’t have helped much, either.

2.He never again contacted his family after high school and has not spoken to his mother since shortly after his high school graduation. Though she was a woman of many faults, John Wright was basically all Sandra Ruth Wright had in this world, and John’s actions doomed her to a unique prison of her own devices. He imagines she must have begun a precipitous personal downturn shortly after his departure for college but generally succeeds in driving this thought from his mind.

3.He left his home in Indiana for Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he made his first and only friend. He also lucked into a beautiful and extremely wealthy girlfriend, Iris Kateran, who later became his fiancée.

4.During college, John Wright was a mediocre humanities student. His relationship with Iris evolved quickly, and he began calling himself Jack (her idea). Jack and Iris eventually cohabited in a neighboring town called Somerville. Jack’s love for Iris deepened, and he began to embrace the material luxuries she provided.

5.Jack, Iris, and Jack’s friend, Frank Lee, decided shortly before graduation to move to Los Angeles. Although daunted by the presence of Iris’s overbearing father, Jack agreed to the move because the three friends planned to set up a small investment company, which they would run and which would enjoy the backing of the Kateran family name.

6.Things went all right for a while, but soon after their engagement, Iris and John’s relationship began to deteriorate for reasons too complicated to explain here.

7.After a sudden financial and personal reversal, Jack flew into a jealous rage and tried to kill Iris.

8.Jack thought he had killed Iris. But the police never found her body. He waits for the police, or private investigators, to find evidence of his crime. But Iris’s disappearance remains unsolved. Jack does not specifically remember killing Iris. He remembers an apartment, her being there, and deadly violence. But the actual killing? No, he doesn’t remember it.

9.But, if he didn’t, what became of Iris Kateran?

10.No, she has to be dead.

11.Upon seeing that his incarceration was not imminent, Jack moved to a new town.

12.Jack was involved in some very bad things. He can’t explain to himself what happened.

13.It’s been two years since all that happened.

I am not a financial wizard; this will eventually become abundantly clear. But I bought my house in Minneapolis just before a boom that exploded real estate values in my neighborhood by at least 50 percent. Nowadays everything is so expensive. I’m old enough now to remember a time when ordinary people could live decently. I don’t know what happened, and I know I didn’t think that American prosperity was going to make it impossible to live a life without competition and strife. I honestly don’t know what I would do with myself if I hadn’t stolen almost $500,000 from Iris Kateran’s father.

My friends and I (Frank Lee, specifically, and, to justify the use of the plural, Iris herself) used to complain about how the baby boomers got in on the ground floor of everything, how they snatched up all the choice places at the table and grabbed all the goodies. But now I have obtained a few things of my own. I have my house, a car, and a comfortable nest egg hidden inside my bedroom wall. I am, by all appearances, a young man who achieved some modest success and then, when times turned lean, sensibly pulled back the throttle in favor of a modest life of relative leisure.

I’m the guy on your block whom you can’t, for the life of you, figure out how he makes a living.

Morning. Orange juice and coffee. My house is quiet. I sit here at my table, smoking a cigarette. This is not going to be an important day. I fry up some bacon, eat some, and leave the rest on a paper napkin for Hero, the cat, to find when he finally comes out of his hiding place.

My neighborhood is called Uptown, although the land is flat and we’re actually south of downtown. I don’t try to figure it out. I don’t understand this northern place. This is where I came to hide. I have been issued an exemption from involvement here.

I like to go out. When I’m cooped up for too long I start to feel frightened. I pace a habitrail through my neighborhood with the squinty-eyed familiarity of a hamster in his maze. I have become a virtuoso at killing time. My sustenance is the arm’s-length interaction of commerce and service. I go to movies and bookstores. I like to eat alone in restaurants during off-peak hours. Too much company doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t spend much money, and it will take me at least a decade to run through my reserves.

There’s a squirrel on the sidewalk at my feet, squinting over his nose as if making fun of himself for being a squirrel. I know how it is.

This city is a bastion of quiet civility. It’s built around a chain of lakes, around which I walk until I have reason to hope I might be tired enough to sleep. I hate the thought of returning home to all the dust and entropy. I clean and clean the house, but I can’t keep up. It’s discouraging. Sometimes I wake and think I’m in someone else’s home.

I arrive at the Walker Library before I realize that’s where I’m going. Things like that happen, when you let them. Once I had a dream about buying a book, walked into a bookstore, and there it was—the same book. I bought it, although I haven’t gotten around to reading it.

The library is two stories underground. I push the elevator button, which looks none too clean. I am developing germ phobias. I have nightmares about anthrax spores, dirty bombs, and burning airplanes. I guess this is something to connect me to greater humanity. I would like to find some other grounds for commonality.

The front desk has a washed-out, Eastern European look. It’s a big room that reminds me of a scaled-down concert hall, though the acoustics are terrible—from all directions I hear murmuring and echoes. In the periodical section there is a man who may or not be extremely old. He is like an old buzzard in a nest of newspapers and magazines on an indeterminate piece of upholstered furniture.

“There’s something wrong with that Don Rumsfeld,” he says in the deepest voice I have ever heard.

I flash him the peace sign. Midday at a city library fails to match the intellectual environs of ancient Alexandria. Mostly we have the usual bums and weirdos, newspaper pawers, magazine chewers, book defilers. A few are sleeping, and one psychotic stares into space. My people. I prefer to huddle in a circular carrel, with books on home repair, art, Buddhism. The world comes to me.

The far end is the kids’ kingdom—books, toys, some stuffed bears and rabbits with the distressed look of zoo animals. I see a toddler careening on shaky legs, on the edge of disaster. A couple of older girls, bored by their stay-at-home dad. I meet a young mother’s eyes, then quickly look away. I have drifted too close, in my drifting, and now the father looks up at me. I am burdened with the tacit guilt of a single man in the presence of small children—rogue-male primate danger mixed with the deep and unthinkable threat of molestation.

But there’s something else. I turn, almost sniffing the air.

Iris wanted to have children with me one day. Her childhood was cold and sterile. Her mother died young, and her father, while devoted to his only child to the point of obsession, was and is a fearful battering ram of a man, difficult at best to deal with. It touched me that Iris considered me a potential father, what with the details of my own upbringing. Iris herself was never an obvious candidate for motherhood; she wasn’t one of those women who bought dogs as baby proxies or whose face would melt with unrequited love at the sight of an infant in the supermarket.

At least, I don’t think she was. I can’t exactly remember. I would like to change the way I think and look at things, but so far I have been unsuccessful.

Desks circled like wagons protect free Internet stations, the outposts of job seekers, local crazies, young students. There’s been a lot of trouble with antisocial types loading up the most outrageous porn they can find—they’re determined to find varieties capable of shocking the most jaded libertine—then leaving it on-screen for children to come across. It makes me glad not to have offspring, because I would go insane trying to protect them.

I have experienced a problem recently that is embarrass- ing to mention. Perhaps because my world has shrunk so, on several recent occasions I have seen people in public whom I thought I knew. In each case, the seemingly familiar person seemed to have changed his or her look—a new haircut, a radically different style of dress. One time I saw someone I took to be an old college professor of mine, another time I saw an acquaintance from my days in Los Angeles. I was wrong in both cases, and the individuals in question regarded my stares with wary apprehension. I was unable to shake the eerie impression that I had encountered an alternate universe doppelgänger of someone I once knew. At times I think I’m not well, mentally. I have headaches. My memory comes and goes.

So now I am in a very strange position. Because I think I see her. The most important person in my life, the one who is lost to me. But it’s an ordinary Monday.

She’s dead because of me.

Time telescopes. She is the same age as me, stranded directly between twenty and thirty. But I am no longer here, and this can’t be happening. I cannot think of a single thing, but I am aware of everything. The only answer for what I am seeing is that I have lost my mind.

I killed her, didn’t I?

She looks like a homeless person. She’s dressed in a thick coat buttoned to the neck. I flash on Nixon’s honest Republican cloth coat, but the young woman before me is no coiffed and shrink-wrapped Pat. She stares hard at the computer screen, her lips moving slightly. Her black hair is knotted and uncombed, and her eyes are ringed with purple.


Excerpted from Amnesia Nights by Quinton Skinner Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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