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The last thing I remember is now.
Now, coming at me with heart-pounding fists. My eyes shoot open, and there is too much. Of everything. Blurred figures, moving. White lights. Muffled waves of sound. Voices. Music. Chaos.
"You gonna eat that?"
A noise at my ear. I turn. Smear of a face, too close. Its mouth moves, can't make sense of the words. Close my eyes, rub hard. Sore and gritty. I open them. Blink and blink. Senses snap into focus.
Everything in this place is washed of color. Tile on the floor is gray and white. Pumped-in classical music, way too loud. Crazy violins. Nothing makes sense.
"You gonna eat that?"
A fat man stares into my face. Long tangled hair, streaked gray, bushy beard. Eyes all watery and bloodshot. I sit on the floor leaning against a wall, the man sits next to me, gray football jersey and dirty blue sweatpants. Stinking of unwashed body and stale tobacco, with crusty bits of food in his beard.
A loudspeaker crackle jolts me and a bored woman's voice says, "Final call, nonstop service, track twelve, all aboard." Over the shaggy man's head, a huge sign hangs from the ceiling, black with white letters and numbers that flip and change next to names: Trenton; Washington DC; Niagara Falls; Boston.
Cities. They are cities. I understand that much at least. People are here to go to the cities on the sign. I don't have a backpack or suitcase, but I figure I'm a traveler too. Why else would I be here?
All I understand is that I was sleeping, and now I am awake. So why don't I remember anything that came before the sleeping?
The man speaks again, and I blink hard. Am I going to eat what? I look around, notice my own muddy gray sneakers on big feet. Faded blue jeans, ripped at the knee, black T-shirt, and a gray hooded sweatshirt. I don't remember putting on these clothes or walking in mud.
I reach up to scratch my head and feel a sharp, stinging pain. When I pull my hand away, there's blood on my fingertips. I touch again, more gently this time. Just under my hairline, there's a huge lump with a crusty scab that I just scratched off. Luckily it's not bleeding much, so I wipe the blood on my jeans like it doesn't matter. But my eyes prickle and burn. All I want is to get out of this place and go home.
Searching my brain for what home means, I find a white blank space. Where, what, is home?
I fumble in my pockets for an ID. There's a crumpled ten dollar bill in a front pocket, nothing else. I think I'm old enough to have a driver's license and for a second, I see myself behind the wheel of a car. But then that shred of memory shuts down on me, hard, like a slammed door echoing down a long hallway.
"Hey! You gonna eat that?" The guy sounds angry now, furry black eyebrows crunched together.
I search around me again on the tile floor. If I find anything to eat, I'll gladly give it to this annoying dude, make him go away so I can think. But the only thing I find is a green paperback book, under my right leg. I lift up the book, in case he thinks I'm hiding food under it. Nothing.
I shrug, book still in my hand. "No food." My voice is a low, unfamiliar croak.
His bloodshot eyes never blink and never leave the book. Testing him, I lift it a few inches, shift it to the left, the right, set it back on the floor next to me. His zombie gaze drifts left, right, and down, following the book.
What the hell? I squint down to scan the title, but the next thing I know, a huge paw with grimy fingernails snatches the book away. With surprising speed for a guy his size, the man hauls himself to his feet and lumbers away from me, book pressed against his beard, into a sea of people who apparently got off a train all at once.
"Hey!" I shout after him. For one confused moment, I'm too stunned to move. Then I scramble to my feet and put these long legs to work, chasing after what is my only possession in this world as far as I know.
The big guy is a pro at dodging through people and briefcases and duffel bags and wheeled suitcases. Me, not so much. I run smack into a tall guy in a black raincoat and he drops a leather notebook on the floor.
"Dammit, kid," he shouts at me. Papers fly all over. He looks like he wants to punch me. I help him pick up the papers, apologizing constantly, pushing them into his hands while he murmurs, "yeah, whatever, just get away from me." I swing around to search for the guy who stole my book and he's gone.
I push through the crowd — sorry, excuse me, sorry — and finally spot him by the men's room. He's on the floor, leaning against the gray wall with his thick, stubby legs stretched out in front of him, hunkered down over the book — my book — turning pages and concentrating, like he's looking for something. Then he grabs the corner of one of the pages from the middle of the book and rips it out.
Before I can react, he takes the torn-out page, crumples it into a ball, stuffs the whole thing into his mouth, and starts chewing. With a black smudged pinky extended, he tears out another one. I stare in disbelief as he swallows that page, and chomps down on another.
"Give me the book." My voice is a pretty impressive growl, but all he does is glare, sheltering the book with his wide body as he rips out another random page and stuffs it into his mouth.
Somebody else might have given up, just walked away and bought himself another damn book. But somebody else didn't just appear out of nowhere in a train station with no ID or luggage. No memory, not even a name. Just a book. A book that might carry a clue, like maybe the name of its owner (me) scrawled inside the front cover. Or a receipt from a hometown grocery store stuffed between its pages. Or a ticket home. I have to know, have to get that book back.
So I reach right under the big dude's reeking armpit, and grab the book. He holds it tight with his pudgy fingers and makes a puffing noise, fighting me off. He's strong and stubborn, I'll give him that. We wrestle, both of us grunting and pulling. His tobacco breath is a toxic cloud and his armpits smell like onion soup gone bad, but I refuse to give up. Then, out of nowhere, he lets out this strange bellow, like a walrus at the zoo. I can actually feel the sound vibrations travel through my hands, up both arms, and into my chest. He roars again and pulls at the book.
"Let go!" I shout and yank back.
"Okay, you two, break it up, hear? Step away, now."
An iron hand clamps around my upper arm, and I whirl around to see a couple of uniformed cops peering down at us. One of them, a redheaded guy with a baby face, has my arm. At the sight of the blue uniform, I have an instinctive urge to pull my arm away and bolt. But I force myself to freeze, as if avoiding any sudden movements will keep me safe.
"What's going on here?" asks the other cop, a dark-skinned guy, taller and thinner than his partner. His face looks young, but he has a thick gray mustache, so I figure he's at least in his forties.
When I glance at his badge and the navy blue POLICE cap on his head, a strange terror grips my gut. I swallow hard and lick my dry lips before I can speak. "My book," I say, and I stand up, glad to pull away from Red the cop and the stench of the big man. "He stole my book, and he's ..." I gesture helplessly, and the three of us look down at him. "He's eating it."
The big man, still chewing on paper and drooling into his beard, glances at each of us and grins.
"Frankie, did you take this boy's book?" The gray mustached cop asks patiently, like he's talking to a little kid.
Frankie shakes his massive head and swallows. "Mine."
Red puts his hands on his hips. "Sorry, kid," he says to me. "Frankie here has some sort of mental issue that makes him eat weird stuff. I've seen him eat cigarette butts and string before."
"He ate an entire bar of soap once," Mustache Cop adds, nodding. "I watched him."
We all stare at Frankie again like he's a science experiment, and he gives us this huge smile.
"Anyway, kid, though I tend to believe you, it's your word against Frankie's. He says it's his, you say it yours." The police radio on his shoulder crackles, and he ignores it.
Anger boils up inside my chest. They can't let this guy keep my book. They can't.
"But tell you what," says Red. "I have an idea. Frankie, hand over the book."
Frankie stuffs one more page into his mouth, then shrugs and gives him the book. That easy. The cop hides it behind his back.
"Okay. The first one of you to give me the correct title and author of this book is the rightful owner and shall be reunited with his property." He looks each of us in the eye to prolong the suspense, and then says: "Go."
My palms start sweating. I'd only gotten one quick peek at the title before Frankie swiped the book. If I'd been reading the book before I fell asleep, I remember nothing about it now. I'm embarrassed to feel tears of frustration sting the backs of my eyeballs. But then I see the green cover in my head, the picture of a lake. This is weird, but it's like I know this place. I can smell the water and hear the birds. And then I see the title in my head, as if the words were stamped on the inside of my eyelids.
"It's Walden," I say, all in a rush.
Red nods. "And the author? For extra credit?" He chuckles. The guy is getting a real charge out of himself.
"Aw, give the kid the break," Mustache Cop says.
"No, it's okay," I say because I see it again, that picture in my head. "Henry David Thoreau, right?"
"Yes, indeed. Henry David Thoreau," Mustache Cop says, nodding his head adamantly. Then he clears his throat and takes a dramatic stance. "'I went into the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.'" Grinning, he nods at us, all proud of himself. "See there? See? That's from the book. I memorized that stuff way back in high school." He taps his forehead. "Like a steel trap."
"Whatever," I mumble, but neither of them seems to hear. This guy can remember a high school English assignment word-for-word and I don't even know my own name. I consider telling the cops that I'm lost and can't remember who I am. Maybe they can help me. But there's that thing in my chest like a brick wall that says this would be a terrible idea. Some fuzzy instinct tells me it's not safe to go to the police. Fuzzy instinct isn't much to go on, but it's all I have. I decide to trust it.
Red stares at his partner for a second. "Suck out the marrow? Is that what you said? Now that's just disgusting."
Mustache Cop just shakes his head and smiles. He has a nice smile, straight white teeth. "Seize the day, young man. Carpe diem. That's what Thoreau was talking about."
"Uh. Excuse me? Officers?" I say politely. They turn blank eyes at me, as though they've forgotten I'm still here. "Can I have my book?"
"What? Oh yeah, sure." Red hands me the book. "Walden by Henry David Thoreau," Mustache Cop says again, poking a finger at the name on the cover. "Now that guy knew what he was talking about. If we all lived like him, the world would be a better place."
"Not if it means eating marrow and whatnot." His partner shakes his head and his chubby red cheeks wiggle. "That's just sick."
The two transit cops walk off arguing, and I relax, relieved to see them go.
I examine the cover of the book, try to wipe off Frankie's grimy fingerprints and a few smudges of dark chewing tobacco drool with the sleeve of my sweatshirt. Then I hold it shut with both hands, tight, like I'm protecting all those pages and words and punctuation; all mine.
I glare at Frankie, but he's not even looking in my direction. Instead, he's staring at the people who hustle by where he sits on the floor, bloodshot eyes scanning them for something edible, studying what they hold in their hands or have tucked under their arms.
His gaze locks onto a woman holding a pair of leather gloves, and then a little girl clutching a purple stuffed elephant.
"You gonna eat that?"
They rush past, looking alarmed.
I search for a chair so I can sit and flip through the book, but the only ones available are in a special area for people with train tickets. So I find a quiet corner and sit on the floor again, desperate to know the clues that Walden by Henry David Thoreau might hold. Whoever he is. And whoever I am.
Yeah, I looked through that damn book. I sat for a good twenty minutes and flipped through every single page. There was nothing. Not a train ticket, not a receipt, not a name. Nothing.
So. What now? Burying my face in my hands, I fight an urge to rock back and forth, crying like some lost little kid. Instead, I'm distracted by the feel of soft stubble on my chin. Not much of a beard, but apparently enough to shave. My fingers explore my cheeks, nose, eyelids, and ears like a blind person. I don't even know what I look like yet. Would I know me if I saw me? Got to find a mirror.
As soon as I step into the men's room, the strong smell of piss and disinfectant stings the inside of my nose, and some guy is puking in one of the stalls. Ignoring this, I freeze in front of the mirror. I blink, and the guy in the mirror blinks back. Stuffing Walden into the back waistband of my jeans to get it out of the way, I lean in to stare at the stranger. Damp hair, black and straight. Messy. I rake my fingers through it. Eyes light, maybe gray. He's tall and lanky, but his shoulders — my shoulders — are wide and I look strong. That's something anyway.
"Hey, ugly," comes a voice. There's a skinny kid leaning against the wall by the urinals, one boot up against the concrete, dirty blond hair falling into his eyes. His clothes look like they could use a washing. Or better yet, a Dumpster.
"Hey, as swipe," I say back. Among the things I've just learned about the guy in the mirror are: One, I could easily take this loser. And two, I'm no rock star, but I'm definitely not ugly.
The kid's mouth twists to one side, and his eyes blaze. I just want to be left alone. But if he wants to start something, okay then. I'll fight him. My hands curl into fists as I wait for him to make the first move.
"Yeah? Wipe your own ugly ass," he hisses. He takes three steps toward me, eyes never leaving mine. We stare into each other's faces, neither giving any ground, not one centimeter, not one twitch of surrender. Then before I can react, he pushes me forward with hard palms, trying to slam me against the concrete wall. I barely waver.
"That was lame," I say.
He gets close, peers into my face, his mouth a tight line of aggression. I stare back, not flinching, not even blinking.
Then he smiles. He laughs and slaps me on the shoulder and I'm so tensed up, I almost react with a fist to his jaw, except that his attitude seems friendly. Weirdly friendly.
"I'm Jack," he says. "Don't ask for a last name, because I don't have one." He crosses his arms across his chest and smiles at me, and I realize that I've passed some kind of test. My fist relaxes, finger by finger, joint by joint.
The puking guy stumbles out of the stall to shuffle toward the sinks, and Jack and I give him plenty of room. His eyes are bloodshot, cheeks caved in like a decaying jack-o'-lantern, his flannel shirt grimy. His glassy eyes drift toward me, and he gives me a slow smile. The few teeth he has left in his mouth are black nubs.
"Later, boys," he says. He lurches out the door.
Jack ignores him. "So who the hell are you?" he asks me.
Good question. Who the hell am I? I clear my throat, adjust my jeans to buy some time. And I feel the bulk of the paperback book stuffed into the waistband. A picture of the cover swims into my mind again. I see the lake, the trees. Then the title and the author's name.
"Henry," I blurt out. "Henry David."
Jack pauses, and for a second I think he's going to call me on it. I probably didn't say it with enough conviction. Henry. Henry David. Next time, I'll do better.
"Henry," he says doubtfully, trying it out. "You don't look like a Henry. I'll call you Hank." And just like that, I become Hank. "So, Hank, I think it's about time for a midnight snack. You got any money?"
I shrug. "A little."
"Good. You can buy us some food."
I narrow my eyes. This guy has some balls. "Why don't you buy us some food? Since it was your idea and all."
"Relax, Hank. Give me something, and I'll give you something. Like maybe a warm place to sleep tonight. Don't you think that's worth the price of a hamburger, for chrissake?"
The ten dollars in my pocket isn't a lot of cash, but it's enough to buy Jack and me sodas and two cheeseburgers each at a fast food place in the terminal. Judging by the way he stuffs the first burger into his mouth and lets the ketchup dribble down his chin, he's hungrier than I am or a slob. Or both.
"So what are you running away from, Hank?"
I pull a pickle out of my burger and pop it into my mouth. I can't remember food ever tasting so good. But then, I can't actually remember eating anything before this.
Excerpted from "Being Henry David"
Copyright © 2013 Cal Armistead.
Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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