Mark opens a Word document, chooses the Rigil Kentaurus font, and types “The Blind Man.” This will be his third attempt to satisfactorily remember Alfred Hitchcock’s 1961 Academy Award nominated thriller. Mark’s first two efforts to reassemble The Blind Man did not end well; the printed synopses, indignantly shredded, are scattered throughout his austere ranch house.
“The third time’s the charm,” Mark says. He believes he saw The Blind Man at least a dozen times. Our client considers that film to be Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece. “I love this movie.”
Mark takes a brief detour to Wikipedia and types “Alfred Hitchcock.” The director still exists, but there is no reference to The Blind Man. He then searches the Internet Movie Database; the results are identical.
Mark’s red neurons spike erratically. His pulse quickens.
He returns to The Blind Man:
James Harris (David Niven) is a successful advertising man who lost his eyesight during WWII when his Spitfire was shot down by the Germans. He met his wife Holly (Vera Miles) in England where she worked at the American embassy. They have a boy and a girl. Clipper is about ten years old. (I can’t recall the name of the actor who played Clipper.) Katie (Angela Cartwright) is a few years younger than her brother. The Harris family lives in a large and comfortable apartment in Manhattan. (Alfred Hitchcock can be fleetingly observed walking a terrier in a busy street scene.) Holly, Clipper, and Katie seem to be at peace with David Niven’s blindness. When David Niven’s doctor tells him that his blindness can be cured with an experimental eye transplant, his family is concerned about the risks of surgery. There is also the possibility that the cure might be temporary. David Niven, desperate to see his wife and children for even a short time, agrees to the operation as soon as compatible eyes become available. “But what if you don’t like the way we look?” asks cute little Katie.
During the operation we learn from the chatter of surgeons and nurses that David Niven’s transplanted eyes previously belonged to a recently murdered man. David Niven was only told by his doctor that the eyes came from a man who “died unexpectedly.” The operation is a success. Clipper asks his father if everything looks “as good as it did” with his old eyes. He looks at Holly. Tears run down his cheeks.
Mark stops typing.
The existence of Vera Miles is confirmed by Wikipedia, but David Niven – the three-time Academy Award winning actor for The Desert Fox, Lolita and The Blind Man – is missing. Mark clenches his hands. He is almost certain that David Niven’s life was documented in Wikipedia yesterday. What happened to the other films where David Niven appeared? “There are too many loose ends,” he whispers before picking up a black Sharpie and writing “David Niven” on his translucent forearm, directly below the words “The Blind Man.”
The reigniting of our client’s information processing system has successfully begun. A final colorful surge of fragmented consciousness is imminent. He is currently devoting seventy percent of his waking hours to computer related activity. This is acceptable.
There is a scheduled interruption.
“Mark, do you have a moment?”
He reacts with predictable verbal malice. “Not now, Nazi! I’m in the middle of something. By the way, I need more paper, ink, and black Sharpies. I need office supplies, especially paper.”
“You’re always in the middle of something, Mark. I have a job to do.”
“Yes, Commandant, you have your orders. Never question an order.”
The intrusive voice sounds like Hannes Kurtz, the German actor who is still cited by Wikipedia as having portrayed the commandant in the film The Great Escape. Mark selected Hannes Kurtz’s voice during his core assessments. He had assumed that any natural impulse to bond with his verbal captor would be impeded by hearing the voice of the bad guy from his favorite adventure film. When challenged by the evaluator about this needless concern, Mark cited the Stockholm syndrome.
Mark’s primary red neuron fluctuations return to sub-threshold levels. His breathing slows. Long-term memories stir.
Mark was ten years old when he first saw The Great Escape at the Northern Lites drive-in theatre in Ontario, Canada. At the entrance to the Northern Lites eight dim light bulbs, patterned after the constellation Noctua, dangled and flickered from a bent sugar maple tree. Noctua is the little owl constellation.
The image of a stuffed black and white spread winged owl momentarily intrudes.
The first two weeks in August were always vacation time for the Keenan family. That’s a total of six months inside a Ford Galaxy with mom, dad, and his sister Kathy. That’s thousands of miles. Florida. Canada. Everywhere. Although the taste of a Coffee Crisp chocolate bar that he devoured at the Northern Lites drive-in during Steve McQueen’s doomed motorcycle chase is sporadically evoked, the rare memories from those holidays are not reliable. The Great Escape had an all-star cast. Henry Fonda played Flt Lt Bobby Mason. Mark thinks his father and Henry Fonda both spoke with similar low and slow all-American voices. Henry Fonda is in Wikipedia.
Mark has exhibited little interest in utilizing the databases abundant in details about former friends and coworkers. He has no interest in social media. He is indifferent to current events. He never listens to music. His focus on classic films is irreversibly weakening.
“All right. I was born two days after the Yankees swept the Phillies in the World Series. Yesterday I completed The New York Times crossword. For breakfast this morning I ate a bowl of cinnamon oatmeal and a hardboiled egg. My appetite is fine.”
“You didn’t give me a chance to ask the authorized questions, but those answers will do.”
“So my long and short term memories appear to be adequate.”
“I didn’t say that, Mark. Evaluations are performed by higher ranking personnel.”
“Do you like being a cyborg?”
“I use neuro enhancers and have one temporary neural implant. Technically I am a cyborg. Technically cyborgs are now the norm. We are also the majority. I am well compensated. In my current state I have no memories of my offline life. I assume I also have no memories of my work related responsibilities when I am offline. My ten hours of online work passes in an instant. I have probably had jobs in my previous lives where the workdays seemed to never end.”
“So there are other Commandants who monitor me.”
“Yes. You were assigned three monitors. We are distinct but have identical neural implants. Monitoring is a single operation common to each of us. Incidentally, I am presently monitoring seven other clients. I am not conscious of the others. You have my complete and undivided attention.”
“So everything you experience while online will be forgotten. Or maybe you will recall it during a dream in some odd shadowy way.”
“But online – like right now – you can’t remember your offline life.”
Do you really believe that you still have an offline life?”
“Just a few more quick questions, Mark. When did your wife die?”
“Five years ago this November.”
“What’s your daughter’s name?”
“Olivia. She lives and teaches kindergarten in Berlin, New York. Her address is 117 Garner Street. Her email address is: OK123@zmail.net. Last week she turned thirty. She wants me to move to Berlin to be near her.”
“Then you will see Berlin before I do.”
Mark resumes writing The Blind Man:
David Niven, eyesight restored, briefcase in hand, is walking to work when his attention is drawn to Martin Landau who is exiting a subway station and nervously smoking a cigarette. David Niven drops his briefcase, gasps, places his hands over his chest, and sinks to his knees. He quickly recovers, assuring a stranger that he is fine. Martin Landau is gone. (Martin Landau exists in the Internet Movie Database but not in Wikipedia.)
David Niven is soon tormented by a reoccurring black and white dream about being shot by Martin Landau. In one of the dreams he screams out, “Don’t do it, Charley!” An anxious Vera Miles urges her husband to tell his doctor about the nightmares, which he does. The doctor finally admits that his transplanted eyes came from a murdered man, but insists the nightmares are a coincidence. He gives David Niven the name of a psychiatrist.
David Niven goes to the library where he scans newspapers for murders that occurred twenty-four hours before his operation. The shooting of Danny Todd is the only murder with no suspects. Danny’s survivors include his wife Mary and two small children. David Niven begins to see their grainy black and white faces in his dreams.
The next morning David Niven again sees Martin Landau (Charley) exiting the subway station. He yells “Charley” and Martin Landau stops. “Do I know you?” asks Martin Landau. We see Charley through David Niven/Danny’s eyes. (The scenes perceived through Danny’s eyes are black and white. Danny, we had learned at some point in the film, I can’t remember when, was colorblind.) “Yes, you do know me,” says James in his best calm and crisp David Niven voice. “Look me in the eyes. Don’t you remember?” Martin Landau stares into David Niven’s eyes. There is the fear of recognition. (The acting in this movie is restrained throughout.) “Stay away from me,” mutters Martin Landau before angrily throwing his Lucky Strike cigarette down, turning, and walking away.
Mark stops typing. “Maybe,” he says, “throwing that cigarette down was from another film. It’s a minor detail, but it doesn’t feel right. I think it was a film that Joseph Cotton was in.” Mark finds the actor Joseph Cotton in Wikipedia, but he is labeled a musician. “He didn’t play a blind man, but I’m almost certain the word ‘man’ was in the movie’s title. I think he was a writer. There are too many loose ends.”
Mark is becoming more apprehensive about the legitimacy of his past. He questions the validity of the Internet, but still seeks its approval. Many of his fragile memories are written on small pieces of paper that have been hidden throughout his home. Some consist of one word. Lawrencium, for example, is scrawled in red ink on the back of an envelope that lies at the bottom of a sock drawer. He hastily wrote that word nine days ago after a futile Internet search. He also wrote it with a black Sharpie on his ankle. Since then he has looked at that envelope only once, two days ago. Lawrencium most likely refers to a nonexistent chemical element. Mark’s middle name is Lawrence.
The energy that can be devoted to tracking, inventorying, and sourcing memories before mental fatigue prevails is limited. Mark’s near mania will dissipate. There is no reason to intervene now. It won’t be long.
Mark’s eyes focus on the word ‘Noctua’ written on the back of his right wrist. He whispers, “constellation.”
On the TV series Star Trek there were starships in the constellation class. His mother occasionally watched an episode of Star Trek with him. Mark accesses Wikipedia. Yes, Star Trek is there. His mother, of course, isn’t in Wikipedia. There’s no point in even searching. Memories of family, friends, and work, unreliable, unremarkable, conflating, and deteriorating, are always the first to be abandoned, left for dead somewhere on a desolate planet.
Mark opens a Word document and types the word “Olivia” in 18 point bold text. His neutrons fail to engage his consciousness. What does Olivia look like? He sees a lifeless grayscale smudge. But she’s only an email away. OK123@zmail.net. His pulse accelerates.
Mark immediately revisits The Blind Man:
David Niven leaves work early and takes a cab to the working class neighborhood where Mary lives. Mary comes to the door, two small children in tow. They all resemble the family he saw in his blurry dreams. “I was an acquaintance of Danny, and I am here to express my sorrow concerning his death,” says David Niven. “I don’t have any money,” answers Mary. “I don’t understand,” David Niven replies. “I’m sorry if he owes you money,” answers Mary, “but I’m broke. He left me with two kids and lots of bills. No life insurance. Nothing.” “No,” says David Niven, “he doesn’t owe my anything. I just wanted to say I’m sorry. As a matter of fact, I actually owed him some money.” David Niven takes some cash from his wallet, hands it to Mary, and leaves.
As David Niven walks down the street and crosses an alley he is accosted by Martin Landau. “What do you want?” Martin Landau asks brusquely. He grips David Niven by his lapels. “I know what you did,” says David Niven, unruffled. “I saw you murder Danny.” Martin Landau shoves David Niven to the ground and stands over him. He waves David Niven’s wallet in front of his face before opening it. “What else did you see?” asks Martin Landau. David Niven seems perplexed. “Did you ever see what Danny did to Mary? To her kids? I’m guessing you didn’t. Danny didn’t deserve to live. Mary deserves to be happy. So do her kids. So do I. And so do you, Mr. James Harris.” Martin Landau coolly hands David Niven back his wallet. “You live in a nice neighborhood and I’m guessing you’ve got a nice job and family. Don’t interfere in worlds you don’t understand. Don’t mess up.” Martin Landau walks away.
David Niven stands and proceeds to walk slowly through the gray empty streets. When he passes a police station he hesitates before entering. We see Martin Landau, who was surreptitiously trailing James through the New York streets, slowly shaking his head. “Well Mr. Harris, it looks like you messed up,” he says. David Niven, seated inside the police station, convinces himself (voice-over interior monologue) that there is no reason to get involved. “Do I for one second believe that witnessing a murder with the dead man’s eyes will be admissible?” He quips like only David Niven can quip. Notably, he only talks about the technicalities of the legal system, never mentioning his fear for the wellbeing of his family or himself. David Niven leaves the police station without seeing a detective.
In the next scene we see David Niven and Vera Miles and their two kids inside a Ford Country Squire station wagon pulling away from their apartment building. Martin Landau approaches the doorman. “Did I just miss Mr. Harris? I’ve got something important for him.” The doorman informs him that David Niven and his family will be back in a week, after a vacation to the Adirondacks and Frontier Town.
Mark’s memory neurons glimmer red. Outlying memories impinge.
What captivated him when he was a Clipper’s age? Even before Star Trek it was space. He wanted to be an astronaut. Then an astronomer. Then an astronaut/astronomer. He built a respectable Newtonian reflector telescope using the money he earned by delivering the local pennysaver.
Mark’s neurons flicker at the lower end of the spectrum.
He peruses the Planetary Society’s site. There does not appear to be any missing or extra planets. He hurriedly returns to Wikipedia and enters the word constellation in the text box. There are eighty-eight constellations. There are also, he remembers, eighty-eight keys on a piano. Mark, who played the piano moderately well, briefly glances at the Wikipedia article on pianos. The piano definitely has eighty-eight keys. He backtracks to the article on constellations and discovers a glaring error: Noctua is not listed.
His red neurons heatedly spike.
According to Wikipedia there is no Noctua. The little owl constellation is gone. Mark closes his eyes; he can visualize its eight stars. He is ten years old and his father, smoking a Lucky Strike, is pointing out the communications satellite Echo, twinkling in the cool summer night sky, brighter than the surrounding stars, brighter even than Noctua.
“There it is,” said his father.
He finally hears his father’s voice.
Mark immediately verifies the existence of Lucky Strike cigarettes before returning to the constellations. Mark once smoked cigarettes. He liked their scent and the vapor trails.
His eyes refocus and home in on Norma, an alleged small constellation in the southern hemisphere. Norma wasn’t there before…before what? Mark knows his constellations. His mother’s name was Norma. He begins to say something, but stops. Why is he being supplied with corrupt information?
He writes ‘Noctua’ and ‘Lucky Strikes’ on a scrap of paper. He folds the paper once and shoves it into the pocket of his Bobby Jones golf shirt, a birthday present from Olivia. He then begins to write ‘Noctua’ on his left arm with his black Sharpie but sees that it already exists in fat block letters on his wrist.
His mother once told him that his father was, “…never the same after the war. When we first started going out he was funny. Spontaneous. He liked jazz. He would pick me up in his Chevy Roadster and not tell me where we were going. He liked surprising me. Believe it or not, your father once upon a time liked being the center of the universe.”
Marks’ eyes fleetingly pause on the Ancestor Database icon.
If not for Echo and Noctua there would be no memory of his father ever speaking. All communication between them was just boilerplate father and son exchanges, perfunctory and intentionally forgettable. “There it is,” he had said that night. Was his voice hoarse, or is Mark foreshadowing the imminent throat cancer? “There it is.”
Mark corroborates his memory of Echo. Wikipedia claim it was launched August 12, 1960. He and his father, swept up in the excitement of the space age, observed the giant satellite that very night. His father died ten years later.
Mark averts his eyes from the computer monitor and begins to sing a song. This normally mundane behavior has not been previously noted. His midbrain activity is moderately aberrant. He begins to sing. “Waterbird. Waterbird. Don’t leave me, Waterbird.” He is drawn back to the computer. Mark’s eyes dilate. He distinctly hears the Beach Boys singing “Waterbird” even as he fails to confirm the songs existence. He knows, or thought he knew, that “Waterbird” was a track in The Beach Boys Today! album. There’s Brian Wilson and Mike Love. There’s the album, recorded in 1965. But there is no “Waterbird.”
“What’s happening to me?” asks Mark. He sounds calm, resigned. “Are you doing this to me? Is it post-traumatic stress disorder? I don’t remember experiencing any exceptional stress. I don’t have nightmares or flashbacks.”
“Memories are slippery, Mark. The tighter you try to hold them, the more like you are to lose them.”
“That sounds rehearsed, Commandant.”
“I’m trying to be empathetic.”
“I don’t trust you or this misinformation. I don’t need you – or it. Just let me finish.”
Mark’s red neurons signify extreme fatigue.
He continues working on The Blind Man:
There is silence and a black movie screen for two seconds. We suddenly hear loud gunshots and screaming before realizing that the next scene is transpiring in Frontier Town, a Western theme park complete with hammy stagecoach robberies and noisy shootouts. Clipper, wearing an Indian headband, is complaining that his arrows only have rubber suction cups when David Niven sees Martin Landau, who is dressed like a cowboy. When Martin Landau covers his face with a red bandana and slides his gun from its holster David Niven tells his family not to move. David Niven sprints away from his family with Martin Landau in close pursuit. “Run for cover!” David Niven yells to the bystanders, but when Martin Landau fires at David Niven the tourists assume it is just another over the top reenactment of the violent history of the wild west. Bullets just miss the oblivious vacationers as Martin Landau chases David Niven through the dusty streets. When David Niven seems to elude Martin Landau, a small boy, caught up in the excitement, tells Martin Landau, “He went that-a-way, Mister.” David Niven trips and hits his head. We see Martin Landau approaching in murky black and white through David Niven’s injured eyes. Just as Martin Landau raises his pistol he is struck in the forehead by an arrow! It is only a rubber tipped arrow shot by Clipper, but the surprise is enough to cause Martin Landau to drop the gun. David Niven grabs the gun and fires at Martin Landau. The son has saved his father.
The final scene of the movie takes place back in David Niven’s apartment, where we see him hanging up the telephone. He informs Vera Miles that his doctor just told him that he is well enough to undergo another eye transplant operation. She guides him to a chair where he sits and tells Vera, to her obvious relief, that he likes his life just the way it is. “I am happy with shadows,” he says. We see Vera and the two children through his eyes. They appear as shadows – possibly ghosts. The film fades to black. The end.
“This was a great film,” Mark says. “Alfred Hitchcock was disciplined. There wasn’t a superfluous word of dialog. It should have won the Oscar. I can’t believe the movie doesn’t exist anymore. I need to print this out.”
He closes the document, pauses, and then again opens it up. He repeats this action three more times.
His red neurons fluctuate erratically.
“There are still too many loose ends. Maybe none of it is real. It’s possible I went to Frontier Town during a family vacation and later imagined the film.”
He begins to hum “Waterbird.”
Mark has remained offline for twenty-four hours. His red neurons sputter and dim. Eighty percent of his waking hours are presently devoted to transcribing what he believes to be random memories into Word documents. He prints the document he is writing at fifteen minute intervals and then proceeds to delete the electronic version. (Mark’s repeated requests for additional paper and ink have been tacitly ignored.) Mark will intermittently type the word Olivia, the name of his nonexistent daughter, and Carol, the name of his nonexistent wife, in the center of a new document, but additional content is never composed. These documents are deleted and never printed.
“Are you here, Commandant?”
“Where else would I be?”
“How much of our lives do we forget?”
“Can you trust me?”
“You’ve observed other prisoners – or should I say clients?”
“We remember almost nothing. Memory is needed to construct knowledge and knowledge is needed for survival. It must adapt. We unescapably rely on the wisdom of the crowd. We find peace in these shared movies, songs, and books. Inevitably there will be one last person who possesses the memory of a film or a constellation. The stars associated with a constellation prevail, but not the way people continue to see it. When the collective decides that these memories are no longer relevant the memories then dissolve and our lives are diminished.”
“But what about memories that aren’t part of the crowd?”
“The details of adequate intimate relationships are rarely recorded unless there are severe deviations from our expectations. There might even be an inverse correlation between gratifying intimacy and memory. We are never inundated by good memories. We take contentment for granted.”
Mark opens a Word document and types “alien abduction” in Franklin Gothic font. He is contemplating introducing unambiguous false narratives into his history. This is a common defense mechanism that reduces the anxiety generated by the recent conversation with the Commandant, a respectful exchange that left Mark feeling vulnerable. No reasonable interpretation of Mark’s database searches indicates a personal interest in alien abduction. Ninety percent of our clients, however, do come to believe that alien brain control is a “very real possibility.” Mark pauses before typing “sleep paralysis” and then deletes the document.
Mark opens the “The Blind Man” document and stares at it.
Alfred Hitchcock is no longer in Wikipedia or the Internet Movie Database. Mark seizes the Sharpie, writes the letter “A’ on his arm, and then stops.
“Are you finished with The Blind Man, Mark?”
“There are half-forgotten details and a few loose ends. Maybe I will need to rewrite the film.”
“Is that necessary?”
“The ending is definitely not right. I should start from the beginning. “The Blind Man” – take four.
He is vulnerable and desperate for validation. Good timing is everything. Intervention is recommended.
“You’re almost there, Mark. You just need to fine tune the ending.”
“How do you know that? When did you see The Blind Man?”
“I haven’t physically seen it. One of the other monitors is assisting a client who also has memories of The Blind Man.”
“I should have guessed that you were part of a spy network.”
“We communicate and exchange relevant information. It’s all very confidential. You have nothing to fear. Failsafe precautions are always in place. Remember: I retain no memories of my monitoring duties when I am offline. And here – with you – I have no memories of my offline life. I do not know if I am male or female. My sex, age, race, and ethnicity – all those arbitrary markers – are peripheral to my existence here. I am beginning to suspect, however, that my life here is more rewarding than my offline life. I probably don’t even have an offline life. I don’t need one anymore.”
“But what about my movie? What did you learn about The Blind Man?”
Mark opens another Word document and types The Blind Man in Sirius font.
“There are more details concerning the ending.”
Mark types the word “end.” He grabs the Sharpie and writes “end” on his wrist.
“David Niven declines the offer of another operation and declares to Vera Miles that he likes his life just the way it is.”
“I know that,” says Mark. “I already wrote that down. You haven’t been paying attention.”
His fingers hover tentatively over the keyboard.
“There is the fade to black,” says Mark. “David Niven is blind. The film is over. There must be music, probably something peaceful, but I can’t remember. I’m still missing something.”
“The fade to black was measured, at first almost imperceptible.”
Mark types “slow fade to black.”
“There was more dialogue. There might have been more talk about shadows. Do you remember the additional conversation, Mark? Does talk about shadows seem familiar?”
“I think I’m beginning to remember.”
“I am content with shadows,” David Niven states.
He stops typing.
“I am a lucky man,” says Mark, his fingers frozen over the keyboard.
“I love you,” whispers Vera Miles. She is joined by Clipper and Katie who also tell David Niven how much they love him.
We see David Niven’s family through his eyes. But David Niven is blind. Whose eyes are we looking through? Are we seeing a memory? At first his family is blurry but recognizable. Then they slowly become more indistinct – more vaporous – until…”
Mark stops typing.
“There’s no reason to force a memory, Mark. I will ask the other monitors. There are probably a few clients who remember The Blind Man. Alfred Hitchcock, despite his current nonexistence, is a significant director. He will make a comeback.”
“I think it’s coming back to me. I never completely absorbed the ending the first time I saw the movie. I assumed The Blind Man was over once they all started expressing their love for each other. But the next time I saw the movie, or maybe the time after that, there was something… unexpected. If you blinked you missed it.”
Mark resumes typing:
The darkening shadows abruptly brighten and we momentarily see Mary, the woman Martin Landau loved, and her two children. Then they become ghosts and the film fades to black.
“That was the missing detail,” says Mark. “Now it feels right.”
Word asks Mark if he wants to save the changes in his document. Mark ignores the suggestion and turns the computer off.
“There is nothing else I need to remember,” says Mark. “There are no loose ends.”
“I like The Blind Man. I wonder if I did once see it.”
“Do you recall when you realized you were a cyborg?”
“No. It wasn’t a big deal. Definitely not a stressful event.”
Mark walks away from the computer. “I need to think this over.”
“Thank you,” he answers.
He steps into the foyer, unlocks the door and steps into the warm and black night air. The percentage of clients who use this opportunity to flee is infinitesimal, but it has been known to happen. Mark takes three steps and sits on a step. The stars and constellations appear both intense and intimate. There is a web of white luminous vapor trails. A blinking satellite traverses the moonless sky. He distantly rubs at the nonsensical words written on his arm. They fade. Noctua is directly overhead but Mark never looks up.
Leland Neville lives and writes in upstate New York. He previously worked for a news magazine in Washington, D.C. and taught in both a high school and a prison. Some of his short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Bartle by Snopes, The Barcelona Review, FLAPPERHOUSE, and Blue Monday Review. Non-fiction has appeared in U.S. News & World Report and The New York Review of Science Fiction.