By Alun Williams
black coffeeThe day after Nixon resigned a Greyhound bus pulled up at Beto Junction on its route to Albuquerque. Last time this had happened was the day JFK visited Dallas.
The stranger who alighted stood tall and wore a dusty brown fedora, an overly large trench coat and desert army boots. He carried a large, weather-beaten leather suitcase in one hand and though he’d never called that way before, walked with a purpose up the rise towards a small diner.
At the Beto Junction Diner, Paul Vance prepared for the day. Too early for his usual breakfast customers, he poured himself a coffee and went back to turn on the grill.
When he returned, the stranger was seated at the counter. “Hi buddy, what’ll it be?”
“Coffee,” the stranger answered. He sat down and took off his hat. He reminded Paul of Johnny Cash ‘cept for the hair, with was steel grey white. Paul couldn’t place the accent; someplace north of Kansas, perhaps.
“Cream?” The man shook his head but helped himself to sugar.
Paul noticed the large suitcase that sat on the floor next to the stranger.
“Planning on staying? Only one boarding room in town. Motel closed two years ago.”
“Just passing through. Name’s Hannigan. Travelling salesman. Last of a dying breed.”
“A bagman; dying breed for sure. Let me guess? Encyclopaedias? Not much call for books here.”
“No, nothing like that.” The stranger put his cup down. “You wouldn’t be interested.”
“That’s not much of a sales pitch.”
The stranger smiled, leaned over to pick up his case and placed it on the counter. It was old and one corner had been hastily repaired with Band-Aid. He clicked both locks that snapped back loudly.
“Okay, you’re not going to believe me.” He opened the suitcase. It revealed clear empty plastic bags. Some were plain, others had labels stuck on, either red, yellow or green.”
“Plastic. You’re selling plastic bags!” Paul exclaimed. He laughed.
“I’m not selling, son. I’m buying and trading”
“I’m trading memories, dreams. Those yellow tag bags, those are memories I’ve got to trade. The ones with the red tags are the ones I’ve bought. Green ones are customer orders. We do mail order too.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No sir. It’s a new concept from Japan called Kioku, that’s memory in Japanese. We pay you to take a memory away: ten dollars. Everyone’s got a bad memory or two, right. You gotta replace it so you get a new one to choose from. There’s a chemical compound in each bag, that’s the secret.”
“You’re kidding me…”
“So, what happens to the memories you buy?”
“We export them. Canada, Mexico mostly. They pay a hundred bucks for an American's memory. Makes them feel superior.”
“Can I interest you? You must have a bad memory or two in that head of yours Mr…?”
“Vance. Yeah, a few but I wish I’d never set eyes on Erline.”
“Bad romance, well there you go. Try it?”
“Cheatin’ whore. Do anything to forget her”
Hannigan stood up. “Here’s ten bucks, take a plain bag, think of Erline and blow into it. That’s all you do. Then tell me what kind of memory you want to replace it.”
“Ten bucks, for blowing into a bag!” He choose a plain bag, thought of his ex-wife and blew. He sensed that cheap perfume she always wore then handed Hannigan the bag and watched as he sealed it and attached a red label on it.
“How’s Erline?” Hannigan asked.
“Erline? Who’s Erline?”
Hannigan grinned. “My mistake. Okay, you choose. Have any kind of memory you want from this list.”
Paul read out loudly “High school prom, sport, War…Sex?”
“Sure. That’s our best seller. If you’re lucky you can get a Jane Fonda and you’ll remember it as if it was real. Oh wait, I only got one of those and that’s off a guy I bought it off. It’s red bagged so it’s not for sale.”
“I want a sex memory. You said I could have anything I wanted.”
“This is highly irregular, but you seem like a regular guy. Here…” He handed a bag over. “Don’t blow. Inhale. It’ll take about twelve hours to take effect.” He handed Paul a bag. He hesitated and looked at Hannigan who nodded. “Go on. Could be Jane Fonda…”
He opened the bag and sucked in air. This time he smelled the sweet sickly aroma of orchids. Hannigan took the bag, looked inside then peeled the red label off and tossed it into the suitcase.
“Hey Paul, any chance of service here?” Paul glanced down the counter as two of his regulars walked in.
“Sure, be right there. Wait here, Hannigan.”
He walked over, took their orders and walked back. A five-dollar bill and a coffee cup sat on the counter. Paul walked over to the door but there was no sign of the bagman.
That night Paul Vance dreamt about the best sex he’d ever had. She was blonde with a body like dynamite. It was so real… He dreamt about her again that day. Got so excited he closed early. It was great. On the second night, he dreamt about her again, then just as he climaxed, she screamed. He woke up sweating. The third night he saw his hands grip her neck. It was a memory he couldn’t escape. Each time he thought about her he saw more detail. Her body, her lips, a discarded red dress with a corsage of orchids, a broken set of paste pearls and her fingernails digging into his face as his hands gripped tightly around her delicate neck. He saw the room, patterned wallpaper, the Topeka Times on a table and a calendar displaying the fourth of June that year. Through a window, he saw a clock tower. There was a wall mirror. He saw himself in it except it wasn’t him. It was Hannigan.
Paul Vance had never visited Topeka but after two weeks of his recurring nightmare he took the bus out there.
Topeka only has one clock tower. He found it. The Menninger Clock tower was a building housed as part of a psychiatric unit and there’d been a murder at an adjoining building that June. A nurse called Annie Kopesky had been strangled. He asked questions about it. Too many questions. A guy from campus security notified the police who arrested him.
He explained his story about Hannigan and Kioku and about his dreams. He told them things only the killer could have known, about the orchid and paste pearls. The police checked but found no company called Kioku. They even called Tokyo. After three days of interrogation Paul Vance was charged with first degree murder.
“It’s not real, “Paul said, “I didn’t kill anyone.” No-one believed him.
At his trial, someone called Erline, who claimed to be his ex-wife, testified he had a violent temper. He swore blind he’d never met her but no-one believed him, especially when she produced wedding photos. A guy in a dusty brown fedora sat in the courtroom every day. He carried a large weather-beaten suitcase with Band Aid on one side. Paul screamed out each day that he was the real murderer but no-one took any notice.
They found him guilty but insane and from his cell at the Topeka Asylum Paul Vance has a nice view of the clock tower. He still dreams of Nurse Kopesky and wonders who Erline is…
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