Monday, January 11, 2021

The Influential Amnesia of Mr. Billows by Matthew Shovlin

Phil suggests an unusual tactic for assessing whether Guy will make a good first impression on his date, and soon regrets it; by Matthew Shovlin.

In a two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment with no windows.


Guy emerged from his bedroom after an hour of preparation and asked, "How do I look?"

Phil gave him a quick once-over, said, "Good," and returned his attention to the television.

"No, man, for real though. How do I look?"

"What do you mean? You're in a white T and jeans."

"I know what I'm wearing, ass hat. I guess more what I'm asking is like is this a good choice?"

"I dunno, dude."

"Come on, don't be weird about it."

"I'm not pulling one of those quintessential '90s acts of sexual insecurity, Guy. I just have no way of knowing what this girl is gonna be into or not into, outfit-wise. Or anything-wise, for that matter."

"Ugh. I feel like a twisted ketchup packet ready to be thrown across the cafeteria so that red goo splatters all over the wall."

"No need to figuratively splatter your guts on any walls, Guy. You've been on a first date before."

"Phil, this is the most important encounter I've had with a woman since I saw that female proctologist about the toy car. It's a lot of pressure, going out with a girl so perfect as this one."

"A most common yet elusive species in this city, the perfect woman. What's so perfect about her?"

"Well, for one, she's drop-dead gorgeous in that low-effort hipster kind of way where you could see her having been a Regina George-like high school bitch or sorority president, but instead she decided to be cool."

"That's just 'for one,' huh?"

"Yeah, she's also a writer for The Bourget, which as you know is my favorite website."

"You tend to like their headlines on Twitter, I've noticed."

"I just need it to go well. And you know what they say about first impressions: A girl makes up her mind about you in like five minutes. Romantically, I mean."

"Well, she must already like you, no? She's going out with you, after all."

"Sure, she likes me on a dating app. But in-person is a horse of a different color. That's why I need to nail my outfit. Five minutes isn't enough time to win her over with my complex personality."

Phil was pensive.

"What?" Guy asked. "What are you thinking?"

"It's a weird idea."

"Just spit it out. I'm desperate here."

"My grandma's at a nursing home in Prospect Heights."

"I'd love to know what you're getting at, Phil."

"There's an amnesiac there. I think you should talk to him."

"For what I'm fairly certain is no fault of my own, I'm not following you."

"Grams told me this guy hasn't been able to form new memories since something rocked his skull in Vietnam. He spent years in constant frustration, not knowing who his nurses were, what was happening on TV shows, stuff like that. So he developed this tendency - a subconscious thing, you know? - a tendency to build backstories for everything he encounters, so as to avoid the frustration of being confused and whatnot."

"I think I'm following your story, but I'm struggling to see how it relates to my personal fashion choices."

"The backstories, Guy. This amnesiac looks at a person, with no idea who he is or what he does, and builds an entire backstory based only on what he sees in front of him. It's totally unbiased. If you introduce yourself, he'll say you're a Wall Street big shot, you worked on his car last week, or who knows what. But whatever he says, you'll know how an unbiased third party perceives you upon first impression."

"That's just about the most insane idea I've ever heard."

"Alright, whatever. Take your chance on a white T and jeans."

"No I mean obviously I still want to meet him."



In a tranquil, verdant garden enclosed by a nursing home's blindingly white walls.

"He likes plants - their names, what they like, how to handle them. Plants never change, you know? People: always changing. Like you. You were never this obsessive or self-conscious before."

"What?"

"Well, yeah. This whole date-outfit fiasco."

"It's just that -"

"She's perfect. I'm aware."

The amnesiac was on a knee caressing some sort of ficus alongside the garden path. He didn't look like your stereotypical Vietnam veteran, long-haired and bandana'd. In fact, he looked more like the veteran of a wholesome family sitcom in which nothing goes wrong and every episode ends with a hug.

"Just go over and say hello."

"Hi, Mr. Billows," Guy said.

"Sweet Lord, could it really be you? Right here in my backyard?"

Guy shrugged. "It's me, in the flesh."

Mr. Billows stood, shook Guy's hand, and said, "I saw you at Fuji. I was on R&R, sometime early '70s. I'll never forget it. You were whoopin' Andretti and those boys, some of the tightest turns I've ever seen."

Guy looked with uneven eyebrows to Phil, who cocked his head.

"And I must say," Mr. Billows went on, excited in that wholesome-old-man way, "after you came off the podium, I couldn't help but to be a bit jealous."

"Of what? If you don't mind my asking."

"The women! Two on each arm. All of you headed into the locker room to do Lord knows what."

"Right," Guy said, ignoring the tug on his arm. "Sounds like me, alright."

"See, I was a ripe 20 years and fresh outta eight months in the jungle. Skirt never looked so good as it did those five days in Japan. But you were hoggin' all of it!"

"Well, what can I say -"

"Hey," Phil said as he yanked Guy aside. "You're a goddamn auto-racing champ, alright? You wear your dick on your sleeve and risk your life in a death trap to literally stand above other men in front of crowds of people. It doesn't really get much better, first-impression-wise. Now let's get you to that date."

"I just want to see what else the guy has to say."

"Why? Who's the amnesiac here? You're aware that he doesn't actually remember you from Fuji, right? I don't think they even took R&R in Fuji during Vietnam."

"It's just interesting, that's all."

"How? In what world? You're like someone who goes on and on about his dreams as if you actually experienced them. Wake up and focus on this 'perfect girl' you're seeing tonight - a girl who, might I add, is not the fabrication of an elderly man."

"Alright. I need to at least say goodbye."

"Well, not really. But sure, go ahead."

"So Mr. Billows, that race you saw..."

"Goddammit," Phil muttered.

"...how did I look on the podium?"

"What year was that, 1984? Pinewood Derby. You were just a chubby little tyke. My Lord, you've grown quite a bit since then."

"What the hell, Phil. Now he thinks he was my fucking Scoutmaster?"

"What don't you understand? He's a full-blown amnesiac. You give him a minute alone with his ficuses and his whole memory resets."

"No."

"What?"

"No. That doesn't make any sense. I'm wearing the same exact clothes. I'm, what, five minutes older than when he first met me? What made him think I was a race-car driver?"

"I don't know how it works, dude. This whole thing was just a random idea, and now I think probably a bad one. So will you just drop it?"

"I need to know what about me made him think I was a race-car driver. Or else what was the point of all this?"

"To pick a goddamn outfit, moron!"

"Hey, Mr. Billows."

"You drive a hard bargain, but what do I need motorcycle insurance for at my age?"

"He's insane," Guy whispered to Phil.

"I know. That's exactly why we came here. Can we go now?"

"Yeah, alright."



In a two-bedroom, one-tenant Brooklyn apartment with no windows.

"He just wouldn't drop it. Guy, that is. I don't think the kid even knew what a Formula One car looked like until the day he met Mr. Billows. Later that night he knew the life stories of Andretti, Hunt, Lauda, whomever. He was immediately obsessed and totally losing his grip, reality-wise. He didn't go on that date, by the way - the one he'd obsessed over all day, the day he met Mr. Billows."

"Which was...?"

"About a month ago. He started spending all his free time at the nursing home. He'd put my name on the sign-in sheet and walk right in. Not the sharpest tools in the drawer over there, security-wise. And I guess they probably figure, like, who would ever sneak into a nursing home? But anyway, Guy'd try on new outfits every day, new ways of speaking, standing, whatever, dying to figure out what gave him the appearance of a Formula One driver. Then when Mr. Billows would treat him like a repairman or a sous-chef or the best man at Cousin George's wedding, Guy would walk out of the garden, come back in, and try again. All day. It was literally madness, Guy's whole existence.

"I told him I was wrong about Mr. Billows, that the scatterbrain clearly wasn't a reliable source of objective first impressions, that he was just pulling something new out of his ass each time Guy showed up. But Guy wouldn't listen. He was convinced that Mr. Billows saw something amazing in him that first day, and he was determined to pinpoint it.

"After one, two, maybe three weeks, Guy's obsession with figuring out what made him seem like a Formula One driver devolved into an obsessive desire to act and be treated like one. He started dressing like his favorite drivers - leather jackets, Ferrari hats, fingerless gloves. He would talk about oddly specific moments in Formula One lore as if he had been there. 'Hey Phil, did I ever tell you what Alan Jones told the guys about Lola cars while getting ready for the Italian Grand Prix in 1986?' I mean, he was -"

"What did Alan Jones have to say about Lola cars?"

"Uh, that they're about as useful as an ashtray on a motorcycle."

"Ha. Not very useful."

"That being the joke, sir. Anyway, Guy remembered his first conversation with Mr. Billows as if it were some sort of prophetic experience around which he had to base the rest of his life. The Prophet Guy: That's what I would have called him if the whole deal were some innocent quirk, like how our buddy Brent just absolutely needs the TV volume to be on a prime number. But Guy's whole deal is not an innocent quirk, which I can tell you know by the fact that you're here right now asking about him."

"I'm aware that your friend's obsession is more than an innocent quirk, yes."

"Yeah, so that's why my theory is that he ran off to, like, I dunno wherever the breeding ground for Formula One drivers is. Do they have that? Like L.A. for actors or Nashville for musicians?"

"I don't think you can go somewhere and just become a Formula One driver."

"True. It doesn't seem like the kind of gig that has open casting calls. Okay well then I guess my other theory would be more likely."

"This other theory being...?"

"That Guy ran off to the place that he figured would be the least likely to know a single goddamn thing about Formula One."

"How do you figure?"

"Well, he wants to be treated like a Formula One driver. But you're telling me that he can't possibly become a Formula One driver."

"I never said impossible, but yeah."

"So if he's not trying to become a Formula One driver, yet he wants to be treated like a Formula One driver, he'd have gone to a place where he could claim to be a retired Formula One driver and not a single resident would be any the wiser."

"But they'd surely expose him as a fraud. I mean, the internet. Anyone could look this guy up and find out he's lying."

"Amish country, obscure Scottish isles, Amazonian tribal villages. With all due respect, officer, use your head. His obsession knows no bounds. I have no doubt he'd be willing to venture into unmapped jungle territory if it meant he could become Colonel Kurtz."

"A military man?"

"Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. The film, sir."

"Haven't seen it. But so what you're saying is that you think he's going to be incredibly difficult to find."

"Your adverb selection leaves some meat on the bone. 'Life-threateningly difficult to find' would be more apt. But quite frankly, I don't see much of a point in finding him anyway."

"Come again?"

"A whole big search - to what end? It would be torture for his family to see him. He's not the same person, you know. He'd probably be kept sedated in a loony bin - that's no life, especially when his sole desire is to convince the world he's a famous daredevil. He's not hurting anyone, and crazy as it may be, he's living his best life, given the circumstances, you know?"

"And you're sure you've had no contact with him since his disappearance?"

"Me? I'm not under suspicion here, am I, officer?"

"We're just trying to find the kid."

"Well, good luck with that."

4 comments:

  1. Very Funny. The banter between the roommates reminded me of MASH, where every character was witty and quick with a jibe. The toy car line had be laughing out loud. The MC must of had underlying psychological problems that I didn't figure out, but his extreme reaction only serves to add to the humor. I appreciate you sharing your story.

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  2. Dialog-heavy stories usually lose me, but this one's snappy and clever, and held my attention. A funny character study. Could be coerced into a screen play I bet.

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  3. This was a very entertaining and well-paced story...clearly written, original and creative, and the dialogue was fun and totally believable, it shaped the characters so we could know them.

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  4. Great premise and dialogue. Excellent characters. The ending kind of lost me. When did the officer show up?

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