FORGETTING • by Henry McFarland

Tom hardly noticed the old man. Nothing was unusual about someone sitting by the side of the bike path and enjoying the bright sunshine of the late spring day. But the man raised his head and called out, “Is this where you get the busses to the south?”

The question told Tom the man needed help. “No buses stop near here. Where would you like to go?”

“Just looking for buses…” The old man’s voice faded to uncertainty.

Tom drew closer and saw the man’s face was wrinkled, and his hands were spotted with brown. His blue eyes seemed unfocused, but there was no blood or other sign of an injury that might explain his confusion. His clothes, a tweed jacket, white shirt, and brown slacks, were clean and in good condition. He sat in a motorized wheelchair. His clothes and wheelchair showed he hadn’t been abandoned, someone cared for him. Tom wondered how to get him back where he belonged. “Where do you live?”

He looked up at Tom with a half-smile of resignation. “Don’t remember.”

“Do you have a wallet? It might have something in it that gives your address.”

The old man pulled out a wallet that looked new and was embossed with the gold letters MEO. He held it open to show the slots that should hold a license and credit cards were empty. The man handed the wallet to Tom, who checked its other compartments. They too were empty except for a few small bills. Tom returned the wallet to the man who sighed. “Guess that doesn’t help you.”

Tom tried something else. “How did you get here?”

The man shrugged. “I’m not sure. I was visiting my daughter. Wanted to find her.”

“Where does she live?”

The man’s eyes stayed unfocused. His face still showed resignation. “Can’t remember.”

The daughter probably lived close by. Tom pointed to the townhouses just up the street. “Does she live in one of those?”

“Don’t know.”

Maybe she was listed in an on-line directory. “What’s her name?”

He brightened a bit. “My name’s Mike O’Leary.”

Tom wished he’d asked that before. “I’m Tom Brannan. What’s your daughter’s name?”

Mike looked down at the asphalt. “Can’t remember.”

A wall of forgetting blocked Tom’s compassion. He realized he would never solve this problem on his own. “Suppose I call the police non-emergency number? Maybe they can help you.”

The old man shrugged and said okay. Tom explained the situation to the police dispatcher, who asked if he could stay until the officer arrived. Tom thought of his wife and daughter waiting. “I really have to be somewhere else soon, but I won’t leave the man alone.”

In a few minutes, a county police car pulled up, and a young cop got out and calmly walked towards them. He thanked Tom for stopping, and Tom wished Mike well and hurried off. As he was leaving, he heard the cop say, “Now, Mr. O’Leary, let’s help you get back to where you belong.”

Tom’s hurried to join his wife and daughter at their favorite restaurant. They were celebrating the daughter’s college graduation, which was just two days away. When he arrived, Tom hugged his daughter Judy and suddenly thought of the old man. Would there be a time when Tom couldn’t remember Judy’s name? What would losing that memory feel like? He shivered a bit. Judy must have noticed that because she looked at him curiously but said nothing.

Judy took a job in Seattle, a continent away from his Arlington, Virginia home. They tried to talk every week, but the calls were often short. Again Tom thought of the old man. Was this the first step in forgetting?

He realized forgetting was a constant thing, he was already doing it. He had seen the old man just a few months ago, and even now there were things he couldn’t remember. Had the man worn glasses? Was he bald on top? What shoes did he wear?

Having forgotten those things bothered Tom, and he went back to where he had met the man to see if that would help him remember. It was late October. A cold breeze blew, chilling Tom and scattering the dead leaves that littered the ground. No one else was around. Tom stood there for a few minutes staring at the spot where the old man had sat. Or had it been a different spot, farther from the bike path? The visit didn’t help his memory.

As he walked back to his house, Tom wondered what had happened to the man. Later, he did some online searching and found an obituary. Michael E. O’Leary died two months after Tom met him on the bike path. He was survived by a son in Arlington, Virginia, and another in Atlanta, Georgia. His wife had died two years ago, his daughter five years before that. Had that been too painful to remember?

Tom went upstairs and found his wife Susan staring unhappily at her phone. “Judy can’t get time off to visit us at Thanksgiving.”

Tom thought of Mike looking for a daughter whose very name had died in his memory. “Then we’ll go to Seattle.”

Susan’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. “I’d love to, but it’s almost 3,000 miles, and you always said you hated travelling on Thanksgiving.”

“That was before I realized something. We’ll go.”

Henry McFarland is an economist, community activist, and part-time short story writer. Henry has published stories in Brain Games: Stories to Astonish, Page & Spine, Tree and Stone, After Dinner Conversation, the Starship Sofa podcast, Andromeda Spaceways, Every Day Fiction, and The Colored Lens.

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