The Next Three Seconds
I received the jury duty notice the same day that Amy left me.
She shoved her long-forgotten tee shirts, four pairs of socks, a pair of yellow headphones, a book she'd lent me, a tube of chapstick, her little stuffed parakeet, some hair clips, a pair of white running shoes and a silver-framed photo of her into a black duffel bag, shrugged the bag over her shoulder, grabbed her tan jacket and headed to the door. Her clogs made loud clunks on my wooden floor.
“Think you'll remember this, genius?” she said, and walked out, yanking the door closed so hard that my doorbell rang from the jolt.
Her comment was a mocking reference to my unusual memory, and it stung. Mine is not a photographic memory, otherwise I'd be cracking code for the Government or something equally valuable and well-paying. I remember names, birthdays and anniversaries, which is useful, but I remember everything in between as well, every word, every gesture, exact phrasing and pace. Minutes go by. I remember exact articles of clothing, details of setting and food. More minutes go by. I remember everything that I experience. I memorize my life, involuntarily. Acting has always been good for me in this regard, as it provides so many lines to learn and learn and learn. It has always given me something to say when I couldn't think of anything myself. Roles have been hard to come by, but sometimes I learn lines anyway, just for something to do. Unless I am fully involved in my present, I relive events, moments and conversations until they've bored a groove in my mind. Amy walked out the door carrying her tan jacket. I have no more choice over documenting events than a recorder has. Amy did not want to be recorded.
My sister bought me some sessions with a therapist for my birthday. She said, and I, of course, quote, “Jake, you aren't a real New Yorker until you've spent a few weeks in therapy. With any luck, by the end of the sessions, you won't remember any of them.”
When Amy walked out, I followed her into the hallway, protesting, reminding her how she used to so admire my memory, citing the exact words she used three months ago, and she said, “This is exactly what I'm talking about! I can't take it anymore.” She accelerated out of the building, to Fifty-Fourth Street . I lingered in the vestibule for a few moments, rocked, lost, hollow, and it was only because of an empty notion that opening my mailbox would distract me that I slipped my key in the shaky rectangular door. Among bills and catalogues was the jury duty notice, an envelope absent for two years, and I saw it as a sign, as a positive event. I marked the date I was to appear at the courthouse down on my Edward Hopper calendar.
The next day at 5:38PM , I told my therapist all about it.
“Why did this jury duty notice make you happy?” he asked in his soft, bass staccato. His voice seemed to stop time.
“I know, I know. Most people look at jury duty notices like reminders to go to the dentist. I actually like jury duty,” I told him, running my hand over the cool leather of the chair. “It's a vacation from my temp job. For me, jury duty is a great excuse to not be at work. All I have to do is listen. All those facts to record. The difference about that place is that my memory could have an effect on someone's life. I admit to showing off when the jury convenes for deliberations. Someone always forgets some point a lawyer made, perhaps too early in the questioning, and I'm right there to remind. I feel valuable.”
I heard his pen crawl the cursive distance of a long word, summoning all its energy to leap up for a moment, and then land to dot an i.
“And we're given these sprawling two hour lunch breaks. The courts are right near Little Italy and China Town , so I spend them eating in restaurants, instead of at my desk, like I usually do.” I remembered a dish of pasta bolognese steaming in a white plate on top of a white tablecloth.
“Is that all?”
“You mean, were those the only reasons I was happy to receive the jury duty notice? Yes.”
Silence. Some hum deep within the walls.
“Well, no, actually, there was something else.”
I told him what had really excited me, because it was therapy, and that's what you do. I told him that it was two years ago, during my last jury service, during the Kinney trial, that a particular woman caught my attention She was the court reporter for the trial. I never found out her name.
My seat that year was the third seat from the left, first row, listening to State-assigned attorneys hash over the particulars of the Kinney trial. Kinney, a tall, lonely, Ichabod Crane of a man, had fought a group of boys in a Dunkin Donuts. He claimed it was self defense. The kids he had fought with were tough looking despite the respectable suits they wore to court; their neckties betrayed gaps between knot and collar, perhaps loosened by smirks. We heard both sides of the story, and then the questioning began. I heard every word, but my focus was drawn away from the pacing and gesturing attorneys to the sound of tapping underscoring the legalese. My gaze was on the court reporter.
She sat in her innocuous beige suit and sensible shoes, with her brown hair tied in a knot behind her head, her black-rimmed glasses settled halfway down her slender nose. She looked young for the job. At least, I had pictured an older, tightly wound, serious woman doing that job, probably because of some movie. Her focus rested on the small machine in front of her. Her expression was calm, unmoved by any wild surmising or outrageous accusations that she heard and, immediately, recorded. My gaze lingered on her full red lips, which seemed to be resisting the urge to spread into smile. Her hands never stopped moving, never missed a thing that happened in that courtroom. A moment of silence would pass, lawyers rustling through papers, and still she would type, noting, perhaps, the silence or that all she could hear at that juncture was the sound of her own typing.
The trial lasted only three days. Each day before I went to court, I shaved, put on a clean shirt and ironed slacks, and stopped to have my shoes shined by a smiling Chinese man on Canal Street . In the courtroom, I sat in my assigned seat, listening to the lawyers but staring at the court reporter, admiring her latest muted suit, adoring the way she adjusted her eyeglasses and maintained her posture. Now and then she'd crack her knuckles then place them back on the keys of her machine in a swift, clean move, barely noticeable, a sleight of hand worthy of a magician.
Each day when the trial ended, we were shepherded out of the courtroom single file. I don't know how much longer the court reporter, lawyers and judge hung around. I lingered in the hallway, but she didn't reappear, the same way actors don't leave with the audience at the end of a play.
“I start jury duty tomorrow,” I said. “Maybe I'll see the same court reporter.” This was ludicrous and also made me laugh. I was keenly aware that I would remember that, later on in life, looking forward to jury duty, of all things.
“In this court reporter,” my therapist asked me, pausing, his eyes and eyebrows lifted to the ceiling like a conductor's upraised arms suspending an orchestral moment, “with her attentions focused on the recording of the immediate court proceedings, with the exactitude of her function in court, in life etc., do you feel that you have found…a kindred spirit?”
I sat there in the quiet, surrounded by dark corners and shelves of heavy books, across from this heavy, bearded man, this human amalgam of the books' contents, and felt the undeniable roller coaster lift of epiphany.
Another question crawled from his beard. “And had you noticed this court reporter before or after you met Amy?”
“A long while before. I never managed to get the court reporter's name or number and I couldn't think of any pretense to go back to the court. I let it go. Amy I met much later, at a comedy club. Stand Up New York, do you know it? Do you like comedy?”
He didn't reply. I stared at a spot on the floor while he scribbled in his notebook, recording, I hoped, thoughts about me. His glasses fell down his nose the same way the court reporter's glasses did, but his adjustment was different. He pushed them back up with an index finger and held them there while he thought. He only charged $60 an hour.
“Tell me about Amy leaving you,” he said, the words cracking open the can of worms with a soft pop. He waited for me to talk. I could just make out the sound of sluggish traffic pulling away under the newest green light, down on Houston Street .
I told him about Amy, and later that night I paced about my apartment, recounting what I told him, to the word.
I came to the same conclusions about her that my therapist did. Amy found my unusual powers of retention novel, for a while. She'd show me off at dinners and parties. “Watch this,” she'd say, and I'd recount every word of a conversation, or better yet, a comedian's routine. I went along with it willingly, again, happy to be fawned over by a beautiful, perfectly eligible woman. But after a time, she became intimidated by the relentless perfection of my memory, by my tireless categorizing of details. She realized that my memory did not skip over her, but in fact magnified her every word and action. She claimed I was never quite present, always detached and observing her, like eyes in an old portrait painting. She claimed that I made her uncomfortable in her own skin.
I sat in my room with these conclusions and tried to change, to be present. I tried to notice the little sounds of the building, the electricity, the refrigerator humming, my desk clock ticking. Upstairs, the neighbors were arguing again. I turned on the television to a reality show, with the volume up. I watched and tried not to memorize the voiceovers of the contestants, the banter as they argued over strategies and rice rations. I decided to call Janet.
“I am Jake,” I said. “I am picking up the phone. I am dialing. I am talking to myself.” Janet picked up. I could hear that her television was on. I said, “I'm trying to be in the present.”
“What? You got me a present?”
“Ha, ha. I'm trying to notice everything that's happening, now, to break out of this living in the past thing I've got going on.”
“Wow,” she said. “Remember that time that you called me and you were trying to be in the present?”
“You're not helping.”
I told her all about my therapy session, because I tell my sister everything.
She said, “Just because I suggested you talk to a therapist doesn't mean you have to have something wrong with you. Is your memory really a problem or is this guy just making it seem like a problem so that you'll keep going back for more sessions? I mean, I always thought your memory was pretty cool. Remember?”
The sound of her television went away. I remembered lifting her television down the five flights of stairs from her college apartment to her first New York apartment, where she lived on the fourth floor, and then moving it again to her current place, where she lives on the tenth floor, in an elevator building. Each time I moved her, it had been cloudy out. Each time I moved her, I had recently been dumped by some girl.
“Are you sure it's the memory thing that's been making you depressed? Are you sure it isn't just that Amy left you? I know you really liked her, although frankly, I thought she was a brat.”
“I don't know.” I remembered Amy grabbing her tan jacket, how she looked like she was going to put it on but then carried it instead. “I think it might be the memory thing. Maybe I just need better memories.”
“You don't have to keep talking to this guy if you don't want to, you know. You could just talk to me. I'm not a professional, but until I find a boyfriend, I've certainly got the time.”
“Thanks, Jan.” I remembered telling my therapist about Janet, how she spoke her mind.
She sang the opening line from the song ‘Memories'.
She said, “Okay, look, stop thinking about things. What are you doing right now? Tell me.”
“I'm talking to you.”
“I'm leaning on my right foot.”
“I'm picking up my remote control. I'm turning off my television. I'm tossing the remote onto my comfy chair. I'm picking up a glass. I'm walking it over to the sink.” We talked for a while, with Janet forcing me to document my present when she felt I was slipping back again
I said, “Maybe you should be a therapist.”
“I just worry about you. Have you heard anything about that play you auditioned three times for?”
“ 'Greater Tuna' . Not yet.”
We both got tired and ended the phone call. I thumbed through my address book, staring at names and phone numbers of friends and relatives that I could call, but then thought it was too late to bother people. As I thumbed through the address book, it occurred to me that I'd already memorized the phone numbers and addresses of all these people. I didn't need this thing. It was an old book and most of the people were from my past and out of my life. I tossed the book into the garbage. Then I sat in my little bathroom on the edge of my bathtub with my head in my hands and thought about Amy walking out the front door.
I showed up early at the courthouse and sat in a waiting room among my fellow citizens, perhaps eighty of us gathered in the fishing nets of justice.
I sat under fluorescent lights and reveled in a vacation feeling, a sense that I would probably have nothing to do but read for many hours. I might not have been in a folding chair on a beach, but it would do. I plowed through a new hardcover mystery novel that I had picked up at the library. Occasionally, I looked around at the other jurors that had gravitated to the same corner of the room. Some of them had to get up every few minutes, stand in the hall and talk on their cell phones. Several read newspapers. An elderly woman slept, her head nodding to the side. She leaned a little too far and the man next to her grew uncomfortable with the accidental intimacy.
I longed to see that court reporter walk by on her way to a trial. Why she would walk by this waiting room I didn't know. I didn't even know if she worked there anymore.
I returned to my book.
At noon , we were given two hours off to have lunch. In two hours, I could have had three lunches. I walked into the cold sunlight and weaved my way through the markets and cheap souvenirs of Chinatown and into the restaurants and cheap souvenirs of Little Italy.
I settled into a seat at Paesano. A jovial Italian man took my lunch order, the same order I had the last time I was in Little Italy two years ago: Pasta Bolognese.
I wandered up Mulberry Street and found a perfect cappuccino. I sipped it as I made my way back to jury duty. I stopped to buy a ‘Donnie Brasco' postcard to use as a bookmark, knowing that I would forever connect Johnny Depp and Al Pacino to that day and street, and therefore to jury duty, the court, the court reporter, the epiphany moment and thus a flash of happiness.
At 2:30 , my name was called along with twenty others. I sat in a hallway with the other jurors, with small talk starting to fly around. Paired down to twenty, we were almost a group, not quite like family, but at least like neighbors at a block party. I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around.
An attractive woman with straight red hair and a slender dark business suit with a white collared shirt stood beside me. “Excuse me,” she said. “This is…I know this sounds crazy, but, I think I was on a jury with you once before. This is so weird.”
I smiled at her, suddenly aware of the dusty light slanting through the windows and onto her pale cheek, a curious feeling of elevation as I looked into her electric blue eyes. I said, “Were you on the Kinney trial, two years ago? The guy who got attacked by those thugs?”
Her eyes squinted a little for a moment and then she shook her head. “No,” she said, still smiling, teeth white, even, perfect. “Further back, this is like, well I guess it has to be four years ago. The drug dealer, that case that should have been a slam dunk but the lawyer screwed up on one particular point. Remember, the blue vial that the undercover cop saw from ten feet away.”
I snapped my fingers. “But the lawyer never clearly established that his view was unobstructed on a regularly highly trafficked stretch of sidewalk?”
“Yes! You remember!”
“Yeah,” I said. “I do, and I was so angry about that case.” A strange thought tugged at me. “I mean, come on, the guy was as guilty as the day is long.”
We stood mirroring each other, arms folded across our chests, smiling and nodding. I was locked into her eyes. My feet were down there somewhere.
“You don't remember me, do you?” she said. I shrugged my shoulders slowly but didn't know what to say. She did. She said, “I was a little heavier then and my hair was different. I dressed differently. I…I was a walking circus tent.”
My head was spinning. I was caught in an unusual swirl. My mind was whirring the reels, going back four years to the little deliberation room, to the jurors, the arguments. I remembered the righteous, annoying hippie, the black woman with too many pearls, the business guy with the handkerchief in his pocket, the college kid, the thin basketball coach, the thinner artist, the two women who worked together in the post office, the cocky lawyer with the twitch, the solid bartender with the tattoo on his palm, the…Got it.
“You wore your shirts untucked and you were really quiet. You sat in the fourth chair in the first row,” I said.
“The sixth chair from the left, actually.”
I laughed, hard, and she laughed too.
“Why is that so funny?” she asked.
“It's just…I usually remember everything. I mean, everything, instantly.”
She looked down at the floor, as if looking at another place, and said, “Well, I do look a bit different now, so I don't blame you.” Still looking down, she said, “Your name is Jake Holt. You remembered every single word those lawyers said. You stood up and paced around like you owned the room. I think you thought you were pretty cool. You wore button down shirts, jeans, and these cut-up loafers, every day. Your hair was a little longer, but not much. You rubbed your hands together while you talked. You had just auditioned for some show. You didn't like the hippie.”
I stood looking at her, taking advantage of her averted gaze to take in her hair, the line of her nose, the light scent of perfume, her smooth skin.
“Your memory ain't bad either,” I said.
She laughed and I detected a shift, something in the way she ducked her head.
“I don't know about that,” she said. “But I remember you. I remember everything about you.”
Time felt momentarily suspended, with the two of us, two adults, standing close together, in that hallway, only minutes into conversation and acquaintance. She summoned up something, something I recognized as bravery, and looked back into my eyes, serious.
“My name is Rebecca,” she said. “Rebecca Chase.” She extended her hand to me and I took it in mine.
I wanted the smile back. The guard's loud voice requested that we enter the courtroom. There was general movement around us. I was caught in something immediate, urgent; I needed that smile to come back to her face. I felt, as an adult can feel, a moment to be grabbed or lost.
“Rebecca,” I said, my hand holding hers with both of mine at that point, “We need to drink coffee after this, after this court thing. This afternoon. I know a place.”
Her mouth moved once, twice, and finally back into smile.
“You know a place for coffee, right here in Manhattan?” she said, smiling brightly. “Boy, am I in for a treat.”
Past Rebecca, down the hall, I caught a glimpse of someone moving, a woman, the court reporter from two years ago, leaving the restroom. She walked swiftly over to the guard and said something, and they shared a quick laugh, a co-worker laugh. She put her hand on his arm for a second. She looked much the same, only with shorter hair. She turned and hopped into a slight jog, only such as one can in heels, for a few seconds until she reached a corner, then turned it, disappearing. The whole thing took maybe nine seconds.
Rebecca sensed that I'd seen something and looked, and then looked back at me.
“That was weird,” I say. “Would you believe, I think we have the same court reporter that I had two years ago. I just saw her.” I knew that I would speak to my therapist about that moment. Janet, too.
I let her walk ahead of me toward the courtroom doors. Suddenly, I didn't want to enter the room. I wanted to sit down with Rebecca Chase and memorize her. She looked over her shoulder at me and grinned. “Jake Holt,” she said, shaking her head, and I knew that I would have that chance.
My therapist let me pace while I was talking to him, since I couldn't sit still in the chair, as I usually did.
“Yes, it was her; of course I know it was her. I didn't care. I didn't care. All I cared about was this woman, this Rebecca. I can't believe I didn't remember her right away.”
“I remember what I had for breakfast fifteen years ago today. I had a mushroom omelet.”
“She lost weight, you said. Her appearance was markedly different.”
“Yes, I suppose it was. But I couldn't remember where she sat in the courtroom. I would have at least remembered that.”
“What is it like to not remember?” he asked, his low voice pulling gently like reigns on a horse, slowing me. Whoa, boy.
“It's…” I stopped with my hands on the back of the leather chair. How did it feel? I've been asking myself this over and over, reliving the moment of not remembering, savoring it.
“It was surprising. It jolted me out of something, at least for a moment. No, no. That's not it. That's not what has me freaked out.”
“Yes, freaked out. She, Rebecca, has done something to me. Don't just tell me that I'm in love. I've been in love before.”
I paced around more, over to the window, back to a bookshelf, back to the chair. I imagined Rebecca sitting in the chair, me massaging her shoulders.
“At least, I thought so at the time. This is different, I swear. God, I sound like I'm in high school.”
Gregory waited until I'd been silent for several seconds, and then said, “Perhaps it is because you were remembered.”
I shook out of my Rebecca fantasies.
He said, “This Rebecca remembers you. She remembers everything about you. That is, of course, highly flattering, highly unusual and, apparently, highly surprising.”
I remained silent.
“Perhaps you needed to be surprised, the same way one sometimes needs to be surprised suddenly in order to get rid of their hiccups.”
“You think my memory issue is like hiccups?” I said.
“I admit the analogy is overly simplistic. Forgive me, I was flying by the seat of my pants, so to speak,” he said, giving every word plenty of room
“And what is it you are thinking of now, as you stop your pacing and stare at my leather chair in such a peculiar manner?”
I thought about Rebecca.
“You are thinking of her, yes? But concentrate, now. At what point in life are you thinking of her? Are you remembering her? Are you remembering something that happened with her?”
I shake my head. “I'm imagining that she is in this chair, and I'm massaging her shoulders.”
“Do you think this is something that is possible, with Rebecca, this shoulder massaging?”
My smile confirmed the possibility. He removed, with a click, the cap from the back of his black pen, considered the pen in his hand as though it were a fine cigar, then placed the cap back on the tip.
“Then you are seeing something you have not intimated to me that you have ever seen before. You are seeing the future. Finally, you are looking ahead to something. Perhaps,” he laughed, equal parts bass drum and air, “perhaps we will have a whole new problem to discuss in session. Perhaps you will have a new obsession with the future. Perhaps you will be able to open a psychic hotline, or retire early on lottery winnings, in which case I will raise my fee.” He stood “Please tell me that you got her phone number.”
I let out a tense laugh. “Yeah, I got it,” I said, tapping the side of my head.
“Then look, why don't you stop hanging around in this dusty office with me. We are about done today anyhow. There must be something else you could be doing.”
I shook his hand, left his office and went out to the sidewalk, my hand fingering the change inside my pocket. Cars rolled by me. A short, old Chinese woman walked by with a cane and an orange plastic bag full of food. Somewhere, a car horn honked. Things happened, and then other things happened, new things that replaced the old things. I am Jake. I am going to call Rebecca. I am going to ask her to dinner. After that, I don't know what will happen.
Chris Shelley has an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from NYU. His previous publications include the story "What Follows", which was short-listed for the 2004 Raymond Carver short story award and then appeared in Carve Magazine, and "Bang That Gavel!," which appeared in Apollo's Lyre. Chris' first novel, Off-Season, is being shopped around to publishers by his agent. Chris lives and works in Brooklyn. Readers may contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.