The Swamp Man
Steam rise off the water – the city’s only vein.
A thousand strangled voices calling out my name.
A modern-day messiah – or a man who has reached the end.
I don the boots of the madman – the devil’s only friend.
“The Madman’s Boots” Jon Sergott
A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT is basically a question with no real answer. It’s a premise that has no true resolution. Well, that’s not it completely. It can be resolved, but it generally says more about the one doing the resolving than it does the question itself. The Trolley Problem is a popular example, so is Schrodinger’s Cat thanks to the television show Big Bang Theory. The Ship of Theseus was always a personal favorite because it focuses on identity – clearly an interest of mine. In recent decades, however, one particular thought experiment has somehow encapsulated my life for the last several centuries.
It’s a problem of personality dynamics. Identity. Who a person actually is. Dr. Donald Davidson, in the late ‘80s, proposed the thought experiment. Davidson goes for a walk in the swamp and is struck by lightning. He dies. Is vaporized. Atomized. At that exact moment, in another part of the swamp, there is another lightning strike. This time, the lightning is the electrical catalyst that rearranges new molecules into the exact same form as the Davidson who was vaporized. Same exact body. Same internals. Same brain. Same clothing. It is the Swampman. A perfect replica of the good doctor. A picture-perfect reproduction.
Here’s the kicker.
The Swampman is a perfect recreation of the vaporized philosopher. Can he be called Davidson? Is he a wholly different being? Separate from the source material? The Swampman has memories, but they are false, right? They are not his. They are the experiences that the original Davidson has had. The Swampman, pedantically speaking, has never left the confines of the bog. Who died? Who remains alive?
These are the thoughts that rambled through my mind as I took a shower in Riley’s bathroom and made a sandwich in Riley’s kitchen. Is the Swampman Davidson? Who is Tracy? Why was I in the desert? And then it hit me.
You guys are back already?
Jones had asked if “you guys are back already.”
I went out to the wreckage with someone. But there was no one out there when I woke up. Did I die and this person left for help? I didn’t check my cell phone coverage when I was out there. I saw the texts and missed calls. Were they from earlier? Did I have any sort of signal that far out of town? The Bronco’s GPS seemed to work just fine, so there must be some sort of satellite somewhere. Or was the navigation simply download-driven and not real time?
“Shit,” I said, finishing the last bit of my turkey-and-swiss sandwich. It was still a couple hours until dinner with Jones and I was famished. Maybe Riley had skipped lunch. I carried my backpack to the living room. Turned on the TV and started pulling things out of the bag. I spread them along the coffee table with the cell phone, car keys and wallet that had been in my cargo pants. There wasn’t much. Empty water bottle. Full water bottle. Three protein bars. Fun-sized bag of potato chips. Note pad. Flashlight and extra batteries. Oddly, a small box of wooden matches from something called Dante’s. No cigarettes. No candles. Why would I have matches?
“What are you doing, Riley?” I asked the pile.
I leaned back on the beaten-down couch and looked from the items to the TV. It was on some sort of educational channel. Program called Mysteries of the Abandoned. The Scola Tower. The Tower of St. John the Baptist in the Gulf of Poets. Italy.
“Been there,” I told the narrator.
I leaned forward again, scooting my butt to the edge of the cushion. I picked up the two water bottles – empty one in my left hand and full one in the right. They were identical except for the amount of liquid. Same size. Same brand. Same …
The empty one was different. There was a small blue mark almost hidden in the logo. I looked back and forth between the two bottles. Yup. Blue dot on one. No blue dot on the other. Absently, I opened the empty bottle and sniffed it. I wrinkled my nose. The faint smell of fish. Was that my breath? Did I have fish for lunch?
“Seriously, Riley,” I said to the bottle. “What have you gotten me into?
Like the pop of a firecracker, an episode from the Riley Show popped into my memory. Walking through the front door of Melter’s might have been some sort of trigger event. Okay. Not the whole episode, but a scene or two. It was one of those nameless, faceless American restaurants with an average menu. Not bad. Not great. More of a hangout than fine dining. There was a wall with old car memorabilia like license plates from various states, a map of the U.S. with the major highways like Route 66 highlighted, and a handful of strange hubcaps. Another wall was a bar, a huge mirror, and shelves piled high with liquor bottles. The rest of the restaurant was even more random.
There were two men seated at a table for four that immediately caught my eye. That was the firecracker.
Jones and Boots. They weren’t even looking at me and I recognized them.
As I walked to the table, I noticed a few people looking at me, nodding in familiarity. Small town. It’s fine. I recognized a prickly sensation up my spine, though. Some sort of primitive early warning system. Goosebumps and raised hair along both forearms. I tried to look around to identify the source but couldn’t make anything out. I tried to register faces to see if any more of the Riley Show decided to make an appearance. Nothing. Fine. These things take time. I had learned that the hard way.
“Hey, man,” Jones said, smiling when he finally saw me. “Take a load off.”
Boots also turned, and he had an undefined look on his face. Quizzical? Concerned? Shocked? I couldn’t tell. The look only registered for a second and then he smiled. I was a few minutes late, I suppose. Possibly, Riley had a habit of canceling social meetings. I know it had lived that type of life. There was a fine line between being an introvert and being gathering-averse. I usually placed myself in the latter category.
In poker, we would have been called a set. Trips. Three of a kind. Three of the same card. We were three versions of the same person. Similar ages. Similar builds. We differed slightly in facial hair and hair color.
“We were talking about near death experiences,” Jones said. I recognized his voice from the short phone conversation as well as the firecracker memories.
“Now, that’s a cheery topic of conversation for a Saturday night,” I said, sliding into the booth next to him. The restaurant was only about half full and our waitress appeared out of thin air. I looked up at her and smiled. No real recognition.
The thought came out of nowhere and it startled me. She looks nothing like Tracy. I have no idea why I would react like that. Some level of confusion must have darkened my face because the waitress hefted an eyebrow and said:
“I can come back later if you’re not ready.”
“No no, sorry,” I said. “I’ll have a glass of water. Cheeseburger and fries, please. Just plain. No frills.”
She smiled as if we had all immediately gone back on script, nodded and walked away.
“So,” I turned back to these two fellas who I’m pretty sure were my friends. “Who died?”
This brought a round of laughs from the table.
“Nah. Nothing so morbid,” Boots said. “I read this article and was thumbnailing it to young Jonesy, here. We always hear about the near-death experiences. The white lights. The friendly faces. The happy voices. Come into the light and all that. But there have been significant reports of the opposite. What the author called Negative Near-Death Experiences. Dark, gloomy lighting. Moans, groans, wails of pain. The author was comparing them to Heaven and Hell. Pleasure and pain. Light and dark. It was interesting.”
The waitress brought my water and refilled the other drinks on the table.
She left and I nodded to Boots.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve heard of that phenomenon. I have my own theory, though.” I took a sip. It was strange, my mouth was sort of moving on its own. There was no reason for me to share this. I had held back many secrets over my various lifetimes. Maybe it was some sort of familiarity. Camaraderie. Maybe I was just tired of the game. The curse. But my mouth just kept going.
Laugh of the devil. Smile of the victor.
“You don’t see the people you love,” I continued. “The people you’ve lost. Friends. Family. Spouses. Loved ones. Pets. Toys. Joyous memories. Whatever. You don’t see any of that. You know what you do see?” Silence from my tablemates. “There are people there, for sure. People smiling at you. People calling to you. Welcoming you into the light. Do you know, though? They’re not friends, family and loved ones. Not exclusively, anyway.”
They were silent. Boots literally had his mouth open. Listening. Apparently, I was slightly out of character, here. I shrugged internally. In for a penny, in for a pound, I suppose.
“It’s the people you’ve helped. The people for whom you’ve made a difference. Had an impact. Were an influence for. And do you know what the kicker is? Many of these people – you have no idea who they are. No recognition. You have no idea how you could have helped them. But it’s not important how or why. It could be a child who was protected from the cold because of a winter jacket you donated. A family that didn’t starve because of food you dished out at the soup kitchen. The retail employee who was on the verge of suicide until you made them laugh during your transaction – proving that the world wasn’t entirely a horrible place. People don’t realize the impact they can have. And that’s the difference between the light and the dark. The good you have done will protect you. Will shield you. But if you were a selfish person, when the chips are down, who will be on your side? Who will stand up on your behalf? When there’s nothing in it for them and they have nothing to gain and they can be completely honest about it without repercussion … what will people say about you after you’re gone?”
“Everyone on this entire planet is struggling,” I was winding the thought up. “Everyone. We’re all up against something. Whether they admit it. Whether we recognize it. Small kindness on your part can make an enormous difference in the person sitting right next to you.”
Even the table behind me had gone silent. I cleared my throat.
“Jesus,” Jones said.
I smiled and shrugged.
“It’s just a theory, anyway,” I said.
And then the food came.
THE REST OF THE DINNER passed unexceptionally. There was talk of sports. Movies. Gambling. Some road construction project on the big highway north of town, Jones questioning Boots about the ongoing rodent problem at the old farmhouse he had inherited when his father passed away. Whether or not the new Call of Duty game would have a co-op component. Things got briefly interesting when Boots brought up the airplane wreckage.
“I think it’s cool you went. I still haven’t,” he said, looking directly at me the entire time as if he was catching me up on something he and Jones had discussed earlier. “Lived here my whole life. I remember reading a blog like that. Guy lived in San Francisco for 20 years. Never visited the landmarks. Moved away. Went back for a vacation and decided to play the total tourist. Presidio. Alcatraz. Pier 39. Golden Gate Bridge. Wandered around like a total rube. Said he had an absolute blast. Just once, I figure I should take a selfie in front of the wreckage. Eventually.” He threw a sideways glance at Jones. “Surprised you went with Jackson and not us.”
But then the waitress came with dessert and the bill. The conversation flowed away from that plot point as conversations often do. But I filed the name away. I’d have to let the Riley Show flow through the name Jackson and see if any memories came to light.
Jackson. Tracy. York.
After dinner, I was back in Riley’s apartment snuggling under Riley’s covers on Riley’s bed. Sleep didn’t come easy. And when it did, I dreamed of her.