Hobkins could never seem to find where he left his keys, even though he always hung them on the coat rack next to his door. It made him late to work because he’d have to retake every step he made the night before. Whenever he found them, right there on the coat rack like always, he felt like an idiot. But in the thick of his confusion, it was like he had lost that moment in his life when he set them down.
A few times at work, he tried to tighten a screw with a wrench. He got frustrated when he couldn’t, but he didn’t notice what was wrong until a few minutes later. At that time, it seemed completely normal.
Sometimes he lost his lunch. Other times he couldn’t remember the way to Fat Joe’s Bar, even though he went there almost every day. In his mind he knew where it was and where he was, but the distance in between was blank, just a big void. He asked for directions from the gas station employee, who had to write it down for him.
“You okay?” Lynn asked one night as she handed him another beer.
Hobkins looked off at the doorway with a blank expression on his face. Two people were talking, and he watched their lips and hands move.
“What?” he said.
“You seem out of it,” Lynn said. “You okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, of course. I’m fine.”
“Are you drunk already?” she went to touch his arm.
“No. Jesus, will you stop?”
But there in the dim, smoke strung haze of the bar, he retraced his steps in his head to where he was, how he got there, and what he was doing. She looked at him like he was a stranger, an oddity she had to study to understand. He wanted to call to her by name, to tell her everything was fine and not to worry. But the words rattled in his head uselessly, letters in the wrong place. He couldn’t think of her name.
“Look, Lis—Li—Linda,” he said.
“You mean Lynn?”
And then he began to repeat himself, like he was stuck in place or some kind of loop.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said. “Yeah.”
Lynn took him home that night. She left work for it. He didn’t notice what was going on until he was home. One minute he was in the car and then the next he was at his front door. He couldn’t remember where her car was parked or the roads she took to get there. Lynn tried to grab the keys from his pocket but he slapped her hand away.
Rowdy was waiting for him when he opened the door. When he saw Lynn he growled, but he turned to lick his leg as he walked to the couch. His migraine returned, but he felt coherent again. He was in his apartment, and Lynn was sitting next to him. It was a Friday night. He had put his keys on the coat rack. He turned the television on to the president giving his State of the Union Address.
“I’m sorry,” Hobkins said. “Things just get a little fuzzy sometimes. I think I’m not getting enough sleep.”
Lynn didn’t say anything.
“It’s actually better than it used to be. One time I couldn’t remember the word go, so I had to say things like, ‘let’s dos-si-do to philosophy class.’ People thought I was crazy.”
“That’s terrifying, Ryan.”
“I’m sorry, what’s your name again?”
Lynn punched him on the arm, making Rowdy bark and jump onto his lap.
The president was talking about the budget deficit and how Congress isn’t doing anything to help fix the problem. Lynn put her head on his shoulder and Rowdy curled up beside him.
“He can’t blame everyone else for the problems he started,” Lynn said, shoving off the president with the swat of her hand.
“Lynn,” Hobkins said, “I think I love you.”
She pushed off him with both hands and stood up. Rowdy rustled at the commotion and took her spot on the couch, eying her carefully.
“No, you don’t.”
She walked off to the kitchen.
Hobkins heard the fridge open and the clink of two bottles.
“Ryan, look I do love you. But as a friend, that’s all. I really do worry about you and your health, but anything more than that is just too much right now. You need to take care of yourself first.”
That’s what Jess had said, almost exactly word for word, when she broke up with him on the Blue Line train five years ago. They were heading to see the Christmas tree lighting in downtown Chicago, and she just said it quickly, right in the middle of the packed train. “You’re a mess right now, Hobkins,” was how she ended it. They spent the rest of train ride in silence, her sitting on the seat and him standing above her, groping the handrail and the back of a stranger.
“Ryan, are you hearing me?”
He did hear her, off in the kitchen. As he thought through the pain, he wondered if it was Lynn or something else calling to him from the distance.