I was scared; that, I could not deny. I was sitting across a table from an odd little man who physically was no match for me but realistically could be insane. Or a phantom, a figment of my imagination, the hallucination of a mind facing so many unknowns that it was introducing even more in a self-destructive fit. The possibilities were endless and frightening. Controlling my emotions, particularly my fear, was proving difficult. But I had to. I had to learn more about this man, even though he and everything he seemed to represent terrified me.
Cigarette in hand, I began the interrogation. I did so as I had countless times before, as a journalist. Start with the basics. Get the subject talking. Encourage them to recall seemingly trivial details in an effort to collect color and underlying meaning. I’d done this countless times before. This was familiar ground.
“What’s your full name?” I said.
“Lloyd Theodore Buckhannon,” he said.
“Where were you born?”
“In The Ward, a neighborhood that was torn down and is now covered by the Parkway North,” he said. “Before they built it, there was a neighborhood in that valley. Did you know that? It stretched all the way from the Heinz Plant to Observatory Hill. It’s gone now, though. Which is a shame.”
“You grew up in The Ward?”
“I did,” Lloyd said. “My parents ran a butcher on a street called Holler’s Run. It was a two-story building, with the shop at street level and the living area upstairs. My father had tried playing baseball—he knew Honus Wagner, in fact—but once the kids started arriving, he settled. Baseball didn’t pay much back then, especially for an average player, a bench player, and while my dad was quite good for the neighborhood leagues, he was not overly impressive at the professional level. So he quit. I was the first kid. Then there was my little brother, Mitchell. He died years ago. And my sister, Emily, died when she was a baby.”
“How long did you live in The Ward?”
“I left home in 1917 and enlisted in the Army,” Lloyd said. “I wanted to fight in the war. Of course, I had to lie about my age, but that wasn’t too difficult. I looked old for my age. Isn’t that funny? I looked old for my age as a young man, and today I look half my real age. I find that quite amusing.”
Lloyd chuckled and shook his head. He lifted his glass and took a small sip of his drink.
“Did you go overseas?”
“You fought the Germans?”
“Not exactly,” Lloyd said. “I did go overseas, but I did not engage in direct combat. I was assigned to a special unit. No hand-to-hand, but we were very instrumental in the fighting.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You see, Sam, and I’m not trying to brag here, but I’m very clever,” Lloyd said. “Even as a young boy, I had a way with numbers and science and codes and any number of subjects that far surpassed my classmates, and in many cases my teachers. That’s one reason I was so easily able to lie about my age: I’d graduated high school two years early. So when I went to enlist, I said my parents had lost my birth certificate, but here’s my diploma. And they took me. It was that easy. At any rate, I’m very smart. Add to that something that is still quite obvious—that I was never much of an athlete, or strong, or any type of physical specimen to speak of—and they funneled me into an intelligence unit. We used our wits more than our muscles, you might say.”
“In what way?” I said. “What was your job?”
“To study the mind,” Lloyd said, tapping a finger on his temple. He then added, as an aside: “By the way, I have to commend you on the line of questioning. You started simply and got me talking and here I am prattling on and on, exactly as you’d hoped. You’re doing wonderfully.”
He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. “But where was I?” he said. “Ah, that’s right: The Unit. Our job, Sam, was to manipulate the enemy. We were tasked with figuring out ways to penetrate their brains, their thoughts, their impulses, as a means of controlling their actions. In the most basic terms, my job in this unit was to discover and explore methods of mind control.”
My initial fear that I was going crazy began to dissipate. If anyone at this table was insane, it surely was Lloyd, an out-of-shape, apparently drunk senior who imagined himself a decades-old genius specializing in mind control tactics for the U.S. government.
“Did it work?” I said, now feeling as if I were humoring a senile old man. “I mean, did you find ways to manipulate their minds?”
“You tell me,” he said, grinning.
“Tell you what?”
Lloyd did not respond. Instead, he closed his eyes and sat silently for several seconds. Wondering if he had fallen asleep, I took the opportunity to study his face, his hands, the small glass with the dark liquid in front of him. Nothing too threatening. He was simply an annoying little man who had somehow convinced me he was something more.
Then an image formed suddenly in my mind. My eyes snapped shut and a field spread out before me. A stone wall ran down the middle of the field. On one side, a smooth sheet of snow covered the ground; on the other, green grass. A large round stone, three feet from top to bottom, sat perched on the wall, somehow remaining stationary instead of rolling to either side. My eyes focused on the stone, and I saw a single black velvet flower growing out of the top. The stem zigzagged towards the sky.
“Strange, isn’t it?” Lloyd said. “How can a flower grow from stone?”
I opened my eyes. Lloyd was staring at me and smiling, as ever.
I reached for my glass of beer. My hand trembled.
“Now, look Sam, I don’t want to overwhelm you,” Lloyd said. “After all, we’ve only just begun. But I do need to impress upon you that my abilities are real. I am not a hoax or a conman and you are not crazy. This is all real, and the sooner you accept your new reality, the better. But it’s a tricky business, I realize that. Here I am, and I need to convince you that I have only your best interests in heart, but I have to do so without revealing so much so soon that I push you over the edge.”
I did not respond. I had no more questions. I was too afraid to ask anything else.
“Very well, but allow me ask a question of you,” Lloyd said. “How is it that I was there for your first memory?”
Again, I did not respond. I preferred to think that he had not been there, that he had merely altered the memory to include himself.
“Oh, I was there,” Lloyd said, as if reading my thoughts. “And while I might not be able to convince you tonight, I can explain why I was there. I followed your grandfather.”
I immediately knew which grandfather he spoke of: Aloysius Smith, my mother’s father. He had been born in Carnegie, just outside Pittsburgh, and he grew up in Pittsburgh’s North Side. He left after enlisting in the Army to fight in World War II. After the war, he moved to northern California, married my grandmother, had three daughters and settled in the Bay Area. My mom was his youngest.
“He was a great man,” Lloyd said. “We met in World War II. I was still involved in the Unit and we identified him as a candidate. He was the smartest Normal I ever met. Brilliant with language. Did you know he was fluent in German, Russian and French? He even mastered local dialects and spoke them with perfect pronunciation. He was equally as skilled with advanced scientific theories. We thought he’d be perfect. But he wanted no part of us. He understood that joining the Unit was a lifetime commitment—a lifetimes commitment, if you think about it—and he wanted nothing more than a Normal life. So we let him go. But I followed him, and we kept in contact over the years. I always knew that even if we couldn’t get him, he would help us someday, if only indirectly.”
We called him Albo. He got the nickname because as a baby, I made a noise that sounded like albo every time I saw him.
“And I was right,” Lloyd said. “He led me to you. He didn’t know it, but he did. You are the help I always knew he would provide.”
As he spoke, my grandfather appeared at his side. He died shortly after I graduated from high school, but this wasn’t a ghost. It was him. He was real. He smiled at me and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. He was exactly as I remembered him: the white, scholarly beard, the neatly combed hair, the rosy cheeks. He wore a button-up shirt and grey slacks. I stared at him, my mouth hanging open.
Then he disappeared.
I jumped from the table. My heart was pounding and I was sweating. My mind and my body needed to do something, but what? Do what? I had no answers.
“That’s enough for tonight,” Lloyd said, and he raised a hand in a gesture designed to calm me. Somehow, it worked. My body relaxed, my muscles unclenched, and I sat back down.
“Have another smoke,” Lloyd said.
Like a puppet, I reached for the pack, lit a cigarette and inhaled. I blew out a cloud of smoke and sipped again from my glass, which was, curiously, full again.
“If you take anything from tonight, Sam, I hope it’s this: I am your friend. You can trust me. And you will. It will take some time, but you will.”
Then he was gone. One second he was there, but when I looked again, he was not.
I sat quietly in my chair, my eyes blinking at the memories of this surreal encounter. I finished the cigarette, snubbed it out and finished the beer. I looked around at the night and saw nothing but a small, quaint town on the northern panhandle of West Virginia, dark and asleep and closed for the night. As it should be.
I rose from my seat, walked into the hotel and went back to bed.