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as well as certain imperfections in her relationship with Billy’s father, among them the lack of "normal sex" for six years and three months, and she summed up these imperfections with the Japanese word wabi, explaining that in Zen Buddhism, the key to understanding life’s true perfection lay in such apparent imperfections, in such wabi, and after saying all this, Billy’s mother came no more; Billy’s father, struggling with several mighty confusions that the delivery by Billy’s mother of her farewell speech did nothing to alleviate, did not come at all; the coarse red hair on Billy’s head, oblivious to mother and father and even to the life or death of Billy himself, continued growing out from a crew cut, and in growing, simply and without comment marked the passage of time, the way a metronome will click indifferently for music or for mayhem; technicians dollied in an electroencephalograph and razored patches out of Billy’s hair and fixed electrodes to his glossy bluish scalp and tweaked his pale facial skin to make the stylus twitch and jag across tractor-fed computer paper, and the skin stayed pink long after the technicians had gone; Melissa put headphones over Billy’s ears and played him tapes of Hendrix and Santana; Billy began to dream, and the doctors wrote rems on the chart that hung at the foot of his bed, wrote it without knowing whether Billy was dreaming of rain or shine, whether he was hearing Hendrix or Muzak or nothing at all, whether his windshield wipers were on or off; and an intravenous unit dispensed clear foodstuff into Billy’s bloodstream, dripped, and dripped, and dripped, like a metronome, like a rain.

Melissa was getting to the end of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when Billy interrupted her. "What did you say?" he asked, quite distinctly.

"Billy?" Melissa leaned over him and took his hand.

"Yes?" Billy frowned, his eyes still closed. "What did you say?"

"When I was reading to you?"

"No," Billy said slowly. "Before that. You said, ‘Skinheads.’ You were afraid. But I want to tell you something." His eyes came open, resting on Melissa. "Don’t worry. They’re cowards." He closed his eyes again. "That was what I wanted to tell you."

When Billy awoke Melissa discovered that he did not know her name. The doctors shined lights in Billy’s eyes, CAT-scanned and EEG’d him and beat on his joints with red rubber hammers, and wrote on the chart, "Organic damage to L hemisphere. Aphasia & amnesia, mod.-severe — prognosis unclear. Reflexes & sensorium intact."

Billy’s father, of whom Melissa had heard only rumor, carried insurance that paid for Billy’s private room. Each morning he sent a floral arrangement so perfect it did not look real. The handwriting on the florist’s card was not a man’s.

Melissa tried to teach Billy the difference between gladioli, chrysanthemums and daffodils. When Billy called them "those plants," Melissa bought him The Little Golden Book of Flowers. Billy had not forgotten how to read, but he stopped every few lines to jab a word with his thumb.

Melissa would lean in beside him and say, "Sound it out."

A psychologist gave Billy the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory and Sternberg’s Memory-Scanning Procedure and told him, "Your retrograde amnesia is wearing off — you’ll begin to recall more and more from before the accident — but your anterograde amnesia will make it hard to retain anything that happens from now on. So I’m going to ask you to write down everything that happens to you. Will you do that for me?"

"Yes," said Billy.

"Otherwise," the psychologist said with a grin, "you might forget where you parked your car."



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