The Collector of Thoughts

David James Poissant

Weeks, he’d been collecting his thoughts, and now he had them. They were caught in two suitcases, one flannel with a zipper, the other black with brass piping and buckles that clicked when they latched. The thoughts tumbled and bulged. They strained the sides of both bags. Day and night, the man had packed the suitcases, thought by thought, squeezing and cramming, then sitting on the lids until each one closed. Thoughts collected, he proceeded to enjoy the emptiness in his head.
       The emptiness was wonderful, like…well, the man couldn’t say what the emptiness was like exactly. Figurative language required association, association thought, and each of the man’s thoughts had been bundled and zippered and clicked.
       Except that the emptiness didn’t last long. Soon as it was emptied, the man’s head began to fill again, first with the question of what the emptiness was, then with what it was like, then with the worry that his head was beginning to fill. The man wondered whether these thoughts were new thoughts or whether the bags at his feet were leaking, whether proximity alone let thoughts loose, suitcase to sky and sky to head. Perhaps the thoughts were coming in through his ears. Thinking this, the man knew what he must do. He must rid himself of his thoughts once and for all.
       Fast as he could, and with as few thoughts as possible, the man threw both bags into the trunk of his car and drove his car to the edge of a cliff. He left the car running, in drive, but pulled up on the emergency brake. He thought maybe he’d seen something like this in a movie, and then he tried not to think about it. He hadn’t thought to bring a brick, so he wandered a field until he found a large stone. The man wiped snow from the stone and set the stone on the gas pedal, released the brake, and leapt out of the way. All of this required far more thought than the man would have liked, but that was okay. Soon, the thoughts would be consumed in a fireball. Soon, what remained would drift off in a cloud of gas fumes and ash, and he’d be free.
       Except that this wasn’t what happened. The car catapulted from the cliff. It fell straight and true, and, engine-heavy, smashed into the earth. It did not explode. It gasped, then died. For a minute, all was quiet and still. A bird—was it a lark?—whistled in the distance. And then the trunk sprang open like a joke, suitcases winking up at him, unharmed. Now the man had no car, two bagfuls of thoughts, and a head filling rapidly with decisions to be made.
       He worked quickly. He scrambled down the cliffside and pulled the bags from the trunk. One at a time, he dragged the bags up the hill. Then, he pulled his phone from his pocket and called for a cab.
       The cab ride to the airport was expensive, and a plane ticket would be more, but the man did not care. He wanted it gone, all of it, no matter the cost. He regretted this meant the forgetting of favorite things. His mother’s recipe for chicken cacciatore, for instance, or his unbending admiration for the novels of Thomas Wolfe. He worried the loss of his thoughts might lead to a repeat viewing of the 2005 Academy Award winning-film Crash, a regrettable two hours he’d never get back. He worried he’d pick up a phone and forget what to do.
       In war, they called this collateral damage (war: another thing the man meant to forget). Worth it, in the end, as, more than anything, the man wanted to be free of his fears, his prejudices, and his regrets. He wanted to be rid of remorse and of memories that kept him up nights. He wanted to be done with her. No price too great, no place too far to go.
       The man would release his thoughts in some faraway city, then he would return home. But what if he fell in love with the place that he picked? What if he stayed, trapped forever in a city of thoughts? And so the man thought and thought. He worked hard to think of the worst city he could, and the man thought of Cleveland.
       At the airport, he bought a ticket. He checked his bags, found his gate, and boarded a flight to Ohio. He worried the bags might be lost, then he laughed. Let them be lost, he thought. Let them be lost and gone for good.
       But, when the plane touched down and the man entered the terminal, there were his bags, waiting for him. They seemed to mock him—a flannel smirk, a leer in buckles and brass—and the man kicked them, kicked each until each fell to its side. Full as they were, the suitcases weren’t as heavy as you’d think, and the man carried them through the airport to a car rental agency where he rented a red sports car into the trunk of which both bags barely fit.
       He was remembering, thinking of her more and more, and he hurried.
       The man navigated Cleveland. Warehouses rose by the roadsides, factories rust-red and billowing smoke. Snow flanked dirty streets in dirty piles. But this too: green trees, blue streams, a string of buildings with yellow bricks and red roofs. The city was not as ugly as people said, and so the man drove west looking for desolation.
He crossed rivers and traced lakeshores. He passed townships and farms, silos nuzzling the sides of barns like rockets, water towers stalking the horizon, spindly-legged, like the Martians from War of the Worlds.
       The steering wheel was a bird’s neck in his hands, slender and strangling, and the tears, when they came, would not stop.
       All of his knowledge, his history, his way of being in the world—soon, these would be gone. And was it a fair trade? Alone with an empty head, would he shriek at the absence, or would he think to know what memory was? Which was to say: If one could not remember, could one remember not remembering? The man wasn’t sure, knew only that, one way or another, she would be gone and he would know peace.
       He’d thought, at first, to eject only her. But how to untangle her from the rest? How, when all thought, every movie and book—each birdcall and car horn and bump in the night—conjured her back to sparkling life?
       The man drove on. He drove and he drove, until the clouds folded up and stars made a daguerreotype of the night.
       “I swear to God,” she’d said. “I swear to fucking God!”
       “Whoa,” he’d said, and it wasn’t the word, but the way the word had slipped off his tongue: how you’d say it to slow a galloping horse.
       She’d thrown a plate. He’d cleaned up the pieces. Then she’d stabbed him in the face with her fork.
       The man found a motel and took a room for the night. He showered and shaved. He wondered whether, this time next year, he’d have a beard. He touched his scar, the pink pinpricks that rode his chin like an ellipsis, and wondered what he’d think of them. He wondered whether he’d forget masturbation and quickly did it twice. He wondered what word he’d have for longing when he couldn’t think too long.