Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Too Much on His Mind

by Arthur C. Carey


Slush soaked Charles Devlin's expensive Italian shoes as he hurried across the sidewalk into the deserted lobby of the medical office building. Scanning the directory, he located the name of Andrew Clevenger, MD, Ph.D. He had the elevator to himself as he rode nonstop to the fifth floor.

The receptionist looked up as Devlin, a broad-shouldered man with graying hair and dark commanding eyebrows, pushed his way through the glass doors. He wore a cashmere overcoat and a silk scarf. Lines of strain radiated about deep-set brown eyes. He looked like someone who hadn't slept well lately.

"Charles Devlin...I have an appointment," he blurted out. "It's a referral from Dr. Yamoto, my internist."

"Of course," she said with a plastic smile. "Doctor has been expecting you." She tried to place his face, which seemed familiar. Now where...?

Devlin glanced about the empty waiting room. "Not much business this late?"

"Oh, we closed twenty minutes ago," the receptionist responded. "You have a last-minute appointment. Doctor rarely sees patients after office hours."

Devlin nodded. He was used to getting special treatment.

"If you'll wait just a moment, I'll notify Dr. Clevenger you're here." She looked at him and her smile became real as recognition finally came.

He was used to that, too.

Devlin wandered back to a plush couch and sat down, his eyes resting briefly on the clutter of magazines scattered across the polished veneer of a mahogany table.

"Mr. Devlin? The doctor is ready to see you now."

He started at the sound of his name. The receptionist ushered him into a room with cream-colored carpeting, beige walls softened with reprints of Turner seascapes, and a 19th century French armoire that held miniature lead soldiers arrayed for battle. Two leather armchairs had been arranged in a conversational grouping. A small glass table with a box of facial tissues stood beside one of the chairs.

A short man with a salt-and-pepper beard and square glasses rose from behind a desk by a window. Behind him, wintry dusk enveloped Manhattan, muting the sounds of traffic and blurring the last red hint of sunset.

"Hi. I'm Dr. Clevenger," he said, rising to shake hands. "Tom Yamato called and asked me to squeeze you in today." He waved Devlin to one of the leather chairs and sat down in the other. "Tom is an old friend," he began, "We trained together at Johns..."

"My problem is urgent," Devlin said, cutting him off. "Dr. Yamoto recommended I see you about it immediately."

The doctor's eyes narrowed but he showed no reaction. Masking irritation was a necessary skill for psychiatrists. He nodded encouragingly. "All right, tell me about it."

"It's my memory."

Dr. Clevenger frowned slightly. "How old are you?"

"I'm 47."

"Well that's a little young for memory loss, but problems like that sometimes surface early. Did Dr. Yamato test you for possible Alzheimer's?"

"Losing my memory isn't the problem," Devlin said. "It's the opposite. I can't forget -- anything."

"You can't..."

"I was in an auto accident two weeks ago. I suffered a slight concussion -- blunt trauma to the head, they said. I've always had an exceptional memory. My livelihood depends on it; but since then, I recall everything, everything I ever learned or experienced. It's driving me nuts." Devlin looked at the doctor expectantly.

Dr. Clevenger smiled. "I should think that's an advantage. You must win a lot of arguments in bars."

"You don't know me, do you?" Devlin said impatiently. His tone contained more accusation than question.

"Well..."

"Ever watch sports on TV?"

"Only during football season," the doctor said. "Are you an athlete?" He looked at the bulge encircling Devlin's waist without comment.

"Not since my college days. I'm a commentator on CTS Network Sports. I cover football in fall, hockey in the winter, and baseball in spring and summer. If the network needs someone to explain a specialty sport like canoeing or gymnastics or fencing at the Olympics, I'm the go-to guy. Mind like an encyclopedia."

"That's impressive," the doctor began, ‘It must be..."

"You don't get it," Devlin said. "Nobody -- but nobody -- does football, hockey, and baseball commentary in the same year." He didn't bother to disguise the disdain of a professional suffering the ignorance of an amateur. "There's too much you need to know. The guys who do Monday night football spend a week boning up on the game before they even step into the broadcasting booth." He sucked in his breath. "I don't do that. I know it all from glancing over the teams' websites: rosters, players' stats, how long guys have started, and their weight, size, age, and high school and college records. I know the scores of every championship game ever played and where it was played. People in the business call me the memory machine. Read it...see it...hear it...and I know it."

Bitterness crept into his voice. "That was okay, the way it's always been. But now there's a problem. Like most people, I've always been able to filter out the garbage bombarding me every minute -- radio commercials, billboard messages, snatches of conversation, the squeal of a car's brakes. No more. Now everything sticks in my mind as if I glued it there. While I was waiting across the street for the light to change, I noticed the thermometer on the bank next door to this building. It registered 47 degrees at 5:21 p.m. It was still 47 degrees at 5:22 and at 5:23."

The doctor detected a note of panic in his voice.

"I can remember the temperature by the minute but I can't forget it!"

"That's unusual," Dr. Clevenger said soothingly, "but I don't see how a unique ability like that can be a problem. Most people would consider photographic memory an asset, not a liability."

Devlin shook his head and looked away.

The doctor noticed for the first time a slight tick below his visitor's left eye, and how tightly he gripped the armrests of the chair.

Devlin turned back. "It isn't just what I see and hear any more. The accident jarred something loose in my head. Something got disconnected -- or connected. Now I recall everything I've ever experienced -- sights, sounds, smells, taste, even touch!"

He fastened burning eyes on the doctor. "That aftershave you use...what is it?"

Dr. Clevenger frowned. "I don't know, it was a Christmas present. My daughter..."

"It has a strong suggestion of mint," interrupted Devlin. "I smelled it once at a party after the Super Bowl in New Orleans... and when I had my first and last mint julep in 1973 while vacationing in Georgia." He made a face. "Too sweet for me. But the smell is still there, competing with every other odor I've ever experienced -- eucalyptus in California after a rain...my wife's lavender perfume...sweat from the New York Yankees locker room. They've all come together, competing for attention, filling up all the space in my head like gas pumped into a car until it overflows and gushes out of the tank."

The doctor started to speak, but Devlin cut him off. "And sounds. The ‘whoosh' the doors made as I stepped out of the elevator...the gunfire from a Civil War re-enactment I went to years ago...a security guard sneezing. I recall scenes from every movie I've ever seen, the lyrics of every song I've every heard."

He shuddered. "And now there's touch, I can..."

"That must be disconcerting," Dr. Clevenger interjected. "All those images colliding in your head. And you say it all started with an auto accident?"

"I was taking a limo from JFK after a bowl game in Miami. Some jerk ran a red and t-boned the car." Devlin licked his lips. "I need to know...I have to know...." He leaned forward anxiously. "How much information can a brain hold before it explodes?"

The doctor blinked and chided himself mentally for showing an unintended reaction.

"Mine is full," said Devlin, his voice hoarse. "I've started getting blinding headaches and my vision blurs. It's getting worse every day."

"There could be other reasons for that. Physical causes, psychosomatic reactions," Dr. Clevenger said. "A series of tests should reveal if there are physical causes; therapy would probably help you if the problem is a mental one."

"You don't understand," Devlin persisted. "My mind is a sponge. My senses soak up everything. EVERYTHING! The oldest magazine on your waiting room table -- I noticed all the addresses have been ripped off -- is a Dec. 14, 2007, issue of Colonial History. The article featured on the cover is a piece is about Jefferson's home at Monticello."

"But..."

"914."

"914?" The doctor looked puzzled.

"That's the number on the inspection sticker in the elevator I took on the way up here. The last inspection was done four months ago. Do you want the date and the name of the inspector?" Devlin fixed feverish eyes on the doctor. "The air currents in the room just changed. Your receptionist must have lowered the thermostat to turn down the heat since the office is closed. I can feel the change in vibration, subtle though it is."

Dr. Clevenger didn't speak.

"She's wearing a blue dress and white blouse with three buttons, one of which doesn't match the other two," Devlin continued. "She must have replaced a lost button. The candy dish on her desk has four hard candies wrapped in plastic. Three are green; one is red, probably cherry."

His voice rose. "Do you know what happens when you blow up a balloon too much, doctor? Do you? It explodes! I can't eat! I can't sleep! All I do is worry that one more useless, unavoidable piece of information is going to tip the scale and my brain will blow up like a tire filled with too much air! You're my last chance. You've got to help me!"

The doctor's features smoothed into a mask of professional sympathy. "Well, I can assure you of one thing: human brains simply don't get filled up to the point of exploding." He chuckled softly. "Cognitive load theory suggests that we can only process so much new information at one time without overloading the brain. When we do overload it, learning stops. It's particularly a potential problem with school children, hence the concern about giving them too much homework. You have an unusual talent, Mr. Devlin -- clearly it's not a gift in its present form. And, to be honest, it can't be treated. Of all the biological structures, the brain is without doubt the most complex."

The doctor prided himself on his candor with patients. Awareness of medical limitations was the first step in the healing process. It also helped defuse unrealistic expectations and complaints about the success -- or lack of success -- of treatment.

Devlin's shoulders sagged.

"But," Dr. Clevenger resumed quickly, "your perception of that unusual ability can be treated. With time and care, we can bring you to the realization this fear of overloading your brain is simply a fantasy, probably induced by your accident and intensified by stress and overwork." He then proceeded to explain how the human brain worked, overwhelming his patient with a string of medical terms, most of which Devlin didn't understand. When he finished, Devlin looked confused but relieved.

The doctor summed up. "If we're successful -- and I can't promise we will be -- we should be able to adjust your perception so you'll do what most people do all the time -- screen out most of the non-essential sensory blizzard we all experience daily." He paused. "Expunging old associations may be harder, however. But at least you'll know your enhanced perceptive ability isn't a threat to your sanity or to your life."

"That's possible?"

"Oh, yes, it's more than possible. I've seen it before."

Devlin swallowed. "How do we begin?"

"First, I'm going to write you a prescription for a mild sedative to help you sleep at night. Then, Eileen -- that's my receptionist -- will set up two 45-minute appointments a week. If we make the progress I suspect we will, we'll cut that back to one in time." A warning tone crept into his voice. "But don't expect overnight results. The root causes of your illness -- and it is an illness -- didn't happen overnight despite the auto accident and won't be cured overnight."

Devlin nodded. His shoulders straightened. His breathing grew less ragged.

The doctor scrawled something on a pad and pushed it across the desk. "Get this filled at the pharmacy on the first floor. Leave your telephone number with my receptionist. She'll call you tomorrow with a schedule for therapy sessions."

"Thank you, doctor." Hope filled Devlin's voice. He rose, shook hands, and walked out, feeling lighter, more confident than he had in weeks. His headache faded.

After getting the prescription filled, Devlin walked out into the chilly evening air, now dusted by snow flurries. Traffic hummed on the street, and lights, gleaming white rectangles in the black facades of office buildings, beamed reassuringly. He raised a hand. "Taxi!" A cab darted out of the moving metal stream and pulled up to the curb. As he opened the door, Devlin's eyes flicked to the cab company's name -- Allied -- and telephone number, 993-1845. He tensed, holding his breath. His heart pounded. And then... nothing. Nothing! He laughed and climbed into the cab.

Back in his office, Dr. Clevenger finished recording notes of the meeting. My God, he thought, what a professional bonanza this could be! He envisioned the article to appear under his name in the Journal of Psychiatric Medicine, the speeches to give, the seminars to present. The doctor rubbed his eyes wearily. It had been a long day. His morning had begun with hospital consultations. Then, after rushing through a tuna fish sandwich and coffee at his desk, he had begun a series of draining therapy sessions in his private practice. How many patients had he seen? Three? Five? More? He closed his eyes. He couldn't remember.

Oh, yes, Devlin's obsession that was one for the books. Dr. Clevenger shook his head. Impossible, he thought. You can't overtax the brain, make it overflow -- even burst like a dam in a hurricane. Through his mind passed the faces of some of the hundreds -- no thousands -- of patients he had treated over his career, people suffering from personality disorders, compulsion, paranoia, schizophrenia, addiction, delusion, hallucination, mood swings, and a host of disassociative behaviors. Could I put a number to them, let alone remember the sessions in perfect detail? No.

Still, he mused, if Devlin were correct -- if a mind could explode from an informational overload, that would explain some mysterious deaths -- the ones where no physical cause could be determined. And what if the overload were emotional? Theoretically, there could be a limit to the suffering and pain that a policeman or a social worker or even a psychiatrist could absorb before his or her mental reservoir cracked... He shook his head again. Picking up a pen, he entered a diagnosis in Devlin's file -- "Delusion."

As he did, one of the more than 50 billion neurons linked to 10,000 synaptic connectors fired in his brain. Within nanoseconds, a signal raced across an invisible network and a meter clicked, a meter enabled by his speculations on Devlin's condition and then driven to its limits by his attempts -- more successful than he believed -- to recall his many patients. The level of neurochemical activity in his brain crossed a threshold unique to him -- and he dropped dead.

THE END


© 2009 Arthur C. Carey

Bio: Arthur Carey is a former newpaper reporter and journalism instructor who lives in the San Francisco Bay area. His fiction has appeared in Funny Times, Future Mysteries Anthology Magazine, Humor Press, and in Internet publications including the Dark Treasures Anthology, Humdinger Magazine, Another Realm, Electric Dragon Café, Golden Visions Magazine, Darkened Horizons, and Suspense Magazine.

E-mail: Arthur C. Carey

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