From “Memory Store,” collected in Alien Stories, which was published last month by BOA Editions.
One of the things he found most fascinating about America was that there were Memory Stores on almost every street corner. A person could simply walk into any of the stores and sell their memories for money. It was that straightforward. He had come to the realization that certain things were undoubtedly straightforward in America. Take American beers, with their twist-off caps. Twist-off caps may not seem like a big deal to most American beer drinkers, but he remembered buying a cold bottle of beer when he was back home and bringing it to his room and ransacking the entire room in search of his bottle opener. He eventually found the opener lying underneath a pile of old newspapers. By then, the beer was already lukewarm and tasted flat on the tongue.
A Memory Store, ah, only in America.
The first time he went into a Memory Store he walked in furtively, like a catechist walking into a brothel.
“Hi, buddy, I am R,” the guy who manned the shop said. He in turn introduced himself by his first initial. Everyone went by their initials these days. It was one of the laws introduced to unite the country after what had happened during the previous regime. He could tell that the man was Hispanic. He could tell from the man’s accent. You could not get rid of accents with simple legislation. Did the R stand for Ramos, Ramirez, Rodriguez? It was inappropriate to ask. Such things did not matter anymore. Everyone was American and that was all that was important.
“It is very easy, my friend,” the guy said.
He looked around the store. He had expected to see lots of gadgets, but there were actually just a few.
“First, I will need to wipe down your hands with rubbing alcohol and then you’ll place the five fingers of both hands on this glass panel in front of me and then you’ll focus your mind and recall the memory you want to sell to us. Your memory will appear on the screen right here and I will tell you how much we are able to pay for it. If we agree on the price then I will give you a card loaded with the amount for which we bought your memory. You can use the card to make purchases anywhere. There are stores down the road from here, they sell good stuff. The process is painless,” R explained.
He told R that he had only come to look around and find out how the thing worked.
“Take your time, and feel free to ask me if you have any questions,” R said.
Eventually, when the bell rang announcing the arrival of a new customer, R showed him out.
He had always looked forward to his job at Work Ready. They provided workers for the car auction. He washed the cars and wiped them down to make them look good on the auction block. But one morning that winter he had reported to Work Ready and was met by the long faces of his colleagues. The company was letting the cleaners go. They were consolidating—that was the language they used. Jobless and broke, he went to the Memory Store.
He sat before the Memory Machine and began to dredge his mind.
“Some people find that when they close their eyes, it helps,” R said to him.
He closed his eyes and hoped he would not nod off and start snoring loudly. Why was he worrying about everything all of a sudden?
His mind became clear. The fog lifted. He was a little boy of seven running home from school. He could still smell the aroma of jollof rice and fried goat meat. At the completion of the academic year, the school served rice and goat. But he didn’t wait for the food. He snatched his report card as soon as they announced that he was the first in his class and left to show his grandmother.
She was outside bathing in the sun. She was wearing her green sweater, the one with the Christmas decorations. His grandmother didn’t know that the design on her sweater was of Christmas decorations. He wouldn’t know either until he came to America. He would also learn in America that they were called “ugly sweaters.” He never did understand why.
He handed the report card to his grandmother.
“Tell me what it says, my son.”
“Open it, grandma. Look at it yourself,” he said to her.
“You open it and read it to me, that is why I sent you to school,” she said.
He opened the report card and told her that he had finished first in his class and that he had scored 100 percent in all his subjects and that he had not stayed back to eat the jollof rice and goat meat that was cooked for all the students at the end of the academic year.
“Will their jollof rice taste as good as the one I am going to make for you?” his grandmother asked.
“Never,” he said.
R was tapping him on the shoulder. He was almost too far gone. So carried away by the memory that he had forgotten where he was and had been transported entirely into that world of his childhood with his grandmother.
“That is all we’ll need for today’s session. You did really great. These types are quite rare. They’ve got everything we are looking for in a memory. Genuine, not artificial, and filled with joy. Now follow me and I’ll give you your payment card,” R said.
He was still feeling a little unfocused from the experience. For some reason he was also feeling lighter, but not in a heavy-load-taken-away kind of way; it was as if he had misplaced something—perhaps an object he had in his pocket had been lost.
He collected the payment card. He was surprised at the amount they were paying him.
“Thank you,” he said to R.
“No, thank you,” R said.
He hesitated to leave. Something was still bothering him. It had all seemed too easy.
“So what is going to happen to the one I just gave you?”
“It is gone. You will never recall that particular memory again. It is like it never existed. Wiped out. Gone. It no longer belongs to you. But don’t worry about it. I am sure there are lots where that came from, buddy,” R said. R sounded jokey but a little furtive in his manner. He could tell that R wanted him to leave.
He took his card and walked to the store that sold household goods. He had always wanted a huge television. He wanted a giant one that would dominate his sitting room. The lives of American families did not revolve around the television the way lives did back home. Back home, the television had come to replace the grandmother around whom everybody sat after the evening meal, listening as she told her folktales. Over here, the television was overlooked just like American grandmothers, who talked to themselves and went largely ignored when they spoke to other occupants of the house. Life here revolved around the fridge. The opening of the fridge and the slamming of the fridge door and the perpetual complaint of “there is nothing to eat; there is never anything to eat here,” though the fridge would usually be bursting at the seams with all kinds of food and drink.
When the money on his card ran out, he went back to Work Ready to ask whether there were any new job openings. The lady there told him that they were giving priority to people who were mandated to work by a judge so that they could pay their child support. Others would just have to wait.
He decided to return to the Memory Store.
He went through the routine. Wiped his hands down. He worked on coming up with a memory. It was easier this time around. He remembered his last day before he had traveled to America. The house was filled with more people than it was accustomed to. There was food, and lots of it. People were eating and drinking and talking. His grandmother had refused to eat and was crying. He told her to stop crying, that today was a happy day. She held his hand and repeated the words he had just said to her. Then she resumed crying.
“I am not leaving forever. I am going to come back soon, and when I come back I will build you a bigger house,” he said to his grandmother.
“Not even your grandmother knows the secret of living forever,” she said and continued to cry.
He decided to change tack since this approach was not working.
“I don’t want to remember you like this. I don’t want my last memory of you to be your weeping face,” he said.
This seemed to have touched her and she wiped her face with her headscarf and asked for some food and drink.
R tapped him on the shoulder. “Perfect. Here, take your card. You did a good job.”
He bought a fridge with the card. It was a gray fridge with double doors. It had a different compartment for every item. He had always thought that fridges must be white, but had been thrilled by the fact that they came in all kinds of colors these days. He asked the guys who delivered the new fridge to take away the old one, but they refused. They said it was against company regulations. He told them that it was free and that they could sell it for money since it was still working and in good condition, but they said no. So the old fridge sat mutely beside the new one, an unwanted guest.
It was the twenty-sixth of December, the anniversary of the passing of his grandmother. He thought that even in her choice of the day of her death, his grandmother had been her good old considerate self—the day after Christmas was hard to forget.
He sat before his television. He had turned it off. The fridge was humming distinctly but unobtrusively.
He wanted to spend some time thinking of his grandmother and honoring her memory. He sat still and tried to picture her gentle, smiling face.
He drew a blank.
He could not remember her face.
He panicked a little. But he recalled what had happened at the Memory Store. He opened the fridge and poured some ginger ale into a cup and added ice. He sat down and took a sip.
He thought hard, but there was nothing.