The Man Who Had a Memory

By Michael Upchurch
The Man Who Had a Memory art

He had sold his memory to Texas. That is, he had sold it to a university archive in Texas. The memory was unusually large—there were boxes and boxes of it—but it was also, in its way, subterranean. Very few people had seen it. No one had actually read it. He was the only one familiar with its contents, and that was simply because he had lived it. He had added a few pages to it every day for the last forty years—and used himself up in the process.

He told me this in the corner of a small bar after a quiet event that perhaps a dozen people attended. As a writer, he enjoyed a reputation that had persisted but had not, in recent years, grown. Now, in his seventies, he was at the outer limit of his accomplishment. More years lapsed between book publications. The general feeling—to the extent that there was a general feeling—was that he had done most of what he had set out to do, and anything more forthcoming would be by way of an addendum

But what people weren’t taking into account, he said over drinks, was the memory. He smiled as if he had something up his sleeve. His eyes shone as if he were about to spring a surprise on the world.

The memory, he explained, was bigger than anything else in his body of work. He had always been compulsive about it. Even when a book wasn’t going well, the memory kept chugging along, racking up word-counts. The memory was a blow-by-blow, moment-by-moment, uninflected transcription of all his experience and he’d put no filter on it at all.

“In a way,” he mused, “you could say I’ve lived in duplicate—once in the flesh and one more time on the page.”

The books of his that had found their way into the world were short, concentrated, elusive, distilled. They yielded only so much in the way of disclosure and confession. They indicated—but they didn’t exactly give. Form and restraint counted for everything in them.

The memory was nothing like that. The memory was shapeless, sprawling, copious and shameless, addressing every thought, every issue, every episode that came his way. If it happened, he scrawled it down.

“I’m not the fastidious writer some people think I am,” he said. “I’m not just squeezing out my hundred or two-hundred words a day. I’m prolific. I’m promiscuous.”

Of course, he added, if he hadn’t had Anders to support him, none of it would have been possible. He wouldn’t have had the time for it. He would have been forced to earn his keep. And given that he had so little talent for anything other than “scribbling,” earning his keep would have been a struggle—a struggle that was bound to get in the way of writing both his books and his memory.

Now, with Anders gone and the estate finally settled, he was comfortable for the long term—not rich exactly, but without financial worries. He could contemplate starting another novel if the impulse struck him, no matter how little market there was for it. And he could immerse himself again in the memory. His memory had suffered during the worst of Anders’ illness. Whole days, whole weeks had gone by when the crises at hand had tapped his energies so thoroughly that he’d given no thought to his memory at all. But now he could go back to adding to it—and forwarding his additions, at suitable intervals, to the archive in Texas.

This was a profound if guilt-inducing relief. He wasn’t sure what he had done to deserve it. It wasn’t just a matter of the money. He was perfectly well aware that it was Anders’ book-world connections that had gotten him where he was. It was Anders who had put him in the right spot at the right time, placed him in touch with all the right editors at all the right magazines and publishing houses. He was clear about that. He frankly acknowledged it.

To be sure, he had been diligent—even driven—in his efforts. Still, he didn’t fool himself. If it hadn’t been for Anders, he would never have had such a smooth, exquisite, companionable ride.

“But that part of my life is over,” he declared in the dimness of the bar. “At least the social aspects of it. I’m a virtual hermit these days. All I do is write and eat and sleep.”

Now that he’d been given the time and leisure to expand his memory, and maybe even start on a final novel or two if he felt like it, he was going to take advantage of it.

“I’d be a fool not to.”

***

Anders had been methodical. Anders, between the day of his diagnosis and the day of his death, had put all their affairs in order. Anders had arranged things so that, if his lover was prudent with the income set up for him, he would want for nothing.

They had done their travels. They had had their adventures. They had long ago found their home in a city, London, that was foreign to them both. All he wanted now was time at his desk and the occasional company of old friends.

The sale of his memory—his and Anders’ memories, really—had been an unexpected windfall. It earned him more than his last four books put together. Why Texas had wanted it was a mystery to him. He was nominally an American writer, although he scarcely felt like one, having lived in England all his adult life. And prior to the sale of his memory, he’d had no link of any sort to Texas.

The sale, he said, was the final feeble sputtering of what he called his “career”—“career” being something quite distinct for him from “avocation.” Success or the lack of it didn’t matter now. Anders had liberated him. He didn’t have to hustle. He was blessed with resources. In the London flat that he and Anders had shared, he was able to concentrate on his memory alone and whatever last stories he wished to tell.

He had never imagined days so flexible. Their rhythm consisted partly of the moods of the cat as it followed him around the house. The rest was cobbled together from trips to museums, theaters and concert halls—a nonstop assortment of interpreted experiences. He sometimes had lunch with former colleagues still in the game and he found himself pitying them. Either they were scrambling for assignments and frantic that some youngster might beat them to it, or else they’d been far more successful than he’d ever been, but drowning, they complained, in claims on their attention and demands on their time.

He had stopped trying to make any kind of case for himself. He had long ago accepted that he was an acquired taste—acquired by far too few people to add substantially to his income. Anders had always filled the gap. What mattered—what had always mattered to him—was the pleasure he took in the craft itself: the flow of words, the shaping of sentences, the pruning of paragraphs. It was a pure and steadying joy to put pen to paper without trying to please anyone but himself. He had no expectation of any welcoming response.

“I’m honestly well out of it,” he insisted.

Then he asked if I’d like another drink.

I didn’t see this as a come-on. Anders, I got the feeling, had been everything for him. And now that Anders was over, everything was over.

No, the lure here was that he had a tale to tell me—something unexpected to do with the memory. And if I had another drink with him, I might get to hear it.

***

Most of the memory, of course, was couched in written words. But a significant portion of it took other forms: charge-card receipts, concert programs, postcards from friends, tax records, ticket stubs. All of it was evidence of some kind. And all of it was tangentially connected to the transcribed memory—the notebooks and journals he had sold to Texas.

The London flat was packed with this evidence. The New York pied-à-terre (“More like a dorm room”) was as well. File cabinets, bedroom closets, storage containers—all were crammed with knickknacks and ephemera. He had never thrown anything away. He had held onto everything. The point in keeping everything was to have vast realms to explore and savor at some later date. In the early years, he hadn’t known when this “later date” would arrive. He simply trusted that one day it would. While Anders was ill, he’d been forced to put all memory-related endeavors on hold. Still, he took great comfort in knowing those realms were there to be re-entered, piece by piece, when the opportunity presented itself.

There were newspaper clippings, road maps, railway timetables, souvenirs from their travels: a three-inch-high Eiffel Tower from Paris, a Delftware windmill cookie jar from Haarlem, an empty limoncello bottle from Italy. There were albums and albums of photographs, all waiting to be sorted and scanned, because that apparently was what you did these days—scan things and post them online somewhere.

As long as Anders was alive, he’d had his work cut out for him. There was shopping to do, doctors’ appointments to keep, bills to pay. They’d had housecleaning help—a pleasant young woman from Romania—but she was under strict instructions not to disturb anything that looked as though it might have archival potential. That essentially just left the kitchen and bathroom surfaces to scrub, and the floors.

There had been dinner parties to host, as well, for as long as that was possible. And then, in the final stretch, there had been one-on-one meetings with carefully selected friends: the ones who weren’t a burden, who didn’t need careful handling; the ones who knew when to come, how long to stay and when to go. These meetings all had to fit into an ever-shrinking timeline.

“And now,” he told me wistfully, “there’s all the time in the world.”

After Anders died, people checked in on him sporadically, never sure what might be too much attention and what might be too little. No one expected him to be in a social mood and he felt no need to go out. As long as he stayed in the flat, or in the immediate neighborhood, he had the echo of Anders in reach. And having that echo was better than the alternative: a slow fade, a gradual detachment, an irreversible oblivion.

Anyway, he was tired of the outside world. He was ready to explore the inside world.

***

Even an apartment that looks obsessively tidy has its hidden corners, its recesses. The drawers of kitchen counters, living-room end-tables and dining-room bureaus can all be repositories. Linen cupboards and dressing rooms can double as library stacks.

He, more than Anders, had been the record-keeper in the family. In their early years, he had been methodical about pasting photographs into scrapbooks labeled by year and country. But as their lives grew more social and their professional obligations more draining and rigorous, scrapbooks gave way to large manila envelopes “temporarily” set aside to deal with later. Those large stuffed envelopes piled up in layers on dark closet shelves: a slipshod geology.

A few months after the funeral, when all the bewildering paperwork was completed and all the lawyers had been dealt with, he realized it was time to start digging. The piles on those shelves were growing unstable. He was disarmed by some of what he found there. And he was just as perplexed at what he didn’t find. Items whose locations he thought he knew seemed to have gone missing.

After spending his mornings on his memory, writing down every stage of Anders’ illness that he could recall, he dedicated an hour or two of each afternoon to combing through the backlog. Sifting through it all was dizzying. Chronologies were scrambled. Geographic gaps appeared.

How had he and Anders gotten from Luxembourg to Amsterdam? Could they have rented a car? Or did they take the train? He had no idea.

He vividly remembered flying into Montreal where the fog-thick cloud-cover held fast until they were just fifteen or twenty feet above the runway. Anders had to talk him down from sheer panic in those last minutes before landing. But were they traveling there from London or from New York? And what about their return flight? It was all a blank.

And then he came across a train ticket from Paris to Poitiers. He came across two train tickets, in fact—from different sequential years, the first in August, the next in April. He remembered the place. He could picture it as a city sinking under the weight of its own history. When you strolled its streets, you walked on cobblestone higher than the buildings’ foundations. A sediment of social commerce had accumulated on these pavements, raising them a foot or two above centuries-old shopfronts, churches, townhouses and university buildings.

A sight like that makes an impression on you—but he had no recollection of having gone there twice.

This lapse in memory worried him. The tickets in his hand seemed a proof of sorts—but a proof that wouldn’t yield to his powers of recall.

When he tried to pick at this proof, he realized he couldn’t place Anders in it. Perhaps he had been there on his own? Maybe he’d been there for a speaking engagement—in which case, he would have been met by an escort…?

A charming man walked at his side. But the man had no face. The man had a voice, and that voice was European in accent. But was it Anders’ voice?

The man, in his mind, seemed to split into two—to become both Anders and not-Anders.

This uncertainty nagged at him. He realized he had reached an impasse. He wondered what Anders would have done in this situation—but he didn’t wonder for long.

Anders, he knew, would have worked on it. Ander would have looked at it from every possible angle. Anders would have studied it up close, then gazed at it from faraway. He would have seen it in a cool light, then cast it in a hot light. He would have done every methodical thing he could to shape his query toward an answer, until the problem—if you could even still call it a problem after such expert handling—was solved.

“Of course, I’m not Anders,” he said, after we ordered another round of drinks. “I never had his gift. I never had his touch. He was the one who arranged things. I was more primitive, more instinctive. I knew what I would do—but I’d never know why I did it. And I tended to be heedless of how it would all turn out. My thing was: documenting it all after it had happened.”

He still had many other drawers, cabinets and accordion files in the London and New York flats to investigate, and he continued sifting through them all, always with the riddle of the Poitiers train tickets on his mind.

Questions about other trips arose as well.

Had they really only stayed three nights in Reykjavik? It had seemed much longer than that. He felt as if he’d come to know every cranny of the town in that short time. But then it was an easy town to know in terms of layout, with the Hallgrimskirkja, the tallest landmark in the city, always there to guide you, and the icy waters all around to set strict limits on how far you could go.

He came across paycheck stubs for appearances at conferences he didn’t recall attending. He came across insurance policies in need of a change of beneficiary. He found an extended warrantee on a stove they had long ago traded in for a new one. He found photographs of a cottage in Devon they had rented. There, in the shots, were the drink-congested faces of their houseguests, half of them now dead.

Had the light been more buttery in the ’70s? Or was it just that the particular brand of film he’d used was less susceptible to fading than others he’d threaded through his camera?

Crouch End, Cricklewood, Camden Town … they hadn’t moved house that many times in their forty years together. Every flat had produced its archive, and every archive had been packed into boxes. And now he was entering them again: photograph by photograph, ticket by ticket, receipt by receipt, with no further clue about Poitiers, no notion of what might have happened there.

***

Anders was an orchestrator. Anders was always throwing suggestions his way: “I think you might like Richard. You can learn something from him. But you mustn’t take him too seriously….”

It seemed to go without saying that “liking” Richard would involve sleeping with him—or with Ben, or Cyrus—and then coming back to Anders to report on the experience. The trouble—when there was trouble—arose from more spur-of-the-moment impulses to sleep with someone without consulting Anders; someone who would, inevitably, be much younger than any Richard, Ben or Cyrus; someone who held no sway in the world that Anders offered him: a bookstore clerk, perhaps, or a bartender. These “detours,” as he thought of them, were disloyal of course.  But he had found, even well into his forties, that he couldn’t resist them. And he suspected they were part of Anders’ calculation too: a sort of tacit compromise fueled by generosity and forgiveness. Anders would, on principle, overlook the obvious—and while his lover might feel sheepish about the urge he’d satisfied, he never felt regret. It had been too deep a pleasure—too vital a color, too earthy a sensation—to omit from his experience.

At our table in the bar, he didn’t tell me this directly. I deduced it from the things of his I’d read. I’d had a fascination with him going back for decades, when I studied his author photos on the flaps of his dustjackets: magnets exerting a hold on my eyes. I was just as fascinated now by the subtle way the years had dismantled his beauty. He’d had far more in the way of looks than I’d ever had—and if you’re blessed with that kind of currency, of course you’re going to spend it. How much you’ll keep of what you spend—and how well you’ll remember all your “purchases”—is a different question.

***

When I was young, I found it frankly unbelievable when someone older—a parent, a teacher, a family friend—would say of a book that I was reading: “Oh, yes—I think I read that when it came out.” Or, if it was a movie: “I’m pretty sure I saw it. Is that the one with—?”

How could you not know if you’d a read book or seen a movie? You might not remember it clearly. But surely you knew if you’d experienced it or not?

Or they might recommend a Victorian novel, saying, “Apart from anything else it’s fascinating on the changes brought to English towns by the coming of the railways. It’s vivid on how new the shrunken distances felt.”

I would read it and enjoy it, but would have to tell the person who lent it to me, “You’re right, it’s fascinating. I really liked it—but, you know, there’s not a single word about railways in it.”

“Isn’t there? I must be thinking of some other book of hers, I guess….”

They would be puzzled by this, but not overly so.

I, on the other hand, would be skeptical, even perturbed. This book-lender would go down a bit in my estimate: If he can make a mistake like that….           

Similarly, when I was young, I would have said it was impossible to forget if you’d been to a place once or twice unless you were some kind of business traveler always on the move, with scores of destinations under your belt. But that wasn’t the case here. My impression was that he had traveled mostly for pleasure—once or twice a year, perhaps—at Anders’ suggestion, for the most part, and usually in Anders’ company.

Now that I was older—in my fifties, pushing sixty—I could see how things might not be so clear. I could see how this Poitiers question might have arisen. There were plenty of moments from my own life where I could picture this moment and that moment, this sight and that sight, but have no clue as to how I got from one to another. How had I made arrangements? How did anyone manage it in the days before you could do it all with the click of a cursor?

So it came as no surprise that his mind should be even more riddled with ellipses than mine was.

I tried to imagine my way into these blank spots. And it was easy enough to picture the scenes he’d forgotten: arrival at a train station in a strange city; a silent invitation from a man whose looks bewitched him; Anders’ nod saying, “Go for it,” or Anders not being there to grant or withhold permission; the sunlit sprawl of masculine limbs on a rumpled bed; the sensation of having Anders as a safe haven, always there for you; a recognition of this other body as a sampling, a diversion, confirming that you had, in choosing Anders, chosen correctly.

I had seen photographs of Anders and had liked the look of him.

“So really I was stuck,” he was saying to me now, as the bar began to empty. “Nothing surfaced—a complete tabula rasa. I had the two train tickets and nowhere to go with them, until I saw how I might solve the problem: I could visit my archive. I could make a trip to Texas….”

***

He had booked a hotel room (online). He had boarded an airplane (using an image on his phone as his ticket). He was a man now in his seventies, mystified—even chagrined—at how a chapter in his life had been closed off from him, its contents no longer reachable at will.

He had to go through the proper channels, naturally. He had to be granted permission to pore through the thousands of pages that now sat on a shelf in the library stacks.

As he did this, he had the strange sensation of being a surgeon in an operating theater and learning only belatedly that his patient was himself. It was odd of him, he felt, to have relinquished his role as the curator of his own existence. It was queer to have to travel thousands of miles in order to access to his past.

He spent several days in the windowless room with its artificial light and its climate-control hum. He felt trapped in this sterile place where everything was hushed and nothing could resonate.

He did enjoy playing “detective,” however. He had the dates from the train tickets to work with, less than a year apart. There was no question that he would get to the bottom of it. It wasn’t a matter of searching but of following.

Still, he chose to come up on the information gradually. He wanted some sense of what had gone before and what had come after. He needed a bit of context.

The more he delved into his pages, however, the more uneasy he became. It was as though his memory were remembering him, rather the vice versa. It was as though it were leading him places he couldn’t remember ever having gone before. And that made it seem, he said, as if he had forfeited taking any active role in understanding his own life.

I was getting impatient with this.

“So did you find something or not?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, I found something,” he said.

“And it told you what you needed to know?”

“Yes, it told me, all right.”

His tone was wry and rueful. I couldn’t read the complications of his smile. It was sad; it was sheepish. But there was more to it than that.

“For one thing,” he continued, “in Paris Anders and I had one of our arguments—an argument we’d had before. He wanted me to ‘meet’ someone. But I said no. I knew what ‘meeting someone’ meant.”

“You wanted to do something else,” I suggested.

He didn’t reply to this—but kept his gaze on me, waiting for my next guess.

“So,” I said, after a moment or two, “when the argument came back to you, everything else did too?”

“Yes, it all came back. It all fell into place.”

“And there were two trips, not just one?”

“There were two trips. And Anders was only with me on the first of them.”

“And the other? What happened? What was the story?”

He took a sip from his drink. The light in the bar was growing brighter and the music had been turned up loud, to spur patrons to leave. It was closing time.

But he wasn’t done yet. He wanted to hold onto the enigma.

“What?” I asked. “You won’t say?”

“There are reasons,” he pronounced after a long moment, “why your mind creates the gaps it does—good reasons why you don’t always remember.”

“And you found them out.”

“Yes, I found them out.”

“And—?”

But here his smile became a closed door. It took me a moment to see just how firmly it had shut on me. In his look was something that said: You’re a sweet guy. I’m glad we met. It’s comforting to feel that someone knows me this way—to think that I’ve been read so closely and so accurately. But this, I’m afraid, is the end of it.

“You mean,” I asked, “you really aren’t going to tell me?”

His face was beaming. His eyes were shining. Their message was: But don’t you see? You already have what you need.

And then he confirmed it.

“Nope,” he said. “I’m not going to tell you.” 

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