A square printed photograph or artwork of a beach where two small figures are visible is illuminated by warm light streaming through a window onto a wall

The Memory Machine

Anabelle Johnston

I was the only one who could do it, she had said. (I, in this situation, referred to me, which raises questions of perspective that a better storyteller would address swiftly and with care. Sorry.) See, she had hatched this idea — absolutely unfounded — that I was a poet, some sweet-lipped sonneteer of sorts. And it didn’t matter that she was just some dime-a-dozen white girl, I didn’t want to disappoint her. Call it a side effect of scaling the city on my father’s sinking shoulders, I couldn’t submit to that new wave we-owe-each-other-nothing mantra that my boys exhaled every Saturday night in that smoke-infested basement over on Everett.

Baba would slap the back of my head if he heard that chant. I’ll send you back if you keep talking this nonsense. You can’t take Baba too seriously when he says shit like that. He was always sending back. Returning. Traversing the ocean just to arrive, soaked, in Barisal to meet his mother, whose protruding lower lip hadn’t moved for the better part of the twentieth century. Nowadays, Baba could hardly stand to be back himself, his body two decades shriveled by the New England rain and taking the equator-set heat personally. He spent most of his time back wiping sweat off his thick furrowed brow, tipping his head eternally downward toward the motherland. I watched him wander forehead-first beneath the glowering gaze of his mom for two months last summer and could hardly imagine him shipping me anywhere. The old man was too mixed up to do that, too afraid of dissolution. Petrified that all this cross-continental travel would tangle his roots so terribly that the poor plant would strangle itself while enduring yet another random pat-down by a portly TSA employee. No matter. Here or there, I was just a sum of what I owed other people. (Approximately.) And I owed the white girl poetry.

She had asked me for a simple thing really, just describe a few pictures to her decrepit grandma over in Beacon Hill. The old lady had recently gotten one of those memory enhancing surgeries, and it seemed most of her friends disapproved. Left her high and dry as they went down and deteriorated. Poor woman was halfway blind and wholly lonely, her granddaughter explained. I had almost shrugged her off — my own Ma had been the same way since touching down on the tarmac in 1986 and no one read her nothing — when the girl mentioned slyly that her family would pay me for my services. So really, it was the promise of big bucks that got me to drag my sorry ass to the T on an overcast Sunday morning. Late and huffing it across town with my decade-old backpack that reeked of last night slung over one shoulder. The past had a way of sticking to me, no matter how hard I scrubbed.

I knew it was that day on the beach that doomed me, that time I stared at the wind flirting with the sand instead of holding her hand like she expected me to. When she brushed back her bangs (you know the type) and glanced up at me with those wide, dejected eyes, I knew I had to say something. Somehow soften the blow to her glass-animal ego. But all that tumbled out was a half-hearted haiku about the stars looking like pin holes overhead, some supernova sitting pretty on the other side of the sky. Of course, this convinced her right then and there that I was a poet — you know, helplessly in love with the world — because what was love but paying close attention? I’m not entirely to blame. This whole mess began with her assuming that I brought love to the beach to begin with. Carted it around in my back pocket, waiting for the perfect moment to point the arrow and shoot. It never crossed her mind that I didn’t place my thumb on her chin and press my lips against hers because I just didn’t want to kiss her. To be fair, I should’ve known how desperately she would cling to her own fundamental lovability. We all kind of need to believe that crap.

Anyways, it was a straight shot from sand in my shoes to soaking my sneakers on her grandma’s doorstep, hand wrapped to reveal a constellation of stretch marks unspooling across my knuckles. It was this little map of seventeen years’ worth of repeated motions like the way I gripped a doorknob or pen or anything else, long and tubular. I was standing there, staring at my dry skin, when the door opened to reveal a middle-aged woman with a smile reminiscent of retail. I watched my words wash over her face as I explained that I was there to see some old lady, that I was her granddaughter’s friend. At that, her eyebrows jumped up like fleas, the same way Ma’s did when I toted Kevin McAfee off the school bus and through our front door sometime in the first grade. Why do these white kids want to be friends with you, they asked wordlessly. How dare you betray us like that?

The hallways snaked around in a labyrinth formation, and I followed the woman — Bina, she said softly when I asked — through every twist and turn. She sounded like Ma did on the phone, pressed so close to the receiver like she was scared the line would swallow up her words. Still, I got the lowdown as we walked. Born in Mumbai, last in a long ass line, and been working for decades with the same lady who had her on lock now. Couldn’t ever catch a break. The story sounded all too familiar; Ma and her friends repeated its fugue and every variation whenever they crowded around our kitchen table for tea. They sat there for hours, spinning the same stories until the sun set and it was time to return to their own husbands who, like Baba, sat on their respective couches with their eyes glued to the tiny TVs that displayed yet another loss for the Tigers. Bina mentioned no cramped kitchen, no cricket on the television. Just this family and this house, which, as she explained, was old enough to demand proper nouns and definite articles. This is the O’Henry dining room, the Peterson living room, this is the Paxton drawing room where the Jrs, the IIIs, and every son thereafter tapped the end of his cigar over a crystal tray and laughed at our crumbled dreams in the ash. (I took a few creative liberties with that last one.)

Eventually, we arrived in a sitting room where photo albums waited on a circular side table, stacked high and spread wide. An overpopulated metropolis of memory. At the heart of the sprawl sat a microphone, worth more than I would get paid for the whole lousy afternoon. For a second there I considered swiping it on my way out. The old lady wouldn’t miss it, she could hardly see. Bina must’ve seen the deliberation in my creased forehead because she warned me not to touch anything before leaving to retrieve the woman from the bowels of the building. It was all too familiar. She regarded me with that twitching half-stink Ma’s friends did because I reminded them a bit too much of their own worthless American sons. I certainly looked the part, squat trunk and limbs like overgrown branches. I had inherited Baba’s height (short) and his nose (large), but something had gone awry in transit and left my features stark instead of hazy like his. Baba’s blurriness was incredible. I swear, every well-meaning white man that walked through the doors of Zaid’s Spice Bazaar — unfortunate name, but it worked — said something to the effect of oy, have we met? (They hadn’t. Baba took care not to meet people.) Meanwhile, I stuck out in every horrendous class photo with my two caterpillar eyebrows that inched closer towards each other until the fifth grade, when they finally kissed. Can’t rule out environmental factors for my conspicuousness; in Eastie I had no historical airbrush effect. The first time Baba took me back to Bangladesh, I wandered the streets in a stupor, eyes meeting the hips of thousands of strangers who looked like me. I wondered if Bina’s kid, the fictional one I was sure I resembled, felt the same way when he went home.

I began to flip through the photos, directly disobeying Bina’s orders to keep my hands to myself. All things considered, it was a fairly straightforward job; I just had to sit with the woman and describe what I saw. For that, twenty-five an hour, which was more than I had ever been paid bussing tables at Don Juan’s — minimum wage (twelve dollars minus tax plus tips here and there) — or helping my parents with the shop — family discount (nothing). The albums were arranged to approximate chronology, starting with frayed film from ye olden days. Lots of stiff family portraits and grim smiles. WASP in the most traditional sense. I thought the surgery was supposed to prevent this kind of thing, create some sort of mental cloud that was always updating, retrieving, caught between then and next. Like a Facebook album but in your frontal lobe. Or cerebellum. Wherever memories sat, collecting dust.

Baba came barreling home from the shop one day clutching a broadsheet in his palm that pronounced just that. I found it I found it I found the answer, he practically shouted. Ma, skilled at ignoring him, returned to her stitching without batting an eye. He charged to the couch and shoved the advertisement in my face.

It looks like she’s getting a lobotomy, I said, glancing at the women on the page whose brain appeared woefully exposed. Poor branding if you ask me.

Always Mr. Funny Man, Baba admonished. She’s getting a computer in her brain. That way, she never forgets.

Forgets what.


I glanced up at the sound of creaking floorboards down the hall. Bina had returned, her left arm linked with a woman who bore closer resemblance to a tortoise than a person. The pair hobbled at half speed and I was caught wondering at what distance it would be appropriate for me to say hello. Bina shot me a look like don’t you start with some stupid shit, the look of aunties everywhere, so I kept it quiet and pulled out a chair instead. The screeching of the legs scraping the tiles echoed through the room, which was somehow worse than the silence of their viscous steps. Figures. The lady sat down without saying zip, her standing-to-seated motion closely resembling a crumple or centerfold. In old age, gravity just happened to you. When I introduced myself, she made an indistinguishable yet dismissive noise before instructing me to get on with it already. I didn’t expect any less; she had overpaid for the right to be rude. She folded her hands into her lap and leaned back in her seat as I read the inscription of the first album loudly into the microphone. I looked over at her, frail and swaddled in a thick knit sweater, eyes closed and mouth slightly ajar as she took each slightly labored breath. Damn lady was asleep, or close to it. I didn’t really mind, it made my life all the easier. I began with Martha’s Vineyard 1942.

We didn’t have many photographs from the 1940s. Wasn’t anybody’s fault. When they came to Boston, Baba stuffed his suitcase with self-loathing and Ma brought the fuel for twenty years of resentment, or more. The past was swept across the ocean. Instead of pictures Baba offered stories, small as a nickel turned over between his front two fingers. Baba running through rice paddies as a child, chasing some animal that would be impossible to me now. Lying prostrate on the flat rooftop with his brothers, talking shit while staring up at the black velvet sky. Ay Zaid, Ma would say, whipping his thigh with whatever towel she had on hand. Let go of that nonsense. We’re here now. I wasn’t convinced. Rolling off Baba’s tongue, the past was vibrant. Slick. I too was afraid to lose it. Be careful, he said while we stood, backs pressed, in the same cramped aisle of the shop. Pay attention or home will slip right through your fingers.

That’s what it was all about, right? Holding on so tight you nearly suffocated the damn thing. That’s why the old lady paid so well to listen to me describe it all, though for all she knew I was just a smudge that could talk. I guess that’s why she got the surgery too, even though it sounded like they just stuck a small computer in your mind and fed it memories. I heard rumors you could even program a personality, and some old folks’ homes just left their elderly dozing in front of sitcom reruns until the computers emerged a knock-off Jerry Seinfeld. Everyone hobbling around on canes and in wheelchairs, wildly gesticulating, nitpicking the women they want to sleep with. But Baba wanted the surgery to become more himself. As if machinery and memory could withstand the erosion of assimilation and time. Soon after he found the ad, he started collecting data packages online. For only $19.99 he could buy the complete works of Zahir Raihan consolidated into 98 megabytes, digestible in less than one minute. The down payment on the procedure was hefty, sure, but after that it was smooth sailing. It was like buying a second house. It was like the American dream. (So he proclaimed to Ma, who had taken to wearing headphones whenever he was around. The picture of a happy marriage.)

I wondered if the old lady wanted the surgery. She didn’t seem to be one to execute her desires, snoring the afternoon away. I supposed it didn’t matter if she was awake; the computer was always listening. After a few pictures I found a rhythm. I started with the background because it was easiest. Usually, it was a blank canvas with a few watercolor clouds, but once in a while they caught something interesting. Once lightning cut the photo in two, a dendritic splinter in the South Dakotan sky. Then I described the people, what they were doing, where they were going, where they came from. Whose hand they held, whose eyes they searched to meet. When someone was unlabeled, I would nudge the lady and ask politely if she could please tell me who they were. Like she was doing me some big favor. More often than not she just shrugged. I made them up.

Every ten minutes or so she would grunt noncommittally and after the first hour, I stopped bothering to decipher what she meant. We made it pretty far — we being a loose descriptor — and I felt like I had a pretty good sense of the stranger next to me after a few hours like this. For instance, I learned that her husband was classically handsome, the kind that went out of fashion a few years back. He was probably a good-for-nothing, or, at least, good-for-something-but-not-for-her. Over the years I watched money trickle from her side of the family into his jetted pocket. Still, he appeared in maybe fifteen photos, tops, after they got married. Her scrawled notes in the margins kept track of his absence. I refused to dwell on it, mainly because I didn’t want to sit there feeling bad for the old bat. I try not to make a habit of pitying the more fortunate. I liked her son though. He had this dopey grin that always got me. Sheepish but aware of the effect he had on the camera. I couldn’t get past the idea that he was glancing back over his shoulder to look at me personally, shooting me that cross between I dare you and don’t even think about it. I knew that look. For years, I practiced it daily in the bathroom mirror while Baba shouted from the other side of the door, If you clog the toilet again I will take the plunger and shove it up your —. Anyways, he stopped showing up in photos around the time his sister had kids, including the girl that got me the gig. Before he disappeared, the son got this sort of sickly look, the kind of frame that reminds you that people are just skin and skeleton. Bodies bumping against each other, bruising one another, forcing the puzzle pieces to fit. After 1992, he was gone.

The photos from the past decade were the hardest to stomach, like if I had just been born a bit better or at least differently I could’ve had it too. Expansive backyard, summer as a verb. The grandkids were always mid-motion. Half-laughing, jumping, tumbling to nowhere in particular. From the way they took up the frame, you could tell their mom thought they were the center of the whole ass universe. In the deepest place I had, I knew that kind of love was no good. All that white woman sun could do was bake a bag of street trash. Release the stink onto the world. But in the shallower water, where I stood treading, I wanted it. Flipping through the hyper-pixelated shots of school plays, I just wanted to be loved as unexceptional. Or at least, I wanted someone to zoom in to find me in the rafters.

Behind us, the sun nearly set the sitting room ablaze with its late orange glow. I shook her forearm lightly, just enough to get her attention and pause her afternoon daydream. I thought of Baba, standing, his feet blistered from hours spent in the store shuffling from foot to foot. Rocking back and forth just to stay awake. The old lady smacked her lips together as she awoke. Time’s up, I said. She looked back at me blankly. Her face betrayed no recognition of her family, of the past. I wondered if the computer in there was doing anything at all, or if it was all some nasty front for an otherwise uncouth brain operation. In the end it didn’t matter. I suppose it was all just stories we tell ourselves, fiction upon fiction endlessly amassed. Baba, arms outreached, reaching for a time he could no longer not touch. I wanted to ask her if she was happy, if the illusion of holding on was somehow better than facing the act of letting go. I extended my hand across the table to turn off the microphone but was stopped by her frail grip on my forearm. Fingers eroded by time. Wordlessly, she placed a check in my hand. The memory machine grew smarter as it was fed more data, so the ads said. Your brain evolved until truth and nostalgia became enrapt in each other. Inseparable. Undone. The lady nodded toward the microphone and I saw Baba bidding his mother goodbye. Again and again and again. I retreated from the recording button and cleared my throat.

Anabelle Johnston (she/her) writes about cohabitation and community, physical and otherwise.