Mr. Memory and Other Stories of Wonder
Uttering the name Mr. Memory evokes the live performances and talk show appearances when he would impress the world with his abilities of recollection. His clarity of remembrance has kept listeners captivated for days while sharing the adventures of his life. In this collection of short stories, we learn the truth about Mr. Memory, the fantastic gone unseen, and a world of wonder which can inspire us to believe.
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Mr. Memory and the Garden Turtles at Midnight
When I got to see him at last, Mr. Memory was wearing blue silk pajamas. A sleep mask covered his eyes, and earplugs protected his ears. He lay fully reclined in a brown leather chair. The room was dim and cool, its walls padded with soundproofing. It held only the chair he sat in, a chair for me, and a mostly bare desk. This was where I would listen over the next three weeks.
I had waited several days in the guesthouse before his aide summoned me. The rules were very clear and applied to anyone with whom Mr. Memory talked. You had to be patient; Mr. Memory spoke slowly, often taking several minutes to conjure a complete thought. Time was precious, so your questions needed to be both original and succinct; he had no desire to answer questions he’d answered before, and too many words could send Mr. Memory careening down the wrong path. Finally, you had to be odor-free; the guesthouse was stocked with deodorants, shampoos, and soaps that had no smell, and you were expected to have used them.
Mr. Memory, of course, had not always been Mr. Memory. Long before you or I had seen him on talk shows or late-night interview shows, his name was James Hollins. I remembered his dark, slicked hair and confident voice from those show business days, but this day, his skin was pale and thin, he had only a few wisps of gray hair left, and his soft voice barely reached me across this small room.
“Hello,” he said. “I’m Mr. Memory. Please sit.”
James Hollins had been born with synesthesia, that strange condition in which the senses cross and interconnect. Some synesthetes can taste words; others see music or feel smells. It is rare to have one connection, extraordinary to have two. James Hollins had multiple connections.
Because of this, scientists had come to believe that his mind had no limits. This wasn’t the same as your mother saying, “You can do anything you put your mind to.” When we’re told that, you and I are being encouraged to push ourselves and strive to be better. But James Hollins was different; he remembered everything about everything. Mr. Memory could astound you with the acuity of his observations and his eidetic recall of the smallest detail.
For the ninety-eight-year-old, it was a daily struggle to find tranquility. He had had enough stimulation in his long and varied life.
Part of my research had involved poring over hours of videotapes and thousands of printed articles. I’d learned that when he’d been asked by a humorist who hosted a live afternoon interview show in the 70s, “What’s your first memory?” he’d caused an uproar with network censors by describing in grisly detail the early stages of potty training.
When asked in the late 80s, “What question do you get asked most often?” Mr. Memory froze like a statue for an inordinate amount of time, searching his mind for the answer and forcing the director to cut to a commercial. By the time the show resumed, he’d been moved to a side couch. Nearly twenty minutes later, he burst out, interrupting another guest, and answered the question—“How are you?” This had led to the establishment of the first of the three rules.
Eliminating what had been asked previously was no small hurdle. Original and interesting questions were the real challenge, something that had taken me over a year before applying for this interview. In Mr. Memory’s case, a good question resulted in stories the way that throwing a stone into a pond resulted in ripples, a spreading web of associations and connections.
He stirred, and I heard the soft sound of silk rubbing against his leather recliner. He removed his eye mask and earplugs and turned to look at me.
“Young man,” he said, “I hope your questions are of some interest to me.”
I was anxious as I asked my first question. “Mr. Memory,” I said, “have you ever spent this dollar bill?” I handed him the dollar, encased in a flat plastic baggie.
His eyes opened in curiosity as he leaned forward. He took the bill from the baggie and examined the serial number. Then, he lay back for a moment and pulled the mask over his eyes.
There was a very long silence, and I reminded myself of the rules: originality and patience.
“You may be too young to appreciate this,” he started slowly, “but there was a time as a young man when I found myself stepping from a train. On the platform stood a beautiful woman in a mint-green dress. We looked at each other, and we shared a brief moment of connection where a look is a conversation of possibilities. But I was getting off the train at the terminal going to the city, and she was getting on. Dumbfounded by her beauty and sway, I was unable to take action.
“Not a day passed when my mind didn’t drift back to that mint-green dress with white flowers, her smile enlivened by crimson, her brown hair tucked beneath a fashionable hat. I might still replay that moment today if it hadn’t been replaced by a better moment. Eighteen months, ten days, and fourteen hours later, I stepped off that train again and found myself facing that same woman, this time in blue. Before she could board, I took her hand and said, ‘There will be another train. Let’s not take the chance that there might not be another moment like this.’”
A large smile grew on his face each time he mentioned her, and it seemed clear that these memories were more vivid and wonderful than others that were still clear and true.
Her name was Helen. She had a golden hue like the sun that vibrated around her. Her voice floated out like a wave of rainbows when she spoke.
Helen was heading north out of the station on her way to see her parents. Suddenly, his business in the city that day seemed to have been canceled when she asked if he’d like to join her for a day in the country.
His detail concerning the two-hour train ride was exhaustive. It included the smell of the car, the number of people, what had been offered in the refreshment car, and the conversation the two of them had had, line for line.
“I have always found it interesting,” he reflected at one point, “how everyday conversation—talk of the weather, say, or current events, or personal interests—can nevertheless convey the increasing tension and excitement as romance builds. Words that might be said to a friend or a business acquaintance can nevertheless be fraught with increasing passion.”
When they arrived at the station, Helen introduced him to her parents, who took them back to their home. From her initial description, he’d imagined something small, older, secluded. He found himself on a sprawling historic estate. In hindsight, this should have been no surprise, he explained, because during the introduction to her parents, he had asked jokingly, “Like the appliance?” To which her father had responded simply, “Yes.”
He stayed the day with Helen. They took bicycles down to the lake for an afternoon in the sun on her father’s boat. She shared her ideas on books and the arts. Helen enjoyed the independence her father allowed her, living in a city apartment. Compared to some of her friends who were still forced to follow the direction and will of their fathers’ social ambitions, Helen was free to follow her own inclinations.
“You’re not like the other boys I know,” she said to him. “You’re actually listening to me.” She quizzed James Hollins on what they’d talked about on the train. She asked things like “What was the last book I read?” or “Which is my favorite color in evening dress?” or “What was I wearing at the station when we met this morning?” When he answered all of these correctly, she mistook his keen memory for something else and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. This slowly evolved into a series of long kisses.
At dinner with her family, James Hollins passed another series of tests, these from Helen’s father. He asked questions like “What do you think about this matter in South America?” and “How will this administration get out of this mess in Tennessee?” and “What was the baseball score on Sunday?” Rather than providing his own insights and opinions on matters of business, James Hollins quoted parts of newspaper articles he’d read that week.
Mr. Memory paused. He smiled as he remembered himself as a young man. “It was a clear dark night. After dinner in the garden, we could see down to the lake and across to the lights of other homes. Now that I was out of the city, I was amazed by the number of stars we could see. The reflections of stars and lights from the water made the night shimmer. As we sat on a bench looking over this beauty, I took her hand to hold. Our words in the dark were a soft and gentle hush. She would point to constellations and tell me their names. In turn, I told the Greek and Roman stories about Hercules, Cygnus, Neptune, and Saturn.
“Then, my attention turned to the garden in disbelief. It seemed that the stars and lights were beginning to slowly make their way closer, up toward us. When I pointed this out to her, she laughed and took me by the hand to walk through the garden. As we descended the first five tiers of steps, these lights began to flicker more, moving closer and closer.
“At the next level of the garden, it all became clear when she introduced me to Mr. Brown, the estate’s gardener. Each night, Mr. Brown took several turtles out of a pen by his supply shed. He warmed the bottom of a candle and gently adhered the soft wax to the hard top of the turtles’ shells. Once he’d set the turtles in position, Mr. Brown lit the candles and let the turtles roam free.
“We left Mr. Brown to his late-night operations and walked down to the lake, where the universe seemed even more brilliant. I kissed Helen passionately, and she responded. In the morning, she asked me to stay for the weekend, but this unexpected expedition had put my real life on hold. I had to return to the city, back to a life where the stars did not shine as brightly and move at a turtle’s pace. We exchanged phone numbers, and I promised to call her on her return to the city.
“On the train back, I bought a newspaper and cup of coffee. The change from my five-dollar bill included four one-dollar bills, one of which was this very dollar. So, to answer your question, yes. The next Monday, I spent this dollar to purchase flowers for Helen when she came back to the city.”
Mr. Memory removed his blindfold and propped himself up in his recliner. He looked at me with that same large smile that had come across his face with the thought of Helen and said, “That was a good question. What’s your next one?”