The Memories of Others
Stephen opened his eyes to the blank white ceiling. His gaze trailed down to the window with honey-gold curtains, then down to Teri, lying next to him. Stephen reached for a lock of her hair and toyed with it; her dark-brown hair broke through the bright monotony of an-all-too feminine apartment. He looked back at the room, frowning. He hated being too familiar with any one place; the sameness quickly turned into an unchanging bland normality.
Stephen got up, put his clothes on, and walked out of the bedroom and into the living room and kitchen area of the apartment. The striking blandness of the room wore on him as he imagined that a million other homes looked exactly the same. He walked into the kitchen, opened the fridge and grabbed the last two eggs. He opened up the bottom drawer, and was a bit disappointed to find a frying pan on his first try. He put the pan on the stove, and as he did he noticed a Russian doll on the counter. He walked over and picked it up. It was hand-carved, and hand-painted, depicting a smiling woman with dark gray hair and a light orange dress. Stephen opened up the first doll and pulled out the second, then the third, then the last. The smallest doll had dark black hair and a rosy red dress, and Stephen knew that this tiny doll was everything the mother doll should have been, but what she had lost with age. Stephen admired the doll and placed it in his pocket.
Stephen heard a gasp from right behind him. He spun around and saw Teri standing in the doorway. Stephen’s brain froze; he knew no excuse would suffice. “I was just fuming in the other room,” she jerked her thumb back toward the room; a completely useless gesture for anyone who didn’t have crippling brain damage, “because I thought you had run off.”
Stephen felt the sweat beading on his face, and tried to force a smile, hoping that the look on his face was shock rather than guilt. “Of course not; I was just making breakfast.” Stephen calmly turned around, cracked the eggs and let them fall onto the pan with a sizzle. Teri glided over to him, her eyes fixating on his face as if studying him. Stephen was sure she didn’t suspect him of stealing by now, but he still didn’t like how she was examining him.
She finally broke the silence, “I had heard people talk about you, and when you weren’t lying next to me, I was pounding the bed because I was sure they were right, and you were the type to screw and leave. Yet here you are, making me bed and breakfast like a true gentleman. Were you going to serve it to me too?”
He poked at the eggs. “Yeah; I thought I could probably get lucky again.”
“Is that a no?”
Stephen parked his white pick-up in the driveway outside his one-story, brown-painted 70s homage he called home, glad to have made it out of his girlfriend’s apartment without a major incident. He did get lucky again, though they never got around to having eggs; the last two had been left to burn.
Stephen walked up to his front door, keys in hand, and undid the first lock, then the second, then the third. He opened the door, walked inside, and immediately replaced the locks. He flipped on the light. The living room was filled with thousands of varied items, each stolen. Most of the items were things he didn’t even have any use for; a thimble, an 1890s spoon, three crystal perfume bottles, coasters, a stolen mug filled with hundreds of pens from motels and offices. The items provided a living diary of everyone he had ever known or visited. It was more than that though. Stephen had been stealing from an early age; nothing big or expensive. He always felt good about instantly claiming ownership of something he hadn’t had seconds before. But he didn’t steal things because he wanted the things themselves. Each item brought back a memory, each piece of junk gave him a feeling of familiarity, a familiarity that he now had surrounded himself with. From the thousands of items cluttering each room to the garage, which was stuffed with so many random board game pieces, cross necklaces, coins and kitchenware that he had to park outside, each item was instantly recognized by how he had obtained it.
The only things in his living room that didn’t contain a memory were the carpet, the plasma-screen TV and the coffee table. Those things which were too large to steal, he tried to get at garage sales, and he would never buy anything without getting some story out if it if he could. The tacky, pink-rose-on-white couch he had bought from an older couple who said that it was their own personal curse; an object they received when moving into their new house and which no one else would buy. The armchair had been owned by a man who claimed to have written hundreds of editorial articles for his local newspaper there, though he never said how many were accepted and published. Only the carpet, the coffee table and the TV remained just objects without meaning, because Stephen could never filch anything that large; he was a memory collector, not a thief.
Stephen reached into his pocket and pulled out the tiny Russian doll. He put it on the mantle next to a plate with the image of Jesus on it he had stolen from a gas station in New Mexico. He hoped that his perfect doll wouldn’t become the old lady like its mother anytime soon.
Stephen made sure to keep only one of his locks bolted, and had moved nearly all of the clutter hurriedly into the garage. He sat on the couch with the TV on, but he was looking outside, waiting for Teri to arrive. Stephen had never had a woman come over to his house since he bought it two years ago. In the meantime he had earned his reputation, playing the field and running out just as things got serious. Stephen didn’t think he felt any different about Teri. She was smarter than most of the women he slept with, but he didn’t care about that. He couldn’t figure out why he had agreed to have her over. Maybe it was because he had seen how angry she was when she thought he had run out, and for the first time he was forced to see the consequences of his actions. It could be that he was getting older, and was just naturally losing his rebellious alpha-male instinct. Or maybe he just wanted to get laid.
A knock at the door pulled him back to reality. He leapt across the room, took the briefest pause to collect himself, undid the one lock and opened the door.
“Hi,” they both said.
“Please,” he said, waving her in.
Teri walked in, her mouth dropping open as she smiled widely. “Oh…my…god, this is…” Teri looked down at the couch and burst out laughing.
Stephen cocked his head and closed the door. “You don’t like?”
Teri ignored him and walked around, examining the much more sparsely decorated room. “No, this place…” she turned back to him. “Is unique.”
Stephen rolled his eyes and smiled coyly, “’Unique’, ‘special,’ all words that are supposed to be good things but mean ‘bad’.”
“No, no, no,” she kept laughing. When she finally stopped she turned back to him and said, “It has character.”
Stephen forced himself to keep smiling. He couldn’t help but think that thought now the room was completely without any character. Aside from the couch, everything in the room was bought in a store and could be found in a million other homes.
“Well, give me the tour!”
It was all Stephen could do to keep smiling. “Ok, well,” he walked past her. “This is the kitchen.”
“It’s pretty cluttered.”
His gaze was drawn to the now-empty spaces and he couldn’t help but feel how empty it was. “Yeah, well maybe I am a master chef,” he said, regaining a bit of his stride, “and I’ve collected all this equipment, none of which you’re familiar with.”
Teri raised an eyebrow, “the last time you cooked-“
“Yeah, yeah, but only because you were distracting me in the best way,” he leaned in and tried to kiss her. She pulled back. “Is this the door to the garage?”
A feeling of dread overcame him. “Yeah-”
She reached for the doorknob.
“Don’t,” he said, trying to sound calm.
She turned around. “Why? Is this where you keep the bodies?” She smiled, opened the door and flicked on the light. “Oh god,” She said as she stepped inside. Clocks, children’s toys, old computer parts, were stuffed into boxes that reached up to the ceiling. “Oh my god…” she said again. She turned to him.
“You’re a hoarder! Like those people on TV!”
“I don’t watch those shows,” he said, hoping his fake smile was contagious. She walked around the boxes, sticking her fingers into one, pushing aside a wooden duck and pulling out a raggedy doll with button eyes and a pink dress.
“How did you ever come across all this junk?”
He winced at the word as he watched her examine his late aunt’s doll. “The owners’ of this house, an old couple, left it to me.”
Teri gave him an unbelieving look. “You’re lying.”
“No shit,” he laughed and walked over to stand next to her. “They were an older couple, didn’t want to move off all their stuff. They said they would knock off five hundred dollars from the price if I kept the stuff.”
Teri raised an eyebrow. “And you did?”
“I thought I could sell all this stuff, make even more money. But then the economy went sour and I was left with all of this…” he shrugged. “Too many garage sales going on all the time; no one is going to buy even a tenth of all this stuff.”
“And you can’t throw this stuff away?” she said in that slow way as if pointing out the obvious to someone dumb enough to need it.
Stephen pulled out a pregnancy work-out video he had got as a gag gift for a friend and then found in the trash later. “How could you ever throw this out?”
They both laughed. She put down the doll. “Should I be forewarned about what else I will find in this house?”
He dropped the home pregnancy video and put his arms on her hips. “Yeah, there’s a monster in my bedroom.”
She smiled, “Is he big?”
She smiled, knowing she had walked into that. Stephen burst out laughing. He led her out of the garage, more glad than anything else that she hadn’t dug a little deeper in that same box and found her doll.
Stephan awoke to the sound of a thud, and a whisper coming from the other room. He bolted upright, fully awake. Teri looked up at him, bleary-eyed. “What is it?”
He threw on his pants and his shirt, and walked into the other room. He flicked on the light just in time to see two high school age kids carrying his TV into the kitchen and through the back door.
They turned to him, freezing on the spot.
“Hey assholes, get the hell out!”
Stephen yelled, hoping that was enough to scare off the dumb punks, and hoping again that they weren’t armed. They looked at each other, then him. One of them actually grinned and laughed. He nodded toward the back door and they kept lugging the TV towards the back.
Stephen ran across the room to the kid closest to him. The two dropped the TV with the unmistakable sound of the glass screen cracking. Stephen threw a punch but the kid was too fast. He ducked under it and threw himself at Stephen. The two stumbled backward until Stephen tripped and fell over on the coffee table. He struggled with the kid on top of him, the two both awkwardly trying to punch and grab each other. The other brute rushed over and started punching him in the face. Stephen frantically tried to block, only to have the second kid punching him in his unprotected stomach. His head felt heavy, and blood flew with every new punch.
A deafening scream sounded from behind him. The beating stopped. Stephan couldn’t see through the blood, but he heard heavy footsteps fading away.
Stephan was sitting on couch at the insistence of two police officers as he held a hand towel up to his still-bleeding forehead. He tried to give as best a description of the two punks as he could, but his head was still fuzzy. The police had asked him to check the rest of the house in case the two hooligans had tried to take anything else. Stephan looked into the kitchen. He pretended to peer into the garage and very quickly closed the door. Quite a few of those items were probably reported missing, and Stephan didn’t want to have to go to prison because someone else stole from him.
The two policemen did a quick tour of the backyard, looking for anything the two might have dropped before leaving. Teri sat next to Stephan, not looking at him.
“I want to go home.” She said.
Stephan didn’t say anything.
“Are you going to be ok?” she said, guilt clear in her voice.
Stephan nodded, feeling a spasm of pain shoot through his neck as he did.
“Do you want to come ba-”
He could hear the hesitation in her voice and said, “No, I’ll be fine…thanks.”
Teri got up and walked towards the door. Stephan was too prideful to just sit on the couch, the victim of two deadbeat kids. He stood up, walked over, opened the door, and saw her to her car. He watched as she drove away feeling for the first time, a sense of guilt; as if for the first time he tried to do the adult thing of maintaining a healthy relationship, but somehow he
couldn’t pull it off.
Stephan trudged back to the house. He looked at the smashed TV and swore. He should have figured that three locks were worthless as long as there were windows and everyone could see your most valuable possessions. Fortunately, the punks had picked the back locks rather than breaking through the windows. Stephan would deal with his security problem and clean up the shattered TV in the morning.
He started to trudge back toward his room, when he looked down. Tiny flecks of barely visible blood leapt out at him from the carpet. As he looked at them, he remembered every punch across his face and began to guess which blow caused which blood-pattern. Minutes passed. Stephan couldn’t be sure which blows were which, and he constructed handfuls of potential beat-downs.
Stephen looked around the room. He mentally placed each missing item back. As he did he felt how empty each one was in comparison, as each was just a stolen item, whose memories belonged to someone else. The coffee table where he had been so vividly beaten he could still feel every blow and the carpet, where even now his blood had dried, both lessened the meaning of the other items. All his other things were his desperate attempt to reach out of his own constant feeling of loneliness and touch the outside world, but now that world had come to him, and it felt like there was a black hole in the center of the room.
He felt an ache in his stomach and he forced himself to look away from the now-fascinating scene. He trudged toward his bedroom, peering over his shoulder one last time to get an alternate view of the scene. As he did he smiled as his carpet and the coffee table were more than objects. He gave one last look at the mantle-piece to the empty spot where he had kept Teri’s Russian doll. His last thought before collapsing into bed was that he wished that a bit of blood had flown across the face of that old woman and perhaps restored some of her color.
As he lay in bed Stephen smelled Teri’s scent on the covers. He thought that this room had suddenly become more meaningful too. He had finally opened himself to someone else. A deep pang of longing came over him. He hoped that she wasn’t too shaken up to visit his house again. He wanted her back, he wanted her in his bed, he wanted to wake up next to her, have breakfast together, watch movies and maybe even invite some friends over.
I’ll have to do something about all of the things I’ve stolen, at least the ones that are too odd to explain away. A storage facility perhaps? But can I really hide something like this from Teri? Would she understand?
Stephen wrestled all night, wondering if he could open up to Teri, and if not, whether he had to give up his strange habit. His last thought before he fell into a dreamless sleep was that if he did tell her she would be the only one.
I won’t have everyone I know saying that every time one of their socks goes missing it must be my fault. I don’t even steal socks that aren’t my size.
Gary Girod has previously been published in Golden Visions Magazine and Silver Blade. He currently teaches English to elementary school children in Southern France. His novella ‘The Last Pet Shop in Belfast’ is available on Amazon Kindle.
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