They sent a Mercedes to the shelter. I tried to enjoy the leather seats and chilled water bottles. When we got to the clinic, the driver politely declined my crumpled $5 tip.
I’d answered the Craigslist ad because it’d be enough to pay back the people who’d put me up, fed me, funded my stints at the methadone clinic, and supplied me with narcotics. Not all the same people, of course. There was an interview in an empty office in a strip mall, and then this. In the clinic’s reception, the fashion model behind the marble desk didn’t smile when she handed me a clipboard full of waivers and legalese. No one talks to people with scars.
A few minutes later, a lady in a white lab coat glided in, all warm handshakes and Southern hospitality. She ushered me into a hallway where the decor shifted abruptly from Architectural Digest to Cleanroom.
“Was the transportation we sent to your satisfaction?”
She had the kind of smile that wrinkled up her whole face, like a favorite aunt. I realized, suddenly, that I had no business taking these peoples’ money.
“Look,” I said, as she cocked her head. “I don’t really have any good memories to sell. They burned out in the DMZ. There’s nothing left.”
“Nonsense.” She squeezed my arm. “You have a lot to give, and you’re going to help someone very much.”
We went into a room that was all dark leather and brass fittings. I thought that was weird, and then I noticed an IV dripper and diagnostic machines on rollers. There was a guy in a silk robe lying on a recliner. His skin was wrapped tight as plastic wrap over the bones of his face. Only his eyes moved as I lay in the chair’s twin beside him, and the lady fixed my head with two metal clamps and strapped down my arms and legs. She patted my hand and gave me a grandmotherly smile.
“The restraints are simply for your own safety. Let me remind you that you’ll be reliving these memories as they are transferred. If at any time, you need to stop, just say ‘Stop.’ Please say ‘I understand.’”
I nodded. No, she wanted me to say it. “I understand.”
With a final crinkle-eyed smile, she left for the control room. I wondered if I should feel afraid. I remembered everything, but it was all gray and flat as if it had happened to someone else. I wondered just how pathetic this guy must be, if he wanted a piece of that. His hands were shaking, and his eyes were fixed on me.
“How much are you getting for this?” he said.
I told him.
“You sold yourself cheap.”
We lay there in silence for a few minutes, and then I felt a tickling in my skull, and that set off the smell of a newly-oiled assault rifle, the taste of winter kimchee, the feel of frostbite coming on. The man twitched and jerked a little. I daydreamed then, of Marisa my ex-wife, and how she’d been standing on the tarmac at Hickam AFB when my platoon deplaned, and how we’d embraced and how soft she’d been and how my heart had burst with sadness and joy and the feel of home.
The moment colored my grays again as if my skin had been opened with a razor. It was the first thing I’d felt at all in years. Then it all drained out. When I thought about those times, they were empty again.
The man sniffled, and I saw tears. “Marisa…” he whispered.
I felt down for a moment, but it passed. Was the procedure over? I hoped not.
The tickling happened again. Then: Biting cold air, the crunch of ice underfoot, the jagged mountains above, green forest below. The cold steel of my M4 in my hands. A burst of machine gun fire rips through the dawn. A battlecry, savage and wild, fills my ears—my own. Movement up ahead, panicky. I shoot and the Baelgie falls. Around me, my squad rises and charges ahead, yelling. The air is filled with small arms fire. Men fall, Baelgies fall. My heart’s too big and full of joy to be contained in my ribcage.
“It feels so great,” the man exulted. For once, someone else understood. It’s not all bad when you’re out there, that part comes later. But I had a hunch they weren’t going to transfer the bad memories. Only the good ones.
I fidgeted, looking forward to the next one. It was like the greatest hits compilation of my life. My first love, my first paycheck, the day I finally benched 300, the day my niece got into Harvard… they started coming faster and faster as unseen technicians hunted down these spikes of positive emotion.
By the end, I was exhausted. I wanted to talk to the guy. We probably had so much in common–now. He was lying back with his eyes closed.
I had lots of questions to ask the nice lady. But they sent an orderly who reminded me of myself after Basic. He helped me out of the seat, deflected my questions, and brought me out to a car behind the clinic. It was not a Mercedes, and there was no bottled water.
“I want to make another appointment. I’m pretty sure I have lots of good ones left to sell.”
He said he’d pass that on.
The car dropped me off at the shelter. Everything looked the same, felt the same—gray and flat. Something inside was gone, I guess, but I couldn’t feel that. Even now, the little knot of agitation, of desire to talk with the guy, to sell more memories, was fading. At least I could pay my debts.
The most precious things in life cannot be bought, or sold. At least, not yet. MC