Refresh My Memory

Benson Randall awoke one morning with someone else's memories.
 
At first everything was normal: he sat up in bed and stretched, then got up and stumbled empty-headed across his one-room apartment to the coffeemaker. It was a few minutes later—after he had splashed his face, thrown on jeans and a t-shirt, and sat at the tiny table near the only window, with a steaming mug of dark roast and a notebook—that something began to seem wrong with his thoughts. Raindrops on the pane and shreds of mist obscured his view of a jumble of roofs and a distant steeple that he had not yet identified, uptown in the west Nineties.  Perfect day for some scribbling, he thought.
 
His pen was poised above the page when a childhood memory floated unbidden to the surface of his mind: he was sitting in a classroom in Ashley Elementary, Vernal, Utah. Twenty other kids sat in rows around him, all facing the front of the room. He could feel the desk’s smooth wood surface under his fingertips and the steel rod of its frame under his heel. The sun was shining on a cottonwood tree out the window, and a fly buzzed against the glass. He had walked to school that morning, just like every morning, because he lived with his family just a quarter-mile away, down a country road. A beautiful weeping willow stood in his front yard, and horses were in the neighbor’s field next door, behind a pole fence. Right now, his dad was at work at the phosphate plant, his mom at home with his blond baby brother, and his two sisters were in other classrooms just down the hall from his. He wore a button-up plaid shirt and jeans with high-top sneakers, but some of the boys wore scuffed and muddy cowboy boots, and the girls were all in dresses despite their tangled hair and scraped elbows. Most of the kids in his class, sons and daughters of farmers and ranch hands and truck salesmen and oil drillers, he saw every Sunday at church as well as in school. They all knew the rote phrases of the prayers they opened Sunday School with: “Our Father in heaven… in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.” They had been singing the same hymns every week of their lives. And now this fifth-grade teacher, this young college-educated Navajo woman, was trying to get them to sing a weird song written by some guy from New York City: “How many times must the cannonballs fly, before they are forever banned? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” Benson sang along and he was curious, but a few of the kids refused. They hung their heads, sullen, or clenched a grimy fist. He knew without asking that they were afraid that Heavenly Father or Jesus or the Holy Ghost or their parents might not approve.
 
All this was in the memory that arose within a single breath to his consciousness as he sat at his little window looking out on the dripping city. It seemed so real, but how could it be?
 
Benson was a New York City man. He felt entirely at home here in the chaos and concrete, one mind in a constantly milling multitude of minds. He loved the streets, the never-ending flow of strangers, the pulsing energy of creation that was the product of millions of humans striving together for higher insight... or for survival, which is sometimes the same thing.
 
He had lived in this studio apartment on the Upper West Side for two years, and before that were other small spaces in other neighborhoods, every one with a bed in which he slept alone except for those occasional times when a woman was there too, sometimes for more than one night, usually not. He had worked with the same paralegal temp agency for years, the only relationship that seemed to last. His law firm clients changed nearly as often as his romances, but it seemed there was an endless supply. And his novel kept growing, his third now. The first two slept in the innards of his laptop, while their paper selves hid in stationery boxes that also contained their numerous rejection letters, stacked on the shelf at the top of his closet.
 
In his wallet was a New York State driver’s license. His passport showed a New York City address. Without a doubt, Benson Randall was a New Yorker.
 
So why was he having these memories?
 
The day was Saturday, laundry day. The summer sky was clearing as he walked down Amsterdam in flip-flops, a stuffed bag over his shoulder. On the street and in the laundromat, images filled his mind’s eye: short-sleeved white shirts with clip-on ties that he wore to church every Sunday until he began in high school to care more about how he looked. He became skilled at tying a Windsor knot with the perfect belt-buckle length, even without a mirror. It was a valuable skill later, when he wore a tie six days every week, riding his bike around the streets of Newark, New Jersey. For two years he had never been without an identically dressed companion, two young men from Utah wearing name tags, attempting to teach the gospel of Jesus to everyone they met. Saturday had been laundry day then, too.
 
But it did not feel true. Quite the opposite, in fact.
 
Late in the day, as golden rays slanted down the canyons from across the Hudson, he ducked into a Korean grocery and filled a container with a healthy mix of colors from the salad bar, then continued on his way to the park. Sitting on the Great Lawn, waiting for the opera to begin, he watched the people around him. There was a young couple sharing a bottle of wine. The fingers holding the stems of their glasses showed wedding rings, but to Benson they looked much too young to be married.
 
He was suddenly surprised and embarrassed as tears sprang to his eyes, carried on a wave of alien memory. He brushed them away, looked at the ground, busied himself with his salad.
 
There had been a girl. A wedding. A baby.
 
A mere month after he returned home from his mission, he met her in an English Lit class, and a year later they stood together at an altar, both dressed all in white, inside an old stone temple in a town with the strange name of Manti. Her hair lay in perfect honey-hued curls on her shoulders. At the reception, her family outnumbered his by far, and seemed to contain no spiritual embarrassments like his dad had become, since divorce and excommunication.
 
The ensuing months of student poverty caused tension, and then in another year, they were a family of three. The pregnancy and birth were difficult, emotions were high, but their newborn daughter was perfect, a ray of light cutting through darkness. It lasted three months.
 
A crib death. A young wife gone home to her mother, to cry day and night in her childhood bedroom. A young husband who had to run away.
 
Benson sat on the lawn in Central Park and stared forward at the stage as blue dusk fell and the music of Mozart poured over him, unheard. He was pushing away the sensation of being invaded. Who was this stranger, this Mormon boy from a small town in Utah, suddenly occupying his inner world? That was not his life. It couldn’t be; it was too foreign, it didn’t fit.
 
There was a problem with his mind. He searched for a way around the memory, beyond it, looking for a past that felt true. The visions were a fiction, a movie, and behind the screen he would find the real world. But everywhere he looked, there was a blank. Nothing. Where was his actual childhood? Where was his young adulthood? Had he grown up in Brooklyn like his painter friend Nick, son of Communist intellectuals? Or in a corporate suburb on Long Island like his latest lover, Rita? Did he go to a high school in Queens? A SUNY school for college? What came before Now? Before the years of his current self, this independent man nearing forty, this lone, unshaven writer in Manhattan?
 
The music lilted and soared: Papageno’s comic birdsong, Tamino’s magic flute... an awakening to truth: the Queen of the Night has lied, Sarastro is good. The trials are won, the lovers unite.
 
Benson thought: what the hell was a “self”anyway? Was it nothing more than a catalog of memories? Something deep in him said no. He was something else; he was not this weird and maudlin story. Something insidious had been done to him, a psychic slippage, a rewiring. He had read magazine articles about quantum physics and the multiple universe theory. Maybe he was somehow crossing into a parallel world, a separate timestream. He had read in a book of Indian cosmology about the Akasha, a field of energy where all thoughts and actions of all humans living and dead are recorded as if in a giant computer database. Maybe he had accidentally tapped into an Internet of Memories. He was downloading someone else’s thoughts. His “real” past had been overwritten like digital files on a disc. There was no backup copy. What did this mean about who he was?
 
Later, as he walked home through the warm air of a perfect summer night, he looked at the people streaming past him, all the shapes, sizes, colors, the infinite variety of faces. This is happening to every one of us, he thought. We wake up in the morning, every morning, and we simply believe what our memories tell us to believe. But memories may be no more than a broadcast of some fictional story. How would we know? What choice do we have? There’s no alternate story presented, no other channels that we might switch to. We think: this is who I am. We never question it.
 
He breathed deep the sweet fragrance of geraniums outside a bodega on his way up Amsterdam. He was just crossing 88th when his phone rang.
 
“Hey, Bennie, it’s Julio. Long time, man!”
 
Benson did not recognize the voice. “Julio?”
 
“Yeah, you won’t believe it, I’m back on City Island, standing right here on our old block. I just saw your mom, and I thought what the hell man, it’s time to get in touch.”
 
Benson stopped walking. “My mom?”
 
“Yeah. She said, tell that boy to call me! Moms, y’know--haha!”
 
Benson did not know anyone named Julio, and he was positive he’d never been to City Island. “I’m sorry, you must have me mixed up with someone else.”
 
“Aah, don’t bullshit me, man. I know it’s you.” The voice sounded hurt.
 
Benson stood in the dim ambient light of the avenue, staring at his murky reflection in the darkened window of Pretty Angel Nail Spa. Traffic hummed, headlights flickered, people passed. In the glass, he could make out the general shape of his body, but none of the features. A generic human form, available to be stamped with an identity.
 
“I’m sorry, Julio.” Benson started walking again. Mental images, sounds, smells, feelings, fragments of a life far away in rural Utah, rose up as if in battle array. He plunged on. “Really, I apologize. This may sound completely crazy, but I don’t remember you. Zip. Nada. But please… refresh my memory.”

 

 

© Brent Robison 2016

Benson Randall awoke one morning with someone else's memories.
 
At first everything was normal: he sat up in bed and stretched, then got up and stumbled empty-headed across his one-room apartment to the coffeemaker. It was a few minutes later—after he had splashed his face, thrown on jeans and a t-shirt, and sat at the tiny table near the only window, with a steaming mug of dark roast and a notebook—that something began to seem wrong with his thoughts. Raindrops on the pane and shreds of mist obscured his view of a jumble of roofs and a distant steeple that he had not yet identified, uptown in the west Nineties.  Perfect day for some scribbling, he thought.
 
His pen was poised above the page when a childhood memory floated unbidden to the surface of his mind: he was sitting in a classroom in Ashley Elementary, Vernal, Utah. Twenty other kids sat in rows around him, all facing the front of the room. He could feel the desk’s smooth wood surface under his fingertips and the steel rod of its frame under his heel. The sun was shining on a cottonwood tree out the window, and a fly buzzed against the glass. He had walked to school that morning, just like every morning, because he lived with his family just a quarter-mile away, down a country road. A beautiful weeping willow stood in his front yard, and horses were in the neighbor’s field next door, behind a pole fence. Right now, his dad was at work at the phosphate plant, his mom at home with his blond baby brother, and his two sisters were in other classrooms just down the hall from his. He wore a button-up plaid shirt and jeans with high-top sneakers, but some of the boys wore scuffed and muddy cowboy boots, and the girls were all in dresses despite their tangled hair and scraped elbows. Most of the kids in his class, sons and daughters of farmers and ranch hands and truck salesmen and oil drillers, he saw every Sunday at church as well as in school. They all knew the rote phrases of the prayers they opened Sunday School with: “Our Father in heaven… in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.” They had been singing the same hymns every week of their lives. And now this fifth-grade teacher, this young college-educated Navajo woman, was trying to get them to sing a weird song written by some guy from New York City: “How many times must the cannonballs fly, before they are forever banned? The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” Benson sang along and he was curious, but a few of the kids refused. They hung their heads, sullen, or clenched a grimy fist. He knew without asking that they were afraid that Heavenly Father or Jesus or the Holy Ghost or their parents might not approve.
 
All this was in the memory that arose within a single breath to his consciousness as he sat at his little window looking out on the dripping city. It seemed so real, but how could it be?
 
Benson was a New York City man. He felt entirely at home here in the chaos and concrete, one mind in a constantly milling multitude of minds. He loved the streets, the never-ending flow of strangers, the pulsing energy of creation that was the product of millions of humans striving together for higher insight... or for survival, which is sometimes the same thing.
 
He had lived in this studio apartment on the Upper West Side for two years, and before that were other small spaces in other neighborhoods, every one with a bed in which he slept alone except for those occasional times when a woman was there too, sometimes for more than one night, usually not. He had worked with the same paralegal temp agency for years, the only relationship that seemed to last. His law firm clients changed nearly as often as his romances, but it seemed there was an endless supply. And his novel kept growing, his third now. The first two slept in the innards of his laptop, while their paper selves hid in stationery boxes that also contained their numerous rejection letters, stacked on the shelf at the top of his closet.
 
In his wallet was a New York State driver’s license. His passport showed a New York City address. Without a doubt, Benson Randall was a New Yorker.
 
So why was he having these memories?
 
The day was Saturday, laundry day. The summer sky was clearing as he walked down Amsterdam in flip-flops, a stuffed bag over his shoulder. On the street and in the laundromat, images filled his mind’s eye: short-sleeved white shirts with clip-on ties that he wore to church every Sunday until he began in high school to care more about how he looked. He became skilled at tying a Windsor knot with the perfect belt-buckle length, even without a mirror. It was a valuable skill later, when he wore a tie six days every week, riding his bike around the streets of Newark, New Jersey. For two years he had never been without an identically dressed companion, two young men from Utah wearing name tags, attempting to teach the gospel of Jesus to everyone they met. Saturday had been laundry day then, too.
 
But it did not feel true. Quite the opposite, in fact.
 
Late in the day, as golden rays slanted down the canyons from across the Hudson, he ducked into a Korean grocery and filled a container with a healthy mix of colors from the salad bar, then continued on his way to the park. Sitting on the Great Lawn, waiting for the opera to begin, he watched the people around him. There was a young couple sharing a bottle of wine. The fingers holding the stems of their glasses showed wedding rings, but to Benson they looked much too young to be married.
 
He was suddenly surprised and embarrassed as tears sprang to his eyes, carried on a wave of alien memory. He brushed them away, looked at the ground, busied himself with his salad.
 
There had been a girl. A wedding. A baby.
 
A mere month after he returned home from his mission, he met her in an English Lit class, and a year later they stood together at an altar, both dressed all in white, inside an old stone temple in a town with the strange name of Manti. Her hair lay in perfect honey-hued curls on her shoulders. At the reception, her family outnumbered his by far, and seemed to contain no spiritual embarrassments like his dad had become, since divorce and excommunication.
 
The ensuing months of student poverty caused tension, and then in another year, they were a family of three. The pregnancy and birth were difficult, emotions were high, but their newborn daughter was perfect, a ray of light cutting through darkness. It lasted three months.
 
A crib death. A young wife gone home to her mother, to cry day and night in her childhood bedroom. A young husband who had to run away.
 
Benson sat on the lawn in Central Park and stared forward at the stage as blue dusk fell and the music of Mozart poured over him, unheard. He was pushing away the sensation of being invaded. Who was this stranger, this Mormon boy from a small town in Utah, suddenly occupying his inner world? That was not his life. It couldn’t be; it was too foreign, it didn’t fit.
 
There was a problem with his mind. He searched for a way around the memory, beyond it, looking for a past that felt true. The visions were a fiction, a movie, and behind the screen he would find the real world. But everywhere he looked, there was a blank. Nothing. Where was his actual childhood? Where was his young adulthood? Had he grown up in Brooklyn like his painter friend Nick, son of Communist intellectuals? Or in a corporate suburb on Long Island like his latest lover, Rita? Did he go to a high school in Queens? A SUNY school for college? What came before Now? Before the years of his current self, this independent man nearing forty, this lone, unshaven writer in Manhattan?
 
The music lilted and soared: Papageno’s comic birdsong, Tamino’s magic flute... an awakening to truth: the Queen of the Night has lied, Sarastro is good. The trials are won, the lovers unite.
 
Benson thought: what the hell was a “self”anyway? Was it nothing more than a catalog of memories? Something deep in him said no. He was something else; he was not this weird and maudlin story. Something insidious had been done to him, a psychic slippage, a rewiring. He had read magazine articles about quantum physics and the multiple universe theory. Maybe he was somehow crossing into a parallel world, a separate timestream. He had read in a book of Indian cosmology about the Akasha, a field of energy where all thoughts and actions of all humans living and dead are recorded as if in a giant computer database. Maybe he had accidentally tapped into an Internet of Memories. He was downloading someone else’s thoughts. His “real” past had been overwritten like digital files on a disc. There was no backup copy. What did this mean about who he was?
 
Later, as he walked home through the warm air of a perfect summer night, he looked at the people streaming past him, all the shapes, sizes, colors, the infinite variety of faces. This is happening to every one of us, he thought. We wake up in the morning, every morning, and we simply believe what our memories tell us to believe. But memories may be no more than a broadcast of some fictional story. How would we know? What choice do we have? There’s no alternate story presented, no other channels that we might switch to. We think: this is who I am. We never question it.
 
He breathed deep the sweet fragrance of geraniums outside a bodega on his way up Amsterdam. He was just crossing 88th when his phone rang.
 
“Hey, Bennie, it’s Julio. Long time, man!”
 
Benson did not recognize the voice. “Julio?”
 
“Yeah, you won’t believe it, I’m back on City Island, standing right here on our old block. I just saw your mom, and I thought what the hell man, it’s time to get in touch.”
 
Benson stopped walking. “My mom?”
 
“Yeah. She said, tell that boy to call me! Moms, y’know--haha!”
 
Benson did not know anyone named Julio, and he was positive he’d never been to City Island. “I’m sorry, you must have me mixed up with someone else.”
 
“Aah, don’t bullshit me, man. I know it’s you.” The voice sounded hurt.
 
Benson stood in the dim ambient light of the avenue, staring at his murky reflection in the darkened window of Pretty Angel Nail Spa. Traffic hummed, headlights flickered, people passed. In the glass, he could make out the general shape of his body, but none of the features. A generic human form, available to be stamped with an identity.
 
“I’m sorry, Julio.” Benson started walking again. Mental images, sounds, smells, feelings, fragments of a life far away in rural Utah, rose up as if in battle array. He plunged on. “Really, I apologize. This may sound completely crazy, but I don’t remember you. Zip. Nada. But please… refresh my memory.”

 

 

 
 

© Brent Robison 2016

POST RECITAL

Talk Icon

TALK

TN: Hello everyone. I’m here in a sort of dark neighbourhood bar with Brent Robison, author of today’s story. So Brent, tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up?
 
BR: Grow up? You seem to be asking about the past.
 
TN: Well yes… our listeners might be interested.
 
BR: Hmm. Why? I have no past.
 
TN: What, you mean you don't remember?
 
BR: I suppose that would be one way of putting it.
 
TN: Hmm… are you an amnesia victim?
 
BR: Amnesia is a deficit in  memory typically caused by brain damage, disease, or psychological trauma. I haven’t experienced any of those.
 
TN: Oh good, I’m relieved. So it’s not amnesia, but… you just don’t remember your past?
 
BR: Hmm… what does “remember” even mean?
 
TN: Well, you know, to recall something from your memory.
 
BR: More importantly, what does “past” even mean?
 
TN: Ok, Ok, I’ll play along… I’ll say that “past” means whatever came before now.
 
BR: But how can that be? What else exists except -  Now?
 
TN: I thought I was meant to be asking the questions. Isn't that what we arranged?
 
BR: What about you? Can you prove you have a past?
 
TN: Oh give me a break. My presence right now proves I existed in the past.
 
BR: Actually, you’re wrong. It proves nothing of the sort.
 
TN: Wait a minute. If you have no past, then who wrote the story in our podcast?
 
BR: I have no idea.
 
TN: Hmm. I hope you didn't steal it from somebody.
 
BR: Irrelevant. I mean we're talking about a shared idea that we seem to have heard a voice that sounded like my voice, saying words and sentences that give the illusion of having been written. But how do we know any of it actually happened?
 
TN: Hmm. Can we get back to reality now?
 
BR: Reality? Science can’t prove that anything actually exists in an objective reality separate from the mind experiencing it. Even the passage of time. Sure, we perceive things, but what's perception? Nothing but chemicals and electricity in the brain. A brain in a vat, perhaps.
 
TN: And I suppose it’s your brain, right? That’s called solipsism
 
BR: Hey, yours or mine, it’s all the same. What if there’s just one brain, or rather, one consciousness? Each of us is just a little appendage of the big one, adding more unique experiences to the database, right?
 
TN: All right then. Maybe we should just wrap this up, huh?
 
BR: So right now, in this moment, I'm having an experience. This experience includes talking to you, as well as thoughts spontaneously arising in my mind, including imagery of various kinds, which you might call memories. It’s all happening Now. No other time, just Now.
 
TN: Come on Brent. Let's go. I'll drive you home. This probably wasn't such a good idea.
 
BR: There’s only one thing I can know for sure: I exist. I am.
 
TN: What did you think you were doing there? God, I mean it could have been easy. It was short. You messed that up.

TN: Hello everyone. I’m here in a sort of dark neighbourhood bar with Brent Robison, author of today’s story. So Brent, tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up?
 
BR: Grow up? You seem to be asking about the past.
 
TN: Well yes… our listeners might be interested.
 
BR: Hmm. Why? I have no past.
 
TN: What, you mean you don't remember?
 
BR: I suppose that would be one way of putting it.
 
TN: Hmm… are you an amnesia victim?
 
BR: Amnesia is a deficit in  memory typically caused by brain damage, disease, or psychological trauma. I haven’t experienced any of those.
 
TN: Oh good, I’m relieved. So it’s not amnesia, but… you just don’t remember your past?
 
BR: Hmm… what does “remember” even mean?
 
TN: Well, you know, to recall something from your memory.
 
BR: More importantly, what does “past” even mean?
 
TN: Ok, Ok, I’ll play along… I’ll say that “past” means whatever came before now.
 
BR: But how can that be? What else exists except -  Now?
 
TN: I thought I was meant to be asking the questions. Isn't that what we arranged?
 
BR: What about you? Can you prove you have a past?
 
TN: Oh give me a break. My presence right now proves I existed in the past.
 
BR: Actually, you’re wrong. It proves nothing of the sort.
 
TN: Wait a minute. If you have no past, then who wrote the story in our podcast?
 
BR: I have no idea.
 
TN: Hmm. I hope you didn't steal it from somebody.
 
BR: Irrelevant. I mean we're talking about a shared idea that we seem to have heard a voice that sounded like my voice, saying words and sentences that give the illusion of having been written. But how do we know any of it actually happened?
 
TN: Hmm. Can we get back to reality now?
 
BR: Reality? Science can’t prove that anything actually exists in an objective reality separate from the mind experiencing it. Even the passage of time. Sure, we perceive things, but what's perception? Nothing but chemicals and electricity in the brain. A brain in a vat, perhaps.
 
TN: And I suppose it’s your brain, right? That’s called solipsism
 
BR: Hey, yours or mine, it’s all the same. What if there’s just one brain, or rather, one consciousness? Each of us is just a little appendage of the big one, adding more unique experiences to the database, right?
 
TN: All right then. Maybe we should just wrap this up, huh?
 
BR: So right now, in this moment, I'm having an experience. This experience includes talking to you, as well as thoughts spontaneously arising in my mind, including imagery of various kinds, which you might call memories. It’s all happening Now. No other time, just Now.
 
TN: Come on Brent. Let's go. I'll drive you home. This probably wasn't such a good idea.
 
BR: There’s only one thing I can know for sure: I exist. I am.
 
TN: What did you think you were doing there? God, I mean it could have been easy. It was short. You messed that up.

The music featured on this episode is by Mozart, from The Magic Flute and by xj5000, from Businessman Horse, from their album Roundthing.

The music featured on this episode is by Mozart, from The Magic Flute and by xj5000, from Businessman Horse, from their album Roundthing.

THE STRANGE RECITAL

episode 16082

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"The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things"