W. David Hancock
Atwood’s sitting in a booth at an all-night diner. It’s four in the morning and hotter than hell. She’s listening to a baby crying in the parking lot. The teenaged mother is trying to breastfeed in the back seat of a beater without AC. The girl’s got a messed up face and those faraway eyes that come from being told you’re worthless one too many times.
Atwood cups an ear against the window. The window is greasy, but she likes the feel. For decades, humans have been gathering in this booth to experience a primal connection that always seems to escape Atwood’s grasp. They’ve left their oils on the salt shakers and red pleather seats. Moments of joy and loss echo in the slices of stale lemon meringue pie and ketchup stains. Here, the only evidence of a soul’s time on Earth may be a single, short scratch on a floor tile—made when an estranged, junkie son dragged over a chair to share one last Belgian waffle with his dying mom.
The crying baby brings up lost memories of Atwood’s own mother, although “brings up” doesn’t quite capture the heartache. Atwood has flashes of those seedy motel rooms where they crashed whenever they were on the run from Atwood’s old man. How hungry they always were. A pack of Life Savers from the vending machine to share. An old pizza box Atwood rescued from the dumpster. Dark orange grease stains and blobs of burnt mozzarella. In her memory, Atwood picks at the cheese, and it has cardboard stuck to it. But she eats it anyway. And her mother with the boozy glaze, lying in bed—she smiles and says, “roughage.”
Atwood pops her Bluetooth eyeball out of its socket and holds it up to the window. She airdrops a mix of her favorite childhood traumas into the amygdala of the breastfeeding girl in the parking lot. It’s a messy, lazy form of communication, but Atwood’s a memory slacker, and quick-and-dirty is the way she rolls. Atwood’s looking for connection, but the girl is too ashamed of her past to exchange memories with a stranger—and so she ghosts Atwood, but not before Atwood downloads a flashback of the girl being abused by her foster father. Maybe Atwood will pay the asshole a visit. After all these years living on the edge of night, Atwood’s learned how to handle herself. She’ll take on the toughest bastards with her bare fists—or the Glock 20 she keeps in her glove box.
Atwood’s exhausted. She would give anything to succumb to the death syrup sleep that her tormented little brother finally embraced in that alley in the back of the Applebee’s in Duluth. But she can’t travel to that final resting place until she finishes one last filthy job. Atwood’s not proud of what she’s been forced to do to survive, but times are tough, and her reputation is shot, and the once-great memory slacker will chew on whatever table scraps are dropped on the floor.
A memory slacker is not a memory hacker. They are as different as mist from mast. A memory hacker infects and mutates your memory. A memory slacker loosens the glue between recollections. Atwood will rattle a target’s memory palace until his precious mementos fall off the shelves and shatter on the floor. The cause-and-effects that organize the past into a meaningful chronology become undone, allowing memories to be re-assembled into a configuration that better conforms to the client’s narrative of you.
Like most memory slackers, Atwood works freelance. There are no career development modules, no quarterly employee reviews. What Atwood gets is a name and an address written inside a matchbook. Maybe a photograph of her target’s face left in a bus locker. A short paragraph of background research. Enough petty cash to cover bus fare. It’s a broken, thankless life. When Atwood catches her reflection in the window, the reflection stares back with self-loathing.
Sometimes, Atwood escapes her shitty existence by working undercover. She gets to live inside somebody else’s life for a while. Atwood yearns for those rare assignments. Just the dim possibility of being another person for a couple of days keeps her from crashing. A decent coffee maker. A handy spouse who can fix the garbage disposal. Regular Sunday morning sex. Stale gummy bears stuck to the car seat. A dog. Atwood craves the otherness that comes from embracing a secret identity, disappearing into the strange.
Most mornings, Atwood wakes up alone inside her malformed self, inside the misshapen here and now, contemplating her lack of possibility. The taste of regret permeates everything, even her toothpaste. Atwood takes a shower and—like most of us—laments about how things might have been. (Naturally, those who have been slacked no longer feel this loss. The reformatted memory sequence enables the target to re-remember an ergonomically designed past that is less traumatizing than the life they actually lived. This emotional unburdening eventually leads to spiritual liberation through a re-established connection to the hive.)
Atwood’s existential paradox is that she has undone her own memories of herself. She only exists as her own absence. On good days, maybe she recalls pieces of her childhood. She catches a whiff of the seashore, or the combination of her third-grade locker pops into her head while stuck in traffic. That and a vague sense she’s missed the real purpose of her life—and a growing suspicion that it’s too late to re-board the train. Atwood doesn’t realize that I’ve duct-taped a return ticket home to the bottom of the table. If only she would get down on her hands and knees and crawl under there with a flashlight. But that’s the sort of behavior that gets you noticed, and Atwood’s trained herself to blend in. Like most once-great memory slackers, she’d rather feel abandoned yet anonymous than loved but trapped inside an old man’s fairy tale.