The Woes of Sniffy the Candle Company
Despite its notorious name, Sniffy the Candle Company sold scarcely 13 and a ½ aromas of candles (the ½ being a fingernail-scented one, which I doubt is a legitimate smell at all). Instead, Sniffy specialized in furniture, tombstones, brightly-colored taffy, and, of course, memories.
I first spied their job posting while splashing to the office on a grimy Tuesday; the rain from a week ago had not yet drained away, and now a murky layer of water covered our city’s streets, for the city workmen had forgotten to unplug our clogged gutters.
YES, WE’RE HIRING!
Sniffy the Candle Company wants YOU to join our Memory Department!
Don’t have a life? Need more action-packed memories to fill that spacious head of yours?
Call 1-555-SNIFFY for an application NOW!
(Must be 18 years or younger to interview).
I supposed they needed workers 18 years or younger because older folks had experienced more, which meant they owned more memories. I continued walking, internally mocking any poor, dull child who would find such a job posting attractive. Then I halted, remembering that I was 18, and that I had had the poorest, dullest life there ever was. I could not even remember why my office job was important, or what I stapled papers for all day long.
I backtracked, if only, I told myself, to find my left shoe, because while walking in the mud it seemed to have fallen off. Lopsided, I hobbled back to the sign. It was tacked firmly to a telephone pole, its edges flapping in a breeze that also made me shiver.
My cell phone was in my pocket, so I fished it out, telling myself that I was going to call my mother, but really punching in the numbers on the sign.
“Hello? Oh, sorry, I was trying to call my mom. Hello, yes, now that we’re on the phone, I was wondering about the – uh huh. Yes, I am 18. No, ma’am, I am not particularly fun. How would I rate – I would rate my life a 4, ma’am. Professional stapler, ma’am.”
After the verbal grilling was finished, I snapped my phone shut with a nearby address and time stamped cleanly in my memory, the interrogator’s voice like a thumbtack in my brain.
I never finished walking to the office, and, woefully, I never found my poor, lost shoe.
• • •
The interview was not located in one of Sniffy’s many shops crammed downtown, but rather Lala’s Pet Adoption Center, a tiny squatting clinic I had never heard of before. When I walked in, shaking mud from my uneven feet, I flinched at the thunderous boom of a hundred barking and screeching and wailing animals behind glass cages.
Three tall people with clipboards stood at the other end of the aisle, staring at me.
“Here for your interview?” one of them called. I had barely managed a nod when he said, “Right this way, then,” and the three turned down a side hallway. I hurried after them, ignoring the slobbering jaws behind glass.
“In here, in here,” the man said when I had caught up, urging me into a bathroom, which sparkled with recent disinfectant. I assumed that the man was suggesting I use the toilet in case the interview made me want to wet myself, but after I trooped in, the man followed, along with his two female coworkers. It was then that I noticed three interview chairs by the handicapped stall. The interviewers sat.
“Uh – in here?” I asked. One of the sink faucets was dripping with rhythmic plops.
“You may sit on the cleanest bit of floor you can manage,” the man nodded, clipboard ready.
“Oh,” I said, and sat by the dripping sink. I was suddenly very conscious of my bare foot.
“Alright, alright, let’s start with – name?” I said it, and the man scribbled on his clipboard with a satisfied nod. “It seems to me that you are not particularly fond of animals. No loving memory of a childhood pet?”
“Well, those animals out there did look like they wanted to eat me.… But no,” I added, quailing under their stern looks. “No childhood pet that I can think of.”
“Good, good.” The interviewers were scrawling away, and I suddenly noticed their identical shirts with the Sniffy logo on it, a shish kabob of candle, sofa, tombstone, taffy, and, for some odd reason, a pickle jar, which must have represented memory.
One of the women caught me staring and misinterpreted my gaze. “We would rather you not have memories of a childhood pet,” she said, “so that we can fill you with other people’s memories of pets. You see, many would like to rid themselves of happy memories so that they no longer remember why the death of Buster left such a painful hole.”
“Any allergies? Peanuts? Cats? Candles?” the male interviewer said. I wrenched my eyes away from the grin that had twisted itself onto the woman’s face at the mention of Buster.
“None that I can remember.”
“Right, well that seems to be in order.” The interviewer made a last note on his clipboard. “Welcome to Sniffy’s Memory Department! Just sign this contract and we’ll escort you to your new living quarters.”
He shoved a paper under my nose, one covered head to toe in such minuscule writing that it simply looked like a grainy attempt at a black-and-white photo. However, two phrases were underlined, and, upon squinting, I barely made them out:
“Under no circumstance are you to accept memories concerning criminal behavior in case of police investigation” and “Upon resignation or retirement, we will extract all alien memories so that you leave 100% yourself again.”
“Thank you, thank you,” the man said, pulling the contract away from me. Bewildered, I realized I had already signed. “Now, any questions?”
I had a million questions, the first concerning how short the interview had been. But when I opened my mouth, I heard myself asking, “Do you have a spare shoe? I seem to have lost one of mine.” The cacophony of a hundred lost animals shrieked beyond the bathroom door.
“Alas,” said the interviewer, “the one thing Sniffy does not sell is shoes.”
• • •
I was stationed in Sniffy’s store Number 370, (“WELCOME TO SNIFFY’S MEMORY SHOP ON MAIN LANE!”), a narrow building sandwiched between an ice cream parlor and a Lost N Found. My co-worker was a boy named Ferguson, who had been working for Sniffy for years and found the daily customer surge quite boring.
“Ah, and here comes a little old lady with a crocodile handbag,” he would say, looking out the window. “I bet she’s here to dump off memories of her late husband.”
Ferguson was usually frighteningly right. The bell tinkled, and a hunched-over grandma came shuffling up to the counter, gumdrop-sized tears already slipping down her nose.
“I-I’ve n-never done this b-before,” she said. “B-but I can’t handle remembering h-his laugh. It h-haunts me!”
“Don’t worry, ma’am,” I said, already bringing out the needed device, a humming cord that had a pair of metal pincers on each end. “Just clamp this on your index and pointer fingers and conjure up the memory you would like to deposit.” I was becoming a pro at this.
The old lady continued weeping, but obliged. At the last moment, just before I pressed the monitor’s button to transfer the memory to myself, she wailed, “W-why can’t you just give it to a c-computer or something? I don’t want y-you to have to hear h-his laugh either!”
“Because,” Ferguson answered for me, flicking at a hairpin that had fallen from the old lady’s mop of hair onto the counter, “computers can’t contain the emotions linked to memories.”
I pressed the button, and was soon filled with the chuckle of a man named Leo, the way his eyes crinkled and lit up, the way his canvas-like hands rubbed up and down my back when he thought I was being funny. The sensation basked me in warmth and a sudden, lurching yearning to see this man again. I tried to shove the feeling away as I unhooked the metal pincers and typed into Sniffy’s database, for record-keeping: Laughter of a long-gone lover.
The old lady had quit weeping. She paid her due, accepted a lime-green taffy that Ferguson offered her from our candy jar, and left the shop humming to herself, Leo-free.
• • •
At nights, Ferguson and I closed the shop and joined the rest of the Memory Department team in the Hog, an enormous hall containing dozens of bunk beds where we all slept. Somebody – I’ve forgotten his name – had snuck a memory device into the Hog, so that sometimes we all traded memories with each other.
“I’ll trade a roller coaster ride where I vomited into my girlfriend’s fanny-pack for something equally embarrassing!” somebody would call out. And the next person would scramble over cots and blankets, clamp the metal pincers to their fingers, and trade a memory of eating off a wart, or something of that cheerfully disgusting nature.
I lay down one night reminiscing about my life, trying to sort out my own memories from the memories I’d been given. The children around me had snuck in a goat, which was braying like a donkey and trampling over clothes that littered the ground. The air smelled of fish eggs.
I was dreadfully afraid of Q-tips, because once the bully neighbor jammed them into my ears, and I had a nasty suspicion that one was still lodged in there, forever halfway to my brain.
I caught my husband smooching my mother at twilight, when I went out onto the back porch to tell them peach cobbler was ready.
I bought as many rubber duckies as I could from the convenience store.
Leo’s laugh, twinkling and desirable in my ear…
Who am I? I thought. I turned to look at Ferguson in the next cot over. He was smoking a pipe, reading a book, and ignoring the shrieks of those who were chasing the goat below us.
“You know, Ferguson,” I said. “The only thing I remember about myself at this point is that I lost a shoe before I interviewed.” I laughed. “I don’t even remember where I worked before this.”
Ferguson glanced over and opened his mouth, but it was one of the goat-chasers below – someone I vaguely recall trading memories with once – who shouted at me, “You always talk about losing a shoe, but look again, kid! Look again!”
Calling me a kid was hypocritical, but I looked down nonetheless. To my dismay, I saw two perfectly-matched tennis shoes secured to each foot.
“I – I must have gotten new shoes without remembering,” I said faintly. Working for Sniffy was befuddling my brain, forcing me to forget my own actions.
“Or,” Ferguson said, returning to his book, “your memory of being the person who lost a shoe is not really your memory at all.”
• • •
We swam through tears, bred the goat with a stray female, rummaged through trash to find dinner, since none of us could remember if Sniffy fed us or not. Dreamlike, I wafted into the store each day, accepting the memories that clients no longer wanted, drifting to and fro as if on a high wind. I realized that Ferguson had never been bored. He had been wispy.
“Ah, and here comes a young man who wants to forget his latest quarrel,” I said as the bell tinkled.
I was wrong. The young man wanted to forget everything, his whole life, and although I was unsure of Sniffy’s regulations concerning an entire lifetime insofar, Ferguson said he’d split it with me. An hour later, the young man paid a whopping sum of money and left the store with only a name and a taffy. Meanwhile, Ferguson and I were flooded with half a lifespan each, so that we both became drowsy and had to sit down like drunks. I remembered every failed love, the father who had abandoned me, the roadkill that I had discovered was my cat Sneakers, the recent words of my eldest sister who spat at me, “You, Bo, are a disappointment to the family.”
“Talk about grimy,” I said, although I did not know why.
“Want to know what you look like?” Ferguson asked, nearly smiling.
He produced a handheld mirror from who-knew-where and shoved it under my nose like a contract. I stared at myself, noting the curve of my chin and all the locations of my freckles and the color of my eyes, willing myself to remember. But when I handed the mirror back to him, I had already forgotten which face, out of all the swirling faces within me, was my own.
“Ice cream,” I said. “Let’s go next door for our lunch break and get some ice cream.”
• • •
One night, under a pasty purple sky, the most skeptical of us in the Hog had a meeting by the only window in the hall. We sat in a circle, the stolen memory device in the middle of us like a forthcoming sacrifice.
“I would like to know, finally, who I am,” our leader said. He had a piece of paper in hand, much like the interviewers had held their clipboards so long ago. A girl by his side nodded and said under her breath, “Amen.”
“The only problem,” piped up another, who assumed the voice of second-in-command, “is how this is accomplished.” Mumbles of agreement from around the circle. Ferguson was smoking his pipe, not saying a word. “I mean, memories are so intermixed that they distort reality. Sometimes I wonder – is the city really on fire, or was that just my stove burning?”
I nodded my agreement. Images of flooded streets doused my mind.
We went around the circle, pitching in individual ideas on how to remember ourselves, although most of us forgot the points as soon as we moved on to the next person. Thankfully, our leader wrote each idea on his piece of paper, crowned with the bold words: WE ARE THE WOES OF THE CANDLE COMPANY. When we looked over this paper at the end of this exercise, we saw, written down seven different times:
• Resign or retire
• I say resign
• I think we should resign
“Okay, so resigning is clearly the most popular option. Now if we –”
“That won’t work,” Ferguson said, speaking for the first time (from what I could remember). He removed his pipe. The purple light cast moon-shaped shadows on his cheek. “Everyone in the Hog has traded memories with each other. If we resign, Sniffy will look at the databases and discover we’ve been trading illegally, and who knows what they’ll do to us then. Maybe empty us completely. ‘Course,” he resumed smoking, “that might not be so bad.”
I thought of the young man who had departed our shop with only his name, and silently agreed with Ferguson; losing everything wouldn’t be all that catastrophic. As it was, I felt the ugliest of my memories: the pang of Auntie Jane’s constant taunts, the blow of a man’s fist on the side of my cheek, the sting of my baby girl’s scream when I told her I could no longer take care of her. And Leo’s laugh, always, in my ear. I would do well getting rid of it all.
“We are our memories,” said our leader. “Without them, we are nothing.”
But Ferguson scoffed. “We aren’t our memories,” he said. “We are how we react to them.”
Later, after the committee had failed at deciding what was to be done, I snuggled into my cot and watched the fumes of Ferguson’s smoke curling toward the Hog ceiling. I tried to understand what he had meant – We are how we react to them – but images of nasty Q-tips were clouding my mind. Before I knew it, I had dropped into a wonderful, peaceful sleep, and when I awoke in the morning for a new day of work, I’d forgotten why I even cared.
• • •
They came directly to shop Number 370, the pair of policemen, followed by a small group of Sniffy managers with mini candlesticks tucked behind their ears. One might have been the man who interviewed me, although I couldn’t be sure. He carried a clipboard, at least.
“We are investigating an offence against the city,” one of the policemen said. I blinked. “We believe you may have received a memory of this act. We would like you to come with us.”
“I don’t –” I began, but they took me by the arms and started tugging me away. I had my last look at Ferguson behind the counter, whose tilted expression said clearly, Go on.
Bye, Ferguson, I thought. He had been the only person in the Hog whose name I could remember, including my own.
I thought the policemen and Sniffy managers might take me to a dark, clammy interrogation room, but they simply led me into next door’s Lost N Found, which was cluttered with junk spilling from shelves. The clerk within began asking, “How may I help –?”
“– We need to ask this youth a few questions,” interjected the policeman. They had let go of me, and now motioned for me to sit on an old ragged bonnet on the floor. I did, feeling as if I was once again squatted on the bathroom ground, only this time surrounded by lost coats and hats rather than toilets.
“Did you, at one time or another,” the policeman asked, “buy a number of rubber ducks?”
“Y-yes,” I said.
I strained to remember. To my left, a lone, dirty sandal was poking out of an overflowed bin, and my stomach felt a wallop of familiarity, as if I’d longed for the sandal in a dream.
“Well? Where’d you buy the rubber ducks?”
“Peggy’s Convenience Store,” I answered, the name bobbing to the surface of my mind.
That was all the policemen needed to know, it seemed. They gave each other self-important nods, and the Sniffy man with the clipboard said, sneering at me, “Did you not know that this led to a criminal offence? It is in our policy – you must never –”
“Buying rubber ducks isn’t a crime,” I said, but one of the policemen shook his head.
“Buying rubber ducks wasn’t the crime. The crime was that the rubber ducks were used to stuff up every gutter in the city. We’ve only recently managed to drain them all.”
I believed, then, that I might be arrested, but the policemen knew it had not really been me who had clogged the gutters. They exited the Lost N Found with their newfound notes on Peggy’s Convenience Store, and I was left shivering under the shadow of the Sniffy managers, who were wearing those stupid logoed shirts again.
“I’m sorry to say that we must fire you after your disruption of Sniffy policy,” the clipboard man said, not appearing remotely sorry at all. “No need to return to the Hog. We will assign your sleeping bunk to another employee. We only ask that you never return to a Sniffy shop again.” With this, he tore a dainty slip of paper off his clipboard and handed it to me.
THANK YOU SO MUCH YOU FOR WORKING AT SNIFFY THE CANDLE COMPANY, it read. PLEASE NEVER WORK FOR US AGAIN.
“Okay.” I crumpled the slip. “But first you have to extract all alien memories within me.”
Even as I said it, I recognized the key point that all us committee members in the Hog had missed: in order to remove a memory, you needed to conjure that memory up; if we could no longer differentiate our own memories from the rest, how could we conjure up the right ones?
“Sniffy’s contract,” the clipboard man said, “specifically states that we will extract all alien memories if, and ONLY if, one resigns or retires. You are, I’ll kindly remind you, fired. Therefore, we have no obligation to take back your acquired memories, and you must leave my sight at once.”
A hundred different memories flitted to my mind, urging me to do different things: punch the man in the face, steal his candlestick, take his dratted clipboard and smash it over his skull. But I remembered Ferguson’s words:
We are how we react to them.
“Alright,” I said, picking myself up from the bonnet. I approached the overflowed bin, plucked the lone sandal from the rubbish, and, ignoring the Sniffy managers, said to the eavesdropping clerk, “I believe this may be my shoe, but I can’t be sure. I may never be sure.”
“Take it,” the clerk said. “It’s just a shoe.”
Once on the street again, I had an urge to run into the memory shop and take Ferguson with me; but the Sniffy managers had their noses pressed, pig-like, against the inside window, ensuring I did not do exactly that. The candlesticks were still tucked neatly behind their ears.
So I continued down the drained, muddy street, holding only my shoe and my memories, like a pickle jar in which the soused memories could fester all they wanted while I screwed the lid on tight, marched onward, and found my identity in the choices I made hereafter.