The Memory Merchant cursed his fate: A mixture of ice and snowpack covered the road. What should have been a 12-hour drive took almost 24 hours with tires that had seen better days. The old truck’s brakes weren’t better, screeching with every skidding stop. The pickup also needed new spark plugs and a timing belt. He suspected the ball joints were hanging by a thread or whatever ball joints hung by.
Car repairs would have to wait. He had only $70 left and a collection of pristine but rather ordinary memories to sell, suitable for only the poorest souls to take with them after death or to amuse themselves while living. When passing, one loses many of one’s own memories, and those that remain are often the saddest of recollections. A Memory Merchant is more than a peddler of recollections. A good merchant can determine which memories to exorcize and which memories to secure into the darkness. Memories offer comfort to the departed.
The Memory Merchant pulled the old pickup beside the client’s mailbox. The client’s house stood at the end of a long driveway unplowed following multiple snowstorms. A four-door sedan on blocks squatted before an open garage crammed with firewood and a broken down fishing boat lying on its side. The house needed painting and new windows: One held broken glass and the others were boarded up. Aside from the smoke coming from the chimney, the house appeared abandoned or metaphorically dead.
“Jesus and Mary,” murmured the merchant. “What am I doing here?” Given the content of the old man’s letter, the merchant couldn’t understand how he could help. The merchant dealt in standard family memories: children playing in the yard, trips out West, baseball games, a summer picnic—the sort of memories bought by men who had never married or whose memories shared neither loving moments nor comfort. Though common and some might say uninspired, the merchant’s products were top quality—complete immersion, audio, tactile and visual. “It’s as if you are there sharing the moment with them. It’s beautiful, no, transcendent,” he would tell his clients. And it was true. The merchant was gifted.
Yet, I’m destitute, he thought. I never had my father’s business touch. I don’t inspire confidence. “You’re a terrible salesman,” his mother had said more than once. “You need a partner. You need a wife—a gentlewoman of empathy to gain your clients’ trusts.”
With my looks, the merchant thought, that’s unlikely. He glanced up at the rearview mirror. A long, thin, craggy face stared back at him. Unlike his father, he was not attractive. His nose and brow were too large and his eyes too close together. His prematurely gray hair was long and thin. At 33, he looked 50. Only his imposing height and strength—6 feet 7 and 240 solid pounds—offered a hint of vitality.
“Blue Earth,” said the merchant to no one in particular and wiped the frost from the window. “What a shit hole.”
As the merchant edged the pick-up down the driveway, a wave of vertigo swept through him. He quickly shifted into park, leaned back and gripped the steering wheel. Stay in the present. Just stay, he told himself.
The merchant cursed his weakness and sank into the seat. A swirl of black and gray dust blurred his vision and a battery of drums filled his head. During these moments, the merchant often forgot whether he was buying or selling or the name of the town he had entered. These spells also foretold the worst—the lost of control and the descent into dark memories. For years the merchant suspected he would not live a long life like his father or grandfather had. Before this trip, he had avoided doctors, telling his mother: My sickness cannot be diagnosed like a fever or x-rayed like a tumor. No, it’s my nature, my deficiency. It’s my failings as a merchant.
After a few hard-fought breaths, the moment thankfully passed. He did not descend into deep memory. He remained in the present. He remembered his purpose. He relaxed his hands. He felt the blood rush through him. “Selling,” he whispered to the emptiness of the vehicle. “I’m selling to a guy who can’t afford to fix his car much less his house. I’m guilty, Dad, of the sin you abhor more than murder: I’m wasting my gifts, the gifts you have given me.”
The merchant stared out at the early morning landscape. His stomach ached. “I’m starving,” he whispered to the memory of his father. “You would be so proud.”
The merchant parked the truck in the middle of the driveway. A large swath of ice prevented him from plowing forward. Snow continued to fall—dry and bitter. The temperature had dipped into the single digits during the night and had not receded with the dawn. At least I’m not in Copper Harbor, he thought. Copper Harbor was the location of his family home where 10 feet of snow had already accumulated.
The merchant shut the truck’s door and carefully stepped onto the ice. He wore a long black coat, black hat, black gloves and black boots. “Merchants wear black,” his father had said. “Whether it’s spring, summer or winter you wear black. You wear a black suit. You wear a white shirt. You always wear a tie. You want to suggest an air of antiquity. You want to suggest you carry the memories of Jesus, himself.”
Jesus and the centurion: The merchant remembered first discussing the subject with his father. “It’s the Holy Grail of memories,” his father said. “Supposedly, as Jesus hung on the cross crying out to his father and begging to know why he had been forsaken, the centurion guarding the three criminals on their crosses harvested a few of Jesus’ memories. Is it no wonder the populace believes we are nothing but profiteers— vultures preying on our fears and weaknesses?”
“Do you think it’s true?” the young merchant asked his father.
“No one knows, but it’s intriguing. The memories of Jesus would confirm all tenements of faith.”
Or disprove them, the young merchant wanted to say.
The merchant stood before the side door and took a deep breath. For the past three months, his health had deteriorated. Knives stabbed at his lungs. He couldn’t sleep more than three hours a night. Each morning, he woke with an odor of decay filling his breaths and dread seeping deep into his skin. Fearing cancer or some other horrible malady, he finally visited a doctor in Bozeman, but all x-rays and blood work proved negative. “I feel as if I’m carrying a permanent chill,” the merchant told his physician. “I’m ready to fall into the grave.”
“Perhaps you should see someone else,” the doctor suggested. “It’s not your lungs or your heart that holds your fate, it’s your head.”
“I can’t go to a shrink. My thoughts must remain private. I carry the memories of those who have passed, those who have sold me their most beloved memories. I cannot share them freely. I can only share them with those who may benefit.”
“For a price,” the doctor replied without attempting to hide his contempt for the merchant.
The merchant couldn’t confide in a stranger, but before leaving on his latest sales trip, he finally, after years of stoic silence and after the passing of his father, confided to his mother. “I’m afraid to tell even you how I feel. Maybe now, after Dad, I can finally admit that I’m not the merchant I need to be.
“It’s my memories, Mother, not those I buy or sell, but my own. I can’t silence them. I can’t hide them. I can’t forget them. They come and pull me back, and not to where I want to be—only into memories best left discarded.
“Look at me, Mom, your son, the son of a merchant. I sell memories that offer comfort, yet I’m a merchant unable to find his own peace. I can’t control my own memories. Is it any wonder I can’t make a decent living?”
The merchant climbed the final two steps of the icy porch. As he prepared to knock on the door, another rush of vertigo and blackness clutched him, but this time there was no reprieve; without mercy, he was tossed swiftly down into the dark well of memory, back to when he was a 10-year-old boy in Copper Harbor.
He was in school and sitting at his desk, the one in the back corner by the open window with the pleasant smell of pine and maple drifting in and the sunlight casting the room in warm light. The young merchant’s shirt was soaked in sweat from playing football with his classmates during recess. He didn’t notice at first, but two of his classmates—Mark and Steve—stood at his right.
The merchant knew what they were going to say. He had fallen into this memory far too often for comfort. The merchant wanted to flee from the memory, but he could not.
“We’re going to fight you after school,” said Mark. “And you better not run. You better fight or we’ll make it worse.”
“Why?” he asked his friends. He always asked.
“You know why,” Steve said. The merchant felt the eyes of his classmates bearing down on him. He heard soft laughter from a few of the girls.
“I don’t,” the young merchant pleaded, but it was a lie. He always lied. Each time this memory took hold, he wanted to change it, but he could not. The merchant was powerless and impotent; the memory controlled him.
The young merchant knew why his classmates were upset. He had broken their trust. As his classmates struggled through their studies or played games on the playground, the merchant had stolen unwanted glances into their memories. Unlike his father, his skills were still raw. Despite his attempts at stealth, the young merchant couldn’t enter their thoughts without leaving bitter traces of his violation. “Touching another’s memories without permission is like sneaking into someone’s house at night,” his father had warned. “Even a friend wouldn’t be welcomed.”
The young merchant couldn’t resist the temptation and the power his talents bequeathed him. The young merchant knew which boy stole money from his parents, which girl had been violated by her uncle, which boy cried himself to sleep from hunger every night. He knew which father beat his son, and which dad gambled away the mortgage. Through his explorations, the merchant felt neither titillation nor pleasure, but mostly sorrow. The merchant felt his classmates’ pain. He felt their anger. He felt their fear. Because he knew their suffering as intimately as they did, the young merchant had developed great empathy for his classmates.
These were his friends, but he had touched their memories without permission, and the merchant knew, even at 10 years old, that his actions were punishable.
After school, he did not stand and fight the boys. As an adult, he wished he had defended himself and shown more courage, any courage. But courage, for him, was an unfulfilled wish. Instead, moments before the bell rang, the young merchant bolted from his desk and ran down the hallway, ignoring the teacher’s cries echoing behind him.
He fled out the nearest door and into the schoolyard, but despite his height, standing four inches taller than any of the boys, his lean physique and his head start, the boys caught him. The merchant’s gifts did not include athleticism. His arms could not complete one pull-up. He could neither outrun the slowest boy nor most of the girls. His strength wouldn’t come until his later teenage years. He had passed gym class with a low D; tenacity was his only athletic virtue.
Mark and Steve reached him first and corralled him back toward the door leading into the gym. The rest of the class followed shortly, the mean girls leading the way. Where is the teacher? the merchant thought. Where are the adults who are supposed to protect the weak?
With tears streaming down his face, the merchant reached for the door handles, but the door was locked. He screamed with each futile tug. Mark and Steve grabbed him by the arms and shoved him against the door’s hard metal panels. The merchant’s screams turned into shrieks. He thrashed and kicked, but the boys held firm as two others stepped forward. A tall, slender boy named Scott hit him first: two blows to the stomach, a left and a right. Then another boy, Craig, stepped up and hit the young merchant in the face. The merchant wailed without shame. It was more than the pain. It was the betrayal. Until this moment, his classmates were his friends and he loved them.
The beating did not last long. One more boy stepped up and kicked him in the ribs as the young merchant lay on the ground holding his gut. Just for a moment, or perhaps a few seconds, the merchant was able to flee the memory, but he did not slip back into the present. He stood in a region between memory and the present. He became a ghostly voyeur standing amid the children.
The girls had gathered around him. The merchant heard a few of them snicker at his weakness. Not one student appeared to have considered stopping the assault. Not one showed disapproval.
A brown-haired girl name Lucy slithered to the front of the pack and turned to the other girls and the few straggling boys and declared, “He deserves it! He’s the son of a Memory Merchant. They’re all dogs. They’re thieves and pigs. They will steal your memories and sell them if you don’t watch out.”
The merchant knew then the inherent cruelty of the world. “It’s not fair,” the merchant sobbed. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m sorry.”
As quickly as the memory unfolded, it ended, and he found himself back standing in the bitter cold and knocking on the old man’s door, ambivalent to whether anyone answered.
Someone answered, but it was not the old man the merchant had expected. The merchant expected Robert J. Skulan, a former high school drama teacher whose letter stated, “I lost my job and pension because I got caught frequenting a night club in Minneapolis that held a statistically abnormally high male patronage. I don’t have much money, but I could use your services. If you are uncomfortable with my circumstances, I will understand.”
The merchant had written back: “My comfort level doesn’t matter, but rest assured I hold no prejudices.” “A sale is a sale,” he wanted to tell the old man, especially because he was currently living out of his truck.
Instead of the ex-teacher, a short, squat woman in her 20s bundled in layers of sweatshirts, hat and scarf stood before him. A wind gust blew snow into the doorway, but the woman did not flinch. Her gray, weary eyes stared up at the merchant.
After a moment of study, the merchant removed his hat and contritely held it behind his back. He bowed and asked, “Is Mr. Skulan at home? I have an appointment. I’m…”
“I know what you are,” the woman said briskly. “My uncle will not be receiving you today. We have no need of your services. ”
“Is there a problem? Is he ill? His letter did not mention poor health.”
The woman pushed her scarf below her mouth. She smiled, but it was neither an act of civility nor compassion. “If dying is an illness, then he is terribly sick. The mailman discovered his body five days ago. He found him lying dead in the driveway after retrieving his mail. He was wearing nothing more than a bathrobe and slippers. It was five degrees outside. It might have been a stroke. Maybe it was a heart attack. Maybe it was senility, the kind you get from lying with men. Who knows? There won’t an autopsy. Who cares how an old faggot croaks?”
“I’m sorry,” said the merchant. “Such a sad story. Living alone in exile from the profession he loved. I imagine he wanted a few memories to solace him or to escape the dreariness of his circumstances.”
“You didn’t know him, merchant. He wasn’t always alone. Just at the end when the money ran out. My uncle deserved everything he got. He was an embarrassment to his school and his family. Good riddance to him. Now, if you please, leave.”
The merchant appraised the woman. He wanted to slip into the woman’s memories. Her anger—the prejudice and the rage—intrigued him. Who knows what caused this woman’s unfailing hostilities? It couldn’t be simple prejudice. Perhaps she had suffered indignities and possessed memories better left unspoken or abandoned.
The merchant inched closer, itching to enter the woman’s thoughts. His father had made the bulk of his living selling sex memories to deviants—mostly married men who preferred their memories dark, cruel and young. One could make a good living selling the bleakest of recollections, but the merchant, unlike his father, would not stoop that low; although, he more than once admitted, it was tempting. Easy money.
The woman scowled. “You can go now. I have work to do. My uncle left me this house and all the junk in the driveway and the basement. The house is mortgaged to hell and back, and I can’t decide whether to abandon it or burn it down. What do you think, merchant? We cooked the old man. His ashes are in a coffee can on the kitchen table. He didn’t deserve a Christian burial. There’s a special place in hell for sodomites.”
The merchant paused to feign consideration. She must have once cared for the ex-teacher. Why else would he leave her the house? It wasn’t guilt. He trusted his instincts. The ex-teacher had treated the woman well, probably loved her like a father.
“Let it burn. Let the neighbors know the pain this house held. Let the town see the suffering it has caused. A good man has died, and it appears he has died in distress and alone, and now he has passed into the blackness with only his memories, and what memories are these? Tell me. Were they memories of your love? Your kindness? The time you shared together? The support you showed during his struggles after he lost his job and his friends left?”
The woman did not answer.
“Where’s your empathy? I bet he treated you with kindness and love. I bet if I look into your memories I will find treasures worth keeping. Memories of a caring uncle.”
The woman remained silent.
“Instead, he has entered the blackness carrying memories of betrayal. The betrayal of those he loved. You. Did he abandon you? I doubt it. I bet if I looked into your memories, I will find that he was more than an uncle but also a friend you could trust.”
She opened her mouth, and the merchant waited for her to speak. She wanted to divulge a secret, a wish or maybe a longing. The merchant knew she held memories she wanted to share. “Tell me. What memory haunts you? What memory do you want to discard?”
She turned away.
The merchant moved closer, towering over the woman and forcing her into the corner. “Darkness awaits us all. Take my advice and spend your life gathering memories worth sharing. Maybe then you won’t suffer your uncle’s fate: having to buy a few memories to comfort yourself in the grave, or worse, selling off the memories that will haunt you for eternity.”
“Go,” the woman said softly. “Go.”
The merchant secured the top button of his cloak. Before leaving, he placed the back of his right hand gently along the left side of her face. Her face felt warm and soft. He expected her to push his hand away, but she did not. Without asking, the merchant dipped into her memories. Despite her defenses, he easily entered. He touched moments of shame: the endless days living in poverty, being left alone in the hands of cruel relatives for weeks on end: relatives who forced her to abandon her sweet uncle after they discovered his secret. “You have memories you wish to discard. Let me help. Let me be of service. I can ease your daily struggles.”
The woman shook her head. “No, I cannot. I would rather lie in hell before I accept your witchcraft.”
“Hell is spending eternity brokenhearted and without a memory worth holding or ones suffused with guilt. Betrayal. Abandonment. Pray this is not your fate.”
Early morning soon gave way to mid-afternoon. Six hours of driving and the merchant had only put 125 miles behind him, and still another 350 miles to his next appointment in Thunder Bay. He tried not to get lost in memory. He studied the landscape as if it was a long, lovely painting, but he failed. His thoughts continued to turn to his father who had passed away from a brain tumor three months earlier and spent his last few days in bed at the family home in Copper Harbor.
He thought about their final conversation and his father’s last words to him. It was shortly before noon, and he could feel the cool breeze of fall coming off the lake and the stink of antiseptic soap permeating the bedroom. He remembered the long silences of the morning as he sat by his father’s bedside.
Finally, shortly after 1:00, his father finally turned his attention to him and asked him to lean close. He remembered trying to keep his voice from breaking and his hands from trembling. These were to be the last words his father would speak to him, and he dreaded they would not bring him relief. Would it be unfair to ask for a token of approval for being a faithful and dutiful son? A son who had tried his best to be a merchant worthy of respect? “Yes, Dad?” He wanted to say more, ask more but the words failed. It was a time to listen.
So he waited. Five minutes. Another 10.
“I’m not afraid of dying, Son. I have wonderful memories to comfort me: your mom, my friends and my travels.” His father grimaced and reached out for his son’s hand. “I have let go of every memory that may cause me discomfort, including your failures. You needn’t worry about me. I enter the darkness in peace. I am not afraid.”
His father offered his son a small smile. The merchant tightened his grip on his father’s hand. “Dad…”
The old merchant shook his head and closed his eyes. “Please, William, we are finished.”
The merchant’s memory shifted to the funeral four days later. Only two elder townies had shown, a widow and widower who showed up at every funeral. No relatives, just him and his mom. He remembered the lack of flowers at the gravesite. He remembered how his mother had looked so tiny standing by his side and her stern refusal to pray or hold his hand as the preacher spun a false narrative of her husband. While never cruel, she rarely offered moments of solace to her son. He had hoped this would be one of them. He had hoped he could offer her comfort. He remembered how he wanted to cry for her loss, but failed. He wanted to shed tears for his, but he failed again. He just stood staring at the coffin with a cold, black emptiness in his chest.
The merchant shuddered and refocused on the road. He had entered a stretch of sharp hills outside Red Wing. As the merchant began the descending the final one, before the road turned north along the western edge of Mississippi River, the road began to tilt. The merchant knew it was coming again: the vertigo, the swirling darkness consuming him like a plague of locusts scorching the earth. He was falling again, and there was nothing he could do about it. He screamed and pounded on the steering wheel; the blare scattered a murder of crows off the road pecking at the corpse of a deer.
The merchant drove another few hundred yards and pulled over to the side of the road, shifted into neutral and attended to the parking break. What memory now, Father? What old horror must I relive: the beating you gave Mom when you thought she cheated on you or the emptiness and loneliness I felt when you failed to show for another one my birthdays? You have passed me this wondrous gift, this ability to bring comfort to strangers, but this gift, what does it offer me?
The merchant thought of the old man back in Blue Earth and his ashen remains stored in a can on the kitchen table. Will that be my fate: alone through the end? What memories will I carry to my grave?
The vertigo came as expected. He slumped back and stared out over the dashboard. The snowfall had long ceased and the winds had faded. Only another hour or so of light remained in the day, but the horizon seemed oddly brighter than it should.
He straightened up and leaned forward. A large twister of light had risen above the snow-covered fields. Reds, blues, greens and yellows swirled like luminous butterflies. It wasn’t the northern lights; he had seen them many times back home and the lights approaching him were different, but were just as beautiful.
He expected a fierce headache and the familiar coldness to consume him. Instead he felt the warmth of summer, a lightness of limb and the absence of gravity. He started to rise from his seat.
The merchant expected himself to panic, but instead he exhaled and closed his eyes. He did not see blackness. Instead, he saw a long path leading to his house and felt his feet kicking up the dirt as he ran. He saw slivers of light cut between the trees. At the end of the path, he saw his boyhood home and the day’s wash hanging on the line.
He had fallen into deep memory, but he did not falter. He continued to run, clumsy and awkward as always, until his feet did not touch ground. He ran until his legs ceased churning and he was falling through open sky. He fell through a torrent of colors. He fell through miles of air. He fell with his arms spread wide.
He fell until he had settled into his mother’s arms.
He was a young boy again, and it was the evening after his classmates had punished him for his unwanted incursions into their memories.
His mother gently caressed his cheek as he cried and bemoaned his classmates’ betrayal. She had tended his physical wounds, but the emotional hurt continued to course warmly along his skin. Only his mother’s touch, a touch rarely felt, could cool the pain.
“I thought they liked me,” he said amid the stillness of the house. Only he and his mother were home. His father had left in one of his huffs; he could not abide his son’s weakness. “A merchant must be strong,” his father had yelled at him. “A weak merchant is no good to anyone. Why didn’t you fight back? Jesus, boy, what good are you?”
“They don’t like what you did to them,” his mother said. “You didn’t mean harm. I know. You were just trying to help.”
The young merchant choked down a sob. “I sometimes wonder if I will always be this way. Alone. If I will be… I don’t know.”
“Be loved?” she said.
His mother kissed his cheek. “Will you be loved? Will any one of us be loved? It’s a question we all ask.”
For a few moments, she quietly stroked his hair. Then, intuitively, before the merchant could sink deeper into despair, she grabbed her young son’s chin and lifted his face toward her. “I wish I could promise you that love comes to all. I can’t. But if you do suffer the misfortune of living a life alone, it will not be in vain. You will offer comfort. Because of you, many lonely men and women will go gently into the darkness. I know my son. You won’t be a merchant consumed by vanity or treasure or the cruelty men carry. You will be a good man—and unlike your father or most merchants, you will be a man of empathy.”
Eventually, his sobs receded and he drifted safely to sleep. It was the first time he had ever fallen back to this memory, this lovely and rare jewel. Why he had suppressed it all these years, the merchant did not know, or at least wouldn’t admit, but he knew it was a memory worth saving. It was memory of uncompromising love and empathy—a memory that neither time nor disappointment could destroy. It was a memory his father could not sully with his hate.
As quickly as he had descended into the past, he returned to the present, back into the warm interior of the truck. Somehow, during his lapse, he had traveled deep into the night and into the guts of an old growth forest. A full moon rode high in sky. The shadows of the trees drew across the road.
The merchant did not know where he was going to sleep that night—maybe at a wayside, maybe behind an abandoned warehouse—but it would be in his truck and that meant a night of subzero temperatures and bitter winds. Maybe, he thought, I should drive until dawn. With the vehicle, I can always depend on the heater.
The merchant checked his gas gauge. Less than an eighth of a tank remained. The merchant shook his head and spoke to the memory of the father he still loved and whose approval he still coveted—the man who had given him his gifts. “It doesn’t matter where I sleep, Father. I will survive. I will persevere, and unlike that woman back in Blue Earth, I will live a life of kindness. I will not dishonor my profession. I will spend my life acquiring memories of joy and hope. And yet, if I were to die tonight in the cold or 70 years from now, I will enter the darkness filled with at least one memory of uncompromising love, and that may be more than the teacher in Blue Earth carried with him and perhaps you.
“I am a Memory Merchant, Father, and I am not afraid.”
Frank Sikora is a graphic artist, writer, substitute teacher, and track coach. He lives in Waterford, Wisconsin, with his wife, Holly, an English teacher. His work has been published online and in print in Canada and the U.S. Every once in a while, one of his flash fiction pieces will win an award, which his wife will acknowledge with a smile and a comment, such as, “It still needs a middle, sweetheart.”