The Memory Machine

by Daniel Finkel


In second grade, I collected bugs. Butterflies, mantises, beetles, wasps — you name it. Anything that was beautiful, as long as it fit on the head of a pin. As I got older, I started being more selective. Third grade was snakeflies. Fourth was gum moths. By fifth grade, I kind of lost interest.

After that, I was restless for a few years. I stuffed mailboxes with firecrackers, stole packs of gum from local supermarkets, and shuffled through foster families like a deck of cards. People called it “a phase.” The truth was much simpler than that: I’d lost my purpose.

I discovered the hobby shop on my last day of high school. It was a depressing, dim little place with faded advertisements for Red Rock Cola and suntan oil in the windows. I waited outside the shop for half an hour, but no one went in. I was getting jumpy, so I made my move.

Inside, the shop smelled horrible. Some awful mix of bad eggs, rancid cream cheese, moldy ketchup, and spice. The owner was an old man. He had some black-and-white, out-of-focus pictures of cats on the mantel, and he just grunted when I came in.

I loafed around for a little while, taking in the place, and slipping as many firecrackers as I could into my coat pockets. Finally, I brought up a short stack of cheap smoke balls and sparklers to the counter, just to make it look right.

“That it, then?” said the old man, not sounding very gracious.

“Yes,” I said. Up close, I realized the smell in the shop was coming from him.

“What’s the party?” he asked as he rang me up.

I considered not answering, but I’ve found that when thieving, it’s best to do so with as much honesty as possible. “Tomorrow night I’m going on a hike with some friends. We’re going to take the fireworks, and when we get to the top of the canyon, we’re going to light them and throw them over the edge.”

“Oh, yeah?” said the old man, grinning at me. “And how are you going to do that locked up behind bars?”

I licked my lips and said nothing.

“Take them out.” The old man nodded at my coat.

I emptied my pockets on the counter. A large pile of firecrackers now lay between us. The old man’s grin got wider. “Theft over five hundred dollars is a felony.”

“This stuff isn’t worth anywhere near that much.”

“Maybe you stole more. Maybe you’ve been stealing for weeks.”

“I’ve never been in here before.”

“My word versus some thief kid’s.”

“What do you want?”

The old man looked at me with an odd glint in his eye. “I want you to promise to do something for me.”

“Do what?”

“Promise.”

“Fine, I promise.”

The old man seemed satisfied. “Wait here,” he said, and he vanished into the back. I considered making a run for it. But to be honest, I was curious. A minute later he was back, holding a black camera with two lenses. “Take this,” he said, handing it to me.

“What’s this for?”

“It’s a gift. Keep it. One lens takes regular pictures, and the other one’s special. You’ll see.”

“Why are you giving me this?”

The old man’s face crumpled in on itself. He suddenly looked unbearably weary. “I can’t...” he began, but he choked over the words. “You see, my hands shake, and I can’t use it anymore. Not the way it’s meant to be used.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Take my picture.”

“Don’t you have a tripod or something?”

“It doesn’t work like that.”

I sighed. “I take your photo and then I can leave? No cops or anything?”

The old man nodded slowly.

I shrugged. “All right.” I lifted the camera up.

The old man spoke sharply. “Not with that lens, with the special one.”

I picked up the other lens. It was unexpectedly heavy, and smelled of pine resin. When I slotted it into the camera, it gave a satisfying click.

“Say ‘cheese’,” I said, and pressed the shutter.

He didn’t say anything at all.

* * *

At first I was very surprised, but I saw what he meant about the camera. It really was pretty amazing. The next day, when the time for the hike came around, I didn’t go. Four weeks later I applied to photography school.

I went back to that old shop, once, a few years later, just out of curiosity, but it was a Walgreens. I bought some toothpaste and moved on.

After school, I rented an apartment and started taking pictures for newspapers. It wasn’t very steady work, but I got by. On the side, I also did my own photography. During the day, I would take pictures and, at night, I would print them out and hang them on the wall. If I liked the arrangement, I’d take pictures of the pictures, and then pictures of the pictures of the pictures.

Sometimes, the newspapers would request the photos they wanted. Once, for instance, they told me they wanted a photo of the aftermath of a violent crime to include in their article about criminal psychology. I tried going to one or two crime scenes, but it didn’t work. The police and the medics were always getting in my way, screwing up the shot. When I objected, they told me to leave. Eventually, I realized that if I wanted to get a good photo of a crime, a really worthy one, I’d have to find it myself.

I spent the next week hunting through the streets, lurking in back alleys and deserted parking lots. Finally, one night in the middle of a thunderstorm, I found what I was looking for.

The rain was coming down so hard that I was walking bent over to protect my camera, and my scarf and gloves were soaked. All around me, on the street, the gutters were overflowing.

When I reached the alleyway, the ambience was perfect. The strong lines of the buildings on either side framed the action. Churning cloud formations hung in the distance, swirling like ink, and the rain gave everything a gleam, even the street.

On the ground, three men were struggling, rolling around, trying to stand up and then falling over again. It looked like a robbery but, in the bad light, it was hard to tell who was the victim and who were the thieves. Spikes of lightning stitched wildly on the air.

I was captivated. Who wouldn’t be? The movement, the shadows, the dim figures of the men on the ground — it was all perfect. Here was life and death and action, joy, pain and excitement, raw, blistering terror, just asking to be cut out of the air and confined behind glass. I was looking at a masterpiece and, like any masterpiece, this one was meant be preserved. In that moment, I made up my mind. The newspapers could have another photograph. This one I was keeping for myself.

With fluid movements, I drew out my camera, swiveled off my day-to-day lens, and screwed on a dark convex cylinder shaped like the eye of a spider. This was my other lens, my special lens.

I advanced a step into the alley. One of the men on the ground noticed me. He said something, but the pounding in my ears was so loud that I couldn’t hear him.

I took another step. The man said something again and then he stood up. He looked angry, now. There was a cut running across the bridge of his nose, a fresh, ugly scar. “Something wrong with your head?” he growled. “I told you to leave!”

I didn’t speak. I was too caught up in the moment. Slowly, I raised the camera. The man came at me, advancing down the narrow alleyway. He didn’t look fierce as he approached. He looked wild and hungry and beautiful and scared, but the knife in his hand was sharp. “Told you to leave,” he said again. Then he lunged. Snap. Electric flash. Thunder and whir.

“Jasper!” yelled the second robber. “Where’d you go?” He jumped to his feet. “What did you do with Jasper?”

Another snap and the walls of the alleyway were colored with bare white light.

The third man still lay on the alley floor. He was battered and beaten, his pockets torn inside out, and rain was pooling in the folds of his jacket. Quietly, I approached him.

He opened his eyes, slowly, and then he saw me standing over him. “Thank you,” he said. “Oh, thank you... Oh, please... help me... please.” He raised a trembling hand, asking to be pulled up.

I looked at him with genuine compassion. He was beautiful, lying there on the ground, begging for help. I knew it was pointless, but I tried anyway. “You can be so much more,” I told him. “You can exist forever, like this, unchanging, unchangeable. Isn’t that better than what’s waiting in the rest of your life?”

He stared at me. “What?”

He didn’t understand. I was disappointed, but not surprised. “Never mind,” I said. I raised the camera to my eye and pressed the trigger, and then I was alone, in an empty alleyway, with the rain pattering on my head. Quickly, I unscrewed my special lens, put it in my pocket, turned, and went on my way.

At home, I printed the three men out and hung them on the wall. There were other pictures pinned there, strung on the wall like the ghosts of jellyfish. They were of men and women, of old and young. They had been taken in parks, parking lots, and gas stations, always in some moment of solitude when there was no one to witness the event. My special lens could capture the essence of any organism, but it would be useless against a set of jail bars. Because of this, I was always very careful not to be caught.

I sat in the dark, drinking a dry Riesling, and admired my pictures. I know some people would call me a murderer, but that’s just a matter of perspective, and all you need to shift perspective is the right lens. The way I see it, I grant these people eternal life, unchanging, undisturbed, and utterly irreversible.

All I ask in return is the privilege of capturing their inner beauty. The truth, you see, is something I learned in fifth grade: in the end, insects aren’t worth collecting for their wings or shells. Real beauty runs deeper.

I know it won’t always be this easy. The old man taught me that. It’s a lesson I remember every time I look at him on the wall. One day, I’ll also be old. When that time comes, while I still have enough strength in my hands to hold the camera, I’ll face the lens firmly, without flinching, and take my self-portrait. Someone can hang me on the wall among my photographs, one more face in the crowd. And then I’ll be beautiful, too.


Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Finkel

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