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“I want you to build me an app that will make me forget things.”
I was still standing, ears numb from the February air, his warm baseball mitt of a hand gripping mine.
“Forget things?” I laughed but swallowed it when I felt his hand tense. I pulled off my coat and sat. The seat of the diner booth gave way with a hiss.
“You mean an app that helps when you forget things?” I tried.
“No, like I said, forget things.”
“Come on, why would people want that, Larry? I can’t imagine –”
“Not people,” he replied, “just me. I have some things in particular I need to forget.”
Larry Callahan was a toucher. Normally he would sit close enough to have his hand on your shoulder, laughing his way red-faced through the week’s anecdotes. It was a talent that drew you to him and pulled billions out of investors. That afternoon, way across town from the offices, his charm was absent. He was fidgety, his broad Irish frame barely contained behind the corner booth table. He had his trendy little glasses off, wiping them with a thin paper napkin.
I joked about expecting my one-year performance review, but his eyes were unfocused. He picked up an envelope from the seat beside him and laid it in on the table. I said I didn’t understand about the app. He said understanding wasn’t what he needed from me. I asked what he wanted to forget. He nodded toward the envelope.
It contained a Non-Disclosure Agreement and enough cash for a West Village one-bedroom, and that was just the down payment.
“This has to remain private,” he said. “Not just our arrangement – I need the memories to stay private until they’re gone for good.”
I managed to pull a few more instructions out of him before he patted the table, signaling the meeting’s end. Larry wasn’t one for details.
As he stood, leaving me with my envelope, I asked him if this was why he hired me. He smiled disappointedly.
“Come on, Whit, you’re my brain scientist. What would all those code geeks in the bullpen do without you – you with your degree in thinking?” It was a weak joke.
“Right.” He laid his hand on the back of my neck as he turned to go. “Keep me in the loop, Whit.”
I sat for a good hour drinking coffee. I thought about my cushy job, about the crew back at the offices with their scraggly rescue pound dogs by their feet as they coded, the video game lounges and the foosball tables. I felt the bulge of bills through the envelope and tried to imagine having the strength to hand it back to him. But then I could see how cool it might be. I knew I could do it. No one had ever tried anything like this, let alone with an app you could use outside of the lab. I wanted to please him, because he just had that thing about him that made you want to. And the money told me how goddamn important it was to him. And yes, it was a sick amount of money.
I sent Larry a text — “ok. will get to work” – knowing it was unnecessary. It was more for me.
It took just shy of eight months. I was keeping up appearances at the full time gig, so I only had late nights. Things at home with Karla got dicey in a surprisingly short amount of time. I’d have to wait until she was asleep to work. And towards the end, I was testing it while we slept, so that wasn’t exactly sexy for her. Sometimes I’d miss work-work the next day, which didn’t help relations in cushy-land either.
At first I sputtered along and made some mis-starts, but I was certain of the method from the onset. I used an osmotic method – introducing suggestions to the mind when it’s at its most vulnerable, i.e. during sleep. About a month and a half in, I read a new paper on biofeedback and it all started to flow.
I went at it like I’d never gone at anything before. Somewhere in there it stopped being so much about pleasing Larry and more about making it work. It seemed like the most important thing I would ever get a chance to do. And I disregarded everything else – Karla, my cushy friends, and my misgivings.
And so, I figured it out. And I got that beautiful rush that hits you when something all just snaps together and works, beautiful enough that you can pretend it transcends ego, which of course is just your ego fucking with you. I even made the app compliant with standard mobile OS, as if I was going to release it to the iTunes store or something. The self-delusion ran deep. And of course I couldn’t tell anyone because of the NDA, which was, believe me, frightening. Larry would have sued me for everything I had and then some.
How it worked was, you talked into your phone. You recounted the memory. The app analyzed your narrative, deriving 14 yes/no questions. You needed to answer those, but that was pretty much all the effort on your part – consciously. When it was time for bed, you put in your ear buds and put on your biorhythm cap. This radiant trance music lulled you to sleep and then the voice started. She ran through a set of hypnotic suggestions repeatedly for about two hours while the app checked your biorhythms to confirm progress.
I tested it on myself first. I told Karla it was biorhythm therapy to help me sleep. Trying to decide what I wanted to forget, that was the hard part. I went for a locker room incident from middle school. I mean, who needs that vaguely homoerotic nonsense fouling up your subconscious. The next morning – pffffitt – it was totally gone. I downloaded the recording – it all gets stored on the server – but even hearing myself tell the story failed to bring back the original memory. It was as if the whole thing had happened to somebody else.
It was November when I loaded the app on Larry’s phone. There was no one else I could test it on so I told him he should go slow. I said, “We’re talking irrevocable memory loss, Larry, right down to the synaptic plasticity. I mean, it’s highly discriminate, but still —” All he said was, “I’m sure it’s fine. I need to get started.”
I did my best to put it out of my mind and get back to my life, as it was. I even took Karla away to New Orleans for a weekend. I didn’t spend any of the money. It didn’t feel good, having it. It wasn’t guilt. I was stewing about not getting the damn recognition I deserved. I thought that I had wasted the one halfway great thing I’d do in my life on some rich guy’s kinky personal pursuit. And yes, that’s about as messed up as it sounds.
Two, three months went by. At work, Larry was almost a total no-show and people were starting to talk. Then scuttlebutt broke out that our funding was drying up. I didn’t tell them otherwise.
One early April afternoon, Karla and I ran into Larry. He was walking with his wife up on the High Line. Larry looked like he wanted to sneak past me, but it was a narrow path and we were unavoidable.
His wife was beautiful. She was tall but kind of delicate with an unassuming smile. Her hair was up in back — red, but she was letting it go gray. After introductions, Larry made their excuses, but Gloria — he called her Glory — said she was starving. She let go of Larry and grabbed my arm, walking us down the nearest stairs to a place on Hudson.
She wasn’t chatty. In fact, I don’t think we said a word, but she didn’t seem to mind, like we were an old couple that didn’t need to try any more. We walked five paces ahead of Karla and Larry. I remember glancing back and seeing this look on Larry that read, strangely, as jealousy.
We sat in a booth. The weekend brunch crowd was noisy. Karla was doing most of the talking, at nearly a shout. She managed to get some grunts out of Larry, but he was too busy glaring at Gloria. Meanwhile, Glory was as pleasant as can be, just her quiet little smile. I had the feeling that any second Larry would stand up and drag her out of there.
The waiter came around. Glory hadn’t opened her menu. She gave Larry a blank stare, so he ordered her a club sandwich. And it got weirder from there. Karla was trying to get a conversation going, so she asked Glory, “Do you have a favorite restaurant in this neighborhood?” Glory looked at Larry again. He said they liked Pastis and she just nodded. Karla asked her if she worked. Again, it was like she deferred to Larry — he said she was taking a break from her career.
As soon as we said goodbye and were out of earshot down Hudson Street, Karla laid into me. “What the hell was that about?” I was damned confused too, especially with all that I knew. She asked me if I saw the bruise on her face, underneath the makeup. “She’s abused,” Karla said. “That son of a bitch has her terrified. You did notice that, didn’t you?”
Well, I was shaking at this point because Karla didn’t know the half of it. I was convinced Larry was using the app on Glory to wipe her memory clean — beating her and intimidating her, then making her forget all the abuse. It all fit. I felt fucking sick.
And that feeling only got worse as the months passed. Karla didn’t let it go. She would ask if I had seen Glory. I hadn’t. It seemed no one had. “You need to confront him, Whit. You can’t do nothing.” I resisted, saying we had no real evidence. “And even if I find some,” I told her, “It’s sure to lose me my job. And what about everyone else at work? It’ll ruin things for everyone.”
It was maybe six weeks later that Larry made a rare appearance at work. He was a mess — exhausted and about twenty pounds lighter. He skipped his usual rounds of the departments. He stayed clear of me altogether.
I was in pretty bad shape myself by that time. The crew took me out for drinks that night to see if they could get me to talk about what was messing me up. I didn’t talk, but I drank plenty. I came home in a state and Karla gave me shit, big time. “I bet you haven’t even noticed how sick this makes me, thinking of her — how I’ve lost weight,” Karla said, crying. I hadn’t. “At first I just couldn’t understand you. But now I do,” she said. “And I don’t want to stay.” She split for her sister’s apartment.
That was the beginning of a murky time for me, the next couple of months, but somewhere in there I started calling Larry, or at least trying. He wouldn’t pick up — it went on for days. So I emailed him. I finally called him out about misusing the app. The entirety of his reply read, “As per our agreement, stay out of this.” I knew what I had to do, but it took me a few more days to get myself together.
I stayed home from work and got started. I had to crack Larry’s passcode but that wasn’t tough. I went through the catalog of digital files — the recollections. There were a lot — 116 dating back to the beginning, and there were still new ones coming in.
I was expecting to hear Glory’s voice, of course. There was nothing from her, not a single entry. Larry had done all the recordings. But the memories, they were of Gloria, or rather, memories they shared. Some were about milestones in their life — a miscarriage, eloping, almost breaking up, her father’s death, a second miscarriage. Most of them were just everyday things.
And Larry was romantic — affectionate, even. There were all these personal details, and sensual impressions — smells, feelings. He always addressed her when he spoke — Glory we were here, or Glory we were doing this. You could hear it in his voice, soft and low, like he was talking to himself and yet to her — summoning her. He’d begin the same way each time — Glory, Glory — like it was some kind of religious thing. It was like an invocation.
The stories could be about the most mundane incidents but there was always a connection to his heart. Like in one … they were at their summer place. He said something like, “Glory, you’d stayed out too long in the sun, and we came off the beach for a nap and you asked me to put aloe on your sunburn.” He described the white lines on her back when he pulled down her shoulder straps, how he sat next to her on the bed and worked the gel into her back. How the heat of the sun was still on her skin, and the salt of the ocean still on his lips. He described the scent of her and of the aloe — everything that was filling his head.
All were sweet, sweet memories. Some were a bit blue, but nothing bitter or mean spirited. In other words, all memories you would want to hold onto, like a hot mug of coffee on a raw day.
I was damn freaked, to say the least. It all seemed so insane and so senseless. And there I was hearing this, the fool who had facilitated the senselessness.
I listened to every single one — methodically. I took notes, charted them out, tried to find a pattern, an insight. I thought maybe she didn’t love him any more. Maybe he was forgetting out of spite. But no, his devotion was obvious — in every episode, through dozens and dozens. There was no making sense of it.
And then, it was a Thursday in the offices — I hadn’t been in all week — Lucy from marketing came over to my desk to tell me that Larry was in again. He had been acting so strange, she said. “He looks lost. He’s wearing a pajama top under his jacket.” Lucy was practically in tears.
I found him sitting in the kitchen. He had his iPhone out and was trying to untangle his earbud cords. I grabbed him by an arm and walked him to the elevator. We wound up sitting in Madison Square Park. There are a couple of benches facing the reflecting pool. It was a gusty day, but the sun was warm on the bench. We just sat there for longest time.
I couldn’t think of how to help him. I remember him just watching the leaves — curled, orange and red maple leaves swirling this way and that on the path. They would slide toward us. He watched them circle round his ankles.
Then, all of a sudden, he gripped my hand. He looked at me like a guilty kid. “You know, don’t you?” I nodded, even though I didn’t understand a goddamn thing. He nodded too, and started humming something to himself, just sitting there again.
Then, out of nowhere, he told me he used to work for the FDNY. He told me about his commendations. He talked about what it was like to have buildings burning around you. He said, “Not one day was I afraid on the job. But now,” he said, “I’m the worst kind of coward.”
It was then that I asked him why he was doing it — why he wanted to destroy his cherished memories.
He didn’t answer, not for some time. Then he took a shaky breath. “I couldn’t take it,” he whispered. “I couldn’t take having all of those beautiful memories in my head knowing that she was losing them.”
He told me that after Glory was diagnosed, he worked with her every day, sharing memories with her to try to keep them alive, but one by one they fell away. They fell away from her, he said, like leaves from a tree. “Soon, they weren’t ours any more, just mine. God … beautiful memories, but they turned on me, Whit. Each one was like a thorn tearing away at me.”
I asked him if erasing the memories had brought him any relief. “No,” he told me, “they’re gone but the pain is still here.” And the guilt of not being able to help her, that was there too.
Glory didn’t last much longer. It was maybe three or four months later that she passed. Larry just disappeared. And I can’t say I tried to track him down.
A year and some after that, I learned about it like everybody else. It was all over the papers, what had become of Larry. And I thought immediately of this one particularly vivid passage from Larry’s recordings — from his forgotten memories.
They were walking in the park in a snowstorm. It was late evening, and it was one of those heavy, wet snowfalls, so they were getting soaked and she was shivering. He talked about how quiet it was — still and beautiful — and she insisted on walking longer. And they suddenly heard a terrible crack and she screamed just as a huge limb fell — huge clods of snow dropping all around. They fell in the slushy snow and the branches came down all around them, but they weren’t hurt. And she jumped up and laughed, and he chased her all the way to Madison to a warm bar.
That’s where they found Larry, in the dead of February, slouched against a big, red oak in Central Park by the Conservatory Water. A detective called to question me. Seems he had an old report in Larry’s file about possible spousal abuse. Karla had filed it. I said only that there was no way he would have hurt Glory.
“Call me if you remember anything. Maybe something will come to mind,” the Detective said in closing.
“No,” I said. “I can assure you, nothing will.”
Rick Moss studied painting, photography and printmaking in his youth and has worked as a designer and producer of video, print, interactive media and web content. He is co-founder and president of the online business community, RetailWire.com. His novel, Ebocloud, was published in January of 2013 by Aqueous Books. Mr. Moss is also a columnist, contributing articles to USA Today and Forbes.com.