THERE IS NO ARTHUR
by Eva Konstantopoulos
The sounds of the market burst in Frank's ears as he navigated through the stalls. He held his phone tightly in his hand, the address of the shop within reach as he passed colorful fruit and silver fish, whole chickens and plastic trinkets. Fresh fish here! Apples! Pears! Frank knew where he was going wouldn't fix Anna, but he had to try.
Strangers shouted in Mandarin. A young mother wiped red juice off her son's cheek. Frank passed the last covered stall and walked out into the street. A little further, he thought. Maybe the next block. He'd have to look at the map again to be sure.
Issue #132 soundtrack: Susanna Rose “Ancient History”
From out of nowhere, a car blared its horn. He looked to his left and met the eyes of a driver as he slammed on the brakes. The driver rolled down his window. "Watch where you're going, will you?"
Frank continued on, his armpits sweaty. He could feel the driver's eyes boring into the back of his head as he turned down a litter-strewn alley. He checked the address one more time.
A man named Arthur had called Frank to inform him of the shop. He said it had worked miracles for many families before him. The perfect gift was waiting for Frank. He just had to make the journey. Frank had perused the prices, researched online. There were other shops like the one Frank searched for, but they were in Beverly Hills or Brentwood with heftier price tags. Buying memories was a rich people's game, and Frank and Anna were firmly middle-class, despite years of trying to break through to the upper thresholds.
At first Frank had his doubts. How had this Arthur even gotten ahold of him? Arthur’s voice was smooth and assuring, as if they were old friends. He knew things about Frank, about Anna. Weeks later, Frank would find Anna’s notepad with a small etching of a moon and a phone number. She had seen the experience on Oprah and signed up for more information online.
It was an opportunity to travel to the lunar landscape without ever leaving your living room. Of course, the real thing would be better, but lunar travel was only for the elite. A memory was the next best thing, and even that at a discount place like where he was headed would require remortgaging the house. Still, it was the first time Frank had seen Anna interested in something since the accident. It was a long shot, but Frank had tried everything else. He was willing to bargain.
Frank walked down the length of the alley and then retraced his steps to the only door he could find. It was unmarked. He checked the address on his phone again and then knocked. After a moment, the door opened with the lock still on. A petite woman peered out at Frank. He twisted his wedding ring around his finger.
"Is Arthur here?" he asked. The young woman blinked at him, and then the door squeaked open into darkness.
Inside the shop, the overhead lights were dim and fluorescent. They hadn't been cleaned in some time and scattered dead flies mixed with the grime of the city. The shop girl led Frank down a windowless hallway. He saw she was younger than he had originally thought. A girl of perhaps twenty-five with slightly hunched shoulders. He glanced into doorways, spying drab silhouettes in dentist-like chairs.
The shop girl stopped at a door like all the others. The room was small, but not cramped. A screen was mounted to one wall, and next to it was a metal desk and cabinet. There was a lone chair in the middle of the room connected to a handful of probes and wires. Frank tried to memorize these details in case something went wrong, but his mind was hazy. Too many nights spent at the office, searching for answers he didn't have.
The girl led him to the chair. There was a faded stain towards the front of the upholstery. The shop girl measured his head with a tape measure and scribbled on her clipboard. "How long with this take?" Frank asked. He wasn't sure how to broach the subject of an exchange. He had told Arthur he could well afford to buy.
The shop girl pressed a button. The screen behind her lit up. Bright, cheerful music played. "Watch this," she said. Walking behind Frank, she closed the door.
On the screen, the moon appeared, along with silhouettes of cityscapes. A clear, soothing voice emerged. Thank you for being part of the future. Your memories are in good hands. As the voice spoke, New York, Paris, and Hong Kong flashed across the screen. Do you crave adventure? Is thrill-seeking in your blood? Have you ever thought about what it would be like to fly?
Frank scratched his hands. They were clammy from the upholstery. "This isn't what I want,” he said. “Hello? I talked to Arthur…" Frank turned around and noticed a small camera on the ceiling. Now, you can feel all the danger that life offers without any risk. Know what it's like to always get that promotion, always get the girl, and always get your way.
Frank wondered if Arthur was watching him right now. His skin bristled. He didn't have time for this. He stood from the chair and opened the door, looking both ways down the hall. The shop girl wasn't there.
He walked to the left. The lights flickered above his head. He was definitely not in Beverly Hills. Those memory shops had been alabaster chic, with clear, sleek lines and lavender-infused air. How had he ended up here?
A flash of Anna’s crumpled body flickered through his mind. He took another step forward. "Hello?" he called. “I'm here to trade."
He noticed a door at the end of the corridor, a neon light underneath. He walked closer and reached for the handle. The shop girl opened the door, catching him by surprise. Frank fell back.
"Sir, we will be with you shortly,” she said, her voice clipped.
When Frank returned to the room, he found the video skipping, the calm voice repeating, we have all you need... all you need... all you need...
Frank sat in the chair, but after awhile, he couldn't stand the voice. He tried to fix the transmission, fiddling with the controls. The shop girl appeared at the door. Frank placed his hands in his pockets. "You guys got the sales pitch down,” he said. “Arthur spewed a bunch of this at me already."
She walked around Frank and turned off the video. "How can I help you?" she asked.
"I talked on the phone with a very knowledgeable man..." Frank said.
She blinked at Frank. "Arthur's not here at the moment. Are you looking to buy, or sell?"
This was a delicate matter and Frank didn't want to explain himself twice. "When will he be back?" he asked.
"He's very busy."
"Well, do you have a timeframe?"
The shop girl shook her head.
"Now hold on," Frank said. He had to do something. Otherwise, he would be going home to Anna empty-handed. He couldn’t bear another night hearing her crying. He cleared his throat. "I'm looking to trade."
The shop girl frowned. "We're not trading today." She turned to the door.
“Wait.” Frank stood up. "It’s our anniversary. Arthur said this place could help. We’ve been going through something."
This piqued the shop girl's interest. "Anna is... your wife?"
"And you think one of our memories could lighten the load?"
"I want her to be happy. I'd buy if I could. But I can barely afford the third tier stuff. A trip to Alaska, Miami before it was flooded at most…"
"How can you put a price on experience?"
“Can you help me?” Frank asked.
“Perhaps,” she said.
"And it’s safe, correct? Has anyone been hurt?"
The shop girl smiled. "As far as I know, no one has ever been hurt from a transfusion. Of course, trading is much harder nowadays. Moments are more muted. We'll have to see if you have anything worth gifting."
"Of course. With the memories, how does it work? Does one delete another? Can you... overload?"
The shop girl took a breath. "All of our memories are 100% natural. We do not fabricate and we do not manufacture. This is a reputable business."
"And what about the shelf life?”
"As long as you don’t expire, sir, our memories don't expire." The shop girl checked her clipboard. "Is there a certain product your wife was interested in?"
Frank sat back in the chair. "An expedition. To the moon. Arthur said it was in stock."
"Your wife has good taste, sir. That’s a top of the line gift. Culled from an esteemed passenger of the flight. It’s one of a kind."
"Well, that's how Anna is. She’s always trying to find the next thing. Maybe to distract herself from what's happened..." Frank trailed off. "Do you have someone you love?" he asked.
The shop girl glanced up at Frank. "Of course," she said, though she seemed off guard.
"When Anna and I first met, we were dead broke. Used to live off those boxed mac n' cheese dinners. But none of that mattered. We could just look at the moon. That was enough."
"Perhaps another, less luxurious memory would suffice?"
"The first date I took her to we laughed for three hours straight.” The shop girl seemed uncomfortable with this information, but it felt good to say this to someone. “That's how you could tell she meant it,” Frank explained. “Her shoulders would shake and they wouldn’t stop. She used to drag me on these impromptu adventures. Exploring little neighborhoods. She'd just take my hand and pull me away from whatever work I was buried under..."
"Sir, I'm not sure how I can help you," the shop girl said.
Frank nodded. He looked up at the camera on the wall. "Will Arthur be here soon?" he asked.
"I'll check." The shop girl took a step towards the door, but Frank grabbed her arm. She startled.
"Look," he said. "She's my world..."
"If I may, sir?” the shop girl said. “I don't think now is an opportune time to trade."
"And why’s that?”
"You're upset. Which is never good for the machines. Besides, it won't be enough."
"What do you mean?” Arthur said.
"I'm not sure you have what others would want," the shop girl said. Her voice was gentle, but the words still stung.
"Hey, I'm a good guy. I have a job. An assistant named Maureen. I'm not a dead beat."
"It's just…not enough," the shop girl said. She seemed sorry about it, but Frank didn't need her pity. He stood and shuffled to the door.
The shop girl watched him go. "Wait,” she said. Frank stopped. “Close your eyes. What’s the best memory you have? The most distilled moment you can remember?"
Frank closed his eyes. He thought long and hard. "But why that one?"
"There's a reason why you don't want to give it up."
"Jesus," he said. "And you're saying that would be enough?"
"I'd have to weigh it, but..."
"How the hell do you do that?"
"The machine, of course."
Frank nodded at that. Life was all machines nowadays, technology and convenience. "On Dateline," he said. "There was this segment. Say you go in there and take more memories than I even know I have. The memories that are locked away. And it’s only later, when I’m on the outside, that I find out I'm less of a man."
The shop girl seemed to relax. "With anything worthwhile,” she said, “there’s risk. In the procedure, we take memory clusters linked to a focal point. Everything's connected, like the branches of a tree. If you’re not comfortable with that, you can opt-out.”
Frank twirled his wedding ring on his finger. "No,” he said, thinking of Anna as she sobbed through the night. “Let's do it.”
The shop girl took out some paperwork. "Sign here. And here. Also, here. One more." She turned the sheet over and pointed to a dotted line. "Here."
Frank did as he was told. The shop girl smiled.
"Now, sit back, and we'll begin."
She walked over to the door and locked it. The bolt sounded like a gunshot as it slid into place. Frank's hands started to sweat. The lights dimmed as the shop girl placed probes on his head and chest. Frank realized Arthur hadn't been mentioned in awhile. A small, firm truth clouded his mind.
"There is no Arthur. Is there?" he asked softly.
The shop girl said nothing. Frank licked his lips. He needed water. Closing his eyes, he nodded. Go ahead.
She pressed a button. On the screen, a jumble of Frank's memories flashed by. The shop girl studied the bursts of swirling faces. He remembered sunlight, lost afternoons, wandering through markets, evenings entangled in Anna's arms. Strange how long hours at the office seemed to slip through the machine.
The shop girl clucked her tongue approvingly. "You've got special ones. Pure. Not a lot of people have that." She adjusted the controls. "There. That's the focal point."
On the screen now, Frank came face to face with Anna. She was mid-laugh, her shoulders shaking in slow motion. It had been a long time since he had seen her like this. She was in a field. A park in the city. She was trying to do cartwheels. Dirt was stuck to her knees. Every time Anna swung her legs over her head, her skirt would ride up and a cackle would escape her lips.
It had been one of their first dates. Nervous to be alone with her, he had kept pulling up the grass along their blanket. A picnic. That's what he had proposed to her. "Let's go for a picnic."
Both the shop girl and Frank watched as the images sped up, going through Frank and Anna's relationship together. They ate mac n' cheese, clinking forks in solidarity. They ran up stairs to kiss on rooftops. They listened to songs on street corners and sang along (terribly) to the music. They attempted to cook, dropping whole chickens on the floor. They carried furniture through apartments, searching for the perfect fit.
Through all the memories, Anna was a dancing, breathless whirlwind. She would storm into a room and grab Frank's hand, pulling him up from cluttered desks and chairs, papers strewn all around him. “Let’s go on an adventure,” she’d say, tugging him to the door. “Let’s go, go, go.”
What would his life have been without this bright star in his life? All those endless hours wandering through seaside towns, running down supermarket aisles, making silly faces in window displays, looking up at the stars, driving (the wind always in Anna's hair). Anna's thighs, the stretch marks on her belly, like warrior stripes. A brief flash of a child blinked onto the screen. But no, he didn’t want to remember that. Couldn’t remember. The last time she had seen him, really looked in Frank’s eyes, she had snarled, a primal scream erupting from her lips. "Nothing can fix this," she spat. "Nothing you can do."
But still, he kept trying. The images flashed before him, the days watching and waiting and longing and fighting. His failures. Frank shifted in his chair. "Wait a minute,” he said. “Are you going to take all of them?" He had never allowed himself to consider how much of his life was built around Anna.
The shop girl pressed another button. "Around the focal point, yes,” she said. On the screen, the image froze on Anna and Frank entwined on the couch. “Would you like me to stop?"
Frank studied Anna’s face. She was smiling, her eyes shining. When would she look at him like that again? Now all she would talk about was the moon, drawing its silhouette over and over, tracing the lines on envelopes and magazines.
"I just want her to smile again," he said. He had always strived to give Anna what she wanted. Frank nodded for the shop girl to keep going. The memories whipped across the screen, moments where Anna pushed to the edge of things. She was always doing that, stepping to the brink of cliffs and roads, parallel parking with abandon, riding bikes with her arms above her head, sitting on Frank's shoulders, her touch, soft and sure, her lips, curling upward.
Frank knew what was coming, but he didn't want to see. His mind had placed these memories in a locked box where he couldn’t reach. Yet, the machine knew no bounds. It was smashing the box to smithereens. It was opening it now. No. Please.
And just like that, she appeared.
His little girl.
Her eyes were like Anna’s, fierce and free. Days upon days flashed before him – hours playing with her, fighting with her, wrestling her to behave. Even before their baby could walk she was exploring, her laughter infectious as she learned to crawl. There was so much to look forward to then, so much joy spinning through those bleary hours.
Frank couldn't help the way he remembered things. He didn't like to see their home in disarray. Didn’t like to feel his chest tightening. In these moments, he tried to comfort Anna. He tried to hold her. But nothing worked.
It was no one’s fault. That’s what the doctors said. “Sometimes these things happen.” But Frank couldn’t help blaming himself for how still she lay in her crib, remembering even now the doctors saying that there was nothing to be done. As if that made it okay.
The memories were darker now. There were bills. Dishes piled high in the sink. Anna collapsed, unable to stand, her t-shirts swallowing her up. A kaleidoscope of memories erupted on the screen, all about Anna dancing. Anna eating. Anna singing. Anna fucking. Anna showering. Anna shouting. The machine was ransacking Frank’s mind, looting all the boxes he had neatly organized and forgotten. What sick soul would ever want this? To feel this aching sadness? Though he supposed to feel any pain was to feel alive, to feel anything at all? Frank became unsettled, thinking of his memories, his life, out there for some pervert to see. But before he could stand up, before he could move, there was a sharp sound, as if a cord had been unplugged.
Frank tapped his fingers on the counter. He didn't feel that different, though he had a sneaking suspicion he was supposed to do something, or be somewhere, but he couldn’t remember now. He watched the shop girl expertly tie a ribbon on a wrapped box, the delicate finishing touch on the perfect present. She slid the gift over to Frank.
"Have a good day now," she said, a note of sadness in her voice.
Back at the house, it seemed foolish that Frank had even wanted to find the memory shop now. He watched Anna unwrap the present and hold it close to her chest. He watched her dance for him. He knew he should have been relieved, but he had trouble placing her voice. Was this how she acting when she happy? He tried to remember the facts, why any of this mattered.
He knew he spent nearly seven years with this woman before him. He liked how she walked, how she laughed, the lilt in her voice and the shape of her wrists. She had slender, lean fingers and almond skin, and there was a birthmark over her right hip. He knew that he asked this woman to marry him. He knew where they met, from the pictures. That they had a child…
He still had knowledge of going into the shop. That he acted. Did something. But the pressing reason why, the insurmountable panic that led him to that unmarked door, had escaped him.
And so this was his reality. Every day, he dreaded leaving work, going back to this woman, this house, where the opened present sat neatly on the mantle above the fireplace. In this house, the moon always glowed through the window. In this house, Anna always danced. Frank yearned for the clouds to cover the sky.
Frank walked up to the front door and fumbled for the keys. He hoped that she would be sleeping, but she was never sleeping anymore. As soon as he was inside, he saw her by the window. She was twirling and swaying. Her back to Frank. The moon memory had done this, given her something so far beyond herself she could live with the pain, at least for now.
Frank dropped his heavy satchel by the door. When Anna heard him, she pecked him on the cheek. "Babe!" she cried, lifting his arms, trying to get him to move with her.
"You never dance with me anymore." She pouted, spinning around him. Frank patted her on the shoulder, disengaging from her limbs.
"How was your day?" Anna asked.
"Just need a good night's sleep," he replied.
Anna nodded. She had noticed his brush off, but chose not to react. "It's almost ready. Your favorite."
Frank took off his hat as Anna wheeled out a small TV tray with a plate of mac n' cheese. She brought out another one for herself, humming the tune to "Fly Me to the Moon." Frank knew it from those great outdoor malls blasting Sinatra – American nostalgia to get you in the shopping mood.
"Remember," Anna said. "How she'd fall asleep to this? We'd play it, and she'd be out like a light."
Frank nodded politely. He remembered their child, but not the birth, her first word, but not Anna holding her. These were sunspots on his memory. A flash of a little girl's face burst through his mind, but then it was gone.
Anna saw Frank staring off into space. She traced the outline of his knuckles with her hands and smiled softly.
That smile. Slightly crooked. Pepper in her teeth. He liked how the faintest of dimples appeared when her lips curved upward. He wondered how many times he had seen her smile before.
They ate on. Anna noticed his silence, but wasn’t sure what to think. His eyes strayed, settling on the mantle.
"Hey," she said. "You."
He speared the pasta with his fork.
After a moment, Anna kneeled before him and took his head in her hands. “Are you alright?” she asked. “Is it me?”
Something about his eyes terrified her. A coldness crept under her skin. Anna picked up her drink. "To the good ol' days," she said. They clinked glasses, Frank a beat behind.
She ate a few more bites. Then she wiped her mouth with a napkin. She stood, taking her husband’s hand.
"Come on," she said.
"I want to show you something."
Frank hesitated. Anna’s eyes were glistening, and there was a flash of something, an anti-septic smell, a touch of grey. Her hair tucked around her ear, draped across her shoulders. This was a woman I could love, he thought. Her grip was gentle, but firm, a flickering light in the shadows. And then, ever faintly, he sensed a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spark, the space between, the faintest knowing, and all Frank could think as she pulled him up was he's been here before, this bright, strange land – and when her skin was on his, it was better than flying, better than every memory in the world, because it felt like the golden hour of the day, like running into the breakers and singing in stalled traffic, screaming to the sky we are here, we are here, and more than anything else, more than the moon and the sun and all the stars, Frank knew – finally, always – he was home.
Eva Konstantopoulos is a screenwriter and author from New York. She recently wrapped production on a short film, Re/collection, which is based on "There Is No Arthur." Her novella, Hush, was previously adapted for the screen by Sigma Films and Thruline Entertainment. She has developed projects with Lost Rhino Films and Midnight Sun Pictures, and her feature screenplay, The Virgin of Poughkeepsie, was awarded Best Screenplay at the Gotham Screen International Film Festival. Her fiction has been published in anthologies and literary journals, and she's received an Equivocality Writer's Travel Scholarship to Thailand for her latest novella, East of Nowhere. Most recently, she was a writers' assistant on Disney Junior's hit show, Sofia the First, where she wrote an episode of the series. For more, visit evakonstantopoulos.com or follow the author on Twitter and Tumblr.
Devyn Park was born and raised on the Big Island of Hawaii and received her BFA in Illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. She currently resides in Bellingham WA. For more, visit devynpark.com or follow the artist on Twitter and Tumblr.
Susanna Rose is a singer-songwriter from Rochester, NY. Her latest album, Snowbound, was released in 2015. Susanna plays frequently in Upstate New York. For more, visit susannarose.com and follow her on Twitter.