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Intro to Memory at 11:00
The large bell rang high in the tower at the center of campus. Those remaining on the sidewalks offered quick goodbyes and scuttled off to various lecture halls. One student, carrying what appeared to be a large majority of the reference section of the library, sloshed hot coffee on himself as he pulled the heavy door of an ivy-brick building. He hurried down the hall, past the mounted light fixtures and dark wooden benches. He turned and pushed open a door with his back, pivoting on his foot and continuing on to a seat in the lecture auditorium. The room was dimly lit, save for the bright desk lamp illuminating one end of the surgical gurney at the front. A vent blew cold air down the back of his neck from the ceiling directly above him. The overwrought student gently placed his stack of books next to his seat and wriggled out of the straps of his bulging backpack. Peter Davenport sat down, unzipped the heavy canvas pack and took out a laptop computer. A bright electronic chord played as the system loaded, and he sipped the rest of his warm coffee as class began.
“I hope you have all come fully prepared today,” began the Professor as he materialized from his desk in the shadows near the chalkboard. Pressing a button embedded in the wall, a large screen began to lower behind the examination table. He moved toward the large soundboard next to the gurney and plugged in a cable. It made a thrumming staticky sound as the speakers linked to the gleaming wireless implements on the table next to the subject. He cleared his throat, stretching latex gloves over his delicate and well-practiced hands. “We will begin at the beginning,” he continued as he picked up a short tool with many silvery threads on one end. He gently guided the wires into the wizened woman’s cleaved skull. “With formative memories.”
Peter leaned forward, momentarily forsaking his notes as he watched an image flicker into focus on the projection screen. And then, gloriously, sound from another time swirled into clarity, though some form of interference choked the noise. The Professor frowned and with a more aggressive turn of his wrist, the voice of the woman rang throughout the lecture hall. Monotonous, yes, but a voice nonetheless.
“The air is sharp and smoky. It’s stinging my nose.”
Her voice was gentle. Peter looked down at the woman on the gurney as if to catch her and the Professor in some grand hoax. Surely she was miked. Or something. Yet her mouth wasn’t moving, and Peter wanted to laugh at himself for even looking. Of course she wasn’t speaking. Subject’s jaws were always wired after they had been donated to science. That was the way things worked; once a disease progressed to a certain point and the person’s quality of life was judged to be wanting, the Surgeon General almost always ruled that the person would be submitted for study. Everything was done with thoughts for the future generations. Peter’s own grandmother had been submitted when he was nine. This was a process he had always understood in theory, but to see it implemented was another sort of rush. He smiled to himself, undeniably excited for what the study would bring. The woman’s voice continued;
“And there are Big People voices. They’re low and mumbling but I hear them laugh, happy. Big Sister tells me to follow her upstairs. But she can run so much faster than me. The carpet is scratchy and brown and I crawl quick behind her. But she’s so fast because her feet can reach the steps. I climb and climb to the big flat part and then I see the big frozen cheetah. He scares me, and I know he isn’t real because he is made of cold and smooth and tastes like medicine. But I’m still scared he’ll jump up and get me as I try to get past. I go fast, and make it to more and more stairs. I can’t see Big Sister anymore.
“I climb one step. And another. It’s hard to keep climbing because there are always more stairs. And Big Sister beats me, and she is probably putting on dress-up clothes or pirate treasure or pixie dust, and I can’t see the tip top. I try to climb again just as big hands grab around my belly and pick me up into the air. Aunt’s voice is heavy as she makes scoldy sounds at me and I squirm but she won’t put me down.
“She hands me to Grammy, whose bright red lips are wet and sticky against my cheek and who smells like the couches. I try to get down, reaching for the stairs, reaching and reaching. Grammy clucks and sets me down in a playpen with nothing I can play with. It isn’t fair, and I open my mouth and cry.”
“Here you can see,“ continued the Professor as he remove the instrument. The hall resonated with the gentle syncopated ticking of studious fingers on computer keys; “That the first memory is based on tangible senses, such as touch and smell. Sound registers, but not in detail. And because the subject had not yet at this time developed speech, nor had she acquired a mastery of comprehension, that all possible dialogue is depicted by qualifying the sound itself.”
By qualifying the sound itself, Peter wrote and then turned his attention back on the Professor. The images on the projector were far clearer than any old fashioned film-reel he’d seen in required history classes back in undergrad. And yet, at the same time, there was a tangible sort of muddiness. The picture was tinted darkly, as if the memory was more of a grope in the dark with only the barest traces of light or color.
“And now, let’s see if I can’t get this next one. It’s not as clear as I’d like, but I think it’s still important for you to see a progression of comprehension, especially in the case of our particular subject.” There was a small squelching sound as the Professor inserted the silvery filaments back into the woman’s brain. She twitched. The Professor pursed his lips as he pushed harder, and once more an image swam into focus on the projector screen. And as before, the voice of the woman began speaking.
“ The air is very cold. I stick out my tongue and taste the salty runny nose that I can’t feel. Daddy’s holding my hand and leading me through tall grasses. Everything is breaking when I step on it. Brown grass is glittery. Crunchy crunch snap. Momma and Big Sister are ahead of us, and Sandy is going in silly circles, big and around. Daddy stops at the edge to tell me we are at the pond. But it doesn’t look like the pond. Everything is shining and hard and then I see Momma step out on top of the water and I want to tell her not to swim because I don’t think we have towels. But Momma doesn’t sink. She walks across, and Sandy stands barking in the trees.
“‘See?” says Daddy. ‘Frozen. It’s all hard. It’s ice, like in drinks, but real big.’
“We aren’t going swimming, we are going to walk on water. Daddy steps out, still holding onto my hand. My fingers are cold, even though Grandma Sugar pulled my mittens over my hands back at the white house. Daddy steps, and doesn’t swim. It’s too much to walk on water, and I bend my knees until I am low.
“’Come on, you,’ Daddy smiles. Happy teeth. He lifts me up with his big arm and my feet sail over the air and down onto the ice. I hold his hand very close because there is a dark ice monster underneath me I just know it.
“Sandy barks loud at me. I am very grown up, I tell her no. She doesn’t do what I tell her. And then she walks out clicky clicky on the hard water. Momma claps and holds out her hands, but Sandy’s feet go every way and she stands very still, looking down at the dark underneath. And Big Sister scoots by, and she doesn’t pick up her feet when she walks. She tells Momma she is an ice skater. Momma laughs. I want to make Momma laugh. She has snow in her hair.
“I’m big,” I reassure Daddy and pull my hand out of his. I copycat Big Sister. My feet scuff scuff scuff, real tiny. Daddy laughs and tells me to stand still. I stay, and he pushes me like a swing and I slide toward Momma. Momma comes to me and picks me up, and there are cold kisses on my cheek. But Big Sister doesn’t need Momma or Daddy to hold her hand. I want to do it myself, too. Momma puts me down and I take the biggest step. And then the ground sneaks away real quick and I feel a fall and then hear a big crack as my head hits the ice. I don’t cry for a second, but then the sound won’t stop coming from me.
“Not very much to work with,” the Professor acknowledged as he removed the tool with a sucking sound. “But still, there is a further developed sense of identity, and of processing. She tries to work through more complex issues and understandings. And there is trust present, and she seems consciously aware of that. Note also the desire to compete with others. Next, however,” he said as he inspected the woman’s exposed brain, looking for a particular entry point, “we will explore a more detailed memory. Bear in mind that this subject’s condition, at the time of donation, was highly advanced. Thus, the subject had no ability to actually recall any of these events. Yet the memory itself remains beautifully intact within the parietal lobe, and further in the hippocampus. Watch closely, because the detail in this next is just exquisite.”
“My breath sucks out of me all of a sudden because I hear footsteps down the hall from Cousin’s room where I should be asleep. There’s a stack of books next to me because I was reading instead of being good. I watch the bright yellow crack around the door, holding my breath tight inside. Cousin is the good girl: she is laying openmouthed beside me, breath sticky with stolen candy and kind of toothpaste. She didn’t brush very good. I feel my heart beating quickly as I remember Momma’s words to Go To Bed, Don’t Stay Up, You Can Play In The Morning. The threat of a spanking makes me clench in fear. I make my eyes into little slits and watch the bright yellow crack around the door. But two big black spots tell me there is someone right outside the door.”
The projector went blank, and there was a stirring in the lecture hall as students looked curiously down at the Professor to see if there had been a technical malfunction. Yet the old academic stood with his hand on the woman’s head, a sort of excited anticipation on his face as he waited for what was to come. Peter frowned, a bit unnerved by the over-eager expression on the old man’s face.
“ I lay on my back, breathing quiet as a mouse, eyes shut tight but not tight enough to make my lids all squinchy. I hold the blanket under a crooked arm, being a sleeper. I wonder if I should try to snore. All sleepers snore, but I don’t know how and I can’t make the sound.
Ah, thought Peter, connecting the blankness of the screen to the closed-eye recollection of the subject, that’s kind of a gimmick. He glanced at the boy seated to his right to make a comment about the kitschy turn this study had taken, but then stopped. The boy was leaning forward in his seat, his lip curled and eyebrows furrowed. He seemed about to throw up, or perhaps cry. He closed his eyes for a long moment before turning back to his attention back to his computer. Peter faced forward before he could accidentally make eye contact with his peer, returning his fingers to their place on the home-row keys of his laptop and prepared to take further notes. He decided to keep his asides to himself.
“The door cracks open and I know that either Aunt or Uncle are checking to see that we obeyed the rules, that we have been good girls and have not been sneaky. I am sneaking right this minute, and am hoping hoping hoping that I will not get in trouble. I hear sneaky creaky footsteps and feel my covers pull slowly back. My warm blanket skin feels cool air. I want to shiver, want to reach down and tug the blankets back onto my body, but I gotta keep pretending to be sleeping. There is a weight on the bed and I move just a little. The weight stays, I get still.
“And then, slowly, there are hands where hands should not be, there are fingers touching skin that is not theirs to touch and I lay very still and quiet because maybe this is some trick to check if I am still awake and lying is a very serious thing it says so in the B-I-B-L-E yes that’s the book for me but I want to push these hands away from where they are touching because I want Momma and Daddy but I can’t be awake, I won’t get to play at the park tomorrow if I’m not a good sleepover girl but I don’t understand what is happening on the other side of my eyelids and if I could just open up and say boo the monster will go away, I’ll scare it off if it will just stop touching and stroking.”
Peter leaned against the seat back, mesmerized by the woman’s voice, his notes neglected and coffee grown entirely cold. He shifted in his seat. His legs ached, he wanted to stretch or go on a walk. The woman’s voice had picked up speed, yet no emotion colored her tone. Peter chanced a glance around the room. About two-thirds of the students typed avidly, nodding in comprehension of the delicate strands that had woven together to form this recollection. But there were more than a handful of his peers that were also glancing around the room, shaking their heads. One girl in the back was actually crying. The boy next to Peter closed his computer and looked directly at him.
“No way,” he whispered. “This is too much. No way. This is voyeurism. I’m not doing this. No way.”
Peter’s frowned as he turned back to the projection and away from his fellow student. The woman’s voice carried on and Peter was once more lost in the subject’s gentle voice.
“I hear a creak and the weight is gone and those big hot scary hands are moving my pajamas back to where they should be and dragging the warm blanket over my skin. But this time, the blanket feels like another monster touching me and I don’t want anything to touch me except the pretty Disney lady with kind brown eyes and a yellow dress printed on the front of my pajamas. I hear the door creak closed and I slowly open my eyes. Everything is blue, so blue. The lights around the window glow softly, twinkling and shining through the dark. There is a genie bottle on the lamp stand, and I want to open it up and talk to the man inside it and beg him to take it back.”
“Oho!” exclaimed the Professor as the woman’s voice faded into the faint buzz of the speakers “Wonderful. Now, you see! As the brain develops, the propensity for greater episodic detail expands. Fascinating. Note the way our subject’s perceptions change based on her reactions to different situations. How the details take a particular slant. Even the pacing of the recollection changes. And all this capability before the age of six. We will delve tomorrow into how such memories are formed, because it’s clearly more involved than mere facts. I do hope you have taken diligent notes on the focal points in each memory, as well as any details that might prove to be of intrinsic value to your further studies. You’re dismissed, though I’d like to see Gebbett, DeWalt, and Johnson about your midterm papers before you leave this afternoon.”
The class rumbled to its’f eet as the Professor tugged the instrument from the old woman’s brain. A bit of pinkish-grey fell with a plink! on the floor next to his feet. He frowned and then sighed, muttering and shaking his head as he switched off the desk lamp at the head of the gurney, returning the projection screen to its lofty position with a press of the button as he returned to his desk chair.
The boy who had been sitting to his right hastily collected his things, crammed them into his book bag, and all but sprinted from the classroom. Peter watched him go, a little prick of pity poking at the periphery of his thoughts. Poor guy won’t make it through med school if he’s squeamish like that, he thought, frowning.
Peter shut his laptop with a click and slid it back into his book bag. Brow furrowed, he stacked his library books and heaved them into his arms. He left the coffee cup on the floor where he’d sat and started down the stairs for his next class, glancing only once at the subject who lay prone on the exam table. For the briefest of moments, he considered saying “thank you”. As soon as he considered it, he wanted to laugh. She couldn’t have heard him, anyway.