Story Excerpt

Keepsakes

by Kenneth Schneyer

 

As usual, the simulation shows Doru’s Keepsake sitting on the scuffed leather couch in his apartment on Medway Street, barefoot, wearing those wonderful soft jeans and the pink shirt that eventually fell apart. Doru sits across from it, in the real wicker chair in his current condo. The Keepsake’s unlined face, really rather good-looking even with the hint of residual baby fat, gazes at Doru with calm tolerance.

“Tell me about dinner with Afzal at The Rue,” says Doru.

The Keepsake rolls its eyes. “Again? You mean last time we went? Not, say, the other ten or fifteen times?”

Doru nods. “Unless you remember those as well as you remember that one.”

The Keepsake flutters the first two fingers of its right hand. “You know I don’t. All right. Afzal met me on Hope Street after he finished work—”

“How did he get there?”

The Keepsake sighs. “He walked up the long hill from downtown, and his face was pink and a little shiny, and he was breathing hard.”

Doru inhales happily. “What was he wearing?”

“That silly suede jacket and his tall boots.”

“It wasn’t silly,” says Doru.

The Keepsake assumes a look of mock astonishment. “Oh? That’s interesting. Would you like to tell me about that? How that feels? How you feel? That’d be something.”

Doru shakes his head.

“Didn’t think so,” says the Keepsake.

“Just tell me,” says Doru. “Did you kiss him?”

The Keepsake shrugs. “Of course.”

“What did he smell like?”

“Almonds.”

“That shampoo he had.”

“Yes.”

Doru sighs. “Then what?”

“We walked down Hope Street from the middle of College Hill; it was a cool, breezy day, and Afzal’s hand felt pleasantly hot by contrast.”

“Mm.”

“The trees had a lot of yellow and red in them; in the slanting sunlight, their contrast against the darkening blue sky was blinding.”

“Yes.”

“We noticed that there were some new playground toys at Fox Point. We started talking about children. Afzal still didn’t want them.”

“Don’t tell me that part,” says Doru.

The Keepsake gives him an exasperated look. “Would you like to give me a script? Exactly what I can say and what I can’t?” Doru doesn’t answer. “We spent half that meal arguing about whether to have kids; you want me to guess at which aspects of that conversation you don’t want to hear?”

“You should know me well enough—”

“No,” the Keepsake interrupts. “You should know me well enough; I have no basis at all for knowing you. You never tell me anything.”

“You wouldn’t learn anything from it anyway,” says Doru.

“Depends on what you mean by ‘learn,’” says the Keepsake. Again, Doru doesn’t reply. “Oh, I can tell some things by inspection. You’ve become a maudlin old man—”

“Fifty isn’t old,” says Doru.

“Well, obviously you thought so once, didn’t you?” says the Keepsake, gesturing with its fingertips at its own chest. “A maudlin old man who likes to spend his time daydreaming about the past. God, your life must be dull.”

Doru stares at the Keepsake for several seconds. Then, more quietly, he says, “Look. Can it hurt you to tell me the things I ask? You remember them so clearly; I just want to be reminded.”

“But only of the good things?” Doru nods. The Keepsake shrugs again. “No, of course it can’t hurt me. Nothing can hurt me, can it? All right: We drank a dark Spanish wine. Afzal had that huge salad Niçoise they do so well. I had the lamb, which was just as fine as ever.”

Doru spends another twenty minutes listening to this beautiful story before he closes the simulation and goes to bed.

*   *   *

As usual, Afzal’s Keepsake is sitting in a bare room, the single window allowing pale light from an overcast sky to give him a slightly bluish hue. Afzal stands behind another chair, leaning on it, looking into the Keepsake’s eyes.

“Good evening,” says Afzal. “I thought I’d fill you in on recent events.”

The Keepsake nods, its face apprehensive but resigned.

“Hsu granted our motion for summary judgment,” says Afzal. “Those affidavits did the trick. And those discovery responses too! They never laid eyes on a single document that could help them.”

“They’ll appeal,” says the Keepsake.

“Of course they’ll appeal, but ‘no genuine issue of material fact’ means ‘no genuine issue of material fact.’ They’ll have nothing to stand on.”

The Keepsake sighs. “Congratulations. So Multibillion-Dollar Company One successfully avoids liability to Multibillion-Dollar Company Two, because of the cleverness and guile of its brilliant lawyers.”

“Especially one of its brilliant lawyers.”

“I’m thrilled.”

Afzal wags his finger. “Truthfulness, now. You’re disappointed.”

The Keepsake looks him in the eyes. “Yes, I’m disappointed.”

Afzal inhales through his nostrils as if exploring the bouquet of a lovely old wine. “Oh, tell me why.”

“You know why.”

Afzal winks. “Tell me anyway.”

Like a witness under oath, its eyes on the opposite wall, the Keepsake begins. “You have no idealism. You work for people you don’t care about. You glory over victories that prove nothing but your own skill.”

Afzal nods. “Yes, indeed. I’ve grown up quite a bit.”

“You call it growing up.”

“And you call it—?”

“Selling out, of course.”

Afzal grins. “Oh, say it again.”

“Why?”

“You know why.”

“Selling out.”

Afzal purses his lips. “You don’t seem very upset, though. Why aren’t you more upset?”

The Keepsake grimaces. “What is there to be upset about? There’s nothing here you haven’t told me before. So the disappointing failure has one more disappointing failure. So this winter is just as cold and grey as last. No news at all.”

Afzal taps the back of the chair. “Sounds like a negotiating tactic to me.”

“You oughtta know. What the hell do I have to negotiate for?”

Afzal considers. “You’d like me to stop doing this; it’s painful. If you can make me think that it’s not having any effect, maybe I’ll lose interest and find some other way to entertain myself. Very clever.”

The Keepsake shakes its head. “You have an amazingly high opinion of yourself and not much imagination anymore. If a news window only told you things you already knew, and no one let you close it, would you get upset, or just bored?”

Afzal thinks for a while. “Well then, I’ll have to find something new.”

For the first time, a flicker of something like fear passes over the Keepsake’s face. It’s delicious.

*   *   *

Eugenia’s never looked at her father’s collection of birthday Keepsakes. She remembers making them, of course: when she was a little girl, it seemed silly to walk and talk for twenty minutes, then sit for another twenty wearing a stretchy cap with wires leading out of it, especially on her birthday. She was always impatient for her party and presents. But her father said that someday she’d be happy to see and hear what she was like when she was little. It never made sense to her, because none of her friends did anything like this.

She starts with the most recent Keepsake, but it isn’t very interesting. Eugenia at nineteen is a lot like Eugenia at twenty-one. They have some fun asking each other things, and the Keepsake wants to hear gossip about all her friends and their girlfriends and boyfriends. Eventually Eugenia waves goodbye to the Keepsake, who waves merrily back.

Then she calls up herself at eleven. She remembers that as an especially good day, and the Keepsake agrees that it’s been a nice day so far, but the fun things, the pony rides and the juggler, haven’t happened yet, although the Keepsake is looking forward to them. The Keepsake talks for a while about her best friends, Nancy and Jake and Serena. Eugenia hasn’t thought about Serena for five years at least; she’s delighted.

Each time, Eugenia saves both the copy with a memory cache of their conversation, and the original, which ought to be the same every time she activates it. She’s not sure why, though. She can’t imagine what she’d do with a Keepsake that remembered being previously awakened. Surely if you wanted to relive your memories, you’d want them as fresh and untrammeled as you could get them.

Then Eugenia decides to interact with herself really, really young. Not the first one, from her first birthday: a crawling, drooling Keepsake wouldn’t be much fun. Instead she chooses the five-year-old; she can’t remember anything about that birthday, except that there were little horse figurines on the cake. She wonders whether she was one of those sweet, adorable kids, or one of those obnoxious, whiny ones.

The little girl who appears in the center of the room is dressed in a red tank top and red slacks that Eugenia vaguely remembers; she knows she had a real penchant for red, back then. The Keepsake looks around the room with mild interest, then catches sight of Eugenia.

“Mommy!” the Keepsake shrieks, then runs forward as if to throw her arms around Eugenia’s legs. Since the Keepsake is only a simulation, her arms go right through Eugenia as if she weren’t there. “Mommy, Mommy!” the girl cries again, more desperate.

Shit. Of course this birthday was only a few months after her mother died, and of course Eugenia looks like her mother. Stupid, stupid, stupid. The little girl is sobbing wildly, kneeling, still trying to reach Eugenia with her hands. Eugenia probably should just turn off the Keepsake and try again another time, but she can’t keep herself from trying to comfort the child, to calm her down.

“Eug—” What was her nickname back then? “Genie. I’m not Mommy, Genie.”

“You’re okay!” says the Keepsake through her tears. “Daddy didn’t hurt you. You’re okay!”

The skin on Eugenia’s back and neck tightens as if she’s leaned into a block of ice. “Daddy?” she says. The little girl nods, sniffling.

Eugenia speaks calmly, trying to get a lullaby singsong into her voice. “I’m okay, Genie, I’m fine. See?” She spreads her arms and smiles. The Keepsake takes a shuddering breath, gives a little smile of its own. Eugenia talks with it for a while longer, about simple things: pets, toys, her party.

Then she asks, “What did Daddy do, sweetie?”

*   *   *

Madeline’s office hasn’t improved a jot in twenty-two years: the same books in the same places, the same pictures, the same orientation of furniture and knickknacks. Her view of the river outside has changed more than the office inside. Afzal doesn’t know how she stands it. His own office gets some significant makeover at least once a year; nothing expensive, but something to give Afzal the feeling of progress.

“Nice work on the Ravenstein case,” says Madeline. “That’s five in a row, isn’t it?”

“Thanks.” Afzal settles in the right-hand chair because he took the left-hand chair last time. He knows what’s coming; Madeline doesn’t usually begin conversations with praise. He waits, smiling blandly.

Finally she says, “A new pro bono case has come in.”

Afzal nods. “I have several new associates who can work on it.”

Madeline says, “Actually, I was hoping you’d handle it yourself.” Afzal rolls his eyes. “No, seriously.”

Afzal begins, “Why use your most expensive—”

She cuts him off. “Because it looks better for the firm when all the partners are doing at least some pro bono work. Right?”

Afzal sighs. “Yes, but they’re dull. Routine pleadings, routine discovery, blah. It’s the sort of work made for newbies.” Or old ladies who like to do the same thing over and over, he adds silently.

Madeline nods. “This one I think you’ll like; it has some issues that haven’t come up before.”

Afzal sits a little straighter. “Really? Tell me more.”

“Admissibility of Keepsake testimony.”

He shrugs. “What’s novel about that? Keepsake evidence has been allowed ever since Henderson v. Delahanty.”

“Yes, but that was only for purposes of refreshing recollection, and Gregorovich covers only unavailable witnesses. In this case, we’re going to want to use Keepsake testimony that contradicts the client’s own memory.

“Why?”

“Because it’s a repressed memory.”

*   *   *

“My father started recording annual Keepsakes of me on my first birthday,” says Eugenia Lima. Viola, a paralegal Afzal hasn’t worked with before, is making an effort to be silent as she takes her notes, but the room’s soundproofing is so good that even the taps of her fingertips on her tablet are crisp and distinct. Afzal avoids glancing over at her, keeping his eyes on the client.

He asks, “The technology was pretty new back then, wasn’t it?”

“It had just become available to the general public that year, and it wasn’t cheap.”

“I remember,” says Afzal. “So, we have nineteen separate Keepsakes of you at different ages. And the one that brought you to me is . . . ?”

“From when I was five,” says Lima.

“Go on.”

“She said she saw my father push my mother down the stairs. That was the accident that killed my mother. Except that it wasn’t an accident.”

Afzal leans forward, fascinated. “And therein lies the wrongful death case,” he says. Then he remembers to say, “I’m very sorry to hear this.” Viola looks up and knits her eyebrows together. Afzal continues, “And you yourself don’t remember this event? You don’t recall your father pushing your mother down the stairs?”

Lima swallows. “I remember that she died in an accident. I mean, I remember being told that it was an accident. I don’t remember being there when it happened.”

“Talking to the Keepsake hasn’t stirred any new recollections?”

She shakes her head. “My therapist thinks it’s psychogenic amnesia.”

“We’ll need to talk to your therapist.”

Viola puts in, “I have the name and she’s signed the form.”

Afzal nods. “Do any of your later Keepsakes have this memory?”

Lima shakes her head again. “Not even the six-year-old. Or at least, they don’t admit to it.”

He thinks for a minute. “Has your father done anything at all during the last sixteen years that might suggest he killed your mother?”

She shakes her head. “Nothing I can think of.”

“Why would he have done it, anyway?”

“I don’t know. I remember them as happy together. Money, maybe? She left everything to him.”

Then Afzal has a sudden thought. “I don’t understand why your father would continue making Keepsakes of you after killing your mother.”

Lima looks unhappy. “It was just something he did every year,” she says. “Like a ceremony or ritual, you know? To mark the passage of time. I think, maybe he thought it would make things seem more normal. He’s been very good to me.” She begins to choke up. “He cheered me up when I was sad, was kind to my friends, told me I could do anything I tried. I can’t believe . . .” She trails off.

Afzal gives her a sharp look. “You mean you don’t believe it?”

Eugenia pulls out a tissue and wipes her nose. “No, I do. I do believe her.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, Eugenia, if your family was able to afford something as expensive as annual Keepsakes back in, um, 2048, then you are clearly very well off. Why is this a pro bono case?”

She looks him in the eye. “My father has all the money. With what I have, I couldn’t afford to pay for more than an hour or two of your time.”

Afzal asks, “Is there a criminal case?”

Viola speaks up, “Not yet. The A.D.A. isn’t sure she wants to proceed based on Keepsake testimony alone. If we get a ruling admitting the evidence, and especially if we win the wrongful death case, that’ll go a long way to convincing her to prosecute.”

A few weeks later, Viola comes into Afzal’s office with a list of potential expert witnesses on Keepsake design and functionality. There are several, including the original experts from the Henderson case, who are still available.

But Viola points out, “You wanted experts who could testify as to the reliability of Keepsake evidence in comparison to personal recollections, and I’m told that’s a different kind of expertise, having to do with memory degradation and the malleability of Keepsakes. Apparently we want people with expertise both in the technology and in human memory.”

“Is there anyone like that?”

It turns out there’s only one. Afzal can’t believe who it is.

*   *   *

Doru is about to start another session with his Keepsake. He has everything ready when the phone rings. He sighs, but of course the Keepsake isn’t going anywhere. He hopes the interruption won’t be too long.

“Hello, Doru? This is Afzal Bishara.”

Doru’s mouth opens silently. He stares straight ahead, looking at his equipment.

“Doru? Are you there?” asks the voice from the past.

“Um. Yes, I’m here. Afzal? That’s really you?”

“Absolutely. How have you been?”

Doru’s voice leaves him again, but for a different reason. After twenty-three years, How have you been?

He gets a grip on himself. “What the hell, Afzal? This is—this is amazing. I can’t believe it. Where are you?”

“Just where I always was. Same firm, same city, same house—well, you wouldn’t know about the house, I guess.”

“I’m not sure I know about the firm either,” says Doru.

“Rhineman, Gerald & Chu? Does that ring a bell?”

“No, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. I don’t think that’s where you were before.”

“Oh. Maybe I was still at Legon & Elsin?”

“That sounds more familiar.”

“How about you?” asks Afzal. “I hear you’re freelancing.”

“Nineteen years at one company was plenty, thank you. I needed something new.” It’s something Doru’s said so often that he can rattle it off without thinking, which is a comfort right now.

“I see,” says Afzal. Doru recognizes that tone, Afzal’s I-don’t-need-to-ask-the-truth voice; Doru hasn’t heard it for a generation, but apparently it can still set his teeth on edge.

There’s a pause, and Doru ransacks his brain, trying to think of what to say next.

“Anyway,” Afzal finally says. “This is actually a business call, believe it or not.”

“Business?” Doru tries to reorient himself. Business he can do. He can behave as if Afzal is any other potential client, as if they have no history, as if all they have to negotiate is a series of tasks and compensation. “What’s up?” 

 

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Copyright © 2017. Keepsakes by Kenneth Schneyer