by George Saunders

[Copyright by George Saunders. Reprinted by permission.]

Elizabeth always thought the fake stream running through our complex was tacky. Whenever I'd sit brooding beside it after one of our fights she'd hoot down on me from the balcony. Then I'd come in and we'd make up. Oh would we. I think of it. I think of it and think of it. Finally in despair I call GuiltMasters. GuiltMasters are Jean and Bob Fleen, a brother/sister psychiatric practice. In their late-night TV ads they wear cowls and capes and stand on either side of a sobbing neurotic woman in sweater and slacks. By the end of the bit she's romping through a field of daisies. I get Jean Fleen. I tell her I've done a bad thing I can't live with. She says I've called the right place. She says there's nothing so shameful it can't be addressed by GuiltMasters. I take a deep breath and spill my guts. There's a silence from Jean's end. Then she asks can I hold. Upbeat Muzak comes on. Several minutes later Bob comes on and asks can they call me back. I wait by the phone. One hour, two hours, all night. Nothing. The sun comes up. Brad from Complex Grounds turns on the bubbler and the whitewater begins to flow. I don't shower. I don't shave. I put on the same pants I had on before. It's too much. Three years since her death and still I'm a wreck. I think of fleeing the city. I think of working on a shrimper, or setting myself on fire downtown. Instead I go to work.

In spite of my problems, personal interactive holography marches on. All morning I hopefully dust. Nobody comes in. At noon I work out a little tension by running amok in one of my modules. I choose Bowling With the Pros. A holographic smoothie in a blazer greets me and affably asks if I'm as tired as he is of perennially overhooking the ball when what I really need is to consistently throw strikes. I tell him fuck off. In a more sophisticated module he'd ask why the hostility, but my equipment is outdated and instead he looks confused and tries to shake my hand. What crappy verisimilitude. No wonder I'm in the red. No wonder my rent's overdue. He asks isn't bowling a lovely recreation? I tell him I'm in mourning. He says the hours spent in a bowling alley with friends certainly make for some fantastic memories years down the line. I tell him my life's in the crapper. He grins and says let's bowl, let's go in and bowl, let's go in and bowl a few frames--with the Pros! I take him by the throat. Of course he Dysfunctions. Of course I'm automatically unbooted. I doff my headset and dismount the treadmill. Once again it's just me and my failing shop. Once again the air reeks of microwaved popcorn. Once again I am only who I am.

Wonderful, I think, you've fouled your own four-hundred-dollar module. And I have. So I trash it. I write it off to grief management. I go to lunch. I opt for an autodispensed FreightFurter. Of course I overmicrowave and the paper cowcatcher melds with the bun and the little engineer's face runs down his overalls. It's even more inedible than unusual. I chuck it. I can't afford another. I chuck it and go wait for my regulars.

At two Mr. Bomphil comes in looking guilty and as always requests Violated Prom Queen, then puts on high heels and selects Treadmill Three. Treadmill Three is behind a beam, so he's free to get as worked up as he likes, which is very. I try not to hear him moan. I try not to hear him call each football-team member by name.

He's followed by Theo Kiley, an appliance salesmen who lays down a ream of Frigidaire specs and asks for Legendary American Killers Stalk You. I strap on his headset. I insert his module. For twenty minutes he hems and haws with Clyde Barrow. Finally he slips up and succumbs to a burst of machine-gun fire, then treats himself to a Sprite. "Whew," he says. "Next time I'll know to avoid the topic of his mom." I remind him he's got an outstanding bill. He says thanks. He says his bill and his ability to match wits with great criminals are the only outstanding things he's got. We laugh. We laugh some more. He shakes his head and leaves. I curse him under my breath, then close up early and return to my lonely home.

Next day Mrs. Gaither from Corporate comes to town. Midway through my Significant Accomplishments Assessment, armless Mr. Feltriggi comes to the door and as usual rings the bell with his face. I let him in and he unloads his totebag of cookbooks for sale. Today it's "Crazy Cajun Carnival" and "Going Bananas with Bananas: A Caribbean Primer." But I know what he really wants. With my eyes I tell him wait. Finally Gaither finishes raking my sub-par Disbursement Ledger over the coals and goes across the mall to O My God for some vintage religious statuary. I slip the headset on Feltriggi and run Youth Roams Kansas Hometown, 1932. It's all homemade bread and dirt roads and affable dogcatchers. What a sweet grin appears. How he greets each hometowner with his ghost limbs and beams at the chirping of the holographic birds. He kneels awhile in Mrs. Lawler's larder, sniffing spices that remind him of his mother elbow-deep in flour. He drifts out to the shaded yard and discusses Fascism with the iceman near some swaying wheat. His posture changes for the better. He laughs aloud. He's young again and the thresher has yet to claim his arms.

Gaither comes back with a St. Sebastian cookie jar. I nudge Feltriggi and tell him that's all for today. He takes off the headset and offers me a cookbook in payment. I tell him forget it. I tell him that's what friends are for. It's seventy bucks a session and he knows it. He rams his head into my chest as a sign of affection.

"That type of a presence surely acts to deflate revenues," Gaither says primly as Feltriggi goes out.

"No lie," I say. "That's why I nearly beat him up everytime he comes in here."

"I'm not sure that's appropriate," she says.

"Me neither," I say. "That's why I usually don't really do it."

"I see," she says. "Let's talk briefly about personal tragedy. No one's immune. But at what point must mourning cease? In your case, apparently never."

I think: You never saw Elizabeth lanky and tan and laughing in Napa.

"I like your cookie jar," I say.

"Very well," she says, "Seal your own doom."

She says she's shocked at the dryness of my treadmill bearings and asks if I've ever heard of oil. She sighs and gives me her number at the Quality Inn in case I think of anything that might argue against Franchise Agreement Cancellation. Then out she goes, sadly shaking her head.

It's only my livelihood. It's only every cent Elizabeth left me. I load up my mobil pack. I select my happiest modules. Then I go off to my real job, my penance, my albatross.

Rockettown's our ghetto. It's called Rockettown because long ago they put up a building there in which to build rockets. But none were built and the building's now nothing, which is what it's always been, except for a fenced-off dank corner that was once used to store dilapidated fireplugs and is now a filthy daycare for the children of parents who could care less. All around Rockettown little houses went up when it was thought the building would soon be full of people making rockets and hauling down impressive wages. They're bad little houses, put up quick, and now all the people who were young and had hoped to build rockets are old and doddering and walk by the empty building mumbling why why why.

In the early days of my grief Father Luther told me to lose myself in service by contacting ElderAid, Inc. I got Mrs. Ken Schwartz. Mrs. Ken Schwartz lives in Rockettown. She lives in Rockettown remembering Mr. Ken Schwartz and cursing him for staying so late at Menlo's TenPin on nights when she forgets he's been dead eighteen years. Mrs. Ken Schwartz likes me and my happy modules. Especially she likes Viennese Waltz. Boy does she. She's bedridden and lonely and sometimes in her excitement bruises her arms on her headboard when the orchestra starts to play. Tonight she says she's feeling weak. She says she used to be a different person and wishes she could go back to the days when she was loved. She mourns Fat Patrice and their jovial games of Old Maid. She mourns the front-yard oak the city felled without asking her. Mostly she mourns Mr. Ken Schwartz.

I pull out all the stops. I set Color on high contrast. I tape sensors to her lips and earlobes. I activate the Royalty Subroutine. Soon the prince is lavishing her with praise. Soon they're sneaking off from the ball for some tender words and a kiss or two on a stone bench beside the Danube. Soon I'm daubing her eyes with tissue while she weeps at the beauty of the fishermen bowing from their little boats as they realize it's the prince himself trying to retrieve her corsage from the river. I make tea. I read my magazine. Finally I stroke her forehead while humming Strauss and slowly fading the volume.

"You," she says, smiling sweetly when she's all the way back. "You're too good to me."

"No one could be too good to you," I say.

"Oh you," she says. "You're a saint."

No, I think, I'm a man without a life, due to you. Then I feel ashamed and purposely bash my shin against the bedframe while tucking her in. I get her some juice. I check her backdoor lock. All around the room are dirty plates I've failed to get to the sink and old photos of Mr. Ken Schwartz assessing the condition of massive steamboilers while laughing confidently.

Out on the street it's cold and a wino's standing in a dumpster calling a stray cat Uncle Chuck. I hustle directly to my Omni, fearing for my gear. I drive through frightening quarters of the city, nervously toggling my defrost lever, thinking of Mrs. Ken Schwartz. The last few months she's gone badly downhill. She's unable to feed herself or autonomously use the bathroom. Talk about losing yourself in service to a greater extent than planned. I'm over there night and day and still it's not enough. She needs a live-in but they don't come cheap, and my shop hasn't turned a profit in months. What to do? I think and think. I think so much I lose track of where I am and blunder by The Spot. You fool, I think, you ass, how much additional pain would you like? Here a drunk named Tom Clifton brought his Coupe De Ville onto the sidewalk as Elizabeth shopped for fruit on the evening of a day when we'd fought like hell. On the evening of a day when I'd called her an awful name. What name? I can't say the word. I even think it and my gut burns. I'm a saint.

The fight started when I accused her of flirting with our neighbor Len Kobb by bending low on purpose. I was angry and implied that she couldn't keep her boobs in her top to save her life. If I could see her one last time I'd say: thanks very much for dying at the worst possible moment and leaving me holding the bag of guilt. I'd say: if you had to die, couldn't you have done it when we were getting along? I madly flee The Spot. There are boat lights in the harbor and a man in a tux inexplicably jogging through the park. There's a moon bobbing up between condemned buildings. There's the fact that tomorrow I'm Lay Authority Guest at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School for Precocious Youth. I'm slated to allow interested kids to experience the module entitled Hop-Hop the Bunny Masters Fractions. Frankly I fear I'll be sneered at. How interested could a mob of gifted kids be in a rabbit and a lisping caterpillar subdividing acorns ad nauseam? But I've promised the principal, Mrs. Briff. And I'm not in a position to decline any revenue source. So at an hour of the night when other men my age are rising from their beds to comfort screaming newborns I return to the mall for my Hop-Hop module. I use my pass key. Something's strange. Modules are strewn everywhere. The cashbox sits on the fax machine. One of my treadmills lies on its side.

"How is all of this fancy equipment used?" someone asks from behind me, pressing a sharp knife to my throat, "More specifically, which of it is worth the most? And remember sir, you're answering for your life."

He sounds old but feels strong. I tell him it's hard to explain. I offer to demonstrate.

He says do so, but slowly. I fit him with a headset. I gently guide him to a treadmill, then run Sexy Nurses Scrub You Down. Immediately his lips get moist. Immediately he pops a mild bone and loosens his grip on the knife and I'm able to coldcock him with the FedEx tape gun. He drops drooling to my nice carpet. A man his age should be a doting grandfather, not a crook threatening me with death. I feel violated. Such a man was Tom Clifton, past his prime and bitter. How does someone come to this?

I strap him down and set my console for Scan.

It seems his lousy name is Hank. I hear his portly father calling it out across a cranberry bog. I know the smell of his first baseball cap. Through his eyes I see the secret place under the porch where he hid whenever his fat kissing aunt came. Later I develop a love for swing. It seems he was a Marine at Iwo who on his way to bootcamp saw the aging Ty Cobb at a depot. I sense his panic on the troop transport, then quickly doff my headset as he hits the beach and the bullets start to fly.

To my horror, I see that his eyelids are fluttering and his face is contorting. My God, I think, this is no Scan, this is a damn Offload. I check the console, and sure enough, via one incorrect switch setting, I've just irrevocably transferred a good third of his memories to my hard drive.

When he comes to, he hops off the table looking years younger, suddenly happy-go-lucky, asks where he is, and trots blithely out the door, free now of bootcamp, free of Iwo, free of all memory of youthful slaughter, free in fact of any memory at all of the first twenty years of his life. I'm heartsick. What have I done? On the other hand, it stopped him from getting up and trying to kill me. On the other hand, it appears he left here a happier man, perhaps less inclined to felony.

I grab my Hop-Hop module. On the cover is Hop-Hop, enthusiastically giving the thumbs-up to an idealized blond boy lifting an enormous 4 into a numerator. As if being robbed weren't enough, first thing tomorrow morning a roomful of genius kids is going to eat me alive.

Then, crossing the deserted Food Court, I get a brainstorm. I hustle back to the shop and edit out Hank's trysts with starving women in Depression-era hobo camps and his one homo fling with his cousin Julian. I edit the profanity out of Iwo. I edit out the midnight wanks, the petty thefts, the unkind words, all but the most inoffensive of the bodies of his buddies on the pale sand beach.

Next morning I herd kid after kid behind my white curtain and let them experience Hank's life. They love it. They leave jabbering knowledgeably about the Pacific Theater and the ultimate wisdom of using the Bomb. They leave humming "American Patrol." They leave praising Phil Rizzuto's fielding and cursing the Brown Shirts. They pat old Mr. Panchuko, the geriatric janitor, on the back and ask him what caliber machine gun he operated at the Bulge. He stands scratching his gut, stunned, trying to remember. The little Klotchkow twins jitterbug. Andy Pitlin, all of three feet tall, hankers aloud for a Camel.

Mrs. Briff is more than impressed. She asks what else do I have. I ask what else does she want. She says for starters how about the remainder of the century. I tell her I'll see what I can do.

The kids come out of it with a firsthand War Years experience and I come out of it with a check for five hundred dollars, enough to hire a temporary live-in for Mrs. Ken Schwartz. Which I gladly do. A lovely Eurasian named Wei, a student of astrophysics who, as I'm leaving them alone for the first time, is brushing out Mrs. Ken Schwartz's hair and humming "Let Me Call You Sweetheart."

"Will you stay forever?" I ask her.

"With all due respect," she replies, "I will stay as long as you can pay me."

Two weeks later, Briff's on my tail for more modules and Wei's on my tail for her pay. I tell Mrs. Ken Schwartz all, during one of her fifteen-minute windows of lucidity. When lucid she's shrewd and bright. She understands her predicament. She understands the limitations of my gear. She understands that I can't borrow her memories, only take them away forever.

She says she can live without the sixties.

I haul my stuff over to her place and take what I need. I edit out her mastectomy, Ken Schwartz's midlife crisis and resulting trip to Florida, and her constant drinking in his absence. I stick to her walking past a protest and counseling a skinny girl on acid to stay in school. It's not great but I've got a deadline. I call it America in Tumult - The Older Generation Looks On In Dismay.

I have it couriered over to Briff, dreading her response. But to my amazement she sends a cash bonus. She reports astounding increases in grandparental bonding. She reports kids identifying a Mercury Cougar with no prompting and disgustedly calling each other Nixon whenever a trust is betrayed.

Thereafter I retain Wei on a weekly basis by whittling away at Mrs. Schwartz's memories. I submit Pearl Harbor - Week Prior to Infamy. I submit The Day the Music Died - Buddy Holly Remembered, which unfortunately is merely Mrs. Schwartz hearing the news on a pink radio, then disinterestedly going back to cleaning her oven. Finally Briff calls, hacked off. She says she wants some real meat. She asks how about the entire twenties, a personal favorite of hers. She's talking flappers. She's talking possible insights on Prohibition. I stonewall. I tell her give me a few days to exhaustively check my massive archive. I call Mrs. Ken Schwartz. She says during the twenties she was a lowly phone operator in Pekin, Illinois. She sounds disoriented, and wearily asks where her breasts are. Clearly this has gone far enough.

I call Briff and tell her no more modules. She ups her offer to three thousand a decade. She's running for school board and says my modules are the primary arrow in her quiver. But what am I supposed to do? Turn Mrs. Schwartz into a well-cared-for blank slate? Start kidnapping and offloading strangers? I say a little prayer:

God, I've botched this life but good. I've failed you in all major ways. You gave me true love and I blew it. I'm nothing. But what have you got against Mrs. Ken Schwartz? Forgive me. Help me figure this out.

And then in a flash I figure it out.

I lock the shop. On the spine of a blank module I write 1951-1992 - Baby Boomers Come Into Their Own. At three thousand a decade that's twelve grand. I address an envelope to Briff and enclose an invoice. I write out some instructions and rig myself up.

Memories shmemories, I think, I'll get some new ones. These old ones give me no peace.

Then I let it rip. It all goes whizzing by: Anthony Newburg smacking me. Mom on the dock. An Agnew Halloween mask at a frat house. Bev Malloy struggling with my belt. The many seasons. The many flags, dogs, paths, the many stars in skies of many hues.

My sweet Elizabeth.

Holding hands we gape at an elk in Estes Park. On our knees in a bed of tulips I kiss her cheek. The cold clear water of Nacogdoches. The birthday banner she made of scarves in our little place on Ellington. The awful look on her face as I called her what I called her. Her hair, trailing fine and light behind her as she stormed out to buy fruit.

The grave, the grave, my sad attempt to become a franchisee.

Then I'm a paunchy guy in a room, with a note pinned to his sleeve: "You were alone in the world," it says, "and did a kindness for someone in need. Good for you. Now post this module, and follow this map to the home of Mrs. Ken Schwartz. Care for her with some big money that will come in the mail. Find someone to love. Your heart has never been broken. You've never done anything unforgivable or hurt anyone beyond reparation. Everyone you've ever loved you've treated like gold."