The Temporary Skull
ROBERT P. KAYE
I changed my mind about living forever because how will I know what I’m missing if I don’t stick around? So I went to the place and lay down in the scanner like in the ad. Afterward, a nondescript guy in a lab coat came out with a plastic skull.
“What the hell is this?” I said, a little creeped out.
“The permanent titanium-carbon version of you takes a couple weeks to grow, then it has to be loaded with your memories. This is your curation and transfer device.”
The guy possessed an anodyne nature, zero distinguishing features. No nametag. I couldn’t pick him out of a crowd— he was the crowd. “Can’t I just transfer everything?” I said.
“Sure. But you wouldn’t move houses without a garage sale, would you?” He handed me the plastic skull. “This is a chance to winnow the grain from the chaff.”
“How do I know it isn’t all chaff?” I said.
“You decide,” he said. “That’s the beauty.”
“Right,” I said, doubtful of my ability to identify beauty but unwilling to admit it. “How does it work?”
“A camera for visuals.” He indicated a button beside the eye socket. “The switch for audio is at the acoustic meatus, taste at the jaw hinge. Depress the nasal bone for the aromatics, which are quintessential. We recommend not stinting on smell.”
“Of course.” I couldn’t help sniffing him. Nothing.
“Touch is a bit trickier.” He swung the hinged skullcap open. “Place a memory-triggering object inside and press the switch on the occipital.”
“What if there’s too much?” I said. “I had a big career.” I didn’t mention the marriages, the kids, the addictions and peccadillos. I saw the attraction of leaving dumpster loads of shame and guilt behind.
“The delete button is top center,” he said. “Edit as much as you please, but the timing is critical, like baking a cake. Your follow up appointment is in exactly two weeks.”
I left with the skull tucked under my arm. Over the next thirteen days, I made short work of friends, family and the barista who always smiled and remembered my name. Everyone shrugged and waved, mouthing platitudes. I used the delete button liberally and came away with next to nothing.
Sorting through boxes and drawers the day before the follow up, I discovered a faded photograph of my first everlasting love, which triggered a memory of the bouquet of her shampoo, a 1980s brand called “Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific.” She had wanted six children, so I dumped her before it got too serious. I took a picture of the picture of her, but could not remember her name. I wondered if this meant I never would.
On the last day, frantic to fill the capacity, I taped all the input buttons down and sat on a bench at the lake with the skull beside me. An old lady shuffled to the shore pulling a rusty wire grocery cart. A vortex of fowl converged — gulls, pigeons, ducks, crows, geese, grebes and swans. Her spotted fingers shredded loaves of bread into a tornado of ruckus. The old woman turned and I thought in that instant she was the ghost of my mother, who I did not visit for the last ten years of her life because of a grudge I refuse to recall. I don’t know if she had enough clarity at the end to love, hate or remember me. When I recovered my composure, she was gone, a few pinfeathers swirling in the wind, bird shit splattering the ground, a plastic bread bag drowning in the shallows.
I panicked, almost deleting everything inside the skull. An aroma from the hotdog cart on the corner reminded me that I’d forgotten to eat anything. I bought a hotdog and loaded it up with kraut and brown mustard. Before eating, I put it inside the skull and pressed the button, trying and failing to remember going to baseball games with my father. This, I thought, must be what it is like to be very old, the connections coming undone, fractals refusing to form a picture infused with the desired meaning.
I made it just in time for the follow up appointment. The guy dumped my skull into a clear bag with a pre-printed label and placed it atop a pyramid of other skulls in a bin on a conveyor moving through the room to a door. Mine looked back at me as if disappointed. At least I think it was mine.
Regret washed over me for wasting the two weeks, if not my entire life. I considered backing out of the living forever deal unless I got a do-over, but remembered the extensive no money back contract and the hellishly large deposit.
“Tell me the truth,” I said to the guy. “Is any of this going to matter?”
I realized that this might not even be the same guy I dealt with the first time. His hair smelled of angel food cake with lemon frosting, like my mother used to make every year for my birthday until she refused to do so because I broke it off with Marjorie, the love of my life, whose name I could not remember until just then. The hotdog felt like it was drilling through my stomach lining, reminding me of why I didn’t eat them anymore.
“Sure,” the nameless attendant said. “It all matters.”
Robert P. Kaye has work forthcoming in New Letters and has published fiction in SmokeLong Quarterly, Gulf Stream, Penn Review, Hobart and elsewhere. Details on past publications and links to some can be found at RobertPKaye.com. He hosts the Works In Progress open mic at Hugo House in Seattle and is an editor with Pacifica Literary Review. He still wears his original skull so far.