Pangyrus is delighted to feature both a story by the esteemed author E.C. Osondu and a video interview that the author had with Pangyrus Senior Fiction Editor Anne Bernays and Associate Fiction Editor Indu Guzman. The story (“Memory Store”) is from E.C. Osondu’s Alien Stories (BOA Editions), which won the BOA Short Fiction Prize and publishes in May 2021.
Mr. Osondu was born in Nigeria and came to America to be a fellow at Syracuse University where he earned his M.F.A. in 2007. He is now a professor of English at Providence College. He has won the Caine Prize for African Writing and published two books, the story collection Voice of America and the novel This House Is Not for Sale. His fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, AGNI, n+1, Guernica, Kenyon Review, McSweeney’s, Zyzzyva, The Threepenny Review, Lapham’s Quarterly, New Statesman, and many other places, and his work has been translated into over half a dozen languages including Icelandic, Japanese, and Belarusian.
With a nod to the dual meaning of alien as both foreigner and extraterrestrial, Mr. Osondu turns familiar science-fiction tropes and immigration narratives on their heads, blending one with the other to call forth a whirlwind of otherness. With wry observations about society and human nature, in shifting landscapes from Africa to America to outer space and back again, Alien Stories breaks down the concept of foreignness to reveal what unites us all as ‘aliens’ within a complex and interconnected universe.
MEMORY STORE by E.C. Osondu
One of the things he found most fascinating about America were the Memory Stores that could be found on almost every street corner. A person could simply walk into any of the stores and sell their memories for money. It was that straightforward. He had come to the realization that certain things were undoubtedly straightforward in America. Take American beers with their twist-off caps. Twist-off caps may not seem like a big deal to most American beer drinkers but he remembered buying a cold bottle of beer when he was back home and bringing it to his room and ransacking the entire room in search of his bottle opener. He eventually found the opener lying underneath a pile of old newspapers. By then, the beer was already lukewarm and tasted flat on the tongue.
Even in matters that did not appear so straightforward, he still admired America. He loved the fact that in America there were a dozen different kinds of doughnuts. There were even doughnuts without holes. Back home, he had grown up knowing only one kind of doughnut: light brown with a hole in the center. He recalled his first time in an American doughnut shop.
“I want a doughnut,” he said to the sales clerk.
“Which one of them do you want?” she asked.
He had pointed vaguely in the direction of the glass display case. The sales clerk looked at him and began pointing out and reeling off the names of the different kinds of doughnuts that they had.
“Glazed, Chocolate, Vanilla Frosted, Powdered Sugar, Old Fashioned . . .”
Looking at her, he had pointed at the light brown doughnut with a hole in the middle.
“Honey, you mean Old Fashioned? Why didn’t you say so instead of messing with me?”
She sounded relieved and laughed.
The coffee-laden atmosphere had lightened. He too had laughed. He had repeated the words “Old Fashioned” and had vowed to commit it to memory.
A Memory Store, ah, only in America. He planned to visit one and find out how it worked. He had no immediate plans to sell his memories but there was no harm in knowing about their operations. He was sure the operators of the Memory Stores would be as polite and pleasant as he had found most American storekeepers to be. Here in America even when a storekeeper did not have an item that you wished to buy he would direct you to another store where they had the item, sometimes at an even cheaper rate. That would never happen back home. The best a shopkeeper would do for you would be to tell you to wait while he dashed to a neighboring store to get the same item and sell it to you with a markup.
The first time he went into a Memory Store he walked in furtively like a Catechist walking into a brothel. First he looked right, then left and then right again and then he ducked in.
As soon as he entered the shop, all his apprehensions disappeared.
“Hi, buddy, I am R,” the guy who manned the shop said.
He in turn introduced himself by his first initial.
Everyone went by their initials these days. It was one the laws introduced to unite the country after what had happened during the previous regime.
He could tell that the man was Hispanic. He could tell from the man’s accent. You could not get rid of accents by a simple legislation. Did the R. stand for Ramos, Ramirez, Rodriguez? It was inappropriate to ask. Such things did not matter anymore. Everyone was American and that was all that was important.
“It is very easy, my friend,” the guy said
He had looked around the store. He had expected to see lots of gadgets but there were actually just a few.
“First, I will need to wipe down your hands with rubbing alcohol and then you’ll place the five fingers of both hands on this glass panel in front of me and then you’ll focus your mind and recall the memory you want to sell to us. Your memory will appear on the screen right here and I will tell you how much we are able to pay for it. If we agree on the price then I will give you a card loaded with the amount for which we bought your memory. You can use the card to make purchases anywhere. There are stores down the road from here, they sell good stuff. The process is painless,” R. explained.
He told R. that he had only come to look around and find out how the thing worked.
“Look around, my friend. Take your time and feel free to ask me if you have any questions,” R. said.
He looked around but there really wasn’t much more to see than what R. had showed him. It looked like a pretty basic operation. Just then the bell rang announcing the arrival of a customer. R. showed him out through another door.
He looked forward to his job. He worked with Work Ready. They provided workers for the car auction. They provided both drivers and cleaners. He was one of the cleaners. His job was to wash the cars and wipe them down and make them look good on the auction block. The thought that a car that he had tidied would be driven by a man who lived in a far-off place such as one of the Gulf States thrilled him and made him shine the cars with gusto.
His boss had stood watching him one day while he used a clean, dry piece of cloth to shine a car he had just washed. He had looked up and seen his boss watching him.
“I have never seen anyone wipe down a car with so much joy,” his boss said.
“I always do a good job because you never know where the cars might end up,” he said to his boss.
“You never know, huh? Good job, keep it up,” his boss had said.
He had thanked his boss.
His boss had made to walk away and then had come back and said to him, “You know there can only be one supervisor here, right? I’ve been the supervisor for three years and the company has no plans to fire me or promote any person to my position. Still, I like your hustle, man.”
The short speech had left him confused but he had only smiled and continued with his cleaning.
Later that winter he had reported at Work Ready one morning and was met by the long faces of his colleagues. Work Ready was letting the cleaners go. They were consolidating—that was the language they used. The drivers would be the ones to clean the cars from now onwards. It was a way to save money.
His supervisor had pulled him aside to the hallway near the bathroom and had asked him if he could drive. He had said he couldn’t. The supervisor had told him to go to a driving school and to come back when he got his driver’s license.
He sat before the Memory Machine and began to dredge his mind. He realized how true something he had heard years ago was: everything in life becomes difficult when you try to force it. He thought that since his mind often wandered into the past recalling stuff would be easy. His mind was going blank at the moment.
“Some people find that when they close their eyes, it helps,” R. said to him.
He closed his eyes and hoped he would not nod off and start snoring loudly. Why was he worrying about everything all of a sudden?
His mind became clear. The fog lifted. He was a little boy of seven running home from school. He could still smell the aroma of jollof rice and fried goat meat. At the completion of the academic year, they were served jollof rice and fried goat meat by the school. He didn’t wait for the jollof rice or the fried goat meat. He snatched his report card as soon as they announced that he was the first in his class and began to run home to his grandmother.
She was outside bathing in the sun. She was wearing her green sweater, the one with the Christmas decorations. His grandmother didn’t know that the design on her sweater was Christmas decorations. He wouldn’t know either until he came to America. He would also learn in America that they were called “ugly sweaters.” He never did understand why. They were beautifully colorful to him.
He handed the report card to his grandmother.
“Tell me what it says, my son.”
“Open it, grandma. Look at it yourself,” he said to her.
“You open it and read it to me, that is why I sent you to school,” she said.
He opened the report card and told her that he came first in his class and that he had scored one hundred percent in all his subjects and that he had not stayed back to eat the jollof rice and goat meat that was cooked for all the students for the end of the academic year.
“Will their jollof rice taste as good as the one I am going to make for you?” his grandmother asked.
“Never,” he said.
R. was tapping him on the shoulder. He was almost too far gone. So carried away by the memory that he had forgotten where he was and had been transported entirely into that world of his childhood with his grandmother.
“That is all we’ll need for today’s session. You did really great. These types are quite rare. They’ve got everything we are looking for in a memory. Genuine, not artificial, and filled with joy. Now follow me and I’ll give you your payment. It is a card. It is loaded and you can use it at designated stores to buy really good stuff,” R. said.
He was still feeling a little unfocused from the experience. For some reason he was also feeling lighter, but not in a heavy-load-taken-away kind of way; it was like he had misplaced something—perhaps an object he had in his pocket had been lost.
He collected the payment card. He was surprised at the amount they were paying him.
“Thank you,” he said to R.
“No, thank you,” R. said.
He hesitated to leave. Something was still bothering him. It had all seemed too easy.
“So what is going to happen to the one I just gave you?” he asked R.
“We are going to put it to good use. Like I told you, it is a great one. Very much in high demand. Authentic and genuine. They are gonna love it.”
“Ah,” he said.
“You know some people come here and try to sell us fake memories or pass off other people’s memories as their own, but the machine has a system for detecting those kinds real quick,” R. said.
“The one I just gave you, what about it?” he asked.
“Oh, I see what you mean. It is gone. You will never recall that particular memory again. It is like it never existed. Wiped out. Gone. It no longer belongs to you. But don’t worry about it. I am sure there are lots where that came from, buddy,” R. said. R. sounded jokey but a little furtive in his manner. He could tell that R. wanted him to leave.
He took his card and walked to the store that sold household goods. He had always wanted a huge television. He wanted a giant one that would dominate the environment of his sitting room. The lives of American families did not revolve around the television the way lives did back home. Back home the television had come to replace the grandmother around whom everybody sat after the evening meal listening as she told her folktales. Over here the television was overlooked just like American grandmothers who talked to themselves for the most part and who went largely ignored when they spoke to other occupants of the house. Life here rather revolved around the fridge. The opening of the fridge and the slamming of the fridge door and the perpetual complaint of “there is nothing to eat; there is never anything to eat here” though the fridge would usually be bursting from the seams with all kinds of food and drink.
He bought the giant television. It was sixty-four inches. They took it home for him. He rode with the delivery guys and watched them install it. He sat in front of the television and began flipping channels. He flipped and flipped again, his right hand and thumb feeling heavy, yet there still remained channels to flip.
He recalled that back home the television came on at 4 p.m. That was when the station opened. The station closed at 11 p.m. There was hardly more than an hour of movies and drama—the rest of the time was devoted to men and women in elaborate costume-like clothes using big words to argue between themselves about how to move the country forward.
He stumbled on a soccer game and stopped.
There was no commentary.
It must have been originally in Spanish but had been edited to remove the Spanish commentary. They had not bothered to do the work of substituting an English language commentary.
He began to watch the game without commentary by following the colors of the jerseys of the players. His eyes soon grew weary and he fell asleep and began to snore. The television was still on and soon was watching him sleep. It was one of the modern types of TV and when it sensed no movement in the sitting room it shut itself down. When he woke up he was sitting in the dark, alone without the television glow, but he was not afraid of the darkness here in America. He found American darkness to be somewhat more gray than dark. Back home he would stretch out his hands while walking in the dark and even his hand disappeared and became one with the inky darkness.
He went to Work Ready to ask if there were job openings. The lady there told him that they were giving priority to people who were mandated to work by a judge so that they could pay their child support.
“We are focused on placing those who have to pay their child support, right now. Others will just have to wait,” she said.
He had asked after the supervisor who had asked that he get in touch as soon as he could drive and was told that the supervisor had resigned. So if he had paid money to go to a driving school as the guy had suggested, it would have been for nothing?
He told the lady he would look in some other time. She said sure thing, that he should keep checking in with them from time to time.
He decided to head to the Memory Store.
He went through the routine. Wiped his hands down. He worked on coming up with a memory. It was easier this time around. He had gone to play soccer with the brand new Wembley soccer ball that his grandmother had bought for him. He had enjoyed the pleasure of picking those who were going to play on his side as the owner of the soccer ball. The game had been fun all the way with both sides scoring two goals each. Then when they were taking a break preparatory to changing sides one of the big boys who had been watching the game from the sides, his name was Monday, asked to join the game. He had said No. Monday seized the soccer ball saying that if they would not let him play then they could not play either and that the ball would not be given back. He had tried to get his ball back but had received a swift kick on the shin from Monday. He had run home crying to his grandma. His grandma had sent him back to get his ball telling him not to come home without it.
R. was tapping him on the shoulder.
“This one is not good. We cannot pay for this one,” R. said.
“Why, what is wrong with it?” he asked.
“Nothing is wrong with it. It is just that we don’t find this type useful. People are not interested in this. It is somewhat generic, if you know what I mean. Someone gets his ball stolen by a bully and he fights to get it back. Think of something else. Go to that room over there, get a cup of coffee or a ginger ale. Try and relax for a few minutes and I am sure something useful will come to you, OK,” he said.
He went into the room and poured himself some ginger ale and added ice. He felt like someone who had failed his exams. What could be so hard about coming up with some good memories? But why did the store not have a list of memory items that they accepted and those that they didn’t?
He sipped the ginger ale and told himself to calm down. He had not liked ginger ale as a kid. He thought it tasted too much like an adult drink. It was not sugary enough, not like the other kinds of soft drinks. As an adult in America it had become his favorite drink. He liked the austere taste.
His mind became clear and he remembered the day before he left for America. Yes, that should be a good memory. He left his half-drunk cup of ginger ale on the table and went to meet R.
“I see you are ready to try again, my friend. Let’s do it,” R. said.
He remembered his last day before he traveled to America. The house was filled with more people than it was accustomed. There was food and lots of it. People were eating and drinking and talking. In the background there was music playing aloud. He was not quite sure who the musician was. For some reason he remembered the title of the song.
It was called “Ace.”
His grandmother had refused to eat and was crying. He had told her to stop crying, that today was a happy day. She held on to his hand and repeated the words he had just said to her. She had paused and then resumed with the crying.
“I am not leaving forever. I am going to come back soon and when I come back I will build you a bigger house,” he said to his grandmother.
She had stopped crying to listen to him.
“Not even your grandmother knows the secret of living forever,” she said and continued to cry.
He decided to change tack since this approach was not working.
“I don’t want to remember you like this. I don’t want my last memory of you to be your weeping face,” he said.
This seemed to have touched her and she had wiped her face with her headscarf and asked for some food and drink.
“Perfect, see I told you to take a break that you’d come up with something that we can use. It worked. This is a good one. Here, take your card. You did a good job,” R. said to him.
He bought a fridge with the card. It was a gray fridge with double doors. It had a different compartment for every item. He had always thought that every fridge must come in a white color, but had been thrilled by the fact that they came in all kinds of colors these days. He had told the guys who delivered the new fridge to take away the old one but
they refused. They said it was against company regulations. He had told them that it was free and that they could sell it for money since it was still working and in good condition, but they had said no. So the old fridge sat mutely beside the new one like an unwanted guest.
It was the 26th of December. It was the anniversary of the passing of his grandmother. He thought that even in her choice of the day of her death, his grandmother had been her good old considerate self—the day after Christmas was hard to forget.
He sat before his television. He had turned it off. The fridge was humming distinctly but unobtrusively.
He wanted to spend some time thinking of his grandmother and honoring her memory. He sat still and tried to picture her gentle, smiling face.
He drew a blank.
He could not remember his grandmother’s face. Nothing was coming to mind.
He panicked a little. But he recalled what had happened at the Memory Store. He opened the fridge and poured himself some ginger ale into a cup and added ice. He sat down and took a sip.
He thought hard.
His grandmother’s face did not come up.
There was nothing.
- Alien Stories: A Story & Interview with E.C. Osondu - April 27, 2021