The Memory Museum

Omar El Akkad

A salt-speckled burning in the throat, a flight of sea, a deviation. Somewhere off the blue ledge of the Pacific a storm is churning. It announces itself, quietly; the air grows heavier, the wrens break pattern, and for a moment the world takes its most honest form, a pleading murmur of misread premonitions.  
The Curator sits on the edge of the seawall, feeling out the waves. They rise in hundred-foot-high curls of white-capped blue, and upon crashing become vast clouds of foam.
These are the scavenging hours—during the first month of summer, between four and seven in the morning, when there is enough light but not too much heat.
It requires patience, this kind of work. It takes time to read the waves, to gauge how high they’re likely to travel up the battered concrete, how good the chance they’ll take her. The seawall on whose topmost edge the curator sits is itself approaching ruin, and one day soon it will crumble completely here as it has elsewhere on the coast, but for now the anchors are sturdy enough; they will hold her weight. She picks up her satchel and slips an old climbing rope through her harness and ties a figure-eight. She checks the knot, checks the waves and, satisfied with both, begins to lower herself down the giant sloping barricade.
In its time it was the largest and most expensive public works project in human history—the John Muir Memorial Seawall and Clean Energy Facility, a border that spanned the western length of the continent, the effort of three governments and hundreds of thousands of workers at a cost of almost a trillion dollars. In the decade and a half of the seawall’s construction it claimed the lives of some eight-thousand workers. Some were crushed by waves or heavy equipment, some fell off the scaffolding onto the concrete, but most were simply taken, swept by the curl out into the water. Those who survived etched the names of those who didn’t into the concrete, and for a while this haphazard cenotaph held vigil but over the years the saltwater erased it.
Slowly the curator descends. She walks backwards, running the slack out, her body almost parallel to the seawall. The sound of the waves below grows louder, a concussive hushing, and the sound of everything else fades away. The concrete slickens, bushlets of mildew growing in the cracks.
Fifty feet down, she reaches the flood turbines, each an arm-sized borehole in the concrete. Within each hole is a pinwheel rotor, and every time a wave collides with the seawall, water washes through the holes and, on its way down to the drainage spout, spins the turbines. In this way, the seawall functions as a hydroelectric plant of sorts. Over the years most of the turbines and their casings have deteriorated beyond repair, and others are regularly clogged with debris from the sunken cities out beyond the coast.
It is the debris she is after, this carrion of a violent past.
She kneels by a set of turbine holes full to the brim with water. It’s a sign of an obstruction, something that keeps the turbine from draining. She reaches inside, barehanded. Whenever the power plant workers are dispatched to clear the turbines, they are ordered to work in pairs and to always use gloves. But although she has cut herself open and almost let the waves creep up on her many more times than she can count, the curator never works with a partner and never covers her hands.
She pulls. The first obstruction, hard but brittle, she recognizes immediately by touch as lobster carapace. The animal it once protected is long dead but the shell remains intact, pink and near-translucent. She places it in her satchel, and when she returns to the museum she will place it alongside jars of armadillo plates and porcupine quills and contagion masks. It is always like this: the armor outlasts the armored.
The water in the turbine hole doesn’t drain; there’s something else inside. She reaches in and feels a softness, one she can’t make out by touch alone. It too comes loose easy. She holds it up to the light—it’s a plush tiger. In places the fur has come out in clumps and the black stripes have been bleached away, but there is no mistaking it for anything other than a child’s toy.
The Curator turns it over in her hands. Beneath the skin of one paw there is a slight bump. She squeezes the toy’s hand.
Grown-ups come back, it sings.
She squeezes again, fascinated as she always is that something so battered should retain function, fascinated by the small miracle of arbitrary survival, the way living festers. Then she feels the first droplets of surf against the back of her neck, the waves only twenty or thirty feet behind her now and rising. There is no more time. She packs her satchel up. She ascends.

At the seawall roof she sees one of the Fixers watching her. Like her he is a veteran of the wall, some thirty years under his belt and every one of them visible in his hunched posture, his dried-out skin. He sits on the ledge, waiting for the partner without whom he is forbidden from scaling the wall. He looks ridiculous in his company issues—a bright pink uniform and full-body harness. Dressed this way, when they descend the seawall every morning to repair the myriad broken turbines, the Fixers appear from a distance as open wounds on the body of the concrete.
Anything good? he asks.
The Curator retrieves the toy tiger from her satchel. She shows it to the Fixer; she squeezes its paw. It sings.
The Fixer whistles. That’s rent right there, he says.
You going in? The Curator asks.
The Fixer shakes his head. Doesn’t look like it, he says. If it’s up to the last day’s high-water mark before ten, we don’t have to. Union’s good for something, I guess.
How bad’s the storm coming? the Curator asks.
Bad, the Fixer says. Company weatherman says it’s a full-over, might see flooding four, five blocks deep.
You got a place in the shelters?
The Fixer points to the ground. We’ll rough it out in the control room, he says. Gets loud as hell and the hallways flood to the knees, but we’ll live. You?
The Curator shrugs.
It’s a bad one, the Fixer says. Find somewhere else to be.
The Curator undoes the knot from the rope and coils it. She slips off her harness, looks over the stitching, though it’s a mechanical inspection; she’ll use it until it snaps.
Are you going to do it again? The Fixer asks.
Do what? The Curator replies.
Give it all away.
It’s not mine to give away.
Let it be taken, then.
The Fixer shakes his head. I don’t understand you, he says. All that work, all those years. Why?
Because it’s the letting go that matters, the Curator says.
When was the last time? The Fixer asks.
Twelve years ago, the Curator replies. In the Valentine’s Day storm, the one came up almost to the mansions.
Did it feel good, losing it all?
Nothing was lost. Some things were changed, some things were moved, some things were left alone. Nothing was lost.
But did it feel good?
Yes, the Curator says. It felt good. Like coming home.

When she returns to the shanty the neighborhood is buzzing, all kinds of movement—the overnight-shift seawall workers returning, the cooks and caretakers and nannies heading to the inland mansions. But above the regular currents there are others, movements of preparation—the boarding up of windows and packing of day-bags, the coastal poor readying for a storm.
Those who can afford it live along the inland dunes and those who can’t live by the ocean. She has read in books that this arrangement used to be inverted, just as with the eating of lobsters when lobsters lived or the use of plastic cutlery back in the days of oil—that human history is rife with instances of the poor and the rich trading places in times of danger o scarcity. Now the poor live by the ocean in a stitchwork of salvaged ash and hackberry along the flat roof of the seawall, and whenever the waves overwhelm the wall these coastal slums will flood but the homes inland do not.
She passes through the alleyways and under the clotheslines and past her harried neighbors until she reaches her home, the museum.
It sits on and in the remains of a shattered beach house that, long after its original owners fled the rising seas, was used as temporary housing for the original Builders. Her parents, before their names too were etched in the concrete, once lived here.
In the basement the Curator stores the original rooster weathervane and cedar roof shingles, the ones that survived Adam in ’49 and Thomas in ’51. Elsewhere, haphazardly piled, are old deeds and tax assessments and insurance claims, and within these a eulogy for some older way of living.
Inside the remains of the original craftsman home the Curator has torn down the walls. In a clearing that encompasses what used to be a dining room, a den and a kitchen, she keeps the exhibits.
Here a road-sign—Welcome to Bandon. Here a stack of hotel Bibles and clearance-rack romances. Here a door-sized hunk of petrified bark, and elsewhere the same wood after the fires, made ash. Jars and jars of ash aside jars of dirt aside jars of soil, a taxonomy of what time does. Old stock and bond certificates, their intricate linework designed to ward off fraud.
Thousands of photographs in albums and frames and unordered boxes, some of the places that used to be and some of the people that used to be but most of nothing—the blurred retreat of a limb, the washed-out sky. Breathmint tins full of crusted seedlings, hard as stone. A booster chair. A snowsuit. A diary, on the first page written, To Do, the rest of it empty.  
A glass case splits the exhibit space along its length. On one side the Curator keeps the seeds and bark and bones and teeth—the things that used to be alive but are no longer. On the other side of the museum she keeps the photographs and diaries and boxes of tangled headphones and printer cables and phones—things that were always dead but feel strangely alive now. And inside the glass panel that runs almost the entire middle of the room, the Curator keeps guns.
She enters the museum. The smell of mothballs greets her. It is her most cherished possession, a smell of something other than the sea. She places the lobster shell on one side of the exhibit space and the toy tiger on the other.

At noon one of the Curator’s neighbors comes to browse. She is a Buyer, this is her job, and every day she comes armed with a list of her employers’ whims and desires. It’s bad work, the pay only by commission and commission hard to come by. But it’s safer than seawall work and the hours are flexible.
Anything new? the Buyer asks.
The Curator points out the lobster shell. The Buyer shakes her head. Shells and bones are last year, she says. They want happier now.
The Curator points out the plush tiger. The Buyer pauses. She stares at the thing, transfixed, before collecting herself and throwing on a poker face.
This might be something, she says. Hold on.
The Buyer dials a number on her phone and leaves the museum. In a few minutes she returns.
Mr. Ellison would like to purchase this, she says. He can offer five-thousand or a week in the guest-house.
Both, the Curator replies.
He’s offering only one or the other, the Buyer says. Look, they say that storm coming is once-a-decade bad, a week in the guest-house is a good deal any day, but especially right now…
Both or no sale, the Curator says.
The Buyer frowns, as though personally offended, as though she were not a conduit in the barter but an invested party. She tells the Curator to hold on and she leaves the museum again but both of them know it’s a foregone conclusion, and a couple of minutes later she returns to say Mr. Ellison has agreed.
Good, the Curator says. Come back in ten minutes.
Why? The Buyer asks.
I want to log it in the journal before I give it away.
You have a journal?
Ten minutes.
Fine, the Buyer says. After she leaves, the Curator picks up the toy tiger and unzips its back. Inside, amidst the stuffing, is a little circuit and a battery pack. The Curator squeezes the toy’s hand, listens to it sing one more time, and then rips the circuitry out from its insides, silencing it for good. Then she zips it back up and sets it on the counter and in a few minutes the Buyer returns to collect it.

Once when she was young her mother took her to the near-completed seawall and they stood on the edge and already the giant construction lay half-submerged, already the estimates proven to be tragically optimistic, and her mother said, Waiting is the only human disease. Her mother who was a Builder and who the following week was a name on the wall.
She thinks about this now, watching her neighbors scurry with their hastily packed belongings—rushing to get into the upland shelters before doors close or into the seawall’s labyrinth of corridors and control rooms through the storm tunnels and service doors. And those with nowhere to go simply moving about, fastening furniture they know will be swept in the flood, locking doors that lean on rusted hinges, doing any kind of work at all, as though the movement and the work themselves might ward off the worst of things.
One of the Curator’s neighbors, a woman only recently moved next door and unfamiliar with the ritual, shouts through an open window, Forget that junk. Get moving. For the love of God get moving. The Curator ignores her.
The white drizzling spray of the highest waves begins to appear above the edge of the seawall, small pale fireworks against the dusklight.
The Curator opens all the windows. Carefully she moves through the exhibit space, unscrewing jar lids, loosening the twine that holds the tree shards to their wall anchors, opening drawers and cabinets and closets until finally the museum is pried open to the storm, made to outstretch its limbs and embrace whatever comes.
The shanty shivers. The wind begins to peel the flimsiest awnings from their moors, the sound of it like a newborn.
The Curator walks outside. Like others she heads upland, toward the shelters and the mansions, but whereas others run she walks. She can feel the storm pushing her along, the debris rustling around her.
A mile up the steep hillside road she is allowed into the barricaded grounds of Mr. Ellison’s property. One of the guards checks her name off a list and hands her an envelope of money and later she will use this money to rebuild and buy food and clothing and continue to exist, to simply be.
In the guesthouse at the edge of the property she watches behind tempered glass the shanty downland. From here she can see most of it, a conjoined mass of tin and wood and stone, the half-torn clotheslines like spittle in the air. Soon the waves overwhelm the seawall, the flooding begins. Sheets of black water rush through the open doors and windows of the memory museum. She watches the sea reclaim the bones and books and all the detritus of half-spun pasts, and she savors the lightness, the fleeting instant in which it is possible to believe what comes next might be freed of what came before.

Originally published in Moss: Volume Five.
moss logo