Memory’s Icebox

Updated: November 1, 2015


An old man stands in a kitchen. He holds a knife. He doesn’t realize he is holding a knife. He doesn’t see the blood dripping off the knife and onto his slippers. He can’t remember why he is standing in the kitchen. It’s not his kitchen—does he even have a kitchen? He doesn’t remember. He opens the refrigerator door.

Memory is like a refrigerator: open the door, the light comes on. You see everything stored in your memory, as fresh as the day your brain put it there.

At least that’s the way memory is supposed to work, the old man thought. Mine is more like the freezer compartment, dark and cold, no light, no neat shelves full of fresh memories, rather everything shoved in together, willy-nilly, one memory stuck to another in the freezing cold. It takes an ice pick to remove a single memory and the picking leaves other memories damaged, scarred, ruined.

My past is locked in a freezer, he thought, only I don’t even know which one.

He is still standing in the hospital kitchen, holding the refrigerator door open. The light inside reveals dozens of gallons of milk. So much milk? Who drinks that much milk. Not me, he thought. Not my refrigerator.

Maybe, he says to himself, it’s not my kitchen.  

He closes the refrigerator door and stares at a row of freezers across the kitchen. Who needs so many freezers? he wonders. He crosses the kitchen and goes to open one, but it is padlocked. Who padlocks their freezer? Two freezers further down the wall, he finds one without a padlock. He opens it.

Inside he sees dozens of containers, each with what appears to be a name on it.

Georgia … 

What kind of freezer is this? So many names! And all in alphabetical order. The names reminded him of another set of names, another list in alpha order, where did he know them from?

Doby …

Baseball names! Those were players names. Names on baseball cards. Cards he had hidden in his room, arranged alphabetically, organized in small groups bound together with rubber bands, all of them hidden in his pillowcase, where he could guard them at night, as he slept. That’s what was so familiar about this list, the way it was organized and hidden away. Like some secret. Like his baseball cards.

He looked at the freezers with new eyes. He studied them, the way he studied baseball cards, looking for clues to the character of the player. But so many freezers, all looking so alike, and so many names, suggesting … what?

The old man was puzzled. He knew why he hid his baseball cards, but why would someone take so much trouble to hide food? What was really begin hidden here? So many freezers, so many secrets. Whose kitchen was this really?

“Are you finished cutting up the meat?” He heard her voice before he saw her, a small woman all dressed in white, but with a big voice. “Oh no! Just look at you. You’ve made a mess. On your slippers too! What are you doing over here at the freezer? The food’ll melt.”

She removed his hand from the freezer lid, gently, and closed it. She untied the apron he was wearing and tossed it in one of the sinks. One of the many sinks, he realized, as he looked around. He wanted to count them but the woman in white was directing him out of the kitchen.

“Back to your room,” she said. “You’re not doing me any good here if you make a mess like that. I’ll have to mop that floor before I can finish chopping the meat. You’re just not worth the trouble, are you? There you go,” she said, pushing him out of the kitchen and into a big empty hall. “Nurse Peters will just have to assign you to someone else. You’re too much for me to keep an eye on. Now get along! And tell the orderly to get you some new slippers,” she added as she turned back into the kitchen.

He stood in the huge empty room and watched the woman in white disappear beyond the freezers. He marveled at what he’d seen. So many sinks, so many freezers, and all the little containers with names in alpha order. Who has a kitchen like that? And a woman in white to run it all? It was … magical. He couldn’t stop smiling, just at the thought of it. He wanted to know more—he wanted to know who …

So he walks back into the kitchen. 

The woman in white isn’t there, but he can hear someone whistling down a hallway in the other direction, away from the big empty room. He sees the sinks again. One, two, three, four. Four sinks! Who has four sinks? And why? He opens the freezer again and there they are. One after another. Little boxes with names. He pulls them out, one by one, starting from the other end this time:


Peters! Like Nurse Peters? Is that container hers? And if so, that would mean … what? He tries to make his mind work, to remember how to make it work, but the refrigerator light is still off. He needs to open something, to let the light in.

He grabs another freezer lid, but it’s padlocked. Then he notices that each of the padlocked freezers has labels on them:

Meat, Starch, Vegetables … 

But the freezer that holds the containers with the names has no label. Curious, he thinks, and reads the other labels.

Liquid, Dessert, Misc.

He wonders what that means, Misc. He wonders what he would find if he could open that freezer, but it’s idle speculation. The padlocks have ice forming on the chain links that rest against the freezer walls, and water drips off the links a few inches away from the freezers.

“You again?” the woman in white said. “Close that lid!” He did. “I thought I told you to return to your room. Do I have to call security to escort you back?”

He shook his head. He didn’t want security. He’d had too much security. Security, he thought, was another name for bullying.

“I’ll go,” he said. “Sorry,” he said. “I just wondered …”

He walked back through the open room and out into the open air hallway that led past the quadrangle of grass and into the ward where he would find his room. But he couldn’t shake the image of the alphabetical containers and the wall of freezers.

How many freezers? he wondered, and he tried to count them, to use his memory to call up the image of the kitchen and count the freezers. But first he had to find a way to turn on the light, the light in the refrigerator of his memory. When he got to his room, he flipped the light switch and the fluorescent bulb crackled and flashed and blinked and hummed and slowly came on in his room.

And in his brain.

Seven freezers, he counted. Six with labels and one without—the one with all the containers with names, including the one name he recognized: Peters.

If that container belonged to Nurse Peters—how many Peters could there be in a world as small as this hospital? he wondered—then the other containers must belong to other nurses or orderlies or hospital staff. That was their food, he realized, the staff’s food. No wonder they never ate with the patients, they had their own food!

He marveled at the orderliness of it all, the neatly arranged boxes, the names in alphabetical order, and he wondered if the memories frozen in his brain were so neatly organized. He wondered if he would ever be able to unlock the freezers in his mind and open them as easily as he opened the one with the containers. He wondered if the light bulb in his brain worked like the one in the refrigerator—open the door and it came on, instantly—or more like the one here in his room, the fluorescent one that stammered its way on, sometimes.

He wondered how long it would be before everything inside him was stored in deep freeze like his memories. Would a time come when his baseball cards were as indecipherable to him as the secrets in the freezers? His own baseball cards a mystery to him? Yes, probably, someday, before his organs and his tissues and his skin were packed in dry ice inside neat little freezer-like carriers and shipped off to some other body in some other hospital in some far away city. Would they put labels on them too? he wondered. And would they alphabetize them?

Eyes, Heart, Liver, Lungs, Spleen

He’d seen those little insulated boxes rushed through the hospital to a waiting helicopter. Their cute plastic handles, rounded edges and deadly warning signs. He’d seen orderlies rushing them out of the hospital and into waiting patrol cars. He’d seen more, much more … but he couldn’t remember it.

Why this? he wondered. Why can I remember the organ carriers but not when I took my meds or why I’m here or where I was yesterday or what happened after I escaped, or why … why I was standing in that kitchen with all the freezers? Why are some memories unfrozen, accessible like the milk in the refrigerator, while others are buried so deeply in the icy reaches of a padlocked freezer that they will never be thawed out and recovered?

He wondered.

He thought about his baseball cards, how he could remember the names and the histories of each player—Kaline and Colavito, Maris and Mantle—even those he hadn’t thought of since he was a child—Musial and Dean, Williams and Jensen—even those he’d never seen play—Ruth and Gehrig and Cobb. He thought about all the baseball names he could remember, more than he could count, yet he couldn’t remember the name of the orderly who brought his meds each night.

What kind of cruel joke was life playing on him? Was it a game of some sort and all he needed to do was figure out the rules?

He was suddenly tired of thinking. He looked down at his slippers. They were stained red. Was he bleeding? No, that couldn’t be, or the lady in white would have told him to go to the infirmary. Or she’d have called the doctor on the floor right away. No, it wasn’t his blood. So … whose?

He remembered a story he read once. Was it a Sherlock Holmes mystery? The detective spied red stains on the suspect’s shoes and knew at once who the murderer was. Which story was that? He couldn’t call up a single title from the Sherlock Holmes series, which was sad, since he’d enjoyed reading the stories so much when he was younger.

He looked at his slippers again. Maybe it wasn’t blood. Maybe … maybe it was red paint.

A light went on in the refrigerator. A memory came to life.

A boy with red paint on his shoes. A classroom with a spilled can of paint. A teacher asking everyone if they knew who had spilled it. Yes, he remembered now, he had seen Billy spill the paint. He’d told the teacher. And then she’d announced to the class that she knew who the culprit was and, if he wanted to be forgiven and not get sent to the Principal’s Office, he should come talk to her right away. Case solved. The teacher was a smart detective.

The culprit confessed, in the hallway, moments later. He remembered how bright the light was coming in through the hall windows, too bright for any shadows, how it made his shoes shimmer in the hallway, his bright red shoes.

No, that couldn’t be. He never had red shoes, his mother wouldn’t have permitted it. And yet … he saw the shoes as clear as daylight. In the hallway. Standing in front of the teacher.

Oh my god, he thought, I spilled the paint!

And another light in the refrigerator went on. A light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. And the path out of the tunnel, believe it or not, was paved with yellow bricks. He began walking.