My brother tends to a nest of prehistoric computer games under his hospital bed. He plays them to access old memories the way some couples use sex toys to create new ones. He once said memories are limited like game cartridges: write-once. Your brain can’t look back and see new details your child eyes missed.
Maybe. When I replay the picnic my brother and I had on a roundabout once, my brain is seven again.
The world ends where the gutter laps at our island.
The cold can of Fanta fills both my hands.
And beyond, across the synapse of roads, is where ice-cream vans and dragons are snapped into life, and just as quickly dematerialise to the tune of ‘Greensleeves’.
We nibble Twisties while Ma drives, her knuckles white against the steering wheel of the rusty Mazda 121, and screams at us out the window. Round and round. It takes four minutes and a police siren for me to realise she’s not playing our game.
Looking back I also see that other drivers are annoyed. A passenger in a green car has her hair in curlers and is tut-tutting with her finger. But I speak to her from the future and say I don’t give a rat’s what she thinks.
Memories, games – they both make you crazy, Ma says. Playing over and over the same mistakes. In English, Ma would say, Games like pay money to shit on your brain.
My stand-in Ma is Ms Pac-Man. It’s 9 pm-ish on the plastic daisy clock and my tummy is rumbling, but you can’t hear it over the blips and squeaks of the Atari. My little brother is on round six and the TV flickers blue and yellow on his face and school shirt as if he is downloading information. This is before the internet is invented but I’m looking at him and thinking, one day he will understand the language of light. I feel a brotherly connection, even then, but I’m only faintly aware of it. All siblings are twins, just ones staggered in updated stages.
Our onscreen babysitter with the red bow is chomping some cherries larger than her body while I scissor open the venetians to look for Ma. She bleaches nappies in a factory somewhere out there. The world is dotted with places I have collected. The Salvos near Hyde Park where Ma made my brother secretly swap his haggard brown shoes for a middle-aged pair. The school incinerator where we uncovered magazines of pink-thighed women. The deli. Franklins supermarket. All the places in between the dots exist only because my teachers or Ma says they do.
On level eleven, a hairy arm pushes Ma through the door. Hot plastic rectangles sigh as she slides them across the table. The man she is with is Mr Chokito: the reluctant stage-star of the show called Dinner. Sometimes my brother and I lie awake in our bunks and tap the wooden frame for how many Chokitos we think he’ll present us with if he marries Ma. (My high score was 128 taps before Ma tossed a towel at me from the adjacent bed.)
Mr Chokito hasn’t got his melty grin today. He clears his throat and passes the gifts to us as if they were coal, without bouncing them off his biceps or making us guess which hand they are in. After the Chokitos we eat some salty noodles while Ma hunches in the chair caressing her feet. She is sick of high heels, she says. But maybe she is really saying that she is sick of everything. She kneads out the dog-eared corners of some documents across the table but they refuse to straighten, and, as if this is the worst thing on the planet, she yanks my brother over and sobs into his school tie.
On a fully saturated spring day, my brother and I race into Kmart and circle the Commodore 64 section like we’re high on cordial. My brother wraps his brown arms around a car game and I find my soccer one, clutching the box to my head. As I turn it the cassette tumbles inside with an exotic clunk. The sound comes from elsewhere, the same land where marimbas and coconuts are made. I run my hands along the skin of the box, which is waxy and hard like tablets of Christmas chocolate, while I imagine the futuristic graphics. The reality is probably blocks of Lego staggering across the screen. But my eyes will overlay the cover art as I play. My brother starts to moan at me, saying that he only wants the car game. Then the volume increases to shouts and I pull him over to a pyramid of printers.
I only want this, he says, revealing his car game in both hands while taking a cautious step back. He’s like a paranoid homeless man with a radio. Only shorter.
Anything else, but I don’t want that, I say, flicking a finger at his prize. I don’t hate his choice, but Ma has told me his spotfires of anger have to be kept in check. He turns his bowl-haired head away. The Kmart girl slides her blue-mascara eyes across us.
Okay, I say. It’s not for me to teach him. But remember this, okay?
Really? He jumps around and nods as if his head’s on springs.
I try to remember that I am letting him have his way. I am already learning to use good deeds as a piggy bank for guilt.
But first we need the computer, I say. It’s a real computer with pancake-sized discs that hold as much memory as six baby sparrows. The capacity doesn’t impress me; I figure unused memory is just black air. My brother and I pull out all the notes and coins that have been dragging down our Stubbies.
We rush through the backstreets. Tomato vines strain their necks from front yards, but can’t slow us down. We cradle our computer home on the train, taking turns either lugging our school bags or nursing our newborn for the half-hour trip.
Strangers collect around the carriage doors we sit next to. An old Greek man beside us is telling a joke and shuttling orange beads through his chubby fingers. Opposite us, two Vietnamese boys are examining something behind us on the greasy wall. It’s a nail-varnish-bright sign. They’re whispering about what they believe the words mean but it’s like our faces are glass and they are looking right through us. They both decide $100 fine means you have to pay to smoke on the train but the driver is open to haggling. I want to say what it really means, translating it back to them, but they are taller than us and I’m struck by the queasy feeling that I’m looking at a version of ourselves seen from a slightly skewed angle in time.
Before I can speak, we pass the place trains go to die, and then police officers stagger through the side carriage doors in a rush of air. They are in pairs, two-by-two like headlights, and the passengers brighten, knowing that the good should always look happy.
Is this your game? says an officer tapping the sophisticated computing machine wedged between my brother’s legs. My brother winces up at me as if a laser has bitten him.
I shrug and nod.
Where are your parents? The officer says, with a blink on every word. A white singlet peeks out from under his uniform. Even the police get chills, I think. Where are your parents? I ask myself.
Ma’s at work, I say.
And your father? he says. His moustache is blond and I can smell his underarms. He probably can’t. His nose has to forget the scent or it will get stuck.
Who cares where Ba is? I think. I don’t know, I say. It’s true, I can’t remember. I know I know where he is but somebody has swept away the breadcrumbs to this memory. Perhaps Ma in her tidiness. When she talks about Ba she boils up and when she boils up she cleans and sings in English: you-can hair-y love.
Well, be careful, the officer says. There’s all shades of wrong on the train. He’s transmitting me a secret code and I can see it now. Details. The Greek man is actually talking to himself. The Vietnamese teenagers are toothless men, wearing tattered thongs and wielding cigarettes behind their ears. There are no ladies on the train.
When the carriage gangway door thuds shut behind the police, I turn to my brother all gaspy. Do you remember that adventure game? I say. The Secret Escape? My brother tries to nod. Remember when the Nazis ask the pregnant girl who can’t lie if the baby is going to be blue-eyed? And to pass that level you have to answer that his eyes will be ‘blue as new stars’? My brother shakes his head and his face dims. His throat crackles as if he is about to speak but I cut in. Anyhow, that game was just like now with the police.
I can’t think, he says.
You never do.
Yes I do.
What station do we get out at then?
He searches his memory.
The next one, I say. That’s where we live.
At home we sit on the carpet, throw off the Commodore’s foam nappy and take fat lungfuls of the new smell.
It smells like plastic pizza, my brother says.
Read us the manual, I say and he does. At first he claps his hands and his coin face shines up at me with each number he reads out. Sixty-FOUR (head up) kilobytes of RAM … there are a MILLION (head up) possibilities with your all-new personal colour computer. Then after a while the words are sticky. I can’t look at his mouth because it reminds me of the dark, shrivelled dates that the neighbours eat. Bay-sick pro-grans. Grams? He glances up at me. He is still reading. What is this story called again? he says.
I teach my brother how to write a program to make bars of flashing colours: the identical program every month. I tell him we can use the strobing light for mind control. He says he’d use it on shopkeepers for free games. Ma already saves loose change in an old coffee jar for buying him a game after any particularly rough treatments.
I say he should aim higher and use the strobe on God, then he can magic any games or chocolate bars he wants. He says he doesn’t believe in God. That he has tried to speak to Him but there is just blankness. Nothing. Not even static.
That’s because he doesn’t exist, I say, not after we were babies and got our heads wiped.
I wish he did, he says, I wish I could remember him.
My brother has been sleepwalking and the doctor has instructed him to stay up all night before coming in to see her. I guess it’s to push his brain to the point of corruption. We froth with excitement, planning the all-night party.
I have never seen the dawn before. I feel like the first human ever to see it. The birds nag each other in a chatter I am not supposed to hear. Ma takes my brother to the doctor who wears a sari and I finish round fourteen of International Karate on my Amiga. ‘Amiga’ means friend in another language, but I don’t know much about foreign countries yet; I can’t imagine people with different haircuts living like we do.
That week Ma tries to cram trips to the zoo and museum into each day. She appears at the doorway of the biology lab with my brother and my green duffel coat and takes us to an urgent aquarium visit. Among the sleeping sharks and jellyfish, which throb like new inventions, I catch Ma watching us with sharp, fidgety eyes. I’m sure she is checking items off a tally of fun.
We eat salt-and-vinegar chips and smear our greasy fingers along the windows onto the fish. They mime for us; they grumble silent songs. On our way out, the guard nudges Ma and says we have to take the stairs because the escalator is broken. Crashed computer.
Crashed? What does that mean?
Brain damage, my brother says.
Ma squeals. Other parents shake their heads.
Brain damage, she echoes, mashing the words.
Brain damage, I say.
On the bus, we obliterate the silence with our laughter and when we’re home again we jump about.
Sleep fixes us. But in the middle of the night I wake to a noise in the flat. I get out of bed, climb across my snoring Ma who appears to be awake but lying with her eyes squeezed closed as if in prayer or about to sneeze. I slip by her into the kitchen and find my brother stretching his hands across the linoleum tiles. I call his name and his eyes glimmer green in the streetlight leaking in. I’m measuring, he whispers. I watch him for a while then say something. But when I try to recall what it was later, the words won’t be spoken, won’t budge from the tip of my tongue.
The next morning, the air is dense again as if yesterday’s fun was sweet but just air freshener sprayed into the room.
Relatives we thought were long dead have come to rattle our screen door; they’re brought by the whiff of illness. They carry huge plates, dishes bloated with Vietnamese food we’re allergic to, such as vegetables. Great Auntie Pham goes further and pushes in a supermarket trolley lop-sided with delicacies she is convinced will cure everything: beef tendon in sweet condensed milk to slap the brain, chilli and lemon mussels to revive the tongue, coriander crab-cakes with Vegemite for carving new experiences. She clucks about Vietnam, her lips moving back and forth, chewing over her girlhood legends, which amplify with each telling.
Ma gives theatrical yawns to help fast-forward to the good bit. It’s the reason they’re allowed through the door in the first place: red envelopes of cash. The empty-handed aren’t allowed a front-row cushion to the show.
They are resurrected in our lives by a Word that Ma never utters. But the relatives sprinkle that Word randomly into tales about my brother and me, they conjure up their memories of things we don’t recall and so are certain didn’t happen. Surely they have us confused with other relatives in the same way Ma muddles up her actors. I’m definitely not the sort of guy who would be in their home videos.
My brother’s only reaction is to ask Great Auntie Pham, Did you steal that trolley?
Then, from the false memories the relatives have uncovered, a man who I haven’t seen in all my life shows up a week later. My father.
He and I have an excruciating bus ride through the city, reminiscing about nothing. Every word feels too loud: amplified, microphoned.
Sydney’s buildings weren’t planned, they just mushroomed, I say.
That’s all? he says. Where I’m from … we’re from, the buildings actually are mushrooms.
I laugh, a moment too late and it dangles there mid-air like shoes hanging on a power line. Well, I say, these pricey dumps turn up and disappear overnight like nicked rubbish bins.
Silence. A guy in a duckbill baseball cap eavesdrops projecting a thought-bubble above his head reading: ‘I could do waaaaaaay better if this were my life.’
I examine the scar rising from this father’s cheek and think that if he and it had always been part of my life, I wouldn’t notice. It would just be part of his face. Instead the scar shines, the colour of earthworms and the delicate flesh under foreskins (another word not learned from his mouth). It’s hitched on some trauma not involving me.
He is not here to be seen by me, anyhow. My brother should be filing or making coffees for his work experience boss but instead he’s massacring military-strength aliens in Doom when we teeter in.
He recognises my father immediately, despite it being his first time meeting him. My brother’s thin fingers float above the keyboard. Everything he forgot to learn about turning off taps and knowing the difference between raw and cooked chicken was to reserve enough brain room for remembering this meeting.
It was Lily’s idea. Your Ma, this father says, reading his new son’s clenched jaw.
I remember who she is. That’s, um, that’s cool, my brother says. Okay. The sound of a gunshot and an animal screeching comes from the computer.
Let’s go somewhere, they both say in sing-song voices and leave me adrift there on the whirr of tape machines in the room.
Ma once planted a leaflet explaining my brother’s amnesiac condition in my lunchbox next to the usual one dollar note. I threw it away. I had a kidney stone but I wasn’t allowed to get sobby about it because it wasn’t a top-shelf illness like his: apparently, he compressed years into moments. So what? Didn’t everybody?
I stab off the button on my brother’s PC, just like that, without saving or shutting down, then follow them out.
We walk in silence to McDonald’s and stand in a messy queue. Our returned father is eyeing the menu on the caramelly backlit perspex and has already decided on hot apple pies for us. One each. I nod quietly. I know I’m too old for such kids’ food, but my chest flutters. Then his zig-zagging arms grab at the Word. So it’s terminal then? he asks. It’s not really a question. He must think that there is no time to waste, that he has to get to the intimate facts fast. His gaze shifts between the coins in his hands and my brother. He bites down on a one-cent coin so hard that I’m worried it will snap. My brother swivels his head up to look at me.
We’ll both have cheeseburgers, I say. Two each? No pickles for me but lots for him. My brother punctuates this burger ransom note with a nod. This father rummages his fingers through his grey hairs, which jolt out the back of his head like sudden flowers on a cactus. The times I hit you, he says, I hope that didn’t do it to your, you know, brain.
I don’t recall this so it mustn’t have happened. I can’t think of it, especially here, standing thigh to thigh with boys who are the same putty colour as the counter, their fists full of napkins, Reeboks whiter than mine. Apple pie exists to create sweet memories, not regurgitate old ones.
I’m playing Solitaire upstairs when her voice drifts in. I don’t go down. I look down on her and imprint the fleeting image. Not that memories are stored as images – that’s a myth, I saw that in a book once, one with huge typeface on the cover and a title I can never recall. Of its thousands of words, I only held onto a smattering, including the claim that we decode memories into facts, then recode our own images – that’s why we can have a 360-degree view in memories.
I record this woman’s facts: scarlet satin jacket and a swinging wooden necklace gained from travels to a foreign country, which must now be missing a forest or two. I will pan around and notice things I didn’t see then: like the sheen of her black tights, growing as she parks herself on our couch.
Definitely sweat. I know this because it’s been so hot even the nights can’t escape the sun. On the way to my office, my dripping head hangs to the ground and at midnight, I drink syrupy iced tea.
The heat is terrible and glorious, like a crush on a cousin. Like still living at home with a brother whose memory dances in and out, sharp like ambulances and then gone. The social worker is the first hint that summer has an end. The first ‘just-in-case’ jacket.
She is downstairs telling Ma that my brother needs a carer. That it’s not enough that I am twenty, because he is seventeen and those numbers don’t gel, the way milk and orange juice simply, positively, don’t gel.
My brother, he drink orange juice and milk, Ma tries to say (unaided by her translator: me). When she utters this, I know she has lost.
I remember Uncle Nguyen pouring juice into milk, the orange plumage unfolding, and he applauding with the one hand he still had against his stump. I don’t know what happened to the other, but rewinding the image it must have been because of a war. The war.
A carer is specialised, the woman says. They are trained to know about the ‘challenged’. Your boy remembers the past the way we picture the future. Watery and warped like watching dancey lil’ coins at the bottom of a pool.
I hear the plastic couch-cover squeal as Ma shrugs. Little prince, come here, she calls out to my brother.
Should I go down there? he says to me.
How should I know?
I don’t know. You’re really … He scratches his flat nose – it’s his trick to not finish sentences.
Then go speak to her.
Yeah. Maybe it’d be like a holiday. For you.
His clarity catches me by surprise, and the frown he gives is as honest and spontaneous as he is. Just last night he forgot where he was and went to the toilet in a cinema seat. Even if he doesn’t confess anything else, the woman downstairs will get this snippet out of him with her skills and education. She has a blood instinct for the most vulnerable day to visit.
I’m not making you go down, I say, not turning away from Solitaire.
What about you? he says as he steadies himself to his feet with my head. We should both go away, right? Come meet her.
I shake my head, somewhere between yes and no. If I go downstairs I’ll be loaded with even more facts to tag to memories I don’t want. So I sink back into my game. Move the Jack to get to the Ace. I feel guilty for not doing any more on my expensive computer than play cards. It feels as sinful as leaving food on my plate in a restaurant. By leaving couches and remote controls in plastic, Ma has taught me that not getting the most out of what you have is wrong.
Stay here. This is what I should say.
My brother lumbers down the steps and the woman’s voice turns bright as pink cupcakes, saying, So how are you, young man?
I pissed my pants in the movies, he says.
Fucking graveyard men, it’s only 5.55 pm, Ma says. We swear more nowadays. It signposts events into our brains to help us remember them. It doesn’t feel harsh to Ma – the English words seem to come from the other side of her tongue where everything tastes bland anyhow (she says). She learns the meaning of new swear words by typing them into Google Images and seeing what comes up. c o c k s u c k e r.
Aha, I see.
I really so angry with cocksuck doctor, she says. Or: If your boss think her job so much hard maybe she try wringing shits from the terry towelling for twenty year.
Pray faster or we have to climb the shitting headstones to get out, she says now. We’re squatted on a stone slab in Newtown Cemetery, near to trespassing, and I can tell she is about to play her favourite interactive pastime: shouting at strangers. She scrapes aside lipstick-ringed cigarette butts from the gravetop. In their place she burns paper vests and thousand-dollar bills at the grave. These are fake notes, American, because even the dead have needs, she instructs us. I light them in my hands too but get stung, forgetting how fast paper burns, crinkling, then holding its breath in a smoulder.
I still don’t know who I’m praying to, I say. But somehow I know it’s to Ma’s sister.
Me either, my brother says. To whom are we praying? Whom? We have him for a weekend and he still has his good grammar.
Even I tell you, you no remember, Ma says with her hands clasping over his. They do horrible-bad things to her, if you no remember then cannot hang on your fucking heart.
A shadow speaks. Words I said to my brother from the past, which seem as foreign as Ma’s country now. Maybe it’s because of the twilight funnelling through the elms. Or the reek of fresh dog shit and bong water that reaches straight into my memory centre with knitting needle fingers and picks it out by mistake, neighbour to another thread.
Hey, I whisper to my brother as an ad break from praying, do you remember that time you were sleepwalking or some shit and I found you in the kitchen? It was nuts, remember? He shrugs and his long black hair erases his face.
Of course he no remember, Ma says. Shit, they come now. Ma runs towards the tall guard, her heels plunging into the spongy ground, and levitates her arms to the sky like she is Moses, shouting, You are a mother-father!
I like Ma, my brother says.
Yeah. So anyhow, I continue, there I was wondering what the hell you were doing up late so I called to you. Oscar, I said. Maybe I shouted. Oscaaaar.
He gargles a laugh.
You told me you were measuring the tiles. Then I can’t remember what I said. Do you? There is a strange noise from him, as if his mouth is on loan, but I don’t want to know if he’s crying because it’s too much to be recalling a memory and have a new one sandwiching against it.
I continue: I was standing there watching you and you looked at me and I said something but I can’t remember what it was.
You said, ‘I’ll do it for you’. Oscar sweeps the hair from his face and his eyes are the same as when we were kids: far away and binary, turning black or reflecting white. But I don’t remember us then, he says. He is about to weep now, as if this is the first memory lost, again not realising everything will come unstitched eventually, until one day even his throat will forget to swallow air.
He is the same as always.
Ma is over by the chapel and looking to us with raised eyebrows as if to tell us that she is all right and we will be all right. She angles her head slightly to try and read what we are talking about and when we are talking about because a mother’s realm of influence can stretch like that. Back and forth. In and out.
But she is not here.
No sweat, I say to my brother. Listen, I’ll tell you everything.