Kazia files a folder of correspondence and closes the manuscript box. She leaves the archives as the sun is setting. Her head is filled with the collection she is processing, the papers of Elgar T. Bryce, noted American biologist. For eleven years, she has worked as an archivist, arranging and describing the papers of scientists, economists, and professors. She loves the quiet of the archives, the way folders line up in a processed box, tangible history in her hands.
Outside the archives, there’s a strange flyer on the bulletin board. The first thing she notices is the paper, a small blue square, probably acidic, attached to the board by the thin metal line of a staple not yet turned to rust. It’s an invitation to the Restaurant of Object Permanence. To go, one is instructed to eat the flyer.
She pulls the paper from the board and swallows it in one bite.
The Restaurant of Object Permanence is brightly lit, each table under a spotlight. Although four chairs surround each table, every diner sits alone.
Before Kazia are two objects, a worn work boot and a bracelet drooping with dainty emeralds. Kazia recognizes the items immediately. She picks up the boot, Misty’s favorite toy. A wave of memory washes over her—throwing the shoe (which first belonged to Kazia’s father), Misty’s tail wagging, sunlight streaming through the oak in their backyard.
The bracelet was a graduation gift from her grandmother, lost in a move a decade ago. She has not thought of these things in years, but now that they are before her, she feels tenderness for them, like light touching a place long dark.
The woman at the next table has a merry-go-round figurine and a black rock. She ingests the merry-go-round, which shrinks to fit perfectly into her mouth. The look on her face is a mix of sorrow and wonder—a version of nostalgia. The door to the restaurant opens. The woman leaves.
Kazia looks at the boot and bracelet, both a promise of memories renewed. Also, escape. To leave the restaurant, she must eat.
Carefully, she puts both objects to the side. She has never liked limited, binary choices—so little in the world reflects this structure. If this is a restaurant, she should be able to order what she wants.
“Book,” she says, experimentally. A Wizard of Earthsea appears before her. Not just any copy. She’d recognize the scratch on the cover anywhere. When she was eight, she bought the book at a garage sale and devoured it in one sitting. Since then, she has believed in the true names of things. This belief carries over to her work, where she tries to divine descriptions for archival documents.
All three objects sit before her, waiting for her to choose.
She loves them all in different ways, but she is reluctant to eat any of them. What sort of gift is the past? Is this a gift at all, or a responsibility to remember?
She wonders what will happen if she orders something intangible.
“Determinism,” she says. All these choices have made her think of free will, and that competing philosophy, determinism—the idea that all our actions are predetermined, the inevitable consequences of the motion of particles tracing back to the birth of the universe.
Perhaps, she thinks, determinism will manifest as a rendition of the Big Bang, some strange tableau. However, what appears is a black bowtie with a broken clasp. The one Adrian left behind, in the apartment that used to be theirs. All at once, she remembers herself, at twenty-three years old, crushing the bowtie in her hand. Her past self is wondering how her choices have brought her to this place, and if her choices mattered at all, or if the universe had planned this all along. Her bracelet is gone, a graduation gift from her grandmother. Perhaps it had gotten mixed up with his things.
In the restaurant, she picks up the bowtie, letting the silk run over her thumb. Kazia worries that if she eats this manifestation of determinism, the world will disintegrate into its component parts. She puts the bowtie aside, adding it to the archival collection of her past objects.
She’s tempted to order a paradox, because it is in her nature to explore the limits of a system in order to ferret out the underlying structure, but she doesn’t. She refrains from ordering any other intangibles—love, sadness, morning, noon, night, nostalgia, the feeling before falling asleep or the bright dawning of understanding. All of her objects have been personal. What would it look like if she ordered love or grief? Would she be given Misty’s collar, her grandmother’s lace tablecloth, a photograph of her father?
“The Restaurant of Object Permanence,” she says. A model of the restaurant appears.
Object permanence is the ability to remember objects when they are no longer in sight. Archival records, she thinks, are a method of object permanence for our history, a way to remember events that have disappeared from living memory. The record is a physical object describing the intangible past.
She peers into the model of the restaurant, with its tiny tables and chairs and faux diners, with miniature artwork on the walls. In front of each diner sits a choice of objects, but the objects are obscured from Kazia, blurred like a memory. The static model cannot possibly convey the significance of those objects to the diners, the crucial choice the restaurant has on offer; but everything that can be represented, is. What Kazia sees is an archival obsession with the past, with collective memory, and the spaces between, the empty chairs and tables, moments undocumented in the historical records, lost now, forever. These spaces are what she focuses on most. The places where things are missing.
This is what she will eat. She can remember her own past without the use of objects. It is the concept of the restaurant she needs to carry with her—the knowledge that so much history has been lost, the silences in the archives. Documents tell a story, but what happens when the documents that would speak are not saved? What happens to those stories?
Into her mouth goes the Restaurant of Object Permanence. It tastes like nothing she’s ever eaten. It’s as if she’s forgotten the words to describe taste.
The door opens. In the distance, she sees the archives. She sets out toward the building. The archives will be locked now, but she will touch the pebbled walls, run her fingers in the spaces where the pebbles meet, and feel the absence there.
© 2022 by Beth Goder
Author’s Note: As an archivist, I drew on my personal experience for this story. I’ve never been to the Restaurant of Object Permanence, but I have thought a lot about the silences in the archives and how we, collectively, remember historical events. Working in the archives has changed how I understand history. (I can relate to the quote that says, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”) This story began with a prompt about object permanence, which immediately made me think about how archival documents serve as evidence of events that have passed out of living memory. These documents are a tangible connection to the past.
Beth Goder works as an archivist, processing the papers of economists, scientists, and other interesting folks. Her fiction has appeared in venues such as Escape Pod, Analog, Clarkesworld, Nature, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy. You can find her online at http://www.bethgoder.com.
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