WALKING SHADOW

by Clifford Royal Johns

I knew I’d had some memories removed. I could tell because the removal company sent me payment-overdue notices every week.

I had just received another such bill, and this one was especially demanding, implying some unspecified action would be taken to recover their funds if I didn’t pay immediately.

I wondered what memories I’d had removed. Had I killed someone? Had I seen some grisly death, or had an astoundingly bad breakup? Had a doctor told me I had only three months left to live? Forgetting was a drastic response to a dramatic event. What was my dramatic event? I lay in bed in my tiny apartment, staring at the ceiling and reviewing my history, trying to find the holes. It was sort of like trying to discover the hiding place of a needle in a haystack after I’d paid to have the needle removed.

When my PAL said, “Hey, it’s eleven-thirty,” I shook off speculation about my past, rolled out of bed and dressed to go meet my brother Arno at Socko’s restaurant. I had lunch with him every Wednesday at noon.

I didn’t have a car and the buses just didn’t go that way. My brother did have a car, but refused to drive over to my part of town. He worried that the neighborhood kids who would promise to protect his brand new Moto-400 for a little pocket change, would instead strip it of everything and leave just the trackerID chip and the front axle lying in the parking space. I walked.

On the way out of my apartment building, I said hello to the doorman, a crusty, gray bum wearing two overcoats and three hats piled on top of each other. That day the hat on top was a once-white knit with a pompom dangling from one thread. He sat huddled against the entry way, out of the wind. It was his real estate. No one else ever sat there. He looked back at me, but didn’t move. I wasn’t one of his patrons.

It was a cold, gritty day in Chicago, much like the day before. Dark-bellied clouds lumbered past overhead, threatening a numbing fall rain. I shuffled south on LeSally Street, my jacket collar turned up to the wind, my thoughts turned inward to my memories.

As I walked along Diversity, dodging the land traffic, and closing my eyes against the dirt storm whenever a buzzcar lurched by overhead, I thought again about the bill I’d received the evening before. Forget What had sent me bills every week for the last month. According to them, I’d paid two thousand in bad money to “remove a memory or series of related memories,” but I couldn’t remember.

Of course, I hadn’t seen money like that in years, and if I had, I sure wouldn’t have wasted it on a forget. I would have spent it on something tangible; something that would have been repossessed if I left a bad money trail. Forget What couldn’t reinstall a forgotten memory. Service had already been rendered.

The letters referred to me as Sir, but the computer that generated the impersonal mail really meant deadbeat; I could tell. I could feel the smirk embedded in each one.

OK, so I blinked them. I blinked lots of people. Most didn’t bother to complain because they didn’t want to admit they’d been taken, or because their accounting was so bad, they didn’t even realize they were out any money. Forget What didn’t seem to be willing to forgive or forget. They actually wanted their money. But if I’d paid in real money, they wouldn’t have bothered me, and I would never have known I’d had any memories removed.

I crossed Hacker Drive and ducked into the Sliver Building. The real name of the building was The Silver Exchange, but no one called anything by its right name anymore. The Sliver looked like a Bowie knife sticking up out of the ground, as though someone inside the earth was trying to cut his way out. I went in through the 4G delivery entrance in the hilt, where the couriers delivered packages. Going immediately through a door to the left into the dock area avoided the security guard. I said, “Hey,” to a flat-faced blonde girl as though I knew her and strode through the piles of pallets and boxes, scanning for a small box I could take with me. I didn’t see anything sufficiently portable, so I slipped through into the catering area, then into the atrium and out onto Crackson. It was a useful shortcut and the more I used it, the less likely anyone was to notice I wasn’t supposed to be there. I also avoided the overhead transit stop where police tended to loiter.

People pay to forget stuff that traumatizes them; memories that haunt them, that pull at their lives and bend the flow; memories they don’t want to deal with in an honest way. Like Wilde said, “No man is rich enough to buy back his past,” but now, at least, people who had the money could pay to forget what they had done. Walk in an emotional wreck. Walk out a new person. Consciences cleaned while you wait. If you were rich, you could be happy. You could steal, cheat and bribe your way to wealth, then forget everything you did to get your money, forget everyone you ruined, forget everyone you took advantage of. Forgetting is better than a priest giving you some penance and telling you everything is forgiven. Forgetting is true absolution; the guilt is surgically removed.

Socko’s was one of those small, steamy, mostly takeout places that has astonishingly good food served on flimsy plastic. The padded vinyl seats were as old as the building and just as hard. The people there treated you like they were doing you a favor by allowing you to eat there. I ate there a lot.

Arno was at a corner table facing the entrance. He waved as I pushed through the revolving door, but then went back to reading the paper he had tucked above his plate. I stood in line behind a woman with no hair and two kids, then ordered a beandog, asparagus sticks and a citrus from a thin man with no eyebrows who wore a magenta plastic hat. I hadn’t seen him there before. He had a tattoo of a beard on his chin and wore a Socko’s shirt. “Say,” I said, “do you have hair tattooed under that hat?”

He tipped his hat to me. There was another hat tattooed on his head. It looked like a bowler. It was blue. “One for every occasion,” he said. His blue tattoo turned orange then violet as he turned to get my order.

When his head turned blue again I took my beandog and joined Arno.

“You’re late.”

“Hello, Arno.”

“What were you doing this morning?”

Arno was like that. He seemed to think that just because I was late, I must have had something better to do, but the walk was twenty-five minutes, and it usually varied by five or so. I ignored his question.

“I got a bill from a forget company,” I said, thinking to change the subject as quickly as I could. “They say I owe them for a forget.”

“And you blinked them, right?”

“I guess so. I honestly don’t remember. Do you know what I forgot? I must have talked to you about it before I had the memories removed. What was my pain?”

“I dunno,” he said. “You don’t talk to me about that stuff.” He quickly went back to reading his paper, but I had the feeling he knew and wouldn’t tell me.

My brother was tall, with thick black hair, and he worked out, though at his house I’d only ever seen him sitting on the machines, not pushing or pulling or lifting, but that’s enough for guys like him. He looked fit and healthy, well fed, but not loose. His hands were steady and muscular. We didn’t look at all alike. I was just a little shorter, but had sandy hair and a thin wiry build. The only reason I was physically fit was that I had to walk everywhere.

“But didn’t I talk to you about it at all?”

“Don’t think so.”

“Would you remember if I had?”

He stopped eating and stared at me for a moment. Doubtless this was the very look he gave his employees that would make them work overtime without pay. “Probably not,” he said. “You so seldom say anything of interest.”

That’s all I could get out of him. He folded his paper and started talking about what kind of job I should be looking for, and how I should think about my future and not my past. While he talked, I considered Forget What and decided I should go to the removal place and talk them into telling me what I’d forgotten. I think I said, “Uh huh,” a few times and I kept my eyes trained on his right eye, so he’d think I was taking him seriously. Meanwhile, I chewed on my asparagus sticks and my thoughts.

The forget companies were secretive about how they did forgets. It wasn’t something that had been exposed by the press, but there were a lot of rumors about it. I’d heard that to remove a memory, they evoke the memory, which is usually so terrible that it gets you all worked up, then they scan your brain looking for spots of high activity other than the places that were active in similar memory recalls. When they find the spots that are unique to this memory, they insert a long thin wire with a small loop on the end, then they spin it, scrambling up your brain at those spots, and you forget. That’s how they used to do lobotomies: they would insert the wire up under your eyelid and mush your frontal lobe. The more expensive forget companies used lasers or crossing sonic beams or something, but I have to admit I was too cheap for that, even when I used fake accounts.

When Arno finished eating he said, “I’ve never understood why you would pay to forget a part of your life. It’s like paying to become someone else. It’s pretty close to death if you ask me. It’s not as though you get to go back and try the forgotten event over again. Part of you is just gone. You just come out a different person.” He looked at me hard, like he expected me to say something.

I swallowed the last bit of beandog and leaned back. “I really don’t remember doing it, Arno.”

“Benny, maybe this is your chance to change yourself. Obviously you did something so abhorrent you couldn’t stand yourself and you had to change your past to reflect your own self-image, but you’re really not that nice a person. You’ve got no job, no woman, no friends. You live by the dole, Benny. Bums live by the dole. Idiots and nuts. You’re not stupid, and you’re not fundamentally lazy. I know jobs are hard to get, but you could at least try.” He sat back, apparently exasperated, yet I sensed an inside joke. I had a feeling he’d given this exact speech to me before, but I wasn’t sure of it. Somehow, he found me amusing and that irritated me more than his boring lectures.

In any case, I couldn’t figure out why my lack of a job bothered him so much. I never asked to stay with him and his wife. I didn’t ask him for money. I wasn’t a mooch. I thought he viewed me as a tarnished spot on his shiny public image, a pit in his chrome, but I couldn’t see how I was holding him back. And, anyway, I considered myself retired. I really didn’t want to work. I’d just waste the money on a few gadgets or some real food.

“Maybe I could be a car thief,” I said.

“Maybe you could be a little more serious.” Arno was a real brass pipe.

“All right, maybe I could be a buzzcar thief.”

Arno was annoyed, but he smiled anyway.

“OK,” I said, “who would give me a job, Arno? Like you say, I don’t know anyone important, and certainly not anyone important enough to have control over hiring. I know a few people who could get me a job stealing stuff or selling stolen stuff, but real business types? Suits? If I came to you and you were a hiring manager, would you hire me?”

“I’ve hired you before, Benny,” Arno said, looking at his watch. “I’ve got to meet somebody in ten minutes, but think about what I said and try to remember what you’re good at. When you do, come see me.”

I couldn’t remember being especially good at anything in particular, and I couldn’t remember working for Arno. It seemed like a bad idea to work for family. They would think they were doing you a favor and they would expect something in return; something more than just a day’s work. And you couldn’t quit because they had spent this effort on you, and they would think you had quit them, not the work. I didn’t think Arno would take kindly to me quitting on him.

When Arno stood, I noticed he had a bit of green chili sauce on his white shirt. I didn’t mention it. I ate my last stick and left.

When I returned home I looked at the bill again. The removal company had included a netdeposit address, but no street address, and, of course, I couldn’t remember which Forget What clinic I’d gone to. There were over a hundred facilities in Chicago, seven or eight within easy walking distance. I probably went to one of the closer ones, but there was no way to know, and none of the people at the clinics would be willing to admit to being the source of my problem.

I sat down at my table and wondered if I’d actually had any memories removed at all. How would I know? I didn’t remember having any memories removed, but the letter that came with the bill said I wasn’t supposed to remember anything about the removal session, that’s why they could guarantee it. They give you careful instructions on how to pay them, so you don’t notice the debit later. They short-circuit your short-term memory and put you out on the street. You don’t even remember having the procedure, so you don’t go looking to find out what it was you forgot. But, apparently I’d given them a false netdeposit path and the money was later removed from their account. You’re supposed to pay in advance for obvious reasons, but they claimed I’d cheated them.

Which I could believe. I could see myself doing that. I’d figure, hey, what could they do? It’s not like I actually had that much money, or even the likelihood of getting that much money. I was on the dole and likely to stay that way. I was retired at thirty-one. I was a free man.

The forget still nagged at me, though, and I realized I just couldn’t stand it. It was a tickle, and I knew it would soon be a ferocious itch.

So why be so stupid as to go looking to remember something I’d worked so hard to forget? Because I’d felt empty of late, passionless and listless. I went to the dole every week, had lunch with my brother, bought groceries, slept, pilfered when I needed to, worked odd jobs once in a while. I was walking along through my life without really thinking about it because I’d thought my life had always been that dull.

But Forget What kept reminding me that before September there had been something more, and I’d purposefully removed it. Whatever I’d forgotten had left a bigger hole than I must have expected it to. I stared at the wall, trying to remember, though I knew I wouldn’t be able to.

I heard the vator doors open and close. The PAL in the next apartment played old Russian piano music. A pigeon landed on my windowsill high above my bed. I wrote “Dust me” on the wall with my finger.

I decided to let the issue slip for a while, figuring that if, back in September, I’d wanted to forget, I should trust my own decision. So, I tried to avoid thinking about it. I tried to imagine the forget never happened; that Forget What was actually blinking me; that I was the victim.

I watched some avatar fighting. The sport wasn’t what it used to be. The teams were allowed to put too much artificial intelligence into the avatars, so the people controlling them were no longer hired for their ability to fight in the virtual world, but more and more as entertainment for the audience before and after the match. They were sharp, pretty people instead of the tough, real fighters who had competed before. The whole sport had turned slick.

The forget-the-forget strategy wasn’t working. While I was in the bathroom trying to review my past and spot the hole in my memories, my PAL beeped at me. I yelled to it to read the mail out loud.

The message came from Forget What. They said they had completed a review of my account and decided that if I didn’t pay up within three days, they would inform the police about the memory they’d deleted for me.
The police? My heart stopped while a list of hiding places shot through my mind. What kind of memory had I had removed that would interest the police?