“Today I Remember” by Martin L. Shoemaker
Today I remember. I hate days like this.
But the show must go on. What would old Greasy Pete think if I sat around wallowing in my memory? Memory’s a gift. The reason why I got the damn implant.
But it’s experimental, they say. It only does so much, and some days it doesn't do much at all. Some days I forget more than I remember. Forget . . . what I've lost.
But good day or bad, you gotta do your act, Pete says in my head. That I almost never forget, not even before the implant. The doctors can never explain why some memories are stronger than others, even on the bad days. They say it’s just part of how things are stored, whatever the hell that means.
And they also said it was getting worse, that I was forgetting more and more. And that the implant might help with that. They said that without it, I was going to lose . . . everything. All the older memories, everything I'd grown up with. I was going to lose Pete. Lose . . . Eric, and Anna. Lose the show.
And that was why I’d agreed to be a trial subject for the implant. Somebody has to remember the circus.
No wallowing! I get out of bed, throwing off the thin white covering. I’m still competent enough to take care of myself, damn it. I'm not like some of the other folks in Creekside Home. I can dress myself and feed myself.
And take care of myself. Gotta keep in shape. I turn to the battered old dresser next to the curtain. On the other side of that curtain Bo lies snoring. He sleeps most of the time these days, and I worry about him. How long will he be around?
That’s one problem with remembering: I can't forget my roommates, none of them. Bo, and before him Leon, and before him . . . Curtis. That's right, Curtis. He was one of the good ones. Curtis got better, good enough to move out of Creekside Home and into assisted living across the street. He still comes to visit, some days. Which is more than I can say for Eric.
Damn it. Don't remember Eric. Don't remember how many months it's been since he's visited. It's work, Papa, he says. I have to go where the job is. And besides . . . the home can take care of you. Better than . . . better than I can.
I remember the shame on his face. I miss my boy, but I don't miss making him sad like that.
I pull out clean clothes, and I start to change. I'm standing there, bent over, bare ass in the air, when the door opens. Nurse Cindy says, “Excuse me, Luke!” and she shuts the door.
I chuckle at that. She’s still new, still embarrassed at a patient running around naked. What kind of nurse gets embarrassed by that? Not like old Nurse Ratched, who doesn't even blink when she walks in on me. Nor when I make a joke about it.
I put on my shorts, and then I sit on the bed to pull on my socks. I don't have to. My body's as good as ever, my reflexes almost still good enough for the show. But I make the nurses twitch. So many of the folks here in the home are fall risks, and they treat us like we all are. They give us these damn socks with the no-slip bubbles on the bottom; and they watch like hawks, waiting for us to do something dangerous.
I pull on my sweatpants and a T-shirt, and I open the top drawer and look inside.
The sack is missing.
“Nurse Ratched!” I storm out the door. “Nurse Ratched, where are my damn balls?”
Nurse Cindy rushes out from Mrs. Carruthers’s room next door. “Mr. Lucas—”
“I want my balls! Nurse Ratched said I could keep my balls, keep juggling, if I didn't try to do any acrobatics. I haven't done a single handstand! Where is Nurse Ratched?”
“It's Nurse Rayburn, Mr. Lucas,” a voice says behind me, “and I have your balls.”
I turn and look at the senior nurse, young and kinda pretty, with that white uniform and the blue sweater and the dark hair tucked under the cap. Today I remember her real name; but I also remember how much it annoys her when I call her Nurse Ratched. And annoying her is some of the only amusement I get around here.
“May I have my balls, please?” I hold out my hand, and she hands over the old burlap sack.
“Carlos was washing them,” she says. “They were pretty muddy after last time. You really shouldn't go outside when it's wet.”
I look at the bright sunlight shining in through the window at the far end of the hall. “It’s dry today,” I say with a grin. “Oh please, Nurse Ratched, pretty please, may I go out and juggle today?”
She grins. She’s in a good mood today. “Yes, Mr. Lucas, go ahead and juggle. But be careful!”
I feel the three hard plastic balls through the fabric of the sack. Geez, they're too light to hurt anybody; but I suspect that I pushed her too far for today. “I'll be careful, I promise.”
Then a small, fragile voice speaks from the door beside mine. “Luke, can I come watch?”
“You'll have to ask Nurse Ratched, Mrs. Carruthers,” I say.
Nurse Ratched turns to Nurse Cindy, who answers, “She's finished her breakfast.”
From the room, Mrs. Carruthers adds, “I ate in my chair today, Nurse Rayburn!”
“Is she dressed?” Nurse Ratched asks.
“Yes, I am.”
Cindy nods in agreement. Nurse Ratched nods in response. “All right, when Cindy's done with her rounds, she'll wheel you out to watch Mr. Lucas rehearse.”
“To hell with that,” I reply. I tuck the neck of the sack in my waistband, and I squeeze past Cindy and into the room. Mrs. Carruthers cackles as I grab the controls of her wheelchair, spin it around, and wheel her towards the door.
“Beep, beep!” Mrs. Carruthers says, and Cindy bolts out of the way. I wheel the chair out into the hall as fast as it will move.
Behind me, Nurse Ratched shouts, “Not so fast!” But Mrs. Carruthers laughs, and I join her.
Maybe not such a bad day after all.
I don't really have to push the chair, of course. Even a bargain-basement facility like Creekside can afford chairs that run themselves, on voice control or a little stick thing you push. They’re smooth, and can travel over bumps and curbs in just about any terrain.
But Mrs. Carruthers is rated as a high fall risk. Her chair will go anywhere she wants in the home, but not outside. Not unattended. So when I take the handles, it knows she's got company, and it won't stop at the door. And it'll let me override the speed controls: an attendant sometimes has to get a patient someplace in an emergency, after all.
The parking lot is empty. I remember that today; but on my bad days it's a surprise that the lot is always empty, that few of us ever get visitors. The temporary cases get them a lot, the folks with head injuries who will be in here for a couple of days, a couple of weeks, maybe a month or two. Their families come all the time, sometimes every day. Sometimes a whole batch. Patients even bring them to dinner, joining everyone in the big dining hall. That delights the rest of us, giving us new people to talk to—when they’ll talk to us.
But most of them stop attending dinner, eventually, when they realize we tell the same old stories, over and over. Some leave because their loved ones have gone home. And some stop showing up when they realize that their loved ones aren't leaving. That their loved ones . . . that we are what their loved ones are going to become eventually. Memory patients, forgetting most stories, and constantly retelling the ones we do remember.
That's when they get discouraged. That's when the visits get farther and farther apart.
That was when Eric stopped coming. I remember now. That last fight, he felt so awful, so guilty. And I . . . I was in no mood to make it easier on him. If I had . . . If I had gotten mad, too, I could have . . . driven him away. He would’ve had that as an excuse, that we just didn't get along anymore.
But I was cruel. I hadn't realized it then, only later. I was quiet, understanding, accepting. Eric was moving away, he had to. I . . . I made him. Well, not me, but the cost of my care. The home . . . Even with Medicare, even with my small policy that Anna had scrounged and saved for . . .
Anna. I miss her. She'd always been the smarter one of us. She'd had to remember things like finances and planning. Show folk didn't often have insurance. Oh, I know what the law says; and if anybody checked our books, it would say we were in compliance. But the show takes care of our own. We don't rely on the rubes and the grifters and the slick gentlemen to tell us how to run things. We take care of our own.
And they do, a little. I still get a check every month. The show folded long ago, not many years after my accident. Oh, not because they lost me. I was always a minor act between the big draws. The show must go on, even when it loses an acrobat. And while the show was a going concern, the checks had been bigger.
But even today, the checks arrive, every month. A small amount from Governor Kilgore. He's gotta be paying that out of his own pocket, bless him.
And bless Eric. He had a chance for a job in Dallas, for more than twice the money he could make here in Michigan. He had to take it to pay for my care. And he works so hard, so many hours, and has so few days off. So he comes here when he can—but that’s not often.
I look around the parking lot at all the cars that aren't there. Every one of those has their own reasons. It's not that they’ve forgotten us, not most them. I'm sure that every one of them has realized that the show must go on. That they have to keep going with their lives, that they can't be stuck here just because we are. That they can visit, but they can't be trapped with us.
Understanding doesn't make me any less sad. Maybe more so. Our damn injuries and diseases, they afflict our whole families.
Damn. On days like this, I regret getting the implant. I almost hope the experiment’s declared a failure, and they turn the damn thing off. Memory’s a gift . . . and a curse.
I wheel Mrs. Carruthers under the big maple tree. The leaves have just started to bud, so there's not a lot of shade; but she likes the warmth of the sun on her skin. Anyway, it’s too early in the year to worry about sunburn.
Then I estimate a safe distance away. She's not likely to get out of that chair, and it's going nowhere out here without someone to guide it. So I only have to worry about me and the balls; and I trust that I still know what I'm doing, that I won’t hurt her. So I move three steps away, close enough that she can see well even with her weak eyes.
Nurse Ratched would not approve. Screw her.
I set the old burlap down at my feet. In the show, I had a fine silk sack to carry my pins and balls; but I lost track of that years ago. Even with the implant, I might never remember where. Almost, but . . .
Nurse Ratched wouldn't let me have pins, anyway. But I still have light practice balls in the old brown sack.
I start stretching out, chatting with Mrs. Carruthers as I go. We speak of the nice weather, and of the birds coming back and singing in the trees. She tells me stories of spring on her farm, so far back. She isn't regressing, not like some of the residents. She knows exactly how old she was. She just has long gaps in her memory, stretches that will never come back. Like many of us, she remembers the oldest years best. “We had two dogs,” she says. “Well, we had lots of dogs through the years, but two were the best shepherds you ever did see. Those two could work together as if they were talking and planning. They could herd the sheep anywhere you wanted, and they seemed to know. Yes, they took commands, but often they . . .”
I wait. She has lost the word. I can guess what it is, but filling it in can upset the patient. So I wait.
Finally, she says, “. . . anticipated. As if they anticipated what you wanted.”
“I suppose they did,” I say. “If they had the same routine, day after day, they could learn it. We had dogs in the show that knew their act as well as their trainers did. Horses, too.”
“You're right, Luke,” she says. She has a faint smile as she remembers. “Those dogs learned the routine, figured out what to do, kept those sheep in line. They learned really well.”
But then her face falls bit. “They sure were smart. I wish . . .”
I don't want her thinking about what she wishes. It might be to have the dogs back, and they were surely dead thirty years now. Or it might be that she could learn like they did. Neither was going to happen. I really could use more stretching, but Mrs. Carruthers needs a distraction.
So I bend down again, dump the red and green and blue balls onto the grass, pick them up, and straighten up. “Here we go!”
Mrs. Carruthers focuses on me, and I start the routine. First the simple toss, all three balls in the loop. The day I can't do this routine in my sleep, well, call the undertaker. I'd learned this from my papa so long ago.
Thanks to the implant, I still remember details of those lessons. Or maybe it's just an old memory, one of the ones we keep. I was . . . Six? Seven? Yes, seven. Before that, I had just done tumbling. I'd taken to that right away, and I was part of the kids' act before I turned five. The natural flexibility of youth, plus blood will tell. Tumbling and acrobatics always came easy to me. I wish I could do a few rolls and leaps and cartwheels now, just for the pleasure. Maybe make Mrs. Carruthers smile. But Nurse Ratched would restrict me if she caught me at it. Take away my balls.
In my teens I would return to acrobatics, ever more elaborate acts. I even mastered the Wheel of Death, a giant spinning wheel that rotated on a long axis, driven only by my own momentum and balance. But that day, at six years old, I had begged Papa to teach me to juggle. And so I had started with the red and green and blue plastic balls. Not these ones I toss lightly in the air today, but close enough. He started me with one and spent that whole first day getting me so I could toss it and catch it without having to even look at it. I had been impatient, of course. I was only six. But Papa had been firm: Three is easy, Lucas. One is hard. When you can throw one and catch it with your eyes closed, you can juggle three. You must do one until it is part of yourself.
And that skill I remember, even when I can't remember the lesson itself. Even before the implant, it was . . . a different kind of memory, in a different place. A place not broken in my injury. Muscle memory, but more, integrating my senses into one grand sense. On my skin, I feel the motion of the air, reading where wind comes from. With my ears, I hear how strong it is, so I know what to compensate for. In my muscle sense, my awareness, my body tells me exactly how fast and hard to throw each ball, closer than any computer could calculate. And my experience tells me how fast and how far it will rise, and how far it will travel as it rises and falls. So my left hand throws it up, and my right hand is there to catch it. I don't have to look, sometimes not even with peripheral vision. It's as if I feel where the ball is.
And Papa was right: once I know where one ball is, knowing where three are is not much more difficult. I’ve done four, sometimes five. When I was young and prideful, I'd occasionally done six.
But three is the magic number. When I have all three balls in the air, there's a natural rhythm. Throw in time to catch in time to pass in time to throw in time to catch in time to pass in time to throw in time to . . . I almost think I could do this in my sleep. It's relaxing, familiar. As if I were back in the show. Back in the day . . .
Back in that day . . .
And suddenly I am. It’s that day. Even with the implant, up until this moment, that day has been lost to me. The doctors had said that I would never get it back, that the injury had prevented . . . What did they say? Prevented transfer into long-term memory. That I had experienced it, but never processed it. So there was nothing to recover.
But they were wrong. Somewhere, the memory has been buried. Or . . . the implant has reassembled it somehow. I'm on the lot. Greasy Pete is beside me, in full costume: the orange wig, the white greasepaint with the big black brows and the giant nose and the red lips. The fright mask he calls it, and he laughs when he does. Pete is my best friend, but sometimes he's a sadistic bastard. He loves to make the little kids laugh; but he also loves that some people, even some grown-ups, are afraid of clowns. And he gets a kick out of trying to draw those folks into the act. I love him like a brother, but sometimes his sense of humor is low. There's no art in practical jokes, if you ask me.
We walk through the lot. It's a slow night, like too many of them recently. Sideshow Lane is half empty, and even Main Street is looking sparse. The only serious noise and activity comes from Robot Row.
“Damn VR,” Pete says.
I don't answer. It's an old conversation, so there's really nothing more to add. Governor Kilgore had added Robot Row, a bunch of carny games and VR sets and such, in what he'd said was simple self-defense. Kids these days aren't interested in watching, they want to do. Their parents still have nostalgia for the show, but the kids are harder to drag away from their video games. So we gave them more things to play.
That wasn’t proper. A show might have a few games, but shows are acts. They’re performance. Art. Not that carnivals aren’t . . . you know, respectable . . . but they're not the same.
But a show that can't make its nut isn’t a show for long. A circus needs money. And like it or not, Robot Row seems to be working. The Row is crowded, and the other two lanes are busier than they've been in months. We have more butts in seats now with Robot Row there. We can't deny the gadgets are working: wheels and carousels, the old reliable rides; and now laser galleries and arcades and headset games. They draw crowds.
But they make us feel . . . dispensable, you know? Like we need the robots, but do they need us? Do robots need anything?
I glance at Pete's face. Beneath the greasepaint, I see a frown. That won't do! How's a clown supposed to cheer somebody up when he’s sad?
In an effort to lighten the mood, I throw him a punchline. “You don't understand . . . I am the great Pagliacci.”
Pete knows the old joke, and he chuckles. “Leave the jokes to me. You tell it poorly.”
“Better than you juggle,” I reply. “Show me how, Pete. Let's entertain some rubes.” I grab Pete's baggy sleeve and pull him over to a knot of people: five children, two men, and a woman. They talk animatedly, and Pete falls easily into the old shadow routine, standing behind a tall, heavyset man in a brown T-shirt. The man talks with his hands, big motions, a perfect target. Pete stands behind the man, imitating and exaggerating every gesture, every wave of the hands, every nod. The children watch and start to laugh. Soon the man stops, looks at them, realizes that they’re looking behind him, and turns to look.
Pete immediately falls into his pose: one hand on his chin, tapping as he stares at the sky, the other arm across his chest, lips pursed in a silent whisper. He’s the picture of white-faced innocence. The man glares, and Pete looks at him and raises his greasy eyebrows. The children laugh—especially the youngest, a blond-haired little boy in coveralls as blue as his eyes. That one rolls on the ground, holding his sides.
I can see that the act will continue for a while, and that the children's laughter is cheering Pete up. He doesn't need a juggler, so I fade back.
And I back right into a RoustaBot, one of our labor robots. A recorded voice comes from the robot: “Excuse me.” It pauses until I step out of the way, and then it continues on its path.
I watch it go. I suppose having robots keeping the lot clean is a good thing. They have their place. But I can't imagine a robot ever telling jokes and doing mime like Pete. Or juggling. I smile at the thought of a robot learning to juggle.
I continue down Robot Row—although the Governor has dressed it up in fancy lights and music and dubbed it the Galactic Zoomway. The barkers call from the ticket stands, pointing out different attractions. “Come enter the Laser Legion!” “Can you solve Mystery of the VR Bandits?” “Come ride the Sky Cycles!” That last, positioned outside the main Robot Row to give it some space, is a combination of VR and robotics: enclosed “cycles” zip up and down a wall draped to look like a mountainside. They’re safe, with passengers closed inside, but they move fast enough to give the feel of real loops and climbs; and in the closed interior, simulator screens show the riders that they’re in a star fighter flying high into space and then zooming down among asteroids at insane speeds.
I've ridden it. We all have. I wasn't that impressed, but I understand. In a way, it's just another act, a very mechanical artiste. And half the secret to an act is that the rube wants to believe, wants to see a miracle. Wants you to show them something they've never seen anywhere else. They do half the work. After you’ve got your routine down, even something like the Wheel of Death becomes second nature to you. Almost effortless. Boring. But put on just a little razzle-dazzle, add some music and lights, and finally add an audience, and then the magic happens. The audience is the key. They don't understand how routine it is, and so they see magic.
And in those moments, it’s still magic for me. I remember six-year-old me, watching Papa and Mama up on the Wheel, and how my mouth dropped open and I gaped. They were so beautiful, flying through the air as if gravity were optional. They taught me how, eventually, to the point where I forgot the magic. But through the audience, I remember.
And speaking of six-year-olds . . . A blond blur in blue coveralls staggers into me and bounces off. Behind, exhausted, runs his mother. “Danny, slow down,” she gasps. But he shows no sign of hearing as he veers around me and heads toward Clownapalooza, a holographic clown game. He slides right under the safety rope as his mother hurries behind, apologizing and handing a ticket to Ripper Ripatti. Ripper smiles and takes the ticket, and the virtual clowns appear and start dancing with the kid.
I look back to the entrance to the Row. The remaining four kids are running in, the two men in tow. Pete stands behind them. I catch his eye, and he shrugs.
Pete turns away. I amble out, come up behind him, and clap my hand on his shoulder. “Sorry, Pete.”
He sighs. “What are ya gonna do? Kids these days . . .”
“Kids these days . . .” I reply. “Hey, you know what Eric wants to be when he grows up?”
“A computer programmer.” I half turn and wave at Robot Row. “He wants to make those things.”
Pete’s mouth narrows. He pauses in thought. “It’s a good career, Luke.”
“I know, but . . . He’s his mother’s son. She always . . .” I choke back a sob. “She always understood numbers and stuff.”
“I know.” Suddenly it’s Pete’s hand on my shoulder. “And she’d be proud of him.”
I take a breath. “She would. But he and I . . . With her gone, we have less in common every day. He’s not interested in the act anymore. At all. If I try to get him to rehearse . . . it always ends up in a fight.”
Pete smiles. “Sons fight with fathers. You think my dad was happy I joined the clowns? ‘We’re an animal act,’ he said. ‘We’ve always been an animal act.’ But here I am.”
“I know.” And I do. Eric’s smart. I am proud of him, even if I can’t understand half of what he says. So what’s wrong with me?
As if reading my mind, Pete answers. “But even as a clown, I was still in the show. You’re afraid Eric will leave, join the rubes.”
“I am,” I admitted. “No, more than afraid. I know he will. It’s his dream. He likes you all, but . . . he doesn’t like this life. I’ve always known it. He wants to leave it behind. Forget it.”
“No, he doesn’t.”
“He does! Just like . . .” I wave my arm toward the main gate. “Just like the rest of the world. We’re just a nostalgia trip today. The world’s gonna forget us. Forget the circus.”
Pete has no answer. He just walks beside me. It’s an old discussion, and with no new answers, just the same conviction: Somebody has to remember the circus. So we just wander toward the back lot. Soon the show will wind down for the night, and we can have a few beers and get some sleep. Tomorrow the show must go on.
But before we can go a hundred feet, I hear a woman scream, “Danny!” I turn back, looking for trouble.
It takes several seconds for me to make sense of the scene. The woman is running across the lot, panic-stricken. So that tells me where to look for the kid.
I turn toward the Sky Cycles. “Damn!” I hear Pete say; but he’s far behind me, I’m already running. Somehow the damned squirt must’ve snuck under another guard rope, straight into the ride itself. My juggling sack slips from my waistband and rattles on the hard pavement of the lot; but I don’t have time to worry about it.
I don’t have time to think, just run. I don’t have time to wonder how the kid got tangled up in the machinery and lifted into the air, just tumble over the safety rope. I don’t have time to plan, just bound into the air and onto the nearest cycle. It’s just routine, just my act. Just like climbing into the Wheel.
If the Wheel of Death were a damn robot, climbing and diving and doing its best to buck me off.
It’s just an act. I steady myself, refusing to fall. Just an act. I spot the kid on a cycle nearing the top, and I leap to the rail supporting the cycle above me. Just an act. I grab the rail, flip, and land on my feet on the next cycle. Just an act. One more bound, and I alight on his cycle—in time to see his coveralls rip during an upswing.
Just an act. He tumbles upward.
Just an act. I leap for him.
Just an act. I catch him in midair.
Just an act. I look down. Nothing to stop my fall; but I’ve taken worse. I know how to fall.
But the kid doesn’t.
I have to twist, get under him, cradle him loosely in my arms, cushion the impact, take the fall on me, not on him.
Some clouds in the sky. When did those get there? And why am I . . . laying on the grass?
“Is he all right, Daniel?”
“Another seizure, Mrs. Carruthers. I don’t think it’s worse than the last one.”
My eyes turn from the clouds to the face that hovers over me. With the light behind him, I can’t make out details. Blond hair hanging down. Not Eric, wrong hair color. The worry lines are too deep for such a young man . . . Maybe in his twenties? Who is he?
And . . . “Why am I laying here?”
“You’re all right, Luke. Just a seizure, but it’s passed.”
“A . . .” I lift myself onto my elbows, and the young man supports my back. “A seizure. I’ve had them since . . .”
“Since the accident,” he says.
I nod as if I remember. Accident? “Help me up.” Then I shake my head. “No, I can get up myself. Don’t want Nurse Ratched to see me down here. She might take my balls away.”
I grin at the kid, and he grins back, as if sharing an old joke. “Can’t have that,” he says. He stands beside me.
If I felt better, I would spring to my feet, just like always. But I’m shaky. Uncertain. So I carefully kneel, and then test my left foot. When it seems steady, I rise and try my right.
I’m standing. From her wheelchair Mrs. Carruthers looks at me, her forehead furrowed.
Then Nurse Ratched calls from the main entrance. “Oh, Daniel, you’re here! Is everything all right?”
The young man looks over and nods. “Yes, Nurse Rayburn. Everything’s fine. Luke’s giving us a show.” He turns to me and hands me my juggling balls. “Aren’t you, Luke?”
I look deep into his blue eyes. “Do I know—” But then I shake my head. Doesn’t matter. “Sure thing, son. Pull up a patch of grass.”
He sits on the lawn beside Mrs. Carruthers’s chair, and they both look up at me, smiling in encouragement. I start tossing the balls into the air.
The show must go on.
Copyright © 2019 Martin L. Shoemaker
Martin L. Shoemaker is the author of debut science fiction novel Today I Am Carey. This story is set in the world of that book. “Today I Am Paul,” the story from which the novel developed, received the Washington Science Fiction Society's Small Press Award, and was nominated for a Nebula Award. It has been reprinted in multiple year's best anthologies and has been translated into eight languages. His novelette “Racing to Mars” received the Analog Analytical Laboratory Award. Shoemaker’s other stories have appeared in Analog, Writers of the Future Volume 31, and elsewhere, including Baen anthologies The Year's Best Military and Adventure SF, Volume 4, and Man-Kzin Wars XV. Shoemaker lives in Michigan.