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Wash, Rinse, Repeat

This is the sixth appearance of Steven Mathes in Daily Science fiction, and his short fiction has appeared in dozens of other publications. He has also published a couple of articles about computers. Links to his published works can be found at stevenmathes.com.

Not that he remembered but.... He went to get his memory washed, and everyone seemed to know him. You have to figure things out when you lack memories. You get good at it.
"How many times has it been?" he asked the nice attendant who took his clothes, and attached his harness.
"What's the difference? In a few minutes you won't remember."
"Ha!" Blake said. "Good one!"
He made a point of chuckling appreciatively, just long enough, and sincerely.
"But since it won't make any difference," said the attendant, "this is your fifth time."
Exactly what Blake wanted: you get good at getting by, you get good at getting people to tell you things.
"Thank you for everything," Blake said.
He wanted them to remember him as appreciative, a good customer.
The harness hoisted him up over the gentle current. The water foamed like a fine beer, beer being another beverage of forgetting.
"You will experience full memory just temporarily," said the attendant. "It's a perfectly necessary side effect until the forgetfulness takes hold."
"I don't remember hearing about that from last time," Blake said.
"Of course you don't."
"Ha!" said Blake.
"You need the hellish memories, or you won't want to forget," the attendant said.
Blake barely had time for an appreciative laugh. In he plunged. The foam swished around his body, then into his ears and eyes. The gentle restraints tugged him further into the current, deeper into the pressure, until his heaving lungs surpassed his will. At last he gagged in a little of the water of forgetting.
Memory flooded him.
The harness popped him up. He gasped, choked, retched.
At first the memories merely lurked, separate from the appropriate emotions. Like watching a distant slapstick tragedy of errors.
Of course Blake's memories included those of the pure bliss of not having memories.
He compared. Bliss versus agony. Days as a blank slate, mindful, naive, in the moment; this versus the scheming, the anger, the grudges, the humiliations. At first the agony of memory was--a mere memory. But then curiosity led him astray.
If you think memory is bad, imagine curiosity.
Free association led him to the time he was caught masturbating by a young woman for whom he had a lust. Her name was Stephanie. She opened the door to the school janitor's closet at the precise, climactic moment. She shrieked, slammed the door, then screamed laughter, and of course told everyone.
He flinched, remembering consequences. The ridicule put a pause on any further sensual experience. So much that he never technically lost his virginity, not until after his first memory wash. Masturbating? A healthy practice? But for Blake the mental health consequences were negative. The damage to his reputation was very negative.
He whimpered, glancing over at the attendant.
For some reason, the man reminded Blake of his big brother. Dave, the older brother who nursed him through the masturbation crisis by telling Mother. Dave, the pitiless mentor.
Memories hurt like a vacuum bubble swelling inside his mind. Remembering exactly why he lost Dave.
Oh betrayal, betrayal for money, for pure greed!
He remembered why he could actually finance these memory washes. And not just the washes, but the fees to have attorneys, and managers, and managers of managers supervise the estate of someone whose avocation was forgetting.
Dave's mistake, aside from being litigious, was underestimating a masturbating little brother's ability to hire a better lawyer. Blake proved brilliant at that one thing. He got all the family money, and felt the pride of winning, until he saw Dave's look.
The family money. The Last Will and Testament of his mother, riddled with naive stipulations and ridiculous exceptions. Of course it was contested. Like leaving a banquet on a low table in front of a hungry dog. Neither Dave nor Blake was a monster; they were merely hungry dogs.
So easy to give Dave a little humiliation.
Sometimes you win and lose at the same time. The pain went straight from Dave's devastated eyes into Blake's soul. Like the zap from some killing death ray cutting through the dank smell of the courtroom's waxed floor. Much worse than Stephanie's giggles.
No consolation in looking back. It takes money to make money. Blake had the money now, the knack for business, the lawyers, the natural instinct for competition.
However... the guilt of trying to give Dave an allowance.... If you want to return some of the stolen goods, the other guy has to accept. Dave's lawyer couldn't contest a will, but a court order was easier. The court ordered Blake to never contact his brother again.
Now.... In the memory washer... dripping foam from his chin, his arms, his legs, his masturbation-free penis, Blake looked up at the nice man at the controls. They could monitor memories. Did the nice man smirk because he knew? Blake's pride made him shriek.
"Please, can't you cut this short?"
The worst memory: Stephanie. Now grown into an administrative assistant, a single mother, no longer laughing. Blake bought the software shop where she worked. He bought it for pure business reasons. But he could never work with her as his assistant. Unable to face her, he had her gently but firmly fired. He stood in the lot, in the distant shadows, and watched as she left with her box of personals, no doubt going to get her kid from day care.
It served as revenge, he guessed. Served cold or hot, the aftertaste of revenge was always decay. Like rancid chicken caught between the teeth.
He remembered eating, drinking, sleeping, hoping the distraction could erase the guilt. Help him forget. As if? Gluttony? Sloth? How were the two sins different? They both made bad breath, sewage, intestinal gas.
And soon the guilt drove him to these memory washes. He was not alone.
He remembered all the blissful celebrations, the clubs packed with his fellow washed souls, the dancing, the sex on private jets, the intoxication of the professionally forgetful. Happy. Childish minds have few inhibitions. The pleasure, the bliss, came from lust easily fulfilled.
Worse than revenge, worse than pride, worse than greed. Like every vice combined, and made practical. Improvement and absolution required history, moral soil. No history was invited to these parties.
The washes. The technology of a clean slate was really the technology of cowardly bliss.
"My memory!" Blake called to the attendant between heaves of sick. "I need it back!"
"Ha!" the nice man answered. He slow-clapped, appreciating Blake's regret, as if this deserved applause.
"No! The rot is worse every time!" screamed Blake. "Putrid! I need hunger, I need to hold onto this hunger to remember. We need memory. Otherwise, we're all damned."
"As you all deserve," the man said quietly. But Blake heard.
Sickness overcame his ability to talk.
After time, the memories died, one by one, and when enough died, Blake's consciousness spiraled down into spinning dark.
Later, Blake woke up from the memory wash, his face and chest covered in dried blood and vomit. Some nice attendant sponged him clean.
"Was in I in an accident?" Blake asked.
"Less like accident, more like inevitable," the attendant said.
"Could you explain? Please? And thank you so much for doing this."
Blake tried his best to be appreciative. You always get the best service that way.
"My pleasure to help," the attendant said. "But your manager is waiting to explain what you need to know."
Sometimes you could get a little more with a mere compliment.
"I hope he's as nice as you are," Blake said.
"Oh, much nicer, I think. A little more than nice, in fact," the attendant said.
"I don't know what that means."
Blake closed his eyes, enjoyed the gentle sponging, and tried to remember. He had a habit of remembering, but none of the memories. He almost recalled why this was bad. He could sense clean spots in his mind, feeling like the soft skin of a newborn, fresh out of the bath. Hunger bloomed in him, desperate, but non-digestive, gnawing him like a toxic fog. Curiosity was a hunger. He remembered hunger. It was important. Maybe the attendant, or this manager, would help him feed it.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 13th, 2020

Author Comments

I once heard about a poet who drank because he wanted to feel the hangover. This story came because I wondered if some people do wrong because they want to feel the guilt.

- Steven Mathes
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