by Chloe N. Clark
The dachshunds had been given their baths. The house smelled of wet dog and the cherimoya blossom shampoo that she used on them. There were three dachshunds, and one of her, and so the baths took up a good portion of the day. After they had been allowed to run wildly around the house for a bit, she would take the brush to their coats. The dachshunds hated baths but loved to be brushed; they would have sat for at her feet for hours as the worked the soft-bristled brush through their fur, if she ever wished to brush them for hours that is.
She had found the brush, after a bit of haphazard searching, and was going to fetch one of the dachshunds when the doorbell rang. Everyone she knew always knocked. That’s how she knew that it must be the representative. Her neighbor, Loretta, had said that the representative was young man and that he had been exceptionally polite.
She sighed and answered the door. Outside was a boy, in his twenties and probably only just out of college, wearing a freshly pressed suit. She noticed his tie first which was mauve colored with deep blue pinpricks of color scattered across it.
“Ms. Marie Helber?” he asked. He had a nice voice, pleasantly deep; it was the kind of voice that, years ago, Marie would have expected to come out of the radio.
“Indeed,” she answered.
“I’m Eric, with the Lethe Initiative. We sent you a message awhile back.” He held out a card which she ignored.
“Yes, I’m not interested. It’s why I didn’t respond.” Behind her the dachshunds had realized there was a Stranger at the door. They had begun to creep forward with grand plans of barkage.
“Well, ma’am, would it be alright if I came in and talked to you, anyway? We’ve been told we have to, at least, explain the process to everyone even if they later choose to opt out.” He slipped the card back into his pocket as he spoke and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. He reminded Marie of some of the children she had once volunteered with. The nervous way they had stood before her when they didn’t know how to formulate the questions that they really wanted to ask.
“Alright, fine, come in.” She decided that there was no harm in being polite as long as she stood firm in the end.
He stepped through the door and each of the dachshunds gave a single disappointed yap. They had been hoping to chase him away with a chorus of barks to a slamming door. She led him to the kitchen. It was her favorite room in the house because the windows were huge and looked out onto the garden.
Eric sat down at the tiny kitchen table and she asked him, “coffee or tea?”
“Oh, coffee would be great! Thank you.” He liked the old woman. There were so many he met who acted downright belligerent even when they were eager to sign up for the initiative. He wondered, sometimes, if there were some kind of inborn antipathy towards the government. If there were a gene for it or something.
Marie was always careful in her coffee-making: two tablespoons of grounds, leveled off, per cup and the water poured in a second after it boiled. She used one of the old-fashioned plastic cones with a cloth filter. She thought her coffee always tasted much better than any she could buy in a café.
“So, I’m sure that you’ve heard about Lethe.” She nodded and so Eric continued, “we have almost 95 percent of the population signed on. Of course, it’s done to children right away, nowadays. Most adults do choose to use the chip as well.”
“Cream or sugar?” she interrupted him.
“Just cream, please.”
“Good, I’m the same way. Cream in coffee, sugar in tea, and never the twain shall mix.” It had been a saying of her grandmother’s and she had found herself using it more and more as she got older. She wondered if folksy sayings were yet another side-effect of aging. She set the mugs of coffee down and took a seat.
“Thank you,” he said. “To continue, the initiative, over the course of its now ten year history, has been a great success. It’s saved billions in medical costs—less suicides, less cases of depression, a more productive workforce. It’s truly incredible.”
Marie looked out the window and noticed the way the sun was hitting the grass. It reminded her of the glare off of water, of her sister all those years ago swimming in the lake and yelling for Marie to jump in.
“But, what about the side-effects?”
He was surprised. “Side-effects? There haven’t actually been any reported. It’s a simple procedure, very safe. A hearing aid is probably more dangerous for you.”
“I didn’t mean physical side-effects. I meant mental ones, emotional ones.”
He laughed. “No worries, ma’am! It helps you emotionally!”
“But, you’re losing something so vital, so intrinsic to who you are as a person,” she said.
“Loss is vital?” He was confused.
“You’re talking—your initiative is based on erasing memories. About removing my memories. How can that not affect a person?”
“You won’t miss them. That’s the point. You won’t even know that you had them to begin with.” He looked around the room, trying to come up with a helpful metaphor. His training officer had always stressed the power of a helpful metaphor. He looked at the dachshunds sleeping at her feet. “Like, let’s say, there was a fourth dog out there that could have been yours, but it isn’t, and you never knew that it could have been yours. Would you miss not having the fourth dog?”
Marie couldn’t help smiling. The metaphor the boy used bordered on being so poor that it was almost poetic. She thought of her mother who had taught introductory poetry to indifferent college students for years. Her mother, who said that a metaphor worked best when it ended in a way that seemed impossible to have predicted but inevitable as soon as you heard it. “It removes them completely, though, right?”
Eric nodded, happy to have provided a way for her to grasp the concept of Lethe. “Any memory containing someone who has died will disappear from your mind. It will be like it has never been there. You might remember, say, going to Paris but you wouldn’t remember that you went with a girlfriend who has since died.”
She thought of her father peeling apples at the table when she was young, the way he could always do it in one unbroken strip of skin. She asked, “how does one do that?”
“The process is painless,” he said. He had been told to mention that as many times as he felt was needed. Marie looked back up at him, startled out of some thought. “And it’s absolutely guaranteed. Even if someone came up to you and showed a picture of someone who had died, you’d have no recollection of them whatsoever.”
She stared at him for a few moments and took a long sip of her coffee. “I bet you would, though. I bet you’d look at the picture and think you didn’t know the person in it but there’d be a—a something there. Like when you feel your stomach drop out in an elevator ride and it’s not as dramatic as when it does that on a rollercoaster ride but it still gets to you, that whoosh feeling inside you. I bet there’d be something.”
Eric’s coffee was gone and he fiddled with his spoon for a second, trying to think of a way to respond.
“Well, isn’t an unexplainable whoosh better than knowing you’ve lost someone?”
“Did you have it done?” she asked him.
He nodded. “Everyone who works for the government is required to get the chip upon hiring.”
She nodded in response as if he had been the one asking a question. “Well, your coffee appears to be done and I’m sure you have others you need to speak to today.”
“I didn’t convince you, then?” he asked.
“I’m afraid not. I’m just not willing to lose my loss, I guess.”
He shook her hand, feeling a strange relief at not having swayed her. He wondered if one reached a certain age where memories were all that was left. He wondered what all the Lethed would do when they reached that age and all of their memoires only featured themselves. She led him to the door and he turned to her, fetching a card from his pocket, “I’m required, by law, to give you one in case you ever change your mind.”
She took it from, led him outside, and as she turned to close the door on him she paused. “Do you have a big family, Eric?”
He was confused but answered. “Just my parents and me. I’m an only child.”
She looked at him, weighing whether to say her next words, wondering what effect they could possibly have on him, on his work. “Are you sure?”
She closed the door. She peered out the window and saw him stand on the doorstep, flustered, for a moment, before shaking his head and walking away. She got the brush and went to fetch the dachshunds.
They were pleased to be getting the attention they were owed.
She thought about a boy she had once loved. He had died in a war. He had beautiful hands, like a detective in old black and white movies who always smoked cigarettes just so the camera had an excuse to linger on his fingers. She thought of her best friend. The size of her coffin, its overly shiny finish that had made it appear to be glowing under the church lights. She thought of her sister and her parents. There were so many people that one lost in a single lifetime. The inevitable subtractions from one’s life equation.
There reached a point where the additions ceased. Maybe she was wrong. Maybe no one should have to live with so much death.
One of the dachshunds nudged her hand, prodding her to continue the brushing. She smiled and thought that she would probably miss the fourth dog.
Eric finished his rounds of visits for the day. Most people signed up in the end. He went home and made soup. He sat down to eat and thought of the old woman with the dogs. He thought of her question and felt a tickle in his sinuses like he did when he was trying to suppress a sneeze. It wasn’t unpleasant, so much as like he was waiting for the sneeze, for something. He wondered, then, who they were, all of his lost.
Chloe N. Clark is an MFA candidate, wannabe magician, almost novelist, and extraordinary cupcake-maker. Follow her @PintsNCupcakes