/’skAn/ : a loosely coiled length of yarn or thread wound on a reel

The Juggler #1

So, here's one of those half-dozen or so ideas I've got for a story. It's not done, but I have managed to get some writing done on it. It popped into my head with the first line...

These days, everybody juggles like me. And when I say like me, I mean just like me.

Take yesterday, for example. I was walking through the park, maybe looking for a nice spot to busk a bit for the tourists. What do you think I saw? I saw some smart ass carpetbagger with a fanny pack and black shin-high socks in sandals, cribbing one of my own signature moves. You know, the one with the fourth bean bag tossed around the back and over the head. Christ, that one took me ages to get right - it even won me a plaque or two in state competitions. And, here this dumpy turd was doing it just to make his wife and kids grin. I was so steamed. I just wanted to stroll on over there and make that out-of-state eyesore choke on one of those juice boxes he was tossing.

But, of course, it's my own damn fault. How's that, you ask? I didn't actually hear you ask - but I'm in a mood to bitch, so I'll assume you're listening.

See, a few days out of the week, I used wander up to campus. I still do, but hell if I know why I bother now. I used to get a few gigs along frat row for the beer, and sometimes even for pay. When I was lucky, the university would pull me in on a few regular events for the parents and alumni. And occasionally, I'd get a stint doing lessons for random art majors now and then.

All in all, I did alright. I didn't have much in bills, I set my own hours, and I got a lot of freebies around town. So, I couldn't complain.

But then one day, when I was performing at a semester-end party in the quad, I got pulled aside by this psych prof and his gaggle of grad-level sycophants. He said he'd seen me around for a few years and really buttered me up about my work. He was pretty slick, and he really knew how to sweet talk and flatter. He got me preening and all full of myself, told me he was looking for people like me who - and how did he put this? Oh yeah: "People who demonstrate extraordinary aptitude in a complex motor skill requiring highly sophisticated hand-eye coordination and muscle memory."

That's a doozy to remember, but it's pretty well burned into my eyelids by now. Christ knows I heard it enough while I was working with that guy and his entourage. They strapped me up with wires and glued electrodes all over my head. This was one time when being bald as I am came in handy, if you can imagine that.

Anyway, with all this gear on, they kept running me through one mind-numbing repeat trick after another. But, they were paying me more in a day than I'd ever made in a month, so I never complained much as long as they gave me a smoke break or two. If I were on my own, I'd get my smokes in while I was performing, no problem - but they wouldn't let me light up in the lab.

They had a handful of others on the payroll, too. It made me wonder just how much money they had, and where they'd gotten it all. There was a girl who could take a square of paper and fold up damn near any animal you could think of. I tried to stump her with a platypus, but she had it for me in five minutes. And then there was this guy who was like a kung-fu gymnast or some weird thing, but he was too full of himself to give me the time of day. The other guy who did basketball tricks was alright, though: We traded a few good ones over beer, when they let us off at the end of the day. It turns out that a lot of juggling moves translate pretty well to bigger balls.

But, I digress. It was toward the end of the summer semester when my mind really got blown. I came back from lunch one day to find one of the prof's senior minions by himself, tossing a half-dozen apples in some particularly flawless weaving patterns. I watched him for a bit before letting out an appreciative whistle. I guess he didn't know I was there, because I scared the crap out of the poor kid. Apples flew everywhere.

I managed to snag a trio out of the air as they fell, and thought I'd screw with him by lobbing a few back. He recovered without a blink and fell right into the rhythm, returning all my throws. Before I knew it, we were caught in a nice give and take, and I managed to flip a few more of the fallen fruit into the mix from the floor with my feet.

Now, the part that really set my hair on end was that the kid still looked freaked the whole time. Here he was keeping up with me as well as anybody could, and yet he looked like he had no idea what he was doing. It looked like the throws were happening to him, not by him. I tested the waters a bit, not sure what I was trying to figure out. I switched things up a bit: A few throws went high, a few throws went low, and a few got wrist flicks that had pissed off more than one partner I'd had in the past. Each time, the kid handled it fine, but his arms and hands seemed to startle him.

Finally, he cracked. He didn't just fumble a throw or make a mistake - he flat out cracked. His face had progressed through confusion to terror, and he finally just spazzed and fell hard on his ass on the lab floor. I rescued what apples I could, catching them and setting them down on a nearby counter. Then, as I reached down to help the kid to his feet, I heard someone start clapping from behind me. It was the professor.

"I see you've gotten an early demo of our project's second phase," he said, nodding to the student, who hustled himself out the door and closed it behind him. Once we were alone, the professor locked the door and pulled up a pair of stools. He sat in one and gestured for me to sit in the other. Curiosity was eating at me, so I sat.

"We've been recording you," he said. "This, of course, should come as no surprise. It's what you signed on for. You've seen the cameras and the microphones, and I'm sure you've wondered at the purpose of the equipment we've been using to monitor your brain activity. Your notions about this gear, however, have probably been woefully unambitious."

He paused, picked up a coffee mug emblazoned with a lotus design from the counter next to him, took a sip. He grimaced and spat it back out. "Cold, and not my cup," he grumbled. "Ugh, I need to pay more attention."

"Anyway," he continued, returning the mug, "what I'll bet you haven't so far guessed is just what and how much we've recorded. However, now that you've seen it in action, I'd venture that gears are turning. You might start to puzzle out what we can do with these recordings."

I hadn't really noticed what he'd been doing with his hands since he'd grabbed the coffee, but I remember he'd been idly fumbling with something. As he finished his sentence, I looked down to see his fingers smoothing out the last fold of a napkin-platypus. Having caught my attention, he handed it to me.

"I can make those now," he said as I turned the flawless thing over in my hands. "Last week, I couldn't. But, as of this morning, I can. I haven't gotten around to learning how to juggle, but that's my plan for this evening. No martial arts or hoop shots for me, though: I'm just not in proper condition to handle the athletic demands."

I held up the platypus and asked, "Can I learn to make these?"

"Well, that depends," he said, smiling. "Are you interested in continuing to help us develop this technology? While we've got a lot of work ahead of us, the basic principles have already worked out with great success. The important thing, though, is that the university is interested in seeing this work extend beyond mere academic pursuit."

"So, in other words," I said, scratching my head. "Once the kinks get worked out of this stuff, you're planning to make a mint."

He chuckled and nodded. "Just as you say. The university is willing to allow my staff and I to explore commercial applications for our research, provided that a healthy share of the proceeds are returned to the university. But, even with this institution as a silent partner, there'll still be plenty to go around."

"Okay, assuming you're not screwing with me here," I said, fixing him with a stare, "and this isn't all a big gag or another psych test you're putting on, what do you need me for?"

He took a deep breath. "I'm going to have this talk with each of the other subjects," he said. He took off his glasses, rubbed the bridge of his nose, and continued, "You're all as much a part of this work as any of us. But, since you happened to get a good impromptu demonstration, you're the lucky first.

"We're going to find it necessary to give quite a few of these demonstrations in the coming weeks and months. In order to get attention and funding for our venture, we'll need to employ a good deal of theatrics and show off all the tricks we have - as well as a few we don't quite have yet. This technology isn't the sort of thing we can just talk about. We'll need to generate excitement and make converts who'll do our marketing for us."

"Wow, Doc," I said, with an eyebrow raised. "You sound like quite the entrepreneur."

"I suppose so. But, I've been doing this academic thing for long enough to know a way out of the trap when it presents itself." He gestured around the lab with a sweep of his arm. "This is plenty for most of my colleagues, who are happy to publish and ponder. In contrast, I'd actually like to see our work applied, see where it goes."

"And getting rich can't hurt, either."

He smiled, "No, getting rich certainly can't hurt." Then, asked me, "So, how do you feel about a job in sales?"

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