by Max Christopher
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Sid was conditioned to love Sally during the first week in July. The parents had arranged it. The kids were so cute together, they said. What could be more natural? As they saw it, they were only giving the inevitable a little push. Sally, after all, had already given her feelings for Sid away on a number of occasions, and therefore would need no conditioning. Sid... well, you know how boys are. He was probably fighting his feelings, thinking of commitment as an arid desert that would choke the dewy flower of freedom.
As Sid was underage, the chip that would stimulate his hypothalamus in response to Sally-related input could be installed without his consent, or even knowledge. When the day came, Sid’s parents told him he was finally going to be allowed to get his lip pierced. The conditioning agency did pierce it, too, while he was under general anesthetic. For an additional fee they offered to introduce a second conditioning process whereby Sid’s interest in lip piercing, and in all body modification, would fade and finally vanish, never to be seen again. He’d take out the stud and wonder whatever possessed him, the hole would close, and that would be that. Sid’s parents paid the extra money.
“The other guys were wide awake, with only a local anesthetic,” Sid said to the attractive young blonde woman he thought was the cosmetic technician. He smelled cinnamon-scented potpourri.
“I’m sure they told their friends that,” she said, smiling as she pulled on a pair of purple nitrile gloves. “But we got tired of having people pass out on us when we fired that little pink gun. Simpler this way.” She had a nice smile and pretty ankles.
“What’s your name?” Sid asked.
“Brenda.” She smiled again. “Lie still.”
“Do you get tired of being told you have a lovely smile, Brenda?”
“Never. Now hush.”
“I’ll be quiet if you give me your number.”
“My heavens. Do you promise?”
“Cross my heart.”
“You crossed your left pleural cavity,” she said. Her skirt made a pleasing swish against her stockings as she moved about the tiny room. On one wall hung a framed print of a waterfall with tall trees on either side at the top. The trees seemed to sway in the rising mist. For some reason he could not name, the image made Sid think of wild dogs barking.
“It’s more sincere that way,” he said. I’m doing great, he thought, fumbling for his out-of-style phone.
“Ready? Where’s your phone?”
“This is it.”
“That clunky thing? I thought it was a calculator. Why don’t you get a smartyphone?”
Sid had been working on a bit. “You ever try to give somebody with a smartyphone your number? They’re all, ‘Let me just open my contacts.’ Swipe. ‘Oh, here’s a picture of me and my border collie.’ Swipe. ‘Here’s me at the beach with my cousin Junie. She’s lost weight since then.’ Swipe. ‘This is the car I want.’ Swipe. ‘Here’s my retro Tinder photo. I didn’t post it; it was just for fun.’ Swipe swipe swipe.”
“How long does this go on?” Brenda said.
“I got four more minutes on smartyphones,” Sid said.
“You should do standup.”
“You’re not laughing.”
“It was the weight thing,” Brenda said. “Women are made self-conscious by references to other women’s weight. A woman will think you’re making a veiled comment about her being fat.”
“You’re making this up,” Sid said.
“Cross my left pleural cavity. Say, ‘Doesn’t she look cute in that dress?’ instead.”
“Because a woman will think I’m... ah... making a veiled reference to how nice she looks?”
“She might. Depending on how confident she is. But the weight?” Brenda shook her head, making her golden tresses bounce, and scrunched up her nose.
Sid thought, She’s cute as hell. He said, “So did you hear about the Ayn Rand workout?”
“Buns of Rearden Steel,” he said. “Lots of shrugs.”
“That’s just dumb,” she said.
“Thank you for not saying ‘sickeningly cutesy’.”
“On the topic of complimenting women,” Brenda said, “it’s a funny thing—”
“Funny ha-ha, or funny strange?”
“But you’ll find they warm up more when you say nice things about their outfits than when you compliment their beauty.”
“Why is that? It’s a woman’s beauty that’s more, well, pretty.”
“You’re showing her you like her taste,” Brenda said. “God gave a woman whatever beauty she possesses, but she picked out those darling suede ankle boots herself. Then you can compliment her again when she tells you she bought them on sale.”
“Wow,” Sid said. “Many are the mysteries of this wide and blooming world. But about the weight thing, what if I’m in front of an audience? Not every woman there will—”
“Yes, they will. Do what I said. Ready?” Brenda rattled off her number while Sid punched it in with many mistakes and backspaces. “Remember you promised. Quiet.”
He opened his mouth to reply, then clamped it shut and nodded. He gave her the big, sincere eyes. “Always make with the big, sincere eyes,” his buddy Hooksie had said. “Try to look a little contrite, too.”
“Contrite?” Sid had said.
“Like she caught you being naughty.”
“Like this?” Sid had made a contrite face.
“Naw,” Hooksie had said. “You look like somebody brained you with a frying pan. Never mind looking contrite.”
Nevertheless, Sid gave Brenda the contrite face. What the hell, he thought. I already got her number.
“Are you all right?” Brenda asked.
Sid nodded, made his expression a question.
“You looked like somebody brained you with a frying pan.”
Sid watched her gloved hands flit and flutter over her piercing gun, the antiseptic wipes and the gunmetal grey lip stud he’d picked out. They began to blur. He thought, Her hands look like purple birds having a race. With cinnamon as the prize.
Then Sid was out.
* * *
“Sit down and relax until dinner,” his mother said later that day. “But mind the elves don’t come.” His mother joked that when Sid sat or, worse, lay down, elves came and filled his pockets with rocks. “I never saw anybody who so hated to get up again,” she would say. “You take after my mother. She used to say she was born tired and never got rested.”
“She probably had chronic fatigue syndrome,” Sid said. “We should get me checked for that.” He flopped on the couch without kicking off his high-tops.
“Can we get you checked for chronic horseplop syndrome?” his father said. But he said it with affection, judiciously administering noogies. Sid knew that his dad wanted only the best for him. It was just difficult for him to express his feelings, sometimes.
Today, though, Dad seemed strangely subdued. Several times Sid thought he saw a sad expression threaten to settle upon his father’s worn features like mist upon a ruin, but he wasn’t sure. Then it would be gone, if it had been there at all. Maybe he’s upset about my lip stud, Sid thought. Or maybe I’m still woozy from the anesthetic. His head was bothering him, somewhere between an itch and a dull ache, but he couldn’t pin down where.
“I don’t know if I can eat, Mom. My lip kinda hurts.”
“I’ll make something special for your poor injured self.” Come to think of it, Mom had a dopey look too. Were those tears in her eyes? “You know, Sid, every mother looks forward to the day her son grows up and...” Her words caught.
“And what?” Sid said around a yawn.
“Asserts a little masculine independence,” Dad said. “Just don’t let it go to your head, sport.”
The last thing Sid saw before sleep claimed him was Dad giving Mom a hard look, and Mom turning away.
He didn’t remember the look or the turn later, when Mom nudged him for dinner.
* * *
Sally had been invited over for dinner. She oohed and aahed over Sid’s lip stud. “Can I touch it? Does it hurt? What will happen when you kiss a girl?”
“I’ll turn into a frog,” Sid said.
“You’re already a frog,” Sally said.
“And so I will remain, until the buss of a princess restores me to my rightful form.”
“Mouth’s working fine, I see. No pain talking?”
“At this time.” he said, “it is listening that’s causing me discomfort.”
“So no change.”
Sid’s parents exchanged secret pleased looks as the youngsters sparred. How like the early days of their own courtship! Who said there was no hope for the younger generation? Those smug media pundits should have some kids of their own before filling the public’s heads with their yap like manure pitchforked into the drinking well.
* * *
That had been July third, which Sid was pleased to remark was Franz Kafka’s birthday and the day Jim Morrison died in a Paris bathtub. One hot summer day melted into the next and, before you could say boo, CNN was showing the Bastille Day celebrations in France.
Sid had called Brenda twice in those eleven days and been politely refused both times. This led Sid to wonder, If she was just going to say no, why did she give me her number? When asked, Sid’s dad could scarcely give his real opinion, which was that the comely Brenda had seen no harm in placating Sid with her number, since Sid’s affections were to be permanently directed to Sally, sparing Brenda the nuisance of unwanted attention. All Dad said was, “I dunno. Women are funny. It’s too bad. She had more curves than a mountain road.” He then enjoined his son to refrain from repeating this small vulgarism to Mom.
This troubled Sid but little, however, as his attention was increasingly taken up with his feelings for another. Indeed, it may be said that there were times when Sid could not stop thinking about her.
Yes, her, for he had come to regard his lip stud most tenderly, and to think of it as feminine. How he loved to caress the tiny burnished dumbbell with his tongue, pulling on it with his teeth until he felt the shivery needles of pain penetrate his lip. Oh yeah, he’d think. That’s the stuff.
A kind of paralysis would possess Sid at such times. It’s the chronic fatigue, he’d think, but why fight it?
* * *
Sid’s friend Hooksie, of whom Sid’s parents did not approve, came over. They played some of the antique ‘Saturday Night Slammasters,’ then Hooksie rose and stretched. He took a deep breath. “Sid,” he said, “you suck.”
“You heard me.”
“Well,” Sid said, “sit down and tell me what’s on your mind, instead of standing there with a face like a spanked ass.”
“Let’s discuss it over a scrambled egg pizza at Mogie’s.”
“I don’t feel like pizza.”
“Ah hah!” Hooksie pounced. “Your indifference to my suggestion plays right into my reason for coming here. Up until a few weeks ago you would have eaten your own hoo-ha if Mogie put it on one of his scrambled egg pizzas.”
Sid goggled. “With feta, maybe,” he said.
“You no longer take an interest in your favorite things,” Hooksie said. “Sally has noticed it, too.”
“The Salmeister? What’s she got to do with it?”
Hooksie drew himself up. “You may as well know: I love her.”
“I’ll understand if you hate me. Even though you drove her into my arms.”
“Hate you?” Sid said in some alarm. “Why would I hate you?”
“For stealing your girl.”
Sid gaped. “But you just said I drove—”
“This must be a lot to take in. I’ll go.” Hooksie squeezed Sid’s shoulder in parting.
“See ya,” Sid said.
“What an odd conversation,” Sid said to himself after Hooksie left. “Who knew he and Sally had it in them? Funny: I used to think Sally’s and my ’rents had some little design in mind of uniting the two kingdoms. Wonder why nothing ever came of it? Sally’s a nice enough kid.”
“Although, now I think of it, I haven’t paid much attention to the Salmeister of late.” With a twinge of self-reproach, Sid thought: “I would have noticed if she’d sent me some signal or other. Wouldn’t I? My lack of interpersonal awareness has been remarked upon in the past. I probably have Asperger’s syndrome. We should get me tested.”
Pondering thus, he let his tongue fondle Brenda idly. Brenda was the name he had given his lip stud, in chivalrous homage to the technician who brought them together. This fondling led to other reveries, and soon Sally was, once again, forgotten.
* * *
“Something’s gone wrong,” Sid’s dad said darkly to Sid’s mom as he withdrew after the Thursday night lovemaking. He licked thumb and forefinger and smothered the licorice incense stick.
“I fear the worst,” said Sid’s mom.
“Let us consult Sally’s parents.”
“Yes, let’s. No, leave me tied up, you filthy bastard.”
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Max Christopher