New York in Winter

New York in Winter

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Spark of a Memoir?

Recently I posted a couple of items on Facebook -- reminiscences of a key time my life. The reader response was emphatic: Write your memoir! So I may do just that.

Here are the two posts together in one document:

Very soon it will be April 5, 2017. I'm thinking back to April 5, 1957.
That date is important to me for two reasons. It was my mother's 31st birthday. And I underwent the heart surgery that has extended my life, so far, to the ripe age of 70. (71 in a week.)

I had a congenital condition that was an enlarged aorta. The blood pumped through very fast, too fast for it to become sufficiently oxygenated. Most of the kids who had this were called blue babies. I was rather tall for my age and had rosy skin, but I was given to the age of 15, tops 18, to live. The open heart surgery was at Boston's Children's Hospital, then as now one of the top such hospitals on earth.
People were fully prepared for me to die after the grueling surgery which necessitated packing me in ice so that my metabolic rate would slow enough to keep me from bleeding out. Nevertheless, 6 pints of blood later, given by volunteers in Salisbury and Newburyport, Massachusetts, paid for the blood, which was one of the few things not paid by the Commonwealth. (we were on welfare and very hard up.)
I did make it, obviously. And after surgeries like a triple bypass after a heart attack in 1993, it was still the hardest and most painful recovery of my life. The incision is still clear and visible after 6 decades.
I was showered with great kindness and generosity, which we felt all the more strongly given our poverty and desperation. I've never forgotten it, nor the value of living in a place like Massachusetts, where compassion often triumphed over crabbed parsimoniousness. If we had lived 2 miles north in New Hampshire, I wouldn't have made it.
Welfare has saved numerous lives. Who is to tell those who are poor that they aren't worthy to live? Who has the courage to face an anxious, struggling mother that her oldest child has no right to live?
I think back all the years to the doctors who diagnosed me correctly (Dr. George Danis) and the one who operated on me (Dr. Lombardo), and my tireless mother (with whom I had many many issues later on) and their grit in seeing me through the ordeal.
I think back to the many heart attacks -- which is what they were -- that I had from the age of 5 to 10, several of which almost killed me, and my good luck in having compassionate people around me, most notably my grandparents, long dead, whose love sustained me when life was at its bleakest. I even think of my annoying Aunt Dot, who lived with us with her two babies, sharing in our meager welfare payments, who held my hand and cried with me after I got back from Boston that first time; our tears covered the plastic tablecloth and rained on the linoleum.
I owe my life, misspent as it has been, to that time and those people. 60 years -- gone in a flash. But as vivid and painful as it was in 1957.

Regarding my heart-felt post of reminiscence last night...
When we were told that I would have to undergo what then was an exceedingly risky operation, the adults as usual experienced gales of anxiety. I was 10, my life was pretty awful -- poor, often not enough to eat, cold every day of every winter (my bedroom was the warmest at 55F -- I was a meteorology nut so I had thermometers all over the house -- and I really didn't care if I lived or died. You may say it was because I was too young to know -- I'm not so sure about that. I do remember kids dying all around me in the hospital, mostly those stunted, almost gnome-like creatures who had blue lips and fingertips. "Where's Billy?" "He died last night." "Oh." One part of me, the born-old me, the wiser me, thought, "It could be worse [for him]."
One funny thing. I was just getting into rock n roll on my own account, having been exposed to it by older kids for a couple of years. I was intensely interested in what was hot, who was up and coming, etc. I had a little (20 lb) portable 45-player that one of my mother's boyfriends had bought me, and in my twilight state after surgery I'd play it while I fell asleep. My mother told me that the other kids' parents looked at me askance as I lay there, out of it, snapping my fingers and grooving to Little Richard like a junkie in a movie.
Someone asked me what I wanted when I had survived and was conscious and I said, "Billboard." I was thought to be weird.
I remember too that when I was coming out of the anesthetic slumber, they kept asking me to turn over so that fluids wouldn't build up. Someone had left a stethoscope under me precisely at the incision, and when I turned over, I growled, "Shit! Son of a bitch."
Some things are consistent in your personality no matter what.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Can This Marriage Be Saved?

Terence Hughes

Kyle T. and Fisher O. have been married for 8 years and partnered for 20. They have longstanding issues regarding jealousy and irritating habits.
Kyle, 58, is a highly successful, semi-retired entrepreneur. A big, expansive man who is quick to laugh and sulk, he seems to be emotionally dependent on Fisher. Kyle has a sympathetic, compassionate manner.
Fisher, 43, is a social studies and gym teacher in a large suburban high school. A fit, youthful-appearing man with a tendency to hold grudges, he is dependent on Kyle for a comfortable lifestyle. Fisher is combative and self-absorbed.
Their counselor is Dr. Priscilla Silverman, who is transitioning to Jim Dodd.
“And when he sneezes he shakes the whole fucking house down. I say to him, ‘Can’t you cover your mouth, for Chrissake?’ What does he do? He gives me that hurt puppy look.”
“Is this sensitivity to Kyle’s sneezing is an old phenomenon? Or is it new?”
Kyle Tarbox piped up, “It’s new. Only in the last year.”
Fisher O’Dill turned to him. “It’s always bothered me. But since we moved into our cozy little mansion – I can’t stand it any more.”
Kyle appealed to Priscilla/Jim. “See what I mean? He hates me. He’s sorry he ever met me. He despises what my wealth brings him. Twenty years…” His eyes welled up.
“Hear that? My wealth. Not our wealth. My my my.”
“No, Fisher, I meant our.” Kyle brooded. He appealed to Priscilla. “No matter what I do or how I phrase things – he jumps all over me. He hates me.”
Fished exploded. “I love you, idiot. I’m glad we decided to spend our lives together. But now your annoying habits are too much.”
“What other annoying habits are there, Fisher?”
“He drops his clothes all over the bedroom floor. He never puts so much as a glass or coffee mug in the goddamn dishwasher. He drinks too much wine and squawks all the next day how tired he is. And he never helps me clean the house! After a long day dealing with those spoiled brats, he expects me to vacuum, clean the bathrooms, wash the clothes, clean the kitchen after dinner – everything!” He added sardonically, “I do windows, too. You should hire me.”
“You can quit teaching. I’ve told you that how many times? You want to have that to hold over me. Admit it.” He added jovially, “Besides, you have Saturdays to clean the house.”
“Kyle, I thought you said you have a net worth in eight figures. Surely you could hire a housekeeper to take this burden off Fisher, who does work all day at a hard job.”
Kyle looked abashed and said to Jim, “To be honest with you, we’re in a bad way. I paid 80% down on the house last year – but we got it at a discounted price of $4 million! I bought a Maserati – paid cash. And we spent a month on the QE2 last year.”
“I told you we shouldn’t do it,” Fisher muttered. “But no, the big baby pouted and dragged himself around pathetically. I caved.” He shook his head in disgust. “He spent more on that cruise than I make in three years. We are not liquid.”
Kyle took exception to this. “I prefer to spend almost nothing of the principle. We have to be prudent. I’m not getting any younger and I want to leave my husband comfortably off since I will most likely die first.” He spoke with insufferable nobility. Fisher snorted with derision.
“Until you want the next new toy. He’s been talking about a Bentley convertible.”
“Oh, that I’d lease.”
“Meanwhile I drive a five-year-old Accord. I prefer to live within my means,” Fisher said primly.
“I said you could quit – “
“Oh shut up.”
Priscilla sat back and looked at them. He had the ghost of a smile when he looked at Kyle, a little frown when she glanced at Fisher. “Well, fellas, our time is up for today. It’s Friday and you’re my last appointment. Try to have some fun this weekend.” He stood up, a solid fireplug of a person.
Kyle got up and said, “Thank you. See you next week.”
Fisher muttered and strode right out the door. Kyle apologized for him. Priscilla said, “He’s upset.”
“Everything makes him upset. Especially if it puts him out in some way.”
Jim patted him on the back. “Be strong,” she whispered.
Fisher was propped on a bollard, studying his kicks. He looked up when Kyle came out. “Thanks for making me the bad guy. As usual.”
Kyle opened his arms, palms of hands raised to the heavens. “Where is all this anger coming from? I think you’ve lost interest in me. We never have sex any more. There’s another man, isn’t there?”
“You always go there! I only wish it was true! Give me the keys. I’ll drive.” Fisher stalked off and got in the car. He revved the engine and peeled out of the lot while his husband stood there, incredulous. Priscilla was leaving the building.
“He took my Maserati!”
Jim smiled up at him. “I’ll give you a ride. You be the captain, I’ll be the pilot.” They got in her Subaru and left the lot sedately.

Fisher was shaking with anger when he pulled up to The Four Horsemen. He forced himself to calm down. He tried entering an inner place of serenity, no drama, no passion.
He sat in a booth. He intended to order coffee and a goodie since it was only 5 o’clock. He looked around. Other angry people were coming in to numb themselves after the grinding week. As he peered at the bar he saw a figure that seemed familiar. With a slight shock he recognized the surgeon who had repaired his shoulder. Dr. Medina. Carlos Medina, the handsomest man Fisher had ever seen in real life. He had the sudden urge to pick up the diminutive doctor and carry him to the men’s room. Fisher canceled his order and sat by Medina, ordered a martini, and made discreet noises until the doctor turned and said, “I know you, don’t I? Mr. O’Dell?” Fisher, grinning, said, “Close enough.”
They commiserated. Their spouses didn’t understand them. They felt lonely inside. Nothing seemed to be right. They had everything – yet nothing. Carlos’ wife was named Amanda. She was Irish by blood, a beautiful little redheaded firecracker. She was very possessive. If he so much as glanced at another woman there was hell to pay. Carlos smiled in a secretive way. “If she only knew.”
Fisher’s heart skipped a beat. “What do you mean? You’re having an affair?”
Carlos blushed. “Um, not exactly.”
Fisher knew where this was going. “What’s she like?” Fisher the fisher of men. “Your girlfriend.”
Deeper blush – crimson. The doctor leaned toward him and whispered, “I guess I can tell you. On the downlow.”
Feeling dizzy, Fisher went, “You are full of surprises, Dr. Medina.”
Hand on hand. Leaning in again. “Carlos.”
Fisher felt his blood rising, and more. Carlos said, “Do you fool around?”
He really never had fooled around, much to his own shame. He had had his crushes – so had Kyle – but nothing had ever come of them. But at the moment Fisher’s balls were throbbing painfully. “I wish I did,” he said.
Carlos rested his hand on Fisher’s thigh. “Maybe it’s time you did.”

Kyle thanked Jim for the ride home and invited her in for a glass of wine and a snack. He rustled up a snack consisting of three kinds of cheese, cornichons, paté, two kinds of crackers, olives, and chunks of Iberian ham with their individual party toothpicks, each one complete with a merry little bow of colored cellophane. Priscilla’s eyes grew wide. “This is dinner!”
“Don’t feel like I’m forcing you to eat it all,” Kyle laughed. “Red or white?” Jim said white. Kyle opened a white (Swiss) and a red (Oregon) for himself. They munched in silence for a while, Priscilla grunting softly with pleasure. When they were on their second glass of wine they leaned back, sated for the moment. They chatted about one thing and another until Jim said, “I should be going.”
“Don’t. I don’t feel like being alone right now.”
“Are you angry with Fisher?”
“Apprehensive.” Kyle hesitated. “I don’t trust him. I think he has affairs all the time.” He broke down and Jim got up and sat by him. She patted his shoulder and murmured, “There, there. You know, you may be torturing yourself for no reason. He may be as true to you as you are to him.”
Kyle wept bitter tears. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Jim stared at him with rapt joy.
“He’s a very unpleasant man.” Kyle used his cocktail napkin to dry his eyes. They sat in silence for a while, sipping their wine. Jim poured herself another glass.
Desperate to change the subject, Kyle cleared his throat and said, “You know, I’ve always wondered how anybody could do what you’re doing. I don’t understand it at all.”
“You know that feeling when you’re not comfortable in your own skin?”
“Sure. But it didn’t make me want to become a woman.”
“I always wanted to be a man. Always. I love men. I want to be one. I want to be with one. I want a long-term gay relationship.”
The confusion on Kyle’s face had him – Jim, the declared man -- chuckling. “Dude, nobody’s more perplexed than me.” Kyle poured a third glass for himself and waited for a further explanation. “I’ll tell you something, Kyle. I want nothing more in the world than to have a dick flopping around in my pants and a pair of balls and some big man to give it to me straight up the old pooper.”
At length Kyle asked where he was in the transition. He felt great empathy when Jim said, “I’m kind of early in the chemical treatments. I’m a long ways from completing Transition.” Sigh. “But at least I become Jim Dodd officially next week. I’ll be Dr. Dodd – that’s what it’ll say on my shingle. I already had it made up.”
Kyle absorbed all this and let himself imagine how Jim must hate his Priscillaness. What empathy he felt! But curiosity got the better of manners. “How will you get…outfitted?”
“Here’s the deal. Promise this won’t gross you out? Well. I’m going to have a genital donation from a young man whose organs are being harvested. I’m on a list. They’ll be real. They won’t function perfectly. But I’m okay with that. Just to feel it all down there swingin’ as I walk down the street! I’ll be reborn.”
Jim’s yearning and vulnerability touched Kyle. He reached out to him and held onto his hand. “You’ve suffered so.” Jim rubbed at his eyes with a napkin.
“I hate to cry!”
“Men cry. Just not as often as women.”

Carlos had suggested that they go to a nice place for dinner. He said he’d been up since 4 AM and was starved.
They were dining at an upscale Italian place near the beach, all gleaming white and silver. Fisher marvelled at how a man of 5’4” could shovel in so much food and still have such a tight body. He tried to engage the doctor in conversation on various topics, but nothing sparked until he spoke about real estate. Carlos lived in Victoria Park, a leafy, genteel neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale. He went on about the restoration he had done on his Keys-style house, the loving detail lavished on the intricate woodwork, and so on. Fisher didn’t mean to shut him down when he said he lived in a big glass house on a canal. “Thank God Kyle hasn’t bought a fucking hundred-foot yacht to match.”
Carlos talked about his work and what a pain in the ass Amanda was. He veered away from talk about men and his experiences with them. As he watched the handsome surgeon chow down he had vivid fantasies about seeing him naked, and he imagined small but handsome equipment that went along with the rest of him.
They lingered over dessert and coffee until the restaurant began to fill up. “It’s getting noisy!” Carlos shouted over the clanking of silverware and the shrieks of rich old ladies who were mwahing each other with air kisses. Then he was up and off to the john. Fisher fumed. He had planned to get him in the men’s room and do it there. Too late.
Out on the sidewalk he put his arm around Carlos and said jokingly, “What a night for a romantic walk on the beach.”
Carlos looked up at him. “Good idea.”
A few short blocks east and they were beyond all the bars and eateries, strolling quietly by the tranquil ocean. The coconut palms whispered in the caressing breeze. A sliver of a moon had just risen over the water. “Nice night,” Fisher remarked. Carlos said nothing and walked on, staring at the sand. Fisher stopped and decided to lay it on the line.
“The first time you walked into the examining room, you took my breath away.”
Carlos smiled. “I felt the same.” He took a deep breath and was clearly forcing himself to speak. “I thought, there’s one sexy papi.”
Boom. In the clinch. Carlos stood on his toes and Fisher bent down to kiss him. They felt for each other’s dick and groaned with pleasure when they found it. Fisher dragged him away from the damp sand by the water and lay Carlos on the ground. They were side by side kissing and feeling each other all over. Carlos gasped, “Now, papi, now.” He pulled his pants down to uncover his handsome little bum.
Fisher froze. What was he doing? He had a vision of Kyle with his puppy dog eyes and pathetic, infuriating face. He went limp. He got up and Carlos turned and asked what was wrong.
“I’m sorry. I can’t. I can’t.” Fisher left as the doctor stood and brushed sand off. He felt virtuous. “I didn’t even see his lovely little dick.”

Poor Jim! He seemed so lost. His certainty about the future of his body – his identity – was a grand bluff, an act of defiance that frightened him. Kyle gazed at his square face and felt a cresting wave of compassion. He took Jim’s hand and squeezed it in solidarity. “How you must have suffered,” Kyle told him. “I suppose you still do.”
Jim’s eyes filled with tears and he nodded. He rested his head on Kyle’s broad chest. Kyle saw tears silently make their tracks on Jim’s cheeks. He leaned forward and kissed his cheek. Jim responded ardently. To his own astonishment, Kyle found himself getting hot. Jim shifted upward and they embraced. They were gasping with passion in an instant. Jim unbuttoned Kyle’s shirt and swooned at the sight of his hairy chest. Kyle grabbed Jim’s flat-topped head and bathed him with kisses. “Do me! Do me!”
Kyle couldn’t imagine tackling Jim’s genitals, or his old pooper, so he pulled out his dick and shoved Jim’s face into it. Jim had great skill. Kyle held it in for as long as possible and then the volcano erupted, shooting lava in Jim’s mouth and all over his face.
Jim moaned and flopped on his back, wiping his face with a bunch of cocktail napkins. “Oh my God. Oh honey.” He grabbed Kyle’s hand and kissed it. “I’m all wet. Everyplace.” He closed his eyes and smiled at the ceiling. “How can I tell you – “
“Ssshh! It’s okay, Jimmy.” Kyle zipped it back in his pants, shaken by how intense the pleasure was. He put his arm around Jim’s shoulders. “Well,” he said, “that was unexpected.”
Jim’s eyes opened and he smiled slyly. “Not exactly.” He laughed in a manly way, shaking his belly. “I knew you’d tumble.”
Kyle stiffened. “What do you mean?” His charitable instincts were getting stressed. “Was I such an easy mark?”
Jim patted his knee, “I just could tell. All your pent-up frustration. Your peevishness.”
My peevishness? What about him?”
“Oh, let’s face it, honey. Your husband’s a typical gay male, hypersensitive, and kind of an asshole.”
“Is that your professional opinion?” Kyle asked sternly as he buttoned up his shirt.
“Let’s just say it’s my personal opinion. But you…” He smiled contentedly and squeezed Kyle’s thigh. “You were just horny.”
“You just lost a client, Dr. Dodd. No one’s going to talk about my asshole husband that way but me.” The lofty way he said it would have driven Fisher insane with irritation.
Jim jumped to his feet and leaned into Kyle imploringly. “Oh no, I’m sorry, that slipped out, I was speaking out of my love for you! Say you’ll change your mind, please!”
Kyle stood up and said softly, “I love Fisher. I don’t love you. I’m sorry, Jimmy, but that’s the unfortunate fact. You better go now.”
Jim’s tear-stained face darkened. “You haven’t seen the last of me. I’ll stalk you from now until the day you die. If I ever get a husband we’ll both stalk you until the day you die. It’ll be our favorite sport!” Then, by way of departure, he felt Kyle’s crotch and heaved a regretful sigh.

“Wait! Papi!” Carlos was running toward him. “Don’t leave me this way.” He was panting when he caught up with Fisher. “I want to see you again. I like you a lot. I have no one – no one – to talk with about…” He shrugged hopelessly.
Fisher was torn between desire and a fraternal compassion for the lonely man. The lonely handsome man with the melting brown eyes. Fisher stroked Carlos’ neck. “That wouldn’t be such a good idea. I’m afraid I’d fall in love with you. Then where would Kyle be?” Or himself for that matter. No more cruises to Hong Kong, no more tooling around in the absurd Maserati. Carlos sneaking around to a crummy apartment where the exiled Fisher would rot as he marked up illiterate essays on the Gettysburg Address.
Carlos shook off his hand. He was crestfallen. He walked away, slowly as if he thought Fisher would stop him and they would run into each other’s arms. Fisher called to him. “See you next Friday at The Four Horsemen.”
Carlos nodded. He left the beach and dove into the tourist crowds.
Fisher walked along the strand for a while, heaving sighs and feeling like a doomed romantic hero.

Kyle grew impatient waiting for Fisher to come home. His fear of Fisher’s infidelity rose nearly as high as his fear of being discovered a cheat. He consoled himself with the obvious fact that getting a blowjob was not, in fact, unfaithful at all, but a preliminary to real sex, which he wisely had halted before it went too far. And with this as his defense he could confidently shame Fisher into his confession from a position of moral superiority.
He showered to get the grubby day off his skin, and he retired to bed with his iPad and a snifter of Cognac. At eleven he heard the door open and, eventually, saw the lights go out downstairs. Fisher dragged himself up the stairs and yawned repeatedly. “Hi.”
“Hi.” A tense silence. Fisher stripped and got into bed without even brushing his teeth. “What a day, huh?”
“At least tomorrow’s Saturday.”
“Mm. Housework day.”
In a false light tone, Kyle asked, “How was your evening? Full of adventure?”
Fisher paused a minute and said, “Interesting. Sad.”
“I came home and watched TV, ate some bread and cheese, and here I am.”
“How’d you get home?”
“Jim – Priscilla – gave me a lift.”
“Huh. Free therapy session.”
“There’s no difference.”
Kyle was silent. Then: “Were you a good boy?”
Fisher gave him an irritated look – he wouldn’t drop it. “Yes.” He was in a rage of frustration. He drew closer to Kyle and tried to bite his ear.
“God, I’m tired. I’m glad you had a good time, whatever you were up to.” Kyle turned off his lamp. “Nighty night.”
As dawning amazement and horror took over Fisher’s face, Kyle turned over and pretended to fall asleep.

They saw Dr. Dodd’s sign and Fisher wondered what had happened. They went into session as usual. Dr. Dodd seemed more feminine somehow, which left Kyle wondering. The couple wrangled as usual and left in a huff. Before they stormed out, Dr. Dodd said cheerily, “Next Friday, then? Have a nice weekend.” Joyously smiling at Kyle.
Fisher and Kyle drove in silence. Halfway home Fisher thought of Dr. Carlos. Was he waiting at The Four Horsemen? Was he chatting up another sexy papi? Fisher said, “I could use a drink. Let’s head for the Horsemen.”
Kyle muttered, “Good idea.” He reversed direction and drove into the lot fifteen minutes later. Fisher tousled Kyle’s hair. “Hey,” he said.
Kyle smiled grudgingly. “Hey.” They kissed.
They walked into the Horsemen, arms over shoulders. Carlos was at the bar, drooping over his drink. Fisher exclaimed, “Honey, doesn’t that man look familiar?”
Carlos turned and saw them approach the bar. He smiled. “Mr. O’Donnell? How is your shoulder?” Fisher relaxed; Carlos was playing along.
“O’Dill. Fisher O’Dill. The shoulder’s fine.”
“Of course! I’m terrible with names!” He shook hands with them and Kyle introduced himself. He sat on the stool next to Carlos.
Kyle gushed, “Dr. Medina, you did a fantastic job. He’s like a new man.” He turned on his brightest smile. “Fantastic.”
Carlos grinned at Kyle. “Call me Carlos. I’m always fantastic.” He winked. They started to chat like it was just the two of them.
Fisher, frowning, glanced away and saw Dr. Dodd sitting at a table in the corner, staring at a double vodka on the rocks.
Fisher detached himself from the fascinated duo and went to the counselor’s table. Jim Dodd asked, “Who’s the squirt with Kyle?”
Fisher told him.
“Why,” Jim growled, “I could take that little pipsqueak apart with my bare hands.”
Fisher chuckled. “I understand you gave Kyle a ride home that time. When I went off all pissed. Was he polite enough to invite you in?”
Jim’s face turned dreamy. “Oh, yeah. We had a super time. He was so understanding.” Tears filled his eyes. He looked at Fisher. “He is quite a wonderful man, you know.” The man was emphasized just a little too much.
So it was true. Kyle and his insufferable holier-than-thou attitude. His benevolent superiority was a mask. He’d worn it for years, but finally it had slipped from his lying, faithless face.
Fisher got up and went back to the surgeon and Kyle at what seemed to be a critical juncture in their conversation. Awkward silence as Fisher arrived. Kyle turned to him and smiled, saying, “I’m very tired, Fisher, and Carlos has generously offered to give me a ride home. You don’t mind, do you? You can take your time – no need to rush home on my account.”
Fisher flashed the blushing Carlos an annihilating glance and said, “Sure, sure, I’ll stay and keep Dr. Dodd company.” He waved in the counselor’s direction.
Kyle blanched and stammered, “Carlos, thank you but I think I’ll stay here after all. I must speak with my old friend over there. It’s been a distinct pleasure.” They shook hands and with feline tentativeness Kyle went to Jim’s table.
“Good to see you again,” Fisher said to Carlos, then ignored him as he sipped his drink. After a few hangdog minutes, Carlos left. Fisher considered the unfaithfulness of men. It felt like he had struggled up the mountain to a new level, to the high road. It was lofty and cold but crystal clear. Like some deity he saw them all, stupid people in pursuit of stupid things. Dogs chasing a wiener on a string.
Jim and Kyle were in the middle of an intense conversation. Jim was crying and saying something angry to Kyle. Kyle handed him a cocktail napkin; he looked afraid.
Fisher got up and left them there. He drove home. He would be in bed, alone, pretending to sleep when Kyle straggled in, because that’s what you did when you took the high road, waiting for the kill.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Customer Satisfaction

by Terence Hughes

The salesman showed up at her front door before even the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He consoled her for her loss. He asked about her late, beloved husband. What sort of man had he been? What sort of health had he enjoyed? His habits of personal cleanliness? His feelings about immortality? He leaned forward and asked her, in a hushed voice, had he left an appreciable amount of DNA behind?
She confessed she didn’t know. The cleaning lady had been there just yesterday and done her usual thorough job. The plane crash had only been the evening before that. They confirmed his death just yesterday morning. Less than 24 hours ago. She was in shock.
There, there. The salesman’s face was the mask of tragedy. He patted her hand. He said, You mustn’t give up hope. He could come back to her. It was being done all the time these days. It wasn’t as expensive as many believed. It was far more reliable than the Channel 99 Action Reporter claimed.
The salesman asked if he could use the bathroom. Which bathroom did … he … use most?
She pointed. Her hand dropped in her lap. She stared at a wall until the salesman came back with a gleam in his eye. He was holding a well-used Q-Tip which rested on a Kleenex. What does this look like to you? He asked.
She said she didn’t know. Earwax?
-- DNA! He exulted. If you want, you can have your husband back. Bill/1 may be gone but Bill/2 can be RESURRECTED. He will be as good as the original Bill. You will not be alone.
That evening she signed the papers with Vale of Remembrance.
It took two and a half years to resurrect -- clone -- an adult male. It seemed interminable yet it seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. She had too much time to think about Bill. She spent countless nights in tears. She often woke in the four o’clock darkness convinced that he lay next to her, that he was ready to take her. Waking brought desolation.
– He was my all --. And she choked up and spent the hours until dawn in bereft longing.
She wondered if he would come back exactly the same. She had always overlooked some very unfortunate behavior in him. He cursed and raged at everything that got in his way. He had a tendency to ridicule her in front of their friends. He was a monster behind the wheel; “road rage” was invented with him in mind.
Bill was a bigot, too, especially when he got drunk, which was often. His favorite targets were the handicapped and the gays. He imitated and lampooned them, in his cruel drunkenness, to their faces. Her protests were mild. – Oh Bill, really. But if she had protested more energetically, he’d have decked her. She knew when to shut up.
While she awaited the resurrected Bill -- Bill/2, as they said -- she kept her job at the local unemployment office, where Unoriginals now came to seek work in large numbers. After work she went to the gym regularly; when Bill came back she wanted to thrill him again with her supple, responsive body. For all his faults, she belonged to him.
Fear warred with certainty: yes, she would get Bill back, but would he remember her at all? They told her that memories and life experiences were coded into brain and the DNA. If you selected the premium package, you were guaranteed a highly reliable transfer of memories, thoughts and feelings. 99.7% accurate guarantee. She wondered how they measured that. Satisfaction guaranteed. Did that meant they’d refund her money if Bill/2 wasn’t satisfactory? What would they do with him in that case? She was afraid to think these thoughts.
She selected this package for optimum recall. It was outrageously expensive, but she could afford it. She wanted her man. She wanted all of him. More or less.

When she first saw Bill/2 she fainted. The cloning-service staff was used to it. They grabbed hold before she could hit the floor and threaten a lawsuit. She thought the floor was slippery. She was dressed in a hospital gown and booties so as not to bring in germs from the street. Her hair covering fell on the floor and they made a fuss until they’d stuck a brand-new one on her head.
When she came to, she drank in the sight of him with something close to delirium. It was Bill, all right. The same tall, well-muscled figure, the same strong jaw and resolute brown eyes. The same dark hair now flecked with gray, maybe a little more gray than she remembered. Handsome and – what was the word? – sardonic. It was his favorite word for himself. In that cruelty lay great charm.
They assured her that Bill/2 had many, if not all, of the memories and feelings that Bill/1 had had. He would remember her, although, they warned, she might have to prod him for occasional dates, events, and so on.
             But then, most Originals don’t remember their wedding anniversary, do they?
Nervous laughter.
They drove home, calmly, no curses. All the documentation verifying his Resurrection and Clone-1 personhood resided in the Cloud. She looked at him while they were stopped at a light. She thought, -- It’s a crime to murder him. Just like a real husband.
Then she chastised herself, both amused and horrified by her thought. He was real even if he wasn’t an Original. She wondered how he would accept the very real status downgrade from Original to Unoriginal. It was a stark worry.
Bill/2 remarked mildly that the road must look familiar. Was this a new car? Did they still live in Belmont? Who won the last election? He seemed pleased that Bush VI was president.
She answered his questions to his satisfaction and thrilled as he took her hand and held it in his. It was big and very warm.
His raspy voice made her thrill. -- Wait till I get you behind closed doors. He made a growling sound and pawed her as far as safety allowed.
She was swollen with anticipation. Bill is back!
Despite herself she had a crying jag.
He gave her a searching look, one of curiosity. He reached for her bare thigh where her dress had ridden up.
When they got to the house, she showed him the new stuff she’d bought with just him in mind. The two new 180 inch wallpaper TVs alone were meant to make him glad he was home. His reaction was mild – Oh yah, that’s hypaah. Using the slang of three years ago. Bill/1 would have exulted and pumped his fist in the air over every new thing, especially the TVs. He would have spent the whole night fiddling with them.
There were new pieces in the living room, and a new patio leading to the pool.
Bill yawned. He said he just wanted to go upstairs. He was beat. -- Aren’t you? he asked.
-- You must be, too. All that programming and stuff wears you out.
He said he didn’t want supper or even a snack. He wanted to get her in his own bed after two long years.
She didn’t show any disappointment or crossness. She followed him upstairs. They undressed immediately, and Bill/2 got into bed nude. He’d seldom done that before in all their 15 years of marriage. It presaged a wild night. She tore off her clothes and got under the covers. She kissed him hungrily. – Oh, Bill, you don’t know how I’ve —
-- Shhh, he said. Me too, baby.
Something wasn’t right. She sensed it the moment they got in bed. Bill’s aggressive old ardor wasn’t the same. They fucked satisfactorily, but he couldn’t keep a hard-on very long. He didn’t hard-thrust her the way he had before the crash. She had loved his brutal rage in fucking, his animalistic abandon. It wasn’t there.
His gaze was evasive – he scarcely looked at her. He had many more lines on his face than she remembered. Couldn’t they control for all these things? Should she demand a discount?
Bill fell gently asleep. The sense of worry and dislocation kept gnawing. She really had to talk with the Vale of Remembrance people.
She told the people at Vale of Remembrance of their difficulties, and they told her their difficulties in adjusting to each other were quite normal. They said it was a little appreciated fact that 25% of half-clone couples sought divorce within a year of the resurrection. Mr. Crapshaw himself, the president of the firm, told her that men seemed to have an especially hard time with cloned wives. He wouldn’t speculate as to why, though he mentioned that during the long process of clonation, some men take mistresses. Some go with whores, he told her, and a few even start alternative households.
It irritated her to hear that it was somehow her fault – as if she was a clone! --  that Bill was less than passionate and equal to his old self in unpleasantness. She had hoped he’d be different since he was reborn. Instead she dreaded his return home every evening.

Bill’s concern was less general. He felt she didn’t appreciate was how hard he worked to keep his old, unpleasant impulses under wraps. He’d had plenty of time to think about and regret them. Going with whores was one thing, slapping her around was another.
During The Forty Days, as the people in clonation called the two-plus year waiting period, he had thought about her almost to obsession. So beautiful, so passionate – a wildcat in bed and sometimes outside of it, a consummate dishthrower, he wanted to shout “Opa!” every time she got into her rage zone. She’d been so playful, so quick with the banter. She never approved of his drunkenness and its side effects, granted, but they seemed united in other ways.
He had loved her in his way, for her ways. He didn’t love the possessive clod she was now. Magnificent tits aside, she looked bad – like melted birthday cake, for Chrissakes. What happened?
Bill turned over and saw her sleeping form, lying on her side, snoring in a mucous-y way. – Hey, he said, poking at her back. Enough with the snoring, baby.
She stirred, went silent, then began at full volume.
He gave her a stiff kick, with the same result. He got up and went down to the kitchen to make coffee.
The sky was brightening. He sat in the half-light. The cyberbird awoke and began a pretty song. He sat on a kitchen stool with a mug of coffee and examined his arms, his hands, his fingers. Tested the skin for suppleness and color. He thought about the way hers looked now with its slackness, at least relative to what he remember from before, and its extreme oiliness. And was it him or was her IQ about 20 points lower now? Fuck, he thought, she’s as repulsive as some distorted creature in a motorized wheelchair.
He mused. What’s the good of cloning if you got an inferior product back? They might just as well stay dead.
He sat up. He wanted his money back. All of it. Satisfaction guaranteed. All of it.
She sat across from the personal-injury lawyer in his strip-mall office. He was a thin, nervous man of forty who kept pushing his lank hair out of his eyes, and kept staring at her breasts.
-- Clones are men, ma’am. They’re women. They’re full-fledged human beings with all the human virtues and vices. The list you’ve given me is hardly firm evidence that there is anything wrong with your husband from a cloning viewpoint. Sometimes adjustment to the world, returning to the old habitat is, well, not as easy as everyone hopes it will be.
            -- I realize all that, Mr. Cohen, but what if the cloning is so flawed, so incompetent, that there’s no alternative but complete replacement? She made a point of closing her jacket around her breasts.
-- I just said that you’ve presented me with no substantial evidence —
-- What if I can? What if I hire a detective to dig around at Vale of Remembrance and follow Bill/2 around for a while?
-- First of all, complete replacement is tantamount to murder. I think it’s much more constructive to think of a simple divorce, alimony and all the rest of it. By the way, why did you pick a questionable outfit like Vale of Remembrance for the job? You should’ve gone with a big company like American Express. They have top-notch refund and discreet, thoroughly legal elimination policies.
-- Well, he said after a pause, as she thought despairingly about what he’d said, Let’s gather data before we act rashly. Call this man. He pushed a slip of paper at her. He’s a very able PI.
The president of Vale of Remembrance was a smooth customer, he thought, what with his legal serpent whispering in his ear. Bill was going to have to come up with something definitive. He had to, because now he hated his wife. Like every American, he sought a fresh start when things started getting difficult.
Mr. Crapshaw, company’s president, was clearly skeptical of his claims. He exchanged glances with his corporate attorney, Mr. La Chance. – Tell us what you feel is wrong.
He listed half a dozen items. This was behavior he’d never seen before cloning, so far as he could remember. He mentioned that.
-- These seem normal behaviors and, frankly, not dependent on clonation.
-- Mr. Crapshaw, you’ve just made me feel I’ve wasted $1,500,000.69 on nothing. Nothing. And I had to sell everything of value to pay all the “extras” you stuck me with. This isn’t my wife, it’s some sort of alien parasite.
-- Now for your own good, sir, I’m glad your legal wife, the recently cloned, isn’t here, because what you’ve just said constitutes hate speech. Mr. Crapshaw and the counsel exchanged a look and laughed. How would you like it if we played back this language to your wife? In divorce court?
-- She’d find it funny in the extreme, the lawyer said gravely. Hilarious.
-- You made her out of earwax, you fucking idiots. What’s more you fucked up and gave her the memory of me being made of that shit. How fucking sloppy is that? Where are your ethics – not to mention your basic procedural standards? Your operation is shit. Maybe you should hire some decent Chinese doctors instead of these half-wit bozos who went to Grenada for medical training.
Bill took a moment. – I’ll start a class action suit. He stood up, livid. He towered over the dumpy little men. I’m sure the ACLU will love to set their teeth in that one. What you’ve done is create at least a two-tiered system of clones that are supposedly Clone-1s. I mean, she’s supposed to be a Clone-1. She isn’t. I don’t know where she fits in. If I can’t get rid of her, through divorce or some other means, you’ll have to pay a shitload to compensate me for it. Pain and suffering. Big damages, big media exposure.
Mr. Crapshaw and Mr. La Chance conferred behind their hands. – Let’s not be hasty, the attorney said at last, I’m sure we can work something out.
Lenny Page, private investigator, met her on a park bench on a fine day with a crowd of office workers taking lunch all around them. Mr. Page was what she had expected. Short, overweight, rumpled. He wore a toupee that resembled a small animal. All he needed to complete the picture was a cigar stub stuck in the side of his mouth. He was sucking on a weed vape.
He was explaining the fine points of tailing Clone-1s. He was looking intently at her, and it made her feel creepy. He was also taking in her breasts, which were visible to the sun. She was wearing the new Minoan style of dress. Her breasts gleamed with SPF 50.
-            - Smart as you or me, not like them poor bastard 2s. So they’re slippery, like Originals. Liars, too. People get this idea clones come out truthful and all that. Bull. Shit. When they program the memories and so forth, you’re getting your old lies and delusions back. Can you trust a clone? Can you trust your Congressman? Same answer.
-- Can I ask you something? Can you usually tell a clone from an Original? I mean, up front, right away?
--This is just me talking. Yes. Yes you can. He looked her hard in the eye. He looked away. Usually. Depends on where the DNA comes from.
–What do you mean?
--There’s a saying, Earwax is not eyebone. Earwax, the shit from your eye, dandruff, toe cheese – that material gives different results from bone or muscle, or from most skin.
Her voice grew small. – How?
-- I ain’t no scientist, okay, but there’s something about cell walls and other stuff I don’t understand. Waxies don’t walk the same, look the same, and they don’t act the same. There’s something kind of dipsy-doodle about them.
-- What? She had to laugh. The man was so quirky. He smiled, adorably comical.
-- They lack precision. They seem out of focus. Sloppy, some way. Oh, sorry. He gave her a glance. I’m really out of line. He was still staring at her stunning cleavage.
She screwed up her face. – The man from Vale of Remembrance was so forceful, so sure – I am going back to them and –
--They are some hard people, ma’am. Don’t fuck wit’ em.
She took out a Kleenex and dabbed at her eyes. – Oh, what can I do, Larry?
-- Lenny. He smiled to himself.
She begged his pardon and cried. “Please, please help me.”
Lenny seemed flustered. He took out a match and chewed on it. –This waxie – I mean your husband – will expose himself before long. Don’t you worry, I’m on the job for ya. I’ll be tailing him day and night. I got me a clone too, and he ain’t no waxie. You got two for the price of one, Lenny/1 and Lenny/2. We never sleeps, that’s my tagline. Lenny paused.
-- We never sleeps. Get it? It’s tricky but…
She shrank back a little. It wasn’t the idiotic wordplay. She saw that the opportunities for treachery were multiplying. Who was she talking to now? How many more clones would step out of the shadows? More to the point, how the hell could a loser like Lenny Page afford a Clone-1? She thought, angrily, He must have shaken down a lot of confused widows and unfaithful clones.
He wiped his hand before he shook hers. She realized her hand was moist, and she wiped it on her skirt. She stared at her hand as if it didn’t belong to her.
Lenny disappeared into the lunchtime crowd.
She sat in the warm sunshine when it occurred to her that she would have Bill/2 disposed of, no matter what Lenny Page came up with.
Bill wished he’d never listened to his mother-in-law.
She flew in from the East Coast to beg him to “resurrect” her daughter. When he balked she demanded, --What’s wrong with you? Didn’t you love her?
Shrugging, he said, -- We’d been having some problems.
-- What kind of problems?
-- Compatibility. And – He reddened.
-- Money, she said. I knew it! You two were living way beyond your means. That stupid start-up of yours. I’m writing you a check for the clonation, and one for the, shall we call it the sweetener? Is this enough to save your little company?
She all but sneered at him through her veil. Only Originals were permitted to wear a veil. It was plenty, and he said so.
-- Fine. Now find me some of her DNA. Meanwhile she wrote the checks on her phone.
To his lasting regret, he took two seconds and dug an old Q-Tip of earwax from behind the toilet.
And now here he was stuck with a clinging waxie of inferior intelligence. “Fuck fuck fuck fuck!” He wished he could call a hit service or do it online without any tracing.
The only good development was that the mother died months before the Resurrection. The money was his and only his.
Bill got up and fixed himself a large Scotch and soda. Sipped, thinking of ways to get the job done.

Lenny Page got back to her in a week. Today he looked less rumpled and better put-together than he had last time. She wasn’t sure if this was the 1 or the 2 version.
-- The news ain’t so edifying, I’ll tell you that. What you suspected – true, and more. He spends a lot of time with waxie whores and beats up them up, and then he celebrates by getting drunk at all the crummiest dives in town –
-- Clone dives?
-- No. Bars where Originals go. I don’t think he’d fit in the other places.
She stared. –What are you telling me?
-- Ma’am, he may be a nasty customer, but he’s an Original. Your husband ain’t no waxie. Far from it. An Original. Lenny paused, taking a deep breath and looking away. The other thing you should know is, he’s been meeting with Vale of Remembrance to, you know, replace you. I got videos of everything. With good sound.
She grabbed the arms of the chair to hold herself upright. – I don’t understand. She did but could not believe it.  
Lenny took a deep breath and slowly went on. -- Lady…You’re the clone here, not him. You’re the one who got killed in the plane crash. You were the one who got –
-- You mean I’m the waxie? She felt as if she’d stepped through the door and jumped without a parachute. She felt like she was still falling to earth when he spoke.
-- Look, I – Lenny looked away. I knew it the first time I saw you. As if to illustrate this, he looked hard at her breasts. She was wearing another Minoan-style outfit. My hunch was right. He’s the Original. You didn’t turn out right for him. And…
-- He’s trying to get me eliminated.
Lenny reached out and took her forearm. – It don’t have to be that way. You ain’t just some Russian whore he can kill and no one will notice.
But she wasn’t listening now. She had to take time to think. Bill was the Original. She was an Unoriginal. So he was telling her. So, she thought, I’m more vulnerable to whatever anyone wants to do to me. Female clones had no hope for justice or mercy under the law. She saw where she was clearly and very coldly: Kill or be killed. She knew which she wanted to be.
She would talk with Mr. Cohen. He must know a dozen contract killers.
-            - He’s a Clone-2, but completely reliable, the lawyer was saying. They’re very loyal, you know.
-- But he’s Lenny Page!
-- Larry, not Lenny. Larry Sharpe. Very handsome and charming. Likes to garrote. Larry and Lenny were married before Larry got killed in a home invasion. Lenny was grief-stuck so he had him cloned. So Lenny’s double-dipping here. Cohen rubbed thumb and index finger together.
She had a hard time taking this in. -- Who’s ‘they’? Whose errors?
-- Our friends at Vale of Remembrance. Crapshaw and his bunch.
Windows were lit in her soul. – So, she said slowly, make it look like Crapshaw and Co. were the target, and Bill’s a blameless bystander.
Mr. Cohen smiled sunnily. She smiled back. She felt like an original self.

The next day Mr. Crapshaw himself called, saying they’d discovered an error in Bill’s cloning.
-- We want to discuss how to make it right to you. Could you come to our office at seven this evening?
She said of course. She made a phone call.
-- Mr. Cohen? She used a code they had worked out. -- Are those papers you promised me ready?
Bill found himself at Six of One, the main clone bar in town. A man had called and asked him to present himself at 6 pm. His phone vibrated.
-- Bill?
A muffled voice was on the other end of the line. Restricted number. Same voice.
Bill looked at the clone whore he was going to work over. She exclaimed, – Honey, you look Original. Buy me a drink?
The voice on the phone spoke quickly. -- Bill, consider me a friend. Your wife has a big surprise for you. Figured you hate surprises. They aren’t always so great, you know?
– What do you want?
-- Turn around and I’ll tell you.
A tall, handsome man with his own hair moved down the bar and introduced himself as Larry Page.
Mr. Crapshaw was sweating when he unlocked the door. He looked outside as he closed it. She saw that he left it unlocked.
-- Please wait here. I’ll be…
He left the reception area. She sat tensely in the waiting room. Posters of happy clones and their loved ones covered the walls. Not the same but the same she read.
A handsome man of as tall as Bill came in. He looked at her critically. – Who are you?
-- Mr. Cohen recom –
He raised a hand and went to the corner to talk on his phone. – Okay. You’re the one…
At that moment Lenny Page came in the front entrance.
-- Larry, what’s going on –-
Larry and the man she knew stopped dead. Lenny looked confused.
Bill walked in the front door, and appeared to be astonished at the gathering of characters. – I wasn’t expec –
--Get me Crapshaw, Lenny said. He seemed much harsher than the Lenny she knew; was he 1 or 2? -- If we’re out for vengeance, don’t you think we ought to start with him? I’m thinking his approach to business isn’t appropriate any more.
Larry brought Crapshaw back, frog-marching him in. -- Crapshaw, you and your clonation monkeys have fucked up way too often, Lenny/2 said. If the state regulators won’t set things right, I guess we will. Despite your stupidity, this little place is worth a cool billion. Time for a middle-management change. He leaned amiably toward Mr. Crapshaw.
-- Boss, what are you --
-- Gus, do you prefer the garrote or the ice pick? The garrote lets you feel something before you die. As long as there’s pain, you’re still alive, ness par?
While Crapshaw, drenched with sweat, considered the choice, Larry stuck the ice pick in just the right spot.
Bill said, looking at the sprawling body, -- Crapshaw really should have had a satisfaction-guaranteed policy. We wouldn’t be here otherwise.
She turned to Bill in shock. –You’re going through with it? Bill, no. Please.
Bill towered over her, whispering,  -- I’m not the one dying here tonight, baby. I’m not the waxie with the crummy programming and the oily skin.
-            - Well, don’t stand there like dummies, Lenny/2 said, piqued. I haven’t got all night.  Who paid what for the whack?
Bill piped up. – Twenty grand on her. Paid in full by Vale of Remembrance.
Lenny/1 walked in the front door like a gaping tourist. He smirked and looked at Lenny/2. -- Weren’t you going to tell me this? Where’s my cut?
-- Very funny, Lenny/2 muttered. He reached in his jacket pocket and counted out $5000 in 100s. He didn’t look pleased.
-- Larry, you went behind my back?
She certainly wasn’t feeling pleased. -- Lenny, are you going to let him get away with this? -- she demanded hotly. – I’m paying you good money!
Lenny/1 sighed, -- Oh human life has gotten way too cheap. And we work for nothing. He began to say something else, but Larry was already garroting him. Lenny/1’s eyes bulged and fixed on Lenny/2, whose eyes gleamed with pleasure.  
-- Now it’s just you and me, Larry.
Bill went up to her. – Forgive me, baby. I was freaked. It’s you and me – both of us against this fucking world.
She nodded at Larry. – Kill him. She blew a kiss at Bill. You should know better than to fuck with a clone. We’re going to take over.
Larry garroted him. She enjoyed his kicking and grunting. The bug eyes that seemed to beg for mercy. – Oh, Bill, my love.
Larry lined the three dead Originals up and posed them like the three monkeys.
-- Let’s get out of here, Larry said. Lenny/2 went to him and asked, -- What about me?
Larry sighed. – All right. You’ve done okay by me.
-- Torch the place, she said. She gazed at the dead men. – Leave no good-quality DNA behind. I don’t want to see them again.
The three Unoriginals left the office as the fire spread and destroyed the evidence. She left the male clones arguing in the street. As she walked to her car she laughed thinking that she had enough money to buy a better class of man. An Original.