by Jeremy C. Shipp
You don’t have to enjoy watching while Gerald masturbates onto his first cousin, or Nadine carefully chokes herself with an antique bonnet, or Carter craps into an urn that he stores under the kitchen sink. You just have to pretend. You have to sit back, sniff the cinnamon stick that you keep hidden in your glove, and give them what they want.
“What’s the knife for, Felix?” I say.
He paces back and forth, and I try to focus on the sound of his boots smacking the wooden floor, instead of the blood dribbling down his chin and the bite marks covering his arms.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Felix says. “You know I’m gentle as a fly.”
“You mean you wouldn’t hurt a fly,” I say.
“Whatever. I’ll pay you two thousand if you watch me do this.” He puts his hand on top of his dresser, next to a brick. “I won’t pass out. I’ll drive myself to the hospital. Seriously. Please.”
“You know I can’t,” I say. “Janette would fire me if she knew—”
“Don’t tell her. We’ll keep this between you and me.”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“We’ll make it work.”
“You know what you are, Sebastian?” He points the knife at my face. “You’re a fucking tease!”
This isn’t supposed to happen. I sniff my glove.
Felix glances at his weapon and says, “Sorry.” He lowers the knife so fast, he loses his grip. I’m afraid the blade will bounce against the floor and find its way to my face or heart, but it doesn’t. It only lays there.
“I would never hurt anybody,” Felix says. “You know that.”
“I know,” I say. I pretend.
He kneels and cradles the knife in both hands. He looks like he might start crying. “You think I’m disgusting.”
“No, Felix,” I say. “If it were up to me, I’d stay here and watch. I want to see you do it. Really.”
And so do I.
Janette searches my face, and I try to focus on the statues standing on the shelf behind her. There’s the Amazon with her missing right breast. Janette once told me that these mythological women sometimes cut off their breasts so they could improve their bow shooting. She also told me that the Ancient Greeks believed that women needed to be tamed by their fathers and husbands, otherwise they would all be wild whores. She said that it’s this sort of taming that brings new working girls to her doorstep year after year.
“Felix showed up at the ER an hour after your session ended,” Janette says. “With a missing finger.”
“Damn it,” I say. I’m impressed that Janette procured this information so quickly, but not surprised. She has contacts everywhere, most willing to spill their guts for a discount. “I can’t believe he really did it.”
She stares at me for a while longer.
Next to the Amazon rests the Siren, with her angel wings and her duck feet. The Ancient Greeks believed that men and men alone had the power to tame their sexual urges. Only they could protect their families from the siren-like powers of other women.
“I reviewed your session with Felix,” Janette says, and taps the digital voice recorder on her desk. “You both are excellent actors.”
“I wasn’t acting,” I say.
“When Felix gets upset, he stumbles with his words, and he wasn’t stumbling. Everything else was believable enough though. Good job.”
“It wasn’t an act, Janette.”
“The fact that you kept a substantial payoff from me hurts, but I don’t really care about the money. What really upsets me is that you’re willing to endanger my entire operation for a few extra bucks. I test your blood and I know you’re not a drug addict, Sebastian. What do you need the cash for?”
I search the room for answers, but there aren’t any. “Nothing.”
This time she looks at me like she’s sorry for me.
Beside the Siren there’s Baubo, with breasts for eyes and a vulva for a mouth. She once cheered up a goddess by flashing her. Janette told me that this wasn’t a sexual thing. Baubo revealed the power of fertility that exists in all women. The Ancient Greeks believed that women were dirty inside and could pollute the world around them by menstruating and giving birth. Baubo didn’t keep her power hidden, so the Ancient Greeks made her into a mutant.
“Did you eat it?” Janette asks.
“What?” I say.
“Of course not. Who do you think I am?” I stop looking past her, and meet her gaze.
“I believe you,” she says. “The problem is that I’m not narcissistic enough to assume I can’t be tricked. I need to make sure I know what you’re capable of.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“First of all, let me smell your breath.”
I stand and lean over and breathe onto her face.
“I don’t smell vomit,” she says. “Or anything that might be used to cover up the smell of vomit. If you did eat it, it’s still inside you.”
“I watched him cut it off. I didn’t eat it.”
“It’s only been a few hours, so you’d probably still have some finger in your stomach.” She reaches under her desk and brings up a bucket, which she hands to me. “I’m going to need you to throw up. Then I’ll send it off to the lab, and see if you’re telling me the truth.”
“I don’t think I can vomit on command.”
“Stick your finger down your throat.”
“I tried that once and it didn’t work.”
She pulls a bottle of ipecac out of her drawer, just like I knew she would.
Soon I heave so hard I’m afraid my eyes will pop out, but they don’t.
“Now go dump that in the toilet,” she says.
“I thought you wanted to test it.”
“I’ve tested you enough.”
When I return with the bucket, she says, “I know I said I don’t care about the money, but you’re going to give me five thousand for this betrayal and the others I never found out about.”
I only made three thousand from Felix. Still, this is fair. I nod to her.
She hands me a piece of orange paper with ‘Valerie Trum’ written on the top. “You have an all-nighter. Tonight at seven.”
“I can’t work tonight,” I say. “I have a date.”
“You have a date with Valerie Trum.”
Janette may seem like a level-headed businesswoman, but she’s actually a human being. Underneath her pinstriped suit there are scars on her wrists. She showed them to me during my first job interview with her, and scrutinized my reaction.
Now she’s giving me that same look.
“I shouldn’t have betrayed you,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
She smiles a little. “Tonight at seven.”
I turn on the voice recorder and say, “I hope you’re happy,” before knocking on the door of Valerie Trum’s two-story cookie-cutter house. I’m not surprised she lives here. This place may look the same as every other home around, with only slits of yard between them, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to enter a new world and see things I’ve never imagined.
What does surprise me is the smile I’m greeted with. The warmth.
“Sebastian,” she says, and holds out her hand.
“I like your gloves,” she says. “They look homemade.”
“They are,” I say, holding them out for some reason.
“I’m guessing you’re a cold person. Not…cold-hearted. I mean you feel cold easily. My girlfriend was a hot person. Before she died.”
That’s why I’m here, I’m guessing. Grief.
“It tends to get cold in here at night,” she says. “Feel free to turn up the heat. The thermostat’s over there in the hall.”
“I’m sorry about your girlfriend,” I say.
“Thanks. I’ll show you where I want you.”
So I follow her into a bedroom upstairs. A guestroom, by the looks of it. The only thing that really catches my eye is a quilt-covered column in the corner.
“Sit there,” she says, pointing.
I sit on the comfy-looking chair facing the column. It is comfy.
“There’s leftover pizza in the fridge if you get hungry,” she says. “You can take off the pepperoni if you’re a vegetarian. Or Jewish. Or don’t like pepperoni.”
She walks over to the column, and slides off the quilt. She reveals an antique iron birdcage. Or maybe it’s not an antique. Maybe it’s just old.
An ugly orange bird sits on the perch in the cage. No, that’s a doll. A rag doll.
What Valerie’s going to do with this cage and doll, or to this cage and doll, I don’t know., but I’m prepared.
I sniff my glove. Vanilla.
“Whenever you’re ready,” I say.
She smiles at me. “I’m going to sleep at my cousin’s for the night. I’ll be back in the morning to pay you.”
I almost give her a funny look, but stop myself. Instead, I nod. “What is it you want me to do exactly?”
“Watch the doll.”
“Am I looking for something specific?”
“I can’t tell you. Well, I could, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to influence what you see by telling you anything beforehand. Anyway, if you want to drink something besides water, there’s orange juice in the fridge. There might be some apple juice left.”
She shakes my hand again, and leaves.
Time doesn’t really fly when you’re stuck babysitting an inanimate object, but things could be worse. You could lack an imagination or have ADD. You could be one of those people who finds himself haunted by his demons when faced with solitude.
I could try to sneak out and manipulate the audio recording, but Janette would find out. Plus, anytime I look away from the doll for too long, I feel guilty.
Better to just make the best of a ridiculous situation.
It’s eight o’clock, and Snow’s off work. I’ll call her.
“I’m not going to be able to make it tonight,” I say. “I got called into work.”
“Shit,” she says. “When does it start?”
“I’m here right now actually. It’s OK that I’m talking with you though. My client’s gone.”
“Why’s he gone?”
“She. It doesn’t really matter. I’d invite you over, but it’s against the rules.”
“I know you know. I wanted to say it anyway.”
“Can we have a phone date instead?”
“Yeah. Let me drive home first. I don’t have one of those handless phone sets and I don’t want to drive with one hand in the crap-mobile.”
We say goodbye, and I’m alone with the doll again.
My heart beats fast and I don’t feel cold at all. Even after all this time, Snow still makes me feel nervous and excited.
The first time I met Snow, the nervousness I felt wasn’t so heavenly. She was one of my first clients, and I remember the way she touched my arm, comforting me. Even though I was there to comfort her.
She told me how thankful she was that her parents hadn’t mutilated her body as a baby. But she was afraid. She hadn’t told any of her friends that she was an intersexual. And she’d never shown her naked adult body to anyone but her doctor.
Then she showed me.
I didn’t have to look past her large clitoris and pretend that she was beautiful. She was. Is. Mind, body, heart and soul.
I glance at my wrist, but I left my watch at home. No matter. Fifteen minutes until she calls. In the meantime, I can entertain myself by clicking my teeth together in time to the music in my head.
Click click click…
Click click click…
I hate this song.
Click click click…
The doll lifts her arm. Slowly, trembling.
Instantly, I know that Valerie Trum is a cruel woman who’s trying to scare me.
Instantly, I’m clutching the chair, holding my breath.
The doll waves at me.
One of my hands relaxes, as if I’m going to release the arm rest and wave back. I sniff my glove instead.
The moment her arm drops, I stand. I try to focus on the chill slithering up and down my neck, but it’s not enough.
I step forward and don’t see any strings.
I reach inside the cage through the bars, because I don’t have the key to the lock on the door.
She has to be mechanized. I need to touch her to find out.
I wrap my gloved hand around her and squeeze.
Nothing but fluff.
When I release her, she falls off the perch. I’m afraid she’s going to jump back up and lunge for my face, but she only lays there.
I scream a little when the phone rings.
We greet each other with the usual routine, then move on.
“So you’re just sitting around staring at the wall?” Snow says, laughing.
I wince. “Not exactly. Snow, I’m not…doing very well right now.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean…I think I’m losing it. My mind, I guess.”
“Do you want to tell me about it?”
I shake my head, though I know she can’t see that.
Snow reveals everything. My clients reveal everything. But me, I like to hide. It’s a good thing Snow doesn’t hate cowards.
“I don’t think you’re losing your mind,” she says. “I think you’re starting to deal with something that you haven’t dealt with yet.”
She’s right. Before I can stop them, the words claw their way out of me. “I watched my client eat his own finger.”
Silence. Then, “Why did you do that?”
“Because he paid me to.”
She’s silent again, and I can’t hear anything else. “You have more than enough money,” she says. “There’s another reason.”
I search the room. I even search the doll’s black button eyes. Nothing.
“Jesus, Sebastian. Are you really such a stranger to yourself? You watched him eat his finger because you’re a caring person. You didn’t want him to feel ashamed anymore.”
“I don’t think that’s true. I don’t care about my clients. You’re the only one—”
I don’t say anything for way too long.
“Call me back when you’re ready to talk again,” she says.
We end the conversation with the usual routine, then move on.
For me, that means watching the doll until I’m convinced that I didn’t see what I saw.
I hear footsteps. Valerie Trum must be back to see how shook up I am because of her little trick. She’ll probably laugh. She might even explain to me how she did it if I smile enough.
But no, the young woman who enters isn’t Valerie Trum.
She sits on the floor, holding a bottle in her hands. She looks like she might start crying.
“Hello?” I say. “I’m a friend of Valerie.”
She unscrews the top, and dumps a heap of blue pills onto the floor.
Now she does start crying.
No, that’s not her.
The sound’s coming from under the bed.
I step closer to the young woman. “Are you alright?”
A head slides out from under the bed and the crying consumes the room. Her body continues to wriggle across the floor until she’s lying right beside me. The middle-aged woman runs a razor blade down the middle of her face.
The young sitting woman swallows the pills, handful after handful.
“Stop!” I say.
Watching isn’t enough. I need to do something.
I reach down to grab the young woman’s arm, and then I’m remembering a pink bedroom and a man named Uncle Daniel and—
I race for the door. It closes. Fast.
As soon as I turn around, another woman vomits on the floor right by my feet. I step over the mess, and face the wall. The orange sheet of paper in my pocket soon gives me Valerie Trum’s cell phone number, and I call.
“What’s going on here?” I say.
“You don’t have to talk so loud,” she says.
“What’s going on here, Valerie?” I say, even louder.
“I honestly don’t know,” she says. “All I know is that she wanted a man. I hope you survive. You seem like a nice enough guy.” With that, she hangs up. By the time I think of calling Snow, I’ve already thrown my phone against the wall and broken the damn thing in two.
The room roars with the chaos of women squirming, struggling, crying.
Cutting themselves, killing themselves.
Again and again and again.
The window slips open, and a flock of magazines fly inside. They cover the floor. They cover the walls. Maybe the ceiling, but I don’t look up. They show me models and actresses and they’re all screaming, tearing at their pages with bloody fingers. Trapped.
The women in the room don’t stop suffering. No matter the fierceness of my commands. No matter how much they die.
Every time one of them passes through me, I feel them inside. Mind, body, heart and soul. I scramble around, jumping and spinning, trying to keep from being touched. From being violated. But it doesn’t do any good.
I remember the animals I saw in the popcorn ceiling above my bed and wishing that they would come alive and save me or eat me, and I remember how it felt when he ravaged my hymen and called me his sweet princess, and I remember the agony I felt every time my husband used me because they circumcised me as a baby, and I remember more and more until I collapse.
Everyone bends and funnels into the bird cage.
I try to stand, and by the third try I get to my feet.
I approach the cage.
The rag doll’s standing on the perch, arms at her sides. She’s trembling, and I’m sure this has nothing to do with weakness.
She’s giving me that look.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
She shudders even more. Obviously she’s not looking for an apology.
I consider walking away right now and spending the rest of my life trying to forget this ever happened. But the truth is, Snow was right. I do care about my clients.
This world, this system we live in, it doesn’t treat my clients very well, and watching isn’t enough.
Even after what this doll put me through, I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. She does. She’s charged with the energy of pain that I see oozing out my clients every day, in their blood, their semen, their shit.
The doll’s charged up, and I think she’s willing to do something about it.
If she’s going to assassinate those who abuse power or lead a peaceful revolution, I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter. She can’t sit back and watch these tragedies go on anymore. Anyway, the lock’s already disappeared.
I open the cage.