The French Tickler
A Short Story by Jason Moore
Written using the suggestion "Air"
Originally featured on 03-03-2008
As part of our series "Elements of Style"

As much as we both would like it to be so, I was never a morally conflicted superhero in a Bulgarian graphic novel, or a post-modern villain you can’t help but cheer for as he spreads anarchy and malicious whimsy, clothed only in sequined gold suspenders and a backwards blue baseball cap. I definitely wasn’t a fancy pink drink with two teal umbrellas, or even a lightweight scarf popular with New Age harpists in New Mexico.

I was just The Tickler, so please expel all those other fantasies from your mind. I did, and it’s made me a much better man. I would’ve preferred to be The Rubber, The Licker or even The Blower, but The Tickler it was. Some people say I’m lucky that I ever had a nickname at all, but of course they’ve never lived with such a distinction and should probably keep their grubby little thoughts to themselves.

If you want to be technical, I should’ve been dubbed The Ticklee, but that’s too hard to say and some people are confused when I explain it that way. They think it sounds Gaelic or African, and they want me write it down or say it v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. I actually blame my sister for her tireless campaigning in support of that particular name. I despised her until rather recently, but I’ve grown a lot of late and decided to forgive her, due to her obvious lack of a moral compass that began very early in life. Maybe I just feel sorry for her now that she’s saddled with six kids at the age of 25, and a husband who can’t find a job in his chosen profession of small gun repair.

It all started when I was four.

I was morose and listless. Melancholy and morbid—if it’s possible for a four year old who hasn’t yet pondered his, or anyone else’s mortality, to be morbid. But somehow I managed it. I wasn’t blind, or deaf, and certainly could make numerous sounds, and showed no signs of lead poisoning or irritable bowl syndrome. But when I should’ve been running around playing with trucks and squeezing kittens until they hissed and scratched at my face, I distinctly remember that I just lay around, staring at the puffy white clouds that floated above the hard, green crabgrass in our pastoral California backyard. I remember spending whole afternoons in my mother’s arms, watching the breeze blow her auburn hair around her face, wondering at the mysteries contained in the wilted corners of her sunken mouth.

They performed all kinds of tests. My heart, my blood, my overactive brain. For some reason my dad even took a picture of me in the hospital, screaming and wide eyed, my tongue sticking straight out. I had short, chubby, pale legs, and the photo captured them shooting out of my red overalls, in ten different directions. My high cheekbones and red lips were prominent even at that young age, and they’re still my best features, thank you.

The tests all came back pretty normal, “But there was just something a little off,” as my mother tells it after a few sherrys. She’s usually also blowing her cigarette smoke hard and high into the air when she recounts that part, apparently trying to scare off a cloud of gnats hovering above her.

One night, after a day of fruitless testing in the county hospital at Solvang, we were driving through the dusty hills toward our house in our country subdivision. She held me in her arms and cried while she sang along to the chorus of Elton John’s Bennie and the Jets, as it drifted out of our AM radio speakers. I was crying and she just couldn’t take it anymore, so she gave me a few tickles. The bottom of my feet, my armpits, my Buddha belly. It seems improbable that she hadn’t been tickling me all along, but she reports that she stopped the tickling when the symptoms first began, because the doctor told her to keep me as quiet as possible, for fear it was my heart. I laughed and giggled so much, and we were both enjoying it so fully, she kept it going for the whole 20-minute drive home. She says I perked up, then fell fast asleep, with a smile on my face for the first time in months.

As you might think, I mention this incident because it was my cure. She started tickling me everyday for 20 minutes or so, and all the symptoms melted away, like pounds off a pill-popping dieter. The doctor’s were perplexed, and figured it must just be a coincidence, so she stopped for a few days. The symptoms returned, so she resumed the finger games, and I was whole again. And since my mother was always one to ascribe meaning to anything, the whole family swore off Western medicine for good, artificial hearts and acne creams and vaccines and everything, and we went back to my daily tickling.

My treatments were easy enough to administer for most of my early childhood. At first, my mother would do it every day for 20 minutes or so. But when I turned 12 I went through that awkward self-aware Oedipal stage, and I couldn’t let her do it anymore. They hired Florence, my mom’s old French teacher, to carry on the tickling tradition. She was a portly, 60-year old woman with thinning gray hair and a kind smile. She seemed to always be sucking on some kind of hard, yellow candy.

I’d be out playing football in the street with the guys, then have to stop and go inside and let Florence do her thing. I hated it at first, having to meet her in my room every afternoon, letting her touch my feet. It was the only spot that was still ticklish, and occasionally, she had to even blow on them to get the juices flowing. She’d usually wash them with a warm washcloth to begin, then hum or tell me fairly tales in French as she worked. I caught a few words here and there, and started enjoying the opportunity to learn important French words, like boy, rainbow, werewolf and disgusting.

My mom told me to pretend she was my tutor, but the rouse was exposed when some French-Canadian kids tested me with basic phrases like “Ou et le chien?”, and I answered in French with, “My donkey, werewolf rainbow in Tuesday.”

It got worse when I turned 13 — practically a grown man. It was a hot summer day and I was wearing only some thin nylon shorts and a UCLA Bruins tank top. I wasn’t sweaty from playing football like usual, but instead had opened my pores with intense study of every page of the tattered copy of Jugs magazine I’d won in a poker game from my neighbor. Florence arrived, and for the first time I thought about her as a real woman. She was only 60 after all, and could easily be called full figured. She had generous breasts that seemed to almost wrap around to her back, and good birthing hips. I thought she could have easily been featured in the senior version of Jugs. She really didn’t look that different from the naked women posing on all fours I’d been studying with so much veracity, just a few minutes before.

When she started to caress my foot and blow on it I sighed, arched my foot, and spread my legs ever so slightly. My soon-to-be manliness was instantly at attention, and as she continued to tickle I closed my eyes and lay back on the bed. I let my 13-year old mind wander back to page 32 of Jugs, that issue’s featured Amateur Honey, and imagined what Florence looked like when she was my age. How many times had she engaged in erotic tickling in her youth? As I delved deeper into my fantasy, the beast soon realized I was no longer in control. He popped out of the bottom of my shorts like a wild animal, eager for the thrill of the hunt.

Florence shrieked. She grabbed it, held it straight up, then slapped it and said something in French. I sat up, and our eyes met. For a brief instant I was sure I detected lust, concealed somewhere behind those thick horned-rim glasses. But even if it was there, it faded quickly, and she shook her head and wagged her finger at me. I suddenly felt like I was two-years old and she’d just caught me peeing in her flower bed, ruining her prized roses. I lay back down, too embarrassed to move.

She said quite a bit in French as she walked out, but I only caught “boy” and “disgusting.” I put the dejected beast back in his lair and stared at the ceiling, where I’d hung my Magic Johnson poster.

I could hear Florence and my mom speaking French in hushed tones, then a little nervous laughter. The screen door creaked open, and I heard the crackle of gravel as Florence drove away.

I was too nervous to move when my mom finally came in. I was still staring at Magic Johnson, noting his skimpy nylon shorts and wondering if he’d ever had the same problem when getting a rub down after beating up on Larry Bird and the Celtics.

“Well, this is just great. I don’t know if Florence will even come back here again. Why couldn’t you control yourself?” I rolled on my side and stared at the wall. “You can just go without tickling for a few days, and then I guess I’ll have to do it again.”

Despite my shame, I felt fine the next day. I tried to tickle myself a bit, but it’s been scientifically proven to be impossible, and I just felt silly anyway. Every day my mom asked how I felt, and every day I was fine. The days turned into weeks and the weeks into years, and I no longer require any tickling, French or otherwise, and it’s made me a much better man.

Read More By Jason Moore

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