The Least I Could Do
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Moe"
Originally featured on 04-30-2008
As part of our series "Three For Violence (Violent Threesomes)"

Whatever sets you free, man. Whatever sets you free. Way to sum it up, Mister ambiguous hippy archetype. It’s the only dream I recall, so I guess I ought to examine it. Then again, you don’t dream when you’re in the machine—it’s like a deep coma. When they woke me up, they must have done it slowly enough for me to squeeze in an REM cycle or two, meaning I remember the freedom guy with the deer-skin drum sitting cross-legged on the soccer field in the middle of the blazing forest fire. In all likelihood, that’s the only dream I’ve had in two and a half years. I volunteered for an indefinite period, expecting it would be anywhere between eight months and five years. Apparently I was right on the money.

“Mr. Mosely.” Before it was scrambled pinpricks of air knocking at my throat. Now I hear my name. Would I have recognized sound otherwise? I don’t know.

I’d prefer to remain in the dream a little longer. Was I catching my breath after a friendly game of soccer, or was I just placed on an abandoned soccer field? Only Mr. Calm knows for sure. That’s what I call him, the man with the drum. His voice is deep and saturates the field with a moist wind isolating it from the constant flame. I can’t see the sky.

“Mr. Mosely.” Yes, I’m almost positive that is my name. My name is me.

The bar I work at had just enacted a new policy in compliance with the Common Courtesy Act, and in defiance, three employees abruptly quit their jobs, leaving me to cover their consecutive shifts. It’s now illegal to serve alcohol to an unemployed person—yeah, I don’t blame them for quitting. I was at the recieving end of a lot of grief from my customers, especially the regulars that day, and it was during the fifteenth hour of my amalgamated shift that I was called a spineless bastard. That was the moment I decided that I would do this. That was, what, two weeks ago? Two and a half years ago, to be technically exact.

Since then, one dream only.

Mr. Calm has long hair that vibrates, but not so much vibrates as, purrs. It’s his drum’s rhythm that’s retarding the flames, because it sounds like trickling waterfalls and his hands are the water and he’ll never stop playing just as I can never really see his face. When I look at his face, I can only feel what he feels.

I must have posed a question to Mr. Calm to prompt his reply, or maybe I made a statement, something rambling. Or maybe I just stood before him. I can’t possibly know; I’m only the dreamer. Mr. Calm knows. Where is this soccer field? Whatever sets you free. Why is everything burning? Whatever sets you free, man. How did we get here, and are we the only ones? Whatever sets you. Sets you. Sets. You. Sets. Sets. Sets you. free.

Free.

The word thwacks and stretches like a string.

“Mr. Mosely?”

A soft blue light rips my eyelids open and cauterizes. My eyes clench and swallow a billowing red yellow fireball of fizziness.

Slowly, I become myself.

“Please, just call me Moe.”

They ask me a series of questions; where I grew up, my birthday, who the current president is, the square root of one hundred and twenty one. Upon their satisfaction that I have sustained no adverse effects to the thaw, I’m issued a gown and slippers and am transported in a wheelchair to the gymnasium where snacks are served. By tomorrow I’ll be able to walk without feeling dizzy, and I’ll return home to Linda with an American flag button pinned to my denim vest that reads I SAVED AMERICA.

 

Linda stands in the doorway, her mouth level. She looks older. I look the same, obviously, but the same must look a whole lot different in such circumstances. I don’t know. But I do know exactly what she should say; absolutely nothing. We should stand in the doorway as we are doing. Like cats. Soon we will embrace and let our skin do what it needs to do, which is that mine will attempt to tuck itself into whatever empty space it finds on the surface of her body and hide there. The embrace may span hours of time, but those first moments are the most crucial, the ones where we’re just standing in the doorway. I will not prematurely inquire what she’s been up to these two and a half years. It’s immaterial to phase one of reuniting with loved ones—it even mentions that in the Reintegration Tidbit page in the instructional booklet they issue on recycled paper.

I’ve been doing as close to nothing as human flesh can do—aided by technology—and that is why I wear a button declaring my heroism, which is most likely good for a free beer at any bar in town. I do not know yet how she feels about this.

 

At the time that advances in cryogenics made the temporary freezing of the human body—and suspension of its life—a safe and available option, America was at the onset of a depression. By the time further advances made cryogenics affordable, the depression was at its peak. Population rates were unprecedented. Farms throughout the midwestern states were ravaged by a series of storms. Oil was rationed. Communities were getting denser and space was a commodity. It general it could be said that resources were dwindling. It was when lakes started to dry up that cryogenics presented itself as the country’s last hope. If enough people volunteer to literally sleep and wait it out, the workforce will have the opportunity to generate the crops to replenish society with its basic needs and start anew.

Linda was outraged the day I came home from work—a particularly slow day as far as tips go—and told her that I was considering the freeze. Her reaction was on account of the fact that I only mention I’m considering something when I’ve already decided that I’m doing it. If she knew me any less well than she did, she would have dissipated at least half of her fury in a concerted effort to talk me out of it. Linda knew better.

Incidentally, I was tired; working two jobs and then coming home and reading the newspaper was exhausting, and sleep sounded irresistible. Not to mention the tax write off, the lifetime of job security and the university scholarship for my kids, should I choose to beget any.

Linda was not impressed. If you were giving blood, I’d say you're confusedly buying into the media version of what’s charitable, but follow the herd if you must, damn it I expect more from you, but wear that retarded sticker to work and tell yourself you saved a life, I'll still be there in the morning. Now the president goes on TV and tells you to spend the next few years anesthetized in a box and poof, off you go. You’d drink a gallon of rat poop before you’d actually confront anything for real. Since when do you care about global issues, anyway? I’d say this is just a way out. A way out of what, I’m not sure.

I wasn’t sure either. Mr. Calm probably knows.

 

Anew looks surprisingly not so much different than my neighborhood looked on my last day of consciousness.

Linda starts talking. I need to step outside for a minute.

“Wait, before you go outside, there are a few new laws you should know about.”

“What, you mean like dress codes? Curfews?”

“You can get fined up to seventy-four dollars for having an erection in public.”

“And that concerns me because…?”

“I’m serious.”

“So the country got seized by bat-shit feminists while I was sleeping on ice?"

"Actually, you weren’t anywhere near ice. You were hanging out in a tank of liquid nitrogen with anti-freeze pumped through you."

"Okay, don’t remind me."

"Don’t remind you? You're not the one who spent two years waking up alone, waiting."

"Two years and seven months."

"For you it must be like you just saw me yesterday. What does that feel like?"

"Can we talk about my feelings later? I want to hear about this anti-hard-on business."

"You haven’t asked me anything. About me, I mean."

"Well, I can see that you haven’t sold the house, but you replaced that ugly oak dining table and you painted the living room, you lost a few pounds and your hair’s shorter. If you have any big news, I’d rather it wait till after this headache wears off. Say, how 'bout Chinese food?" My vision collapses and re-inflates like a lung. Linda looks like she’s about to cry, or maybe she’s about to harden into a calcified shell of herself so that I can’t see her cry. "What’s wrong?"

"This is just-" Her arms flap around in a crash landing onto her lap. This gesture relieves me. "A little too weird, I don’t know. I mean, you spend a month apart from someone and you feel like you're going to explode from the weight of all the little things you want to tell them. I don’t mean like important things, I mean all the stupid little things that make you laugh. Then your brain starts playing tricks and you see them all over town—a stranger in the shadow, or, say, you pass a car on the freeway and you're totally completely sure that it’s your honey. When it gets really bad, you'll feel their hand on your shoulder, or grabbing you around the waist, then you realize there’s nothing there. It’s like that for the first few months. But your mind can’t bear it forever, so you start to let them slide, then you just feel numb for a while. For several weeks it’s like you're only half awake. But you can’t be like that forever either, so eventually you just, I don’t know how else to put it, you move on. You try not to think about him, but when you do, it’s like thinking about a dream. You remember them in perfect detail, like you're remembering a character in a book. The feeling gets so strong you start to wonder if you ever did meet them in person. You start to wonder…" Linda shivers and I shiver too. I wonder why she’s speaking in the second person. "And once you doubt yourself, once you open that door, you get scared. Being alone, it’s…like when you're a little kid and you jump into bed because you don’t know what’s under it or what’s in the closet- I’m not, I mean, don’t think I’m- there’s no other man in my life. I didn’t want you think that that’s what I’m about to tell you."

"I’d understand if there was."

"That’s very heroic of you to say, mister American hero." She pokes the button on my chest a few times too many. "Of course you wouldn’t. You don’t understand one bit of what I’ve…Anyway, so you revert back this cowering little child, then you look at yourself in the mirror and say fuck, I need to get a grip. So you start working long hours, doing whatever it takes to feel like a person. Then after a while things take on a new kind of normalcy, and it’s fine, everything’s good. You make new friends, you get a gym membership, you take up crocheting. Then suddenly, there it is; you're walking down the street, it’s raining lightly, you're thinking about nothing, and it’s right there; all those months of not thinking about you just sort of pour on top of you like concrete. I was sobbing so hard I started choking, on the street. Then the pain comes back, but in a dosage you can handle, so it sticks with you, like a new friend. It’s your best friend, because it knows you better than Cheryl or Candy, or even Cameron. It would have been a lot easier if you’d died in some horrible freak accident. It’s the waiting… I started picturing how it would be when you came back, what it would be like seeing you for the first time, what I’d say to you, what you’d look like. It becomes an obsession. Well, obviously. Then, after all that, I think to myself, wait a minute, he’s just asleep in a stupid metal tank. It made me angry."

"At me?"

She punches the American flag button, knocking a little bit of wind out of me. My forehead lurches after that lost wind but can’t find it.

"Yes, I got rather pissed off at you. Then I was just sad. Then I get the phone call from the Least-I-Could-Do Cryonics Foundation, pleased to inform me that the United States government no longer requires the service of its brave volunteers, and that I will be reunited with my…with you-" She rests a hand on my stomach. What, does she think I’m a wall? "-in days. Then there you at the door wearing jeans. Seeing you there, it just, it didn’t even make sense. I don’t know."

The company that orchestrated the nation-wide Sleep For America movement had chosen the slogan Least I Could Do to appeal to a playfully ironic sense of wit; a person in fluidic storage eats less, buys less merchandise, produces less material waste, pees and poops less, and exerts the least possible amount of strain on society.

"I had to do it. You do know that. Don’t you?" I’m mad at myself even as I say it; I could have found a better thing to say, and if not, I at least could have found a better way of saying that.

"I should be wearing that damned button. I did all the work."

"Linda?"

She looks at me like she’s still huddled on that bed in an air-tight frenzy of loneliness and resentment, watching for boogeymen in the closet and waiting for me. She is still waiting for me.

"Would you get me a washcloth soaked in luke warm?"

She squeezes my hand and in the process a smile seeps out of her lips and drips onto the couch cushion. The next time I open my eyes, we’re lying in bed in tangles of limbs that are not quite comfortable, but necessary, somehow.

"Tell me again about this prohibition of- y'know. Does the court’s definition of illegal bodily shape mutations include morning-wood? Or is morning-wood protected under the civil amendment-"

"That depends; if you're homeless, your morning would take place on a public sidewalk, now wouldn’t it?"

"What if you're on your own property, but you're highly visible, like if you're having a barbecue in your backyard and after a few six-packs one of your buddies gets the idea to set up a projector and watch porn on the roof?"

Linda gives me the warning look. "Do you think you'll be able to adapt to modern times, or should I clear out some room for you in the freezer, behind the burritos, and wake you up when the messiah comes?" My eyelid perks up. "No, you are not eating a burrito. Not in this bed."

"I suppose, with a lot of effort, I can graduate from the perils of junior high school and keep my garage door under control when I’m standing on the grocery line, but should the shopper in front of me happen to produce from his or her cart a potato that uncannily bears the shape of a well endowed female figure, I’ll be sure to close my eyes and promptly call to mind the image of month-old raw hamburger meat under a microscope.”

“Garage door?”

“Whatever.”

"You know that part of your brain that used to make you really witty and eloquent?"

"This part?" I point to an arbitrary location on my bald scalp (the procedure requires all volunteers to shave their heads within four hours of Phase One Sedation).

"Yeah, I don’t think that’s quite thawed out yet."

I try and think of a snappy retort. Figure she might be right.

"You like it when I make fun of you. Y'know, in case you forgot? Just telling you."

“Back to my garage door, Pez dispenser, choose your non sequitur.”

“It’s called erections, and I only brought it up to tell you that they’re illegal. What’s so funny?”

“Brought it u- nothing, nothing.”

“Why is this funny to you? It’s just a new regulation under the Common Courtesy Act. You turn off your cell phone in a movie theater, don’t you?”

“Sure.”

“You tip at a restaurant, right?”

“Twenty-three cents to the dollar.”

“And if you’re walking your dog and the dog does its business on a public-”

“Hold on, you’re trying to tell me-”

“Well don’t get all hung up on. I’m just catching you up to speed so you don’t go out there looking like a doofus who just stumbled out of a time capsule. Jeezy Mcpheezy, I can’t even talk to you. Everything’s a big conundrum and you got to poke your fingernail into it, peel it like an orange, taste all the little wedges, scramble it up and then super-glue it back together with your precious opinions, like Frankenstein or something.”

“Okay, then, without exhausting the subject, can I ask why there’s a law banning the involuntary stimulation of male-”

“What, you want me to quote you a Supreme Court case? Oh, yeah, that was Horny McHorndog verses the state of Louisiana—how the heck should I know? It just is.”

“Okay, fair enough, but how exactly does the law handle it? Handle it…-um, sorry. Say, for instance, a person calls nine-one-one to report a gentleman standing at a bus stop with a bulge in his pants. By the time the cops arrive, provided that his location is still trackable, there’s a good chance he’ll have lost his… Does the reporting party have to provide proof of arousal?”

“Are you out of your mind? Even three years ago, police had more important things to do than bust boners. It’s not like that. If I catch a stranger with an unauthorized swell, it’s my duty as a citizen to approach him myself, and he pays me in cash, apologizes for having offended me and goes on his way. And it’s never as obvious as a bulge in the pants - men have developed a little bit more tact than that, since you’ve been asleep, my dear. But a woman can always tell. It’s the greasy shine in his cheeks, the way he avoids eye contact, the way he walks a tiny bit slower and bent at the waist because his center of balance changes with the weigh of all that compressed blood that could be spin-cycling in his brain to advance science and technology or contemplate the infinite nature of the divine, if it weren’t pooling down there in the gutter.”

“Calm down.”

“Then there’s those stupid tricks guys use to conceal it, the hands-in the pocket thing, the newspaper on the lap- anybody idiotic enough to think those actually work deserves the seventy-four dollar fine.”

“Okay, but, what if you challenge him and your accusation happens to be false? If he claims innocence and you call his bluff, do you then have to step into an alleyway-”

“Come on. First of all, most men can deflate themselves in less time than it takes to unzip their pants. You ever played that card game B.S. when you were a kid?”

“That’s how our legal system is modeled these days?”

“Not exactly. I see what you mean, though. I suppose the system would have to have checks and balances, or it could become like the Witch Trials. The boner trials. If I was in a bad mood, or if I just really needed seventy bucks- no, what am I saying. After thousands of years of male oppression, it’s about goddamned time. It’s strange to think that hard-ons were ever legal.”

“So this really is a law?"

“What do you think?”

“Well, if you really want to know, I think I owe you seventy-four dollars right now.”

“You’re cute.” Linda ruffles my hair.

“No I’m not. I’m awake, is all.”

“What did you dream about?”

Remembering sends a tiny missile of heat to the center of my forehead. It feels like steel gears balking. "I’d tell you, but I’m afraid I’d lose the images in the process of trying to tell you."

"I stayed awake and worked for three years to maintain a mortgage and an empty bed, and you won’t even tell me your dreams? You're mean."

"There was a fire. It was like the whole world was on fire, except for… I can’t describe it. It was like I was looking for something, a way out or, or, something. And this guy tried to tell me how to find it, but he was speaking in riddles, and he didn’t say much at all. But the fact that he was there was kind of the answer- see? I told you, it doesn’t make any sense when I try to tell it. That’s how my dreams are. They change if I don’t write them down or tell someone; if you asked me about it yesterday, I’d probably remember it totally differently."

"Well, I told you what I did while you were asleep, I just thought maybe you could tell me something of what you did while I was awake."

"You mean, while the world went and made boners a crime? Well, I was thinking I’d wake up and things would be different. The creative approach; just step back and let things evolve. The least, like they say."

"The passive approach, huh? Think you can just sleep through our relationship and make it better. My hero."

"Before we change the subject, what’s your legislation on hard-ons?"

"You need a valid permit. And it has to be renewed every two years."

"How do I renew it?"

"By sticking around, you jackass."

"So…think I can get my old job back?"

"If you wear that button, they don’t have a right to deny you. I’m amazed that you’d want to."

"I was kidding."

My plan starts with filling out applications to graduate schools. Institutions have a tendency of not telling you no when they see a long span of unconsciousness on your resume.

"What exactly is your plan, Moe?"

By the look on her face and her posture on the bed, she is still waiting for me to come home. As I form a response, she looks in my direction and sees me approach.

I close my eyes and imagine that I feel heat on my back. My wrists loosen and sway.

There are no spineless bastards in this room. I open my eyes and climb onto the bed and take her. Then I answer her question, in the same way that Mr. Calm answers my every question. All I need to do now is remember what the question was.

We get dressed.

"Hey. You're not tired, are ya?"

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

E. S. Poop
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Tattoo"
Originally featured on 05-30-2008
As part of our series "Three For Violence (Violent Threesomes)"

Nancy was not impressed.

“I’m not foolin, I have telekinesis.”

“Henry, you dropped out of the tenth grade, why do you know what that word means?”

“Because I can see things other people can’t.”

“Oh, can you? Like what?”

“Well I don’t want to explain it to you if you're just going to belittle me.”

“Henry.” She placed a hand on his shoulder, pressing lightly and uniformly with all fingers as though smoothing the surface of him so she could plant something later. Nancy liked to garden. “Would I ever belittle you?”

Henry was a game warden and Nancy worked for parks and recreation, mostly as an educator. Henry had been smitten with her when they met six years ago, back when she was married to Joe Buntley who owned the lumber mill before it went bankrupt. By the time she divorced the creep, the attraction between her and Henry had fizzled out, and now they were best friends and fishing rivals. In fishing, Nancy had the advantage of encyclopedic knowledge of aquatic ecosystems, and Henry — as he had recently begun to suspect — had the advantage of clairvoyance. He had heard about people finding underground water reserves by walking around with metal ’divining rods' and, via deductive reasoning he could not retrace, he had come to the conclusion last night that telekinesis was the solution to his midlife crisis.

Henry looked at Nancy and tried to make his eyes put her eyes in a headlock so that the photon traffic could form a hand that would slither under her eyelid, up into those moist, intimate corners of her cerebrum and pluck some piece of information the foreknowledge of which he could dazzle her with. Nancy laughed. He hated the way she laughed; it was like watching a balloon burst and spill an avalanche of sand all over the table and everyone’s clothes. He wondered how Joe Buntley had endured that laugh on a regular basis. It was the very sound of a thing going bankrupt.

When she was done laughing, she perched her elbows in a V shape with her fingers laced directly above her beer and sat her chin atop the bridge her two hands formed. A bridge over beer.

“Well?” Nancy could see Henry’s hand wiggling hesitantly at the rim of his right pant pocket. She made a tiny swiveling motion with her entire head jabbing toward his pocket. “Got a crystal ball in there?” When she gestured with her head, her eyes—and not her spine—were the stationary pivot points about which the rest of her flowed.

Henry pulled the deck of cards out of his pocket and slapped them down on the table. “Pull any card, look at it, then relax your mind and, if you can, send me a signal.”

“How about the other way around. I'll give you a signal first.” She gave Henry the finger.

“I take it you're a skeptic.”

“Gee, Henry, you sure do jump to conclusions.”

“I also think you're afraid.”

Nancy scowled.

“Pick up a card. Humor me.”

“No. You.”

Henry’s fingers felt stiff, just then, like constipated bowels. Until the feeling passed seconds later, he could not bend them. His fingertip covered the midriff of the naked woman pictured on the back of the card. “You want to read my mind? Why?”

“We need to establish a statistical average.”

Henry slid the top card between thumb and forefinger and paused before looking at it.

“Humor me.” Nancy took an exaggerated swig from her glass, circled her head around in a mock athletic fashion and clapped her hands together. “I’m in harmony with nature and I’m pumped. Hit me.”

Henry took some deep breaths with his abdomen, in through the nose and out through the mouth, looked at his card and then focused his eyes on a point in the center of her forehead.

Nancy twirled her wrist through the air mimicking smoke rings. “I’m getting something, I’m getting something, I’m seeing-”

“Shut up.”

Her throat contracted as though she had just been slapped. In response to his sharpness of voice, her jaw dropped a couple millimeters like a bicycle going over an unseen curb.

“I’m serious, Nance. If you think this stuff is hogwash, you're welcome to that opinion, and we can close this topic of discussion and agree to disagree. But if you want to play, quit with the attitude right now. What do you want to do?”

Her tongue pedaled silently uphill and her eyes mounted the handlebars—it was the same look all women gave him when he caught them in a lie, only with Nancy he couldn’t help but picture her falling off a bicycle. Nancy liked to bike almost as much as she liked to garden. These were two activities Joe Buntley had lacked any capacity to appreciate.

Hundreds of apologies and thousands of retaliatory quips came to mind, and, rejecting them all, she said in a flat voice, “Nine of Clubs.”

With a slump in his posture, Henry turned the card around to reveal a Nine of Clubs.

She forced an emotionless grin. “Must be a natural. Let’s see how much I got in me.”

The next card was the Jack of Diamonds.

She said “Jack of Diamonds” as if they were the most boring combination of words ever spoken.

He did not show her, but moved on to another card. She guessed the next four correctly.

“Okay, Nance, what’s going on?”

“You tell me, you're the expert on this type of phenomena.”

“This isn’t funny.”

“Perhaps, Henry, you should open up to the possibility that there are unquantified forces in the universe that the human mind can unlock when you stop distracting yourself with material-”

“Hold up, let me breathe….You're telling me that you’ve had E.S.P.—E.S.Poop, as you call it—all this time and you’ve been stringing me along, pretending to be a militant nonbeliever?”

She tossed her hair and leaned forward with her elbows. “Keep that on the D L, how about it.”

Henry smiled. Bursts of electricity spiraled from the floor up through his veins and ignited, a smile being their only aperture. He wanted to jump over the table and hug her tightly until half of that electricity passed into her body. The excitement was too large for one body to hold.

“And Henry?”

“Yeah?”

“I also think you might want to open your mind to the possibility that telepathy experiments are best not performed in front of a reflective glass window, and that the only thing we’ve proved is that you are the most gullible horse’s ass this side of the stone age.”

Henry looked over his shoulder to find that the card he held was indeed perfectly visible in the window’s reflection. His teeth made a fist.

Nancy’s expression was warm and pitying from the nose down and condescending from thereon up.

“You got me good. You really had me going. I mean, I knew you had something up-”

“It sucks to believe, doesn’t it?”

She was the injured party; before he blinked, this was so. It was like gravity reversing directions without requiring any objects to shift positions. “You always do that. You play a prank on people, a real good one, then right before they can laugh at themselves, it’s like the prank was on you and we feel bad. You're really one of a kind, you know that?”

Her shoulders drifted in her chair like cattle grazing.

“Look at me, Nance, please. Why did you do that?”

“Do what? You asked me a question and I gave you the information that was right in front of me. You didn’t ask where I got my data from, but for a moment you got pretty excited. What the hell do you expect from me?”

Henry frowned. For the first time since they met, he found that he wanted to feel her hand grab a hold of his more than he wanted to inhale. What physically transpired after such a gesture, what was said after, would not matter. He wanted it the way a fire wants exposure to a cool breeze.

Her hands remained by her side. “I’m a tricky little devil, aren’t I? No need to worry. Only your best friend would trick you and succeed. I’m a thirty-nine year old park ranger who lives alone with three cats, and a moment ago you honestly thought I was a sorceress. Clearly I’m not, am I? But only a boring old cat lady would be so sadistically cruel as to dupe you into accepting a fairy tale as reality. People with credentials who write the books you find on the occult shelf at Barnes & Nobles, they wouldn’t want to trick you, would they? I’m sure they would gain no satisfaction from doing to a generation of young minds what I just did to you.”

“You know? For an independent woman, you’ve got a very limited way of thinking. I feel sorry for you.”

“You're right.” She raked the deck of cards toward herself. “I need a miracle.”

“Naw, forget it.”

“Consider it forgotten. Wait, what was that you called me? An independent woman?”

"Right." Henry felt himself being dragged through the sand in the tug-of-war game that conversations with Nancy inevitably turned into when more than a pint of beer was involved.

"What’s that mean? I breathe air and I put Reces in my trail-mix, what else should I depend on?"

"It was just a compliment, I didn’t mean nothing by it." Henry’s tone stomped frantically for a foothold.

"But you only said it so that you could tell me I’m closed minded. How exactly is that a compliment?"

"We can leave that stuff alone if you're not interested."

"But we’re talking about it, so I guess I’m interested."

Henry sighed. "Look at it this way. Every great invention has to fight a, a backwards mentality. People used to think electricity was highfalutin nonsense. Penicillin-"

"Stop right there, pal. I know where you're trying to go. It’s not the same thing."

"What I’m saying is, you rely on more than you think. If this were the seventeenth century and you were having a beer with Ben Franklin, you’d laugh at him. Now, you wouldn’t be so independent if electricity stopped working. In a hundred years, people might be hauling up lobster traps and emptying dumpsters with their minds everyday, and non-psychics would be as good as handicapped. They'll stop making cell phones when everyone starts reading minds. I think that’s pretty grand, but to you it ain’t, because you're stubborn.”

“Your point being?”

“Just 'cause you don’t know about something don’t make it hogwash."

"I don’t think it’s hogwash. I think it’s pig snot."

"Nevertheless, your hostility is a byproduct of fear." He couldn’t remember who he was plagiarizing, but it was a nice sounding phrase that stuck with him, so he used it.

She snorted. He found that less displeasing than her usual laugh. "Pig. Snot."

"What’s the difference?"

"There’s a big difference. Hogwash, in its original meaning, is a bucket of leftover food farmers feed to their pigs. Your vernacular implies value, the value of a bucket of pig gourmet express. If the nourishment of pigs is to be your base of comparison, nasal secretions are what I think of your fanciful little fixation."

He pushed the deck of cards half an inch closer to her. "There’s no window behind you."

"And just what will that prove?"

"Prove? Nothing. Proof is for professors doing official research and government high-hats finding a use for it. I’m not talking about proving."

She picked up the cards, turned them over in her hands and looked at the pornographic image on the back with indifference. "I'll tell you what. As far as I can recall, you’ve never seen me naked, and I’ve never told you about my one tattoo."

"You want me to guess what’s in your tattoo?"

"If I even have a tattoo." She lowered one eyebrow quizzically. "Funny you’d call it guessing."

"Okay, just give me a minute. I need to- give me a minute."

"If you can tell me where it is and what it depicts, you win. If you lose, you owe me a drink. And if you win, I'll let you buy me a drink."

"What kind of deal is that?"

"A pretty good one, I think."

"Let’s say if I guess it right, you have to show it to me."

"I'll be impressed if you can intuit my tattoo. If impressing me isn’t worth a beer to you…"

"Okay, fine."

She sat back and folded her hands on her lap. "Do whatever you got to do, I’m patient. If the noise of the bar is too distracting, we can go-"

"I'll do it right here, just hush up and give me a sec."

"You don’t have any tattoos, do you, Henry?"

"Absolutely not."

"Why such conviction?"

"Because I dislike 'em."

Her change of posture begged the question of why.

"Let’s just say I’m a man of commitment."

Her further change of posture pressed him to elaborate.

"A commitment you can’t break ain’t worth a damn. When you say your vows, you're making a promise to a person. You could always break that promise if you wanted to, and sometimes you might want to real bad. A commitment is a decision you decide every day, like holding a job or playing a sport, or praying, or just, I don’t know, being a good person. Stamping ink on your ass that won’t never wash off, that’s a mockery and an insult to true discipline. But it’s more than that. A tattoo can’t change. A person gets wiser and stronger with the years, but that’s hard to do if you look down at your arm and see the same buck-stupid picture that gave you a hoot one day when you were twenty." Henry paused for long enough that the beer in front of him might have began ticking. "You do not have a tattoo."

Nancy flagged the bartender and yelled "Another one."

"Does that mean I won or I lost?"

Nancy smiled.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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Portland Fiction Project

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