A Short Story by Liz Varley
Written using the suggestion "Climax"
Originally featured on 12-20-2006
As part of our series "Fall Stories"

The alarm clock was in the shape of chicken; it wore black sunglasses and held a guitar, sang a rock song for him at seven o’clock every morning. He didn’t hear the song anymore, just the clanking of the chicken back and forth on its pedestal. His mother had ordered it from QVC when he was going into the eighth grade, or as least that’s what he had pieced together. He remembered his mother sitting on the couch all day, the emerald bracelets shimmering on the screen, the TV always on mute. The clock was proof she had happened.

Hannah was gone, that much he could tell, if only from the cool feel of the sheet as he ran his hand over it. She had been gone for hours, meaning that she had gotten up in the middle of the night and left. As he bicycled his feet along the bottom of the bed his big toe hooked on a pair of her underwear.

The beginnings of a pressure filled headache loomed at the base of his neck. He went to the kitchen, shook out tablets from various containers, lined them up and threw them down his throat with a swig of enriched soymilk from the fridge. The little capsules made their way down, inching along his esophagus; his thoughts began to settle.

The TV was on, muted. Hannah had turned it on before she left to get the weather. She was always concerned about acid rain, cloudy skies. Such things were foreboding to her, and she would stay in. Had there been hail, she would still be in bed, legs pulled up to her chest, shoulders hunched forward as if cannon balling into a swimming pool. But there was sun in the sky, or a bit of it. There was pressure in the sky like that in his head, but no tablet could cure it.

Hannah had recorded his morning news shows for him, had set up the system one of the first times she was at his apartment, back when her hair was long and she still thought it necessary to wear lipstick. She had been shocked when Ian told her he didn’t watch Climax, an after hours show on HumanTV. Everyone in the room had looked at him when he said he hadn’t heard of it, then they all broke out in laughter like he’d told some old joke. He had been cooped up too long, they all said, and doing what? Writing articles about the past, trying to remember things that were hardly relevant. Climax was art, they said, it showed people as people, the way they would act if alone.

Ian’s mother had never let him watch TV; she was of the generation that believed it was brainwash, existing only to sell things. That was when she was all there. For each year he grew older and acquired information about the world around him, she lost it. It was as though it were being strung along from her brain to his inside an invisible cable. Soon after the gift of the alarm clock he began studying geometry in school, had turned to her for help when his mind could not wrap around the concept of angles existing within triangles. Her only response was to touched her index fingers together, and did the same with her thumbs. He could see her eyes in this memory, looking at him through her fingers. They were brown, dark, like swamp mud.

Most of his memory lacked cohesion and hung in his mind like floating pictures tied together by loose knots. In one he held the hand of a woman in heels, with stocking seam up the calf, walking down a hallway. The heels hit the marbled floor, but escaped sound. There was one of himself gathering up pinwheel shaped seeds from a square manicured lawn into a plastic bag. He was planning to dump them out up high and watch them flutter down, but he couldn’t remember if he got that far.

“What would you do if no one was watching?” Clint, friend of Hannah’s had asked him that night. How did he know Hannah? Ian asked himself now.

“What I do all day long, I guess,” he had replied, not trying to be a smart-ass, but the comment had an impact. Clint was the leader, no longer used to the snide comments saved for those hanging onto the loose ends of the social circle.

“No,” Clint had said, with the patience reserved for five-year-olds, “if you had could do anything, if you had unlimited resources, no morality concerns, no restraint whatsoever.”

“That’s the idea of the program?” Ian had asked, looking over the eyes of the group. They all nodded, eyes full of persuasion. Hannah was biting her lower lip, just a little bit. Clint’s legs were crossed and he sucked on his cigarette with his profile out, left eye on Ian.

“I’d have to think about it,” he said, and the tension slipped out of the room, replaced by an air of impatience.

“It’s on now,” Hannah said, “I can program it for you, so it’ll record every night, and all you’ve got to do is watch it, just press this button,” she leaned over him and put a purple-nailed finger on a blue button in the shape of a triangle.

“Wanna watch it?” she asked, eyelids covered in green glitter, close to him.


At the age of fifteen he got a job for an Internet company reviewing outgoing customer service e-mails, taking out any language that seemed offensive. He sat close to the screen, got chronic headaches. His mother still called then, though her voice always sounded as if it were coming through sheets of paper. She was in a home now, permanently donning a moss green bathrobe. He only knew this because she told him. He censored the language he used inside their conversations; he spoke like a businessman, not a son.

Now he did all his work from home, writing reports for an unnamed corporation. He was paid to compare the efficiency levels of various companies in the past and present. The corporation issued computer sorted through millions of financial reports from companies all over the world. All he had to do was insert the right formula, and he could accurately say predict how much money each law firm in Pittsburgh would saved after switching all lights to compact fluorescent bulbs. He could report how much money Synteca Corp in Austin had saved by canceling the six-month two percent raise and switching to a every-two-years three percent raise. There was no punching in, no waiting for paychecks. The computer calculated all of his work, and his money was deposited into his account. He had yet to find an error.

After a five-minute blaring of commercials, which were automatically set by the TV to play at 20 decibels higher than the program, Climax began, the camera zooming in on the faces of the hosts.

The room hushed, and even Clint, who held himself so rigidly, let his shoulders sink and his face relax as he watched.

The hosts began telling the audience about the newest episode of Climax.

“J, I just don’t know how we can prepare those watching for what’s going to go down tonight,” the girl said, in a tone somewhere between excitement and concern.

“It’s going to be wild, R.S.,” the boy agreed, and suddenly, the screen changed, it showed a large white walled room, completely empty. Into the room came a woman, wearing white jogging pants and a white top, with a thin strip of metal covering her eyes and wrapped around her head.

“Melanie,” the girl’s voice said, “has never attempted any faux-reality stunts, and has no experience in thought restraint, which is, as you know, an ability to steer clear of negative consequences while under.”

The girl began walking around the room, motioning as if having a conversation. The camera zoomed in, and she was in face moving her lips, pausing, smiling. Then her body began to rock back and forth, she fell over, hitting her knee, pushed herself up to her feet and backed up against a wall.

“She is now in dream mode,” the boy’s voice said, quietly, as if he would disrupt her.“Let’s go to the thought cam,” the girl said, and the screen switched again, now to first person.

Everyone in the room inched closer to the screen as they watched through the woman’s eyes; she went through a door, down a dimly lit hallway, the walls adorned by famous prints of avant-garde artists.

At the end of the hallway was a door a line of light under it, spreading a moon like halo along the dark wood floor. Her eyes settled upon the worn bass doorknob before her hand appeared on it, turned, opened the door. The door should have creaked, but the only sound was the low techno music provided by the program.

The room was very small, and the large wood frame bed took up most of the space. A man sat in it supported by mounds of pillows, his body made almost non-existent by the pile of blankets. The small nightstand next to him held only a small lamp and several bottles of pills.

The woman crept up closer, there was a chair to the right, a small, straight-backed one, she sat. We could now see the man’s face closer—his skin seemed thin, papery, his eyes closed, the only sign of life was the occasional swallow, pushing his adam’s apple up against the collar of a green colored robe.

“Daddy”, the woman said, subtitled on the screen. The techno music whirred. The man’s eyes remained closed, but there was a flicker of movement underneath, like a fish darting through shallow water. He turned towards her as she leaned in closer, the high definition TV accentuating the lines under his eyes, the discoloration of the skin. He didn’t look old by age, but by experience.

“Daddy, I wanted to come home, but the flights from L.A. were cancelled because of the smog. I wanted to see you, I can’t stand to think you didn’t know that.” She was shaking her head, bits of hair freeing themselves from the loose ponytail and falling in front of he face. She looked down to her lap, onto a red woolen dress, black stockings, patent leather shoes, legs crossed so that ankles wove together.

“I’m sorry,” read the subtitles, and she began to stand up. The image started to fade in as she walked out towards the door, glancing behind her again, to the slowly disappearing scene.

The techno music stopped and we again saw the room, this time with the woman standing up straight against the wall, her hands covering her face.

“Well,” the girls voice came in now, sounding disappointed, “we’ve still got another episode for you, so don’t move a muscle! Back after this message from Wondercom!”

Everyone relaxed back into his or her seats, looked expectantly at Ian.

“Usually they’re better than that,” the girl whose name Ian forgot said, “usually it’s a guy who wants a threesome or a woman who wants to go back to when she was twenty and spends the whole time looking at herself naked.”

“I don’t understand,” Ian said, practically shouting over the commercials.

“What isn’t there to understand?” Clint said, eyes glued to the screen.

“Why would anyone want to show this stuff to anyone else?” he asked, and Hannah looked up.

“They don’t know anyone’s watching it,” she said, with a smile, “they think it’s completely private, some kind of therapy or something. That’s what makes it so delicious!” Ian nodded. He was starting to feel a little cold.

“Delicious,” was all he said.


At night he thought about the look on the woman’s face after the faux-reality session had ended. Though her hands covered her face he could see that she was wailing. The image seemed petrified in his memory along with the others, and when he envisioned the high-heel-clicking woman she was now wearing a red woolen dress. He told Hannah it was too disturbing to watch. She didn’t force the issue, but he could still hear the chatter of J. and R.S., the strangely quiet techno music, could imagine the way the light of the screen would bounce shadows on her face. She would shriek in delight when something particularly shocking happened, would sigh audibly if disappointed.

Ian spent these nights looking out the window, trying to find a star in the muddled cloud sky. He would let his eyes run along the walls with their sharp angles, admire the way the lines resisted closed spaces. The apartment was supposed to be calming, the corporation had told him, when it was given to him. The apartment was his reverse pension. When he accepted it he had agreed to work for the corporation for thirty consecutive years. His first year anniversary was rewarded with a basket of exotic fruits. He had cut up the mango with the intention of feeding it to Hannah, but she wasn’t interested. Mango was too slippery, she had said, too much like fish. He had eaten it himself, lying diagonally on his bed with eyes closed, imagining he was on a beach, the sand hot against his skin.

He called Clint when Hannah didn’t show up that night. He hadn’t seen her, and his dark tone suggested he didn’t appreciate Ian calling him. No artist wanted to talk to a corporate.

At five minutes to Climax she still hadn’t shown. He sat cross-legged on the white carpet, closed his eyes and told himself she would be there when he opened them. He waited, held his breath, and opened them.

The TV turned on by itself at twelve o’ clock, the beginning commercials pummeling his ears. His heart began to beat faster as J. and R.S. came onto the screen, each wearing their plastered on, whiter than white smiles.

“As usual, we have nothing but the best for our audience!” J. said, perched up on his chair.

“You’re right about that R.S., we’ve got a real show tonight.” They looked at each other, seemed so share a silent understanding.

“Tonight,” J. began, as a screen behind him lit up and began to flip through images of past shows, “if the third anniversary of Climax. We started out producing one show a week,” J. and R.S. both chuckled, “now we have a show each night, each one more unbelievable than the last.”

“Thanks to our highly successful contestant enticing strategies,” R.S. continued, not missing a beat. Again the look passed between them.

“We’ve been lucky to have such intelligent, willing people to work with,” J. said, passing a wink to R.S., who only nodded.

“Our next contestant was just interviewed this evening, and she couldn’t believe her luck at being able to participate in an anniversary show!”

“ Enjoy!” They said, in perfect unison, the camera lingering for a brief, crisp second before fading out and switching to the white room, where a girl stood in the usual get up. Ian leaned forward, heart thudding now, audible in his ears. With the high definition it was easy to make out the bright green nail polish on the girls fingernails. Without really wanting to, Ian looked up to the girls face, to the lips he could still picture the first night he met her, the cheek that had rested on his chest the night before. He reached his hand out, covering her face with the tip of his index finger. He brought his other hand up, formed a triangle with his fingers and thumbs, fitting Hannah inside it. He turned off the TV. He didn’t want to know.

Read More By Liz Varley

COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project

Archives Archives