By Jason L. Corner
THE STRIP CLUB WAS AN IDIOT’S carnival. Music was coming out of the corners and women were coming out of the woodwork, wearing gauzy kimono robes with straps of leather and plains of flesh beneath. It was enough to make a man go mad, and Pinkie Moreland more or less did, because the idiot carnival produced its idiot wit: his brother and his best friend both had bought him lapdances at the same time, and so he was taken into the back room with two women who began gyrating against each other, and when they said, “So, Pinkie ... are you sure you still want to get married?” He had to laugh. He had to laugh. Because when you really do meet the succubi, it’s a funny thing ... and after fifteen minutes of evil, evil idiot bliss, he sat at the bar and drank a shot and felt like he was finally ready to get married.
A voice sideswiped him: “No-Body. Having a good time?”
“What’s up, No-Body?” She slapped him on the back.
He stared at the tall, broad-shouldered brunette, sitting on the next stool with her legs spread, drinking from a weird tubular glass. They had broken up six and a half years ago (two years before he had met the Mandy); he hadn’t seen her in at least three. She still looked good—he hadn’t forgotten how good, how tan and cut and symmetrical she had always looked—but in a different way. Something in her eyes, the way her attention seemed to be in three or four different places at once, maybe not including Pinkie.
“Getting hitched,” he said. “Mandy Bercovitch. Did you ever meet her in Boston?”
“Doesn’t ring a bell. Congratulations.” She didn’t take her eyes off of the stage, where some visiting superstar was having dudes pay to sponge her down onstage. You could get a half-life-sized hologram projected on your table for a fee.
“Don’t you love suds?” she said. “They’re not quite water, not quite air, not quite soap. And they don’t feel like anything else in the world. Mmmm.”
“What are you doing now?” he asked.
“Don’t you watch TV, No-Body? I’m on the All-Hemisphere grakkel team.”
“Congratulations. But don’t you need to get the operation to really play?”
She tapped her forehead; above each eyebrow wound a rainbow-colored stitch.
“You’re, you’re Rebooted. Is it weird?”
“Oh, yes. Weird in the best possible way. Anyway, we’ve got a series of meets here this week; nothing big, just display games while we’re off-season.”
For the first time, she looked straight at him. It was unnerving, seeing those stitches, knowing she wasn’t seeing him in the same colors as everyone else, hearing his voice in the same pitches as everyone else. She had been Rebooted, had all her senses turned upside down by the Fatija process so that she could work in space without having a nervous breakdown, and had joined that new tribe of orbital mystics with their millions of dollars and upscale ghettos and their incomprehensible grakkel game.
“We should hang out,” she said. “Stop by the downtown Fatija center tomorrow afternoon.”
“Love to,” he said, without thinking about it.
“Great. I’ll see you then. Now why don’t you get back to your friends; I’m sure they have something really sub-moral they want you to do.”
His best friend Will draped his arm over Pinkie’s shoulder when he got back.
“Mandy’s on the phone,” Will said with a cloud of liquor on his breath. “I told her you were getting thrown out and all the girls were chasing you out the door. Then I told her—”
“She’s always appreciated your sense of humor.” He took the phone from Will (it had been agreed that calls would be screened) and clicked it on. His fiancée appeared, wearing a tanktop and reclining in bed.
“Hey, honey. Are you drunk?”
“Sort of. Not like Will. Why are you in bed already? It’s only, ah, oh, I guess it’s three. That’s not so late, or whatever.”
“I just wanted to remind you that you promised you wouldn’t get too drunk and throw up like the last time you went out with Will and your brother. You promised.”
“Got it.” He glanced over to Sharon.
“So what’s up? Everything cool?”
Sharon drank a pair of shots in quick succession, then looked over at him and winked.
“Yeah, everything’s cool,” he told Mandy. “See you later.”
Not saying something, Pinkie reminded himself, isn’t the same as a lie.
Pinkie woke up the next morning on Will’s apartment floor. Though he had slept eight hours, and contrived to eat a hearty breakfast, he ended up vomiting in the backyard anyway. Everybody had a good laugh and took pictures.
After that, he wandered back to Mandy’s apartment to take a shower and change his clothes.
“You look green, Pinkie,” she said, half-satisfied, half-terrified. “Are you going to throw up?”
Pinkie shook his head and said no. But the word “no” came out “yes.” Then he went into the bathroom and threw up again.
“Good times. Good times. I feel better now,” he said when he came out. “Still, I haven’t seen you since yesterday morning, so I could just hang out here the rest of the day ...”
She waved at him, and kept waving until he found himself out the door. “No, no. Your friends are in town. I’ll see you tonight. Besides, you stink.”
Pinkie went and met the guys for lunch, and then they all had planes to catch, so by three in the afternoon he found himself at the downtown Fatija Culture center.
The building certainly looked like it was designed for people who saw the world from another angle. The Center was three times the size of any other building in the city. More long than tall, it was like the White House with long arms, giving the world a hug like a giant letter C. There was a courtyard inside that hug, filled with plants and abstract sculpture and a huge reflecting pool. You stood in the middle and looked at the building surrounding you with its long arms and saw that, straightened out and stood on its end, it would make a perfectly ordinary skyscraper. You wondered at all that wasted space. And then, you started to lose your mind. A fire alarm was going off in Pinkie’s brain, and he wanted to hide his head between his knees and sniffle and wonder why he was there.
“No-Body. Wasn’t sure you’d make it. Hey, meet Brian Thomas.”
Brian Thomas was the reigning worldwide grakkel champion; even Pinkie knew that. He was shorter in person and had a face that could not be described—not because it was so striking, but because there was nothing to describe. What kind of nose did he have? He had a nose. What kind of forehead? If asked to draw a “person,” with no other details, you might draw Brian Thomas.
Pinkie held out his hand. Thomas looked at it for too long before shaking it. “You’re an unboot,” he said.
“Yeah, I’m wearing sandals.” Pinkie laughed feebly.
“Don’t mind Brian. These long-time reboots have funny attitudes.” Sharon took his wrist—so close to his hand!—and steered him out towards the street.
“The game’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me,” Sharon said. “Really. I went to tryouts in New York and everyone said I was a natural. I’ve been playing for the yellow team since right after it stopped being the American team. When you hang out with the great players, and really get their way of thinking, it seems really pointless to divide up the teams by nationality. Just lines on the map, really. I was voted second most valuable player on the yellow team after we went to the second round of playoffs last year.”
“That’s great,” Pinkie said, bewildered and blinking. “Just lines on the map, absolutely. That’s just what I think.”
She stared at him, and then laughed. He and Sharon took their time strolling through downtown. Sharon was still Sharon—witty, surprising, shockingly intelligent—but something else, too. She stopped him outside an antique shop and pressed her face against the glass, staring at a red chair made out of ovals, seventies-style. After that, she pulled him down to the park, where there were some amateur drummers playing, and she danced frantically until a subtle change occurred in the rhythm and she ran back to Pinkie, tears in her eyes. She ran her hands along things—walls, trees, windows, even the scarf of a woman at the bus stop—saying yes and no and maybe. Pinkie could watch her forever.
Later, his stomach finally calmed down, he stopped at a stand to get a burrito. As he lifted it to his lips, steaming and greasy, Sharon gripped his hand. The pressure was soft but specific.
“Don't eat it,” she said. Her eyes were wide and seeking. “Just hold it there for a minute. Just hold it.”
Pinkie obeyed. He didn't think he could do anything else; he was lost in her eyes.
She closed them and inhaled, and with each breath she looked as if she were about to cry.
The pressure on his hand never let up, and when they dove into an alley to make out furiously, violently, like rats devouring each other, it was almost anticlimactic. Almost.
Pinkie lied about that, too—it was no longer possible to deny that it was a lie—but it didn’t matter. Everyone expects men to do crazy things before they get married and their women agree to look the other way. He worked out an agreement with his conscience wherein it was all right, provided he never, ever, ever did it again.
He spent the next two days with Mandy on wedding stuff, but he was thinking about Sharon the whole time, comparing the two, as if he was seeing Mandy in the left eye and Sharon in the right. (Did Reboots see that way?) It was an eerie experience, and reminded him of one of the days Sharon and he had gone tripping on post-acid in college, and everything they saw had shown up as opposites: they would see a fat woman holding hands with a thin woman, a black car parked next to a white car, a dog and a cat. Mandy and Sharon were like that. Sharon was tall, black-haired, broad-shouldered; Mandy was petite, blonde, slender. Mandy was polite to people and spoke softly; Sharon said whatever she felt like. Mandy was always trying to change Pinkie—his clothes, his hair; Sharon left people alone. Pinkie realized these comparisons—the first to pop into his mind—weren’t the fairest to Mandy, who after all had stayed with him even when he lost his job and spent four days drunk, and who wouldn’t even know how to be unfaithful to him, but there it was.
Mandy was sitting at the table while he was on the couch, going over the order of the procession, when the phone rang.
“Holy God,” Mandy said. “I know who that is. That's Tonya. She doesn't want to be a bridesmaid anymore. I knew this would happen. We have to start over.”
“Now why would Tonya call my phone?” He flipped it open. Sharon was on the screen, not saying anything, just staring outwards with the ghost of a grin.
He tucked the phone under his chin and walked out to the back porch; fortunately, he and Mandy had a deal wherein he quit smoking after the day of his wedding, but not before (and he'd never needed one so badly). He sucked nicotine into his lungs as if he were in a contest.
“What is it?” he said.
“Don't be a nervous Nellie. What are you doing on Thursday?”
“Thursday? I'm getting married on Saturday, Sharon.”
She sighed deeply. “If I wanted to know what you were doing Saturday, I wouldn't have asked you about Thursday.”
Pinkie waited. The air was summer evening cool and the crickets were singing their nervous, clicking songs.
“Now listen,” Sharon went on briskly. “There's a match on Thursday. Not a big one. Just a qualifying round. I want you to come; there's a party afterwards I'll take you to.”
“You think I want to go?”
Sharon laughed. “Try and tell me you don’t.”
Pinkie chewed on it for a little while and realized he did. He was just going to a, a sports event. Who could accuse him of anything for doing that?
“Sure, sure. I'll see you there. Just don't call me anymore.”
Mandy greeted him with a disgusted wave of her hand. “P.U. I'll be pretty happy when this smoking ends.”
Pinkie sat down cross-legged on the couch. Mandy looked at him expectantly.
“Oh!” he said. “That was my brother's girlfriend, you know, Debbie.”
“What did she want?”
“She wanted to interrogate me about his behavior last weekend. It was really embarrassing and annoying; I hope that when we see either of them at the wedding, we can avoid the whole thing, act as if she didn’t just call me at all.”
There were lies and there were lies, and since he would never have to deal with this Sharon situation after Thursday, he figured it was all right. But inside, he was squirming, squirming.
The grakkel match was an elaborate fantasy in which nothing and everything happened. Pinkie was bored and yet fascinated; he spent the whole time wanting it to be over and yet he felt, at the end of it all, like a man who had watched the five greatest movies of all time, only with the last twenty minutes sliced out of each.
The two teams came out in tight-fitting tops of different colors, drab canvas pants in a Capris cut, middle of the calves, and no shoes. The captains of each team—Brian Thomas and an African woman who sneered when she spoke—each brought different colored balls, and at some signal that Pinkie didn’t make out, they threw them in the air and started tossing them to and fro.
There were no goals to put the balls into. There appeared to be no penalty for dropping the ball, except when there was. Sometimes the balls were dribbled and sometimes they were held, and sometimes they were thrown to members of the opposite team, who would catch them with a look of disappointment.
Everything was punctuated by shouted syllables, none of which were words: ga, zoot, ven. Pinkie had heard that the pitches mattered, but he couldn’t tell. He thought maybe that the rules changed whenever certain things were said, but every time he formed a specific hypothesis—if you say tem and the other team says tem back, then you can’t throw the ball to one of your teammates—it would be contradicted by the game and eventually he decided he was on the wrong track altogether. The scores of the teams went up and down at apparently random intervals, as if they were for another game in the next room.
And every so often, the game would freeze. There was usually a syllable shouted right before it, but Pinkie couldn’t understand it at all. All the players would stop right where they were standing, crouching, or running, and would wait, one leg in the air, hands suspended. And then they would stay there for two minutes, even five minutes, the ball bouncing off to a corner forgotten. The lights would change colors slowly, suffusing the court in green that gradually changed to blue, to indigo, to a rich dark burgundy. Incense would flood the whole stadium in smells of cinnamon and cumin and fragrant rice. Music would play—no, not music exactly, but tones, sounds halfway between a pipe organ and a human voice, deep hums without rhythm. And on the face of every player was a grin of ecstasy, as if there was nowhere else in the universe any of them would rather be.
And then the game would begin again. Eventually, Sharon’s team won, and Pinkie had no idea why.
Even though Sharon had given him an official invitation to the after-match party, Pinkie felt like he was going to be thrown out by everyone he saw. The food was all flavored the wrong way—spicy mustard on raisin bread, things like that—and everyone mumbled. Sharon kept him waiting there for two and a half hours, and he spent most of it going to and from the bathroom.
The only person he really talked to was Brian Thomas, who had painted his skin entirely blue. The reigning grakkel champion was naked except for a yellow robe that he wore open at the waist. His scrotum hung loosely, like a blue pouch of coins. Beside the robe, the only interruption to the endless plain of blue was the pair of rainbow stitches above his eyebrows.
“No-Body. I met you.”
“That's a fascinating nickname,” Brian was staring at some distant point to the right. “I suppose that you have some curious story behind it?”
“Not so much. Sharon and I and some of our friends all took post-acid one night when we were in college. I freaked out a little bit and insisted that I didn't have a body. Sharon got really scared and so did I, and then I got really excited that I didn't have one, and she decided that I was one with the atmosphere. All this happened over the course of an hour with lots of moving from one room to the next and then back again. She's called me No-Body since then.”
“One with the atmosphere.” Brian nodded, still looking elsewhere. “A game that you were playing with your heads. Sharon still likes to do that. She’s not really Fatija. The game is not what you unboots think it is; it’s not about winning or losing. But Sharon still thinks it is. It—everything—for her—it’s all sports.” Brian looked sick. “And that’s why she’ll never be a great player. Make sure you tell her I said that.” The blue man walked off sideways, like a crab.
Mandy and Pinkie, when they went to parties where they barely knew anybody, liked to huddle around the dip and make up limericks on the names of different people. “There was a blue guy named Brian Thomas ...” he started to say to himself, but there was nobody to finish it for him.
Sharon appeared from across the room, looking magnificent. She was wearing a strapless black dress with matching gloves and boots. The skirt was just tight enough and short enough that Pinkie could see her muscular thighs skimming each other with each step he took, and her hair was drowning her naked shoulders in flowing coal.
She was grinning. Her teeth were like ice.
Pinkie twitched and squirmed. “Good match, Sharon.”
She said nothing, and Pinkie was reminded that he had always hated dating, and meeting new people, and that Mandy thought so too, which was why his favorite memories of her were mainly of sitting at the opposite ends of the sofa with bare feet all tangled up together, while they both read books—he never needed to figure out what he was supposed to do next with her. Sharon had been keeping him up at night this week, had been keeping him up at night for years, now that he thought about it, but the ones that keep you up at night aren’t the ones that you marry, and that’s that.
“Ah. I think I’m going to go ahead and go now.”
Sharon looked like she had swallowed a baseball-sized mass of ants. “Go where? Go where?” She ran to the table and tossed a handful of chips in his face. The room went completely silent and Pinkie could feel all those eyes shooting into him.
Sharon laughed like a horse. “Fine, go now. I’ll give you a ride.”
Sharon drove the newest luxury hybrid, in black. She drove it too fast and even though Pinkie gave her advance warning and really good directions, she missed the exit twice and then took a different one.
“Sharon, this is stupid. I’m going home. Look, just let me out and let me catch a cab if you’re going to be childish.”
“Who’s childish? I never get to see Columbus.”
Pinkie leaned his head back against the seat and clicked his tongue, looking out the window at the boarded-up houses and check-cashing places on the east side of the city. “You know, that freak Brian Thomas—and I don’t care how good at your idiotic sport he is, he’s still a freak—said something about you. Said you just liked playing games with people’s heads, playing sports with them.” If he couldn’t get Sharon to drive where he wanted, then being mean was the only thing he could do to control what was happening to him. “And he said that’s why you’ll never be a great player.”
“He said that? He really said that? Well that just makes me want to die.”
Without blinking, Sharon drove the car into the left lane and turned her headlights off.
“That’s better,” she said. “Now we’re having real fun.”
“What the hell!”
“Oh, I don’t care what snooty Mister Long-Time Reboot says. But it does occur to me that you don’t really know what life is like for me now. It’s better than post-acid, Pinkie. Everything looks, smells, sounds ... richer. Thicker. If you could understand that, you’d see what the game was.”
An eighteen-wheel truck was barreling towards them, oblivious. It would crush Sharon’s sleek little car like a bicycle squeezing the guts out of a beetle.
“These headlights, for example. They have a spectrum of different white colors, and each one has its own texture, its own way of moving, its own sound. It’s like a symphony.
“Don’t get married,” she said.
“You must be out of your mind! Now get back in the right lane!”
“If you’re so determined to get married, why are you here?”
“I just came for the match. If you think that—”
“You don’t care about the game. Nobody without the operation can possibly care, even a little bit. Sports journalists don’t even write about the game; they just gossip about who’s dating who. Getting the patterns just right, so your opponent is locked into a no-move situation—and one where all the choices he’s made, every link in the lovely chain of patterns he’s been painstakingly built up over the course of the whole match, is implicit in his own defeat—what he thought was going to be his winning strategy is nothing but an aspect of my own all-encompassing design—it’s better than just victory, Pinkie.
“Every smell, when it’s just like the colors, and when the colors are just like the sounds, and they all hang together, in a shimmering, perfect, beautiful sphere of a million dimensions, that just hovers and resounds in the atmosphere, so perfect, so lucid that you just close your eyes and it’s still there, and it’ll be there forever—you can’t imagine it. It’s better than sex. It’s better than drugs. It’s better than Mozart and world peace and the second coming of Jesus Christ. It’s like ... Pinkie, it’s like being one with the atmosphere.
“Now call your fiancé. Tell her the wedding’s off. Tell her what we’re doing.”
Pinkie closed his eyes. He felt calm about his impending death, but nervous about the images that formed under his eyelids. In his right eye he saw Mandy, and in his left he saw Sharon. What did this say about him?
At the last possible minute, Mandy sped up rapidly, zoomed out of the lane, shot down a side street and braked with a screech. Pinkie leapt out of the car and started walking away.
“Yeah, see, this is what I mean, Sharon,” Pinkie yelled. “You’re a lot of fun sometimes, but you’re also a big pain in the ass. Good luck with your new career.” Pinkie brushed his shoulder where a stinking fragment of food had caught him, and started to walk down the street, planning to call a cab and take it home and never, ever, ever do this again. For real this time.
Sharon somehow got in front of him—she had always moved fast. She leaned in and kissed him. Pinkie didn’t struggle and he didn’t kiss back. Then she pressed her fingertips into his chest.
“You really don’t want to get married, Pinkie. I could tell when I saw you at that club the other night. You’d really rather just slip loose of it all and slide out of your life into someone else’s.”
She grabbed his hand and held it up, licking the palm, like a terrier. His heart was buzzing like an alarm clock.
“Forgive me, Pinkie,” she said. “I shouldn’t have thrown those chips at you. I just didn’t want you to leave.”
She licked him again. “Because you taste like a mouthful of stars.”
Now he was kissing her back. And the webs of his own fascination burned their patterns into his flesh, until he felt like a fishnet of fire. She dragged him to the car and they never stopped kissing, even as she drove them to a hotel, even as she checked them in with her credit card; they were eating each other as if they were starving.
He got home four hours later, and the number of things he had to lie about was too high to bear contemplating.
Tomorrow I’m getting married.
Only it wasn’t tomorrow. As long as you can stay in bed—as long as you can stay in the night—tomorrow can start at six in the morning, seven, eight. But in strictly calendar terms, Pinkie was getting married today.
In two hours.
Mandy had already, he knew, been awake for at least four hours, with her female flock orbiting her as she formed, as she became a bride. But all he had to do was shower, shave, and put on his suit. He supposed he could do those things now, but if he did, he wouldn’t be able to go back to bed, and then it would actually be today.
When the phone rang, it was almost comic. Ask not for whom the bell tolls ...
“Don’t get married.”
He had known it was her. “It’s not possible, Sharon. You’re aware that I’m actually in the hotel. I’m getting married downstairs.”
“I’m in a room on the top floor. You just walk up the stairs, No-Body. I’m painfully serious. Hide out in my room for two days—I have an expense account that’ll buy the moon—and then we’ll take off. In the meantime, we can play games with our heads and dissolve our bodies for two days. It’ll be heaven.”
Without realizing he had done anything, Pinkie was out of bed and putting blue jeans on. In fact, he was halfway to the door. Then he stopped and said, “Why are you doing this, Sharon? You’re not in love with me. In fact, I think all you really want to do is ruin my life.”
Sharon laughed. It was like a minor scale on a perfectly tuned viola.
“Wouldn’t you rather have it ruined this way than saved any other way? Think about it, No-Body. Do you know what ruined lives look like, sound like, smell like, feel like? They’re like broken eggs with gently yielding pillows of chocolate inside. Believe me, No-Body.”
“But let’s not kid ourselves. You’re going to get tired of me in six weeks, tops.”
“You’re right. You’re right. And after I run out on you, you’ll always have your ruined life to look at. You’ll see it the way I see it: a pleasant shape. Like the shimmering arc of a won game.”
Pinkie was standing at the door, the phone cradled resting on his ear like the bad angel. He reached for the doorknob.
There was a knock.
“Who is it?” he bleated.
“It’s Mandy.” She was whispering. “I know! Bad luck if you look too long. I just wanted to talk fast.”
Pinkie opened the door a crack, and she put her face a quarter inside, so he could only see what was north of her neck, west of her face’s Greenwich line.
“You smell good,” he said, leaning away from her in fear and then towards her to mask that fear. “Like, like, like ...”
“It’s just perfume, sweetie. Listen, everybody’s going to be making us perform today, so I just wanted a minute first that was real. And I just wanted to say that when I was a kid, and I played with dolls, I would always end up making them get married to each other, and it would be a big production, and one time I actually destroyed a set of my mom’s pillowcases because I was determined to give Barbie the greatest wedding dress. And I realized just now that I was always, my whole life, doing that just so I could get ready to marry you.”
Pinkie blinked and inhaled. “And baby, I—” She shook her head.
“You don’t have to say anything, honey. Just show up.” She looked very serious. “I’m done. Now go smoke your last cigarette and I’ll see you.” She shut the door.
“No-Body?” came Sharon’s voice from the phone. “Are you coming?”
It sounded far away.
He put the phone down and clicked it off.
Two minutes later, there was another ring. Pinkie switched it to visual and held it at arm’s length, because he was shaving. It was Mandy again.
“I didn’t interrupt something, did I? Who were you on the phone with?”
“Nobody, baby. Nobody.” Pinkie shook some hairs into the sink, and again drew the razor across his chin in a clean, long sweep.
Jason L. Corner teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University. His work has appeared in the anthology “The Big Bad II” and magazines including “Abyss & Apex,” “Electric Spec,” and “Ideomancer.“ He is currently at work on a novel.