“The ideal men you peddle are murderers and worse,” says Mitzi. “Evil is immutable.”
Ava unconsciously touches her dormant iPhone, the only object on the oversized steel desk. She is one of the top rookie sales reps at Ideal Man dating service, a sub-brand of Ideal Humans LLC. Ava does not fear challenging a provocative customer and jeopardizing her commission. The customer is not always right.
“Everyone — except an ideal human — is a potential murderer,” says Ava.
“Was my mystery date unloved and abused?”
Mitzi leans forward, thoughtless, intrusive.
She’s another nutty thrill-girl, thinks Ava. A real smart-ass. Their lifeless sculpted faces are identical. These bored trust fund babies often return the merchandise severely damaged and then claim the purchase was defective from the get-go.
A thrill-girl does not want to be reminded that the ideal man she acquired at an exorbitant price is as dangerous as a pug puppy. For thrill-girls it’s about having make-believe death-defying sex with a bad boy, as if there is a shortage of those losers. But thrill-girls, who account for five percent of Ava’s sales, do make for painless commissions. They want what they want. This transaction shouldn’t take too long.
“My longest relationship lasted six months,” says Ava. She is improvising, attempting to establish customer affinity. “There’s something wrong with men today. Despite all their arrogance they are timid.”
Ava returns to the recommended script. “Just in case you two don’t hit it off, you will be entitled to a full refund right up until the first sexual encounter. Extended warranties are also available.”
Mitzi has appropriated working-class fashion: ragged jeans, a plain gray sweatshirt, close cropped hair, and fluorescent fingernails. Thrill-girls are oblivious to those who work for a living.
“Are you considering getting an ideal human?” says Mitzi. “Do you get a company discount?”
Working to repair society is unconceivable to Mitzi because in her world society is not broken.
“Ideal humans are the future,” says Ava. “The future will be perfect.”
The iPhone stirs.
The red neon sign winks at Nathan. Cocktails. Cocktails.
He’s not dead and it’s not a dream. He remembers a whispered word: upgrade.
A friend, whose name or face he cannot recall, told him that upgraded medically induced comas stream pleasant experiences into the brain. That is acceptable. “Always purchase the upgraded health insurance,” his friend had said. Nathan must have listened to his friend’s advice.
Nathan no longer remembers his own birth name.
“May I help you?” The bartender smiles politely. He sports a handlebar mustache and is wearing a bolo tie.
“I’ll have a gin and tonic,” Nathan unexpectantly says. It doesn’t sound like much of a cocktail, but the bartender seems satisfied. “And my friend will have another of whatever she’s drinking.”
“Thanks,” she says.
Her short shaggy hair is the color of strawberries. Her perfect fingernails and perfect lips are also the color of strawberries. Nathan feels tentative; he smiles. It’s hard to be the someone he was when you don’t know who you are, but it will work out.
She touches his arm. She is his type.
Nathan frisks himself. “I don’t have any money.”
“That’s nothing to get hung about,” says the bartender. “You’ve been upgraded. There are no charges for food, drinks, or your room.”
“We can order room service in the morning,” says the redhead.
Ava is dressed in a classic professional white blouse and navy skirt. She can’t afford to lose her job. There will be no second chances. Ava thinks too much about the future. Mitzi will come through for her. One sale at a time. The product sells itself.
Mitzi counts eleven photos of a young boy on the beige wall behind Ava’s desk.
“That’s Joshua. Don’t ask about his father.”
“Joshua is a great kid. He’s already getting monthly child boosters. That’s just one of the perks for working at Ideal Humans LLC. I of course take the bimonthly adult boosters. I wish they had been available when I was a teenager, but it’s working out now. I stopped smoking weed and worse. I believe that minimizers saved my life.”
Ava’s attempt to connect with Mitzi continues to be awkward.
“I avoid minimizers,” says Mitzi.
Ava tries to process Mitzi’s statement. Thrill-girls love black market designer minimizers
“Minimizers give people the power to replace trauma with new and healthy truths,” says Ava. “Without minimizers trauma accumulates and metastasizes. The most sensitive people are most susceptible to trauma. Joshua is a sensitive boy. I think he inherited it from…” The name of Joshua’s father draws a blank. It’s not a crucial detail, she reminds herself.
Mitzi did not read about “new truths” while researching Ideal Humans LLC. Ava is going off script. Mitzi likes off script conversations. That’s why Mitzi requested a one-on-one meeting. (It is possible, however, that an Ideal Humans LLC agent explained the merits of working with a supportive matchmaker.) Linear time is becoming increasingly unreliable.
“Our first subjects were locked up in prisons and forgotten,” says Ava. “The lucky ones ended up in long term medically induced comas. It was very cost effective. Anyway, after their trauma was minimized, many recalled happy events they never lived. They sang pleasant but unfamiliar songs from a half century ago. For some reason music from The Beatles and Pink Floyd work best as harmless fillers.”
I just learned about The Beatles,” says Mitzi. (Necessity forced her to search the hated internet for John Lennon lyrics.) “I used a public library computer.”
Mitzi doesn’t own an iPhone. Anything her family obsessed over she learned at an early age to avoid. Mitzi writes, reads, and works. She strives to stay above the intensifying maelstrom that everyone else seems to welcome.
Ava is still talking. “The edited brain is capable of learning much more efficiently. The ideal man is compliant.”
Mitzi’s abundant inheritance came from her grandmother, God rest her soul. Grandma Maria, who never forgot Mitzi’s birthday, had acquired the insurance settlement six months after being T-boned by a wealthy and prominent drunk driver near her home in Montreal.
Mitzi read Gogol on the Maple Leaf Express. Muzak (1960s pop classics) filled the train. The conductor ignored her pleas to make the noise stop.
Mitzi sat next to Maria’s bed and helped her pick stocks that sounded like planets floating aimlessly at the edge of a remote galaxy. Maria’s hands remained cold. Mitzi was the only relative or friend to visit Maria at the nursing home before toxic shock syndrome ended her suffering. The value of the portfolio tripled. Mitzi never found the birthday cards Maria had mailed her.
Ava glances at the jagged scar on Mitzi’s neck. Ava had impossibly overlooked it. Now Mitzi is daring her to stare at it.
What is going on? If Mitzi is wealthy enough to purchase an ideal man, she is obviously wealthy enough to afford minor plastic surgery. Or is neck scarring the latest thrill-girl fixation? Ava, who tries to keep up with the super elites (it is, after all, a job neccesity) certainly would have remembered this trend being played up in social media.
Is Mitzi a reconversionist? There have been more than a few unsubstantiated rumors. Wealthy religious fanatics, domestic terrorists, purchase ideal men on the black market and then eradicate all traces of minimizers from their blood by employing risky enforced transfusions. The reconversionists believe salvation can only be achieved with “untainted” blood. God, they think, makes humans weak and desperate for a mysterious reason. Reconversionists despise the settled science that unconditionally correlates morality with the absence of trauma.
Mitzi touches her scar with her shiny red fingernails.
The redhead points to the paintings above the bed board. “What do you know about these?”
“Andy Warhol and Jasper John.”
“What do you think of them?”
She kisses Nathan, and he responds suitably.
Mitzi never used drugs. She didn’t drink. She didn’t have a boyfriend. She didn’t have friends. She was drawn to solitude. Life was better without extraneous complications.
“You’re a pretty girl,” her sister (Mitzi can’t remember which one) told her. It was probably her older sister. Not yet 25 years old, Sis had already been defeated by three boys who never slowed down or stopped yelling. Maybe one of her children was a girl.
“You need to learn to enjoy life. You’ve got all that money. Anyone could steal those statements from Fidelity Investments. The mail is not safe. You’re being careless. Again.”
“Stay out of my mail.”
“Take the good with the bad. Sex will change your life. Why did you ever break up with that guy from a few years ago? He was cute. He had that nice car. It was before your… trauma.”
“I need to borrow some of your government money,” said her sister. Gus needs some experimental new and improved time release Ritalin that Medicaid won’t cover.”
“There’s no government money.”
“I know about non-disclosure agreements.”
Life for Mitzi’s family was an uninterrupted series of sinning and forgetting. It was God’s job to forgive them. Life is unnecessarily complicated; you do your best. Soon minimizers drugs will be available (at no charge) to the poor and suffering.
“Does Nathan, or whatever his real name is, even know he is a human?”
“Of course,” says Ava. “He’s just in a very vulnerable state. The doses Nathan receives are hundreds of times more robust than what I or my little boy take. If minimizers had been there for Nathan when he was a boy the extreme repurposing he is enduring would have been avoided.”
Ava is letting Mitzi know that she is more than just a sales representative. More important than closing a deal is being part of an organization that supports social reform and the common good.
Mitzi read her way through Dostoevsky. She read Demons three times. She felt demons.
The members of the country club where she worked were polite and generous. She was polite and invisible. It was a perfect relationship.
She began writing short stories. She began learning Russian. Mitzi realized that a 19th century Russian soul inhabited her body. Mitzi, who had been indifferent to music, grew passionate about Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky.
Soon she would be in St. Petersburg, writing, living with ghosts, coexisting with demons, content in her solitude. She will linger in the shadows, occasionally visiting a smoky salon inside an inviting tower.
Nathan is naked and alone. He stands on the beige shag rug and stretches.
He remembers the redheaded woman.
“Would you like to see the video of Nathan’s intimate behavior?” says Ava.
“Intimate behavior?” Mitzi likes that. Neutral. Nonjudgmental “Remind me about Lori.”
“She’s the redhead he met in the bar.”
“The woman who propositioned him. The redhead who resembles me. You are extremely confident about closing the deal.”
“We begin preparing our ideal men at the earliest opportunity. Lori has advanced degrees in psychology. She knows how to find potential sexual difficulties in the male that might later, without her intervention, require more concentrated minimizers and customized therapy.”
“Did Nathan have any tattoos?”
“I don’t know,” says Ava.
“It’s possible he had a tattoo,” Ava says. She eyeballs her iPhone. “Tattoos are quickly removed because even a seemingly harmless word or symbol on the body could trigger deep-rooted trauma that hasn’t been permanently minimized. Breakthroughs, although rare, unfortunately happen. I guess it’s possible that even the word MOTHER tattooed on the forearm could be troublesome.”
“Especially the word MOTHER,” says Mitzi.
They both laugh. Now they are finally bonding, and Ava feels that the sale is imminent. Mitzi isn’t too annoying, at least for a thrill-girl. She might even decide on a few extended warranties.
Nathan stares into the full-length mirror. He’s smooth, almost hairless. He’s almost the same color as the walls and carpet.
There is music. A singing man asks about softly spoken magic spells.
Maybe Nathan is under a spell. A good spell.
The black telephone next to the king size bed rings.
He is wanted in Room 201.
“He came in through the bathroom window,” said Officer Nowicki. “He pried the frame off with a screwdriver. It wasn’t difficult; nothing but plasterboard and plywood. You should sue the landlord or construction company.”
Mitzi had been reading Demons (part 2, chapter 3) while Rimsky-Korsakov played softly through her snug earbuds.
“Get a good lawyer and sue.”
“Where am I?” She was securely nestled inside a net of tubes and wires. There was no pain.
“You’re in a hospital,” said Officer Nowicki, small and trim. The immense handgun strapped to her waist glimmered.
“Why are you here?”
“I was in the neighborhood. I was the first officer at the scene. I’ll get a doctor.”
“How long have I been here?”
Nowicki was gone.
A few bored voices, doctors, nurses, and orderlies had interrupted Mitzi’s otherwise peaceful isolation. She had never considered buying upgraded insurance. The health coverage provided by the country club seemed adequate.
Mitzi is behaving more like an investigative journalist than a thrill-girl. Or maybe Ava is being tested by Ideal Humans LLC and Mitzi is a company spy. Management wants to see how she mollifies difficult customers. Her performance could result in either a promotion or a dismissal. If the product sells itself, how indispensable is she? Ava believes in Ideal Human LLC. She studies their self-improvement videos. Despite taking minimizers, Ava inexplicably remembers the serenity that drugs once offered. Ava thinks she needs to learn how to increase her faith in Ideal Humans LLC.
The iPhone twinkles and Ava is back on script.
“What we are doing is revolutionary,” says Ava.
“Are ideal men capable of violence when sufficiently provoked?”
“We are building a better world,” says Ava.
Mitzi doesn’t laugh at the prescribed words. “Do you think these ideal men have souls?”
Ava hasn’t heard anyone talk about souls since she was a student at St. Anthony’s. She wants to remind Mitzi that the soul is an archaic concept used by heartless people to assign blame, but she has squandered too much time on a failing sale. Soon Mitzi will probably want to talk about sin. It doesn’t matter if Mitzi is a potential customer or an undercover agent from HR, the crazy never-ending talk must end.
The fact that Ava had received no background information from her supervisors concerning Mitzi suddenly looms large. There had presumably been a last-minute scheduling conflict. “Just believe in the words. You’ll be fine.”
“Minimizers help people reclaim their…souls,” Ava finally says. She knows she is ignoring the script, but she must trust herself.
“You are winning me over,” says Mitzi.
Ava will never again have an opportunity to work for an exceptional company like Ideal Humans LLC. It was a fluke. She randomly met a man at a bar. It had been a satisfying evening. The details are low resolution. His name and appearance have dissipated, but he did promise to get her an interview, and he did. There was no reason for him to deliver on his promise. Does she appear ungrateful for not acknowledging him? People don’t like to be forgotten. Perhaps this memory is just a harmless filler. Did something horrific occur between them? Was she drugged and raped and then paid off with her job? Does her assailant see her every day and smile?
The worrisome future encroaches. There will be global competition. The number of ideal humans will multiply. Prices will plummet. Ideal humans will be sold by Amazon and eBay. Ava will be a corporate liability. The product, after all, sells itself.
Nathan knocks lightly on the gray metal door to Room 201. He’s more based; time is more linear. He wants to believe that the end of his medically induced coma is near. He longs to be his old self, no matter who that was. It always pays to upgrade, but it is time to move on.
He recognizes the redhead from the bar. The other woman also looks familiar. The redhead extends her arm, a friendly enough gesture. She then ignores his proffered hand and pokes his forearm with her shiny red fingernails. She examines his arm, and he doesn’t move. Does she see images on his arm that are invisible to him?
“He’s making remarkable progress. The scientists are using maximum strength time release minimizers. That’s cutting edge. He seems to be responding more favorably to the counselling. The turnaround time for repurposing men is quicker than ever.”
“I’m not interested in the future growth and profits of your corporation.”
The women talk about him as if he is not in the room. He slowly lowers his arm.
“He will soon be weaned from the maximum minimizers. Then it will be weekly boosters. There will also be weekly blood tests and brain scans. Nothing will go wrong
“I get it. He has been neutered.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that. He’s been normalized.”
“Would either of you care for a drink?” says Nathan.
“I think he needs some fine-tuning.”
“He has been acquiring the accelerated master class in 20th century music and art appreciation. Watch this.” Ava stands and approaches Nathan.
“Hello,” he says. “How about that drink?”
“Do you like that painting on the wall?”
“I do,” says Nathan. He doesn’t look at the wall. “I also like the background music. They are both sublime.”
“Can you find your way back to your room?”
“Yes. Time and location have stabilized. It was a pleasure to meet you both.”
The doctor was wearing a white coat. The mental health specialist was wearing a blue pants suit.
“Where is Officer Nowicki? I’m ready to make a statement.”
“That isn’t necessary,” said the doctor.
“The memory of my attack is fresh. I remember important details.”
“You need to concentrate on your wellbeing,” said the mental health specialist.
“He appeared out of nowhere,” said Mitzi. “He was wearing a surgical mask. A blue one.”
His right hand had squeezed her neck. He was not wearing gloves. There was a shiny knife. There was a tattoo. Je me souviens. The knife sliced her throat. He sang quietly. ‘Nothing to get hung about.’ Mitzi would not forget to google it.
“There must be DNA and fingerprints,” said Mitzi. “He said something that could be important.”
“You lost a lot of blood,” said the doctor. “Your past is unreliable and that can impede healing. You are probably being traumatized by fictional events. You were in a medically induced coma. A few upgrades were added to your treatment, but don’t worry about insurance or deductibles. The country club where you work started a GoFundMe page.”
“I’m thirsty,” said Mitzi.
“We’ve been preparing a regiment of mental well-being exercises,” said the mental health specialist. “Do you need anything to ease your mind?”
“I’d like to know if he is still out there.”
“Oh no,” said the doctor. “A Good Samaritan witnessed a man breaking into your apartment and called the police. No one was injured during the apprehension. The emergency medical technicians arrived and saved your life.”
“Who is he?”
“That’s not important,” said the mental health specialist. “From this point forward, our total attention will be directed at you.”
“But why did he try to kill me?”
“It’s never too early to stop living in the unreal past, Mitzi.” The mental health expert sounded irritated. “His motivations are irrelevant. Society failed him. Reap and sow. You are part of the society that failed him. The good news is that he has agreed to a rigorous regiment of powerful minimizers. He was, remember, also traumatized. He’s being very brave.”
Mitzi had heard about minimizer drugs, but assumed they were only being tested on lab rats. How long had she been in a coma?
“So, the man who assaulted me will soon be walking around free.”
“Of course. He won’t remember you or the unfortunate incident because that’s not what a mentally healthy person would ever choose to retain.”
“I want to remember my life.”
“That desire, although understandable, is dangerous. Unhealthy memories have proven to be detrimental to, not just the memory carrier, but society. You will learn to appreciate this.”
She touched the doctor’s icy fingers.
“I think you need some rest,” said the doctor.
“Were minimizers made mandatory during my coma?”
“Let me get you that water.”
“How long before he’s ready?” says Mitzi.
“Six to eight weeks. It will take a few more weeks if you purchase the advanced upgrades.”
The iPhone is again dormant.
Mitzi is silent, impossible to read.
“Maybe you need more time to think about it,” says Ava.
“You’ve been very patient and knowledgeable,” says Mitzi. “I think I’ll take him.”
Ava doesn’t miss a beat. “Excellent. You won’t be disappointed.” Ava momentarily expects Mitzi to requestion her about evil and souls, but she smiles and seems satisfied with her decision.
The iPhone rouses.
“You do qualify for some free upgrades,” says Ava.
“Okay. But I don’t want anything that delays delivery.”
“You don’t have to decide right now,” says Ava. “Nathan is still in the early stages of reawakening. And don’t hesitate to give him a new name.”
“I want him to complete a master class in Russian literature. He doesn’t need to learn Russian. English translations are fine.”
“I’m sorry, we don’t do reading upgrades. It’s never been requested. But he will of course be capable of texting and reading a menu.”
“I must insist on a body modification.”
“Minor plastic surgery is acceptable and can be performed without a delivery delay. Are we talking abdomen? Genitals? Nose and jawline?
“He must have a tattoo.”
Mitzi, just before signing the contract, has oddly returned to her tattoo fixation.
“I’m afraid I must insist,” says Mitzi.
“What kind of tattoo do you want?”
“The phrase ‘Je me souviens.’ On his forearm. In red. Dark red.”
“Je me souviens?”
“Yes. In dark red. It means ‘I remember’. There’s nothing sinister about it.”
Ava’s iPhone flashes. It’s from her immediate supervisor. “Close the deal.”
“The tattoo is acceptable,” says Ava. “Will there be anything else?”
“No. You’ve been perfect. Thank you.”
Mitzi signs the contract and immediately transfers the money to Ideal Humans LLC. Mitzi is now penniless. She will begin working the double shift at the country club.
Nathan sees the reflection of a naked man prone on the bed. His right arm is bandaged. When he turns away from the mirror the bed is empty. Linear time is again being disrupted. The redhead told him not to worry and he doesn’t. He is learning how to trust.
Mitzi politely refuses to visit Nathan’s training sessions.
“It’s hard to contact you,” says Ava. “I think your landline is unreliable.”
“I’ve been busy.”
“Your attendance is, of course, not required, but it would facilitate future bonding. Lori has been working with Nathan, and Lori is the best, but your sexual interaction with him would make her job easier. Potential communication and sexual difficulties can often be detected and promptly resolved in these pre-release sessions.”
“I’ve been tracking his progress online and I am very pleased. Lori is the best.”
Mitzi hasn’t been near a computer.
“There is a special celebration team dedicated to the launching of every new ideal man.,” said Ava. “There will be balloons and cheesecake. Think about it.”
“Send them my apologies,” said Mitzi, “but I’m planning something a little more intimate.”
“You are very sublime,” says Nathan.
“I get that all the time,” says Mitzi.
She touches his arm. Mitzi feels his muscles relax. She places her forefinger on Nathan’s tattoo and drives her fire engine red nails into his skin.
“Does that hurt?”
“A little, but it’s all right.”
“Je me souviens. Do you know what that means?”
“I know it’s not a bad thing.”
Mitzi begins tracing the tattoo with the silver tip of an imported Japanese knife that had been highly recommended by Consumer Reports.
“Is something wrong?”
Mitzi detects no anxiety in Nathan’s voice.
“What do you remember about growing up?” says Mitzi.
Nathan doesn’t hesitate. “It was all right. There was a bicycle. A few friends. I don’t remember names. I don’t remember anything bad.”
Mitzi withdraws the knife from Nathan’s arm. “Do you know why you are here?”
“It’s like a blind date.”
“That’s right. This is the part where we get to learn about each other. What do you want to know about me?”
“Do you have a job?”
“I’m a waitress.”
“I’m sure you are an excellent one. It would be nice to be your customer.”
“Do you remember ever being in this room?”
His eyes remain fixed on Mitzi’s face, neck, and scar. “No.”
“Do you remember ever seeing me before?”
“No. I would not forget you.”
She studies his face. It’s forgettable, possibly the result of the standard plastic surgery. It is too symmetric.
“Can you say something for me?” says Mitzi.
“I will try.”
“There’s nothing to get hung about.”
“All right. There’s nothing to get hung about.”
She pushes the knife firmly against his throat. The inevitability of the moment is followed by a trickle of blood.
“We have a lot in common,” says Mitzi.
“Is this dodgy foreplay?” he says. “I’m confused.”
Mitzi touches the blood with her free hand. He doesn’t resist. Without a soul a person is restful.
She never planned on sadistically torturing him. It was to be quick. She’d call the police and immediately plead guilty. Her court appointed lawyer would hopelessly argue that it is impossible to murder a man who is more dead than alive. Mitzi would spend a few months in jail before being dispatched to an Ideal Humans LLC rehabilitation site where she would be reborn after an intense regiment of maximum dose minimizers. She’d reappear as an ideal woman, ready for her own mystery date.
Nathan slowly moves behind her. She feels his warm steady breath on the back of her neck.
“I see you are reading Demons,” he says. “That is very dark. It is filled with trauma. It is never wise to tempt trauma.”
Immediately after arriving home from the hospital Mitzi detailed her assault. She keeps the written memory inside Demons (part 2, chapter 3.) She reads the nine pages every day.
“Can you read Demons?” says Mitzi.
“I believe my reading skills are quite good. I don’t remember anyone asking me about reading. They watched me eat, drink, and have sex. Occasionally they would poke and taunt me. But it was mostly good.”
“What would you like to do on our first date?”
“Maybe listen to some music. Pink Floyd. The Beatles. Reading would be ideal. But nothing too dark. Maybe something set in the future.” “The future will be perfect.”
Leland Neville lives and writes in upstate New York. He previously worked for a news magazine in Washington, D.C. and taught in both a high school and a prison. Some of his short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Space Squid, The Barcelona Review, Sobotka Literary Magazine, and Liquid Imagination.