“Billy,” said Joshua McIntyre. “Why don’t you get yerself a girlfriend steada watchin’ all that DVD porn?”
Billy Babbitt and Joshua McIntyre, friends since their college days, were sitting in Flakey Jake’s, a dive bar near Putnamville. Both were lifelong inhabitants of the small Indiana farm town, and the two of them met most evenings in Flakey Jake’s. Now in their forties, they lamented the course of their unexceptional lives. Joshua, once a high school gym teacher, had been fired from his job when a CNN video showed him vandalizing the Capital building during the January 6 insurrection. Billy, once an aspiring novelist, had shelved his manuscript years ago when a book publisher dismissed him as a third-rate, James Joyce wannabe. Now a reporter for the Putnamville Gazette, Billy devoted his literary skills to covering local bake sales and high school football games.
“Well, why don’t ya?” Joshua said. “Women in the flesh are a lot more entertaining than women in porno flicks.”
“Tell that to yer wife,” Billy said. “I’m sure she’ll be flattered to hear it.”
“Naw, I don’t wanna spoil her,” said Joshua. “But I will admit to this. Without Stella’s loving touch, I’d just be a bum in a bar.”
“You’re a bum in a bar just the same,” Billy said. “I can’t see where yer wife’s made a difference.”
Joshua shook his head and took a long swallow of beer. “Women keep home fires burning,” he said. “That makes one hellava difference. Wouldn’t ya like to go home to a honey instead of a stack of DVD porn?”
“Women want nothing to do with me,” Billy snapped. “They think I’m a literary nerd. If I had to pick between women and porn, I’d just as soon settle for porn.”
“Maybe ya haven’t tried hard enough.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Get rid of those polyester bell bottoms you’re wearing. Replace ’em with designer jeans. And get yerself a decent haircut ’cause your cowlick’s all over the place.”
“Designer jeans are expensive,” said Billy.
“Well, go sell your porn collection—ya gotta be sick of it by now. That’ll probably net you a fortune, and it wouldn’t be no great loss.”
Billy was unwilling to admit it, but Joshua was right. He had long been bored with his pile of porn and longed for a real female’s touch. But the tyranny of habit still gripped his guarded soul. “Do I gotta sell Deep Throat?” he said.
Joshua sighed like a kettle. “Billy, ya gotta ditch yer distractions. That starts with yer smut collection. You’re not a bad-lookin’ fella, ya know? You just gotta tidy up.”
“So where do I look for a babe in the flesh?”
“Try a singles dance at the Holiday Inn, and practice your line a bit first. Hell, it shouldn’t be long ’til a fella like you is beatin’ ’em off with a stick.”
The thought of beating off love-starved nymphs was more than Billy could resist. “All right,” he said. “I’ll sell my porn, but I’m hanging on to Deep Throat.”
After setting aside his favorite DVDs—Deep Throat and Lesbian Lunch—Billy took his depleted collection to Jaybird, the local porn shop. He sold his collection for only a fraction of what he had paid for it, but the hundred dollars he netted was enough to buy some designer jeans.
A week later, wearing his fancy-new jeans, Billy showed up at a singles dance at a nearby Holiday Inn. He walked into the ballroom confidently, his cowlick slicked into place, but the women were chatting among themselves and none looked in his direction. His confidence suffered further when he asked one of them to dance—a leathery blonde who stifled a yawn as she texted on her cell phone. “I don’t like the band, little man,” she drawled.
“How ’bout I buy you a drink?” Billy countered, “That oughta even things up.”
“How about you don’t,” the woman replied, “and we’ll call it even at that.”
Billy approached several more women and met with equal results—not one of them accepted his invitation to dance. “Hey, don’t I know you?” one said. “Don’t you report for the local paper.”
“I’m really a budding author,” Billy said. “Some call me the Renaissance Man.”
The woman cackled and rolled her eyes. “Is that what they call you, hon? I didn’t know Renaissance men wrote for the Putnamville Gazette.”
After a fruitless hour, Billy abandoned the Holiday Inn. If he had hoped to beat off babes with a stick, he had come to an unlikely place. The ballroom was not filled with wanton belles, as Joshua had suggested, but matrons in their fifties who had led concentrated lives. Lives that enabled them to see Billy for what he was—an underachiever whose desperate baggage was more than they cared to pick up.
Adding to Billy’s disappointment was the all-to-sobering thought that singles dances were no less stale than the porn he had given up. “Stuck-up bitches,” he muttered as he slipped into his car, and he cursed himself for the cash he had blown on a pair of designer jeans.
The following afternoon, Billy pawned his Mac for a hundred and fifty dollars, and then he returned to Jaybird hoping to buy back some of his porn. He realized that renewing his vice would afford him nothing more than the sterile embrace of his television and a change of solitude. But his soul felt so impoverished, so gravelly and bare, that nothing green seemed likely to ever take root in it.
Billy had not expected to meet the love of his life in Jaybird. He had not expected his heart to leap like a rabbit trapped in his chest. But sitting high on one of the shelves, as though watching for his arrival, was a stunning, life-sized brunette so appealing that Billy could not catch his breath. Her eyes were aglow with yearning; her cheeks were flushed with excitement; her pale, slender arms reached toward him in a permanent embrace. And her open, oval-shaped mouth bore the innocence of Eve in Paradise Lost—a naïf who had gasped when first she saw her reflection in a pond. She was wearing a short, frizzy nightie, which did her no justice at all—her perfect, hourglass figure belonged in an elegant evening gown.
“How much for the toy?” Billy asked the sales clerk, a greasy kid with acne. Billy kept his voice condescending as though he were pricing a used car. It would never do for that kid to suspect that he had suddenly fallen in love.
“You’re in luck,” said the kid. “We’re letting her go for a hundred and thirty dollars. She was made in Tijuana. Only the best dolls come out of there.”
“Has she a name?” Billy asked the kid. He knew his question was foolish, but he asked it anyway. It would be presumptuous of him not to know the doll’s name before he escorted her home.
“We call her Blow-Up Bertha,” the kid said, “but name her whatever you like.”
As he paid for the doll, Billy felt proud for the first time in his life. He felt as though he rescued a damsel entombed in a pirates’ cave. The kid winked as he handed Billy the doll, along with his receipt, and Billy was pleased to discover that she was uncommonly light.
After placing the doll in his car and fastening a seat belt over her chest, Billy drove her to the boarding house where he lived in a rented room. A few of the tenants stared at him as he lugged her into the house, but Billy was too excited to care about what they might think of him. Reaching his room, Billy opened the door and carried the doll over the threshold, and then he sat her ceremoniously on the bed and began to take off his pants. It did seem as though he was rushing things, since they had met just met an hour ago, and when a gentle voice admonished him, he felt like a dog caught raiding a cookie jar.
“What are you doing?” the voice purred. “Are you taking liberties with me, sir?”
The tone was sweeter than honey, softer than a summer rain, and the heavy Spanish accent made Billy’s underpants swell. The remarks had come from the doll even though her oval-shaped mouth had not moved, but her eyes were locked upon him as though he had escaped from a cage.
Billy zipped his pants up and hung his head in shame. Since the voice carried the weight of karma, it did not seem out of place. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Don’t think badly of me.”
The doll did not drop her stare. “Have you not kidnapped me, señor, and thrown me on your bed? And is it not your intention to have your way with me? Señor, you give me no choice but to have bad thoughts of you.”
“I’m n-no rapist!” Billy sputtered.
The doll looked at him more appraisingly, and the alarm went out of her voice. “So what are you then? A sad little man who lives in a messy room?”
“I’m a budding author,” said Billy. “They call me the Renaissance Man.”
“Yes, I’m sure they do,” said the doll. “But have you a proper name?”
“My name is Billy Babbitt, and I paid good money for you.”
“Good money does not buy slaves, Meester Babbitt. What a pig you are. And what might my name be, or did you bother to find out”
“I think it’s Blow-Up Bertha,” said Billy. “It says that on my receipt.”
“Dios mio!” the doll exclaimed. “Some stupid boy must have named me. Please address me as Bella Blanco, or I will be very cross with you.”
They looked at each other strategically. Billy struggled for something to say.
After a minute, the doll broke the silence. “So tell me Billy Babbitt,” she teased. “have you greater ambitions, sir? Or is it your calling to grab señoritas and ravage them in this room?”
“Can’t we think of this as seduction?” asked Billy.
“Seduction? Pah!” the doll snapped. “Does seduction not have stages, señior? Should you not date a woman first?”
“I’m out of practice with dating,” said Billy.
“Que pena!” the doll replied. “Have you ever dated a woman, at all? I doubt that, Billy Babbitt.”
“I’ve tried,” Billy said, “but women don’t like me.”
The doll gasped like a broken pump. “Why should women like you. You’re a skinny hombre who lives in a sty, and you probably watch naughty movies. What makes you think any woman would want to waste time on you?”
Billy grew redder than a plum, and his palms began to sweat. “W-would you like to go out to dinner?” he stammered.
The doll gazed at him with pity and sternness. “Dinner?” she spat as though scolding a child. “You want to take me to dinner? All right, I accept your offer, señor. At least, that might give us a start.”
After dressing Bella in a black, evening gown, which he bought in a Goodwill store, Billy took her to Hot Tamales, a Mexican restaurant in Putnamville. The proprietor, perhaps thinking that Bella was a prop for some local play, expressed no objection as Billy seated her at one of the corner tables. Fortunately, the evening was young and the restaurant had no other diners, but Billy still took the precaution of sitting Bella with her back to the door.
Billy ordered a platter of arroz con pollo and a plate for each of them. After heaping both plates with chicken and rice, he said, “Bon appetite.”
Bella did not touch her food, but she seemed pleased by the restaurant’s décor. She was clearly glad to be somewhere other than Billy’s dirty room, and her voice bore a note of approval as she renewed their conversation. “So tell me, Billy, what do you do when you’re not kidnapping innocent women?”
“I write for the Putnamville Gazette.”
“How interesting. Tell me all about it.”
“There’s not much to tell,” Billy shrugged.
“Well, what are your hobbies, señor.”
“I go to the movies a lot, Miss Blanco, but what’s there to say about that?”
Bella chuckled politely, but her tone of voice grew bored. “Billy, it seems I have more questions than you have answers to give me.”
“I’m not much of a talker,” Billy confessed.
“Please make more of an effort, señor. Perhaps you could tell me the reason you are called the Renaissance Man.”
Billy needed no prompting to expound on his pet peeve: the indifference of the corporate-run publishing houses to scribes out of step with the times. He described, in painful detail, the progress he’d made on his book: a dreamscape of poetic allusions that he titled The Sweat of the Sun. Of course, this made him a throwback to an age of literary giants, writers whose towering efforts would never be published today. If he had only lived in Paris, during the 1920s, Billy would have dined with Gertrude Stein and gotten drunk with Hemingway.
Bella listened intently and sighed when Billy was done. “For this, they call you the Renaissance Man, or is that what you call yourself?”
Since his pose had failed to impress her, Billy decided to change his act. Perhaps the role of a paramour would bring him better results. “I’ve given up writing,” he proudly announced. “My passions belong to you. I even pawned my Mac, so I could rescue you.”
“How simpatico,” Bella huffed. “But tell me something, señor. What makes you think I wanted a bobo to take me out of that store?”
“A pervert may have bought you if I hadn’t shown up first.”
“Since you quit your writing to buy me, señor, I am no better off with you.”
“I was hoping you might be grateful,” groused Billy.
A sob crept into her voice. “Grateful for what, Meester Babbitt? A man who buys me cheap dresses and insists he was born too late? Señor, I believe you’ll soon blame me for not finishing your book.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because, Meester Babbitt, you are much too fond of complaining. It is bad enough being your captive without becoming your whipping girl too.”
Stunned by Bella’s bluntness, Billy averted her eyes. “L-let’s talk about something else,” he pleaded.
“Let’s end this date,” Bella snapped. “I appreciate your effort, but I’ve lost my appetite.”
As Billy lugged Bella back to his room, his heart began to pound. After all, they had had their first quarrel, so he expected some makeup sex. But his hopes for compensation were dashed when he set Bella back on his bed. She told him not to touch her and went into a lingering sulk.
Bella’s depression continued for days, and Billy felt miserable. Compounding his grief were the tearful laments she would mutter to herself. “Why oh why,” she moaned, “do I not have a loving home. Mother Mary, what have I done to be trapped in this terrible room?” She seemed like a modern-day Emma Bovary, a woman doomed by her dreams, and his was the role of Emma’s drab husband who richly deserved her contempt.
After several days, Billy tried to improve Bella’s opinion of him. He acquired a loan from a local bank, took his computer out of hock, and emailed the first chapter of his manuscript to several small publishers. A week later, a publisher emailed him back and said his chapter showed merit. She liked his stream-of-conscious technique, and she asked him to send her the book. When he told this news to Bella, she practically swooned. “Do send her the book!” she cried. “I want you to be a real author, señor. I want to have good thoughts about you.”
Billy emailed his book to the publisher. She accepted it the next day, describing it as a Proustian gem that did not need much polishing. She promised she would get back to him in two weeks with the edits and cover design, and she said she hoped he would use the time to come up with a marketing plan.
Flushed by the specter of future success, Billy was jubilant, particularly since this wonderful news pulled Bella out of her funk. “Billy, I feel like dancing,” she gushed. “Forgive me for doubting you, sir. Dios mio, I’m glad it was you and not a pervert that bought me.”
Since a celebration seemed in order to keep Bella’s spirits high, Billy took out another loan and booked them a carnival cruise.
Billy was so elated by Bella’s festive mood that he did notice the stares of the passengers as he carried her aboard a plane to Miami. Nor did he hear their laughter as he fastened Bella into her seat or turn his head when a woman cried out, “What kind of airline is this?” A flight attendant suggested that Bella be placed in a carry-on rack, but Billy showed her his extra ticket and she let Bella stay in her seat.
Bella drew even more attention at the cruise terminal in Miami. A child shouted, “Mommy, I want that balloon,” a security guard called for backup, and several people raised their iPhones and took videos of her. But a check-in agent grinned good-naturedly and gave Billy two boarding passes. “Is that prop for the Mardi Graz party?” he asked, and Billy stopped holding his breath. When the security guard waved the couple aboard, Billy squeezed Bella’s hand reassuringly then he clutched her as though she were a life preserver and rushed her onto the ship.
Billy had hoped that a carnival cruise would bring Bella to amorous heights but Bella, a lady of breeding, had no use for the noisy boat. The costume balls did not interest her, the stage shows made her yawn, and she certainly had no desire to be force-fed six times a day. “Billy,” she said, “who are these people who party all day long? Their drunkenness and gluttony are depressing me, señor.”
“How about that sunset?” said Billy as they stood on the promenade deck.
“The sunset is beautiful, mi amor, but must we share it with fools?”
At Bella’s insistence, they deserted the cruise when the ship docked in Nassau, and her mood improved considerably as they explored the island together. The tropical gardens enthralled her, the waterfalls made her gasp, and the flamingos in the nature center took away her breath. She particularly enjoyed snorkeling with dolphins because she had no trouble staying afloat, and she laughed like a child when one of the dolphins nudged her with its nose.
They consummated their relationship in a hotel overlooking a bay, but Billy’s joy turned to panic when Bella sprang a leak. The leak hissed like an angry snake, accelerating Billy’s fear as he cupped his hand over a shriveling breast and lugged her to the front desk. “Help her! Help her!” he shouted. “She’s going into shock!” The clerk summoned the hotel limousine driver who drove the couple to a garage where an attendant glued a tire patch onto Bella’s wheezing breast. A couple of blasts from an air hose restored Bella to her full size, and Billy wept with gratitude as he took her back to their room.
Perhaps Bella considered the patch to be a blot on her beauty, or perhaps their constant sightseeing had sapped her energy. In any case, she had no desire to renew their connubial bliss. “Later, mi amor,” she snapped when he reached for her in bed. “If you start treating me like a plaything, I will not think well of you.”
“You’re the joy of my life,” Billy protested.
“I’m a balloon,” Bella replied. “The joy of your life should not be a balloon You need to complete your book.”
A day after they returned to Putnamville, Billy’s publisher sent him an email with some attachments, and Billy realized that completing his book would prove a daunting task. The edits seemed excessive, the cover image looked trite, and Billy was irked that she’d sent him a contract to split the promotional costs.
“Damn,” Billy grumbled as he scanned the edits. “She’s mending my book with an axe. On top of that, she wants me to pay for butchering my voice.”
“Well, pay her,” said Bella. “Can you not see she has given you a chance? Are you too pigheaded, mi amor, not to bet on yourself?”
Billy took out a third loan and sent the publisher a check, and then he grudgingly read through the edits and tried to revise his book. But his manuscript was suffering the death of a thousand cuts—a torture so cruel and calculated that Billy could not witness it. After deleting the publisher’s emails, Billy cursed his damnable luck, and Bella, unable to cope with him, retreated into herself. She did not need to say anything, her stiffness said it all, and in a matter of days, their common-law marriage had grown intolerable.
Hoping to salvage some vestige of the happiness they had known, Billy contacted a therapist and booked them for couple’s counseling. But Bella refused to open up when Billy took her to their first session, and the therapist took Billy aside and gave him a piece of advice. “Mister Babbitt,” he said. “You’re much too fond of your psychotic break. If you decide to return to normality, you will have to get rid of the doll.”
Since normality meant only rejection and a new pile of DVD porn, Billy refused further treatment and carted Bella home. But Bella, who continued to assault him with silence, seemed increasingly like a balloon, and one afternoon, Billy decided that he would be no worse off on his own.
When he took Bella back to Jaybird, the greasy kid shook his head. “I ain’t paying for damaged goods,” he snapped.
“You can have her for free,” Billy said.
Billy stood as though shackled after handing Bella back to the kid. Her gaze was so dispirited, when the kid put her back on the shelf, that she seemed like a trusting dog who had been surrendered to a pound. He agonized over something to say to her, a tribute to cushion his grief. “At least, we had Nassau,” he blurted, but Bella just stared into space.
That afternoon, Billy yielded to habit and returned to Flakey Jake’s, but the barroom now looked so gloomy, so prohibitive and dark, that he felt as though he had ducked into a cave to evade the judgment of God. Joshua was sitting at their usual table, nursing a glass of beer, but even the sight of his lifelong friend did not cheer Billy up.
After buying them a full pitcher, Billy topped off Joshua’s beer.
“Where ya been all month?” Joshua said. “Did ya get lucky at the dance?”
Billy mentioned the heavenly woman with whom he had broken up. Of course, he did not tell Joshua that she was an inflatable doll; instead, he described her ethereal beauty and her generous resolve to support him when he called himself an elevated soul.
“You make her sound like an angel,” said Joshua as Billy started to fill his own glass. “But if she tried to change ya, it was wrong of her to do that.”
Billy remembered how lost Bella looked when he left her in the shop, how her frozen arms stretched toward him, how she gaped as though calling him back. The memory was so enduring, and so beyond repair, that his hands shook as though they were palsied and he overpoured his beer.
“Let’s talk no more about her,” he griped as the puddle soaked his pants. “At least, she was right about one thing. I like to complain too much.”
“Blow Up Bella” was previously published in the journal “A Thin Slice of Anxiety”.
James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/-/es/James-Hanna/e/B00WNH356Y?ref_=dbs_p_ebk_r00_abau_000000
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