A story by Jeff McCall, first place winner, The Phi Kappa Sigma Fiction Prizes, 2001
Herman And Becky And Ted And Mustafa Drawers; Or PV=RT
Becky and Herman met at a lecture on the hermeneutics of quantum gravity. Since that day they had either dated frequently or hung out sometimes, depending on who you asked. Herman would never forget that special moment during the intermission of the lecture "Stupidness: Why We Don't Just Fly Off Into Space". He'd been taking advantage of the free Buffalo wings when, without ever having spoken to him before, she touched his face with a moist towelette and wiped the hot sauce that had crusted orange in the corners of his mouth. Herman was struck by an energy so profound and pure that he puked into a trashcan next to the snack table. He told himself that he didn't love Becky right from the get go, no but eventually he found the fantasy of her almond eyes, her freckled Irish face creeping into his dreams until he could no longer sleep but only lay in bed staring at the dull strips of unsticky fly-paper that hung from the ceiling, thinking of the equation for the internal energy, enthalpy, and specific heat of ideal gases Becky had tattooed on her belly- how he would like to feel that smooth bit of skin against his cheek. The only sleep he'd gotten in the last 3 days came when his body collapsed under the fatigue of his pining vigil and he passed out for half an hour. The thought of telling her about this made his liver want to leap out of his mouth. So when he finally pepped himself into revealing his feelings to her during one of their regular meetings for coffee, he had come to the point when it seemed like the last remaining option, but all he could eek out was: "I mean, I...really like you, like like you like you."
"Aww," said Becky, tilting her head slightly, "that's so sweet."
Herman let pass a longish pause in case she had anything to add. She didn't.
"That's all you can say? I mean, I really like you."
"I know. You just said that."
"But don't you care?"
Becky rested her head on her hand, stirring lazily her double mocha decaf.
"I would, but I have a boyfriend."
"Yes. His name is Ted."
"Since when did you have a boyfriend?"
"About three years now."
"Three years? How come I've never met him?"
"You have, but you probably don't remember because he's invisible."
She explained that Ted was a man just like other men, only improved. He was the result of her final project in her senior chemistry seminar, created out of five moles of lithium, a teaspoon of petrol, a car battery from Sears and a twelve pack of RC Cola. "It's all very complicated," she explained.
"I don't understand," said Herman.
"Well, like I said, it's complicated."
"He has a body but he's invisible?"
"Not really. He's kind of gaseous."
"Yes, sex is very awkward."
"This is all very confusing."
"How can you have a relationship with gasses?"
"Well he's not all gasses. He writes poetry. He sings, plays the flute. Sometimes we go on talking all night and don't even realize it until the sun comes up. He lets me breathe him in and out. Sometimes I sneeze him. We're in love."
Herman tried to flag down the waitress for some more coffee. He couldn't tell whether he was nervous and sweating because of the conversation, which had taken a decidedly odd turn, or because he'd just chugged 40 oz. of Mango Mocha, but he needed another one, if only to break up the rhythm of confusion. Becky tried to comfort him by saying that this was no reason she and Herman shouldn't continue to be friends. In fact, it would be ridiculous to disrupt their relationship at all seeing as they had been getting along so well, and Herman agreed, but nevertheless the backwaters of his brain began to churn with conspiracy.
In the month following their conversation, Becky made sure that they saw each other as rarely as possible, and always made it a point to have Ted there with her in a balloon tied to her wrist. Once Ted was in a balloon that was silver on one side and Tony Orlando on the other. Next time his balloon was gold with Abraham Lincoln giving a thumbs up. "He goes through phases," she explained. Every now and then, Herman could convince himself that he'd forgotten about her, shut her out of his mind, but when he would see her again, his heart would open up and spew forth until it was fully deflated. But he couldn't bear to be away from her so he consciously began to squash any feeling for her that came into his head.
When he was away from her, he pretended that he'd never met her, and was successful to an extent. But when he was with her he couldn't tell if he was happy or just acting happy. If he was sad he questioned whether he was genuinely sad, or acting too sad. As she disclosed the most intimate and sordid details of her relationship with Ted, from the money they saved on movie tickets to the joys of condensing him into a liquid and sloshing around in a frothy bath of him, Herman wondered how much longer he could take it. He dreamt about her nearly every night. She would be laying next to him in bed, both of them fully clothed and eyes closed in ecstasy as Herman caressed the clean lintlessness of her bellybutton, dipped his head down to feel that skin against his face. When he opened his eyes he would be looking right at her tattoo: Pv=RT, and wake up, unable to recall what had startled him out of his sleep. It was on one of these nights that he decided finally that Ted must be destroyed. Fate dictated that Becky would choose this very moment to call. It was 1:30 in the morning and she and Ted had had a fight and she was very upset and wondering if Herman could meet her for coffee. Of course he could. Herman put his arm around her in the back booth at the International House of Pancakes on Route 6, nibbling on a Moons-Over-My-Hammy and rubbing her shoulder as she cried. "Ted doesn't like his balloon, she whimpered, "and I need something to hold." Oh yeah, thought Herman, oh yeah. "I'm there for you," he said. Eventually her whimpering slowed and her crying fell to a low sniffle. She looked up at Herman and kissed him on the cheek. Herman discretely swallowed the bit of toasted rye and ham left in his mouth and kissed her back. And then they were caught, their eyes locked together for the first time since the first time they'd met, and Herman saw her irises a calm blue sea, ripples of white wash lapping at her eyelids, the dark moons of her pupils a divine perfection, untouchable.
He kissed her. She kissed him. They kissed. Herman had just realized that their tongues were sliding against one another in each other's mouth, that the moment he'd dreamed of had finally come when she pulled away suddenly and rude.
"No....I can't, I can't,"
Herman demanded to know why, said that Ted was a loose collection of molecules and could never be loved, not the way she could love him. "Ted is a fucking balloon for crissake!" She broke out of his arms and ran from the booth, almost crashing into a waitress with a full tray of pancakes. Herman called after her, but she was moving too fast for him, so he sat back down and finished his dinner in a silent and bitter rage. This was only fuel to the fire which was now reaching dangerous capacity, popping little flame whips out his ears, making sounds that sounded like plans for killing Ted.
It first occurred to him that he should simply cut the string and Ted would float away, but Becky was careful to never leave Ted alone, and since he was always tied to her wrist, Herman hard pressed to think of ways to make it look accidental. Ted could remain somewhat intact and undissipated while not in his balloon, so popping him wouldn't be enough, and when condensed into liquid, he was even more stable than normal. As gasses go, Ted was annoyingly resilient. What if there was some kind of a vacuum that Ted could get sucked into? Then Herman remembered the Titmouse Reading Room.
The Titmouse Reading Room was one of a chain of poetry reading places that had sprung up in the area over the last five years, a commercial venture that had begun to prove surprisingly profitable. So profitable, in fact, they were able to install a $10,000 air-filtration system that allowed people to smoke while they read or listened, a device that was now required by a new city ordinance that outlawed smoking in any public place without such a system. Lucky them. Herman checked the listing for upcoming poets and found that Mustafa Drawers, Becky's favorite poet, would be reading his famous poem , "62 Reasons I Would Like To See All The White People Bludgeoned Beyond Recognition and Hung From the Crepe Myrtle in My Front Yard," next Friday at 6:30 for a mere $15 a head. It was more than perfect. Since he had not spoken to Becky since she ran out of IHOP, then he could call to apologize and say that he could make it up to her by taking her to the reading. If she says yes, then it surely means that she wants Ted to die. Herman would buy some cigarettes, and perhaps a lit one might accidentally brush against the balloon? It just might. He waited three days and called Becky. She said she'd be happy to go, that Ted had agreed to get back into his balloon and things were back to normal, and that he was excited too, since Mustafa Drawers was one of his favorite poets too.
So that Friday, they got there early, and took their seats in the front corner. Becky was brimming. Ted was in his Abe Lincoln balloon. He bounced against the grate and Becky said that he was happy, and wanted to thank Herman for bringing them. Herman just smiled. yes, yes...
The room was spacious but cozy. Enough room to sit down and be comfortable if you were able to be very still. The air filtration system was a giant metal grate that covered the ceiling, an interesting contrast to the old and stained oak walls, the green caret and the chandelier with bulbs that flickered like candles. They tried to decorate around the grate as best they could, hung ribbons from it that were wrinkled like they'd once been tied into bows. It was against this steel grate that Ted bounced. Herman leaned back and lit a cigarette.
Becky looked at him squinty eyed, "I've never seen you smoke before."
"Just every now and then. Old habits, you know..."
"Can I have one?"
Herman lit one for her. People were beginning to shuffle in, exited conversation about hearing such a famous poet.
"...I heard him in New York once. They had to bring him to the mic on a dolly he was so drunk."
"Yeah, I heard that he didn't even read. Just yelled at the audience the whole time."
"Last time I heard him he called me a sycophantic cracker bitch. Picked me out of the whole crowd...I felt so special..."
"Aren't his insults wonderful?"
A loud hollow and sucking whoosh noise began from the grate. Somewhere distant in the works of the thing was the soundlessness of well greased cogs turning razor blade fans at slicefinger speeds. The inward thrust of air trapped Ted right up against it. Seats were being filled up, and the master of ceremonies worked his way to the front, stopping by Becky, "I'm sorry, but we can't have a balloon in here. It could get sucked up into the machine, and it's in people's way."
"But it's not a balloon," she says, "It's my boyfriend."
"Yes, we get a lot of that, but it will still have to be put back in the other room, you see. Before we start."
She pleaded that she could just hold onto him, keep him low. Herman offered to take it into the other room (was this his opportunity?), but she insisted that he stay. The MC reluctantly agreed but warned her that they'd had balloons get sucked through before and it messes up the fans, so she should be very careful to hold onto it. Herman's cigarette was going out, but he began to think that he might not need it after all. A new plan was forming. If he could jar her arms, surprise her maybe, then she might just let go, goodbye Ted, and it wouldn't even be his fault. The MC took the podium, "Good evening everyone. Tonight we are especially blessed to have with us one of America's finest poets. For years he wrote in obscurity, before the ears of the establishment could be refined to his voice. But now his song rings from the mountaintops as one of the great forces of dissent in the world of literature. Allow me to present to you, Mustafa Drawers."
Heads turned to see him walk in. Becky turned, holding Ted like she might hold a watermelon. Herman checked for a way to move her arms, but her grip was complete. Mustafa made his was to the front. He was a hunched over bespeckled man of about 60-65. He wore a brown sweater and jeans. Herman thought that he looked like an old man in a commercial for Centrum Silver, vitamin supplements to keep you active well into old age, pushing his happy grandson in a tricycle. Mustafa stacked some papers against the podium. "Hello. Thank you for having me. It's very nice to see so many people here." He smiled amiably, "You know I grew up in Camden, New Jersey, and I think that has a lot to do with my poetry. I'd never really thought about it before until I moved, recently, to Jamaica of all places. And I gotta tell ya, it's much nicer to live there than Camden. Pretty much anywhere is better than Camden, actually, but some places are only slightly nicer. Jamaica is a lot nicer. Everyone is poor, just like Camden, but instead of hovering around a fire in a trash barrel drinking Wild Turkey, we sit on the beach and smoke joints all day. Anyway, I tell you all this, I suppose, as an explanation of why I've decided not to read my poem, 62 Reasons I'd Like to See All the White People Blah blah blah blah blah."
A disappointed hush floated up from the crowd. Becky gave her squinty-eyed look to Herman again. It took a moment for him to realize what had just been said. He'd been concentrating on Becky's grip on Ted, who'd begun to squirm angrily. The fans were going strong. He lit another cigarette. Around the room, everyone was smoking. Columns of smoke weren't even given half a chance to twist before being swooshed up and through. Herman wondered if Ted could see this. Was he aware? Was he afraid?
"Another cigarette?" Herman offered Becky, jabbing the lit butt in her direction. She wasn't listening to him, and when she leaned toward him and whispered, "What the hell is he doing?" she almost impaled Ted on the coal.
"So now I'd like to read, if you don't mind-"
Ted bulged his balloon, pushed outward. Becky thumped him.
"-a poem that I've been working on lately that I think is exemplary of my new stuff. This is the first time I've read it, so be nice." He chuckled.
Becky whispered something to Ted. Herman concentrated on his cigarette. Half of it had already burned and he thumped the ashes off and tried offering it again, moving it slowly in between his fingers, pretending not to be paying attention to where he was moving it. "Do you want another cigarette," he whispered, but she shushed him.
"-this one's called The Seashell," continued Mustafa.
Becky put one arm on top of Ted, like she was trying to hold him down.
"I found a pretty seashell, lying on the beach.
"Oh what a pretty seashell, seawashed and bleached.
"Oh this beach is very nice, much better than the northern ice, dreadlocks let you ig-nore lice, and play with all the pretty seashells on the beach."
Mouths fell open. No one moved. Ted continued to squirm. He looked like he was trying to get out. Becky was getting angry. As Ted squeezed through, Herman reached with his cigarette hand as if he was trying to help, and got the cigarette very close, but at the moment when the red hot coal might have met the silver, Becky pulled Ted away, stood up, and stomped out of the room. Herman started to get up, but then stopped. He watched for her over the heads of the confused faces that sat like surprised frogs listening to Drawers's next poem called "I Feel Like the Palm Trees Sway". The crowd was restless. Becky's abrupt exit was a timely suggestion and others began to think it wasn't such a bad idea. Watches were checked and coats gathered. Herman decided he'd waited long enough to not seem like he was chasing after her, but still concerned. "Thanks for coming," he heard Mustafa call to the sudden mass exodus.
Outside, Becky was standing out on the sidewalk looking toward the sky under the peach beam of a street lamp. Ted was not there. Her eyes were wet, rosy like she'd been crying, but her face looked calm.
"Are you all right?" asked Herman.
She smiled and said yes. She reached out for Herman to hold her and he took her in his arms.
"Ted's gone, Herman. I let him go."
"He hated Drawers's new poems, called him an Uncle Tom sell-out and demanded that we leave. But we'd been arguing a lot lately, and this was just that straw, you know." She paused, gathered herself again, "I was thinking about what you said the other day, and you're right. Ted is just a bunch of molecules. I thought he was more than that, and maybe he was for awhile, but we're just too different, physically, to have a meaningful relationship."
Herman squeezed her tight, felt her breasts squish against his chest, and shivered.
"So, he's gone now?"
"And now you want to be with me?"
"I do," she said, and kissed him on the cheek.
Herman felt glad. She was a pretty girl, and now she was his. He'd waited out the game. His plans, his cigarette schemes had amounted to nothing, clandestine and unnoticed, but still, in the end she was there, finally his. Herman giggled and began to feel nauseous. He kissed her on the cheek and said, "I have to go to the bathroom."
Becky waited for him in the foyer. Everyone had gone and the only person left was Mustafa who was putting some papers into a briefcase. He noticed her standing there and smiled at her with his eyes.
"So what did you think? I don't think it went over too well did you?"
"It was good. I liked it."
"You didn't mind that I didn't read my old stuff? You left pretty quickly."
"Well, I'd been looking forward to hearing it, yes, but I had to leave because of personal reasons."
"And now you're back."
"And now I'm back. Waiting on a friend."
"That's nice. Ya'll make a good lookin couple. I said that too myself when I got up there. I just saw you two and said, damn, there goes a happy couple right there. Yes I did. Isn't it great to find someone you can love?"
"Yeah, it's neat."
Becky would've been timid at meeting a poet who's stuff she'd been reading for years, but the man who stood before her seemed so distant from the angry words she'd been used to. Unassuming, almost shy, with an aire of monkish serenity. When the air shut off and the fans stopped, they could hear someone calling for help from somewhere in the back. They rushed to the back hallway. It was Herman's voice and it was coming from the bathroom.
"Can somebody please help me?" Not quite yelling, but spoken loudly.
Becky put her ear to the door, "Herman, is that you? Are you all right?"
"I'm stuck. I need help."
She tried the door but it was locked.
The MC came around corner, "I've got keys. What's happened? What's going on?" He unlocked the door in a huff, communicating that this was highly irregular and he didn't like it at all. At first Becky didn't see Herman stuck half way through the little window, his legs dangling a few feet above the floor.
"The window fell on me and I can't get it back up," said Herman.
Mustafa and the MC held the window open long enough for Herman to crawl out backwards.
"Thanks, it was beginning to cut off my breath."
"Why were you climbing out the window?" asked Becky.
Herman chortled nervously. Becky seemed genuinely concerned and Herman was beginning to feel sick again.