Stripped

The pressure on my left biceps, originally a snug embrace, was beginning to feel like a vise. The pressure might be bursting small blood vessels by now. The pressure was commanding my full attention. The answers came without real effort.

No. No. Yes. No. No. No.

I wondered if the old relaxation technique for public speaking would help. “If you get nervous up there,” the wise sage always imparts with a smile, “just imagine your audience is naked.” This would seem to be trading nervous for horrified in most cases, but I decided to give it a shot.

She sat behind a table of aluminum legs and fake wood veneer, surrounded by electronics, but I could still see her ankles. They were good ankles, I suppose, once you mentally strip away the stockings, not those fat tree trunks you sometimes see being pinched off by a pair of black pumps. And casting aside the pumps, I imagined, would yield some feet, probably with five toes. Would they be painted? Before she came to this job today, did she spend a few minutes spreading a lovely Cerulean Blue? Or did she only do that on weekends, and by now the chips in the facade were exposing the fungus?

The pressure in my arm subsided. She came around the desk and sat in the chair opposite me. “Well, that went fine,” she beamed. “You’ll be happy to know you’re a terrible liar!” Nothing made me happier, I confessed. “So, in the next section I’m going to ask you a few more questions, and it’s super important for you to answer truthfully, so we can get you out of here, okay?”

Fine.

As she previewed the questions, so as to put maximum doubt and paranoia in my mind, I let my gaze rest on her throat, as if I was thinking carefully. I imagined unbuttoning her starched white blouse, peeling back her plain white bra. Did she work out? Was she on that elliptical every day, getting the upper body workout while getting her cardio up? Would her shoulders be rounded yet delicate, her collarbones well-defined, her breasts trim and tight to the muscles underneath? The pressure in my arm built to a painful level as a gentle whirring inflated the blood pressure cuff. If dissected, would a doctor look at her corpse and say ‘tis a pity she’s gone so soon?

No. No. No. No. Ha ha, no. No.

She smiled again from behind the desk and said she’d be right back. I glanced at the back of her skirt as she walked out. She needed some static guard, and her ass was flat.

Left alone, I glanced around the room. White, of course, though it might have been a very pale green, I suppose, if the designer had read up on the effect of color on the subconscious. There was a window with one-way glass, and a couple of video cameras in the corners of the ceiling, not even hiding. The machines on the desk had cables and tubes which ran to the chair I was sitting in, and became wires attached to my skin and the damn blood pressure cuff around my left arm, which had been left inflated this time even though the test was not running. I could feel my pulse slamming against my bones. A cheaply framed poster on the wall featured a kitten hanging from a rainbow of balloons. Its caption spooged with uplifted eyebrows: “What Is The Color Of Happiness?”

The door opened behind me. A new voice was followed by a man in his thirties making a vain attempt to cover up male-pattern baldness. He introduced himself as Phil, and told me he was having a few problems with my answers. I stripped him just as he was, half-sitting casually on the edge of the table, his chest starting to droop on the sides, his once-chiseled abdominal obliques sagging into rolls of fat. He would protest that was just the result of his posture, but when he stood up, at least one of those love handles would remain. Keep fighting it, Phil. You the man.

He didn’t take the chair, happy instead to continue the Just Us Guys routine. “We’re getting some bad results around the major crimes questions.” You’re a liar, a terrible liar. “Sherry is kind of new at this, whereas I’ve been doing this a long, long time, and I can see what’s what. Why don’t we chat a little bit and see what the problem is, so we can get you out of here?” Just us guys. You can tell me anything. After all, I’m Phil, I’ve been doing this a long, long time.

We chatted.

After a few questions, I complained about the pain in my arm, and Phil pretended shock and embarrassment that the cuff had been left inflated by mistake. Sherry, after all, was new. He offered to switch it to my forearm, if that would make me more comfortable. He adjusted the wires glued to my chest. He practically combed my hair for me, and I could smell the cologne on him. I imagined him standing in front of the mirror, wondering if he had too much body hair, craning a look over his right shoulder to analyze his back: did he still have the V-taper from college? No, that disappeared around twenty-three, you fuck, along with your thirty-inch waist.

Yes, I know what a major crime is. Rape, murder, assault, armed robbery. Felonies, misdemeanors, I know the difference. Yes, I know that’s what you’re going to ask me. The fuck you mean, is there anything I feel especially guilty about? The whirring, the cuff inflating, the smug repeat of the questions from behind the desk.

No. No. No. No. No. No.

Just as my fingers were going numb, the cuff deflated and Phil came around the desk again, this time sitting in the chair with a sigh. “We just aren’t making progress here,” he said. “I know you haven’t committed any major crimes, right? So you must just feel really guilty about something that seems criminal to you. Anything like that come to mind?”

Reluctantly, I told him about that time I stole a candy bar. It had always bothered me, ever since I was six. Not a crime, he said, jubilantly! That’s something everyone does! I told him about babysitting when I was fourteen, how I had gotten mad at my young charge and shaken her a bit roughly. Hey, everyone explores their sexuality when they’re that age, man. Just us guys. I gave him my best stare, imagining the knife plunging into his neck, over and over. “It wasn’t like that.” Hey, my mistake, we’re all friends here, I just want to get you out of here. I spilled more bullshit. He said we were ready to try again, and moved behind the desk. The cuff inflated.

But then he paused, and came back to the chair in front of me.

“You know, sometimes there are things we figure are pretty personal, you know? Maybe we don’t want to mention,” he said softly. “I remember one time I was testing a girl, had these same problems as you; turned out she’d…” and he paused for maximum effect… “had an abortion.”

Seriously? Oh, how tragic. You prick.

He looked almost forlorn, and I imagined his genitalia shrinking, shriveling, disappearing under a distended middle-aged belly. I saw the tiny gold cross around his neck, and I saw his righteous need. I tried not to do anything melodramatic, but my eyes might have gone glassy.

“My God,” I whispered. “That’s incredible. I have fathered two children, and… we decided… not to have them. I’ve tried not to think about it; it was so long ago.”

“With your wife?”

“One of them, yes. The other was… while I was married… but…” and I trailed off.

“I see,” he judged. “But, hey, look: that’s not a major crime. You might feel guilty about it, and you might face judgment someday, but not from us. It’s legal. You have to put that out of your head. It’s not a major crime.”

“Right,” I shuddered. “Okay, give me a minute, and then I’m ready.” I imagined him naked, in the snow, freezing to death. I chuckled a little. “It’s funny; you now know more about me than anyone I’ve ever met. Strange sensation.”

He smiled. “That’s the way we like it.” I realized the cuff had been inflated the whole time, and I couldn’t feel my fingers. “Have you ever committed a major crime?” he asked.

“No.”

And then the sensors were removed, and he took a sheaf of paper out of the room. I waited and contemplated the kitten and the rainbow. The door opened, and Phil waved me into the hall.

“Congratulations,” he said, pumping my hand. “You’ve established a bridge of trust with the U.S. Government.”

I had succeeded.

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About ernestwhile

I live in New York City. I built a world of Lego bricks, colorful and simple and foreign. I've been picking it apart ever since.
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One Response to Stripped

  1. Marian Green says:

    Ernest! You’re alive!!! God I feel stripped after reading this. And a little (or perhaps a lot) in love with you.

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