What would it do next? He was in a soft place called The Soft Place. It was a gambling hall whose innovation was an elaborate game called Stick It. The game was played by seating oneself before a long counter with a round polyethylene-lined hole in the facing panel, and inserting a certain portion of the anatomy therein. It was strictly a man’s game, of course.
One placed one’s bets on the flickering light-panels that covered the counter-top. These lights were changed in a random pattern by a computer programmer, and through the intricacies of the betting and odds, various things happened behind the facing panels, to whomever happened to be inserted in the playing-hole. Some of the things were very nice indeed. Some were not.
Ten seats down to his right, Pareti heard a man scream, high and shrill, like a woman. An attendant in white came with a sheet and a pneumatic stretcher, and took the bettor away. The man to Pareti’s left was sitting forward, up tight against the panel, moaning with pleasure. His amber WINNER light was flashing.
A tall, elegant woman with inky hair came up beside Pareti’s chair. “Honey, you shouldn’t be wasting anything as nice as you here. Why don’t we go downshaft to my brig and squam a little…”
Pareti panicked. He knew the goo was at work again. He withdrew from the panel just as the flickering lights went up LOSER in front of him, and the distinct sound of whirring razor blades came out of the playing-hole. He saw his bets sucked into the board, and he turned without looking at the woman, knowing she would be the most gorgeous creature he had ever seen. And he didn’t need that aggravation on top of everything else.
He ran out of The Soft Place. The goo, and Ashton’s Disease, were ruining his good time of hell-for-leather. But he was not, repeat, not going to let it get the better of him. Behind him, the woman was crying.
He was hurrying, but he didn’t know where he was going. Fear encased him like a second self. The thing he ran from was within him, pulsing and growing within him, running with him, perhaps moving out ahead of him. But the empty ritual of flight calmed him, left him better able to think.
He sat down on a park bench beneath an obscenely-shaped purple lamp post. The neon designs were gagging and suggestive. It was quiet here—except for the Muzak—he was in the world-famous Hangover Square. He could hear nothing—except the Muzak—and the stifled moans of a tourist expiring in the bushes.
What could he do? He could resist, he could close out the effects of Ashton’s Disease by concentration…
A newspaper fluttered across the street and plastered itself around his foot. Pareti tried to kick it away. It clung to his foot, and he heard it whisper, “Please, oh please do not spurn me.”
“Get away from me!” Pareti screamed. He was suddenly terrified; he could see the newspaper crinkle as it tried to unsnap his shoe-buttons.
“I want to kiss your feet,” the newspaper pleaded. “Is that so terrible? Is it wrong? Am I so ugly?”
“Let go!” Pareti shouted, tugging at the paper, which had formed into a pair of giant white lips.
A man walked past him, stopped, stared, and said, “Jim, that’s the damnedest bit I ever saw. You do that as a lounge act or just for kicks?”
“Voyeur!” the newspaper hissed, and fluttered away down the street.
“How do you control it?” the man asked. “Special controls in your pocket or something?”
Pareti shook his head numbly. He was so tired suddenly. He said, “You actually saw it kiss my foot?”
“I mean to tell you I saw it,” the man said.
“I hoped that maybe I was only hallucinating,” Pareti said. He got up from the bench and walked unsteadily away. He didn’t hurry.
He was in no rush to meet the next manifestation of Ashton’s Disease.
In a dim bar he drank six souses and had to be carried to the public Dry-Out on the corner. He cursed the attendants for reviving him. At least when he was bagged, he didn’t have to compete with the world around him for possession of his sanity.
In the Taj Mahal he played girls, purposely aiming badly when he threw the dirks and the kris at the rapidly spinning bawds on the giant wheel. He clipped the ear off a blonde, planted one ineffectually between the legs of a brunette, and missed entirely with his other shots. It cost him seven hundred dollars. He yelled cheat and was bounced.
A head-changer approached him on Leopold Way, and offered the unspeakable delights of an illegal head-changing operation by a doctor who was “clean and very decent.” He yelled for a cop, and the little ratfink scuttled away in the crowd.
A taxi driver suggested the Vale of Tears and though it sounded lousy, he gave the guy the go-ahead. When he entered the place—which was on the eighty-first level, a slum section of foul odors and wan street lights—he recognized it at once for what it was. A necro-joint. The smell of freshly-stacked corpses rose up to gag him.
He only stayed an hour.
There were nautch joints, and blind pigs, and hallucinogen bars, and a great many hands touching him, touching him.
Finally, after a long time, he found himself back in the park, where the newspaper had come after him. He didn’t know how he’d gotten there, but he had a tattoo of a naked seventy-year-old female dwarf on his chest.
He walked through the park, but found that he had picked an unpromising route. Dogwood barked at him and caressed his shoulders; Spanish Moss sang a fandango; an infatuated willow drenched him in tears. He broke into a run, trying to get away from the importunities of cherry trees, the artless Western prattle of sagebrush, the languors of poplar. Through him, his disease was acting on the environment. He was infecting the world he passed through; no, he wasn’t contagious to humans, hell no, it was worse than that: he was a Typhoid Mary for the inanimate world! And the altered universe loved him, tried to win him. Godlike, an Unmoved Mover, unable to deal with his involuntary creations, he fought down panic and tried to escape from the passions of a suddenly writhing world.
He passed a roving gang of juvies, who offered to beat the crap out of him, for a price, but he turned them down and stumbled on.
He came out onto De Sade Boulevard, but even here there was no relief. He could hear the little paving stones whispering about him:
“Say, he’s cute.”
“Forget it, he’d never look at you.
“You vicious bitch!”
“I tell you he’ll never look at you.”
“Sure he will. Hey, Joe—”
“What did I tell you? He didn’t even look at you!”
“But he’s got to! Joe, Joe, it’s me, over here—”
Pareti whirled and yelled, “As far as I’m concerned, one paving stone looks exactly like another paving stone. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all.”
That shut them up, by God! But what was this?
High overhead, the neon sign above cut-rate Sex City was beginning to flash furiously. The letters twisted and formed a new message:
I AM A NEON SIGN
AND I ADORE JOE PARETI!
A crowd had gathered to observe the phenomenon. “What the hell is a Joe Pareti?” one woman asked.
“A casualty of love,” Pareti told her. “Speak the name softly, the next corpse you see may be your own.”
“You’re a twisto,” the woman said.
“I fear not,” Pareti said politely, a little madly. “Madness is my ambition, true. But I dare not hope to achieve it.”
She stared at him as he opened the door and went into Sex City. But she didn’t believe her eyes when the doorknob gave him a playful little pat on the ass.