“The way it works is this,” the salesman said. “Fulfillment is no problem; the tough thing is desire, don’t you dig? Desires die of fulfillment and gotta be replaced by new, different desires. A lotta people desire to have weirdo desires, but they can’t make it onaccounta having lived a lifetime on the straights. But us here at the Impulse Implantation Center can condition you to like anything you’d like to like.”
He had hold of Pareti’s sleeve with a tourisnag, a rubber-lined clamp on the end of a telescoping rod; it was used to snag tourists passing through the Odd Services Arcade, to drag them closer to specific facilities.
“Thanks, I’ll think it over,” Pareti said, trying without much success to get the tourisnag off his sleeve.
“Wait, hey, Jim, dig! We got a special bargain rate, a real cheapo, it’s only on for the next hour! Suppose we fix you up with pedophilia, a really high-class desire which has not as yet been over-exploited? Or take bestiality… or take both for the special giveaway price—”
Pareti managed to pull the snag from his sleeve, and hurried on down the Arcade without looking back. He knew that one should never get Impulse Implanation from boiler-shop operators. A friend of his had made that mistake while on leave from a TexasTower, had been stuck with a passion for gravel, and had died after three admittedly enjoyable hours.
The Arcade was teeming, the screams and laughter of weekend freakoffs and smutters rising up toward the central dome of ever-changing light patterns, crapout kliegs, and grass-jets emitting their pleasant, ceaseless streams of thin blue marijuana smoke. He needed quiet; he needed aloneness.
He slid into a Spook Booth. Intercourse with ghosts was outlawed in some states, but most doctors agreed that it was not harmful if one made certain to wash off the ectoplasmic residue afterward with a thirty percent alcohol solution. Of course, it was more risky for women (he saw a Douche Bidet Rest Stop just across the Arcade concourse, and marveled momentarily at the thoroughness of the East pyrites Better Business Bureau; they took care of every exigency).
He leaned back in the darkness, heard the beginning of a thin, eerie wail…
Then the Booth door was opened. A uniformed attendant asked, “Mr. Joseph Pareti?”
Pareti nodded. “What is it?”
“Sorry to disturb you, sir. A call for you.” She handed him a telephone, caressed his thigh, and left, closing the door. Pareti held the phone and it buzzed. He put it to his ear. “Hello?”
“Who is this?”
“This is your telephone, stupid. Who did you think it was?”
“I can’t take all this! Stop talking!”
“It’s not talking that’s difficult,” the telephone said. “The tough thing is finding something to say.”
“Well, what do you want to say?”
“Nothing much. I just wanted you to know that somewhere, somehow, Bird lives.”
“Bird? Bird who? What in hell are you talking about?” There was no answer. The telephone had hung up.
He put the telephone down on the comfort ledge and sank back, hoping to God he could make it in peace and quiet. The phone buzzed again, almost immediately. He did not pick it up, and it went from buzz to ring. He put it to his ear again.
“Hi there,” a silky voice said.
“Who is this?”
“This is your telephone, Joe baby. I called before. I thought you might like this voice better.”
“Why don’t you leave me alone?” Joe almost sobbed.
“How can I, Joe?” the telephone asked. “I love you! Oh Joe, Joe, I’ve tried so hard to please you. But you’re so moody, baby, I just don’t understand. I was a really pretty dogwood, and you barely glanced at me! I became a newspaper, and you didn’t even read what I wrote about you, you ungrateful thing!”
“You’re my disease,” Pareti said unsteadily. “Leave me alone!”
“Me? A disease?” the telephone asked, a hurt note in the silken voice. “Oh, Joe, darling, how can you call me that? How can you pretend indifference after all we’ve been to each other?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Pareti said.
“You do too know! You came to me every day, Joe, out on the warm sea. I was sort of young and silly then, I didn’t understand, I tried to hide from you. But you lifted me up out of the water, you brought me close to you; you were patient and kind, and little by little I grew up. Sometimes I’d even try to wriggle up the pole handle to kiss your fingers…”
“Stop it!” Pareti felt his senses reeling, this was insanity, everything was becoming something else, the world and, the Spook Booth were whirling around. “You’ve got it all wrong—”
“I have not!” the telephone said indignantly. “You called me pet names, I was your screwin’ goo! I’ll admit, I had tried other men before you, Joe. But then, you’d been with women before we met, so we mustn’t throw the past up to one another. But even with the other five I tried, I was never able to become what I wanted to be. Can you understand how frustrating that was for me, Joe? Can you? I had my whole life before me and I didn’t know what to do with it. One’s shape is one’s career, you know, and I was confused, until I met you…Excuse me if I babble, darling, but this is the first chance we’ve had for a real talk.”
Through the gibbering madness of it all, Pareti saw it now, and understood it. They had underestimated the goo. It had been a young organism, mute but not unintelligent, shaped by the powerful desires it possessed like every other living creature. To have form. It was evolving—
“Joe, what do you think? What would you like me to become?”
“Could you turn into a girl?” Pareti asked, timorously.
“I’m afraid not,” the telephone said. “I tried that a few times; and I tried being a nice collie, too, and a horse. But I guess I did a pretty sloppy job, and anyhow, it felt all wrong. I mean, it’s just not me. But name anything else!”
“No!” Pareti bellowed. For a moment, he had been going along with it. The lunacy was catching.
“I could become a rug under your feet, or if you wouldn’t think it was too daring, I could become your underwear—”
“Goddam it, I don’t love you!” Pareti shrieked. “You’re nothing but gray ugly goo! I hate your guts! You’re a disease…why don’t you go love something like yourself?”
“There’s nothing like me except me,” the telephone sobbed. “And besides, it’s you I love.”
“Well, I don’t give a damn for you!”
“You stink, you’re ugly, I don’t love you, I’ve never loved you!”
“Don’t say that, Joe,” the telephone warned.
“I’m saying it! I never loved you, I only used you! I don’t want your love, your love nauseates me, do you understand?”
He waited for an answer, but there was suddenly only an ominous, surly silence on the telephone. Then he heard the dial tone. The telephone had hung up.
Now. Pareti has returned to his hotel. He sits in his embroidered room, which has been cunningly constructed for the mechanical equivalents of love. Doubtless he is lovable; but he feels no love. That is obvious to the chair, to the bed, and to the flighty overhead lamp. Even the bureau, not normally observant, realizes that Pareti is loveless.
It is more than sad; it is annoying. It goes beyond mere annoyance; it is maddening. To love is a mandate, to be unloved is insupportable. Can it be true? Yes, it can; Joe Pareti does not love his loveless lover.