Wednesday, April 09, 2008

"Positively Bud": the last 2728 words

I'm undertaking a trip tomorrow to visit my grandson and see my daughter Sarah in her first Shakespearean performance. Not knowing what my computer access will be, I'm posting the conclusion to "Positively Bud."

I hope this was a fun read for those who stuck with it. I am not a natural fiction writer; my fiction tends to be one of ideas. I am not skilled enough to make an audience weep. If I allowed myself an ambition in fiction it would be to provoke debate.


*******************************************************

"Honey, I am positively no longer the Bud you knew before my transformation, but I am still positively for this relationship and quite willing to be your husband if you'll have me."

His Howdy Doody grin made her shudder. Should she call one of those de-programming agencies for cult victims? The light in his eyes was too shallow, that was it-- "Happy shiny people holding hands." Shallow light, superficial, as if he'd had a darkectomy. It wasn't human, it wasn't right. How to expose . . .

"OK, Bud, let me ask you this: Do you want to make love?"

"Oh yes, with all my heart!"

"See ya in the bedroom in five minutes."

She stood up in her white terrycloth robe and walked past Bud to the bathroom down the dark hall. The mirror exposed her years and the wine was no help. She looked bloated and wrinkled, an old lady. Practically speaking it was hard to find a new partner at her age, though her income would help. Still her tired body would know for sure. In bed she would know if Bud was still her husband or some golem of Robert Schuler.

Martha had trouble explaining it to Dorothy the following day in the hospital lunchroom.

"He wasn't Bud; he was more adept but less affectionate; he didn't even seem to care if he had an orgasm. He was-- efficient, I had mine; but he was not there-- not that he was a puppet, mind you, but he was so intent on the task and my pleasure that I felt more serviced than anything. I didn't feel special; I didn't feel like his wife, you know?"

"But isn't that better than not getting any?" Dorothy said, laughing. "C'mon, girl, we're not so young anymore. So he's changed; so what. At least he's not that vegetable you described."

"But that vegetable was Bud, I'm sure, and this man is not-- not Bud, I mean. He's a stranger, somebody Bud never was. Bud was a bit of a clumsy lover, but always affectionate. I don't know what to do."

"Why don't you sit back and enjoy it? No doubt he'll return to work soon and your income should improve. What do you care if he's changed?"

"As sick as he was, I loved Bud. I do not love this man. I do not know this man. I cannot live with this man."

"Have it your way, honey, but I think you're making a big mistake. Think of it as a second marriage, something-- don't throw the baby out with the bath water!"

"Sorry, Dorothy, there is no baby-- only this thing, this sickeningly optimistic Howdy Doody-- it's like there's no depth-- no darkness-- no contrast in him; he's all light, but it's shallow."

Dorothy leaned back in her chair, pushed her tray forward. "Honey, you gotta do what you gotta do, but there's a lot of women your age who might just fancy your Howdy Doody over an empty bed."

"You're right in general, but you're wrong in my case. I am a wife, not a statistic. And the man that came out of that brainwashing clinic is not my husband. I'm going to ask him to leave."

"Whatever, Martha, you do what you have to do but you may regret it later. Then we can bitch about it, as always."

"Yeah, as always."

"As always."

"See you on the cardiac floor."

Returning from work that evening she found the house sparkling, Bud in an apron whistling.

"Hi, honey!" he chirped and pecked her cheek. "Let me take your things." He placed her purse and coat on the rack. "Can I fix you a drink?" She nodded. He produced a tray with two gimlets and they sat down on the couch together. "So how was your day?"

"The usual," Martha said. Maybe she could get used to this. No.

"Tell me about the usual," Bud said.

"As if you've never heard it!"

"Tell me again."

She weighed the temptation, knew his responses would be marvelously therapeutic and supportive, saw the long years with this phantom stretch out in a shallow stream, weakly lit, and something in her clunked, like an engine throwing a rod. Something inside her simply ground to a halt. There was no going on; there was no going back. "Look, Bud," she began.

"Yes?"

"I want you to move out."

"But why, Martha, what have I done?"

"It's nothing you've done, it's what you haven't done. You haven't given me any indication that you're still human, subject to grief like the rest of us. Every day my work brings me into contact with people in pain, and you would make it into a clown show. It's not a clown show. It's life. Part of you is gone, whatever it is that can admit to suffering. I don't want you like this. If you ever come back to your senses, I'll reconsider. As it is, my decision is final; I want you out by tomorrow. You can take what you need from the savings to get yourself a place until you find a job; you can write but don't call." Tears came, but as Bud went to wipe them she pushed his hand away. "No! I won't have it!" She got up, tossed down her drink, and went straight to the bedroom.

Shortly Bud knocked on the door: "But honey, don't you want to taste my fresh trout almondine?"

"No," Martha said, "but you can bring me another gimlet."

"Right away!" said Bud.

Bud packed up the next morning, whistling show tunes he had remembered only vaguely prior to his rejuvenation. He took their second car, an old Buick station wagon, and checked into a residential hotel. A job as an engineer would not be easy to come by in a short time, so he scanned the want ads for the first available pay check. "Make thousands a month through phone sales" seemed to be the easiest chance. After interviewing, he began his work in a cubicle with an automatic dialer, trying to sell subscriptions to the L.A. Times. As he had been taught, he put his whole self into every appeal, sympathizing with each potential buyer at length about whatever troubled them, dispensing positive thinking tips when he could. After a week his supervisor came to him and asked him what method he was using.

"Method?" Bud said, laughing. "I don't have any method; my wife, in fact, thinks I am mad, so perhaps there is a method to my madness?"

"I'm just curious," his supervisor said, "as you tripled the subscription rate of any other salesperson."

"Really?"

"Really. If this continues, perhaps you might be willing to share your technique?"

"As I said, I have no technique. I try to be a good listener; I point out all the positive things the Times has to offer, even schedules for twelve-step meetings and the like, recipes for housewives, fishing tips. I do spend a little more time with each customer, I suppose, trying to make their subscription a positive step in their lifestyle, that's about it."

"Hmmm. . . . if you say so. But I'm keeping my eye on you, Bud; and keep up the good work!

Several weeks later, as Bud's sterling sales record continued, his supervisor got a call from a local radio talk show that sought to feature phone sales as an issue, and he was asked if he had any representatives to suggest for the debate. He suggested Bud, who soon found himself behind a microphone for the first time in his life.

"Many of you out there consider phone sales an invasion of privacy," the host began, "and I don't blame you. Today we have with us several successful phone sales people here to defend the practice: Bud Rose from the L.A. Times, Dick Kerr from Steam Dream Carpet Cleaning, and Jeff Wilton from Verizon, which may be the ultimate indignity: selling phone service by phone solicitation. Gentleman, what do you say to the charges that all phone solicitation should be made illegal, that it is a fundamental invasion of privacy?"

Mr. Kerr waxed eloquent about first amendment rights while Mr. Milton explained that phone blocking and unlisted numbers were available for any who wished to protect themselves. It was Bud's turn. The talk show host motioned to the microphone and said, "Mr. Rose, what's your take?" Bud laughed.

"Take? It's a good take! I make good money from it. And there are a lot of lonely people out there who would spend hours on the phone with me if they could. I do get the occasional hang-up, but more often than not I become engaged with the person, and after they have unburdened themselves to me I promote all the wonderful things the Times has to offer-- it has to be the best paper in the world for twenty-five cents, it has something for everybody! The movie reviews alone can prevent a person from wasting eight bucks at a theater, which would buy a month's worth of the paper at our discounted delivery rate. We use recycled paper and I personally urge all new subscribers to recycle as well. We're environmentally friendly and full of useful information on everything from romance to the latest in scientific discoveries. I ask myself, "How can one afford not to subscribe?" Television news is shallow and misleading and all the channels are the same; with the Times the reader has complete control over what to read or not to read; and you can always wrap fish in it if nothing else, or use it to protect your table during art projects, like pumpkin carving, or . . ."

"Yes, yes, I can see you are an effective salesman, Mr. Rose (by the way, I already subscribe), but don't you think ringing up perfect strangers for the sole purpose of selling a product an invasion of privacy? First caller, on a cell phone from Reseda-- for you, Mr. Rose:"

"Hi, my name is Jack, and I want to ask Mr. Rose how he can possibly justify his annoyance of people at home with his sales drivel. It's disgusting."

"Bud?"

"Oh, I totally agree. It is annoying if the customer isn't interested, but it's rare I get into a conversation where the customer isn't. Where do you get your news, by the way, if I may ask?"

"From the internet."

"And that costs about twenty bucks a month for the hook-up, right?"

"Something like that."

"For half the cost you can get something real in your hands to peruse; isn't that a good deal?

And you can read it in bed, or in a coffee shop, or wherever you please-- you don't have to sit stiffly in front of a screen to get your news, and you can always save articles without the cost of printing them out. Have you ever thought about the advantages?"

"Sorry, Bud, we seem to have lost that caller. Now it's Violet from Inglewood:"

"I just wanted to say that Mr. Rose called me, and I'm a shut-in, and he cheered me up so much that I just had to subscribe. God bless the man! He's a gem!"

"Well, well," the host said, "what kind of magic is this? You planted callers, Mr. Rose?"

"Gee, I wish I were that smart. No, I didn't. I remember Violet, and how her grandchild was suffering with those horrible leukemia treatments; how's she doing?"

"Sorry, Bud, she's been cut off. But how do you remember such things after all the calls you make in a day?"

"It's my job to remember such things. I may be a salesman but I'm a human being first, and if there's any way I can bring a little sunshine into someone's life in the course of my job, by God I'm going to do it, hang the profit. The world is full of lonely people being made even more fearful by the constant siren of the media telling us how dangerous it is out there-- don't eat, don't touch, don't, don't, don't, it never ends . . . I want to say life is beautiful, it's a privilege, every breath is a gift, selling a subscription is just an excuse for me to reach out and make someone's day."

"Sheesh, you sound more like a minister than a salesman."

"You mean there's a difference?" The host laughed.

Not long after the show Bud got a call from the radio show director. "Can you come in and talk?" he said.

"Sure," Bud said.

After an hour alone with Bud the director was convinced he had a talk show host in the making, hang the experience. He offered him a slot at 3 AM each morning for two hours, would he take it? Of course. After a month, due to unexpectedly high ratings, his slot was moved to 9PM. Before long he had secured the coveted drive-time slot of 6 to 9 AM. Though he had not spoken to Martha in two months, he had written her many encouraging letters, never receiving a reply. One morning Martha was fiddling with her AM dial when she recognized his voice. She couldn't believe it.

"Hi, this is Bud Rose. Welcome to another glorious day in this incredible world. Now I want all of you to repeat my mantra for the day, are you ready? 'I feel terrific. I love myself. Life's a wonderful adventure and I'm lucky to have a ticket!' So all you out there down-in-the-dumpsters, you hangdog Harrys and low-esteem Lucys, get ready for three hours of absolutely life-changing, positive talk! I am here to rock you out of the doldrums of doubt, shock you out of the rut of depression, talk you into the love of life and light."

Martha shook her head in disbelief. Her boring engineer of a husband, now a radio celebrity? God, how ironic was that? Was she wrong to kick him out? Did she put too much stock in empathy? No! It wasn't right. That recycled pablum from Norman Vincent Peale was enough to make any insightful person barf. She listened to the next caller.

"Hello, Bud?"

"That's me!"

"Oh God, I'm so excited to talk to you! I can't wait to tell my friends!"

"Just as I'm excited to talk to you. So what's up?"

"I'm up! After what you said to me yesterday, I feel as if my life has taken a whole new turn. Bud, you are the best!"

"Not! I'm the worst! The worst! I'm simply in recovery from wrong thinking, and I'm happy I was able to share a bit of the cure with you. Our next caller is Tom, from Downey:"

"Yeah, Mr. Rose?"

"Call me Bud."

"OK, Bud. . . . I've got this problem, you see."

"Go ahead."

"My wife will only make love to me once a week."

"Really?"

"Yes, and I'm in my twenties, and it's just not enough."

"Only because you make it that way, my man."

"Huh?"

"Most single men would be happy to get laid once a week, and here you are complaining about it. The thing to do is maximize the pleasure of that evening, shower your wife with candlelight and roses, pleasure her any way she wants, be totally unselfish, and you will find your frequency may increase. Even if it doesn't, try to put the desire of a whole week into that one night-- and never complain, thank her for being such a good lover, pretend you are courting her every day, treat her like a goddess, and you'll be surprised at how quickly she turns around, or turns over, or assumes your favorite position, as the case may be."

"You're sure?"

"Absolutement. Our next caller is. . . ."

Martha turned the radio off. Adjusting the rear view mirror momentarily, she looked at her worry lines. Absent-mindedly she found herself digging in her purse for the crumpled brochure from The Institute for Positive Living. She fingered it pensively as she pulled into the hospital, ready for another day-- good, bad or indifferent--then angrily stuffed it in the trash as the sliding glass doors parted, welcoming her to the world of white tiles and fluorescent light.

2 comments:

  1. This story deserves comments. This is from an e-mail I sent you on August 14, 2006.

    Finished (in one sitting -- or, in my case, one lying) "Positively Bud." Very enjoyable. Your prose carried me along smoothly and effortlessly. I found the issues you explore of interest. You wrote something that has substance -- there's stuff to think about in PB! But you did it with humor. The secondary characters served their purposes quite well (the wife was particularly good).
    Satire -- on What Price Happiness. I once had a psychologist tell me to look in a mirror and state positive affirmations about myself. I felt so foolish doing it I stopped after two tries. At least the Institute puts some teeth into the concept of re-seeing oneself and the world.
    What happened to poor Ken? The way you leave it, there's a touch of the sinister. But was he simply discharged, to carry on his miserably negative existence?
    Of course, Bud goes rapidly from one extreme to another. Although his transformation -- what he becomes -- is ridiculous, it was enjoyably, thoughtfully ridiculous. I felt you knew exactly what you were up to.
    Glad (for selfish purposes) that a story that long can read that fast.
    So, tell me -- have you attempted to have this published? If so, what kind of reactions did you get from editors?
    If you haven't sent it out, you should.
    The difficulties you claim to have with prose are not evident.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Editors tend to reject this story without comment. ;-(

    Is this "pr" from LA? I thought I received a letter from you wishing no further contact. Thanks so much for posting your letter excerpt, it gives me hope-- I had lost track of it.

    My novel, which I finished, and of which I had one copy published just to look at it, I decided is beneath comment and is much inferior to this story. I found after many revisions that I didn't seem to care about the characters in my novel, though I thought I did, and that's a death knell. The plot, you may recall, was rather fantastical, but I didn't pull off the human side of it.

    Thanks for commenting, pr!

    CE

    ReplyDelete

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