National Novel Writing Month 2002: my first try at a novel, ever, and it showed. I decided to write about a couple strikingly similar to myself and my wife. Deeply in love and more than slightly out of shape. What would happen, I thought, if I took those two people and made them even more out of shape, and then stuck them into a reality show where viewers watched fatties try to lose weight for points?
It was the very last thing I could ever imagine myself doing, so it was perfect for a novel. I still think it was a good idea. Apparantly so did a Hungarian network, because while I was working on this I read that an actual version of this show was being filmed. Since the novelty was lost, and I was bogged down in ever-deepening plot, I let this drop where it lay. I did cannabilize portions of it for a column on weight loss, though.
And, more importantly, I hit the 50,000 word mark on time. Here’s the first two chapters. Warning: adult content.
By Chris Bridges
Chapter One – Size Matters
It must have been good sex, I thought. I’m fibrillating.
I let myself fall to the mattress next to my wife, panting and wheezing like a marathon runner crossing the state line. Cassie rolled over, beautiful breasts and belly rolling just ahead of her, and tenderly touched my face with loving affection and a bit of thinly-veiled medical concern. I imagined the burly paramedics hauling me, stuffed and zippered into a black body bag, down the stairs, chuckling to themselves and hitting on her.
“You okay?” she asked, dangerously breathless herself. For a moment I fought to keep my own incipient heart attack under control so I could listen to her panting. Yep, the paramedics would have to make two trips, poor bastards.
I managed to kiss her on the nose and reassure her I was fine, if only so she could die unconcerned. She rolled back onto her back and we lay next to each other, starfished across the bed, fighting for air. And to think we used to do this in a Chevette.
According to ancient custom, as the one who had finished on top it was my sacred duty to fetch the towel. Somehow it never occurred to us to get one beforehand, as if it would somehow ruin the reckless spontaneity of our regularly scheduled weekend encounters, and so I got up, creaking, and stumbled on trembling legs to the bathroom. There was a wild man in the mirror, and it looked as though he had swallowed a small child after a fierce struggle. I spared a second to glance at my post-sex appearance, always a crowd-pleaser: slightly receding hairline with wild, sweaty hair, same face I’ve had all my life, thin shoulders, skinny arms, thin chest, small potbelly, slight love handles. I need to get in shape, I told myself, willfully ignoring the fact that I said that every time I passed in front of a mirror. Or climbed stairs. Or walked more than a few blocks.
I got a clean towel, dampened it in the sink, and shambled back into the bedroom where Cassie still lay, spread-eagled.
As she abluted, I sank back down next to her and surreptitiously monitored my heart rate. “This is getting, huff, really annoying,” I said around deep asthmatic breaths. “How can I be out of shape in bed? This is the only exercise, huff, I’ve ever enjoyed! It’s aerobic, right?” How did you tell the difference between a heart attack and something milder, like a collapsed lung? Were there definite symptoms for each, or was it something you just knew? I mentally reminded myself to look it up tomorrow if I survived the night. Cassie just nodded, dropped the now-damper towel on top of me, and snuggled up to my side.
“It was one thing when, whouf, when I couldn’t run around the block without stopping,” I panted. “No big deal, I’m getting older, right? I’m supposed to slow down, it says so in all the sitcoms. And I’m working at a desk all day. It’s only natural that I spread a little. I’m almost 40, I can’t expect to do a million jumping jacks anymore.” I glared at the ceiling, my resolve hardening into an unstoppable force, boiling out of me so fast now that I managed to forget I had never done more than 15 jumping jacks in a row in my life. “But now this! Sagging pants and high blood pressure is all well and good, but now it’s cutting into our sex life! I’ve had alls I can stand and I can’t stands no more! We have to get into shape! Do you hear me? Are you with me?”
I waited for her response. Some reassurance would bolster me nicely, or agreement, or even hushed admiration for my sterling conviction. Instead she snorted softly and settled into her low, even, marathon snoring.
I chuckled to myself and lay back where I could relax and still see her. She was beautiful. Dark curly hair, cascading over white shoulders and framing her little girl face that looked even more angelic when she was asleep. I tugged the covers up over her hips and drew them to her chin but not before I took a long eyeful of the lush curves rising and falling with her breathing.
We had met in high school, many years and many pounds ago, but despite the changes of the years I still felt that same hot teenage rush of hormones every time I saw her. She was lovely in my eyes, something she always had trouble believing even in her youth. After decades of patient persistence and subtle hints, often involving hand gestures and hooting noises, I had finally convinced her that I was being utterly truthful in my lustful appreciation. She still didn’t believe it herself, mind you, as she wasn’t fond of her own looks and absolutely hated the weight she had put on, but she accepted my worship as a useful delusion on my part and let it go.
It took almost twenty minutes for her breathing to stretch out into long, slow cycles. By then my own body had calmed down somewhat. I need to start jogging or something, I thought. I didn’t use to get this worn out. I briefly considered getting up and doing a few sit ups, just to prove I could, but Cassie’s rhythmic noises were lulling me to join her and I’ve always been a sucker for a good lull. Well, I guess I’ve already had my exercise for the night. I set my iron-clad resolutions aside and went to sleep, vowing to start my new health program the very next day.
Chapter Two – Working at the Code Mine
The alarm did a rude thing so I hit it. Then I calmly considered all the reasons I had to stay home versus the subsequent reasons my boss would have to fire me, matched it against our current bank account, arrived at an unhappy conclusion, and got up. Behind me Cassie slumbered on like a trouper. I really couldn’t complain, although I did allow myself a moment of blind envy. Artists set their own hours. Besides, she had spent far more than her share of mornings getting up much earlier than this to get our daughter to the bus stop every day during the last decade or so. It wasn’t her fault that Darlene was in college now and presumably on her own as far as getting up was concerned. I hoped.
I fired up my computer and let it gulp down my e-mail while I was showering. It was somehow comforting to know that should some turn of events cause me to desperately need home-delivered Viagra, a mortgage, immediate access to indiscriminate teen Asian lesbian cheerleaders, copier toner, and a lengthier penis, I had options. I checked it over while I pulled my shoes on. No useful e-mail, no recent news events I cared about, no unusual traffic problems lurking, couple of good movies starting tonight, nice weather today; I love the Internet. On the wall over my desk was a painting Cassie had made for me for our 4th anniversary; it depicted someone who looked remarkably like me, locked in mortal combat with a snarling PC, all in a nightmarish neo-cubist style that would have made Picasso throw up into his paint bucket. She loves me.
McDonald’s provided my coffee, hash browns, and Egg McMuffin, which supplied my recommended daily requirement of cholesterol and gave me something to do while stuck in traffic. While I was sitting, sipping, and waiting for the light to change, I glanced around at my dining companions. A sea of import cars and SUVs surrounded me, all crammed with car pools and parents and kids and harried businesspeople, and almost every one of those frantic people was eating or drinking something behind the wheel. I noted a number of people singing and dancing and playing air dashboard in the mistaken belief that no one else could see them (or else they didn’t care, and good for them), and a couple of them were apparently listening to the same radio station because their gyrations, lanes of traffic apart, were in sync, which cheered me up for some reason. There was the usual number of nose-pickers. Several fellow commuters were using cell phones while eating with the other hand, presumably steering with a lower appendage. One or two were reading. The lady next to me was doing a crossword puzzle and chugging from a water bottle.
Breakfast in America.
I pulled into the PaRaNex parking lot five minutes late, which was my usual time. It was an astounding miracle of nature. No matter how early or late I left the house, I was always exactly five minutes late for work. If I left early, I got stuck in traffic or at the gas station, or I suffered a one-in-a-million chance meteor strike to the radiator. If I left late, the waves of traffic would part before my hood and I would sail to work unimpeded to arrive… five minutes late. My various employers through the years had dealt with this remarkable phenomenon with varying degrees of acceptance, hostility, and resignation, but I made up for it by being really good at my job. It helped that I was equally slack in leaving on time or taking breaks, so on the whole it balanced out in their favor. Probably.
The front entrance was for visitors, executives, and pizza delivery. I pried myself out of the car and headed towards the back, by the mailroom, where the Pepsi machine was waiting for me to grab my morning Mountain Dew. A healthy slug got my heart going for my morning cardio workout: the two flights of stairs up to my floor. I was slightly winded by the time I got to my office and I rewarded myself with one of the donuts from the ever-present box on Jackie’s desk. Jackie was the office manager for the programming department at PaRaCo and was our gatekeeper, babysitter, and Keeper of the Snack Jar. I leaned on the counter above her desk to see what the theme was for today, and to casually get my breath back. She was wearing black stockings, a black pleather skirt, black and white striped blouse, and a jaunty black beret.
“Are we French today?”
She raised a haughty eyebrow. “Oui. Today ze cafeteeria eez ‘aving veal parmeezhan, and I weeshed to be dressed, ‘ow you say, appropree-ately, no?”
“No,” I said. “Veal parmigiana is Italian.” I didn’t laugh, although it cost me. Instead I smiled, in a hopefully non-provoking manner. You never want to piss off the person who coordinates your vacation days.
“Sorry. Old Italian recipe. You look great, though.”
She preened. “Thank you! I swiped the beret from my daughter. You like?”
I kissed my fingers. “Eez magnifique! Mua! Don’t sweat it, maybe they’ll have French fries and vindicate you.”
he threw her pen at me and I retreated, chuckling and munching, back to my hole.
PaRaNex was one of the few dotcoms to thrive during the Rough Years, when all the daytraders simultaneously woke up from their happy dreams of mountains of wealth and stopped buying up anything with “online” in the name. PaRaNex specialized in computer security, virus protection, and cracker shields. We weren’t as famous as Symantic or MacAfee, but some of our hackers had found and fixed several of the big name viruses before either of them, and we made a nice piece of change subcontracting code for both of them every now and then. There were some nasty rumors regarding how our hackers cracked viruses so fast (the “he who smelt it, dealt it” theory) but nothing litigious.
Besides, we had a better slogan then they did. “Paranoid? Get PaRaNex!”
My job was officially “Interface Designer,” which just means that I got to figure out how all the different components of our software fit together and how to make a user-friendly-looking program that any idiot can use. I didn’t have to actually understand any of the virus hacking stuff, which was good because I hadn’t a clue. All I had to do was think of all the ways an idiot could screw up our program, and try to come up with ways to keep them from doing any of them. As luck would have it, thinking like an idiot was one of the few job skills I remembered from college, and I faked the rest. In a building full of frighteningly talented hackers, I was hired for my good looks, sparkling personality and my interface wizardry, and my coworkers worshipped me in a frankly embarrassing manner.
“Good morning, worshippers!”
See? They could barely restrain their orgiastic glee at my presence. I set my stuff on my desk, turned my computer on, and glanced around to see what everyone was working on (or avoiding working on). An unkind soul would have said we used cubicles, but they weren’t the traditional Dilbert-ready cubes, the type that looked as though they may at one time have shipped refrigerators. We had a fairly sizeable office, separated by desks and low dividers, with the bulk of the room taken up by a large square pit. There was a workstation inside each corner and shelves and drawers and filing cabinets in between, so that we were always facing away from each other. It also meant we could easily see what everyone else was doing. This was probably intended to be a savvy psychological design to keep us working. Instead, we all alternated our goofing off so that at least two of us were working at any given time, in case of unexpected upper management visit or looming project deadline.
I had the desk by the door, the one surrounded by and covered in Simpsons figures. To my right was Slash Bowles, production designer. He designed and wrote the extras that came with your brand new virus program – the registration card, the instructions, the cardboard insert, the promotional material, all the things that reassure you that you’ve bought a quality product. His main job was writing the documentation (he spent very little time designing the cardboard inserts, although we accused him of working on them over the weekends), but of late more and more of our sales were made online and downloaded, which was a constant worry to him. For that matter, so were USDA inspection standards, his blatant and conspiratorial disenfranchisement in the Gore-Bush election, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He strongly resembled a Cro-Magnon skateboarder gone to seed – big, hairy, wiry, but with a spare tire approaching mine in magnificence. His slackness of choice was flash games at sites like orisinal.com, and downloading movie trailers on company bandwidth.
Next to him (behind me) was Jay Hubart, amateurgrammer and my best friend. He’d be a programmer, his fondest wish, if his stuff ever actually worked, which it didn’t, which is why he did our graphics. Weird thing was that he really was a hell of an artist. If I had half his skills I’d be stalking Pixar executives and throwing my drawings through their bedroom windows, but his burning desire was to write code. Grass is greener, and all that. Last year he secretly rewrote our DriveVacTM program so that it cleaned users’ hard drives even better than before. So much so that our beta testers discovered they were now missing whole directories and essential programs. To his credit, machines cleaned with his nitrous-charged DriveVac did in fact run much faster afterwards, mostly because they weren’t dragged down by memory-hogging, behind-the-scenes programs like, say, Windows. We had no problem restoring the original, fortunately, or Jay would now be working somewhere that required a happy face nametag and a little paper hat. We were his closest friends, so we didn’t throw it in his face more than once or twice a day. He favored webcams (clean ones, at least during work hours) and usually had one or two open on his desktop at all times. When they did that reality TV show Big Brother and had webcams in it running 24/7, we couldn’t get him away from the computer, no matter how much we made fun of him. I suspect him of setting up a fan site for the girls on the show but he won’t admit it. Reality show junkie all the way. Never understood the appeal myself, but then I have a life.
I finished my donut and chugged some more Mountain Dew while I waited for PaRaNex’s NetNurseTM to finish checking my system. Pain in the ass, but since it was my employer’s product I didn’t feel right disabling it. It still had plenty of time left, and it occurred to me, as it did nearly every morning, that eating another donut would fill that time nicely. Besides, I had soda left, which meant there was imbalance in the universe. I stood up and immediately, involuntarily, emitted a low “ooooyyyy” noise.
Jay spun around, concerned. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, leaning on the desktop. Just a little winded.”
“From what? You jog in today?”
“No, really. I don’t know why you don’t. If I lived as close as you, I would.” Jay was a health freak, by which I mean that he often ate non-fried foodstuffs. I’d even heard it said that he’s played racquetball without having to, but I tried not to believe such outlandish rumors.
Slash spoke up without turning around, a blessing to all of us. “Ken can’t jog in, his coffee would get all foamy.”
“But he should! You’re, what, ten miles away? Why do you even own a car?”
“Because I feel silly sitting in traffic without one. You guys want a donut?”
Slash spun around now and exchanged glances with Jay, who didn’t seem to know what to do with his. “Um, no, we’re cool,” Slash said. “Why don’t you wait, and we’ll grab some lunch soon.”
Little donutty sprinkles were already flashing before my eyes. “I’ll just grab one. What’s lunch today? Chinese?”
Jay sat bolt upright and pointed at my screen the way good guys in trouble point past the bad guy’s shoulder to fake him out. “Look! You’ve got mail!”
I dropped down into my chair to check it out, muttering under my breath about stolen pastry opportunities and people who make AOL jokes long after they’re funny, which was, I believed, never. He was wrong anyway, I didn’t have mail. I had an Instant Message from my boss telling me to come meet with him and his boss, which was worse. Dammit, I thought he’d wait until Tuesday.
I struggled back up. “So much for clean living and helping old ladies across the sewer. Dennis and Ben want to see me anyway. I knew that karma stuff was all crap.”
Both Jay and Slash seemed cheerful that I was going to get roasted, stuffed, and served. Maybe because they weren’t the ones that got called? I didn’t know, and didn’t care. All I knew was that, judging from past experience, I was about to get royally hosed without warning and without lube. Dennis was my immediate supervisor, which just meant that he was the guy in charge of pulling this particular project together. He generously left this hallowed and sacred duty to his underlings while he spent his high-pressure, backbreaking days of work playing UnReal TournamentTM online. Dennis was handy for one important reason, however – he was the hastily erected barrier between us and the suits. As long as he looked presentable (always), seemed calm and confident (usually, depending on his UnReal rankings) and could express the corporate desires to us lowly factory workers, we never had to see them and they never had to see us, except for company picnics and indictments, and this seemed to satisfy everybody.
His boss, Ben Parker, was one of the bigwigs of the company (he was the “Pa” part or PaRaNex) and was once a wizard programmer his ownself, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and everybody thought amber screens were way cooler than green ones. Unfortunately for us, he had long ago been seduced by the dark side: the gypsy curse of corporate perks. Every review in C-Net always mentioned him by name, the beginning profit margins had been enormous since in the old days all of his co-workers slaved ridiculous hours for Skittles and Star Wars action figures, and a ridiculous pile of cash was amassed, almost accidentally. One day it dawned on him that he was a fairly wealthy poor guy (or else his accountants finally got it through his head), and there’s something about heaping stacks of money that changes a man. A year after he started the business he started wearing ties to the office, a clear danger sign.
He was even seen toting a golf bag, with real gold clubs in it. By the end of the third year the unholy transformation was complete, and “Bendwidth” Parker was lost to us forever, trapped in eternal damnation in polo shirts and stock options. Even that would be no big deal, but now that he was paying more attention to his P&L statements then the latest code languages, he tended to be easily swayed by our sales staff, often (always) to the detriment of his other, human, employees.
I winked at Jackie and grabbed a donut to eat on the way to my buggering.
It was almost noon by the time I came back, sweating and weary, from On High. I hadn’t been wrestling with an angel but I definitely felt like I had gone three rounds with some sort of supernatural figure. For some reason, on the rare times I returned from being in the Presence I always felt like I should be carrying his edicts chiseled on two massive stone sticky notes, probably because I always left feeling like I had been cast into the wilderness at the whim of an all-powerful force far beyond my ken, which was more or less true.
1. Thou shalt have no other projects before mine.
2. Thou shalt not be efficient.
3. Thou shalt not make it easy, useful, or fun for the user.
4. Thou shalt observe all deadlines, which will change without notice, logic or pattern, but with lots of exquisitely timed ironic malice.
5. Thou shalt feed the insatiable desires of Sales, for I have given you unto their hands.
Dennis had been there as well, of course, but only in the same sort of advisory capacity as the cat the evil villain strokes in old spy movies.
Slash and Jay were in the same positions as they were when I left, typing and mousing to the exclusion of all else, up to and including small arms fire. This was not unusual, and may have been a job requirement. They did deign to look up when I entered, since after all I was coming from a meeting with Ben and might therefore be disgruntled and armed. It looked like Slash shut down a chat window. I understand people talk to each other in some offices. We usually just type to each other, rather than go to all the trouble of turning around.
Well, no reason to sugarcoat it. “PaRaNex Pro has to be ready to ship by August,” I said. Ooh, bad choice of words, I was still thinking about my planned pastry. I glanced back to see the donut-box-shaped emptiness on Jackie’s desk. Drat.
Slash exploded. “You gotta be freaking kidding me,” he screamed. “There’s no way!”
Jay stood up and wrung his hands, a nervous habit that in less deserving times we mocked mercilessly. “That’s three months early! We can’t do that!”
“We’ve already agreed to,” I said sadly. “Sales promised the Best Buys rep that we’d have copies shipping by November 15th so they’d have plenty for the day after Thanksgiving. We have to be done and ready by the end of October.”
“Damn it,” Slash said, and he smote his desk mightily. “Every damn time some jackass in Sales gets a wild hair from a retailer suddenly we have to jump through hoops! Just once I wish they’d check to see if we can do something before they pre-sell it.”
“On that magical day, my friends, truly we will be free. Right now I’m going to lunch. Want me to bring back Chinese, or you guys want to get out of the office?”
They did an impromptu and unintentional comedy skit, looking at each other and then me with strange expressions while simultaneously trying to appear nonchalant. I expected spinning plates and some sort of slapstick routine involving hats to erupt. Finally Jay said, hesitantly, “We were thinking maybe the salad bar downstairs?” Slash, an unapologetic and enthusiastic carnivore, nodded like a bobble head toy.
“You go right ahead, and may God have mercy on your souls. Salads are what food eats. I’m heading to the Donkey.”
Halfway out the door they caught up to me. “That does sound better,” Slash said. “We’ll go with you.”
“Yeah,” agreed Jay, in full sidekick mode. “That sounds great! And healthy, too!” Any second now I expected him to punch his palm and say something like “Holy General Tso, Batman!” Slash glared at him.
“It is healthy,” I said. “A billion Asians can’t be wrong. It’s the perfect food. With eggroll.”
Tossing a cheerful hand at Jackie, we made our way out.