by Richard Radford
Bernie Goldstar™ leaned heavily on his cane as he crossed the stage, and by the time he made it to the middle he almost gave in to gravity. The audience was rigid with anticipation. Leaning one hand on the podium, Bernie turned slowly to face them. There were sixty-eight attendees, and his eyes rapidly scanned and assessed. The gangling man in middle, half of his body hanging limply to one side. The androgynous child with the greasy hair and thick glasses being clutched to his mother like a purse. The obese lady in the front row in the wheelchair, and next to her a woman with frizzy hair, Birkenstocks™, and a frown. He let his head sink forward a little towards the microphone.
He waited till the perfect moment—maybe a second or two too long, he decided, but they weren’t going to notice—before bolting upright, casting the cane to one side, and making his signature Quantum Bound™ across the stage. It was actually more of a little hop to the right, but judging by the resounding applause and delighted gasps, it worked miraculously. Bernie flashed his smile, and bowed. He waited for the conference room to quiet before speaking.
“Thank you, thank you,” Bernie said, plucking the microphone from the podium and pacing around the stage. “It’s wonderful to see so many faces out there tonight. You all look like you’re ready to change yourself…and the world!” They cheered. “Friends, I am here to tell you that you are about to find out a secret that until tonight, nobody knew.” He nodded to Steven in the back. The room dimmed, and the spotlight above him shone off of his silver hair and gold jewelry. He waited until he was sure all eyes were on him.
“A few years ago, I was just like you,” Bernie said. “I was fearful! I was angry! I was ugly! I was crippled! I was poor!” He waved his hand at the cane laying on the stage. “I gave into my fate, and said there was nothing I could do about it!” He looked up to the ceiling. “I prayed, I begged, I crawled like a dog, blind and stupid! And what happened?” He paused.
“Nothing!” he yelled. “Nothing. I kept myself unhealthy and unsuccessful and unmeaningful.” He looked out among the sea of bobbing shadows. “And then one day, after I just lost another job, my house was foreclosed on, my car was repossessed, and my wife had left me for the mailman, it dawned on me. Somewhere, out there in the cosmos, there must be a better life awaiting me. And suddenly, I discovered something.” He waited while someone finished up with a coughing fit.
“Now, I know what you’re saying,” he added reassuringly. “‘Bernie, I’m not like you! I’m not a scientist! I’m not an award-winning millionaire speaker!’ Well, ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong! You are a scientist! You are a millionaire! You are a erudite orator! In another dimension, that is!” Bernie went back to the podium.
“Now, I’m not gonna bore you with the details. For one thing, you probably wouldn’t understand the technical aspects and quantum principles that go into this. For another, I don’t want to put you to sleep,” he said, pretending to nod off and then look up in surprise. “This isn’t a cure for insomnia lecture!” The crowd burst into a torrent of laughter.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, it may surprise you, but until a year ago, I never knew one scientific principle. I thought the sun went around the Earth! I thought that a macro-quantum particulate could not bound from a superpositional state!” The audience mumbled. “I don’t expect you to understand that last one. I’ll break it down for you in a minute. The point is, until then, I was clueless. And then, using my patented Quantum Bounding System™, I was able to bound into another dimension, one where I met…me!”
A few people actually said “Huh?” or “What?” audibly. Bernie held up a hand.
“I know, I know, I thought I was certifiably insane,” he said. “I went to the country’s most famous psychiatrists. Some of them thought I was crazy, too. Kind of like the pot calling the kettle black, if you ask me.” They remained silent. Too vague, he thought, and reminded himself to cut that joke. “Anywho, I finally went to the last greatest psychiatrist in the country, and he said something very important to me. ‘Bernie,’ he said, ‘what if you’re not crazy?’”
“Well, I went home that night, feeling like a bull in a china shop. I sat in my chair, with my cane, and closed my eyes. I repeated the mantra to myself, Another You™, Another You™. And then it happened. I bounded,” he said. “And I met…me, again! This was a different me! This was a me who didn’t need these…these coarse walking aids! And so I asked him, ‘How is it you do not need this cane?’ And do you know what he said? ‘Look in the Bottom Drawer™, Bernie. It’s Quantum Secret #8™.’ And so I did. And so I did.” He looked around the room, wondering if he had lost them. “When I returned to this dimension, I looked in the bottom drawer of my desk, and what did I find there?” He reached into his breast pocket, and pulled out a tennis ball. “You see, I didn’t know that I used to be a tennis pro… in another dimension. That night, instead of sitting around in my house like a bump on a log, I blew the dust off my racket and went out to the nearest court. A month later, and not only had I not touched the cane again… I had won the state championship. And now it’s your turn!” he shouted. The ball flew off the stage, and was met with wild clapping.
After the presentation, Bernie made his way through the crowd, who gazed upon him with wonder. There was a long line at the merchandise table, manned by his flunky Steven. They exchanged nods. Bernie smiled. If ten people bought the first volume of CDs of the Quantum Bounding System™, priced at a very reasonable $59.99, it paid for his trip and hotel room. Any more purchases, and it was all gravy. Already, twenty-two people were lined up, and another fifteen were still struggling to get their brains or bodies functioning enough to stand up. It was likely some of them were bound to bite.
At the front of the line, the obese lady in the wheelchair lolled forward with a wad of wrinkled bills in her hand. The woman in the Birkenstocks™ was hissing out of the side of her mouth.
“I know it’s your money, Nancy, but you don’t have to throw it away on this garbage!” she said. The lady said nothing, and handed the money to Steven, who looked like he had just been given a used tissue. As Bernie was walking towards the exit, the obese lady latched onto his suit jacket with her swollen fingers. He recoiled. She felt her way over to his hand and held it. Her skin felt clammy and cold. Everyone around the table froze, except for the woman in the Birkenstocks™, who scowled at him and shook her head. He put on his best showman’s smile.
“Well, hello there, my dear,” Bernie said. “And what is your name?” The lady’s face contorted, and her immense mouth wrapped around the sides of her cheeks. “Well,” he said, leaning in close, and tapping the shrink-wrapped box on the table, “you are certainly on your way to a better life.” He leaned in close and in a stage whisper said, “Say goodbye to all of your woes. Say Hello to Another You™.” The lady emitted a gurgle, and squeezed Bernie’s hand. As delicately as possible, he shook it off like a slug, bowed to the room, and strode out of the door, listening to the unmistakable sound of cash being pulled from wallets.
As he headed down the plush carpeted hallway, he snapped a bottle of Purell™ from his breast pocket. He squirted a large dollop on each palm and rubbed them together furiously. After rounding the corner to the alcove of elevators, he ran his hands along the wall, leaving long streaks on the stucco. The elevator hummed upwards, and he began to feel better. It was all in a day’s work, after all. People who weren’t revolting didn’t need his aid. He applied another round of the Purell™ and smelled his fingers. He loved the stuff. He reminded himself to get a bottle—a small one—for Steven as his bonus for the night.
Back in his room, he took a shower, and put on a new suit from his luggage. He felt refreshed, and whistled as he walked around the room, stopping to admire the poster he had thumbtacked to the wall. It was a picture of him doing a jumping jack in front of a backdrop of stars. Say Hello to Another You™, it said in golden letters.
“Looking good,” he told the poster. He went to the window and drew the curtains apart, exposing a landscape of flat, unsightly nickel casinos and strip clubs. The Denny’s™ sign across the avenue winked at him. Whistling back through the room, he picked up the telephone book and flipped through the Verizon Superpages™. Running his index finger across the page, he stopped it next to a large advertisement for Angels of the Falls™, the best service in town, as he recalled. He picked up the telephone receiver and dialed the number.
“Hello, this is Bernie Goldstar™, and I would like… ha, ha, yes, that’s right, I am a frequent flyer… I’m at the Marriot™. Room 432… no, no, tonight I want something…” he said, waving his hand through the air, “something extra-special. I deserve it. Well… I know. Send me the most expensive escort you have!” He beamed at the poster.
“You take Discover™, right?” he added.
Twenty-five minutes later, the escort arrived, and forty-five minutes later Bernie was once again stepping out of the shower, whistling. He donned another new suit from his luggage, and straightened his tie at the bathroom mirror. The escort they had sent was a black. He wasn’t a racist, but he really didn’t prefer blacks as much. He reasoned that at an escort service in Sioux Falls would be understandably short of them, however, and so they must be the highest priced. He would have preferred an Asian tonight, he decided, but he knew it was his fault for not being more specific. He splashed some Old Spice™ on his cheeks. Well, black, white, or yellow, he thought, it still feels great to be Bernie Goldstar™.
The escort—who said her name was Xena—was stretched across the bed naked, her nipples erect from the cool air conditioning sweeping through the room.
“I’m sorry, Miss… Xena, but would you mind terribly getting dressed?” Bernie asked.
“Fine,” Xena replied, rolling her eyes and slipping on the silver dress that had crumpled on the floor. She began to gather her belongings, but Bernie held up a hand.
“No, no, you shouldn’t leave yet,” he said. “I just would prefer you to be covered.”
“Whatever,” she said. “Sugar,” she added, a moment later. Bernie tossed a twenty-dollar bill onto her lap to help smooth her ruffled feathers. Xena held it up, then stuffed it into her purse.
“So what you do?” she asked, pointing to the poster. “You a astronaut or something?”
“Ah, no, well, heh heh,” Bernie said, sliding onto the comforter next to her. “You see, I am a spiritual scientist.”
“I help people when they’ve lost their way,” he said, taking her hand and looking into her eyes.
“Oh yeah? How you do that?”
“Well, it’s complicated, but basically I help them bound through the convoluted paths and avenues of the cosmos, jumping through time and space to find alternative versions of themselves in alternate dimensions, where they, uh, learn to, uh, live again.” Bernie’s eyes shifted to the floor, and Xena looked at him skeptically.
“You for real? Sounds made up.”
“Ah! No, I assure you, it is very real. Why, there’s a dimension out there where Xena is the mayor of Sioux Falls!”
“Ha! OK, sugar, why don’t you jump me?” Xena said, smiling.
“You want to see how it’s done?” Bernie said.
“Give it to me.”
“Well, first you need to sit still and close your eyes.”
“Lemme see you do it,” Xena said.
“Hmmm, OK. Well, see, first I close my eyes, and concentrate on where I might like to travel, what version of myself I would like to bound into. You become at one with the cosmos, you become one with yourselves.” Bernie was silent for a moment, squinting his eyes together.
“You haven’t gone anywhere yet, sugar,” Xena said.
“It’s not like hopping on a bus,” Bernie said. “It’s more like getting on an airplane. Takes a while to get through security. You say to yourself Another Me™, Another Me™… and then, just like that…”
For a sickening moment, Bernie thought he was having a heart attack. It felt like every bone in his body was resonating to the point of shattering. He tried to scream, but nothing came out of his mouth. He had no tongue, no teeth, no voice. He was being clawed apart, turned inside out.
“Help me, Xena!” he tried to yell.
In moments it was over, and he could feel his heart beating in his chest. He opened his eyes, and looked out across a decrepit sitting room. It was sunny outside, but the room was full of shadows that gathered in the corners and along the stained carpet. Bernie sat in a corner with his cane clutched between his knees, dressed in a dirty jacket and baseball cap. He tried to speak, but no words came out. He couldn’t move. He felt bound to the chair, his hands adhered to the cane.
The room had a few other chairs, and two long tables covered with bits of food. There were others there, one mumbling to himself, his hand moving in a repetitive arc in front of him. Another was laughing hysterically at a stuffed animal.
A woman entered the room and walked by Bernie.
“Good morning, Bernie,” the woman said loudly. Bernie tried to speak. He recognized the woman, her frizzy hair and Birkenstocks™, but he couldn’t remember from where. Had he slept with her? Was she an old escort? What had happened to Xena?
“He just sits there all day,” the woman whispered to the man in the kitchen at the far end of the room. “Doesn’t say a word to anyone. I wish my boyfriend was more like that.” The man laughed.
“How did the outing go, Lila?” the man asked.
“Oh, God, you should have been there,” Lila replied. “It was awful. All that bull about improving yourself by ‘soaring through the cosmos.’ It would have been funny if Nancy hadn’t been conned into buying that trash.”
“You let her do that?” the man said. Lila shrugged.
“It’s not my money, Steven. I tried to convince her not to, but it’s not my job to be a parent. There’s a reason I have dogs instead of children. I just made sure she didn’t roll off the curb or get mugged or something.”
Bernie tried to turn his head towards them, but his neck was fused. He was stuck looking at the opposite wall, where a stack of battered Springbok™ puzzles and board games was balanced on top of a stereo.
“OK, everyone!” Steven shouted from the kitchen. “Time to get washed up! Dinner will be on in fifteen minutes. Who wants Manwich™?” No one in the room responded, but the laughing woman laughed harder and began to passionately kiss the stuffed animal.
A lady in an electric wheelchair rolled into view. She stopped at the stereo and pulled a package from her backpack with an unsteady hand.
“Need some help with that, Nancy?” Lila asked. Nancy said nothing, and ripped the cellophane from the box with her teeth. She extracted a CD, and the rest of the packaging slipped from her lap and onto the floor. Bernie could see the cover, a large galaxy with gilded lettering across it. It said “Celestial Traveling™—A Journey to a Better You!™ by the Award-Winning Scientist Luther Stargilt™.”
“Oh Christ!” Steven yelled, running from the kitchen. “I think he’s having a seizure!” Bernie was shaking in his chair, his cane rattling between his legs. After a minute, he stopped quivering. He tried to make eye contact with Steven, who was kneeling by him.
“He’s fine now,” Steven said. Lowering his voice, he added “I think he’d be a lot happier if he kicked the bucket today, though. Guess we would too.” Lila laughed as she pulled out paper plates and plastic utensils from a cabinet.
Across the room, Nancy had finally managed to put the CD in the stereo, and slipped the large headphones over her ears. Bernie saw her face contort with delight, her eyes pointing up at an angle to the ceiling, her tongue lolling out of her mouth. After a few minutes, she closed her eyes, squinting hard. Her enormous body rippled. She seemed like she was trying to squeeze something out of her, or molt. For another five minutes, Bernie listened to Lila and Steven banging around in the kitchen and making more acerbic comments about the occupants of the room, the cackling woman with the stuffed animal, and the man mumbling and circling his hand over and over.
“Dinner!” Lila barked, and dropped the soggy paper plates around the table. The woman with the stuffed animal got up, and the muttering man followed, his hand continuing its ceaseless revolutions.
Nancy squinted harder, and pressed the headphones to the sides of her head. Suddenly, she opened her eyes, a look of wonder on her face. She took in her surroundings, the beat up furniture, the dirty carpet, the shadows crawling across the room, the cacophony of voices speaking to no one. The wonder disappeared. She looked down at her large, broken body, and then at Bernie, who could do nothing but stare back. Their eyes were locked across the room. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she began to sob with quiet gasps. After a brief pause, she started to howl.
“All right, you two,” Steven ordered. “You better come have your Manwich™ or you won’t get any Jell-O™!”
RICHARD RADFORD‘s fiction has appeared in The Ampersand Review, Pear Noir!, Bartleby Snopes, Hackwriters, Hearsay, and is forthcoming in A Cappella Zoo and Writers’ Bloc. A photograph of him was once inadvertently included in an issue of Pro Wrestling Illustrated. Currently Richard lives in Juneau, Alaska, and can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.