Dale Bridges is a fiction writer, essayist, and freelance journalist living in Austin, Texas. His writing has been featured in publications including The Rumpus, The Masters Review, and Barrelhouse Magazine. He has won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for his feature writing, narrative nonfiction, and cultural criticism, and his essays and short stories have been anthologized. His debut short story collection, Justice, Inc., will be published June 20.
Excerpt from Justice, Inc.
Monkey Puzzle Press
© Dale Bridges 2014
Derrick was lonely, so when he saw the advertisement on the Internet for the BUILD YOUR OWN GIRLFRIEND KIT, he got excited.
He’d had girlfriends before, of course, but none of them had worked out. The problem, as he saw it, was that the type of women who agreed to date guys like Derrick were not the type of women Derrick wanted to date. They tended to be pale, bespectacled creatures with nervous eyes and breath that smelled vaguely of tuna fish, and they were often collectors of strange memorabilia: ceramic faeries, Japanese comic books, vintage Star Wars action figures still encased in their plastic containers, etc., etc. Derrick wanted a cheerful girlfriend with large breasts. He wanted a TV girlfriend.
Admittedly, Derrick wasn’t exactly a swimsuit model himself. Part of this was simply genetics. His dull dishwater-blonde hair was receding prematurely, his lips were thin and perpetually chapped, his chin was almost nonexistent, and he had what his father described as “womanly hips.” Furthermore, his palms were always horribly sweaty, and his right eyebrow had a tendency to spasm when he got excited, which made him appear creepy and mentally unstable. Partially because of these physical attributes and nervous tics, Derrick refused to make any effort to improve his appearance. He considered this a matter of principle, a form of rebellion against a materialistic world that would never embrace him. Every time he left his apartment unshowered and unfashionable, he was making a statement about the shallow nature of a society that valued beauty over brains.
On the other hand, given a choice, Derrick would have traded every single one of his IQ points in a nanosecond for the opportunity to be sexually desired based solely on his outward appearance. This was his secret shame and the reason he scrambled to find his credit card when he saw the advertisement.
The company that made The Girlfriend™ was asking for a lot of money, but Derrick had a good job at a corporation called Smith & Johnson and his expenses were minimal. He was stingy by nature and took pride in his ability to withhold certain luxuries from himself, such as nice cars, brand-name clothing, and upscale restaurants featuring expensive postmodern cuisine. Over the years, the zeros on his bank account statements had steadily multiplied until there was a nifty, little row of egg-shaped soldiers lined up at the bottom of each one. Derrick typed his credit card number into the appropriate box on the website and placed the order.
Seven to ten business days later, a package arrived at his apartment marked FRAGILE: HANDLE WITH CARE. He opened it immediately and began to spread the parts out on his living room floor. There were elbows and feet and bendy, half-moon ears. Derrick was surprised by the heft of each body part and the supple rigidity of the skin. He pinched the forearm on the floor and then pinched his own forearm—the only difference was the muscle density and the warm blood pumping through his veins. He could already tell that The Girlfriend™ was going to be a real looker. The neck he pulled from the box was regal and swan-like. The eyes were squishy, green spheres flecked with yellow.
But when he got to the breasts, Derrick paused. They looked strange lying there on his rust-brown carpet, separated from the rest of the body, the nipples as pink and round as pencil erasers. The excitement he felt was undeniable and disturbing. He tried to think about something else but soon discovered that when there is a pair of detached breasts in front of a man, his mind tends to think exclusively about detached breasts. Derrick had an erection. He attempted to distract himself by taking out more body parts, but that didn’t help. Next out of the box came a soft, slim belly that gradually spread out at the base to form a set of curvaceous hips. After that, the round buttocks, the thighs, and finally, the vagina, delicate and inviting and covered with soft, wiry pubic hair.
By this time, Derrick was fully aroused and utterly ashamed. He put all the body parts back and placed the box in the hall closet, where it would be out of sight. He went into the living room and turned on the television. He flipped through the channels, but there was nothing on. College basketball, stupid sitcom, stupid sitcom, local news, irritating cooking show with effusive brunette woman. . . . Derrick turned off the television and threw the remote on the floor. He was upset, but he didn’t know why. After all, he had purchased The Girlfriend™ with hard-earned money. Technically, the breasts belonged to him. It was no different than buying a goldfish or a screwdriver. Only it was different somehow and Derrick knew it and it made him angry. He stomped around his apartment for a while, slamming doors and grumbling under his breath about nothing in particular. Finally, he logged on to his favorite interactive computer game, Life After Men, and spent the rest of the day slaughtering undead digital zombies on the beaches of Newport.
* * * * *
The box remained locked in the hall closet. The warranty said he could return the product for a full refund within thirty days, and every time he walked by the closet Derrick told himself he was going to do just that. But he never did.
At work, Derrick renewed his half-hearted efforts to connect with female coworkers. He thought that if he found a human woman to go on a date with him, the box in the closet would simply become an amusing anecdote. “Remember the time you ordered a female companion on the Internet?” his real-life girlfriend would say. “Yeah, that was wacky,” Derrick would reply. They would laugh and laugh, and then they would have soapy anal sex in the shower.
Unfortunately, his attempts to interact with women at work were not successful. At his place of employment, Derrick was part of the Tech Department, which was known not-so-affectionately as the Geek Squad. The hot girls in the office tended to date the alpha males with white teeth and square jaws in the Sales Department or, on rare occasions, the brooding obsessive-compulsives in Accounting. The Tech Department was a no-date zone.
There was only one girl in the Geek Squad. Her name was Mary and when she was first hired, Derrick thought she was sort of cute in a misanthropic-cat-lady kind of way. Mary didn’t talk much, and during lunch, she sat in the break room by herself reading novels whose glossy covers featured cyborgs copulating with aliens. Once, when Derrick asked if he could sit at the same table with her, Mary had shrugged her perpetually slumped shoulders and said, “It’s a free country,” which Derrick thought was an incredibly cool thing to say.
However, soon afterward, the guys from Sales started calling her “Fivehead” behind her back because of her unusually large forehead, and Derrick decided that Mary must not be as cute as he originally thought and he stopped sitting at her table during lunch.
* * * * *
So Derrick was lonely. Again. Eventually, he unlocked the hall closet and dragged the box into the living room. He decided at the very least he should put The Girlfriend™ together and see what she looked like. By this time, it was too late to get a refund and it seemed incredibly wasteful to leave her in the closet like that, with the artificial Christmas tree and the Chewbacca mask that he had purchased as a joke (sort of) to wear at the office Halloween party last year.
It took him almost a month to assemble The Girlfriend™. The instruction manual was long and complicated, and it was written in Japanese and then translated into English, so the directions were strangely worded. “With special firmness, insert Part 18-B into the undercarriage of Section PL.3 and rotate westward with vigor. That is a fine accomplishment!”
At first, it felt bizarre to be handling body parts in this manner, like a remorseful psychopath who had chopped up his lover and was now trying to undo the crime. However, after a while, Derrick began to enjoy it. The trick was to ignore the fact that the product was shaped like a human female and concentrate on the individual pieces. As a child, he’d spent countless hours alone in his room assembling model airplanes, and The Girlfriend™ was not unlike an incredibly large Cessna with arms and legs instead of wings and propellers.
According to the instruction manual, the most important item to install during the assembly process was the small, red chip at the base of the skull called the ownership tag. This was the mechanism that bound the unit to its owner and required The Girlfriend™ to obey every command Derrick gave as soon as his facial and vocal patterns were officially recorded. Without the ownership tag, The Girlfriend™ was an autonomous human-shaped machine capable of anything. There was no telling what she might say or do. The instruction manual also emphasized the importance of regular maintenance, as some of the parts of the unit would degrade over time. True, this would take decades, but a unit with a malfunctioning ownership tag could be extremely dangerous, so it was best not to take chances.
There was also the programming software, which of course Derrick was excited about. In the box, there were separate instructions that demonstrated how to connect the hard drive in The Girlfriend’s™ head to his laptop computer. After it was installed, the program required Derrick to answer a series of questions. Does your ideal girlfriend like to watch professional sports? Is your ideal girlfriend a Christian/Jew/Buddhist/Muslim/Atheist/Other? On a scale of 1 to 10, how assertive is your ideal girlfriend? How many pairs of shoes does your ideal girlfriend own?
It took Derrick another week to complete these questions, primarily because he kept second-guessing his answers. For instance, there was this question: On a scale of 1 to 10, how intelligent is your ideal girlfriend? At first, he answered 10, because who wants to date an idiot, right? But after he thought about it for a while, he decided that he would be intimidated by a woman who was smarter than him, so he changed the answer to 5. However, on further consideration, average intelligence would probably mean The Girlfriend™ would listen to a lot of teen pop music and send him text messages with ridiculous abbreviations and misspellings in them, such as, UR 2 kute, and he didn’t want that. In the end, he settled on 6.89, which he determined was a non-threatening level of intelligence.
Finally, the day came to initiate the start-up procedure. With his heart rapidly percolating in his throat, Derrick typed in the fifteen-digit password and watched as The Girlfriend™ opened her eyes and sat up. She blinked several times, looked down at herself, and then she began to scream like a scalped rabbit. Derrick realized that he’d forgotten to put clothes on The Girlfriend™. She was sitting naked on the floor with her back against the wall and a strange man standing over her. “It’s OK,” Derrick said. “I bought you on the Internet. You have to be quiet. I have neighbors.” Not surprisingly, this did not calm The Girlfriend™ and she began to scream even louder. Not knowing what to do, Derrick panicked and aborted the start-up procedure. The body immediately went limp, and Derrick ran to the bathroom and threw up in the toilet.
It took a week for Derrick to work up the courage to try again. He reread the start-up procedure in the instruction manual carefully, and the second attempt was less traumatic. This time he made sure to assign The Girlfriend™ a name, Anna, and dressed her in pink cotton panties, a matching brassiere, and a flower-printed sundress that he purchased at an online clothing store after taking Anna’s measurements (36-19-32). He placed her in a comfortable position on the couch: legs crossed, hands folded demurely in lap. He lit scented candles and tuned the radio to a classic rock station. When Anna awoke the second time, she was somewhat disoriented but not frightened. “Hello, my name is Anna,” she said. “Hello, Anna. My name is Derrick,” said Derrick. They spent the evening smiling nervously at one another and nibbling on the veggie platter he had prepared for the occasion. The classic rock program on his computer played a song about a small-town girl livin’ in a lonely world who took the midnight train goin’ anywhere.
* * * * *
So now Derrick had a girlfriend. And she was hot. Really hot. In fact, now that Derrick thought about it, maybe she was a little too hot. Her eyelashes were long and delicate, like dainty insect legs fluttering above her freckled nose, and her smile was so sexy that he sometimes couldn’t even bear to look at her. No one would believe that a guy like Derrick would have a girlfriend this hot. They would think she was an escort that Derrick paid to spend time with him, or worse, they’d figure out that he’d ordered her on the Internet and they would laugh at him and call him a pervert and throw him in pervert jail with the child molesters and the men who sodomized goats and when he got out he’d have to register as an ex-pervert and then he’d have to go around to all the houses in his neighborhood with a legal document for them to sign that disclosed his former pervertedness.
So Derrick locked Anna up in his apartment. He did this by programming her to believe there was a gang of bloodthirsty assassins outside waiting to beat her and kill her and rape her, although not necessarily in that order. Admittedly, this was a fairly ridiculous idea, but Anna didn’t know better and she cowered in fear whenever the front door opened.
“Don’t worry,” Derrick told her. “They wouldn’t dare attack while I’m around.”
“But what about when you’re not here?” said Anna, wiping away the saline solution that leaked from the corners of her eyes.
“That’s why you can never go outside.”
It was a mean trick and Derrick felt sort of bad about it, but he also felt sort of exhilarated. He had never held this much power over anyone, much less a simulacrum of a beautiful woman, and it was gratifying. He thought of all the women who had ignored or intimidated him over the years, and he smiled to himself when Anna wept as he left for work in the morning.
* * * * *
The sex was amazing!
Well, OK, perhaps the sex itself wasn’t amazing, considering the fact that Anna simply allowed Derrick to take off her clothes and do with her as he wished, which was fun for a while but soon became surprisingly frustrating and dull. But it was amazing that Derrick was having sex! Frequently! With a hot girl!
It would be impossible to overestimate the affect this had on Derrick’s confidence. He began to shower on a more regular basis and dress better and smile at strange women in the supermarket. At the office, he brought in donuts without being asked and sent out email forwards to his coworkers that featured a number of sexually themed jokes, which could have been reported to Human Resources but fortunately were not.
Derrick wasn’t the only one at work going through changes. Mary had also recently gotten a new haircut, one that was short and pixie-ish with bangs that mostly covered up that enormous forehead, and she was starting to draw attention from the guys in the Sales Department, who were now finding reasons to visit her cubicle on a daily basis. For the most part, Mary ignored these advances, simply staring blankly at the young salesmen until they became self-conscious and began to stutter. Being repeatedly turned down was something they were accustomed to, but the emasculating way Mary did it was foreign to them and they couldn’t quite seem to grasp it. They couldn’t close the deal.
Derrick’s cubicle was directly across from Mary’s, and one day, after several red-faced Sales Reps had been turned away, Mary looked directly at Derrick, made her index finger and thumb into a pistol, and shot herself in the head. Derrick snorted.
After that, Derrick started to think about Mary all the time, specifically in comparison to Anna. Of course, Anna was much more attractive than Mary. At least in the physical sense. Anna had perfect lips and perfect legs and perfect buttocks. When she smiled, it was perfect, and when she didn’t smile, that was perfect, too. And all that perfection was what Derrick wanted most, right? Well, perhaps not. Perhaps he was a complex man after all, and what he needed was an intelligent, multifaceted partner who could understand the many layers of his personality and appreciate his true nature, which, now that he thought about it, was probably being stifled by spending so much time with Anna, who was not capable of helping him achieve his true potential. He tried to fix the situation by ordering new parts and reprogramming the software, but the results were unsatisfactory. In the end, he could make Anna more sarcastic and give her a larger forehead, but he could not turn her into Mary.
Meanwhile, the real Mary had started talking to Derrick at work. It began with an offhand comment Derrick made during a staff meeting about a television show called Dr. Who, which caused Mary to laugh out loud and incurred an admonishing look from their supervisor, a sour, uptight man who was named Richard Dill but was called Dick Pickle by his supervisees behind his back. After that, Mary and Derrick began chatting constantly via their office computers using a secret instant-messaging system that someone in the Geek Squad had created to circumvent the company policy that forbade personal conversations during office hours. It turned out they had many similar passions, including comic books, word puzzles, anime, and the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.
One day, he sent her an email attachment featuring a picture of a small, dwarf-like creature stirring a pot of stew. Above the picture, Derrick wrote, “I would be honored if you would come to my hobbit hole for dinner!” Mary immediately wrote back, “The honor would be all mine, good sir.” Plans were made for the following weekend.
Derrick was thrilled. He sent a text message to Anna’s mainframe telling her to clean the apartment thoroughly in preparation for the big day. After work, he went straight to a high-end salon downtown and received a hip new haircut that was messy on top, clean on the sides, and did a fair job of hiding his receding hairline. He then proceeded to a boutique men’s clothing store nearby and purchased a dozen designer outfits that cost nearly two thousand dollars after taxes. Derrick’s hand shook while he signed the credit card printout. By the time he returned home, he was practically bursting with the type of bliss that can only be produced by an uninhibited shopping binge. For the rest of the evening, he made Anna sit on the couch in the living room while he tried on every combination of clothing possible and modeled them for her.