I was digging last week in my backup device for ancient files and came across this story I prepared five years ago for an anthology that never happened. The challenge for the anthology was a story that used the phrase ‘Don’t push this button’.
I don’t suppose an anthology that’s been dormant for five years will every come to life, so rather than burying my story for ever, I thought I would post it here. It hits on the near-future dystopia theme that’s been occupying my writing for some time, but it’s not related to climate change.
Rehabilitation of a Male Chauvinist Pig
Paul Darcy met his three rhinestone cowboy buddies outside Eddie’s English Pub. All four were over six feet tall, muscle-bound from hours at the gym, and dressed in cowboy boots, jeans, and ostentatiously decorated shirts from Frenchie’s Used Clothing. Saying they stood out in their urban environment was an understatement.
Trixie, the pub’s tall, curvaceous blond waitress, approached with four drafts before they’d chosen a table.
“What brings you throwbacks here on a Tuesday night?” she asked while placing the glasses on their table. Trixie’s use of the word throwback may have related more to the quartet’s 1950s style Elvis Presley pompadour hairstyles than to their male chauvinist attitudes. Both were equally inappropriate in the twenty-first century.
“Hey, it’s amateur strippers’ night at Barnaby’s,” cowboy Doug said. “We always go but tomorrow’s a holiday so tonight we came here first to, you know, get us into the spirit.”
“Yeah, Trix,” Paul added while reaching to squeeze her bum. “You should join us. With your bodacious boobies, you could cop the hundred dollar first prize. We’d all vote for you.”
“Bloody hell. You guys will try anything to get me to doff my kit, but I must work. Stick to your twisted Barbie doll fantasies and let me do my job.” She strutted away swinging her hips outrageously.
Trixie’s comments stung Paul. True, his ideal woman was at least five-eight, with long blond hair and a top-heavy 38-24-36 figure, but he didn’t like the allusion to twisted fantasies.
A few minutes later Jamie entered the pub and approached the bar. He was a pudgy five-nine with short hair and parent-approved clothes. You’d never see him wearing a cowboy hat. Trixie kissed him as the barman filled a pitcher.
Paul gave Trixie a sour look. He figured she favoured Jamie because he gave generous tips. He couldn’t imagine her actually liking the little twerp.
Jamie placed the pitcher on the cowboy’s table and pulled up a chair. He had little in common with them, but they tolerated him because he supplied more than his share of the beer. That was only fair; he had a well-paying management trainee job for the summer while they were labourers.
They polished off Jamie’s pitcher and headed for the strippers at Barnaby’s. A poster outside the pub said, in giant red letters, ‘HEY GUYS are you UP for an adventure?’. Beneath the word UP was a large red button like the on/off switches on certain appliances and the words ‘Push this button. You won’t be disappointed’.
“What the hell,” cowboy Bob exclaimed. “Does this mean no strippers tonight?”
Paul shook his head. “I talked to the MC earlier. It’s on as usual and they’re hoping for a bigger crowd and more performers because tomorrow’s a holiday. We should grab a table. But what about this button? Should I try it?”
“I wouldn’t,” Doug replied. “It probably triggers a jet of water that hits you in the crotch and makes it look like you pissed your pants.”
Paul couldn’t resist the challenge. He reached over and pushed the button, staying well to the side in case Doug was right. Nothing happened.
“Maybe you didn’t push it properly,” Jamie offered, stepping in front of the display and deliberately pushing the button.
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Paul demanded, shoving Jamie aside. “Don’t you think I can push a simple on-off tit?”
“Nothing, I guess, because nothing happened when I pushed it. It must be a stupid joke.”
Inside the pub the cowboys snagged a front row table. Jamie approached the bar for a pitcher.
A buxom blonde sauntered past after they settled down with their first round.
“Hey beautiful, care to join us?” Paul called out holding up an empty glass. “Give us a peek at your heavenly hooters and we’ll make sure this glass stays full for you.”
The woman scowled, gave Paul the finger, turned and strode to the bar.
“Cripes, Paul, you really are too much,” Jamie said. “She’ll probably get us kicked out.”
The others watched as Jamie followed the statuesque blonde to the bar and engaged her in conversation.
“You know, Trixie’s right about you,” Doug said as they waited for the MC to introduce the first stripper. “You do go for Barbie doll look-a-likes. When you were little, did you stay home playing with Barbies instead of pulling the legs off beetles?”
“Yeah,” Paul responded, “I had my anatomically correct Barbie and beat bugs to death by bashing them with her tits. That macho enough for you?”
“All right, guys, cool it,” Bob said. “The show’s about to start.”
Paul left Barnaby’s at 12:30, flat broke and less drunk than usual. He attributed both to Jamie’s absence. After providing a single pitcher, he’d departed with the buxom blonde. That left the cowboys to pay for their beer and they’d run out of ready cash before the show ended.
The show for Paul was a disappointment; too many middle-aged hausfraus. Most had nondescript brown hair. A few even wore glasses.
Paul felt exhausted as he walked to the rooming house. He collapsed on a park bench fifteen minutes from the pub and fell asleep in five.
It was morning and Paul stood at the entrance to the offices of the Commission for Gender Equality. He entered and gave the attendant his name. She directed him to a room where he sat at one of two computer terminals.
A young woman entered and acknowledged Paul’s presence with a nod before sitting at the other terminal. She was roughly Paul’s age, of average height with a slim athletic build. She had brown hair and brown eyes and wore glasses.
The monitors lit up. Paul’s screen said ‘Welcome to the Commission for Gender Equality Character Assessment Project’. The only other words on the opening screen were ‘To enter push this button’ next to a computerized rendition of a circular red button in a chrome-plated mount. It looked like the button attached to the poster outside Barnaby’s pub. Paul placed the cursor over the button and clicked.
The next screen instructed Paul to answer the questions quickly and honestly. The now familiar icon with ‘To continue push this button’ was at the bottom of the page. Paul triggered it and another page appeared.
The first questions were easy.
Name: Paul Gerald Darcy
Height: six foot one
Weight: 180 lbs
Eye colour: blue
Hair colour: ash blond
Professional ambition: challenging job in the IT sector
Paul paused after that response. He’d never considered what job he might get after graduation. His primary concern was getting passing grades while spending most of his time drinking and partying. He shrugged his shoulders and continued.
Sexual orientation: heterosexual
Marital status: single
Relationship status: between relationships
Interpersonal ambition: intellectually stimulating long-term relationship with a young woman with career ambitions but also an interest in raising a family
Describe your ideal mate: similar age (plus or minus two years), smart, ambitious, but not so focused she doesn’t appreciate a range of activities, pleasant features but not necessarily a raving beauty, slim athletic figure, tough enough for back-woods camping but sophisticated enough to enjoy theatre and serious music
He stopped before clicking on the button at the bottom of the page. His response to the professional ambition question surprised him. It indicated a level of commitment he hadn’t consciously made, but wasn’t fundamentally untrue. His answers to the last two questions were confusing. Did they represent his subconscious ambitions? They were so unlike his real experience. To date his interpersonal ambitions had focused on getting laid, but he hadn’t succeeded very often. And his targets had always been busty blond bimbos, ones with more boobs than brains.
If the answers he typed represented his real ambitions, he didn’t have the slightest idea where they came from or how he might accomplish them. It was weird but interesting. He clicked the button.
After a minute watching mindless shapes morph into each other, a new screen titled ‘Arts and Culture’ appeared. It had a paragraph of instruction that ended with ‘If a subject area doesn’t interest you, leave the line blank’.
It started okay for Paul.
Favourite musician(s) (or pieces): Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins
Favourite movie(s): Rebel without a Cause
Favourite book(s): On the Road, Catcher in the Rye, Catch 22
After that, Paul left the spaces blank before clicking the button at the bottom of the page. He’d paid little attention to anything but American youth culture in the good old days of the late 1950s and early 1960s before the effing Beatles. He knew bugger all about painting or sculpture and ignored theatre or anything philosophical.
A screen labelled Physical Activities appeared. It had instructions to choose one activity from the list presented. Backwoods hiking caught his attention. He clicked and a video of a man and woman on a mountain trail appeared. They headed away from the camera dressed in hiking boots, khaki shorts, matching plaid shirts and Tilley hats. He quickly realized he and the woman at the other monitor were the hikers.
As the steepness of the climb increased, he felt the effects of the exertion. His ankle gave a sharp jolt when his image slipped off a rock. He felt those things as he sat at his desk; somehow, he was in the scene, not watching it on his monitor.
Near the top of a hill, another screen with choices replaced the video. He picked swimming from the new list and the video, when it resumed, showed them cresting the hill and gazing at a mountain lake.
The young woman, he’d learned her name was Dawn, whooped when she saw the lake and raced down the path shedding her clothes as she went. When Paul arrived at lakeside, she wore a miniscule white bikini that highlighted her golden tan and trim figure.
She pointed to a swimming platform a hundred yards out. “Race you to the raft,” she said as Paul tore off his shorts and T-shirt and kicked off his boots.
He followed to where she waited in waist-deep water. When he got to her side, she dove and headed for the raft swimming like a fish. Paul made a valiant effort to catch her, but still had twenty metres to go when she reached the raft .
A few minutes later he sat on the raft with legs outstretched and hands on the deck behind him supporting his shoulders. She lay on her back with her head in his lap. Paul realized he was staring at the personification of the ideal mate he’d described on page one of the questionnaire.
“They have another physical challenge for us,” Dawn said with a dreamy voice.
The screen presented another list of activities, and Paul was once again asked to choose. He picked tennis. He’d been good at tennis in high school, not technically skilled but powerful with a serve that overwhelmed his opponents.
Seconds later, they were on a court dressed in white outfits. He learned she was as skilled at tennis as she was at swimming. After a hard-fought battle he eked out a two-games-to-one victory.
Text scrolled across the screen as he and Dawn headed to the showers. ‘Thank you. You have now completed our survey. Push this button to continue.’
Paul pushed the button. ‘Enjoy the shower. Your assessment report will be ready when you’re done’ scrolled across the screen as Dawn peeled off her shorts and T-shirt. He wondered if she’d wear her ever-present glasses into the shower.
The real Dawn at the table next to him pushed her keyboard away. “I don’t believe this! What happens if I DON’T PUSH THIS BUTTON?” She barked out the final four words as she stood.
“No, please,” Paul pleaded. “You must be near the end. Continue for a few more minutes.”
“No way,” she replied. “This whole business is manipulative and exploitive, and I refuse to continue. I should have stopped ages ago.”
As she slammed the door behind her, Dawn’s naked image on Paul’s computer monitor disintegrated into pixels and disappeared from the screen.
“Ah, shit,” he exclaimed when he woke on the park bench between Barnaby’s and the rooming house.
He stared at the report he clutched in his hand. The title page said ‘Commission for Gender Equality’ at the top, and beneath that, ‘Character Assessment for Paul Darcy’. He couldn’t read the finer print in the dim glow of the streetlights so he stuffed the pages in his back pocket and headed for his room. It was 1:30 Wednesday morning , and he really needed sleep. His befuddled brain wasn’t making sense of anything.
Paul woke after eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. His muscles ached and his head hurt; symptoms that weren’t consistent with an incident-free night with less than the usual quantity of beer.
After a shower that did little to ease his unusual aches and pains, he stared at his section of the roomers’ fridge. It contained a bottle of instant coffee and a handful of sugar packets. He made coffee and read the assessment report.
Fortified by two coffees with extra sugar, Paul visited the corner grocer and then a barbershop. Odd finding a barbershop open on the Canada Day holiday, but everything had been odd from the moment he pushed the button outside Barnaby’s pub. Yesterday, Jamie had picked up a girl, an exceptional event of almost biblical dimensions. Then there was Paul’s incomprehensible experience at the Commission for Gender Equality. Today he’d bought food to prepare his own meals, and now he was sitting in the barber’s chair contemplating his character assessment report while the barber destroyed his coveted duckbill hairstyle.
Thursday, Paul arrived at work early. He was rewarded with assignment to the less physically demanding and better paid surveying crew. Thursday evening, he stayed home and read the surveying manual the crew chief lent him rather than go to the pub with his cowboy buddies.
Friday evening when he returned to his room after work, he found an unexpected invitation to meet Jamie at an upscale pub.
“What did you think of the Gender Equality Commission?” Jamie asked as Paul took his first swig of the large premium draft Jamie provided.
“Bloody hell! What do you know about that?” Paul spluttered, choking on his beer. He’d forgotten that Jamie had also pushed the button outside Barnaby’s.
“It is for real,” Jamie continued in his matter of fact way. “I looked into it. They’re an official commission with a mandate to adjust the social outlook of young adults who volunteer for their treatments.”
“But…, but…,” Paul stammered, “I never volunteered for anything. I fell asleep for half an hour and dreamed that crap.”
“You have the report don’t you? And look at you, you’ve already changed. No stupid cowboy shirt or poofter hairstyle.”
Paul slumped in his chair and stared at his beer stein. The validity of Jamie’s statements was undeniable. “But I don’t understand.”
“It’s the new world, buddy. They scan your brain, implant ideas that change your character and feed you a visual image of your new life, all in fifteen minutes.”
“But I never volunteered,” Paul suggested, grasping at straws. The sinister business reminded him of Nineteen Eighty-Four and other dystopian novels that featured character manipulation.
“By pushing the button outside Barnaby’s, you volunteered for an adventure. Well, that was it.”
“What about you? You also pushed the button, but you’re no male chauvinist pig.”
“True. I pride myself in having an enlightened attitude when it comes to respect for women. But I have other character imperfections. They wanted to cure me of being such a milquetoast.”
Jesus, thought Paul, why didn’t they cure him of stupid expressions like poofter and milquetoast.
“Drink up,” the more forceful Jamie added before Paul got his mind around the new ideas. “We’re meeting Melanie and a friend for dinner.”
“Melanie?” Paul asked.
“Melanie. The girl you dissed at Barnaby’s on Tuesday night. You called her heavenly hooters.”
Oh yeah, Paul thought, perhaps it should have been Melanie of the marvellous melons. With his reformed perspective, he knew he shouldn’t say such things, but he could still have his lascivious thoughts provided he kept them to himself.
A few minutes later they approached the restaurant. Paul recognized Melanie’s friend immediately. She was Dawn from the Commission for Gender Equality.