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Jacqueline Berkman

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Slush

by Jacqueline Berkman

 

I don’t normally meet up with strangers to rehash the last time I saw their missing ex-wives. But it was a foggy Monday morning, I was newly unemployed, and didn’t quite know how to operate within the parameters of my free time.

I was still unfamiliar with the neighborhood and picked the first café on Fulton Street that I could find. It was only a couple of blocks from my apartment and I had just sat down when Frank walked in, nodding at me as he headed toward my table.

“Casey,” he said, extending his hand. “Thanks so much for meeting me. I’m sure you have a lot going on.” He looked just like the pictures that I googled, handsome in a professorial type of way, tall and wiry with a salt and pepper beard and dark, inquisitive eyes.

“No problem,” I said, stirring my coffee. I kept my head down so I wouldn’t laugh, because the reality was I had nothing going on. I had just moved from Philadelphia for my dream job in San Francisco only to find out, four days in, that the company was shutting down.

So I kicked off the new workweek like any self-starter in Silicon Valley would and slept in past 10 am, ignoring repeated texts from my boyfriend back east, only stirring awake when a call came in from a number I didn’t recognize. In the hopes it was a job recruiter, I picked up, but it was a man’s voice I had never heard before, and he had barely introduced himself as Frank McAllister before cutting to the chase. “I know this might sound crazy,” he said, “but did you go hiking in Lake Tahoe this past weekend with a woman named Nancy Foster? Blonde, petite, around 5’4?”

My stomach lurched. I propped my pillows up against the wall and surveyed my barren apartment as I figured out what to say. I didn’t recognize the name, but the physical description matched the woman I had spent the previous Saturday with, and before I could formulate a response he said, “She’s my ex-wife. She broke into my house and stole my wife’s diamond bracelet, probably a few hours before she met you.”

“My God,” I said, a gasp escaping me, as if I were some stunned bystander in a Lifetime drama.

“Look, I know we don’t know each other, that you have no real incentive to help, but can you do so anyways, out of an act of kindness?” Frank’s voice was a bit breathless, as if he just ran up a flight of stairs. “I have no idea where she went, but she sent me a cryptic email this morning that didn’t mention anything useful except for your name.”

“Really?” I said, not proud of the fact that my voice shot up several octaves, undoubtedly inflated by a sense of importance I didn’t know I had.

“Yes. She admitted to stealing the bracelet. She wrote: ‘I can’t tell you where I am, or when I’ll give it back. All I’ll say is that I went on a hike in Lake Tahoe last weekend and met a young woman named Casey Valeri from San Francisco, and I feel she has changed me for the better. How, I’m not sure, but that’s what I’m on a mission to find out. I’ll be in touch soon.’ ” Frank cleared his throat, the notion that he had Facebook stalked all the Casey Valeri’s in San Francisco who potentially fit the bill already implicit. “You can imagine my frustration, and my wife is distraught. So please, could you find it in your heart to help a stranger in a pinch?”

Help a stranger in a pinch. It was a saying prior to those last few days that I would have dismissed as corny, as my day-to-day life was built upon a foundation of self-interest, just like everyone else. But since Saturday, this sentiment seemed to be the recurring theme in my world. I recalled my hiking partner with a bewildered fondness, and before I knew what I was doing I agreed to meet Frank at a coffee shop, out of a desire to propel the kindness to strangers movement if nothing else. “One thing,” I said. “Bring a picture when you get there, I need to confirm it’s the same person, I think she gave me a fake name.” I hung up, practically shaking with excitement.

Fast forward an hour, and the noir-like atmosphere only continued as Frank sat down at my booth and slid a Polaroid photo across the table. We were quiet as a waitress refilled our coffee, and it was only after she left that I flipped it over and studied the image, which was of Frank and Nancy on a boat, presumably during happier times. “Yes, that’s her. “

Frank sighed. “Whew,” he said. “At least we’ve got that.” He smiled with a small, closed mouth and I thought it was tasteful, the right mix of friendly and concerned. “Look,” he said. “I know this whole thing must be strange for you. It’s strange for me too. And I don’t know what your impression was of Nancy when you met her, I know that she can be quite charming, but the truth is that she’s crazy.” Frank’s hands began to tremble, and I felt a bit sorry for him. “She’s a kleptomaniac,” he continued. “She was off kilter when we were together, maxing out credit cards, lying about it, and after we divorced she got even worse. She called our mutual friend twice to bail her out of jail for shoplifting. And just when I think the dust will settle, that she’s out of my life for good, she goes and does something like this again.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, though I wondered if part of him enjoyed telling this sordid tale, making it just so he was the center of it. “I’ll try to be as helpful as I can.”

“Whatever you remember will be helpful, I’m sure,” Frank said, vigorously stirring Splenda into his coffee. “When did you first come across her on Saturday?”

I sighed. “Let me think,” I said. “About four hours into my hike.”

And that was true. The first four hours were spent walking along a muddy trail, lost in my thoughts, barely appreciating the pine trees, the mountains and the snow. I was fuming over my job situation. How the severance package was shit, how it was so unfair to be laid off after only four days, how things like this happened in the world all the time but in the grander scheme of human suffering it wasn’t even considered a blip.

“I stopped at a clearing in the middle of the afternoon because I was running low on water, and that’s when I met her,” I said. I remembered it well, being caught off guard by the unseasonably powerful sun on my back, the snow all around me melting into slush. I had scoured my canvas bag to see if I miraculously remembered to pack another canteen with water, but of course I had not.

“My God,” Nancy said, just a few minutes later, huffing and puffing as she approached the same clearing. She was a pretty, well-manicured woman who looked to be in her mid-50’s, using a broken off branch for a walking stick, which seemed oddly primitive in contrast to her North Face Jacket, Lulu Lemon yoga pants, and Ecco hiking boots. “I’m so out of shape. To think I’ve done this for so many years and now I can barely breathe. The joys of getting old.” She sighed and shook her blonde hair from the confines of her beanie, and I noticed that it was clearly dyed, dark roots beginning to sprout from underneath. “What’s your excuse?” she said, nodding in my direction. Her eyes regarded me with sympathy, as if I represented the lost traveler she once was.

“I’m low on water,” I said, feeling like a fool as the words came out, so at odds with the prepared me, the one who was always designated driver, who brought more than enough trail mix and apple slices for everyone on road trips.

The upper corners of her lips curled up, bemused, into a smile. “Well, we’re quite the duo, aren’t we?” she said. She reached into her knapsack, also North Face, and handed over an impossibly large canteen filled with cool water. “Looks like we should stick together.”

“Nancy was really friendly, and I was clearly in a pinch myself,” I said, though Frank winced at my use of the expression. I looked down, avoiding his judgmental gaze. “I needed help, “ I said, my voice shaky. “And I wanted company, and she was there for me, so we started hiking together, and that was pretty much that.” I drummed my nails against my mug, the coffee burning in my throat. “But she did give me a fake name.”

Our introductions took place as we approached a change in terrain, where the muddiness of the trail gave way to a dramatic incline filled with rocks and slush. Nervous, I extended my hand.

“I’m Casey,” I said, and I remember she hesitated before taking it, looking at me with a veil of suspicion. “Casey Smith?” she said, a grin on her face.

“No, Casey Valeri,” I said, suddenly embarrassed by withholding information, even though I never usually introduced myself to people using my first and last name.

“We’re approaching the hardest part of the trail.” she said. “I would know, I’ve done this several times before. So I want to know who it is I’m dealing with.” She laughed, as if to add levity to the mood, but there was a focus in her eyes that made me think this information was, for some reason, important.

“What’s your name?” I said, clutching onto my backpack like a student, eagerly awaiting instructions on how to proceed next.

“Bonnie Parker,” she said, climbing up the first rock. “Nice to meet you.”

Hearing this, Frank shook his head in disbelief. “Jesus,” he said, “You realize who Bonnie Parker is, right?”

I didn’t, and my silence gave me away.

“Bonnie Parker. The woman who inspired Bonnie and Clyde, the film about the bank robbers? Nancy is unbelievable.” Frank smacked the table, clearly angry, and I bit my lip so it wouldn’t look like I was smiling. I had to admit it was clever, and fitting in a sort of way, two people leaving the boundaries of civilization and the confines of its laws.

“Sorry,” he said. “I cut you off. What were you saying?”

I shrugged. “Not much,” I said. “Bonnie—er, Nancy and I were figuring out our strategy for getting up the mountain.”

The trail was steep and downright intimidating. All around us, upwards and downwards, right and left, there was nothing but rocks and the rapid disintegration of snow under a glaring spring sun. But Nancy didn’t seem daunted. “One important thing to know about this part of the trail is that most of the rocks are unstable. It’s more like bouldering than hiking. We’ve got to rely on our endurance,” she said, panting as she climbed, before turning around to evaluate me, an experienced adventurer sizing up a timid novice. “Have you ever done anything like this before?”

The short answer was no. I liked to hike, and I would frequently try to get Tim to join me on hikes back in Philly, but he was always preoccupied, whining about one law school exam or another that he had to study for. And without him, I never mustered the courage to jump in my car and explore a new trail by myself. “Not quite,” I said.

“It’s intense,” Nancy said, propping her walking stick for me to grab onto as I hoisted myself onto one of the rocks. “But intense physical exercise is good. It gets you outside of yourself.”

“Exactly,” I said, in what I hoped was a cheerful voice. I focused on my breath as I climbed behind her, my calves screaming as one foot ascended after another, and whatever it was that held my guard up began to erode, much like the snow all around us. It was then, I told Frank, after we had barely begun climbing those damn rocks, that I—kind of—broke down.

“Broke down?” Frank said.

“Yeah,” I said, looking out the window. The trees swayed back and forth in the fog, the 5 Fulton bus made its routine stops, and life moved along, farther and farther away from this sequence of memories. ”I felt like I was going to faint. I crouched down on a rock and told Nancy I didn’t think I could go on any more.”

Frank’s eyes glazed over, his fingers rapidly tapping against the table, as if waiting for me to get to something good. I diverted my gaze, my face flushed with shame as I recalled the moment I burst into tears. I had been overwhelmed and dehydrated, and it was as if the mountain had triggered some kind of desperate rawness in me, the kind where you want to spill your guts to anyone, and the normal privacy filter you carry around inside melts away and you begin to tell stories in the way that you actually see them.

Seeing my distress, Nancy used her stick to hoist herself down to the rock beside me. “Casey, dear,” she said, putting her arm around me.

“I need to turn around,” I said, tears hardening on my face, the beginnings of a headache blooming in my temples. “I barely have any water, I’m completely out of my element.” I was practically hyperventilating at this point I was so upset, gasping for breath in between sobs, snot dripping out of my nose and only the back of my hand to wipe it off.

“There was a lot on my mind, and Nancy wanted to listen,” I said to Frank, even though I could tell he clearly was unimpressed, figured me for some kind of emotional loose cannon. And with an overwhelming urge to defend myself, I said: “I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and the altitude was getting to me, just making everything worse.” I hoped that made my crisis clearer than it was, wrapped it in a bow tidy enough for Frank to walk past without a second thought. Which it seemed to, because he expressed no interest in the subsequent conversation that occurred right after.

“I have no idea what I’m doing with my life,” I told Nancy. “I moved from Philadelphia last weekend to accept my ideal job in San Francisco, and my boyfriend back home won’t stop calling me, and it hasn’t even been my first week out here and they are already shutting the company down and laying everyone off.” I wanted to calm down, but the more I said the more agitated I got. “So now I’ve got to start all over again.”

“Yes,” Nancy said. “You’ve got to start all over again.” There was a pause between us, an extended moment of silence, doves whistling as they sailed across the sky and nestled into trees, the crystalline blue lake perfectly still below us. “Do you have any idea how lucky you are?”
The comment caught me off guard, as if I was clubbed on the head by a blunt instrument. Dazed, I looked out at the lake.

“You think I’m lucky?” I said.

“Yes!” She said. “You are so lucky. You’re young and free and you can reinvent yourself in any way you see fit. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.” She looked over at me. “First things first, though. Leave that dumb boyfriend behind. For good.”

“He’s not dumb,” I said, almost too quickly. Which was true. Tim was smart, book smart at least, one of the most book smart people I knew. But maybe that was the problem. All he knew was what he read on the page, and it narrowed his world, turning him into a self- righteous automaton that only studied and complained.

“He’s no good for you,” Nancy said. “You can’t be afraid to walk away from things.”

“You’re right, I guess,” I said, even though I was afraid of walking away from things, terribly so. And there was something gnawing at me, some persistent fear that couldn’t seem to abate.

“What’s the matter?” Nancy said.

“Don’t you ever feel like, even if you walk away from things, that your problems will just find you anyway, just smack you in the face wherever you go?”

“That can happen,” Nancy said, a bit more somberly than I would have liked. “But what’s the alternative?”

I shrugged. “There isn’t one, I guess.” I looked at Nancy, who was still Bonnie to me then, and found myself admiring her slim body and stylish clothes, her impractical walking stick perched in the snow. “How did you get so wise?”

“If you don’t dwell on the past, it can’t weigh you down,” Nancy said. She sighed, a long painstaking breath, and I imagined her lungs fluttering like butterfly wings. “Don’t get me wrong, though,” she said. “There are a few things I’d like to fix.”

“Like what?” I said, but she waved me off.

“Oh, it’s exhausting getting into it. Mostly, I miss my son Marcus. I haven’t seen him in a couple years. I think he lives in Phoenix now. I want to explain some things to him, but I’m not sure he wants to see me.”

“How come?” I said.

“Let’s just say I haven’t been the world’s best parent,” she said, and then her eyes glazed over for a moment, as if she were deeply considering something. “His birthday was last week. He just turned 25.”

“I’m 25 too,” I said, and it was only a moment later when I saw Bonnie’s bottom lip quiver and her eyes fill with tears. “Are you okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” she said. She shivered, even under the sun, and after wiping away tears reached into her pocket and pulled out a 50-dollar bill. “This is yours,” she said. “The bottom zipper of your knapsack has been open this whole time.” She took a gulp of water and smiled. “Be more careful.”

* * *

“Anyway,” I told Frank, “She gave me a good pep talk and we turned around and headed downhill and that was pretty much that.” I avoided eye contact because I could tell he was growing increasingly frustrated, as I were telling him the world’s most boring story. And maybe I was. But, perhaps in sensing his disinterest in the details, I had selectively omitted more and more, deciding he wouldn’t understand, didn’t deserve to understand, any of it.

“You know,” I said, slapping the table with sudden gusto. “I just thought of something that might help you out. Nancy kept saying that the hike was amateur stuff, that she wanted to climb Mt. Whitney. She was going to head there after Tallac and send me a postcard. Maybe she’s in one of the lodges around there, if she hasn’t started hiking it already.”

Frank nodded, punching buttons in his iPhone, and it didn’t take a genius to know he was investigating lodging near Mt. Whitney. Which amused me, because for all of his time married to a schemer he’d remained as gullible as ever. I doubted he’d be clever enough to out what she actually did, which was book a Virgin America flight to Phoenix.

I stretched my legs, looking around me at the mostly empty café. The fog and drizzle gave way to a sunny afternoon, and I was overcome by all of the things I had to do.

“Well, Frank,” I said. “I’ve got to get going. I hope I was helpful.”

“Yes,” Frank said. “I hope so, too. Thank you, Casey.” He extended his hand and by the time I shook it, his attention was directed towards the next item on his to do list, the person on the other end of the line. “Hello, my name is Frank McAllister, I was wondering if you recently had a guest named Nancy Foster? No? How about Bonnie Parker?”

I waved as I walked out, the cool air reviving my lungs. I had five missed calls from Tim, and when he called again as I was walking home I finally found it within me to pick up.

“Where have you been? Do you even care about this relationship?” he said, his voice blubbery with angst. Beethoven, or some equally appropriate study music, was playing in the background.

And I took a deep breath. “Listen,” I said, my body flooding with adrenaline, “I moved to San Francisco for a reason, and even if it’s not clear what the reason is anymore, I’ll just have to wing it it until I figure it out. And your endless calls and texts are not helping me figure it out. So please, for the love of God, would you give me some space.” And then, surprising even myself, I hung up.

There really was so much to do. Unpacking, emailing recruiters, assembling Ikea furniture, doing whatever people did to get on their feet. But for the first time in a while, I felt light, and as I walked up the steps to my apartment I envisioned Nancy in Phoenix, walking across the gravelly driveway to Marcus’ place. I pictured a young guy making his way downstairs, opening the front door, looking out inquisitively. His mom. I hoped he’d invite her in. That he’d offer her something to drink and listen to what she had to say and accept that whoever she was, whatever she’d done, that she was enough.

 

 

BIO

jacquelineberkman2Jacqueline Berkman is a writer based in San Francisco. Her short fiction has been published in The Writing Disorder, Waccamaw, and The East Bay Review, among other places. Her short story “Picking Locks,” which was adapted into the short film “Panofsky’s Complaint,” was screened at the Brooklyn Short Film Festival in June 2016.

 

 

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Jacqueline berkman author

The Amino Algorithm

by Jacqueline Berkman

 

Drop Cap The cameraman counted down from 5, the lights went up, but it was only after the host crooned “You’re watching Dr. Morgan” and the Caribbean music was cued that Jordan Bickwell’s lower back really began to sweat.

He had not felt like this on the ride over. On the contrary, his confidence had inflated like a balloon with each skyscraper that blurred past, and by the time he arrived curbside in front of the studio he was bloated in his assurance that he had figured this whole mess out. He was nothing but show tunes and smiles in line for his VIP badge, and after receiving the message that Josephine was in hair and makeup, he strode over to the green room with adrenaline-fueled purpose and a head full of vague sports metaphors: he was the coach and she was his star athlete, stakes were high but they had prepared extensively, and all there was left to do before the show went live was to have one final “go get ‘em” talk and a recap of everything they had worked so hard to prepare.

But as soon as one of the distressed hairstylists let him in he could see that Josephine, hopped up on caffeine and gesturing excessively at no one in particular, was in no mood to rehearse. In fact, she didn’t seem in the right mind to be out in public, let alone on live television. And so he left the green room and made way his way to his assigned seat third row from the front with the sinking feeling that the only thing gained from the impromptu meeting was a behind the scenes look at his author at her truest and basest self: hysterical and doused in layers of hairspray.

It was for a few anxious moments that he sat like this until that damn Caribbean music was cued and Dr. Morgan, hands behind his back, leisurely made his way across the stage amongst the uproar of applause. Once he arrived at a spot deemed suitable, he stopped and stared into the camera, in a way that could only be described as soulfully. “Hello, everyone,” he said, the wave of his voice rising up against the cacophonous amount of applause. His timing down to an art, he waited until it died down to resume speaking again. “Hello, and thank you for joining us today. In today’s episode, we are exploring an industry that we encounter regularly; yet neglect to truly reflect on. The self-help industry: how helpful is it? The launching point for this discussion will be the newly released self-help title The Amino Algorithm by nutritionist Josephine Williams, which makes the controversial argument that much of the obesity and weight issues in this country are the result of cravings which can be curbed by amino acid supplements.”

Jordan took a deep breath, the buzz of an incoming text jolting him. The message said, only, “Let’s hope Dr. Morgan doesn’t mispronounce the names of any of the supplements.” Gritting his teeth, Jordan put his phone back in his pocket. As if he didn’t have enough to deal with, he now carried the additional burden of knowing full well that among the thousands of viewers tuning in to catch the full story behind The Amino Algorithm, a book he had once been proud to call himself the editor of, his father, Dr. Richard Bickwell, was among them. The main difference was that unlike the rest of the viewership, who in Jordan’s mind remained faceless entities solely representing TV ratings, his father was a visceral presence, without a doubt reclining on his leather couch in his monogrammed pajamas, invigorated by spite and reveling in the chaos that was about to unfurl. And also unlike the rest of the viewers, Jordan had to take the train up to the suburbs directly following the show and face his father at his 75th birthday party.

“As many of you have likely already heard” Dr. Morgan said, cutting into Jordan’s reverie, “The Amino Algorithm was brought to national attention by Stuart Jimenez from Allentown, Pennsylvania, whose qualms with the medical advice herein has gone viral. With a twitter page that surpasses 100,000 followers and a blog drawing nearly 300,000 unique visitors just this past month, Stuart has proven that he’s a force to be reckoned with.”

Jordan shifted in his seat. The rehashing of the statistics and the mention of Stuart’s name prompted another wave of panic. He took a deep breath and tried to reassure himself, once again, that he and Josephine were more than prepared for this. But the self-soothing that had been so effective during the cab ride no longer worked under the harsh glare of the studio lights, because the fact of the matter, no matter which way you sliced it, was that Stuart Jimenez was a profoundly unsettling creature. A self-employed electrician by day and a savvy social media strategist by night, Stuart’s qualms with The Amino Algorithm had originated with a negative Amazon review less than two months before and, in the handful of weeks that followed, catapulted into a full on anti-self help social media campaign, throttling Jordan’s life in a way he had been wholly unprepared for.

“Without further adieu,” Dr. Morgan said, “Let’s bring Stuart on stage to tell his side of the story. “Stuart?”

The applause rose again, and in Jordan’s flustered state it took him longer than it normally would to register the physical presence of Stuart himself. Immortalized through his fiery tweets and blog posts, Stuart in person was, quite simply, a disappointment to the imagination. 5’6 was a protruding stomach, receding hairline and wire-framed glasses, Stuart did not look like the media titan that he was, and when he waved at the crowd with a gentle flip of the hand Jordan tried to reassure himself, momentarily, that the man’s physical mediocrity surely diminished his online potency. It had to. People were visual, if nothing else.

“Welcome, Stuart,” Dr. Morgan said, gesturing to an empty chair on his left. “Have a seat.”

Stuart settled into his plush leather seat and waved once again at the crowd, a wide grin plastered across his face.

“So,” Dr. Morgan said, settling into his standard repose, leg crossed at the knee and right hand scratching his clean-shaven chin. “How’s it going?”

“Doin’ alright,” Stuart said, his voice booming with a self-righteous gravitas. And Jordan was struck once again by the randomness of it all, thinking of all of the books he had worked on that had seemed far more viable candidates for the Dr. Morgan show than this. Well, really one in particular. Sensible Slimdowns.

Sensible Slimdowns had gone on sale only eight months before, and had gnawed at Jordan in a way that, given all of the current drama rocking his world, could only be seen as a kind of foreshadowing. A cookbook written by former supermodel turned new age foodie Moonflower Jardine, Sensible Slimdowns had received a noted amount of flak from a Galaxy Post columnist who made the claim that having a supermodel pen a cookbook “only continued to perpetuate the female psyche’s troubled relationship to food.” The comment, pretentiously academic and lacking in sources, had ignited a debate in quite a few feminist blogs, and the whole experience had thoroughly gotten under Jordan’s skin, as it was the first time he had dealt with the wildfire of the internet and its potential to burn him.

Though perhaps what stung even more was the subsequently spectacular argument he had with his father about it. The two, out to dinner at a sushi restaurant in Soho, were always contentious on topics of work anyway, as his father repeatedly insinuated that he didn’t approve of the “new age hogwash” Jordan brought into the world, and Jordan, though he never said it aloud, constantly found his father, with his clinical asides and constant gripes about insurance companies infringing on his personal space, to be out of touch and condescending. Why they ever even got together in the first place was unclear except to say that, in those gaps between conflicts there could sometimes be a shared joke, a common reminiscence, something resembling closeness between them. But it managed to get obscured and tossed aside easily, as there were so many catalysts that could spark discord again. And Sensible Slimdowns was certainly a catalyst.

Jordan recalled their dispute clearly: after describing what the Galaxy Post columnist wrote and the negative coverage picked up by the feminist blogs, his father guffawed between sips of sake and said “This is what you spend your time thinking about? For Christ’s sake, there are actual problems out there,” before going on to say that he sided with the writer, supermodels had no business writing cookbooks, and what was his son doing publishing this crap anyway. “Is this the value of a Yale English degree?” he finally said, and the comment, though not entirely surprising, threw Jordan off balance, and in a reactive outburst of spite he threw a wad of cash on the table and left without saying goodbye. He hadn’t spoken to his father for at least a month after that, waiting for his anger to diffuse in much the same way he waited for the snarky comments surrounding Sensible Slimdowns to dissipate.

It had been a trying time, and who could have possibly known that it wouldn’t even compare to the tidal wave of problems that would plague him when he moved forward with the The Amino Algorithm?

Back up on stage, Dr. Morgan got down to business. “Stuart, let’s begin by mentioning your latest YouTube video, ‘Amino Acid Supplements and Other Dieting Failures,’ which has reached nearly one million views. Can you tell the American public, some of whom haven’t been following the saga, about your rising status as thought leader?”

“Sure,” Stuart said, clearing his throat as he segued into his presentation. “Look, let me just begin by saying that I’m not perfect,” he said, with the confidence of someone who had recently graduated from a media coaching program. “I like Jack in the Box, and some nights I can get through three beers easy. Which was all good and fine until my wife started complaining about my gut, telling me I needed to get in shape. So I started jogging and dieting but it wasn’t really doing much, if you want to know the truth, and it’s hard to keep that up if you’re not even noticing any results to begin with. So anyway, that’s kind of how things were going until a couple months ago, when I heard Josephine Williams being interviewed on the radio about The Amino Algorithm. When she described how people would benefit from her program, and how all of the supplements she advocated for were totally natural, something clicked in my head, like, wait, maybe this could actually help me.” Stuart paused for a beat and took a breath, looking earnestly into the camera, before continuing. “So I went out and bought the book and started talking one of the recommended supplements and within just a couple days I start feeling sick.”

Jordan’s phone beeped again with an incoming text. His father. Well, what was the poor guy expecting, to get better? Jordan sighed.

Following their month long separation after the Sensible Slimdowns blow up, tensions between Jordan and his father subsided as his father’s critical focus turned away from Jordan’s line of work and more towards bemoaning the state of healthcare as a whole. As the majority of his colleagues switched from private practice to take jobs in hospitals, he spent many a dinner conversation ranting about how, as the insurance companies came crawling in like so many soul sucking tax collectors, all of the autonomy of private practice was growing obsolete, how thank God he’d get to retire before he’d have to call himself anyone’s employee. And while it had been a welcome relief to no longer occupy his father’s number one grudge with all that was wrong in the medical world, the chasm between the two of them had noticeably widened again in the last couple of weeks leading up to the Dr. Morgan taping, his father’s clipped asides about his son’s foolishness aligning himself with a half-brained pseudo doctor appearing by the dozen in passive aggressive text messages and emails. Jordan could only wonder what the live show would provoke in his father, and how he would likely be the brunt of it as soon as he came over for the birthday party.

Back on stage, Dr. Morgan’s eyebrows arched in response to the not-new news that Stuart had become sick as a result of taking these supplements. “Stuart,” he said, “tell the audience what some of your symptoms were after you started feeling sick.”

“I just felt like garbage,” Stuart said. “I was getting dizzy spells, feeling super lightheaded. And I got painful cold sores on both sides of my mouth.”

“That sounds terrible,” Dr. Morgan said.

“It was terrible,” Stuart said. “Once I finally was able to get in to see a doctor, which, let me tell you, was no easy feat, he told me that I had had a herpes outbreak induced by the amino acid supplements.” The audience gasped. Stuart, undoubtedly versed in the importance of timing, gave it a few beats before he pressed on. “Apparently, the supplements so heartily endorsed in The Amino Algorithm can speed up or worsen viral outbreaks.”

“And there was no mention of that in the book?” Dr. Morgan said, glossing over the potentially awkward backstory of Stuart’s longstanding struggle with herpes.

“No,” Stuart said. “I mean, there was a general medical disclaimer, but nothing about these side effects.”

Dr. Morgan nodded vigorously. “So,” he said, “Would you say that’s when you started reaching out to express your opinions via social media channels?”

“Yes,” Stuart said. “I mean, I was mad that Ms. Williams could leave out so many important details, that the entire marketing team promoting the book could leave out so many important details. As a customer looking to lose weight and without much knowledge into the world of diet supplements, I felt that I had been manipulated, and that using social media was the only way I could really get my two cents in.”

With that, the audience burst into a hearty applause. Jordan craned his neck on both sides in an attempt to identify the source, but it was futile, because it came from everywhere and all at once.

“You present a compelling case, Stuart,” Dr. Morgan said. “But in order to gain a well-rounded perspective on the issue let’s bring Josephine Williams, author of The Amino Algorithm, up on the stage. Josephine?”

The transitory Caribbean elevator music was cued up once more and Josephine walked onstage, her frizzy hair coiffed with hairspray and her body turned away from the cameras as if they were unwanted paparazzi. There was a much lighter level of applause upon Josephine’s entrance, and, to Jordan’s mortification, several boos. Jordan thought back to all of their conversations, to her nervous state in the green room, and he held his breath and desperately hoped that she would not crack.

“Welcome, Josephine, and thank you for joining us,” Dr. Morgan said.

“Thank you for having me,” Josephine said as she took the seat on Dr. Morgan’s right side, her teeth clenched into a small, hard smile.

“Now, Josephine, I’m assuming you’ve been hearing the discussion that has been raised out here, in which Mr. Jimenez recapped his unfortunate side effects after consuming amino acid supplements endorsed in your book, as well as his frustration about the larger implications of the book itself. Do you have anything to say in response to all of this?”

Although she looked composed enough, Jordan saw Josephine intake a massive gulp of air and could practically feel her knuckles turn white as she gripped onto the arms of her chair. Seeing her like this, every effort to remain placid despite signs of bursting like a rattling tea kettle, made Jordan think back longingly to the year before, when the book had only been a question mark of a proposal, still ephemeral enough to dismiss. Why had he insisted on it? Why had he proclaimed to the editorial team that Josephine Williams was a genius, that The Amino Algorithm was the next big diet revolution? Why did anyone actually listen to him?

“To answer your question, Dr. Morgan, I have a lot to say in response to Stuart’s qualms,” Josephine said, her back ramrod straight as she rotated between looking at Dr. Morgan and the camera. “First, I want to thank Stuart here for purchasing my book, and I apologize sincerely for any unfortunate side effects that he experienced. But I can assure you that all of the claims made in my book have been extensively researched, fact checked, and meticulously edited, thanks in large part to my editor sitting right over there, Jordan Bickwell.”

Jordan had not expected that. The spotlight beamed down on him, aggravating his back sweat once again as he silently fumed at the thought that his face was now on thousands of television screens all over the country, not the least of which his father’s. In that moment, Josephine was not his hapless author but Lady Macbeth, a dreadful, conniving bitch determined to sink him down to tragic Shakespearian depths along with her. As soon as the lights swung away from him back onto the main stage, he drooped into his chair, bitterly recalling the half brained epiphany he had way back in high school when he decided he wanted to be a book editor in the first place.

He had been fourteen, on summer break before tenth grade, sitting in the beige waiting room of his father’s medical office, of all places. He had begun going there during the long, blank stretches of his summer days because he enjoyed the lunch breaks when his dad took him out for cheesesteaks or gnocchi and the car rides home when they listened to Presidential biographies on books on tape, those rare windows of time when his father didn’t have more pressing matters to attend to. And it had initially given him a flush of admiration to sit in that waiting room and observe the people sitting around him, reading outdated copies of Golfers Digest and biting their nails, all united in their quest for his father’s advice. But like the gentle shift of a changing season, his admiration began to give way as he noticed that many of the patients seemed as agitated leaving their appointments as they had walking in, their hands clutching prescription requests and their eyes on the carpet, as if tracking the pattern for the answer to an unresolved question. This was only confirmed one afternoon returning from the bathroom when he overheard a woman on the phone in the hallway saying, “Dr. Bickwell just gave me another round of antibiotics,” before chuckling and adding “well, let’s hope he knows what he’s doing this time.”

The comment, though undeniably tinged with annoyance, seemed innocuous enough, and yet when Jordan returned to the office he felt that things had somehow changed. That the waiting room, once a beacon for legitimacy and answers, had transformed into just another place where people bided their time and accumulated more questions. Any thoughts he had entertained of pursuing medicine began to dismantle as he unconsciously drifted towards a professional path that was low risk, and concrete, with results he could instantly and indisputably see. Which was right around the time that he discovered medical pamphlets.

Up on stage, Josephine, eyes still squinting against the harshness of the studio lights, cleared her throat. “Anyway, before I fully delve into Stuart Jimenez’s concerns, I want to emphasize a point which I believe to be very important,” she said. “I want to reiterate the importance of medical disclaimers.”

Dr. Morgan nodded tentatively. “Medical disclaimers,” he said.

“Yes, medical disclaimers,” Josephine said. “Every book that promotes any kind of medical advice has to have one. If you look at the copyright page in my book, you’ll find it. It reads as follows: ‘this book contains advice and information relating to health care. It is not intended to replace medical advice and should be used supplement rather than replace regular care by your healthcare provider. It is recommended that you seek your healthcare provider’s advice before embarking on any medical program or treatment.’” Josephine looked up at the camera, her face rosy with a defiant flush. “What I’m trying to say is this: my book is based on extensive research, but whenever you propose some kind of medical solution, someone will inevitably have an adverse reaction, and I can’t assume responsibility for every individual experience. I never intended for my book to replace the advice of a medical professional.”

Jordan took a deep breath. This comment was the hook, the baseline for the rest of the rhetoric that he and Josephine had worked to cultivate. They had prepared for this, and all they could do now was see how, on live television, people would react to the stream of logic that followed next.

Though his attention was divided, because even though he knew this moment was crucial, he found himself preoccupied by his memory of first discovering medical pamphlets. He had been sitting in his father’s medical office on another afternoon when he saw them, squashed in between outdated copies of The New Yorker and Good Housekeeping. They were gray and drab with a bold Helvetica typeface on the front that read: “5 Smart Ways to Avoid the Flu During the Winter Season.” Inside, the pamphlets contained practical if not slightly rudimentary tips, such as “Wash Your Hands” and “Get Enough Sleep,” and, after reading them, Jordan felt his stomach churn with acidity and his hands begin to tremble. What bothered him, what irked his fourteen year old heart, inflamed by the possibilities of honors English and George Orwell, was his profound belief that the pamphlets’ idiotic title and depressing presentation was preventing anyone from picking them up and reading them. Back then, nothing could have possibly seemed more preventable.

Suddenly invigorated, he left his father’s waiting room and ran to the drugstore across the street and bought a composition notebook, returning to the medical building once again only to jot down ideas for alternative titles, including ”5 Essential Flu-Fighting Tips for the Winter Season,” “The New and Improved Flu-Fighters Guide,” and “10 Surefire Flu-Fighting Immune Boosters.” He started carrying the notebook around everywhere as if it were an appendage to his arm, jotting down ideas whenever inspiration struck him. He began to cultivate the stance that words were powerful, something he would continue to hold onto as a staff writer for his high school newspaper, while pursuing his English degree at Yale, and throughout his fifteen year career thus far as an executive editor at Birch Tree Publishers. It was a career that, despite the disapproval of his parents, had proved quiet and largely comforting, the conflicts largely contained to the insular world of editorial board rooms, books churning through a predictable nine month cycle only to be released from the womb of their imprint to the increasingly indifferent outside world. It didn’t call for much self-reflection, and Jordan liked it that way.

But all of that changed, of course, when Stuart Jimenez came along.

Under the harsh glare of the studio lights, Dr. Morgan was intent on keeping the conversation on track. “Stuart, I’m curious as to what you think about Josephine’s point regarding medical disclaimers,” he said, turning his head to a precise 90-degree angle to face his guest on the left.

Stuart shrugged. “Honestly, I think it’s crap. Pardon my French,” he said, above the dim laughter of some of the audience members. “I mean, it just seems like something you say on the spot when you’re in a bind.” He furtively looked over at Josephine before continuing. “All I know is, when I was sitting in my car that morning, listening to the promotional interview about the book, the supplements were really positioned as an ‘all natural’ solution for weight management that you could handle on your own. That was the whole appeal for me, that I could manage this on my own without the hassle of seeing a doctor. But, as you know, I did have to go see a doctor. And it was a huge hassle. So that pissed me off.”

This sparked a hooting applause from the crowd. One person yelled ‘hell yeah’ and another yelled ‘I feel your pain, Stuart!” Jordan turned next to him and saw a woman cram a bonbon into her mouth, her face contorting with brain freeze as she licked the remaining pieces of chocolate off her fingers.

Dr. Morgan raised his hand to quiet the thundering applause on the set, and Josephine, straightening her Ann Taylor blazer, cleared her throat once the riotous applause died down. “Look,” Josephine said, her voice muffled by lingering applause, “Look,” she finally said again, her voice firmer. “I’m not a therapist, but after listening to Stuart’s complaints and hearing the vehement response from the crowd, I can’t help but wonder if the real source of everyone’s frustration is not the advice in my book but the state of healthcare in this country.”

With that, as Jordan had predicted, there was a perceptible shift in the air. He leaned forward in his seat, wondering how the crowd would react, how his father, sitting at home, would react. He looked at his phone as if it was a guiding compass, but there were no messages. He dropped it in his pocket, cradled his hands in his chin, and looked intently at Josephine.

Dr. Morgan cocked his head, surveying Josephine as if she were a very engaging pet. “That’s a very interesting claim you make, Josephine,” he said. “Would you care to elaborate?”

“Certainty,” Josephine said, adjusting in her seat so as to get comfortable before her epic diatribe. “When I read Stuart’s original Amazon review covering his grievances with my book, I couldn’t help but notice how it took a couple weeks for him to be seen by a doctor after his symptoms began. And after following him closely on his blog, I was equally disheartened to read about his actual experience seeing a doctor.” Josephine picked up a piece of paper. “I’m quoting Stuart’s blog describing his experience with his doctor at the local medical clinic. He writes, ‘the kid, basically straight out of medical school, just smirked at [me] like [I] was some sort of sucker.’” Josephine turned to Dr. Morgan. “Now, this statement is troublesome for a few reasons. One, it took too long for Stuart to be seen, two, the doctor he saw was young and inexperienced, and three, he was treated with a lack of respect. Now, I would probably attribute this lack of respect to being rushed. In light of our current healthcare system, doctors are increasingly strapped for time as they are pressured to tend to more and more patients, which probably accounts for this young doctor’s brusque manner.” Josephine turned back to Dr. Morgan. “I can’t help but feel that the reason Stuart’s sentiments are resonating so much with the crowd is because many people feel like Stuart, that going to the doctor has become a confusing, bureaucratic hassle, and are therefore shifting their medical needs away from doctors and towards self-help books, like mine. But I have to emphasize once again that no book can replace the advice of a medical healthcare professional. If anything, I hope our discussion today reminds us it is imperative that we as a nation keep checking in about how all of the recent healthcare changes are working, or not working, as a whole.”

At that, a moment of silence washed over the crowd. Even Dr. Morgan, known for his composure and camera-ready retorts, looked caught off guard. And what began as a slow clap from one audience member slowly ricocheted into full blown applause, and Stuart, before secure and composed, likely growing into the idea that he was a beloved media figure, seemed to grow invariably tense as he realized that his moment of glory was slipping away from him. Dr. Morgan cleared his throat, turning his back on Stuart as he faced Josephine. “Well,” he said, his voice raised several octaves, “this conversation has certainty taken a very interesting turn. It’s time for a commercial break, but when we get back, we will continue the discussion, examining self-help within the larger context of healthcare as a whole, and then we’ll take a Q and A from the audience. Stick around. You’re watching Dr. Morgan.”

The Caribbean music queued up again, and Jordan sprang up as soon as he had the chance, simultaneously elated at what was most definitely a strategic victory and infuriated at his author for calling him out on live television. And it while he was en route to the green room for a check-in with Josephine that he nearly collided into Stuart, who looked very agitated, a line of sweat etched across his foundation-pancaked forehead. A moment of eye contact passed between them, and in that moment a flicker of recognition seemed to cross Stuart’s face, though his expression was burdened and unreadable. And Jordan, expecting a relieved pride to wash over him, instead felt his stomach cave in with nausea as he checked his phone, waiting in vain for feedback.

 * * *

After the show, there were hours of celebratory drinks, time blurring by in an Irish bar while Jordan and Josephine knocked back gin and tonics and blurrily monitored Amazon for The Amino Algorithm’s massive upswing in sales. Jordan’s boss dropped by for a round, sloppily promising Jordan a raise despite the questionable profit margin of Birch Tree Publishers during the last fiscal year, and when Jordan finally excused himself to catch his train at Penn Station he collapsed in his seat with a drunken relief that had lasted all of 30 minutes before giving way to the familiar dread of the suburbs.

Upon arriving at his parent’s stop, he dropped by the only local grocery store that had not yet closed and bought a lemon meringue pie because he couldn’t remember anybody stating a blatant aversion to it. Dessert in hand and a vibrant headache throbbing in his temples, he walked three extra blocks and up the snaking driveway of his parent’s home and rang the doorbell, surprised to see his father open the door in a neck brace.

“Well what do you know, it’s the man of the hour,” his father said. “I wasn’t expecting you. I thought you’d be celebrating your victory in the city.”

“Mom told me about your party weeks ago,” Jordan said. “I wasn’t going to miss it. What happened to your neck?”

“I sprained it a few weeks ago reaching in the back of the pantry for wheat thins.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I wish,” he said. “But that’s what happens when you get older. The little things become more consequential. Until you can’t even reach for a box of wheat thins without paying some sort of price.”

“Christ.”

His father shrugged. “It’s not that bad. Come in, won’t you? Your pie can join all of the others.”

With a sheepish grin Jordan walked in and hugged his mother, waving to the rest of the small group, including the Rubenstein’s, the Anderson’s, and the nosy widow Doris Bukowski, who filled in the gaps of her loneliness with useless information about everyone else.

“Ooo, the local celebrity has arrived,” Doris said when she saw him. “Straight off the heels of the Dr. Morgan show. How does it feel?”

Jordan shrugged. “I think it’s only a matter of time before I’ll be fending off paparazzi,” he said, humoring Doris, who in turn laughed too heartily, her full-throated chuckle revealing several missing teeth.

“Well, for what it’s worth, I think you very well hit the nail on the head with what’s going on out there,” Mrs. Rubenstein said. “Michael here is going to start working at a hospital soon because the insurance companies have made his private practice too unaffordable to maintain. They’re driving all the doctors out, and it’s a big confusing mess for them and the patients alike. And then you’ve got all of these HMO plans trying to maximize patients seen per hour, treating doctors and patients like cattle in the process. No wonder everyone is trying to turn to self-help for answers.” Mr. Rubenstein, a long time colleague of Jordan’s father, acknowledged his wife’s grievances with a humorless nod, his face stuffed with apple pie.

Jordan’s father yawned. “We live in troubled times,” he said, “and this is all great fun but I’m about to fade.” He looked directly at Jordan. “Why don’t you come have a chat with your old man before he hits the hay?”

 * * *

They made their way to his parents’ room, with its musty smell and floral comforter and medical plaques and awards propped up on the walls. His father, waddling like a confined chicken, peeled off his sheets and climbed slowly into bed so as not to provoke any sudden movements in his neck.

“Comfortable?” Jordan said.

“Enough,” his father said, sighing against his pillows as he looked at Jordan, his expression unclear.

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me you hurt your neck,” Jordan said.

He shrugged. “Why burden you with unnecessary information?”

“So you can email and text me nonstop about how I’m always making dumb career choices, but you can’t tell me you hurt yourself?”

“I only tell you what you need to hear,” his father said, a grin spreading across his face. He coughed. “Anyway, I have to hand it to you. How you and Josephine handled that today. You took all of the weight off the book in a way that made perfect sense. It was…” His voice trailed off, lost in thought. “Well, Christ, Jordan, it was brilliant. There’s no other way to say it. The way you turned things around out there today was god damn brilliant. You could have made a great lawyer.” He shrugged, laughing to himself.

“What?” Jordan said.

“Just, watching the show. Hearing about all of this social media stuff. Twitter followers, blog posts going viral. It’s a different world. Makes me feel old.”

“Well, you did strain your neck getting wheat thins, so maybe that’s not totally off the mark,” Jordan said.

His father laughed “Touché.” He said. “Can’t argue with that.” He sighed, looking straight ahead, his expression unclear. To his side, Jordan noticed a tall, opaque purple bottle perched on his nightstand.

“What is that?” Jordan said.
“What’s what?”

“That bottle on your nightstand.”

“Oh.” His father tentatively turned his neck to look over. “It’s an Agave Nectar Protein shake. From that health food pharmacy a few blocks away.”

Jordan laughed. “No kidding,” he said. “You, drinking an Agave Nectar Protein shake.”

“Of course I’m not going to drink it,” he said. “But it’s got a lot of antioxidants, which your mother is very concerned about these days. She’s convinced that if I drink it I’ll live longer. I keep it on the nightstand to make her feel like I’m listening.”

Jordan nodded, smiling at his father with his puffy neck brace and resolute expression and accepting, in that moment, that this all made perfect sense. “Sounds like a win-win situation,” he said.

 

 

BIO:

Jacqueline berkmanJacqueline Berkman is a writer living in Los Angeles with a background in publishing and public relations. Her short fiction has also appeared in The East Bay Review. 

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