Nick and the Illustrator® 10

by Jennie Kaufman

 

Nick Giannapoulos, bedrock of the Information Technology department at Market Makers, Inc., had strong feelings about the company newsletter.

It appeared in his Outlook mailbox once a month with the title MM Hmm. It came with certain assumptions—for instance, that MM employees were a family, for better or worse. In fact, they were an assortment of loners and cliques whose population resembled that of an airport bar. (The turnover rate for new hires was 50 percent in their first two months. Collecting outdated phone lists was a hobby of Nick’s.) And while it was true that MM employees were often fresh from college, was it also true that they would welcome basic survival tips such as instructions on the proper method of flossing teeth?

Nick despised the MM Hmm with every fiber of his being.

On the other hand, it was a company-mandated excuse to stall work for a while. Nick didn’t hate his work. His days were evenly balanced between annoyance at constantly being paged by frustrated, hapless computer victims and a gratifying sense of superiority from his ability to ease their suffering. But even to the extent he enjoyed it, it was work; it was a grind that apparently would go on for another thirty-five years, unless the whole office got outsourced and he ended up delivering dry cleaning.

So he took his time, ate some yogurt, and read the newsletter. Skimmed the birthdays, read the point-counterpoint between Greg Toth, Accounting (pro-Harley), and Jesse Burrows, Customer Service (pro-Ducati), coming to the measured conclusion that both were idiots.

Then there was a piece (uncredited, as usual) on the family reunion of Angela Menon, Design; her twin brother Aaron, Marketing; and their long-lost mother Beatrice Daniels, Reception. Aaron and Angela learned at age 21 that they were adopted, and their efforts to obtain information about their birth mother had been fruitless, but at the Christmas party shortly after Beatrice was hired, she got trashed at the open bar and started telling the perfectly adorable pair that she had had twins once herself . . . several crying jags and a broken high heel later, it was discovered with queasily repeating shock that this was, in fact, their mother: a miracle somewhat muted by the fact that their mother didn’t quite make it to the ladies’ room before throwing up.

Quite a story, but Nick had heard it forty-five fucking times by the time he read it in the newsletter, as had every single other person in the employ of Market Makers, and the newsletter’s insistent overuse of exclamation marks was enough to make him close the file and actually start the morning’s work!

Lunchtime came and went, punctuated by an imperious page from VP of Sales Flora Barkley. It was nothing personal; Flora never opened her mouth without issuing an imperious page. But that didn’t mean you had to buy into it. Nick pretended to himself that he had gone out for lunch, while he huddled in his office with a tuna sandwich, and then he supposed that a police situation might have caused a delay in his return, so it would be impossible for him to visit Flora before 2. In reality, he turned back to the newsletter.

The Good Health page thoughtfully provided nutritional advice (his tuna and celery were A-OK, but be sure to wash any green onions carefully) and the results of the company survey of the best nearby takeout joints. It made him ill, frankly, to see the energy these people put into their lunches, not to mention the cash. “What will we order today?” they started asking each other around 11 a.m. What a sad existence. Only once had he participated, and he couldn’t even remember what he had had. Something Mexican, with cheese. It had had either far more or far less cheese than he had been expecting; in either case, the lack of control over the cheese was an absurd thing to pay extra for, when you could quite easily make Mexican food for dinner at home and then bring the perfect leftovers. During the last office-switching (a biennial event), Nick had made a strategic grab for a spot near the microwave.

Nick’s MM Hmm weakness was the New Faces section. Here, he was genuinely curious. Of course, it was always depressing, all the shiny hopeful portraits of expensively educated youngsters who expected a happy and productive career. At the same time their blurbs were calculated to make you hate them: “David comes to us with an M.B.A. in postmodern investment. He has studied abroad in St. Petersburg and São Paolo, where he met his wife, Elena, and speaks fluent Russian and Portuguese. He is also something of a chess champion! David will be a welcome addition to the team, and he is eager to put in his two cents on the question of ordering fajitas!”

And then he scrolled down and saw her.

With the first breath he was able to draw, he thought it was a trick. For she was the living embodiment of the Adobe® Illustrator® logo, with its rendition of the Botticelli Venus. The golden wavy hair, green eyes, expression of ethereal serenity. Nick was now in love.

Who was she?

“Allison Edwards starts Monday as a Marketing Assistant. She is working toward her master’s degree in behavioral science at Princeton University. This will be her first time living in New York. She has settled in cozily with her two dogs, Kant and Jung!”

Nick thought, My god. Why is she starting as a marketing assistant?

Nick thought, Whatever. She’s going to need me to set up her computer.

 

Monday morning Nick was too nervous to eat breakfast. He was too nervous to drink coffee, but he had three cups anyway. On the bus he was sure he was going to be sick; he had to get off five blocks early. The walk helped at first, but by the time he reached the building he felt like a sweat popsicle.

In his office, though, a measure of confidence returned to him. It wasn’t necessary to do anything apart from his job. And smile in a warm and welcoming but definitely not coming-on manner. Still, the suspense was exhausting as he waited for Allison’s supervisor, Aaron the adopted twin, to call him over to set up the e-mail on her computer. He had already given her an account, had already gazed at it: aedwards@marketmakers.com, imagining his in-box with strings of chatty messages from her. She was already a familiar presence in his life.

Finally, at 11, when his colleagues Marco and Howard were arguing sushi vs. McDonald’s, he got the call. “I’ll be right over,” he said, then went to piss and try to make his hair look a little less IT.
The love of Nick Giannapoulos’s life was sitting in her chair, her back to him, as he approached. The golden locks were bound into a ponytail that fell on a dark blue silk shirt. Aaron was standing next to her, one hand on her chair, pointing out something on the computer. Nick knew his life was about to change forever, and he felt wholeheartedly that he was ready.

“Hey,” he said.

“Nick, Nick,” said Aaron, as Allison turned, smiling, eyes bright with anticipation. Nick’s very own wonder girl was seeing him for the first time. She stood up and extended her hand over the back of the chair.

“Happy to meet you,” she said in a voice with an edge of deep mystique. He wanted to send the chair flying and take her entire body in his arms. He had never been so sure of anything in his entire life.
He took her hand and hoped the chair blocked his crotch from her sight. Her hand was smooth and cool, but warming rapidly. With superhuman effort he let go of it.

“Your male,” he said ruggedly, but she didn’t notice the implied spelling. She smiled and patted the chair for him to sit down. He had a piece of paper with her information on it, so he sat in her chair with the paper covering his lap and tried to think of rotting garbage as he opened the mail administration program. But his penis wasn’t listening; it was still tuned in to WLUV. He typed in her e-mail: bedwards@marketmakers.com.

“Uh,” said Aaron.

“Is there already an A Edwards?” asked Allison. “My middle initial is C. Could I be AC Edwards?”
Nick could feel his ears turning red. “Actually,” he said, in a trembling voice, “that was a typo. I must still be asleep.” He went back and fixed it.

“Bedwards,” said Aaron. “Good job, Nick.”

The floor jolted suddenly and the whole room tilted a sharp 45 degrees. Nick grabbed the desk in alarm. Aaron looked at him like he was an embarrassment, not only to Market Makers but to Aaron personally.

“Are you all right?” said Allison.

Nick was not one of those IT guys that the regular guys make fun of. At least, not in front of him. He was an IT guy, all right, he wore crisp-collared white shirts and didn’t go outside for smoke breaks. But he was good, he was smart, he was irreverent, and now with one comment Aaron, that son of a drunken receptionist, had transformed him into, yes, a goddamn geek.

Nick said nothing. He corrected the mistake. He set everything up in seconds and stood. At least the ruinous humiliation had wilted his dick, so that now he could throw himself off the building with a semblance of dignity.

“You’re all set up,” he said, and fled.

 

Aaron stopped in his office that afternoon.

“Dawg, you mad as crazy. Allison thinks you’re a freak now. I know she’s hot, but you gotta learn to control yourself.” He sat down, uninvited, of course.

“Aaron, if you think she’s hot, you ask her out,” said Nick.

“Funny you mention it, we’re having drinks after work. You think when God delivers a package like that into my care that I am going to leave it on a doorstep?”

“Why are you here? Did you forget how to open the CD drive again?”

“Everybody has that fucking problem with the G5. It’s not like I’m stupid.”

“Why are you here?”

“She needs Illustrator installed. Can you do it tonight?”

“Yes. Now go away.”

“Good man,” said Aaron, thumping his desk, and he left.

“Tonight.” In other words, Please do it when the lady isn’t present. In other words, Please do it while I’m out drinking with the lady, running my hand up and down her silk blouse.

The PA clicked on. “Nick, this is Flora. Come to my office at once.”

Dealing with Flora was better than thinking about Aaron. Nick went. Flora had a large office with a sofa in it. Nick found her sitting on the sofa with a stack of paper. She peered at him over her glasses and gestured toward the computer.

“Word is crashing again. Fix it for once and for all, because I certainly don’t have time for this.”

He sat down in her computer chair, which was high-backed, with arms that got in Nick’s way. “I cannot fix Word,” he told her. “I don’t work for Microsoft. The problem is your font folder is overloaded. That’s always the problem.”

“Then you should come and clean it out once a week.”

Nick took a breath and found himself calm.

“Flora, I am not a janitor. If you want Camille to clean it out for you, I’ll be happy to show her how.”

“Camille’s sick, again. That child has always got something wrong with her. I’m going to get another assistant. Until I do, clean it out once a week.”

“OK, stop loading fonts until you get another assistant.”

He knew she was staring at him coldly over her glasses, but he kept his back to her, shoveled her shit, and rebooted. Once he had successfully opened a file in Word, he turned to her, matched her stare, and walked out.

She could probably have him fired, but if he didn’t stand a chance with Allison, that would be for the best.
But maybe he did. Really, step back, Nick, went his inner therapist. Your first impression may have been lame, but she’s not going to go for Aaron—you know what Aaron’s like. Aaron is going to buy her a drink and assume she’s drunk and that he has therefore become charming. He’s going to hold a lighter up to her gorgeous golden hair and threaten to burn it if she doesn’t kiss him. You have seen him do this. You have also seen the girl scream, pull back her hair, and then end up in his embrace. But that was a halfwit, and this is Allison we’re talking about, Allison the behavioral scientist with the dog named Jung. If she takes Aaron home and introduces him to the dog, Aaron will say, “So, is he well-Jung?”

Allison will not go for Aaron. Therefore, to whatever degree Aaron denigrates Nick, Nick will look the better for it.

But the sudden violent erection syndrome was one thing he was going to have to deal with.

Nick appeared at Allison’s desk at 5 o’clock. He found her turned away from the monitor, reading training materials. At her right was a steno notebook in which she was taking notes in a clean, unpretentious script. He fell in love all over again, without ever having crawled out. It was like quicksand, which American children had been raised to believe was an ever-present danger of life. Perhaps it was so.

“Allison,” he said softly, and found himself in a darkened bedroom, pressing against her between the sheets. She turned—already less energetic than this morning—and he mentally commanded Jung to leap, frightening his jeans into a looser state.

“I have your Illustrator here. If you’re not using it I’ll put it on now—”

“Oh, sure, thanks. Grab that chair.” He was going to crouch, or kneel, or prostrate himself before her computer, but he grabbed the chair instead. She moved over to let him squeeze in. They were inches apart.

“It’s tight,” he said, and commanded Kant to join Jung.

“I’m used to close quarters. I’m from a big family,” she said. He looked at her and they exchanged a smile.

“Because I can do this after you leave if I’m disturbing you.”

“No, don’t stay late for me. I’m sure you have somewhere to be.”

He started the installation.

“So you’re Greek?” came her voice like a mandolin.

“Yeah.”

“I adore Greece.”

He didn’t move. He didn’t breathe. The Illustrator screen appeared, and the representation of Allison. He was, in fact, such a geek that he was dreaming, he had made up a wholly convincing fantasy, complete with humiliation, about a software logo. No doubt it was the “10” that had inspired this vision of the perfect woman . . .

“My parents met there. So we went several times when I was growing up.”

Slowly, he turned. She was real, she was sitting there, she was looking at him from that angle mathematicians know as “adorable.”

He said, “Are you free tomorrow night?”

 

Now that he had met her, now that he had a date with her, Nick tried to refrain from jerking off to her image, but if he had succeeded in his noble effort, he wouldn’t have slept at all. As it was he was groggy, and the sudden rockiness of his long-term relationship with coffee continued to disturb him. Was the coffee jealous of Allison?

He was afraid he was starting to lose his perspective.

Tuesday went so slowly that he checked cnn.com to be sure a cosmic event had not altered the earth’s rotation. He avoided her in order to reduce the chance that he would screw it up. He couldn’t shake the feeling that this was it, the biggest event of his life, the one that would send him reeling with bliss and, what’s more, prove that he was a much bigger man than he had been giving himself credit for.

He checked in around 5—their hour, as he thought of it—and she gave him her address and said she was looking forward to it. She was wearing a brown dress that ended mid-thigh, and patterned tights. Brown, what a color, she was unsurpassed! Nick went back to his office and experienced a catatonic fit of paranoia—because this had to be a setup, this would-be date had to be a trick of Aaron’s, never mind that Aaron had no reason to persecute him. People of Aaron’s traumatic early childhood had to be excused for erupting into totally unexpected streaks of abominable cruelty. Nick sat there melting in misery until Jesse from Customer Service called to report a printer malfunction of a type never before personally observed by his eyes. Nick felt that, as a rule, a Harley rider was a lot less likely to make printer help calls than a Ducati devotee.

Allison had an apartment in Manhattan, and Nick lived in Brooklyn, so he stayed at the office until it was time to pick her up. The paranoia had subsided and the excitement was rising. When Marco left at 7 and said, “Another late night, dude? I feel for ya,” Nick could barely keep from leaping up and shouting.

For their first date, he took her to Queens—let’s see Aaron dare to do that. Specifically, his favorite Greek restaurant in Astoria, a place he could count on to put him at ease and to wrap her in an Old Country embrace. He planned to grab a taxi, but she said, “Let’s just take the subway. We can take a cab back.” He was acutely self-conscious as the caretaker of the most beautiful creature on the train.

On the way, she told him about the previous evening with Aaron. “He’s a little slimy,” she said, “but he’s been through a lot, I know.”

“You think he’s slimy?”

“Oh Christ, he’s my boss. You can’t tell him I said that.”

“No, I’m glad you find him slimy.”

“I was just speaking in personal terms. I mean, it’s nothing to worry about, because we have sexual harassment laws, but I kind of feel like . . . he’s the reason we do.” She looked at Nick with wide eyes and suddenly they both burst out laughing.

“See, the system works,” he said.

From that point on, they couldn’t stop laughing, at everything. They had found a private funhouse window through which the world was hilarious. At the restaurant, his buddy Tony greeted him in Greek, and when Allison answered him in Greek, Nick felt the heavens open with a chorus of drunken angels.

They drank a little wine, and Allison loved the food, and Tony sat with them a while and clearly fell in love with Allison himself, and all in all it was the best Tuesday night since the beginning of time—Nick made a mental note to research when the concept of weeks had been established.

“It’s wonderful that you’re a part of this,” she said. “Not just that you know Tony. But there’s a real community here. Why did you move to Brooklyn? How could you move away from all this ouzo and spanakopita?”

“Well, I lived with my parents a long time,” he said hesitantly. “Why not? I did what I wanted, and I contributed to the household, and it worked well. My parents are cool, but they were born in Greece, and it’s the Old Country way.”

“Stop apologizing. Why did you move out?”

“My girlfriend and I got a place. For a year, and then she got a job teaching in Boston, and that was that. Oh, that’s nice, see ya!”

They started laughing again.

“So you’re a drama queen,” she said.

“It’s just rare when something comes along that I care about. Where it’s a matter of life and death what happens.” He took her hand, then dropped it in shock and took a drink. What was he saying? Ears, red! Eyes on the table, boy! He babbled: “I think I moved in with her because this disaster happened, and I felt I should apologize for that by living with her.”

That set them off again.

“What disaster?”

“The kind that happens when you’re in your 20s, you know, an adult relationship, and you’re living at home.”

“You got caught?”

“We were . . . uh. We were usually quiet. But this day, we went out to lunch, and we drank some wine, and it was a really great day, you know, springtime . . . and we went back there for something, and one thing led to another—I can’t believe I’m telling you this.”

“Go on.”

“This time we weren’t so quiet. She started . . . being vocal. So everything’s going along, you know, and then I hear my mom rush up the stairs—” he started giggling, and she started giggling—“and she pounds on the door like there’s a fire and shrieks, ‘Mrs. Martello is here! And we can hear you!’”

Allison screamed. She was holding his hand, clutching it, tears streaming down her face, and the tension on his hand made him pull her to him, but before he could kiss her, she said, “I have to pee,” and jumped up and sped to the restroom.

She came back, taking deep breaths. Her eyes were shining.

“I hope Tony didn’t hear that,” Nick whispered, and they collapsed in giggles again.

Finally they called a car service to head back to Manhattan. They decided to go for one more drink near her apartment, because obviously they could not bear to part, but Nick’s keen skills of observance picked up that Allison didn’t think it was a good idea to invite him in on her second day on the job.

In the bar it started again, the hilarity at nothing the way a cat pursues an invisible mouse, until one spell so bad that they were red-faced and unable to breathe, and Allison broke out with a squeal—a peal?—no, more like a squeal. Tears were running down her face. And pee was running down her tights. At first, Nick stared, and then he started laughing even harder, pointing at her legs. Because, you see, everything was funny.

Except that wasn’t funny, not to Allison. She gasped her breathing back, and wiped the tears from her eyes, and said, “Oh, god. I better go home.”

She had a light coat, but she was sitting on it, so it was wet, too. When she let it out, she let it out. There was even a slight damp spot on the stool. As she put on the coat, shaking, he caught a whiff of it.
“Goodnight,” she said.

“I’ll walk you home.”

“No.”

“I’ll walk behind you,” he said. Another laugh was forcing its way up his throat and he could not choke it back. “I’ll be like your Depends.”

Making light of it turned out to be the wrong strategy. She turned a violent pink and raced out of the bar. He followed, watching her stalk speedily down the street like a cartoon character. Like his Botticelli Venus turned into a Flintstone. He ran to keep her within his sight, to make sure she would be OK on the mean streets of New York City on a brutal Tuesday night in early spring, smelling like a homeless guy dipped in Chanel No. 5. He saw her hurry into her building.

Like Icarus, they had been. A night he had been ready to base his future on, and now there was nothing left of it. He felt profoundly stupid, stupid and ashamed. And she was probably up there in her room crying, a thought that tore right through his brand-new heart.

 

But he didn’t think it was over. He checked in on her Wednesday morning, to make sure she hadn’t died of shame or fled back to New Jersey. He thought of various things to say, but what he said was, “Hey,” softly and cautiously. She looked up and turned pink again.

“Please leave me alone,” she whispered.

“But—what—”

“Please.”

So he left.

He figured she would need time. But he couldn’t help being angry. Everything had been wonderful, goddamn it, fucking fantastic! How could she shut him out like this? Why did she have to punish him for the failings of her own bladder?

He cycled from anger to despair to inward pleading, and when a few days had gone by, and he was in one of his pleading cycles, he stopped to see her again.

“Can we just speak for two minutes?”

She looked at him. Her mouth was closed; it occurred to him that he hadn’t seen it closed much. She put him in mind of a beach in the winter.

“What—what’s the big deal? Didn’t you have fun? Don’t you want to go out again?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“And what, be afraid to laugh?” She was hissing at him. She wasn’t making “s” sounds, but she was hissing all the same. He drew back.

“But—is this—is this a chronic problem for you?”

Aaron was headed their way.

“It’s none of your goddamn business.”

“Hey Nick Nick, what’s up? Has the lady got a bug in her kippu?”

Nick stared at him. “In her what?”

“Kippu. C-P-U. Syllables are time and time is money, dude.”

Nick met Allison’s green eyes for a second—just enough for the explosive hilarity to bubble up in them. Then she looked at her lap. He shook his head in his weary-of-bearing-the-burden-of-this-earth-with-Aaron-in-it fashion and went back to his office, but he had hope, it was definitely hope, it was a sign that there was something there, if only this obstacle could be dealt with!

Nick knew better than to research incontinence on his computer at work, but as soon as he came home he turned his notebook on and got to work on it. His search, of course, proved fruitful. It seemed his radiant Venus most likely suffered from stress incontinence. The treatment options were numerous—sphincter exercises, medicines, even the injection of “certain materials” around the urethra to help resist urine flow.
If only he had gotten her phone number. He tried to talk to her at work again, but she gave him such a warning look, such a “remember my familiarity with the harassment code” look, that he backed off. And then he said: “Two words. Can I just offer two words?”

She looked at him. “You’re sorry?”

He was confused. “Sorry? Of course . . . what for?”

“For pointing and laughing at me?”

He stood there, making shapes with his mouth.

“So those weren’t your two words?”

“I am sorry. Could we just have lunch? A nice sober lunch?”

She sighed. “A half-hour lunch.”

“OK!”

“Tell me the two words.”

He had to think fast, for his original two words, he saw now, would have harpooned him.

“Lunch. Tomorrow.”

 

Finally a chance. They went to one of those awful delis with an overpriced-by-the-pound salad bar. All the little square tables crammed together, no room for the widening American demographic. Allison, of course, fit in a chair, that was one thing you could say about her. He was giddy at his opportunity. She was in stoic endurance mode. When they sat down with their salads, she said, “What were the two words, really? They weren’t ‘lunch tomorrow.’”

“I don’t want to say them now. I just wanted to ask . . . I just wanted to ask after your health. I’m not making fun. I mean, I thought you liked me and I absolutely like you, and what’s really the problem?”

“I just want some time to adjust to my job, to adjust to New York. Is that all right?”

No, it wasn’t all right. He would lose her, he would lose her if he didn’t grab this chance. It was the way with women like this, you had to be a man of action.

“So, even if that hadn’t happened, you’d be blowing me off?”

“I certainly don’t want to spend my time with someone who is constantly referring to that incident. I want a clean slate.”

“I just want to say, you know, it can be dealt with.”

She put down her fork. A bad sign. “What?”

“You know.”

She put the lid back on her salad.

“Nick, I’m not having fun with you anymore.” She stood up and walked out. Again. But definitely dry this time.

The comment was a little ambiguous. Was she saying he wasn’t fun anymore, or that being with him was fun, but she wasn’t going to do it anymore? Oh, he knew the answer. She was right: her tragic diagnosis had completely overshadowed their relationship.

But he wasn’t going to give up, because he had a plan. If she could just get help and cure the problem, it would give her such relief and joy that she would come back to him. You had to have faith, you had to have patience when you were talking about winning the woman of your dreams.

 

And so it was that Allison Edwards, in her second month on the job, having scaled the most formidable slope of the learning curve and having begun to feel that life was taking an acceptable course, having had a gorgeous walk with Kant and Jung that morning, walked into the office, said a sunny hello to Aaron’s birth mother at the front desk, turned on her computer, made herself a cup of tea, and spent a few minutes glancing over the new MM Hmm.

And there, on the Good Health page, was the headline “Good News for Silent Sufferers.” Allison’s mouth, normally so averse to being closed, pursed tight as she read: “Only 10 percent of incontinence sufferers seek treatment, but there are, in fact, several treatments available.”

When her eyes fell on the words “Kegel exercises,” it all fell into place. Two words.

And so it was that when Nick passed Allison in the hallway that afternoon, he was hit with a look that could have flattened Flora Barkley. He knew at once that his solicitous gesture had not been received in the spirit in which it was given. And he knew that his life, as he ever might have wished it to be, was over.

 

The office became his special hell. He slept later and later, had to force himself to face the mornings. Every day he was tormented as Adobe Illustrator bloomed upon screens across the office, the computers he had built himself mocking his lost love. It was too cruel, too stupid, too unfair to be endured. It was two months before his vacation and he wasn’t going to make it.

A few weeks into his misery, he was greeted in the morning with the next issue of MM Hmm. Why was the newsletter always a nocturnal transmission? When the office was asleep and defenseless, it crept in, springing up in the morning like the “I love you” virus, which would fucking ruin your life if you believed it even for one vulnerable split second.

The Good Health page was headlined: “These Guys Don’t Need Viagra.”

MM Hmm Health’s hard-hitting series on ‘but-were-afraid-to-ask’ issues continues this month with a different kind of erectile dysfunction: involuntary erections.”

The blood flowed, indeed—to Nick’s ears.

“While we’re not talking about anyone at MM, of course—not even the guys in IT!—some of you may have afflicted little brothers, or friends at companies with less progressive newsletters.”

The IT remark was totally uncalled for—

“It’s not easy to get help for this, because the vast majority of literature concerns inability, not overability. Research into pediatric literature is somewhat helpful, but why does this embarrassing adolescent problem sometimes persist into adulthood? Is it a sign of arrested development? No, says Dr. James Cho of the Times Square Sex Clinic.

“ ‘It’s really nothing to worry about,’ he counsels. ‘Just because an erection is inappropriate doesn’t mean it’s unhealthy.’ ”

A dark suspicion grew in Nick.

“What does cause concern is priapism, or erections that persist for hours without relief. ‘It may help you find work as a porn star,’ quips the doc, ‘but it’s a serious, painful condition.’

“So, friends, if this ever occurs in your life, try this list of tips for relief, and remember: it could be worse.”

Nick sputtered. He sputtered forcefully. He sputtered as few men have sputtered since injustice first stamped its cruel mark on the human race.

Nick could feel the buttons popping on his shirt, could feel his chest expanding and turning green, could feel the sharp discomfort of those opaque contact lenses they made Lou Ferrigno wear. His sputtering found voice at last in a strangled, incoherent shout.

Marco and Howard ambled over with cries of concern. “Dude, dude, what?”

He stared at them. He might have a geek brain, but it was a brain. “Flora,” he choked out. He took the precaution of closing Outlook, and he charged out of his office in search of the true villain.

There she was. Sitting there at her little desk, perched at her little computer, perfect mouth open, lips moist, and a face like a howling, rotting, pustular demon.

“You b-b-b—” He couldn’t get it out.

She turned her head, and then, through the red haze that pumped from his temples, he heard her start to laugh.

And laugh, and laugh, and laugh. He stood there, seething, clenching his hands, battling mightily the urge to strangle her.

“All right,” she said finally. “Now that’s what I call a clean slate.”

Suddenly, he felt confused—in other words, normal. Her face emerged again, beaming celestially.

“A clean slate?”

“I have such a craving for ouzo. You want to go to Queens tonight?”

Reader, he did.

THE END

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