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Negative Reinforcement

Negative Reinforcement

by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck PalahniukPrinted in Modern Short Stories
August 1990

Audrey is a sexual outlaw, slave to a Latin rhythm, a C-section child of the seventies. She's a rabid panther trapped in the fetid, jungle heat of the Number 14, Bonnedale bus.

And she's sitting right behind you for the third time this month.

This can't be chance. She's there for a reason. She smells your fear like a dog would.

She's not just another white girl with damaged hair. She's a python sweating off the dead skin of a black spandex tube dress. Her headset is full of Bob Marley reggae, and she has a crude, deliberate way of letting her hem roll up her legs. Audrey makes her own way in this world, without women's rights or affirmative action or a breath deodorant. She is high and free and has all her own teeth, which is a warning.

You can't see her because you don't have the guts to turn around and look. You know she's sitting with her back against the warm steel wall of the bus, and her feet drawn up on the seat beside her. She's not a big fan of daylight. She should never be seen in color. By day, she's a grainy black and white image: a discarded blow-up doll of a back-up singer from a heavy-metal music video. At night she's a fourth-generation photocopy of a Margaret Bourke-White photo luridly animated to Euro-pop dance music. She'll never live long enough to become sepia-toned.

Like in a dream, you're sure her name is Audrey, but you don't know why. Maybe because it sounds like "tawdry," name. You know that August is her favorite time of year--in August. She likes spring in spring, winter in winter. She can deal with anything.

You hope she gets off the bus while it's still downtown. You can't turn around, but you want another chance to look at her. It would break your heart if she rode with you out into the stability of the suburbs.

She has a British accent, or a Southern drawl, and she can speak with her mouth brimming full of cigarette smoke.

You know she killed her parents because they physically abused her; but if they're alive, she's disowned them because they're billionaires. She has no one to answer to. She does not have her G.E.D. or a beautician's license. There's no canopy bed crowded with stuffed animals where she's going. Audrey's not trying to lose weight, or quit smoking, or pull her life together and make it count for something in the world. "I'm perfect. Always have been. If you can't see that, then you've got the problem," she'd tell you if you asked.

She doesn't own a car. If she did, she wouldn't have any insurance. She doesn't have a career, she just has a job. If you asked her what she was, she wouldn't tell you what she did for a living. She defines herself as undefinable, and she's not working or studying to become someone else. she's not going to be an actress, nor is she impressed by the fact that you're a financial counselor. If you tried to tell her about your congenital dry skin problem, she'd show you the infection she has from trying to wipe off a botched tattoo with hot laundry bleach.

Each time the bus stops, you glance out the window to see if she gets out the back door.

Even if you did meet her, Audrey would never marry you. She would probably consent to date you, for the contrast. She would insult your friends. Her friends would insult you. Der Blau Engel. A moth to the flame. You'd lose all control.

Your mother would hate her.

You'd take her to dinner at your parents' house. Audrey would smoke unfiltered cigarettes while she ate, if she ate.

"Melmac...," she'd say, wryly, holding her plate up, like a vampire looking for the reflection that won't be there. "Your folks are perfect."

Your mother would smile awkwardly, desperate enough to take this as a compliment. Audrey wouldn't even offer to help clear. She would read your mind like a witch.

"Help your mother," she'd order. "It will give you both a chance to talk about me in the kitchen."

"You know you really could do better," your mother would admonish, while you scraped dishes at the sink.

"She's really very sweet," you'd lie.

In the dining room, your father would be treading water with polite conversation while Audrey stared back unblinkingly, her pupils dilated. Suddenly, she would laugh at an inappropriate point in his Korean War monologue. Then she would lean forward and show him the ringworm scars between her breasts. "I've always had cysts myself," your father would offer weakly.

Finally, months after that dinner, after your parents had broken all contact with you and you'd lost your job, you'd recognize your misery. When you considered leaving her, she wouldn't threaten to kill herself, she would threaten to kill you. Nobody leaves Audrey. Got it? When you came back from the bathroom, she'd be gone, but there would be a knife stuck up to its handle in your side of the mattress. The next day, everything you owned would be in the dumpster.

Something slams into the back of your bus seat.

You jump with the thought that she's already trying to stab you through the foam-rubber cushion. There you'd be, still sitting upright, impaled on five inches of a tempered steel switchblade, like an entomologist's wet dream. Your eyes would glaze over, and everyone would think you had a substance abuse problem. You'd jiggle away on the blade for hours before they discovered you were dead.

Maybe the bus just hit a bump.
Maybe a car just hit the bus.
"Hey..."a voice insists, followed by another bump.
"Hey!" the voice comes again, not waiting for an answer,
"Shut your window."

"Excuse me," you say, sliding the window closed.
"Thanks," the voice says sullenly. You turn to apologize.

This is the special, magic moment that will change both your lives. It looks like Audrey all right. She's wearing too much make-up, like she's been in a fight. Her eyes look like two dirty ashtrays.

"I've got three bucks worth of gel in this hair and the wind's gonna screw it up," she snaps.

She raises her hands to rearrange a few strands of her investment. You notice a heavy five o'clock shadow under her arms as you hold your breath, waiting for the black spandex tube dress to slip off her chest and roll slowly down to her waist.

"Audrey?"

"Huh?" Her eyes are rolled back in her head as though she's looking straight up through her brain as she mauls her hair. She looks like a zombie in drag. You notice the white glaze of a roll-on deodorant on the five o'clock shadow.

"Is your name Audrey?"
"No," She smiles to show yellow teeth canted over to one side like old ivory dominoes. "My name's Sheila."
"Sorry," you say, turning away. "I thought for a minute I knew you."

 

Author Bio: Technical writer Chuck Palahniuk enjoys writing stories that revolve around humor and relationships, particularly situations that illustrate that ironic "contrast between what people do and think and say." Chuck says that he "takes (almost) nothing seriously--especially writing.