Copyright 2012, B.K. Price
Please enjoy the latest installment of Hook Ups. For more information on its origins, see the first installment on my Fictional Follies page.
I’m nobody special. I was born and raised in Mexico, Missouri – the “Fire Brick Capital of the World.” Yes, that’s a real place. People ask me that all the time. I wasn’t a model student. I got my share of F’s alongside my C’s and B minuses. When I came to Europe I hopped around quite a bit. Menial labor was the name of the game for me. I’ve worked the docks in Rotterdam, painted houses in Gillingham, cleaned toilets in Basildon, and even swept out chimneys in London. My latest stint was as a security guard in Ipswich. I’m no Einstein or Aristotle. Nobody’s going to be giving me a Nobel Prize any time soon. So keep that in mind when I say that on that day, as I walked down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris surrounded by a horde of addle-headed numbskulls, I felt like a goddamn Rhodes Scholar.
Our journey began at the Arc de Triomphe, and I could see in my mind’s eye the cold rotting corpse of Napoleon turning over in its grave as his monument of triumph was overwhelmed by the vain and stupid masses. Our journey was to take us approximately two kilometres along the length of the Champs-Élysées to the Place de la Concorde, where the crowd of hopefuls would meet with various potential sponsors in an effort to get a chance at fame and fortune, as they saw it. The feeling of excitement was palpable in the air. All I felt was nausea in the pit of my stomach.
There had to be thousands of would-be contestants marching down the empty avenue that day. I felt like I would suffocate on perfume and body spray, and more than once I wished some muscle-bound bonehead would put his damn shirt back on and shut his trap. If Hell wasn’t exactly like this the Devil wasn’t doing his job right.
As it turned out, I was premature. The real Hell was still awaiting me farther down the road.
I had been to Paris at least twice before. It’s a magnificent city, full of culture, atmosphere, and history. One can’t gaze upon landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and the Louvre and not feel the reverent weight of their majesty and elegance. However, as I walked down the brick-paved street, the curved glass roof and blue-green statues of the Grand Palais to my right and the tree-lined parks to my left, it felt more like the Ringling Brothers had rolled into town. Throngs of boisterous onlookers lined the pavements along the avenue, cheering wildly at the mass of contestants marching down the road. Gaudy banners festooned elegant architecture. Bulbous balloons and hideous streamers festered and rotted on lines hung across the street. A cacophony of fireworks punctured the air as these hopefuls from around the world approached the Place de la Concorde and a chance at instant fame. The entire spectacle seemed like a warped parody of a Bastille Day parade. Whatever city official had approved this monstrosity had sold his soul to the Devil.
The only indication that I was still in France and hadn’t descended into some tumultuous layer of Hell was the solitary red-, white-, and blue-striped flag fluttering from a spire atop the Palais. Outside of that I could have been in Arkansas for all I knew. This was not Gay Paree. It was obscene. The very thought of this eminent city playing host to a reality dating program was unthinkable. “Hook Ups,” the program was called, and normally I wouldn’t come anywhere near it. But Corinne had managed to persuade me to be a part of this rubbish using something more compelling than words.
Why she wanted me here was anybody’s guess. She said it would provide Hook Ups with a unique twist – the grizzled old fellow trying his luck with the young and vacuous lasses. I thought that was pure bunk. She was always a bit dodgy with her reasons, but Corinne definitely wanted me among the contestants. Maybe she would get a bonus for it. Maybe she just got her jollies from seeing me in uncomfortable situations. Who knew? I would probably never spend time in front of a camera anyway.
To get on the program a potential contestant had to convince one of the potential sponsors to put up a rather large amount of money on his or her behalf. Everyone receiving a sponsorship would go on to the next step, while the remaining candidates went home disappointed. Only a nutter would sponsor the lone fifty-four year old among all the beautiful and stupid twenty-somethings. I was certain that whatever diabolical plan Corinne had for me would go down in flames after I failed to achieve sponsorship.
Having assured myself of my imminent failure, I felt more at ease, and realized how much my feet hurt after the better part of our two kilometre journey. It occurred to me that there might be a method to this madness – a test to see who had the wherewithal to complete the walk and who would be thwarted mid-journey. Now that I thought of it, the crowd of contestants seemed somewhat thinner than when it began.
Clever, I was thinking to myself when the young girl walking beside me stumbled. I instinctively twisted towards her and caught her arm. She hopped a couple of times, put a hand on my arm to steady herself, and looked up at me. “Thanks,” she said. “I think I broke a heel.” She looked down. “Damn it! I did.” Letting go of me, she crouched down to retrieve the high heel that had broken away from one of her pumps. When she stood up again she was holding the black leather heel in front of her. “Now what am I going to do?” she wondered aloud, then broke into tears.
I became instantly uncomfortable. I looked around, searching for someone who knew what to do when a woman cried. All I could see in the immediate area were mind-numbed masses. I supposed even the idiots and attention-seekers had feelings and dreams. Today many of them would have their hearts broken and their dreams shattered. This girl wasn’t going to be the last one to cry before the day was done.
By now I had gotten a comforting arm around the poor girl. “Don’t cry,” I said, more as a plea than an attempt to comfort her. “It’s only a heel.”
“It’s not the heel,” the girl explained. Her words were now coming out fast and mumbled, intermingled with loud heaving sobs. “We’ve been walking for miles and I’m tired and this stupid road is all broken I never should have come here what was I thinking I can’t do this I’m just a stupid hick…”
I pushed her away, maintaining a hold on her shoulders. “Hey!” I chided. “Don’t call yourself stupid. You’ve come a long way. You’re strong and smart.” I squatted down so we were the same height, then faced us both forward. I pointed towards the tall obelisk with its pointed crest glowing golden in the distance. “See that?” I asked. Without waiting for her to respond, I said. “That’s the Luxor Obelisk. The French brought that here all the way from Egypt, and if you don’t know already, that’s a very long ways away. The thing weighs over 200 tons. Do you know how much a ton is?” The girl shook her head. “It’s two thousand pounds, which makes the whole obelisk weigh a total of…”
“Two million pounds,” the girl finished, awestruck.
I paused for a moment, then simply nodded my head and said, “Spot on.” I wasn’t in the mood for a math lesson. “Well done,” I added.
The girl smiled at me. I continued. “You can probably guess that something that heavy would be hard to bring all the way to Paris from Egypt. They didn’t have all the big machines we have today. They had wooden boats and lots of people who had to pull and carry the thing all the way here. It was hard.”
The girl looked at me with curiosity. “How did they do it?” she asked.
“If you want to find out,” I said, “you can look at the pictures at the bottom of the obelisk. They show exactly how they did it. Do you want to see that?” The girl sniffed and nodded eagerly. “Then let’s go see.”
I had her break off the other heel so she could walk normally. Her spirits raised and her curiosity piqued, the girl walked alongside me contentedly. As we travelled, I introduced myself. “I’m Steven Jones, by the way,” I said.
The girl seemed uneasy. “I’m, uh, Kimberly,” she said. “Kimberly Czer, uh, Simmons.”
“Cheruhsimmons,” I repeated. “That’s a strange name.”
She seemed frustrated. “No, just Simmons. Well, actually Czerwinsky.”
I lowered an eyebrow. “I don’t understand.”
“My last name is Czerwinsky, but Corinne told me to use Simmons instead.”
My eyes shot wide open. “You know Corinne?” I asked.
Kimberly nodded. “Yeah. She found me in a nightclub in San Francisco. Said I’d be perfect for this show. Are you her dad or something?”
I looked away, gritting my teeth. It was a fair question, but it stung a little. “No,” I said. “She wanted to put me on the program too.”
Kimberly looked me over, her face filled with disbelief. “Really?” she said. Then realization hit her. “They must be doing a version for old people, too.” She looked around. “I don’t see any others, though.”
Don’t grab her throat and choke her, don’t grab her throat and choke her, chanted the sensible part of my mind. I wished I had some alcohol to drown it out.
Shortly thereafter we reached the Place de la Concorde, and the Luxor Obelisk now towered high above us. “There it is,” I said.
I saw my daughter in the crowd. She waved and gestured to me to come to her. I waved back, then turned my attention to Kimberly for a moment. “Well, we made it all this way. I told you you were strong.” Kimberly nodded and smiled sweetly. “I just saw my daughter over in the crowd. I’ll go over there if you don’t need me to look at the obelisk with you.”
Kimberly shook her head. There were tears in her eyes again, but they weren’t tears of defeat any longer. “No,” she said. “You go see your daughter. She has a really cool dad.” Kimberly raised herself on tip-toe and kissed me on the cheek. “Thanks so much.” Then she turned away to go see the obelisk.
I felt proud of her at that moment, and just a little emotional – until she turned around again and said, “Oh, and good luck on your old people show.” I sighed. So much for tender moments.
My daughter was right up against the barrier when I approached. “Hi, daddy,” she said. When I was near enough she hugged me.
“Hey, Sarah-saurus,” I replied, using the nickname I had given her when she was nine. For some reason it had stuck with her throughout the years.
Sarah was looking at me with that sceptical look she tended to get. “Are you completely off your nut? What are you doing in a reality television competition?”
“If I knew I’d tell you,” I said. “Corinne talked me into it.”
“Oh, right, the mysterious girlfriend you’ve been carrying on with. So when will I get to meet this Corinne?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. This place is a madhouse. Corinne could be any…oh, hi, Honey.”
Corinne had appeared suddenly from the crowd as if summoned by the mere mention of her name. Her demeanor was perfectly calm, but her eyes shot alarm at me. The message was clear: We’re not supposed to act like lovers in front of the other contestants. That was what she had told me when she was trying to convince me to become a contestant. Naturally, I pointed out that we wouldn’t have to hide our affection if I wasn’t a contestant in the first place, but then she climbed on top of me and that and other protestations quickly faded into a lust-addled, “Of course, my love.”
Her serious face quickly turned to a warm smile. “I’m glad you made it, Steven. Everything’s been going along wonderfully.”
Sarah cleared her throat, giving me a serious stare. “Oh, right,” I said. “Corinne, this is Sarah.” I indicated my daughter with an upraised hand. “Sarah, this is Corinne.”
Sarah and Corinne faced each other. “It’s so good to finally meet you,” Corinne said. “Steven, you never mentioned how absolutely stunning your daughter is.”
Sarah smiled weakly and shook hands with Corinne. “And you never mentioned how…youthful your girlfriend is.” The look she gave me said it all. What on Earth are you thinking?
I shot a glance at Corinne, but she didn’t seem alarmed by the use of the word girlfriend. Sarah continued. “So, Corinne, how did you convince my father to make such a fool of himself?”
Corinne looked over at me. “I wouldn’t call it making a fool of himself. We’re conducting a unique social experiment here. He’s more like a science assistant.”
“Or a Guinea pig,” Sarah interjected.
“It’s all right, sweetie,” I said. “Corinne just needed my help, and that’s what, uh, friends do. It isn’t a big thing. I’m not even going to get a sponsor, anyway.”
Corinne looked at me sharply. “Why do you say that?”
“Come now, Corinne, you can’t expect a fifty-four year old man like me to win the support of a sponsor over thousands of good-looking and youthful candidates. They would have to be either nutters or heavily bribed to sponsor me.”
Corinne cocked an eyebrow. “Is that so?” Turning back to Sarah, she said, “So, your father tells me you work in the video game industry. I was just playing this fascinating game called Sentient where the main character is a newly-awakened A.I. You should check it out; it’s pure genius.”
Sarah chuckled. “I’ve not only played it, I helped design it.”
Corinne gave her a look of surprise. “Really? But wasn’t it made by 2OP Studios?”
Sarah nodded. “2OP got swallowed up by Quantic Dream. That’s how I got here.”
Corinne set her arm across Sarah’s shoulders and the two pulled close to discuss things in depth. “You know what my favorite part was? That boss battle against Maltheuse…” They had started walking into the crowd, chatting away like old chums.
“Oy, what about me?” I called out.
Corinne turned back momentarily. She tilted her head toward the Place de la Concorde. “Sponsors are there. Go around and make your pitch to them.” When she saw my face she added, “Just humor me, okay?” Then she turned back and the two women continued their enthusiastic exchange.
Lovely. My daughter and girlfriend were getting chummy. No good could come of that.
I didn’t make any pitches. Humor Corinne? – Certainly. Prance around like an idiot? – No way in Hell. I did spend the time watching the other contestants, though. They wandered around the oval road surrounding the obelisk, stopping at various booths to meet with the sponsors. Most of them engaged in mini auditions where they apparently talked about themselves and why they were the best investment for the sponsor. I hadn’t paid much attention to the details of the process, but the sponsors stood to make or lose a fair bit of money based on how well the viewers liked their candidate. The longer a candidate survived before being chucked, the higher the payout for the sponsor, but I got the impression that they needed to stay for a certain amount of time in order for the sponsor to break even. It also sounded like they would get more adverts based on the success of their candidates.
The selection process lasted throughout the day and into the night as the thousands of candidates milled about and tried to woo a sponsor. The shops in the area were closed for the duration of the event, but there were stalls on the Concorde selling a variety of interesting food, and I was famished. I knew what Sarah would think of my food choices, but I didn’t care. She wasn’t there. Truffles and crepes it was, then.
Having survived the annoying ordeal of the previous day, I returned to the Place de la Concorde in the morning to revel in my failure to get sponsored for that useless program. The street was laid out with countless folding chairs set all around the central plaza and the obelisk. I found a seat apart from everyone else and waited for the rest of the contenders to arrive.
I located my daughter in the crowd of onlookers, and we waved to each other. Corinne was seated on a stage newly erected around the Luxor Obelisk, along with a pair of gorgeous Korean women who looked exactly alike, down to the same outfits consisting of a plain white blouse with a collar halfway up the neck and tight sequined white shorts. Corinne was dazzling in a figure-hugging green kimono with a floral print. I found myself imagining how it would look pooled on the floor beside my bed. Keep it in your trousers, warned my sensible mind.
Hung-over contestants were still filing in, gradually filling the empty seats, although I noticed that we seemed to have lost some contestants overnight. Kimberly somehow managed to find me and gave me a hug before we sat beside each other. “I’m so excited,” she said, churning her legs up and down while she sat. “Aren’t you?”
I nodded absently. “Thrilled,” I said without enthusiasm. In truth I felt like I was at the graduation ceremony for Dumbass University. All I could hope was that Kimberly wouldn’t gab my ear off throughout this annoying ordeal.
Corinne came to the small podium at the front of the stage and explained the rules of the competition. Every contestant had to be in a pairing by the end of each episode. If any were left unpaired they were ejected. The viewers would vote at the end of each episode for the couple they though was the best pairing. The couple receiving the lowest vote total at the end of each episode would be ejected at the end of an extra results episode. The couple that prevailed at the end would either split the winnings or share them as a romantic couple, whichever they preferred. Blah blah blah. I just wanted to get this over with and go back home.
After her speech, Corinne began reading the name of each sponsored contestant and their sponsor. As each name was read the contestant would stand up screaming with glee and either jump up and down or jog in place excitedly before going up one side of the stage or the other and receiving a large sticky-backed tag from one of the twins with their sponsor’s name on it. When Kimberly’s name was called she did the same, then gave me a hug before running up to get her tag. Vanderlinde’s, the tag said. I had never heard of that company.
As the ceremony continued I slouched more and more in my chair, dozing off all the while, until something set me wide awake. Corinne’s voice hummed over the loudspeakers. “And last, we have a late entry into the mix. A new sponsor, Quantic Dream, has chosen Steven Jones.”
My eyes were wide open now, and I shot up in my chair. I looked up at Corinne in alarm. She was smiling mischievously and beckoning for me to come up to the twin who had my sticky tag at the ready. Kimberly was delighted and waved enthusiastically at me from the stage. I looked over at Sarah. She had her cell phone against her ear and she was smiling playfully as well. It was then that I realized the fix had been in from the start. My daughter and my girlfriend were in cahoots. I slumped down again, groaning. The sensible part of my mind was playing I-told-you-so. That’s what you get for letting your John Thomas make the decisions for you, mate.
God I needed a drink to make that damnable voice just sod off!