Robert L. Penick
I Am Trying To Save Your Life
They got into the on-demand porn market for a couple of reasons. Susan was an exhibitionist at heart, and the medium fulfilled a longing to be seen by other people. Also, she and her husband Ken arrived on the scene after mainstream adult films had largely ceased to be profitable. Free smut had flooded the internet, making it very difficult for small-time operators to generate revenue. The on-demand niche was a way for them to make money and have fun at the same time. Clients sent them an outline they would then shape into a scenario and film. The shoot could involve any combination of Susan, Ken, and Carmen, a friend Susan made at the gym. Their business was called Amortime.com. Susan went by the stage name “Shauna Lee.”
What initially amazed them were the number of requests that were not overtly sexual in nature. They had just completed a six hundred dollar shoot that involved putting Carmen in a tight sundress and having her wash a Volvo station wagon. A lot of suds were involved in the production, but no sex, no nudity. Ken once laid down drop cloths and painted their dining room (which needed it, anyway) for a gentleman in Des Moines, Iowa, while wearing cut-off overalls. The only critical stipulation was that Ken climb and descend the ladder at least a dozen times during the twenty minute film and that he “flexed his calves.” Susan spent two hours on the floor with a modified Sony Handycam and another two hours editing. The client sent an ecstatic thank you email.
This cottage industry of theirs had contributed to a superficially pleasant married life. Ken worked forty hours a week at Home Depot, Susan Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at a dentist’s office. Their “movie money” paid for two ocean cruises a year, plus some hobby-level trading in the stock market. Carmen worked cheap, and they enjoyed one another’s company. Their masterpiece to date was a threesome on a banquet table in front of a twelve-foot mural of the Last Supper. During the zenith (their word for the climatic scene) Carmen took a tumble and sprained her wrist. It was a three thousand dollar gig, though, and very entertaining, if you like Renaissance kink. They kept a copy in their video library.
One Saturday morning, after Susan had settled in and sent the first patients back for their x-rays and tooth scrapings, she got a free moment to check the Amortime email account. They had been lazy and let it go for a few days. Some spam had made it into the inbox, so she marked and deleted them. Two items remained. The first, from Wednesday, asked simply, “Are you for real?” Amortime had a dozen trailers up on the website, so it was obvious they were a legitimate enterprise. Experience told her that the person who sent this query was a time-waster who would never order a product from them. The message was sent spinning into oblivion. That left one email.
It had been sent Thursday night at eleven o’clock. The subject line (“unusual request”) tightened her jaw. Not another one. Every week or so, a new pervert materialized in their mailbox. Dogs, blood, and fake pedophile scenarios were out of bounds. If these things were not, they’d be rich. What does this guy want? She clicked on the subject line.
Excuse me for bothering you. I was wondering what it would cost to get
a video with no sex or nudity involved. I would like to see a woman in a
nice dress, sitting on a sofa or love seat. She would look into the camera
and say something like, “You don’t have to kill yourself. Life is worth
living. There are people who will love you, if you just get out of the house.”
It would only have to run three or four minutes. What would this cost?
Maybe it sounds stupid, but it wouldn’t take much effort
Thank you for your time.
Whoa. This was definitely a new one, and definitely the least sexual request in the history of their enterprise. New patients arrived at the counter, and a dry socket case rang up on the telephone requesting an emergency appointment. She busied herself directing traffic and clearing a spot in the schedule , but her mind returned to that message. Before leaving work, she shot back a quick email, saying, “Our rates usually start at $500, but I think we could bring this one in for something less than that. Let me get with the accountant and we can give you a firm number. Expect it within 24 hours. Also, let us know if there are any other details—color of dress? Length of hemline? Have a good day. Hey, have a great day! Fake it ‘til you make it, right?” –Shauna
She hit send and cringed. Fake it til you make it? Just where did that bit of therapy-speak come from? She sounded like Dr. Phil, who spouted nonsense on the waiting room TV for an hour each weekday. And what was she trying to do? Save his life? It was just a fetish. One she hadn’t encountered before. Just wait and see how he responded.
That night she and Ken went out to eat, a quiet little Italian place near their house. She told him the story of the email.
“We could knock the video out in an hour, charge him two-fifty, and maybe do a good deed, all at the same time.”
“Screw that. Guy’s got some beta dog, ‘poor me’ thing going on. I bet he pays hookers to pee on him. We could milk this guy for a grand, Shauna, if we do it right.” He had taken to calling Susan by her film name about a year before, over her protests.
Ken had his share of crude and insensitive moments, but it still caught Karen off-guard. She dipped her breadstick in the marinara sauce and decided it wasn’t worth an argument over dinner. Her husband continued his rant about deliveries of screen doors and paint at work. On the street outside, cars and pedestrians hurried past, everyone going somewhere.
Once back home, Ken stayed salty about something, maybe not just the job. He hadn’t always been this way. While dating, he was the kindest, most considerate man imaginable. Over a few short years that had changed, though, as he collected slights both real and imagined. Whatever it was, Susan didn’t feel like playing Guess the Problem with him tonight. He clomped off to bed, his black cloud hovering close overhead. Flipping on the television, she watched the late news. It occurred to her that their sofa, a Queen Anne knockoff with dark velour fabric, was perfect. She brought up the business email on her phone. No message from Ned Potter, or anyone else. She sent him another email: Hey! You sleeping, there? Don’t make a girl worry. Hit me back.
Moving quietly, she retrieved three spotlights from the corner of the utility room. Basic setup, key light, fill light, back light. Nothing to it. She left them at one end of the sofa and headed to bed.
The banging in the hallway woke her at seven a.m. It was Ken, being as loud as he possibly could as he returned the lights to the utility room. He appeared in the doorway, wearing his Home Depot shirt and a nasty scowl.
“If that sad sack doesn’t come up with a grand, we’re not doing the shoot, Shauna. That’s final,” he barked. “I’m not going to work on a Sunday morning just so we can make some emotional cripple feel better.”
A moment later, Susan heard the front door slam, then stretched until her spine popped. It dawned on her that she didn’t want to be married any longer, didn’t want to be an internet huckster, didn’t want to lean over pool tables making corner shots while Ken filmed up her skirt.
She showered, fixed her hair, put on a tiny bit of makeup. Still naked, she retrieved the lights and set them up in the living room. Going through the closet, she found a blue dress with a darker blue floral pattern and pulled it over her head. It had been her favorite a long time ago. Without thought, she set the camera and tripod up and looked through the viewfinder. A range from the ankles to about three inches above her head would work. She hit the RECORD button, then walked to the sofa and sat down.
Looking into the camera, she said, “Hello, Ned. It’s very nice to meet you. My name is Susan.”
Robert L. Penick
The poetry and prose of Robert L. Penick have appeared in over 100 different literary journals, including The Hudson Review, North American Review, and Plainsongs. He previously edited Chance Magazine and Ristau: A Journal of Being. His latest publication is Exit, Stage Left, from Slipstream Press and more of his work can be found at theartofmercy.net