The Grownup: A Story by the Author of Gone Girl (Kindle Single)Gillian Flynn
ALSO BY GILLIAN FLYNN
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by Gillian Flynn
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
CROWN is a registered trademark and the Crown colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
This title was originally published in the anthology Rogues, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, by Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, in 2014.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is available upon request.
Hardcover ISBN 9780804188975
eBook ISBN 9780804188982
International Edition ISBN 9781101907320
Cover design by Christopher Brand and Curtis Jinkins
Also by Gillian Flynn
About the Author
To David and Ceán, you sick, sick people.
I DIDN’T STOP giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.
For three years, I gave the best hand job in the tristate area. The key is to not overthink it. If you start worrying about technique, if you begin analyzing rhythm and pressure, you lose the essential nature of the act. You have to mentally prepare beforehand, and then you have to stop thinking and trust your body to take over.
Basically, it’s like a golf swing.
I jacked men off six days a week, eight hours a day, with a break for lunch, and I was always fully booked. I took two weeks of vacation every year, and I never worked holidays, because holiday hand jobs are sad for everyone. So over three years, I’m estimating that comes to about 23,546 hand jobs. So don’t listen to that bitch Shardelle when she says I quit because I didn’t have the talent.
I quit because when you give 23,546 hand jobs over a three-year period, carpal tunnel syndrome is a very real thing.
I came to my occupation honestly. Maybe “naturally” is the better word. I’ve never done much honestly in my life. I was raised in the city by a one-eyed mother (the opening line of my memoir), and she was not a nice lady. She didn’t have a drug problem or a drinking problem, but she did have a working problem. She was the laziest bitch I ever met. Twice a week, we’d hit the streets downtown and beg. But because my mom hated being upright, she wanted to be strategic about the whole thing. Get as much money in as little time possible, and then go home and eat Zebra Cakes and watch arbitration-based reality court TV on our broken mattress amongst the stains. (That’s what I remember most about my childhood: stains. I couldn’t tell you the color of my mom’s eye, but I could tell you the stain on the shag carpet was a deep, soupy brown, and the stains on the ceiling were burnt orange and the stains on the wall were a vibrant hungover-piss yellow.)
My mom and I would dress the part. She had a pretty, faded cotton dress, threadbare but screaming of decency. She put me in whatever I’d grown out of. We’d sit on a bench and target the right people to beg off. It’s a fairly simple scheme. First choice is an out-of-town church bus. In-town church people, they’ll just send you to the church. Out of town, they usually have to help, especially a one-eyed lady with a sad-faced kid. Second choice is women in sets of two. (Solo women can dart away too quickly; a pack of women is too hard to wrangle.) Third choice is a single woman who has that open look. You know it: The same woman you stop to ask for directions or the time of day, that’s the woman we ask for money. Also youngish men with beards or guitars. Don’t stop men in suits: That cliché is right, they’re all assholes. Also skip the thumb rings. I don’t know what it is, but men with thumb rings never help.
The ones we picked? We didn’t call them marks, or prey or victims. We called them Tonys, because my dad was named Tony and he could never say no to anyone (although I assume he said no to my mom at least once, when she asked him to stay).
Once you stop a Tony, you can figure out in two seconds which way to beg. Some want it over with fast, like a mugging. You blurt. “Weneedmoneyforfoodyouhaveanychange?” Some want to luxuriate in your misfortune. They’ll only give you money if you give them something to feel better about, and the sadder your story, the better they feel about helping you, and the more money you get. I’m not blaming them. You go to the theater, you want to be entertained.
My mom had grown up on a farm downstate. Her own mother died in childbirth; her daddy grew soy and raised her when he wasn’t too exhausted. She came up here for college, but her daddy got cancer, and the farm got sold, and ends stopped meeting, and she had to drop out. She worked as a waitress for three years, but then her little girl came along, and her little girl’s daddy left, and before you knew it…she was one of them. The needy. She was not proud…
You get the idea. That was just the starter story. You can go from there. You can tell real quick if the person wants a scrappy, up-by-the-bootstraps tale: Then I was suddenly an honor-roll student at a distant charter school (I was, but the truth isn’t the point here), and Mom just needed gas money to get me there (I actually took three buses on my own). Or if the person wants a damn-the-system story: Then I was immediately afflicted by some rare disease (named after whatever asshole my mom was dating—Todd-Tychon Syndrome, Gregory-Fisher Disease), and my health-care woes had left us broke.
My mom was sly but lazy. I was much more ambitious. I had lots of stamina and no pride. By the time I was thirteen, I was outbegging her by hundreds of dollars a day, and by the time I was sixteen, I’d left her and the stains and the TV—and, yes, high school—and struck out on my own. I’d go out each morning and beg for six hours. I knew who to approach and for how long and exactly what to say. I was never ashamed. What I did was purely transactional: You made someone feel good and they gave you money.
So you can see why the whole hand-job thing felt like a natural career progression.
Spiritual Palms (I didn’t name the place, don’t blame me) was in a tony neighborhood to the west of downtown. Tarot cards and crystal balls up front, illegal soft-core sex work in back. I’d answered an ad for a receptionist. It turned out “receptionist” meant “hooker.” My boss Viveca is a former receptionist and current bona fide palm reader. (Although Viveca isn’t her bona fide name, her bona fide name is Jennifer, but people don’t believe Jennifers can tell the future; Jennifers can tell you which cute shoes to buy or what farmer’s market to visit, but they should keep their hands off other people’s futures.) Viveca employs a few fortune-tellers up front and runs a tidy little room in back. The room in back looks like a doctor’s office: It has paper towels and disinfectant and an exam table. The girls froofed it up with scarves draped over lamps and potpourri and sequined pillows—all this stuff only girly-girls would possibly care about. I mean, if I were a guy, looking to pay a girl to wank me off, I wouldn’t walk in the room and say, “My God, I smell hints of fresh strudel and nutmeg…quick, grab my dick!” I’d walk in a room and say very little, which is what most of them do.r />
He’s unique, the man who comes in for a hand job. (And we only do hand jobs here, or at least I only do hand jobs—I have an arrest record for a few petty thefts, dumb stuff I did at eighteen, nineteen, twenty, that will ensure I never ever ever get a decent job, and so I don’t need to pile a serious prostie bust on top of it.) A hand-job guy is a very different creature from a guy who wants a blow job or a guy who wants sex. Sure, for some men, a hand job is just a gateway sex act. But I had a lot of repeat customers: They will never want more than a hand job. They don’t consider a hand job cheating. Or else they worry about disease, or else they never have the courage to ask for more. They tend to be tense, nervous married men, men with midlevel, mostly powerless jobs. I’m not judging, I’m just giving my assessment. They want you attractive but not slutty. For instance, in my real life I wear glasses, but I don’t when I’m in back because it’s distracting—they think you’re going to pull a Sexy Librarian act on them, and it makes them tense while they wait for the first chords of a ZZ Top song and then they don’t hear it and they get embarrassed for thinking that you were going to do Sexy Librarian and then they’re distracted and the whole thing takes longer than anyone wants.
They want you friendly and pleasant but not weak. They don’t want to feel like predators. They want this transactional. Service-oriented. So you exchange some polite conversation about the weather and a sports team they like. I usually try to find some sort of inside joke we can repeat each visit—an inside joke is like a symbol of friendship without having to do the work required of an actual friendship. So you say, I see the strawberries are in season! or We need a bigger boat (these are actual inside jokes I’m giving you), and then the ice is broken and they don’t feel like they’re scumbags because you’re friends, and then the mood is set and you can get to it.
When people ask me that question that everyone asks: “What do you do?” I’d say, “I’m in customer service,” which was true. To me, it’s a nice day’s work when you make a lot of people smile. I know that sounds too earnest, but it’s true. I mean, I would rather be a librarian, but I worry about the job security. Books may be temporary; dicks are forever.
The problem was, my wrist was killing me. Barely thirty and I had the wrist of an octogenarian and an unsexy athletic brace to match. I took it off before jobs but that Velcro-rip sound made men a little edgy. One day, Viveca visited me in back. She’s a heavy woman, like an octopus—lots of beads and ruffles and scarves floating around her, along with the big scent of cologne. She has hair dyed the color of fruit punch and insists it’s real. (Viveca: Grew up the youngest child in a working-class family; indulgent of people she likes; cries at commercials; multiple failed attempts to be a vegetarian. Just my guess.)
“Are you clairvoyant, Nerdy?” she asked. She called me Nerdy because I wore glasses and read books and ate yogurt on my lunch break. I’m not really a nerd; I only aspire to be one. Because of the high-school-dropout thing, I’m a self-didact. (Not a dirty word, look it up.) I read constantly. I think. But I lack formal education. So I’m left with the feeling that I’m smarter than everyone around me but that if I ever got around really smart people—people who went to universities and drank wine and spoke Latin—that they’d be bored as hell by me. It’s a lonely way to go through life. So I wear the name as a badge of honor. That someday I may not totally bore some really smart people. The question is: How do you find smart people?
“A seer? You ever had visions?”
“No.” I thought the whole fortune-telling crap was fer the berds, as my mom would say. She really was from a farm downstate, that part was true.
Viveca stopped fiddling with one of her beads.
“Nerdy, I’m trying to help you here.”
I got it. I’m not usually that slow, but my wrist was throbbing. That distracting kind of pain where all you can think about is how to stop the pain. Also, in my defense, Viveca usually only asks questions so she can talk—she doesn’t really care about your answers.
“Whenever I meet someone, I have this immediate vision,” I said, in her plummy, wise voice. “Of who they are and what they need. I can see it like a color, a halo, around them.” This was all actually true but the last part.
“You see auras.” She smiled. “I knew you did.”
That’s how I found out I was moving up front. I would read auras, which meant I needed zero training. “Just tell them what they want to hear,” Viveca said. “Work ’em like a rib.” And when people asked me: “What do you do?” I’d say, “I’m a vision specialist,” or “I’m in therapeutic practices.” Which was true.
The fortune-teller clients were almost all women, and the hand-job clients were obviously all men, so we ran the place like clockwork. It wasn’t a big space: You had to get a guy in and settled in the back room, and make sure he was coming right before the woman was ushered into her appointment. You didn’t want any orgasm yelps from the back when a lady was telling you how her marriage was coming apart. The new-puppy excuse only works once.
The whole thing was risky, in that Viveca’s clients were mostly upper-middle class and lower-upper class. Being of these classes, they’re easily offended. If sad, rich housewives don’t want their fortunes told by a Jennifer, they definitely don’t want them told by a diligent former sex worker with a bad wrist. Appearances are everything. These are not people who want to slum it. These are people whose primary purpose is to live in the city but feel like they’re in the suburbs. Our front office looked like a Pottery Barn ad. I dressed accordingly, which is basically Funky Artist as approved of and packaged by Anthropologie. Peasant blouses, that’s the key.
The women who came in groups, they were frivolous, fancy, boozy, ready to have fun. The ones who came alone, though, they wanted to believe. They were desperate, and they didn’t have good enough insurance for a therapist. Or they didn’t know they were desperate enough to need a therapist. It was hard to feel sorry for them. I tried to because you don’t want your mystic, the keeper of your future, to roll her eyes at you. But I mean, come on. Big house in the city, husbands who didn’t beat them and helped with the kids, sometimes with careers but always with book clubs. And still they felt sad. That’s what they always ended up saying: “But I’m just sad.” Feeling sad means having too much time on your hands, usually. Really. I’m not a licensed therapist but usually it means too much time.
So I say things like, “A great passion is about to enter your life.” Then you pick something you can make them do. You figure out what will make them feel good about themselves. Mentor a child, volunteer at a library, neuter some dogs, go green. You don’t say it as a suggestion though, that’s the key. You say it as a warning. “A great passion is about to enter your life…you must tread carefully or it will eclipse everything else that matters to you!”
I’m not saying it’s always that easy, but it’s often that easy. People want passion. People want a sense of purpose. And when they get those things, then they come back to you because you predicted their future, and it was good.
Susan Burke was different. She seemed smarter from the second I saw her. I entered the room one rainy April morning, fresh from a hand-job client. I still kept a few, my longtime favorites, and so I had just been assisting a sweet dorky rich guy who called himself Michael Audley (I say “called” because I assume a rich guy wouldn’t give me his real name). Mike Audley: Overshadowed by jock brother; came into his own in college; extremely brainy but not smug about it; compulsive jogger. Just my guess. The only thing I really knew about Mike was he loved books. He recommended books with the fervor I’ve always craved as an aspiring nerd: with urgency and camaraderie. You have to read this! Pretty soon we had our own private (occasionally sticky) book club. He was big into “Classic Stories of the Supernatural” and he wanted me to be too (“You are a psychic after all,” he said with a smile). So that day we discussed the themes of loneliness and need in The Haunting of Hill House, he came,
I sani-wiped myself and grabbed his loaner for next time: The Woman in White. (“You have to read this! It’s one of the all-time best.”)
Then I tousled my hair to look more intuitive, straightened my peasant blouse, tucked the book under my arm, and ran out to the main room. Not quite clockwork: I was thirty-seven seconds late. Susan Burke was waiting; she shook my hand with a nervous, birdy up and down, and the repetitive motion made me wince. I dropped my book and we banged heads picking it up. Definitely not what you want from your psychic: a Three Stooges bit.
I motioned her to a seat. I put on my wise voice and asked her why she was here. That’s the easiest way to tell people what they want: Ask them what they want.
Susan Burke was silent for a few beats. Then: “My life is falling apart,” she murmured. She was extremely pretty but so wary and nervous you didn’t realize she was pretty until you looked hard at her. Looked past the glasses to the bright blue eyes. Imagined the dull blond hair de-stringed. She was clearly rich. Her handbag was too plain to be anything but incredibly expensive. Her dress was mousy but well made. In fact, it could be the dress wasn’t mousy—she just wore it that way. Smart but not creative, I thought. Conformist. Lives in fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. Lacks confidence. Probably browbeaten by her parents, and now browbeaten by her husband. Husband has temper—her whole goal each day is to get to the end without a blowup. Sad. She’ll be one of the sad ones.
Susan Burke began sobbing then. She sobbed for a minute and a half. I was going to give her two minutes before I interrupted, but she stopped on her own.
“I don’t know why I’m here,” she said. She pulled a pastel handkerchief from her bag but didn’t use it. “This is crazy. It just keeps getting worse.”
I gave her my best there, there without touching her. “What’s going on in your life?”
She wiped her eyes and stared at me a beat. Blinked. “Don’t you know?”