Black Petals Issue #74 Winter, 2016

Trim Thought
Home
Mars-News, Views and Commentary
Beyond the Stars-Fiction by Brian McLelland
Doesn't Play Well with Others-Fiction by Roy Dorman
Killkenny Man-Fiction by Charles C. Cole
The Family F.-Fiction by George C. Economou
Masks of Innocence-Fiction by Dr. Mel Waldman
Trim Thought-Fiction by Chris Moylan
When the Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead-Fiction by A. M. Stickel, Editor
Anticipating Miracles- 3 Poems by Teresa Ann Frazee
Cemetery Haze-3 poems by Michael Keshigian
Seven Horror Haiku-by Denny E. Marshall
Four Zombie Haiku-by Denny E. Marshall
Love Letter (to L. W.)-Poem by Reyhan Qayoom

Fiction by Chris Moylan

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Trim Thought

 

By Chris Moylan

 

Paring the apple of expression

 

 

“Will this hurt?”

“Nurse, would you remove just a bit here please…”

“Remove what!?”

“Hair. The nurse is going to shave a bit more hair.”

“Are you sure? Do you have to remove hair?!” the subject sputtered at the bodies looming over him in the harsh overhead lights of the clinic. It was uncomfortable lying strapped to a bed, in this harsh light, with those peculiarly tall bodies bending over him. He didn’t like this one bit.

“Just a small patch of hair,” the doctor said, with an exaggerated calm that did a poor job of ‘No one will notice and it will grow back.’ “Now, the nurse is waiting to shave you. Can she do that? You won’t make it difficult, will you? We can’t sedate you, as I have explained. So I’ll have to ask you, again, to please just relax and let us do our work. Nothing bad is going to happen. Absolutely nothing bad is going to happen.”

“I understand. I’m fine.”

“Good, now we’re ready to fit the device….”

“Will this hurt?”

The brain imaging device was a crown of electrodes that fit neatly over the skull, and even with all that went wrong he never did experience pain. The original purpose of the study was to examine body dysmorphia and deep memory, employing verbal association cues to light up regions of the brain associated with corporal self-image in various stages of personal developmental: fat-pizza, fat-lollipop, fat-momma, fat-dadda, and so on. The hope was to delete a neural historical record, in a sense, of dysmorphic verbal cues. If obsessive body images were learned, perhaps they could be unlearned through various forms of intervention, from traditional talking cures to drugs and so on.

“I’ll say a word and you’ll say the first word that comes to mind, ok? Just like we discussed.”

“That’s all? No scalpels or needles or anything…”

“Fat.”

It wasn’t all. A power surge and a wiring problem in the brain imaging device delivered a precisely aimed zap of electricity into the brain, ablating the very word. “Fat” was burned out of his head, in a sense. As we were to discover, he would never speak it, recognize it, or write it again. As far as he was concerned, ‘fat’ was an irregular verb in Swahili, or a Swedish obscenity. It could be anything because to him it meant nothing. The test was terminated as a safety precaution, the instruments checked, and surge protection improved. When the study resumed the next day the word ‘fat’ registered no response on the scan monitor. It was gone.

“How do you feel?” asked the doctor.

“Fine. Relaxed. Start the test when you’re ready.”

“Not concerned that something will go wrong?”

“Should I be?”

“Have you checked yourself in the mirror recently?”

“What an odd question! Did I spill something? Miss a spot shaving? Come on, just tell me. Everyone makes a mistake…”

“Still an anxiety response?” said the nurse assisting in the research.

“Moderate, in my view,” said the doctor.

“I agree.”

The patient’s dysmorphia was so improved that an extensive battery of body image cues was required to register even a modest indication of body image distortion. The patient’s weight, which actually was on the lean side, was consistent, but his perception of weight had changed radically. It was tempting to remove other words associated with weight control, but the ethics of such a procedure were ambiguous at best. It took decades to overcome the stigma associated with electro-convulsive therapy; how would the profession react to electrically induced aphasia, however targeted?

The question never arose, thanks to his research assistant, the same nurse who performed the menial tasks of shaving the patient, delivering instruments, preparing the intake, and so on. It was thanks to her that Trim Thought was born.

“You can’t just send him home,” she said, when the doctor announced his plans to interrupt the study to perform safety checks and recalibrate the instruments. “Look at the improvements in his condition since the so-called accident. He’s a new man—more confident, at ease, and personable. Why not complete the treatment?”

“It isn’t a treatment, for one thing. We don’t have ethical clearance, for another. He volunteered for one study; we can’t volunteer him for another, however strongly we might believe that doing so would benefit him.”

“Then perform the procedure on me. I volunteer. I’m almost as unhappy with my body as he was with his. Delete any words you like just so long as I lose that feeling of frustration with every extra pound or ounce, real or imagined, every wrinkle and gray hair.”

Nurse was an attractive woman in her late thirties, no nonsense and extremely professional when on task, quietly teasing and ironic in down time. The doctor looked at her as if she had just offered to jump off a cliff for the sake of science.

“I don’t believe any of that,” he said, perhaps more earnestly than he intended. “You, of all people, don’t have extra pounds to concern yourself with, and if you have gray hairs I don’t see them. You’re not appropriate for the study. And there is no study.”

“Of course I am,” she said, delighted to see him so flustered. “It makes perfect sense to examine a woman in my age range with self-image issues. If this research has any clinical applications it will be with middle-aged women, professional, busy, with the disposable income to invest in a treatment, or intervention if you like, that will improve confidence, self-image, and general well-being.”

“This is nonsense. You don’t need help in any of those areas, clearly, and I don’t need help in, well, any areas…”

“Thank you, doctor, but you’ll have to accept that in this one instance I know more than you do,” she said, without caring to elaborate on what area the doctor was deficient. “Now let’s make a list of key terms, beginning with weight, calorie, fat…”

“And you believe that a selective aphasia of terms for weight and aging will help your self-image or, for that matter, your figure?”

“It already has.”

 

They opened the first Trim Thought Clinic six months later.  It was a former martial arts studio in a low-rent district in a low-rent town an hour west of Boston near the border with New Hampshire—a place time hadn’t forgot, but just didn’t care to think about anymore… The first clients were nurses and caretakers from the nursing home: women, most of them middle aged and divorced, some with grown children still at home. They came expecting exercise leavened with self-help exhortations. They got trimmed instead.

With all that it has become, it is strange to think of Trim Thought as a simple diet substitute, but that is how it was conceived originally. Don’t lose pounds, lose thinking about pounds. Don’t go on a flesh diet; try a thought diet instead. The body isn’t the problem; it’s the mind! Slim thought and the body will follow: no pills, no hunger, no restrictive meal plans or regimens; just a few simple questions at intake, then a quick brain imaging procedure and the patented semantic ablation, done in less time than it takes to get a haircut. Was the procedure reversible? No, thankfully, it was not reversible; who would want it to be? Did it cause brain damage? No, merely brain adjustment. Most clients saw an improvement in work productivity, family adjustment, and even marital intimacy. These were the side-effects.

In those days, Our Founder did most of the trimming himself. Nurse did the intake and the initial workup. She listened to the client’s list of complaints and hang-ups and categorized them: clusters, blocks, tics, loops and daggers, paper flowers and paint by numbers, thought formations that thwarted, distracted, dragged down, bored, put down, inflated, prettified, weighed down…

Eventually, he perfected the use of brain imaging and electro-deletion, later called semantic ablation. He learned that his first clients required more aggressive interventions than they requested if satisfactory results were to be achieved. Constellations of morbid desires, memories, and recriminations spun out from the most prosaic complaints. All had to be erased for the desired effect, be it greater self-control or a generally improved sense of wellbeing.

All that mattered, in the end, is that the treatment did have the desired effect. The change is documented in the early testimonials and later in the clinical film work that our Founder commissioned when grant support started to come in. The typical patient sitting in the recovery room felt easier and lighter within minutes of completing treatment. A burden had been lifted, a burden that she didn’t even know she had until that moment.

One patient described having waged a war of aggression against her own body her whole adult life, punishing herself with exercise, diets, hot yoga, long hikes, and bike rides, all to gain a sense of inner resolve and acceptance that she achieved with five easy treatments.

Of course, hardly anyone was satisfied with one or even five treatments. As so often was the case, Our Nurse led the way, sculpting her cerebral cortex with treatment after treatment, paring away negative thoughts, morbid associations, destructive trigger and hook words…until the peace and happiness she radiated gave her an irresistible spiritual charisma. She became a truly beautiful person. And that wasn’t the only thing. Her desires rose to the surface and stayed there; the impulses and wishes we repress she explored with joy, and her means to express them grew simpler, earthier, and deeper.

In TV commercials from those early days she is a slinky, low-voiced Lauren Bacall with a Boston accent: tall and slender in a nurse’s uniform that, no matter how starched and buttoned, managed to inspire the most lascivious following on social media. It didn’t take long for her to draw attention from agents and producers, from local news channels and newspaper columnists. Our Leader was fascinated. It was if a new planet had dropped into his sky, warm and remote, mysteriously beautiful. Only he could gather her energies to himself. Only he was worthy of her.

But, as Nurse was the first to point out, a lot of the women who underwent ablations at the clinic had a certain something after treatment, ironically something they didn’t have before. With some it was an uncomplicated sensuality and humor, with others a candor and desire that could be devastating, delirious, or just refreshing.

 

Things didn’t take off, however, until that actor walked in asking relief from his outbursts and impulses, his infamous drive to blow up whenever his career or personal life were going well. I assisted in the ablation. I was an intern at a local hospital at the time, volunteering my services for the chance to witness the behavioral changes firsthand. I was devoted to the Trim Cause; my decision to stick out med school after a rough start came within days of my treatment. More than that, I was devoted to Our Leader and Nurse. I came up with those designations, I’m proud to say, and I made sure that others adopted them. Our Leader and Nurse were my saviors. They banished the scared, self-doubting me and released the competent, focused me, the doctor-in-training. Imagine how that felt amidst the chaos of the times, the violence and scarcity, the riots blooming and spreading like outbreaks of the flu? Our Leader gave me hope. And Nurse gave me, well, what is the word for what she gave me? I don’t think one exists.

It was obvious how important this case would be. The entire staff took special care to ensure the treatment would exceed and not just meet the patient’s expectations. The workup alone took several days. The legal consultations, P.R. arrangements on his side, and press arrangements on ours were all a big headache. My own small contribution was a cocktail of mild sedatives and anti-anxiety drugs to induce a relaxed, cooperative state without the patient losing consciousness. Some patients, or shall I say clients, had in the past exhibited such agitated behavior and vocalizations so as to interfere with the procedure. Although my mix eliminated the problem, I’m afraid this contribution has received far too many accolades in the profession than it deserves, and mention it only for the sake of this record.

The actor’s ablation was more extensive than had been attempted previously. But when he—after the staff, including me, submitted to a name ablation to insure privacy (which an assistant could look up now, but I wouldn’t retain the name)—emerged from the clinic and stepped before the microphones, anyone could see that he was a changed man. The wrinkles in his face were gone. That pinched, self-consciously naughty expression he’d affected for so many years had vanished. He looked healthier, taller even, and more mature. His posture improved with his demeanor. I had never been prouder of Our Leader than when I saw the transformation in that actor. This was not a clinical outcome, but a work of art, visionary and world-changing. I could barely hold back the tears when we led him outside to meet the press.

“Jim (let’s say)! How do you feel?” a reporter wanted to know. A couple of dozen reporters covered the procedure, crowding around the front steps of the clinic while the locals danced around them waving gang signs for the cameras and mugging behind the heavily made up women reporters trying to conduct interviews with anyone who had the slightest background information to share about Our Leader, even if it was just his usual, rather meager takeout lunch order…When the actor emerged from the clinic the ordeal was well worth it.

“Great,” he said, with a hint of a smile, an expression to that point entirely out of his repertoire.

“Notice any changes in your mood or thought processes?” asked a network reporter in the front row.

“Yes.”

“Could you describe them?” he persisted.

“Possibly,” he said, to laughter that was as nervous as it was appreciative. He didn’t laugh or smile.

“Any thoughts on how this will affect your career?” asked another network reporter.

“No thoughts. Action. Just action.”

Like the nurse, this star of lowbrow comedies discovered a quiet confidence, a sexiness that no one would have suspected previously. He walked away from the press of microphones as if he were leaving an empty diner and made his way into the woods, emerging eventually to a second career in small independent films, a laconic actor hovering between self-parody and tragic nobility…

He was soon followed by a rock star whose career was brought back from the dead by a series of ablations that transformed him from a purveyor of cringe-worthy romantic ballads into the founder of the New Minimalism. And next came a politician emerging from sex scandals and alcohol detox treatment to reveal an understated gravitas and simplicity no one would have suspected that he had in him…

 

This was the beginning of my worry and sadness. It should have been otherwise. Most of us, including Our Leader, celebrated the endorsements and testimonials by celebrity clients. There was the feeling generally that the Trim Cause was entering a phase of exponential growth and popularity. It was no longer a matter of drawing clients but of managing the influx that was bound to come. We wouldn’t have to go begging any longer; we would clear the neural pathways of the American people and everything else would drop into place.

Nurse kept her own counsel regarding the celebrity Trims, but it was evident that she disapproved. She didn’t complain, not publicly anyway, but late at night, after a long day of procedures and post-procedure checks, she and I would talk sometimes over a cup of tea in the staff room.

Talk is maybe not the right word. Nurse had achieved such an advanced state of neural economy that she used words as rare landmarks in gradual unfolding of gestures, silences, sighs, and subtle shifts in posture and expression. Or I communed and she, hardly any words (so many having been ablated already), complained of setting Trim Thought in search of fame and profit.

 

The treatments were no longer about weight loss. For that matter, they were not to be seen as treatments. They were life-style enhancements, ego loss sessions, and synaptic reviews. They were franchised reflexive interventions, salves for the daily news fever dream of Canadian cyclones, Rocky Mountain dust storms, and subway flash floods. They were efficient, timely, and profitable as all hell. They spread from the Boston area throughout the northeast, with clinics as well in Miami, San Francisco and LA.

Imitators sprang up around the country. We didn’t bother trying to stop them; ours was the trusted name in cognitive reduction. The occasional attempts to legislate regulation of the procedure died in committee thanks to Trim makeovers we provided to key legislators as a public service. You might remember the wave of sex scandals that swept through Congress that year, the suicides that followed, and that endless testimony before the special prosecutor. It was a hard time; we offered the only proved effective remedy. I couldn’t blame anyone for accepting what help science could offer to get them through.

I worked twelve to sixteen hours a day trimming blocks and negative cycles, simplifying unwanted complications. In most of the larger cities in the U.S., Trim Thought replaced coffee, overtook yoga, and made spinning classes a thing of memory. Trim Thought brought a revival of American vernacular clip-talk, the Hemingway-into-Gary Cooper-into-Clint Eastwood laconic speech that used to evoke the wide open spaces of the West when there was a West. Trim Kids just out of college spoke their own patois of simplified grammar and part words called De-Talk, an un-language as soft as rotted wood. TrimThought turned used car salesmen into minimalist poets and made politicians sound like frontier trappers, which is what they had wanted to sound like all along but just didn’t know it.

There was a lot more dead time on the radio for a while as disc jockeys adjusted to their trimmer verbal skills. Gradually the dead time was filled with music and everyone was happy. People slept better. They argued less…and less. The divorce rate declined. The trim benefits kept revealed themselves in steady increments. It was like we’d found a cure for cancer, and the cancer was words.

Less said, less thought, less sad. Trim Smiles… I still remember those ads from years back. Trim Time. I loved them. I loved everything about Trim Thought. At night, after a long shift, I skimmed through the photos and testimonials on social media, occasionally contributing words of encouragement or congratulations. I opened different accounts using assumed identities to post versions of my own story. The few women I allowed into my life at this time—it was easy enough to find company now that the tethers of shyness and fear were trimmed away—these lucky few were never invited into this part of my life. Trim was my secret mistress, my passion.

 

Four years after the start of the first Trim Thought enterprise Our Founder relocated to New York to oversee the opening of several facilities in Williamsburg and Chelsea. Nurse remained in Mass. to oversee the expansion of the facility into a campus setting outside town. Trim Thought International moved to a thirty-acre spread complete with horse barn, art studio and state-of-the-art trim clinic.

There was talk of bringing Trim Thought to Quebec as a trial run for an entree into the Europe. Lawyers frequented the Trim Campus, and secretive business consultants with retinues of personal assistants and secretaries, each prettier than the next.

 

Nurse contributed little to the negotiations. She listened, mostly, and nodded her head from time to time. She continued receiving treatments. I administered them as the most experienced clinician after our Leader, who was too preoccupied with administrative work to do them himself.

Gradually, the neural ablations reduced her working vocabulary considerably, perhaps by as much as two thirds. Of the words that remained she generally confined herself to just a few: yes, no, maybe, later, please. Nonetheless, I could sense her displeasure with the direction that Trim Thought was going, the growing emphasis on profit margins and subsidiary income streams: Trim Music and booklets, instructional videos, Trim Wear and Trim Food.

She would not allow mention of these things in her presence. She spent more and more time alone, withdrawn into the dry climate of her silences, a totem animated by flickers of sadness in her eyes. One could see that our Leader was wounded by this disapproval, although he maintained a reverential tone in her presence. He worshipped her, as he had from the beginning. You can use all those words for what she was to him; muse, goddess, inspiration… I can’t recall the rest. But worship is different from love. They were no longer seen leaving the Trim Center together at the end of the day.

 

Developments in New York required Our Leader’s personal intervention for a week or more. If he had any reservations about leaving the campus in our hands, he did not show it. A small army of consultants and industry advisors remained at the campus to continue their work on plans for the rollout of TrimThought abroad. Nurse presided over meetings in Our Leader’s absence, and I took notes and acted as her go-between.

Nurse listened quietly to the pitches by the lawyers and industry executives, and glanced at the fact sheets handed to her by the pretty assistants of the lawyers and industry executives. Finally, she motioned for me to receive her whispered instructions. I leaned close, gripping the side of the conference table to steady myself against the intoxicating influence of her beauty.

“Who are us?” she whispered. “Make it known.”

I understood. Of course, this was the essential matter. “Shouldn’t we consult Our Leader about this matter?” I asked.

“Make it known. Now.”

“He might not want everyone to be put on the spot like that. Are you sure?”

“For love.”

My heart quickened, though I dared not allow myself to think that her love was for anyone but Our Leader. I didn’t think this. What my heart believed I cannot say. “We could just put in a quick call…just to be sure.”

“Now!”

“Nurse has instructed me to ask one simple question to each of you in turn,” I said. “A simple yes or no answer will suffice. I begin with you, sir. Are you Trim?”

The executive required an explanation from one of his assistants. He smoothed his silk tie over a comfortable belly and stared off into the distance as if to compose his answer. He was a stern, bald man in his fifties, an executive who, no doubt, had little recent experience composing an answer to anything. “No,” he said, finally. “I am not Trim…not yet…but intend to be, very soon.”

“Yes or no. Are you Trim?” I asked another person at the table, a woman this time, and she smiled as if that were a ridiculous question before also answering no. I asked another, and then another, all around the table. The answer was always the same.

“So, are we to conclude,” I said, “that the legal and business representatives of our movement do not endorse Trim Thought? Do you find fault with it in some way? Do you believe that you are superior to all others who are Trim, enthusiastically Trim? Is that what you would have us believe?”

All denied that this was the case. A denial required a substantial demonstration of good faith, a convincing assurance that, appearances to the contrary, these consultants and lawyers were fully as convinced of the benefits of Trim Thought as we were. Nurse, in her whispered conference with me, was definite as to what form this assurance should take. All gathered in that room were required to submit a Trim plan for themselves if they were to be considered friends of the movement. A few walked out in protest, although in their best interest they came back again. Others argued and pleaded, claiming the press of commitments elsewhere or the need for special preparations at their home offices. One man trembled during his Trim intake, becoming so distraught that a small spot of wet appeared on the front of his trousers. Why would a man reach such a state when millions of ordinary citizens gladly submitted to a procedure that had proven safe and effective? Even now it makes me laugh to think of such childishness.

 

All of them submitted in the end. The clinic was occupied with this project well into the early hours of the morning. It was exhausting, but at the time I didn’t feel the least tired. Nurse required my assistance, and the word ‘love’ was mentioned in the request. Love wove through all I did. I pushed the syringe into an arm muscle with love and pushed love into his vein, soothing and calming him so he would be suitably receptive to the searing kiss of love in the synapses, the sweet blank of aphasia that opens a social space for the penetration of understanding and submission…

Black, large, their rotors thumping the roof of the low sky like a jealous husband at a closed door, a half dozen helicopters touched down in the wheat field behind the main facility. Men in suits came out first. They were tall and hard. They wore their dark sunglasses as if they were dialed in to the mind of Krishna. Our Leader dropped down last, improbably white haired and ethereal, walking in the clouds of dust and wheat seed whipped up by the blades.

The security men fanned out across the campus and rounded up everyone they found: staff, clients, the few lawyers and executives who remained from their treatments, and, finally, Nurse and me. Our Leader met the two of us in one of the treatment rooms. He closed the door on the two guards posted outside.

“It’s time for you to take a rest,” he said to Nurse. “You’ve taken on too much responsibility and it has made you brittle and fatigued. I worry about you.”

She sat on the edge of the inclining chair used for procedures, electrodes on plastic tubes hovering over her like the tentacles of a large squid. The light bleached her face, simplified her angular features into a placid, waxen mask. She was expressionless, corpse-like. He traced the tip of his forefinger along her cheek and down her throat, his nail following the line of her carotid artery.

“You were trying to help, I know. But you can’t Trim money unless money wants to be Trimmed. I wish it were otherwise. Soon it could be.” His nail slipped down the open throat of her blouse and pushed into her chest, drawing a thin line of blood. “We’re going to simplify things so that mistake doesn’t happen again.”

Nurse made the slightest movement of her eyes, as if in acceptance of what was to happen. But she wasn’t looking at Our Leader. She was looking beyond Him, to me.

The one true advance in the anti-anxiety cocktail is how quickly it works. I doubt that the prick of the syringe even registered before the drugs dropped him to his knees as if in prayer.

“This isn’t going to hurt,” I told the doctor, who had never undergone the procedure. I helped him onto the table. Remarkable, isn’t it, that a professional who had administered the procedure, invented it no less, could show such concern.

“It won’t hurt at all. I’ll just remove a little hair for the contacts right here, and here….”

A radical ablation was necessary in this case. I think it was Michelangelo who claimed that sculpture is just removing stone to find the figure within the block. Trimming is much the same. Trim and trim to find the placid, real self in the block, the Edenic true self untroubled by the knowledge of good and evil, knowing only the one sublime command: to enjoy.

 

You will know this soon, and when you do you will forget this story. I tell everyone and I make everyone forget. It’s a new world, isn’t it? Beautiful.

 

The End

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