I wrote this story for an anthology submission about Dystopia/Utopia. But since I was living in the USA during the election cycle of 2016, it was hard to write about a dystopia without realizing dystopian writers warned us about some of the things happening this year.
There is one half of the country who thinks this was a good year. Are they right? Is this just a matter of perspective? What makes a country oppressive? What is the difference when two groups can live in two different countries that occupy the same slot on a map? Can two men live the same life and come out of it very differently?
Rousseau said it best: “Men are born free, yet everywhere in chains.”
But Goethe pulls no punches: “The best slave is one who thinks he is free.”
This is a silly story about a silly bet. Even if you don’t like politics, this story marks the first time I used the name “Wilberforce” in a piece of writing. And it is a hum-dinger of a name.
“So you’re saying we live in two worlds? A heaven and a hell?” said Wilberforce.
“No, not exactly… have you heard of string theory? Different vibrations existing in the same place,” answered Guilliam. “Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven is within you, but on the same vein, hell is just around the corner. It’s your pick: everything is shit, or everything is dandy.”
“Tolstoy talked about the first part actually. Interpreting Luke 17:21. I’m only on my second latte, you lost me.”
Wilberforce raised his hand and ordered another from the cafe’s gorgeous art deco coffee bar. The island brunch place catered to bored housewives, aging grand dames and a lively motorbike crowd- including the two graying men sat streetside, watching the people inside. Guiliam was a rich brown to Wilberforce’s ruddy, as different from each other as could be. The two made a tableau illustrating the power of motorcycles to connect people. Nearby, Guiliam’s bottle-green Bonnie stood on its kickstand next to Wilberforce’s vintage Black Shadow, warming like tomcats in the sunshine.
“All right,” said Guilliam. “Look around. How many beautiful women are here?”
There were indeed, many luscious examples of the gentler sex scattered about. Brunch was reaching the time of day when the local fauna achieved the perfectly coiffed look that takes most of the morning to do. The black and white tiles of the cafe sounded a characteristic beat of a dozen pairs of insensible heels slotted under taut, tanned calves. In other words, the ladies had their predator’s livery on. Wilberforce said so.
“And how many of them would you be interested in bringing home with you?” continued Guilliam.
“A good 70% maybe,” said Wilberforce. “The ones I actually have a shot with is about 50%.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” said Guilliam. “Our cafe racers alone give us another 15%.”
“60%. I am being generous.”
“All right. Now at this point you are living in a balanced world,” said Guilliam. “Let’s account for the rare instances when husbands are home, and the odd tourist you might get lucky with, and the balance of supply and demand is roughly equal.”
“For the sake of argument, sure,” said Wilberforce. He made his living trading commodities and understood supply and demand. Guilliam was reaching beneath himself and objectifying women to make the metaphor. But Wilberforce at least understood that women were more or less plentiful here, and that he liked women. The island was a sort of nursery where beautiful, wholesome girls were nurtured to blossom. When they came of age they were married off to local men who hadn’t lifted a finger in generations to make their fortunes. This resulted in a lot of very unhappy people, it had to be said.
Understandably, trysts on the island had a level of fungibility, and Wilberforce was something of a power trader. It alleviated his boredom, anyway. On the rare instances when Wilberforce was rejected, he would ride his collection of motorcycles very fast on the cliff roads. When Guiliam took them apart he would often find the clutches completely knackered.
“Okay. So right now your supply of women matches demand,” said Guiliam. “But what happens if we adjust the demand side slightly?”
“Go on,” said Wilberforce, intrigued.
“What if,” said Gulliam, “What if you were not interested in most of the ladies? What if you only desired lesbians?”
“Well then I would have to reexamine my entire week, wouldn’t I?” Wilberforce said. He had had a spate of good luck with three of his regulars: Mrs Bonham, Mrs Alberton and Mrs Caddigan, who all lived on different sides of the island and went to three different cafes. Guilliam was glad Wilberforce had not brought any of his hobbies to this particular cafe, the Spades, which was the perfect distance from Guiliam’s house on the coast for him to enjoy a very lovely seaside ride in the mornings.
Guilliam himself was currently seeing only one woman, a Mrs Mary Leola, who was a widow and owned a particularly beautiful 1998 Ducati 900 Super Sport. Guiliam had restored the bike himself, installing new lighting, discarding the fairing, and replacing the aged front forks with a modern Panigale front end. This was the bike made famous by Hunter S. Thompson’s Song of the Sausage Creature, and he wanted to do it justice. As it happened, Mary also loved the great gonzo writer and they had met for drinks at the beach- ten miles away by a treacherously twisting mountain road. Loser bought first round, and Guilaim felt it money well spent.
Guilliam went on.
“Therein lies a conundrum. Lesbians have no interest in us, the barbarous sex.”
“There’s a certain confidence in their lack of need for us. The outfits are tantalizing,” allowed Wilberforce. “Pixie cuts, the peek of a breast under flannel, a bold lack of supportive underthings…”
“So if you were to have an exclusive interest in lesbians, you would be living in a… let’s call it a dystopia,” said Guilliam. “Through no fault of your own, for sure. Sexuality is a born preference.”
“A dystopia is defined by an overarching, inhuman force that is too big to shift,” said Wilberforce. “Like governments, ingrained behaviors, or the banality of evil. Clockwork Orange. Blade Runner. Schindler’s List.”
“You would be compelled to seek out women who have no interest in you, and if they were to ever accept your affections, that would negate the requisite for you to be interested in them in the first place,” said Guiliam. “Catch-22… like Black America, you would be living in a hopelessly rigged system while the rest of us are peachy keen.”
“QED- I would be in a hell of unrequited lust,” said Wilberforce. “My friend of monogamous persuasion, I believe you live in a dystopia of little choice then.”
“From my point of view I live in a utopia- because I have chosen Mary for myself.”
“Well, I don’t believe that,” said Wilberforce, a bit unkindly.
“That I’m happy?” said Guilliam, offended.
“No, no, the lesbian thing,” said Wilberforce. At that moment a wonderful example of a well-kept, middle-aged housewife walked past and Wilberforce raised his coffee in acknowledgment. When he went on, he seemed more mellowed.
“I believe I make my own fate,” said Wilberforce. “I would find some way of satiating my unique desires. There is a dark side to your logic also-”
Wilberforce made to continue, but at that moment was interrupted by the howl of a 900cc engine screaming through custom megaphone pipes. In a moment the starry white fairing of a Ducati appeared from around the corner, pulling in next to Guilliam’s Bonnie with hardly a centimeter to spare.Taut, curving hips swung over a bespoke seat, and there stood a dusky woman with gold-flecked eyes.
“Speak of the devil,” said Guilliam.
“My swarthy lover- how I have missed thee,” said Mary, as she shed her leather jacket and came to sit by Guilliam.
“We were just speaking of a hell of unrequited lust,” said Wilberforce, sparing a glance at Mary’s tremendous front. It was hard to tell which he was more interested in, the bike’s curves or hers. Wilberforce also owned a Ducati, a beautifully kept Paul Smart worth well north of thirty grand, but he collected bikes like he collected women- incessantly.
“Wilberforce, it is a marvel anybody falls for your particular brand of bullshit,” said Mary, and grinned. The two men caught her up, briefly, on their conversation. As Mary was wont to do, she proposed a challenge.
“Wilberforce, I propose a challenge,” said Mary, as the cafe’s barista brought forth a wealth of foam, biscuits, and caffeine. “What say you to actually living in this dystopia for a month? Your regulars would of course have to live without your charm for the duration, lest their influence mar the results. If by the end of the month our infamous rake has succeeded in satiating himself on the company of homosexual women and only the company of homosexual women, he shall win a most fabulous prize.”
“And what would be my prize? I doubt dear Guiliam would allow his Mary to give me what I truly desire…” said Wilberforce gamely.
“Firstly I am not his to give away. Secondly we are both adults who have had lovers before and have had a conversation about our limits. Thirdly you are his closest friend and are a notorious whore. You’ll never actually win.”
“I am actually intrigued,” said Guiliam. “None of us are spring chickens and our relationship can stand the test. Besides, you’ll never do it.”
“There’s my man,” said Mary. “Maybe you’ll learn to be as respectful to women as Guiliam after a month’s Lent.”
“You sicken me,” said Wilberforce as his friends shared a pornographic kiss. “I would never strain that relationship though. I’ll have one of those kisses as a prize.”
“Done!” said Mary. They shook on it.
Though Guiliam had said it was all right, he felt a sting of jealousy, quickly pushed down. It was the thought of his best friend and lover kissing. Later, he would mention it to Mary, who laughed and asked Guiliam if he thought Wilberforce had the strength of character not to find an easier lover in a month. Guiliam had to admit that was impossible. Then Mary promised that on the off-chance Wilberforce’s integrity won out, she would ask her best friend Samantha to come over to Guiliam’s house. Samantha was very friendly and tended to be more so in the presence of Manhattans.Mary was an unabashed bisexual.
“Win-win scenario!” said Guilaim. Mary’s best friend would certainly make up for any unpleasantness with his best friend. They shared more coffees, decided to tour the perimeter of the island, and made arrangements to do so again.
Guiliam wanted to stay and make sure Wilberforce did not cheat, but he had some business on the mainland that week. It was the delivery of a newly completed Honda Nighthawk, meticulously acid-etched, depicting Sisyphus at his labors. Seeing his work sitting next to the Bonnie in the trailer, he thought there were lots of things worth doing over and over.
The client lived a week’s ride away, halfway to the other coast, but rather than entrusting his artwork to a shipping company, Guiliam always delivered himself. The miles from the island to his destination were full of malcontents screwed over by poisoned water, generational inequality and the capitalist sickness of increasing demand by destroying supply. If only the last election had gone a little bluer…
But then, Guiliam had made his opinion on that long time ago. It was like people who liked Ducatis and people who didn’t. They tended to be obstinate in their opinions, despite the fact that the venerable Italian firm had produced both duds and legends in its day. The Monster, for example, birthed the naked sport category single-handedly. But the Multistrada was an epic study in ugliness, and was recalled for a sticky throttle.
Yet, people in those two camps never stopped to think they could try seeing the other’s position, at no cost to themselves whatsoever. It was a tribal behavior that Guiliam felt needed to go the way of the carburetor: prized as a beautiful antiquity, but now lacking in practical use.
On the way back Guiliam came across a biker group and rode with them for a few days, getting so wrapped up he left the trailer behind. As he rode with the friendly gang he thought about the conversation at the cafe. If not having a choice was what made a situation hellish, then the motorcycle was a utopia that Guiliam could take with him anywhere he went. On two wheels and a high torque 1200cc engine he had his pick of any city, any place that he wanted to go. Not to mention, the complexity of the machine left him as many choices as he cared for: handlebars or clip-ons? Spokes or modern sport wheels? Louder pipes or a classy custom header set? Ultimately every little decision led to a better enjoyment of his time on the Bonnie. Yes, she would break down sometimes, but the knowledge that those consequences came from his decisions gave him agency and power.
Compared to Wilberforce, jumping from woman to woman, bike to bike without investing time and effort into a single lover, Guiliam felt like his was the more satisfying way of living. His Kingdom of Heaven was his own two wheels and a woman who rode with him.
By the time he left the gang and got back to the island, it had been three weeks.
“How is he?” said Guiliam when next he saw Mary. She had come over in the afternoon, enthusiastic to keep the flame burning. It had taken until evening before Guiliam overcame his lady love’s charms to ask about his friend.
“Surprisingly okay. He hasn’t gone to find Mrs. A, B or C and he’s made a couple new friends. Bikers, natch,” said Mary.
“Are we worried?”
“The cracks are starting to show- I don’t think he’s ever gone this long without.”
“It looks like you’ll have to schedule Samantha in, just in case,” joked Guiliam.
“Mmm,” said Mary. “I might do it even if he loses…” Guiliam liked how frank Mary was with her abundant tastes.
At the end of the month, Guiliam and Mary met Wilberforce at the Spades to discuss terms. As far as the couple knew, Wilberforce had been as good as his word. When Guiliam saw him he knew for sure- the man hungrily ate up the bare legs on display.
Wilberforce was talking animatedly with a young woman in biker leathers. As Guiliam approached, Wilberforce introduced the woman as Jeanette, who leaned forward to shake their hands. Wilberforce’s eyes lingered on the open zipper on Jeanette’s leathers.
If Guiliam didn’t know better he would have thought Jeanette was another of Wilberforce’s objectified conquests. But Wilberforce was looking at the girl with a poker face that he didn’t need- his fingers twitched, as if he wanted to caress the skin under the leathers. To everyone else, Wilberforce was the picture of charisma, God’s gift to women, but to Guiliam, who had known him for years, the sight of Wilberforce jonesing for tail made him grin. This was so worth it.
“Hello Wilberforce,” said Mary, her voice like smoke on the water.
“Jeanette, can you give us a minute?” said Wilberforce.
“Sure love,” said Jeanette. She walked to a gaggle of other lady bikers nearby and kissed one of them fully on the mouth. As she left Wilberforce mouthed “Oh My God” to Guiliam, who had to admit Jeanette was impressive. And very obviously gay.
“A shame,” said Guiliam. “You were so close.”
“She is curious about how the other half lives,” said Wilberforce. “Alas, I haven’t the pleasure of a prolonged evening. It is vexing.”
“So you admit the wager is impossible?” said Mary, winking.
“Mary,” said Wilberforce evenly. “The wager was satisfying my desires. I managed to get a picture of Jeanette on her bike that looked very nice in the lighting of my home. It was a hot day, and she didn’t have much on under the leathers. Mary, the peach lipstick will do nicely.”
“Oh, ughh,” said Guiliam and Mary simultaneously. But they looked at each other, and grudgingly acknowledged Wilberforce had them on a technicality. Satisfaction was satisfaction, even in the privacy of one’s own company.
Mary shared a look with Guiliam that said “Remember Sam!” before she sat down and leaned towards Wilberforce. Her lips looked soft, like pillows. She put her hands on the chair between her hips and pushed her face forward, closing her eyes. Her hair was lovely, highlighted the color of brassy front forks, and her skin was coffee with too much cream.
Wilberforce put on his best roguish grin. He took Mary by the shoulders, winked at Guiliam, and leaned in- he looked like he desperately needed some feminine affection. Guiliam winced- talking about it was one thing, but now it was happening was another.
Just as his friends came within an inch of each other, Mary stopped it with a finger on Wilberforce’s mouth.
“Wait,” said Mary. “Double or nothing?”
“This wasn’t what we talked about,” said Guiliam. But Mary shushed him easily.
“Keep your panties on,” said Mary. “Wilberforce… you know Samantha?”
“Aye…” said Wilberforce, clearly torn. He had had the fruit snatched from his lips.
“You’ve always wanted to go out with her, but she thinks you’re a creep. Well, I can help you,” said Mary. “I kind of told her you never call back.”
“I call back! I call every girl who-”
“Exactly,” said Mary. “Now maybe I’ve changed my mind. Maybe you’re starting to settle down and you need a properly single girl to… ah… change your brake fluid regularly.”
Wilberforce drew back, sipping at his cappuccino warily. Maybe he needed it to calm him, but when he resurfaced, he wore the face he used when he dealt with investment clients.
“Terms?” said Wilberforce.
“A month didn’t faze you. How about three?” said Mary.
“This is your Samantha? Strawberry blonde, incredible figure, daddy complex?”
“Yes. You can’t even talk to these easy pickings,” said Mary, gesturing at the society birds flocking around the Spades. “And no relief. Hands off yourself. But if you actually get a lesbian to come home with you I’ll tell Sam I saw your enormous package when you were getting on the Black Shadow. Call it a testament to your manly charm.”
“Deal,” said Wilberforce. “Now, Guiliam my friend, if we are done with this madness, let me introduce you to the unavailable taco.”
“Manners,” said Guiliam, who knew his friend was an asshole but was enjoying Wilberforce’s torture too much to argue.
On the way back to his place, Guiliam pulled his Bonnie over to the side of the road to have a chat with Mary.
“What was that back there?” he said as Mary’s Super Sport came to a smooth stop on dual disc brakes.
“Double or nothing? I nearly had a heart attack,” said Guiliam.
“I had to do something… if I went through with the deal I would have to call Sam. Maybe I wasn’t comfortable with you being with Samantha, even if I’m a part of it,” said Mary. She drummed on her fuel tank with her smooth leather gloves. “I would rather feed her to that wolf of a best friend than see you guys…”
“Yes. I love you, Guiliam. I missed you so much when you were away.”
“Mary,” said Guiliam, and he nearly fell off his bike to kiss her. The sun was going down and the seaside road was lit a wonderful orange color, like a blazing hearth a million miles long. Their motorcycles engines idled happily in neutral, purring like cats who had found one another.
Two months into the wager, Wilberforce called Guiliam, who was finalizing Mary’s move into his place. It wasn’t his sparse home that needed adjusting, it was the garage- he was sorting a space to put all of Mary’s Italian bike parts.
“I can’t do it, Gill,” said Wilberforce. “I’m buying Cosmo for the pictures and the Black Shadow feels like the worst blue balls ever.”
“I’m coming over,” said Guiliam.
A few minutes later Guiliam was listening to Wilberforce rant in his beautiful island home. It was rough to hear Wilberforce bemoan the various “unavailable tacos” he had approached, but it was a tribute to his best friend’s integrity that he hadn’t given up on the bet. The suffering seemed to animate the usually stoic Wilberforce, who might actually have begun to tire of his endless parade of beautiful, bored women.
“And this one, she had these amazing hips slotted into a pencil skirt…with her breasts pushed up into her neck. Not two seconds and she blew me off for the bull dyke in the corner…”
To pass the time between the naked offense of Wilberforce at home, Guiliam ran a knowing eye over the man’s motorcycles. There were nine of them parked in the living room. Two of the bikes Guiliam had built himself, though he had serviced most of the others before. Along with the Paul Smart and the Black Shadow there was a vintage Harley, a current year Triumph Daytona, two customs that must have cost a pretty penny, a race replica of Valentino Rossi’s Yamaha YZR-M1 and a partially disassembled Norton Commando. But it was the bike at the end that caught Guiliam’s attention the most, a new one that he hadn’t seen before.
Done in historic Ducati blue with retro fairings and a huge number sixteen, it would have been hard to tell what the bike was if he didn’t manage to catch the discarded 90’s fairings tossed in a box. But Guiliam knew his engines, knew the trellis frame and more importantly he had just been working on this model not a day before. It was a refurbished Ducati 900 Super Sport- Hunter S. Thompson’s Sausage Creature.
“What are you doing with Mary’s bike?” said Guiliam, and he instantly regretted saying it.
“Oh that? I saw it the other day and I decided I wanted one,” said Wilberforce nonchalantly. He tipped back a beer Guiliam hadn’t seen him get out of the fridge. He didn’t seem to enjoy it. “Did you know Hunter S. Thompson rode one when it first came out? Apparently he was scared of it ripping off his limbs and scalp if he crashed. Turning him into a ‘hot dog monster,’ haha.”
“Not scared, no,” said Guiliam. “Tempted. ‘Faster, faster, until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death.’ The Song of the Sausage Creature.”
“Right, that’s the one,” said Wilberforce. “It is a beast though.”
Guiliam accepted the beer that Wilberforce held out to him. It was good artisanal stuff, but it didn’t soothe the disquiet he was feeling. Wilberforce was behaving unlike himself after two months of no sex and the maddening presence of lesbians at his elbows. It felt a little bit like the beginnings of an earthquake- clothes moving on their hangers, wind chimes ringing, but nothing cataclysmic yet. Guiliam wondered how deeply Wilberforce had sunk into his malaise.
“Anyway, I think I might have cracked it,” said Wilberforce.
“Cracked what?” said Guiliam, distracted by the 900SS.
“Mary’s wager. This bet,” said Wilberforce. There was a visible strain to his eyes now.
“Oh man,” said Guiliam. “It’s okay. Let it go. You don’t lose anything.” That was Mary in a nutshell- she never asked anybody to lose anything when she bet. He loved that about her.
“But I’m so close,” said Wilberforce. “Remember Jeanette?”
“She was nice,” allowed Guiliam. They had hung out with Jeanette awhile, and it turned out she was a whiz with the English wheel, and made her own custom tanks.
“The rules said so long as she’s a lesbian,” said Wilberforce.
“Yes,” said Guiliam. The quake feeling was getting stronger.
“And so long as she is, I’ll never have relief… because if she wants me, that voids the bet,” said Wilberforce. “So I only have one option to win and stay sane really…”
“Convince her to try men? ” said Guiliam. “I think Mary would call that a win. Jeanette might even like it?”
“Oh but I’m sure she will. And if she will, then she’s not a lesbian, right? So the bet is off…” said Wilberforce. Guiliam felt positively sick. He could see where this was going and he did not like it.
“Wil, no,” said Guiliam. “Christ, I’ll get Mary to call Samantha anyway, just let this go!”
“No!” cried Wilberforce. He lashed out, knocking a pan of screws clattering to the floor. “This is more than the bet! Do you have any idea how long its been since I’ve felt this alive? The chase, the thrill… the oppressive air of inevitability… this is why dystopias exist. Hell is preferable to Heaven because at least in Hell you can feel pain.”
“I’m having none of this,” said Guiliam. “You’re not yourself. I don’t know this Wilberforce!”
“Fuck you then,” said Wilberforce, and he threw a full bottle of motor oil at Guiliam. It hit him in the head, bouncing off with no serious damage. Guiliam said nothing, didn’t look at Wilberforce’s grimace. He just walked out of there and rode away.
When he got home, off the bike, he called Jeanette to warn her about Wilberforce.
“Oh hey, G. I’m on the way to Wilberforce’s right now, I can’t really talk. Ciao, got to go!”
“Wait-!” cried Guiliam, but Jeanette had hung up.
Guiliam called back, but the line didn’t even connect- she was on the road, or in a tunnel. He thought about calling Mary, but decided against it- that Ducati 900 had creeped him out about his best friend. Guiliam fired up the Bonnie and tore back down the night road.
In the dark, riding a foot away from a fifty-foot drop, he felt the Sausage Creature sneak up on him. It was an ever-present thing. It wasn’t fear, no, but a sort of ennui. The fear that his life and his actions would mean nothing. Fear that he wouldn’t be able to ride fast enough to affect what happened around him. It was all the same monster, and that monster had eaten his friend. Wilberforce was afraid of living the same way he had for years, trapped by promiscuity and fearful of commitment. Now he finally knew the Sausage Creature’s face, he was about to do a very stupid thing.
Guiliam pulled into Wilberforce’s long driveway and hit the brake as Jeanette’s Honda blew past him in a boxer engine clatter. She didn’t stop, and he couldn’t see her face behind the shield. When he pulled up to Wilberforce’s well-lit stoop, he found his friend sitting there on the lawn. His eye was bright red, shut, and just starting to swell up.
“You stupid-! What did you do?” said Guiliam.
“I invited her over,” said Wilberforce. “I fired up the Paul Smart for her to ride. I’ve done it a million times. Then when I thought she was getting buzzed from the L-twin vibrating, I threw a leg over the back and held her. Smooth as silk.”
“And what happened?”
“What do you think happened? She kicked my ass.”
Guiliam stood there for a moment, then burst into peals of laughter.
“Oh you stupid bastard!” said Guiliam, helping his friend up. He shouldn’t have worried. No matter how much of an idiot Wilberforce wanted to be, Jeanette wasn’t one. And she was tough, she had spine. Guiliam felt he had rather objectified Jeanette himself. He would buy her a coffee later.
But for now, he poked around in Wilberforce’s garage for beers. One for him, one for Wilberforce, and one for Wilberforce’s head. They sat on the stoop and Wilberforce outlined the whole thing again, saying how stupid he had been, and how he had felt the crushing weight of the bet every time he approached a woman. The fact he could welsh didn’t even occur to him, he was so blinded by the arbitrary rules. Guiliam felt he understood the people who had voted wrongly in the last election, a little bit. When you couldn’t imagine a different choice, the Sausage Monster crept up on you. Forced you into the corners too fast, made you stupid.
But for now, the Sausage Monster didn’t have Wilberforce. Not just yet.