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Shake

AT LAST OLIVIA SCHECHNER SAT BACK from the big flat screen. She’d been at it for three hours — pinkening her subjects’ wan areolae, concealing track marks, cloaking pubes and wayward globs of lube. Her left wrist was killing her. Immaculate Penetration, the venerated monthly magazine published on extremely glossy paper by Ricky-DwaineMedia Enterprises Inc., paid Olivia $800 a month, in weekly installments, to retouch pornographic digital photographs in Chatsworth two nights a week. The same amount that Olivia paid her therapist.

Most of Olivia’s colleagues in the porno magazine’s art department favored the use of styluses and pressure-sensitive tablets to mess with images at the pixel level, but Olivia had learned on a lefty mouse, and she still liked mice best. She imagined that if she were right handed, the sleek, eight-button right-handed mouse that the company provided would make her de-blemishing chores considerably more pleasant. High-performance lefty optical mice had long been hard to come by, but now, since two-thirds of Congress had ratified the Preserve Our Rights Amendment, which defined a legal American handshake as an amicable union between two right hands, it was nearly impossible. Since the amendment’s ratification, some of the nation’s least capable but wealthiest public orators had been holding daily press conferences to stir up further antagonism. Public schools reported a commensurate spike in lefty bashings, and the nation’s state-run retail establishments were increasingly refusing to stock lefty items on their shelves, for fear of rioting.

The amendment’s co-authors, senators Mason Trigote and Ricky-Dwaine Wayne (CEO of Ricky-DwaineMedia Enterprises Inc.), held the most press conferences ever — three separate live events, every day, to coincide with mealtime — by rote.

“I’m human,” said Trigote. “I’ve been tempted.”

“We all find ourselves,” said Wayne, “in circumstances where our right hands are occupied with car keys, a cup of coffee or a briefcase of unmarked 100s, and as a colleague approaches we’re tempted to reach out with our left.”

“To be lazy,” said Trigote, “rather than to respect the rule of law, shift our loads and extend the proper appendage.”

“But I have resisted.”

“I’ve been offered someone else’s left, and I’ve refused.”

“Repressing one’s urges — one’s convenience — for the good of one’s community.”

“That is what rules are for.”

“And that is why, in the Roman Empire,” said Wayne, “togas had only left pockets.”

“By protecting the narrowest definition of a legal shake,” said Trigote, at breakfast, lunch and dinner, “the Empire serves the interests of all.”

Olivia hadn’t heard the senators’ speech, but her brother, Carlos, had e-mailed her a link to a live webcam, which she promptly forwarded to her therapist, Dr. Hall, with the subject line, “See you Thursday at 2.”

“AGES OF EXPERIENCE,” the president read, “have taught us that the commitment of the right hands to serve one another promotes the welfare of children and the stability of society.”

BUT AT LEAST THE DIVORCE was finally over. And at least the two jobs paid her almost enough to survive. And at least her father was out of town, touring Europe or Australia or somewhere. And at least she had a decent therapist. Maybe.

“It’s not just the left-handedness. I’m either too fat or too unattractive in general,” Olivia told Dr. Hall, around 2:45. “People don’t get me — they don’t get my humor, or they just don’t connect with me intellectually. Or if they do, then they meet my father, and that’s that.” (Olivia’s father, comedian Hector Schechner, suffers from episodes of pathological obliviousness lasting between 12 hours and 36 years, which is how old Olivia planned to be in October.)

“So I’m used to retreating,” Olivia continued, standing, handing Dr. Hall a check for $200. “Why put energy into it if I’m just going to get hurt?”

YES, IT ALL SEEMED PRETTY BLEAK until the following Thursday afternoon, when Dr. Hall told Olivia about upcoming auditions for a splendid new television show called American SuicIdolT.

“I mean, I can deal with it, for the most part,” Olivia went on. “But sometimes I just can’t muster the energy. So why bother? Like the whole thing’s just too much to — American SuicIdolT?”

Dr. Hall spelled it out. The nation-sweeping surreality-television show American SuicIdolT was auditioning “emotionally challenged” ordinary people who hate their lives. Week after week, studio audiences and millions at home watched and listened as contestants sat in comfortable chairs onstage and described their unsustainable circumstances to a panel of pseudo-celebrity judges. At the end of each show, the audience voted — by lever, by phone, by satellite — for their favorite; for the contestant they thought had the most reason to commit suicide. The winner would then do so on prime-time network television.

“For money, of course,” said Dr. Hall. “American SuicIdolT is sponsored by one of the world’s most profitable health-care insurers. The winner is given a $20 million life-insurance policy, payable to whomever she likes!

“They have a Web site. You give it some thought, and if you decide you’d like to audition, I’ll be glad to sponsor you.”

Olivia handed Dr. Hall another check for $200.

“See you next week,” they said.

OLIVIA SAT BACK FROM the big flat screen and scooted backward, to the wall. She’d been at it for three hours without a break. Only 35, and already the eyes were starting to go. Right eye nearsighted, left eye farsighted, and neither could quite focus on her monitor.

So with her eyes closed, Olivia walked slowly down the hallway to retrieve the American SuicIdolT application from the network printer.

“Hey, Southpaw! You sleepwalking?” It was Hillary Flagbyrne, another pixel pusher.

Olivia couldn’t answer. She didn’t know what the answer was. And her wrist was killing her.