Free Spread by Barry Malzberg

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Authors: Barry Malzberg
ferocity or determination), Virginia informs me that I have a long-distance person-to-person phone call, and while these are generally only people who wish to pose for the newspaper or who want to know exactly what we are up to, I make it a matter of policy to accept as many as possible, wanting to know now more than ever what is going on in America’s deepest heart. A hoarse man tells me that he is Mr. B&E or perhaps that he represents B&E Enterprises. I do not quite catch which but assume that it makes little difference.
    “The ad,” he says, “the ad stays. That’s the word. It stays in.”
    “I’ve already written you a second letter,” I say, trying to sound as reasonable as possible. “There are some other facts — ”
    “We got the second letter. The second letter came in already and they had a discussion. They told for me to tell you that the ad is staying. That is their final decision, it stays in and that’s the decision.”
    “Look,” I say, “I take no position on the ads. You know that. And we’ve done a lot of good business together. But still I think it’s best — ”
    “You don’t do business with me,” the voice says harshly, “you do business with
Me, I am only the messenger. I don’t know anything. That is their message. It stays.”
    “It could get very dangerous. If this stuff is poisoning people a lot of us could get sued and then — ”
    “Listen, mister, you can’t argue with me. I don’t even know what’s going on. It’s not my business to know what’s going on, I just deliver the messages and it’s healthiest for everybody that way. The message is that the ad stays and that if it does not stay, then all the ads go. Every single one of them. We will pull all of the ads out of the issues starting right now. I mean, they will put them out; I just work for them and that’s why I say we.”
    “The issue’s already made up. I couldn’t take the ads out.”
    “Then you take them out the next time around. Listen, I have no further instructions. I can’t go on discussing this. This is what they want me to say and I’ve said it.”
    “Is there anyone else I could talk to? Maybe if I were able to speak to someone in the offices — ”
    “They’re all out to lunch.”
    “When they get back from lunch.”
    “They go out for long lunches. Sometimes they don’t come back until the next day. By the next day it will be too late.”
    “If I could only talk it over — ”
    “That’s all they wanted to say, friend,” the voice points out and hangs up on me.
    I replace the receiver on the stand and walk to a side cabinet in which a sample of the prophylactic cream has been placed. As a matter of policy, recommended by our lawyers from the start, we obtain a sample of every product advertised in the newspaper. Most of them have never been opened but certain of the photographic materials have given me endless amusement and have been placed in my private stock at home, one which not even my wife knows about.
    I remove the tube from the box and shake dust off it. Opening it I am assaulted by a peculiar smell midway between glue and wax, oddly penetrating and somehow refreshing to the nostrils. I squeeze the tube and a small, deadly squirt of grayish jelly lands in my fingers, cold and only faintly sticky to the touch. I rub the jelly between thumb and forefinger and then examine. Everything looks pretty much the same in the translucency of the jelly although it is possible that I see miniscule cuts and bruises on the fingers. It is hard to tell. So much of the efficacy of these preparations has to do with a matter of attitude.
    I wait five minutes and my fingers neither wrinkle nor fall off. They do not seem to feel any pain under pressure and remain firm when pressed. I use the treated hand to put the tube back in the box and the box back in the cabinet, and then I close the cabinet and take Virginia to lunch. We discuss our relationship. I tell her that I am beginning

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