by James Deveney
JOHNNY Brand sat on the edge of a handsome leather armchair in his luxurious high-rise apartment, waiting… waiting for them to come for him. He thought fleetingly of suicide, a quick dive from his tenth-story window onto the hard pavement below. He decided against the idea, lacking the necessary will to die by his own hand. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad. Maybe they’d overlook him, let him be….
Grim-faced, he sat back and reflected on the bizarre happenings of the past three years which had culminated in his present predicament.
The year of the climactic event was 1998, but it had been building for half-a-century before that. It had crept up on the population, stealthily gaining momentum, unnoticed except by a few perceptive sociologists until the situation had become a fact of life that was seemingly irreversible.
Three years ago Johnny had been a gas station attendant, a lowly grease monkey in a world awash in oil. He had been thirty-two years old and a bachelor, not by choice but of necessity. The reason being that he could not get a girl. Not that he wasn’t handsome enough, or tall or straight enough, or eager enough to cooperate in a blissful union of body and soul. It was just that there weren’t a sufficient number of girls to go around. He saw lots of pretty women; he filled the tanks of a dozen or more each day. He’d admire their smooth round arms as they leaned out of car windows, and enjoy the view as he scrubbed their windshields. He drank in their occasional smiles of thanks as they drove off, and short of groveling tried to convey a message that he was very available. All his efforts met with airy rejection.
The reason was that Nomonia, the country that had given him birth, had for the past several decades, given birth to altogether too many men and way too few women. Somehow in this rather small Melanesian island, the natural order of things had been reversed. Men outnumbered women by a wide margin, and with no wars to reduce the male population plus the inexplicable rise in the infant mortality rate among females, quite suddenly men found themselves in an overwhelming majority of about seven to one. Not only that, but nature appeared to select only the best and fairest of the female babies, discarding the rest as unworthy. Thus, Nomonia had been afforded a unique place in world history. It had the most beautiful women on earth, but only a comparative few. Each cool, collected, and exceptionally personable young lady had a choice of a number of panting Nomonian men of marriageable age.
Since the demographic trend had first become apparent, the government had done its best to remedy the inequity. It scoured the world for surplus females who, it must be said, were only too willing to sample this favorable situation. They came by the boat and plane load and were treated royally, being given well-paid, light work and free, nicely-appointed apartments.
As a rule, however, they could not be persuaded to stay. First, they were not able to match the locals in comeliness, and second, the incumbents relished the status quo too much to allow immigrant upstarts to queer their pitch. They found multiple and ingenious ways of making the visitors’ lives so miserable that most were forced to give up and return to their homelands.
Also, the men in government were not exactly operating with a free hand. They were trying to legislate with a veritable sword of Damocles hanging over their heads; the constant threat of their wives and mistresses (if they were powerful enough to have them) walking out on them and bestowing their favors on someone else.
So things got progressively worse, or better, according to which sex you belonged, until the year 1998.
This was the year that Mother Nature, in the way she has of balancing things in the animal kingdom, decided to take a hand. She didn’t bring more women. She simply wiped out the men. She melted them away like snow under a warm sun. An obscure blood disease, which came to be called “homophelia,” homed in on the Nomonian male population, striking it down in droves. Unlike its precursor, AIDS, however, homophelia caused neither pain nor discomfort. It rendered men supremely unconscious as they passed away peacefully in the night. Grandfathers, fathers, sons; the rich, the poor, and the well-connected; the noble, the homeless, the dashing, and the plain – all left Shakespeare’s mortal coil sadly and silently.
Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, nature overcompensated. What began as a mild epidemic grew to devastating proportions. As more and more men were cut down (so to speak), more and more female labor was required to dispose of their bodies. Funeral parlors were expanded into cryogenic warehouses, stacking the bodies until they could be decently buried. When the morticians started to go (and who ever heard of a lady mortician?) and gravediggers occupied their own excavations, things became desperate. Mass funerals were held and carcasses lowered into deep chasms dug by giant bulldozers driven by lily-white hands. The holes were filled in by tearful beauties bidding goodbye not only to relatives and lovers but to a way of life.
When it was all over, only five hundred males (who possessed a rare blood group) survived the axe. As a sort of macabre bonus, the survivors were engulfed and surrounded by half-a-million uncool and uncollected lovelies. Johnny Brand happened to be one of fortune’s 500.
To say that Johnny relished his new role in life would be the understatement of all time. He was ecstatic. He lived in a world of which he had heretofore only dreamed. He quickly became owner of a chain of gas stations, presiding over them in a suit of spotless white. He didn’t touch the cars, of course. Beautiful blondes with smudged faces and gorgeous redheads in coveralls did the actual servicing. He was forced to hire a team of curvaceous yet muscular bodyguards whose job it was to protect him from aggressive females who tried to foist their attentions on him. Occasionally, if a girl had an impressive résumé and uncommonly fine stats, Brand would allow himself to be taken out to dinner and a show. If the wine and entertainment were exactly to his liking, he might even pay her the supreme honor of a little romance afterward. The prospect of this remote possibility occurring kept a bevy of customers patronizing his places of business, all eager and willing to pay the exorbitant prices he charged for his services.
The days and months flowed by in idyllic fashion for Johnny. If he occasionally missed the rough camaraderie of male companionship (the night-out-with-the-boys thing), he did not dwell on it. He consoled himself by the thought that if Paradise began to pall, he could always take a vacation outside Nomonia – perhaps to the United States or in some other matriarchal society – to readjust his values.
Meanwhile the women had not passively accepted the state of affairs. They made frantic attempts to import males from other countries, but with male children dying off from the strange malady, men could not be paid to set foot in the land. Two weeks in the Garden of Eden and then Pfft! held little appeal for possible immigrants. The girls, of course, would have deserted by the thousands had they been allowed to do so, but the five hundred men ran the country with iron-curtain-like precision. They issued few passports to females under forty.
This kind of situation could not continue indefinitely, however, Events had to happen, and did.
One spring morning in 2001 a man walked into Johnny’s private office, a tall, thin fellow with a rather deep voice. He introduced himself since they had not previously met and then came straight to the point. “My name is Lund,” he said. “I’m assistant to the Minister for Internal Affairs, and I’ve just come from the capital. The situation there is becoming alarming. There is talk of unrest and rebellion among the women; the minister feels they may resort to violence.”
“Why? What’s the matter? Aren’t you men distributing your bounties evenly enough to keep them reasonably content?” Johnny looked anxiously at his visitor. “You’re not planning to use force, are you?”
“No, no, nothing like that. It’s just that – well – with less than a hundred men in the capital city and more than fifty thousand women and girls….” He spread his hands. “We do the best we can, but we simply cannot keep all of them happy, or even the majority.”
“Mmm, I know what you mean, but I’m sorry, I don’t see how I can help, Mr. Lund. I’ve got my gas stations to attend to, plus, you know, I have to keep my own crew placated. I don’t have time to….”
Lund smiled. “I realize that. But the minister has decided that a meeting of all the males in the country has become necessary. We want to examine the possibility of allowing the older women to leave Nomonia and try to find happiness elsewhere.”
“Allow them to leave?” exclaimed Johnny in astonishment. “Is he crazy? Why, we’re short of labor right now. Road construction in this city is almost at a standstill cause of the shortage of womanpower. And the older ones are the best workers. They rid themselves of their frustrations by physical labor. It would be the height of folly to let them go.”
“The minister is aware of these problems, Mr. Brand. But included among the females he is considering letting go are the agitators and malcontents. In the whole country there are not more than, say, fifty thousand. He thinks the loss of these would not seriously affect the labor force.”
Johnny rubbed his chin. “Well, I don’t know….”
Lund held up his hand. “You’ll have the opportunity to state any objections at the meeting. It is scheduled for the day after tomorrow in the capital building. City Hall. You’ll be there?”
“I don’t have much choice, do I? I suppose some good might come of it. By the way, are you staying over? I can put you up at my place. I have plenty of room, and the service isn’t bad. It’s not often a man comes to visit.”
“Thank you, no. I have many places to call on. I must see each man myself, and time is short. Goodbye, Mr. Brand. We’ll see you the day after tomorrow.”
With a tinge of regret, Johnny watched Lund get into his shiny white convertible and glide off, raising a hand in farewell as he saw Brand looking. It was after closing time, and Johnny started to lock up. Too bad, he thought. He and Lund (he wondered what his first name was) could have had a drink or two, maybe compared notes, played a little two-handed poker….
As he walked to his car, where his blonde chauffeur waited to drive him home, something vaguely troubled him, but he could not pin it down so he put it out of his mind.
The following day Johnny called his forewoman into his office. “I have to go to the capital for a couple of days, Lucille. Look after things until I get back, will you? Oh, and call Marylyn and Susan. Tell them I can’t see either of them tomorrow. Maybe I can squeeze them in next month. O.K.?”
“Yes, Mr. Brand.” She smiled, showing two rows of perfect teeth and a dimple. “We’ll miss you.”
“Thank you, Lucy. See you Thursday. Be good.”
He smiled at his little joke and went home to see that Jan, his valet, was doing an adequate job of packing his things.
That night sleep eluded him. Something was out of kilter. Toss and turn and count sheep as he might, he couldn’t shake the fear that he should be worrying about something. Could he really be that concerned about a few thousand women being allowed to leave? No, it wasn’t that. Was he catching the disease, homophelia? Of course not, were he going to contract it, he would have done so before now.
Toward morning he fell asleep. He dreamed of manly pursuits: of smoke-filled poolrooms, of baize-covered poker tables cluttered with beer glasses and ash trays over-flowing with cigarette butts, of fishing and hunting deer. He was in the stands at the football stadium, happily ensconced among his erstwhile, but now dead, buddies. He was still dreaming as they cheered and sang the football fight songs. Suddenly a familiar figure appeared on the field. Who was it, though? Why it was Lund, the minister’s assistant who had come to see him. Brand giggled. Look at that shnook kick the ball. He kicked it like a…
He sat up in bed, suddenly wide awake. With stomach-turning clarity, the thought that had been troubling him all day crystallized before him: Lund was a woman! He was sure of it. But how did he know, outside the fact that in a dream he kicked a football as a girl would kick it, with a sort of stiff-legged pushing motion? Then it came to him. In a flash he knew what had been nagging him. When Lund got into his convertible, he had sat first on the seat, then swung both legs in, knees together. A man didn’t get into an open car that way. He would merely step in and sit down. Even in male clothing Lund had entered the car as he naturally would while wearing a skirt or a dress. Also when he/she waved goodbye, it had been a typically feminine upward lift of the hand.
Brand jumped out of bed. Seven o’clock. He grabbed the phone. Too early, the minister would not be at his desk before nine. The meeting was scheduled for three in the afternoon. If there was a meeting. Of course there wasn’t a meeting, the minister would never have sent a woman disguised as a man. It was some kind of trap. Those agitating females in the capital were up to something. He dressed, took a hasty sip of the coffee Mona had laid out for him, then called his attorney. “Racquel? Johnny. Did you get any word of a meeting in the capital city today?”
A sleepy voice answered. “No-o. Oh, yes, I was told to standby for an important political announcement at three o’clock. Why?”
“Oh, nothing. I just wondered. Goodbye.” He hung up chewing on his bottom lip.
He looked at the wall clock. Seven-thirty. A thought occurred to him, and he dialed the number of the only other male in town, Roberts. A female voice said Mr. Roberts had left to visit the capital for a few days. Could she possibly help him? No, thanks all the same. He cursed himself for not checking with the guy last night to see if he had noticed anything amiss. He supposed he would have, except that he’d never liked the creep. The way he slobbered over his girls made him sick.
He ordered breakfast, smoked cigarettes, and cooled his heels until nine o’clock, when he finally was able to get through to City Hall. A dulcet-voiced secretary informed him that the minister had not yet arrived. He had the feeling she was smiling, but she hadn’t switched on her video so he couldn’t tell. This in itself was unusual. For the last three years, whenever a female heard a man’s voice on the phone, she immediately went video in the hope that he might be attracted to her.
He called again at nine-thirty. Still not arrived. He asked the secretary to have the minister call him. She came on the screen this time with a mocking smile. “I’ll be sure to give him your message,” she said. Now he was certain it was a trap. He paced the room for an hour, then called again.
“The minister is locked up – in conference,” came the mocking reply.
By eleven a.m. he was in panic. Perhaps he should try to get to the airport; flee the country. He rang for his maid. No answer. He strode to the door. Locked, from the outside. Those damned dames, they were all in this together. What ingratitude, after the way he treated them. He looked out the window. His car was gone. He was trapped, a prisoner in his bed of luxury.
So he waited, waited for them to come….
At precisely three o’clock the television set in the wall emitted a low staccato sound indicating a national message was about to be broadcast. Brand switched on his three-dimensional Sony, and Lund’s face came up immediately on the screen.
“This is Maria Lunden, your new prime minister. We have all the men in the country, with the exception of one, locked up in City Hall in the nation’s capital. The new Women’s Government has decreed that they will remain our prisoners until we have brought our country back to something approaching normalcy. Some of them will be used for experimentation in producing a vaccine for the disease, homophelia. Some will be sent abroad under guard to countries with large male populations with orders to furnish virile young men for Nomonia, men who will be paid under contract to sire healthy babies.
“All women who wish to leave the country may now do so at any time. We hope, however, that most of you will decide to see this thing through with us, so that our once-great nation will again be a pleasant place in which to live.
“When we have tracked down the virus and produced the antidote, males from around the world will be clamoring for entry to our shores. I assure you they will be chosen very carefully. The situation in which you have found yourselves during the last three years must never be allowed to recur. Meanwhile, you will have the satisfaction of living in a country with total feminine rule. That is all.”
As her face faded from the screen, Brand looked up to see Lund, or Lunden, standing in the doorway dangling the key to his apartment.
“You weren’t thinking of flight, were you, Mr. Brand?” she asked wryly, looking pointedly at his packed suitcases. “I’m afraid you wouldn’t have gotten very far. We have your car, and every airport has your picture. The party, as they say, is over. You are my prisoner.”
She looked so feminine now with long, lithe body encased in silk and her voice five shades lighter that he wondered how he could have been taken in. “I didn’t expect you to come in person,” he said.
She smiled. “The message was videoed for airing at three, of course. And I confess, I was curious as to how you penetrated my disguise. I thought I had played the male part to perfection.”
“Almost,” Brand said, “but next time, use a sedan or a minivan instead of a convertible. You forget I’ve been in the car business a long time.”
“Ah, of course. Well, no matter. I’m sure you are wondering what is going to happen to you. Since you were kind enough to offer me the hospitality of your home the other day, and I admit I was tempted, but the risk was too great, I won’t use you as a guinea pig. Instead I have a job for you. I am sending you to the United States of America. As soon as we have found a vaccine for homophelia, you will be required to recruit five hundred American men every month for Nomonia. You will be given an allowance and two agents, your former valet and chauffeur. They both hate you, incidentally. Should you fall below your quota for any one month, they have orders to liquidate you.”
“And if I refuse?” Brand asked.
“I will consider you to have failed your first month’s quota.”
She drew on a pair of long white gloves as she prepared to leave with her driver who had come into the room.
“Goodbye, Mr. Brand. I hope to see you again in about five years.”
She lifted a hand with the same gesture she had used as she drove off in the convertible two days before.
“I’ll see that your old job at the gas station is kept open.”
Hand set in Deepdene; display types are Chisel and News Gothic. Edited and published by Jake Warner who printed 390 copies on an SP-15 Vandercook. Ink is Van Son 40904 Black; paper is an enameled stock that requires (ugh) slipsheeting.
The Boxwood Press
Greenbelt, MD 20770