Judy & Merv

It wasn’t a long story. It was short. Judy loved giving light aerobics instruction to senior citizens at the community center on Tuesday nights but it hardly paid at all, and she wasn’t sure she could keep living on Healthy Balance frozen stir fry entrees. Merv was a conductor for Canadian Pacific — he “drove train,” as he put it — and since he’d been struck by lightning, he’d been looking for ways to…well, let’s just say that since he’d been struck by lightning he’d been experiencing persistent electrical charges across his entire epidermis. Zaps, zips, phantom tickles, fiery patches. Life was a living hell and he had come to be regarded as something of a lunatic in the town, prancing and flailing down the street like a wincing chimpanzee.

Taking an aerobics class was Merv’s last resort after countless homeopathic trials including Epsom salts, essential oils, hypnotism, and deep relaxation suspended inside a hyperbolic chamber. On occasion Merv endured three-day erections. He didn’t necessarily believe that simple exercise would cure what more specialized remedies had failed to relieve, but the instructor was an attractive woman he knew from around town, and without articulating any particular outcome, he thought, in signing up, that some of his symptoms might meet a natural end through the woman’s aide.

The odds seemed in Merv’s favor. But it wasn’t meant to be.

I mean, it might have been but no one ever found out, because no sooner had the story unfolded, than they took it, and you’ll never believe what they did with it. First they read it aloud, recorded it, and took the recording and ran text recognition on it, which once stripped of its punctuation they made into a prose poem. This poem they staged a reading of, having it signed to the audience live by a certified American Sign Language speaker. They filmed the ASL speaker, after which an AI program was ran upon the file, analyzing the woman’s gestures, measuring the tempo and directionality of her hand movements and converting them into x, y coordinates and algebraic equations to describe the changes in position of her lovely, vociferous hands.

Needless to say, at this point, Merv and Judy were well out of the picture. Judy’s aerobic enthusiasm and community zeal, her beaming smile and headband the color of key lime pie: gone. Merv’s epidural frenzy, his tented sweat pants, and so on. All gone. But not only the bawdy hilarity of it, also the surprising bodily control that Merv entered into the more jumping jacks he did at the stern and playful beckoning of Judy’s voice, which filled the community center’s meeting room with, to Merv’s mind, something akin to the chirping of seraphim, or the scent of a flower garden. Well, seraphim crossed with a gym coach, that is, for she was very fit and exuberant and rather sweaty. So flower gardens bathed in perspiration — maybe an image of lawn sprinklers, I don’t know, could be a bit much. But, ahem, no less heavenly to Merv.

Don’t get too involved, because as I said, all this was eradicated from what the foolish, misguided parties called “the text.”

From there, the algebraic equations were used to apply notes to a musical staff on the treble clef. If Judy gestured at her chin, we were near middle C. Sharp movements made staccato notes; the more languid sweeps resulted in whole notes with sustain. This music was then played to an audience dancing on a sensor-laden floor. Patterns in their footsteps — frequency, hardness of step, distance between steps — were computationally quantified and used in the selection of words from random books that the organizers had on their shelves. The resulting text was produced as a magnetic poetry kit and sold in gift stores, the packaging of which invited buyers to upload photos of their fridge poems to Twitter (now X) using a dedicated hashtag.

The committee staff compiled these tweets, and with remarkably light selective editing and artful arrangement, fashioned a new work. The result:

Judy becomes Shelby, a different woman though still recognizable as a type by her longings and confliction. Like Judy, Shelby is aspirational, only now what she wants is not only a decent income, but she wants wealth and fame as well. Which is pretty out-of-character for Judy — yet clear proof to some that the repurposing project has been an interesting success.

Shelby, the new woman, wants to become famous by singing and spends her free time, her evenings, crooning pop and blues standards at The Pretty Penny on Route 32, near Saugerties, in the Hudson Valley, New York. In the overhauled story, she successfully pursues this line of work, though with an unforeseen drawback to her success that we can’t really get into for personal reasons.

For reconstituted Merv: no success. In the regurgitated story, he is now known by the name Raymond and remains (a breathtaking coincidence!) a working man once struck by lightning. But unlike Merv, who was haplessly afflicted, Raymond is a conman — a man deliberately inflicting ill upon others. He keeps the company of schemers like himself who dodge around in a type of underworld peopled (if you will) by trucks, hard labor, alcohol, lies, violent outbursts, and muted expressions of vengeance upon a society they imagine oppresses their freedom. Raymond, his crew and their “gals” (their nomenclature), are locals with deep roots; they skirt the law and are lost to good sense, though they have no misgivings about any of it, least of all their reputations.

Merv 2.0, a.k.a. Raymond, has no problem with unwanted erections. In fact, he gladly welcomes boners and often seeks added erotic excitement, as many men do. His problem is he has suffered lost love, is miserably underworked, and he spends his afternoons not at the community center like Merv had spent his evenings, but at a bookstore in Saugerties built into an old house on Pearl Street. There in a secluded room high on the top floor, he creeks over the wood floors, leering at black and white photography books, so-called “art books,” containing world-class female nudes. The bookstore is staffed only by its owner, a gray-haired gentleman who sits at the checkout near the entrance and is never eager to move due to arthritis and asthma. There are no surveillance cameras at all, and the town is a sleepy town not particularly enthused about art or reading and so Raymond is free to work at himself with a hungry hand in his pants in utter privacy. Make no mistake, Raymond does not like his ways; he in fact wishes to reform, to get back to his music if he can. (He had once played keyboard in a bar band, doing R&B, and before that organ in a Baptist church band, just meaty minor triads in I, IV, V while large-breasted black women in robes belted out their sorrows to the Lord.)

Now, Raymond’s predicament is an interesting one in its own right, with that bit of noble yearning in such an otherwise rough-housing and unrepentant figure. But it’s still a shame that such elaborately forward-thinking processes were ran upon the original tale of Judy and Merv. Some would argue that in all the academic hurly-burly, bright, well-meaning minds had overlooked the fact that deconstruction and repurposing a thing whose original luster was not yet expired, was erroneous — if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor.

Because, I don’t mind telling you, there was a very touching moment towards the end, during the final song on Judy’s cassette-deck mix tape, as her routine neared the 45-minute mark. The song was “We Got the Beat” by The Go-Go’s. Judy was up there, bouncing and leaping and clapping and calling to her students with truly gleeful kindhearted praise. “You guys are the best!” she called. “Wow! I’ve never seen anything like it! Mr. Larson, you’re going to put your eye out if you raise those knees any higher!” she cried. Merv was transfixed at this point, in a colossal froth of amorous exhaustion, streams of sweat raining down his neck and chest. His Dr. Pepper t-shirt was three times its normal weight and two tones darker, and Merv could not have told you which was the throttle and which the brake if he had taken a seat that instant in the conductor’s chair (a bucket seat) of the diesel-chugging locomotive he had once called his daily office. He could not hear himself think below the roar of dry air bellowing in and out of his lungs. But that was fine, it was wonderful, because neither did he sense the faintest itch, tingle, or burn on his skin! Anywhere! In fact, he looked down to see if his forearms were still there, so accustomed was Merv to their pestering itchiness calling him like a bedeviled child. Miraculously, the longer Merv remained attentive to Judy’s rhythmic chants of “One and two and three!” and the longer he focused on touching his fingertips high above his head while jumping and spreading his legs, the more soothed his skin felt, from head to non-tingling toe!

There was much joy in the room, and it was infectious. Judy didn’t know it, but in time Merv would change his will, thereby solving — sorry-her insolvency.

There would come a night when Judy’s open-heartedness would lead Merv to share that which he’d vowed to never share with another soul: how he’d struck and killed a pedestrian on the tracks one time, near Albany. The person, a woman, clearly wished to die, for she continued to dumbly stand between the rails as the locomotive — Merv was pulling 88 cars of bitumen ore at the time — bore down on her, even as Merv rode the screaming brakes and nearly pulled the horn chain from the ceiling.

Merv’s epidural problems, his crawling skin, had begun not long after this brutal day.

After this confession, he found he no longer needed to overwhelm his entire cardiovascular and nervous systems just to override the nasty symptoms of his traumatized body, but he would continue to take Judy’s classes for his health — classes which Judy still offered just because she enjoyed them.

That was much later. In the immediate aftermath, Judy was toweling off, rewinding her cassette tapes and putting them back in their cases when Merv approached.

That’s where the story ends, having been picked up, already in progress, but long ago foreshortened and demoralized and stripped of its everything by those heartless, misguided technophiliacs we earlier called “they,” who I’ve now completely forgotten about.