Escape Pod 389: Keeping Tabs
by Kenneth Schneyer
I was so excited when I could finally buy a Tab. They cost so much, you know, but I saved up for maybe six months. I waitressed at Antonio’s in the North End, and let me tell you, it’s murder on the feet. Those trays are heavy, too, and Nico screams at everybody the whole shift, not to mention the way you smell after six hours. But the customers tip really well, and I was able to save up enough money, even after paying rent and stuff.
I could never have gotten a Tab when I was still married to Marc, that shit. He never liked anything I liked. When I married him, all I saw was the big brown eyes and the cleft in his chin and the way he could make his voice go down low, so that I felt it all the way down to my knees. I had to learn the hard way.
Not that I could’ve afforded a Tab back then, anyway. The price started coming down just a few years ago, about when Marc broke my front tooth. By that time I couldn’t go to my mom’s, because she said I always went back to that shit anyway, and she wasn’t going to help me do it again, and my friend Lila wouldn’t let me stay with her either, same reason. So I went to a shelter, and the police came, and we got a restraining order on Marc. But yeah, the same damn thing happened, he gave me that look with those eyes and told me how things were really, really going to change this time, because he’d seen the light and couldn’t believe he’d done something like that to me, and like an asshole, I dropped the charges and lifted the restraining order and went back to him.
Two years ago, right after I divorced Marc, Pearl Moulton started playing Mandi Trenton on Dark Little Corners, which was her first really big break, and they announced that there’d be a Tab on her. I wanted it as soon as I saw her on the show, because Mandi is so awesome; she’s this really tough girl who works in a bar, and she gives as good as she gets, and she never gives up on love when all these guys leave her all the time. And Pearl Moulton is so beautiful and talented; I used to watch her on Deception, when nobody paid her any attention. Now she was in all the magazines, and she’s exactly my age, and she was Tabbed.
But then my mom got sick, and I was taking care of her for two months. My brother Johnny didn’t do squat, and his wife Nadine, forget it. So I wasn’t able to get the Tab until she got better. That was last year, in May.
I got the injection and the ear cuff, went home and waited for Pearl Moulton’s Tab time, which was ten to twelve, Eastern. I was so excited I couldn’t sit down; I kept making cups of coffee and forgetting to drink them, picking up the Herald and reading stuff I’d already read. Finally it was ten, and I sat down in the recliner and turned on the cuff.
First thing, while it was making the connection, it was like I didn’t have a body at all — no sight, no sound, no feeling, nothing. It’s a good thing your body breathes by itself, because I couldn’t even tell if I was. Then, all of a sudden, wham, I was in this padded chair, and I had Pearl Moulton’s body. She’s a lot thinner than I am, and her teeth are really straight, and you feel those things right away. At first there was no sound and I couldn’t see anything, but there was this sweet smell, and something soft brushing down over my face, that is, her face.
Then a girl’s voice said, “Okay, done,” and Pearl opened her eyes and blew out through her nose, like there was dust in it. She was sitting in a swivel chair in front of a big mirror like they have at a salon, with vanity bulbs all around it. In the mirror Pearl looked exactly like Mandi Trenton on Dark Little Corners, right down to the funny arch in the eyebrow. I’ll tell you, looking in the mirror and seeing Mandi was the best feeling in the world, although it only lasted for a second.
Standing behind Pearl was a girl with striped hair and a gold nose ring; she put down a soft brush she was holding and undid the sheet that was covering Pearl’s clothes. Underneath Pearl was wearing one of those green outfits Mandi Trenton has in the program.
Pearl said, “Thanks, Victoria,” and it was like I was saying it. Then she stood up, and it was like I was standing up, and she walked out the door.
It’s really weird to feel somebody else’s mouth saying words, and to hear the sound of her voice in her head. You know how your own voice, when you talk, never sounds the way it does when somebody records it and plays it back? Well, Pearl Moulton’s voice doesn’t sound the same in her head either. It’s also pretty strange to feel somebody else’s feet when she walks, or hands when she grabs things. I mean, my body was sitting in the recliner in my living room, and if I tried to lift Pearl’s hand I’d wind up lifting my own off the arm of the chair, but I wouldn’t feel it. And of course she doesn’t walk the way I do; she takes quicker steps, and each step is exactly in front of the other one, like she was walking the line for a cop. She’s taller than I am too, and everything looks different from that angle.
Pearl clickety-clicked into a huge Vid stage with big hot lights and two of the sets from Dark Little Corners, the nightclub and Mandi’s bedroom. A bunch of people said, “Morning, Pearl,” and she said “Hi, guys.” It was weird, and great, to hear her say something so normal. She grabbed a bottle of water off a table and sat down in one of those folding chairs, just like you see in the movies.
And then not much happened for a while. First she was looking at the script, then she read a magazine she picked up off the floor next to the chair. It’s totally impossible to read with somebody else’s eyes, let me tell you. I mean, Pearl moved her eyes to follow what she wanted to see right then, which was nothing like the way I would have moved my eyes when I was reading. Not that I would have read this magazine anyway; it was a complicated story about all those poor people getting killed in Turkey, and whether that counts as genocide, and what genocide is, and stuff like that. But like I say, I couldn’t even see most of the words; it was mostly a jerky jumble. And did you know, Pearl Moulton has itchy skin, especially near the armpits? I would have been scratching like crazy, but it didn’t seem to bother her. Or, I don’t know, maybe it did bother her and she just didn’t scratch.
So then some guy said, “Pearl, Randy, we’re ready for you.” And Pearl walked onto the nightclub set, and so did Randall James! He’s really short, shorter than Pearl, anyway, although he doesn’t look like it on the show. But he’s got pretty brown eyes and a dimple. They did a scene where Mandi and Mace are arguing about some woman Mace went out with the night before, and Mandi smacks him and cries, and Mace walks out in a huff. Pearl really hit him, too, but not hard.
They did this scene nine or ten times, and in between they’d wait while the guys messed with the lights and moved the cameras around or played with light meters, and the two of them talked about a party that they were going to go to at Zero-Zero-Zero that night. Pearl said that Tim — you know she’s married to Timothy Nation, who played the guy on Deception? — she said that Tim didn’t really want to go, and didn’t want her to go without him, but that she was going to make him come. Can you imagine a party at Zero-Zero-Zero?
I used to think they shot soaps live, and I guess they did in the old days. But later I found out that they have better editing and stuff than they used to, and they can do lots of takes and put them together in a hurry. But it was so much fun just being there, with all the actors and everybody.
Somewhere in the middle of ninth or tenth take on that scene, the Tab ended and I was back in my recliner. It took me a few minutes to get used to me again. Nothing like living in the body of a thin, beautiful actress to make you feel fat and ugly when you get home. I saw myself in the mirror; I looked about as good as I usually do, which is not very.
I had to go to work. On the way to the T stop, I tried putting one foot right in front of the other, like I was walking on a line.
Nico was especially nasty to all the waitresses that day, and Lila cried after a customer screamed at her about an order that wasn’t her fault. Rob, the snotty kid who runs the Hobart in the afternoons, broke a teacup, and I thought Nico was going to have a heart attack. “Do you know how much costs a cup?” he kept yelling. Rob didn’t flinch the whole time, looking down his long nose at Nico.
It was kind of hot for May, too, and Nico hadn’t had the air conditioning fixed, so we were all sweating. I left with my uniform sticking all over me, making me itch; I scratched on the T all the way home.
Some people get Tabs at the same time every week, but they cost a lot more. Mine was the cheapest, and they scheduled me whenever they could fit me in, and I only found out a few days before; sometimes it was too late for me to arrange the time, and I missed it. For instance, my second Tab time for Pearl Moulton was five days after the first one, at four o’clock Eastern, so I couldn’t Tab her because I was at work. The time after that, I had to go fight with the landlord, because a pipe burst in the apartment over mine and I had disgusting, dirty water in my cabinets and dishes, and half the food in the pantry was ruined. It was the third time something like that happened.
When I finally I got a chance to Tab Pearl again, it was in the middle of the day on a Saturday — middle of the day for her, afternoon for me. She was at home with Timothy Nation, and she was cooking in her kitchen. I think I would have liked it better if she was on the set doing Mandi Trenton again, but this was good too. Her kitchen is huge, with a stone island in the middle and spotlights shining down on it. She was cooking something with a lot of vegetables in it: zucchini, eggplant, onions, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, all in big chunks and thrown in to this gigantic pot. It reminded me of the Italian cooking my mom used to do, but I don’t think Pearl is Italian.
Halfway through the chopping, Tim came up behind her and kissed the back of her neck, and she said “Hi,” in that kind of low voice you use on someone you like. Then he brought his arms around her middle and kissed her ear, which tickled, and she put down the knife and leaned back into him, kind of laughing, you know, chuckling.
Then his hands came up to her tits, and she gasped and stuck her elbow in his stomach, and said, “No, Tim! The Tab!”
He said, “Shit, I forgot,” and backed away from her — she almost lost her balance. Then he said, “Can’t they at least make it the same days and times every week, so that we could remember? You’re not a slave.”
She said, “I tried again on Monday. They won’t budge. I’m sorry.”
Then he walked out of the room. I could tell Pearl was mad after that, because she started chopping down harder on the vegetables. The stew or whatever it was she was making took a long time to cook (it smelled awesome), but she stayed in the kitchen the whole time, reading another one of those magazines I couldn’t read. Tim Nation didn’t come back in the kitchen. I wonder how the stew tasted.
Now, so you don’t get the wrong idea, I don’t get off on the sex thing with the Tab. I know there are some perverts — guys — who would get Tabs on somebody like Pearl Moulton so that they could feel her body. But the hookers downtown would let you Tab them for a lot less money, and if you were that kind of pervert and you paid them enough, they would do all kinds of stuff to themselves while you were Tabbed into them. But the real sickos want to know what it feels like to have Pearl Moulton’s tits in particular, you know? I heard that some of the actresses got sex-limited Tabs, that they’d only let other women Tab them. But I don’t know if Pearl was one of them.
I got to Tab Pearl three or four times during the next six months or so. I had a lot of time on the set of Dark Little Corners, which was my favorite; it was like being an actress and being Mandi Trenton all at the same time. Other times, like parties or times at home or when she was having lunch with a friend, I got the idea that Pearl didn’t like the Tab so well. She would tell people not to talk about certain things because of the Tab, and she had this angry sound in her voice. Tim Nation didn’t like it either, and he got madder and madder every time she would say stuff like that. Once he threw a glass into the sink so hard it broke. But me, I thought the Tab was terrific. I was having the time of my life.
In December I heard that they were going to start a TalkBack feature, where one Tabber at a time would be actually able to say things to the person they were Tabbing. It’s a lot more expensive than the Tab itself; it would take me months to save enough tips for even one two-hour TalkBack. But boy, did I want it. To be able to talk to Pearl Moulton!
At about the same time my Mom got sick again, and then my brother Johnny got sick too, and Nadine just walked out on him, if you can believe it. After all the help he didn’t give me with Mom the first time, I didn’t really feel like lifting a finger for Johnny, but what could I do? He’s a lazy bum and he always has been, but he was going to chemo and he needed me. Between the diarrhea and the puking and me taking care of Mom too, let me tell you, January and February sucked.
I got only a few chances to go on the Tab during all that time, and they were all stuff like eating meals and press conferences. She likes to eat stuff I never tried, like sushi and spicy Vietnamese cabbage and tofu. I wonder if it tasted the same to her as it tasted to me. I didn’t like it much, so I guess not.
In April I was Tabbing Pearl when she was having drinks with Tim Nation and one of the directors she works with, Donny Blanchette. All of a sudden she said, “Stop it. Shut up.” Blanchette looked at her and asked what he said wrong. Pearl said, “Not you, the Tab. They’ve got the TalkBack on me now, and I have a woman in Sydney talking to me.” Then she stopped for a second like she was listening, and said, “No, I know you paid for it. But I’m trying to have drinks with my friends, and I can’t concentrate with you talking in my head.” She stopped again. “I’ll talk to you later, I promise. Just, please, stop talking to me now. Please?”
“Should have gone out later,” said Tim Nation, like it was her fault.
“When?” said Pearl, and I felt her throat get tight the way it does when you’re trying not to cry. “If I’m not filming or sleeping, I’m on the
“That’s an exaggeration,” said Tim, but he looked mad.
“It’s like I have no life of my own,” said Pearl, and by this time her eyes were getting blurry, and they stung.
“No,” said Blanchette. “It’s that they have no lives of their own.”
Donny Blanchette is a prick. Okay, that girl shouldn’t have been talking while Pearl was having drinks with Tim. I said to myself that I would never do that when I got the TalkBack. But who does Blanchette think he is, with his “They have no lives of their own”? Let Donny Blanchette take a look at my Mom, or at my brother, or at my job with Nico, or at this stinking apartment. This is what life is; what the hell does he think he’s got? Does he think that’s real?
I was finally able to afford the TalkBack this May, but the waiting list was three months long before I could actually have my TalkBack session with Pearl. But I got the feature installed right away, because I knew that you had to get taught how to use it. Talking with your mouth doesn’t work, because for one thing, you can’t feel your mouth when you’re Tabbing, and the person you’re Tabbing can’t hear your voice anyway. You have to picture saying the words in your head, and there’s this feature that lets you hear the words you’re saying, and the tone of voice and everything. But it takes practice. You can turn it on without Tabbing, so I worked on it the whole time, practicing saying things. Mostly I was saying You’re awesome, Pearl, or stuff like that, but I did work on longer sentences too.
Meanwhile I came down with pneumonia and missed a lot of work, and then Nico fired me. Lila said that I could sue him, but I didn’t have the time for stuff like that; I just needed to get another job. So finally I went to work at Tomas’s, which is in a different part of town. The tips weren’t as good, but I could get along. If I hadn’t already paid for the TalkBack, I wouldn’t have been able to afford it anymore.
Not too long after I got the TalkBack set up, weird stuff started happening with the Tab. One time I was Tabbing Pearl while she was shopping at L’Oiseau Blanc, which is this tiny shop she likes, and all of a sudden I couldn’t hear anything — I mean I couldn’t hear anything that was happening around Pearl; I could hear the jackhammer outside my own window just fine. That lasted for maybe fifteen minutes, then stopped. Another time she was on a talk show, and in the middle of a question I stopped feeling her body. I could still see the lights and hear the questions and smell the make-up, but all I could feel was my own butt on the recliner.
I called Customer Service, and they said that they hadn’t had any other reports like that, and that it sounded like a fluke, and was I sure the sound and touch had gone out? And they said they’d call me back, and they never did. Pricks.
In June I found out that Marc got married again. Honest to God, I wanted to find out the girl’s name, call her up and warn her. She was going to be a punching bag, and she didn’t know. I told Lila, and she rolled her eyes and said, “You think the new wife is going to believe the ex about anything?”
“I could show her the police report and the restraining order.”
“She’ll never talk to you, and if she does then Marc will have some smooth story about how you gave as good as you got, and it was all a set-up. She’s not going to listen to you.”
And then, right that second, I couldn’t hear Lila anymore. I heard Pearl’s voice, like I was in her head, yelling, “Goddam it, Randy, that’s the twelfth time we’ve done it! Jesus Christ!” Then I heard Randall James say, “Sorry, Pearl; I don’t know what’s wrong with me today.” Then Donny Blanchette’s voice started talking, and I heard them starting to do a scene.
At first Lila was still trying to talk to me, but then she saw my face (I guess I looked pretty spooked) and came around the table and held my hands and said stuff I couldn’t hear. She looked scared out of her socks. It took ten minutes before I could hear her again.
It happened again later that day, but with my vision. For about five minutes all I could see was Tim Nation in their bedroom. He looked like he was yelling, and was red in the face and moving his hands a lot. But I couldn’t hear anything.
This time Customer Service actually listened to me. They told me to come right to the service center on Tremont Street. The technician looked almost as worried as I was. Neither of those two times had even been one of Pearl’s scheduled Tab sessions, and I wasn’t wearing the ear cuff, it was in my bag. So the techie did some deal where he replaced the “neural links” or something, and he said that should take care of it.
Johnny’s chemo wasn’t working, and in July we found out that the cancer had spread to his liver. Nadine came back and started taking care of him, and she wasn’t hysterical or anything. When I went over to their house and she and I were alone, she’d cry a little on my shoulder, but that was all. Johnny was handling it pretty good too, kidding me and joking about surgery. I don’t think I could have made jokes, if it was me. They said there might be a chance of a liver transplant, but there was a long waiting list.
But the techie was wrong about the problem being fixed. It happened again right after Nadine moved back in with Johnny. I woke up at about one in the morning, and I couldn’t feel my body. I could see my room, and hear the traffic, but what I felt was Pearl walking back and forth really fast, pounding her hands on hard things so that they hurt. Her throat was sore, like she’d been yelling, and her face felt hot. Then I felt somebody’s hand grab her arm —
Her nose, my nose, crunched and hurt so bad I couldn’t see. Then there was a slap on my mouth, and something warm on her tongue —
It was like I was back with Marc, and he was smashing me in the face and screaming. I could remember every moment, every fight, every punch. But it wasn’t happening to me; I was in my bed alone. It was Pearl. It was all happening to Pearl.
I felt a shove in her chest, and she fell over, and something hard hit the side of her head, and then I think I felt a kick in her stomach —
Then it cut off, and I was just me.
I got up and ran for the phone, but before I could get there I threw up in the kitchen.
A girl dispatcher answered: “9-1-1. What is the emergency you are reporting?”
“Tim Nation is beating up Pearl Moulton!”
“Where is this emergency taking place?”
“In California, I think. It’s wherever they have their house.”
She stopped for a second. Then she said, “You think? Where are you located?”
“I’m in Boston.”
She stopped again. Then, “Did you witness this event yourself?”
“Yes, I’m Tabbing Pearl Moulton.”
“This happened while she was on the Tab?”
“No, not exactly, it’s not her Tab time.”
“But you witnessed her being beaten?”
“Yes. The Tab is broken! I’m Tabbing her when I’m not supposed to.”
There was a muffled sound, like she was covering the phone and talking to someone.
Then she said, “Is the event still occurring now?”
“I don’t know; I think so.”
“Is anyone hurt, or in need of medical attention?”
“Yes! Pearl Moulton is hurt!”
“What is your name, address and phone number?”
I gave them to her, and she said she would follow up on it, then she hung up.
I tried to sleep, but I couldn’t. The next day I called Customer Service again, and this time the techie I saw was a girl, and she said she could take out the whole Tab just to be sure. I told her no, just change it like last time. I know it sounds stupid, but the TalkBack time was coming up in just a few weeks, and now I needed to talk to Pearl more than ever.
No one from 9-1-1 or the police or anybody ever called me back. There was nothing in the magazines or the Vids about Pearl the next week, except that she cancelled a talk show appearance and there was something about her missing a few days of shooting on the set because of “illness.” There was no news about Timothy Nation either.
Finally came the day in August. I sat down on the recliner, put on the cuff, and took a deep breath; my heart was going pretty fast. Then I switched it on.
Pearl was washing her face in her bathroom. The water was too hot, and I wanted to wince when it splashed over her closed eyes and into her nostrils. She blew the water out of her nose and smooshed her face into a thick towel. Then she opened her eyes and looked in the mirror.
There were no bruises on her that I could see, and I didn’t feel any pain at all. If her nose was broken, it didn’t feel like it and didn’t look like it. Could they fix all that in a month? Her mouth was tight, and I could feel the muscles in her cheeks. Then she turned her head, and I caught a faint spot of yellow on the side of her face, where I remembered she hit the floor.
Hello, Pearl, I said.
“I don’t really feel like talking right now,” she said. “Sorry.” She walked into the bedroom, barefoot, and started putting on her shoes.
You need to leave Tim, I said.
She stopped, and I could feel her eyes get wide. “That’s a hell of a thing to say.”
I’m the one who called 9-1-1.
She closed her eyes; I couldn’t see. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Yes, yes you do! I know all about this stuff! It happened to me too, I can tell you how to —
“You can’t tell me anything! You don’t know me; you don’t know us! You have nothing; you have no lives of your own, any of you, so you suck it all out of me. Leave me alone, can’t you?”
No, please, Pearl! This is really important. You’re in danger, and I can help you!
Her eyes opened again and she got up and went to the window. It was so bright outside that her eyes hurt, but she didn’t close them.
“Listen to me. Listen! I need you not to interfere in my life. In any part of my life, do you understand? All you people, you say you care about me, but you don’t. If you really did, you’d let me be.”
I do care about you, I care so much! I can’t let it happen to you, not what happened to me!
“Listen, whoever you are –”
Dorothy. Telling her my name made me want to cry.
“Whoever. I’m sorry about what happened to you, but it has nothing to do with me.”
It does. You know it does.
“Please, for God’s sake, listen to me. Do you know what’s worse, even worse than that?”
Nothing, I was sure. But I said, What?
“Having no privacy, no moment to yourself. Being eaten alive by people who say they love you. That’s the worst thing in the world — being hurt in the name of love.”
I couldn’t feel my eyes or nose, but by now I knew I must be crying. I do love you, Pearl. I love you! Let me save you.
“No one can save anyone,” she whispered. “But if you love me, you know how you can prove it. There’s only one thing I want.”
So there it was, that’s who I was. There were two of us, Tim Nation and me. Tim she could run away from, but I was in her head, like a bad memory.
I stopped talking. I didn’t say anything for the rest of the TalkBack session. I’ll never be able to afford another one.
I stopped Tabbing Pearl Moulton. I had to take the Tab out anyway; I couldn’t be sure it wouldn’t break again, and I didn’t want sudden looks at her life anymore.
Pearl is still living with Tim Nation; that’s what the Herald says. I don’t know if she ever saw a counselor, or what.
Johnny’s going to die. The doctors say the cancer is “inoperable.” I’ve been spending a lot of time at their house; Nadine is a wreck, but she manages. She holds my hand a lot while we’re over there. Mom’s not doing too well either, but I think Johnny’s cancer is harder on her than what she’s got herself. She comes over to their house too, but she just cries, which drives Nadine crazy, so sometimes Nadine comes over here when Mom’s with Johnny.
We’ve talked about a hospice, but he wants to die at home, in private. So would I, I think, if it was me.
About the Author
Kenneth Schneyer claims never to have been an actor, a corporate lawyer, a dishwasher, or a college professor, but he lies a lot. His stories have appeared in Analog, Clockwork Phoenix 3, Daily Science Fiction, GUD, and elsewhere, and one of them has been translated into Russian. Born in Detroit, he now lives in Rhode Island with one singer, one dancer, one actor, and something striped and fanged that he sometimes glimpses out of the corner of his eye.
About the Narrator
Dani Cutler has been part of the podcasting community since 2006, hosting and producing her own podcast through 2013. She currently works for KWSS independent radio in Phoenix as their midday announcer, and also organizes a technology conference each year for Phoenix residents to connect with others in the podcast, video, and online community.