In the year 1348, while the Black Death went scything through Italy, ten young people took refuge in the countryside outside of Florence. To pass the time while they waited for the Reaper to be on his way, they told each other a series of stories.
On the third day of story-telling they elected Neifile as their queen of tales. She wanted to hear stories about people who attained the objects they desired, but only by virtue of their own efforts. There followed many windings and turnings, searchings and yearnings, until ten worthy objects were wrestled from the flux by even worthier hands.
Then, as on the previous two days, they all looked up from Boccaccio’s dusty pages and waited to hear the tale that I would tell.
“We enjoyed your first story and your second story very much,” Neifile said to me. “In fact, we spent much of last night discussing the themes they have in common – themes that are not at all unfamiliar to us. Money, sex, friendship, betrayal, the whims of fortune. Perhaps we don’t know what a Ford Fusion is, not precisely, but it doesn’t sound much different than a horse. We have been saying how strange and wonderful it is, that even across the chasm of seven hundred years we understand you so easily! We hope the understanding is mutual. (Did you like Filostrato’s story about the axeman, who pretended to be deaf and dumb so he could infiltrate the convent and enjoy the company of the nuns? That one was my favorite.) At any rate we beg you once more to speak freely and in keeping with your own times. Shock us and ravish us! Black Death or Covid, we are in the same predicament. The centuries cannot stand against us.”
I thanked Neifile for her kind words, and after warning them all that I couldn’t hope to rival Filostrato’s story about the nuns, I gave them another swill from the dregs of 2020.
the tale of Dick Long Harding
There was in recent years a certain man from Minnesota, whom we might as well call Dick Long Harding, for he developed in his middle age a rare and raging affliction. It was a condition that delighted both he and his girlfriend for the first several hours during which it occurred; but after a whole day of it she was sore in every hole and he was dangling at the edge of a heart attack. They decided together, breathlessly, in an apartment that was completely destroyed, that he should consult a doctor about his sudden insatiability.
So the next morning he went straight to the clinic and startled the nurse practitioner who was on duty there. After she scolded him for dropping his pants in the lobby, she informed him that he had entered a clinic for women and children. “We have no remedies for that sort of thing, Mr. Dick Long Harding. For that sort of thing you’ll have to see a specialist.”
And the specialist to whom she sent him was very old and very wise – but in the end not very helpful.
“I’ve seen my share of rare and raging afflictions,” the specialist said at last, following a long examination of the nurse-offending malady – “almost all of them the result of pills, you know (except for once, it was a spider bite!) – but I’ve never seen such an unaccountable and durable instance of it. By the gods of science, Mr. Harding, your angry soldier ought to have exploded by now. (I mean it ought to have rotted off). But here it throbs, pristine and perfectly functional. And you say there’s no pain? No, I suppose horniness isn’t pain – not exactly. Not the treatable kind, anyway.
“Well, I would like to run more tests and get to the bottom of this medical mystery, but unfortunately you’re poor and have no insurance. Lacking insurance means that you’re not worthy of this corporation’s consideration. I empathize with you, so I’ll give you an extra five minutes to vacate the premises, after which our security forces will begin to encourage you with batons.”
Dick was disappointed by the specialist’s diagnosis but not at all surprised his threats of violence. Not wishing to add the bruising of corporate batons to the throbbing of his independent baton, he hauled up his pants and fled the building.
Going back to his apartment, he informed his girlfriend that his raging affliction had been diagnosed as a sort of thing down at the clinic, which had become a medical mystery at the hospital; and when they discovered he was poor he had been transformed at last into a fugitive-armed-with-a-baton. A cure was not forthcoming.
She was supportive and understanding for two weeks, during which she accomplished several miraculous feats of her own. She experimented in every known position, emptied several bottles of lubricant, massaged his prostate when she was too raw to ride; but all of her all the time was not nearly enough. It was painfully clear after those short weeks that she would not be able to endure him, no matter the diagnosis. Exhausted and half-insane, she went to convalesce with her mother.
So Dick was now alone, afflicted, and armed. He searched all of Minnesota for a woman who could keep him satisfied, but found only fleeting comforts and fragmentary cures. In the months that followed he used up and blew by two Amy’s, a Maggie, a Jacky and a Jenna (at the same time), and three Brittany’s. They were all very supportive of his condition and creative in their efforts to alleviate it, but in spite of their kindness and ingenuity they all eventually got worn out and required rest – and maintenance.
Without insurance, and unable to find an infinitely durable mate, it seemed that he would never be cured of his rare and raging affliction. When he sprained his wrist after slipping on some ice, by which accident he was denied even the half-measure of manual stimulation, he crawled up into a bottle and refused to come out. Several months passed in a blur of rock-hard discontent.
Then one day he came across a political activist who happened to be in some town or another. She was fighting for something she called ‘universal healthcare’. At first, when he approached her kiosk and thumbed through one of her pamphlets, he was only seeking a fleeting caress from her – another fragmentary cure. But once they started talking he quickly realized that ‘universal healthcare’ might be a climax worth questing for.
“You don’t have to rage any longer,” she told him, after he explained to her the nature of his hard life. “You shouldn’t have had to rage at all. That doctor should have helped you. It was inhuman to thrust you back out onto the streets, simply because you don’t have insurance. But don’t answer their psychopathy with cynicism; answer it with courage. Aim that affliction of yours at Washington and paint the oligarchs with it. Salt them before we eat them.”
Dick Long Harding was not himself of a political bent. He was completely in the dark when it came to matters larger than himself, and if he ever felt that he was leaning too far right or too far left, someone always came around to set him straight. So when the political activist grabbed him by the throat and yanked him hard to the left, he instinctively put up a stiff resistance.
“But what about personal responsibility?” he said. “I’ve heard it said that poor people have personal responsibility.”
It was a powerful objection, but the activist had heard it before and gave him an equally powerful reply: by screaming at him and spitting on him and kicking him in his affliction until he agreed with her way of looking at things. Immediately afterwards they decided that he should run for congress, with her as campaign manager.
They spent the next several weeks organizing and fundraising. Most importantly they required a compelling platform, but it was precisely in this area where they felt utterly lost. Thousands of activists had already sacrificed themselves at the altar of ‘universal healthcare’ without achieving anything at all; Dick needed an original narrative or he’d be gutted and burned as well. It wasn’t until the night before his first real interview that they considered, at the end of desperation’s rope, the possibility that he might reveal the true motive behind his political ambitions.
So on the following afternoon this message went spurting out onto Minnesota’s airwaves:
“Hello, my name is Dick Long Harding and I want to be your congressperson. The reason I want this is because my penis has been erect for eleven months and the erection won’t go away, and the doctors won’t help me on account of my lack of insurance. So I need to get to congress and make them pass something called ‘universal healthcare’, which will grant me legal access to the medicine I need. I care about other things too, like I think that war is bullshit and Wall Street is fake, but really I just want the throbbing to stop. Thank you for listening to my run for congress. Please vote for me in November.”
The interview was a national sensation. Though he was challenging a congressional seat that scarcely represented a hundred thousand people, his words captured the imaginations of a hundred million across all fifty states. All the major networks aired the original interview on a loop for three full days, filling their programs with the usual follow-ups and commentaries, and additional interviews with the ‘afflicted man’ himself.
“I know it sounds selfish,” Dick said in one of those follow-up interviews, “but my blood has been up for over two years now and I don’t think I can take it much longer. So I’m just being honest. I need to win at politics so I can get cured.”
As the story became more and more profitable the networks became more and more interested in it; and in chasing after money they inadvertently made an antihero of the candidate they had intended to lampoon. Meanwhile the memes wrote themselves, were plastered everywhere, and became Dick’s de facto campaign slogans. Eventually the memes coalesced around a single phrase – an off-the-cuff remark whose impact on American society could never have been predicted – and suddenly the internet filled up with comments that said:
stop the throbbing
And it seemed that a new political career had been born.
But two months later everyone had completely forgotten about Dick Long Harding and his campaign for ‘universal healthcare’; and in his rural-conservative-Minnesotan district he received only four percent of the vote. A Bible-toting Republican easily retained the contested seat. In the public consciousness all that remained of Dick was the meme.
He was devastated by the immensity of his fall from fame, and he was ashamed to have wagered his affliction and lost it to Jesus. He crawled right back into his bottle. The political activist abandoned him and his friends and family shunned him. No one wanted to be around a man whose affliction was unelectable. Abused and discarded, he threw himself once more into the melee of partial comforts and fragmentary cures, disappearing for weeks at a time and surfacing with new scars and old lies. In none of it did he achieve satisfaction; by no means could he
stop the throbbing
Once again he found himself at the rock-hard bottom.
When his last dollar was spent he turned to the porn industry. Various producers had been soliciting him relentlessly since his story first broke; and he had been emphatically and contemptuously turning them away. But now that he had no money he realized that his prejudices and inhibitions were contingent upon having money. He called up the producer who had most recently solicited him and agreed to star in a trilogy.
The Dick Long Harding Story was an instant success. Though the industry had moved away from features when it was discovered that people watched porn for sex, the epic three-part film which depicted Dick’s uncanny rise outsold its nearest five competitors combined. This was partly because the film’s subject matter caused some century-old lines to be blurred, tempting real Hollywood talent to become involved in the project. In the end it was ghost-written by Aaron Sorkin and Charlie Kaufman, and its parts were directed by Guillermo del Tor, Wes Anderson, and Quentin Tarantino. But it wasn’t merely elite approval that made the film popular; audiences were also excited to witness for themselves the pillar that bore up their favorite meme.
But while the film rekindled his fame, it did nothing to further him on his quest for medical insurance. By signing a contract that guaranteed him ‘points on net’ rather than ‘points on gross’, he allowed himself to be victimized by a nasty little trick known as Hollywood accounting. The trick is very simple: the producers of a film instruct a group of bean counters to count the beans wrong, and this wrong-counting of the beans results in the film’s ‘net loss’. It’s an adage in Hollywood that no film has ever made money, precisely because these producers are so inherently vile and greedy, and because their bean counters are so inherently base, that never once have the industry’s beans been laid out in their proper rows. The magic word is ‘gross’, and those who are uninitiated fall into the ‘net’. Dick was uninitiated. He received for his role nothing more than a per diem of a thousand dollars, most of which he spent while on the set.
Yet he wasn’t discouraged. A new path had opened to him and he dared to walk it. Over the next five years he was featured in thirty-two adult films, many of which he also wrote and directed. The word ‘net’ was not allowed to appear in any contracts, neither in his own nor in those of his costars; and bean counters were made to crawl when in his presence. Eventually he married one of his co-stars, who helped him out of the bottle, and he sold his memoirs to a major publisher. He was on his way to amassing his own little pile of beans – which he never allowed himself to count.
“What stands in the way becomes the way,” his wife, Cocoa Butterfly, said to him one day. She was very proud of herself for having taken up an interest in antiquity. “That’s what Marcus Aurelius says in his Meditations. What stands in the way becomes the way. I think he means that you shouldn’t see obstacles as perturbations in an otherwise harmonious universe; rather you should see them as necessary components of that harmony. And that’s just what you’ve done with your affliction, my love. You’ve taken a perturbation and turned it into a harmony. You’re a stoic. An unbendable, stone-hard stoic!”
What she said rang true. The very tree that had once obstructed his road had lately become his road. He asked Cocoa if the dead emperor had known how to get off the road, if the way no longer interested him.
She shrugged and quoted him again: “Give yourself a gift: the present moment. People out for posthumous fame forget that the generations to come will be the same annoying people they know now.”
Dick and Cocoa had never been out for fame, but they had gotten used to sacrificing themselves upon the altar of beans. Now they promised each other that they would make some use of Marcus’s gift. On the following morning they went to the internet and purchased for themselves some medical insurance, and Dick went immediately to the nearest doctor with his printed medical card. Proudly slamming the card down on the receptionist’s desk, he demanded his rightful treatment. After ascertaining his ailment and affirming it right there in the lobby – which was quite full – the amused young lady thought it best if he jumped the line, so she led him back to one of the examination rooms. Shortly thereafter the doctor came in.
“Well I didn’t believe it, not even when she showed me the card,” the doctor said, handing his medical card back to him. “Dick Long Harding – it’s an honor to meet you. I didn’t have the pleasure of voting for you, but I sure as hell sent that campaign of yours twenty dollars. How long ago was that now?”
“Almost ten years.”
“Ten years! Gone like that! Well, it’s a shame you never made it to DC. You’d have been the only honest fellow there, I imagine. Or at least you’d have been the most motivated.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“And I imagine furthermore that after a ten-year delay you’re about ready to stop that throbbing.”
Dick flourished his medical card. “I’m fully covered this time, doc.”
“Well let’s have a marvel at your pecker and see if we can’t unravel you.”
Like the first doctor ten years ago, this one did not understand why the appendage had neither exploded nor rotted off. He admitted that up until his present examination of it he had assumed the whole thing was a hoax. Yet here it stood, throbbing unabatedly and unabashedly. After convincing himself that the affliction was legitimate, he ran a series of tests and easily determined its cause. He gave Dick a pill, and together they watched his raging affliction shrink away like a turned-off hose.
“It’s funny, isn’t it?” said the doctor.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, the way things work out.”
The doctor scratched his head. Dick rubbed his nose. The two of them looked for a silent moment at the restful penis.
“What do you suppose your life would have been like if we gave you the cure up front?”
Dick thought long, but not too hard, before he said, “I suppose I’d still be in Minnesota.”
And he went softly home to his wife Cocoa, with whom he lived happily for three months, then unhappily for three more, and miserably for another two until they finalized the divorce. Afterwards he procured meaningless employment and worked mindlessly until at last it was his turn to get off the road.