A Whitman's sampler lay with its lid open on the coffee table. Inside, a jumble of dark brown waxed paper cups lay empty and in disarray. In fact, only four of the little cups still contained their chocolate coated treasures. Janis mentally scolded herself for having eaten most of the bottom layer in one sitting.
"You're gonna miss your target weight for this week, Janis," she sighed, thinking aloud. Still, chocolate was her only indulgence, one she occasionally resorted to for solace, especially after a particularly trying day. Like this one had been. Her hand hovered over the box for a moment as she decided which of the remaining morsels looked the most appealing. Finally she selected one and bit into it, savoring the rich, dark chocolate. Ah, a coconut center, one of her favorites!
Janis Tolbert was alone in her efficiency apartment, sprawled out on the old beat-up sofa, still dressed in her work outfit, a smart, no-nonsense navy blue skirt and white blouse that still looked reasonably fresh in spite of having been worn all day. She had her shoes off and her panty hose-clad legs propped up on the table. The boxed remains of a take-out Chinese dinner added to the clutter on the small table. She knew from experience that nothing worked better to soothe her shattered nerves than a little out of control, self-destructive eating binge.
"I could kill that damned Maynard Hughes!" she thought. "I swear to god if he ever lays a finger on me again I'm going straight to Dr. Parsons!" Hughes was the reason for her present agitated state of mind. He was the office "lech" -- a self-appointed God's gift to women--and he was nothing if not persistent. Janis was the present target of his unwelcome sexual advances, probably because she was a new employee, still under six-month probation, and Hughes was confident that she would be reluctant to raise a fuss. Of course, it didn't hurt that he was married to the former Estelle Parsons -- daughter of J. Harold Parsons -- the founder of the Parsons Sensory Research Institute where both Janis and Hughes worked.
Actually, Hughes wasn't all that bad looking; she had even accepted a ride home once, on a rainy day, before she knew what he was like. In his car outside her apartment Hughes had proved himself to be all hands and terribly hard of hearing. That had happened over three months ago but it was as though the incident had given him some kind of go-ahead signal or presented some sort of irresistible challenge to his male ego because, since that time, he had taken to grabbing the soft and sensitive parts of her body whenever he could contrive to get her alone at work. That was the other problem, Hughes was experienced and clever enough to make his moves only when he could be certain that there weren't any witnesses. Janis found it hard to believe that a man could be so brash and bold and so insensitive to another person's feelings. What an ass!
Just thinking about it made her want another chocolate. She looked the remains of the sampler over carefully before selecting another of the little tidbits.
Janis suppressed a shudder as the day's incident ran through her mind for the hundredth time. She had innocently boarded the elevator to head downstairs for afternoon coffee. Hughes had cleverly dashed into the elevator just before the door closed. As the elevator began moving he hit the emergency stop, which stranded them -- alone -- and pushed her back into the corner. She could still feel the weight of his body pressing her into the corner and his rough, inept hands painfully mauling her breasts. Janis pushed him away and covered her bosom with her arms. That target no longer accessible, he redirected his efforts to her shapely and unprotected backside, reaching behind her to gather a generous pinch of the soft, yielding flesh. She brought her knee up and slapped him as hard as she could. While he was momentarily stunned, she cancelled the emergency stop and pushed the button for the next floor. Janis stomped out of the elevator, straightening her clothing, her face red with anger, embarrassment and frustration. Her knee had missed its target -- at least there had been some satisfaction in the slap, but it wouldn't deter him, it would happen again, she knew that from experience. "Well," she thought, "Just a few more weeks and I'm off probation. Let's just see how that lecherous swine reacts to the threat of a sexual harassment suit!"
Gobbling down most of the little box of chocolates had had the desired effect and she felt somewhat better about the incident. At least she could think about it without shuddering. Janis yawned and stretched, her arms extended outward and above her head, and glanced at the clock. Time to turn in! Tomorrow was Saturday and though it was normally a day off, she was going back to the Institute to earn some extra money. The secretarial job she had didn't pay well and, her paychecks, like almost everyone else's, were never big enough. The only instructions they had given her was to get a good night's sleep because they wanted her rested and alert for the morning session.
To her dismay, she had to share the elevator in the nearly empty building that morning with none other than her nemesis, Maynard Hughes. She wrapped her arms tightly around her bosom and backed into the corner, ready to defend herself. Strangely, he didn't made any kind of move at all. In fact, he barely seemed to notice her. It was like he was preoccupied with something. But the conspiratorial look on his face was most disturbing. She breathed a sigh of relief when he got off on the second floor.
She stopped outside the door of the appointed meeting place at 8:55 AM, five minutes early. The frosted glass window read:
Room 351 A Gustatory StudiesShe was still a little flustered by her close brush with Hughes on the elevator but at least, to her relief, he hadn't attacked her again. Perhaps her penetrating glare had been sufficient to keep him at bay. She shook it off, took a deep breath, opened the door and went in.
Hardly anyone in the busy room even looked up as she came in, except for one person at the far end of the room. She recognized the man immediately as he tucked his clipboard under his arm and came over to greet her. His was the face in the painting in the main lobby that gazed down at her sternly every time she entered or left the building. It was the old man, none other than J. Harold Parsons, M.D., Ph.D. himself, who was heading the team that she had volunteered to be guinea pig for.
"Good morning. You must be Ms. Tolbert," the distinguished, silver-haired old researcher said jovially. "May I call you Janis?" She nodded nervously, her hands clasped awkwardly together. Sensing her nervousness, Parsons continued. "Did you get a good night's rest?"
Janis found her voice. "Yes, thank you Dr. Parsons," she managed to stammer out.
"Good, good!" he replied. "Well, we'd best get started. But first, let me show you our equipment. Please come this way."
He led her over to a large, complicated chair that was the centerpiece of the room. She followed cautiously and looked it over dubiously. What she saw did not inspire her confidence. It looked like a kind of hyper-modern barber's (dentist's?) chair -- one whose specifications had come straight out of a demented electrician's nightmare. There were wires and cables running helter-skelter from the base and down the back of the chair, across the room and into a large glass-fronted booth which covered the entire west wall of the room. Through the wide, waist-to-ceiling window of the booth she could see a battery of control consoles and computer monitors. There was definitely some high-powered research going on, because each work station was manned by a white-coated staff member and there were more than twenty of them in the booth.
At the top of the chair on a moveable arm was a small stainless steel dome, about the size of a large mixing bowl. Its surface was crawling with an even more complex snake's nest of wires that were gathered into a fat, lumpy cable that ran down the back of the chair and across the floor before it too disappeared into the glass booth.
"We're doing gustatory studies here in our laboratory, Janis -- research into the human sense of taste. I think it's safe to say that we have made some real breakthroughs in last few months. Make no mistake, what we're doing here will surely revolutionize the science of how and what people eat!" An assistant helped Janis into a white plasticized coverall, gently sat her down in the chair and buckled her in with a sort of webbed seat belt. The chair felt fine, it was softly padded, and supported her in just the right places. Janis was almost comfortable, except for the hard little knot of fear simmering in the pit of her stomach.
"Please relax, Janis," soothed the old doctor. "This will be totally painless. In fact, I think you'll find it to be quite pleasurable." He carefully placed the metal mixing bowl device over her brown shoulder-length hair -- it fit snugly -- and after a few minor adjustments to position the fit, he secured it with a velcro chin-strap. He then swivelled a small tray over in front of her. The tray had a stack of wooden spatulas on it and five small containers that looked just like her mother's Tupperware. After looking the whole set-up over one more time, he smiled, patted her on the shoulder, and went across the room to enter the booth. Janis was alone with her thoughts for about half a minute.
"As I said earlier, we are going to do some tests on your sense of taste, Janis." The voice, sudden and unexpected, startled her. In a moment she realized that Parsons was speaking softly into a microphone that was wired directly into a speaker in the mixing bowl headset. "But first we need to calibrate our equipment. Would you please take a small taste of the first sample?" One of the containers on the tray had a large number "1" scrawled in magic marker on its top. She removed the lid, took one of the disposable wooden spatulas from the pile on the left and, expecting the worst, carefully took a small taste.
There was no electric shock, no thunder. It was salt, good old- fashioned table salt. She felt the salty bite of it on the sides and tip of her tongue.
"Excellent, my dear!" came the soft voice from the helmet. "You're coming through loud and clear." She couldn't move her head but from what she could see, it looked as though Parsons and the others were busy making adjustments to their equipment. "Now rinse your mouth with some water from the squeeze bottle and try sample number two.
Number two was pure white sugar that dissolved immediately and tickled at the tip of her tongue. She repeated the procedure for samples three and four. Three was a dilute aqueous solution of quinine, bitter on the back of her tongue and the roof of her mouth. Janis had never developed a taste for gin and tonic and the water rinse was most welcome. Number four was vinegar, wet and sour, which nibbled sharply at the sides of her tongue. Parsons and the others continued to make adjustments to their consoles after each sample she tasted.
His voice sounded soft and clear inside the headset.
"Very good, Janis! You've just finished tasting samples of the four major families of compounds, salty, sweet, bitter and sour, that together make up the human sense of taste. At this stage, our equipment can be considered to be roughly calibrated. However, you probably know that the senses of smell and taste are closely linked. Next we'll try some familiar foods to determine how your individual patterns differ from our previous subjects and to tune in that all- important olfactory component."
The pretty, young assistant brought in a different tray and took the old one away. On it were a number of fruits and vegetables and other everyday foods like bread and cheese. She tasted each one in turn, all the while receiving encouragement from the disembodied voice in the headset. Dr. Parsons made an announcement after the second tray was removed.
"Save this setup on drive B, Hamilton," she heard faintly. Then more loudly: "We're ready to move on to phase two now, Janis." The lights in the room dimmed. "Until now we have been measuring the electrical signals from the receptor cells in your taste buds to the corresponding areas of your brain's taste center. Now were going to use our calibrations to electrically stimulate your taste center. This will allow you to experience selected tastes directly, without chewing or eating anything. Have another water rinse, please." She nervously complied. The voice came again, "Are you ready?"
Janis gulped and said tersely, "Okay."
There was a change in tone of the persistent electrical hum that had pervaded the room all morning. Funny, she hadn't even noticed it until it changed pitch. Very gently she felt a sensation brush at the tip of her tongue. It started out faintly and ended up sugary sweet. Next was sour, followed by bitter and salty. Each was pure and perfect, only the gritty texture of the powders was missing; the equipment could even mimic the sensation of cool wetness that the liquid formulations possessed. Janis smiled -- the sensation was definitely weird, but really rather pleasurable, just like J. Harold Parsons had told her at the beginning.
"Excellent, Janis. Okay, now we're ready for phase three."
There was another change in the intensity of the electrical hum and Janis tasted the pure tart-sweet flavor of the orange she had just enjoyed about a half hour before. It was the same... only different. It was somehow amplified, better, this despite the lack of any familiar texture on her tongue or in her mouth. The apple was better, too, and she had never tasted such flavorful bread. Janis was favorably impressed with the new technique, to say the least!
But they had saved the biggest surprise for last. Using recordings from their previous subjects that had been subtly modified by the computer programs to match Janis' electrical patterns, she was able to experience foods that she hadn't tasted earlier that day. And they had somehow chosen her favorite.
Chocolate -- smooth, almost intoxicating milk chocolate that bathed her tongue and the roof of her mouth in creamy ecstasy. This was the way chocolate was supposed to taste! Too soon, it seemed, it was time for something else. She was terribly disappointed when the wondrous sensation ended.
But only for a moment.
They followed it up with the rich, almost bitter taste of dark semi-sweet chocolate. Perfect! Never had she tasted its like. It was incredibly pleasurable, nearly orgasmic in its chocolate intensity!
But they still weren't done yet!
While Janis was still in sensory shock from the tremendous chocolateness of it all, they skillfully layered on a subtle mix of flavors that had her absolutely reveling in a sort of tenth-power chocolate-covered cherry!
She almost cried when they shut off the power and the lights came back on. The assistant came over and helped Dr. Parsons disconnect her from the chair. She swiveled her head to and fro and up and down to get the kinks out of her neck. To her acute embarrassment, the upper front portion of her coverall was soaking wet. Deep in the throes of her chocolate orgy, she had apparently salivated all over it. Obviously they had been thinking ahead by having her put on the coverall.
Parsons held out a hand to help Janis up. She felt fine, outside of being a little dizzy. The assistant helped her out of the coverall and took it away. Red-faced, she wiped off her chin with the towel that Parsons handed her.
"That's one side effect that needs a little work," said the old doctor lightly. "How do you feel, Janis?" She glanced at the clock and was amazed to find that it was nearly noon. The morning was over.
"Uh...Okay, I guess," she said. "Wow, that last part of the experiment, the bit with the chocolate, was incredible!"
"Oh yes," he chuckled. "We like to add a bit of stimulation to other selected areas of the brain during that phase. You might call it 'a blast of chocolate straight to the pleasure center!' You really liked it?"
"Any time you need a subject, just give me a call," she replied. They both laughed.
Parsons' tone became a little more serious, "There are many possible applications for this research. Of course, none of this would be possible if we hadn't created machinery that can directly stimulate the brain using a non-invasive technique. With this technology many things become possible. A weight-loss program would be a snap, because you could experience the pleasure of any food you wanted while never eating a thing! Or you could eat something mundane and have it taste like something sublime. Imagine, for the cost of the electricity, you could eat a cheap, tasteless, nutritious pap, while enjoying the sensations of a gourmet meal! Or keep a library of the world's greatest cuisine in the memory banks, to be experienced whenever you have the desire or ..." He stopped, a little embarrassed. "I'm sorry, Janis. I get kind of carried away when I start talking about it.
They made small talk for a few more minutes and shook hands before they parted. She left the building with a spring in her step, elated with the grand experience she'd just had, glad to have most of a Saturday ahead of her and secure in the knowledge that her next paycheck would be fifty dollars fatter. She went out and did a little shopping and then spent the evening at the movies with her best friend Gwen.
After her Sunday morning workout, she decided to have the remaining chocolates in her Whitman's sampler with a cup of coffee. She carefully selected one of the remaining miniatures in the yellow box and delicately took a small bite of it. Funny, it had the right texture and feel but it didn't taste right at all. The flavor was off, the tidbit tasted more like wax than it did like chocolate. She washed it down with a gulp of coffee and threw the rest of the piece away. "Stuff goes bad so quickly," she thought, and reached for the one remaining piece, a chocolate covered almond. The almond flavor came through just fine, but again the chocolate tasted funny, like paraffin. She sighed and finished her coffee and then got busy doing her laundry and writing out checks to pay her monthly bills. She thought no more about it for the rest of the day.
In the evening she noticed that the chocolate mint she had after dinner had the same sort of weird taste but it really was kind of old. Wasn't it?
She began to get worried when the Mr. Goodbar she bought out of the vending machine on Monday morning to have with her coffee break tasted the same. Alarmed, Janis offered half of it to one of the other secretaries to see if she thought it tasted funny.
"Mr. Goodbar," said the older woman. "One of my favorites."
"Does it taste alright to you, Phyllis?"
"You bet, nice and fresh. It's perfect. Thanks, Janis!"
A few minutes later Janis was outside of room 351, trying to calm herself down enough to knock, enter and explain her problem. She screwed up her courage and rapped softly on the door.
Dr. Parsons answered the door and though she might have imagined it, she thought he looked a little nervous himself when he saw it was her.
"What is it, my dear?" he asked. "You seem rather upset."
"I'm sorry to bother you Dr. Parsons, but I'm afraid there's something wrong," she said.
"Wrong? What do you mean?"
"It's chocolate," she said. "It doesn't taste right anymore. I've tried several different kinds in the last two days, since the experiments, and they all taste the same to me -- just like wax."
The old doctor nervously ran his fingers through his hair. "Please sit down," he said solemnly. He took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. "I'm very sorry, Janis. I was afraid that something like this might have happened. "You eat a lot of chocolate, don't you?" Janis nodded. He continued. "Did you eat a lot it just recently?" She nodded again. Parsons shook his head. "That's what I thought. After you left I noticed that the gain on the transmission unit was two clicks higher than it should have been during the chocolate input test. The result is a sort of fatigue of the nerves as a consequence of sensory overload. We were lucky that it wasn't more intense. Hopefully your condition will get better soon."
"What do you mean by soon?" she asked, just managing to keep her voice controlled.
"Well," he replied. "Certainly less than a year, possibly only a few months."
"A year!" she cried. "This is terrible, chocolate is my favorite food, my only vice, it helps me get by! What'll I do without it?"
"Now, now," he said, lamely. "It could be worse."
"What if I decide to sue you?" she said as her resolve began to crumble, knowing that the threat was hollow even as she made it.
"You did sign a waiver, if you remember," he replied.
It was obvious that Parsons had no idea how miserable life would be for a lonely, single woman who couldn't enjoy a bit of chocolate once in a while! Janis fell back on her last line of defense. She began to cry softly.
Parsons looked at her for a few moments, and his face softened. Even after thirty years as a Psychologist, the old doctor was still a sucker for the young woman's tears. He endured her onslaught for only a few moments before getting up and putting his arm around her shoulder. "There, there," he soothed, "let's not argue. I think I have a solution that we can both live with." She looked up at him hopefully. "You were such an excellent test subject that I'd really like to continue working with you -- to find out more about what went wrong, if nothing else. If you really miss chocolate so terribly we can just hook you up to the machine and take you for a ride. What do you say, Janis? I'd like you to become an integral part of our research team. The pay will, of course, be a lot better than your secretarial job."
Janis knew when she was being offered a good deal.
"I accept," she said, wiping her eyes and sitting up straight. "But make sure that those dials are on the right settings from now on, okay?"
"Just be thankful that you're not Maynard Hughes," said Parsons.
Her ears perked up at the sound of the name. It occurred to her that now was the perfect time to bring up that subject.
"Hughes," she said. "I've been meaning to talk to you about him, Dr Parsons. He's absolutely terrible, a real sex fiend, always grabbing at me and the other girls in the hallways and in the elevator. Something should be done about him."
"I had been looking the other way because of my poor long- suffering daughter," Parsons confessed. "That and I'm afraid that his condition is partially my fault. Hughes volunteered to be a subject on the McAllister sexual stimulator a couple of months ago. Unfortunately, the results were not quite what we expected.
"Oh really," asked Janis, intrigued, "what happened?"
"Because of his highly oversexed nature -- which I didn't know about, by the way -- we had the power set five notches too high when we hooked him up to the simulator. He suffered a numbing of the senses just as you did. That old McAllister unit had one more side effect that we've corrected on the new simulators: the subject was afflicted with an overpowering and irrational urge to satisfy his desires. That explains his awful manners. Maynard would do or say almost anything get relief. Eventually he found that he could only get satisfaction by hooking himself up to the simulator. The poor fool began coming in after hours, boosting the power ever higher with each visit. Hamilton finally caught him one evening. We took away his key and gave him a stern talking to. Unfortunately he must have had a duplicate because he came in and hooked himself up again this weekend.
"Hm, that must be where he was going when I saw him last Saturday," said Janis, remembering her brief panic on the elevator.
"Probably. He set the machine on full power and I'm afraid that he irreversibly overstimulated some of the nerve channels to his brain. This time his condition is not reversible -- the power was set too high. It's tragic. If only he'd had a little self-control!"
"Poor Maynard!" said Janis.
"Yes," said Parsons. "Thank goodness we've licked the irrational addiction problem on the new machines."
"I'm glad to hear that, Dr. Parsons," said Janis, getting up. "I really should get back to work now." She glanced at her watch. "Actually, I have about ten minutes left." She thought for a moment. "You don't suppose you could hook me up to that machine right now, do you? I mean, just to see if it works. It would only take a few minutes, wouldn't it? Please? You realize that I haven't tasted any chocolate for two whole days now! Please, Dr, Parsons, please?"
Phillip Nolte was one of the founding editors of InterText.
InterText stories written by Phillip Nolte: "Direct Connection" (v1n1), "Slice of Mind" (v1n4), "Cannibals Shrink Elvis' Head" (v2n2), "Neuterality" (v2n5).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 1, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1991 Phillip Nolte.