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The Grownup
Gillian Flynn

I DIDN’T STOP giving hand jobs because I wasn’t good at it. I stopped giving hand jobs because I was the best at it.

For three years, I gave the best hand job in the tristate area. The key is to not overthink it. If you start worrying about technique, if you begin analyzing rhythm and pressure, you lose the essential nature of the act. You have to mentally prepare beforehand, and then you have to stop thinking and trust your body to take over.

Basically, it’s like a golf swing.

I jacked men off six days a week, eight hours a day, with a break for lunch, and I was always fully booked. I took two weeks of vacation every year, and I never worked holidays, because holiday hand jobs are sad for everyone. So over three years, I’m estimating that comes to about 23,546 hand jobs. So don’t listen to that bitch Shardelle when she says I quit because I didn’t have the talent.

I quit because when you give 23,546 hand jobs over a three-year period, carpal tunnel syndrome is a very real thing.

I came to my occupation honestly. Maybe “naturally” is the better word. I’ve never done much honestly in my life. I was raised in the city by a one-eyed mother (the opening line of my memoir), and she was not a nice lady. She didn’t have a drug problem or a drinking problem, but she did have a working problem. She was the laziest bitch I ever met. Twice a week, we’d hit the streets downtown and beg. But because my mom hated being upright, she wanted to be strategic about the whole thing. Get as much money in as little time possible, and then go home and eat Zebra Cakes and watch arbitration-based reality court TV on our broken mattress amongst the stains. (That’s what I remember most about my childhood: stains. I couldn’t tell you the color of my mom’s eye, but I could tell you the stain on the shag carpet was a deep, soupy brown, and the stains on the ceiling were burnt orange and the stains on the wall were a vibrant hungover-piss yellow.)

My mom and I would dress the part. She had a pretty, faded cotton dress, threadbare but screaming of decency. She put me in whatever I’d grown out of. We’d sit on a bench and target the right people to beg off. It’s a fairly simple scheme. First choice is an out-of-town church bus. In-town church people, they’ll just send you to the church. Out of town, they usually have to help, especially a one-eyed lady with a sad-faced kid. Second choice is women in sets of two. (Solo women can dart away too quickly; a pack of women is too hard to wrangle.) Third choice is a single woman who has that open look. You know it: The same woman you stop to ask for directions or the time of day, that’s the woman we ask for money. Also youngish men with beards or guitars. Don’t stop men in suits: That cliché is right, they’re all assholes. Also skip the thumb rings. I don’t know what it is, but men with thumb rings never help.

The ones we picked? We didn’t call them marks, or prey or victims. We called them Tonys, because my dad was named Tony and he could never say no to anyone (although I assume he said no to my mom at least once, when she asked him to stay).

Once you stop a Tony, you can figure out in two seconds which way to beg. Some want it over with fast, like a mugging. You blurt. “Weneedmoneyforfoodyouhaveanychange?” Some want to luxuriate in your misfortune. They’ll only give you money if you give them something to feel better about, and the sadder your story, the better they feel about helping you, and the more money you get. I’m not blaming them. You go to the theater, you want to be entertained.

My mom had grown up on a farm downstate. Her own mother died in childbirth; her daddy grew soy and raised her when he wasn’t too exhausted. She came up here for college, but her daddy got cancer, and the farm got sold, and ends stopped meeting, and she had to drop out. She worked as a waitress for three years, but then her little girl came along, and her little girl’s daddy left, and before you knew it…she was one of them. The needy. She was not proud…

You get the idea. That was just the starter story. You can go from there. You can tell real quick if the person wants a scrappy, up-by-the-bootstraps tale: Then I was suddenly an honor-roll student at a distant charter school (I was, but the truth isn’t the point here), and Mom just needed gas money to get me there (I actually took three buses on my own). Or if the person wants a damn-the-system story: Then I was immediately afflicted by some rare disease (named after whatever asshole my mom was dating—Todd-Tychon Syndrome, Gregory-Fisher Disease), and my health-care woes had left us broke.

My mom was sly but lazy. I was much more ambitious. I had lots of stamina and no pride. By the time I was thirteen, I was outbegging her by hundreds of dollars a day, and by the time I was sixteen, I’d left her and the stains and the TV—and, yes, high school—and struck out on my own. I’d go out each morning and beg for six hours. I knew who to approach and for how long and exactly what to say. I was never ashamed. What I did was purely transactional: You made someone feel good and they gave you money.

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