- Strange – 7 Pages –
Joseph Mellon appeared like all the other babies in the sandbox. He was cute and cuddly and round and happy; happy eating sand, that is. Oh sure, babies are famous for sticking just about anything in their mouths, but little Joey wasn’t simply tasting the sand, he was eating it as if it were the finest Gerber baby food on the market.
His mother, though concerned, wasn’t overly worried. “It’s just a phase,” she whispered to herself as she watched him play happily with the other babies. Still, she tried to avoid the sandbox upon future visits to the playground. Why tempt fate, she figured.
But fate was only just beginning to play a role in young Joey’s life.
Sand was replaced by paste, finger paint, mud, you name it, if it had the texture of food, Joey would chow down on it. This included any and all baby foods as well. Now, normally, any parent would be thrilled that their child was eating everything that was put in front of them; but Joey’s parents knew that this couldn’t possibly be normal. All babies, all children, all species of animal for that matter, had certain foods they avoided; certain foods that they didn’t like the taste of and wouldn’t eat. But not little Joey. No sir, no how. If you put it in front of him, he would eat it.
By the time he was five his mother had finally become seriously worried. “Something’s not right,” she said to the doctor, while Joey played in the waiting room, snacking contently on his crayons.
The doctor was dubious, as he saw overprotective, paranoid mothers each and every day, but he gave Joey a complete physical just the same. It wasn’t until he began a close investigation inside Joey’s mouth, that he discovered the reason for the child’s propensities.
“What’s wrong with my son, Doctor?” Joey’s mother asked when they were once again alone together.
“Well, from what I can see, your son has no taste buds.”
“Is this…normal?” his mother asked, nearly in tears.
“Far as I can tell, he may be the first. You see, humans possess on average six thousand taste buds. These are constantly degenerating and being replaced. The life expectancy is about ten days. Only the center of the tongue has no taste buds and is thus ‘blind’ to taste. We are all born with taste buds. Everyone, it seems, but Joey, whose whole mouth is, apparently, ‘blind’ to taste. Of course, the tongue of snakes has no taste buds.”
“But Joey’s not a snake,” his mother protested. The tears now streaked down her face.
“Quite,” the doctor agreed, “Still, if one has to be born without one of the senses, taste seems to be the easiest to do without. Perhaps it will come in time, though. It’s impossible to say, since, as I’ve said, Joey seems to be the first and only child born with this condition. Your son, how shall I put this, is, well, tasteless.
And so he was.
Tasteless Joe, as he became to be known by his peers, with a certain sense of ridicule as well as admiration. After all, what kid can eat a bowl of hot chili peppers washed down with sour milk? The other boys loved the endless tricks Joe came up with. The girls, though feigning disgust, found him somewhat, for lack of a better term, heroic. Joe was, in their eyes, larger than life. Different. Even, to some, sexy. Though that didn’t come until his teen years, and even still only to a select few. Guys that can eat worms, dirt and all, weren’t exactly prom date material, necessarily.
Joe knew this only too well. So by the time he started college, Tasteless Joe packed up his bag of tricks and simply became Joe, once again. He ate what all the other students ate and, from there on out, kept his “uniqueness” a secret. Oh sure, every now and then he’d amaze his study group with a hot pepper demonstration, but nothing rancid, wriggling, or rotten. That was a thing of his past. The spotlight was one thing, but, as he knew, it could grow too hot for his liking.
That is, except, for the spotlight from one particular person, Nancy. Ah, Nancy: tall, dark, beautiful, and completely unaware of Joe. Try as he might, he simply couldn’t get her to notice him. Not a glance, not a peak, not a turn of the head, nothing. She walked by him each and every time, seemingly oblivious to his presence. To put it another way, Joe was as non-existent to her as his very own taste buds were to him.
But therein laid the solution to his problem. A surefire way to get noticed. He’d spotted it the week before in the campus newspaper: a call for contestants for the traveling television show, Gross Out. Colleges were rife with coeds who’d do practically anything for five minutes of fame and a pile of much-needed cash. It was the fame that got Joe’s attention, however. All the common rooms had mass viewings of the show every Saturday. Nancy was sure to see it, or at least hear about it soon after.
So, with a healthy bit of fear and excitement, Joe showed up the next day for tryouts. The line stretched clear around the block, but he knew he had an ace up his sleeve; something none of the other contestants had, or didn’t have, as was the case. Though, of course, he neglected to fill the producers in on his little secret. He was sure to be disqualified had they found out.
They never asked either. Joe passed the initial screening with flying colors. He was the right age for their demographic. He was young, eager, attractive, and not easily “Grossed Out”. That became readily apparent when they tested him with a smorgasbord of animal parts, oddly textured and undistinguishable concoctions, and all sorts of slimy, oozing foreign looking foods. Joe was clearly in his element, and the producers were quick to offer him his shot at stardom, which he eagerly accepted in return.
They filmed the episode two nights later. Joe arrived confident at the outcome. He was also wearing his brand new lucky shirt. The one that said, FOR NANCY, in big, bold letters across his chest. She was sure to notice him now, he figured. And when the host asked who Nancy was right off the bat, he described in detail who she was and why he was there. The audience ate it up. He was now their favorite.
There was, however, still the competition to deal with: one other guy and two girls. They all eyed each other up. Joe assumed the guy, who easily weighed in at three hundred pounds, would be the real competition. Obviously, he wasn’t too picky about what he ate. The girls were young and pretty, and neither weighed more than a hundred twenty pounds. They had little chance to beat the behemoth or the man with no taste.
Looks, Joe found, could be quite deceiving. That old expression, the larger they are, the harder they fall, rang obviously true after the first ten minutes of competition. Oh sure, the other man could devour the larger items quicker than everyone else, but it was the animal parts that were his downfall.
Pig brains were okay. Kind of gushy and stinky, but no different than cauliflower, if you closed your eyes and held your nose. Even the cow tongue was manageable, if you employed the same tactic. No, it was the bull testicles that finished the larger man off. Joe assumed it was a psychological thing more than a culinary one. The man blanched at the site of them before keeling over. The girls, however, giggled with delight and almost swallowed them whole. Joe felt a pain in his nether regions, but otherwise held his ground.
The commercial break came and the downed contender was dragged off, leaving the three others to chat aimlessly amongst themselves. It was soon apparent, though, that one of the girls would soon be following the first loser. She was quickly turning green around the gills, and just before the cameras started rolling again, she ran off stage to the nearest bucket. She wasn’t seen again. That left Joe and one other girl, Cindy, who for her part looked as cool as a cucumber.
The host came back on the set and addressed the two remaining challengers. What was to come next, they were warned, would surely eliminate one of them. Both looked at him confidently. Then he asked Cindy what she hoped to do with the money, should she win. Now it was Joe’s turn to go green. Cindy’s mom needed an operation and the money would go to pay for it. The audience’s backing quickly switched from Joe to Cindy. After all, an adoring daughter beats a horny teenager any day.
Joe felt that way as well. He figured that he’d already proven himself to Nancy. The money would just be the icing on the cake. The cake, however, wasn’t as proverbial as Joe was thinking. It was, at that very moment, being wheeled in by the lovely assistant.
“Sudden death,” announced the host. “The first person to finish the cake wins. Or, whoever drops out first loses. Either way, we have a winner. Simple as that. Oh, and one more thing, the cake is made of pure animal lard. Bon appetit.”
Joe and Cindy looked at each other and then nodded a polite good luck before they started in on the cake; though, even before he started, he knew how it would end. And after just a few bites, he grabbed his stomach with one hand and lifted the other in resignation. The crowd chanted Cindy’s name and the host walked over and handed her the check for five thousand dollars. Cindy beamed with pride and Joe casually walked off stage, glad that Cindy had won the money. Now he prayed that Nancy would see the show when it aired.
She did, of course. Even if she hadn’t been watching it, which she had been, she would have known in no time flat what Joe had done in her name. News travels fast around a college campus.
Two days after the airing, Joe spotted her sitting in the middle of the quad. Tentatively, he approached her and waited for her to say something. He didn’t have long to wait. She saw him coming up to her from a mile away. Joe smiled when, for the first time, Nancy looked up and finally noticed him.
“Um, hi, Nancy, I’m Joe,” he said, grinning from ear to ear. “Guess you probably know about me already. Nice to finally meet you.”
Nancy sat there staring up at Joe before she finally rose to her feet to be face to face with the man who, in her own words, “Made me the laughing stock of the entire campus.”
“What?” was all he could muster.
“You heard me. Everyone’s been calling me Lard Mouth’s girlfriend. It’s gross. You’re gross.”
“B…but, I just wanted you to notice me. You’ve been ignoring me for months. Every time I walked by you, I’d smile and nod, but you always kept looking forward like I didn’t even exist. I just wanted to show you how much I liked you.”
“Well, dumbass, the reason I didn’t notice you was because I couldn’t. I have no peripheral vision. I was born without it. It’s extremely rare. Apparently, about as rare as a nice, normal guy around this place. So, if you’re done humiliating me, I’d appreciate it if you would just leave me alone.”
Hmm, Joe thought. That’s ironic. A man with no taste falling for a girl with no vision. But instead he said, “I’m sorry, Nancy. It was never my intention to hurt you. I’ll leave.” Which he then proceeded to do. He left, walked twenty feet, and stepped right into the path of none other than Cindy.
“Oh, hey,” he said, once he recognized her.
“Hey yourself,” she said. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“For me? Why?”
“To say thanks. I knew you blew it on purpose the other day.”
Joe blushed, but nodded his head in agreement. “My reason for being there was a lot more frivolous than yours.”
“True,” she agreed, and grabbed his hand. “Still, it was sweet. And, well, I was wondering, if things don’t work out between you and Nancy, if you’d like to go out with me sometime?”
Joe turned around and saw Nancy glowering at him from the distance. “You free right now?” he asked.
Now it was Cindy’s turn to blush. “Sure, now would be good,” she said, and then, on instinct, stood on her tiptoes and gave Joe the sweetest, nicest kiss he’d ever received.
It struck him almost immediately. “What’s that you have on your lips?”
“Strawberry lip balm. You like?”
“Tastes like heaven,” he said, with a smile. And then he started to laugh as the two strolled hand in hand out of the quad.
“What’s so funny?” she asked.
“Oh, you know that expression about having your cake and eating it too? Guess I finally know what that’s all about. And it tastes wonderful.”
Originally posted 01/20/2005