To Perform a Task Well Is Sufficient
by Maddy Raskulinecz
My task was to induce stress in the participants. I was allowed to do it however I liked. Stress is lizardly in the brain, which can be people’s qualm with it, that the enemies it steels you against are not the ones likely stressing you, like:
You stop shitting because your body behaves as if you’re being stalked by saber-toothed freak mammoths, and having to shit mid-hunt would get you killed; in reality the source of the stress is more like an interpersonal coolness that you have the feeling you need to act against, and the not shitting becomes an abject disclosure to have to make as to why you’d better not tonight (again), and so the conjugal gulf widens.
I mention this to justify, if the scientific method is listening, why it was fine for me to use such a variety of techniques to achieve the desired stress, but really no one kept an eye on what I was doing.
For many participants, it was sufficient to place them between an unbearable secret knowledge about me and the demands of etiquette. For the most sensitive, I instructed them with egregious lipstick teeth. From there, a sliding scale from snot to menses.
On the most literal-minded, I placed electrodes around the heart and made them run on the treadmill. For the healthiest subset of these, I frowned at the EKG readings, and said “Oh. Hmm—never mind.”
Some mothers became stressed when I expressed dependence, others when I expressed disinterest.
A beloved pet I ignored.
A different beloved pet I threatened cruelly in a happy voice.
To induce stress in an Abyssinian banana tree, I drank a quart of water and licked up the remaining sweat from the outside of the glass. Then I blotted my tongue with a tissue until it was a dry slab.
To induce stress in a fist-sized igneous rock I dumped out another quart and put the rock in the standing water and left it there in the cool white light.
To induce stress in any number of possessions of an old man I bequeathed them to his unsentimental son.
A lot of people I just pointed a gun at.
A priceless Persian rug I spilled wine on and then ruthlessly, perfectly cleaned.
A shining new laptop computer was used to click on inadvisable banner ads, while an obsolete model was made to watch.
To induce stress in a captive audience, I sang songs far outside my range, and then forgot the lyrics, which induced stress in the songs as well.
Participants reacted to displays of despotic authority with stress, and also to displays of deferential incompetence. The payment scheme for participating became continually more complicated.
Finally there were the participants in whom I did not induce anything. These ones you know when you see. They are addicted to it already. I mean this in a tragic physical sense. They have been, passively, preparing for their participation in the study their entire lives, dosing themselves with stress until their dumb liquids adjust permanently, and will produce stress when none presents itself. All you have to do with these ones is listen to their story while you prepare their bed, about their partner who was, before they met, a professional dancer, but was never recorded in his entire short career, so when they met there was no proof except the partner’s gorgeous body, and the participant has to this day never seen the partner dance, and then you tell them goodnight and how to contact the technician, and wait two hours in the dim dark for them to cry out about something they heard, What’s Wrong, Where Are You, Who Is There, I Need Help, I Think I Need Help, and then they’re ready to perform spectacularly without my having helped at all.
After the participant is stressed adequately and sent off to be studied, I must consider what I am doing to myself. I’ve thought sometimes that inducing stress in other people relieves it in me, like I’m passing along a conserved energy. But other times I have suspected I am creating it in the both of us, a small new injury. The call, “Next,” comes so fast out of my mouth then, before the last one has even passed on, before the air in the lab can go still.
Maddy Raskulinecz lives in San Francisco, CA. Her fiction has appeared in Zyzzyva, Guernica, DIAGRAM, 3:AM, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter: @littleraskul.