All around me is a sea of satin, black ties, well-kept flesh, champagne, and flash bulbs. I’m the center of attention, not an uncommon experience for me, but this time it’s especially gratifying. All these people have gathered for the launch of my new device, the culmination of my life’s work. And my daughters and their families are here to help me celebrate.
“Where’d you get the idea for the Amometer?” a young female reporter asks me.
“A conversation with my mother when I was eight years old,” I tell her with an indulgent smile. She’s very pretty. A couple of decades ago I would have coaxed her into bed.
“Tell me more,” she says.
“We were arguing about who loved whom more. I decided to find a scientific way to resolve the debate.”
Beside me on the velvet sofa, my mother whispered, “I love you,” her fingers caressing my head. I snuggled close to her ample bosom and inhaled her orange scent. “I love you more,” I said. She was the world to me. “Not possible,” she cooed earnestly. “There is no more than infinity.”
I look up from this dream. The reporter’s gone. I must have drifted off for a moment. I’ll have to watch that. Can’t have anyone thinking that my powers have diminished.
A young man rushes up, thrusting a mike in my face. “How does your device work?”
I laugh at him. “You can’t really expect me to share trade secrets, can you?”
He chuckles nervously, but he needs a quote. “Of course not. But can you at least tell us what you mean by love. I mean – if you’re going to measure it – don’t you need a precise definition?”
I sigh, realizing how much I’d prefer to sit down. “Here’s our operational definition. Love is made up of three desires. What we’ve trademarked as the AGAPE desire is desire for the well-being of the beloved; the EROS desire is desire for the beloved’s company; and,” Here I find myself breaking off in an apologetic titter. “The VANITY desire is desire for the beloved’s love.”
Other reporters press around me. “How accurate is the AMOMETER?” a crow-voiced woman asks.
“99.98% accurate,” I say with pride.
“Leaving 0.02 degrees of deniability,” she asserts.
I nod. “Cowards and skeptics have their escape route,” I agree.
“Aren’t there serious moral risks associated with this device?”
“Have you conducted rigorous studies?”
I nod, thinking back to the hundreds of test subjects I’ve worked with, watching them hold hands and gaze into each other’s eyes, insisting that they loved each other, while tiny beads of sweat formed around the electrodes attached to their skulls, and my monitor registered different levels of AGAPE or EROS or VANITY. The device had to be tinkered with to iron out glitches. The biggest breakthrough came when we developed a version that could be used without the subject’s knowledge, measuring brain waves without the attached electrodes. This version, not yet made public, is the one I plan to use tonight.
“Mr. Lee,” a brash young man calls. “How much do you expect to earn from this device?”
Millions. Added to the millions I had before. But I probably won’t get to use much of it. The photographs of me on display show a handsome octogenarian with a large, solid body and full head of hair. Good thing they don’t show the indoor plumbing. Used to be I could swim in the Aegean, drink a bottle of scotch, eat four lobsters and bed three wenches in an evening. Now my entertainment is less expensive. A couple of cans of Ensure, a good remote control device and a subscription to Netflix are about all I can manage these days. No, it is my daughters who will spend my wealth.
“Good question!” I reply cheerfully. “Time for the presentation!”
My associates call the crowd to order. My daughters and their offspring stand around me for the photo op. I lay out the details of my company’s holdings. Eyes open and mouths gape in astonishment. I’ve impressed them again! My daughters press my arms with admiration.
My daughters! My beautiful, sensual daughters, born late and given every possible opportunity. I think of them with satisfaction. Their lives will be bound up with my device in so many ways.
My older girls have brought their husbands and my four grandchildren. My youngest daughter, my favorite, Catherine, has no husband yet. Having come to recognize my failing powers, I intend to divide my company holdings amongst them. They will control the company in my place, use the profits as they see fit, with the only condition that they care for me in my old age.
My accountant pointed out that this is a good idea only if I can trust them to maintain me in dignity and comfort for my last years. I must find out whether they really love me. If they do, then I can trust them; if not, not. You see where my device comes in.
I withdraw from the crowds with my family. “I want each of you to grasp my hand, look into my eyes and tell me how much you love me,” I insist in my still powerful voice. “If I am satisfied, I will give you a share of my holdings.” I smile warmly at each in turn. “And the more satisfied I am, the larger your share.”
I see Genevieve glance at Rose. Those two have always been close despite the rivalry between them. Genevieve is a tall, buxom brunette. Rose is shorter and slimmer with green eyes and wheat-colored hair. My youngest sits apart from the other two. They never included her in their games. She doesn’t have their strength, but I love her most. I’d like to see her well-married before I hand over my wealth to her. Perhaps I can leave her share – the largest share, I hope – in a trust that her sisters will manage. I’m not sure though; can I trust them that far?
“Genevieve,” I say. “Come sit beside me. Take my hand.” She moves quickly and takes my age-spotted hand in her flawless one. I ask her questions about her husband and children. This will form a baseline for the test. Her face melts into artless adoration when she describes her baby, reminding me of how my mother looked at me.
“Do you love me?” I ask her finally. I know my associates have the newly updated mechanism in place. I have some scruples about tricking my children in this way. But if they have nothing to hide, I will in no way be harming them. On the other hand —
Genevieve answers before I have time to finish this thought. “Dad, I love you more than I can put into words. I love you more than my own eyesight. I love as much as any daughter ever loved her father.” She smiles that sensual smile, almost too sensual for a daughter to use on her father.
I am deeply touched. “Thank you,” I murmur, releasing her hand. “Fetch Rose for me, please.”
Rose is close enough that she could overhear the exchange I had with her sister. Catherine is sitting apart, twisting her hands. What could she possibly fear? I’d swear by my life she loves me most. Rose and Genevieve exchange a look as they pass. Rose comes and sits beside me, on the edge of the chair so that our knees touch. She gazes into my eyes and grips my hand so firmly it hurts. She’s stronger than me, I realize. After questions about her husband and children, I say, “Rose, tell me how you love me.”
“Dad, you know I’m just like Genevieve. I love you as much as she does. Or perhaps more. Remember, I married later so I lived with you longer.” She smiles urgently. I feel the force of her smile and return it.
“Well done, Darling.” I retract my hand. “You’ve spoken very well and will be rewarded. Now, call your youngest sister.”
A tiny twitch of distaste crosses her face. She’s never liked Catherine. That worries me. If I am to leave Catherine’s share in someone’s trust, perhaps it should be Genevieve’s.
Catherine approaches slowly, like a school child to her books. Why, I wonder. I adore her and I know she adores me. I remember that conversation with my mother. “I love you.” “I love you more.” “No, that’s not possible. Nothing is more than infinity.” That’s how I feel about Catherine. And that’s how I believe she feels about me. But I have to be sure.
She sits in the chair, leans back and does not allow me to take her hand. I must try to grab her hand at some point, or the machine will not measure her feelings. “Catherine,” I say, with a tender smile. “You’ve heard your sisters. What do you have to say for yourself?”
“Nothing,” she says, pushing out her bottom lip like a surly teenager.
“Nothing?” I’m sure she’s teasing me, confident enough in her own power to play with me. “Come now,” I add sternly. “You know what’s at stake.”
“Nothing,” she repeats.
“Nothing will come of nothing,” I say. I seem to have heard that phrase somewhere before. I borrow it because my own words have deserted me. She sits perfectly still.
“Well?” I say, hoping against hope that she will relent – for her own sake and mine.
“You know how I feel about you,” she says roughly. “But I refuse to play this game.”
A long pause. She’s as stubborn as I am.
“You’re so young,” I say eventually. “And so cruel!” She looks away, waiting. “All right then. I can as easily divide my wealth in two as in three. See what sort of husband you can find now that you’re penniless.” I turn away, willing her to feel the force of my righteous anger.
I can’t help glancing after her, noting the dignity in her posture and her retreating gait. Her sisters whisper to each other as she passes and then glance at me and smile sympathetically. They understand how much she’s hurt me. I can rely on them.
The guests retreat into the hall for the banquet, but I don’t have the stomach to join them. I instruct an underling to bring me a bowl of chicken broth and some crackers instead.
“Would you like to view the results now, Sir?” he asks.
I am a little curious to see how my older daughters performed. Confirmation of their love might take the edge off Catherine’s betrayal, but I’m worn out after that last conversation. “No, Derek. I’ll save that pleasure for the morning.”
Ooh, very Shakespearian! I love it.
Laura Rink says
Great story, Frances. The hubris that can lead to great disappointment.