Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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One Way

by Andrew Kiraly


It's a scenario straight from the realm of tabloids: a living scientific experiment whisked away to a heartland town to live in anonymity. But Mayor Buddy "Gulch" Corklin insists that renewed rumors of Norwitch being home to the rock star's purported clone are just that.

"Oh, you bet it'd be great for tourism.But I assure you folks that harboring the clone of this rock star everyone's talking about again would be inconsistent with the values of the good people of Norwitch."

New York Times, April 2017



Wilkinson from shipping was told his persistence would reap great rewards. Chumbley from accounts payable was told a perfect statue never comes from a bad mold.Hortensen announced that friends long absent were coming back to him. Marlene from human resources revealed that an important conversation would soon fulfill a long-held hope. Sawyer was informed his ability to find the serious in the silly would take him far.

Munching with the satisfaction of children, they looked at him.His turn.With his thumbs he snapped the cookie in half, pulled out the pink fortune and read it aloud: "Take comfort.Nothing that troubles you is historically unique."

Everyone at the table laughed. Spinkler from inventory said if that's not an indictment of the fortune cookie industry, I don't know what is.District manager Hortensen grumbled that, well, his troubles won't be damn "historically unique" for very long, considering the way science keeps putting its nose in nature's business.Hortensen, usually about as well-mannered as an ox, had actually offered it as a consolation, though it came out as something more of a complaint. Everyone became quiet; all you could hear was the burbling of the lobster tank.Slipping the fortune into his shirt pocket, the genetic clone of M______ M______ said, "At any rate, it feels nice to say I proved a fortune cookie wrong." What a save: everyone laughed again.

From behind his sunglasses, a permanent accessory these days, the genetic clone of M______ M______ watched the lobsters loll in the cloudy gray water, claws bound with blue rubber bands. They were numbly waiting for a certainty—or surrendering to destiny, despite their spiny blackberry armor that could at least afford them a dignified struggle. A sense of destiny.Was that what made them so placid?

The genetic clone of M______ M______ felt tap, tap, tap on his paper party hat. He turned to see their waiter, an acne-dotted Chinese teenager, standing there with a chocolate cake no bigger than a hockey puck. A red candle flickered in the center.Everyone—Robles, McDerf, Spinkler, Gail from accounts receivable, Gumley, sitting at the opposite end of the table like the big fat dad he was—broke into the song with that bumbling stair-step melody so well-suited for children, tipsy executives, quivering grandmothers, everyone but him. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday dear—

Birthday, yes, but not a bornday.Birthed but not born. Not imbued by the glowing finger of God, not scrambled into uniqueness by that double-helix blender of genetics—however you wanted to explain individuality. When he got depressed, his thoughts always keeled this way: he had a cookie-cutter soul; the word himself referred to two people; who, really, was me?Yet he was not an identical twin.At least identical twins had a precedent, a history to comfort them in their tusslings for selfhood.

Brought into the tumult of the world in June 1995, a living fossil of a faded controversy, the genetic clone of M______ M______ was twenty-four years old today. His skin was pale as printer paper, his hair a curtain of toner black.He nursed his shyness with fervent introversion, and his mind was ferociously mathematical. The genetic clone of M______ M______ was chief accountant at an irrigation supply distribution company in Norwitch, Iowa in the year 2019.

He had to pee really bad. Green tea really was worse than coffee that way. He'd drunk practically a gallon. He'd read in Self magazine that green tea detoxified the blood. He bought it by the 270-bag box from Hull's Feed and Tack, the closest thing Norwitch had to a natural food store; Hull himself, while ringing up his purchases, teased M______ that the way he was drinking the stuff, he was gonna detoxify himself until there was nothing left. The genetic clone of M______ M______ would chuckle bashfully, mostly at the fact that Hull did not know the sad extent of the irony. What was really funny, see, is that he had nothing to detoxify.The worst thing ravaging his bloodstream this week would be molecules of the chocolate cake he was about to fork into his mouth. Chocolate cake?Chocolate cake? Oh, wouldn't his father be just thrilled to hear that? (The word father stuck on his mind like a refrigerator magnet, useless but obstinate.)Don't think about it, he told himself.Move your mind around it.Don't let the fears start fluttering.Chocolate cake?You rock 'n' roll rebel, you. Don't let the fans start jeering. But they did. In his mind he saw them harumphing, arms crossed in militant rejection: Imagine that.The genetic clone of M______ M______ doesn't so much as touch liquor. You'd figure with the genetics and all...damn if he doesn't look just like him. Wonder what would happen if you set him loose in a hotel room on Sunset Boulevard.Would he trash the place, spray paint the walls, kick in mirrors, leave a jumble of empty liquor bottles behind? No.He'd watch some free HBO and go to bed early.

"Happy Birthday" finished in a finale of cracked voices.He escaped to the bathroom, sighing with relief at the urinal. Not three seconds had passed when Hortensen burst through the door and forced M______ to compress himself against the cold porcelain.Hortensen sidled up next to him, unzipped and groaned.

"Damn.The food don't fill you up and the tea goes right through you. I guarantee the Chinese are laughing at us. Enjoy the lunch?"

"Oh, yes. Wonderful." He could hear him hissing down there.

"Good," Hortensen said as if he'd just proved a disputed point."But guess I have to break the bad news now. The bill will be deducted out of your paycheck."

"You are such a joker, Mr. Hortensen."

"I'm serious. Wiff policy from on high. I've got no say in it."

"Yes sir." A withering in his hand. He'd died to a trickle. He could smell Hortensen's aftershave, oversweet like rotting fruit.

"Sorry.I'm powerless in this one.Besides, where'd we be if we paid for everybody's birthday lunch? Not the number one regional distribution center for three years straight now, that's for sure. The good news is I think you're only looking at fifty bucks. Not including tip." Hortensen groaned as he reached another tier of relief; the hiss intensified to a near-whistle. "Quarterlies gonna be in on time?"

"Yes."Why did he have to talk about accounting now, of all times?

"Yes what?"

"Yes...sir?"

Hortensen broke into laughter like a horse."Haw haw. Pulling your leg. What do you think we are, a bunch of cheapskates here at Wiff? We wouldn't make a man pay for his own birthday lunch.Look at you. You're two shades whiter than usual."Hortensen flushed and jangled his beige slacks back into place.

"Oh, dear. What a joker you are, Mr. Hortensen." He was terrible at faking amusement. It came across instead as exasperation, as if he'd just been plunged into cold water.

Stepping out of Hortensen's minivan in the Wiff parking lot, he thanked everyone for the surprise party and joked that the only thing that could surprise him more was Spinkler getting his first quarter report in on time.

"Now," he said, "if everyone would excuse me, I've got some serious spreadsheeting to do." He affected a march toward their flat office building that, these days, seemed to contain so much of who he was.

"Amen," they said.

"You're too funny, man," they said.

"Go to it, soldier," they said.

The self-deprecation of his humor had a keen edge to it.People in the office often said he could be a stand-up comic if he wanted. What they were really saying, he surmised, was that he had a genetic mandate to do something more, some hot kernel of an impulse to do something better than managing the books for a company in Iowa that distributed irrigation supplies to, the motto went, "America's Farmers of Today...and The Future."They said things like that all the time. Not just with words, but also in their glances and barely suppressed sighs, shrugging in the doorway to his office, seeing through him to glimpse what must have been a blueprint for the outrageous, the theatrical, the sick.Certainly, none of them were necessarily big fans of M______ M ______. Some no doubt thought the musical artist had been a raving barbarian hacking away at America's culture and values; the way the gaunt rock 'n' roll vampire, forever draped in black, leering, androgynous, ruled the final decade of the millennium with concerts and music videos that were all gibbering madness and explicit sexual imagery wrapped in leather and blood; the newspaper articles about the unspeakable things he did on stage, like putting a black sex toy up his...you know. Reasonable people with traditional values did not feel they were indulging in hyperbole to say he was destroying America. On the other hand, they could certainly respect the very American idea of fulfilling your potential. And if it required destroying America? They might have forgiven, if not encouraged, the genetic clone of M______ M ______ for pursuing such a path. A job's a job.

Later that afternoon, with the glug of Chinese in his stomach fighting to make him drowsy, he was locked in battle with his computer, trying to reconcile some outlay costs. That final number burned in the lower-right hand corner of his screen like a stubborn ember: his custom-made spreadsheet application was suddenly telling him Wiff operational costs were lower than they usually were.As of this afternoon, if his computer were to be believed, Wiff Distribution's total overhead had been lowered by seven-tenths of a percent. M______ went through calculations again, plugging numbers into the grid from scratch. The result arrived with the same thorn: a .7 percent decrease in overhead. Could that have happened overnight? No. The Wiff numbers were auto-updated only every 48-hour cycle, but that would happen at midnight tonight, not last night.

M ______ grew nervous. A certain amount of professional pride was at stake.He'd written this program himself, after all, and had convinced Hortensen that his program was functionally superior to the suite of retail accounting software that Wiff had been using when he was hired on more than two years ago. Add to that the fact that updates to the retail software were subscription-based, costing the company more than $5,000 annually for what were usually minor cosmetic changes. M______ had offered to update for free. He had pitched his software to Hortensen less than a month after he'd been hired.After meeting with the higher-ups, Hortensen called him into his office at the end of the hall. That enormous swordfish floating behind him on the wall like some freakish familiar, Hortensen leaned over his desk and said, "You may not be a rock star, son, but you sure are putting those wild genes of yours to some good use. You've got yourself a deal."

M______ received a mention in the employee newsletter and a $20 gift certificate to Red Lobster. He sometimes wondered if Hortensen had taken credit for his idea and work.What had he received from Wiff executives?

Now those accolades were in danger of being flushed down the toilet. His program—was it buggy? He sank another hour into recalculating, sweat starting to pinprick his pale forehead.He clicked the Calc abacus icon.Seven-tenths of a percent again.A thorn this stubborn usually belied a deeper issue, one that couldn't be massaged away or teased out in a matter of days.But quarterlies were due Monday.

He dialed the Help Desk, and a few minutes later, Sawyer knocked on his doorframe as he walked in. Sawyer always carried with him the smell of marijuana quickly smoked in the back of a van. With his clip-on ties and rumpled shirts, he was considered a sweet-natured loser.

"Look at us, making history," Sawyer said. "I think this is the first time you've ever called the Help Desk in, what, two years?We threw confetti over at command central.What's up, compadre?"

"It's embarrassing to admit, but I think my spreadsheet program has a bug. Watch." He jogged through the operation once more, and showed how the company's overhead had suddenly dropped overnight. "I suspect some wayward algorithm is having its way, but I'm no bloodhound.I apologize if I'm wasting your time."

"No problem, compadre. We've all got our blind spots," Sawyer said."Let me take the reins."He took M______'s seat and rebooted in DOS. The computer crackled and whirred. "Enjoy the party?"

"It was delightful. That was so thoughtful of everyone. I love Chinese."

"Yeah.Perfect place, too. If they sold shrimp lo mein by the bucket, I'd be there every day. So, happy birthday again. Guess that's kind of the wrong word. Birthday."

"I suppose in some respects the word is lacking."

"Where were you born, anyway?"

"From a conventional womb, like most people."

"No, I mean, like, in a lab? I figured since you were..."

"Cloned?"

"Sorry.Just sounds so weird to say."

He laughed. He'd been told, on occasion, his smile flickered with a shadow of the trademark crazed leer that M______ M______ would employ in his interviews, music videos and concerts. "Dear, no.I was born in L.A. County hospital just like any other baby, to a mother whose name, for contractual reasons, I'm not allowed to divulge."

"You think of cloning and you imagine evil scientists and labs and all that," Sawyer said. "They should really come up with a new word. Anyway, heavy stuff. Sorry if I'm prying." The computer had rebooted in its raw mode. Sawyer brought his stubbled face close to the screen, scrolled through the spreadsheet program and ran some background tests. The screen crowded with gray diagnostic windows, and the M ______ felt a twinge of embarrassment.

"You're not prying, Sawyer."

"That whole situation's just got to be so intense," Sawyer said. "The pressure."

"What pressure?" He knew very well what pressure.

"You know, the pressure. That whole legacy. I mean, I get vibed by my parents all the time about succeeding.My dad's general manager at Sizzler downtown. But that's got to be nothing compared—"

"Now you're prying," he said. He didn't like someone else sitting at his computer.It was as though Sawyer were wearing his shoes. "Have you found anything? There has to be some bad math in there somewhere."

"Your math is tight as a drum so far, compadre," Sawyer said.He stared into the screen, where columns of code marched upward in stately fashion."Interesting programming style you've got.I'd call it baroque.The C+ equivalent of walking into a M.C. Escher drawing or something."Sawyer turned to him."Sorry for being nosy."

"Stop apologizing," he said. "I'm not angry. But I'll become angry if you keep saying sorry." He nudged Sawyer in what he hoped was a playful fashion.

"I just got curious. Because, man, you've got some voice."

"How could you possibly know that?"

"Yeah, like we didn't hear you singing along at the party."Sawyer had sat next to him at the restaurant. M ______ remembered how Sawyer had tapped his fingers on the table less to the song than, it seemed, to beat out the rhythm of some inner nervousness.

"It was just a party."

"Yeah," Sawyer said, "but who sings 'Happy Birthday' at his own party? See stumped out."

"I wouldn't know the answer to that.How is my program?"

"I've run debug on it three times now, and still nothing," Sawyer said, leaning back in M______'s chair. "Something's not right, that's for sure, but it's not here. It's somewhere else along the food chain. Your program's clean, M______."

Sawyer nearly choked as he corrected himself.Flustered, he stood up, walked in a small, nervous circle, wiped his hands on his jeans and sat down again."I'm a retard. Sorry. I didn't mean to call you that. I wasn't thinking. Retard! Retard!Retard! Sorry."

"Stop apologizing." But he knew Sawyer could read the emotion gathering behind his sunglasses like a storm cloud.

M______.He was called that on occasion.Even here, it happened like a seasonal inevitability, like a flu outbreak or the fall corn harvest that brought out the hulking combines to flatten the green fields around Norwitch, and the battered trucks that, come evening, would crowd the bars near his apartment; twangy hunks of country music from the jukebox assaulted the street with each swing of the front door. M______. He'd first heard the name used in Norwitch two years ago as he waited to cross the street to get to his job interview. On the drive down, he'd gotten stuck in the right lane going eastbound on Main, so he simply parked in the Barley Furniture Emporium parking lot and decided to walk across the street to Wiff. A rippling July breeze played off his crisp new white shirt as he tapped his foot and waited for the red DONT CROSS hand to turn into that striding green glyph of a man with so many places to go. He checked his watch. He considered crossing against the light. The name hit him like a thunderclap.

"Don't you dare jaywalk now, M______."Some rabbit-toothed boy in the passenger seat of a black Mustang idling at the light. He had his arm draped over the door, parading the cigarette that surely his parents had lectured him against smoking. "You'll go to jail—and then how will you go on tour?Huh?" The boy nudged the driver, another kid with a pre-teen mustache penciled in by feeble adolescence. "Look at him. Looks just like M______ M ______. Someone's got Halloween covered."

The red hand just floated there, an exclamation mark of forbiddance. The genetic clone of M______ M ______ edged a foot toward the curb. He checked his watch. The Mustang revved, a warning of claimed territory. "No, no, don't you jaywalk now," the boy said, dragging off his cigarette with studied carelessness. "You don't have any rich guitarists or girlfriends to bail you out, now.How you gonna buy your makeup and your leather pants, how you gonna—"

M ______ was off, climbing the ladder of the crosswalk in swift strides, rung to rung toward the bland Wiff building that looked like a lemon sheet cake, barely hearing the honking and jeers and roar of the Mustang as the boys jabbed him on, go M______ M ______, go! As that red hand bobbed before him, he bargained with some invisible entity in his mind, some institutional morphing of god and government that had always demanded he ask permission, and he explained this minor offense was justifiable because he was going to be late for his job interview, see, and what if he didn't get the job because he was two minutes late—it was justifiable, wasn't it? Yes, he had brought an excuse, see? Landmarks: on the crosswalk pole, a flyer for a lost Chihuahua with bulbous eyes; on the sidewalk, a cardboard box anchored by a rock, advertising a yard sale that had happened last week. He moored himself by focusing on that floating red hand, hoping he could will it green by the very potency of his transgression.

He set foot on the sidewalk. Cars closed behind him in a swift curtain of metal, glass, whooshes, shouts, honks, are you crazy, dumb-ass, can't you read, could've killed you, freak vampire boy rock star wannabe.

He took the sweat on his brow to be words in an unfamiliar language of happiness.

Happy even though he'd been wrong. They knew exactly who he looked like. Was coming to Norwitch a mistake? Before moving here two years ago, the genetic clone of M­­­______ M­­______ had done his homework and concluded that the population's intake of pop culture was happily limited: the median age was 47; sales of cable and satellite TV were middling; supermarket tabloids were avoided with a strain of small-town scruple; and the only time rock bands ever rolled through town was to take a picture of themselves mugging with goonish irony in front of the world's largest monolith made of paper clips, just north of Highway 17 (Abe Castleman, sugar beet farmer and holder of several regional HAM radio contest awards). Here, the cloak of anonymity he desired was made of thicker cloth. Norwitch, he had concluded, didn't have a clue.

But the genetic clone of M______ M______ had not taken into account the stubborn reach of the Internet. Thus, like a long, lurid tongue, the stories of his origins had eventually reached even here, into the offices of this agricultural supply distribution center in Norwitch, "the hairy nostril of Iowa" (according to Forbes' recent "Road Trip" issue), and piqued the townspeople into a subdued frenzy of speculation and rumor-mongering.And, as if sensing their receptivity, the tentacles of the press soon felt for purchase. It had begun with the occasional, bothersome call, the gruff inquiry of a reporter sniffing out a tip. But less than a year after his arrival it had reached the boiling point.

No longer was it the odd foray from People or the London Observer or one of those nightly entertainment shows with pneumatic blond hosts bleating like leaky balloons. "Inside Edition" producers began hounding even his co-workers with phone calls; Enquirer drudges peppered them with e-mails, offering cash for hot leads; even the Des Moines Register dispatched a reporter, who more or less spent his tenure at the Dew Drop Inn drinking through his expense account, hurling occasional queries at the bartender. But, unnerved by the toxicity of scandal, wary of the selfish protocol that media commotion inspired (take part in the buzz, secure an agent, field book offers and talk-show appearances, "I Was the Co-Worker of a Rock Star's Genetic Clone!"), the good people of Wiff Distribution embraced their quaint instinct to protect. They deleted voice messages, discreetly forwarded e-mails to the genetic clone of M______ M______, a silent warning. The Register reporter's curiosity was dealt a death blow when the paper's editor, receiving the first bill from the Dew Drop Inn, canceled his company credit card.

But, one sweltering day in August, sensing their discretion would eventually exhaust itself, he had to do it. He set up the banquet table, put out Styrofoam cups and a liter bottle of RC Cola. He called an emergency meeting in the break room.

Skeptics and critics had originally written it off as a bid for publicity when shock-rock star M______ M______ announced in 1995 that he had had himself cloned at a secret genetics lab in France as a thematic component of his "Drone Wars" tour. The usual theatrics fueled their doubt: At the press conference, he wielded a prop fetus in a jar and was flanked by M______ M______ impersonators standing at attention. But his earnestness, his insistence had an unsettling ring.After signing oaths of neutrality, impartiality and nondisclosure, an international panel of scientists, sanctioned by the U.N., convened. They confirmed the results in less than a month. Global outrage flared. Some (Pat Robertson, National Geographic, Toby Keith) damned M______ M______ for his brazen disregard—for nature! for human life! Others (Rolling Stone, the New Scientist, a very airbrushed Susan Sarandon) praised him for what they considered an act of civil disobedience in the name of science. At least three U.S. senators and a low-level diplomat seeking to divert the press from investigating his affair with a Nubian limousine driver called for M______ M______'s immediate arrest for violating an international ban on human cloning; at the 1996 "Drone Wars" tour kickoff in Albany, the police tried to do just that, but they didn't take into account M______ M______'s rabidly protective fans, who rioted and caused more than five million dollars in damage.Authorities gave up on the prospect of ever arresting M______ M______. For his part, M______ M______ agreed to pay, as a penalty but not an admission of wrongdoing, an undisclosed sum to the International Congress on Bioethics.It was arranged that the clone (whose birth mother was said to be, variously, M______ M______'s tour manager, a show promoter/girlfriend from L.A., an exotic dancer from New Orleans or a housewife in the suburbs of Phoenix) would be meticulously shuffled into the deck of America and raised as an average, anonymous, statistically normal child.Craving publicity, many cities would subsequently claim to be his home. For a while Teaque, Kansas was the leading candidate; then Grome, Minnesota; New York, Las Vegas and San Francisco made their bids too. After years of searching, even the most diligent scandal-sheet reporters gave up, and the story of the clone of M______ M______ faded to a dim blip on an international radar forever full of intrigues, crimes and campaigns. M______ M______'s concept album based on the whole episode, The Class Clone—the cover of which depicted a schoolroom full of M______ M______s in suspenders and kneesocks, all rictus smiles and unblinking eyes without pupils—was savaged by critics as bloated, overserious and turgid with pretension, and some wondered anew whether the clone controversy had been an elaborate publicity stunt.Questioning their memories and press accounts, many demoted it to a particularly vivid urban myth. The world moved on to other delusions.

He'd cleared his throat and pinched his thighs to steady his trembling hands. "I am the genetic clone of M______ M ______."

The employees of Wiff Distribution looked at him like they'd been gut-shot. There was one slap of hand against hand, then another; a trickle, a cascade, then a waterfall: a round of applause broke out in the Wiff employee break room.That afternoon, back at his desk, he regarded the phone as a volatile pet, prone to turn on him at any moment.Amazingly, it rang only once when Marlene in human resources called to ask if this meant he wanted a different name on his paychecks now. Just as he had hoped, they were honorable people with scruples as simple and straightforward as corn on the cob. Even Hamilton Wiff, patriarch of the Wiff Sprinkler and Industrial empire, came down in person a week later to congratulate him on his moral courage.Hamilton Wiff shook his hand with clammy vigor and presented the genetic clone of M______ M______ with a pamper basket filled with exotic bath soaps, lotions and shampoos. When one of the employees unthinkingly raised a camera, Hamilton Wiff killed the impulse with an iron-skillet stare: "Pictures of this boy get out and we'll surely ruin the new life he's trying to make for hisself.Do you want that?" In the vigorous shaking of so many heads, the genetic clone of M______ M______ saw a fierce protectiveness that brought an unlikely word to mind: family.

*

He was in the break room now, his back to the inspirational poster on which an airborne dolphin somehow exemplified EXCELLENCE.He stared at his black Oxfords.If his accounting program was free of bugs, where else along the chain could this irregularity have occurred?Anywhere. His customized spreadsheet program was a mesh that accounted for all costs and profits, outflow and intake. There were no less than two dozen tributaries he could trace—purchasing, payroll, petty cash, insurance, even the mailroom expenses—to find the source of the snag. Purchasing and payroll struck him with promise, however. Two frothing rivers of revenue that doubtless hid rocks and crags.Purchasing. Payroll. Purchasing.Payroll. A tap of the Oxfords. The steaming sigh of the coffee machine. Purchasing. Payroll. Tap of toe. Purchasing.To the inner music of a growing urgency.Where was the bug?Purchasing? Or payroll? Tap of toe.The basso gulp of the water cooler.Marlene startled him when she bustled in with a stack of fliers the color of persimmons.

"Boo," she said at seeing him jump. She giggled thickly. "Sorry about that, Mozart." She handed him a flier; her nails were grotesquely long and airbrushed chartreuse. "That time of year again. Wiff annual office party. You want to be on the snacks committee?"

"Sadly, I have limited experience with snacks," he said.

"In that case, know where we can get a pinata?Hortensen insists on a pinata.Probably have too much to drink and end up dirty-dancing with it or something. Don't even get me started on last year." She leaned her bulk over the table and stapled two fliers onto the bulletin board.

"Dear, no. How about I bring some napkins?"

"Fair enough," Marlene said, producing a clipboard and writing down his name. "I deputize you as the getter of napkins. Plan on entertaining?"

"What do you mean?"

"I can sign you up for karaoke if you'd like.You wouldn't believe the talent that emerges after a few cups of Wiff's famous party punch." He shook his head. "Just a thought. You can get napkins cheap at Jody's 99-cent store on Benchley Avenue, by the way." She gathered up her fliers, stapler and clipboard. "Well, I'm off to listen to ten-thousand voice mails.I'll let you get back to composing."

No expression on her face said the line had any special significance, no smile or perk of eyebrows. Was she kidding? Probably not. Like many in the office, Marlene employed irony with the same spirit that governed the use of the good china: it was only for special occasions.

"Composing?"

"Or whatever you were doing," she said, swinging around to the door. "You were humming something."

"The sound of spreadsheets," he said stupidly and refilled his coffee cup with water.

His tongue felt plastic, thanks to his third grape soda that had fueled him as he'd worked through lunch, suppressing belches while columns of numbers rose on his screen. The quarterlies were due in less than two days, he knew, he knew—and along with the knowledge came that telltale feeling of actual days falling under the shadow of the deadline, Monday, noon, a monolith, an Excel document in Hortensen's inbox, CC'd to Hamilton Wiff and a string of higher-ups he knew only as e-mail appellations scattered across the United States.There was a root to his anxiety.Submitting the quarterlies Monday with a .7 percent drop in overhead costs would more likely invite scrutiny than celebration.In business, he'd learned, sudden fortune was always suspect—and it usually had more to do with mathematic flubs than corporate venality. Accounting required a sacrifice of any notion of glamour.

But where was the error? That afternoon, he combed through forests of code. He churned departmental numbers through at least three programs (including the company's original software, a Math Kruncher bargain accounting suite with a manual printed only in Korean), hoping something—some nettle, knot or snag—would catch. He stacked program atop program, a filtering system so fine that even the smallest mathematical mote could not pass through without detection. He laid tiny, highly specialized traps, with hidden springs and curlicued engineering, for statistical errors, rounding errors, minute inconsistencies in the number of decimal places the subfunctions tallied.In an experiment, he had even welded Math Kruncher to his own creation, hoping this lumbering Frankenstein would, with one of its clumsy bear swipes, swat out the mistake like a salmon from a river.

By seven o' clock, he was no closer.Stragglers passed his office on their way out, noses up in curiosity, sympathetic to that occasional office ritual of staying late. He had, at least, determined that the seventh-tenths of a percent was scattered through the whole, vast function, blundering away from the picnic like errant children.His eyes felt raw; his mouth was gummy with the taste of itself. Hunger had bored a hole in his stomach and his head was filled with damp cobwebs.In his bleary state, he imagined he'd somehow frightened that .7 percent off. It was hiding, far off among the gelid cubes of algorithms that, to his tired mind, receded into an endless grid. At ten o' clock, M______ put his head on his keyboard, closed his eyes, and agreed to succumb, just for a few minutes, to that infinite field in his approaching dreams, black with green lines ferrying fat dots. The dots became orbs, the orbs spun into globes, and the globes unfolded into robots—squadrons of them with sharp steel underbites and red diodes for eyes. The green lines blurred into smoke and blasted earth, the robots marched and gaped and fired lasers from shoulder-mounted cannons and yawned open their metal mouths to reveal pale, expressionless heads for tongues, a mirror image of him—father?—the heads gabbling about what a disappointment he had turned out to be, the nostril of Iowa, what a quaint name—if quaint is what you're looking for—which I'm starting not to doubt so much now that I see you getting nice and comfortable and settled with this quaint little accountant's gig—what happens when you're promoted? get a quaint ergonomic chair perhaps? a window office with a quaint view of quaint scenic Norwitch's endless sprawl of quaint green and quaint brown and think about what fantastic TV dinner you're going to eat tonight while sitting in front of the blue twilight flicker of the television and maybe, for the slightest breath of a second, indulge a fantasy of the life you could have led—could still lead—and put your face on that dream, this fervor, that urgency, instead of being a stupid poster boy for heredity not being everything, not a hairshirt or the stocks, but not other things either—not a crown, not a kingdom, not a legacy—

Bang!M______ snapped his head back as white flecks popped out of his keyboard.Through his panic, he realized he'd fallen asleep face-down on the keyboard, mouth ajar, and drooled right into the keys.He cursed, tried a few pecks, but the cursor on the screen blinked dumbly, smiling between the parentheses of some gnarled arithmetic function. His computer was paralyzed.

It was eleven o' clock. Even the janitor had come and gone with his squeaky trash cart more than an hour ago. M______ had heard his share of variations of that corporate myth of the all-nighter, the legendary crucible from which life-altering acquisition reports and aggressive marketing plans were born. But he'd always imagined it as a team effort. Where was the camaraderie? The midnight coffee and donuts shared as a sacrament of fortitude?The parking-lot cigarettes bummed in a rite of solidarity? No one had told him, Know what, buddy? We're going to get to the bottom of this if it takes all night.He was alone. But alone was how quests were completed, right? Triumphs were for individuals, right?

Obsession was too. In the cubicle maze of the main office, he turned on a computer at one of the secretary's desks, decorated with porcelain cows no doubt purchased on some TV shopping network, and anodyne portraits of children coaxed into smiling.Maybe approaching the problem from, literally, a different direction would help. Punchy, he smiled at the thought: yes, the fearsome clone would disguise himself in a sweater and sensible pumps—the sheep's garb of the secretary—casually walk by that seven-tenths of a percent, and just as it had its back turned, bag it. The chair smelled like cheap after-bath spray. This was Bethany's desk, the secretary who insisted on taking all her sick days and often loudly ate Corn Chex out of a sandwich bag while she pecked out memos, the homely woman with the brittle hive of brown hair and a certain defensiveness during small talk that betrayed a complete lack of a sense of humor.Several weeks ago in the employee lounge, he had made a joke about the puffy cable-knit sweater she was wearing—she was always complaining how cold the office was—and asked when she was taking off for her Arctic expedition. She had smiled, squinching her eyes with contempt before pouring her coffee and leaving. At the time, he'd chalked her up as a harpy, but why judge her? The dream of his father refreshed itself inside with a shudder.And who are you to judge?Why judge? Why expect? Everyone in the office was nice enough not to expect anything from him and here he was doing anything but returning the favor. Bethany was diligent and hardworking. Maybe the wealth of photos on her desk showed not obsessive doting, not clinging to the rungs of familial convention. Maybe she simply loved her children.

And why judge the accounting programs?The thought had the gentle shove of intuition.It was the natural corollary to tolerance: maybe the accounting programs were just fine. Maybe the so-called error was lathed and burnished so that it was no longer an error, but a stylized deviation that had sought and received acceptance from the program. Maybe he shouldn't be looking for mistakes; maybe he should be looking for its opposite, lustrous peaks of perfection. His tack suddenly struck him as absurd.He'd been fishing in a bathtub, shopping for groceries at a hardware store. Yes—a completely mistaken approach.

He keyed back into his own accounting program—viewed from outside now, a kind of bulky frigate, glinting green and amber, bristling with masts, sails, life-rafts and outrigging that made the thing monstrous but ultimately effective. He rode next to it while it parted a froth of waves, and he scanned his creation.What was his? What stuck out? His signatures—imprints from a login keyed to only one computer—bobbed before him like a wall of flowers. There were others as well; it was no surprise.He had used code from a dozen-odd accounting programs, pasting in whole chunks if not merely taking inspiration from them.They danced, too, in yellows and reds, not his signature's amber green—nothing to be alarmed about.It was, in its own glacial way, pretty, a flower-dazzled galleon of ice parting the sea on a journey toward profitability, its prow a fang of flashing white.

White?He stopped, freezing the ship.Whose signature was white?It would be a perfect mask for a would-be stoner going nowhere fast at the Help Desk: Sawyer?It would be a bold one for a female hacker, a brash virtual embrace of a virginal princess fantasy: Gail from accounts receivable? Marlene?He rode close to the fast-cutting behemoth, a spray of old algebraic proto-code momentarily blocking his view.He leaned closer, peering through a curtain of rushing background programs to glimpse the long, ornate—even daring—signature of someone who worked with the soundless, gnawing diligence of the truly confident.

He was embarrassed. He had never even suspected. Still, the hacker's handiwork was admirable. Brazen in its simplicity, it told the program to deduct from overhead seven-tenths of a percentage point and created an interlinked program to remember and safeguard that seven-tenths. Accounting programs despised missing numbers. But no wonder this one failed to detect them. By the program's altered definition, they weren't missing.It had been initially tricked, but then immediately placated. The hacker had placed those numbers somewhere deep in the hull of the machine language, seven-tenths of a percentage point—potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year—waiting below deck, locked up until the chest unlatched at the behest of a golden string of user commands. That user who was cavalier enough to leave the footprints of his own login behind. That user who was arrogant enough to think no one would venture this deep into the programmatic forest, so why bother with a disguise?

That user who planned on defrauding Wiff Distribution of millions. He hadn't drawn attention to himself only because no money had disappeared yet.It was still only accruing, silent as snow.

Bethany's desk clock, a plastic goose playing a fiddle, marked midnight with a honk; M______ jumped. It occurred to him that the FBI was probably open 24 hours.He picked up the phone, listened to the electronic purr, then clunked the receiver back into its cradle. He felt flat and hazy and tired and he craved resolution, but calling the FBI seemed a weedy answer that no longer offered the thing he sought.He didn't want resolution.He wanted finality. The late hour, he noticed, had awoken in him a strong distaste for authority.

*

In his two years at Wiff, he had only called in sick once, pleading flu with Hortensen one Thursday morning three months ago, promising to come in Saturday to make it up. Slunk down in the seat of his blue sedan, he drove north on the main drag, past the post office, past the elementary school with its field of children in their gentle riots, past the giant dead beetle of the ill-conceived Norwitch outlet mall that a consortium of developers had promised would draw bargain-minded shoppers from Des Moines, now a mute island adrift in an asphalt sea.Past the fields of green, yellow and brown unfurled like immense banners, past the last of the farm outbuildings in slouchy silhouette against the sunrise, he kept driving until, per instructions, the way became a grouchy gravel thing, spitting dust and pebbles, and he had to resist being hypnotized by the roadside dance of chicken-wire and fence posts.

He played with the stereo dial, hoping for some crazed AM radio to take his mind off his troubles. Instead he got a song that propelled him into a memory he never even knew he had lived. He had the distinct impression of being thrust up into the air from a father's sure hands, ever-ready to catch him at the moment of his most rapid descent, his pink arms woggling like the inquiring trunks of elephants, his father's face blooming into view, his leer softened into the welcoming facts of comfort and pride, a lipsticked mouth smiling for once not like a wicked clown, his severe cheekbones rising into monuments of joy, catching the boy and holding him nose to nose.They were in a cavernous hotel suite appointed with reproductions of Empire furniture; strewn across it all were magazines, take-out boxes, guitars, empty liquor bottles and bandmates laying around like laundry, in various stages of passing out or waking up.There were two men in suits standing just inside the door, looking on the scene with such distaste you'd think they were watching cannibals eat. This was the first and last time he'd ever see him, and M______ M______ was using the time to bobble his little clone boy up and down to the Blondie song coming like a cool white ribbon through the radio on the cosmetics-cluttered vanity while mascara tears trailed down his face in bent black prison bars. You don't have a heart of glass, do you?No, you don't, little creature, you've got no heart of glass. You've got a lava rock in there, don't you? You've got a screaming meteor in there. Balls of iron and a crazy little brain, don't you? You're gonna do whatever you please, aren't you now? No heart of glass for you, no sir, my little doom-soldier, my little fruit bat, my little Gatling gun. You've got a violin case with a bazooka inside, and you better make some room in it, shouldn't you, because I'll always be in there too...

He pulled up next to the iron-gray Mercedes, and he let the car idle until the song was over and the warmth died.In this flat heath where plant life was all snarl and bramble, scrawny wildflowers and burls of bristly yellow brush, where the sunrise seemed filtered through a wet sock, the Mercedes made the genetic clone of M______ M______ smile because it was so out of place. It had a startling air of escape, privilege and progress.He didn't notice the figure standing away from the car amid a trembling stand of white flowers until he'd gotten out of the car. Clutching a briefcase with both hands, the man didn't turn when the M______ stood next to him and dumbly considered the view.

"Pretty," M______ offered.

The lawyer made a disapproving cluck.He studied the horizon like fine print."I'd call it prosaic and tedious.Country pleasures have never lived up to their billing as far as I'm concerned. You don't know what it took to get me out here. Look at this—" he lifted his right foot and presented the underside of an expensive shoe rippling with luxury "—I don't know what species of guano I stepped in, but the damn stuff won't come off.A species I haven't encountered even in New York.But I'm not making for pleasant company, am I?" It had the burr of an accusation. His eyes were reptilian and his hair had been fashioned into a severe cornice at the front, a parody of a crew cut.

"It doesn't matter, I guess. How is my father?"

"That's a bad habit of yours."

"I know. But what else am I supposed to call him?"

A bird flew across the heath, and disappeared into pink strands of sunlight at the edge of the field.

"You're asking the wrong person," he said."But you can call him fifty-three years old. And smart enough to be thinking about the big picture. What are you thinking about?" He didn't let him answer. "He's thinking about legacy, about the historic opportunity delivered to his doorstep—your doorstep. He shocked the world in his day, but he's thinking—quite wisely I might add—that even he's not immune to the great pop sunset. Seen the reviews of his latest album? Even Rolling Stone—his lapdog for all these years—said he very well could be an incarnation of the devil. Not because he's evil, but because he's about the same age."

"Lively for a change."

"Brass tacks," the man said. He rattled the briefcase. "I have here some very interesting paperwork that could shake things up all over again. A dressed-up document of legal transfer, really. But in this case, it's what's being transferred that makes it interesting.You could wake up tomorrow, and we could be giving parents nightmares all over again, through no exertion of your own, just what we could best characterize as a quirk of birthright.Think of it as a car title."

"I dislike driving."

"The car, in this case, being a ready-made career, logo and name trademarks, licensing agreements. Royalties are split fifty-fifty, with a ten-year staggered phaseout in which you eventually assume the full amount. In the meantime, he's got to eat, too."

M______closed his eyes. The flowers and brush turned into waving cilia against the purple black of his eyelids. He let the sun spread over his face.

The lawyer's tone had gone flat."Historic first. Chance of a lifetime. You'd be completely within your rights to say you're him. Legally, you'd be him."

He smiled into the warmth and shook his head.

The lawyer deflated. "Don't be an asshole. Once in a lifetime opportunity. Epoch-making event. A blink-and-miss-it deal. Offer you can't refuse. Limited time only."

He returned to the Wiff office Friday to a care basket filled with cans of chicken soup and Thera-Flu. He thanked everyone, remembering to fake a cough.

*

The Hawaiian Punch burned his throat and made his knees go liquid. M______ hacked and nearly spat up on his favorite tie (the one with the wind surfer on it cutting a wave, who looked as though he was about to fly right into your face), and they laughed.

"Whoops," Hortensen said. "I forgot we have a teetotaler on staff."Hortensen's face was red and shiny as an apple. He himself was on his third cup. "My mistake. I officially sanctioned the spiking of the punch, and I apologize.There's another can of the virgin stuff around here somewhere." He ducked his head under the festive oilcloth covering the table."Marjorie! What are you doing under there with Sawyer?"Everyone broke into laughter, and laughed again when M______ peeked under the table, too. No one was there. Hortensen slapped him on the back and said, really, sorry about the punch.M______ said he didn't really mind.Feeling fat, humid bubbles pop in his head, he said he might even have another.

"Who knows, maybe you'll grab the mic and honor us with a rendition of 'Head Like a Hole,'" Hortensen said, smiling at himself.With a Ritz cracker, he scooped up a clot of seafood dip and plunged it into his mouth.

"That's Nine Inch Nails, smarty," Marjorie said.Marjorie was in sales. The genetic clone of M______ M______ had always thought the thin, large-breasted woman's outgoing nature masked specific insecurities. "I think he meant your brother's song, 'B______ P______.'Is that what you'd call him?Your brother?"

"Father," they said.

"Twin?" they said.

"Donor," they said.

"There really is no word for it," he said.Untied by alcohol, they would make it the night's topic and end up apologizing profusely come Monday.

"Brother's more accurate than father," Sawyer said. "But that's splitting DNA, isn't it?" Everyone laughed.

Then Sawyer addressed the crowd in the conference room, where they'd pushed the meeting table against the wall, stacked the plastic chairs and strung crepe paper from the track lights. "And now, for our compadres allergic to karaoke, you may want to clear the area. Rock star fantasies incoming." From behind the food table, Sawyer rolled out what looked like a squat robot bristling with knobs and dials.

"Working late last night?" Hortensen said to the genetic clone of M______ M______. "You look like you put in more than your standard eight hours.Got yourself a set of saddlebags."

"There was a bug in the accounting program," he said. "Quarterlies are due Monday, as you know. It was best to get on it ahead of time."

"They happen. Nothing a few extra hours of desk time can't fix. You did fix it, right?" His big, wet eyes were searching. He took a sip of punch, keeping his gaze on the genetic clone of M______ M______.

"Oh yes. It turns out the problem was right in front of my nose the whole time."

"I bet you find that immensely satisfying," Hortensen said.

"Dear, yes. Job satisfaction is a perk you can't buy," he said. He meant it. He knew his earnestness angered Hortensen off sometimes.

Someone had strung up a pinata. It was modeled after the copy machine that chronically jammed.McDerf, the balding Help Desk tech who specialized in printers, was blindfolded, given a red whiffle ball bat and sent after it. A chorus of ragged whoops rose every time he swung and stumbled. The pinata bobbed as McDerf danced before it like a walrus.

"Do you find the chair at your desk uncomfortable?" Hortensen said.

"My desk chair? It's fine," he said. McDerf connected with a corner of the copy machine pinata. It broke away, leaking Bit 'O Honeys and individually wrapped Twizzlers.

"We can get you a new one if you'd like," Hortensen said."Ergonomics are important.My feeling is you either pay for employee well-being in the short term, or you pay for it big-time later on."

"My desk chair is fine, really."

"Look at me," Hortensen told him. In his eyes there were suspicions, charges, sentences."Then why was your jacket on Bethany's chair?"

His field of vision surged and grew fuzzy.The punch, he figured, was going to his head, compounding this new panic. Another round of cheers went up when a blindfolded secretary kicked off her black pumps and attacked the pinata with a desperate roundhouse. He could hear the swish of the bat; it sounded to him like the approach of ghostly feet. But if he could feint, sidestep and then attack Hortensen's program in the green and amber world of the accounting program, couldn't he deploy those traits in the real world? Or did it require a poise and boldness he lacked? Another swell of punch to his brain strengthened his resolve.

"I don't know if I should tell you..."

"I'm afraid policy requires you to disclose."Hortensen said it without irony.

"It's embarrassing. Please, sir."

"You're playing with fire, now."

The pinata bulged like a tumor and split, hemorrhaging Jawbreakers and Smarties and Hershey's Kisses; a blindfolded Sawyer had cut into it with a momentous downward blow that sent the thing shuddering and spraying candy. Secretaries, middle managers and file clerks fell to their knees and raked themselves little mountains of sweets.

"We're ... having an affair," M______ said.He slugged more punch and looked at the floor, where a Butterfinger, slightly dented, had crash-landed by his feet.He picked it up. "I wasn't really working late last night. I was...being intimate with Bethany."

Hortensen's baggy face contracted like some organ."Surely you're familiar with Wiff policy on romantic relationships within the company?"

"Yes, I am. I know I've broken the rules. I've compromised the integrity of Wiff Distribution, and I'm sorry for that.Sir, I can stop this immediately.I only ask that—"

A drunk accountant with his tie wrapped around his head, commando-style, blundered in front of them on his way to the spinach dip.

"We are talking about a serious offense.A fireable one."

He looked down again. "I am ready to accept the consequences." He felt hot with self-reproach now. How stupid.Fired for a subterfuge he had felt was necessary for a higher goal—one he'd never reach now. Did Hortensen know he was lying? It didn't matter. The false confession was out, and the genetic clone of M______ M______ couldn't take it back. He had just given his boss all the ammunition he needed to save himself.

He felt a slap on his back. Hortensen wheezed with glee.

"Haw, haw. You look like you're on the verge of a heart attack. Come on now. Don't die on me. You think I'd fire you for getting a little tail?Welcome to the club.Where'd you do the deed, on the chair?" Hortensen, drunk, toasted him again and again, and the genetic clone of M______ M______ supplied the lies as readily as his imagination would allow: yes, that Bethany was a screamer—and a panther (you should see the claw marks she left!); he never knew those office chairs were so "versatile" if you know what I mean, I'll gladly put in overtime if those are the benefits.His boss's face was as red as the punch by the time the clone of M______ M______ was finished, and Hortensen kept slapping him on the back, saying, well, it turns out you are a rock 'n' roller, son.You really are a rock 'n' roller at heart.

A blurt of music bit into the room, and everyone turned to see Sawyer kneeling in front of the karaoke machine. He punched buttons, turned knobs and hefted the speaker on top of a filing cabinet. M______ looked down and smiled in a luxury of abstraction at the fact that he had another cup of punch sparkling in his hand, probably supplied by a congratulatory Hortensen, who had stalked off to no doubt flirt with Bethany, who was, in fact, a perma-grinning Mormon with a marriage that was as solid as the bowl of ambrosia nobody was eating. Chumbley from human resources yelled "Cowabunga." Higgins from the mailroom had fashioned a party hat out of an expanding file folder. Dalverson from promotions stood on top of an office chair, writhing in her best approximation of a go-go dancer. Bencher, editor of the company newsletter, was trying to fax his ass to the other side of the room.

His vision rushed and blurred again, and he found himself moved to the front of the crowd by a current of elbows and shoulders.He looked at Sawyer watching yellow words crawl up the blue screen. Murmurs: but where was the music, the sound? "You'll never get a promotion this way, Sawyer," someone said.The genetic clone of M______ M______ watched the words scroll up through his own punch-wet vision.He felt strangely unspooled. "Our wonderful IT desk at work," another slurred.But he didn't need sound.The genetic clone of M______ M______ mouthed the words. Sawyer turned and smiled his goofy pothead grin, and everyone whooped as the music stuttered and blared back on. A fever of dancing broke out and Sawyer, unthinking, passed the mic to the genetic clone of M______ M______.

He regarded the microphone as a new, illicit drug: something that piqued curiosity, fear and a craving for danger.He considered his impulses of the last 24 hours and found a better name for them. For the sake of danger, he'd put down the phone last night. For danger he'd lied to Hortensen. For danger he'd accepted the microphone.There was danger behind him.It danced, shouted and careened. It required a properly delinquent spirit to confront and balance. Flinging hair and tie, he turned to the crowd, red-faced office dwellers who suddenly appeared to be clamoring for his attention. He could hear the cheap click of disposable cameras, feel the flash against his naked eyes, the thick globules of the bass and the typists tugging at his tie with a flirtatiousness that was the closest they had ever come to erotic abandon. The force that came out of him sang with stalking menace. The force was not father, not son or brother. It was wet, screaming and new and the world was agape because he had a better word, a secret word, for the force that balked at the FBI and talked down a boss foundering with rotten motives. He could look them in the eyes now, the secretaries kicking off their sensible shoes, the huffing middle managers with shirts and blouses damp with sweat and punch, Hortensen whose slyness had succumbed to complacency, the faceless all with faces now because he could affirm that he had one, too. And he told them that one way or another I'm gonna find ya, I'm gonna getcha getcha getcha getcha.One day. Maybe next week. And in the dancing wave of rainbow fire that was the faces, the music, the party, everyone hammering at the pinata now as it crackled and gushed and became—manifesting the pure audacity of saying I am—he chose to believe it was raining candy, so much candy you could spend days, nights, years and still never account for it all.

THE END


© 2007 Andrew Kiraly

Andrew Kiraly is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and has published short stories in magazines such as the Red Rock Review and Black Box Recorder. He has also had stories included in anthologies from imprints such as Manic D Press and University of Nevada Press, as well as humor pieces on McSweeney's Internet Tendency. A native Las Vegan. He is currently managing editor of alt-weekly Las Vegas CityLife.

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