J- was sitting at his desk, at home, struggling, typing a report for The Patent Office when he heard a knock on his door. Must be my elderly neighbor, he assumed. Asking me to carry his groceries up the stairs again. I’ll have to talk to the building manager. Can’t have these disturbances while I work.
But it was not J-‘s elderly neighbor who had knocked, it was, instead, a deliveryman carrying a small, coffin-shaped box of insubstantial weight. According to the postmark, the package had been sent from a city in China, the name of which J- did not recognize and could not pronounce.
“Are you certain you have the right address,” he asked, but after the deliveryman provided sufficient confirmation, J- accepted the package and carried it into his living room, where, upon further inspection, he discovered the following note attached to its corrugated cardboard:
Hope you enjoy the gift. They’re the next ‘big’ thing!
Well it’s about time, J- thought, relieved that his generosity was finally being acknowledged.
A- had been a classmate of J-‘s from their days at The Academy. A decade after their graduation, the two men became re-acquainted at a reunion where A- approached J- and requested of him a certain favor. It was the type of favor that was strictly prohibited according to the bylaws of The Patent Office, but was, nonetheless, often performed in exchange for a small bribe. Though never by J-. Though well aware of the corruption quite common at The Patent Office (particularly among the poorly paid clerks whose prospects for promotion were in doubt), J- himself had never taken part in any illicit activities. In fact, he found it quite brazen of A- to ask such a favor, especially considering the sort of penalties he could have incurred should J- have turned him over to The Authorities.
But A- had always had a reputation for brazenness, both in his personal and in his professional life. It was his trademark. Something people admired about him. Brazenness was a quality J- liked to think he possessed as well though he never had an opportunity to express it. Instead, his reputation was for thoroughness and diligence, qualities that served him well and earned him his current position. Qualities that didn’t make it easy for him to break the rules, though in the end, after much deliberation and for reasons which he did not at the time understand, J- did, eventually, grant the favor A- requested.
What J- did not do, however, having been a novice in matters of corruption, was ask for anything in return. Which isn’t to say he didn’t expect anything in return. Which isn’t to say he didn’t want anything in return. And in the coming year, when J- didn’t receive so much as a phone call from A-, he began to suspect that he had made a grave mistake. He had made a moral compromise only to be taken advantage of by someone far more experienced in the world of duplicity. In retrospect, J- wished he had demanded compensation and negotiated a specific amount before doing the favor. Or just refused A- from the beginning. The whole fiasco bothered him even more when he heard rumors that A- was involved in an enormously lucrative enterprise while J- remained chained to his desk, working for the paltry salary of a clerk at The Patent Office.
After reading the note, J- ran it twice through his paper shredder in order to eliminate any trace of incriminating evidence. He jumbled the confetti in the trash and grabbed a knife from the kitchen drawer. He approached the strange, coffin-shaped box and thrust the blade into the corrugated cardboard.
“Dear God!” cried a voice from somewhere in the room.
J- jumped back and looked about his apartment searching for the source of this strange outburst. Must be my neighbor’s television, he decided. He is hard of hearing and plays his set so loud.
Once more, J- stuck his knife into the package only to hear the same frightened voice scream out, “Please be careful!”
There was no mistaking it this time. Something in the box could speak!
Casting aside the knife, J- peeled open the cardboard box to reveal that inside, covered in packing foam, stood a pudgy little man no more than one-and-a-half feet tall wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches and gray slacks held high by suspenders. He was a living, breathing man, ugly and curious, like nothing J- had ever seen. He wore a horsehair wig hastily sewn to his scalp and a striped tie too wide to be in fashion. Beads of sweat had collected on the little man’s brow. Flecks of Styrofoam clung to his beard. And though he appeared to be a middle-aged little man, beyond 50 perhaps, the tags attached to his wrist would suggest he was brand new.
“What kind of a shit gift is this,” J- asked.
The little man cleared his throat, licked his palm, and wiped it over his mussy coiffure. He thrust his stubby, little paw into one inside pocket of his jacket, then into the other, from which he produced a small sheaf of papers. He unfolded the sheaf several times and kept unfolding it until the papers reached the size of a small booklet.
“I am, good Sir,” and here the little man cleared his throat again, “hm, hm… obliged to hand you this upon delivery.”
He extended the booklet to J-, who, upon receiving it, read out loud the following title:
Congratulations on the purchase of your new homunculus!
The pages thereafter, printed in several languages, contained warranty information and instructions for care and maintenance. It was, as far as J- could tell, an owner’s manual of sorts. An owner’s manual for an homunculus. For some sort of pet given to him as a gift. Only there was nothing cute about this pet. Nothing cute about an ugly little man in a suit.
J- wondered if the homunculus was truly meant as a gift and not as some sort of an insult instead. He remembered that A- and he were hardly friends at The Academy. That A- was older and born of a family with a long tradition at the school. An elitist who rarely stooped to speak to an upstart like J-, unless it was to mock him or impress his friends with his ability to “communicate with the people.”
But that was years ago, J- reasoned, and A- would never be so foolish as to think that the status he held over me then would still apply. Not after the favor I granted him from my station at The Patent Office.
But as J- stared down at the homunculus, twitching, clearing his throat, and patting down his hair with a slickened palm, his hypos began to get the better of him. He couldn’t help thinking that A- was gloating over him. That he had given him this gift in order to call J- an ugly little man in a suit, a suck-up, too timid to ask for money in return for a favor. That this offered gift was a most malicious display of arrogance if ever there was one. That it represented an attack on J- and the entire tradition of The Patent Office – an intolerable affront to all that was decent in human behavior!
The homunculus cleared his throat again prompting J- to backhand him with a ferocity that sent the little man flying across the room and crashing into a bookshelf. Hoping to catch A- before he left his office, J- dialed his number and demanded the receptionist put him through. While on hold for what seemed an eternity, he jotted down on a pad some of the many things he wished to say should his old acquaintance have the courage to take the call. And if he couldn’t get him on the phone, J- was fully prepared to speak his mind on voice mail, or in a strongly worded email that A- would not soon forget.
“Isn’t it great,” A- asked, when he finally took the call. “These babies are gonna sell like hotcakes! I’m gonna mass produce the things, market ’em up the wazoo and, in two years time, there’s going to be one in every home in The Land!”
“Mass produce them,” J- asked. A-‘s excitement unnerved J-, catching him completely off-guard and forcing him to wonder if his initial reaction might have been inappropriate. “Do you mean to tell me that…”
“One of our R&D guys came up with the idea about a year ago,” A- interrupted. “Yours is the latest prototype. Top of the line. A real beaut if I don’t say so myself.”
J- was baffled. He still suspected that A- was getting one over on him, but he couldn’t think of a way to prove it. “Do you mind telling me first what in God’s name it is,” J- asked. “I mean, what is its purpose? What is one supposed to do with the thing?”
“Personally,” A- replied, “I have mine sing to me. Turns out the sonofabitch is a heck of a baritone!” From the pit of his belly erupted a loud and raucous laugh.
J-, however, was not laughing. He still found no humor in the situation. “Do you mean to tell me you’ve given me a slave,” he asked.
“Oh no, no. Not at all,” his old acquaintance protested, ending his laughter in order to take on a tone of seriousness that expressed his disdain for the institution of slavery, long gone from The Land, though it had existed some time ago. “It’s got to be human to be a slave. And this thing is definitely not human. At least not according to the patent on its manufacturing process.” So that was the favor, J- realized. That was why A- needed me to move those papers at The Patent Office. “Of course if you don’t like it, I can always take it back,” A- added in a manner that suggested not only that J- was an ingrate but also an accomplice in a crime. “I just thought I owed you something. After all, you did make it possible for me to…”
J- cut him off rather than be reminded explicitly of the mistake he had made a year ago. The whole business was making him sick. If A- was telling the truth about the homunculus, then J-‘s favor had been a key component in its manufacture. His transgression had a consequence, embodied in the form of an ugly little man in a suit. A soon-to-be mass produced ugly little man in a suit.
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” J- offered in a bewildered state of contrition. “It is a lovely gift.” Though one that made him nauseous to look at. “Do I have to… feed or clean up after it?”
A- told him that the homunculus could pretty much take care of itself.
“And does it… have a name,” J- asked.
“I don’t know,” A- replied. “Maybe you should ask.” The homunculus stood facing the bookshelf, browsing through titles, pretending to ignore the conversation J- was having on the phone. “It is made from the root of mandrake and the sperm of hanged man,” A- explained. “They are born of an ancient tradition and reconfigured to exist in the modern age. Consider yourself lucky that you’re one of the chosen few who can have one before everyone else.”
It occurred to J- that his old acquaintance could very well have lost his mind. How else to explain this delusional behavior? How else to explain why a person would invest what must have been millions of his own and other people’s dollars in the hope that the general public would want to buy what was essentially a middle-aged midget? It occurred to J- that perhaps A- was no more malicious than he was brazen. Perhaps he was merely a misguided entrepreneur who had gone insane.
The two acquaintances made a non-formal, non-committal commitment to have lunch sometime in the near but not too-near future. They hung up their respective phones, A- so that he could get home to his wife and children, and J- so that he could return to his desk and finish typing his report. There was, however, the matter of dealing with the one-and-a-half foot man standing in J-‘s living room. He walked to the bookshelf and asked the homunculus if he had a name.
“My name,” answered the little man, twitching and clearing his throat, “hm, hm… as in the one which was given to me at the factory, hm … or the plant, I should say…”
“Please,” interrupted J-. “Just tell me your name.”
The little man smiled and tilted his head obsequiously to the side. “My name is Randolph,” he announced, clicking his heels and lengthening his posture. “Randolph, the homunculus!” He bowed and swung his arm in a flourish, then looked up sheepishly for approval.
“And is Randolph your Christian name,” J- asked, unimpressed by the performance.
“Oh good heavans!” replied Randolph, with a laugh followed by another clearing of the throat. “It is a name, which I assure you, hm, hm… is neither Christian, Semitic, Mohammedan nor of any other particular denomination. It is my entire name. It is what I am called, hm, hm… though I’d be more than willing to change it hm… if that is what you require.”
The little man forced a chuckle, but seeing no approval from his owner, allowed his gaze to fall downward in what might have been the saddest expression of defeat J- had ever seen. But it was not an expression that elicited any sympathy from J-. It elicited nothing but more nausea and frustration. For J- had not asked for this little man. He had not asked for this gift. Nearly half an hour had passed since the deliveryman knocked, and in that time, J- had made no progress on his report, and his position at The Patent Office was not so secure that he could afford to waste time on some toy — especially not one that served no purpose other than to remind him of a crime he committed a year ago for which he could still serve a stiff sentence if caught. Deciding he was better off before ever having laid eyes on the damned thing, J- returned the little man to his cardboard coffin, sealed it up with duct tape, and placed it on the uppermost shelf of his closet where he kept old laptops and other objects he had no use for but wouldn’t, for whatever reason, simply throw in the trash.
Clerks in The Patent Office are each expected to hand in one detailed analysis report (DAR) at the end of each and every week. The DAR’s are then graded by the managers on a scale of one to six, with a “one” representing a failing mark and a “six” meaning the report is virtually perfect. As explained in The Patent Office Handbook (POH), any clerk who hands in a DAR that receives a grade of one will be immediately terminated. An accumulation of twos, i.e. two in the same month, is also enough to force a clerk into early retirement. Even a steady diet of threes and fours provides no guarantee that a clerk will keep his job. Indeed, the only way that a clerk can feel at all secure in his or her employment at The Patent Office is to score fours and fives (F&F’s) with consistency on his or her DAR’s.
But scoring F&F’s is no easy task. F&F’s require discipline, determination, and an unwavering mind-set, the scope of which is beyond the nature of the great majority of the population. And as for a six – well, that is nearly impossible to attain! Any time a clerk can “six” is cause for celebration in the office, not to mention a bonus and a good deal of envy amongst his or her peers. And if a clerk can score “repeat sixes,” i.e. three in a month, the clerk, according to the rules outlined in POH, is to be immediately promoted (upon review) to the rank of “manager.” In fact, repeat sixes is the only way (with exceptions) to be promoted to the rank of manager, which is why The Patent Office is often called a meritocracy (of sorts), and why each year thousands of graduates from The Academy apply there for a job.
It is also the reason why there are so few managers employed by The Patent Office and why their positions are so enormously coveted. Not that anyone knows what they do. Even the clerks who work in close proximity to them have no idea what goes on behind the closed doors of the managers’ chambers. They know only that the managers are well paid; that they can get things done without going through normal bureaucratic channels; that they are the keepers of a great many secrets; and that the ladies of The Public Sector are eager to bequeath to them the treasures of their loins.
What it takes to write repeat sixes, thereby gaining promotion to the rank of manager, is the ever-present topic of discussion amongst the clerks of The Patent Office. But the criteria for evaluation remains an enigma to them. Sure, the managers provide rudimentary instructions. They issue copies of past fives and sixes in order to serve as guidelines and set parameters for quality. But reading a six, or even studying one in depth, is little help when it comes to actually creating one yourself. Clerks often turn in what they think is their best work only to get back scores of three or four, which is enough to make them wonder if there really is a standardized system by which they are being evaluated, and not some sinister machine spitting out arbitrary numbers.
There is even a story that circulates the office concerning a pair of clerks who were having an affair and who promised each other one evening that whoever was promoted first would tell the other “the secret of the sixes.” As the story goes, it was the woman who first achieved promotion, and, thereafter, when her mate asked her to divulge the answer to the riddle, he received instead an icy reply that it was strictly forbidden for her to tell him anything other than what was contained in The Patent Office Handbook. When the clerk pushed the issue and demanded that his mate keep her end of their bedroom bargain, the newly promoted manager informed him that she would sooner end their relationship than respond to what he was asking. Even when the clerk’s anger approached the threat of violence, the manager would only add that up until the very moment of her promotion, she had had every intention of telling him the secret, but that the knowledge of the secret had changed her — “had transformed her understanding” — to the extant that it was no longer possible to tell him and, indeed, that it would never, ever happen.
In pursuit of repeat sixes, J-, like most of his fellow clerks, kept long hours at the office and carried his work home with him, spending weekends and holidays staring at the screen of his laptop. He regularly pulled all-nighters at his desk, washing down amphetamines with coffee to keep himself awake, and even when he did get to bed, he often tossed and turned worrying about whether he had taken the right course in his writing, or whether his forays along the roads of style were leading him astray. He worried about whether or not he could keep up with his overly competitive rivals in the office. He worried that age was getting to him, slowing him down and sapping the very strength he needed to remain afloat. If a clerk was going to get promoted to manager, he usually did so within his first seven years. J- had been at it for ten, and though he scored F&F’s with consistency, he felt no closer to repeat sixes than he did when he first started. And there were personal concerns as well. Work prevented J- from having anything resembling a social life. If things kept up the way they were, J- worried he would remain a permanent bachelor, stuck to his desk and its never ending pile of reports. If only I had more talent, he often wished. Or savvy. Or a different perspective. Or maybe if I just put a little more effort into it. But alas, nothing seemed to work.
One night, as J- lay in bed thinking about the report he would hand in in the morning, he heard a strange tapping noise emanating from the closet in his living room. It was Randolph, no doubt, probably clearing his throat as was his annoying habit. J- had not had any dealings with the homunculus since the day, several months prior, when he had first received him in the cardboard coffin. He had surmised, however, that Randolph had escaped his packaging and enjoyed the run of the house when home alone. The evidence was subtle but clear. There were chicken bones in the trash that had been broken open with their marrow sucked out; books had been rearranged on the shelves; and, at night, J- often heard noises in the bathroom as the little man moved through the ritual of his toilet. Since his mind was so completely occupied by work, J- didn’t worry much about the homunculus’ presence. He thought of Randolph as a leaky faucet, a sore shoulder or just some other nuisance that needed to be dealt with at some infinitely later time. This particular night, however, J- could not leave well enough alone. The noise was keeping him awake, and this particular night, J- wanted his sleep.
He threw off his covers, stumbled into the living room, and approached the closet door. He could hear Randolph’s breath, some mumbling, and more of that strange tapping noise. J- was about to knock when it occurred to him that this was his house and he was damned if he had to knock on his door to be polite to an uninvited homunculus. Instead, he decided to yank the door open and catch the homunculus unawares. But in that moment, when he finally did yank the door open, it was not only the homunculus but J- who was caught unawares. Unawares and completely unprepared for the shocking sight that lay before him. For the closet bore no resemblance to the room as last J- saw it, several months prior, when he first condemned the little man to its uppermost shelf. Since then, the closet had been entirely transformed into a scaled-down replica of J-‘s cubicle at The Patent Office. Even the furniture matched. Only upon closer inspection did J- realize that the swivel chair had been crafted from stapled shoeboxes; that the desk was made from the cardboard coffin Randolph had arrived in; that the lamp was actually an old, carved-up boot holding a hemp oil candle that Randolph must have taken from the cupboard.
“My goodness,” Randolph exclaimed, clutching his chest. He stood up from his chair and slipped his tweed jacket over his shirtsleeves. “Hm, hm… I wasn’t expecting company.”
There was an old forgotten laptop and an ink jet printer hooked up to an outlet. A pile of documents were arranged on a bookcase made from discarded wood — documents that looked suspiciously similar to the reports J- wrote for The Patent Office.
“You have woken me,” J- replied, still stunned at the scene spread out before him. “You have woken me with all of your throat clearing and mussing about.”
“I beg your pardon,” said the homunculus. “I guess it is something of a nervous tick I have, hm, hm… Some minor blunder at the factory, hm… or a faulty mandrake perhaps.”
There was an edition of John Milton and a copy of The Secret Sharer atop the coffin. J- recognized them as his own.
“Just a little poetry and some Conrad,” the homunculus offered as answer to a question that was implied but never asked. “I promise to return them to their, hm, hm… exact positions on your shelf when I’m finished with them.”
J- had never considered what kind of existence the little man had been carving out for himself since being stuck in the closet. He had never considered what activities a homunculus might pursue to relieve himself the burden of time.
“What are you typing,” J- asked, genuinely curious.
“Oh, nothing really,” Randolph motioned to the laptop with a dismissive wave. “Just some… reports.”
J- insisted on seeing these reports. He carried the laptop into the living room and browsed through the hard drive while Randolph lingered, hands in pockets, by the closet door. All through the evening, J- read the files one by one in the order they were written.
“I have them printed out,” the homunculus interrupted at one point. “Though the ribbon is hm, hm… a bit weakened from overuse.”
From what J- could gather, it appeared the homunculus had been writing a journal of sorts that combined commentary concerning what he was reading from J-‘s book shelf; an account of the building of his office; theories on the process of his manufacture; analysis of his relationship to J-; and musings pertaining to the quality and nature of reality. There was nothing, as far as J- could tell, duplicitous in the text, and nothing about which J- needed to be alarmed. By all appearances, the writing seemed to be little more than the private thoughts of a miniature man who lived in a closet and passed his time wrestling with the anxiety of his own existence.
But the prose was exemplary. Extraordinary, in fact, though there seemed to be no progression in the skill: i.e. the homunculus wrote as well in his first report as he did in his last, which led J- to believe that there was something timeless about the little man. That he was not maturing. That he was manufactured with his skill innate, at exactly the age at which he appeared, and that he would get no older or wiser as the years wore on.
“You write rather well,” J- admitted.
“Ach. Thank you,” the homunculus demurred. “Just a little, hm, hm… hobby of mine.” He went on to expound on his tastes in literature placing particular emphasis on his love for the diaries of Franz Kafka and the couplets of Alexander Pope. “To live within the, hm, hm… genius of his poetry is a treat beyond any other. I especially like his piece entitled, ‘An Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot,’ my favorite line being…”
“Randolph,” J- interrupted after it had occurred to him that perhaps this gift from A- was not entirely useless. “Do you ever get bored living in the closet?”
“Well, I, hm, hm… try and keep myself occupied.”
“I find comfort in my craft.” The little man twitched and adjusted his wig.
“It seems a great waste that a talent such as yours should sit in a small, dark room and not be put to greater use.”
The homunculus thanked his owner for the compliment.
“How would you like to do a little bit of work for me,” J- asked. “Perhaps look over my reports?”
The homunculus put a hand to his heart indicating that he was flattered. “As you are my owner,” he replied, “I am hm, hm… here to perform whatever task it is you wish of me. And if reading documents is how you prefer I spend my time, then I am hm, hm… in no position, hm… to refuse.”
A further thought occurred to J-.
“Might you also be willing to write them?”
For the sake of appearances, J- still went to the office every day. He still did some research and attended meetings so as not to raise suspicions. But with Randolph secretly taking over his writing, J-began to use his new, surplus time to experience what some might call life.
He began cautiously at first, taking longer lunches and leaving the office at six. Then he started taking breaks in the middle of the day just to see if he could get away with it. Eventually, he built up the courage to visit museums, browse through bookstores and attend matinees at his local theater. He took hikes and walks in the park. Laid out on the beach and read magazines in cafes. He even met his colleagues for drinks after work and flirted with the waitress at the office watering hole where he often bought the first round, a tradition anytime an analyst scored a six. And J- was scoring quite a few sixes since Randolph had begun writing his reports.
It didn’t take long for the homunculus to exceed the level of mastery J- had worked for so many years to achieve. His first report scored a four, his next a five, and within a month, the little man had scored his first six. After scoring another six the following week, the office pool held odds at two-to-one that J- would finally earn his long-awaited promotion. Unfortunately, the week after, there was a slip in Randolph’s execution. His DAR came back a five, meaning that he would have to start all over again in his attempt at repeat sixes.
But no matter. Everyone in the office was still betting on J-. His colleagues smiled at him in the hallways and deferred to him at meetings. The secretaries raised their skirts ever so slightly when he entered the elevator. One night he was even able to convince a female intern to join him for an aperitif back at his apartment. The evening seemed to be moving in a glorious direction until the young lady excused herself to go to the bathroom, where she immediately erupted into hysterics, screaming and crying after catching sight of a one-and-a-half foot man squatting over the toilet. J- spent the next hour struggling to convince the unfortunate girl that it was only her imagination playing tricks on her, but the night had been ruined, and the intern asked to be driven home.
With respect to their living situation, J-‘s relationship with Randolph had grown more amiable than it was when they first met. The two got along like old roommates. They shared the paper in the morning, watched television together and talked sports. J- cooked breakfast for the little man and even built him a cot so he wouldn’t have to sleep on the floor. The only tension in their relationship arose from Randolph’s inability to score the repeat sixes necessary for J’s promotion. Month after month, the same situation persisted: two straight weeks of sixes followed by a four or a five.
“Is there anything I could get you that would help,” J- asked.
“Not at all,” Randolph replied. “You have provided me, hm, hm… with everything I could possibly need.”
“Then is it fatigue?”
“It could be,” said Randolph, in a contemplative tone. “But I am certain hm, hm… this will be the month I pull it off!”
J- assumed it was just a matter of time, and until then, he could at least enjoy the bonuses and the envy of his colleagues. He could enjoy the time off and the relief from the pressures of having to write a report every week. He could enjoy his sleep! J- was well rested and healthy for the first time in as long as he could remember. His weight was stable. His skin was clear. He was also incredibly bored. After all, with Randolph doing all the work, J- had almost nothing to do but fill his days with empty chores and activities. It was as if his body was engaged in a pantomime while his mind remained stuck in the closet with Randolph. It was as if J-‘s only “real” activity was the wait — the wait for Randolph to score three sixes in a row. The wait for the promotion to come. The wait for his life to improve.
“I hope you weren’t waiting long,” J- asked as he took his seat at a booth near the kitchen. A- had called him that morning and asked if he’d like to have lunch. They agreed to meet at a quiet downtown bistro, where J- had every intention of picking up the check.
“Few minutes,” grumbled his old acquaintance. He seemed less brazen than usual. His complexion pale. His manner more reserved.
J- inquired about A-‘s family and a few of their old classmates from The Academy. Asked about his various business ventures and informed A- of his own recent success at The Patent Office. “Only a matter of time now until I’m a manager. Imagine the favors I’ll be able to do for you then!”
Pleasantries aside, A- removed his glasses and leaned forward across the table. He lowered his voice and told J- there was an important matter they needed to discuss. “A matter of extreme urgency.” He then apologized for not coming to him sooner and acknowledged that, in his negligence, he had forgotten that he had once sent J- an homunculus as a gift.
J- had hoped that the subject of the little man would not come up in their conversation. After all, if anyone were to find out that Randolph was writing J-‘s reports, the repercussions could be most severe. The Patent Office dealt in some of the most important matters of national finance. If it was leaked that a homunculus from China was writing his DAR’s and possibly undermining economic policy, J- could be arrested and even charged with treason.
“I assume,” said A-, “that because I haven’t heard from you, there hasn’t been any trouble with yours.”
J- looked down at his empty water glass and found himself overcome by a terrible thirst. “Trouble,” he asked, as if the homunculus was the furthest thing from his mind. He tried to suck a last bit of liquid from a melting ice cube but found it failed to satisfy. “What do you mean by trouble?”
A- continued in hushed tones, out of keeping with the boisterous voice he usually employed. “It seems that some of the homunculi,” he whispered, “despite our best efforts at making them benign… took advantage of certain opportunities to turn on their owners.”
“Turn on them,” J- asked, trying to appear only mildly interested, his throat parched from the thirst. “Mine has never, hm, hm… been out of the closet.”
A- furrowed his eyebrows in disbelief. “You mean to tell me,” he asked, “that you kept your homunculus in his original packing and never once let him out?”
J- nodded, his throat so incredibly dry, his lie so incredibly blatant, he could not actually give forth sound. He twisted in his chair, eyes searching for a waiter or an unattended glass of water from another table.
“But what does it eat,” A- asked. “Where does it go to take a shit?”
J- shrugged. His lie was outrageous, insulting to his friend’s intelligence, but he was sticking to it. And Goddamnit where was that waiter?
“Is it dead,” A- asked. “No. It can’t be,” he answered his own question. “You’d smell it if it was dead.”
A busboy appeared from the kitchen, and J- beckoned him over holding his glass in the air. The busboy filled the glass with ice water, and J- drank it down in several large gulps before asking the busboy to fill it again. Taking another long drink gave him the time needed to formulate more lies.
“I stored the homunculus in a cellar which I never use,” J- elaborated once he had finished his drink. “If he is hm, hm… dead and rotting, I wouldn’t smell him because I never go down there.”
Obviously, there was no cellar in J-‘s apartment, but there was also no way A- would know that unless he’d been there. Which he hadn’t. And whereas A- clearly didn’t believe J-‘s lie, he was decent enough, or tactically proficient enough, to continue on as if he did.
“It is essential,” A- warned, “that we know your homunculus is dead. That we get it out of your home and destroy it immediately before it does you any harm.” A- glanced at his watch without reading it and motioned to the waiter that he wanted the check. “I have some time now. Let’s take care of it before you’re due back at the office.”
J- pondered what his life would be like if he had to return to handing in F&F’s. If he had to return to the mundane drudgery of a clerk with no hope of making manager. Ten years he had been at that office. Could he possibly survive another ten or twenty years without promotion? Without even the hope of promotion?
“I’m afraid,” J- responded as A- received the check from the waiter, “that I am unable to return to my home at this time.”
This was the first time J- had ever refused his old acquaintance, and it was apparent from the look on his old acquaintance’s face that he was not accustomed to being refused. Indeed, A- paused for a moment, made certain that the waiter had moved on, then carefully placed the check down on the table. He leaned in close, bulky and strong, and spoke in a more assertive tone.
“When will you be able to return to your home,” A- asked.
J- held firm. “I’m not exactly sure.”
The two men looked each other in the eye for several long seconds, something of a challenge between them, before A- finally budged.
“As a CEO, I’m telling you that my company can’t afford to be held liable for another one of these things going bad. And as your friend,” he went on, taking hold of J-‘s hand atop the table, “I’m telling you that I can’t afford to feel responsible for your getting hurt.”
J- laughed out loud at the thought. “Getting hurt,” he asked. “How am I going to get hurt by a one-and-a-half foot toy?” He laughed again as he rescued his hand from A-‘s grasp and took his wallet from his jacket pocket. “Come on now, A-,” he said as he threw down a pair of twenty dollar bills beside the check. “Surely you’re joking with me.”
But nothing in A-‘s demeanor would indicate that this was in jest. He sat back in the booth and looked down at the meal he’d hardly touched. He took up his glasses and placed them carefully over his eyes. He spoke almost to himself at this point, staring down at the nearest edge of the table, and yet every word was clearly audible to J-. As audible as his words would be if they were being spoken directly into J-‘s ear.
“It will never get you that promotion.”
Every sound in the restaurant, every click of a glass, or piece of silverware striking a plate, merged into one quietly prolonged hiss in J-‘s ear. The words he had just heard spoken seemed to echo over and beyond that hiss. “It will never get you that promotion.” The water J- had so recently drunk seeped through his skin to drench the shirt beneath his coat. He loosened his collar to help with his breathing. And though he chose not to respond to the words A- had spoken (he had not been asked a question, and thus there was no reason to respond), the look on his face clearly conveyed that he had heard and understood what was said.
“They come up short,” A- added. “In the end,” A-continued, “that is what little men do.”
J- sat there, crestfallen, sweaty and confused, as A- quietly instructed him of the procedure required for the decommission of an homunculus: the necessary length of blade, the position of the thrust and how to do it through the cardboard coffin so that one did not have to see the thing writhe in pain. He related these instructions methodically without ever looking J- in the eye. He asked that J- call as soon as the deed was done. He said that it would put his mind at ease.
The two men parted on polite terms, J- mentioning that they should meet more often, A- picking up the check and apologizing for the inconvenience. He seemed worried that J- didn’t take his admonitions seriously, though J- assured him that he did.
J- spent the rest of his day at the office realizing what a wonderful life this homunculus had built for himself at J-‘s expense. After all, since Randolph started writing his reports, J- had been taking pretty good care of the little man. He had cooked for him, borrowed books for him from the library and even bought him a child’s couch so he wouldn’t have to struggle climbing up to the one in the living room when he wanted to watch TV. Due to J-‘s benevolence, Randolph had a hundred and twenty channels of cable and the fastest internet connection money could buy. And it wasn’t as if J- had locked him into the apartment. Other than having to write a report once a week, which he did without much effort, the little man was free to do whatever he wanted. If he wanted to leave, J- thought, he probably would have. If he wanted to poison my food or slit my throat as I slept, what was there to stop him? But why kill me or leave me when I’m taking care of all of his needs?
It occurred to J- that with Randolph’s vastly superior intellect, the little man had probably known the “secret of the sixes” the whole time. He had probably figured it out the moment he was told about it. Something about his perspective, seeing the world through books, television and the crack at the bottom of a closet door, made clear to him what was opaque to J-. In which case Randolph could also see that if J- got his promotion, he would no longer need someone to forge his reports. The homunculus would no longer be an asset but instead would become a threat, able to blackmail J- or turn him in to the authorities. In turn, J- would never feel comfortable in his new position until he destroyed the Randolph in order to keep himself out of jail. Yes, the more J- looked at the world through the eyes of the little man, the more he could see that it was never in Randolph’s best interests to earn J- his promotion — Randolph’s best interests were already being served.
But what about J-‘s best interests? Once again, J- felt he’d been duped. Once again someone was benefiting from his generosity without reciprocating the favor. Only this time it wasn’t even a person. This time it was a product. It was a toy midget made in China. An ugly little man in a suit controlling his life from a closet.
J- cursed the little man. He cursed A- and the damned Patent Office. He cursed himself for falling into such a ridiculous life. “Like a Praise Monkey,” he muttered aloud, contemptuously, and to no one in particular. “Like a Goddamn Praise Monkey.”
A Praise Monkey. A term he once heard his immigrant father use the day the old man had first taken him to the zoo. They stood with a crowd in front of a cage watching a monkey perform. After every trick, the spectators applauded and the trainer handed the monkey a snack. No more than ten years old, J- enjoyed the show and clapped as hard as he could until his father ruined the moment with this strange phrase.
“Praise Monkey,” he cursed under his breath, pulling J- away from the cage.
J- assumed his father meant to say something else — something from his native tongue that got lost in translation. But twenty years later, sitting in a bar at this late hour, J- was no longer certain.
A Praise Monkey. An animal that lives on praise. That eats depending on the level of praise it receives. On the empty praise that results from the repetition of a trick.
J- had grown up thinking his father was an architect. He assumed it because every night after work the old man would sit in the corner of their railroad flat drafting blueprints for factories, stores and offices. When he got older, J- learned that his father was nothing more than a construction worker, a common laborer who worked long, arduous hours to eke out enough money to send J- to a decent school. What his father did with those blueprints, J- never knew. Did he show them to someone? And if so, to whom? To his supervisor? To some contractor perhaps? And what was their response upon seeing that the cement hauler or the ditch digger had an idea for a building?
J- couldn’t recall what he had done with those blueprints after his father’s death. He couldn’t recall if he had thrown them away or stuffed them in the storage facility he rented near his home. He would love to have them evaluated, he thought. Graded on a scale of one to six. See if they’re any good. See if they were the blueprints for functional buildings or merely the etchings of an uneducated dreamer. Unrealized masterpieces or random lines scribbled on gridded sheets of paper.
But I am not my father, J- decided, sitting in the bar with the hour late and a cheap scotch stinging his brain. I am not my father, he promised himself once again. And at that moment, as sometimes happens at a late hour in the corner of an empty bar where melancholy mixes with drinking and a heavy dose of rage — at that moment, the beginnings of a plot took shape in J-‘s mind. The broad outline and the major brush strokes. The three act structure so-to-speak. And the more that plot developed, the more excited J- became, until finally, he lifted himself from the barstool and raced out to catch the next train home.
He isn’t human, J- remembered as he sat on the train watching the dull yellow lights race by the window. He is a product. My product. He is a machine like a toaster is a machine. Like a television or a radio or an old laptop. He is a tool, like a hammer is a tool, because I have decided he is a tool. Because The Patent Office has certified him as a tool. There is no empathy for a tool. There is no morality that pertains to its treatment. Morality pertains only to the end toward which the tool is used, never toward the treatment of the tool itself.
Such thinking liberated J- from his dilemma and allowed him to pursue a line of action that heretofore he would have found appalling.
He returned home to find Randolph on the child’s couch in his boxer shorts watching TV as he ate ice cream from a carton. Without warning, J- turned off the television and threw the ice cream against the wall. He took Randolph by his wig, lifted him high up into the air and flung him violently into the closet. He stamped on the little man’s cot until it was smashed to pieces. He tore down the shelves and threw all the books and magazines into the living room. He gave the little man a ferocious kick to the spine that sent him scurrying into the corner of the closet, whimpering in pain.
“When I close this door,” J- ordered, winded from his outburst, “you will begin working on the greatest report you have ever written. And when it scores a six, I will feed you. And if it does not score a six, you will neither eat nor drink until you have written a report that does.”
“But I don’t understand,” answered the homunculus. “I had every intention of …”
“Silence,” J- interrupted. “Unless you desire another thrashing.”
J- slammed the closet door shut. He called A- on the phone and left a message informing his old acquaintance that he had slain the homunculus and disposed of the body as per their agreement. He then secured a chair against the closet door to prevent Randolph from escaping.
“Why don’t I hear typing in there,” he asked.
He waited for the sound of Randolph’s little fingers striking the keys. He ate his dinner then went to sleep.
At the end of the week, Randolph slipped a DAR under the closet door for J- to turn in. It was the best report J- had ever read. It proved his plan was off to a good start, although Randolph had certainly filled him with hope before only to disappoint him later on.
That night, while watching television in the living room, J- heard a knock on the closet door.
“What do you want,” he shouted.
“I was wondering hm, hm…,” the homunculus responded in a voice that was even more pathetic than usual, “if now that I have handed you a report…”
“Yes,” J- asked, making it clear he didn’t like being disturbed.
“I was hoping that I could get a bit of hm, hm… water to quench my thirst.”
“You’ll receive your meal and your liquids when I’ve received my score,” J- replied. “And then only if I get a six.”
The following Monday J- was called into the office of his supervising manager. It was rare for a clerk to be allowed into the inner sanctum, and it usually only happened when one was about to get fired. But no sooner had J- sat down then the manager began to sing his praise. He told J- that his last report was surely his best ever. He told him that he was proud of J-‘s performance in the last few months and that if he kept up the good work, there was little doubt a promotion would be forthcoming. He told him to take the rest of the day off and handed J- a whopping bonus along with a score that read six.
J- took his co-workers out for lunch and relayed to them his entire conversation with the manager. He was elated. Positively electric as his mates reveled in every word of his story. And why wouldn’t they? They were as sure as he was that it was just a matter of weeks before J- would be a manager. Before J- sat atop the system that decided what report deserved a six and what report did not.
There was a knock at the closet door when he got home.
“What is it now,” J- yelled.
“Hm, hm…” the homunculus cleared his throat before whispering from the other side. “I was wondering if you hm, hm… received a score yet on my report.”
“My report,” J- corrected him.
“Oh yes. Your report. So sorry.”
“Yes,” J- grumbled. “I received a score.”
“And was it a six?”
It disgusted J- that the homunculus didn’t have the courage to come out and ask for what he wanted.
“Is that all you care about,” J- asked. “Do accolades mean that much to you?”
J- poured himself a scotch and took a swig. No sooner had he raised the glass to his lips then the homunculus spoke again.
“You did mention that if you scored a six…”
“Alright, alright,” replied J-. “But let’s not forget that there are three sixes in a month required for obtaining a promotion.”
J- grabbed some crackers and a packet of juice from his kitchen. He walked to the closet and stooped to the carpet where he was stunned by the stench wafting from beneath the door.
“Good God, what are you doing in there,” he asked.
“I apologize,” cried Randolph. “I held it as long as I hm, hm could… I can clean it if only you’d open the…”
“I see what you’re up to,” yelled J-. “You’ll get no reprieve from me until you’ve delivered your sixes.”
J- shoved the crackers and the juice packet beneath the door. He knew it wasn’t enough to satisfy the little man, but he didn’t want the little man satisfied. He wanted him frightened and hungry. He wanted him motivated by a fear of starvation and dehydration. He wanted him to write as if his very life depended on it.
The next Friday, Randolph delivered a DAR that was even better then the one before. The following Monday, J- was again called in to the inner sanctum, where he was praised by more of the managers and told that they eagerly awaited his next report. He was the life of the party at the bar that night. All of the clerks wanted a piece of him, but there was one female co-worker in particular who was catching his eye. He took her back to his apartment after closing time. They were kissing and groping in his living room when she suddenly stopped their foreplay and took a sniff of the air.
“What’s that smell,” she asked, a grimace squishing across her face.
J- caught a whiff of just how putrid it had become in his apartment. The stench was coming from the closet. Two weeks of filth had piled up as the homunculus had not been allowed out in all that time. Worried that his co-worker might happen upon his secret, J- made a hasty excuse to get her out, promising they would get together again in the near future. “After I get my promotion,” he added with a wink and a smile.
Once she’d left, J- sprayed around the living room with a disinfectant hoping to cover up the stench. Then he took a roll of duct tape and began sealing off the closet door. “You ruined my evening,” he yelled.
“I’m sorry,” Randolph replied in a feeble voice. “Did you hm, hm…”
“Did I what,” J- asked.
“Did you score another six?”
“I’m not giving you any more food if all you’re going to do is shit it out and continue making a stink.”
“Please,” begged the homunculus. “I don’t know how much longer I can continue.”
“Fine,” J- blurted as he went back to the kitchen to get another cracker and another packet of juice. “But this is the last meal you’ll get unless you turn in that third six.”
Because of the smell, J- couldn’t stand to spend much time in his apartment anymore. He killed the next three days lingering about the office and thinking about what he would do once he got his promotion. He thought about the debts he would pay off and all of the new things he would buy. He fantasized about the women who would throw themselves at him once he became a manager. It’ll be a whole new world, he thought. I’ll have new friends and a new routine. I’ll be a new person. A person with power and responsibility. And whatever new tasks await me will be far easier and more fulfilling than the ones I perform now.
On the Friday morning that J- was to turn in his final report, he removed the duct tape from beneath the closet door and called on Randolph to wake him up. There was no answer.
“Randolph,” he shouted. He could hear typing inside, but no voice responded to his call.
He worried the homunculus was attempting an ambush. To defend himself, J- grabbed a leather belt from his dresser, pealed the duct tape off the closet door, and took a careful position. In one sudden motion, he swung the closet door open letting loose a torrent of befouled air that struck him like a chemical attack.
“Good God,” J- screamed, covering his face with the cloth from his shirt.
Randolph wasn’t dead, but he wasn’t entirely alive either. Sitting at his desk typing away on the laptop, the little man stared blankly at the screen, oblivious to J-‘s presence. He’d lost weight. His wig was sliding off his scalp as puss-filled sores oozed about the stitches. A side of the closet had been used as a lieu, and judging by the filth around the corners of his mouth, Randolph had been recycling some of his own waste.
“Why aren’t you finished,” J- asked, as the little man typed. “Damn it, it’s due in an hour!”
J- called the office to stall. With the approval he had been getting of late, he had no doubt that the supervising manager would excuse his tardiness. Thus it was with quite a bit of surprise that he heard his boss yelling at him on the phone.
“Reports are expected at 9 o’clock in the morning. You’ve been here long enough to know that.”
“Yes,” J- replied, “but there’s been a flood in my apartment.” If need be, he figured he could create a flood in his apartment. “I have to wait for the plumber before I leave. And I’m knee deep in water.”
“Reports are due on Fridays at 9 o’clock,” repeated the manager.
J- glanced over at Randolph slowly typing away. He glanced at the second hand of his watch, ticking quickly toward ruin. “I understand,” he told the manager, “and I assure you I will hand it in as soon as I can.”
“If it’s late,” replied the manager, “I will deduct a point.”
Eleven years of service, two weeks of consecutive sixes, and this was the treatment he received? After having never been late before.
“I understand,” J- said, but the manager had already hung up.
J- returned to the closet and lashed at the homunculus with his belt. “Type you midget bastard,” he screamed. “Type like your life depends upon it, because it damn well does!” From what J- could tell by looking at the screen, Randolph still had several pages to go, and it was unlikely he’d have it done in time. J- whipped and beat at the little man in hopes that he would get it done faster. He whipped and shouted like a jockey riding a horse down the final leg of some great race. “Type, you little shit,” he shouted. “Type, you ugly little man!” The homunculus typed as J- whipped. He typed and he typed at his steady pace, wincing and groaning with every lash of his master’s belt. With welts forming on his skin and blood seeping from the open wounds, Randolph typed and typed in his stinking little room with this cruel man standing over him whipping and shouting. They whipped and typed and whipped and typed in such a rhythm that they began to resemble a single animal devoted to a single task. An animal that whipped and typed and whipped and typed and achieved some form of ecstasy as it whipped and it typed. An animal that might seem strangely in tune with some divine secret, that could somehow slow down time and collapse the space around it as it whipped and it typed. And not even the sound of a car horn or the ticking of a clock or the neighbor’s television set, turned up to the highest possible volume, could deter the whipping and the typing from this strange animal – from this whipping and typing machine.