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.