“If I have to say something, then I feel like a krill,” Garfield Purdy said.
The man on the other side of the phone conversation fell silent for a perceptable heartbeat. Krill. It was the first thing that popped into Garfield’s mind. It seemed a harmless thing to say to a caller who refused to believe he’d dialed the wrong number.
“A krill?” asked the newspaper reporter.
“I told you, you have the wrong man,” Garfield replied.
“This is Mr. Garfield Purdy--1645 Franklin Street Somerset, New Jersey, is it not?”
“Well,” Garfield said, hesitating, “yes.”
“Then I don’t have the wrong man. You say you feel like a krill. Could you elaborate?”
“Isn’t that what whales eat?” Garfield replied. “They’re little shrimp things, aren’t they?”
“I think so,” came the disembodied voice.
“Well that’s how I feel. I feel like the world’s smallest animal about to be devoured by the largest mobile living organism to roam the earth. Is that all you wanted to know?”
But it wasn’t all. The reporter wanted to know how the man who was quite possibly the last Atlantean on the face of the earth planned to live the rest of his life. He informed Garfield that all the other known Atlanteans died of a previously uncataloged myelin deterioration. It was a fact. They hit 40 and their myelin dissolved like a teaspoon of sugar in warm tea. Lacking protective covering, all the nerves in their bodies died taking the person they composed along with them. Did Garfield know that? What did a man whose myelin was about to dissolve have to say to the newspaper reading public?
“Do people still read newspapers?” Garfield asked, his threatened nerves alight with sudden anxiety. Everything around him took on a fuzzy halo as if he were seeing the world though a translucent screen.
“Our daily circulation is over 500,000,” said the Times man. Garfield hadn’t read a newspaper since the local paper stopped running the Peanuts cartoon.
With the phone perched between his shoulder and his cheek Garfield’s thoughts slid like gelatin on ice. He thought to blame his parents. They’d given him his genes. It wasn’t as if he’d gone to Wal-Mart and picked them up on sale. He didn’t choose to be an Atlantean. What the hell was an Atlantean?
“My mother never told me. . .” Garfield started to say, but he stopped himself.
The newspaper man interrupted him with a stream of data he expounded as fact. There was no way Garfield’s mother could have known. The human genome was an incomplete mystery in her day. It wasn’t until 1998 that a person could go to the Library of Congress and check-out the multi-volumed encyclopedia that cataloged the genetic structure of the human mechanism base pair by base pair.
Garfield’s mother wasn’t a dreamer. There was little possibility she could have forseen the day leagues of scientists would pore over mankind’s atomic structure in a massive endevour to comprehend how every acid, every protein, every molecule of organic substance twirled in space to create blue-eyed babies and trash collectors. She’d couldn’t have imagined there’d come a day prospective parents could go to the local genetic chef and cook up the perfect child from computerized recipies. And the late Yvette he couldn’t have known she carried genes which proved beyond a shadow of a doubt some members of the human race descended from the paleozoic ancestors of the Atlantic bottlenosed dolphin, and not Cro-Magnon man. There was no way for Mrs. Purdy to know her son Garfield would be the last Atlantean--the terminus of the lineage.
Garfield shut off his phone hanging up on the reporter. There was a commotion outside. He pushed aside a plastic slat in the vertical blinds covering the front window and saw a hoarde of people collecting on his front lawn like bees drawn to a flowering shrub. They swarmed behind a CNN news crew.
Garfield let the slat drop closed. His heart raced in his chest as he paced the living room floor. What would he do? He pressed his palm to his temple. He’d been watching reruns of “I Love Lucy” when the phone rang. He answered it. The reporter identified himself and asked him how he felt to be the world’s last Atlantean.
“What the hell is an Atlantean?” Garfield asked the empty room as if he were still on the phone. The reporter’s explanation had dissolved in the urgency of the fact his home was being overrun by strangers.
There was a firm knock on the front door. The doorbell rang. Garfield froze in his tracks. The commotion from the front lawn was bleeding onto his front step. People spoke in high-pitched tones. The clattering of metallic equipment sounded like someone was rifling through a cluttered toolbox. The doorbell pealed twice in rapid succession. The people on the doorstep were impatient.
He yielded to instinct and bolted to the back door as quietly as he could. There he made his mistake. The curtains covering the window in the rear door to his home had long since deteriorated in several thousand days of sunlight. Replacing them had been a low priority for him.
A man holding a coil of black cable shouted as soon as he saw Garfield’s face through the door.
“There he is! He’s coming out back,” the man shouted. The growing mob from the front oozed into his backyard.
Garfield was surrounded. He went through his mind wondering what to do but could only imagine Lucille Ball’s infamous whining and Desi Arnaz’s eyes pinned wide in mock horror. Before he realized what he was doing his hand was on the doorknob and the fresh outdoor air puffed into his face from the widening crack between the door and its frame.
“Mr. Purdy,” said a man Garfield had seen before. “Storm Thunderson--channel 7 news. Can you tell us if you’ll resist the Department of Genetics’s attempt to take you into custody for observation?”
“The department of what?” Garfield said.
A woman shoved a microphone toward Garfield’s mouth. “Secretary Chamberlain says he would to make you comfortable for the remainder of your life as a guest of the DOD. What is your reaction to that?”
“I think you people have the wrong man,” Garfield said. “I was watching TV when some reporter called. He was thinking of someone else. You’re all thinking of someone else. I’m Garfield Purdy. I think you’ve got the wrong house.”
The crowd in Garfield’s backyard grew as the people from the front realized he was talking to people in the back. The frontyard news crews yelled at each other for not getting to the back fast enough.
“Mr. Purdy,” the reporter from channel 7 said. “How old are you?”
“I’m 39,” Garfield said. He ran his hand through his thinning salt-and-pepper hair. “Is this going to be on TV?”
“What do you do for a living?” another voice asked. The bouquet of microphones bristled under his chin like porqupine quills.
“I sell basketballs, sporting goods.”
“Do you own your own business?”
“I used to work for Sears and Roebuck. They had a staff reduction and now I’m receiving unemployment insurance--is this going to take long?” Garfield motioned toward the interior of the house and the glowing television the reporters couldn’t see. “I’m missing my show.”
“Just a few more questions Mr. Purdy. . .” came the answer. The reporters were like stray dogs to whom he’d just flashed a handful of biscuits. They weren’t going to leave his doorstep until he satisfied them. He didn’t know how.
“I’m just a guy who needs a job,” Garfield said.
“Who lives with you?” came a male voice. “Are you married? How 'bout children?” said a woman.
“No. Look. I used to have a job, now I don’t. This is my mom’s and dad’s house and they’re both dead and now I have to eat peanut butter for dinner four or five times a week. Sometimes I get a pizza. I don’t know what you want me to say. What is it you want me to say?”
There was a disturbance in the crowd. Something pushed its way through the clot of humans like a mole burrowing under the sod. The perturbed media employees regarded the interloper with disdain. Garfield recognized his sister when she emerged through the wall of people and wires in front of him. She immediately turned her back to him and held her hands up.
“Listen. People. Mr. Purdy has no further comment. You can go home now.”
“Who are you?” Voices in the crowd folded together as if the people in Garfield’s back yard had become a single being. “Who is she?” the crowd asked itself.
“I’m Clovis Purdy, Mr. Purdy’s sister. That's C-L-O-V-I-S Purdy.”
“Have you been screened? Are you an Atlantean too?” a reporter asked, shoving a microphone into Clovis’s face.
“Yes, I’ve been screened and no, I’m not, or you would have heard about it by now. Mr. Purdy has nothing further to add. We’ll call a news conference at the appropriate time. I want to thank you all for your patience. Thank you, now. Thank you.” She stepped backward, pressing herself into Garfield until he stumbled backward into the dirt room. Clovis shut the door in front of herself and locked it. Inside the phone was ringing.
“Don’t answer that,” Clovis ordered.
“Clovis,” Garfield said. His stomach grumbled reminding him it was lunch time and he’d eaten nothing for breakfast. He patted his rear pocket to see if his wallet was still there with all those strangers around who might have been pickpockets. The wallet was thin. It would be nearly impossible to remove. “It’s nice to see you again. Been about a year, hasn’t it? How’s Jana? How about some lunch?”
“How can you think of food at a time like this? We have to think about how to manage you. Someone has to take care of you now.” Clovis paced the floor in the kitchen while the phone rang.
“I can take care of myself,” Garfield said. “I’m doing just fine. Nice of you to take an interest. Buy me lunch, please.”
“That’s not what I meant. You need a business agent. There’ll be the interviews on all the talk shows to be arranged--Oprah, Leno, Letterman. Then there’ll be the book contract. Don’t worry, I’ll ghostwrite for you.”
“I can’t write a book,” Garfield said, wringing his hands. “What do I have to write a book for? Can’t we just go get some burgers or something? I’m starved. I don’t have any money left from last Friday’s check. Government’s squeezing the life out of me.”
“Gar, don’t you know what’s going on?” Clovis said. She stopped pacing and looked into her brother’s eyes.
“They said I’m going to die next year. My myelin is going to dissolve. I’ll die this year once the unemployment runs out. What the hell is myelin?”
“Oh Gar.” Clovis put her hand against her brother’s cheek. “You’re famous. You’re an Atlantean--just like mom, only mom didn’t know she was one. You’re the last one. Everybody is going to want to know about you. You’re an endangered species, love.”
Garfield’s stomach growled. He felt a dull pain in his lower abdomen that resolved itself into cramps. He swallowed as the nausea made his mouth water. The phone was still ringing. It seemed it hadn’t stopped. Either someone was extremely persistent, or there had been so many calls they’d seemed like a single unfatiguable person.
“Does this have anything to do with you being a lesbian?” Garfield asked.
“What? Watch yourself, buster,” Clovis said. She picked up the phone. “Hello?”
Garfield heard her say. “Yes, Mr. Purdy will be available for comment tomorrow morning. Yes, he would love to speak to the President then. Thank you very much.” She slammed the phone into its cradle and said, “What did you say?”
“Well,” Garfield twisted his toe into the floor. “Seeing as how my genes are mixed up I was thinking maybe the reason you were a lesbian had to do with some of the same mixing up.”
“Don’t push it,” Clovis said, shaking a finger toward him. “It’s time you got real about Jana. You’re pitiful. You lock yourself up in this house with the shades drawn like some kind of blind cave fish. It was never going to happen between you and Jana. She discovered who she really was and now she's with me and all the childish behavior in the world won’t change that.”
Garfield shrugged and slapped his hands against his thighs.
He said, “Guess it doesn’t matter anymore. Does it?”
“We’re family,” Clovis said. She dropped her finger. “You’re my brother.”
“So you’ll get the house when I’m gone. The trust barely pays the taxes and the utilities. If you open the windows during the day you’ll save on the lighting costs but it will heat up in here and the air conditioner costs even more. Can’t eat air conditioning. Water’s not that nutritious. Are we going to eat or what?”
“Are you really that broke?”
“Dear sister,” Garfield said. He pulled a kitchen chair from under the table and sat on it. Leaning his elbow on the back of the chair he rested his head in the palm. Outside the crowd showed no signs of thining. “Do you think they’ll give me lunch if I talk to them? What on earth could they possibly want from me?”
* * *
“It’s a meta-gene,” Garfield explained to the representative from Contel International Incorporated. Contel owned Righteous Foods. Righteous made Jax brand peanut butter. Garfield signed the contract printed on the Contel letterhead.
Righteous wanted to start the filming before the palsy became obvious. As it was, Garfield has a minor tingling in his fingertips. It was becoming difficult to move his foot in a circular motion--something he wondered if he’d ever had the need to do in his life.
His motor functions were deteriorating. Time was moving and he’d a peanut butter commercial to make.
“Meta-gene?” the man in the suit said.
“Well, humans have 23 chromosomes. The chromosomes are made of strings of genes and the genes are made of long strands of DNA containing thousands of amino-acid pairs. The genes get used by cells to build things. Some of the pairs in a gene tell the cells how to build proteins. Some are a kind of timing pattern, a sort of a tick mark like the inch markers on a ruler. Some are junk as far as anybody knows. If you look at the regular genes in my body, they're perfectly human. If you look at the junk and timing genes in my body, they look just like the way they are in whales and dolphins--or so they say. I’ve been on so many talk shows now I have that memorized. I don't have the slightest idea what it means.”
The man put the contract into his briefcase and shook Garfield’s hand.
“Fascinating,” he said, as if forcing the word through a tube.
“We’re going to have some porpoises in the commercial. Your agent said it would be preferable if we matted them in later, though. She said you have a problem with live animals on camera.”
“It’s not me who has the problem,” Garfield said. “The animals don’t like the situation. They're blaming me for getting them into this mess. Now everyone's trying to teach them sign language and put them on television.”
“All the same, it’s going to be a blue screen. Can you act in front of a blue screen?”
Garfield shrugged and ran a deadening hand through his hair. The numbness, at first simply annoying, had become ominous. It seemed he’d put his fingers into icewater. The cold was running up his hands and into his arms. Death was moving in.
“I’m a basketball salesman,” Garfield said.
“Do basketball salesmen act? Will there be enough time before you--er--can't act any more?”
“We’ll see,” Garfield said.
The man smiled and shook Garfield’s hand again. Garfield showed him to the front door.
“Mr. Purdy,” the man said, stopping in the doorway. “Are you human?”
Garfield shook his head. “No,” he said.
“Imagine that. All these years. What does it feel like?”
“I’ve never been human so I’ve nothing to compare it to. It feels okay, I guess.”
“Incredible,” the man said. He shook his head.
“What’s the matter?” Over the past three months Garfield had gotten used to making people uncomfortable. He’d found the best way to put people at ease was to try to get them to say what was on their minds, then to remind them he’d lived an average to below-average human life until the Times reporter called.
“Well, I saw that thing you did at the grammar school in New Jersey,” said the man. “That question-and-answer session after the geneticist tried to explain why we know you didn’t come from the same gene pool as homo sapiens.”
The event shot into Garfield’s head like a torch in a dark cave. His position was that the young girl had asked the question in the form of a statement. She’d heard something at home that bothered her. It seemed to Garfield she didn’t believe it was true and had made her statement as brazenly as possibly to get Garfield to explain why she couldn’t be right. His life since the girl’s accusation had been tainted like the dead nothingness that was crawling into his extremities.
“What do you think?” Garfield asked the man.
“It doesn’t matter what I think. All that matters is you make a good spokesman for our product. We think you will. We support endangered species. We support minorities. Righteous Foods has made a lifetime committment to the environment, equal rights, and clean politics. We’re a very socially minded company.”
“I didn't ask you for the line. I'm asking you as a person--what do you think?”
The man touched Garfield’s shoulder then pulled away as if burned.
“You seem like anyone else I’ve ever met,” he said. “How about you?”
Garfield took a breath as the image advisors Clovis hired him had instructed. He said what had been implanted in his head. It was a statement he’d rehearsed and delivered on the network talk shows. He’d said it so many times he wasn’t sure he believed it anymore.
“I think the human race spends too much time figuring out why it’s different from all creation instead of making connections to the universe around it. What God made you made me. The flames of our lives burn as brilliantly as Blake’s tyger. "
The man smiled. "And you believe that? Or do you believe the little girl's parents who told her you might be an inferior being, something between an ape and a fish. I don't want the line; I'm asking you as a person."
Garfield rubbed his head. "I don't know. I'm just a guy who likes peanut butter."
the first old story is The cheshire woman
The next old story is Endurance: a radio tale
The last old story is Firefly pilot