20040922

He Came to Work


Sure enough, by the time Charlie punched in, Emmanuel had already been stacking dirt for an hour and half. Charlie checked the punch card to make sure it wasn’t a typo, and then stuck it back in the plastic pocket. The punch card machine didn’t make mistakes.

Charlie slipped on his green Kale’s Nursery jumpsuit and peeked into the back lot from inside the utility shed. There he was, his long brown hair in a ponytail, working silently, doggedly, like a civil engineer laying bags along the bank of a rising river in a hurricane. Charlie sighed and walked outside, grabbing the bell on the swinging glass door to keep it from jangling. He hated it when it jangled.

“Manny,” said Charlie, sitting down on a pile of sod. It was a clear, cold day in early November. It was going to be slow. Lots of old ladies asking questions about pesticide. He imagined them sitting at home hunched over old gardening manuals, trying to find new ways to trick him, glasses pinched to their wrinkly old noses. They would cackle with glee, ferociously underline something contradictory, and then fire up the Cadillac and head on over.

“Good morning unto thee, Charles. The sun and I bid you welcome.”

“Manny, you can’t keep doing this. You know you get paid by the hour, right? I mean, I explained that to you before, right?”

Charlie deliberately sat on the pile of sod that Emmanuel was working on, trying to disrupt him like a child putting a hand in front of a line of sugar ants. Would they climb over? Would they go around? Would they stop and have a folksy ant jamboree? Emmanuel didn’t even hesitate. Emmanuel went right for the Christmas annuals.

“A good, fair living wage for an hour’s work. Yes, Charles, you made the arrangement quite clear.”

“Then you know I am going to have to send you home early today. You are working too much. I can’t pay you overtime, and there are other people here who need the hours just as much as you do. And you know I hate it when you work unsupervised. You make scheduling a friggin’ nightmare.”

“I seek not to outstrip my fellow man,” said Emmanuel, grunting as he lifted two mammoth genejacked Poinsettias into a trailer, “I only wish to work and be happy.”

“Fine. Just so you know. You go home at three.”

“Thy word is supreme. Adamant as the hardest rod in Israel.”

“Fine.”

Charlie gave Emmanuel a friendly pat on the shoulder and went back inside. He was easily the best and most frustrating employee Charlie had ever had. Charlie watched him work while sipping on coffee and calling in yesterday’s receipts, waiting for him to slacken or tire. If anything, Emmanuel only seemed to move faster, defying logic and inertia. He was a Newtonian aberration cranking out a constipated minimum wage. He made Charlie long for a healthy back and strong, hard bones and somebody daring him to pull a stripling through a chain link fence with his bare hands. Charlie had never been as hard a worker as Emmanuel was, but he had been close, by God.

At a quarter to ten, Omar and Sam rolled in. Sam was drunk as a cockroach in sinkful of paint chips and turpentine. He nearly tripped on his own floorboard as he launched himself out of his pickup, catching himself on a reflex sneaker and not planting his face on the tarmac out of sheer, stupid luck. Omar blanched to a shade of pale cardboard, got out of the passenger side, and quickly carried in a sack lunch, looking askance at Charlie and hoping to avoid guilt-by-association through feigned shock and horror. He immediately began filling out his timecard.

“Sam, you better sober up quick,” said Charlie as soon as Sam made it inside and found himself something to sit on.

“Ah, hell,” said Sam, “You know there ain’t shit to do today.”

“There’s always something to do,” said Charlie, “If we run out of plants and soil to unload, the sidewalks could use a good pressure washing. We get more done on days without customers. If you aren’t going to be any use, you might as well not be here.”

“Bullshit,” said Sam under his breath.

Charlie ignored him.

“You’re late, Omar. You were both supposed to be here at 9:30. Maybe you’d better start taking the bus instead of riding with this degenerate.”

“We would have been here right on time if this goddamn Arab didn’t have seventy thousand kids to kiss goodbye and a wife that don’t shut up. I kept honking the horn and telling him we had to fucking go, but he has to say something to everyone, don’t he? We’re lucky we made it here at all.”

“I am sorry, sir,” said Omar, “I try to be on time. I have much responsibilities. Soon I will have car, and there will be no problems.”

“Yeah, you’re gonna get a license like I’m gonna get a 14-inch pecker and a supermodel to suck it. You don’t even know which way to turn the key or what hole it goes in. And there ain’t no Toyota Dromedary yet.”

“I will get my license and then I will get my car.”

“Who’s on today?” asked Sam, pouring himself the last cold cup of coffee and draining it with a sour grimace.

“Just you, Manny, and Omar,” said Charlie.

“Oh, Christ no…I ain’t working with that crazy religious fuck. You got to start paying us extra when he’s here. You can’t even talk to him. He just whistles hymns and talks about how goddamn wonderful everything is.”

“Mr. Charlie, I am also not liking working with Mr. Manny. He is a bloodless djinn…a Yankee-Jew devil…and a product of your godless Western science. I feel I must take many baths after letting his eyes wash mine.”

“Regardless, that’s who’s on today. Since he’s worth the both of you, there’s not even a discussion. If you are offering me an ultimatum, then you can see yourselves out. He stays, and you can put me down as a reference when you apply for a job at Nan’s washing dishes. Good luck, cause I don’t think either of you meet Nan’s high standards for cleanliness or customer service.”

Omar punched in and walked outside, dejected but resolute. Sam eventually lolled himself to his feet and slumped to the door.

“Don’t forget to clock in,” said Charlie.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll write it down later. The machine always fucks my card up. Say Charlie…”

“What?”

“Is it true you get a kickback from Uncle Sam for employing that sum’bitch? I mean, I know he’s one holy hell of a worker bee, but don’t he creep you out to have around?”

“The only thing worth worrying about today is whether or not I will let you work here tomorrow. So help me God, if your stubby drunken fingers let so much as one terra cotta pot slip, you are gone. I don’t care how long you’ve been working for me. No more late nights; no more late mornings.”

Sam shoved open the door with a curled fist and let it bang shut behind him. Charlie gritted his teeth. If the bell’s jangle were a smell, it would be burning bone – the way a dentist’s drill smelled boring into a cavity.

Despite the rough start, the day went smoothly until lunchtime. Charlie handled what few customers there were, and even Sam seemed to get into the rhythm of the cool autumn morning. As usual, Omar went straight for the saplings and trowel. Say what you will about his grasp of English, thought Charlie, the man likes making baby plants grow.

At straight-up noon -- just when they were about to break for lunch -- a black sedan pulled into the front parking lot. It glistened like a puma. It had whitewall hovertires for countries that had gone completely aircar, and a big flat private satellite connection – big and round like a serving platter – mounted to the trunk. A car you could drive from space if you wanted to.

“Pretty nice car to be hauling dirt and plants around in,” said Sam.

“The wealthies and privileged will be sparing no expense to distance themselves from their oppressed brothers,” said Omar.

Emmanuel didn’t say anything at all. But for the first time that day he stopped what he was doing.

A man and a woman got out of the back. They wore identical silver suits and had identical silver trenchcoats. They both moved to the front stoop, and then the woman pulled out a notepad and gave it a hard look. She took out a ballpoint pen and made a note. She showed it to the man, who nodded once, decisively. The woman looked like she was about to argue, but then gave up. She put the pad away, and then opened the door to the utility shed. The man walked in, and she followed.

“Government,” said Sam.

“I’d better go in and see what they want,” said Charlie, “Maybe it’s a fat commission. Maybe we get to do the medians on the new mall.”

Charlie went in through the back door, and caught them just as they were about to ring the buzzer.

“Afternoon,” said Charlie, “Can I help you?”

“Charles Kale,” said the woman.

“Yes, that’s me.”

“Owner and proprietor of Kale’s Nursery, with locations here and in South Rotterdam.”

“Yup.”

“We are from the Department of Hygiene, Adjustment, and Deportment. I am Miss Gin, and this is Mr. Krek. We need to ask you a few questions.”

“Am I in trouble?”

“No, sir. This is merely a routine placement evaluation. We want to make sure everything is going okay with your business. We are conducting an investigation for the Trinity Polytechnical Institute and we understand you are employing a…hmmm…graduate of ours.”

“Yep. That’d be Emmanuel. He’s been working here for a month, now.”

“Do you know where we can find him?”

“Sure. He’s in back. Just let me go get him.”

Charlie couldn’t open the back door because Sam and Omar were in the way.

“What are you doing here?”

“Lunchtime,” said Sam, pushing inside. Omar followed sheepishly.

“Manny! Would you mind coming here for a second, please?” yelled Charlie.

Emmanuel hung his head.

“Manny!”

Emmanuel nodded, and then slowly made his way to the utility shed. He clomped inside and stood there holding a Bird of Paradise in a ceramic pot that had the twelve signs of the zodiac carved into it. Charlie had to give him a shove to get by. With the cash register and scale, the utility shed was now at maximum occupancy.

Emmanel dug into his jeans and fished out his ID papers. Mr. Krek took them, and looked at Emmanuel for a long time. Finally satisfied, he gave them back.

“Mr. Krek is here representing the Biological Crimes Oversight Committee,” said Miss Gin, “You’ll have to excuse him. He isn’t normally authorized to accompany field operatives. Now. You are the, er…um…I hate this part…”

“Jesus,” said Emmanuel, “That’s right. I’m the Jesus.”

“And your employer has been made aware of this without any attempt at subterfuge or conniving?”

“I have,” said Charlie, “And no…Emmanuel was quite forthright about his unfortunate origins. I have no problem with any of it.”

“You have also made this clear to any co-workers or curious customers?”

“He’s a Jesus,” said Sam slyly, biting into a grinder from Omar’s sack, “Big deal.”

“I am religiously and ethically opposed to his very existence,” said Omar. He stopped, shook his head, and then continued reluctantly. “But I am also believing whole-heartedly in the separations of business and belief. There are people religiously and ethically opposed to my very existence, too.”

“Sure are,” said Sam.

“He’s an excellent worker, and I have had no problems,” said Charlie, “He’s a person, just like you and me.”

“Well, not exactly like you and me,” said Mr. Krek. Sam snickered. Miss Gin glared at him, and he shut up.

“That’s really all we wanted to know,” said Miss Gin, “Sometimes Jesuses…you know…have problems being accepted on the outside. It’s not their fault. Trinity Polytechnic does what it can, but it has only been five years or so since we let the first reconditioned ones fully participate in society. The world still has a hard time taking them, and they still have a hard time taking the world.”

“They should never have been let loose,” said Mr. Kreck, “You have a ticking time bomb on your hands, Mr. Kale. I hope you are insured.”

“Kreck, if you don’t be quiet, I am going to fill out an official report. This is not your job, and your little war against Trinity is going to have to wait. I am in charge here,” said Miss Gin. She choked down a few more sentences and then grew calm once more. “Do you mind if I take a look at the rest of your nursery, Mr. Kale?”

“Not at all.”

She left without saying a word. They watched her through the window. She walked all around the grounds, even to the back roses, making little tic marks on a pad of electric paper. The rest of them didn’t leave the utility shed. Emmanuel seemed too nervous to eat anything, but Sam, Omar, and Charlie went ahead with their afternoon meal. Kreck crossed his arms and leaned against the scale. He fidgeted with the buttons and tried to weigh his own foot. Finally, Miss Gin returned – sweaty, but seemingly satisfied.

“Well, gentlemen, if that is all…we bid you good day. I am truly sorry for the interruption.”

“Please, fill your heart with gladness and relief, Noble Lady Gin,” said Emmanuel, dropping to one knee, “Thy soul has found ours at sup on the gladdest noontide, neither at work nor at play. Your presence has subtracted nothing from our enjoyment of an idle hour.”

“Well. Thank you, Emmanuel.”

“You. Are. Welcome.”

Charlie chuckled, nervous. He grabbed Emmanuel under one arm and tried to lift him out of his prostrate position. “Manny, get up. You know, I’ve always thought that was kind of a silly coincidence. You being named Emmanuel, and all. Kind of hits you over the head with it, doesn’t it?”

Kreck snorted.

“They are all named Emmanuel, at first,” said Kreck.

Emmanuel flushed deep red, and tried to back himself into a corner. Charlie winced. He didn’t know it was a touchy subject. So many things were, with Jesuses.

“Krek, I’m warning you…” said Miss Gin, balling herself into a coiled spring of rage.

“Ellen, don’t be silly. It’s common knowledge. See, Mr. Kale, in school they all went by Emmanuel and their mother’s last name. Emmanuel Jackson, Emmanuel Smith, and so forth. Most of the reconditioned ones have picked new names now that they’ve been freed. Most of them want to disappear and forget all about where they come from. Then there are those who resist. Those who feel some sort of perverse pride at what they are.”

“That’s it,” said Miss Gin, “Consider yourself officially censured. You are only supposed to ask and answer questions. And I didn’t hear anybody ask you any goddamn thing.”

Kreck ignored her. All of his attention was focused on Emmanuel. Suddenly Charlie wondered what his last name was. He paid him in cash and had never bothered to find out.

“Goodbye,” said Miss Gin, over-polite, “and, again, thank you for your cooperation.”

“I’ve got a question,” said Sam happily, crunching Omar’s lunch sack into a ball and tossing it into the trash basket, “If he’s a clone of Jesus, how come all them don’t look the same? And how come he can’t do any miracles, or nothin’? I mean, don’t that just PROVE Christianity wrong? Last I heard, they were still trying to sell it.”

Miss Gin sighed. Mr. Kreck, who was almost out the door already, suddenly came alive.

“You mean you don’t know?”

“Nah, Charlie just told us he was a Jesus and that was that. But then I got to thinking here. My sister married a John Kennedy, you see, so I know a little bit ‘bout clones.”

“It’s such a sad little tale. So strange and horrible.”

“Kreck…”

“It’s my turn to talk, Ellen. He asked a question, and as an emissary of the Biological Crimes Oversight Committee, I am in a unique position to give him a detailed and informed answer. We wouldn’t want these poor fools getting their information from off the streets, would we? And evidently, we can’t trust you or EMMANUEL here to give them straight answers.”

Miss Gin smoldered, but seemed defeated.

“No one ever asked me anything before,” said Emmanuel quietly, “I just came to work.”

“You see, we can’t tell the public at large, because we wouldn’t want to cause a panic. That’s why we’ve instituted these formal check-ups, where we can at least make sure those in immediate contact with a Jesus are informed. The Jesuses and their assigned case worker are supposed to make sure their friends and acquaintances know the risks, but sometimes they’d rather let the credulous persist in error.”

“I think that’s just what we’ll do,” said Charlie, “Now if you don’t mind, we have a business to run here.”

“I am also wanting to hear what he has to say,” said Omar, “We have right to know what is going on with this infidel.”

“That you do, my friend,” said Kreck.

Charlie gave Emmanuel a sympathetic look, and tried to stand between him and Kreck, who looked as if he wanted to gut him and wear his lime Jello jumpsuit like a Neanderthal pelt.

“So what’s the deal? Where do they come from?” asked Sam, “I mean everybody knows they are rescued clones, but what the hell? There are lots of rescued clones that don’t have whole damn government organizations for ‘em.”

“You could look it up if you wanted to, but most people don’t have the time or inclination. In the late twentieth century, a group of millenarian crazies – the Cult of the Rerisen Lord – decided that they ought to clone Jesus in order to get some actual new thoughts on his gospel and end all of the unbidden interpretation. So, they rounded up all of their virgins, and found one willing, and they impregnated her with DNA from a Holy Prepuce stolen from the Vatican.”

“Prepuce?” asked Omar.

“Foreskin,” said Krek, “A relic. Like the Shroud of Turin. Anyway, it was a complete failure. The baby she had after nine months of constant prayer was oriental. Now Jesus may have been a lot of things, but nowhere in the Bible does it talk about him being Red Chinese.”

“So the relic was a fake?” said Sam.

“Exactly. Any ordinary group of weirdos would have cut their losses and given up. But these guys were in it deep. They had a charismatic private funder from the busted tech sector, and he was willing to put up millions to see this thing through. So they found some more relics, and they found some more virgins. They got organized, started taking donations so they could actually buy relics instead of swiping them. They started cloning Jesuses on an institutional scale, and even started a private compound to protect and serve them. Well, it turns out there are WAREHOUSES full of relics which purport to have actual bodily secretions of Jesus Christ on them, and let me tell you – it was quite an impressive undertaking. They didn’t want to miss any. They got through ten years of constant insemination before the Reproduction Ethics Act passed and the government shut them down. We’ve been trying to handle the fallout ever since. To answer your questions, the clones can’t perform miracles because none of them are actually Jesus, and they all look different, because they are all just the clones of various suckers whose graves got raided by itinerant priests in ancient times. They aren’t even all males. The problem is: the older ones, like Emmanuel here, still have remnants of cult brainwashing giving them the fits. They still think they’re Jesus. Or could be, anyway.”

Miss Gin crossed herself. Kreck rolled his eyes.

“We’ve had more problems with Jesus clones than any other novelty clone put together,” said Kreck, “And that includes Napoleons and Elvises. It’s because they are clones of an abstraction and not of a real person. No one can handle it. That’s why public funds were used to start up the Trinity Polytechnic Institute and train them with job skills for the demands of the secular world. But that doesn’t mean that every Jesus clone isn’t a potential mushroom cloud waiting to happen. Jesuses kill more people every year than cigarettes, now. They catch you by surprise. Mass murder, serial trophy killing, armed insurrection – you name it, they’ve done it. We had a Jesus down in San Diego who was placed in a baby aspirin factory last year. He was only there for six weeks before he started coating every fiftieth aspirin with redback spider venom. Imagine growing up thinking you are the son or daughter of God, and then finding out you’re just another asshole. You’d go nuts, too.”

“So why ain’t they all locked up?” asked Sam, “Why are we spending money to train them if they’re all psycho? Why is he here?”

“That’s a very astute question. Very astute.”

“I just came to work,” said Emmanuel. “That’s all I want to do. Work and be happy.”

“Krek isn’t telling you how many success stories we’ve had,” said Miss Gin, “Not every Jesus is crazy, nor is every crazy person deserving of a lifetime of penal solitude. And you never know…” said Miss Gin, her breath catching. “You never know.”

“You never know what?” asked Omar.

“Time to go,” said Mr. Krek, grinning at his partner and handing Sam a business card. “Here’s my contact information. Keep in touch. Stay alert. It’s always best to prevent problems instead of mopping them up later. I’ll tell you something: I sure as hell wouldn’t work with one.”

Mr. Krek and Miss Gin walked back out to their Sedan and took off. Sam and Omar looked like they wanted to say something, but Charlie gave them an eyeful of fiery malice and they smugly went back to work without complaint. Charlie watched the sedan leave, a dull throbbing beginning at the base of his skull.

“Mister Kale,” said Emmanuel, shyly.

“I know, son. Don’t worry about it.”

“Mister Kale, my mother’s last name wast Fields. That’s what they called me: Emmanuel Fields. I still go by Emmanuel because she made me promise to never forget. But you can call me Fields if it gladdens thy soul. I am going to go home early this day, if thou allowest it. It is sad to remember the time we have lost, and the friends we will never make.”

Charlie nodded, and Emmanuel walked back outside, deftly grabbing the bell and letting it fall toneless against the aluminum siding. Charlie knew he would be back tomorrow and work harder than ever. He also knew he was going to lose most of his other employees.

He could see Emmanuel go in the big storefront window. There was something peculiar in his step as he walked down the street to the bus stop. Something there that Charlie had never seen before. Something light.

You never knew. You just never knew.



2 comments:

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the herb said...

Too funny. You finally did it: you wrote an anti-Christian story that works and is funny.
Now, it works for me, someone who had his fill of hypocrits, full enough to leave for good, and la de dah.
But would this story work for a Christian? I think not... but it's close. In other words, this story with some minor changes could work for both those of faith and those of science.
Maybe have Manny do the "ah shucks" thing when someone calls him the son of god, to which he would respond sheepishly, "Nah, I'm just the son of man." You know: something like Jesus would do... Followed by having those around him try to pump him up, or cut him down. Have two different Christian lobbies weigh in: some Christians think he's a product of weird science, other Christians follow him, try to get their leg lengthened or whatever, you know: healed and such, while they're shaking snakes at him... um, I forgot my point.
Anyway, I think this short could be fluffed out into an entire novel. Sort of like sci fi meets people desperately looking for something to believe in.
Not trying to tell you how to write, Justin, it's just that this is my fav story of yours where you attack some of the precepts of Christianity while not dredging through the drudge of the inadequacies of most of today's American Christians. Instead of examining an ugliness with a microscope, and then carefully (but boringly) detailing and cataloguing every shortcoming, you wrote a delightful fun piece that has quite a few jumping off places, places that facilitated daydreaming, daydreaming about where this story could go, where Manny could go... made me think you should fluff it out into an entire novel no less.