Nurse Brenda brings in another load of semen from the Collection Booth. We use the latest model of Extraction Units shipped directly from China. They look like giant salt and pepper shakers with latex holes in the middle. It’s not sexy, but it’s hygienic. We put the vials in these big frozen vats that look like they hold ice cream. My specialty is writing. After freezing I write up profiles about how excited the donors are to make somebody’s dreams of motherhood come true. Lately our donors have been less than desirable, so I stretch the truth a bit. I’ll throw in a quote from Dickens or Keats, possibly some humanitarian experience in Uganda. It thrills prospective mothers. When they email how tall the donor is, I say: Very. When they ask how athletic he is, I say he could outrun a horse. When they ask about his college experience, I say he graduated summa cum laude with an added emphasis on cum. It gets a laugh. Then, per Brenda, I get their credit card information for a deposit. The deposit goes towards my commission. Even if the insemination isn’t successful, I still get to keep my commission.
“Whoop-whoop Francis, king of jizz,” says Brenda.
At lunch I eat alone in the cafeteria while everyone else throws the frisbee around the park. I gaze at them through the window like a wistful kitten. I pass the off-hours by painting my Cockney Warlock Academy figurines. I’ve created my own original character I call Chesney Wallock. Chesney is a former chimney sweep born in Victorian-era London with no legs. He goes to Cockney Wizard Academy and uses magic to transform into a centaur with four beefy hooves. Not that anyone cares. This is my only release. I don’t go to the company rock-climbing events or Super Soaker free-for-alls, where Nurse Becky is known to get wild and loose. I was born with stunted arms and legs, like a baby’s. I get around on a motorized wheelchair that stalls in the cold. I use tongs to tighten the velcro straps on my shoes. In high school I was voted “Most Likely To Be Wearing A Diaper.” In spite of it all, I remain optimistic.
At the end of the workday I typically log onto my EZ/Love profile. A woman from Long Island wants to put me in a stroller and call me Butter Biscuit. A doctor in Japan says they want to put me in an artificial womb as an experiment. Someone from the former Soviet Bloc wants me to get in a cage and fight a declawed rooster. I shut my phone off. I’ve always imagined myself with someone who has bangs and can look past my disabilities. But the only person who even looks at me is Nurse Brenda, who’s approaching sixty and had a botched hysterectomy that nuked any feeling she had down in her scrubs. She’s nice, though. Always there to nudge me when my chair gets stuck in the gap between the elevator doors. Brings me healthy snacks when I have a huge load to freeze on my hands. Last year on my twenty-fifth birthday, she sang “Tiny Dancer” on the loudspeaker and gave me a tiny bottle of champagne. So yes, I’ve thought about her before, but I’m not at the point where I’m asking someone my mom’s age to warm my bed at night.
Once a week after work I go to meetings for my Men’s Voluntary Celibacy Group at the Y. We sit in a circle and admit to how many times we imagined having sex this week, and record our overall satisfaction levels on scorecards. Everyone else is around a 7.5 or an 8. I’m at a 2. The Group Facilitator, a vet who got his junk blown off by an IED in Afghanistan, puts an arm around me and says, “you’re not alone, brother.” Then we close our eyes and practice our Sexual Visualization Techniques as a safe and perfectly consensual alternative to not getting any action. Afterwards we go out to smoke in the parking lot. Everyone’s too busy ogling the girls at the spin class across the street to light my cigarette, until some guy in a leather jacket and a slicked-back undercut comes over and does it for me.
“Rick Bolton,” he says.
Rick says he understands my pain, being somewhat of an amateur geneticist himself. He says he’s done extensive research on the causes of physical defects and runs an independent publication out of Queens called The Daily Storm, and hands me his card, saying he’d love for me to drop by sometime to chat.
“I’ll check my schedule,” I say. As if I have anything better on my plate.
At home I playCockney Warlock Academy alone in my studio apartment. You need two to four players, so I rotate around the table and assume their roles while pretending like I don’t know what I’m thinking. In bed I hear my upstairs neighbor repeatedly call his girlfriend his horse-faced love-slave while she makes impassioned neighing sounds. I try to block it out, angry, mortified by my own impure thoughts. I’m not a jealous man. I don’t need weird, crazy love like that, just normal love. The closest I got was with Gwendolyn in prayer group who agreed to go out with me to the Good Friday Barnyard Bash back in my hometown of Bakersfield. We went as a group with two members of the basketball team who hoisted me up in the back of Gwendolyn’s dad’s pick-up truck. The night air was sweet as we passed by an almond farm and Gwendolyn turned to me and asked if I wanted to see her streak through the rows. I swallowed my gum and nodded yes. So they carried me down to the side of the road, and suddenly Gwendolyn was as naked as the Lord had created her, and for a moment, I felt his divine grace. Then she leaned over on the truck and encouraged the basketball players to have their way with her body while I tried feebly to leave in my church-donated wheelchair. After that they got in the truck and drove off, leaving me until a charitable family of farm workers appeared and pushed me all the way back to town.
So you can imagine why I’m skeptical about love.
My mother might have loved me, it’s hard to tell. As a child I won the Goody Valentine Award for Differently-Abled Youths after finger-painting a self-portrait on the back of a government food stamp. I received a check for fifteen thousand dollars, which my mother used to pay her legal fees after stabbing her drug-dealer/live-in boyfriend in the neck with a wine opener. Right now she’s finishing ten-to-fifteen at a women’s prison in Sacramento. Occasionally she sends me woodprints of hummingbirds with apologies written on the back of them, admitting how she dabbled in all sorts of bath salts, inhalants, and genetically-modified foods when she was pregnant with me, which might explain my cartoonishly-proportioned limbs.
“Franny,” she once wrote, “are you still angry at God? Don’t be. I’ve been hearing echoes through the plumbing. Last night I was scrubbing toilet bowls and he spoke to me. He says I’ve lived a life of vanity and self-obsession, desperate for that next artificial kick, and now I’m learning more about my fortitude than ever before. I’ve just married my cellmate, Agatha. Once we get out we’re going to open a gluten-free bakery for dogs in Berkeley. What I’m saying is, keep your chin up, and the Lord sends gifts.”
On a good day, Nurse Becky wears a garter belt and lets her feathered hair fall to her shoulders like Farrah Fawcett. She gets to dress all skimpy like that because she leads the guys to the donation rooms, even holding their hands and mentioning how much it reminds her of her dad’s. Sometimes I catch her contouring her breasts with makeup in the lobby mirror and I have to go to the bathroom.
Today I’m writing an especially dense profile in old English for a recent donor to prove he’s not dyslexic. Then Becky comes over and leans on my desk, asking what I look for in girls.
“A curious mind,” I say. “An appreciation for nature. Humble. Modest. Likes table-top games.”
“I was voted “Asks Most Questions” in high school,” says Becky. “But sometimes I still find myself wondering.”
“Sometimes it takes another person to show you who you really are,” I say.
“Someone different from the typical plays-in-a-band, does muy-thai kick-boxing, rides a motorcycle mold?” she says.
Emphatically I shout yes, yes.
“Good,” she says. “Because I met this Jason Mamoa look alike and he wants me to go parasailing this weekend, but I’ve never done that before.”
I tell her to bring a lifejacket and I get back to writing.
At lunch Brenda invites me out to try a new sushi place down the road where they let you pick your own rice from a field in the back. I decline, as I’ve already promised to meet up with Rick from meetings. I catch the train to Queens, where his office is in an unmarked building behind a facility where they recycle out-of-date textbooks into drywall. It’s small and musty, with a set of weights in the corner. There’s a poster for a band called Skrewdriver on the wall. Rick sits behind a desk wearing a waistcoat with his sleeves rolled up to show a tattoo on his forearm of a bulldog with a barbed wire collar.
“Have a seat,” he says. “Haha. You know I’m kidding, right? Because I wouldn’t want to offend you. Because if the snowflakes got their way, we’d all be in concentration camps right now, burning the constitution word by word.”
“Um,” I say.
“Speaking about your condition,” he says. “Do you ever wonder why it happened to you?”
“Something in the water?” I say. “Lax regulations on food additives? Cell tower radiation?”
“Worse,” says Rick. “The Chinese are infecting Americans with growth disorders so they can win the race war.”
I take a second to pick up a copy of The Daily Storm from his desk with the headline: “Mexican Changelings: How Illegals Are Planting Their Babies in White Households to Destroy The American Family.” It occurs to me that this guy might be a loon.
“I’ve tried depositing donations at your work,” he says. “But they wouldn’t let me, even after I warned them about maintaining strong white voter demographics around the country. So I need your help.”
He reaches into a freezer behind his desk and hands me a cold mason jar filled with what I’m guessing is coconut oil.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“That’s my seed,” he says. “I need you to switch it with anyone who’s not white. This way we’ll ensure the survival of our race. There’s plenty more where that came from.”
So now, holding a Neo-Nazi’s frozen spunk, I can see now why Rick is attending our Men’s Voluntary Celibacy groups. I can see him before the haircut and the muscles, a scrawny, demented guy, blaming others for why he can’t get laid. I can appreciate that, despite everything, I’m more desirable than him. Hopefully.
I hand back the vial, saying I can’t be of any use. Rick’s face turns. One second it was warm and impassioned, now full of scorn and hate.
“You know,” he says. “In the camps, they would have removed you from the gene pool entirely.”
Rick doesn’t show up at meetings the following week. The group facilitator leads us through our daily mantra: Sex is a passion and passions have to be earned, some more than others. We all talk about our failures and frustrations from the following week. When it’s my turn, I bring up Becky, and everyone tells me to quit it with her already. Some nineteen year old wearing an NRA hat offers to hack into her phone for me. The group facilitator says we don’t condone that kind of behavior, instead recommending our Sexual Visualization Techniques, or a cold shower.
After meeting I talk with the group facilitator and approach the subject of being a eunuch. He admits to still getting phantom arousals every now and then, especially when he’s at the rodeo. So much for that idea. Then I tell him about my meeting with Rick, and he agrees that he’s a screw loose, and had to be kicked out of the group.
“I’d be careful,” he says. “Kook’s been talking about homemade explosives.”
Work is stressful. I botch a freezing job on a healthy black male with fifteen years of cello training when I accidentally drop his vial on the floor and it gets on my shoes. Afterwards Brenda catches me smoking outside and snatches my cigarette away, saying second-hand smoke is harmful to embryos.
“What’s a little cancer?” I say.
“What’s with you?” says Brenda. “You’ve been fidgety and angsty all day. Normally you’re not like this. Normally you’re whistling and painting your little wizards.”
I remind her they’re warlocks, and I tell her about the thing with Rick. I admit that I’m afraid he’ll do something potentially dangerous.
“I’m not afraid of men,” she says. “I used to be married to one. Used to give me Indian burns when he was upset. Now, you think that’s not the same as getting hit with furniture, but it hurts, damn it. And he wouldn’t stop doing it. So I broke his jaw and got the hell out of Reno.”
She tells me we have nothing to worry about. She says people like Rick are all talk and no action. She gives me the rest of the day off, so I pack up my figurines and head home. On the way it starts to snow. I start thinking of creating a new character for my Cockney Warlock Academy, someone based on Brenda. I call her Catty Thornsby, a former harlot turned teacher who can trap wayward warlocks with freeze spells. Then my wheelchair stalls right between the crosswalk in front of my apartment. I try nudging myself forward with sheer willpower, but instead I end up falling off and landing on the iced gravel. A group of nearby teens wearing hoodies and neon vests that say “I Pick Up Trash, Do You?” come over and pull me to the curb. I’m about to thank them, when they pick my wallet and phone and scatter. I yell for help, but my voice is overpowered by a couple fighting outside a bar across the street. The man seems drunk, belligerent, ready to hit the woman who he’s accusing of flirting with the bartender. Then he gets on his knees and slaps himself, while she begs him to stop. After they call a cab and leave, I lose my voice, and the entire street goes quiet as every rooftop and awning is caked in a layer of whiteness.
I wake up in the hospital with severe pneumonia and frostbite on my fingertips, along with an emergency room bill for $3500 after copay. My hands are so numb that I can’t type or scoop up my own food or use the call-button to retrieve a bedpan. The attending physician is a former plastic surgeon with the bedside manner of a clogged toilet. He jokes that the thieves stole my limbs but left my hands and feet. He mentions an experimental surgery that can elongate my bones and increase my height by six to seven inches, though it’ll be purely cosmetic and non-functional. He says with the rate stem-cell research is growing, they could potentially grant me a new body by the end of the century. When he asks if I want ice cream, he disappears down the hallway and never returns.
As nurses come in and out to check my temperature and look for a big enough vein to stick in the IV, I drift in and out of sleep, having vivid dreams of being a caterpillar wrapped up in an ugly, misshapen cocoon, until the cocoon breaks open and a centipede comes out with a hundred short stubby legs, so all it can do is wiggle on the floor until it eventually dies.
Then I wake up and it’s Brenda with ash on her face and soot in her hair.
“The bastard blew up the sperm bank,” says Brenda.
She describes the scene as it happened: She was carrying a box of collections to Freezing when a man walked in with a backpack full of explosives, demanding we destroy all the non-white specimens.
“I heard him yell ‘I wouldn’t change anything. Not with the fire in me now’,” says Brenda. “I got the hell out of there right before he blew himself up.”
Apparently everyone got out except for Nurse Becky. She had gone into the freezing room looking for me, evidently unaware that I was already in the hospital.
“Firemen found her underneath a pile of rubble,” says Brenda. “They’re treating her for third-degree burns all around her body.
“Jesus,” I say. “That could’ve been me.”
After Brenda leaves I start wondering about a divine presence who knowingly caused me to get stuck in that chair so I wouldn’t have burned to a crisp. Or I just got lucky. So once my fever goes down and I regain the feeling in my fingertips, I visit Becky in the hospital burn ward. She’s hardly recognizable, wrapped up in those bandages like a hotdog in a paper towel.
Though how pointless her sacrifice may be, I thank her, having misjudged her as a vain and uncaring. She can’t respond because her lips melted together, so she gives me a half-hearted thumbs up. I ask if there’s anything I can do to make her feel better. She hands me a full bedpan.
Then the hummingbirds perch by the window, and it’s spring.
With the sperm bank destroyed, Brenda starts teaching self-defense classes at the Y, and I apply for a job at E/Z Love writing online dating profiles for depressed romantics looking for love. It’s not easy. You try taking a gun-nut who lives in a swamp with his collection of taxidermied bullfrogs and make him appealing. But I make enough money to buy a better chair, a better apartment, full-body skin grafts for Becky. Unfortunately the result is unsettling, and she refuses to leave home.
“I think she’s depressed,” says Brenda.
So we drop by Becky’s apartment. She’s covered in aloe vera, looking like a laminated mannequin. I show her a Cockney Warlock Academy figurine I’ve made in her honor: Ava Summerson, a noble witch who helps the downtrodden. I whip out the board and we play a game, all three of us, and I can hear something like a chuckle coming out of Becky.
Sean-Taro Nishi (yes it’s hyphenated) is a Japanese-born writer currently living in Glendale, CA, with his partner and two cats. He completed his MFA in creative writing from California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
Martha Clarkson’s writing and photography can be found in monkeybicycle, F-Stop, Clackamas Literary Review, Seattle Review, Portland Review, Feminine Rising, and Nimrod. She has two notable short stories in Best American Short Stories. http://www.marthaclarkson.com