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The Keiths are Keiths because they are not particularly handsome, not particularly intelligent, not particularly kind. A Keith would never train to compete in professional sports or practice an instrument until he became a maestro. Neither would a Keith jump in front of a loaded gun, but he would help you gather the contents of your grocery bag if you spilled it on the sidewalk. On a city bus, your gaze would pass pleasantly over a Keith as though over a stretch of ocean. There are warehouses of Stephanies, warehouses of Daniels, warehouses of Mayas, Georges, Crystals, Jamals, and Nicoles, but I am in Keiths.
It’s always sad when one of your Keiths is harvested. We’re obligated to see it once, at orientation, a Keith scooped out like ice cream from a bucket or disassembled as a very large jigsaw puzzle. In Tibet, monks spend months making mandalas out of sand, intricate patterns representing the universe, in order to destroy them with a flick of the wrist when they are finished. I guess Keith is a mandala composed of body parts. After my husband died, a coworker in Stephanies loaned me a book by a Canadian Buddhist nun, which is how I know about mandalas. The nun relates a relatable story about how she was broken open when her husband cheated on her and asked for a divorce. “Thanks, that was beneficial reading material,” I told my coworker, but I wished she had entrusted it to me before my husband was eaten alive by his nervous system.
Our warehouse for Keiths isn’t so much a warehouse as it is a hospital where all the patients are comatose. The Keiths cry when they are born, but then they are placed into a state of perpetual sleep. Electrodes hooked up to their scalps confirm that their brains emit mostly delta waves. If, by chance, a Keith did dream, would he have anything to dream about, since he has not lived? I imagine Keith’s dreams would be like a black vista of space or a blank sheet of paper. Conceptualizing nothingness is difficult. Nonetheless, we take excellent care of the Keiths. Every day, I stretch Keith’s limbs, reposition him to prevent bedsores, examine his diaper, cut his toenails and hair should they warrant a trim, lubricate his eyeballs. Of course, we also want the Keiths in prime condition.
Despite the warning not to get attached, I confess that I do have a favorite Keith. My Keith has a small mole beneath his bottom lip, nestled within the indent of his chin, that distinguishes him from the rest. Usually, when a nurse in a Keith Fulfillment Center acquires a fondness, it’s for an infant—a doll of flesh that does not fuss. The veteran nurse among us, Wanda, has reared a Keith from the artificial womb to the operating table. They say she observed while doctors removed his kidneys and corneas. In comparison, my career has been short, a handful of years, but Keith with a mole has been with me the entire time. I worry that he is due imminently, so I secretly strive to provide him extra attention. However, it’s important to be cautious; I risk a reprimand, docked pay, for the display of a bias. Cameras were installed after a nurse did something unspeakable to a Nicole she couldn’t stand.
I cradle Keith with a mole against my chest to turn him over, then I massage his butt. “You’re special,” I whisper in his ear, at a moment when I’m pretty sure no one is looking. “You’re a special Keith.”
* * *
The next morning, I am alarmed to discover that Keith with a mole is conscious—or, if not conscious, he is, at least, awake. His stirring occurred during the zombie hours, those two, three, four o’clocks of the graveyard shift, but no one could say exactly when because we dim the lights at night to accommodate circadian rhythms in the skin. I am overcome with guilt, and I remember being made into the bed as a giggling little girl, except now the sheet floating down upon me is horrid complicity. Did I rouse him through the force of my will? “Keiths have occasionally surfaced,” the doctors admit. There might be a malfunction in the infusion pump, or his medication wasn’t switched. “We’ll have him drifting off back into the abyss in a jiffy.” The doctors dose Keith with a considerable quantity of barbiturates, yet he does not fall into liminality. “Hmm,” they mutter. Keith groans, and though it sounds more like a death rattle, this groan is him rattling to life.
What follows are the tests, the MRIs, the ECTs, the cognitive battery. Exercising the Keiths has limited effect, so he has muscle atrophy, reduction in bone mass, and slackening of the cartilage. He’s a violin that has sat unplayed for decades, and he is also constipated. As we attempt to ease him off his nutrient serum with cottage cheese, applesauce, and pureed carrots, he vomits and vomits. It’s the instant when Keith with a mole recognizes his reflection that management realizes they have a problem. “Respectfully, we assert that it is ethically tricky to defend cleaning out a Keith who has reached the mirror stage of development,” the doctors write in their reports. “Keith,” I say as we stare together at his face. “Fief,” he replies. “Keith,” I repeat, and wiggle his mole. “Teeth,” he tries. Keith is better with vowels than consonants. I wonder if I should give him a new name, but that would probably confuse us both.
I’m summoned into the supervision office, and I’m afraid that I’ll be fired; instead, they have a proposal. “The Keith Fulfillment Center isn’t equipped to handle a walking, talking Keith,” they declare. How would I like to become Keith’s temporary legal guardian? “You will be compensated,” they add. “With the proviso that you agree to restock Keith after we have determined his future.” I agree, then I sign forms, a leaning tower of tiny print. From what I can tell, it’s a variation on the standard transportation release negotiated with our partner shipping companies. This contract is more voluminous because it accounts for the whole Keith.
“Congratulations,” they say. “Please note that the Keith Fulfillment Center is not liable for damages to your health or property caused by a Keith.”
* * *
We so easily take the basics for granted. As my husband’s illness advanced and he lost motor function, digestive function, and, ultimately, mental function, we had to figure them out again. After I got a job in Keiths, I hoped a Keith would allow me to keep my husband with me for longer. In hindsight, that was naïve, since we didn’t get to keep our house. A Keith was a precious price to pay for my husband. Most of us are not worth a Keith. I’m overwhelmed by the basics when it comes to Keith with a mole, but I proceed by dressing him in my husband’s old clothes. My husband’s clothes did not fit him in the end. There was a debate over whether to buy smaller sizes, but we decided, why bother? Now I regret not spending the cash, as his shirts and pants are also loose on Keith. Next, I demonstrate how to go to the bathroom. Sitting on the toilet, I pretend to do my business, then instruct Keith to do the same. Keith sits on the toilet, but he does not pretend to do his business. Is it going to require me taking a shit in front of Keith for him to catch on?
I do not shit in front of Keith, opting to queue videos of mother cats teaching their kittens to use the litter box. He shuffles over to a corner of my living room where there’s a desiccated fern, and he defecates. On my shopping list, I scribble in “litter box,” which brings me to entertainment. When I guide Keith through the steps of how to watch TV, he wails at cartoons. Cartoons are too bright, too busy, too loud for Keith. Frantically, I navigate back to the kittens. What if Keith happens across something that disturbs him while I’m not here? Should I program parental controls? Even then, Keith could panic if he was unable to click away from a scary puppet reciting the alphabet. Therefore, I indicate to Keith that he must unplug the set if he is frightened. “Off,” I explain. “Fob,” he answers. His grasp of sequences is strong, regardless of his lag in vocabulary.
Keith is fascinated by true crime documentaries, makeup tutorials, and footage of animals stalking and devouring each other. I lack the desire or the patience to inform him that those animals are extinct and the only species that have endured are those grown for companionship or slaughter. Unlike the aliens in movies who descend to earth and learn to survive among us through television, I don’t think Keith absorbs a ton from his shows. He just likes the kissing and murder. Still, I’m concerned that he is bored, or perhaps there is such a surplus of marvels that he appears bored. I’ll return to the apartment exhausted by the Keiths, and there is Keith with a mole sprawled across the carpet, huffing on vanilla extract and banging on my pots and pans like they are a set of bongos.
* * *
That there is more than one awakening is an epiphany that Keith and I come to accept. There was his physical awakening, then his awakening into his separateness, and, at last, there is his awakening into acknowledging what he is not. Though I had witnessed the relocation of extremely young Keiths into the surgical suite before, they weren’t under my care. It can be hard to bear in mind that children are quite as susceptible to disease and ailments as adults. When a toddler Keith of mine is taken, I am surprisingly bereft; I wasn’t aware that I had feelings for any Keith besides Keith with a mole. We prepare ourselves emotionally for Keiths to vanish as orders are processed, but you become accustomed to the routine of feeding, washing, touching. In the wing of artificial wombs for Keiths, I was the nurse who attended this toddler’s entrance into this world, who listened to his only cry. I cry and cry into the neck of Keith with a mole.
My Keith with a mole wants to console me, and he begins to stroke my stomach, my breasts, but I gesture for him to stop. He is also a child with respect to that matter. Instead, we spoon, and he is happy to be the big spoon. A man in Crystals held me recently after sex, but he aspires to have intercourse with all the nurses in Crystals, Keiths, Stephanies, et cetera. The embrace from Keith with a mole feels like it is for me exclusively. After he has soothed me, he insists in his Keithese on finding out what’s wrong. How do I demystify motherhood for someone who doesn’t have a mother? My hands clasp my elbows and my arms pantomime a rocking motion, which Keith reflects at me without understanding. So I show him clips of mothers with their human babies. “You?” he asks, in his Keithy way. “No,” I say, “I am not your mother.”
After his subsequent checkup appointment, I decide to give Keith an impromptu tour of the Keith Fulfillment Center. Doctors and nurses punch him affectionately on the shoulder and encourage him with, “Looking sharp, Keith.” It’s like we are buddies bonding around the water cooler, except Keith is why we have a water cooler. “This,” I say, leading him past the artificial wombs, “is where you were born.” When we are in the wing with Keiths around his age, I say, “This is you.” As he is the first Keith to view a Keith in the operating theater from a god’s perspective, I say, “And this is where Keiths end their term as Keiths.”
* * *
Wanda is singing in the nursery, even if Keith cannot retain her lullabies. My infant Keith’s plastic bassinet, which has been sterilized but not yet reassigned, is startlingly empty. When it catches my eye, it’s like seeing someone you think you know who then turns out to be a stranger. I’m keen to gain from Wanda’s wisdom, how she avoids overly involving herself with her Keiths. I don’t want to trouble Wanda, and chatting about anything not directly Keith-related while on duty is not approved of, so I keep it casual and inquire, “Do you enjoy working in Keiths?” This doesn’t have to be awkward, I reassure myself, we are nurses comparing notes. It’s not as if I asked what I really wanted to ask, which is how to stop yourself from envying the blissful oblivion of the Keiths. She extends a question to my question while extending this Keith’s tendons. “Have you ever dined on a golden egg?” No, I say. “What about the pink beaches at the Coco Palm? Have you paid them a visit?” I had no clue there were pink beaches, I say. Keith can, according to Wanda. Keith can dive beneath the waters and see the famous resorts. We are Keith’s family, but he will become a brother, a wife.
Copyright © 2020 by Mary South