TimePaths

The Books and Writings of
Kurt R.A. Giambastiani

  "Bring Them Up Right, Marguerite"
by Kurt R.A. Giambastiani

Yeah, sure, Honey, I'll shake your hand.  Heh!  Listen, I don't care if you are from fucking ITN, I don't have to put up with that equality uber alles crap anymore.  You women have been griping about the male establishment for ninety years.  Well I'm it now and I'll call you Honey or Sweetheart or Darling anytime I want to.  Justine, quit hovering!  You nurses can't keep me from dying.  Besides, I'm big news, haven't you heard?  The last man on Earth.  It's like some bad joke and I sure as hell don't need you nurses reminding me of it every time I raise my voice.  Jesus Christ.  I mean, how else would a small-time Lit professor rate an international interview?  Now you girls, you just sit the hell down and you, with the camera, get that damned thing out of my face.  You've got a zoom on it, don't you?  Then use it.  God-damned reporters.  No sense of decency.

So, what do you want to talk about, as if I didn't know?  Yeah, I know the official story.  I heard all that bullshit.  Some Dutch bitch playing around with nanettes and genes and stuff.  All in the glorious name of enhanced fertility.  No, I don't hate bio-engineers and don't you try to make me say that I do.  She was just stupid, that's all.  Doesn't take a genius to see that you've got to be careful with that shit.  Everyone in the whole damned world touches everyone else, sooner or later.  I touch Justine, Justine touches you, you touch the receptionist or your partner or the grocer or the garage attendant that parks your big fat Mercy and on and on and on.  Everyone touches everyone.  Doesn't take a genius to see that it could have been passed along that way.  She should have thought it through.  She was playing with things she didn't understand.  Scientists are almost always like that.  Almost.

What?  Yeah, I know what they say.  They say the Shift started with that chicken pox thing all us boys got when I was in the sixth grade.  Killed my father off in a heartbeat.  A lot of the other fathers, too.  I lasted through it, though.  Along with a good portion of my class.  Scary time.  I remember my mother.  Caught her in the kitchen once about two weeks after my dad passed.  I was still recovering from the fever, still a little weak on my feet, but I saw her there.  She was leaning up against the counter in front of the window, a half-opened can of cat food to one side and our big orange-and-white tabby weaving himself in and out between her ankles.  She was holding onto the rim of the counter like it was the only thing keeping her from being ripped out of this world and into the void.  Tears shone on her face and her breath came in huge deep gasps with long silences between.  I stood by the doorway, my head still swimming from the fever and my hazy vision wrapping her in streamers of gossamer but I heard her clear enough.  Clear as sunshine in July.  She looked out of the window and said his name, twice, slow and quiet.  That was all.  Just his name.  It was right then that I realized that my mother was a woman, and that she had loved my father like she'd never love another.  But that wasn't when it started.  That's just when the scientists say it started, looking back on it after the fact.  For us, for the ones who lived through it, we didn't know it had started.  We didn't know for a long time.

I got my first hint much later.  For me, the Shift started in high school with Shareen Pulaski-Odongo.  Good old Shareen.  Yeah.  That was the start of it for me.  Shareen.  A fine piece of humanity, that girl, and don't you go raising any eyebrows at me 'cause you don't know what it was like.  Life was different then.  We still had families.  Mothers.  Some had fathers.  Kids, too, even, but not many.  But we—men and women, I mean—we had relationships, you know?  Not like now.  We had marriages for chrissakes.  Oh, and in the springtime...I just about lived for springtime.  Springtime fought back the coats of winter and brought out girls in sweaters.  The sun returned, warming your soul and bringing back love and desire from hibernation.  I'd sit on the steps of the grand portico—the sun warm on my face, the stone cold on my back, the air still crisp enough to frost a deep sigh from your soul—and I'd watch the girls arrive at school, their sweaters bright with pastel color, their books held like shields before their breasts, and I'd dream.  In those lost springtimes I could still dream, of back seats and heady passion, of cozy houses and picket fences.  There was still hope for us, us guys, I mean, back then.  Not like later.  Later, it was all gone, all dead, killed off like dreaming Trojans beneath furtive Achaean blades.

But Shareen, yes, Shareen.  She had us all twisted around anything she wanted to twist us around.  Already there were a lot less boys than girls, and there was plenty for us to choose from, sexually speaking.  The competition among the girls was fierce and we could have had any girl we wanted practically but we all wanted the same one.  Shareen.  Oh, whatever it was that Shareen had, we wanted it.  When Shareen turned up pregnant, half the male student body—not my half, but there you are—half the boys rewrote their journals claiming paternity rights.  Okay.  Not half.  But a lot, anyway.  But when she gave birth to that baby none of us could figure who the baby looked like.  She was a beautiful baby, sure.  All dark, chocolate skin, green eyes and miles of straight, night-black hair.  Just like her mom.  Beautiful.  I had put my money on Miles though the odds favored Petursson, but in the end we called it all off.  Even after we graduated, no one could figure who the father was, and Shareen sure as hell didn't know.  That child was a beautiful copy of a stunning original.

No one thought too much of things like that in those days.  I mean, lots of girls decided to have their babies early on, when they were still living with their folks and the government would help them out.  Shareen wasn't anything special there.  Of course now you girls are having them later and later.  I bet you're waiting 'til you get your Pulitzer or something before you want to have your first, am I right?  Yeah, I thought so.  Ever since it was all up to you and there wasn't any rush, you girls started taking your time.  Like Marguerite.  Just like Marguerite....

What?  No, I don't need a rest, dammit.  You just keep that damned handi-cam rolling, Sweetheart.  I've got something to say here and I'm going to say it before the night is out.  What was I talking about?  No, don't tell me.  I remember.  I wanted to tell you about Marguerite.

I met her in college.  That's not as surprising as you think.  A lot of people were still dating in those days.  What do you mean, why?  What, like, what the hell was the point?  Is that what you're asking?  That's just the kind of gyno-centric bullshit I've been putting up with for the last twenty years.  I'll tell you the fucking point!  Just because I couldn't father any kids, that doesn't mean I didn't want any, it doesn't mean I couldn't love, and it doesn't mean I didn't ache for the feel of a wife's smooth hand creeping into mine in the small, dark hours of the night.  Doesn't mean I was worthless.  I may not have been much to look at, I may not have been the best specimen among my peers, but I was still human, God damn you!  I still had a heart!  I still felt things.  I wasn't one of those assholes who figured that a lifetime of sterility meant a lifetime of carefree fucking.  I wanted a life!  I wanted a home, a home like the one that I'd had as a kid, a home like the one that was stolen from me by that Dutch fuck and her "cure" for her infertile rich-bitch clientele.  I wanted a wife, some kids, a dog.  I wanted school nights and day camp and first dates.  I wanted ten-year anniversaries and twenty-year and twenty-five!  I wanted "'til death do you part," that's what I wanted.  Not what you have now.  Not a legally binding five-year cohabitation contract with clauses and codicils. 

I wanted love, God damn it, just like you want it!  I wanted a lifetime of joys and sorrows.  I wanted my dreams.... 

Sit down, Justine.  I'm all right.  No, I don't want to stop and I don't want to relax.  Just...just sit down.  I'm all right.  Don't worry.  I just get a little steamed sometimes....

Sorry.  Where was I?  Oh, right.  Marguerite.  You see, I was never good with girls, even with the deck stacked in my favor like it was.  I was gawky and nervous in high school.  I was hopeless, actually.  Had my thirty-year reunion a while back.  I was the only one left, only male, that is.  All the girls looked just fine, especially Shareen.  She's a grandma, now.  Saw her kids.  Beautiful.  Look just like her, of course.

By the time I was halfway through my mandatory college years, though, I'd learned a bit about women.  And about myself, as well.  By the time my elective years arrived, I was ready.  I met Marguerite on the "K" car in San Francisco.  She was reading Ford Madox Ford and I remember thinking that it seemed so out of place, reading Ford's twisted, convoluted, organic prose while riding the straight and parallel rails of the Muni "K" car.  I stole a glance into the book bag at her feet and the enigma deepened.  Nothing but science.  Hard science.

Let me tell you something.  A lot of you women think that just because I'm a male, just because I've got a dangler in my pants, you think I'll instinctively drop drawers for any willing woman.  You've been taught that.  Since well before the Shift, you've been taught.  Your mothers whispered it into your ears at night, your fathers—when you had fathers—told you plainly, standing in the foyer while outside a boy idled at the curb.  "Only after one thing," they said.  "Never trust them," they taught you.  And you didn't.

Maybe we deserved it.  Maybe we didn't.  I don't know.  But I bet there were a million guys like me sitting in the "K" cars of the world looking across the aisle at women like you, wanting to do nothing more than say "hi" or "what's that you're reading," wanting nothing more than to strike up a conversation because we found you interesting or pretty or just because we were curious about what kind of scientist would read Ford Madox Ford's musings about Provence while on her way to a biogenetics class, but we didn't, we couldn't, because it was our turn to be afraid.  In all the years since the days of burning bras and equal constitutional rights for women, the only lasting thing you succeeded in doing was to turn the sword around and point it at us.  You made us as afraid of you as your mothers had been of us.  With our crumbling power base, with our dwindling numbers and our failing health, suddenly we were the ones in danger.  We were the targets.  And now, a century after the first gal shouted "Women's Lib," I see that you're still wearing a bra.  Can't be because of the weight involved.  Must be because of your partner.  She doesn't like saggy boobs, does she?  Looks like all you did was trade massuhs, huh, girl?

You want to walk out?  You want to leave?  Go ahead.  Huff on outta here, Sugar.  There's others lined up out there who'd kill for this interview.  Ha.  I didn't think you would.  You're one of the hungry ones.  Ambitious.  You know you've got the interview of the century, here.  The last ruminations of the last man in the world. 

What?  No, that wasn't what I wanted to say.  I haven't gotten to what I want to say to you.  Don't worry, I'll get to it.  You just keep your shirt on.  First I wanted to finish telling you about Marguerite.

Anyway.  She was bio-engineering.  I was Comp-Lit.  She's the one who really woke me up to what was going on.  I was content to react to the changing world.  She made me believe you could change it.

We got married a short time later—yes, married, in the old-fashioned way, by the captain of a navy ship in San Francisco Bay.  They could still do that.  Well, by then, the politicos and scientists had figured it out.  The bugs that that Dutch bitch made—what?  Hell, Darling, anything I can't see that crawls around inside me is a bug in my book but call it a nano-machine if you like.  Anyway, like I was saying, they'd figured out that those little things she'd designed had run amok and changed everyone a dozen or so years before.  Great.  Terrific.  So they knew what had happened.  Huzzah.  They still hadn't a fucking clue of what to do about it.  That was when things began to get nasty.

The men in power grabbed the nearest jungle vine and took a big swing back toward the right.  They reversed thirty years of civil rights, outlawed same-sex marriages, refused the legitimacy of partnership contracts.  Then, ignoring their own scientists, they gave huge tax incentives to any couple who bore a male child.  Marguerite and I had a good laugh at that one.  By then there hadn't been a male child born in a quarter century.  Did they really think that a tax break would change that?  But what really burned me up was the Church! 

Oh, the trash that damned Pope came up with.  Pope Pius Ex-Eye-Vee.  Most frightened man I ever saw.  I remember standing in the doorway to the living room.  Marguerite and the girls were in front of the vid.  I was bringing in some iced tea.  I remember the beads of moisture on the outside of the glasses, trickling down over the backs of my hand as I heard that wizened old cocksucker look out over the multitudes and condemn my daughters to eternal perdition.  "Abominations," he called them, and "damned in the eyes of the Lord," he said.  He denied the thousands of documented virgin births and called my wife an adulteress, a consort of the devil.  "Repent," he told us.  "Repent."  I remember then that the girls all looked to me, as if I could do something.  Zoë seemed near to crying.  She'd always been the spiritual one.  Marguerite looked at me too, but her eyes burned with rage.  We'd taught our daughters to love each other and trust in God.  And here was this horrid old windbag telling them that they were going to Hell to burn.  He trotted that shit out before the whole world and laid it on with a backhoe.  Half the world bought it, too.  Well, 30%, anyway.  The male 30%.

I tell you it was like an evil wind swept the globe like something out of a Cecil B. DeMille movie.  What?  DeMille?  He was...oh, never mind.  Anyway, maybe it was fear, maybe it was another bug—a bug of the mind—but suddenly there was violence and hatred.  The boys closed ranks and tried to take total control.  You girls did the same.  I don't blame you.  You had to.  You were being attacked.  But don't blame the boys either.  We were being attacked, just like you.  We just took it out on the wrong party. 

In the end it came down to the simple fact that there were more of you.  A lot more, and that was something the boys had never figured on.  We'd always been taught that we were the dominant ones, Might Makes Right and all that.  "If'n they don't agree with y'all, just bomb 'em flat, then they'll listen."  That was the mentality.

Me?  I was teaching the male viewpoint on Josephus and Sophocles to roomfuls of girls who'd never had a father, thank you very much.  I was helping birth my third daughter.  Actually, I was hiding out in the academia.  You see, in the world of the tenured learned, removed as we were from reality, changes always happened to some other group, never our own, even when the changes were of global stature.  I was blissfully buffered by colonial ignorance, though for purposes of publishing I had been savvy enough to reduce my first name to an initial and remove all personal pronouns from my bio.  The pendulum would swing back, I kept telling myself.  It always has in the past; it will swing back again.  Just wait it out, I said.  Patience.  The world will right itself. 

It was Marguerite who shocked me out of it.

My health had already begun its premature failure and I had cut back on classes at the university.  I was in the kitchen, fixing Katya and Marlene a snack.  Marguerite banged in through the front door, screaming.  She wasn't screaming anything in particular, no words, just one, long, continuous, growling roar.  The girls fled upstairs, informed by some mystical genetic continuity of the storm that was about to sweep over us.  Marguerite shrieked through the front rooms and into the kitchen.  Teeth clenched and tear-filled eyes afire, she began straight-arming the surfaces.  Tables, countertops, shelves, all were swept clean before her fury.  I grabbed the knife block and retreated to the doorway.  I noticed then that she was still in her labcoat.  We lived close to the Berkeley campus where she was doing her research, but she had never come home in her labcoat before.  I tossed the knives into the dining room and shouted her name.

She wheeled on me and I swear I saw the Apocalypse in her eyes.  She had seen the end.  I said her name again, quietly this time.

She didn't say anything to me at first.  She just held out her hand, the fist with which she'd been destroying our home.  Her knuckles were all torn and bleeding, and there was a wadded piece of paper peeking out between her bruised fingers.  She began to cry then — I always hate it when she cries — and her fingers opened.

I grabbed her and the flimsy tearsheet at the same time, keeping them both from falling to the floor.  I pulled her close and she melted into me, sobbing.  I unfolded the paper, but there were only numbers and lines.  X's and Y's and graphs and sigmas and deltas.  I didn't have a clue as to what it meant, and told her so.

"It's over," she told me.  "It's all over."  When I asked her what it was that was over, she told me simply, whispering the word into my collar.  "Humanity," she said.  "Humanity."

It turned out that the Dutch scientist's legacy of spontaneous regeneration was not as elegant as the processes utilized by Nature.  Asexual reproduction.  Parthenogenesis.  Call it whatever you want.  Worms do it.  Plants do it.  There's even a few bugs and snakes out there that have the hang of it as well.  But not the nanettes.  The nanettes are simple monoclonal machines.  Not by design, of course.  The design was to capture the male's genetic material and introduce it to the ovum.  The nanettes thought different.  To hell with the contribution by the male, they figured.  We don't need it.  Just look at all this genetic material just lying around!  Enough of that male noise.  Just grab some of this stuff and go!

The problem, Marguerite told me with puffy, red eyes and tear-streaked cheeks, had something to do with a loss of diversity and an eventual increase in sterility.  By the third spontaneous generation, it seemed, there would be no ova with which to clone the mothers.  But it doesn't take a genius to see the answer.

"So you're the bio-engineer," I told her.  "Fix it."

That was about ten years ago.  About the time the last man in Europe died.  For ten years I've been meeting with the press, going to gatherings of males, and watching our numbers dwindle and die.  The last man in Asia went when, three years ago?  I've lost count of all the interviews I've refused since Marguerite came into our kitchen like Tisiphone, screaming in on wings of vengeful fury.  Why did I refuse them?  I didn't want to risk Marguerite.  She's very precious to me—a shy and private woman.  I didn't want to jeopardize her life or her work.  Especially her work.

Regrets?  No, I don't think so.  Wishes, maybe.  What ifs.  I wish I had another year or two in me.  That's all.  Why?  Ah, glad you asked.  You see, this is what I've been wanting to tell you.  Come up close.  Take my hand.  Just humor an old curmudgeon, will you?  There.  Such a tiny hand.  Even compared to my frail bones.

You see, Marguerite has worked hard these past ten years.  Worked her country ass off.  She found a solution, too.  Just like that woman in the Netherlands found a solution to her problem.  I only want a year or two because Marguerite's pregnant again.  Naturally, I had nothing to do with the pregnancy.  I didn't have anything to do with any of them.  But I still love the girls like they were my own flesh and blood.  I would love this one, too, just as much, maybe a bit more, but I won't live to see him born.  But the word is out, now.

It's just like with that Dutch woman, just like when I was a kid.  Everyone in the whole damned world touches everyone else, sooner or later.  I touch you, you touch her, she touches someone else, and on and on and on.  Everyone touches everyone.  Such a tiny hand.  I don't know how many hands I've shaken in the last two weeks.  Marguerite's machines can give us one generation, that's all.  One chance.  She wouldn't risk another runaway nano-fever.  Just one generation.  Boys.  This is what I wanted to say.  Love them.  Love your boys as you love your daughters.  Raise them right, will you?  You've got to bring them up right.

   

All contents ©2001-2010 Kurt R.A. Giambastiani