Simon and I had emptied out our bank account to buy the cloned rock star babies. This was supposed to be our finest adventure. No longer spectators, we would embrace the troubled geniuses, soften the blows that pushed their donors over the edge. Witness as they blossomed under our loving care. During the five years we languished on the waiting list, I imagined songs dedicated to us. When I signed the second mortgage on the house, I pictured myself sitting in the front row of a packed theater. I would beam proudly as my adopted progeny nodded in grateful acknowledgement of the important role I played in their rebirth.
They did not come cheap. “Both these donors used a lot of drugs,” the counselor at the Center for Regeneration warned us. “This is uncharted territory. There is no way of knowing if narcotic abuse may have resulted in chromosomal damage.” Refunds were off the table. We were willing to risk it. Simon’s career as a lawyer and mine as a high school librarian cast us as paragons of responsibility for way too many years. We were stable and reliable to a fault. We chose John and Janis for their raw emotion, their honesty. We wanted them to keep us alive.
“Why can’t you just retire like normal people?” our son Scott said when we told him of our decision. This wasn’t the first time we had embarrassed our son, a faithful follower of rules who had married a woman even more conservative than he. “You do realize that your rock stars are going to start out as infants? Diapers, tantrums, toilet training. That’s what you choose to spend your life’s savings on?” Scott and Stella waited to have children until they were well established in their careers. Their second child, Tiffany, was born soon after we brought John and Janis home. Our grandkids were breast fed, shielded from electronic screens and closely attended by their stay-at-home mom until they were placed in the finest preschools money could buy.
Simon and I filled our basement with musical instruments, brightly-colored crayons and white walls primed for art. We let our clones run around naked. We wanted them to experience joy as their biologically-given talents emerged. “We have different concepts of child rearing,” our son conceded diplomatically. Although we got the kids together for holidays, babysitting was out of the question. Simon overheard Stella tell her mother that it would have been like dropping pets off at the zoo.
I was very conscious of how I cut John’s hair. The Beatles haircut was legendary. When he was still a toddler, I sat him down on a stool in the kitchen and placed the album The Early Beatles on the counter so that I could try to replicate the classic cut. John was a wiggly child, all scraped knees and nervous energy. The original John was born in England during a World War Two German air raid. My John was a whiz at Doodle Jump. While I carefully cut his famous locks, he jumped from one cloud to the next.
Of course, I let Janis’s hair grow wild. I let her believe it was her only choice.
“She looks feral,” Simon said as he spread a six-foot long mat imprinted with a giant piano keyboard across the living room floor and inserted batteries. John barely looked up from his video game at the newest toy. Simon hoped that the musical mat might better channel his itchy boy energy, but John showed no interest at all. Janis, however, walked up and down the keys, a dreamy look on her freckled face, until we thought that we might go mad.
“Damn it. We must be doing something wrong.” Simon was getting impatient with the endless parenting our clones required. He started to talk about consulting for his old firm. Just for a few hours each morning. He needed to get out of the house.
It was a relief when the kids were old enough to go off to school.
When Simon played “Imagine” over our audio system, I watched John’s face. “Boring,” the eleven-year-old sneered. He preferred video games and drawing grotesque figures, cripples and skeletons, which he then stabbed with the sharpened point of his pencil. “Gross,” Janis would announce, looking over his shoulder. An active girl, she dressed in tights and short skirts despite a recent weight gain that made the outfits less than flattering. She treated every door knob like a ballet bar, waving her arms dramatically as she stretched and preened. Simon never commented on her newly developed curves despite their rather constant display. To me, she was beautiful. It was a pity that acne had recently bloomed on her chubby cheeks.
I searched every report card, expecting the teachers to note a talent for music or art, but the cards revealed nothing. C’s and a good attitude. I was supposed to be pleased that my children were team players. I willed them to be more curious. These were exceptional kids purchased at great cost.
“John,” I said. “What if you had lived in the olden days, in Liverpool before the internet, before video games? How do you think you would have entertained yourself?”
John looked at me through his unstylish bangs. “What?”
“Close your eyes. Imagine.”
“That’s ridiculous.” John looked to Janis for support. Rubber Soul played in the background. “Do we have to listen to this crap again?”
“Give it a try.” Obviously, he needed a push. I handed him my IPad. “Google Liverpool. Maybe that will give you some ideas.” The connections were right there in front of him.
With a groan, he typed in Liverpool, landing on the site for the Liverpool Football Club.
“They don’t even play real football there,” he said. “By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask, can I try out for the middle school football team? My gym teacher says I have a shot.”
“God, I hope not.” Janis was picking at a pimple emerging on her chin. “You’ll end up even more retarded than you already are.”
“Leave it alone, honey,” I said.
She scratched another blemish until it bled.
“I would be so embarrassed if he were on the team. You know, I’m trying out for the dance squad.” Janis rolled her eyes at her brother. “God, John. Those bangs are so lame.”
After the kids left the room, Simon laughed. “Give it up, Hon. We’ve wasted enough money on these kids.”
“We should tell them,” I said to Simon. The kids were getting older. I wanted them to know their origins. Other clones, the duplicates of brilliant scientists and charismatic world leaders, had been documented like scientific experiments. We kept ours close to home, insisted on anonymity. If it weren’t for the physical resemblances that grew stronger every day, John and Janis could easily have been mistaken for ordinary kids.
But they weren’t. They were destined to be exceptional. I wanted them to know that.
“So what do we say? Hey guys, you’re reconstituted freaks?” Simon asked.
“Simon, give me a break. They’re miracles.” It would have been easier to win my point if John weren’t in the backyard kicking a football into an oak tree. “Fuck you. Take that.” He threw the ball down with vengeance.
“Maybe, if they knew, they would be motivated to explore their talents.”
Simon looked out the window and sighed. “Maybe they just aren’t that talented.”
John, having kicked the ball over the fence, flopped down on the chaise lounge where he lit a cigarette and then watched the smoke disperse into the air.
“We’re like Frankensteins?” John seemed pleased at the idea.
“I feel sick.” Janis examined her hand as if it belonged to someone else. “You bought us like some kind of exotic pet.”
“We chose you.” This wasn’t going well.
We sat at the decimated Thanksgiving table. Fat was beginning to congeal on the turkey carcass. I considered carrying the leftovers into the kitchen and, while I was there, plugging the Magical Mystery Tour into the house’s sound system. If only the kids could understand what a grand adventure we had intended this to be.
Instead, I picked at my pie and tried to explain. “We gambled everything on you.”
“I didn’t ask to be born,” John said as Janis stormed out of the room. I was grateful that Simon said nothing. What was there to say?
Real Janis struggled to escape from a Texas oil town where the skyline was dotted with oil refineries and the horizon led nowhere. She rebelled, dead set on rejecting the empty values of her hometown. My Janis spent endless hours practicing synchronized dance routines. Often after school, she would arrive home with a cluster of the popular girls. I would watch them in the backyard with their pompoms. After practice, they took turns giving each other manicures and pedicures.
“Good for her,” my son Scott said when I complained to him. “I wish my Tiffany had her focus.” My granddaughter Tiffany had just been rejected by the finest prep school on the North Shore despite years of private tutors. “She’s bright enough,” Scott said. “She just doesn’t give a damn.”
A few months later, John told us that he had seen Janis and our grandson Richie together after the football game. I think he thought that reporting the unlikely coupling would distract us from his most recent bruises. He was an aggressive football player. His coach said this like it was a good thing. All I could think was: all that talent going to waste.
I didn’t allow John to smoke in the house so he often sat alone in the back yard with his digital tablet long after we had gone to bed. I hoped that learning his provenance would change his life, plant a seed of possibilities, but, to my knowledge, his passions remained video games and football. He liked sitting in the dark.
The resemblance was clearly there. Every day he looked more like the real John. I couldn’t fault nature. Clearly nurture was at fault. We had done something wrong.
Janis had the hair, that beautiful halo of frizzy anarchy that required constant brushing. Between cheer-leading practice and dance class, she hadn’t really gone to fat, but I wished she would lay off the carbs. I could see where Richie might be attracted to her, but not in any way I would condone.
Janis didn’t seem like Richie’s type. My grandson Richie was already visiting business schools, trying to choose a college that would “get him on the right track, hook him up.” Scott was convinced that his son would make a million dollars by the time he was twenty-one. “He just has a knack,” he reported proudly.
My phone rang as we were heading out the door, on the way to the doctor’s office. Simon had woken up with excruciating pain in his lower back.
“Amanda?” Amanda Ruiz, the high school guidance counselor, had been at the school forever. When I was the librarian, we sometimes had lunch together. At the fulcrum of every student crisis, she was an excellent source of gossip.
“I’m afraid I have some disturbing news. Can we talk?”
Simon was still holding the doorknob. I weighed Simon’s impatience against her words, disturbing news.
“We were just on our way out.”
“I understand.” Amanda clicked into her professional demeanor. How many times had I heard her complain about parents who didn’t have time for their troubled adolescents? “But I suggest you take a look at the website “RocknrollSpawn.com.” Then maybe we should talk.”
Simon groaned again.
When Simon was finally called to follow the nursing assistant into an exam room, I keyed in the website “RocknrollSpawn.com.”
They were both there.
The site’s homepage displayed a photo of John standing naked except for a beaded necklace, his arm around the outline of a woman. A perfect simulation of the cover of the Two Virgins album, except that his face was that of my John, still chubby, his eyes uncommitted. For a nominal fee, the website offered a poster of the user’s likeness in John’s arms, nude of course.
Pressing the tab, “Related products,” I arrived at a page showing Janis sipping a bottle of Southern Comfort as she looked through half-closed eyes at her audience. Come On. Take another little piece of my heart, the web site advertised: For a $100 charge, the user could purchase a 15-minute Skype with the “rock icon,” now returned from the dead.
The website was slick. The merchandise was displayed with impressive expertise. They accepted PayPal. Apparently, my children were still for sale.
I called Amanda. “Could you please put my kids in a cab?” She agreed without further questions. I could imagine the gossip in the faculty lounge.
When we got home, Simon went right to bed, high on the analgesics that the doctor had prescribed.
I set my phone down on the kitchen table, still open to the offending website. I wanted the kids to see it when they arrived. I wanted to see their faces when they realized that I knew what they were up to.
Janis was the first to notice.
“It was Richie’s idea,” Janis protested. “He did all the work. We get a cut of the profits.”
John guffawed. Neither had asked about their father.
“It’s just business.” Janis picked up the phone and examined it. “We’re up to 100,000 likes. The money is rolling in.”
I missed the days when she waved pompoms outside my window, cheering “First and ten. Do it again.” I turned off the phone, but the images of my children continued to taunt me even as I returned to my husband’s side.
Soon, Scott arrived with his kids in tow. “How is he?”
Our bedroom was crowded with the six of us standing around the bed where Simon lay.
“They say it’s probably kidney stones,” I said.
The kids pulled Richie aside. They whispered. Richie put a comforting arm around Janis. The intimacy of the gesture infuriated me. My grandson looked up, defiantly. He didn’t even bother to pretend to be uncomfortable in my presence.
I reminded Scott and his kids that Simon was in the bed. That he was in pain. Simon shooed me away. He apologized to Scott. “Your mother always was a bit dramatic.”
In the hallway, I confronted the kids. “You owe us more than this.”
John shot back. “We owe you nothing.”
Janis added, “What did you expect?”
I pulled them further away from the bedroom door. “What were you thinking?”
John: “My question exactly.” He was holding an unlit cigarette as if waiting to be sprung.
I walked back into the bedroom. I didn’t care if the clones followed. Let them go to the highest bidder.
At Simon’s bedside, my granddaughter Tiffany had claimed the chair closest to the bed. She sat cross-legged and bare foot, her blue hair in a crew cut, a new tattoo of a rose delicate on her ankle. Softly she sang, “Oh Lord, will you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” She had a beautiful voice, as raw as Janis in her prime. Simon sang harmony.
Children are a mixed blessing. They can break your heart and, just as easily, weasel their way back in. Scott convinced Richie that he owed us fifty percent of the clone’s share of the website income. The contract we signed was impressive proof of my grandson’s business acumen. With the new infusion of cash, Simon and Tiffany began ordering audio software like there was no tomorrow. As the self-proclaimed manager of their duo, the GMO Freebies, I made a decision: as soon as Simon was back on his feet, we were taking this show on the road.