Good Morning at the Parenthood!
No boy had ever failed an Inspection.
For this, J felt no anxiety as the steel door creaked open before him, as the faces of the Parenthood looked out, as the Inspectors stood against the far wall, each with a hand on the magnifying glasses hooked to their belts. J had done this every morning of his life, every morning he could remember, and, despite Q’s theories on likelihoods and probabilities (his idea that eventually someone must fail in order to justify a lifetime of Inspections), J felt no doubt, no dread, no fear.
“Enter, J,” Collins called. Collins, the stuffiest, oldest, burliest Inspector of all. The man smelled of old textbooks. His belly hung so far over his belt D joked he kept an Alphabet Boy hidden in there. That’s where we come from, D had said. But all the Alphabet Boys knew they came from the Orchard, having grown on the Living Trees.
“Come on, then,” Collins said. It was a wonder any words at all made it through the man’s bushy brown mustache.
J knew the Inspector did not speak for himself.
D.A.D. must’ve given the signal it was time to begin.
To the snickers of L, D, and Q behind him, J entered and removed his pajamas, folding them and placing them in a neat pile upon the steel end table by the Check-Up room door. As the door was closing behind J, D called, “Shoulda showered, J!” And J pointed at him, the Alphabet Boys’ gesture that meant, You’re a jerk, brother.
The door locked into place, his clothes nicely piled, J stepped to the pair of rubber footprints on the cold steel floor. Winter was close, arriving perhaps as soon as tomorrow. And while J enjoyed the Effigy Meet as much as his brothers, he liked to keep the cold outside. The Check-Up room was as frigid as any he knew in the Turret.
“Turn,” Inspector Collins said. He and Jeffrey observed from a distance, always the first step of the morning’s Inspection. The dogs breathed heavy behind the glass door beyond the men. J turned to his left. He heard the leather of D.A.D.’s red jacket stretching. The man, as of yet out of sight, must have crossed his arms or sat back in his chair.
Winter outside the Turret could be brutal. Some years were worse than others. J, nearing his thirteenth birthday along with his twenty-three brothers, had experienced twelve winters. And with each one, Professor Gulch warned the boys about depression. The sense of loneliness that came from being stuck inside a ten-story tower, when the Orchard and the Yard froze over, when even the pines looked too cold to survive.
Hysteria, J thought. He shook his head, trying to roll the idea out his ear. It was a word he didn’t like anywhere inside his head. As if the four syllables had the same properties as Rotts and Moldus, Vees and Placasores. The very diseases the Inspectors searched him for now.
Collins again. His gruff voice part and parcel of the Check-Up room. Like the sound of clacking dishes in the cafeteria. Or the choral voices of his brothers in the Body Hall.
“Cold,” J said, turning his back to the Inspectors, facing now the locked door.
It was often chilly in the Check-Up room; unseen breezes, as if the solid-steel walls were only an illusion, and the distorted reflections unstable drawing on the wind. J imagined a slit somewhere, a crack in those walls, allowing pre-winter inside. It was similar, J thought, to the veterinarian’s office in Lawrence Luxley’s book Dogs and Dog Days. The brilliant leisure writer had described the poor animals’ reactions so well:
Unwelcoming, cold, it was as though Doctor Grand had intentionally made it so, so that the dogs understood the severity of their visits. And still, despite the inhospitable environs, the dogs understood that the room was good for them. That their lives depended on these regular visits. Some of them were even able to suppress their basest instincts . . . the ones that told them to run.
J had memorized all of Lawrence Luxley’s books. Many of the Alphabet Boys had.
J did as he was told. Always had. The routine of the Inspections was as ingrained in his being as chewing before swallowing.
And with this third turn, he faced D.A.D.
A thrill ran through him, as it always had, twelve years running, to see D.A.D. for the first time in the day.
The bright-red jacket and pants were like a warm fire in the cold Check-Up room. Or the sun coming up. “Did you sleep well, J?”
D.A.D.’s voice. Always direct, always athletic. J wasn’t the only Alphabet Boy who equated the man’s voice with strength. Comfort. Security. Knowledge.
“I actually did not,” J said, his twelve-year-old voice an octave deeper than it was only a year ago. “I dreamt something terrible.”
“Is that right?” D.A.D.’s hazel eyes shone above his black beard, his hair black, too. J had black hair. Just like his D.A.D. “I’m intrigued. Tell me all about it.”
“Turn,” Collins said. And J turned to face the Inspectors and the dogs all over again.
No longer facing D.A.D., the color red like a nosebleed out of the corner of his eye now, J recounted his unconscious struggle. He’d been lost in a Yard four hundred times the size of the one he enjoyed every day. He described the horror of not being able to find his way back to the Turret.
“Lost?” D.A.D. echoed. The obvious interest in his voice was as clear to J as the subtle sound of his leather gloves folding around his pencil.
Yes, J told him, yes, he’d felt lost in the dream. He’d somehow strayed too far from the Turret and the Parenthood within. He couldn’t remember how exactly—the actual pines framing the Yard in were not present in this dream. But he was certainly very anxious to get back. He could hear his floor mates Q, D, and L calling from a distance but could not see the orange bricks of the tower. He couldn’t make out the iron spires that framed the roof’s ledge like a lonely bottom row of teeth. Teeth J and the other Alphabet Boys had looked through many nights, having found the nerve to sneak up to the roof. Nor could he see the tallest of the spires, the single iron tooth that pointed to the sky like a fang. Gone were the finite acres of the Yard, the expanse of green lawn between himself and the Turret. So were the reflections in the many elongated windows of the many floors. In their stead was endless green grass.
“Well, winter is upon us,” D.A.D. said. His voice was control. Always. Direction. Solution. Order. “Couldn’t even see the fang, hmm? No sign of the Parenthood at all. No sign of home.”
J thought of the yellow door on the roof, visible all the way from the Yard below. He thought of the solid orange bricks and how, on a summer day, the Turret resembled a sunrise.
“No,” he said, shaking his head, looking to the silent faces of the Inspectors, who quietly fingered the magnifying glasses at their belts. J understood now, as a twelve-year-old boy, something he hadn’t at eleven: The Inspections didn’t begin when the Inspectors used their glasses. It began the second you walked through the door.
“You must have been so scared,” D.A.D. continued. His voice was fatherhood. Administration. Always. “But, tell me, did you eventually find the Turret before waking?”
J was quiet a moment. He scratched at his right elbow with his left hand. He yawned a second time.
Hysteria, he thought again. He actually made fists, as if to knock the thought out of his head. Professor Gulch taught psychology and often stressed the many ways a boy’s mind might turn on itself: mania, attention deficit, persecution, dissociation from reality, depression, and hysteria. For J, it had all sounded like distant impossibilities. Conditions to be studied for the purpose of study alone. Certainly J wasn’t afraid of one day experiencing these states of mind himself. Yet here he was . . . twelve years old . . . and how else could he explain the new, unknown feelings he’d been having of late? What would Gulch call the sense of isolation, of being incomplete, when he looked out across the Yard, toward the entrance to the many rows of the Orchard? To where the Living Trees grew?
The boy recalled his childhood as though through a glass with residue of milk upon it. Unable to answer the simple question: Where do I come from?
Another Lawrence Luxley line. A real zinger, as Q would say.
But no, J thought, there in the Check-Up room. He wasn’t trying to answer that question at all. No boy had ever determined which of the cherry trees in the Orchard were the ones they had grown on. And as far as J knew, they were fine with that.