That day I met the Jeans was surrealistic. Pulp Fiction weird. I’m a carpenter; maybe a bright guy but not an intellectual or anything. And wrapping my brain around a thing like that . . . Clones? I know about Dolly, but cloning people is something that only happens in science fiction movies. Or so I thought.
It starts out on the top floor of Earl Wessel’s brownstone in Urbana, Illinois, with me hanging a door and installing some windows. A year ago, come August. In walks this perky brunette wearing cute-girl glasses and she’s smiling big time. I figure she lives in one of the occupied apartments downstairs. I brush the hair out of my eyes and give her a nice hello.
It started out strange right away because she says, “I ate the lunches,” or, “I ate all the lunches.” Kind of like a kid, even though she’s full grown and that. I thought maybe she was stoned or something.
I asked, “You live here?” If she doesn’t belong in the building I’m going to ask her to leave, right? I have an open space in one wall with no window and I don’t want her falling out there.
“Don’t be silly. Where would I sit?”
“I mean here in the building.”
“No.” A huge sigh, her shoulders hopping. “I’d like to though. It smells nice.”
“O-kay.” I think she’s kidding around and I like her sense of humor. But I’ve got that window to install. Even though she’s attractive and maybe she thinks I’m someone to flirt with, I decide to wrap this up and get back to work. I asked, “Are you looking for someone?”
“No.” Sliding her shoes over the carpet, she wandered near the kitchen counter.
“I mean are you looking for a tenant that lives in the building.”
“I told you I ate their lunches. Now I am hiding.”
“Well, I have to get back to work.”
She spun right around, her blue skirt whirling. “May I help you?” Her hands clapped softly. “I have never worked before.”
“No. Look, I think you have to go.”
“You don’t think I’d be any good at it,” she said. Striding back with swinging arms, she declared in a mannish voice, “Well, I would. I can spit, you know. And I know what that is. It’s one of those hammer things.”
“Right.” She had me grinning now. I had no idea if she was the funniest girl I’d met in ages or an utter lunatic.
“Then I can help?” More hand patters.
I am stumped at this point. Her smile is like pink candy. Those lively pale blue eyes are doing the pretty-please dance. There’s nothing I want to do more than to call it a day and whisk her off somewhere. But there’s that windowless hole in back of me and what she wants is to help me work. So I am stumped. I asked her her name, stalling for ideas.
“I am very, very happy to meet you.”
“How long have you been hammering, Bill?”
“I‘ve been a carpenter about three years now. Started right after high school.”
“You must be very good at it. This is my first day.” She actually spit a tiny bit right there on the rug. A silvery line hung over her chin and she swiped it away with an arm. “Let’s get to work, shall we? Do I get one of those hammer things?”
I gripped the head of the hammer hanging from my tool belt. “No, not yet.” Apparently I was taking on an apprentice. I’d slap the one window in that hole and get her out of there before Earl showed back up. Earl Wessel has no sense of humor. He wouldn’t appreciate my new friend one bit. “You have to work up to a hammer. I thought I’d start you off on inventory.”
“Inventory? That sounds like a very important job, Bill. Are you sure I’m ready for inventory?”
“I think you can handle it. What I need you to do is count these.” I led Jean to the stack of windows leaning against the wall. “I need to know how many are in this row.”
Shoulders back, she gave me a firm nod. “I may need one of those hammers though. And a hammer corset too.”
It took me a second to get what she meant. Tool belt. She called it a hammer corset. It was all I could do not to burst out laughing. “No, you won’t need any tools for this.” I thought she was incredibly funny. Little did I know that her enchanting personality was no joke.
I muscled a window in place and screwed it down in ten minutes. I could caulk it up tomorrow. All the while Jean kept counting the stack over and over. When I had the window in, she handed me a piece of cardboard she’d scrounged from somewhere, saying, “I made you a copy.” On the cardboard she’d written, 7. She held up another cardboard square. “I’ll keep this for my own records.”
A loud honk sounded down on the street. Earl’s truck. I told Jean, “Why don’t you take a break. I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Did I do well?”
“Great job, Jean.”
Her eyes sparkled with pleasure. “Thanks, boss.”
I unhooked my tool belt and dropped it on the floor. “Be right back.”
I hurried down the two flights and out to the street. Earl sat behind the wheel of his four-by-four with a red face. Mad, as usual. He shot me glare and demanded, “What are you doing up there? I want that apartment ready. I have a tenant ready to move in.”
“I know, Earl.” I said.
“I’m not paying you to screw around.”
“I have one more window and I’ll be done in eleven.”
“I can see that!”
I noticed a woman in a red dress on the other side of the street who looked a little like Jean. Same dark hair and she was wearing glasses too. It seemed a little strange. I had no idea.
Earl said, “I have that caulk in back. Twenty-three dollars they charged me. Can you believe that?” He bought the cheapest supplies he could find and always complained about the prices.
“I got it.” Moving to the rear of the truck, I grabbed the case of caulking. I went back to the window. “I’m done for today.” A woman in a short green dress caught my eye. Again, she looked an awful lot like Jean upstairs. This one was walking around the corner and I couldn’t see her well. But I was starting to get a little weirded out.
Earl blew up. “You’re through? It’s only four o’clock. Dammit, Bill! I need to get those units rented.”
“I’ll be done here by Friday.”
“You better be. I’m not paying you to screw around.”
“I have to go.” He started the engine.
He drove away with a cloud of acrid gray smoke pumping from the tailpipe. I began coughing and I staggered away from the curb. Sinking down onto the front steps of the building, I tried to clear my lungs. Earl needed to take his truck somewhere for a tune up. That thing was a biohazard.
I heard footsteps coming up the sidewalk and then Jean’s voice. “Are you all right?”
I couldn’t figure how she had gotten outside without me knowing it. “I’ll be okay in a minute. That was Earl. He needs to get that truck fixed.”
“Are you certain? You look a bit done in.”
“I’m fine, Jean.” I took a deep breath. Better.
“How do you know my name?”
“What?” I looked up.
“How do you know my name is Jean?”
Jean was now wearing green trousers, gray blouse, and an Indiana Jones hat. The glasses were gone. I was so surprised that I knocked the box of caulking off the stairs and it tumbled over the concrete. I sputtered, “You told me your name.”
“I did?” Jean ran a finger over the brim of her hat. “How silly of me. I don’t recall having met you before. Have you been to the castle?”
“The castle,” I repeated. My hopes of getting to know Jean better disappeared completely. My new apprentice had switched outfits and now she was talking about castles. She was undeniably certifiable. “No, ah. No.”
“There you are.” Someone approached from my left. I assumed that this was Jean’s twin sister. Same hair and face. She was dressed in an orange pants suit. “Have you found her?” the twin asked.
“I am afraid she’s eluded us,” Jean answered.
“After eating our lunches! And she didn’t even finish mine. How rude. Oh, she’ll be singing some show tunes when we find her.”
Had this woman mentioned something about eating the lunches? I got out a croak, “What did you say?”
“Show tunes. From Broadway musicals like Oklahoma, Pirates of the Penzance, and South Pacific. If you misbehave you must sing. That’s the rule.”
“That’s not what I mean.” I looked up at Jean. “You told me you ate all the lunches.”
“I did not. Why, I haven’t eaten a thing all day. If you are going to go around telling lies you will be required to sing.” Jean addressed her sister, “Something from West Side Story, I think.”
“Yes. He looks like the type.”
I saw other women coming toward us from every direction. They all looked exactly like the two standing above me. One crossing the street waved a hand and called, “Jeans!”
There were nine of them. All dressed differently. Some had glasses and some did not. One wore a pink Scarlet O’Hara gown and carried a parasol. I covered my face with my hands as I tried to convince myself there had to be some reasonable explanation. But none came. They chatted about their missing lunches and some of them prodded me to begin singing. It was insane. Their voices, expressions, and mannerisms were identical. And all of them were named Jean.
I heard the door open behind me and looked back to see the first Jean I’d met standing there with my hammer dangling from a fist. The Jeans on the sidewalk began to whine about their lunches, but she cut them off with, “I need to eat more because I have a job now. I’m a hammerer.” Tucking her thumbs behind that hammer corset, she gave me a serious look and said, “I practiced hammering on those windows, boss. I’m afraid there was a bit of damage.” She spit.
The Jeans were all impressed with her new job and congratulations filled the air. I didn’t say a word. When I dragged myself upstairs I found that the bit of damage included all seven windows broken. She’d even mangled some of the frames.
My apprentice followed me up there. She kicked out at one of the broken windows, remarking, “They just don’t make them like they used to, boss.” She handed me a scrap of cardboard with a large zero in the middle. “I adjusted the count.”
I wanted to shout, scream, and tear my hair. But the innocent expression on Jean’s face made it impossible to get mad at her. She had no idea how serious this was, or even that she’d done anything wrong. I mumbled thanks and found a pair of work gloves. As I began cleaning up the mess, Jean asked if I needed any help. “I can use the overtime, boss,” she said.
“No, I’ll get this.”
Jean removed the tool belt and carefully folded it on the floor. “I guess I’ll call it a day then. What time do we start in the morning?”
My voice was a squeak of dismay. “In the morning?” There was no way I could let her come back there to work. I had to get rid of her somehow without hurting her feelings.
“I’d like to bring one of the other Jeans on as my assistant.”
“I thought we could start her off on inventory.”
Just the thought of two of them there was enough to send me into a cold sweat. “No. I don’t think . . .”
“Don’t worry, boss. I’ll keep an eye on her and make sure she doesn’t cause any mischief.”
“Look, Jean.” I had to stop this. She had me so flustered I could barely think. I began rambling, “I don’t think this will work out. There’s an awful lot of work here. I don’t think one or two Jeans is going to make much difference.”
“Really?” Her eyes ballooned with excitement. “We’ll have to hire the others too, boss.” She dashed for the door, calling out, “Oh, Jeans!”
I sagged into a miserable heap on the floor, sobbing. The windows were broken, I now had all the Jeans working for me, and when Earl found out I would be out of a job. A part of my brain wondered where all these Jeans had come from -were they ten-tuplets?- but I was too confused to even think straight. I locked up and went downstairs. Outside, the Jeans were gone.
As I staggered to my car, I tripped over the box of caulk I’d forgotten on the sidewalk. My shirt was torn and I had an ugly scrape on my forearm. This really wasn’t one of my better days. I rose shakily to my feet.
There was a man wearing a suit standing next to a long car parked in front of my Mazda. He looked like maybe a lawyer: thin moustache and goatee neatly trimmed, manicured nails, and all that. He said, “May I have a word?”
I waved him off. “Look, mister. I had a rough day.” All I wanted to do was get home, take a hot bath, and forget about my problems. Just me and my luffa. Maybe the electric toaster.
“I really need to speak with you, Bill,” he said.
“What? Are you selling something? How do you know my name, anyway?”
“I’m Dr. Namtucket.” He produced a gold business card and when I reached for it he stuffed it back in his pocket. “And I’m responsible for the Jeans.”
“You are?” This was a lucky break. If I could explain to this guy that I couldn’t possibly have all those Jeans working for me maybe he could tell them.
“I want to thank you, Bill. I understand you’ve hired some of the Jeans as hammerers.”
“About that. They think I hired all of them. Let me explain—”
“All the Jeans? This is marvelous news, Bill!” He bubbled with enthusiasm. “None of the Jeans has ever worked before.”
“I’ve been trying to integrate them into society, but it’s been rough going, as you can imagine. But now you’ve gone and hired all one hundred and forty-two of them! Bill, this is tremendous!”
“One hundred and forty-two?” I almost fainted.
“This calls for a celebration. You’re coming to the castle for dinner tonight.” Dr. Namtucket opened the rear door of his car and pushed me into the back seat. I was in shock. A protest dribbled out but he ignored me. Hurrying to the front, he started the engine and we took off.
I slumped in the back seat, trying to sort things out. I was going to have dinner in a castle with this Dr. Namtucket and my hundred and forty-two new hammerers, all of whom were named Jean. Like I said before, it was Pulp Fiction weird. Only instead of Uma I had the Jeans. Sort of a wash I guess.
“You mentioned that you were responsible,” I said. “For the Jeans.”
“That’s correct.” Dr. Namtucket flashed me a big smile in the rear view mirror.
“You’re their guardian?”
“I suppose that’s true as well. But I created them also.”
“They’re clones. I thought you knew.”
That made a lot of sense. What didn’t make sense was why he had made so many Jeans. I asked, “You cloned over a hundred of them?”
“Not precisely. You see, Bill, I built a cloning machine. I’m an inventor. No, I only cloned the first Jean.”
“Where did the others come from?”
“Well, that first Jean was curious and so she turned on the machine when I went out one day. Unfortunately she didn’t know how to turn it off. My fault really. There’s no off switch. You have to unplug it. But she didn’t know that.”
“A design flaw, I suppose. By the time I got back there were one hundred and forty-two Jeans. You can imagine how surprised I was.”
We were nearing the city limits and he said, “The castle’s over in Champaign. Not too far.”
“You really live in a castle?” I hadn’t heard of any castles in the area.
“No, of course not. The Jeans started calling it that because it’s so big. It’s gothic architecture, I suppose that’s part of it. You’ll see.”
“You all live in this one big house?”
“It’s a bit cramped, but I’ve made some adjustments to make it easier on all of us. Bunk beds, twenty extra bathrooms, that sort of thing. And I signed us up for that family cell phone package. For only a hundred dollars, every member of the household gets one. Oh, the company had a fit when they found out how many Jeans there are. But what could they do?”
“Why did you give them all the same name? Isn’t that a little confusing?”
“I’ll say. If I could do it all over I think I’d name one of them Sally to cut down on some of the muddle.”
“Oh.” I was beginning to understand why the Jeans were so eccentric.
We passed the ivy-covered buildings of Illinois State University. The campus continued for several blocks. Dr. Namtucket said, “That’s where it all began. I built the cloning machine here.”
“Are you an instructor?”
“Heavens no. I hate books and science and all that. No, I was a janitor here at the university. Frankly, if I believed what the experts say I never would have thought it was possible to invent a cloning machine.”
“But you’re a doctor?”
“Frog doctor actually. Frogs, lizards, and snakes. I’m surprised you aren’t aware of that. It’s said I’m one of the best frog doctors in the world, perhaps second only to Dr. Yamibobo in Tokyo.”
“But I worked here as a janitor. That’s how this whole cloning business started.”
“You wanted to clone frogs?”
“What?” A roar of laughter echoed inside the car. “Clone frogs? Why would anyone want to do that? No, I wanted to clone me. I love to tinker around with my inventions and the janitorial work was taking up too much of my time. So I built the cloning machine to clone another Dr. Namtucket. One who could go to work every day while I tinkered with my inventions.”
“So, you cloned yourself?” I was having trouble keeping this all straight.
“It didn’t work out as I expected.”
“Your clone didn’t want to be a janitor?”
“No, he loves the job. A much better janitor than I ever was. But he refuses to split the paychecks. Can you imagine? Ingrate.” Dr. Namtucket turned a corner and we passed through a residential neighborhood. “Just like that first Jean I cloned.”
“What do you mean?”
“Jean was a student I fell in love with. But university rules prohibit fraternization between employees and students, so I cloned her to provide myself with a Jean I could date. Unfortunately my first Jean wasn’t interested in a man who spends all his time tinkering with inventions. She has a thing for janitors though. She married my own clone last month. Ironic, isn’t it?”
Ironic wasn’t exactly the word I was thinking.
“That first Jean accidentally provided me with one hundred and forty-two more clones, so I thought things would eventually work out to my advantage. With so many Jeans I assumed one of them would find me a suitable companion.”
I ventured, “The law of averages—”
“Is wrong! Not one of the Jeans will so much as go out with me. They all think I’m this strange man obsessed with his tinkering. And now the Jean grapevine has me stigmatized as a lecher only interested in one thing. Dating Jeans.”
“It’s a depressing situation. I’ve been at my wits end trying to figure out what to do with all these Jeans. But now that you’ve hired them as hammerers everything should work out fine. Once they’re out working they’ll be able to integrate into society.
“About that.” I told him the whole story. How the first Jean had misunderstood things. How I had no idea just how many Jeans there were. I finished with, “So you can see that I really don’t have jobs for the Jeans.”
Furious, he hit the brakes and the car screeched to a stop. “Get out!”
“I can’t believe this! You are a pathetic excuse for a human being, Bill. What am I going to tell the Jeans? They’re home right now planning a big celebration. Now they have no jobs and there is no reason to celebrate at all.”
“Maybe I could help you explain it to them.”
“If you think I’m letting you anywhere near the Jeans again you are sadly mistaken. Just get out of the car.”
I opened the door. “I really am sorry about this.”
I stepped onto the sidewalk.
Dr. Namtucket sped off. He drove twenty feet and screeched to a stop in front of a tall white house that did look a bit like a castle. I watched as he hurried inside.
You can imagine how bad I felt. The Jeans would be heartbroken when they found out they had no jobs. I wanted to do something to fix this. But what?
I wandered into the yard, watching through the windows of that huge gothic house. Dr. Namtucket stood in the foyer. I heard him calling for the Jeans to come. His head was bowed and I knew he would be telling them that the hammerer jobs had fallen through.
They came from all directions. There were Jeans in aprons carrying their mixing bowls from the kitchen. A flock of Jeans scampered down the stairs. Jeans chatting about their books came out of the library. Many of the Jeans were talking to one another on their cell phones and they made quite an uproar. As Dr. Namtucket began telling them the bad news I turned away. I felt bad enough without watching.
I heard a loud bang from the rear of the property and followed the noise. One of the Jeans was back there whacking away at a garbage can with a stick. “Hello, Bill! I’m very, very happy to see you.”
I was pretty sure that this was my apprentice from that afternoon.
She smacked the metal can again, leaving a fresh dent. “I know it’s not a proper hammer, but it’s the best I could find. I thought I should practice a bit. We’ll need someone to teach the other Jeans hammerering. Since I’m an experienced hammerer, I think I’m the best choice.” She spit.
Yes, this was my apprentice all right. I wanted to explain why I couldn’t hire the Jeans. “Jean, you’re denting the can,” I said. I thought maybe if I could get her to understand that hammerering, that is carpentry, was more than just hitting things, maybe I could let her down easier.
“They sure don’t make them like they used to.” She hit the can again.
“No, you don’t understand. You can’t go around hitting things like metal cans and windows.” I took the stick. “You can break things that way.”
She nodded. “I’ve misbehaved, haven’t I?”
“No, it’s not your fault. I just didn’t train you right.”
“Boss, I’ve been a hammerer long enough to know better. “ She spit. “I’ve behaved badly and now I have to make amends. What do you think? Three Little Maids From School?”
“What?” I’d forgotten that the Jeans sing show tunes when they misbehave and I had no idea what she meant.
Jean opened her mouth and out came the most beautiful voice I have ever heard. I stared in astonishment. It was absolutely remarkable. When she stopped singing, I said in a hushed voice, “That was fantastic. Where did you learn to sing so good?”
She beamed, her eyes twinkling. “Thanks, boss. With so many Jeans living together we’re always stepping on each other’s toes. We get a lot of practice singing show tunes. We’re all pretty good.”
That gave me a great idea. While the Jeans weren’t suited for work as hammerers, if they sang half as good as she did they could all get jobs in show business. “Come on!” I shouted. I grabbed Jean’s hand and we rushed into the house to tell the other Jeans the good news.
It’s worked out pretty well for all of us. Dr. Namtucket sold the patent rights for his cloning machine and we used the money to finance our off-Broadway musical, Jeans. I build the sets and with all his experience acting as the Jeans’ guardian Dr. Namtucket is an excellent director.
There’s only one glitch. You see, the Jeans won’t sing unless they’ve misbehaved first. This makes me the victim of endless practical jokes. We’re at the theater right now and they’re going on in five minutes. My shoelaces are tied together, someone glued my hat on, and that Coke I just opened exploded all over my shirt. There’s no business like show business, I guess. Especially with the Jeans.