Edvard Munch, Hospital Ward, ca. 1897-99

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.

When fate closes a door it opens a window, goes the platitude, but in this case Keith is both door and window. He opens the window with his liver. There’s a story in the Canadian Buddhist nun’s book about a prince who stumbles upon a starving tigress and, in an act of supreme compassion, sacrifices himself to feed her. But in my opinion, the prince should have killed the tigress. She was bound to continue suffering after the prince was gone, until she was gone herself. I have observed myself and my Keiths with a similar sort of compassion, but I can’t decide which role is mine. Keith inhabits himself in a parking-lot-during-snow sense that I am incapable of imitating. So he must be the prince and I the tigress. He is not hungering like so many of us to belong in the world. Before Wanda was recruited to the Keith Fulfillment Center, she was employed by a bioremediation service that identified anonymous corpses. If no next of kin or friend or acquaintance claimed the remains, they would be cremated and then stored in a different type of warehouse.

To create a Keith, the lab technician vacates an ovum of its extant tenancy. I contemplate the ova, those microscopic rooms, as Wanda describes searching through the deceased’s receipts for products ordered from our warehouses—since the Keith Fulfillment Center is but one branch of a parent company that can also fulfill needs for everything else: area rugs, immersion blenders, socks, half of which will go missing—to confirm a name. Apparently, you come to recognize the deceased’s deodorant of choice. A Keith has no accessories other than his body, which is not buried. His donations are treated with the utmost diligence, but the dross of Keith is disposed of like standard medical waste. The warehouse hands joke about unpacking a Keith while they pack up our stuff. They might kid about hazing the newbie by hiding an ear in his lunch, but they are just as subject to scrutiny as we are. And yet they don’t have to hassle with a pulse.

The wing of artificial wombs is where nurses tend to spend their breaks. It’s called the Aquarium, with the Keiths like fish hovering above us. But the Keiths don’t seem much like fish to me, even in their early trimester when they are most liquid. They’re closer in aspect to a scented candle than a shark. On one wall there are quaint educational posters of a woman’s abdomen, the traditional biological womb. Lately Keith with a mole and I have been transfixed by nature documentaries, and the illustrated female reproductive system, its retinal ovaries sloping into the snout of the womb, resembles the head of a praying mantis. An interesting fact on a poster is that fingerprints are made when the fetus presses up against the mother’s uterus. Keith’s fingerprints are smooth. His plastic enclosure does not resist—it gives and gives. As I trail Wanda into the wombs, she glows with an embryonic warmth. I am left with the impression that she is a vessel of great sacrifice and purpose.

“Tell me what you felt when your Keith of twenty years was selected,” I request.

“Relief,” she says. Once a Keith is absent, you remember the tasks you no longer have to do for him, the catheter that can go unchanged. “Embarrassment,” she adds. As soon as they opened him, she experienced the same emotion she had as a newlywed hosting a dinner party, when her mother-in-law pulled up a pair of dirty panties from between the couch cushions.

What did I feel at the death of my husband?

“I felt like I had run errands and forgotten to turn off the oven.”

I was convinced the oven would burn down an entire city block.

* * *

At the base of an inactive volcano or hunkered in an abandoned nuclear missile silo, there exists a secret Keith Fulfillment Center for elite members. Gossip is that Keiths in the secret center receive pharmaceuticals that are significantly gentler but manufactured at exorbitant cost. Keiths in the warehouses don’t have to be perfect—though we do try—provided that they are profitable. But barbiturates are taxing in perpetual doses, so our Keiths often have coronary complications from the medication elevating their blood pressure. They have persistent pneumonia issues or, should they have to depend on those training wheels for oxygenation, fluid in their lungs from ventilators. It doesn’t really matter that they’re not quite right, as they are universal donor Keiths or Crystals or Jamals, put into production from a consenting original because they can mix and match with the majority of our general members. This secret center, which is also rumored to be outfitted with snipers and hydroponic vegetables, can double as a high-tech survivalist shelter in the event of a revolution by artificial intelligence, or as a respite from the climate refugee crisis and other unpleasant news.

I’m at a loss as to why these high-quality Keiths are hidden from us. The staff wouldn’t complain about caring for Premium Keiths—it’s not as if the Keiths themselves notice the subtleties between top-of-the-line drugs versus standard sedatives. Yet I’ve also heard that these pampered Keiths are bespoke Keiths, tailored to suit an individual genome, thus eliminating the original’s reliance upon immunosuppressants. If that is the case, then the Keiths wouldn’t qualify as Keiths per se, but as facsimiles of the board, the identical scions of company founders. During happy hour, a nurse in Georges envisions us wheeling in these executives to doze through shareholder meetings while their progenitors are preoccupied. As a result of imagining such an amusing scenario, we come up with a theory for all this clandestine Keithing: our bosses’ bosses’ bosses and their friends don’t want us observing them while they’re drooling on themselves. It’s of no consequence that the droolers aren’t them, if the public can’t pick the CEOs from the droolers.

Honestly, caring for drooling CEOs would almost be reassuring, since it would mean that we still have some career security—that no one lives indefinitely, not yet. When scientists in another secret center solve the problem of senescence for our bosses and ensure their immortality, we will be made redundant, but not as redundant as the Keiths. I understand that aging has something to do with the buildup of damage, which sounds a lot like what it’s like to grieve, the monotony interrupted briefly for random incidents of frustration and stupidity, such as losing my wedding ring after a visit to the emergency room and finding it later, as a widow, in a bottle of my dead husband’s medication. Or it is like submitting another year-end report of my growth and harvest statistics and being told I must increase my target number of dispatched Keiths. Perhaps I would want to live forever if, like it is for the bosses, my participation in work and sickness were optional. There should be an organ that collects sorrow, that filters it through a pliable labyrinth of lobes or valves, and that isthmus of sadness we could replace, too, when it was worn out, for as Keith has nothing to dream about, he has nothing to mourn. His organ of woe would always stay pink and vital.

* * *

The tour was a mistake—too much, too soon. My immediate bosses in the supervision office also don’t seem too thrilled with these behind-the-scenes revelations about Keith’s distribution. It wouldn’t be in the interest of the Keith Fulfillment Center for Keith with a mole to get ideas. “Time to turn in your Keith,” they apprise me over the phone. I reply that they cannot have him. Don’t fret, they say; they’re not harvesting Keith with a mole, they’re just going to knock him out with a new cocktail until they have a better plan to integrate rogue Keiths into society. Of course, I persevere in my refusal, but it’s irrelevant, as Keith is depressed. He sheds the little weight he’s managed to put on since he woke, and he won’t depart my bed. “Sleep,” he pleads one day. “Sleep with the Keiths.” His features are stricken when I laugh, and I feel sorry that Keith isn’t sophisticated enough to delight in entendre. What releases me from my commitment to keep him is picturing Keith spending the rest of his life alone and dreamless.

“Don’t remember your husband at his weakest, remember him at his strongest” was the unsolicited and offensively sympathetic advice that went around with the flu at my husband’s funeral. Recommending that I forget my husband’s illness is like saying, “Don’t think of an elephant,” an elephant that is also a grave. Prior to the notices from collection agencies, then the follow-ups to the notices, then the follow-ups to the follow-ups to the notices, we went to a nice restaurant. A woman was there eating a steak, accompanied by a boy who ran around and screamed. As the boy passed us, my husband interrupted him to ask, “What’s your best memory?” My husband assumed, as did I, that this woman was in a crisis she was dealing with as politely as possible. “The necklace!” the boy shouted and resumed screaming. In between screams, the boy had been sucking on a necklace, and when it dropped from his mouth, I couldn’t settle on its shape. It was slippery as viscera, umbilical. “He’s not mine,” the woman said, intuiting our curiosity. Our waiter brought us steaks. “I’m chaperoning him for my sister’s ex.”

The sister is dead, I later told my husband. You don’t know that, he reasoned, the sister could be with her current spouse. We brought my husband’s steak home because he wasn’t able to finish it, and it rotted. When we moved into our house, I asked him, “How much happiness will we get to have here?” He teased me about it from time to time, saying, “Rate your happiness today on a scale from one to ten.” As his illness progressed, he had to rate his pain on a scale from one to ten. I didn’t ask about happiness when we moved again. I also didn’t ask if pain and happiness were on a continuum, with pain in negative numbers and happiness in positive, or if it diminished both pain and happiness to have them on the same scale. Why the boy in the restaurant was so connected to that necklace I don’t know, and naturally I don’t know what happened to him after we paid our bill. That’s how it is supposed to be with children, even when they’re not yours; they outlast their elders, if everything goes right, and their destiny is a mystery. But that doesn’t feel right to me—if you create it, you should be there when it is destroyed, to be a palm on the forehead.

Is it fair to impose consciousness on others? My husband and I intended to have children, but what we got was the diagnosis. I dream of Keiths or Stephanies or Daniels or Nicoles we might have made but did not. After my Keith is tucked in and comfortable, I place my palm upon his forehead. Keith was someone in particular once, before he was many and before he was nothing. At least I loved this particular Keith.

“I love you, Keith,” I say, and I inject him with a lethal amount of morphine. It was a cache of relief I had apportioned bit by bit for personal use, but, like my husband, like Keith, it was never really mine.

I whisper to my Keith with a mole, “Good night.”

 

Excerpted from You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South. Copyright 2020 by Mary South. Published by FSG Originals.

Mary South

Mary South is a graduate of Northwestern University and the MFA program in fiction at Columbia University, where she was a chosen for a Henfield scholarship. You Will Never Be Forgotten is her first book. For many years, South has worked with Diane Williams as an editor at the literary journal NOON. She is also a former intern in The New Yorker’s fiction department and a Bread Loaf work-study fellow. Her writing has appeared in The Believer, The Collagist, Conjunctions, Electric Literature, NewYorker.com, NOON, and Words Without Borders. The writer Maile Meloy awarded her story “Not Setsuko” an honorable mention in the Zoetrope: All Story fiction contest. She lives in New York.

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