Harriet's chicken came out of the incubator totally featherless. Just skin. At first you'd be thinking, Great! because that's what it's all about, Featherless Chicken. But then it turned out the feathers were still there on the inside of the skin. It's hard enough to pluck a chicken when the feathers are on the outside, but the other way around is simply impossible. Harriet's chicken is a Total Failure.
I learn this first from Harriet herself, instead of at the daily Progress Report. She tells me when we are outside, taking our smoke break.
"I didn't think I really had it," she says, "but you can't help hoping, you know?"
I nod, with my best sympathetic look, but I'm staring at her breasts, so it probably seems as if I'm sorry for them, which I'm not.
"Inside out. Poor fucker," she says, stubbing out her cigarette. "I'm going in."
I nod again, thinking about my own chicken, nestled in its incubator. Two more weeks and I can find out if I've got The One. My team is on chicken forty, and Harriet's team was on their thirty-fifth. Inside-Out makes thirty-six. I suck the smoke in, and look up at the sky. The late afternoon moon is there, pale against the blue. We can put a man on the moon; how hard can the Featherless Chicken be? It's a common lab joke. Ha, ha.
I'm not complaining. It's much better being on Chicken Team instead of Cow Team. When I was first hired, I was on Cow Team, and we spent months getting the basic requirements down. Mr. Neeko, the founder of the company, had made a name for himself with the Visible Cow, you know, the cow that had skin with big transparent patches. You could see right through, into the guts. His corporate accounts were universities, veterinarian schools, that kind of thing. Luckily, Mr. Neeko had patented The Visible Cow, and with all the money he'd started his own company: Neeko, Inc.
But he wanted more than a mostly clear cow; he wanted a totally clear cow, so that you could watch it eat. The first time I met him, he told me his dream.
"I've always wanted to just watch it all happen, you know, Trim? The Miracle of Digestion!"
"Sure," I told Mr. Neeko, which is all you tell Mr. Neeko if you're smart.
"Ever since I was a little boy on my grandfather's farm, I've just wanted to watch from the time the cow gets the grass in her mouth all the way to the shit. I guess I was just what you would call naturally curious. You know what I mean?"
"Yes, sir, Mr. Neeko."
"I like you, kid. I'm putting you right on the main Cow Team."
"That's very generous. Sir." I was only twenty then. A genetics engineering boy-wonder freak. Straight out of grad school, where I had made a name for myself with the Moose Skin, which could be used for skin grafts to help the Canadian Bull Moose. You remember the moose problem? It was in all the papers. Nothing's uglier than a moose losing its skin. So far. But we have some pretty ugly things going in the incubators.
Inside-Out Chicken will be recycled, of course. The remains will be used as nutrients for the rest of the incubation line. No waste in our pantry! Mr. Neeko likes to say. He's always a happy man. Even now, when there hasn't been a successful incubation in months, Mr. Neeko always has a big smile on his face. It could be permanent. He may already have a patent on Always Smiling Face.
There are rumors that the Malaysians or the Israelis are very close to the Featherless Chicken. The rumors are making most of the workers very tense. If another country beats us to it, we'll all lose our jobs. I could care less. I'm tired of chickens and incubators and even, though I would never admit it to her, Harriet's breasts, but I stare at them because I have to: it's part of a game I'm playing with her.
Mr. Neeko put me on the Cow Team and right from the start there were problems. You think, how great, a clear cow, right? But then you imagine a whole herd of clear cows, and you start to understand the problem. I mean, they were never going to be invisible, just translucent, but even a translucent cow would be hard to see, and the idea of a stampede was brought up, and all of us, sitting around the long dark table, paused and thought of the herd, barely visible, like Jell-O without the coloring, thundering across the plain and trampling the cowboys.
"We could take off the legs," Marty Windham suggested. He was hired at the same time I was, another shining star. Now he's in charge of the whole division. He has drive and ambition. He really cares about Mr. Neeko's various dreams. "They couldn't run without the legs."
Around the table, all of us crossed the legs off the cows on our pads of paper.
"Hard to move 'em," someone said.
"Hmmmm. That's true," we all muttered. We shook our heads. I was thinking of a cowboy, crushed and dying, maybe lying under one of our Clear Cows (patent pending), and his last vision would be of the sky, only the view would be distorted, seen through the grass tossing inside the cow's multiple stomachs.
"We could give 'em wheels," Marty said.
Everyone drew wheels on their pads of paper where the legs used to be, and we scooted our papers back and forth.
"Or just make the legs shorter," I said. "You know, stumpy."
There was a pause and everyone looked to Marty, whose face broke into a big smile. "It's perfect!"
After the meeting Marty came up and punched me on the shoulder, "Good call on the legs! Way to run with my idea." He didn't acknowledge his pun. After that he started sitting at my table during lunch. It took me four years to shake him.
I've started dreaming about Harriet. In the dream we're married, and she's breast-feeding our baby boy. Harriet isn't wearing a top and the skin on her breasts is see-through. She smiles up at me, a bundle of cloth held to her chest, and I can see the pulse of blood beneath her skin and the milk coursing out into our baby's hungry mouth. But I can't really see our child because he's so swaddled in the blanket.
Harriet reaches out and takes my hand.
"Don't you want to see our boy?" She starts to unwrap him. I back away, afraid that his skin will be clear, that I'll look straight at his skull, his brain, or that he won't be there at all, just a quivering jelly mass drinking hungrily. The Miracle of Digestion.
Once I asked Harriet if she had ever dreamed about me, and she said, without looking up from her microscope, "No, and if you've dreamed about me, I don't want to hear about it."
Two years ago my team's chicken number fourteen came out of the incubator screaming. You could hear it from one end of the lab to the other. Our idea had been to have the chicken's sweat glands secrete acid, so the feathers would naturally burn off. Feathers are tougher than you might think. Even though there was a slight overproduction of acid, the feathers held on, and the acid actually cooked the skin a little, making it real crispy. At the Progress Report I mentioned how the crispy skin could probably be added to team three's Pre-Cooked Chicken, and so Chicken Fourteen wasn't a Total Failure. Spin Master Trim. The ones that aren't Total Failures get filed because sometimes the formulations can be used by another Chicken Team, or on the Sheep or Cow or Pig.
But when number fourteen came out of the can the screams were so nerve-racking that ever since, we remove the vocal cords from the genetic make-up. This is just for testing purposes. When we finally get the right combination, and make The One, we'll have to put the vocal cords back, as the FDA has strict rules about what can and cannot be called a chicken, and marketing tests have shown that generally people don't like to buy chicken nuggets labeled "chicken-like product," or "nearly chicken." The exception, of course, is if any of the Non-Fat Animals are a success, because then it won't matter what they're called, they're going to sell, sell, sell. Or so Mr. Neeko tells me.
Now when the incubators open, we don't worry about the noise. The only sound the chickens make is a hissing puff. When I was little, I collected model trains and my best one was a bright blue steam engine. As it chugged around the track it played an electronic recording that imitated the sound of the steam and occasionally gave a half-hearted whistle. The chickens come out puffing up a storm; the Little Chickens that can't. The only thing our chickens lack is the whistle, and I'm thinking of putting one in the next genetic make-up. That way, at the end of the day during the Progress Report, if my chicken still has feathers of some sort, I can point to the whistle and say, "See Mr. Neeko, I was thinking that the rooster has had the standard call for far too long. Imagine how glad the farmers will be to wake up to something new."
I guess I'm getting desperate after all.
At the Daily Progress Report I learned that Harriet's chicken was not a Total Failure. Each team's results are always given with visuals, and consequently no one but Mr. Neeko ever eats the bagels with cream cheese and lox. Standing before the screen, Harriet described how the feathers weren't the only part of the chicken that had been turned inside out.
"There were tiny nubs of organs growing outside the skin, mirroring the ones on the inside," Harriet said, clicking the small remote she held in her hand. An enlarged photo of a meaty maroon blob appeared on the screen behind her. "As you can see, this is a small heart." She clicked through a series of what looked like identical blobs, naming them as she went. "Kidney. Liver. Stomach. We think if we push the formula farther, we might be able to make a chicken that is completely inside out. If so, we could create a line of animals to sell to the Biology departments of every major university, and many of the better high schools, for use in anatomy and dissection lessons. They should even be easy to ship."
She clicked the remote again, and a series of slides appeared on the screen that showed her chicken, flattened like a piece of paper, and then the same bird rolled up and halfway slipped into a mailing tube. Harriet grinned at all of us, and then switched the screen off and sat down. We all applauded briefly before turning to Mr. Neeko, who sat staring at the blank screen. Finally, almost imperceptibly, his head bobbed and he said, with a bit of lox dangling from his lip, "That's great. That's just great. Fantastic really. Now we just have to get going on a Frog and a Worm. I'm sure you all remember having to dissect those buggers."
We nodded our heads, except for Wilkes, who said, "Actually sir, we had to do a cat."
"What?" Mr. Neeko turned to Wilkes, who shifted slightly in his seat.
"Well, yes, sir. We had to dissect the cat for tenth-grade biology." Wilkes twisted his pencil rapidly in his hand. We were all armed with pencils; Mr. Neeko didn't believe in pens. We don't like pens do we? he always told us. Pens write permanent, just like God has written until now. No, we like our marks to be erasable. Just like skin.
"Dissecting cats," Mr. Neeko said. "That's disgusting."
We all nodded our heads, and some people made marks on their pads, probably crossing the cat off their list of possible animals to turn inside out.
"The cat is a noble animal," Mr. Neeko continued, stopping briefly to wipe the bit of lox off of his lips, "let's not forget that."
"No, sir," we all said in unison. Wilkes scrunched down in his chair, making notes on his pad until the tip on his pencil snapped loudly.
"Could someone hand Clumsy the sharpener?" Mr. Neeko said. Wilkes's face turned purple.
I know how he felt. At one meeting not long after I was hired I had suggested that we should make fanciful creatures, stick a horn in the middle of a horse's head, that kind of thing. Mr. Neeko had witheringly asked me if I thought making a centaur would be a good idea, and while actually I had no particular problem with the concept, I could tell from his tone of voice what he thought about it, so I pretended to be abashed.
We are all uncertain where Mr. Neeko draws lines and what his limits might be. Half-man, half-horse. Pre-dissected chickens. To me, it really makes no difference. Once you're on the road to hell, you might as well stop and eat whatever apples you find growing beside the path, you know?
After the meeting I walked Harriet to the subway station, as I did every day. She was sucking down a cigarette before she had to get on the train.
"The little knobby heart beat for nearly a minute after Thirty-Six came out of the can," she said. She stared straight ahead, but I could see that her eyes had a film of tears on them.
"You should have mentioned that to Mr. Neeko," I said.
"Why?" She faced me. Her eyes are the lightest blue, not deep, but sharp and crisp as patterned porcelain. We were standing at the subway entrance, the dirty stairs leading down.
"Well, just imagine if we could send the inside-out animals alive," I said, "it would save a bundle on shipping costs. If the animals are dead, we'll have to use refrigerated containers. Maybe dry ice."
Harriet turned and stomped down the stairs, but I could still hear her clearly when she said, "You really are a fuckhead, Trim."
It's shameless the way we flirt.
This morning on the way to my station I pass Harriet.
"Good luck today," she says, and smiles a small evil grin. Her white teeth show starkly against her lips. She favors lipsticks with a high gloss, and sometimes I think I can even see myself reflected there, a tiny man about to be swallowed whole.
"What for?" I'm still waking up, having gone to sleep very late after watching several movies about huge angry snakes and spiders that moved very fast and gobbled people up. Mr. Neeko has given me an open account at the video store. "For research," he told me, winking.
"Don't you remember?" she says, her eyes widening. "Today you and Mr. Neeko are presenting to the second graders at Jonestown Middle School."
I have forgotten about it completely.
"Ah Trim," Harriet says, "the look on your face has just made my day." She laughs as she turns back to her microscope, and I stare down at the carpet. It's the same gray today as it was yesterday, and the day before.
Mr. Neeko always takes me with him to run the visual aids during his lectures, as I am the only male on the staff shorter than he is, though he is only of average height. While I look Caucasian, I am partially Cambodian. A fourth. An eighth. Despite Mr. Neeko's very strict rules about not messing with people, I think about his height, and I can't help but speculate. And I think I'm not the only one on staff to speculate about altering people. Sometimes when I check my e-mail, clearing out the junk, I think about the ads for larger thicker penises and fuller breasts and I wonder if any of the products came from our labs. We generally use viruses to deliver genetic materials, and I think most people would be willing to have the flu for a week if they could have a larger whatever. Though with our success rates lately, the most likely results make me cringe. I guess there's always a career in pornography, or in the really extreme cases, the freak show and circus.
Harriet was right. I spent the morning hiding in the lab, but right after lunch Mr. Neeko came to get me.
"You ready?" He was wearing his present-to-school suit: sober and black, but with a dark blue tie decorated with brightly colored tropical fish.
"That's a great tie, Mr. Neeko."
"Thanks, Trim. To cheer up the kids. Nothing like fish to cheer up children."
I wasn't dressed up, just wearing a sweater and jeans under my lab coat, but Mr. Neeko didn't say anything. He bounced on his toes, his forehead shining slightly under the fluorescents.
"Big day today, Trim. Big day. The representative from Jason Farms is going to be there. The biggest chicken supplier on the east coast. If we can impress him, we've got funding for the next year, at least."
I shut my eyes briefly. I have never approved of Mr. Neeko's presentation tactics. Instead of bringing potential clients to the labs, he prefers to meet them in classrooms, or in their own factories. Once I asked him why he didn't just bring them to us. His face blanched.
"Shit, Trim, you of all people should know better. Wasn't it your chicken that came out screaming?"
I had agreed that maybe he had a point.
We collected the laptop and projector from Mr. Neeko's office, and headed out of town. Mr. Neeko drummed his fingers on the computer case and kept turning the radio on and off. Then he left the radio on and began scanning through the stations.
"Whatever happened to good music?" He paused with his hand on the dial, having stopped at a station that played jazz. Then he said, "Can you imagine what a piano player could do with twenty fingers?"
"Would that be ten fingers on each hand, Mr. Neeko? Or two extra arms with normal hands on each?"
"Don't be a smartass. Of course it would be two extra arms. What good would it do to have ten fingers on each hand? The hands would have to be as big as dinner plates. The poor guy would have paddles on the end of his arms. Paddles. Huh."
Mr. Neeko turned to look out the window, the radio forgotten. A man could swim pretty fast with paddles for hands. And don't even get me started about gills.
The troubles began as soon as we got to the classroom.
Mr. Neeko faced the two women who were there to greet us, his smile painfully pasted to his face.
"Has the man from Jason Farms not arrived?" He said. Behind the women I could see a class of kids craning their necks to see us. They turned and whispered to each other, pointing at the projector. Nothing like a light show to break up an otherwise dull afternoon.
"I'm from J.F," the older woman said. She was taller than Mr. Neeko. "I'm Sam Jason, Mr. Neeko, Head of Operations and R. and D., and I thought it was important that I see for myself what all the fuss is about." Her face was tanned and there were wrinkles around her eyes, the kind of wrinkles that usually come from smiling too much, but in this case I was willing to put them down to squinting angrily. I smiled at her anyway, just in case, and she narrowed her eyes at me.
"Oh," Mr. Neeko said, then turned to me, "This is my associate, Trim Walker, one of our best engineers. He'll be running the audio visual presentation. Trim, this is, uh, Miss Jason."
I held out my hand and she took it, saying, "Just call me Sam. Everyone does." I gave her hand a healthy squeeze, because I hate soft handshakes, and she responded in kind, her grip firm and strong.
Mr. Neeko turned to the other woman. "You must be Mrs. Applegate then?" He peered at her, worried that she might turn out to be someone from the FDA.
"Yes sir, Mr. Neeko. And can I just say how glad I am to have you come and talk to our class. It's such a special treat for the children when someone from a farm comes to present."
"Uh, right," Mr. Neeko said. That's another thing that bugs me: he calls the lab a farm. I don't usually refer to the lab as a farm, unless I use the word funny first. "Just point out to Trim the nearest sockets and we'll get this show on the road."
I followed Mrs. Applegate to the back of the room, with Sam right on my heels. She settled herself in a chair while I placed the projector on an empty desk. Once Mr. Neeko saw that Sam was sitting he launched right into his spiel.
"How many of you like chicken?" he said. Several kids raised their hands. I have seen the show a couple dozen times, and stopped paying attention a long time ago. I busied myself getting the laptop going and double-checking the connections to the projector. Mr. Neeko filled up the space with interesting facts about chickens and the tensile strength of eggs. After a few minutes I gave him a thumbs-up and sat down, ready to let my mind wander off. As much as I bitched to Harriet about the shows, I was glad to get out of the lab. I liked looking at the kids, trying to figure out which were the popular ones, and which were routinely despised because of how they dressed or talked or smelled.
"Mrs. Applegate, if you could get the lights." The first image is always of happy chickens clucking behind white picket fences, little smiles on their yellow beaks. I watched the children and saw the smiles blooming. The pretty pictures do charm the kids, but the thing that amazes me is how the representatives from the various mass produced chicken wholesalers respond to the images. Even though these people know the reality, that white picket fences would never hold a chicken, and that the chickens never see the light of day until they're in bags of packaged parts, the businessmen are always cheered up by the images, smiling and shaking Mr. Neeko's hand after the show. Maybe they think that's how we do it: a green field and a bunch of sunshine. A dab of genetics and zap! no more feathers.
Mr. Neeko always talks with his back to the screen, so his first sign that something was wrong was when a girl in the front row shrieked. I'd been watching a boy to my right draw aliens attacking a giant head that bore more than a passing resemblance to Mrs. Applegate. He and I both looked up at the same time to see a movie of chicken carcasses tumbling down a conveyor belt into a grinder.
"Cool," the little boy said.
Well, yeah, but what was supposed to be on the screen was a shot of the interior of the lab, all of us wearing our white coats and diligently checking on our incubators. Industrious little genetic ants. Mr. Neeko turned and, to his credit, didn't faint, but simply pressed the remote and went to the next image. There was a slight pause and then there were dancing genes on the screen, depicted by what looked to me like hot dogs joined at the hips, but they were smiling, and it was the right picture.
Mr. Neeko looked back to where I was sitting, and I shrugged my shoulders. He cleared his throat while the girl who had screamed seemed to be calmed by the bouncy music that the genes danced to.
"Well, sorry about that, I don't know how that ended up in there." Mr. Neeko's smile grew briefly larger, and I saw the boy who had been drawing turn to a friend and whisper something. His drawing was forgotten on the desk, with only half of Mrs. Applegate's nose vaporized.
"Can anyone tell me what genetic engineering is?" The kids all shook their heads, watching the screen. The hot dogs danced merrily, but the soundtrack began to change; a new note sounded in the music, growing louder and louder. At first I couldn't identify the high-pitched wail, but as it grew to drown out the pleasant music, I realized it was Chicken Fourteen, screaming away, and then added to a thumping techno beat. On the screen images started to flash with the rhythm, and none of them were pretty. Inside-Out Chicken was prominently displayed, but all of the major disasters had starring roles, even some I had forgotten, like Chicken Four, whose wings grew out of its head, and Chicken Twelve, whose feet and legs were covered with blinking eyes, the camera zooming in for a good close look before the shot faded into another image. Many of them were bloody, and all the while the screams from Chicken Fourteen echoed around the room. Soon the chicken's screams were joined by yelling children.
I was mesmerized by the screen. Someone had used all of our in-house documentation, replacing the saccharine images that Mr. Neeko had chosen. My work of the past two years flashed by and then Mr. Neeko was beside me, ineffectually pressing random buttons on the projector.
"Do something," he hissed at me, and I reached down to the floor where I had plugged everything in and snapped off the power strip. The room turned black, and in the darkness I could hear crying and giggling. A kid began to do a very good imitation of Chicken Fourteen, his keening yelps making us all jump. When Mrs. Applegate turned the lights back on, the full extent of the damage was apparent. More than half the class was in tears. Just as the room was bathed in light, one little boy threw up his lunch, scattering kids to either side of him, adding to the confusion.
"Everyone remain calm. Everyone stay in their seats." Mrs. Applegate clapped her hands as the noxious smell of half-digested milk and spaghetti filled the room.
I waited for Mr. Neeko in the car, the air conditioner running with the vents aimed at my face. When he finally got in, he slumped and said, "Just drive, Trim. Drive, and whatever you do, don't go back to the lab."
I drove and didn't look over at him. He had been so crestfallen as he got into the car, and I couldn't bear to see his face without his grin. I had thought that I had grown tired of the Always Smiling Face, but when I saw the alternative, I wanted the smile back. We drove towards the city, taking the long route through the industrial section. After fifteen minutes of silence Mr. Neeko started talking.
"There's just no money, Trim. None. How am I going to pay for viruses? Everything's drying up. I have to fire some people. I can't do the afternoon interviews. But we really do need a new janitor. It's hard to find a reliable janitor in our line of work, Trim. Hard as hell. And what about the bagels? Someone has to buy the bagels for the Progress Reports. What is everybody going to eat? Incubator Fourteen has been broken for five months. Five months. Spit and polish. I tried getting bacteria to form patterns that I could use to print money. Oh yes I did. There must be a way to engineer patterning fungus and mold. Biological printing. It's the next wave. For sure. Stop here, Trim. Stop. Stop."
"What?" I had been staring at the road, daydreaming about being a janitor somewhere that didn't involve blood.
"Go back. I want to stop in for a quick one." He looked back over his shoulder and then directed me as we turned around. Beside the road was a low black building with a plastic backlit sign that read, "Hattie's Gratitude."
"Here," Mr. Neeko said. "I want to stop here."
I noticed that the building's windows were bricked up and that the door was opaque. Painted on the front wall were four red X's, each eight feet tall.
"Um," I said.
"What?" said Mr. Neeko. "You don't like tits?" He was already getting out of the car. As he moved toward the door, I looked at the clock on the dash. It was barely after two. Tits at two. I watched as Mr. Neeko tried the door. It was locked, and there was a small sign hanging on the inside that indicated Hattie's was closed. Mr. Neeko reached into his pocket and took out his keys, then selected a key and started tapping it on the glass. I looked around the mostly empty parking lot. I could drive away. Wait by the subway entrance for Harriet. It was a company car. How long before Mr. Neeko reported it stolen? I could probably be in Mexico.
The door to Hattie's opened and I saw a broad-shouldered man wearing a black T-shirt talking to Mr. Neeko. After a minute Mr. Neeko nodded and jogged back to my side of the car. I rolled down the window.
"We're in luck, Trim. They don't normally open for another half hour but Hattie'll make an exception, just this once." He turned and went inside, the bouncer holding the door open. He looked over at me, his face expressionless as a pancake. I had never been into a strip bar before.
The bouncer looked as if he might stay there forever. It was two ten. Featherless indeed. I got out, pressing the button on the key-chain car lock as I walked to Hattie's. The car chirped twice as I went inside.
Mr. Neeko was already sipping a drink by the time I got to the table. He motioned for me to sit down next to him and I gingerly lowered myself onto the cushioned booth seat. It was brighter inside than I had expected, with overhead lights harshly illuminating the maroon and blue color scheme. There were a couple of tables and a long bar. In a far corner an old man wearing overalls slowly pushed a vacuum over the carpet. Behind the bar was a door, and there was another doorway blocked by long strings of beads.
"Nice, isn't it?" Mr. Neeko said.
"Sure, Mr. Neeko."
"What'll you have to drink?" he said.
"I don't know. Maybe an iced tea."
Mr. Neeko snapped his fingers and a woman appeared from the doorway behind the bar. She nodded over to us and Mr. Neeko raised his voice to say, "We need another two amaretto sours." He squinted at me briefly, then said, "No, make that three."
"Actually, I was thinking I might just have tea," I said.
He hunched over the table and drummed his fingers on its polished surface. The bartender brought our drinks over. She was a tall blonde wearing a long white T-shirt that came down to mid-thigh, along with fishnet stockings and black high-heeled shoes. The shirt was loose and when she bent over to set down our drinks I caught the barest glimpse of her breasts swinging freely behind the material. I looked up at her face, and she smiled and winked at me before walking away.
"If you come back later you can get the whole show," Mr. Neeko said. He loosened his tie. "Drink up."
"Mr. Neeko, I have to drive." I looked for the bartender, but she had vanished through the doorway. Even the old man was gone. Just two genetic engineers having a drink in a strip bar in the afternoon.
"Don't be such a fuckhead, Trim. It's only an amaretto sour. It's a pussy drink."
I nodded and picked up my drink. I was tired of being the company fuckhead. I could always be a high school teacher. There were never enough high school teachers.
It was after the sixth drink that Mr. Neeko made a pass at me. One second he was talking about ink-jet-printing hearts and livers and the next he had reached across the table and taken my hand, saying, "You know, Trim, I think we have a lot more in common than you've been letting on."
By then, I'd had a few drinks myself, and all I could do was sit and think of how his hand was nice, cool and dry, and I wondered if he had already patented Dry Hand, For Those Times When Your Hand Has To Be Dry.
He caressed my knuckles.
"I see the way you follow Harriet around, week after week, pretending like you want to get in her pants."
"But Mr. Neeko . . ."
"And how you always volunteer to help me with the presentations." He turned my hand over and ran his fingertips down the center of my palm. I wondered if he knew how to read the patterns formed by the wrinkles.
"But Mr. Neeko, I really do want to get into Harriet's pants."
He stopped tracing my life line but didn't move his hand. I looked at his face, and for the first time noticed that his eyes were dark green, the irises rimmed with gold and brown. He frowned.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, sir. I'm positive. I'm not gay."
"Bah!" He jerked his hand away and snapped his fingers for the bartender. "How would you know? Mostly you want what you've been taught to want. I tell you Trim, one day I'm gonna fix all that, put a little something in the water, and then we'll see who's gay. Yes, indeedy." The drinks arrived and he downed his in one gulp and stood. "I want to go home."
Before I had even gotten up, he had left the room, headed for the car. I carefully made my way to the bar, where the blonde told me that there was no charge because Mr. Neeko owned the place.
The next day, during our smoke break, Harriet and I smoked in silence. I watched a couple of birds chase each other around the cloudy sky, while Harriet watched me, her eyes narrowed.
"Goddammit, are you going to make me beg?" she said.
"No need to beg," I said. "I will go out with you on Friday night. We can rent a movie. I've got the company's video card."
"That's not what I meant." She flicked the butt of her cigarette away. "You know, Wilkes has been fired."
In fact, I didn't know. Harriet smiled at me, flashing her little white teeth. "It turns out he's the one who fucked with the PowerPoint presentation, and he also confessed to sabotaging a few of the incubators." She fished out another cigarette and lit it. "Turns out he's on the animals' side."
The birds were still carving their circles in the sky. In a few years, Mr. Neeko would probably have them leaving a trail of colored smoke, so that biologists could study migration patterns and parents could hire trained pigeons to spell out their children's names at birthday parties.
"Were you serious?" Harriet asked.
"About what?" I said.
"Do you have to make everything so hard? The movie."
"Sure. Of course."
Harriet carefully ground out her unfinished cigarette and put it back in the pack.
"How about we just go straight from work, on Friday?"
I nodded, and she smiled at me again. This time, I wasn't sure, but she didn't look quite so much like she was smiling at an inner vision of my bloody death.
Mr. Neeko was waiting for us in the hallway.
"Ah, the lovebirds. Great news, kids. I just got off the phone with Sam Jason, from Jason Farms. She liked the honesty of our presentation, said she was tired of people sugarcoating the facts."
He grabbed us both in an awkward hug.
"We've got money!" He clapped his hands and then whirled a little dance before skipping off to spread the happy news among the troops.
"Whoopee," said Harriet, giving me a last look before disappearing into the women's restroom.
Maybe on Friday I'd be celebrating more than just my date with Harriet. My chicken's due, and last time I cleaned the steam off the tiny window in the incubator, I couldn't be sure, but I didn't see any feathers.