Thursday, July 11, 2013

Literary Child Stars

"Any sign of him yet?" Mark asked into the intercom.

"No, Mister Flyleaf," Janice's voice buzzed through the electronics. "But I have a couple of walk-ins waiting out here who've finished filling out their applications. Should I send them in?"

According to the wall clock, Mark's ten o'clock appointment was now fifteen minutes late. "Are they here separately or together?"

"Oh, they're definitely together, Mister Flyleaf."


"All right," he said. "Send them on in." Mark let go of the intercom button and sighed. So few characters bothered to set up appointments anymore that he had actually been excited to meet a new prospect who had taken the time to do so. Alas, all the formality of literature was fading away.

The office door swung open and in walked first a gaunt young blonde woman in a pink skirt and a light blue blouse and then an equally gaunt young man in khaki shorts and a white shirt covered by a red cardigan. So emaciated were they that when the young man turned to pull the door closed, his body almost disappeared in profile, as if he were built in only two dimensions. Their clothes, immaculately cleaned and ironed though they were, hung loosely from their bodies.

Mark stood to welcome his guests. The young lady offered him her paper application across the desk and said with a wide smile, "We are here!"

The young man stepped up beside her, handed his own application to Mark, and said, "Here we are!"

"Welcome to the Bureau of Fictional Character Placement," Mark said, taking their applications and shaking their hands. "Please, have a seat."

The three of them sat simultaneously, Mark ensconced behind his desk, the two visitors in the green naugahyde chairs in front of it.

Mark scanned the applications. Both were completed in nearly identical block letters, almost perfectly formed. Mark addressed the young man: "I see you've only filled out your first name here. May I have your last name?"

"I am Dick. Just Dick."

"Oh," Mark replied, perplexed. He turned to the young woman. "And I suppose you are . . ."

"I am Jane. Just Jane. We are Dick and Jane."

Mark's eyebrows came to life as he puzzled out his new clients' way of speaking. They didn't show any trace of accent, and their voices sounded perfectly normal, but the way they seemed to make only simple, declarative statements made him uneasy. He had never heard anyone speak so plainly before. At least not since . . .

"You don't mean the Dick and Jane, do you?" Mark asked, pulse racing. "The siblings from Fun with Dick and Jane?"

"Yes," Dick said. "We are Dick and Jane. We are not brother and sister."

"No," Jane said. "Dick and Jane are written as brother and sister, but we are not siblings."

Mark gushed. "It's an honor to meet you!" He reached across the desk, half standing, and shook their hands again. Dick and Jane had at one time cornered almost the entire kid-lit sector. It was rumored that they were worth more than Ebeneezer Scrooge and Hercule Poirot combined. Mark hadn't heard anything about them in so long, he had assumed they had retired to some faraway idyll.

Mark recognized with embarrassment his sudden breach of decorum and put his behind back firmly in his chair. He cleared his throat, straightened his suit coat, interlaced his fingers on top of their applications, and cleared his throat again. "Well," he blurted out. "How can I help you?"

"Dick and Jane need a job," Dick said.

"I don't quite understand," Mark said. "You already have a successful career. Don't you? Why go back to work now?"

Dick blushed and looked away, and Jane answered, "Dick can add numbers. Dick can subtract numbers. Dick can add and subtract numbers. Dick can not calculate compound interest. Compound interest is hard."

Dick continued to blush at the floor.

It took a moment for the words to sort themselves out in Mark's head. "So, you've run in to some, shall we say, financial trouble?"

Dick nodded silently.

"But surely you're still getting royalties from your previous work."

"Dick and Jane are not as popular as they once were," Jane said.

"Really?" said Mark. "I had no idea."

"It is true," said Dick. "Children like robots. Children like animals."

"Children like robots and animals," said Jane.

"Children do not like Dick and Jane," Dick said. "Dick and Jane do not like robots and animals."

"You don't like animals? Didn't you have a dog? Spot, was it?"

Dick and Jane's faces dropped. They locked eyes for just a moment, as if some unheard communication passed between them. They held hands in the space between the chairs, and Dick looked up sadly. "Jane sees Spot run."

"Run, Spot. Run," Jane whispered, suddenly choking back tears.

"Dick and Jane hear tires screech. Dick and Jane hear Spot yelp."

Jane sniffled against the memory.

"Dick and Jane run to Spot." Dick's voice grew louder and more animated as he recounted the story, tears welling in his reddening eyes. "Go, Spot! Go! Spot does not move."

"I'm so sorry," Mark said.

Jane, wiping her eyes, said, "See the car go."

"I'm sorry?"

"The car goes fast," Dick explained. "See Spot stay. See the car go."

"The car drove off?" Dick and Jane nodded. "That's horrible! Do you have any idea who it was?"

"Jane sees the car," Dick answered. "Jane knows who owns the car."

In an unexpected and violent outburst that made Mark jump in his chair, Jane spat a single, strangled word. When Mark recovered, he said, "Did you say . . . Gollum?"

Jane looked him in square in the face, tears tracing tracks down cheeks of red stone, and said the name again — clearly, deliberately, and hatefully: "Gatsby."

Mark gaped, nonplussed. He had heard a similar story once involving the same name but with a more dire outcome. This, however, seemed to indicate a pattern.

Seeing the tears rolling down Jane's face, his manners kicked in. He quickly riffled through the drawers of his desk, but what he sought was not there. He stood, excused himself, and opened the office door just wide enough to lean his torso into the waiting room.

Janice sat at her desk, the room's only occupant. She looked up from her crossword puzzle when Mark's face appeared.

"Janice, do you have any tissues in here?"

She pulled open a bottom drawer and produced a small, sky blue cube with a white cloud of facial tissue poofing from the top. She tossed it the five feet into Mark's waiting hand.

"Any word from my ten o'clock?"

Janice's lips screwed up and she shook her head. "Sorry, Mister Flyleaf."

Mark sighed. "All right. Thanks again." He started to pull back into his office, then caught himself. "Janice, real quick. Would you mind giving me a compound-complex sentence? It's gotten a little too . . . simple in here."

Without so much as blinking, Janice said, "So many old and lovely things are stored in the world's attic because we don't want them around us and we don't dare throw them out."

Mark felt some tension leave his shoulders. "Thanks, Janice. I just needed some sentence variety."

"Sure thing, Mister Flyleaf."

He ducked back into the office, closed the door, and rounded his desk. As he sat down, he offered the tissues to Jane. "I'm very sorry. I can only imag—" He caught sight of Jane's face. The tears were gone.The once puffy, pink flesh around her eyes was clear and normal, and the whites of her eyes shone like ivory. Dick's face, too, showed no signs of its previous distress.

Mark felt his heart beat the silent passage of confused time. Three beats. Four beats. Five.

"Dick and Jane need a job," Dick said.

"So..." Mark couldn't comprehend what had just happened. He had only stepped away for a few moments. He hadn't even left the room. "So, just the two of you, then?"

"Dick and Jane are not alone for long," Jane said.

Mark's face showed momentary confusion, but then Jane's hand went to her stomach, flattening her flowered top against a small mound that had earlier been hidden beneath her loose clothes.

Mark gasped, "A baby?"

The parents-to-be smiled. "Dick and Jane made a baby," Jane said.

"Congratulations!"

Dick turned to Jane and their eyes connected in that weird way again. He put his hand on her skinny knee, a hungry look in his eye. "Jane likes making a baby."

Jane's grin went crooked. "Dick is good at making a baby." She put her hand on top of his and slid it halfway up her thigh.

"Dick and Jane like making babies together," Dick said.

"Excuse me," Mark said, noticing that Dick's baggy shorts weren't quite so baggy as they were a few minutes ago.

Jane licked her lips and said, "Dick and Jane can make babies all . . . night . . . lo—"

"Excuse me!" Mark persisted.

Dick and Jane looked back at him as if noticing him for the first time.

"Pardon me for interrupting, but I believe you were looking for a job?"

Dick and Jane shifted in their chairs so they were sitting straight forward again. They folded their hands into their own laps.

Jane said, "Yes. Dick and Jane need a job."

All sense of sexual excitement and tension had vanished. Dick and Jane sat politely in their chairs, looking expectantly at Mark, who suddenly came down with a case of the creepy-crawlies. As excited as he was when he met Dick and Jane, he just wanted to get rid of them now. Is this what happened to people who achieved such a high level of fame as children? He just wanted to go somewhere and have a normal conversation with a normal person.

He turned to his computer screen and got as far as typing E-R-O-T-I before he thought better of it.

"So. What kind of story are you interested in?"

"Dick and Jane want to do something new!" Dick said.

"All right. What kinds of things are you interested in doing?"

Dick and Jane sat in their chairs, not speaking, just looking at Mark hopefully. Mark's creepy-crawlies turned into a full-blown case of the howling heebie-jeebies.

"Well, let's see what we can come up with, shall we?" He backspaced through the five letters he had typed before and then entered into the search box the only other words that popped into his head. A surprisingly large number of listings appeared for "weird couple." Mark took a closer look at their applications. He noticed quickly that not only was the handwriting nearly identical, but apart from the names, the information was exactly identical. It seemed they did everything together.

He looked at the Experience section and saw, on both applications, they had listed "I walk. I run. I jump. I see." Moving around and looking at stuff seemed like the only things they were good at. "Let me ask you — and I'm looking at the past experience you've listed here — if you were given the option, would you prefer to walk or to run? Or jog? Or, I don't know, mosey?"

"Dick likes walking," Dick said.

"Jane likes running," Jane said.

"All right," Mark said courteously. "Give me just a minute and let me see what I can find." Mark had already decided that he was going to give them whatever came up that seemed even moderately plausible. His impression of the famous couple was permanently soured, and now he just wanted this strange pair out of his office.

He tried a number of different search approaches, but they were all either too broad, resulting in hundreds of listings, or too specific, returning no listings at all.

He was about to give up when he hit upon the idea of changing the search term "seeing" into "watching." Combined with some of the other filters he had already used resulted in two listings — and both were from the same author.

"I think I've got just the place for you," Mark said. "How's your German?"

"Wir wurden in siebenundzwanzig Sprachen ├╝bersetzt," Jane said.

"Good to hear." Mark hastily scribbled information on a fresh contact form and passed it to Dick. "I believe you can find some good work with an Austro-Hungarian author by the name of Kafka. Franz Kafka. Just use the information on this card to arrange a meeting with him, and make sure you bring the card with you." Mark stood. "I'm sure you'll have a wonderful time."

Jane stood. Dick took another moment to finish reading the card and then he, too, stood.

Mark skirted the desk and opened the door. "Thank you for coming in!"

He shook Jane's hand, and Jane said, "Dick and Jane thank you."

He shook Dick's hand, and Dick said, "Dick and Jane are grateful."

"You're quite welcome," Mark said. "Have a great day." He stood in his office doorway and watched them walk out of the office. As soon as the door closed behind them, he exhaled as if he had been holding his breath all morning.

"Tough clients?" Janice asked.

"You could say that."

"Did you find them something?"

"There aren't many people who can put characters like that to work. They were just, I don't know, weird. Luckily, I found an author who specializes in weird."

"Hmph. Celebrities."

Mark grinned. "Yeah. Celebrities. Any word from my ten o'clock?"

"Sorry, Mister Flyleaf."

"Oh well," he said. "I could use a little break after that, I guess. See if you can get ahold of, uh, what was the prospect's name?"

"Mister Godot."

"See if you can get ahold of this Godot and reschedule for next week."



If you enjoyed this story, you can read more of Mark Flyleaf's job placement interviews with fictional characters in my collection of short stories, Seasonal Work, available at Smashwords and most other e-book retailers.