Klein, the Clone
Flags of All Nations Toothpicks were a feature of Grandma’s Mah-Jongg
by Rob Hunter
She had forgotten which one of us was which.
“I’m Klein, the clone...” we never thought much about it as other than a funny thing to say, a joke between brothers. We would then gravely shake hands and break into gales of laughter. That’s me, Stewart, and Marshall, my brother. My twin, identical twin, actually.
“Research shows that cloned mice develop obesity as adults.” I was thumbing through Scientific American. Marshall did not look away from the TV. My brother is big on pondering statements before delivering any snap judgments. Particularly when he was watching the Saturday morning cartoons. My news about fat mice rattled around behind his eyes like jellybeans in a gourd. He then repeated it.
“Cloned mice develop obesity as adults.” Marshall was not a reader. He had to hear things first. “Well, then, better die now and stay slim.” He made a face.
While we were at this time adults we had not as yet fattened up. But our bedroom was still a kids’ room, full of overstuffed kangaroos, lions, clowns and the Klein Boys, an unbroken rectangular box with us on the inside. The walls were decorated with three wide red, white and blue enamel stripes that started at the level of our chins. Attached to the back of our closet door, its knob painted to disappear within the blue stripe, was a full-length mirror. We would snick the door shut behind us and in the dark imagine the room left empty behind. One of us would then pull the light cord and there would be four of us. We waved and giggled at the kids in the mirror, pulling faces on them. We hooked our fingers at the sides of our mouths, pushing up our noses and seeing how funny they looked. It was nice to have visitors. As grownups we do not do this as often as we had when we were kids, though.
When we were little kids, when our grandmother was alive, we had another great twins joke.
It was our grandmother’s fault, really. She started us, my brother Marshall and me, to thinking one of us might not be the real article. Lillian Musclewood was an immense presence: a diminutive woman, Lillian yowled, howled and kvetched her wonders to perform. Our Grandma’s house was pink. There was no grandfather. Ben Musclewood had died in harness at the counter of his deli on Smith Street in Brooklyn, twirling precision paper cones for take-out mustard from the big roll of Kraft paper next to the register. With the insurance payout, Lillian got the hell out of Brooklyn.
“Marshall! Stewart!” There’s grandma now. “What are you doing rooting around in my Birds of Paradise? Playing which kid’s got the papers?”
We didn’t have any papers. We were digging up the Birds of Paradise, however. They were a tough shrub with blade-like leaves, but Marshall and I had packed along the heavy artillery—two bright yellow Tonka riding dump trucks, one apiece—for the two weeks in Florida with our grandmother. Marshall and I were five years old and visiting Grandma Lillian at her cement block, glass-louvered house in the development our father called The Land of the Newly Wed and the Living Dead. Our Grandma’s house was pink and lavender. Baseball was never played in the saw palmetto vacant lots where the pavement ended for there were no children in Boca Ciega. Apart from Marshall and me on those deadly vacation getaways.
“What papers, Grandma?”
We thought she meant the big Sunday papers with their polychrome funnies. Mom and Dad read us the funnies and we made a Sunday project of it, Marshall and I cannonading into their bed at home, spreading the color comics all around, covering our faces and the sheets with smears of newsprint.
Grandma Lillian was preoccupied with her upcoming Mah-Jongg soiree and irritated that we were messing with her flowerbeds. “The adoption papers. You are identical twins. One real, made the traditional way, one a clone. For parts.”
In years to come Marshall and I would fret about how and exactly what our grandmother knew about the family secret she was not supposed to know. Of course, Lillian Musclewood knew about the cloned child. Lillian Musclewood made it her business to know everything. She could not be left alone with unopened mail or in a room with an extension telephone.
Gardenwise, Marshall and I had slipped under her radar. We knew, even at five years of age, the advantages of making ourselves quiet and small. Our grandmother became even more preoccupied, shuffling her walker around the glass-topped patio table setting out iced tea coasters for afternoon Mah-Jongg.
“Not adoption—license,” she trailed off, correcting herself. Lillian must have missed her morning medications and let slip this tidbit, a mistake she made only once again. She carried an Old World mistrust of government papers; Grandmother’s family were refugees from the shtetl and Cossack raids had been her bedtime stories.
Lillian shuffled into the house after her forgotten medications. Our horticultural adventure continued without any further interruption. We Klein Boys were ignored and made the most of our unsupervised time, polishing off the Birds of Paradise and transplanting pachysandra and canna lilies to the excavated Paradise bed.
Grandma’s “Which kid’s got the papers” remark and her addled caginess bothered us and back home in Connecticut we talked it over in our bunk beds at night. We had been read Pinocchio and checked to see if we were real boys. We were, indeed, anatomically correct and, according to Heather, the Girl Next Door and our fifteen-year-old babysitter, well hung for pre-schoolers. In the backyard treehouse, Marshall and I cut our thumbs, a little cut with a scout knife, and mingled our blood together. We were brothers.
“Klein” means small. We were told that by Heather. “So make yourselves very small, teeny-tiny and watch TV while Ted is here.” Heather would entertain Ted, the boyfriend, in the guest bedroom while our parents were out. Marshall and I thought this was all only too fine. We microwaved everything from the freezer, boil-in-a-bag dinners, cheesecake, pizza, ice cream, ate it all in varying degrees of crispy, runny and mushy, and snuggled up with chocolate milk to watch soft porn on the forbidden adult cable channels. The embargoed fruit of grownup TV failed to fascinate. We surfed on through to the cartoons.
With an early childhood parsing of rogue capitalism, I figured that our parents were pimping for Heather. She was after all being paid for having fun. I shared this with Marshall. I did not use the word “pimping,” however. Marshall found this a neat idea and we had fun, too. Although our fun was different from Heather’s and Ted’s fun, we sometimes snuck in to watch them.
After the car crash when I was six, Marshall went away to a residential care facility for a year. That was what Laura, our mother, called it, a Residential Care Facility. We were vacationing in Maine and my father and I were out after takeout Chinese. I was back home as good as new in three months. Marshall was back in under a year with a high-tech prosthetic leg. David, my father, never came home. He had his head cut off in the chain reaction collision that forced our sensible family sedan under the rear axle of a pulpwood truck. My leg was mangled; I remember the pain and little else but a druggy euphoria in the hospital.
There was a mix up and our father’s body was cremated by mistake. They still had the head, however, neatly tagged and in a box. Laura was called to claim her husband’s bodiless head. She picked out a handsome stone of speckled gray Vermont granite for the resting place of what was left of her late husband. “Lost in Willipaq,” read the stone. Willipaq was the name of the small Maine town where David died.
After this she suffered from panic attacks that alternated with a deep, paralytic depression. I suppose our mother came out of the accident best of all. She had discovered a purpose for her life. “A single mom with a fire up her ass,” was how Heather described her. Laura saw the torn wreckage of her twin boys in everyday activities. Anything with a sharp edge, a sharp point, a blunt end with no point, was a threat. Our TV programming was limited to golf and figure skating and, of course, Arthur and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Any device, person or event that might, somewhere in a future of limitless opportunity for mayhem inflict damage, death resulting, was banned. Not having many friends, largely because of our mother’s fears for our health and welfare, us Klein Boys did not at that early age fully comprehend Laura’s obsession might go beyond the ordinary fussiness of a protective mom. We were to keep our hands at our sides, speak softly and play board games whenever possible. The Klein Boys became Monopoly sharks early on. Marshall and I were home-schooled through the elementary grades.
Marshall’s new leg was plugged in with his neural synapses. He got dinged up on a slide into third during Little League and had to go back to the Facility for some adjustments.
By the time we were ten Marshall and I had outgrown our bunk beds but we still shared a room. Late at night we talked. We recalled the second and last clue from Lillian Musclewood, our late grandmother.
Flags of All Nations Hors D’oeuvre Toothpicks were a feature of Grandma’s Mah-Jongg parties. Lillian acquired many cartons of Flags of All Nations Hors D’oeuvre Toothpicks. These came from Cakes Élysée where also resided cake pans shaped like Sesame Street characters and architectural elements for bridal tiers.
Grandma served tiny squares of noodle pudding with raisins—kugel—each with a dollop of synthetic whipped cream (non-dairy) from a push button pressure can and topped with a flag. Israel and Norway were favorites. Marshall and I figured it was their blue colors. After every Mah-Jongg party Lillian reconnoitered her garbage and counted the remaining flags, trying to dope out her guests’ preferences. A given: that the bluehairs snarfed down her kugel. The imponderable: that navigators of the imaginative vacuum surrounding her refreshments were picky eaters. A noodle pudding square, otherwise the same as all the other noodle pudding squares, with a novelty flag of Brazil, Canada, Mexico, the United States or Singapore, was more likely to languish and end up flushed down the garbage disposal. Israel and Norway were the fast movers, along with plates of macaroons washed down with fruit punch. Grandma washed her Mah-Jongg tiles in the dishwasher along with the plates. Those parties of hers got sticky early.
I grabbed a Turkish flag from our grandmother’s refreshments sideboard—a card table with a festive paper throw—and stuck it up my nose. Marshall did the same. We sized each other up and got the giggles. I shot whipped non-dairy topping up my nose and stuffed in as many flags as would fit. Grandma descended on us and we escaped behind the transplanted pachysandras. We were hysterical with laughter.
Boca Ciega preponderated with large widows with little dogs. The houses in Lillian’s neighborhood were, except for the dooryard shrubberies and positioning of the carports, identical. The large ladies competed with differing shades of pastel for their glass-louvered houses. The big widows had, to a woman, little yippy dogs that left their Dairy Queen curled piles of poop everywhere on the sidewalks even as the little boxes with Flags of the Neglected Nations piled up in Lillian’s kitchen cabinet.
We set our alarm and rose early.
At full light the poops were revealed fresh with morning dew and dollops of fairy magic—a spritz of non-dairy whipped topping with a flag of one Neglected Nation each. The neighbors were scandalized. Grandma was shamed before her bluehair buddies. And it was all our fault.
We escaped again to the pachysandras where we called this adventure the Flags of All Nations Hors D’oeuvre Toothpick Caper. We watched private eye shows: Mannix, Mike Hammer and Magnum, PI and loved their heroes’ snappy comebacks in the face of immediate extinction, which was what Grandma Lillian had in mind for us.
“Godamit, if I could tell you apart, I would kill the phony one. You two are a bad influence.” On just whom, she did not say. Maybe on her. Probably we were a bad influence on each other, clonehood notwithstanding. Whatever, it didn’t matter. Grandma had something she called Apoplexy and died that weekend. The doctors said it was a cerebral hemorrhage. Laura flew down to mourn her mother and collect her kids. Marshall and I whispered at night and wondered which one was not the real kid.
When Grandma died we inherited her Mah-Jongg set. We took four of the tiles and drilled two of them to wear as amulets on thongs about our necks. They were kind of neat and an icebreaker when meeting girls. No one our age, or even of our parent’s generation, had heard of Mah-Jongg. Incised on the game pieces were asianesque characters filtered through Art Deco that a classmate’s accommodating great-grandmother, a Mah-Jongg devotee, identified as a unicorn, a green dragon and a blank tile with a square frame—the “White Dragon”—plus a joker tile with a copyright notice from the Shanghai company that made the set in the 1920s. Marshall and I decided the white dragon would be Mom’s and, although we never told her about it, we stored it away in the desk drawer that held all of our kid junk: forgotten neat stuff yet not too totally uncool to be thrown away. Like the toys from those burger joint promotions we hoarded when we were five. You know, the forget-me-not drawer. We just chucked the joker tile.
Marshall and I were accident free until the year he poked my eye out with the jump rope handle.
In fairness to Laura, our mother and a widow like her mother before her, this was the only occasion of her pursuing us into the street as Mom the Avenger, like the Eumenides in an ancient Greek play. Marshall had really got the hang of his prosthesis but, when we suited up for track, Laura averted her eyes. Out of consideration for her feelings, we wore sweatpants to the ankle whenever possible. We knew that she loved us equally well. Then there were the little clues that she had forgotten which one of us was which. We switched our Mah-Jongg tiles regularly to see if she could tell us apart. She couldn’t. Or wouldn’t.
Mom felt safe when our little gang of neighborhood playmates displayed a healthy sexual and demographic mix. Boys alone, to Laura Klein, meant trouble and a potential for danger—cap pistols and BB guns. Our mother’s forte was wringing her hands and sucking her guilt into her stomach in a wet, chill, suppurating knot.
Like I said, Marshall poked my eye out. It was an accident. I came home alone, a dripping mess, my eye swelling and full of blood.
“Ohh...don’t tell your brother.” Mom didn’t say I told you so and I felt pride for her restraint. She pulled the drapes in our striped bedroom and nursed me there herself. My eye glazed over, healed, and soon I sported a black eye patch just like the Hathaway Shirt man in the old ads. I felt it made me distinguished, an adventurer. As it turned out, our mother didn’t want to tell Marshall because she thought he would feel guilty for still having two eyes, for not racing with Laura and me to the Residential Care Facility. The truth was, neither Marshall nor I felt guilt or fear, but an overwhelming relief.
Eyes fever bright, enthusiastic, our mother had discovered a new secret. She spoke intensely. Laura was desperate to be right this one time. Our mother’s enthusiasms were a peg on which to hang the Klein Boys’ uncertainties.
“You must have guessed...”
“Grandmother told us.”
“But she didn’t tell you everything. Lillian didn’t know everything.” Our mother hugged us to her, sly and confiding. “There is another...”
The Klein Boys exchanged one of those twins looks. We knew there wasn’t a spare clone in the cupboard. Our mother had made up her own imaginary playmate. The Klein Boys’ three eyes maintained contact while we waited for our mother to tell us everything would be all right.
“You won’t tell?” asked Laura.
“We won’t tell anyone.”
“The white tile!” Marshall broke from our group hug and ran into our mirrored closet. There was a muted rummaging, then a series of thumps. From the forget-me-not drawer he returned with the White Dragon Mah-Jongg tile threaded with a frayed and shabby lace from one of our running shoes. Laura bowed her head to accept the White Dragon.
We lived together in the striped bedroom until our mother died.
We were three now.
copyright 2003, 2020 Rob Hunter
Klein, the Clone was first published as “The Flags of All Nations Hors D'oeuvres Toothpick Caper” in the Winter, 2003 Fables—the Home for Fantasy and Speculative fiction on the Internet.