by Neal Von Flue
They made seven Thomas Jeffersons in all. No one was pleased with the number, but that was it.
The first two were primarily biological failures. The first Thomas Jefferson didn’t even appear humanoid; it looked more like a large jellyfish that someone had pushed chicken bones into and warmed up until it loosened and spread out over the edges of the stainless steel table that they had conjured it on.
The second Thomas Jefferson definitely looked more human. There were limbs, and although he had hair on the wrong side and didn’t have the proper amount of digits or genitalia, these failures became immediately irrelevant when they flipped one switch and there was a slick pop and he burst from the inside, coating the examination room windows in a fine purple haze.
Some religious groups stalled the program’s progress by spurring a congressional debate about the dangers of man playing God, and how this second Thomas Jefferson failed because he couldn’t hold the soul of Thomas Jefferson inside it’s horrid and imperfect homunculus of a frame.
The president finally rallied for the project’s continuation by using his State of the Union speech to say that this is what Thomas Jefferson would have done. And since we had the theoretical technology in place, it could be considered a national imperative to bring back Thomas Jefferson. And so the scientists and biologists and theologians pulled the sheets off their machines and beakers and books and got back to work.
Most people forgot about the project until they announced the date to switch on the third Thomas Jefferson. His exoskeleton was mostly titanium and they had invited an artist known for his homages to mid-century automobile design to create his outfit. Or at least the appearance of his outfit, which was actually a chrome and candy-apple red, navajo white and cornflower blue four-story veneer that hid the three-foot thick walls that really contained the third Thomas Jefferson. There were pathways in to the central chamber and all afternoon on the day before the godawful business they allowed notable cultural figures to carry offerings into the antechamber. In the main room they installed cameras in every corner, equipped with scrolling plastic lens-covers like you see on Nascar driver cams, just in case things got messy again.
There was a lot of double-and-triple-checking of the cables and figures throughout the night, and in the morning with the orange sun glinting off the shiny primary exterior like a California dream, they turned him on and after a while, there he was.
The third Thomas Jefferson was pink and wet of course and gangly like a baby deer – and just as they had planned. The lead scientist, or at least the lead scientist who fit the marketing strategy’s likability/intelligence synergy rubric better than the others, gingerly twisted the key that pulled back the locks which held the thick door closed and stepped back while its perfectly weighted hinges swung slowly open- decompressing and sucking chamber gas out with it. He stepped in with a warm logo-branded blanket and tried to cover the naked shivering Thomas Jefferson up. And that’s when the screaming began.
Thomas Jefferson’s lungs weren’t hearty enough, and his vocal chords were mostly still too wet to hold together. But still he screamed for over two hours, if you could call it screaming. It certainly started that way but he couldn’t hold the fury and he ended up winding down like a grandfather clock so that it was hard to put an exact time on it for the sake of science. The networks stopped televising it 10 minutes in. Once they considered him done, the joints in his body loosened a bit and so they disregarded the idea of a burial and treated him in accordance with the laws of biological waste, his material ending up in the same place that amputee’s limbs go.
The fourth Thomas Jefferson was a revolution. They ditched the marketing team and the tomb of ramses exterior and they made him- all pink and wet again. But he never started the screaming because his brain was as smooth as a baby’s. He progressed quickly because they had him on Beethoven and Mozart and the Little Einsteins but they could never get him past the third grade. Forget geometry, economics and world affairs, Thomas Jefferson wanted to play outside; to stand with his wiry chest out, on hard plastic slides and wear a towel like a cape, pulled together with a pin. There was no piercing stare, no new thoughts in him and he didn’t care for the violin. So they built a nature preserve for Thomas Jefferson, complete with a central garden area, a tire swing and geometric play structure. And they didn’t publicly mention that the design included an extra room, just in case the next one didn’t fare any better.
But he did fare better. Mostly. The fifth Thomas Jefferson came out all pink, devoured his Little Einsteins, and progressed nicely. Maybe even a bit too quickly, as some people who have seen the Twilight Zone were quick to point out. So they watched him with a very close eye behind two-way mirrors, a technology that they kept from Thomas Jefferson because it would have opened up a whole can of worms.
But despite the progress, cracks began to show in Thomas Jefferson. He would ask why he had to wear blousy shirts and vests and thin white socks and buckle shoes, when Kanye West got to wear eight hundred dollar black t-shirts. They tried to tell him that he was more respected than Kanye, but Thomas Jefferson seemed dubious. Through the mirror they watched him masturbate daily to pictures in the magazines that they put in his lush house which was really a prison. They started to cut the women out of the magazines in an attempt to help him move past this behavior. If this was what he did with paper, they were going to have a hell of a time showing him the internet. So they relectantly began crossing goals off of his progress plan in order to give him more time to adjust, and he began asking for richer foods- things with high fructose corn syrup- cigarettes and wine coolers. Eventually both sides gave up and they moved him to the preserve. They started with separate exercise shifts for the two Thomas Jeffersons so that they wouldn’t interact with each other, but that didn’t matter after a while because, even though they would open the door to the yard and put a nice big plate of fresh fruit in the sun, the fifth Thomas Jefferson eventually stopped coming out at all.
Sometimes they heard him crying for Sally Hemings, and they dutifully kept a record of its frequency, but no one ever asked to see the report.
While some of those same religious groups came back to protest again, by and large the country was on board now. They wanted to see this thing through. They were prepared to make as many Thomas Jefferson’s as they needed to in order to get it right. I mean we are America, they said. If we don’t stay ahead of this thing, then China will start making Thomas Jeffersons like color TV’s. So the scientists and biologists, being mostly secure in their contributions, pretended to turn handles and listen to the hum while the theologians invited educators and sociologists to get together and solve the problem. And they did. Mostly.
They started where America did, by throwing the whole system out. They had found a man with a new idea on the whole thing, and they took him out of his remote cabin in the woods, provided a home for his three wives and four children and brought him to the center they hubristically and unimaginatively called Monticello, in order to watch the sixth Thomas Jefferson being made. The man watched with great interest, even though he had seen the screaming Thomas Jefferson like everyone else. But he was interested because this Thomas Jefferson was going to be his.
He never did the Little Einsteins or the Mozart and yet this Thomas Jefferson progressed. In a year he was past rudimentary functions and knowledge of the world as-it-was. He had a wide eyed and clear look to his face when it finally dried; warm and bright most of the time. He seemed to be as inquisitive as the real Thomas Jefferson and he had an easy and humorous nature- in part because he didn’t have to wear buckle shoes. They gave him a garden and he kept detailed ledgers of the planting and growing and harvesting times, the amount of water each day and the hours of the sunlight. He had livestock for a while and he butchered a few sheep, the blood running through the floorboards and into a brass drain in the concrete floor that was hidden under his wooden barn.
When they got through history and government with an emphasis on his own contributions, the change in Thomas Jefferson was almost imperceptible. The man who had the new idea about him would watch the video of their conversations late into the night, the video screen glare reflecting off his glasses and his glasses reflecting off the examination window where Thomas Jefferson was pretending to be asleep.
During the day, Thomas Jefferson began requesting meetings with other people; artists and writers, investment tycoons, people who were almost president, but not too many scientists or biologists or theologians. His last meeting with the man who had the new idea didn’t go well and the man quit the project suddenly, taking his three wives and four children back to their cabin in the woods to read the Bhagavad-Gita.
This Thomas Jefferson asked for a chemistry set and got one. He asked for chemicals that the biologists should have noticed, but at the inquest later they said they felt the scientists would have been better equipped to surmise the possible dangers. He asked for machines- a mill, a lathe, a drill, a 3D printer. And he asked for raw materials- aluminum, plastics and steel. Every once in a while he would present a completed project with pride and they would come out from behind the two-way mirrors and say “Oh, nice job!” but inside they were thinking “Handcuffs were invented years ago, before the real Thomas Jefferson, and this stupid Thomas Jefferson thinks he just made them up.” Of course that’s what he wanted them to think. And some of the actors that he had previously met with said after the fact in interviews that they felt he was a bit too heavy-handed in his presentation. He used copies of his autograph to bribe the guards for things. He asked them for books in other languages, the biography of D.B. Cooper, and manuals on flight.
And six years after he was made, he was gone. They sent out search parties but the area they covered was far too small, which was not even close to the first time that they underestimated Thomas Jefferson.
His first act was to visit the preserve. This was easy enough because he had a helicopter at this point, and once they figured it out and scrambled the jets, he began to publicly broadcast a live feed of the cockpit on the internet, the mildly fisheye lens giving an easy view of every hostage he had. Each of the hostages had a picture of their son or daughter- all dead soldiers from foreign wars- taped across their bound hands. And this was as effective as handcuffs. He had used paint to write “USS Intrepid bound for Tripoli” on the nose of the helicopter, along with a Killroy with X eyes just in case people didn’t get the joke.
He put down in the garden of the preserve and ran inside. With the blood of his predecessors he wrote on the wall of their cage a quote about a high solid wall and an egg. He wiped his hands on a towel-cape and he got back in his chopper and headed towards the capitol. He wreaked havoc the whole way; he fired guns. He dropped homemade bombs, he threw grenades and with the nose of the chopper pointed down and the blades forward he played “Rock the Casbah” and “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor” through loudspeakers. And although some of the artists he had previously met with said after the fact that they felt it was a little too on-the-nose, he also played “Flight of the Valkyries.” Don’t pretend like you wouldn’t.
If people had looked over their shoulders while fleeing from the path he was carving, they would have seen Thomas Jefferson leaning out the window of his olive green death machine, his face painted in tiger-stripe camouflage, tossing colored pills into his mouth and washing them down with brandy straight from the bottle.
They finally shot him down because most of the hostages were dead already, and the public opinion polls on CNN showed a slight edge towards just getting this thing done. He was a national embarrassment, so they swatted him like a bug. From the air, you could see the trail of his American terrorism, like a dark scar on the earth pointing straight towards Washington.
In the time it took to make another Thomas Jefferson, some people were selling tickets to see the scar up close.
The seventh Thomas Jefferson came out with wings and they don’t know why because the WINGS button on the lab console was still covered over with scotch tape and a post-it that said “Do Not Use.”
This Thomas Jefferson was perfect. Not so much shiny and pink as shiny and rainbow-colored, like oil on a rainy street. His thin naked frame suspended in the air, legs slightly swinging. His boney rakish chest heaving, as his lungs dried like new butterfly wings. His rust red hair, which would have been held back in a black silk bow or covered with a powdered wig, was alive on the air and wildly snaking around his face.
He rose a meter and streaked west. He flew in a straight line to Lebanon, Kansas and there, just off highway 191, with his laser-beam eyes, he burned a message into the grass and then shot into the sky.
He lifted until he was gone. They tried to put telescopes and satellites on him but they couldn’t find him. Maybe he went straight into space and popped like the second Thomas Jefferson or maybe we should start calling that one the third Thomas Jefferson because we all know who the first one really was.
Some of the religious groups who previously protested recanted and said that his message in the grass was proof that they should get to work on an eighth or a ninth Thomas Jefferson, but most everyone else got the joke.
The grass grew back eventually but we all have plenty of pictures to prove it happened.