Surrogated
William VanDenBerg


The company began with a lack of sympathy toward Tom, a friend from my childhood. He worked from home, was paid well, wrote for the economic section of a popular website. He approached middle age and found no satisfaction in the job.


Tom paraded his reasons for staying: couldn’t find anything better, couldn’t save enough to quit, should feel grateful but doesn’t. I lacked empathy for his problems—I was temping at the time and thought he should be quietly pleased with his life.

Then, mostly joking, I offered to do his job. We’d split his salary and he would be somewhat economically sustained. He laughed at this, a dismissal. We talked until we exhausted all reasonable topics.

The next morning he called and asked if I was serious, meant it.

*

The editors didn’t recognize a change in style. They complimented my attention to “keyword heavy” prose. I had one unavoidable conference call and blamed my shifted voice on a cold. No one questioned.

*

Tom told others. They called and I connected them with out of work friends who needed to make rent, keep the lights on, eat. My friends, the surrogates, had to make a minimum of $10 an hour. That was the first rule. Others necessitated.

*

Our advertising showed clients windsurfing, running on beaches, sitting cross-legged atop mountains. They were exceptions. Most laid idle in a hotel room for a few weeks, like a vacation but less. Few actively pursued other lives—they were content with not inhabiting their own for a while.

About fifteen percent got lost. Their weekly check-in went by; the half-income checks came back in an envelope stamped “return to sender.” We’d submit a letter of resignation on behalf of the client and the surrogate would move on.

*

A man came asking for someone to be his recently deceased wife. By then there were rules concerning this. We told him, Sir, the consent of the person to be surrogated is required. We regret your loss. We can do nothing with an absence.

*

Our P.R. representative, perched on a stool, a guest on a morning talk show. He explained the benefits of the program to the hosts around him. They pointed out possible dangers—what about surgeons, truck drivers, french chefs? No, he explained, the surrogate must have all proper training. The client briefs them for at least eight hours about the “ins and outs” of their assignment.

The hosts then questioned the mental and moral health of the families involved. He stuttered, stated that the company is “uninterested” in filling those roles. The family is solely the client’s responsibility.

We saw a dip in sales for a month. Then one of the hosts went from being thin and Asian to large and Canadian with the same name and no fanfare. People understood and took no notice. The promos were retaped. The replacement was accurate, mimetic.

*

Time passed, and we grew in it.

A father desired a surrogate only for the home. We required consent from all members of the family, just to cover the bases. The old father, the non-father, watched from the bushes for two days before disappearing. He came back and resumed the role after a month, glowing, like new.

We gained new classifications: mother, sister, father, son. Then step, half, aunt, uncle, grand.

*

A bill circulated congress. It was endorsed by a quarter of the members before losing steam. Excerpts:

“… threat to national security … forbidden among government employees with a position higher than a page … a country dedicated to individualism … jeopardizes the safety of our citizens … no trust, no assurance … threat … threat … threat …”

*

Two rival agencies appeared. One claimed that we deviated from our original philosophy. They focused on occupations only, skewed more moral.

The other allowed you to switch occupations with any member of their program. They missed the point, went out of business within a month.

*

A murder trial involving a surrogated husband who killed his client’s wife and her lover. He claimed the client would have done the same. We disavowed the employee; the judge, surrogated, sentenced him to 15 years on manslaughter charges.

*

More time passed. Listen. Repetition hardens actions, solidifies them. It doesn’t change the results, just deepens them—it ruts.

*

The first transfer of self came to be regarded as a rite of passage. The minimum age dropped. High Schools became swarms of unregulated self-trading. When adults deemed it safe for their children we knew we were indistinguishable from the culture as a whole.

*

Further on. People requested end of life surrogates, and we gave them. A cult manifested concerned with the destruction of the individual. They gained traction. We were not necessarily opposed—to act as representatives of the individual would have been hypocritical, but the words “taking it too far” and “logical end” were murmured throughout the company.

The cult’s power rose. They came to represent over half our board members. Names were banned. Money in surrogation was banned. We were folded in with the government. Anyone could request one at any time. We were a public service. Colossal banners hung: There is no you, end the I, turn to the person next to you and invite them in.

No rules were left. The documentation became lax. If you imagine a file cabinet left open, the documents spilling out onto the floor, you would be accurate.

*

Had there been a goal when all this began, we must assume that it has been achieved.



William VanDenBerg is from Denver, Colorado. His work has appeared in Caketrain, LIES/ISLE, elimae, and others.




Art by Fabio Sassi