Ge­orge Mc Whirter

'Stalk'

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Our fea­ture au­thor is well known in Van­cou­ver cir­cles as both Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus at UBC and Van­cou­ver’s first poet lau­re­ate, Ge­orge Mcwhirter. He has ap­peared be­tween our pages be­fore in his role as fi­nal judge of our Mag­pie Award for Po­etry. This cross-genre short story is penned with all the wit a poet brings to the page; it is a bril­liantly imag­ined, timely, and ter­ri­fy­ing fairy tale ride through a ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied fu­ture.

I’ll tell it to you, cold as por­ridge. Never mind me be­ing a sci­en­tist and hav­ing to stay ob­jec­tive. I’m a Scot, and breed­ing be­hooves me to tell it so. There’s Jack. His father has a great es­tate, prize heifers and bulls, which his dad sells as whole an­i­mals, or eggs and sperm since the sci­ence of an­i­mal hus­bandry de­vel­oped that end of the busi­ness. But his son’s sole in­ter­est lies in the story his daddy tells him ev­ery night about Jack and the Beanstalk.

For his Dad, it’s a cau­tion­ary yarn about fool­har­di­ness: a cow with its milk and beef be­ing worth more than a brain­less bean that doesn’t know when to quit grow­ing. How­ever, the idea of a gi­ant beanstalk, grown from a magic bean—a bean bought with the prize heifer that the farmer sends his son to sell at auc­tion—thrills our cat­tle breeder’s boy. In time, the sym­bio­sis morphs and Jack, once the father’s for­tune is be­queathed to his dis­cre­tion, as­signs much trea­sure from his father’s graz­ing lands and cat­tle labs into re­search for that bean.

To evolve such a bean re­quires ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing, which de­lights his dad when Jack takes it up. Re­gret­tably, his bairn’s stud­ies are not di­rected at an­i­mal hus­bandry. Jack does string the

cat­tle deal­ings along be­hind him, on his way to the magic gene for the magic bean, which our lad, Jack, pays to dis­cover, test and repli­cate in nu­mer­ous lab­o­ra­tory tri­als car­ried out by me. He will re­lease some pro­pri­etary right for the code to my fu­ture use, he says, on one signed con­di­tion: I never ap­ply it to an­other bean.

“Go. Breed your broc­co­lis, as big as those trees lit­tle kids imag­ine them to be, but leave the beans to me. Now, call me Jack,” he en­joins me, his sci­ence serf, the lab lackey he’d leave with­out a bean to his name. Me, who’s re­built aubergines from their atoms up, us­ing my Scan­ning Tun­nelling Mi­cro­scope to see with, and a nanoscopic nee­dle to thread a virus with growth-boost­ing DNA into the gene. Me, who from the genes of prize-win­ning egg­plants at county fairs, grew eye-pop­pers that gleam like preg­nant Queen Lat­i­fah’s belly in a bikini. Boy, were those beast­ies beau­ti­ful to fon­dle and be­hold. But nae mat­ter. I nod at him and the petri dish, where the first gi­ant bean genes coil un­der the nanoscope, like con­volv­ing mo­tifs on a Per­sian car­pet.

“Yes, call me Jack.” Jack grins at me. I don’t know if it’s the only grin I’ll get out of him in a while. “John Wil­son Woodruff is too much of a mouth­ful. And JWW makes me sound like a brand of dis­in­fec­tant.”

There­after I ad­dress him as Jack, ac­cept­ing the dopey con­gruity be­tween the man’s name and his life’s work, which I’ll share, mind you, to my sundry spin-off and aca­demic ben­e­fits. At this junc­ture, I think it’s straight agribusi­ness Jack is into: big beans for big Yan­kee ap­petites. I bandy about a name for the mar­ket­ing. Beans got to have names—jump­ing beans, kid­ney beans, navy

beans—names that make them sound bet­ter than they taste. ‘Jack-beans’ will surely stamp out any­body’s hunger quicker than a bowl of jack­boots, but I tell him the name any­way.

“I knew the Scots imag­i­na­tion bris­tled like a this­tle, but keep it in your sporran and leave that side of things to the mar­ket­ing depart­ment,” Jack an­swers me.

Our con­tor­tion, once pro­cessed from gene to bean, weighs the stalk on the mother plant down to the ground and blinks at us like a bloated jack-o’-lan­tern. Or a new­born green baby, hung from its um­bil­i­cal cord. Lord for­give me for hav­ing pro­duced a bean as big as a baby!

Picked and then planted, one huge amount of time tran­spires for its enor­mous­ness to grow into a stalk. Two sea­sons of grow­ing, dur­ing which time I thought it had died, and was thus re­turned by Jack to my own re­search at the Wi­chita In­sti­tute of Ad­vanced Agri­cul­ture. That is, till my dar­ling dean memos me that my ser­vices are re­quired again. ASAP, see­ing as Jack’s fee for my re­in­state­ment is as flush with green­backs as the leaves on the beanstalk I’m about to wit­ness.

I’m back sooner than I ever wanted. And there he is, Jack, the cat­tle-breeder’s boy, stand­ing out there, peer­ing over the fence into what was one of his Daddy’s pad­docks. I look in, then up along with him, like we’re at NASA, tak­ing in an Apollo rocket that’s sprouted branches on the launch pad and is about to burst out of its bloody scaf­fold.

“Now that it’s grown,” Jack tells me, “the di­am­e­ter will be mea­sured for a stretch chain saw. The saw will be spe­cially

man­u­fac­tured and mounted be­tween fork lifts to fell the stalk at the pro­ject’s ter­mi­na­tion.

“I couldn’t copy­right the fairy tale, but I am go­ing to pa­tent and copy­right the real thing,” he adds. “The bean was never an end in it­self.”

Fur­ther­more, Jack has switched to study­ing un­ortho­dox tree­house con­struc­tion. In par­tic­u­lar, foun­da­tions that es­ca­late over the Kali-like limbs of banyans, thereby rais­ing their rich, ec­cen­tric own­ers to a higher plane of life in their trop­i­cal re­treats. In my ab­sence he’s got­ten way ahead of me. “Re­silience and re­sis­tance in the rub­bery sub­stance of the stalk and stems matches the ma­te­ri­als for deep sea oil rigs.” Jack swells and sways with pride, as if he’s made of the same stuff his-self, but he as­sures me. “It’s your good work. No stilts, no ten­sion legs — the stalk’s ver­ti­cal brace and tiered in­fra­struc­ture of stems will suf­fice.”

“Very good’n’aw,” I say in as thick a Scots as I think he’ll un­der­stand, “but what’s tha’ tae me, I’m no tha’ kinda en­gi­neer.”

But he just blinks at me. “Dee-spite the uni and bi­ax­ial ten­sile strength to with­stand any hur­ri­cane force wind, we’ve a safe side­ways give of 30 de­grees. But I want you to aim for bet­ter than 45. And to con­quer an­other fac­tor we never did in­ves­ti­gate, the beanstalk must be ev­er­green …”

My long-drawn-out, yin-word query whines like a bag­pipe be­gin­ning a lament!

“… to en­dure the six­teen sum­mers and win­ters to ter­mi­na­tion. And don’t tell me you are ‘no tha’ kinda en­gi­neer’. You, who likes to be known as the hero of the hardy, ever-bear­ing

Brus­sels sprout. And the su­per-sized spinach, whose leaf is as large as di­nosaur food.”

To my shame, I’m the in­ven­tor of the one leaf, ten-per­son salad — a spinach leaf you could use for a flex­i­ble golf um­brolly at the Scot­tish Open. One that’d bend to any breeze and not break. I also en­gi­neer trans­fer of food flavours, from fruit to veg, tree to tu­ber. Get your mind round the maple syrup spud I call the Cana­dian yam. Oats that flower like fire­weed, in such a way as they put a ping of bee pollen in your por­ridge. But no earthly sense wast­ing free pub­licly funded re­search. Jack’s money is like con­fetti at a wed­ding be­tween me and the next stage of his pro­ject.

Still ‘n’aw’, y’never know what fu­ture turn Jack’s ev­er­green, year-round bean crop might take in feed­ing the world’s mil­lions. Nah, let’s be re­al­is­tic, what’s ev­er­green for Christ’s sake? Conifers, y’r fir tree, cedar and such, but a bean that tastes like a cedar or Dou­glas fir tree would make a man boke it up. For the stalk to be a year-rounder and the bean to have a mod­icum of taste, we’ll have to think of some bristly and needle­some ev­er­green that has a tang to it.

Okay­dokay, I do grafts and blended genes with bristly ju­niper, whose griz­zly-green nip goes into gin. Then, with the pine-sting retsina gets from the Aleppo pine sap. You know, the Greek stuff that sticks to the back of your tongue and up your nose for ages. Bet­ter than your fa­so­lada, fella, Jack’s one-retsina-bean soup mix could be a sta­ple for nasal con­ges­tion on top of be­ing a diet for the Third World.

I do my ev­er­green­ings of the bean and ask the Laird of the Lab to taste-test and pick his flavour of the fu­ture.

“Ju­niper,” says he and nods.

Time for me to go and dis­ap­point my dean again. For years and years he has hated how my agribusi­ness re­search hasn’t pro­duced long-term part­ners. The gi­antism needed gi­ant wa­ter sup­plies and tracts of farm land to pro­duce fewer but more mon­strous plants which would prob­a­bly yield less than the reg­u­lar plants be­cause of the ex­tra ex­pen­di­ture and de­vel­op­ment of ma­chin­ery and lo­gis­tics for har­vest­ing. Jack is the first real part­ner I’ve had, the dean re­minds me. There’s enough compost in the felled pro­to­type of the beanstalk to cover an acre with a foot-high mid­den. A bean pat, ye could call it.

Five years later, with my ten­ure, and the green longevity of the stalk se­cure, I’m on re­call to test and retest the mon­ster for cel­lu­lar health. I use a shoot from the quiv­ers of them that clus­ter to the stalk, like saplings to the trunk of a mas­sive tree.

“It’s in rude gude ge­netic health,” I tell Jack, as though I’m a weary Dr Fin­lay GP from TV, not a Doc­tor of Biotech with his nose in a nanoscope. I need only look out­side to see it rear­ing up, ro­bust enough to take the sto­ry­book de­signs Jack fobs off on it for his cas­tle. Oh, he wants that too. A hired ar­chi­tect asks me, “Is this a kitschy retro-re­gal delu­sional Lud­wig of Bavaria thing? Or the set for a mad grown-from-scratch Beanstalk movie?” He says Jack wouldn’t give him a straight an­swer.

Should I? All I do is tell him, “You banged both nails on the head, Sir Ar­chi­tect.” And he looks at me like I’m liv­ing in Prince Lud­wig-land along with Jack.

It all gets built by the book. A kitchen, cav­ernous enough to feed a fam­ily of orcs, is in­stalled. In­side it, dou­ble ovens loom with for­mi­da­ble doors and latches, round lids on its flat top, lifted with crafted crow-bar han­dles to bare the gas burn­ers un­der­neath. An open-jawed fire­place with swing­ing hobs yaws in the middle of it. They sink this sin­gle cast iron unit into a cen­tre wall that di­vides the kitchen from the rest of the floor with a ser­vant’s fam­ily room, sleep­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion, sep­a­rate cooker, plumb­ing, bath­room, and you name it.

Jack in­sists the unit be eco­log­i­cally sound—gas fired from fer­mented beans and com­posted prun­ings of those leaves and stems sur­plus to sup­ports for the cas­tle, whose up­per rooms are built for grotesquely high head­room. Even the kitchen below reaches thirty feet from floor to ceil­ing.

Over the open-jawed fire in the cen­tre of the range, the thick hoops of the hobs on which to set the pots and pans swing chin-high to your av­er­age tall girl, who might cook for Jack’s imag­i­nary denizen up­stairs, de­liv­er­ing the grub through a hatch in the dumb waiter with a man­ual pul­ley. The dumb waiter is as out of whack as Jack’s psy­chotic love of the story he mod­els it on. I pity the poor lassie who pulls its rope.

Af­ter this glut of con­struc­tion, Jack—now in his thir­ties—wants me to switch from plant to hu­man en­gi­neer­ing,

while he en­gages in the so­cial kind. He’ll set up a chair in my name to keep me to keep me here to term. I know the univer­sity phrases our tenured pro­fes­sor­ships as be­ing with­out term, which makes Jack’s ‘to term’ ring a bit like a death sen­tence, never mind m’ labours on the beanstalk and the toll it takes on me.

I know right well what Jack means by ‘hu­man.’ He wants me to en­gi­neer him a gi­ant. The gar­gan­tuan ad­di­tion to my salary not­with­stand­ing, I feel my brain shrink to the size of my wil­lie af­ter I dipped it in freezy old Loch Ness. I can see the beastie in Jack’s eyes, clear as Nessie. Heed, arm, and fist rear­ing higher than a fly­ing but­tress to hur­tle down and bash me.

“I’ll have to re-ed­u­cate my­self and re-equip my lab, and whose genes am I gonna work from? I’d have to hae con­sent. And am I to work from a hu­man of stan­dard height? Or be­gin on the tiny and see if I can make them a reg­u­lar? What would I tell one of those wee, wee guys — I’m work­ing on a cure for dwarfism? Stand on that stool while I swab ye!” Ridicule does lit­tle to re­duce Jack’s res­o­lu­tion. “Dwarfism is an­other pro­ject en­tirely,” says Jack. “Aug­ment­ing the tall is more our ticket.”

“Oh, aye!” says I. “Ticket to tri­als and tra­vails for me. Where’ll I find a fam­ily line of big and tall types to de­velop the big boy DNA that gives yours a leg up into the big leagues? This is no a Nazi Über­men­sch sex farm, is it?”

More of my coarse Scots still doesn’t give him a scun­ner. He just blinks at me till I tell him, “I’ll see what I can do.”

But his ‘aug­ment­ing’ does give me a hunch about re­de­ploy­ing the en­zyme in the beans, turn­ing it into a soupy di­etary sup­ple­ment, some­thing like gaz­pa­cho. It’s worth a try. I de­cide I’ll use it on voles—six voles, who gen­er­ate voles the size of go­phers af­ter a painful ges­ta­tion.

“Let’s say they munched on my hunch,” I in­form Jack, when he fin­ger-tastes the sup­ple­ment. His face ap­pears unim­pressed by my bean stim­u­lant and troupe of eas­ily pleased voles. “Your furry dar­lings sup this up ... ?” is all he in­quires of me. “No at first,” I con­fess. “I had tae hold them by the heed and feed them through a wee eye­drop­per. Lord knows the dam­age ah’ve done them. I’m no a cook nor zo­ol­o­gist. An’ I hae nae prac­tice in med­i­cal re­search on poor wee tim­o­rous beast­ies.”

I lay on enough brogue to make him puke, but still he just blinks, then an­swers, “It’s a smaalll start, An­drew …” He rolls the dou­ble L and shows me the back of his tongue as he opens his mouth, like he’s taste-test­ing an­other sip of my sup­ple­ment. Here he goes again, “Taken orally, in a big­ger hu­man sys­tem, might not the growth en­zyme get flushed out be­fore it does any good?”

“De­pends on what you call gud, Jack. You can in­gest the en­zyme that works to re­duce the bulging scar tis­sue in Dupuytren’s Con­trac­ture. Why not the other way — to en­large?” “En­lighten me.” “Dupuytren’s con­cerns the scar tis­sue that makes the lig­a­ments in y’r hands grow huge and con­tract. Curl up like an old crone’s. Ah’ve done ma home­work, Jack.”

“Gud,” says he.

I shud­der with a premonition of my new or­der of en­hanced bean-be­ing en­ter­ing the uni­verse, and the auld taunts for tall, skinny guys turn­ing too true with a skinny ma­link melodeon legs, big ba­nana-footed beanstalk. Off I go, my head pol­luted with the kids’ rhyme, think­ing y’r ba­nana’s not a tree, but a veg­gie. It grows like some­body pullin’ a bloody tele­scope out of the ground. I’m ex­pected to do the same to a child. Where’ll I get the egg and sperm? Jack has fi­nally got me into shit way be­yond my ken and com­pe­tence.

But Jack has his own growth plan.

He re­cruits two re­cently im­preg­nated women with enor­mous am­bi­tion for their fu­ture chil­dren. One has it for her daugh­terto-be, who she wants to turn into a TV star and celebrity cook, still mak­ing sure her bairn doesn’t get way­laid by some greedy, preda­tory pro­ducer, like she was. The pro­ducer was one of the big tall weedy types, like Howard Hughes, or more like, as she says, Sir Richard Branson of Vir­gin Air­lines and all the other Vir­gins he’s put into pro­duc­tion. This info flows from the tran­script of her in­ter­view, which Jack lets me have a decko at.

I was a classy cook in a classy kitchen, this pro­ducer comes in like he’s run­ning a food show, ready to chop the cel­ery, in­spect the set for the stew. He sees me, lifts both hands in the air, like he’s go­ing to bring down a magic pot for me to fill with my amaze­ment at his frick­ing amaze­ment. Says the pro­ducer prick to me, “I came inta Ber­told’s 'cause they say the borscht at Ber­told’s is best on the Boule­vard. And I have to see who gives the borscht the big B for best.” I’m not half bad lookin’ and I can see he’s half lookin’ at me, half at the pot I’m holdin’.

Then, af­ter he gives me his spiel, he creeps up on tippy-toe and whis­pers in my ear, “You oughta be seen.” “Seen where?” I want to know. “Seen on TV and on video.” He’s full of it, but I don’t know that yet. All the while I’m cook­ing for him ex­clu­sive that bas­tard dan­gles Martha Ste­wart TV type chances comin’ up for me. Ev­ery time he spreads a nap­kin on his lap and un­zips his fly. But as soon as I show up at the ta­ble to au­di­tion for the part of mother, the bas­tard wants to toss me off the set of my own apart­ment. Guess where I tip the bye­bye pot of borscht? (Pause) Oh, I do a bean soup, too. “Per­fect.” I suck my teeth and agree with Jack. “The bean soup seals it.”

The se­cond woman wishes fame the same for her son. Her pref­er­ence: as an ac­tor in sports epics, thusly, he will dodge in­juries and dis­ap­point­ments in the real thing.

She wears her own dis­ap­point­ment like a big F for fucked on her face.

Un­for­tu­nately for her, a fe­male bas­ket­ball player in the first three months of preg­nancy tends to throw up. Con­se­quently, the daddy to the fu­ture star, her big-and-tall, long-time NBA love, “goes down on some other, poor un­en­cum­bered bitch from the WNBA,” I quote.

The pre­text be­hind the re­cruit­ment with rou­tine ques­tion­naire, in­ter­view, med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion, and ad­ju­di­ca­tion with other preg­nant can­di­dates is a re­al­ity TV show that will pur­sue the kids from ges­ta­tion to ma­tu­rity. The pro­gram will air world­wide.

Screen­ing and se­lec­tion of the can­di­dates will com­prise the pi­lot. The set the can­di­dates see be­fore them is a gi­ant beanstalk and a cas­tle, which’ll be the ac­com­mo­da­tion for the win­ners—the chance, lit­er­ally, to live in a fairy tale.

I’m eye­ing the ul­tra­sound im­ages over the shoul­der of the Johns Hop­kins-trained gy­nae­col­o­gist Jack has hired to over­see the whole pro­ce­dure from the pre­na­tal months to the de­liv­ery. Johns Hop­kins pre­sumes I’m a res­i­dent medic and have snuck up to se­cond-guess him. He cocks an ear to my ac­cent and asks me if I went to the Royal Col­lege of Ob­ste­tri­cians and Gy­nae­col­o­gists. “No, no. I’m the bean doc­tor.” He looks at me and out the win­dow at the stalk. “Do the rich go in for such ec­cen­tric re-cre­ations over there?” I sup­pose he means Scot­land. “Nay,” says I, too loudly, like I’m some sort of horse and not a Scot. “The Queen’s cas­tle at Bal­moral—no, it’s down to the ground. She’d no leave it up in the air, like this one.”

Waffly an­swers to Dr Johns Hop­kins’s ex­pert pre­na­tal care and bean gaz­pa­cho twice daily are my hum­ble in­puts. To be supped ac­cord­ing to con­tract, un­til the Belle of the Borscht takes over the cook­ing in the cas­tle kitchen, and the Bas­ket­ball Belle moves in up­stairs. That’s Jack’s plan. Af­ter she sam­ples it, the Bas­ket­ball Belle asks me if I’ve been bon­ing up on cook­books or tak­ing cour­ses.

I visit, you see, and de­liver my sup­ple­ment to be taken with the reg­u­lar stews, meat, veg and pota­toes. So it will go. The hoop­ster will live out Jack’s story up­stairs, barred ac­cess to the down­stairs

by a great door at the stair head. Its lin­tel’s that high a gi­raffe would need nary a nod to get through. As with the voles as big as moles, so with moth­ers’ milk, the en­zyme at work in the hoop­ster’s is ev­i­denced in a boy she can barely hold with­out drop­ping.

What’s way over my head, though, is bean pab­u­lum for when the bairn up­stairs is weaned! Need I worry, the Belle of the Borscht’s ap­ple-bean sauce from the cas­tle kitchen is a win­ner. I even steal a spoon­ful for my­self be­fore it goes up the chute on the dumb waiter. Even bet­ter, I work her recipe back­wards into a full blown ap­ple-bean in the lab for pro­duc­tion. Roll over Ger­ber and say boohoo.

I won­der if the Belle of the Borscht’s walk­a­bouts in the enor­mous kitchen are out of won­der, now that she’s its queen, or plain ago­ra­pho­bia. I try not to feel too bad for the two of them. The money in ad­vance for the women is enor­mous, as was the bonus for the film­ing of the birth, plus ex­tra for the ba­bies sub­mit­ting to ex­am­i­na­tions and vis­its by the Johns Hop­kins man. To their mind, who could beat the pa­tient get­ting paid for home vis­its? But the pae­di­a­tri­cian raises his Johns Hop­kins’ eye­brows when he’s told to leave the blood­work to me. “He’s a bio-en­gi­neer, he knows blood,” says Jack. “And beans,” says Johns Hop­kins. “But beans and blood, where’s the con­nec­tion?” “At the nano level, you’d be sur­prised.” And mostly I am — by my night­mares. I see the grune knicht, as per the me­dieval epic —a green beanstalk guy, strid­ing with th­ese kabaa-ka­boom, Jolly-green-gi­ant foot­steps. Gi­ant leaves blow

all around his legs and arms in a gale of bean fart as he clomps up with an axe to chop off my hand that fed him, then my head. Could m’ fears not be a tad more orig­i­nal? I try to talk this nightly non­sense through with Jack. Talk­ing it through with an autis­tic al­li­ga­tor would be more pro­duc­tive. He just blinks and opens his mouth for a long ahhh, while I moan on, “The boy up­stairs is grow­ing that big he’s scary, and the wee girl down­stairs isn’t so wee ei­ther.”

Jack fi­nally ends his blink­ing, his long al­li­ga­tor-ahhh, and laughs, laughs his way down in the glass out­side el­e­va­tor that we alone have code ac­cess to. It’s like slid­ing down the side of the beanstalk Hil­ton. “Why glass?” I ask Jack. “Why not? I al­ways imag­ined what the view would be like from up here.”

In the gi­nor­mous kitchen and up-down rooms, the two women rear their chil­dren with in­ter­net education and spe­cial tu­tors, train­ers, vis­its by doc­tors and nurses (all by ser­vice el­e­va­tors and en­trances on the sides of the beanstalk as per trades­folk of old). Need­less to say, Jack — now a man ap­proach­ing fifty — mar­kets my new growth en­zyme, which has been proven to pro­duce no de­bil­ity in bulls or heifers, mice, even mon­keys. Chim­panzees grow as big as Planet of the Apes ex­tras by ingest­ing my freshly cross-bred ba­nana bean, mass mar­keted along with the straight beans sold as spe­cial US jumbo sweet pota­toes.

Those never-aired episodes of the kids grow­ing up might have been wildly pop­u­lar for be­ing weirdly or­di­nary. Up­stairs,

mother stands on a step­ping stool to mark boy gi­ant’s height on the door posts; down­stairs, mother of girl princess teaches girl, grown beau­ti­ful and adept, to cook nu­tri­tion­ally won­der­ful pies and pas­tries, en­zyme en­hanced, shared with the boy gi­ant-to-be. Among other things, the cook’s per­cent­age-in­vest­ment in the recipes spreads be­yond bean-ap­ple baby food to spin-off bean-dips, soups, and stews. Their suc­cess for a grow­ing child is proven: four feet on her sixth birth­day, for the girl; five for the boy.

Height has come with am­ple rec­om­pense. “For ev­ery inch,” the moth­ers are told by Jack, “you re­ceive a bonus; for ev­ery foot, let’s say, a small for­tune.”

But grow­ing chock-a-block with trep­i­da­tion, the Belle of the Borscht stops notch­ing her daugh­ter’s height on the door jambs af­ter the age of seven. She uses chalk for a while, then flat out stops. “What’ll lead­ing men — lit­tle sawn-offs like Daniel Rad­cliffe, Do­minic Mon­aghan, Josh Hutch­er­son do, danc­ing nose to navel with a girl who would knock Ama­zon Eve — you know, the su­per-big su­per­model — into a new, smaller size set?”

I keep mum about the tall, strong, and slen­ders be­com­ing reg­u­lar when the bean de­riv­a­tives go to work on a new baby boom gen­er­a­tion. But I can tell she’s been read­ing up on this pos­si­ble ca­reer move for her daugh­ter, who works out on the Ex­er­cy­cle to videos of roads be­tween ev­ery city in the United States, down ev­ery street in ev­ery city. She does yoga and morn­ing keep-fit to some team some­where in Hawaii. She’s not sorry that the ex­er­cise gives her an ap­petite that matches the up­stairs gorbs’ to a T-bone.

The gorbs is what they call those as gob­bles the grub top­side off the dumb waiter. Heard them as clear as day the daugh­ter has, but she’s not scared like her mum. No­body will give her an inkling of who’s up there, but the daugh­ter’s ears tell her all she needs to know. When she asks me, way early on in her grow­ing up, I say, “Right, my lady. There’s twa sets of feet, yin tiny, and yin, size fif­teen by the sound.” I do my bit of cor­rob­o­ra­tion in my Scot­tish di­alect to make her laugh.

She does that, then tells me, “The dat-dat dann are the fast and tiny feet, the dannn de dannn dan dannnnn — th­ese other, are big clod­hop­pers. My mother says they ter­ror­ize her.” “Dat-dat dat dannnn?” I have to ask. “Like Beethoven’s Fifth Sym­phony.” “You know Beethoven’s Fifth.” “I’m ed­u­cated.” She looks at me scorn­fully. “Home schooled.” She turns her nose up, way above my head. “You should know that.”

Beethoven’s Fifth, good mu­sic for what’s to come. Jack’s fi­nal bo­gus episode. It be­gins in his video for an au­di­ence of one with the stan­dard re­play of scenes from the be­gin­ning — Su­per 8 footage of the boy, Jack, prom­e­nad­ing with one of his father’s prize heifers, which he sells to a bit-part player for a bean that Jack plants in the night. Blackout. The next day, Jack wakes be­side his gi­ant beanstalk, middle aged and bet­ter, not the boy of twelve in scene num­ber one. Oh, no.

Af­ter fit­ten­ing up, pol­ish­ing his moun­taineer­ing skills with spe­cial hand­hold — not the hoist or el­e­va­tor used to de­liver sup­plies, tu­tors, doc­tors, et cetera —Jack climbs up to knock on the front door, in­tend­ing to be greeted with well-paid joy by the girl’s mother. Af­ter all he’s come to save her and her beau­ti­ful daugh­ter and de­liver them down to the world below.

But, she won­ders, the crea­ture, who makes the mas­sive noises up­stairs, will it not want to come pound­ing down to get out into the world below as well? The Belle of the Borscht asks very sen­si­bly for con­fir­ma­tion be­fore ac­tion for the fi­nale starts. “Deal is you get us out be­fore big boots up there comes crashin’ down and crushes me and my daugh­ter into the kitchen floor, right?”

“But you un­der­stand there must be a pur­suit to sat­isfy the story. That’s your up­stairs down­stairs brief.”

“And the au­di­ence watch­ing this on Tv’ll take it for real 'cause of the cuts to the chase, right?” “Right, right,” says Jack. “How do those up­stairs know to come down?” “They get a phone call. In fact, you can hear it, right now.” I fol­low th­ese go­ings-on from a mon­i­tor in the lab, Jack look­ing up the stair­way on the far side of the kitchen, pre­tend­ing to be puz­zled and pet­ri­fied at the noise of same said boots. Might our lad Jack suf­fer from a faint heart? Might the big beauty’s mother?

“Does big boy’s boots have power brakes?” the mother asks, like she’s talk­ing about a truck com­ing down an off-ramp.

Af­ter which, Jack asks the Belle of the Borscht some­thing I’m not clued into.

“Did you not grind the pills and put them into his break­fast?” The daugh­ter leans over to hear, but only catches a wicked whis­per from her mother.

“Horse pills wouldn’t put pounder up there to sleep. Lis­ten to it! That sound like asleep to you?” “Sounds awake,” says the girl. “And jumpin’-mad an­gry.” “He must have just wo­ken in a snit,” barks Jack, loud enough for me to hear live in the lab a mile away. Jack shouts this next bit so loud he al­most takes his ton­sils out, “Bet­ter get out while we can!”

“Th­ese pills in the up­stairs break­fast are news to me,” says the girl, while her mother whis­pers in Jack’s ear, which he can’t re­ally hear be­cause he’s cough­ing. “What’s up, up there — haven’t they read the script?” I can hear ev­ery breath they take be­cause Jack has set the mics to the pitch and range of CIA dis­tant-sur­veil­lance recorders. In truth, in all the while of wean­ing her gi­ant, his mother has been saved any quandary of what to do with him later. He’ll get the best of ev­ery­thing up there and all he has to do is come pound­ing down the stairs on the right day and they can go out into the world, rich. And, her be­ing a Bas­ket­ball Belle, how do they pass the time, and what aims does she have for him that she her­self has never ful­filled? You got it. He’s so huge, in the world they watch on TV, he won’t be a freak, just the lat­est, tallest bas­ket­ball player in the line of Ghe­o­rghe Mure­san or Manute Bol, whom he idol­izes from old

footage de­liv­ered at his mother’s re­quest. But it’s moot whether or not the NBA will dis­qual­ify some­body who can lean down, stick his chin in the net and let it dan­gle from his face like a beard. Fu­ture el­i­gi­bil­ity el­e­ment aside, the mother’s and her son’s am­bi­tions con­verge in a slam dunk. “Time to go down, son. See what’s up in the world.” “Shouldn’t that be down in the world?” he asks, look­ing at the door to the top of the stair, which his mother says leads in that di­rec­tion.

The gi­ant hoop­ster knows very well how high up in the world they are. The cas­tle has win­dows, but he’s sick of his view to the hori­zon and Jack’s live­stock a zil­lion feet down hav­ing the time of their lives on the ground, short and all as those lives are.

“Never fear,” the girl gets told by Jack, the boy of twelve grown into a sad man of fifty and not too flex­i­ble of ex­pres­sion, who stands in the door­way with the sun’s wan­ing light be­hind, turn­ing him into a black shadow. His beau­ti­ful, big (too-tall-for-him) maiden quails, but Jack must go on be­liev­ing he will win her with the won­ders he can af­ford to give her in the world below. This part of the script her mother knows, her daugh­ter does not. God for­give me for not fill­ing the poor lassie in.

Jack won’t lis­ten to a word I say when I tell him the Belle of the Borscht is a bet­ter bid. The girl has reached the age of con­sent. Jack has that ticked off on the cal­en­dar. She’ll agree. Still cough­ing, Jack’s words urg­ing the girl to never fear come out with a crackle of phlegm, like bad re­cep­tion on the ra­dio. He’s been

cran­ing his neck to di­rect his words up­ward to her, too. That doesn’t help his de­liv­ery ei­ther.

“I have come to free you from this place!” says Jack with this fixed look, as if read­ing the words off the ceil­ing. She looks down at the head of the el­derly nerd ad­dress­ing her laced-up navel be­neath the fairy-tale serv­ing-maid’s bodice her mother made her nee­dle and thread to­gether and wear for the oc­ca­sion.

“Free me from what—mr Big­foot up­stairs?” she asks. “I’ll have you know, I’m not in the least bit scared. Be­fore I go, I want to see what’s been up there giv­ing us sore heads, and bounc­ing our cut­lery and crock­ery about like they’re skit­tles. Don’t you want to, too, Ma?”

Her voice gets re­ally, re­ally high and car­ries. At the top of the stairs, the door to the floor above flies open. Gi­ant hoop­ster ap­pears—eight feet tall, min­i­mum, in his white cot­ton socks and shorts. As his legs grace the steep flight of stairs and his torso fol­lows, then head, the an­gle length­ens the lad to look nine or ten or twelve feet.

He’s as hand­some as Tyson Beck­ford, as well-mus­cled as Chris Hemsworth, and I ken the ex­act mea­sure­ments, shoul­der rack, chest, bi­ceps, thighs. The lad’s as large in life as the big, on-screen im­age of those glam­our-ac­tion boys. I’m as proud of him as his mum is. The lad’s as flex­i­ble as the chim­panzees my sup­ple­ment en­gi­neered into in­tel­li­gent go­ril­las, a world champ at any­thing, if al­lowed to com­pete. If only Jack had added an in­door pool to the cas­tle for the large lad to train in!

But there’s no swim­ming pool in the story.

“Se­cond shock of my life,” the Belle of the Borscht says af­ter­wards. “I could have fallen in love with him my­self, if only I were a big­ger woman than I am.”

Then, she cack­les and asks for the cig­a­rette she hasn’t smoked in seven­teen years.

“Just imag­ine,” she won­ders aloud. “All that liv­ing in a pen­t­house gym. With us feed­ing him, what did his mum do with all that ex­tra time at the hoops up there? Prac­tise for her come­back in the WNBA?”

The boy and the girl are re­minded by Jack and a pas­sel of aides be­hind him that it’s all on TV, and Jack’s wait­ing for the daugh­ter to make good on her mother’s com­mit­ment for all the money he’s paid.

“How much al­to­gether?” he asks the aide stand­ing right be­hind him now with a tablet in his hand. The aide pokes it and replies, “Two mil­lion, six hun­dred thou­sand, four hun­dred and fifty dol­lars US.”

Jack watches his princess blush. Her first blush ― at first sight of Jack with a dol­lar fig­ure at­tached? No fear a’ that — her fall­ing in love with a dol­lar fig­ure. It’s love at first sweat that breaks out on Big Beauty for the Big Lad. Big Beauty stands frozen, look­ing up to the first per­son in the world she has ever looked up to. What the hell if the plot’s gone hay­wire. For the moth­ers, it’s all on live broad­cast. There’s more monies to come from all the sta­tions that will carry the re­al­ity show they’ve been liv­ing for this past seven­teen years on a beanstalk.

Roll it for the gi­ant tak­ing the girl’s hand, which is no small thing. Roll it for her eyes tak­ing him in, like a gi­ant bar of Toblerone. Him, Big Lad, sweep­ing the tiny troll-like gaoler and the aides hid­ing be­hind him to the wall. Their exit down the beanstalk, trash­ing the guards, bolt­ing by me is pure magic. Let’s hear it for me, who made it all pos­si­ble, the first to change the end­ing since the tale of the beanstalk was told …

Epi­logue

No fury on earth matches that of a would-be movie star mother who’s been duped. Mega dol­lars do things, but don’t dou­ble for fame for­feited. The moth­ers soon see to that. They dis­play con­tracts and sig­na­tures to the me­dia. The mums ini­ti­ate a le­gal blitz, get all recorded footage quar­an­tined, then auc­tioned and aired with real roy­al­ties from a real broad­cast­ing cor­po­ra­tion. That Jack wed the daugh­ter of one mother is all hearsay, nary a foot­note, sub-clause, or wee fine-print line about it any­where.

It never crosses any­body’s brain, least of all our Jack’s, to protest or con­test the moth­ers’ dou­ble-dip­ping on roy­al­ties and pre-paid rights by the Cow and Bean Guy. Hu­mil­i­a­tion hal­ters any zeal for le­gal ap­peals on his part. Now known as the Cow and Bean Guy, a con­gres­sional com­mit­tee in­ves­ti­gates the rogue sci­ence by the Cow and Bean Guy’s com­pany, yclept ‘The Gi­ant Bean Brain’s Com­pany’ in the press. Mon­santo sup­plies sup­port,

then Mon­santo se­cretly buys the rights to the sci­ence de­rived from the bean from the brain that be­gat the idea. I’m glad to un­load and up­load the sci­ence to get it off my mind. All the doo’s down­loaded on Jack. For a while I get la­belled a ge­nius, since I have en­hanced the species and pro­duced a prod­uct that will re­duce poverty and star­va­tion. I’m cited for the No­bel, but crit­ics nib­ble at my nom­i­na­tion. The world has a hard enough time sup­port­ing us the way we are now, never mind a gi­ant fu­ture ver­sion.

But I’ve been through that al­ready. It’s an acreage and har­vest­ing prob­lem—i’d have to grow the world and its agri­cul­tural land base to twice the size, too. Okay, let the ink-stained wretches have their field day in the press, but I’ll let Mon­santo work around all that.

The gi­ant and gi­ant­ess have more than a mon­eyed and cel­e­brated af­ter­life through book con­tracts, a fol­low-up TV se­ries, all that, and the gi­ant makes his way as an NBA star. In time, since ev­ery young­ster with as­pi­ra­tions to play in the NBA goes on the sup­ple­ment, they sim­ply raise the net. Of course we all know now, the thuds up­stairs in the cas­tle were of a bas­ket­ball: Beethoven’s Fifth was him drib­bling, fol­lowed by a jump dunk.

The gi­ant’s mum may have got screwed on star­dom in the WNBA, but all her breed­ing and vo­ca­tional train­ing went to work on her kid. As I never tire of say­ing, the kid was full of beans. Okay, okay. Over the top, but mother and son drib­bled and shot till it made stir­ring the soups and stews be­neath them re­dun­dant.

The princess, ever since the great view­ing pub­lic anointed her with their un­di­vided al­le­giance, be­came a celeb cook with a real love of her call­ing. She tours with her gi­ant beau and her mum, pre­sent­ing the best lo­cal bean recipe in each new city, while her hubby’s team plays a game in town. She calls each dish a “pot shot.” She is in­deed a great big girl, lankier than Ju­lia Child way back in her day on the good old gog­gle box.

I won’t go into the long wran­gle over a life­time diet of my bean sup­ple­ments qual­i­fy­ing as use of per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drugs. Noth­ing ex­tra shows in our big boy that isn’t an in­te­grated el­e­ment in his me­tab­o­lism. They can’t drain him of his blood, which will go on be­ing the same as be­fore, soon as it tops up again.

They’ve been done too young, it’s built into their bod­ies as un­ex­tractably as their veins. That’s the opin­ion the sports medicine folk give. What can the NBA do if bean de­riv­a­tives are fed to ba­bies in their pab­u­lum? Tape up their mouths, drag tod­dlers off for blood tests, not even be­ing sure that such and such a littl’un’ll be a bas­ket­ball player or just a reg­u­lar Joe or Jane Tall?

Tal­ent’s still a fac­tor, our pro­to­type’s mum points out. Not all are as gifted as her son, nor do they have as good a coach as her.

Jack, the boy who grew into a man of over fifty, re­turns to an­i­mal hus­bandry and for his fi­nal act in the drama suf­fers a re­strain­ing or­der re­fus­ing him per­mis­sion to cut down his bean stalk, which is des­ig­nated sta­tus as a na­tional mon­u­ment.

In spite of the urg­ing of my dar­ling dean, Jack’s and my coau­thored pa­pers, pub­lished in non-sub­scrib­ing sci­ence jour­nals prior to the Mon­santo pa­tent trans­fer, earn us no re­spect. For

ac­cred­ited bi­o­log­i­cal and so­cial sci­ence jour­nals we failed to get proper clear­ance or per­mis­sion from the Na­tional Re­search Coun­cil to con­duct ex­per­i­ments on hu­man sub­jects. It’s a charge the dean and Jack con­test, wav­ing copies of con­tracts Jack made to the end of their days.

But the con­tracts only prove that the par­ents, not the chil­dren, signed.

Round and round go the law­suits Jack brings, but it is pointed out his re­sults are grounded in no spe­cific dis­ci­pline. Has he not turned his sci­ence, so­cial or ap­plied — what­ever it is — into some­thing more ap­pro­pri­ate to the arts? An in­ge­nious, if grotesque ver­sion of an old tale, oft told? He should take com­fort that the pe­cu­liar sci­ence his team wrought on the story of Jack and his Beanstalk did not, for the record, fail to make it a fab­u­lous story.

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