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From the final issue of Freeman’s, which was published this month by Grove Press. 

My father worked as an inventory manager at a company that imported erasers and small toy cars from China. One day, when a snowstorm closed the schools, he took me to his office and showed me the filing cabinets where he stored the sum of his working days: dozens and dozens of beige ledgers, each one a nest of figures tracing the journey of smiling rubber squids and miniature Ferraris from somewhere in Guangdong. I asked if I could have a race car. He looked at me like I hadn’t understood a thing he’d said. 

I was six or seven the first time I overheard him explain what he hated most about being a parent. His work friends had come over for dinner. Just before my mother went to bed she asked my father to move the laundry to the dryer once the washer was done, and after she left my father said the worst thing about having kids was the laundry, the smallness of kids’ clothes, the way you couldn’t ever get a basket of laundry folded and put away without little socks and underwear spilling everywhere. Some tiny thing falls, and you have to stop and pick it up. Was it too much to ask for a single uninterrupted day? 

We want impossible things. I had always wanted to know my father before I entered his life. As it was, I knew him only in his years of retreat, when he was already a member of that fraternity of underdone men who exist in bitter conversation with the decisions they wish they’d made. I suppose a therapist would tell you that’s why I ended up doing the work I do. 

For the past seventeen years I’ve been an employee of the Department of Reincarnation Policy. Though I don’t know it when I get up in the morning, this will be my final day at the DRIP. 

I take the bus to work, and there’s a man on my commute who doesn’t like me. Most days I find a seat far enough away from him; through a phalanx of limbs he might give me a dirty look before he loses interest. But every once in a while there’s no room to sit or stand except right next to him, and that’s when he’ll pepper me with impossible questions: Where are the lives you’re hiding? Who decides who comes back? 

Once, when this happened, an exasperated woman nearby stood up and marched to the front of the bus, where she asked the driver to do something. The driver shrugged and said, He’s distressing. The woman nodded, thinking they were in agreement, but I’d heard the driver say this more than once before, and eventually I realized she meant “distressing” as a verb. 

The building I work at is unremarkable, a mildly fortressed thing. It’s a rule at the DRIP never to celebrate any reincarnant, no matter what kind of lives they led. There’s no framed photo anywhere of the fifth-go-round physicist whose hundred years of stubborn research helped solve the energy crisis, or the man who kept going back to volunteer at the same refugee camp every time he returned, dressed in the body of a child but with seven decades of altruism under his belt. 

There is an equal reluctance to commemorate milestones, and this year the DRIP marks three of them. The first is known to all: one hundred and fifty years ago this month, a child named Ella became the very first confirmed reincarnant. Likely there had been many before her, but Ella, on account of where she was born and the vividness of her recollections, her impossible intimacy with the life of an octogenarian who happened to have lived and died in the very same town, is considered the first verifiable case, the one after which it could no longer be denied that our species had entered a new mode of being. 

The second milestone is purely administrative. This fiscal year, the Department of Reincarnation Policy will overtake Agriculture as the fourth-largest federal agency by budget size. And the third milestone is an informed guess. According to that clock in the lobby, ticking forever upward in accordance with a heavily disputed statistical model, at some point this summer, somewhere in the world, the three-billionth reincarnant will be born. 

It’s a slow day. My first interview is with an alleged second-go-round. She is seven, and was fifty-two when she died. The adjudicator believes the applicant is a reincarnant, but there’s a legal threshold for identity, and the evidence doesn’t meet it. 

The standard of proof involves a safety deposit box, a lawyer, and a list of ten details a person must draw up and keep secret in anticipation of the next life. Only if they’re able to recite eight of the ten on the next go-round are they considered to have met the legal threshold. This package is offered as part of almost every will, but a lot of people don’t take advantage of it. The most widely accepted formula suggests that, upon death, there’s a fifty percent chance of reincarnation, meaning a one in four chance of a third go-round, a one in eight chance of a fourth, and so on. Some people don’t think the coin flip’s going to go their way, others don’t think about it at all. We’re left with cases such as this one, a child of seven possessing the memories of someone generations older, but legally below the threshold. Too much of herself, and not enough. 

I start the interview the same way I always do. I ask her questions about the conditions into which she was born and she answers them matter-of-factly. It’s clear from the beginning that she’s not lying. You can always tell. It hangs on them, the past, it holds them in place. 

I ask her about her home life and she says her second-go parents initiated the application, wanting nothing to do with her. 

There are so many policies related to parental obligations for reincarnants, options for both children who carry previous lives and the parents into whose care they arrive. She says for her part she has no interest in fighting her parents. She says she only wants a quiet life, that she isn’t going to claim or continue any part of her previous one. 

I want to tell her that most people who come back don’t want to keep doing the work of their previous lives. Even the thing you’d most expect—reincarnants going to look for surviving loved ones—isn’t as common as you’d think. They run away as much as they run toward. 

But I don’t tell her any of these things. I’m not supposed to. Instead I thank her for her time and file the report. The database says it’s my one-thousandth interview. 

The last interview I ever conduct at the DRIP is with a boy of fifteen. His application is another threshold case. His parents argue he’s a second-go-round, but he’s fighting it. I can tell, before the boy says a word, that he’s lying. His file is full of little details too odd and specific to be anything but shards of a previous life. His parents list a litany of impossible memories: orderings of numbers, shipping routes, the insides of churches. 

Why do you think they’re trying to get rid of you, I ask. 

He shrugs. I don’t know, he says. They just . . . they make stuff up. I just want a normal life.

I put the forms down and close the file. 

I’m not asking for much, he says. 

It occurs to me that he has better posture this time around. He doesn’t have the worn-down air. 

There’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you, I say. 

What do you mean always, he replies.

Sometimes when the guys at work would call up and invite you out to the bar, you’d say, I’d love to, but you know how it is with the kids. Even when Mom would tell you it was fine, go out, you’d still tell your friends that same thing. 

He looks at me the way I imagine the first person to ever see a mirror looked into it, suddenly conjoined to an impossible reflection. 

Why did you always say “the kids”? When you were complaining to your buddies about how hard your life was, how little freedom you had, why did you always say kids, plural? You only had one. 

He does the thing he used to do, walking through his options. I’m exhausted for him. 

I push the little red button that’s under every one of our desks in this building. In a few seconds security guards come in, and they don’t ask questions. They simply grab the boy and lead him outside. He doesn’t protest, doesn’t stop looking at me until they’ve dragged him away. 

I wait awhile, then delete the file. I pack my things. I get up and leave. My boss, who sees the boy dragged away by security, asks me what happened. I tell him I quit. 

Once, a few years ago, I got to interview a twenty-go-round, at the time the only known one. There had been lots of talk about the first confirmed twenty, though it was far from confirmed and everyone knew the interview would come to nothing. That many pasts don’t live well together inside one mind, to say nothing of the fact that many of those lives we’d only worked out through supplementary evidence—shreds of concurrence, things overheard in early childhood by others, snippets of her own memory, blurred and thin—because so many of them ended so early: death in childhood, death in adolescence, sudden accidents, desperate misfortune. Best we could tell, she’d made it out of her teens just twice. 

I took down every word but could make almost no sense of it. By the half-hour mark the supervisor watching the interview had tuned out completely. I sat and listened to the woman meander through the entrails of memory, lucid and irreparably torn, graceful in her distressing. 

At the end of the interview, I asked her one of the questions we’re told never to ask the many-times returned. I ask her what she wanted. 

Free, she said. I want good and free.

We want impossible things. The rest is only living. 

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October 2023

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