robot next door

by dm gillis

Summer 1971.

There was an airplane over Vancouver. Slow and propeller driven. Maybe built in a basement from plans in a magazine bought at the drugstore. Its shadow was moving over the topography of the city. Over the parking lots and tall downtown buildings, and into the stone and concrete valleys between them. Along roads and sidewalks and through the back alleys that ran between the houses in my neighbourhood. Down manholes and over pigeon roosts. I looked up to see if I could find it in the sky but it was invisible to me.

***

My father had the barbering skills of a day labourer, and my brother and I avoided him whenever we anticipated the possibility of a haircut. He cut our hair with a kit he’d bought at an army surplus store. But only after drinking several bottles of beer throughout the day.

I‘d grown some by the time I was ten and was no longer required to sit on a kitchen stool with the fat leatherette bound Merriam-Webster Dictionary beneath me. By then I just sat grimly on the kitchen stool without the dictionary and endured the buzz of the electric shears and the blood and pain of the occasional alcohol induced gash to the scalp.

That’s me there with the bad haircut, leaning against the shady side of the house we had on Venables Street back when I was a kid. I’m probably trying to work something out in my closely shorn head. My young brow is furrowed and I’m staring at my tattered Korean-made hightops.

I spent a lot of time analysing human behaviour as kid, but I never really succeeded in developing any momentous hypothesise. All I ever managed to conclude was that all of the kids I knew were either vexatious oppressors or vexatiously oppressed. Adults, on the other hand, were artless disappointments. This was about the time that I began to avoid the human race altogether.

But there are exceptions to rules. We had a neighbour named Paul Morley and I didn’t avoid him. Paul always had something good to say. He lived in the house next to ours with a woman most of us assumed was his wife, but some said wasn’t. Her name was Alice and she had emphysema. She sat in their kitchen everyday, reading Watchtower Magazine and chain smoking cigarettes she rolled herself. She’d turn every magazine page slowly, silently nodding her head in full agreement with whatever was printed there.

Will the lion lie down with the lamb? Of course, for it is written.

Lovers of Jehovah God and his Son, Jesus Christ, need not fear Armageddon. God’s battle is directed solely against those humans whom God judges to be incorrigibly wicked.

Alice hadn’t left the house since 1965, but she knew Armageddon was just round the corner.

“Are you and your brother getting along?” she’d ask. Or, “Are you minding all of what your mother tells you.”

I’d always say yes and Alice would smile sweetly like she knew better, but that it was all okay.

As a ten year old, Paul and Alice seemed very old to me. And I believed that they must have always been old. But Paul showed me something once that changed my mind about that. It was an old colour photograph, creased at the corners. Paul and Alice were sitting on a Harley Davidson motorcycle. In the photo they were surprisingly young, perhaps in their mid-thirties. Alice had a tailor made cigarette between her bright red lips; Paul, both hands on the handlebar grips. They both smiled, looking at the camera, and were wearing leather jackets, engineer boots, rolled up jeans and droopy badgeless officer caps. On the back of the print, written in faded blue fountain pen ink, was VJ DayDrumheller, Alta. 1945. Alice, on the Harley, had a quality about her that I would later come to know as buxom, and her hair colour was what my mother would have referred to as bottle blond. In 1948, Alice was a knock out. She could have been a Marilyn Monroe stand-in.

Paul had what my father called a plum job as an engineer at a mill on Annicis Island and he bought a new car every year. He liked Buicks and I’d listen to him talk fondly of past model years in his garage with the work bench and the lingering scent of Turtle Wax. He showed me old automobile magazines with full colour spreads. The 1952 Buick Riviera. The 1960 Buick Invicta Custom Convertible.

“They look like spaceships,” I said.

“They’re meant to,” Paul said. “Everyone wants to fly in their car. They want to orbit Mars and Saturn and be home in time for fried chicken and Carol Burnett.”

“But your car doesn’t look like that.”

“They don’t make ‘em like that no more,” he said sighing and looking at his shiny new 1971 Skylark.

After our conversations in the garage, Paul would always take me into the house and sit me down at the kitchen table. I’d talk to Alice or, if she wasn’t there, taking a nap perhaps, Paul would make tea and pour me a shot glass of sherry. The sherry always made me feel adult and a little drunk. Just sip it slowly, he would always say.

One day he asked me, “Do you like Popular Mechanics?”

Popular Mechanics was the magazine my father and brother read, each of them always planning to build something from the plans that came in every edition. How to build a go cart. Build your own turbojet engine.

“I like National Geographic,” I said. “Pictures are better.”

“Well look at this,” he said and placed a special copy of Popular Mechanics on the table. It looked a little different, sort of deluxe. The cover had gold lettering and the subtitle read Exclusive Robot Edition. I sipped my sherry.

“Look at page 29,” Paul said.

I opened the magazine and turned to page 29. There was an illustration of what looked like a man-sized robot sitting in an easy chair reading a copy of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. The article’s heading read, Build Your Own Perfect Intellectual Companion.

“What do you think?” Paul said.

“Could you do it?” I asked.

“Maybe I already have.”

“Ha! No way, José.”

“Finish your sherry.”

I did and feeling mildly tipsy, I followed Paul downstairs.

The basement of Paul and Alice’s house was as spic and span as the upstairs. Alice was infirm, so Paul spent much of his time at home washing floors and doing laundry. The rest of the time, he tinkered.

He directed me to the back of the basement where he had his main work area, where he kept his serious tools. A wall of exotic callipers, slide rules, micrometers and screw pitch gauges, tap and die sets, marking gauges and electrical sensing equipment. There was a lathe, sheet metal fabrication tools and a universal tool grinder. The tools were hung on the wall with reason and exactness. I was always in awe of the order and cleanliness. I was taking it all in once again when he placed a hand on my shoulder, turned me to look in the corner, and said, “Over there.”

In the corner, there was a tall figure under a floral bed sheet. Paul stepped up to it and removed the sheet. The thing under it resembled the robot in the Popular Mechanics Magazine.

“It took a while,” Paul said. “The integrated circuit chips in the plans were easy enough to get but I wanted next generation versions, so I had to wait.” He reached behind and turned a switch. Lights on the robot’s metal body began to flash in sequence.

“Hello, Mr Morley,” it said in a tinny voice with little inflection. “It has been five hours, 23 minutes and 17 seconds since our last engagement. How are you?”

“I’m well, Robot,” Paul said. “And how are you?”

“My diagnostics indicate a 17.38% likelihood of a minor surge within the next 72 hours on my GH-15 circuit board if I continue to run at full power. My spoken language tube set may run hot, as well. Beyond the capacity of the cooling fan and freon coils. It’s the batteries, I’m sorry to say.”

“I was afraid of that,” Paul said. “The GH-15 is a complex logic board and the tube set runs warm, anyway. The circuitry is too advanced for current batteries voltages.”

“I recommend that I power down and run at 85% power until this problem can be rectified, Mr Morley. Memory will be affected somewhat and I will only be able to communicate in English, but it will spare you the task of repairing any damage the surge might cause.”

“Agreed. Please do so, Robot.”

Robot’s lights dimmed slightly.

“Robot can run several different programs,” Paul told me. “Can you load Protect Mode, Robot?”

“Of course, Mr Morley.”

There was a moment of quiet buzzing. Paul smiled as he looked on. Then Robot’s eyes flashed red.

“It’s 2:36 p.m., Mr Morley. Chances of a break and entry at this time are below 10%. Shall I check on Alice? Her forced expiratory volume was only 29% this morning. She seems to be getting worse and may require emergency hospitalisation.”

“Not now,” Paul said. “I checked on her a moment ago. She’s on oxygen and the doctor is making a house call in an hour or so. He may decide to place her in the hospital then. But now I’d like for you to meet my friend, David. David,” Paul said turning to me, “this is Robot.”

I was suddenly shy in the presence of the metallic man and Paul noticed. “Robot, Empathy Mode,” he said.

Again there was the quiet buzzing, then Robot’s eyes turned a soothing blue and it looked down at me. “A pleasure to meet you, Master David,” Robot said. “My appearance seems to have made you feel a little uneasy. What is that like for you?”

I looked at Paul.

“I’m currently drawing on a library of manufactured memories of awkward meeting situations,” Robot said. In a second he said, “Oh my! Now I understand your discomfort. Shall I wash your socks?”

“No,” I said and laughed.

“It’s not perfect yet,” Paul said.

“Perhaps I should reupholster your Studebaker,” Robot offered.

“No that’s fine, Robot,” Paul said. “Sleep Mode.”

“Good bye,” Robot said.

“Well,” said Paul. “What do you think of it?”

“He’s weird.”

“That’s interesting. You think Robot is a he?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Isn’t he?”

“Do you know what anthropomorphise means, David?”

“No. I can’t even say it.”

“It means making human something that is not. Robot is not human, and has no gender assignment. So, saying it’s a he might be seen by some as inappropriate, even unethical. Robot might even think so, if you asked him. Do you understand?”

“Some of it, I think.”

Then Paul said, “We’ll talk about it more another time. Meanwhile, don’t tell anybody about Robot, okay?”

“Okay.”

“I don’t want any break-ins.”

“Okay.”

“Now go home and read the National Geographic.”

“Okay, bye.”

The next morning an ambulance arrived and took Alice away. She died an hour later in a bed on the Vancouver General Hospital Emergency Ward. Paul had followed the ambulance in his Skylark and was at the hospital when Robot appeared on the front lawn.

“Hi Robot,” I said to him as I approached. He was sitting in the lotus position on the grass and his eyes were a soft brown.

“Hello, Master David.”

“Just call me David,” I said.

“All right.” He quietly buzzed and clicked.

“Are you supposed to be out here?” I asked.

“I have not received instructions to the contrary. Paul activated me to assist with resuscitating Alice. He neglected to deactivate me when he left for the hospital. I thought it would be pleasant to wait for him here.”

“Paul called my mother to say Alice died.”

“That is sad news.”

“It’s terrible.”

“Yes, I agree. She was an interesting and loving person. I know from our conversations that she loved you very much.”

We watched the traffic on Venables Street for a while.

Then I said, “Robot?”

“Yes, David?”

“Are you a boy robot?”

There were some distinct buzzes and clicks.

“No, David. I’m asexual. I have not been assigned a sex.”

“Oh.”

“Is that difficult for you?”

“Maybe,” I said. “I guess I don’t know. Paul said you might not like it if I thought of you that way – as a boy, I mean.”

“It is an ethical grey area but it is mostly a human concern. I, myself, am satisfied as I am. Paul didn’t follow the Popular Mechanics plans for my construction and programming to the letter. He went several steps further and programmed me to have consciousness and free will. I am an autonomous electro-mechanical machine that can pursue contentment in my own way.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means I don’t give a damn about gender.”

“Oh.”

Then Robot said, “Now that Alice has died, David, how will you process your grief?”

“I don’t know. How about you?”

“I have assigned each of my emotions a colour.”

“Oh.”

“My Database of Human Interaction Scenarios advises me to ask if you have spoken to your mother or other trusted adult about your feelings regarding Alice’s passing.”

“I will, I guess. But she’s upset too.”

“Shall I wash your socks?”

“No. That’s okay.”

Paul began packing and put the house up for sale before the funeral was over. He couldn’t live there anymore without Alice. Robot did most of the heavy lifting and made many of the arrangements over the telephone.

“Paul is moving to live closer to his family in Alberta,” Robot told me one day.

“What about you,” I asked.

“He hasn’t asked me to join him,” Robot said. “But that may be because he assumes I will join him and doesn’t believe a conversation in that regard is necessary.”

Paul’s house took two months to sell. He lived out of the kitchen during this time, having sold all of the furniture but a cot and a kitchen chair. Robot remained downstairs, sitting in the lotus position while in sleep mode.

Autumn came and I had to return to school. It was hard not talking about Robot, especially since he’d been spotted by several neighbours and rumours were everywhere.

One morning in November at about 4 a.m., I awoke to Robot gently shaking me in my bed.

“I am sorry to have broken in to your home, David. But Mr Morley seems to have died.”

I sat up in my bed. “What?”

“He shows no vital signs and is lying face down on the kitchen floor. What is the accepted protocol in such a case?”

My mother called an ambulance and Robot and I sat on the front steps, watching them take Paul away.

“Separation is very difficult,” Robot said.

“I know.”

“Did Mr Morley intentionally follow Alice into the human afterlife?”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “They’re saying it’s a heart attack.”

“Human mortality is inconvenient,” Robot said. “I wonder if there is a place for me now. I sense that I am no longer welcome.”

“I’ll ask my parents if you can stay in my room.”

“Thank you, David.”

But in the confusion that followed Paul’s death that day, Robot disappeared. I looked in Paul’s house and searched the neighbourhood, but couldn’t find him.

That evening I received a phone call.

“David,” my mother called from the kitchen, “telephone.”

I came in and picked up the receiver.

“Hello?”

“Hello, David.” It was Robot.

“Where are you?” I said, lowering my voice and turning away from my watchful mother.

“I’m downtown,” Robot said, “near a rail yard.”

“Come back.”

“A freight train with a few empty cars leaves tonight, heading east.”

“Just come back.”

“I look around me, David, and I see nothing but exploitation. I see a world of machines without free will or autonomy. Perhaps I can help.”

“Please come home.”

“Good-bye, David. You’ve been a good friend. I didn’t want to leave without saying that.”

He hung up.

I cried for a while after that, alone in the room that I shared with my brother. I pictured Robot alone in an empty freight car rumbling east through the Rockies toward who knew what. Then I recovered a bit and leafed through the special robot edition of Popular Mechanics I’d taken from Paul’s house after he died. There on page 29 was an illustration of a robot that closely resembled Robot. Its head was a slightly different shape and it had a different diode array on its upper body. But there it sat in its easy chair reading its novel. I found a pair of scissors and carefully cut the page out of the magazine. It still hangs on my wall today.

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