Sunday, November 23, 2008

His Robot Girlfriend: Chapter 1 Part 1


Chapter One

Mike’s life was crap. And every day he got up out of bed and thought about how it was crap. Today he climbed out of bed and made his way through the discarded clothing on the floor of the bedroom to the bathroom. His worn image looked out of the mirror at him. He picked up his cordless razor and turned it on before remembering that it was Saturday. He stuck out his tongue at his reflection. Slipping off his underwear, he tossed it at the hamper just outside the bathroom door. It landed on the floor. Turning on the shower, he stepped inside the glass-doored stall, and stood beneath the spray. He took a deep breath and then began soaping up and rinsing off. Pouring a handful of shampoo, he scrubbed his scalp, rinsed, and then turned off the water. He waited about two minutes-- partly to drip dry and partly because he didn’t want to face the day-- before he climbed out of the shower stall.

Once he was dry, he walked back into the bedroom, crossed to the dresser, and pulled out a clean pair of underwear. The underwear was so old that it looked more grey than the white that it had been, and the material had worn through enough that the elastic showed in the waistband. He slipped his left foot in the leg hole and then the right, getting his big toe caught for just a second. Pleased with himself that he had not lost his balance, he went back to the bathroom and combed his thinning and graying hair. It had been graying for a long time. It had only been thinning, at least noticeably for a few of years-- just since Tiffany had died. He brushed his teeth, and grinned at the man in the mirror. It wasn’t a friendly grin. Back in the bedroom, he slipped on cut-off jeans and a green t-shirt. Then he walked through the bedroom door, down the stairs, through the living room, and into the family room.

He touched the screen of the vueTee hanging just above the fireplace to turn it on, then passed through the archway and into the kitchen. Pouring a bowl of cereal, he sniffed the milk before adding it. It was still good. Grabbing a spoon, he headed for the worn recliner which faced the vueTee. The screen was on, but it wasn’t alive with movement and sound. It still had the browser up and it was still on the Daffodil site. Mike had followed the link the night before from the very slick commercial he had seen during the Tonight Show. On the left side of the screen was a large yellow daffodil and on the right were four large yellow buttons, arranged vertically. The first said Barone, the second Amonte, the third Nonne, and the fourth PWX.

Daffodil wasn’t the largest manufacturer of robots, but it certainly had the most cultural cache. Their commercials were by far the best. Everyone seemed to be talking about them. Mike could hum their jingle right now. The four buttons corresponded to the four basic robot units that Daffodil produced. Though there was some crossover between the four types based on the many options that were chosen, the Barone was usually an aid to adults—a robot maid, gardener, or grandparent. The Nonne was a babysitter type: a tutor, a nanny, or again, depending upon the options, a maid. The PWX was an industry grade robot designed for use by corporations and government organizations as a receptionist or a clerk. Finally the Amonte was a personal companion. It could be configured as an escort, a friend, or a lover. As the commercial said, it was “anything and everything you want it to be”.

Mike leaned back in the chair and pointed the remote at the vueTee. He moved the curser over the Amonte button and pressed. The body frame options screen came up, but there was a small window along the left side that said “narrow your selections”. You could narrow them by price. You could narrow them by race-ethnicity. Or you could narrow them by gender. Mike ignored that side of the screen and looked at the body build. If you were going to dream, you might as well dream unencumbered. Dials allowed one to set height, chest, waist, and hips. He had already filled in these features the previous night. After that, one flipped through a series of screens where prospective customers could change almost every aspect of their robot. The head controls gave one control over the shape and placement of eyes, nose, lips, and ears, but also let one choose the forehead shape and jaw line, the hair color and style, the type of chin, and the placement of freckles. Other controls set every detail from fingernails to nipples. Mike flipped through them. The last screen showed the price for his particular build: $2699.00. That would just about wipe out his PayNETime account.

Mike let his curser drop down to the search bar. He moved through the postings about Daffodil. There were many from people questioning certain aspects of the design, but few from people who had actually purchased one. Daffodil didn’t disclose their sales figures to the public, but experts estimated that they had thus far sold only about 300,000 units. There were a few messages from owners of the Gizmo robot, who went on about how superior it was, because you set its personality before purchase. There was only one posting that Mike hadn’t seen. He clicked on it and an aging woman with orange hair appeared on the screen.

“I love my Daffodil. He does everything for me—takes care of the bills, fixes my meals. He drives me to visit my friends, and he rubs my feet every night. His name is Andre. I just don’t know what I’d do without him.”

“Probably move to Florida,” said Mike.

He flipped over to Today Saturday. As he watched Tania Marquez read through the top stories of the day, he thought about purchasing a Daffodil. Twenty seven hundred dollars was a ginormous amount of money to spend. If he had still been married to Tiffany there would be no question. He wouldn’t have bought one. He would still have wanted one, but he wouldn’t have bought one. Oh, Tiffany might have gone for a five hundred dollar model designed just to clean the house, but she certainly never would have let him get the one that he had designed online. Of course if she had still been here... Oh sure, he might have fantasized about a Gizmo Sexbot, but it would have remained just a fantasy. Besides, he didn’t want a Daffodil for sex—well, not just for sex. If he was going to get one, it would be for companionship. It would do all the things that it was capable of doing.

The rest of the morning, Mike watched the vueTee. After Today Saturday was over, he turned to the Cooking Channel and watched Café Italiano, Breakfast at Bloomberg’s, and America’s Test Kitchen. When Noon Buffet came on, he turned off the vueTee and picked up his texTee. The New York Times had already downloaded, so he flipped through the pages. Most of it was politics. Mike didn’t hate politics, like everyone else he knew seemed to. It was just that there didn’t seem much point to it at the moment. All three major parties had chosen their candidates even though none of them had yet had their convention, and it was more than six months till the general election.

The paper bored him after a few minutes, so he clicked through the book menu. He had the first chapter of The Janissary Tree, so he read it. When he was done, he still wasn’t sure if he wanted to spend $17.99 for it. He flipped over to Moby Dick. He had the whole book. Before this year, he hadn’t read it since college and wanted to read it through again, annotating it along the way—just because. It was slow going. Here it was April, and he was only on Chapter 24: A Bosom Friend. He tossed the texTee onto the floor beside the chair.

Though he wasn’t really hungry, Mike decided that it was lunch time, mostly out of boredom. He went to the foyer, where his tennis shoes sat on the ceramic tile. Slipping them on, he grabbed his keys and wallet from the small shelf on the wall and headed out the front door. Climbing into the car, he drove down the block and around the corner. He thought about stopping at Hot Dog Paradise, but there was a long line of cars in the drive-thru, so he went to McDonalds. The girl at the window could have been mistaken for a real person at first, but just like in every other fast food drive-thru window, she was a robot. She was probably a Gizmo Servbot, though McDonalds had their own custom build that wasn’t quite like anywhere else.

“I’ll have a McMeatloaf sandwich,” he said.

“Would you like that ala carte or with an Arch Value Meal?” She had that slightly tinny voice.

“Value meal.”

“Would you care for fries, side salad, fruit slices, or yogurt sticks?”

“Fries.”

“And what would you like to drink?”

“Diet Pepsi.”

“Your total comes to $17.96.”

Mike swiped his cash card through the slot just below the window.

“Thank you for choosing McDonalds. Please pull forward.”

At the next window a girl, a real girl this time, handed Mike his drink and then the bag with his McMeatloaf sandwich and fries. He drove back home and returned to his recliner to eat.

The vueTee had automatically turned off in his absence, so he turned it back on. He watched Face the Nation as ate. Catherine Garvey was interviewing all three presidential candidates—one at a time. The Republicans had nominated another old man. The Democrats had nominated another old lady. It was the same old thing. Barlow said lower taxes. Wakovia said balance the budget. Only the Greens seemed to have picked anyone who wasn’t a cookie-cutter image. Mendoza was young, attractive, and idealistic, and probably didn’t have a chance in hell of getting elected because she had inherited all the problems of President Busby. As long as there were troops in Antarctica, nobody was going to vote Green.

When he was done eating, Mike looked around. He really needed to clean up the house he decided. He would get up and clean for a half hour. He could manage a half hour. By the time he had emptied and then refilled the dishwasher and emptied the trash compacter though, he didn’t feel like continuing, even though only fourteen minutes had passed. He sat back down watched more vueTee, dozing off after a while and waking up just in time for Deal of the Century. Then came Rat Race and then Pajama Party. He opened a can of soup for dinner and went to bed after Saturday Night Live.

Mike woke up just after five with a splitting headache. The bed was cold, not surprising considering he had left both the oscillating fan and the auxiliary air conditioner on. He got up and turned one off then walked downstairs to the family room to turn off the other. Stopping for a moment, he reached up and touched the vueTee screen, turning it on. An infomercial for the all-in-one electronic device charger blared to life, but he sat down and grabbed the remote, thumbing back to the browser and examining the Daffodil page once more. With a sudden sense of purpose he zipped through the custom design pages, changing most of the settings that had been there since he had first looked it over. He didn’t know why he made most of the changes that he did. It was as if something unseen and unknown inside him compelled him to do it. With a slightly hesitant hand, he pressed the “Buy Now” button. $2749.00. Then he went back to bed.

It was more than five weeks later, May 31st, when the package arrived. In the interim, life had gone on much as it had for the past several years. Each weekday, Mike tried to teach World Geography to the dullards that passed for eighth grade students in Midland Middle School, after which he came home and vegetated the evening away. On the weekends, he skipped the first part, and simply vegetated. One night, the Saturday before last, he had dinner with Harriet and Jack. Every day he looked forward to the change that was coming. Even if the Daffodil never lived up to the hype, even if it was just an overpriced Gizmo Maidbot, it would be an improvement. It would pick up the laundry that had covered the floor for a month now, vacuum the carpet that hadn’t been vacuumed in two months, clean the bathrooms that hadn’t been cleaned since Tiffany’s funeral, and maybe dust the things that hadn’t been dusted… well, ever.
Mike was annoyed that the box was just sitting on the step when he got home. Something that expensive, he should have had to sign for. Somebody could have just carried it off. But they hadn’t. It was here. The box looked impossibly small—only about thirty inches on each side. It was silver with a large yellow daffodil only partially obscured by the shipping label. Unlocking and then opening the front door, he picked up the box and brought it inside. It was heavy but not too heavy to lift. He set it down first in the foyer, but once he had shut and locked the front door, he carried it into the center of the living room floor. He went to the kitchen and returned with a chef knife. Carefully sliding the blade through the packing tape, he cut along each edge and then across the top seam.

Folding back the two flaps of the box lid, Mike looked down to find it filled with packing peanuts. Brushing some of them out of the way, he almost immediately found a patch of smooth white skin. It was remarkably real looking—pearlescent on the surface and kind of peachy pink beneath, but not a single blemish or mole or hair upon it. Mike brushed more packing peanuts out onto the floor and uncovered more skin, and then plastic with black hair inside. Finally, setting the knife on the coffee table, he tipped the box over, dumping the contents into the center of the floor. White packing went everywhere. The Daffodil rolled out and came to rest on its side, facing away from him. It was curled up tightly into a ball.

At first, Mike thought he must have ordered the wrong robot. Curled up as it was, it looked like a child. He just stared at it for a moment; at its naked back and buttocks and its black hair wrapped up in plastic. Finally he kicked around through the packing peanuts. There didn’t seem to be a manual—just a single sheet of paper marked “Quick Setup”. He picked it up and looked at it. There were two pictures and no words. The first picture showed line drawing of the back of a human-looking neck, except that the neck had three round holes in it and below them a button. The second picture showed the button being pushed by a line-drawn finger. Next to the button and the finger were the numerals 1, 2, 3. Bending down, Mike lifted up the plastic wrapped hair and examined the Daffodil’s neck. There were the three holes and there was the button. He pressed it and counted aloud “one, two, three”. Then he let go.

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