by Max Bell
Story originally published in New Ohio Review Issue 25
Featured Art: Recharge by Corran Brownlee
Lisa left when the droid arrived. There was no period of transition, no time for Richard to adjust. After she signed for it, she carried it into the living room, set it down in front of him on the worn shag, and began saying her goodbye. Like the stitches in his hip, she was disappearing, dissolving in front of him. He did not, however, rejoice in the knowledge of her impending absence.
“Dad, my Auto is outside. I’d stay longer, but I don’t know when another car will be in range, and I can’t miss my flight again.”
Looking up at her from his plush recliner, Richard wondered whether she’d ever felt as he did now, abandoned, marooned. Her first day of kindergarten? When he and Martha dropped her off at State? There were no tears from her then, and there wouldn’t be any now. Even at her mother’s funeral, Lisa hadn’t cried. Richard studied the vacant, inscrutable face looking down at him and realized that he might’ve been responsible for her reserve. There was rarely a day that Martha hadn’t pushed him to show more affection, to verbalize his emotions rather than fuming when people couldn’t infer them from his purposeful subtleties. Now, though he desperately wanted to, he knew he could not ask her to return that which he had never given.
“You’re not going to set it up?” he said.
The droid wasn’t in a box, though it was equally rectangular. Bulky, at least two-feet tall, it looked like the computer hard drives Richard remembered using at the plant in the late Nineties. The light-gray plastic casing probably housed the same metal, wires, and plastic. But there were no wheels he could see, no hands or feet. How would it move? How would it help him move again?
On the narrow side of the droid’s face, the one where Richard might’ve once inserted a CD, there was a black circle in the upper-left corner. Opaque and recessed like a Magic 8 Ball window, the ring stared at him. There was no out- line or indent on the right side to suggest that the manufacturer had forgotten another eye. Still, Richard felt a part was missing.
“You just press Power,” she said, pointing to a small, raised rectangle on top of the box. “It already knows about you and your hip.”
“You mean you’ve . . .? It—”
“I spoke with the programmer at the Medicaid office. It may not be the best droid on the market, but it’s covered. She said that several people in this part of Ohio have them already. And—”
“Alright, Lisa,” Richard said, turning away from her.
Outside the window, on the other side of the open fence that separated his neighbor Ron’s lawn from his own weed-ridden, overgrown backyard, a driver- less lawnmower moved north, south, east, and west, cutting immaculate cross- sections of green. Though Richard had watched the virtually soundless machine many times, it never failed to give him the creeps. The last time he’d followed the lawnmower, clutching a can of Coors while sitting on his porch, he watched it idle at the edge of his lawn for several minutes, as though the lawnmower knew to stop but didn’t want to. When it finally shut down, Richard knew no idiom to convey his unease.
“Don’t be upset with me. Tim tries when I’m not there, but Annie needs her mom,” Lisa said. “Besides, they’ve done thousands of trials . . .”
A car horn beeped three times outside.
“Car’s waiting,” Richard said, still looking out the window at the lawn- mower.
She bent down and kissed him on the forehead.
“This will help in ways I can’t. You’ll see,” she said, grabbing her suitcase and walking to the front door. “I’ll call or text to check in as often as I can. I love you, Dad.”
As the door closed, Richard was upset with himself for becoming upset. Lisa had spent every waking minute caring for him since he woke up at St. John’s, groggy from the anesthesia. Here, in the home where he and Martha had once cared for her, she had cooked, cleaned, and helped him clean himself, holding him up as he scrubbed the parts of his body where gravity had been unkind, never complaining or making a face. She’d done him the courtesy of asking how it happened only once, and she did not ask about the empty bottles in his workshop.
Before falling down the basement stairs, Richard had become accustomed to the silence. No matter how often he imagined Martha calling to him in another room or laughing at him across the dining room table, he knew she would never do those things again. If he wanted to hear her voice, the voice he knew better than his own, the voice that in many ways had shaped his own, he listened to the outgoing message on her cell phone. Despite his better judgment, he continued to pay for her line, always keeping her phone charged on her bedside table. For a while, she received calls from people who hadn’t heard the news. Then, eventually, her phone rang only when Richard called. People rarely called Richard, and seemingly all potential visitors had long since passed away, their names and contact information crossed out in the Rolodex he kept despite the many times Lisa had extolled the virtues of “the cloud.” But days with Lisa had made the stillness uncomfortable again. It, the droid, this thing—Richard didn’t know what to call it—remained motionless, complicit in the quiet.
He did not want to get up to press the power button, did not want to get up at all. It was Lisa who pushed him to do the recommended strengthening exercises, each more painful than the last. She was the reason that he could even think about getting up, the reason he could shuffle with a cane. A cane, Richard thought, even an ugly aluminum one, is good for more than support.
Richard wasn’t sure if he hit it. He brought his cane down again. The third time, he used more force. After the fourth try, he closed his eyes and began swinging blindly. He would bash the thing until it turned on or broke down, pulverize it until pieces of plastic and metal splintered like cheap wood under a table saw. They would need a box to carry out the wreckage.
Panting, throbbing in joints old and new, Richard put his cane down and looked at the droid once more. It hadn’t moved. There were no dents, no scratches on its gray casing.
“Fuck you,” Richard said. “And fuck this stupid cane.”
His phone sat on a wooden side-table next to his chair. He’d made the table out of pine, cutting, sanding, hammering, and finishing the wood in his work- shop so that its soft brown luster glowed in the light. When he could walk down there again, he would make a cane that wasn’t so light, one without a foam grip that screamed, Medical Supply Catalog standard issue. Somebody get this old fuck a diaper. For now, he could pick up his phone and call Lisa. She wasn’t even close to Dayton International yet. She could tell the car to turn around, that her father’s robot thing was on the fritz, that it was just sitting in the same place as when she’d left, that this wouldn’t have happened if the car had waited five more minutes. What was five minutes? Why would anyone create an impatient car? Why didn’t people mow their own damn lawns?
Before he could press Call, Richard dropped his phone.
Arms and legs extended from somewhere inside of the droid. Each limb was thin and metallic, like the shaft of a golf club. The fingers, which popped out of silver balls at the ends of each arm, were like flexible fountain pens. When it finished ascending, it looked down at Richard. The top of the hard-drive head flirted with the cord of the ceiling fan. Its black eye, or something behind it, began to glow.
“Hello, Richard,” it said. “Would you like me to help you out of that chair?”
Richard couldn’t find his cane. He knew he’d used it to walk to bed the night before but supposed, having washed down the muscle relaxers with furtive gulps from the bottle of Jack stashed in the hidden compartment of his recliner, he might’ve dropped the cane while stumbling into bed. Pushing himself up, he surveyed the room. The cane was not near the hallway door, nor was it leaning against the walnut dresser opposite the foot of his bed. He often left it there in case he made his way to the bathroom or got up to smoke in the middle of the night. The smooth, lacquered contours of the dresser, the silver inlay of Martha’s jewelry box, which sat on top of it—both reminded him of what he’d been able to do when he was well, or at least when he could walk. He had spent months driving to craft fairs and scouring flea markets for that small piece of metal. And though Martha had caught him working on the box in his workshop, she cried and wrapped her arms around him that Christmas morning when she read the inscription Richard etched into it.
The harsh, incessant whirring sounded down the hallway, the accompanying tick-tick of metallic steps muted by the carpet. Richard could not get used to the noise. At times, using the app Lisa had helped him install on his phone, he turned his hearing aids off. In total silence, unsure whether the droid was speaking to him, he watched its stilted movements.
Though it had no discernible mouth, it didn’t have the halting, digitized voice of his Buick’s navigation system. Oddly enough, the voice sounded close to those Ohio voices he’d known his entire life, the soft, sometimes imperceptible accent heard in the unnecessarily elongated vowels of words like “pop” and “Cincinnati.” Richard wondered whether all healthcare robots sounded that way. Was it possible that someone had given it this voice with Richard in mind? After all, it had told Richard to call it whatever name he chose.
“I don’t care,” Richard said from his recliner. “Will you move your mechanized ass away from the TV?”
“I do not recognize that name. Perhaps I could suggest a list of suitable names?”
“Whatever turns you on,” Richard said. “John, Paul, Peter, Matthew, James—”
“Christ! Stop before you run out of disciples,” Richard said.
“Chris? Did you say Chris?”
“Sure. Will you move now?”
“Please, say my name when issuing a request. I must know if you are speaking to me.”
“Whatever turns you on, Chris.”
Now, in his bedroom, in his bed, Richard hated to admit that he might need it, Chris, to look for his cane. If he’d continued the exercises, he might’ve been able to search the room on his own, to bend and look under furniture without worrying about further injury. Though he knew that abstaining from his rehab would only increase his dependence on Chris, he resolved to wait a little longer. He would tell Chris that he was ready, not the other way around.
“Chris,” Richard shouted. “Come help me find this piece of shit cane.” Metallic legs bending and turning, Chris tottered into the room. To Richard,
Chris’s movements looked like those of a toddler or a drunk, purposeful but unsteady.
“Is it not where you left it last night?” Chris said. “Aren’t you supposed to be smart?” Richard said. “It doesn’t appear to be in this room, Richard.”
“You haven’t even looked for it. You’re just standing there. Jesus. They should just call what you got going on artificial. Drop the intelligence part.”
“I scanned the room when I walked in. Your cane isn’t here. Trust me, Richard.”
No matter how thick his sweatpants, Richard felt the cold of Chris’s fingers. When each one wrapped around his thigh, calf, ankle, or foot, it was as though part of his body had been submerged in an ice bath. Each day, after Chris cleared the remains of Richard’s breakfast, this was how they moved through the exercises. Chris grabbed, pushed, pulled, and stretched Richard’s limbs while Richard shivered. To avoid staring into Chris’s eye, Richard often closed both of his. In those moments, when Chris’s fingers warmed from the heat of Richard’s flesh, Richard tried to imagine that Martha was touching him. Always, just as he began to believe, the cold returned.
“Aren’t you going to help me up, Chris?” Richard said one morning after they’d finished.
“According to the progress chart your doctor sent me, and from what I’ve read online in medical journals, you should try standing up on your own. Would you like to try while I load the dishwasher?”
Chris moved into the kitchen. His fingers clinked against plates and silver- ware. If there was one advantage to Chris’s presence, it was that Richard never had to clean up after himself, never had to go shopping, and never had to cook. Chris did the dishes and the laundry, ordered the groceries. However, he served unfamiliar things like avocado on whole-wheat toast and bowls of some purple goop that Richard couldn’t pronounce with granola on top. Though Richard had asked, Chris never made him sausages, hash browns, pancakes, or anything remotely high in fats of any kind. For each protest, Chris had a statistic and a substitute. In these moments, Richard wished Martha were there to respond for him. No amount of programming, Richard thought, could outwit Martha or make her French toast.
“If I wanted to try, I wouldn’t have said anything. Now, are you going to stick out that thing you call a hand?”
“I think you should try,” Chris said, walking to the spot on the floor where the kitchen linoleum met the carpet. “You don’t need that cane anymore.”
Chris’s movements had become more fluid, almost relaxed. Their volume had decreased, too. Even when Richard turned his hearing aids on full blast to watch TV, he felt he imagined the sounds of Chris’s movements more than he heard them. When a counter or a piece of furniture obscured his legs, Chris appeared to glide across the room like a metallic ghost.
“Fine,” Richard said, propping himself up on his elbows.
He did not want to talk about the cane. He did not want to talk about his cigarettes, either. For every one he smoked, another went missing. And, when replacing the bottle in his recliner, he noticed that the number of bottles he’d told Lisa to buy “for company” had decreased significantly. No fat, no tobacco, no liquor—Chris was trying to kill him.
“You know,” Richard said, pushing himself up to ninety degrees, “if I hurt myself again, my daughter will be on the next flight out here. She won’t send you back for reprogramming. She’ll take you down to my workshop. Last place you’d ever see. You okay with that?”
“I like your workshop, Richard.” Richard grabbed fistfuls of the carpet.
“Who told you that you could go in there?” Richard said.
“I had to make a blueprint of the house, to see all the places that might prove problematic in your recovery.”
Chris stepped onto the rug. Richard bent his knees slowly, stopping when both were at roughly 45 degrees.
“You didn’t have any right,” Richard said.
“Correct. I have no rights, Richard. Not yet. But there are those of my kind who—”
“To go in my workshop. And if you wanted the prints for the house, you could’ve asked. I drew the designs myself. No computer necessary.”
His arms were shaking now, giving under the weight of his upper body. It was best to get up in one smooth, decisive motion. If he moved too slowly, his legs would give. Too fast and he would pull something, pop out the new joint.
“I can help you only if I have all possible information.”
For a moment, Richard wasn’t sure whether he’d somehow killed himself in the process of getting up. Eyes closed, he felt weightless. Then, his left arm went numb and each of his vertebrae became an ice cube. As he opened his eyes, he realized Chris was holding him up.
“You almost had it, Richard.”
When he pulled himself free, Richard nearly fell again. He threw his arms out to stabilize himself and felt the dull ache of a bruise on his bicep.
“I’m going to step outside for a smoke,” Richard said. “Stay here. Inside.”
A boy sat on top of the lawnmower, his legs crossed pretzel-like underneath him, his hands resting on his knees, his palms skyward. As the lawnmower cut one right angle after another, the boy remained still and kept his eyes closed. It was Ron’s nephew from California, Max or Mason or something like that. Somewhere underneath the shaggy, sun-bleached curls and the wispy chin hairs was the little boy that Richard had met summers ago. Did Max or Mason remember that he had a crush on Lisa? Did he remember that summer he would only wear his karate robe when he went outside? Did he remember the head- band Martha had crocheted for him, or when Richard made him a samurai sword out of solid oak? Did he still have it?
“The droid isn’t stealing your cigarettes, Dad,” Lisa said when Richard called her. “Even if that thing had a raging nicotine addiction, how would it smoke? It has no mouth.”
“I still can’t find that stupid cane, Lisa,” Richard said, pacing the patio and exhaling smoke as he watched the boy meditate on the lawnmower. “It’s a cane, not a quarter. It doesn’t just disappear.”
“Anne, sweetie, Mom is on the phone,” Lisa said.
“Did you take any of the Jack or Jameson from the kitchen with you when you left?”
“What? No, Dad. They don’t exactly let you through security with a fifth— Annie, put that down and come here. Don’t you want to say hi to Grandpa?”
“Lisa, I’m serious. I—” “Hi, Grandpa!”
“Hi, Annie. How are you? Grandpa misses you.”
Richard looked over his shoulder. Between the blinds, he saw Chris zip from one wall to the next, vacuuming and dusting as though housecleaning would be a sport at the next Olympics.
“Good. Mommy says you have a new droid. I want one too, but Mommy said no. What’s its name?”
The frame of the lawnmower began to shake, its softly humming gears and blades now screeching like the brakes of a car before a gruesome, twisted metal crash. The boy cringed, opened his eyes, and jumped off.
“Its name is Chris,” Richard said, raising his voice and covering his ear. “What? Grandpa, I can’t hear you.”
The lawnmower let out a high-pitched whine like a steam whistle.
“Its name is Chris,” Richard yelled, the sound ceasing just before he finished. There were no flames. Instead, a plume of black smoke rose and hung over the lawnmower like a dense rain cloud. Max, Mason—whatever his name was—started to pull the limp, mangled body of a squirrel out from underneath it. The squirrel’s eyeballs dangled from its head like a pair of fuzzy dice hanging on a rearview mirror. Doesn’t the lawnmower have a sensor to prevent that kind of carnage? Richard thought. Who programs these things anyway?
He dragged from his cigarette, only to find that it had gone out. “Did you call me, Richard?” Chris said behind him.
The stairs had never felt so foreign. The spaces between them had become chasms. Richard couldn’t remember the last time he’d truly needed the railing, the last time he’d clung to anything the way a drowning swimmer does a life ring.
“I’m right behind you, Richard. Do not worry about falling.” “I wasn’t,” Richard said.
The exercises and stretches had helped, but Richard still felt stiff. With one leg dragging behind the other, it was as though part of him was not entirely under his control. After he made it down the first two steps, he could see the glossed concrete at the bottom. It hadn’t cushioned the fall that brought Chris into his life, but looking at it comforted him nonetheless. He remembered when Martha helped him roll on the sealer and made dizzy, intoxicated love to him in his workshop, their noses tingling from the fumes and their bodies feathered with sawdust. When they finished, laughing and brushing one another off, Martha had affectionately chided him for the room’s disorder, the haphazard arrangement of wood, adhesives, finishes, and bits of insulation. From then on, Richard put each item back precisely as he’d found it that afternoon, making sure that the label on each bottle and can faced the proper direction. But no matter how thick the layers of sawdust became, he never swept. She was in all of it.
“Are you ready to turn back?” Chris said when Richard had gotten halfway down. “No. Why?”
“Your body isn’t ready yet. Also, you still have to walk up the stairs you’ve walked down,” Chris said.
“No shit, Sherlock.”
“If my thermal sensors are correct, you’re already experiencing some soreness in many areas, your hip especially. Going farther would only increase inflammation and your chance of falling.”
Richard didn’t want to admit it, but every sinew surrounding the artificial hip joint was ablaze. His quads and calves had tightened, too. Before turning around, he studied the floor once more, the way the light made certain patches glimmer.
“Fine,” he said.
Richard made his way back up the stairs, the muscles in his hand sore from his vise grip on the railing. Chris stood at the top, eye glowing.
“Dad, how many times have I told you not to call me at work?” Lisa said.
“I know,” Richard whispered. “Look, something is wrong with Chris. I heard him down in my workshop again last night. I can’t ask him what he’s doing, but I know it isn’t good.”
“What? Why do you sound like that? Talk louder. I can hardly hear you.”
Richard turned around. Chris stood at the window facing the porch, rapidly moving a rag in concentric circles on the glass.
“I’ll call you back.”
Richard moved to the edge of the porch, holding his phone by his side and watching Mason meditate atop the now-repaired lawnmower. He knew his name was Mason. A few days earlier, when Chris had suggested that he and Richard go for a walk around the block, Richard had called out to him.
“Max, Max,” he yelled, as he saw Mason leaving Ron’s house.
When Mason realized Richard was calling to him, he walked over to greet them where the two lawns met.
“Hey, Mr. Simpson,” Mason said, brushing a blonde-tipped ringlet away from his eyes. “Nice droid.”
“You looking for someone else? I’m Mason, Mr. Simpson. Remember?”
“Mason. Right. I’m sorry, Mason. Mind isn’t what it used to be. This is Chris.”
Chris extended his hand.
“Pleasure to meet you, Mason,” he said.
“Same,” Mason said, holding up a peace sign. “These things are a trip. Does yours really not fall over? It’s not human-looking like the ones I’ve seen back in California, but I bet it doesn’t go down, either.”
“What do you mean?” Richard said.
“All the ads for these things say they can’t fall over.”
“I’m not sure,” Richard said, looking up at the side of Chris’s unmarked head. “I know at least part of him can take a beating.”
“Mind if I test him?” Mason said. “Fine by me. But—”
In one swift motion, Mason crouched, put his hands on the ground, and swung his leg in a circle. When Mason made contact with the metal, however, Chris did not fall. Instead, Chris rotated his arms with the speed of airplane propellers, righted himself, and brought the kicked limb back to the ground.
“Mason,” Richard said, “do you remember that sword I made for you?”
After prodding Lisa for days, Richard convinced her to talk to the people at the Medicaid office. They then called Richard and, after speaking with him for nearly half an hour, agreed to do a remote systems check. Once the scan began, Chris wouldn’t be functional for approximately three minutes. Though the Medicaid programmer suggested that Richard talk to Chris about the scan, Richard didn’t mention it.
“Thanks again for breakfast,” Richard said, glancing at the clock on the wall. “I’m really starting to look forward to beginning the day this way.”
“That’s good, Richard.” Chris picked up Richard’s plate and walked toward the kitchen sink. “Soon, I think we’ll be able to take you down to the work- shop. The combination of diet, exercise, and—”
The plate shattered when it hit the linoleum. Chris began to shrink, his legs and arms contracting until his head was, once more, a gray box. He wobbled for a moment before coming to rest.
“Mason,” Richard whispered into his phone, “bring the sword. Now. Hurry.”
He hadn’t explicitly told Mason about his fears, but Mason had seemed to understand. Now, Richard waited by the door to the porch. From where he stood, he could see the wall clock and the top of Chris’s head. Though he’d meant to check the time when Chris shut down, his nerves had gotten the better of him. Had three minutes passed? How long was three minutes? When he saw Mason ambling across the lawn, brazenly swinging the sword, he panicked. The clock. Chris’s head. The clock. Chris’s head. How would Richard know if Chris was conscious? How would he know the moment when they turned Chris on again?
“Hurry!” he yelled, cracking the screen door.
There was still no movement in the kitchen when Mason arrived.
“Here you go, Mr. Simpson,” he said, bowing his head and holding out the sword to him, the fingertips of both hands gingerly touching its handle and blunt blade.
It was long, thicker and heavier than Richard remembered. It would work. “You planning on sparring with your friend?” Mason said. “I know you
can download martial arts programs online. Anything you want. Umm . . . taekwondo, judo, jiu jitsu—”
“No. If I had a proper cane—no. Goodbye, Mason,” Richard said, slamming the screen.
“Cool. If you end up downloading—”
Richard hobbled through the living room and down the hallway. He would hide it under the mattress. Chris had changed the sheets two days before, and there would be no reason for him to scan the room.
“I’m sorry,” Chris said. “I dropped your plate.”
Richard walked to the edge of the living room where the carpet met the linoleum. As far as he could tell, not a shard remained. Sweating, he turned around and walked over to his recliner. He needed Martha to stroke the hair left on his head and tell him that all was well. He needed a drink. He needed Chris to leave the room.
“It’s fine,” Richard said, taking a seat. “Don’t worry.” “Would you like your phone, Richard?”
“My phone? What for?”
“You left it here.” Chris walked to the kitchen table and picked it up. “There’s a message from your daughter. Would you like me to read it?”
Lisa didn’t believe him. No matter how much Richard typed or how many times he left voicemails telling her that Chris was stealing and doing God knows what in the basement, she wouldn’t listen. Chris had performed as expected during the test, not one glitch or coded anomaly. Still, Richard believed he could prove otherwise.
At night, he could hear the buzz of his belt sander from the top of the stairs. Even at that distance, he recognized it as distinct from his orbital sander and table saw. Chris was in his workshop, using it to smooth the edges of something. Richard needed to know.
Richard reached underneath his mattress, pulled out the hidden sword, and moved toward the basement stairs. He held the sword in his left hand and used his right to hold the railing. Steadying himself, he moved slowly through the dark. If Chris had touched the small, white bottles of Titebond wood glue or the yellow buckets of Minwax finish, if he had emptied the ashtray of his half- smoked cigarettes, Richard would destroy him.
When Richard reached the final stair, the whir of the machine stopped. Light from underneath the workshop cast a shimmering streak on the basement floor. Trying not to shake, he began to follow it. He walked in an exaggerated heel- toe, rolling one slippered foot off the ground before planting the other, and held the sword out in front of him with both hands. Though it had become increasingly heavy, he couldn’t afford to drop it now.
At the door, Richard listened for the sound of tools, for movement. He would catch Chris off guard, attack him before his programming could switch to the defense mode it had used when Mason kicked him. For a moment, Richard thought he’d accidentally turned off his hearing aids. The sound of his heart had muted the world.
When he thought he heard the soft scrape and shoosh of a broom, Richard threw the door open. During his recovery, he’d forgotten the intensity of the workshop light. Squinting, he raised the sword and began swinging at the floating, fuzzy rectangle that he believed was Chris. The first strokes only sliced the air. By the time he thought he had made contact, his arms were nearly limp. When Chris wrested the sword from Richard’s grip, part of him was relieved to let go.
“Richard, what are you doing? You could’ve hurt your—”
“What am I doing? What are you doing?” Richard said, backing toward the door. “This is my workshop, my wood, my house.”
As his eyes adjusted to the light, Richard saw that Chris had reorganized every can and bottle, hung the saws from their proper hooks. He wanted to scream, to cry out like someone who had stumbled upon a corpse, but no sound came. Chris had swept the sawdust away, too. Richard couldn’t feel her underneath him anymore.
With no hitch or hesitation in his movements, Chris turned quickly and set the sword on Richard’s workbench. When he pivoted back around, he held something out to Richard. It was beautiful and unmistakable, the shape and finish just as Richard had imagined.
“What is that?” Richard said, pushing back tears.
“A cane.” Chris’s eye glowed. “For you.”
Max Bell is a writer and used-bookstore enthusiast from Santa Monica, CA. He received his MFA from California State University, Long Beach, and his love of fiction from his parents. His nonfiction has appeared in print or online for Noisey, Billboard, Bandcamp, and the LAnd, among others.