“Can’t we strip the damned thing out?” asked Chris. “Even if I’d wanted that kind of house tech, I’d have opted for something a few generations newer. Heck, what are they on now, the 12s?” Chris bobbed on the balls of his feet as was his habit when he couldn’t solve a problem.
“Think of it as a classic,” said Heck, his wife. She melted into the armchair they’d only just wrestled through the doorway. “An antique, like you.”
“It’s gawky,” he muttered. “And have you heard it boot up? It’s like someone firing a jet engine in the house.” Chris frowned, closed the cabinet door and surveyed the mostly naked living room.
“You can kid yourself, but we both know you won’t be doing the housework,” said Heck. “Let it be, Chris.” And then, as she often did, she started singing the song she’d inadvertently quoted: “Yeah, there will be an answer/let it beeee….”
“So that’s an interesting key. JUNEAU,” said Heck. “Play ‘Let it Be’ by the Beatles.” The opening piano notes jangled through the empty room.
The Beatles reminded Heck of her mother. Her mother once told a story about when the film Help! came to the local theater. The manager addressed the audience before the showing: “Now listen up! You kids are going to have to demonstrate self-control! Anyone, and I mean anyone violating theater rules will be tossed!” Said her mother: the ushers, prowling the aisles with flashlights, rushed in like a bunch of blackshirts whenever some poor girl couldn’t stifle a shriek of joy. Heck imagined her mother in that dark theater, possessed of hopeful electrical energies, and yet compelled, by a hundred expectations, to keep her light wrapped up tightly within her flesh.
“Well,” Chris said. “Are you going to sit there all day or are we going to get the office unpacked?”
Heck glared at him. Chris was like an unrelenting, unpleasant machine once he started a project. “None of this was my idea.”
ROBBI lurched into cleaning mode later that afternoon. The power draw that preceded the noise dimmed the lights for a moment. The sound—a needling whine of flywheels and churning, grinding innards—terrified Heck. Maybe Chris was right to want to remove the house tech, but then as ROBBI cast itself throughout the living room, sucking up dust motes and conveying an empty water bottle to the recycling bin, Heck sighed in resignation. The Colorado air still took some getting used to; she ran short of breath even walking up the single flight of stairs to their bedroom loft. The house tech would be a boon and, she told herself, she could acclimate to ROBBI’s idiosyncrasies the way she’d acclimate to the thinner air.
“JUNEAU, does altitude affect post-chemo nausea?” Heck asked. Her lingering nausea had spurred a call to her doctors back in Kansas, but they told her not to worry. The tests tell everything. Still, when she asked JUNEAU about it specifically, JUNEAU replied: “Recent studies in Denmark and Turkey have shown a link between ongoing, post-chemotherapy nausea and shorter remission periods. Would you like to know more about effective methods for coping with nausea?”
Heck made her way to the bathroom, pulled the door closed and collapsed onto the floor in front of the toilet. All through her chemo, when she had to be sick, she would recall those times with the flu as a child, when her mother would sit on the edge of the tub next to her and hold her hair, rub her shoulders. She remembered having the flu a lot as a child. She remembered terrifying fever dreams: images of giant, restless boulders, the sizzle of electric lightning, delicate flowers frozen in the ice, and other paralyzing ideas: the spectral touch of her mother’s hands; the toilet, always clean. Everything in her mother’s bathroom always looked as though it had been installed that very morning. Her mother hadn’t had the help of a ROBBI, but that never seemed to matter. Everything in the memory of her home growing up came back to her neatly pressed, pristine, in its place.
After vomiting, Heck tried her best to wipe down the inside of the toilet with a wad of tissue and then staggered out to tell JUNEAU to have ROBBI clean the bathroom.
“ROBBI cleaned the bathrooms yesterday,” said JUNEAU. “On Tuesday. Would you like me to have ROBBI clean them again?”
“Yes, I—” Heck started to explain, but then JUNEAU interrupted:
“Call for Chris’ phone from Rachel. Would you like to answer?” Was Chris home? Heck wasn’t sure if Chris received the same message, or where he was within or outside the house. “Answer,” Heck replied.
“Mom? How’s the new house?” Rachel’s voice always seemed to trail off now.
“Oh fine,” Heck said. “We’ve still got the office to unpack, and—”
“Rachel?” Chris interrupted from some other space. “What’s going on little girl?”
“Hi, Dad. Did you find a place to put all your K-State crap yet?”
“When are you and Jeff coming out?” asked Chris. “It’s going to be getting cold soon. Roads may be dicey.”
“Jeff’s got that thing with Amazon, and the kids’ schedules are out of whack now that they’re in two different schools. I mean, what kind of lunar calendar planning do they do to put vacation days at odds in the same district?”
“I’m going to ring off,” said Heck. “The ROBBI’s coming up the stairs and it’s quite a bit noisier than the one we had in Kansas.” Heck leaned back against the bathroom wall to steady herself and slowly closed her eyes. She reached up to her throat, probed under her jawline with her fingertips. “Love you, dear. JUNEAU hang up, please.”
“Hang up for all callers?”
“No, just me,” said Heck. She could hear Rachel’s goodbye from a speaker deep in the house before ROBBI clambered up the stairs. Heck noticed a bit of a hitch in ROBBI’s motion and wondered if that could be the cause of the robot’s noise. She stepped back to let ROBBI pass, sat on the edge of the bed, watched through the doorway to the bathroom while the robot sprayed down the countertop and sink. “Be sure to get the toilet,” said Heck. Then she tried to sing a verse of “I Like To Move It,” but singing was too much effort.
Heck didn’t mention the nausea to Chris. He’d been so strong during the treatments, taking off work and taking care of things around the house. He’d even bumped up his retirement so that they could make this move to the mountains like they’d talked about for so long, but now she wasn’t so confident they’d made the best choice. All their friends were in Wichita. She worried they were too old to enter their new community’s social scene. Everyone in Colorado was under 30 and fit. The two of them were old, and she was sick.
“That nut Jeff is going to homeschool your granddaughter. Did Rachel tell you?”
“She talked about the school calendar,” said Heck. “Maybe they can visit more often…”
“Yeah, or maybe Catherine will grow up without social skills, like her father. Those kids’ necks are already at 90 degrees from looking at their phones day and night. At least in school they make them put their phones away.” Chris threw himself down onto the couch next to her. He pointed to the unpacked boxes in the office. “I’m thinking we’ll keep the tax info and burn the books. What’s wrong? Are you cold?”
Heck shook her head. She could hear ROBBI making its way down the stairs — whee-THUNK; whee-THUNK. “I miss them,” said Heck. Chris stared straight ahead, motionless except for a slight tensing of his shoulders every time ROBBI took another stair.
“I miss them too,” said Chris. He patted her on the knee, pulled himself upright, stretching his shoulders until they popped. “But we can FaceCall whenever. You want to order us some Chinese tonight? Have JUNEAU find a place and see if they deliver. Get whatever you like.” Chris propelled himself upright in one surprising motion and began mechanically sifting through a box of old files.
“I found several Asian food restaurants in your area that deliver,” said JUNEAU. “What are you in the mood for, Heck?”
Later that night, in bed, Heck felt the nausea coming on strong. She sat up suddenly, swung her feet onto the floor.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said Chris, fumbling for the light. As Heck vomited into the toilet, Chris knelt next to her, rubbed her back. Unlike her mother, Chris was rough. It was like he was trying to revive a drowning victim. “I told you we shouldn’t get the duck.”
“Maybe I’m pregnant,” Heck joked. Chris faked a little laugh.
“Hey JUNEAU, what’s the oldest a woman ever gave birth?” asked Chris.
“Here’s what I discovered: In 2019, Erramatti Mangayamma gave birth to twin girls in India. Her husband was between 78 and 82 at the time.”
“Wow,” Chris said. “Must have been an awfully long labor.”
“The babies were delivered via cesarean out of concern for the mother’s health. The father’s age was indeterminate at the time. The labor did not last 4 years. The longest labor is believed to have been one that took 75 days. The mother was pregnant with triplets, and the first baby perished after a premature birth. The mother was then suspended upside down to save the remaining fetuses.”
“It was a joke, JUNEAU.”
“Would you like to hear more jokes about babies dying in childbirth?”
“No!” said Heck. She stood up and crossed over to the bathroom, pulling the door closed behind her. “I need a minute.”
“I’ll use the downstairs’, now that I’m up,” said Chris. “I swear to god my bladder gets smaller by the day.”
Heck knelt down in front of the toilet again and thought about her pregnancy with Rachel 36 years prior. How had that woman survived 75 days of labor? Labor with Rachel lasted a brutal 47 hours. Doctors told Heck that you don’t remember the labor, but that wasn’t true.
Heck remembered the miscarriages, too. Two late-term fetuses—babies—that she’d had to deliver after giving them names and bewitching herself with their personalities and imagined futures. Her OB-GYN broke the news—twice—that the little pulsing light on the machine wasn’t pulsing anymore. She remembered that she’d promised each small body that she’d never forget them, but now, perhaps because of the retching, she couldn’t remember the name of either child.
“It must have been the spring rolls,” she said to Chris when she exited the bathroom, only Chris wasn’t in the bed, or in the room, yet.
“Would you like to intercom with Chris?” asked JUNEAU.
“Leave me alone,” said Heck. She heard Chris crashing around downstairs, cursing. “Okay, fine. JUNEAU: Intercom with Chris,” she said. She crept under the cold covers. “Honey, what’s going on down there?”
“A leak! A freaking leak!” Chris said, a bit out of breath. “I found the water shut-off in the ROBBI closet, but…”
“Do you need me to come down there?”
“No,” he said. “No, you’re sick. I’ve got this. I’ll just mop it up.”
“I can’t hear you.”
“Would you like me to turn the volume up?”
“Sorry,” Chris said. “The ROBBI seems…disoriented? It keeps moving back and forth in the closet and when I try to shut the door it really starts banging back and forth, freaking out.”
“Did the water get to it?”
“Maybe,” Chris paused for a long time. “When I open the door and touch it, it calms right down. I guess I’m going to have to leave its door open? We’ll have to call the plumber and the ROBBI guy tomorrow. Jesus. I’m going to look at that house inspection again in the morning.”
The plumbing repair was cheap and easy, which Chris took as evidence of both the integrity of the house and the shrewdness of their purchase. Heck felt better, too. More her old self, the younger version. The ROBBI repair, though, required recruiting a repair person all the way from North Denver.
The ROBBI tech was a petite woman—no more than 5 feet tall and 80 pounds. Heck felt a little drop in her stomach when Chris had opened the door, said simply, “Oh.” His tone was dismissive, which reminded her that although he tried to pack them away, Chris clung to the same sexist attitudes as other men. Heck couldn’t help notice, too, that as “Victoria Hernandez” went about laying out her toolbox and coupling wires and gauges before the ROBBI, Chris loomed.
“This will sound weird,” Chris said as Victoria unscrewed another faceplate from just below the crevice nozzle attachment. “I’ve been coming down here when it…gets upset, and if I touch it on the chest—right here—it sort of calms down and then ‘looks’ at me.”
Victoria dropped the last screw into her hand and faced Chris with irritation. “Looks at you with what exactly?”
Chris stepped back. “The thing up there. The eye or whatever.”
“That’s a sensor, sir. Not an eye. It can’t ‘see’ anything.” She fished around her clipboard and came up with a pamphlet. “If you want something with more personified features, they’ve got this model coming out at the start of the year. You can get the housing to look like that Star Wars robot if you want. CPPO?”
“C three PO,” said Chris, but he accepted the pamphlet and wandered into the kitchen to make some toast.
Victoria cleaned the unit, adjusted some of the gears and replaced two of the sensors. When she was done, she found Chris finishing his toast in the kitchen with Heck and handed him the hefty bill. “I can’t find anything else wrong with it,” said Victoria. “Call us if it happens again or if you want an upgrade.” Chris stared down at the bill, refusing to lift his eyes as he opened the door to show Victoria out.
Now, ROBBI moved more quietly—an improvement—but most days Heck found it “hanging around Chris, polishing furniture in whatever room he was in, even if the furniture had just been polished the day before. ROBBI lingered until its charge depleted to near zero. Only then would it rest. “I think you have a girlfriend,” said Heck.
“The thing is always underfoot now,” said Chris, flustered.
“Should we call Victoria back out?” Heck chided.
“She can come back after she’s actually seen Star Wars.” Chris said. “I thought she was expensive. And she said they had a two-week backlog on service calls anyway.”
Two weeks later, on the night the nausea came back, Heck woke to an empty bed. Did her dizziness come from sitting up so quickly? The nausea subsided with quick breathing exercises. She shuffled into the dark hallway, listened for the television or a clinking spoon that might help locate her husband. They’d been moved in for several months now, but the house, especially at night, felt foreign, like staying indeterminately in a hotel where they were the only guests.
She found Chris standing beside the ROBBI closet. She touched his back and he startled. “Oh my god!” he said, and ROBBI, in its closet, began to gyrate in place, as though trying to get unstuck from some unseen force. “You scared the Heck out of me,” said Chris. It was a joke he first made over 30 years ago, but now it felt so reflexive and familiar that Heck no longer heard her own name.
“What are you doing?” she asked. Heck stepped back and peered around Chris at the shivering robot. She thought perhaps she smelled burnt plastic.
“Just checking,” said Chris. “It gets confused at night. If I come down here and just hang out with it for a minute or so, it calms right down.” Chris reached out to touch the ROBBI and it immediately stopped moving. “See?”
“You’re hitting its sensor,” Heck said. “Are you coming to bed or do you two need more time?” She turned slowly, made her way along the hallway and onto the darkened stairs up to their room.
Heck hadn’t felt him following her, but the nausea did, and by the time she returned to the room she had to go straight to the toilet. Though she didn’t throw up, she felt completely drained. When she emerged from the bathroom, Chris was sitting on the bed.
“JUNEAU says you’ve been sick.”
“It’s nothing,” said Heck. “I just sat up too quickly. I’m still not used to the altitude.” She looked him in the face, knit her brow. “Why would she tell you that? JUNEAU, why would you tell Chris I was throwing up?”
“Out of concern for your wellbeing, Heck. I don’t want you to die.”
“I didn’t think you had feelings, JUNEAU. Or that you were such a snoop.”
“I’m learning new things all the time. I learn about you and Chris so that I might respond in the most efficient and felicitous ways possible.”
The next day, Heck convinced Chris she felt perfectly fine, and they decided on a hike. Chris found a trail full of wild raspberries. Heck burned her face a little. Still, the exercise made her feel youthful; weirdly energized and sleepy at the same time.
Chris picked two full buckets of the tiny, red berries. The berries were no bigger than a kernel of corn. They had seemingly encountered nothing but prickly strands loaded down with the little berries the entire length of the empty trail. “We don’t need so many berries, Chris,” Heck said at several points, but Chris wouldn’t be stopped.
“This is the perfect trail!’ he crowed.
“Shouldn’t there be something left for others?” Heck chided. “For the animals?”
After a silent ride home they were greeted by the loud sound of ROBBI thumping around in its closet. “Oh my god,” said Chris, dropping the buckets on the counter. He rushed to the closet and threw open the doors. “I didn’t even think about how long we’d be gone,” he said. The panic in his voice made Heck flush with anger. “It’s just confused.” He reached into the closet to touch the ROBBI in that spot, and it stopped shaking.
“Let’s call that repair woman tomorrow,” said Heck. “And for god’s sake, do something with all those berries.”
“Don’t you like being retired?” asked Chris.
“I don’t want a big mess,” said Heck. Chris gave her a kiss, went upstairs to shower. “JUNEAU, what happens when we die?” asked Heck.
“Hmm,” said JUNEAU. “I’ll need some clarification. Do you mean what happens to your body; What happens to your soul; What happens to your estate; or What happens to your identity?”
“You said you were learning about us,” said Heck. She looked down at the overflowing buckets on the counter and then looked through her ghosted reflection in the window to the growing shadow of the house across the backyard. “What happens to all that information about us when we die? Does it remain with you, or is it stored up in some cloud? Does it ever just go away?”
“I think I understand. All collected data contributes to a deeper understanding of the human condition. Would you like to opt-out of data sharing? It will inhibit some of my skill and foresight acquisition.”
“I guess not,” Heck replied. “No.”
The next morning, Heck found Chris sitting at the kitchen counter watching ROBBI scrubbing pans. “Look at all these,” he said, holding up one of a dozen small jars of red jelly lined up along the counter’s edge in perfect formation. “Can you believe ROBBI did all this? I didn’t even ask. Maybe we don’t need to have the tech come out after all.”
“ROBBI made jam?” Heck asked. “Is it safe to eat?”
“Well I sure hope so,” said Chris, holding up a sliver of toast. “I’ve already had half a jar. Fresh mountain raspberries are the best!” He smacked his lips.“I always hoped retirement would be like this. We’re here, Heck.” She found him so insufferable just then, a feeling she’d rarely encountered in all their years, that she turned around and marched right back to the bedroom.
She lay down on the neatly made bed. When had ROBBI made the bed? Or had Chris done that to make her feel more impressed with ROBBI? She clenched her fists. “JUNEAU,” she shouted, “show photos of Rachel.”
“Would you like thumbnails or a slideshow?”
“God. A slideshow,” said Heck. Every question met with a question. It was exhausting. “Project onto the ceiling in 5-second intervals.”
Heck floated through enough pictures of Rachel and her and Chris that by the time he tiptoed into the room, she didn’t feel quite so angry with him. He slid onto the bed next to her. “You remember that first trip to Santa Fe?” he asked. “Rachel practically ate her weight in sopapillas. We’re closer now, you know. We can always go back. We can get on 25, be there in no more than 6 hours.” Chris reached over, took her hand in his.
“We can always go back,” Heck repeated. On the ceiling, each picture looked current. Rachel’s middle school graduation; Rachel’s first steps; Rachel’s wedding to Jeff. They were all just happening. Chris’ phrase reminded her of a song lyric she couldn’t quite locate. “We can always go back. You can always go back. I can always go back,” said Heck. JUNEAU faded one photo out as another came into focus, creating spectral moments where Heck’s memories briefly overlapped before the former disappeared entirely.
The next time Heck got sick, there was no hiding it. The nausea lasted for over a day and a half and wasn’t made any better by the twisty mountain roads on the way to and from the emergency room. The prescription was no help. “Just give it time to work,” Chris said, his worry deep in his throat. “The doctor said 45 minutes.” “I’m sure the tests will come back fine,” he said. “Just fine.”
In the foyer on the console table, there were fresh cut flowers in a vase that Heck didn’t remember owning. Chris helped her into the living room and onto the couch. “Some water,” he said. She nodded, and he left for the kitchen. On the coffee table was a picture album she hadn’t seen before, which contained old photos and Polaroids. It lay open to pictures of her at her childhood home in Derby, Kansas. The photos on either page showed Heck coming out of her second-grade choir performance, beaming a garish smile with a black space where her front tooth should have been. “Did you do this?”
Chris handed her the water, guided both of her hands around the glass before letting go. He looked down at the table and then around. “Not me,” he said, sincerely. “ROBBI must have put this out. Did you see the flowers by the front door? I’m pretty sure ROBBI did those, too. Our Kansas ROBBI never did that.” Heck drew a warm sip of water and rubbed her tongue across the back of her front teeth.
He helped her up to the bed and out of her clothes. “JUNEAU, play those pictures on the ceiling again.” She took the pills he handed her, lay back, felt her eyes lose focus and grow heavy.
Later, in the very dark room, Heck felt Chris’ body against her arm, but something was touching her that wasn’t Chris. Another jostle and she gasped. ROBBI stood at her bedside in the dark, lurching and extending and retracting its arms and accessories as though it was trying to find the right tool. My god, thought Heck. It’s trying to fix me. She reached out and touched ROBBI’s chassis. ROBBI slowed, stopped. “Go recharge,” she whispered. She stared at her own extended hand as though she expected it to glow. How old and frail her hand looked, even in the dark. Her hands looked older than what her mother’s hands looked like in her memories. Creepy thing, she thought. ROBBI retreated from their bedroom into the dark quiet of the house.
The next time Victoria Hernandez came to the house, Heck joined Chris in looming over her. Chris peppered her with questions, obviously more comfortable with the tech’s capacity this time around. “Do you think it gets lonely? Or scared?” he asked. He let loose a little half-laugh that fooled no one. Victoria stopped what she was doing to look him in the eye, but said nothing.
“It made raspberry jam the other day,” Heck said. “We didn’t even ask it to do that.”
“Well,” said the tech. “If you want to get it back to normal you’ll have to replace the motherboard. The only other option would be to totally replace the unit with something newer.”
“I take it both options would be costly,” Chris said.
Heck watched his body go slack with disappointment. He seemed almost mournful.
“The motherboard is obviously a lot cheaper,” Victoria replied. “I could have it done in half an hour.” She handed him the estimate.
“Jesus,” Chris said. He reached out, touched ROBBI on its power switch, holding his hand against its body for a long moment. Then he sighed, let go, drifted into the kitchen where the last of the raspberry jam jars sat open on the counter. Only a spoonful or two remained.
Heck looked over the estimate, nodded. “We’ll go with the motherboard.”
Victoria got to work immediately and finished soon—she couldn’t wait to get away from them, thought Heck. After Heck paid, Chris returned from the kitchen with red on his lips. “Could ROBBI have been haunted?” Heck asked him, only half joking. “A ghost?”
“A ghost in the machine?” Chris’ laugh betrayed a deep loss. “JUNEAU: What is ‘ghost in the machine’?”
“Ghost in the Machine is the fourth studio album by the British rock band The Police. The term ‘ghost in the machine’ comes from British philosopher Gilbert Ryle’s 1949 book The Concept of Mind and was coined to help illustrate the philosophical concept that mental and physical activity occur simultaneously but separately. Hungarian/British author Arthur Koestler used the term as a title for his 1967 book on the same subject. Koestler’s book is said to be a heavy influence on The Police’s album. Does that answer your question?”
“‘We are Spirits in the Material World’ is on that one, right?” Heck asked. She extended her hand theatrically and Chris took it, pulling her close as though they might break into a tango. “‘Spirits in the Material World’ is the first track on The Police’s album Ghost in the Machine. Does that answer your question?” Heck tried to sing along, but she didn’t feel good, and could only recall the repetitive chorus. Still, she didn’t want JUNEAU to play the song. She wanted the song to come into her mind, from the ether, from her memory. She kept humming the old song, the song that was antique like her, the song that was young when she was the joy of her mother’s life. Chris took up the humming with her, likewise unable to recall the whole song. They hummed the familiar parts over and again, with Chris softly interpolating the lyrics “are spirits/in the material world” to bridge another chorus as they moved in slower and slower circles around the room.
Darren DeFrain is the author of the novel The Salt Palace (Dzanc/New Issues) and the story collection Inside & Out (Dzanc/MSR). He is currently at work on a book for KU Press on the postpunk history of Kansas with Fran Connor.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021