p e t e r    z u p p a r d o

The Expense

 

The robot was gentle with the boy. The robot had stiff arms that did not feel at all like flesh. There was no effort by the manufacturer to make the robot seem human. The boy and the robot played catch in the grass with a tennis ball. The robot could not stay in the yard for long if the sun was strong because exposure to heat damaged certain components in the robotís interior. The robotís organs, you might say, but this might also be a stretch. The robot was called Sam by the boy. The boy was called Timothy by everyone.


The purpose of the robot—the reason the boyís parents bought him in the first place—was one, to give the boy a companion, and two, to ensure the boyís safety. The robot cost a lot of money. The parents sat up late many nights, whispering back and forth in the low light of the kitchen about the robotís high cost, along with the possible health risks associated with owning a human-sized robot. In the end it was the father who swayed the mother and the purchase was made. The robot arrived three weeks later, in four separate boxes, its major components protected with what the father considered ďa gratuitous and probably unnecessary amount of bubble wrap.Ē


The father assembled the robot in the backyard. The boy watched first from the outdoor porch, and then from his bedroom. The direction booklet resembled a small novel. The robot had a red switch that went up for on and down for off. The switch was shaped like a human tear. The owner of the robot was required to charge him for three hours every two days. The parents did the charging while the boy was asleep. They did not want the boy to believe that the robot, whom the boy called Sam, could ever sleep. They wanted the boy to trust completely in the robot, the way the boy trusted in the parents. But the robot was just a robot, and soon the boy would find this out. This had been one of the motherís central fears.


ďEverybody has one now. Itís become a thing,Ē said one of the fatherís co-workers. The co-worker had gotten his robot only a year earlier. His robot was a yard work robot. The fatherís co-worker was a Buddhist, and believed his robot had a soul. The father thought this a little crazy, and as a result would not invite the co-worker to dinner at his house.


Their cul-de-sac was wooded and quiet. There was of course the occasional car, but it was usually someone they knew, a neighbor maybe, and they would wave back and forth to one another and grin. The robot also waved. It was a function he performed. Everything the robot did was a function he performed. The mother said things like, He creeps me out. ďHe?Ē the father said once. ďAre we sure about this?Ē The mother put her hands on her face and crouched in the driveway. She did not like any talk of the robotís genitals.


There had been discussions about whether or not the robot, called Sam by the boy, would sit down for dinner. The father thought it might be neat, but in the end, because love is above all a lesson in push and pull and then finally pull, the mother got her way. The robot ate outside in the garage, chained to a pipe. This was so he wouldnít accidentally stray from the familyís house. They didnít like for the boy to see this either. But the boy did see. And pretty soon he was tying a chain around his own neck and eating in the garage. The boy liked meatloaf but he didnít like potatoes. The boy liked salmon but he didnít like kidney beans. The robot ate a blue liquid called VHQ-128.


The father told the boy never to eat the robotís food. The boy nodded and looked off over the fatherís shoulder. The boy was forever looking off over the fatherís shoulder. The father wondered just what beyond his shoulder could be so dazzling. He had always felt left out of important events. He was a person who felt he was always a few minutes too late to everything. Whenever he showed up it seemed the balloons were already on the floor, the good food picked over.


The robot was not a toy. All of the boyís toys were plastic. Plastic shaped with heat and colored with paint. The boy put the foot of an action figure in his mouth. It tasted like the robotís finger, only more bitter. The robot could not speak, he could only suggest. He did this using a variety of novel hand gestures. He also imitated an action to indicate that he would like to do that action. Maybe Ďlikeí is not the proper term. The robot was a complex algorithm—or set of algorithms—performing such complex operations that it appeared the robotís processes were as random as falling rain. Something can become so complex so as to appear random. So it was with the robot. The robot wrote a message to the boy but the boy could not read. He was too young for written words to touch him. He would have to wait years.


One morning the robot is found under the house, hiding behind the lattice. The boy finds him there. The father is leaving for the office when he sees the boy, crouching in the weeds.


ďWhatís happening here?Ē


The boy turns around, startled. The father has one white eyebrow and one dark eyebrow. It is the first thing anyone notices about him. It is an issue of pigment. The father could dye it but why should he have to change? The father kneels.


Through the diamond-shaped lattice he sees the robot. The robot is crouched down the way a soldier in a movie might be, eating rocks and robin eggs. The father prods him with a broom and the robot crawls into the sunlight. The father is late for work.


A few days after this the robot is found on the roof of the house. The boy is with him. They are sitting casually, as if they are discussing something. The mother dials the police and when they arrive, the police bribe the boy with a bag of almond M&Ms. The robot cannot be bribed with anything. He will exit the roof when he feels like it. But the robot cannot feel. So it is a question then of mathematics. The robot will exit the roof when the proper equation inside his body is selected. The father, due to his background in sociology and business, could never grasp what happens inside the robotís body. The mother, who began studying physics in college, but after getting lost on a camping trip and believing she would die and then actually surviving, decided then, emerging dehydrated and unwashed from the forest, that she would never attend another class again, and instead would raise a small family to protect her in the night—she could not understand the robotís inner functions either.


The robot is an inscrutable part of their daily lives.


Shortly after, the robot does something unspeakable to the father. An act involving lotion and a stick. The robot has gone too far. The father becomes visibly angry on the lawn and tells the mother that he will let the robotís battery run itself down. The boy, who is upstairs, has seen the unmentionable event and the fatherís reaction. The boy will not forget what he has seen. Its image will distort in his mind, change as he changes, but it will never go away. His father shrinks in his eyes.


The following morning the father takes the day off work. With tools he dismantles the robot in the yard. The boy watches this happen for a little while. He sees the father unbolt an arm and hold it up in the air. The arm is silver and invites sunlight. The boy has known the feel of that arm. He doesnít exactly love the robot. It is summer when all of this happens. The boy does not blame the father nor the mother. He knows something has to be done. These are the words the father will use with him, after the robot has been shipped to a distant continent.


ďSomething had to be done,Ē the father says. ďDo you understand?Ē


And the boy, for the sake of the father, will pretend that yes, he understands. And the father, for the sake of the boy, will pretend to believe the boy is truthful.

 

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PETER ZUPPARDO's fictions have appeared in Word Riot, Monkeybicycle, and Spork. He lives in Atlanta, with dog, cat, and wife.


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