I’ve just asked Wendell to access data pertaining to twentieth century board games when he says, “Tie me up and leave me in the closet for an hour.”
“Excuse me?” I say. Wendell has been my research assistant for six months. He lives with my husband and me, has his own workspace in a corner of the dining room. He’s a new brand of Service Robot my university recently acquired. He accesses other remote robots to help me retrieve data. He’s bright red, about four feet tall, and has a head that looks like two old fashioned blow dryers put side-by-side. He has round green eyes that blink. Until now, he hasn’t said anything more to me than, “Right away,” or “You bet.”
“Ha, ha,” I say, because I’m guessing this is a joke. Not that I’ve ever heard him joke.
“There’s twine in the kitchen drawer,” Wendell says. He has an Australian accent, but I could have made him sound French or Irish, or like a small Cockney child. “Tie me up and leave me in the closet for an hour, and then I’ll access that data.”
“I can’t do that,” I tell him. “Seriously.”
He doesn’t say anything. I ask him again about his board game data and he still doesn’t say anything. “Are you okay, Wendell?” I ask.
“There’s twine in the kitchen drawer,” Wendell repeats. “Tie me up and leave me in the closet for an hour, and then I’ll access that data.” He sounds so cheerful and sure of himself.
So I do it. I feel a little bit weird, but maybe it has something to do with his electrical system. I figure Wendell knows what’s best for himself. I don’t really know how these robots work. I’m more of a historian. When I take him out of the closet an hour later and untie him, he says, “I’ve sent that data to your workstation,” and I say, “Thanks, Wendell.”
When my husband gets home from work, I tell him about Wendell asking me to tie him up. He looks horrified. “You didn’t, did you?”
“Of course not,” I lie. “But—he’s a robot. He—it—can’t feel. It’s just programmed that way.” This is what I told myself as I wrapped the twine around his metal body and rolled him into the closet.
“You should get a replacement.”
“But Wendell’s already downloaded so much already. It’s too much trouble to find someone new at this point.”
My husband says, “Well, keep an eye on him. It could be some kind of malfunction.”
“Oh, I will,” I tell him.
The next day, Wendell rolls into my office and starts working right away. He’s found commercials of children playing games called Lite Brite and Shoots and Ladders and Hi Ho Cherry-O. The children in these commercials are very white and dimpled and mostly wear stripes, and they shout a lot. They are very, very happy children. My research involves childhood in the twentieth century which, even though it wasn’t that long ago, is difficult because so much was deleted or destroyed in fires and floods. I’ve done some interviews at old folks’ homes. I’ve done some memory scans. What’s confusing is that most of what Wendell is finding doesn’t necessarily collaborate with the memory scans.
My husband works as counselor at a Home for the Disembodied, so he can commute remotely from the Virtual Station in our bedroom. We’ve talked about getting a larger apartment, but this works for now. He stays in the bedroom and I stay out here with Wendell, and then we have dinner together.
I thank Wendell for finding those commercials, but when I ask if he’s found anything about something called Battleship (which came up in the memory scans), he says, “I believe I can find that information. But first, scrape me with a knife hard enough to leave a mark.”
“I can’t damage you,” I tell him. “I won’t get my deposit back.”
“Then put your hands around my neck and squeeze as hard as you can.”
He waits. I wait. I say, “Who programmed you?”
“I’m programmed to work for you,” he says, in his cheerful Australian accent. “I am at your disposal. I am here to make your life easier and assist with your research. This can go much more quickly if you please do what I ask.”
So I do. When he says, “You’re not squeezing as hard as you can,” I squeeze harder. He doesn’t so much have a neck as a plastic cylinder but I feel it getting warmer as I squeeze and when he says, “Okay, that was great, you can stop now,” I keep squeezing a little bit longer.
At dinner my husband starts to say something and then stops himself. I know this is because his other family came to visit him at the Home for the Disembodied. He has a wife who’s an actress and triplet sons, aged seven. They’re always aged seven, which he says he finds somewhat frustrating—how there’s only so much you can do with them, how you can never hope they’ll turn out to be more than they are. But then he has the opposite problem with his actress-wife, whom he doesn’t recognize from day to day. Finally I told him I was sick of hearing about his other family. Even though he explained that he was with them because he felt sorry for them, and that he and the actress wife hardly ever had sex anymore, we agreed not to speak of them.
“Well, what is it?” I ask at last. “Go ahead and tell me.”
“I know you don’t like to hear about them,” he says, but I make a rollie-motion with my hand that is meant to convey get on with it. “The triplets and I shot some hoops is all,” he says. “And they were good. And they got better as they played. It was something.” He forks some pasta into his mouth. “I think I can maybe get them on a team,” he says, with his mouth full and muffled. “Coach them.”
“Huh,” I say.
“How was your day?” he asks.
“It was the usual,” I tell him.
My husband and I have talked about having children, either virtual or real. We have polite, reasonable conversations about how we should have sex again sometime but then we just crawl into bed and lie next to each other until we fall asleep. But maybe someday, when we’re sixty, we might try for a child. Except the world is getting smaller. Most things disappear: cities, glaciers, mountains, civilizations. I don’t want to raise children in a Home for the Disembodied. I want them here, in the flesh, but my husband says that’s too dangerous, he doesn’t have the stomach for it. I wonder if he would feel differently if we could produce dimpled, stripes-wearing children who roll dice and make cakes in plastic ovens and rejoice when their plastic cherries fill up their little buckets.
The next morning, Wendell isn’t at his work station. I drink my coffee, go through my documents and my video streams and the transcripts of the memory scans. Some of the memory scan interviewees end up in the Home for the Disembodied, but it’s impossible to interview them there because all they want to talk about is tennis and sex, and most of them don’t even remember their previous embodied lives.
Finally, I say, “Wendell?” and find him behind the laundry room door. He doesn’t answer. “Are you not feeling well?” I ask. “Did you find anything about Battleship?”
He raises his blow-dryer head and says, “I’m not feeling motivated.”
“Well,” I say. “What would motivate you?”
“Tell me you hate me because I’m stupid. Tell me I should drown myself in a toxic lake.”
“Well,” I say. “But I don’t hate you. I actually appreciate your help. You’re a good worker.”
He doesn’t say anything. I go back to work reading the memory scans, but I can’t find anything about Battleship, or about something called a Donny and Marie lunchbox, or about something called Free Parking that led to broken friendships among the interviewees. I told Krista that you got five hundred bucks when you landed on Free Parking, and she said you didn’t, and we never spoke again after that day. It’s so goddamn frustrating. Wendell has access to other Service Robots all over the world and all he has to do is ask them, and they’ll tell him everything I want to know.
I go back to Wendell, who hasn’t moved. “You’re supposed to be programmed to help me,” I say. “So help me!”
“But first, put a plastic bag over my head and secure it with a large rubber band that you can find in your desk.”
So I do it. He looks helpless and ridiculous and terrifying. The plastic bag is white and makes him look like a robot ghost. He says, “Now tell me you hate me because I’m stupid and you want me to drown in a toxic lake.”
“I hate you,” I tell him, “you goddamn piece of shit, because you’re stupid, and you should drown yourself in a toxic lake.”
“Thanks!” he says cheerfully, and the printer starts whirring and my computer lights up with the sound of music and children laughing and singing.
He doesn’t ask me to take the plastic bag off and so I just leave it there.
When I told my dissertation director what I wanted to write about, she looked dismayed and said, “Oh, that’s pretty bold of you.” What she meant was: Who wants to be reminded of what we can’t get back? What good will that do? She said, “I would like to caution you against it.” Then she leaned back in her big chair and said, “What was your childhood like?”
That was a very personal question coming from her. I said, “I had the same childhood as everybody, with my screens and my worlds and all that.” I didn’t tell her that I was raised in an orphanage because my parents lived at the Home for the Disembodied. But they did their best. They taught me how to do puzzles and fly a virtual plane and how to do very complicated math, and they eventually deleted themselves when they said the world scared them too much.
“I’ll sign off on this,” she said, signing off on it. “But I think you’ll find that whatever you’re looking for isn’t there.”
“I’m not looking for anything,” I told her.
“It won’t add up,” she said, and I said, “It doesn’t have to,” because I had no idea what she meant.
But now I’m starting to understand. She checked in with me last week to let me know that my dissertation was almost a month late, and if I ever wanted to finish and get on with my life I should submit it to the department. “Okay,” I said.
It occurred to me for the first time that she and I never discussed what getting on with my life might mean.
I call the university and ask if it might be possible to exchange Wendell for another Service Robot and they say are you kidding? Are you insane? That robot was programmed to make your life easier.
“Oh, great, thanks,” I say.