STEVE BAILEY - ROGER'S GIFT
Roger got the device as a birthday gift from his son who knows all things technical. It sets on a shelf in the kitchen of his small apartment. That is where Roger spends most of his time, watching tv and tending to the needs of his cats and Bowser his cocker spaniel. The gift is a virtual digital assistant, a computer that can understand speech and is interfaced with the Internet. He can ask it anything and it will provide him with an answer, sometimes in writing but always auditorily. Most of the time it's right.
He named the device Paul and his tech-savvy son was able to get the device to begin any interaction whenever Roger says, “Hey Paul.” When not answering questions, Paul displays a series of pictures from various family folders on a cloud, again set up by Roger’s son. Scenes from Christmas and Easter gatherings, little league baseball games where his son played without distinction, and pictures of Roger at different stages of getting old appear randomly on Paul’s screen.
Roger who is tall with a beak nose can see his black hair get thinner with age whenever a series of pictures by chance appear in chronological order. The pictures of his wife before breast cancer took her away make Roger sad whenever they appear.
It is a wonderful device that was foreshadowed for him back in the 1960s. Roger’s girlfriend then was Clara Simpson. Her parents invited him to their house for dinner one night during which Clara’s father had engaged Roger in a conversation about the value of education.
“You know,” the father had said as they had their after-dinner coffee “there will come a time when people won’t have to learn all the facts schools throw at their students. Everyone will have machines that can tell them whatever they want to know.”
Roger figured the father- an insurance salesman by trade- must write science fiction in his spare time. But he was happy to engage in a conversation about what he thought was a delightfully crazy idea. So, he had asked what was the purpose of education going forward? And after some discussion, the answer was to teach people how to ask the right questions. Upon reflection, Roger thinks education today was probably not doing a good job with that.
Now he has such a machine and he loves to ask it questions. When it was first made operational, he tested it by asking questions the answers to which he already knew. “When was Kennedy killed?’ Who first walked on the moon? What prime minister ordered an invasion of the Falkland Islands?” All of these were answered correctly.
He asks, “When did the country start going to shit?”
Paul answers “I’m sorry I don’t understand.”
And as that non-answer comes forward a picture of Roger’s late wife Diane appears on Paul’s screen. It is one of his favorites from their college days. She smiles confidently at the camera her thick curly hair poking out all over from a red bandanna, a clenched fist in the air. She is wearing her Demin jacket full of buttons, Gerald Holton’s peace symbol, Chairman Mao’s deceivingly passive continence, and Che Guevara’s bearded face underneath a black beret.
The picture fades away replaced by one more current; his granddaughter who looks a lot like her grandmother. She is a teenager trying her parent’s patience, getting tattoos, and vaping. Did Paul’s programming extend to finding kinfolk who are of a similar disposition?
His thoughts, however, are still on the previous picture, and to fortify the melancholy it created he tells Paul to play Bob Dylan’s, Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan’s voice and Al Koger’s bluesy organ put Roger back in the time of the picture when he was young, and she was young, and they believed revolution was all around them. It wasn’t but to them the illusion was real.
“How does it feel? Oh, how does it feel?”
“To be on your own? Like a complete unknown.”
“It sucks” Roger answered lugubriously. It was as though he was having a sad conversation with a person named Paul and not a machine. He misses Diane. More the Diane of the past than the one that died in a hospital months ago. The Diane of the picture was wild and passionate about an illegal war, racial injustice and the government corruption brought about by the wealthy elite.
“Up the ass of the upper class! Power to the people!” She would yell as she marched along with other protesters. She never could get the crowd to chant this along with her mainly because most of the marchers were college students from upper-class families. They preferred less class-struggle oriented chants like:
“One, Two, Three, Four.”
“We don’t want your fucking war.”
Early in their relationship, Roger and Diane tripped together on acid, an experience Roger survived but never repeated. Diane, on the other hand, took the stuff with such regularity he was sure their children would be horribly deformed. While she tripped around on acid or psilocybin, her eyes would be so dilated their irises would disappear. He would keep her company and out of trouble restricting himself to no more than a couple of joints of pot. She was indeed a wild one back then.
But after marriage and childbirth, that produced a normal healthy son Diane’s wild side dissipated. She supported causes with donations not with marches and by the time the cancer struck she had, in Roger’s mind become as bougie as June Cleaver.
“Paul,” Roger calls out to his machine. “Show me pictures of my wife later in life.”
To his shock, the picture that comes up is not of Diane, but Clara Simpson. He has never seen this picture before. It is set in the 1960s and he recognizes her right away. It is black and white and grainy. He can see her long blonde hair pulled back by a wide headband, her face round and apple-cheeked.
Seeing it Roger is reminded of the feelings of guilt he felt back then. How could his son have found such a picture and why would he have scanned it into the cloud? Was this his idea of a joke? If so, it was a very cruel one. He grabs his phone and places a call.
“Where did you get the picture of Clara Simpson and why did you put it on Paul?” He asks in a voice that clearly expresses his displeasure.
“Dad, I don’t know what you are talking about.” His son responds. “The only pictures I scanned in were of members of our family from the old family albums. Who is Clara Simpson?”
Roger doesn’t answer but throws out another question.
“Can Paul be hacked?”
“I suppose. Maybe a hacker is trying to prank you. Let me check the cloud and I’ll see if I can trace the source of the picture you’re talking about. I’ll get back to you. But give me some time. We are swamped here at work.”
Roger hangs up and looks at Paul’s screen. It has moved on to a different picture. This time it's Diane’s picture also from the family album. It is recent and her face shows the effects of chemotherapy. Her curly brown hair has been replaced with a straight blonde wig. He tells Paul to play some Rolling Stones and while Mick Jagger’s voice fills the kitchen with its bluesy sounds, Roger opens a can of pumpkin pie filling and begins mixing it with cottage cheese. Food for his dog with liver issues.
Whenever he does this, he is always reminded of Clay McLeod Chapman’s The Pumpkin Pie Show that he saw once while he and Diane were in New York City. It was a powerful albeit unusual experience.
He takes boiled chicken off the stove and begins chopping it up for the cats. These are his quotidian tasks without which he has little to do.
“So that’s what you have become? A cook for animals?”
It’s a female voice coming out of Paul. A female voice he recognizes and when he looks up at Paul’s screen the picture of Clara Simpson looks back at him. It is her voice as if she in the kitchen with him. How can this be possible? He stares dumbfounded at Paul’s screen until the picture changes.
Roger’s living room is well furnished with a wrap-around couch, a small desk with a laptop on it, and walls full of shelves holding books, mementos from trips he took with Diane, and other knick-knacks. There he finds his high school yearbook and thumbs through it until he finds Clara Simpson’s senior picture. It is not the same as the one Paul displayed.
Starting at the beginning he turns each page of the yearbook looking for any other pictures of this former girlfriend. He sees himself in the group shot of the track team, dressed in a gray warm-up uniform. But there are no other pictures of Clara Simpson.
He sits down in front of the laptop and googles her name. Lots of Clara Simpsons appear but after scrolling through all of them he cannot find the one that went to high school with him.
His son calls him.
“Dad no one hacked your device. I checked into it. It can’t be done.”
“Dad I have to go. Like I said we are swamped here.” They hang up.
A whining sound from the kitchen alerts him to the fact that in his distracted condition he has left the dog food on the kitchen counter and poor Bowser accustomed to getting fed at the same time every evening is starting to get frantic. Roger moves back into the kitchen to accommodate his canine.
“Couldn’t find me, could you?” The voice he now recognizes as Clara Simpson’s says from Paul’s little speaker. It has a teasing quality about it and again it sounds as though the woman is in the kitchen with him. The same picture of Clara is back on the screen.
Roger unplugs Paul. Bowser has already finished eating so Roger grabs the dog’s leach and takes him outside for a walk.
They leave the apartment building and walk between the ball-shaped topiary flanking the building’s sidewalk. They go to a dog park where Roger can let his cocker spaniel run leach-free. While Bowser interacts playfully with some other dogs Roger sits on a bench and tries to clear his head.
What has been going on in his kitchen feels unreal, like some bad dream. His phone rings and he pulls it out of his jacket pocket hoping it is his son with some explanation. Instead fear grips him as he sees the picture of Carla Simson on his phone.
“Remember the Wilis, Roger?” Clara asks referencing the ballet Giselle. The two of them had watched it with her parents when they were dating. “I am with Queen Myrtha, and the dance is on.”
“Who are you?” Roger shouts into his phone.
But the device is silent. Angry and frustrated Roger hurls his phone across the park, and it hits Bowser. The sound of his fyce crying out in pain fills Roger with remorse and he runs to comfort him. Other dog owners in the park look at him with disgust and make remarks about his indecorous and dangerous behavior.
After comforting and apologizing to his little dog Roger puts the leash on and walks him back to the apartment. Bowser is limping and seeing that Roger feels so bad he begins to cry. It is growing dark as they walk along Roger wiping his face with the sleeve of his jacket.
Back in his apartment, he composes himself while he attends to the wound he created on his dog. It is not bad enough for a trip to the veterinarian he decides. He cuddles the little spaniel who wages his tail as if nothing had happened.
“Who am I?” calls out the voice of Clara Simpson, from the kitchen. It has the upward inflection of one surprised by a question.
Roger charges into the kitchen. Paul is still unplugged but the picture he now dreads is on the screen. Clara Simpson’s voice coming out of Paul is full of anger and revenge.
“I’m the girl you deserted in a park, in the dark to be gang-raped by a bunch of Black Panther wannabes. I died from a broken heart. This is the dance of the Wilis.”
He is looking at the picture when she speaks. It looks like her mouth is moving. She has stirred a memory in him he had suppressed for years.
It was in a pique after she teased him about a sexual malfunction that he walked away from her in the park vowing never to see her again. He never did. He heard about the rape and her subsequent death, but his shame prevented him from attending the funeral or even expressing his condolences in person to Clara’s parents.
“Remember this song?” Clara asks as Paul begins to play My Girl by the Temptations. It was the ultimate slow dance song of their high school years.
“Dance!” Clara commands.
“This is madness!” Roger responds.
Suddenly a drawer holding knives shoots open and knives begin flying around the kitchen. One impales his cat’s tail to the wall and the cat screams and further hurts itself has it struggles to get free from the knife’s pin. Roger rushes to the cat and is badly scratched on both forearms as he removes the knife from the cat’s tail.
“Dance!” Clara commands and Roger begins to sway slowly to the music. “I know the flying knives trick is a bit cliché, but it was all I can come up with at the moment. Let’s put on some faster music.”
Paul plays the Beatles Twist and Shout. To avoid any more injuries to his pets Roger begins to dance the twist. Another fast-paced song follows and then another. Every time Roger slows down the knife draw opens. At one point the refrigerator door opens, and the pumpkin filling and cottage cheese concoction go flying around the kitchen like an orange tornado. Gobs of the gooey mess splatter about the kitchen some landing on Paul. He is becoming tired and wants to stop.
Halfway through Herman Hermit’s Henry the Eighth the music stops, and the picture of Diane appears. Diane’s voice comes out of Paul.
“If that bitch can be a Wilis, I can be Giselle. You and I will do a dance of dialog. Why did you never tell me about her?”
The sound of Diane’s voice fills Roger with excitement.
“You need to talk,” she says,” or she will be back.”
Roger tells Diane the story behind Clara Simpson and describes the guilt that made him repress his memories of her. He finds that finally telling this to Diane is cathartic and wishes he had told her when she was alive. He pauses when he is done but Diane does not immediately respond.
Suddenly and loudly the Everly Brothers come on with Bye Bye Love and Clara is back on the screen.
“Want more flying knives?” she screams over the music causing Paul’s little speaker to vibrate. Roger begins to move with the music, but it stops suddenly.
“No way bitch! Roger stop dancing and tell me you have been doing more with your life besides taking care of Bowser and the cats.” Diane’s picture is back on the screen.
“Not really,” Roger replies. He wants to tell her that his lust for life died with her, but she follows with a tongue lashing.
“Really? Did the world suddenly get better after I died? I don’t think so! The environment has gone from being just dirty to being downright dangerous. Children are being mass murdered in their schools by crazy people with incredible firepower; black kids are being murdered in the streets by cops. All brought about by the filthy greedy upper class. And all you do is feed the pets?”
It’s the Diane of college days, and her screed matches her picture on the screen. The June Cleaver persona is no more.
“Where are you?” Roger asks. “Heaven? The Underworld?”
Diane’s picture immediately disappears.
Roger tries to regain control of Paul by telling the device to show more current pictures of Diane. But Paul is unplugged to the living and Clara Simpson is back on the screen.
“Dance! Dance faster!” Clara shouts her voice becoming shriller. Fast-paced rock and roll songs follow one after the other. Roger moves about the kitchen struggling to keep up with the music. He is getting weary. The cat-inflicted wounds on his forearms sting and continue to ooze blood.
Every time Roger slows down the knife draw opens and more knives come out and fly around the room. Hours later the music stops, and Clara’s picture on Paul’s screen is again supplanted. Diane is back in control.
She begins an intense discussion on modern art and Roger sits down at the kitchen table and rests. He realizes that if he engages in these discussions with Diane she will stay on the screen. But if he asks her anything about life after death she disappears and the dreaded Clara returns.
As time grinds away it is back and forth between the two dead women. Clara’s choice of music remains locked in the era of their high school years. But there are no more slow dances. Eventually, Diane gets the upper hand as Roger responds to her discussion prompts the best he can. They talk about political theory and philosophy and quiz each other on art history like they did back in their college days. They dwell for a long time on anthropology a favorite of Diane’s. Although he is exhausted Roger recognizes this is the most alive, he has felt since his wife died. The kitchen is a warm and convivial place when Diane is on Paul’s screen.
“This is wonderful,” he says. “I could do this with you forever.”
“Unfortunately, this ends at sunrise,” Diane replies. “By then either you and I will have defeated that tormented spirit, or you will have joined us in death.”
Again, Diane chastises Roger for his lack of involvement in causes. White noise follows Diane’s last remark as Clara tries to regain control of Paul, but the dance is coming to an end and Diane has proven to be the more powerful. The pale blue light of predawn shows in Roger’s kitchen window.
“How did this happen?” Roger asks.
“I don’t know Roger. Did you drop some peyote?” Diane asks. Roger looks at her picture. He swears it looks like she is laughing.
“Let me play a song for you as I leave. I loved you, Roger, more than you will ever know.”
Her picture remains on the screen as John Denver’s song Leaving on a Jet Plane begins to play. It was the song they would sing to each other whenever they were forced to be separated during their college years.
As the song plays Roger watches the new day arrive through his window. Tears are streaming down his cheeks. When the ends Roger looks over at Paul. The picture of Diane is gone, and Paul’s screen is dark.
Roger goes to his bedroom and tries to go to sleep. In a hypnagogic state, he begins to believe it was all a dream. He returns to the kitchen not sure if he has slept or not. He looks at the clock in the kitchen. It is late morning. All the knives that were scattered about the kitchen are back in the drawer. The dog food on the walls and countertop is all gone, and unplugged Paul is dark. When Bowser limps in for his breakfast and the cat with the lacerated tail appears, Roger realizes that it was no dream.
Roger retrieves the box Paul came in and uses it to pack up the virtual digital assistant and its power cord. Without feeding his pets their breakfast he leaves and goes out to his car.
For a moment he freezes with terror when after he shifts the car into reverse the screen for the backup camera comes on. But there are no ghostly pictures, just a better view of what is behind him than he sees in the rearview mirror.
With a sense of relief, he shifts into drive, the screen goes dark and he drives off to his son’s house. Only his granddaughter is home. He presents the device to her as a gift. She takes it into her room and plugs it in.
“It will respond to you if you say, ‘Hey Paul.’” He tells her.
“Hey Paul”, the granddaughter says, “Do you want to party?”
“Yes,” the male-sounding mechanical voice answers. “Let’s party.”
“Too cool! Thanks, grandad. Hey, I got a new tat. Wanna see it?”
“Your parents …”
“Yeah they’re upset but they’ll get over it.”
She raises the sleeve of her left arm and there just below the shoulder is the tattoo of a ballerina in a peasant costume. She is on toe her left leg fully extended behind her and her arms arabesque. Underneath her toe, in script font is the name Diane.
“That’s your grandmother’s name! She never danced a lick of ballet. What made you think of this?”
“It came to me in a dream,” the granddaughter replied and then defensively continued “I loved grandma. She was a hero to me, and I miss her terribly. I’m sorry you don’t like it.”
Roger hugs his granddaughter.
“She’s a hero to me too,” he says in a voice full of emotion. “The tattoo is wonderful, and your grandmother would have loved it.”
He looks into his granddaughter’s eyes and sees Diane’s. A feeling of wellbeing comes over Roger. He looks over at Paul who is displaying cartoonish drawings of people at a party. Roger smiles, first at Paul and then at his granddaughter.
He is sure the only spirit from the other side that will ever invade Paul will be Diane, the winner of the Giselle battle. That spirit would never torment his granddaughter. Perhaps Diane will again invade Paul and teach the young girl how to ask the right questions.
Back in his apartment, Roger rummages through boxes in a closet until he finds the box his wife had held onto since their college days. There are various keepsakes, beer mugs from a memorable party, a roach clip specially designed for her by a friend in the art department, books from classes she liked, her denim jacket, and her red bandanna. He takes the bandanna out and puts it on his head.
Roger goes into the living room and turns on his computer. As the black screen begins to light up, he wonders if he will ever stop flinching when screens come to life.
As the machine begins to boot up, he pulls down the family album and extracts the picture of Diane that Paul had displayed for him the night before. He places it next to the computer that has now fully come to life.
Roger finds blacklives matter.com and joins. He finds sites for several climate activist organizations and joins them all. On a desk calendar, he writes the information about upcoming demonstrations and begins to plan for the ones he will attend. He leans back in his chair and looks at the picture of his wife. He raises his right arm with a clenched fist and says
‘Up the ass of the upper class. Power to the people!”
Leave a Reply.