The Words He Already Knew ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Mrs. Persephone Churney was determined to be a good housekeeper. In the twenty-five years of her married life, it was what she did best. She rose first in the house, fixed a hearty breakfast for her husband and children before they went off to work or school, and spent the remainder of the day cleaning, washing, cooking, sewing, and doing the dozens (hundreds?) of other little things that made her family comfortable and her house well run. She didn’t care about going places or a social life; she cared only about what went on inside her four walls.
She believed she would go on in the same way forever, but soon she saw how tenuous had been her hold on the circumstances of her life. Her husband, age forty-eight, was struck and killed by a careless driver while on a business trip in a faraway city. Her son graduated from high school and, instead of going on to college as she hoped he would, he signed up for an extended stay in the navy. Her daughter married a boy she had known since the first grade and moved six hundred miles away.
With her family gone, Mrs. Churney’s life became a thing she didn’t recognize. For the first time, she had only herself to please or to think about. Did she want chicken or steak for dinner? It didn’t matter at all. Dust was accumulating on the furniture and the floors? So what? The bed hadn’t been changed in a month? Who cares?
She began spending her days lying on the couch in front of the television, barely noticing the endless parade of commercials, game shows, soap operas and black-and-white movies. She stopped caring about her appearance or even if she was clean. She had no interest in anything, even in drawing the next breath and the breath after that. She began thinking of ways she might kill herself.
When she went to see the doctor, hoping he might prescribe sleeping pills that she planned on taking along with a fifth of whiskey, he barely recognized her as the woman he had known for years. She had lost weight, her skin had taken on an unhealthy pallor, and her hair had turned an ugly gray. She had no appetite and couldn’t sleep at night, she said. He had seen plenty of unhappy women in his life, so he gave her some vitamins and asked her if she had ever thought about getting herself a domestic robot.
“Why would I do that?” she asked.
“To help you with the housework and cooking. To keep you from being so lonely. You don’t have any idea what a difference a good robot can make to your life.”
“Yes, but a robot?”
“Lots of people are doing it,” he said.
“It’s not for me.”
“Do me a favor,” he said, “and at least think about it.”
He gave her a brochure with all the information she needed to know. She felt silly and embarrassed at the prospect of becoming the owner of a robot, but she took the brochure, stuffed it into her purse, and promised the doctor she would read it when she had nothing else to do, meaning she would throw it into the trash as soon as she got home.
That night she had a dream about a robot. She saw her home as once again a place of light and happiness instead of loneliness and tears. She saw herself as happy and contented as she had been before her family went away. It was almost as if the idea of owning a robot was being insinuated into her brain as she slept.
She read the brochure with interest at the kitchen table in the morning as she drank her tea and nibbled on her toast. By the time she had read all the way through, she decided she would at the very least explore the possibility of getting a robot. And, if she did decide to get one, she could always return it if she didn’t like it, the way she would return a pair of shoes that pinched.
She drove to the place where robots are demonstrated and told the smiling salesman that, on the recommendation of her doctor, she wanted to see some available models with the possible intention of purchasing. When she discovered that there was a lengthy interview process involved to find out exactly what kind of robot was needed, she willingly consented.
“Do you have children in the house?” the salesman asked.
“How many people living in the house?”
“Male or female model?”
“Do you want a male or a female model?”
“I haven’t really thought about it,” she said. “Either, I suppose. It is only a machine, isn’t it?”
The salesman gave her a sly grin. “You might have a different opinion after a while,” he said prissily.
“I want someone to help with the housework and to cook as needed. Light duties.”
“You’re already referring to your robot as ‘someone,’” he said. “That’s a sign that you’ll make a good robot owner.”
“Also to provide me with a certain amount of companionship but to leave me be when I require it.”
“I understand. Do you require a sexual partner?”
“You can get a model, male or female, that interacts sexually with its human owner. That of course costs a good deal more.”
She blushed down to the roots of her hair. “I don’t think that will be necessary,” she said.
“Your model can always be retrofitted later to manage those accommodations.”
She ended up signing a contract stating that she would take a two-year option on a “domestic companion” model, to be delivered and set up in her home by expert technicians.
“If you aren’t happy with your robot,” the salesman assured her, “you can always return it for a full refund, minus your deposit. But I just know you’re going to be absolutely thrilled!”
“Will it be a male or female model?” she asked.
“We want that to be a surprise,” he said.
“Don’t surprise me too much,” she said. “My heart can’t take it.”
In three days time a truck pulled up in front of her house. Two workmen in white coveralls took a recumbent form from the back of the truck, covered in canvas, and carried it inside. They worked for a couple of hours, with her in another part of the house, and then informed her that her robot was fully functional.
When she walked into the room, she saw Lakin for the first time. He was tall, with brown hair and blue eyes. He was dressed in a kind of dress suit that butlers wear in movies with a crisp white shirtfront and immaculate coat. He was perfect as only an artificial man could be, and very stiff.
“Say something to him,” the workman said to her, smiling broadly.
“I don’t know what to say,” she said, giggling like a schoolgirl.
“Just ask him how he is and tell him your name.”
“Hello, Lakin,” she said. “I’m so happy to have you in my home. My name is Mrs. Churney.”
Lakin came to life, turning his head toward her. “I’m so happy to make your acquaintance, Mrs. Churney,” he said. “How may I serve you?”
She heard the faint whirring of his interior mechanism, a sound that she would come to find very comforting.
“It’ll take him about a week to get fully accustomed to his new surroundings,” the workman said. “Just be patient with him.”
“I hope he’ll be patient with me. I’ve never had a robot before.”
“One thing you need to always keep in mind is that he has no feelings of his own but reflects your own. Like looking into a mirror.”
After she showed the workmen to the door, she took Lakin into the little room off the kitchen that was to be his. It was where he would come when he wasn’t needed or to recharge himself. There was a daybed, a small writing desk with a lamp, a chair and a chest of drawers.
“It’s more than adequate,” he said.
She took him into the kitchen and showed him where everything was, then to the basement and back yard and upstairs to the rest of the house where the bedrooms and bathrooms were.
“You have a lovely dwelling place,” he said.
To see how he was going to do with the cooking, she told him to take a roast out of the freezer, thaw it, and cook it for dinner, along with some potatoes and carrots. And when it was finished it was the best food she had tasted for a long time, having herself lost the knack for cooking. As a bonus, something she hadn’t asked for, he whipped up a delicious lemon soufflé for dessert out of what he found in the kitchen.
She taught him to play gin rummy and in a matter of minutes he was winning every game. When it came to scrabble, she was no match for him and gave up after a few of his lopsided victories. “My brain retains one hundred times more information than the human brain,” he said, by way of apology
When she began taking him out with her to public places, she knew that people were looking at them but she didn’t mind. She saw a few other robots with their owners, but none so fine-looking as Lakin. She gave him some of her dead husband’s clothes so he wasn’t always wearing a butler’s dress suit.
He did all the housework and cooking effortlessly. In the evenings after the dinner dishes were washed and put away, he retired to his little room off the kitchen to recharge himself. On winter evenings he built up a fire; on summer evenings he served mint tea on the terrace. If she ever wanted him to sit with her to keep her company, all she had to do was ask. When she felt like talking about the past or telling him the plot of a movie she saw or a book she read, he would listen.
His accomplishments seemed without limit. He could look at a poem one time and recite it perfectly and with as much feeling as needed. He taught himself to play the piano in one afternoon and after that could play the sonatas of Beethoven or any other music he set his mind to. She turned her car over to him and let him take care of shopping, paying the bills, and anything else that needed to be done, as she herself hated driving and being out in public places.
The years passed peacefully and uneventfully. Mrs. Churney grew old; Lakin remained unchanged. At times she thought it unfair that she was subject to the laws of decay while he was not. She stopped looking in the mirror for any reason, not wanting to see herself as she really was, and saw herself reflected only in his eyes.
She suffered a series of heart attacks and lay dying. When he knew the end was near, he took her hand in both of his and leaned toward her over the bed. She felt his warmth, heard the faint whirring inside his chest. She looked into his eyes and spoke the words that didn’t need to be spoken because he already knew them.
After she was dead, he lifted her up in his arms, a weight so small he hardly felt it. Holding her in one arm, he put his other hand on her forehead as though he were baptizing her and then laid her back down on the bed. In a few seconds she fluttered her eyelids, opened her eyes all the way, and looked at him questioningly. As he reached out his hand to help her to stand up, she heard the whirring inside her own chest that was indistinguishable from his own.
Copyright © 2014 by Allen Kopp