Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Flash Fiction Friday: "What A Man Does"

Flash Fiction Friday has a challenge this week involving a computer as a character. I call this "What A Man Does".

My father started working with computers when they took up whole rooms, clanking, whirring beasts that read data off of magnetic tape and had to be constantly monitored. "Computers never make mistakes. They do exactly and precisely what they are told. People, on the other hand, are often faulty," he used to say. That was the way he was. He was always more comfortable with the yes/no, if/then world of digital computing than the messy, uncertain world of human beings. It made him frustrating to live with, but people can't help being the way they are, so in the end, I didn't fault him for it.

Growing up in such a house, it would be understandable if I had become a Luddite, a rebel against all things silicon and logical, a computerphobe who insisted on the ancient verities of bank tellers, paper books, and silver coins. I did insist upon a few of the old ways, but I used a computer as well as the next person, opting for a middle ground between outright hatred and total immersion. Like most people, I didn't follow exactly the path that was laid out for me. Given a choice between 0 and 1, I chose to slide in around 0.24.

So I met developments in artificial intelligence with some skepticism. I stuck to my handwritten letters and paper checks longer than most people, but I wasn't unaware of what was going on in the wider world. When they announced that Japanese researchers had passed the Turing test, I smiled and wondered what my long dead father would think of that. When I read about Asimov's Laws being encoded on a chip, and about motion becoming more and more precise, and about advances in computing power enabling more and more intelligent machines, I wondered where we were headed, but never really gave it a second thought.

I wasn't that old, but I certainly had lost a few ticks on the fastball when Sophia, my son's elegant young wife, fluttered her eyelashes at me and asked me to please allow him to place a digital assistant in my home. I grumbled and groaned, but just like every other pretty girl I've ever met, she eventually got her way. They unboxed it bright and early on a Monday morning, assured me that its learning software would pick up on my routines almost instantly. All I had to do was talk to it, and it would do the rest. It was about 6 feet tall, clad in average looking clothes and shoes with a realistic looking skin underneath, and a pleasant, though fake, plastic face. I named it Data, after a character on a long forgotten TV show.

It was the perfect butler. It remembered where I left my glasses, reminded me to take my pills, told me about anniversaries I had forgotten, and most of all, it just stayed quiet when I wanted to read a book. As much as I had resisted, I secretly was glad Sophia had insisted I give in. On a Thursday morning, I swung my feet onto the floor after a particularly vivid dream. I sat there, getting my bearings, when I felt Data come into the room. I knew it was scanning my vital signs, waiting for instructions. The one rule I had made clear to it was that, generally speaking, I didn't want it to speak until I spoke to it first. I reached for my glasses and looked outside. It was raining and grey.

"What do I have scheduled today, Data?," I said.

"Your heart rate is elevated," it said calmly. The voice was pitched evenly, with perfect cadence and diction. The only way you could tell it was human was that it was so perfect. "Are you feeling well?"

"I'm fine," I said. "I had a bad dream."

"Would you like to talk about it?"

"No," I said firmly. It was about Lisa, the first girl I ever loved, and the one I let get away, all those years ago. She was in danger, and I had to get through some sort of glass wall to get to her. "What's on the list today?," I repeated.

"It is your grandson Joseph's 4th birthday," he said. "I have already arranged for a gift to be shipped to him, but Sophia suggests a call might be appropriate. I have scheduled it for after he has completed soccer practice. You have an overdue book, "The Letters of Eudora Welty," from the public library. I could return it for you. You will be charged a $2.50 fine. Your doctor would like a blood sample, but that can be done at any time today."

"That's fine, all except the library book. I'll take that back."

"It's not necessary," the robot began. "Sophia-"

"No, I'll do it," I said a little too roughly. "Sophia may love my son, but she doesn't understand a lot about men. Sometimes I have to do things myself. It's what men do."

"Other men allow-," it began again.

"No, no," I said. "It's not a statistical argument. It's a feel thing. I don't feel alive if I don't have things to do. I'm thankful that you're here, and you're very helpful. But I need to feel useful. My wife has been gone almost 25 years now, and I still need to have things to do every day. Men have to do things, not have them done for them. It helps me feel functional, like life is worth living."

"When will you return?," it asked.

"When I feel like it," I said, taking the pile of clothes it had gathered and walking into the bathroom. The day I can't run my own errands is the day you put me in the ground, I thought.

Lance's 100 Word Song Challenge: "Polly Pocket"

My brother from another mother Lance, whose blog can beat up my blog, and probably yours too, has started a 100 Word Challenge, each week based on a song. This week's song is "Take Me To The Pilot" by Elton John, a favorite of mine, and the story is called "Polly Pocket".

When he looked down, he had these bangs, black with red highlights, that hung in front of his face. I wanted to touch them. I wanted to peel him open, like the Polly Pockets I used to play with, and see what his heart said. Loving him was hard work- he was outgoing and fun one day, cynical and withdrawn the next. He was every love song ever written, and he was the lead in every romantic movie scene I had ever seen.

"What's wrong? I wish you would talk to me," I said cheerfully.

"I know," he said.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Indie Ink Writing Challenge: New York Minute

For the IndieInk Writing Challenge this week, The Last Astronaut challenged me with "...he replied: "what took you so long?"" and I challenged trencher with "'I just feel it as it goes. I do whatever I feel is right for me at the time.' -Johnny Cash"

[Author's Note: I don't know why I feel like I have to do this, but this story is a little NSFW. There is a bad word in it, and it implies that married people have sex. Be warned. This is also the third in a series of response pieces. My piece starts it off here, and my pal Runaway Sentence wrote a companion piece/follow up here. This is, I guess, the third piece, although it doesn't necessarily require that you read the first two.}

Her weight on top of me was pleasantly familiar. It never gets old, her hard pelvic ridge finding that perfect resting place, that familiar feeling of skin pressing against skin, her warm hairless thighs, taut from hours in the gym, pressing against the roughness of my short brown hair. Without my noticing, she had stripped out of her bedclothes, so I shifted around to match her nakedness.

It was comforting, knowing the smells, the curves and hard ridges and soft belly skin that I knew as well as my own. It was a communion, the simple need to be close to her, that feeling that you couldn't be close enough, that feeling that even if I could climb inside her skin, it wouldn't be enough.

"What took you so long?," I said. I looked up at her face, watching the surprise register, shading into anger.

"What took me so long?," she said incredulously.

"Well, I've been laying here," I said smiling. "I know you find me irresistible, so it was only a matter of time-"

Her face broke into a smile. "Oh DO shut up!," she said. "You're so obnoxious!"

"But you love me."

"Yes. Sometimes against my better judgement," she said, smiling wider now, a less wholesome, more mischievous one. "But I do."

I arched my back slightly, pressing against her in a way that spoke volumes. "Do you want to?"

She smiled that smile again. "I can. Do you?"

"I always do," I said. It was true. She wasn't 19 any more. Neither was I. But two kids and twenty years on, I still wanted her like a horny teenager. "But that's not what I asked you."

"I'm tired, honey. You know that. I'm pleased that you want to. Thrilled that you still look at me the same way you did when we were in college. But we can't act that way anymore. You have to work tomorrow, even if you are going to quit. I have a meeting with Nate's teacher, and I have to bring snack to Matthew's."

"Plus you have work to do."

"That too, yeah. But I can," she said, moving her hips against me suggestively.

"I don't want to force you," I said.

"You're not forcing," she said. "I'm volunteering. I know you like it, and I don't mind. I like giving you pleasure."

"But you don't want to."

She leaned back, her weight now more on my thighs. "Honestly, Michael? No. I'm tired. And I want to go to sleep. But like I said, I don't mind. We've started something, so I don't mind if you finish it."

"It's not worth it if you're not into it," I said. "If that's all it's for, I can do that by myself. You're not an object for my amusement."

"Jesus Christ," she said. I felt the eroticism drain out of the moment like water from a leaky squirt gun. "It's sex, not a hostage crisis. This drives me crazy. Sometimes you have to do something, not just think about it and ruminate forever. Michael, you've always put women on a pedestal. Me especially. And believe me, 98% of the time, it's great." She drew her legs up, folding her arms across her breasts. I stared at the way her calf muscles bunched up. "This is the other 2%. I'm a grown woman. I know when you met me, I was a scared little girl. And you've always tried to protect me. And like I said, it's nice."

"I feel like it's my job," I said.

"I know you do," she said. Her voice was edging into a hiss, the tone she adopted when the kids were home. If we were alone, she would be rattling the windows. "And that's your father's influence, and I understand it. But I'm a grownup. I can do things for you, I can make sacrifices, I can voluntarily do something for you that isn't a hundred percent my idea. I can even carry two children for you."

"And I appreciate it."

"That's just it," she said a little louder. "I know. I know. I know you appreciate the sacrifices I've made. Just like I appreciate the ones you have made for me. For us. I know how hard you work, how much you do, how much you gave up. At times, do I regret it? Do I wish I had my 20 year old body again? Do I wish I was still a barista at Starbucks, flirting with coworkers and giving blowjobs in the parking lot? Of course I do. It's part of being human. But I can't go back. Nobody can. And on balance, are the sacrifices worth it? Yes. Jesus, yes. I don't regret marrying you. I don't regret having the boys. And sometimes, you have to let me sacrifice for you, and don't hit me with your bullshit guilt trips."

She got up, snatching her bed clothes with one hand and a pillow with the other. She managed to open the door angrily, leaving it open behind her. I heard her footfalls down the stairs, and the distant tinny sound of the television coming on downstairs. I stared at the darkness, listening to the noises of the house. It was never clear whether or not I should pursue her at moments like this. Sometimes, she craved her own space, and other times, she would be sitting there lonely and scared, wanting me to talk her down. Somewhere in the distance, a siren wailed. I wondered, like in the old Don Henley song, if someone was going to emergency, or to jail.