Sitting here in the dirt, I thought about my grandmother’s feet, and how she hobbles around on curled up toes. These days, her bunions are so bad that her feet are kind of triangular and each foot looks like it had been bound when she was a child. She’s ninety-eight, but she keeps shuffling along. When I picture her small farmhouse, I can see her standing—no weaving—at the stove, frying bacon. The house is spotless, but the smell of bacon lingers.
I leaned back against the beat-up park bench, squinting into the sun-infused smog. We’d been sitting here for a long time. “Dad? Dad, why are you talking in metaphors?” No answer. I listened to the click of marbles in my pocket. Two women waved to an elderly woman sitting at a bench across the path, and to the right, a young couple meandered between piles of broken concrete. I got up to draw a circle in the dirt, but my dad pinched my waist hard without looking down. I didn’t dare move an inch.
He was looking straight ahead, his eyes tracking the elderly woman’s every gesture. Then his face relaxed. “It ain’t poetry, Jacob. It’s a statement of fact. I catch ’em, time and time again, because of this flaw. There are other ways to detect them….” His voice trailed off as he looked down and rubbed the grease off his knuckles. “They don’t know they’re doing it, and they don’t do it all the time. I guess they can taste but not very well. I mean, you know they’re super intelligent, but butter-side up or upside down? It doesn’t make a goddamn difference to them. When they’re finished spreading butter, they place it face down or face up.”
“Don’t they worry about the butter falling off?”
“Programming is too reasonable. Robots never over-butter. Funny how that got deep coded but not the up-down orientation.”
“What about jelly?”
He turned away from the old woman for the first time and gave me a look. He didn’t know if I was serious or not. “Don’t know son. Just don’t know… Shut up. I need to concentrate.” His voice faded away. It’s not my fault he has trouble focusing; he’s always been that way.
“Never mind, Dad. It was just a joke.” I should be back in school.
The park was quiet and my dad kept his eyes on the woman.
“It’s like a phoneme that they never learned to pronounce. And if no one teaches you the difference, then your V and your B will sound the same. Machines can learn and even adapt, but they never had parents, and they can’t evolve.” Maybe in the past, he would have been a professor, not a toggleman.
“I heard, that if you try to shut them down, they explode and burn”
“No. The shutdown itself is never dramatic. It’s what they’re doing when they finally break down that makes them a menace, especially when we don’t know how to fix them anymore. They are stubborn to a fault. True human beings are safer. Generally, they break down slowly, or at least they usually retire before they die. Humans don’t get behind the wheel of a school bus and then just melt. On the outside, they look healthy, but an old double might die of a system failure at any moment. And we don’t know exactly how many of them are out there, ready to time-out.”
I could smell cigarette smoke and someone behind us coughed. “Let’s go home. There’s nothing here.”
We walked out to the street and signaled for the car. It drifted over, its dented doors already open. As we quickly climbed up over the city, the smog thickened, and the abandoned buildings of the city-center disappeared.
Sometimes when I’m home alone, I think I can hear Granny’s cuckoo clock ticking. It is an angular, tidy bird’s nest that never slips from the wall or from the corner of my eye. The brass weights geared to descend slowly on their long chains, and when I was three or four, my favorite thing was to watch her reset the pine cone weights, a routine for her as much as the clock. The tiny cuckoo bird was so faithful; even with immobile wings it seemed to flutter. The falling weights were the little bird’s heart strings. It still hangs on the same nail it has for decades, ignored and then adored. Everyday, like a ritual, Granny asks Grandpa Robert to wind it, but he does it before she even asks.