Flowers for Ackerman
by Karen B. Kaplan
Gomer Ackerman's wife had passed away some weeks back and was merely 91 years old at that. Undaunted by this setback, he had quite the plan for how to short-circuit mourning for her. He placed an order to Robogenesis, a robotics company that knew how to manufacture a fembot that would look, feel and respond more or less like his wife Muriel had. He judged that she had been a woman of simple tastes and predictable behavior, so designing a bot to respond along the lines of his wife ought to be a cinch. If he could not cheat death itself, he would cheat its aftermath.
This was a most unexpected step for Gomer, as he was living as retro a lifestyle as possible in his day and age. Gomer eschewed just about any technology that had evolved after the cellphone, including those ten-pound-a-month weight reduction pills that gobble up fat cells even for those who eat with total abandon. Nor would he partake of food unless it were touched by human hands in at least one stage of its production. Even the occupation he had retired from was antiquated; he used to repair the covers of print books that people preserved for nostalgic or religious reasons.
But Muriel's death threw him so off balance it catapulted him several decades to the present. This was the very first time he considered having anything to do with a faux human. Death is like that; it makes you want to back up in time no matter how futuristic you have to get. So Gomer struck up a bargain with Robogenesis to have Muriel back again, at least in a way close enough to be emotionally satisfying.
The robotics outfit sent out Muriel.1 to Gomer, with instructions on where and how to activate her. He wished Robogenesis could have somehow arranged for the bot to be all ready to go when she arrived, just coming in the front door as Muriel would have done, quickly turning the key and bustling in. Instead he had to midwife her into existence by charging her up for a few hours.
He felt self-conscious and silly as he placed her elbow into the recharging pad that came with her. He placed her on the couch, a logical place to find oneself upon waking up from a nap.
"Hmm," he mused aloud, shaking his head in wonder, "Talk about a mail order wife!" And he could not help but notice that Robogenesis had taken some liberties with her looks: "How ‘bout that, they've turned back the clock on her. Wonder if she'll act a little livelier too; wouldn't hurt."
His lips and eyebrows made a little dance in anticipation of some potential bonus effects of being back with a younger missus. But then again, his religious upbringing kicked in, aborting the translation of this thought into action. He mused that trying to turn the clock back on sexual activity, even if he himself still could, might insult Muriel's memory.
Every half hour or so, he called to Muriel.1, until finally she opened her eyes, searched for his face and spoke to him as she always had when waking up from a nap. "Time I be gettin' up." Gomer steeled himself not to say something strange like, "Welcome back to life, hon. Am sure glad as hell to have you back". Instead, he invoked his ritual response: "And up you are, sweetie!" and lightly patted her arm. How delicious the arm! It was soft, warm, and much freer of dark spots than the "original".
But his pleasure soon abandoned him. This arm that had traveled back in time reminded him that this was just a fembot, not Muriel. Like it or not, a wave of grief as mean as a tsunami came barreling down on him. He thought Robogenesis meant well, but that he would have to ask them to make the android look exactly like Muriel had in the final year of life as much as possible. When she was "sleeping" once more, he sent it back to the company, which then modified it according to Gomer's specifications and sent him Muriel.2.
Once again, he went through charging up the fembot via her elbow, and then placed her on the couch before she awoke. When she was fully charged, she predictably said, "Time I be gettin' up." And he obligingly said, sitting by her side, "Up you are, sweetie!" They then talked of their plans for the day, but he irrationally worried that she would find out that he was an imposter. Since he was just pretending to be talking to Muriel, this made him fear that he would sound unnatural and that Muriel.2 would figure out something was amiss. He sure did not want to cope with a marital spat after all he had just gone through.
As expected, this traditionalist mate, perfect for a retro man, did some sewing and then got to fixing supper. "If nothing else," he consoled himself, "I'll still get her home-cooked meals." He began to unwind as he thought about all the little treasures Muriel consisted of like the way she laughed at this comment and that and the way she carefully set the table. Gomer found it soothing to see her go about her customary routine. It was a reprieve from all the other confusing things going on in the world now, like when he met someone new, it was harder and harder to tell if he was a bot or a person. He knew as well as you and I it would be gauche to inquire, "Say buddy, Are you a human or a robot?" He knew perfectly well that would be as in poor taste as asking it when it was created let alone by whom.
Pretty soon, though, if he were to go anywhere with Muriel.2, he would have to meet new people, because his old crowd all knew that the master copy, Muriel.0 so to speak, had died. Gomer felt embarrassed about letting any of them know about what he classed as his clever idea to stop the clock. Moreover, they would jeer at him for succumbing to the modern age at last, and worst of all with all their jokes galore they would foil his plan to forget that Muriel was no more.
So Gomer decided he and Muriel.2 would go on a cruise. Attempting respite by going away, via a cruise is of course expected behavior for a mourner to the point of cliché, so he figured his friends would not be suspicious. They would not have to know that he was not going alone. It also was in keeping with his character not to travel on anything more modern than those sluggish airplanes that used to max out at 600 miles an hour. Such planes were still flown in Gomer's time to accommodate those passengers who were either afraid of being disoriented by arriving at a new place too soon, or simply believed those planes were safer. A ship, of course, suited Gomer all the more, since he liked to feel he had literally passed through each step of the journey without the sensation of having skipped over segments of time before arriving at his destination.
On May 12, 2085, Gomer and Muriel.2 embarked at Bayonne, New Jersey for their trip to Bermuda on Emerald Cruises. Muriel.2 made the appropriate oohing and aahing over the inviting accommodations, as well as the fact that they were going on a cruise in the first place. Her circuits crunched out the equivalent of telling herself that "you never finish learning new things about your hubby no matter how long you've been married, especially if you are a computer application trying to incorporate all the finest points."
According to her memory chips, they had not gone on a cruise for the longest time. Seated by themselves off to the side of most of the other passengers at breakfast, she did a thorough search of all her data about their last cruise. The results directed her to say to Gomer that "We should do this far more often. Life is so short and you never know when we will no longer be fit to travel anymore."
His coffee almost made a U-turn the wrong way down his throat. It seemed that no matter what, she found some way or other to remind him that she was no longer alive.
Gomer, stereotypical mourner that he was, attempted the folly of naysaying his emptiness and decided to lose himself in sex and booze. Only in this case it would be in accompaniment with the very object as it were of his loss. So they drank: him a Sea Breeze followed by a Naughty Holiday Punch, and her, perversely, a Berry Me in the Sand. He tipsily thought to himself, "Does she know she is not alive? Is she trying to give me a hint?" He made sure to polish off his last drink but good, no more goofy questions asked.
The couple's drinking eased their way into slow dancing alongside a jazz band thrumming and strumming and swaying and sashaying. (Not that Gomer was deliberately putting in his contribution to what the alcohol had already set into motion; "slow" was the only possible speed anyway for them at their ages -- his actual, hers simulated.) This in turn segued to intimate goings-on. All the details of his pleasure were consistent with their recent sexual history, testifying to the accuracy of Muriel.2's data storage even in this least quantifiable area.
The next morning, Gomer woke up, disoriented, finding his "wife" asleep in his arms. He felt intensely guilty, as if he had committed adultery. Not surprisingly, his attempt to bypass his grief with sex and booze had only replaced sadness with unrelenting guilt. Muriel.2 was most decidedly not Muriel the original, and so he had gone and touched another woman, whether a stack of machinery parts or no. "I've gone and messed up the 7th Commandment! What a whopper of a sin!" he fussed.
He could not seem to sort out the fact that since Muriel was dead, having a liaison with another woman, much less an inorganic one, was not committing adultery. It was not even coveting. He had inserted himself into a riddle: "If Muriel is alive somewhere, then Muriel.2 is not Muriel, and so I have cheated on Muriel. If Muriel is dead, then Muriel.2 is still not Muriel and so I am not being intimate with Muriel, which is what I want but am not getting." Not only did Gomer feel guilty, he felt shortchanged not to mention confused.
Muriel.2, still charged up in at least two senses of the word, stirred in his arms and pulled back to have a good look at him, and said, "That's the best tumble we've had in ages. This cruise is doing us good."
"That's for sure," he managed to say without showing shock. But he thought to himself, Muriel almost never spoke so pointedly about their love life. He was not sure how he felt about that. He was not after any novelties; he had been through more than enough change, thank you very much.
Muriel.2 got up to dress, forcing Gomer to cope with yet another disruption of his wife's usual routine: robots cannot be immersed in water, so showers were out. Of course she had not showered since the day she arrived, but he simply had blocked that little detail from his mind until now.
Gomer felt he needed some time to himself to slow down what was happening, what with showers being omitted and all. So when Muriel.2 suggested they go on down to the buffet breakfast, he said he still felt hung over and preferred to rest up some more in their cabin and would get breakfast later. This was inconsistent with her data base on his behavior, so it took some persuading to get her to go out.
Muriel.2 incorporated this latest of Gomer's changes (that is to say, unanticipated behaviors) into her memory bank, causing adjustments in her own, much as a chess player deviating from his usual opening moves would cause his partner to alter his strategy as well. Therefore despite her being an artifact of artificial intelligence, Gomer's lessened dependence on her led to more independent acts on her part. After a symbolic entrance into the dining area, she wound up exploring parts of the ship that Gomer had not shown interest in when they were together, which included the flower and gourmet goods shop.
The slim and trim florist of Mike's Blossoms had a luscious array of floral displays that softly chanted, "adorn your cabin adorn your bed adorn your lover." Muriel.2 sailed on in, and acting upon Gomer's sensory input of the night before as well as her increased freedom, performed an act the late Muriel (let alone the late Muriel.1) had never done: she bought a voluptuous looking collection of roses and orchids for Gomer. She completed her transaction without adorning it with any tidbits of information that would have left the florist a nonmonetary tip.
Muriel.2 went back to Gomer's cabin since enough time had elapsed to justifiably ask how he was doing. And it was none too soon, because she had been left turned on all last night. Gomer had forgotten to recharge her, so she went motionless just as she was crossing the threshold. The bouquet in her outstretched but now rigid arm looked incongruously like branches that a prankster had deposited into the unwilling hands of a discarded mannequin left outdoors. Gomer did not know what to make of the flowers whose vivacious colors socked him in the eyes. He knew Muriel was not one to be demonstrative.
He suddenly wished he could leave her uncharged, never to be revived again. He thought about talking with Robogenesis about a Muriel.3; Muriel.2 was not acting herself, nor acting like Muriel for that matter. But that desire wilted as soon as he thought it, because he realized he did not want to deal with .2 now nor with any other Muriel point somethings, past, present and future.
Our hero's own enthusiasm for his adventure in self-delusion was ebbing away as if he needed recharging himself. He did not want to be on the cruise anymore. He did not know where he wanted to be. He dejectedly separated the roses and orchids from Muriel.2's inert arm, disbanding them from their merry camaraderie. He absent mindedly hugged them to his body. His eyes, until now artificially dry, watered and watered the plants, at a rate rivaling the purifying drenching of a good thundershower. The roses and orchids vied with one another to tenderly stay close to Gomer as he endured the throes of lamenting not just one Muriel but the other two to boot.
By the time the rose petals in Muriel.2’s hand got dressed in black and gathered together on the floor, the cruise was nearing its own end. One detail nettled Gomer as he prepared to disembark. The idea of recharging the bot and interacting with it nauseated him. But if he hid or got rid of Muriel.2 and she did not walk out with him, the tally of passengers would come up short. Yet if he left it inert and carried it among his other luggage, he would reveal that he had taken one hell of a sex toy on board. Loaded with guilt for his elaborate stratagems to pretend that anyone and much less any thingamajig could replace his wife, he felt morally bound to honor her memory from now on.
In the end, he did the decent thing and recharged the bot just long enough to escort it to the dock in a dignified manner that would not besmirch anyone's impression of Muriel.
Once home, he carefully packed the still-inert machine in the crate in which it had been delivered, and drove to a secluded beach where he set the crate adrift on the receding tide. It would sink, eventually; the small holes he had made in the crate would make sure of that. Muriel.2, with a bouquet of artificial flowers in her -- its hands, would rest in peace at the bottom of the sea.
As he watched the crate depart, a wave of grief assaulted him once again: Muriel was gone, and he was utterly alone.
© 2012 Karen B. Kaplan
Bio: Karen B. Kaplan's novella "Upward Spiral" appeared in the July and August editions of Bewildering Stories. Her experience as a hospice chaplain inspired "Flowers for Ackerman" and its exploration of the process of bereavement and mourning in a world that offers some new options...
E-mail: Karen B. Kaplan
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