The underground strip mall was used by high schoolers, some of them old students of mine, as a destination for kissing, jerking, smoking, sucking, graffitiing, loitering and other displays of fleeting fun. Many of the same kids who came for lust and destruction also frequented Kedar’s video game rental/VCR/VHS player repair shop. He’d sold new games but the thefts became too much. They all but ceased when only scratched, outdated rentals remained. Save for a billboard on an abandoned building downtown, and the transient gentlemen who danced in a googly eyed VHS-tape costume at street level holding a sign that advertised our weekly specials, you wouldn’t have known we existed.
For the past few months Kedar had extended his Friday lunch breaks to two hours so he could amble the narrow linoleum-lined corridor to Toya’s and get his nails done.
“This could be the weekend?”
“Will it?” I asked, inflecting a tinge of optimism to the word “it.”
“You don’t think so?”
“It’s been how many years since y’all got together?”
“Well…” Kedar thought. “At least three…of us living together.”
Kedar had seen a psychic located across from Toya’s who’d told him a ring was in his future. The psychic could not elaborate, and so he interpreted it to mean marriage. For the first few days he was relaxed, complimentary of my work, buoyant. Soon this turned to concern over his inability to afford a grand marriage. I reminded him that the ceremony wouldn’t be big, because neither his nor Farhad’s family would likely come. He agreed and for a brief time his general buoyancy continued. This didn’t last, and as his mood became bluer, I noticed him looking at his hands more and more. So often that he was unable to do the simplest of VCR or VHS player repairs. He, in turn, noticed my concern and told me that if he wasn’t to have a spectacle, his announcement photo would need to be “memorable as hell.” His hands, after years of being shoved into tight, small, sharp places, had paid the price with hundreds of tiny cuts. Richly brown hands told the story of his profession in loosely connected scars, a lightly colored patchwork of shiny skin, raised above the non-marked skin like islands from the sea. An archipelago; I thought it sort of beautiful.
But he wanted to record the moment Farhad put the ring on his finger. He wanted this moment, “the start of their forever,” to look as grand as he knew it to be. He didn’t think his hard-working hands would read as “grand” when played back via VHS. The scars were there to stay, but he figured that his nails could at least be pretty, pretty enough to pull attention from his hand and back towards the ring being placed on it. The psychic had neglected to provide him with any date or series of lucky numbers, so he chose to be prepared. Making sure that his nails were done to perfection weekly, just in time for the weekend, a time we both agreed it seemed most proposals occurred.
“Are you leaving him hints?”
Kedar frowned. “I don’t think I can.”
“That’s messing with destiny, or something.”
I considered this for a few moments. “Can you just go back to the psychic?”
“She’s usually wrong, and I’m already spending too much on these damn nails, I can’t afford her incorrections too.”
I was happy for Kedar, even a bit jealous of his single-mindedness. Farhad was a good man, handsome, had a job. One didn’t need to commune with the other realm to know that marriage, if not in the immediate future, would serve both well whenever it occurred. For the sake of his worry and wallet, I wanted the marriage proposal to arrive. Conversely (selfishly) I didn’t want to jeopardize the recurrence of my boss’s two-hour sojourns, because they gave me, in the midst of a twelve-hour shift, opportunities to indulge my own personal life. At first this had meant scrawling “be back soon” across a piece of paper, taping it to the door, locking up, and quickly walking a mile to one of the adult theaters downtown. Construction workers in neon vests and paint-splattered jeans, along with bank clerks in ill-fitting Men’s Warehouse suits, made their ways down the sticky aisles for the matinee rush. Some watched, others participated. When the scene grew stale I’d find myself considering my future. My hand down some dude’s Lee’s, his hand down my swishy trackpants, I’d catch myself thinking about my age, weight, or bank account. A series of numbers that were always either too high or low. I’d come enough, so I began using the time to rearrange my future. Heading downtown to the main library branch, going through job listings. Old book musk sat heavily beneath high marble ceilings. The sounds of heels clicking, the hush of lowered voices, and strained creaking of old chairs were as familiar and welcoming to me as the spitting, stroking, and groaning of the theaters.
This particular Friday I was headed in the opposite direction, uptown for a lunch meeting with my brother. He was around for a conference, and wanted to discuss something which could benefit my working future. Ada, a graduate of my freshmen computer class, arrived exactly five minutes after Kedar left. She’d once, like the other teens, used this space as her vice den away from home. Now a senior, she too had her eyes on the future. I began paying her a little to watch over the store while I was away on Fridays. At the end of the school year I would write her a letter of recommendation and act as a reference for whatever cashier, sales associate, clerk, or stockroom assistant job she hoped to get come summer. This would be her internship.
She entered with the informally alert air of a fellow conspirator. “He left?” she asked in a hoarse tone barely above a whisper.
“He has. I’ll be back in…” I looked at my watch “Ninety minutes.”
“Cool.” She took the keys. “Can my friend come through?”
“No reason, I think they want to see that expansion of the mindset game.”
I was already heading out the door with my bag. “Just them, and put everything back as it was.”
“Okay,” I responded over my shoulder with a firm smile that I hoped conveyed the trust I was placing in her.
The uptown 77 bus was already at its stop when the escalator rolled me above ground and onto the mid-afternoon street. Somehow, the daylight always managed to surprise me. For an instant I allowed myself to enjoy its warmth before jogging to the 77’s open doors. From my seat, I watched Casper doing a two-step into a box-step so elaborate for such a bulky suit that he nearly dropped the sign reading, “You break it we fix it! 30% Off!”
More of a bar than a restaurant, the place my brother had chosen served great nachos. The kind containing the right amount of both real and canned cheese which blended into an even spread across all the chips. I was licking salsa from my fingers and finishing a second beer when he began explaining the plan that he and his business partner Jerome had fit me into.
“You’ve got experience in education, working with kids…”
“Exactly, and we’re going to pitch our idea to North Ridge Hospital using an actual kid as a part of the demo.”
“Okay, the robot idea?” Not wanting to seem rude, I glanced as briefly as possible at my watch. I had about forty-five minutes to finish up and get back to Ada.
“Well, no, but sort of. At this point in development, the robot isn’t as much of a robot as it is a very expensive doll.”
I nodded with the polite inquisitiveness of a unbiased TV news anchor speaking with an alien abductee. “Would you like me to help with it?”
He told me that the technology wasn’t quite where they needed it to be—not yet, at least. He wasn’t sure it would be, but it certainly wouldn’t be any time before his Saturday morning demonstration to hospital investors. It was too late for him to delay the meeting, and far too late for them to return any of the seed money which had already been, as he put it, “invested into other avenues.” Using a sports metaphor about a final quarter audible that I barely understood, he told me that I was being brought on as “sort of distraction.”
“You’ll lead them left so that they go right.”
Once again, I nodded.
“You’ll discuss your own experience as a computer science instructor to teens or kids and your knowledge of machine learning. Give a long drawn-out speech about the potential of this new technology, but highlight the limitations and how expensive making the vision a reality could be for them.”
“Okay, so once I’ve done that they’ll want to pull out from this whole venture?”
“Maybe. Well, hopefully. That’s when Jerome will introduce them to the other prototype…”
I interrupted, beginning to see where this was going. “The actual prototype?”
“Right, this is the one that we can produce. The only one we’ve been able to.” He reached into his bag and pulled out a purple teddy bear with large green eyes. “I want this to be the future of pediatric care.”
I looked at the “future of pediatric care,” sat there between my empty pint glasses and our dwindling basket of nachos, looking more like a psychedelic Teddy Ruxpin than a savior of sick children. “At what point do I tell them I work in a video game rental/VCR player repair shop?”
He laughed and gestured for me to pick the bear up. I did and, feeling the heft of it, asked, “What’s it supposed to do?”
“Improve their moods with pleasant conversation, study their emotional responses, vitals, and learn when they’ll need a nurse or doctor before the doctors or nurses have to figure it out. At this point it’s early on, but it’s got so much potential.” He reached for the nachos.
“What does it do?”
Apparently, not much. Reality had yet to catch up with my brother’s vision. This was not uncommon. Still, I always felt obligated to help family when possible. I’d sadly found myself with less and less opportunities or means to do so. Plus, he’d pay me for my time. During the demonstration, I would alert the investors to the “subtle movements” of the doll’s body and what this meant in relation to its reading of the child’s health. We had another drink each, this third cold beer feeling as surprisingly refreshing as the sun had, only an hour earlier upon my skin.
As we hugged goodbye, I inhaled deeply to take in the smell of him, my smell, one I hadn’t noticed in far too long. He asked if I could take the prototype with me back to work and have a look at it with Kedar. I picked it up with some care, uncertain of its structural integrity. Surprised by its mass, I let out a playful groan. He chuckled, adding that he was “a little confused” by some of its recent behavior and wanted to make sure that it would follow a prepared script he’d uploaded into it the previous day. I said, “Of course,” and he gave me the same weighted smile I hadn’t much long ago given Ada.
About a mile from work, somewhere outside the Jefferson House projects, the 77 broke down. According to my watch, I had thirteen minutes to reach Ada. When I asked the driver what his plan was, he looked at me and smiled. “Papi, really?” I considered everything about the day and laughed as well. This wasn’t anything new, this was reality. Things were conveniently inexpensive, serving the masses, until they didn’t. Faint clicks of reality could be perceived, even if just barely, in these moments. Somewhere in the distance was a signal reminding me of my own eventual end. I laughed with the driver until I felt the formation of a new smile line forming around my left nostril.
Filled with cheese and beer, fighting back coughs, trying to look like a black guy casually jogging, not a black guy running from a crime, I briskly jogged back to work. Even if a taxi were to pull over for me, I wouldn’t have had the money to pay. My chest burned, my feet ached, and yet somehow my thighs felt strong. To distract myself, I wondered over the inconsistent nature of my glorious body. Genetics, maybe.
Sweaty, panting like an abused dog, I arrived to relieve Ada of her duties with three minutes to spare.
“You alright?” A slice of pizza on a paper towel in her hands.
I smiled, composed myself. “Bus troubles, what’s new?”
“Horace never showed anyway.” She sounded disappointed.
“Anyone else come in?”
“What?” She was already gathering her things.
“Barely, no rentals or repairs requested.”
Ada had not been a student I’d known particularly well, though it’s fair to say that I knew none of my students particularly well, anyone really, during that period of my life. So, I guess when considering that we were currently a part of this thing together, I now knew her far better. Her ambitions, and her ability to keep a secret. She’d eaten her twin in the womb, “absorbed them,” is how she put it. A half-eaten box of pizza sat next to her. I thought of Horace, the no-show lunch date.
“Are you around tonight?”
“My brother wants me to check out this doll for sick kids, maybe just a spec test. I guess to make sure it’s working alright. I need another opinion.”
“When does Kedar leave?” She gestured towards my bag.
I pulled the thing out and handed it to her. “I’m doing a presentation with it tomorrow, we’ll need to make sure it behaves as planned.”
“Weird,” she said to herself, inspecting it the way one would a two-headed fish.
“I think he’s outta here around seven, but you can come in before that, like you’re passing through.”
“Just passing through.”
“That’s right, that sort of thing.”
“Cool, I’ll check it out if nothing comes up.”
Sometimes I thought of a life with kids to raise and worry about. Often, I wondered if heteronormativity would’ve been a stabilizing force in my life. Some college classmates had kids now, teens even. It only took my time as a teacher, and knowledge of the other men in my family, to understand that child rearing, in my lifetime, was a fate best avoided. Since my brother had gotten the food and drinks, I gave her the five-dollar bill floating in my pocket. I’d be doing more drinking than eating tonight anyway. “Get dinner later, then tell Horace to fuck himself, then come here.”
She smiled. “You don’t have to.”
“It’s fine, hon, look at me.” I gestured to the shelves of empty game boxes, the cartridges were kept in a safe in the back. “I’m doing fine.”
Again, she smiled. “Thanks, mister.”
Kedar arrived a minute, maybe less, after she’d left. He was greeted by me and my brother’s prototype. Both of us behind the counter looking, presumably, equally out of place.
“I feel beautiful,” he announced with faux exasperation. Then, “What the fuck is that?”
Analog watches made me nervous. I kept mine, a gift from a guy deserving of sentiment, in the back of a sock drawer in the company of various sex toys and rolls of coins to avoid the sound of ticking. In my apartment, time was displayed digitally. My microwave, oven, microwave oven, answering machine, and VCR/VHS player. Having synced them all to the same minute was a feat of engineering for which I’m still proud. Around my wrist I wore a handsome gold Casio DBC-610 Databank calculator watch. I enjoyed the eerily green kryptonite glow its back light emitted.
There I stood, back in the store, leaning behind the counter, toying with this feature and thinking about the women who’d contracted radiation poisoning as a result of their work licking the brush tips to more effectively apply self-luminescent paint to 1920s watch dials. A soft whirring sound, the sound of something turning, attempting to turn, caused me to notice the time rather than only the light. An hour had passed since Kedar left for the night, and only a couple customers had come in. I decided to take a look at the prototype. Turning it over, I found the on/off switch and a few Velcro tabs that, when undone, revealed a parallel port beneath the bear’s fuzzy backside. I plugged in an accompanying cable my brother provided me at lunch and inserted the other end to the tower of the store’s computer.
After waiting a few minutes for the machine to whir itself on, I was able to review Jerome’s code. My knowledge or whatever I still remembered from my time teaching did not appear to meet his. The lines were unfamiliar to me in their sheer complexity. I wasn’t quite sure if I was observing gibberish or genius. As I read through the lines, I again noticed a mechanical whirring, barely perceptible beneath the loudness of my thoughts. My neck tightened at my potentially glaring inadequacies, then relaxed as I thought of how hieroglyphs must have first appeared to those viewing them millennia beyond their intended time.
Deciphering what fragments I could, line after line left me significantly more intrigued with the product than I’d been at lunch. The mechanical whirring sound continued and I bent down, stooping below the counter to where the dusty computer tower was located. The sound stopped. A few gentle taps along the warm tower’s side with the back of my hand, nothing. The sound began again as soon as I stood up. Baffled, I walked around the counter and paced the store looking from floor, to shelves, to ceiling. The further I moved from the counter, the louder the noise became until I heard a crash. The sound stopped. Approaching the counter, I saw, with a healthy amount of confusion and fear, the prototype on the floor. Hoping to find some answer other than the obvious, I looked around for some phantom perpetrator. None was found.
Though I hadn’t gotten my usual Friday night booze, I woke on Saturday with a 6/10 hangover. Stumbling off the couch and towards the kitchen for water, I felt the microwave display’s blue digital glow. 8:23 A.M. I checked my voicemails. 8:25 A.M.
“Today shouldn’t take too long. In by 1:00 and out by 2:00.” There was some noise in the background, likely Jerome, and my brother paused to respond. “Anything up with the prototype,” he continued, “any issues of note for us to be concerned?” Another interruption, then, “Okay, you’re asleep, give me a call when you’re up. Alright. Okay.” The message ended with a click of the cassette.
Standing there, a wine glass of water in hand, I rewound the tape and replayed it a half-dozen times, hoping to find some clue in my brother’s voice and to better hear what was happening in the background. Neither happened. 8:36. I drank the water, trying to understand why my head was pounding, and my stomach sour. As I put the glass next to the answering machine, I noticed my hands were trembling.
When people had found out I was a teacher, they’d give me an extra pat on the back. I remembered that well, hating it, needing it. I was happy to remember little of those nervous days. Maybe that’s what this was, the headache, the stomach and hands, a healthy reaction to fear. Less than twelve hours earlier the prototype had nearly broken. Why had it broken? I was barely able to admit this to myself. My brother had never mentioned anything about the doll being able to track movements, but surely it had been tracking mine. Looking for me, searching until it spun itself off the counter.
Panicked, I’d closed up two hours early, gone home and slept. Where was it now? I leaned against the wall opposite the answering machine, beneath a portrait of my father which my sister had painted at sixteen. I kept a mirror over the phone, to practice appropriate expressions while having conversations, to look more empathetic when in person. Looking into the mirror while making eye contact with the resemblance of my father at middle age was not unlike looking into a parallel timeline. I’d left it at the shop.
In no rush to return, I walked the two miles from my place to the underground strip mall. A large group of pigeons were posted up (roosting maybe) along one side of the pedestrian footbridge I crossed. Beneath us, cars passed quickly and loudly. The silly birds seemed unworried and continued pecking. I looked up. The clouds looked exactly like how clouds were supposed to look on Saturday. My pits were wet, so I removed my shirt; hard to tell if I was scared or tired.
Casper greeted me with a one-finger salute into a finger gun sort of thing. I smiled and nodded. The escalator had yet to be turned on by the site supervisor, so I walked down the grooved steps, clumsily. The hallway was dark, which made me grateful to see that the psychic’s lights were on. I unlocked the security grating, lifted it up, made my way in. Just as I flipped the light switch, the phone rang.
My brother was more understanding than disappointed. “Thanks for dropping it off, I’m sorry you won’t be able to make it. Tell me if you change your mind. There’s still a few hours!” A pause. “Anyway, how have you been, really?”
Ada knocked on the window. “Sorry about the no-show last night. Still need any help today?”
I smiled and nodded. “Sure, I think. There’s always something, isn’t there?”
She smiled too, mostly to herself.
I looked up, certain I could see the clouds, the pigeons, the cars. Everything right where it was. At the other end of the hall was the psychic. What would she tell me that I didn’t already know? I could see my future clearly. The adult theater for some fun, then the library for a bit of job research. I could see it all clearly, read like palm lines outstretched before me.
Guy Melvin was born in North Philadelphia, and lives in Brooklyn. He has work in Sundog Lit, Fahmidan Journal, All My Relations Vol. 2, Cypress Press’ Red House Anthology, and Cerasus Magazine. His most recently published story can be found in A Long House. He can be reached at guymelvin82[at]yahoo[dot]com.