Summer 2007 Volume One Issue Three
Fixer Uppers - K.M. Praschak
When the toaster gasped out two blackened bagels, Loretta abandoned her vacation brochures to yank its plug out of the wall. At the table, her decades-old robot Earl_Mz started to twitch in another of his electronic seizures. She needed to get both her companion and the appliance repaired soon. If she waited any longer, they would both end up in the corner, useless and dusty.
"Don't you throw away my toaster," Earl_Mz said as the sports section fell from his fingers onto the floor. He'd been made to look like a rap singer Loretta had sung backup for in her youth. The companion's singing program no longer worked, but he still retained more than a bellyful of attitude.
Loretta dropped the darker bagel on a saucer and sucked on her fingers. For all the cosmetic surgery she'd enjoyed, no doctor could make these hands look young again. "That toaster's too old-fashioned, just like you. Did you get cream cheese last night?"
"You didn't punch it into my shopping list." Earl_Mz ate his bagel without seeing it, then grabbed Loretta's. His current crop of malfunctions burned through a lot of energy.
"For a robot, you eat more than any six of my grandkids."
Still active in her eighties, Loretta thought about the dawn of the century, when the country's aging population had needed more care than the retirement centers could give them. Pressured by lobbyists and their grandparents, the government produced several lines of companions to keep the elderly comfortable. Against her better judgment, she'd agreed to take on Earl_Mz when her physician suggested it after her first knee surgery. Now she wondered if the companions were part of a plot to drive old people insane -- the robots acted more human than Loretta herself felt at times.
"We got any more coffee?" Earl_Mz held out his cup. "I need to be out of here by nine."
Exasperated, Loretta slammed the butter knife on the counter. "That pot is right there. Where you going, anyway? We're going to get a new toaster today."
"You made decaf? That's the problem." Earl_Mz winked and pointed an imaginary gun at his head.
"Answer my question." Loretta had never managed to get a straightforward response out of the robot, who seemed to have inherited his personality straight from her first ex-husband.
After Earl_Mz poured a cup, he grinned. "The boys want to take the old man fishing. Listen, doll girl, make us a couple of sandwiches each. I'll take the money card to buy drinks on the road."
"Sit down and finish your coffee." Loretta would be glad to have the house to herself for once. Unlike her girlfriends, who went for the off button every time their companions curled their hair, she'd never taken Earl_Mz offline. However, there were mornings when she wanted the toolbox and a hammer.
As Earl_Mz sat down, he mumbled about the toaster.
"What's that?" Loretta took another bagel out of the bag.
"That toaster's got a few more years in it. I could fix it up for you, like I did that raggedy cassette player of yours." Earl_Mz chuckled at his idea. It had taken years for Loretta to get used to the low tones of his laugh, but he'd been made to act like a man -- complete with appetite and annoyances.
"Keep your hands out of my toolbox," Loretta said. "My mix tapes turned into confetti thanks to you. Which reminds me, did you call the robotics clinic about your broken fuse?"
"No." Earl_Mz grimaced. "Can I have a cheese sandwich?"
Instead, Loretta stared at the misfiring fuse on his neck and scowled. He kept breaking down and wouldn't go in for repairs -- just like her last husband, cut down by a stroke at fifty-five. She'd get Earl_Mz into that clinic or get herself recycled instead.
"Call Doctor Morell. We'll talk about your sandwich after you tell me you're going in."
The ultimatum made Earl_Mz groan. "She'll just turn me into spare parts." He picked up the printout of the news and stared at it until Loretta ripped it out of his hands. "You know they don't make my model any more, so there's no putting my personality into a new body."
"We can fuss and holler at each other, or you can find the number and call. The phone's right here." Loretta's social worker kept telling her she needed mental challenges, and by God Earl_Mz challenged her every damn day of their lives.
Earl_Mz glared at her. "I see."
"You see something besides that busted marble on your neck?" Loretta turned the kitchen's phone screen to face him. "What's the password to my address book?"
"You're just trying to get rid of me." Earl_Mz folded his arms. "You're sick of me and that toaster. Isn't that right, Miss 'I'm Upgrading Today' Loretta?"
With a shake of her head, Loretta went to the pantry for her stash of paper bags. After she took her time finding two, she took them to the kitchen counter and opened them. A subdued Earl_Mz set the loaf of bread next to her bags.
"Want me to get the cheese, Lo?"
"I can get it." Bullying hadn't worked, so Loretta turned the thermostat up to sunny. "Pickles?"
Earl_Mz dropped his papers in the recycler and watched them disappear. "Okay." He gave Loretta a wary look as she returned to the refrigerator.
"Take a couple slices of that chocolate cake, too."
"Now I know you're mad at me." The table rattled as Earl_Mz bumped against it. "I'll get myself done up next week, Loretta. Or after football season."
"You just take this worn-out old toaster and your outdated self to the lake and throw yourselves in, you antique." Loretta shoved the toaster into the empty bag. "I don't have time to keep up with either of you pieces of junk."
Abandoning the house, Loretta rode the bus out to the mall. Along the way, she stared at the signs showing off the latest companion robots. The neon-splattered ads showed bald and goateed robots mixing tropical drinks. Her girlfriends wanted her to trade Earl_Mz in for a model that could do more housework and less complaining. As much as Earl_Mz irritated her, though, she still needed him around. No one else would go to bingo with her and she liked to watch the shows with him.
Also, she admitted to herself, she'd reached the age when she needed help. Next month, she faced another hip replacement. Her bones ached on rainy days, and she kept misplacing little things, like her keys and the tops to her medicine bottles. On the other hand, Earl_Mz himself wouldn't last much longer if he didn't get repaired soon. They needed each other to keep on going in this world.
Right after the bus dropped her off at the mall's entrance, her purse chimed with a warning from Earl_Mz's diagnostic program.
"System 608 will go offline in fifteen minutes unless a repair program is initiated," the message said.
"What's that system run?" Loretta checked her To Do list, stuffed with reminders to fix her companion. "Oh, it's Earl_Mz's what-you-call-it, his personality software."
If she didn't fix her companion now, she faced losing him forever. Her hands shaking, Loretta beeped Earl_Mz.
"Answer, you walking junk heap." Moving fast as she could at eighty, she scurried over to the electronics boutique and bought the biggest toolkit her purse could handle.
A quick call to her oldest grandson confirmed the boys had taken Earl_Mz to their favorite fishing spot on the lake. The bus didn't run that direction on weekdays, but Loretta spotted the youth minister from her church in the parking lot.
"I need you to run me out to the lake. It's kind of an emergency." Before the young man could protest, she shoved the toolkit into his arms. "I've got a lost sheep to save, okay?"
The ride on the solar cycle bent Loretta's hair in several unnatural directions, but they made it to the lake less than ten minutes later. Hordes of birds fled at their approach, but Earl_Mz didn't look up when the cycle screeched to a stop. Loretta's grandsons waved when they recognized her.
"Wait here." Loretta climbed off and hauled the toolkit out of the saddlebag. "How we doing, boys?"
One of the quads grinned. "We caught three catfish already, Nanny."
"I don't think Mr. Earl_Mz's feeling too good," one of the triplets said.
Unlike herself, Earl_Mz could tell them all apart. She waved them away and approached her companion. He didn't move, though the line on his fishing rod began to twitch.
"You got a big one this time, honey?" Loretta eased the box to the ground and took out a wrench.
"The almanac in my head says fish don't bite when girls are chattering." Earl_Mz slurred each word. "I'm gonna catch you a big one, Loretta."
The fishing pole flew out of his hands and rolled into the water. Croaking in alarm, Earl_Mz teetered on the edge of the river.
"Watch out there." Loretta grabbed his arm and they tripped over each other. They fell to the ground with matched groans.
"Nanny!" The grandsons and the youth minister ran up to them.
"What exactly are you doing with that wrench?" Earl_Mz asked, his eyes blinking over and over again.
Agony pulsed up and down Loretta's body. For once, she felt all eighty years of her age. "I'm fixing you up myself. Get off me."
The youth minister helped Earl_Mz to his feet, then Loretta.
"I don't need help." Earl_Mz scowled at all of them. "Where's my fishing pole?"
Loretta slumped her shoulders. "In the lake." Discouraged by her failure to help her companion, she threw the wrench into the water. "I'm going to get me a new toaster -- maybe even a new companion."
Earl_Mz made no answer as she limped back to the solar cycle.
All the way back to town, the youth minister shouted Bible verses over his shoulder. Aching in every natural part of her body, Loretta ignored him. She hadn't been a teenager in decades and even Job wouldn't have put up with the trials of a robot companion like Earl_Mz.
The youth minister returned her to the mall, where she made a pass through the geriatric health clinic. As the nurse sprayed her injuries with painkiller, she decided to put off shopping for her new appliances until her next retirement check came in. Until then, she and Earl_Mz could sit in front of the Screen, watching those crazy people on the talk shows and falling to pieces together, just like the old ladies of her youth.
After her treatment, Loretta made an unscheduled visit to her hairdresser. Later, she had her nails done up with the logo of a football team she knew Earl_Mz had been programmed to despise. It was one thing to feel blue down to your shoes, but she didn't believe anyone had to go around looking bad.
Around dinnertime, she returned home. Earl_Mz sat at the kitchen table, eying a bag from the soy burger joint. A box from the robotics clinic sat in front of Loretta's place.
"Your hair looks good." Earl_Mz's blink rate was still too fast and he still slurred his words.
"Thank you." Loretta showed him her new nails.
"That's a pretty color." Earl_Mz sighed. "Guess that means I'm doing dishes later."
Loretta picked up the box from the clinic and shook it. "Funny-looking fish you caught."
Earl_Mz rolled his eyes. "When the boys got tired, I made them take me to the clinic. You're too ornery to be left alone, so don't be falling down like that again."
"What did the engineer say?"
"I need a major upgrade," Earl_Mz confessed. "In the meantime, she gave me parts to correct my balance problems."
"Wish I could get upgraded." Loretta smiled. "Feel better?"
The look on Earl_Mz's face turned defensive. "I wasn't going to wait until I had to crawl around, begging you to turn me off."
The toaster wasn't in its corner. When Loretta looked at Earl_Mz, he sat up and grinned.
"We took your toaster to a repair shop. If I can get fixed up instead of scrapped, so can it. Now sit down and eat." Earl_Mz kissed Loretta's cheek and she hugged him.
Loretta's fixer uppers suited her just fine. Later, she'd ask him about a vacation -- one with two perfectly toasted bagels for breakfast included.
- END -