Robophobia

by Arthur Lorenz

Phoebe Cho had been unemployed for three years. She had spent most of those three years getting dressed for a job that didn’t exist, knocking on doors that didn’t open, and going to interviews with smiling HR people who didn’t have anything for her but would be the first to call if something turned up. Phoebe always smiled back, even though she knew she disappeared from their memories as soon as she left the room like a drop of saltwater dissolved away in the vast sea of the unwanted.

She had been replaced at her last market research job by a clever piece of software that she had helped develop. Hell, someone was going to develop it. It might as well have been her. These thoughts held no comfort for her on those long sleepless nights during which a pillow pressed to her ears could not block the celebration of life that one or the other of her housemates yelped through the thin walls of their shared apartment.

And then one day a random HR person in cat glasses set her up with an actual interview with a real executive from a real company. Her fingers trembled as she tugged on the hem of her navy skirt, which she suddenly realized was too short for her to be taken seriously. Crap. What had she been thinking?

“Interesting,” yawned Dr. Timothy Hierdahl, or Dr. Tim as he preferred, while he leafed through her curriculum vitae from the other side of a battleship gray desk. “Let me be frank with you, Ms. Cho. I’ve seen hundreds of these. Maybe thousands.” He tossed her resume aside. “I’m looking for something that isn’t written down on any piece of paper. I need a creative solution to a real life problem.

“For some reason, people in the U.S. are afraid of robots. They’re scared that robots are faster, smarter, and better than they are, and will eventually replace them. Since, here at Amalgamated Robotics, we are in the robot business, we view this as a marketing problem.”

Phoebe nodded her head while she listened. If Dr. Tim nodded back, she knew she had a chance.

He leaned forward and his round glasses flashed into white mirrors in the overhead light. “What are your thoughts?”

She slid a loose lock of shining black hair back into place behind her ear. “Well, if people are afraid of robots, maybe you need to make them more human. Perhaps then they would be accepted, appreciated, and valued.”

No nod.

“You mean they should look more like people?” he asked.

She pictured a robot that was the spitting image of her mother complete with home permanent and age-defying face cream made from soybeans. She suppressed a shiver. “I think they should act more like people. They could make simple inexpensive mistakes, the kind that makes others feel a little bit superior to them.”

No nod.

“Go on,” Dr. Tim said, his eyebrows furrowed.

“The robots should make small talk, joke around, and complain. You might even start off with a robot that serves food. People will feel happy when they eat the food and associate their happy feelings with the robot.”

Dr. Tim nodded his head.

“Brilliant!” he announced, out of nowhere, and slapped his desk with an open palm. A small container of paperclips bounced up and down. “When can you start?”

A tremor ran through Phoebe. “I will need to put together a market research plan, formulate surveys, and create focus groups,” she said, as calmly as she could.

“No. I’m sorry. I’ve got something more important for you. I want a mind like yours on the front line. No surveys or focus groups. We don’t need any of that stuff right now. What we need is real human data. I want you to find some sort of hamburger or hot dog vendor out there and observe him. I want to know how he deals with customers, how he speaks, how he listens, how he, as you said, makes small talk and jokes around.”

Phoebe wanted to stay in the controlled environment of the conference room and the one-way mirror. She avoided “the field” as much as possible. Things got messy in “the field.”

“I can start tomorrow at eight,” she said.

“Good.” Dr. Tim stood up from behind his desk and shook her hand. “Don’t forget the complaints. Document as many whiney, annoying complaints as you can. Also, those mistakes you mentioned. Pay attention to those too.”

“You can count on it,” Phoebe said. “Mistakes are my specialty.”

She scrubbed her hands in the ladies washroom a few minutes later and inspected her reflection in the mirror. Her high cheekbones were perfectly symmetrical but a faint trail of freckles danced across the bridge of her nose and cheeks–powdery, random, and uncontrolled.

Three years was an awful long time.

She wiped away the tears before anyone could see them.

#

When she got home, after listening to her mother’s voice message for the hundredth time that asked, “When are you going to meet a man and give me grandchildren?” Phoebe sipped a celebratory glass of white wine and gazed out of the kitchen window.

The city lights spread out below her in radiating lines bounded by impassable hills and invisible bodies of water. It was as if each small light was another lost person, someone else who stared out at the darkness from inside his own apartment and waited, like her, to be found.

#

Phoebe visited the fast food vendors of her city the next day. She observed falafel stands, shish-ka-bob wagons, and soup trucks. She assessed hamburger trolleys, taco-mobiles, and Italian ice vendors.

“One spork to a customer.”

“No yogurt sauce.”

“No ketchup.”

“No mustard.”

“No salt.”

“No napkin.”

She heard very few jokes, and none of them were funny. There was no small talk. And though the vendors, to a person, were spectacularly unhappy, she did not hear a single complaint apart from the sighs that they collectively hissed out like the slow leak of an existential tire that had been punctured by life.

Plenty of mistakes were made, but most involved handing out the wrong change, which enraged the customer and put the vendor in a painful and difficult position.

At the end of the day, Phoebe was up at the college campus, cutting through a grove of old growth oak trees, when the hopelessness hit. The job had been too good to be true. At least she had one day of fooling herself into feeling productive. One day of life.

She took out her cell to call Dr. Tim and tell him the bad news, but didn’t have any bars. She walked out into the courtyard to get better reception and heard, “Get your hot and tasty hot dogs, sizzling right off the grill, like summer, like the fourth of July, like a baseball game in extra innings. Get your dogs like your mom used to make, if your mom was a guy with a mustache named Dave, that is.”

The hot dog vendor indeed had a mustache, wore a faded black Ramones tee shirt, and had a blue Mets cap tipped back on his head. “If you buy up my hot dogs, I get to go home, and I love to go home, because I hate my job,” he said.

“Do you really hate your job?” asked an undergrad with the milk fed innocence of early freshman year, and shoulder length blonde hair of a shade not found in nature.

“Hate my job? How could I hate my job? I dream, one day, of selling a hot dog to my soul-mate, to serve her beefy goodness on a bun, lock eyes, and know that we will be together forever.”

“Really?”

“Who knows,” the vendor said with a slow crooked grin. “Perhaps it has already happened.”

He shot himself with the squeezy ketchup and they both laughed.

Phoebe called Dr. Tim. “Great news,” she said. “I’ve found our man.”

#

Armed with a pile of steno-pads, a tiny tape recorder, and a digital video camera, Phoebe began her observation of the dark eyed hot dog vendor. She lurked behind the trees of the grove, twice on the other side of a low brick wall, and once from behind a rusted blue Fiat that frat boys had deposited upside down on the library steps nearby.

She kept careful notes, collected voluminous details, and recorded everything.

“Hey stalker lady,” the hot dog man said, after a week. “Why don’t you come on over here? I promise not to bite. Much.”

Phoebe held her half filled steno-pad behind her back and walked out of the grove of oak trees like some dryad tiptoeing away from her tree.

“My name’s Dave,” the vendor said and offered his hand. “Dave Esposito.”

She took his hand in hers. It was warm. “Phoebe Cho.”

“Well, you don’t look much like a crazed hot dog fan, so tell me what you’ve been doing around here.”

“I work in market research, Mr. Esposito.”

“Dave.”

“I’ve been hired to collect data for a project, Dave.”

“A hot dog project?”

“Yes, you might call it that.”

“Do you want one? It’s on the house.”

The hot dog was crispy and salty and bursting with flavor. Phoebe found herself enjoying her work.

“So…Phoebe…” Dave said between bites of his own dog. “What do you do when you’re not stalking?”

“The usual things, I suppose,” she said and dabbed at the corner of her mouth with a square napkin.

“Care to do the usual things with me? By that, I mean dinner and a movie.”

“I don’t think that would be such a good idea.” Phoebe’s cheeks warmed. “I’m in the middle of this project, and….”

“Fair enough. But here’s my phone number in case you change your mind.” He handed her a slip of paper that she folded neatly and put into her pocket. “Also, maybe you can watch me work openly. If you brought a chair it would seriously cut down on the creep factor.”

#

The next day, Phoebe brought her own white plastic folding chair and documented Dave’s patter from up close.

“She’s my muse,” he explained to anyone who would listen, and many who didn’t.

During a lull in the late afternoon, they ate hot dogs together again. Phoebe tried to pay for them, but Dave wouldn’t let her. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “You can, I don’t know, buy me a cup of coffee some day.”

“I could,” Phoebe said. “I could buy you a cup of coffee some day.”

“You could.”

They both chewed and thought about the implications of coffee, which seemed, somehow, one step closer than hot dogs.

“Were you always a hot dog vendor?”

“Maybe, in my soul. But, no, I wasn’t born with a Coney Island red hot in one hand and a fork full of sauerkraut in the other. I used to work for a large financial firm as an analyst. And then great technological strides were made, the quality of life increased for all levels of society, and a bright shining future dawned in which my job no longer existed.”

“I’m sorry,” Phoebe said, without mentioning that a similar thing had happened to her.

“Hey, it’s okay. If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t get the chance to be out here with you.”

Phoebe smiled. There was something soft and vulnerable about Dave’s eyes, especially when he laughed. She didn’t really mind the mustache, but wondered if he’d ever consider shaving it off. It probably tickled.

“This is great,” Dr. Tim said as he paged through Phoebe’s report. “I want to send the video and audio directly to engineering.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Keep up the good work. Also, when this is done, I think there are a lot more projects we can steer your way.”

Phoebe drank another celebratory white wine that night and smiled when she looked out of her window at the lights below. She wondered which light belonged to Dave.

#

Dave flourished his own video camera the next day. He aimed it at Phoebe in between hot dog sales. “This is me observing you observing me. It’s kind of an infinite loop.”

Phoebe didn’t like to be photographed, but, somehow, Dave made it fun.

“Come on, baby. Let’s see those pearly whites. Let down your hair.”

“I’m not going to encourage you,” Phoebe said. “But I won’t stop you, either.” She pushed that stray lock of black hair behind her ear and smiled.

“That’s the stuff. Hot. Very hot. Unbelievably hot. I don’t know how you can walk down the street without men spontaneously showering you with flowers,” he said. He lowered the video camera. “Oh, wait a minute. You can’t.” He reached out and handed her a bouquet of pink roses.

Her knees wobbled.

“It looks like we’re close, Ms. Cho,” Dr. Tim said at their next meeting. “Very close.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think we’re almost ready for a field test.”

“That’s great,” Phoebe said, and wondered what a field test was.

“You can close the book on that hot dog vendor and move on to something else. I bet you’re pretty tired of him.”

“Sure,” she said. Of course these things come to an end. This was a single, discreet project, and she had completed it. Now it was over.

#

Phoebe could not sleep. Nothing could relax her. She tried to count sheep, but the sheep turned into hot dogs.

When she finally got out of bed, she made up her mind. Today she would visit Dave for the last time and ask him out if he didn’t ask her first. Besides, things were a lot cleaner now that he wasn’t a subject.

She smiled as she walked through the college campus toward Dave’s stand. There it was, out by the library steps, its multi-colored umbrella beckoned her to hot dog heaven.

And there was Dave. He had his back to her. He was a little hunched over.

“Hi Dave,” Phoebe said. “I’m in the mood for dinner and a movie. How about you?”

Dave turned around.

Only, it wasn’t Dave.

It had a beige basketball shaped head, flickering magenta lights to approximate wide set eyes, two eyebrows and a moustache made from strips of plastic that waggled in a way both comic and disturbing. Multiple sockets covered its squat body out of which erupted claw-like appendages that gripped various cooking utensils and a square napkin that dabbed non-existent sweat from its gleaming dome of a forehead. A Mets cap was stapled to the top of its head and thick airline cable anchored it to its cart.

“Get your hot-t-t and tasty, tasty, tasty hot dogs,” he bleeped. “Just like mom used to make, if your mom was a robot, that is. Heh-heh-heh…” He shot himself with the squeezy ketchup.

Phoebe stared at Robot Dave. He was horrible and fascinating at the same time.

“Hey stalker lady, it’s good-good to see you again…Cho-Cho…Phoebe Cho.”

Phoebe gasped and backed away from him.

“Hey…” Robot Dave called. “Don’t be a strange-strange-stranger.”

#

Phoebe couldn’t concentrate at work. She shuffled papers from one corner of her desk to the next. She was supposed to crunch data into a series of reports, but could not focus long enough to do it. She missed all of her deadlines.

She unfolded the piece of paper with Dave’s phone number and stared at it until small ghosts particles swam in her eyes. She refolded the piece of paper and returned it to her purse. She tried to put her own guilt and longing away in a similar fashion, but the feelings bubbled up through her defenses like lava.

At night, out of her window, each light mocked her with its double-coiled tungsten filament and argon filled glass bulb. There was nothing human about them. They were just small artificial suns that glowed without minds, hearts, or souls.

She should have requested a vacation or a leave of absence, but hadn’t worked for the company long enough for either.

One day she wandered in late for work and there was a note in her mailbox from Dr. Tim. She balled up the note without reading it, stuffed it into her briefcase, and walked down the hall to her cubicle.

She rounded the corner and saw a robot version of herself whirring behind her desk.

It had a black plastic helmet of a pageboy haircut, a band of freckles spray painted across its face, and long wiry eyelashes that batted sporadically while it spoke on a phone that it held in a fully articulated titanium mechanical hand.

“I’m not going to encourage you,” the robot sighed through a round smiling speaker. “But I won’t stop you, either.”

Phoebe’s robot double was a shameless flirt. What an outrage.

“I’m sorry,” Dr. Tim said, after she burst into his office. “You weren’t pulling your weight around here, and what with all the data we had on you, we thought we’d try a mechanical you. So far, she’s worked splendidly. Here are the reports that we’ve waited over a month for you to finish.” He tapped a neat stack of papers in front of him. “You should be very proud.”

“Wait a minute,” Phoebe said. “What data on me?”

“Well, we had a lot of video, and it really came in handy.”

“Video? How did you…? And then it hit her. “Oh…”

She went to the washroom and dug through her purse for Dave’s phone number.

He answered on the third ring.

“How dare you?” she asked.

“Phoebe?”

“What kind of person are you?”

“Why don’t you come over?” He gave her the address and hung up.

Phoebe returned to her cubicle. “Come on,” she said to her robot self. “You’re coming with me.” She grabbed Robot Phoebe by one tentacled arm and pulled.

Although Robot Phoebe outweighed real Phoebe by several hundred pounds, she rolled dutifully behind her on flexible steel belted tractor feet. They received strange looks from passersby on the street, but human Phoebe was too enraged to notice and mechanical Phoebe didn’t seem to mind the attention.

They entered Dave’s daffodil colored apartment building and marched down the ground floor hallway. Human Phoebe pounded on his door.

It swung open and Dave stood there with a hand on the knob. His hair was shaggy and uncombed. He had dark circles under his eyes.

“Who do you think you are?” Phoebe asked.

“Why don’t you ladies come in?”

Phoebe dragged Robot Phoebe inside.

Dave’s apartment was clean for one shared by men, although it wasn’t a good idea to look under the couch or behind the toilet. His roommates happened to be away from home, or had the good sense to pretend to be.

Robot Dave squatted by the couch and idly waggled his eyebrows and moustache. The jagged, frayed remains of thick gauge airline cable dangled from a u-bolt in his chassis. A set of red handled bolt cutters leaned in the corner behind him.

Robot Phoebe’s airbrakes hissed as she parked herself next to him.

Robot Dave swiveled his head to observe her.

“You,” Phoebe said, and pointed a well-manicured finger at Dave’s heart. “I can’t believe you. You went out of your way to give them those videos of me in the hope they’d replace me. Which, of course, they did.”

“You mean, I did to you exactly what you did to me,” Dave said. His cheeks reddened.

“Would-would you like a hot dog?” Robot Dave asked Robot Phoebe.

“No. That was completely different,” Phoebe said. “I had no idea they’d take your job away from you.”

“No idea? Really?”

“None,” she said and pushed all doubt aside.

“Yes,” Robot Phoebe said. “Yes. A hot dog would be nice.”

“I was only trying to sell some hot dogs, for crying out loud,” Dave said. He rubbed his eye with the heel of his hand. “Why’d you pick me anyway?”

Phoebe noticed that his shirt was inside out. She sighed.

“I chose you because I thought there was something alive and good about you that could be programmed into a machine whose presence might make this world a slightly nicer place. But all those things that I liked about you were just stupid lies that I told myself to feel less alone.”

An articulated arm slid out from Robot Dave’s side and examined Robot Phoebe’s knobs. She sighed a whisper of white noise in response.

“In the end,” Phoebe said. “You proved to me that you are vengeful and selfish and will stab at anyone who turns her back on you.”

Dave looked like she had kicked him in the chest. “Yeah. Well.” He reached for words that weren’t there. “I struggled. I went back and forth. I really… I don’t know. I wish you had called and told me what happened. Just to say a few words to me.”

Why hadn’t she called? Phoebe watched him comb his hair with his fingers, making it messier than when he started. Maybe she had known all along what was going to happen to him. She suddenly didn’t know what to do with her hands.

“I thought we were…” Dave said. “But then… What happened told me you hated me, so I convinced myself that I hated you too.”

“I don’t hate you,” Phoebe said quietly.

“Look… I’m sorry,” he said. “I wish I… I made a mistake. I wish I hadn’t hurt you. That’s the last thing I wanted to do.” He spoke with his hands open and helpless and out in front of him, as if he could somehow move the molecules of air in such a way as to put things impossibly back together. “Couldn’t we start over? Isn’t there some way? Isn’t there some sort of undo button we can click?”

Phoebe put her hands on her hips. Couldn’t they start over? Couldn’t they? Maybe if he just offered her a hot dog.

Sounds from the corner of the room caught her attention.

“Oh… how do you like my hot-hot dog…?” Robot Dave asked. He ran a diagnostic subroutine on Robot Phoebe’s open data ports with a series of whirring spinning tools hinged to the ends of his telescoping arms.

“Oh… oh… oh…” Robot Phoebe beeped. She opened her service panel and swiveled around to give him more direct access.

Human Dave grinned at Human Phoebe. “Would you like a hot dog?” he asked.

“You bastard,” she said, and slapped him across the face.

Dave rubbed his cheek, leaned forward, and kissed her open mouth.

And then they were rolling on the Berber carpet. Dave’s hands moved up under her shirt while his tongue found her mouth.

Everything got crazy and mixed up and out of control.

Robot Dave spun his head around and scanned the two humans on the floor. He was programmed to mimic human behavior.

He turned back to Robot Phoebe and abruptly thrust an assortment of his plugs into her inputs.

The two robots exploded in a window rattling, roaring thunderclap of sparks and flying bits of plastic, circuit boards, servos, flexible tubing, pump assemblies, and other random mechanical body parts, all pinwheeling through the air, arcing, mercifully, over the two people on the rug. The room filled with the smell of burnt transformers and ketchup, which erupted onto the wall beside the couch.

“What…the hell…?” Phoebe gasped, her legs involuntarily squeezing tighter around Dave.

“Mis…matched…power supplies,” Dave said and then they were both swept away by a rip-tide of norepinephrine, serotonin, and oxytocin.

#

Phoebe awoke snuggled up next to Dave. She blinked in the half-light of a darkening gray sky. They were still in the living room, the walls coated with ketchup, the floor around them littered with robotic debris.

Outside it started to rain. Big drops hit the window, followed by long slanting sheets of water that fell upon the living and the dead, the people who had found a way to survive this life, and those who fell, forgotten: the typesetters, the administrative assistants, the file clerks, the word processors, the secretaries, the elevator operators, the steel workers, the auto workers, their sons, their daughters, and their children’s children all wandering through the rain swept wreckage of a better world, knocking on doors, sending out resumes, dressing up for job interviews, and waiting beside a phone that never rings.

Phoebe’s thoughts wandered through the storm amongst the fallen, the lost, and the forgotten until silent tears pooled in the corners of her eyes.

Dave shifted in his sleep. His eyes fluttered and a warm feeling rose up in Phoebe’s chest.

“What is it?” he murmured.

“Nothing,” she said, and lay her head down against his shoulder where it was safe. “Let’s go back to sleep.”

David wrapped his arms around her and held her tight.

Outside the rain spread out until it covered the world.

The End