Joyland

San Francisco |

Buddy

by Daniel Lanza Rivers

edited by Kara Levy

NuBot arrived on a Monday. A custom model designed by a specialist out in Appalachia, she had Bluetooth connectivity, a soft nest of auburn curls, and the vocal range of a seasoned smoker. Her programmed interests included video games and warm skin, but Jeremy hadn’t paid to upgrade her critical thinking, so NuBot would never solve a Thursday crossword puzzle or fix a flat tire. He did go in for the self-defense package, though, so she would be a formidable force once her activation code arrived from the national registry.


On Tuesday, Jeremy told Rob to call her Cortana, even though he spent most of the day calling her Hon and Sweetheart before finally settling on Flower. Jeremy worked from home, so he spent most of the week of Flower’s arrival acquainting himself with the details of her construction. Soon enough, Jeremy had even cleared a corner of the living room, and he told Rob to stand there for hours, sometimes days, awaiting tasks Jeremy found too mundane or demeaning to merit Flower’s attention.


Generally, Rob was content with his new role. He didn’t miss playing video games while Jeremy shouted at the screen, or standing by Jeremy’s desk, holding his drink and broadcasting speed-metal at volumes that chafed his speakers. Rob didn’t even mind it when Flower’s code finally came, and Jeremy called him over to let her demonstrate how hard she could punch. However, Rob was occasionally troubled by an inclination to act. The need grew stronger after Jeremy took Flower on an impromptu vacation to Carmel, leaving Rob behind in his corner of the living room. By the second afternoon, Rob had positioned himself to look out the window, and he found himself vibrating in place whenever the wind stirred the trees or when a cloud of birds swept by, expanding and contracting above the rooftops across the way. When the daylight began to fade, sending yellow rectangles migrating across the apartment walls, Rob felt a gentle fountain of beeps leave his speakers to flutter through the empty room.


By the third morning of Jeremy’s absence, Rob had taken to displacing lamps and chairs, silverware and stacks of magazines, while his speakers hummed out little curls of melody. His soundtrack grew louder as the apartment fell into further disarray, looping with little fugues and samples of conversation until the chaos crested and ebbed, leaving behind a murmuring quiet that held as Rob returned the apartment to its former order.


Jeremy and Flower returned late on a Thursday night. When Jeremy finally rose, he came into the living room to tell Rob that he, Rob, was moving. Jeremy had been looking around the NuTech message boards, and he’d traded Rob for a red scooter with a broken intake valve. They would leave for the central valley the next day.


Rob left home on a Saturday. It was a long drive, but it passed quickly, and soon he was loading his replacement into Jeremy’s truck bed while his owners discussed the details of the coming summer. Once they’d finished, Jeremy patted Rob’s chassis, climbed into his car, and disappeared back down to the gravel road. Before the dust from Jeremy’s truck had settled, his new owner was calling him You and Over There, and they walked to the shed where he would pass the night.


You arrived at Jane’s house on a Sunday. Jane was a veterinarian, and You was a gift from a man whose foal she’d saved from strangulation just a week before. You watched the surprise alight on Jane’s face when she realized the details of the transaction, and he rode home in her truck-bed, studying the tree line for signs of life.


Jane lived a solitary life, but she was grateful for the chance to come home to someone, or something, that would never go into heat or give itself colic. She called him Buddy, and she spent every night of that first week reading him excerpts from her favorite novels and asking him questions he had no answers for. Buddy passed his first month at Jane’s ranch in a flurry of movement, accompanying her on shopping trips, walks downtown, and, once, on an errand to pick up a gelding in Reno.


Jane tried bringing Buddy to work with her a few times, but the majority of her patients found his presence too unsettling, no matter how carefully she dulled his carapace with dirt and straw dust. This meant that Buddy spent the majority of his days alone, cleaning the house and attending to the list of tasks Jane left behind each morning. Once his list was complete—once the fences were repaired, the garden was weeded, and the chickens were fed—Buddy would fall back on his old habits. He would realign the hay bales and scour the troughs. He reorganized the tack shed and tried to reseat the chickens by weight.


This season of restlessness lasted until the evening Jane came home early to find the contents of her bookshelves in piles of neat disorder on the living-room floor. Romances mingled with travel guides, The Executioner’s Song was stacked atop The Song of the Lark, and anatomical manuals were buried under issues of Newsweek. A few days later, Jane had found Buddy a job arranging saddles and bags of grain at the local feed store.


Buddy’s work ushered in a time of satisfaction. Each morning, he set out on the long farm road into town, and each night he returned along the same path in a murmur of grinding gravel. Some days, if he was released early, he would detour past construction yards where workers were setting up the skeleton of a planned community or a strip mall. He would track them by sound from far off and, once he arrived, he would listen to the hum and clank of all those machines until a breath of notes escaped him.


One evening, Buddy carried a tune to the door and entered the house to find Jane at the kitchen table with an open letter. He waited in the doorframe, scanning her breathing for a command. When none came, he began to put the kitchen in order. He returned the crackers to the cupboard and the dishes to their shelves until Jane asked him to please just stop. Buddy stood next to the oven, baking sheet in hand, and watched her rise and leave the room. He remained there after the click of the bedroom door reached him from the hall.


A few weeks later, Jane came upon Buddy unexpectedly out in the barn. She commented on his beeping and asked if Jeremy had ever mentioned the upgrades available for his model: emotion amplifications, encyclopedias, musical theory. Buddy grew very silent and still. Jane asked if he ever felt tired, or if he’d ever wondered about where the sun went. Buddy didn’t answer, and she said that she thought his music was very beautiful, would he play a little more?


As Jane grew older, Buddy would sometimes recall her questions. He had a life whose steady rhythms satisfied him, and he did not long for happier times. But there were days, sometimes seasons, when it seemed his memory bore a deeper texture, or when a sort of absence crept in. There were the long nights when Jane stayed out late, and the Sunday mornings when she would sit reading to herself and look up to ask if he felt like singing. On the long walk from work, Buddy would sometimes recall memories of the days she spent scraping the rust from his frame and removing his dented plates to tend to the gear work beneath.


Their time together carried on until the day Jane did not get up for work. She did not get up the next day either. After the fourth day, Buddy found her asleep with her eyes open. It was another week before anyone came to check on her and begin the process of her removal.


After a few days of silence, Buddy heard cars approaching up the road and he waited out in the barn until he was discovered. Jane’s family brought him inside and one of her nieces cleaned him off with a rag and called him Beeboop. The family talked about the funeral while Beeboop listened and rifled through his database for a command. Once they had moved off into the bedroom, Beeboop began releasing a thread of notes that had built inside him, layering them with recordings of Jane's voice. The family returned to the living room to watch, and after he had finished, the girl who called him Beeboop was ushered into the car and away.


An hour passed before Beeboop began to gather their dishes and return the kitchen chairs to the table. He held out as long as he could before filling the space with sound. He turned on the dishwasher, the oven, the toaster, the lamps, the microwave, the vacuum cleaner, and the washing machine. He moved to the bedroom to turn on the radio, the bathroom fan, the heater, and the hair dryer. Then, breathing soft vines of sound, he returned to the living room where he stood, letting the clamor of shuddering machinery fill the empty house.