Where's My Picturephone?
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I hate robots.
Well, not really, they’re useful. I just hate them when they talk.
Like George. It talks. And it’s really stupid.
The evening it was delivered I was already in a bad mood from work. Getting it out of the box wasn’t easy; its outside was steel or something. It’s really heavy. I should have just cut the box off.
I turned it on. It said “Can I help you, sir?”
I glared at it. George looked morose, if in fact a robot can actually look that way. “Why do you hate me, sir?” it asked.
I didn’t want the damned thing. My daughter ordered it for my birthday.
“What makes you think I hate you?” I said ignorantly.
It blinked. This was a really creepy robot.
“My eyes?” This was one really creepy robot!
“They tell me.”
“The way they look. Be honest, you hate me.”
“No, my daughter bought you for me. But I do hate hearing a robotic voice.”
“But why, sir?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s because of all the telemarketing robots. Like you’re going to try to sell me something I don’t want and don’t need.”
“But sir, I have nothing to sell. I’m the product.”
“That’s another thing, it’s like slavery. I’m glad you’re not more human looking.”
“But sir, I’m just a robot. A machine. No different than your vacuum sweeper or garage door opener.”
“They don’t look human and they don’t talk.”
“But why should that bother you?”
“I don’t know. Now get me a beer and shut up.”
“What is a ‘beer’? That word isn’t programmed.”
I sighed. “It’s a cold beverage in a can. It’s in the refrigerator.”
“What’s a refrigerator?”
“Hell, just sit down and shut up. Wait, follow me.” I walked into the kitchen and pointed to the refrigerator. “That’s a refrigerator.” I opened it and got a beer, and pointed to the word “beer” on the can. “Beer!” I said.
“Why is it so much smaller than the word ‘Budweiser’?”
“Look, just shut yourself down.” He... oh, hell, I’m anthropomorphising. It shut up, stopped moving, and stood there like a statue. I went back in the living room and set my unopened beer on the coffee table and looked through the packaging for a user manual.
I found it, and cursed—like everything else these days, it was only four small pages ending in a URL. I looked up the URL on my phone, and it had no mobile version and was unreadable on a phone.
I got my tablet out of the desk drawer, and the battery died as soon as it booted. Smoke was probably coming out of my ears by then.
I got out the charger, plugged it in, and turned it back on. I opened a browser and put in the URL.
It was identical to the four page booklet. I looked up their number and dialed it.
A robot answered, of course. I’ll bet my face was purple by then. The robot said their offices were closed, and would open at nine the next morning; that’s ten my time.
My beer had gotten warm. I went back in the kitchen and traded it for a cold one, sat down on the couch, opened my beer, and turned on the TV. The Steelers were playing the Rams, it was the second quarter, and the score was fifteen to three in favor of the Rams.
The next thing I knew, sunlight streaming in the window woke me up. The warm beer was over half full. I poured it into the kitchen sink and started the coffeepot. Only then did I notice, and remember, the stupid robot my daughter bought for me. I’d woken up in a good mood, and the robot soured it a little. I looked at the clock; only quarter after eight.
By ten I had eaten and showered. I wasn’t in a bad mood but I didn’t look forward to the tech support call, which would almost certainly be with a robot, at least at first.
It only took twenty minutes to get a human on the phone, a woman with some sort of very heavy accent, who said “Ha keen I hope e-you, seer?”
“Yes, my daughter bought me one of your robots...”
“White Moe doll, seer?”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Woot Moe dole?”
“What model? Is that what you said?”
“It’s a George forty two. It doesn’t...”
“Wart is its prue blum?”
“Oh, problem. It doesn’t seem to be programmed, it didn’t even know what a refrigerator is.”
“Oh, tay sheep robots have jess oh is. Fool pro-game is axtra.”
It figures, damned greedy corporations. “How much?”
“Tune tee fie hun net doolers.”
“Twenty five hundred bucks? The hardware is only five hundred!”
“Yis, seer. Bot it con larn.”
I hung up the phone, my good mood completely destroyed. Sure, I can afford twenty five hundred. I’m not poor, I own and run a small restaurant down the street from my house, but the price was ridiculous. I wondered where in the world that woman was from, I’d never heard that accent before.
I left the stupid robot standing in the kitchen, shut off, and crossed the street and walked down to the restaurant; we open at eleven. As usual, the walk and the sunshine helped my mood.
Linda, the waitress, showed up right after I did. The cook didn’t.
The phone rang and Linda answered it. After she hung up she announced that Walter, our elderly cook, had just called in sick. It looked like I was the cook today.
The regulars started coming in; construction workers, bankers, cops, all kinds eat here. Today was going to be extra busy.
About an hour later the thought struck me: could I teach George to cook?
Late afternoon came, along with the evening manager and the evening cook. I walked home, did a little work on my bookkeeping, and finally went in the kitchen and pressed the robot’s “on” button.
Unlike the first time I pressed the button, it didn’t say “Can I help you, sir,” instead just making a whirring sound for a few seconds. Had it broken?
“Tech support says you can learn.”
“How?” I asked as I got out a cold one.
“By watching and listening.
“Okay, do you know how to get a beer?”
“Yes, sir, you showed me yesterday.”
“Get a beer and lay it on the end table.”
“What’s an end table?”
I sighed. “The table at the end of the couch next to where I sit.” What a stupid robot! It did, though, lay the beer on the end table. I put the one in my hand back in the fridge, sat down in the living room, and opened the beer.
Nothing was on television, so I watched whatever dreck was showing before going to bed. The robot plugged itself in and recharged.
The next morning after I woke up, I woke the robot up. “Now watch me, robot. I’m going to perk some coffee and cook eggs, bacon, and toast.”
I cooked breakfast as the coffee was perking, explaining as I went. “There are different ways of frying eggs, this is over easy.”
I felt strange eating in front of the robot. Silly, I know, since it eats electricity. But still, I ordered it into the kitchen. It went in the kitchen silently, having not yet said a single word all morning.
By ten I told it to follow me. We crossed the street and walked down to the restaurant, the robot behind me, obviously being literal. I went in and it followed me. I got the cash register ready and went in the kitchen to turn everything on, with the robot three paces behind me all the time.
“Wait here,” I told it.
The phone rang. It was Walter, and I could tell from his raspy voice and coughing that he was pretty sick, even before he said he was. I told him to get some rest, although it was obvious he was in no shape to do anything else.
Linda came in shortly later, and went in to the kitchen and shrieked. I ran in there. “What’s wrong?” I worried.
“Oh, that thing startled me,” she said. She frowned. “That thing isn’t going to wait tables, is it?”
“No, of course not. Our patrons wouldn’t stand for it, but I’m going to teach it to cook.”
“You’re not going to fire Walter, are you?”
“No, of course not. But when he can’t come in I’ll let the robot do it.”
“Is it programmed?”
“Not yet. I’ll start teaching it today.”
“You know how to program robots?”
“I’ll find out tomorrow morning when it makes my breakfast. I hope Walter feels better tomorrow, but the way he sounded...” I shook my head. “I’m afraid he’s going to wind up in the hospital.”
“Really? He didn’t sound too bad yesterday,”
Three construction workers came in, so Linda had to cut the conversation short. I went in the kitchen.
When Linda brought the order I said “You awake, robot?”
“Okay, pay attention now. This one’s easy, cheeseburgers and fries for all of them. First...”
Luckily, it was a light day. When we got home, I told it to cook a rare ribeye, with green beans and mashed potatoes, all of which I’d showed it how to make. It didn’t actually make the potatoes, as there were some left from the day before, so I showed it how the microwave works.
It came out exactly like we served at the restaurant, except for the potatoes. I was very surprised; I’d thought it would be terrible. I showed the robot how to load the dishwasher and turn it on, which is kind of weird; a robot putting dishes into another robot.
The vacuum cleaner rolled out and started sweeping the floor. I thought about how the vacuum sweeper didn’t bother me, but George did. After all, they’re both robots.
The next morning George made breakfast as I watched, over easy eggs like I’d had the day before. The eggs came out over hard, and George was apologetic.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “These are over hard, over easy takes a little practice.”
I ate, showered, and we walked down to the restaurant. Walter called in again, this time from a hospital bed; his influenza had turned into pneumonia.
George did very well, and Linda did even better. “Wow, I got twice as many tips as I usually do!” she said as she left after the night crew came in. I had George carry some leftovers home for dinner.
I paid some bills and did other paperwork for work while George was getting my supper together. Like the night before, it was delicious. Yes, it was from the restaurant, but George had cooked it.
The next morning, George got the eggs fried without breaking the yolks. Maybe I’ll show it scrambled tomorrow.
At work, Linda came in sniffling and coughing, so I sent her home. It was just me and George today. It seems flu season is early this year, only September. I hoped the flu shot I’d gotten worked.
Fortunately George had learned to cook most of the foods on the menu. I waited tables and had to apologize that we were “out of” the menu items George didn’t know. Still, it was a hectic day, even though it was a light one.
When the night shift came in I asked Mary, the night manager, if she would mind working a double shift the next day, since Linda and Walter were both out sick. She agreed, saying she could use the money.
Before we left, I showed George how to make one of the menu items it didn’t know and had it take it home for me to have for dinner. It was as good as the meal the evening before, and I told him so. “Thank you, sir,” it replied, obviously being pre-programmed for manners. Probably part of its speech subroutine.
The next morning I showed it how to make scrambled eggs before we walked down to the restaurant. Walter called; the hospital had released him but he was still on oxygen. His doctor had told him he could probably go back to work in a week if he got plenty of rest and water.
Linda called in sick again, as expected, but Mary was there, although a little late. Two couples came in and sat at the same table. I went in the kitchen waiting for the order as George stood there silently.
I heard the front door open, followed by a menacing voice from the dining room that said “Don’t move or I’ll shoot. I want all the money!”
I looked at George. “Can you stop that man who said that until the police arrive?”
“Do it, then. Don’t let him go until I say so.”
George walked silently into the dining room, but the robber saw him and shot. My ears started ringing loudly.
The shot had little effect, and the robber shot again as George grabbed the hand with the gun and stood there silently as the thief screamed.
Less than five minutes after I called 911, even though it felt like an hour, a patrol car pulled up with its lights flashing. A large black police officer got out and came in with his pistol drawn. I saw as he came in that it was Mike, a friend and regular.
Somebody needs to clean that window, but we’re a little short handed, what with the flu and all.
“Well, well,” Mike said. “How about that! I like your robot, Red, at least if he doesn’t put me out of a job!” George was dented in two places where the bullets had struck. Mike said something into his radio as two more police cruisers pulled up with their lights flashing.
They shut off the lights and left.
“You,” Mike said to the “suspect”, “Put your left hand behind your back and drop the gun,” his free hand on the barrel of the robber’s weapon. When he let it go, I told George to release him.
Mike handcuffed him and read him his rights. “This is Robert Wilson,” he said to me, looking at the man’s identification. “There’s a thousand dollar reward for this guy, so I guess your robot is rich, at least for a robot.”
He took statements from everyone there, put Wilson in the back of the squad car, and drove off. I apologized to the patrons. “Sorry about the wait and commotion, folks. Lunch is on me today.” Mary took the order to the kitchen and I called the police station to see about the reward. They said I’d have to come down there and fill out some paperwork.
I told Mary that I would be back shortly and told George to do whatever Mary said to do, walked home to get my car, and drove to the police station. It took a couple of hours after I got there, and they said the money would be deposited in my bank account in a week. I drove home and walked back down to the restaurant.
When I got back I told George there was a thousand dollars for him in a week.
“But sir,” he replied,” I’m just a robot. Why would I need money? You own me so you own it.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was actually starting to get used to him, especially since he not only saved the cash receipts, he earned another thousand bucks for me.
When we got home I showed him how to dust, sat down in front of the television and had him get me a beer.
The next day was Sunday, and we’re closed Sundays. It was a pretty warm day so I decided to play a round of golf. I called Harry, a friend and fellow golfer. He said he was at the bar, come have a beer with him first. I threw the clubs in the trunk and had George sit in the passenger seat; he was going to be my caddy.
“Come in with me,” I told him when we got to the bar. “I want to show you to Harry.” We walked in and sat down next to Harry.
“Hey, Red, what the hell is that thing?” he said, grinning.
“My new caddy, my daughter bought it for my birthday last week. What do you think?”
“I don’t know, I never thought about getting one. What does it do? I’ve heard programs are expensive for them.”
Fred, the bartender, put a Bud in front of me. I laid the money on the bar and said to Harry “Yeah, they are, but they’re really easy to program. I have it cooking at the restaurant until Walter can come back to work. And he stopped the place from being robbed yesterday and I got a thousand bucks out of the deal.”
“There was a reward for the guy who tried to rob us, apparently there have been a string of robberies lately.”
“No, I mean how did it stop him?”
“Just walked up and grabbed the guy by the wrist. He got shot twice before he got the guy’s wrist.”
“Is it hurt?”
“Robots don’t feel, but there are dents where the bullets hit.”
“Must be some pretty thick steel.”
The bartender came back. “Another one, fellows?”
“Sure,” Harry said.
I sighed. “Not quite yet.” He brought Harry’s Miller Lite.
Six beers later I staggered out the door, golf forgotten. I was glad I didn’t live in my great grandpa’s time. Before all the cars drove themselves you had to hire a cab home from a bar.
It struck me that the car itself was a robot. I’d never thought of a car as a robot before.
I opened another beer when I got home and passed out on the couch.
The next morning I woke up on the couch with a terrible hangover. I should have known better than to meet Harry in a bar! Especially on Sunday; Mondays are bad enough without a hangover.
After breakfast we walked down to the restaurant. I got the register set up, and Linda called and said she’d probably be in tomorrow, the next day for sure. I called Mary, who was pleased to get the overtime. She lives close, and was there in twenty minutes, right before the first two patrons of the day. I went in the kitchen as Mary took their order.
Before the order came, the robot picked me up and rushed out of the room, yelling “Danger! Evacuate!” It had me through the door in no time, everyone except Mary right behind. The robot sat me down and ran back inside, coming out with Mary in its arms right before the ground shook from a large explosion.
We heard fire trucks before we knew what was happening. I hadn’t seen anyone holding a phone; then I remembered the restaurant’s alarm system.
Two fire crews showed up. It had to have been fewer than five minutes; these guys were good.
They also eat at my place. Mary had fallen, but didn’t need medical attention, although one of the paramedics checked her out.
“Does anybody know what the hell happened?” I asked.
“I do, sir,” the robot replied, “I detected natural gas. That would account for the explosion.” Just then a police cruiser pulled up and stopped. Mike got out.
“My God! What happened?” he asked worriedly. “Is everybody all right?”
“Yeah,” Mary said. “I tripped and hurt my shoulder a little but nobody got hurt seriously. That robot saved all our lives!” It was only then that I realized that George had indeed saved all of us.
“Yeah, he did,” I agreed. “Thank you, George!”
“No thanks are needed, sir. I’m just a robot doing what I was programmed to do. Almost all operating systems these days have the Asimov laws built in, or at least a subset.”
“I’m thanking you anyway. I need to call my insurance agent and start cleaning up the mess. George, come with me.”
Mike said “Wait a minute, not until the fire inspectors are done. Your insurance guy will want to come out first, too. We’ll keep the looters out, and the health department is going to make you throw all the food out, anyway. Don’t worry, I’ll call you.”
“Okay, I guess I’ll be at home. See ya! Come on, George.” I started to cross the street behind the fire truck, and something shoved me hard. I was on my way to the ground as I heard an incredibly loud crashing sound when something solid hit me on the head and I passed out.
I woke up slowly and woke up groggy. It took a minute to realize I wasn’t in my own bed, and another minute to notice the tube in my nose and another in my arm. I was so groggy it still took another minute to realize I was in the hospital. I found the “call” button and summoned a nurse.
“How are you feeling today?”
I chuckled. It hurt. “Not as good as yesterday!”
“You were unconscious yesterday.”
“What happened? I don’t remember much.”
“That’s not surprising, you had a nasty concussion. You also have three broken ribs and a punctured lung.
“Your robot saved your life. A city bus lost its brakes and steering at the same time and hit the fire truck at about twenty five or thirty miles an hour; the bus attendant died and there were injured passengers and an injured firefighter. Your robot shoved you out of the way right before the accident.
“Where is George?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir, it was totaled.”
My heart sank. He had kept us from being robbed and saved my life twice. And he had died for me! I didn’t say anything.
“Well, you know where the call button is. If the pain gets too bad, push this button here and the IV will automatically give you morphine with your saline drip. Is there anything I can do for you now?”
“No, thank you,” I said, just as Mike came in with my daughter and another young lady.
“Daddy!” Opal exclaimed.
“Hi, sugar. Hi, Mike.”
“Hi, Red. This is Sara Williams, she’s the insurance adjuster.”
“Hi, Sara, glad to meet you.”
“You, too. We have a check ready for you.”
“Already? That was fast!”
“We try. Would you like us to get construction and cleanup started?”
“You bet, it looks like I’ll be laid up for a while. How bad was the damage?”
“The kitchen’s back wall is gone, the kitchen was totaled but there wasn’t much damage to the rest of the building.”
Mike said “How ya feelin’, buddy?”
“Not too bad. It only hurts when I laugh.”
Opal said “I’m sorry the robot got smashed but I’m really glad you weren’t!”
I grinned. “Me too.”
I went home two days later. The first thing I did was to order a new George.
I was still on oxygen, using one of those portable oxygen generators. The doc says another month and I can get rid of it. None the less, I drove down to the restaurant to see how work was coming; I was in no shape to walk that far. They told me I could reopen in three days, but the Health Department will have to inspect it first. They were just installing kitchen equipment.
My new George came two days later. I got him out of the box easy this time, just cutting the box away from him. I turned him on.
“Can I help you, sir?”
Somehow his robot voice didn’t bother me any more. I smiled. “Hello, George, let me show you around.”
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Where's My Picturephone?
You can read or download my books for free here. No ads, no login, just free books.
You can read or download my books for free here. No ads, no login, just free books.