At a time of day, or night, whatever it was, that Alvin knew was considered late by the Grace, since they did go to sleep and the halls became vacant, he sat with his marenza. He wasn’t using the hammers, he was just flicking at the strings with his fingers like he was shooting marbles, just making random sounds. He wanted to go the bar earlier but he decided to wait, and wait, and wait, until this time. He wanted to be both late and sober.
The crowd in the bar was thin. Alvin took the booth by the orchestra stage as he had previously, though the band had packed up and called it a night already.
“Yes? What can I get you?” the waitress said. It was Cathy. She pulled a pad from her apron pocket.
“Hi,” said Alvin.
“What can I get you?”
“I was wondering if maybe we could—”
“What can I get you?”
She didn’t look at him. She just looked at her pad, with stylus in hand, waiting for him to tell her what he wanted.
“A Pezdrok,” he said.
She noted it and turned and walked away. Alvin watched her journey to the bar, pull the tap for the drink, and return with it without her ever once looking at anything that wasn’t immediately in front of her.
Cathy set the cup of Pezdrok down on his table more cavalierly and with more force than advisable, and the drink sloshed over the lip. She turned and started to walk away.
“Miss?” Alvin called.
She stopped, walked backwards, then turned and faced him on her last step. “What?” she asked.
“Could I get a napkin?” he asked politely, rather hesitantly. “The drink spilled a little.”
She took a cloth from another pocket. She picked up his cup and dried the top edge and the side where the Pezdrok had run down.
“Is that a clean cloth?” Alvin asked.
“I wouldn’t be cleaning the lip of your cup with it if it wasn’t.”
He nodded. “Of course. Sorry.”
She wiped up the little puddle on the table.
“Thank you,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” she said, and put the cup back down in front of him, then stuck the rag in it and pushed it down into the liquid with two fingers, causing the Pezdrok to spill out over the sides considerably more than the first time it did.
“Thank you,” Alvin said. “That’ll be fine. Thank you. Very much.”
Cathy flicked the Pezdrok off her wet fingers onto the table, once and sharply, then walked away.
“Thank you,” Alvin said, to nobody, as he studied the mess. Then he turned about and looked around for an actual Grace waitress. “Excuse me?!” he called to one.
Things went better with the new waitress. Alvin was able to secure a tidier Pezdrok this time. As he drank, he kept looking for Cathy, but ever since she went behind the bar into a back room, after having left his table, he didn’t see her.
Within a half hour the bar was mostly the domain of employees wiping tables and ferrying out glassware. A Grace waitress came to Alvin’s table.
“We are going to close soon,” she said. She held up one finger. “Pezdrok?”
“No thank you,” Alvin said. “Have you seen Cathy?”
“Who?” asked the waitress.
Alvin took a deep, displeased breath. “JM-4,” he said.
“Oh, no,” she said. “JM-4 is not here anymore. Home. Bedroom.”
Alvin stood at Cathy’s door. He wasn’t sure what to do. So, he knocked, since that was the original plan, at least when he left the bar and up until thirty seconds previously.
Nothing came back. He knocked again.
“Yes?” in a muffled and quiet voice Cathy asked on the other side of the door. “Who is it?”
“Alvin,” he said.
Nothing. No doors opening. No “go away.” Just nothing. He knocked again.
“Who is it?”
He stood waiting. And again nothing happened. He knocked a third time.
“Who is it?” Cathy asked.
“I need to talk to you,” Alvin said. “I’m not going to go away. I want to talk to you.”
The doors opened. Cathy had already turned away as Alvin entered. She sat herself in a chair by the wall. She brought her feet up, pressed one bare heel against the other, toes against toes, let her legs fall apart and lay against either chair arm, and rested her wrists upon each knee, slouched and defiant.
Alvin saw no other place to sit down except for what he knew as JM-4’s chair. Can I sit here?” he asked.
He turned it around and faced Cathy. “How are you doing?” he asked.
“So talk,” she said in response.
Alvin absorbed the verbal bullet, then re-steadied himself. “I’m sorry,” he said, as a summation to the last twenty-four hours.
She didn’t say anything.
“I’m very confused,” he said.
“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you are. And I don’t think I should have to apologize for that either, actually.”
This wasn’t acceptance, it was indifference. But she still had a nagging question. “You saw JM-4, didn’t you,” she said.
She nodded. “And that’s why you’re confused?”
“Pretty much. Yes. I thought I knew you the first time, and that was wrong. Then I thought I knew you the second time, and that was also wrong. So, who are you? What are you?”
“I don’t know who or what that is.”
“That’s a riddle to me. What am I supposed to do here? What am I supposed to think? I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings. You’re a robot, right?”
“That’s right,” she sing-songed, amused, snide, and not ashamed.
“You’re not supposed to have feelings. But you do.” More firmly and direct he added, “Can you appreciate the fact that this is not easy for me to take in? I don’t understand. I don’t know who you are or what you are. And quite frankly, seeing JM-4 was frightening. It would be to anybody.” A long silence followed as they stared at each other. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do or say to you,” he said. “Just, please, take that into consideration.”
“It goes both ways, Alvin!” she snapped. That was louder than he had ever heard Cathy voice. Then she got quieter. “It goes both ways.”
She composed herself. She sat forward in her chair and folded her hands together. “I understand,” she said gently. “I understand. I want you to understand.”
“I’m having a hard time with that.”
Neither said anything. Then Cathy did. “Alvin,” she began slowly, “Do you think I’m pretty?”
“Yes. Much so.”
She sat back in her chair. She spread out her hands and looked up, as though to create an image in the air. When she had its essence complete, she looked back at him. “If you were in a field. A big, big field. Flowers and wheat and stuff, ruffling in the breeze,” she said, “and you were standing there, and I came up to you riding a big, big horse. Slowly approaching you. And stopped in front of you, on top of this big, big horse. Would you still think I was pretty?”
“Yes,” said Alvin. “Of course.”
“You wouldn’t think that I was a creature with a pretty face and four big legs and four other random appendages dangling about the top of a gigantic body?”
“Well, that’s good. Because the horse is just the thing that totes me around. It would be important that you understand that I’m not actually the horse.”
“It still seems, I don’t know, a part of you.”
“Mm hm. How’s your spleen?”
“Your spleen. How’s your spleen? In good shape?”
“I would imagine. It’s not giving me any problems. Though, I wouldn’t be able to identify them if it did.”
“Lungs? Lungs are good?”
“Blood? All that fluid oozing about your body? Have you had that checked lately?”
“Well, you might want to have that checked. Heart? Heart good?”
“Well, that’s all good to hear, Alvin, because all that stuff inside of you, is you. And that actually defines what you are as a human being. All that goo inside of you, and all the other weird stuff—the point of which I just really don’t comprehend—is you. And nothing else. Right?”
“No, it’s not. It’s just–”
“The support system,” he said.
She nodded quickly with wide eyes and a fake half-smile, klieg lighting her point and his potential ignorance.
Alvin disengaged from the joust and sat silently.
“I’m just me,” Cathy said softly. “And you’re you. It’s not any more complicated than that.”
The resolution had not been reached. But a cease fire had.
Alvin took the opportunity afforded by the present peace to glance through her room. He couldn’t make out the details of her room the last time he was there. It was just bathed in a blue hue and the edges were nothing. But now the light was brighter and everything that represented Cathy was in view. Behind her was a long shelf of books. Neatly organized, the first was Aesop’s Fables and the last was Emile Zola’s Nana. ‘A’ to ‘Z’ Alvin noted, a deliberate beginning and end with the middle allowed to be filled randomly at the owner’s leisure. On the flanking and opposite walls were abstract paintings, or at least the concept of paintings, essentially collages of torn and glued colored paper, framed mostly by nothing more than other glued strips of neatly cut heavy black paper. But the images themselves were refined, thought out, and to Alvin, unexpectedly intriguing.
“I like your wall hangings,” he said.
“Yeah. They remind me of Lee Krasner’s stuff from the fifties.”
“She was the wife of Jackson Pollack. He was a famous abstract American painter. I always thought she was better than he was. It always confused me why he was the famous one rather than her.”
“I don’t think I know him either,” she said, then asked, “What are the fifties?”
“A time frame. On Earth. Nineteen fifty to nineteen fifty-nine, though, probably more accurately nineteen forty-eight to nineteen sixty-three.”
“Where did you get them?”
“I made them,” she said.
Alvin had to stand up and take a close second look at everything he had just given nothing more than a cursory though pleased glance to, now with an amazed understanding that they were created by the other person in the room.
“They’re wonderful,” he said.
To the right of her chair, she had a five-foot shelf with over a hundred CD’s. Below it was a similar sized shelf full of DVD’s. Alvin got up close and checked out the extremely varied music collection. “Your CD’s stop at the M’s.”
“So do the movies,” she said. “I need a structured approach, otherwise it’s too confusing to try to figure out what I might like. It’s a work in progress. And I always know where I left off.”
“I see. Good idea. Who do you like to listen to? Do you have a favorite band or singer, or style of music?”
“I like Enya,” she said without having to think about it.
“Oh, I’ve heard of her. I don’t know her stuff, though. She’s that Irish woman, right?”
“Who else do you like?”
“Mmmmm, everybody else is okay. They all offer something.”
“So, it’s Enya—and then everybody else.”
“Uh huh,” she said.
“What is it about Enya you like?”
“She takes me places I like to be. We think alike.”
A small smile graced Alvin’s face as he found this a unique response to a very standard question.
He turned back to her and looked above her head at the shelves. “You have a lot of books,” he said. It wasn’t a lot for some people, but the fact that she had any, let alone a whole shelf-worth, caused him to be impressed.
“Yes?” she said, not knowing what constituted ‘a lot.’
“Yeah. Did you read them all?”
She glanced behind her at the wall then turned back. “Most.”
“Where did you get them?”
“Earth,” she said, stating the obvious since they couldn’t have come from anywhere else.
“Mm hm. On my trips.”
“Have you been to Earth a lot?”
“But you have a lot of books.”
“I buy a lot when I’m there. They help me. They help me learn. About you, you all. And things.”
“How do you buy books?”
“Oh,” she said, now brighter than before, “we have a printing department. We figured out how to duplicate ten-dollar bills, American Earth bills. I take a whole bunch when I’m down there and buy books, or stuff.”
Alvin wasn’t sure how to respond to her unapologetic admission to felonious pursuits. It took him a moment to assess the big picture, which was her perspective—thus okay, as opposed to the little picture which was initially his—and thus not okay. “Oh, well, that’s—” he nodded his head in hesitant approval, “—interesting,” allowing the big picture to take precedence.
He sat back down. Any unsure or awkward moment he had ever had with a female was now topped by this one. He wished he had one of those Magic Eight Balls so he could ask it for advice. His present concept of the future only went in one-minute increments forward. He still felt there was no clear resolution between them and it pestered frightfully. He wanted more conversation, but at the same time acknowledged that Cathy had wrapped it up, albeit poetically and philosophically, but which made it sort of dangly, at least to him if not to her. He decided to launch forward, one minute at a time, land somewhere, then jump to whatever lily pad showed up next.
“Would you like to come to my room and have a drink?” he asked.
“I don’t drink,” Cathy said.
“I’ve seen you drink. I know you can drink.”
“Yeah, I just don’t want to. Because I don’t drink.”
Well, that panned out poorly, Alvin thought.
Cathy wasn’t in much better shape mentally either and she rolled her thumbs around each other, hoping maybe there’d be a fire in the kitchen and an order over the intercom for everyone to evacuate to the safety of some other place, wherever that might be, like outside the ship in outer space, which for her, she thought, would be fine. Of course, there were other concerns there too, with everyone else who wasn’t similarly designed, but she realized at the same time—during the course of this fantasy—something more subtle and less dramatic might suffice in moving things forward.
“Would you like to hear something from one of my books that I like?” she asked.
“Yes, I would,” Alvin said, with an honest interest.
She was very pleased. She sat upright, put knees together, and folded her hands in her lap, quite proper-like. The one thing she didn’t do is pull a book off the shelf and open it. Thus, despite having nothing to read from, she began. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way, in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its nosiest authorities—”
“Noisiest,” said Alvin.
She stopped. “Huh?”
“You said nosiest authorities. It’s noisiest authorities.”
“Are you sure?”
“Huh. I like nosiest better. You know, like the authorities were in everybody’s business. Spying and stuff. Being nosy. You know?”
“Yeah, but it’s noisiest.”
“Well, why would they be noisy?” Cathy countered.
“I don’t think the word authorities is necessarily referring to people, but rather concepts or decrees or orders or directives, and things like that.”
“So, why would those things be noisy?”
Alvin thought deeply and shook his head. “I don’t know. You’ll need to ask Dickens.”
“Hm,” Cathy said with a displeased tone. “Can’t believe I misread that. Now I have to fix it somehow.”
“So, just change the words,” Alvin said.
“Yeah, that’s…kind of complicated. Okay, anyway,” she said, then started up again, but this time having to close her eyes and concentrate on the new word when she got to it, “’that some of its noy-zee-ist authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.’ I like that,” she said. “I like that a lot. I think it’s well said, aside from the noisy thing. It seems to sum up everything, all the time, no matter where you come from.”
“I agree. I like it too,” said Alvin. “That’s very impressive that you got that whole thing, except for the nosy part.”
“Yeah, well, we’re not going to talk about that. Another?” she asked. And Alvin nodded.
She got ready for another delivery but then stopped. “Well, what do you like? Do you know something?”
“I know the Our Father prayer, um, the Pledge of Allegiance, all of the words to I Am the Walrus, and the closing soliloquy to The Day The Earth Stood Still, none of which I’m prepared to deliver at this moment because you might be bored. You do something. I’m just the audience right now.”
“Okay. Well, maybe you have a preference.” She turned and looked at her books, then back to him, indicating that he should randomly pick something.
He wasn’t sure he was getting the gist, but followed her lead and said, “The Encyclopedia of Animals,” as it got his attention given that it was the tallest book on the shelf.
“Oh, I like that book,” she said, then faced forward and gave a moment’s thought to where she wanted to go. “Um, oh, I think this is so interesting. Page thirty-nine. ‘Echolocation. Fruit bats rely on vision to get around. Microbats ‘see’ by using a radar-like sense called echolocation. This enables many species to hunt in the dark. They send out high-pitched sounds, then assess what surrounds them by judging the echoes that bounce back off solid objects, such as insect bodies.’ That’s so amazing,” she said. “And so weird. Weird and amazing. Don’t you think?”
“Yeah, it is, Alvin said. “And that’s on page thirty-nine.”
“Uh huh. This book has a lot of really neat drawings too. You can borrow it if you want.”
“I’d like to. What’s on page one-fifty-nine?”
She didn’t even stop to think about it.
Alvin stood and went to her bookshelf. He was going to grab anything at random but the first thing to come into view was Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask. He passed on that, looked further down, and grabbed Educated by Tara Westover. He returned to his chair. He held the front of the book up for Cathy. “Have you read this?” he asked.
He opened it at random. “What’s the first sentence on page, um, one-fifty-three?”
“Give me a minute,” Cathy said and studied the floor, then before a minute was up, looked back to Alvin. “Well, that page has no number because it’s the beginning of chapter, but as the page after page one-fifty-two it says ‘On New Year’s Day, Mother drove me to my new life.’”
Which was correct, on both accounts.
Alvin turned one page backward. “What’s the first word on page one-fifty?”
“Kitchen,” she said, not needing time to consider it since she was already zeroed in.
All Alvin could do was look at her and say, “Wow.”
She in turn raised her eyebrows up and down in a pleasant though proud response to his compliment.
It now dawned on Alvin that Cathy hadn’t memorized the passage from A Tale Of Two Cities—she had just read it once and recorded it at the same time. And it, like everything else she had read, was always there, every word, there at her disposal, in her mind, forever. Alvin had read many books also, but of most he could only recall their general idea. He read Madame Bovary and knew things didn’t turn out well for her, but now, a few years later, he couldn’t recall exactly why. Cathy remembered everything. And in understanding that she remembered everything she had ever read, and most likely ever observed, Alvin realized that in some way, and maybe in a more important way, and maybe in an entire way, she was better.
He got up off the chair. “It’s getting kind of late. I suppose I should go to my room.”
“Oh, okay,” Cathy said softly, accepting the decision that the book game was over.
He stood at the doorway. And he just looked at her. And she looked back at him, but from eleven inches lower. And very slowly his faced moved towards hers and he kissed her. He closed his eyes. She was not entirely sure of all the mechanics and so left her eyes opened and stared at his right eyebrow. But then after a little bit she closed her eyes, and put her arms around his waist and held tightly.