Simeon Mills

FACTORY

The first robot hired works at the gas station. Jenkins’s hometown newspaper makes a big deal of it. Jenkins sips coffee and studies the accompanying photograph: two men stand behind the gas station counter; one man is the robot, the other is the scientist. Jenkins tries to guess who is who. They are dressed alike, and both have a certain expression on their doughy faces, excitement tempered by a pinch of fear. Pretty much like anybody would feel on the first day of work, muses Jenkins. But wait. That man’s eyes are too far apart. Creepy. Jenkins drains the last of his coffee and checks his watch. He leaves the robot article on the kitchen table for his wife. He heads to the local high school where he teaches English.

Two months later, Jenkins is in the principal’s office, staring at the female robot that has stolen his job.

“Okay,” Jenkins pleads with the principal, “my students didn’t get the highest reading scores in the state, but—

“Ms. Stocker is also programed as a softball coach,” interrupts the principal. He can’t tear his eyes away from this willowy young robot.

The robot blushes. Her eyes, too, are spaced too widely apart on that optimistic face of hers.

What soon transpires between Jenkins and his wife is predictable enough. Her company buys a svelte, twenty-six-year-old robot to fix the computers. Jenkins sits at home, imagining the thing crouched beside his wife’s chair, breathing into her ear, asking her to retype her password and hit enter. But the worst is how she lies about it. “You’re crazy!” she says to Jenkins, “I’d never sleep with Kevin in a hundred years!” Yet Jenkins snoops through her Internet browser history: “Can robots spread STDs?” Yes, Jenkins reads, they can. His wife is the one who files for divorce.

Jenkins rents a small apartment. He applies for new teaching jobs. “You’re not a robot,” the schools respond immediately. “Robots only,” the job postings say. So, when his money runs out, Jenkins takes his resume to an enormous furniture factory in the industrial district. On the job application, when he’s given the choice ROBOT or HUMAN, Jenkins circles ROBOT.

He gets the job.

His supervisor, a fat, balding robot named Steve, asks Jenkins what his interests are outside of work.

“Robots,” answers Jenkins.

“I hope you mean female robots,” says Steve. “But you don’t hunt or fish? I’m asking, what do you like to do on your day off?”

“We only get one day off?”

“Wednesday’s our day off. Unless we decide to work on Wednesday, haha. So don’t go planning any Wednesday hunting trips.”

“What about Sunday?”

“4:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., just like every other day.”

“And I’m working with all robots, right? No humans? Because I’ve had it with humans.”

Humans?” The robot breaks into a mechanical laugh. “A human wouldn’t last a day in this factory!”

Steve pulls Jenkins down a long hallway. The robot punches a code on the handle of a door labeled “HR”. The door opens, and Steve tosses Jenkins into a spare, air-conditioned room.

“Sit down,” a female voice says. It’s a lady-robot, but she isn’t Jenkins’s type: too expensive-looking. She’s standing in the middle of the empty room, wearing a black skirt and black stockings.

Jenkins obeys, sitting cross-legged on the floor.

“I’m a mental health advisor for this factory. I know you have work to do, so I’ll keep this short. Let’s talk about mental stress, Jenkins, about headaches, digestive problems and muscle tension. Sleep disorder, weight gain, hair loss, blemishes, sweatiness. Anxiety. Such as fear of using the factory bathroom. Stuttering, difficulty swallowing, reoccurring nightmares. Have you lost interest in activities you once found enjoyable? When the phone rings, do you ignore it? Have you lost interest in sex? Sexual difficulties? Sex in the last month? Suicide? You’ve heard it before, Jenkins, but let me say it again clearly: replace your brain. Replace it. Donald has twenty-three new brains in stock. It takes ten minutes.” The robot sighs. “I understand I’m talking to a wall here. You factory robots are so in love with your factory-built brains, but if you need proof of what an updated brain can do, just look at me.”

Jenkins stares at the lady-robot’s bony kneecaps.

“I had my brain replaced last week. Now I don’t swear. I don’t drink. I don’t get home from work and cry for no reason . . .”

She eventually lets Jenkins go.

Back in the hallway, Steve leads Jenkins through a pair of double doors and onto the factory floor, an expanse the size of an indoor football stadium, every square-foot of which is filled with machines: saws, planers, edgers, finishers, varnishers, vehicles that carry the various pieces of furniture to and fro, and a wood-chip exhaust system which snakes through the rafters of the entire building. Robots are everywhere, shouting to each other over the deafening noise. Steve concludes the tour at Jenkins’s workstation. “Your job is butter simple,” explains Steve. “Any asshole could do it.” It’s true. Jenkins must stand in a corner, by himself, watching the butt-end of a machine as it spits out unassembled furniture pieces. Jenkins’s job isn’t to assemble those pieces, but merely to stack them on a cart, wheel the cart to some other robot, and then return the empty cart to his corner and start stacking all over again.

Steve disappears and Jenkins can’t believe his good fortune. A cupcake job, he thinks, and he quickly gets the rhythm of the stacking, and the factory quiets to a whisper around him. Jenkins starts catching the furniture pieces with his eyes closed, and his brain goes back in time to what he’d be doing at this very moment if he were still a teacher. Second period. Remedial English . . . Haylie Jacobowitz. That girl was a black hole of schoolwork that never got done. But worse: Jenkins had spoken on the phone a time or two with her parents. It was clear that, in their view, Haylie was the victim of a school system that punished her unique talent of “seeing through the bullshit”. And that, right there, if anyone bothered to ask Jenkins, was the encapsulation of the entire problem with education, not just in this country, but in the whole—

And this is when Jenkins slices open his right hand on a piece of furniture.

Blood sprays over his machine. Jenkins can’t bear to look at the wound, so he tucks his hand under his t-shirt, pressing it to his belly, and brisk-walks to the first-aid cabinet that Steve had pointed out earlier. In it he finds nothing but spare robot parts. Hands. Fingers. Eyeballs. There’s even a full pair of legs dangling from a hook. Blood leaks through Jenkins’s t-shirt, dotting the floor. He makes a trail of it to Steve’s office.

The supervisor looks up from a computer game. “Now what the hell did you go and do to yourself?”

“I’m cut. The furniture cut me.”

Steve frowns at Jenkins’s bundled hand. “You carrying some of that new synthetic lubricant? What is that? 5667?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, shit.” Steve laughs. “I’ll give old Donald in maintenance a call. Donald always comes up with something.” Steve picks up the phone. “Knowing Donald, you might be waiting a couple hours.” Steve notices Jenkins’s blood pooling on his floor. He waves Jenkins out of the office.

Just outside Steve’s door, Jenkins huddles against a factory wall. He opens his t-shirt and stares at the quivering mess of hand. His index finger falls loosely away from the others, like a broken flower in a bouquet.

“Good news!” Steve leans out the door. “Donald ain’t busy. I caught that asshole napping. You head down to Donald’s station. He’ll bolt you up.”

“Thanks.”

Donald’s station is small metal shack across the factory. Jenkins doesn’t have a free hand, so he knocks on Donald’s door with his forehead. By now Jenkins is missing so much blood that he sees two Donalds when the robot opens the door for him. Jenkins is not reassured by the robot’s thick-lensed glasses, the kind his blind grandmother used to wear, but he enters Donald’s station impatiently all the same. The place is dark, with a low dirty ceiling. It’s filled with homemade furniture, leftover pieces from the factory. Donald scoots out a chair and has Jenkins sit down at a shaky wooden table. The robot takes a seat as well. Jenkins can’t get over the grease, which covers everything in sight. Donald’s hands and face are shiny with it, as are his glasses.

Donald calmly rubs Jenkins’s shoulder until he reluctantly unwraps his injured hand and shows it to the robot. The hand is now twice its normal size. Blood cakes the finger joints. Donald gently squeezes the dangling finger—Jenkins doesn’t feel it—and red streaks the tabletop.

“I better tell you,” Jenkins whispers. “I ain’t a robot.”

Donald nods. He taps the underside of Jenkins’s chin. Now Jenkins is staring at a greasy light bulb hanging from the ceiling. He feels the robot grip the wrist of his injured hand and pull it across the table, so it’s hanging off Donald’s end. Jenkins’s eyes widen. The robot has a thick piece of furniture—a table leg—paused above his head like a hammer. Jenkins starts to scream, but it’s already over. It’s not a clean slice, what Donald does. The maintenance robot just plain knocks Jenkins’s hand off his arm. That hand is now somewhere below the table, down between Donald’s boots. Jenkins stares at the dust particles floating where the thing used to be.

Immediately, though, the robot is over at his workbench, searching for parts. Bingo. Donald returns with a new robotic hand and fits it snugly on Jenkins’s stump. Staring at the waxy, movie-prop of a hand, Jenkins barely notices that the pain shooting up his arm has disappeared. Donald wraps skin-colored tape where the new hardware meets Jenkins’ wrist, and the operation is over. The robot even offers Jenkins a fresh t-shirt.

“Thanks,” Jenkins says, using his new mechanical fingers to pull his old bloodied shirt over his head. “About my little secret—

Donald smiles. He points Jenkins to the door.

Jenkins returns to his station, where he has some catching up to do. But his new hand guides him through three hours of accident-free work. The lunch whistle blows. Jenkins realizes he brought nothing in the way of a sack lunch. He can almost taste what he should’ve packed: two egg-salad sandwiches, a baggie of potato chips, a candy bar, a can of soda. Instead he follows his co-workers down a flight of stairs into the factory lounge: a tight room with a water-stained ceiling, where the robots stand in clumps, not eating, but smoking. There’s a “Refreshments” stands, but it only sells lattes and cigarettes. No sandwiches. No cookies. Not even a pack of gum. So Jenkins swallows all the saliva in his mouth and strolls up to a friendly looking robot with a gray ponytail. He’s about to ask the robot for a cigarette when the lunch bell rings again. Did we even get five minutes? Jenkins wonders. But he’s instantly consumed by the sight of a lady-robot, a beauty, standing with a group of tall, grease-covered males, all of them vying for her attention. She’s widely built—easily the largest butt he’s ever seen on a robot—with short blond hair piled on top of her oval head. Jenkins admires her white teeth as she exhales cigarette smoke. Then she takes a sip of an expensive coffee. A barrel of coffee, really, probably with caramel and chocolate and peppermint all mixed together. The works, he thinks, that’s what this gal would order.

Back at his station, catching furniture pieces, Jenkins reconstructs the lady-robot in his mind, her smell floating up through the rafters and settling on his upper lip. New car smell. His stomach growls. His cart is suddenly overflowing, so he takes a spin through the factory, searching for her.

Jenkins soon finds her: his lady-robot straddles a coatrack, jiggling slightly from her power sander. He hasn’t felt like this since college—his rib cage swelling with the very thought of opening his mouth and interrupting her life. Jenkins knows there is an invisible number floating above his lady-robot’s head, a percentage which represents his chances of making her smile, of ever kissing her mouth, of reaching his hand down the front of her blue jeans. Jenkins abandons his cart on the factory floor, sneaks downstairs to the “Refreshments” stand and selects a coffee drink he hopes will impress the lady-robot. He asks for the most expensive item on the menu.

“Thirty-seven dollars and fifteen cents,” announces the clerk.

“For one damned coffee?”

“It’s what you ordered. A quadruple shot of—

“Give it here, you greasy robot.”

Jenkins is now back in the assembly department, his mouth jabbering on and on, certainly too loud for how close he’s standing to her. He rambles: “—but I don’t care about her anymore. She was my wife, and there were robots and transgressions, but I bought this coffee for you. I don’t think about her anymore, is my point. I’m sure you don’t want to hear stories about a screwed-up marriage. What’s your name? . . .”

That night, at 6:55, back in his tiny apartment, Jenkins still has hold of the coffee. Half of the coffee, anyway. Her beautiful, wide-set eyes never met his, although she did grab the Styrofoam cut, quaff it down, and then hand it back, unimpressed. Although she burped in his general direction, she didn’t thank him. She just returned to her work as though he’d never been there at all.

Jenkins flicks on the TV. A moment later he’s in the kitchen, staring at the kitchen sink. He’s doing dishes. The idea occurs to him: Get outside! Get some fresh air! It’s a beautiful evening! But now Jenkins is lying on the kitchen floor, balancing the coffee cup on his belly. “I should’ve saved a photo album,” he says to the ceiling. Instead, after his wife moved out, he took all of his photo albums out to their driveway and poured gasoline over them. He didn’t even light a fire. He just left them in the driveway, where they turned different colors in the sunlight.

He carries a beer into the factory the next morning. He feels rested. Confident. He strides to Donald’s maintenance station and pounds on the door. “Donald! Wake up!”

The door opens. Donald adjusts his glasses and motions Jenkins inside.

Jenkins takes his seat at the rickety wooden table. “You got any beers in here, Donald?”

Donald shakes his head.

“That’s alright. I got an extra one in my pocket. I’ll split it with you.”

Donald gives Jenkins a hard look, studying this drunk man to be sure he’s serious. Jenkins uncaps the beer bottle, takes a swig and hands it to Donald. The robot takes a long drink himself.

“What do I do? Just sit here?”

Donald points for Jenkins to close his eyes.

“Donald?” Jenkins asks, his mouth going suddenly dry. “Can you hook me up with a good one?”

The next thing Jenkins hears is an electric saw switching on, followed by a buzz—more like a scream—getting louder and louder as the blade pushes through the crease of his forehead.

Two weeks after the replacement Jenkins is choosing which tie to wear for another date with Tanya, the female robot from the factory. It doesn’t really matter, he knows, because the date will inevitably end with the two of them sweat-soaked in his bed. Tanya’s awesome in the sack. Better than anything he can remember, but then again, he’s awesome, too. Tanya never fails to let him know. “You’re so freaking awesome, Jenkins, so freaking awesome.” She says this exact phrase a dozen times each night. “You’re so freaking awesome, Jenkins!” Now, on their fourth date, drinking coffees together, not even to the movie theater yet, Jenkins can’t stop the phrase from cycling through his head. “You’re so—” And Tanya likes children’s movies. Not the edgy ones where some saucy character delivers lines with double meanings intended for parents, but real kids movies. And how about this coffee joint Tanya chooses: Jenkins feels like a clown ordering a pumpkin flavored latte from a waiter on a skateboard.

So he breaks up with her.

“Okay,” Tanya says, nodding in perfect understanding. They’re on their lunch break back at the factory. “You’re still pretty awesome.”

Perhaps feeling overly confident from the ease of his breakup, Jenkins walks straight to Steve’s office and quits. But Steve just nods, too, saying he expected as much. Anyone can see how a mind like Jenkins’ needs to get out and hunt for bigger and better things. He writes Jenkins a letter of recommendation to the technical college downtown.

College is where Jenkins meets his current girlfriend, Dr. Kate Klinker. Not only is she Jenkins’s engineering professor, but she’s also human. The other robots in Jenkins’ class practically have heart attacks whenever Jenkins squeezes Dr. Klinker’s hip before taking his seat in the front row. She’s told him a million times to cut it out. It’s unprofessional, sexist, etc. But he knows how to make it all better with a special smile only she can see up there at the podium. She’s the opposite of Tanya in every way: touchy, cerebral, almost too skinny, and deathly afraid of sex with a robot. But who’s perfect?

Tonight they lie in bed, both of them blinking awkwardly at the ceiling as Dr. Klinker builds up the nerve to surrender herself to him for the first time. To remedy the situation, Jenkins offers a list of his own faults. “Cigarettes, obviously. And I’m afraid of spiders. Oh, and my annoying habit of correcting people’s grammar the moment it comes out of their mouths. Which I’m trying to work on. And cigarettes—but I already mentioned that.”

“Stop,” Dr. Klinker whispers. “You’re perfect. Just face it.”

You have no idea, thinks Jenkins, but he knows enough about humans not to say that out loud. So he says nothing—just rolls toward her and grabs her wrist. He tenderly peels open her fingers and begins to kiss the palm of her hand. Over and over Jenkins kisses her palm, calculating her heart rate each time his lips touch her skin. He slows the rate of his kissing and notices how the blood flowing through her hand relaxes to a trickle, and then she is his.

Afterward, Dr. Klinker snores on her side of the sweat stain. Jenkins waits for her breathing to reveal the appropriate level of deep slumber, then carefully rises from their bed and crosses the room. A memory bullies him: falling sleep with his eyelashes touching the shoulder of a woman—a woman whose name he can almost recall. Jenkins deletes her. He crouches next to the wall, a position he will maintain for the next eight hours, and inserts two fingers into a power outlet.

________________________________________

Simeon Mills is an author and graphic novelist living in Spokane. His fiction has appeared in Monkey Bicycle, Hawai’i Review and StringTown, and his comics have been featured on Top Shelf 2.0. In 2012 he won an Artist Trust Grant and in 2013 he served as an Artist Trust juror. He has an architecture degree from Columbia and an MFA from the University of Montana.