Robot Shalom

Illustration by Clint Hardin

The lights usually blinked on at 4 pm on Friday. If Leah remembered to charge the cells on Thursday, then the SG-7a would power-up earlier, and she would deploy it across the envirosphere to buy challah, wine, and a chicken. Even sometimes the non-synthoid kind. If there was a danger that the charge wouldn’t last through Saturday, though, then four o’clock provided enough time for help with some essentials before sundown. Of course, Gottinger/Ovitz Leading-Edge Mechatronics had programmed the SG-7a with an optional command to plug itself in when the meter dipped below 10%, but whether or not this violated the laws regarding the use of the reactor on Shabbat was still a matter of some rabbinical debate. The Felsberg family had decided to play it safe. It’s weird, though. Leah could have sworn she’d set it to charge last night.

He hadn’t shared this with Leah (she would have called it silly), but Steve harbored increasingly grim suspicions that the SG-7a had become self-aware. The manual said nothing about the machine humming to itself while performing its Shabbos duties, but Steve was sure he had heard it late at night. Not just an electronic buzz or whirring servos. A distinct melody. Familiar. Definitely humming. How was it that no one else heard it?

Steve remembered his grandfather’s tales of The Malfunction from when he was a boy. They had given him nightmares back then, and this recent reminder kept him awake now, dyspeptic. His paranoia multiplied when the SG-7a was active, and he’d secretly decided to not give it any more charge than was necessary to get through the post-Havdalah cleanup. Let Leah complain if it ran slow on Saturday afternoon. It is not tradition alone that sustained our people for nearly 4300 years on Earth, his grandfather had said. It’s smarts, he said. So, watch your ass, he said. And would it kill you to turn off the lights you’re not using? Eat something. You look bad.

Illustration by Clint Hardin. Music recorded using software synths, Stylophone, baritone guitar and sampled vocals. The surname “Felsberg” comes by way of posthumous dedication to my friend, Suzette Felsberg Cohen.

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Memento Mori (Avlb. in Blk. or Brn.)

Illustrations by Clint Hardin

I don’t really remember what I expected from a production company specializing in medical videos.

ImageActually, I guess I kind of do. I was afraid that I might be disinfecting microphone cables or mopping up blood or cleaning up discarded viscera in a facility that was part television studio, part abattoir. As it turned out, I spent much of my college internship running snack-related errands all over Chelsea and buzzing in clients for a friend of the owner who occasionally used the office loft to administer tarot card readings. His business card said only, “Have Thunder, Will Rumble.”

The closest I came to actual contact with the medical realm was when I was sorting the mail. There were the checks and bills to and from some pharmaceutical firm or another. There were the video screeners consisting of interviews with seemingly somniloquent clinicians interspersed with gory surgical close-ups under bluish light. And, there were the catalogs.

After looking over page after page of skinless, hairless, bare-eyeballed, plastic mannequins, it wasn’t the quick-assembly, modular digestive/excretory system that caught my notice. And certainly, while it was odd that you could order generic, sexless mock-cadavers and had to buy snap-on reproductive organs separately, after seeing the transparent schnauzer and the model uterus with removable fetus, the novelty was diminished.

Maybe it’s not so strange, then, that the one item to stand out from all this grizzly imagery was a small, black tote in the lower corner of the skeleton model page. Surely the gift for a person who already had everything, presumably even snap-on genitalia, the Human Skull Carrying Case was quite a handsome piece of luggage and much less cumbersome than the Spinal Column Duffel Bag.

The painfully obvious puns aside (“You’ll be at the head of the class in old-skull style!”), the description of this simple, yet expensively “custom designed” leather item extolled its qualities in a completely normal fashion, as if to say, “All the important young professionals have the Human Skull Carrying Case with adjustable, detachable shoulder-strap. Obviously, you need one, too.” It read like the description of something boredom, alcohol, and high-altitude and would induce you to buy from the Sky Mall catalog.

So, it seemed perfectly normal during rush hour when I saw a woman standing opposite me who carried a similar case. I don’t mean to imply that I noticed her case first, because she was gorgeous.

I’d often dredged the depths of my mind searching for potential common ground to make initiating conversation with stylish women on the subway a feasible venture, and I had never dug up much that I’d deemed worth attempting. “So, you ride the subway too?” hadn’t worked well that one time. Or, the other time.

But this time, there was the case.

“So, you like your Skull Case with the shoulder strap, huh?” I asked, several stops after she boarded the train. As I struggled to stay upright while the car jerked and swayed, she threw an indifferent glance over the black frames of her glasses and, with a distressingly fragrant swish of dark hair, turned to look out the window.

Thinking that she might not have heard me correctly, I said, “I’ve been looking into getting a Human Skull Carrying Case, too.” This didn’t elicit a response of any sort. I was about to repeat myself when I realized maybe she was a little weirded-out that I knew she was carrying around a skull. I guess I would be too. I mean, what if she was props-manager for a production of Hamlet and that was Yorick in the case? I suppose I would feel silly if I was on my way to Macbeth and had to walk around with blood on my hands.

I’d heard of an actor named George Cooke who donated his head to science and whose spirit supposedly haunts part of the city. Maybe it was this woman’s eerie reflection in the smeared window that got me thinking about this, but I was still reasonably sure she wasn’t his ghost. First of all, she was a woman. (But, then again, I suppose a ghost can do what he wants.) And yes, she was carrying around a skull, but she also had one on her shoulders. I’d gathered that phantoms doomed to carry their own heads generally have just one. And they’re not so sheepish about it.

I thought that if I had a Human Skull Carrying Case, I would be pretty comfortable toting around a skull. It’s really all about how you present things. By this point in school, I’d put a lot of sub-par writing in attractive portfolios. B minus. D plus. Whatever. Grade aside, you can’t fault a handsome leatherette folder. So, I guess what I’m saying is: if the killer had put Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a Human Skull Carrying Case instead of a cardboard box in that movie, Seven, it’s still horrific, but at the end of the day, there’s some really nice luggage going into the next police property auction. Right?

In retrospect, there’s a good chance that I might have been working through some of these thoughts out loud, because she turned and asked, “What…the…hell are you talking about?”

It was a few seconds before I could think to mumble something about appreciating nice luggage when I saw it, and then, ignoring the stares from the passengers around me, I feigned intense interest in the map on the wall as if I didn’t already know I was going to the last stop at Pelham Bay. She shook her head in what I took to be some combination of disbelief and disgust, moved further down the length of the car, and resumed looking out at the dark walls speeding by.

For the next few minutes, I considered what had happened. In self-pity I thought about how this was exactly why I didn’t try to talk to attractive strangers. I could never say, “Oh yeah? Well don’t flatter yourself,” to save face, because my lame attempts were so transparent. But, I read somewhere once that women like it when you compliment their purses, and it made sense that this guideline would extend to most skulls. Sorry…luggage. This guideline extends to most luggage. But, apparently not.

My thoughts were interrupted when she pushed past me to exit the car at 125th Street, which is where I had planned to change to an express train, but I didn’t want to look like a creep by following her. Then again, I thought, who’s the creep here? At least I’m not carrying around a fucking skull.

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This story also appeared in the Local Voices section of Write Club Atlanta.

A Gentle Reminder

A Gentle Reminder

Wherein the dangers of dabbling in demonology are balanced against the perils of brunch and such, and the Lovecraft phrase-book is plundered freely.

A piece originally written for Write Club Atlanta, arguing “Remember” in the “Remember vs. Forget” bout, now illustrated by my friend and previous collaborator on the documentary “Four Days at Dragon*Con,” artist Clint Hardin.