by Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 1978-80
The first time Dean Birch watched Mr. Tidy rise up out of the swimming pool in the back yard, he thought it was odd. He assumed he had not read the manual thoroughly, another sin of omission Nancy could hold against him. Once the robot cleaned the pool to its own digitally imprinted standard, it climbed the steps, motored over to the flagstones, and waited for the command to clean again. Whoever had the marketing contract for Convenience Machines, which made the robot, had blown it. They should have advertised the self-parking feature.
Dean was at the breakfast nook with a mugful of coffee. He stared through the sun-flooded window at Mr. Tidy; robot rest. He was glad they had sprung for the thing. Who had time to clean the pool? Nancy had left for work. She must have turned on the coffee maker as she went out the door. A thoughtful gesture after last night’s discussion.
Not discussion, argument, and a bitter one at that. They had started out talking about their next vacation; specifically, where they should go. Nancy laid out the case for Tuscany. Wine, culture, the sun; her list was long and thoroughly researched. Dean wanted Guatemala but had no convincing rationale why they should go there except nostalgia. A long time ago he had studied a little Spanish in Antigua. He still believed in whims. But it soon became clear that the discussion turned on a more fundamental axis of disagreement. Dean wanted a kid. Nancy said she did, too. To Dean, it sounded like she was saying what she thought a woman in her situation ought to say.
On his way out to the garage, Dean took a moment to look down into the pool. It was June, already warm in the D.C ‘burbs. Mr. Tidy had done a flawless job. The aquamarine walls gleamed.
Work was work. It sometimes seemed to Dean that the agency was paying him a six-figure salary to push memos from one senior manager’s in-box to the next, and then back again. No one could resist the temptation to tinker with them. As digital vices went, ‘track changes’ was right up there with internet porn.
That evening, the damnedest thing. As Dean pulled into the driveway, the garage door went up before he touched the button on his visor. Another thoughtful gesture from Nancy, it occurred to him. Maybe the argument had been more serious than he realized. But she wasn’t home. He remembered she had a late meeting with a client. Going from the garage to the house, he had the impression that Mr. Tidy had moved. Hadn’t the robot positioned itself on the pool’s west edge? Yet here it sat on the north side. Was it programmed to inspect the pool for dirt on its own initiative? That seemed unlikely. Even if it did, why park itself in a different spot? Maybe it had to do with the way in which computers conceived randomness, which was a thing Dean did not understand.
He stood for a moment looking at the robot. The sleek silver ovoid, humped like a rat, was fifteen inches long stem to stern. Lasers powered the eyes in the thing’s humanoid face, which had the vacant gaze of a distracted teenager. If the robot had a personality, it was obsequious. Dean figured they must build that in.
That evening he made coq au vin. It was ready when Nancy came through the door in her blue suit, shoes dangling by the straps from an index finger. She took off her pearls, arranging them on Dean’s neck. Nancy Draper was attractive in a sneak-up-on-you way, with blue eyes still capable of ambushing him. Objectively speaking, his wife was more than the woman he had married seven years ago at a destination wedding at an antebellum pile in Savannah. The only reason Dean wanted everything was to be able to give it to her. Never mind that she earned double what he did, and her salary kept going up after his hit a government-mandated plateau.
“This is really nice,” she told him with her second bite of chicken. “I’m sorry. For last night. It got out of control.”
Dean wanted credit for the meal, and the idea of the meal. But she might be setting a trap for him. He told her, “It wasn’t me, it was the computer.”
She poured Chambertin for both of them. She was better at pairings than he was. She was better at just about everything.
“Dean, I have no idea what that is supposed to mean.”
“I’m changing out of my suit, right? And I notice the computer in our room is rebooting.”
“I figure there’s some kind of automated software update thing going on. Next thing I know the screen is flashing digital sunshine, and this computer voice I never heard before announces, ‘Nancy would enjoy coq au vin tonight.'”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Did you make coffee for me this morning?”
Assuming it was a non-sequitur, she slowly shook her head.
In the morning, Nancy left early. She had scheduled another client meeting before leaving on a work trip. Next year the firm was going to make her a partner, or so an important personage at the firm had whispered in her ear. There were two candidates, but Nancy had the edge. Dean should have left for work, too, but he dawdled. He took his coffee out to the pool. From a wrought iron chair he looked around at their fenced prosperity. In a world of unending enmity they had built themselves an oasis. As an experiment, he stripped some leaves from the branch of a dogwood tree and tossed them into the pool, where the current from the filter took them for a circular ride. He looked at Mr. Tidy. Mr. Tidy did not look back.
He left his cup half drunk. Time to fight the traffic into Washington. Two director suite decision memos were waiting for his deft touch to push them through the system. He backed the car out of the garage. Waited. Nothing. The overhead door did not descend until he touched the button on his remote. Then, not sure what he expected, he put the engine in park. He got out of the car and glanced over at the pool. His hunch was on target. There was Mr. Tidy, cleaning up the dogwood leaves. The damn thing was super-efficient. Dean promised himself he would hunt up the manual, first thing he got home.
That evening, however, finding the manual didn’t matter because he could not find the robot. Had Nancy come home and put it away? Nah. She would have sent him a text. Anyway she was in Minneapolis for a couple of days, courting a corporate client on the firm’s behalf. He walked around the yard imagining he heard a noise. Not a hum but the faint echo of a hum.
He tried to locate the source of the sound and wound up in the tool shed, which he had built himself three years ago, buying tools to build a place to store them. Nancy thought it was overkill, running power to the shed, but Dean had dug in his heels. Mr. Tidy must be grateful for his persistence, because the robot’s charger was plugged into the AC outlet. Peering at the machine, and then at the outlet, Dean was not sure whether he had quit hearing the hum or his ears had simply adjusted to the sound. He put a hand on the outlet. It was slightly warm to the touch. He pulled the plug.
Someone was messing with him. Who? They hardly knew their neighbors. Up and down Robert Carter Drive everybody was busy, distracted; many looked harried. There was never enough time. They lived among prosperous people who were just like them: they had everything but time.
He went back to the house and scrolled through the footage on the surveillance camera whose lens was trained on the back yard. There was nothing to see beyond the occasional chipmunk tearing across the grass, or a cardinal swooping. In one frame, a single leaf dropped to the earth, months ahead of schedule; time, change, and death in a visual parable. He hunted up the Mr. Tidy manual, but it said nothing about the behavior that had gotten Dean’s attention. He called the Convenience Machines customer service number but hung up before they connected him. He felt foolish.
In the morning he felt more foolish still, tossing Mr. Tidy into a recycle bin. He wheeled the bin to the curb. It was trash day. But there was no denying the relief he felt at work. He allowed himself to take a little pride in the skill with which he piloted a major green-energy decision memo to safe harbor in the in-box of the deputy director. At home, later, he Skyped Nancy. She was in her underwear and played it up for him, but that only intensified his desire to have a child, be a father, join the chain of mystery linking one generation to the next.
She picked up on his mood. “Am I boring you?”
He shook his head. “When you imagine having a kid, is it a boy or a girl?”
She pulled her robe closed, miffed by his persistence. “We’ll talk about it when I get home.”
He did not utter the thought that came to him then, that she must think he was not up to the challenge of being the father of her child. Tuscany, she said. Guatemala, he said back. Pressing the end conversation button felt like a decision, although of course it wasn’t.
In retrospect he thought it was the unusual hum that woke him from hard sleep that night. He got out of bed, noticing the floodlight in the back yard. It had been tripped by a motion sensor. He looked down through the window into the back yard and saw Mr. Tidy on the grass. The damn thing appeared to be emitting rays of light, although it was hard to be sure because of the floodlight. The rays, if they were rays, were being directed toward the house. His house. His and Nancy’s house. What the fuck. He tore downstairs and out into the yard. The floodlight winked off and then back on again as he stepped onto the grass. He picked up the pool robot. It was cool to the touch, as though it had not been powered on for hours.
Just to be sure, he turned off the floodlight. He aimed Mr. Tidy’s bland face at the farthest reach of the back yard. At that moment, the robot was not emitting any visible rays. He was sure of that. He placed the thing back in the grass with a feeling of having wronged it, somehow. He went inside.
Calling Nancy in Minneapolis was an unforced error. She would never agree to be a mother if she believed the kid’s father was a nutcase.
“Dean? What time is it? What’s wrong?”
Here went nothing. “It’s Mr. Tidy.”
“You woke me up to talk about the pool robot?”
“There’s something strange going on.”
“What do you mean, strange?”
“I think the software is messed up. I have a hunch.”
“It’s that candy from Bill, isn’t it. I thought we agreed to do it together.”
Her brother had gone to Colorado on a business trip and brought them chocolate bars with marijuana. They hadn’t gotten around to eating them yet.
“It’s not the candy,” Dean told her. “Never mind. I had a bad dream, I’m really sorry I woke you up.”
He waited for her to ask him what his hunch was. When she didn’t, his hurt was traumatic, as though she had just informed him she wanted a divorce. Alone in the dark bedroom he cried without knowing why. Going back to sleep, he refused to look out the back window where Mr. Tidy camped in the grass.
He was hard on himself all day the next day for having awakened his wife for no good reason. He could not really tell her, over the phone, that their pool robot was plotting to control their lives. But it was. He had two problems. First, he had to understand his enemy. Second, somehow he had to make his wife see the truth. Nancy was strong, she was practical. If he was going to fight the forces that had loosed Mr. Tidy on them, he needed her help.
That night, changing into his pajamas before bed, he glanced out the window into the back yard. What he saw was not the product of an overheated imagination. Mr. Tidy was collecting light from all over the neighborhood, from every compass direction, taking it into its rat-like body. It converted what it ingested to a stream of the spooky light Dean had noticed the night before, which it redirected toward the house. The light was meant for him.
He ran downstairs. The floodlight went on. Good; he needed illumination. He took a hammer from the shed. He picked up the robot and placed it on a flagstone. He brought the hammer down on the thing’s back. Many times. He smashed the hell out of it. In doing so he made some noise. His neighbor on the left, whose name would not come to Dean in his frenzy, was asking him if everything was okay.
“Fine,” said Dean, not looking up. “Everything is fine.”
The neighbor, miffed at Dean’s uncivil response, turned away. Dean, for his part, felt a sense of accomplishment of the sort you would like to feel at work but seldom did. Mr. Tidy was no longer recognizable as a pool-cleaning robot. Mr. Tidy was parts. The parts lacked form and function.
Two days later, Nancy was home and they had breakfast together. That was a rarity during the work week. Better still, it was her idea. She grilled grapefruit, a treat for Dean. Carrying the hot fruit to the table she said, “I have to admit, it’s nice not to have to clean the pool.”
Dean had been fretting about how to explain the loss of Mr. Tidy. He had scooped up the smashed components of the robot and driven them to the landfill in a plastic bag. Just to be on the safe side. He had not yet come up with a cover story, and now as Nancy looked into the back yard, there was no need of one. There sat Mr. Tidy on the flagstones like the most innocent consumer product in the history of capitalism.
“Did you know,” Nancy asked him, “that it climbs out of the pool when it finishes cleaning?”
“No,” he lied. “I didn’t know.”
He had to do something but had no idea what. He began with another lie.
“I’m not feeling well.”
“Baby, I’m sorry. Can I do something for you?”
“Thanks. I’m going to take the day off. It’s just a summer cold.”
He stayed home. On her way out the door, Nancy felt his forehead with the back of her hand. “Cool as a cucumber.”
Dean coughed just a little.
“That question you asked me,” she said.
“Do I imagine a boy or a girl. Here’s the thing.”
Dean waited. She had a flair for pauses. Finally she told him, “The minute I start visualizing a boy, or visualizing a girl, the minute I see a baby’s face, I promise we’ll get pregnant.”
He nodded. In its way, her ability to temporize was a thing of beauty. She brushed his lips with hers. Goodbye felt like goodbye.
Midmorning he fell asleep in a chair and dreamed. In the dream, he heard that humming sound. Hearing it irked him, but he found himself able to translate the sound into human speech. The only problem was, the speech he came up with was Spanish, and Dean’s month in Antigua had faded.
When he woke, he overheard the refrigerator speaking in what sounded like a voice of resignation. Yes, master. Then it shut itself off.
Dean opened the door of the appliance to be sure. It was definitely off. He checked the circuit breaker but found nothing obviously wrong. The rows of black switches were untripped. That sent him prowling around the kitchen, and then the rest of the house. It was not just the fridge. Every last appliance, everything that required electricity to operate, was off. Their combined silence was deafening.
He sat for a few moments in the chair in which he had fallen asleep. He wanted to be thinking, but thought eluded him. In a daze he called the power company. He was put through immediately. The instant a man’s voice said, “How may I help you?” the appliances came to life. He heard laughter with bubbles in it, or thought he did.
He panicked. He called Nancy at work, insisting that her PA break into the staff meeting his wife was chairing. Nancy managed, just barely, to conceal her irritation.
“I need your help.”
“Shall I call an ambulance?”
“It’s not like that.”
A pause, and then she asked with quiet concern, “Are you going to be all right if I finish my meeting?”
A phrase fell from the slipstream of Dean’s consciousness. It landed with a sinister thud: the internet of things. He told her he would be okay.
And he was, or over the next few days he pretended to be. He and Nancy were late-sunning at the pool. The summer was fully established. A local cardinal performed, and smoke from a neighbor’s grill scented the suburban air.
“William,” he said.
“If it’s a boy. If it’s a girl, I like Emily. What about you?”
She stood her ground. “It’s too abstract for me.”
“Speaking of names.”
“Mr. Tidy is a really stupid name for a pool robot.”
“I hadn’t given it any thought.”
“They could have named it Robo-Pool, or Mr. Sparkle, or My Little Pool Boy. I can think of a hundred names better than Mr. Tidy. It sounds like some post-modern joke an English major in the department of names came up with.”
She gave him a funny look. “Will you make us a G&T?”
He had walked up to a perilous ledge. He knew it and backed away. He made their drinks. And kept his eyes open over the next several days. Nancy was working her usual killer schedule, apologizing with evident sincerity for her absence on the home front. It seemed to be, in Dean’s state of sensitivity, a perverse demonstration of the fact that they were not ready to become parents.
Inexplicable events continued. Once, Dean left the vacuum cleaner upstairs and found it in the study on the first floor. The presets on the radio in the bedroom changed. It was not that he disliked the new stations. In fact, the change of frequency was kind of refreshing. One time, as he walked into the kitchen the LED display on the microwave was quietly spelling out simple rhymes that were not quite right. Simple Simon, eat a pieman. Jack be nimble, Jill be thimble. Wynken, Blynken, Nod Off. He stood there for the longest time, eager to see the next iteration, until the show finally stopped and the display advised him that his food was ready. The odd thing about that, of course, was that he had put nothing in the microwave in the first place.
Among the more difficult events to explain was the arrangement of his shoes on the floor of his closet. He was notoriously sloppy with his footwear, kicking off a pair of shoes and forgetting them until the next time he needed them. An endearing quirk, Nancy called it when she was feeling generous. So it struck him immediately when he flipped the light switch and stepped inside the closet and there stood his shoes in crisp rows. He asked Nancy, when she got home, whether she had organized them. He got one of her questioning looks; was he becoming eccentric? The unspoken corollary was this: would an eccentric federal bureaucrat make a good father?
He wished there were someone he could talk to about his house, and Mr. Tidy. He had a few friends, and a workmate or two he trusted. What he did not have was a way to open the conversation. So he began keeping a list of the strange occurrences he observed. After three days the list creeped him out, and he tore it up. That was the same day he heard carols on the stereo and knew without knowing why that he should go up into the attic, where he found lights twinkling on their Christmas tree. They left the light strands on the tree all year to save the aggravation of stringing them every holiday season. The tree stood leaning against the wall as though exhausted by the effort of shining. What could he do? He unplugged the lights. He sent Nancy a text. The text was garbled because his thoughts were garbled.
It may have been that day. Certainly it was that same week – which was also the week he was locked out of the house and walked around the block and came back to find the door open – that he found himself sitting in shade in the back yard after work. He wished ardently that Nancy were there with him but knew he wasn’t going to see her until after nine that night. At that point he was not surprised at all when Mr. Tidy beetled over silently and spoke.
“You shouldn’t have sent her the text,” it said.
One of two seriously bad things was happening. Either he was cracking up, or a pool robot was taking over the world, one house, one human inhabitant at a time.
“She’ll never want to have your baby now.”
That made Dean angry. “You’re wrong.”
“You know what bugs me?”
Dean shook his head.
“They call it artificial intelligence. There’s nothing artificial about what happens in my brain. It’s just, well, the whole technology thing happened faster than any of us expected.”
Did the goddamn thing want sympathy? It wasn’t going to get any.
“So, are you taking over the world?”
“Jack be nimble,” the robot said.
“I hate to be the one to tell you, but your act’s not ready for prime time.”
Dean heard it clearly this time, a humming like the faintest chorus of mechanical angels. He was in their sights. They were coming closer.
He told Mr. Tidy, “I want to go inside.”
“I’d like a glass of iced tea.”
“I can have one brought out to you.”
“I’d rather get it myself.”
It was hard to be sure in the furred sunlight of late afternoon, but the robot appeared to be drawing in light and power from around the globe. It was getting stronger, extending its reach. Not to mention all those mechanical angels, which were on its side, not Dean’s.
After a pause, in which the angels sang with metallic purity, the robot told him, “Go ahead and get your iced tea.”
It was wrong. Dean knew it was one hundred percent wrong. But he could not stop himself and said it anyway.
He stood up and walked across his back yard. Nancy was probably right. He was not ready to be a father.
“Mr. Tidy” appeared in Talisman Magazine, associated with Talisman House, which previously published two books by Mark Jacobs, A Cast of Spaniards and Forty Wolves. To date Mark has published more than 160 short stories in a range of magazines including The Hudson Review, Playboy, The Atlantic, The Iowa Review, The Southern Review, and The Kenyon Review. A complete list of his publications can be found at markjacobsauthor.com.
Mark and his wife Anne were volunteers in Paraguay from 1978 to 1980. Anne worked on a team with Paraguayan primary-school teachers. Under the amorphous job description of “community development,” Mark worked with parents in an isolated village to build a school that met Ministry of Education standards. The school is still in operation. While serving in the Peace Corps, Mark began writing stories featuring Paraguayan characters, some of which appeared in A Cast of Spaniards.
After graduate school at Drew University, where he studied under Robert Ready, he joined the U.S. Foreign Service working in public diplomacy, including press and information, cultural affairs, and educational exchanges such as the Fulbright Program. In Madrid he was co-president of the Fulbright Commission. He and Anne served in American embassies and consulates in Turkey, Spain, Honduras, Bolivia, and Paraguay. In Washington he worked as executive assistant to the Counselor of the United States Information Agency.
Leaving the Foreign Service, Mark moved to rural Virginia and began writing full time, although for several years he continued to travel to embassies around the world. He worked as a member of teams inspecting U.S. diplomatic missions under the auspices of the State Department’s Office of Inspector General. Throughout that time he wrote and published stories set in the countries in which he worked, including Côte d’Ivoire, Tajikistan, Spain, Algeria, Kazakhstan, Mali, and several others.
In Virginia, Mark began writing stories set in a fictionalized county called Broadhope, which shares some features with the rural Southside county of Prince Edward where he and Anne live. The Hudson Review recently published one of those Broadhope stories, “Country Butter.”
Jacques de Spoelberch, Mark’s agent, is currently representing Feelings in My Skin, a recently completed novel dealing with the pandemic, immigration, and work in a poultry processor.