by Christina De La Rocha
“Ma, it smells good in here,” exhaled Evie, as astounded as the rest of us at the aroma rolling out of the kitchen.
Granny beamed from her oversized armchair like a turtle wearing giant fishbowl glasses. “Ninety-seven years young! Can you believe it?”
Dad arched one eyebrow at Evie, who shrugged in return. “Ma. Today. A turkey!” she shouted.
“With all the trimmings,” Granny shouted right back.
We all sat there, Mom, Dad, Evie and myself (Louie-Lou), failing to imagine the birthday girl hoisting a whole turkey up above her head and into the high-perched oven and remembering to take it out when it was done. I craned my neck over the back of the sofa and looked down, looking for the usual ghostly, bean-shaped fallout from batches of frijoles, forgotten on the cooktop, incinerated to ash, but not even dust bunnies lurked. In fact, the entire living room was clean. Even low down the walls were unscuffed and unsmeared in ways that were several years beyond the eyesight and joints of my grandmother.
“I have a helper!” cried Granny, as if amazed that fortune had smiled so smilingly down upon her.
As if on cue, a trim, compact android whose headband perfectly matched its pink smock pushed through the saloon doors holding a tray laden with drinks.
The women’s magazine my dad had been flipping through thunked onto the floor. None of us had seen an android before up close and in person. For one profound moment, the cover GIF of a friendly model in a modest bathing suit laughing and putting her hand to the top of her floppy hat was the only thing in the room that moved. You could have heard a pin drop if Granny hadn’t been crowing, “This is Lucinda. She is my angel!”
The android set the tray down on the coffee table and smiled, pushing its long black hair back over its shoulder. Below its white, polyester slacks, its feet were embedded in easily cleanable, cushy, pink, cloud foam clogs. Because android feet also ache by the end of the day?
“How do you do, Lucinda,” my aunt, standing up, managed stiffly. “It’s so nice of you to help out my mom.”
“It’s my job,” the android replied. Then it asked what we’d like to drink: lemonade, soda, water, or iced tea?
“Yes, yes,” Granny nodded sagely, then dabbed at her lips with a tissue which she then wadded and stuck up her sweater sleeve.
We numbly accepted our drinks.
“Dinner should be ready in just a few minutes,” the android informed us before retreating back into the kitchen.
For a few heartbeats we sat there looking at each other. “How can Ma afford this?” I heard Evie hiss to Dad as I jumped up and dashed into the kitchen.
The android Lucinda may have been an angel, but it was not an orderly cook. The kitchen looked as if everything ‒ cupboards, fridge, freezer, and drawers ‒ had splurted and spewed.
“Turkey core temperature has reached 180 Fahrenheit degrees,” spoke a voice from the oven.
“Rear left burner induction off,” the android commanded the cooktop and put the lid down on the rice.
“Turkey core temperature….” the thermometer jammed into the turkey repeated.
“Turkey core temperature acknowledged!”
I had to smile. The android sounded… annoyed. Then it lowered the door of the manual oven and, as it stood back to let the steam out, handed me the second pair of silicone mitts. Together we hauled out the bird and found a place for it on top of the washing machine, which, also being an old-fangled appliance, was unable to complain.
As the android popped a tray of bread rolls into the oven to brown, I started in on the mountain of dirty bowls, plates, spoons, knives, pots, and pans it had created.
“You don’t need to do that,” the android told me.
“Dishwashing’s my celebratory family dinner duty,” I replied. “Plus this is hardly in your job description,” which was surely something along the lines of nursing assistant or home health aide.
The android gave me a funny smile.
“I’m Louie,” I said, although I didn’t shake its hand, just gave it my most not quite genuinely apologetic I’m-up-to-my-tattooed-elbows-in-suds grin. It gave me a cynical look then ordered the stovetop to heat the green beans.
“I’ve heard all about you,” the android said.
I barked, I couldn’t help it. “I’ll bet,” I said with another grin. “And I’m not even the one in prison.”
The android gave me a look that said it had heard all about that one too.
The android began transferring hot food to platters and bowls and stuck in serving spoons, confidently pulling everything it needed from cupboards and drawers. Two by two, the android brought the food out through the swinging doors to the dining room table.
As the android came back in from ferrying out the green beans and the rice, I dried my hands on a ratty towel I’d had to open six drawers to find and asked it how long it had been here.
“A few months.”
I nodded noncommittally, wondering why Granny hadn’t mentioned it, not to Evie, not to Dad, not to anyone.
I admired the mash in front of me, made with purple potatoes whipped to perfection, while Evie said grace. Like Granny, the aging Evie was rediscovering the glory of God and his promise of an afterlife. It was a nice thought, that maybe this wasn’t all there was, especially when this hadn’t amounted to much, although, unlike the rest of us, at least Granny had pulled off owning her own home.
Following our standard celebratory family dinner script, Dad, in an impotent cloud of swearing, more massacred the turkey than carved it. Dull carving knife, sharp carving knife, electric carving knife, wireless voice activated ceramic saw; down through the years it had never made any difference. Mom got in her usual throw up of her arms in exasperation at this failure, especially after her onslaught of advice and directions augmented with holographic instructional videos shown sideways of course because Mom couldn’t get the projection settings right on her phone.
Wheezing and red, Dad threw down his napkin.
“Junior,” Granny chided with the inappropriate loudness of the nearly deaf.
That boiled him over. “My name is MIGUEL and I have been the MAN OF THIS FAMILY for 75 YEARS!” The cutlery jumped as he banged his fist on the table.
Granny cocked her head and blinked and smiled the blink and the smile of the uncomprehending but hopeful you’ll like them anyway. “Miguelito,” she clucked, which made his face grow redder still.
The android emerged from the kitchen bearing one last platter, a steaming hot mound of tamales, still in their husks, and we just goggled.
“Maria’s?” my mom asked, unfolding her napkin and placing it on her lap, referring to the nearest Mexican restaurant. It had been decades since Granny had made her own tamales. They were serious work.
Granny clamped shut her mouth and shook her head.
“Casa Pulido?” my dad queried, a little hesitantly. They were a great taqueria, an old family favorite, and they delivered by drone, but their tamales just weren’t like the ones Granny used to make.
Again, Granny shook her head.
We took the tongs and each liberated ourselves a tamale or two as the platter passed round the table.
“Ma,” breathed Evie, leaning in, “they taste just like yours.”
Granny turned her turtle beam back on, her chin stretching taut all the skin under her jaw like the cabling of a suspension bridge. The temptation was there to reach into the salad bowl and waggle some lettuce in front of her chompers. Instead, I looked at the android. It had sat down at the foot to Granny’s head of the table and was watching us all. One by one, everyone caught on, and all heads swiveled to rivet on the same point.
“You made them!” gasped Evie. Granny had always promised to teach her, but somehow, in the 50 years they had lived together as mother and daughter, never had.
The android cast its eyelashes down. “I just followed instructions.”
Granny hollered, “Ain’t she a doll!?”
After a short break during which the android changed Granny’s diaper, the android helped Granny clamber back onto her chair. I couldn’t tear my stare from Granny’s feet, in sandals, straining against the crossbar, helping to help push her tiny body up into the chair. Bony, bunioned, and hammer-toed, yet painstakingly perfectly manicured, they captivated like a gruesome accident.
The android lit all 97 candles on Granny’s cake, a fearsome blaze. With nervous glances up at the smoke alarm, we sang the birthday song fast. The android helped Granny blow out the candles then it carved up the cake and started passing out slices.
“Oh, Junior,” Granny honked. “I’m so glad that you came today. I haven’t seen you in such a long time! You’re always so busy!“
Dad shifted in his seat.
“And Evie. It’s good to see that you’re eating well.”
Evie blanched. It was true she was developing thunder thighs. “It’s the only effect the antidepressants are having,” my mother liked to say when she was in one of her less charitable moods.
“Until she was 65,” Granny announced loudly to the android, “Evie had a cute little figure. But she’s been so lonely these last eleven years since her husband died. Eating is her comfort. You can’t blame her for letting herself go.”
Evie began turning red.
The android turned to her and put a gentle hand on her arm. “John must have been a wonderful man.”
Evie’s lungs deflated in a gush. “He was,” she choked out then fled the room.
We all sighed and began shoveling birthday cake.
Granny leaned over and put her hand on my wrist. I looked up from the lipstick blotter tissue scrunched in her fingers and gave Granny my best, calmest smile.
“Lou-Lou,” she told me, “sometimes I feel sorry for you.”
Across the table, my father froze.
“Why, Granny?” I ventured. “I have a great life. I work a couple of days a week and spend the rest of the time at the beach.”
Granny shook her head. “You should have had a more reliable brother. Yours is no good.”
Kitty-corner across the table from me, Mom sat up mamma bear straight.
I chewed on my lip. Granny’s complaint was dangerously reasonable. But what can you do? I made a minuscule gesture of concurrence.
“All the drugs and the women of ill repute. And then robbing those banks.” Granny paused to reload her lungs. “A common criminal!”
Women of ill repute? I gave Granny a look like 97 years was no excuse for such an old-fashioned outlook.
Granny sighed. “I had five good, hardworking brothers and sisters, God rest their souls. They were such a source of comfort to me.” Granny pressed her tissue against her chest and looked heavenward. Then her gaze thudded down on me. “But you, when your father and your mother are dead, you’ll be all alone.”
I waited for Granny to continue. This hardly seemed like the worst she could do. But she just looked at me like a pigeon patiently awaiting the results of her pecking. Smiling, I put my hands behind my head and stretched my legs out in front of me. “Another piece of cake, please.”
The android began carving another slice.
Granny set her jaw. “I felt sorry for you when you were growing up, too.”
One of my eyes disengaged itself from overseeing receiving delivery of the new slice of cake and drifted back over to peer in Granny’s direction.
“Before your brother was born, you were so happy,” Granny smiled, as if recollecting a wondrous time. “You were the center of everyone’s attention.” Her face grew dark. “But then your little brother came along and replaced you.” Granny nodded with tremendous “sympathy”.
“Junior, I used to say to your father, it must be so sad for Lou-Lou to have a little brother who is so charming, so handsome, and so smart.”
I looked up, my cake fork stuck half way between my plate and my mouth. Hadn’t I been the smart one? My little brother had been the cross between Apollo, Adonis, and charisma that everyone had adored. But I’d at least had brains as the consolation prize.
“We pitied you so much.”
I blinked once or twice. It can’t just have been a lie to make little dumpy, plump, uncharming me feel slightly less like a total loser.
“Poor little Lou-Lou,” Granny sighed as if it was no surprise to anyone that I hadn’t amounted to anything. Even Adonis had briefly had millions from hacking the Bitcoin exchange.
I looked around for denials, but even my father was staring down at his plate.
I opened and closed my mouth while black and grey fuzz in my brain blocked words from being formed and expelled.
Dad snapped to his feet. “Enough,” he proclaimed to his mother. “I told you we’d leave as soon as you did this.”
Everyone, half out of their chairs, began, mumbling, to gather their coats and their purses.
“Honestly, Ma,” Evie sighed. “Why do you always have to be mean?”
Granny blinked through her glasses with bewilderment. “You can’t leave me now.”
“And just why should we stay?” asked my mom.
Granny waved her away. “You can go,” she said. “I have an important announcement for my family.” Granny clunked on her mug with her spoon.
Mom slammed back her chair, shot a foul glance at Dad, and stormed out to the car.
The android rose from its chair and went over to stand beside Granny. Granny looked up at it and then back at us. She wriggled up proudly in her seat.
“After 75 years,” she said. “SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS!” She patted me on the wrist again with her fist still clenched around tissue. “After 75 years, I have decided that it was time again to marry.”
She nodded matter of factly as we all just stared.
Evie exhaled first. “Marry? But, Ma. You never wanted to be at the mercy of any man ever again.”
Dad and Evie’s dad had been a violent fiend, gambler, and drunk who, more luckily than unluckily for my grandmother, had died very young.
The android put its hand on Granny’s shoulder. Granny looked up at the android with a little girl’s smile as she patted it.
“I didn’t marry a man,” Granny said.
I watched as the signal trickled along the neurons from Evie’s and Dad’s ears to their brains. One second. Two seconds. Then Evie and Dad exploded into a furious chorus of whats, buts, and how-could-yous. When they got to the end of their outburst, they were both standing there panting, leaning forward, half-slumped, hands on the table.
“Why?” pleaded Evie.
“I need someone to look after me,” Granny said, “and you weren’t doing the job.”
I looked up at one of the smoke alarms that had stopped needing to go off all the time. “She has a point,” I said as I blinked myself into the interwebs. “When was the last time any of us cut her toenails?” I added.
Dad and Evie stared at me. The answer of course was ew…. NEVER!
“Seriously,” I said, scanning through documents. “Never mind reach them, do you think she can even still see them?” Granny blinked rheumily through her fishbowls as if to drive this point home.
Evie turned and took in Granny’s putative new toenail trimmer with deepening comprehension. It took a lot of love (or something else) to clip someone’s toenails. It hadn’t even occurred to us to take her for a pedicure.
“Why would you take this on?” Evie asked the android. “She can’t support you. She has no money.”
“An agency covers my expenses,” the android said.
“An agency?” Dad gaped. “A company is paying you to live with my mother in holy matrimony?”
“Lucinda,” Evie pleaded. “What’s in it for you to hitch yourself to a mean old penniless crone?”
The android did not respond.
“The house,” I announced when I had finished skimming.
“What?” said Dad.
“It’s in it for the house.”
There was a general silence made all that more loud by the lack of denials from the newlyweds.
“What do you mean?” trembled Evie.
I read again, just to be sure, then refocused my eyes back into the dining nook.
“Unless Granny has made out a will…”
Granny shook her head.
“… when Granny dies, the android will automatically inherit half the house, with the remaining two quarters to be split between you two.”
“Half the house!” squeaked Evie. Down through the years, she’d paid half the mortgage! Didn’t that entitle her to half the house, leaving only half the house available to be split amongst Granny’s apparently now three heirs?
Granny clucked. “Your name’s not on the deed.”
“But this is our house,” Dad said. “We grew up here. You can’t give half away to a stranger.”
“It is a small price for you to pay,” Granny informed him, “for not having to shut me up in an old folks’ home.”
“But, Ma,” Evie wailed. “You know I am counting on living here. Pretty soon my pension won’t even cover my rent! I’ll be out on the streets.”
Granny’s nose curdled. “Tell Lou-Lou to work harder. A real man would knuckle down and support you.”
I tilted my head towards Granny and the android. “How did you meet?” I asked them. “At the hospital? I mean, you two are an unlikely pair.”
The android fished something out of the big pocket at the front of its smock and handed it to me. A little black book. I looked at it more closely. A paperless catalog.
AFTERWIFE, it read on the cover.
I turned it on and flicked through it, a seemingly endless scroll of rotating headshots; all the available makes and models of wife. There was something in every legal age, size, shape, ethnicity, and gender, and most (reasonable-ish) needs and interests were catered for. On offer: tall, short; young, old; white, black, yellow, brown, blue, or any shade in between; male, female, both, or neither, presumably all androids. Cooks, nurses, chauffeurs, knitters, handy(wo)men, chess players, gossipers, poets, musicians, massage therapists, maids, and Jacks and Janes of all trades. But what you were didn’t matter provided you could provide proof of sizeable, inheritable, non-liquid assets and three doctors’ notes saying you were unlikely to live more than three more years.
“How many half houses do you own?” I asked the android.
“We’re a non-profit,” the android told me.
Whatever that meant.
I calculated that it would only have to be “married” a couple of times to be set for life, even over the presumably longer lifespan of an android. Or maybe this agency and its small army of androids were playing the long game, accumulating a majority of the potential rental property in Los Angeles, a lucrative first step in their takeover of the country?
“Was there a prenup?” I asked next.
The android nodded. “Our standard contract. To insure provisions for me in the event of divorce and to void any previous or future will regarding the house. If Agnes wants to leave you all anything else, she’s free to do so.”
Well, there was nothing else, just old clothes and photographs.
“What if you decide to have children before she dies?” wailed Evie, appearing to have forgotten that the android was an android. “Your clock is ticking!”
The android looked Dad and Evie over for a moment. “Your mother feels you two were more than children enough for one lifetime.”
“But,” squeaked Granny, “it would be nice to have a baby with you, Lucinda.”
The faces of Evie and Dad hit the wall…
“They could make sperm from my stem cells!”
… and began to slide down.
I turned to the android while flicking again furiously through the interwebs. They couldn’t have babies, could they? The android’s face gave nothing away.
Dad nudged me. “Wouldn’t she need a Y chromosome for that?”
I shook my head. “Not for a baby girl.”
Evie buried her face in her hands.
I cleared my throat. “The fee for a baby, another 17% of the house?”
The android just gazed impassively at me. It had clearly dealt with relatives before.
“My dad’s war medals are still in a box buried in the backyard,” Dad mumbled as I pushed him and Evie out to the car where Mom was sitting blissfully reading on her phone.
“Yes, yes,” I said, blinking to bring down the drop-down menu and accept all of the upcoming plumbing jobs I’d been intending to decline. Capital, it had become clear to me, was the name of the game if you didn’t want to end your days poor, homeless, and alone, and obtaining capital required money.
I belted the dejected Evie and Dad into their seats and gave instructions to the car while I calculated how hard I’d have to work to land myself even a modest piece of real estate. How many 60-hour workweeks and eating nothing but tortillas and beans would it take to build up a down payment on a house over, say, the next five years?
I frowned. Okay, seventy-hour workweeks? I frowned again. Eighty?
“It’s useless,” I murmured. You couldn’t buy a house these days on the back of good, honest labor alone. That’s why I hadn’t ever tried in the first place. That’s why I’d spent all these years working only just enough to live.
“It’s useless,” I said again, suddenly frightened of living the last of my years childless, penniless, homeless, and alone.
But then, as the car wooshed itself off into traffic, the blindingly obvious struck, which maybe, just maybe, really made me the family’s Einstein.
I pulled the AFTERWIFE catalog out of my pocket and began flipping through it again. Did they really only offer androids?
Well, I could always go freelance.