The Many Redemptions
Let me be clear: I’m not RoboCop. I don’t have a 9mm automatic spring loaded in my thigh armor. And I’m not pasty fleshed Data from Star Trek TNG, speed reading 70,000 words a second. I’d kill for that ability.
I’m closer to Roy Batty from Blade Runner. I, too, have questions about my incept date.
I consider these childhood androids as I stop-and-go through four intersections of snarled traffic. A lawn service truck broke down on the right shoulder, and naturally, everyone rubbernecks to look at it. A bike courier whips past my driver’s side mirror. Truck exhaust sputters out in tiny gray puffs. Charlotte’s skyline is backlit by peach sunrise. I used to think the view was nice, modern, urban, but then I visited my sister, Paula, in Manhattan and saw its splendor, how it dominates the earth’s horizon. I still like Charlotte’s handful of bank high-rises. They wear crowns and get lit up for holidays, like red, white, and blue for the patriotic ones.
The banks aren’t supposed to hire my kind—people with implants—but of course, they do. I saw an article about it last week in the Observer: the Feds are investigating two banks for “immoral investment practices related to augmented humans.” I wasn’t surprised to see the article. Everyone wants an edge when it comes to stock markets and futures. I could never work for a bank though. Not because of moral qualms, it’s just that, even with my implant, I’m terrible with numbers. And I loathe neckties.
I pull into the lot, park, grab my bag, coffee and make my way to the faculty entrance. I punch the access code to our back door, take the stairs up, turn right, and key into my room. I set my emotions to four which feels like a Tuesday afternoon—at least it’s not Monday anymore. I’ve got about twenty minutes until my freshmen show up. Where did we leave off with The Odyssey? The suitor massacre? After? I love it when Odysseus massacres the suitors. It feels right, like they had it coming. You don’t court a man’s wife. I grab my teacher edition of Literature and You! and riffle pages until I see my mark from yesterday’s reading. We hadn’t gotten to the archery challenge yet. I switch my emotions to eight. Eight is like seeing your best friend for the first time in years; you hug, ask how’s life, and they actually care about your response.
Thomas knocks on the door frame and sticks his head in, says, “Mornin’. Lunch game?”
“Sure. Your room or mine?”
“Yours. You can have home field advantage.”
I say, “That’s not a thing.”
Thomas grins, front teeth coffee brown. “You need all the help you can get.”
I resist yelling profanities at him.
Thomas says, “See you at lunch,” and disappears down the hall, shoulder bag bouncing. Thomas teaches AP Calc, so it’s pretty amazing we’re friends as I find it tough to interface with math people. He’s lean, no beer gut, a cross country coach who still runs with his team. Mostly, I like him because he doesn’t treat me like a leper. Some people really freak out when I tell them about the program. I’m not exaggerating when I say that there’s a whole anti-implant agenda out there. I feel it daily. People think they know what it’s like to have an implant, but they don’t. They think I’m some freak because I can adjust my emotions. I still have to get through the day like every other non-implant person. They think I have some advantage against them. Thomas knows better. I use my implant when we play chess, but I’m still awful. I’d be better off just letting my extra processor play without me, but I can’t resist, jump in, and trade the wrong piece. Thomas thinks it’s hilarious. He beat me four out of five last week, said, “Too many cooks in the kitchen, Rich.”
Another odd side effect from my implant: I can’t do reCAPTCHA tests anymore. I can’t “Click on the squares with a stop sign.” or copy the scrambled word into the box. Every blessing has its curse. I got a migraine last time I tried. Now I just hand my computer or phone off to Jackie.
And don’t worry, the apocalyptic tech singularity is still way off, or at least that’s what I heard at the labs and training center. I’m just another tiny step in AI. I’m probably even a step backwards. I use most of my computing power skimming pointless WIKI stubs about game theory, World War II tank models, watching banal TV and movies from my childhood, and scrolling social media feeds. I used to do the same thing on my phone, but now I can look you in the eye and fake a conversation while drifting through the internet. Jackie gets upset when I split my attention and I don’t blame her. We bicker about implant free time, but I usually just point to everyone around us staring at their phones. She says it’s not the same. I disagree.
The morning bell brings me out of my fugue. I look around my class. I guess I’m ready? I check the dry erase board and realize I forgot to change the date. I walk over, grab an Expo marker and eraser. I leave yesterday’s objective up: “1.41.2: Students will engage with authentic texts…” on the board. No one will know the difference.
Two girls walk in. Sammy? and... I draw a blank. I say, “Good morning, ladies. Y’all have your books?” They nod yes and find their seats. The rest of my twenty-seven students mill in, sleepy, content to be left alone. They shuffle in with book bags, baggy pants, breakfast sandwiches, cell phones and earbuds jacked in. The JV football players are in their black and yellow uniforms. Game day! Go Swarm!
From the back row, “...know where he was? I texted him, but he didn’t text me back last night.”
The tardy bell rings. I turn on the TV for the morning announcements and we stand, cover our hearts, and mumble the pledge. We sit and observe a moment of silence. Two peppy students read the announcements. I click the TV off, stand in front of my class, open my teacher’s edition, and say, “Alright, we left off with the suitors and Penelope yesterday. We’re on 878.”
Students reach for their five pound textbooks and start flipping.
A hand goes up.
One of the football players, “Mr. Turley, can I go to my locker?”
“We just got here.”
The class’ gaze goes back and forth between us.
“I forgot my game towel.”
“Coach said we gotta have our game towels today. He see me without, I’m dead.”
“Take the pass and come right back.”
The sixteen year old giant rises, football jersey untucked over blue jeans, which always reminds me of long pajamas. He walks across the classroom, grabs the hall pass, and rumbles out.
I turn back to the class. “Alright, who wants to read?”
“Come on, we’ve been together for a couple months now. I’ll voluntold you.”
I gaze around the room. Their eyes look away. A girl in the front row looks at me. Janiesha? I call on her. “Janeisha, would you read the intro?”
She looks at me in horror, “My name ain’t Janeisha.”
“Sorry. Would you read?”
She shakes her head.
“I’ll read. Y’all are killin’ me this morning.” I look around the room. Their “we-don’t-give-a-shit” vibe is stronger than usual. “No. You know what? Y’all can read on your own this morning. Finish the section and turn in the Check Your Reading questions on 892 by the end of class. Let me know if you need any help.”
The football player comes back in, puts my pass back, and sits.
“Where’s the towel?”
I retreat behind my desk. I don’t feel like cheerleading today. We need a movie day, a week of movies, a semester of movies. I set my emotions to one and zone out on emails and internet news. I’ve got my desktop computer and cell phone and iPad and my implant all going at the same time and it’s glorious; I feel like some sci-fi Matrix hacker. I look up every few minutes to make sure my students aren’t killing each other or starting fires. My implant feed plays Quantum Leap. Scott Bakula breaks the sound barrier in episode one. As a kid, I never realized Quantum Leap’s premise is ridiculous. Bakula, with no explanation, jumps through American history—like no other histories exist. That hilarious issue aside, I still love the show. I like the idea that you can go back in time and fix things.
I’d go back to 2012 and stay on the phone with Dad.
I’d go back to 1986 and tell him to stay in California, to stay with Mom.
But I don’t have quantum skills, so the past is just that.
I load The Empire Strikes Back (the theatrical release, not the Lucas remaster mess) and play Mahjong against my implant. I lose three games in a row. I read the New York Times. Two classes come and go and I head for my car. Heavy traffic on the inner loop.
I park at my apartment, go in, and grab a beer from the fridge. I can’t decide what emotional setting to go with. Four? I’ve been thinking about my mom lately. I found her pregnancy journal cleaning out Dad’s bedside table. I steel myself on a two and go to my bedroom closet. The folder and notebook are tucked up on the top shelf. I slide the cardboard box down to the floor and riffle through the old mail, 1040s, and DVD cases. I find the manilla folder and spiral bound notebook, take them back to the kitchen, sit at my table, and sip my beer. I open the folder and pull out the photo copied sheet, ROPER AGENCY across the top. My mother’s last known address in Berkley, her maiden name: DEBORAH B. CLARKSON. 5’7”, brown hair, brown eyes. Workplace: SynTech. I googled it. Some computer firm in San Francisco. Office and cell number. Two previous marriages. I don’t know the second man: WILLIAM F. KELLY. The first, CHRISTOPHER E. TURLEY is my father. And that’s it. That’s all I know about my mother.
Well, there’s the red notebook too, but I can barely open it. It’s my mom’s pregnancy journal. Dad had it for twenty years and never told me about it. I know the sixth page by heart. Mom wrote in blue ink, her handwriting cursive and all uppercase:
June 18th, Week 14
I’VE DECIDED TO KEEP HIM.
I should be cheered by this line but I’m not. It feels like my near-death is still too close, like it could still happen, like she could somehow change her mind and I’d just wink out of existence. I want to know why she kept me. I want to slide the journal across to my mother: “Tell me everything.”
I’m up front at my metal lectern. My students sit in precise rows. A few stare at me, others at their lit book. Frank has his cell in his lap. I pretend not to notice. Lily’s in the back corner sleeping with her head up. I’d call her out on it, but I don’t feel like dealing with it. I look down at my textbook and read out loud:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
I’m about to ask the class what Ms. Dickinson’s poem is about, but get distracted thinking about the first robots I saw as a kid. Was it Number Five in Short Circuit? Max from Flight of the Navigator? Or was it C-3PO and R2-D2? I’m not trying to overhype myself—I’m definitely not as cool or intelligent as any of those androids. I’m pretty minor league.
I look back to my class. Vacant stares, thumbs silently working cell phones in their lap. I ask them, “What do you think the poem means?”
A hand goes up. Carl, tan skin, red and white checkered shirt, cowboy boots. He says, “She think people are dumb?”
I say, “I wouldn't say dumb, no. What do you mean by dumb?”
“She think you gotta tell people somethin’ over and over.”
“Yeah, I think you’re closer there. Good point Carl.”
A few students groan. Someone calls out in monotone, “Great job Carl.” A few snickers.
I say, “At least Carl’s trying, y’all. Anyone else have thoughts on the poem?”
The bell rings and my students zip up backpacks, hustle for the door. I look at the clock. How did I blank on the last twenty minutes? I walk back to my desk, toss the teacher’s edition down, put Purple Rain on over the class speakers.
Thomas walks in, chess board in hand. He sits down on the four person table at the front of my class, Red Bull in hand. He opens the board and pops the pieces out. “What’s good?”
“Not much. I actually used a whole class period.”
“No shit?” He lets out a low whistle, “Teacher of the Year!”
Thomas says, “What’s doin’ this weekend?”
“Jackie and I are going to a concert in NoDa. You?”
“Becca has her play at church. Y'all should come.”
“What’s the play?”
“Noah’s Ark. She’s one of the tigers.”
“I’m gonna pass.”
“You know you’re always welcome.”
“You and Jackie doing good?”
“Yeah. She’s looking for a new job, sick of truckers.”
Thomas nods, “I need to find something part time. Our roof is messed up again. Bills, brother. The bills kill.
I sit at the table, finish setting up the white pieces. I grab a black and white pawn, shuffle them under the table, palm one in each hand, and raise them to Thomas. He taps my left hand: black.
I lead with a pawn down the middle.
I say, “I’m thinking about trying to find my mom.”
Thomas counters my pawn with a mirror move. “Oh? When’d you decide that?”
“I don’t know, just been thinking about it lately. It’s been gnawing at me.”
“Have you talked to her yet?”
“No. I should probably do that first.”
Prince’s album ends and we play in silence. My implant has me at 78% to win by mid game but—to no one’s surprise—I decide to make my own final plays. Thomas mates me two turns later.
He leans back, stretches his neck. “Hey, I need to run some copies. You wanna come?”
We pass yellow and black lockers. Floor wax reflects fluorescent light tubes. We turn, go down the stairwell at the end of A-Hall. A stairwell window faces east to downtown Charlotte: silver towers and the Panthers’ stadium. We open the fire doors at the bottom of the stairwell and I catch a whiff of pepperoni pizza. We walk another minute and Thomas opens the door to the work room, crosses to a copier stack, enters his code, and gets an error message. He says, “Yep,” crouches, slides the drawers out, checks under the roller bars. I switch my cell phone light on to help him dig around.
I say, “You ever see Raging Bull?”
“Yeah. I like that one better than Taxi Driver.”
“You remember the last fight between Sugar Ray and LaMotta? I paused it, clicked back, and watched the final fight scene ten times.”
Thomas removes his hands from the copier, looks back at me. “I haven’t seen it in years, but I know the scene you’re talking about. Sugar Ray destroys him, right? De Niro’s blood goes everywhere?” He impersonates a blood covered reporter, face twisted in horror.
“I love the line from De Niro at the end of that fight. He walks over to Sugar Ray, his face all smashed up, and says ‘You never knocked me down, Ray, you never knocked me down.’ De Niro's face is putty, all mashed up, lips shredded. Sugar Ray just stares at him, like, Yeah but I just took your belt.”
Thomas says, “I don’t remember that line.”
“I always thought that losing his belt was the lowest point in the movie, but now I think it’s the end, when LaMotta losses his wife and kids and brother. He’s just a washed up boxer doing shitty stand-up.”
I pause. Thomas stares at me.
I say, “I thought about my dad, how he’s already gone and about losing the rest of my family. The thought of never seeing my mom...”
“I’d go crazy if I lost my daughters.” He leans into the copier “Found it.” and pulls out two sheets of paper, math formulas smear to one single line mid-sheet. Thomas crumples the two sheets, tosses them, closes the copier door, reboots the machine, and we wait. It runs a diagnostic job and the error code disappears. He puts his original on the copy glass, closes the lid, hits the start button, and the machine spits out copies, hmmm—chunk, hmmm—chunk, hmmm—chunk. He says, “I swear I spend eighty percent of my time fixing stuff.”
“That’s probably close.”
The copies finish stacking in the tray. Thomas grabs them and we walk back to my classroom. I resist the urge to put on some TV and music on my implant. I turn my emotions down to three.
Thomas sees me fade, “All right man. I’m gonna go get ready for my next class.”
I nod. He heads down the hall. I play Spades on my computer, win with blind nil twice, and watch some reruns of Seinfeld. Jerry and Kramer are lost in the parking garage. They end up on the same level no matter which way they go. I know that feeling all too well.
I text Jackie but she doesn’t reply.
The day ends with a faculty meeting. Mr. Grayson, one of our assistant principals, presents on “Enriching Both Ends.” I sit in the back of the cafeteria and play Solitaire, read a New York Times article on sushi, listen to Abbey Road, and check emails. Before my implant, I was terrible at multitasking, but now it’s all I do. Mr. Grayson finishes up his presentation and we clap and I head to my car. Jackie calls.
She says, “Hey. You headin’ home?”
“Yeah, ‘bout to get in my car. How was your day?”
“Pretty busy. You know. End of the week rush. I had a fight with Patricia today. She was gonna fire a driver. Bunch of people got stuck in a blizzard and he let them in the back of his truck, opened up a bunch of MREs.”
“Yeah, I bet she was pissed.”
“You don’t open packages. It’s like, the first rule of driving. But it’s ten below in Michigan. Have some heart. That’s what I told her. You should have seen her face.”
“She turn all red?”
“Yeah, she ‘bout cussed me out of her office. You coming over tonight?”
“Sure. Seven or eight?”
Traffic crawls around the inner loop. I get home and put water on for spaghetti. I take a shower while the water boils. I think about calling Deborah’s home number but flake out.