Read Duplex Online

Authors: Kathryn Davis

Duplex (2 page)

“Do you know where Eddie is?” Mary asked the teacher when she came around to collect the papers. “Does anyone know where he went?”

“I’m sure he’s fine,” Miss Vicks replied, even though she wasn’t. If Mary’s failure to do the assigned work troubled her she kept it to herself.

At recess Cindy XA climbed down from the top of the jungle gym to sit beside Mary on one of the wooden seats of the swing set. “Scooch over,” Cindy said, shoving her with her little butt to make room.

Cindy was petite, her bright blonde hair cut very straight, the bangs kept back from her face with red bow-shaped barrettes—Mary didn’t like her all that much. They’d tried trading cards throughout the summer but the deals had been oddly unsatisfying. Cindy always gave in without a fight. Being immune to desire, she found the enterprise pointless. As a robot she knew that human bodies had been created to an identical template, one that had been established long ago and owed almost everything to the skeletal structure of the great apes. Apes or humans—we all made the same mistake, tempted by shifting leaves or the smell of sex, by music or a ripe banana. She also knew Miss Vicks didn’t have a clue what had happened to Eddie.

“Hang on,” Cindy said, linking arms with Mary and pushing off from the playground with her new brown oxfords.

A robot’s pressure is slight yet forceful. The swing began to go higher, propelling the two of them back and forth and up and down at a speed so swift as to make Mary increasingly bilious as she watched the iron fence posts blur into a heaving wall of black interrupted by blobs of green and patches of bright blue sky. Eventually she and Cindy were no longer visible.

I think the robot was trying to warn her about what was going to happen.

I think this because the story of what was going to happen is also my story, the story of girls everywhere.

Mary wanted to ask Cindy to make the swing stop but her lips wouldn’t move. The trees at the far side of the yard whirled their tresses, shaking all the little birds out, the red ones and the blue ones and the brown ones, and suddenly Mary was alone in the corner of the playground the trash blew into that smelled like cat piss.

When she reached into her pocket she pricked her finger on a pin-like object she hadn’t known was there. What is this horrible thing? she wondered. She took it out of her pocket and dropped it to the ground where it lingered briefly before flying back home to its companions.

Number 37

HEIR PORCH WAS IDENTICAL TO MISS VICKS’S ONLY without the glider, but the air around it was different from the air everywhere else, being a little heavier and harder to breathe. It was as if the air around number 37 contained more ions, or the life lived in the house left behind as residue a slight glow that had weight to it, the blue-orange tint of a badly adjusted pilot light. There was a smell, too, impossible to pin down, and even in the dead of night a sound like distant chatter.

Most of us didn’t realize what they were when they first moved in. Mrs. Darling took over the same friendship cake she took to all new arrivals, a burdensome gift that came with starter batter and had to be passed on like a chain letter. They were a nice-looking couple, Mr. and Mrs. XA, though Mrs. Darling reported back that even a month after the move their things were still in boxes. The two girls seemed charming, if a little wooden. They had sat on the porch together, the adults drinking martinis and the children apricot nectar; it would never have occurred to you to think they were anything other than people if it weren’t for the fact that the mosquitoes were awful that night and Mrs. Darling was the only one they were biting—eating her alive, as she put it, emphasis on
After the truth came out someone got up a petition to make them move, but it never really amounted to much. By this time there was nowhere they couldn’t be found—even in the best neighborhoods.

It was difficult for them, too. One of the worst aspects of the human condition for the robots to accept was the way the things they found around them in number 37, the articles of furniture inside the house, the fabric and paint and the wallpaper—not to mention the objects in the refrigerator—kept falling apart or going bad. Food in particular disgusted them, as did the fact that humans ate it, a sight they had to learn to endure. It was with something approaching horror that they would observe our great mouths creaking open to reveal strands of moistly gleaming saliva and twin rows of white teeth bearing down on a piece of some dead creature’s flesh that would burst apart as they watched, releasing streams of juice.

On the other hand, their experience of what happened when the spinnerets of human love threw delicate threads up against and into their receptors, clogging the mechanism, somehow managed to approximate for them the pain of human heartbreak.

As the season changed, night fell earlier and the leaves of the sycamores turned yellow, likewise falling, spangling the sidewalks. The air turned chill. The passage of time made no sense to the robots; their farsightedness extended backward and forward in ways that bore no relationship to it. They could see everything that had happened and everything that was going to happen—the only thing they couldn’t do was change what they saw. The robots needed us to change things, the same way we needed them to think for us. Of course what they saw looked completely different.

Miss Vicks, for example—when the sun shone through her dachshund’s russet earflaps she experienced deep inside herself a sensation of softness and smoothness that made her feel as though Cupid had shot her through the heart. She had to nip her front teeth together as if she were trying to snip a thread, so overcome was she by feelings of unsurpassed tenderness—she couldn’t help herself. Whereas when the robots looked at the earflaps—the
they called them—their tendency was to focus on the physical composition, including the exterior coat of very short fine hair and the pink internal tissue, the brachiating veins, the blue-red membrane. The idea of
remained completely alien to them, yet they began approximating some sense of it through study of Vicks, M.’s face, its composition not unlike the dog’s and therefore porous and providing access to the brain, where they watched the thoughts take shape. As a girl she had been fond of a book that began, “And can this be my own world?”

It was a late afternoon in the month of October—the “Column of the Year,” as the robots called it, the month’s thick, almost substantive yellow light holding the rest of the year aloft above the darkness lapping at its feet. In keeping with her custom, Miss Vicks was walking her dog through the ruined gardens of the Woodard Estate, doing her best to stay on the path, which was hard to see. School had ended for the day and she was tired; the story of Christopher Columbus always presented a challenge, given its less than laudable view of human nature. Every time she taught it, the idea of a band of outsiders taking over a whole continent in exchange for a few “small red caps” struck her as sadder than it had the time before, Columbus’s tireless description of steering west through uncharted waters sadder still. “Continuing course west,” he wrote in his log, “steering west-southwest, the seamen terrified and dismayed though no one can say why.” What everyone took for land turned out to be a cloud.

The robots flew along behind Miss Vicks like fairies, navigating their way amongst an impenetrable stand of lilac bushes overgrown with stringweed and creeper, keeping their distance so as not to blind her. It was unusual for the robots to be out during daylight hours, but they had been troubled by the sequence of events set in motion by the sorcerer’s visit to the street.

The Woodard Estate used to be a brilliant jewel on the brow of the third of the three little green hills you came to upon leaving the schoolyard, after passing the water tower and crossing the old railroad bridge. Before the line got abandoned for being unprofitable, trains used to run there, some of them with dining cars and sleepers and observatories, the profiles in their lit windows suggesting a whole world of human passions and schemes and projected destinations alluringly out of reach. Now the tracks, like the lilacs, were overgrown with stringweed and creeper; deer used them as did the large gray hares that were just beginning to show up everywhere. Neighborhood children continued to ride their bicycles there even though they’d been warned not to, the ties having turned black with rot years earlier.

The first Mr. Woodard bought the land with money he made trafficking in heroin, a fact overshadowed by his widespread and widely publicized philanthropic activity. He designed the mansion himself, a biscuit-yellow Italianate palazzo with real as well as trompe l’oeil balconies and espaliered fruit trees and wall niches containing Greek gods and goddesses, and he was also responsible for the design of the grounds, a network of paths and allées linking fountains hedged round with cedar, sculpture gardens and pergolas, an impossible boxwood labyrinth, and an elaborate system of streams and formal pools all feeding into one large pond with an island in the center surmounted by a “ruin.” It was said he’d arranged for his body to be deposited in a freezer in an underground crypt where it was being held in suspended animation for the day when humankind would have figured out once and for all how to cheat death. Or maybe he was still on the loose somewhere. Miss Vicks’s students claimed the place was haunted.

Nothing looked like what it was here. The stringweed and creeper covered everything, leaving behind only the general shapes of things, disquieting like the sheeted furniture in Victorian novels, and what appeared to be paths often turned out to be trails made by animals or an aboveground system of drains, so if you weren’t careful you would sprain your ankle in a rabbit hole or pitch into a cistern and drown. This is why parents warned their children to stay out of the place. Miss Vicks knew her way around though; she came here often. It was her intention to take her dog for a walk and be home before nightfall, which, following the equinox, came earlier every day.

As she picked her way along a paved path, the surface of which was crazed and bunched like a tablecloth and laced with weeds, she heard in the surrounding tangle of shrubbery a faint buzzing that she thought was being made by flies or bees—I think it’s often possible for a person to lie to herself while at the same time knowing perfectly well what’s going on. The robots’ language may have been so foreign as to sound otherworldly but the mechanism that produced the speech had a familiar quality, combining the clicking, jet-like noises of a magnetic resonance imaging machine with the disconcerting sound of one human’s voice issuing from another human’s port. The truth is, Miss Vicks overheard her name.

Marjorie, Marjorie—it was like a song played on a triangle. The wind began to blow and the air to grow suddenly cold as if a thin veil of pretense had been let fall, the illusion of light and heat withdrawn, all the planets swimming closer, drawing into their orbits the dark chill nothing of outer space. “Is this because the season’s changing?” she asked herself, “or is this the way the world really is, or is this my mood?” Her little dog, usually eager to plunge on ahead, had dug in his paws, and she had to tug hard at the leash to get him to move.

Since the last time Miss Vicks had been to the estate there seemed to have arisen a beautiful bed of high reeds in place of the bocce court, beyond which the pond lay diamond-sown and rippling in the late-afternoon wind. Often in the past she would rendezvous with the sorcerer on the island in the pond’s center, in the ruin modeled after a dead queen’s temple of love. She would row herself across the water in the rowboat he left waiting for her in the shallows, a small boat, its blue paint peeling and the cross thwart cracked down the middle. As for how he got there himself—she never gave any thought to that. He could fit his whole hand inside her, his long fingers cupped like he was about to pluck something out. Maybe he did, for certainly she felt less whole after he was done.

There was no waiting rowboat today, and the pond seemed bigger than usual. Something like a large cloud slid into the sky above Miss Vicks’s head and came to a halt. It was too early for the scows but sometimes you’d see an object up there you were supposed to ignore.

He had appeared without warning on her street the other night, driving too fast, interrupting the boys’ baseball game. Like a normal man he considered himself an excellent driver even though he never paid attention to what he was doing—he could have hit someone. Miss Vicks always paid attention; she paid attention to everything. She knew there hadn’t been any reeds here before, but now the bed seemed to be growing, spreading out on either side and the pond also to be getting bigger, more like a lake, its far shore no longer visible and its surface troubled by large gray-green foam-crested waves. Meanwhile the reeds seemed to be getting taller as she stood there, the long blackish pipes of their stems pushing up taller and taller around her, whistling in the wind, their feathery heads breaking apart in her face, releasing clouds of fluffy seeds that got into her eyes and ears and nostrils, and made it increasingly difficult for her to see or hear or breathe.

Her dog was whimpering now as he lay on the ground among the reeds, his soft red coat completely hidden under a shifting blanket of down. Coming to meet her lover Miss Vicks had often had this sense of thwarted will, like when a large insect flies mistakenly into a room through an open window and then keeps flying around and around, attracted to all the wrong things, mirrors or framed photographs, heat registers or—sadder still—a closed window, without ever realizing that all it needs to do is go out the window it came in through and it will be guaranteed a blue sky and a fresh breeze and the prospect of a life that won’t be cut short by the angry swat of a rolled newspaper.

“Get up!” she said. The sun was bright red and more ball-like than usual, falling into the place behind the reeds where there used to be a pond. She pushed the stems aside, furious. “Get up!” she said again, as upset by the way she was talking to her dog—her sweet little dog who never did anyone any harm—as she was by everything else. “What am I doing here?” Miss Vicks wondered aloud. “Whose life is this?”

All at once she could see the blue rowboat approaching across the wild gray-green water, its bow rising and falling in the swells.

At first she heard nothing but the plash of the oars, followed by voices, a boy’s and a girl’s.

“Then what?” the boy was saying. It was hard to hear his voice but Miss Vicks knew it was Eddie—she could barely make out his features in the gathering darkness, his white teeth and thick dark hair.

“Then you’re going to have to give it to him, like you promised,” the girl said. “Before he has to come after it him-self.” Fireflies were alighting in a row upon the yellow coil of her hair, after which they turned to diamonds.

“What if I change my mind?” Eddie asked.

“Don’t make jokes,” the girl replied. “I’ll be watching.”

“I’m not making a joke,” Eddie said.

Miss Vicks couldn’t hear the rest. Her dog started to bark and Eddie’s voice broke apart into static. Night had fallen; the girl made herself very small and flew into his pocket. A few stars were twinkling around the quarter moon.

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