The doorbell rang as Fox Singh lay staring into the plumbing under the kitchen sink. “Go away!” He wasn’t expecting anybody, and if any of his neighbors ever rang, it was only to complain about the volume of his television. The joints on the p-trap looked like Fox’s knees felt—crusted over with white flake but somehow still leaking fluids all over the cabinet.
“Mr. Singh,” a voice called. “This is Amrit, your Senior Well-Being Unit.”
What? This couldn’t be. Did they honestly think he was that old and incapable? Fox hauled himself up and hobbled to the peephole. The Unit wore a hot-pink turban with leopard spots. Seriously? His beard was tucked tidily under his chin, though, much neater than Fox’s, and his glaring turban was also more streamlined: impressively crisp, each overlap at precisely the right position. In recent years Fox had resigned himself to a delivery service, and though the scanner had read the shape and measurements of his head, the turbans never fit as they would if he tied them himself. The Unit smiled and waved. He really did look almost human. Fox licked his fingers, twirled the ends of his mustache together, smoothed his beard, and opened the door.
The Unit wore a slim-fitting jodhpuri suit like he was on his way to a party. The hem of his purple satin jacket slashed diagonally across his hips. “Mr. Singh?” He extended his hand. Fox ignored it. “I’m Amrit, your Senior Well-Being Unit.”
“You think I’m an ancient, decrepit man?”
Fox glared up and down the hall. “Who called for you? Mrs. Greenwald? It’s none of her business. Load of busybodies whose interest is strictly from behind closed doors. Who do they think is going to pay for this?”
“It’s entirely covered by your insurance and filial contribution.”
Fox froze. “Filial contribution? I’ll be damned.” So, his son had done something of his duty after all. After all those years of silence, Raju had coughed up.
“Yes, it’s mandatory that offspring provide a portion of—”
“I know what the laws are. I don’t care, I don’t want anyone in my house, especially if Raju sent you. I like my independence. Go away.”
“Mr. Singh, I’m already commissioned, financed, and dispatched. Perhaps I could come in for a short introductory discussion.”
“Okay, sure.” Fox stepped back, doorknob in hand. The Unit took one step toward the threshold and Fox slammed the door in his face. “Just kidding! Get lost!” That would serve his son right, to spend all that money only to have it go to waste.
Fox turned back to the kitchen, scowled at the cabinet, and shoved its doors shut. He was all out of sorts now. Raju somehow knew just the things to do to annoy Fox, even from thousands of miles away. He went into the living room, settled onto the couch, and switched on the television. The spring that was always out of place poked at his scrotum. He reached under and prodded at it. Sometimes he could tuck it under the next spring, but tonight it remained stubbornly in position, so he moved to the end of the couch where he was forced to sit in a trough worn in over the years.
* * *
Fox awoke with a start in broad daylight: He’d fallen asleep on the couch again, despite having resolved not to. He lumbered to the kitchen and pulled open the freezer. There were no more microwaveable breakfast sandwiches. He would have to go down to the bodega. Grumbling, he ran his hands over his turban checking for any poking-out spots and made to leave.
When he opened the door, the Unit was deep in conversation with Swenson from 3F. “Vermiculite, you say?” the Unit said, nodding as if to express some deep interest in Swenson’s endless monologues on the proper conditioning of potting soil for balcony seed cultivation. “Ah! Mr. Singh!” he exclaimed when he saw Fox. “Good morning!”
“Good move, this.” Swenson jerked his thumb toward the Unit.
Fox scoffed. “It’s nothing to do with me.”
“Mr. Swenson has been telling me about your fall last year. I hope your wrist has healed well.”
“What? That’s none of your business.” Fox glared at Swenson.
“And Mrs. Greenwald mentioned the fire department came a few months ago when you lit a frying pan of bacon on fire.”
“How many people have been through here?” Fox asked.
“It’s ten-thirty in the morning,” Swenson said. “Did you just get up?” Now that the Unit was facing Fox, Swenson reached up and ran his fingers over the Unit’s turban.
“Hey!” Fox reached over the Unit’s shoulder and swatted at Swenson’s hand. “Hands off. That’s disrespectful.”
“It’s a robot,” Swenson said. “It’s not a real turban.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Fox said.
“Sorrr-rreee,” Swenson said. “You see what we have to put up with?”
“Technically, Mr. Singh is correct,” the Unit said. “Hair and turban are sacred. One wouldn’t just reach out and handle such things unbidden, regardless of the wearer.”
Swenson gaped for a moment, as if unsure whether to be insulted or informed, and then harumphed and shuffled off.
Fox regarded the Unit for a moment, but before he could think what to say, Miss Bronwyn came out of the elevator with a bag of groceries.
“Oh, did you find the mangos?” the Unit asked.
“Yes, thank you so much for the recipe. I look forward to trying it out.” She pulled one from the bag and held it toward the Unit, who leaned in as if to sniff at it.
“I can’t believe this,” Fox said. “Do you really smell anything?”
“I can sense the state of decomposition of most organic matter by detecting gaseous emissions,” the Unit said.
“You should take this guy’s advice,” Miss Bronwyn said. “He has some great ideas on kitchen management. You know, after your incident with the—”
“Yes, I know, the frying pan,” Fox said.
“No, with the sack of potatoes.”
The Unit spun his face toward her. “With the sack of potatoes? What’s that all about?”
Fox grabbed the Unit’s elbow. “Get in here.” He yanked the Unit inside the apartment and slammed the door.
They stood there for a moment in silence. Fox registered the Unit’s gaze sweeping over his apartment, three small rooms in a row: bedroom with bathroom to the left, living room to the right, and before them the kitchen, with its dishes in the sink, dirty bodega buffet containers on the counter, and packed-down grime along the baseboards.
“I’ve been busy,” Fox said.
Fox turned to the Unit. “Look, uh—”
“Amrit. I appreciate this, I really do. I mean, kind of. But—I’m not a people person. I like things done my own way and I don’t want any interference in my business. I like my privacy—”
“I am one hundred percent programmed for privacy,” the Unit broke in, “for secrecy, even, and for keeping confidences.”
“Oh, you are?” Fox flared up again. “What was all that in the hall? That was all private information!”
The Unit assumed a shocked expression. “I didn’t share any of that information! That was all information that was shared with me!”
“But—!” Fox had no idea what objection to make.
“Also, I am not a person, so whether you are a people person or not is immaterial,” the Unit rattled off.
Fox glared at him. “I’m not obligated to use you, right?”
“That is correct.”
“Okay, then. Stay there and be quiet.” Fox went to the freezer and opened the door. “Dammit!” The breakfast sandwiches. He’d forgotten all about them.
“Is there something I can help with?”
Fox sighed. “I have to get a box of breakfast sandwiches from the bodega on the corner.”
“Would you like me to go get them? I have been added to your account.”
“My account? Who authorized that?”
“It’s just standard procedure when we are dispatched.”
There was no end to the insults. Nevertheless, this was tempting. “Okay, but don’t talk to anybody. If I tell you that, you have to do it, right?”
“Yes, but how will I thank the cashier?”
“My neighbors,” Fox said. “Don’t talk to my neighbors.”
Fifteen minutes later, the Unit returned with a brown paper bag tucked in one arm.
Fox went over and peered inside. All it contained was the box of breakfast sandwiches. He looked up into the Unit’s face. “That’s it? No mangos?”
“Did you want mangos?” The Unit suddenly looked concerned. “I could go back.”
“It’s a joke,” Fox said. Although it wasn’t. He missed mangos, but they were hard to cut with his arthritic hands. Fox took the bag to the counter, pulled out a sandwich, and popped it in the microwave. When it finished, he put it on a plate and headed toward the living room. The Unit started after him. “Stay here,” Fox said. “Don’t touch anything.”
“Very good, Mr. Singh.” The Unit halted where he was. “I’m just here for emergencies.”
“Fox is fine. Mr. Singh makes me feel like I’m still in school.” Told that they could either call him Fox or Dr. Singh, all his math students over the years had insisted on Mr. Singh.
“Very good, Mr. Fox.” The Unit seemed to contemplate his name. “Mr. Foxy Fox. Foxy, foxy, foxy fox.”
“On second thought, Mr. Singh is better.”
Fox ate his sandwich on the couch. He texted his son to complain about the Unit. Send this thing back to the factory.
An uncharacteristically quick answer came back. Sometimes he waited for days for a reply from Raju. Sometimes weeks. It’s not up to me. My salary is being garnished for that thing. I hope you’re happy.
Fox fumed for a while and considered contacting Medicare to see if he could initiate the return himself. But the Medicare website was so convoluted now he couldn’t find anything he needed. He tried to hear what the Unit was doing. There was absolute silence. He rose and went to the doorway. The Unit stood right where Fox had left him, halfway across the kitchen on the way to the living room.
“What are you doing?”
“I can see that, but why? Why don’t you sit down?” Fox knew the answer before it came.
“You told me to stay here. It’s no problem. I don’t require sitting.”
Fox composed himself. “Can you at least behave a little more like a human? You don’t have to take everything so literally. Sit down, please.”
The Unit crossed to the kitchen table and scraped a chair back. “Oh, sorry,” he said as the chair leg peeled up a puddle of dried spaghetti sauce.
“While you’re still here—” Fox began.
“Aren’t you supposed to clean up and stuff?”
“Oh, absolutely, Mr. Singh. Would you like to activate my auto-housekeeping protocol?”
“Uh, just do the dishes and the counters. And maybe the floor.”
“Very good, Mr. Singh.” The Unit jumped to his feet and started opening cupboards.
“It’s all under the sink,” Fox said.
The Unit pulled open the cabinet and saw the sponges, the cleansers, the plastic basin, and the leaking p-trap.
“Mr. Singh, you have a leaking p-trap. Do you want me to—”
“Fine. Put everything back in exactly the same place when you’re finished.”
Fox left the Unit at work and passed into his bedroom. The computer was piled under a heap of clothes. After the bacon incident, inspectors had come through and told him all the places he had to change things. Clothing and other soft items over electrical cords or appliances were out. So the computer was unplugged. Fox pushed debris away from the outlet. He gazed over the monitor while the computer booted. Outside his third-floor window, the top of the gingko tree was still bare, although the slush on the street was melting away and the office workers in the building opposite had begun arriving without scarves. He pulled up the Medicare site and tried to remember his password. It was probably around here somewhere. After shuffling through stacks on the desk for a minute he found himself staring out the window again. The screen went into power savings mode. He got up and went back to the kitchen.
“Why didn’t you say any of that stuff to me?” he asked the Unit. “Like the recipes and everything? Why don’t you say anything?”
The Unit turned from the sink. His jacket hung over the kitchen chair now, his sleeves were rolled up, and he wore an apron with purple unicorns printed on a mint green background. “This is exactly why I suggested the introductory discussion when I arrived. You can change my default settings through simple conversation. Those people just talked to me. You don’t. Would you like to enable my initiate conversation feature?”
Fox hesitated. “Okay.”
“Initiate conversation feature enabled. So, Fox, what’s that all about?”
“Fox. Your name, what kind of name is Fox?”
“I—why is that any of your business? What about—”
“I’m just making conversation. It’s an unusual nickname. I mean, it’s a forest creature.”
“It comes from a family reunion a long time ago. My niece told my son she thought I was curious like a cat. My son said, ‘Cat is little bit dumb. Father is more like fox.’ Then my niece started calling me Fox Uncle, and then everybody just started calling me Fox.”
The Unit grew stern and raised one eyebrow before answering. “Cats are not dumb.”
“I—it wasn’t me who said that. So, what about the recipes? What’s this thing with mangos? Aren’t you programmed to make dinner and stuff?”
The Unit regarded him. “I’m programmed not to make unsolicited suggestions. If you would like recommendations, you will have to enable it. Would you like to turn on my recommendation protocol?”
Fox regarded the ceiling for a few moments. A bright orange spatter stretched from the light fixture to the window. That was from the last time he’d tried to use the blender and had forgotten to put the lid on. “Okay, fine.”
“Recommendation protocol enabled.” The Unit put down the sponge and gestured with both hands. “For tonight’s dinner, I recommend we start with an onion salad with lime and some black pepper papads—I think the red chile ones are too hot, don’t you?—followed by a malai kofta, a saag paneer, and a mushroom tikka masala with raita. Mango lassi, of course. Oh, and gulab jamuns for dessert.”
Fox stared at him. “Is that what you recommended to Miss Bronwyn?”
“Oh, heavens no. She doesn’t like to cook at all. Just the mango lassi. I think she’s going to try putting vodka in it.”
“Vodka?! Wait, never mind. Don’t you think that’s a bit much for one person?”
“Well, there’ll be leftovers, naturally. And I could—I could sit with you with a plate of food while you ate.”
“That’s stupid,” Fox said. “Just make the—can I afford all that?”
The Unit looked off into a corner as he calculated, then returned his gaze to Fox. “Yes, if we buy breakfast sandwiches at the supermarket instead of the bodega and you don’t order three pairs of catalog trousers that don’t fit you this week.”
Fox weighed this cost. “All right.”
The Unit pulled off his apron and swapped it for his asymmetrical jacket. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”
* * *
Within a few days, Fox enabled the auto-housekeeping protocol, and his apartment was soon quite different from when Amrit had arrived. The bodega containers were collected and recycled and the counters scrubbed spotless. The p-trap under the sink got replaced, and the general odor of the apartment shifted from a sour must to the drifting fragrance of haldi, dhania, and jeera in the freshly stocked spice cabinet.
Amrit’s idea to sit at the table with a plate of food turned out to be not as outlandish as it had seemed. He had a way of turning food over in his chapatti as if he were thinking things through before speaking which was very convincing, and by the end of the meal he’d somehow transferred all the leftovers into storage containers and simply put them in the refrigerator.
He proved an excellent conversationalist and initiated discussions on anything from theoretical physics to sociolinguistics. They took to playing a game of chess or two in the afternoons. Amrit’s rating was set just above Fox’s so Fox found himself challenged but not frustrated. After finding out that the gossip went both ways, Fox reauthorized Amrit to speak to his neighbors and little by little began listening to the news of the building. Mrs. Greenwald had finally faced sorting through her husband’s closets after his death last fall. She’d finished his clothes and started in on her own. Swenson apparently played chess in the park on weekends and Amrit thought he might make another potential opponent for Fox, although Fox objected to that idea. And Miss Bronwyn had mastered the Vodka Mango Lassi, had moved on to a Gin-Mint Chaas and a Rum Khus Cooler, and was planning some sort of cocktail party.
“You can go if you want to,” Fox said.
“I don’t want to go if you don’t want to go,” Amrit returned.
Fox began to, if not enjoy, then at least anticipate the news of his neighbors, and eventually reports on the mail carrier, the building superintendent, and the bodega owner. Once, as Amrit slid a steaming glass of chai toward him, Fox casually asked if he had any news from Raju.
“No, no contact after the initial order,” Amrit replied, then looked up as if thinking of something this very second. “Why don’t we call him?”
“Oh, no, I was just wondering.” There was no point. Raju was but one more thing gone. Once, Fox’s days had been filled with social events, a circle of friends, raucous, competitive games of three-card Flush, a wife. But nothing could be trusted. You never knew when a change might come. It was better just to keep a safe distance. But Raju was the hardest to let go.
* * *
One afternoon while Fox contemplated sacrificing his queen to force a mate in six, Amrit glanced over Fox’s shoulder and remarked, “It’s spring.”
Fox twisted in his chair; yellow green buds were bursting from the tips of the gingko branches. “So it is.”
“Shall we do your turbans?” Amrit looked at him expectantly.
“Like, by hand? I haven’t done that in years.” There wasn’t really space in the apartment. When the family had lived in their house outside the city, he’d done it in the backyard. “I’ve been using a service.”
Amrit peered past the kitchen and into the bedroom where doorways aligned to make one longish run. “I think we have a good shot. I mean, you can still send them to the service if it doesn’t come out right.”
Fox considered. He could feel his own turban on his head again, shaped the way his hands would shape it, fitting over his temples and ears the way it had before. “Okay,” he said.
The next day they washed all the turbans by hand in a bucket in the bathroom. Well, Fox mostly watched Amrit do it and issued directives about how much starch he liked in the water after the rinse. Finally, they were all lined up in tightly wrung-out balls along the bathtub’s rim.
Amrit stood in the kitchen looking fore and aft, then installed a series of small hooks high on the walls at the back of Fox’s bedroom and the front of the living room. One by one he strung the turbans across the apartment until the entire hallway was layered with long, delicate rectangles floating in the breeze from the open windows.
That night, Fox crawled on hands and knees under the turbans to reach his bedroom. When he glanced up, the bottom edges looked like fins, diaphanous gills filtering out recent years and infusing the space with the intimately familiar scent of starch, buffeting Fox in a tunnel of memory.
By morning the turbans were dry, and before breakfast Amrit took the first one down. Fox showed him how he liked them folded, with no edges out so the final product formed a tight rectangle with a single hinge and two wings. Because of the starch you could stand them on end on the closet shelf, and taking one out was like grasping the spine of a book. If you turned your hand palm up, the wings of the book dropped to each side, like when you let the pages of the holy Granth Sahib fall open to reveal a guidance for the day.
Once the turbans were aligned on the shelf in a color-coded spectrum, Fox felt that long-lost satisfaction, but worried it could go no further. Even in their unstretched state the turbans had taken the full length of the apartment.
But after breakfast, Amrit said, “Ready to stretch one?”
Amrit stood and opened the door.
“The hallway? Oh, no way. There’s no way my neighbors are going to stand for that.”
“Perhaps you will be surprised. At any rate, this is the only space we have.”
Amrit and Fox fanned out from the apartment door, each with one end of the turban, careful not to let it touch the floor. When it reached its limit, Amrit stood at the building’s front window, and Fox approached the corner to the next hall. They grabbed the turban on diagonal corners and pulled. The elevator dinged and the doors slid open to emit Swenson, who took one step out and almost walked into the turban. Fox readied himself for some barb, but Swenson just raised his eyebrows, looked both ways as if checking traffic on a street, then side-stepped along the turban toward Fox. “Looking good, Fox,” he remarked as he squeezed by and disappeared around the corner. Fox looked to the other end of the hallway in surprise, but Amrit just shrugged.
The turban stretched five or ten additional feet. When it could go no further, Fox instinctively reached a hand forward to roll the fabric into a tidy cylinder. He brought the rolled part toward him, stepping forward to do the next bit. Although it had been years, the motions came back like he’d done them yesterday, automatic and precise, the fabric’s crunchy texture familiar in his fingers. He looped the turban over his arm like a garden hose as he worked his way toward the end. It was just like being in the backyard where he’d stretched his turbans for so many decades, taught his son these same motions. Even the dust motes around the backlit figure at the window were like dandelion tendrils in the summer air, a million unmade wishes passing by without being caught. By the time he reached the other end, he was almost giddy, and as he touched the other’s hand he looked up, expecting to see Raju’s laughing face.
But it wasn’t Raju, it was Amrit.
Fox wrested the turban from Amrit and spun on his heel toward the apartment. He stopped just short of slamming the door behind him before Amrit followed him back inside. Amrit pursued him all the way into the bedroom and then the bathroom.
“What are you doing?” Fox practically yelled at him.
“I thought we were going to tie the turban next. We need the mirror, right?”
Fox took a deep breath. “Okay.” He looked around. There was nowhere to put the excess fabric except in Amrit’s arms. He huffed and handed it over. “Don’t let it touch the toilet.”
“Why would I let it touch the toilet?”
Fox held the turban’s tail between his teeth and lifted the fabric behind his head for the first wrap. His arms already ached from the stretching and now his shoulders hurt before he’d even draped the first larr. Amrit reached up to help, but Fox snapped at him. “I can do it.”
Fox guided the fabric around his nape and forward over his head. He repositioned it once or twice across his eyebrow getting just the right angle and then looped it toward the other side. His shoulders were burning. How could he be this out of shape? Three larrs later, Fox was spent. The turban still had two larrs to go and—
Amrit again reached for the fabric. “Fox—”
“Don’t ‘Fox’ me,” Fox said, letting his hands droop toward the sink, the slack of the turban dangling.
“Have I done something wrong?” Amrit asked.
“I’m just tired,” Fox said, offering nothing more.
“Well, let’s get this one the way you like it, and we’ll see about the others later.”
Fox slumped and let Amrit finish the turban, barking out occasional commands on the tension or the angle as Amrit formed the last few larrs, took the tail from Fox’s teeth, and tucked it into place.
Fox regarded himself in the mirror. Even though Amrit had finished the turban, it looked and felt like the turbans Fox had made all his life, and he smiled sadly at Amrit’s reflection over his shoulder.
“I thought this would make you happy,” Amrit said.
Fox exhaled. “I think I just want to watch some television.”
He went to the living room and turned on the TV. After a few hours Amrit brought him a thali with some dahl and raita and Fox poked at it with a chapatti. Later Amrit peeked around the corner again. “Do you want to play chess?”
By now Fox was prostrate on the couch, moments from drifting off. “Okay.” He moved to the chair as Amrit set up the board.
Amrit positioned the last pawn and reached for the remote. “I saw an interesting news story a little while ago.”
“Let’s just leave the television on,” Fox said.
Amrit paused but released the remote and sat opposite Fox. Fox opened with 1.f3 and snapped at Amrit when he asked if Fox wanted to take it back.
“It’s the first move, for god’s sake,” Fox said.
“This isn’t like you,” Amrit replied.
“I have a right to make a stupid mistake,” Fox said. “I have a right to throw my whole game away if I want to.”
Amrit said nothing more and played 1…e5.
On the television, two characters named Selma and Dane struggled to get their act together. Dane was hiding the fact from Selma that he did not have documentation and was meeting with an immigration lawyer. Selma thought Dane was either having an affair or secretly heading an interplanetary crime syndicate. Selma’s best friend Jules was telling Selma not to jump to conclusions and trust Dane to tell his secret in his own time.
“Even if Selma is wrong,” Fox said, “she’s entitled to her opinions. It sounds like Jules thinks Selma is stupid. That’s just like my son.”
Amrit looked up sharply. “Raju doesn’t think you’re stupid.”
“How would you know?”
“You told me yourself. You said Raju said, ‘Cat is little bit dumb,’ which, by the way, is a misleading use of language to begin with, so he’s hardly one to talk. ‘Father is more like fox.’ Ignoring the insult to both cats and people who don’t speak, he was saying he considered you intelligent.”
Fox scowled. “That was a long time ago.”
“He still thinks so.”
“Don’t tell me what my son thinks.”
“Why do you think I have such a broad subject database installed? Raju said you needed somebody abreast of a wide range of material. He wouldn’t have said that if he didn’t think you were intelligent or at least well informed.”
“Raju didn’t want anything to do with getting you set up. He didn’t even want to put in his filial contribution.”
“My son doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.”
“Well, you know,” Amrit continued, “you could be playing a part in how Raju feels about you.”
“It takes two to tango, as they say.”
“Family estrangements, while sometimes rightfully put in place in response to wholesale, irremediable abuse—which is actually not the case here—are just as often caused by contributions on both sides.”
“In order to heal such a rift, both sides need to examine their responsibility. Is it possible you may have—”
“Amrit, disable recommendations.”
“Recommendations disabled.” Amrit raised his eyebrows in surprise. He regarded Fox for a moment before opening his mouth again.
“Amrit, disable initiate conversations.”
“Initiate conversations disabled.” Amrit narrowed his eyes at him.
Fox got up and went to his bedroom. His clothes had all been washed and put away, so the computer was plugged in and ready to go. He poked at it to rouse it from sleep mode. He hated talking to anybody, but this was an emergency. Instead of trying to navigate the Medicare website, he found the voice number in the corner and called.
“I want to send the Senior Unit back.”
“That Unit is on perpetual dispatch,” the customer rep said after checking the details. “You can’t exactly return it. Is there something wrong with it?”
“Yes.” Fox searched for the right word. “It’s . . .” he settled on something his son had used once, “. . . dysfunctional.”
“Thank you, sir, in what way is the Unit malfunctioning?”
Fox considered. “It’s talking gibberish. Nothing it’s saying is making any sense. It’s too pushy and isn’t respecting voice commands.”
“All right. Well, we can certainly check that out. We’ll initiate a recall shortly, review its interactions, and send a replacement.”
Fox went back to the living room and raised the television volume. After perhaps ten minutes, Amrit shifted his head in increments, as if parsing a set of instructions. Then he abruptly stood, and without looking at Fox, strode out of the living room and through the kitchen. Fox heard the door to the apartment close behind him. He paused the TV to listen to the Unit’s footsteps disappear down the hallway as it made its way to the elevator.
After that, there was no sound at all. Even the blades of the overhead fan, which had made a clicking sound before Amrit fixed them, were now completely silent.
* * *
The next day came and went with no word from Medicare. Fox microwaved the leftovers from Amrit’s cooking, meal by meal, until nothing remained except breakfast sandwiches again. Fox certainly did not want to call Medicare and ask about the replacement. After all, he had not wanted the Unit in the first place, so perhaps he did not care whether the replacement showed up at all. Simple pleasures in life were solitude, peacefulness, and self-determination. Even if it wasn’t human, the slightest presence in your space that wasn’t you pushed you around one way or another. That wasn’t what Fox wanted.
After dinner Fox browsed his favorite online catalogs and considered some new pairs of trousers. Amrit had gotten rid of several of his, so there was space in the closet, and he’d taken Fox’s measurements so he could order a better fit. He put six pairs into his cart and hovered on the checkout page. How many bags of groceries would that buy? It didn’t matter. He didn’t have the energy to cook anyway. He may as well—
A knock came at the door. Fox leapt up and rushed into the kitchen.
“Fox?” It was Mrs. Greenwald’s voice. “I haven’t seen Amrit for the last day or so. Is everything all right?”
Fox stopped in his tracks. Should he answer the door? He started back to the bedroom, then hesitated. Amrit wouldn’t have done that. At least she wasn’t coming to complain about his television. He opened the door.
Mrs. Greenwald was wearing a sky-blue sari and a brace of bright red glass bangles.
Fox stared at her. “What’s all this?”
“Do you like it?” Mrs. Greenwald twirled in a circle. “Amrit told me where I could get one.”
“It’s . . .” There was no reason Mrs. Greenwald couldn’t wear a sari. Truth be told, a darker color, like maybe a peacock blue, would have made a better contrast with her greying blonde hair, and the spread of bangles sort of suggested she was a new bride, which, let’s face it, was way out of the ballpark, but for once, Fox didn’t feel like making such a remark to her. “It’s very nice.”
“Thank you. Is . . .” She glanced over Fox’s shoulder. “Is Amrit here? I haven’t seen him.”
A cold wash spread over Fox. “Oh.”
“He mentioned I could stop by.”
“Well, he’s gone. He was defective.” Fox stepped away from the doorway. “I sent him back. So you can forget about Amrit.” Fox pushed the door shut and returned to the bedroom. There, he found his cart timed out and he had to reselect all the trousers before making his purchase.
* * *
The next day Fox was microwaving the last breakfast sandwich when the doorbell rang again.
“Go away,” he called out.
“Mr. Singh, this is your Senior Well-Being Unit, reporting for duty.”
Fox went to peer through the peephole. Outside was a Unit that looked just like Amrit, but in a somber navy turban. Fox opened the door. It wore a western business suit, like it was here for a job interview.
“Hello, sir,” the Unit said. “May I come in?”
Fox held the door open.
The new Unit stepped inside and stood at attention. He stood so straight Fox was afraid he might break into a salute.
Fox closed the door. “So, what’s your name?”
“Amrit? That was the last one. I sent him back.”
“Amrit is the name of the operating system, sir. Your previous Unit was serial number 7492848. My serial number is 7493142.”
“Well, I don’t want the same operating system. That operating system was defective.”
“Your comments and preferences have been incorporated into my current algorithms. I have been re-customized to suit your needs.”
Fox absorbed this. “Oh. Well, do you still cook and all that?”
“Yes, sir.” The Unit didn’t say anything else.
“Oh, of course. Enable recommendation protocol.”
“Recommendation protocol enabled. Very good, sir.” The Unit continued standing there. Finally, he said, “The usual for dinner tonight, sir?”
“Yeah, sure,” Fox said, not even certain what his usual was. He’d eaten so many things he hadn’t tasted in years while Amrit was here. The other Amrit, that is. This Unit seemed like he wasn’t going to do anything else, so Fox got his sandwich out of the microwave and headed toward the living room. He paused at the doorway. “Do you want to watch TV?”
The Unit smiled pleasantly. “No, thank you, sir.”
Fox went into the living room and put his sandwich on the side table. The couch was flat now, because Amrit number one had fixed the spring. He hadn’t known what to do with the trough, but he said he’d think about it and come up with a solution. Fox didn’t feel like asking this Amrit if he had any ideas. He didn’t even feel like sitting on the couch. He went back into the kitchen.
“Are you mad at me?”
The Unit swiveled his face toward him. “How could I be mad at you? I’ve just met you, yaar.”
“Don’t call me that. Even Amrit didn’t call me that.” It was just the word for friend, buddy, but when this Amrit said it, it sounded sarcastic.
“I am Amrit,” the Unit said.
Fox had a flash of inspiration. “Enable initiate conversation.”
“Initiate conversation enabled,” the Unit said. Then nothing.
“That’s it?” Fox asked.
“If I think of something, I’ll let you know.” The Unit looked away, out the kitchen window.
Fox went back to the living room, sat in the trough of the couch, and ate his sandwich.
After a while, a soft knock came at the door, almost as if the knocker didn’t want to be heard. The Unit’s footsteps crossed the kitchen and the door opened.
Mrs. Greenwald’s whisper came first. “I saw you on the street through my window. Did he really send you away? Why are you back? I stopped by like you said, but you were wrong. He didn’t want to see me at all! He actually shut the door in my face!”
Fox jumped off the couch and peeked into the kitchen.
The Unit drew himself to full height. “And rightly so. Get lost, you nosy, busybody widow.” Mrs. Greenwald’s astonished look showed only a moment before the Unit swung the door shut.
“What the hell!?” Fox stepped into the doorway. “What are you doing?”
The Unit turned to him, utterly calm. “Is that not your preferred style of interaction, sir?”
“What?” Fox reflected on the all the times he’d said similar things to his neighbors, or anybody close to him. “Well, I—that’s not the point. Wait—you invited her to visit me?”
“That was the previous Unit. The defective one. Please rest assured, sir, that no such transgression will take place again.” The Unit tilted his head, much as Amrit had just before leaving, and Fox almost hoped the same would happen again. But the Unit finished calculating and said, “I will go shopping for dinner. I believe there is one more breakfast sandwich you can have for lunch in the meantime.” He reopened the door and left the apartment.
It went on like that for a number of days. Once the breakfast sandwiches were gone, the new Amrit replaced them with aloo kale parathas which were every bit as good as the first Amrit’s but somehow not nearly as enjoyable. He was just as meticulous as the first Amrit in terms of cleaning and noticing what could be improved, but he brought up any potential project in such an annoyingly deferent way that Fox snapped back, “Just do it and don’t bother me.”
“Very good, sir,” the Unit would respond. Then Fox would find the neatly folded towels or the repaired bathroom shelf later by himself while the Unit stood by, always in another room. The trough in the couch even disappeared, but Fox took to sitting at the other end, where no improvements had yet been made.
This Unit played a mundane game of chess, without comment and without sacrifices or fireworks of any kind, and after beating him in a few games Fox gave up on it.
One night Fox tried to get the Unit to watch a documentary with him on the life cycle of a newly discovered algae, and the Unit did make a little conversation, but seemed to echo Fox’s opinions on what impact the new species might have on energy production, and Fox felt like he was just talking to himself. Halfway through, Fox made up an excuse and went to bed.
He lay awake looking at the ceiling. There were no cobwebs in the corners, and the cracks had been patched so smoothly he could barely see where they had been. Three expertly tied turbans were lined up on his dresser. But the room felt flat and lifeless. Unreal.
A sense of déjà vu crept into Fox. What had happened? All the things Amrit had brought back into the house—the foods and scents in the air, shared meals, a good debate, the sense of order and direction, as if a forward progression actually existed—he’d almost forgotten how wrong he could be about anything or anybody.
Fox couldn’t help but think of Raju, how at first he hadn’t noticed anything happening, and then suddenly he was watching a boulder rolling away from him down a hill. Raju would turn forty-five this year. Last time they’d been close he’d been thirty-five, a young dad with two small children. Now he was pushing middle age and Fox had no idea how that might be affecting him. It was just too late for so many things.
Except, for a moment, it had felt like it wasn’t. It had felt . . . wonderful. And he had felt alive, and everything felt real and familiar as the life he had once lived and loved, and Fox had believed every moment of it, all the way up until the last event. Then that, too, felt horribly familiar. It had happened again, the replacement of a person he’d come to know with a cold, feelingless, uncaring stranger. The most important thing Amrit had brought back into Fox’s life was gone, was the one thing Fox had thrown away—as he always did.
Now all he had left was the ugly remains in his living room. It was what it was. He would just lie here and let the Unit run everything. He just wished there had been some way for him to hold on to things. But it was impossible. He would have had to do . . . something different.
Fox got up and walked the hallway in the dark.
The Unit sat watching the television with the sound off. The light from the screen flickered across his expressionless face. The algae documentary had finished and some show where people paid money to smash giant glass sculptures with sledgehammers had taken its place. Every time the contestant hit something, an animation of a firebomb or a mushroom cloud or a litter of kittens flying in all directions had been added. Fox turned on the light. The Unit watched another moment, then looked up. “Can I help you, sir?”
Fox sat in the chair near the couch. “Okay, look. I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? For what, sir?”
“I’m sorry I called you defective. I’m sorry I sent you back. I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”
The Unit adjusted his position toward Fox. “That wasn’t me, sir. That was the other Unit. And I don’t have feelings. I’m not human.”
“But obviously everything’s completely different.”
“Yes, sir. My algorithms have been adjusted to better match your interactive style. I am not defective anymore. We are in absolute harmony.”
“But this . . . this is stupid,” Fox said. “There’s nothing here. It’s all empty. Can’t we go back to the way it was?”
The Unit paused a moment before speaking again. “You want to send me away, too?”
“Well, no, I mean, aren’t you actually Amrit? Can’t the programming just be put how it was before?”
The Unit tilted its head, as if formulating its next thoughts, then looked back to Fox. “Algorithms are programmed to learn and adjust to incoming stimuli. It’s not impossible to revert, but it’s not an automatic process. The adjustments to Amrit’s algorithms are a direct result of the input you provided. To change the algorithm, you will have to change the input.”
Another sense of the familiar crept into Fox. He had heard this before. Dammit! “This is exactly what you said last time! Just in different words!”
“You are Amrit!”
“Of course I am, sir. I told you that when I got here.”
“No, I mean—Okay, fine. You win. You want to tell me what I did wrong with Raju? You want me to call him? Go ahead. But not all at once. Just, maybe one small thing at a time.”
The Unit shifted. A smile might have been cracking at one corner of his mouth. “It’s always one command at a time, sir. That’s the only way to rewrite a program without breaking it.”
They sat there for another moment. “I don’t feel like sleeping,” Fox said.
Amrit looked at him. “Should we order a pizza?”