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I chose the pencil

The receptionist, who I thought might be a robot, told me I could fill out the form online or else in the office with a No. 2 pencil. I chose the pencil. The hexagonal pencil, if you think about it, has a sophistication that only a highly advanced civilization could achieve.

One of the questions on the application form was, What is your favorite electrical device? Tough question. I penciled in vacuum cleaner because I didn’t want to spend too much time thinking about it. I do love my vacuum cleaner. It’s a Miele, and very faithful, although I’m not one hundred percent convinced fidelity is a virtue I should elevate so highly. Maybe it’s not my favorite device. One of my ten favorites, surely.

Ten favorites. I could do that list in a minute. The toaster oven would be right up there. Butter melting on a steaming slice of cinnamon raisin walnut bread. Think about it. My weedwhacker also is beloved. It’s electric. It does its whacking in an offhand, genteel way, unlike gas-powered devices that slash and hiss like vipers. I would also put my hair dryer near the top of that list. It shrives my moldy thoughts with dry winds. It convinces me every morning that I am worthy of love. 

Thinking about the hair dryer I was compelled to remember the motor in my vacuum is making anguished noises, and there is a smell more unpleasant than usual. I gave considerable consideration to how it might look if I erased. The scut of eraser, and the faint shadowy canyons of vacuum cleaner. I forged ahead. I erased, marveling, but who wouldn’t, at the perfect economy of the eraser. Some whiz calculated mass of eraser-head versus probable human mistakes and this is what he or she came up with. Nothing is as depressing as a pencil with a depleted eraser. Or worse, an eraser that is petrified, that not even spit will revive. This eraser was a paragon, and vacuum cleaner was dispatched.

I worried that I was taking too long with the form. The receptionist was giving me a vamoose vibe. I couldn’t tell exactly how I knew since she was pretending to attend to some flickering on her screen, but I knew. By then I was pretty sure she was a robot but boy howdy, I had to admire the craft, especially the skin texture and tones.

Another candidate appeared for consideration. My blender. Although the last time the cap was loose, boom, soup on ceiling, soup dripping down counters and out of my mustache. I was lucky not to end up in the emergency room.

Scratch the blender. I will put it on the sidewalk for someone else to have their own good times with it.

My final answer, and a very satisfying one, was my Oral-B electric toothbrush. I spark it up before bedtime, and when its programmed duration ends, my gums radiate wellness. Since I started using it my nightmares have abated. Even now when I have one, I can convince myself that nightmares are just anxieties compressed into images and not fate.

I handed in the form and gave the receptionist my full Oral-B smile. When she returned the exact smile I knew she was definitely, absolutely, without a doubt, a robot. And her skin wasn’t as credible as I thought. It had a rubbery sheen.

It made sense: the business of the company was robotics. Of course, they would want to know the depth of one’s intimacy with machines. Trying to get a job here was a wild goose chase. My decades in Human Resources will terrify them. They will say I am too non-linear. They will press their delete keys and then, for spite, because even robots have a petty side, trash. They are programming their own extinction and they don’t know it.

I couldn’t find my goddamn car in the parking garage. My car is not on any Favorites List. For a half hour the Orfeo on my key chain led me into the depths. If I had a do-over I might put that thingamabob in the catbird seat instead of my Oral-B, if I knew what to call it. 

Why, will someone explain to me, can they develop such intelligent machines, and the elevator is always on the fritz? Good thing I have a brand new hip and could walk the stairs. I’m not against mechanization. Other body parts are ripe for upgrading: knee, eyes, teeth. I’m thrilled with my artificial heart. Without it, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be me.

Can a robot have a concept of “here”? I would love to have a philosophical discussion with the RMs. They might appreciate me. They might recognize that I am potentially an abundance, a natural resource. I embody the past and the future, the wine-dark sea, the topless towers of Trebizond. I contain multitudes.

Driving home I flayed myself because of the erasure. I flubbed my chance. That was not an ordinary No. 2 pencil. They don’t make ordinary No. 2 pencils anymore. It was a surveillance device. I should have known that. I should have been more astute and disciplined.

Rolling into my driveway, it became blindingly obvious that the garage door opener is my primo, no question about it, electrical device. Observe how it opens a portcullis to welcome the errant knight to his castle. How it rattles out a fanfare that indicts its master with negligence regarding lubrication. It’s on my to-do list. There are so many machines, but none are adept at maintenance. The sooner they are, the better.

The garage door descends like a swimmer in a graceful, slow-motion dive, pulling a blanket of shadow around me. Here I am, mirabile dictu, intact. Perhaps I should worry about sitting here with the engine running. It’s how humans kill themselves.

Richard Schwarzenberger is the author of the novel City of Disappearances, as well as two books of short stories, In Faro’s Garden, and Hapless Males. He lives in San Francisco.

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