Copyright 2018 by S. Thomas Kaza
“What do you think Beatrice will get me for my birthday?” Elmer asked.
He sat on a large rock out in the middle of his backyard, the same rock that his father used to rest on when he did yard work.
Elmer’s house robot, Roger, paused from picking up small branches that the willow trees shed in the last rainstorm. He turned his head and cocked it to one side as if pondering the question. Elmer knew that Roger already “knew” the answer as much as any robot could be said to know. But he would not divulge the secret, even if Elmer threatened to reprogram him.
“Miss Beatrice said you would inquire about that,” Roger said in a golden voice that Elmer knew could have made someone a career in broadcasting back in his day.
“And what did she say you should answer?”
“She did not provide any precise words,” Roger said, straightening up and turning to face Elmer,” but she told me to keep it secret until the moment of the surprise.”
Elmer smiled. Hoping to trip up Roger. “And when is the moment of surprise?” he asked.
“Miss Beatrice said you would also inquire about that. She told me to instruct you it would be between lunch and bedtime.”
Elmer laughed to himself. Good old Beatrice. She knew he liked trying to discover her surprises almost as much as he liked the surprises. Especially birthday surprises. Every year she planned something at a different time of day. A couple times it was at breakfast. Sometimes in the middle of the afternoon. Once she even convinced Elmer she had forgotten until she sprung it on him as he was getting ready for bed.
“Well,” Elmer said with a feigned tone of disappointment, “I guess I can wait a while longer to find out.”
He turned to look back at his house where he had lived for most of his life. His parents raised him and his older sister there. He had learned to play baseball and football in the yard. Later he and Beatrice bought the house from his father when the old man became too sick to care for it. They raised their own three children there. It had kept them close over the years. Now his grandchildren came to play under its roof and in the big, wide yard where he now sat. A warm feeling came over Elmer. For a moment he thought he might tear up.
Elmer’s mind wandered as it frequently did these days. He thought about the many jobs that still needed to be done. The stairs to the basement needed to be fixed. A couple boards were loose. The attic could use some new insulation. And if he dared, the whole back patio could be replaced with pavers and a place to sit in the shade. The concrete slabs there were shifting. The planter boxes were rotting. He told himself this would be his next big project to tackle.
“This is everything,” Roger said.
The robot was now standing next to where Elmer sat. He held out a bundle of sticks and branches for Elmer to see. For a moment Elmer marveled at the sleek beauty of the robot’s long, metallic fingers. Those hands never wrinkled. They never grew old.Elmer looked at his own hands. Arthritis had twisted a few of his fingers. He was old. Today he turned ninety-one.
His thoughts raced back to the first birthday he remembered as a child. He was sitting at the dining room table. His mother and father hovered nearby. His older sister knelt on the chair to his right. He remembered how the light from the candles twinkled in her eyes.
“This is my cake,” he said.
“Can I have a piece?” she asked him.
“As big as you want,” he told her.
Elmer remembered how she smiled. He always liked how his sister Mary smiled. He couldn’t have asked for a better sister. But she had also passed away some years ago.
“Sir?” Roger asked.
Elmer’s focus returned to his backyard. He looked around for a moment to get his bearings back.
“My how the years have gone by,” he said, before pushing himself up on his feet with his walking stick.
“Sir, what shall I do with these?” Roger persisted politely.
Elmer steadied himself on his legs. He thought for a moment. The last few months Roger had collected quite a little pile of sticks. Elmer had wanted to save them for a bonfire the next time his grandchildren visited. But today he really felt like having a bonfire. He needed one. He decided to give himself one for a birthday present, burn up all the wood they had been saving. There would always be another storm to blow more twigs and branches on the ground.
“On the pile with the rest of them,” he said, squinting at the sunlight reflecting off of Roger’s shiny, metallic face. “Let’s burn them. Burn ’em all.”
“All of them?” Roger asked.
Elmer nodded. “Why not? Let’s burn the whole pile we’ve been saving all Summer. We’ll have our own little bonfire!”
“Do you wish to go inside while I burn them?” Roger asked.
“Do I wish….. of course not, I want to sit out here and watch them blaze away.”
“Then Miss Beatrice would have me warn you that you will smell like smoke.”
Elmer laughed. “Then I’ll take another shower today. I’ll take two showers on my birthday. How about that?”
“Very well,” Roger nodded. He walked to the fire pit, where he dropped all the branches from his hand. Then he moved over to the nearby brush pile and began moving handfuls of sticks from the pile, placing them into the firepit.
Elmer took a few wobbly steps closer to supervise. “Not all of it at once.”
Soon there was a blazing fire. Elmer watched the flames hungrily devour the dry wood, dancing in the air above the fire pit. He listened to the wood crackle and pop. He followed the smoke rising up into the blue sky above. The afternoons were getting cooler, but his face was warmed by the heat from the fire. Elmer sighed. Another Summer was spending its last days. Soon the children would be back in school. Soon he would be able to hear the marching band practicing each morning at the high school. And not long after that the leaves would start changing. He turned to Roger.
“What do you think, Roger. Are humans happy?” Elmer asked.
“Sir?” Roger asked.
“Are humans happy?” Elmer repeated, “We come up with all these contraptions to make our lives easier. But in the end, are we really happy? Or….. just distracted?”
Roger cocked his head and paused for a moment.
“We had this discussion 27 days ago. And then 62 days before that. By my calculations,” he said, “you like to discuss happiness roughly once a month.”
“When I was younger,” he said, “I never thought much about it. I was too busy…. working, fixing this old place up. Then the kids came along, and there was always something to do…..riding bikes, building birdhouses, learning to drive…”
“The conclusion you came to the last time we had this discussion was that humans are happy at different times in their lives, but their definition of what makes them happy also changes.”
Elmer nodded. He remembered now.
“But part of the fun of a question like that is thinking it through to the end,” Elmer said.
“I do not understand,” Roger said, “if you know you will come to the same conclusion every time, how is that …… fun?”
Elmer smiled. “I don’t know,” he said, “maybe because sometimes there is a surprise waiting.”
Roger said nothing more, so Elmer just stood there watching the fire dance. Listening to it crackle. It felt almost magical, like he had created a little creature with a match and some dry sticks. Something good as long as you controlled it, kept it from growing too big. Elmer thought how the fire needed him as much as he needed it.He stood there staring into the flames of his birthday bonfire until he lost all sense of time.
Finally Roger spoke up. “There is a call from your granddaughter.”
Elmer did not know how long he had been standing there. He looked over at Roger. He wanted to talk to his granddaughter, Mary, but he suddenly felt tired. He also wanted to go inside and sit in his big, easy chair, collect himself for awhile.
“I believe she wants to wish you a happy birthday,” Roger said.
Elmer nodded. “Please tell her I’ll call her back in a few minutes.”
Several hours later Roger gently shook Elmer’s arm where he slept in his easy chair. Elmer leaned forward, and the chair automatically adjusted to a sitting position. He smelled coffee.
“What time is it?”
“It is four-thirty,” Roger said, “your coffee is ready.”
“Please bring it here, amigo.”
Roger headed for the kitchen.
Elmer remembered that today was his birthday. It had been nice to hear from Mary and his great grandchildren. He even thought he heard Mary’s husband…… what was his name? Oh, yes, Steve. Elmer thought he even heard Steve singing “Happy Birthday” in the background.
“Good old, Steve,” he said out loud, “I doubted him at first. But he turned out to be bueno for my little Mary.”
Now all that was left was Beatrice’s surprise. He wondered when she was going to spring it on him.
“Do you wish me to speak in Spanish?” Roger asked when he returned and set Elmer’s coffee gently down on the table next to his chair, “I am programmed in 15 languages.”
Elmer smiled. He lightly wrapped his fingers around the mug, decorated with a picture of the Gateway Arch, and watched the vapors of steam rise above it. He loved to tease Roger. He still felt his house robot’s programming assumed too much and jumped to far too many conclusions about what he wanted or preferred.
“No, senor,” Elmer answered with a devilish grin, “no necisito.”
But Elmer told himself it was really not a bad idea. Since his old buddies stopped meeting at the coffee shop on Saturdays, he should probably find another activity to keep his mind sharp. God knows he had grown tired of crosswords lately. He should probably pick up his Spanish lessons.
Roger disappeared back into the kitchen.
Elmer lifted the coffee to his lips and took a sip. He quickly set the mug back down before it became too hot for him to hold. From his chair he could see out the patio doors. He watched the squirrels chasing each other outside. Once he had Roger name the squirrels that scurried around his yard. Beatrice suggested they use the names of the Seven Dwarves. She said it would be cute. But Elmer didn’t think that appropriate for squirrels. Instead he had Roger name them after the 1984 Tigers, his all-time favorite baseball team.
“Let’s see,” he thought, “There was Trammel, and Sweet Lou. Gibby, Lemon, and Parrish. There was Senor Smoke, Morris, and Hernandez.”
He stopped there. The other names slipping from his memory. But he told himself he was not that old that he could not remember that team.
Elmer leaned back in his chair.
“TV on!” he said, thinking he would like to watch the video of Gibby hitting that home run in the 8th inning of game five off of Goose Gossage, “Tigers! 1984 World Series!”
But the screen went blank.
“What the hey?” he thought. Then suddenly Beatrice’s face appeared on the screen.
“Happy Birthday, Elmer,” she said with a warm smile that melted his heart, “if you are watching this, then it is your 91st birthday. I am sorry I cannot be there with you. Very sorry.”
And here she paused to look away for a moment.
“When she looked back at Elmer, she smiled,”but I have a little surprise planned…… do you remember the birthday cake I always used to make for you before the kids were born?”
“German chocolate,” Elmer said.
“That’s right,” Beatrice said. She turned her head to the left and called out to Roger. “Are you ready?”
Elmer noticed that the lights had dimmed. There was a soft glow coming from the kitchen. A moment later Roger came out carrying a large cake topped with a number of burning candles. On the screen Beatrice took out a harmonica. She blew a single note and started singing “Happy Birthday”. Roger joined in with two voices at once, his own sweet baritone and a higher tenor that overlayed his own voice in harmony.When they finished, the cake had been set on a tray that slid out of the side of Elmer’s easy chair.
“Make a wish, dear.”
Elmer closed his eyes. He wished the same wish he always did. He wished that Beatrice could be there with him again. God, how he missed her. Tears welled up in his eyes, but he kept them closed. He felt the warmth of the candles on his face. For a moment he could imagine her there, sitting at the table across from him. He sucked in a lungful of air and blew without opening his eyes.
The image of Beatrice on the screen cheered.
Roger shouted “bravo!”
One more, dear,” Beatrice said gently.
Elmer opened his eyes. It was true. The programming was very good. One candle still flickered on his cake. He blew it out.
Elmer smiled at the the image of Beatrice on the screen. Beatrice smiled back.
“Thank you,” Elmer said.
“You’re welcome,” Beatrice replied.
“Now while Roger gets you a piece of cake,” Beatrice said, “Let me tell you about an interesting book I had him order for you. A real book that you can hold in your hands and feel the pages.”
“Would you care for a large piece or a small piece?” Roger asked.
“How is my blood sugar?”
“You were at 120 just an hour ago.”
“Then a large piece….. and a big glass of milk.”