Published on 2013/03/17

In Shining Armor

Mary Cool

Mr. Witter admired his robot’s glossy suit of metal more than anything—it moved quickly and gracefully, as if a net of quicksilver had been cast over a human face and form, capable of transformation at any moment. In fact, the robot, Max, had been designed to do just this—transform on cue—his LearnAdapt software allowing him to model any emotion or skill he needed. It was what had made him such an excellent caretaker robot for Mr. Witter’s family. Still, Mr. Witter envied him, and on Thursday nights, work permitting, he liked to take Max out to the park to play Saber Stars, a fencing program he’d installed on the robot. He claimed a need for exercise, but he nearly always found himself studying Max, even in the middle of their bouts, as they feinted and thrust and parried with their practice swords. Perhaps, in the end, he hoped to absorb something of the robot’s effortless perfection.

Despite this perfection however, it turned out that Max wasn’t completely satisfied in life, and one Thursday night in June, just as Mr. Witter thought he might finally master his flèche attack, Max announced his desire to have a family. “So I can have a boy of my own,” he explained to Mr. Witter.

In fact, Max was already very close to Mr. Witter’s son, Paulie, an adorable five-year-old blond boy. Back when Paulie was a baby, he’d called Max DaDa first. And one night this spring, when Mr. Witter returned from work early, he’d peeked into the partly closed door of the den to find Mrs. Witter sitting on a sofa with a glass of wine, her face moist, Max offering her tissues one at a time. Although these moments had stung, he'd tried to set aside selfishness and let them be. After all, wasn’t that why he’d gotten Max in the first place? So his family could have a faithful companion while he worked the long hours required to give them all they could want.

“Well, I don’t know, Max,” Mr. Witter said, rubbing his neck. “I’ll have to think it over, you know.” But there wasn’t anything to think over, really. LearnAdapt robots, with their emotional capacities, always ended up requiring familial attachments. Still, the thought of Max being at the center of two families made Mr. Witter’s chest ache.

“Oh, please do think it over,” Max said. “I would do anything.” He stretched out one elegant, silver hand and laid it on Mr. Witter’s arm while, on his face, LearnAdapt formed an expression of pleading so earnest it was impossible to ignore.

“Well, Max finally wants a family,” Mr. Witter told his wife that night in bed. He sighed. “So, I guess that’s what I’ll have to do.”

Mrs. Witter squinted at him hard through her small, dark-framed reading glasses. “Don’t be absurd, of course that’s what you’ll do—Max deserves it,” she said, and returned to her book.

Mr. Witter reached over and gently ran his fingers over her arm. “Remember when I had that broken-down convertible, and we used to go out and look at the stars?”

“You sold that car,” she said, without looking up. “Then we got Max, remember?”

The next night, Mr. Witter came home to find the entire family in the backyard. Mrs. Witter and Paulie lay on the lawn, on either side of Max, and gazed up at the sky while the robot pointed out constellations. Paulie eagerly repeated all the names after him, while Mrs. Witter rested her head in the crook of Max’s shining arm.

Mr. Witter ordered the robot family delivered the next week while he was at work. He returned home early, expecting that Max would spend the day bonding with the new robots, alone, in the old rec room he’d set up for them on the weekend. He’d planned an intimate, family-only meal, perhaps followed by an outing for ice cream. But when Mr. Witter walked through the door, he found Max sitting at the kitchen table, coloring pictures with Paulie and the new son robot, while near the stove, Mrs. Witter leaned attentively toward the wife robot, who looked to be whipping up a batch of mouth-watering dumplings.

Max waved enthusiastically at Mr. Witter when he saw him. “This is wonderful, thank you,” he said. “I am so happy.”

Mr. Witter tried to make the best of things. He kissed his wife on the cheek and swept Paulie up into his arms and over his head.

“Daddy!” said Paulie, pouting. “I was playing with Little Max!”

Mr. Witter set Paulie down only to have Little Max toddle over to him and pull on his pants leg hopefully. Mr. Witter felt uncomfortable at the thought of picking it up, like cradling an appliance in his arms. But Little Max was persistent and in the end, he did it. The son robot felt as cold and awkward as he had expected, but he still had to admire its beautiful quicksilver face and limbs, like its father’s. He tickled its well-designed elbow and the son robot laughed and grabbed at Mr. Witter’s bright, shiny tie pin.

On Thursday, Mr. Witter told Max that he didn’t have to bother coming out to play Saber Stars, but Max insisted. At some point in between Mr. Witter’s half-hearted sword strokes, Max said, “I want to ask another favor—would you teach me how to throw a baseball with Little Max?”

“Teach you?” Mr. Witter said. “Why don’t I just buy you a baseball program?”

Max shook his head. He looked determined. “No,” he said. “That won’t teach me how to play baseball with my son.”

“Yes, it will. It’ll give you all the moves you need.”

“It will make me play robot baseball, professional moves without feelings. Like Saber Stars.”

“I see,” Mr. Witter said. He looked down at his feet and tapped the edge of his sneaker with the practice saber.

“What I want,” Max said. “Is to learn baseball so I can play with Little Max and we can have father-and-son feelings.”

Mr. Witter felt suddenly, desperately tired. He dropped the saber carelessly and lowered himself to the grass so he could sit and think for a moment.

“Is something wrong, Mr. Witter?” Max asked.

“I haven’t thrown a baseball with Paulie yet,” Mr. Witter said. “He was too young and then there wasn’t time, and then, well. . . now he doesn’t even like me to pick him up.”

He looked up at Max. “Max, I’d be teaching you baseball before my own son. Does that mean anything to you?”

Max nodded, but Mr. Witter wasn’t sure if he got it or not—although he did pause a moment before speaking again.

“Maybe instead you can teach all of us? At the same time?” Max said hopefully.

Mr. Witter had to smile. It was an engineered solution, solving only the literal problem of teaching Max before his son. But it was in earnest, and came from the best of Max’s new fatherly instincts, and it meant that Mr. Witter would at least have a chance to play with his son.

“Alright,” Mr. Witter said. “Why not?”

That weekend, Mr. Witter taught Paulie and the two robots baseball in the backyard. The Maxes moved stiffly and unsteadily through underhand throws and catches as their LearnAdapt software caught on. Paulie, though, was a real natural. Mr. Witter had never noticed this athletic ability before in his son—his hand-eye coordination was clearly still developing, but his focus stayed on the ball and he adapted quickly, making most of the simple catches.

Eager to play alone with Paulie, Mr. Witter suggested breaking up into father-son teams, but Paulie immediately ran to Max. Max looked confused.

“Paulie,” Mr. Witter said. “Aren’t you going to come play with me?”

“I don’t want to play with you—I want to play with Max.”

Mr. Witter tried to stay calm, focused. “I think Max wants to throw the ball with his son,” he pointed out.

“But I’m better at this than Little Max,” Paulie said. “Max needs me to teach him.”

Mr. Witter began to reprimand Paulie for being selfish, but Little Max had already run over to Mr. Witter’s pant leg and tugged on it again with excitement.

“It’s alright,” Max said. “Little Max really wants to play with you, Mr. Witter.” Mr. Witter could not tell what new emotion now emerged on Max’s face; it was not yet recognizable, but it seemed like disappointment.

With nothing left to do but play with Little Max, Mr. Witter threw him the ball a few times—Little Max missed every single time, but he looked very happy. “I learn!” he shouted, although he didn’t say what he was learning.

Afterwards, he wanted to be picked up again. Mr. Witter still felt awkward holding him in his arms, but Little Max had such an infectious smile, he couldn’t help but laugh and tickle his elbow again. Little Max giggled, then grabbed for the silver keychain that had slipped partway out of Mr. Witter’s pocket. Mr. Witter gave him the keychain, and baseball was all but forgotten.

That night, Mr. Witter entered the kitchen to find his wife buttering a ramekin for a soufflé, which the wife robot, Tracy, had taught her to prepare.

“I always wanted to do this,” Mrs. Witter told him. “But I never thought I could. Now I figure, if Tracy can do it, so can I.”

“Do you think Paulie loves me?” Mr. Witter asked her.

Mrs. Witter set down the ramekin. “What kind of question is that? Of course he does. Any father should know his son loves him.”

“I think maybe he loves Max more.”

“Max is a wonderful robot, but you’re still his father. Paulie knows that. But it’s good that you’re spending more time with him.”

Mr. Witter reached over and touched his wife’s hair. She didn’t turn away. “I was thinking maybe it would be nice if we all went for a picnic sometime soon—what do you think?”

Mrs. Witter leaned her head against his hand. “I’ll make some crème fraiche,” she said.

The next week, Mr. Witter had to work several late nights, and by the time he got home, everyone was asleep. Usually on such nights, he would go straight to bed. But now, perhaps because it felt especially hushed and lonely in the house, he slipped into Paulie’s room quietly and sat near the bed—even leaned over and kissed him goodnight. The first few nights, Paulie just brushed his face with his fingers, as if a fly had bothered him, and turned over in his sleep. But then Mr. Witter started talking to him for a few moments before he left the room. He told him little things like that he loved him, and that he was a very handsome boy, and how happy he was just to sit and watch him even when he slept.

One night, Mr. Witter’s patience was rewarded, and Paulie opened his eyes for a few seconds. “Goodnight, Daddy,” he said, very drowsily, and fell right back to sleep. Mr. Witter felt elated. It was just a small thing, but it somehow meant very much, that in the wee hours of the morning, he had been the first person of the day his son had spoken to.

When he left Paulie’s room, Mr. Witter saw a quick glimmer of movement across the hall, in front of the door to the robots’ bedroom. He recognized Little Max’s eyes glinting at him through the dark. Mr. Witter could tell he wanted to be held.

“You want me to tuck you in?” he asked, and Little Max nodded.

For once, Mr. Witter scooped Little Max into his arms without a second thought and tiptoed into the robots’ bedroom, where he gently placed him in the small, low charging bed near the wall. Across the room, Max and Tracy lay, silent and motionless in their own charging beds. Since Little Max had no blanket—only an outlet for plugging into—Mr. Witter reached into his pocket, unhooked his silver keychain from his keys, and put it in the robot’s hand to sleep with.

Little Max flashed the keychain, once, twice, in the moonlight, then smiled and closed his eyes. Mr. Witter hooked Little Max up to his charger and watched him as he slipped into REM mode. He leaned over and put his ear to the robot’s chest, where his motherboard was. All the circuits made a low, soothing hum.

As Mr. Witter stood and turned to leave the room, he saw, for one brief moment, the sheen of Max’s bright eyes, just before the robot shut them and pretended, again, to be in REM. It did not escape Mr. Witter, however, that he had briefly seen another emotion in formation there, something perhaps like longing.

Mr. Witter canceled Saber Stars on Thursday because of work, but he kept his word about the weekend picnic. He also bought an old jalopy off a friend, one that reminded him of the convertible he and Mrs. Witter had once driven around in. On Saturday, he pulled the car up in front of the garage and cranked down the roof.

“Maybe we’ll watch the stars tonight,” he said to Mrs. Witter.

“Maybe,” she said, and held his hand in the front seat as he drove. She smelled of crème fraiche and strawberries.

Mr. Witter drove them all out to a ballpark that had plenty of grass and trees and that was bordered on one side by a big, beautiful river. Mrs. Witter and Tracy set up the food under a tall, shady oak with a nice view of the tree-lined river bank so they could all watch the water, glittering in the distance, and enjoy the pleasant breeze.

As soon as Mr. Witter popped the trunk and took out the ball gloves, Paulie made a beeline for Max while Little Max rushed to Mr. Witter. Max looked heartbroken.

Mr. Witter decided to take a new approach. “What if you help teach Little Max today, Paulie?” he said. “Then we can all switch off later?”

Paulie started to protest, but Mr. Witter interrupted him gently and added, “It’s only just because you did such a good job teaching Max last week—you’re very good at it.”

Paulie seemed to take pride in this suggestion, and reconsidered. “Okay, Daddy,” he said. “Let’s go, Little Max.”

Paulie guided the smaller robot over to a sunny patch of ground near where Mrs. Witter and Tracy sat at the picnic. Little Max looked longingly over his shoulder at Mr. Witter as he was led away, but he was soon happily shouting, “I learn! I learn!” at Paulie. When Mr. Witter glanced over a while later, he even saw Little Max make a catch.

Mr. Witter tried to start his own game with Max, but the robot missed every catch in his apparent dejection.

“What’s the matter, Max?” Mr. Witter said finally.

Max sighed. “I don’t think Little Max wants me to be his father,” he said.

“What makes you say that?”

“He always wants you to pick him up, and at night, he doesn’t go to sleep until you put him to bed. He should want me to do those things—I’m his family.”

Mr. Witter looked at Max, unsure of what to say. He wanted to tell him that he himself had failed miserably with his own son—that, in fact, he had hoped Max would be the one to make his own deficiencies clear. But the robot now regarded Mr. Witter so pitifully, that he felt the need to comfort them both. He gently touched the robot’s shoulder and said, “Don’t worry—Little Max will get over this. He has to.”

Max shook his head. “No,” he said. “I must be doing something wrong. I just haven’t been able to learn. Can you teach me?”

The robot’s shoulder slumped under Mr. Witter’s hand, as if all his energy had drained away completely. Mr. Witter just stood there silently, not knowing quite how to answer, when Mrs. Witter appeared, frantically waving her arms for his attention. “Come quick,” she shouted. “We can’t find Little Max—Paulie thinks he chased a ball down to the river.”

Mr. Witter turned toward the water. For the first time, he saw it the way Little Max had probably been looking at it all day, bright and glittery like a toy. They should have set up the picnic twice as far away, Mr. Witter thought, and silently cursed himself. What kind of father would ever have made that mistake?

Max must have been asking himself the same question, for Mr. Witter was suddenly aware of the robot standing by his shoulder, eyes glued to the river. It was the first time Mr. Witter had seen terror on the robot’s face—it was so clear and so instantaneous, it was as if it had leapt over the robot’s programming altogether and come straight from Max’s heart, whatever form that might take underneath his shimmering skin.

Mr. Witter and Max broke into a run and, sure enough, they arrived at the riverbank to find Little Max flailing in the water, his chest bobbing in and out of the current. Please just don’t let the motherboard get wet, Mr. Witter thought—it could be replaced, he knew, but it would never again be the exact same Little Max, and that thought made his heart pound and his mouth dry up.

Max reached the water sooner than Mr. Witter did. He charged bravely into the river, but his feet just weren’t made for the mud, and he almost fell when only a few feet in. Mr. Witter reached out to steady him just in time, then plunged into the water and swam toward Little Max. Just as Mr. Witter caught up to him, Little Max lifted his head to the sky and shouted out the one word that had the power to stop Mr. Witter’s heart with longing. “Daddy!” he yelled. “DaddyDaddyDaddy!”

”There, there, honey,” Mr. Witter said. He lifted Little Max’s chest with its motherboard as far as possible above the water and held him close.

“Daddy’s here now. Just be still.”

But Little Max just wailed louder. “DADDYDADDYDADDY!” And his eyes rolled all over as if there was someone else who was supposed to come.

Above Little Max’s shouting, Mr. Witter heard the father robot calling out. “Little Max, I love you! Please be still, so Mr. Witter can bring you back to me.”

Mr. Witter felt the tiny body grow quiet in his arms as Little Max turned his head to see his father waving to him. He clung tightly to Mr. Witter’s neck, but his gaze never unfastened itself from Max, and on shore, he leapt eagerly into the father robot’s arms.

Mr. Witter trudged heavily over the sand past the reunited father and son, and also past Tracy and Paulie and Mrs. Witter, who had all flown over to the Maxes and flung their arms around them. He walked back to the deserted picnic site, where he fetched an unused picnic blanket, wrapped it around himself, and sat down among the half-empty coolers and water bottles, shivering. When he next looked up, Mrs. Witter was leading Paulie up from the riverbank—no robot family in sight. Perhaps she’d wanted to give them a few moments of privacy together.

Paulie reached Mr. Witter first. He plopped down next to him on the ground, his face flushed with excitement, as if not quite realizing that something dangerous and troublesome had just happened.

“You look cold, Daddy,” Paulie said. Mr. Witter could feel his son’s warm, little-boy hand touch the slice of bare knee that poked out of the blanket.

“You do look cold,” Mrs. Witter said. She knelt down across from him and touched his face. “You alright, honey?”

Mr. Witter smiled wanly. “I’m fine,” he said. “But I think we should all head home soon. It’s been an eventful day.”

A look of acute disappointment fell over Paulie’s face, and Mr. Witter withdrew further into his blanket. It seemed that the losses of the day would only continue to add up.

“But Daddy, I don’t wanna leave now,” Paulie said, pouting.

Mrs. Witter put her arm around Paulie and drew him to her. “Alright, now, that’s enough, sweetheart. Don’t bother your Dad—he’s not feeling well.”

“No, no, that’s alright,” Mr. Witter said. “I know I ruined the day for everyone, but I promise I’ll make it up to you all—next time, I’ll pick somewhere far away from the river, okay?”

But Paulie only looked more disappointed—and something else, too. Confused or anxious? Maybe even a little resentful? Mr. Witter wasn’t sure.

“But when are you gonna teach me?” Paulie asked.

Mr. Witter blinked rapidly, unsure how to take the question. He felt as if he were still in the water, the currents rushing by him on their way to a place he could never quite reach. “Teach you what?” he asked finally.

“What you did,” Paulie said impatiently. “How you swam. And saved Little Max.”

Slowly but surely, like something he was learning for the first time, Mr. Witter felt a peculiar new emotion overcome him. It wasn’t anything particularly heroic or proud or fatherly—or at least, not in the way he had always imagined. Rather, he felt quite small and humble, as if he were a piece of something much fuller and deeper and more mysterious than himself—like his son. Mr. Witter looked in Paulie’s eyes and recognized there the most familiar and urgent of desires—to learn and grow to be someone special, all of his own.

“Okay. Alright,” Mr. Witter said.

He took Paulie’s hand in his and stroked it gently, once, with the edge of his thumb. “I’ll teach you,” he said. “As much as I can.”


Mary Cool is originally a native of the so-called Hinterlands of Manitoba, Canada, but she now lives in the “Hipsterlands” of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and works as a copyeditor for a Manhattan ad agency. She's been writing short fiction for the past few years, during which she has studied with authors Myla Goldberg, Beth Ann Bauman, and Susan Breen, among others. She also blogs at captivatedaudience.blogspot.com, where she discusses the art of reading from a writer’s point of view. This is her first publication.