Automaton

by Kyle Scribner

It was always interesting to me to look at houses as I drove past them, something about the way they are organized in neat, perfect rows. It's easy to understand why a house used to be symbolic of the American dream: it's your shelter, your place of refuge, your sanctuary. In a way your house almost becomes your shell, your fortress of plastic satisfaction.

I had just woken up when I realized it was Sunday morning. Sunday was relatively important compared to other days because it was the time of the week when I'd go visit my mother. Dad had just passed away a few months prior, and my mother was using me as a primary source of company. Not that I'm complaining. It's not like I had a deep seated resentment towards my mother due to some kind of fucked up childhood upbringing. My mom was the one who toiled away as a nurse for a number of years to keep my brother and I comfortably fitted in JC Penney's clothing. It was just that sometimes a man has to keep considerable distance from his mother, and that was a luxury I was not afforded at the time.

My father was an interesting figure in my life. He had pretty much raised me to be his spitting image, "a man of this world" he used to say. He'd wake up early on Saturday morning and make breakfast for the whole family. If it was a boring Sunday afternoon, he'd take my brother and me down to the tracks so we could sit and watch the trains go by. He was the one that raised us and was the one mainly responsible for our childhood development, shedding little bits of wisdom wherever he could, wisdom that I still incorporate in my life to this day.

I got up from bed and threw on some old jeans, a hoodie and my newsboy hat. The hat had been a sentimental favorite of mine for years. My father gave it to me one day in my teens, and it's been a regular in my everyday attire since. I headed off to the kitchen and checked the time; it was around noon so I felt that cracking open twelve ounces of happiness wasn't beyond reason.

I didn't have shit to do the next two days. When your shift starts at 11:00 pm on a Tuesday night, the traditional start of the work week doesn't hold a lot of weight. My mother liked to reprimand me for not doing anything with my degree, despite the fact that I had told her years prior that I had no idea if I was even going to go to college. My bachelor's was kind of a formality, more of a consolation prize for being bored off my ass for the better part of four years. I never really went above and beyond the call of duty while at school. I was just one of those mediocre students who never really put in the extra effort, went to class seventy five percent of the time and drank copious amounts of beer during the week. As a result of this, I managed to "earn" my degree. Sciolism was never really my dig anyways.

At the time, I was employed at the local Express Mart making barely above minimum wage. It was an okay enough job, I guess, and it was interesting to see the type of people you met at two a.m. On any given night, I'd see an eccentric mix of patrons, anyone ranging from respectable businessmen to vagrant bums picking up a forty ouncer for a buck-fifty. The bums had this quality that's to be admired. They knew what they were and they weren't making any excuses.

I jumped back when the phone rang. I wasn't used to getting many calls at the time. It was Caroline. I could immediately make time for her, no matter what I was doing. She wasn't the type of girl that struck you with her beauty. Her attraction was due mainly to her subtlety. It'd be easy for a man to overlook her in a crowd, but once you got to know her and grow a fondness for her youthful enthusiasm, it was hard to look back.

"Hello?"

"Hello Kalib, how are you?"

"I'm doing okay. I have to head to my mother's later today."

"Yeah, how's she holding up?"

"I'd say she's almost back to normal. It's interesting to think of it this way, but it's almost to the point where it's like dad never died." I knew this was a fallacy as I said it, though my mother can fool the untrained eye into believing she's not feeling grief. It was painfully obvious to her relatives that the loss of my father was devastating for her.

"Good, your mother is a very classy lady. I can't believe how well she is taking this." I could tell by her tone she was extremely tired. I couldn't stand it when she would talk this way. For some reason, having the woman of my dreams not being completely enthralled to chat with me was somewhat of a bummer. Caroline had known my mother for about two years at that point, their initial meeting being when she ran into my mom and me at a supermarket.

"You certainly sound cheery."

"Sorry, I had a long day at work." Caroline was an aspiring journalist at night and a slave to the local Big Lots by day, counting out exact change to people who preferred the bland banality of Big Lots to Wegmans. I have no idea what she is up to nowadays, though I imagine her time in the insipid Wal-Mart wannabe suffocated whatever drive she had left. It's a shame too, she was one of the more intelligent, ambitious people I'd ever met. In a way, this was also her fatal flaw. She was always striving for a certain ideal, a search I (as well as most sensible people) had given up on.

"Yeah? How's life in the jerk store treating you?"

"Same old. The most interesting part of my day was when a man with a fedora came through my line."

"Well, at least that's something you don't see every day. The most exciting variety of felt hats I get at my work is when our local Clockwork Orange enthusiast comes in to get his bi-daily pack of Marb Reds with his bowler on. So at least you have an edge on me in that department."

"You know, sometimes you're such a wiseass that it makes me feel like smacking you across the face." God, she used to make my heart race with those half-hearted threats.

"Well, if it's of any interest to you, I gotta run downtown, grab some liquor and visit my mother. I know how you've been itching to see her." If there was any excuse to hang out with this woman, I'd find it.

"Sure, I just got to be back in a couple hours because I got a few errands to run." She didn't seem too enthused about our trip, but I didn't especially care. She had already given me a piece of her time, which was more than enough for me to feel satisfied.

I slipped on my Chucks Taylors and walked briskly out to my '94 Chevy Cavalier. My friends and I had dubbed it the "No Fear Cavalier" due its several close calls with total destruction thanks to the Rochester Interstate Thruway System. It was a sturdy little thing that rarely let me down, though over the years the inferiority of the Cavalier brand was becoming more and more apparent. My 1994 model was no exception.

I'd always been told people were like cars, you treat them well and they last. I had treated people well enough my whole life, now I don't have jack or shit to show for it.

Caroline had lived about a stone's throw away from me, more or less five minutes. It was a nice, pseudo-suburban route and the fall foliage made it even more serene. The shades of the leaves were breathtaking, the yellow and red matting the earth, trees dying almost for the sole purpose of aesthetic pleasure. Sometimes it was too easy to get lost in the world's beauty, and sometimes it was hard finding any.

I arrived at Caroline's apartment just as she was coming to the door. I'll never forget the way she looked walking down those steps in her little knit cap, navy blue pea coat, and a pair of blue jeans. She made eye contact with me through the windshield, and those emerald greens pierced right through the glass and gazed deep into my being.

She jumped into the car. "Hey, long time no see." Her personal greeting was slightly more enthused than her phone salutations.

"So, what riveting activities have you been up to since I talked to you thirty minutes ago?"

"You mean, besides eagerly awaiting your arrival?" Her sarcasm was another of her endearing qualities.

I drove slowly to the liquor store so I could savor Caroline and the foliage. It was hard for me to keep my eyes on the road surrounded by so much splendor.

We pulled into the parking lot of the liquor store, aptly named "Liquor". The lights spelling out the stores name were especially incandescent on that evening, seemingly promising an escape for the patrons of the store, people seeking deliverance from themselves in a discounted liter of Jack. My parking job was a real shit show as usual. I usually considered myself a consummate driver, but I never really did master the whole parking thing, especially if a pull through spot wasn't available. We got out of the Cavalier and started moseying over to the store. That's when I saw him.

Nate DeBeers was his name and he was the type of person I was generally inclined to dislike. I went to high school with the guy, and he graduated the year before me. We were buddies for a little bit, but Nate and I never really had similar interest or goals in life. This had never been more evident than when I saw him walking out to his cherry red Ford Mustang on that day. Nate went to school for accounting, and though I didn't really have anything against that, I had a problem with his rationale for going into that line of work. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure there was a ton of people that find legitimate joy sitting behind a desk and crunching numbers for eight hours a day. Nate's only reason for going into accounting was that's where the money was at, and he was right. Ten years after he graduated, that son of a bitch was making a very comfortable living, as well as supporting a wife. I met her once at a Christmas party, a nice, blonde, pretty, young thing who was satisfied with the complacency of everyday house work, as long as she got to cling to the arm of the king shit Of fuck mountain. Nate loved her very much and was extremely happy with the life he led. That was another thing I disliked about him, his authenticity.

He greeted me with a big smile. "Kalib! How the hell are you?"

His enthusiasm wasn't reciprocated, to say the least. "Just fine, Nate. How 'bout yourself."

"Aw dude, you know. Just gotta stop by here and grabsome Kahlua for the Misses. I see you got a little upgrade there in the car department, is that baby an automatic tranny?" Nate had an uncanny ability to be pretentious, even when exchanging pleasantries.

Fucking asshole.

"Who's this girl you got with you?"

Nate had never been acquainted with Caroline, and for good reason; I didn't want her knowing that I used to have buddies like this.

"Nate, this is Caroline. She's a friend of mine."

"Oh, it's a pleasure to meet you."

"Likewise," Caroline said, with a smile across her face, her dimples especially evident. I'm sure by that time she had picked up on my general dislike for the guy, though she was probably trying to come to her own conclusions. Hopefully, she wouldn't think too highly of him.

Before they could get deep in conversation, I butted in. I asked him what he was doing with his life, even though I knew that answer.

"Still crunching the numbers, dude. I just got a promotion."

"Oh, so you're doing pretty well for yourself."

"Yeah dude. I was going to call Darren soon, see if we could get everyone to go out to the bars sometime." Darren was a good friend of both Nate and myself, working somewhere as a bar manager. I missed the guy. Last I heard he was with some girl, considering settling down, a simple kind of life.

"Yeah man, I hear that Darren's doing pretty well for himself." Caroline hadn't spoken in a while. This usually wouldn't have bothered me, 'cause she's a reticent type of girl anyway, but I could tell she was quiet because she was admiring Nate's masculine, prominent chin. Jesus Christ, that thing was a monster.

To his credit, Nate ostensibly took an interest in my life. "So, what the hell have you been up to?"

"Same as the last time you saw me, man. Still working at Express Mart, waiting for the right opportunity to come along."

Well dude, I'm sure something better will come up. At least you got a good-looking gal and a car, though you should probably do something about all that fucking rust on it."

"We're not dating." Caroline quickly interjected.

"Oh," Nate's interest in my life was apparently waning and he dismissed himself, apparently he had to "get back to the Misses."

After he left, Caroline took her position at my side. "So, who was that guy?"

"Some jerk I went to high school with." I hadn't realized I had such much contempt for the poor guy, but in retrospect that disingenuous sly grin was more than enough reason for me to resent him.

"Didn't seem like you were particularly enthused about seeing him."

"I wasn't, the man's an asshole." We headed into the store.

"Liquor" isn't the type of place that's going to gussy itself up. It knows its purpose: to serves its patrons discounted liquor. It wasn't a run-down little shit house of a business, but it wasn't exactly ostentatious either.

I went to the whiskey aisle, an aisle I was becoming more and more familiar with. Something about the taste of the stuff really did it for me, that burning sensation that demands respect as it travels down your esophagus. Caroline went off to the rum aisle. I grabbed a bottle of Black Velvet, looked at some of the other products for a few minutes, then checked in with her.

She laughed at my selection, "I see you're not exactly expanding your horizons."

"The Velvet's always been good to me. Why turn your back on an old, reliable friend?"

"I guess I never really thought about it in that respect, though I don't have the same emotional attachment to liquor that you do."

After paying for our booze, we headed back out to the Cavalier and started for my mother's house. It was a quiet ride for the most part. I was satisfied with how the day was going then all of a sudden Caroline shook me back into reality.

"Kalib, what is it with you?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean...just you're general demeanor. Running into that guy, your attitude towards me, and the way you don't seem to give a shit about anything lately."

"What do you want me do?"

"I want you to care about something."

"Like what?"

"Like me."

I looked over towards her and noticed she was on the verge of crying, after all these years I still have no idea why. Maybe she had some kind of vested interest in me, or maybe she was frustrated with herself. Nevertheless, I took her hand in mine and we continued our drive in mutual silence.

Caroline and I walked into my mother's house. I couldn't help but feel a tad bit distressed when my mother didn't immediately come running to the door, eagerly showering her youngest son with love and affection. After calling out for my mom for a minute, we decided that we should proceed further into the house in hopes of finding my mother in the middle of a nap or curling her hair. I placed my hat right next to a folded up piece of paper on the counter and walked into the bathroom to take a leak. I closed the door behind me to better ensure privacy when I noticed my mother in the tub in only her underwear, blood spilling over the side onto the tiles below. I stuck my hand into the water, noticing that it was lukewarm. The blood on my mother's wrist was relatively congealed, crudely insinuating that she had offed herself a few days prior. Though I never made any audible noises upon seeing my mother's body, Caroline walked into the bathroom, probably having some sort of a divine premonition that something was wrong. Upon seeing my mother, she ran out of the room and out of the house, opting to bawl on the back porch instead of in front of me.

I made my way downstairs. I felt like I should go outside and comfort Caroline, seeing as how she just became the only prevalent woman in my life. I headed out the door but realized I left my hat. After picking it up, I noticed the piece of paper again, having dismissed it earlier as merely a shopping list. I read quick, seeing as how it was only three words long. Those three words provided wisdom that I had been searching for for the better part of my life, wisdom that I still incorporate into my life to this day.

"Kalib - Don't try."

I put my hat on, washed my hands, and left.

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