The Wife Collector
by R. J. Astruc
The robot tender fixed a passable breakfast: eggs, sausage and bacon sauced in grease. Malachy wolfed his hi-cal serve while the husband scanned prenup sub–clauses. Outside the wife chain-smoked, silhouetted against the misty predawn light. No trophy wife, this: her long, hard body was evocative of a greyhound’s wiry economy. A far cry from the fanciful, buxom bombshells Malachy regularly encountered.
At her feet lay a flapping bird of newspaper, an old street rag gone soggy and solid that she’d found in a gutter and kicked all the way from the carpark. The rising wind had infused it with new life and it flayed open its pale body against her boots with a wet sound, like something sick and trapped.
‘Your first wife?’ Malachy asked, turning back.
The husband looked up blankly, biro circling a section of small print. ‘No.’
‘Frequent flyer, then?’
‘None of your goddamn business.’
They were in a truck-stop on the A78, one of an interminable series of chain stores that fringed the British arterials. Not Malachy’s first choice — he far preferred the luxury of inner-city diners — but he could appreciate that the place possessed an appropriately transitory resonance. Cardboard boxes, half-unpacked, clogged the central aisle; a computerised timetable overhead tossed about optimistic bus ETAs.
‘What kind of shape is she in?’ he asked the husband, pushing his plate aside.
‘Fair. Age takes its toll.’
‘Only on substandard machinery.’
‘I’m not forcing you to buy her.’ The husband swung around a clipboard, indicating an illegible signature. ‘That’s it, done and done. When your cheque clears, all rights will revert to you officially. Practically, Mr Memphis, she’s yours from this moment on.’
Malachy filed the paperwork and they made for the door, their exit heralded by a squeak from the automatic security system. The robot tender glanced briskly over the centerfold of a girlie magazine.
‘Lay her, man,’ he called after Malachy.
‘I said,’ the robot repeated, slowly, ‘Later, man.’
Outside the clouds hung pregnant with rain. The wife had since discarded the remnants of her cigarette and now lurched toward them. When still she looked the sort of woman prone to gliding, to stalking, to strolling — anything but this terrible, stumbling distempo of limbs, with everything jerky as a puppet tangling in its own strings.
So that’s why she was cheap, Malachy thought, feeling cheated. He masked his annoyance with a smile. ‘Signed and sealed,’ he affirmed loudly, arranging the wife’s crippled body on the passenger seat of his car. ‘You sit tight now.’
As he started the engine the husband dashed forward, touching a coarse hand to her window. The expression on his pale face was complex and unreadable.
‘Eye dew,’ said the wife, oddly, obscurely, and clasped her dampening cheeks.
‘God bless,’ Malachy mouthed, and drove away.
For some time a tin dragged noisily behind the car, connected by a plastic ribbon to the rear bumper — some fool kid’s idea of a joke. Presently it fell by the roadside, its lonely roll into the grass verge reflected in the rearview mirror.
* * *
It had been a turbulent week in the low country, marked by storms, hail and sudden, biting chills; the weekend’s forecast promised no respite. The perky-voiced weather girl had predicted rain, with snow to follow, and for once it seemed that Radio 4 was dead on target. The wide belt of heath and moor that separated Wales from Northern England lay frosted in a sheath of ice.
Before the car’s headlamps the land shimmered curiously, almost metallically. Malachy thought of smooth-bodied starships and chrome dials wreathed in a smoky, neon nimbus. He daydreamed of robots, too: iron arteries intertwined in a lattice of biological ineffability, fissures bleeding copper liquid like raw wet wounds.
Beside Malachy the wife fiddled the radio dial and found only static. Sighing, she asked, ‘Are you taking me to a cyborg brothel?’
Malachy shook his head. ‘I’d have to rewire you for that. Infidelity is rarely permitted by your type.’
‘Old faithfuls,’ Malachy explained. ‘It’s a programming tactic. Call it undying loyalty with a self-destruct twist. You’d blow up before giving a stranger a blow job.’
‘Christ,’ said the wife, looking restlessly out the window. ‘Every damn fool thinks he’s Pygmalion. I hate people. The greedy look in their eyes when they play God.’ The sexy lilt of her voice soured in mimicry. ‘“I, Dieu.”’
‘Well, you wouldn’t be here if you’d been correctly constructed-’
‘I’m not like the others,’ the wife replied haughtily. ‘My husband didn’t get tired of me. We just realised we weren’t compatible. I had my needs and he had his.’
In other words, Malachy thought, your entertainment value couldn’t offset the cost of your repairs. But that was terribly uncharitable of him. His mind flew immediately to the carpark farewell, memorised in sepia hues like an old photograph.
Fingers against the glass.
A subtext of glances.
This hobby, he mused, had made a cynic of him. But how could it not? All winter he’d chased advertisements like hers in the tabloid trade columns: New Home Needed For Second-Hand Bride. These days, robots were billed as the perfect partner: part sex toy, part servant, part faithful, doglike companion. Best of all, they were as disposable as paper bags.
So Malachy Memphis had embarked on his novel crusade: he saved unwanted androids from the junk heap and rewired them cheaply for new partners, a one-man dating service with a hundred percent turnaround.
What had motivated him? In part the money; his electrician job had been usurped, ironically, by artificial intelligences. In part, his idealistic, altruistic dreams; his was a unique brand of community service.
But primarily it was his own loneliness. Perhaps his empathy for the androids was misplaced: essentially they were mere machines, no more capable of emotion than any other household appliance. As a therapy, however, they proved invaluable. Like some lovelorn Gepetto, Malachy manufactured soulmates, finding vicarious fullfillment in each satisfied couple.
Over time, the job had matured into an obsession. He harboured a secret fascination for the fascinations of others. The perversions! The customisations! The mad, human husbands with their unrealistic desires! Even weirder than these were his regular encounters with android fakes: real men and women living out slave fantasies. It was a crazy psychology, prevalent amongst the abused and unloved.
Malachy considered these mental defectives a final confirmation that the robotic revolution was here to stay. People loved machines as much as — if not more than — they loved people.
And in this climate — political, spiritual, meteorological — who could blame them?
‘You’re a collector, then,’ said the wife, matter-of-factly. ‘You collect old wives.’
‘Yes. And husbands, sometimes.’
‘Are you queer?’
‘I don’t do it for sex.’ Annoyance, misdirected: he cursed the feeble efforts of the windscreen wipers. ‘I take them in. I find them new homes.’
‘Some kind of android philanthropist?’
‘It feels that way.’
The wife looked mildly amused for a second, before her expression slid back to the standard: bored, listless, sulky. ‘Abandoned robots don’t need white knights,’ she said. ‘They need garbage compactors. We should all be recycled into helpful household appliances. Toasters. Blenders. Microwaves. All the better to serve you.’
‘Is that what you really think?’ he asked. But of course it was. They wouldn’t have programmed her any other way.
The wife snorted. ‘You must think you’re special, Mr Memphis. The man who understood robots. But you don’t listen to us any more than the rest of them.’
Embarrassed, Malachy looked away. It was true: he often mistook or misheard things, had a habit of half-listening to the insistent warblings of mechanics. Long months of rewiring, welding, and reconstructing had numbed him to their voices, the way living by a construction site could mute a jackhammer’s rattle.
Now the microwave had to scream for hours to garner his attention; the phone rang unnoticed. And sometimes the words of his robot harem jumbled themselves, or doubled over in meaning like some complicated cipher, or were reduced in his mind to their most fundamental form, the unintelligible sparking of plastic-coated neurons...
He refocussed on the road with difficulty.
‘Break at the next truck-stop,’ the wife instructed. ‘I need to buy more smokes.’
* * *
Malachy peed in the external toilet while the wife bought her smokes. When he pushed open the door she was there, waiting for him. Overhead the guttering suddenly creaked and buckled. The wife stepped back just in time to avoid the deluge.
‘God, the rain!’ she said, and laughed, teetering precariously on her jelly legs.
The morning’s slow drizzle had become a downpour. A steady slew of droplets fountained from the toilet roof onto the concrete below. The distant thrum of thunder lent a bass timbre to the percussion of rain. Rivulets of rain spooled down the sheer plane of the metal door, twining and entangling like a mass of glossy scaled snakes.
‘I’m not an Old Faithful,’ she whispered. ‘Does that help?’
Malachy’s heart-beat pulsed the meaty furrows of his forehead. The wife leant against him, breathed conspiratorially in his ear.
‘Ever married, Mr Memphis? To animal or mineral?’
And Malachy Memphis thought of love, and lust, and the transformations of lonely things. Since the start of his crusade he had loved as voyeuristically and vicariously as a cupid; he had loved in construction, in practicality, in the fine print of fine-tuning. And it occurred to him at that moment — with her laugh in his ears, with the sky of this new android world rippling a seemly, steely gray — that Pygmalion perfection had always been in his grasp.
Break down love to its composite parts, he thought bitterly. Attraction, reaction, the body in traction. And what do you have, Malachy Memphis? What do you want? To fall into or to assemble?
He dredged up a smile from the ache inside of him. ‘No,’ he admitted, feeling clumsy and useless and hopelessly corporeal. ‘I guess I’m waiting for the right moment. And the right woman. My mother keeps telling me I’m due to get hitched.’
‘Aye, due,’ she agreed, eyes huge and serious in her tanned face.
He heard her.
Two minutes later he was blind-balling the crotch of her nylons, his body wracked with a unique and vicious lust, dignity sitting this one out, and she laughed at him again, pinioning his hips with one mock-skin thigh, and rolled away to expose the naked nerve center he’d seen in robot catalogues: warmer than warm, or colder than cold, rough or near-frictionless, sex reduced to a minutiae of specifications. I am living out another man’s sexual fantasy, Malachy thought,and just then it started to hail.
Later, in the car, he ran a hand over her back — a subtle grope for access to her controls — and was quietly surprised by what he found.
‘Don’t expect much,’ said the wife, lighting a cigarette. ‘I never did.’
When she looked away Malachy pressed his hand lightly to her soggy sleeve: an involuntary, compulsive motion.
She did not respond, did not notice.
Shame-faced he withdrew, wiping his fingers dry on the dashboard.
Dark clouds and gray earth scrolled listlessly by. Yawning, the wife wound down her window. As they drove back onto the highway she lit another cigarette, letting the smoke slowly waft from her nostrils.
Copyright © 2009 by R. J. Astruc