Delphi, Voice From the Cloud
by Charles David Taylor
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Harry brought the box in from the porch and dropped it on the kitchen table.
“What is it?” asked Maude, frowning. They never ordered anything.
Harry shrugged. “Derned if I know.” He tore off the label and examined the receipt.
“From Bill of course.” He sighed. “’Nother expensive what-not we don’t need.” He could have added, ‘always trying to show us up,’ but between them such a pronouncement was unnecessary. Harry’s successful, urbanized younger brother often sent presents to taunt his small-town older brother and farm-raised wife. He liked to tease them about joining the twenty-first century, which so far they had successfully resisted.
Harry opened the box with his pocketknife and removed another, fancier box. Huge letters proclaimed “The Delphi” and, in smaller script, “Voice from the Cloud.”
Maude squinted. “Some kind of computer thing.” She looked at her husband. “Best get Harold in here to figure it out.”
Harry turned toward the door just off the kitchen and shouted. “Boy!”
Harry pounded on the door. “Get out here, boy! Now!”
A minute passed before a fifteen-year-old male emerged, bleary-eyed, clad only in boxer shorts. He scratched his scrawny bare belly and blinked at his father. “What?” he rasped.
“You tell me,” Harry said. “Some kinda computer thing your uncle done give us.”
Harold had been up all night playing Doom, partnered online with best bud AJ, until AJ disappeared from the Martian field of battle, no doubt forced to bed by his watchful parents. Harold had soldiered on across the reddish hellscape, singlehandedly achieving dozens of glory kills. He’d finally crashed just before dawn, earthtime. After such a brilliant performance, surely he’d earned the right to sleep in on a Saturday morning.
He took one look at the box and was wide awake. “Cool!” He ripped it open and lifted out a tall, black cylinder. Both parents backed away, as though the thing might explode.
Maude shook her head. “Be careful, Harold.” But Harold had already plugged in the device and was connecting it to their home — actually Harold’s — wi-fi network. Strange tones emanated from the tube.
His father was impatient. “Well? What the heck is it?”
Bitter experience had taught Harold to tread carefully. The device could easily meet the same fate as the computer uncle Bill had given them when Harold was eight. Harry had promptly repacked and returned it as a useless gadget, and for three long years they ignored Harold’s pleas and tantrums for a replacement. Finally a young church deacon and Harold’s science teacher intervened, both impressed with Harold’s talent. Only then did a grumbling Harry make the trip to Walmart to buy the cheapest machine available.
Harold took a deep breath and let out a sigh. “Okay, it uses voice control and artificial intelligence...” His mother’s deepening frown told him he was off on the wrong foot, as did his father’s outburst. “That don’t mean nothing to me. What’s it for? What’s it do?”
Time for a demonstration. “It’s got speakers and microphones in it. You control it with your voice. Listen.”
Harold cleared his throat. “Delphi, what time is it?”
A blue light circled the top of the cylinder, and a gentle but authoritative female voice said, “The time is eight forty-seven a.m.”
Maude glanced at the wall clock. “Well, I ’swan.” Harold grinned. He knew he’d made an impression when his mother used an expression from the farm.
Harry, though, was not impressed. “Three clocks in the house and we all got watches. She talks. So what?”
Harold found a little card in the box with suggestions. “Delphi, what’s the local weather forecast?”
“In Wellington, Kansas, there is a forty per cent chance of rain this afternoon and evening, and possibly heavy downpours. The high will be sixty-three degrees, low tonight forty-seven.”
“We need the rain,” said his mother, glancing at her husband.
Harry was still unmoved. “I read the same thing in the paper this morning.”
Harold patiently showed them how to play music, make a shopping list, ask for the time, the weather, a news briefing, but they had a rebuttal for everything. The news was surely from the liberal media, the sports scores were in the paper and on TV, and neither had any use for the dictionary or Wikipedia. Maude liked keeping her shopping lists on three-by-five cards. “Got a bunch left and no need to change.”
Harold desperately wanted to keep the Delphi, but he was losing ground. His parents were suspicious, even a bit afraid, of this strange device that listened, understood and talked back. In his room, Harold scrolled through the Delphi website for an app they might find useful.
His mother called to him. “Harold, you want breakfast before your father and I go to church?” That gave him an idea, and sure enough, there was an app for it. From his computer, he loaded “Scriptures to Live By” just as his mother called him to eat.
At the table he said, “Delphi, quote some scripture.”
It was a third-party app, so she spoke with a new voice, the sonorous tones of a male preacher, backed by subtle organ music.
“Psalm 27, verse 4 tells us: One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.”
Harold turned to his parents, but there was no need to ask. Harry had that faraway look, and Maude’s eyes glistened with tears.
“Blessed be the name of the Lord,” she sniffed.
“Amen,” they all said in unison.
Delphi could stay.
Harold silently congratulated himself as he wolfed down his bacon and eggs. The Church of New Life and the Blessed Redeemer permeated every aspect of his parents’ lives. In one stroke, he had transformed the Delphi from a useless gadget into a divine instrument of the Lord.
Harold drained his orange juice. “I’m going over to AJ’s for a while. We got homework.” It was his usual excuse, although even his parents saw through it.
“Whoa there, son. Not till you mow the grass,” barked his father. “Remember what your girlfriend Delphinnie said — forty per cent chance of rain.” Harold nodded at his father’s wink. If he kept his part of the deal, his parents would keep theirs. Better mowing the lawn than spending all day at church.
* * *
The following Monday, the bottom fell out of Harold’s world. Police appeared unannounced at the high school with a frantic German Shepherd that raced through the halls. On the second floor it stopped abruptly, circling and barking at Harold’s locker. Inside, in his jacket pocket, they found two tightly-rolled joints.
Harold had brought them for Jess Magruder and met him at Jess’s car before the first bell. Jess said he’d “forgotten” his money but would pay later. Harold had been through this before with Jess and wasn’t about to put up with it. He stuck the joints back in his jacket and, fatally, forgot about them.
Because he was a good student and it was his first offense, he was let off with a month-long suspension, mandatory counseling and six months after-school community service. The real problem, of course, descended when he came home.
Despite their strict religious beliefs, Maude and Harry had always given their son considerable leeway in managing his personal affairs. His grades were excellent, his teachers praised his quick mind and bright future, and he never made waves like many kids his age. Neither parent had been to college, and they were proud, even in awe, of their only child’s academic prowess.
From Harold’s perspective, it was a fair exchange: he would attend Sunday morning services and do his chores, and they would leave him alone with no expectation to attend church four or five times a week, as they did. School was easy, so he had plenty of time to play Doom and run his distribution business, which had enabled him to buy more games and apps, install a fast internet connection, and secretly upgrade the pitifully underpowered Walmart box into a killer game machine.
So it was with shock and horror that Harry and Maude took the call from the assistant principal. Both left work early and met with their young pastor, Brother Grainger, to pray for guidance. Gently, and then sternly, Grainger pointed out how their lack of strictness had allowed the devil to work his way into their son’s life. He showed them in the Bible what had to be done. They wept and prayed throughout the afternoon and came home feeling as though this were a test; at stake was their and Harold’s immortal souls, not to mention their standing in the church.
* * *
Harold slouched on a chair across from his parents, while they sat on the edge of the couch. His mother wept and wiped her nose with a tissue while his father, Bible on his lap, stared at his son, his strong hands knotted into fists. Harold gazed at the wall, avoiding their eyes.
With typical adolescent callowness, Harold said absolutely the wrong thing. “It was only a couple joints. Gimme a break.”
His mother gasped, and his father startled, as though he’d been slapped.
Harry forced himself to speak calmly, his voice unusually hard. “Harold, the Bible is very clear on this. Proverbs 13, verse 24.” He turned to his wife. “Right, Mother?”
She nodded. With a wavering voice she quoted the fateful verse. “He that spareth the rod hateth his son; but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”
Harry spoke with grim determination. “You know what ‘chasten’ means, don’t you son?”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Harold carelessly. He was looking at the ceiling. “It means give me a hard time. Chew me out. Like you’re doing now.” He was resigned but trying to act casual. Nothing was working for him today.
“It’s more than that, son. We’ve prayed about it with Brother Grainger. We love you, so we won’t spare the rod. Right, Mother?”
Harold looked down from the ceiling and blinked at his father’s steely gaze. His mother had stopped crying and was nodding assent. Cold fear clenched his gut. He hadn’t had a spanking since he was what, eight or nine? They couldn’t mean it, could they?
Harold began to understand that he had lost touch with his parents. Their involvement with the church and their fear of God had taken a hard turn over the past year. Young Brother Grainger had recently replaced kindly old Brother Brown, whose soft-spoken messages of love and goodness often put many in the congregation to sleep. Grainger was determined to bring about a spiritual awakening, and his approach was old-school shock and awe. His sermons began calmly but swelled with skillful histrionics into a furious crescendo. His words energized the faithful, and the services ended with the aisles crowded with weeping parishioners eager to rededicate their lives to Christ.
Harold, who always sat slumped in a back pew to hide his surreptitious texting, had ignored the rising passion as so much noise. Now, he began to understand the seriousness of their belief, how the delicate stalemate between him and his parents had been shattered.
“You got to be kidding,” said Harold. He stared as his father and mother rose in unison.
“We love you, Harold,” said his mother.
Harry, who manhandled heavy freight on and off trucks all day at the John Deere loading dock, was very strong. Harold was a skinny, awkward kid who did as little physically as possible. It was no contest as the father grabbed his son’s arm and marched him through the kitchen, past the silent Delphi and into the garage. Maude followed, her jaw set and her gentle heart hardened in obedience to the Lord.
The cars had been backed out, and the garage door was closed. A single overhead bulb cast dark shadows among the junk piled against the walls.
“You’re not really going to do this, are you?” Harold’s voice had weakened to a squawk. The world had taken on a weird surreality, as though he’d suddenly found himself at a scary new level in Doom’s gloomy landscape.
“Take off your shirt and pants,” said Harry. Maude averted her eyes as Harold undid his belt with shaking hands, then unzipped and dropped his jeans.
“Shorts too,” said Harry. He was holding a thin cane pole. “And lie down on the floor.”
As he knelt, he had a random thought: but it’s dirty. When he was prone, limbs splayed, he picked his dusty, old bicycle out of the dimness. He hadn’t ridden it in years, and he noticed the tires were deflated. Then all thought vanished in a vortex of excruciating pain.
Stroke after stroke after stroke, the beating continued for perhaps fifteen minutes. The first pole broke, but Maude was ready and handed Harry a spare so promptly there was hardly an interruption in the rhythm. As the welts appeared, Maude began crying again but her sniffs were drowned out by Harold’s wailing. He pleaded for his father to stop, for his mother to intervene, and when he tried to turn over, his mother moved quickly to hold him down with surprising strength.
After an eternity, it stopped. “That’s a hundred,” said Harry, panting.
“We love you, son,” said Maude as they went back into the house.
Harold lay there for an eternity. His legs and back and buttocks were so aflame that he feared they’d lost their function. Indeed, his limbs shook as he pulled himself to his knees. He could not bear to don his shirt or pants, so he covered his genitals with the wadded clothes and stumbled to his room. He lay face down on his bed and fell asleep.
Copyright © 2020 by Charles David Taylor