Fritz couldn’t draw his self-portrait in crayon. Not unless they made a color called “liver” to match the spots that dappled his thin and aging skin. Seafoam might work for the obvious and pliable veins that shone through like some anatomical model, but the electric white of his sporadic hair wouldn’t even show up on paper. Not that anybody used paper anymore. Or crayons.
He glanced away from the back of his decrepit hand in disgust, focusing instead on the immaculate and voluptuous young woman forcing his weak arm through the sleeve of a threadbare shirt at the bedside. Erma.
She wore natural trousers that clung to her ample backside, stacking ineffability on top of perfection. Her face, free of the finest of lines and wrinkles, broadcast an unattainable air of apathy.
“The sweater, too,” he said after his shirt was on.
“No,” she replied. “It’s ancient and pilling all over the place. Besides, it’s too hot for a sweater.”
“I like it warm in the morning.”
“You like it warm all the time, old man.”
A small sting, but more than enough to crush his token resistance. Oblivious to her victory, Erma slipped a pair of sensible, elastic-waisted bottoms onto him and then transferred him to his mobility chair with a dispassionate hug. Fritz savored the contact, hollow as it was.
Her task complete, Erma sashayed to the bedroom door. Fritz watched her go, licking his chapped lips with a dry tongue, forgiving her insouciance in a quick uptake of breath. There was no outlet for his desire, but it was still there, even after all this time. She looked like she had twenty-two years, if that. They’d been married for seventy.
And then he was alone, blanketed in the quiet fug of his own making. Antiquated paper books on sagging shelves insinuated their musty potpourri into every available surface. An unintegrated mobile that hadn’t rung in twenty years wallowed on the bedside table. Three pairs of archaic eyeglasses waited for him on a desk of scattered miscellany. He panicked for a moment before finding the fourth, his favorite, already on his head.
After mustering the motivation, he rolled out of his homey cave and found Erma sprawled across the lounge in her own bedroom, a cold and minimalist wasteland echoed by the rest of the flat. She was on the phone, yapping away at the integrated hardware embedded in her palm.
“Who was that?” he asked after she’d hung up.
Her smile vanished. “Gabor,” she said. “From work.”
“Have I heard of him before?”
“Who can keep up?” she asked. “Here.” She held her palm in front of his face, showcasing a photo.
“Not so close,” he said, leaning back until it came into focus.
It was a man, Slavic, with thick, healthy hair and tasteful liner accentuating his eyes. He looked to be mirroring at about twenty-five.
“How many years does he have?” Fritz asked.
“One hundred thirty.”
“Ooh. An older man.”
Erma uttered a noncommittal grunt.
He studied the photo some more. “When was this taken?”
“The work-only party?”
“Then why is there a child on the edge of the frame?”
“Don’t be a bore, Fritz,” she said, returning the hand to her porcelain cheek. A grin, concealed too late, flashed across her rosy lips. “That reminds me. I have a Safety Committee meeting tonight.”
“Can I come too? I could use some fresh air…”
“Sorry, my dear, meeting’s at a second floor walk up. Maybe next time.”
His jaw tightened. “Is He going to be there?”
“Who? Gabor?” she asked with a yawn. “Probably.”
“Are you two sleeping together?”
“Honestly, Fritz, what kind of question is that? Of course we’re sleeping together.” The grin returned. “Amongst other things.”
His head sank. “I wish you knew how bad that hurts me.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is,” she said, inspecting her lustrous hair for split ends. “I haven’t left you. Everyone says I’m an angel for everything I do for you. That I deserve something for myself. Even your mother.”
“She probably just feels guilty for how she treated my father.”
Erma stood up. “I don’t have time for this,” she said. “So the treatment didn’t work on you two. You age. So what? We all have problems.” She glided out of the room.
“And what are your problems?” Fritz asked, chasing her into the hallway. “Herpes?”
She stopped at the front closet and opened the door. An electronic melody chimed from within. “Herpes has been eradicated for decades, old man,” she said. “And I’m not going to debate my love life with you.”
Servos whirred and The Thing staggered out of the closet beside her.
Fritz stopped. “No,” he said. “Put it back.”
“You need help,” she said. “Chemise can’t take care of you until she’s healed and presentable again, so Helping Hans will have to do in the meantime.”
“I’ll be fine on my own.”
“Don’t talk so stupid. What if you fall again?”
Fritz sighed. “Fine. But I’m not calling it that.”
“What? Helping Hans?”
A digital manifestation of a smiling face illuminated on The Thing’s facial display.
“Does someone need a Helping Hans?” The Thing asked in an earnest, mechanical voice.
Erma pointed at Fritz. “There’s your man,” she said.
The Thing pivoted on its rickety legs and staggered toward Fritz. “Greetings, Chemise Beauregard,” it said.
Fritz glared at his wife. “Tell me again why we settled for a secondhand robot?”
“Because Chemise charged a lot less to reprogram her RehaBot than the price of a premium rental,” she replied, strutting to the front door and inspecting herself in the mirror beside it. “We’re on a budget, silly. A cleft in my chin isn’t going to pay for itself.”