The Bushert family unwrapped the large package right there on the front step. It was far too large to fit through the door, and they were all far too eager to wait any longer.
Mr. Bushert cut the box open with his pocketknife, and the two little ones, Lena and Eric, opened the top flaps. They all peered inside, except for Mrs. Bushert, who stood by the door watching.
“It’s just a bunch of parts,” Eric said.
“Yes, we’ll have to put it together,” said Mr. Bushert.
“At least bring it inside first,” said Mrs. Bushert. She craned her head to look up and down the street, but none of the neighbors were out yet. The tiles on the solar-paneled roofs flashed in the bright morning light.
Once the box was broken down and the individual parts ferried inside by the children, Mr. Bushert sat down and opened the thick paperback manual that it came with. He called out directions to Eric and Lena, delegating them in the construction.
“That part goes on the other side, Eric,” he said. “Here Lena, this one’s next. We’re almost done.” It was taking shape now. Yes, that was obviously the torso. And there, this was where the head attaches.
The entire process took under thirty minutes. They stepped back from their handiwork, and there in the center of their modest living room stood a metal skeleton. Mr. Bushert took the dangling cord from its back and plugged it into the wall. Two dots of pale blue light pulsed faintly on the aluminum face.
“Robot,” Mr. Bushert said. “Do you have a name?”
The metal sphere tilted to the side with a sequence of micro adjustments. Mr. Bushert could see the chrome filaments moving like tendons with no covering of skin to hide their movement. The effect was alarmingly human. The android fixed its pale blue eyes on Mr. Bushert.
When it spoke its voice was flat and monotone. “I do not.”
Mr. Bushert looked down at the kids. “What do you want to name him?”
“Jerry!” Eric chimed.
“It’s time to move on from that, son,” Mr. Bushert said.
“I like Jerry too,” Lena said.
“I don’t want to be thinking about that cat all over again,” Mr. Bushert said. “It was enough trouble alive.”
“Oh, just let them, John,” Mrs. Bushert said. “What does it matter anyway?”
“Fine.” He threw up his hands in surrender and turned back to their newest family member.“You heard them,” he said. “Jerry it is.”
Jerry wasted no time in optimizing the life of the Bushert family. He conducted all of the grocery shopping for them, set them all individual diets that he kept track of, and did all the cooking and preparation. He watched Lena and Eric once a week so that Mr. and Mrs. bushert could have a date night, and even took the trash out to the curb without once being asked or commanded. It was all Mr. Bushert had wanted for his family and more.
And yet, not more than a month after Jerry entered into their home, Mr. Bushert began to feel that he was losing his place as head of the household. He’d been working overtime trying to motivate the dozens of recently hired temps to give a damn, and it was exhausting. By the time he was heading home the only thing on his mind was whether or not he needed to stop by the liquor store for another bottle of wine. Most of his dinners were usually fast food, or microwaved leftovers. For some reason Jerry never kept his food hot for him.
One night, Mr. Bushert decided to head home early enough to have a hot and fresh meal with his family. When he walked through the door, Jerry was sitting at his seat at the table. Lena and Eric were laughing with food in their mouths, and Mrs. Bushert was smiling.
“What’s so funny?,” Mr. Bushert said. They all turned at the sound of his voice. Lena and Eric went back to chewing their food.
“It was Jerry,” Mrs. Bushert said. “He made a joke.”
“Well, let’s hear it then, Jerry,” Mr. Bushert said.
“No,” the android answered. “It wouldn’t be funny anymore. I don’t think you would get it.”
“No, come on, tell me,” Mr. Bushert said, agitated now. “I love a good joke,”
Jerry turned in his chair and fixed those cold blue eyes on Mr. Bushert. “What do you get,” he said, “when you cross an android with a midget?”
“I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure ‘midget’ isn’t politically correct.”
“Would you like to know what you get?”
Mr. Bushert somehow managed to produce an expression utterly devoid of anything close to amusement.
“I told you you wouldn’t get it,” Jerry said, and turned back around.
Mr. Bushert didn’t respond. Instead, he took three beers from the fridge and began the long climb up to the second story, where he kept his home office in the old guest room.
The next weekend Mrs. Bushert took the children into the city to see the art museum. Mr. Bushert made an excuse about catching up on work, so it was just him and Jerry. Once they were gone Mr. Bushert turned the screen on to watch whatever college football teams were playing. He lounged in his sweatpants and sipped a cold can of lite beer, taking a well-deserved day off.
It was the bottom of the second quarter with four yards to go when Jerry interrupted. “Excuse me sir,” he said. “I’m detecting a small life form just outside the front door.”
“Huh?” Mr. Bushert stood up and went to see for himself. There, sitting calmly on the step, was an orange and white tabby, wild by the look of it, and near starved to death. It mewed at Mr. Bushert. He reached down to scratch under its chin.
“Can’t have you around here, little guy,” he said. “They’ll just want to keep you.” And without another word he scooped up the cat in his arms, closed the door behind him, and went to his car.
The scrawny tabby sat still while he drove out to the field. It was a familiar drive, and one that always had a calming effect on Mr. Bushert, who at times felt like the stress of the world got to him. Whenever he felt like his life was slipping through his fingertips like grains of sand, gazing out at the wide open country always relaxed him.
He pulled off to the side of one of the old county roads that ran out of town, and plucked the cat from the passenger’s seat by the scruff of its neck.
The clouds over the wide, flat horizon looked like fluffy, moving mountains as they crawled across the sky. Winter was coming, and the grass and underbrush were all dry and brown and gray. He held the cat in his arms, knelt down, and held it in place.
“You know you won’t make it out here,” he said to it. The cat looked up at him, but gave no answer.
In one swift motion Mr. Bushert broke the cat’s neck. It was a familiar feeling, almost like popping the tab on a beer can, and the satisfying pop gave him the same sense f relief that it always did.
He left the dead body of the cat there in the dying weeds, climbed back into his car, and drove home. He didn’t think much of it. It was only a cat, after all.
When he opened the door to his home, Jerry was waiting for him.
“Where is the cat?” he asked.
“Took it out to the wild. It won’t come back.” Mr. Bushert was already moving to the fridge for another beer.
“Incorrect,” Jerry said.
Mr. Bushert came back with his beer and cracked it open with a pop. “What was that?”
“Do you know what you get,” Jerry said. “When you cross a dead cat with a lying father?”
Mr. Bushert’s hand tightened on the can, and cold beer trickled down from his wrist to the floor. “What,” he said through gritted teeth.
“One sad, sad, man.”
The full can of beer struck Jerry in the head. Then Mr. Bushert was on him, beating into those cold blue eyes with both of his fists. He didn’t get far before his hands started to ache. Jerry didn’t try to resist, not even when Mr. Bushert reached back to the cord that connected to his mainframe.
The rest of the family walked in just in time to see the end of it. Mr. Bushert there, sweating and breathing heavily over the gift of convenience and companionship he’d gotten for them.
All because they’d been so torn up about that damn cat.