by Nancy Kay Brown
"Doot-doot-doot-doot, Ta, Do. Charge!" I awaken each day with the expectation I will be adequately fed and safe and like to believe I have control of my somewhat coddled domain. After switching on my thermostatically-controlled teakettle, I call out across the room to my music device, "Play pre-selected list — set one." Waste espresso from the slotted catch basin of the coffee-making device on the counter sloshes onto my sweats. Damn. I hope this is the worse thing that happens all day. I pull off my pants and throw them into a basin of cold water with a scoop of oxygen-powered stain remover. They sizzle and fizz as "Stairway to Heaven" gains intensity and volume in the first of three building segments. The soda, ash and peroxide brew lift the stain, leaving the cotton and natural dyes in tact. Hot water over tea bag, careful now, I walk to the deck to greet the hermit thrush complaining at the empty watering hole. Wearing my shirt and panties, the sun warms my thighs as I reach to manually fill the birdbaths, surrounded by trees and birds, I pause to stretch and appreciate. Life wasn't always like this. I used to clean pools, houses, and paint bathrooms. I wiped noses, then became a teacher and found my acquired skills essential perquisites.
Listening to the distant hiss of water on the patio, I pat myself on the backside aware that because of me, efficiency and economy are at work as I ready myself for another day of chores. The low hum of the floor cleaner sucks me back inside. I used to believe that this automated floor sweeper could manage the house on its own, but after a couple of disappointing performances, I found it's best to join in. Cleaning became a team sport, I remind myself, abandoning my cup on the railing. Or the outcome disappoints.
The cleaner bucks as she backs away from her base, wheels turning, motor buzzing and scooting on as if she knows where she's going. The miniature housekeeping assistant I call "Rosie" keeps her nose to the ground while I handle everything above. A few years back I got my first dishwasher, never named it, not the washer, dryer, the on-demand water heater, or the ceiling fan. My music player came with an assigned name — Alexa. Rosie got a name because she appears to have her own ideas, some direction, is most often cooperative as she ambles through the house independently, picking up dust, hair, sand and other small debris — anything resembling those items — food particles, crumbs, dead insects, rodent droppings. After Rosie moves on to another room I scan the floors and under the couch and beds picking up the remaining cache of dog balls, toy, twist ties, and receipts left behind, things that we'd left behind, too. I can't possibly leave her to work on her own or the job doesn't get finished. It's like assigning a job to a child (or a help mate) — let them do it, recognize the effort, then when they have left the room, sneak in to get the spots they missed. Besides, it's fun to race around with Rosie.
She charges off in one direction one session and a different the next, her movements random. I surface clean along shelves, dressers, cabinets moving ahead of her as she tackles the dust bunnies under the bed. I award her points for fly carcasses and moths — things I'd rather not deal with. She takes herself to the sidelines when her wheels jam with hair or she chokes on gag-me sized wads of dust. I swish the brush in each toilet, spray and wipe down the tubs, shower, and sinks, and wipe away the window and wall smudges. Rosie plays dirty. What is dust made of anyway? This possible potpourri of hair, soil, skin, insect parts, pet hair, and lint is well managed with a robotic appliance. Rosie doesn't care what things are made of as she manages the properly-sized dirt and dust without prejudice. I try not to think about what she gathers, as I hold a napkin to my nose and mouth and tap out her overflowing bin.
BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. Rosie is jammed under the lowest part of the couch. She repeats, "Change location" and when running low on energy, I push a button on the top and she rolls herself to her base, dutifully beeping the entire way back to the corner — a dog with a tail between its legs — "Down, Rosie. Stay." She backs in and out several times until successfully docked and tightly seated—in self-charging mode.
I imagine an ad for this device — one may already exist, but I don't watch TV ads. In my ad, a housekeeper heads out for a day on the job, closing the door and leaving her cleaning device to its own devices (sorry for that). The machine ambles around her house randomly zigging and zagging across various surfaces — carpet, tile, linoleum, and wood flooring. When she stops to charge herself radiant sparkle lines appear above the kitchen floor. The woman in my ad has left her home in the care of a robot while she goes off to care for others. This portion of the ad reflects the residual guilt I carry having left my children to spend my days with other peoples' children. The independent little self-activated cleaning machine cleans the floors in the housekeeper's absence, with only the cat to witness this miracle of modern life. A chase scene might add humor and a little drama, one in which I see tiny script threading across the screen saying, "No animals were harmed making this ad."
Back at my house I stick close, cleaning around Rosie, witnessing each steal, swipe and dribble, offering play-by-play commentary, guiding her as needed. I call out like a dutiful coach, "Go, Clean Team." Rag and dustpan in hand I wait for a signal, a call for an assist, a carry to the sidelines. I run in for a save; spinning her rubber wheels backward to untangle wads of hair, empty her bin, block her from heading onto the freshly mopped bathroom floor. I can't bear watching her miss those grains of sand under the shoe bench multiple times, pass by the same dust bunny. So I run interference.
I put my foot out as an obstacle. She bumps and turns. She turns again and heads in the right direction, but then, no, she swivels away just before she reaches the sand. "Error, error," I call out. Running up in front of her, I come in for a slide to impede her progress with stocking foot, turn her around, bump turn, bump turn, her little brushes twirl, her roller squeals and she sucks up the targeted sand. I squeal too — with delight — throw up my hands and shout, "Go back, Rosie, more, more, there's more. Bring it on, Rosie."
When she misses another critical area along the door jamb, heading off in a random bump-turn cycle, I shake my head in dismay then bump-dribble her round body, bumpers all around, back to the task — side block, other side, first side, block and let her do what she mastered in practice, parallel to the jamb, flicking, sucking, and devouring all the flaky silted grime accumulated over the past week. Goodbye, exoskeletons and mandibles. Keep it real, clean up, and get the job done. I am an admirer, her enabler, zone defense guard. Then pushing the button, "Dock," I send her home, victorious, take a victory lap around the house with my damp mop and bottle of natural and organic fruit and nut compound to polish and shine every surface Rosie readied for its final sheen.
It's as if the children had never played in the sand, as if the dog hadn't shaken the moment she walked in through the door, as if my husband had remembered to remove his shoes on the porch, had never dropped that forkful of peas. It's as if it is only us — me and Rosie and our tidy house. I see the sparkle lines and hear the tinkle of magical bells. Another raucous game goes down in history. Go, Rosie. Go Team. Before I hop in the shower, I check the sprinklers that will have reached the fifth and final zone, a two-minute dribble every other day for the bedding plants. I am a team manager, served by technology, for the home team, the boss.
I see in the mirror that I am still wearing my undies and a t-shirt — maybe it will be our team uniform. I stop myself from turning back to show Rosie. Silly. Maybe in her next version, Rosie 2.0, she'll detect motion, acknowledge me, call fouls, giggle at my shenanigans, say my name. Or maybe she'll fill the birdbaths, drive the kids to school, and tell jokes. No, jokes are one of Alexa's jobs.
"Alexa. Why did the chicken cross the road?"
"I don't know," she responds, "maybe there was some tasty grain on the other side."
Or maybe she wanted to play soccer with her robot.
This piece, originally titled "Soccer with Robot" is a stand-alone selection from Nancy Kay Brown's Grand Mommy, a yet-to-be published memoir in which a mother struggles to rekindle her love for a deeply flawed adult son as she has custody of his two young children. Nancy has also published works in Brain, Child, self-published homemade books for her grandchildren under the name gmabrown, and published a short story, "Burn Pile," in a collection called Fishing for Chickens by Jim Heynen. Nancy has a degree in English and a Master's Degree in Early Childhood Education/Special Education. Letters To Montana has gathered a crowded living room of readers since 2008.