Coffee, Robots, and Walt Whitman
This is the biggest crisis in the history of the world: I’ve got to write three pages on Walt Whitman’s influence on the literary world for my AP English class and all my dad cares about is looking good for his dumb date with dumb Debbie Walsh’s dumb mom. I don’t even remember her name. All I know is that she has huge cans — bigger than any cans I’ve ever seen. Is that what men like? When I get old as dirt like my dad, am I just going to care about how big a woman’s boobs are? God, another reason to die before I turn eighteen.
Look at that little blinking line on my computer, taunting me. At least I have a badass title for my report: Walt Whitman: A Man
No, that’s no good. I got it: Walt Whitman: The Man
Character count increased, just like that. Wait, it’s about pages, not character count. No worries, I can stretch this out with 16 point font, all bold, and double-spaced. Ms. White will never know the difference. Man, I wish my dad were trying to date her, then I wouldn’t have to write these stupid reports.
Walt Whitman was a man. A poet man. A good poet man. He wrote: Leaves of Grass, O Captain My Captain, and When the Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, amongst other notable works that I won’t note here. He…was…considered…the…fath—
—Oh shit. I fell asleep. For two hours! Dad’s gone and I need coffee.
Oh shit, we’re out of coffee. I’ll have to drive to that dumb coffee shop. Wait, dad might be there on his dumb date. I’ll drive to that even dumber coffee shop. Alright, time to blare my music so loudly that I couldn’t possibly fall asleep and get massive amounts of caffeine in my system.
Sweet, no line, “hi, I’d like a drink.”
“You want to be more specific?”
“Uh…can I have a double-shot Frappuccino with extra whip.”
“Really? It’s like eight-o-clock. You’ll be up all night. You sure your parents will let you have that much sugar and caffeine this late?”
Who the fuck is she to talk to me like that? “Excuse me, ma’am, but I’m twenty-five and I don’t appreciate your condescending remarks. Just make my damn drink.”
“Twenty-five. Sure. One double-shot Frappuccino with extra whip, coming up.” She’s giving a weird nod to the other baristas. I’m guessing my whole “I’m twenty-five” act wasn’t convincing. Regardless, I’m not here to convince people that I’m an adult. I’m here to get a pick-me-up which consists of ridiculous amounts of sugar and caffeine, and get the hell out of here so I can write that stupid paper. Why did I wait so long to do this assignment?
“One super adult Frappuccino for a super adult.”
Wow, this thing is good. I’ve almost finished it and I’m not even home yet. And it’s only a ten minute drive! Let me take a moment to enjoy the full moon before I hunker down and write about this dead bearded guy who apparently made humanity better. Although, I don’t know how, exactly. Why does something so easy as putting a bunch of dumb words together make someone so famous? Not like they’re doing anything important like curing cancer or dropping a new hit single. Most of this guy’s stuff doesn’t even rhyme half the time. At least Drake knows how to rhyme.
One and a half pages down, one and a half to go. Maybe I can go on a bit more about his big beard. His big white old man beard. That’s going to be me some day — a big old beard. Hah. That’d be amazing. I’d look like a skinny Santa. Whitman died in 1892. What a funny concept, death. One moment, you’re alive and aware, thinking and feeling. The next, you’re nothing. Your existence is snuffed out like a candle being extinguished.
Why do computers have blinking lines when you type? Wait, did it just jump onto the desk? It’s standing up? Is—Is it dancing? What a nice jig. Now the shapes that it makes are turning into letters, and those letters are becoming words. All at my thought. I think a word, and the blinking line cursor dances the word into fruition. What fun!
Now the blinking line is motioning. It’s pointing to the window! Which is currently swelling like a balloon. The window-balloon is turning into something…what is that? A snake? It’s a dragon! What a nice dragon. It looks like that dragon is glowing. Wait, it’s trying to breathe fire on me. What just happened? The dragon was just turned to ash.
My recently blurred vision focuses on a stranger. Someone who doesn’t belong in my house, “Excuse me?”
A thin, old man, with a thick white Santa beard, wearing a mechanic’s jumpsuit scowls down at me in typical old man fashion, “It’s not ash. It’s sand. I turned that bottom feeder to sand.”
“Who are you? How did you get in here?”
“I’ve always been here. And I was never here.”
“That makes no sense.”
“I wouldn’t expect some carbo with limited dimensions to understand.”
I should tear this geriatric a new one, but I just started reading a book about deescalating tense situations and the number one tip is to, no matter what, be as kind as possible because you never know where someone is coming from or what their day has been like. I wish my AP English class would make us read more books about life and less books about people getting their jollies from leaves and grass. “Help me understand, then.”
I can see the thoughts tick in his head as the old man’s scowl shifts toward confusion and surprise. He wags his finger in an empty gesture, then, reading the same words in the air that I am reading, he wags it again with a weight of understanding. “You’re different. You can see it.”
“The language of the universe.”
Those words that the blinking line cursor made. That must be what he’s talking about.
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about, numbskull!”
I squint to make out the embroidered letters on his jumpsuit, “Look…Jeb. Instead of constantly insulting me for not being as smart as you, how about you educate me. You adults are all the same. You hold the keys to the kingdom and love jingling them in front of all the kids rather than open the gates.”
“I don’t understand how a being so primitive could still possess wisdom. Really messes with my plans.”
“The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.”
“Ah, Robert Burns.”
“Yeah! We just got through him and the other great Romantic poets. I like that a lot more than this Walt Whitman free verse stuff where punctuation doesn’t matter and a sentence is near random.”
Jeb inspects a painting on the wall and clicks his tongue. “That’s not what Walt Whitman is about, boy. Whitman is about freedom and caring for one another. He’s about that spiritual stream of consciousness that all you humans tend to repress. Whitman was a cloud and a wind that your rigid ancestors trapped in a jar.”
What the hell is this guy on about? “I’m not sure what anything you just said means, but what do you mean by ‘you humans?’ Are you not human?”
Jeb holds his waist and smirks, “guess the cat’s out of the box.”
“The phrase is, ‘cat’s out of the bag.’”
“Well, anyway, it’s out. I’m not human. What do you think of that, boy?”
“So, if you’re an alien, why is being in my house so important?”
Jeb looks through the wall and spins his finger in a cone. “You might want to move out of the way, boy.”
I don’t know what’s about to happen, but I’m sure that’s good advice. I take a few steps back and stand beside him, waiting.
The old mechanic puts his fingers through his thick nest of a white beard and to his lips so that he can whistle at the wall. The whole house quakes. Dust from the ceiling lands on my nose. I almost sneeze, but dare not embarrass myself in front of Jeb. The shaking is interrupted by a deep, hammer-like pounding. One. Two. Three. Pictures fall off the wall. Four. Five. Six. It gets louder. Heavier. Seven. Eight. Nine. Jeb stares at the wall as it cracks and those cracks grow and branch. Ten. The wall bursts open. Countless metal contraptions spill into the office and make their way over to my dark room, destroying furniture and walls and anything else that gets in their way.
The chrome beasts stop on a dime. Then move up and stop, and move, and so on. Destruction and order in the same second. They’ve formed an endless line that efficiently edges forward like a beat timed to the final step of a metronome. What the hell is going on?
I start to ask, “What—“
Jeb interrupts, already knowing what I’m going to ask him with his stupid mind reading powers, “They’re cattle.”
“They’re cattle. And your room over there is a neutrino watering hole. My herd needs to stop and get a drink here on our way to the Crab Trade Show. And my mind reading powers aren’t stupid.”
“A neutrino is a—“
“Can you stop interrupting me?”
Jeb sighs, “Why can’t you just think about what you want to say, and then I can think it back?”
“You and your kind may be used to used to telepathic communication, but I’m not.”
“Oh, that’s right. You’re all a bunch of dumb apes.”
Before he can instinctively interrupt me again, I ask, “And what are you?”
“What am I?” Jeb spreads his arms out like he’s about to be nailed to a cross. But I see that there’s no way that could possibly happen. His arms and legs and core slowly unravel and expand. Jeb becomes a cloud, preserving the color of his navy jumpsuit but not its shape or texture.
“You evolved from…fog?”
Speaking out from nowhere and everywhere at the same time with a flicker of light at his core, “We are gaseous beings.”
“Venus. We’re from Venus.” Jeb puts himself back together, “Sorry. Last time, I promise.”
We watch the machines move and stop. “So, the robots feed on neutrinos, which are in my room.”
“Yes. Neutrinos are subatomic particles. The cattle feed on may other types of particles but neutrinos are their favorite. A neutrino to them is like a burrito to you.”
I can’t help but snort a chuckle as I think about a neutrino burrito. That thought is interrupted as the tinny sound of thick metal being twisted and split open rings in my ears. “What was that?”
“Something we thought we got rid of on the way here. Something we should be afraid of. It’s a barnacle.”
A large horn breaches the sea of machines. The beast that owns it collapses its massive triangular jaw down on a robot. It’s a predator, tossing them around and feeding on them like a wolf in a crowded pen of sheep.
“Hurry, boy. You must slay the barnacle.”
“With what?! It’s built like a tank.”
“Only one thing can slay the barnacle. The Great Sword of Mars, forged by Vulcan in the fires of the sun.”
“Wait, I remember reading about Mars and Vulcan last week in AP history.”
Jeb touches my arm. “We’ve been training you for this moment. You’re the only one that can help us. That can help them.” He gestures out toward the robots, who have scattered in all directions. The barnacle eats the nut-and-bolt guts of fallen machines. Dead androids. The beast reminds me of a rhinoceros but with a purple-blue-green oily sheen to its thick, leathery skin. It glares up at me with the cold efficiency of a killer.
“Hurry boy. You know what to do. Get the sword and save the solar system.”
Where would this sword be? Just as I ask myself, a projection of the kitchen enters my mind. The silverware drawer opens for me on its own accord, stretching longer than it ever could before. The silverware tray now with forks, spoons, knives, chopsticks, and between them all: a crossed slot that perfectly fits the single sword resting in it. Pulling that huge thing out takes effort. It’s heavy. I don’t know how to handle it. Now come more brain projections. It’s Jeb. He teaches me in an instant what would normally take decades to learn. Sword techniques, weaknesses in the barnacle’s anatomy, defensive positions — it all floods my head and down into my muscle memory.
“It’s now or never, boy. Slay the barnacle!”
I lunge forward and plunge my blade directly into the beast. It returns the favor, flipping me around against the wall with his horn. As my consciousness fades, I see the barnacle’s blood pool around it. Its marble eyes well with tears.
“Why?” The barnacle whispers to me.
I didn’t know the barnacle could speak, but it doesn’t matter. I’ve done my job. I’ve saved the solar system, and now I am tired. It’s time for me to rest.
I awaken in a white room. I’m in the company of machines again. These ones are hard at work, beeping communications of my vitals, dripping nutrients and drugs directly into my veins through tubes and needles, providing me with electrically generated warmth. I understand them a lot better now, the machines.
“He’s awake. Get the doctor,” someone says, walking out before I can get a look at them.
A woman in a white frock and her hair in a bun enters the room. She transactionally asks how I’m feeling as she shines a light into my eyes without my consent.
“Good. Confused. What happened to the barnacle? Did Jeb and the machines make it out alright?”
She furrows her brow for a moment, then blinks back to normalcy, “What’s the last thing you remember before passing out?”
I tell the doctor everything that happened. I explain Jeb, the robots, the barnacle, then she tells me the reality of it all. How my dad came home after his date. How I was shouting nonsense at him. How I went to the kitchen and grabbed a knife, then plunged it into his shoulder. How he punched me out of defense. Hard. So hard I hit the wall and sustained a concussion and passed out. How traces of a new drug were found in my system.
Two men with badges hanging around their necks come into the room toward the tail end of the doctor catching me up on the lively evening that I had. They have questions for me. I swear up and down that I’m not some junkie and I can tell that they’re fighting their instincts to make an effort to believe me. They ask me if I went out anywhere before I started hallucinating. I just went to get coffee, I tell them. As far as I know, coffee has never made me have visions of robots and people made of gas in jumpsuits and oil colored rhinos. The men tell me that I’m not the only person to have gotten coffee from that cafe last night who began showing unusual behavior like this. They thank me for my time and tell me to get some rest. I ask if my dad’s alright. The doctor nods and tells me that he’s fine. I didn’t puncture anything major. He’s resting and getting a blood transfusion. I can’t believe what I did to him, what was done to me. I want to grab these baristas and show them my dad’s wound and ask them if their stupid prank was worth it. I hope they get jail time. I hope my dad can forgive me. I hope that I can forgive myself. A deep, selfish part of me hopes that this gets me out of my assignment on Walt Whitman. Probably not.