Short Story: ‘Koala’ by Rob McClure Smith

Robert Smith with TSS Publishing

Rob McClure Smith has published stories in many literary magazines in the UK and in the US including Manchester Review, Warwick Review and Gettysburg Review.

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Koala  

by Rob McClure Smith

 

Ginny would have been happy living here herself.  The Hearth Room was a gentle olive, burgundy and cinnamon, carpet a soft orange plush, furniture modern and tasteful, pleasant watercolors by local community artists.  Not what she’d put up on her wall – streams, symmetrical cornfields, silos glinting in dayglo sunsets – but perfect for this clientele, nicely autumnal.  Ginny showed Brian the upholstered loveseats, widescreen television with shelves of photos below, how the room blended into the dining area with its wooden café tables opening into that well-apportioned country kitchen. She noted what was missing: disembodied voices over paging systems, the clatter of medical carts and that sweet-sick malodour of medicine, urine and Mr. Clean. Nothing of the nursing home except that nurse in flowered smock and white slacks, sporting a beatific smile. 

“It’s like a geriatric resort,” her husband said, smiling at an elderly woman reclined in a loveseat with tree-branch motif, enveloped in wallpaper pine trees and mallards, fabrics of forest green, mute participant in a pastoral reverie.  “Maybe she’s snuffed it,” he whispered. “They wouldn’t notice for a while.”

She didn’t give him the full tour, the expresso bar and barista, gift shop, sewing shop, wellness clinic with discount massages and acupuncture and on-call chiropractors and podiatrists.  But he could see this was a senior arcadia, and how unreasonable it was that her mother didn’t like it.  Still she was being difficult, and now not even using Koala like she was supposed to.  She had been difficult about Koala from the get-go. 

 

“What do you do with this thing at all?” Emily had asked, peevishly.

“You be with it,” Ginny informed her.

Emily looked at Madeline and tapped a finger on her temple.

Madeline giggled.  “You can play with it too, grandma,” she said.  “It’s funny.”

Emily turned the koala over, studying the big black nose of special plastic, two brown receded eyes and large white fluffy ears. “They’ll think I’m senile if they see me talking to this thing.”

“Everybody gets one, mother.  It’s part of the program.”

Suddenly the koala smiled.

 “Well!  Can it do more?”

“Hold it like this, grandma.” Madeline tugged its ear.  Long black eyelashes curled seductively.

“Is it a seal?”

“It’s a koala, mom,” said Ginny.  “It looks nothing like a seal.”

“Well, is it a he or a she?”

“I think it’s a he.”

“It’s a she, mom,” said Madeline.  “See its pouch for little babies?”

 “Joeys,” said Emily, staring.  “Baby koalas are called that.”  She grasped the koala by its rubbery paws and lifted them up and down.  “Can it swim?”

“What?”

“Can it swim?”  Emily fingered the pouch and the tip of a red tongue protruded.  It made a faint cooing noise.

“You wouldn’t want to put it in water, mother.”

“Is it alive?”

“No,” said Ginny.  “But it’s as alive as you can be if you don’t eat.”

Emily bumped noses with it.  “Where’s she from?” 

“Japan,” said Ginny.

“Australia!” shrieked Madeline, shaking her head. 

“Madeline,” said Ginny with a fixed smile.  “I saw Stacey in the daycare center if you want to go play.”

“I want to be with grandma,” said Madeline. “And the koala bear.”

“Can it die?”  Emily stared at the koala in a disconcerting way. 

“No,” Ginny said.  “It can’t die.  It can always be fixed.”

Emily nodded, liking this.  “Does it have a name?”

“You can give it any name you want.”

“Koala,” Emily announced.  “How you doing, Koala?”  She rubbed her nose against its smooth fur.  “Are you being a good boy?”

Ginny’s mother had not been this playful since her last bad fall.

Seeing her daughter’s smile, Emily tossed the koala onto a chair.  It landed facedown, claws retracting.  “It’s a stupid thing enough,” she said. 

Emily didn’t pick it up the rest of visiting hour, just complained about the idiot in the household next door.

“He was an engineer.  So now he goes wandering with a screwdriver offering to fix things.  Things need leaving well enough alone.  Yesterday he was at my curtain rail.”

“Maybe he’s being friendly, mother.”

“Bored is what he’s being.”  Emily slit her eyes at Ginny.  “It’s so boring here.  There’s nothing to do.”

“I saw on the long event schedule there’s a flautist in the lounge later,” said Ginny, pursing her lips.

“You’d have to be a shut-in to like that kind of thing,” Emily said.  “The ones get stuck in here are a captive audience for that musical crowd.  Last week they had a blind accordionist.”  Emily shivered.   “I’d rather be dead than listen to a blind accordionist.”

“Well. . .”

“The nurses pack the wheelchairs in so you can’t get out.  You can’t turn yourself around. You have to sit there till they’re finished their racket.  What if there was a fire?”

“I think it’s unlikely a blind accordionist would start a fire, mother.”

“That’s exactly the type would.  They’d knock a candle over without noticing.”

“I doubt they’d have candles.”

“The fat tuba player had candles.  A tuba isn’t even a real instrument.  What kind of human person likes tuba music?”

“Lots of people like brass, mother.”

“Deaf people.”

“You could try and make more of an effort.”

Emily pointed at the little koala butt jutting towards her.  “Why? I have that, don’t I?  Now I have something to do when I have nothing to do.”

“If you don’t want Koala,” Madeline suggested, “we can take her.”

“Madeline,” said Ginny.  “That’s grandma’s to keep.”

“Maddie can take it,” Emily said. “It’s nothing to do with me.”

“You will enjoy Koala,” said Ginny, adamantly.  “You will.”

 

Near the Director’s office, in the art room the artists painted amid the beeping of oxygen tanks.  For aesthetic stimulation there were cages of parakeets and finches, lovebirds and cockatiels and a mural called ‘Serving The Aging Who Shaped Our Heritage’ featuring elderly people smiling and doing creatively interesting things with woodcarvings.

“She has found it hard to make friends here,” Ginny explained to Ms. Turkel.  “So I’m not sure I see how this will help.  She’s set in her ways, her routines.”

The Director interlaced her fingers and peered over the knuckles. “Time with companion bots is part of every institution in the group’s program.”

Ginny wasn’t sure what that meant.  It didn’t seem to make sense.

“The elderly like these robots?” Brian asked.

“It depends.”  Ms. Turkel adjusted her ponytail.  She was young, idealistic and humorless, but mainly, Ginny observed, humorless. “I suspect some just like the graduate assistants come with the bots.  The elderly are still capable of flirting.  That’s one of the most disconcerting things about them.”

“I don’t understand their function,” Brian said.

“They’re helping conduct the experiment and gather the data.”

“No.  I meant the koalas.”

Ms. Turkel frowned. “They function as robotic companions.  You can think of them as a newer and fancier teddy bear.”

“But they’re hardly teddy bears,” Brian said.  “My daughter had a nightmare about one last week, and she has some terrifying dolls.”

“Well, yes,” said Ms. Turkel, “the bots are different.  They react to how they’re touched and spoken to and can respond to up to 500 words.  We’re working on upping that.  They’re very robust.  But need tending.”

“Shouldn’t the elderly get the tending?” asked Brian.

“I must apologize for my husband,” said Ginny.  “He’s in insurance.”

Ms. Turkel did not smile.  “No, these are good questions.  We still tend to her needs.   But as she comes to tend for her bot it will make her feel less. . .”

“Powerless?” Brian suggested.

“Exactly,” said Ms. Turkel, smiling.  She had very outgoing teeth.

“So it’s regression therapy?  Going back to the experience of being a mother?”

Ms. Turkel chose her words carefully.  “What is most pleasing is the rhythm of being with the bot, its capacity to be passive and then surprise with sudden demands that can be met.”

“So, they are becoming mothers again,” said Ginny.

“Or fathers.  Or children,” said Ms Turkel.  “A koala can substitute for the dependencies of childhood too, although without the inconveniences.”

Ginny laughed.  “You must have children of your own.”

“No,” said Ms. Turkel, looking baffled. 

“But a machine can’t care for anyone,” Ginny observed.

“No.”  Ms. Turkel said. “That’s what you are for.  The caring function.”

“My concern,” said Ginny “is that the robot therapy isn’t working.”

“Studies say loneliness makes people sicker,” Ms. Turkel explained.  “In Sunset Lodge we’re developing ways to fight loneliness amongst our golden agers.”

“Also concerning me,” added Ginny, “is the man next door?”

Ms. Turkel clacked a pencil.  “Mark.  Yes. Very resistant to the programming.”

“He fixes things without asking.  Last week when she was in physical therapy he lowered the frame of her bed, to make her more comfortable he said.  I think she is more comfortable.  But she didn’t ask him to.”

 “There was a curtain rail debacle also,” Brian added.

“Mark is harmless,” Ms. Turkel explained. “We’re working on adapting his attitude toward more positive outcomes.  They get set in their ways.”

“Oh,” said Ginny.  “We noticed.”

“But I think you’ll be surprised by your mother’s adaptation to bot therapy.  She has been making progress in companionship.”

“Well, that’s great,” Ginny said.

Ms Turkel, looking perkier, turned to Brian.  “What kind of insurance?”

 

They picked up Madeline at daycare and walked to where eight front porches led from the common foyer to the ‘households.’  On the porches rocking chairs, philodendron cascading from hanging pots, a solid oak door framed by curtained windows.  Each household in Eden Heartland opened onto a secure patio and a small yard with birdfeeders, wind chimes and a barbecue. 

“The staff must like that the old ones get to pour their heart out to a machine,” Brian said.  “Gives them less to do.”

“Don’t be so cynical.”

He lifted Madeline up to the doorbell.  “Aren’t you concerned they’re experimenting on your mother?”

Ginny frowned.  “In the first place, she isn’t your mother and in the second place what do you think she did to me growing up?”

Brian shrugged.

“And in the third place, she isn’t your mother in the first place.”

“No,” he muttered.  “I’m not responsible for the caring function.”

 

The walls of Emily’s room were deep slate blue, chairs upholstered in burgundy.  A gold-framed mirror hung over the fireplace and on the mantle vases of artificial flowers and a plastic piggy bank.  Emily lay propped on the pillows.  The bed was lower.  Koala was on the windowsill.

“How are you?” Brian asked.  “Still driving all the old codgers in here crazy?”

Emily embraced Madeline.  She had missed her granddaughter’s birthday, and now gave her a gift.  Madeline unwrapped the little package and gasped.  Silver earrings.

“Mother, she cannot have her ears pierced till she’s older.”

Emily looked confused.  Her hair was braided and pinned to her head in a sparse coronet, which contributed to her addled look.  Madeline cupped the earrings in her hand, delighted.  “Do you feel better, Grandma?”

“I feel the same, Maddie.”  She pointed at Koala.  “Go bring me Billy.” 

“I told you before she won’t be pierced till later,” Ginny explained.

“Honey,” said Brian. “Your mother heard you.”

“Is Billy her new name?” Madeline asked.  “It’s a funny name for a girl.”

Emily cradled the koala with a vacant smile.  Koala cooed at her. 

“You are so pretty.  Your name is Billy.”  Emily made a face at the thing as though, Ginny thought, it was her job to amuse it. “I love you.  Do you love me?”

“Mother?”

“Do you love me?”

“Stop it, mother,” Ginny barked.

            “Honey,” said Brian. 

Madeline reached to touch Koala’s flickering eyelashes. 

“Shush, you,” Emily snarled.  “Billy’s napping.”

“Grandma. . .”

Emily yanked the koala away and clutched it to her chest, stroking its synthetic fur.  “I will put you in a crib and get you a nice banky.” 

“What’s a banky, Emily?” Brian asked, looking at Ginny.

Goldie, the household dog, yellow and green bow tucked rakishly behind her ear, pushed her nose in the door, and as quickly withdrew it.

“There’s that bad doggie,” said Emily to Koala. “I don’t know why they let them in my room, Billy,” she says.  “It’s not hygienic, is it sweetie-pie?”

 Ginny snatched the Koala out of her mother’s arms.   Emily gave a plaintive cry, groping after it. 

“Give him back me,” she hissed, eyes furious.

“Mother!” said Ginny, retreating.  “What’s the matter with you?”

Emily tried to get out the bed, wrestling with the sheets, livid and frantic.  Madeline retreated to the far corner, whimpering beneath a painting of geese in flight over a curiously yellow pond.  Brian was prying Ginny’s arms apart.  “For God’s sakes, woman” he was saying.

“She can’t have it,” Ginny said.  “She can’t have it back.”

 

The summoned nurses had departed.  So had Brian, who had rushed Madeline off to the sweetie shop for a therapeutic sundae.  Ginny, hands still shaking, listened as Emily, calmed and cradling Koala, calmed because she was cradling Koala, explained.

“When I looked into his big brown eyes that first time I fell in love after all those years of being lonely.”  Emily’s face was strangely dreamy.  “I can talk to you, you see.”

“You can talk to me, mother,” Emily said.

 “I don’t say anything bad but some things I would want to say. . . it helps me think about him. . . something in his face. . .”

“Mommy, please.”

“He lets me take everything inside me out.  I can put it down then.  When I wake and see him, it makes me feel like he is watching over me.”

“Mother, you can’t talk to a machine.”

Emily had drifted herself away again.  “For things that are private I enjoy talking to Billy.  He won’t ever criticize me.”

“I don’t criticize you mother,” said Ginny.  “I’m the one takes care of you. . .”

Emily stared at her.  “But taking care of a thing is not the same as caring about a thing.”  Koala’s paws came together as if in prayer, and Emily smiled.  “It was Oprah’s birthday, Billy.  They had a party. Now they’re playing bingo for a banana.”

“I’m going to go now,” said Emily, standing.  “I’m leaving.”  Her mother did not say anything.  “Can I bring something for next time?”

But Emily and Koala weren’t listening at all.

 

“I understand you’d be a little disturbed,” said Ms. Turkel.  “I’d be upset myself.”

“My mother,” said Ginny, enunciating slowly, “loves that thing you gave her more than her own granddaughter.”

“Well. . .”

“Her family isn’t important to her anymore.  That thing is a usurper.”

“My wife is jealous of a robot,” said Brian, achieving a smile.

“Why don’t you shut up?” Ginny snarled.

“Well, let’s put this in context, shall we,” said the Director, looking nervous.

“Yes, why don’t we?” Ginny said.

“What’s happening is not unexpected. The elderly prefer a robot with simple needs to a human being with more complex demands, in the short term.”

 “In the short term?”

“But they’ll be coming along eventually.”

 “They’ll be coming along?  What you don’t seem to get is my mother has an unnatural relationship with that. . . creature.  She’s calling it Billy.”

Outside a woman in a green sweater pulled a plastic wagon carrying three babies.  Ms. Turkel waved to her, as if all was well.  It wasn’t.

“Billy is my wife’s father’s name,” Brian explained.  “Gone twenty years.”

“Also, she’s rambling on about bankys and sweetie pies.  These are things she said to me when I was a kid.”

“I think what we’re seeing here,” said Ms Turkel, “is Koala is taking care of your mother’s desire to tell her story.  Koala has made space for that story to be told.”

“Koala doesn’t care about her or her fucking story.”

“Ginny, please.”

“I’m sorry.”

“What I’m saying,” said Ms. Turkel, “is that Koala encourages a conversation that can be difficult.  But your mother might do the same thing to an old photograph.”

“To say they’re having a conversation,” Ginny said, exasperated, “is to forget what a conversation is. . .”

“This may seem unusual at first, but the problem will resolve itself.  If you really object we could attempt a weaning, although at this point it could be more tricky.”

“A weaning?” Ginny yelped.  “It’s called a weaning?”

 

They were promised an update by Friday. It was better they not visit in the interim, too upsetting, although for who was a question. The call came on Thursday.  Ginny was waiting to pick up Madeline.  It was Mr. Y day and Madeline was in possession of a number of yellow yo-yos. Nothing to worry about, Ginny was informed, only an incident.  She should get there as soon as possible, although there was nothing to worry about, really.  By the time she called Brian she was hysterical.

Arriving with Madeline in tow, she found Brian in the Hearth Room in intimate conversation with Ms. Turkel who was laughing open mouthed at something he said and playing with her hair also.  She was attractive when she laughed like that, toyed with her hair in that cruel coquettish way.  She was more blonde and ponytailed and young and attractive than Ginny recalled and Brian seemed like someone she remembered vaguely from long ago. A group of elderly residents had gathered too, others milling outside.  Here was the aftermath of the incident: grinning husband and robot woman practically making out in front a squad of incontinent leather-skinned reptile people.

“What’s happened?”  Ginny blurted.  “Is she O.K.?”

“Shelley says everything is alright,” Brian informed her.

“Shelley?” said Ginny.  “The “Ode to the West Wind” one?  He’s in here too?”

“Your mother is doing fine,” Ms. Turkel announced.  “We had her taken immediately for observation.  She’s sedated and all her vital signs are normal.”

“Sedated?  What is going on?”

“She up and attacked another resident apparently,” Brian said, smirking.  “Got a bit worked up.”

“How’d she get like that, Shelley?”  Ginny snarled.  “Did De Quincey leave his opium pipe in the bathroom with his teeth. . .”

“A resident from the other household entered her room while she was out with the nurse and may have made an attempt to disassemble your mother’s robotic companion.”

Ginny stared.  “Oh, my God.  He murdered Koala.”

The faint carpeted rasp of arriving wheelchairs all around.

“The gesture was not malicious,” Ms. Turkel explained.  “Mark was trying to ascertain how the bot operated.  A chip was removed and. . .”

“Emily tried to strangle the old boy,” Brian added, looking smug.  “Went for his throat like a wild animal.”

“It did take a number of staff to effect a separation.” Ms. Turkel observed.  “But she is now very comfortable.  Resting well.  Besides a few minor lacerations and scratches. . .well, obviously, no one will be pressing any charges.”

“You’d best go see her,” Brian said.  “I’ll take Maddie home.”

“Maybe we should get some ice cream again?” Madeline suggested.

“No,” Ginny said, seizing her wrist.  “I’ve got her.  She’s mine.”

“I can go with daddy,” Madeline said, trying to extricate her fingers.

“No,” said Ginny, staring coldly.  “You’re with me.”

 

And with that she turned away, hauling Madeline, sobbing now, behind her.  Striding purposefully out the Hearth Room, she had to navigate a phalanx of wheelchairs containing very old women who sat silent in faded housedresses like one long pale organism.  And as she walked this ancient gauntlet, the old women came up out their wheelchairs, displacing the blue lavender shawls they must have knitted themselves, full as they were of knots and tangles, their arms outstretched, quavering, such painful yearning etched on their faces as they tried so desperately to touch her daughter’s body.

 

END

 


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