I kicked Max and I regretted it. I had dropped the bucket, not him. But angry at everything and nothing, I kicked him just the same.
He looked at me with those sad, all-seeing eyes and said, “I reckon I’ll go get some more water.” I sat there and wished I knew how to apologize.
Max is the perfect man here on the empty, empty plains. He is a cheerful companion who always does more than his share and never complains.
Of course, he’s a robot.
Like every other American robot, he lives like any man, manufactured or born, indistinguishable except that the few humans still around command and the many robots serve. Robots cook, clean, fight wars, perform brain surgery: everything of value. Human beings have become a lazy, sorry lot. We thought we had built robots so we could become more human. Didn’t turn out that way, if you ask me.
Of course, I’m a human.
We do things differently here on my ranch on the Wyoming plains twenty miles from nowhere. Max and I have worked this ranch side-by-side and raised my son Jim together since my wife died. Max has bandaged Jim’s skinned knees and dried his tears. We’ve taught Jim that the heart of a man is service: serving our ranch and neighbors. We’ve spent our time providing free service to anyone that needs it, at least until people began to see service from other people as beneath humans and wouldn’t take any help from us. And then the “People Rule” movement came along and passed a law making it a crime for a man to work.
Didn’t stop us, here. The three of us are almost equal partners. Almost. But Max is the embodiment of perfect selfless service, and that was why I was mad at him today. We had been carrying water to the one tree we have. Twenty years ago, Max and I dug up a sapling we thought was an apple tree from a friend’s green orchard. We thought if we cared for it every day we would have an apple tree, the only green thing on my whole brown ranch. When the tree sprouted, it was a hackberry. Most folks call it a trash tree and would have dug it up because it offered them no fruit. On my ranch, we treasure things that grow. So we nurtured the tree, and still had one spot of green, just not the spot we expected.
You have to be careful about expectations out here, where brown rocks outnumber trees and the sky goes on forever. It is a strange landscape, stark and beautiful, but demanding.
After we were done watering, I walked back to the kitchen. I got a cup of coffee for myself and one for Max. That was as close as I could come to an apology today.
Jim walked in, his mother’s startling blue eyes looking out at me as he took the last cup. When he turned toward Max, I could see the serial number Jim had tattooed by hand on the side of his neck last week, the same number that had been printed onto Max’s neck during his manufacture.
I said, “So, you think that now that you’re a man—” My voice caught. “You’re going to throw away everything we built for you here?”
“Throw away all the comforts of a man, just to be a man in a world that’s forgotten that it needs men who serve?” He laughed a short, bitter laugh. I wondered how many laughs he had left, where he was going. “I guess that’s the way it is. The man I love the most gave me comforts but taught me that the essence of a man is service.”
I did understand, even if I didn’t want to.
“So, to be a man, you’re going to pretend to be a robot, so people will let you serve. Can’t you just serve and still enjoy the comforts I’ve made for you?”
“Don’t see how. I go to help people now, they insist that I sit on the porch while the robots work. I ain’t done nothing of service in months.”
I’d seen it, too. But I also saw the rest. “You might not ever come back. Bad things happen to robots. Lots of people will see that tattoo and treat you like a manufactured piece of meat, something they can throw away and replace with a toaster.”
He nodded. “You didn’t raise me not to go in harm’s way. Maybe I got to do this because of the way we’ve built the world. Maybe it’s the way the world has always been. But you told me you’ve got to go with the call, whether other people see it or not.”
I looked out of the window for a long time. It is a strange landscape here. When you think you need rain, you get drought. When you plant an apple tree, you get a hackberry. The world turns so slowly you can’t see things changing, and then it spins so fast you can barely hold on. But our dreams take root here, and grow into things more wondrous and terrible than we can imagine or comprehend.
We walked out to the porch, shed some final human tears, and he walked away to the life that I had unknowingly prepared him for. But I had never prepared myself for this moment.
I shouted after him, “I’m a proud man today.” Like the robot he was now, he kept walking.
I watched my son fade into a man.
“Should have told him I loved him,” I said.
Max said, “Think you didn’t?”
I looked out at the hackberry tree, the tallest and proudest thing left on the ranch. Then I prayed. But I did not know if I was praying for myself or for Jim, for people or for the things we had made.