One afternoon, while helping our mister gather our cart together for the short haul to our designated slot across town, ma said, “Well I’ll be darned if our mister coffee don’t have a blasted tendril and teeny-weeny leaves unfurling from his front panel.”
It had never occurred to mom, as she quipped, “that a mister might develop a green thumb. Now I’ve seen it all.”
Ma asked him point-blank, “Hey, mister, I know you all are eco-friendly; isn’t this a bit much?”
The mister responded very matter-of-factly: “You may recall that this mister’s warranty has now expired. Upon purchasing a pre-owned model, you were warned of the risks, were you not?”
Ma muttered, “You’re no longer even insured?” while not staying for the reply. Dragging me by my arm to the mirror in the kitchenette, with the excuse of combing my untidy hair, with a forced smile indicating horror, she said, “That thing is letting himself go! It will be the end of us.”
I naturally asked her “Why? How could he? He’s a mister. My teacher says time stands still for robots.”
“I have no idea why, but it’s obvious by his horrid grooming habits that he is on his happy way to the rust bin, losing one screw at a time,” Ma explained, irritated by my questions.
As we gathered milk from the refrigerator and loaded the cart, he had wandered into the alley, trailing a mister preacher whose four appendages simultaneously watered the dusty pavement with a bottomless pitcher, chimed finger zils, beat his hollow leg with a stick, and held a donation hat as he passed.
When our mister returned, as he was not a true MobileRobotics model, ma asked him to verify, “Should we do the honors of plucking the leaves for you, or do you like them there?”
He replied, “Mister okay either way.”
But he had already inconspicuously pruned them himself.
What we only deduced later was that mister had already been shaving the greens off on a daily basis. Today, perhaps because of the late April weather, the leaves unfolded faster than he could keep up with.
We were worried for good reason. The only way we could run our café on wheels was with a mister, whether a brand name or a generic roving AI like ours with its telltale gloss of plastics printed with a decorative grid of cheap chrome.
After the high-rises went up all hoity-toity, seeming to look down on the market, their occupants shopped mostly in the malls underground — called our street smelly, chaotic, unhygienic, and noisy. So the city stopped issuing business licenses — only to franchises who make “donations” to officials. Our mister is technically part of the franchise chain, so without him we’d be out of a job.
But nothing could stop a determined mister from injecting some nutri-gro and tossing a seed under the hood.
By the time we arrived at the market, the tendrils were already peeking out from his white polypropylene casing again. His head, being so almost perfectly human but somewhat bulky and jagged, made the children laugh.
But now his facial expression had turned particularly angelic and yet slightly dour. As he cranked up his steam pressure in the espresso machine tank to fluff up a chocolate treat with a 3D image of the cartoon character of the child’s choice, a loud crack shook through him.
I recalled the way he brandished his little unfurling leaf buds, suggested signs of noble mortality, struggle, and the hope of a pending release from various levels of suffering as a rough embodiment of flow-chart necessities of life not even his own.
His glowing eyes went dark.
Right where the tendrils had been bulging, we opened his front panel, unfolding like a charred altar. A long snakelike coil had grown twisted between modules and through his hydraulics assemblage on up through the cheap processors and memory boards packed up to where lungs would be in a person. The root had scraped through his interlocking fused (to protect patents) innards, feeding off its heat and some sticky lubricant gels on which the biotic could take root.
Some owners of service misters removed the “eco-friendly” solar panels from their misters, fearing they fed heat and moisture circulating through them and sustaining unwanted vegetal life.
The sinuous deadly root had split him like a log, snapping right through the central processors.
Ma said, “Our mister was lonely. It’s our fault. They did this: damn mister cults stirring trouble.”
Our neighbor, knitting, said banyan trees are tough, not to be underestimated. “You only see the tip of the iceberg with them. They can bring down more than just a mister.” He’d seen the walls of tall buildings collapse — they get into the downspouts on the roof and start from seeds and fine sprouts, then tendrils, then monstrous lolling roots and they just explode.
Poor mister. And poor us. Without our mister we couldn’t stay open. The police were on the way. We had to man our stalls during regular open hours of the market or lose our space. As soon as the insurance beacon stopped signaling — from our mister — the lost transmission triggered an alarm set up by the new shopping mall and the police. Ma said, “Oh shit!” It wasn’t the first time.
A mister cop stood a few yards away, tapping his foot, sending a warning: roll away now or face fines. A substitute vendor was already standing behind him.
We glared at them and rolled off through the thick crowd, towing our mister, set in neutral, defeated.
The next day, ma said we’ll “begin searching for another mister, one willing to invest in us before we’d lose our stall space, not to mention our flat.”
I knew we had to be kinder, keep it clean and happy, never letting the organic form a dust or loam giving rise to knotty seeds.
Dean A. Brink teaches literature at Tamkang University in New Taipei City, Taiwan. His poems have appeared in Columbia Poetry Review, Ecozon@, Exquisite Corpse, Going Down Swinging, In Protest, There, and many other journals. He also publishes research articles on Japanese, Taiwanese, and American poetry and societies. He lives with his wife and daughter, and maintains a blog, Taiwan Scooter Poet.
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