Michael absentmindedly straightened the “robot for sale” sign he had hung on Winston. They stood on a downtown corner with shoppers and office workers rushing past. He frowned in thought, trying to think if he had forgotten anything.
Winston looked at him with a composed expression. “I will stay here until someone texts you the payment. I will give them the payment instructions you provided.”
“Yes, Winston,” Michael said. It seemed too easy. Once the payment was sent, Winston would belong to the new owner immediately, and was programmed to follow him or her on the spot. It was simple and clean, and he made a few grand to boot. He had even programmed Winston to hold the price firm and reject any attempt at negotiation.
Yet there was a thought still nagging him: is this what dad would have wanted?
He swallowed as regret washed over him anew. For the last few years of his father’s life, when the man’s dementia had become a daily problem, he had let all of it fall on Winston. Winston took care of medication, meals, doctor’s visits, and more. It was lucky if Michael visited even once a month, and he lived only a few miles away.
Of course, he rationalized it all as being due to his business problems. He had fought to save the business instead of taking care of his dad. It was the only choice he could make. Without the business and the money, how could he pay for his father’s care?
But ultimately he had lost them both.
He stopped fussing with the sign and looked at Winston, feeling guilty. Michael always saw the same composed expression on Winston’s face, but he somehow felt like Winston was judging him, like somewhere in the robot’s circuits, there was knowledge that he was a bad son.
Stupid robot, judging me, he thought, suddenly. I’ll be glad to get rid of him. He muttered a goodbye to Winston and walked off, absorbed in anger and self-pity. The real kicker in the whole thing was that his father had left him almost nothing. Well, nothing except Winston. Instead, the will had directed all the money to various charities. It was just like the old man, giving to others and overlooking his own family.
When he was about a block away, he heard a loud backfire behind him and turned to see a wheezing old jalopy slow to a stop next to Winston. An old man in a threadbare tweed suit got out, holding a hat in his hands nervously. Michael couldn’t see him clearly. He was too far away. The old man began talking with Winston. Michael wondered what they were saying. After a moment, the man shook his head mournfully and wiped his eyes. He got back in the jalopy.
Guess he couldn’t pay, Michael thought. Not my problem.
He turned to walk away but the image of the man wiping his eyes and shaking his head slowed him, and he looked back. Obviously, the man bore a great burden. As the jalopy came down the road, right past him, he saw a man with an honest face, ash hair, sallow cheeks, and a thin trickle of tears under each eye.
Michael thought about how much Winston had done for his father. He turned and began walking back. He decided he wasn’t mad at his father for giving the money away. No, he was just mad at himself for not making different decisions before it was too late.
“What did the man say?” he asked Winston.
Winston regarded him, his face jerkily moving from sad to cheerful. The motors that formed each facial expression were not quite as smooth as they once were.
“Oh, he just asked about my abilities, and what was the price.”
“Why was he crying?”
“The price was too high for him,” Winston replied cheerfully. “He said he needs a robot to take care of his bed-ridden wife, who is dying.” Winston’s tone-of-voice mod didn’t adjust appropriately to all situations and this was one of them. His cheerfulness sounded coarse and mean.
“Anyway, sir, don’t you worry. I told him you wouldn’t accept any lowballers.”
Michael froze at hearing his own words repeated back to him. He had not realized how they sounded. Had he really said that? Here was an old man, too old to work, facing the death of his wife, and eventually, his own death too.
Michael frowned. It was a dilemma. He needed the money, but did he need it more than this man needed help? What would dad have done? He probably would have given Winston away. Winston was his father’s robot, anyway. A robot who had given so much to his father, and Michael had never even thanked him. Unexpectedly, tears welled up in Michael’s eyes.
“Why do you cry?” Winston asked. The tone-of-voice mod was working now and he had a hint of sympathy.
“What was I thinking?” he muttered to himself. He couldn’t change the past. He couldn’t take back the mistakes he had made neglecting his father, but he could stop making mistakes in the here and now. “Winston, I’m sorry I never said this, but thank you for taking care of dad for so long. I should have been there.”
“Most certainly, sir,” Winston replied.
Michael felt awkward. He knew this was only what Winston was programmed to say. He even knew that Winston was only following his programming when he had done so much for his father, but still, the result had been the same. Winston, though actually a robot, was the better man.
“Did that old man leave a number, Winston?”
Michael smiled through his tears and realized he would miss Winston when he gave him away. But, finally, he could answer yes to the question, “is this what dad would have wanted?” As the old man answered the phone, Michael felt a growing peace, and smiled.
Scott Shipp is a writer, developer, and futurist contemplating the strange times we find ourselves in and the potential implications of today’s technology, thought, and (lack of) ethics on tomorrow.