A Girl with a Golden Arm
As her parents, Eleanor and I should have known earlier. But Gwen was a preemie, to begin with. That meant oxygen at first and, after that, special checkups. And her early months were bumpy. She had jaundice; she had roseola; she had colic. She had a heart murmur. Things that I can now see distracted us—especially with the One Chance Policy, we were focused on her health to the exclusion of all else. For the Netted, it was different, of course, but for us Surplus, the limit was one pregnancy per couple, and Eleanor was just out of jail. Outside the house, she had a DroneMinder tracking her every move; the message was clear. She was not getting away with anything.
And in any case, we loved Gwen and would never have wanted to replace her, worried though we were that she was delicate—that she might never consume the way she needed to, the way we all needed to. Not that charges of underconsumption couldn’t be fought in the courts. This was AutoAmerica, after all. For all the changes wrought by AI and Automation—now rolled up with the internet into the iBurrito we called Aunt Nettie—we did still have a Constitution. And if anyone could defend what was left of our rights, it was our own fierce Eleanor, of whom even the platoons of Canada geese who patrolled our neighborhood—the pit bulls, one might say, of the waddling world—were afraid. But as Eleanor’s incarceration brought home, these battles had a price, and in the meanwhile, even worrying and weighing the options distracted us from realizing other things—things we might have noticed a bit earlier, had Gwen had a sibling. It is so hard for a new parent to imagine a child any different from the one he or she has—children do so have their own gravity. They are their own normal.
And so it is only now that we can see there were signs. All children take what’s in their crib and throw it, for example. It is universal. But Gwen threw her stuffed animals straight through her bedroom doorway. They shot out, never so much as grazing the door frame, and they always hit the wall of the staircase across from her bedroom at a certain spot, with the precise force they needed to bounce forward and drop clean down to the bottom of the stairwell. Was she maybe two when she did this? Not even, although she was already a southpaw. And already she seemed to have unusually long arms and long fingers—or so I remember remarking one day, not that Eleanor and I had so many babies on which to base our comparison. Ours was just an impression. But it was a strong impression. Her fingers were long. I remember, too, having to round up a veritable menagerie on the landing before I could start up the stairs. The stuffed hippo, the stuffed tiger, the three or four stuffed dogs, the stuffed orca and toucan and platypus and turtle—I gathered them all into my arms like the storybook zookeeper of some peaceable kingdom. It was as if I, too, ought by rights to have been made of plush. Of course, our house was automated—as all Surplus houses were required to be, by law—and the animals could easily have been clear-floated. All I had to do was say the word and the HouseBots would emerge from their closets, their green appendages poised to help. Clear-float now? Aren’t those animals in your way? And, We can roll’n’clear if you’d prefer. You have a choice. You always have a choice—the choice business being a new feature of the program. A bit of cyber-ingratiation, you might say, to balance its more habitual cyber-intimidation. If you trip, it will be your own fault, for example. And, Do note that your choice is on the record. Nothing is being hidden from you. Your choice is on the record. Meaning that I was losing Living Points every time—Living Points being something like what we used to call brownie points when I was growing up, except that these were more critical than money for everything from getting a loan to getting a plane ticket to getting Gwen into Net U one day, should we dream of doing that—a goal that people said involved tens of thousands, or maybe even hundreds of thousands, of points.
But I picked the animals up myself anyway—as did Eleanor, when it was she who came upon them, her silver hair and black eyes shining—and all because we wanted to dump the animals into Gwen’s crib ourselves and hear her quick cresting laughter as she immediately set about hurling them again. Everything was a game to her, a most wonderful, loving, endless game. Her spy-eyes lit up with mischief; her tea-brown cheeks flushed the hot orange pink you see on the underside of clouds at sunset. Often she laughed so hard, she fell as she threw—plopping down on her soft bottom but grabbing the crib rails so hard as she scrambled back up that the whole crib shook. Was this the delicate newborn we had once so anxiously tended? Now breathtakingly robust—indestructible, it seemed—she wore an old-time soft yellow blanket sleeper with attached feet and bunny ears, a hand-knit, extra-warm version of a suit Eleanor remembered from her own childhood. None of this baby-zone heating over Gwen’s crib, in other words. She hardly seemed to need zone-heat in any case, having learned so early to blow on her hands if they were cold and to cuddle with us, if she needed to, for warmth. Indeed, we were all given to cuddling, and we all wore sweaters, too, to avoid turning on the zone-heat, for which we were constantly house-scolded. Don’t you find it a bit chilly? Why not choose to turn on the zone-heat? You’ll be more comfortable—Eleanor, especially. Don’t you find it a bit chilly?
But we ignored it. For this was how the AutoHouse started, wasn’t it, with thermostats that sent to Aunt Nettie first data, then videos? Then came DroneDeliverers and FridgeStockers, KidTrackers and RoboSitters, ElderHelpers and YardBots, all of which reported to Aunt Nettie as dutifully as any spy network—recording our steps, our pictures, our relationships, and (back when we soon-to-be-Surplus still had them) our careers. And she, in turn, took what she knew and applied it—even proffering, along the way, solace and advice. Indeed, in the early days of Automation, I myself brought up AskAuntNettie more often than I care to recall and can still remember her consoling voice as she volunteered I’m here and insisted I want to hear everything and reassured me Of course you feel that way, Grant, how could you not? You’re only human.
I did laugh at that You’re only human.
Still I found not only that part of me responded to the words, but that it responded deeply, that it listened gratefully as Aunt Nettie advanced some surprisingly useful advice on a range of subjects, including the many—I hadn’t realized how many—for which noble Eleanor had no time. Would someone like me, whose mother had had him with WhoNeedsThemMen, have trouble knowing how to be a father, for example? The answer to which was that, given what men could be, I might in fact be better off without a role model anyway. Or how about: Did someone like me really need to own both black and brown shoes now that I was no longer teaching? The answer to which was yes, if I cared about social acceptance, which yes, my data showed that I did, underneath, and which, really, was just as well—correlated as such concern was with mental health, especially among Unretrainables such as, yes, she had heard I now was.
Today Aunt Nettie would no doubt use the term “Surplus”—“Unretrainables” having been aggregated with “Unemployables” such as the elderly for the purposes of administering our Basic Incomes. But Unretrainables were in fact different. Unretrainables were people like me, with discontinued professions. Factory workers, drivers, and customer service representatives, in the beginning—joined, as Aunt Nettie grew by breathtaking leap after leap more capable, by assorted doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants. Professors. Programmers. Brokers. And, as Aunt Nettie assumed an ever greater role in government: Staffers. Poll workers. Selectmen. Auditors. Ombudsmen. Judges. It goes without saying that not all the Unretrainables were coppertoned, like me. A great many were angelfair. But it was hard not to notice that the Unretrainables did somehow include everyone coppertoned, as well as everyone spy-eyed, like Eleanor, and everyone odd-bodied, too, not to say the odd-godded—Muslims, for example. It was, one had to say, quite a coincidence that the underclass looked as it did; groups like AutoAmericans Against Apartheid called it the New Segregation.
And what about meditation? I asked Aunt Nettie once. Would that help me tame certain mannerisms I had developed since my work was discontinued? The answer to which was, again, yes, and here was a link to get me started, although she thought I might also just try sitting on my hands.
Like others, I had allowed Aunt Nettie to keep my calendar back in the days when, as the young head of an English as a second language program, I still had immigrants to teach and obligations to juggle. This was some time ago, now—back before Ship’EmBack. But like others, then, I had also allowed Aunt Nettie to email people on my behalf, checking the “mimic your voice” option and marveling at just how perfectly she could replicate my tics of phrasing. She had even captured a certain formality I had picked up from my mother—a holdover from her days as a Caribbean schoolmarm—because I had, in my youthful diligence, sent so many thousands of emails. Indeed, Aunt Nettie had so much data on me that not even Eleanor could tell it was not I who had composed the messages she received from my account. And like others, too, I had taken advantage of the EZ tools offered to me and trained Aunt Nettie to write my lessons and my syllabi—even to generate sample sentences and punny jokes. Indeed, I trained her so well that I had more than once observed that an avatar could now run the class.
As for why I did these things—I generally did them, I see now, because I appreciated some associated convenience, which was to say because I could be, as my mother liked to say, lazy as a rock at the bottom of a hill. And as for the resulting reality, was it not disconcertingly like the sea level rise and heat and wind we knew, long ago, would come with climate change but have since come to call normal? No one would have willfully chosen the stranding of whole office parks and schools and neighborhoods by the flooding we saw now. No one would have willfully chosen the generating of the places we called marooned places, just as no one would have chosen the extinction of frogs and of polar bears, or the decimation of our pine and spruce forests by the explosion in the number of bark beetles. And yet it was something we humans did finally choose. After all, it was not the earth that chose it, or any other creature. It was we who made our world what it was. It was we who were responsible.
And who else was to blame that we Surplus were now required by law to have AutoHouses, which were for the most part AutoHouseboats, collected into Flotsam Towns? Happily, house video surveillance did end. We did at least now have—thanks to the herculean efforts of Eleanor and her legal team—an A/V data shutoff to which you could resort. It wasn’t the default. To get at it you had to remove a wall panel with a special screwdriver for which you had to send away, and which was always on backorder; I do think they made about a dozen a year. Then you had to rewire the thing yourself, and it goes without saying that absolutely nothing was labeled. But still, the shutoff was there.
As for the price of victory—well, let us just say that it was only after some years that we beheld Gwen and finally had the bandwidth to think what we should have thought all along. Namely: How extraordinary.
I had bought Gwen a pink Spalding ball at an underground yard sale and seen how she laughed as she threw it at my nose. I had seen how she laughed, too, when I found her a tiny baseball glove, at another underground sale. I had seen her put it on her head like a hat. I had seen her talk to the glove and sleep with it under her pillow. And as she grew older, I had seen how she could throw an apple smack into the mouth of a Halloween scarecrow from clear across a field. She threw a kid’s handphone back to him through the window of a moving AutoLyft. She hammered a nail into a pole by throwing a rock at it from across the street.
Was it not uncanny? We called it her gift. And sometimes, when Eleanor and I were talking, just the two of us, we reached back into old-time thinking and parlance and asked, Is this what people meant when they said something was God-given? Not that we were religious—hardly. And every child is humbling in a way that was hard even for old-time people to express—hard, that is, even for people who had not been brought up to seek truth in big data and algorithms but in things like books. Indeed, Gwen, too, was much more than her gift. She, too, was an embodiment of that tornado that is girlhood—that glorious whirlwind of silliness and sophistication that seems to dance and spin and touch down just exactly where it likes.
Yet Gwen’s particular gift awed us in a special way. Was there not something miraculous about it—this ability? This talent? This knack? This utterly useless aptitude? Where did it come from? What was its purpose? We were, as I said, in awe. And maybe that was why we used that phrase, “God-given”—a phrase whose meaning we did not quite know, but that meant, we understood, beyond us. Beyond our ken. Beyond our grasp. Beyond human understanding, and beyond inhuman understanding, too. Beyond Aunt Nettie. And as a father, all I wanted was to see her, in all her giftedness and idiosyncratic humanity, bloom.
Copyright © 2020 by Gish Jen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.