• 4 •
“Jane, if you need to cry, couldn’t you cry against me and not into that pillow?”
“Because the green stuff you covered it with obviously isn’t dye-proofed, and your face is acquiring a most abnormal green pattern.”
I started up and ran to the mirror. What I saw there made me laugh and weep together. I washed my face in the bathroom and came back. I sat down beside him.
“I don’t want to cry against you, or you to comfort me, or hold me anymore,” I said, “because soon I’ll have to do without you, won’t I?”
“You know I will. I told you what happened. There’s no money. No food, no rent. No chance of work—even if I could do anything. I can’t stay here. And she—my mother—won’t let me bring you to the house, I’m sure of it. Even if she did, she’d sort of—what can I say?—dissect my feelings… She doesn’t mean to hurt me. Or—Oh, I don’t know anymore. The way I spoke to her was so odd. It wasn’t even like me, speaking. But I do know it’s hopeless.”
“I saw the caretaker,” Silver said. “I went down when you were crying your way through the shawls. He thinks we’re actors from a street company that’s folded. I didn’t tell him that, by the way, he told me. He was having a good day, no pain and no side-effects. He said we can sit on the rent for another week. Everyone else does, and at least you paid the first quarter.”
“But there won’t be any more money in a week.”
“There could be. And no need of a labor card, either.”
He drew the guitar to him, and reeled off a reeling wheel of a song, clever, funny, adroit, ridiculous, to the accompaniment of a whirling gallop of runs and chords. Breathless, I watched and listened. His eyes laughed at me. His mouth makes marvelous shapes when he sings and his hair flies about as if it’s gone mad.
“Throw me a coin, lady,” he said seductively, as he struck the last note.
“No. It must be illegal.”
“People do it all the time.”
“Yes, people. But you can do it better than people. It can’t be fair. Can it?”
“We won’t pitch where anyone else sings. We won’t ask for cash. We’ll just play around with some music and see what happens.”
“Supposing someone recognizes you—what you—are?”
“I have a suspicion,” he said, “that you’ll find it is legal. Look at it this way,” he stared at me seriously over the guitar, absurdist as only he could be. “You bought a performing seal that can do tricks no other performing seal can do. Then you run out of money. So you put the seal on the street with a ten-ton truck balanced on its nose, and you walk round with a hat.”
“You’re not a seal.”
“I don’t want a ten-ton truck on my nose, either.”
“It seems—I can’t imagine how it could work out.”
He put the guitar aside, took my hands and held them under his chin. He looked up into my face.
“Listen,” he said, “is it just that you’d prefer to go back to your house in the clouds? If I’ve stopped amusing you, if you’re no longer happy—”
“Happy?” I cried. “I was only ever happy with you. I was only ever alive with you!”
“Are you sure? Because you have a number of options. If you’re simply worrying about my side of things, let me remind you, for the hundredth time, that I’m a robot. My function is service, like any piece of metal junk you buy in a corner store to shell eggs.”
“Stop it,” I said.
He lowered his head to rest it in my hands. His face was hidden, and my fingers were full of his hair. And suddenly, with a little still shock, I knew what had happened, was happening, only I couldn’t quite believe it, either, and I wondered if he knew and if he believed it. “Silver,” I said so softly I could hardly hear myself, but his hearing would pick up a whisper. Perhaps even a soundless whisper. “The first time you saw me, what did you think?”
“I thought: Here is another customer.”
“Silver, the awful way you looked at me when I said that terrible thing to you—because I was afraid and confused—that was the same look you turned on Jason and Medea last night.”
“Maybe. Perhaps you taught me the value of it, as a means of antisocial behavior.”
“You reacted against them and for me.”
“I told you why.”
“And I told you why, but that isn’t enough.”
“Jane, we went through this a number of times. My reactions aren’t human. I can’t object to playing human here, because you asked me to, and there are good reasons. But when I’m alone with you, you’re going to have to accept—”
“No,” I said, still softly, “you’re the one who’s going to have to accept that you are not acting like a robot, a machine. That you never really have.”
He let go of my hands, and walked by me and stood looking out of the window. The embroidered shirt showed new pleats and tensions in the fabric that described the tension in his shoulders. Human tension.
“And you find it disturbing,” I said. “But please don’t. It isn’t anything bad. How could it be?”
He said nothing, so I stopped talking. I took up my brush and began to brush my still-wet hair, in long crackling strokes. And at each stroke I said to myself: I don’t care if it’s against the law. He’ll sing and I’ll collect the cash, just like Medea. Because I can’t let this go. Not ever. Especially not now. Not now.
When I finished brushing my hair, he had come away from the window and was standing in the middle of the room, looking at me. His face was truly serious now, and very attentive, as if he were seeing me for the first time.
“Of course,” I said, “if I do stay, my mother may hire men to track me down and drag me to her house.” It was meant as a sort of joke.
He said, “Your mother would never do that. She doesn’t want to publicize the fact that she hasn’t got the totally balanced, perfect, well-adjusted, enamored, brainwashed mindless child she intended.”
“How cruel you can be,” I said, astonished. “Crueler than Clovis. I think because Clovis’s cruelty is based on untruths.”
Relinquishing the window mood, Silver: smiled at me. He sat down on the couch, and said, “Brush my hair.” So I went to him and did just that, and felt him relax against me, and I thought about every moment I had spent with him, through and through.
“You have a beautiful touch,” he said at last.
“So do you.”
“Mine is programmed.”
And I smiled, too, with a crazy leaping inside me, because now it seemed he was protesting far too much. But I let him get away with it, magnanimous and in awe.
“What’s the best way for me to persuade money from the crowd?” I asked.
“So the lady agrees.”
“Yes. Do I walk round the edge, or just stand there?”
“I thought it was wrong to take their money as I’m so much better than a human performer?”
Of course I had triggered the change in him. By admitting that I thought him a robot—even when, really, I never, never had… How cunning of me, how psychologically sound. And I’d never even figured out what I was doing.
“I don’t care anymore,” I strategically said.
“Whatever we use to collect the money will be on the ground. Don’t forget, you’ll be singing too.”
I almost dropped the brush.
“Of course you will.”
“I can’t sing.”
“You can sing. I’ve heard you.”
“Think of the human element it will add,” he said. “You have a natural instinct for spontaneous harmony. Half the time you sing with me, you slip into effective and very original descants. Didn’t you know you were doing it?”
“That’s—because I can’t hold the tune—”
“Not if it’s perfectly in harmony it isn’t. You’re a natural.”
“I—those were just fun. I’m no good at—”
“Was it, by any chance,” he said to me quietly, “Demeta who told you you couldn’t sing?”
I paused, thinking. I couldn’t remember, and yet—
“I just never thought I could.”
“Take it from me you can.”
“But I don’t want to.”
“How do you know you don’t?”
I had lost my omnipotence for sure.
“I can’t,” I squeaked. “I can’t.”
At midday the rain stopped. The world was wet and grey and luminous and complaining as we went out into it, he wrapped in the red-black cloak, with the guitar slung from his shoulder, I in my now very grubby fur jacket and my now very grubby jeans with bright pretty accidental paint dabbings all over them. At intervals, as we walked off Tolerance, along the boulevard, under the elevated, I said to him: “I can’t, Silver.”
And he replied lightly, “Okay.”
People passed us, splashing and slopping through the craters in the streets that had turned into ponds and lakes. Some of the flat roofs were reservoirs, with picturesque waterfalls down onto the pavements below. It was the kind of day to hurry home on, not to walk out into. And helplessly I remembered days at Chez Stratos, curled up in the warm library with a book, or in the Vista eating candies while music tapes played, the cold unfriendly sky furling and unfurling like metallic cream, the rain falling like spears, while I was safe from the weather, safe in my cocoon, while I waited for my mother to come home. And: “Mother, can we have hot buttered toast?” And Demeta, recognizing my childish foible for classic home comforts, agreeing. And one of the spacemen wobbling in with a tray of china tea and toast and strawberry-and-orange jam. And my mother would tell me what she’d done, and I’d laugh up at her, and she’d ask me what I’d done, and I’d tell her, but what I’d done was also so boring, and I knew it was, and I’d hurry over it so as not to bore her. I knew she was bored, you see. Not with me, exactly. And she camouflaged it very well, but I could sense the camouflage somehow. And I’d have vague daydreams about doing something astonishingly interesting, and interesting her—like going back to college and reading comparative religions and traveling to South America, or what was left of it, and returning with a thesis, which I’d then read in public, and she’d be proud of me. And when we’d eaten the toast, she’d kiss me and go away to her study to do something incredibly erudite and worthwhile. And I’d fall asleep on the soft carpet, with the rain and the wind swirling in the balcony-balloons unable to harm me.
I adored my mother. But I was afraid of her. And I’d begun to see—just what exactly had I begun to see? See through the medium of my lover. My mechanical, not mechanical, my beautiful, my wonderful lover. Who said: Demeta is also afraid of you. Demeta has tried to cut you out like a pattern from a pattern book, only you didn’t quite fit. And so here I was with him, advancing along the wet chilly sidewalk, without any money. But I had only to go into any bank in the state to get my fare to my mother’s house. Think of that. Then think of how he had lain back against me as I brushed his hair, his eyes closed. He’d said, “You have a beautiful touch.” He’d said, “I like the taste of food.” He’d stared out of the window, unable or unwilling to reply, when I’d told him: You don’t act like a robot. You never really have.
Confused, almost happy, almost terrified, I saw my reflection go by with his in the glass fronts of shops. (Superstition. He doesn’t have a soul, therefore, he shouldn’t have a reflection, or cast a shadow.) My reflection was of a new Jane with barley blond hair, and slim, absurdly slim. My waist was now twenty-two inches. One of the many reasons why my jeans looked so awful was that I’d had to dart them—badly—to stop them from falling around my ankles.
So why shouldn’t I sing in the street? That was interesting, wasn’t it? More interesting than studying religions. Mother, I am a street singer.
I remembered dimly, singing as a child, sitting in the Chevrolet as my mother drove us somewhere. And after a while, she said, “Darling, I’m so glad you like that song. But try to hit the right notes, dear.” Sometimes I’d pick out tunes on the piano, and simple left-hand accompaniments, but only when she wasn’t able to hear them. My mother’s playing was brilliant. I’d known I was musically clumsy. No, when I’d sung with him I’d been so relaxed some quality came from me that wasn’t usually there. Sort of by mistake. But in public—in public I’d panic. I’d be dreadful. Rather than give us money they’d throw stones, or call the police.
We reached an arcade, warm-lit from the shops that lined it either side. A partly-roofed alley ran off through an arch between two stores. It was a wide alley, and people turned into it to avoid the cold, still-dripping sky. They also went up and down the arcade for the same reason. A good place for a pitch, even I could see that.
Silver strode into the entrance of the arch, as if he owned it and had come there every day for three hundred years.
As he brought the guitar around on its cord, I hissed nervously, “What do I do?”
He regarded me with astonishment.
“You mean you’re not going to sing?”
“You can’t. All right. You stand by me and silently appeal to the heterosexual male element in the passersby. The cookie jar, by the way, goes on the ground. There will do.”
I put down the jar. I had a vision of myself standing there like a blancmange, and feeling even more embarrassed than if I’d sung. A grey rainy misery overcame me, after all. He’d been willing to do this alone, presumably. To earn money to keep me, my pet seal, my slave, my egg-shelling machine. I should have let him. Damn. How could I?
The first chord made me jump. It also alerted the attention of some of the people splashing about in the arcade. Not all, of course. Buskers are so common downtown.
Then he started to sing. It was a song I’d heard him sing before, about a train running somewhere, an old train that blew hot smoke and steam out of its stack. The melody rattled and bounded with the train. It was wild and cheering, a perfect song to diffuse the grey hapless day. (I found I wasn’t embarrassed, I was enjoying the song too much.)
I leaned on the alley wall, and partly shut my eyes. People might think I was just a hooked passerby. The song made me laugh inside, smile outside. Then I saw people stop. Four of them now, standing around the arch mouth. Someone came in from the grey end, and paused, too. When the first coin hit the inside of the jar, I jumped, and guiltily peered at it, trying to pretend I wasn’t. It wasn’t a lot, but it was a start.
It was odd how quickly I got used to it. Really odd, as if sometime I might have done it before. But I suppose that’s just because I’ve watched street performers a lot. I recalled their dignity in the face of the many who just walk by, or who listen and then walk by, giving nothing. And their equal dignity in the face of the gift. Once Clovis threw a whole sheaf of bills to a young man juggling fantastically with rings and knives and oil-treated burning tapers which somehow he always caught by the unlit end—to accompanying gasps from the crowd. And the young man, who I think Clovis found very attractive, called out to him, in the midst of the whirling blades and flames, in an accent that was real: “Merci, beau monsieur.”
Silver played, perfectly, of course, tirelessly, of course, on and on. Suddenly there were about fifty people squeezed in around the alley, and a coin had hit the inside of the jar and bounced out again since there was no room for it anymore. This time the busker’s etiquette failed me. What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t very well tip the jar in my purse in front of fifty people, but on the other hand, a full jar might deter further giving. I lost the end of the song, worrying. Was brought back by a burst of applause.
Silver stopped playing, bowed to the audience, stifling my heart with his sheer medieval beauty of gesture. I felt safe under the umbrella of his personality. Who would notice me? No one in the crowd seemed prompted to move. The only movement came from two women, stealing in at the back of the alley to join it. None of them could have any work to go to, or else it was a rest day for them. That must be it, for surely the unemployed wouldn’t throw money. Or perhaps mostly they hadn’t, wouldn’t, just wanted to be entertained for free.
But it was unusual for a performer to draw such a big static crowd. Clever to pick this position. As yet none of the surrounding stores had had their doorways blocked, and so wouldn’t complain.
The crowd was waiting to see what Silver would do next.
He played a few notes on the guitar, as if considering, and then he said,
“This is the request spot, ladies and gentlemen. Request a song, and I’ll sing it. However, each song costs a quarter, paid in advance.”
Some of the crowd giggled with affront. I tensed. I’d been given no inkling of this—naturally I’d have argued. A rangey man called out:
“Suppose someone pays you a quarter and doesn’t like the way you do the song, huh?”
Silver fixed him with his fox-colored eyes, cool and tantalizing and playful.
“The quarter,” he said, with graceful maleficence, “is always returnable. As is the coat button you kindly gave us ten minutes ago.”
The man opened his mouth foolishly and the crowd laughed loudly. Somebody prodded the man, yelling, “Pay up, stingy bastard,” but Silver broke in, clearly and sweetly: “The button counts as payment. Even buttons are useful. We only draw the line at fruit pits and dried dog turds. Thank you. First request.”
They surged and muttered, and then a woman called out the name of some dull love-song from a theatrical that had recently won critical acclaim. Silver nodded, tuned the guitar, and played half a bar. The woman threw him a quarter daringly, and Silver caught it, and placed it neatly on the ground where the copper had previously fallen. Then he sang the song, and it became sad and meaningful.
When he finished, there was a long pause, and someone said to the woman, did she want her quarter back, and she came through the crowd and put a bill in Silver’s hand, and walked briskly away and out of the arcade. Her face was pink and her eyes were wet. Obviously the song meant something special to her. Her reaction disturbed me, but I hadn’t got time to concentrate on that, for there was another request, and another.
Some of them put the quarters in my hand, so they knew I was his accomplice. But I grew used to that. My feet were two blocks of ice, solid in my boots, and my back ached from standing. I didn’t know how long we’d been there. I felt dizzy, almost high, as if my body and my mind were engaged in two different occupations.
He must have sung twenty songs. Sometimes bits of the crowd went away. Generally more people accumulated. Then someone tried to catch him, asking for a song I didn’t think existed.
“I never heard of that,” said Silver.
“No one did,” a voice shouted.
“But,” said Silver, “I can improvise a song to fit the title.”
They waited, and he did. It was beautiful. He’d remember it, too. He never forgets any song, copied or invented.
A silver coin hit the wall behind my head and sprang down next to the jar. Excited, the crowd was getting rough.
“Thank you,” Silver said, “but no more missiles, please. If you put out my girlfriend’s eye, she won’t be able to see to count the cash tonight.”
His girlfriend. Stupidly I reddened, feeling their eyes all swarm to me. Then the rangey man who’d apparently given us the coat button, but was still there, called:
“Here’s my request. I want to hear her sing.”
It was so awful I didn’t believe my ears, didn’t even feel afraid. But, “Come on,” said the button man. “She’s got a voice, hasn’t she? When’s she going to sing?”
At which sections of the crowd, enjoying the novelty of it all, began to shout in unison that they wanted me to sing, too.
Silver glanced at me, and then he raised his hand and they ceased making a noise.
“She has a sore throat today,” said Silver, and my blood moved in my veins and arteries again. Then he added, “Maybe tomorrow.”
“You going to be here tomorrow?” demanded the button man.
“Unless asked to move elsewhere.”
“I’ll be back tomorrow then,” said the button man, morosely.
He turned to shoulder out of the crowd, and Silver called dulcetly to him.
“To hear the lady sing costs more than to hear me.”
The button man glared at him.
“Because,” said Silver reasonably, “I think she’s worth more than I am, and I’m setting the prices.”
The button man swore, and the crowd approved Silver’s chivalry. And I stood in a bath of icy sweat, staring at the money on the ground by the jar.
Silver accepted two more requests, and then, to howls of protest, said the session was over for the day. When they asked why, he said he was cold.
When the crowd had filtered away, Silver divided the money between the inner pockets of the cloak and my purse. A muffled clanking came from both of us, like a distant legion on the move, and I said grimly, “We’ll be mugged.”
“We haven’t earned that much.”
“This is a poor area.”
“My policode soon won’t work. And you couldn’t stop anyone if they attacked us.”
He raised an eyebrow at me.
“Oh, why not?”
“You’re not programmed for it. You’re not a Golder.” Why did my voice sound so nasty?
He said, “You might be surprised.”
“You surprise me all the time.”
“What’s the matter?” he said.
“Nothing. Everything. It’s all so easy for you. How you must despise us. Putty in your hands. Your metal hands.” I was crying slightly, again, and didn’t really know what I was saying, or why. “That man will come back. He’s the type. He’ll come back and bully me.”
“He fancies you. If you don’t want to sing, we’ll just ignore him.”
“You can. I can’t.”
“You know why not. I trusted you, and you let them all think I’d sing. After I said—”
“I let them all think you might. You don’t have to. It’s a wonderful gimmick. The mysterious dumb blonde—dumb, I hastily add, in the vocal sense. Your earning ability will soar. In a month’s time, if you just sang a line of ‘Happy Birthday,’ they’d go wild.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“I am idiosyncratically silly.”
“Shut up,” I said.
He froze, turned up his amber eyes, and stood transfixed, a mechanism switched off.
“Damn you,” I said, as once before. “I shouldn’t be with you. It’s all a game to you. You don’t feel, and you don’t understand. Do you laugh at me inside your metal skull?” My voice was really awful now, and the words it said, awful, awful. “You’re a robot. A machine.” I wanted to stop. Pale memories of what I’d thought earlier, my triumph, my joy at the sudden human vulnerability I’d glimpsed in him, seemed only to increase my need to—to hurt him. I’d been hurt. Someone’s hurt me, hurt me, and I never knew. So now I’ll hurt you if I can. “A circuit engages,” I said, “and a little light comes on.” There was fear, too. After all, it might be true, mightn’t it? “The light says: Be kind to Jane. To stupid Jane. Pretend she can sing. Pretend she’s nice in bed. Pretend, pretend, ’cos otherwise she’ll send you back to Egyptia, who knows exactly what you are. Egyptia who puts you in the robot storage at night because she prefers real human men. But Jane’s maladjusted. Jane’s twisted. Jane’s kinky for robots. Gosh, what luck. Jane’ll keep you, let you make believe you’re human, too. Plain Jane, always good for a snigger.”
I was trembling and shivering so much the coins in my purse sounded like a cash register in an earthquake. He was looking at me but I wouldn’t look at him.
“The reason,” he said, “why I packed up the session here was that I could feel you freezing to death beside me. We’ll get you back to the apartment, and I’ll do the next stint alone. The market’s probably a good place.”
“Yes. They love you there. And you can go home with one of the women. Or with a man. And make them happy.”
“I would prefer to make you happy.” His voice was perfectly level. Perfect.
“You’re not sorry. You don’t have any emotions to be sorry with.”
That’s enough, I said to myself. Leave it. None of this is true.
Yes, I said to myself. He’s fooled you all this while, played with you, made a clown of you, the way he played with the crowd.
Isn’t this clever, I said to myself. To keep on and on about his unhumanness, on and on until he feels it like a knife.
I was either terribly cold or terribly hot, and my legs were leaden. I wanted to sit down and there was only the dank paving, so I sat on that. And next second he’d pulled me to my feet. Holding me by the arm hard enough to hurt me, he propelled me into the arcade and through it, and back into the outer streets. Wise move, robot. You guessed—computed—I’d be quieter out here, where it’s less private.
The sun was low, burning out over Kacey’s Kitchens, like one of their molecular stoves.
There was a bus and he pulled me onto it. We had to stand. The bus felt like a furnace and people came between us as we hung on the rails. I could see him then, his pale only faintly metallic face, staring out of the windows at nothing. His face was fixed, cold, and awesome. I would have been afraid of that face on anyone else. But because it was him, I couldn’t be afraid. And my anger died in me, and my mistrust, and a deep sickness came instead. A sickness at myself. A sickness that I couldn’t express to him, or to me.
We got off at the boulevard and walked to Tolerance, and into the apartment block and up the stairs. Neither of us spoke. The apartment looked icy, even its jewel colors were numbed.
I walked in and stood with my back to him.
I started to say something then, I don’t recall what, and in the middle of it the door quietly closed, and I turned, for I knew he was on the wrong side of it. I heard the coins, but not his feet, sound as he went down the stairs, and one strange hollow plunking note from the guitar, when his cloak must have brushed its strings.
He’d gone to earn the rent money for me. The food money, for me. The clothing money. For me. I knew that he’d stand in the grey afternoon that was now deepening to a greyer twilight, singing out gold notes, amber songs, silver and scarlet and blue. Not because I’d bought him, not because he was a slave. But because he was kind. Because he was strong enough to put up with my disgusting weakness.
I was ill with the cold, and wrapping myself in the rugs from the bed, sat in front of the wall heater.
I thought about my mother. About me. How the sperm was put inside her by a machine, and how I was withdrawn by another machine in the Precipta method. And how I was incubated, and how she breast fed me because it would be good for me—her milk taken from her by a machine, and put into my mouth by a machine. There were so many machines involved, I might have been a robot, too.
I thought about Silver. About his face, so fixed, so passionless. “You don’t have any emotions.” And I thought about his look of pleasure when I laughed, or in bed with me, or when he sang. Or when the sun shone through the girders in the subsidence, gilding them, and three wild geese darted like jets over the sky.
It got dark, and I lit some of the candles and drew closed the blue curtains. I thought how this morning he had left me, and I’d been afraid he wouldn’t come back. I wondered if I was afraid of the same thing now, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t afraid of anything. Only so cold, and so sick of myself.
I got into the bed and fell asleep. I dreamed I sang to a huge crowd, hundreds of them, and I sang badly, but they cheered. And Silver said to me in the dream: “You don’t need me anymore now.” He was all in pieces, wires, wheels, clockwork.
I woke up slowly, not with a start, not in terror, and my eyes were dry. I felt resigned, but I wasn’t sure to what. I also felt calm. I’d picked up some sort of chill, some minor ailment, a sign only of my physical inadequacy. That’s why things had looked so bad. I felt a lot better now, physically.
I slept, and woke up much later. I could tell it was much later, much, much later.
Finally I got dressed and went down to the phone in the foyer, and dialed for the time. It was three in the morning, and he hadn’t come back.