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Machine Love Joy Kennedy-O'Neill

My neighbor spreads a blanket on his grease-stained garage floor, easing down with a grunt.

“You okay, Bob?”

“Oh, just fine. She’s so beautiful, thought I’d take a little nap with her.”

He’s referring to his lawn mower, a simple apple-red push-mower. The old man’s losing it. I finish my morning walk and go inside to get some coffee.

My wife Jill turns on the news. “Look at this.”

There’s a flood in Houston. Evacuees flee, clutching their Roombas. One guy holds his microwave above his head as he wades through brown water.

“People are stupid,” she says.

“Yeah. It’s just stuff.” I hear the coffeemaker bubbling happily, and my heart sings.

Jill picks up her new briefcase.

“There’s my business woman!” I say, but she gives me a withering glance as she leaves. I’m not patronizing her. Really. The kids are older. Ever since she said she was going back, I’ve been supportive. Even though sometimes she feels far away.

I text the kids at lunch, but they’re busy. A pool of sunlight streams through the kitchen window. The house is empty. The coffee machine looks content. I know it can’t be, logically. But it predicted when I’d get up this morning and chirped, clucking like a happy chicken. No, I programmed it. But still. It knew my needs.

The news says that people have elevated levels of cortisol. Serotonin. People are falling in love with – things. Some eggheads talking about displacement. Projection. Like, because the divorce rate soared after lockdown now people just want to love their refrigerators.

God, that’s funny.

Three hours later, I walk back into the kitchen. The sun’s moved; the coffeepot rests in shadow, like it’s taking a nap. I wonder if old Bob’s sleeping by his lawn mower.

* * *

I’m cleaning out the grinds when Jill comes in with groceries and new coffee filters.

“But I just bought filters.”

“These are better. You think I don’t know how to take care of it?” She slams the pack down. “I know what it needs.”

She wipes the machine with a dishcloth, and the timer button chirps gratefully.

My jealously surprises me, turning my insides hot. My bones feel like porcelain in freefall. Fragile. I scrub the counter and spritz the cutting boards with bleach solution.

“You’re doing this now?” she asks.

“I’m being supportive.”

“But now? Not when there were a dozen eight-year-olds in the living room for birthday parties, or when the kids were throwing up? Or when we were cooped up for over a year, slowly losing our minds?” She storms away and slams her bedroom door shut. I hear her talking to the Roku.

I text some buddies, but everyone’s busy.

“Working on the Mustang.”

“Getting parts for my dryer.”

Greg actually puts blinking emoji hearts over a picture of his dishwasher.

What the hell?

I make another cup of coffee. The machine smells hug-warm and mocha-heady. Old Bob’s mowing his lawn. The red mower hums, sun-dazzled, like it enjoys his palms curling around its handle. Like lovers on a stroll.

* * *

Jill’s been reprogramming the coffee pot. It was cold this morning and sputtered in surprise when I turned it on, frantically brewing burbles of apology. She has no goddamn reason to be messing with it. She didn’t even drink coffee before she met me.

We worked in the same firm before we married. She drank tea. Then she got pregnant; I got a promotion. With the cost of daycare, it made sense for her stay home. That’s the way it goes for a lot of people, right?

I clean the carafe in the sink. It’s sudsy and naked, the glass squeaking. Laughing.

She walks in. “I used to bath Jeffrey in the sink. You have to watch out for the spigot. Let me do it.”

“No.”

“You’re being an ass.”

The refrigerator spurts out ice, as if I need a drink. My watch beeps a blood pressure warning. Jill starts throwing dishrags at me, yelling something about playing catch-up.

“Ordering ketchup,” our Alexa bleeps.

I turn my back to her drama to keep washing the carafe. Where do the years go? Time blinks in surges; blips, zaps. The shock of it!

The lawn mower is going again outside, chewing and rumbling. Bob’s white legs stride back and forth with it, a slow dance.

“You were horrible with babies,” Jill says. “You thought their heads were too big and you’d break their necks. I did it all.”

“Babies’ heads are too big.”

The carafe’s curved glass feels wonderful in my palm. Safe. Water-warm. I dry it carefully and place it back in the machine.

Jill throws a dish towel. Then a salt shaker. I duck. “Stop it!”

Then she throws a saucer. Bam! It slams into the slow-cooker on the top cabinet. They both fall, crashing down–

on the coffeemaker.

It shatters into a thousand pieces. Black grinds splatter.

“Oh my god!” She falls to her knees.

The machine chirps a sad death trill. Its blue light goes out. I want to cry. It needed me, and I blew it.

I crawl over to Jill and we huddle on the floor, by the bay window. “It’s okay,” I say, holding her hands. I realize she’s taken off her wedding ring.

Why is marriage so hard? It’s easier with machines, and I think they know it. But that’s crazy. They can’t love us back, right? Something’s gone wrong, like a tripped circuit in reality.

“We’ll be okay,” I tell her.

She’s looking at the shattered glass. “No. I’m too tired to try harder.”

I see Bob’s legs pass by outside. He’s coming to our house. Maybe he’s heard us shouting.

My jaw drops when I see his lawnmower following him. Candy-red as a heart. Puttering in adoration. It weaves a little, mowing into his flowerbed and over his daisies and forget-me-nots. Then it follows a green, holy aisle of shorn grass to the altar of our doorstep. Flinging petals like love.

© Joy Kennedy-O’Neill

Meet the Author

Joy Kennedy-O'Neill

Joy Kennedy-O'Neill

Joy Kennedy-O’Neill‘s fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, Galaxy’s Edge, The Cimarron Review, and more. Her story “Jericho” appeared in Flash Fiction Online in 2016. Joy holds a PhD in literature and teaches for a small college on the Texas coast. She enjoys cats, cheese, and sincere awkwardness. Find her at JoyKennedyOneill.com.

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