Alan paced. He had seen men do this on retro video; men waiting while their wives gave birth; men waiting to hear the outcome of a job interview; men trapped in prison. So Alan supposed that pacing was the thing to do. He was waiting, after all. And, in a way, he was trapped as well. What had ever possessed him to ask her out? That took a lot of nerve. But he had imagined she would just say “no.” In fact, he had fantasized 42 different and humiliating ways that she would say “no.” Instead, she had said, “Yes, that sounds like fun.”
But now what? Now, he had to go through with this “date” and videos provided all he had to go on about appropriate behavior. Definitely too embarrassing to ask EF or DF about it. He couldn’t really ask his friends because he had generously embellished his experiences with females in the stories he had told them. Alan was not sure how much “Mr. Watson,” the family AI could help but maybe it was worth a try.
“Mr. Watson. Come here. I want to see you.” Watson popped into a three dimensional image hovering and shimmering like a Will-O-Wisp right before him. “Watson, I need some advice on how I should behave on my — I am having a date tonight.”
“Excellent, Alan. I am sure it will be fun. How can I assist you?” As Watson spoke, his voice deepened and acquired a slight accent of the RP variety. The shimmering image resolved itself into something closely resembling early James Bond.
“What am I supposed to do? I mean, how am I supposed to behave? She’s a girl. What do they even like? What am I supposed to say? Why did she even agree to the date? Maybe she is just doing it for a laugh.”
“Alan, take a deep breath. Stop pacing. Sit. Relax. Here, I will play some relaxing sounds.” Immediately, a background of ocean noise came on. Even more quietly, the strains of plainsong floated into the room. “Now, Alan, what would you like to happen with Grace?”
“Well, not to be a complete fool for starters. How did you know her name was ‘Grace’? Never mind. You know everything.”
“I don’t know everything, Alan. No-one can. But let’s get back to your goals. What would you like to happen with Grace?”
“I just don’t want her to think I am — as inexperienced as I am, I guess.” Alan, arose and began pacing again.
“What? What about Grace?”
“Alan, what would you like for this date to be like for Grace?”
“For Grace? Well, yeah, I like her. I mean, I would like her to have a good time. And enjoy it. And want to — have another date? What am I supposed to want, Watson? I don’t even know”
“Alan, there is no one right answer. Why don’t you work together on dinner and then find something you both enjoy to do afterwards such as go for a walk, watch a movie, or play a game. See what she feels like after dinner. What is on the menu?”
“The menu? I don’t know. Hamburgs? Hot dogs? How do I know what she likes?”
“That’s a good question, Alan. How could you find out what she likes?”
Alan stared out the window hoping to find inspiration in the pines. “Well, I suppose I could ask her when she gets here.”
“Yes, you could. Make a few suggestions. Salad. Fish. But leave it up to her. When else could you ask her?”
“I could call her ahead of time and ask her. Then I could prepare better. But then I would have to call her. What if I got her AI though? I’d have to leave a message. OK, I guess I can do that.”
Watson and Alan continued their dialogue for another hour. Watson noted yet again how Alan and his kind needed to be led step by step through solving the simplest problems when they were nervous or angry.
Alan checked the way the table was laid out. Now, he took in the view in the kitchen. Suddenly, Watson’s voice cheerily rang out, “ETA, two minutes.”
Alan quickly checked himself again in the mirror. He tried vainly to push down that one strand of hair that refused to lie flat. He told himself to be cool. Be calm. Breathe.
The knock was surprisingly strong. Alan gulped. He wiped his hands on the sides of his trousers. Took a deep breath. Turned the knob. Opened the door. All. In. Slow. Motion. She was here. Grace spoke first.
“Hi, Alan! Am I too early?”
“No! No! You are perfect! Come in. Please. You look great.” Alan led her into the kitchen and handed her a large sieve containing a pair of scissors, taking another for himself. “Let’s go gather some things from the garden, okay?”
“Sure, Alan, that sounds like fun.”
Back out the front door they strode and around the house and through the limestone-pebbled rock garden to the small family vegetable plot.
Alan noticed that Grace wore the same kind of sneakers he did, but her feet were so much smaller. “Okay, Grace, there’s some kale and arugula. Pick out as much as you like. I’m going to grab some carrots.” Watson piped soft strains of “Appalachian Spring” out to the garden. Alan pulled the carrots up carefully from the loam. Meanwhile, he noticed the quick, delicate hands of Grace as she touched the kale and arugula he would soon be eating. He hated the idea of washing the greens. ‘Washing’ did not even seem like the right verb. More like ‘ruining’.
“Do you think we have enough, Alan?”
“Yeah. This should do it. It will just be three of us. EF will join us. But DF, my mom, I mean, was called in for an emergency surgery tonight.”
“Oh, my gosh! I hope she’s all right! I can come back another time, Alan. You should be with her!”
“No, no, Grace. She’s been called in to perform an emergency surgery. She’s not having surgery.”
“Oh! How silly of me. Of course, you would be there if … well, I’m glad she’s okay. I didn’t realize your mom was a surgeon. My dad is a doctor too, but he is not a surgeon. He’s a GPS – General Prevention Specialist.”
“A general specialist, eh?” Alan wasn’t sure whether he had made an appropriate joke or not and eyed Grace carefully.
Grace smiled. “Yeah, that is kind of a funny title isn’t it? But that’s what he does. He really does care about people’s general health with diet, exercise, massage, meditation, and sometimes medicine. And, of course, sometimes, he sends them off for tests and then sometimes…sometimes, they need surgery.” Grace spoke very quietly now. “And, sometimes the surgery works. And, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Alan examined Grace’s face carefully. Her eyes were glittering with tears! What the —-? “Are you okay, Grace?”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine. It’s just. He couldn’t save my mom. She died anyway. None of them could save her. I still miss her.”
“Oh, God, Grace, I’m so sorry! I didn’t know…I didn’t realize…”
“It’s okay, Alan. People just…sometimes people get unlucky, you know? Even when they have good habits. And good care. We tried everything. Anyway, speaking of good habits, let’s get going on the salad, okay?”
“Sure, Grace.” Alan held out his hand without thinking. She took it and stood looking into his eyes for a moment. Alan looked back. Grace smiled again, looked away, and went through the gate back into the rock garden.
Grace’s voice sounded very calm now. “So, what does your dad do then?” You call him ‘EF’?”
Alan laughed. “Yeah. I know. It’s weird. I call them ‘EF’ and ‘DF’ — I just got into the habit at some point. Anyway, he is an HSI expert of sorts. Human-Sing Interaction. Helps make the Sing sing as he likes to say.”
“Really? I never thought…I mean why does the Sing need help with anything? I thought it knew everything.”
“Well, not even the Sing knows everything. It cannot know everything in detail. The universe is too big. There is still unpredictability even with the best models. But EF’s — I mean —my Dad’s work is to help Sing know how to help people better. It’s tricky. And knowing a huge amount is not necessarily that big a help. Sing, and all the AI’s, need to know how to read people and how not to be so obvious as to be annoying but not be so cryptic that nobody understands what their advice is. How about some fresh oregano for the salad?” Alan looked at Grace. She nodded her assent.
“How does he do that? What did he study, Alan?”
“Well, you can ask him those questions yourself. Actually, if you’re really interested, you might ask our AI, Watson, about what it seems like from his perspective too. Oh, and, let’s get some of this fresh basil too, and grab some cherry tomatoes. They are out here because they need a lot of sun.” As the word ‘sun’ emerged from Alan’s lips, he could not help noticing that Grace’s blond hair shone in the sunlight like gold only a thousand times more beautifully than gold ever would. Should he mention this? He decided not to.
Soon, Grace and Alan stood side by side at the sink, rinsing vegetables and talking about the upcoming elections, their local sports team, and how life might be different without the Sing.
“How do you like your tomatoes, Grace? Sliced, diced, or quartered?”
“Oh, slices, would be nicest.” She smiled.
“OK, Grace, I think we are ready. Let me grab the salad dressing.” Alan opened the fridge but there was no salad dressing. Odd. Watson was supposed to make sure we didn’t run out of anything. And, salad had been Watson’s suggestion to pose to Grace. Weird. “Sorry, Grace, we don’t seem to have any.”
“Oh, I can make it for you, if that’s okay, Alan. I just need a little oil, I see vinegar, a touch of sugar, some mustard…” As Grace rattled off the ingredients, she quickly scanned the counter and found everything she needed. She stirred the concoction and held up the dripping spoon between them. “Taste test?”
“Sure.” Alan, took hold of Grace’s spoon hand and began to guide it toward his mouth. He shook slightly and a drop fell off the spoon. Grace’s left hand shot out reflexively and caught the drop.
“Wow! You have fast reflexes, Grace. Nice catch!”
“Thanks. I don’t want to make a mess. Not in your kitchen. Now, you have two choices for the taste test.”
Two choices? Can she mean what I hope she means? Alan thought his heart might explode, but he gently took her left hand up to his mouth and slowly licked the drop from her palm.
“What do you think, Alan? Okay?”
“Much more than okay. Delicious.” Alan laughed. “Let’s skip the salad.”
Grace laughed. “Nonsense. We put too much work into our salad. Anyway, I want to find out more about how your dad works. Time to call him to the kitchen for dinner?”
“Hi, Grace. I’m Alan’s Dad, Ed. Our AI, Watson already told me it was time for dinner. Looks like you two have made a really beautiful salad. I’m looking forward to it. And learning a bit about you, Grace.”