Literary Fiction Science Fiction

Your Grief is Important to Us

By Yaroslav Barsukov
Dec 18, 2018 · 1,990 words · 8 minutes

From the author: A recent widower who hasn't accepted his loss is forced to attend an interview.

"I'm in no need of your services, never have been," Mr. Franke said to the pale-faced young man behind the reception desk. "Don't you understand?"

When he'd received the invitation to the family planning center on the official yellow paper, Mr. Franke's first impulse had been to call Catherine and say, "Imagine that, the government is trying to set me up on a date..." For some reason, he never understood why, she loved such absurd situations. He even took out the phone before realizing what he was about to do, that her name wasn't on the contact list anymore, that there was nobody on the other side to answer.

"You're not single, then?" the receptionist asked.

"What do you mean by that?"

The man leaned forward and said slowly, as though addressing a child, "Do you have a new partner?"

"No, but you need to understand, it's been only two months—"

"If you don't require our services, why didn't you call to cancel?"

"I tried. I spent four hours on the phone."

"Well, yes." The receptionist looked down and started writing something Mr. Franke couldn't see. "Our operators can be quite busy. But you should've kept trying."

Mr. Franke wanted to ask him if he knew what it was like to wait on the phone in a hollow room.

If there was one thing Mr. Franke hadn't been prepared for in the wake of Catherine's death, it was how different the house felt without her—like a hotel he'd checked into. In the back of his mind, this thought lingered, that he needed to stay a little longer, and could then return to his real home. To her.

"Well I'm afraid you'll have to explain yourself to the metal head then," the receptionist said. Mr. Franke stared at him, and the man sighed. "To the android. Haven't you seen our new tagline?"

Mr. Franke looked down where the receptionist was pointing. At the desk's front side stood, in red block letters, '2021: YOUR GENES ARE IMPORTANT TO US.'

"Increased funding since January," said the receptionist. "We're employing androids for interviews now, for setting up your profile and all. Experts say people are more upfront with them." The lamp on the desk blinked, dimmed, and lit up again. "And, as you can see, we're still experiencing power issues whenever they recharge."

"Could it all be a mistake?" Mr. Franke said. "I've never been invited here before—"

"What's your IQ?"

"Hundred forty-one."

"Limit used to be hundred fifty and higher." The receptionist shrugged. "Same reason really: more funds, lower cut-off point for the program."

Mr. Franke glanced at the glass cage that was Lincoln's Family Planning Center, at the benches and office plants washed of color by the bleak daylight.

"Have you brought a photo of yourself?" the receptionist said. "It's for the records."

Mr. Franke closed his eyes. "Have you brought me that photo?" Catherine had asked him.

"No," he said to the receptionist, and his past self, at the hospital, repeated the word.

The door hissed open into a small green room with no windows. In the center, a middle-aged man with a crew cut and a hint of bristle sat at a table; there was another chair, and as soon as Mr. Franke settled into it, the man smiled.

"Good day, my designation is AH-56-C. It's a pleasure to meet you. We have one hour."

"The android interviewer."

"Yes, Mr. Franke."

"Then I'd like to tell you, so that we both don't lose valuable time: I don't need this, my wife died two months ago—"

The fluorescent light fixtures under the ceiling blinked and faded. For a moment, Mr. Franke found himself in absolute darkness; then, in silence, a portion of light returned, a bowl-like lamp that glowed dimly on the wall.

He swallowed and, unable to look anywhere else, stared at the android's eyes: in the scant illumination, the backlight from some invisible mechanism bled into the irises.

"What happened?" Mr. Franke said.

"The building has switched to backup generators." The android stared back at him. "On cloudy days, this sometimes happens. The Center's still trying to work out the power issues. Are you straight, gay, or bisexual?"

"I've told you already—I don't want this interview." Mr. Franke stood. "There's been a mistake, I'm not single, I'm a recent widower."

"I sympathize, but the appointment has been fixed. An hour has been allotted, and utilizing my technology costs money."

"How much for me to cancel?" he asked, and when the android answered, Mr. Franke nodded. "I can afford that."

He walked to the door and stopped one pace short of bumping into it: the two panels remained squeezed together.

"We need to wait until the main power comes back online," the android said. "Meanwhile, I suggest we use our time productively and, despite your concerns, conduct the interview."

Mr. Franke ran his hand across the door's frame and slapped the panels—the sound was dull, as though there were something solid behind.

"Have you brought me that photo, darling?" she had said to him on their last day together.

He returned to his chair and, after a short hesitation, sat down. As he leaned forward to prop his elbows on the table, something in his shirt's pocket pressed against his belly, something which felt like a piece of cardboard.

"Are you straight, gay, or bisexual, Mr. Franke?"

"What do you mean? I was married to a woman—"

"Many people remain in denial of their sexuality."

"I'm straight."

"What is your age preference?"

"Same age as myself."

"Height preference?"

"I beg your pardon?" Mr. Franke said.

The android tilted his head. "Do you prefer tall women?"

"What kind of interview is this? And, for that matter, what the hell is wrong with this whole program? Gene preservation—really?"

"Too many migrants," the android said. "The government feels that the national gene pool gets diluted."

"And they plan to fix this with those horrible one-sided questionnaires?"

"The queries are only one part of the procedure, Mr. Franke. I'm also running twenty complex heuristics to analyze your behavior during the interview—this data forms the bulk of your profile. The only thing impossible for me to determine are your own preferences. And don't worry, your potential spouse will answer the same questions." The android paused. "Do you prefer tall women?"

Mr. Franke tried to distract himself from the two glimmering irises, and that proved to be a mistake. Tall women. Uninvited, memories surfaced of Catherine on the beach, in a yellow swimsuit, a picture he'd taken while she was staring into the distance. Long legs, that look of casual beauty—she could've been a model if she'd wanted to.

"Mr. Franke?"

He closed his eyes. "Please," he said, "Please. Could we skip this question?"

"We can return to it later. Hair—blondes or brunettes?"

The waves rolled in and washed the beach into nothingness. The lamp on the wall sizzled, and Mr. Franke thought back to all those times Catherine would put a tea kettle on fire and leave the little thing to melt.

"I need to write down your preferred hair color," the android said.

"Brunettes." The room seemed to shrivel around Mr. Franke, bringing the walls and the android closer.

He comes into the bedroom where she sits at the night table, brushing her hair. How was your day, she asks. Fine, how was yours. Brushing her hair, a brown wave upon her shoulders.

There's a mail from the agency; want to open it together? Catherine has tender skin, tender arms. He keeps silent, and her hands pick up an envelope from the table and tear off the edge.

"Eye color, Mr. Franke?"

She takes something from the envelope, a photo, looks at it for a second and smiles. Don't you think he has my eyes? He walks up to her. A picture of a boy, bronze cheeks, sad stare, and the eyes ...

"Gray. She had gray eyes."

The android leaned forward. "By 'her' you mean your prospective spouse?"

"Spouse?" Mr. Franke said. "Oh, yes, of course. Spouse."

She wished a house full of children. He won't be my son, he says. She shakes her head: that little one wants a home too. They all want a home and a mother and a father so badly. Not my responsibility, someone else's, not my seed, someone else's, someone else's. Give me that photo.

I should've agreed to adoption, Mr. Franke thought and said, "Why didn't I say yes?"

Two glimmering splinters blinked from the shadow. "You mean to one of my questions?"

"Pardon ... I'm sorry."

"What type of music should your prospective spouse prefer?"

The room shriveled further. No, Mr. Franke thought, not that memory, not that one.

At the hospital, he had brought her a recording of a violin concerto, and she smiled at him from behind the wrinkles the disease had carved on her face. Cancer took her away from him, bit by bit, over a year.

At the edge of the overbed table lay a half-eaten croissant. "Where's that photo, of the sad-eyed boy we wanted to adopt?" she said.

"I couldn't find it, I couldn't, maybe I'd thrown it into the bin with other papers," he said. "I'm so sorry."

"Mr. Franke? Are you talking to me?"

An expiration date, Mr. Franke thought; android has his, I have mine. People should be gentle with each other before they expire, before they become dust and dirt.

Something rectangular in his breast pocket pressed against his heart.

"I should've agreed to adoption. I remember shouting," he said. "And I couldn't even bring her the picture…" He felt inside the pocket, and his fingers came upon a thick piece of paper, smooth to the touch. He took out the photo and stared at it. "It was in this shirt. It has been all the time."

"Should she enjoy socializing? Taste in music? Is a sense of humor important? Music? Music?" The android's voice flowed now from all directions, pressing the air out of the room as though out of a huge lung.

"In this shirt, all the time. And I couldn't find it." The walls shook before Mr. Franke's eyes, and he felt the way he used to in childhood, when waking up from a nightmare. Everything—the table, the chairs, the android—wrapped around him; a large thing devouring a small thing.

"Should your potential spouse like to socialize?"

"Please," said Mr. Franke. "Stop. I don't want to remember. I don't—"

"Should she enjoy listening to music?"

Glowing eyes floated toward him. I need to make him stop, if I don't make him stop, I'll die.

He stood on uneven legs, reached forward, grabbed the android's head, and shoved it into the table. To Mr. Franke's surprise, there was little resistance; it was as though he was gripping a plastic doll.

The android kept repeating, “Music? Music?” and Mr. Franke kept performing the same mechanical motion until it wasn't clear to him anymore who of them was a man and who a machine.

This time, the table before Mr. Franke was white, sterile, without a scratch on its surface. A door opened, and a man with a goatee, a plump folder under his arm, entered the room.

"I'm your lawyer, Mr. Franke," he said, lowering himself into the chair.

The folder thudded against the table.

"Quite a mess you've made at the center, hmm?" The man with the goatee smiled out of the side of his mouth. "Why did you do it, if I may ask?"

"My wife died two months ago."

"Oh, this is good, this is perfect." The man patted the folder. "This means we can claim temporary insanity. And such personal details—the jury always loves those. But, Mr. Franke ..." He leaned forward. "... to be able to sway them, I need to know more. Are you gay, straight, or bisexual?"

Mr. Franke squeezed shut his eyes.

"Were you and your wife close?"

This story originally appeared in Galaxy's Edge.

Yaroslav Barsukov

Yaroslav Barsukov writes stories that deal with things he himself, thankfully, doesn't have to deal with.