TITLE: "Good Thing I Know You, Mr. Williamson"
AUTHOR: "Matrix Refugee"
RATING: PG-13 (adult themes)
ARCHIVE: Yes, now that ff.n is blocking some of us on the Yahoo! Group...
SUMMARY: Mr. Williamson, the desk clerk at the Shangri-La, has seen a lot of people come through, but none so lonely as a girl named Samantha Bevins.
DISCLAIMER: I do not own "A.I., Artificial Intelligence", its characters, settings, concepts or other indicia, which are the property of the late, great Stanley Kubrick, of DreamWorks SKG, Steven Spielberg, Warner Brothers, et al.
NOTES: As soon as I finished "You Killed Me First" and the "Minority Report"/"A.I." crossover "The Eyes Have It", I thought of a whole other angle on the Samantha Bevins scenario, but I also wanted to write a story about Mr. Williamson the night clerk: Like the rest of the "A.I." characters, he has a story to tell... So, I just combined the two ideas. But don'tm worry, it's all pre-film, so that jerk who kills Samantha and frames Joe does not appear in the following.
Night clerk in a hooker hotel in the hick town of Haddonfield, New Jersey. Not the kind of onerous task in a den of iniquity you'd expect a washed-out literature teacher to end up with, but it's the best I can manage with the record I've got behind me. Most of the guests who come in and out stare at the literary and theatre magazines I'm always reading behind the desk in between customers. The Shangri-La Hotel rents rooms by the hour for people and their paramours, often rented by the hour themselves. The most unromantic kind of place I could end up in. Dante would have had a field day, seeing it as some station on this particular neon-snarled circle of the Inferno known as Herald Street, which the locals call "Harlot Street" or just simply "THAT Street" (As in, "Jimmy, if I ever catch on on THAT Street, I will kill you!"). And probably rightly so, since every night and for much of the day, the sidewalks teem with lover Mechas-male, female, some I'm not sure what they are-and the Orgas out to buy the wares they offer.
But it's a good place to disappear, lose yourself. The reason that brought me to this low estate are to sad and sordid to describe here, even for someone as old and jaded as I am. A scandal. Most of us endure something like a scandal one way or other, either as victim or as victimizer. I was both, something I would never repeat, a fate I wouldn't wish on anyone, a victim of my own self-indulgence and the guile of an already victimized young woman. When you've served time for the kind of crime I committed, it takes something out of you. The Merrill Williamson who walked out of the Trenton House of Correction was not the same man who walked in ten years before. Something died in me and I see its absence in my faded blue eyes every time I look in a mirror.
I have to put on a act, shed my former academic voice (not that I ever had one: I used to shock the more elitist of my colleagues by daring to recite Shakespeare with my admittedly "gangsterish" New Jersey twang) and pretend to be the regular guy I really am. And there's an awful lot of "regular" people here. Regular adutls at play with living love-puppets; too often it seems the puppets are the ones getting more out of it than the Orgas who use them. I know philosphically these things have no emotions. But I often get the feeling the Mechas are more aware of the futility of the Orgas' actions than the Orgas themselves are. I swear some of them have more human reactions than some of thge Orgas' reactions. Or is their programming just compensating?
One case in point: a very pretty young she-Mecha, known as Jane, a shapely thing as tall as I am, clad all in form-hugging black, with violet-black hair and cobalt blue eyes. Granted, her face has that cheap look you find in the faces of all whores, Orga or Mecha, and it's too glossy by nature, but she has this husky alto voice that always just melts my stony old heart. But more than that, more than my mere hormonal yearnings fer her, I've noticed her behavior when she comes down the stairs after an especially rough session entertaining some swag-bellied businessman or a ham-handed college punk: she seems relieved to get away from them. I swear she perks up as she passes by my desk on her way out.
On one occasion, her eye lit on the copy of World Literature Review I had spread out before me.
"Catching up on what's new in the news, Mr. Williamson?" she asked, leaning one shapely hip against the front of desk.
"Yes and no," I said. "I'm just reading a critique on a new translation of some very old poetry."
"Indeed," she asked. "Is this your hobby?"
"Sort of is now," I admitted. "I, uh, used to teach literature at a high school, long time back."
"What sort of literature? Love poetry?"
"Part of it was," I said.
She smiled at me, recoginizing something in her range. "Perhaps some time you might like some company for a...more interactive interpretation?" She put her black-sheathed hand on my wrist, running her fingertips under my sleeve cuff.
My insides flip-flopped, but once burned, twice shy, even if she wasn't Orga. "Sounds great, but I can't," I said. Besides, her price was probably way out of my range: after paying my bills and my rent, and paying alimony, I never had much left. And I had a funny feeling I'd be violating some kind of unwritten rule, that accepting her offer wouldn't be very professional on my part.
She pushed out her full lips in this cute pout. "Why not?"
I shrugged. "I got my reasons, but I'd rather not discuss them."
The medallion pager on a slender chain about her neck trilled, calling her away to another customer. "Perhaps we can work something out at another time?" she said with a sweet smile.
"Somethin' t' think about," I said.
She dropped me a slow wink and sashayed out. Maybe I only imagined it, but she walked away much more slowly, even lingering, than she'd approached it.
People tell me that Mecha behavior is only programmed responses, but don't we Orgas have a certain amount of biologicla programming to which we're subject? Granted we also have a free will. But say the Creator chose to make a human with a mind but with limited volition? You'd have something like a Mecha.
The questions kept coming the more I thought about it. People think I'm either queer or I'm a eunuch because I've never done anything with any of the Mechas that go in and out of this place. Or they think I'm Mecha-phobic, which certainly isn't the case, either. Sometimes these things seem more accepting of other people than most Orgas, not to say there aren't a few who seem programmed to be playfully snooty. This little red-haired Mecha known as Fancy likes to twit me because I'm always talking to Jane and I don't chat much with her. I haven't told her of course, and she might not get it, but Fancy looks too much for comfort's sake, like the twerp who contributed to my losing my job and what little repute I had. Call it a process of association problem.
People really started to think I was queer when this new Mecha showed up and I started talking to him a lot.
They call him Joe, but this guy is certainly no ordinary Joe: the lean, almost tom-cat-like build of a dancer and the slicked-hair charm of a 1930's film idol, the airs and manners of a duke and the mellifluous voice of a Shakespearean actor (reminds me a little of Richard Burton with a Rudolf Valentino corrollary). Black hair, green eyes, a well-shaped face caught in a freeze-frame so that he appears hardly past his early twenties and a sprightly if at times pleasantly cynical demeanor. Gad, I mean I'm comfortable with my masculinity, but whenever this guy shows up to meet up with a customer in a room upstairs, I can't help noticing him.
DeShawna, the bar-tender in the lounge, loves to kid me for this. "Hey, everybody Joe is in the building!" she sings out as soon as Joe swings in through the front door, a comment which never fails to bring a proud little smile to his lips. The first first time she did it I figured she'd somehow spotted him first. But by the fourth or fifth time, I realized she sang out her taunt just before Joe passed her line of sight as he aproached the desk to fetch the key to the room where his latest conquest awaited.
The nights I tend bar, you can tell when Joe has just walked into the lounge to look for business on a slack night (he doesn't have many, but they happen): every woman's eyes turn right to him, even a few men's eyes look up, but you can tell what they're thinking: "Uh, oh, here comes someboyd who's liable to get himself between me and the cute blonde/redhead/brunette at the bar.
I mean, even some of the female Mechas are attracted to him, Jane in particular. More than once, I've heard her calling out to Joe with his personal epigram: "Hey, Joe, whaddya know?" which he replies to with hers: "Hey, Jane, how's the game?" I doubt that much more has passed between them, if you know what I mean. Part of me doesn't want to think about that, but the other part thinks it's hysterical: a Mecha who's such a hottie he catches the eye of his own species. Some of the barflies here have started a pool, betting on how long it takes before someone catches those two in a little dark corner somewhere. I think it's up to three hundred NewBucks. I keep better tabs on Joe and Jane than I do on the pool.
I keep the conversation between us strictly business: Tell him who's waiting for him in the lounge after he's finished, warn him if there's any trouble out there after he leaves (Flesh Fairs, anti-Mecha activist meetings), or more often, let him know who was asking for him.
I honestly worry about this guy, he kinda reminds me of my kid brother Karl. I mean, Karl looked nothing like this guy, but their personalities are similar: passionate, shyly friendly, cheerful, flirtatious, a little cynical in a gentle way...and vulnerable. Karl was a little simple as well, and Joe is even moreso. Some folks would argue that he has a one track mind, and quite naturally: They built this boy specific for one task, for charming the ladies.
It's only second nature to him to have a simplistic view of women: In his processors, all women are "lonely hearts" in need of a companion, a lover, an admirer, whatever their hearts desire, in need of being courted and charmed. Maybe we've gotten too cynical; we're all lonely hearts to some extent. Out insisting that all women have to be every bit as hard as most men are has caused us to lose sight of something. Maybe that's why things like Joe created, to remind women of their gentler side which wants to be pursued and courted and flirted with and seduced. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying a toss in the sheets is an answer to all life's problems. I'm just saying the men of the modern age have to some extent lost sight of the art of romance. If you reduce certain aspects of human nature to "what one does to have children", you lose half the beauty of it. Maybe that's why they designed and programmed this guy to be what he is.
But I'd say there's a lot more to Joe than just manners and beauty. He's got a brain under that glossy head of hair. And I wouldn't doubt he has something approximating a heart somewhere inside that sculpted chest of his. He's got potential, and I hope someone does the right thing by him and shows him something better than the mere function they built him for. Much as I like the guy, I hope some night that I don't see him come through the door five, ten times, that some woman buys him from whatever escort agency owns him and gives him a good home. It's a life I don't wish on my worst enemy.
Of course, in a place like this, we have a lot of regulars. But there's this one girl, Samantha Bevins, who comes here quite a bit more than I'd like to see of a nice girl like her. She's a model, I think, working for some big swanky department store in Camden. Usually these places have only female Mechas for models, but she's a bit of a designer and her uncle (I think) is trying to give her a boost in the industry. She's a knockout, better-looking than a lot of female Mechas, a tall slim (but not too slim) girl with a shapely figure and a sweet face with blue-violet eyes.
She comes in a couple nights a week, usually sits at the bar. I wouldn't say she drinks herslef blind, but she gets depressed after her second glass of white wine. I was tending bar one night, flling in for DeShawna, so I noticed this right away. She had her head down on the countertop, not crying, but sure fighting it, her shoulders trembling.
"Hey, Ms. Bevins," I said. "Hey, Samantha." I nudged her arm. She raised her face, her cheeks reddened under her makeup and her eyes too shiny."
"What?" she asked.
She shook her head and buried her eyes in her arms again. No words were needed to describe how she felt.
My instinct was to put a fatherly hand on her shoulder or her wrist, but I've learned from the hard school of experience. I knelt down to her level. "You wanna tell me about it?" I asked.
She lifted her eyes again. "Why, you a shrink as well as a bartender and a desk clerk?"
"Not exactly, but I'm a good listener."
She sat up. "It's my boss," she said, toying with a crumpled paper napkin. "He wants me to move into his apartment if I want to keep my job."
"You told him that's workplace harassment?" I asked.
She tossed her head to get a stray strand of hair out of her eyes. "Maybe I'd better back up: I've been sleeping with him."
"Are you in love with him?" I asked.
After a pause, she said, "I was."
"He been treating you raw?"
She nodded, her eyes downcast. "It wasn't so bad in the beginning," she said. "I figured he was just a little gruff because he's so high-placed in the industry. That power's just gone to his head, that's all it is."
"That happens too often, especially when a weak guy gets put in a high position."
"You got that right, Mack. I found out he's like that to everyone, even his own mother. Everything has to be his way or else, and that means it has to be perfect. But he can get away with murder."
"Yeah," she said.
"I don't mean to pry, but how'd you get involved with him?"
She smiled sadly. "It's hard to believe after you got to know him as well as I did, but he can be perfectly charming and polite in a slightly gruff way, especially when he wants something out of you. We got talking after work one day. He took me out to dinner a couple of times. I guess I was just a naive kid who got swept off her feet. But after the fourth or fifth time I woke up next to him in the morning, he started showing his true colors."
"What a bastard," I said. "Sorry."
"I've said the same thing, but I don't think there's a word in any language foul enough to describe him properly."
I glanced over Samantha's shoulder: the girls at the other end of the bar were staring toward the doorway, one of them licking her chops.
"You know, your best bet might be to blow him off by telling him you're involved with someone else."
She snorted under her breath. "How would I do that?"
"Just look over your shoulder," I said. "Hey, Joe?"
Joe, halfway across the room now, changed direction in mid stride and, with a smile starting to warm his usually gently smoldering gaze even more, he came up behind Samantha as she started to turn toward him.
"And who do I have the pleasure of encountering?" he asked.
"I'm Samantha," she said, a sunset hue coloring up her pale face.
I would have looked on as these two got acquainted, but I had other customers to wait on. But I kept an ear open on their conversations at several junctures.
"Can I buy you a drink, or are you one of those old-fashioned guys who insists on paying for a girl's drink?" she asked, when they'd gotten as far as sitting side-by-side, looking into each other's faces.
"No," Joe replied. "Though I appreciate the kindness of your offer."
"You an abstainer?"
He replied matter-of-factly: "I do not drink, nor do I eat."
A slightly baffled silence from Samantha, then: "You mean you're...you're a Mecha?"
"I am. Does that disturb you?"
"No, not at all...my goodness...You just look so real... I'm sorry."
"But for what?"
"Saying you aren't real. I mean, that always sounds so cruel, as if people...or things like you don't exist or something, like you'r just some really nice dream."
"Your words have done me no harm. You seem to have a caring heart for having apologized for a trifle...but yours is a wounded heart...But I can help you heal these wounds...Samantha."
"I bet you could."
As the evening wore on, the two of them moved to a vacated table at the back. A lot of furtive stuff goes on back there, which I always ignore. A lot of people do it just to be noticed, but not these two.
It didn't come as a suprise that, later still, they headed out into the lobby together, Samantha giving me a thankful smile, to have a word with Lin, the relief clerk, before they disappeared up the stairs.
What people and mechas do together is none of my business. I just wanted to give Samantha a way to get away from her vile boss. Like I've said, it's a fouled-up world wehn something that's only human in form handles a poor girl's bruised heart more gently than a flesh and blood man ever has. To my knowledge, this might have been the first time something good ever happened to her in a relationship. For all I know, Joe's attentions might be just what the doctor ordered: She might be able to develop the confidence and poise to tell off the sleazy cad she worked for. Maybe the means weren't the most innocent, but God seems to love writing the best stories with the seemingly most inappropriate characters and plots and props. Who knows? Samantha just might be able to get Joe out of the racket as a reward for helping her. They're both decent young folks who deserve a lot better lots in life.