Hogarth Hughes was no longer a young man. His wife of thirty years, Marla, loved to tell him this--over and over and over--while his grandson Andy sat there with his chin in his hands, watching the byplay like a tennis match.
"You lost any balance you might have had when you were on the high side of forty," Marla pointed out, standing below him on the lawn. No doubt she was preparing to gloat the moment he slipped off the ladder and pulled down all the gutters with him.
"Well, better get out from underneath me then, old woman, so I don't crush you."
"Suit yourself," she called, waving a hand at him as she banged through the front screen door.
High side of forty, she had her nerve. He hadn't actually started noticing that he was lopsided until he was fifty. Somehow he managed to get the gutters cleaned anyway, even while muttering to himself about his imaginary inner ear disorder, and then get down from the ladder without breaking off the east side of the roof.
Marla had ham sandwiches and lemonade waiting on the porch when he was done. After he'd eaten, she sat with him on the swing a while. She put her head on his shoulder, and they rocked together until the sun had gone down.
"You'll throw that shoulder out," she told him, eyes twinkling, when he insisted on tossing a baseball with Andrew in the overgrown backyard.
"It isn't any good to me anyway," he answered. "You won't let me carry anything!" Andy just grinned and threw even harder. Which, for a seven year old, was considerably harder than Hogarth's additional decades could really endure. It was worth it, though, for that look of glee on Andy's face when the ball connected with Hogarth's glove.
Hogarth's daughter Doris had no qualms about calling him out, either, though she was more subtle about it. "Dad," she said, prodding him as he slept through most of Andy's school play. He sat up straight like a shot and wiped the drool off his chin. (He could play off the spot on his shoulder as a gravy stain. Sure he could.) Doris pretended like he'd been awake all along. It was just better that way.
At least she still brought Andy by on Saturdays, despite the fact that he and Marla were apparently getting decrepit. Saturdays were good days, hiding out in the workshop and tinkering with whatever caught Andy's fancy. Many of Dean's masterpieces still lined the walls. The strange misshapen lump with five arms and three eyes, made of tin and leftover Christmas tinsel, was an immediate favorite. Andy took its legs apart and put it back together, and Hogarth had to tilt his head sideways if he wanted to see it leaning over, because darned if the kid hadn't straightened it right out. Must have inherited his great-grandfather's knack for art.
There were stories, too, doled out one at a time when their visits began, and then later as fast as Hogarth could tell them. Andy had his favorites. They all involved the giant robot.
Of course, the iron giant was always on Hogarth's mind, too. He had never relegated the robot to that corner of his mind reserved for childish nostalgia, for BB guns and rocket ships and those catchy Elvis tunes his mother had hummed while she cooked breakfast for Dean in those early years.
Hogarth counted maybe twelve true, lasting friendships in his life, and the giant was one of them. "Friends don't have to see each other all the time to know they are friends," he told Andy. That's just how it was. And maybe, once or twice, he'd wished in his secret heart that he was a robot, too. Robots could order up replacement parts, spruce themselves up as good as new.
Unless, of course, they were scattered all over the face of the earth.
One Monday Andy came running through the junkyard at top pace, backpack dangling from one shoulder as he shouted "Grandpa! Grandpa!"
"Good lord," Hogarth said, startled. Who in the world could say what dreadful calamity would make the kid holler like that? He dropped his wrench and flung open the door. "Over here, Andy!"
"Grandpa," Andy gasped, as he pulled up short a few feet away and stared up at Hogarth. "In school they taught us about the robot today. They taught us about you! Grandpa! Are you a fable?"
Hogarth chuckled, and then he considered it. More like a tall tale. He'd been telling the parts worth telling for so long, and embellishing them so beautifully, it was a wonder Paul Bunyan hadn't come roaring out of the woods and beaten him to a pulp for being a bald-faced liar.
But there were memories he kept to himself, too, things Andy was too young to understand anyway. Those items didn't relate at all to the laser-eyed robot that saved the tiny town of Rockwell, Maine. He remembered how Dean had looked at Annie, how his mother had put her hand in Dean's and looked at him with shining eyes on the day they married. Like it was yesterday, he could see them together in the house he'd grown up in, Hogarth's baby sister cradled in Dean's arms and Dean scratching his head, bemused, like it was some kind of miniature alien.
And the way Dean sat him down before his first date when Hogarth was sixteen, that was a good one. Dean squeezed his shoulder and launched into an abridged version of the facts of life, cleaner than a censored Ed Sullivan show. "Girls, they, well. They like flowers. Bees like flowers, too. They...like flowers a lot. You know?"
"Um, sure," Hogarth had said, trying his best to look innocent and draw it out as long as possible, just because Dean looked like he was about to be shot by a firing squad without a blindfold.
So many memories. He recalled the first robots he had built, all the gyros and circuits spread out before him on the table as he tried to make it function, with Dean trying to lend a hand. "Is it supposed to look like a stick on a roller skate wheel?" he'd asked, exasperated, while Hogarth held his belly and laughed until he cried.
He'd built a zillion robots over the years, had made a career of it. He'd constructed and designed the innards of hundreds of 'em, Super Secret Awesome Government Projects too, in fact. But each of them fed an immense sadness in him because though they could walk, and talk, and even play games, none of them was alive. None of them had been his.
Every night for years he had gone into the woods, nothing but a flashlight for company, and waited for the robot to come back. He'd worn the bark off one favorite tree because he sat beneath it so often.
All his memories were more distinct than they once were, the details sharpening with time, though he supposed it should be the other way around.
"Not a fable," he said to Andy, ruffling his hair. "Just a guy who met a robot once."
Andy looked vaguely disappointed, but some milk and cookies took care of that.
Life kept moving faster every year until it seemed to be zipping by at a blur. Dean's tribute statue in the square rusted and was taken down by the city for maintenance. It never reappeared, though Hogarth went to the park once a week, hoping to see it there. Andy kept growing, and then one day he was away at college studying art. Marla consoled him, but then one day she was gone, too, the love of his life, and their years together were just one more batch of memories. One blink of the eye and he was burying her in the cold, lonesome graveyard near his mother and Dean, with Doris holding his left hand and Andy his right.
He still went out to the workshop in his robe each night with his super-duper trifocals on - better than the x-ray glasses he'd ordered from the pages of his favorite comics when he was eight, though more expensive than the five measly cents he'd spent back then -- and once in a while, he could swear he saw the giant in the corner, reading Superman comics. They weren't all they were cracked up to be anymore, though. Too much violence. Too little plot.
Sometime in the middle of the night, on a Tuesday, a banging outside woke him. He sat upright in bed and scowled. "Damn kids." They were probably at the gate again, trying to get into his junkyard. He scooted to the edge of the mattress and stood up, stiffly. He rooted around for socks and shoes and eventually gave up; slippers would do.
Striped robe in place, flashlight in his hand, he made his way out to the yard and stopped dead. Part of the fence was missing. Not just a small part. More like someone had driven a tank through it.
Or stepped on it.
The corner of his mouth twitched up, and his heart thumped in his chest. He clicked on the flashlight and followed the wide swath of churned-up dirt and grass straight out into the woods.
Only silence greeted him there, except for an occasional owl hooting in the distance. He scratched his sparse hair and sighed. Maybe it was just a prank.
From behind the treeline a shadow rose, up and up and up until it obscured the moon. Hogarth's jaw dropped.
"Hogarth?" the giant said, and if a robot could sound disbelieving, the giant definitely did. Hogarth couldn't blame him. He was really, truly decrepit now, so he supposed he didn't look much like what the robot remembered, assuming its robot-brains hadn't been scrambled when it got blown up.
The giant crouched down close to the ground again and scooped Hogarth up, very carefully, raising him until he was at eye level.
"About time," Hogarth said, grinning through his tears.
"Hogarth!" the giant said, affection and satisfaction clear in his gravelly voice.
Hogarth considered asking him: Where've you been? What took you so long? Did your parts take forever to find you, or did you have better things to do? But none of that mattered now, and the giant had never been good at conversation, as Hogarth recalled.
He patted the robot's jaw and asked, "So where're we going?"
"Home," the giant said. "Adventure."
Hogarth clicked off the light. Then, they soared.