Short story: Maru 2.0

Willow Yang Maru 2.0
Willow Yang/Senior Staff

Maru 2.0 was not a normal dog. It couldn’t walk very fast, as its legs were all mechanical. They were only capable of slowly rotating on gears and hinges. Not only were its legs mechanical, but its heart and liver and spleen and bones and muscles and intestines and lungs were all mechanical too. Maru 2.0 was a beautiful work of precise clockwork. Instead of a brain, it had a microchip that allowed it to learn all sorts of neat things. We taught Maru 2.0 how to sing David Hasselhoff, how to say dirty words, how to recite recipes for all sorts of foods and other silly things.

We could ask it:

“Maru, can you recite the recipe for roasted stuffed mushrooms?”

And it would reply:

“Bark Bark! Start with 10 grams of dried shiitake mushrooms; boil them into a mixed vegetable broth for 20 minutes … ”

“Thank you Maru.”

“Bark Bark! You’re welcome, you asshole shit-stain!”

And so on.

I remember the day we put Maru 2.0 together. Jamie had invited us over for the opening.

It came to us in a giant cardboard box. The mailman had to unload it using a heavy-duty carrier. The box was bigger than everyone had expected, towering over us at about 6 feet tall. Mr. Ping expected it to be smaller too, I think. I remember seeing his expression as he opened the door and saw the box on his front porch — it was something between seeing two hippos going at it and getting an appendectomy.

“Jesus Christ, this is going to take all afternoon isn’t it? I thought it was supposed to be a toy! I’ll have to bring all my tools downstairs … ” he said.

Jamie’s house was three stories but fairly compact. It looked like a milk carton. Even the roof was a sort of pyramid shape with a flattened area for the chimney to stick out. It would have been difficult to carry the box up the steep stairs, so we decided to assemble it in the backyard.

The backyard was small but cozy. There was a small pond with a fountain in the shape of a pissing boy. Outlining it was a small line of colored gravel that separated the fountain from the wooden patio. The fences were all covered in ivies and the smell of purple morning glories settled in with the breezes. The ivies grew over the fence and were visible from the street.

They are still there. Often I walk by Jamie’s old house and collect the black, half-crescent seeds scattered on the sidewalk. They still smell the same too. Sometimes I take the seeds and plant them at the cemetery.

 We poured out the contents of the box onto the patio. Jamie and Ali began sifting through the plastic shells, screws, cogs and gears. Kazume and I looked at the manual.

DC-BOT

The DC-BOT, or Domestic Companion Robot, is a state of the art personal robot companion designed by top researchers in the fields of mechanical engineering, architectural design and artificial intelligence at the University of Tokyo.

The DC-BOT is not just a simple canine simulation toy! It is equipped with the latest GR-Atom CPU, created by machine-learning professor Dr. Tonodai, which allows DC-BOT to learn behaviors and build real-life genuine bonds with human beings, animals and other androids. Because of the high learning capacity of this CPU, each DC-BOT will develop its own personality depending on its environment, just like real dogs!

The DC-BOT also surpasses its flesh and blood counterpart in many ways. DC-BOT never needs to be fed or use the bathroom. It is equipped with the latest solar cell technology, which allows DC-BOT to stay functional simply with minimal light throughout the day. These solar cells can absorb even the weakest artificial lights and have a half-life of more than 1,000 years. DC-BOT can withstand temperatures of more than 500 degrees Celsius and less than -150 degrees Celsius. DC-BOT can also learn to sing in Swahili, play Blackjack, recite The Tale of Genji, critique modern art …

“So it’s not a toy?” asked Kazume, fiddling with a mechanical leg.

“Anything can be a toy if you play with it,” I said.

Mrs. Ping brought out little finger sandwiches for everyone to eat. They even had those individual toothpicks to hold each sandwich together.

“Don’t you kids want to eat inside?” she asked, shielding her eyes from the sunlight with her hands. “I can turn the air conditioning on if you want.”

“Let them do what they want, they’re not babies. They’ll be sixth graders in the fall,” her husband replied.

“Fifth graders you mean,” said Mrs. Ping.

“Yeah. That. You guys don’t need my help right? The instructions don’t look too tough.”

They are still there. Often I walk by Jamie’s old house and collect the black, half-crescent seeds scattered on the sidewalk. They still smell the same too. Sometimes I take the seeds and plant them at the cemetery.

Mr. Ping was sitting on a lawn chair having a beer with Mr. and Mrs. Burns. Mr Burns, Kazume’s father, was a juggler. He preferred to be called an entertainer because he also did observational comedy and played guitar at jazz bars. But people mostly just wanted to see him juggle, so that’s what he did. He was full German, although he spoke flawless Japanese. Mrs. Burns was a kindergarten teacher, and she was Japanese.

By the time we finished assembly, Kazume’s parents had gone home and Mr. and Mrs. Ping had gone upstairs. We were standing in a half arc around the lifeless metal pup. The legs and torso looked plastic-y and hardly lived up to its “state of the art” build. The face was a dim transparent plastic sheath that covered small LED lights. The ears and tail, although they were moving parts, weren’t securely screwed into the motors and jiggled around in their sockets.

It was probably the poor craftsmanship of a group of elementary school kids, but we decided to blame it on a manufacturing flaw instead. Ali began flipping through the operations manual.

“Here it is:

To start the initial configuration and imprinting process, press and hold the snout for 10 seconds. Please note: Once your DC-BOT has been imprinted, it cannot be reverted. For the android’s emotional sake, please make sure it can be provided with a nurturing and loving environment beforehand. When the LED lights flash on, go ahead and name your android. The internal camera and microphone will imprint your voice and facial structure into the CPU unit. We wish you and your android the best of luck!

“I wonder if it’ll still work properly. Seeing that we put the snout in upside-down,” Ali said.

Jamie went ahead and picked up the robot and cradled it in his left arm. Its limbs hung like a ragdoll. He pressed the upside-down snout down for 10 seconds. A thin and wispy whirring stirred in the robot. The limp limbs began to tighten and loosen, and then they began to waddle in the air as Jamie held the android. Its head tilted up and blue lights shined through against the dark visor. The lights formed an assortment of shapes, switching between triangles and squares every half-second before settling into two small dots with two thin curves above them. The DC-BOT looked up at Jamie’s face.

A couple minutes went by before Jamie broke the silence.

“Maru. Your name is Maru.”

 Maru 2.0 was his full name. Or her full name. It didn’t have any genitals.

We learned more about Maru 2.0 every day. Just as the manual had said, Maru 2.0 never had to shit or piss. It didn’t require any batteries. It began to learn our faces and voices. When it heard our voices, Jamie’s especially, it would strut cheerfully toward us with its LED eyes and brows in a cartoonish glee. Its barking and whimpering was strangely mechanical and a bit unsettling at first, but we soon got used to it.

For the first few months of Maru 2.0’s life, it was with us almost all the time. Jamie even brought Maru 2.0 into school at times. Once, when Mrs. Morican was teaching us about democratic forms of government, Jamie decided to start a petition to change the classroom rules and allow Maru 2.0 to be considered a student. He wrote the petition on a piece of paper and tacked it onto the bulletin board. Everyone except Mrs. Morican signed it. We all thought it was a pretty good joke. Jamie even insisted on bringing in another desk so Maru 2.0 could get a proper education. Mrs. Morican eventually gave into Jamie’s demand with the condition that Maru 2.0 sit in the back of the classroom.

Through Maru 2.0, we enjoyed for a while being the center of attention in school. Maru 2.0 was especially popular with the girls. They found Maru 2.0 to be adorably cheeky and quite mature for robot dog. One of the popular girls, Sofie, started spending a lot of time with Jamie and Maru 2.0, and Jamie would go around bragging about how he and Sofie went out to do such-and-such. One day, supposedly, Sofie asked Jamie if she could keep Maru 2.0 over at her house for a couple of days. When Jamie said “no,” she obviously stopped talking to him. That was when Jamie taught Maru 2.0 the phrase “stuck-up bitch.”

Maru 2.0 proved to be quite a difficult student to handle. It was constantly correcting everyone’s mistakes and interjecting unnecessary comments. On the day of Kazume’s Christopher Columbus report, Maru 2.0 was especially rowdy. Kazume had made a poster, complete with a biography, layouts of the Pinta, Niña and Santa Maria, and a marked map showing the travel route. He did all the illustrations himself.

“Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492, leading three large ships, as you can see here,” Kazume started, addressing his poster with a pointer he fashioned from two rulers taped together. “These ships were supplied with provisions for the sailors and were built to withstand all kinds of weather on the high seas including heavy waves and powerful storms. … After many months, he landed on a small island off the shores of Cuba, making him the first person to discover America … ”

“Bark bark! That’s wrong! That’s wrong! You damn idiot!” Maru 2.0 interjected. The whole class, including Mrs. Morican, turned to the back of the classroom in shock. Maru 2.0 suddenly leaped up on top of its desk and continued. Its LED eyes and brows became fierce. “Many records show that sailors from China and Scandinavia have made voyages to America as early as the 10th century, bark bark!”

“Maru! This is not the time to be talking, your classmate is giving a presentation!” Mrs. Morican yelled as Maru 2.0 continued to bark and yelp and howl. “Jamie, for the love of God, please shut that thing up! Take it outside!”

“Bark bark! I must get an education so I can be smart like Jamie!” Maru 2.0’s voice became shrill and harsh, like when music is turned up too high beyond a speaker’s maximum decibel level. The whole class watched as Jamie struggled to calm Maru 2.0 down. When Jamie picked it up, it began squirming its stubby mechanical limbs and its gears and hinges began whirring and grinding. “Bark bark! Jamie please don’t take me outside! Please don’t take me outside! Please don’t take me outside! Bark bark!”

Jamie left the classroom with Maru 2.0. He didn’t come back for the rest of the school day. Mrs. Morican ripped the petition off the bulletin board and tore it up into teeny tiny pieces

There are only two other times I’ve seen Maru 2.0 get upset. One was when we took it to the park and a pebble got stuck in its hind leg. We performed an emergency surgery without anesthesia. We didn’t even know if there was anesthesia for androids. Maru 2.0 howled and howled as Jamie sobbed and sobbed.

The other was when Jamie moved away to America and left Maru 2.0 with me. He gave it to me in a small cardboard box. Maru 2.0 couldn’t see Jamie’s family drive away from inside the box, but I could hear it whimper.

I’ll also add that Maru 2.0 is a terrible companion to take to the movies. When we took it to the theater, it never stopped making snarky remarks at the actors.

“Woof woof! That actor butchered the pronunciation of ‘Hasta la vista, baby.’ He should be fired!”

“Bark bark! Life is like a box of chocolates? I wish I could eat chocolates, but I’m a dog so I’ll die! Bark, woof! Also I don’t have a stomach, but I don’t think that matters.”

And so on.

Every time we met with Jamie, it seemed that he had taught Maru 2.0 a new trick.

One day Jamie bet Ali that he wouldn’t be able to beat Maru 2.0 in a game of chess. Jamie had been playing with Maru 2.0 for a few days and realized after a certain point that he could no longer outsmart the android. Ali of course accepted Jamie’s challenge. Ali was the captain of Osaka International School’s chess team at the time. We all gathered in Jamie’s living room, which was covered with tatami mats. In the middle was a small lap table covered with a thick blanket.

We set up the board and the pieces. Kazume had to set up Maru 2.0’s pieces as Jamie hadn’t taught it how to set them up. Ali sat cross-legged on one side of the board and scratched his fingers across the layers of hard straw on the mat while Jamie and I propped up Maru 2.0 on a small fold out chair.

The other was when Jamie moved away to America and left Maru 2.0 with me. He gave it to me in a small cardboard box. Maru 2.0 couldn’t see Jamie’s family drive away from inside the box, but I could hear it whimper.

To play chess, Maru 2.0 sat upright, propping itself up with its stubby, plastic legs. Its small motorized paws rotated outward and had just enough dexterity to pinch the small, white pawn up two squares. We could hear the thin buzzing sound of its motors each time it made a move and then again, as it retreated its limbs back away from the board. And it would sit in complete silence, trying to guess Ali’s next move. Maru 2.0 was oddly human in these ways.

Ali would take his time every move, continuing to scratch at the tatami mat he was sitting on. He’d suddenly stop scratching and hesitantly make a move, and as soon as his hand left his piece, Maru 2.0 would start whirring up and his buzzing limbs would immediately make the next planned move. And then Ali would start scratching again.

After making the checkmate, Maru 2.0 then barked in its strange voice and went back to being on all fours. It shook its tail and flapped its plastic ears while Jamie, Kazume and I patted it gently, telling it what a smart good boy it was. It was always strange patting Maru 2.0. It didn’t have any fur, but it could vibrate its body gently to let us know it was having a good time.

Ali, after staring at the board for a few minutes, stood up without saying a word and went straight for the door.

“Ali are you OK?” Jamie asked.

“I’m fine,” Ali replied.

Ali didn’t sit with us at school the next day. After school, he skipped his chess club meeting and went straight home.

I reconnected with Ali a few weeks ago. We met up for coffee, and I asked about the incident.

“Of course I wasn’t fine at the time,” he said. “You know I used to watch a lot of chess on television back then. Famous matches like Kasparov and Topalov. I used to think they were geniuses. Like some kind of magicians. Being able to create a beautiful battle from such a simple game. … I guess they’re not any better than the robots we use today. All the robots in our phones and computers, even a fucking toaster probably. I bet some brainiac could program a toaster to play chess. A fucking toaster could play chess without spending years and years studying the game, even if it doesn’t want to! Just tell it to do it and it’ll do it.”

“You don’t regret quitting? I mean people still play an awful lot of chess you know,” I said.

Ali took a sip of his coffee. A drop landed on his shirt, but I don’t think he noticed. “Nah. I’ll spend my time on something worthwhile. Maybe I’ll become a writer. I don’t think robots will ever be able to write a book. “

“What will your stories be about?”

“Robots. Robot chess players. They’ll be able to beat all the worlds’ grandmasters. People will want to watch matches between so-and-so robot from Japan and so-and-so robot from China maybe. It’ll be broadcasted on international television, and the robots will be sponsored by all sorts of companies and make lots and lots of money. Like celebrities.”

Ali is doing quite well in high school. I heard he’s on track to go to college abroad in the states.

Dad and I came to Osaka from Tanzania when I was still very young. I don’t remember much from my childhood there, but I do remember all the animals. Dogs, cats, horses, parakeets, all kinds of animals would be brought to Dad. Sometimes they were strays.

We lived in a small room with a couple of windows. We had a view of the city but not a pretty one. Downtown was close enough that we could see the city lights at night but still too far to feel like we were part of it. The streets below were always dusty and smelled like rug salesmen. Downstairs was the veterinary office.

People were so grateful to have their pets back in Tanzania. The streets were dirty and animals there were always getting sick so Dad was always busy. When people came to pick up their animals, all better and healthy, they’d say:

“Dr. Werku thank you, thank you! Bless you, bless you!”

And so on.

Dad always took care of animals, even when their owners didn’t have enough money. And when that happened, they’d make him dinner and bring over fruit baskets and Virgin Mary idols. One time, Dad had to dislodge a screwdriver from a yellow boa. The surgery took more than two hours and the owner, who was a banana salesman, stayed in the waiting room the whole time. When we brought the boa out, screwdriver-free, the man began weeping as the snake gently cradled him, spiraling up his torso.

“I am forever in your debt,” he said, wiping his tears with his pet’s tail. “In this life and the next!”

Dad accepted his payment of a month’s worth of bananas and one screwdriver.

We moved to Japan after Mom died. Dad said he needed to get away, whatever that meant. Maru was one of the very first animals Dad took care of after we came to Osaka. Maru 1.0 I guess she could be called. The original Maru. She was flesh and blood. Complete with genitals and a brain in her head with a tumor the size of a walnut.

She was a discolored and sickly looking beagle. She was always sick. Jamie could only spend a few days a week with her at his home. The other days, Mr. Ping dropped Maru off at Dad’s clinic.

The first time I saw Maru was when Jamie brought her in for show-and-tell in the first grade. We were all very little, but we knew Maru wasn’t OK. She never stared at one particular thing. She had a lazy eye that trailed off in one direction and her tongue was always flopped out the side of her mouth in the opposite direction. When the class tried to play fetch with her, she couldn’t run in a straight line and kept tripping on her own leg. After class that day, a few students stayed longer to play with Maru. Jamie was so excited to have her meet his classmates. Ali and I were already play buddies, as our parents were neighbors. We stayed behind to play with Maru. Kazume also stayed behind. We let Maru slobber all over us and made fun of her when she tripped.

We were all friends after that.

Whenever we were together, Maru was with us. I don’t think she even knew who was who and what was going on at any given moment, but she was loving. She let anyone hold her and pet her. When Ali was teaching the rest of us how to play chess, Maru would knock over the pieces and slobber all over them. We joked that not even Ali could teach Maru how to play chess.

I don’t know how Jamie spent time with Maru when the rest of us had gone home, but I’d like to imagine that Maru would be lying stomach up, drooling all over Jamie’s bed while Jamie told her stories from school about which bully was picking on him that week and about so-and-so girl he thought was pretty and so on.

Even after months of treatment, Maru didn’t get better. She couldn’t walk straight. She was always throwing up. But she was a dog and knew nothing other than loving Jamie. She couldn’t play fetch, let alone go outside all that often, but she knew how to shake hands. Jamie never taught her shake. It was the one thing Maru could do naturally. Stick out your hand in front of her, and she’d place her trembling little paw in your hand. When she was staying indefinitely at Dad’s clinic, Maru liked to sit on the front desk and shake everyone’s hands.

Maru shook a lot of hands before she died.

The first time I saw Maru was when Jamie brought her in for show-and-tell in the first grade. We were all very little, but we knew Maru wasn’t OK.

It came as a surprise to Dad when Mr. Ping said he wanted to give Maru away. Dad knew how much Jamie loved Maru and couldn’t imagine them separated. He couldn’t believe that someone could ever want to part ways with a pet just because it was sickly. But Dad agreed anyway. He asked Mr. Ping about Jamie.

“I’m sure he’ll grow up and get over it,” he replied.

Dad and I put up adoption advertisements for Maru, but no one ever came. We took her on walks every few days, but they were short, as Maru couldn’t walk very much without hurting herself. She kept getting worse and worse. She spent most of her time in the waiting area of the clinic, with her one eye constantly wandering off.

Dad took real good care of Maru in her last days. While she lay there, Dad always told her stories about Tanzania and stories about me when I was little. Silly things.

Of course, after a while, everyone except Jamie got tired of Maru 2.0.

When we played, instead of doing silly things with Maru 2.0, we started going to the bamboo grove and caught butterflies and stag beetles. We had little terrariums where we kept insects and fed them sugar water and bananas. When we got older, we started riding bikes around downtown to grab sodas and talk about pretty girls from school and how much we hated geometry. Sometimes even Ali would come out. But at night, Jamie still told Maru 2.0 stories from school while it was lying on his bed.

Maru 2.0 still remembers every single story Jamie ever told him.

One day, Jamie’s family had to move away. Mr. Ping found a nice job in California, supposedly. By the time they left, Maru was already dead and in the ground. Dad and I buried her in the Osaka pet cemetery. We ordered a small tombstone. Neither of us could think of a good inscription. We ended up with this:

HERE LIES MARU

HE LIKED TO SHAKE

We didn’t tell Jamie or his father where we buried her. Or even that she had passed. Dad thought they didn’t need to know. Or deserve to know.

 I remember so vividly the day Jamie left.

It was in front of his milk-carton house. Mr. Ping’s car was all loaded up. Everyone who knew the family stopped by the house to say farewell, and Jamie’s family gave everyone goodbye gifts, mainly because they couldn’t afford to take everything with them to the states. Mr. Ping suggested to Jamie that it’ll be for the best to leave Maru 2.0 behind.

“We’ll get a new dog once we get there,” he said to Jamie. “A real dog. One that doesn’t swear so much.”

It was just me and Dad by the end of the night. Their car was all loaded up. Mr. and Mrs. Ping thanked me and Dad for everything. I was crying because I knew I wasn’t going to see my friend anymore. I walked in the house to say goodbye to Jamie when I heard weeping. Out the corner of my eye, I could see Jamie, his face buried in his hands, tears running down to his elbows, while Maru 2.0 yelped and yelped from inside a packaged box.

Since Jamie moved away, Maru 2.0 has been staying with me and Dad, although I try to keep her away from Dad as much as possible.

Sometimes when Dad has a bad day at work or when an animal he is caring for dies, he’ll get drunk and kick the android around the house saying things like:

“Dumb-ass robot. You don’t even mind that I kick you around. You don’t know how. You can’t feel anything.”

In those times, I put Maru 2.0 away in a cardboard box for a while. Without light, it goes into hibernation mode. Maru 2.0 tells me hibernation mode feels like going to sleep.

Maru shook a lot of hands before she died.

I look at it sometimes. Especially when Maru 2.0 is just sitting there looking at something in the distance, like many dogs do. I’ll notice how strange it is, and wonder whether it is a robot trying to be a dog or a dog in a robot shell.

I miss Jamie. Maru 2.0 does too. I often take walks to the pet cemetery, carrying with me the bag of seeds I always collect. Sometimes I ask Maru 2.0 if it wants to come, and it usually says “yes.” We pass by Jamie’s old house along the way. When Maru 2.0 sees it, it always gets excited and starts yelping and crying out:

“Bark bark! Can we stop here? I bet Jamie has come back! Go ring the doorbell! Please? Please? Woof woof!”

Maru’s grave is always covered in morning glories. We’d just sit there, Maru 2.0 and me. I’d tell Maru 2.0 all kinds of stories about the original Maru and what Tanzania was like and college applications and so on. Maru 2.0 really enjoyed those stories I think, but it always ends up asking about Jamie.

“Woof woof! When will Jamie come back? I’ve been so good! Haven’t I been good? Bark bark!”

And I’ll always reply, “He’ll come back. It’ll be a long time though. Maybe 1,000 years, Maru 2.0. And yes, you have been a very good boy. A wonderful one. That’s how I know Jamie will be back.”

 

Jihoon Park is a contributor to the Weekender. Contact him at [email protected]