Love Story

(20 minute read)
by Donna Graves

(U.S.A)

Nicole, Alex, and the baby would be somewhere in the Midwest now. They’d left California while the air—deceivingly fresh and cool—gave no hint that blistering triple digits, so normal now, would hit by afternoon.

Pam was angry. Too much had happened. Too much had gone wrong.

When she’d told Nicole and Alex she was going to sell the house in Maryland and move to California to be near them, Nicole had exclaimed, “Great! I’d love to have you here.” Her daughter was happy. But not Pam’s son-in-law. In a whining kind of voice, Alex advised, “You know, that’s probably not a good idea. Not yet. Harold’s only been gone for a few months. You should wait a while. You might feel different in a year.”

Pam didn’t consider Alex’s advice. Why did men always think they knew best? Harold wouldn’t be dead if he’d listened to her. How many times had she pleaded with him not to go up on the ladder? Yet every time there was a problem with a window or a shingle or the siding, he would pull out that 32-foot ladder and fix it himself. They had money. He could have called someone to fix the damn roof. But he hadn’t. Just when they’d both retired and planned to travel the world, he’d left her a widow. If it hadn’t been for Nicole . . . well, she didn’t know what she would have done. Instead of wishing herself dead or crying all day, she got busy.

Pam had thought things out. Nicole was eight months pregnant and living in California. She would need help. Doting grandmothers were always appreciated. There was no reason to stay in Maryland. Not for its torrential rains, deep snowfalls, and climate-change floods; she’d swap all that for California’s sunny dry weather. Not for family. Her sister, Allison was the only other family Pam had left. And, except when Allison came down from New York to show off a new husband, Pam only saw her when they Skyped. No reason to stay for friends, either. She didn’t have any. Had been too busy working. She’d worked with the same people in her law office for years, but never socialized with them. Harold had been enough, and he’d climbed up a ladder and killed himself!

Without consulting Alex or telling Nicole, she found a realtor and bought a condo in a retirement community a few miles from where they lived. She listed her house “For Sale by Owner.” It sold in a day. Then, using an estate sale service, she got rid of forty years of stuff—flotsam from a wrecked life that she no longer needed. Having lightened her load, she sailed unincumbered in her self-driving Tesla across the continent to be with her daughter and granddaughter. It worked out just as Pam had planned. . . until Alex messed it up.

On her condo’s small fenced-in patio, Pam sat in the dark drinking a double shot of scotch. She could still feel her daughter’s soft cheek against her own and smell the fragrance of apple shampoo in her hair. Pam barely had time to give the baby, who lay peacefully asleep in her carrier, a kiss on the forehead before Alex pulled her away, shut the car’s back door and got in the front, leaving Pam bereft as she watched him drive away with her only child and her only grandchild.

With Harold dead and Nicole gone, all of Pam’s happiness was in the past. They’d been more than a family, they’d been best friends. Pam tried to include Alex, but Alex who came from the pain and chaos of a blended family, didn’t want to be part of Nicole’s. When he visited, he sat, head down, thumbs flying, playing on his smart phone while Harold, Pam, and Nicole talked and laughed. There was a time when Pam felt sorry for him for being more interested in a phone than in real people. Not now! She was too angry. He should have told her he was considering a job in Philadelphia. If she’d known, she wouldn’t have moved to California. Pots of impatiens, geraniums, vinca . . . hanging baskets of petunias, verbena, sweet alyssum . . . borders of heucheras, ivy, caladiums . . . a patio garden of varicolored blossoms and leaves surrounded her. . . all chosen to make her new condo feel more like the old home she’d left to be near Nicole. Pam took a deep breath of the perfumed evening scent of petunias—a gentle fragrance that usually soothed her—and cried.

* * *

“You should find a man.” Allison said.

“Why am I not surprised you’d say that?”

“Come on, no need for that. I’m just trying to help.”

Pam stared at the paintings behind Allison.

“Did you hear me?” Allison’s face leaned closer to the computer’s camera.

“Yes,” Pam sighed.

“If you’re not interested in a man—which I think is the best option—you’d better find some friends. Okay, so it’s a bitch that Alex took a job, but what are you going to do? You can’t follow them. They might not stay there, either.”

“I know,” Pam sighed again. “I’m. . . I’m just so lonely.” Pam began to cry,

Come on. There must be plenty of single people where you live. Quit feeling sorry for yourself. Make friends you can do things with, go places with.”

Pam sniffled.

“Are you going to be all right?

Pam gave a weak, “Yes.”.

“Promise you’ll try to find someone to do things with?”

“Okay.”

“All right, I’m going to sign off now. Remember, you promised.”


* * *


Her sister had never been lonely. Allison always had a man. At nineteen, she’d married a forty-two-year-old millionaire she claimed was “The love of my life.” When he died fifteen years later and left her a wealthy widow, she began a streak of marriages. Her second husband died, leaving her with more money. She left the next four. One remained.

Pam often wondered why men were so attracted to her sister. Allison wasn’t a great beauty—both Pam and Allison had the same red hair and rosy skin sprinkled with freckles—but men who didn’t notice Pam found it impossible to ignore Allison. When Pam asked her mother why men loved Allison so much. Her mother said, “It’s like the nursery rhyme: Why does the lamb love Mary so? Why, Mary loves the lamb you know. Your sister loves men.”

Pam had only loved one man—Harold. Harold had only loved one woman—Pam. Since meeting in law school, they’d been constant companions. During their college years, they studied together, slept together, laughed together, and made plans to graduate, marry, become lawyers in the same firm, have one child, and live a life of peaceful pleasures. As the years went by, they saw Allison get married and divorced, married and divorced, married and divorced . . .with the same unhappy results. What Allison kept looking for, Pam and Harold had. They only needed each other, and Nicole, to be happy. And when Nicole left, they still had each other. They went to symphonies, operas, and ballets. They listened to Mozart in the morning and Miles Davis in the evening. They read books and enjoyed lively discussions about them. They dined once a week at a fine restaurant.

Pam knew she would never find another Harold.

She wouldn’t try.

Without Harold and without Nicole, she had no one.

She’d have to find a friend. It was either that or go crazy.

She signed up for tai chi, pickle ball and mahjong. The first day of pickle ball she twisted her ankle and limped off the court hoping she would meet a friend by learning to play mahjong. “Come Join Us for Mahjong Fun.” turned out to be false advertising by the social center’s management. The women who played were a tight circle of elderly ladies with no tolerance for “young” newcomers who’d never played the game.

Maybe, she thought, I should get a dog. Almost any time of the day—even when wildfire smoke filled the air—she could look out her window and see someone attached by a leash to a bit of prancing white fluff. White and small seemed to be the preferred canine companion. It made her smile when the pet that looked like a little girl’s toy was walked by an old man with a pot belly and hair as white as the dog’s. Sad, but comical, to think that the man on the other side of the leash once might have jogged through wooded paths with his lab or golden retriever and was now reduced to shuffling around a gated community with a condominium-sized crossbreed poodle.

When she saw the dog owners stop and greet each other. . . the dogs sniffing and wagging tails. . . the old men and women talking and laughing. . . she felt a twinge of envy. They all looked so happy. If she had a dog would people stop and talk to her? She’d have to think about it. Would the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? There were disadvantages. She wouldn’t be able to wake up late and leisurely — dogs had to go outside early in the morning in all kinds of weather. They chewed things, got sick, had accidents in the house. Besides that, she’d seen how their owners bent over with plastic bags wrapped around their hands to pick up fresh poo from a defecating pet. It was no worse than wiping a baby’s bottom, but still—did she want to do that?

She was still considering the pros and cons of owning a maltipoo, a shoodle, or a miniature schnauzer when she saw a featured story on TV about robotic dogs. The robots chased a ball, understood commands, and even walked to a docking station to recharge their own batteries. To test how their product would be accepted, the company had given the robotic dogs to older people who lived alone. It was amazing, the spokesman said, how soon the recipients got caught up into appreciating the animal as a target of care, of something worth nurturing, of something worth talking to just like it was a puppy. Pam googled the company and found a telephone number.

* * *

“Forty thousand dollars?” Pam gasped. “I had no idea.”

“Well,” Tony, the voice on the phone, said, “a tremendous amount of money has gone into developing it. We’re not mass marketing yet. It’s really a research project. There are only a few available.”

“But you’d sell one now?”

“If you’re willing to fill out quarterly questionnaires for our research team.”

“What kind of questionnaire?”

“Our software engineers want to know what you hope the robot will do for you and if it’s performing satisfactorily. You’d be helping with the research.”

Pam gave a little laugh. “Forty thousand dollars! I could buy four of the most outrageously expensive dogs in the whole world for that.”

“I understand,” Tony’s voice sounded genuinely sympathetic, “it is a lot of money. But it might interest you to know that according to the data we’ve been collecting the average dog owner spends $3,000 dollars the first year on a dog and $1,500 every subsequent year, amounting to $16,500 over 10 years. If you add pet insurance, catastrophic vet bills, travel expenses, grooming and kennel fees, it could easily shoot up to $26,500 in ten years. Or $53,000 in twenty years. By buying our electronic model you could save $13,000.”

“If I live that long . . . if the dog doesn’t break.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Tony assured her cheerfully, “if it breaks, we guarantee all parts and services for 20 years. We even have free yearly maintenance checks. Of course,” he joked, “we can’t guarantee your health, but our warranty is transferable to a second owner with the same stipulation of submitting quarterly questionnaires. You could pass your electronic pet on to a relative. What do you say?”

“I don’t know. It’s a lot of money and I’m not sure it’s what—”

“You can return it in three months for the entire purchase price if you’re not satisfied.”

* * *

The dog was adorable. It came pre-programmed to respond to Pam’s voice when given the name and the commands that Pam had specified in the questionnaire. All Pam needed to say was “Poppy” followed by an instruction, and the small white dog’s ears would perk up, she’d jiggle a little, maybe look at Pam, bark, and then obey her mistress’s command.

A week after Poppy arrived, Tony called to see if there were any problems “Are you feeling comfortable with your new pet,” he asked, “Is she responding correctly? Your questionnaire says you hoped walking a dog would give you exercise and help you meet people. How’s that going?”

“Poppy’s working fine, but I haven’t taken her outside yet.”

“Don’t worry,” he assured good naturedly, “Poppy will love it. And so will you. Rub some of the doggy scent on her and take her for a walk.”

Pam thanked Tony for calling. He was right. She’d spent the money. Better see if it was worth it. Right after lunch she got Poppy ready. Her hands shook putting on the leash. Would she look like a fool walking a robotic dog? She took several deep breaths to calm herself before opening the door. Then, with Poppy leading the way, they began their jaunt around the complex. Was this going to work? Or should she return Poppy and get her money back? But then what? How was she going to meet people? She had to try. She kept walking.

Turning a corner, she saw a tall, formidable looking woman standing next to a miniature schnauzer. The dog was busily sniffing a patch of grass. By the time it had lifted its leg and peed, Pam and Poppy were close enough to arouse its interest. It tried running to Poppy but was choked to a stop by a yank on its leash.

“Stay, Fritz, stay!” the woman commanded.

Pam stopped, too.

“Oh, don’t worry. He loves other dogs. He’s just exuberant. But he’ll get better. Friedrich and Frantz did. This is my third schnauzer. They’re very high spirited. Traits of the breed.” She moved toward Pam.

Was now the time before the schnauzer sniffed the fake “doggy scent” to tell this woman that Poppy was a robot? She almost blurted out the truth when the woman looked at her and said, “Hi, I’m Erica. Cute little mixed breed you’ve got. I haven’t seen you around. Have you been living here long?”

Pam looked up from seeing Fritz sniff and wag his tail at Poppy. “I’m Pam,” she smiled. “I moved in about five months ago.”

* * *


Erica roared with laughter, “A robot?! Poppy’s a robot? Have you told Sarah and Vicky?”

“No. You’re the only one. I wanted to tell you and then—”

“Don’t tell them. Not yet. This is too funny. Let’s wait a while and see if they figure it out.” Erica’s eyes shone with delight. Used to being smarter than anyone else, Pam’s clever deception amused her. She’d underestimated Pam’s intelligence and now saw her as a kindred spirit.

“Where did you get Poppy? Who makes these robots?”

“I don’t know,” she lied. “It was a gift from my sister.” Pam didn’t want people to know how much she’d paid for Poppy.

She had waited three weeks after meeting Erica before revealing her secret. None of the women she’d met had suspected. Her fake dog had fooled them, or maybe they weren’t interested enough in Poppy to look closely. Poppy wasn’t the problem. The robot had done exactly what Pam had wanted. The problem was Pam.

She was still lonely.

Not Erica, or any other human prosthetic, could replace what had been ripped away by the loss of Harold and Nicole. Erica, with her take-charge personality, had tried. She’d made Pam a project. She’d introduced her to other women in the complex. She’d insisted she sign up for an exercise program. She’d included her in lunch dates at local cafes with Sarah and Vicky, and she’d invited her to join them on a trip to Montreal in the fall. And, like the little schnauzer on the end of Erica’s leash, Pam had listened and obeyed and pretended to enjoy the company of Erica and her friends. But nothing had taken away the emptiness of losing Harold and Nicole. She and Poppy were both fakes.

* * *

“I tried, Allison. I even got a dog,” Pam complained to her sister on the computer’s screen while listlessly tossing a ball for Poppy to fetch.

“You got a dog?”

Poppy dashed across the sitting room and into the kitchen area to retrieve the ball.

“Well, actually—” she explained everything to her sister.

“My God, forty thousand dollars!” Allison exclaimed.

Poppy barked for Pam to toss the ball again.

“Have you talked to Nicole? Perhaps seeing her would cheer you up.”

“We Skyped last night. Told her I missed her and wanted to visit, “but she . . . she said I should wait until Christmas.”

Allison huffed, “Sooo . . . she wants to bring you out like some holiday decoration?”

“She has her own life now,” Pam sighed. “We’ll never be close again.”

“Come on. Quit that. Things will get better. Meanwhile, if you don’t need that dog to attract friends, you should return it. Get your money back.”

Pam glanced down at Poppy’s wagging tail and sighed, “You’re right.”

When they finished Skyping, Pam called Tony and asked for a refund.

* * *

She didn’t get her money back. She decided to keep Poppy. She spent 250 thousand dollars more and now sat looking at an unopened box in the middle of her living room.

“Don’t be afraid,” Tony coaxed. “Open it. It’s easy. Activate it with the app on your phone. Hal will do the rest.”

What if something goes wrong?”

“It won’t.”

“I want you here,” Pam complained. Tony was nice, Zooming was okay, but a quarter of a million dollars should buy in-person service.

“Don’t worry. I can intervene if necessary. Push the button.”

Pam caught her breath and pushed the button.

A few scratching sounds, a snap, a hum. The box jiggled for a moment. A second later and its top and sides flew open. Two hands cracked through the Styrofoam casing and Hal emerged in a pair of plaid boxers, dusted himself off, scratched his bum, and said, “Sorry, I’m a bit itchy.”

* * *


Hal was everything Tony said he’d be.

All the hours Pam had spent giving Tony information to feed into Hal’s AI system— about Harold, their life together, the things they liked to read, the programs and movies they enjoyed—had created a perfect companion. Wireless connections to the internet and listening to Pam updated Hal’s knowledge. “He’ll always have new things to talk about,” Tony said, “You’ll never get tired of him.”

Pam and Hal went to symphonies, operas, and ballets. They listened to Mozart in the morning and Miles Davis in the evening. They read books and enjoyed lively discussions about them. Once a week, Hal escorted her to a fine restaurant. They took Poppy to the park and played fetch with her.

Erica scolded, “You spend more time with Hal, than with real people. It’s crazy to be so attached to a robot.”

Pam shrugged.

It didn’t matter if Erica—who couldn’t get along without Google, Siri, and Alexa—thought Pam was crazy. Pam wasn’t lonely. Hal, who had been customized to interact intimately with her, made her happy. He knew her. He cared about her.

She’d found a new Harold, a new love.

Copyright © 2022 – Donna Graves. All rights reserved.

About the Author 

Before becoming an English and Journalism teacher, Donna Graves was a freelance writer and wrote a personal column for Utah’s The Jordan Valley Sentinel. Since retiring from teaching, she has written two novels and is working on a collection of short stories 

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