Emma’s stomach felt like a fish about to do a flip as she sat stiffly on the sofa, watching the door. Her mother sat to her left with her workbox, busy with her fancy needlework, and her younger sister, Grace, sat to her right reading an Oz book by L. Frank Baum.
The doorbell rang, and Hannah, the housekeeper, scuttled off to answer. When Hannah returned, Frank Delaney was in tow with a bunch of wildflowers in his hand.
“Frank Delaney, how pleased we are that you’ve come to call,” said Emma’s mother. “Oh, Grace,” she said. “I need your help to water the flowers in the hothouse.”
“But I’m reading,” said Grace. “They’ve just introduced a new character, a clockwork man named Tik-Tok.”
“Tik-Tok. How interesting. The flowers need watering, dear,” said her mother.
Frank sat down in the armchair and, for a moment, looked like he had something to say on the subject of clockwork men, but the mother of Emma and Grace took her youngest daughter by her hand and pulled her out of the scene … exit left.
“Emma,” said Frank. “Uh … I brought you these.”
“They’re lovely, Frank,” she said, as she took the bunch. “I always prefer wildflowers to hothouse flowers.” She admired the bunch in her hand. “I see you’ve found bread-and-butter.”
“It’s also called toadflax,” said Frank, “but it’s Latin name is linaria vulgaris.”
“Oh, very interesting,” said Emma. She handed her bouquet to Hannah who hurried off to put them in water.
“Yes, I’m glad you prefer the wildflowers to the hothouse ones. I spend a lot of time in nature, studying. I like science. Toads, for instance …”
“You didn’t bring any with you?”
Frank reddened a little. “No, only the toadflax.” He cleared his throat. “There are three varieties of toad in the area: the American toad, the fowler’s toad and the eastern spadefoot.”
“How interesting,” said Emma, with more enthusiasm than she felt.
Frank smiled, encouraged, and continued. After three or four minutes of Frank’s speech, it looked like Emma was in for a lecture on the regional toads. It wasn’t true that she wasn’t at all interested in science or the natural world, but if Frank was going to lecture on toads, she wished he would at least speak with some passion in his voice. Instead, his voice droned monotonously, his eyes nervously roamed around the room, and his storytelling style meandered from point to point in a circular rather than linear way.
Emma’s mind wandered, and her eyes also began to wander, to the antimacassar behind Frank’s head. It was a creation of her Aunt Margaret’s. She was always sending gifts by post from her home in Connecticut, bits of gorgeous handiwork, a crocheted table runner or pillowcase or a bit of fancy needlework. Aunt Margaret was coming this evening to stay for a week. Her mother had Hannah put all of the fancy gifts on display in the parlor with the hopes that her sister would feel they were appreciated.
It was evident to Emma from Frank’s slicked coiffure and his aroma of ylang-ylang that he used a liberal amount of Rowland’s Macassar Oil. Every time he leaned his head back, staring at the ceiling, with a new toad fact on his lips, Emma worried about him soiling her auntie’s antimacassar. It was strange that she should worry about the bit of fanciwork fulfilling the purpose for which it was made, but she, like her mother, wanted all of her aunt’s things to look fresh and clean, yet used all at once.
Soon, her gray cat, Xerxes, hopped up on top of the back of the chair where Frank was sitting, and this gave Emma some distraction and something new on which to set her eyes. This was one of the few times Frank chose to actually make eye contact with her, and he smiled to see her seemingly look at him with such affection.
Shortly afterwards, Xerxes batted her aunt’s handiwork onto the floor, and she had a new worry. She rose to her feet, but before she could even blink, Henry, her Jack Russell terrier, attacked it like it was a groundhog, holding it in its mouth, while thrashing and shaking his head.
“Oh no?” said Frank.
“Auntie’s antimacassar.” She pointed at Henry, and Frank, spurred to action, stood up. Emma stood up too and chased her pet through the parlor and back through the kitchen. Frank followed, and as they raced out into the rear yard, he took the lead.
“Emma!” called her mother. “Why are you running in such an unladylike way?”
Emma pointed at Henry. “Auntie’s antimacassar!”
Henry ran straight into the vegetable garden where he dug a hole and buried his prey just as if he were trying to plant another carrot in the row. Frank knelt beside the naughty dog, but it was too late to stop him. This brought an abrupt end to his visit –which Emma did not regret.
For her and her mother, it brought a frenzied cleaning session. Rather, most of the work fell to Hannah and Emma, while her mother spent the next hour or so on the candlestick telephone, calling half the wives in the neighborhood, inquiring about the best way to wash soiled white linens.
Hannah lit the copper in the scullery. Emma filled it with buckets of water to which Hannah added Sunlight carbolic soap and baking soda. Later, Hannah used a five-legged wooden dolly to agitate and mangle the wash. They tried some bluing to it also, adding a bluebag tied with muslin to the wash.
Amazingly, it came out clean and sparkling white, but it barely had time to dry on the line before Aunt Margaret arrived. Emma returned the antimacassar to its spot on the chair while it was still slightly damp and hoped her aunt wouldn’t touch it.
Aunt Margaret didn’t touch it. She did, however, take note of it and how clean it was as she came in with her bags. “I see you’re using the antimacassar I made. It’s sparkling white. I don’t think you ever use it.”
Emma blushed. “Oh we do, Auntie. We use it all the time.”
It’s too bad, I thought, that it is not possible to send back a library book from my home to the library via pneumatic tube. I grabbed my mouse (the computer mouse, not my pet, Harpo) opened my Outlook calendar and reviewed the day’s activity, and, as each square and each slot was packed with text, it seemed that every moment of my time was more than fully booked from now until Kingdom Come. In the mean time, there was the matter of my sinking reputation with the town librarian – I could just see her disapproving frown – and a steadily accruing fine. What about a carrier pigeonor a trained hawk? I shot my gaze in the direction of the clock on the wall but without really seeing anything. These were the kind of strange musings that kept me awake at night.
I looked to my right at my bookshelves across the room and, scanning them, spotted the yellow spine of my overdue library book. I sighed. Today, I had two Zoom conferences and two client calls on the schedule, plus an impossible list of computer programming projects in the to-do pile. It was almost more than a mere mortal could handle. Alas, no one had yet invented a pneumatic-tube-home-to library-return-system. I did not own a carrier pigeon or a specially trained hawk, and neither Harpo nor any of my other pets was cut out for the job. What I did have was a Smart House and a variety of robotic and remote control tech. Surely, it was possible …
My Roomba kicked into motion just then, and as it began traveling in neat parallel tracks around my home office, I pondered the possibilities. My imagination went wilder than a croc-wrestling Steve Irwin.
After minimizing my current window on the computer, I opened the Smart House controls. Clicking a few keys, I sent the command for my robotic picker device to take the yellow-spined library book from the shelves. A vertical pole slid along the shelf units from the center to the left, and then a robotic picker slid down the pole like a firefighter until it was level with the correct shelf, pinched the yellow book in its pincers, slid down to the level of the floor, rotated and dropped the book. I took a sip of coffee and watched, but then glancing at the clock, remembered my Zoom meeting.
I opened a new window and clicked on the link to join the meeting, quickly running my fingers through my hair and hoping I looked presentable. “Hello everyone,” I said.
A chorus of “Hi Steves” followed.
I turned again to my right watching as the Roomba came by the bookshelves. Would it be able to push the book along?
I turned back to my meeting. “I’m glad we are able to meet this way through Roomba,” I said. Perhaps, multi-tasking is not always my forte.
“Zumba? Isn’t that an exercise class?” asked my client, Jane, CEO of the Chic Boutique.
“Uh, yeah,” I said. “I tried it a couple of times and discovered I have no rhythm.”
“No, I think, he said rhumba,” said her partner. “That’s a classic Latin ballroom dance.”
“Zoom,” I said. “I meant Zoom.” In my peripheral vision, I could see the Roomba pushing the book ahead of it as if it were a snowplow.
After this silly introduction, we got down to business, but by toggling windows, I could access the Smart House controls and, spy on the hallway via my home surveillance system. After a few passes, the Roomba plowed the book to the edge of the stairs and then nudged it over on the right side of the steps where it bumped and slid down a narrow ramp, landing on the first floor with a thud. The ramp was really set up for my dachshund, Zeppo, but it worked perfectly Stage one of Operation Impossible was complete.
Stage two would be a little more challenging.
“So, you, basically, need a program to track your store’s inventory,” I told Jane. “Sure, I can do that for you.”
I toggled again, getting the surveillance view of the living room on screen. Zeppo, was, at this moment, in the living room, lying down on the top of the sofa’s back rest, where he could bask in the sun and see outdoors. At some point, in stage two of the operation, it would be necessary to distract Zeppo. I pulled open a desk drawer and pulled out a remote control for a hobby model pickup truck and then a second remote for a front end loader.
With a remote in each hand, smiling into the screen, I attempted to work the controls to scoop up the book with the front end loader and load it into the back of the pickup. I tried listening to my client explain her programming needs as, just as I feared, Zeppo lolloped down from his couch-top perch to better observe the remote control action.
“Sure. I can create a database for you,” I told my client. The front end loader scraped its bucket along the floor in front of the yellow volume, but it wasn’t aligned just right in order to scoop up the book. I continued speaking to my client, “that can track all of your sales and returns and your, uh, your library books.”
“Library books?” said Jane. “We’re a clothing boutique.”
“Right,” I said. “That’s uh … something else I’m working on.”
She laughed. “But wouldn’t it be great if you could track our library books and tell us when they were overdue?”
I laughed. If she only knew.
I maneuvered and re-maneuvered that front end loader, making it roll back and forth in a strange sort of dance, as I tried to align it with the book. Now, Zeppo was transfixed, and so was Groucho, my tiger cat, who lay nearby, inching forward to it as if ready to pounce.
Luckily, I had a distraction device, one of those Furbos that has two-way communication and can toss treats. Pressing a few keys in my Smart Home panel, I launched a few treats into the air, and both animals raced away from my hobby trucks and into the center of the room for the treats. I spoke into the phone via the Furbo app, “Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy?” in a ridiculously sappy talking-to-the-dog voice.
My client laughed again. “Well, not me. I assume you’re talking to the dog … or cat.” She proceeded to talk to me about animals, but I was frozen with my hand gripping my hair. My personal zoo was rebelling against me.
With the pick up successfully loaded and, with Zeppo and Groucho busy playing disappearing acts with the treats, I piloted the model pick up through the doggy door in the front door. In seconds, both animals raced outside after it. That was the moment when Chico, my yellow Indian ringneck parakeet, decided to say, “Alexa, open the gate.”
“No! Alexa, close the gate,” I said. But it was too late. Zeppo, that rebel, had run out the gate in the fence bordering my yard. “Alexa, turn on the sprinklers! Alexa, open the gate!” I furiously backed up the truck from the sprinkler’s reach as sprinklers at the road verge shot their spray through the air, chasing Zeppo back through the gate and onto my property. “Alexa, close the gate.”
I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Is this a bad time?” asked my client.
“Uh … no,” I said. “My dog just got out, and I have a bird that knows how to work Alexa and use the smart technology to open the gate in my fence.” I realized how ridiculous it was after I said it.
“Well, I have a dog at home,” she said, “so, I know strange things can happen with animals, but this is a first.” She shook her head of auburn hair, but she smiled still.
I made a mental note not to act like I was two steps away from the looney bin. While continuing to take mental notes of my client’s needs, I pressed a few keys and opened the garage door. Yes, Alexa could do it too, but I could see it wouldn’t go well to continue to make a lot of verbal commands during a conference call. Now, that my garage door was open, I launched a drone from the garage that swooped down like a hawk to pick up the book from the pickup and continue its journey to the library.
I ended the conference call with Jane and her Chic Boutique partners and breathed a little easier. Then, I started working on another program for a different client. I needed to do a few finishing touches before presenting the finale to the client the next day. With combined GPS tracking and the drone’s acoustic camera, I could trace its path very well among other things.
Strangely, I couldn’t seem to get as much height with the drone as I expected. As it continued along its winding way, I swerved it out of the reach of electrical wires and tree branches. Instead of rising through the air, it seemed to be sinking. I realized now, that I had chosen a different drone than I had intended, one that wasn’t equipped to handle as much weight.
As it passed over a town sidewalk busy with shoppers and sidewalk cafe tables, things got a little strange. Just as I was in the vicinity between Tito’s Pizzeria and Hot Bagels, a woman peered up into the camera. “Nazis!” she shouted, screwing up her face. “Fascists!” She reached into her purse. “Big Brother!” Then, she squirted something at the camera.
Pepper spray? No. Something white and creamy, hand lotion maybe, was now obscuring the lens. I could no longer see if I was clearing obstacles, and, soon afterwards, I didn’t. The drone got hopelessly caught in what I assumed to be a tree.
I tapped a pencil against my desk. What should I do now? I had come too far to abandon Operation Impossible. I decided to call Jake, my neighbor’s thirteen-year-old. I had paid him to do a variety of odd jobs for me before, including walking Zeppo, washing the car and mowing the lawn.
I dialed his number on my cell phone, and Jake answered. “Hi Jake. I have an odd job for you, not just an odd job, but an odd odd job.”
“I have a drone caught in what, I assume is a tree, on Maple Avenue right where Tito’s Pizzeria and Hot Bagels are. It was carrying my library book.”
“Okay.” He had a little disbelief in his voice.
“I want you to get on your bike, rescue my drone, broken or not, then find my book, take it to the library and drop it in the book drop. Can you do that?”
“Sure, Mr. Rose.”
For a while, I got lost in my work project, with only occasional pangs of anxiety about the state of my drone. It seemed a long while before I heard back from Jake, and I resisted the urge to call him and micromanage.
Then, I got a ring at the door. Turning on the camera angle from the front door, I had a view of Jake on the front steps. The image wasn’t that clear, but he looked dirty below the knees, more than I would have expected. I spoke to him through the intercom as I opened the door, “Jake, come on in.”
I raced down the stairs, as Zeppo and Groucho came to greet the newcomer as well. As we stood by the door, Jake handed me the drone. I turned it around in my hands. It seemed fairly unscathed with just some minor damage I could fix. Jake, on the other hand, looked like he was a participant in a survival of the wild reality TV show. Both knees were skinned, bleeding and dirty, and his shoes and socks were wet.
“Did you get the book returned?”
“Well, take off your shoes and socks, and come sit down.”
As Jake sat down on the leather couch, I pointed out his knees. “Now, how’d this happen?”
“Well,” he said, stretching out in the reclining seat, “you know how there’s that shortcut through the park to the library, over that little bridge that crosses the stream?” Zeppo sniffed at Jake’s now bare feet, and Groucho climbed up on the sofa beside him.
“Well, I was on that bridge with my bike, on my way to the library, when some other kid tried to do some cool stunt on his bike and crashed into me.”
“Wow,” I said. “I didn’t know returning library books was a contact sport.”
“Neither did I,” he said. “I’m okay. Hurts a little though.”
“I’ll get you cleaned up and bandaged in a minute,” I promised. “Wait … how’d you get wet?”
“Well, the book slipped out of my bag and went over the edge of the bridge.”
My stomach sunk. “You mean you returned a sopping wet library book with warped pages?”
“No,” said Jake. “You’d hardly believe it. Uh … what’s the word? My teacher was talking about it the other day. It’s seren … seren … something.”
“Yeah. Serendipitous,” said Jake. “The book just landed on a big, flat rock in the middle of the stream, but I got a little wet going after it.”
“And I really like the book you’re returning, you know, the one on the Rube Goldberg inventions? I think I’ll check it out next week.”
I pulled out my wallet, so I could pay Jake for a job well done. Aside from a few credit cards and a debit card, it was empty. “Jake, I have no cash on me. I’ll pay you this weekend. In the mean time, I’ll bandage you up and make you the biggest ice cream sundae known to man. Here, hand me your phone, and let me call your dad.”
I called his dad. “Hi Ray. Jake is with me. I had him do a job for me, and he got a bit scraped up in the process, so I’m going to bandage him up and feed him some ice cream.”
“What did he do? Start a fight with your hedges and lose?”
“No, he wasn’t trimming hedges this time. He was doing something much more adventurous,” I said. “He returned a library book.”