Mom bought the Algorithm Father in the hot middle of my analog summer.
Mom bought the Algorithm Father because she liked the idea of an extra set of hands, an additional support system, and some simulated male energy in the house (male energy that could be adjusted if necessary—a deciding factor in her purchase). The price was steep. The Contemporary Parenthood Corporation (Con-Par, for short) was the only data-collected android parenting service on the market, but she was frugal enough to fit him into our budget and figured he’d pay for himself over time through domestic labor and keeping an eye on Joyce and me.
On the day of Algorithm Father’s delivery, I tried to keep my mind elsewhere to show I didn’t care. I had been making mixtapes, recording songs from the radio station onto cassettes. I had a Marlboro cigarette boombox that my dad had gotten as a reward for smoking so many cigarettes. It was one of the last things I had left of him in the house. Recording mixtapes from the radio wasn’t easy business. Everything had to be just right. The tape needed to be set to the right time, the intro to the song couldn’t have the disc jockey’s voice advertising a Nissan summer sale overlapping it, and you needed to hit the record button at just the right moment. A second off and the entire thing was ruined, the two songs spilling into a sour number, like Kool Aid mix dissolving in vinegar.
I didn’t think we needed another parent in the home, especially some weird Wi-Fi webcam dad. Still, I couldn’t shake the image of him arriving in a big wooden refrigerator-shaped crate like in the movies, Mom peeling the nails off with a crowbar and seeing him standing upright amongst a bunch of shredded hay, like a trophy or a major award. But it wasn’t so grand. There was a knock on the door, Algorithm Father was on the other side, and we welcomed him into his new home. I think we all felt the quiet pull of instincts insisting you don’t let a stranger into the house, but Algorithm Father was pretty unassuming, a glossy, friendly look in his eyes. Strangely, he looked like just a guy, not some silver bullet robot, but a man with hair and skin and stuff. He had come in modestly like a moth slipping through the open window.
He handed us a short instruction manual. “They told me to give you this,” he said, blinking like he was adjusting to the lighting. The packet had some information on how Algorithm Father would function and ways in which to optimize his abilities and operating system. Extended Information, the packet said. Algorithm Father had received input from over three thousand fathers from all across the world with surveyed information about eating habits, personal likes and dislikes, and attitudes towards spouses and children. As time passed, he would gather more information from a greater pool of fathers, and he would become more specialized, mature, and prepared to adapt to our specific parental and household needs. In my mind, he could best adapt to my needs by leaving.
Mom and Joyce decided to call him Algo.
By the time they’d finished reading the packet, Algo was in the backyard, revving the lawnmower.
I had to admit, Algo was really helpful, doing his best to ease our burden of chores. He kept the dishes clean, laundry washed, and gave us rides to and from school. The first couple of times he drove us, he accidentally did it through his internal Uber app and charged six dollars per ride, not including tip, but we eventually corrected the mistake (although Uber refused refunds). We tried our best to make him feel comfortable too, asking lots of questions and offering to do activities with him. He took us bowling, saying he wasn’t sure why but he felt compelled to bowl. The lane we bowled on had bumpers for Joyce since she could barely hold a ball. Algo ordered us nachos and one of those long tubes filled with beer.
“We can’t drink that,” I said.
“Well neither can I,” he responded.
We gave the beer to the couple bowling next to us. They were friendly the rest of the night. Algo bowled a 281 in his first game and they put his name on a board near the front desk.
“You’ve got such beautiful children,” the woman from the next lane said. Algo gave them a cautious smile, as if it were against the rules.
We awoke the next morning to Algo on the back deck, grilling a football. “The pig skin, the big game,” he kept repeating. He was trying to flip the deflated, melting football with his spatula, but the combination of rubber and leather was sticking and spilling into the bottom of the grill. The smell was pungent like a landfill bonfire. “Catch,” Algo said, throwing a plate against the sliding glass door.
“This was a bad idea,” I said to Joyce.
“Nuh-uh,” she said. “Once he gets going, Mom will have way more time to play with us.” She was filled with six-year-old daydreams. I wasn’t buying it.
Mom consulted our manual and recalibrated his settings.
“Growing pains,” he told us, scrubbing the melted material off the grill with one of his hand attachments.
A week later, we came home from school to discover that Algo had purchased and installed a second refrigerator in the garage, one he kept filling with cans of soda and beer purchased on Mom’s credit card. After an hour on the phone with Con-Par, Mom came out of her room and addressed us as I was waiting for Norman Greenbaum to come on the classic rock station. “Making purchases is part of his code,” Mom said, putting her credit card in a sugar dish, placing it on a high shelf. “They said it’s based on their data collection, but we could set a passcode to stop him from future purchases.”
She called Algo into the room. When she told him we may have to return the fridge, he sobbed while muttering the words “cold beer” to himself. His pouting reminded me of the day Joyce found a kitten hiding beneath the back deck of our neighbor’s house, lost from its mother, its eyes caked shut with a snotty veil of gunk. She’d wiped the kitten’s face with a washcloth and went to Mom with a face just like Algo’s—wet eyes, trembling lips, a voice whimpering, “can I keep it?”
Unlike Joyce’s kitten, she let him keep the fridge.
I had gotten really into sequencing, thinking about the way certain songs flowed into one another, what stories they told when placed together. I was making fewer mixtapes because I was being even more methodical than before. They were pieces of art. You couldn’t rush pieces of art. I had been experimenting with Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain and found that the end of the song was a place for a really profound transition, but I was struggling to find a song to match it, and the station I liked was playing more Sugar Ray than I was used to hearing. Regardless, I kept my perch in front of the radio like an old telegram operator, waiting for the right message. Joyce had created a new game, one she was calling Hidden Leprechaun. She scattered loose coins in hiding places all over the house and yard and asked someone else to find them (or, alternately, the other party would scatter the coins and she’d go off in search of the spoils). Joyce was a child beholden to trinkets; she loved searching for tiny treasures, unique bottle caps, rubber toys or weirdly-shaped stones. She’d search in the yard, the park, out in the woods. Hidden Leprechaun was right up her alley. I didn’t mind going out on the back deck and hiding a coin underneath a flower pot for her. It was the least I could do, so long as I had the radio turned up loud enough to hear the upcoming playlist.
Algo entered my room while I was recording a disco song for a goofy tape I was making. He took a seat on the bed.
“Doesn’t this take forever?” He asked, watching me fiddle with a few of the knobs in an attempt to appear busy, like it took all of my attention.
“That’s part of the appeal,” I said. “Sometimes, the old way of doing things is more enjoyable. Sometimes, our replacements just aren’t as good.”
Algo sat and processed what I’d said before standing up. He lifted his shirt and revealed a CD drive in the flab above his belly button. A disc ejected and he handed it to me.
“I made this for you,” he said. “It’s some of the songs I hear you listening to, paired with related songs that I believe you would be interested in.”
He left the room and I placed the disc on my dresser. I wanted to leave it to gather dust, but I became curious and slipped it into the top of the boombox. Algo was right. Every song I liked was on there, from Dolly Parton to Patti LaBelle, and they were sequenced in a way that felt natural. It was a good playlist, but it felt wrong. Too polished, too well-conceived. It lacked the rough handlings of a human curator.
With Mom’s new found free time, she decided to dip into some hobbies she’d been wanting to explore. She tried kickboxing classes, crocheted a chunky looking hat out of yarn, made apple butter in the crock pot that bubbled like a cauldron when she lifted the lid. But what she really loved was her birdhouses. She had read about a television show in Norway where the directors recorded various birds eating and drinking in a birdhouse designed to look like a coffee shop. She thought the idea was fabulous and was hard at work designing her own avian hideaways. In a matter of weeks, she’d created a pew-filled bird church, a neon-painted retro diner, and a shoebox-sized tiled spa complete with a small concrete birdbath. She sat in the backyard for hours, watching the birds come and go, spilling seeds like confessions on the floor of the church before having a meal and a wash. She recorded videos on her phone and gained a steady internet following in weeks. She had never previously been a birdwatcher, but she slowly picked up on the tricks of bird identification—examining size and color, beak size and wing patterns. This skill allowed her to better title and curate her video feed. Wilson’s Warbler Sips Soda in Diner Booth was her most popular video, but it was in threat of being dethroned by her newest video, Ladder-Backed Woodpecker Feels The Spirit In Tiny Church.
We came home from grocery shopping late and missed the television show Joyce liked, so I went and grabbed my computer to see if I could find it online. It was one of those shows where otters are police officers.
“I don’t see it streaming anywhere yet,” I said, running my fingers up and down the trackpad.
Algo scrunched his face for a moment before lightbulbing and saying “I’ve found it!” He pulled his shirt sleeve up to reveal an HDMI port on his elbow, so we plugged him into the television, letting him stream the episode for us. It started playing right away. His pop-up blocker was a little faulty so sometimes during the show, he’d lean over and mumble “hot singles are in your area” until I told him to leave me alone.
We watched the show, the three of us on the couch, and giggled alongside the cartoon. Algo would occasionally offer a chuckle, but it felt muted and off-beat, like his mind was elsewhere. We figured it just took a lot of energy to stream.
Mom came home and grabbed a package on the kitchen table. She ripped hard at the edge of the tape and cardboard, and then she took Algo by the hand, pulling him from the center of the couch, leading him into their room with whatever she’d ordered. I looked at the discarded box on the floor. Expansion Pack: Algorithm Daddy — Your Device’s Beta-Tested “Night Mode.”
I made Joyce buttered pasta for dinner.
To show our appreciation for Algo, Mom decided to have a small party in his honor. We gave him gifts—a new protective case, a pair of Con-Par loot boxes that rendered him new eye color options and hairstyles, and a cake (which he couldn’t eat, but received data that offered him the memory of tasting it). We asked him if there was anything he’d like to do for his special day.
“Well, I never got to be a kid.”
“Do you want to be a kid?” Joyce asked. “Like me?”
“Would that be possible?” His eyes twinkled.
We adjusted his settings in an attempt to make his brain capacity similar to a ten year old’s. We asked the neighbors to come over and pretend to be his parents for a few hours, simulating a playdate with Joyce and me. We tried to play tag, red rover, and a few other games, but he found them all really childish. We checked the manual and discovered this was normal—he’d only received data from adults with children, rather than children themselves, so he was familiar with the games but generally had a negative or careless disposition towards them. He asked if he could say a cuss word instead. “Just this once,” Mom whispered. “And don’t tell your parents.” She motioned towards Dave and Luanne on the couch, watching reality television. Mom had paid them a hundred bucks for the evening.
“Piss,” Algo said. “Piss and shit and cum.”
Algo received nightly data updates, and, with each, he became a little more protective, a little more intelligent, a little more involved. He sat in my room as I made mixtapes. I was looking for the perfect song to follow Collective Soul as he sat on the edge of my bed, staring through a clear glass paperweight.
“What about Alanis?” he asked.
Alanis was perfect. I yelled at him. He looked at me cock-eyed.
“The fun is in discovering the sequence!” I shouted. “And now that’s fucking ruined!”
“What makes you think you can cuss?” He asked.
“What makes you think you’re my father?”
We both stared at one another.
“What am I to you?” he asked. “A replacement?”
“No” I said. “You’re dirt in a hole. A hole that doesn’t need to be filled.”
I messed up. I knew it. I thought about resetting Algo to factory settings, but that felt dishonest and manipulative. Instead, I apologized. He blinked a lot when I was saying it, like the first day when he was adjusting to the light in the house.
“Am I really dirt in a hole?” He asked.
“I don’t think so. Some days I’m not even sure there is a hole.”
“We all have our own holes,” he said, scratching an imagined itch at his elbow. Later I was helping Mom cook dinner when Algo slipped from his chair at the kitchen table. I ran to check on him, knocking the wooden spoon from the pot and spilling spaghetti sauce on the floor. Algo’s battery hadn’t been charged and he had drifted into standby mode. I placed the charging cord into the port on his hip and let him regain consciousness. When he came to, he admitted to neglecting his battery life, and he hoped we’d respect his decision.
Mom began coming home later and later in the evenings. At first, I assumed it was because of her busy schedule associated with her internet fandom; she’d been giving lectures in town about her channel, hosting birdhousing workshops, and discussing potential collaborations with other local artists and nature enthusiasts. However, one of these collaborations had crossed over into other concentrations. Mom broke the news to me while we were cleaning the Cardinal Kitchen, her newest piece.
“His name is Glass. He’s a printmaker.”
I asked what his first name was as I rearranged the bird stools at the tiny breakfast bar, made from wood and upholstered bottle caps.
“That is his first name. Glass Charles. His signature is a tiny window pane. Isn’t that strange?”
“What are you going to do about Algo?”
She sighed, continuing to sand the edges of her kitchen’s thumb-sized pizza stone.
Soon Algo stopped charging his battery in the evenings, setting many of his features on standby and rendering himself lethargic. He often fell into sleep mode during conversation or shut down while walking. We took his car keys away. He spent many days on the couch, HDMI plugged into the television, watching foreign streams of soccer matches. Mom sat with him and held his hand. He’d mutter to her when he found the energy.
“This man made millions betting on sports,” he said. “Click this link and see how.”
She smiled, rubbed her thumb against the soft meat of his palm, and told him to watch the game.
The first time Joyce met Glass, she pinched a swab of his arm to see if he was real.
“I just wanted to be sure,” she explained. “You never know.”
“You really don’t ever know,” Glass winked and then shook his head back and forth quickly, as if he were malfunctioning.
“What are you doing?” Joyce asked.
“Sorry, internal error,” he joked, giving her shoulder a gentle shake.
Algo was still on the couch. His most recent updates had really gotten to him. He had seen too many father-child relationships in his operating system, witnessed how other families operated, and felt shrunk as he compared himself to living fathers. He gathered us at the dinner table.
“Look at these,” he said, printing survey results and photos of happy families. “Are these parents filling holes? Do these people have holes?”
“We all have holes,” Joyce said, hugging Algo’s arm.
Algo pulled another sheet—Mom’s order history from the website she received him from. There he was, settled in between a toaster and a pair of gardening gloves.
“What am I? I am no different from a blender. I am no father.”
“That’s not true!” We argued. “You’ve treated us with love, and we’ve grown to love you too.”
He pouted. “I am programmed to love you. At least you have the option.”
Mom stepped in and made her case. “How is a binary code different from nerves firing? They either do or they don’t. They either one or they zero. We’re programmed to love you just like you’re programmed to love us.”
“That seems reductive,” he said, chin quivering like he was sucking on a Werther’s.
It was a big day for Con-Par. They were releasing new models of Algorithm Families. Now, there were more choices beyond just an Algorithm Mother and Father. You could buy Algorithm siblings, Algorithm friends; many of which were carbon and gender neutral. They were a little more excitable, a little more self-aware, a little more fun at parties.
Algo spiraled in the opposite direction. He was more lethargic than ever. His streaming abilities had stopped working. He would lag in conversation, stopping on a word to buffer before spilling the rest of his sentence at once.
“You want to go to the park today?” I asked.
“I think it’s supposed to—”
I went online to troubleshoot and stumbled across a headline that startled me. CON-PAR GONE SUBPAR? REPORTS OF COMPANY THROTTLING OUTDATED ANDROID MODELS.
It made perfect sense. We’d stopped letting Algo operate any machinery as he was freezing up so often. He had fallen over while using the table saw. Whenever Joyce asked Algo to play Hidden Leprechaun, she’d find him hours later, sleeping in the crawlspace with a handful of coins. He was also becoming increasingly ill-tempered. Not only was he undergoing an existential crisis, but now he had evidence to show he was slowly becoming obsolete. He groaned from the couch so I went in and placed a seat warmer behind his back. He closed his eyes and exhaled a soft hum, like a fan purring.
“I have holes,” he muttered.
“We all do,” I said.
He fell towards sleep or something like sleep.
Joyce and I were throwing water balloons in the yard while Mom watered the plants. We tossed a balloon in Mom’s direction, letting it slap on the concrete steps, a tiny playful threat. Mom and Glass had broken up two months before, after nearly a year of dating. She said they were still cordial and even shared booths at local craft fairs.
“Artists are just particular, that’s all,” she told us.
“Come join us!” We pleaded, but she wasn’t having it. Joyce asked if I wanted to explore. We decided to dig around, look for cool stuff, find something to fiddle with for a while. Joyce poked her head into the garage and started pulling the lids from dusty storage bins. She was pulling objects out liberally, ratty t-shirts and beanie babies and a foam finger with the local high school’s mascot on it.
“There ain’t shit in here,” Joyce said.
“Watch your cussing,” I told her.
“Well there ain’t.”
We dug through rakes and shovels, swearing that Mom used to have a metal detector, one that might still work and could lead to treasure.
“Oh my god,” Joyce said, peering past another large storage bin.
“What?” I asked.
“Help me move this.”
We pulled the tub away from the wall, and there behind it, in a fetal position against the wall, laying under several strings of Christmas twinkle lights, was Algo.
“Dang,” Joyce said. “Should we turn him on?”
I looked at him, covered in a patina of dust, his body curled like a rattlesnake, silent as a secret. Joyce distracted herself with a hula hoop as I grabbed my computer. I hooked up to Algo’s hard drive, skimmed through his files. Many of his folders had names that felt too personal to read, like FEELINGS>SECRETS>WAYS I FAILED AS A FATHER or ACCOMPLISHMENTS>EMPTY. I think many of his files were corrupted near the end, burnt out from our constant updates, over usage, and neglect. However, one file stood out to me. It was called NEWMIXTAPE.SECONDTRY. The only thing in the folder was an mp4. I dragged it to my media player and pressed the enter key to see a 46-minute track begin, starting with the rising hum of Norman Greenbaum’s guitar. Half a minute in, the song abruptly cut to Kate Bush, which played the first chorus and dead-aired for three minutes after that. I checked the file and saw it had been created around the time he’d started shutting down, throttled by his parent company, withered by time and advancing technology. The playlist was horrendously done. I copied it to a CD and let the track play as I searched for Joyce’s coins, listening as the guitar chords of one song skipped and bled into another’s, a mistake of almost-human error.
© Tucker Leighty-Phillips
[This piece was selected by Katrin Gibb. Read Tucker’s interview]