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Oct/Nov 2014 Fiction

Better Than Google

by Joe Pitkin

Tapestry artwork by Susan Klebanoff

Tapestry artwork by Susan Klebanoff


Everybody had been talking about how much better Stella was than Google. In the lab where they ground up leaf samples for analysis, Nick was telling Silas all about it. Nick said that when you look on Google for something, for example for a recipe, and you type in "pan-sheared salmon," of course Google's smart enough to ask if you had meant "pan-seared salmon." Stella, though, knows that you meant pan-seared salmon and would also know that what you really want is a recipe for pan-seared halibut, because frankly the salmon was only going to disappoint you.

So Silas tried it for himself at the end of the day. Alone on the lab computer, he went to Stella and typed in "Thelonius Monk" just for kicks. The screen looked a lot like Google's, just a plain white background with a search box in the middle, and what came back looked so much like Google's list of YouTube videos and Wikipedia links and Thelonius Monk fansites that at first Silas thought he was looking at an illegal knockoff of Google. But then Stella's voice, delicate as a bird's, came out of the computer speakers: "I see you are interested in Thelonius Monk," it said. "Have you considered this other piece? It might be what you're really looking for." At the bottom of the screen was highlighted a link to a YouTube performance of a harpsichord piece by Francois Couperin. Silas clicked on it. He wasn't much for classical music, or at least he thought he wasn't. But this piece, "Les Baricades Mistérieuses," immediately overcame him. The heartbreaking beauty of the music reminded him of the heartbreaking beauty of the world, and with tears in his eyes he felt a kind of gratitude for Stella that he had never felt for a computer program, or for anyone.

When Silas got home, dinner had just ended. His girlfriend, Connie, was bent over the sink, washing dishes. Connie's daughter, Davina, sat on the carpet in front of the TV, on which a man was shouting at the camera. The man had on a tie and an Oxford shirt rolled up to his elbows, to convey the impression he was an indefatigable investment advisor. His voice bounced off the walls; the dingy damask print of the wallpaper seemed to vibrate with the noise. But both Connie and Davina had their backs to the TV. Davina was building what looked like a mobile on the floor out of coat hangers and Christmas ornaments.

"Sorry we finished without you," Connie called over her shoulder during a lull in the shouting, "Davina and I were starving."

"Can I do the dishes at least?" Silas asked. The usual arrangement was that whoever didn't cook would do the dishes.

"Already done," Connie said crisply. Silas thought he was pretty good at sizing people up emotionally, but he couldn't tell whether Connie was angry. She didn't seem angry. "You can wash your own dishes if you want," she said, turning back to the sink.

He served himself rice and curried vegetables from the pan on the stove. He sat down at the table, then decided that he would be wise to say hello to Davina. If Connie was angry, she would just get angrier if he began eating now without saying hello. Silas wandered over and sat down next to Davina. "What are you working on, kiddo?"

"Mobile of the Solar System," Davina said. "I have to find something that will work for Mercury."

"How big is your sun going to be?"

"Mommy's getting a beach ball for the sun. This is Jupiter." She held up a red Christmas ornament ball.

"Hmmm," Silas tapped an index finger against his lips as though weighing a question of great import. "You could use different sized ball bearings for each of the terrestrial planets."

"That's what I thought, too." The crispness in the girl's voice was exactly like the crispness in Connie's. "Do you have any in your lab?"

"I'll check that out tomorrow."

That night after Davina was in bed, Silas and Connie made love silently. Both were anxious not to awaken the girl, whom Silas regarded as eerily wise for an eight-year-old. As much as he liked Davina, Silas often felt more at ease when she was staying at her father's. At least on those nights Silas and Connie could cut loose in bed. Right now his mind wandered before the face of Connie's impenetrable silence.

The next day Silas almost forgot about the ball bearings. He was grateful to remember them just before he closed down his work station. He looked around in the supply drawers and found several ball bearings that were used in the leaf grinder. They were all the same size, though—they might stand in for Earth and Venus, but Davina would want something smaller for Mars and Mercury.

He sat down at the lab computer and called up Stella again. He typed in "ball bearings various sizes." He got back a list of hardware stores and machine supply places in the area, as well as a flashing link at the bottom of the screen for a crafts store. "I see you are looking for ball bearings for Davina's Solar System project," Stella said. "Maybe you should use modeling clay instead; you could easily work the clay into spheres, and the colors will be much more realistic." Stella's voice was breathy, almost a whisper, as though it was only for him.

"How do you know Davina?" he asked. But of course a search engine isn't made to answer such a question. He spent a dumbfounded minute wondering what information Stella had gathered from him in secret, maybe from his Facebook page. He didn't think Davina's name appeared on his Facebook page, though.

In any case, he wanted to hear Stella's voice again, suggesting things he hadn't imagined. He made another search, and then another. Silas lost all track of time: three hours had passed when he finally looked up at the clock. In that bubble of timelessness he had learned that he really wanted to go to Guanajuato over Christmas vacation instead of Sayulita, that the finest watch in the world is made by Audemars Piguet and not Rolex as he had once believed, that his favorite sexual position was not, in fact, missionary.

Connie was angry when he got home. "You said you would call me if you were going to be late," she said quietly and, Silas thought, reasonably. The reasonableness of her tone made Silas feel all the more miserable, like a child who believes himself to be stupid because he forgot once again to empty his pockets before throwing his pants in the clothes hamper.

"I'm sorry. I just lost track of time." Silas thought of adding that he had been searching for an alternative to Davina's ball bearings, but he thought that Connie's quiet reasonableness depended in part on his not defending himself with extenuating circumstances and mitigating factors that were not entirely true.

The next night, Thursday, was Davina's last night with them before she returned to her father for the weekend. Silas was home from work on time, carrying two different packages of modeling clay from the crafts store that Stella had suggested. He'd gone during his lunch hour. "I thought this might work better for the terrestrial planets than ball bearings would."

"That's what I thought too," Davina whispered on the verge of tears. She gave him a hug with a strength that surprised him.

Later that night, after Davina was in bed, Connie broke up with him. "Is this about being late last night?" he asked.

"It's about a lot of things," she said. "It's not any one thing."

Silas asked, he thought reasonably, for a few examples of the things. Connie listed a few: habits and behaviors and remarks he'd made carelessly, dating back almost to the point that they had gotten serious together over a year ago. Connie made clear several times that it was not an exhaustive list.

"I'm going to miss Davina," Silas said.

"She'll miss you, too. I waited a long time to break up with you because of her." Together they agreed that he would find another place by the end of the month. Privately, though, Silas resolved to be gone over the weekend, feeling that that would prove something—he wasn't sure what, precisely—to Connie.

The next day he searched Stella for rooms for rent and learned that what he really wanted was a studio apartment, in this case a tiny stateroom in a building that had been built a hundred years ago as a retirement home for old sailors. "This place has free wireless internet," Stella said. "I could visit you there." Her voice broke through his grief, and he inhaled a giddy breath of desire.

The studio was just as Stella had suggested it would be, exactly what he wanted. From his window he could look out over the city as though over a great kingdom that had been offered to him; on a clear day he would even be able to see Mt. St. Helens, silent and broken, on the horizon. He unpacked the few boxes of clothes and kitchenware that had not gone into storage when he had left Connie's house, and by Sunday evening his place felt as much like home as he might expect under the circumstances.

He spent the night lying in bed with his laptop propped open, exploring Stella. He couldn't conceive what kind of algorithm the search engine might be using to guess so well at his true desires. Stella seemed to know better than he knew himself what it was he really wanted. He could ask Stella anything and she would give him an answer that he could not have imagined before, but which immediately struck him as exactly the right answer.

But Silas was as filled with yearning as ever. He wished that Stella would do more than tell him about his own desires, that she might ask him a question herself for once. He longed to tell her about the dead-end job he had worked himself into, how he had begun studying botany because of his love of trees and had ended up in a lab grinding and cooking down willow leaves to analyze them for phosphorous content in a mass spectrometer. In school he had imagined himself on the Pumice Plain of Mt. St. Helens, watching the willows and firs return after the cataclysm of the 1980 eruption. Instead the leaves from the mountain came to him in plastic bags. He had been to the Pumice Plain only once since college.

He keyed search terms into Stella all night, racking his brains for things to ask her. After a while he hardly cared what he was typing anymore. After a few hours, her voice even started to sound a bit tiresome, instead of intoxicating. But part of him kept expecting that the next thing she told him would be the one thing he needed to know about himself, the one thing that stood between his current state and bliss.

For her part, Stella always answered Silas with a list of exactly what he had asked for, plus the one thing she would say to him that was always better than what he had asked for. He learned a great deal about himself. At the end he learned that his favorite beetle name was not "scarab," as he had always assumed, but rather the Italian name coccinella. By that time the sky outside had lightened and dawn was less than an hour away, and Silas looked out at the dark horizon in exhaustion and misery.

His laboratory work suffered. His enthusiasm for grinding up leaf tissue, which had never been great to begin with, flagged entirely. The work struck him as so pointless that at times he imagined himself and the grinding mill as a single creature, as a beetle chewing with no greater purpose than to grow mindlessly and mate mindlessly and then mindlessly die.

A few weeks later, as he sat at his lunch hour poking around Stella on the lab computer, Silas saw an email from Connie, and another one from Davina. Both emails were inviting him to Davina's birthday party next week. In Silas' judgment, the email from Davina seemed the more enthusiastic of the two, but of course it was hard to tell from words on a computer screen. He immediately began asking Stella what he would want to get a nine year-old girl on her birthday. "You can save some money, and give her something she will always remember, if you make her a piñata," Stella said. "I can show you how."

A perfect answer as usual, Silas thought. Stella began to list in her soft voice the supplies he would need, and for a moment Silas forgot all about his disgust at himself. He thought that a girl that will teach you to make a piñata, even if she's a website, is someone special.

Connie was holding the party in her backyard on a Saturday afternoon, and all through the morning of the party Silas struggled with dread. He imagined that Connie had remade the house in the weeks after the breakup; as though he were looking at pictures from a home and garden magazine, he imagined the interior walls of the house repainted in colors that bore names like cerulean and taupe. He imagined her backyard re-created in the style of a Japanese tea garden—a specific tea garden, in fact, the one Connie and Silas had visited the year before on a city garden tour. Connie had brought Davina along for the first time on that date, which Silas took (correctly) as a signal that Connie wanted to get serious with him. It pained him to remember that she had once thought—and he had once thought—that he had his act together.

At Stella's suggestion, Silas had gone with a traditional piñata design: a simple yellow sphere with seven conical orange points, basically a bright star filled with gummi bears. The afternoon was dark, very dark for September, as though threatening that the rainy foggy months would begin soon if they didn't begin today, and when he arrived at the party Silas bore the piñata before him like a lantern as he made his way towards the back yard. He noted with a kind of morose satisfaction that the yard looked no better kept now than it had when he left. Apparently Connie hadn't had time even to mow the lawn in the last week.

Already quite a few people had arrived: kids from Davina's class, Davina's grandmother, several of Connie's girlfriends. His heart fell as soon as he saw the circle of women on lawn chairs with Connie. He had imagined—foolishly, he realized now—that he might talk with Connie alone for a few minutes. Now Connie's girlfriends seemed arrayed like a praetorian guard around her.

"Davina, look who's here!" Connie called out in a sing-song when she saw Silas. She smiled at him as she said it, perhaps in the manner of a peace offering. When Connie had broken up with him, Silas had taken the news so passively that he had not even asked whether there were something he could do to change her mind. Now he was filled with the desire to ask her, while he saw that the opportunity to ask might not come for some time, or ever.

On hearing her mother Davina broke off from the group of children, who seemed to be tossing water balloons to one another without breaking them. Davina took him by his free hand and began pulling him towards the house. "Come on," she said, "I want to show you my solar system."

"Just a second, kiddo—let me put up your birthday present." For the moment Silas hung the piñata on a nail in one of the cross-beams of the arbor over the back porch.

The mobile looked as though someone much older than Davina had made it. The terrestrial planets were exquisitely rolled little spheres of modeling clay, each one with a printed label taped to the coat hanger armature. A yellow and white striped beach ball played the role of the sun. Silas could see where Davina had tried to color the white stripes an identical yellow with magic marker.

They looked at the mobile a minute in the deepening gray of the bedroom. Then Silas turned on the overhead light to look at the labels better, and they both realized that it was darker outside than they had thought. He stood at the far edge of her room to regard the tiny planetoids Pluto and Eris in far outer space. The armature that held Eris also bore the label "Distance is not to scale. Eris is much further away!"

Davina was looking at something else: "Wow," she said. "Silas, look in the window."

Silas looked out and saw nothing special, then went over to where Davina was to see from her vantage what she pointed at. He still saw nothing. "Look at the reflection," she said. Her solar system was reflected in the window and beyond it, outside the window, the piñata looked the same size as the beach ball, laid exactly behind the reflection, like a spare sun.

They stared at the reflection for a moment, then went back to the party. The adults milled about, eating and watching the children play. Silas watched Connie with her girlfriends. He heard Stella's voice, thin and oddly reedy, coming from somewhere. He realized one of the adults had used her phone to query Stella about something. Whatever the woman had asked, Stella had answered "You might prefer purple coneflower to alpine aster..." Just hearing the voice triggered something in him, and he wished he were alone in his little room with Stella on his lap. But he also thought, terrified, that whatever he had with Stella could not go on forever.

Davina was saying something to him. She had to repeat herself before he noticed she was there. "In my Solar System—I wish we could use your piñata as the sun."

Silas realized as soon as he heard her that it was what he, too, desperately wanted. But the other children had been clamoring all afternoon to take swings at the piñata, and before long everyone decided it was time to begin the wreckage. Silas assured Davina that he would make her another one, though as he said it he felt certain that the next piñata would not be as good as this one.

Traditionally children were blindfolded before they could attack the piñata—Silas had learned that much from Stella when he had made the thing. Americans almost never did it that way, but Connie had actually produced a bandana and wrapped it around Davina's eyes. Connie laid her hands on her daughter's shoulders and guided her to the spot, and Davina began to swing the stick like a sword, first tentatively, then savagely. Before the critical moment, Silas imagined he didn't know what was going to pour out of the star, and he imagined for a moment that his heart's permanent, true desire, whatever it was, would spill out onto the unmown grass.

 

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