|Oct/Nov 2019 Humor/Satire|
"Truck whisperer," that was Red Gerlock's unusual job description. The Board had found him through a chain of other homeowners' associations, stretching all the way from LA to some place in Oklahoma, and Don Terry, our longtime HOA prez, had tasked me to nanny him in the very confidential matter of the trouble of our $3-million-dollar waste-management truck.
Over a scratchy cell-phone connection, I'd offered to arrange his flight and pick him up at LAX. He would, I told him, be put up in our quaint Blue Bird Inn, situated in the little pleasant planned urban center of our premiere gated development, Hidden Glen. "There are some nice, small restaurants within walking distance," I told him. But he'd demurred, insisting he'd find his own way, adding, "I gotta make a stopover in Bakersfield anyways." As I'd never met anyone who'd stopped over in Bakersfield, I was unsure how to interpret that. But for some reason his independent streak inspired confidence. Could this cowboy-guru of heavy haulers be our answer?
The HOA's golfbot drove me to the main gate. The bot was bug cute, like a wind-up toy—powder blue, pom-poms jiggling from its canopy, a little silver pennant twitching "HG." I should've been embarrassed, but out in crisp morning California air, scented of juniper and spritzed like champagne by Pacific mists, it was hard to be dissatisfied by anything. I am, by the way, Jamal Laney, the HOA Board's youngest, newest, alternate, non-voting member, and, I admit, probably its tool. As such, all gopher jobs just pretty much fall to me.
Pulling up at security, I searched for Gerlock. Ignoring the amused stares of contractors, their oversized pickup-bots gunning themselves, I expected Gerlock to be driven up in something similar. But instead he debarked from a fuming city bus. Confusing. But he matched my PicFinder search: lean, roosterish, sunburnt; blue jeans, scuffed boots, stained gimme cap... so I waved a friendly HOA hello.
The Ventura Freeway roared outside the gate, screaming cars and bots spewing trash and pollutants.
"Did you have trouble finding transportation, Mr. Gerlock?" I said over the noise.
"Nope," he said.
"Did your trip go well?"
"Yep." Hoisting a grease-stained duffle to his shoulder, he looked past me with impatience.
With that, I led Gerlock onto the welcoming hush of Hidden Glen itself. Obtaining his visitor's lanyard at the security hut, I asked Officer Hector of the Courtesy Patrol, in his acqua tunic and shorts, about road conditions heading into the development. "Nothing unusual," he said with a long knowing look, "at this time." Relieved, I directed Gerlock to the golfbot.
In miles, Hidden Glen is not far from LA, but in exclusivity it might as well be a different continent. As the brave little bot drove itself on the weaving parkway, I pointed out the discreetly huge ranch estates, the rustic split-cedar fencing, the bridle paths going everywhere, the turnoff to Centertown—our quaint planned village of shops, restaurants and offices modeled on a French Provencal town. All designed by Hidden Glen's controlling entity, Planned Envirometrics LLC. As we went, I warned the bot to avoid any slowpoke utility machines—hedge pruners, gravel sweepers, and so on—managing the curated wildscape.
"Notice any unusual changes in this PD 70-6-10 of yours?"
It was Gerlock's first speech exceeding one word.
"In the what?"
I shifted sideways, tugging my Canali slacks, the better to chat while the bot drove. Gerlock poked a cracked boot toe at the vehicle's pink polycarbonate dash.
"Oh, this bot?" I said. "Well, I'm not sure. At least, I don't think so. How would I know?"
"You'd know," he said from his weather-beaten, deadpan face.
"K," I said.
At Admin House the Board members not currently out of town on business or holiday had gathered, and I discreetly noted quorum on my iPad. As non-voting alternate, I did not count myself, but I did record my presence. It's not as if I'm invisible.
Our longtime Board president, Don Terry, got things rolling.
"Mr. Gerlock is a machinery consultant from Henryetta, Oklahoma," he said, "with a reputation of getting sensitive jobs done sensitively. By which I mean discreetly. By which I mean, no publicity."
Avi Bhargavan, our respected trader on the AI spot market, twiddled his pen. "Maybe... we should start by telling Mr. Gerlock about the web-app lockout?"
"Or how that truck drives the main roads dangerously close to our own private bots," said Joya Clombebert.
Mark Duncker glowered. "I've had my BMW pinned by that truck, and I'm not happy about it."
"Twice," said Zoe Madison, commercial realtor, peering over Pradas, "it's lurked suspiciously outside my home at night, flashing its lights. The house answers back, flashing its landscape lighting."
"What, Gerlock," asked Don, "do you make of that?"
The Oklahoman stirred.
"I'd like to see that truck."
"The point is," said Don, "it shouldn't be able to do any of those things."
Said Avi, "It absolutely can't. It's impossible; its algorithms won't let it." He waved the pen in alarm. "Yet now we can't configure the truck from its website, not even with full admin rights. Everything's greyed out."
"See?" said Don.
Said Zoe, "If you try to get on, it unlikes you right away, and I mean really rudely."
"With obscenities," said Joya.
Said Don, "We downloaded Hidden Glen's CC&Rs into it like BMW recommends."
"C C and whos?" said Gerlock.
"Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions," said Bhargavan helpfully, "It's pretty much the guiding document of everything that matters in Hidden Glen."
Reverent nods all around.
"How many pages," said Gerlock, "is that sucker?"
People seemed confused. Don turned to me. "Jamal?"
It was the first time I'd been directly addressed, and I was ready. "Six hundred seventy-two, Don. But that's including the ones marked 'This Page Left Intentionally Blank.' I think there are 20 or so of those. Do you want to count?"
Don waved me off. "Well?" he said to Gerlock.
"Whole lotta shoulds to lay on a goat-brained truck."
Somewhat affronted, Don said, "Mercedes instructed us to."
"Straight from Stuttgart," added Avi.
"If Jesus paid you to jump off a cliff, would you do that?"
I looked around. Nobody was saying anything. As a matter of prudence, I backspaced the iPad's Delete key, sending that last to trash.
"Look," said Don. "It's a $3-million-dollar investment by the HOA, a fully automated, mobile waste-management unit. We're all-in with that thing, and we can't control it. It'll be a scandal if that gets out to the general community. You're the truck specialist. Can you fix it or not?"
Gerlock looked around. When he spoke, it was in a tone more curious than critical. "You folks seem kind of down on this truck. What's it done, anyway, kill someone? Is it a killer truck?"
"A what?" said Don.
"Then never mind," said Gerlock.
Don sputtered. "There has been no violence whatsoever."
"Okay," said Gerlock. "All's I'm sayin', somebody's gotta stick up for the durn truck."
"Show Mr. Gerlock the truck."
COWBOY MEETS TRUCK
Red Gerlock was hired. A decision based partly I felt on lack of candidates. There are, after all, not that many qualified professional truck behaviorists popping from the woodwork. The merry golfbot drove us into Centertown, where the board was putting him up. I checked the truck's whereabouts on my phone app. "It's gone home," I said, "to the corporation yard following it's afternoon run. We'll go there once you're checked in at the Bluebird and settled in." But Gerlock insisted on being driven straight to the yard. Surprised, I said, "Wouldn't you like to freshen up first?"
"If I was any fresher," he said, "I'd be buttermilk. Let's see that truck."
The only unpleasant place in all of Hidden Glen is the truck yard. It's a dry sore occupying several acres of bare gravel surrounded by hurricane fencing. At its center—a low hill of scraped, windswept earth—is a giant open shed with a steel corrugated roof. Here dwell the parked service bots, silent and still in off-duty mode. I made out about 20 hefty-looking vehicles parked under the cool gloom.
Gerlock jumped out, sniffing the air like a hound scenting game. "What's your handle again, son?" he said, eyeing things. "Jamal Laney," I said. He was walking away.
"Well, Jamal Laney, let's see what we got."
Gerlock circled the shed's perimeter. He touched hoods painted landscape-green, roadwork-orange, naming them to himself: "Grader." "Mower-reaper." "Backhoe." "Blaster." "Paver."
"You're a funny oddball," he muttered at one. It was a Rube Goldberg contraption of small tanks and tubes sitting atop what might have numbered eight spring-mounted wheels, like a mechanical spider. "Line-Painter," he said, wagging his eyebrows at me.
The vehicles all faced outward. At their center sat the super-truck. Gerlock squeezed closer. With the smaller machines packed so tight, the behemoth suggested something squatting in a bunker. At last Gerlock stood before it. To me, its front was more a cliff than a hood, its body undulating in an unbroken sheathe of dull, burnished silver. Driverless, it needed no cab or windshield. Instead an LED display, now asleep, spread across its huge, featureless nose. As I knew from experience, it glowed a druggy blue when powered up, but that could change to a rich caramel orange or a gentle aqua depending on machine mode. Recessed at many spots around its body were positionable cameras providing 360-degree, 3D perception. In fact, it had a host of eyes—20 or more—which screwed down at you in tandem as the massive machine passed silently on Hidden Glen's roadways. As editor of the HOA's Approved Appliances List, I happened to know the thing also rippled with radar, audio, and thermal inputs. "My," said Gerlock, "ain't you a handsome beast?"
Wriggling his skinny frame, he climbed the truck's blind cab long enough to grab hold of a rear-view camera bar, and he hung there while he tapped at a small keypad I'd never noticed before. He released and dropped to earth, spanking his hands. "Yup, rejects password reset."
I followed, blinking, from the shed into the glare. "Now that you've had a look, what do you think?"
"Mighty peculiar." His dry, teeth-sucking delivery seemed mostly for my benefit as the client. I couldn't tell what he thought himself.
Gerlock retrieved his duffle and began dragging things from it, tossing them in the dirt. A rolled-up sleeping bag. A coil of rope. A hatchet. Some blank squares of cardboard and jars of acrylic paint. Did the man propose to do some al-fresco artwork in his spare time? If so, I could think of nicer spots.
"Look, Mr. Gerlock, is the truck fixable in your opinion, based on your professional experience?" I didn't entirely like the tentative (read weasely) sound of my voice, but I didn't altogether "get" the cowboy from Oklahoma. But I braved on. "I don't ask for myself, just so you know? But I know from experience that will be the first question the Board asks."
"You can go, Jamal Laney."
"Sorry? How will you get to the Bluebird for the night?"
"Bluebird-Shmoobird. I'll stretch out here, under nature's canopy of stars."
"I—", I said.
"Great," he replied, as if I'd just announced some kind of plan. "Since you got wheels anyway, then be back here at 6:00 AM, can you?"
"Well, what time does the truck start its pickup schedule?" He was pulling a camp stove from the bag.
"Right," I said. I took out my tablet and did some quick checking. "HOA rules discourage noise before 7:30, so the truck is scheduled to motor up and leave here at 7:20." I paused uncomfortably. "We'd announced an earlier time, due to the house demolition going on over at the Laurel Grove cul-de-sac. That's creating a mess, and Don really doesn't like a lot of exposed detritus. But obviously, with the current blocked web controls, and so on, that's not exactly happening now."
"You mean," he said, "that's exactly what's not happening now."
"Right," I said glumly.
"Then be here at 7:00 sharp. I'll have some pipin' hot java for you. I need to study these machines in their native habitat." He dropped the sleeping bag in the dirt and, with one deft boot poke, unrolled it flat.
"K," I said.
While the golfbot drove me back into Centertown, I voiced Don and explained Gerlock's camping plan. Aggravated, he asked what steps Gerlock was taking to reprogram the truck. "He's still in the testing phase," I said.
"That means in English?"
"Well, he's trying some pretty sophisticated procedures for resetting cab access."
"Too technical for me, but it requires he be on-site. I think there might be some extensive machine processing involved. You know, brute-force running of millions of possible passwords, and so on."
Why I was concocting excuses for Gerlock I didn't know. However, Don, concluding the closest residents were some 200 yards off and complaints unlikely, disconnected.
At home I met my young wife Chloe. I don't know why I describe her that way, since we're both in our same mid-20s. Probably because I'm one of those people born forty. We had a pleasant dinner, and then I caught up on some light work for the law firm of which I am a very junior associate in trusts and wills. Chloe's dad Barry owns the firm by the way, an appalling advantage to me I admit, which I only dignify by having the sense to be embarrassed by the fact.
Later, Chloe and I sat on the jasmine-infused porch enjoying talk of future plans. I did my best to put truck problems from my mind.
WHEN IN DOUBT, ASK THE TRUCK
In the morning there were 11 messages in the HOA's inbox complaining of noise. As examples, one resident cited "unauthorized partying," while another had risen from bed and recorded a live snippet with her phone over her backyard fence. The quality was harsh, but I could make out accordion-playing and singing, a plaintive, caterwauling country twang that could only be Red Gerlock. Then came the yodeling. An interval of ecstatic ululation evoking nothing so much as the joyous expressions of an unhinged mockingbird.
Needless to say, I dressed quickly and headed on out there.
Since I had no idea what kind of day was on offer, I wore a sport coat over Diesel jeans, a designer I felt fit the spirit of the day, with navy-blue deck shoes. It was a sparkling California morning, a salt tang from the unseen Pacific invigorating the Rubenesque haunches of the wildflower-strewn hills which form Hidden Glen's western boundary. Traffic was light. Occasional bots placidly worked the roadsides, trimming, weeding, tilling.
When I pulled into the yard, Gerlock was absent but there were signs of occupation: coffee spat inside an ancient percolator and blackened corpses of bacon dried on newspaper. The sleeping bag was gone, and the re-stuffed duffle stood stiffly on end, fat as a sausage. Momentarily, the scrawny form of Gerlock himself appeared from behind a utility hut, zipping his jean's fly. I shot glances around, gauging the neighbors' angles of sight.
"Good morning," I called. "How'd it go here last night? Learn anything new about our problem?"
"Like what, if I may ask?"
"Machines do zilch when they're turned off."
"Ha, ha," I said.
Gerlock kneeled and poured us black coffee in two thermos tops. Proffering mine, he stood sipping, silently squinting around at the machines under the huge shed. Manfully, I sampled mine, which had an acid tang of aluminum. As I've mentioned, the yard is the only ugly place in Hidden Glen. To me, it vaguely suggested a pit mine in the Dakotas, if I'd ever been to the Dakotas. One of those lonely fly-over places where rogue trucks, as Gerlock had told the Board, killed. I shivered. Yet the morning was chill and the coffee hot, and there was something stoic and bracing about our wordless communion. I realized I was enjoying myself. Perhaps, I thought, I was having an adventure?
Gerlock scuffed a boot at some interesting gravel. He snucked his nose and spat through a useful gap in his front teeth. The force was surprising, actually blowing a tiny divot in the dirt.
I decided it was time to speak. Glancing at my Breitling Chronomatic, I said, "7:18."
"Nice alarm clock," he said.
"Thanks. Soon they'll wake up." I meant the machines hunkering under the cold looming shed. "Then what?"
"Try stuff," he said, munching bacon.
My turn to nod. The plan. Okay.
"Look," I said, as a preamble to being frank.
"Absolutely not rushing you, but just as a practical question—one I know will come up from the voting members of the Board, not me—do you think you'll have the problem of the truck solved today, or will it be a more extended process?"
Gerlock cocked his head, thinking. "Can't say," he said.
"It'll take longer?"
"Why not ask the truck?" he said.
Then, "Wow," I coughed, nearly spilling coffee down my shirt from the effect of a heavy tremor shaking the earth. Up the hill, headlights began blinking chaotically on as the machines' engines all started coming to life at once.
I had never witnessed in person this boisterous event. "Here we go," said Gerlock, cramming his ball cap on his head. "C'mon, git." He was twitching his frog legs, grabbing up the materials he'd set aside for the job. "Wheel around that cart-bot-thing of yours. Quick! Git, git!"
A ROAD SIGN IS WORTH A THOUSAND ALGORITHMS
It occurred to me as we piled in that Red Gerlock might not have any plan at all for controlling the truck, and that the hardware he was tossing, clanking and rattling, into the golfbot's rear was just whatever junk he'd brought along in the hope that something, anything, might work the miracle. Contractors, I had learned from Don, often hide questionable billings under categories like "Troubleshooting," but in this case—I thought with a panicked thrill—it might belong under "Looking For."
"U-turn!" I told the little bot. "Follow!" The smaller machines were already descending the driveway to the gate. All networked, in wordless communication they formed up in an evenly spaced line—the Backhoe, the Blaster, the Paver, and so on—blinking, beeping and clanking. The smart-gate recognized the activity and smoothly opened, and out they all started to roll. All but the super-truck.
"Hold up!" cried Gerlock. His eyes glued to the truck, he made hand signals at me. Palm up, stop. Whirling finger, back up. This was the first I'd seen the laconic man stirred so. I barked at the golfbot, translating his commands.
The giant sanitation vehicle's first sign of life came as gentle waving banks of solid-state LEDs, rippling cornflower blue across its cab. Then bumper lamps started flashing on and off in unison, forming juddering yellow-and-black directional arrows rolling outward or skipping up and down the emergency sidestrips. Devices all over the beast's brushed-alloy body began testing. Side cameras swiveled, vents like shark gills breathed and sucked, mud flaps flapped. Unseen, its towering roof retracted, playing acid-colored lights from within on the dank shed roof. Then, as sudden as it started, the truck's wake-up show stopped.
A pregnant pause ensued. During which came only a faint rumble, more felt through the soles of my shoes than heard, suggesting power under restraint. The roof processor released a single puff of purified steam, which pooled in the shed. Then, lights sprang awake all about the truck's body at once. It jumped on its airbreaks. And then the colossal machine rolled forward, out from the shed and down the hill.
"Boo-yah!" cried Gerlock, whipping his arm in circles. Translating that as git!, I commanded the cart into gear, and it crept toward the driveway, pom-poms jiggling as it bumped over hard dirt clumps. The truck came down, its crushing girth barely fitting the paved strip of roadway.
"Ain't he a beauty!" Gerlock exulted, looking side to side and up and down, drinking in the truck's many state-of-the-art features as its shadow enveloped us and the length of the monster slid by.
The little golfbot followed out of the yard. It was a decidedly slow-speed chase, since the truck proceeded at a precisely governed 25 miles per hour, obeying all mandated State of California regs.
"What do we do now?" I said.
He shot a thumbs-up, grinning. "Follow! Observe its routine!"
The truck's rear bore a splashy custom paint job—an official crest depicting the region's historical Tongva Indians engaged in various acts of wisely managing Hidden Glen's precious natural resources. As former staffer to the HOA board's Truck Study Committee, I knew that the semi-intelligent machine processed four distinct categories of trash: Original, Recycled, Alive (genetically modified) and Upgrade. In the last, residents had the opportunity to discard outmoded electronics and household appliances, which were then returned to them within 72 hours upgraded to latest models. The truck purportedly also could render an industrial slurry of some marketable value, but the Association had yet to monetize that angle.
Gradually the parade of smaller machines peeled off on preassigned routes, and, shortly after, so did the truck, making a lumbering turn onto Walkaloosa Road (named for the Walkaloosa pony) and began its waste run.
Outwardly the process was simple. Housekeepers or yard men left trash at the curb in colored bins, and the truck, coming by, seized and dumped them into its bed. What was so disturbing was the speed at which the truck operated. It snatched bins. It shook and devoured them. Then the mechanical arm tossed them into the street in ravenous haste for more. Throughout, its actions remained barely shy of out-of-control.
"See?" I told Gerlock, raising my voice above the racket, "The truck's supposed to cycle weekly through nine designated pickup domains. But it's been repeating this same run through Walkaloosa for three days now. We've tried and tried, but we can't reprogram it. It's stuck! And look how fast it operates? It's scaring people!"
"It doesn't want to."
"K," I said. "I'm talking about the effect on the people, obviously." I waved at a prominent parking sign. "Monday's supposed to be No Parking on this street, to accommodate trash pickup, but here it's Wednesday, with cars parked, and the truck's blowing right through with the potential for property damage."
"All's I'm saying, let's not hate on the truck."
"Well, yes," I said, "but let's not anthropomorphize it either. Meanwhile, other districts are getting no service. As you can imagine, they're complaining and asking a lot of uncomfortable questions. Yet it was working great before—that's the mystery, you see?" I gestured at the rumbling behind of the brute. "It's a cutting-edge, advanced machine we sunk a fortune in. There'll be a big scandal if we can't make it work. And believe me, there's no other option. We're all in."
People and animals along the route were fleeing its rampaging path. Dogs dragged owners away by leashes, kids on skateboards diverted away, fit women in Lululemon on their way to spin class or Ashtanga yoga reversed SUVs up driveways. Yet there was something fastidious about the truck's actions. Though time and again coming perilously close to parked cars, it never ripped their metal sides open. It might slam the bins down, but with an eerie physics that somehow sent them spinning back upright.
"Truck's agitated," observed Gerlock.
"What should we do?"
"In my opinion?"
Who else's? "Yes," I said.
"I told you, son, this is a police job. Shoot it. Release it from th' misery of life's empty round."
I kept my eyes on the truck. I was growing annoyed with Gerlock's whimsical sarcasms and morbid detours. First he defended the truck's fragile, misunderstood nature, then he called for its summary execution. These contradictions I felt were deliberate. His poker cowboy face couldn't make his message clearer: our worries were uninformed panic, his expert opinions the only ones that mattered. No doubt he was right, but it was a ploy typical of contractors, to promote dependency by making clients feel foolish, better justifying fee inflation, as Don Terry had often mentored me.
"A bullet to the processor," he said, "that's my professional conclusion for you."
Needless to say, calling in authorities was exactly the kind of public crisis we had to avoid. There'd been that showdown in Nebraska recently, with a self-driving cement truck. The vehicle had eventually been put down by state police employing a type of shoulder-mounted cannon. After our own troubles started with our truck, I'd watched the YouTube vid obsessively, and once the first shot put it on its side, it took two more "belly hits," as the TV reporter's excited voiceover called them, before the axles stopped spinning. But that was the kind of desperate encounter associated with distant fly-over states. Nothing of that type ever happened in the hyper-controlled environment of Hidden Glen.
"Jesus's balls," said Gerlock, "let's try a test."
He had me veer off at the next side street, Red Quail Way, and then circle around, taking a left on Speckled Hen, bringing us back onto Walkaloosa, but now positioned ahead of the truck. Instructing me to pull over, he screwed himself around to the backseat and rummaged through the stuff he'd brought from the yard. After a process opaque to me, he selected the pile of cardboard squares I'd noticed him unpacking the previous night and jumped from the bot. I climbed out myself to see what he was doing.
The truck was coming, humping and slamming trash containers, the racket growing louder, the pavement shaking. Muttering, Gerlock sorted through the squares, rejecting some to the pavement. Finally, choosing one, he held it up. I twisted, craning to see. It was a hand-painted facsimile of a road sign, big white letters on a red octagon, rendered in obsessive, almost neurotically precise brushstrokes.
STOP, it read.
On came the truck tearing through bins—whompa-hurl-slam, whompa-hurl-slam—like a frat bro at a tequila-shot contest. Yet at the same time, I saw its front-facing cameras sweeping super-efficiently ahead, zooming in on trees, parked cars, terrified cats, storing each obstacle for split-second maneuvering by its mammoth yet nimble steering assembly.
Red Gerlock waited. Sucked teeth, spat sideways. Later I would suspect he had performed this trick many times, like the wire walker who rehearses all the throat-clutching near-falls in advance. But at that moment, I'm embarrassed to say, I really did believe it was his first time facing down a monster truck, and I was thrilled.
Some hundred feet off, rushing full speed, the truck's myriad "eyes" registered the fake sign. In a split second, somewhere in its opaque intelligence, a collision-warning algorithm ran. Its super-compressed Haldex air-brakes engaged. Dipping its monumental, semi-detached cab—compensating for physics— the machine shuddered, swooping on front axles, decelerated, and abruptly came to a halt only feet from Gerlock, its air column violently gusting his hair and clothes. Hydraulics groaning, it absorbed the last of its momentum by submitting and stooping down onto its shocks, like an elephant trained to obey.
The future of smart-trucking had arrived!
Gerlock slumped, at last feeling the danger pass... Silence... Bird sounds... The nickering of horses unseen in paddocks close by... Tranquil Hidden Glen, restored!
"Un-fucking-believable," I muttered.
"God, are you all right?" I said, approaching.
"God, you stopped it!" I cried.
Gerlock nodded, dangling the cardboard sign, wiping his forehead with a flannel sleeve.
"Hell, Mr. Gerlock! That's the first time in weeks anyone's gotten that truck to respond to a command, any way at all!"
"Progress," he said poker-faced.
"What else can you make it do?" I'd forgotten skepticism, enthralled.
A natural stoic, he scowled. He felt the truck's hood, keeping his hand there briefly. "Gone to deep idle," he said.
"Is that serious?" I came closer. "I really don't know much about bots," I admitted, "even smallish ones." Normally I drove the HOA's golfbot around Hidden Glen's manicured roads fairly heedlessly. Now I felt embarrassed by its twee, powder-blue paint job and frankly ludicrous pom-poms. I had to remind myself though that Gerlock probably didn't care or, possibly, even notice. If something wasn't a truck, I'd begun to think, it probably wasn't even on his radar.
"Go ahead, touch it. It's safe," he said. Was I being invited into the gruff brotherhood of trucks? Keeping to the side, I put my hand on it. The metal felt cool and baby-smooth, but from deep within came a thrill of subterranean power.
Gerlock waved his cardboard sign at a nearby pair of lenses. One tracked while the other remained frozen, making it wall-eyed.
I laughed, delighted.
"Let's try somethin' else," he said.
"K," I said, rapt.
Shuffling squares, he chose another. Black on yellow, it declared PROCEED WITH CAUTION. He waggled it.
The truck exhibited no response.
Eyeing the T-intersection behind us, he held up a different one commanding BEGIN RIGHT TURN LANE.
"Has it stopped working?" I asked.
He ignored me, holding aloft another, decreeing CHECK LIGHTS.
After a moment the truck's headlights flashed on then off exactly once.
"Crazy!" I found myself shouting.
He held up TRUCK LANE 300 FEET.
He held up NO PARKING 7AM—9AM.
He held up DOUBLE FINE ZONE.
The truck powered up. The druggy blue LEDs began rolling and flashing up and down its front.
"Holy crap, Mr. Gerlock!"
The machine rose on its hydraulics, and slowly, majestically, rolled forward.
"It's obeying!" I shouted. I think I grabbed my head. I know I pumped my arms.
Too busy with the giant rolling chunk of hardware to look at me, Gerlock was walking backwards, concentrating on its actions as it followed him, maintaining an even distance. A small, vulnerable figure, he was, I recognized, actually "truck-whispering" to the creeping, now docile behemoth, making it do his bidding!
Nearing the T-intersection, he switched signs to BEGIN RIGHT TURN LANE. At first the truck showed resistance—front axle jerkily shifting directions, cameras spooking like a horse rolling its eyes at a ditch. For a moment I feared it might panic and run Gerlock right over. But haltingly, testingly, its giant wheels on its massive seven axels began to bear right, trailing him into the turn, away from its programmed route.
Gerlock led the truck around the corner, then waved the stop-sign placard. The machine came to rest. Rear warning LEDs pulsed a pleasant sherbety orange, warning any approaching cars or kids on bikes of its presence (there were none).
I was running—no skipping—across the intersection toward man and machine, waving my arms like a kid myself.
"You're a truck genius!"
He frowned, but I couldn't help it. It was more than relief that he'd fixed the truck and Hidden Glen would dodge scandal. It was joy that—counter to Planned Envirometrics—there could still be surprises in Hidden Glen!
That's when my phone started vibing. I glanced at it. It was Don, texting,
what's going on?
getting texts from walkaloosa
I looked around. To my surprise, people stood with arms folded outside some of the ranch houses. I'd been so distracted, I hadn't noticed. Doing a slow 360, I checked for any irate homeowners.
just curious staff
he's diverted truck onto speckled hen
he uses traffic signs
CA traffic signs
holds em up. truck obeys
it's been weeks!!!
He typed for a while,
detour truck to Laurel cul-de-sac. pick up contractor trash at site. ugly! smelly!!!!!
I winced at Don's pile-up of exclamations.
Pocketing the phone, I ran the rest of the way to where Gerlock stood by the now placidly idling, seemingly tamed, truck.
As I neared, it emitted a tremendous horn blast, like an ocean liner blowing its stack. I nearly popped from my deck shoes. Conflicting lights flashed around the truck. Gerlock was holding up a sign. It read, LOW FLYING PLANES. It included a black-and-white cartoon of an airplane falling nose-first from the sky straight onto a cartoon vehicle. A broken line looped from the falling plane to the cartoon car, emphasizing the impact. It was a surprisingly dramatic statement for a staid road sign, and Gerlock the corporation-yard artist had rendered it meticulously. Every camera on the truck's forward half was now pivoting, zooming and rezooming, the machine equivalent of an anxiety attack. My hearing returned, I could make out the tiny whine of their many piezoelectric gear motors.
"What the hell happened!?"
"Testing alert system."
I looked around at the staring people. "Um, maybe not do that again?
He nodded. "Checks out good, though."
"So... you control it?"
He squinched his cowboy eyes considering, shifted his weight. "Getting used to me some." He indicated its massive hood with his chin. "Chem unit's scenting us now."
On the hood above my head, I saw—at either side of a yard-wide Mercedes medallion—twin small vents were puckering at me, the animal-like behavior unnerving. He shrugged. "Trust starts slow with big trucks. You can never push it." He soothed a hand down its side. The vents panted faster. I looked away.
"Don reached out," I said, changing the subject.
"Don Terry? HOA prez?" I explained Don's request.
"Man don't ask much."
"Why? Is diverting it hard?"
He rolled his eyes heavenward. Then, returning them to me, spoke slowly and—I couldn't help thinking—sarcastically. "If you think about it, Jamal, all's I got to work with here is a piece 'a cardboard, a black marker, and the California-state traffic-symbol set. Now, all of a sudden, I'm supposed to somehow explain to a 70-ton truck with a one-pound brain, how to navigate itself off its route and proceed, safely and sanely, to a specific address?" It was the most complex sentence-set I'd heard him yet utter.
And intimidating. And it conflicted directly with Don's text directive. I dwelt in a pressure sandwich.
"K," I said bravely.
If you haven't noticed, "K" is my go-to non-reply when I have no idea what to say next and further discussion might tend to hose options.
I waited. He stared. Finally, perhaps disgusted as much with himself as with me, he bent and flipped through the signs, cussing under his breath. At last he found one. TRUCK DETOUR, it said. "Address?" he said.
The people from that cul-de-sac with the piling-up construction trash had been pummeling me mercilessly with texts for a week, requiring from me a more or less continuous stream of K's, so I recited it from memory. Scribbling it at the bottom of the cardboard square, he thrust the sign at the truck. Half a dozen forward eye-pairs scrutinized, scanning left to right. Then—warning LEDs revolving the roofline in opposing circles—a loud, ominous beeping commenced, like the countdown to a rocket launch.
"Uh-oh," said Gerlock. It was the first I'd heard him express open dismay.
TROUBLESHOOTING IS ITS OWN REWARD
Things happened fast after that.
First, the truck sped away on Speckled Hen, crossed Red Quail Way at the intersection, and rushed from sight. Gerlock watched the vehicle's disappearance open-mouthed.
"Hog turds!" he cried, "Into the cart!"
We pursued, the golfbot's electric motor straining, its pom-poms dancing, but had a hard time keeping up. "It's never gone so fast!" I shouted.
"That model engine's got a governor," he said, "but it's bypassing."
"That's possible?" I said.
Gerlock shook his head with what I took to be grim admiration. "It is if it knows how to turn it off."
We continued to the cul-de-sac. The truck was not there. It had arrived and left in a frenzy, as the two human foremen at the work site explained, crashing the fence without warning. Roaring across the site, it had proceeded at triple speed—as if pumped on meth—to shovel mounds of festering construction waste into itself—along with some brand-new building supplies—and then raced away again. Even now, confused builder bots wandered the muddy site, hoisting and lowering tool arms.
Reprogramming the traumatized bots would cost plenty, the foremen complained. I told them to submit all expenses to the HOA and, pleading discretion, left the cul-de-sac feeling weaselish and questioning my role.
Back on the street, I asked Gerlock what to do now. "Back to its route," he said. With the bot driving, I checked my tablet. Sure enough, the truck had resumed its run on Walkaloosa as if all were normal. As the bot drove, I turned to Gerlock.
"Mr. Gerlock, I have to tell you, I was really impressed with your handling of the truck this morning. That idea—the traffic signs—that was—well—inspired. I—I admit to having had some doubts, before. But now— " He stared ahead without expression. "I'm truly sold on your basic approach. But, —In light of what happened back at the cul-de-sac? (I thought it best to steer clear of the exact disastrous details of that debacle.) —Are we any closer to, um, actually controlling the truck?"
He nodded once.
"We are?" Frankly I was surprised.
"Sure," he said. His jaw set and his eyes narrowed in a web of crow's feet. "You can't troubleshoot without trouble."
I waited. Apparently that was the full cowboy-wisdom download.
"Right," I said. Queasily I began messaging Don. "Thanks," I said to Gerlock, simultaneously pressing phone letters, "I'm sure reassuring nervous clients gets dreary for you."
He ignored me.
progress. communication established with truck. plus, it picked up cul-de-sac junk
After a moment Don's reply popped,
super-duper!! truck fixed????
Then texts from Chloe started blowing up, too.
hey where r u? want to ride sugar and honey?
boo. tied up. u no, the truck thing
can baxter and bogart come?
kisses 2 truck
Sugar and Honey were our two dapple-grey Arabians, and Baxter and Bogart our clownish, tail-stump-wagging corgis. But though I cherished my young wife's company, right then I was a man on a mission.
Back on Walkaloosa we caught up with the truck. Of the very latest design, it actually had twin lifter arms, left and right, giving it the ability to collect trash on both sides of the street if certain criteria prevailed. Say, on a one-way street. But Walkaloosa was not one-way, and was a sometimes busy feeder to Elkhorn Parkway. Yet both opposing arms were out, snatching bins from either side! Up ahead, I saw a plum-colored Escalade emerge, driving our way down the leafy street. Spying the out-of-control truck, its bot made a hasty U-turn. Inside, the passenger behind the polarized glass could be seen holding his face in an Edvard Munch scream.
"It's completely not supposed to be doing that," I told Gerlock.
"It's feelin' pressure." He was leaning back with arms folded, his boots on the dash. "It longs to please but has limited ability to know how."
"Makes it anxious. Compulsive."
"Well," I said, "whatever, it's dangerous." Frankly I was wearying again of his psychologizing the thing.
"It doesn't think that. It knows it'll give way to oncoming traffic."
"That man's bot just had to U-turn," I pointed out.
"It would've pulled right if he came close."
"Mr. Gerlock, it shouldn't be double-dipping trash like that! It's programmed to never do that anywhere but on a one-way street!"
Gerlock sighed. "Tell you what. Pull left, as if you're gonna pass, and turn on your blinker."
"I'm not sure we should," I said. I was watching the lifter arm on my side pummeling trash bins right in our path.
"S'okay. Little test. Won't do nothin' unsafe."
Doubtful, I nevertheless instructed the golfbot to position to pass, at which it began blinking its left-turn signal. Sure enough, the truck retracted its arm on that side and even squeezed right politely, leaving room for its puny friend.
"Huh," I said.
"Pass," Gerlock said.
I gave the cart the order. For a moment it complied, but then faltered, falling back again behind the truck. "Hunh!" I said, surprised. I repeated the order and the same thing happened, the cart trying to pass, then retreating. "It won't," I said to Gerlock, confused.
Gerlock patted the golfbot's dash. "This little guy has assumed the submissive role in the vehicular relationship."
"Wouldn't go too far with th' analogy. Vehicles ain't dogs or horses, they got their own ways o' course, but there's some interestin' similarities." Then he did that thing I didn't care for much, snucking his nose and spitting out the window.
"Switch to manual," he said, still croaking some leftover phlegm.
"But," I said, indicating the truck.
I have to point out here that the golfbot was not the only one feeling pushed around. However I toggled to Human Control and took the small auxiliary wheel which now rose from the dash.
Having bypassed the bot's safety arrays, I began my pass left, the cart's accelerator responding sluggishly under my foot. Its weakly straining power felt strange in my hands. To be honest, I seldom drove myself, and now doing so made me aware of my dependency on bots.
Gerlock was talking. "Trucks're kinda more bovine really, in one way, but in another, with some stubborn goat thrown in. Well, it's hard to explain. I've had people want me to write a book, but basically it's unteachable. I mean, what're you gonna say? Trucks're a combo of dogs, horses, goats, bulls, cats, mice? See my point? Pretty soon you've entered th' zone of the ridiculous."
I'd never heard him talk so much.
"By the way, yer drivin' off the road," he said.
"What?" I said.
"Truck," he said.
I became aware that the truck was squeezing in from the right. The truck was crowding me off the street!
"Go, go!" the cowboy shouted.
I froze, but Gerlock reached over with a boot and stamped down, jamming my own shoe down on the accelerator, and we bore left. But the truck veered yet more, cutting a diagonal wall blocking our path.
"I can't—!" I started to say.
The cart jumped the curb onto a grass verge and jerked to a stop, a safety sensor killing the motor. We rested at the base of a decorative street lamp, one of many the Board had installed around Hidden Glen last year. A voice spoke: "Vehicle control override. Vehicle control..." Dazed, I kept remembering the ridiculous infighting over those faux gas-lamps, how tensely Judy and Joya had vied over different styles that had seemed indistinguishable to me. "Heritage lighting" Judy called them, while Joy insisted they were "fin-de-siècle," enunciating the phrase in annoyingly precise French.
Gerlock leapt from the golfbot and ran after the truck. It seemed to slow, taunting, just beyond his reach. I watched as it snatched bins in its lifters and thrust them skyward in a sort of victory dance before shaking them into its dumpster.
Now I was anthropomorphizing.
Out of breath, Gerlock stopped in the middle of the street. Shaking his fist he shouted, "So you wanna play that little game do you?!"
The truck shook its empty claws. It blasted a mocking horn.
Gerlock came running back and threw himself in. "Reverse!" he said.
"Fall in behind!" he snarled. I was shocked. His truck-whisperer cool had vanished. He twisted, ransacking his stuff in the back.
"Shouldn't we call it a day and regroup?" I said.
"It escalated, not me." He was furious. Not looking at me. Breathing hard. Bending, lurching. Busy clipping tools to his belt. For a moment he looked me in the eye. "I can't let it end the day thinking it won dominance. Believe me, Jamal, nothing good can come from that." Then he went back to grabbing stuff.
"Cool," I said glumly. I toggled the bot to auto, told it to follow. It complied, swinging onto the roadway. Back in submissive mode, it seemed speedier, more happily responsive. (Happy?) It even emitted a puppyish horn bleat.
"Get up close!" barked Gerlock. I relayed the message and the cart snugly followed the truck. "Open the roof!" Dreading, I instructed the prim blue canopy to fold back into the boot.
Gerlock stood up in the wind. His gimme cap flew away and his roosterish hair flapped. I noticed he had the coil of rope. "Um? You're not—?" I said. Swinging dangerously from a belt-lanyard was the axe.
As I freaked out, we rushed along through bright shining California day.
"Do not stand in the moving vehicle," said the dash voice.
"Mr. Gerlock, if I may say so—"
Gerlock expertly knotted the rope, forming an eye some inches across, then snapped it into the air, simultaneously whipping his arm, so that the knotted end spun and widened into a bigger circle as it flew out and upwards toward the back of the truck. The loop landed over the truck's rear camera mount and slipped tight.
With a yank, Gerlock leapt, vaulting the rushing space between truck and car.
"Holy shit," I said.
Next thing, he was dangling by the rope from the back of the truck, scrambling his skinny legs for traction over the depictions of Tongva Indians conducting their noble recycling ceremonies.
"No way!" I shouted. Gerlock was pulling himself up to the moving truck's roof. Its rear cameras twisted, crossing eyes as he neared the top. Rear LEDs illuminated, cycling through a rainbow of alarm. Its backup bell started clanging even though it was going forward. Meanwhile, the golfbot was making a sound I'd never heard before, a high-pitched noise like a motor imitating a whining dog.
Then Gerlock was on the roof on one knee, steadying on the camera mount. As the cam's eyes corkscrewed, Gerlock grinned and waved me a thumbs-up. I stared. He crawled forward, out of view, presumably exploring the roof for access or controls. Of course I had no idea. This was now officially insane.
My phone pinged. I held it to my eyes. A text from Don,
hi there. what's Gerlock doing?
glad you're motivated, but what's he doing?
I tapped off, having shocked myself. I'd just snapped at the president of the HOA, shouting exclamations at him in Helvetica Neue.
The truck sped up, fishtailing, trying to shake Gerlock off. The lifter arms craned overhead, stabbing at Gerlock on the roof like a lobster biting itself. I had a quick thought. It was, "Oh, my god."
While its left arm snapped, the right lowered and extended out into the street. It hit a row of bins, knocking them careening up driveways and lawns. Then it scraped a line of parked vehicles, shredding metal and smashing glass. The truck was in a state of petulant rage. Looking behind, horrified, I managed to confirm they were all contractor pickups, so that was luck. Homeowners seldom parked on the street.
The truck deployed its street-cleaning module, and giant, whirling brushes thrust out sideways, jetting foam and spewing twin twisters of soapy water. The little bot hesitated, then hunkered and drove us straight through a mountain of spume.
Still no sight of cowboy. The right truck arm started snatching bins and tossing them down on its own roof. The vehicle was swerving wildly now, and the golfbot struggled to keep up, throwing me around. It's cute, high-pitched horn started beeping. Was it crying out? Did it think it was playing? The truck began answering back, prolonged rumbling bass protests.
Finally, to my relief, Gerlock reappeared on top. He was grinning. Legs spread, he rode the truck like a bronc. He waved something. It was a metal plate, broken wires dangling, sparking and smoking.
That's when I started waving at him to watch out. He signaled back, cupping a hand to his ear— "Come again?" The truck veered closer to the right, to the row of sycamores coming up on that side. Leaves and branches whipped the truck. Gerlock, catching on, half-turned, and then, with dawning alarm, had just enough time to brace before the truck drove itself under a big old hanging limb, which swept the cowboy, hurtling, legs and arms pin-wheeling, off the truck, over me, and back out of my sight!
The golfbot swerved to a stop. The dash voice said, "There has been an accident. Assistance has been called. There has..." The truck drove away.
I jumped out and ran back. Gerlock lay crumpled on the grass median between curb and sidewalk. Luckily he'd missed the pavement, but he was not moving.
I heard a beep and looking back saw the golfbot driving itself away, too. It had abandoned us for the truck, the final, humiliating betrayal of the bot/human symbiosis. As people emerged from nearby houses, I brushed foam from my dress jeans and waited for emergency services.
Please remember that it was a gorgeous, cloudless California day. That helps picture the scene at the swimming pool: the sparkling air, the blinding reflections rippling off the water. We'd carried Gerlock into the backyard of the house nearest the accident and, by now, all the HOA Board members currently in Hidden Glen had gathered in emergency session. Gerlock was laid out poolside on a chaise longue. He had refused a trip to ER. The owners were away (my tablet informed me vacationing in Sun Valley, Idaho). An unusual location for a meeting, there'd been worries over trespassing, but, after discussion, it had been concluded we were arguably within rights. As the CC&R's state: "Unaccompanied entry upon a property by Board members is permissible in situations wherein urgent inspections are required" (Article III, Section 5, Paragraph (d)). Fudging the point, Board member Shelley Matsumoto, a kidney specialist at West Valley Memorial, had examined Gerlock, or, in other words, "inspected" him.
A housekeeper and gardener watched the place in the owners' absence. They had kindly served us iced drinks and positioned umbrellas providing relief from the afternoon sun. Handing Gerlock his, I overheard the housekeeper say, "Red estás loco hombre." So they knew each other, and it occurred to me they might've met this morning on the maids' bus. As far as I knew, Gerlock, from Oklahoma, was otherwise not from these parts.
Don Terry quickly called the meeting to order, asking Shelley if Gerlock was up to talking. She explained that Gerlock was very lucky. Given the directional speed of the truck and the opposing force of the tree limb, he had been dropped more than hurled, and he had also benefited from some particularly cushiony new Zoysia sod just laid by the Association. Nonetheless, he had a broken ankle, contusions, lacerations, and was generally beaten-up and naturally tired. Gerlock sported an orange elasticized boot. He lay on the lounger with his arms crossed, scowling.
"Anybody like my opinion?" he said.
Don turned to him. "Sorry, Gerlock, but frankly we find ourselves in a bad situation, and we're going to have to make a decision, fast." Don tented his fingers. "The first thing you need to know is that the truck has suspended all trash-collecting services. After its incident with you, it went straight back to the corporation yard and hasn't emerged since. —Yes," he repeated to Gerlock for emphasis, "it left its route, somehow of its own volition. And now it's like it's on strike, and the trash is piling up. The second thing is..." Here, although the nearest neighbor was separated by a mandatory half-acre, Don dropped his voice. "...there's been a very disturbing development with many private vehicles on the east side of Hidden Glen. Jamal, put that feed of the corporation yard up on the pool's flatscreen."
I tapped my tablet, and we all turned in unison. There it was, displayed from a CCTV cam looking down from one of the yard's halogen light poles: the yard teeming with passengerless cars and SUVs, with others, likewise empty, still driving themselves in at the security gate. It was a swarming, slowly moving pool of machinery, eerily suggesting the automobile version of pilgrims circling the Kaaba at Mecca. At the center was the giant shed, protruding from which were the hoods of the various graders and weeders and haulers, and, presumably, somewhere hidden deep under the coolest, darkest shade, the truck.
"What do you make of that, Gerlock?" said Don.
Gerlock whistled thinly through his tooth gap.
Don continued. "We bought ourselves a small amount of time, sending out an e-blast to residents about an unexpected auto recall, that that's why cars all over the area have suddenly driven themselves away from their homes and owners. But obviously that's a weak trick, and it won't hold up long. And then, believe me, we're going to have a situation of unparalleled hysteria here in Hidden Glen."
"It'll destroy our board," said Joya Clombebert.
"To say nothing of property values," said Zoe Madison, the realtor, who knew about such things.
"Don't go there," Don warned Avi. Then, turning back to Gerlock, "We wanted to talk to you first. We're not happy, obviously. Did you do something to provoke that truck? Speaking frankly, we started out with a problem we called you in to fix, and now we've gone from problem to disaster."
Gerlock spat. "Speakin' frankly," he said.
"We're not blaming you," Don hastened to say, although that had pretty much been his point. "Jamal here has spoken up for you." I kept tapping on my tablet, switching among the yard's CCTV views, but could feel Gerlock's eyes squinting at me. "Jamal says you have amazing skill with machines, that you understand their ways and can even talk their language, whatever that means. But since we find ourselves, since you've come, gone from bad to worse, aren't you the one who has to 'talk' us out of this debacle? What have you to say, Gerlock?"
Gerlock stared at the bizarre image on the pool TV. Driverless cars filled the picture, hundreds, milling slowly around like beetles crawling over each other on a log. He sucked his cheeks. "'Fraid of this," he said, glowering. "Seen the likes only once before, in Wyoming. Horr'ble." Behind the taciturn cowboy facade he did sound traumatized. "The truck's dominant," he stated with finality. "Whatever's going on, it all starts, and ends, with that there truck of yours." He shook his head and shrugged. "Professionally, I call it hopeless."
"What do you mean? Is that all you have to say?" said Don, ratcheting up pressure, his instinctive hedge, I knew, against his own panic.
They all waited.
Gerlock threw up his hands. "That's the trouble with these machines with the restricted processors," he fumed. "Folks don't want a smart truck, so they dumb 'em down to control 'em. But then, you want to know what you wind up with? Just a big old, dumb angry one! See, what folks like you never understand—If a truck don't have enough smarts, how do you even teach it? What can you even do with it?? I'm tellin' you, nobody knows how to reach a truck like that!"
There was general fidgeting among the Board members. "Wait a second. Are you abandoning the job?" said Don, incredulous. I knew that Don had great faith in his ability to steamroll vendors, so he was genuinely shocked by this development.
"I'm a truck wrangler, buddy, not a miracle worker." He leaned from the lounger and this time ejected a spit-projectile that beheaded a daisy. He remained turned away, staring gloomily at nothing.
Gerlock, I realized, was scared of the super-truck.
At 26 and a non-voting alternate, I am by way far the junior of the group. As far as possible, I follow my father-in-law Barry's advice: "Keep silent for now and earn the suck-up points for later." But now I felt uncomfortably compelled to speak. "Excuse me," I said, causing a startled reaction among them. "But I wonder if I might have a few words with Mr. Gerlock, alone?"
To my surprise, they all seemed relieved. They sprang up as a group and fled to the pool's far side. Soon I heard their chattering voices debating a different matter altogether, something about window treatments and the merits of solar-adapting Roman shades.
I looked at Gerlock. He bore a dark, stubborn look I was coming to know, born in part no doubt by his many frustrating years spent in troubleshooting hell. But, above all perhaps, by simply feeling too damn much love for trucks. He was in more than a funk; he had sunk to existential despond.
"Mr. Gerlock?" I said.
He half-turned. From that angle he looked me in the eye, something uncharacteristic of him. "I'm dead sick of the truck-wrangling game," he said with a bald look of defeat that, if uncomfortable-making, was also moving. I made consoling noises, thinking it best he did the talking. He told me of his plans for some time to "pack it in," of his dream of opening a "vehicular preserve," perhaps on some empty acreage he knew of up in the Colorado silver country, where "folks weren't so down on trucks." where troubled trucks could "thrive" in a less stressful environment. Though, to be frank, this sounded to me like the pipe dream of a dejected man, I did sympathize with the humanistic impulse, and I felt it wouldn't compromise the HOA's position to suggest it might be something Hidden Glen might help with, at some point, if he could just get us through the difficulties at hand? Hidden Glen had, in fact, adopted a number of modest charitable projects over the years, and I offered, sincerely, at a better time naturally, to help him draft the mission statement myself.
He thought about the offer. "You're all right in your way, Jamal. Least ways you spread some sugar on the shit, unlike them others." Then he darkened again. "But it's the truck. It's hopeless." He shrugged. "I'm out."
We'd reached, I sensed, the pivotal moment. We were in wholly new territory for me now. With no roadmap, I did what I never do: improvised on pure gut instinct.
"Honestly, Mr. Gerlock," I said, in a hurt, rebuking tone I was sure had never crossed my lips before. "Your waving the white flag like this comes as a terrific let-down. To the Board and Hidden Glen, but, most of all, to me." I forged on. "I'm young, Mr. Gerlock. There's a lot I don't know. But I know I admired you. I thought I was learning from you. Above all, I suppose, about, well, trucks—" (When it came to reaching Gerlock, I thought it best to keep the theme mainly to trucks.) "—But, as well, of life itself... But now... " Here, I let my voice wander down a lost trail of disillusion. "Well, I just don't know. All I can say, I know one thing: Hidden Glen needs you. Is this the moment, sir, when Red Gerlock cuts and runs?"
I stopped there. My ears could barely believe my mouth. I studied my lecture's effect on Gerlock. It was painful to see. His entire effectiveness ran on self-belief, which now was stripped away, and I was witnessing his naked shame. I admired him, quite a bit in fact, for not masking it.
His hands clenched, his head turned to me. His expression had assumed a pained, grim resolve.
"I see your point, son."
I felt a thrill, the moral high of persuasion. "I truly hope so, Mr. Gerlock," I said. "I hope you know I just want to help you make the right decision. You know, for the truck."
"It's true," he said, his eyes turning inward as his mind considered a bitter path, "I would put it down humanely."
"What?" I said, confused.
"No," he insisted, "I accept your admonishment. You're right, and I'm the one in the wrong. Sure, I may hate the idea. But euthanizing it is my responsibility, and I can't leave that to the cold hands of th' authorities. They do their job, and it's a tough one. But the truck's experience would be brutal. It would end its time in suffering and terror. Nope, you're dead right. It's on me."
What the fuck? The man had drawn the wrong conclusion!
"No!" I cried.
"What, Jamal?" He seemed surprised and concerned.
"That's a horrible idea, Mr. Gerlock!"
"Well, it's surely a sad one, but all the same, logical. If there's one thing I'd wish to impart to you about trucks, Jamal, it's that you can't double your bet on a lost cause. There really is such a thing as a neurotic, unteachable truck. And, as you point out, I failed it. Therefore, it's on me to end its misery. That's your hard-nosed point, Jamal, and I'm just sayin', you're right, and I accept it."
"But I'm wrong!" I cried. "I mean, I'm not, but that's not my point. I mean, I meant something entirely different from what you're saying!" I could hear myself floundering ridiculously. Somehow I'd gone from eloquence to tongue-tied hysteria.
"Well, what the hell is it, then?" he said exasperated.
Without realizing, I'd stood. I waved my arms.
"You can still save the truck! That's my point! That you HAVE to! That you owe it to TRUCKS! I mean, that's your whole point, right? All anything's about, right? TRUCKS? The whole world? About TRUCKS! So do your damn job, for chrissake, and SAVE THE TRUCK!"
I shocked myself with my outburst. I whipped around and saw the Board members gaping at me from across the shimmering pool—Don and Avi and Joyce and Joya and all seven or eight of them—the linen pants and the sockless espadrilles, the deconstructed denim and the floral midi skirts.
"Well—" I heard Gerlock say. He had a pained look, struggling to downshift comprehension.
"I'm sorry," I said instantly, deeply ashamed of myself, turning back to him.
"Well, now—All's I'm saying—It's possible—"
"I shouldn't have—"
"Nah, if your point instead was to —"
"I was completely out of line."
"It'd be risky, it'd cost—"
"Sorry? Come again?"
"I said, it's your party, but if the sound of a money blowout don't upset you folks, then—"
"Money?" I said. "Wait," I said reflexively. I waved at the Board a We've arrived! gesture.
"If that's all it's about," I said, "then—"
Quickly, they reassembled, scooting pool chairs in a circle around Gerlock, awaiting the plan. I gestured Gerlock to speak.
TRUCK MEETS GIRL
Gerlock did not sleep again at the yard nor try to retrieve his belongings. Overnight, the CCTV cams revealed it as a weird mob scene of empty vehicles. They pressed into each other every which way, many parked motionless, while others stirred restlessly—a debauched, vehicular sleep-over. Forward or backward, or aimlessly, they drove the outskirts of the horde like sleepy puppies trying to nose out better nursing spots. Thus the yard was a criss-crossing muck of tire tracks and mud, and his campsite obliterated and belongings destroyed, Gerlock lodged at Centertown's Bluebird Inn instead. Not that it was a night of much sleep. Gerlock refused painkillers, medicating only from a bottle of red eye of a brand I'd had to drive way east to a Mexican bodega on Roscoe Boulevard to find, as we made arrangements for tomorrow's intervention. Since I occasionally pull all-nighters for the law firm, that was my excuse to Chloe, and her father Barry, good guy that he is, supported the ruse.
Early next morning, light came limpidly through a spritzing mist from the Pacific. As planned, I was positioned with binoculars on a low rise overlooking the corporation yard, my deck shoes planted in a typical California chaparral of sage, aster, and monkeyflower. From this vantage I was to observe the initial stages of the campaign.
Despite the hour, already 7:10, the many pickups, SUVs, and luxury cars strewn about the yard barely stirred, by all appearances exhausted from partying. Then I heard the tinkling, toy-piano strains of a music box. It came from the direction of Palm Drive, dreamily approaching the yard. Shortly I recognized the tune, "Alouette," the childrens' nursery song. My mind supplied the words from my own kindergarten days:
Alouette, gentille Alouette
Alouette je te plumerai
Je te plumerai la tete
Je te plumerai la tete
The eucalyptus stands hiding the eyesore yard are necessarily high, so the music's source was quite near before it came into view. To say it was a pretty truck as it rounded the corner was understatement. It was adorable. A sweet, provocative, flirt of a truck.
First of all, it was lemon-yellow, with charming skirted awnings the colors of the French flag—blue, white and red. Its name, "Buttercup," was written along its side in delicate golden script, and under that, in a smaller but no less demure hand, "Delicious Pastries." It had blue bumpers and tire guards. And on the feminine prow of its little front hood perched a lovely etched-silver horn.
The little truck sighed to a stop at the gate, and the miniature horn bleated charmingly as Buttercup waited. "Alouette" reached its jaunty end, and "Au Claire de la Lune" began. Inside the gate, bewilderment ensued as headlights of vehicles popped on in daylight, and a confusion of honking arose as cars bickered back and forth.
Then, through binoculars, I spied action in the bullpen—that is to say, the top of the bare hill where the largest of the machines huddled in the darkness of the big shed. Lights signaled from within, and a steady bong-bonging warned of heavy machinery on the move. Then the front scoop and the entire, gangly yellow body of the Back-Hoe emerged from the shadows. Slowly, making a path through the disorderly crowd, it descended clanking and coughing to Buttercup. The machine had mini-cams affixed awkwardly about its body and hoist—lobster eyes that rotated and scanned her, up, down, back and forth, paused, then rescanned the pretty little truck all over again. Then, flashers blinking, bong-bonging as it turned, the Back-Hoe reversed and the gate slid open.
Playing "Frere Jacques," Buttercup rolled onto the yard. Demurely (yet unshyly) she drove a route around the hill. At the same time, the packed mass of cars seemed both to crowd forward and to make room. So that the brightly colored little truck, reversing and circling, made herself a small theatrical space, the better to be seen by all. Parking, her music fell silent, and a lull ensued while the machines waited to see what would happen.
At the height of this tension, Buttercup began to show her features. Scalloped French awnings dropped. Accordion-shutters parted, revealing a blackboard listing today's offerings: Éclair, Café liégeois, Crêpe Suzette, and Pot de crème. A filigreed brass smokestack puffed baking smells. And the climax, a miniature Eiffel Tower cranked up sporting a jolly little flag announcing "Ouvert!" Then, asserting female unpredictability, hidden loudspeakers broke out, pumping the powerful voice of Edith Piaf singing "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien."
The cars erupted in wild applause. That is, the rumbling of motors, along with much honking and raising and lowering of hoods—and of convertible tops for those who had them.
At the top of the hill appeared the giant trash truck. Easing its blunt, windowless head from under the shed roof, its front LEDs pulsed a cautious pale blue "watching" while its heavy engine idled.
But to the super-truck, Buttercup responded snootily. The menu shutters snapped shut. La tour Eiffel cranked down. She began driving around the hill, as if busy doing and enjoying things other than being stared at by a huffing monster on seven axels.
The crowd of cars thinned between them. Still the truck remained perched at the hill's crest, dominant but making no move. Buttercup drove figure-eights, or stopped abruptly, showing off her adept braking, rolling forward and back, swishing her mud guards. Then I heard the little silver horn bleat the signal, short-short-long.
Up on the chaparral-cloaked hill, that was my cue for action! It was Red Gerlock, hidden inside Buttercup, who was driving the pert little truck. It was now my job to jump into another car and drive onto the yard. For the purpose, Gerlock had located a tomato-red 1969 Dodge Charger, trucked up from a specialty company supplying novelty cars to Hollywood. Buttercup had been an acquisition from the Peterson Automotive Museum on Wilshire Boulevard, involving some urgent middle-of-the-night arrangements with personal contacts of Gerlock's. This blank-check approach testified to the HOA's desperation to avoid scandal and protect property values.
I climbed through the Charger's window since the doors were welded shut. I turned the old-fashioned ignition key, and the engine, under eight feet of crass orange hood, roared to life. Obviously, it was a lot more car than I'm used to, and I accidentally spun the tires putting it in gear. It leapt forward, spraying gravel and a cloud of dust. I won't say I wasn't excited by the sensation. As enthralled with Buttercup as the rest, the gate's dim bot-brain had forgotten to close itself, and I sped like a pirate onto the yard.
The last thing Gerlock warned me was, "Don't be a rodeo clown." I down-shifted and backed off the accelerator, yet barely toeing it seemed to make the 335-horse-power Magnum engine strain for lift-off.
I drove the Charger, fishtailing, tires clawing the hill, along a narrow strip at its bottom in Buttercup's direction. Vehicles were clearing a path like mooing, eye-rolling cows. I clung to the wheel, elated and alarmed. Gerlock's instructions had been contradictory: "Whatever you do," he'd stressed, "don't stampede the cars," yet I was also to draw maximum attention to myself. To that end I flashed headlights and honked the horn. When I could, I shot a glance sideways up at the shed to see the truck. Fleetingly I spotted it in a shifting mass of machine bodies. Its LEDs had turned an ominous dark purple, suggesting blood swelling nearly to bursting in a nonexistent face.
"You're the stalking horse," Gerlock had said. "She's the show." I did my best to keep the Charger aimed at the little pastry truck. Throwing another quick look, I saw many vehicles were withdrawing altogether from this part of the hill, as if hurrying to escape some looming unpleasantness.
We proceeded to dance the pantomime Gerlock had choreographed. He had, in fact, actually diagrammed much of it on the back of a paper seat-protector that came with the Charger, all but complete with the loopy arrows and moving shoe-outlines of a cha-cha lesson. First the Charger was to display itself to Buttercup. (I raced up, blocking "her" path, growled the engine, flashed lights, etcetera.) Then Buttercup would ignore the Charger. This Gerlock enacted by driving away and cranking up the Edith Piaf really loud. The Charger was then to "show off." (I pursued Buttercup, drove circles around her honking.) Then the Charger was to "touch" Buttercup in "her private place." (Racing engine in neutral, slamming brakes causing Charger to bounce on its shocks, I approached and bumped her rear fender, thus planting a violent "kiss.") Buttercup would then try to creep away, but naturally Charger (not a gentleman) would keep following and bullying. At which Buttercup (a lady) would "shut down" altogether. By which Gerlock meant he, inside Buttercup, would busily clap down the awnings, slap the menu shutters closed, haul down the miniature Eiffel tower, and bleed Buttercups hydraulics so she sank to Earth in helpless submission.
This was the big moment, explained Gerlock, that would stimulate the more noble, protective instincts of the truck and cause it to make its big move. Whatever should happen after that, he warned, I was to clear off immediately, driving the Charger straight off the yard and, as rapidly as possible, away from view, especially of the truck's. This, to the degree I understood it, was Gerlock's painstaking plan.
Of course anyone who's ever been in a high-school play knows many potholes lie between dress rehearsal and opening night. For example, he hadn't told me the roar from the Charger's unmuffled exhaust would be so loud I'd miss half my cues, or that mud would soon be coating the windshield and then my face when I tried to steer with my head stuck out the side. Then there were the outright glitches. At one point, Gerlock was supposed to lower the "Ouvert" pennant and replace it with one saying "Fermé," symbolizing Buttercup's rejection of Charger. But the one that cranked up instead exclaimed "Ooh-la-la!" (an option Gerlock hadn't known of), accidentally symbolizing Buttercup's sexual enthusiasm for Charger, a simple fluke that likely, with the predictability of hindsight, explained the truck's sudden, toxic descent into jealousy.
Somewhere, at any rate, twixt cup and lip, things went horribly wrong. From the hill came a noise so loud it was audible over the Charger's engine. Looking, I saw how the other vehicles had withdrawn to the yard's edges. Like hostile natives from an old movie beating shields, they were arrayed along the hillside, sending up a terrific racket of horns, bells, whistles, buzzers. I slammed the brakes. I froze inside the Charger, forgetting all my instructions, transfixed. Startled by motion, I caught sight of Gerlock climbing from Buttercup, limping on the orange boot, waving his arms, frantically making "Get the hell out!" motions. I could tell he was shouting himself hoarse, but it was impossible to hear what he was saying. In any event, I couldn't move. Later, I was to feel bad about it all, but, simply stated, I was an amateur and had no skills at countering stagefright. And then it was too late, and the truck was on the move.
With a diesel-train horn blast, the truck rushed down the hill straight at us. At me. It's front LEDs were a boiling lobster red. Yellow exhaust erupted from the chemical waste plant on its roof. Too late, I tried to put the Charger in reverse. Naturally I stalled the car instead. My hands were coated in sweat and slid off the wheel, and, forgetting that the historical vehicle required a key to start, I kept yelling "Car back up! Car back up!" as if it were a bot responsive to voice commands.
Later, when I'd crawled from the wreckage, I reconstituted events as best I could and, likely with errors due to general chaos plus a blackout or two, reconstructed the melee in the following way:
The truck descended mercilessly on the Charger with its lifter arms stretched to grab like lobster claws. It seized the Charger and shook it (plus me) in the air, then dropped it (us) to the earth with a bone-thudding impact. The truck prepared to repeat this procedure, lights violently flashing red-orange-yellow all over its body and warning klaxons sounding far too late to warn me of anything.
But, that's when Gerlock interposed Buttercup into the brief moment of cessation, backing her swiftly into the space I occupied, ramming me, with no margin for error, out of the way. And, when the truck's claws came hammering down again, and apparently kept hammering, took the blows for me.
The shocking pounding and bashing of Buttercup continued right in front of me for some time. (Although, as in an earthquake, time seemed to stop.) And with each pulverizing blow, Buttercup's pretty, filigreed frame collapsed further in on itself until it was nothing but a flattened stack of battered, gaily painted metal with the miniature Eiffel tower, broken off sideways, sticking from the steaming heap.
The arms rose for a last, final blow, but this time did not come down. Suspended this way, the truck froze. Its numerous cameras slowly came to life, flexing in pairs, all aiming down, focusing. They, a good dozen, some distributed on the arms, roved slowly over the pathetic pile beneath it. These examinations repeated, over and over, a wave of searching, darting eyes, as the truck's frontal LEDs slowly faded from blood-pulsing purple to a dull, mournful grey.
THE "I" IN THE "IT"
Except for some serious bruises, I was unhurt. But fearing to draw the truck's notice, for a very long time I remained woozily motionless inside the crumpled Charger.
During this time, as the sun slowly mounted the morning sky and birds, singing and flitting, could be seen through the Charger's smashed windows, I heard activity from the many vehicles in the yard, and, twisting painfully, saw out the back as they formed up in reasonable order and slowly left the yard, presumably back to the residences of their owners or, if workbots, to resume their normally programmed tasks. Many were mud-caked up to their hoods, and I knew Centertown's automated botwash would be in for a busy day.
At some indeterminate time, during that long lull that followed the beating, the truck must have discovered that the object of its frenzy had been, not the Charger, but poor little Buttercup. This revelation must have been a terrible shock, for it seemed rendered numb, into a state of slow, dimly brooding recognition. Of what it, itself, had done.
For, as I said, as Hidden Glen returned to benign normality all around us, we—the truck, the battered Charger, and the utterly crushed Buttercup—lay very still, for quite a long time. Then, finally, with a grinding, screeching noise of extrication, the truck withdrew itself from Buttercup's wreckage and ponderously backed away. Then it, too, though having to maneuver itself in a much wider turnaround than the other bots, slowly brought itself onto the paved exit road and proceeded down and out of the yard. Whereat the gates, at last, smoothly rolled closed with a distant clang.
It was two days before Gerlock was sufficiently alert to receive visitors at the hospital. Realizing that I'd never once seen him use electronics, not even a smart phone, I brought him an ancient stack of Field & Streams dug up from my Dad's garage, thinking those might please what I'd come to understand were his essentially Luddite tastes.
Though quiet, he was friendly enough. I congratulated him on his triumph over the truck and proudly described its return to normal service. How even the website was back online, and the truck now responded easily and reliably to all configurations.
He seemed little interested in the truck however. When I asked why he thought the truck had come around, he simply declared such questions a waste of time. "Fact is, you hardly ever see the same trouble twice," he said sourly. Sometimes, he said, there was simply no technical explanation why a thing fixed itself. "That's the entire frustration of this line of work, Jamal. There's no rhyme or reason. You want my opinion, get used to it," he said, wetly flipping magazine pages. "Enjoy the problems. They last longer than the solutions, and at least you halfway understand them."
Enjoy problems! Crazy! It was a pithy nutshell of wisdom worthy of a TED talk! I felt excited knowing the man and sharing our deepening relationship. But by then he had fallen asleep. This was a reprieve of sorts, since I had struggled with how to thank him for saving my life without offending his innate stoicism. I promised myself to broach it, however, at our next visit.
Several days later I returned to the hospital, one of those surprisingly chilly California mornings before the golden sun hits and warms the air in minutes. I'd programmed the super-truck to drive right up to the hospital and park itself under Gerlock's third-floor window, so he could savor for himself how docile and obedient it had become due to his efforts. But when I entered his room, it was empty.
I don't mind saying I was hurt and disappointed he had left Hidden Glen without telling me or saying goodbye. For a while I just sat alone at the window, watching the beast below thrumming exhaust. When I asked Don later, he wouldn't talk about it. I could tell he'd felt outwitted by Gerlock and had already consigned the whole affair of the truck to an irrelevant past. But Avi Bhargavan told me, behind the scenes, that Gerlock had demanded and gotten a sizeable check, so he had not merely skulked off without minding his own affairs.
At first, as I say, I was angry and hurt. After all, we had been through what to me were extraordinary events. But I reflected that while taming trucks was his passion, it brought its regrets. Even I, a civilian, understood the truck had lost its personality. (However crude and unacceptable, it had had one.) To the Board that was nothing but an expensive glitch to be ruthlessly stripped away. But to a man such as Gerlock, he had ripped out its soul. Maybe Gerlock couldn't stick around to witness that? A dumb but dominant thing so dominated? Humongous as it was, as I gazed down from the window, now it was just another bot.
On a more curious note, Gerlock's hand-painted road signs had taken on an unexpected life of their own. Recovered from the golfbot and turned over to Joya Clombebert, our Board's resident artiste, she'd discovered that Gerlock enjoyed a small but zealous online following as an outsider artist of some note. Herewith are some gushing reviews from one of the fan sites: "Brilliantly obsessive evocations of Oklahoma road iconography!" "Intensely wrought with a mysterious need to communicate!" "To what frustrating god can these strangely urgent appeals be aimed?"
I suspected Gerlock neither knew of his fans nor cared. It struck me that Gerlock was a man misunderstood, that few would believe he simply liked trucks and wished to help them.
I did go so far as to help Joya set up an online "gallery" of Red Gerlock's road art, and we sold the lot for a modest profit. "For your future truck refuge," I notated on the check I eventually mailed to the only address I had for him, a PO box in Minco, OK.
Later, trail riding with Honey and Sugar, I discussed much of this with Chloe.
Hidden Glen was, by its nature, planned as a soft gentle place, she said, and personally that's one of the things she loves best about it. But perhaps it wasn't "for" a character like Red Gerlock? A cat raised on broken glass won't sleep on a featherbed, as she said. I clucked my tongue at Honey, and we trotted up the trail.
Then a text popped:
ugh! big problem at lupine meadow! bot chasing dogs off traf circle!!
someone says it might be *playing* with them??
need reliable small bot handler. asap!!