Gorillahead hates his name, calls it an aberration, but says the situation is too far gone, a nickname that sticks, given by idiots. He walks, knuckles to ground, the way I’ve seen gorillas walk in old pictures, holoflimsy, and long, stuttering reels of Twentieth century film. I tell him I think his name is fitting, minimalist, that it’s a fine descriptor.
“What do you know?” he says. He wears a white button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a black tie, suspenders, and dress pants rolled up to the tops of his gnarled gray feet.
I tilt my head and metal creaks. “Sir,” I say. “You certainly dress the part satisfactorily.”
We walk along the boardwalk in Low Quarter. Oil-rainbowed waves push detritus against the city. Translucent, grease-spotted chip wrappers and upside down bottles, red algae, and slick, picked fish bones gather against salt-pitted moorings.
“You’ve yet to give me a name, sir.” I say.
“Not my place,” he says. “Besides, I don’t care.” The wind blows, ripples the fur on his peaked head.
I tell him I require a proper designation, that a builder names his creation. A conventional butler name, something respectable like Bates. Guillaume, even. “A name, sir.”
A valve in my neck hisses. Vapor twirls on the salt air, curls and dissipates.
“Whatever.” He looks at me, chuffs. “Steamdude.”
“Very well,” I say. “If I may inquire, where are we going?”
“Handsome Wayne’s,” he says.
He stops, looks up at me, and I stop, too. Next to us, a man pulls a net from the water and picks all the wiggling, mutated fauna from its mesh, drops a mottled squid and two cloud-eyed eels, a handful of fish no longer than his thumb into a scarred plastic bucket.
“You’re merchandise,” Gorillahead says. He snuffs, rubs a knuckle under one nostril and looks out past the one-mile buoys. Fish frenzy the water. Something larger, slick black, breaches in a slow hump and swallows the school whole. “Does that bother you?”
“Nothing bothers me, sir, I am a robot. And a butler.” I tap the tip of my cane on the ground with each step
We walk the rest of the way in silence, pass vacant storefronts with cracked windows and makeshift curtains, hand-scrawled signs on doors warning away trespassers and squatters. Faded, graffiti-marred playbills plaster the facades. At the end of the boardwalk, just before Low Quarter ends at the shipyard wall, we stop.
He raises one finger, points up. “End of the line.”
A pub sign overhead shows three concentric circles – green, white, and red – like a bullseye, with the name of the establishment stenciled underneath. Card-operated maglocks, keypads, and tarnished brass deadbolts line the jamb all around the metal door.
“Let me do the talking.”
“Very well.” I bow. Servos in my hips whir, whine as I straighten.
He puffs, quick, through his lips.
The pub is clean, narrow like a train car, with candles on every table and a line of ceiling fans that creak lazy circles over a copper plated bar and sparse, wooden tables and chairs. Behind the bar, four terraces of brown, clear, green, purple, orange, and blue bottles line the wall. I see two coffeepots on hotplates, and a red tea kettle chipped around its base on another. A record spins on a gramophone with one, creased dent on its fluted bell. I am unfamiliar with the music.
Fishermen in slick boots and hats, sailors in calico rags, and two pale gentlemen – taller and thinner than I’ve ever seen, with bald heads and hairless faces – scatter the bar. They look at us, and I remove my hat, hang my cane in the crook of an elbow. They resume their cups and quiet conversations. The barkeep, a man with a wild nest of curly salt and pepper hair and matching beard, looks up from a book. He wears a white linen suit over an untucked purple dress shirt, sans tie.
“ ‘Head!” He pats a spot on the bar across from him. “Brought a friend?”
Gorillahead pulls himself onto a high stool. “Something like that.” He points a thumb at me, “This is Steamdude,” shifts the thumb to the bartender. “Steamdude, Wayne.”
I hold out a hand. “A pleasure, sir.”
“Sure.” He shakes my hand. “The usual, ‘Head?”
Gorillahead pinches the wide bridge of his wrinkled nose, scratches at the corner of one eye, and nods. Wayne marks his place and puts the book under the bar. He comes back with a short, fat glass, and drops in two rough chunks of ice. He grabs a clear bottle stuffed with lime peels and filled with pale green fluid, swishes it in a few tight circles before pouring two fingers of liqueur, a top of seltzer. He garnishes it with a pink paper umbrella.
“For the gentleman ape,” he says. “On your tab.” Wayne puts both hands on the bar, leans. “You brought me something?” He nods his head to one side, quick. “This one’s like reading a textbook. I need something with tits. Or action. Both. Got any more Hemingway?”
Gorillahead umbrella out of his drink, sips. “I’m tapped.”
Wayne stands. “I’d settle for some Donne. Anything.”
“Too late in the season.” Gorillahead stirs his drink with a finger. “No more runs ‘til winter.” He puts the finger in his mouth, and shrugs. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Wayne says. He waves a hand.
“Come by tomorrow. I might have some books you can borrow.”
“Yes,” Gorillahead says. He chuffs, laughing, and his shoulders jerk up and down. “Some even have pictures.”
Wayne claps his hands, rubs them together. “That’s what I’m talking about.” He grins. One of his front teeth, just a bit crooked, overlaps another. His eyes get big and his eyebrows rise. “That reminds me,” he says, holds up a finger. “Stay right there.” He scampers off through a door to one side of the bar and goes upstairs.
Footsteps stamp through the ceiling, one way then the other, back again, and he returns, breathless, with a package in one hand. He puts a tape-cocooned cardboard box on the bar in front of Gorillahead. “Happy birthday!”
“It’s your birthday?” I say.
Gorillahead looks at the box. “I don’t have a birthday.”
“Everyone has a birthday,” Wayne says. He holds up both hands, twirls them as he nods. “Or a hatchday, or spawnday. Whatever.” He nudges the box with a finger. “Open it.”
I nod. “He has a point, sir.”
“Even your butler agrees with me.” Wayne pushes the box a little closer to Gorillahead. “I wrapped it myself.”
“Sir, it would be rude not to accept.”
Wayne holds up both hands, shrugs. “What’s a gift between friends?”
“I don’t have friends.” Gorillahead slaps the bar and the box bounces.
Wayne’s face falls, and his shoulders slump. “Okay,” he says. “Sorry.” He puts two fingers on the box, drags it across the bar.
“I’m sorry.” Gorillahead puts a hand on the gift. “Wayne,” he says, soft. “I’m sorry. I’ll open it.” He looks at me, produces a penknife from his shirt pocket points at me. “You, shut up.” He slices at one corner of the package.
Wayne shifts from one foot to the next like an excited child while Gorillahead cuts the tape, peels a layer, cuts again, peels.
“Come on.” Wayne snatches the package and rips it open, then passes it back across the bar. “I couldn’t wait.” He shrugs.
Gorillahead reaches into the box and takes out a blue greeting card covered in mangy patches of glitter, an engraved brass cigarette lighter, and a scuffed, cellophane-wrapped pack of cigarettes with a picture of a red apple on the front. He lines the gifts on the bar and stares at them. He clears his throat and his chest rattles like billiard balls bouncing down a cobbled road. “Where’d you get this?”
“Different places,” Wayne says. “It took me a while. I won the smokes from a sailor when I bet him he couldn’t lick his own elbow, but I could.”
“You can?” I say.
Wayne rolls his eyes. “I bought the lighter off of a chick that came in a few days ago. You should’ve seen the rack on her. Said she needed some unexpected repairs on her Jumper.” He looks at me. “Spaceship,” he says, and turns back to Gorillahead. “Glorious rack. I thought she was going to kill me when I told her I’d pay her for a peek.” He stares off into space for a minute, shakes his head and comes back to us. “Read the card.”
Gorillahead flicks glitter off of a finger. “To one great ape,” he reads. “Hope your birthday is the tits.” He smiles puts the card on the bar. “Thanks, Wayne.” The corners of his mouth twitch, curl up into a shallow smile.
“Tits?” I say. “I’m confused.”
Handsome Wayne puts a hand on Gorillahead’s arm. “May I?”
Gorillahead puffs through lips like black leather. “I don’t care,” he says. He flips the lighter open, strikes the wheel with a thumb. The flame flickers, dances, douses and clicks with a snap of the wrist.
Wayne leans, forearms crossed on the bar. “Tits,” he says.
I stare at him and the processor in my head spins and heats until a cooling vent opens near the brim of my hat, where an ear might be. “You mean stupid people?” I say. “Mice? I’m unfamiliar with the colloquialism. Rack?”
Gorillahead props an elbow on the bar, rests his chin in a hand. He shakes his head.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Wayne stands and holds his hands in front of his chest, fingers spread. “Tits,” he says. “Breasts. Human female mammary glands. Nipples and all.” He squints. “Where did you find this one, ‘Head?”
“Long story.” Gorillahead drains his drink, crunches ice.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“Nor I.” I put my hands on the bar, one on top of the other.
Gorillahead holds up his empty glass. “I’ll tell you for another round.”
Wayne takes the glass and mixes another drink while Gorillahead unwraps the cigarettes. He lights one, flicks the lighter shut, and takes a draw on the cigarette. He holds the smoke for a moment, exhales as he holds the lighter up to read the engraving. “Fuck Charlie,” he says.
He shows me. The cigarette hangs loose between his lips, bounces when he talks.
“Who is Charlie?”
He takes another drag, blows smoke out of one corner of his mouth. “Hell if I know.” He rubs a thumb across the carved block letters and leaves a streaked smudge. “Sounds like an asshole.”
Wayne puts the drink in front of Gorillahead. “That’s what I said, but the girl said it was some kind of heirloom. Some ancestor. A soldier, she said.” He pulls a rag from his back pocket and swirls it on the bar. “She hated to sell it, but not enough to give me a peep. I was offering good money, too, but she pulled a gun and poked it up my nose.” He throws the rag over his shoulder and points at a nostril.
“Imagine that,” Gorillahead says. He takes the cigarette from his mouth, licks his finger, and traces the ember. Leaning away from the bar, he pinches ash onto the floor and puts the half-smoked cigarette back into its pack.
Gorillahead swirls his drink. Ice clinks on glass and he takes a deep breath. “I just made a run Inland. Got back today, like twenty minutes ago.”
Wayne crosses his arms. “Pretty late season for a run.”
“Low impact trip. I met Santiago and Dunbar on the District wastewater and we went down in this old bathysphere they have. We figured the museums were picked pretty clean, and they were. Just when we were ready to call it a wash, we found this one.” He jerks a thumb at me. “Near rusted to nothing. Santiago almost didn’t let me suit up and Dunbar just grunted like he does.” Under the stool, his feet clasp, lace together like hands. “I was bored on the way home, so I restored him. That’s the story.” Gorillahead swallows his drink in one gulp, ice and all.
Wayne takes glass, mixes another drink, two fingers stronger. “For sale?”
“What isn’t, at this point? I’m strapped.” Gorillahead takes the glass.
“Let’s take a look,” Wayne says. He leans forward, and his forehead bangs the bar.
I hear a sound like cracking walnuts, meat peeling from meat. Wayne’s hair parts down the middle and a single black-irised eye, rimmed in red, rises from the crown of his head on a mottled green stalk. The eye writhes slow to one side of my face, the other, and looks me up and down. “Aware?” Wayne says, face still inches from the bar.
“Enough to do its job,” Gorillahead says. He clinks the glass against my head. “Here’s to no registration fees.” He takes a deep swallow. Light catches the drink, mosaics green and yellow across his face. “I programmed him with etiquette protocols and the Complete Mixologist’s Guide to the Galaxy.” One finger lifts from the glass, points at me. “There’s drinks in there even you haven’t heard of.”
“We’ll see.” A clouded, pink membrane nictates over Wayne’s eye. The pupil dilates and shrinks. “Steamdude,” Wayne says. “What is ‘Head drinking?”
Gorillahead interrupts. “A solid copper says he gets it right.”
“Done,” Wayne says. “Well?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“Ha!” Wayne says, slaps the top of the bar and laughs. The eyestalk sways like a charmed cobra.
Behind us, a chair screeches and a sailor stands. “I’m out of here,” he tells his friends. “This shit is too weird for me.”
One of them shrugs. The other cuts his eyes at us, hunches lower over his beer.
Wayne holds a hand out, fingers spread. “Pay up.”
Gorillahead slaps me on a shoulder, and gyros whine in all my joints. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Mister Wayne did not allow me to finish,” I say. “I was going to say that I do not know what you are drinking, but that I can only assume, due to similar constitution, that it is supposed to be a lime rickey. A true lime rickey, however, is non-alcoholic and consists of three primary ingredients. Six to eight ounces of fresh lime juice.” I hold up a hand, straighten a finger. “Three ounces of seltzer water.” I raise a second finger. “And simple syrup to taste,” I say, and raise a third finger. “Three ingredients.” I pause. “Unless you count ice, which makes four.”
Wayne slaps the bar.
Gorillahead claps me on the back. “Good job.”
Wayne tosses a copper wafer as big around as a water cracker onto the bar. Aquamarine tarnish blossoms mar its smooth surface. He sighs.
“Keep it,” Gorillahead says. He pushes the coin back across the bar. “I’d like another drink, though.” He licks his lips and smacks few times, rubs the back of a hand across his mouth. “A beer.” He burps, deep in his throat, and his cheeks puff.
Wayne stands and his eyestalk rolls in a slow circle, stretches. His half-lidded human eyes show white, dart back and forth like he’s dreaming. He opens a cooler at his knees, grabs a beer, and puts the unlabelled brown bottle on the bar. “Lager homebrew.”
Gorillahead pops the cap off with his teeth, and spits it in his hand. He waves the open bottle in front of his nose, breathing deep, takes a sip, and swishes it around his mouth. He turns and spits the beer on the floor. “Are you trying to kill me?”
The other two sailors look at the foam-laced puddle. One mutters to the other and drops a copper on the table, a steel crescent, and four rough iron buttons. They leave, drinks unfinished.
“It’s free.” Wayne breathes out, heavy, through his nose.
Gorillahead drains half of the beer in two deep gulps, sucks air through his teeth and coughs. “Can we talk price?” He jerks his head in my direction.
“Might I be part of negotiations?” I say.
Gorillahead grunts. “Don’t push your luck, bucket.”
“You know the deal,” Wayne says. “Booze and books. It’s not like I need help.” He holds up his hands, and his eye sweeps the room.
A fisherman sitting by himself with an empty stein watches the thin-limbed men in the booth at the back play a game with wrinkled playing cards. He leans to one side and grabs the sailors’ unfinished drinks from the next table, pours them into his empty glass, and notices me. He pinches the brim of his hat, nods, and shifts, settling in his seat. I raise one hand to my temple, palm out, and he smiles.
“Just make an offer,” Gorillahead says.
“On something I don’t want?”
“Don’t be a dickhead.”
Wayne straightens and his eyestalk curves like a question mark. He points at the thing jutting from his head like an antenna. “Is that a crack?” His voice rises.
Gorillahead stands on the stool and props his knuckles on the bar, leans as close as he can to Handsome Wayne. “You look like an eel driving a marionette,” he says. He grabs the front Wayne’s jacket by one lapel, leans further, and the stool creaks onto two legs. “That’s a crack.”
I rap my cane on the floor. “Stop!” They both look at me. I hold one fist to my voxscreen, grind gears in my neck, a programmed affectation. “Stop,” I say. “Stop me if you’ve heard the one about the prostitute that took up trick shooting.”
One half of Gorillahead’s face scrunches into a squint. He holds Wayne’s jacket bunched in his hand.
Wayne giggles, calms, giggles some more, and stops “Wait,” he says. “What?” The eyestalk slurps into his skull, pops wet. “Son of a bitch.” His human eyes snap open. He flurries windmills slaps on Gorillahead’s arm, struggles against the unbroken grip. “Bastard! Bringing an unlicensed AI into my bar!”
Everyone in the bar stares. The gramophone comes to the end of its record, scratches intervals like a metronome.
“No, I didn’t!”
Wayne twists his jacket free. “You sure as fuck did!”
“There’s no way.” Gorillahead’s eyebrows arch. “I did all the work on it myself.”
“He told a joke!” Wayne jabs a finger at me. “A joke!”
I hear a steady sound, high-pitched like a train whistle. “Do you hear that?” I say.
The sound grows louder. I cock my head to one side.
“See? What robot does that?”
“Shush.” I hold one finger to my face. “You don’t hear that?”
“Hear what?” Gorillahead says.
“Get down,” I say. “Now.” I tackle Gorillahead to the floor and cover him the best I can. The stool clangs off my back. I watch my hat roll to the door, turn a lazy circle, and come to rest cocked on one side, brim to crown.
The world shatters white-loud, blossoms orange and hot, goes static, and winks dark.
P.J.Underwood, a graduate of the Center for Writers, lives in Tupelo, Mississippi with his wife, two sons, and an ornery Himalayan cat. Waterfront is a novel from which this first chapter is taken. The work is available in its entirety here.