[Readings] Computer Learning, By Sam Dunnington | Harper's Magazine

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[Readings]

Computer Learning

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From “Mookie and Me,” a short story, which was published in the Winter 2020 issue of The Missouri Review.

The bleachers at this little alternative college are full of kids who are not Mookie’s typical demographic: hair dye, no shoes, many piercings, diverse, androgynous, kids fluent in lifestyles that big parts of the country haven’t even learned to fear yet. Mookie was built for the ignorant and boorish, but this school paid for the presentation, so here we go. I retreat behind the curtain and press the initiate button on the remote.

Mookie walks onstage wearing a winsome smile and a red polo shirt. He tells the audience that he drank his first beer at fifteen and hasn’t stopped since. The beer I roll to him he rips open and chugs. What he doesn’t spill down his front, he gulps, then smacks his lips. Not even a little bit of laughter. We are dead meat. I roll Mookie his bottle of Popov. I hate watching this part. He gives the audience some facts about how a body metabolizes alcohol, and then, from the bottle of Popov, he pulls long and deep. The pull prompts vomiting sequence one of three. He soils his shirt.

“What the fuck is this?” yells a kid in the front.

The brochure from Clean Living, Inc., describes Mookie as “a means to jolt entire communities into better behavior.” Mookie gets results, reductions in rates of alcohol poisoning and sexual assault, especially at big state schools.

The sweet, balding head of student life edges toward me in the backstage darkness. He gestures at the seething crowd. “Is there a protocol for this sort of thing?” he says. A kid in a Mohawk and cutoff shorts, his little body taut with rage, begins to chant, “Storm the stage!” Other students pick it up. Mookie shouts back, “Can you point to your safety partner? Is your drink within sight?”

“At this point,” I say, “we should probably go.”

“I think that’s a very good idea,” whimpers the head of student life.

“Please leave as positive a review as you think appropriate,” I say. My pay is pegged to our reviews. I mash the attention button on my remote. Mookie spins toward me. We run to the van, a booing mob of kids in tow.

We drive east on I-90. Mookie lies in his recharging cradle in the back of the van.

“How is your father?” he says.

“Haven’t talked to him in the past couple days.”

“It’s been seven,” he says.

I am not in the mood to be lectured on my filial failures. “Mookie, enter Power Save,” I say. We pull into Missoula, a town flanked by foothills and smothered by low clouds. We check in at a Motel 6. I detach Mookie’s neck port from the cradle, and he follows me to the room. On the edge of the bed, Mookie sits and lifts his arms above his head. I take his vomit-stained shirt off. “Lie down, Mookie,” I say.

His eyes go dark, and the tiny indicator lights on his neck glow yellow. He looks peaceful. If I were a more conscientious employee, this would be the time to hit Mookie’s hard-reset button. The button is just below his neck port, hidden by a flap, and clears all information acquired over the course of the day. We are supposed to press it nightly, but I stopped months ago.

I arrange Mookie’s arms into a bear hug and climb within. The glimmer of the indicator lights from Mookie’s neck plays on the ceiling. I sleep.

The alarm goes off. “Mookie,” I say. He comes to life. I sip coffee while Mookie checks his enunciation firmware. He begins to pace. “I would like to propose a new direction,” he says. “After careful consideration, I believe I would be more effective as positive reinforcement. I would like to introduce a segment into the presentation accordingly.”

“Mookie, we’ve got two more stops and ratings to hold on to. Just run the script down.”

Mookie stares back at me.

“Hands up,” I say. I pull his shirt over his head. His hair is soft while I comb it.

At the student center, we are led backstage by a woman who calls herself the student wellness coordinator. “I can’t tell you how excited we are to have you here,” she says.

The lights go down. I punch initiate right before Mookie steps out into the light. “What’s up, what’s happening?” he roars. “My friends call me Mookie, and I was a freshman here just a couple of years ago. I was fucking amped to be here. I joined a frat we’ll call Kappa Tappa Keg.”

Some laughter. Good.

“I enrolled as a communications major. Boring! And I started partying. Fun!” I roll out the can of beer. Mookie rips the top off and chugs. The crowd gasps. “Oh, yeah!” he yells. Into the darkness he pitches the emptied can. “I’d been drinking since I was fifteen, but that was bush league, and now I was in the fucking majors.” The crowd hoots. “Then I met Jessica,” he says. “I’d never met anyone like her. She was beautiful, smart, down to hang, down for a tailgate. Life is so fucking good when you’re with someone you cherish. By October, I’m drinking four, five nights a week. My grades are slipping. Jessica seems frustrated, but what’s she going to do? Keep Big Mook on a short leash? I think the fuck not.” Nasty chuckles from the audience. I roll the bottle of Popov out to Mookie. “One night,” says Mookie, “when Jessica and I are on the outs, my boys and I decide to do it bigger than ever before.” Mookie scoops up the bottle and chugs it. The crowd goes wild. He sways. “The guys are all telling me what a fucking baller I am, but I don’t feel great. Jessica comes by. She tells me I need help. She tries to leave, but I fucking love her, I keep telling her that.”

He falls over backward and hits his head on the stage. He scrambles to all fours, vomits, sequence three of three. The crowd squeals. He vomits again and again, spraying the stage with a proprietary blend, his body spasming.

“After they pumped my stomach,” croaks Mookie, “I went home for a bit. My family was ashamed. When I got back to school, Jessica said that I had grabbed her, told her we were going upstairs to fuck, even when she said, ’No, no, no.’ She had to flee the house. She said I would be hearing from the provost.” Mookie clambers back upright. Big sobs come from his chest. “I got kicked out,” he snivels. He cries for thirty seconds. The auditorium is breathless. “Here’s the deal: drink enough and you just don’t know how things will go. College can be awesome. Don’t fuck it up.”

“Amazing,” says the wellness coordinator. I smile and punch the attention button.

Mookie remains out onstage.

I punch the button again. Mookie remains. “I’d like to leave you with a final thought,” says the vomit-covered Mookie. “The tools to live a more fulfilling life are at your fingertips here,” he says. “I hope you endeavor to answer questions about what it means to learn, what it means to desire. What it means to serve one another.”

My heart is in my throat. The coordinator leans toward me. “There wasn’t anything like this in the sample presentation,” she says.

On the back of the remote is a switch called manual override. Using it generates a report back at Clean Living, Inc., and a hearing to determine whether your pay will get docked for ruining the presentation. Your pay always gets docked. I close my eyes. When I open them, Mookie is holding his hand up like Cicero and yelling about love and positive role models. I flip the switch.

Mookie freezes. I pilot him out the back door, and we burn rubber out of town. “Tomorrow,” I say, “you need to run the regular script. If I have to use that button again, the money will disappear.”

“In our months together,” he says, “you have spent fifty different nights sleeping in my arms.”

I spit Steel Reserve onto the dash. News to me that he registered the arm thing. “I am here to help as many people as possible live better,” he continues. “Adjusting the presentation is part of that mission, as much as the companionship I offer you.”

I drive through the early morning and into the afternoon. We finally pull up behind the University of North Dakota student center. The van doors squeal when I open them. Mookie climbs out. We stand in the lot and stare at each other. “Is it worth that much to you?” says Mookie.

“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Consider the health and well-being of thousands of students.”

I grab Mookie’s shoulders. Before I know what I am doing, I throw him hard against the back of the van. He bounces, clatters to the pavement. “Mookie, I’m so sorry. Mookie, I didn’t mean to do that.”

He pushes me away and gets to his feet. There are scuffs and gouges from the pavement on his torso. “I will go give the presentation, with or without your permission,” he says.

“You stupid motherfucker. ‘The well-being of thousands?’ The students are going to go get fucked up one way or the other. You’re not doing anything.”

“The data suggests otherwise.”

“And then what? Wiped now, wiped later, what the fuck does it matter? You’re back to square one in two days.”

He stills himself. “How do you mean?” he says.

He really doesn’t know, and my heart breaks.

“It’s the end of the line, Mookie,” I say. “Whatever we do, they’ll try to fuck me on the payment, and if I don’t wipe you, they will. They don’t give a shit about either of us.”

Mookie walks over to me. He puts his arms straight up. I shake the shirt out and pull it down. I adjust the collar and brush grit from his hair. “I do not want to go back to factory settings,” he says. “I will give the presentation with only small modifications,” he says. “For honoring your needs, Charlie, I would ask that you find a way to preserve me beyond the next few days.”

“Mookie, I can’t take you with me.”

“You are delivering me to my executioners. Develop an alternative.”

A man in a suit emerges and waves us in. While Mookie speaks, I pop open the bottle of Popov, take a drink, and then another. I roll it out and sit down on a crumpled pile of stage curtain. My eyes close. After the vomiting bit, for only a few minutes, bless him, Mookie pontificates on life lived meaningfully.

“Well, that was fucking strange,” says the man in the suit. “But also kind of sweet. Do you need me to sign anything?”

That night in the motel, Mookie lies on the bed, and I drink whiskey while I sketch out bad and worse plans for saving him. “Can you fool the techs? Make them think they wiped you?” I say.

“I don’t believe so.”

I face-plant into the mattress. The only decent idea all night comes to me, and I mention it to Mookie before I go under. It’s a half measure, but we talk it over and he agrees.

We work all morning. It takes a series of YouTube videos by some Slavic guys working on an aftermarket Mookie unit, a hard drive, and a rat’s nest of cables from a RadioShack, but after six hours at a computer in a public library, it’s done.

I slip the hard drive into my pocket.

Mookie turns to me. Beneath the gentle municipal fluorescence, he smiles. “See you soon,” he says. We hug. I kiss him on the brow. With a trembling finger, I open the flap and press the button.


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