The Robot …. Danilo Kis’

The Robot

Danilo Kis’ (Serbian short story)

No one was surprised by his arrival. There was nothing miraculous about seeing a robot walk in through the door, choose a table, push away chairs, and study the menu. He did all of it as adroitly and matter-of-factly as any other guest would. With his finger he indicated the Wiener schnitzel, and the waiter, not upset in the least, brought it to him. The robot skillfully cut up the meat into rather large pieces (knife in his right hand and fork in the left), poured wine into his glass, salted his food, broke the loaf of bread with his hands and popped morsels into his mouth, all with a rhythm that betrayed routine and a sense of propriety. There was nothing unusual in any of it. Not even in the fact that he then wiped off his steel lips with a fine white paper napkin. He wasn’t going to request sandpaper just because his lips were made of steel!

The only unusual thing was that he drank an entire bottle of wine after dinner. And then another one. He politely sent back the soda water that the waiter brought with the second liter. Obviously something was not right with him. This was clear to all who knew him well, especially when he tossed the fifth liter down his steel gullet.

Little by little a sense of doubt came over the waiter. He communicated his anxiety to the manager, who merely shrugged his shoulders. “But what if he gets drunk?” the waiter whispered excitedly. The manager thought about it for a moment and then responded: “But it’s a robot. A garden-variety robot!” So the waiter calmed down and took the robot his sixth liter of wine.

The robot, however, began draining his glasses at one go: the seventh liter, the eighth, the ninth. His eyes were rolling drunkenly, and his head bobbed from side to side, but when the orchestra started to play “No Such Thing as Lucky in Love,” he smashed a glass on the floor. A lady close to where the glass landed started to protest: “Insolence. They should throw him out and give him twenty-five lashes so he learns a little decorum.” Nonetheless he continued to drink, failing to take the protests of the guests into account. Later he apologized to the waiter, in written form of course: “Dear Sirs,” read his message, printed in crude block letters, “I beg the pardon of your esteemed company, especially the lady whom I inadvertently doused. I would be infinitely grateful to you if you would allow me to join your society, for loneliness is killing me. Sincerely, your devoted . . . ” etc. The esteemed company read the robot’s message with great interest and then began its consultations. Some of them said, “Why shouldn’t we accept him into our society? He seems to be a good-natured fellow and it looks like he’s unhappy.” The others said: “Loneliness?! But it’s just a run-of-the-mill robot. He might create unpleasantness for us and land us in trouble. Everybody would be staring at us.” And the third group: “He must have money out the ass. He can pick up the tab!” But the lady declared: “I won’t sit at the same table as a cold, insensate creature like that robot. He is of a lower race, somewhere between blacks and Jews.”

Thus they refused, out of chivalry, to accept him into their company. It was out of caution that they passed their decision along to him via the waiter, asking that he (of course) not get angry and also accept their apology. They also turned down, very politely, the drinks he had ordered for them. Whereupon the robot ordered himself a tenth liter of wine. The waiter looked at him with amazement and fright in his eyes. This robot had never before drunk more than seven or eight liters of wine. Never. Not even at New Year’s. Once again the waiter communicated his fear to the manager. The manager thought about it for a moment, then grew serious and declared: “Take him the bill and don’t give him another drop to drink. If he balks—throw him out.”

The waiter returned and informed the robot that it was closing time and drinks were no longer being served. The robot glanced at his watch and then rolled his eyes around to the waiter and held a bottle out to him, apparently demanding that someone bring him another drink. Embarrassed, the waiter shrugged his shoulders: “There’s no more, Sir. We don’t serve intoxicated guests.”

At that point something snapped in the robot. Like when a clock stops. With a deliberate angular motion he raised the bottle with his right hand and smashed it over the waiter’s head. The society lady said to her cavalier: “You see, I told you we shouldn’t accept him into our society. Heaven forbid, he might’ve struck you.” The orchestra struck up a fanfare as two policemen appeared in the doorway and approached the table at which the robot sat with its head plunged in its hands. “Get up!” shouted the one of the policeman, shaking him by the shoulder. The robot didn’t budge. Then they took hold of him, one from one side and the other from the other side, and stood him on his feet. At that moment the manager came running up and said that the robot hadn’t paid yet. One of the policemen pressed a button on his steel rump marked “Cash,” and out fell a silver coin. “How much?” he asked the manager. Without missing a beat, the manager replied, “One hundred fifty-five.” The policeman kept hitting the button, but the mechanism grew disobedient at ninety-six. They were unable to extract even one additional dinar. “What’s wrong with you?” the policeman inquired of the manager. “Why have you gotten so pale?” In the meantime the manager, looking petrified, had sat down on a chair. “Nothing,” he said. “Just this air.” He drained a glass of water. “Nothing, you see? Nothing. This damned air. We need to open a window.”

The robot left between the policemen, his head hanging, his step uncertain. When he reached the door, he stopped all of a sudden, grabbed the policemen, and with one powerful move tossed them out. All of this happened rapidly and unexpectedly.

By now the guests were frightened. One of the ladies started screaming. Someone shouted desperately into the phone: “Hello? Hello?” But the robot remained standing at the door, rolling his bloodshot eyes around the room. A tense silence prevailed. But all of a sudden he turned around and hurriedly walked out. He nearly fell when he tripped over the threshold.

The customers sat there for a long time, confused and helpless. No one dared open the door and go outside. The waiter whom the robot had struck with a bottle reappeared with a white turban on his head. He was holding a revolver in his hand. “I’m going out there,” he said in a voice that sounded like suicide. And he moved with decisive strides toward the door, his revolver cocked and ready.

At that moment the musicians again played a flourish in order to drown out the business at hand. The guests weren’t supposed to witness unpleasant scenes and bloody showdowns. All eyes were fixed on the door.

Suddenly, as if by command, the music ceased. All that could be heard was muffled breathing. The waiter with the white turban on his head was standing on the threshold, heroically erect and looking mysterious. Then he thrust his revolver into his pocket, and his voice filled the void of anticipation: “Come see, gentlemen!” There was a sneer in his voice: “It’s just an ordinary robot. A drunken robot!”

The guests, or the boldest among them, hurried to the door.

Propped on his arms against the wall, with his legs spread wide and his head bowed low, the robot was . . . vomiting.


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February 2024