The Wonderful Robot Car Club

Second place winner (Authorstand short story contest)

When a robot car comes to the little town of Porcupine, Lacy and Myrtle fall in love.

It all began with Lacy and Myrtle strolling through Porcupine—population three thousand—in the August heat, preferring ice cream to the bean soup offered at the senior center.  The double sundae Myrtle ate stoked her inner fire, and by the time they drew even with the car dealership on their way to their separate homes, Myrtle was dabbing her brow.

“You know I never complain, Lacy, but my feet hurt.”

Lacy slowed by her reflection in the store window.  “If horses could fly,” she said in awe.

“Lacy, quit admiring your stick figure like you’re rubbing it in.  Listen to me.”

Lacy fluttered a hand at the window.  “Look at that.”

Myrtle tilted her ample bosom in until her nose nearly touched the glass.  “Well, I never!”

A stretch limo shimmered like the sun behind the sign, ROBOT CAR.

Lacy towed Myrtle inside.

The sales rep might have ignored them, but one could never tell about little old ladies.  “What’s your favorite color?”

He waved a remote.  A sunset of colors bled one into the other over the car and ended in purple.

“This remote controls everything.  Change your car color.  Swivel the seats.  No need to watch the road.  Program it to your destination and enjoy the ride.  Perfectly safe.  Car even fuels itself.  Climb in.”

They climbed into a lounge with a TV and a bar.  The car awoke with a hum and glided out the door.

The ladies cried out like backseat drivers.  Watch that truck!  See that man in the crosswalk?  Don’t run the stop sign.  Then giggling, they settled down when they saw how expertly the car drove.  They concentrated again on the sales pitch.

“Look how you can recline.  And there’s plenty of room for packages.  Raise a partition and this area transforms into a vanity with a potty chair.”

Once they returned to the salesroom, the two ladies were in love.  Oh, the possibilities!  Safe transport for the old, the lame, the afflicted.

But then the price.  They couldn’t fit their mouths around the number.

“If barns could swallow,” Lacy whispered.

On their stroll home, Myrtle panted, “I’m not one to complain, but I knew it was beyond our reach.”

“You don’t think I was serious.”

Nevertheless, Lacy couldn’t sleep that night.  Was there a way of buying it?  Time and again she dismissed the idea, only to return to it.  Really, they had ridden in it as a lark.  Why was she entertaining serious thoughts?

Morning came.  She called Myrtle.  “One person can’t afford it.  If we get enough interested, though, we could pool our resources and meet the price.”

Myrtle huffed.  “I’m not one to complain, but it won’t work.  You’d have everyone fighting over the remote.  Foolishness!”

“No, it’s not.  We’d have a roster.  People could sign up, and who’s to say they couldn’t go in groups with one person responsible for the remote?”

Myrtle turned thoughtful.  “Everyone’d have to chip in for gas.  And for maintenance and insurance.  It gets worse.”

“Not if we lease the car.  Pay only the lease and usage.”

A leap of enthusiasm.  “Oh, Lacy, you are so clever!”  Then caution.  “You think that’s possible?”

“Do owls hoot?”

That afternoon they met with the sales rep, who met with his employer.  Yes, the company will lease to the head of an organization.

Myrtle stomped away.  “I knew it couldn’t happen.”

Lacy tagged after.

Saying nothing.

Until the next day.

Myrtle lived two houses down from Lacy, and on their walk to the senior nutrition center, Lacy discussed the idea of a club.

“I’m not one for complaining, Lacy, but everyone at the center’s been begging for senior transportation around town for five years now.  No money.”

“This is different.  It’ll be private.  We can call it the Wonderful Robot Car Club.”

While seniors picked up trays of milk, tacos, and salad, and settled to eat, Lacy buzzed from chair to chair, selling her idea of a car that drives, parks itself, and comes when you punch a remote.  Ears perked up, hearing aids tuned in, and heads bobbed in agreement.  As Myrtle prophesied, the price of the lease and usage was more than anyone cared to pay.  Until they agreed to accept youngsters.

“Teens,” Myrtle moaned on the walk home.  “They’ll drive reckless.  Speed.  I just know it.”

“Their parents and grandparents will vouch for them.  We’re taking only the responsible ones.  For a trial period, at that.  Don’t worry, Myrtle.  They can’t cause accidents.  They can’t drive wild.  The car won’t allow it.”

“Well, I’m not complaining.”

“Wouldn’t do you any good.  It’s all worked out.  Like everyone else, they pay a month ahead and sign up to use it.”

“I don’t like it.”

“They’ll all be good kids.  Why, I’d personally vouch for Jimmy.  I’ve known him since he delivered papers.  Never missed a day, and he always tossed it right to my front door.  Never on the roof.”

The Wonderful Robot Car Club seemed to drive itself peacefully, everyone happy and excited.  Jimmy proved trustworthy, so everyone allowed other teens in.  Mostly groups used the car—for attending meetings, shopping, visiting doctors, eating out, and seeing relatives.  Compliments followed President Lacy.

“Wonderful arrangement!”

“It’s like getting my wings back after losing my license.”

“So nice, not to beg rides from my daughter.”

Sure as leaves fall, problems do come.  The first came, not from a teenager.  It came from back to back scheduling.  A woman missed her appointment because the car didn’t return on time to take her.  Its passenger, an elderly gentleman had fallen asleep in the recliner.

Lacy responded by encouraging more groups to use the car, so everyone had a better chance to ride.  That worked until a woman phoned to say she was stranded.  Her group had dropped her at the beauty parlor, and then the car was used by another group that seemed unaware she needed to be picked up.

Lacy kept a more watchful eye on the roster, and usage again ran smoothly.  The car club got through its first month and looked forward to the next.  News about the club hit the papers, and local interest spread to other towns.  A robot car club!  Oh, the possibilities!

Well into the third month, Stu Longshore called Lacy.  “I lost the car!”

“You what?”

“Lost the robot car.”  Stu was a grounded senior.  Lacy was sure he teetered on the edge of Alzheimer’s.  It’s more likely he had forgotten how to get the car to return from where it had parked itself.

Still…“I’m sorry,” Lacy said, wishing she had a hearing aid.  “You what?”

“Lost the car.”

“Someone stole it?”

Lacy reminded herself she was fond of adventures, as long as they were safe.

“No.  I stepped out before it stopped.  And it keeps going.  Around the same blocks.  Every time it slows for the corner, I try to get on.  I can’t.”

“What happened to your remote?”

“It’s in the car.  Since you’re the club president, I called you.”

Lacy called 911.

The police didn’t seem at all alarmed or surprised.  “We’ll take Stu home.  As for the car, it won’t cause an accident, and when it runs out of fuel, it’ll stop.”

And refuel itself.  The police caught it at the gas pump.

Lacy added a new rule.  When you sign up, keep the remote with you at all times.

The rest of the month ran well, except for minor headaches.  Luke Brand, dropped from the club for nonpayment, called and demanded to use the car.  “It’s an emergency.”  Lacy tried to convince him to grab a ride with the group currently using it and they could drop him off at his emergency.  Either that or take a taxi.  He took a taxi.

Then Sue Griffon, a senior involved in local charities, called very politely to inform Lacy she had been bumped from her schedule.  This, she said, had happened more than once.  Lacy hated to lose her, but Sue promised to find someone to take her place, so the club wouldn’t lose money.

Lacy added another rule.  Anyone who drops out must find a replacement member.  And members complied, until Stu died of a stroke.  Then two other members died.

The club invited more teens to join.

Not one youngster caused a headache.  Lacy was convinced they were a blessing until she found Myrtle poring over the roster, shaking her head.

“I just knew this would happen.  Lacy, you know I never complain, but look at this.”  She tapped the roster with a pencil.

Lacy moved her finger down the list.  Jimmy had signed his name to nearly every evening.  Jimmy, the boy who had never missed a newspaper delivery, who had always tossed the paper to her front door, who never threw it on the roof.  She sighed and considered adding another rule.  Don’t hog the car.  More than that, she would have to call the dear boy and talk to him.

His mother answered the phone.

Lacy hated herself for saying, “I hate to complain.”  She cleared her throat and started over.  “I want you to know that Jimmy is the most responsible of our young members, and I’ve always had faith in his trustworthiness.  But, well…this is all about sharing, and with the number of members in the Wonderful Robot Car Club, well…”

“He has a girl friend.”

A girl friend.

Lacy didn’t know what to say.  The boy had contracted an insanity that often afflicts the young.  His mother vowed the problem would be fixed, so Jimmy would refrain from hogging the robot car.

And he did.  In fact he bought a clunker and no longer needed his membership.  He did volunteer a replacement member.  Another boy.  One, fortunately, who wasn’t afflicted with a steady girlfriend.

Into its fourth month the club was going strong.

Until the morning she received a call from Dan Bigelow, one of the young adults who had recently joined.  “Lacy, I’m afraid the robot car is gone.”

Lacy visualized someone leaving the remote in the car and its continuing on its route.  Before she gave flippant advice, however, she took advantage of the wisdom age gives and asked, “How gone?”

“Like forever gone.”

“Stolen?”  Had someone picked Dan’s pocket?

“Not something so minor.”

Losing the remote was minor?  Lacy didn’t want to think about what that meant.

Dan seemed reluctant to continue.

Lacy wanted to say she was strong; she could take whatever bad news he gave her.  Nevertheless she again let wisdom guide.  She got out the roster.  “You were with a group who took the car last night to a party.  What happened?”

“Well, you know we took it, so it would safely drive us home after we’d been drinking.  But it got totaled.”

“It what?”

“The party turned wild, so we decided to leave.”

“How could the car get totaled?  It was accident proof.  You got into the car and—”

“No.  We didn’t have a chance.  We were just getting ready to leave when we went outside and saw the damage.  A drunk drove into it while it was parked.”

Lacy held the phone, her hand shaking.  Voice trembling, she called the car company with the news.  The company refused to lease another car.

When news of the demise of the Wonderful Robot Car Club reached the hearts and minds of its friends and sympathizers, the grassroots took hold with rummage sales, spaghetti feeds, raffles, and business donations.  Two months later, seniors gathered at the nutrition site where Porcupine’s mayor waved a check for the establishment of local transportation for seniors.

He cut the applause short, called Lacy forward, and held up a silver cup.  “Receive this trophy for watering the grassroots.  It couldn’t have happened without you.”

Seniors clapped, hooted, and whistled.

“Well,” she fumbled, “if horses could fly.”

“They just did, Lacy,” Myrtle shouted, along with others.  “They just did.”

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