Delicious Smoking Robot
It would be the first if its kind, a robot designed to generate and replicate a specific scent found in almost any nightclub in any decade prior to the 1990s. Back then -- when smoking was commonplace -- it was a scent, an aroma, a fragrance. But now, these days, to most Americans it's an offensive stench.
No one really smokes like they used to. Back in the old days, in dark restaurants and bars, lovers never protested the wafts of moist, tart breath that they enveloped each other in as they sat nose to nose, forehead to forehead, pecking at each other between cocktail sips.
Foster pined for that scent. In 1972, he'd fallen head over heals for a beautiful woman named Margot. Her real name was Margherita, but she just liked the sound of Margot better. She was Italian, black hair and brown eyes. She was a smoker too, and technically, an American, having been born in Pittsburgh. Her parents were the real Italians, from Palermo.
They -– Foster and Margot –- would spend googly-eyed evenings at Lucianno's in their shadowy, tuck and roll booth with the candle on the table, while a tuxedoed man at the piano sang and played the songs of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Lucianno's was a nice enough place, though hardly cosmopolitan. It wasn't a Trattoria or a Cucina, just a restaurant with a bar that catered to cologne-bathed middle-aged men with lubricated gray hair. Occasionally the men were with their wives. Sometimes they were alone. Other times they entertained lone women at the bar.
Foster and Margot liked the night. They didn't spend much time together in the daylight. They didn’t go for daytime walks or to sit on park benches, unless it was a daytime lunch rendezvous at Lucianno's with Bloody Marys or Martinis. Daytime just wasn't sexy enough. It was too bright outside, which is why Lucinanno’s was perfect; it was dark, smelling of sizzling steaks and baked potatoes. They had to work anyway during the day. He was a professor of mechanical engineering at Wallace, a small college down the thruway. He aspired to build robots. She was a secretary, sort of, somewhere, though it wasn't actually clear what she did and where she did it.
If they did happen to rendezvous at Lucianno's during the day, they'd squint back to their cars afterward, shading the sun from their eyes after leaving. Daylight, you see, ruins the lovers' glow. It's unfriendly to cocktail vampires.
Both Foster and Margot burned through a pack a night sitting at Lucianno's. By the time they left around closing time, 2 a.m., they'd both be coated in an invisible blanket of smoke residue. He missed those days: the ride home with Margot's smokey, perfumed cigarette scent draping his clothes, in his hair, on his fingertips.
Margot looked delicious when she smoked. The way her lips puckered around her Virginia Slim, leaving their sanguine lipstick stain on the filter tip. Other people didn't look quite as good when they smoked. One of Foster's coworkers, for instance, Jack, was a freakish looking smoker. His face, when he drew on the cigarette, would shrivel up like a month-old Halloween pumpkin. Then, it would pop back into shape, making yet another bizarre contortion as he exhaled. If Jack would have seen himself in a mirror he surely would have quit smoking right then and there.
Foster should have known better than to smoke, being an engineer, a man of science. Not that he looked so bad when he smoked, but everyone knows that if you’re a smoker, you can't smoke while using a supplemental oxygen tank for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD. COPD is what you get when you smoke too much, and Foster was hooked. One day, not being able to control his urge, he decided to light one up while sitting on the john. Naturally, the combustible cocktail of super-oxygenated air and open flame blew up in his face, burning off his eyebrows and fashionable mustache. Fortunately for him, wearing his also-fashionable large-rimmed glasses protected him from being blinded by the flame. In the end, he looked like a scarlet, sunburned baby wearing a raccoon mask. Aside from the first and and second degree burns, he'd be fine.
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Foster loved the smell of cigarette and cigar smoke. It reminded him of being a kid. Everyone smoked back then; the bus driver, the cab driver, his father. The smell of smoke was on everything.
At the beginning of each month, he'd go to the store on the corner to witness the arrival of a new shipment of comic books. Sometimes he'd get there too early and have to come back later, riding his bicycle to some distant turn-around spot, then returning later to check again. Hopefully, when he got back, there would be a fresh batch of Batman (the super hero with no super powers) comics on the rack along with a couple of unopened bundles on the floor. He’d reach deep into his corduroy pocket and wrestle out a quarter and buy two at 12 cents a piece.
Back at home, with a plastic glass of green Kool Aid, he’d go down and settle into the beat-up couch in the basement to open up his prized, virgin comics. The vivid colors enkindled his eyes. The texture of the paper tingled his finger tips, then the unmistakeable scent of cigar rose from the paper. Yes, cigar. Foster just loved it. He couldn't explain it, but it was there. One moment, he was in his parents' basement, the next, he was imagining looking over the shoulder of some withered press operator somewhere in New York City, flavoring his whirring spools of newsprint with lazy exhalations of smoke from his Phillies Blunts. From that dissipating haze of cigar smoke would emerge the streaks of colored paper that would ultimately become Foster’s literary pearls. Twine-bundled bales of comics would then roar away in a truck, disappearing to parts-unknown, to the store on the corner where Foster would wait for them.
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Foster tinkered in the basement this evening with his project. He wanted to create the robot that smoked. He had a lot of free time lately without Margot. He missed her. It was after they broke up that he finally realized that the only thing that held them together was alcohol... and her scent. There were other reasons too. Yes, she was pretty, she was sultry. And he'd bought her a car.
Foster, with his engineering background, had come up with an idea that he could invent a substitute for his beloved Margot, a surrogate, a robot of sorts. The robot would have certain characteristics, most of which had to do with replicating Margot's scent. To do this, he compiled a list of essential characteristics. This he created, as he did with all his projects, by carefully writing notes on a sheet of graph paper. He had labeled his list, "The Essential Olfactory Stages of Cigarette Smoking."
1. freshly lit cigarette
2. cigarette in progress
3. smell of cigarette on breath
4. extinguished cigarette in ashtray
5. cigarette smoke residue on clothes
He couldn't decide whether a full-fledged robot was necessary or just a machine that could spew Margot's odor around the room. It seemed that a robot of the general size and shape of Margot would be nice. But then what? What about Margot's warm and soft skin, moist breath, her dark eyes?
A slight scent of perfume along with the residual cigarette smoke would be the icing on the cake, the little umbrella in the cocktail, for Foster. He had a small bottle of her perfume that he kept just for that purpose to enhance stage 5, the "cigarette smoke residue on clothes" stage. Whether it would be effective or not was another question.
He thought back on a day long ago, down in the basement where his mother had a second kitchen. Cooking in the summer was a lot more tolerable down in the basement than up on the steamy main floor.
He loved his mother's apple pies so much, relishing the crust at the rim of the pan, that one day he asked his mother to make nothing but the crust for him. She, somewhat skeptical, asked, "Are you sure?" "Of course I am," he said.
When she put the empty crust on the table in front of him, he dug in with a fork. It was dry, like cardboard. He'd forgotten about the fruit, the juice, the saturation being part of the flavor. That's exactly what he was worried about with his Margot robot. Would he miss something important? Would he forget a key ingredient that he'd taken for granted when Margot sat snuggled next to him in the booth?
He'd probably need a chemist -- he knew several -- to help him create the essences of the smells on his list. He certainly could have just thrown a bunch of cigarettes into a blender to see what would come out. But her smokey, booze breath, her perfume, her hair spray, the aroma of the restaurant, her perspiration, the tar in her lungs and the smell of her lipstick? What about those details?
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Margot had abruptly left one day to go back to Pittsburgh. She must have needed some time away to feel the big city again, he thought. He couldn't understand why. It was nice here. Besides, he'd done so many things for her. To show her how much he loved her, he'd bought her a car, a Cadillac El Dorado, a white one with a continental kit and white leather seats. In the past, a couple of times, he'd paid her rent and bought her some nice jewelry. He'd loaned her money too. Now she was gone and so was the El Dorado. Her phone was shut off.
He was 66. She was 43. He, a retired man, was honored to have the attention of such a seductive beauty as Margot. He didn't normally attract women at all, but Margot told him that there was just something about him that she found irresistible. He couldn't figure out what. He always thought of himself as dowdy, with his gray comb-over, thick glasses and salt and pepper mustache which he touched up occasionally with dark coloring. Other men were more attractive, dressed better, but Margot didn't seem to care.
That all changed one day. He had called her to set up their date at Lucianno's. She agreed, as usual. When they got there she was unusually distant. She didn't gaze into his eyes the way she always had before. Instead, she sat straight, blowing nervous clouds of smoke up to the ceiling, fidgeting. When he put his hand on hers, she seemed irritated, tense. He couldn't figure out what was wrong, whether he had done something to upset her.
She curtly excused herself after several uncomfortable minutes, saying that she had to go to the ladies' room, gathering her purse and cigarette pack, leaving a the cigarette she'd been smoking still burning in the ashtray.
That was the last he saw of her. Her martini half drunk with an imprint of red lipstick on the rim, the olive still on the toothpick with the curly plastic "garnish" on the end. He asked the waitress to check the ladies' room after a while to see if she was alright. "There's no one in there," the waitress said when she came back. He walked out to the parking lot. The El Dorado was gone. There was a wet tire mark where she'd driven across a puddle. It was the last trace of Margot ever having been there.
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The basement was alive with fluorescent light fixtures that lit up walls neatly covered with pegboard where hung a vast collection of exotic tools - pliers of every shape, drill bits of every possible size. A Dremel tool with dozens of little attachments sat on the work bench in a tidy case. He could use it to work the plaster sculpture he planned to make from the cast of Margot's head. The robot had to be perfect.
The El Dorado was in the garage. It wasn't hard to find it. It was registered in his name after all. He'd also given her a Sunoco gas card. When the statement came, he saw that the car had been refueled at one particular station in Mount Washington several times. Apparently Margot wasn't aware that she'd committed a felony by disappearing with the car and the gas card. She must have thought she was invisible. He thought about calling the police and having her thrown in jail, but he wasn't much interested in spending any time in the court system. Besides, he was still infatuated with her. He didn’t hate her. In his heart he knew that she was a good and decent person. Instead, he took a Greyhound into downtown Pittsburgh, then a local bus to the neighborhood where the gas station was. Not far from the gas station was a restaurant, The Gaslamp, where, as luck would have it, his car was parked. "Great Ceasar's ghost!" he gasped when he saw it.
He thought about waiting until darkness fell, until she came out so he could confront her. He thought about perhaps hiding in the back seat, then reaching around and choking her nicotine lined throat to death when she got in. He could stare down onto her face and watch her wretchedness melt into a dead heap as her feet kicked, as her lovely, desperate eyes pleaded for mercy. But his simmering rage passed. It wouldn't have made sense. He'd just end up in prison, all because he was jilted.
Using the spare key in his pocket, he opened the car door, got in and drove himself home up Interstate 79. A half empty cigarette pack sat in the center console. He would have lit one up, but somehow he'd lost his taste for cigarettes. He still pined for Margot's scent though, her perfume, her breath in his face. Her scarf lay on the passenger's seat. He picked it up and sniffed it. It was perfection, Margot as he wanted to remember her. Underneath where the scarf had been was a tube of red lipstick and the gas card.
He wondered what would happen when she saw that the car was missing. Would she have a fit, send a thug after him. Or would she just have another drink? It was his car after all, his gas card. What was she going to do, take him to court?
It never occurred to him until later that he could have just walked into the restaurant and talked to her. But thinking about it, it was possible she might be sitting at a dark table with someone else, looking into his eyes, sipping a drink, holding her cigarette. It was better this way.
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October came. Weeks had passed when he saw a cab outside his front window. He opened the door when he heard the knock. It was Margot, looking uncomfortable, maybe embarrassed, maybe remorseful. He thought about whether he should let her in or just close the door with her standing outside in the cold. She smelled like the winter air, a hint of cigarette smoke on her coat. A waft of perfume hit him in the face. He supposed he could just let her in for a little while.
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He ground down a burr at the base of the skull with his Dremel tool. The latex felt delicate, he didn't want it to tear. A little powdered makeup, rearrange a lock of hair. It looked good. He hoped the smell of the latex wouldn’t conflict with the other scents. It wasn't perfect, but it was very good.
"My beautiful, sweet darling," he said, lifting his glass to sip his cocktail. He pushed the left joystick of the controller forward. The lips curled and puckered. The right lever made the corners of her eyes wrinkle to match her taunting half smile. He eased back on the left stick. Her eyebrows rose provocatively. The red button, pressed with his thumb, made a delicious warm puff of moist smoke emerge from her lipsticked mouth, surrounding him like a ghostly fog.
She was the perfect girlfriend.
©2010 lou savage