Little Man

Carolyn Abram

My tiny bedroom was sixty percent bed and thirty percent antique vanity that I took from my grandma.  I sat on the little poof of a stool and surveyed myself in the three-panel mirror, trying to catch my best angle. I strongly suspected it was one I ruined merely by turning my eyes towards it. On my shoulder, Little Man was stretching, warming up. “Treat each day like it might be your last,” he said, arms dangling. “Brought to you by State Farm Life Insurance. Would you like me to contact your local agent?”

“No.” I grimaced as the brush hit a particularly nasty tangle. Instead of unsticking it like you’re supposed to, I pulled harder. The snarl gave way and the back of my brush knocked straight into Little Man, sending him flying across the room.

I cursed and rushed over to where he landed, in a pile of laundry. Little Man’s body was limp, his eyes blinking rapidly without focusing. I breathed a sigh of relief; he wasn’t torqued into the Sad Man position that means he’s dead for good. I pinched his little hand between my thumb and forefinger to power him down.  I counted to thirty and powered him back on.  I cradled him in both my hands to provide additional power.

His body went rigid again, and after a few more seconds he sat up and looked at me. “Ready to begin,” he said.

I tried to think of something easy for him to do, just to make sure he was still functional. “Uh, daily schedule.” I said.

“You have brunch at 1pm with Annie at Melt. The rest of your day and evening, you are free. No plans at all. Looking for something to fill your weekend? Check out the Bay Area singles meet-up brought to you by eHarmony.”

This stung. I finished getting ready and went to meet Annie.

Annie was my most beautiful friend. The one who always seemed to be in the middle of a shampoo commercial shoot. Her life was full of mega-watt smiles and over-emphasized syllables. For a while we were inseparable, the kind of friends who talked every day, had each other’s spare keys and knew the other’s schedule without needing a Littleman sync. But recently we’d gotten busy. Distant.

“Here, Lars, take our photoooo,” Annie said to her Littleman as soon as we sat down. Lars was the Ken doll of my childhood brought to life—neckerchief sold separately. He scampered nimbly off her shoulder down the rail of her arm to the bar to take our photo. Little Man ambled to the far side of my shoulder where he’d be out of frame. We flung out our hair and pursed our lips. 

“Gorgeous,” Lars said in an Australian accent. Annie always had nice things.

I went for my mimosa. Little Man said to me, “Lars is posting the photo to the cloud. When your head’s in the cloud, make sure your feet are on the ground. Brought to you by Verizon.”

Annie looked at me sympathetically, “Ad-vice?”

I got a bit defensive at this. “I’m upgrading soon.”

On my shoulder, Little Man shifted his weight back and forth on his little legs. “Best Buy offers a full range of Littlemen colors, styles, and providers. Use code LM382 for a free Littleman raincoat with two year contract.” His voice seemed more mechanical than usual.

“He was supposed to be temporary, remember? That’s why you didn’t bother naming him. What was that, two years ago?” It pleased me that Annie remembered this. She’d been the one to get me such a good price. "My friend was just fired and they took her Littleman back," she’d said, brow furrowed down and voice pitched up. Things are rough right now, is there anything you can do to help her out? Like an old model or something just so she’s not cut off from the world while she looks for a new job?

“I’ll get around to it, “ I said. “How have you been?”

On her shoulder, Lars broke out his display and started showing me photos from the past few weeks. “Dinner at Scoop last night. Check out the plating!” he said.

“Stop that,” Annie said to Lars. Then to me, “I wanted to talk to you about something.” She put her hand on my arm and furrowed her brow really seriously. “Do you think I’m boring?”

I didn’t really know how to answer. If Annie’s life was boring—with her serious boyfriend and serious lawyer job—what was mine? “I don’t think you’re boring. Why would you ask that?”

She gulped her drink, “You know, people used to ask me what was going on and I had all this new information. I just went traveling, I just got a new job, I just moved. And now people ask me that and I have nothing to say except…”

“That you went to Scoop for dinner.” Little Man finished.

“What?” she and I both said to him. His color changed to pink and he said nothing.  

Annie seemed rattled by this. So was I. Littlemen don’t usually insert themselves like that. They answer questions and accept commands. They don’t finish your sentences. I wrapped my fingers around him and pulled him off my shoulder.  Brought up his display. “I knocked him out with my hairbrush,” I explained. “Maybe something’s broken.”

She exhaled heavily, drained her mimosa.

“You’re approaching your alcohol limit for the day.” Lars told her. “It’s 1:23pm.”

“What are you her mother?” I said. “Turn Monitor off.”

He looked at me without recognition. 

“Annie, are you going to let your Littleman boss you around? Turn Monitor off and enjoy yourself.” I said.

She nodded sheepishly and repeated the command. Another round arrived, along with a plate of French toast bites. “Sooo lucky I turned off Monitor. I can’t even think about what this will do to my calorie count,” she said.

I waited for her to continue. The thing with Annie was, she went through friendships. I knew this about her. We’d talked about it, wondered what it was about her that allowed friendships to dissolve so frequently for her. I rarely lost friends. But I also rarely had friends as close as Annie and I once were.  I had been thinking that the distance, the boredom, the nothing was part of Annie shedding me for someone new. But then, just for a moment, it had seemed like we were going to talk about something.

“Babe, you there?” Lars opened his mouth but it was Annie’s boyfriend’s voice that came out.

She brightened considerably. “Yesss, just give me a minute to get outside, it’s so noisy in here.”

I looked around the trendy brunch spot as she left. There were large groups of friends crowded around tiny tables. Their Littlemen tended to be uniformly dressed by table, like a junior high cafeteria. There were a couple of twosomes or foursomes. Was I the only one sitting alone?

“Any new messages?” I asked Little Man.

He shook his head. Then, he brightened. “But there are some celebrity updates. Rehab for a promiscuous pop star.”

I sighed. He looked a little downtrodden. “How do I describe what I’m feeling?” I said. Not that I expected him to have a definition, but because it needed to be said.

Little Man looked over towards the door. “That’s not how friendships are supposed to work.”

I waited for the sponsorship, some brilliant Ad-visor who figured out how to target his ads to emotive words better than anyone. Nothing. Just Little Man standing on my shoulder, looking into my eyes and waiting for a command.

“Are you sure you’re fully functional?” I asked.

He spun in a circle, processing. Then shook his head to indicate everything was fine. “Ready to begin.”

I was still trying to figure out what, exactly was going on with him when the bartender leaned his forearms on the bar across from me and said with a jerk of his chin, “I dig the retro.”

“Oh, he’s not a retro. He’s just old.” I explained, face reddening.

The bartender was cute, cut like an aspiring actor with dark thick eyebrows and eyelashes.  His Little Man was a newish model, dressed like a nerdy professor, complete with glasses.

“Nice.” He nodded, then, in a totally arcane gesture extended his hand over the bar and waited for me to take it. I almost giggled; it was so odd to feel his dry and cracked fingers between mine. “I’m Damien,” he said. His Littleman looked over at Little Man and held out his fist towards him. Before I could even make up my mind about whether I wanted him to, Little Man held his own fist up in kind. Now the bartender had my number.

Somebody called Damien away and Annie reappeared at my elbow, “Did you just bump with that bartender?”

Little Man tarzanned across my back to sit on my other shoulder, closer to Annie.  “Damien Martin,” he said. “Age: 29, BA Communications, Syracuse University. Lives in the Mission with three roommates. Drink of choice: Whiskey, 5 shots a night on average. Plays 30 hours of Universe of Warcraft a week.”

I shushed him. “He’s right there.”

Annie surveyed Damien and then shrugged at me. “If that’s what you’re into,” she said. “Anyhow, I’ve got to get going.”

“We’re not done.” I looked down at our waiting plates.

“I know, it’s just, there’s this whole thing going on with Porter right now. We’ll talk later, okay?” She slid off her seat and grabbed her purse. “So much fun.” She hugged me. “Again. Soon.”

 I smiled and watched her leave, an impossibly golden ray of sunshine illuminating her as she opened the door. 

On Wednesday, a fuse blew in my apartment. I was staring at the fuse box wearing rubber gloves, Little Man reciting the operating manual when he paused to inform me I had a call request. “From the bartender.”

This fluttered him into my good graces. There is nothing worse than some dude you met snarling into your ear, Hey babe, remember me? The handshake, the call request. The guy had manners. “Accept,” I said.

“Don’t make yourself too available. Brought to you by Cosmopolitan Magazine. Be a Cosmo girl.”

“You’re lucky I’m too lazy to replace you,” I told him.

“I am lucky.” He repeated this. And soon the call request had been dropped.

I finished getting the lights back on, called him back, and apologized

“It’s cool. I just wanted to invite you to a party tonight. My roommates and I are having a thing. It’s pretty casual.”

“On a Wednesday?”

 “You have plans?”

I looked over at Little Man, who crossed his arms and said nothing.

“I’d really love to see you again,” Damien said. “I know we didn’t talk much but you seemed really cool. No pressure, just come to the party and hang out. What’s the worst that could happen?”

Little Man paused the call. “Syphilis, Gonorrhea, murder, death, identity theft, loss of property, stalking.”

“You’re the one who bumped in the first place,” I said, before I realized, again, that he wasn’t giving me an ad-visor. Before I had time to figure out what to do with him, Little Man spun a lazy circle on one leg, putting Damien back on.

“Where’d you go?” he asked.

“Little Man error,” I told him. “I’ll be there.”

The party was mostly dudes, and they all seemed to know each other; they mostly just stared at me when I walked in. I found Damien in the middle of an argument with one of his friends. 

“Nah, man, it’s coming.” The friend had a beaky nose and red blotches from alcohol across his cheeks. “I’m telling you. We’re powering our Littlemen through our skin man. It’s only a matter of time till they’re in our brains. Then am I me or am I a Littleman? That’s why I don’t even have one.”

“You do have one,” Damien said. “I’ve seen it.”

“That’s just for emergencies. I don’t even keep him on me.”

“He’ll be super useful in emergencies then, won’t he,” I said. Damien smiled at me and the friend looked at me like I was an idiot. My presence deflated the energy level.

“This is Arthur,” said Damien. “He’s always like this when he drinks.”

Arthur gestured with his hand, sloshing the contents of his drink onto the floor. “Like what? Honest? Prescient? I’m telling you man, on the day you get turned into a fucking battery for the fucking big Littlemen, you’re going to remember this conversation and you are going to rue the fucking day you didn’t listen to me.”

Little Man opened his mouth and Annie’s voice screeched out, informing me this was an emergency and she needed to talk to me immediately.

I flushed and looked nervously at Damien.

“See?” Arthur said, “Your Little Man dictates your life, not you.”

I rolled my eyes at him and dashed for the bathroom.

“Annie? I’m here.” I closed the door and sat on the toilet lid.

It took me a minute to get her to speak in sentences instead of sobs. Porter broke up with her. “He just said he didn’t love me anymore.” She gasped. “No other girl, nothing to fix, just that I’m unlovable.”

I hesitated. I knew I should go rushing to her. She wouldn’t have called me if that wasn’t what she wanted. But I was somehow annoyed. I didn’t believe she would come to me if the tables were turned. “I’m so sorry,” I said.

“I just feel like such an idiot. And all I can think about is the fact that since we live together now I have to find a new place. And find a new boyfriend.”

“Well, one of those can probably wait…”

“Do you think this is funny? Do you think my pain is funny?”

I couldn’t even apologize before she launched into a crying rant. I looked at myself in the mirror and tried to pick a clump of mascara out of my eyelashes. Little Man settled himself into a seated position, leaning against my neck, his core processor sure to leave a mark. He looked bored, an odd combination with the anger spewing out of his mouth. Someone pounded on the door.

“Where are you?” Annie asked.

“I’m at a party,” I said. Little Man’s map interface flickered across his display and I realized he was sending her my location.

“Yes, a party is just what I need.” The edge of tears crept out of her voice. “I can be there in twenty minutes.”

She hung up before I could object. I didn’t want her there, at Damien’s crowded apartment, judging all of us and feeling superior.

Then I felt his little hands on the soft skin just next to my ear. I froze and looked up. Using both hands and all his arm strength, he pulled a tendril of hair back and over my ear.  My skin prickled. I almost started to cry.

“Stop that,” I said. Instead of it coming out nasty and harsh, like I wanted, it sounded pleading. And what kind of person pleads with her Littleman?

“The most difficult of journeys begins with a single step,” Little Man said. “Brought to you by Sanford and Sons construction.”  But I figured he was right, so I opened the door and went back out.

I knew Annie would do something awful if she made it to the party, but as I was attempting to say goodbye and intercept her, I fell into Damien’s smile and believed him when he said that any friend of mine was welcome. 

“You must really want to sleep with me,” I half-joked.

“Is it bad if I say yes?” he joked back, leaning towards me.

Which is of course when Annie stomped over, dressed like she was going to a club in Vegas and said, “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me.”

The first thing that popped out of my mouth to Annie was “Aren’t you cold?”

Lars responded, “Body temperature 98.6 degrees.”

Damien turned to face her, “What did she do to you?”

Annie ignored him. “I’m hurting here, and you’re just using this as an excuse to hook up with some…” She gestured at Damien’s torso. At his head. At his beard scruff. “Some man.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said to Damien.

He shook his head, above it all. “I’m sorry to hear about your break-up.” He tried.

Annie brushed him away with a wave of her hand—exactly the way you brush away a bartender, not someone you see as an actual person. She fixated on me, “We should be someplace so much better than this.”

“Like where?” I asked.

This created a chorus of Lars and Damien’s Littleman giving us suggestions for places that were better than this and their special promotions.  On my shoulder, Little Man was gravely silent.

 “It’s funny, we were just debating whether or not Littlemen are going to take over the world,” I said. “Maybe they’d be a little less emotional in this particular situation. Don’t you think?”

Annie crossed her arms and narrowed her eyes. “Well, if we’re staying, someone should bring me a drink. And you shouldn’t have told me to dress up.”

“I didn’t.”

“Uh, yeah you did. You sent a location and you sent a dress code. It said formal.”

I turned to look at Little Man. He shrugged and stuck his hands in his pockets.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“You were annoyed,” Little Man said. “Annie’s a one-way friendship. You give and you give and you get nothing in return.”

This stopped us all. Damien started laughing.  I looked down at my feet, had I told Little Man that, ever? How could he possibly know any of that? And was he attempting to take revenge on Annie for it? That was when I felt the weight of Little Man being lifted from my shoulder. It was Annie. She’d picked him up by the scruff of his neck, like he was a hamster or a puppy—and peered at him. Then she let him drop to the ground.

“You stupid. Little. Men.” She tried to stomp him with her heels but he dodged her and took cover. “You think you know everything. You are just. A bunch. Of wires.”

My heart rate shot up, watching him running for his life like that. Lars had disappeared into the waves of Annie’s hair, probably hoping to escape her wrath.  “Hey,” I said. “Calm down.” I stepped towards her to grab her arm, but she was mid stomp and trying to shake me away from her. She lost her balance and tumbled to her ass. High heels are always a mistake in San Francisco.

The entire party fell silent.

“You calm down, you Littleman lover,” she yelled from the floor. Her heel shot out and slammed into my calf. “Try being a friend for a change.”

It was a solid hit. I grabbed my knee to my chest and started hopping, and that was when I heard the crunch. 

I froze. It seemed like everyone had frozen. I looked down and there was Little Man, limp and helpless, his body torqued into the sad man position. I scooped him up and dashed into the bathroom.

I could hear the yelling through the bathroom door. Annie was being maneuvered out of the party; Damien was trying to check on me. But I focused on poor Little Man, limp and cradled in my hand. I held my breath and counted to ten. Tapped my toe against the tile ten times.

“Little Man.” I tried. “Command: Wake up.”

He turned his head towards me and his eyes focused. “Ready to begin.”

The rush of happiness was almost too much. “Are you okay?” I asked, “Did I hurt you?”

He stood up and stretched. “Did you stomp me?” he asked, like someone trying to separate dream from reality.

“It was an accident.”

“Are you okay?” he asked.

I showed him my leg, already yellowing. “Just bruised.”

He wrapped his arms around my calf, like a little kid trying to get his arms around a redwood.  I gulped back a lump in my throat and without really knowing what else to do, kissed the top of his forehead.

“Let’s go home, Little Man.”