It was the early ’60s. 2162, as I recall. The Petersons had just purchased a sleek little number, a black aciform skyrocket, and Hernan Peterson parked it proudly on the concrete launchpad he’d spent all summer building in his backyard. My father, Salazar Obama, watched him land it in a swirl of purple smoke that smelled like burning leaves and cherry cough drops. I knew he was going to say something to Mr. Peterson, and even then, only eight-years-old, I knew he’d save my mother a lot of grief if he didn’t. She watched us from the kitchen with the robot hobo we’d taken in the month before. He could do a lot of math and dishes but he refused to go outside, so that left most of the yard work for us. I watched my father steady his axe on the magnetic chopping board as Mr. Peterson popped open his door and jumped to the ground.
He saw my father and waved. “Morning, Salazar!”
My father raised his hand in acknowledgement. “Hernan.”
Mr. Peterson was beaming. He splayed his fingers over the skyrocket’s main fin. “Ain’t she a beaut?”
“Puts off a lot of exhaust,” said my father.
Mr. Peterson nodded contritely. “Don’t I know it. I need to bring it in for the tags and filters next week, but I couldn’t wait to show the fam.”
“Plan on taking it out again, then?”
Mr. Peterson’s smile faltered just a little. “Well, sure, Sal.”
“You know it took me a long time to get these tomatoes growing right. You get a strong nor’easter and you’ll be glazing my family’s vegetables with that stuff.”
After a moment’s confusion, Mr. Peterson’s face brightened again. “Oh, Sal, you don’t have to worry about that. It runs on corn – one hundred percent green. The smell comes from the gum resin the engine exudes. She’s safe, just gassy.” He patted the fin like it was a cherished old pet.
“But no tags,” my father said. “I don’t want to have to answer to the Enviro-Police when I’m trying to pull out of my driveway to go to work. If you don’t park that thing in a garage until you’ve got the proper paperwork, the whole neighborhood’s gonna suffer.”
“Well…” Mr. Peterson’s face clouded again. “It’s just a couple days, buddy, I don’t think – I mean, I didn’t think it would be a big deal…”
“Yeah, don’t worry about it,” my father said. He hefted the axe and brought it down on the dry log I’d set on the rack. Mr. Peterson watched us for a moment more before going into his house, his stride less bouncy than before.
I was still trying to figure out what it all meant when I heard the window open. My mother was banging our robot on the back but it didn’t stop him from leaning his aluminum head out the window and shouting, “Hey, Sal. When are we going to pick up your tags? I’m sure that license to be the neighborhood schmuck’s gotta expire sometime.”
That was the last time my family owned a talking robot.