The air is heady inside Hilario Pappalardo's one-bedroom bungalow. The fifty-three year old inventor lives alone. He sleeps on a stained cot bunched up in a corner. A cloud of flies dive-bombs onto the remains of take-away meals sitting in a messy heap. Greasy residue oozing out of one of the take-away boxes dribbles onto the floor. Some of the boxes still have receipts attached to them. One dates back to three weeks ago.
It is here, in what Pappalardo has dubbed his "workshop," that he pursues his life's work: to get rich by inventing the latest educational toy to appeal to this generation's "woke" parents.
"Americans love toys," he says, sharing his extensive market research. "It used to be that only adults bought toys for their children, but nowadays most adult Americans act like children themselves. The only difference here is that children never had disposable income, but adults have always had plenty."
We hold our noses as Pappalardo walks us to the depth of his filthy hovel to show off his latest work in progress. Lying on the table is an anthropomorphic robot toy. Standing erect, it rises to the height of twelve inches.
"This one's my best yet," he exclaims. "Educational toys are all the rage these days, and this one will knock people's socks off."
Pappalardo, a political science graduate with a certificate in electrical engineering, left behind a career in door-to-door polling to follow his passion. With his white hair and fingertips charred black from countless electrical burns, he cuts an image of a modern day Geppetto of the ghetto.
He slaps six D-batteries into the back of the robot. Touching two wires together, he short-circuits the robot to life. It falls over and convulses on the desktop, screeching something that might have sounded like "K-I-L-L-L M-E-E-E" if I hadn't convinced myself the toy was not demon-possessed. The device quits screaming only when Pappalardo smacks it in the eyes with a ballpeen hammer, and then threatens to give it another if it acts up again.
"Look at what it can do!"
Before anyone can say: "Please, stop, no more—you'll kill him," Pappalardo thumbs a switch on the robot's back. In a way that is disturbingly too human, it looks up at him with pleading eyes as if to ask, "Do I have to?"
Pappalardo's glare is all it takes to goad the toy into action.
The robot collapses onto itself, limbs folding, joints bending, all the while letting up a horrific scream of agony. By the time the transformation is finished, the robot has changed into a sporty pink convertible. As if on cue, it honks its horn and flashes its headlights, saying, "I am in constant agony."
"I call it an Ab0r!tron," says Pappalardo, the stylized zero and exclamation point in its name plainly audible. "It's a transforming robot that fights for [women's reproductive freedom]. It turns into the pink convertible any girl can aspire to own once she's smashed glass ceilings, climbed corporate ladders, and lived a fruitless, solitary existence devoid of children or a husband. The car also doubles as a quick way to shuttle pregnant people to [discreet women's reproductive healthcare centers] or to the bargain-priced wine section of the nearest discount store."
He then shows us an accessory—a camper trailer emblazoned with so many rainbows, pink hearts, and yellow thunderbolts that to call it "fabulous" would fall short of the mark. On its back is a hitch that connects it to the convertible. Opening up the trailer reveals a luxurious sitting room: a comfy upholstered chair, an imitation fireplace (with LED simulated fire!), and a hotplate with a teakettle for those cozy moments when it's just you and your eleven cats at home.
Of its own accord, the toy shifts back into robot mode discreetly, hoping not to draw Pappalardo's ire.
"I've got a whole narrative written out," the inventor goes on. "These valiant Ab0r!trons fight the Deceptimechs, who are shapeshifting robots like them, but evil. The Deceptimechs want to take away women's rights to [end pregnancies suddenly and definitively before giving birth]."
Pappalardo expresses those last few lines with such vitriol that spittle bubbles on his lips like seafoam.
In the stunned silence that follows, a faint electronic voice speaks up.
"Why do you hate me, father?"
A question for the ages if ever there was one.