By Sheldon Birnie
“Well, I never,” Doreen Millsap said to her husband Willard, tossing the Saturday paper down in a huff.
“What’s that?” Willard said through a mouthful of scrambled eggs, rye toast crumbs peppering his thick grey moustache.
“Says they got a robot down Morris way knows how to curl.”
“They built a robot,” Doreen repeated deliberately, for Willard’s benefit. “What knows how to curl. Throws a perfect rock every time, or so they say.”
“Well,” Willard said, reaching across the kitchen table for the Saturday paper. “I never.”
Of course, the curling robot was a hot topic of conversation at the Lake Manawaka Curling Club later that evening. Mort Buchanan didn’t think much of it, either, but Mort’s wife Sharon said she thought there might be something to it.
“If it can throw a perfect rock despite Mort’s sweeping, the robot’s alright by me,” Sharon said to a round of belly laughs in the lounge. The two couples were sitting around a table following another easy win for the Millsap/Buchanan mixed doubles rink. Their opponents, the outmatched Burton/Marvin rink had drawn up an adjacent table to join them and, as losers, had paid for the first round.
“Well,” Doreen said, with a shake of her short cropped grey head, “I never.” She took the development of a curling machine as a personal affront.
Whenever you turned on the evening news, or flipped open the Saturday paper, there was some new device meant to make life easier. From self-driving cars to vacuums that do all the work themselves, everything you ever wanted seemed to Doreen to be available at the press of a button on your dang phone.
“What’s next,” Doreen wondered aloud at breakfast later that week. “A robot priest?”
“Already got ‘em,” Willard told, washing down a mouthful of hard-boiled egg with a gulp of coffee. “Germans. Or was it the Japanese? Can’t rightly recall. Now that I think on it, coulda been the Koreans?”
Doreen could only harumph.
The Millsap/Buchanan rink curled well that winter, placing first in their Saturday night mixed league at the end of the regular season and edging out a victory at the club bonspiel in March. But when it came time to hang up their brooms for the summer, Doreen’s robo-bugaboo wouldn’t let her alone to enjoy her gardening in peace.
“Looky here, Doreen,” Willard said one morning as she came back in from checking her gladiolas in their backyard greenhouse. “Guess they’re taking that curling robot on the road this winter?”
“What are you talking about?” Doreen scowled, setting down her trowel.
“That curling robot,” Willard said brightly, setting the paper down. “The one what throws them perfect rocks? They’re taking it out on the road this winter. To curling rinks. The scientists, that is. Says here you can challenge the machine? For charity, like.”
“Well,” Doreen said, snatching the paper from Willard’s hands in a huff. In a sidebar alongside the story, she found a list of rinks the robot would be visiting later over the next winter. And there it was, the Lake Manawaka Curling Club, Saturday, February 21. Doreen seethed. “I never.”
Summer passed. When the ice was in come October 1, Doreen Millsap took to it with a steely focus and an intensity that was not lost on her teammates.
“Say, Doreen…” Sharon Buchanan ventured over a round following their first match of the season. “Everything okay?”
“Of course,” Doreen replied icily. “Why do you ask?”
“You just seemed a little…tense out there.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Doreen huffed. “Just trying to earn the win. Which, of course, we didn’t.”
Willard raised his eyebrows and looked down into his pint as he took a long, deep drink.
“It’s that gosh darn robot ain’t it, dear?” he demanded after they’d returned home from the curling rink.
“Dang it, Willard,” snapped Doreen, who’d been brusque at best with her teammates and downright rude to Willard all evening. “Why on earth would I let a doggone robot get in my head like that?”
But the next morning, Doreen came clean.
“You we’re right, hun,” she said with a sigh. “But I just can’t abide the thought of some egghead taking the life out of curling like this. I cannot. And I will not. We’re taking that danged machine on come February 21. We’re gonna put that robot in its gosh darn place!”
“Alright then,” Willard said. “Whatever you say, dear.”
The next week at the rink, Doreen was no less intense on the ice. But before they took on their opponents for the week, Doreen had taken the time to explain to Mort and Sharon that she was gunning for the chance to out-curl the curling robot. The Buchanans, bless their hearts, were on board.
“Why didn’t ya say so earlier, Doreen?” Sharon kidded her over drinks after they walloped the Burton/Marvin rink yet again. Having the bugaboo out in the open allowed Doreen to relax, throwing her best, most focused game in some time. “We’re always up for a challenge, eh Mort?”
“You bet,” Mort added. “Be pretty neat to say we got the best of a robot, wouldn’t it?”
“Darn tootin’ it would,” Willard laughed as Doreen blushed into her beer. “And goldarn it, we will!”
That evening, the Millsap/Buchanan rink shut down the lounge at the Lake Manawaka Curling Club. Willard borrowed a pad of legal paper from the ladies behind the bar, and the four of them sat, drafting a game plan as to just how they would take on the robot and win. They identified the weaker points of their game and came up with strategies to improve.
As November passed and December wore on, the foursome began showing up on weeknights to use the ice after the Parkland Regional Collegiate teams had finished their weekly matches. They stayed late, working on particular shots, setting up and working their way through likely, then increasingly unlikely, scenarios again and again.
“Three cheers to us, eh,” Mort toasted after besting yet another pair of couples the Saturday just before Christmas. Since their salty season opening loss, the Millsap/Buchanan rink was undefeated. Lately, the games weren’t even close. “We’re getting there.”
“Maybe we are,” Doreen admitted, guardedly. That morning’s paper had reported on the curling robot’s first pair of outings up in Dauphin and Ste. Rose du Lac, where the local clubs’ reigning junior, senior, and master rinks had taken on the robot and its egghead helpers. They’d lost, each of them in turn; the robot undefeated. “But we got a ways to go yet.”
As winter passed, Doreen honed her game with precision. Those who’d known her forty years earlier, before the kids, when she’d won a pair of buffalos as a third and come within a shot as a skip herself a few years later, swore that she was better now than she had ever been then. More consistent, at least. But at home, Willard noticed that the strain was wearing on his wife.
“Bad night again, dear?” he’d ask over breakfast.
“Did I keep you up?” she asked, slumping into a seat at the kitchen table.
“Not really,” Willard lied, handing her a cup of coffee.
“Sorry, dear,” she said, bags hanging under her tired blue eyes. Like as not, he’d been kept up as Doreen tossed and turned, muttering in her sleep throughout those long winter nights leading up to the showdown. “It’s the same dang dream every night. That friggin robot, red eyes flashing like something outta one of those space movies Bobby used to make us watch, beeping and sputtering its way down the ice. And it keeps throwing perfect rocks, one after another until the dang thing goes berserk and starts chucking ‘em all over the dang place, smashing up the ice and ruining everything. It’s horrible. I wake up with the cold sweats.”
“I know, hon,” Willard sighed. “I know.”
When they met Mort and Sharon at the rink later that afternoon to prepare for the match, the robot’s handlers— dressed in matching curling jackets with the university’s crest on one shoulder, the Morris Curling Club crest on the other— were setting up shop on the western-most rink.
“How we feeling today?” Sharon asked the Millsaps with a slightly nervous edge to her voice.
“I’m ready,” Doreen said, with a determined look in her eye that belied her lack of sleep. “Ready and raring to go.”
“That’s the spirit, love,” Willard smiled broadly. After the kids had been born, curling had become something Doreen and Willard did on the weekend, not something they lived for. But she’d never stopped loving the game. She never abandoned it. It had always been there for her, every winter, year in, year out. With the kids and their jobs and the mortgage and their own ailing parents, the game just didn’t seem as important as real life. Something, though, had changed this winter. Doreen had something to prove, to herself if no one else. Willard saw that, and he accepted it. And Doreen loved that in her husband. He was all in, as he’d always had been. “Let’s show ‘em what we got, eh?”
A half hour later, the eggheads in their university duds rolled in a heavy-duty road case on a dolly. Doreen and the gang stopped to stare. At the far end of the rink, the handlers popped the clasps holding the case together, removing padded panels delicately before pulling the machine out to the ice.
At rest, the machine looked a little like a glossy black and white vacuum cleaner. As a woman from the team sat, tapping at a laptop, the machine began to move forward, rolling on four large rubber wheels up to the point slightly ahead of the hack. The robot advanced until the rock came to rest within the metal horseshoe-shaped corral at the front of the machine, buffered by a pair of padded whirligigs that, when engaged, spun the rock a clock or counterclockwise.
Then, what Doreen could only assume was the robot’s “head” rose up from its body on a telescoping, crane-like neck to scan the ice’s surface with a row of blinking red “eyes.” When it retracted, the whirligigs set to spinning. The wheels rolled the robot towards the hog line with subtly increasing speed. Delicately, the robot released the rock, sending it spinning down the ice.
“Hoo boy,” Mort whistled as the rock came to rest delicately, perfectly on the button.
While Doreen had seen pictures and videos of the robot in action, and had dreamed some demonic version of the devilish device more times than she cared to admit, seeing her adversary in person had an unexpected calming effect on her. The machine’s first perfect, soulless throws only confirmed what she’d long suspected.
“We can beat it,” she whispered, tired eyes sparkling. “Danged if we don’t.”
Doreen led the way to where the science types were waiting. Behind the glass, the crowd in the lounge and inside the main floor lobby of the old Lake Manawaka Curling Club had grown considerably. Doreen could feel their eyes on her as she walked up to shake hands with the lead researcher.
“This should be fun,” the lead scientist, a man of about their own age, told Doreen and her team. “Good luck.”
Doreen felt the weight of the eyes of the crowd on her, but she ignored them.
“Game on,” she replied.
The robot rolled slowly onto the ice. A few moments later, it rolled forward again, propelling the yellow-topped rock out of the hack and down the long sheet of ice. The rock, spinning silently, came slowly to rest right on the button.
“Jesus Murphy,” Mort whispered as the robot backed itself up the makeshift ramp off the ice. “Right on the money.”
“Nevermind,” dismissed Doreen with a contemptuous snicker. “We’ll show them.”
And show them they did. Shot for shot, Doreen and the gang kept knocking the robot’s rocks into the backboards. But no matter how their own rocks came to rest, the robot cleared them.
“Like a dang table tennis match,” Willard muttered.
When the end was over, both teams left a rock in play. With the blank end, the robot kept the hammer and they went at it again. Doreen worked to keep the game tight, calling rocks into positions she knew would give her opponent the least advantage possible. At the end of the third, the robot’s team scored, tying the game.
After a blank fourth end, the robot’s rink came up with two points in the fifth to go up 3-2. The interns and scientists pumped their fists, exchanging high fives.
“Dang ice is getting keen,” Mort cussed unconvincingly after they were unable to convert with the hammer in the sixth end, which ended in another blank.
From there, though, things began to fall apart.
In the ninth end, Doreen and the gang inadvertently scored one to tie after being unable to clear the house with the final rock, giving the robot back the hammer for the final end.
“Dog gone it,” Doreen cursed as the two rinks huddled together before the tenth and potentially final end. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
Sharon and Mort exchanged nervous glances, while Willard puffed out his cheeks before letting out a slow breath. He hadn’t seen his wife so worked up in years.
“Let’s just take ‘er easy here and do the best we can,” he said, laying a soft hand on Doreen’s shoulder. “We done pretty darn decent, so far.”
“Alright,” Doreen said, setting her jaw with a curt nod of her head before heading to the far end of the rink. The eyes in the crowd took it all in, nervously. “You’re right. Let’s do this.”
Under Doreen’s direction, Mort threw a high guard just inside the house. The robot countered coolly with a low guard inside. Mort’s next shot was to take the robot’s rock out. But it didn’t come with enough jam to fully clear, instead settling low in the house next to the yellow. With a whirr, the robot slid one right past the high guard, banging both the low yellow and red rocks out of play. With her first rock, Sharon took the opposition out. In response, the robot threaded its next rock past the high red guard to rest right on the button.
“Give ‘em hell, hon,” Willard whispered, squeezing Doreen’s elbow as they passed on the ice, Willard to take up the skip spot and Doreen headed to the hack. “You got this.”
Doreen settled herself down to the ice, left foot nestled comfortably in the hack. She looked up at Willard standing down the ice, broom indicating the spot just above and to the right of the yellow rocks where she should aim, his right arm indicating the curl. She nodded.
Willard, God bless him, knew Doreen’s mind nearly as well as she did, after all the years they’d spent together. She wrapped the fingers of her right hand around the handle of her last rock. With her left hand, she gripped her broom. She took a deep breath, steadied herself, and curled.
“Easy now, easy,” Doreen began instructing her rock before she’d even finished sliding down the ice towards the hog line. Immediately, she knew she’d sent it down the sheet with too much force, considering how keen the ice had become. At least, she told herself, she hadn’t turned out too hard.
“Right off,” Doreen called to Mort and Sharon as they moved into the position. “No! Never, never!”
The red rock spun counterclockwise as it hurled down towards the house, edging ever so slowly across to the left. It was close. But it was not enough. Sharon and Mort abandoned their charge as the red rock barreled by its own high guard, past the yellow rock closest to the button before crashing into the hindmost yellow rock, sending it careening out of play.
“Well,” Doreen sighed. Her shoulders slumped as the red rock spun uselessly to the right sideboard, leaving the yellow rocks in the house untouched. Willard, Sharon, and Mort looked on, aghast, as the eggheads high-fived around them and the robot stood, whirring and beeping to itself, oblivious. “I never.”
“We tried, love,” he told her, later that evening for what must have been the tenth time that evening. “We done our best. You skipped a heck of a game, Dor. A heck of a game. Really.”
“I know,” Doreen replied, forcing a ghost of a smile to wash over her face. Ahead, the brake lights of a truck blinked through the February darkness like the eyes of the robot. “I know, dear.”