In the Machines, Our Bodies

The salesman slapped the top of the car. “200 miles a soul. Seats four, leather seats, cruise, XM Radio.”

“Yeah, but what about the tires?” Joe kicked one, and I rolled my eyes.

They fell to nattering, feature this, warranty that. I let my eyes roam the dealership. It was filled with gleaming chassis the colors of autumn–reds and golds and browns–the cars sleek, the salesmen sleeker. It wasn’t that I didn’t know anything about cars, it was just that I didn’t care enough to deal with the spiel. I knew what we needed. I wished it was anything but one of these. The Nox Spirit.

Climate change had been a thing, once. Then someone had found proof. Proof of the dead, that they lingered on in what seemed to us desperate ways, replaying events and days and emotion over and over and over. The church told us it was a sign of God. The atheists told us it was a sign that if God ever existed, he didn’t care, otherwise, why leave so many of the dead roaming? The politicians told us both, progressives lobbying for personhood for the dead, for citizenship; fundamentalists hammering Bibles and screaming for regulatory protections and immigration law. How could we know the ghost of a terrorist wouldn’t possess a fine American boy and make him blow up the White House? How did we know revolutionaries didn’t lurk among the restless dead? And that said everything, didn’t it? A dog-whistle even the living could hear.

Then a man, Evan Nox, did some math. It’s never the ones with the slide rules and the algorithms you expect, is it? He figured out the weight of a soul, the energy to mass ratio. He figured out a way to convert spirit to energy. And then the corporations got involved, and the politicians got quiet. Even the churches, shepherds to the dead, silenced their protest and assertions as legislation was passed–we only burn the bad ones. That was all right, wasn’t it? Just the bad ones? It always weighed on me, though. Who decided that?

Joe put his hand on my shoulder, caught my attention. “This is the one. Are you okay with this one?”

I stared at the car. Was I? No. Did I have a choice? Someone was going to buy it, right? No more gas cars, no more oil and carbon and greenhouse effect burning the world down. Someone needed to buy it, to take the kids to school, to take the groceries home, to take themselves to the bar to drink the things that weighed on them away. I nodded, noncommittal, and he disappeared into the office with the glass windows and the bland pictures of dogs hunting.

I stood on the sales floor, waiting, hand resting on the car. How many souls, I wondered? Whose mother, grandmother, brother, would burn for convenience? I thought of my own grandmother, of the verses she’d sing when I was small and nestled in her lap, and imagined her soul crisping and blowing away like leaves. Tears blurred my vision, and I turned my head, catching Joe coming from the sales office. I wiped my face, pretending I was rubbing the sleep from my eyes, then put on a smile. The things we do for the men in our lives. The things they do to the rest of us.

*

The car was quiet. I remembered the big station wagon my parents had, the way it was cold in the back on fall mornings, the way the steel creaked as it rolled down the road. The smells of gasoline and exhaust, the gentle cough-rumble of the V8 as it idled. This was better, right?

Joe turned to me, hand on my thigh. “You okay?”

I nodded, watched the country slip by. Power lines chased us down the road, and I wondered at the great furnaces that broke the souls down, burned them until they turned the turbines, spun the wheels of the world.

He pressed a button on the steering wheel and the console flickered to life. For a moment, before the XM logo appeared, I saw a face, pressed against the screen, then it was gone. Nothing more than a flicker as the opening strains to Everlong began to play.

“Better?” John asked. He never could read a room. But which men can?

*

I woke with an itch in my throat, and crawled out of bed, padding to the kitchen. The water was cool, calming. I tried not to think of whose mother had to burn to pump it to the surface. The thought scratched at the back of my brain, a rat in the walls, and I set the glass down, walked to the garage.

My breath steamed in the air, and it smelled of old sawdust. The car sat in its berth, quiet. I opened the door, the overhead light flickering on, then sat, the leather creaking beneath my thighs. I ran a finger over the stitching on the wheel, the buttons on the console. Hesitated for a moment over the stereo, then pressed it in with a wince of trepidation. It moaned, a low sound, like a body in pain, and I jabbed it off, leaping from the seat, and slamming the door. I didn’t stop moving until I was in the bedroom, Joe’s weight against my hip.

*

What do you say to the dead when they come to you? Sorry, it’s for the planet. Sorry, you were people once, and your autonomy doesn’t matter anymore. For some of them, did it ever?

They came, dressed in finery and rags, cloaked in flame, naked and wearing rage. They came pleading, hands outstretched, bodies blowing away into ash. They came cradling children, they came for succor, and we burned them.

I woke from the nightmare, sheets pooled around my legs, clutching at sweat-slick thighs, and wondered–who else dreamt these things? Did Nox see them, the man that invented the torch that burned them? Did the pastors and preachers, the demagogues? Did the men on the hill in Washington? Maybe they did, but I suspected they had grown cold enough to ignore them, or could afford the pharmaceutical aides to forget them, to dream of only a black field under a black sky.

I wandered the house and touched the things we owned, each time pressing a power button, flicking a switch. Lights flared, radios hummed, cell phones buzzed. I watched a crowd of the dead cluster and press against the flat screen of our 42-inch LCD, heard them whisper through across the FM bands. I sat amid the quiet cacophony and wondered if this was the price we’d paid for waiting so long to change our lives. Was it worth it? Burning our past to ensure our future? I still wondered what would have happened had we adopted renewable energy, if the men obsessed with burning the world hadn’t simply turned to another thing to burn. But that’s the thing, with regret, with hindsight. You learn your lessons only after the scars are healed.

I heard something cry out in the garage, heard the weeping. When I entered, the radio was on in the Spirit, a lullaby echoing from the radio.

One for sorrow,

Two for joy,

Three for a girl,

Four for a boy,

Five for silver,

Six for gold,

Seven for a secret,

Never to be told.

Eight for a wish,

Nine for a kiss,

Ten for a bird,

You must not miss.

The song faded, my grandmother’s voice slipping into static. I sat heavily in the seat and pressed the power button on the radio. I wept for a while. I wished the world was different.

*

Joe left in the morning, a fishing trip, a boys’ weekend. I thanked whatever inattentive God that would listen for good timing. I stood outside the house, a steel can in my hand. It had cost a good chunk of my savings, a good chunk that Joe was going to freak out about. But men don’t really understand. They don’t understand the weight of privilege. The responsibility of it.

I set the can down and lit the match. It flared, the autumn breeze bringing the scent of gasoline to me. I thought about the things we can do, the things we should do, and the things we owe each other, in this life and the next, and I watched the train of souls rise into the sky as I burned it down.