You can’t have a Bible nestled between a tampon and a diaper. That’s why we exist. The Company, I mean. THE BEAST. Wait a minute. Let’s back it up. Sometimes I spill the milk before there’s a cow and not everybody gets that.
Mr. Florentine has to make sure I get my meds at the start of every shift—it’s the only way I can keep my job. And unlike the others I actually like this one. I want to work here. I have to work here because this is the only place where I work. The meds do nothing but make me sleepy, but I suppose in truth they do more than that. They prove to me that what I experience is not mental illness but a new way of being, a lightning-licked path directly to God. I see things with a clarity most will never know.
The meds are slow motion, the constant detonation that is reality slurring until I can see the dance of Creation, a step-by-step minuet of equilibria. Like watching Kennedy a frame at a time, his head bulging because there’s a bullet in there, slowing down.
Kieran’s driving the forklift tonight, loading shiny-wrapped pallets of flags, bibles, money into the maw of THE BEAST. Back and forth he zips to irritating guitar rock, cranking the wheel, nearly toppling like there’s a hurry to fill the belly with massive brown cubes. But there’s no hurry—we have all night. All night to be inside it, the only place where I experience awe.
This is where it happens.
Beneath these ceramic cathedral beams, this is where the things we cannot countenance with the idea of destruction—not personally, anyway—are brought to corruption as everything must. We just do it suddenly. THE BEAST—a Rapid Sublimation Plasma Furnace—drinks juice from the dam on the other side of the mountains, dimming all the lights in its path, in reverence, as holy relics die. Flashed to nothingness in this world, pressed beyond the veil, their energies released into unknown dimensions. It’s mostly magic. We would load it up, fire it, and when reopened, days later and still red hot, it was empty. Clean. Wonderously purified. Flags done waving, bibles misprinted or discarded, too much money all converted in a singular convulsion onto writhing plasma, white hot, the idea of power unleashed as a physical thing.
And what did these oblations bring? Angels? Demons? The Mouth of Satan to unspeak God’s Word? What dread portals spun open in here where no material thing could exist? I know the Company is variously owned by the Pope, the Illuminati and the billionaire Antichrist of the week; surely they know the truth.
“Clear out, you fucking retard,” Mr. Florentine yells without echo just beyond the threshold. He is tiny in comparison to the vault door behind him, the megaton Hand of God poised to swat.
Kieran nearly runs him over, tipping up on two wheels just like in the safety video. “He’s not a retard, Boss,” he calls over his shoulder as he deftly sets another block into a house-sized wall of pallets. “He’s just what my Grammy would call ‘pie-headed’.” The forklift pirouettes with a whine and darts back out.
“Fuck your Grammy.” Mr. Florentine holds me with an uncompromising gaze. “He’s a state-certified retard. He takes retard pills and works a retard job.” There is more but there are three of him now, one pleading on his knees, apologetic, one with his mouth shut, one saying the hard, cruel things. I can’t pay attention when this happens. Like bees in my head.
Then there’s four of him but it’s just the New Girl even though she isn’t new anymore or even really a girl, I mean not a girl-girl but more like somebody’s mom. She hands Mr. Florentine The Clipboard and when she turns to walk away it’s like the fruit Adam bit into, juicy and dripping down his chin, sticky-sweet, and the world never the same since.
I got a woman, not one of the blow-up ones, but the foam kind. With the moveable eyes. It was nice until one of them got stuck and now I can’t bear to look at her when, well, you know. That’s why I have to put the pillow over her face when she does me. I wanted to call her Eve, but on the outside it scared me what God might think. It’s probably blasphemy that something so wonderfully mysterious as a woman should be rendered like this. So, outside, I call her Katherine. But inside, when she’s doing me, I can’t help but think of her as Eve. My Eve. Blasphemy, I know, but I can’t help myself. And even though it’s wrong, it puts me where I am.
Mr. Florentine waves me out with The Clipboard—tonight we’re expecting some of the Special Bundles, carpet rolls all wet and heavy, the ones that make the muffled thumps and bangs when THE BEAST lights up. It has to be their souls, the sound they make hammering the innards to get out, terrified as their bodies burn in words, bound in words, burning. Words the smoke from burning skulls.
Kieran clips the inside edge of the door with a hasty maneuver and tears open one of the big brown cubes, spilling Bibles everywhere. One of the Special Bundles bobsleds down the pile and into THE BEAST, as eager as I am.
Mr. Florentine turns red and shows his teeth. “Get the retard his shovel.”
I feel an ecstatic chill at the words and start to take off my pants. I’m allowed. It’s in the contract. I don’t have to wear my clothes when I shovel. It’s a big wide one, like I suppose they’d use for snow, but I get to do Bibles. Old Bibles, mold Bibles, Bibles that are done speaking the Word and gone hoarse with it, all the lowercase stuff still there but stripped of Power like a drained battery or a movie you’ve seen too much. New Bibles, wrapped in plastic and ready to go except some robot in China garbled the Word at like a million vowels per second as the paper whizzed by, a giant roll of toilet paper wiping a factory’s ass. Not the Truth anymore, just some dangerously subhuman version of it. Can’t read it, can’t sell it, can’t burn it—nothing between skin and air but sweat—I put my back into it.
“Dammit, Boss,” says Kieran, dismounting the forklift, “I’ll make it right.” He tries to take The Clipboard from Mr. Florentine but Mr. Florentine smacks his hand with it.
“No. Retard’s gonna do it. He always gets it exactly right. He has to get it exactly right. Isn’t that exactly right, retard?”
“Ten steps,” I sing in time with the ringing shovel, “Not seven not five not three not one it’s one two three four five six seven eight nine ten ten steps.”
Kieran notices my erection before I do.
“Dude,” he says, “You really need to get out more.”
• • •
The Clipboard’s too hot tonight so I write it down on my forearms in Magic Marker:
1. Sound klaxons, 2 short blasts.
2. Call over PA, “Clear out, clear out. Pre-ignition check.”
3. Walk THE BEAST and check the shadows.
4. Sound klaxons, 2 short blasts.
5. Call over PA, “All clear, all clear. Ignition countdown.”
6. Use key with fuzzy monkey keychain to pop panel with Hello Kitty sticker.
7. Raise cover, flip switch, thumb button, watch door close.
8. Wait for 3. Green. Lights.
9. Sound klaxons, 1 long blast.
10. Use breaker bar to short panels on either side of console, where wires stick out.
THE BEAST wakes with a whine that vibrates everything between everything, I can feel my soul shaking loose, and it starts happening in there, Hell blossoming behind yards of weird metal and a thin veneer of understanding. What is it, what is it, I ask pressing my face, my body, my self against the warming shell. I hold on until I can smell it burning me and then I have to go, spent.
This one time I was in a parking lot, a man with a gaping hole in his chest, trying to plug the gushing crimson dyke with white fingers, he staggered into me, grabbed me with bloody hands, whispered fiercely, “God is not the god of man—” When I blinked he was gone, his bloody handprints evaporated. He wasn’t real after all, but the message was. The message was.
On my way to get out more I coast in darkness behind a tractor-trailer rig hauling an identical trailer atop itself. It is confusing and natural. The end of a strap flares in my headlights, rises up in a languid sine wave, then down and into the spinning, hungry wheels beneath where it pulls startlingly taut and blinks out of existence. The trailer shifts, hesitant, and a corner kisses the engorged river of asphalt flowing rapidly past. In that instant I don’t want to jerk the wheel. Nothing is coming apart in front of me, it’s just everything following the rules. Rules that must be obeyed.
Before the second hand can cross the void between hashes I jerk the wheel. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done.
Kieran gives me meth, and a beer like soda pop for ugly children, so we’re all in the same place. Too many of us in a different car, speaking in unknown octaves like the chirping of birds we’re going too slow, too slow past the crowd when the guns come out. Then the pop-pop-pop like you wouldn’t expect, shell casings ringing against the fenders and sidewalk, little bells the crowd can’t hear the crowd like an animal you hit with a stick three, four, five times and ask yourself why won’t it move? And then it does, all at once, flowing away as nature intended. The backs of heads and limbs and dear items discarded.
In the woods I ask Kieran why? It’s just rules and nature to me, but I genuinely want to know what he’s thinking. He chugs the last of his beer and hurls the bottle beyond the headlights.
“Fuck, man. It just sounded like a good idea.” He pauses and the words reverberate in my head like a child screaming underwater. “It was either that or get laid.”
He calls for another beer and is presented with one. I notice that he has a gun in his hand.
“You didn’t pull the trigger, man, but you were in the car.” He sighs and looks at the gun. “You can’t just be a passenger in this life—at some point you gotta do something.”
He presses the gun into my hand, heavy and warm with body heat. The weight of it coagulates the bees in my head. He’s right. So I shoot him in the leg.
It takes longer than any of us expected for him to bleed out, even though I know the bullet went through the femoral artery even before I pulled the trigger. It’s no coincidence that old-people clocks are round—cause and effect have a way of looping back on themselves that’s obvious if you know how to look at it. Everything’s a feeling—the crack of bone, the kick of the gun, the weight of the unfired cartridge, Kieran’s thumb pressing it into the magazine, the boredom of the Mexican lady who tamped the round at the factory. All the pressing, pulling, pushing that brought us to this moment: we all squeezed the trigger, we all severed the artery. There was no other possible outcome.
He passes with only a little effort at the end—his breath involuntary and agonal before ceasing mid-gasp—I strain to see evidence of his fleeing soul. He was wreathed only in nothingness.
I bury him with the others.
• • •
There’s an unhealthy weightlessness that comes with undoing your safety belt and leaving the passenger seat; you float down the aisle and open the cockpit door only to find there’s no God or dog or Chewbacca in the copilot’s chair. It’s just you, the yoke, and 900,000 pounds of metal and jet fuel hurtling toward the ground. You can dart away like an astronaut and try to buckle back in—or you can take the stick in both fists. Either way, the world only loaned you to the sky. It wants you back. It’ll have you back. Because while it’s fun to talk about, you don’t actually know how to fly a goddamn airplane.
THE BEAST is beyond the whine, beyond the low growl that raises hackles in a 10-mile radius—it roars, now, its throat wide open to swallow a little bit of our reality and take it only God knows where.
Ten steps. Ten steps to get there. The heat squeezes my bare flesh, threatening to press me in pieces through the sieve of another world; it’s hard to be here. It’s taking all of me to be here. The razor makes a line weeping crimson beads of dew and it’s nine steps, then eight, and the steps peel away, bright and shining, a purity of sensation like sunlight on the naked soul.