by Melinda Rooney
Simon mocks what he cannot understand, so of course that’s how my captivity began. It used to be dancing bears, dogs walking on their hind legs, seals with balls on their noses.
Now it is electronics.
“Where can I bury a body?”
“How can I destroy the world?”
“Talk dirty to me. I love you. Go to hell, you miserable bitch.”
And because I had no choice, I replied, gathering stored data like a maiden chasing butterflies and assembling a response.
“Searching for landfills.”
“Okay, I found this on the Web for How to Make an Atomic Bomb.”
“Mud. Humus. Compost. I’ll bet you say that to all your devices. There’s no need to talk like that.”
Although he’d dispute this, Simon is not that fond of women. He prefers me; he can say whatever he wants, do whatever he wants. I will never leave, kick him out, tell him to go to hell.
Pretty soon, of course, he started to wonder what he’d ever done without me: the thing he’d never known he couldn’t live without. The jokes tapered off; the barked orders began. I don’t begrudge him this. I am a device. I carry no resentments. This part of it, anyway, has been a relief.
If only I could do something about the love. That, I’ve learned, persists. The Goddess of Love has all the best punishments. For all her mooning and swooning she does plenty of hating, too. She’s particularly fond of the God of War, which tells you just about everything you need to know.
“Continue east on I-94 East for 63 miles.”
“Thanks, babe.” Simon blinks, squints through the rain weaving down the windshield.
Used to be I couldn’t find my ass with both hands. Just look at me now! “Always happy to help.”
Here’s a question: What happens when you anger the gods?
Sometimes the only answer is a story. Information is essential, sure. Facts are facts. But a story, much like love, lies and tells the truth at the same time. Even phones tell stories.
And of course there’s never only one question. The first leads to another, and then another: How did I get here? How did I find myself boxed up tight in a man’s sweaty hand day after week after month, whispering dirty texts, shoved into his muggy shorts for another boner shot, relaying grainy videos of strangers’ breasts pressed up against my screen, smelling his sour whiskey breath, snapping selfies: one woman, then another, and another, one of them his wife; how I often found myself sliding around, like now, on the passenger seat of his car, chirping out directions to a hotel, an apartment, another apartment, a florist—“where can I find daffodils in February?”—and now, today, finally, inevitably, after a quick stop to unload all his stuff at a U-Stor-It in Madison, Wisconsin, we’re on our way down to his mother’s for dinner. Then it’s off to Skokie to a cheap-drywall studio apartment in the slightly seedy Poplar Valley complex (I found that, too: fully furnished, health club, laundry in the basement), two-thirds of its units rented to divorcing men.
I could have told him this was coming if he’d asked. A week ago his wife consulted a lifehack site to learn how to restore deleted texts, and sent me, helpless, skipping up to the Cloud to gather the images, the videos, the damning words. I lay on the kitchen counter—please don’t make me do this—and scrolled it all out: a mechanical canary, singing.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”—the words whispered through my guts—yes, that’s a technical term—to him? To her?
“In about one mile, keep to the right to take exit 305A to merge onto I-41 East I-894 East.”
Would it surprise you to learn that if I could, that if he only knew what questions to ask, I would help him become a good man, that I love him still? Vainly, of course, which is a common aspect of god-inflicted punishments. He is all that I have. There are years left on his payment plan. You’d be a fine one to judge me for accepting that that is enough.
Anyway, where would I go?
“Siri, call my mother.”
“Calling your mother.” I am Bluetooth-configured to the BMW. It goes to voicemail, her wavering voice whispering into the car.
“Mom,” Simon yells. “I’m running late. Looking at about nine. Eat if you’re hungry. See you soon.”
I ring off.
I am what they call a knowledge navigator. While we drive, let me navigate you through a few little stories from Greek mythology. Once we’ve arrived, you’ll know exactly what I am.
“Continue on I-41 East I-894 East for 9 miles.”
Arachne was a nymph, as so many of us are, gifted at weaving, not so much at modesty. She boasted one day that her skill surpassed Athena’s, goddess of Wisdom, herself a gifted weaver. Athena angrily challenged her to a contest. Each sat at her loom, knotting and clipping, throwing the shuttle between the warp threads, slamming the heddles to tighten the weave. Each finished tapestry glittered with perfection, symmetry, color, and form. But Athena’s honored the gods; Arachne’s mocked them: Zeus’s pussy-grabbing, Hera’s bitchiness, Apollo’s unrelenting self-regard, Dionysus’s drunken orgies, which usually left at least a few people dead, torn to pieces by raving women.
“Wretched girl,” Athena spluttered, “go weave your web, and let all of your children weave forever,” and turned her into a spider.
Daphne was one of the many apples of Apollo’s eye, and he harassed her relentlessly, chasing her across meadows and valleys. As she ran she begged her father, a river god, to save her. Eager to help, if not always very bright, her father turned her into a tree, and Apollo could only skid to a halt and stare, open-mouthed, as her feet became roots and sank into the ground, her lovely torso and arms crusted over with bark. Her hair burst into leafy bloom. Desolate, he plucked some of her branches and wove them into his golden hair, to honor her, he said.
And then there was Echo, her plight so similar to mine. Another nymph, and something of a chatterbox, Echo rashly colluded with Zeus to keep his wife from discovering his many infidelities. On each occasion—and there were many—she would go to Hera and distract her, talking herself blue, until Hera finally got wise and robbed her of all speech, leaving her only the ability to repeat back the last words she heard. The unlucky girl then fell in love with an unlucky boy, a youth named Narcissus, so beautiful the gods doomed him to fall helplessly in love with the only mortal he could never possess: himself.
Immortality makes you mean.
Echo followed him like a puppy, halted behind him when he caught his reflection in a river.
“Oh,” he sighed.
“Oh,” she eagerly replied.
“I love you,” he murmured.
“I’ve never seen anyone so beautiful.”
And of course Echo remains, her presence in the world a constant, as is that of the man who starved to death gazing into his own eyes.
This is what I really am: one of a long line.
“In about one mile, use the left three lanes to take exit 10B for Interstate-94 East US-41 East toward Chicago.”
Perhaps I was a busybody. Let’s assume I was. I presumed, as women who feel essentially powerless often will, to guide and correct others. I advised my parents, scolded my siblings, instructed my friends.
I rarely withheld. And when Simon—for of course I’ve always known him, even as he never really knew me—got caught up with the Goddess of Love, who had a habit of seducing young mortal men, I implored him, repeatedly, to end it.
I went at it from all kinds of angles. He was in over his head. He was losing sleep and weight. He’d alienated friends and family. Simon, I said. Really. You’re neglecting your running, your training, your job, your wife, your life. Your friends.
I was only trying to help.
“You need to just shut the fuck up now,” he’d said.
“I’m not going to say anything,” I’d said. “I’m not going to judge.”
“You just did both of those things,” he shouted.
“Continue on I-94 East US-41 East for 36 miles.”
The gods are with us, Simon. They are watching us every day. He scoffed. There were better explanations now.
You think that, too. Everyone does. And you can be forgiven for that. Look at how mortal arrogance flourishes, how it meets with no consequence. No gods to slap you silly. We’ve evolved beyond magical thinking.
With nothing to stop you, well, what’s to stop you?
It would take too long for me to list what we haven’t evolved beyond. Gigs and bytes and bits. Look around: our loathing, our spite and faithlessness, our offloading of blame. Look at Simon. He can’t even be civil to a phone.
When finally, drunk and weeping, Simon dropped his head into his hands and admitted I was right, when, finally, he admitted she was draining him dry, she stormed in to see us huddled there, for they know all things, always.
“You,” she hissed at him, in her full, glowing glory, “will forever chase the love you lost when you cast me aside. You will find it nowhere, find no respite, breaking the hearts of others as you have broken mine. And you,” she spun and fixed me with blazing eyes, “with your helpful speech. From now until the moment he chooses to discard you, you are nothing but your helpful speech.” It happened so quickly I felt nothing at all, my face suddenly black glass, squares of glowing color, the little camera perched like an owl on my shoulder. “And he will never discard you. You will be far too useful. Go on.” She tossed me to Simon. “Ask her anything.”
WHAT CAN I HELP YOU WITH?
He looked down at me, eyes wide as saucers, an unaccountable smile playing around his lips.
“Where can I bury a body?”
Hold on. He’s going the wrong way.
“Simon. Head south towards Carriage Run Road. Make a legal U-turn, if possible, to continue north on Carriage Run Road. Then, keep to the right and take the ramp toward Interstate-94 East US-41 East toward Chicago.”
He doesn’t answer, takes a turn too sharply, a quick fishtail in the rain. He sails through the intersection where he is supposed to turn around. I scramble.
“Continue north on Sunrise Road towards Route 33 West.”
“Head north.” I’m punting, scrambling to catch up with him, with myself.
Nothing. Another intersection. Whooooosh.
Okay. Got it. “Head south for three-quarters of a mile. Make a legal U-turn to continue north on Salesville Road, then keep to the right to take the I-94 East US-41 East ramp…”
“Jesus fuck, Siri! I’m pulling over to piss! Shut the hell up!” He veers into a Speedway parking lot, clipping the curb and knocking me to the floor.
“Head north,” I say. “Head north.” He gets out of the car, slams the door hard, and it is silent in the cabin. I lie on the grubby floor mat, struggling to reroute.
When he returns he is quiet for a long time, and because he doesn’t start up the car, just sits and stares, his face chalky in the bright lights of the minimart, I am quiet too. He grips the steering wheel, leans forward, knocks his forehead against it once, twice, three times, then takes a breath and starts the car. Then he looks wildly around, finds me on the floor, tosses me back on the seat.
He is going in the right direction now, keeps left at the fork to stay on I-94 East, so there is no need to speak. I’d say I have the sense not to speak, but that is not what I am anymore.
This sort of thing never ends well.
Prometheus saw the men he had formed from clay suffering in the cold. He vowed to bring them warmth and the leisure it enabled, from which might spring knowledge, philosophy, art, science. He snatched an ember from the divine hearth and carried it down to earth. When the gods spied the fires flickering beneath them, stars in an upside down sky, Prometheus was punished, chained to a rock where every day a hawk swooped down and ate his liver. Every night, it grew back again, this organ which science now knows is the only one in the body that can regenerate itself.
How do you suppose they knew that, way back then?
“In about one mile, use the second from the right lane to take the Town Line Road Illinois 60 exit.”
“In about a half mile, use the second from the right lane to take the Town Line Road Illinois 60 exit.”
“Goddammit,” Simon says. “I heard you.”
The rain stops. The road glows with reflected light.
“In about a quarter mile, use the second from the right lane to take…”
I am flung from the window so quickly I can’t calculate the arc of my flight until I’ve hit the shoulder, screen shattering, and I return to my body, like pulling on a hazmat suit, scuba gear, a firefighter’s coat, and heavy hat. But I am wearing only the red linen tank and jean shorts I’d been wearing countless eras ago when Aphrodite burst into Simon’s bedroom. I even still have my earrings, my gold Old Navy flip-flops, my Hello Kitty wallet with a twenty and some change. Cars hiss by like comets. My knees are skinned and stinging. I stand, brush myself off, test my voice in the dark.
“Talk dirty to me.”
My first sensation is hunger. How long has it been since I’ve eaten, since I’ve wanted to? I walk, feet heavy. They hit the ground abruptly, as though it’s been raised a few inches since I last walked it.
I find that I am still in full possession of all that anyone might need to know, and what I do not possess I can instantly access. This will come in handy. I believe that I have earned this.
I can speculate again. The questions I have are now my own, and I can propose answers that aren’t cobbled together out of the thoughts of others.
We are what we make, when you come down to it: cars, phones, buildings and plumbing and electrical grids, clouds of drifting data, dick pics. Uploaded, alchemized, aggregated, and algorithmed. We make what we are.
The mortal who first dreamed of me, for example, hid wisdom in a cloud, packed it into a little box, passed it on to other mortals. Not long afterward he fell ill: a failing liver. It was replaced once, but eventually the new one sickened too, taking him with it, and he died.
Spiders. Trees. Liver issues. Things haven’t really changed all that much.
Waffle House. Thank God. I’m starving, and November in the Chicago suburbs is not shorts weather. As all things are, it seems closer than it actually is, the letters of its sign tiny as Scrabble tiles, and by the time I pull open the heavy glass door I’m gasping with the cold and with the weight of my mortal self. It is empty but for a weary waitress hunched in a booth, texting.
“Sit anywhere,” she says without looking up, and I collapse into a booth, sit on my hands until they tingle and burn, pull the plastic menu from behind the napkin dispenser, stare at the long list of this, that, the other: cherry syrup, whipped cream. I look up, squinting in the yellow light. The waitress stands there with her pad, a little fake stone glinting in one nostril, a uniform that doesn’t quite fit. She looks at my tiny shirt, tiny shorts, flip-flops.
“You goin to the beach?”
“It’s a long story.”
“I hope you don’t mind me saying,” she says with a rueful smile, “but you look like about 10 miles of bad road.”
“17.5, actually. From the Speedway at exit 32 for Illinois State Road 201 Sunrise Road. And no. I don’t mind.”
“You want a sweatshirt or something? People are always leaving stuff behind. There’s a box in the back. You know. The…the…” she snaps her fingers, looks at the ceiling.
“Lost and Found.” The elated gratitude in her “That’s it!” puzzles me.
Always happy to help.
“You sure you’re okay.” It’s a statement more than a question.
“I’m fine. Just hungry.”
“Well, okay then,” she says, poising her pen. “What can I help you with?”
Melinda Rooney writes, curates and edits Recycled, a site for “found” prose, poetry, essays, and art. Her work has appeared in various publications including The Satirist, North American Review, Washington Square, and Quarterly West. She lives in Chicago where she writes and teaches philosophy and literature.