Stayed up until morning arguing about whether to destroy our soul machine. Francis Moss, city-born rich and slender, is adamant the visual projection is harmless and besides only an estimate. Isaac Tsakos sulks. Empty Narragansett keep his knees company. His soul projected from the machine appears as a hermit crab. It scuttles around the door molding for a while then journeys over my shoulders, and in each pinch of claw to my tongue I see another house he lived in during his childhood. "Wicker chairs," I report. "A lot of carpet and AstroTurf porches."
Francis switches off the machine. We remove the earbuds. Isaac is crying which made the crab flush a seaward shallow orange. "That can't be all," he says. I say, "Well, we can't all be Francis." Francis, whose soul last night appeared as the spinal cord of a whale. I swallowed the vertebrae down like beads of a candy necklace. It was just as sugary, bright and fizzy. With his soul in my throat I could feel the shape of everything he'd ever touched.
The soul responds much like a dog. When I spit his soul back up Francis conducts it via whistles and tongue-clicking back into the machine, where it must return before we disconnect the wires and bulbs from his ears. It's taken a year of trial and error to figure out which bodily entrance and exit the soul prefers. The ears are a small but natural tunnel and the only side-effects are ringing and dizziness. We've tried various techniques: blood-letting, sneezing, birthing. I have scars on my arms tattoos have recently covered up. Isaac complains his nose is more crooked now than when we first began, but when we were lovers I used to tell him his nostrils were fabulously Athenian and he never took offense then. It's all about the context.
An assistant of ours, Gladys Quake, drew the short straw for the birthing test, and she's threatened weekly to leave us after that failed attempt. I buy her lunch in the square. Brattle, JFK, bright cobblestone places where we watch people who do not suspect what we do. Note: All indexed in expense reports. I give her a spare key to my apartment hoping she'll seek me out more, and we can talk, and I can compare the length of our legs on the couch.
Francis, a failed cinephile, is enthralled by the pure visual notion of it. He pulls out his and Isaac's and Gladys' all at once just to watch them gambol around the room. A soul zoo, he calls it. He wants to take this to film, insists on its indie potential at Cannes or at least Coolidge Corner. Isaac meanwhile wants to achieve a traditional out-of-body experience and is depressed the soul does not carry his personal perception along with it—the soul emerges entirely separate, with its own awareness and decisions. This secretly worries me. Note: If the soul isn't me or mine then what is it? What is this stowaway in my bones, drawn out by our machine?
I'm the one to try eating them. Tonight the boys are watching stand-up at the Hong Kong so Gladys and I prepare hers over the stove in a pot of boiled salted water. We try chicken broth, vodka sauce, gravy. Her soul is most interesting to me because it arrives as a parade—tiny creatures dressed in gold waving instruments and riding animals extinct or unseen. Swirling in soups they taste like ramen but never stay down. I keep a hot mouthful as long as I can, her soul's parade jangling against my molars and causing me sweet headaches.
The soul machine began as a boy's club. Gladys was the exception, and my way in—but she wears bowties and suspenders when she wants people to listen. Francis sublet briefly with her above the river during graduate school in the small attic of a third-floor Victorian. They hung photos of Bobby Kennedy and had a mouse problem. Tsakos Exterminators was called in last summer and Francis caught Isaac releasing more rodents so he could return to read the stacks of overdue science journals.
Gladys believes Isaac to be a regular con man. Francis finds him charming, and Gladys insists that proves her point. I received an invite in after the three solidified their pursuit of the soul machine, because they heard through campus adjuncts I cannot name that I had successfully created one in early November, although a series of accidents had left me sour and singed and unable to recall much of my findings.
We four sprawled on the floor of my room. My notes have been on Gladys and Francis all night and Isaac's jealousy spins out. "Why don't you do it," Isaac says. He is snappy, petulant. His nose is more crooked. "You've never let us seen your soul. What are you, scared? What are you hiding?"
"Remember," I say, "when we were together I made you take me out to French restaurants just so you'd struggle with the menu?" My plate of beans: ah REE koh VER. I mimic his nasal Southie voice: Hair A Cot Verts. He objects and Francis, hooked to the machine, laughs so hard his vertebrae soul—a lizard's tonight—trembles joyously across the ceiling like the borealis.
Everyone watches and I feel cold. It gets very quiet. Their silence is a snowfall in me.