Jost in the Machine

Jost had a job to do, and he would do it. He was as old-fashioned and square as a woodcut of a laborer carved on a tabletop. He even looked like that—tall and uncommonly thin, yet somehow at the same time sturdy, almost hulking. His name, Jost (it rhymed with “Ghost”) came from the Latin for just or right or fair and also meant precisely, which was how he looked at things and also meant very recently, which was when he felt things had been better. He believed he had a moral obligation to act and earn his place in the world, even if the world felt it had no obligation to him.

Yesterday, for example, the military had rejected Jost, hadn’t needed him, had had enough men and women for now, thank you, though they didn’t say thank you. That had been his last idea for employment that wasn’t awful. Now he came through the door of his new workplace.

Jost hadn’t taken the elevator, for walking up three flights was good exercise. (Or did he feel that this way he would owe his new employers nothing, for he had not hitched a ride on their magic moving car and so could still feel he was his own man, which was a sort of self-reliance that hovered around hostility? Or was this submerged anger unknown to himself? We don’t know, for Jost wouldn’t have said, and perhaps he didn’t know himself, which would fit our whole idea of him. Anyway, now Jost reached his floor, not even out of breath, well, maybe just a little.)

Earlier in the year, Jost had been let go from two other jobs—as a stacker in a factory and a janitor at a school. In each case, his performance had not been faulted; he had been told he had “excelled.” (Had the fact that both employers used the same word seemed to him pathetic, as if there was more than one way in the world to express things and neither boss had been creative enough to know that? No, this was more judgmental than Jost would have been. This is what we would have thought, being snottier, snarkier than he. And would anyone still be saying “snarky” in the near-future? We hope not: as of this writing, it’s already stale.)

Truth be told, we don’t know anyone like Jost—I don’t; what’s with this “we”? Or maybe it’s not true, maybe Jost is in all of us, me, a person like him, stalwart, inflexible, easily destroyed by the modern world; I carry him inside myself, tote him up the stairs as he today schlepped his large, leanly muscled, already aging (at thirty) body. He’s like some distant unevolved aspect of an ancestor, like the little bone in my throat a doctor once told me came from the gill of the fish I originally was. Was he kidding? I don’t know. But I believed him.

Anyway, now Jost caught his breath and thought about why he had lost these jobs—and why he had been rejected by the military—who had beaten him out for these posts, what had. (Maybe he didn’t think about it, but I have to explain it, and this seems the best place.) It was the HP30, a machine that did double duty—triple duty, actually, and maybe even more. It placed goods on shelves and picked them off shelves with its single, super-powerful arm, putting them in a basket at its back, which looked like a papoose. It scrubbed floors with a whirring brush circling its bottom and dispensing soap and water. And it detonated or prevented the detonation of bombs with the same artificial arm programmed differently. It could perform other tasks, too (brush pets, wash dishes, change diapers) but these were the ones that had deprived Jost of his jobs, jobs no one needed him or anyone human to do any more.

As Jost entered the factory floor, the place of his new employment, he couldn’t help but consider this creation which had left him and so many others in the lurch (not resentfully, or so we don’t think, stoically). He was faced with it. The squat, mechanical, one-armed robot with the round base was before him, coming up to a bit above his waist. It was headless yet weirdly had a neck or at least a periscope-style stem sticking up from its torso from which (Jost assumed but didn’t know) information was received and sent. There were a bunch of them there, actually, a bunch of HP30s, being readied for final assemblage before being sold. It was Jost’s new job to apply their final coats of paint (blue stripes and white dots, to make for a whimsical and friendly appearance) and to make a last pass at cleaning them. After that, he would ride down with them in the freight elevator, pack them into a truck, and deliver them to outlets selling them for nearly three thousand dollars apiece.

Jost had been surprised that humans were still required for these jobs: cleaning, painting, and driving were usually done by equivalents of the HP30. Yet he had learned that a certain amount of positions were still allotted for his ilk; in companies’ contracts, a percentage was promised to humans, as rich landlords had once been forced to save apartments for the poor. He had been the recipient of pity, in fact had won a lottery to be that, and he should have been grateful. Instead—being Jost—he felt humiliated tending to the care of his replacement. Or did he? Again, maybe that might be just me. Jost was his usual active, opaque, uncommunicative self, simply and dutifully donning the apron and mask he had to wear to use the paint and cleaning solutions, pulling on the gloves to protect his hands from their corrosive and carcinogenic elements.

He had not needed to be told how to do this job twice: any idiot could have done it, he thought, or didn’t think, probably didn’t think. (What did he keep in his mind if not mockery and resentment? Soothing images, like those of birds, stars, and food? Pleasant memories of his mother’s love, his school successes, food? Fantasies of future successes, violent revenge, taboo sex? Food? Or is that just me again? Did he censor himself, scrub his own insides as he now slid a treated steel wool up and down the one, bendable arm of his tormentor? Or did he think nothing at all, keep his mind blank? Is that even possible? It isn’t for me, who needs sedatives to quiet my anxiety and anger so I can sleep.)

Did Jost think about his wife, Adrienne, a teacher whom he had met while working as a school’s janitor? Adrienne had also lost her job not to a robot but to lack of interest in education that wasn’t private and online and was now a hospice worker, for dealing with the dying wasn’t something that could yet be automated. Did Jost think of his virtual sterility (virtual meaning “near” rather than an avatar-like approximation of) caused by exposure to hazardous chemicals in his cleaning job, the low sperm count meaning that he probably would not pass on his genes and would end here on Earth, doing this? Did he bitterly think as he scrubbed the bottom of the bot as if wiping its electronic ass, why don’t you fuck and impregnate my wife, too, while you’re at it, you robot piece of shit? You’re doing everything else!

No, Jost probably didn’t think any of these things. He just fulfilled his duties without complaint. As the other workers left, each cast a glance of both admiration and incredulity in his direction, asking themselves why Jost bothered applying himself so seriously when no one above him would reciprocate with thanks, a promotion or a union-guaranteed wage?

Soon Jost was alone with only inanimate creatures for company, those he served even though they had deprived him of his dignity, his livelihood and foreseeable future. Did he think it was not their fault? Or was he too sober and sensible to anthropomorphize a robot? It was something I might do, for I do it about dogs, cats and even articles of clothing (“I guess Tony the Tie doesn’t want to go out tonight,” talking in a child’s voice, as I struggle with the knot around my neck. Then I have to undo it—undo Tony—and try again with another tie, Tim).

Maybe, as I said, Jost wasn’t thinking at all or had forbade himself from having troubling thoughts and devoted himself to action only, lived instinctively and reflexively doing the right thing. He was the knee that shot out when the doctor’s hammer hit, and being that kept him sane. So maybe he wasn’t thinking at all when he took out a new tool—flinging on the floor the steel wool, polishing rag and paint brush—pulled from his pocket and snapped to a point a pen knife. Someone watching might have surmised that Jost was intending to do detail work on the HP30, to carve out dirt from hard-to-reach places—or even to carve dirt from beneath his own nails as a cowboy or construction worker or soldier might have done, the kinds of men he resembled but the world hadn’t allowed him to be.

Yet after a pause in which he stared off uncharacteristically with a distant and despairing look in his eyes, Jost placed the knife on his left forearm and cut vertically to sever the radial artery (he had read this was the most effective way to trigger “an arterial constriction, a natural bodily defense,” which opens the artery so that it can bleed faster, like his long-shut mouth would open to scream, if he ever did). Then he switched the knife to his left hand and did the same to his right artery.

Jost leaned against a robot—for he felt weak and needed to be supported, physically, since he was fading—and bled into it. His blood coated and blinded the impeccable sensor the machine used to navigate. This was a power in his own life that Jost had always prided himself on having but had given up any hope in retaining, no matter how nobly he acted or what if anything he ever thought.

Terry wanted to know what the hold-up was: they should have shown an hour ago. He started doing that soothing touching of himself his wife said he did in his sleep: using the fingers of his left hand to lightly stroke and make circles on the palm of his right, then trailing the fingers along the forearm, flipping and grazing them, as if wiping them off. Today it didn’t calm him down, his stress was so high.

Terry had never actually directed a film before; he had only presided over their productions as supervising executive for the Muth Co. This was to be his debut as a creative person, you might say, so he wanted it to go well, so well he might be able to do it all the time—not quit his job, he liked the security of a steady gig; he was no artist, he was no hobo, he had two kids to feed, for God’s sake—but to express himself creatively every day. That’s why he was so anxious that the robots arrive.

Even though only one would be his “star,” Muth generally used three or four of the HP30s in its films, in case one broke down, the way filmmakers in the old days doubled up on dogs or hired twin babies while shooting movies. At this point, Terry would take one bot, that’s how desperate he was: let just one swivel through the door, revolving on its little electric—well, it looked like an old hemorrhoid donut, didn’t it, the spinning circular base for cleaning? Kidding was easing his anxiety (a little); it was that kind of creativity that had inspired Terry’s superiors to put him in the film division. He had always gotten big laughs at the company retreats sashaying around in his belted shorts up over his protruding abdominal paunch. So when Muth decided to produce robots to augment their DNA business, he was first choice to “pilot” the full-length movies the company planned to make to promote them.

Terry had even come up with the name of the HP30 character—Scrubby DeFuse. It was a benign way to capture its functions and engage kids at the same time. This would be the fourth of the Scrubby DeFuse adventures, films starring the bot in a—well, a bot plot, as he comically called them, a series of scrapes in which the machine cleaned, stacked, and bombed (or didn’t bomb) its way out of trouble. The country had taken this new hero to its heart; that’s how Terry put it in an interview, and he actually believed it. He felt we needed new heroes now, and if the hero was also a promotable product that could be ordered on your device before, during and after the film in which it starred, all the better. At last, Terry’s bosses had thought it safe to let him “make his bones,” in the old Hollywood parlance, by “helming” (another show biz expression) a new film himself. Now if only one Scrubby would show up, he could start!

Terry abandoned the hand and arm stroking and decided to again dial the factory from which the robots were being shipped. He got no answer—again—and winked the call off forcefully, even angrily. In the studio, there was no one to talk to at the moment—Terry only needed one cameraman, who was in the toilet. The empty space was black, cavernous and even eerie, since all sets, props, and animated actors would be added in “post” (another old movie abbreviation). All he could do was worry and hope.

Then he heard the elevator.

Terry brushed his hair with his hand, self-consciously—and absurdly, for who would be there besides robots and deliveryman? Still, he nervously waited at the broad freight elevator doors (which opened top to bottom like a massive steel mouth, now shut and prissy with disapproval). When the sides separated, he was thrilled to see four of his Scrubby stars, each with its one arm bent at a different angle (pointing up, down, across, and seemingly to thoughtfully stroke a non-existent chin), as if intentionally posed for comic effect. Yet Terry could tell from the appearance and demeanor of their human chaperone that it had been done by accident.

The man, squat and sallow, panting and sweating, was opening and closing his eyes as if trying to believe something he had seen. Terry segued from a posture of obsequious gratitude to one of stern admonishment, for he, after all, was the one in charge. But the other man, weary and overwhelmed, was in no mood to be scolded.

“Don’t ask,” he said.

So Terry didn’t, just jumped in to help him bring out the bots—which wasn’t hard, for they had been designed to slide on their bottom brushes, which served as wheels when no soap was being sprayed. Despite his request for silence, the deliveryman spoke continually, explaining his tardiness in traumatized gasps:

 “…the other guy…when I forgot my phone and went back…I found him there…slumped over…against the thing…I tried to clean it off, but…it might still be sticky inside…”

Terry surmised that something distasteful had happened on the factory floor, involving the spilling of someone’s bodily fluids, but he was too impatient to inquire. He couldn’t even toss in one of his usual zingers, the type that had so impressed his superiors and gotten him this gig. The best he could manage was a wan,

 “Sometimes it’s better to be a robot, right?”

The other man heard the observation with surprising thoughtfulness, even stopping pulling a Scrubby to answer.

“Well,” he said, “that’s true. You don’t die.”

The sentence confused Terry, though not enough to slow the progress he himself was making by pushing his own bot.

“Okay, here we are,” Terry said as out of breath as he was out of shape, when he finally saw them all assembled. The deliveryman stood expectantly beside him, not grasping that his job was done and that Terry had no more interest in hearing what he obviously considered the riveting “backstory” to his arrival, to use more ancient movie jargon. In fact, Terry was eager for the man to leave, because his cameraman (Steve? Seth? Saul?) had exited the toilet and was ready and waiting, standing behind the tripod that held his camera phone.

Still, the delivery guy kept elaborating on the unpleasant experience he’d had that had made him late: “You wouldn’t believe what he…all over the place it was, and…” so Terry started hustling him to the elevator and pushing the button for down. This was what a decisive director did, he thought, kept a laser-like focus on what really mattered. He gave only a cursory wave as the man, still talking, was swallowed by the doors.

Now Terry turned to his cast—who at least couldn’t talk back to their director, he thought, more confident in his trademark whimsy. On his device, he pulled up the script he’d written—in which Scrubby DeFuse befriends and then foils a funny terrorist by stalking, washing, and then exploding a bomb in him (while at other times cleaning a dish, diapering a baby, and brushing a cat). Meanwhile, the camera man (his name, it turned out, Seth) was arranging the bot to be used in the first shot while his identical comrades stood to the side, their arms still up, down, and across.

“Ready?” Seth asked.

“Right,” Terry answered. Shouldn’t he have asked that? He’d be more take-charge, starting now.

 “Hey, there’s something wrong with this Scrubby,” Seth said.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s not moving right.”

“Well…” Terry wondered what someone in his position should say at such a time. He came up with, “Fix it.”

“I’m trying.” A petulant Seth had opened up the robot’s easily detachable front to inspect its insides, its one arm now bent behind its neck-like pillar, as if applying deodorant. (The machines were made so virtually anyone could assemble, disassemble, and repair them; soon the price would be lowered for the average consumer from thousands to hundreds and then dozens of dollars, events the movies had been invented at least in part to promote.) “It’s the sensor. Jesus. There’s something sticky over it. It can’t see where it’s going.”

Terry didn’t think this cause for concern, let alone panic; yet the deliveryman’s weird shards of story came back to him, disturbingly. All at once, he felt his stomach churn and then burn, the upset racing to his throat, where it set a flame that boiled the undigested remains of his salad lunch, which overflowed into his mouth, his acid reflux appearing at the worst possible time.

“Excuse me,” he said, too softly for Seth to hear. The cameraman was busy poking around in the robot’s interior, grunting from the effort. “Let’s use another one,” Terry managed to express, along with nasty traces of balsamic vinaigrette and chickpeas.

He bolted to the bathroom, pushing desperately at the door, remembering it was a numbered lock, pressing in a combination, getting it wrong once and then twice before finally succeeding, then racing inside just in time to hit a sink with his puke.

Afterwards, Terry stood, holding onto the porcelain, staring at his face in the immaculate mirror. The harsh overhead lights exposed his extreme pallor, the blue-black rings under his eyes, and his waving, marsh-like, strands of thinning hair. Terry thought, to put it mildly, that he appeared like someone not in control. The realization warmed more repellent liquid upon his tongue. He spat out what he could of it, then bent to swallow water from the faucet at first so hot it flayed his cheeks and tongue before it cooled them.

Terry told himself that the key to being a leader was not not to be afraid but to act even though afraid, advice he had either received from his beloved father on his deathbed or recently read on an electronic and erasable wall above a urinal, he wasn’t sure. He strode out, feigning confidence (fake it till you make it—another forgotten expression), unaware of a splotch of discolored spit staining his white polo shirt (along with his pressed jeans, part of a “fun” outfit he’d picked out for the shoot).

Clearing his throat as intensely if banishing brush from a backyard, Terry “waltzed” back to the studio. He tried to ignore insistent memories of the deliveryman’s words, still vying for his attention. As he rounded the corner, he first saw the understudy bots, stationed to the side as if observing something with the absent eyes in their non-existent heads. Feet away, the star bot, the one rumored to be malfunctioning, was lifting a squirming Seth with its strong and single arm and smashing him face first into the wall.

Frozen, Terry watched. The machine performed the action until the cameraman’s skin, blood and brains were smeared across the plaster and his body was so limp that he slipped from the Scrubby’s grip to the floor like a broken strand of pearls.

Terry had the controls of the machine on his device. Yet even after he quit being paralyzed and fumbled for the “stop” button, he could not change what was occurring. As the machine turned and came his way, Terry irrationally looked to the other bots for help. But they of course offered him nothing, one of their arms even bent in a “What do you want me to do?” shrug.

The swiftly approaching star had been programmed by someone or something else or was malfunctioning due to—what had the deliveryman said, something that spilled? Why hadn’t Terry listened to him? A good director was open to ideas from anyone, right? Terry thought, as he scrambled toward the elevator.

The robot kept advancing, as if possessed by someone’s ghost, or by alien DNA grafted onto it the way a Frankenstein monster is made from aspects of those once alive. Terry slammed his back onto the down switch and wiggled there, not wanting to take his eye off his pursuer. He heard the old, rusty, wheezing gears with agonized slowness begin to pull the car up the shaft. The bot went into the attached basket where it kept its cleaning gear and, in another compartment, its bombs. It removed one of these things and stopped but an inch away from the director.

 “Cut! Cut!” Terry cried, for that’s what a leader would do on the day of his biggest break.

The last thing he noticed was the blinking light of the cameraman’s phone, sitting on its perch, recording everything.

Adrienne was surprised by how happy it made the child. Johnny only acted like this around those he loved or little animals. Yet now her son walked beside the robot and even—and this was particularly cute—reached out to touch its one (at the moment passive, dangling) arm, to hold its “hand.” Johnny spoke to it, also, saying whatever a two-year-old says and thinks makes sense—no, Johnny was adding words to his vocabulary, Adrienne was almost sure of it, the way twins as infants invent a language just the two can understand. It surprised, delighted, and only a little disconcerted his mother.

This described Adrienne’s reaction to having Johnny in the first place. Her pregnancy was discovered soon after Jost’s suicide; it had been like receiving an important letter for someone the day he died. There had been nothing “wrong” with Jost, after all—not that sterility was ever wrong, but that’s how she sensed he saw it, intuited it as she had to intuit most of what Jost felt, since he was so inexpressive. Adrienne hadn’t minded that, had even admired Jost’s taciturnity. Everyone else bellowed out their half-baked beliefs all day on every kind of device; it was a relief that Jost had been reticent, a draw when they were dating. Sometimes it sucked, of course, his distance, pride, and stoicism, but marriage wasn’t imaginary, it was real and so like everything real it lacked a lot of things. Anyway, now she followed Johnny and his new best friend around the corner of the apartment as the machine cleaned up.  

Adrienne wondered what Jost would have made of Johnny’s befriending his “replacement.” Then she remembered they wouldn’t have gotten this bot if Jost had lived, so her musing about it, like so many other things now, was moot.

The machine had been thrown in by Muth as a guilty token after the lawsuit money she received had been so small. Initially, she intended to refuse it, but then she thought that that was what prideful Jost would have done, and Jost wasn’t there, she was in charge now, and hers was a slightly different sensibility from his. In other words, Adrienne didn’t mind having an electronic cleaning person (though she’d insisted on their not including the bomb-making and defusing capacities, which Muth had amazingly offered her, even though these perks were still prohibitively expensive for everyone else).

It was revealed at the trial that there was so much of the exploded film director Terry what’s-his-name’s DNA all over the robot that Jost’s blood had no longer been detectable, so her case for negligence was declared insufficient. She only got a few bucks, plus the bot. (The lawsuits of the director’s and cameraman’s widows were more successful, Adrienne knew, but their settlements had been kept secret.)

The only ones who had really benefited from the whole awful incident was Muth itself and—if you were anthropomorphizing, which like her late husband and unlike her little son, Adrienne was not—the HP30. Bootleg footage of the director’s and cameraman’s killings had become the most viewed video of the year, with twenty million alone seeing it in the sky the first hour alone. It was so popular, in fact, that Muth—initially appalled and angered by the pilferage of their product—amended, improved and officially released it as a new film. They changed Scrubby DeFuse’s name to Scrub, one that befit his new, violent, and bad-ass persona, gaining a whole new audience and beginning a whole new series for him.

Of course, to little Johnny, the bot wasn’t Scrub or Scrubby but someone else. Adrienne had explained to the boy in a condensed and expurgated way what connection his late Daddy had had to the machine. Now, in the child’s own stumbling larval, inchoate manner, he believed the thing was Jost. It was why he was following, touching and talking to it.

This saddened, slightly amused, and also inspired Adrienne. It meant that she, too, could imagine there was a vestige of her husband left, even though as an adult she knew there wasn’t. And even if there had been, it wouldn’t have been contained in this machine, for this wasn’t the actual machine Jost had bled into, leaving his genetic information, but another machine, a newer model than that damaged one (that one had been destroyed and then discontinued, the success of the new Scrub film allowing Muth to increase the price for an improved edition while also eliminating an old model identified with suicide and violent death).

Rationally, Adrienne knew that Jost was nowhere—it was only her imagination and Johnny’s that made it true that Jost existed. Still, it comforted her to impose Jost onto the inanimate object, which was lifeless yet not inert, made to move by superior people’s minds and made to think, feel, and exist by her own. She couldn’t help it: There was peace in an illusion, if it was all you had left.

Rounding the corner, Adrienne stopped. She saw that the HP30 had toppled over, felled by a snagged carpet its vaunted sensors had somehow failed to detect. Johnny lay beside it, imitating devotedly its whir and kick as it strove to get upright. The boy and bot were not the same—one was actually stuck, the other really free—yet the boy’s empathy had made them identical, the boy’s love, you might say. Love, too, Adrienne thought, flowed into the future, like blood.

Adrienne stepped forward, to help raise Jost and her son.


Projected Letters is a literary magazine dedicated to publishing the best new and established writing from around the world.