AFTER FAILING TO DISCOVER enough compelling reality around Dodge City to substantiate its claim of having always been a reality show, UNHOLY FAMILY resorts to a “new” script for its season finale, which we all know was actually written by Big Pharmakos back in 2011, when it wasn’t filmed because no one was into him yet.

 

Anyway, the finale’s on now and I’m watching it from the Hotel fitness center, where I retreated after storming away from a holiday dinner party.

 

The episode features a group of eight at Xmas dinner. They’re sitting around the table nursing scotch with their napkins piled on dirty plates. It’s Shep, a grandpa whose wife has died and left him with terminal esophageal cancer, Carlene, a single mother with a skyrocketing investment firm, her newborn Milo, who has one hand of all thumbs and no other hand, that baby’s Rilke critic older sister Rita, a 42-year-old test pilot named Marx with a sense of taste that only kicks in an hour after contact with food and drink, Marx’s wife Sue, who has swallowed enough Percocet to end things within the hour, Sue’s son from another marriage Devon, a world-class juggler, and Devon’s college roommate Sterns, who intends to study botany if his self-service app doesn’t take off, which all signs indicate that it will.

 

The conceit of the episode is that, now that the meal has been eaten and all the graces and toasts have been said and thanks duly given, each family member will draw a symbol on an index card representing who and what they currently are, and then put these cards into the hands of the UNHOLY FAMILY HOST, who will shuffle and hold them back out to the family members, who will each choose one in turn.

 

Whichever symbol each person chooses determines who and what they will be for the coming year, no questions asked. For example, if Shep, the grandpa with terminal esophageal cancer, chooses the symbol of Rita, the Rilke critic, he gets to be her for the rest of the year, no more impending doom, no more dead wife, just long slow days alone with the poems. And if Rita, the former Rilke critic, chooses the symbol of the newborn with only one hand, then that’s who she is, starting her clock back almost at zero, freeing up the newborn (assuming he’s able to pick a card at all) to pick the card of, say, Sterns, the college botanist and possible app-phenom. As for Sterns …

 

Anyway, that’s how it works.

 

Soon, all the cards have been chosen. Almost everyone is someone else. Marx, the test-pilot, chose the card of his Percocet-swallowing wife and died, while his wife became Carlene, the ultra-rich single mother, and left with one of the college boys, who chose his own card and thus remained himself for another year.

 

*****

AS I WATCH from the fitness center, I find this all moderately exciting, but it’s not what rivets me. What rivets me is an inconsistency in the numbers. All the characters remain onscreen, all eight as they accept their lots for the year to come, but there’s someone else behind them, a kind of fleshed shadow.

 

A woman in her late 40s with a shaved head just starting to show stubble.

 

I can’t place her … maybe I’ve never seen her before, or else she’s always been in the background of UNHOLY FAMILY, emerging from the overlap of the scripted characters, whispering secrets in the ear of the HOST.

 

When the eight scripted characters are led away, this woman lingers, staring out at me from the screen. I look around the fitness center to see if anyone else is here to confirm or deny what I’m seeing, but no one is. There used to be other people, but they must have left when the show ended … except it hasn’t ended. The camera lingers on this woman, leaning against the wall of the kitchen set as the staff clears the bones and gravy from the table and throws out the index cards that served as the basis of the episode.

 

I pedal my stationary bike faster in some attempt to escape her gaze, aware that I’m starting to freak out but unsure how to stop. I grip the handlebars and the screen tells me I’ve burned 104 calories.

 

I close my eyes to wipe sweat on my upper arm, then open them again. When I do, the woman on the screen holds up an index card, displaying a symbol I don’t have time to make sense of. Then she’s gone.

gymtv

UNHOLY FAMILY is over. A commercial for Giant Chinese comes on, then another.

 

I go back to my Room, get in the shower.

 

In the shower, I press my face against the tiles and try to remember the symbol she held up. I know that I saw it, even if it wasn’t long enough to read consciously. I feel the card inside me, face-down against my spine.

 

I start to obsess, yelling at myself for having blithely assumed she would hold it up longer. If only I knew for sure what she was trying to tell me, I’m thinking, my 2015  would be off to a very different start.

UNHOLY FAMILY, out of ideas with two more timeslots to fill before Xmas, becomes a reality show by announcing that it’s always been one.

 

“All we’ve ever done is film what’s going on with you people,” it announces in a huge banner across the facade of City Hall.

 

Cowed by the prospect of our day blimping out around us with nothing to watch, we go to the town square to see what’s going on with us.

 

What’s going on is the annual Giant Chinese (Anti-)Abortion Rally, in which each side repeats its position from last year, competing to get as close to verbatim as possible.

 

“It’s a simple matter of matching fetus to tube,” Professor Dalton begins. “A one-to-one correspondence in which nothing is wasted. I could do the procedure myself. Right here, right now. If you would only let me.”

 

Big Pharmakos, on a Conservative tear after an onstage meltdown stalled his rise to the top of comedy, holds the mantle for the opposition: “Fuck them for not wanting to be born! I didn’t want to be born either, but here I am! Right?! Aren’t we all here??”

 

Each voice magnifies the other until there comes the sound of winged monkeys, paws tearing up the pavement.

 

The UNHOLY FAMILY reality crew is all around us, filming everything.

 

It’s not far to an impasse.

 

This impasse is broken in the form of Blanche Brine Daly, a pilgrim dragging a tank on a cart.

 

“My tank,” she begins, with no sequiter, as the crowd-noise sinks beneath that of her voice, “is for those fetuses that are not yet ready to be born, or those mothers that are not yet ready to bear them. The interior conditions mimic the life-sustaining conditions of the womb, but not the life-developing conditions, so that the fetus can survive in here as it is, without being transformed against its will — or its mother’s — into a baby.”

 

A pause while we look her and it over.

 

“So there is no net loss of life here. Nor any net gain. No, sirs. I offer only the chance to … arrest development until the time is right. Until solid groundwork can be laid.”

 

She takes the tank off the cart and settles it onto the ground. “It’s an open-air device,” she begins. “As fine a piece of kit as you’re likely to find anyplace outside of Chicago, where far finer are to be found, but if anyone here were the Chicago-type they wouldn’t be here today … am I right?”

 

Her question sounds genuine, not rhetorical, but elicits only murmurs.

 

“Does anyone have an extension cord?” she then asks, and it’s a long time before any of us realizes she’s talking to us. When we do, we have to ask her to repeat the question, which she does, but it turns out that none of us has one, so we all have to entertain ourselves while she goes to the hardware store.

 

UNHOLY FAMILY shoots B-reel, eats Cliff Bars.

 

She returns with the extension cord and plugs the tank in, bringing its brine to life.

 

*****

“Well, step right up, ladies. Don’t be shy,”  she says, after we’ve all stood dumbfounded for as long as she’ll let us. “Any woman will do.”

 

Finally, a woman none of us knows steps forward, waits beside the tank while Blanche looks her over.

 

“Any pregnant woman,” Blanche clarifies.

 

The woman pauses, like she’s trying to remember what she’d meant to say, then tries, “I could get pregnant.”

 

Blanche looks her over again, shakes her head. “No time for that now. This is a live demonstration.”

 

Looking cornered, the woman faints on the concrete and another woman, fantastically pregnant, steps forward.

 

Blanche looks satisfied.

 

She blindfolds this woman, spins her three times, and proceeds to extract the fetus using nothing but her thumb and index finger, each of which has been outfitted with an extra joint in the middle.

 

The woman faints on top of the other on the concrete. Now two non-pregnant women are collapsed in a pile for different reasons.

 

The fetus, meanwhile, is already in the tank, where it hovers a few moments before settling into a sediment on the bottom, stirring it up, clouding our view.

 

“It is planted in a sediment which will not permit it to grow,” Blanche informs us, removing her extra finger joints, wiping them on a handkerchief, and putting them back in place. “When the mother is ready, be that days or years from now, the fetus will be re-implanted and carried to term, as if there’d been no interruption at all.”

 

*****

UNHOLY FAMILY elides the many iterations of the process that come next, picking back up when the tank is full of fetuses, ranging from a few weeks to nearly 9 months of age. The tank is so full that some of its brine has bubbled over the edges, frothing on the concrete below, eating into it.

 

All the mothers are in a giant heap nearby, at the edge of the liquid’s reach, breathing as one.

 

“Now,” asks Blanche, pointing, “I presume that is a Hotel over there?”

 

*****

LIKE SO, she becomes part of Dodge City for the time being, in a Room just down the hall from mine.

 

When UNHOLY FAMILY asks her what happens now, all she says is, “I’ve sent for my husband from Chicago. He should be here any day.”

 

The mothers continue to lie beside the tank, unmoving, covered in the shadows of their fetuses.

 

Big Pharmakos fashions a rough wooden paddle and takes it upon himself to stir the tank, but when the UNHOLY FAMILY crew asks him to “stop tampering with the evidence,” he proves surprisingly compliant, returning to the Hotel lobby to rehearse the comedy routine he melted down during.

 

Life stays normal for longer than feels normal.

 

UNHOLY FAMILY puts a “Do Not Guard” sign around the tank, to ensure that nothing comes between it and whatever’s going to happen.

 

I perch in my window with sugar packets from the lobby and look out at the wind rippling the brine, sometimes bringing the fetuses’ half-formed faces to the surface. I name the ones with defined features and try to keep track of them until they sink back under.

 

After a week, Blanche reports that her husband arrived several days ago and that “we’ve been living in marital bliss ever since,” but the UNHOLY FAMILY crew is unable to find any evidence of him.

 

In between updates, rumors circulate that a marauder is loose in the surrounding woods, picking off chickens and making wicker fetishes, but we assume these are mostly intended to dilute our attention and try not to let them.

 

Which is a shame, because if we’d been more attuned to this side of the story, some of us might have seen the thing stealing in from the woods last night, covered in pine needles and chicken blood, and climbing into the tank, sloshing more brine over the edge, partially dissolving the dormant mothers.

 

When we wake up and head down to the square, we see something slipping around with the fetuses, swirling them together, seeping into their thin shells, squeezing sound from those of them that have lungs.

 

The whole tank has a gamey, seedy reek.

 

Blanche is there too, in her bathrobe, taking it all in without reacting.

 

After this turmoil peaks, there comes a calm.

 

The fetuses start to grow, whether they’re 3-week-specks or 8-month-behemoths. They swell up, reaching and surpassing the size of babies, taking on shapes that borrow liberally from the human template without conforming to it.

 

Their bodies turn thick and spongy, their faces pressed up against the tank as they grow too big for it. I can almost taste their sour, porous dough.

 

Soon, all the brine has been forced out of the tank and onto the mothers, whose bodies are mostly dissolved, and the fetuses are huge creatures standing mushed together inside the glass, groaning, trying to chew through the glass with lips that contain only more lips.

 

Many of them look vegetal, with cabbage-like flaps and hair like turnips.

 

The marauder is nowhere to be seen: its body has been absorbed, spent in the process of making them what they now are.

 

In this moment, we forget that they once had human fathers — many of whom are standing right here, in the crowd — and accept that whatever came into the tank last night is their father now.

 

“It’s as if,” says Dalton, all too happy to resume his position of metaphysical authority, “they were nothing but unfertilized eggs all this time, and now, at last, after months in the incubator, some sperm has come to fertilize them. Think about the implications … imagine that you and I, right now, are likewise unfertilized, waiting for our father to find us and make us into what we will one day be … and all along we’ve thought of ourselves as full creatures already.”

 

He goes on, but Blanche interrupts him: “Excuse me, folks, but does anyone have a hammer? I really ought to let these fellows out before they swell through the glass.”

 

Again, no one answers, and again she goes to hardware store to buy one, or take one, since the hardware store owner is out here with us.

 

After she’s smashed the tank, we watch as the doughy creatures stomp out, some on feet and some not, grinding the bones of their mothers into the pavement and scraping the remnants of their father’s ejaculate from their legs and torsos.

 

They reach the edge of the square and wait, watching us, to see what we do.

 

UNHOLY FAMILY swarms around Blanche.

 

The reporter puts the mic in her face: “So, before we try to interview these … things, tell us what we all want to know: is the marauder that came in from the woods last night your husband? It is, isn’t it? Just admit it! It’s their father and you’re their mother, right? Right??”

 

Then — I’m up in my Room watching this now — the screen fades to black on a banner that reads: “FIND OUT NEXT TIME ON UNHOLY FAMILY, DODGE CITY’S LONGEST-RUNNING REALITY SHOW.”

BEFORE WE GET TO LET OUR TV SHOWS ABSORB THE REST OF WHATEVER’S LOOSE IN US, a TV Movie commands our attention.

 

We are watching it in the room behind the room where it was filmed. Some of the stars are present.

 

It’s about a woman whose husband is killed In The Pacific during WWII behind the opening credits. With the help of a flash forward, she finishes the 20th century without him. She’s ready for that to be it, except for a connection she happens to develop with the owner of a Pacific restaurant in Dodge City, whose sister, we find out, still lives In The Pacific.

 

“Would you do a thing for me?” she asks the owner of this restaurant, suddenly alive to the idea that something is still possible before she dies. “Would you see if your sister might be willing to seek out his grave and put a flower on it, and photograph that flower for me? I’ve never been able to go there in body … but maybe in spirit it’s not too late.”

 

The restaurant owner says she will do this thing. The next time we see the woman — whose name, we learn at this point, is Mrs. Else — dining at the restaurant, the owner reports that her sister has begun researching the grave’s location, and will soon find it.

 

Time passes in a normal vein.

 

After more of it is gone, Mrs. Else returns to the restaurant and is given the surprise she was hoping for: a manila folder labeled GRAVE FOTOS. The restaurant owner says her sister is overjoyed at the service she was able to provide and refuses to accept any money, which Mrs. Else hadn’t thought to offer, realizing now that she should have.

 

She takes the folder to the cafe next door, not wanting to be in the restaurant when she opens it. “Okay now … okay now … ” she huffs, undoing the clasp. She pulls the photos out and leaves them facedown on the table for a moment, looking around to make sure no one she knows is nearby.

 

Then she turns them over, ready for the fact of his grave to land on her face.

 

The first photo shows a young Pacific woman with onyx earrings with her arm around Mrs. Else’s husband, who looks to be in his mid-40’s, still very handsome, very fit. The caption: GRAVE, NORTHWEST VIEW.

 

The second photo shows this Pacific woman and Mrs. Else’s husband holding hands and looking at the sunset over a harbor full of yachts. The caption: GRAVE AT SUNSET.

 

The third shows the Pacific woman and Mrs. Else’s husband in a convertible in front of a club with palm trees and a velvet rope. The caption: GRAVE WITH PALM TREES AND VELVET ROPE.

 

The fourth through seventh photos are too much. She throws them in the trash along with her coffee cup and muffin wrapper, walks half a block toward her car, then turns around and re-enters the cafe, taking one long breath before pulling them out of the trash and stuffing them into her coat pocket despite their being clotted in coffee grounds.

 

They’re so heavy she can barely walk. She has to sit on a bench halfway to her car, wondering if she’ll ever stand again.

 

*****

AT HOME, she reaches inside her pocket and finds only coffee grounds. She pushes farther in than she imagines the pocket goes, so deep into the coffee grounds she thinks I’m touching its root

 

Down there she finds the seven photos.

 

She washes them one by one in the sink, wearing thick rubber gloves, and hangs them on a clothesline in the basement, like she’s developing them.

 

SHE SLEEPS FOR SEVENTEEN HOURS HAVING PRAYED TO SLEEP FOR TWENTY-FOUR.

 

She returns to the basement, still wearing the coffee grounds coat, which she understands has become her uniform. The photos are all the same, her husband looking happier in them than she can remember his ever having looked in reality.

 

That’s right, she lets herself think. The place I knew him in was reality. This is … another thing.

 

*****

SHE RESOLVES never to return to the restaurant, but finds herself unable to do anything else. Time peels off her so fast she’s afraid her life will end without even one final experience.

 

So she goes back.

 

Everyone in the restaurant seems happy but not surprised to see her, like no unusual span of time has passed. She orders a Pacific Plate and tries to eat as much of it as she can before the owner comes out of the kitchen to ask how she liked the pictures.

 

“Can I talk to your sister?” she hears herself asking in a gulped, babyish voice, her hand deep in the coffee grounds in her pocket.

 

She’s in the lot behind the restaurant, holding the owner’s cell phone away from her ear.

 

“You like pictures of grave?” the sister asks, in an accent that sounds like she’s used to speaking but not reading English.

 

Mrs. Else means to spew anger, but instead says, “Yes … they’ve been a huge solace to me. Could you send more?”

 

“You want me send more?”

 

“Yes,” confirms Mrs. Else, and begins to wait.

 

It doesn’t take long: another period of peeling-off time.

 

She’s back home with the next manila folder, likewise labeled GRAVE FOTOS, without even a #2 to distinguish it.

 

She sets the oven timer for three minutes: this is how long she’ll allow herself to believe that they might be photos of an actual grave. She pictures the grave, alone in its cemetery, the name of her husband and the year of his death etched into it.

 

When the timer goes off, she opens the folder and fans out the photos on the table, flipping them all at once like a hand of cards: seven more images of the Pacific sister and her husband in various chic locations, this time holding a baby who looks exactly half-Pacific. It wears a bib that says RYAN in embroidered calligraphy.

 

Is it my son or grandson? is what Mrs. Else falls asleep at the table thinking, the oven timer still going off.

 

*****

“Who is Ryan?” she shouts into the phone behind the restaurant the next day, wearing her coffee grounds coat, certain that things have gone too far.

 

“Ryan? I thought you husband name Frederick,” says the owner’s sister, groggy due to the time difference, the confusion in her voice hard to discredit.

 

Mrs. Else shuffles through a series of possible utterances, arriving at, “Just stop seeing him, ok? Stop whatever you two are doing.”

 

The sister sounds confused again. “You want me stop visiting grave? He tell me he no see you many years … he say hi from grave. He say if I no visit, he no be real. He go back to sleep.”

 

Mrs. Else sits down beside the dumpster as the busboy heaves out a leaking sack of trash.

 

She looks at its trail across the asphalt and at the cell phone, still connected to the Pacific in her hand, and puts it back to her ear. “No,” she says. “No, that’s okay. You keep visiting his grave, just … just make sure he doesn’t go back to sleep.”

 

The sister makes a sound like she’s nodding.

 

Then Mrs. Else, though she knows she’ll regret it, can’t keep from asking, “But Ryan? Can’t I talk to Ryan for one minute?”

 

“Who Ryan?” repeats the sister. “I thought you husband name Frederick.”

 

Mrs. Else hangs up just as the busboy turns from the dumpster to start back toward the kitchen. He puts his cigarette in his trash-wet hand and helps her up with the other.

 

ON THE DRIVE HOME, she receives a text message on her own cell phone, which she always leaves in the glove compartment. She pulls over at a bus stop and opens it. From an unlisted number, it reads:

 

“just so u no, u have 2 b mothr b4 u can b grndmothr.”

 

She buries the phone in a crack in the wall in her basement and lies down under a sawhorse.

 

Still wearing her coat, she starts to hear a voice whispering out of the coffee grounds.

 

“Ryan?” she whispers back. “Ryan? Is that you?”

 

She wants to shout but is afraid of obscuring its voice with her own, so she lies very flat, easing into a fuzzy bath of end credits.

WE DISPERSE, back to our respective Rooms.

 

Looking out the window several days later, we see Tim & Eric drifting by. We watch them pass without anyone going onto the streets to do something to them or see what they’d do to us.

 

When they’re gone, we race out, all the energy we didn’t expend on mobbing them now making us mob ourselves as we pile into a sand pit where we discover two scrolls, perhaps casually discarded by the two of them.

 

Professor Dalton scoops them up, holds them flat against the sun, and declares: “On these scrolls are printed the passwords for the master servers of HBO and Showtime. The age of the Private Series is upon us. No longer will the musings of others be sold to us as our own.”

 

We wait for him to continue. “Let us each write one HBO series and one Showtime series, and meet back here in one week. We will then vote on our collective favorite, which will become our communal fiction for at least the coming season. No longer will premium cable and cable access be worlds apart.”

 

*****

I COME BACK the following week with one HBO series and one Showtime series jotted on notecards, one series per pocket.

 

There are rows of revelation kitsch set up by the sand pit: soapstone statues of Tim & Eric and of Dalton reading the scrolls, and aged-paper versions of the scrolls themselves, some of their letters elided so as to stay on the safe side of blasphemy.

 

We present our ideas. Both of mine are vetoed before I finish saying them.

 

By evening, we’ve narrowed it down to:

 

ALL HIGH SCHOOL BANDS GET HUGE (HBO): A version of Dodge City in which any group of teenagers even remotely resembling a band is immediately launched into Springsteen-levels of fame, even before playing a single show or recording a single track … one practice, or even the rumor of a practice, is enough to make them this generation’s Black Flag. Take any two kids whose parents got them acoustic guitars for their 16th birthdays and put them in a room together … and the Greil Marcus book writes itself. The recurring conflict of the series is the impossibility of making this happen. No one is willing or able to form a high school band, even considering the obscene profit margin. The series follows numerous botched attempts to get two or more high schoolers together for a single jam session in someone’s basement one weekend night when there’s nothing else to do.

 

ALL BODY MOISTURES RUN DRY (SHOWTIME): A version of Dodge City in which all of our bodies have gone dry, because, as the tagline goes, “we over-basted ourselves in our own juices when we were young.” No one is able to have pleasurable sex anymore — only procreative, with awful friction — and no one is able to speak except in a lizardy rasp. Unable to sweat, we faint at least daily. Some clerics claim we are still wet on the inside, deeper in than any mortal implement can reach, but our reality consists of bloating with unreleased energies, our skin always about to burst without bursting … until one member of the community discovers a well in a disused utility shed that contains precisely one drop of moisture for each citizen. In a democratic society, each citizen would choose when and how to use their drop, but in the society of this proposed Showtime series, a small consortium of developers takes it all, ritually fucking and spitting on one another thousands of times, while everyone else further mummifies, in a “reimagining of Chinatown that is barely a reimagining at all.”

 

The team behind UNHOLY FAMILY pitches a spinoff series called INTERMEDIATE GENERATIONS (SHOWTIME): In which “half relatives” are inserted between all members of every family: between siblings, between parents and children, between spouses … making it such that no lines of heredity are direct. Now, all lines are mediated through strangers, to be played by non-actors who have no personality other than that of stand-ins, attenuating the lines of familial connection by their inexplicable presence and refusal to leave, lingering interminably “between every man, woman, and child and their maker.”

 

This show drums up some interest, but the overall sentiment is that UNHOLY FAMILY itself, still running after longer than most lifetimes, scratches enough of its own itch as it is.

 

The show that ends up winning is TAKING THE RAP (HBO): A version of Dodge City in which one guy kills another for no reason. This guy, after sleeping on it, decides he isn’t ready for death row. So he calls his friend and asks if he’ll take the rap for him. The friend says okay. In order to make the transference of guilt realistic, they dig up the body and resurrect it. Then, the original murderer turns his back while his friend kills the resurrected victim, making him the genuine murderer. In the next episode, the same thing happens: the now-guilty friend phones another friend, and they resurrect the body again so that the other friend can kill it and become the guilty one. On and on, each episode featuring many such shuntings, until everyone in town has had a chance to kill the original victim and face death row before calling a friend to get out of it. The theory is that the victim can only be resurrected if it’s going to immediately be killed again, so that there’s no net loss from the world of the dead. The show takes a turn in Episode 11, when it comes to light that the victim has changed over the course of this round robin — from murder to murder, it hasn’t been the same person at all. Perhaps there has never been any resurrection. Perhaps half of Dodge City has killed the other half. Certain humanists despair; certain environmentalists rejoice.

 

We watch this show on HBO every week of the coming year, and I pick up work as an episode recapper, filtering some of my ideas for unmade shows into my reviews of this one, paving the way in the mass consciousness for the next pitching onslaught, when I plan to finally hammer myself home on the anvil of my fellow citizens.

THE ART CRITIC ONLY MAKES IT TO #61 in his canonical 800 Dodge City Artists speech before the Dr. splits his last AIDS dose among the three of us and starts telling stories about his days in Euthanasia.

 

After a hard ascent in the field, complete with two advisers who rescued his self-confidence at crucial junctures, his breakthrough came in the form of a 12-tier system with which he was able to send his patients to 12 distinct levels of death.

 

“I killed them all, but some I killed more than others. I killed each one in the right way for them, and sent each to the right place. It was very personal.”

 

Astrally, he clarifies, his Euthanized patients were all over the map — if there was a map, of course — while corporeally they remained in a tank in his office, stacked in 12’s. Bereaved relatives were permitted to visit on Thursdays from 2:30-4:30pm, and sit quietly by the part of the tank their loved one had departed to.

 

Only Young, his lab doll, could reach into the tank to rotate them, which he did once a week.

 

“Maybe Young was never precisely a doll,” the Dr. adds after a morose-seeming pause. “Maybe he was always more of a lackey, almost human. Though without much personality to speak of, no offense to him. He was the only one who could remember which body was which. Once in the tank, I lost touch with who they’d been. That side of things never interested me.”

 

This was all before the advent of the Suicide Cemetery, in late 2012. When that happened, the Dr.’s practice came under attack.

 

The Suicide Cemetery director claimed that all those he’d Euthanized over the years must now be considered Suicides and thus be removed from the tank and buried accordingly.

 

“I mean, they’re dead because they wanted to be, right?” the Suicide Cemetery director asked while visiting the Dr.’s office on its last afternoon of operations.

 

Knowing he’d be forced to dismantle his life’s work if he didn’t abdicate on the wings of a substantial malpractice suit, he Euthanized a child who’d shown up for a consultation. The mother was right outside, reading National Geographic. The Dr. ushered the child in, said, “Make yourself comfortable on this chair so we can talk things over,” then went straight for the Euthanasia supplies and sent the child to Tier 7, where there was an empty slot in the tank.

 

He left his office for the last time that day, having pinned a note for the Suicide Cemetery director on the tank’s side. It read, Sort it out yourself.

 

All he kept was Young, his first lab companion and now his last. Actually, his only.

 

*****

THE YEARS THAT FOLLOWED WERE HARD. “I made my way into AIDS, where you see me now, but my only real passion was Movies.”

 

For years, Movies and Euthanasia had combined in him like white and red blood cells, in perfect harmony, but now, mired in the drudgery of AIDS, Movies were his only lifeline.

 

“I started going to Toronto every year in hopes of Euthanizing Cronenberg. I touched Guy Maddin’s shoulder once.”

 

He shudders at the nearness of the memory. “What I’m saying is, there are more Movies than time remaining in my life. So Young helps out. While I work in AIDS, he sits on the couch filling with everything that can be streamed. All of Soderbergh. All of Pasolini.”

 

All the Euthanasia chemicals Young absorbed over the years made him immune to the tragedy of the Dr.’s situation. They also made him unable to stand. Combined, they made him ideally suited to rebirth as a Movie Surrogate. “Young is home right now,” the Dr. boasts. “Watching Movies while I waste my time with you two.”

 

“His head swells as the Movies seep in, growing soft and rich, until it’s time to pluck it. When I do, I bite in like a plum, sucking out its seeds like those of a pomegranate. Each of these was once a Movie, and will be again in my lower intestine.”

 

The Dr. tears up as he describes the Euthanasia taste of the pomegranate seeds, inching him toward his own death with a minimum of friction.

 

“When Young’s head has been consumed, I open a vein and transfuse some of me back into him. Only a stranger’s blood allows him to grow a new head and go on watching Movies. Thought it’s humbling to think of myself as a stranger to him, I’m glad we have a system that works.”

 

“And Young never takes a break?” the Art Critic asks, like he’s been waiting this whole time to interrupt the Dr. after the Dr. interrupted his canonical 800 Dodge City Artists speech.

 

“There’s a subtle answer to that question. If he watches too many in a row, he begins to develop his own consciousness … a little too much for his head to retain its ideal plum flavor. Gets too sweet and juicy. Starts to ferment. On the other hand, if he watches too little before I pluck it, the head is sour and hard. It’s like winemaking. You go by feel. And taste.”

 

As he talks, I start to taste the plum. Then millions of plums, all Movies juiced into one. It has the same trajectory as a smoothie: the fruit makes me strong but too much all ground together and I blackout in a sugar crash.

I’M IN SOMEBODY’S HOUSE’S BATHROOM, looking at all the items, when the items start to change. It’s not that I was doing much before, but the change feels too soon.

 

I’m staring at a shag towel, watching it become fur; I’m touching a rubber hot water bottle feeling it become skin. The glass shower door becomes flattened egg shell, the mirror becomes silver leather, the leather toilet seat remains leather but is no longer a toilet seat; the toilet is now a stump with a fringe of ashes.

 

I rush out of the bathroom, unsure how far up my pants are or what they’re made of now, shouting to the people I’m with. I’m on tiptoe, afraid of the floor, afraid of my feet, unsure how deep the changes plan to go.

 

“Everything’s changing,” I shout, twice to hear if my voice is changing too.

 

“It’s only reverting,” the others say, calmer than I’d expected. “All synthetics back to what they were.”

 

One looks at the window as the glass becomes ivory and the other looks at him as he becomes another guy.

 

“What were they before?” I ask, not sure I’m of one mind with them.

 

They — neither of whom I recognize by this point; I wish I’d gotten their phone numbers — pull a newly appeared coffeetable book from a pile of coffee grounds on their laps and, brushing one page off on another, open it to the middle.

 

“Here,” they say, soothingly. “We talkin’bout the Dodge City AIDS Legacy.”

 

Not sure where to sit now that the couch has become a frond, I receive the following history on my knees, eager to exit the present however possible:

 

BY THE LATE 70’s, the Dodge City art scene was in bad shape. Everyone was doing something, but no one was doing it. The real stuff, too much of the time, had to be imported. Losing potency in transit, even the best of it was stale on arrival.

 

No one saw a solution except to take turns watching Jeff Koons blow up through a tremendous telescope.

 

It wasn’t until Keith Haring got huge then died in 1980, or vice versa, that the word AIDS began to make the rounds. It took 8 more years, until the death of Basquiat, for that word to sink all the way in.

 

People had been talking, but 1988 was the year to act.

 

First one and then every Dodge City artist went to the Dr. and said it like it was: “Without AIDS, there’s no way forward.”

 

They impressed the direness of their straits upon him — there had never been a Dodge City artist on the scale of Haring and Basquiat, not to mention Robert Mapplethorpe, and time wasn’t exactly running backward. Without a rash of legitimate AIDS diagnoses, the scene might well die and never wake up, not even to groan in its sleep as multimedia and web collage.

 

So the Dr., who saw himself as a man of culture as well as medicine, gave in. “Whatever I can do to help,” he pledged to all 800 Dodge City Artists in a row.

 

By now it was 1989. He left Dodge City for a weekend and came back with enough AIDS for everyone.

 

“Needles? Sex? What?” The Dodge City Artists asked each other how they’d gotten it as they waited their turn for the Dr. to diagnose them. “My work’s about to get urgent,” they all agreed. “Time’s about to get fast and precious.”

 

AIDS-diagnoses in hand, they returned to their studios and frenziedly arrayed glyphs and ankhs and fetish squiggles until they couldn’t stand.

 

In under a year, all 800 were dead.

 

This they hadn’t expected. Had they been able to see themselves now, they wouldn’t have understood why they looked the way they did.

 

The root of the misunderstanding, according to the coffee-table book I’m still looking at, in a house I no longer recognize, on knees I can no longer feel, was that they believed the Dr.’s diagnoses had been forgeries, allowing them merely to claim, to themselves and each other, to have AIDS … whereas the Dr., as much a man of medicine as of culture, had simply given them all AIDS, on the simple enough understanding that this was what they wanted.

 

AIDS is AIDS and ART is ART but when AIDS is ART then ART is AIDS, read the capstone on the mass grave.

 

Walking home from the funeral, the new population of Dodge City was: 1 Dr., 1 Art Critic, 1 Private Citizen.

 

*****

The Dr. and the Private Citizen are at the Art Critic’s house, waiting for him to break down the legacies of the 800 Dodge City Artists, telling them whom to buy and how much to pay and which pieces to grab up first, as well as how to speak lucidly about what they’ve bought.

 

They lounge on the Art Critic’s couch while he reviews his notes in the bathroom, trying to get straight in his head at least some of what he’s about to say.

 

The Dr. fingers a final dose of AIDS in his jacket pocket, having procured an extra just in case. Now he’s wondering whether to use it and, if so, on whom. Maybe I’ll divvy it up, he thinks, imagining the three of them having a fun, weird time.

 

Just as the Art Critic is promising himself “You’re You!” in the bathroom mirror and preparing to storm into the living room and rattle off his canonical 800 Dodge City Artists speech, the towels begin to revert to fur, the hot water bottle to skin, the toilet to a stump, the air to coffee grounds … the mirror to silver leather.

 

I try to stand from my knees and find my shins melted to gravy and salt.

 

Still fingering his AIDS, the Dr. looks me over like he wants to get me to take some. It’s only synthetic, I hear him whisper, like he’s trying to just think it.

 

It must already be starting to revert then, I whisper-think in response.

 

It’s not hard to guess what happens next, but it is hard to guess right.

THE SEX ACTORS of the Internet are taking a 4-week break for treatment, so everyone’s in the hardware store staring at a packet of Fruit of the Loom undies hanging from a peg.

 

 

This is how we miss a savage killing on the street outside, which we read about in tomorrow’s paper. It involved a local Male Supremacist group whipping a teenager to death for having had a mother, having been, as they put it, “born of woman and thus dead to us.”

 

 

We shake our heads.

 

 

There’s other mayhem, too. A new operation has moved in: a studio that claims the ability to generate concepts and outlines for 40 B-Movies a day, dwarfing the 20-B-Movies-a-day studio that’s been cranking out concepts and outlines, as well as actual B-Movies, for longer than I’ve been here.

 

 

The old studio is responsible for Dodge City classics like Toe Bath, in which a pedicure salon that offers clients the opportunity to stick their feet into tanks where fish nibble away dead skin turns bloody when the fish develop a taste for human pus after drinking one client’s open sore. Then there’s A/C Man, in which a poorly installed A/C unit falls from a window onto a man’s head, but instead of killing him it turns him into an A/C headed monster, breathing freon and seeking revenge upon the dwellers of the window from which it fell, except, being unable to see, he kills everyone in the city before succumbing to global warming in a Texaco restroom. There’s also Wart Benjamin, which, depending on whom you ask, is either about “a wart that thinks he’s a man,” or “a wart that splits in two.”

 

 

The thing is — we’re outside in the square now — the old 20-B-Movies-a-day studio actually produces all 20 every day, whereas the new 40-B-Movies-a-day studio promises to generate 40 concepts and outlines a day but to produce nothing.

 

 

This leads to a schism, which Professor Dalton eventually shows up to mediate.

 

 

We wonder aloud what we actually want from our B-Movies at this point in history, whether their actually being made is still paramount or if something else now is.

 

 

“Perhaps,” someone speculates, “glutting on concepts without the time investment of watching their consequences will pump our brains free of the sludge that’s been slowing them down since 2011. Instead of always feeling like we’re behind in our effort to watch 20-B-Movies-a-day, perhaps now we’ll get ahead, having scanned 40 concepts and outlines almost before waking up.”

 

 

To which someone else retorts, “Yeah, but why even call it a Movie if it’s not a Movie?”

 

 

In the midst of this, a heretic comes to town and puts forth that what’s really important now is not B-Movies at all, but what he calls B-Moves, which is essentially B-Movie behavior divorced altogether from the strictures of cinema, brought all the way into real life, where “the rest of us are anyway.”

 

 

He holds up a laminated sheet showing an introductory set of 200 B-Moves which, he promises, “anyone can master after an afternoon of practice.”

 

 

“Why sit in front of a screen when you could, you know, put your hands right in it?” he wonders rhetorically, and even Dalton has to admit it’s a good question.

 

 

*****

LATER ON, after the schism has reached a gridlock, I’m sitting down to lunch with the heretic, who offered to treat me after I expressed interest in learning a few B-Moves myself.

 

 

“Going town to town espousing the end of cinema is actually just my day job,” he confesses, after our food arrives. “My real passion is the incomparably disruptive Korean cinema of Kim Ki-Duk, whose name I used to hesitate to even invoke. But after years of effort, I’ve transposed myself into his American avatar.”

 

 

He’s beaming, almost crying.

 

 

He takes out his phone to show me a rough cut of what he considers his first film as the American Kim Ki-Duk.

 

 

I lean in.

 

 

The film features a male and female, both of whom do indeed look like Americanized versions of Korean actors.

 

 

It’s a husband and wife facing hard times, living in a very small apartment, the type that I believe is or was sometimes called a council flat.

 

 

Their options are severely reduced by poverty, dipping to zero. They maintain their dignity in the face of a corrupt system that manifests little concern for their wellbeing, but it’s clear that something’s got to give.

 

 

With a heavy heart, after having slept on it for a night and showered first warm and then cold in the morning, the wife decides to turn to prostitution. The husband stays in bed until the wife has left for the day, unable to bear the sight of her in her new professional attire.

 

 

The heretic looks up to make sure I’m riveted.

 

 

I look like I am.

 

 

IN THE NEXT SCENE, the wife returns dejected, beaten down not by the relentlessness of the sex market but by the opposite: no customers all day. Not even any rate inquiries. “I just hung out by myself,” she admits.

 

 

The husband covers his face at this news, at first relieved and then humiliated in a new way.

 

 

The days go on in this pattern.

 

 

Then, on a tear one night, the husband chances upon a new, even more desperate solution: he’ll buy her himself.

 

 

“This is what it’s come to,” he says sternly, taking out his wallet and asking what she charges.

 

 

She tells him, he pays, and they do anything he wants for 40 mins, which involves several trips to the microwave and the letting loose of the contents of a packet labeled Hot Antss.

That night ends.
A WEEK GOES BY like this, the husband buying his wife every night, sometimes twice a night, looking away from the bruises complicating her surface.
Then, since this influx of cash is most welcome but not yet sufficient, the wife proposes the inevitable second step: she’ll buy her husband as well.
Let him see how it feels.
After some thought, he acquiesces, telling her his rate and beginning to strip.
Taking up the broom and metal pan from beside the fireplace, she barks, “get in there,” pointing at a small wooden chest in one corner of the living room, where the firewood is kept and scorpions have been known to roost.
After pleading and receiving a severe blow to the ribs, the husband crawls inside, jabbed at all the while by his wife, who’s paid good money for the privilege. The scorpions seem to multiply through contact with his gonads.
Back and forth and back and forth this all goes, the husband buying the wife and the wife buying the husband until they’re both very rich and thoroughly, thoroughly degraded and terrified of one another.
The credits roll.
“And so the really moving and transgressive thing about this film,” the heretic begins, taking the liberty of discussing his own work as if it were someone else’s, “is how the central mystery is never solved: that of where the money comes from. And isn’t that just like life? We get by somehow, most of us, but we don’t know how. We worry almost to death about not surviving, and yet somehow, semi-magically, we survive.
“Now, there are several interpretations that the director invites us to consider: is there a second couple, identical but for its wealth, inserting itself between the primary couple, and paying for the services rendered? Or are the husband and wife simply able to manifest more money, when thus obliged, than they believed themselves capable of manifesting? Or, and this is my personal favorite interpretation, is the director inviting us to consider a more metaphysical possibility, a deeper conflation of the degrading effects of prostitution and economic striving, such that by simple virtue of crossing this line with one another, the husband and wife conjure money out of the ether, calling it forth from the very shame they’ve descended into, as if the core sexuality of prostitutes naturally yields cash rather than children?”
He goes on in this vein as I creep little by little toward the edge of the booth, trying to time my exit for the moment just before he cues up the next Movie on his phone, which I can tell isn’t far off.

I’M LYING ON A SHEET with my toes just out of reach of a fan when my new neighbor wakes me up.

 

“Did you ever hear about my early days?” he barks.

 

Compelled by some authority he seems to have gained over me since I closed my eyes, I start the coffeemaker and wash my face, scraping up attention like a high schooler at the sound of the morning bell.

 

As soon as I get to the wall he talks to me through, he begins:

 

MY PARENTS had two sons — myself and another. As they aged, and began to consider their Will, they reached the conclusion that only one of us could prevail.

 

What they had to bequeath, they determined, was not enough to split but was more than enough for one: “The one of you will have twice as much as the two of us ever had,” as they put it.

 

They consulted two Transmogrifers until they chanced upon a method of combining us.

 

ONE NIGHT they took us into the backyard in thick wool caps, and began the ceremony.

 

“The two of you will now be one. One of you will be both, and the other will be none.”

 

They sprayed us with the garden hose, our feet pressed together like roots in a pot of fertilizer. It proceeded like so, my brother and I uncertain as to which of us would be which, until dawn.

 

AT DAWN, it was done: my brother had become both me and him, and I had become neither.

 

When they removed my cap, wet with what’d seeped out of me, my head felt like a dry bulb sitting loose on a stalk.

 

I stole back into the house while they were cleaning up, washed my feet in the tub, and packed my things. I took a plastic garbage bag and gathered only what mattered most: my J.G. Ballard collection.

 

I stuffed all my Ballards into this bag slipped nameless into the night … through our neighborhood and into another and then a third.

 

*****

I ROAMED for days, eating from dumpsters, compulsively removing phone numbers from bulletin boards and telephone poles only to ball them up and throw in the dumpsters I ate from, like tiny seeds that grew stale bread and lettuce.

 

As the days got hotter I worried my Ballards would melt. A fermented smell began to issue from the bag, which grew puffy with gas.

 

I SPENT stretches of three or four days in the woods between towns, sleeping among roots and bathing in streams. In one such wood, I came upon a wedding.

 

I approached thinking perhaps to glean some canapés and tapas and champagne.

 

THE BRIDE AND GROOM, belonging, it seemed, to one of the anti-sex leagues, had sealed all their orifices with a skin-looking putty.

 

I mean all of them — not just the leg ones, but the head ones too. Their bodies were completely impermeable, except maybe for pores, though even there I wouldn’t have been surprised if some blockage had been achieved. And not only between their legs but even their legs themselves were sealed together, so they were both balanced on thick tan pedestals tapering to a ten-toed foot.

 

They were both naked, and almost indistinguishable, as the bride’s breasts had been mashed down and all hair on both of them shaven. She was only slightly smaller than he was.

 

The Officiant mumbled awhile, then slathered the bride and groom with glue and tipped them into a whirling device, like a cement mixer.

 

Once they were both inside, the Officiant closed the flap and, mumbling tunefully now, began to spin it around with a crank. Those in assembly bit their lips and hummed through their noses.

 

The newlyweds spun for quite a while. I was transfixed by their motion, the gist of which was visible through the translucent plastic of the device.

 

Then the Officiant finished the mixing and opened the flap.

 

“All Hail the Skin Ball!!” chanted the Officiant, removing the single fleshy mass inside.

 

The sealed-up exteriors of man and wife had fused into a ball that had no humanoid characteristics except a few imprints of teeth and spinal declivities, like a painted pattern on a smooth spherical surface.

 

Soon the guests started on the canapés, tapas, and champagne, more or less forgetting the Skin Ball, which was propped between a tree and a large rock.

 

When I’d eaten my fill, I approached the Officiant and asked where I might purchase a mixing device like this one.

 

*****

SUFFICE IT TO SAY, the mixer, which I purchased on credit in the first town on the far side of the woods, was even more effective than I’d hoped.

 

I rolled it into a park by a river and said my goodbyes as I fed it my Ballards.

 

I began to turn the crank.

 

I watched as all the Ballard of my childhood — the semen-soaked steering wheels and bestial apartment towers, the irradiated beaches and inescapable traffic islands, the war-zone shopping centers and zombified airport concourses — was melted down into ample white dough.

 

The smell of highly sugared baking bread issued from the mixer, and soon a crowd of children encircled me.

 

I held them back until the process was through, but as soon as it was I opened the flap and shouted, “Ballard Doughboys! Ballard Doughboys! Get ‘em while they’re hot!!”

 

Even at $2.50 apiece I took in enough to rent a room in that town and begin a new life there.

 

I knew my supply was limited and that — though this was before Ballard’s death — the odds of replenishment were low. It was really his 60’s and 70’s work, from The Crystal World through The Unlimited Dream Company, that made the sweetest and tenderest dough. I tried to cook up 2000’s Super-Cannes, but the children found it bitter and went back to the ice cream man on the other side of the park.

 

So I parceled out that prime dough judiciously, using only a small piece for each Doughboy, with plenty of strawberry jam and powdered sugar to fill it out.

 

Those were the good years … I was just a young, nameless man in a nameless town trying to make my way, and though I struggled, and was alone, I was happy, though I didn’t know it then, as the young never do …

 

MY NEW NEIGHBOR TRAILS OFF HERE, and I give in to dreams of going back to sleep.

 

But my ear is stuck to the wall, like a tongue to a frozen flagpole. I knew this might happen, but my ear didn’t. It throbs and roils.

 

The ripping sound, when I pull free, must have reverberated through the wall, because my new neighbor shouts, “Whoa! What was that?”

 

I can’t tell if his surprise is from the alien sound of my ear-rip or the simple fact of my presence here — perhaps, all this time he’s been talking, he was unaware that there was someone listening.

 

Taking advantage of his momentary silence, I start tiptoeing toward my bed without expecting to make it there.

MY NEW NEIGHBOR AND I get to talking through the wall between our Rooms:

 

“In the course of my wanderyears following the dissolution of my anal marriage to that nun and the crossing of God’s DNA with mine,” he begins, in a tone like it’s a long story he’s gearing up to tell, “I was imprisoned in one of the towns I passed through.”

 

Opening the last beer from my Room’s mini-fridge while tasting my willpower not to drink it dying inside me, I resolve to listen though there’s no way my neighbor can tell whether I’m actually up at the wall unless I ask questions or grunt in understanding.

 

“It was one of those situations,” he continues, “where I hadn’t actually committed the crime they booked me for, but since there were so many crimes from previous towns that I had — and gotten away with — it seemed more or less fair to do some time here. Kind of make up for all of them, you know?”

 

I nod, inaudibly.

 

“So they locked me away and I thought that was it, like a life sentence. They wanted to watch me rot, more for who I was than for what I’d done.”

 

He pauses here long enough that I sigh to prove I’m listening.

 

“So I started doing my time, and before long these photos of me in there, deep in my cell, surfaced on the Internet. A man from the apartment next door had been photographing me, shooting straight into the prison.”

 

“Shooting into the prison? It wasn’t in a … like, secure location?” I ask, proud that I can picture what he’s talking about.

 

“Nope. It was right on Main Street, above an Indian restaurant.”

 

AS MY NEIGHBOR pushes the story forward like a cart along an alley, I find myself drawn into the Internet, picking up the story there, looking at the prison pics rather than listening to him describe them. His voice sounds like the humming of a generator in the background, powering my computer while I search.

 

In the pics he looks much younger but not much healthier … though I can’t say what he looks like now, since I’ve only ever heard his voice.

 

The fact that I’ve never actually seen him starts to seem weird and menacing, not least because it hasn’t occurred to me until now.

 

I get frightened and part of me wants to go back to listening to him, in case he starts casting spells, but I’m too deep in the photo gallery to climb out. I get that water-filling-the-room feeling, but try to keep my breathing even and push past it.

 

I keep scrolling through pics and reading digests of what happened:

 

Lester Mance, the guy in the apartment next to the prison, started out taking pictures of all the prisoners, in the most predictably compromising positions — shower stuff, beat-off stuff, some submission and punishment stuff, whatever he could manage through the windows … his aim was low.

 

BUT SOMETHING MORE PROFOUND MANIFESTED IN HIS SHOTS OF MY NEIGHBOR: total resignation covered my neighbor’s face like a skin condition, an apartness from the usual grim flux of prison life, too sad and peaceful to be called despair, though it wasn’t enlightenment either. More like the profound knowledge that he was right where he deserved to be, in a cell the size of all the space he deserved on this planet after all the waste he’d laid to the spaces he’d passed through on his way here … and a humble, almost reverential acceptance of this knowledge.

 

“A sort of beatification through confinement, the limits of his soul expressed in terms of the limits of his cell,” according to the Artforum article which first popularized the pics in the art world.

 

“A man who knew he had God in him and yet had used that God for nothing but the most predictable sort of debasement,” the article, by Rachel Kushner, elaborated.

 

Soon collectors were coming to town, eager to get up close to the source, in on the ground floor.

 

When the demand to possess my neighbor in the flesh got high enough, the art world submitted a petition for his release to the judge who’d put him away.

 

This judge, aware that he was being offered a rare chance to put his hand in art-world greatness, released my neighbor after taking the minimum requisite time to appear as though he were weighing a grave decision.

 

When my neighbor got out, the art world hosted a Release Day Parade to welcome its newest celebrity onto the open market. The expectation was the he’d take his saintly face on an international tour, posing as a modern-day Augustine, bloated with a Dead God decaying in his tissue.

 

*****

BUT AS SOON AS HE WAS RELEASED into the arms and lap of Larry Gagosian and prepped for his first junket in Paris, my neighbor reverted.

 

He simply went back to how he’d been before prison, like he’d been on PAUSE.

 

The beatitude that had crowded his face when all alone in his cell facing a lifetime in there cleared up like a bout of teenage acne and the full skeeze of his previous self seeped back to the surface.

 

As the art world had no use for a man like this, Larry Gagosian sent him to Cleveland with a bus ticket and $35 in spending money.

 

Lester Mance, who’d been held on retainer as the official photographer of my neighbor’s saintly passage into the art world, was let go. He pulled a Jerzy Kosinski soon thereafter.

 

The original photos of my neighbor in prison, sweating soul-sickness, sold for tens of millions while my neighbor, in his present incarnation, kept along the path he’d been on until it deposited him next door to me in Dodge City.

 

*****

I close my computer and find that my Real/Not-real circuitry is too scrambled for comfort: I’m suddenly less than certain about whether what I’ve just read refers to the person who actually lives next door to me, or to some historical figure as remote as Marlon Brando.

 

Part of me wants to get up and knock on the wall and try to rouse my neighbor so I can ask him to vouch for his story, but another part can’t shake the fear that, were I to knock on the wall, it’d cave in and I’d fall through into some pit-dream where I’d just keep falling.

 

So I end up dozing in a hammock-like middle zone stretched between one decision and the other, flexing my abs with the prayer that morning will come if I hold this position long enough.

AFTER FEMA DEPARTS WITH ITS NEW CRONENBERG IN TOW, bound like a Christmas Tree in the back of its truck, there follows a non-period of the kind that has become familiar. For every incident, it seems, there are at least ten non-incidents, or maybe just one ongoing non-incident, depending on whether you want to break it up.

 

I sit in my Room, arranging my materials, shaving a little of my face at a time, waiting for news. When news finally comes, it comes in the form of a DELIVERY ANNOUNCEMENT from the Mayor:

 

“DEAR PEOPLE,” the email begins, like some update from a talky college dean:

 

“Every few decades, as you likely know, the Horror in this town gets old. Like sitting water, it gets cloudy and full of, well not literally, but pine needles and insects of a non-literal sort. That’s the natural way of it. It turns tepid, or turgid, or both … neither-here-nor-there, you know? Not really Horror at all, just a general unease that imbues our lives with a gross quality, instead of the really sharp and riveted feel of living with True Horror, which is what we all want, whether we know it or not … or at least what I want, which is sort of the same thing when you really think about it, don’t you think?

 

“So, I’m very pleased to announce to you all now that our application for an influx of Fresh Abject Horror has been granted … it’s been years on the waiting list as funding got cut again and again, during which we all had to bite our tongues and watch as wealthier towns, in wealthier counties, got serviced before us, but at last our turn has come. This is a time of renewal for Dodge City. It’s a, not to mix metaphors, freshening of the ground upon which we all stand.

 

“POUR YOURSELF SOME CHAMPAGNE BEFORE READING ANY FURTHER,” the email commands.

 

So I do. This entails leaving my Room and going to buy some (assuming there’s a brand I can afford; otherwise I’ll just get more beer), and taking it (I found a brand) into the street, where the Horror Delivery is already underway.

 

I uncork the champagne (Cava, technically, now that I read the label and not just the price tag) and stand in the crowd in the town square to toast the truck as it unloads the boxes of Fresh Abject Horror that the Mayor is so proud to have secured for us … I see him standing by the off-ramp of the truck, taking selfies with his phone while the crew piles up the boxes, already emanating serious dark energy.

 

The delivery crew wears oven-mitt gloves that reach their shoulders and handles the boxes with the kind of attention that makes it clear they’ve all been bitten/burned/etc at least once before.

 

WHEN ALL THE FRESH HORROR HAS BEEN UNLOADED, the delivery crew quickly siphons our degenerate, stagnant Horror (much of it still person-shaped) into a plastic tub, loads it into the truck, and departs.

 

*****

The people of Dodge City, all drunk on the same Cava, stand around looking at the boxes, waiting for the Mayor to tell us what happens now.

 

He looks like he’s thinking about it.

 

When he’s done, he says, “Alright everyone, go back to your Rooms. All of your old neighbors, you’ll notice, have been evacuated, melted down and carried off, to make room for the new neighbors that will sprout from these boxes. You will each have new, genuinely horrifying neighbors before the night is out. None of you will sleep in peace.

 

He steps back like he’s expecting applause, perhaps already beginning to hear it in his head, but it doesn’t come. We shuffle away in a weird mood, unsure how to pass the time between now and tonight.

 

*****

I’M BACK IN MY ROOM, eating vending machine snacks and reading movie reviews, when I hear a crackling and rumbling next door. My new neighbor is here, I think, giddy despite myself. Maybe some Fresh Horror is what I’ve been needing for a while.

 

I hear a tapping against the wall. Thinking of an old Mitch Hedberg joke on this subject, I look in its direction and notice a discolored patch in the otherwise off-white paint. It appears to be a hazy window.

 

When I go up to it, I see a shape moving on the other side. It’s like extremely dirty glass, showing only the basic outlines of my new neighbor.

 

He looks like a blob, maybe just obese in the belly, or maybe equally large through the shoulders and neck. Maybe he’s still taking shape after his time in the box, or else this is how he is.

 

A sound like a burp traveling through the esophagus before it reaches the throat comes through the wall. The sound is about as grainy as the image, like I’m playing a very old VHS on a VCR that’s sat out in the yard for years before being taken back in as a relic.

 

“Is this a Confessional?” asks my neighbor.

 

Before really considering the question, I reply that it is.

 

“Good. I’d like to tell you about my anal marriage to a nun in Sardinia.”

 

I pour more of that Cava and wheel over my computer chair.

 

“Let me know when I can start,” he asks, after a while.

 

“You can start.”

 

So he does:

 

“I fell into this anal marriage during a period of soul-seeking in my early thirties. I’d just left my job at Bain & Company on the verge of a sizable promotion, and set to roaming southern Europe, as far north as Bavaria and as far south as Crete, focusing on the south of the main Catholic countries — Spain, France, and Italy.”

 

“What about Portugal?” I interrupt, not sure whether I’m supposed to participate in this process.

 

He ignores the question, continuing: “It was in Sardinia where I fell through the final floor, into a basement of self I’d always known was there but hadn’t thought I’d have to inhabit at such a young age. I thought I’d spend my life preparing to inhabit this basement, not actually inhabiting it. I got confused about which life was which, so to speak.”

 

Since I can’t see him well enough to tell, I imagine him sighing behind his hand here.

 

“I was on a beach in Sardinia, outside some tiny town whose name I don’t remember, kicking up sand while considering my low state, when I met the nun. She and I immediately felt a kinship, she fleeing the convent and the circumscribed life of chastity and prayer she’d pledged herself to, me fleeing Bain and the circumscribed life of profit and acquisition I’d pledged myself to. We were in different models of the same boat.”

 

He pauses. “So, that night, with the help of the local olive oil, we entered our anal marriage. She craved connection on a very sincere and human level but was not yet ready to cast off her vows. You know that trick, right? The old anal workaround, to preserve technical virginity for God?”

 

I nod, imagine him able to see me.

 

“Well, each time before we began, she reiterated, like saying Grace before a meal, that her vagina was reserved for God, whenever He chose to make His entrance … during the act itself, she prayed loudly for God to enter her at the same time, as if by my example God might take notice and consent to participate.

 

“It went on like this for most of the summer, us scrounging up what food and drink we could and sleeping on the beach, until, one night in late August, He appeared. The nun and I were having anal sex in our usual way, after a dinner of canned dolma and bread, when I felt a foreign presence within the familiar sheath of her anal canal. Something pressing from the other side, exerting a strange sort of dizzying heat.”

 

“God’s penis?” I guess.

 

He pauses as if shocked by my prescience, or pretending to be. “Exactly,” he finally says.

 

“God’s penis was pressing toward my own, drawn as if by some sublime inevitability, in the middle of this nun.”

 

He stops, and I think his confession may be over. Then he continues:

 

“And the nun seemed cognizant on a base animal level of the event taking place within her. I could tell that she was reaching a kind of total fruition, beyond earthly orgasm … she was host to the union of Man and God, like that famous finger-touching fresco, you know the one I mean? We thrust toward one another, straining to break the flesh-wall and touch, and finally we did. Our penises made contact, and some conversion occurred.”

 

I pour still more Cava and wait.

 

“I’m not a religious man, but there’s no denying that I was altered permanently. In the moment of mutual orgasm, God’s semen flowed through the rupture in the nun’s belly and down into my penis, nullifying my own emission and seeping deep inside, into my testicles and seminal vesicle. It killed my human sperm, severing my bloodline, and made of me a proxy for the unborn progeny of the Creator.”

 

Another pause.

 

“Then what?”

 

“Well,” he replies, cagily, like he hadn’t intended to say more. “The nun died, and God withdrew, disappeared. I buried her in the sand, and found myself alone, fraught with God’s semen and no instructions for how and where, or even whether, to use it.”

 

“I see,” I say.

 

“So the years went by,” he continues, in a conclusory tone. “And I grew ever more uncertain, aware that if I were ever to ejaculate inside another mortal woman, I would kill her, were it anal or oral, or impregnate her with a God-spawn that she and I could by no means raise, were it vaginal. I was in a bit of a bind.”

 

We both pause here.

 

“And, all the while, the pressure in my testicles was mounting. I was descending into a new kind of madness. So I roamed the earth for many long years, afraid even to masturbate lest the seed be found where I left it. When your Mayor’s order for Fresh Abject Horror came through, I applied for the post and got it. That was a Salvation.

 

“I was boxed up and sent here, told I’d be given a Room where I could masturbate freely, releasing the God-seed a little at a time until I was free of it and could die in peace. It’s been a terrible burden to carry. I have come to Dodge City to relinquish it, at long last, in the service of Horror, for the sake of the town. It may take years of dedicated masturbation, but I believe it is possible.”

 

“Huh,” I say, thinking out loud. “And you call that Abject Horror? Seems more seedy than horrifying, to tell you the truth. Not really any less degenerate than whoever was in your Room before you. Kind of amusing, in fact. I feel a little cheated, not that I blame you.”

 

“What are you, some kind of Secular Jew?” he scoffs.

 

I nod that indeed I am and walk away from the Confessional, aware that he can’t see me and is perhaps talking still, trying to justify himself.

 

Or maybe, I think, logging back into my email, I’m the Fresh Horror and he’s its object, unwitting and defenseless in that little Room of his next to mine. I almost go back to the Confessional to propose this possibility to him, but I figure I’ll burn off a little more time first.

 

Then the sounds of his awful masturbation start up and I know we won’t be talking any more tonight.

 

I know that soon I’ll be praying for the sound to abate, and that it will only get louder the louder I pray.

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