IT’S TAKEN A MONTH TO PRODUCE THE FIRST BLUT BRANSON CRITERION DVD, but now it’s spring and the Release Party is upon us .

 

What’s more, two of his most celebrated shorts have been included as special features — 2 Old Ppl, about two best friends who, upon growing old, discover that one of them has turned into two old people while the other has turned into none; and Our Beloved Carefree Child Was Murdered, about a man whose profession it is to accept responsibility for having murdered teenagers that actually committed suicide, so their parents don’t have to feel guilty about not having been there for them.

 

In advance of the Release Party, the entire downtown is converted into an Anything-goes Zone. Professor Dalton has been on the prowl with Big Pharmakos since last night, drinking, finalizing his speech, and fending off paparazzi demanding to know whether the rumor that Branson himself might appear has any basis in fact.

 

THEN, BECAUSE WE CAN’T WAIT ANY LONGER, THE RELEASE PARTY BEGINS. We’re tearing half-naked through the streets, eating fresh-killed hocks of goat and lamb, crushing boxes of wine on our faces and lapping it off one another, bellowing at the smoggy sky as the Criterion Truck pulls in. We hurl ourselves upon it, tearing open the back before it’s stopped moving, burying ourselves in DVD’s, basking in the canonization of our first genuine saint.

 

The Truck opens beneath us, spewing boxes like confetti. We’re buried, writhing in glory, heedless of suffocation.

criteriontruck 1

It’s all good until a slimy bursting overrides our glee and we fall silent as hundreds of repressed babies tear through the women among us. They rise from their mothers’ shoulders, armpits, faces, and scalps, crawling out of the afterbirth to push aside DVD’s and howl at the lights of Dodge City, the first they’ve ever seen.

 

SOME CONTEXT: 17 years ago, Professor Dalton pioneered a non-abortive family planning technique whereby fertilized embryos could be shifted out of the mother’s womb and into another part of her body — the shoulder, the armpit, the face, the scalp — and sit there, inert as benign tumors, until such time as the mother was ready to birth them, when the embryo would simply be pushed back into the womb with a pool cue and allowed to the develop there as normal.

 

Dodge City women have been availing themselves of this treatment since then without incident, until now, when, it appears, the absurd excitement surrounding Branson’s Criterion Release has caused the embryos to develop and hatch all at once, exploding from the places they’d been stored, emerging fully-formed from the wreckage of their mothers.

 

I’m no expert, but they look larger than newborns should: more like two-year-olds, standing up and yelling to announce their arrival.

 

*****

AS WE STRUGGLE TO EXTRICATE OURSELVES, Blut Branson himself appears from on high, camera out and ready, barking: “Test them for the fear of death! Test them for the fear of death!”

 

He’s shooting frantically, wading barefoot through the destroyed mothers among his pile of DVD’s. There’s a full crew behind him, people I’ve never seen before, and I start to wonder how much of this has been preordained for the sake of producing his next film, and how elated I ought to feel if it has been, given that I’m here to witness it, perhaps even to partake.

 

He is everywhere at once, swirling among the newborns, attaching mics to their bare chests, making sure their voices can be heard in his headphones.

 

Then he turns to us and says, “Your job is to rank how scared of death these newborns are. On a scale of 1 to 10.”

 

No one moves.

 

“Now!” he shouts. “Do you want to be part of the next Blut Branson film or not?”

 

Still no one moves.

 

“How are we supposed to find out?” someone finally asks.

 

“Ask them!!” he shrieks. “How do you think? Look at that pile of corrupted flesh … that is their mothers. Show them that. Say, One day that will be you. What do you think about that? How does that make you feel?”

 

Aware that my chance to have a hand in a Branson film is now or never, I run up to the nearest newborn and ask it these exact words. It doesn’t respond. I try the next one, and likewise get no response.

 

“What do we do if we get no response?” someone else asks, sparing me the indignity.

 

Branson pauses, checking his rage before replying. “Speechlessness is a 10. Highest possible fear of death. They’re all 10’s! They’re all 10’s, aren’t they!” he shouts, standing outside the Criterion Truck, crushing the DVD’s, indifferent to his old work, focused utterly on the new.

 

“Perfect! Every Newborn’s a 10! That’s the title of my next film!!”

 

If there is such a thing as a God, it never addressed its Creation with more conviction than this.

THERE ARE THOSE IN DODGE CITY who claim that Blut Branson has, after a lifetime of struggle, at last reached the distant shores of the Criterion Collection.

 

There are many among them who maintain that this has been his life’s sole ambition. “Getting a film into the Criterion Collection is,” they claim, “for Blut Branson literally synonymous with entering heaven.”

 

There is fear that he’ll die as soon as it happens.

 

When the email arrives that two of Branson’s films have made the cut, the police have to put the town square on lockdown to keep us from rioting with joy. “Criterion’s gonna turn Blut Branson into DVD’s and Blu-Ray’s!” we scream, juddering with excitement until tear gas blacks us out.

 

When we come to, we’ve been transferred to a medical tent where Professor Dalton sits behind a laptop, writing the official Criterion introduction to THE MURDER OF NICKY TEENSMA, the first Branson film to cross over.

 

“Shh,” says Dalton, looking up from his screen. “Don’t make me shush you again.”

 

We crowd in as quietly as we can to watch him write the following text:

 

*****

THE MURDER OF NICKY TEENSMA tells the devastatingly simple story of an ordinary man whose only calling is to murder a child.

 

Cannily, this is all that Blut Branson, in what I maintain is his most daring and original film, conceived when the director was only twenty-eight but not realized until his mid-forties, allows us to know about his central figure, whom he terms Dan, a name we learn from a single shot of his prison intake file more than thirty minutes into the film. So, if you will, he begins his screen-life as an unnamed everyman and only upon incarceration does he receive the nearly-meaningless moniker he’ll casually bear for the rest of our time with him. He has no last name, as Branson characters — except those either too saintly or too demonic to figure into the moral vortexes at the center of his work — never do.

 

The child he dreams of murdering is named, famously, Nicky Teensma, after Branson’s first and, according to a press statement from Cannes ’89 upon the film’s tempestuous release, “last best friend.”

 

“I have made the film. I will say nothing more about what happened between us,” his statement concluded.

 

It is telling that this name belongs to the director’s — not the character’s — childhood best friend, though the childhood resentment is expiated strictly through the director’s work, never in his life. (Dodge City residents with young children will recognize the real-life Nicky Teensma as a substitute third-grade math teacher and occasional youth soccer coach.)

 

In the film’s opening scenes, we see the-man-not-yet-named-Dan going quietly insane in an unremarkable southern California apartment, picking things up and putting them down, staring at the clock, grazing from the refrigerator … all while drawing picture after picture with the caption THE MURDER OF NICKY TEENSMA. These are beautiful in their way, but more disturbed than disturbing, a mess of mutilated child bodies that never achieve the aesthetic cohesion.

 

These early scenes present an unadorned but absolutely convincing portrait of fantasy wearing itself down, as our man approaches the point at which he will be irresistibly compelled to do the thing he has for so long nursed in ideation, shunting his compulsion into the symbolic.

 

“NO!” the thing inside him will soon shout. “No. Now you must make me real.”

 

The first of several decisive moments comes when his neighbor, an elderly lady with whom we’ve seen him interacting once before, dies and leaves him her modest fortune.

 

He quits his soul-numbing office job, where we’ve seen him sitting at his desk, slowly cutting his upper thigh with a piece of paper, and spends the next ten minutes of screen time in an excruciating funk, deep in the darkness of the one room that is not his bedroom, fully untethered from the normalizing routine of work.

 

In a shot that is quintessential Branson, a ray of light glints off his left eye in such a way that it remains unclear whether he has generated this light or is reflecting it from some inexplicable, perhaps trans-dimensional source. To any viewer who’s already seen a Branson film, there can be no question that a grave decision has been made.

 

He stands up and walks to the courthouse.

 

In the next shot, he is seen sitting down with the county judge — in Branson’s universe, all business is meted out on the county level — and explains his proposition:

 

“I am willing to spend the majority of my remaining life in prison for the privilege of murdering a child with impunity upon my release.”

 

“So,” the judge replies, in what has become a catchphrase among Bransonphiles all over the world, “you are in a sense conflating the child’s death with you own, insofar as you are sacrificing your own life at this relatively early stage in order to efficaciously sacrifice another life when yours has already been squandered, and thereby renew yourself through the child, hoping to be reborn as him in the moment of killing, and thereby live on purged of what you yourself will never manage to purge yourself of.”

 

“Yes,” says our man. I can hear audiences in revival cinemas from New York to Tokyo to Capetown sighing in apprehension as this word is uttered.

 

*****

IN A CHARACTERISTIC ELISION, we never see the judge’s deliberation. The second act opens on Dan in prison (after his name has been revealed on his intake form).

 

With the stylized inscrutability of many a Branson protagonist, Dan refuses to answer when the other inmates ask what he’s in for, and there’s something just menacing enough in his bearing that they leave him alone. We never even learn if the guards are aware of the peculiarity of his sentence.

 

We know only that he has been sentenced to forty-seven years, the exact age that Branson was when the film was finally released, only to lose the Palme D’or to the much more easily assimilated, but, I maintain, more easily forgotten sex, lies, and videotape.

 

Dan spends the decades aging before our eyes in near-silence, praying to a hand-carved soap statue of the child he will kill upon his release, having already named him NICKY TEENSMA, in a kind of divine soul-congress straight from Blut Branson himself.

 

As twenty years served become thirty, Dan enters an almost mystical state as his worldly concerns recede into the deep past and he is kept company only by the promise of what he will do when the time comes.

 

Forty years into his sentence, with seven to go, Dan celebrates a quiet birthday alone in his cell. He dances in a slow circle and whispers, kissing the the soap statue, “Today, Nicky Teensma is born. When I am released, he will be seven. Today my life begins in earnest as well.”

 

*****

WHEN THE DAY of his release arrives, the film can be said to properly begin, though the preceding forty-seven minutes have of course been one of the most riveting prologues in Branson’s prologue-heavy oeuvre.

 

Dan walks into the blazing sunshine of a world he barely recognizes, a man of seventy-five, played by B. Sanford, father of G. Sanford, who’s played Dan until now.

 

The look on B. Sanford’s face was wisely chosen by Criterion as the cover image for their deluxe, fully-restored edition: relief to be freed undergirded with something closer to terror at what he’s consigned himself to do. It is through this look — not through any dialogue or narrative cue — that it begins to dawn on us that Dan is no longer driven to murder a child in the way he was as a young man.

nickyteensma

A kind of despair comes over him as he realizes that it is now only his duty to his younger self that spurs him forward … in the film’s only instance of voiceover, we hear him think, “And I figured, since I’d invested my life in it, I’d better follow through, though I sure wished I could’ve taken a pass, or even that I’d died in prison.”

 

He stares deep into the camera as he walks uncertainly down a hill. I read his expression here as one of tempting fate, profoundly wondering what might become of him if he didn’t follow through on the thing to which his life has been consecrated.

 

The next ten minutes are, in my opinion, the most excruciating and unforgettable that Branson has ever committed to film. In near-silence, we watch Dan wander through the suburban Los Angeles he’s been released into, perhaps objectively not much changed since his incarceration, but we know something is irreparable in his relation to it. The combination of the toll the years have taken and the awful duty that he must now fulfill is enough to freight Dan’s steps with a sluggishness that threatens to drag the film to a halt.

 

We watch him wander from one drab location to another — a tire shop, a fast food window, a secondhand clothing store — for no apparent reason other than to look people over, holding their gaze too long, daring them to look back at him. Anyone who’s seen the film will have an interpretation of this sequence — some claim it’s superfluous and should simply have been cut — but I believe that here Dan is trying to warn the people of Greater Los Angeles, through a sort of telepathy, to keep their seven-year-olds far away.

 

Don’t let me get what I want, he thinks at everyone he passes, in what amounts to his final attempt at Grace.

 

And it is as if these people have received the message: no children at all are seen in this sequence, not even in the background, where, on repeat viewings of the film, one notices they have always been before, seemingly oblivious of the camera.

 

*****

ONCE DAN’S WANDERINGS have taken him as far into the San Fernando Valley as he (and we) can bear to go, he discovers a seven-year-old completely alone, sitting on the bench of what appears to be an unused bus stop.

 

Of course, as viewers of a film, we are aware that the boy has been posed like this, but, immersed as we are in Dan’s perspective, stumbling across this boy with no adults around and no agenda of his own is significantly uncanny. To this day, I cannot watch this sequence without stopping to watch it again and then taking a fifteen-minute break before continuing into what I know is coming.

 

Without a word, the boy slides off the bench and follows Dan into the dusty afternoon, deepening toward the west, preparing to set over an ocean neither of them will see.

 

Now Branson tries for the first time a technique he will use throughout the rest of his career: he freezes the screen on the road just after Dan and the boy have disappeared around its only bend, and holds the image for a full minute.

 

Then he cuts to Dan and the boy in a motel room so sparse the set looks undecorated: there’s a mattress with no bedding, a linoleum floor with no carpet, a wall with a single window and a single ratty curtain blocking out the twilight. They’re sitting on the mattress surrounded by groceries in bags.

 

We don’t want to see what we know is coming, but we can’t help feeling grateful that the minute-long hold on the previous image is finally over. At least, we think, we’re back to watching a movie.

 

As they go on sitting there, about a foot apart, snatches of a grocery store force their way in, like the two of them — independently or together — are processing their memories of shopping in lieu of facing the future.

 

We see Dan picking up packaged cakes and brownies and holding them out to the boy, enticingly, almost begging him to accept these treats in a reversal of the typical interaction wherein the child demands what the parent insists he cannot have.

 

The boy simply nods, holding the packaged cakes like the inanimate objects they are, responding with neither relish nor disgust.

 

Then, intercut with the increasingly painful image of the two of them sitting in the motel room as nights falls behind the curtain, we see them at the checkout counter. The girl scanning the treats smiles at the boy and says, “Your grandfather must really love you.”

 

Without meeting her eyes, the boy mumbles, “He’s my father, not my grandfather.”

 

*****

WHEN WE CUT back to the motel room, Dan is crying, perhaps remembering the moment we’ve just seen, or perhaps he has finally, fully arrived in the present, and knows he can delay no longer.

 

Dan looks at the boy, turning his back on the camera, as if to shield him from us, demanding a moment of privacy that we are more than inclined to grant.

 

Then, with one of the great tragic grimaces in Branson’s filmography, Dan reaches under the mattress and pulls out a long, curved boning knife. The film offers no explanation of how it came to be here; it knows that by now we are past the point of expecting realism to spare us what’s coming.

 

Dan holds it up, waving it through the air, trying to get the boy’s attention. The boy stares downward, seeing the knife when it passes through his line of sight but making no effort to follow it. We watch as he gets increasingly livid, waving the knife like it’s on fire and he’s trying to put it out.

 

“Look at me!” Dan finally shouts, revealing how very long it’s been since any word has been uttered. “You are Nicky Teensma. I’m sorry, but you are. And for that, you have to take what’s coming. You did something to me. Now I do this thing to you.”

 

His voice falls to a whisper, as if he’s trying not to hear himself.

 

“Nicky, all I did I did for you. I sacrificed my life for you. What happened when we were kids would have been repeated on and on through ages, to both of us in every form we ever took, if I didn’t do what I’m about to do.”

 

THEN, for the second and final time, the frame freezes on Dan and Nicky Teensma on the bed, the knife stretched between their bellies like a placenta.

 

*****

A HOWLING CREEPS under the frozen image and then we cut to paramedics kicking down the door of the motel room at dawn.

 

Inside, the devastation is so complete it remains indescribable for several seconds, a kind of phantasmagoria of the type that Branson would stage with increasing fervor — some would say to the point of derangement — throughout his later career.

 

When we’re finally able to make sense of the room’s interior, what we see is the boy drenched in blood, leaning on the long knife like a cane. There is something old about him, but, no matter how many times I watch the film, I’ve never been able to explain what it is. I’ve attempted to ask Branson, to which he’s replied only, “We are all heading in that direction.”

 

The paramedics approach warily at first, but Nicky Teensma is beyond violence now.

 

There is no sign of a second body and there is no sound until one of the paramedics clears his throat.

 

Without blinking, the boy says, “My name is Nicky Teensma and I’m ready to spend my life in jail.”

 

The screen freezes again, but this time the credits roll, the boy’s face slowly turning into that of Dan as a young man, which we remember from the film’s beginning, as though some awful cycle whose nature we will never comprehend has just completed a revolution.

 

By the time the screen goes black, the man staring at us, drenched in blood and ready for jail, is unmistakably the young man whose face the film opened on, his eyes aflame with the compulsion to murder a child.

 

NB:

 

If you watch the forthcoming Criterion disc on repeat, you will be treated to a fully, insidiously seamless experience. Soon, you’ll forget how many times you’ve seen the film, or even where its beginning and ending points are. Just don’t indulge too many times or what happened to me will happen to you.

IT’S BEEN A LONG WINTER IN WHICH NO ONE’S had a better idea than to keep up with the TV Movies that a few insomniacs churned out while the rest of us slept.

 

My favorite is Finger Torture, about a guy who, believing that his dreams have prepared him for torture, signs up to be a Scarecrow, which is someone who is hired to be tortured in place of someone who can’t take it. The idea is that the Scarecrow will either withstand the torture with a modicum of dignity intact or else determine that it’s excessive and lucidly deliver the information the torturer is after, rather than devolving into the histrionics of a Scared Crow, as those who melt under the torture they have been singled out for are called according to the TV Movie’s prologue.

 

I read Scared Crow as Sacred Cow until the narrator said it aloud.

 

“In those days of sudden, random torture,” concluded the narrator, “the Scarecrow business was unsurprisingly booming.”

 

The guy who volunteered to be a Scarecrow in the TV Movie claimed he’d had a series of dreams in which a duo broke into his room and removed his fingers joint by joint, night after night, each time more painful than the last because his fingers had regrown imperfectly in the interim, but also each time less traumatic than the last because he’d been conditioned to expect it.

 

“Finger Torture was the only thing I’d been made ready for,” he told the camera from behind a veil.

 

This struck a nerve with me because I had a similar experience, years before coming to Dodge City.

 

*****

DURING EVERY NIGHT OF THOSE YEARS, I slept alone in a rented room similar to the one I was tortured in once the dream began.

 

When it did, they turned on the lights I’d been sleeping under and pulled me up in bed, always the same two agents — a guy and a girl, in matching blue T-shirts and khaki work pants — stuffing my reading pillow under my back so I wouldn’t slump over when they let go of me.

 

Their method was to cut my fingers joint by joint, starting with the thumb of my left hand and working toward the pinky of my right. The guy sliced the pads of the fingertips with a serrated kitchen knife, then, once they bled out, the girl cut off the first joint with a pair of garden shears.

 

“Is the code a woman’s name? Is it Heather? Is the dial just a switch?” Every night, these three questions.

 

Without giving me a chance to respond, the guy slices the skin on all my second joints and the girl comes through with the shears. Then it’s on to my third joints, until all 30 are in a pile in my lap.

 

They spray the pile with a water bottle like it’s seeds they expect to grow.

 

This happened every night, and the pain I felt was real. It leeched all feeling from my days. If I’d been able to get out of bed and run away, either out of the dream or past them within the dream, I would have, but the pain was so acute it locked my knees under the sheets. I couldn’t even slide off the reading pillow.

 

So, as they cut me, I took to tunneling into my head, into a dream within the dream, which I perceived as a daydream since in the dream I didn’t know I was dreaming. The place I was trying to reach was the parking lot just through my door and down the single flight of stairs of the housing unit.

 

In the daydream, I push the door open with minimal noise and step onto the landing, where my neighbor is smoking, oblivious to the gasps coming from my room.

 

I feel like one member of a duo who’s left his partner behind — I know that someone is still being tortured in my bed, but it’s not me anymore.

 

Down the steps to the parking lot, under the mosquito-clogged light, past the outdoor laundry station and the pool with its deflated raft and the jammed vending machine, into a waiting car.

 

I buckle my seatbelt beside a hooded boss who asks, “Do you have it?”

 

I say “Yes,” and hold my hands out. The fingers fall off, painlessly, into his leather kit bag.

fingerbag

We cruise up a wide, empty boulevard to a bank deposit box, and I get out and dump the finger bag in.

 

“The balance is in your account,” whispers the boss through the car window, not letting me back in. “Soon you’ll be ready for L.A.”

 

He drives off.

 

The dream ends when I make it back to my room on foot, which can take until well past dawn. When I wake up in my bed, my fingers are swollen and throbbing, and my reading pillow is propped behind me.

 

*****

THESE DREAMS TOOK PLACE YEARS AGO, but the TV Movie makes me consider the possibility that I’ve never stopped having them, despite the memories of other dreams I often awake with now.

 

Decoy Dreams, I think.

 

As the credits roll, I start thinking about where to get a serrated kitchen knife and a pair of garden shears, and how to convey to Big Pharmakos my desire for him to cut my fingers slowly but ruthlessly one by one when I’m asleep tonight, so I can see if I still have it in me to leave my body and get in that car, cruise up the boulevard to the bank box.

 

Because God knows my account could use a deposit.

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.
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