News of Harry Crews’ death hits Dodge City like — there’s nothing that it’s like. It’s an event whose singularity is — again, nothing. Let’s just say that if both Kennedy Bros. had been shot down for the first time this same week, the news wouldn’t have penetrated a single ear in Dodge City amidst the wailing and keening frenzy that the Death of Harry Crews has stirred in us. It’s something from dinosaur times, from the days when the Devil was young. Our grief and ecstasy manifests itself first in a free-for-all of spontaneous tattooing — anyone who has any ink and anything sharp begins, even before the obituary is printed, tattooing themselves with the most ragged and pre-Biblical script imaginable … words of praise and honor to Harry Crews upon their naked flesh, devotionally burning themselves with cigarettes and cutting themselves with parts of bottles and cans in the process.

I’m up in my room listening to some Vic Chesnutt and mourning in my own quiet way when my housemate Jerry comes in to say it’s time for the funeral. He asks if I want to shoot some steroids to get ready – “You know, ‘Body,’ and all, right? ‘Scar Lover.’ I mean, this is Harry Crews we’re going to see here … ” So I shoot some steroids with him, and then finish my coffe, and we go over in a pretty genial and hopped-up mood, as if it were Harry Crews alive and not dead that we were going to see.

Our other housemate, Chad, Who Disappears for 10-15 Minutes at a Time, isn’t around right now. Maybe he’ll meet us there.

The streets are seething as we make our way out, our hearts pounding like fists in our ears, our T-shirts tight with sweat and weird patches of muscle bulging out hard in various parts of our backs and sides, like armor for our gut organs.

It’s a rapturous sunny summer day, verging on the desert-like. “Buzzards circle high” etc … We can already smell and hear the snakes that’ve been prepared. Some teenagers lurch past behind us, shirtless in loose pantaloons, vodka bottles sticking out of their waist-sashes like an array of canteens at the start of a long foot-journey. “When did you first read ‘A Feast of Snakes’?” one asks the other. “My second month in the womb,” he answers, and they both cheer like this is a practiced call-and-response.

And, in fact, it is. As we keep walking, we hear this question going back and forth all over behind and beside us. Everyone is chanting this same refrain, building group energy as we converge on the town square for the main event. “When did you first read ‘A Feast of Snakes’?” Jerry asks me, partaking in the hysteria, whether ironically or not I can’t tell. I almost say, “When I was twenty-five,” which is the truth, but I’m afraid he may be so far gone by this point that he’d throttle me for blasphemy, so I respond, under my breath, “My second month in the womb.”

Now the throng is so deep we can’t push any further in. The whole town is here, and everyone is huge on steroids, so it’s like two towns are crowded into a town square meant for one. To my right I  can see five or six guys eating a car, their mouths raw and bloody with metal and beads of shatter-proof glass, a line of mostly-naked cheerleaders dancing and whooping beside them.

A man on fire dances on the other sideline until he meets another man on fire, and they collapse, amidst cheering, into a single burning mass.

Up ahead (we have to crane way over the necks of the people standing in front of us) we can see a cement pyramid on the other side of the moat of snakes, so full that some rattlers and copperheads are leaping out and biting the cheering people in the front lines. Trailers are parked all along the edges of the square, people bench-pressing weights on rickety homemade benches, pounding beers, throwing footballs, and reverentially gut-stabbing one another.

Atop the pyramid stands a figure in a gold facemask that tapers to a sharp birdlike beak. The sun glints blindingly off its surface so that we can’t look the high priest directly in the eyes — an old Aztec tradition I believe, unless it was either Mayan or entirely made-up. I am suddenly 100% certain that the high priest under the mask is Professor Dalton, but I don’t share this with anyone.

He’s shouting into the sunlight but it’s like the glint off the mask is obscuring his voice as well. I can only hear it grating on my ears, can’t make out any of what he’s saying. Then a cry goes up from the crowd: “Today, Dodge City is Mystic, Georgia!!” they shriek, and, a moment later, “Today, Dodge City is Celebration, Florida!!” Someone jabs me with a needle just under my right ear, and I start chanting and cheering as well.

“Who will be the first sacrifice?” shouts Dalton-under-the-mask. I expect him to pull a curved, jewel-hilted saber from his robes, but he just stands back with his arms up high as hundreds upon hundreds of devotees dive into the snake pit.

As they fall, the rest of us push closer in, right up to the edge, to watch as the snakes peel their meat off them, and then start pouring through their skeletons, which dry almost immediately in the relentless Geogia/Florida sun. I stand as close as I can and watch snakes thread in one eye socket and out another, looking for any last leavings, and then, eventually, fall to eating snake.

A solemn hum comes up from the remaining crowd and, in this sound, I realize how substantially thinned our numbers are. I estimate that at least half of Dodge City has just sacrificed itself.

When the snakes are reduced to a couple of gorged blobs, Dalton raises his hands to halt the hum. “Today is a day that will live forever in … ” and then he cuts himself short with a cackle. “Who am I kidding? Harry Crews wants you to drink until you vomit bile and shards of liver, and then beat the living fuck out of one another!”

Another cheer goes up from the crowd as Dalton disappears into the arms of his bodyguards.

I can tell how the rest of the day will be spent.

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