Archives for the month of: May, 2013

First there’s a Lunar Park craze in Dodge City and then this:

 

Shelflife, 3, still lived at home with his parents, a mom and dad.

 

They did things like sleep at night.

 

Slept straight through till the next thing.

 

In a house on a Dodge City Street. A prefab, if that’s the term. A McMansion, if it’s not.

 

TONIGHT they come.

 

Everyone’s tucked in. Prayers have been said in the directions of overhead light fixtures and screen windows. Lava lamps have been extinguished but stay hot, cooking dust.

 

Shelflife’s in one room and the parents are in one room, tucked in, eyes closed — whether sleeping or not is private, but they’re not looking wildly around, ready for anything, if that’s what you want to know.

 

They don’t see them enter.

 

See what or who or whom enter?

 

The Delegation. Sheathed professional entities, not like “faceless hooded creatures of the night that seem to float an inch off the cool creaky floorboards” or any such.

 

They take their shoes off downstairs, rummage through the pantry cabinets, eat a few handfuls of dry cereal apiece (there are, I’d guess, six or eight of them). Then it’s upstairs, to work. There’s a certain window in the night that they have to reach people during.

 

They’re standing in the part of the hall equidistant from the two relevant bedrooms, and, I don’t know the specifics of how, they wake up both Shelflife and his parents at one and the same moment.

 

Then they’re all standing there, yawning, like there’s been a stomach-cramps episode and daycare tomorrow has come into question.

 

One Delegate reads:

 

“The Nobel Prize is hereby awarded to INSERT NAME for his/her uncanny evocation of the nuanced grottular inner-twistings of the self-regurgitating capstone on the maleficence of the one or the other of several of the … ”

 

It’s reading off a Kindle and apparently the screen has just died. It looks around with an expression that may be of helplessness. There’s a giggling from its colleagues, a sound like The Awful Fanfare, if I’m remembering correctly.

 

“Never mind about that,” the bearer of the Dead Kindle says, after either thinking or doing nothing for a moment. “The Nobel Prize is yours, yay.”

 

 

Another Delegate hands him a Knut Hamsun book — Growth of the Soil — to show him what league he’s now in. Then, maybe thirty seconds later, it makes an impatient motion summoning it back, like it expects Shelflife to have read it by now.

 

His parents have looks of grief, awe, a kind of warped and fearful joy, either at the trauma of this intrusion or the windfall of Their Son, a Nobel Prize Winner at 3.

 

There’s silence, or, anyway, quiet. It’s not clear if the Delegation is about to leave or stay.

 

It’s hard to say how I know this, that is, to transmit what was intuitively clear at the time, so maybe a declarative statement will do: the Official Horror is that Shelflife is being prepared to be fed to some half-sentient mass of skin and teeth vegetating in a tub, one of those things which eats only Nobel Prize Winners, and likes ’em young …

 

BUT what we can all tell though no one will say it is that it would be nice if this were the case. It’d be way easier to swallow than the truth.

 

“Where is it?” gets asked eventually, to cut off any more thinking about the truth. The Official Horror is bad enough and it’d probably have a hard time getting up to a PG in the scheme of what’s actually afoot.

 

“Where is what?”

 

“The … ” You can tell that what wants to be said is The Nobel Prize. But, “The thing.”

 

“Oh,” the bestower of the Prize looks around. “Never mind about that,” it says. “The thing is internal.”

 

Shelflife looks like he understands. It’d be nice for him to have a badge or other decoration to wear, don’t you think? But he’ll face up to it in another way.

 

*****

THE PARENTS and Shelflife either wake up or emerge from their rooms having been awake for untold grueling hours. They come down to the breakfast table, sunny, and look at each other like what does a Nobel Prize Winner do at breakfasttime?

 

They turn on the radio and that Mountain Goats song with the line “and cloven hoofprints turn up in the garden” comes on, so they turn it off.

 

Gossip fans out through Dodge City like a deck of, I’ll just say for now, cards.

 

“At least it was finally awarded to an American,” is one line of thought.

 

“The first since Checkhov,” someone adds.

 

Anton Checkhov?” asks another, like maybe he knows him.

 

“The thing I don’t get, you know,” says one friendly farmer type shooting the shit with his buddy farmer type at a diner like a couple of example-cases from Methland, “is why those … things or what have you … didn’t have the speech memorized by now. I mean, if they’ve been going around doing this for years, like the papers say, don’t you think it’s fishy that they had to read it off that … that … computer thingy?”

 

*****

I could go on in this vein, but there’s the matter of The Slo-mo Hate Crime.

 

After breakfast, Shelflife’s mother opens the front door to get the mail and sees that the guys are back at work on the Hate Crime. They’d been at it for months, on the front lawn, but, lately, they’d taken a break. She used to refill their coffee thermoses and make them sandwiches on occasion, just to reduce the awkwardness of their presence, but that was a while ago.

 

They wave at her, and she can’t help but think that their return this morning has something to do with the Delegation from last night. Maybe they’re somehow involved with the truth, the unofficial horror behind or inside the Official.

 

She’s often wondered what sort of Hate they’re working on. Some days it looks like a regular old Swastika, other days a Blood Altar, a Gallows or Public Torture Rig, a Cranial Treehouse. It used to seem funny not to know, but not right now.

 

Right now a clock starts to tick, like disaster is drawing near. She runs inside to find Shelflife surrounded by the press, holding forth.

 

When she first got inside her idea was to get him out of the house, into the car and out of Dodge City before the Hate Crime was finished, all the way up to her parents’ place in Peoria, but now she’s not so sure. Maybe, as a Nobel Prize Winner, it’s his destiny to go out there and confront The Slo-mo Hate Crime, see it for what it really is in a way regular folks aren’t equipped to …

 

She’s there reconsidering when They stream through the front door, dispatch the press with a single fluent gesture. Then, covered in tissue and viscera, they turn and look obediently at her son, and she understands that she has about two seconds to leave this house and never return, and she does.

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Now that Blut Branson is hard at work on his novel down in the time capsule we buried him in, everyone in town is summoning their shit back together.

Big Pharmakos announces his plans to rebuild his menagerie.

“Remember,” he starts in, “I’m still this town’s main pimp.”

To tell the truth, I’d forgotten. Or just about.

He’d been into various things in the time-peaks and -troughs of the past however long.

“I did the Silent Room for a while,” he fills us in like we’ve all been under sedation for years and years and no one thought we’d ever wake up, “but all who ever came was the Silent Professor, and no one liked not knowing what his deal was.”

The answer to the question “What was The Silent Room?” would have been found in the grassy shadows at the far back of the party tent implied by the word “Brothel,” so to speak. It was as far from being that as something could be while not being closer to being anything else.

The main thing was the Silence. That meant no talking, no giggling, japing, carousing, gaffing, singing, bellowing, belching, etc. No noise or sound of any kind. You came in, paid for your person, and off you went, across rubberized noise-canceling floorboards.

No surprise, I’m thinking, that the Silent Professor was the only taker.

“I had a few good employees,” Big Pharmakos continues, addressing what he seems to take as a group of people although, far as I can tell, it’s only me.

“But they all said the same thing. They said, ‘The Silent Professor comes into the rooms with us and just sits there, totally Silent, not moving, not looking at us, certainly not touching us … but, soon enough, we start to feel weird. Like something isn’t right, maybe physically, maybe in some other way. Like we’ve woken up wrong from naps that went on too long, you know, and we can’t tell how long we’ve been asleep or even how awake we are now, whether it’s as awake as we’re going to get or if it’s still low down on the scale of waking up, and we have a lot more still to look forward to, or to fear … ”

Then the Silent Professor would rub himself down, head to toe, with Purell (from a bottle in his suit pocket, although there was a free dispenser on the wall), then leave.

“They claimed,” here Big Pharmakos lowers his voice, “that he had something Noboru Wataya-ish about him, the whole way he made them feel in there, the whole deal he put them through after he’d paid up front to do whatever he wanted.”

There’s a collective shudder and then some, what you might call, finger food comes our way.

*****

The curtains draw tight. The lights go down.

“Shh,” says Big Pharmakos. “Moving on … ”

I start to feel weird and don’t know why until I allow myself to suspect that the Silent Professor is behind me.

I feel confirmed in grounding what I’d hoped would not remain groundless.

The screen lights up.

There are no trailers.

After the opening salvo a title lets us know we’re watching “Dispatch From a Bag of Mucus Lost Somewhere in California.”

Whether it’s a short film or a feature I cannot yet say.

It’s images of animals being crushed in the shower.

They’re in there showering — like geese, giraffes, lizards, voles — until, all of a sudden or on cue, Big Pharmakos (or an actor portraying his better self) busts in with two big hands and a heart pumping blood and smashes the little things against the soapy tiles on the side farthest from the spigot.

It’s not as gruesome as you’d expect. He cracks them only until a nice seam opens up and then he peels their skins or shells away to reveal not gory viscera but a smaller, younger, healthier version of the same animal inside.

These renewed animals he collects in a pen. They look away from one another; it’s like they know where this is going.

It becomes clear that the film is an advertisement, or more like an informercial, for Big Pharmakos’ new venture.

The voiceover:

I won’t quote it verbatim, but it basically explains that he’s been collecting the youngest, lithest versions of all possible animals, two of each — the Ark references are neither egregious nor subtle — and is planning to put them on offer to the citizenry in what he euphemistically terms the Dodge City Latter-Day Petting Zoo.

At this Petting Zoo, customers are invited to do what they please with one animal of the pair while the other watches, in sympathy or in terror, according to personal taste.

COMING SOON! it concludes, atop a montage of showering animals, now in the shower stalls at the Petting Zoo, as if to imply that the flow of customers has already begun.

*****

“Any questions?” Big Pharmakos asks.

“Yeah, where are the sloughed parts? You know, the old skins. You scrape ’em out of the shower or just leave ’em around or what? That’s the shit I dig.”

I picture these skins breeding slowly in a landfill along the strip of highway between Springfield, MA and Hartford, CT.

I miss Big Pharmakos’ actual answer.

“Any other questions?” he asks.

“Yeah, what’s with the title? Where was this ‘Bag of Mucus’ we were all waiting for?”

“A concession to the director.”

One eye looks a little wistful, a little wry. The other scans the audience, like what wiseass just asked me that?

 

Mass dissociation in town, people wandering to the edges, putting in giant orders over the phone, toting it to undisclosed locations. Bingeing in its several forms. A wave of charlatans tears through, gets what it can, and is gone, off to another county or genre.

 

The newspaper, in a slow, passive panic, resorts to printing boilerplate headlines like “Six Babies Pregnant From Kissing Dirty Towel.” Everyone glances but no one takes a copy from the box. More, nearly identical, copies, stuff the box every day until they congeal into an inseparable mass.

 

Masked custodians dressed, to keep our spirits up, to resemble the slaughterers from Stokoe’s Cows, hustle in and clear the gagged boxes away until there remain only a few drafty fliers for concerts that were canceled without notice.

 

Everyone has by now fed all the time that will go to all the things that will eat it. When there’s no longer any alternative to Professor Dalton coming down from the hills and declaring an auction, he comes down from the hills and declares an auction.

 

We flock to it, changing into clothes and pregaming it however is best.

 

On the way there, I run into a young butcher who lays claim to having written “She eyes me like a Pisces when I am weak,” but could not afford the rest. I have no special credits to my name, but I’m new to the Auction Block.

 

On the way in, taking peanut butter treats from the concession table and signing into the Sign-in Book, we pass Jose Saramago, David Markson, and Clarice Lispector. They give a general, head-swivel nod, taking us in without singling us out. They take their reserved seats in the Auction Hall beside Umberto Eco and Kenzaburo Oe. I wonder how much it cost them. I don’t even know the scale. It doesn’t look like anyone around has serious, serious money, but maybe they did before they got these names and the associated boxes and boxes of work. Dodge City seems to need its own version of everything — if you’re going to read David Markson, he’s going to be a guy in town with a day job at the hardware store. Same goes, even, for Bill Gaddis. He’s someone’s buddy; someone has a hard-to-enforce restraining order out against him.

 

Professor Dalton takes the podium. A children’s bell choir starts playing, on some cue, then stops in the middle and goes away. We’re in like a chapel. There’s a teenager at the back with a camcorder on a tripod.

 

Dalton begins with all the “it’s my solemn duty” stuff. “To come hard to the point,” he says, after having evaded it as long as possible, “we are gathered here today to auction off not only the name and the works but the larger role in our society of the formerly formidable master of long-form fiction known as Blut Branson, who has so let us down.”

 

A whisper works its way through the crowd from the mouths of Dennis Cooper and Travis Jeppesen.

 

There’s a comical element whereby whoever was in charge of making the nametags made everyone’s first name Steve, so the tags read “Steve Cooper,” “Steve Jeppesen,” “Steve DeLillo,” “Steve Le Clezio,” “Steve Murakami,” etc.

 

I suppose someone will walk out today wearing a “Steve Branson” tag.

 

Professor Dalton: “I won’t say the ‘real’ or even the ‘original,’ but the initial Branson has proven inadequate. It is time for the series to advance, evolve. Which of you will step up?”

 

Then comes a certain amount of “The Crying of Lot Branson” histrionics. Steve Pynchon winces gamely at the shout-out.

 

The bidding is heated and hardcore. I sit back, wiping spit from my face with a constant back-and-forth motion. An old Dogs Die In Hot Cars song plays in the far background.

 

In the end, “Blut Branson” goes to a man formerly known as DJ Rabbi Lizard Wolf. He ascends the podium in a hail of jeers and spitballs, kneels before Professor Dalton to receive his “Steve Branson” nametag.

 

“So much for the ‘Wolf,” whispers Elfriede Jelinek.

 

So much for Blut Branson, I think. I wonder what’ll become of the actual guy, wherever he is, aware that this kind of thinking has no place in Dodge City.

 

*****

It turns out it isn’t over yet. We break for lunch, the bell choir comes back for another part of a song, and the teenager with the camcorder changes his tape or chip. Then it’s time for the Ceremony of the Subsumption of DJ Rabbi Lizard Wolf into the Totality Of Being of the Disgraced Supreme Novelist Knowable Only As Blut Branson.

 

This is hard to watch. If Elfriede Jelinek hadn’t been sitting so near me, I would have looked away.

 

When it was over, it still wasn’t enough. People were wound up, demanding further action, desperate to shock the town out of its funk.

 

“Let us proceed to the Time Capsule,” Professor Dalton declared to general applause.

 

 

OUT BACK a hole got dug. The Time Capsule was a big black trash bag. There were straw wrappers, ketchup and mustard packets, loose Skittles, and Blut Branson inside. In a rare display of perspective, someone removed his “Steve Branson” nametag so as not to cause undue confusion down the road.

 

Blut Branson flinched and squirmed. “C’mon guys!” he shouted. “It’s me, Rabbi DJ Lizard Wolf! You know me, I MC’ed your kids’ Bar Mitzvah’s! Don’t do this guys, seriously!”

 

Professor Dalton crushes the Blut Branson bag down to the ground, says the valediction. The Time Capsule is sealed, some special water or something is sprinkled on top, and it’s lowered into the hole.

 

“May the good people of the New Dodge City know how we lived now,” he proclaims. “Tell them how it was, Blut Branson.” The bag squirms some more, sucking in and out.

 

*****

A few days later, the ground over the Time Capsule is still talking. Blut Branson, down in there, sounds to be still alive, even, some speculate, hard at work.

 

Crowds gather, on their lunch breaks or kids after school, smoking and drinking sodas on the ground above the Capsule, listening to it jabber and pace. A punkish looking 14-year-old dubs himself the new DJ Rabbi Lizard Wolf and amasses a cult following, earning Best New Music on Pitchfork within the hour.

 

“Maybe he’ll finally get his novel done down there,” says Big Pharmakos, who was Steven Millhauser through the aughts but had to give it up when the recession hit. He leaves and comes back with a large coffee which he waters the ground with, watching it get absorbed. “There you go, buddy,” he says, with a rare and sincere benevolence.

It would be no exaggeration to say —

 

I don’t know, nothing comes close. The people of Dodge City are upset enough to do something beyond what they can even think of to do.

 

You promise people a novel and deliver a couple of short stories? I’ll admit that doesn’t sound so bad to me, but I’m not from around here and my taste is forgiving. Not so the people of Dodge City. Not when it comes to Blut Branson’s novel. Maybe people, some people, aren’t ready to give up on him altogether, but the general feeling is, “The next time he shows his face it better be Light in August.”

 

Dogs wander with their heads down and their tongues hanging so slack they almost scrape the sidewalk. Citizens sporadically shoot them then call their neighbors and shout “CLEAN IT UP!!”

 

Michael Shannon is long gone (another midnight convoy). He’s either safe or in a kind of danger that we can’t be held responsible for, unless we’ve rattled him off his center and he’s consequently lost his … man, I can’t focus at all. I almost just abandoned this whole thing I was about to write and free-associated about Palmer Eldritch instead. A waiter at a bar once told me that was the most terrifying thing out there, but really it was him that was terrifying and I got out of there as quick as I could, though outside it wasn’t much …

 

Sorry. Things have been weird. Ever since I passed out at the Blut Branson short story reading after eating all those K. City ribs and … in any case, we’re all arranged in an auditorium now and the Mayor is saying how we all need to settle down and take it easy on ourselves and each other and just give ourselves (and each other) a little time to heal after the trauma we’ve all been through, and not to rush these things, and not to discount them, and …

 

It’s like a big high school guidance assembly where everyone’s supposed to get together and just mope until something’s over.

 

The Mayor shows two videos, “positing other towns,” he explains, “to help take our minds off the tragedy that has befallen this one.” He looks out the window at the half-mast flag as he says this, and his eyes linger agitatedly on it for a moment, like he’s not sure it’s quite at half mast and is debating asking someone to go out there and work on it.

 

THE FIRST VIDEO STARTS UP: It’s pretty short and I get woozy. I feel like I’m acting in that Sebald scene about the herring fishery when he was a boy, and how deep and dark the water was … but the film’s about a town functioning under a disease or other science-fictional condition. It makes it so that everyone there went to high school together. Like there was only ever one class, and everyone around was in it. There’s that uneven aging thing going on where all the people that graduated together at 17 and 18 have spread out in age to fill all the roles — some are children, some are high schoolers again, some are those high schoolers’ parents (this gets a little rise out of us), some are the teachers, some are retirees, some are ancient, and quite a few are dead of natural causes or soon to be born (in many cases to pregnant high schoolers).

 

“It’s just a film about a feeling,” says the director in the DVD’s Q&A feature, which starts up automatically when it’s over. “The feeling that I went to high school with everyone I know … you know?”

 

THE NEXT VIDEO STARTS UP after a prodigious fumbling-with of equipment and myriad audio issues. It tells more of a linear story. 

 

It’s the story of a hometown kid from like Nebraska or one of the Dakotas whose big ambition is to be a singer-songwriter in the vein of Jason Molina. “All he ever wanted was to be a singer-songwriter in the vein of Jason Molina,” is the tagline. So he practices a ton of covers, writes some of his own stuff, plays nonstop, wins the admiration of most people by the time he’s 17, even changes his name to Jason Molina, and then — this is the big plot point — mails in a demo and wins a NATIONAL SINGER-SONGWRITER CONTEST.

 

The prize is that he gets to spend the next summer at a Singer-Songwriter Camp in the Catskills. “The Iowa of Singer-Songwriter Camps in the Catskills” is its tagline.

 

So he goes away. This marks the end of PART I.

 

PART II opens with Jason Molina’s return from the Singer-Songwriter Camp at the end of the summer. He’s a completely new man. He’s been cast in a new image, rebranded. He’s been scrubbed clean of his whole sensitive-bro rural American vibe and turned into a wistful English balladeer with a few brawly / laddish aspects mixed in, for edge and sex appeal. He’s changed his name to Frank Turner, has a couple of albums out already, and claims not to recognize anyone in the town.

 

He comes back with a manager to do a show, just one stop along the Frank Turner: Badlands Tour, and people accost him. “Jason!” they shout. “You’re home! What’s with the British accent? Why are you singing about blacking out in strange flats in East London and being a Wessex Boy and drinking with your friends on the cathedral grounds in Westminster?”

 

His manager restrains them from charging the stage. He leaves town in a midnight convoy.

 

It should end here, but it doesn’t. As his career gets huge, especially with his new album Tape Deck Heart, and especially on the Scandinavian and Eastern European Festival Circuit, the people of his hometown in Nebraska / One of The Dakotas start transforming things to match his songs. They change the names of stores, tear up the asphalt and put down cobblestones, start serving rural English fare and ales, chuck out their old racisms and acquire new ones.

 

They tear down the Jason Molina graffiti and pull his albums from the stores. Now it’s all Frank Turner all the time.

 

 

I sneak out of the auditorium, holding my belly in a sick-looking way at anyone who looks.

 

*****

Out in the parking lot, I reach in my pocket for a tissue and pull out a wad of printed pages. It takes me a while to see what they are: a third Blut Branson short story. Michael Shannon must have slipped it in my pocket when I was passed out at the reading.

 

Here’s the flash version:

 

As I’m backing out of a parking space I feel my back tire squish something biological. Fuck, I think, a cat. I put my hazard lights on and get out. I expect to see a tail under my back tire, but instead I see the edges of a diaper and a pool of baby-filling. Fuck, I think, a baby.

 

As I’m looking around, trying to determine if getting quickly out of here is my best move, a woman carrying a bag of groceries appears behind me. She takes in the damage. “Sorry,” she says. “I just parked him there for a minute, while I ran in.” She indicates the convenience store.

 

“You parked him in a parking space?”

 

“Yeah,” she replies, eyeing the meter like maybe the reason I’m surprised is that the time’s expired.

 

She shrugs, hands me the groceries, and bends down to scoop up the baby-material. Strange but true, it all hangs together, even though most of it’s liquid. None is left on the ground.

 

She clutches it against her chest and I give her her groceries back. “Sorry about that,” she says, looking at my back tire. “It won’t happen again.”

 

The thing is, it does. The very next day, in a different part of town, I back out and run over a baby again.

 

The same woman comes out, this time with a pair of boots she’s had resoled, and again gathers up the crushed liquid and says it won’t happen again.

 

It keeps happening, day after day, in what becomes a rhythm. The woman and I become casual friends. “It was,” I get in the habit of proclaiming, “the only constant in my life during those years.”

 

THEN, THIRTY YEARS LATER, I’m shaving at a sink at the YMCA when a young man takes the sink next to me, laying out his cream and razor. He looks at me several times, as if trying to make sure I am who he thinks I am.

 

When he decides that I must be, he says, “Sorry to bother you, but I just wanted to say hello. You probably don’t remember me, but you used to run me over with your car all the time when I was a baby.”

 

I smile. Shaving cream glops onto my T-shirt. “Of course I remember you,” I say.

 

He smiles too. “You know, back then, I never understood why my mom kept parking me there, knowing what would happen. But, over the years, I think it’s started to get clearer. Just part of growing up, I guess, right?” he says, and is gone.