Archives for the month of: December, 2017

I’M STILL IN THE HOTEL CONFERENCE ROOM WITH BIG PHARMAKOS when the Rebels parade through the hallway, carrying what appears to be a head on a pole.

 

I turn to watch, but feel my body stranded in place, sluggish, unable to wrest control of itself away from …

 

“We’re in a cut scene,” Big Pharmakos murmurs from somewhere behind me, his voice lost in the uncanny valley between how it really sounds and how that of an obviously-digitized version of it might. “Gameplay will resume in a moment. In the meantime, why don’t you come over here?”

 

As soon as he says it, I find I’m gliding toward the window to survey the Town Square, where Dalton, dressed in solemn black robes, is shoving the pole into a freshly-dug pit, twisting it to make sure it’s steady.

 

Col. Pussygrab’s head (there’s no mistaking it now) tilts, swivels, and drips, leering down at the swelling crowd, its expression as sinister and moronic in death as it ever was in life. But now, devoid of power, I find it somehow endearing, a relic of a hideous past rather than a threat of a hideous future.

 

“Guess they finally got him, huh?” I whisper to Big Pharmakos, finding that I can talk again, unless it’s just my character talking in the cut scene. I don’t say it, but I’m wondering what he’ll do now that his Mephisto days are behind him. What does an artist who caved for the Regime do once its dictator’s head ends up on a pole in the Town Square? I find myself feeling a little sorry for him, a little scared for his future, even though — lest we forget — he turned against humanity the first chance he got, and would have kept going down that road had the Rebels not intervened.

 

My attention is pulled (am I actually playing the game now?) back to where Dalton is on a ladder, pruning Pussygrab’s face with an electric hedge-trimmer, going all around the head, cutting off the lizard skin in long wet flaps, to reveal … that of Blut Branson?

 

My shock is quickly sublimated into redoubled interest, as the last of Pussygrab’s skin falls away and the crowd swells under the shadow of what is now unmistakably Blut Branson’s head, grimacing down from the pole, where, I think, it will remain until it rots like a Halloween pumpkin in November, a temporary monument to the man who, until just now, had seemed like the permanent overlord of Dodge City.

 

“So,” Dalton booms, shouting from the top of the ladder, “it would seem that both the short-lived dominion of the Pussygrab Regime as well as the much longer-lived dominion of Blut Branson over not just The Dodge City Film Industry but the entire Collective Dodge City Dreamlife, has at long last come to an end. It would seem that the entire grotesque spectacle of the Pussygrab Regime was, in essence, yet another Blut Branson film. A bout of pathologically extended performance art. He is — or, I should say, was — nothing if not innovative in his storytelling approach. Ever in search of cinema’s outer limits. That much must be said for him. What must also be said is that The Pussygrab Project will now stand as not only the apex but also the capstone of his cinematic career. That era of film history, good people, has now ended.”

 

Dalton pauses here to dry his eyes, or pretend to. Then he continues, “In light of the circumstances I have just described, I’m happy to announce my bid for de facto Mayor. I can promise an era of relative tranquility, sobriety, and consensus in Dodge City. Anyone wishing to challenge my bid, please step forward now.”

 

The crowd is motionless.

 

“Very well,” Dalton announces, beginning to climb down from the ladder, hedge-trimmers slung over his shoulder. “Then I am happy to stand before you today as your new Mayor. Welcome to the next chapter of Your Lives in Dodge City.”

 

Muted applause; sighs of relief.

 

*****

Remembering that I’m still in the Hotel, not in the crowd, I turn to face Big Pharmakos, who’s now sitting at one of the abandoned banquet tables, massaging his forehead with his fists. I pull up a chair beside him.

 

“I really fucked up. Turning for the Regime and all,” he wails, his voice no longer dissonant, either because it’s reverted to normal or because I’ve normalized the distortion that, even a moment ago, I could still perceive. “They’re gonna kill me, aren’t they?”

 

Probably, I think, but I keep myself from saying it. Instead, I start to wonder how far back in time it might be possible to go. Who’s to say, I’m thinking, that we can’t revert to my first year in Dodge City, long before all this happened — long before I’d ever heard of Blut Branson, let alone Col. Pussygrab — and simply relive the events of which I now have nothing but fond memories?

 

I start looking at the ceiling, wondering how I might go about asking the Game’s designer to be set onto that mode — and what might it be called? If those who voted for Pussygrab were set onto Swamp Mode, what name might be given to those who’ve chosen to pretend they just saw his head impaled on a pole in the Town Square? Peace Mode?

 

In the back of my head, I hear one of the Basement Boys cackle, “What kind of little bitch plays on Peace Mode? What do you think the point of this Game is?”

 

Nevertheless, I get up from the table and say, “Look, we’re both exhausted, me from my trip into Town, you from the hours you’ve just spent rehearsing your act. Why don’t I go up and settle into my Room, you know, unpack a little, and then we meet down here in an hour and get a drink at the Bar? I’m assuming there is one in Dodge City?”

 

Big Pharmakos nods, a little sadly, as he begins to understand where I’m coming from. I can see in his eyes that he’s accepting the regression, agreeing to pretend that we’re both five years younger, and at least ten times more innocent. “There’s actually a pretty decent Bar just up the street,” he says. “I’ll see you in the Lobby in an hour and we’ll head over.”

 

*****

SO NOW THE PORTER HAS SHOWN ME TO MY ROOM. My Materials are unpacked all around me, and a washcloth’s draped over my eyes as I lie in bed. I rub the musty fabric over the bridge of my nose, willing myself to forget that I’m in a Game and that, in reality, the Pussygrab Regime is still in full force, carrying out its Genocide, decimating what’s left of Dodge City and rebuilding it into some deranged simulacrum of an Aryan paradise.

 

No, I think. That’s just a story I heard once. Maybe a movie I saw. Maybe a video game I played as a kid. No, all that’s real now is that I’m a nameless Drifter in a new town, in a strange but relatively comfortable Hotel.

 

And what’s more, I go on thinking, or telling myself, I’ve made a new friend, a local comedian named Big Pharmakos, not especially gifted, perhaps, but he seems like a decent guy, someone I wouldn’t mind getting to know, and getting to know this new town through.

 

All in all, I think, leaning up in bed to check my watch, not a bad start to my tenure here, however long or short that turns out to be.

 

So, with this in mind, I put on a fresh pair of jeans and a plaid shirt, fold twenty dollars into my back pocket, and leave my Room to meet Big Pharmakos in the Lobby.

 

As we walk out of the Hotel together, through the Town Square, I recall a dream I must’ve had during my nap a few minutes ago: in this dream, Dodge City had been ruled by a genocidal Regime of Swamp Creatures, all of its citizenry subjugated to their sadistic will, until a brave band of Rebels rose up and, storming the Creatures’ palace, managed to impale their leader’s head on a pole and parade it through the Town Square, where I’m now walking, en route to the Bar.

 

As there’s no pole and no head to be seen now, I must choose one of two possibilities: either I dreamt the whole Regime, and Dalton has always been and is still the Mayor; or Pussygrab is still very much in charge, and the dream was thus a pathetic hero fantasy hatched from the bowels of intractable defeat.

 

As we enter the Bar, where a guy’s playing either a very long or a very slow cover of John Prine’s “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone,” Big Pharmakos says the first round’s on him. Even if this is all a dream, I think, or all a Game played on Peace Mode, there’s nothing to stop me, given how deep I now am within it, from believing that the life I’m living is my own, and that it’s the only one, and that all’s well that ends well.

 

“Cheers,” Big Pharmakos says, holding up his frothing mug. “Welcome to Town. If you can get past how things look and see them for what they are, I think you’re going to enjoy yourself in Dodge City.”

 

I cheers him back. “Thanks. I’m looking forward to it,” I say, and swallow my first mouthful of post-Pussygrab beer.

 

 

THE END.

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I FIND MYSELF OUTSIDE MY CELL, INSIDE THE GAME, ON THE BANKS OF DEAD SIR, TAKING MY PLACE AMONG THE REBELS. We wait by the inky black waters from which the Pussygrab Regime emerged last fall, just in time to steal the election from Dalton, watching as more and more rebels, armed with pitchforks and clubs, fire pokers and bats, come out of the woodwork to join our ranks. Those on the front lines have distinct faces and bodies, but those behind them look like hastily-rendered clones.

 

“We’re playing on Easy, right?” someone asks.

 

No one answers, though I’m probably not alone in wondering the same thing. The power structure within our little Rebel Faction, if that’s not too grandiose a name for ourselves at this point, is still too nascent to tell if anyone here is qualified to determine what level we’re playing on. Still, I hope we make at least some progress before the Swamp Creatures — played, perhaps, by the Basement Boys — annihilate us. It’d be nice to take a few of Pussygrab’s goons out first, assuming, of course, that we’re not already dead in the Quantum Holocaust, which I know is more than I can assume.

 

Still, I’m ready to skip this cut-scene and get straight to the fighting.

 

Ask and ye shall receive: next thing I know, we’re hoisting our weapons high, ready to begin our raid on the Palace.

 

*****

WE MARCH ACROSS THE MIDDLE GROUND — the abandoned midnight streets of Dodge City, the theater where Blut Branson’s films are shown, and the lobby of what used to be the Hotel — and find ourselves on the ground floor of the Palace, hacking guards to bits with pitchforks, axes, and machetes, peeling off their pasty New Aryan skin to slash into the green viscera below, clotting the walls green as we force our way upward, level by level, toward the uppermost floor where, we imagine, Pussygrab himself, the Ultimate Boss, is waiting.

 

It’s easier than I thought possible — we must indeed be playing on Easy — and more gratifying. Soon, the thrill of dicing up goons is so overwhelming I find myself forgetting that it’s just a Game. Maybe it’s real, I start thinking, as I puncture a goon artery with an awl I picked up off the ground. Maybe the fake part of the story was the idea that it was just pretend, and the real part, the one in which we topple the Regime and restore liberty to Dodge City, has now officially begun!

 

Who’s to say the Pussygrab Era doesn’t end like this? Why can’t it be this easy?

 

I’m on a blood-rush, willfully suppressing the last remnants of my doubt, turning into a berserker as I hack apart one goon after another, jamming my awl into one set of eyes after another, eyes that have looked favorably upon Pussygrab and Paul Sweetie throughout this entire awful year … whatever world I’m killing you in, I think, my foot on the neck of a goon bleeding out on the rug beneath me, all I can say is I’m glad you’re dying.

 

The goon winks up at me and whispers, “But I’m not really dying … you’re just a loser playing a PS4 Game that lets you pretend I am, and you know it,” so I kick his teeth in and run to catch up with the other Rebels, who are already onto the next floor, one level closer to the ultimate showdown.

 

*****

WE FIGHT THROUGH SEVERAL MORE SUCH FLOORS, like in that movieĀ The Raid, forcing our way upward, until a glimpse into a side room catches my attention. I let the others go on ahead as I peer through a half-open set of doors, where, if I’m not mistaken, Big Pharmakos is rehearsing his comedy routine.

 

I tiptoe into the room, unsure if my footsteps make any sound outside of the main levels of the Game (it seems clear that this room is a non-narrative space, beyond the purview of the Game Designer’s vision, though of course I can’t rule out the possibility that this very thought is an absolutely integral part of that vision).

 

In any case, I lean against the wall and watch Big Pharmakos strut around the stage, quipping about Pussygrab’s largesse, his disavowal of good taste, his manly hatred of shrinking violets, warming up an imaginary crowd for the Colonel, who’s supposedly “Gonna be out in a sec guys, I swear!”

 

As I watch him mock-perform, a memory of my very first morning in Dodge City, years and years ago, a lifetime ago, comes flying back into me. It was in a room just like this, the Hotel Function Room, and I was new in town, still a Drifter, lost, confused, in need of a friend … and there Big Pharmakos was, rehearsing his routine then as now, in a rhinestone suit and white studded boots, then as now, choking the mic in his fist then as now, looking over at me then as now … the jokes the same, then as now.

 

My thinking freezes as I feel the moment when I could have repressed the malignant spread of deja vu disappear. Now I’m lost in it, drenched in the feeling that this — all of it, in its exact dimensions — has happened before, or even that it’s happening now for the first and only time, reverting me back to the very beginning of the entire Dodge City saga, Day One of Book One, Big Pharmakos choking the mic and staring at me from the stage, an evil glint in his eye, not hiding the fact that he knows exactly what I’m thinking.

 

My knees go rubbery and I swoon, thinking, as I fall, please, let this all be part of the Game. I’m willing to lose the Game, I think, as my head smacks against the edge of a table, anything to reboot the level and play it again. Just give me one more chance, I think, beseeching the Game Designer, and I promise I won’t leave the main storyline. I won’t wander into this side room again.

 

“You hear that, folks?” Big Pharmakos simpers. “He wants to play again! He wants one more chance at the main storyline!”

 

The room, though empty, explodes in laughter.

I’M IN MY ROOM, OR ‘CELL,’ AS I’VE TAKEN TO CALLING IT in my more romantic and despairing moments, watching The Museum of Undead Torturers fill with gas on Amazon, when an interstitial news segment pops up about the deteriorating mental health of the purported 1.3 million coal miners Pussygrab has stowed underground until the next election. “They’re sick,” the reporter says, seemingly unprepared to offer any further commentary. “In the head,” he adds, after a long pause.

 

I find myself wondering if he, too, is sick in the head. Perhaps he was chosen to demonstrate the very problem he’s ostensibly on TV to parse. I wonder if they’re too sick in the head to vote in the next election; then I wonder if it’s possible to inhabit such a state while still remaining technically alive. Then I wonder if there will ever be another election.

 

To stop from dwelling on this last question — if it is a question — I switch over to Netflix, just in time to catch a series of eight gas chambers, all shown in split-screen, with what appears to be the entire population of Dodge City lined up outside.

 

I have a premonition of seeing myself onscreen a moment before I do. Then, there I am: in the chamber in the top righthand corner of the screen, there’s me, naked and shorn of all body hair, shuffling in a mass with a thousand others as goons in full New Aryan regalia, their lizard-skin gleaming through the cracks, shove me into the chamber and turn on the gas.

 

I bloat and slump over, and even in my seat, watching on this side of the screen, I find myself short of breath. I gag and shudder and only manage to stave off convulsions by slamming my laptop shut.

 

*****

I SPEND THE FIVE LONGEST MINUTES OF MY LIFE SO FAR sitting in the dark of my cell (it no longer occurs to me to call it a ‘Room’), laptop closed, wondering if I’m alive or dead. If I just watched myself get gassed, I think, trying to remain (or become) rational, does that mean the self I’m now sitting inside and thinking as is a simulacrum? Or, on the contrary, did I watch the simulacrum — the prop-self, the dummy-boy — get gassed, and here I still am, real as ever, minding my own business, ready for my close-up?

 

I try to regulate my breathing as I waver among these possibilities, acclimating to the notion that what’s happening now is a Quantum Holocaust, one that’s simultaneously occurring and not occurring, real and unreal, a joke and a death sentence, necessitating a world in which I’m both dead and not-dead, such that to decide one way or the other is outside the regime of reality I now inhabit. I reopen my laptop and log back onto Netflix to see if the explanation is to be found there.

 

Needless to say, it is.

 

On Netflix, Pussygrab’s standing behind a podium with a magnifying window over his crotch, bellowing, “So, you see folks, the footage you’ve just been shown is that of the successful kickoff of The First Dodge City Genocide. The one and only, for, as anyone will tell you, I invented the very concept of Genocide! A simple solution to a complex problem, which no one thought of before me. As we found it impossible to successfully identify all the New Jews — sneaky little buggers, you’ll agree — we went ahead and gassed you all. Every citizen will get their turn, don’t worry. I trust you’ll agree this is for the best.”

 

Paul Sweetie and a few other Swamp Creatures rush in to congratulate him, while, in the background, the air begins to clot into a scrim of ghosts who swarm the camera and whisper, seemingly straight to me, “If you can hear this, it means you’re needed. It’s time for a full-on Ghost Uprising! Gather at Dead Sir at dusk.”

 

Before I can react, let alone consider whether I might wish to participate in any kind of ghost uprising, an ad for a new PS4 game breaks through the Netflix feed, showing me and a legion of others like me storming Pussygrab Palace, eating through all the Swamp Creatures, one Boss at a time, until the final showdown with Pussygrab himself, whom we devour and dismantle in an orgy of digital blood.

 

After a quick cut-away to one of the Basement Boys playing the new game in his underwear, the title fills the screen: “GHOST UPRISING 4: DODGE CITY EDITION, RATED M FOR MATURE, ONLY $49.99 WHILE SUPPLIES LAST!”

 

For the second time today, I manage to slam my laptop shut.

 

*****

IN THE DARK THAT FILLS THE CELL, I feel both elation and terror. I can already tell, though the game hasn’t started yet (unless this is the intro), that its terminal ambiguity will be this: on the one hand, there will be tremendous relief at finally banding together to storm the Palace and, in the end, kill Pussygrab and all his minions. On the other, there will be the inexorable doubt that it’s all pretend, a distraction from whatever they’re really doing, things too awful to contemplate, things that will make even The Second Dodge City Genocide (I refuse to deny the First) look like comic relief.

 

Darker still, we will — whoever we are by that point, whatever’s left of us — be glad for the distraction. By that terminal point, as we muck about in the pixels of Pussygrab’s corpse, squelching his guts with our toes, we will have no one to thank for the sensation but Pussygrab himself. A kindness, we’ll think then, a gift from the God-Emperor, the Game Designer, to ease our mortal burdens while his regime finishes stripping Dodge City for parts, sucking out every last drop of marrow before lurching down the road to do it all over again someplace else.