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AT LOOSE ENDS AFTER MONTHS IN MY ROOM, doing nothing but watching AmazonNetflixHulu, I decide to cruise Craigslist for a job. Under “part-time gigs in and around Dodge City,” I come across a listing for a “junior writer of Fake News, paid $15.75 per published article.”

 

Seems reasonable, I think, though I have no point of comparison. After corresponding a little with someone named XGurl69, I’m told to “just write about whatever you think is happening here, since that’s the easiest way of making sure anything you publish is fake.”

 

Fair enough, I reason, setting out onto the Internet to see what I can find. The first story that catches my eye (which forms the basis for the article I’m writing now) has to do with a confluence of snakes that vanished into Dead Sir upon Pussygrab’s inauguration. According to eyewitness accounts, they swarmed in from numerous surrounding counties, desperate to partake in what some claim they saw as a chance at a New World Order. “A snake revolution,” as one blogger put it, in between posts demanding the complete eradication of paper money and public schools.

 

In any case, the snake-pit grew increasingly dense over the early months of the Pussygrab Regime, until their bodies absorbed all the nutrients Dead Sir could offer and began to degrade into oil, trapped deep beneath the shale ledge upon which the bog wobbles.

 

Several months later, the snake oil is declared ready for extraction. Naturally, hundreds of snake oil salesmen (in the literal sense of the term) swarm into town, in a mini-Gold Rush of epic proportions. They’re all holed up in the same Hotel I’m writing this from, busy trying to steal one another’s claims, tarnish one another’s reputations, and poison one another at the Bar (the dead bodies are dragged out with the empty bottles at the end of each shift).

 

Over the course of a week of frantic activity, they drain Dead Sir and pipe the snake oil out of the shale, bottling it for wholesale distribution. Costco, some sources report, has already put in a bid for a billion metric tons, as has AmazonWholeFoods.

 

But there’s a hitch: when the snake oil salesmen have finished their extraction and loaded their trucks, they’re stopped at the newly militarized Dodge City Border, where Pussygrab officials demand to know just where they think they’re headed with such precious cargo. When they answer, “Back to America,” they are executed on the spot.

 

The bodies of all 600 snake oil salesmen are tossed into the now-dry pit of Dead Sir, and the product is returned to Dodge City, where Pussygrab claims, on an impromptu Netflix Special later that same night, “no longer will our most cherished products be exported for the benefit of foreign markets. No, good people of Dodge City: I promise you, from now on, all Dodge City snake oil will remain right here, where it belongs.”

 

So now there’s a glut: a billion metric tons of snake oil is far more than any town can absorb, and besides, as noted economist Larry Finkelbaum puts it on a Netlfix 2 expose of the phenomenon, “the cardinal rule of the snake oil trade is that it must always be sold far from where it’s extracted. Otherwise, all public credulity in its potential use as an aphrodisiac or miracle cure or whatever it’s being marketed as tends toward zero. I mean, all of us here in Dodge City know it’s from a bunch of dirty snakes that drowned in a swamp, right? Who’s gonna believe that cures blindness?”

 

And, indeed, no one does. The snake oil sits undistributed in its crates until it starts to rot and the Pussygrab Regime has no choice but to begin marketing it as water. “Regular, secular water,” Paul Sweetie announces during Sunday Worship. “Nothing funny about it. Just good, honest water, folks.”

 

But, of course, it’s not. No one forgets that it’s snake oil except those who, according to another Netflix 2 expose, begin a campaign claiming that, “the Pussygrab Regime is poisoning our drinking water and turning our children into snake-people. Resist! Resist! Don’t drink the water!! Better to die of thirst than live as a snake-boy!!”

 

 

*****

With that, I finish writing my first piece of fake news and send it off for review, fingers crossed, since I’m not ashamed to admit that I could really use the money. In the meantime, I fire up Amazon to see what’s new with the so-called “First Dodge City Genocide,” which I’m sure has been drawing nearer by the day, if it isn’t already in progress.

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AFTER CNN’S BREAKING NEWS RECEDES, I return to my usual programming only to notice that Netflix has split into two channels, each taking up half of my laptop screen. The Movie I find myself watching seems to use the same footage in both instances, but it quickly becomes clear that one of them is spinning it as a pro-Pussygrab story, the other as anti-.

 

Though the dichotomy disturbs me, I see no option other than watching both at once.

 

From what I can tell, the story focuses on how Big Pharmakos made the decision to offer his services to the Regime as — both halves agree on this term — the “official comedic warm-up act for the coming First Dodge City Genocide.”

 

Old newsreel footage of the actual First Dodge City Genocide (the one I remember learning about as soon as I arrived here) plays behind Big Pharmakos strutting on a huge stage in Pussygrab Palace, doffing a top-hat and doing vaudeville tricks with a cane. “This, friends,” he says, pointing his cane at the atrocity footage, “which many of you have probably been taught in lie-school is footage of the First Dodge City Genocide, is actually just the trailer! That’s right folks, the real First Dodge City Genocide is still coming, thanks to — you guessed it — the Good Colonel himself! So, no need to worry. You haven’t missed a thing. With your help, and the Colonel’s guidance, we’ll have ourselves the best little Genocide this tired old world has ever witnessed!”

 

Riotous applause across both halves of the screen.

 

Semi-consciously, I make a face imploring Big Pharmakos to return to decency, though I remind myself that he can’t see me from where he is.

 

“What we have here,” says Netflix 1, as the volume on Big Pharmakos’ giddy routine fades to a murmur, “is the patriotic awakening of a formerly degenerate artist. A man who, by his own admission, spent the first half of his life ‘wallowing in the filth of my own self-image,’ only to finally heed the call of duty, upon the historic occasion of Pussygrab’s unanimous victory last fall, and step up to the plate to pave the way for the First Dodge City Genocide, which, let me tell you folks, is going to make us all, as citizens of this fine town, damn proud.”

 

Netflix 2 interrupts with its own narrative. “What we’re seeing here is a disgraceful moral collapse of the sort that is sadly all too common in the ascendency of fascist regimes. A collapse which is, indeed, a key component of such ascendencies, a component without which no fascist regime can ever fully take hold. The poisoning of the culturati, if you will, which is in many ways a darker and more sinister process than the provoking of the angry mob which was, after all, nothing but an angry mob to begin with, even before Pussygrab whipped it into a murderous frenzy. What do you think causes a comedian of Big Pharmakos’ stature to turn like this?”

 

Here the camera pans from the first pundit, who looks somewhat familiar (I find myself wondering if everyone on both channels is an extra from Dodge City TV, dressed up as a partisan expert), to the second, who looks even more concerned.

 

“Well, Bob, that’s certainly a good question. I think it has to do with validation, quite simply. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves. Big Pharmakos was hardly at the height of his comedy career when Pussygrab came to power. And, to be even more honest, did he ever make it as big as he’d like to have us think? Was he really on Marc Maron’s podcast, as we all know he loves to claim? If so, have you heard the interview? I haven’t. I’d argue that he was, along with so many other members of the Regime and even Pussygrab himself, nothing but a washed-up hack who saw the dark glimmer of opportunity after last fall’s trainwreck of an election and, well, was either smart or dumb enough to seize it, depending on your point of view. When regimes like Pussygrab’s come along — regimes in desperate need, you might say, of entertainment value, since no dictator can go very far without comedy to lubricate his path — there’s always a Big Pharmakos waiting in the wings.”

 

*****

MY FIRST INSTINCT is to defend my old pal — it hurts to hear him discussed like this — but when the screen cuts back to him mincing onstage, with Paul Sweetie and all the higher-ups seated behind him, smiling moronically and fanning themselves with oversized photos of Pussygrab, it’s hard not to agree.

 

As if reading my thoughts, the camera zooms in on his grimacing face, covered in sweat-streaked pancake makeup and black eye shadow, leading the crowd in a chant of, “Kill the Jews! Kill the Jews! Kill the New Jews and make Dodge City gentile again!”

 

So what mental calculus is there left to perform? I begin the hard work of denying that he was ever my friend. As I watch him reiterate to the crowd that the First Dodge City Genocide never occurred and that Pussygrab will soon rectify this problem, I think, you do your Denial, old friend, and I’ll do mine.

 

As soon as I think this, I open a new window and start searching for a Netflix Movie that shows my time in Dodge City free of Big Pharmakos’ friendship — one that, ideally, shows me rejecting his creepy fascistic advances early in my time here. I find I can no longer evaluate whether it’s reasonable to expect such a Movie to exist, but I know I’ll feel soothed if it does.

 

*****

WHILE I’M SEARCHING, both Netflix Movies I just watched end at the same time and a box pops up asking me to rate my experience. I hover my cursor over both 1 and 5 stars, unsure how to rate both versions at once, until I decide to split the difference and give it a 3. A safe bet, I find myself thinking, trying to suppress my sense of irony for the time being.

I’M VEGETATING IN MY VIEWING SPACE — it no longer seems right to call it a living space, since there’s nothing I do here aside from watching whatever my laptop sees fit to stream — wondering about the lobotomy that Dr. Schlitz may or may not have performed, when whatever I was watching before is interrupted by a CNN consumer report, starring Big Pharmakos in his new role as a shameless Pussygrab apologist. He’s interviewing Dr. Schlitz, who’s taken on the role of a consumer safety expert.

 

“And so tell us, Dr. Schlitz, about these snazzy Personal Ethnostates that ULTRA MAX has been selling …”

 

“Well,” the doctor begins, “as you know, they’re flying off the shelves. Orders are backed up till next month. So I’m not quite sure whom this consumer report is for, but, if anyone out there hasn’t preordered yet, let me explain. What the good people at ULTRA MAX wanted to do, to serve the resurgent racial purity market in the wake of Pussygrab’s unanimous victory last fall, was to give the people of Dodge City the chance to create racially pure Ethnostates for themselves. You know, to experience the singular joy of life in a racially pure environment, free of, well, not to be insensitive here, but free of the filth, squalor, and disease of Otherness. The rank sweat of outsiders … aliens … undesirables. You get the idea. So, in consultation with the Colonel’s Health & Sanitation Commission, ULTRA MAX’s CEO (who chairs the Commission) ingeniously pioneered the notion of the Personal Ethnostate: a small tentlike enclosure each Dodge City citizen can pitch in his or her backyard and simply sit in alone, basking in the knowledge that the din and clamor of other races is, for a brief blessed moment, nowhere to be found.

 

A screen behind them shows a shirtless white man zipping himself inside his enclosure in his backyard, with the words “MISCEGENATION-FREE ZONE” painted in blood over the flap. It’s unclear whether this is an advertisement for the product or live footage of someone actually using it. I muse, for a moment, on what the distinction, at this late point, might be.

 

The man gives a little Nazi salute and goes in. Then comes a moment of silence, before a whirring of blades and a sickening shriek.

 

Big Pharmakos looks to Dr. Schlitz and says, “Can you tell us a little about what’s going on in there now?”

 

The doctor nods. “Well, what you’re hearing now is the man shaving what I believe may be either his arm or his leg off, if not both. You see, racial purity is a trickier subject than some may think. It’s not simply a matter of appearing on the outside as though you belong to one race or another, or of having one last name or speaking one language or another. It’s really a granular, microbial issue. It goes deep. So, in the Personal Ethnostate Starter Pak, ULTRA MAX sells what they’re calling a ‘piece-by-piece body part DNA testing kit,’ which is pretty much what it sounds like: it allows the user to test each part of his or her body for racial purity, and, should he or she discover any unwanted dark genes in, say, the left forearm, or the right buttock, he or she is free to simply shave them off with an electric flensing knife, also sold standard in all Premium and Deluxe Personal Ethnostate Paks, and available for an extra $29.99 if you opt to go with the Basic Family Values Pak, which I wouldn’t recommend.”

 

“Very interesting,” Big Pharmakos replies, looking a bit warily at his fingers splayed out on his knee. I also hold my fingers out and look at them, wondering, a bit uncharitably perhaps, about their true nature.

 

“And now?” Big Pharmakos continues.

 

The camera on the screen behind them zooms in through the flaps of the Personal Ethnostate as the now arm-less, leg-less man opens a sleek metal canister and lets out what appears to be a horde of warrior ants, which start ripping his remaining flesh apart with amazing efficiency.

 

Dr. Schlitz smiles at the image, like it’s helping him relive a fond memory. “Well, now the man is simply carrying out his Personal Final Solution, which is a decision we believe very strongly ought to remain in the hands of the consumer. The warrior ants are gnawing away his racial impurities on a microscopic level. Each piece of offending flesh is being separated, with great force, from the others, so that only the core, that of absolute irreproachable purity, remains.

 

The screen behind them now shows a gleaming white skeleton, the black warrior ants absconding with the last of the man’s red flesh dripping from their mandibles.

 

WHEN THE ANTS have departed the Ethnostate, the camera cuts to the front of the man’s house as a crew of robots breaks down the door and begins looting. They take his flatscreen TV, his wife’s jewelry, his guns, his gold trophies, his iPad, and even his signed Ted Nugent concert poster. When they’ve taken everything of value, they glide back onto the street and into the house next door.

 

*****

HERE THE CONSUMER REPORT ENDS and the screen bifurcates into two separate anchors debating what we’ve just seen. One argues that CNN is still, however subtly, an anti-Pussygrab network, revealing the nefarious workings of the Colonel’s race-baiting plutocracy — “don’t you see? He’s driving his own base to suicide in order to plunder their stuff with impunity,” she insists — while the other anchor swears it’s been coopted by Pussygrab loyalists and is now openly flaunting the Regime’s corruption, utterly unafraid of showing the public what it’s up to, since, as this pundit puts it, “subtlety and secrecy are the tactics of yesteryear. The era of naked, shameless greed — greed that is praised for its nakedness and shamelessness by the very people who stand to lose the most from it — is upon us. Hallelujah.”

 

Though I know I shouldn’t, I put this window on mute and open that of ULTRA MAX’s online shopping network, just to see how deep the backlog of Personal Ethnostate orders really is. Deep enough, I find, that even if I put my order in now, I wouldn’t be able to be alone with my purest self until after Christmas, at the earliest.

 

Until then, I think, cueing up Netflix, all of whatever’s in me is stuck here together, wondering how much further down this all goes.

WHATEVER I WAS JUST WATCHING IS INTERRUPTED BY BREAKING NEWS FROM CNN (AN AMAZON COMPANY):

 

“After the tragic massacre in Sacrifice Square last night,” Big Pharmakos (who’s apparently become a newscaster, or at least started playing one) tells the camera, “a new theory has grown too compelling to ignore. Dr. Schlitz, over to you … ”

 

Dr. Schlitz, a cut-rate Mengele lookalike, clears his throat and says, “What I would like to speak with you all about today is the very real possibility that the man, or should I say creature, you all call Col. Pussygrab, your so-called Mayor, is in fact nothing but a mass hallucination brought on by a fungal infestation of the brain.”

 

“And from where, Dr. Schiltz, might such an infestation have arisen?” Big Pharmakos looks like he’s struggling to read cue cards that are either too small or too far away.

 

“Oh, who knows. Dead Sir, I’m guessing. Or bad meat, bad potatoes, bad soap. Airport security machines. Exhaust. Such spores can find any number of ways in. The question now is whether a procedure involving the frontal lobe — ”

 

“A lobotomy?” Big Pharmakos interrupts.

 

Dr. Schlitz winces at the term, but nods. “Sure, if you like. My crew and I will be setting up a mobile brain unit — a van — and making the rounds throughout Dodge City immediately after this broadcast. We would like to look inside the heads of each Dodge City citizen, nothing invasive, just to check for brain disease. To see if Pussygrabism is indeed, as I suspect, a neurological rather than a political phenomenon. And to see if a simple procedure can neutralize the source of this phenomenon before another, well –” he gestures at the photos of the carnage on the screen behind him.

 

Big Pharmakos looks stranded, like he’s hoping some producer behind the camera will tell him how to respond. When no one does, he coughs into his fist and says, “Well that’s our time for today, folks. You heard the doctor. Please be ready for his, um, van whenever it comes by.”

 

*****

AS THE SCREEN freezes briefly between segments, I wonder if our complicity in submitting to this brain exam (I can already tell there won’t be any resistance) is itself a symptom of Pussygrabism. If we weren’t so rotten-through already, I wonder, would at least some of this strike us as strange?

 

I lose my train of thought as the next set of images fills the screen. Naturally, it’s of Dr. Schlitz and his crew inventorying Dodge City citizens. One at a time (a mobile CNN unit is filming) they load people into the van, sedate them with a blast of Pussygrab imagery straight from a hyper-bright flatscreen, and saw the tops of their heads off. Dr. Schlitz then pokes around in their brains — a number of such procedures are spliced together into a montage, set to a Fleet Foxes tune — with an array of wires, prods, and scalpels. Then he scowls and glues the tops of their heads back on.

 

*****

AFTER THE MONTAGE, the doctor appears back in the studio with Big Pharmakos (was this all filmed before the van scenes?), and says, “Sadly, the brain rot among the people of this town is too advanced. I was unable to perform frontal lobe surgery because said lobe was already mostly gone. Nothing left to do for these people, I’m afraid. Pussygrab is here to stay, folks. Hallucination of not, better get used to him.”

 

Here he makes a strained hiccoughing sound, like he’s suppressing a laugh, and stands up so abruptly the cameraman fumbles and loses the shot. CNN cuts to commercial.

 

*****

ALREADY, from inside the chamber where I sit watching this, I can sense the controversy brewing: what if, while pretending to examine our brains, Dr. Schlitz actually performed the lobotomy that made Pussygrab permanent? What if he was working for the other side all along, and the brain rot was merely an excuse to get in our heads?”

 

As soon as this thought occurs to me, I know it’s true. It has that ring to it, at least in my head. But what about my head? What about my lobotomy, or lack thereof? When’s it coming? Or what if — this is surely the more terrifying possibility — it already has? What if they came in here hours ago, dragged me into the van, snipped my lobe, and dropped me back off, none the wiser?

 

I start to panic, staring at the door, unsure whether I’d rather see it open, thereby proving that they haven’t gotten to me yet, or stay closed, thereby proving …

 

I find I can’t quite complete the thought.

I FIND MYSELF AT THE END OF A TRAILER FOR A MOVIE WHOSE NAME I DON’T CATCH but which seems to depict the formation of 100 soldiers into a Victory Parade in Sacrifice Square. According to the trailer’s narrator, “our troops so thoroughly defeated the enemy that all memory of the war has been erased. No one, today or ever after, will be able to say what the war was about, whom it was against, nor even where it took place.”

 

The question I’m left with (other than whether to see the movie — I know I’ll end up seeing it eventually) is how we can be sure these soldiers are actually the same as the ones who departed Dodge City to fight the forgotten war. They look completely standard-issue, like a random sampling of 100 action figures from a ValuPak of 1000 … so who’s to say these are the same Dodge City boys that supposedly set out all those months or years ago? At the same time, I think, treating myself for once as a rational debate partner, let’s not be too insensitive: who’s to say that the war itself didn’t burn their personalities so thoroughly away that these faceless brutes are all that’s left?

 

I chide myself for either my gullibility or my heartlessness (though not both). Then the next trailer begins. This one’s called Coal Country, and promises to tell the story of how “Pussygrab sent all the unemployed coal miners back underground until the next election.”

 

*****

THEN THE TRAILERS END and the main feature starts up.

 

It’s a sequel to The Dodge City Basement Boys, a special I remember watching a few months ago, back when the Pussygrab Regime still seemed young, before he’d called a snap-referendum and run a second, unopposed campaign in order to be voted “Double Mayor,” a position he then declared “at least twice as powerful as any Mayor in history, maybe three times.”

 

This time around, the narrator tells us that The Dodge City Basement Boys voted for Pussygrab on the promise that he would completely destroy the outside world and thus free them from the bad faith of dwelling inside the Game while knowing that an outside world continued to exist, a world in which they’d made no progress and had no prospects for success or approval.

 

At the same time, the Normcore Voters — most, if not all, of Dodge City’s adults — voted for Pussygrab for a diametrically opposed reason: that he would add entertainment value to their TV viewing because now reality TV would actually be real. “We wanted to feel like what we were seeing on the TV, even when it went beyond belief, was really happening. Like it was news, you know? Otherwise, we feared that watching TV would someday get old, and then where would we be, in terms of our lives and stuff?” says a man identified as Roland Epps, dentist, 43.

 

“So,” the narrator says, “Pussygrab and his Swamp Creatures have a dilemma on their hands. A dilemma that, if they’re not careful, could fracture into an outright Schism: on the one hand, their mandate is to destroy the entirety of Dodge City’s External Reality, leaving nothing but the Game. On the other hand, their mandate is to make Dodge City realer than ever, such that those watching at home might feel their TV diet growing fresher rather than increasingly stale. Ball’s in your court, Pussygrab. What’s your move?”

 

*****

Now the Netflix Movie begins in earnest. In one half of a split-screen, a team of Regime-loyalist hackers is hard at work creating a prototype of “the destroyed Dodge City,” which they plan to import into the Game hoping that the Basement Boys will accept this in lieu of actual destruction of the outside world. (“I mean, if they live full-time in the Game anyway,” one of the hackers says, “how will they even know the difference? They’ll look up from their in-Game lairs and see the ravaged post-Dodge-City wasteland we’ve designed, and believe the Colonel has made good on his campaign promise.”)

 

In the other half of the split-screen, another delegation of Swamp Creatures, led by Paul Sweetie, is hard at work torturing various Dodge City citizens, trying to put them on Permanent Swamp Mode so as to tether them forever to the belief that what they’re watching on TV constitutes the hyperreal world they all believe they voted for, while, presumably, the Regime carries out its real work in secret.

 

“What could go wrong?” Pussygrab is caught asking on a hot mic, his tone seemingly non-rhetorical.

 

*****

THE HACKER TEAM GETS RIGHT DOWN TO WORK, lifting the lid off the Game (which they apparently managed to commandeer right after the election, perhaps taking the reins from the previous administration — no two Dodge City citizens agree as to the Game’s origins, if they even agree about its existence) and beginning to sow destruction.

 

I watch on Netflix as they turn Sacrifice Square into a pile of smoking debris, boil Dead Sir into greenish vapor, reduce the Bar to digital boards and nails sweltering by the side of the road, and even reduce the Hotel (the same one I’m sitting in, the one that doubles as Pussygrab Palace) to a pile of rubble that reminds me of Berlin circa 1947.

 

As a finishing touch, they create an in-Game version of Pussygrab himself, incarnated here as a tribal warlord with sharpened teeth and a necklace of skulls, on the assumption that the more they can do to convince the Basement Boys that all of Dodge City now exists solely within the ravaged landscape of the Game, the less they’ll have to worry about the Boys’ interference aboveground.

 

The Basement Boys initially rejoice at this upgrade, burrowing that much deeper into their basements secure in the knowledge that there’s nothing outside to miss out on. “At last,” one of them says to the camera, “we can breathe free knowing that the basement’s the only place to be. Sex, money, prestige … finally, not having these things makes us stronger, not weaker. Thanks, Pussygrab, for fucking up all the shit you said you were gonna.” He addresses this comment to the in-Game Pussygrab, clearly acknowledging him as the real thing.

 

Then, finishing his ice cream and shouting for his mom to take the bowl, he picks his controller back up, unpauses the Game, and drives his avatar into the smoking remnants.

 

*****

“BUT WHAT OF THE NORMCORE VOTERS, AT HOME WATCHING TV?” the Netflix narrator asks. Indeed, I think. What about them?

 

It turns out that, at first, they’re satisfied too: Dodge City, outside the Game, looks the same as ever, so the entertainment value of watching Pussygrab poison its drinking water, imprison its journalists, and shutter its hospitals has lost none of its pizzazz. They sit at home eating takeout (“Does this Chinese food taste worse?” they wonder. “What happened to all the Chinese people that used to live here?”), laughing and cheering along with the Regime, secure in the knowledge that, just as they always wanted, the reality TV they’re watching is now truly real, and thus no longer a diversion from the lives they might otherwise have to wish they were living.

 

*****

ALL MIGHT HAVE REACHED A DETENTE AT THIS POINT HAD THE HACKERS NOT LEFT THE SEAM TO THE GAME OPEN. But, in their haste to escape the Basement Boys’ notice, they did. They fled the Game after destroying the virtual Dodge City and forgot to patch things up on their way out.

 

So, as is only natural, the air of apocalyptic decay from within the Game begins to ooze out into the real (so-to-speak) Dodge City. Pretty soon (unless Netflix has cut a lot out of this section) one-eyed humanoid hulks are wandering out of the Game and onto the streets of Dodge City, brandishing sharpened sticks and rocks in slings, led by the digital warlord version of Pussygrab himself, who’s now bellowing about burning the corporate overlords alive and eating the hearts of the faithless for lunch.

 

The split-screens merge here. The left-hand side looks slightly more digital, the right-hand side slightly more analog, but it’s clear they’re now both on the same level of reality, one whose consequences will surely apply to everyone watching, myself included.

 

The digital Pussygrab rips a cobblestone from the ground of Sacrifice Square and smashes it over his head, shrieking, “From now on, no Apocalypse is pretend!!”

 

The Basement Boys, I think, must be loving this.

 

The Netflix special stops here for a BREAKING NEWS interlude, featuring Paul Sweetie in his white wedding dress, shouting into a mic:

 

“A contingent of highly undesirable aliens has just poured across our border,” he tells the cameras, as screens behind him show those same faceless soldiers from the Victory Parade shoving the Game characters into armored vans. “This wouldn’t have happened had adequate border security measures been taken by the previous administration, but let’s let bygones be bygones. What matters now is how we respond. And let me tell you, we’re going to respond with extreme violence. The dawn of a new Dodge City Genocide is upon us, folks!”

I’M TRYING TO WATCH A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF SWAMP MODE: PART 2 ON NETFLIX, but it takes so long to load I start to wonder if it’s even been made yet. In my agitation, I open Hulu in another window and start watching whatever comes up first, which turns out to be a film called Bear Country.

 

It’s set in the State Park at the edge of Dodge City, “a dense, nearly primordial wilderness of rushing mountain streams, towering firs and hemlocks, and steep, craggy peaks,” according to the narrator. The protagonists are a pair of park rangers, Bob and Sylvie, both in their mid-twenties, just out of forestry school.

 

As Act I begins, they are elated to receive their first assignment, the most coveted among all the newbies: they’ll be on bear watch, tracking the movements, eating habits, and fluctuating population of the Park’s famed grizzlies, which are known to be both the fiercest and the most majestic in all of North America. It’s an annual census, they’re told, a data set updated every late June, and this year it’ll be their findings that go on file.

 

A quick montage shows them filling their camping packs, practicing with bear spray, and chatting excitedly as they prepare for their first overnight excursion into the Park’s imposing backcountry. There’s an odd romantic comedy tone here, as they banter back and forth and giggle like teenagers while deciding whether to bring one tent or two.

 

Then they set out, following first the main trail, then a secondary, then a tertiary trail before peeling off into the backcountry, where they hack vines with machetes to clear the way. I open a few other browser windows in here, checking back to see if the Netflix special’s finished loading yet (it hasn’t).

 

When I return to Bear Country, Bob and Sylvie are at the edge of a clearing and the narrator’s saying, “Here we see them approaching the place where, according to 2016’s census, the Park’s fiercest grizzlies congregate.”

 

Ominous music starts to play, like it’s a mauling we’re about to witness, and the last of the romantic comedy tone recedes. It seems Bob and Sylvie can hear it too, or else the mood in the clearing is sufficiently tense even in silence: now they’re creeping more slowly, bear spray out and ready, swiveling their heads like a pair of spooked owls.

 

Still, they press further in. On the far side of the clearing, they come to a stand of trees and look through, into another clearing on the far side. The camera cuts to their perspective, which reveals a truly wild sight:

 

Dozens of massive grizzlies are cataloguing human parts. They’ve built (or found) a complex wooden structure with numerous sections, like an open-air vault, and into this structure they’re placing human heads, humans arms, human torsos, and human legs, each in its own section, all very orderly.

 

They work mainly with their mouths, but a few grizzlies sit on stumps and gesticulate in an unmistakably human manner with their paws. This sequence goes on and on, Bob & Sylvie mute and terrified at the edge of the frame, the grizzles working on a gigantic pile of dismembered humans in the center. We watch until the whole pile’s been sorted, everything in its right place.

 

Then the bears settle onto their haunches and regard their work. Just before the screen goes black, one says to the other, “Let’s call it a day and get some rest, yeah?”

 

The other nods.

 

*****

AS PART II BEGINS, Bob & Sylvie are sitting on an outcropping over a rushing stream, drinking from their water bottles and trying to stop panicking.

 

When they’re finally able to speak, Bob says, “We gotta tell Steve.” (“That’s their boss, Director of Park Operations,” the narrator informs us.) “He has to know about this. I mean, it’s …”

 

“What we saw back there, it’s … a kind of miracle,” Sylvie says. “I mean, they were talking, right? You heard them too? Don’t you think we should … try to find out more first? See what they want, before we … ?”

 

Bob nods, but his mind’s clearly scrambled. He doesn’t have the same expression of awe that Sylvie has. It’s clear they’re about to part ways.

 

*****

AS, INDEED, THEY DO. In the next scene, Bob has run off alone to warn Steve. In the Ranger Headquarters near the Park Entrance, Steve sits across from Bob and says, “Look, word wasn’t supposed to get around, but since you saw what’s out there, I might as well explain a few things. For reasons we don’t quite understand, some of the bears are evolving human consciousness. It seems to have coincided with Pussygrab’s election. Something about Swamp Mode, a massive psychic shift in many of Dodge City’s populations, not just its human population … anyway, a delegation of these newly humanoid bears approached us one night in March, to plead for their independence. ‘Now that we can see the power structures that keep us societally disadvantaged,’ their leader said to me — I’ll always remember this moment — ‘we want an autonomous zone within the Park. A genuine Bear Country. Give us that, and we’ll leave you alone. Promise.'”

 

Steve opens a bottle of bourbon from a cabinet behind the table and fills two plastic cups almost to the brim. He pushes one in Bob’s direction and raises his in a grim toast. “Before I could respond to the bear’s request, Paul Sweetie showed up — he must have the whole Park under surveillance — pushed me aside, and started negotiating. ‘Okay,’ he told the bear, who was sitting in the same seat you’re in now. ‘How about this: you do something for us, we do something for you. Deal?’ The bear looked intrigued. It was clear, even at that early stage, that it had no business making a deal with Paul Sweetie. That bear was painfully naive when it came to the finer points of human deal-making, let me tell you. And how could it not be?”

 

Steve refills his cup and continues. “So Paul Sweetie tells the bear, ‘look, I represent a new Regime in Dodge City and we’re trying to get a new Genocide started. A Second Dodge City Genocide, if you will, though by the time we’re done it’ll be the only one people remember. Anyway, what would you say if we were to send some of our undesirables your way, and ask you to dispose of them for us? Say, I don’t know, 5,000 heads?’ Paul Sweetie grins and leans into the bear’s face, completely fearless in his white wedding dress. ‘What if you were to present us with 5,000 human heads, as well as the rest of their bodies — torsos, arms, legs, all nicely sorted — so we can kick this Genocide off in style? If you were to do this for us, we could see our way clear to granting you independence. Just let us know when you’ve got the 5,000, and we’ll draw up the paperwork to make your Bear Country official. You’ll never hear from us again after that. Deal?'”

 

Steve’s eyes mist over as he recalls the decisive moment. Clearly, at heart, he’s as much of an animal lover as Bob is. “And with that, Paul Sweetie holds out his hand until the bear, who’s never seen this ritual before, extends its paw and grasps onto Sweetie until Sweetie lets go. And thus the deal is signed.”

 

Ranger Bob looks around the office, stunned and a little drunk. “But if you knew that was going on out there … why did you send Sylvie and me in anyway?”

 

Steve wipes his eyes and says, “Because we needed someone who didn’t know to find it. Otherwise, it would seem like an inside job.”

 

“An inside job?”

 

But Steve’s already on the phone with The Dodge City Free Press, drunkenly reporting what his junior ranger has just discovered.

 

*****

IN THE NEXT SCENE, a crew of photographers descends on the bear stronghold, snapping photo and video from helicopters hovering just above the sorted bodies. One brave reporter jumps out to interview a bear, who says, “Well, we did kill these people, but only because …” The rest of the quote is cut off.

 

Images of mutilated corpses and blood-stained bears fill the front pages and TV screens of Dodge City for an entire Tuesday, hammering home the atrocity as vividly as possible.

 

That night, Pussygrab makes an emergency announcement from his Throne Room. “This is a deeply sad moment for me, as an animal lover,” he begins, swigging from a bottle of champagne and chewing a greasy hock of mutton. “But, with the news that the State Park’s bears have grown uncontrollably vicious, totally above and beyond what’s reasonable for grizzlies in the wild, I’m left with no option other than to go nuclear. It’s truly a shame, but something must be done to keep the people of Dodge City safe. So, with a heavy heart I hereby announce that at 5am tomorrow, warheads will fall on the bears’ horrific stronghold, and this depraved episode will reach its necessary conclusion.”

 

Canned applause erupts offscreen and I gag, unsure now whether I’m still watching the Hulu movie or the actual Dodge City News.

 

*****

SYLVIE, MEANWHILE, HAS GONE NATIVE. We cut to her living among the bears, transcribing their folklore, helping them sort their heads, and trying to represent humanity as well as she can to them, though she doesn’t shy away from discussing the depths that Pussygrab has already reduced Dodge City to in his short term as Mayor.

 

“Murdering people, in principle, is wrong,” she tells them, “but if they’re Pussygrab goons, have at it.” The bears don’t seem to understand where she’s coming from, and the bodies are too mutilated to be identified, but a viewer like me understands the point she’s making and is inclined to agree. “Humanity,” she says, “is a negotiable quantity. It’s always in flux.”

 

I hate to picture what’s coming, but I can’t help it.

 

“Why did you start doing this?” she asks one of the bears, while they’re taking a break. “Is there some point you’re making?”

 

The bear shakes its head, but it’s too late: the sky is already massing with missiles.

 

“No,” the bear says, its voice marked by an accent I can’t quite place. “We were … there was a man, a man in a white wedding dress, who came to speak with our leader. He said that if we …”

 

Sylvie leans in to hear better as the surrounding trees spark into flames and all the neatly sorted bodies are liquified, heat rippling over the entire clearing. The camera zooms in on Sylvie’s face as a gust of burning ash reduces it to putty.

 

Then it zooms out to reveal the bears running in confused zigzags as more and more blasts erupt around them, making it clear that none will escape.

 

*****

THE FINAL IMAGE IS OF A FLEET OF BACKHOES AND TRACTORS descending on the wreckage, driving right through it, as they begin to harvest the rare earth metals buried in the heart of Bear Country. “Uranium, plutonium, rubidium,” says one of the drivers through her elaborate hazmat suit. “Buried here all along, but out of reach because the land was protected. Endangered species and all. Whoever invested in this dig’s gonna make a fortune!”

 

I close my laptop just as Bear Country 2: A Special Investigation Into The 5,000 Victims starts loading. Sitting in the fresh silence, I’m overcome by a coughing fit. Though the room I’m sitting in has no windows, I can taste the fallout seeping through the walls.

I WANDER IN MY PAJAMAS back down the hallway and into the closet I do most of my viewing in, somewhere in the depths of what used to be the Hotel and is now Pussygrab Palace.

 

As soon as I’m inside, I boot up my laptop and start to scroll. Though it’d be nice to feel like an active participant in my media diet, a Netflix special called A People’s History of Swamp Mode starts playing before I can stop it, and I’m instantly mesmerized.

 

As the special begins, we see a land developer (“let’s call him X,” the special’s narrator says) trying to chop The Dodge City Outskirts into what he calls “condo-izable subdivisions.” He has a decent life — a dog, a family, a midcentury house — when he commits a sudden and seemingly motiveless murder, strangling the UPS delivery man on his doorstep first thing one morning.

 

Forced to testify before The Dodge City High Court, he pleads insanity, claiming that something came over him in the night, that he was “another person entirely” while committing the crime he now stands accused of. “I was a different man,” he says, addressing the camera directly. “A bad man. Not a man I’d ever want to know.”

 

“Well, if you can find this bad man,” the Judge replies, in a gesture of either largesse or deep perversity, “then bring him before me and you, as yourself, will be free to go.”

 

So X does exactly this. He goes back into himself, “all up and down his heart’s halls of mirrors,” as the Netflix narrator puts it, until he reaches the dark inner room where he went the first time. Here he finds the bad man waiting, all too happy to be summoned again.

 

This time, he kills on a larger scale: three people, including a child, which he buries in the frozen foods aisle of ULTRA MAX.

 

Needless to say, he ends up back in court, faced with the same ultimatum, and, again, he follows through: he finds the bad man yet again, closer to the surface this time, more attuned to the deal, even readier to be summoned.

 

This time he burns his whole neighborhood to the ground, killing 50 and radicalizing three followers, who in turn radicalize others.

 

Absurd as it seems, the Judge, apparently terrified of sentencing an innocent man, offers his ultimatum yet again, and again after that. “Bring me the man who did these awful things and we’ll throw him deep into the oily blackness of Dead Sir,” he says to X, after the bad man has initiated the First Dodge City Genocide, killing tens of thousands and leaving entire neighborhoods in ruins.

 

 

*****

SOUL-SICK AT WHAT HE’S WROUGHT and despairing of ever bringing the bad man to justice, X musters the very last of his willpower — free for a brief moment from the bad man’s growing influence — and hurls himself into Dead Sir.

 

“If the Judge won’t sentence me, I’ll sentence myself,” the actor playing him in the Netflix special says to the screen, as he falls, landing with a slurp in the jet black water.

 

PART I ends with the waters closing in, the last of X sinking into the depths, never to rise again.

 

 

*****

THE SCREEN GOES BLACK and I blink for a moment, afraid that the entertainment’s over and I’ll have to find something else to click on before the creeping dread of having nothing to do overwhelms me.

 

Luckily, PART II begins just in time.

 

Down in Dead Sir — the camera’s filming this all underwater, lit in sickly green night-vision — the man formerly known as X sloughs away. His skin puckers, bubbles, and peels back, drifting off in sheets which are eaten by huge solemn carp and gar.

 

Inside, rather than the viscera and bone structure I was expecting, is another man, encased in whitish gelatin. He peels this away and balls it up in his spindly hands, sculpting it into humanoid shapes that he plants in the murk at the bottom of Dead Sir, like he expects them to grow there.

 

And grow they do: over the course of a time-lapse montage, the man — who is clearly the bad man, perpetrator of the First Dodge City Genocide — changes, slowly but surely, into Col. Pussygrab, while all the white humanoids he planted around him grow into his retinue of Swamp Creatures. It’s particularly grotesque to watch Paul Sweetie’s face sprout from the fleshy blob that now constitutes his body.

 

Bubbles spewing from his mouth, the bad man addresses the camera and says, in what is now clearly Pussygrab’s voice, “What I’ve learned down here is that Swamp Mode is latent in all of us. It’s part of who we are, the backmost part, the reptile part. Did we create Dead Sir, or did Dead Sir create us? That, my friends, is the question. What I can say for sure is that it’s not unique to me, I was just smart enough to embrace it first. That poor bastard I used to be? ‘X,’ as you Netflix faggots call him? He’s gone, but I’m here to stay. The Dodge City Mayoral Election is tomorrow, and all I can say is, to anyone who thinks I can’t win … wait and see. It doesn’t matter if you’re sure you won’t vote for me. When the time comes, when you’re alone in that booth, you will. You all will. Swamp Mode’s ascendent. The Second Dodge City Genocide’s ramping up, and let me tell you all right now, it’s gonna be a motherfucking party!”

 

The Netflix special ends with Pussygrab and his Swamp Creatures marching across the bottom of Dead Sir and then slowly rising toward the surface, green hard-ons engorged, as a spooked newscaster’s voice says in the background, “I can’t believe it folks, but reports are coming in that Col. Pussygrab has won the Election in a landslide. Barring a miracle, by dawn he’ll be our next Mayor.”

 

Then the screen goes black and the credits roll over hysterical cackling.

AFTER SOME RESTLESS CHANNEL FLIPPING — I linger for a few minutes on a Netflix special entitled Trade War With The Dodge City Dead, in which Paul Sweetie’s new edict that all aborted fetuses must be buried is contradicted by The Dodge City Dead, who claim that aborted fetuses don’t count as human beings and thus have no business in the underworld. To make their point, they dump a wheelbarrow full of them back in the Town Square in the middle of the night, in a see-through bag labeled THIS IS TRASH — I finally settle on an Amazon special set at Dodge City High:

 

From what I can gather, it has to do with the efforts made by Dodge City’s most infamous private security contractor, Greg van Groos, to run a tactical combat simulation in the high school’s hallways. “In case,” he claims, “anything such as one of those school shootings we hear so much about were ever, God forbid, to go down around here.”

 

The paramilitary forces of Moonstone Securities — van Groos’ firm (or “mercenary army,” as some Left-leaning pundits have taken to calling it) — descend on the school, securing the hallways with giant machine guns and smoke grenades, mowing down every student, admin, and teacher in sight.

 

“Just to be safe, just to be safe,” they keep saying, whenever the smoke and carnage clears enough to reveal their faces.

 

At the same time, on the righthand side of what’s now a split-screen on my laptop, students run in terror, arming themselves in the bathrooms with handguns and slingshots and Molotov cocktails. “We never would’ve done anything like this, but we have no choice,” one of them says. “These maniacs have declared war. Even if it means certain death, we have to defend our school!”

 

They shave their heads and don trench coats and write nihilist manifestos and do themselves up with Slipknot tattoos, “just to get in character,” as one of them puts it.

 

Back on the lefthand side of the split-screen, one of the mercenaries says, “See — here they come now. Total deviants. Terrifying. Just look at these kids. We must remain calm, though. Remember, this is all a simulation.” Still, he ducks when a wall explodes behind him, and the fear on his face as he pulls shrapnel from his neck is either genuine or extremely well-simulated, deep in the uncanny valley.

 

*****

THE SPECTACLE CONTINUES as a voice blares, “Everyone remain calm, everyone remain calm, classes are to proceed as normal,” over the intercom.

 

“The question,” one of the high schoolers says, just before being shot in the head, “is whether their claim that this is all a simulation ought to be believed as such. If we believe it, and thus let our guard down, then we’ll all be killed. But if we insist that all of this is really happening and thus fight back and die anyway, then our deaths will be indisputable. When we die, we’ll surely have died for real. Whereas, perhaps, if we agree that it’s a simulation, then we’ll — ”

 

After lingering on his corpse a little longer than seems strictly necessary, the camera cuts to a scene of two middle-aged Dodge City citizens in a sterile conference room, staring at their fingers splayed on the plywood table.

 

“It’s just so … it’s just so shocking, to think about it, still,” says an overweight middle-aged woman in a sweatshirt bearing a “SURVIVOR #1” logo. “To think of the things that happened to us, back in high school. To think that one minute we were in class, learning about standard deviation, and the next they were shooting the whole place up, like it was a war zone. I mean, those guys were serious. Full-on armor, riot shields, gas masks … you name it.”

 

An overweight middle-aged man in a “PRIVATE SECURITY CONTRACTOR #1” sweatshirt says, “Look, we were just doing our job. We needed to run a convincing-enough simulation to be sure we’d be up to handling the logistics if something like this ever really happened. It was in the interest of all the students of Dodge City High, past and future, to … I mean, no one told us the bullets were real.”

 

He falls silent and twirls his sweatshirt-hood’s drawstrings, like he’s afraid he’s said too much.

 

SURVIVOR #1, picking up the sudden slack: “We — those of us that made it out — never could understand why someone would want to kill us all like that, out of nowhere. If it wasn’t for Dylan and Eric and a few other students who happened to have guns on them that day, Lord knows what would’ve happened. I wouldn’t be here now, that’s for sure. It would’ve been a bloodbath. An even bigger bloodbath, I mean. Those kids are heroes, even if they did kill a lot of my friends.”

 

 

*****

I DOZE OFF FOR AWHILE HERE.

 

When I come to, I’m watching a character that looks like me, in a room that looks like the one I’m sitting in now. He’s just sitting there, thinking, his thoughts narrated either inside my head or out loud by a narrator within the Amazon special:

 

“What about my own high school experience?” my thoughts begin. “At Dodge City High or elsewhere (I’ve long since given up trying to remember) … can I truly claim to have survived it? Does anyone, in the end, emerge from high school intact, or are we all victims of it in one way or another, battered into the adult forms we are then doomed to inhabit?”

 

It occurs to me that perhaps the simple fact of Death enters us all in high school, simulation or not, so that any actual violence in our high school hallways is merely the tip of a very deep iceberg … merely the making-obvious of what was already inherent.

 

“In this sense,” I go on thinking, aware that I’m growing increasingly hypnotized, my thoughts ringing increasingly false to me, “Moonstone is our only bulwark against certain doom, whether it comes in the form of a bullet to the head in algebra class or the slower but in some ways even more insidious creep of decay and despair over the decades and decades after graduation.

 

“If the only true subject of high school is Death, if that’s all we’re there to learn, then surely those who would murder their classmates during study hall are nothing but the manifestation of their schools’ secret beating hearts, the inevitable emergence of what high school truly is and, all along, always was.”

 

 

*****

Here the screen goes black and a giant “MOONSTONE SECURITIES: WAGING THE WAR ON DEATH” slogan comes up, and I realize I’ve been watching an advertisement for the firm this whole time, and am now so confused as to where the lesser evil is to be found that I gladly switch over to Netflix and lose myself in the spectacle of Pussygrab and his goons purging the Chelsea Motel, on the Outskirts of Dodge City, where the last of its counterculture has been hiding out, plotting a “60s Style Celebrity Uprising” that is now gruesomely and spectacularly quashed, even if all the people involved are wax effigies of their real-life counterparts, as it now appears quite likely they are.

 

“Phew,” I hear myself think, aware that I’m reverting to Swamp Mode and will soon be so deep inside it I won’t notice, “at least someone’s doing something around here.”

It’s difficult to talk about the work of David Leo Rice and not mention his natural predilection toward painting all of his protagonists as spectral (sometimes quite literally, as the dead narrator of “Joey in Vermont” in The Opiate, Vol. 2 showed us). His knack for the details–cutting to the core of what “minutiae” really means–only enhances the natural hyper-surreality of his style and preferred tableaus (desolate, sparse and often contingent upon a screen of the porn variety).

This time around, it’s Dodge City, Kansas, an amalgam of every city in the west: lavished in languor, liquor and larceny. No longer the representation of its immortalized silver screen incarnation, the days of Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland have faded into a hollow shell. The crime and carnage Dodge City became known for in its true wild west days of the nineteenth century have faded into something far more…

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A new story of mine …

Life in the surveillance state sure has its perks, as Gribby will be the first to tell you. Like this morning, for instance, as he’s drinking his Ovaltine and Googling guppies – he has a tankful in the living room that won’t quit dying – he comes across a site called PornME that sounds interesting so he clicks it open and it is.

It says, “We’re watching ya all the time anyway, at work and home and everywhere and stuff, so why not pay a lil’ extra to have yr vids porned up, bubba xoxo?” Gribby’s intrigued. He likes porn as much as the next guy, and more especially, he figures, the kind made of vids of him and his coworkers – there’s this gal Kellyanne he’s always been kinda into, for one thing – so, what the hell, he figures, sure, why not pay $12.99/mo. and see if…

View original post 3,798 more words