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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.

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.”

BED REST following the Intestine Episode is cut short by the scheduled arrival of an Idol.

 

The baby that Stokoe Drifter sired is tucked away in some nursery or orphanage, attended by specialists and orderlies.

 

If we could have postponed it we would have, just to have a few extra days to lie low, but these things involve multiple towns and the amount of legwork required to disrupt the Idol from its scheduled tour is way beyond what any of us were up to undertaking.

 

In fact, it’s on a fixed circuit of 30 towns, which means it has, max., one day of leeway per month. In February, obviously enough, it has to hit, on average, more than one town per day.

 

Every town gets its turn. Ours is today.

 

The Idol is wheeled in by hooded underlings, big as a Trojan Horse except, instead of wooden and hollow and filled with spies, it’s blobular and gummy, solid, filled with despair and self-doubt.

 

Every citizen of Dodge City, except those living Underground and/or Off The Record, is assembled in the square (the same one in which the Intestine Episode played out — some of the cobblestones are still stained), yawning and shivering in the autumn chill, watching the Idol approach on its titanium casters.

 

The hooded underlings take a few minutes to stabilize it once it’s been rolled into position, anchored with a rope around the fountain in the dead center of the square like it has some astrological significance, something with the sun and the shadow of the clocktower and concentric circles and diametrically opposed shop windows mirroring each other.

 

Once the wobbly gelatinous mass is still enough to be safe-seeming, we separate into four lines of roughly equal length, each facing the Idol from a distinct direction, dividing 360 degrees into chunks of 90.

 

*****

WE WAIT in this formation until the underlings blow a whistle. They hereby Give the Go-Ahead, then disperse into the streets around the square, perhaps for a bite and a cup of coffee, or just to afford us some privacy.

 

One citizen from each of the four lines approaches the Idol, gagging and blowing out air, preparing mouth and throat for the bitter, gooey taste of what’s to come.

 

All four dive in, burying their faces in the mass of the Idol’s side, boring as far into that biology as it’ll let them.

 

I gag in sympathy, watching their heads disappear and then enough of their torsos that their feet lose ground and tip up into the air, kicking and dangling. A few kick so hard their shoes scramble off.

 

It’s dim weather out, hard to stay sharp in — my mind wanders over to 12 Years a Slave and a kind of yarn-ball of jealousy over the critical acclaim bestowed upon Steve McQueen unfurls in my system, quickly re-knotting in new and painful ways. I try to fight it but only end up, predictably, fighting myself.

 

I’m up next.

 

I’m fantasizing about my Gmail account, begging the universe for a story of mine to have been accepted somewhere, anywhere.

 

I would’ve missed my turn if someone hadn’t shoved me in the rib, sending me off-balance toward the Idol, tripping over the knot of jealousy over how far short of Steve McQueen’s my critical fate has so far fallen, which has wormed its way out of my body and is now hanging down like the tassels on a prayer shawl all over my crotch and thighs.

 

Propelled bodily by the rib-shove and mentally by this craven (and common enough) thought-welter, my face ends up in the Idol’s side.

 

The familiar bitter putty taste seeps out to receive me. It spreads my mouth open as surely as a thumb and forefinger squeezing my nose.

 

All the insecurity of the past few minutes serves me well now: I’ve been adequately prostrated on the threshold, brought to my knees in advance of coming face-to-face with it.

 

I wriggle further in, arms pinned to my sides like when I was five and fat and stuck in the tunnel of a snow fort that had become an ice fort overnight.

 

The claustrophobia sets in as the Idol’s blob material forces its way down my throat, covering my tongue with a tongue of its own, stretching all the way into my esophagus to the point where it blots out all other sensation and opens the pathways of thought:

 

Maybe I’m really, truly not good enough, I think.

 

Maybe I just don’t have what it takes to see this — any of this, anything I’m working on — through.

 

Maybe I have the vision but not the chops, simple as that.

 

Maybe I’ll aspire forever, or even give that up, settle for fandom and a kind of select regional knowledge.

 

I mean, what do I know about what it really, like, really, takes?

 

These thoughts rush into me, pumped in from the belly of the Idol, whose sole purpose is to pump us all full of these thoughts, once every thirty days without fail throughout the year.

 

A lot of people can think it up, but only a very, very few can do it for real. Why believe you’re one of them? The thoughts continue, same every time.

 

What indication is there?

 

The Idol slowly and expertly ratchets up the tension, building to the brink of the unbearable. This is what it’s been called to town to do. This is what it is, living proof of the possibility that I am not — that none of us are — the genius I so miserably want to be and, twenty-nine days out of thirty, am mostly able to behave as if I believed I were.

 

The kind of belief that lets you move forward with work that no one else is forcing you to do.

 

I feel internal bleeding everywhere from my ribs on up, and a black soupy mucus pouring down into my stomach as the reality hits me full on: I might genuinely, truly, and, worst of all, simply, not be cut out for it. Not when you seriously size up the competition.

 

I mean, c’mon.

 

And maybe it’s your fault, whispers the Idol, beginning to ease its tongue out of my gut. Maybe you just don’t want it enough. Maybe, years ago, you took a long, sober look at what it actually takes and thought to yourself … eh, I dunno …

 

*****

Finally it pulls its tongue the rest of the way out me. I can feel life returning to my arms, which begin morosely swimming back out of the blob’s interior, pushing back toward the open air of Dodge City.

 

Back on the cobblestones, it’s dark and, compared to where I’ve just been, frighteningly dry and cold.

 

I hang my head low, dog-like, and saunter off to a bar to knock a few back and try to thaw out from the High Sabbath.

 

The bar is full of people who’ve just undergone the same ordeal, all of us shaken in our resolve, our homunculi unseated from their habitual thrones.

 

Each of us drinks like we’re the only one there. Even the bartender looks like he’s asking himself what the point is.

 

When the place gets full enough and some of the taps start running out, I picture the hooded underlings untying the Idol’s anchor from the fountain and wheeling it away through the dark, back through the Outskirts and on to the next town, stopping somewhere unseen to pass the night.

 

I wonder whether they sleep inside or beside it, and all at once or in shifts. And whether they keep their hoods on even when it’s only them and too dark to see.

 

*****

When I get back to my Room, I open my Internet browser: several Email accounts, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, Spotify, Pitchfork, The Dissolve, The AV Club, Netflix, and Hulu, along with the Events Schedules of at least five music and comedy venues.

 

Several minutes later, I open my novel draft, thick with several years’ worth of dust and tract marks, odious even to glance at.

 

Then, not to put too fine a point on things, I ask myself what sort of man I am.