Archives for posts with tag: Big Pharmakos

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.

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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.

IN A SHOW OF SELFISHNESS AND APATHY I NOW DEEPLY REGRET, I kept to myself in the run-up to Dodge City’s 2016 Mayoral Election. I figured, as most people I know did, that Professor Dalton was a shoo-in, being, as he was, the only candidate officially running.

 

The race shaped up this way because Dodge City was empty for awhile after the resurrected Blut Branson led everyone but me back to the Desert.

 

After a few weeks, however, Nature decided to abhor the vacuum Branson left in his wake and the town re-filled with shitty new people. The populace grew quickly enough that a new Mayoral Regime was deemed necessary, but not so quickly that it produced a candidate to oppose Dalton (who, like me and Big Pharmakos and a few others, turned out never to have left Dodge City behind), so the Election was seen as a formality, a friendly cusp between the Old Era and the New.

 

I thus felt secure whiling my summer away in thrall to Movies, as I’d whiled away all my summers before it, planning to emerge from my Room just long enough to vote in the Booths set up in the Town Square on November 8, before returning to the comfort of my bed and the security of the knowledge that Dalton would rule the town with fairness and aplomb.

 

*****

BUT, IN AN HISTORIC TURN NO ONE SAW COMING, something very different transpired instead.

 

On the night before the Election, a rumbling and a groaning was heard throughout the Dodge City Airspace. I won’t pretend I didn’t hear it too, though I tried my best to tune it out, pressing my pillow over my head and thinking, Well, it’s just something going on out there, and I’m in here, safe and sound, so why worry?

 

In the morning, however, I could tell that something was off. My stomach was knotted up and my breath tasted foul, like I’d swallowed a family of sandflies in my sleep. I brushed my teeth and drank a pot of coffee, but this did nothing to dull the taste, nor did the box of Orange Tic Tacs I consumed on my way across the Lobby and out of the Hotel.

 

By the time I made it to the Town Square, I was pink-eyed and gagging as I waited in line with a lot of other people who looked about the same as I felt. I remember going into the Booth, I remember picking up the pen to box in Dalton’s name, and then …

 

*****

… I’m in the Bar, on a stool beside Big Pharmakos, watching Dodge City’s Cable Access News Station on the wall-mounted TV as someone I vaguely recognize sits at a desk beside someone else I vaguely recognize announcing that the Mayoral Election has gone, by an incredible landslide, to someone or something called Colonel Pussygrab.

 

Footage appears of an obese green-skinned Satyr, dripping algae and brackish water, dancing in the Town Square with both hands on its erection, pumping it furiously while belching and shouting, “I’m gonna fuck you all! Every last one of you!”

 

The footage cuts out just as the creature comes, thick greenish gouts spurting from its midsection, its head tilted back in laughter that seems to echo off the surrounding buildings.

 

“It would appear,” one of the anchors begins as the laughter fades out, “that this creature, which goes by the name Colonel Pussygrab, emerged from the depths of Dead Sir, the brackish swamp out back of Dodge City where we throw all our undesirables, sometime between midnight and two a.m. last night and, in a coup whose nature is still under investigation, managed to add his name to our Mayoral Ballots at the very last minute.”

 

The anchor beside him nods and cuts in with, “Now, how exactly this entity swayed the Vote of the majority of the Dodge City Populace is another matter entirely. But, yes, at the moment it does appear that Colonel Pussygrab is our new Mayor.”

 

Whatever else she was about to say is interrupted by the other anchor vomiting onto her lap. The camera zooms in on the steaming pinkish pile before cutting to a photo of Professor Dalton’s face, bruised and streaked with tears in what looks like an enhanced interrogation room.

 

The atmosphere in the Bar is tense, all of us drinking, none of us making eye contact, while we wait out the commercial break.

 

*****

“Now, live from the Town Square,” says another anchor after the break, “we bring you Colonel Pussygrab’s Victory Speech.”

 

“I vow to make Dodge City um, um, um,” the Colonel intones into the microphone he holds with one hand, crushing the head of a kneeling body wearing a Dalton mask against his crotch with the other. “I will … uh … uh … oh God!”

 

He breaks into frenetic cackling as he ejaculates into the kneeling subject’s mouth. Then he removes the Dalton mask and holds it up so we can see his green snotty semen dripping onto the cobblestones.

 

The Bar, silent before, is even more silent now. The time for groaning and jeering and perhaps even discussion will come, I assume, but it isn’t here yet and it feels a long way off.

 

I look at Big Pharmakos beside me, but he won’t turn to meet my gaze, so I look back at the screen as a parade of Satyrs, all green, all naked, all sporting angry erections, marches from the background to stand beside the Colonel on the podium, staring straight at the camera and grunting. They lick their lips and snort through their noses and some of them spit gobs of phlegm at what I can only imagine is the crowd gathered below them, just off-camera.

 

“I think I’m gonna head back to my Room,” I whisper to Big Pharmakos after I’ve choked down as much of my beer as I can. “Try to relax a little.”

 

When he doesn’t reply, I show myself out.

 

*****

CROSSING THE TOWN SQUARE from the Bar to the Hotel is an upsetting interlude. I hurry with my head down, past the cameras and the crowd and the smell of swampwater in the air, through the Lobby where everyone’s transfixed on the same broadcast we were all watching in the Bar — now the Colonel’s shouting, “I’m gonna try it anal! Everybody watch me try it anal!” — and up to my Room, where I lock the door and boot up my MacBook.

 

As I get online, I find myself torn between a desire for raw escapist entertainment and a desire for cold hard news. On the one hand, I want to be anywhere but here; on the other, I can’t look away from whatever here’s becoming.

 

To postpone the decision — I have tabs for Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu all open in my browser — I pick up the landline and call for Room Service. “Hi,” I say. “Can you book me three meals a day until further notice? I think I’m gonna be in here awhile.”

 

The scared-sounding Porter says “sure” and hangs up.

 

Waiting for dinner to arrive, I lie on my bed and fall into a dream. In the dream, everything’s green and smells like rot and there’s a slurping sound echoing off the walls of … a chamber of some sort? A dungeon? The green’s so thick and the smell so revolting it’s hard to tell, but then, just as the Porter’s knock on my door wakes me, I catch a glimpse of myself hunched over a soggy sheet of paper, crayon in hand, putting a fat wet X beside the name Pussygrab in some hellish simulation of the Dodge City Mayoral Election.

 

Spluttering, I roll out of bed, open the door, and fall upon my steak and eggs before the Porter’s removed his hand from the tray.

 

Munching steak and knuckle-skin once the Porter’s extricated himself, I settle back behind my MacBook and press Play on the first option Netflix gives me.

 

For a minute, the screen boils green. Then the image resolves into what — much as I wish it weren’t — is clearly the Town Square.

 

In the Square, as this Movie has chosen to represent it, a scale model of Dodge City has been laid out, filling the open space with miniature versions of the buildings we all occupy, including the Hotel I’m watching it in now.

 

As soon as I’ve recognized this for what it is, the Satyrs descend upon it, romping from building to building, smashing them and tearing them off the their bases and, in some cases, eating them.

 

One Satyr stabs another in the eye with the radio antenna from the model Cable Access Station and green blood spurts out, covering the screen, and his shrieks are so loud I turn my MacBook’s volume down to zero and run into the shower with my clothes on, holding onto the tiled wall as the whole building shakes when, I assume, the Satyrs rip the model Hotel off its pretend foundation.

 

I’VE SPENT THE PAST TWO MONTHS living in the actual-size replica of the Hotel in the fetus shantytown — specifically inside the actual-size replica Room that corresponds to my original Room in Dodge City, which somehow both exacerbates and alleviates whatever homesickness I might be feeling — working on a script for what I hope will be the first of several movies I’ll make out here with the reanimated fetuses.

 

They certainly seem up for it.

 

My script, about a trio of best friends who unwittingly hire a suicidal prostitute and then stage an elaborate funeral for her in the Suicide Cemetery, where they end up breaking their own hearts by pretending she was the long-lost love of their lives — reading out the eulogies they’d originally written for themselves, to be read by one another many years hence — is overlong, full of digressions I know I’ll never film, but I’m proud that it is, if nothing else, a substantive piece of writing, my first since my entanglement with Branson Entertainments began in earnest last summer.

 

I’m inventorying camera and sound equipment, trying to determine what we’ll need to assemble before we can start shooting, when a green siren in the replica town square brings all activity to a halt.

 

I turn to face it, as do the fetuses, their pickaxes resting on the cardboard cobblestones. A screen above the altar in the replica Church comes to life, showing a newsfeed so surreal at first I think it’s a short film:

 

I watch as Blut Branson emerges from the Dodge City Private Crypt, dusting himself off and blinking through harsh sunlight at the town he left behind. As Dodge City TMZ reporters shove microphones in his face, he says, “Look, everyone, all I’ll say is this: I, like Dante, had to go to hell for a while. That’s where I was. Now I’m back, ready for my Late Career Renaissance.”

 

With that, he pushes past them, hurling a reporter out of his face with enough force to send the rest scurrying. As he marches out of frame, I have the inexplicable but unshakeable sense that he’s coming straight for me.

 

*****

FOR A LONG TIME after he’s gone, the camera lingers on the facade of the Dodge City Private Crypt, a two-story stucco building somewhere in the Outskirts, its glass doors clacking less than gently in the breeze.

 

I first heard about the Private Crypt back in 2012, when there was a lot of talk about reapportioning our cemeteries, what with the new custodian of the Suicide Cemetery stirring up trouble and a rash of desecrations of the graves of formerly luminous directors, Branson’s foremost among them. So, as far as anyone knows, his body was moved to the Crypt after this and has been there ever since.

 

I’ve always thought of it as an even lower-brow Chelsea Hotel, catering to a dead rather than a down-n-out client base. Though I’ve never been inside, I picture rows of rooms along a dingy tile hallway, doors shut but not locked, the dead luminaries of our town posed like junkies on the nod.

 

It’s not lost on me that I’m using what may well be the last of my time before Branson shows up to think about the Private Crypt instead of making any push to set my film in motion, so as to appear to have become a real director in his absence. I feel like a teenager whose house party has spun out of control: I’ve just gotten word that my parents are on their way home early, and there’s no time to clean up, or even to separate whomever’s still screwing in the laundry room.

 

But that’s the way I am: when I start thinking about something, I tend to keep thinking about it in lieu of taking any action.

 

More than a man back from the dead, I think of Branson as a man just released from captivity, as if the Private Crypt were an asylum or a rehab, his bill of health finally clean.

 

I wonder what’s drawn him back — what business does he feel he’s left unfinished? What more could he want from us, given that, in the years since his supposed death, biopics, retrospectives, and conferences on his work have become a cottage industry in Dodge City, employing the vast majority of our scholars and journalists, not to mention a good number of our lesser filmmakers as well.

 

I can feel myself swaying on my feet, looking at nothing in particular, as the fetuses bustle around, dressing the set, oblivious or indifferent to the fact that production’s about to be shut down. My script hangs by my side, dangling between my thumb and forefinger, which are sweating through the pages.

 

*****

I’M STILL IN THIS STATE when Branson snaps his fingers in front of my eyes. I open them and feel my script land on my foot. Slowly, almost robotically, he bends down, picks it up, and begins to page through it.

 

Then we look at each other in earnest. I feel my lower back convulse. Something’s wrong: it’s him but it’s not him.

 

Up close, I see that he’s grown a thin white goatee and his eyes are strikingly bluer than I remember. Minty, frosty blue. I can’t say what shade I remember them being, since I never made a point of noticing, but I can tell they’re off. These are not Blut Branson’s eyes.

 

I can’t decide which is stranger: that he really has died and come back, or that he’d insist on such an improbable story, instead of whatever the truth is. Neither jibes with the Branson I knew. But maybe, I think, if he’s undergone some other change, something fundamental, the fact that he’s become a liar is the least of it … I spit up a little at the thought that the most drastic of his changes may only reveal themselves gradually, when it’s too late to shun him as an imposter.

 

“Hey,” he says, looking up from my script to survey the shantytown. “What’re you up to out here?”

 

This is my set! I want to yell in his face. I’m directing a movie is what I’m up to out here! “Nothing,” I say. “I just, uh …”

 

He nods, like this is all he needs to know. “Well, I have to get back to work.”

 

He bustles off among the fetuses, telling them what to build and criticizing what they’ve built already, checking my script every few seconds.

 

I know that if I don’t start moving right now I’m going to freeze in place. Then, at best, I’ll thaw and trudge back to Dodge City at dawn and chalk this whole venture up to experience, telling Big Pharmakos how we learn more from our failures than our successes over ten or twelve beers at the Hotel bar at noon, until they kick us out to clean before the evening rush.

 

I close my eyes and try to think. I think about gouging Branson in the back of the head with a pickaxe and dragging him back to the Dodge City Private Crypt, telling the door-person, “This one wasn’t ready for life on the outside.”

 

By the time I’ve thought this scenario through, Branson — or the Branson-lookalike — is already deep in rehearsal, reading aloud from my script like he wrote it, the fetuses gathered at his feet.

 

I suffer a moment of complete aloneness, overwhelmed by the vastness of the desert surrounding me and how far from home, security, and any kind of legitimate employment I’ve wandered, or let myself float.

 

THEN SOMETHING BEHIND MY FOREHEAD CLICKS:

 

No, I think. It doesn’t end this way.

 

I leave the shantytown behind, striding into the black desert surrounding it, convinced that if I stride with enough purpose, at least a few fetuses will follow.

 

And I’m right: at least a few do.

 

Several, even. More than I can count in the dark.

 

With my loyal troupe in the open desert surrounding what’s now the set of Blut Branson’s new film — the first of his Late Career Renaissance — I begin to improvise a scenario of my own. It will be a counter-film, a film made in tandem with his, designed specifically to refute it.

 

A film about an imposter, a simulacrum-Branson who broke free from his Private Crypt to hijack the passion project of his acolyte.

 

In a fugue of sudden and temporary confidence, I decide that as well as writing and directing this film, I’m going to star in it.

 

I stand before the fetuses with this resolve firm in my mind: However uncanny it ends up making me feel, I’m going to play Blut Branson, the real one, the one I remember. I’m going to plunge down until I find the thing in me that’s the same as the thing in him, and then I’m going to bring it back to the surface and express it for whomever ends up watching this to see.

 

The imposter-Branson who’s forced his way into our midst is a blessing in disguise, as I see it now, my doorway into the realm of greatness. I explain, in the best Branson-voice I can muster: “The Blut Branson I knew and loved is dead. Or was, for a long time. Now he’s back. I am he. He is me. You are looking right at him, and he will be your director from now until we finish the work it is finally time for us to begin.”

IT’S TAKEN A MONTH TO PRODUCE THE FIRST BLUT BRANSON CRITERION DVD, but now it’s spring and the Release Party is upon us .

 

What’s more, two of his most celebrated shorts have been included as special features — 2 Old Ppl, about two best friends who, upon growing old, discover that one of them has turned into two old people while the other has turned into none; and Our Beloved Carefree Child Was Murdered, about a man whose profession it is to accept responsibility for having murdered teenagers that actually committed suicide, so their parents don’t have to feel guilty about not having been there for them.

 

In advance of the Release Party, the entire downtown is converted into an Anything-goes Zone. Professor Dalton has been on the prowl with Big Pharmakos since last night, drinking, finalizing his speech, and fending off paparazzi demanding to know whether the rumor that Branson himself might appear has any basis in fact.

 

THEN, BECAUSE WE CAN’T WAIT ANY LONGER, THE RELEASE PARTY BEGINS. We’re tearing half-naked through the streets, eating fresh-killed hocks of goat and lamb, crushing boxes of wine on our faces and lapping it off one another, bellowing at the smoggy sky as the Criterion Truck pulls in. We hurl ourselves upon it, tearing open the back before it’s stopped moving, burying ourselves in DVD’s, basking in the canonization of our first genuine saint.

 

The Truck opens beneath us, spewing boxes like confetti. We’re buried, writhing in glory, heedless of suffocation.

criteriontruck 1

It’s all good until a slimy bursting overrides our glee and we fall silent as hundreds of repressed babies tear through the women among us. They rise from their mothers’ shoulders, armpits, faces, and scalps, crawling out of the afterbirth to push aside DVD’s and howl at the lights of Dodge City, the first they’ve ever seen.

 

SOME CONTEXT: 17 years ago, Professor Dalton pioneered a non-abortive family planning technique whereby fertilized embryos could be shifted out of the mother’s womb and into another part of her body — the shoulder, the armpit, the face, the scalp — and sit there, inert as benign tumors, until such time as the mother was ready to birth them, when the embryo would simply be pushed back into the womb with a pool cue and allowed to the develop there as normal.

 

Dodge City women have been availing themselves of this treatment since then without incident, until now, when, it appears, the absurd excitement surrounding Branson’s Criterion Release has caused the embryos to develop and hatch all at once, exploding from the places they’d been stored, emerging fully-formed from the wreckage of their mothers.

 

I’m no expert, but they look larger than newborns should: more like two-year-olds, standing up and yelling to announce their arrival.

 

*****

AS WE STRUGGLE TO EXTRICATE OURSELVES, Blut Branson himself appears from on high, camera out and ready, barking: “Test them for the fear of death! Test them for the fear of death!”

 

He’s shooting frantically, wading barefoot through the destroyed mothers among his pile of DVD’s. There’s a full crew behind him, people I’ve never seen before, and I start to wonder how much of this has been preordained for the sake of producing his next film, and how elated I ought to feel if it has been, given that I’m here to witness it, perhaps even to partake.

 

He is everywhere at once, swirling among the newborns, attaching mics to their bare chests, making sure their voices can be heard in his headphones.

 

Then he turns to us and says, “Your job is to rank how scared of death these newborns are. On a scale of 1 to 10.”

 

No one moves.

 

“Now!” he shouts. “Do you want to be part of the next Blut Branson film or not?”

 

Still no one moves.

 

“How are we supposed to find out?” someone finally asks.

 

“Ask them!!” he shrieks. “How do you think? Look at that pile of corrupted flesh … that is their mothers. Show them that. Say, One day that will be you. What do you think about that? How does that make you feel?”

 

Aware that my chance to have a hand in a Branson film is now or never, I run up to the nearest newborn and ask it these exact words. It doesn’t respond. I try the next one, and likewise get no response.

 

“What do we do if we get no response?” someone else asks, sparing me the indignity.

 

Branson pauses, checking his rage before replying. “Speechlessness is a 10. Highest possible fear of death. They’re all 10’s! They’re all 10’s, aren’t they!” he shouts, standing outside the Criterion Truck, crushing the DVD’s, indifferent to his old work, focused utterly on the new.

 

“Perfect! Every Newborn’s a 10! That’s the title of my next film!!”

 

If there is such a thing as a God, it never addressed its Creation with more conviction than this.

IT’S BEEN A LONG WINTER IN WHICH NO ONE’S had a better idea than to keep up with the TV Movies that a few insomniacs churned out while the rest of us slept.

 

My favorite is Finger Torture, about a guy who, believing that his dreams have prepared him for torture, signs up to be a Scarecrow, which is someone who is hired to be tortured in place of someone who can’t take it. The idea is that the Scarecrow will either withstand the torture with a modicum of dignity intact or else determine that it’s excessive and lucidly deliver the information the torturer is after, rather than devolving into the histrionics of a Scared Crow, as those who melt under the torture they have been singled out for are called according to the TV Movie’s prologue.

 

I read Scared Crow as Sacred Cow until the narrator said it aloud.

 

“In those days of sudden, random torture,” concluded the narrator, “the Scarecrow business was unsurprisingly booming.”

 

The guy who volunteered to be a Scarecrow in the TV Movie claimed he’d had a series of dreams in which a duo broke into his room and removed his fingers joint by joint, night after night, each time more painful than the last because his fingers had regrown imperfectly in the interim, but also each time less traumatic than the last because he’d been conditioned to expect it.

 

“Finger Torture was the only thing I’d been made ready for,” he told the camera from behind a veil.

 

This struck a nerve with me because I had a similar experience, years before coming to Dodge City.

 

*****

DURING EVERY NIGHT OF THOSE YEARS, I slept alone in a rented room similar to the one I was tortured in once the dream began.

 

When it did, they turned on the lights I’d been sleeping under and pulled me up in bed, always the same two agents — a guy and a girl, in matching blue T-shirts and khaki work pants — stuffing my reading pillow under my back so I wouldn’t slump over when they let go of me.

 

Their method was to cut my fingers joint by joint, starting with the thumb of my left hand and working toward the pinky of my right. The guy sliced the pads of the fingertips with a serrated kitchen knife, then, once they bled out, the girl cut off the first joint with a pair of garden shears.

 

“Is the code a woman’s name? Is it Heather? Is the dial just a switch?” Every night, these three questions.

 

Without giving me a chance to respond, the guy slices the skin on all my second joints and the girl comes through with the shears. Then it’s on to my third joints, until all 30 are in a pile in my lap.

 

They spray the pile with a water bottle like it’s seeds they expect to grow.

 

This happened every night, and the pain I felt was real. It leeched all feeling from my days. If I’d been able to get out of bed and run away, either out of the dream or past them within the dream, I would have, but the pain was so acute it locked my knees under the sheets. I couldn’t even slide off the reading pillow.

 

So, as they cut me, I took to tunneling into my head, into a dream within the dream, which I perceived as a daydream since in the dream I didn’t know I was dreaming. The place I was trying to reach was the parking lot just through my door and down the single flight of stairs of the housing unit.

 

In the daydream, I push the door open with minimal noise and step onto the landing, where my neighbor is smoking, oblivious to the gasps coming from my room.

 

I feel like one member of a duo who’s left his partner behind — I know that someone is still being tortured in my bed, but it’s not me anymore.

 

Down the steps to the parking lot, under the mosquito-clogged light, past the outdoor laundry station and the pool with its deflated raft and the jammed vending machine, into a waiting car.

 

I buckle my seatbelt beside a hooded boss who asks, “Do you have it?”

 

I say “Yes,” and hold my hands out. The fingers fall off, painlessly, into his leather kit bag.

fingerbag

We cruise up a wide, empty boulevard to a bank deposit box, and I get out and dump the finger bag in.

 

“The balance is in your account,” whispers the boss through the car window, not letting me back in. “Soon you’ll be ready for L.A.”

 

He drives off.

 

The dream ends when I make it back to my room on foot, which can take until well past dawn. When I wake up in my bed, my fingers are swollen and throbbing, and my reading pillow is propped behind me.

 

*****

THESE DREAMS TOOK PLACE YEARS AGO, but the TV Movie makes me consider the possibility that I’ve never stopped having them, despite the memories of other dreams I often awake with now.

 

Decoy Dreams, I think.

 

As the credits roll, I start thinking about where to get a serrated kitchen knife and a pair of garden shears, and how to convey to Big Pharmakos my desire for him to cut my fingers slowly but ruthlessly one by one when I’m asleep tonight, so I can see if I still have it in me to leave my body and get in that car, cruise up the boulevard to the bank box.

 

Because God knows my account could use a deposit.

AFTER FAILING TO DISCOVER enough compelling reality around Dodge City to substantiate its claim of having always been a reality show, UNHOLY FAMILY resorts to a “new” script for its season finale, which we all know was actually written by Big Pharmakos back in 2011, when it wasn’t filmed because no one was into him yet.

 

Anyway, the finale’s on now and I’m watching it from the Hotel fitness center, where I retreated after storming away from a holiday dinner party.

 

The episode features a group of eight at Xmas dinner. They’re sitting around the table nursing scotch with their napkins piled on dirty plates. It’s Shep, a grandpa whose wife has died and left him with terminal esophageal cancer, Carlene, a single mother with a skyrocketing investment firm, her newborn Milo, who has one hand of all thumbs and no other hand, that baby’s Rilke critic older sister Rita, a 42-year-old test pilot named Marx with a sense of taste that only kicks in an hour after contact with food and drink, Marx’s wife Sue, who has swallowed enough Percocet to end things within the hour, Sue’s son from another marriage Devon, a world-class juggler, and Devon’s college roommate Sterns, who intends to study botany if his self-service app doesn’t take off, which all signs indicate that it will.

 

The conceit of the episode is that, now that the meal has been eaten and all the graces and toasts have been said and thanks duly given, each family member will draw a symbol on an index card representing who and what they currently are, and then put these cards into the hands of the UNHOLY FAMILY HOST, who will shuffle and hold them back out to the family members, who will each choose one in turn.

 

Whichever symbol each person chooses determines who and what they will be for the coming year, no questions asked. For example, if Shep, the grandpa with terminal esophageal cancer, chooses the symbol of Rita, the Rilke critic, he gets to be her for the rest of the year, no more impending doom, no more dead wife, just long slow days alone with the poems. And if Rita, the former Rilke critic, chooses the symbol of the newborn with only one hand, then that’s who she is, starting her clock back almost at zero, freeing up the newborn (assuming he’s able to pick a card at all) to pick the card of, say, Sterns, the college botanist and possible app-phenom. As for Sterns …

 

Anyway, that’s how it works.

 

Soon, all the cards have been chosen. Almost everyone is someone else. Marx, the test-pilot, chose the card of his Percocet-swallowing wife and died, while his wife became Carlene, the ultra-rich single mother, and left with one of the college boys, who chose his own card and thus remained himself for another year.

 

*****

AS I WATCH from the fitness center, I find this all moderately exciting, but it’s not what rivets me. What rivets me is an inconsistency in the numbers. All the characters remain onscreen, all eight as they accept their lots for the year to come, but there’s someone else behind them, a kind of fleshed shadow.

 

A woman in her late 40s with a shaved head just starting to show stubble.

 

I can’t place her … maybe I’ve never seen her before, or else she’s always been in the background of UNHOLY FAMILY, emerging from the overlap of the scripted characters, whispering secrets in the ear of the HOST.

 

When the eight scripted characters are led away, this woman lingers, staring out at me from the screen. I look around the fitness center to see if anyone else is here to confirm or deny what I’m seeing, but no one is. There used to be other people, but they must have left when the show ended … except it hasn’t ended. The camera lingers on this woman, leaning against the wall of the kitchen set as the staff clears the bones and gravy from the table and throws out the index cards that served as the basis of the episode.

 

I pedal my stationary bike faster in some attempt to escape her gaze, aware that I’m starting to freak out but unsure how to stop. I grip the handlebars and the screen tells me I’ve burned 104 calories.

 

I close my eyes to wipe sweat on my upper arm, then open them again. When I do, the woman on the screen holds up an index card, displaying a symbol I don’t have time to make sense of. Then she’s gone.

gymtv

UNHOLY FAMILY is over. A commercial for Giant Chinese comes on, then another.

 

I go back to my Room, get in the shower.

 

In the shower, I press my face against the tiles and try to remember the symbol she held up. I know that I saw it, even if it wasn’t long enough to read consciously. I feel the card inside me, face-down against my spine.

 

I start to obsess, yelling at myself for having blithely assumed she would hold it up longer. If only I knew for sure what she was trying to tell me, I’m thinking, my 2015  would be off to a very different start.

UNHOLY FAMILY, out of ideas with two more timeslots to fill before Xmas, becomes a reality show by announcing that it’s always been one.

 

“All we’ve ever done is film what’s going on with you people,” it announces in a huge banner across the facade of City Hall.

 

Cowed by the prospect of our day blimping out around us with nothing to watch, we go to the town square to see what’s going on with us.

 

What’s going on is the annual Giant Chinese (Anti-)Abortion Rally, in which each side repeats its position from last year, competing to get as close to verbatim as possible.

 

“It’s a simple matter of matching fetus to tube,” Professor Dalton begins. “A one-to-one correspondence in which nothing is wasted. I could do the procedure myself. Right here, right now. If you would only let me.”

 

Big Pharmakos, on a Conservative tear after an onstage meltdown stalled his rise to the top of comedy, holds the mantle for the opposition: “Fuck them for not wanting to be born! I didn’t want to be born either, but here I am! Right?! Aren’t we all here??”

 

Each voice magnifies the other until there comes the sound of winged monkeys, paws tearing up the pavement.

 

The UNHOLY FAMILY reality crew is all around us, filming everything.

 

It’s not far to an impasse.

 

This impasse is broken in the form of Blanche Brine Daly, a pilgrim dragging a tank on a cart.

 

“My tank,” she begins, with no sequiter, as the crowd-noise sinks beneath that of her voice, “is for those fetuses that are not yet ready to be born, or those mothers that are not yet ready to bear them. The interior conditions mimic the life-sustaining conditions of the womb, but not the life-developing conditions, so that the fetus can survive in here as it is, without being transformed against its will — or its mother’s — into a baby.”

 

A pause while we look her and it over.

 

“So there is no net loss of life here. Nor any net gain. No, sirs. I offer only the chance to … arrest development until the time is right. Until solid groundwork can be laid.”

 

She takes the tank off the cart and settles it onto the ground. “It’s an open-air device,” she begins. “As fine a piece of kit as you’re likely to find anyplace outside of Chicago, where far finer are to be found, but if anyone here were the Chicago-type they wouldn’t be here today … am I right?”

 

Her question sounds genuine, not rhetorical, but elicits only murmurs.

 

“Does anyone have an extension cord?” she then asks, and it’s a long time before any of us realizes she’s talking to us. When we do, we have to ask her to repeat the question, which she does, but it turns out that none of us has one, so we all have to entertain ourselves while she goes to the hardware store.

 

UNHOLY FAMILY shoots B-reel, eats Cliff Bars.

 

She returns with the extension cord and plugs the tank in, bringing its brine to life.

 

*****

“Well, step right up, ladies. Don’t be shy,”  she says, after we’ve all stood dumbfounded for as long as she’ll let us. “Any woman will do.”

 

Finally, a woman none of us knows steps forward, waits beside the tank while Blanche looks her over.

 

“Any pregnant woman,” Blanche clarifies.

 

The woman pauses, like she’s trying to remember what she’d meant to say, then tries, “I could get pregnant.”

 

Blanche looks her over again, shakes her head. “No time for that now. This is a live demonstration.”

 

Looking cornered, the woman faints on the concrete and another woman, fantastically pregnant, steps forward.

 

Blanche looks satisfied.

 

She blindfolds this woman, spins her three times, and proceeds to extract the fetus using nothing but her thumb and index finger, each of which has been outfitted with an extra joint in the middle.

 

The woman faints on top of the other on the concrete. Now two non-pregnant women are collapsed in a pile for different reasons.

 

The fetus, meanwhile, is already in the tank, where it hovers a few moments before settling into a sediment on the bottom, stirring it up, clouding our view.

 

“It is planted in a sediment which will not permit it to grow,” Blanche informs us, removing her extra finger joints, wiping them on a handkerchief, and putting them back in place. “When the mother is ready, be that days or years from now, the fetus will be re-implanted and carried to term, as if there’d been no interruption at all.”

 

*****

UNHOLY FAMILY elides the many iterations of the process that come next, picking back up when the tank is full of fetuses, ranging from a few weeks to nearly 9 months of age. The tank is so full that some of its brine has bubbled over the edges, frothing on the concrete below, eating into it.

 

All the mothers are in a giant heap nearby, at the edge of the liquid’s reach, breathing as one.

 

“Now,” asks Blanche, pointing, “I presume that is a Hotel over there?”

 

*****

LIKE SO, she becomes part of Dodge City for the time being, in a Room just down the hall from mine.

 

When UNHOLY FAMILY asks her what happens now, all she says is, “I’ve sent for my husband from Chicago. He should be here any day.”

 

The mothers continue to lie beside the tank, unmoving, covered in the shadows of their fetuses.

 

Big Pharmakos fashions a rough wooden paddle and takes it upon himself to stir the tank, but when the UNHOLY FAMILY crew asks him to “stop tampering with the evidence,” he proves surprisingly compliant, returning to the Hotel lobby to rehearse the comedy routine he melted down during.

 

Life stays normal for longer than feels normal.

 

UNHOLY FAMILY puts a “Do Not Guard” sign around the tank, to ensure that nothing comes between it and whatever’s going to happen.

 

I perch in my window with sugar packets from the lobby and look out at the wind rippling the brine, sometimes bringing the fetuses’ half-formed faces to the surface. I name the ones with defined features and try to keep track of them until they sink back under.

 

After a week, Blanche reports that her husband arrived several days ago and that “we’ve been living in marital bliss ever since,” but the UNHOLY FAMILY crew is unable to find any evidence of him.

 

In between updates, rumors circulate that a marauder is loose in the surrounding woods, picking off chickens and making wicker fetishes, but we assume these are mostly intended to dilute our attention and try not to let them.

 

Which is a shame, because if we’d been more attuned to this side of the story, some of us might have seen the thing stealing in from the woods last night, covered in pine needles and chicken blood, and climbing into the tank, sloshing more brine over the edge, partially dissolving the dormant mothers.

 

When we wake up and head down to the square, we see something slipping around with the fetuses, swirling them together, seeping into their thin shells, squeezing sound from those of them that have lungs.

 

The whole tank has a gamey, seedy reek.

 

Blanche is there too, in her bathrobe, taking it all in without reacting.

 

After this turmoil peaks, there comes a calm.

 

The fetuses start to grow, whether they’re 3-week-specks or 8-month-behemoths. They swell up, reaching and surpassing the size of babies, taking on shapes that borrow liberally from the human template without conforming to it.

 

Their bodies turn thick and spongy, their faces pressed up against the tank as they grow too big for it. I can almost taste their sour, porous dough.

 

Soon, all the brine has been forced out of the tank and onto the mothers, whose bodies are mostly dissolved, and the fetuses are huge creatures standing mushed together inside the glass, groaning, trying to chew through the glass with lips that contain only more lips.

 

Many of them look vegetal, with cabbage-like flaps and hair like turnips.

 

The marauder is nowhere to be seen: its body has been absorbed, spent in the process of making them what they now are.

 

In this moment, we forget that they once had human fathers — many of whom are standing right here, in the crowd — and accept that whatever came into the tank last night is their father now.

 

“It’s as if,” says Dalton, all too happy to resume his position of metaphysical authority, “they were nothing but unfertilized eggs all this time, and now, at last, after months in the incubator, some sperm has come to fertilize them. Think about the implications … imagine that you and I, right now, are likewise unfertilized, waiting for our father to find us and make us into what we will one day be … and all along we’ve thought of ourselves as full creatures already.”

 

He goes on, but Blanche interrupts him: “Excuse me, folks, but does anyone have a hammer? I really ought to let these fellows out before they swell through the glass.”

 

Again, no one answers, and again she goes to hardware store to buy one, or take one, since the hardware store owner is out here with us.

 

After she’s smashed the tank, we watch as the doughy creatures stomp out, some on feet and some not, grinding the bones of their mothers into the pavement and scraping the remnants of their father’s ejaculate from their legs and torsos.

 

They reach the edge of the square and wait, watching us, to see what we do.

 

UNHOLY FAMILY swarms around Blanche.

 

The reporter puts the mic in her face: “So, before we try to interview these … things, tell us what we all want to know: is the marauder that came in from the woods last night your husband? It is, isn’t it? Just admit it! It’s their father and you’re their mother, right? Right??”

 

Then — I’m up in my Room watching this now — the screen fades to black on a banner that reads: “FIND OUT NEXT TIME ON UNHOLY FAMILY, DODGE CITY’S LONGEST-RUNNING REALITY SHOW.”

I’M STILL IN PRISON in the next town over, fat dripping from the ceiling and pooling around me, soaking in.

 

It feels like I’ve been assigned this situation as my main concern. I’m allowed to retain the feeling that there are other things I’d rather be thinking about, but no intimation of what they might be, since that would begin to constitute thinking about them.

 

My skull-membrane starts to sag, like the shell of an egg that’s been soaked overnight in such a way that it can in the morning be peeled without becoming juice.

 

When it sags in far enough to touch “the bottom” — the place where my neck jabs into my head, somewhere above the back of my mouth — the scene changes:

sleeperscropped

THE SLEEPERS DESCEND from the ceiling on tendrils, part-plant and part-animal, come to rest on a sawdust-covered stage with a curtain backdrop. A roaming spotlight centers on the middlemost few.

 

I’m sitting on a canvas chair, like a director’s chair, with something sentient beside me, in a chair of its own.

 

I’M WARY of taking my eyes off the jigging, mugging, warming-up Sleepers on the stage, but I can’t not check who’s beside me. I try to see if my head is soft enough to turn one eye without the other, but it’s not. Or else both eyes are too soft to do anything except what they want.

 

In any case, I’m now looking at a huge figure it takes me a minute to recognize as Big Pharmakos.

 

He looks the same, only different, as they say (who?).

 

It takes him even longer to notice me looking at him, and a while after that to recognize me.

 

Not an efficient exchange.

 

He says, “So glad you could make it. I found my main self on the road. Huge clubs, amphitheaters. Four levels of security, Wayne Coyne, you name it. Thanks for coming. This is what I realized I’d be giving up,” he nods at the stage, where the Sleepers, who’ve diverged from one another along clear if not entirely organic-seeming M/F lines, are eating glass and tiptoeing on thumbtacks.

 

He cracks a Stella, swigs, watches it bubble over its lip and onto his gut, watches it sink in (he’s shirtless), then hands me one, which I open and get the same result, react the same way.

 

“Back to basics,” he says, by way of a toast, and I incline my head and Stella.

 

The Sleepers are piercing each other’s ears with nails and threading bowling balls on chains through the holes, swinging their heads in huge arcs until the balls rip their ears off and their head-holes flourish.

 

“After tomorrow,” Big Pharmakos muses, “there’ll be no more of this. If you can imagine.”

 

I try to imagine his bride-to-be, end up asking him about her, who she is & all.

 

“That’ll come later,” he responds. “We got our whole lives ahead of us.”

 

I nod, wondering how true this is. The Sleepers, by the look of it, don’t have much life at all ahead of them. Their heads are so bloody by now they look like Johnny Ryan’s Cannibal Fuckface, masked in blood just like him. Perhaps it’s a direct homage; I’m not sure how this show got booked and what its speciality is.

 

More Stella’s and Big Pharmakos proffers chips and guac.

 

I watch them destroy themselves, reusing props (the broken glass, the nails, the cannonballs which they’re now using to bash each other’s teeth out, sometimes getting them so lodged in each other’s faces they have to leave them there), like they’ve outlived the repertoire and need to end the show however possible.

 

They’ve hammered their genitalia so full of spikes and it’s gotten so inflamed that I feel forced to retract my earlier M/F description, insofar as they are no longer either of those things — they’ve muddled themselves into a classic Both/Neither situation, between which I won’t try to choose.

 

“Some show,” Big Pharmakos mutters, nodding out. “The road’s been good to me … the road’s been … after tomorrow, it’s no more road for me.”

 

I can tell from the way his voice is dampening and his smell going faint that he’ll disappear at the same moment the Sleepers die, like they represent our life force, bashing it away for the hell of it rather than letting it drip slow & steady.

 

I want to plead with them, try to make them stop or at least slow down, but I’m already too weak and the thought just makes me feel weaker.

 

*****

WHEN ALL THE SLEEPERS ARE DEAD, at rest among the still-rolling cannonballs, I look beside me and see that Big Pharmakos is gone.

 

I make a bet with myself about how long I’ll be able to hold onto the certainty that he was ever here; lose it.

 

There’s one beer left; I find I’m already drinking it.

 

Before considering my next move, I’m visited, predictably, by the thought, “I was the main attraction of this party all along, the freak dandled before my own freakish attention.” This occurs to me like a fast-deflating punchline, a remnant or imitation of the thought I would’ve had in high school, but with more seriousness then, at least the seriousness of a genuine joke.

 

Exiting this thought, I’m even further from where I’d been, mentally, when I entered it.

 

Physically I’m still in the same room I’ve been in this whole time.

 

Now I can’t even get a grip on what had initially prompted me to term this scene a Bachelor Party, nor even quite what a Bachelor Party is, or is supposed to be.

 

One piece of good news is that the Sleepers, fallen from the ceiling, have left me open to the sky. It hovers huge up there, like something hazily slotted into place over something else, imperfectly obscuring it.

 

I can smell it, and it’s not half-bad. Springlike, maybe even summery in places, not that I have anything to eat.

 

I lie back on the squishy membrane of my head, feel it sink down like a pillow.

 

I wonder how soon the carrion birds will be here. I fall asleep wondering where they are now, what they could possibly be doing that’s more important, more appealing …