Archives for posts with tag: Big Pharmakos

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.”

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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 …

THE COPYCAT INSPECTOR’S return-with-a-Warrant, despite all the build-up over the past few weeks, was underwhelming.

 

 

By the time he and I walked back from that field where we chance-encountered one another, into the smoke and wreckage of Dodge City on the verge of being officially deemed a Cult, the focus or locus of attention had shifted.

 

 

It appeared he’d missed his moment and, since I was associated with him at that point, I felt I’d missed mine as well. Like everyone had already acclimated to life as a Cult and discovered that the fundamental crisis of their lives was something else.

 

 

The scene in the town square reminded me of a trip to Morocco I took when I was nineteen (and may have sprung straight from those memories):

 

 

 

There were chicken, tea, and cake vendors set up in a 1:1:3 ratio, and a bonfire, and Widget, the nine-year-old Detective who’d been given his first case in determining the origin of the 7 Shed Skins found in the street after last week’s melee, was holding forth.

 

 

 

The Copycat Inspector and I looked askance at one another, like this loss of fanfare was surely the other’s fault, a waste of a winning hand.

 

 

 

He peeled off into the crowd, hunching his head down into his neck. I had the impression that I wouldn’t see him again until he’d become a regular in town, some middle-aged guy toting his gym bag up and down the sidewalks.

 

 

*****

 

Though I’ve never liked him, I feel bad to see this be his fate. I can dig the story of coming to town as a relatively young man with an urgent message cued up and ready to unveil, and seeing it get absorbed into the general warp of things like like nothing new.

 

 

 

The foundations of this town (now: Cult) have always been soft and game enough to suck down fresh toxins without a burp.

 

 

 

I PAY FOR THE CAKE I apparently just ordered, and try to map my attention onto what’s happening in the center of the square, which is:

 

 

 

Widget has collected 7 children about his age (until now, I’d never seen any around town), and strung them up with ropes, clamps, vises (my throat gags on the terminology here), suspended a few feet above a pool, into which some body-fluid is dripping.

 

 

 

Everyone gathered here, watching what becomes of the bound children, reminds me of the scene last fall with Stokoe Drifter, where an old man’s protruding intestine got inseminated while we all watched … and I can tell everyone else is thinking the same thing.

 

 

 

In fact, I wonder if anyone is taking in what’s happening now, or if we’re all using it as a portal to relive what happened then.

 

 

 

Charged with new urgency, I resolve to be the one person who actually witnesses the present, so I put Stokoe Drifter to bed in my mind and lock in on:

 

 

 

Widget with a crank or remote control in his hand, rhythmically juicing the 7 children, who groan and shiver in their bindings.

 

 

 

I shiver too, alone in my attention.

 

 

 

I’m too late to catch the first part of his address to the Cult of Dodge City, so I can’t tell if his rig with the 7 children here is directly or symbolically connected to his investigation of the case of the 7 Shed Skins … or, perhaps he’s been turned from a Detective to a Copycat, since the Skins of these children look pretty close to falling off.

 

 

 

Perhaps, I’m thinking, his solution to the origin of those original 7 Skins is to produce 7 new ones, so as to illustrate how it might be possible for 7 Skins to appear.

 

 

 

More liquid drips out as Widget turns them, rotisserie-style.

 

 

 

” … and so,” he’s saying, “only after all the Internet has been drained from their young bodies — full lifetimes of absorption, don’t forget –and mixed together in this pool, will we be able to begin gleaning … ”

 

 

 

I picture those children in a state of constant Internet-absorption since the moment of their birth, and pick a pustule on my forehead and feel the liquid running down past my eyes, wondering whether that, too, chemically speaking, is made of Internet.

 

 

 

I try to look at the children’s faces to see how the draining feels, but it’s so far along by now that they’re are collapsed like rotten mangoes, full of seeds and hairy pulp.

 

 

 

I realize I can’t even tell whether I’m looking at the fronts or the backs of their heads.

 

 

 

The distinction is moot, anyway, since my attention is soon diverted:

 

 

 

Behind the draining contraption hangs a small but bold banner with a logo I recognize:

 

 

 

INTERNET FREE AMERICA.

 

 

 

Those people I got involved with a few months ago when I was desperate for a way back to my novel. A genuine Cult if anything ever was.

 

 

 

The logo incites in me a coming-together, like a vision of compatible pieces that I hadn’t until now seen as more than random shards:

 

 

 

Something about Dodge City’s underwhelming reaction to the Copycat Inspector … and Widget’s inexplicable election to the front ranks of the police force … and the emergence of 7 children in a town that had had none … and now this work of draining out their Internet with the support of Internet Free America …

 

 

 

Some grand perspective is almost clear to me when I make the mistake of opening my eyes.

 

 

 

*****

 

WHAT I SEE jolts both wheels of my mind fully off the track we’d been on:

 

 

 

The square is abandoned. Pigeons are feasting on leftover cakes, and there’s a smell of spilled gas.

 

 

 

The pool of Internet drippings in the center shines with an emerald glow (I hate that phrase, but it seems unavoidably true of certain liquids in certain lights), and the 7 children look pretty dead where they hang …

 

 

 

Widget is gone. Now, four very elderly people are slipping naked over the lip of the basin, splashing one another, washing their faces and hair and gargling with Internet.

 

 

 

 

The whole square starts to moan with that familiar Ghost Porn crackle, which I haven’t heard since last summer.

 

 

 

 

I want to move, go home, get out of here before these old folks go too far in front of me, but I’m frozen in place, thanks either to a flaring neurosis or to some chemical property of the Internet.

 

 

 

 

AT FIRST, it seems like the old folks bathing in it have a Fountain of Youth agenda, trying to soak some Internet into their loosened skin, but the orgiastic qualities of their behavior — a bonafide four-way at this point, arms and legs protruding from an undifferentiated and slowly grinding torso-mass — force something else from the bottom to the top of my mind:

 

 

 

 

A story that Big Pharmakos told me about a local boy whose parents divorced, and, instead of allying with their jilted and blameless son or daughter, the four grandparents banded together into a sort of collective to raise the boy communally, under one roof.

 

 

 

 

This started out like you’d expect, but then went kind of far:

 

 

 

 

THE GRANDPARENTS seemed to feel called upon not only to reboot their sexuality in the context of this new arrangement, but somehow to consummate a four-way marriage and then conceive the boy anew, even though he was there all along, as a five-, six-, and seven-year-old, watching them through keyholes and under doors.

 

 

 

 

It was as though they believed the reason for the divorce was that the boy had not been conceived and born in the right way, and so it was their job as guardians to give it another try.

 

 

 

 

Things in that house got increasingly extreme as all permutations of numbers and genders came into play (and the grandparents kept aging, perhaps even more quickly than they would have otherwise).

 

 

 

 

The last straw was when the two grandmothers tried to nurse the boy — now 7 — insisting he suckle from one of each of their breasts, and treat the two of them as his one and only mother.

 

 

 

He escaped.

 

 

 

 

And (this is the part that’s only occurring to me now), that boy must’ve gone on to join the police force as its youngest-ever Detective.

 

 

 

 

I look up now, trying to see the grandparents’ orgy as Widget would’ve seen it as a child, but the crackling of Ghost Porn is overwhelming. They’re churning it up from deep in the Internet, loud and angry.

 

 

 

 

I turn around to clear my mind and see a face I haven’t seen since last summer:

 

 

 

 

Internethead.

 

 

 

 

We acknowledge one another. “Strange, the lengths people’ll go to,” he says, a stock icebreaking line, and I nod.

 

 

 

 

MORE PEOPLE surround us in the dark square, and, after some confusion, I recognize them as the camera crew for Unholy Family, the TV show that the Night Crusher watches when he’s too depressed to do anything else.

 

 

 

 

Makes sense that they’d turn up here. It appears that Internethead is on hand as a consultant for this episode.

 

 

 

 

The old folks are so conjoined, in each other and in the Internet, that they don’t seem to notice the floodlights and elaborate camera equipment … or else they do notice but there’s no change they can afford to make.

 

 

 

 

“Help out?” Internethead asks, handing me a mic cord.

 

 

 

Absentmindedly, I take it and start clipping it in places.

 

 

 

 

The last thing I notice before I get lost in my work is that the Skins of the hanging children have come almost fully off them, dangling down all the way to the Internet basin, totally dry and veiny now that they’ve bled out.

 

 

 

 

They look like massive wings, and serve as curtains around the old folks, partitioning off their sex-act into a spectacle considerably more understated than the kind Unholy Family tends to go in for.

After the Holiday, we are: BACK TO OUR LOTS IN LIFE.

 

No one speaks of the return of Face & Star Simpson, nubbed down by Dead Sir but alive enough still. They’ve been redistributed into our daily lives like some unexpected substance that bubbled up to the surface of a pot and was then stirred back in rather than skimmed off.

 

By which I mean they’re out there somewhere, close by, but I haven’t seen them yet. Maybe they’ve already taken on the guises of nondescript strangers, or else they’re lying low, feeding on delivery and hasty takeout.

 

I don’t know whether they hate me, nor I them. Perhaps it doesn’t have to be that way; perhaps it does.

 

I’M BACK AT my novel, tools out, rubber gloves on, knives and scissors and other slicing tools floating in bottles of those glass bottles of blue disinfecting liquid that barbers use — which, when I bought my first few from the barber here in Dodge City, I remembered from my earliest days in the barber’s chair (trying to delineate, in nonstop 4-year-old chatter, some hard difference between PG-13 and R) was and is called Barbicide.

 

Barbicide keeps my implements clean, allowing me to draw them out one at a time, slice away at the carcass on my desk, all for the sake of isolating one strip of viscera out of a great many, praying for there to be enough spare life in the universe to animate one muscle or limb of this thing at a time, so that, once liberated from the great crush of all the hungry, half-born others, perhaps the sync-up into actual life will become possible.

 

Or at least the thing will be shorter, which would be nice too.

 

It’s getting grim though, these days, cutting through gut and heart, swapping tools in and out of the Barbicide almost interchangeably, the blue liquid turning orangey with all the blood and fat and skin that clings to the blades I put away, even after I wipe them with gauze.

 

Like Mach3 blades, they go dull, and I go on using them a while, abrading what I mean to incise, and then I throw them away, into the same bucket of slops that houses everything I’ve cut, none of which I have any logistical or psychic strategy for throwing away.

 

The slop bucket sits there festering throughout the early winter, letting off the usual meat-reek along with something more generative — a close-quarters sex-smell of new copulation, the sliced-off pieces bobbing up and down on each other, mixed up and tangled, beginning to engender.

 

*****

TODAY’S THE DAY that the smell and — now that I think of it, a certain whining, gasping sound as well — becomes unbearable.

 

I creep around back of the Hotel and take the metal lid off a trashcan, and creep back in and clamp it down over my slops bucket, silencing the incursion of all that I’ve cut (a whole new novel taking shape in the dark down there, perhaps), basking my Room in a rare and unsettling silence.

 

This spells the end of my workday, so, as it’s early still, I figure I’ll go outside and roam the streets in a — it strikes me thus as I’m looking forward to it — classical British mode, like a gentleman lurker in the dank of the 19th C. London of a Peter Ackroyd or an Iain Sinclair.

 

I shave with nice almondy cream and a sharp razor (yes, an editing tool also, but one I haven’t dulled yet), and pull on a wool cap and scarf, slapping on two palmfuls of spicy, citrusy aftershave, and prepare to go outside and ruminate in peace while my novel-runoff fucks itself into new forms in its bucket without me.

 

BUT WHEN I OPEN THE DOOR, a different set of plans veers out of the unknown to hit me: Big Pharmakos with a gaunt, pale fellow by his side, as if they’d been waiting a long time.

 

“We’ve been waiting a long time,” says Big Pharmakos. “But we didn’t want to barge in while you were … working.”

 

I can tell they’ve been standing here listening to the copulation sounds from my slops bucket and doubtlessly believe they’ve heard me masturbating at length.

 

It strikes me, looking the pale fellow over, that he is somehow the embodiment of the 19th C. London fantasy I’d constructed for myself, as if I hadn’t been fully wrong to envision that as part of today’s agenda. Various theories of occult British psychogeography poke around the middle-interior of my attention for a minute before abating to let me hear what’s being said:

 

“Ever since I went on WTF w/Marc Maron,” Big Pharmakos is saying, “things around here have changed. There’s been an influx of media professionals, unprecedented interest … promotors, agents, scouts …”

 

“Most of that interest is in me, of course,” he continues, “but there’s been some overflow, runoff … more than I can take advantage of, my comedy career having already obliterated the human scale.”

 

He looks up at the ceiling of the Hotel hallway where we’re all standing now, as if expecting to find his head way up there, in a hole through the ceiling and even the roof, perhaps.

 

Then he looks over at the man beside him, who isn’t looking at either of us or at anything at all as far as I can tell.

 

“This is Cavernous, The Editor,” says Big Pharmakos. “He came to town on the same wave as all the others, looking for a piece of me, but I can’t use him. My shit’s too tight.”

 

Cavernous, The Editor doesn’t look aware that he’s being talked about. Big Pharmakos shoves him hard in the side and his hand crunches through The Editor’s coat and into his skin. Big Pharmakos recoils and yanks away, wiping grease on the flowery Hotel wallpaper.

 

Now at least everyone has everyone’s attention.

 

Cavernous and I are formally introduced. Tentatively, unsure if it’s going to fall off, I meet his outstretched hand halfway. It stays on its wrist, though it feels hollow and I barely squeeze.

 

Big Pharmakos averts his eyes. “Anyway,” he says, backing toward the elevator, “I thought maybe he could help you with your, you know, novel edits. I know you’ve been spinning your wheels. Figured it’d be worth a try …”

 

THE ELEVATOR DINGS OPEN and bears Big Pharmakos away.

 

*****

I CLOSE MY EYES for about thirty seconds, centering. I figure that if Cavernous, The Editor is still there when I open them, he’s the man for me.

 

Turns out he is.

 

Still standing in the hallway, I start telling him about the novel and my dark experience of editing it.

 

He inclines his capped head toward me, mouth open, a smell of cardboard and kindling on his breath. His teeth flap and flutter.

 

Inside my Room, me still talking, I look over and see him taking my knives and tools out of their Barbicide, one by one, drying them on a flannel cloth, holding them up, putting them away with a disappointed expression.

 

I stop talking when he cuts a line down his forearm, straight through his dapper coat. We both stand back and watch the blood seep up, a weak liquid like barely-brewed tea.

 

“These won’t do,” he says finally. His voice is somehow both grave and childish, fraught with an intention out of keeping with its physiology, like an instrument forced to play a tune it wasn’t designed for.

 

“If you want me as your editor,” he continues, “you’re going to need some other knives. All my clients cut me, and stuff the cut material in, removing my organs as need be … ” here he rucks up his coat and shirt and shows me a brutal array of scars, bruises, and stitches crowding his belly, sides, and back, like one of those dotted-lines body outlines in a medical textbook, “but I only permit the usage of certain tools. Need to be careful. Is there a good hardware store within walking distance? As I came to town in a caravan of other editors, I have no vehicle.”

 

I think it over.

 

“ULTRA MAX,” I tell him. “About an hour up the Strip if we stroll.”

 

“Very good,” replies Cavernous, The Editor, sucking at his cut forearm. “Let’s stop for some red meat on the way. Once we get down to real editing, I will subsist on the excised matter you stuff into my organ housings, but, until then, two steaks and a burger will keep me lucid enough.”

IN CLASSIC FASHION, the buried do not stay that way.

 

That’s the thing about Dead Sir that I forgot to mention, though I can’t imagine who was fooled. Easy enough to hack extra-matter away and dump it in the deep; harder to keep it down there when it wants to come back up and you didn’t want to let it go in the first place.

 

You know the classic scene: a fisherman alone in his boat, motoring across the still waters at dusk, hoping for a dinner catch before midnight, comes across a finger with a wring, a blue hand, a mealy wrist with a still-ticking watch, an arm that doesn’t stop there …

 

The two bodies are soon bunched into the middle of his boat, weighing it down, and he’s speeding back to shore.

 

Less classic about the scene in our case is that this particular fisherman went looking for them directly, rather than finding them by guileless accident while actually fishing for, say, fish.

 

This is his racket: he hauls up what we cast off, gone soft and slimy in Dead Sir, and brings it back to Dodge City to sell.

 

Guilty abandoners and regretful onetime stewards that we are, we buy it back every time.

 

He doesn’t sell any other type of fish. Anyone into that kind of thing around here belongs in a grocery store several towns away.

 

When he brings them in they look like Joseph Beuys in Siberia, wrapped in wolf-fat and fur, or by wolves in man-fat and skin, depending on your version. I’ll always remember where and who I was when I first got told about Beuys going down in his fighter jet or bomber or scout plane over the ice flats or steppe or tundra, in WWII I believe, and being nurtured there in the wild for a good decade by wolves before returning to Germany as a kind of transhuman maniac superhero to take the Art World by storm.

 

Which is not to say that Face & Star Simpson are galvanized on this level; just that their blocks of fat are similar (that’s where I got the idea).

 

The fat is translucent, like aspic, so the inward-warping bodies can be observed, in some slow rotation, a churn. I stop in to check them out. I wonder if the material has grown out of their bodies in autoimmune response to the Dead Sir environment, or accreted from that environment onto them, like simple pond scum.

 

They sit in the shop a few days and nights, on ice and sprayed with the fish-mist hose every hour, but, still …

 

They start to stink and then it’s someone’s idea to invite them to Thanksgiving. “They’re all alone,” is the reasoning, common enough this time of year.

 

There’s agreement in town.

 

So the call to the fisherman is made and Face & Star Simpson are ordered up, either as guests or as entrees.

 

*****

THIS TIME LAST YEAR I lived in a house, but now that I’m back at the Hotel, the Function Room downstairs is home to the only dinner I’m likely to find out about.

 

Various guests — Big Pharmakos, Professor Dalton, the Silent Professor, Gottfried Benn, whoever else — arrive in stages, the best ones toward the middle.

 

Amongst us is the baby sired by Stokoe Drifter in that old guy Murph’s protruding intestine a few weeks back. Some stand-in parent types bring it in, done up in a onesie, and let us know they’ve named it Ferttle.

 

OK.

 

We lean our heads into the baby’s POV, trying not to telegraph our disgust at its Origin Scene, since, we know, the facts of one’s parentage are no one’s fault.

 

Ferttle, at this point, may be the Only Child in Dodge City. I forget what happened to the last one.

 

We all sit, palming nuts and sesame sticks, beers, waiting for the two Dead-Sir-flavored-fat-blocks to arrive.

 

I don’t know if I should admit to this group that Face & Star Simpson started out as characters of mine, sideliners in what was and is maybe still known as ANGEL HOUSE.

 

A bout of thinking, another beer, some olives, and I’ve decided not to. Let someone else or the world at large claim them.

 

THEY ARRIVE. Someone signs the fisherman’s order sheet, scanning us with one eye to gauge by expression who’s likely to help split the bill.

 

I couldn’t guess what they cost, a lot or a little.

 

The fisherman, in his baseball cap and windbreaker, looks glad to be rid of them. He leaves in a hurry to get on with his (I’m guessing) other, tamer plans.

 

The Hotel staff brings in the standard Thanksgiving set, turkey and all, but the twin blocks of fat in the corner, sitting on metal ice-sculpture stands, dominate our attention.

 

They dominate mine anyway — enough that I can’t speak for anyone else.

 

I have no other appetite.

 

So, though I would’ve been happy not to be the first, I take up a plastic butter knife and a paper plate from the buffet table and go over to the blocks and invite a little of each onto my plate.

 

The slices look like those thick jiggly rice-pasta rolls you get at Dim Sum, or used to get.

 

They even have reddish brown roast-porklike flecks worked in.

 

I taste one and then the other.

 

It’s warm and salty, a little bloody, a little rank.

 

I swoon.

 

Others file in behind me and start slicing as well, powerless before my example.

 

Soon they’re swooning too. We all are.

 

The blocks shrink inward toward their centers; everyone stumbles around, lips greasy, jaws and gullets working hard and automatic in gross ritual.

 

I see someone shoving spoonfuls of it down Ferttle’s throat. The baby wails for more.

 

In the hustle for seconds and thirds, there is no pause for wine.

 

*****

BY THE TIME IT’S OVER, we are passed out on the Function Room carpeting, the cleaning staff waiting by the door, perhaps unsure as to what they’re looking at.

 

Through one eye I fight to keep open, I watch the two exposed bodies stand up from their globular casing, bits of it still sticking to them. They waver on their feet, look about to tip over, and then right themselves, somehow strengthened.

 

They don’t look fully awake, but they zero in on the table and walk over to it, running their hands through the buffet spread.

 

Hands is an overstatement: the ends of their arms are worn down to tips or caps, and the arms themselves are just lengths of generic fleshy material, like hose or tubing cut from an endless roll at a hardware store.

 

Dead Sir has worn them so similar I can’t tell which was which, not even along M/F lines. They could be clones. Their faces have been smoothed over, hair and eyes washed away, skin pulled taut over bones that look hollow and soft, genitals rounded out to geometric templates.

 

After prowling a few times around the table, they plop into adjacent chairs and haul over the cold turkey and mashed sweet potatoes by pulling the tablecloth.

 

The forms that were once Face & Star Simpson fall to chewing and swallowing, thighs and wings, rolls and mugs of wine.

 

The buffet spread diminishes. They don’t look ravenous, but they eat steadily for a long time, their sides bulging outward.

 

They are characters in the most basic sense now, undeveloped, free for any story that’ll have them. My stomach boils the fat down to a narcotizing punch and I pass out to the image of them splitting a pumpkin pie.

TODAY’S THE DAY.

 

Which means that lots of days, recently, in retrospect, were not the day, though at the time I’d thought possibly they were. Which is I suppose the difference between thinking and knowing.

 

I’ve taken my time wending the backstreets, heading back toward the town square slowly enough to avoid any associated Bends. It’s been, feels like, several weeks, like I’ve taken a day per cobblestone.

 

One of the handles of my paper bag of Mass Black Market Video Market Videos is ripping, so I’m holding hard to the other one — I formulate and think-speak the phrase “my last resort” as if a sizable portion of my interior faculty were not on board / up to speed with what’s going on externally.

 

What I first notice, upon entering fully back into the square, is an octagon of old-timers arranged around the fountain, each in an identical suit of black pants and white missionary shirt and bow-tie, sitting at a fold-out table bedecked with a boombox, a jar of jelly candy, and a vase of roses.

 

I stand in the center and give the scene’s audio component a moment to make sense. At first it sounds like a sort of angry round, a group of children all singing their own mocking version of the school song during music class, but then I can tell what it is:

 

It’s the 8 tracks on Dream River, the brand new Bill Callahan album. Each table is broadcasting its own track over and over, surely not on repeat but rather on a CD containing only that track, so as not to risk contamination.

 

Now that I hear the tracks, I realize they’ve been emanating from windows and vehicles and the humming throats of washerwomen throughout my slow trek home. I sit on the edge of the fountain in the center of the square and listen, giving my inner ear fluids a chance to simmer down.

 

I hadn’t yet moved to Dodge City back in 2011 when Apocalypse, the previous Bill Callahan album, came out, but I came soon enough after to see the remnants of the celebration: since Vic Chesnutt died, the release of Bill Callahan albums marks the greatest Carnivale on the Dodge City calendar, like something straight out of Jodorowsky, or even too rich for his blood:

 

Crushed clown masks and vials of mime makeup in the street, gnawed bones of beast and fowl, confetti, streamers and smashed piñata material, birds and lizards hatched, escaped, and trampled underfoot, overturned meat and fried dough carts, impact dents in the pavement, the ash and remnants of burnt effigies, the bandages of unwrapped mummy costumes, hacked- or ripped-off goat horns and the antlers of other fauna, puzzled over and awl-punctured entrails, spilled gasoline from floats and trucks, and a mess of sleepers who have not yet awoken to begin the appeals process against being considered dead.

 

That’s how central Dodge City looked after the last Bill Callahan album came out, and that’s how it looks again now. I’m sitting on the fountain listening to those old-timers playing the new tracks, trying to calculate in my head the degree measure separating each from the next, assuming the square were a clock face with eight points instead of twelve.

 

The tables all fly flags with the slogan “EACH ONE BETTER THAN THE LAST,” which I’m sure they flew when the last album came out as well.

 

As I sit I feel a stirring behind me and turn to see that the fishpond, where the carp and catfish used to bathe above the shiny coin bottom, is full now of Ghost Porn, crackling like underlit cellophane in time to the music.

 

It moans and leers up at me, clearly aware of who and what I am.

 

It has killed all the fish and incorporated their bodies.

 

I begin to feel cornered, like a beam has been trained on me, or several beams at once: I realize that my exploits in the Desert have already been melted down into the Video Record, fair game for hermeneutical scholars and porn mavens both.

 

I stand up in a hurry while all 8 Bill Callahan songs revert to their beginnings, some surely cut short to accommodate the others. The handle on my Video Bag rips off, and I — fully clumsy and flustered — spill all the Videos into the Ghost Porn, watching them sink under and come unspooled in the staticky white broth. The black tape is sucked out and melted down into the Subcutaneous Video Record, from a solid to a liquid in no time flat.

 

Empty-handed, I break into a run, nearly knocking over the table playing Track 6 (“Summer Painter”) in my haste to get home. I am ankle deep in Carnivale runoff, kicking my ankles to the sides to keep them from drowning in what feels like double-thick shaving cream.

 

*****

My only thought had been to get home, but by the time I make it onto my street, I can see what the situation is: as with any town-devouring Carnivale, everyone has rented out their houses and gotten the hell out for a few weeks.

 

So it’s strangers everywhere. A whole nest of them packed away into the houses on my street, in place of my neighbors. Bill Callahan fiends from all over, with longstanding promises to themselves to see how hard it really gets in Dodge City once before dying.

 

They peer at me through their windows — I can see as well as feel them — and I have to slow my pace, catching my breath and feeling residual sweat creep down from my armpits toward my wrists and belt-loops.

 

I stand in front of my house and contemplate ringing the doorbell, either as a stranger requesting lodging, like in that Greek tale where a couple of gods go around begging to see if anyone’s good enough to take them in, or else demanding reentry as the rightful tenant, kicking out whatever lodger gives me grief.

 

But I’m stopped, midway up the front steps, by a headache-inducing vision of everyone in town hunkered down in the Deep Desert now, right back where I until recently was, watching Videos on portable devices and awaiting their run-in with Suicide Sam & Son.

 

So I hack and wheeze and, like a novice postman who realizes just in time he’s got the wrong address for the package in hand, I turn around and head for the hotel.

 

Back to my first ever Room in Dodge City, I smirk and wince to think.

 

*****

Sipping a milkshake I got somewhere along the way, I stand in the lobby.

 

It’s a mess of flashbulbs, amateur paparazzi and wannabes.

 

After a while, I glimpse Big Pharmakos at the convergence of all that camera aim. “That’s right, I’ve been this town’s main pimp and dark, dark comedian as long as I can remember,” he says to someone writing something down. “But, like, dark, know what I mean? Like, real comedy. Actual human shit, as opposed to pussy shit.”

 

I toss my milkshake cup in the trash and, when the circle admits me, go up to him and ask what’s up.

 

He beams: “Where you been, man? I was on Maron last week! Got my big break. Told my life story. How I got to be so funny … the horrors I suffered … my love of Pryor and Dangerfield … all of it.”

 

Then a bodyguard pulls me back, like, “OK, you had your time, time to shove off.”

 

As I’m manhandled out of the crowd, I hear Big Pharmakos say, “Right, and he asked me about the Desert, Suicide Sam, the Ghost Porn, all my wanderings … and I told him, man. You know how he gets it out of people. I told him everything.”

 

The longer I listen, the clearer it becomes that Big Pharmakos has taken my story. Somehow everything I did out there was known to him, back here — clearly some media ploy has been in play for a long time, something so deep in the Video Record that I can’t reach far enough down to finger it.

 

*****

The bouncer throws me all the way outside and it’s surprisingly cold.

 

I wait a long time, like it’s Springsteen in there and all I want is to watch him walk to his car.

 

Finally, Big Pharmakos comes out. Seeing me, he waves his bodyguards away so we can talk.

 

“I’m Huge now,” he says. “Huge Pharmakos. I’ve been on Maron.”

 

“So I hear.”

 

“A limo is coming for me anytime,” he says, staring longingly at the highway off-ramp, visible behind an Arby’s across the street.

 

“Can I hear the Interview?” I ask, not sure if I want to.

 

He bristles. “It’s not up yet. I just got a rough tape, and that’s for me only.”

 

There’s a darkness to him that I haven’t seen before. The phrase “rough tape” sounds extra rough the way he puts it, and I can tell it’s bound up with the Video Record in a way I may not want to dig into.

 

What appears to be the lung of a hawk blows across the sidewalk and lands between our feet. “Huge shit with the new Bill Callahan,” he says.

 

“So I see,” I reply.

 

“But not as huge as me on Maron,” he reiterates.

 

Then his manager or handler comes for him and he’s gone. I kind of space-out while this is happening, so I don’t register whether he’s gone back inside or into a car or what. Maybe he’s actually just walking away in a direction I’m not looking.

 

I take out my phone and search for “Big Pharmakos / Marc Maron.” Nothing comes up.

 

I type in “Huge Pharmakos / Marc Maron” and still nothing comes up — at least nothing but this post itself, which doesn’t help me much.

 

I can tell that the question of whether Big Pharmakos ever actually went on Maron will or has already become one of those questions you can never ask, like insisting on knowing too much about the personal life of the Historical Jesus instead of just drinking the wine and eating the crackers.

 

There are times when one would be forgiven for suspecting that no one in this town has an actual working Internet connection. Internets of misinformation, Internets of rumor, gossip, and opinion, Internets of plurality, abound, but any link to a system that would allow one to determine the one literal truth of any event … would be heretical even to speculate about.

 

*****

Realizing that I haven’t yet checked into a Room in the hotel, I go back in to the front desk.

 

After explaining my situation seven times — the first three the clerk simply stared, numbers four and five she laughed out loud, and number six she stared again — the clerk says, trying to control the incredulity in her tone, “Where the hell have you been? Don’t you know there’s a new Bill Callahan album out? Every room in the hotel is booked through the New Year!”

 

Tramping back outside, that Arby’s by the highway off-ramp catches my eye more than any Arby’s anywhere has before.

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

Big Pharmakos announces his plans to rebuild his menagerie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

The curtains draw tight. The lights go down.

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

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

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

The screen lights up.

There are no trailers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The voiceover:

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

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

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

*****

“Any questions?” Big Pharmakos asks.

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

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

I miss Big Pharmakos’ actual answer.

“Any other questions?” he asks.

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

“A concession to the director.”

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

*****

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

*****

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

 

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

 

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

When I start to get wound-up, Big Pharmakos sits me down and spoon-feeds me a little, what he calls, Shtetl Noir:

“They’d just given birth to their first baby, a beautiful, healthy boy they named Noah, duly blessed, when they decided to move from the capital to a distant, isolated corner of the provinces, hot in summer and cold in winter, where, it was believed, a certain letter of introduction that the husband and father, Jakob, had managed to procure from his advisor in the city, would help him find a job in his field, one that would afford them, at the very least, a daily means of scraping across the threshold between one day and the next.

So, with this letter in hand, Jakob moved with his wife, Leah, and the baby, to this distant, shabby little town — like a prelapsarian (if “prelapsarian” can be taken to mean “back when things were even worse”) Dodge City marooned somewhere in the far outskirts of the Pale.

Upon arrival, they parceled out their little savings — the dregs of a student stipend, a cashed bond, and the proceeds from the sale of their furniture and a rare Spinoza volume that Leah had been given by a now-defunct grandparent years earlier — in order to establish residence in a small, cloudy cottage on the edge of this parochial nowhere where circumstance had forced them to believe their fate lay waiting.

While Leah came down in her nightclothes and settled into their one chair in their drafty (or seethingly humid — Big Pharmakos hadn’t decided what season it should be) living room, suckling baby Noah and brushing his several brand new hairs, Jakob set out for his first day of work.

There were several layers of smoked cod, a whole onion which he’d eat like an apple, and two slices of toast with a small jar of apple butter, arranged quietly in his lunch bag. His gloves (he did it always by hand, as this all took place before The Age Of Wire And String) and his mask (a sober, form-fitting burlap affair) were in a leather sack he kept slung over his shoulder, the same one he’d carried during his student days in the city.

He kissed Leah and the baby, and set out into the smell of woodfires and steaming pack animal breath, stepping gingerly across jagged floes of ice marooned on the dirt road’s dirt sidewalks, or else fetid, sweaty piles of … if it was summer.

This was all before dawn. There would be, he knew, no sleeping in now that his new family life had begun in earnest. No lazing about and dreaming of the day’s openness, of long strolls in sunlight and leisurely cups of coffee and philosophical debate, as there had been in his student days. Even Leah’s rare Spinoza volume, for many years his unwavering companion, was gone, melted down in the furnace of capital.

Walking down that pre-dawn dirt lane, alongside the other working men, both young and old, he thought with a twinge of those bygone days, the feral seriousness they’d had about them that, now, had come to seem like innocent boys’ play: all those belabored, first-pounding debates of the tangled intersections of the immanent and the transcendent, the coded demonology and eschatology of Isaac Luria and Sabbatai Zevi, seemed now as harmless as supping noodle soup through a warm spoon in a paper gown in a hospital bed.

On that first day of his profession, putting such childish things behind as well as any man can, Jakob strangled three people: two of the town’s three bakers, and an old lady.

One by one (head still masked in burlap, hands still gloved), he dragged their bodies discreetly through the streets and into a shed that his letter of introduction had helped him secure. He stacked them neatly on shelves, making sure their arms and feet were not dangling, trying to minimize the  grotesquerie of the job as best he could, putting his city training to work. He covered the bodies with blankets and switched off the light he’d worked under, seeing then that it was already dark outside.

He trudged home weary and spent, stopping at the butcher’s for a meager cut of pork and some day-old chicken legs. This was all his hard work had amounted to.

At home, Leah boiled these in a pot with a dash of salt and part of a carrot, masking her disappointment that there wasn’t more, or better. They ate this with a few radishes and shared a bottle of milk.

Jakob’s hands were so worn out from the day’s labor he could hardly hold his fork, and he was so tired inside he could hardly feel the joy he knew the sight of his wife and baby son ought to have summoned in him. That night, after soaking his hands in a bowl of warm water sprinkled with anise seeds, he fell asleep while Leah was in the bathroom brushing her teeth, and she could not rouse him.

*****

Their life continued as it had begun. Over the course of that first, lean year, Jakob strangled one hundred and eighty people, including the postmaster, the deputy mayor, eight of the town’s twelve doctors, all of its dentists, seven of its eight kosher slaughterers, nine of its thirteen schoolteachers, and all of the neighbors on their street. He even, in what had for a moment felt like a definite step forward, strangled both of the rival stranglers who’d been operating in the town far longer than he had. Neither had ever worked as hard.

All of these he stacked, all neatly, in his shed, which, to his chagrin, grew fuller by the day. Soon, he would need to invest in a new space, or else begin burying the bodies in a field or a pond, practices which his training had taught him to regard as shoddy.

He returned home each night and together he and Leah ate their crust of pork and leg of chicken, the heel of a loaf of bread or perhaps a single portion of kasha divided in two. They watched the baby grow, his face so full of hope, so full of light and life … though, Jakob couldn’t help but fear, creeped over also by a cloud of suspicion, which Jakob could not deny even for the sake of his son, a suspicion that life would not meet his expectations even if he lowered them, that life could never be for a man what it had seemed to a boy that it could, that it must, be.

Still, though, day in and day out, they persevered. Jakob came home and soaked his hands in that bowl of warm water and anise, watching the tension ebb out of the knuckles that had strangled so tirelessly all day long, and, together with his wife and child, and a new baby on the way, they prayed to the Almighty. On some nights, they believed their prayers were heard, and, if not answered, at least taken under consideration. On those nights, Jakob slept easier, flexing his hands under the sheets, gathering into them from On High the strength to wake up into a new day, set out before dawn with his lunch packed, and do it all over again.”

*****

I sit and listen as the story winds down. If my temperament were slightly other than it is, my question might have been: “How does one make a living from country strangling?”

To which Big Pharmakos’ answer might have been: “That, my boy, is the whole point. One barely can, try as one might. That’s the whole tragedy of it, the whole moral, the whole inroad into life’s cruel but persistently beating heart.”

Instead, me being me and he being he, Big Pharmakos stands up and says, “OK, time for a snack.”

And off we go.

THE SITUATION at the Tavern quickly deteriorates.

 

I don’t quite ever figure out what’s happening — Gibbering Pete and Rigid Steve and a few others are up by the door, all with their guns out, and it looks like Drifter Jim is hanging out just outside, whether in a friendly or a confrontational manner I can’t tell, and the guy with his back to me at the bar who I think but don’t know is Barry Dalton just stays there, sucking in thoughts so his head swells and then spitting them out, shrinking back down like a pufferfish, either oblivious to the commotion or directly causing it.

 

Large, Creeping Charlie gets up from the table so abruptly that he knocks it over, and I’m up and running with Big Pharmakos, through a back door past the bathrooms and the pay phones and jukebox. I try to look back as the door shuts behind us, to see what’s going on, but all I see is a fist flying in an arc and the door slamming.

 

Big Pharmakos is lumbering ahead of me, panting, and I’m keeping pace. I keep feeling my pockets to make sure I have everything, but I don’t remember what I’m supposed to have. I think I left my iPod and phone back in the room. I still have my twenty bucks, crisp and crinkly in my pocket, at least. I start thinking of the snack I might buy next chance I get.

 

We’re running through a hallway, flickering blue lights overhead and black tile underfoot. Something smells good, like we’re passing a kitchen on the other side of the wall, frying up some spicy chicken and vegetables. I keep expecting us to burst through another door and end up outside, but it hasn’t happened yet. I can’t imagine how such a long hallway could exist on this block, since, from the outside, the Tavern was a freestanding structure, so I give up trying to imagine it.

 

It’s a relief not to make that effort anymore. Now I can run faster. Eventually, we burst through a door and enter a new space. There was a pounding sound the whole time we were in the hallway, and that frying smell, but that’s all gone now. All is silent here, and I don’t smell anything but my Old Spice coming up my collar. Big Pharmakos takes out a lighter and flicks it on, holding it up so we can see a little. I can’t tell how big a room we’re in, but it’s definitely a room, not another hallway.

 

I see shapes wrapped in some smooth material, like plastic or shiny cloth, reclining on the floor and on ledges up by the rafters.

 

They look like moths, but big. Human-sized. “Here,” says Big Pharmakos, handing me a bundle of the shiny cloth. He’s already wrapped himself in his, so only his eyes are peeping out, like those of a mummy or a piñata.

 

A moment ago I’d felt like we’d just gotten here, I think, but now I feel like we’ve been in here a long time.

 

I’m all wrapped up, smelling old locker room smells inside the cloth, stretched tight across my nose. I lick sweat from the edge of my mouth, and taste those smells. I can’t tell what we’re resting on, but it feels stable. I’m starting to get dizzy. I almost think I’m about to panic.

 

The lump that must be Big Pharmakos leans over and whispers, “Don’t struggle. We’re safe here. We’re in the Safe House. Some people stay here for thousands of years, and they turn out okay. Just take it one year at a time. No one’s themselves around here, anyway.”

 

As he’s saying it, I feel time and self scampering away, back to more willing and able hosts.

 

At first I try to hold on, like to something that’s come at me through the air and that I can almost catch, but I fumble and drop it, and self and time fall down and away for good or at least a while.

 

Now it’s free-floating. My arms are pinned in tight against me, so I don’t have to worry about them getting snagged on passing entities. Dodge City feels like it took place centuries, millennia, ago. I look back on the human era on earth as the brief blight of some invasive species, like a fly infestation, that got smoked out in no time, all its structures eaten back up by vines and panthers and tornadoes and water and rot … I lose the rest of the words, watching them peter out away from me as I rock gently, as in a cradle, in the embrace of a very great distance. I blink, and a trail of dust scatters from me, through the mummy slits, away into the night.