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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


The crowd is motionless.


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


Muted applause; sighs of relief.



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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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