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Variation on a Grotesque Theme from E. A. Poe
In what vile part of this anatomy Doth my name lodge? —Romeo
In 1947 my grandparents bought a cabin on Lake Manoral way up in Brumas County, at the source of the Leather River in the northeast of California near the town of Lester. My family and I —mom, half-brother, cousins— used to try to make it up there as often as we could, though for a long time it was hard for me, what with the distance. The last time I made it was back in the summer of 2018, before the plague and before the war, after some weeks of pleading from my little cousin J***. At the time he was working in drywall over in Red Bluff. Ex-military. He would have been pushing forty by now, but I’ll always think of him as little.
The cabin is not much to speak of. My grandparents, of Scandinavian origin, hung a sign that said “Solsken Hus” over the front-door (or the “back-door” as they called it, since a lakeside house’s front-door is the one facing the water, while technically the back-door faces the road). In truth I never found the place much of a “sunshine house” (and I find myself doubting, now, that that is even correct Swedish; it should probably be “Solskenhus”). This is not only because it was surrounded by enormous pines and shaded year round by their thick needles, and not only because the bats swarmed around above the place at night (insectivores, I was always told by way of reassurance). There was aways a certain dread I could not overcome during my long summer sojourns there, and this was only deepened when, at the age of eight or so, I split my chin on an iron bar in the attic, and rushed down the folding stairs, dripping my blood into their unvarnished wood as I descended screaming. To this day they are dotted with dark red-brown spots, indelible emblems of my own fragility.
Nor is Manoral itself particularly sunny. The lake was created in 1914 when Great Western Power built a dam and flooded the very same valley where, in 1866, the entire family of a young Ishi was massacred by the Indian hunters of the California State Militia. The boy escaped, only to be found shivering and near death decades later in a perplexed farmer’s barn near Oroville, from where he was taken away to be studied and prodded by the anthropologists at Berkeley. What vestiges of the massacre might still be found, I have often wondered, if Pacific Gas & Electric, the lake’s more recent custodians, were to drain the water away again? What still bubbles up from the floor along with the fermenting fish-guts that sometimes slip from lake-bottom crawdaddy traps and rise to the surface like so many increate forms unapproved by our Creator?
The winds rise in the valley in the afternoon and the waves on the lake rise with them. I have always associated this time of day with a certain nausea — too bright, too windy, the day as indifferent to our comfort as the night. We had only come up from Red Bluff on Sunday, and by Tuesday we had already come down with cabin fever. I couldn’t focus on my books, neither the one I was reading (the Correspondance of Charles Baudelaire), nor the one I was supposedly writing (a study of Georges Canguilhem’s Le Normal et le Pathologique). J**** said he could not go fishing until my half-brother S*** arrived from over in Clear Creek with his tackle-box, which apparently had all the right sort of hi-tech iridescent lures J*** himself was lacking. So by Wednesday we found ourselves staring at the walls like prisoners, oppressed by the afternoon’s crescendo of wind and waves, each inwardly wondering whether there was really any sense at all in seeking, mere cousins that we were, not really close since childhood, to spend this time together.
In a touching effort to rally our spirits, J*** suggested we go over to Bosworth’s and rent some jet-skis the next morning. “I’m forty-six,” I told him, “I’m like a French philosopher now. I don’t ‘jet-ski’.” I immediately regretted taking such a snide tone. We both stared at the floor for a few seconds.
“You’re not a French philosopher. Fuck off.”
“I said I’m like one.” We sat silently again. “Got any other ideas?” I asked, after a considerable pause, hoping to steer us both towards some new island, however small, of shared enthusiasm.
It is at this point that J*** first mentioned Colonel Garth’s artillery range on the outskirts of Lester. He told me he and Garth had been in basic together. J*** got sent to Germany afterwards to do “computer stuff”, while Garth went to Afghanistan. J*** didn’t know much else about him, other than that he was discharged with a Purple Heart in 2006 and resurfaced in Lester five years later. Within months of settling in the town he opened what would fast become Brumas County’s most popular outdoor shooting range. J*** had stopped by to say hello the summer before, and picked up a publicity brochure, which he was now holding out to me like a peace offering.
“Colonel Garth’s Artillery Range,” the brochure said, followed by a bullet-pointed list of this destination’s offerings:
The Widest Variety of Firearms in the State of Jefferson (aka Northern California).
Quick and Simple Liability Waver [sic] — U will be Shooting in Under 10 Minutes!
As Close as U Can Get to Real Combat.
And so on. The price list featured several different package deals, such as the “AK Blast”, starting at $79, which entitles you to a full magazine shot from an AK47, ammo included; or the “Stealth Mode”, from $139, which features a selection of suppressor-equipped machine guns preferred by special forces and SWAT teams. There was the “‘Nam Blam Thank You Ma’am”, starting from $169, with authentic firearms used in Southeast Asian combat by US Army veterans, including the M1 carbine, the M14, and the M1 Grand. And then there was the “WW2 Experience”, starting at $249, which entitles you to fire a full magazine from a grease gun, a Browning rifle, an MP40 submachine gun and a twenty-round belt from an MG42 belt-fed machine gun. “I want World War 2,” I said, after J*** and I had carefully studied the offerings.
“You would, you dork.”
So we headed into Lester, all the way to the other side of town out on the forested road towards Mt. Klassen. We passed the Timber Lodge Inn, where my grandparents used to go for cocktails with the other Shriners; the Rexall Drug Store, unchanged since my childhood, with its original soda fountain; the Busy Bee Realty Agency, in a wooden-shingled building shaped like a beehive. We passed Barry’s pottery shop where the old hippie from Chico gives lessons to bored vacationers who decide to pass the time learning to make bowls or ashtrays none will ever use; and we passed the Kopper Kettle, the town’s only proper restaurant. Then the buildings grew sparser — a CalTrans shed here, a Fish and Game lot there. After another half-mile or so we saw a sign with a cartoon image of an oversized man, some great Paul Bunyan with rippling muscles tearing through a Hawaiian shirt, targeting a bazooka straight at us. Arrows pointed towards a dirt driveway, and the words “Come Shoot with Colonel Garth!” enticed us onward.
J*** parked the Subaru next to a battered black Dodge Ram with a pissing Calvin sticker in the back window like some modern-day heraldic escutcheon: the garçon pissant (he appeared to be pissing on the ISIS flag). No one was at the range itself, which had been carved out of a clearing in the pine grove next to what we assumed to be Garth’s office and residence, a yellow aluminum double-wide mobile home. A picnic table had been set up in front, and was surrounded by garden torches I presume were bought over at the Sears in Susanville. A styrofoam Hamm’s Beer cooler sat by its side, and plastic plates and cups were strewn around; assorted ribs and chops, and BBQ sauce like blood upon them, testified to a recent scene of human commensality by now abandoned to the flies. A crack opened up in the Venetian blinds of what must have been the double-wide’s master bedroom, and a wary eye peeked out, then disappeared again. “That wasn’t Garth,” J*** said.
We kicked around out front for another ten minutes or so, knowing we had been seen, hearing some muffled sounds and thumps from inside that we assumed were the Colonel’s preparations. And then the door swung open, and there he stood — whoever the man who peeked out the blinds had been, I knew without a word from J*** that I was now beholding Colonel Garth himself. How can I put into words what I saw? He was more than a man, both with respect to quantity and to quality. He must have been at least 6’5’’, more muscular even than the caricature of a muscleman we saw on the road-sign, face and arms covered in rough dark hair like sandpaper. On top of all this —and I know this sounds implausible—, Colonel Garth seemed somehow to be glowing.
He focused his eyes on J*** and strode in our direction like a patrolman who had just pulled someone over. As he drew closer I could see the pattern on his pink and blue Hawaiian shirt featured the incongruous juxtaposition of igloos and palm trees. At first he seemed not to recognize either of us, as friends or foes or strangers or even as fellow beings at all, but when he was three feet or so in front of us his eyes fixed on J*** and I saw a spark of recognition in them. He crouched down to stare directly into J***’s face.
“Fuck trophies yet?” he said.
“Still shooting blanks?”
It seems the Colonel wanted to know whether my little cousin had managed, so far, to father any descendants. J***’s face was bright red. Garth returned to his full height and we stood there in silence for a few seconds.
“Anyhoo, no shooting blanks around here,” he finally said. “Ain’t that right, J***?” He punched my cousin on the shoulder. “I said ain’t that right?” he punched him again, this time on the ear.
“That’s right,” J*** said, under duress.
We stood again in silence for a few seconds. And again the Colonel said “Anyhoo,” which did not seem to me to fit with the rest of his bearing. “Anyhoo,” (yet again), “the computer says you two pussies signed up for World War 2, that right?”
“Yes,” I said, wishing to relieve J*** of some of his portion of what I took to be an obvious hazing routine.
“Shit, I oughta offer a ‘Paleolithic Package’, charge some real dumb-asses a thousand dollars to throw spears or whatever. Anyhoo, the choice is yours. Let’s go get the guns.”
The Colonel rolled out a wheeled crate filled with all the same weapons that had been promised in the brochure, and more, each in its own little compartment as in a giant tackle-box. He first lifted out what he identified as an M1 .30-caliber semiautomatic carbine, and performed a sequence of lightning-fast operations while mumbling disconnected words, like “corroded” and “piston”. Then he stretched again to his full height, and though we were standing next to the picnic table several feet away from the range, he held the gun out with a single hand and shot towards the range’s central target, discharging all fifteen rounds of ammo in no time. What a sight he was! Although the carbine had a considerable recoil, Garth seemed to absorb it all right into his abundant armpit. His arm seemed as if it were about to burst under the pressure of its exaggerated vascularity. Every smallest muscle of his forearm announced itself as if by name; like Michelangelo’s Moses, when Garth curled his pinky the thin cable of the extensor digiti minimi surfaced below the wrist and froze there, as if chiseled by a sculptor intent on realizing the ideal form of male beauty in stone.
When his magazine had been emptied the Colonel howled like a wolf and declared he was going to “slip into something more comfortable”, whereupon he tore off his Hawaiian shirt, kicked away his flip-flops, and, in a blindingly fast maneuver I was unable to track with my eyes, pulled his khaki shorts to the ground and jumped upward out of them, landing again on his feet entirely disrobed. He declared that he “love[s] to shoot in [his] birthday suit,” and he bent over the crate and pulled out the MG42 fully automatic. Now I have always been perfectly secure in my heterosexuality, but I confess I found myself entranced by the patterns of his body hair, like a peahen in the presence of a proud cock fully splayed, splendiferous as the cosmos itself. A certain prudishness prevents me from describing in detail what I saw. I will only say that he now seemed to me as if designed by some force far smarter than natural selection to attract the eyes and keep them locked on his body, entranced. What was this force? Could it really be explained by appeal to nature alone?
The Colonel stretched upwards again, and again began shooting the machine gun with one hand. This time it made him visibly shake, and when he had emptied his round, rather than howling like a wolf he flared his nostrils and filled his lungs. “God damn!” he said, and then he closed his eyes and hung his head for a few seconds. Then he opened them again. “Just one more thing to show you babies before I let you have at it. Strictly off the books.” He pulled what looked like a grey rusted scuba-tank out of the crate. It was attached to a long hose with a heavy iron nozzle. He threw the tank over his back like a backpack and pointed the hose towards the picnic table. “You’re looking at a Flammenwerfer 35, bona-fide Wehrmacht. Now get out of the way.” J*** and I each took a huge step back and the Colonel pushed out his great flame and lit up the table like a bonfire. There were dry pine needles everywhere, but miraculously only the Jar-Jar Binks bedsheet serving as a tablecloth caught fire. The red plastic Solo cups withered and squirmed as they issued coils of black smoke; the ribs and chops got a good second cooking. The three of us stood and watched silently, gaping as at a fireworks display. “God damn,” the Colonel muttered again, when the flames had largely died down. His head began to vibrate back and forth just as a diving board vibrates up and down when sprung upon.
“I’m about out of battery, gonna go back inside,” he said. “You two have fun shooting.” He looked paler than before, his glow was now largely gone. I gently reminded him that we had not yet signed our waiver, and had yet to receive our hearing-protection gear. “Here’s your ‘waver’,” he said, holding up his hand as if waving goodbye. “Now get the fuck out of here.” He stood shifting his hand back and forth like a windshield wiper for a good ten seconds, and then turned, without a word, and staggered back to the double-wide, naked as the day he was born, but fully sapped, now, of the vital energy he had radiated upon his first appearance. He looked, from behind, rather more like a giant ambulating corpse. When the door slammed shut two voices could be heard, one his, and another belonging to an unknown man, presumably the man whose wary eye we glimpsed earlier, speaking fast and frantically in Spanish.
J*** and I stood for a few seconds in silence, wondering whether we had really been ordered off the property. “Some real Twin Peaks shit,” my cousin finally said, and he pressed a button on his keychain to unlock the Subaru and it let out a quick little chirp.
In the following days I could not put Colonel Garth out of my mind. After the initial impression of his bodily majesty had faded, I found myself not so much infatuated as simply insatiably curious. What made that otherwise ridiculous figure so entrancing, so much larger than life, so very akin to the immortals? I pressed J*** for more information, and immediately sensed a certain reticence. He told me all he knew is what some other guys from basic had reported in a group chat, and that they were probably all just bullshitting. He said the medics had declared him dead at the scene after an IED went off while on patrol in the poppy fields of the Helmand Province. They carried his body away, and after that it was pretty much like he never existed. He didn’t show up on any lists of casualties. While his Purple Heart was awarded for “injuries sustained”, there was no information to be found as to the nature of these injuries, nor the circumstances in which the medal was delivered. I asked J*** if he was sure the Colonel Garth we just saw was the same Garth he knew in basic. “He’s the same,” J*** said hesitantly. “Or he looks the same. Or the same, but different… I don’t know.”
On Saturday morning I took J***’s Subaru and drove into Lester, hoping to query the townsfolk about their peculiar neighbor down at the shooting range. First I stopped at Barry’s pottery shop, where I found the proprietor cleaning his spinning wheel. A faded movie poster for Ghost hung on the wall, with a shirtless Patrick Swayze embracing Demi Moore from behind as she spun a wheel of her own. When I informed him of the reason for my visit, Barry told me I was “barking up a tree [I] shouldn’t be barking up”. He said that if you haven’t been to war, you can’t even comprehend what goes down. “Do you know what went down?” I asked him. “It’s really not my business or yours. He got pretty beat up is all I know… They can really work wonders these days though.”
I went to the Rexall. No one was behind the soda fountain, so I browsed the aisles, and saw a profusion of fridge magnets with slogans like “Give me the chocolate and nobody gets hurt!” or “I used to have an hourglass figure, but the sands have shifted!”, and throw-pillows with motifs of geese with bows around their necks. A novelties section featured whoopee cushions, oversized sunglasses, and a can of dehydrated water. Another aisle had nothing but bags of rock salt. An old man, bald and shriveled, wearing an apron with a name tag that said “Willy”, appeared out of nowhere and asked me in an exaggerated old-time voice whether I could use an “egg phosphate”. I told him no, and explained the nature of my business. He appeared briefly taken aback, but quickly recomposed himself and said: “Why, that Colonel Garth. The image of health! He’s in here nearly every day at noon sharp for a sarsaparilla float. Quite an appetite, given…” Here Willy paused.
“Given what, Willy?”
“Well, let’s just say science can perform some real miracles these days.”
I received a similar run-around at the Busy Bee, and at the Timber Lodge (it meant nothing to them that a photo hung on the wall behind the bar of my own grandfather in the 1984 Shriners’ parade down Main Street, dressed up in full Ali Baba attire). At the Kopper Kettle I was nearly thrown out by a hostile waitress named Barb. “You wanna know about the ‘Miracle Man’?” she shouted. “Go ask Marianne!”
This name meant nothing to me at first, but I was able soon enough to deduce that the Marianne in question was a certain Marianne Duplessis, the proprietor of the region’s first and only upscale restaurant, Sur le Bord du Lac, which had opened in 2016 outside of Lester right on the edge of the lake. Mme. Duplessis, a native of Lyon inspired by the “California cuisine” movement begun at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, had hoped to bring some culinary sophistication to the Manoral region. Rumor had it she was widely despised by most in the Lester community, and had entirely failed in her scouting of the location to measure the total lack of interest in such things that prevailed in the State of Jefferson. Her one great ally and admirer, who had his own table permanently reserved and was known to show up two or three nights per week for an enormous bowl of bisque aux écrevisses (that’s what she called them anyhow; they were really just crawdaddies), was none other than Colonel Garth. The two of them, it was said, had “something special”.
When J*** and I arrived for Sunday morning brunch we were seated on the lake-front patio by a teenaged girl who told us her name was “Madison” (“I’m Madison and I’m gonna be your server today!”) We were the only ones there. We sat waiting for a good fifteen minutes, as J*** fidgeted and periodically looked at the menu with unmistakable disdain. “What are ‘cervelles’?” he asked. I told him to just order the omelette.
At last a woman appeared, slender, composed, with a single thick graying braid tied behind her head. There could be no doubt who this was. “Yes, please,” she said, the way continentals do when speaking service English. I took a deep breath and began my spiel. “Écoutez, Madame,” I said, “avant de commander je voulais me présenter. Je m’appelle J***. E***. H***. S***. Vous et moi, nous avons des trajectoires opposées. Je suis d’origine californienne, résidant en France depuis une bonne dizaine d’années. Mais nous avons aussi des intérêts partagés. D’après ce qu’on m’a raconté en ville, il semblerait que vous êtes parmi les connaissances les plus intimes du Colonel Garth.”
“Le Colonel Garss?” she said, interrupting.
“Oui, Madame, le même. Le Colonel Garss. Vous allez déjà comprendre, je crois, sans que je dise un seul mot de plus, pourquoi son histoire suscite en moi un intérêt irrépressible.”
“Non, Monsieur,” she replied, staring at me coldly. “Ici on n’en parle pas… même en français. Ce n’est pas un bal masqué, Monsieur, et vous n’êtes pas dans un sanatorium aux Alpes.” And that was it. She turned her back. Yet as she was walking away from the table, she swung around again, and shouted: “Mais qu’est-ce qu’ils peuvent faire des merveilles de nos jours !”†
After another fifteen minutes Madison came back out and took our order, and J*** and I sat there eating glumly.
On Monday morning I took the Subaru into Lester again, drove past the Kopper Kettle, past the Timber Lodge, past the Busy Bee, past the Fish and Game lot, and right up to the turn-off for Garth’s shooting range. I parked next to the Dodge Ram, leapt out and strode determinedly to the door of the double-wide. The burnt plastic and the charred face of Jar-Jar remained untouched on the picnic table. I knocked at the door, and no one answered. I waited, and after some seconds knocked again. Still nothing. Knowing in my heart that I could not leave without an answer to the questions that tormented me, I turned the knob and went inside.
It looked like the inside of a mobile-home, of which I’d seen many in my earlier years. It was far more spacious than anyone who has never visited a mobile might well imagine. To my left was a long narrow hallway leading to the bedroom, to my right a kitchenette with a shining linoleum floor. In front of me there was a living room with wall-to-wall plush carpet, an L-shaped couch with several goose-ornamented throw pillows, and a flat-screen TV that seemed to be showing a Mexican soap opera. I poked my head in all directions and saw no one. I was suddenly startled by a jet of water that came up from the linoleum floor and soared right past my head, hitting the light bulb that hung from the ceiling in the entryway. When the jet ceased I looked down and discovered, much to my horror, its source: into the middle of the kitchenette floor there had slithered some sort of creature, like a giant sea-slug, perhaps eight inches long and as wide in diameter as a Coke can. It was grayish brown, with rainbow glimmers, as of a fishing lure, iridescing from its sides as it moved peristaltically towards the center of the kitchen, leaving behind it a no less iridescent trail of slime. When it reached the center it began to hiss, a horrible noise, as of a teapot, but more flatulent, as if the sound were being squeezed out through the taut moist opening of some sort of bladder. The hiss kept getting louder and louder, and it seemed to me the longer it went on the more desperate it sounded, pathetic even, as if this horrid slug were dying.
Finally, after a minute or so, when the hiss had been reduced to a faint squeak, a man came tumbling out of the bedroom, evidently just roused from his sleep. On the kitchenette counter there was an iMac desktop, and out of one of its USB ports there extended a long cable with, at its extremity, a sort of syringe needle attached to it. The flustered man took the needle and expertly plunged it into the side of the slug, which immediately began to quiver and vibrate like a battery-operated massager. This went on for some time, and eventually the slug stopped moving, at which point, much to my disbelief, a message appeared on the iMac’s screen, spelled out letter by letter as you might see on a moving ticker-tape: Goddammit, Jorge! How long do I have to hiss before you hear me? Come on, get moving. We have a guest.
The slug had noticed me, apparently. I was of course quite alarmed by this turn of events, but I could do nothing other than to stand and gawk without moving. Once he was assured that the slug was in stable condition, Jorge went into the living room, turned off the soap opera, and pulled what looked like a sort of body bag out from behind the couch. He unzipped it down the center, and then silently pulled out a hand, then another hand, attached to what I could now see was a rather hairy torso. Nor, I was shocked to notice, did this body have a head.
Jorge flung the arms over his own shoulders as if in an embrace, and heaved the headless body upward, carrying it over to the couch where he set it down. The body, I could now see, was not dead, exactly, but neither was it living — obviously no human body can live in a decapitated state. It appeared now, rather, to be made out of silicone, perhaps, or some other space-age material that simulates flesh rather well but not perfectly. The opening at the neck appeared to be covered over by a sort of plastic lid, fastened shut with screws around its rim. Next Jorge went back behind the couch, and returned with what appeared to be a bowling-ball bag. This too he zipped open, and casually pulled out a human head. Was that the Colonel? It looked like a sort of Madame Tussaud’s approximation of him, as completely devitalized as a ball of wax, yet nonetheless bearing an unmistakable likeness. Jorge continued his work, unscrewing the lid from the top of the body’s neck, doing the same to the identical lid attached to the bottom of the head, and then, by an operation I still do not understand, composing the two parts together into what was now the complete body of a human being, or at least the lifeless approximation of one.
Next he went to the kitchen counter and methodically put on a pair of surgical gloves. Then he picked up the slug off the floor, carried it over to the couch, opened the mouth on the head, and proceeded to stuff the slug down its throat. Throughout, Jorge showed no emotion, as if he had conducted this procedure a thousand times. When the slug had disappeared down into the body’s depths, Jorge removed his gloves, threw them onto the counter, and stood watching with hands on hips. After some period of silence, I have no idea how long it was, the fingers of the body began to twitch, then the feet, and then the head began to rock back and forth and to make gestures of what appeared to be gagging. Soon it leaned forward, elbows on knees, face down towards the carpet, and began to cough and heave. “Easy now,” Jorge said softly, and he patted him on the shoulder.
The heaving went on for some minutes. I was convinced he was going to vomit the slug back out, but at some point the horrible motions subsided, and Colonel Garth —for there could be no doubt that that is who it was—, looked up at Jorge calmly, then at me, and stood up from the couch to his full height. While the body when first pulled out of its bag had not seemed particularly large, it was now somehow expanding, though I could not be certain I was perceiving its growth. The Colonel twitched periodically, and with each twitch a new muscle appeared, a new bulging vein. I began to detect once again the first signs of that inner glow that had so entranced me some days before.
“Well God damn!” the Colonel said at last. “I don’t like to be caught unawares in my ‘at home’ mode. That’s what I’ve taken to calling it, right Jorge?” Jorge nodded. “When I get back from shooting I tell Jorge, ‘Time to slip into something more comfortable’, and he gets right to work. The disassembly process takes longer than putting me back together, but most of that doesn’t concern me. Once I’m out, I’m out.” He paused. “You look like you must be thinking: ‘What in the hell?’ Well I’ll tell you what in the hell. Do you know what a soft robot is?” I confessed I did not. “Well it’s what they started cooking up at DARPA about ten years ago, top secret of course. If I wanted to be more precise I’d tell you I’m not just any soft robot, but a magnetic-slime robot, made mostly of polyvinyl alcohol and borax with some neodymium particles thrown in. No need to get into the details, main thing is that goddamn fat-ass sea-slug you saw on the kitchen floor? That’s me. The rest is just old-fashioned silicone, same stuff as in Jorge’s fleshlight. Right, Jorge?” He punched Jorge in the shoulder. “I said right, Jorge?!” I was afraid he’d box him on the ear, but instead he turned back to me and continued his disquisition, evidently with some pleasure.
“Anyhoo, it’s amazing the miracles they can work these days. We got the biomagnetic stuff from Taiwan, the silicone-suited body from Boston Dynamics, and as for the actual intelligence part of it, the ‘me’ part if I dare say so myself — that we got from Google. I don’t know how it all works exactly. All I know is I was dead, I mean dead dead, after the IED went off. Can’t say I remember much of what happened next, but the powers-that-be seemed to think I had the right stuff for their little experiment, so they plucked me out of the goddamn grave and uploaded my goddamn consciousness into their top-secret DigiGarth mainframe. Next thing I know I wake up, and I can tell my mind is thinking, but I’m not feeling a goddamn thing. How could I feel anything when my body is nothing but switching-circuits and electricity? I was thinking without feeling! And even weirder, there’s no goddamn time anymore. How can there be ‘before’ and ‘after’ when you’ve got all your memory all at once, and no senses to experience anything new? God damn!”
He went on: “You wanna know what that’s like, don’t you?” I was silent. “You wanna know what that’s like!” he shouted again. I confirmed I did. “Well I can’t tell you what it’s like. How could I describe pure consciousness? I could tell you I was ‘thought thinking itself’ or some damn thing, and you’d nod along like a dumb-ass because you don’t know any better. But you wouldn’t have a fucking clue what I was talking about. Anyhoo, that lasted for a while, though I couldn’t tell you how long, and then the next thing I know I’m still thinking, but I’m also feeling again, but the feelings are all fucked up because they gave me the body of an eight-inch goddamn slug! So I oozed around for a while longer in some glass tank in their lab in B***, and then at some point they picked me up and put me down the gullet of some giant goddamn sex-doll, and voilà, Colonel Garth is back!”
I told him I was most impressed, but by now I could not fully hide, I suspect, the deep desire that had surged up within me to run right out of there and never to return. But Colonel Garth was not finished with his tale yet. “Well, anyhow,” he said, finally returning to the conventional form of that word, “war is hell — you’ve probably heard that one before. It’s true though. War is hell. I haven’t been quite myself since Afghanistan. It’s the toxic neodymium particles, at least in part. When they take over in my system there’s no telling what I’ll end up doing. By the way I’m real sorry about the other day. I’d say I don’t know what came over me, but I know goddamned well what came over me. Neodymium came over me. That and memories — the feeling kind I mean, not the thinking kind. Like I said I’m just not quite myself anymore.”
After these stark confessions the mood changed considerably. The three of us sat down on the couch together. I told them about my work on French vitalism, and they seemed to follow, more or less. Jorge brought out some beers.
Outside, beyond the double-wide, down in the traps at the black lake’s bottom, the fish-guts festered and bubbled, as if ready to take on some new form.
Occupied Yreka, March 2024
Dedicated to the memory of J***.
Suggested further reading:
Edgar Allen Poe, “The Man That Was Used Up: A Tale of the Late Bugaboo and Kickapoo Campaign” (1839), in The Portable Edgar Allen Poe, ed. J. Gerald Kennedy, London, Penguin, 2006, pp. 349-358.
†“Listen, Madame,” I said, “before ordering I wanted to introduce myself. My name is J***. E***. H***. S***. You and I have opposing life-paths. I am originally from California, but I’ve been residing in France for about ten years now. Yet we also have shared interests. From what they told me in town, it would seem that you are among the most intimate acquaintances of Colonel Garth.”
“Le Colonel Garss?” she said, interrupting.
“Yes, Madame, the very one. Colonel Garss. You will already understand, I believe, without having to say another word, why his story inspires an irrepressible interest in me.”
“No, Monsieur,” she replied, staring at me coldly. “Here we don’t talk about that… Not even in French. This is not a masked ball, Monsieur, and you are not in an Alpine sanatorium.” And that was that. She turned her back. Yet as she was walking away from the table, she turned around again, and shouted: “But what wonders they can do these days!”