14 min read

gods & devils

In the movie the buttons on the keypad were equipped with tiny, yet powerful vacs that sucked microscopic bits of flesh and sweat from the tips of his fingers, caching his biometrics and recording them onto the blockchain. 
gods & devils

by Swim

[previous post]

I shifted on the bed as I looked away from the TV and all at once the shrooms kicked in for real. Dead things float but everything comes down in the end–this sentence spoken in my mind by someone who wasn’t me as my hands reached for, but failed to find, the large wine glass. There was the old familiar (and yet always a surprise!) un-appearance of emptiness. It multiplied inside itself faster than I could keep up. One thing became many and also nothing at all. For instance my beloved vans, more like old soft friends than shoes, turned into red-eyed rats scurrying around in the corner.  And my hands, still grasping, were alien claws. But the worst was the dark presence behind Cyndi at the opposite end of the room. It moved in and out with the breath of the universe itself. I didn’t know if it had just arrived or if it had been here all along and I was only now aware of it.

I shut my eyes tight under my Wayfarers.

It’s only a drug, it’s only a drug.

Even if I dared to look–which I did not–the figure was sure to be wearing a mask. I remembered what one of The Babies said when we gathered in the trees and I complained I couldn’t tell them apart:

“We wear masks to hide from the spirits and the spirits wear masks so we won’t know they’re here, moving among us.”

And just a few minutes earlier, Cyndi had quoted Donnie Darko, a movie I couldn’t imagine her having seen, when she asked me, “why are you wearing that stupid human suit”? 

Perhaps I was the spirit in disguise, hidden even from myself?

I tried to figure it out but I was distracted by how hard I was sweating. I imagined the people out there who were still watching “The Long Goodbye” on their TV’s and all I wanted was to be like them. Normal and quiet and sweat-free with snacks gathered during commercial breaks and my to-do list ready for the morning. I tried to forget about the lurking presence and pretend I was out there–a TV person with wide open TV eyes but then Cyndi started talking.

“You eating up all that meat was something else, man. You enjoy so well. It’s a real talent—how deeply you pleasure.”

She tapped a beat out on the floor with her cane and the words fell like dominos, setting off separate chain reactions that I was unable to analyze, but after a few seconds I managed to say something back.

“Yeah, but what I really like is to watch.”

She laughed again. Too long, too loud.

“Oh, yeah, I can tell. You have the most intense eyes, like blue lasers—even when you’re high.”

She was moving across the room, getting closer–her cane going tap, tap, tap; the presence followed behind her like a shadow.

“Your eyes have the power to transform a person, just by deciding to watch them.”

“Bullshit,” I said, touching the Wayfarers to make sure they were still on my face. 

“I took an interest in you but it didn’t change you at all.”

“Oh, yes it did.”

“If I leave will you come with me? How about it, Cyn? Will you help me?”

“With what? Where are you going?”

“I’m leaving for Constantinople. I will not–I can not–return.”

“Constantinople? Pfffft. You’re not going nowhere.”

“Yes, I am. I’ve got to get to Odious.”

“Oh, that old story. Back on that, are you? You don’t even know where she is!”

“They. They are back in New York. But it’s a version of the city outside ordinary space and time, and it will take a specific, but as yet undetermined action to cross the threshold.” 

“Well what about your art? What about the film loop on the screens out in the trees?”

“I don’t know,” I said, my face burning. Hadn’t there already been screens in the forest? Back at the old house, the haunted one from which The Babies and I escaped? Or had we never left? There was a fluttering feeling in my gut, the emptiness had gotten in there. I required nutrition–unprocessed and unpasteurized. Had we been filming a movie and I forgot? Had it been about Odious?

In a flash I saw haloed animal heads in the forest, lit from behind by the projector. The place where mask met skin was indistinguishable, murdered out.

“I needed to get some shooting done,” I mumbled, starving.

I had a vague recollection of scenes, situations. I kept a separate notebook for each main character, color coded. I wrote in a loose, offhand manner with sections left blank so that the way they felt about one another could shift like the breeze–all it took was a single unthoughtful comment at an otherwise kinda fun party or reaching for their phone too soon post-coitus and the dial went from love to hate. And then, after seconds or eons–the words didn’t clearly distinguish a time frame–it went back again.

A favorite place to film was in the electronics department of XXXXX in the XXXXXX mall, where a movie or TV show played simultaneously on different sized screens. We stood there, half-hypnotized, The Babies saying, “what” over and over as they tried to talk above the audio of a TV show I never heard of. There were action scenes with deep stereo explosions replicated across speakers the size of my fist and close-ups with big faces like full moons and white infected skin dripping under bright lights. Then with much pop music fanfare the news came on. It was about old wars that were starting up again, just as they had so many times before, only now there seemed to be an unspoken sadness like the end of summer imbued in the pixels and the warm but ever-fading, filtered light that fell across our bodies that this would be the last time:  that these and all the deep down hatreds were coming to a head, and instead of some dream of peace all the different sides would finally destroy one another for good.

Actively knowing (as opposed to having such knowledge pushed way down inside) that such a thing can happen hangs over all other things and changes them, even in the perceptions of those who aren’t immediately affected, but it hadn’t been hanging over me because I was too focused on having nothing to do with the world until I knew for sure how to help save it. But once I saw real TV again something switched because I could see that the time for figuring that out was almost up.

A rare shot of me crying in front of a commercial: the sexy pine truck races, shiny like a pill up a rust colored mountain. There is no road, no pathway but it doesn’t matter, the truck jumps along, rearing like a horse, crushing boulders and shrubs and baby animals. I turn away. The truck continues on behind me, spewing brown dust behind it. When it gets to the top it drives all the way to the edge and then stops, a second away from oblivion. No one gets out and no one makes a move as the monthly payment amount is featured on the screen. I open my eyes and the tears are streaming down my beer bloated face:

“The story’s almost over. There isn’t that much left, you know? We only have this highly compressed bit of time before the climate collapses and life as we know it on this planet is gone. I’ve got to get it together. I can’t waste the final chapters spinning out and chasing things that aren’t important.” 

In another scene I’m wearing the Wayfarers and talking to MJ. I’m drinking a yellow turmeric latte using a compostable straw. For my health. The camera zooms in on the wrapper where it warns that facilities for recycling it may not exist in my area–

“What gets me, MJ, is not the television content in and of itself, but the way it’s framed by all those commercials. The close-up shots of flesh toned pieces of shrimp and pasta being pulled out from gooey cheese accordions is a completely intentional message being beamed directly into the unconscious mind, forcing one to consider the needs and fragility of the human body– indeed of the whole human project.”

“But don’t worry! It’s not time to give up,” I urged, as I came to and remembered who I was. “It’s just a little longer. Promise me you’ll give me just a little longer.”

MJ nodded and looked down in a way that made my heart flutter with sickness and despair. I had lost so many people I couldn’t lose her too but then I remembered it wasn’t MJ at all but an actress playing her part. She wasn’t speaking because while she looked like MJ she didn’t sound anything like her so anytime she did speak we just had to dub it out anyway. Like the rest of the cast I had her work out with bands and weights for 6 weeks and then stop a week and a half before shooting during which time she went back to drinking beer and whatever else she wanted to do. This way the cast were firm, but natural looking, with bellies like little pouches with just enough space to hold a human heart. 

A scene: The Babies and I being asked to leave the electronics department, resulting in arguments between us and the polo shirt wearing store staff and other customers. One of whom called me a whore? Which is funny because I’ve never known a sex worker to wear beige fleece sweats and a gold charm necklace that said “Shrek” in an invocation of the pandemic era, but maybe that’s how it was around there, out in that middle of nowhere town from which ours stuck out like a dead limb. A knob of mutant bone. The Babies were in their layers of extra-large flannel and wool with twigs and blades of grass stuck to them. On top of this several of them wore their famous handmade purple hoodies, which were tattered and torn but even more royal because of it. The matching hoodies were a cause for concern–the staff person who was kicking us out referred to them as a gang, to which I shouted, “Ha!” 

“More like a club,” I said, “A dedicated, intellectual, highly LITERATE club interested in the unseen. You see, we believe that which hides is where it’s really at. But regardless of our, like, charter, what is it that we’re doing wrong? Are clubs not allowed to go shopping together? In this age of loneliness has it become a crime to roll up in the liberated state of interconnection? Isn’t consuming en masse what, you know, makes America great?”

Right about there is where I started to black out. I went off my feet, kneeling and begging on the floor for just one more take, unable to remember the last time I’d tried communicating in earnest with people like this, people out in the world with faces worn down like pennies. The same ones I envied as the mushrooms took hold, I also despised, feeling certain that they were the cause of all my problems. The difference in the electronics department is they were right there in real life, and not neatly hidden away like an idea. The last thing I remember was the floor boss leaning down and pressing close, I smelled onions and something sweet and I knew he was the reason I’d failed so many times and was now failing again in what was an open secret of a sinking ship. Who else could fuck up being the leader of a cult this badly? All I’d ever wanted was to make Odious proud. An anger I didn’t know was there came roaring out. It latched on to me in that moment and caused me to say things so horrible I made The Babies hit stop the next day when they played it back. I had them promise to forgo their usual transcription, though I listened to the rest of it later when I was all alone and made note of all the gory details myself so I can purify them the first chance I get.

As a part of the ever expanding set, which grew in fits and starts with nearby objects replaced one day to the next with useless props and backdrops hung in windows that blocked out the sun, The Babies used my specs to recreate one of the Dr. Pepper soda machines that covertly dispensed payment to Lil Mountain for the information he shared about us. They appeared throughout our journey out west, back when he still went by the name Jesse James, but it was only when we were on our way back that I caught on. Like most junkies he was a sucker for sweet stuff but the way we’d go out of our way to get to one, and the way he’d park a ways off, so that I couldn’t see the facial recognition at work, eventually tipped me off. I approached one all alone at dusk–a glowing red monolith against the purple and orange sky. It looked like a regular soda machine but if you listened carefully the frequency at which it hummed fluctuated according to some code. I kept a few feet away, my face covered with a face mask, but I think it knew I was there.

In the movie the buttons on the keypad were equipped with tiny, yet powerful vacs that sucked microscopic bits of flesh and sweat from the tips of his fingers, caching his biometrics and recording them onto the blockchain. 

The actor playing Lil Mountain was stalked and used as a prototype for a new type of “non-material tech”, funded by the ex xxxxx founder, xxxxx xxxxx, that did away with the idea of harnessing the power of AI and connected instead to the already fully emerged sentience of the spirit world using cursed portals hidden inside antiquated devices (i.e, Behemoth). They ran the reports, they crunched the numbers and had Lil Mountain pinned. They knew him better than he knew himself. For all his auto-tuned emotionless posturing they knew that when the time came he would sacrifice himself so that the rest of us could escape. 

Close up of a 4K screen, with subtitles rolling beneath my head as I read the lines from the cue card:

“He fed himself (w)hole into the gaping mouth/static screen of another dimension.”

But I balked at The Babies request to enclose a two foot statue of Baphomet inside the center of the machine and to keep the plastic exterior just see-through enough to allow the figure to be visible in certain light.

“We’ll do a time lapse as the shadows change and it comes into view. How gnarly is that?”

“We’ve got the drone soundtrack. And those pitched up samples of Ricki Lee Jones.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “A real demon on a fake set could be tricky. Beaming out its energy at the just and unjust alike.”

They explained that Baphomet was not a demon, nor a deity. That he was a symbol.

“There’s nothing to worry about. He was created.”

“So are all gods and devils.”

They shrugged their shoulders when I demanded that they not put him inside the soda machine. Even now there’s no way to be sure. The machine stands at the top of the driveway with the basketball net, where I used to sit and watch them play.

“Please,” I said to Cyndi. “Please help me to find a way to Odious.”

How long had I been here? I felt circles radiating out from a gas station in the desert, widening and reverberating into the woods. And to the mountain and the tent where the scroll was laid out, decomposing in the damp. The unraveling of rivals.

“I wanted to make something beautiful, but somehow I got stuck.”

“Stop with that look. It’s pathetic! Your shoulders stuck together and your head hanging like an overripe piece of fruit. It’s not really doing it for me. I like tough guy acts. I like them better on girls than on boys.”

“I have to save The Babies.”

“Maybe they’re all in on it,” Cyndi said. “Have you thought of that? Maybe they’re working with me now to keep you here. After all, you're a cause for concern. We can’t have you hurting others, or yourself.”

She cackled again but the sound was deeper this time, due to the Being laughing with her. It occurred to me that I was trapped. We were in the den that could only be entered via a fake door in the back porch that was her barbershop. It was the base of operations, with its own kitchenette and bar. 5 Gallon bottles of spring water were lined up against the walls that were decorated with framed pictures, mostly of Cyndi with her kids and her dogs and men I didn’t recognize. In between the photos were mounted sayings, some in what appeared to be hand-written calligraphy: “Home is where the Heart is”, “Enjoy Every Moment”, “Good Vibes Only”. The air smelled like cigarettes and the thick black sticks of sickeningly sweet mystery incense that she burned, blowing the smoke around the periphery of her inner sanctum. Cyndi had created boundaries inside of boundaries–her closed off renegade hood with its burly drivers in shiny SUVs who would follow anyone who happened to drive in, pull up alongside them and ask where they were going in a good natured but firm voice, her house barricaded by sleeping tractor trailers and giant pickups as well as dazed yet vigilant lanky boys and rail thin bike riding girls with too-bright tattoos on their arms like wounds, and inside the house rooms that led to secret rooms and tunnels revealed by typing codes into hidden consoles under placemats.    

She was the architect and the minotaur, at once inhabiting the circumference and center of the labyrinth. I couldn’t help but be impressed and overwhelmed. But there was no more time. 

I stood up.

“You know, Cyn, I’ve been meaning to ask. What’s the story with the guy?”

“What guy?” 

“The one moaning all the time under my room.”

“There’s no place under your room.”

“There is, and he’s down there. He shares the pipe in my bathroom. Sometimes it’s like he’s standing up on something and screaming at the pipe where it goes through the ceiling. It’s extra loud.”

She squinted and smiled at me, her teeth glistening like an animal’s.

“It ain’t no thing. He never screams at night, does he?”

“No, but why is that? Are you drugging him?”

“Why do you care?”

“Because I feel like he knows I’m there and he’s moaning and screaming for me, trying to get me to help him.”

“He’s fine. You’d scream too if you had an IQ of 25.”

“You can’t just leave him alone all day like that,” I tried to make this come out the way I wanted it to, with the compassion I wanted to have for him. But the truth is I got annoyed listening to him all day.  Not just annoyed but fed up–I was fed up with this situation and the situation of everyone who was so severely fucked in the world. That he seemed to want my help made me angry because there was nothing I could do. I imagined him in the bathroom, standing on a chair to get closer to me and I couldn’t help but wish that he’d fall. Fall and bash his head in and at least then it would be over.

“You can come and go as you please, you don’t have to stay here, you don’t have to listen to him if you don’t want to.”

I staggered across the room as she jabbed at my legs with her cane. The presence was still behind her, tracking close as I careened forward, seeing a line in a wall that indicated what I thought was the door to the barbershop, but when I pushed it open it revealed a secret stairway, leading down into the dark. I fell to my knees and felt a scream rising in my throat. It was like the steps in the other house, the ones that took us down to Behemoth.

“Oh so you wanna go down there? You want to stay after all?” Cyndi cackled and pointed her cane at me. Her dilated eyes were like saucers, her voice became deeper as the presence towered behind her.

“Fuck that,” I said, as I grabbed at the rubber tipped end of the cane like a baby reaching for a bottle, once, twice, three times as she jabbed it at my face. I finally grabbed hold and pulled as hard as I could. 

The next thing I remember I was standing at the top of the stairs shining my retrieved phone’s flashlight down at the body lying at the bottom. It was too hazy to see who it was but they weren’t moving. A deep, yet calm voice spoke into my ear.

“I think you should be going now.” 

I walked across the room and slipped on my Vans. I grabbed Cyndi’s pack of smokes and pulled the latch on the (other) secret door. This one led to her barbershop. A beam of moonlight fell upon a shelf behind the massive sink, illuminating the old skullhead Zippo that Odious had given me. They meant it half as a joke but I thought I’d lost it and it was everything to me to find it now. 

I lit a cigarette with the lighter and walked out onto the wet, overgrown grass. I headed for the street, where I already knew, before I saw it, that an old pick-up truck would be there, The Babies filling the back, waiting for me for one last ride.

Image: René Magritte, Le double secret, 1927


Thanks for making it this far with me. Not much longer now... 😄

There are two subscription options. Get my posts AND Odious's

All $ goes to mutual aid projects.

Or you can subscribe to just receive my posts (like this one) which will be sent to your inbox for free.

Thank you to everyone who subscribes and reads these missives.

Love Always,