(Excerpt from The Artifact, a novella forthcoming from Inside the Castle, October 2018.)
Surveillance cameras make me want to go anorexic.
The zero/zero machine sun navigates through the arcane orchid storm, stares into the brain-rotten city, yellow-tints the land like a sulphuric tide, feeds dogs and rats with early-morning nightmares. The CONTROL SUBJECT drives his car to a vanishing point where the cardboard city folds over itself, dissapearing in collapsing plane-angles, passes a detouring test and then takes the electric-deadly westbound highway, presumably to neurohell. He’d been patiently waiting for a week, reeling and crawling upon his own depression-crushed body to wake up, shower and shave, texting and phoning his gone girlfriend every few hours since she ran away with the baby, defacebooked herself and posted a shitty short Whatsapp specifying not to be looked for, not to be followed, so he stayed at home like he’d been home taking care of the newborn since losing his job some months ago. The child wasn’t his but he didn’t mind, he loved them both anyway, he’d been expecting her to come back home every night in a forever of sorts and, while the baby would be sleeping, they’d sit close in the dusty backyard and share a cold beer under the dried-glue drone moon, their phones swirling in unison and going out of battery together. He watched TVish things on the computer, watched the cactus on the bedroom’s window ledge, expecting it to alien-DNA-grow-&-invade the alcove and nail his flayed skin to the IKEA fake cedar closet’s door, ate all food in the fridge by the perfunctory ritual of placing any edible stuff between parallel planes of drying bread and, when finished, he got new food delivered. He found himself ghostwalking around the house and then just aimlessly ghostdrove his car, turning right and left here and there until the city became a lost dimension.
It was a morning of severed heads, so he prayed for a new storm. When rain started to pour over the streets, he allowed himself to be dragged by a small trembling damp crowd looking for a provisional refuge behind the marquee of an old, fuzzy casino. Once there, he surrendered to the revolving door. He stopped at the vast hall, confused by the brothelly submarine-neon glow emitted by each and every object on sight, dubious about how to proceed, ignorant of the mechanics of the maze. He spotted some exhausted-looking old people here and there, mostly in the slot machines area. He was almost broke, so gambling was not an initial consideration. The only corridor seeming to lead somewhere was the one pointing straight to the hotel reception.
Standing in front of a slot machine is the closest experience to fighting a robot the average person can afford. A sequence of instant excitation/disappointment loops designed around a trash-but-working psychological pleasure-principle usually engaged by people who got sick of the slower excitation/disappointment loops of fighting other people. He decided to risk his remaining cash in the machines. Watching the players from a closer distance, they looked as surprisingly happy as they looked tired. He had expected to find stereotypes of the anxiously defeated gambler—instead, he was facing ataraxia in a way he hadn’t seen often before. Differently from any other place in the modern world, people confronting the machines had found a way to ignore themselves and join the mechanism, to let their fate dissolve into manipulated randomness like ascetic monks used to leave their destiny to the unknowable will of God. And when he won a 10k jackpot, all the alarms sparked and screamed. A girl in black walked him to the cashier and asked if he wanted a drink. He sat at the bar and ordered a coke. A heavily tattooed dark-eyed mid-aged elegant woman sat next to him and cheered. He had expected to remain invisible for a while longer, but he’d been crowned with sound and color by chance and the machine.
“Are you a hooker?” he asked in a whisper.
“No. I’m a mathematician,” she admitted in a sweet, musical tone denotating she was also in the process of learning how to be a foreigner. “Don’t tell anyone in here, we’re less welcomed than whores. If you’re interested, I can introduce you to some safe ones, though.”
He slightly shied away from her face. He was ready for nobody to be so close.
“Not looking for that, but thanks anyway.”
“Do you like it here?”
“My first time. I’m not a gambler… I just got lucky.”
“Yes, I guessed so… I like gamblers, you know. They have those strange beliefs about numbers. This is one of the reasons I keep coming here…”
“So you’re not betting?”
“No, I feel amused by the people and the place, so different from my workplace, not to say my apartment… I like the golden and red plastic flowers, and the dusty dog-chewed formerly-patterned carpets, and the fake waterfalls, and the lousy ambient music, and the jingling and shouting, and the atrocious exhibition of surveillance. Everything is so kitsch, so unpretentious…! Sure you don’t want me to introduce you to an escort? You look like you could use a blowjob. Priscillianna is here today, she’s really nice. Maybe you prefer boys?”
“No thanks, seriously. Sex is the last thing I’m interested in right now…”
“That’s a strange thing to hear from a man, especially around here…”
“That phrase used to work for me…” Trying to sound apologetic while flirtatious.
“Ha! Now you’re cheering up. You should—it’s been your lucky day.”
“Just money to burn… I don’t know where to go from here.”
“Go home. Get some sleep.”
“Been there. Sleeping twelve hours a day. I want to be awake.”
“Not here. This place is like a psychedelic dream. Probably not in this city. Maybe not in this world.”
“Where are you going from here?”
“Today…? Work. Risk evaluation. Suicide statistics. Routine.”
“Yeah, everybody looks at me exactly this way when I mention that. They’re important for insurance companies.”
“Like people faking their death? Does this really happen?”
“Rarely. The most common thing is people killing themselves in ways that look like accidents.”
“It’s weird that life insurance excludes suicide… I mean, dying is not something that wouldn’t happen if you don’t push it.”
“Yeah, we’re all gonna die sooner or later. But if you die later, you’ve paid for your life.”
Music was floating around like volcanic ashes, burnt calcium, memories conserved in marble claustrophobias and flashed by bloody eyes. Fishbone-dust traceable to the Permian extinction, flying with numbers, tickled the wings of mosquitoes hanging from the plasterboard ceiling while digesting erythrocytes with parsimony. Crashtime from gamblers’ heads jumped onto the tables, blowing a fetid miasma on dice and cards. No weapons were allowed, only flickering nails. Bird beaks. Sceptres and other regalia. If you want to be awake, go to the hospital, sit on one of the emergency room’s waiting benches, just four blocks away across the street and turning left. It’s neither day nor night, just a short walk over slippery melting glass. You go there and tell me how it is to be awake.