You are reading Fiddleblack #7
I got pulled into this story when I answered a post on craigslist looking for someone to write an article on Paris, Texas. That sounded fine, I haven’t held down a job in coming up on five years now and Random House has made no reply whatsoever to all of that howling about six-figure advances. So, I got a hold of this guy Paul. He lives in the Paris you’re thinking of and publishes this magazine in which, among other things, he connects the dots between Sarah Palin and Joe McCarthy. I might have tried that with Hitler if I was just picking names out of a hat but I can get behind the sentiment, either way. He wanted to know all about the Paris in Texas, and I had just enough j’ai compris to make it happen. Stayed there one weekend a few years back when the woman had business. There’s a picture of me in my hat standing at the foot of that Lil’ Eiffel Tower they’ve got rigged up, arms flung wide with the bluest blue sky blooming up behind. So that’s the author photo knocked out, at least. One less thing to think about.
You ever see that old Wim Wenders movie Paris, Texas? Genius desolation flick. That guy could maybe do a hell of a Blood Meridian, it’s suddenly occurring to me. Anyway, a ridiculous portion of the movie is Harry Dean Stanton wandering through East Texas. Bleak, man. There are like maybe ten lines of dialogue in the first two hours of the movie and you just about can’t take it, the spaces between words, never knowing how long they’ll last until somebody says something, anything. Coughs, even. Then, when Wenders opens up the barn door just the least little bit and people start barely having conversations, it’s like an avalanche coming down the mountain. This one story Harry Dean tells is maybe the best thing he’s ever done. Best I’ve ever seen, anyway. I started thinking about this film, brooding, really, that I should maybe see it again. For research. It was actually possible to run it through one of the wavestreams they have now, but maybe that’s a strange way to gaze upon all that barren majesty? Grainy VHS might be the only way to go? I spent a couple of days stuck on that and then Paul asked if I wanted to write a story about The Onion. Why not, I can write two stories at once. What kind of story? I asked. A story about the people who make The Onion, he said. Are they as insane as they appear to be? What are their ultimate intentions, their endgame? Put your ear to the ground or hide in their hedges or sort through their trash, but find out. Find out for me and I will pay you the money. Yes, I said, I would very much like you to pay me the money. Very good, he wrote back.
So I read up on The Onion. Turns out it was started by some junior at the University of Kentucky in the eighties, then sold up the food chain until a 65 billion dollar conglomerate bought it five years ago. The guy who created it got something like ten percent of that. Reminded me of that business with the kids who channeled Superman. They sold him right off the bat for maybe $135? I’m sure that seemed like a ridiculous amount to a pair of eighteen year olds at the tail end of the Depression, but this vantage point sure makes you wish that the lads could have found a way to hold on to a bigger portion of the proceeds resulting from what they did such a fine job manifesting.
Of course, The Onion had their own version of Who They Were and How They Came To Be. Since not one word in that rag is the truth, they go on and on about how they were really founded in 1756 by one Friedrich Siegfried Zwiebel, who originally called it The Mercantile-Onion because those were the only two words of English he spoke. Which leads one to speculate upon the content beneath old Friedrich’s masthead. But the story doesn’t really take off until the grandson, one T. Herman, appears and then the writers hit the gas and are off to the races, claim the kid’s been the publisher for over one hundred years now and all this other insane shit, he was shot into space, or escaped there, and he’s got this slave or companion, really, as it turns out, one of those things where they had so much in common and it was only the whole class/enslavement thing coming between them. Like it does.
A bunch of weird to sift. I wondered if I should give the local office a ring. Schedule an interview, maybe. But what if they didn’t cotton to the idea, blocked the whole gig somehow with the terrible might of their satire? I decided to just make something up. That’s all they ever do, anyway. Jump on the back of all that nonsense about T. Herman. I could knock that out in my sleep, it’s like my default interior monologue, I think you call it. I asked Paul what he thought of that and he was into it. What-address-do-I-send-this-first-check to?-into it. Which was unbelievable, getting a check for just the idea. If I could figure out a way to get checks for all of the other ideas, we would be cooking, yes.
I turned the check into money and that into a short term whiskey investment that I consumed at once with a bare minimum of distraction, then sat down at my desk to knock this thing out in one sustained manic burst, while I could still grab hold of the words. But nothing achieved escape velocity from my head. You couldn’t out-crazy all that stuff with T. Herman’s timeline. The only places I could think of to take it were either a Lynch/Kaufman kind of surrealism trip or parallel universes or both. My usual pair of rock-bottom default. But even those weren’t right, something still wasn’t clicking. Days went by when I wouldn’t even think about the story and then I’d notice a copy of The Onion at the grocery store or the sandwich shop again and my stomach would twist up all around upon itself. I had no idea.
And so it went for another few weeks until one Wednesday night, I was reading this new comic book called The Unwritten, a magnificent slice of serial entertainment that blurs the line between fiction and reality by running its characters through great works of literature. Shelley, Austen, and the like. Just lately, we’ve been hanging out on Melville’s Pequod, but there was this ad in the latest for a collected edition of previous issues and one of the blurbs attesting to the greatness of the series was from The Onion, and it wasn’t making me flinch. I couldn’t contrive an angle for the story, but maybe I could write one. All I had to do was get started and the whole thing would take care of itself, accrue momentum, I would just be the conduit, guardian of the facts as they manifested. Writing not only as transformative act, but instigator, catalyzing itself into being. A snake vomiting out its own tail, Ouroboros in reverse.
And the words up top rushed right out, keep on shifting as they trail on up the screen and out of sight, edited by some unseen force.
I slammed out the first five pages and caught up to myself, all the way around to having to write things I would later have to cut such as, He dried up, had no idea what happened next. Maybe a handful of Wheat Thins would help, just so I could get up and have a handful of fucking Wheat Thins. Should this be in present tense? Too noir? I was turning the key in the ignition on the way to driving myself insane. The walls weren’t as much breaking down as closing in. I had to get out of there. Here. I looked up the address of The Onion’s offices in Austin. There were two, both downtown. I hate downtown. It always takes me two or three shots to get out the door, the first one only strengthens my resolve never to have anything to with the place ever again, and then the next two start breaking me down so that even the really bad ideas start sounding good. The two addresses were right next to each other, which didn’t make a lot of sense. One on Brazos off Fourth, the other on Sixth off Brazos. That kind of stuff happens all the time, though, downtown is just a fucked up place. Sometimes, there’s a bar and then next to that’s a restaurant on the corner, then if you turn the corner and keep going, that bar shows back up again. Like it’s flanking the restaurant? That’s the situation down there, architectural Darwinism, real estate has evolved to the point that the buildings themselves have to be semi-sentient and modular to even survive. Or at least not get turned into more sports bars.
So, because Sixth is the worst, I hit the Brazos location first. I was impressed by the verisimilitude of the place. It looked exactly like a fully functioning pizza joint. Not just the smell and heat from the ovens, I mean, they had customers and a register and stoners in the kitchen and everything. Playing along, I tried to order a slice of something called the Chicken George, which was allegedly composed of bleu cheese and hot wing sauce on top of chicken, smoked gouda, and garlic. But nothing that wonderful would be doled out by the slice, so I just got a slice of cheese and a clear glass for water, only when I saw how good the ice was, I had to fill it up with Coke. No one noticed. I sat there and gobbled, couldn’t make up my mind whether this was an actual pizza place called The Onion or a really elaborate front and the printing presses were underground or something. That sort of almost tracked since every Thursday, there are new editions everywhere around the city, I mean, I bet tens of thousands of copies, and a subterranean delivery network makes all kinds of sense, especially when you factor in the deathtrap that is I-35 at rush hour. I sat another fifteen minutes, chomping down on that unbelievable ice, cube by cube, watching employees serve customers before realizing. Maybe these “customers” were in on it, too? Was all this for me? Or maybe it was just like the mess hall and everybody worked down the street and popped in for a few slices whenever they needed a break from making up ridiculous shit. And they sold slices to the general public too, because, why not? Maybe pizza was pulling in more than advertising. That almost makes sense, you run it around long enough.
I sat and stared that operation they had going in the face for almost a whole hour and not a one of those kids so much as blinked, man, the entire immaculate charade nothing but a product of stone professionals. Reloaded on ice and got out of there. Nothing else to do but check out the other place two blocks down. Right on Sixth Street, so strange with the sun beating down. The smell of vomit had settled over at least the entire block, but there were no signs of stumbling, puking kids anywhere, which made it worse, somehow. Both the smell and the tension. The post-apocalyptic dread. I walked up to the door, put my hand on the knob, and was filled with this rush of calm, a foreign certainty that all would be well. I opened the door and walked inside.
The front room smelled like grape. Not the fruit, the artificial flavor. Like soda or taffy. The kid behind the desk had probably just today healed up from getting his ass kicked and was on-deck to take another fall from an entirely different crew the minute he set foot back on campus. I realized that I had no credentials of any kind and not a single name in the masthead committed to memory. Had never so much as laid eyes upon the masthead, even. Through all this talk of mastheads. I went with saying I was here to see Joseph, that was the name that flew out. He sounded like a high-ranking sort of fellow. The kid murmured into the phone and then nodded at the wooden benches they had in the corner. There were magazines with covers so strange and absurd at a glance that they were obviously a trap, concealing interior content that would make you go mad or blind if you stole so much as a glance. There was coffee, too, but that seemed just as dicey. After a while, this tall skinny guy came through and said his name was Sean, then ushered me into a side room that turned out to be an elevator. I tried to sidle over to check out what button he pushed, but he kept kind of shifting his body so that I couldn’t make out what was going on at all.
The doors opened onto the rush of a newsroom, all that furious madness like it’s the stock exchange, you know, a big city newsroom, charged with keeping as many stories as possible from flying by and diving down into secrets never to be known. I stood for a while marveling at all the Sell! Sell! before turning to Sean.
This is the sales staff, he said. You would do well here. Really well.
Really? What makes you think so?
You’ve got the temperament for it. That can-do go-getter attitude that can’t be learned. Or taught.
Thank you so much. So this is all sales? Where are the people making shit up?
Night shift. Business hours are for sales. Increasing market share and advertising revenue.
I guess that makes sense.
You would also be a good fit for the night shift. That might run more to your way of thinking.
You know, I’m glad to hear you say that. I have a few ideas. For headlines, I mean. I bet you get this all the time, but what if there was
Let me stop you right there. You don’t want to talk that way during business hours. Come back after midnight. Show this card to the girl out front. We’ll find a place for you.
No. You misunderstand. I’m here for an interview. I’m supposed to talk to Joseph.
Joseph doesn’t work here anymore. Come back after midnight. You’ll get your interview then, believe you me. Whoa, boy.
Everything went quiet and I was positive that the furor in the room had ground to a halt and everyone was staring at me, licking their lips with the jukebox dead, waiting for Sean to give the high sign to tear me apart, but then the blood rush roar came pounding down the back of my head and the bedlam crashed back in its wake. I gave Sean a nod and the way that he returned it—not moving his head at all, just an extended blink that was almost profound—made me want to get out of there as fast as I could.
I didn’t so much forget the events while driving away, but it was like they kind of fuzzed up? Blurred. I held on to the overall impression, but lost the thousands of little instants that brought it into being in the first place.
When the sun went down, I found some stuff that messed me up even more. Not even four months ago, the publishing company that puts out the local paper, The Austin-American Statesman, took over all the business operations of the Austin print edition of The Onion. Ad sales, production, distribution, the whole sick mess. The sales staff no longer worked for The Onion, just shuffled over to payroll at the parent publishing company. They cut a similar deal in Chicago with the Tribune a few months before that. All of that hustle really was beancounters. I suddenly very much wanted to see what that place was like after midnight. I took a shower and prepared myself for the horrors of the downtown commute with four or eight more drinks and a thin marijuana cigarette that I had been saving to smoke with this one great friend of mine who keeps completely failing to make it by and now he’s moving, so. Soon, my car was in a parking garage many many blocks from where I needed to be and smiling snarling young lambs that smelled of appletinis and upchuck roamed with feral eyes, primed to devour but not up top aware of me, I don’t think, just on this subconscious orbital quest, ranging around and around before getting caught up in the gravitational pull of the next heat source.
Sixth Street had gotten worse. Just really a mess, too horrible to describe with the exception of the evening’s sole bright point, this one high school kid who looked like he maybe ran track, or was a junkie too, I guess, but this kid stumbled up and gasped, Poisoned. By Sith Street. And then keeled over. Just like that. The big deal was how he left out the middle letter like the bad guys in Star Wars. I almost fucking fell down, man. Didn’t laugh one little bit, it was like when the Incredible Hulk claps his hands together and anyone or anything this side of Thor just goes flying, that’s what it did to me. But don’t let’s get me going down this path, it’s too much.
The first music I heard blasting out into the night down there was a terrible, terrible cover of “Sweet Home Alabama,” so take just a second with that one, then hunch your shoulders and walk me a few steps deeper into it. The exterior of The Onion offices had metamorphosed into an amalgam of a Bourbon Street strip club and one of those clubs in Los Angeles where enormous bouncers in ill-fitting T-shirts ride herd over lines of extraordinary length, only admitting beautiful girls and occasionally the fools who follow them. Three girls were out front, quasi-spectacle in the sense that folks were gathered round, only no one was taking pictures, or seemed in any way trying to get their attention, just waiting for something. I barreled right on in to the middle. The one closest to me, this beautiful Asian girl, smiled like we were old friends and held out her hand. I gave her Sean’s card. The crowd gasped as she led me through the curtain. It draped over my face and there was black light and huge tubes of lava lamps shooting down from the roof all the way into the floor, which, just looking at them for a few seconds filled you with this warm heavy sensation, this absolute certainty that you were finally home.
We walked into a small room with openings on opposite sides that was basically a cylinder around a booth and table. There was this ancient contraption on the table, a cross between a gun and a really doughy version of Buddha. She put her mouth on what I judged to be the belly and applied a lighter to the top of the contraption. I listened for the telltale hiss of bongwater, but there was nothing except her steady, practiced inhale. She finished and held the thing out to me. I copied her actions, realizing seconds too late that I could be ingesting anything. And right then I knew what it was to be some of that ground meat they wrap up in a tube to sell at the grocery store, like I was being pushed through those hoses they use to get the meat packed that tight. I looked up, straight up, and saw one of the featureless forms from the giant lava lamps drifting down toward me, close enough to cause some alarm, and then I was sitting at this desk and the lady was putting something on top of my head and I held a hand up over my face and tried to get a look back behind her. It might have been the room from before, earlier that day. The Stock Exchange. Only now there was black light, neon purple and green, all these people in rows of desks. Each one wearing a flying saucer on their head. With a Cyclops eye in front. Emitting a light oscillating from green to white to purple. Not all in synch, each one on its own timer. Which really heightened the effect. I became aware of a steady undercurrent, the sound of many men marching, then realized it was typing. They were all typing. The girl drifted into my line of sight.
Don’t worry about them.
You are a writer. Write what you see.
Give me just a minute to get it together.
You misunderstand. We are about to open your eye. Let it all pour through or you’ll drown.
Just don’t try to swim through it. You’ll do fine.
That was what broke the spell, something about those words or the way she said them. I asked her if we’d met before and she said her name was Xian and kissed me on the left cheek and put the thing on my head and again there was that sense of being packed just as tight as possible through this really narrow tube for only a second then total freefall, and I ripped the helmet off and they’d switched the lights to red and yellow but still white, the whole place was dusk all of a sudden, I might have run but the sight struck me dumb, all the people still with UFO Cyclops helmets made it like the sun was setting right here in this room, too much too much, then oh then I heard this snort and turned and this thing, this indescribable thing was racing toward me faster than you could believe, the sight of it striking me dead with terror, never mind the sounds coming out of its mouth. The helmet came back down and there was no red or yellow or green or purple, just pulsing waves of white. A tugging sensation in my head, like someone was trying to suction out my brain with an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner and I was rising higher, higher. It seemed like I should be breathing harder, only I wasn’t breathing at all, didn’t need to, just kept rising. That elusive secret you forget when you wake up, the trick of flying. And the information came flooding in, like someone had turned on one hundred televisions at the same time but if I managed to not focus on one in particular, I could almost process all of them at the same time. That was pretty cool for a few seconds and then all of those pictures and facts and numbers stacked me up full to bursting. I started to panic, then remembered what Xian had said. I couldn’t see a keyboard but pictured a QWERTY layout and thought about typing and right away there was a let-up in the pressure as all of that hard data began to seep out, settle into an equilibrium flowing through me. I couldn’t see what was funny about some of the headlines.
INTERNET FORCES MUBAREK TO STEP DOWN
GOP MOCKS OBAMA’S NEW BUDGET
COKE DENIES RADIO SHOW CRACKS SECRET FORMULA AFTER 125 YEARS
DALAI LAMA’S NEPHEW KILLED WALKING ALONG FLORIDA ROAD
I typed and typed, the tide surging within me, rising and cresting and falling again. Running for hours. At one point, something shifted. I sank just the least bit, still up above everything but not quite so high, and then that sense of local omniscience narrowed into the diameter of a pinhole and I had to keep typing before what was coming through made me combust. It tasted like sunset caught in a magnifying glass, burning right on in.
LIONEL RICHIE CALLS EX-WIFE JUST TO SAY HE LOVES HER
US OLYMPIC SWIM TEAM PANS FOR GOLD IN CALIFORNIA, 160 YEARS TOO LATE
HEIRESS, TOWNS SETTLE IN CLASS ACTION SUIT OVER ALLEGED NAMESAKE SLANDER
EGYPT JUMPS OFF CLIFF; ALGERIA, MOST OF MIDDLE EAST DOES, TOO
INSOMNIAC WRITERS’ ROOM LOSES ABILITY TO DISTINGUISH BETWEEN JOKES THAT ARE ‘TIRED’ & ‘JUST NOT FUNNY’
And on and on. These might have been hilarious, but I couldn’t tell anymore. I just needed it to be done. At great length, it was. A pair of invisible hands took firm hold of both sides of my head and pulled. The dome of white light opened up onto the green and purple room. Xian handed the helmet to someone and turned back to me with a smile. She told me to follow her. We went back the way we had come in. She stopped me when we got to that little chamber where we’d hit the Buddha gun. She pressed something into my palm, cylindrical, glass, maybe a test tube.
I’m actually okay without this, I told her.
It’s not what you think. A one hundred dollar bill is rolled up in there.
A job well done, of course. We wouldn’t be able to publish without reporting of your caliber.
What you are saying to me is gibberish right now.
You didn’t screen the training video earlier? Fucking day shift. I suppose you didn’t sign a release or turn in a W-9, either.
None of that, no. What was in the video? Those helmets. What happened?
Xian glanced over her shoulder like someone was about to catch us in the middle of something. When she turned back around, there was suddenly all this warmth and affection on her face. Like I was her little brother and it would always be her job to take care of me, no matter how old we managed to make it.
Have you ever looked in the mirror, she asked, and caught the reflection doing something different, just for an instant, out of the corner of your eye?
What? No. I don’t think so. Seriously? Look, is this because I lied about interviewing Joseph? Is that some kind of code to string people up? Because I had no idea. I just made up the name.
I would have gone on and on, but she held a finger up over my lips, and my words dried up.
There are many rooms identical to this, she said, existing in this space, imperceptible to our senses. Right now, the thinnest of layers away, there is a woman who looks like me having a conversation with a man who looks like you. She is explaining where all of the funny headlines that he typed came from. She is telling him about this conversation.
Listen, I had better just keep moving.
They find our lives as absurd and amusing as we find theirs. A symbiosis that feeds the engines, keeps them spinning fast enough to keep both franchises up and running in complementary parallel.
Now you’re just messing me around.
The cycle is a self-sustaining closed loop, provided enough sensitives like you continue to stumble in through the front door. But not to worry. You always do.
Her nails dug deep into my shoulders and steered me toward the front door, only she never raised her arms, hands dangling by her sides, fingers twitching, maybe causing the whole thing. I became certain of the fact that if I wasn’t outside these walls in the next sixty seconds, my mind would bear the weight no longer and bid us all an immediate and unceremonious farewell. No sooner had I formed the notion than I was outside. The crowd was out into the street now. It was one of those nights when they didn’t close off traffic and just the ripples from my emergence caused all manner of hell. Honks, yells, squealing tires and such. I had no idea, buried deep down in the fugue, wondering what was happening with the other guy, was his departure causing the same ripples? Complementary ones? Or had he even left yet? How did any of it even work?
I went driving in the night, looking for bridges. Every time I found one, I squeezed the wheel as hard as I could with both hands, shut my eyes, and pushed all the way down on the gas, trying to bring back that same rising feeling bounded by the edges of my peripheral vision, total awareness of this place blooming in the back of my mind and the circuit open, ready to transmit every last bit before being flooded back in kind with all the aching minutiae of a place where testicles licked dogs’ faces, statues came to life to redress wrongs perpetrated against those they memorialized, and sometimes, in the deepest and darkest hours, ghosts just dropped by to say boo.
 Did anyone else ever at first think that The AV Club was total bullshit, too? Maybe it was just because the first time I saw it, there was something about Axl getting ready to finally put out Chinese Democracy or about Daredevil being the Kingpin, or really I swear that first time there was this item about the scions of Atlantis finally, after all this time, rising from the depths of the Pacific this in the The AV Club section, remember, which then went on at length about some twenty-thousand fathom earthquake setting them free after all of these centuries, but I didn’t take that copy out of the sandwich shop that day and have never since been able to find the text in question, either in print or archived, and you can probably imagine the looks I get when I try to explain this whole mess to anybody. A consistent conversation killer at a keg party is a rare and wondrous pearl that must be held close and protected at all times.
 Or was forced into orbit by one of FDR’s old economic advisers and Aunt Jemima? Everything got a bit soft focus for a little while in the middle there, but I’m mostly positive I didn’t make that one up.
 While enjoying the novelty of receiving a letter with an international return address, I remembered the Paris, Texas story for the first time in weeks. Did putting me on The Onion story mean that someone else was working on Paris? Or was I supposed to be working on both? The more I thought on these things, the less I knew.
 Here’s a game: drink a significant amount of anything. Then, before you’ve finished consuming whatever portion you have allotted for yourself for that particular evening, spend that last little slice of the night typing the word “minimum” as many times in a row as you can on your bargain basement QWERTY keyboard using only your index and middle fingers, bringing your thumb down on the space bar for the eighth beat, if you like. You get a pretty slamming dance going there for a little while, especially if you can find some sexy Spanish slow music or Afro-Cuban bombast to lock up with. Depending on how well you handle yourself under severe inebriation, the sheer poetic heartstopping beauty of the thing can be just about too much to take.
 This is, of course, a gross generalization and by no means all-inclusive. If you are: intoxicated to a degree that has left you rapidly approaching blindness, a member of a sorority, a member of a sorority hazing new pledges, an intoxicated new pledge of a sorority, run back through those last three but substitute “fraternity” as appropriate, in the mood for Mardi Gras or at the very least ready to pull the trigger on asking the first ten girls you deliberately bump into to show you their tits just to see what happens, halfway into a really good blackout, a fan of Nashville pap, someone who just fucked his or her cousin now trying to burn away the memory by pouring Bacardi 151 down your throat just as fast as you can, same as previous only celebrating finally closing the deal after all of this time, starting to feel like maybe a quick siesta behind the wheel that second or third red light on the way home might be the play to make this time out, enjoying your twenty-first birthday, underage and enjoying the twenty-first birthday on your fake ID, just almost ready to vomit that Shrimp Scampi Alfredo from down the block all over Trinity Avenue or wherever when it’s time, an expatriate who hasn’t made it back into town these last fifteen years and still stubbornly insists on “seeing for myself” when your friends tell you all the good music joints on Sixth have gone the way of the mighty and fearsome creatures who once walked this earth, one of those gang members who keeps mugging or killing drunk folk downtown for initiations or just the hell of it, a concerned citizen drunk or high enough to want to give aforementioned gang members a piece of his or her own mind, or someone suddenly realizing that you might have too much mandatory celebrating erupting up at you from the direction of your imminent future and that just tonight is in no way going to be able to contain or get it done and there’s no telling when and where this is going to end, but it’s probably going to be a long way from here and now on both counts, then, by all means, Sixth Street is the place for you, a perfect fit, and welcome.
Rob Bass is a husband and father and writer and musician and teacher who ricochets back and forth between these various identities with something close to the finesse of a master of disguise, or at least a seasoned apprentice. His fiction has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Carve, Ducts, Lily, and Word Riot. His comic books are published by CCP Comics.